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  • Writer's pictureDerek Carlson

Starfish and Skillful Extrication

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

The concept “Skillful Extrication” came to me spontaneously this morning while making coffee. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, what’s that thought about?” So I decided to explore it.

From many spiritual perspectives, everything in form is just a temporal and temporary creation. It comes and goes and has no bearing on the invisible reality that is the source of the perceived creation. Thus, it is often likened to a dream, because whatever dream we have as humans, it’s all gone as soon as we wake up, and as soon as we wake up, we realize none of it was real and none of it has an impact on our waking life.

I’ve heard this idea in Buddhism, a Course in Miracles, from a number of channeled beings, and probably elsewhere as well. An extension of this idea is that we are not who we think we are. We are not separated, individual identities with names like “Derek” or “Bob” or “Sally.” Those are also just arbitrary beliefs that have no inherent reality. In truth we are all one “thing” – the “Oneness” or “Nothingness” or “God” or “Atman” or “The One Son of God” – and when people have certain revelatory religious experiences, reach enlightenment, or do ayahuasca, LSD, mushrooms, DMA, peyote, or many other drugs or medicines, this is the often the clarity they experience and the plain-as-day conclusion that they come to.

Coming off of this awareness, the tempting thought that I’ve heard a number of people say is, “None of this is real, none of this matters, it’s all just experience.” Or, “None of this matters, it’s all just a dream.”

I think that’s accurate, from some “Absolute Truth” perspective.

But almost all of us don’t live in the awareness of the Absolute Truth. We live in the dream, in samsara, and all of its illusions are real to us as far as we are concerned and for all practical intents and purposes. One lesson in a Course in Miracles is, “I am under no laws but God’s,” and I believe that that is True. But it’s not true for me in my experience as Derek right now. If I don’t eat, I die in my human form. “Well no big deal, you never were human in the first place!” one might say. And that’s True too. But to me, I’m a starfish, and I frickin’ care!


In the book “The Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman, he recounts a story of him and a woman named Mama Chia walking together on the beach in Hawaii and coming across hundreds of beached starfish. It’s a “natural” phenomenon that happens from time to time where a bunch of starfish die. Mama Chia bends down, picks up a starfish, and puts it back in the water. Dan Millman looks at her and says, “There’s so many that are going to die, why bother saving that one?” Mama Chia just bends over, picks up another one, looks at him and says, “It matters to this one,” and places it back in the water.

For me, there’s a lesson here in honoring the dream, honoring the illusion, honoring that I believe and feel that I am Derek in a body and I’ve got emotions and an emotional experience and I matter.

And an hour from now matters to me, and tomorrow matters to me, and while we’re looking into the future, my next incarnation matters to me too (if you believe in that sort of thing).

And I think that this honoring is loving, and it’s part of the lesson I’m here to learn, and it’s part of the way out of the dream and off the wheel of samsara (once again, if you believe in that Buddhist metaphysical model of reality).

So even though, from some higher perspective or eternal Truth, I am an eternal loving soul and not Derek at all, it is not skillful or effective for me to prematurely deny Derek’s reality (or my reality as Derek). I can practice towards gaining the true experiential awareness that I am not Derek, which is what I do with my a Course in Miracles daily practice, but if I do an intellectual or spiritual bypass and “pretend that Derek and his life doesn’t matter” because of these spiritual teachings, then I’m making a mistake that is going to lead to pain, delay my escape, and unnecessarily extend the amount of sum-total pain I experience before I get out of the dream entirely.

And I, as Derek, don’t want that.

I, as one stranded starfish, really want to be placed back in the water – desperately. Metaphorically meaning that I want to experience loving care. And me honoring that I fully believe I am Derek and care about Derek’s current and future experience, that is loving care.

So while I’m working so hard through my daily practice to realize truly that I am not Derek, at the same time I am really, really, really honoring that I believe I am Derek and I care about my emotional experience. And I care about others' experience too - all the other people in the world, all the other stranded starfish on the beach. And that opens my heart and increases my compassion, and I believe that this too is helpful in realizing I am not Derek, we are all one, and this is just a dream.

It’s a paradox. It’s like only by truly caring about the dream that I can release myself from caring about it and thereby free myself emotionally from fear.

That’s a bit of a misleading statement actually.

When I say "release myself from caring about it," I mean I can release myself from valuing it, from “believing that it is real and matters.” Because once I, as Derek the ego, don’t care about it (the world, everyone in it, and all the suffering), then the Love that I truly am will flow fully through me and bless everything in this world that so desperately needs love.

So when Derek doesn’t care, then the Love that Derek actually is in reality can Care. And that’s when miracles happen, and is part of what a Course in Miracles is all about.

To an outside person it will look like I am the most loving, caring, compassionate person in the world. But to me, internally, emotionally, I will be in a state of peace and acceptance, caring none about myself or the world.

That’s a misleading statement too.

People can care out of love or out of fear. I think 99% of the time the two are intermixed, and almost all expressions of caring are rooted at some level in fear. So when I say “care none about myself or the world,” I mean fear no external circumstance and accept it all with peace, knowing none of it is real.

The paradox is from this place of “no fear” or “non caring,” the most “caring” actions naturally arise as an expression of what we truly are (you might say God’s Love), so it’s quite likely that a person in this state of peace, who has no resistance to or “problem with” all of the beached starfish, will most likely joyously place a lot of them back in the water, because in many cases that’s what God’s Love does when it moves through us. It does actions that we would label as “loving”.

(Not always, though. It’s very nuanced, confusing, and paradoxical, but that’s another essay entirely.)

All that said, I’m certainly nowhere near that state of acceptance and freedom from psychological fear. I ain’t enlightened, not by a long shot. So while I do the daily practice that aims towards psychological freedom from fear, I am paradoxically going to honor that I am identified as Derek, I have all sorts of fear, and I frickin' care what happens to me. To me, I am my own starfish, and I am going to place myself back in the water as much as possible.

This is also highly related to spiritual bypasses getting severely in the way of trauma healing. Trauma healing is emotional healing is elevating spiritually in terms of love and compassion. But paradoxically these attitudes of “I am a soul,” “None of this matters,” and “The trauma I experienced is just a soul agreement because I was a perpetrator in a past life,” while all probably being true, nevertheless get directly in the way of the healing of the blocks to love (the trauma).

We take on these perspectives as an attempt at a mindset of peace and forgiveness, but it turns out that trauma healing is a process, and it matters which mindset a person chooses at various stages of the process.

If one prematurely chooses a mindset of forgiveness (I call this a premature spiritual or emotional bypass) while the trauma energies are still trapped in the psyche and in the body, then they will remain trapped.

It turns out the effective means is actually to let go of spiritual or forgiveness perspectives at the beginning. What is needed is to find a way to honor that you were a victim of negativity (big or small violence or trauma) and to really honor your victim self by going into the trauma feelings and energies so that they may be cleared.

Spiritual forgiveness attitudes precisely move you away from the trauma pain, and that doesn’t support the necessary healing.

Conversely, attitudes that radically acknowledge what happened are what allow you to get into the pain and thereby clear it.

And then at a later stage in the process, after the pain has been cleared and transmuted, you will naturally and authentically shift into a state of forgiveness or understanding. (Actually forgiveness is misleading, because once you truly understand it all, then you realize there is nothing to forgive. That, too, is another entire essay in itself.)

This is all quite a mechanical cause-and-effect process. This has nothing to do with good or bad. It’s just you don’t want to make the mistake of skipping steps because then the healing doesn’t happen, and you are a starfish and you care and you want healing.

(I just realized that water is often a metaphor for the emotions, so being a starfish placed back into water is metaphorical for being placed back into the emotion of love.)

Before I conclude with how this fits into the concept of "skillful extrication," I just wanted to say one more thing about the “I am a soul, this is all a dream, and what happens doesn’t matter because it’s all experience” perspective.

Let me tell you this. I sure as hell won’t jump out into the road and get hit by a car just to “have the experience of what it’s like.”

That strikes me as absolutely insane.

I give that example because it is an extreme example of a more subtle situation. The more subtle situation is anything I do that is harmful or unloving to myself. I don’t want to do anything that is harmful or unloving to myself. That’s just as insane; the insanity is just not as obvious.

I’m a starfish and I want love. I want to be lovingly placed back in the water. I don’t want to desperately wretch and dry up and crack and painfully die on the sand. I don’t want to have all my bones broken by an oncoming truck. And I don’t want to feel the more subtle pain from my everyday unloving actions to myself and others. I really don't.

That frickin’ matters to me. Real talk.

My soul can kiss my ass if it wants to experience more pain. I don’t.

I don’t care if it’s all experience to “my soul,” which from this perspective is starting to feel like something other than me, and I feel like a victim to “its” desire to have experience. It all gets so convoluted the more you think about it.

All that said, I actually do believe that a soul needs to experience all sorts of horrific pain in order to clear out all the negativity from its psyche. Pain is the process whereby negativity is processed and cleared. And it does this, at a minimum, through incarnations where bodies like me get to feel victimized.

It may also do this in the bardo or astral realm between incarnations, and also in other “places” and ways as well. And I think out of some dynamic of necessity a soul incarnates into terribly violent situations, countries, and families – which is directly parallel to me choosing for some reason to jump into the street and get hit by a car.

I don’t deny that those dynamics exist in soul evolution. Soul evolution is complex and messy and often horrific, and I sure wish this wasn’t the way it worked. But it appears to be the case. I'll take that up with God at a later time. (Yet another essay.) But I try to keep this in mind from a much broader perspective.

But, again, I am going to honor my personal desires and my authentic emotional experience as Derek and declare that I want love, not fear. I want love, not pain. And it really matters to me.

With all that said, let me come back to the concept that came to me this morning: Skillful Extrication.

In order to escape the dream, you need to honor the dream.

In order to heal the trauma, you need to honor the trauma as real.

Or in spiritual terms, “The Truth acknowledges the lie as true.” (Sit with that koan for a while…)

You need to honor who, what, and where you think you are as you work to realize that none of it is true and none of it matters.

There is a way to most effectively escape the illusion, the dream, ego identification, samsara. And there is a way to most effectively heal trauma. They are in many ways one in the same. Love heals negativity, and healing of negativity is spiritual evolution, and is what ultimately gets us out of the dream entirely, once and for all.

And it’s a process. And there are specific ways to think and specific things to do at different stages of the process. And if you do the wrong things, or think the wrong way at the wrong time, then you thwart your healing or even move backwards.

What is effective to do and think at one stage of the process is often the complete opposite of what you need to do and think at a later stage in the process. Which is why soul evolution is so confusing and paradoxical. To paraphrase a Buddhist concept, “Paradox and confusion are the guardians to the gateway of enlightenment.”

So it’s paradoxical and nuanced, and what you do when, and how much you do it, and with what intent – it all matters.

It’s an art far more than a science.

And one can only get good at any art through a lot of trial and error. But having a skillful teacher who has already mastered the art can really help speed up the process. (That idea is common sense, but it also comes from the book Mastery by George Leonard.)

The value of a wise teacher in terms of speeding up the process and making it more graceful is why I study a Course In Miracles. And it’s why people read books by Byron Kaitie or Eckhart Tolle or spend time with gurus in ashrams.

In conclusion, when one is fully identified as a separate body and identity in the dream, and one wants to escape or transcend the dream, this is a complex and harrowing process.

If one prematurely and flippantly thinks, “Oh, I’m an eternal soul and this all doesn’t matter so I can do whatever,” then they are making a grave mistake and are in for a lot of unnecessary pain. (Not that one is going to escape a hell of a lot of pain even when one does “it right” – it sucks at times any which way you slice it.)

There’s a very particular way to truly escape the dream. To effectively extricate yourself from the dream takes great practice, great heart, and great skill. The Buddhists refer to it as walking the razor’s edge.

Thus the term “skillful extrication.”

Healing trauma requires skillful extrication.

And healing ego identification also requires skillful extrication.

And part of that skillful extrication is the step of realizing and really honoring, “Yeah sure I might be a soul, but to me, right here, right now, I am a frickin' starfish, and what happens to me, matters to me - today, tomorrow, and ten lifetimes from now. I matter and it matters. And the same goes for every being in the Universe of form: animal, vegetable, mineral, physical and astral, alien, multidimensional and otherwise.”

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