By Michael Lipson, PhD
Spring 2001: Death and Rebirth - Issue #23
Though it sounds a bit snappier in German, Goethe's great slogan of transformation, "Die and Become!"(Stirb und werde!) can still serve as our own. It contains the secret of spiritual development, which is a succession of deaths to what has been and a series of openings to the new. It was, after all, the very god who embraced physical death who could later declare, "Behold, I make all things new."
During my internship at Roosevelt Hospital, a wise old psychologist told us, the psychology interns, that patients would tend to arrive in our offices with a paradoxical message. "They will want you to help them change," he said, "without changing."
At the heart of real change, he explained, is something that feels like death, a measure of difficult self-undoing. Yet only a measure of it. Too little dissolution, and the person ossifies; too much, and the person evaporates. The years have borne him out. Those who come to therapy initially find it hard to release the very habits that hurt them into seeking help. Yet I am continually awed by my patients' willingness at times to step off the safe rock of their habits (mental, emotional, behavioral) and swim into the unknown free from harm.
Working for nine years with children with AIDS in New York City's Harlem Hospital, I saw this quality in the children who faced death through their illness. Surrounded by dysfunctional parents and social systems at every level, dying of a deeply stigmatized disease in impoverished conditions, they often managed nevertheless to bless and ennoble their environment.
One girl, Shanya, grew silent when the topic of AIDS came up. Her mother had traded sex for drugs, so becoming pregnant with Shanya and eventually transmitting HIV to her at birth. The mother drank heavily when I knew her, and managed only occasionally to bring Shanya in for medical and psychotherapy appointments. Shanya quietly tolerated her mother's sporadic boyfriends, the drinking, and the violence she witnessed at home. Yet despite these traumas she had an ability that was quite remarkable. I marveled at her highly imaginative storytelling style, which seemed independent of her situation. You could start her on a story with a doll or a picture, and she'd weave a whole gorgeous world out of thin air. Where did that capacity come from? Not, I think, from the sources of pain in her life (a conventional psychoanalytic view) but from another source.
On her last hospital admission, the day before she died, she was lying in the Intensive Care Unit drowning from the fluid in her lungs, breathing with frightening difficulty -- yet she greeted me, like most visitors that day, with a delighted, "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!" though it was only November. She was full of love, of the light she was dying into, and it found its likeliest expression in her words.
Maybe she was just reaching for the most loving greeting in her vocabulary. Yet by invoking Christmas she was also explicitly linking the death she felt approaching with a holy birth. She was repeating what some of the saints have said: that at their death they will not leave, but arrive -- not flee earth for some imagined external heaven, but pervade this world with their presence.
Now, though in private practice in Great Barrington where fewer of my patients are terminally ill, I notice that they all are mortal, and the question of how to welcome death pervades daily life. We like to know ourselves as we already are. Do we dare to die to our current style, our current self, and enter a fresh configuration? Can we meet the end of who we have been with a sense of glad expectation? Can we know it as Christmas?
Only at moments. Still, those moments contain within them the promise of complete transformation. "It is given to us," Steiner said, "to transform ourselves utterly." Our challenge is to do so, not only when crisis forces our hand, but intentionally -- through that measure of dying and becoming known as inner practice.
Psychotherapy can be an aspect of that practice. It allows the therapist, as someone unconstrained by politeness, to listen and speak directly to our encrustedness, and so to invite us through death to rebirth. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help us see ourselves afresh and gain the freedom to move into the world in a new way. And the psychotherapist's attentiveness may awaken us to the flow of deeper currents still.
The prime danger of psychotherapy is that it tends to draw the patient's attention to the patient's own past, to the patient's own inner weather reports, whereas real health requires us eventually to focus less on ourselves and more on the world. As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, when Mother Theresa left the Lareto convent to begin her work on the streets of Calcutta's slums, "her biography ended and her life began." Inner work must eventually turn us "outward," to find the inwardness of the apparently physical world and give our gift to life.
At the end of his poem "Birches," Robert Frost says "Earth's the right place for love. I don't know where it's likely to go better." All of Steiner's methods of inner practice connect us to the earth, even while drawing our attention away from the-world-as-already-known. The path begins with the ordinary functions of consciousness (thinking, perceiving, feeling, memory, dreaming, willing, mental imagery) but its aim is to transform these functions until they lead us into a new world: not the familiar earth of war and alienation, but Earth as the right place for love.
Inner practice, as a process of dying and becoming, can be compared to an everyday activity we tend to underestimate: reading. Steiner often said that natural science approaches the physical world like someone who approaches a written text by carefully measuring the distances between the letters, but never learning to read what the text is saying. Everyday consciousness approaches the world in the same fashion.
By intensifying our everyday abilities -- always a process of concentration, of paying heightened attention -- we can learn to read what previously seemed meaningless. The world and its events become understandable. Like all reading, this is both a receptive and a creative act. Virginia Woolf wrote that "the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego." As we read most deeply (dying to ourselves and to the familiar surround) the world breaks into blossom before us, it is truly Christmas -- no, Easter! -- and we become at last who we really are.
Michael Lipson, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist in independent practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He has translated Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom (now entitled Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, Anthroposophic Press, 1995) and numerous works by Georg Kuehlewind. He is a Kornfeld Fellow in Medical Ethics and a Soros Faculty Scholar with the Project on Death in America.