Humbly sitting and assisting others heal from severe trauma, Ernie Vecchio has spent his career understanding the human psyche and its response to suffering. His clients would say: “It is sad that someone has to miss a spinal cord or be amputated to realize their inner life matters!” Today, Ernie offers evidence that these shared inner journeys had a common theme. If brought into our awareness, these insights offer context and a deeper meaning to being human. His book The Soul’s Intent introduced us to the nonlocal wisdom of ‘soul’ as witness. He states: “Many of us forget that this intelligence is available all the time. We just have to give it station in our lives. It isn’t a question IF humans suffer, it’s a matter of HOW.” Many teachers are implying that humanity is cleansing and suffering itself awake to the present moment. The reality is that most of us will never have a context for this possibility unless we go looking for it. Ernie’s work reminds us why our #innerlivesmatter.
FREQUENTLY ASK QUESTIONS
1 – Can you describe to us what the journey through the inner lives of your patients was like? You say it has been a psychospiritual awakening. Can you define this?
Ernie Vecchio: Initially, I was trained in psychology to understand the ego as an ‘abnormal’ portion of human development. As you might suspect, maladaptive egos were caught by the mental health system and labeled with personality disorder. People outside the system were having problems too, but many of them didn’t want to be labeled so they rejected the service. So, here I was entering a profession that if you didn’t have a problem when you came to see me, you had one when you left. Fortunately, I was only in this model for a brief time before my career landed me in a trauma hospital. I say fortunate because it gave me an opportunity to see the inner workings of ‘normal’ people undergoing extreme and traumatic experiences. Amputees, head injury, paralysis, blind and deaf, all were the norm for my daily practice. Imagine an egg breaking and its contents spilling onto the floor. This was the experience of many of my patients. In this analogy, the shell represents the ego and the egg’s contents the soul and spirit of who they were. Since it was impossible to repair the shell, they were having a psychospiritual crisis. It took me years to learn that the goal was not reconstructing the ego. Rather, it was moving these sacred and spilled contents into another container, making an existential shift in identity. Psychology as a science evolved out of theories about how ego is formed and dysfunction happens. There is no mention of soul and spirit in human development. I quickly learned that these qualities were more important to understand if my patients were to get better.
2 – Can you expand more on what you mean by that? What makes up these qualities?
Ernie Vecchio: Science calls the soul non-local intelligence because it is both in and around us. We know it as the body’s animation. Biology suggests that this ‘to be alive’ force actually orchestrates deliberately to remain whole, in spite of interference. We know it is intelligent because the soul often mirrors in the physical world what is occurring inside of us. The human spirit forms as a feeling reaction to the soul’s embodiment. Initially, these qualities had a symbiotic relationship but are interrupted by the formation of ego. Symbiosis means they were initially mutually beneficial to the other. So, this is our predicament. The human ego, as our adaptive function, is focused on the external world. Because of most of us are externally controlled, we think the ego is our compass. Meanwhile, our spiritual origin and true compass is pushed out of awareness. Though this experience is remembered by the soul it is ‘felt’ by the human spirit as a ‘break’ from symbiosis. Understandably, broken spirits ultimately turn mean-spirited. We are left with only two places to go with our brokenness—in at the self or out at the world. So there it is, we are spiritual beings forced to live in a psychological reality. I was privileged in working with trauma because I got to witness the re-enactment of this original break multiple times. A profound insight came from the repetition. When human beings shed their ego, in that moment, these authentic and sacred qualities come to the surface. This is what many would call a psychospiritual awakening.
3 – Much is written about spiritual awakening today. Some teachers imply it is the beginning of enlightenment. What is your take on this in your work with trauma?
Ernie Vecchio: Most of this dialogue is centered on beliefs, religion, or the metaphysical. As much as I appreciate these various orientations, they rarely lead to valid spiritual awakening in a person who experiences them. Wake up moments are one thing, choosing to stay awake another. Some spiritual teachers say that the awakened state means one no longer has to identify with their thoughts. Though this is partially true, the implication is that we can somehow rid ourselves of our fateful noise or inner angst. That is false. The function of the human spirit is to provoke the ego. This provocation is a ‘built in’ relationship between the two for self-correction. We would never change or grow without it. The new wisdom about suffering is not how to stop it. Rather, it is how to use it as transformative suffering—awake! Teachers that say we can end suffering mean we can end victimization, first of ourselves and then of others. This is an important distinction. The soul orchestrates, the angst of the human spirit motivates, and the heart points the way. In this context, and as it should be, the ego is a passenger in our personal story—not the one driving it.
4 – So, if it’s true that we ‘spin’ in the ego’s idea of itself, does our personal story have value?
Ernie Vecchio: The message coming from contemporary teachers is that ‘You are more than your story.’ They are suggesting that since you’re not spiritually awake, your life is reduced to the story alone. This is a half-truth. Yes, we identify with our stories but sadly they are incomplete without the soul’s perspective. We cannot see the ‘whole’ of our lives through the lens of ego. But, once the ego is suffered awake it can shift from a moral two-dimensional view of life to an ethical or contextual perspective. In this moment, we see meaning in our story that was invisible before. We have not been simply possessed by thought for thousands of years as teachers suggest. We have been conditioned to serve the ego. How? We were taught to fear its judgments. Essentially, we became afraid of being afraid. This larger truth is separate from our personal story.
5 – It seems there are two forms of awakening, one that is gradual and operating in the background like a computer program and another that is sudden and abrupt. Is that accurate?
Ernie Vecchio: That is the interesting part. If you look at the inner workings of the human experience, an integration is taking place out of awareness. Unbeknownst to many, this ‘to be alive’ or embodied force is mirroring in our outside life what is happening inside. This is evidenced in the culture when people say: ‘Things happen for a reason.’ Such people sense something larger is at work and it is intelligent. The confusion is that this ‘invisible something else’ they’er referring to is not outside of them. Rather, they carry it on the inside. I’ve come to call this all-knowing quality the soul. Biology simply calls it life, a force that has a natural push to remain intact or whole. Science considers it non-local and connected to collective consciousness. Spiritual teachers say it is a conduit to the present moment. Trauma has taught me that the human spirit carries the memory of separation and the heart ‘the way’ back home. #innerlivesmatter because waking up to our spiritual selves is developmental and suffering our catalyst. As you say, this is running in the background. The culture is confused today because we’ve merged the word victim with suffering. Victim is a psychological identity that is formed out of the belief that life is hard or unfair. Such suffering is based on inner division and caused by guilt or shame. If correction for separation comes from longing and is spiritual, self-correction for division comes from lacking and is psychological. We can heal our division but we must stay awake with the suffering long enough to get the lesson. Understandably, those who are awakened by intense suffering can become overwhelmed. It is common for many of today’s spiritual teachers to speak of these wake-up moments. Their whole life flashes before their eyes and, in an objective moment of clarity, they are introduced to the soul as observer. They can choose to identify with this internal witness or stay in their ego. So yes, there are two forms of suffering spiritual and psychological. We cannot truly get to the spiritual without healing the ego’s division. Essentially the WHY of suffering allows us to BE who we were intended to become and then CAUSE an effect in the world.
6 – It seems that people are undergoing extreme suffering as a ‘wake up’ moment but missing why it’s happening.
Ernie Vecchio: Yes, many lack a context for what is happening to them. Trauma magnifies the experience. It shifts us from simply being conscientious (viewing the self as conditioned beings) to becoming conscious. The epiphany is that we are so much more than our egos. Meanwhile, the catharsis is that the ego was never meant to be the human compass. It’s more than letting go of the fiction of mind. it’s also seeing one’s existence in relationship to truth. Our most fictitious problem is that the human heart is held by the gravitational field of ego. In fact, the reverse is true. Internally, our ego circles or revolves around the heart. In the outside world, this same ego is viewed as our compass. This is the human dilemma. Exactly like Galileo’s shunned discovery that the sun was the center of our solar system, the human heart is the center of the human condition. Remember, he was labeled a charlatan for this view and later died in isolation. There is no better example of the ego’s power than this piece of history. Four hundred years ago, and the Catholic Church just recently accepted (1992) this as truth. Cultural resistance and collective conditioning is not fiction, it is very powerful. The soul knows it is impossible to live in the present when the world relishes repeating the past.
7 – In your own life story there seems to have been a relationship between personal suffering and a passion toward understanding its worth. Do you believe all people have a connection with their suffering and does this connection prompt a spiritual breakthrough?
Ernie Vecchio: Yes, this is the popular view. Adversity builds character. Most forget however, that it is torn down first. Growth is not pain free. It can be less frightening though. This is a core reason for remembering that #innerlivesmatter. Finding depth in one’s life is not a passive process. When people suffer, they do not automatically evolve. A valid spiritually is born out of the pursuit and understanding of human suffering. Those who have a close relationship with this quality I’ve come to call ‘gifted compassionates.’ They carry the greatest potential for human evolution. Unfortunately, it’s only a gift if they’re awake. Many of us are asleep as victims or survivors and fail to see the cathartic worth of our suffering.
8 – You are very interested in teaching the world about ‘gifted compassionates.’ Is this everybody or is this gift limited to a select few?
Ernie Vecchio: Spiritual teachers are spending an enormous amount of time talking about meaning and purpose. Also, that our lack of meaning is tied to loss. But loss is inherent in the human condition. Our first loss is the authentic self. The collective culture places the ego at the center of our lives. This harms the human spirit and becomes our source wound. Losing our spiritual selves to the psychological evolves into the sticky surface for all other external losses to bind too. Life becomes meaningless when ego distractions like work, relationships, possessions, drugs, food, money, and even religion cannot resolve our grief. Any significant external loss, now magnifies the grief of our original loss. There is a lot of mental confusion around this inner void. #innerlivesmatter because our core beginning matters. Imagine, we are pretending one identity to cope with the loss of another, our spiritual origin.
9 – The only ‘void’ the culture knows of is the midlife crisis: a time when possessions and accomplishments become empty and unfulfilling.
Ernie Vecchio: Yes, midlife is the time people often say: “You know, I got the house, the car, the wife/husband, the children, the job and something is still missing.” Some realize, many don’t: “Oh my, it’s me. I’m missing! I’ve spent so much time pursuing all these things, I lost myself along the way. How did that happen?”
10 – In your experience with human adversity and emptiness, how are the two related to a spiritual awakening?
Ernie Vecchio: This is the big question. So much is being written about the answer. First, we need to realize that there are layers of awareness. Many teachers say that suffering can diminish our sense of self. This is taught as a collapsing self-image or identity. A more accurate depiction of suffering is that it actually melts the ego. Not much unlike flying to close to the sun, the human spirit’s constant provocation changes the ego’s proximity to our heart’s passion. This is the ‘angst’ of the human condition. The spirit’s push and the ego’s pull occurs throughout our lifespan. If we fail to realize that our #innerlivesmatter, this resistance prevents the provocation from doing what it’s supposed to do—foster self-correction. This is the way of transformative suffering. As the earth heats up if it were moved closer to the sun, so too does the ego as it approaches the heart’s truth.
11 – Is it as scary or painful as it sounds?
Ernie Vecchio: The biggest trick the ego plays is making us afraid of being afraid. We learn this feeling very young and store the memory as e-motion. The personal and collective ego plays on this fear and uses it to control us. You are asking me, when seen through the eyes of an adult, is the truth as scary as when we were little. The answer is no. Many teachers suggest that thought or mental fiction is our problem. Spiritually this would mean for the world to improve, everyone has to awaken from a universal thought disorder. Though thinking and conditioned beliefs are a pervasive problem, it is not fiction to say that all human beings undergo a broken spirit. The sensation of this break is stored in our psyche. Pushing and pulling guarantees that we will emote or re-enact the ‘fateful noise’ of this subjective force so we can remember ‘what’ we are. The cycle of forgetting and remembering is uniquely a human problem and reinforces that #innerlivesmatter.
12 – Is it safe to say you do not agree that the ego must be ignored?
Ernie Vecchio: Language such as false-self or mental fiction discredits the experience that the soul, spirit, and heart are undergoing. Yes, the brain stores images and to identify with our negative imagination is not healthy. But, the key word there is imagination. The soul, spirit, and heart (essentially the body) is not imagining a separation from it’s embodied or authentic self. These were real events with real feelings. Graduate and Doctoral programs in the helping professions often ask the question: ‘Which comes first a thought or a feeling?’ We are told a thought comes first. The question is not asked properly. It should be: ‘Which comes first a thought or an emotion.’ In this context, the answer would be a thought. We also know that a thought goes nowhere without an emotional charge. Emotions are re-enacted memories. Meanwhile, feelings re-act to the present moment. Based on this truth a feeling comes first. Watch this! If we ask which comes first the soul or ego, clearly the soul is first. Amazingly, we let the ego trick us into imagining it arrives before anything else. So no, the ego cannot be ignored. It needs to be integrated. It needs to take responsibility for itself. It needs to grow up. #innerlivesmatter if consciousness is to evolve. The ego is companion to our other organs of perception, not the enemy. We are witnessing in the media daily what happens when we ignore ego. Ignorance, even arrogance, gives the ego power to perpetuate our paranoia—fear of fear itself.
13 – How do we know when the ego is awake?
Ernie Vecchio: Many teachers say that an ego suffers because it is asleep. In other words, awake we no longer have to suffer. I would say that human beings suffer…period. These teachers actually mean if we’re awake, we no longer have to live as victim. This distinction about ‘type’ of suffering is important. useless (victim) or useful (transformative). When our #innerlivesmatter, we can see the difference. We see in the media daily that much of our suffering is not transformative. Narcissism is alive and well in the ‘like’ and ‘share’ world of the internet. ‘Look at me’ is nowhere near the ‘please see me’ longing of the human heart. So to answer your question, we know the ego is awake when we are humbled. In a moment of catharsis (transformative suffering), we are set free for time serving who we think we are. This moment of the ego letting go, is our first experience of true mercy and self-love. Softened by our suffering, we can now live life fully and awake. Spiritually, we define this process as death and rebirth. Said differently, a catharsis is ego-death. Some confuse catharsis with epiphany. People are highly energized by their epiphanies because they experience a flash of clarity. The ego tricks them into thinking they’ve arrived. Few realize that clarity is simply a temporary perk of being awake. It is only a matter of time however, before we forget such moments and return to our habitual lives. We must purge the ego through a cathartic experience if we are to stay awake. This is difficult in a culture that worships ego.
14 – If someone hasn’t experienced amputation, paralysis, or any form of intense suffering, can they still experience an awakening?
Ernie Vecchio: On this point, I agree with other teachers. Only those individuals that want to understand their ‘inner angst’ and continuously ask why, pursue an awakened life. As I said before, I’ve come to know these people as ‘gifted compassionates’ or as individuals who clung to a precognitive (before thought) memory of their spiritual beginnings. These ‘gifted’ folks have a close relationship with their suffering and even have several wake-up moments. But, many still struggle for a context of how to stay awake. Where contemporary teachers profess that humanity has gone through unimaginable self-inflicted suffering and therefore can stop, most people don’t grasp what they mean. Simply, we can stop living as victims. But, as I mentioned before, there is gratitude and humility associated with a life lived suffering. Victims never realize this. The philosophy that there is enough suffering in the collective reservoir of mankind to stop, should sound familiar. It is consistent with patriarchal religion. Also, that this burden has been lifted for us, means we can follow ‘that’ which assures our salvation. Contemporary spiritual teachers while navigating the depths of their own suffering, offer a similar healing prophecy: “Since I’ve done this, you don’t have too.” The problem with this context is they both mirror the distorted definition of compassion as sacrifice and martyrdom. Everyone has the potential to know the secrets of why their #innerlivesmatter. But, not everyone responds to the push-pull of its calling. It seems to me that human evolution would be occurring when the ‘longing’ to awaken surpasses the ego’s resistance to it.
15 – It seems in modern times, religion has some problems doesn’t it?
Ernie Vecchio: Yes. The cultural conditioning that someone or something will save us from ourselves, suggests that understanding life is a passive endeavor. The new wisdom is that WE must assert that our #innerlivesmatter overall all else. Such inner navigation leads to the ‘black gold’ and ‘matters of the heart’ only found in true spiritual exploration. The reservoir of one’s personal suffering should not be ignored. The search for meaning is found in our personal stories and should not be discarded as myth. When we get the ego to serve us, we can witness and experience life as the soul does. When we utilize the human spirit’s angst to self-correct, we benefit from its motivation. When we allow the heart to point the way, we no longer feel lost. Human evolution would not be the end of suffering. Rather, it would be the end of drowning in victimization. Imagine, many of us are standing in the shallow end of the pool making up we’re in the deep end. If we stood up (took responsibility for ourselves) we would realize the truth. Evolution would mean parenting ourselves to remain awake. Adult suffering is relative and can be liberating. Only children want the pain to stop. They cannot see the larger picture. Life (nor evolution) did not intend for us to take the friction out of being human. Rather, life offers us compassion as the lubricant for this friction. The problem is that we’ve yet to get a clear context for self-love until now. Those suffering with severe disability have left us a map. The good news is this healing lubricant is born out of suffering NOT because of it.
16 – Your teaching in the Soul’s Intent is so clear: “We think we get here when we’re born but, we do not get here until we choose to arrive.” This is a major spiritual goal, yes?
Ernie Vecchio: Arrival is certainly the beginning of awakening. Being twice born is the message of many religious teachings but, the fear of ego-death scares away the meek at heart. They fail to realize that ‘death’ is symbolic of change in spiritual work. The ego hates change because it loses control. Change (like death) is the one thing that levels the playing field for every one. You can resist it all you want, but change happens every moment of every day. In fact, by modern medicine extending our lives, it has also lengthened our stages of rebirth: adolescence, young adult, midlife, and as seniors. Imagine, many of us never evolve beyond stage two and wonder why life seems stagnant. People who fear these natural stages of development fear life. They have identified with the thoughts and emotions of a broken spirit for so long, they have become apathetic. Mean-spiritedness toward the self and others perpetuates the re-enactment of their source wound. Judgment, cynicism, and anger fuel the fear of fear itself, until it becomes a way of life. The soul’s intent is that we stop this pattern. It is a choice to learn ‘how’ to suffer rather than swim in it. It is a choice to live in the present and even a bigger decision to stay there. The huge distinction between me and other teachers is I want people to learn that before they can be here now, they must learn why and how. There are no shortcuts. Guides make it easier but we must become our own beacon. Science tells us we are only using a small portion of our brain. It’s actually worse than that; we’re only using a fraction of our spiritual gifts: soul, spirit, and heart. The brain (ego) is getting all of the attention, while the qualities that make up the mind (body and brain) are ignored. Understanding and giving station to one’s inner life is the missing piece. It turns out that being here now is easy when we awaken to our full navigational abilities.