Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Trust: Experienced Innocence”

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Trust” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.

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Trust: Experienced Innocence

Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder

When I was in Boy Scouts, we all had to memorize the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Even back then, it seemed significant that “trustworthy” was first on the list.

Trust, as an admirable quality, shows up all over the place. When I ask clients to name the five characteristics they most want in a relationship, trust appears on their lists more often than anything else. We want to trust our lovers, our leaders, our judgement, our gut and, says an inscription on each coin of the realm, our God.

We come out of the womb trusting implicitly, but according to pioneering developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, we begin to question trust as early as our first year of life.

Violations of trust teach us to distrust. When our trust has been betrayed, we often feel great pain, and we set up guardians to protect us. If the drive to reconnect is strong enough, we can sometimes overpower our guardians, especially when those who have betrayed us apologize, make amends, and reassure us that it is safe to open our hearts to them again. But these guardians are difficult to retire. Many of us keep them in our employ for the rest of our lives. And if we have allowed ourselves to reconcile, and then trust is violated again, future trust is jeopardized, perhaps permanently. “Fool me once,” the guardians say, “shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!”

For example, when an addiction or an extramarital affair finally comes to light, those most deeply affected feel betrayed and deceived: “How could he/she have lied to me for so long?” Trust is lost. Sometimes it can be regained, but if the betrayal – a relapse, resumption of an affair – resurfaces, it may no longer be possible to repair the ruptured relationship.

However, that’s not the worst of it. When we have been betrayed multiple times, we come to distrust not only our betrayers, but also our own judgement: “How could I have been that blind?” And with our truth-detecting algorithms offline, trust itself becomes problematic.

Distrust learned in one situation is often paid forward to many others and we can become locked into self-fulfilling patterns that convince us of the ever-present need for these guardians. Our wound becomes a shield around the heart, complete with a defense system that strives to keep out threats, often at the cost of real connection. Worse, the guardians are not always efficient. We may continue to attract new relationships with untrustworthy people, or we may project untrustworthy qualities onto those who might actually deserve our trust. Each time our patterns recreate experiences of distrust, our guardians grow stronger. We can reach a point where we so identify with our guardians that distrust becomes the norm. We can find ourselves hiding our hearts from everyone.

Nearly two centuries before Erik Erikson’s observations on trust in human development, the radical Romantic poet and illustrator William Blake depicted the passage from an innocent child-like trust into embittered distrust in his books of poems Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

In Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, we hear the mostly joyous cries of England’s citizenry:

Laughing Song
When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene;
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing “Ha ha he!”

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of  “Ha ha he!”

The mood of Songs of Experience, published five years later, is much darker:

A Divine Image
Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

In his later works, Blake portrays a synthesis of Innocence and Experience that reclaims Innocence, transcending the effects of disappointment, mistreatment, and betrayal. Blake scholars call this state “Organized Innocence.” Organized Innocence cannot be shattered by Experience. In Organized Innocence, we can feel the joy of “Ha ha he” even in the face of the darkness inherent in the human heart.

Blake was an early influence on me. Little did I know, when I read him as a college freshman, that I would traverse the path from Innocence through Experience not only once, as most of us do, but also a second time.

One effect of a 1993 near-death experience was that I was not only resuscitated but also, effectively, re-conceived.

On a physical level, the conditions during major surgery echo conditions preceding birth. In the operating theater, as in the womb, I was hooked up to apparatuses that circumvented built-in mechanisms: one tube supplied oxygen, another nourishment, and another removed waste. In the ICU, and later in the hospital room, I increasingly gained independence from these supports, a mobilizing trend that continued after I was released from the hospital, where, as in infancy, I again was put into my mother’s care.

More important, however, was the repetition of psychological stages of development that seemed, in my case, to have been a direct consequence of the near-death experience. Though I still retained the memories of my former self, in many ways I felt like a completely new, unscripted person, one for whom none of the rules learned in my prior life necessarily applied. As I progressed from second infancy to second adulthood, I fast-forwarded through many of the emotional conflicts I had experienced the first time around: needing my mother, competing with my father for her attention, struggling for his respect and, later, searching for what to do with my life when I “grew up.”

For the first two or three years following my near-death experience, I re-inhabited an Innocent state. I was much more open than I had been before, but in a childlike way. Whatever filtering mechanisms I had developed in my previous incarnation were dissolved; I could not lie or hold back my feelings. As a result, everything seemed fresh and new – “Ha ha he.”

But Innocence reincarnated also removed self-protection and discernment, and I allowed dangerous people into my life. Some examples: I was easily seduced into a relationship with a pathological liar; befriended a man who turned out to have a 30-year history of sociopathic behavior; and trusted my medical malpractice trial attorney as he was setting me up for robbery.

In the years since then, I have gradually reached what feels like my chronological age, and things are different this time around. Although I have experienced betrayals and disappointments, a resilient optimism – a “Ha ha he” – has arisen in me, and I don’t see it leaving. As my scope of understanding broadens and deepens, I increasingly see light in the darkness and darkness in the light, the union of opposites Blake believed was essential to attaining Organized Innocence.

Going through emotional infancy, childhood, adolescence, and on to late middle age has provided an unusual perspective to my work as a therapist. The process of rapidly and consciously transitioning through Innocence, Experience, and into the early stages of Organized Innocence has made it possible to recognize these stages in my clients, and sometimes also to shepherd them along the path toward their own Organized Innocence.

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” When I ask people who seem isolated by their distrust how they determine who is trustworthy, they can’t give me an answer. They’ve been burned so many times they have given up trying. Sometimes, the first trusting relationship they have as adults is with me.

Attaining a healed, resilient state akin to Organized Innocence is one of the main goals of psychotherapy, and it can only occur in the presence of trust. Trust! Trust! Trust! is my fundamental therapeutic motto: Trust myself, trust the client, trust the process. Establishing this three-way trust is the first directive of psychotherapy. Without it, healing in relationship is unlikely to occur.

In therapy, clients experience what it is like to have a truly collaborative and authentic relationship, where each side honors the true nature of the other, and where a container is built by client and therapist inside which conflict can safely occur without jeopardizing the relationship.

In my first meeting with a client, I let him or her know that I view therapy as a collaborative process, and that it is important to tell me if I’ve done something that angers or disappoints them. Either I have actually done or said something potentially harmful, in which case a corrective response from me is essential, or the client has inaccurately perceived what I did or said as intending harm, in which case clarifying what is real from what is projection or misunderstanding is equally essential. In either case, I let them know I will take responsibility both for my part in any conflict between us and for staying with the process until we can work it through.

Over time, clients begin to extend trust to other relationships. As they come to recognize the signs of a trustworthy person, they form more durable connections with those worthy of trust and build stronger boundaries to protect them from those who are not. Clients, too, learn to Trust! Trust! Trust: Trust themselves, their own processes of discernment, and those they care about.

Thus, the shell of distrust born of Experience can be remodeled. Instead of a monolithic defense that continually strengthens its protection against relationship, it can morph into a semi-permeable membrane, allowing in those who are trustworthy, filtering out those who are not. When that capacity is realized, Organized Innocence can follow.

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Text and images © 2014, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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