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Posts from — October 2015

Ghosts

From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-leggedy beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
good Lord, deliver us!
| Old Scottish prayer

Ghosts

We humans seem to have an unrelenting fascination with ghosts—personalities without bodies famous for haunting unfortunate houses and bringing varying degrees of trouble from mischief to malevolence. Whether there are in fact such things, I can’t say. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were, but such mysteries are beyond my reach. Whether personalities can exist apart from their mortal wrappings is one that I’m happy to leave to those with more of a penchant for the paranormal. There is, however, another sort of ghost—the kind that has no body but has a will, that stirs the waters of misfortune trouble wherever it turns up, that haunts and possesses humans and generally makes life miserable for us. I’m talking here about aspects of our own psyche, divergent streams of consciousness and identity that seem to have the sole purpose of working against us and getting us to work against ourselves, tripping us up, provoking us to destructive choices, and sowing the seeds of disorder and chaos.

I encounter these spirits in counseling sessions all the time. They may make their appearance in the middle of a client’s sentence, such that the man or woman who starts the sentence is not the one who finishes it. It is very much as though the ghost takes possession of the client’s vocal chords and waylays the conversation, pitching it back toward some impacted repetition that has never served the client well, but which he or she, for some reason, is unwilling to release. The effect, of course, is never as dramatic as we see in Hollywood depictions, with heads spinning around, bodies flying across the room, or normal voices becoming suddenly cavernous and charged with something alien and evil. It is far subtler, so that if I point out the change to the client, and ask who finished the sentence, often the client is startled, then baffled. The very real ghosts I’ve seen, the ones that haunt the attics and basements of the psyche, the ones that rattle chains of perfectionism, self-absorption, belligerence, victim-thinking, and denial are routinely mistaken for the self. They hide in our voice, in the face we see in the mirror, in assumptions and identifications so obvious that we might never suspect them, and from these venues, that dark pantheon usurps and torments us.

Fortunately, we mortals have an internal barometer of sorts that can alert us when we slip into a momentary possession, even in mid-sentence. Detecting the drop in pressure depends on, above all else, the willingness to do self-work, to question those things that we have taken so for granted that it would hardly occur to us to question them, and to begin to attend to our inner states with the curiosity and diligence of a good student. That barometric alarm is felt in mood shifts. They may be intense or subtle, but in every case, careful attention will reveal a foreign element. This awareness is the first step in exorcising the ghosts of unexamined assumptions and conclusions, angry or frightened voices we introjected early and have been living in our house without our permission ever since. And this is absolutely saving. It means that we cannot continue to be possessed without our permission. Without this assent, no ghost can enter or stay. Most of the time, the debilitating anger or anxiety with with a client is struggling is not native, not his or her own. Its adaptation, its agenda, its intensities originally belonged to someone else.

There’s an old South African folk tale about a family whose house is plagued by a poltergeist. For months, they put up with slamming doors and cupboards, furniture sliding here and there, and all other manner of annoyance. Finally, able to stand it no longer, they decide to vacate the house. At the end of the story, they’re driving off with all their belongings, and there, sitting in the back of the truck, is the poltergeist, waving as he says, “Bye bye, we’re leaving!”

Clearly, unless we’re willing to do the self-work that expels our ghosts once and for all, we take them with us. It is wise, then, to pay attention to the barometric changes occurring in the inner weather, and to take the time we need to engage anything expressing itself through us that feels unlike us—a suddenly angry overreaction, an atypically harsh judgment of another, a frisson of apprehension over something that does not seem to warrant it, a surge of perfectionism, a jolt of self-doubt. Not every voice in our head is ours. Even those who live alone may have unwanted roommates. Self-knowledge frees us from adverse influences that may have taken up residence in our psyche a long time ago, restoring a sense of peace and order that we hardly may have realized was missing.

October 31, 2015   Comments Off on Ghosts