In his new book The Wounded Researcher (2007, Spring Publications), Robert Romanyshyn (my dissertation advisor at Pacifica) presents a way of doing psychological research that keeps soul in mind. The book landed in my mailbox on Monday, at a crucial moment when my life and my research both seem to be falling apart. Romanyshyn’s words remind me that this falling-apart is part of the work of soul, the work of life itself.
Romanyshyn’s approach to psychological research is an imaginal one, in which the researcher is understood to be chosen or claimed by the research topic rather than choosing the topic herself. Rather than being the author of the work, the researcher becomes the agent, the one who listens and gives voice to what the work itself wishes to say. As Romanyshyn points out, in the process the researcher is worked on, or worked over, by the soul of the work. Transformation is inevitable—and almost never pleasant. This is the approach I’ve used in my dissertation. Next time I suggest an imaginal research topic, someone please just shoot me.
When we undertake a research project from an imaginal perspective, we have to give up our ego’s ideas for the work because we’re not the one in charge. As with anything else when you’re truly in the imaginal, the ego isn’t driving, and that is difficult to comprehend, much less to accept. When the work falls apart and simply will not go where we want it to, it’s a reminder that we’re not listening to the voice of the work itself. I’ve experienced this again and again in my dissertation process. Every time I’ve thought I “had it” and understood what the dissertation was about and how to say it, whatever “it” was has dissolved and vanished, leaving me confused, grieving, and emotionally worked over. Only now (four years into it) have I finally given in to the necessity of letting go of my own desire for this work to be something that serves my own ego.
On page 45 of this new book, Romanyshyn says, “An approach to research that keeps soul in mind has to make a place for the soul of the work to speak beyond the calculus of a researcher’s subjective prejudices.” I’m beginning to realize that my dissertation, the work itself, has been speaking to me all along but I’ve failed to listen adequately. I wanted something different, something “bigger,” something that fulfilled my ego’s needs but obviously not the needs of whoever or whatever it is that wants to speak through me.
This experience has been profoundly painful, but I find myself finally moving beyond denial and into acceptance—-and into the mourning that the loss requires. Romanyshyn describes a similar experience in the process of writing his own book. “Certainly for me the many false starts, each of which began with enthusiasm and clarity and ended in ashes, were a slow process of letting go, a slow and difficult process of mourning” (p. 62).
The process of mourning, Romanyshyn suggests, is both essential and transformative to the process of research:
The researcher whose work has collapsed and resists all efforts to restore it falls into . . . an abyss. It is the dark night of the work. It is the moment when loss becomes a descent into the as-yet undreamed possibilities in the work, a descent from the researcher’s hold on the work to the soul of the work. It is a descent into the complexities of the claim that the work has made upon the researcher and a descent into that place where this complex claim might be dissolved and transformed into the unfinished business in the soul. . . . (p. 68)
When he speaks of research, I believe that what he says is just as valid for all deep experiences in our lives, certainly all deep losses. Mourning any profound loss or change in our life—-death, loss of a job, failure of a relationship, our heart’s desire seemingly crushed—-is an opportunity to descend into the abyss and there, perhaps, find as-yet undreamed possibilities. The experience of loss gives us the chance to see that something of soul is guiding this life of ours, and we can’t force it into a known form.
One thing that Romanyshyn repeats again and again: “What we love we lose, and in that moment we begin to see the love that claims us . . . through different eyes.” And again, on the next page: “What we love we lose, and mourning is thus an inevitable aspect of love. . . . Mourning is a tricky business—-a business in which the desire to restore what once was and has been lost outweighs the hard task of re-membering the loss” (pp. 64-66).
To be true to our soul, though, we need to be willing to release our ego’s attempt to hold on to what we love and what we most fear to lose. We must somehow be willing to experience the pain, mourn the loss, and be transformed in some way.
For we can’t escape the loss we fear so much: loss and change and falling apart are inevitable. Death, after all, is only life’s other face. Somehow we have to continue the life our soul has placed in our path and let it lead: we have to let this drama, this journey, this encounter, have its own way with us. Marianne Williamson says, “There is a principle in A Course in Miracles stating that it is not up to us what we learn, but only whether we learn through joy or through pain.” If we don’t learn whatever it is that’s being offered this time, with this experience, we’ll be given yet another opportunity; will it be a joyous one? Each experience of deep loss or great change presents us with an opportunity, whether we like it or not, and very little choice but to learn another way of being. Transformation: this is the profound and painful gift that falling apart offers.
Have I mentioned that transformation sucks rotten eggs?