How to Birth Yourself

Photo credit; Amy, Glass of Water

I recently went to a party. It was a big one, with a ton of people I didn’t know. They were all milling around a huge mansion, very plantation-house looking, roaming from room to room, talking to each other, and sampling all the food that was spread out on tables. I joined the crowd and watched as the people did what people at big parties do, and I meandered around seeing what there was to see. At one point, I happened to pass into a room where I noticed a young woman in labor. She was crying in pain, clearly in the active stages of giving birth, and a small handful of people huddled around her, watching. Without thinking, I rushed through the group of people straight to her side and began to comfort her. I grabbed her hand and spoke in soothing tones to her to calm her panic. As it turned out, someone mentioned that she was suffering from placenta previa, (This is where the placenta either totally or partially covers the mother’s cervix, blocking the baby’s exit from her uterus.) The girl in labor was panicking and grasped on to me as I reassured her that all would be well. As I tried to calm her, I heard someone behind me say, “Oh, don’t worry about her…she’s just a prostitute.” Anger flared up in me, and I turned, seething, ready to lambast the asshole. To my surprise, the girl stopped crying long enough to say it didn’t matter….she wasn’t ashamed of being a prostitute. She chose that life. She just wished that people would make a small attempt to try and understand her.

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I didn’t really go to a party and help a stranger through the difficult process of having a baby. At least, not on this plane of existence. It was a dream I had a couple of weeks ago. It was an interesting dream, for sure, and I found it curious that I specifically knew that the girl was suffering from placenta previa….because while I”m trained as a nurse, I’ve never worked in labor and delivery, and so it is not a diagnosis that comes up frequently in my day to day doings.

My dream life is very active, and has been since I was a child. Mostly they just range from extremely vivid to a bizarre mishmash of randomness, but there have been occasions where I knew my dreams meant something. For example, I once knew something was seriously wrong with a good friend living on another continent, because of a dream I had about him…and turns out I was right. I dreamt that my grandmother was going to die just a handful of days before she did. I had recurrent dreams about escaping and starting over in a new life almost my entire marriage, until I finally got the nerve to divorce my husband….and those dreams instantly disappeared. Many of my dreams are entertaining or absurd. But most of the time, I don’t really search for meaning in them. That is, until lately. And I”m glad I decided to start paying more attention to them again, because of the dream I just recounted above.

One of my favorite podcasts is Metaphysical Milkshake, with Rainn Wilson and Reza Aslan. I think of it as “On Being Lite”, where they delve into existential and meaning of life questions, but maybe not quite at the cerebral level that Krista Tippett takes things. And Rainn and Reza are so cheesy and funny and quirky that I look forward to their newest episode every week.

A few weeks back, they had a dream psychologist on as their guest, and beyond speaking in a wonderful Scottish brogue, he had alot of helpful insights about dreams, including how certain dreams are incredibly common among all people, and how our dreams are often our subconscious trying to tell us something about ourselves. It just so happened that a few days after I listened to that episode, a good friend was talking to me about her own dreams and how our mutual therapist had also made the point that we should view the people in our dreams not as the people we know in real life, but parts of ourselves that are trying to get our attention. I found that idea fascinating….and it was also a good spin on the dreams I dread where my ex husband shows up…..now I can interpret those dreams not as it really being my ex husband, but my subconscious using some quality or behavior that I associate with him to communicate something to me. Either way, I still wake up from those dreams thinking “Thank you, Jesus….thank you, Jesus….it was just a dream, I’m not still married!”

Anyway, after that digression from my point…..these recent dives into dream interpretation made me stop and consider the dream I opened this blog post with. Was dreaming about a party with a girl giving birth just a random storyline created by my sleeping brain? Was it just what happened to be thrown together when my cerebral computer was defragging? Or was my inner, truest self trying to tell me something?

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I’ve concluded something right here on the spot while typing up this post. I haven’t thought it through or fleshed it out because I’m just thinking it right now…..but I’m pretty sure that our dream life may give us broad glimpses into a greater reality than we can typically perceive with our minds. And maybe overlooking our dreams, or dismissing them as neurological sleep static, might be doing ourselves a huge disservice.

Decades ago, following his first psychedelic mescaline trip, Aldous Huxley wrote a short book called The Doors of Perception. In it, he discusses the idea of our brains acting as reducing valves. Essentially, he says, our brains and nervous systems serve to filter and sort the massive reality around us to “protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” And then he follows with…” To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large [reality] has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and the nervous system. What comes out at the other end is merely a trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” (p. 23-24, Harper Perennial, 1954).

To further quote Aldous Huxley, when I first read these statements in his book, I was instantly excited and remembered inwardly shrieking, “Extraordinary!”

Yes, of course! Ultimate reality is so big and overwhelming and beautiful that we in this human form can’t handle it all. Or maybe, if we were all hit with ultimate reality in everyday life, we’d be sitting around staring endlessly at bubbles in our glasses of water and marveling at how beautfiul they are, like people tripping on mescaline or mushrooms are prone to do. To survive in form, to make decisions and be able to think dualistically, as is required in this existence, ultimate reality has to be given to us in amounts we can handle…aka….passed through the reducing valves of our brains. This makes total sense to me.

But, what if our dream lives are moments where those reducing valves are opened up just a bit wider, and we have access to a little bit more of the greater reality, it’s just that we don’t always know how to look through that lens, and so we perceive our dream worlds to be randomness or just absurd abstractions created through neurochemical processes. And a bigger issue that people face….I think most people have no clue that there is a reducing valve in their mind to begin with. They think that what they perceive and feel and observe are the only reality. It’s easy to think that what one thinks is all there really is.

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I”m going to circle back around to my dream, because it is largely the premise of this post, but first I want to talk about some foundational ideas that play into the meaning of my dream, and also this idea of reducing valves. We are limited in perception abilities as humans, clearly, because of these “reducing valves” of our brains and nervous systems that Huxley describes. But then there are additional reducing valves that get placed on us that further restrict our ability to perceive reality. Or to flip that thought over….the stream of reality that we are able to perceive becomes thinner and thinner, and warped as it passes through the valves. Two big factors that further contract the flow through our reducing valves, it seems to me, are trauma and cultural training.

I’ve listened to two audiobooks lately that have really rocked my world. They are both worth repeated listens. The first is “The Way of Integrity” by Martha Beck, and the second is “What My Bones Know” by Stephanie Foo. I loved both of these books first of all because I recognized that the authors are my people. They are asking or have asked the same questions I”m asking, and have been on similar journeys, and so I can see myself in them and recognize that I can trust their wisdom.

Although her entire book was fantastic, one line from Beck really stuck out to me. Basically, she said that when your cultural training comes into conflict with your true nature, you have to throw that cultural training to the curb. This statement, which I just paraphrased, was a huge permission slip for me….one that was desperately needed, because as I’ve gotten older, what I’m discovering to be my authentic self is disagreeing with my cultural training more frequently and more vehemently. My problem is, I’ve always been a big rule follower. I’ve followed rules all my life that I thought were inherently stupid, mainly because I was afraid of the consequences of what would happen if I didn’t align….especially to arbitrary boundaries or norms described by society and Western, American culture. But I’m realizing that in many areas of my life, being a “rule follower” has required me to abandon my true self and what my deepest being believes to be true and right. As many of you will know, it is horrible to live a split existence….and to feel like you’re abandoning yourself in order to satisfy others. Furthermore, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that so much of our cultural training is about keeping people in line….maintaining the status quo….and creating cookie cutter followers that are consumers and don’t rock the boat too much. I started out as an adult doing the things that our culture says I should do, and I tried to want all the things our culture says I should want. I took each step in the American dream. It DID NOT make me happy.

Fortunately, I”m getting braver, and more willing to buck the status quo. I’m more interested in being authentic and genuine and unafraid than in appeasing all the “you should’s!” around me. The tricky thing, though, is learning to trust one’s inner voice and knowing that you’re firmly connected to your true nature. This is especially true because of the topic that the second book, “What My Bones Know”, was about: complex PTSD.

I binge listened to Foo’s book and was completely wrecked by it over the course of a weekend. Like, “I could barely function” kind of wrecked. Because while I’ve known for years that I’ve had trauma in my past to deal with, and have brain scans to corroborate that statement, I had never considered my issues to fall into the realm of complex PTSD. I’m too high functioning, I’ve thought….my life never completely fell apart as the result of things that have happened to me. I still have a hard time fully believing therapists and friends when they call “Abuse! Trauma!” when I recount certain memories. I’m mostly well adjusted, I say, and I always attempt to give other people outs for why they acted the way they did when they hurt me.

But then I read Foo’s words. Yes, I was never abused or hurt to the degree she was, but I recognized myself in her. When she described her struggles and fears and compulsion to fix everyone’s problems and her fear of abandonment….I knew exactly what she was talking about. When she wrote about struggling to learn as an adult to have healthy friendships and feeling like a huge shitshow when she constantly fucked up romantic relationships because of her insecurities and perceived unworthiness of love…..dang it….it resonated so deeply. That’s me. I’m so much better than I ever used to be, but there are days here and there that I still feel like a complete fuckup that will never get it right, never be a great parent, never be truly loved, and will never be able to completely trust myself.

Trauma from one’s past can really take one’s already reduced valve and wrench it into even worse shape.

Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I have a unicorn therapist who picks me up and dusts me off after I have difficult run-ins with my shadow self, reminding me that I am not what has happened to me. I am not the occasional screwball things I do nor the batshit crazy decisions I might sometimes make. I am not my flubbed up attempts to communicate with people I care about. And I am always worthy of love. And most importantly, she reminds me of all the good and all the joy that has come my way since I decided to stop believing every lie my past embedded within me and started trusting my own gut and inner wisdom, one choice at a time.

The thing that is kind of tough, though, about complex trauma is that it’s not a one and done therapy session to get over it. Sometimes (at least in my experience, and Foo’s experience), these amazing modalities like EMDR can help one process a big traumatic event. But they don’t always seem to work for the little cuts and stabs that accumulate over time…the little traumas that are confusing and often invisible to those around you….the ones where you ask yourself “was that even really abuse or trauma at all…or am I just being a drama queen or too sensitive?”

Nope, I’m pretty convinced, in my non-expert yet experienced opinion, that emerging from a long past of complex trauma, or even the task of deconditioning oneself from rigid cultural training or religious dogma, is a long, arduous, painful process of birthing oneself. You can’t just go to one therapy session or do yoga for a few months and suddenly be OK. I’ll liken it to the actual birthing process in real life. When you’re trying to heal from deep wounds and expand to become your truest self, the effort to break through an incredibly narrow reducing valve of beliefs and fears and perceptions of reality into a world of hope and freedom, is quite akin to a 10 pound baby squeezing through a 10 cm wide cervix. It is a helluva lot of painful work. It’s bloody and messy and there’s a good chance that you’ll be torn a bit in the process.

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So, I grew up in the church, got an undergraduate missions degree, and consider myself pretty well acquainted with the Bible, even if these days I look a little askance at most displays of Christianity. But, I only just now think I have the tiniest clue of what Jesus was talking about in John 3 when he met with Nicodemus and was talking about how one has to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God (or heaven, or perfect presence, or nirvana, or ultimate peace….insert whichever works for you here).

“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.””

Most every teaching I have heard on this (and I’ve made my way through quite a few denominations and took a rigorous class on this gospel from a Duke University-trained theologian) describes being born of water as one’s physical birth, and being born of the Spirit as the moment one decides to commit to and follow God in some way. For many Christians, being born again is “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” For others, it is the act of baptism, either literally or symbolically, that equals being born into the Spirit. And for our charismatic/Pentecostal brothers and sisters, being born of the Spirit often comes with some type of external sign, or charisma, as proof that it happened. But ultimately, it is usually interpreted as some sort of intentional choice by an individual to follow God.

I think this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching is way too glib…way too easy….and is too shallow.. For most people, radical change does not come through one decision made in time. You can’t just heal all your shit at once, and most people (unless you’re anomalies like Eckhart Tolle or Byron Katie) are not suddenly going to wake up in the morning, woke. Being born into the Spirit (or rephrase this as Ultimate Reality), takes time, and effort, and struggle. It also requires immense surrender and allowing yourself to be carried by a force stronger than yourself….where you have absolutely NO control. It requires the recognition on some level that a reducing valve exists in your mind, and it requires you moving from a place where you think you know alot to understanding that you don’t really know jack squat about much at all. It requires sitting with your pain, and breathing through all the contractions, and not knowing where the process is going to take you, and somehow still trusting that grace is the vehicle that is carrying you….and also knowing that even if that grace fails you, you could never resist the birthing process….because there are things that you’ve seen that you can’t …and refuse…to unsee.

Jesus was not a namby pamby white dude….he invited people to not only resist empire through radical subversion, but he invited people to become aware of and break through the reducing valves of their shadow selves, that kept them small and quiet and fearful and certain that what they believed to be true must be accurate. This second invitation was really what was most subversive. That kind of subversion….the inentional allowing of your true self to be birthed out into this space and time….that is threatening, because that kind of freedom and love can’t be corralled or controlled. That, my friends, is why Jesus was killed. He scared the shit out of the powers that were because he was teaching people how to birth themselves and live who they truly were at their core.

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Now, after all of that theologizing, I’ll bring it back to my dream. When I reevaluated the dream through the paradigm of different parts of me trying to get my attention and tell me something, I immediately knew what the dream was about.

I was the one rushing to help the girl in labor, offering comfort and promising not to leave her alone. But I was also the girl giving birth. The placenta previa represented how freaking hard this process of healing and trying to bring forth my authentic self can be. In my particular case, and I won’t really go into much detail here, there are a couple of obstacles that seem to be blocking the process….they’re the wounds and fears that I feel I’ll sometimes never defeat….they’re the lingering things that always seem to impede my progress with becoming and learning to trust myself with abandon. But I keep pushing, rolling with the contractions as they come, often with massive tears and ugly crying….knowing that I’ll either eventually birth this thing or I’ll bleed out trying.

The ‘me as comforter” in this dream was the true me telling “girl in labor” me that I’ll never leave her. She may never get the external validation she thinks she needs from others. She may be called a prostitute and a fraud or any number of other things by people who lack understanding, but it doesn’t matter, because I will never abandon her. There may be people all around that don’t understand her process, who don’t care she’s trying to birth this hard thing into existence, who are happy to just sample the food at the party….but I know why she’s doing this. I know the journey she’s on. I know all the things she can’t unsee. I know that she can’t stay the same now that she’s aware of the reducing valve that is a part of her humanity. I know that she’s birthing ME.

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