James Finley: The Axial Moment of Healing

Tami Simon: Today I speak with Jim Finley. Jim is a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica, California, and a Merton scholar. Jim left home at the age of eighteen and actually lived as a monk at the abbey of Gethsemane with Thomas Merton for six years. He’s the author of Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God, and The Contemplative Heart, as well as several Sounds True audio programs including a program on Christian meditation and a program with Caroline Myss on Transforming Trauma: A Seven-Step Process for Spiritual Healing.

I spoke with Jim about the experience of the dark night of the soul, which is a topic that he leads retreats on. We also spoke about his spiritual approach to healing trauma.

Tami Simon: Jim, there’s a topic that I’ve heard you teach on that I’ve never heard you speak on that I’ve love to talk with you about, which is the dark night of the soul and how somebody knows when they’re going through a dark, night some kind of initiation, and the difference between that and when they’re just feeling down and depressed. How do you know the difference? Is there a difference?

James Finley: Yes, there is a difference. First of all the term “the dark night of the soul” refers back to the term that was used by St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, and for St. John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul is kind of the central operating process through which a person comes to mystical awakening. So I’d like to back up and create the context in which St. John of the Cross uses the term, this mystical sense. Because then that will provide the context in which we can apply that to our life as to whether or not we’re going through the dark night in this mystical sense that he was referring to.

Because I think today a lot of us use the term in referring to any time we’re going through a period of struggle or difficulty, especially if we find it very difficult to experience God’s presence in what’s going on or if we’re not nurtured or sustained spiritually to help us get through whatever we’re going through. We say we’re going through a dark night, which is fine to use it that way. St. John of the Cross certainly includes that experience, but he really means something much deeper than that, and it’s something essentially very positive. It’s a gift, really. So I want to back up and just think out loud here for a few minutes on the dark night as St. John of the Cross uses the word and apply it to our daily experience. How would that be?

Tami Simon: Perfect.

James Finley: Good. To try to capture the sense of this is that St. John of the Cross makes a distinction between what he calls substantial union with God and affective union with God. And by substantial union he means what we are substantially. And by what we are substantially he means speaking in ultimate terms. If we think of God as love, think of God as infinite reality itself, that love gives reality to all that is real. And ultimately speaking we in the whole universe are the manifestations of infinite love. And to experience our self as the manifestation of infinite love in a world in which everything we see is the manifestation of infinite love is to experience what we are substantially or what we are in truth. The difficulty is we tend not to experience that. That we tend not to experience ourselves as the manifestation of infinite love or we don’t tend to realize that God’s oneness with us is the reality of us that is apart from being loved by infinite love into the present moment. We’re nothing. We’re absolutely nothing. But being loved by infinite love into the present moment is what we are substantially. It’s what we are in truth. So that is we could experience here together all that we really are right now having this conversation, we’d experience God. We’d experience God manifesting herself, manifesting himself in the immediacy of this very conversation.

The affective union refers then to the extent to which we experience this, and John of the Cross says, my focus here is on the affective union. That is, on the extent to which we experience our self to be God’s manifested presence in the world. And John of the Cross says the difficulty is that we don’t experience this because our finite ego, which is the context in which the awakening occurs–and our finite ego, which is the freedom to which we assent to it, that is we assent to the truth of our self in love. This finite ego is split off from the truth of itself as the manifestation of love, and the ego sets up shop on its own. This is what Merton refers to as the false self. That is, I tend to imagine or go about as if I’m nothing but my finite ego. That is, I am nothing but my thoughts, feelings, memories. I’m nothing but this self that things happen to. I’m nothing but this. And since I’m nothing but my finite self I try to live in the light of this finite consciousness.

But John of the Cross says this light of finite consciousness is actually darkness. Because it’s a fundamental—it’s very close to the Buddhist idea of ignorance—because what I perceive to be the light in which I’m seeing everything around me is actually my ignorance of the truth of myself as the manifestation of infinite love. And he said this is our dilemma. So Jesus says, “You have eyes to see and do not see.'” There is the God-given capacity to see the God-given nature of ourselves and we don’t see it. And we’re living in the state of darkness and we think this darkness is light.

So John of the Cross says then the dark night of the soul is paradoxically the infusion of infinite light into our mind and heart. And this infinite light, which reveals who we really are to our self blinds and overwhelms our finite consciousness, and we experience this inner illumination to be a kind of darkness. But if we stay the course, that is if we don’t panic; if we just calmly be very quietly open to what is happening to us, he says, “Oh night lovelier than the dawn.” We realize that here what we thought was the light—that is our finite consciousness as having the final say of who we are–is actually a kind of darkness we were living in and didn’t realize it. And by accepting that, we undergo this metamorphosis of consciousness and come into this spiritual awakening, this spiritual consciousness, which he called mystical marriage or unitive consciousness or thought.

So St. John of the Cross certainly means to include by the dark night the struggles, but the struggles are paradoxical in that the struggle has to do with the futility of trying to live on our own terms. And whereas we think that’s a misfortune, actually the inability to live on our own terms is the beginning of the possibility of living in a radically new way, which is awakening to this affective union of ourselves as the manifestation of God’s love in the world.

Tami Simon: Can you tell me Jim, what was happening in the biography of John of the Cross when he went into the dark night and then came out of it? What was the actual content of his life at that point?

James Finley: John of the Cross as a young man was studying for the priesthood. And he got ordained to the priesthood in the Carmelite order of the Catholic Church in the 16th century in Spain. And he joined Teresa of Avila in the reform of the Carmelite Order. It was a reform to return to Order back to a life of simplicity and poverty and prayer and so on. And the institutional status quo at the time didn’t take kindly to the implications of this reform that they were not being true to their own calling, and so they imprisoned him. They captured him and put him in a small, little, dark cell there in the monastery. And he lived there under very arduous conditions and he really felt a sense of betrayal and the sense that these were the people that he trusted. These were the people that were supposed to be living up to this Christlike ideal of love and so on. And he went into a kind of inner despair. He really sensed the isolation and loss in all of this. And it’s in that darkness that he broke through and experienced an inner illumination that transformed his whole life.

And it’s in those circumstances that he experienced this awakening as we were saying earlier, that he experienced the invincible love of God to be the reality of his own nature and like an unconquerable love that no one could do anything to. And he began to write poetry. It came to him first as poetry and then when he escaped and got out and continued the reform, he wrote commentaries on that poetry, which became the mystical teachings of St. John of the Cross.

Tami Simon: It sounds in hearing about his life that the dark night of the soul was a passage that once he went through it he didn’t necessarily return to that kind of despair and sense of separation from God. Is that accurate?

James Finley: Well, I want to back up a little bit in terms of what he actually says about this. He says that sometimes what happens, and this may well be true of him, that sometimes the breakthrough into this spiritual illumination is so profound and thorough that a person is never really quite the same again. That the clarity is so absolute. The analogy in Buddhist terms is what the Buddha experienced on the night of his enlightenment. And sometimes it is that way. And it’s quite possible that with him there was that kind of radicality to it.

However, I think even in his own life, and as it happens in most people—and this is what he writes about—that this breakthrough doesn’t tend to be a single cataclysmic event, but rather it’s an unfolding metamorphosis of consciousness in which our illusion of our self of being separate or other than infinite love dissolves in love. But for him as you indicated, it does tend to have that radical nature to it–this experience he had in the prison.

Tami Simon: So going back to my original question which is distinguishing between a state of despair and depression and what could be considered a dark-night passage, it sounds like it might have something to do with how someone approaches their despair or depression. That with a certain kind of approach it could be a passage that could lead to the kind of transformation you’re talking about. Is that fair?

James Finley: It is. I’ll just respond in a general way first and then apply as he speaks of this in the experience of prayer and meditation. Let’s say a person is going through a struggle. And let’s say in that struggle the dilemma is heightened all the more in that in the struggle they cannot experience spiritual nurturing. Like they feel somehow lost or without spiritual support. And as they go through that struggle it starts to dawn on them—and at first it’s so subtle that they don’t realize that it’s happening—it starts dawning on them that in the midst of this struggle they’re being strangely illumined in a depth of consciousness that they never knew before. And they realize that they’re established or grounded in something that transcends what’s happening to them. Insofar as they begin to intuit that the struggles they’re going through are not just psychological struggles and hardship. That rather [it’s] an experience of the dark night.

Tami Simon: Can you share with me from your own life what you’ve discovered about passing through a dark night of the soul?

James Finley: Well, I think for me what the experience was is that when I went to the monastery.

Tami Simon: This is in your late teens?

James Finley: Yeah, I was seventeen when I graduated from high school and just had my eighteenth birthday and entered the monastery. And when I entered the monastery, this kind of silent, cloistered monastery, my first year or two I was very taken by it. There was a sense of consolation or a deep sense of inner peace about it. I found it quite amazing, really. It was like having a dream while I was awake. That is the silence and the bowing, everything had a kind of divine quality to it. And then in the midst of all of that I went into a kind of phase of just feeling very lost inside and didn’t understand where it was coming from. I think in part it was coming from the abuse I experienced at home in childhood, kind of seeping up through into my consciousness and the silence. I think that was certainly part of it.

But at any rate, I had found myself in this monastery without any basis for interior support. I couldn’t find access to a sense of the presence of God that brought me there. And it’s in the context of going through that experience that I was reading St. John of the Cross. And I began to understand my experience in the light of St. John of the Cross’s teachings. And the experiences that I had there in prayer and meditation were like radical breakthrough experiences for me that came out of the very darkness that I was experiencing. That’s how I experienced it.

Tami Simon: Can you say a bit more about the attitude of meditation and prayer that can be helpful during a dark period? What kind of meditation and prayer? What kind of approach?

James Finley: Well the approach St. John of the Cross takes, he says that the norm of meditation and prayer is where we sit in the kind of childlike sincerity and in that sincerity reflect upon the things of God, where we prayerfully reflect upon spiritual things and the spiritual path we’re committed to. And he says in that daily quiet time we tend to experience a certain sense of nurturance from that or we gain insights into that, or we do spiritual reading, or we journal. It’s kind of a grounding place for us. And he says for many people they spend their whole life in that, and that daily quiet time continues to be a grounding time for them. And that grows and gets deeper and richer, and their insights get deeper and so on.

But he says what happens with some people is when they’re in their daily quiet time and this kind of discursive meditation using thought and images and the kind of devotional piety, he says three things start to happen, which he says are three signs of entrance into the dark night. He says one: a person starts to notice that they no longer experience any sense of God’s presence. He says this absence of the felt sense of God’s presence all by itself is not a sign that one’s called to the dark night. He says because maybe it has to do with things that are going on in your life. So if you’re harboring resentment or there’re other things that are going on in your life or you’re in some way doing violence to yourself, it will start showing up in your prayer. But let’s say you look at that and can’t explain this dryness you’re experiencing in those terms.

Secondly, he says, not only do you realize that you’re not being nurtured and reflecting on the things of God, you realize you’re not being nurtured and reflecting on the things of this earth, either. That is whereas before reflecting on things that were going on in your daily work or relationships or things that were a genuine cause of happiness, you realize there’s a certain kind of pervasive inadequacy in all of those things. And he says this all by itself doesn’t mean you’re called into the dark night. He says in effect–he doesn’t use these terms–he says maybe you’re depressed. That maybe you’re just not capable of experiencing the vitality in your life, and you need to do your best to tend to that.

He said, but let’s say you look at that and that doesn’t check out. You don’t think that’s it either. And he says you’re kind of caught between these two kinds of powerlessness, the ways of being powerless. You feel powerless to be nurtured in spiritual things and simultaneously you feel powerless to be nurtured by regrounding yourself in earthly things. And he says in that two-fold state of powerlessness you’re inclined to sit in a general loving awareness without regard for anything in particular. That is you’re simply drawn to sit in kind of quiet, intuitive attentiveness in silence. And it’s in that subtle silence that one secretly awakens to the truth of oneself as a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. That’s one of the ways in which he talks about this.

Tami Simon: Hmm, interesting. So what you’re saying is that if I’m sitting in meditation and then I’m relishing in the light of God’s presence that’s a certain type of way of being. Or if I’m sitting in silence and I’m sort of jazzed about my life, that’s a different way. But the dark night comes when neither of those things is present. And then I just sit there in that empty dark space.

James Finley: Exactly. I want read a nice little passage here. You get a flavor how he talks about this. It’s very lovely. That’s exactly it, that we can sit there kind of turned on by spiritual things, and maybe genuinely so and kind of an emotional enthusiasm. Or we can feel a very genuine enthusiasm about the things that are going on in our life. And he says both of those are important aspects of human experience. But he says the thing about both of them is that they’re finite. That is the insights that we have are finite. The emotions that we’re having are finite. The gratification that we experience in those modes of consciousness are finite. And because they’re finite they fall infinitely short of what ultimately fulfills our heart, which is an infinite union with the infinite. And so the dark night is simultaneously powerlessness to be gratified in being energized by earthly things or by divine things. And in that painful powerlessness, if one doesn’t panic, that is if one just quietly sits with it, one sees that one is interiorly drawn to rest in this general loving awareness. And in the subtlety of that silent awareness is where this divine union begins to emerge in a person.

Tami Simon: Now you mentioned that you were, originally when you were drawn to the monastery as a teenager, that part of what was coming up for you was the pain of your own childhood. How did your own experiences of a difficult childhood, a childhood in which you experienced physical abuse, how did that map onto what was happening for you in the monastery in terms of the passage through the dark night?

James Finley: Okay, well I’ll answer this in a way where I’ll try to be just true to my actual experience of what this was, and within the constraints of time here that holds to the essence of it without going into all the nuances of it. The essence of it for me was that I lived in this home where there was this abuse, this physical, sexual, emotional abuse. In high school I discovered Thomas Merton, and that there were places called monasteries, which I saw as places where I could transcend my suffering and kind of find God in silence away from all the trauma that I was living in.

I left my home. I entered the monastery and became a monk and was living in silence in the monastery, and in the silence of the monastery I started reading St. John of the Cross. And it very deeply spoke to me. And I had Thomas Merton as my spiritual director, and just the monastic life was a very kind of rich, deep experience for me. And then in the silence of the monastery I began to experience a loss of the original sense of emotional fervor that I felt, and I began to feel a kind of emptiness or an inability to experientially sense God’s presence. And in hindsight I think I would attribute some of that to the unprocessed trauma that I’d been through starting to percolate up through in the silence and access my consciousness. But at any rate I was in this state of being unable to be consoled or to experience God’s presence.

In reading John of the Cross I experienced it in those terms. And Thomas Merton gave me permission to spend so many hours each day in the hayloft of an abandoned sheep barn. And one day I was up in the loft of that barn and I was reading the psalms. And the loft doors were always kept open and looked out over a meadow. And I was walking back and forth reading the psalms in this state of kind of inner emptiness that I was referring to here, this kind of unconsoled state. And all of a sudden there was this vivid realization. What all along I had thought of as the air, was literally God. That is that I was walking back and forth in God, breathing God, and the God that I was breathing knew me, like through and through and through and through and through as compassion. That was my sense of it, as compassion.

And there was a clear sense that no matter where I would go to get away from this, there was nowhere to go, because the atmospheric totality of this compassion that I was breathing, which was sustaining my very life, I was living my life on the interiority of God. That was the clear sense of it, and there was no emotions with it, no visions with it, it just had a literalness to it. Like it was just completely true. And that state of breathing God and living my life in God, and God knowing me through and through and through as compassion, that stayed with me the whole afternoon. I chanted vespers that night that way, I fell asleep that way, and I walked around that way for several days.

And on Sundays we were allowed to walk in the woods outside the monastic enclosure walls around the monastery. And I was walking up this little road this way breathing God, and I turned a corner on this little dirt road that went up to this lake I used to sit at, and there was a little tree hanging out over the road, and I reached out and touched one leaf of the tree, and I looked up in the sky and there was one cloud in the sky, and I said out loud, “It’s one.” That is, I was so vividly aware that the God I was breathing, the cloud, the ground I was standing on, the leaf I was touching was just completely, absolutely one. And it was a windy day. I sat on the edge of a hillside, a big meadow there. And it was just indescribable, absolutely indescribable. And I walked back to the monastery, and the immediacy of it dissipated. But I’d say the underlying, tangible clarity of it, it’s never left me, really. And after that experience that’s where I really felt that I was home free. Because I really felt that when I would read John of the Cross or Meister Eckhardt or these mystics, I really felt that at least I was beginning to get a very strong experiential taste of what these mystics were talking about.

And it was at that time, then, that I was sexually abused by one of the priests in the monastery, and I was devastated, absolutely devastated. Part of my abuse at home was sexual abuse. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even think it was possible. And I guess analogous to John of the Cross feeling betrayal and so on I just decompensated. I became dissociative and I became depressed and felt lost, really, completely lost. And I didn’t tell anybody what happened. I went up to see Merton the night I left. I talked to him in his hermitage. I didn’t tell him what happened. And I left, returned home and kind of dropped out of the church, started drinking a lot and was just kind of a lost soul for a while, I guess. And I got into a dysfunctional marriage and had two wonderful children from that marriage. But still I was a pretty wounded guy.

I think I started getting my footing again in spirituality when I wrote Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, this book on Thomas Merton: the True Self, and I started giving retreats. But it wasn’t until I got a scholarship for a doctorate in clinical psychology that I started looking at my own trauma. And what I discovered was that I could not pray my pain away. That was my experience: that no matter how much I contemplated and prayed it couldn’t really get at the internalized trauma that was inside of me. But psychology alone couldn’t get to the root of my suffering. And I would think up to this moment I always saw the moment my father was beating me and the moment in the sheep barn as being at polar opposites of each other. And by staying in the kind of ecstasy of nondual consciousness I would never have to deal again with suffering. And then I realized that instead of being polar opposite of each other they formed kind of a circle, and the intensity of those two moments touch each other. And it was only by bringing nondual consciousness to bear on my suffering instead of using it as a way to flee from it that I was able to find this kind of unitive, transformative journey for myself that let me out of my impasse that I was in.

So I then saw, which gets back to responding to your question, that my dark night– that is the whole nightmare that I went through and all of its details–that by facing and walking through that night that it brought me to the discovery of something within myself that was invincible. But it remained invincible only as long as I was willing to let it be the basis out of which I would touch my suffering. And I took that insight, which has really been the guiding principle of my life, really, and I started working with people in therapy, who were starting to see me in therapy. I began to see the therapeutic interactions of people to be the playing out of this same dynamic in their life. And then that’s how I experienced it.

Tami Simon: So when you say that the therapeutic interaction playing out this dynamic, you mean to be able to hold the vast space, that transcendental space, what you called the nondual awareness space, simultaneously with the suffering. You said that they made a circle. How did you get there? How do you get there?

James Finley: Well, I want to go back to how I experienced this in therapy first. How I experienced it is that when the person comes into therapy and they get to the point that they’re willing to share what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade them or abandon them, they unexpectedly come upon within themselves this preciousness. That is, in the very intimacy of the willingness to become completely vulnerable they unexpectedly come upon within themselves a depth of preciousness—there’re no words for it, really—which manifests itself right in the room. That is, “I’m really here. I really count.” Or “My life is a gift.” Or, “There’s something about me that no matter what happened to me it doesn’t have the power to destroy who I essentially am.” They experience that. And when I experience that they’re experiencing that and I bear witness to them and I say back to them, “You know I think what’s going in the room, right now, the way that you are with me right now, this is what got abused. This is what your parents didn’t see.” Whatever it is, that then the therapeutic alliance—that is our relationship with each other, we form kind of a monastic community of two. We’re like a sangha of two. We’re like two wounded people who have experientially accessed within ourselves a preciousness that transcends suffering. And the therapeutic sessions from that point on become a process from which a person learns to reground themselves in that preciousness, and out of that preciousness to keep touching the edges of their suffering, until the suffering little by little by little dissolves in that preciousness. And it’s a tricky business because once the suffering gets reactivated the person can get retraumatized by it. And so the person has to learn this art form of staying grounded in the presence of their suffering without being retraumatized by it, and that balance to learn to go through this healing journey.

Tami Simon: Now this circle that you said, which is seeing some kind of brilliant equivalency between the pain we’ve gone through and our most transcendent moments, explain that to me. I’m not sure I get that.

James Finley: Well, I think this is where it kind of defies logic, but when you’re in the presence of it you can sense you’re in the presence of it. I’ll put it as it comes to me when I’m in the presence of it, and someone who’s experiencing it in my presence who’s kind of going through this process and then I’ll apply it to myself. Ultimately it applies to all of us. [No] I want to use another example, and maybe it’s more universal or tangible. The example is imagine there’s a friend whose partner/spouse is dying of cancer and the partner is in a hospice and you’ve known both of them for a long time and the friend invites you to come with him to the hospice to visit the dying partner. And you go. And you sit in the corner of the room and observe your friend pull a chair up to the bedside of the dying partner. And the person who’s dying is having a hard time speaking. And your friend says to the partner, “You don’t have to try to speak, just relax.” The person just pulls up a chair and sits there in silence and holds their hand. And as you watch them together in that moment it’s so unexplainably clear that as sad as this moment is, immensely sad in terms of what they’ve been through already, what they’re going through now, it is also clear that it’s not just sad. That in some strange way you feel privileged to be there and you intuit that you’re on holy ground. That the depth of suffering opens out into the depths of pure liberation of suffering. This mysterious alchemy where suffering and liberation from suffering are mysteriously intertwined with each other. This is the mystery, really. It’s freedom from the tyranny of suffering in the midst of suffering. And once we personally come up on that, then I think that’s just a fundamental source of inner peace in our life.

Tami Simon: I think what’s so wonderful about your work, Jim, is often when I listen to spiritual teachers there’s some way we’re getting away from our suffering but not that we’re able to be free from our suffering right in the midst of it.

James Finley: Right. I went into Merton once for spiritual direction, one of these one-on-one sessions and I went in complaining about something. I forget what it was. And he said to me, “As long as one person on this earth suffers, you suffer, too.” He said, “Where there’s no validity in living in a place like this; we don’t live the spiritual life to find some rarified atmosphere where we’re exempt from the human condition. Rather, we live this interior life to experience the suffering of the whole human family expressing itself in the intimacy of our suffering.” But—in a conversation like this–if we can see how this suffering is intimately dissolving in a compassion that’s infinitely greater than suffering it doesn’t remove suffering from us.

I think sometimes in a Christian context talking to people about God loving us, and then why does God let this happen and so on–when you look at it in these terms, the whole mystery of the cross in the Christian tradition, there’s a revelation that God spares us from nothing. Whatever it means that God takes care of us, it clearly does not mean that God prevents tragic, really cruel things from happening to us. It clearly doesn’t mean that. But what it does mean is that it’s possible to discover that God infinitely sustains us in all things. And to be intimately and infinitely sustained from the tyranny of suffering in the midst of suffering than this is spiritual liberation. Because why would I think that being on the spiritual path makes me exempt from the human condition? Isn’t it rather the spiritual path should ground me in the courage to live in the human condition with the sense of vitality and openness. And I think it’s all bound up on this intimate interface of suffering and liberation from suffering, with the oneness of birth and death.

Tami Simon: Now you mentioned that one of the risks or challenges is when we open up to our own suffering or someone else’s suffering that we can be retraumatized or it can be too much. We can’t bear it. How do we create a field of presence of God’s love that’s strong enough to be able to be with our own or another person’s suffering?

James Finley: Well, it depends on so many different variables that kind of affect it. But just a few guiding things that pertain to what you’re asking: I think that one thing that’s often extremely helpful is being able to share the suffering in the presence of the friend. Meaning that out of their love for us the friend is willing and able to listen to us in our suffering. And as they listen to us we can tell by the way they’re listening to us and the way they’re looking at us that they recognize something in us that transcends what we’re going through or what’s happened to us or what we’ve done. That we see reflected in the eyes of the one who loves us a grounding place that helps us to stay grounded while in the process of experiencing our suffering.

Then little by little by little we learn to internalize that presence so we can be more grounded in the presence of our own suffering. So that’s one thing that helps and I think in-depth therapy works on that paradigm, really. In other words I think the alliance between the therapist and the person in therapy is a kind of holding environment in which the therapist’s presence with the person is precious in their suffering in the context in which little by little by little they can internalize that and learn to stay stabilized in the presence of their own suffering, which is kind of coming into spiritual adulthood, I suppose. Where this is kind of tricky is the intensity of the suffering that’s been experienced. So to the extent that a person has been severely traumatized whereas they start to talk about the trauma they start to decompensate, for example. Say they have flashbacks or panic attacks or they start hitting themselves or self cutting or sexually acting out. And this is where, the more things like this are true, then the slower the person needs to go and the more carefully it needs to get worked out.

Tami Simon: Is that what you mean by the term decompensated? What do you mean by that?

James Finley: Decompensate would mean, let’s say I’m coming to you and sharing how I was abused. And as I share with you how I was raped or beaten, whatever it is. And the very act of talking about it starts opening up my emotions around what happened to me. And as the emotions get stronger and stronger I begin to reexperience the trauma. That is I start to decompensate; I may start to hyperventilate; I may start to sob uncontrollably; I may start feeling that I’m leaving my body; I start to find it more and more difficult to stay present in my body in the room while I talk to you about what’s happening.

And at that point I start to be retraumatized by sharing the experience of my trauma. Because that’s what posttraumatic stress disorder is, that the past refuses to stay the past. And in the presence of a triggering event, the person reexperiences the original trauma, experientially as if it were actually reoccurring. And Judith Herman in her book, “Trauma and Recovery” one of the key works on all of this points out that nothing really happens in this healing process without safety. And so the safety is to protect the interaction from getting to the point where the person is retraumatized by it. The goal is to be able to stay grounded in the presence of the pain without drowning in it. Because repeatedly learning to do that over and over and over, a person builds self confidence in their ability to stay grounded in the presence of their suffering. And here’s where we see then spirituality can become a huge resource for them in helping them do that.

Tami Simon: Can you say more about that?

James Finley: Yes. The more I—in the very way we were talking about earlier in terms of contemplation and so on—the more I have tasted that in me that infinitely transcends circumstance, the more confidently I can approach the circumstances in which the suffering occurred. Does that make sense in a way?

Tami Simon: Yeah.

James Finley: In other words, it has become so clear to me, as clear as the palms of my own hands, that although I am ego I am not just ego because I have tasted for myself that in me that is infinitely more than just ego to the extent that I’m grounded in that truth experientially. I can draw upon that as a resource. It gives me the courage and wisdom to touch my suffering without falling prey to the illusion that that suffering has the power to name who I am, because I know in the light of my spiritual awakening that’s not true. Now I would say this, though, too. A person can be enlightened or let’s say a deeply spiritually awakened person who is going through trauma work and even though the person is grounded in that experience, insofar as their unprocessed trauma they can still momentarily be flooded and overwhelmed by it. They need to be careful just like everybody else. It’s just that their groundedness in spirituality and their meditation practice and all the rest of it is a huge resource for them in courageously returning to the task, getting regrounded in the love, touching the suffering with love until the suffering dissolves in love. And then in the end when they come out the other end of it they realize the whole process is essentially spiritual to begin with. That is it all has to do with our true identity in being that which infinitely transcends ego, [also] as a mystery that’s manifesting itself as the ego as all things.

Tami Simon And then Jim, I’m just curious as we come to a close here. I know that you’ve developed a seven-step model for spiritual healing, and that in these seven steps there’s a pivotal point that you call the axial moment, and I wonder if you can share with us what that is, the axial moment.

James Finley: Well, we’ve been talking about it here, really, in other words. The axial moment is a term that I use to describe partly what we’re discussing here. How it comes to me is that a person comes into therapy, and one session follows another. And insight follows another, and it all starts getting opened up. And then there comes the moment on which the whole course of therapy quietly turns. And it’s the moment at which they risk sharing what hurts the most, and in that vulnerability instead of being annihilated by the vulnerability, they unexpectedly come upon within themselves this preciousness. This unexpected disclosure of their invincible preciousness and their fragility, I call that moment the axial moment. That the whole course of therapy quietly turns like a wheel on its axis, turns on that moment, and then therapy as kind of a microcosm of all of life turns on that moment. And that’s what I mean by the axial moment. The axial moment is a moment at which I risk sharing what I fear the most. Instead of being annihilated, I’m liberated. That unexpected liberation is what comes out of the axial moment.

Tami Simon: Well, Jim I want to thank you. I have to say this has been one of the deepest conversations I’ve had on Insights at the Edge. I’m really appreciative. Thank you.

James Finley: Well, thank you for just…out of our friendship and your skills as an interviewer it was a gift for me, so I thank you, too.