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On Teaching Adolescents Objectivity
Christine Abrahams, EdD, NCC, NMHC, LPC, ACS, is the supervisor of school counseling services for Hopewell Valley Regional School District, New Jersey, where she also taught a blended learning course on exploring the nature of love. Christine has studied with Bradford Keeney, which led her to use creative transformation techniques with adolescents to help them overcome their personal and emotional limitations. She also studies Vedanta with her guru, James Swartz, whose teachings she uses to teach adolescents the truth about themselves. In addition, she is the founder of the InSpire Institute which offers non-contact, non-competitive martial art and counseling curriculum to help students classified as emotionally disturbed learn self-control, responsibility and perseverance. Several schools across the United States have implemented her curriculum. Christine has published a number of articles about using movement to help adolescents grow emotionally and spiritually and has been a speaker at several conferences. Finally, she is the author of The Unholy Ghost, a spiritually-based love story.
Shifting Out of the Adamic Dream: Creating Love and a New Garden of Eden
My name is Dr. Apple Nut, a name bestowed upon me by a Holy Roller shaman a few years ago. Although I am a credentialed therapist, I don’t consider myself a therapist, healer or any other label that assumes I have any answers my clients don’t. The man who named me Apple Nut did so because that’s what I am – I’m an apple nut farmer. I plant apple nut seeds in the brains of the adolescents with whom I work at a public high school. Over time these seeds grow into apple trees which crowd out the poison ivy that has attacked their minds and souls forcing them to believe that they are sick, in need of pharmaceuticals and intensive “therapy.”
Before I can plant my apple nut seeds, I market the idea that they are sane and what seems like a disaster in their lives is really a gift. My marketing words create a crack in their shells, helping to separate their false sense of selves from deeper truths. Once the crack appears, I plant my apple nut seeds which then take root. The seeds like the warm, moist, hot environment of an adolescent’s brain-soul where they can germinate and grow into a glorious tree of life with its branches reaching further and further into the maze of their psyche. The branches embrace them, pulling them from the brink of a metaphorical death induced by all their learning. Dental floss for the mind is how I see the branches and leaves of my apple nut trees, cleaning away their private shadows that cling to the darkest nooks and crannies of their psyche.
I didn’t learn this in any counseling course, although I’ve had to endure many courses of “blah, blah, blah.” I learned this through the emotional vibration of my heart which extends a silvery cord to each of these precious little beings who sit in my confetti-decorated purple chairs with the stuffed gecko headrest while I sit opposite them on my movable exercise ball, holding my pewter witch’s wand. In this way magic and miracles take place.
Adam and the Garden of Eden
How does the story of Adam and the Garden of Eden contribute to this metaphorical death that my students face every day? Most of the major religions speak of life prior to some type of fall from grace. Prior to the “fall” life was perfect. There were no labels to speak of, no concrete names in which to encase life. Life was fluid, flawless, shiftable and one. There was no duality, so it was easy to shift from one form to the next. This was the case in Genesis I where everything God created was good. However, in Genesis II this is not the case. God forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or rather forbids them to split from oneness into duality. They eat the apple and are immediately thrown out of paradise. Once out of paradise, Adam names the objects in the world, creating impenetrable boundaries within which these objects, animals and people are encased as if in prison. He has “damned” everything, creating separation, an unbreachable barrier. No surprise he was named A-dam.
This unbreachable barrier has isolated us from each other and ourselves. Every name or label that we or others bestow upon us reinforces and thickens this concrete barrier, creating a seemingly unbridgeable chasm which is the basis of our depression, bipolarism, schizophrenia and any other label that is invented to describe the separation from ourselves and each other. These names that Adam created and which we continue to create moment by moment reinforce the illusion of duality in our lives.
These are the concepts, names and labels that the branches of my trees seek to free my students, by pushing against the concrete until it cracks and finally disintegrates. If my students partake of my apples, they will not lose their knowledge of good and evil but will understand how to dissolve any dualisms by discarding the labels that cause their psychic suffering.
My job is to help my students rise from their concrete tombs and bridge the gulf that separates them from themselves and others. I do this by helping them develop their own creation stories. My goal is to liberate them from their life sentences made from words and concepts that do not describe them any more than they describe God.
Shape-Shifting in the Modern World
Our Bushman ancestors in the Kalahari in Africa also have a creation story. For them, the world began in “First Creation,” where all beings – plants, animals and people – were constantly changing and shapeshifting in and out of innumerable forms as part of the great circle and circling of life. But then one day language was introduced and everything was given a name and the world stopped. This was the “Second Creation.” Second Creation, like the naming of an apple, brought an end to the paradise of First Creation, the source of healing where everything was free to become anything and everything else. As a therapist and anthropologist, Bradford Keeney (2010), who spent years living with the Bushmen, describes it:
“Words brought an end to paradise… The creation of naming, explaining and holding on to a rigid set of beliefs not only stopped the animals from changing but put an end to the ease through which life forms could change or shape-shift into one another…
“Whereas First Creation was the great dance, Second Creation became the great stillness. This is when the universe was turned upside-down, not by God but by Trickster.
“Who is the Trickster? Language invented trickster so it would have a new god. Trickster… gives the appearance of change, as opposed to the essence of change. It is illusory. It is what Hinduism calls Maya. It is the darkness of the shadows that cover the light.” (pp. 80-1)
In our world of naming and explaining, we can no longer shape-shift into different forms of love.
Instead, our modern shape-shifting – the illusory shape-shifting of the Trickster – is into illness, pain, longing and regret. These are the forms that we shift into and resist shifting out of. Wearing an “illness” shift is so common now that if one doesn’t embrace an illness, s/he is considered shiftless! Medication is the new elixir of life that helps aid the shifters in concretizing another layer of identity. “Oh yes, I’m on Paxil, Ritalin and Wellbutrin. How about you?” We live in a modern version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Once sitting at my desk at work, feeling blue, a colleague popped in and asked how I was feeling. “Eh, not so good. Kind of sad.” She then asked if I had taken my Prozac that morning. Shocked and stunned, I replied that I didn’t take Prozac or any other antidepressant. She, just as shocked, stated that everyone was on Prozac, so she had assumed I was taking that sacrament every morning too.
Sadly, my students don’t want to be shiftless so their vulnerability and personal identity search will invite a shift into mental illness, drug abuse and pharmaceutical dependency. One of my students, who sported a long, black leather Matrix coat, was seeing me regularly for depression. He repeated the same stories about his depression, over and over again, so much so that he had forgotten his life prior to his personal fall into depression. No shiftlessness for him. He married his depression and would not consider a divorce. Exasperated, I finally said to him that perhaps his depression would like a new spouse, and could he practice being without his depression bride for 10 minutes a day? I suggested he imagine his new bride as sunny and happy, walking hand in hand with him. Right before my eyes, he shifted into a very angry and menacing young man. “Why the fuck are you trying to take my identity away?!” he thundered. “If I lose my depression, I’ll have nothing. I don’t know how to be any other way,” he said while the tears were welling up. I suggested that he create a picture of his depression, name it and leave it with me for five minutes a day and see what that was like. I would keep his depression safe and return it unharmed after the five minutes. He said he would think about it and let me know his decision the next day.
His mom called me the next day accusing me of making her son feel worse and forcing him to do things he was not ready to do. Sadly, the student never returned. I believe he became caught in the funhouse mirrors of his family and could never shift back to the carefree, happy boy I’m convinced he once was. All of this because a fruit became an “apple” and A-dam created a wall of words that stopped the dancing in and out of constant change that was the paradise of First Creation.
Fable 1: The Self-Mutilating Vampire
The school principal called me in a panic, “Can you come over right away? We had an incident with Althea yesterday that you need to be aware of. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever heard of or dealt with.”
I immediately went to see Mr. Hodges, the school principal. He told me that a student reported to him that Althea was cutting, and since her counselor was out of the building, he felt it best that he discuss this with her. He continued by saying that Althea told him that she was a vampire who drank her own blood and the only way to get to her blood was to cut herself. “So don’t tell me not to cut Mr. H., because I’m not going to stop,” is what she told him when he implored her to quit. Because of her commitment to self-mutilation and her arrogance, the principal felt that he had no choice but to call her mother and report what her daughter said. According to Mr. Hodges, mom was embarrassed by the whole situation and agreed to speak to her daughter about her behavior.
Mr. Hodges asked if I could speak with Althea, since she had been attending a peer group I was running.
Althea entered my office with her signature bleached-blonde hair and pale skin. She is known to dress her 5’4” frame with provocative clothing, accentuating her full breasts between which sits the iconic Playboy Bunny symbol, a gift from her mother. Her black leather boots go thigh-high, meeting the hem of her black leather miniskirt. You get the picture. She has suffered much physical and psychological abuse at home and at the hands of her boyfriend, hates school and is struggling to shift into her potential, which is clear to me but not to her. She is involved in an on-again, off-again Romeo-and-Juliet type romance with a boy in another state and keeps this passion from her mom and step-dad because her step-dad is feuding with the boy’s parents.
“Did Mr. Hodges ask you to speak with me?” she blurted.
“Yes,” I said.
“I am not going to stop cutting and you can’t make me! I am a vampire and you can’t make me stop that either!” she shouted.
“Who said anything about stopping? And by the way, welcome to the club.”
She stopped and stared at me, cautiously.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I too am a vampire and was hoping I could connect to other vampires in the school and it looks like I have!” I smiled.
“No fucking way,” she said with disbelief and a big smile. She was ready to play along.
“Yes way. Althea, I am pleased to meet one of my kind. Tell me how you decided to become a vampire.”
She then started telling me that she was in love with the Twilight series. The Twilight series, written by Stephanie Meyer, chronicles the love story between a human teenager and her vampire lover. It takes place in a small town in Oregon and involves mostly vampires, werewolves, teenagers and much unrequited love, which is a female teen’s soul food. The story has no foul language, nor any graphic sexuality, but much sexual tension and self-sacrifice amongst its characters
“Althea, I’m confused. The vampires in the series either drink human or animal blood, not their own, so how does that fit with you being a vampire?” I inquired.
“Well, you don’t expect me to drink human blood. I could get AIDS of course and there’s no way I’m going to kill an animal! So my only option is to drink my own.”
“There are blood banks…” I suggested.
“That’s true! But I think getting the blood would be difficult.”
“Well, how about donating your blood, then drinking it when you get the urge? You could have your own private blood bank.” I suggested with complete seriousness. At this point, I had shifted into being a problem-solving vampire with the hopes that we could both shift into a new reality.
We agreed that the blood bank idea was too risky. I then asked Althea what she liked so much about the vampires in the novels. She began to list the following:
“They are: strong, smart, loving (for the most part), sexy, compassionate and the good ones at least act like family.”
“You know what? You are strong, smart, loving, sexy, compassionate and, although you may not have a good family situation, you try very hard to be family to your friends and to people in our group,” I said. “But you know, the vampires in Twilight don’t harm themselves, do they?”
She hesitated then said, “No, I guess not.”
“And how angry was Edward when he found out that Bella tried to end her life?” I asked.
“Okay then. I suggest that we remain vampires but figure out another way to get sustenance.” She looked intrigued.
I then took down my bottle of True Blood. True Blood is a television series which takes place in present-day Louisana where vampires have “come out of the closet,” thanks to a synthetic blood called “True Blood.” This relieves them of the need to rob blood banks or, worse, feed on humans. HBO cleverly has marketed the True Blood product as a red-colored, blood orange soda which can be mixed with various liquors. Althea watched the series religiously and mentioned she had noticed the bottle sitting on my bookshelf. I asked her what was the one thing humans could not live without, and she answered water. I then suggested that we become water vampires, but our water would be mixed with a wee bit of True Blood, which I would give to her for safekeeping and which she would add a drop to one glass of water daily for her sustenance. She thought this was the coolest idea ever. I also asked if we should have a water vampire ceremony and suggested that she bring a friend to the ceremony. We set the date.
At the appointed time Althea and her friend Susan arrived. I had a black choir robe on and a silvery, feathered Mardi Gras mask over my eyes with my magic wand in hand. I had cups of water ready and asked Althea to put a couple of drops of True Blood in the water to make our ritual complete. I asked the girls again what the positive qualities of the vampires in Twilight were, and as they said them I touched my wand to their crown chakras and said, “You are strong,” or whatever the positive attribute was, then I made them repeat what I said but using “I.” After we did this I made them vow that water vampires never hurt anyone, especially themselves and that if they had the urge to harm themselves, they must see me first, the Queen of the Water Vampires. We toasted the vow with our water and True Blood and swore to keep this a secret. I asked the girls if they wanted to shake together. Althea nodded her head eagerly and told Susan that this is what she did in her group. In the groups I was running, I had the students engage in “shaking medicine,” a form of ecstatic movement, for a few minutes during each group session. Susan raised her eyebrows and looked hesitant about this idea, but agreed to try. I put on some African drumming music and we took each other’s hands and began to sway and shake our bodies, then began to make moaning and howling sounds. They were laughing and vocalizing, then we all began to jump. Both girls seemed alive and were having fun, and I felt that we had all shifted, into what was yet to be seen. We finally simmered down, the girls still laughing, and then they left with big smiles on their faces. We now show the “V” sign for vampire sisterhood when we see each other.
Althea has stopped cutting and seems to have shifted out of her vampire phase. She is currently taking a playwriting course through the local theater and will have her plays read at an upcoming recital. Many of her plays deal with unrequited love, neglect and passion. She has shifted into a playwright for now.
Althea’s desire to be a vampire expressed her need for nourishment, which she was not getting from her parents, boyfriend, friends or herself. She was trying to heal the psychic wounds that possessed her through drinking her own blood, a destructive act, yet a metaphor for an intense desire to be able to nourish herself instead of relying on outsiders to do this. Unfortunately, this healthy desire had shifted into the unhealthy behavior of self-mutilation. Cutters cut because of the need to create emotional homeostasis. I believe this is what Althea was trying to do but she placed this within the context of the fantasy of vampirism. By shifting her negative behaviors (cutting, drinking her own blood) to positive behaviors (no cutting, but drinking TrueBlood) and inventing a different story about herself (strong, smart, loving) which was closer to her true self prior to her entombment by Adamic words, she was able to come to homeostasis on her own and begin to recognize her inherent gifts. She learned to be a shapeshifter, able to take the tension between her true nature and her manufactured one, and transcend both by shifting into a completely different framework, one of a passionate playwright.
Fable 2: Molestation and a Pointless Love Pencil
“I knew you would come for me,” this beautiful, blonde teenager mumbled to me while looking down at her shoes. Just prior to meeting her, I was frantically searching the halls of the high school, convinced that she was curled up in a corner, dead. A teacher had alerted me that Sharon was sitting in the middle of the hallway crying and repeating that she was going to kill herself. I was the first one the teacher saw, so she asked me to find the girl and talk to her. She wasn’t in the hallway nor was she in her study hall. After checking the library and bathrooms, I decided to try the study hall again, and there she was. Evidently, she was expecting me.
I escorted her to my office where she had a seat next to my toy fortune teller. She immediately grabbed the hot-pink, alien-looking stress ball with protruding gummy tentacles, which has soothed many anxious students over the years, and began to talk. After making sure she was not going to really kill herself, I asked her to explain what was going on inside her head. Her words cascaded in an unstoppable flow.
“I need to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone in this school. This past August my gymnastics teacher was driving me home and he started to say that he’s a PE teacher at another school and that he wanted me to know that I could tell him anything and he would understand, especially anything about sex. I thought that was weird, but I trusted him because he was my teacher and he really helped me overcome some of my fears around heights. He kept talking and then put his hand on my thigh and tried to move his hand to my private parts. I put my hand on top of his to stop it. It made me sick.”
“Do your parents know?”
“Yes, they do. We reported it to the police.”
“Wow, that must have been frightening. I’m sorry you had to endure it. But what triggered you today?”
“I don’t know… I’m ashamed. I feel that I brought it on. I’m responsible. I should have stopped it first. I shouldn’t have told the police. They made me tell it again and again. I feel that I don’t have a voice.”
She went on to say that her parents, particularly her mother, was very controlling and didn’t understand who she was. She cried when she told me she didn’t have a voice and wasn’t heard. What struck me as odd was that I too had the same experience with my gymnastics teacher and out of all the people in the building to whom she could have confided this, I was the one to receive her story. My rule of thumb is not to share my stories with the students but rather work with what they present, so I sat on my revelation until we met the next time. Between meetings, I came to learn that she was frequently absent and was a regular in the nurse’s office. The nurse reported that the student had several anxiety attacks weekly.
I had begun seeing Sharon weekly to check in with her. She was one of the rare students whom I had met who was trying to make sense of life and God. She felt that there was a higher power out there somewhere, but didn’t know what it was.
When she returned for another visit, I shared my experience with my gymnastics teacher. I pointed out how interesting it was that she shared her deepest secret with someone who had a similar experience. She blurted out that this was meant to be. We continued to discuss spirit and what that was. Similar to most adolescents, she was struggling with who she was. She didn’t want to be like all of the rest of the “robots” at the high school but she also didn’t want to be on the fringe. This caused her deep anxiety for which she was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
It was time to help her shape-shift her story into a new one. I held up a pencil without a point.
“See this pencil?”
“Yeah.” She looked skeptical.
“You are this pencil. This pencil is you. You are spirit. You are love,” I said.
She giggled. “Go on,” she said.
I reached for my Post-It notes.
“Okay. Now that I have your attention, give me a list of things you believe you are. I’ll start you off. You’re a girl.” I wrote “girl” on the Post-It note and posted it on the pencil.
“Yep.” I wrote that one down and did the same. “Keep going.”
“Fat, smart, driven, anxious, tall, daughter, sister, sad, a perfectionist…”
As she was defining herself and her story, I was writing each label on a Post-It note and posting it on the pointless pencil. When she finally stopped, the pencil was layers thick with Post-It notes, so many in fact that the pencil was completely obscured.
“What happened to the pencil?” I asked.
“It’s completely covered in Post-It notes.”
“And you are too,” I explained.
“Sharon, you are made up of all these words and concepts. When that happens, the real you – a pointless pencil, spirit – is obscured.”
She looked thoughtfully at me and asked how her pointless pencil could let her almost get molested.
Good question, I thought. “Sharon, the first time we met you said you didn’t have a voice and couldn’t be heard. But what happened after your incident with the teacher?”
“I told my story and people listened.”
“I’m not saying what happened was good. I’m just saying it might have had a silver lining.”
She was quiet, digesting this context shift.
“I would also propose that your pointless pencil really has an unseen point. That point is to resonate love with other pointless pencils in other people. Just you realizing you are love will shake others’ pencils and they will begin to realize who they are.”
“I get it,” she said. “Now I know what my place in the world is. It’s to be a pointless love pencil?”
I laughed and said, “Yes. This is all our work. Sharon, would you be willing to take 10 pointless pencils and hand them out to random students and simply say, ‘I love you’?”
She laughed very hard and said yes, she will help others realize their pointless pencils.
I don’t know whether she did this or not. However, her absences decreased, she had fewer visits to the nurse and she seemed happy and light when we greeted each other in the hall. I figured that when her pointless pencil needed a love infusion, she’d return.
This student was ready to penetrate her concrete tomb and break it open. She began this process entombed in her labels of anxiety, guilt and voicelessness, and ended by shifting her context and creating a brand new creation story.
I see the field of “therapy” as an Adamic instrument that continues to trap clients in a tomb of words and beliefs, preventing them from shape-shifting into their true selves. Having worked with both adults and adolescents, I believe that the concrete has not totally cured around youth; therefore it is easier to help them break free of their tombs and shift into a new reality. They want to believe in love in spite of their experiences, and we as therapists have an obligation to help them realize that they embody this love and can be instrumental in unearthing love in their environment. This is what my apple nut farming technique is based on.
The biggest challenge as therapists is to recognize our own tombs – how the Adamic principle has prevented us from shape-shifting in our lives, damming up our love for ourselves and others. We need to be models of love by living it, sharing it and sparking it in others. The resonance of this feeling will begin to crack our clients’ tombs, helping them to emerge into the love that they really are. But what about us? How do we keep the concrete from curing around our hearts? How do we become ever-vigilant in preventing ourselves from becoming stuck in the Adamic dream?
Thanks to Vedanta, I have found an answer, and that is moment-by-moment discrimination between reality ( satya) and the apparent reality (mithya). I ask my students if they are aware of their thoughts. They answer yes. I tell them then they cannot be their thoughts if they can witness them. We expand this to all the objects in their awareness. If they are aware of them, they cannot be them, because they are the awareness that is aware of the objects. Their faces shine when they realize this. It gives them hope that they can extract themselves from this whirlpool of a dream and end their suffering. But, just like the rest of us, they forget once they leave my office, as we all forget from time to time, even seasoned Vedantins.
I use my interactions with my students to awaken me back into love, which is all consciousness is, which is all that I am. I hold up a mirror to them to show them what love looks like. I challenge you to do the same in your profession. I challenge you to create a new Garden of Eden for yourselves, your families and your friends, and to keep coming back to love.
Keeney, B. The Bushman Way of Tracking God. Atria Books, New York, 2010.