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3 things I learned in my 33rd year
Disillusionment, revisioning enlightenment, and the weird industry of spirituality.
Hi! Yesterday was my 33rd birthday and I decided, rather ad-hoc, to share the three major things I learned this year with you.
Why? Well, my 33rd year of life has been one of profound disillusionment. For most of this year, I felt under immense pressure, lost in my spiritual practices and my understanding of the world. I worked harder than I ever have, continuing my studies of transpersonal and sensorimotor psychotherapy, beginning my therapeutic practice, and doing creative consulting on the side. I learned how to accept good feedback and to trust that I may be a good therapist. I learned how to tell someone who actually honours my talent from someone who uses narcissistic grooming to get me to do what they want. I watched myself painfully end a longstanding pattern of relating. Through a series of unlikely synchronicities, I discovered I’m likely neurodivergent and changed how I think about trauma. I read almost all of Marion Woodman’s work and went through an enormous transformation. I worked at my first psychedelic retreat and set the ground for another one. I changed my mind about healing. I started weight training and loved it. I moved back to London.
Last month I shared an essay about my immersion in feminine studies and the profound transformation I went through. I mostly wrote about the patriarchy and how I (embarrassingly) had believed a narrative that not only allowed me to dump my feminine shadow on men, but also kept me from discovering who I was as a woman, and how this ripples out into society as a whole (in the West especially).
But the depth of my disillusionment is much deeper: it corrected my relationship to spirituality, tore down people off pedestals, changed how I think about trauma and healing, and made me painfully aware of how little I actually know about it all. For most of this year I’ve been uncertain of what I know to be true anymore. It’s been a humbling process where holding the complexity of things often made my head spin. Above all, it taught me the power of discernment and the value of trusting my inner voice when something feels off–and a lot of things felt off this year. So, without further ado, here are three of my major learnings this year:
1. Disillusionment is a feature of growth
In May I was writing about Winnicott’s concept of disillusionment, which still fascinates me. According to him, this process is a feature of an infant’s second stage of development, from absolute dependence to relative dependence. In this stage, the emerging ego begins to separate from symbiosis with the mother and learns that they are not, in fact, omnipotently creating the breast and the mother whenever they want them. The infant begins to see the world as separate from itself and that their powers within it are actually limited.
This shedding of illusion Winnicott writes about is in fact the expansion of consciousness that happens with the development of higher brain structures post-partum. The baby develops the capacity to see more of the world as it is through brain and nervous system development–and the better regulated it is in its relationship to its caregivers, the less it needs to rely on fantasy to shield itself from truth.
How our caregivers and environment supports us during this key time in our brain development influences a lot who we negotiate disillusionment going forward. In fact, according to Winnicott, disillusionment continues to happen throughout life and particularly within the therapeutic relationship, where (depending on the model) we might reenact some of the relationship we had with our primary caregiver growing up. Can the therapist “introduce reality in small doses”, as Winnicott recommends good-enough mothers do when they’re attuned to us? Can they sense how much our nervous system can handle at a time? Can they help us titrate trauma or slowly make our own meaning, rather than rushing the process or doing the work for us?
It’s perhaps a feature of my own early life that reality tends to hit me all at once. The most major disillusionments of my life came on suddenly and revealed my weak foundations. I’m thinking, of course, of earth-shattering realisations: when a psychedelic experience showed me the nature of the universe and crushed my atheism within an afternoon; when I recognised the familiar dynamics of a relationship and felt the pain that was always masked by the pattern; when I truly understood the patriarchy and what the suppression of the feminine has done to all of us.
All these disillusionments were brutal, but their occurrence tells me that I’m growing and getting closer to meeting reality as it is. Oddly, getting closer to truth seems to be the opposite of certainty. Growth, as James Hillman writes, is always loss–and I think the most painful one is that of feeling like we know how things are, that we can explain what’s happening to us. But the more I learn (about our anatomy, pre and post-natal development, the symbolic life, our history), the more cautious I am around anything anyone (including myself) labels as truth.
There are myriad ways to look at the same situation and crystallising any one of those may offer a respite from chaos. It can be soothing, self-validating, protective. It may even give us some sense of superiority over others and if we’re charming enough we may convince others that our perspective is the right one for them too. We may build a whole career, cult, or movement over it. We may enrich culture and further humanity, at least for a while. But we might also trap ourselves within a system of thought that becomes too precious to let go of when it proves that it was another illusion. We can even cause serious harm.
I don’t know if we ever stop peeling the onion. I don’t know if there is a truth to get to or if our human consciousness can contain that. But I’m starting to believe that there are many more layers of illusion. And we better get good at discerning and not letting ourselves be drawn into our and other people’s illusions.
So while I have no truth to share, I think I may have discovered a principle of it. Reading the work of Marion Woodman, Esther Harding, or Maureen Murdock (and other Jungian writers on the feminine) taught me that truth often resonates in the body way before the mind can understand it. The kind of truth that I’m after feels a lot like pulling an old bandaid off a rotting wound: it turns your stomach, tenses all your muscles, and makes your hairs stand on end. It feels violent and exposing and makes you want to turn away, deny it, soften it. But, as one of my clients beautifully said in a recent session, a hidden wound spares you having to see it, but will rot unless you leave it out.
So I’m keen to look at where it hurts more closely. To examine anything that seems too pretty, too certain, too comfy. And to hold it all loosely so that I can let it go when the time for the next disillusionment comes.
2. Enlightenment isn’t transcendence
When psychedelics shattered my protective shield of atheism five-or-so years ago, I found meaning and discipline in Buddhism. I read a fair share of books and held a regular meditation practice, working on cultivating Buddhist values of presence, awareness, compassion, and loving-kindness. My following psychedelic experiences helped me understand my life and purpose in a way that resonated with the Boddhisattva path: someone who has incarnated to serve the enlightenment of other beings before reaching their own enlightenment, and vows to dedicate their life to this through discipline.
On top of this, living with an active Kundalini made me feel like I was on this path whether I liked it or not. On top of the intense surges of energy in my body, the narratives around Kundalini awakenings were quite clear: the energy clears your system of “impurities” so that it can travel up your spine through the chakras until you reach enlightenment, the state of non-egoic pure awareness. In other words, you reach the goal of Buddhist meditation, the realisation of pure being, of which your personality is not really a part of. No wonder they say you need a good teacher to make it through this. The idea is overwhelming for anyone who spent most of their lives as an atheist. The experiences themselves can feel terrifying. And it doesn’t seem like you can opt out once it starts–at least not without severe consequences.
The idea of enlightenment both attracted and terrified me, but I was going along the path. I believed that I was meant to identify more with awareness than with myself as Maria. I was working hard on clearing my responses to the world. I was accepting of circumstances, treating everything as a lesson to greater awareness, and kept a close eye on my trauma responses.
And then, this summer, deep in a Vipassana meditation I realised that my understanding of enlightenment had been entirely wrong. To me, enlightenment had actually meant self-obliteration–I was trying to get rid of Maria. In my view, I was playing a game where the whole purpose was to kill the protagonist so that only the game remains.
In a split second, I saw why this had been such an attractive idea: I never felt like it was okay to be myself. It was convenient (and rather familiar) to see my personality as mere conditioning, or even a trauma response, something I could erase if only I worked hard at it. The Buddhist path validated my greatest avoidance of myself and elevated it to the highest spiritual achievement. Being nothingness spared me having to be myself–if anything was a trauma response, this was it.
It was a monumental realisation that brought me back into my body and shifted how I viewed the spiritual path. I finally understand that enlightenment isn’t so much about ascension into spirit, as patriarchal traditions have conditioned us to believe, but also about descending into the earth and the body, living an embodied and ensouled life right here, on earth. We’re incarnated as humans, equipped with strange bodies and odd personalities in a material world that makes no sense–and that’s not something to transcend. Maybe, instead, enlightenment is actually about giving up the fight and learning to be our weird little selves. Maybe even enjoying it.
That’s not to say that the work stops here. In fact, this track is harder and more complex, as it demands discernment: what is me and what’s my conditioning? What are my values? What am I here to do?
It felt cozy to have a prescribed spiritual path to follow. Now I’m not sure there’s any one path at all or anywhere to go. I think mature spirituality is a balancing act of essentially being a simultaneously good and evil consciousness temporarily living inside a limiting human body, while also paying our taxes on time, learning how to manage our lives, taking out the bins, and being decent to other beings without sacrificing our true selves. It’s learning to honour the divine in me and outside me, while also being angry when people cross my boundaries. It’s loving someone deeply and seeing them as a wonderful expression of god, but also not maintaining a relationship with them when they can’t offer me what I need.
It’s a lot to hang on to, but I’m going to give it a go.
3. Spirituality and wellness are a weird industry
This maturing has allowed me to examine the weird world of spirituality with more discerning eyes. My naive illusion that spiritual people are somehow better (?!) because they’re constantly working on furthering their personal and collective consciousness has proven…. well, delusional. I left advertising because I was sick of being part of an industry that claimed to have humanity’s wellbeing at stake while only serving the megalomaniac plans of companies and those who run them. In the meantime, I’ve seen for myself how the spiritual world is just as ridden with dogma, narcissism, and (frankly) bullshit as any other industry–and that it is a very lucrative industry indeed.
My idealism has taken a big hit. I’ve felt incredibly wary about the rapid expansion of psychedelic services and the grandiose claims some retreats make in order to attract clients. I’ve felt scared of people who become so inflated by their psychedelic journeys that they lose their grounding. I felt terrified of how easily someone can believe they have an expanded consciousness following psychedelic experiences, without actually having it, and how quickly that can verge into dangerous ideas of superiority not far from eugenics or Nazism (I’d throw in the same category the closed communities built by rich psychonauts for the purpose of living “consciously” with other “evolved” people, away from the unawakened masses, which in my view is another manifestation of spiritual narcissism and not what consciousness is about).
But it’s not just psychedelics. These days, throwing “sacred” or “holistic” in front of anything allows you to charge 10x the price of whatever you’re selling. On my recent trip to Amsterdam, my friend and I completely lost it when we saw a “spiritual” shop selling holistic haircuts, with no description of what that meant. Spiritual business coaches with no formal training or business experience charge up to several thousand pounds for even a single call or for group programs, calling it an investment in yourself, a “quantum leap” (what the hell is that?!), or a test for your trust in the universe. The entire spiritual coaching business is in fact beginning to crumble as former participants in it are revealing its true nature as a glorified pyramid scheme.
It’s chilling. And we wouldn’t be as credulous with any other business in this world–imagine if a restaurant charged you 10x more the average price of a pizza, wouldn’t be using any special techniques or ingredients for it, wouldn’t even tell you what kind of pizza you will get or what it tastes like, and could only justify the cost by saying that if you want to make more money, you have to start paying more for pizza, so that the universe knows you have an abundant mindset.
Perhaps it’s our disconnection from any tradition in the West that makes us so susceptible to pseudo-spirituality. We’re ready to throw insane amounts of money at coaches with little to no education, apprenticeship, or spiritual lineage, just because they market well, speak with authority, use spiritually-sounding words or charge in angel numbers. We don’t know how to evaluate what we’re getting out of it. We mistake a well crafted spiritual persona for authentic spirituality because we have no model for what that looks like–oddly, the most spiritual people I know don’t talk much about it. Their practices are much like taking a shower or brushing their teeth at night and their insights are mostly kept to themselves.
Perhaps it’s also the fact that a lot of it is focused on promoting stuff our patriarchal society conditions us to value: like manifesting more stuff, spending more, sexualising our bodies as women to sell overpriced courses under the false impression that we’re sexually liberated or embodied, gaining power over others, or feeling special. So much of it is delusional. So much of it is fake. So much is plain spiritual bypassing.
Because of this, I almost entirely renounced manifestation, a practice I used to love in 2021 and even taught successfully for a while.
In truth, it made me uncomfortable to see that the practice is most often taught by privileged, attractive, white, young women. Their claims that anyone can manifest whatever they wanted by following their 4-step practice are often painfully overlooking the privilege that facilitates their upward movement in society. The relentless focus on making more felt off: “manifesting” millions off the back of often vulnerable, naive women, while parading their lush lives on social media like the ultimate spiritual attainment–but hey, for only £111 you can learn to do it too! Buying a £2,000 purse is a sign of divine abundance. God wants you to be rich!
This isn’t to say that wanting or having stuff is wrong. Driving a fancy new car doesn’t make you less spiritual, as giving all your belongings away doesn’t grant you enlightenment either. As with everything, it’s consciousness that enlightens.
When I think about manifestation, I remember The Magician card in the tarot: one arm pointing at the sky, on at the earth, symbolising the old alchemical mantra “as above, so below”. With all the elements at his disposal, he can manifest anything into reality–but what are his intentions? As the grail in the Ace of Cups invites us to ponder: what are we in service of? Are we manifesting out of conditioning or to gain power over others? Is this in alignment with who we’re meant to become? Are we after the Philosopher’s Stone or just more gold?
These days, my new moon rituals are more about intention and surrender. When I sit in meditation to ponder what I truly want, I often find myself clueless. I’m curious and excited about where I’m meant to go and what’s next. I suppose I’ve come to trust that there is a purpose I’m meant to fulfil and that softening my will and surrendering to fate teaches me more than trying does. Not that life is about being passive: perhaps it’s more like a delicate dance between surrendering and actively going after things. And before I get too comfortable on my high horse, I mean it when I say that don’t know if this needs to be true for everyone; or even for myself, forever.
So if I’m hoping for anything in the new year, it’s that I strengthen my capacity for brave discernment. The evolution of the conscious feminine I was writing about in the previous essay cannot happen without a positive masculine: the part that sees things for what they are, protects what’s important, values discipline and mastery, and cuts off what isn’t aligned. I hope you’ll join me in this too.
Meanwhile, thank you for reading Begin Again. I’m wishing you a wonderful new year and that you find your way back to yourself, in whatever way makes sense to you.
Top 3 books I read this year and will likely reread:
Addiction to Perfection by Marion Woodman
The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock
Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhardt