Path of the Snake

I have a friend who recently dropped out of a grad school he had been wanting to attend for years, and which I thought he was a perfect match for.  It was a program in somatic therapy, and he is a person who is naturally in tune with himself and always expressing himself through movement and dance.  When he told me he was dropping out, I couldn’t believe it - it was like The Flash quitting the track team.  We got to talking, and he told me the reason he was leaving the program was that it was too hard.  He said he loved the focus on dance and movement therapy, but that the pressure to turn inwritten papers every couple weeks was just too much.  He wondered what was even the point of all this writing when the focus should have been on somatic awareness, and he left.

Now, I like this guy quite a lot, but I have to admit this really blew my mind and kind of pissed me off.  And I’ll cop to having a bias towards the written word, but that’s not what got under my skin.  To my mind, school is there to teach you something you don’t already know, and the thing about learning something you don’t already know is that you don’t already know it - it’s a pain in the ass!  All those books, assignments, projects, deadlines, discussions, tests, and the myriad other ways our teachers come up with to torture - sorry, teach - us are exhausting.  But they’re not there simply to gate-keep degrees and accomplishment, they’re a necessary part of growing.

The snake is a powerful symbol in Western culture, and it represents a curiously self-contradictory number of things: wisdom, betrayal, healing, pain, transformation, and death, to name a few.  There are a number of qualities of snakes that go in to this representation, but the big one isthat it sheds its skin.  This is a slow and painful process, and also an inevitable one.  For the snake, longer life means bigger size, and bigger size means shed skin.  The pairing of pain and growth are inseparable.

In Genesis it’s the snake that introduces us humans to knowledge, which gets us kicked out of the garden of Eden, which allows us to fulfill the destiny God set out for us to begin with.  How convoluted!  The path of the snake, like the path of learning, is one that is often begun with a set of intentions whose naïveté can only be properly understood from the perspective gained by what’s been learned.  Essentially, we set out thinking we already know what we’re going to learn, which of course doesn’t make sense but it does feel good to pretend.

The reason we pretend, of course, is because we have a biological inclination which is reinforced by social teaching to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain.  That’s not a bad thing, even God rested, but like all our impulses it can get a little out of hand if left to run wild.  So in order to really learn something new or grow, particularly folks like me or my friend who are maybe a little lacking in the natural discipline department, we need to commit to feeling a little crummy during the process.  We’re going to test our old ideas against new information and circumstances, and we’ll have to throw some of them out along the way.

At first glance, this looks like a bummer, but remember that you’re glancing it from the familiar side of learning.  Once you manage to cross over, it looks good in hindsight.  Which is the coldest of cold comforts, so what else can we marshall to support our growth?  My experience as a therapist has shown me that this is when support is most critical.  When someone is going through a hell they’re committed to sticking through, offering a kind ear and words of encouragement are worth more than any advice or direct help ever can be.  People want to grow, deep in their bones where they know how much they have to offer this world they yearn for it.  It’s just on the surface where the ego holds dominion that the idea of comfort wins out.

When we listen to these people, we give them a chance to take the words of their ego out of the echo-chamber of dutiful solitude.  We let them tell us our fears and see them from a distance which offers perspective.  And once these fears have been allowed to show, they give way to resolve.  People remember that they have goals and desires, and they remember that they have the strength to persevere in the pursuit of their dreams.  It’s as simple as this: when you know someone has your back, you’re free to take care of your front.