The Church conducts sacraments to infuse life-changing experiences like birth, marriage, and death with sacred meaning. Many find these rituals deeply satisfying and enjoy the positive feelings they bring long afterwards. But inevitably our sense of the Sacred fades and the good feelings are replaced with less comfortable ones. What do we do then? Formal community rituals don’t address the inner discomfort of an individual psyche.
Every ego experiences wounding in the process of growing up, and sometimes the normal pressures of life reactivate our wounds. Then they speak to us in uncomfortable moods and emotions like tension, anxiety, agitation, self-doubt, depression, sadness, longing, frustration, irritability, self-pity, anger. Most egos learn to repress certain thoughts and feelings that bring inner discomfort, and we tend to feel proud of our ability to do this.
This is a mistake. Even the tiniest emotional twinge can be a valuable message from our unconscious, but ignorance turns the opportunity for a blessing into an obstacle that separates us from our awareness of the Sacred. Thus, do we deprive ourselves of the love and balance that are our spiritual inheritance.
There is a sacrament anyone can conduct to free and heal the wounded and imprisoned parts of ourselves. I call it the Sacrament of Paying Attention. The first step is to notice when we’re feeling or acting uncomfortable or moody. The second is to imagine which of our many wounded inner characters is causing the feeling or mood. And the third is to treat this shadow with warm welcome and kind attention until it becomes our friend.
Dream analysis and journal-writing help us perfect these steps. Dreams depict our wounds in the feelings, emotions, and behaviors of our dream ego and other characters. Writing about these things brings understanding and self-acceptance. After 21 years I can feel the wound and befriend the shadow in a few moments under normal circumstances. But as I write this I’m traveling with a group in a foreign land and have had little opportunity to tend to inner business. A few nights ago I had a dream in Saigon that spoke to how my soul was feeling about this.
In the dream I’m hosting a wedding shower in my childhood home and nothing goes quite right. I keep the guests waiting outside for ten minutes, and when I let them in I realize I haven’t tidied up the house or prepared refreshments. Then I rush the bride-to-be into opening her gifts without taking the time to welcome my guests, make them comfortable, or conduct the opening ritual I had planned. I try to justify this by telling myself I’ve done the best I can, but the dream ends with me feeling ashamed and wishing I had paid more attention. My guests deserved my best effort.
I wanted to ignore this dream and the feelings it evoked, but it had alerted me to the stress and self-criticism that prolonged interaction with others produces in me, and I knew it would only get worse in the days ahead. So, on the long bus ride from Saigon to the Mekong Delta I sat alone, recorded the dream, wrote my associations, and tried to identify the wounded shadow who’s feeling this way. In doing so, I recognized my introverted child (I was in my childhood home) whose conditioning to solitude left her ill-equipped for lengthy and intense communal situations.
The sense of release and relief was immediate and dramatic. Attending to this dream soothed my child, showered my inner bride-to-be and other inner guests with the attention they deserved, and gave me the refreshing respite I needed. The Sacrament of Paying Attention reunited my ego with the Beloved. I’m all better now!
Note: I’m not in Viet Nam now. This is a revised version of a post that first appeared in December of 2010!