As a parent, I have long been aware of what I consider the only “rule” for great parenting: as soon as I think I have figured out how to be a good parent for my child, he is going to change, grow, or develop in some way that renders what I have figured out obsolete; I will have to start all over figuring out what he needs. With this axiom as my guide, I am perpetually challenged as a parent, yet validated in what feels like accomplishing the impossible, navigating towards a destination that is continually moving. Being forced to return again and again to this truth cultivates both humility and confidence within me.
I was reminded of this truth again just recently. I have been working with my son to be more independent in getting himself back to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night. We have had countless conversations about how he can soothe himself when he is scared, about the stories his mind generates that take on lives of their own and can generate unfounded fears that take over. We have talked about my love for him and how he can never lose it. We have acknowledged the presence of the Universe that holds him and is always there with him. We have used surrogates like stuffed animals, tokens of mine to hold with him.
Yet, night after night, he would sleep for 3-4 hours, then inevitably wind up standing next to my bed, wanting to crawl into bed with me. Sometimes I would send him right back to bed, sometimes get up and tuck him in; within 10 minutes he would be standing beside my bed again, telling me he was scared, lonely, or feeling unwanted. I could feel my heart clutch tight in my chest, and my mind wanting to say more forcefully that just because he thought these things didn’t make them true. He wasn’t alone, there was nothing to be scared of, he was crazy for thinking these things.
It would be easy to have concluded that because he had all that he needed and that nothing was objectively threatening him (and that I was in no rational way abandoning him or rejecting him, that he was under no physical threat etc.), that I should choose a hard line and not intervene. I should believe that in time he would learn to soothe himself and his night time behavior would settle into what I was wanting and needing.
The only problem I had with this is that I couldn’t shake the notion this was what I wanted and needed, and I could sense he was somehow not getting something he needed. The Something was something he was simply not learning successfully he could offer himself in sufficient measure. So without any clarity and feeling confused and exasperated, I felt obliged to continue soothing him back to sleep, usually by having him in bed with me or going and laying with him in his. I struggled with all the familiar feelings of parenthood: powerlessness, guilt, confusion, exasperation, resentment, exhaustion, hopelessness, anger, numbness, and fear. The longer this continued the worse the feelings got, and the more crazy the stories in my mind became about what was wrong and what I should do. I felt stuck in a cycle of failure, and my feelings of fear and helplessness continued to deepen.
Then three nights ago, after what seemed like several nights of the problem intensifying even worse, he had already been up three times and I had sent him back to his bed three times. I was just crawling into my bed and hoping against hope that this night I would be allowed to sleep through the night. As my head hit the pillow, I heard quiet crying coming from across the hall and through the closed door to his bedroom. I wasn’t going to allow him to simply cry himself to sleep; I remember from my own childhood that this was intolerable, and only led to worse problems down the road because I had been left to cry myself to sleep with no intervention. So I roused myself (with several curse words of frustration escaping my mouth quietly), and went to comfort him once again.
As soon as I laid down with him, he was immediately comforted and his crying stopped. I held him in my arms for a few minutes while I felt his body release the tension and fear. His eyes, wide open, stared almost blankly at the ceiling. And then I asked, as neutrally and softly as I could muster: “What’s on your mind? What are you thinking about?”
And it was his response in that moment that slammed my parenting axiom back home to me once again: “Daddy, as I was laying here, I found an empty place in my mind.” Shocked, and not knowing what to respond with, I asked the follow up question of every therapist when they don’t know what else to say.
“And how did that make you feel?”
His response: “It feels like I am completely alone.”
Even as I hugged him tighter, told him with a shaky voice that I completely understood and that I was right there with him, I was transported back my childhood bed and the repeated nights when I had run much the same cycle with parents who were emotionally and spiritually unavailable to me. I remember as a child of five, six, and seven laying in my bed fighting back overwhelming feels of terror and loneliness, despite knowing that I was materially cared for and loved. And it was in that moment with my son that my mind was finally able to grasp the root of what he and I had been struggling to figure out together these past several weeks and months.
As humans, our spirit-soul-intuition has access to worlds and universes beyond what our bodies and minds can fathom or contain. We know and sense in a part of ourselves Something we simply cannot grasp with the limitations of our body-mind. My son was tapping into that place every night when the stimulation and activity of the daytime had ceased, when his environment and mind was quiet, and his body was still. He had discovered that “empty place” in his mind which allowed his spirit-soul to make contact with the Endless Beyond.
And it was simply too much for his 7-year-old body-mind to contain or make sense of. That contact with the Beyond flooded him to the point of overwhelm, and his fragile little mind and body tried to cope by creating stories that would explain his feelings of overwhelming fear and confusion. His little mind was drowning in a sea of vast and incomprehensible sensation that he simply didn’t have the capacity to process. And he was left struggling, night after night, simply not to be alone with those feelings. He was feeling he would have to face that place, again and again, all on his own, having to face what he had had no success facing. Every attempt to reach out for my help was met with the message, “There is nothing wrong. You should be able to handle this on your own.” But he knew that he couldn’t, and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t.
“It feels like I am completely alone.”
I know for myself that I have struggled for 40 years to reconcile knowing that while I am connected with friends and loved ones, I still feel alone. And what my son shared with me, what he taught me, is that these two parts of me–my mind-body and my soul-spirit–operate from parallel realities. They don’t operate by the same rules, they don’t have the capacity to fit into each other’s worlds. My mind-body is limited, fragile and vulnerable, constrained to move through time and space, having access only to what it has known and experienced that follows the rules of 3-dimensions. It is bound by the rules of survival and biochemistry, where time is as much a limitation as space, where energy is available only in finite amounts, and I can only do and understand so much in a day before I have to shut down and rest. My mind-body is plagued with the drive to survive and succeed in this life, all the while knowing that this life ends, that the body and mind will one day die. It is compelled to understand and define itself using fragile, limited, and incomplete tools, always knowing that it will never figure it all out, make sense of it all, or ever be completely in control. There are never enough words, never enough theories, never enough time, never enough energy, never enough information to let it permanently rest, feeling in complete control of everything. Yet it persists in its pursuit to do just that, to finally have enough and understand enough so that “some day” it will be able to let go because it has mastered it all.
All the while, our spirit-soul connects with a Knowing that whispers we will never have it all figured out, there are simply no words sufficient to contain what it Knows, that we are part of the vast unknowable, that there is no containing in our mind-body what we Know and to be true in its contact with the Beyond. It can be unreconcilingly terrifying to know that our body-mind will never grasp or make sense of it, that it must ultimately and courageously step aside and acknowledge the body-mind’s fragile and vulnerable incapacity to be in charge.
Yet how rigidly we as humans can cling to our delusions that we don’t have to let go, that we will never be in charge. We delude ourselves into thinking and believing our body-minds are stronger, bigger, more capable, and more sufficient than they can ever be. We identify ourselves with what we have, both materially and intellectually. We trap ourselves with beliefs that if we only work hard enough, or do enough, we will arrive at the promised land of eternal security. Yet we continue to struggle, as individuals and collectively, with unshakable feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and disconnection. In our intolerance to acknowledge our limitations, we project delusions of our grandeur onto our partners, our children, our neighbors, and our enemies believing that with enough effort at imposing our limitations on ourselves and others we will eventually feel safe and secure.
My son’s nighttime disclosure reveals just how fragile we are and always will be. For all the love and attention and presence I have consistently offered him, he still feels some overwhelming sense of being alone that he simply cannot reconcile. The morning after that night, after waking and returning to his body-mind with the tasks of getting ready for school, we talked about it. And while he remembered what he had shared about the emptiness in his mind and feeling completely alone, he also volunteered without any prompting from me that he knows he is not alone, he knows at night I am there for him in the house, and that he knows he is safe in his bed and how much he is loved.
As long as we are in these body-minds, we will never find a perfect unison between our soul-spirit and our body-minds. We are perpetually and inevitably going to experience ourselves as split somehow, operating from two completely distinct parts that will never operate on the same rules. For our soul-spirit is limitless while our body-minds are limited. Our challenge and invitation is to let go of these two parts becoming one, always looking to maintain their distinct, separate, and parallel realities, as though they are two rails running side by side forever, never to intersect, but never leaving each other. They are inextricably tied together, but never fused. We cannot operate solely from the body-mind, nor make it the ruler of our whole self. We neither operate solely from the soul-spirit, nor impose its Knowledge on the body-mind. Such attempts only lead to doubling down our confusion, isolation, suffering, and sense of futility.
We must embrace these both parts of ourselves equally, and attend to them as equal and inevitable parts of our whole Selves. We must hold them in balance with each other, side by side. We must nourish the body and mind with good food, healthy sleep and exercise, acknowledgement of and compassion for our limitations. We must listen to our bodies with deep awareness and understanding, allowing ourselves to keep learning what works and what doesn’t, when to push forward and when to pause for rest and recuperation. We must toy with the edge of our discomfort, but never push ourselves over the edge of terror.
Also, we must cultivate our spirit-soul and allow its exploration of its limitlessness. We must use prayer and mediation regularly to make contact with that space. We must acknowledge that we will never fully grasp what it Knows, and discover that we will survive being flooded nonetheless. We must make regular contact with the Beyond through art, music, poetry, and nature, and discover we cannot, and do not need to, understand what we experience. There is no need to capture what we touch with our spirit-soul. It is always there for us, always holding us, always waiting.
Ultimately, we are all doing our best in this pursuit, this journey we are all on. We are all learning how to navigate those parts within us that are limited and fragile on the one hand, and limitless and powerful on the other.
For my son, as for all us of us, this is the journey he is on. And in that journey, he will never be alone. It is the Journey we all share.