07 June 2016

Sources and Resources for Inner Work

[[Hi Sister Laurel,
      You have referred a couple of times to doing "inner work" in relation to spiritual direction and recommended it for formation and discernment. I wondered what you meant. Is this something one could do if their spiritual director does not usually expect or use it or does one need to do it with someone? What you wrote about developing the heart of a hermit was very powerful for me, it resonated with some of my own experience so I was wondering if the kind of inner work you are referring to could be of any help to me. I am not sure about wanting to become a hermit but I think I might have "the heart of a hermit" as you describe it. Anything you could suggest to help with this would be appreciated.]]

Great questions and I am glad you appreciated the piece on developing the heart of a hermit. It's always special, I think, when something someone writes like that "resonates" with our own experience. Anyway, I think I have been asked about "inner work" one other time --- though it was a few years ago. The post might be of some assistance as background so I'll see if I can find it and create a link even though I am sure I will repeat a lot of it here.

When I speak of inner work I ordinarily mean the personal work that stems from and prepares for spiritual direction or from everyday situations or things that arise from prayer. In spiritual direction it often happens that I become aware of places where healing needs to happen or where significant growth is occurring which requires conscious attention not only to help things along but also to honor the way grace is present in my life. Some of this work means using the tools I learned or am learning to better understand and use from my director who is also an animator and/or facilitator in PRH (French for Personality and Human Relationships). We also call this growth work but it provides a focused approach to healing and maturation with a significant spiritual dimension. The idea behind PRH as I understand it is that it provides a fairly systematic approach (PRH would say "methodical") to the very human task of becoming fully alive --- which is exactly the reason Jesus came to us.

What I most appreciate about it (something which is an essential part of its incredible power and contribution to contemplative life) is that it always begins in the present. It is not given to random or "feverish" (to quote my director) "emotional archeology" (my term). It can certainly lead to the past and help accomplish the healing needed there but unless that need is showing itself in and affecting one's present functioning one does not spend time and energy on this. As part of this work I do journaling using a number of really effective tools including "topographies" (a kind of written illustration of the emotional journey one makes in relation to situations which trigger disproportionate recurrent reactions) and occasionally my director will give me a specific question or set of questions which allow me to explore and "live into" what is "alive" in me at a given time. I also use dialogues (a way of learning to listen to and integrate my unconscious with my conscious mind as well as to resolve inner struggles with various parts of myself).

Inner work also thus includes the kinds of things Carl Jung found so beneficial to the process of individuation and to what he sometimes referred to as the "transcendent function", namely dream work or analysis and active imagination.  In doing this I tend to use the work of Robert Johnson and others as guides. (Johnson is a Jungian and writes clearly and practically about a four step process to work with both dreams and active imagination as tools to personal integration and transcendence. Others provide ways to work with our "shadow.") The book I have mainly referred to in this is Johnson's, Inner Work. I would recommend this. Jeffrey Miller's, The Transcendent Function, Jung's Model of Psychological growth Through  Dialogue With the Unconscious is not a how-to book but it is profoundly helpful in explaining what is going on in some of this inner work. Finally, of course, inner work involves prayer in all its forms, lectio divina, and any of the creative activities I might participate in including music, writing (especially journaling and some forms of blogging), and drawing. All of these allow or facilitate one entering into a liminal space where dialogue, healing, greater integration, and transcendence can occur.

By the way, both PRH and Jungian approaches are entirely consonant with theistic approaches to inner work and with Christian thought and spirituality. PRH especially has an underlying theology which some may choose to ignore or leave entirely implicit, while Jung's psychology seems to me to call for an explicit theology supporting the dialogical and teleological dimensions of the human being Jung honors and describes so well. The point is that one need not compromise one's faith to use these or some other methodologies (various approaches to journaling, for instance) and in many ways can enhance that faith with these approaches to inner work. One final approach I should mention which can accommodate or even be used collaboratively with PRH and Jungian approaches, and which also respects one's spirituality is the IFS or Internal Family Systems approach to inner work. This approach is profoundly respectful of the whole person and does not pathologize parts of us that may be deemed "maladaptive" by some. Like Jungian approaches IFS tends to see the human being as a theatre of characters or "subpersonalities"; it recognizes a core "Self", the life of which all the "subpersonalities" protect and foster or at least seek to protect and foster. Like the other methods mentioned this approach (IFS) also allows or facilitates entering into a liminal space where dialogue, healing, greater integration, and transcendence can occur.

Working With Another:

Most of these approaches work fine as solitary enterprises. One can always journal, write, draw or paint, etc, and do so entirely on one's own. (IFS, given the caveats I will mention below, is especially recommended for working alone or with a companion; a workbook is available for this.) At the same time I have to say that spiritual direction is always helpful and too-little used today (it is not just for religious or monastics, for instance, nor only for the "super religious"). PRH works optimally when another can teach, guide you, and in particular truly hear (accompany) you in the work you do. Healing tends to be a function of being heard by another (ultimately we will rest or achieve quies in God who truly and exhaustively "hears" us but for some work one MUST have someone accompanying them); this is especially true when one has suffered alone and even carried the burden of trauma and woundedness with him/her for years and years without being able to articulate, much less share the pain and import of it all.  In such instances accompaniment is absolutely essential even though one will work on one's own between meetings. At many points PRH and  the other forms of inner work can be done alone and then the results (which involve God working within us) can always be shared and further explored with one's director or another professional (including INS therapists or peer counselors and PRH accompanists), for instance. What all competent spiritual directors are really skilled at is listening and that means they will be able to discern the working of God and, through questions, etc, shape the conversation so you can also continue the work begun in the session itself.

I have one caveat here. If you have not really worked with a therapist or in some other way done enough work to have gotten your own healing (whatever that may be) relatively well in hand, I think it is best to work with someone on a regular basis. Spiritual direction itself is a stand alone discipline which can also be a fantastic complement to therapy, for example, but generally speaking it will not and should not be used to substitute for it. For this reason most directors will assess the person they are directing to see if their needs include therapy. Spiritual directors do not make diagnoses nor do we usually have the capability to do this but we can ordinarily tell whether a person is going to be ūable to benefit from direction and do the work associated with it, or whether therapy will be necessary to achieve this --- either prior to beginning direction or in conjunction with it. (Sometimes a directee needs medication (usually for depression and/or anxiety); once they are medicated appropriately they will make normal strides in direction; in these cases therapy itself may not be necessary and a physician is needed simply to monitor the medication. The inner work  can be undertaken on one's own in conjunction with spiritual direction or with PRH or something similar.) Similarly, Jungian psychologists recognize the work can be done on one's own but that sometimes one's unconscious can "get out of control;" at these times it is important to have access to someone who can help one negotiate the situation.

Relating this to the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

This may all sound far removed from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the spirituality of hermits, for instance, but I don't believe it is. I have always been intrigued by the accounts of battles with demons in these stories and believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a naïve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting themselves face to face there in all of their weakness, brokenness, and giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight (or struggle) of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.

Sometimes the healing or inner work required by faith and grace is significant; we cannot honor or truly glorify (manifest) God with only half our hearts, half our lives, half ourselves; as we go through life however, for any number of reasons we leave (and often must leave!) parts of ourselves behind --- neglected and for all intents and purposes abandoned; reclaiming these, reuniting and reconciling with them can take incredible energy and be painful beyond believing. Similarly, healing the distortions within us which have arisen precisely because we left parts of ourselves behind -- whether in defense against trauma, or in a number of other circumstances --- requires work as well as grace, and often, the assistance of competent persons. (In such instances the impulse and power to undertake the work IS an act of grace!) Only then can a long struggle end with God truly blessing us as we have deeply desired and needed and God has profoundly willed to do --- sometimes for many, many years. This "work" is a fundamental part of growth in wholeness and holiness in the desert. It is a necessary part of forming the heart of a hermit and an essential dimension of coming to true quies as a hesychast resting in the heart of God.

Inner Work as Penance in Service to Prayer and Obedience:

I personally count this work as part of the "assiduous penance" I am committed to under canon 603. Because I understand penance as any activity which complements prayer (including the prayer I am called to be) and which helps to prepare for it, regularize it, or extend the fruits of it into my everyday life, inner work has always functioned that way for me --- or at least has done so since the mid 1980's.

When canon 603 calls for a life of assiduous prayer and penance I think it calls first of all for a LIFE, and moreover, a life which is lived as both gift and task. In prayer I am loved by God and empowered to allow God to love his whole creation through me; in penance I deal with those things which prevent that from happening with my whole heart, and soul, and body (because sometimes the stuff we need to work through deprives us of energy, the capacity for appropriate bodily expression, and even the ability to care adequately for ourselves physically). For me penance has nothing to do with arbitrarily creating abnormal corporal practices, punishments, arcane disciplines, etc. Instead it involves doing all that is necessary to allow for prayer -- and for my becoming God's own prayer in the world; it therefore involves the freeing of the spirit so the body too might be as whole and free as possible in and with the grace of God.

Romuald receives the gift of tears
Similarly, this kind of work seems to me to be called for by my vow of obedience. In professing (or dedicating ourselves to) obedience we commit ourselves to listen attentively and to respond appropriately to the voice or will of God with our whole selves. Obedience is the vow of the one committed to attending to God and therefore to Life and Love, Truth and Beauty, Meaning and Wholeness wherever these imperatives occur. It means being fully engaged both with and on behalf of these realities. Thus, the tools I use (or am still learning to use) are a necessary part of being truly obedient to God --- especially to the God who, though beyond me, dwells within me and summons me to himself. To be reconciled fully with that God, to be entirely obedient to that God, means being reconciled fully with myself as well --- something that also means healing in the ways I have already described. Inner work is an act of obedience, not because someone says "you must do this" as some arbitrary act of discipline or submission to an external norm or Rule, but because my own vocation to holiness (wholeness in and with God) summons me to hearken to the call to abundant life in this precise way.

I am aware this may have raised more questions for you, so if that's the case please get back to me. Meanwhile I hope I have given you some sense of how rich are the sources and means of an inner work that serves one's journey with and within God.