The subjective experience inherent in the act of offering merciful love by caregivers to those in extreme states is explored. Also, the subjective experience of receiving merciful love from caregivers by people in extreme states is explored. The author draws on both the personal experience of being in extreme states, and on the experience as a dissident Laingian–Jungian oriented therapist and researcher, specializing in serving people in extreme states for 40 years.
Keywords compassion, Esalen, extreme states, Jung, Laing, love, madness, merciful, psychosis, trauma, Diabasis, IWard
From the beginning, I have been keenly aware that the loving care I received from my aged grandmother as I weathered that awful storm, counted for my ability to survive it. What did she do that helped me so? What have I similarly tried to provide for over 40 years to people in extreme states and in other forms of emotional pain that grew out of my grandma’s loving response to me?
I believe that what she did was very simple really. She expressed her gentle love for me without viewing me as being “mentally ill.” She expressed her love through kind words, warm smiles, tender looks of concern, through long vigilant silences sitting by my side, and when in my most awful hours of torment, by gently resting her hand on my head as I sat on the floor at her feet. I asked her to put her hand on my head many times that year as she had done when I was a young boy during the times I had been very sick and frightened.
So again, as I entered young adulthood, I desperately turned to her like a frightened child seeking loving comfort. Sometimes a half hour or more would pass with her hand resting there on my head as I trembled and softly cried out in fear. How grateful I was to feel that caring touch as I sought for any way to ease the intense fear present in the extreme states that gripped me. Her warm, gentle touch would help break the cold and relentless grip of fear, over and over again. Only once did she say, as she gently rested her hand on my head, “There, there Michael, you’ll feel better soon. You must have the flu dear.”
She had cared for me when I had the flu when I was a little boy. So my strange delirium at age 19, of talking back to the TV that I believed was threateningly and directly talking just to me, or my crying out and trembling in fear all night long, must have caused her to think that I had the flu again. But as the months wore on and my emotional pain and disorientation grew in intensity, it emerged that each day, hour, and passing minute were timelessly suspended there between us. Her very short memory caused her to experience every few minutes wholly anew—and my sense of the passing of time became deeply altered too. For me, time often slowed down to an uncanny standstill.
The strange experience of time itself during my extreme states could be measured in agonizing periods of being attacked by tortuous disembodied voices while terrifying, inescapable images filled my mind’s eye. That inner torture somehow stretched time out and slowed it down until a few seconds seemed like minutes and a few minutes could seem like an hour. In that almost timeless and sleepless void of hearing those disembodied voices, I also physically endured the mammalian bodily state of an animal being subjected to supercharged terror—of being suspended over an abyss of perceived unending madness, where powerfully tangible, terrifying tactile energies coursed and crackled all over and through my body unbidden as I lay there in bed frozen as if paralyzed, unable to move.
During this time in my life, my grandmother was almost 90 years old. She had raised me as a vulnerable boy who had been abandoned by his parents. I trusted her touch and unspoken love for me during my extreme states, as much as I had treasured her words of love for me my whole life. She had cared for me after I had suffered agonizing third-degree burns to my hand as an 18-month-old toddler that required weeks in the hospital and extensive skin grafts.
I guess what she gave to me during my extreme states could be called unconditional love, but the acts of giving and receiving the essence of such love are very subjective. Unconditional love seems to be both more tangible and more elusive than the words that strain to define it. I believe it is a humble form of love—actually very innocent in its own way. It is so often quiet and not given to unnecessary verbal expression. In fact, it is often the healing silences that are full of such love between us that may touch and soothe us in the very core of our beings. So often, a gentle touch or a look of heartfelt caring can communicate our love without a word being said.
My grandmother’s love also opened me to receiving a merciful, soul-level healing that I know would not have happened but for her human-hearted gift. It opened me to the possibility of the existence of an unseen, very benevolent spiritual reality. I try and find that kind of merciful love that she gave me inside myself for the people I am with who are in intense emotional pain, and also anytime when I am in such pain myself. I believe we have all desperately needed such soothing love at those most painful and frightening times during our lives—from others and from ourselves. I hope you readers have felt and will feel it in your hours of need.
But perhaps such love seems too intimately personal, too unprofessional, or even too unsophisticated to be humbly offered as a soothing balm by those of us trained in the elevated disciplines of science and medicine, psychiatry, and psychology. Maybe that is partly because heart-felt love is a human emotion that we feel moving inside ourselves and we must therefore revealingly communicate it outward, when we do offer it to another.
I do not think it is easily communicated by the fine words of our professional intellect, by our rational astuteness—those well-meaning egoic cognitive efforts that may actually block us from accessing such humble, emotion-filled love for ourselves and for others. But humble love is very powerful in its own seemingly simple way. It possesses a tangible essence that passes between two people that is unmistakable when it occurs. It is like an ineffable transaction happens. It gratefully can be given in that way to ourselves too. It seems to require a letting go of those merciful gifts of love in order to have them flow out freely, as if emerging from a hidden aquifer within. It is an act of paradoxically surrendering, not gripping the subjective, compassionate experience we are feeling for ourselves or another to increase it or to continue it taking place. Those moments of love seem to have a life and duration of their own. We cannot conjure them up with the purpose of controlling their impact or their duration.
Instead, it is like when we physically hand a gift to another. There is a moment in time when our hand releases the gift—and it passes over a luminal threshold into the hand and possession of the other. Our gift giving is a form of ritual sharing where the giver surrenders possession and the receiver opens himself or herself to acceptance. In many ways, it is a very basic and simple but also intimate human sacrament. There is the feeling that grows of an enhanced connection and presence between the giver and the receiver (Cornwall, 2016a).
That communion of merciful giving seems to carry the aura of innocent love and often has a childlike quality that belies its power. It is not full of strong adult intention as we usually know it. It is so mysterious that words like grace and numinous benevolence are sometimes used to define it. Maybe so, but it is possibly much more humanly elemental than that. Very simple elemental mysteries often contain profound power.
So with all this in mind, where did my grandmother go to inside herself when she simply rested her loving hand on the head of her terrified grandson? Where have you gone to inside yourself when the tenderest love moved in you for your suffering child, your partner, your parent, your friend, even for yourself? I will venture it is an indispensable expression of our human birthright to feel such autonomous love come alive within us, and I believe it is also our greatest human need to receive it when we are suffering. This quote by Gandhi speaks to the mysterious power of love—“Love is the strongest force the world possesses and yet it is the humblest imaginable” (Gandhi, 1925).
I do not believe such love can easily well up inside us while we are distracted by ponderous, analytical mentation. Doesn’t the “clinical gaze” that sometimes may emerge in the eyes of “mental health” caregivers reflect the detached or even defended inner emotional state of the caregiver? That impersonal clinical gaze strives to keenly identify and measure the severity of the “symptoms” of mental illness in order to ascertain definable patterns of “psychopathology.” The clinical gaze also searches for the degree of deviance from codified societal norms. But the inner clinical stance of the caregiver that fosters the caregiver’s own emotionally detached, impersonal objectifying gaze, tragically, can reinforce the inner self-judgments and the inner devaluing and self-shaming of the suffering person the caregiver would hope to help. One’s very self-identity is called into question as the inevitable psychiatric diagnosis process unfolds. We are then redefined as “disordered” beings who are fundamentally failing to pass as equals with those more “healthy” and successful persons than ourselves. A psychiatric diagnosis almost always brings a diminution of self-worth to those so often already in the grip of harsh self-judgments about their worth and inherent value (Cornwall, 2016b).
Hostile inner judgmental attacks so often may fuel the incredible emotional pain of extreme states. That extreme emotional pain tends to keep birthing the relentless strings of self-attacking words, disembodied voices, and nightmarish imagery that in turn increases the emotional pain into a reactive, spiraling critical mass that feeds on and fuels itself indefinitely. Under these circumstances doesn’t the word mercy that I am using seem like what the sufferer might even beg for, if they still had the power to beg for it?
I know that without any thought about the moral rightness of it, my grandmother freely gave me her merciful love, while she also valued the universally revered golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Her humble, unconditional love for me very crucially primed the pump for me to give such love to myself. I really needed to love myself, more than anything else, in order to escape the shaming and hateful voices inside me that judgmentally said I deserved to suffer. They also cruelly told me that I deserved to die.
Most people I have known who are suffering such intense emotional pain need the healing balm of unconditional love to be provided from others first, before they can begin to mercifully give it to themselves. We all deserve such love, but we often do not believe we really do deserve it until someone gives it to us freely (Cornwall, 2012).
A meditation on claiming our right to self-love that could be seen as a companion piece to the golden rule may be a suggestion that says, “Do unto yourself as you would have yourself do unto others.” How cruel we sometimes are to ourselves—heartlessly cold or hatefully harsh to ourselves in ways we would try to keep ourselves from being toward others. Harsh self-judgments can rain down from inside ourselves without a seeming way to escape them. Self-judgments that condemn and shame us provide the soil for such bitter fruit to grow and multiply.
In my experience, at a certain point of such emotional suffering, only merciful love can break through the prison cell wall where we are trapped. When we are suffering like a malnourished, starving animal, feeling cornered and collapsed inside, too weak to resist the torments, the jabs of pointed sticks of self-hatred, then we are truly at the mercy of the world and everyone around us. Then if merciful love comes to us from another, or emerges inside us for ourselves, it brings the renewing energy of life itself back into our bodies, psyches, and hearts. It brings life-saving hope that our suffering is not forever.
Every person I have known in such suffering states of inner hell had lost a handhold on his or her very existence and was sliding into oblivion. Let us try reaching out our upturned hand to them that is full of caring and merciful solace. Whatever we have learned that gets in the way of that taking place can be shelved or even forgotten for a while as we try to connect from a place of the most basic compassion. You might imagine feeling your loving energy reach out like a lifeline, holding the suffering person who is safely there with you from slipping into total collapse. The gentlest expression of loving concern that you may imagine being able to offer him or her will no doubt contain some of the soothing balm that my grandmother brought to me.
Many years ago, when I sat a few feet across from a person who was in incredible fear and in the inner torment of hearing relentless persecutory voices, I found myself unbidden, imagining my hand slowly reaching out and gently resting on the person’s head with compassion. As I imagined myself doing that in my mind’s eye, the person slowly looked up and met my gaze. The invisible essence of merciful heartfelt caring passed from me to the person in that moment, and I remembered my aged grandmother and her merciful gifts of love in my hours of need (Cornwall, 2002).
Finally, a little poem came to me unbidden in the night many years ago as a reminder of her selfless love and as a daily touchstone that I still need to help me find my way:
“There’s a love that doesn’t wait to be claimed, received.
There’s a love that doesn’t wait and long to be returned.
There’s a humble love that just is, is.
A gentle flame that just burns, burns.”
There’s a love that doesn’t wait and long to be returned.
There’s a humble love that just is, is.
A gentle flame that just burns, burns.”
I sometimes gratefully still dream about my grandmother, and in those dreams, I again see her kind face, her wise and childlike loving eyes, and her gentle, loving smile.
Laura Tompkins was her name."