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 is 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 this 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 of 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 human suffering is the catalyst. The problem is we’ve merged the word victim with suffering. Victim is a psychological identity formed out of the belief that life is hard or unfair. This form of suffering is based on inner division. If correction for separation comes from longing for the spiritual, self-correction for division comes from lacking and is psychological. Suffering from lack divides the ego with guilt and shame. If we can endure, life may be difficult but hardship brings growth. Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to stay awake long enough to get life’s lessons. Meanwhile, those who are awakened by intense suffering become overwhelmed. Many spiritual teachers today speak of the moment of despair that forced their awakening. Their whole life flashed before their eyes and in an objective moment of clarity they are introduced to the observer. They have a choice to identify with is as witness or stay in their ego. The function of the human spirit is to ‘provoke’ the ego into action. The problem is what kind of action? Those who have a moral perspective will be limited by the duality of ego and labor over a right or wrong way to be. Those who know their heart, soul, and spirit will be convicted to the ethical perspective as this is where the context of life resides. Essentially the WHY of suffering allows us to BE who we were intended to become and 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 conceptual framework or context to help them understand what is happening to them. Trauma magnifies the experience and shifts us from being simply conscientious (viewing the self as conditioned beings) to becoming conscious. The epiphany is that we are so much more than our egos, but the catharsis is that the ego was never meant to be the human compass. It is more than letting go of the fiction of mind it is also seeing one’s existence in relationship to truth. If there is any fiction, it is that the human heart is held by the gravitational field of ego. The reverse is true. Internally, the ego revolves around the heart. In the outside world, the ego is viewed by the culture as the compass. You can see the conflict this causes. Not much unlike Galileo’s discovery about our galaxy, that the sun was the center not the earth. He won no brownie points for this discovery. He was labeled a charlatan and later died in isolation. Four hundred years ago, he discovers something that the Catholic Church just recently accepted (1992) as truth. Such cultural resistance and conditioning is not fiction, it is powerful. It is difficult 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 before it is rebuilt. Growth is not pain free. It can be less frightening though. Finding depth in one’s life is not a passive process. When people suffer they do not automatically evolve. A valid spiritually is based on the pursuit and understanding of human suffering. Those who have a close relationship with this quality or ‘gifted compassionates’ have the highest potential for evolution. Unfortunately, it is only a gift if they are conscious. Many of us are simply victims or survivors and fail to see the cathartic worth of our pain.
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, which places the ego at the center of our lives. This source wound or lost self is the sticky surface that all other external losses bind too. Not surprisingly, life seems meaningless when ego distractions (work, relationships, possessions, drugs, food, money, even religion) cannot resolve our grief. It makes sense that a significant external loss can magnify the grief of our original loss. There is much mental confusion around the void this creates.
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, These people often say: “You know, I got the house, the car, the wife/husband, the children, the job and something is still missing.” They realize: “Oh my, it’s me. I’m missing! How did that happen?”
10 – In your experience with human adversity and the void we’re speaking of how do they relate to a spiritual awakening?
Ernie Vecchio: This is the big question. So much is being written about the answer. If one realizes that it is veiled layers of awareness. Many teachers say that suffering can diminish one’s sense of self. This is often taught as a collapsing image or identity. A more accurate image of suffering is that it melts the ego. The human spirit in its provocation moves the ego closer to the heart’s passion. The angst of the spirit’s push and the ego’s pull occurs throughout a human life. Out of our awareness, this resistance prevents the provocation from doing what it is supposed to do—assisted self-correction. This is the way of transformative suffering. As the earth would heat up if it 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: Remember, the biggest trick the ego plays is to make us afraid of being afraid. We learn this feeling very young and store it with a memory as e-motion. The personal and collective ego plays on this fear and uses it to control us. You are asking me if seen through the eyes of an adult is the truth as scary as when we were little. Most would say no. Many teachers imply that thought or mental fiction is the problem. Spiritually this means everyone would have to awaken from a universal thought disorder. It is not fiction to say that all human beings undergo a broken spirit. It wants us to emote and re-enact the ‘fateful noise’ of this original break until we remember who we are. The cycle of forgetting and remembering is built in to being human.
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. The key word there is imagination. The soul, spirit, and heart (essentially the body) is not imagining a separation from the 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. This is the evolution of consciousness. The ego is companion to these other organs of perception not the enemy. We are witnessing every day in the news what happens when we ignore ego. Ignorance, even arrogance, gives the ego power to perpetuate its paranoia—fear of fear itself.
13 – How do we know when the ego is awake?
Ernie Vecchio: Many teachers say that an ego asleep suffers and this creates the possibility for an epiphany or awakening. I would say that human beings suffer…period. The question becomes whether it is useless (victim) or useful (transformative) suffering. Based on what is consuming the spiritual media and the news much of our suffering is not transformative. You know the ego has awakened by its humility. In a moment of catharsis we are set free (experience mercy) for all the time we’ve spent serving the ego. Softened by our suffering we live life fully awake. Spiritually we know this process as death and rebirth. We just need to be clear; it is the death of ego. The energy that comes from a repaired broken spirit is powerful. Many people are energized by their epiphanies because they’ve had a flash of clarity. They do not realize that they are only halfway there. Until we purge the ego from a cathartic experience, we will not stay awake. The challenge in those moments is to stay present in a world 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. Individuals that carry an inner angst to continuously ask why are the people seeking spiritual answers. These are the ‘gifted compassionates’ I spoke of earlier; people who have a close relationship with their own suffering. They have had several wake-up moments but struggle for a context to stay awake. Where contemporary teachers indicate that humanity has gone through unimaginable self-inflicted suffering and therefore can stop, most people don’t grasp what this means. As I mentioned before, there is a humbling gratitude or humility associated with the realization of a life lived suffering. There is also a realization (or maybe a wish) that one can stop suffering altogether. The implication is that we have enough suffering in the collective reservoir of mankind that we can stop. This is a wonderful optimistic view that evolution is entering our consciousness. However, part of this teaching is also that on a personal level ‘knowing’ this is enough. Every spiritual teacher that has come to this conclusion has gone down and into the depths of their own suffering. Each has brought forth a healing ointment of their journey. Again, since they did this, we don’t have too? That would be false.
15 – That is tied to religion isn’t it?
Ernie Vecchio: Yes. The cultural conditioning is that someone will save us from ourselves. The new wisdom is that we must do it. The journey inward leads to the ‘black gold’ or ‘matter of the heart’ that each of these teachers speaks of. The reservoir of one’s personal unconscious cannot be ignored or bypassed. The search for meaning is found in the morale to our stories not discarding them as myth. We do this by getting the ego to serve us, witness our life as the soul shows us what we need to see, then utilize the spirit’s energy as motivation and let our hearts point the way. It is not so much the end of suffering as it is the end of ‘drowning’ in it as victim. Many of us are drowning in the shallow end of the pool (in our emotions) and making up we’re in the deep end. The solution is that we stand up and realize the truth. Standing up literally means taking responsibility for a childish ego and parent the self awake. We will still suffer but it is relative. We cannot take the friction out of the human condition. The good news is once we locate the lubricant within (self-love born out of suffering) it is no longer debilitating.
16 – Your teaching in the Soul’s Intent is such clear logic: “We think we get here when we are born but, we do not get here until we choose to arrive.” This is a major spiritual goal isn’t it?
Ernie Vecchio: It is the beginning of awakening. Being twice born is the message of many religious teachings but the fear of death scares away the meek at heart. This is because they fail to realize that ‘death’ symbolizes change in spiritual work. If one fears change, then an ego asleep is in control. Change (like death) is the one certainty that levels the playing field for all of us. You can resist it all you want, but it is still happening every moment of every day. In fact, because of modern medicine we have the opportunity to be reborn four times: 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.