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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I woke up during the night because I felt an odd sort of external presence around me, an eerie presence, like evil and seductive, that felt like it was smothering me, and I couldn’t move or protect myself because my body felt completely paralyzed. Can you explain what this was all about?

Outline of the Answer
• The Incubus
• Envelopment and Seduction
• Smothering
• The Demonic
• Fighting Off the Demonic

 
Mne component of this experience is called sleep paralysis; modern science attributes the physiological mechanism of such paralysis to a natural protective function of the brain which prevents the body from thrashing around during periods of sleep, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreams occur. Nevertheless, a scientific explanation of sleep paralysis does not offer any insight into the symbolic meaning of such an experience. Why would a person “wake up” just at a moment of paralysis? Why should the experience feel smothering? And sometimes the whole paralysis experience is all a dream in itself—so why would a person dream of waking up to a feeling of paralysis and helplessness?

In medieval folklore this experience was attributed to an incubus, a demon said to lie on and seduce sleeping women. A demon causing a corresponding experience for a man was called a succubus.

Now, a modern psychological explanation of these experiences begins with a close look at two meaningful words: smothering and seduction.

 
Envelopment and Seduction

Let’s begin this examination by considering how every human infant, being completely helpless at birth, needs to be nursed and protected in order to survive. The infant needs to be enveloped, so to speak, in a mother’s love—and this whole experience can have the quality of an idyllic, intoxicating bliss. Nevertheless, every infant is destined to become an independently functioning adult, and to achieve this independence the growing child must be separated from the mother. So right here we have a fundamental tension: the bliss of envelopment in another, if it isn’t eventually stopped, can actually stifle and smother the attainment of independence.

As adults—especially if we have been forced into independence rather than initiated into it through proper guidance—we can feel a nostalgic yearning for the bliss of an infantile envelopment in a mother. And so we will create intoxicating fantasies of being “enveloped” by another person. But because contemporary culture invariably confuses sexuality with love, these fantasies of envelopment become fantasies of sexual seduction.

 
Smothering

Now here’s where things get psychologically complicated. Just as infantile envelopment in a mother can also be stifling, adult seduction has its own dark side: smothering. Sexual seduction, at its psychological core, really is a matter of manipulation by the desire of another. And when seen in its raw reality, manipulation is far from being blissful. In fact, it’s downright terrifying.

 
The Demonic

Imagine a place where there is no justice and no truth, only unbridled hedonism, a preoccupation with personal satisfaction even to the point of causing pain to others. Imagine being vulnerable to being seized and used by any other being who stumbles upon you. Scream all you want, but no one will hear you because everyone else is screaming too. So you can’t really scream at all.
 
Well, this is the place of the demonic.

Therefore, when you unconsciously direct your life desire to being seduced, you enter the place of the demonic. At first it might seem exciting and intoxicating. But sooner or later, before you’re totally lost, your unconscious might wake you up to the sheer terror of the paralyzing danger in which you have placed yourself.

Will you listen?

 
Fighting Off the Demonic

If you do listen, how do you fight off the demonic? You change your attitude. Turn away from the intoxicating abandonment into self-serving illusions of ecstasy and instead seek chastity, modesty, humility, constant prayer and gratitude, freedom from lust and hate, freedom from competition, and freedom from the world and its enticements and sins. It’s that simple.

 

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Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.