Transforming Evil

“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”

-The Apostle Paul, Ephesians 6:12 NLT

The whole room seemed to be holding its breath. We were witnessing a type of aliveness that undoubtedly brought something up within each of us. Seeing a man unbridled in his expression unsettled me in ways I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge. I didn’t know how to hold the moment…it existed somewhere between the extremes that I knew. It wasn’t violent and it wasn’t passive. It was angry and expressive and loud. It was powerful and unfamiliar.

I was taking a class on energetic expression and a mid-30 year old man had volunteered to do some energy work on his relationship with his father. My work as a psychotherapist had led me towards a growing curiosity about the body, trauma, and energetic expression and I wanted to experience some of these modalities for myself. The work was becoming personal inasmuch as it had already become important to me as a professional.

The workshop instructor had created an energetic exercise aimed at connecting him with his bottled-up emotions. Rather than just using words to explore what lay beneath his rigid exterior, she chose to utilize movement to bridge the gap between his internal and external world. The instructor gave him a tennis racket and stacked several couch pillows onto each other. She then invited him to extend the racket above his head and imagine that the pillows were his oppressive father.

The man’s relationship with his dad had been the source of a tremendous amount of pain and shame over the years. When he thought about his father, he felt small and inferior. Although he was exceptionally successful for his age, he always felt like his accomplishments weren’t good enough to satisfy his father’s standards. This deeply impacted his self-worth and self-esteem and he struggled with bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide.

With some hesitance he began to animate his limbs and limply hit the pillows in front of him. The instructor coaxed him to stop taking it easy and really let go. “Don’t hold back, engage your killer instinct!” For the briefest of moments, something was beginning to awaken in his body. I could see the repressed energy starting to flow out of him the more he felt permission to release himself to the act. His posture began to shift as the motion required him to exhale more deeply. But just as it seemed like he was beginning to allow this trapped pain out, he hit a familiar roadblock and backed away. His posture went limp and he stopped.

“I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to hurt him. It doesn’t make me feel better.”

Sweat was beginning to trickle down the man’s face as he held the tennis racket in his hand. Whatever momentum was building had vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. He couldn’t continue; he didn’t want to destroy his father, even if only in symbol. “This feels wrong,” he said. The room seemed to go limp as well. Even though nobody was being hurt by this, just imagining it felt violent and wrong.

This was a complicated moment. I could sense that I was witnessing this man roll away a tombstone that had held him hostage, but as he backed off from the process the bind that he was now facing encapsulated an even bigger story. His body had invited him to express this tension a million times over, but something in him knew that this type of honesty could have grave consequences. He sensed that his honesty was too powerful, and his father too weak to receive it. So, like he was accustomed, he shut himself down and suppressed what so desperately needed to come out. The energetic exercise created an embodied picture of what he had always struggled with emotionally. He deeply believed that if he were to share his true thoughts with his father, he would essentially be hitting him to death with a tennis racket. So instead of being brutally honest with his father about the impact of his actions, he offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb. Taking his father’s sins on himself.

What happened next in the room continued to show the story of this man’s life. His self-sacrifice was praised. He was told how good of a heart he had for not continuing to create violence. Nobody liked seeing a man angry, much less swinging a tennis racket with force. The whole room seemed to exhale as he chose to “lay down his arms”. I too was relieved that the drama appeared to be over. I had started to feel nervous about how the rest of the room would feel. Would this trigger something for someone? Would it remind people of their past experiences? I knew there were several women in our midst that had shared some of their personal experiences with violent men and I felt like I needed to do something to protect them. Seeing him back off and choose to walk away relieved an immense tension.

The instructor, however, didn’t join in with our chorus. While acknowledging the beauty of not wanting to be violent, she questioned the impulse in all of us to protect ourselves and others from this raw expression. Despite all of the clinical brilliance in the room, she alone noticed that this ending had dire consequences for the man in front of us. He, once again, was feeling nothing and beginning to resume his old posture of being. He had tensed back up as he forced himself to swallow his expression again.

Our collective anxiety rose again as the instructor asked him to pick the racket back up. This time rather than imagining hitting his actual father, an act that we all agreed would be a recreation of violence, she invited him to shift his attention to destroying something else. “I don’t want you to focus on destroying an actual person, I want you to imagine destroying the spirit in him that has caused you so much pain.”

“What do you mean?” He muttered.

“I would never ask you to destroy your father,” she replied, “but you can destroy the parts of him that hurt you. Imagine destroying the part of him that wouldn’t offer his vulnerability. Imagine destroying the parts of him that were cruel and unbearably critical. Destroy the parts of him that was unwilling to give you his love, blessing, and affection.”

This thought offered a backdoor to the dead end that we had all gotten stuck in.

Within a few seconds the animation that had left the man’s body began to flow again. This time with even more fierceness and permission. With a renewed vigor he let out his anger and pain onto the stacked pillows. It was loud and free, but no longer scary to him. The more he could say with his body, the more he could say with his mouth. And as this trapped pain released, so with them came his tears and grief.

After one last swing he dropped the racket and began to weep. Through the tears I could hear a new layer of vulnerability falling out of his suddenly tender frame. “Why wouldn’t you tell me you were proud of me? Why did you have to be so mean to me? I just want to know you love me and believe in me.”

These were the words he could never say. They were the questions that his body had to hold in for so long. I could see his muscles begin to relax, his face soften, and his eyes clear. He was all there, fully alive, for the first time in decades. He didn’t actually hate his father or want to harm him. He actually, most deeply, wanted his acceptance and embrace. He was not an angry man at his core, he was a wounded man.  


In the words of theologian Richard Rohr, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” Destroying his father would bring no freedom from this bondage. The destruction of another or ourselves never deals with the pain of our hearts. His father was not the enemy to be destroyed. Attempting to locate the evil that had hurt him in his father’s flesh and blood would be to miss the deeper legacy being exposed. This legacy had been passed down generation to generation. It did not honor the deep and vulnerable desire of each man’s heart. Its’ sinister spirit crystalized in generations of fathers withholding themselves and their love from their sons. And up until this moment, it was continuing its movement in and through another generation. It was the true evil that this son needed to confront in his father and himself.

The illness created through violence is always rooted in a mistreatment of something holy. Evil is like a virus in this way. It’s like a spirit breathed from one soul to another. Passing from one body to the next through a recurring drama that misunderstands the story it keeps re-telling. Pushing down our pain neglects our inherent dignity and enables the continuation of the same treatment in the future. And without an exit for our pain, we eventually explode. We see this all the time. From school shootings and domestic violence to self-harm and suicide. If our pain is not treated, it will find a way to tell its’ story by infecting someone or something else.  

However, if we are given permission to courageously voice our pain, we will see what lies beneath the hurt and the scars of our body. Our good and tender hearts are still alive and capable of being resurrected. We must be courageous and choose to treat ourselves and our pain in a new way. To walk towards it, listen to it, and express it so that we can begin to heal.

It is through the act of radically turning towards, embracing, and then expressing our pain that we ultimately discover the way to transform our wounds. We are all people in need of respect, kindness, and love. Despite our hardened defenses, we all long to have our dignity acknowledged and our hearts affirmed. We are capable of being liberated from the wounds and patterns of our family and culture by beginning to see evil for what it really is. And in seeing behind the curtain of this transmission, we are freed to offer a new form of love to the parts of us and others that are waiting to be found.


The Movements of Accepting and Becoming

Micro-trauma.” My ears perked up when I heard the name for what exercise scientists call the process of breaking down our muscles when we push them past their capacity. It sent my mind in a hundred different directions, but continued to synthesize what was already becoming very clear in my work as an integrative body-psychotherapist. The more I listen to and learned about my body the more I could understand the processes and movements of the human mind. What our minds hold metaphorically our bodies hold in actuality and to get close to one is to begin to understand the other. Everything is interconnected.

The class I was sitting in was a part of my education as a personal trainer. We were talking about the principles of weight training and muscle growth. I was learning that in order for something in the body to grow a person must follow a particular path or set of rules. This wasn’t surprising information for me after spending most of my life in competitive athletics where weight training was essential to performance. It was, however, surprising that it included words that I had strictly associated with the world of psychology. I began to see that there was a lot of wisdom waiting to be transmitted from the body to the mind if I was willing to tune in to it. I thought I’d share one such example below…


_______Two Types of Growth ______________________________________________________________________________

There are two types of growth that we observe in the body. One of is a growth of “coordination and integration” and the other is a growth of “breaking down and rebuilding”. The more our bodies work in coordinated effort the more we are able to utilize our power. This type of growth is more about the mind than the body. What I mean by this is a person doesn’t even have to physically move the body to begin growing strength through coordination. In fact, a handful of studies have actually shown that a person can begin to improve strength solely through mental rehearsal. In other words, we can become stronger by just imagining a movement in the body and playing that movement out repetitively in our mind. These studies have shown up to a 22% increase in strength from simple mental rehearsal! This is incredibly surprising to most people who associate non-movement as useless and “lazy”. The general science behind this growth is that our ability to utilize our body is contingent on our current structure AND the way in which our structure communicates with itself. Imagine the difference between a person who was employing his entire arsenal of muscle in a concerted and coordinated movement and a person who only employed portions of his makeup while large portions were unaware of the plan or told not to participate. If you were to pit those two armies against each other, the coordinated army would win every time because the mission was clear. Everything would be moving towards accomplishing the goal. We move when our brain communicates this message to our muscles. Our muscles are grouped in little battalions that receive the signals and move accordingly. What often happens is we isolate portions of our muscle and leave others out. The more we do a movement, or even imagine it, the more the other connected battalions of muscles begin to coordinate to find the most efficient and effective way to move. In the world of strength building this type of growth is referred to as a “neural gain.”

Moshe Feldenkrais began to learn about this in the experiments that he conducted on his body that eventually turned into the Feldenkrais method of structural integration. Part of the brilliance of Feldenkrais is its ability to focus attention on the muscles while slowly and gently exploring different ways of doing the same movement. Feldenkrais was always wondering how he could make a movement easier in the world; searching out the ways he could employ unused parts of himself to create ease of motion. These mini-experiments begin to awaken different parts of us that have been dormant and alert our mind to new possibilities in our skin. These adjustments literally reprogram the brain through the exploration. As time goes on the dedicated practitioner begins to move towards greater balance and synchronicity in their bodies which produce stunning results in strength and power. This curious exploration creates integration, which as we will see in both body and mind, creates a powerful force.

The first way of change is very gentle and non-forceful. It begins with an acceptance of what is and moves towards integrating all that is into a whole force. It takes what we have and finds the best way to utilize it in the world through the use of attention, listening, understanding, and creativity. The other way of change involves “breaking down and rebuilding” our structure. The general idea of this way of change is a movement from what is to what could be. If the first growth is one of acceptance and integration, the second way is one of desire and longing. It sees what is and deems it “not enough” to satisfy what it wants to be and become in the world. Words that come to mind around this process is tearing and rebuilding, death and resurrection. Strength in this context is acquired through a process called “micro-trauma”. In order for us to change what is into what could be we must push past what our bodies can handle. This, in the world of strength training, is called the principle of overload. When we push our bodies to the end of their capacity to support the demand, we traumatize it. When the body is traumatized it breaks, or tears open. Our body then sends little repair teams (nutrients that bandage our tears) and they build up what was torn a little better each time. This is how a muscle grows larger. It tears and is rebuilt a little bigger, then the slightly larger version, when it is overwhelmed, tears and grows a little bigger. Each successive time we amass new muscle and create new capacity to hold more weight. This type of muscle growth is called a “hypertrophic gain.”

What is important to understand here is that a degree of trauma is actually inherent in the process of this type of growth. We cannot grow more of something unless we allow something to be broken apart. The key to this process is in the pacing, thus the word “micro-trauma”. If we shock the body with “macro-trauma” we are going to severely injure it. When weightlifters don’t slowly build up towards a limit they can tear muscles, shatter bones, or destroy ligaments. This type of “trauma” debilitates the body, as it does the mind. To rehabilitate from such trauma is long and exhaustive work.

The art of building muscle comes through paying attention to how much one is pushing and overwhelming the body. We naturally heal when there is appropriate attention given to warming up, cooling down, resting, and caring for the body after it is small t traumatized. If a person does not prep and care for the body after it has been overwhelmed, injuries will begin to pop up chronically.

Let’s take these concepts and apply them to the practice of psychology and therapy. The strongest individual is one that can employ both principles of strength. A coordinated, integrated self is more flexible and balanced and can withstand the process of breaking and rebuilding. In other words, an integrated, “secure” self is more resilient when confronted with demands from outside it. This is unsurprisingly the exact conclusion of attachment and human growth researchers over the past decade. When a self, or muscle group, is fragmented and disintegrated pushing it past its’ limitations will only serve to widen and intensify the issues already present in the body. You can see this visually at the gym. Notice individuals who have focused their concentration on a specific part while leaving the rest of them neglected. You see arms that appear to belong to a different body because the individual has focused all his energy on increasing something at the expense of other parts.

If we don’t create a solid foundation of acceptance and “neural” integration, attempting to push a person towards any “hypertrophic gains” will only further split their mind and body. In order for them to be their most powerful self they must first come to love what is already present. Each person must begin to see and value the ways in which their body and mind has adapted to the stresses of its past environment. These adaptations have limitations, but even in the harshest of examples, every behavior, emotion, and mental process has an adaptive function. Even the ones that we come to therapy to get rid of.

The initial movement of therapy then is always around acceptance and integration. We must learn to listen to our behaviors, emotions, sensations, and beliefs with a renewed curiosity. Instead of trying to destroy the presence of a symptom (the voice of our body), our work is to befriend it and learn what it is trying to communicate to us. If we aren’t trying to get rid of something we can start learning how to play with it. Like the Feldenkrais Method, our task is to pay closer attention and learn the most efficient methods of being us. There are all kinds of acceptance therapies that focus on this coordination.

The process of moving into desire, however, opens us up to a different kind of therapeutic reality. We cannot desire more for ourselves without experiencing the pains of childbirth. We always ache as we become. We push the boundaries of what is so that we can open up new possibilities in mind, body, and relationship. To do this a person must decide to step out of the safety and security of what they know and walk towards what they don’t. To breakdown, rebuild, and expand. In theological language, we enter the process of death for the hope of what could be more glorious (resurrection). To be transformed. Not because we hate ourselves and our foundation, but because, in the words of my priest, we want “to become more of who we already were.”


Good Enough

I have a folder in my computer that is littered with unfinished creations.  Songs, blogs, book chapters, PowerPoint presentations, marketing plans, and lifeplans.  It is not that I don’t have enough to say or that I run out of ideas, it’s that the combination of my ideas and expectations grow so large that my excitement at expressing my voice becomes a burden.  Something about that burden eventually destroys my impulse to create and I walk away from myself frustrated and disappointed that I failed at accomplishing my task.

Over the years this frustration has grown increasingly concerning especially as I’ve noticed places where the use of my voice could bring something good and healing in the world.  It has also caused me to panic when I set aside time to “create” and I am left with yet another unfinished work.  These themes have been intensely highlighted recently as I made decisions to more deeply pursue the my unique voice as a therapist.  I found myself thinking “if I don’t start writing and publishing things I’ll lose my opportunity!”  In response to this pressure I tried forcing myself to finish what I had started but only found that I lost my momentum and focus…this only increased the pressure and accusations.  It’s a vicious cycle full of shame, regret, and doubt that breeds only more of the same.

I’ve had the great privilege of sharing meals with and getting to know a guy by the name of Garth Lien who practices Feldenkrais, a method of body awareness, acceptance, and healing.  Our conversations are always really impactful and creative.  These encounters together inevitably ignite our imaginations and passion for life, our work, and the world.  More profoundly though, they serve us both as reminders of who we really are.

As we sat together recently he asked me how my transition was going and I named some of the difficulties I had been experiencing in trying to do what I was hoping to do in life.  I told him about my unfinished creations and my struggle to actually push through those blockages and finish what I started.  As I rambled on and on about my deficiencies and the ways I’d come to understand them he asked if he could interrupt.  I gave him permission (even though I had more evidence to present about myself).

Maybe those blogs are all done, maybe they are good enough.”  He said.  “Maybe you should stop pushing and just put them out there.  They are good enough.

This sentiment was one of the things that drew me to the Feldenkrais method and Garth in particular.  It was a reminder of a truth that I had begun to encounter several years prior in the writings of Henri Nouwen.  I could feel that it was genuine and that he wasn’t just giving me some line to encourage me.  There was something of rest in his words, yet, another part of me had built up quite a case against myself.

In the briefest of spaces after this invitation my mind cascaded through a landslide of thoughts.

Nobody is going to listen to me if it isn’t amazing…I might only have one shot to get their attention!…I don’t want to just be another voice lost in a sea of voices…They might not find me worth listening to if I don’t say something profound!… I’m scared that my voice won’t be good enough if I don’t get this right!!!”

I could feel the panic growing even as I just wondered about this possibility.  This was very familiar territory that I realized was impacting me in the same way I could see it impacting the voices of so many of my clients.  I began to think about the amount of pressure and expectation I felt as I created and how this pressure was functioning as a theif.  Shame and judgement kill our voices.  Our bodies and minds are made to fight, flee, or shutdown in the presence of these qualities, not thrive.  The more we feel like there is some expectation that we need to fill to be worthy or accepted the more our whole being rebels against the idea.

I could suddenly see how my “writers block” was actually communicating to me about the overwhelming expectations and perfectionism that I was placing on myself.  The energy and excitement that precipitated each creative act was being destroyed by the amount of judgement that I felt to create something “worthy”.  This environment was so intense that my body wouldn’t allow me to finish without addressing the fears of my heart.  Deep down my heart has always wondered if my real unedited voice would be good enough or if inevitably I had to take the offerings of my heart and make them more acceptable.

Isn’t the heart of perfectionism just a bargaining with these questions?  Our striving to be perfect just a commentary on what we have thought about the worthiness and value of our real true self?  Isn’t the demand for perfectionism in our lives just a mirror that reflects the environment that our true self has lived through?

The freedom once inherent in our vulnerable/creative/unashamed voices has often felt the pain of judgement and criticism and learned to protect itself.  This memory of the past reminds us so often in the present that we need to find some way to somehow appease the figures that our hearts long to be blessed by.  We experientially and tragically come to know that our best is not good enough in these relationships…and we begin to salve this pain with a new possibilty.  “If I’m perfect…will you finally accept me?”

The illusion of perfection offers a false hope in the midst of the pain and confusion of anothers judgement.  It fools us into thinking that acceptance is a response that we can, or could have, controlled if we were just more of something we were not.  It also offers absolution to those who don’t deserve it at the expense of our heart and energy.

As I write this I inevitably find myself afraid of the judgement that might arise in reaction to my voice.  However, I am slowly learning to soothe that fear with my own growing self-acceptance and compassion.  Not surprisingly, I feel like for the first time in nearly a year I am all done with this creation 🙂

You are good enough, you are good enough.