A Conversation with Psychotherapist and Teacher Mare Chapman
This month, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to a dear friend and extraordinary teacher, Mare Chapman. Mare has traveled many paths in gathering wisdom, including degrees in Occupational Therapy and Counseling as well as studying with Native mentors and acclaimed Buddhist teachers. She is a respected and fearless voice within the tradition of Vipassana Meditation. Using the lens of mindfulness training, Mare offers a unique and clarifying roadmap to facing the demons of fear, doubt, and internalized oppression, while learning to embody equanimity and self-compassion. Her book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, will transform the way you see the world and how you live in it.
Dale Kushner: You practice mindfulness-based psychotherapy. What is your basic view as you approach your work?
Mare Chapman: I believe we are each trustworthy beings for ourselves. By that I mean, as spirits living in these human bodies, we all possess an innate drive that moves us towards our well-being and full potential. Our bodies, minds, hearts and spirit are continuously giving us information to help us evolve in this direction. But the habits of our conditioning and the beliefs we unconsciously internalize as we grow up bias our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. More often than not, these habits and beliefs block our access to and our trust in that vital information. My primary job is to help the person I’m working with access their own system’s reliable data and find their own truth and wisdom. This requires mindfulness: cultivating a sensitivity and acceptance of one’s full present moment experience – perceiving what’s happening in the body, realizing the thoughts and stories going through the mind, receiving the feelings residing in the heart, and listening deeply to one’s spirit. By relating to one’s authentic experience in this way, insight and deeper understanding, along with acceptance and compassion, naturally emerge. Healing then happens organically, and trust and confidence in one’s own being deepens.
D.K.: How is mindfulness helpful with this? Does this always involve meditation?
M.C.: The core intention of mindfulness, as I understand it, is to free the mind from its conditioned habits so we can perceive reality accurately and access our true nature/who we are ultimately. It requires learning to relate to whatever we’re experiencing, with curiosity, kindness, acceptance, and without taking it so personally. Learning to be a compassionate observer of one’s experience enables the inner room to realize what’s authentically happening in the moment. This internal spaciousness allows one to clearly see those conditioned beliefs and behaviors that create misery, without self-blame. As a result, self-compassion and wisdom can naturally arise. With practice, instead of reacting habitually under the rule of those conditioned beliefs, there is the possibility of choosing a wiser and kinder response. Mindfulness trains our mind to become our reliable friend instead of being our inner bully, and we learn to stay connected, steady, and kind with ourself, even when the going gets rough.
I teach clients how to establish an inner stability by connecting with their breath, encourage tons of curiosity, and help them be aware of the stories in their minds and the sensations in their bodies as we explore their distress, coaching them to remain accepting as we dive more deeply into the discomfort or habit pattern they want to explore. Although I don’t require clients to meditate, I do encourage it, and occasionally will teach meditation in our sessions. This often includes teaching about the nature of thoughts, emotions, the body-mind connection, and the principles of mindfulness. By trusting their own reliable data, the clients maintain their agency and I remain open, receptive, and curious as we work together.
D.K.: A few months ago, I interviewed the meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg. She recommends your book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, for any woman who feels stuck in insecurity. How do you identify that as a key issue for women?
M.C.: I see so many amazing women who appear successful and competent on the outside, but internally suffer from so much self-doubt, insecurity, and the resultant anxiety and depression. Even though they are doing whatever they can to make sure others are happy with them – always being responsible, doing their best, striving to be perfect – deep down women commonly believe there is something wrong with them, or they aren’t enough. Consequently, much of one’s inner life is spent dwelling on and worrying about others, wondering how they feel about us, fearing they aren’t approving of us, all of which naturally disconnects us from knowing ourselves and leaves us cut off from our wisdom. We assume that when others are happy with us we will finally feel secure and then we can relax. But given that we never know for sure if we’re really okay in the other’s eyes, we’re left with chronic insecurity and self-doubt and feeling exhausted by this constant inner turmoil.
I call this pattern of seeking approval and security from others while disconnecting from one’s own authentic experience “othering”: it’s the habitual movement of attention away from self to the other, based on the assumption that the other has more power, authority, value, or privilege. I see it as the common normal coping strategy and natural reaction to women’s gender conditioning. Because we live in a world that is predominately patriarchal, as we grow up, we internalize the misogynistic beliefs inherent in patriarchy: men are superior and should be dominant and women are inferior and should be subordinate. Although we know intellectually we’re all equally valuable, nevertheless the innumerable and insidious ways patriarchy inserts its views and the resulting behaviors into our society cause women to believe we don’t matter as much. This trains us to give our power away to others as we look to them for the validation and approval we’re unable to give ourselves. Addressing and transforming women’s internalized misogyny is thus a key aspect of feminism’s unfinished work.
D.K.: How do you treat this issue and the habit of “othering”?
M.C.: First, I help women realize that othering, the false beliefs that underpin it, and the various ways it plays out in our lives are all deeply conditioned patterns and a normal response to our internalized misogyny. This intellectual understanding helps mitigate the habit of self-blame or the charge of co-dependency. Then I teach the skill set of bringing mindfulness to present moment experience. Through the increased awareness and inner space this creates, one is able to spot othering habits, choose to pop out of them, and connect with authentic experience, just as it is in the moment. Whereas othering trains us to place our reference point in others and ignore our authentic experience, mindfulness creates balance in our attention. We learn to be aware of ourselves, our own valid data – what we’re feeling, thinking, knowing, wanting, intending – as we perceive and relate to the other. This makes it possible to express clear boundaries, take wiser care of ourselves, let go of what isn’t our responsibility, respect our wants and needs, and empower ourselves to follow our own truth and dreams. Since mindfulness inherently teaches us to relate to ourselves with kindness, acceptance, curiosity, and less identification, over time with practice, one begins to build an inner frame of reference that is respectful, loving, and resilient. Gradually, with practice, we develop a growing trust in our authentic experience, the belief that we are enough just as we are, and the confidence we can handle whatever arises.
D.K.: Does your book give practical advice, instructions for women to help them to overcome disempowering beliefs, to achieve or improve confidence?
M.C.: Yes, my book is very practical. It’s based on a 10-week class, founded on a successful pilot study, that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years. It explores the notion of self, both conditioned and authentic, how patriarchy trains us to other, the common patterns of othering and how these affect us, and then step-by-step teaches the basic aspects of practicing mindfulness, as well as loving-kindness and compassion practices, in order to transform these disempowering habits. With numerous examples of women’s experiences as well as my own, specific instructions, guided meditations, informal practices, suggestions for reflection, and “ownwork,” my aim is to lead the reader into cultivating an accepting, wise and kind relationship with herself so that she gradually discovers and comes to trust that her own experience is always valid. It’s through this understanding and way of being that we empower ourselves to be our whole amazing selves. And, since we are all interconnected, the effect of our own healing and freedom always ripples out and benefits the whole world.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
Once upon a time (and we know how that goes; the unimaginable is about to happen!)…. Once upon a time, we knew ourselves to be creatures of the earth. We passed our days traversing landscapes green with vegetation, blue with sky or water, brown with rock and dirt. After eons passed, we travelled by train, rode bikes along windy roads, sat impatiently in traffic fiddling with mobile phones. Some of us waited for buses or subways, walked through neighborhoods as familiar as our hands. The air we breathed carried the fragrance of the season and the scent of our locale—fumes from a bread factory, hot asphalt, algae bloom on a lake, diesel exhaust.
If we bumped into a friend, we offered a hand or a hug. In elevators, stomachs growled, wheezy breathers gave off stale air. Someone’s shirt smelled of cigarette smoke, someone’s neck stank of cheap perfume. On escalators we looked each other in the face, smiled politely, and turned away. We lived social lives: we bowled, sat in movie theaters, met for lunch dates, pressed our noses to store windows and browsed inside. Our days were full of tactile pleasures and small injuries, which we took for granted as familiar and mundane.
In our minds, we separated work time from fooling around time by occasion and place. After work at home, we stepped out of our panty hose and high heels, our overalls or uniforms, showered and changed into casual clothes. We ate dinner with our family and put the kids to bed or plonked ourselves in front of the TV and took a pull of a beer. Watches and digital devices kept us punctual and noted the passing hours. The world was a vast palette of shapes and colors. We lived an embodied life.
This was the world pre-COVID. Now, except for our courageous first responders and front-liners in crucial jobs, our world has shrunk to the size of our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes. We wander our rooms from sunrise until bedtime, often without stepping outside. Contact with other humans may be limited to a perch in front of a computer screen, Zooming or Skyping or Facetiming. We now have more empathy for animals captured from savannahs or rain forests and put into cages. COVID-19 has been with us for nine months, and while it’s too soon to make conclusive statements about how the pandemic is affecting our mental and physical health, we know we are grieving the loss of our familiar world.
Naming and honoring what has been lost can be a powerful tool. Along with enduring personal losses, our communal relationship to time and space has been altered since the pandemic, as has our physical relationship to each other and to the sensory world. Many of our most important and sustaining rituals have disappeared or been put on hold. Linked to the loss of ritual is a loss of our sense of a meaningful existence, a felt disorientation, rootlessness, restlessness, even despair. Some anthropologists suggest the instinct for ritual is hardwired in our brains and point to evidence of prehistoric rituals honoring the dead in the caves of Europe and on other continents.
Nations have rituals. Think of the Pledge of Allegiance and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Religions, ethnic groups, local communities, kinship clans all engage in rituals that elevate and mark important aspects of life. Our most common rituals—weddings, funerals, birth rites, birthdays, communions, bar mitzvahs, fasting or serving special holiday foods—are so commonplace, we rarely think of them as rituals with roots in primeval times, but their dismemberment during COVID has made us aware of their importance to our well-being.
This experience of loss is likely to continue into the new year. How can we creatively interact with this formidable challenge? One way is to become aware of the rituals that have vanished or changed in your own life, starting with the actions and ritual observances with which you begin your day. Ask yourself: what new patterns do I see emerging since sheltering in place? Do I sleep later than I did pre-COVID? Do I stay in pajamas and a robe all day? Do I have the same morning hygiene habits? What about breakfast? Do I eat the same breakfast at the same time and in the same way as I did before COVID? If not, what has changed?
Have I stopped “dressing” for different occasions because they are occurring online? Before COVID, we often marked transitional time, that is, time between a change of action—work and home, home and leisure play—by a change of clothes or a change in our tempo. How are you marking transitional time now? Get curious about the different events in your day. What rituals might you put in place to create a sense of order and differentiation between events? Some suggestions include lighting a candle before you speak to an important relative or person; step outside between work-related meetings, breathe deeply and gaze briefly at the sky; say a positive mantra or prayer blessing at the beginning and ending of each day; use different rooms, if possible, for different work-related dates; place a wishing stone or a piece of paper with a wish on it into a bowl for each day COVID is still around; look into your own eyes in a mirror for five minutes, a practice that can be as deeply centering as it is soulful.
A camera can be a useful ally in creating new rituals. A friend of mine goes out each morning to photograph the changing face of the lake near her house. When the pandemic is over, she plans to make a book of her photographs. Another friend manages her depression by photographing every sunrise. You might choose a nearby tree to photograph through the seasons, or the daily expressions of your cat. Let whimsy and chance be your guides.
Creating new rituals can refresh and uplift our spirits. Let in and honor what arises from the depth of your being. The wisest part of ourselves, whether we call it Higher Self, Soul, our Buddha or Christ nature, is waiting to be summoned.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
In only seven months we have watched the dissolution of our familiar world. The viral outbreak has fractured our social order and dismantled the scaffolding which has held our society intact. Institutions we have come to rely on for our well-being—healthcare, education, government itself—are altered in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
We wonder how our future will look. Some of us even wonder if we will be alive in the future. What will survive? Will there be restaurants? Movie theaters? Malls and sports arenas? Will our children have human teachers, or will tele-teaching and tele-medical visits become the norm? Social instability appears to be chronic and unfixable and our psyches are suffering greatly. How could we not be swept up by feelings of abandonment, worry, anger, fear, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation and loss, or numbed out and grieving? If any of these feelings ring true for you, you’re not alone.
So where can we find strength and resilience when hardships proliferate and we need to accommodate even more change? One way is to turn inward to our heroic self who seeks our greatest potential and guides us toward authentic wholeness. Here’s how depth psychologist Carl Jung described this inner companion: “Inside each of us is another who we do not know who speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from how we see ourselves.”
These days most everyone knows about the hero’s journey, whether they are aware of it or not. Popular culture brims with stories structured around the hero’s journey, including some of our most popular fictional characters like Harry Potter or Atticus Finch. The film industry has notably co-opted the hero’s journey to plot movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, Frozen, and all the James Bond films.
The Brothers Grimm’s version of “Little Brother and Little Sister” illustrates how the initiating journey starts with misfortune:
Little Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step-mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left over; and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a nice bit. May Heaven pity us. If our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.”
Likewise, “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn” begins:
There were once three brothers who had fallen deeper and deeper into poverty, and at last their need was so great that they had to endure hunger, and had nothing to eat or drink. Then said they, “We cannot go on thus, we had better go into the world and seek our fortune.”
What images are currently emerging in your dreams that speak of inner fears and challenges? Do you feel yourself abandoned by our government and leaders? Do you see yourself as a child lost in a wood, or freezing to death on a snowy evening ignored by the happy celebrants who pass you by, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”? Do you feel unseen in a society that doesn’t seem to care? Do you dream you have an impossible task to complete and not enough time? Do you arrive too late to take the exam, or your driver’s test? Have you missed the train, forgotten your suitcase, misplaced the ticket, or can’t start the car? Do you dial for help only to discover your phone battery is dead? These are dream images of difficult beginnings, the conflict or misfortune that sets you on the path. Carl Jung summed up the mystery and importance of dreams when he wrote, “A dream is a product of nature, the patient has not made it, it is like a letter dropped from Heaven, something he knows nothing of.” (ETH Lecture V 23, Nov1934. Page 156.)
Did you have a favorite fairytale growing up? (Preferably not the Disney version, which has usually been altered quite a bit from the original.) If “Rapunzel” or “The Frog King” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” enraptured you then, reread the story and note what stands out for you. What emotions do you feel? Is there something in your life now that has a similar theme? Does a different fairytale capture your attention? Ask yourself how this particular tale affects you now.
Many of us are now managing anxiety, depression, anger, and fear through psychological and spiritual support. Working consciously with a creative channel by dream journaling, reading or writing your own fairytale, or simply thinking about the stages of the hero’s journey can complement more conventional ways of managing difficult feelings. They could even bring fresh insights and creative solutions and restore energy to our feelings of “battle fatigue.”
The more you honor and stay in contact with feelings and images that arrive unbidden and give them space, the more they will share their wisdoms with you. This is what Jung discovered during his decades-long exploration of soul and psyche. “The privilege of a lifetime,” he writes, “is to become who you truly are.”
This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
Not too long ago I had a disturbing dream. The dream accomplished what dreams often do— illuminate for the dreamer unconscious feelings that are hidden to the waking ego. Carl Jung believed dreams serve a compensatory function: to balance our conscious attitudes, they present symbolic images that complement and enlarge how we experience ourselves in daily life. A conceited person full of himself, for instance, might dream he was an ant. In my dream, I cradled a dog while its life ebbed away. I knew I couldn’t save this beloved creature, and as I rocked the dog in my arms, I saw in its eyes how it felt I had betrayed her. When I woke, I knew there was no escaping what I felt: my sense of helplessness and repressed sorrow over our “dying” society, a reality I needed to embrace.
Here is the backstory to that dream: during the early months of COVID-19, I had surprised myself by remaining relatively calm. What anxiety I had I succeeded in confining to an hour of nightly news. But as the viral pandemic grew into a more diffuse global experience of social breakdown, and the nation witnessed on video the murder of an innocent man pleading for his life, heavier emotions took over.
What my dream indicated was that beneath palpable anger and anxiety, a walled-off, unacknowledged “sadness beyond sadness” lived in my psyche. Had it not been for this powerful dream, I might have gone weeks or months being out-of-touch with those feelings. I share this personal story as a reminder that the fractured, fragmented, broken outer world influences our inner lives as well.
If you, too, find strong emotions making you feel unbalanced, please read on.
“Pandemic” comes from the Greek pandemos, which means “all of us.” Related to “pandemic” are “panic “and “pandemonium” and all three words reference the mythological Greek god, Pan. Stories about Pan refer to him as the terror-awakener. Whenever Pan appeared, panic spread and grew contagious. All of us on the planet are facing inescapable, difficult, and unacceptable truths. Our current government and health care systems are straining under an attack by a powerful and unpredictable new adversary. The future is unknowable and new structures meant to stabilize society will be slow to evolve.
Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. If Pan, the terror-awakener, has entered into our midst, the stories assure that he is not a permanent feature of the landscape. One way to gain a new perspective on the changes we are undergoing is to view them as part of an unfolding process and not as an inevitable or fixed state of ruin. A brief overview of the ancient art of alchemy can serve as a model and a way to frame transformation and perhaps discover hope and potential betterment as an outcome of the process.
The antiquarian alchemists were originally concerned with turning base metal, lead, into gold. What I’d like to do here is to view the great work of alchemy symbolically: as a spiritual metaphor for the transmutation of human souls from the lowest to the highest, as a breakdown of old attitudes and habits of being. The alchemists described their work as proceeding in stages identified by colors. The original four stages include the nigredo (the blackening), the albedo (whitening), the citrinitas (yellowing), and the rubedo (reddening). We won’t get into the intricacies of each stage, but let’s note that the trajectory from blackening to reddening is a process of attaining illumination and spiritual wholeness through the work of bringing the unconscious into consciousness. Not just individuals, but entire cultures can and do undergo dark ages that evolve into a golden age or an age of enlightenment.
Carl Jung spent years of intense study reading the codices of the ancient alchemists. In 1944, he published Psychology and Alchemy, and later included a section on alchemy in his Collected Works. He deeply analyzed the ascendency of Nazi Germany and the unacknowledged anger, depression, and resentment bound in the German collective unconscious as a result of the country’s humiliation after World War I. Jung would likely agree that the pandemic we are currently living through along with our increased racial strife has placed us inside the experience of the nigredo, at the beginning of the alchemical process when decomposition, dismemberment (of the culture), and putrefaction reign.
During the nigredo, changes great and small occur. Old forms decay and are dissolved into “a black blacker than black,” as when a fruit or body rots, eventually to become soil and nourish new life. We have all seen how at the right season apples drop from branches. As the natural process continues, the flesh of the apple withers and shrinks, turns soft and rotten. This allows the seeds at the apple’s core to bury into the earth where they germinate new life. The “death” of the apple provides the opportunity for the seeds to do their work.
As a metaphor for dissolution and the dark night of the soul, the nigredo speaks to us now as we suffer a kind of collective death, despair, and disillusionment. It is a time of putrefaction and mortification—putrefactio and mortificatio—but the nigredo, as the alchemists saw it, and Jung agreed, is the beginning of the great work. It is a time of massa confusa, creative chaos. Jung would often refer to the beginning of analysis as the nigredo, that is, “dark at the beginning,” which he took from the Rosarium Philosophorum, an alchemical treatise from the sixteenth century. The Rosarium states: “When you see your matter going black, rejoice, you are at the beginning of the work.”
And isn’t it true that what drives us to seek professional help is often driven by our lives falling apart?
We are in it—a period of waiting in uncertainty and grief. Many of us, individually, know cycles of generativity alternating with fallowness and depression. We have learned that the energy that has slipped underground is not gone, but is incubating, soon to push through and renew life. If there is hope in the moment, we can turn to the next stages of alchemy. The albedo (white) and rubedo ( red) that promise renewal and a transformation of what was base and leaden into light. We can take comfort in knowing the wisdom traditions have charted a way through epochal changes, and we can have faith in our creative capacity to adapt and re-vision a more just, safe, and equitable world.
A Conversation with Meditation Pioneer Sharon Salzberg
A meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher, Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition; Lovingkindness, her seminal work; and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September 2020.
Sharon has been my friend and teacher for over a decade. On my very first retreat with her, I fell in love. Using stories from her own life as well as others, she imbues our poignant earthly suffering with compassionate laughter. Over the years, her talks and books have inspired a new understanding of what it means to be human. Sharon has many gifts as a teacher. One of them is to instill faith and courage in her students, and I am one of the millions around the world who deeply admire her wisdom. It is a great pleasure to interview her for Psychology Today.
Dale Kushner: For any readers who don’t already know you, your illuminating work, and before we talk about your new book, Real Change, would you tell everyone a bit about your background, and about lovingkindness meditation?
Sharon Salzberg: I went to India to study meditation as a junior in college, on an independent study program. As a sophomore, I had taken an Asian philosophy course which inspired me to look for meditation training. I wanted to learn how to utilize direct, practical skills, rather than simply learn the philosophy, to see if they could help me be happier. My first immersion into meditation practice was an intensive 10-day retreat in January 1971. It was a mindfulness retreat, using tools like focus on the breath and awareness of the body as the main trainings. It was like a revolution for me, to connect more deeply with myself, and with kindness. Right at the end of that retreat, S.N. Goenka, who was the teacher, introduced lovingkindness meditation, which is very related to mindfulness but is also a distinct technique. Through that, I saw the possibility of connecting much more deeply with others.
D.K.: It’s been helpful for me to sit quietly and focus on the questions I’d like to ask you today. Like so many others, my inbox is flooded with links from friends and from various groups offering opinions, invitations, strategies, and messages of equal amounts of hope and despair. Sorting through all this material is overwhelming, and yet I’m inspired that so many unheard voices are now being heard.
In one of my favorite books of yours, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, you encourage readers to rely less on outside authorities, gurus or abstract principles and to trust our own insights and lived experience. Today, many of us live with doubt and confusion that our insights have been in error or inadequate in addressing issues of social justice. We wonder how to affect transformational change without falling into guilt, doubt, fear, or anger. From a Buddhist perspective, how best might we uncover the true nature of our biases that distort our ability to see how our actions shape the collective? Are there particular practices that can help us?
S.S.: One of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice is that it enables us to see our thoughts as thoughts, before we say or do something on the basis of the thought that has arisen. The illuminating and ultimately empowering aspect of this is that we can see our assumptions as they come up, so they are not unconscious. Not all of our assumptions are wrong of course, but many of them are, and grievously so. My friends have a daughter who was born in China. Two blond Caucasians, they adopted her at a young age and formed a very happy family. When the little girl was in the first or second grade, her teacher presented this assignment to the class: “Name a physical characteristic you have in common with one of your parents.” The little girl started sobbing, and kept on sobbing at home. Her whole sense of family, and belonging, was suddenly ripped away. The teacher was making an assumption about what makes a family. It’s unlikely that her intention was to cause harm, but not seeing her assumption as a thought and carrying it into action did in fact hurt someone.
D.K.: Your new book, which was to be released this month but will be launched in September, is presciently titled Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. What prompted you to write this book?
S.S.: I encounter so many people who inspire me through their dedication to their work in the world, some of whom function in very tough situations. I have a lot of respect for people who have a vision of the world that is inclusive, who navigate the world with love and care as their north star, and who try every day to make it real.
D.K.: In writing Real Change, you consulted with veteran activists and agents of social change. Were there common threads among the consultants that aligned with your own experience of Buddhist teachings? Could you give us three or four brief examples of the principles that emerged from your conversations?
S.S.: I think that there are many Buddhist principles that emerged for me out of the lives of the people I interviewed, even though they weren’t all Buddhists or even formal meditation practitioners. One was a belief in the innate dignity and worth of everybody. I think of Shantel Walker, one of the leaders of Fight for $15, a nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize for fast-food workers. I’ve met several of the striking workers. They work very hard, at times are homeless because even with a full-time job they cannot afford rent, and in many cases, they are denied the wages owed to them. Some would recount how even their parents would tell them “don’t make waves.” But Shantel is an exemplar of someone who realized she (and not only she) was worth being treated with respect—because everyone is.
This brings to mind the fundamental truth of interconnection the Buddha talked about. It doesn’t mean we like everyone or want to spend time with them, but there is a deep realization that our lives are intertwined. The corollary to this is that everyone counts, everyone matters. Everyone I talked to had this worldview. That’s why they do the work they do.
And a third principle is the conviction that love is stronger than hate. No one I talked to believed that meeting hatred with hatred was the way forward. They derived their energy from a sense of justice and a vision of what could be possible. This certainly echoed the Buddha, “hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only cease by love. This is an eternal law.”
D.K.: Does practicing mindfulness always involve meditation or are there other ways to achieve it?
S.S.: I think there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness. Life gives us many opportunities every day, really every hour. Meditation is a little like strength training—a dedicated period of immersion where your focus is on cultivating the different facets of mindfulness—awareness, balance, and connection. It then becomes easier to apply mindfulness in conversations, at work, commuting, whatever we might be doing.
A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Three)
This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions. In Part Two, we discussed the importance of dreams in Jungian analysis. In Part Three, we turn to archetypes.
Perhaps you are wondering: Why pay attention to dreams and archetypes when our daily life seems on the verge of collapse? Stores are shuttered and bare. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some have lost our health. Many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a more just and equitable world. Isn’t turning toward our inner life rather indulgent?
Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. The future is uncertain and our energies limited. To turn inward toward our dreams is to honor life’s mysteries and place trust in a source beyond our ego’s domain. In dreams, contradictions and paradoxes abound: we can be both shattered and strong, frightened and brave. We can run from the tiger, and in the next moment, be the tiger.
Think of a dream as a portal, or a portal leading to other portals, by which we enter wildly new terrain where at any moment fresh insights might impress themselves upon us.
Kenneth James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago, where he practices as a Jungian analyst.
Dale Kushner: What is the definition of “archetype?”
Kenneth James: Archetypes are best conceived as organizing principles that are part of the human psyche simply by virtue of a person’s existence in the world of space and time. Archetypes in themselves are a priori givens and are not derived from an individual’s particular experiences in their lifetime. The images associated with particular archetypes, including visual images, myths, legends, scriptures, and any other artifacts of human presence on earth, are created through individual experience and cultural transmission. Thus, the images I associate with, for example, physical love and sexuality, will be informed by the mythological image of Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, because given my age, society, culture, and educational experiences, her mythic image emerges as dominant for me. The archetype-in-itself has no image, but images quickly attach to the archetypes. As I go through life, the archetype of physical love and sexuality is also amplified by my own personal experiences of physical intimacy, the attractions I feel, the images I encounter from art, cinema and literature, and even myths I encounter from other cultures and religions, either through education. From a Jungian perspective, experiences are not provided for us by the environment; rather experiences are constructed through an interaction between the archetypal ground and the particular day-to-day stimuli that we encounter.
D.K.: What archetypes have the COVID-19 virus constellated and how might they appear in a person’s psyche?
K.J.: The COVID-19 virus is an interesting phenomenon. All of the depictions of the virus offered in the media show a spherical center with projections coming off the surface perpendicularly. In Analytical Psychology, the sphere, or any mandala (circular) shape, is usually thought of as an emblem of the Self. Jung wrote that at times when an individual is experiencing significant chaotic emotional challenges in daily life, a round image may emerge in dreams or daydreams. Jung felt that the multiple axes of symmetry found in circles and spheres, all arranged around a center point, were an attempt on the part of the psyche to provide an image of order and stability in the face of psychic chaos. How curious then that the image we are given of the COVID-19 virus should be, of all things, a mandala.
In my practice, dream images of the virus itself has not figured significantly, but the effects of the pandemic have appeared abundantly in dreams. Fear of being overtaken by a flood; concerns about whether the foundation of a high-rise building will be able to withstand the impact of runaway hurricane winds; jogging in territory familiar to the dreamer, but in spite of attempting to run “full out,” the dreamer feels like she is running through a lake of molasses—all of these have been dream images which, upon investigation between analyst and analysand, point to the anxiety, fear and confusion surrounding psyche’s attempt to come to terms with this exceptional time.
Perhaps the images that medical science has given us of the virus itself, the sphere with perpendicular protuberances, is a way for the Self to remind us that wholeness lies at the core of every experience. Even in the global chaos that we are now experiencing, the fundamental processes of life are in order and can be considered not only as destructive but also as providing an opportunity to form a new relationship to the world. Just as death and birth are characteristic of every cell of our bodies throughout our lifetimes, so may we be being reminded to find the wholeness amidst the chaos, move toward that, and begin to organize our experiences in a more coherent, symmetrical and balanced manner.
D.K.: How do archetypes figure in Jung’s view of the personal and collective unconscious?
K.J.: The archetypes are the organizing principles which constitute the collective unconscious. It is because of the archetypes that the collective unconscious exhibits such a high level of organizational structure, and why more or less direct expressions of the collective unconscious patterns such as are found in myth, fairy tales, religion, and literature are also highly organized with a rich web of connections among all the archetypal images in any given system. With this as a foundation, the personal unconscious also can achieve a similar architecture. Whereas the collective unconscious is populated with contents (the archetypes) which were never part of the space/time experience of any particular individual, the personal unconscious is composed of material that was at one time part of day-to-day experience. Aspects of this personal material, which may be thought of as residue from encounters in the so-called outer world, finds its way to the personal unconscious so that it may be processed by the ego and ultimately integrated into our understanding of who we are. Most of us discover the contents of the collective unconscious through intense consideration of personal experiences, including dreams, daydreams, projection, displacement, somatization, parapraxis, and synchronicity. These “disclosures” from the unconscious, if considered respectfully as sources of valuable insight into personal suffering, show the intimate connection Jung believed operated between personal and collective aspects of the unconscious.
D.K.: Does analysis involve trying to identify which archetype mostly closely “fits” an analysand?
K.J.: Absolutely not! To do such a thing is completely ego-based, which is not the Jungian way. Finding a fit can be seen as a sort of parlor-game approach to the collective unconscious made popular nowadays in a variety of ways, from decks of cards depicting subsets of “the archetypes,” to disjointed considerations of individual mythic characters who may be seen as motifs that may, at times, bear a strong resemblance to some aspect of an individual’s life. If we try to identify “the” archetype which “fits” an analysand, we would be doing the opposite of what analysis seeks to accomplish. Such a static understanding of the archetypes ignores completely the vast web of interconnection among all of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.
The meaning of analysis is “loosening.” Therefore, one goal of analysis is loosening up the unconscious identification with particular episodes in one’s personal history. Analysis can also shed light when we feel stuck in patterns of relationship to our experience which, upon deeper consideration, can be seen to exemplify particular archetypal motifs. This loosening comes about by exploring the connections among archetypes and finding ways of encouraging psychic movement that can free us from the possession we can experience at the archetypal level. It is perhaps more correct to say that we come to analysis already unconsciously identified not only with aspects of our personal history but also with a fixed subset of the characters and situations from the archetypal ground. Analytic work seeks to free us from those unconscious identifications. We are always far more than we can ever believe ourselves to be, and analysis makes this abundantly clear. Throughout our lifetime, we will experience many parts of the archetypal ground, and believing there is one particular node or element of that ground that “fits” me is an egoic attempt to control the dynamic nature of the human person. It is this dynamism that analysis seeks to support and encourage.
This closes my three-part conversation with Jungian analyst Kenneth James. I described my own experience with Jungian training in “Treating Patients or Creating Characters,” and my decision to choose to become a novelist rather than a therapist. No surprise that readers sometimes comment on the Jungian themes in my novel, The Conditions of Love. I’m happy to participate virtually in reading group discussions of my work, and the themes I explore, whether Jung, dreams, archetypes, resilience, mother/daughter relationships, intergenerational trauma, etc. You can find information on how to reach me on my Contact page.
A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Two)
This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions.
The COVID pandemic is reshaping life as we have known it on the planet. For many, the absolutes we have counted on to sustain us during times of crisis have already disappeared. That we have lost all sources of income, that our hospitals are understaffed and inadequately supplied, that we may die alone without a beloved near are the unthinkable realities we must now face. During the long weeks ahead, fear, loneliness, and despair will be uninvited visitors. As our sense of catastrophe deepens, so will our feelings of isolation. How can we cope? One way is to turn inward and pursue a relationship to our inner world. In this second conversation, Dr. Kenneth James will discuss the importance of dreams and how making the unconscious conscious is a giant step toward becoming self-enlightened.
Kenneth James is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University, and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Dr. James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago where he practices as a Jungian analyst.
Dale Kushner: Most contemporary models of psychological counseling do not value the examination of dreams. Why do Jungians place so much value on dreamwork?
Kenneth James: The dream is considered the purest expression of unconscious dynamics, both personal and collective. Jungian work is not strictly speaking ego-based. We rely on disclosures from the unconscious to guide us in analysis and more importantly, in life outside of analysis. There are many ways that the unconscious seeks to communicate with the ego. These ways include daydreams and reverie, projection, displacement, somatization (the production of medical symptoms with no apparent organic cause), parapraxis (the so-called “Freudian” slip) and synchronicity. Dreams we have while we are asleep are highly esteemed because the ego is not involved in the generation of dreams (while we are asleep, the ego is absent). By examining dreams, the analyst and the analysand are guided to explore critical areas of the analysand’s life that may lead to unsuspected breakthroughs in self-understanding and growth of consciousness.
D.K.: In your experience, how does working consciously with dreams benefit an individual?
K.J.: Dreams point both the dreamer and the analyst toward issues and concerns that are in need of exploration and understanding. These may not be considered important by the ego, but when considered calmly and openly, dreams can awaken awareness of connections that can help the dreamer resolve problems, alleviate suffering, and calm conflicts. I often refer to dreams as the “MRIs” of the psyche. They show what the ego can’t see. A skilled analyst can use the dream to help the analysand explore areas that may not be brought up in any other way. Dreams circumvent the dominance that the ego wishes to claim for itself, and help facilitate both individuation (see Part One for our discussion of individuation) and its close companion, the relativization of the ego to the unconscious.
D.K.: Is there a positive side to nightmares or so-called bad dreams?
K.J.: Although uncomfortable for the dreamer, nightmares can serve as “stat” directives for the analysand and analyst, calling us to deal with something right away, now. Nightmares can be thought of as dreams that will no longer be ignored. Nightmares often motivate people to question what is going on at deeper levels of human personhood, and as such can be valuable in bringing the ego to the place it needs to be for psychological health. No matter how hard we try, we cannot take into account all of the exigencies of human life. The ego is always thwarted when faced with phenomena that can be referred to as luck, fate, and hazard. Each of these is an event that happens without regard for causality, intention, planning, or personal volition. We go along in life, making our way and formulating decisions, and if all goes smoothly, things seem like they are under our control. This is a pernicious egoic illusion, or perhaps delusion. Experiences of luck (who knew that would happen?), fate (I had no choice, I was destined to undergo that event) or hazard (an event that seems to come out of nowhere, usually suddenly, with significant consequences for the individual) show the ego that, despite its good-faith efforts to plan and provide for all contingencies, life has more to offer than any ego could dream possible. The nightmare supports this, bringing the ego to the place where it can experience fear, and possibly terror. This capacity for utter terror, which would be avoided at all costs by the ego, serves to shake up the complacency of even the most resistant person, if the nightmare can be respected for its gifts, and not explained away as “nothing but a dream.”
D.K.: Can you give some examples of how dreams contribute to the development of the individual?
K.J.: Dreams can help individuals approach events in their lives more slowly and reflectively than one might do habitually. Because dreams can shine new light on situations and relationships that the ego thinks it already understands, an individual who can become more open to dream symbolism will find new and different perspectives by which to consider aspects of their experience. Dreams are viewed as works of art produced by the unconscious, and as such, can be explored again and again throughout one’s life. Jungians rarely simply “interpret” a dream and then abandon it as having been understood. Dreams never cease to be sources for deeper and deeper insight. A dream image, whether a person, place, or event, can serve as a seed for what Jung referred to as “active imagination.” Active imagination is sometimes referred to as “dreaming the dream forward.” In active imagination, the individual gets into a relaxed state and focuses on a particular element in the dream.
For example, one analysand had a puzzling dream about being in Grand Central Station, a place familiar to him because he was born and raised in New York City. He wondered why he should dream of what was to him a very mundane setting. I suggested he do an active imagination on Grand Central Station, relaxing his body and then focusing his mind on the place, letting himself move through it as though exploring it in waking life. His visions began in an ordinary way, and he went through areas of the station he remembered from waking life. But then he turned a corner in the imagined station and found a doorway down to the sub-sub-basement, where he witnessed rats carrying on their lives unbeknownst to the people bustling to meet their trains or greet their loved ones. He then was taken, in the active imagination, to the top of the station, where he saw a large statue. He didn’t know what it was. When we discussed his active imagination, I suggested that he investigate what statue might be on the top of Grand Central Station. He did, and discovered it was a statue of Mercury, or Hermes in the Greek mythological form. I explained that Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods, entrusted with carrying messages from humanity to the Olympian realm, and returning with divine message for mortals. He then said, “so Mercury is what helps us do this analytic thing!” I agreed. I believe that one of the functions of this dream of Grand Central Station for this analysand was to help him accept the reality and the autonomy of the psyche. He also was able to see that the rats might represent things going on “really deep inside me” that he either ignored or judged to be disgusting. Because of his valuing of the dream, he came to see that even the disgusting parts need to be witnessed, understood, and respected.
Please watch for Part Three of my conversation with Dr. Kenneth James. This series is an invitation to turn toward your deepest internal resources. How we respond as individuals to the overwhelming emotions generated by this global crisis will affect not only our own lives and those in our circle, but the entire planet. When we know ourselves, when we can name and face our fears, we are in a stronger position to act with clarity and brave hearts. We also recognize we are joined to others in our suffering. As Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, “What if compassion could go viral? What if love could?”
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
Recently, I heard a wonderful definition of resilience: resilience is the ability to respond to danger with wisdom. As the coronavirus continues to spread and endanger millions of lives, fear has colonized our hearts, limiting our capacity for imagining possibilities for a positive future.
One of Carl Jung’s great gifts to depth psychology was his recognition that mind and body are one, and that our symptoms, psychological and physical, can be viewed as manifestations of some part of us that “wants to be known.” Jung came to this conclusion after years of working with his own inner world, undertaking the task of self-examination through a descent into his dreams, fantasies, and images. He came to see that even terrifying figures in dreams could be messengers and beneficial guides to psychological growth. Over and over, with diligent attention to material that came from his unconscious, Jung became convinced that more wisdom than our egos recognize abides within.
This is a moment in history and in our lives when we seek wisdom and guidance. We may look to authority figures to alleviate our fear and anxiety, but inspiration flows naturally from our own inner resources. We cheer the Italians on their balconies, serenading one another. We marvel as Yo-Yo Ma plays songs of comfort on Twitter. Even in the darkest moments, our joy and creativity assert themselves.
Please be encouraged to embrace your own creativity and wise self. A simple way to start is to sit quietly and focus your attention on your heart. When you feel you have made a connection with that loving space within, ask your heart for a word, image or idea that will help you find resilience during this crisis. Write down whatever comes, or if you prefer, draw, dance, compose or paint it.
In honor of Jung’s courage and pioneering path, and his astonishing legacy of work, I have invited the esteemed Jungian analyst Ken James to talk about why someone might seek Jungian analysis, and why he considers this “soul work.”
Kenneth James is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Along with a background in mathematics, he trained as a music therapist and completed four years of post-doctoral study in theology and scripture at the Catholic Theological Union. He has also taken lay ordination as a Zen Buddhist under Roshi Richard Langlois and studied the Kabbalah with the Lubavitcher Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun. Dr. James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago where he practices as a Jungian analyst.
Dale Kushner: Please describe the process of Jungian analysis.
Kenneth James: This is a difficult question to answer because every Jungian analysis is different. This is not some sort of generic “we are all unique” sentiment. Rather, Jungian analysis is predicated on the activity of the unconscious, both personal and collective. Because of this, even when people come into analysis with specific goals, such as increasing relationship satisfaction, improving mood, or generating more energy for life, both the analyst and the analysand must maintain an openness to material coming from the unconscious that may indicate a different focus for the work, at least for a time. Personal goals for analysis are not ignored, but like all of the activity stemming from the ego complex, these personal ego-based goals must be relativized to the material coming from the unconscious. This unconscious material presents itself in a variety of ways, including dreams, daydreams, projection, somatization (physical expression of symptoms with no discernible organic cause), parapraxis (the “Freudian slip”), and of course synchronicity. Because no one, neither analyst nor analysand, can say precisely what will emerge through these various forms of unconscious communication, it is most accurate to say that every Jungian analysis has its own unique characteristics.
D.K.: How does Jungian analysis differ from Freudian analysis?
K.J.: Both Jungian and Freudian analyses view the unconscious as the most important resource for the work. The differences between Jungian analysis and Freudian analysis can be attributed to the different ways that Jungians and Freudians understand the unconscious.
For Freudians, the unconscious is composed strictly of material that derives from the analysand’s personal experiences during his or her life. The contents of the unconscious, from a Freudian perspective, are a derivative of the analysand’s personal history, and the analysand’s presenting issues, referred to as “neuroses,” are viewed as the result of an inability or unwillingness to integrate these unconscious elements into one’s personal narrative. The key, from a Freudian perspective, is to find the “blocked” or unintegrated material, examine it in order to understand both what it means and why it was so threatening to the ego that the individual had to repress, suppress, or otherwise convert the material into a neurotic symptom. Once the troublesome material from the past is understood, this material can be assimilated into one’s personal understanding of selfhood. Then ego gains strength, and the neurosis subsides. Analysis, then, is a personal investigation, from the Freudian perspective. The methods used in Freudian work are called “reductive” in that they seek to reduce the manifold expressions of the unconscious to particular tropes or themes, among which are the Oedipal situation, and either of two fundamental drives: Eros, or the pleasure drive, and Thanatos, or the drive toward death. The ultimate goal of Freudian analytic work is the strengthening of the ego according to the dictum “where id was, there ego shall be.” This means that consciousness, a function of the ego, replaces undifferentiated primal energy (id) and works to channel this energy into socially acceptable patterns and expressions.
In Jungian analysis, the unconscious is also the focus of the work, but with distinctive differences. First, although Jungians acknowledge that some unconscious material derives from the analysand’s personal experiences in life, we also understand that the unconscious contains material that was never experienced during the life of the analysand, material that is not strictly personal in origin or nature. Jungians conceive of the unconscious as having two aspects, the personal and the collective. We call these aspects the “personal unconscious,” which is exactly like the “unconscious” that Freudians consider, and the “collective unconscious,” which does not appear in a Freudian conceptualization of the psyche. The collective unconscious contains primordial elements that may be considered organizing principles for the unconscious taken as a whole.
In Jungian analysis, resolution of neuroses is approached both from the personal and collective dimensions. Material from the unconscious, such as dreams, daydreams, projections, and so forth, are examined both in terms of the analysand’s life and from the transpersonal perspective of symbol, such as those found in myth, fairy tale, and religion. Jungian work is considered both reductive (in the Freudian sense) and amplificative, in that the analyst and the analysand work to understand personal issues and concerns within a more collective frame of reference in order to raise the ego’s awareness that not only is personal history a factor in neurotic suffering, but also collective motifs that have been part of human experience for millennia.
D.K.: What are the most common reasons people seek Jungian analysis?
K.J.: There are two main factors that lead a person to seek Jungian analysis. The first is a general familiarity with Jungian thought. Individuals who have read some Jung, or Jungian-themed writings, seek to experience these ideas in practice through analytic work. These individuals are often surprised when, amidst the headiness of their theoretical understanding, they come to the point where seemingly abstract and philosophical Jungian concepts are shown to have very practical value in easing suffering and improving their quality of life. The second factor involves the experience of life difficulties that individuals may have tried to resolve on their own, or through other forms of psychological work such as psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral intervention, or Freudian analysis. Not being satisfied with the results of those other treatments, these individuals come to Jungian work simply to seek relief. They often become the most ardent supporters of the Jungian perspective because they see that it offers them something no other form of treatment has been able to supply.
D.K.: How does “analysis” differ from “therapy”?
K.J.: Therapy is based on the assumption that the client experiences a problem or difficulty and goes to seek help from someone who will help them resolve their problem. This traditional therapeutic model, based on the medical paradigm of doctor-patient-pathology, is inherently hierarchical: the therapist is the one who has the tools to help the client alleviate their suffering. There is a sense that what the client brings is maladaptive, or more strictly speaking “pathological,” and the doctor/therapist offers an opportunity to heal the pathology.
In Jungian analysis, the situation is vastly different. First, Jungians tend not to emphasize psychopathology, but rather maintain the attitude that in the suffering (the so-called “pathology”) is the impetus and guidance for healing. Sitting with the suffering and attending to all of the many ways that the unconscious provides expressions of that suffering and its potential resolution, is foundational to Jung’s approach to analysis. The goal is not simply the relief of suffering, although that is certainly valued, sought for, and attained. However, the deeper goal of Jungian analysis, beyond the easing of suffering, is what Jung called “individuation.” Jung reminds us that we are “dividuals,” divided within ourselves, not “in-dividuals.” We are profoundly out of touch with the wholeness that we embody but often forget. Individuation is the process by which our divided nature becomes more coherent and aligned. The ego, from the Jungian perspective, must learn its proper role in the structure and dynamics of the psyche. The ego becomes relativized to the dynamics of the unconscious and learns to operate in harmony with unconscious forces that must be taken into account in order to heal.
In September of 1913, Carl Jung, the great pioneer of depth psychology, was on a train in his homeland of Switzerland when he experienced a waking vision. Gazing out the window at the countryside, he saw Europe inundated by a devastating flood. The vision shocked and disturbed him. Two weeks later, on the same journey, the vision reoccurred. This time an inner voice told him: “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”
Years later, in his memoir Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he recalls the event and his concern that he was having a psychotic break.
“I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.”
The following spring of 1914, he had three catastrophic dreams in which he saw Europe was deluged by ice, the vegetation was gone, and the land deserted by humans. Despite his awareness that the situation in Europe was “darkening,” he interpreted these dreams personally and feared he was going mad. However, by August of that year, his dreams and visions were affirmed: World War I had broken out.
Some fifty years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had a prophetic dream. Three days before he was assassinated, Lincoln conveyed his dream to his wife and a group of friends. Ward Hill Lamon, an attending companion, recorded the conversation.
“About ten days ago I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Think I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865 by Ward Hill Lamon, published 1911.)
Two weeks later, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. As in his dream, his casket was put on view in the East Room of the White House and guarded by soldiers.
These are two chilling examples of dreams that occurred during periods of collective crisis which accurately predicted historical turning points. Do prophetic dreams occur more often during turbulent times? How does the dreamer know if a dream is to be interpreted personally and symbolically, or as a warning for others and the world at large?
I asked these questions to Dr. Murray Stein, a renowned author and Jungian analyst at the International School for Analytic Psychology in Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Stein replied that he had no statistics on whether people have predictive dreams more frequently in times of crisis than at other times. In his experience, one can’t know if a dream is precognitive until after the event. After 9/11, he told me, people reported precognitive dreams that foretold the disaster. He said people also reported that dreams foretold the financial crisis of 2008, which he called, “a black swan event.” According to Investopedia:
A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the practice of explaining widespread failure to predict them as simple folly in hindsight.
The recent outbreak of the coronavirus might be considered a black swan event, and perhaps we will soon hear about people who have had prophetic dreams of its manifestation.
While there is no simple answer or proven method to discern whether a dream should be interpreted personally or more broadly, we can go about exploring its contents with both aspects in mind. For example, if I have a dream in which I am a child who has been put into a cage. I might ask: What aspect of me feels “caged” right now? Noting that I am a child in the dream, I might further inquire: Is there something from my childhood that is still confining and constricting me? I might try to estimate the age of the child in the dream and reflect back to when I was that age and try to remember if something significant happened then. Maybe my parents had begun to think about divorce at that time and I felt caged by their emotions. I might then inquire if there is something similar going on in my life right now, not necessarily a divorce, but an imminent disruption or the loss of a treasured relationship. When we go back into a dream to amplify it, each question generates other questions that can lead to deeply buried insights. (For a more complete explanation of Jung’s use of amplification as a technique, please see Michael Vannoy Adams’ description on JungNewYork.
But what if I dream that I am a child that has been put into a cage, and a few days later I discover that children of immigrants are actually being held in cages in detention centers? My dream, while personally relevant, would carry a collective, or more public meaning as well. This collective meaning of the dream attests to the interconnectedness of our species, to our capacity for empathy (we see a horror on the news and we feel it enter us) and to the common values we share about the quality of human life.
If we had lived during the early part of the last century, or in an indigenous culture, or in ancient Mesopotamia, we might examine our dreams for deep wisdom and as augurs for the future. These days we are more likely to look to neuroscience to understand of our dreams. Neurobiology tells us that sleep is a complex neural activity of the brain that stays busy activating and deactivating complicated neuro-systems while we doze, including consolidating memories, regulating mood, restoring immune function and many other important utilitarian tasks. But neuroscience tells us nothing about the meaning of dreams or why our dreaming life has carried significance for humans since we first walked the planet.
About thirty thousand years ago, toward the end of the Paleolithic Era, our hunter-gather forebears descended into the subterranean darkness of caves to enact rituals of trance and dreaming. Recently, archaeologists and ethnographers have speculated that the artifacts found in the caves of southern Europe— bone flutes, whistles, and types of drums—and the now-famous discovery of cave wall paintings indicate that ancient shamans may have used these caves for ceremonial dream retreats (See in particular the work of David Lewis-Williams). We can speculate that the depictions of bison and large and small game along with scenes of hunting painted on the walls may reflect shamanic dream content. Perhaps the shaman ascended from his retreat having had visions about the abundance and location of prey, which would be crucial information for the clan.
Later human societies continued to transcribe their dreams. The oldest written dream recorded is in the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh (2100 BCE). Not unlike King Nebuchadnezzar’s frightening dream in the Book of Daniel, Gilgamesh, the king of the Sumerian city Uruk, has violent nightmares about death, which shake him to the core, and send him on his quest for immortality. But Gilgamesh cannot interpret his own dreams, and like many of the dreamers in the Old Testament, is in need of an interpreter. How telling that from ancient times, the one who receives the dream and the one who knows its significance are different people.
In some contemporary cultures, dreams are thought to be a way of receiving messages from the spirit world. A holy man or medicine woman, an elder or shaman is the receiver of the prophetic dream, which is given for the benefit of all and linked to the survival of the tribe or people. Black Elk, the holy medicine man of the Lakota Sioux, stated this when he said a dream is worthless unless it is shared with the tribe.
How can we relate to the dreams that pursue us? Are they simply the result of complex neurological activity and without real meaning, just as we know the moon is no enchanted sphere but a mere rock in space? What might we miss if we cast our lot with a viewpoint based wholly on the material world? Is it possible to consider the two worlds as being equally meaningful, the world of science and — to borrow the phrase John Keats used to characterize adventurers on the threshold of a new frontier — the world of “wild surmise”? Can we think of ourselves as vessels open to receiving wisdom through non-ordinary means? Can we be our own shamans?
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
My husband and I used to joke that together we had a complete brain. He was the scientist, a man of logical and rational thinking. I was the artist, habitual dweller in the land of reverie, seeker of mysteries and mysticism. We identified ourselves in this neatly dualist way, and neuroscience seemed to reflect our conclusions.
Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain became a massive bestseller in the early 1980s. It popularized the idea that our brains are divided into right and left hemispheres and that each half is responsible for different and opposite functions.
Her book maintained that the right hemisphere was responsible for intuitive, impressionistic, dreamy, “feminine” functions while the left hemisphere was the more rational, here-and-now, “masculine” side of the brain.
This model replicated how my husband and I experienced the world. We perceived and evaluated situations differently. We used contrasting models to solve problems, and arrived at distinct conclusions and solutions. He relied on facts and proof; I inclined toward suppositions that questioned accepted knowledge. Cause and effect offered him clear answers. Cause and effect bored me. I liked to spin off possibilities. He liked B to always follow A. I liked to see what would happen if D followed A—and B disappeared completely! The majority of people we knew, as well as Western culture in general, shared my husband’s preferences. Some of our worst arguments resulted from the ways our apprehension of truth diverged.
But good news comes from studies of brain plasticity. While unhealthy trends in society do not yet seem to have altered our brains in major structural ways, the question remains: can we, as a society, reverse the negative trends already in motion? The work of Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist I have mentioned in a previous blog, “‘Let It Go!’ More Than a Song Title, the Motto for Our Age,” offers hope and concrete ways to enhance well-being through meditations aimed at coping with difficult mind states such as depression, hyperactivity, or anxiety.
Dr. Davidson offers “mindfulness meditation” as an example in The Emotional Life of Your Brain:
“The term ‘mindfulness meditation’ refers to a form of meditation during which practitioners are instructed to pay attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally. The process of learning to attend nonjudgmentally can gradually transform one’s emotional response to stimuli such that we can learn to simply observe our minds in response to stimuli that might provoke either negative or positive emotion without being swept up in these emotions. This does not mean that our emotional intensity diminishes. It simply means that our emotions do not perseverate. If we encounter an unpleasant situation, we might experience a transient increase in negative emotions but they do not persist beyond the situation.”
Another researcher, the psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, offers case histories of almost miraculous transformative cures of those afflicted with pain, cerebral palsy, phantom pain syndrome, and other brain-related maladies through the use of specific brain exercises. For instance, he describes the case in which Dr. V.S. Ramachandran successfully removed an amputee’s phantom pain by “rewiring his brain map” through the use of a “mirror box” that made the patient seem to see his phantom limb in the box before him. While the “cures” Dr. Doidge describes may be rare cases, brain plasticity is not a hoax. Moreover, this may indeed be a crucial time in the history of our species and our planet for us to embrace and consciously activate all aspects of our brains; most importantly, those previously untapped aspects that allow us to understand and access the transformative powers available within us.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
If you’d been a lad some four thousand years ago in ancient Babylonia, you might have celebrated the New Year as part of a group carrying statues of the gods, singing praises to Ishtar and Marduk and asking for their blessing. This would not have occurred at the beginning of winter, but in spring, after the vernal equinox.
Had you lived in China around that time, your New Year’s celebration might have included sweeping out your house to get rid of evil spirits lurking in corners and decorating it with red trim to ward off the blood-thirsty creature Nian. As protection against bad luck and to insure an auspicious year ahead, you would have paid off old debts, examined the lessons from the previous year’s failures, renewed friendships, and mended broken ones. Always you would show devotion to the gods.
Whether celebrated according to a lunar, solar, or Hebraic calendar and held after harvest time, or in winter, or in spring, after the vernal equinox, rituals marking the New Year are as ancient as humankind, and still exist across time and cultures. They go by many names—Diwali, Samhain, Rosh Hashanah, Nowruz—but represent a common archetypal (that is, inborn) human desire to be released from mistakes and difficulties of the past and to begin anew. In the West, our comic image for this is the hobbled old man going out a door and a fat baby in diapers entering. The “death” we celebrate on New Year’s Eve is also an honoring of what is yet to be. Something in us wants a chance to be cleansed of accumulated debris—outdated ideas, stale habits, outgrown beliefs.
In many meditation practices, the focus on each inhale signifies a new beginning. When our mind wanders and grows cloudy, we direct our attention to the next breath with a sense of a brand-new opportunity to start over. In Zen Buddhism, practitioners are encouraged to cultivate shoshin, Beginner’s Mind, which is a mind free from old associations and patterns, a mind that observes the world with a child’s awe and innocence and without pre-established conditioning. The chance to start over in a breathing meditation practice isn’t simply symbolic. Each breath we take is indeed like the beginning of a new cycle. No two breaths are the same; the old breath is gone, the new breath, pristine.
In the cusp of this New Year, I invite you to consider how you might like to mark this ritual time in a personal way. Sitting quietly in solitude, consider what needs to be cleansed from your inner and outer world. What is asking to be transformed? What qualities seem to be missing from your life?
Let these questions dwell in you. Don’t rush for answers.
If you were to create a private ritual for the New Year, what symbols might represent your hopes and wishes? Symbols surround us, but for many, they no longer feed our spirit and imagination. We may dutifully attend services at our houses of worship, take communion, wear a skullcap, kneel toward Mecca—symbolic acts of reverence—but our prayers may have lost their vigor and the power of belief. The ring we’ve slipped on our partner’s finger to symbolically represent eternal love may no longer carry the significance it once did. For just that reason, years after their wedding, some couples renew their vows, sometimes writing their own new ones.
The New Year presents an opening to creatively explore uncharted territory in your psyche. One way to do this is by watching what images are currently appearing in your dreams. Do certain images repeat? Do they bring you peace, joy, dread, longing? If dreams are a personal inventory of our psychic processes, what might your dream images be telling you?
In the northern hemisphere, winter approaches. The landscape appears dead, but under the soil, life hibernates and prepares for new blooms. Consider what might need rest and hibernation in you. Consider that the darkness is seasonal and temporary. Consider that we, too, experience seasons and cycles. What might be preparing to bloom in you?
Here’s a story my friend and acclaimed Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg tells. Years ago, as a young woman, she traveled to India to study meditation. One of her teachers lived in Calcutta. After finishing her time with Dipa Ma, Sharon planned to get on a train to visit another teacher who lived in a different part of India. With a friend, she hired a rickshaw to get to the train station. However, on the way there, the driver took a shortcut through a back alley and a man leaped out of the shadows to grab at Sharon and tried to pull her out of the cart. Luckily, her friend pushed the man away, and the two women escaped unharmed. When she arrived at her teacher’s place, Sharon related her experience. His response went something like this: “With all the loving-kindness in your heart, you should have used your umbrella and hit the man over the head.”
As with most Buddhist teaching tales, we can draw various lessons from this story. One is that we often feel conflicted about how to act in adverse situations. When fear or anger, grief or worry take over, confusion, paralysis, indecision, and a desire to escape can occur. Women especially are conditioned to acquiesce to the societal norms of “good behavior” and ignore prompts to respond assertively against injury. Strong emotions can cloud anyone’s mind. Meeting violence in any form, whether it comes toward oneself from within or from another, requires wise and skillful action. This is not our intuitive response. Reacting in a habitual and conditioned way is.
The key word in the teacher’s advice is loving-kindness. Knowing Sharon had suffered from a disturbing event, he was encouraging her to hold herself with loving-kindness, but also to have compassion for the perpetrator, a victim of injustice and poverty. The unfortunate conditions of the attacker’s life, however, are not excuses for his hurtful actions. Skillful or right action includes moral conduct. When we decide to take action, are we aware of the ethical dimensions of our actions? What is our motivating force? Are we attached to specific outcomes? Are we doing harm—with a look, a harsh word, with indifferent or malicious behavior? How can we become more conscious of how we affect others and ourselves?
I recently thought of the umbrella story after our house was robbed while my husband and I were asleep. Not even our usually alert pooch that barks at every squirrel in the neighborhood woke up. My initial reaction to the burglary was fear, violation, and anger. The anger soon dissipated, but the fear lingered. As I observed my mind getting caught in the dukkha, the Pãli word for suffering, I saw that the fear had its roots in a sense of helplessness, disappointment, and a damaged sense of safety. Jeesh, even my beloved doggie let me down! For days, I struggled with alternating big emotions, but when I looked deeper, I saw that the need to feel safe had long been a core issue in my life.
To break patterns of reactivity requires we cultivate an awareness of our mind’s biases and preoccupations. Renowned teacher Pema Chödrön states: “The Sanskrit word klesha refers to a strong emotion that reliably leads to suffering. It’s sometimes translated as “neurosis” and as “afflictions” and “defiled emotions.” In essence, kleshas are dynamic, ineffable energy, yet their energy can easily enslave us and cause us to act and speak in unintelligent ways.
Our lives give us plenty of opportunities to work with kleshas. “Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable,” wrote the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. I find his words highly comforting. They take the sting out of the shame of vulnerability. They remind me that a tender and unblemished part exists in all of us. Just think of it— every moment we are alive is a brand new moment, a chance to take a fresh breath and begin again. When strong feelings sweep us up, when we are caught in a craving or are numbing out, we can pause, go inward and pay attention to our breath. We can ask ourselves with open curiosity: What’s here? Is it fear, sorrow, frustration, rage? What is asking for my attention? No matter what we have experienced, no matter how troublesome our circumstances, we can meet it with a mind unbound from past patterns.
Let me offer a simple strategy for staying mindful. As I like to joke, we have to be mindful to remember to be mindful!
Several Buddhist teachers encourage a practice with the acronym RAIN that is helpful in stabilizing the mind and directing our awareness to our deep truth. According to teacher Tara Brach, RAIN is a four-step process that can be accessed in almost any situation. She writes: “RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience. It doesn’t matter whether you resist “what is” by lashing out in anger, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking. Your attempt to control the life within and around you actually cuts you off from your own heart.”
The easily remembered steps to RAIN are:
The willingness to recognize what is happening in your life right here, right now is the first step to mindfulness. It involves focusing your attention on all that is happening within you, your thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations. Some of us find it easier to notice our cold fingertips and racing heart than our racing thoughts. Start wherever you can focus, the tightness in your chest or the words repeating in your head; wherever you start, attend to yourself with curiosity and without judgment.
Can you allow what’s occurring in the moment to just be? It’s completely natural to want to push away difficult thoughts, feelings or sensations and resist unpleasantness in all forms. The teachings tell us that when we soften and open to whatever is happening, our level of ease and comfort actually increase. A phrase that’s often helpful in making space for the unwanted is the accepting acknowledgment: And this, too.
Tara calls this step, “investigating with kindness.” She encourages us to ask ourselves the questions, “What is happening inside me right now?” What am I believing?” “What does this feeling want from me?” We may ask ourselves what judgment are we holding about a situation. Beneath the judgment, what else can be discovered?
When we identify with our thoughts, stories, or emotions, when we say to ourselves, I am an anxious, or greedy, or angry person, we limit our view of who we really are, and ignore our vast and wise “Buddha” nature. Non-identification means we acknowledge that we are not our thoughts or emotions and that our emotions are not unique to us. When we live in our larger selves, we are freed from the constrictions of our limited minds.
The American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson urged us to be “active souls.” An active soul is an inquiring soul, a soul participating in the world. By claiming our full human experience—life as it is, not as we wish it to be, and accepting things as they are—our closed-off hearts break open in recognition of our common plight with all beings. We understand that our existence on the planet, no less than the existence of the planet itself, depends on the comprehension of our interconnectedness. The personal is universal; by befriending our individual minds and hearts with genuine curiosity and non-judgment, we contact our essential goodness and intelligence. With greater ease, we naturally lift out of despair and hopelessness and discover new energy for our role in planetary well-being.
Several days after the robbery, I had a realization that in a world of haves and have-nots, stealing will inevitably occur. This understanding lessened my sense of personal injury and softened my attitude toward the thieves. The thought came to me while sitting in meditation and arose as a deep insight about the world. I have not dwelt on the fate of the thieves or tried to imagine them, but when they come to mind, without trying to push anything away, I feel no trace of bitterness.
And here’s a PS to consider about the umbrella story. As the teacher advises: If with the intention of compassion and loving-kindness, we stop our attacker by hitting him on the head, we prevent him from accumulating bad karma from an unwholesome deed!
Maybe you’ve had this experience: you’re a child at the dinner table in your childhood home. One of your parents mentions the name of a relative—a father, a sister, a great aunt. The room goes silent and the subject is quickly changed. As Tolstoy famously wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I would add: “All families have secrets, but each secret is unique to that family.”
Family secrets most often involve a person who has shamed kin, or an event, like exile or deportation, abortion, or even murder. The silence surrounding the troubles can feel like safety, but the safety is illusory. What is hidden does not disappear. Through epigenetic research and a deeper psychological understanding of inherited trauma, we have come to understand that “the ghost or ghosts in the room” make their presence felt by presenting within the family as symptoms, physical, mental and spiritual. What is now known is that the pattern of silence and dissociation established at the onset of the original trauma can be passed on to future generations.
Transgenerational trauma is at the heart of my second novel, The Lie of Forgetting. At mid-life, my narrator’s world collapses, and she must piece together her own difficulties as they relate to the hidden trauma of a death in the family that has been forgotten, physically split off, for generations. I have also blogged about this here before in “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are.”
In researching this subject, I became aware of the stunning work of family constellation therapist Nikki Mackay with patients suffering from inherited trauma and sought her counsel as a wise guide and tutor, not just as a writer but in my personal life as well.
I hope you will find her answers to my many questions as intriguing and enlightening as I did.
What is family and ancestral constellation therapy?
Who we are in the present moment is knowingly and unknowingly influenced by the energetic field of influence that flows through us from our family and ancestors. Their history lies coiled within us. The untold stories of our ancestors are in our blood.
Family and ancestral constellation is a therapeutic tool that allows the invisible influences from the present and past to be made visible, acknowledged and whole. It allows us as individuals to uncover the hidden historical narrative that we are unconsciously holding. It creates a space for us to bear witness and give place to the trauma before fully and freely moving forward with our own life. It is the key to unlocking the missing parts of who we are.
How would we know if we would benefit from working with a family constellation therapist?
Have you ever wondered why you choose the things you choose? Why you are drawn to the people that you love—even if some of your choices don’t always feel safe for you? We are constantly surrounded by a field of influence made up of not only our family and ancestors but also from the relationships and connections that we have created throughout our life
That connection to the people that you have known and loved stays with you, the cost of the choices you have made stays with you and the influence of the family and ancestors that you come from stays with you. Their memories, the imprint of them, flows through your memories consciously and unconsciously.
That field of influence impacts our belonging and sense of self. It is the heaviness within our heart after a tricky day, it is the emptiness we can feel when we know that something just isn’t quite right, it is the fear that grips us when things change out of the blue and we aren’t in control. It is the unconscious belief that we are not enough.
How is family constellation work different from other forms of therapy?
By working with your own individual historical narrative, the untold or silenced stories that we are each unconsciously holding, you have the opportunity to disentangle the emotional trauma that you are unconsciously entangled with. To literally disentangle yourself from it and shift the influence of it outside of yourself. This therapy allows us to give place, and bear witness, to the trauma and also to liberate ourselves from it. To exist outside of it so that the inherited patterns don’t continue to repeat from one generation to the next.
In setting up a constellation we each enter a version of “trauma time,” where within the created constellation past and present are not separate and we experience them as we are influenced by them. For example, you may wish to explore your relationship with a current partner and find yourself in the field of influence of your great-great-grandmother who is carrying the broken promise of a lost love from a different country.
Is it really true that unresolved, unacknowledged and traumatic events from the past can be unconsciously carried down from generation to generation?
Yes, it is. In essence, constellation allows for the creation of an energetic map of all of the connections and loyalties, known and unknown, within the field of influence upon us where we can interact with and explore the entangled connections. It is based on the principle of the inter-connectedness of all things so that each person within a family, going back generation upon generation, has an equal place of belonging within that family. When someone in the family is excluded, or there is an event or entanglement that is not seen or acknowledged by the rest, then this has an effect on the family as a whole.
Please talk a bit about the evidence for that, how we know it.
Traumatic events exert a force long after our ancestors have died. Science has shown that trauma can be genetically passed down the generations. Recent research has shown evidence of epigenetic transgenerational transmission of trauma by looking, for example, at the inheritance of holocaust trauma, Native American genocide and trauma within current descendants of the American Civil War. Quantum mind and entangled memory research has also been exploring the use of language and the power of bearing witness and “seeing” an entanglement to begin the process of disentanglement. I am also working on research looking at the efficacy of constellation as a tool for understanding conflict with a view toward disentangling the historical narrative of the trauma from current, intractable, conflict situations.
Can you give an example of a case of someone who has been helped by constellation therapy?
Sharon was a client who had initially participated in a group session focusing on her career and dreams. Her circumstances were complex. Her family, going back several generations, were from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands located between Britain and France. When we first started working together, she was living in the U.K. in London and was having issues in her working life as well as her relationship with her fiancé. Her relationship with her mother, who lived in the family home in Guernsey, was very close. Her mother’s health was beginning to deteriorate and Sharon made the decision to move back to the family home to care for her. She resigned from the job that she was unhappy in and felt positive about her choice.
However, as her mother’s health deteriorated, so did her relationship with her fiancé. When her mother had to be admitted to a hospice, her fiancé chose that moment to end the relationship. Shortly thereafter, Sharon’s mother passed away. Sharon became withdrawn and isolated in the months that followed. She found it difficult to leave the family home, which she had inherited, and could not contemplate leaving the island. At that point, she contacted me to arrange a series of individual sessions. The obvious place to begin was the exploration of Sharon’s grief around her mother’s death. Although this created a little breathing space for Sharon it became clear that there was more than grief influencing her present situation. When Sharon worked on the connection with her mother, she lost a sense of her own place and identity.
Bringing in her grandmother and great-grandmother gave some relief to Sharon, particularly her great-grandmother; however, they too were held tightly within Sharon’s place. She had no awareness of herself, only them and the land in Guernsey. I asked Sharon if there had been any lost loves connected with her great-grandmother. She shared that her great-grandmother had been engaged before her marriage to Sharon’s great-grandfather but her fiancé, a young fisherman, had died at sea.
Part of Sharon’s great-grandmother had held on to the promise to wait on the land for him to return. This promise to “be the one who waits” had passed from one generation to the next. It had passed to Sharon and she had been unknowingly holding the promise along with the weight of the grief within the relationship promise between her and her fiancé. Her return to the Island and her mother’s death had triggered the inherited trauma within her and her own relationship. By uncovering and releasing the entanglement, Sharon was able to move forward freely with her life. She chose to stay on the island in the family home as her base but now regularly travels to London for work and has begun to date again.
Do you offer sessions online? Do you also work with groups? How does a group session differ from an individual session?
I have a large therapy practice focusing on individual sessions in person and online allowing me to work with clients globally. I also work with groups in Europe and the USA as well as sharing my knowledge with students through constellation learning and supervision.
The creation of a constellation needs to begin with the asking of a specific question. This question sets the intention that establishes the influent field upon the created constellation and the lens through which the constellation is experienced. Then there is the initial placement of the represented loyalties and emotional entanglements relevant to the question, which creates an energetic “map.” This initial map can either be set up in your mind’s eye or physically created using mats or people in a group-represented constellation. The map you create within the constellation reflects your inner perception of the situation that you wish to explore. The process is the same however you choose to step into it.
Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can nightmares be inherited? By Natan P.F. Kellermann, AMCHA, Israel
Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain by Mary Annette Pember
Several weeks ago, I received an interesting chain letter. Instead of being asked to send money to the designated recipient, I was to send a poem and forward the chain letter on to 20 people. If everyone followed through, I would receive 400 poems in the mail in short order.
I usually trash these invites, but something about this one caught my fancy, and I complied. In return, I received a variety of texts, including a Bob Dylan song, a verse from children’s book author Shel Silverstein, a poem by someone’s mother-in-law as well as poems by the illustriously immortal. The range and scope of the responses heightened my awareness of how we often turn to others—poets, rock stars—to speak to our souls, forgetting that all of us have the capacity to bear witness to our experience and unearth words that reflect back our deepest understanding of ourselves.
By Gregory Orr
for Peter Orr
I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.
Language summons a whole world into being, says Orr. His poem contains a trauma, but also stands outside and apart from the trauma. The bridge he mentions is the bridge language makes between our inner and outer worlds. As humans, we are continually seeking self-understanding, ways to know ourselves and make sense of who we are. Unlike other species that have language, humans are the only species that have metacognition, the ability to reflect on our own minds. This self-reflective capacity—Why did I do X? How did that make me feel?— is essential to making meaning of our lives.
Language’s magical power is to make sense of the senseless. At the age of nineteen months, Helen Keller became blind and deaf. In her autobiography, she describes the dramatic moment when her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan helps her, at six years old, connect a physical sensation with its word.
“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
The writer Isak Dinesen famously said, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But writing from the heart isn’t just about the transformation of difficult emotions; to write from the heart is to engage with life at its fullest, in all its terror and splendor. In writing from the heart, we break our self-silencing and flex our muscles of courage to uncover our deepest truths.
Writing stories, poems, or journal entries may actually be the second necessary action required in finding our voices and uncovering our inner resources, the essence of who we are. The first action is deep listening. Hear Mark Nepo on listening:
“In many ways, writing is listening and simply taking notes. . . . Being still and listening allows us to behold what is before us. The deepest form of bearing witness is to behold another in all their innocence. This is the key to love. To listen until the noise of the world subsides. To listen until the noise of the mind subsides. To listen until the noise of our wounds subsides. To listen until we only hear the life before us.”
Miriam Greenspan in her powerfully helpful book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, offers three skills and seven steps in alchemizing difficult emotions. Our culture, she claims, is emotion-phobic, and encourages an invincible heroic ideal while often shaming those who do not live up to societal expectations.
Greenspan offers ways to regain balance and exuberance in the face of even the darkest emotions. The author uses the acronym ABS for the three skills she believes basic to healing: A for Attending, B for Befriending, and S for Surrendering. “When we can mindfully attend to, tolerate, and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows,” Greenspan writes, “we open the heart’s doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy.” But, after describing these skills and steps in detail, she adds a caution. “The three basic skills and seven steps of the alchemy of the dark emotions are condensed distillations of a process that is ultimately mysterious. This process cannot easily be reduced to a set of skills, ideas, or biochemical events. The systemization of any emotional process gives it an aura of scientific credibility. But emotional alchemy is an art, not a science.”
What the authors mentioned have in common is a deep faith in our capacity to handle and thrive beyond even the most troubling aspects of our lives and a conviction we are inherently courageous and loving beings capable of transformation.
When we practice deep listening—and try to find the words for what we hear—we may be surprised at what we find. What we haven’t noticed about ourselves, what lies hidden within, may come as wonderment at the ignored riches and creative forces offering their help.
In his journal of 1836, the great American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson advised his readers to “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”
Emerson’s word choice is significant. Trumpets have the capacity to wake us from our daily stupor. The blare of a trumpet calls us into action.
Perhaps you, like me, are already creating your own “bible.” Coffee mugs, calendars, posters with the wise sayings of Gandhi or Einstein, Tolkien or John Lennon fill our homes. We read with a highlighter in hand and record memorable sentences in a journal; we post our favorite slogans online.
What if, rather than turning to outward sources, we could be the source of our inspiration? What if we turned our quest for insight toward our own luminous hearts?
Miriam Hall, teacher, writing coach and mentor, has been helping students do just this for more than fifteen years in a practice she calls “contemplative writing.” Her personal experience led her to study the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and to her own mentors Natalie Goldberg and Leesa Renee Hall. I had heard about the transformative power of her work and wanted to know more so I asked her to share some of her secrets, including some “getting started” exercises. Enjoy!
Contemplative writing is a practice I developed out of a combination of the teachings of my mentor Natalie Goldberg, my local mentor Paula Novotnak, and the contemplative psychology teachings of Karuna Training. In some ways, “contemplative writing” is another way of saying “writing practice,” as Goldberg calls it, but infused with Tibetan Buddhist teachings on wisdom and compassion.
Contemplative writing combines meditation and writing, plus a view that whatever the mind has to offer – neurotic and speedy, slow and sluggish, mindful and meandering – is all welcome and all connected to our inner wisdom.
People often view journaling as a kind of “mind dump” – get the crap out of our heads and onto paper. That kind of writing is completely fine and perfectly useful. But a slightly different view – that even our confusion contains wisdom – as well as slightly added structure – timed writing, using a prompt – helps to make writing time more productive and insightful, whether simply for yourself (journaling) or for publication (essays, poetry, fiction).
I sometimes say that contemplative writing is more a compassion practice than a writing practice – compassion is foremost in the practice, from writing, to sharing, to feedback. Early on in my teaching, a student said to me that she came to me to become a better writer, but realized first she had to become a better human being. I replied, “Close – you need to discover you already are a better human being.”
How did you discover your calling as a contemplative writing teacher?
I had the incredible fortune to be introduced to Paula, who was offering classes in my town in the early 2000s. As soon as I entered her classes, I knew I wanted to offer something like what she was facilitating, even though I hadn’t previously considered being a teacher. She was incredibly generous and let me study with her like an old-fashioned journeyship. When she had to stop teaching for a while, I started to offer my own classes.
Previous to that I had written a great deal – poetry got me through my father’s death when I was 12 – but I stopped when my mom died when I was 19. Coming back in to writing in my early twenties was a big deal, and I was nervous about returning to it. In addition to starting me on the path to teaching, Paula’s classes made that transition much gentler and inspired me with a love and curiosity that still infuses my offerings today.
Later I studied with Natalie Goldberg for a few years, and more recently, with Leesa Renee Hall. They have all imbued me with aspects of the teaching path, as well as becoming a Buddhist teacher and teaching other forms of contemplative arts – photography, movement, anti-racism.
How does contemplative writing work with therapy?
I often say that contemplative writing isn’t therapy, but it is therapeutic. I am a multi-mode person – I need dance, writing, photography and other ways in, in addition to talking. Many people have found especially writing in a group to be deeply empowering. I have watched people combine our writing groups with group therapy, one-on-one talk therapy, and modalities like EMDR to make major life changes: divorces, career shifts, getting through a major loss, managing systemic racism, and more.
I find most modalities need to combine with other ways in order to work at their full strength. Contemplative writing is highly complementary with many modes of therapy as well as other therapeutic practices.
Is contemplative writing used to help heal emotional wounds? Can you give some examples of when it might be useful?
There’s a lot of research out now, through people like James Pennebaker, saying that writing even just a little bit about difficult experiences – or even positive ones! – helps us process them more clearly than if we only talk about them, or don’t communicate about them at all. Something about the process of putting it on paper, when we really let the mind go wherever it needs to go, making connections, insights, or finding confusion, really helps give some breathing room and space around our wounding. Doing this practice, especially in a group encourages some serious shame-busting in gentle ways, seeing over time, that we aren’t just our wounds, and not just our daily neurosis. We are much more than either of those two.
I also find contemplative writing very helpful for integrating the many parts of ourselves (as Dale discusses in her recent blog post, “Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?”) and closing the gap between who we think we want to be and who we are, creating what Jen Louden calls “a human-sized life.”
One powerful example is how we need to write out stories of wounding – and joy – again and again and again. This kind of “broken record” quality of healing can be really annoying to the writer, “Oh, I am writing about this again?!” but others listening really understand how we need to write through it repeatedly until we can write it clean. For example, I have a student who came to me over ten years ago and was quite sure even then she would leave her emotionally abusive marriage. It took six years of therapy and weekly contemplative writing classes – where she often wrote to her younger self, wrote in rhyming poetry about how it was going to be ok, and wrote out very deeply what was lacking in her marriage – and, at the end of that time, she was able to leave. She cites the practice and group as essential for deepening her compassion for her younger self who married this man, as well as her current self, adjusting to a life alone for the first time in three decades.
Do I need to do contemplative writing with others or can I do it alone?
I teach contemplative writing in groups because people find the energy of writing with others to be incomparably powerful (similar to having a gym buddy or meditating in a sangha). Doing just about anything in a group challenges most of us in some ways, but also helps shore us up so we can go further and deeper than we do on our own. There is no reason to be ashamed of needing others. Zero. One mentor of mine, Jeffrey Davis, likes to encourage us to “DIT instead of DIY” – “do it together” instead of “do it yourself.”
That having been said, plenty of people in my community do contemplative writing on their own, myself included. It is definitely a practice you can pick up yourself and take with you in your own life. Most find it helpful to take a class or be in a group to start, as that helps us get through some strong inner critic layers we can encounter when we start facing new vulnerabilities. Ironically, being with others can make us really self-conscious and feel even more vulnerable, but generally, we can heal with others faster than we can on our own.
What kinds of things have people learned about themselves through contemplative writing?
Recently, I did facilitator training for a program called Unpack Biases Now with an amazing mentor, Leesa Renee Hall. She uses expressive writing prompts in a contemplative methodology to unpack biases we barely notice because they are below the surface of our daily consciousness.
I say this both because she deserves a shout out, but also to say that after teaching writing in these ways for fifteen years, I am still finding the endless possibilities of these kinds of writing modalities. You can unpack your biases, figure out your deep self-care needs, connect with your inner critic and inner mentor…the sky is the limit.
You can start doing contemplative writing via an online class (which I offer, and others offer under different names), you can use a book (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, for example), or simply set up a group yourself, or use your own time and space to practice. You need hand-writing materials (uses different parts of your brain than typing), a timer (phone is fine), and some quiet and space. You can use a guided meditation from any number of sources or use silent meditation instruction you’ve received (better to not have mantras or music), then set a timer for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes to start.
The other part of the structure is to use a prompt. A prompt isn’t a topic – “What you did on your summer vacation” – a prompt is a leaping-off point – “What I can see from here,” “She closed her door on the way out.” You don’t have to stick to a prompt, it is just where you start. “Where I am” is a favorite from a colleague of mine, Saundra Goldman. Write the whole time, no matter how bored or finished you think you are. We need to keep writing to get through the resistance, including it if it arises so you can move through it instead of avoiding it (“This is the worst writing I have ever written. I suck. I am not a writer. Ok, now that I’ve said that, what do I want to write?”).
The two keys to any contemplative or meditative practice are structure and flexibility. You can’t get the support you need without structure, and you can’t give yourself compassion without flexibility. Finding a balance between these two – which looks different for each person – is key and ongoing. Some people do well with “Do this every day for ten minutes at 9 am,” some do better with “I will sit and write three times a week in the afternoon,” and some folks rebel against any structure and have to keep an open intention but no specific time slots. I work with people in community and one-on-one to establish what is right for them.
What are some exercises you have your students do as part of learning contemplative writing?
Out of the basic practice outlined in the previous question, there are endless iterations. My introductory online course takes folks through writing in the voice of their inner critic AND the voice of their inner mentor, learning to write about what is happening right now, and asking yourself what you really want to write about.
Some of those prompts are:
“Write for five minutes in the voice of any one of your inner critics”
“Write for ten minutes in the voice of your inner mentor”
“What is right in front of me?”
“What I really want to write about is…”
“I remember…” or “I don’t remember” (a classic from Natalie Goldberg)
Any of these can be adapted to fiction, a different time, or point of view (“What she really wanted to write was…”). In my classes, we also play with non-dominant hand writing, as well as writing as drawing and writing slower than the discursive mind, which is more powerful than trying to keep up with the buzz in your head.
The most important part of learning this practice is to keep going under any circumstances, as Natalie Goldberg says. Write no matter what. You can be gentle with yourself, slow down, pause and breathe, but don’t stop, especially if your inner critic tells you to. Right underneath your resistance is a lot of energy just waiting to be freed.
The second part of the class, if you do it in group form, is just as important: learning to fully listen to and be listened to (most of us only experience this in therapy, if at all), and to give feedback based on our direct experiences. Rather than offering critique or interpretation, we offer what images, words, ideas stuck with us or arose for us. It’s a powerful holding, trusting space enriched by each participant’s personal wisdom.
I deeply believe our liberation is bound up together, and the entirety of this practice helps us experience the full spectrum of our individual and collective freedom through compassion.
Many years ago, my family spent a glorious summer in Maine while my husband attended classes at a local college. We rented a cabin on a pristine lake. Green manicured lawns led down to a sandy beach. Canoes and rowboats, picnic tables, and a swing set for the kids were all at our disposal. The days were sunny and warm, the nights star-filled and perfumed with pine. For two months, we lived in an enchanted world.
The enchanted world was also a traditional one. Our cabin had been in the owner’s family for decades, and the rules and decorum of past decades still held. Nearby, the small college town was traditionally charming and quaint. We did not go into town very often, except on the few occasions when we dined as a family at a well-established restaurant called The Silent Woman. See its sign above and below, an ad it ran in Ebony in 1970.
All these years later, this image has stuck with me: an image of violence and horror, of misogyny and gallows humor. What shocks my older self is that not once do I remember ever remarking on the depiction of the decapitated woman holding a serving tray, obviously silent because she has no head. I, too, was silent—in my anger, shock, and disgust, silent to myself and to others.
Back then, I was a silent woman—not because someone had chopped off my head—but because as a girl child I was tutored by my parents to be unoffending and pleasant; to be accepted. To be acceptable required that I act demure and accommodating at the expense of my own inclinations and feelings. The assumptions of that time, mid-to-late twentieth century, held that men were naturally superior, stronger, more rational than women, and that women were naturally inferior intellectually, and emotionally unstable compared to men. Men were thought to be the born leaders, the decision-makers with the power to name and dominate their world.
Cultural norms seem to have changed since then, but have they? What are the prevailing assumptions about gender? What was not so long ago unsayable for women—their experience of gender-related suffering and abuse—is no longer forbidden, but as we have sadly witnessed in public affairs, women speaking their truth are not necessarily believed.
One of the consequences of speaking out but not being heard or believed relates to what Carol Gilligan and her co-author Lyn Mikel Brown began investigating in the 1980s and 1990s, tracing the coming-of-age journey of pre-adolescent girls into adulthood.
What the authors concluded then still holds true: girls entering adolescence learn to suppress their authentic voices so as not to appear “stupid” or “be too loud” or to signal whatever the current detested outsider label may be. Their book, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (1992), based on a Harvard project, interprets interviews with 100 girls between the ages of seven and eighteen over a five-year period and traces their psychological development from childhood to adolescence. In this book and in her later work, Gilligan exposed how girls learn to self-censor in order to “be in a relationship.” If speaking out jeopardizes a girl’s place in the pack, even if her silence fills her with shame and a feeling of inauthenticity, she might sacrifice speaking her truth for the sake of approval and belonging.
As long ago as 1931, in “Professions for Women,” a famous speech to the National Society for Women’s Service, the British author Virginia Woolf described something she called “The Angel in the House,” a phantom that haunted her as a woman writer. This phantom would appear to her when she sat down to write and taunted her with self-doubt. How could she, a woman, ever presume to write a novel? The Angel, which in all effects was a demon, thwarted her real voice and her real thoughts. ”I will describe her as shortly as I can,” Woolf wrote. “She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish….” The Angel in the House demanded she be tender; flatter, deceive… and never let anyone guess you have a mind of your own.” Woolf concluded that out of necessity to write, she had to murder the Angel in the House.
For women born into more recent times, Woolf’s Angel may seem old-fashioned and irrelevant in the era of Beyoncé, Rihanna or Nadia Murad, just as for Woolf, in early twentieth-century England, the fact that in sixteenth-century England a woman accused of gossiping or speaking out of turn was called a “scold” and fitted with a bridle, an iron muzzle and bit placed over her head and clamped against her tongue, must have seemed like ancient history.
We may now present ourselves as fist-in-the-air strong, feisty, sassy, and outspoken—but the struggle to tell our stories in our own voices without fear of reprisal continues. In many countries, a woman’s simple act of speech is a transgression. Our right to be witnessed, respected and heard is a relentless quest.
This quest is not only about image—do we look and sound strong?— but also about authenticity. Do we feel safe enough, secure enough, self-believing enough to show others our true self? Does our “outside “ reflect what’s inside? Can we enter public space with confidence in our ability to make ourselves heard? How much self-censoring do we do? Can we trust ourselves to listen to our still small voice and trust its truth?
While this piece addresses women directly, its message extends to any marginalized group that feels jeopardized by the dominant culture.
In her book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, the activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams begins by telling the reader that her mother, who died at the age of 54, had bequeathed Terry her journals but asked her to promise not to open them until after she died. When the author opened her mother’s journals, she found all the pages blank. Tempest writes: “What was my mother trying to say to me? Why did my other choose not to write in her journals? Was she afraid of her voice? Was she saying ‘Use your voice because I couldn’t or wouldn’t use mine’?”
This profound legacy belongs to all of us who attempt to write on the blank pages of history. What do you find unsayable that needs to be spoken?
In closing, here are two opposing passages that state what’s at stake. Which do you claim and own?
turning into my own
turning on in
to my own self
turning out of the
white cage, turning out of the
turning at last
on a stem like a black fruit
in my own season
—Lucille Clifton, from An Ordinary Woman
What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth. Silence. Yea, if a man should aske me till Domes daie I would crie silence, silence.
—Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560
Like many writers, I let my curiosity lead me to my next subject of exploration, and lately, I’ve been mighty curious about what’s commonly called the Impostor Syndrome. Leaving aside those afflicted with malignant narcissism, who doesn’t have moments when they feel like a fake?
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome refers to those who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Rather than owning their ability to achieve, they believe their success is due to luck or some other external factor, and fear they will be unmasked as a fraud. Men and women suffer equally from this debilitating condition. Minority groups, those raised in families that expect high achievement, and perfectionists are more at risk.
But let’s look beyond psychological origins and feel inside the experience itself.
To be caught up in the Impostor Syndrome is to house a secret self we fear is inadequate. We are terrified we are phonies. We are terrified this fraudulent part, concealed beneath a competent exterior, will be revealed. Our inner dialogue proceeds like this:
“Only I know that within the shell of the person called X, whom everyone thinks is reliably bright and capable, is the woeful, cringing real “me.” Others may call me smart, intelligent, even a genius, but I know the truth; I know what they see is an invention, a made-up self.”
The burden of living with a split sense of self and the fear of being discovered requires constant vigilance and takes an emotional toll. Anyone who has kept a toxic secret knows the high cost it exacts. Hiding what shames us consumes energy and requires continual fueling to succeed. Fed by an internal pressure to prove our worthiness, by anxiety and anticipatory dread, we get caught in a frenzied loop that requires we succeed at ever-higher standards of excellence.
This effort to contain and disguise the hidden self corrodes from within; it’s like living with a criminal hiding inside our skin. We inevitably fail to meet our own perfectionist standards; we suffer depression, anxiety, and other common maladies of our time.
And surely it is the times, our contemporary culture, which has given birth to the Imposter Syndrome. A culture that places a higher value on power, authority, and financial accumulation than on enlightenment, kindness, or civic duty. After all, our psychological afflictions are only in small part due to physiological or inherited conditions, and are in large part culturally-conditioned. As in all things paradoxical, individuals create culture even as they are shaped by the culture they create.
One interesting way to consider what a culture values is to examine what it worships, and then compare that with our own set of values.
3. Gods and Goddesses
In the classical Greek world, a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with his or her set of attributes, dominated psychological, spiritual, and civic life. In contrast to monotheism with its allegiance to a single Father God that created and contains the All, the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus worshipped multiple deities. Athena, for example, born from her father Zeus’s head, was thought to be the Olympian goddess of wisdom, good counsel, and war. A Greek warrior going into battle might visit the Temple of Athena to ask for her assistance; if on a sea voyage, he might pray to Poseidon, the Olympian god of seas, earthquakes and drought. To ensure an abundant crop of corn, the petitioner would sing praises to Demeter. Love troubles? Appeal for Aphrodite’s help. Each god and goddess was valued for his or her specific talents. Together they represent archetypes, the deep structures in our psyches that are inherent potentialities in all of us. (See Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives and other work by Jean Shinoda Bolen.)
As we reflect on the variety of attributes and skills exhibited by the Greek gods, let’s take a moment to appreciate who else is inside us besides the God of Accomplishment. For if we pray to only one god and value only the driven part that accomplishes, we ignore and dishonor all the other deities that inhabit our being. We suppress their latent talents, vitality, and wisdom, which contribute to our wholeness and well-being. (For more on this, please see my recent PT blog post “Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?”)
In our deepest selves, we know we are more than our successes or our failures, and yet because we live in a society that supports and encourages competition, striving, and power through wealth, the Impostor Syndrome can easily take root. But we must understand and trust that we have other inner figures, archetypes—the ones that come to us in dreams and imaginings—who balance out the figure of the high achiever and who are not at her mercy. Exploring this not only expands our vision of who we are, it begins a marvelous adventure of befriending our unknown or lost parts.
4. Fairy Tale Wisdom
In fairy tales, the story often begins when the hero or heroine’s true self is ignored, mistreated, or unseen. As the story unfolds, a conflict is presented, and a rite of passage ensues. The journey undertaken by the hero/heroine is a soul journey of psychic development. In the familiar tale of Cinderella, an orphaned girl is taunted and shunned by the evil trio of jealous step-mother and step-sisters; if she is to develop and enter into life, she must venture out into the dangerous world and prove herself. In this tale, and in other stories like “The Goose Girl” or “The Armless Maiden,” one’s “outside” identity—that is, the raggedy ash girl or disabled amputee maiden—do not match the hidden radiance and goodness of the inner self. Here, the opposite paradigm to the Imposter Syndrome prevails.
A person possessed by the Impostor Syndrome assesses her worth through external validation, which never seems to satisfy the inner core of uncertainty. The wisdom of fairy tales, however, proposes that recognition and validation of the authentic and worthy self can never come from the “outside.” The tales suggest that we must undertake trials and challenges that affirm and confirm our creative power, must make friends with unknown parts of ourselves (these unknown parts often appear in these tales as helper animals or spirits), and reject the mistaken evaluation of others. Only then, when the Self recognizes its worth and does not demand acceptance and acclamation from others, can we truly embrace our integrity and accept our wholeness, shadow parts and all.
5. Helpful Exercises
a. If what you’ve read gives you the courage to explore, you might sit down right now and make a list of the qualities you value in people. What qualities would you want others to list if they were asked to describe you? How do the lists compare? What qualities are easy for you to own? Which feel out of reach? Insight? Clarity? Playfulness? Authenticity? Imagine you just finished a daunting project and instead of telling yourself, This was a success, you instead say, I did this with integrity. How would you feel?
b. Imagine yourself the hero or heroine of your own fairy tale. What challenges are you facing? List them. What are the obstacles to fulfilling your goals? Include psychological obstacles. What creatures, spirits, ancestors might appear to help you? What is the image you have of yourself once you are transformed? (Think of Cinderella—from ash girl to princess.) What would you like to become?
In the opening of Tim O’Brien’s heart-wrenching novel The Things They Carried, a fictional account of the author’s experiences in Vietnam, he lists items soldiers in Alpha Company carried into battle:
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha… They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending…”
Henry Dobbins carried extra rations. He was especially fond of canned peaches. Dave Jensen carried a toothbrush and dental floss; Mitchell Sanders carried condoms; Rat Kiley, comic books. Kiowa carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
“Encounter,” translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee, from The Collected Poems 1931-1987 by Czeslaw Milosz. (The Ecco Press, 1988) Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc.
What starts in the first couplet as a description of a personal experience, becomes at the poem’s conclusion, an evocation of loss that holds hands with a marvel at life’s swift passing. The poem bridges the symbolic and the real, the personal and universal, and points to the very human experience of transience and uncertainty.
To believe in the things we carry is to believe we are not powerless to influence our fate. One way of getting to know ourselves better is to be curious about the objects we select to surround ourselves, our own private curated collections. The exercise I’m about to suggest is not about fixing ourselves but about trying to know ourselves in a new way.
Look around your home. What objects stand out for you? Which do you return to? Do they have a value other than utilitarian? In what way might they define your inner life? Do any of these objects transport you to another time or place? What feelings are evoked there? Working with our psyche from the inside out proposes an alternative or complement to the insurance-driven therapeutic models currently in vogue.
Here’s an example of how this exercise might go: you notice a big conch shell on a shelf. You pick it up and remember the gift store in Florida where you bought it—a nice memory. You hold the shell to your ear. The sound of a distant sea carries you back to another memory, the first time your father held a shell to your ear and you felt his love and wonder pour into you. You then remember that he became sick shortly after that experience and died months later. Now you are standing in your living room with the conch to your ear and realizing it is on your shelf for a reason that you haven’t acknowledged. It is a symbolic bridge to your dear father and to a time when you felt his love.
If you are inclined, keep a journal of the “things you carry” and the feelings, images, memories, insights they inspire. If this makes you feel vulnerable, remember that feeling vulnerable is a sign that you’ve uncovered an important self-truth. Acknowledging vulnerability is an act of courage and connects you with the human tribe.
Recommended for further reading:
The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings by Carl Gustav Jung
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality by Jon Elster
Highlights of the Historical Dimension of Analysis by Marie-Louise von Franz
Have you ever been at a family gathering and someone shares a memory and, as you hear it told, you say to yourself: That’s not the way it happened! The truth is that our memory is an unreliable narrator, a literary term that describes a person telling a story who is not telling it straight. In fiction, an unreliable narrator can be a clever deceiver, as in many crime novels, an innocent lacking self-awareness, or a charming raconteur simply happy to spin entertaining tales.
The unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulously gruesome horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is mentally unstable and can’t be relied upon to give accurate information. Wuthering Heights has dual narrators, both of whom have biases about Heathcliff and company. Some unreliable narrators seem to have all their marbles, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but when he kidnaps the precocious Lolita, we conclude he is what he says, a psychopath. In reading a book, there’s real delight in figuring out who’s lying, who’s manipulating, who’s speaking the truth—but what happens when our own psyches present us with multiple narrators, each with a different set of perceptions and interpretations of reality?
How we see and react to the world is prompted by different parts of the brain. Sometimes, we act on “a gut feeling,” sometimes, we critically think through pros and cons. Both aspects of consciousness, and the spectrum of subtle and complex hues in between, are necessary for decision-making, and thus, ultimately, necessary for survival. Recent research indicates that in people who have experienced trauma and for whom survival, past or present, is an issue, the split between conflicting prompts can manifest in a split sense of self. An abused child, for instance, may exhibit paradoxical behavior, simultaneously clinging to and withdrawing from her abuser.
In her newest book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, Dr. Janina Fisher helpfully presents a neurobiological map of early trauma’s negative effects on the communication between the right and left brain hemispheres and shows how this can lead to a lack of integration between the functions of each. This functional “splitting” can make us feel as if we have two brains, one under the direction of a traumatized part that originated in a painful experience, the other part guiding us toward normal responses to the day-to-day world.
Dr. Fisher has observed that many of her trauma clients speak of being “hijacked” by responses triggered by memories or perceived threats in the present moment. She writes:
“Characteristically, while the going on with normal life part tries to carry on (function at a job, raising the children, organizing home life even taking up meaningful personal and professional goals), other parts serving the animal defense functions of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and “cling” or attach for survival continue to be activated by trauma-related stimuli, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopelessness about the future.”
Marci Gittleman, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin who works with trauma in her clinical practice, asserts: “Trauma often raises parts of ourselves, pushes other parts down, and separates parts of ourselves from each other. Recovery from trauma helps to welcome all of the different parts of ourselves into consciousness—even if we like some parts better than others!”
The traumatized “part” might be considered an unreliable narrator, pumping us with stress hormones that distort our awareness of reality. Trauma corrupts the telling consciousness that has been damaged by tragedy.
In a mindful approach to healing inner fragmentation and compartmentalization, we might acknowledge our multiple parts and discern who is telling the story (some research indicates that we are all multi-conscious rather than uni-conscious); acknowledge the source (traumatized child, veteran, shooter survivor); and ask if the information being given is valid.
Looking at fiction can help us understand how who tells the story shapes the narrative, and therefore shapes how we feel about what has happened. As we read, we might ask ourselves, who owns this story? How is reality being filtered through this consciousness (narrator)? Using one of the foundational stories of Western culture as an example of how meaning and interpretation vary with differing points of view, let’s look at different versions of the story in Genesis of the first human couple.
Adam’s version of the expulsion from Eden might include a description of the satanic snake, despair and betrayal over a temptress mate, his remorse and anger at being duped. Imagine Eve’s version as a woman pissed at taking the blame.
The same sequence of events narrated by the snake might emphasize Adam and Eve’s naiveté and the snake’s desire to wise-them-up by offering up a bite of fruit. Now imagine the story from a third teller, the archangel Jophiel, who led the couple out of paradise. His tale might be packed with the difficulties of being God’s messenger, his questioning of divine authority, his sympathy for the banished pair. Each version of the story would be accurate according to the experience of the teller, their truths part of a larger truth.
So, too, all aspects of the self, including the shameful and wounded parts, are worthy of having a voice; each deserves respect. Injury and self-harm occur when emotional pain is shunted into the borderlands of consciousness. To speak and to be heard, to be witnessed and bear witness is to shed the mantle of victimhood and embrace agency, dignity, and self-empowerment. These abstract words take on life and meaning when dramatized through characters in a story.
As an experiment in relating mindfully to the storm of conflicting impulses within us— with the goal of externalizing troublesome inner voices—try this:
- Grab a pen and notebook, or sit at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe. Center yourself in your body. Open your eyes and begin.
- With curiosity and playful creation as your guides, choose a specific troubling event in your life (you needn’t choose the most painful or difficult episode) and tell the story from your own point of view.
- To objectify the narrative, consider using your name in place of “I.”
- Now tell the same story from another person’s perspective, someone engaged in the situation, or a bystander, or even from an observing inanimate object like a tree. Use as much sensory data as possible: what is seen, smelled, touched, heard?
- Compare the stories. What differences do you notice? What has been emphasized or left out in each? Can you name the prevailing emotion in each story? What feelings come up as you read them? What have you learned?
- Take 15 minutes to write your responses beneath the stories.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Elsewhere, Whitman wrote,
Stop this day and night with me and you shall
possess the origin of
all poems . . .
You shall listen to all sides and filter them
from your self.
In healing from trauma, we might take our cues from this great poet by gathering our inner tribe, including the exiles, and validating their worth.
Psychologist Gittleman offers hope:
“I think of trauma like a perfect storm—it’s random, surprising, time stops, and life becomes different after the trauma from what it was before it happened. Trauma rocks the heart, body and soul—sometimes more, sometimes less, and different for you than for me. It can be hard to feel safe, and the impact reverberates into the present and future in ways that are both known and unknown—even if we decide we are not going to let it! Our best shot as survivors, however big or small the traumas, is to own our stories, and all of the different parts, over time, when we are motivated and ready, by ourselves and with others whom we have come to trust.”
How recently did a friend, family member, pastor or therapist advise you to “just let it go?” It’s a phrase we hear often and suggests a strategic forgetting meant to clear our hearts and minds of purposeless thoughts, ruminations, obsessions, or the painful past.
In the old days, we might use the expressions “sweep things under the rug” or “bail out,” implying a passive escape from difficulties. But letting go is something different: an act of considered disengagement; a turning away from; a conscious erasure. It can mean anything from letting something alone by not interfering with it; letting a comment or disagreeable encounter pass; dropping an argument; leaving a relationship; putting an end to obsessive thoughts, or variations on any of these.
Why have we come to embrace the concept of “let it go?” One reason is that sensory overload has put us at risk. Our nervous systems are not adapted for and can’t reasonably respond to the daily and almost constant exposure to stressors. Medical science has warned for decades that stress makes us vulnerable to chronic disease. Infection, drought, and starvation affect large populations in the developing world, but in wealthy countries conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue, cancer, heart and autoimmune disease prevail. The evidence is not yet in on just how stress relates to these conditions, or how the emotional crises of worrying about a relationship might have different biological consequences than, say, living with famine. Not all stress results in the same afflictions, and some existential conditions such as living with natural disasters are not easily amenable to psychological intervention or techniques. However, the lucky among us can alter our internal and external environments enough to reduce the level of stress we experience.
It makes perfect sense that in our technologically advanced world, we have adopted the philosophy of letting go. Tellingly, in the Disney movie Frozen the song princess Elsa belts out with exactly that title has achieved massive popularity:
“Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway.”
(From “Let It Go,” music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)
The song is not just a catchy melody. It speaks to a wide audience of young girls and women hungry for images of female empowerment, self-acceptance, and resilience. Its message reaches beyond gender concerns. It celebrates the shedding/letting go of culturally defined roles and expresses the exhilaration of discovering one’s true self. Letting go in this sense is liberation from stereotypical norms, a revelation rather than an erasure.
But wait! Letting it go hasn’t always been the model for handling difficult situations. Way back when, popular culture encouraged a stoic attitude exemplified by rugged individualism embodied by tough hombres. Legendary characters like Paul Bunyan or real figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, or the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton depicted a heroic ideal. Their virtue lay in handling the unpredictable with a cool head and dispassionate heart. Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gary Cooper and actors that resembled them reflected this mythic masculinity on screen.
American stoicism was not about letting it go, but rather about duking it out and winning. The idea was that character is built by a kind of gritty endurance, a soldiering on that meant one accepted what life offered, including the hardships and suffering. To be anything less was degrading, a basic weakness. The archetype was male and white, but tough dames like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford exhibited their own brand of true grit. Instead of “just let it go,” Americans embraced slogans like, “Buck up, cowboy.” Even in girls’ locker rooms posters declared: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
We now live in a different century. Not only have our expectations about the world altered, the planet itself and the societies on it are continually transforming. The rapidity of change we experience in our daily lives means that we face many more challenges to inner and outer stability. We live with a surfeit of stress. How do we cope? “Let it go” has become the motto for our times.
But letting go is not a process for sissies. It requires self-awareness, discernment, and the courage to face and acknowledge the difficulty at hand. Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist with an interest in meditation, neuroscience and the investigation of human emotions, offers some practical suggestions about how to “let go” on his helpful and informative website:
“Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.”
Neuroscientist Linda Graham’s book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, likewise addresses the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience. Moving from a negative to positive emotional state requires that we redirect our stress responses by consciously practicing ways to calm our over-stimulated brain. Dr. Graham draws on her twenty years of experience as a psychotherapist to offer a series of experiential exercises designed to build skills in “relational intelligence, somatic (body-based) intelligence, emotional intelligence, reflection and choosing options, and the deep wisdom of simply being.”
“Researchers have found that people who exhibit high degrees of response flexibility also exhibit high degrees of resilience. Flexibility in the neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex allows them to vary their responses to life events depending on their judgment of what will work best now, not simply on what has worked before. Response flexibility is the essential neural platform from which we can choose to cope differently, more adaptively, and more resiliently. It is the neurobiological basis of resilience.”
Along similar lines, Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s foremost researchers on brain plasticity, links the ability to let go of negative ideation as one of the key aspects of resilience. He identifies two parts of letting go: the physical and the mental and finds an interesting distinction in how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach letting go:
“In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, but in other approaches you don’t need to go so far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it’s enough to create this space in the way I’m describing here. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.
Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which just means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example, forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.”
Last, in researching this blog, I discovered a website called The Daily Stoic. Founded in Athens in the third century B.C., stoicism was a persuasive ancient Hellenistic philosophy whose most famous proponents were Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One tenet of stoicism taught that self-control, reason, and fortitude could overcome destructive emotions. The Daily Stoic endeavors to make stoicism relevant to a modern audience and to serve “as a source of much-needed strength and stamina” during our difficult times. While modern stoicism may sound like the old “buck up” philosophy, it favors reliance on reason and self-control, which includes making choices (and letting go of unproductive attitudes) about how to attain a happier life.
To live in the twenty-first century is to live with a lot of noise, both inner and outer. Luckily, our minds are hospitable places that can grow and adapt to changing circumstances. But like all sentient beings, our physical resources are limited. When beset by the “too muchness” of life, we don’t have to choose between knuckling through or letting go. Knowledge is our friend, and flexibility may prove to be our most important skill.
A number of years ago, a friend who is familiar with my tendency to worry brought me a present, a book called The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. I remember tearing off the gift wrap and looking quizzically at the title. Huh? But as I thumbed through pages of advice—what to do if your finger gets caught in a deli slicer, or how to pull yourself out of quicksand, or escape a crocodile attack—I got my friend’s humorous point: our imagination is a wondrous mechanism, but sometimes it works overtime to spin out dreadful tales. (As an aside, his humor coincided perfectly with something one of my creative writing professors once told me: when you open the gates of imagination, there’s no predicting what will fly through!)
My friend and I shared some hardy laughs over a few of the book’s absurd entries, but inwardly I sighed in relief. On the spectrum of crazy worries, mine were not extreme. When it came to catastrophic thinking, I was obviously not alone.
Not everything we imagine should we believe. Many of the scenarios our minds create are unlikely to befall us. Imagine being in an airplane that is experiencing turbulence. The windows rattle. A storage bin pops open. Dropping altitude, the plane pitches and shakes. Worst case scenario—you’re plummeting through space.
Maybe, but probably not. Odds are the plane will right itself, pass through the turbulence, and land safely at its destination. Air safety statistics are in our favor, but during moments of terror, we visualize the worst. Strong emotions can clog our cognitive channels. The more vivid the images and sensory experience of doom, the more likely they will lead us to a faulty conclusion about what’s occurring by out-muscling our rational brains. The fact that catastrophic imaginings can be utterly convincing doesn’t make them true.
Catastrophizing has a lot to do with our mind’s ability to produce fantastically realistic images that run like high definition movies in our heads. This can sometimes be useful. Elite athletes use visualizations to enhance performance. Olympians are not alone in mentally rehearsing record-breaking outcomes by imagining their ability for athletic perfection. Guided visualizations, imagining best outcomes, also help people get through medical procedures, addiction issues, or common fears such as anxiety about public speaking.
This is imagination’s marvelous capacity—to change our attitudes and behaviors. One of its main jobs is to open new doors to the possible. There is a popular quote frequently attributed to Albert Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” What he actually said was “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”—from an interview in The Saturday Evening Post in 1929. The irreverently wise Dr. Seuss put it another way, “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.”
Imagination also serves as a bridge to empathy. After all, if we can’t imagine walking in another person’s shoes, we are cut off from knowing and empathizing with their experience.
However, when imagination’s focus is catastrophe, we could say it has gone wild. In a previous blog, I’ve written about anxiety as our brain’s way of trying to protect us from real or imagined danger, part of a neural warning system whose priority is to keep us safe and alive. When we catastrophize, a part our brain is alerting us: “Get ready, here it comes.” But in this instance, the perspective is skewed. Clouded by emotion, our perceptual apparatus can’t relay the information needed to make a sound judgment. We are unable to discern that our neighbor’s fearsome snarling dog has terrible arthritis and no teeth.
Anxious thoughts can scare the bejeezus out of us, but they do not have malicious intent. And while it’s true that part of our mammalian repertoire includes a nervous system that signals us to flee or physically overcome a threat, it’s also worth considering that beyond this hard-wiring, stories of catastrophe are embedded in our literary imaginations as well.
The stories we grew up with from the Old and New Testaments are chock full of catastrophes. Floods, plagues, Satan and his evil-doing minions, transformations into pillars of salt, and of course the fiery tortures of hell all linger in our collective Western imaginations. Catastrophe also befalls Greek, Roman and Hindu heroes. In most wisdom traditions and in fairy tales, catastrophe follows disobedience, ignoring a prohibition, or transgressing against moral or traditional law.
“You may peer into any room but that room,” Bluebeard instructs his newest wife after handing her a set of keys. Do not eat the forbidden apple; do not stop to speak to the wolf on your path. By all means, do not kill your father and marry your mother. Watch out for your hubris, your pride. Do not try to imitate the gods.
We might wonder if some of our present-day anxieties have been handed down over generations whose guilt and fears of sin and punishment have become our own. How might our own deepest fears be a form of self-punishment, the curse of an unconscious inner demon?
Not that real catastrophes don’t happen every day. Fires, mudslides, category four hurricanes, tsunamis, school shootings, random shooters, famine, measles epidemics—the revelation of horrific incidents has increased substantially in modern times. Here, anxiety leads us between a rock and a hard place. For the sake of our survival, and the planet’s, we must stay alert and conscious of the dangers to our society; to our peril do we shrug off scientific evidence for climate change or a need to reconsider gun control laws. The melting of the polar ice cap, the ruination of coral reefs are not fairy stories or cautionary tales. Denial won’t make them go away.
One way to work with catastrophizing thoughts is what The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook aims to do: give the reader clear, concrete, and specific instructions on how to work through a particular terrifying event. Facing down a raging lion on the savannah? Here’s what you do. Less exotic worries afflict most of us. What if that mole turns out to be cancer? What if my partner’s shirt reeks of an unfamiliar perfume? Here’s where we can get help from our reasoning mind. In the face of threatening thoughts, we can engage our smart frontal lobe. Is this scary thought likely to be true? If the answer is yes, what logical and concrete action can we take to elevate the situation? We can try to observe our scary thoughts with detached curiosity. We can ask ourselves: Is this worry part of a familiar pattern that has derailed me before? If the answer is yes, try to remember the first time you had the thought and the circumstances that provoked it. In doing so, you may gain insight into the very origins of your concerns.
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook is now in its fourth edition. I take this as a sign that anxiety and catastrophic fears are not going away any time soon. Humor can blast through fear in surprising ways. It might be worth buying a copy of Handbook, if only to get a good laugh at the madly funny things we come up with to scare ourselves.
Eighteen years ago, on a serene, postcard-perfect day in September, terrorists piloted their planes into the twin towers in downtown Manhattan. Within hours, the seemingly invulnerable steel and concrete structures collapsed as if made of papier-mâché. For those who witnessed the destruction, the reality was surreal, unbelievable, even unimaginable, and yet the smoke, the flames, the screams of people jumping from windows were absolutely real. Other national traumas—President Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent shooting of his alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, viewed by millions on television; the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven crew members onboard, have evoked similar traumatic responses the still vibrate within us, individually and collectively today.
What we do not expect to happen nevertheless does happen, and when it does, we are faced with having to absorb an unforeseen reality for which we are not prepared. Expectations can be smashed in two ways: either something happens that is unanticipated, or something we had counted on fails to materialize. In both situations, we find ourselves bereft and vulnerable in a new way.
How to respond to the unhoped for? Can even tragic situations be a catalyst for growth? We may feel like victims of a cruel fate, but knowing we have a choice in how we respond gives us an opportunity to experience our personal courage.
The scholar and author Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, has recently written a harrowing account of how she grappled with the unimaginable. Her son, born with a heart defect, died at the age of six from a heart-related lung disease. Within a year, her husband Heinz Pagels, a renowned physicist, was killed in a freak hiking accident at the age of 49. While her son’s death was not unexpected, it was nonetheless a shock. Her husband’s death coming on the heels of her son’s was almost too much to bear. Her book, Why Religion?, takes us on a journey through shattering pain, and yet, it is a consoling guidebook for anyone coping with emotional fragility brought on by life’s randomness.
The author finds wisdom in a variety of religious and spiritual sources—the Bible, the Koran, the sutras, the later Gospel of Thomas, Emily Dickinson,Wallace Stevens. The words of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in particular, supply Pagels with an antidote to despair. When our lives turn out different from what we expect, “we have to do,” she writes and then quotes Frankl “‘what life expects of us.’”
And Frankl has more to offer us:
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life—daily and hourly—Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems, and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
We all carry around conscious or unconscious assumptions about how the world works. On the most basic level, we assume—we know!— the earth is round not flat, that it is the third planet from the sun, traveling in an elliptical orbit around the sun, rotating on its axis to compose a day. We call this science or fact, but as late as the sixteenth century, scientists were still disputing Polish astronomer and mathematician Mikolaj Kopernik’s (Copernicus’s) discovery that the sun rather than Earth is at the center of our galaxy. Copernicus’s ideas contradicted religious convictions about the nature of God and man current in his time, and though he escaped a tragic ending for his heresy, astronomers who later took up his theories were ridiculed, condemned, or worse, burned at the stake.
This is just one example of how difficult it is for us to relinquish firmly held beliefs and adjust to a new reality on a societal level. James Doty, neurosurgeon, author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, and a leading researcher on brain plasticity at Stanford suggests we are wired for cognitive biases that make us respond positively to evidence and statements that support our predetermined, already present attitudes. Collectively, we collude on our view of reality—what is up, what is down; what is solid, what is liquid; what is inert, what is alive— and are hard pressed to give up our “accepted wisdoms” and “the way things are.” And that makes sense. In a universe teeming with vibrations, pulsations, colors and scents, some on spectra beyond our capacity to perceive, it makes perfect sense that we need to construct a version of reality in which we are not overwhelmed by sensory input.
We couldn’t survive without a stable and secure apprehension of our environment. We count on the world having a certain degree of predictability—the Earth turns on its axis; the seasons follow in order; night and day alternate. Our mental and physical developments depend on knowing we are safe. Most children, for instance, assume they will grow up and become adults. Most assume their parents will be around to take care of them until they are ready to fly the coop. When these realities are splintered, fear bursts its container and taints the rest of experience. If this could happen, anything could happen. The mantra for the anxious-at-heart.
The jolt from expectation to experience, from assumption to lived reality, can happen at any age and violently dismantle our stability. How then, do we accept life’s unpredictability without being taken down by worry and anxiety? Alas, there are no five easy steps to follow. It is a delusion to think we can have control over the circumstances of our life. Loss, accidents, difficult health come to all of us. We are vulnerable creatures.
I remember well the sage advice Qigong Master Chunyi Lin gave his students. “Be flexible,” he would tell us. Do not be rigid and inflexible. Do not hold on to fixed beliefs or expectations. “Be like the reed in the wind.”
The image is graphic, and vital. Whatever weather conditions prevail, the supple reed is able to adapt, to accommodate while the seemingly sturdier branches can prove brittle and be broken by the wind.
Imagine a black sack thrown over your head. Imagine your arms and legs bound, your body injected with a drug that wipes out thoughts, flattens feelings, and numbs senses. This is depression.
Depression is called the dark night of the soul for good reason. Depression leads us into the night world, a world of shadows, emptiness, and blurry vision. You feel lost, lonely and alone, mired in the quicksand of sadness, vulnerable to thoughts of failure and unworthiness. “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” says a Talmudic expression. Through the lens of depression, the world is saturated with gloom.
One way to understand the lived experience of depression is to see it acted out symbolically in story form. Myths and fairytales show us the collective (and archetypal) universal patterns of the human psyche. I may have “my depression” and you, “yours,” but throughout the ages, worldwide, depression has plagued the human race.
One of the Greek Homeric hymns, the “Hymn to Demeter,” gives an early and vivid picture of depression. It tells the story of Persephone, Demeter and Zeus’s daughter, whom Hades, god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, falls in love with. When Hades asks Zeus’ leave to marry her, Zeus knows Demeter would never agree and says he would neither give nor withhold his consent. So, one day, while Persephone is gathering flowers in a meadow, the ground splits open and Hades springs forth and abducts her, dragging her down into his kingdom against her will. The unwilling bride screams to Zeus, her father, to save her, but he ignores her pleas. Demeter, a goddess herself, hears her daughter’s cries and also begs Zeus for aid, but he refuses to intervene.
Separated from her daughter, Demeter rages at the gods for allowing Persephone’s capture and rape. Her grief is “terrible and savage.” Disguised as an old woman, she roams the earth, neither eating, drinking, nor bathing while she searches for her child. During her time of mourning, the earth lies fallow.
“Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine.” “Hymn to Demeter,” translated from Greek by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.
As Demeter pines for her daughter, so too, during depression, do we yearn for a lost part of ourselves, for it seems that our spirited aliveness has deserted us, our appetite for living kidnapped and dragged down into the house of death. With our instincts blunted, we sink into darkness, and experience the desolation of barren landscape. Like the grieving Demeter, our enthusiasm lost, our life-giving energy depleted, we fall into despair. This feeling of isolation is a signature of depression and runs deep in those who try to articulate their condition and reach out for help.
As the story continues, Zeus’s mounting fear that if he does not reunite mother and daughter nothing will ever grow again on the land finally propels his intervention. He orders Hermes, messenger of the gods, into the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades is surprisingly gracious in agreeing to her return. Inconsolable during her stay in the underworld, Persephone has yet to eat anything. Before she leaves, Hades urges her to eat at least three pomegranate seeds. Distracted by her joy at leaving, Persephone does so – and thereby consigns herself to return to Hades for three months every year. Had she not eaten the fruit of the underworld, she would have been able to stay with her mother forever.
When we enter the space of depression, it seems we will never “get out,” but as the myth reveals, nature is cyclic. The myth of Demeter and Persephone originates in ancient fertility cults and women’s mysteries, and is associated with harvest and the annual vegetation cycles. Symbolically, for a quarter of the year, while Persephone is in the underworld, lifeless winter prevails. When she returns to earth, spring advances, a time of rebirth. But depressive cycles are not nearly as predictable as the seasons, and yet we might consider our time in the underworld as periods of incubation. While winter’s colorless landscape may suggest death, beneath the ground roots, seeds, and bulbs are dormant, not dead. They are busy with the business of storing nutrients for the coming season.
For plants, winter’s stillness is necessary before spring’s renewal. Depression, too, can be viewed as a time of going inward and down into the depths, and can be a generative and creative interlude during which the psyche renews itself in the slower rhythms of dark days. Many artists attest to depressive episodes that prefigure a creative breakthrough. An astonishing number of famous artists, writers, and statesmen as diverse as Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Winston Churchill, Hans Christian Andersen, Abraham Lincoln, and Georgia O’Keefe have described experiencing depression.
Little is written about Persephone’s life in the underworld, but one thing is clear, she does not die. Quite the opposite. She is given the honorific title Queen of the Underworld. This suggests her movement “to below” is one of transformation and the acquisition of special gifts and powers. Depression may feel as if parts of us have died, and yet is it possible depression opens us to another level of deep experience, one that matures us and brings new wisdom?
When depression drags us away from the lively day world, we might remember Persephone. The darkness of the underworld may provide a special quality of illumination not possible in the glaring, horn-honking, digitally-frenzied daylight. To consider depression as an expression of loss, grief, mourning, and inevitability of mortality is to bring it into the realm of the human heart. We are more than our genetic predisposition and our biochemistry; we are conscious creatures capable of discovering light in the darkness.
If myths allow us to look into “the heart of the matter,” then neuroscience allows us to peer into the actual matter of our brains. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has made it his life’s work to investigate brain (neuro) plasticity, and how we can improve our wellbeing through the development of certain skills, including meditation.
In his groundbreaking book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them, Dr. Davidson and his co-author Sharon Begley offer an in-depth view of how our brains respond to different emotions and provide strategies to help balance or strengthen specific areas of brain circuitry.
The experience of depression differs from person to person. With the aid of fMRI imaging, Dr. Davidson has been able to pinpoint dysfunctional areas of the brain and correlate them with patient’s symptoms. Under the subheading “A Brain Taxonomy of Depression,” Dr. Davidson identifies three subcategories of depression. One group of depressed patients had difficulty recovering from adversity while another group had difficulty regulating their emotions in a context-appropriate way. The third group was unable to sustain positive emotions. Different patterns of brain activity were noted for each group.
Dr. Davidson is optimistic. His book offers a questionnaire to help readers figure out their emotional “style” and gives exercises that build skills to improve brain functioning. Sufferers of depression need hope. Dr. Davidson’s excitement about what he is learning in the laboratory is palpable and his hope contagious.
Archetypal myths and brain science may seem disconnected, but each presents its own form of wisdom, one through images and story, the other through investigatory science. Demeter’s suffering, the barren land, Persephone’s descent into darkness lodge in our imagination and dreams and recommend that we look into our own lives to discover the source of our grief. Neuroscience advances our knowledge of brain anatomy and its relationship to our feelings and emotions. Each perspective provides a potentially valuable way to examine and understand our experience of depression.
Long before there was a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification book of psychological maladies; long before there were psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers; before brain imaging or even the discovery that mental disturbances are not the result of an imbalance of humours originating in our liver, heart and spleen, as Hippocrates proposed; long before science became Science, at the very beginning of civilization, humans experienced anxiety.
Anxiety is not an aberration, an enemy, an alien dark force; it is a part of our human package, and rare is the individual who does not experience it. The Buddha saw that humans have an aversion to suffering but concluded that running from suffering (or, in this case, anxiety) only strengthens it. And yet anyone who has been besieged by anxiety recognizes the instinct to flee from its oppression. “Get me out of here!” we say, trying to distance ourselves from distress and reject or suppress our feelings of vulnerability. But since loss and grief and other difficult emotions are inherent in a human life, we can pretty much count on bouts of anxiety to resurface even if we’ve successfully sought relief through counseling, meditation, medication, or by numbing ourselves through denial, overwork, or addictions. As with other difficult emotional states, lasting changes are the result of working with the difficulty and transforming our relationship to it rather than from fleeing it.
The study of evolution has taught us that anxiety is purposeful and necessary to our survival. It’s our warning system that something in the environment is threatening. Acknowledging anxiety’s prevalence and its biological roots can ease the shame, self-blame, and depression that often attend it. A problem arises, however, when anxiety floods us and no real danger is present, blocking our ability to discern threat from no-threat. Research indicates that anxiety distorts our perceptions. Anxiety causes us to see the world through the lens of fear. Feared objects appear closer than they really are. A cascade of physiological responses—shallow breathing, rapid heartbeats, and tightened muscles—create a negative feedback loop and heighten our experience of dread.
When slammed by anxiety, one way to cope is to pause, connect with our breath, breathing deep into the belly, notice our thoughts, reassess the situation and reassure ourselves we are safe. We can ask ourselves: “Is this tiger a real tiger or is it a large cat?” Learning to distinguish what our habitual responses have been to certain triggers helps us confront the problem and strengthens our ability to slip out of anxiety’s grip. We can ask: “What’s really here?”
Why not try a different way of looking at anxiety? What if, instead of trying to shun or control our anxiety, we befriended it? This is neither a glib suggestion nor an easy project. Nor is it “a cure.” Look at it as a creative and generative way to form a new and possibly transformative relationship to deep distress. What if we accepted that we don’t have to live with the anticipatory fear that anxiety will pounce on us at any moment, but could instead consider anxiety as a teacher and constructive ally in navigating our own emotional depths?
Here is thirteenth-century mystic poet Rumi’s famous poem on the subject of our human wholeness and the prospect of inviting all that we are to make itself known and present, both the darkness and the light:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Jallaludin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious,” wrote C. G. Jung. Here Jung was addressing what he called our shadow aspects, disowned and dissociated parts of our psyches that remain unconscious. For Jung, the process of becoming whole individuated human beings involves acknowledging, accepting, and integrating into our consciousness, to use Buddhist author Pema Chodron’s words, “the places that scare us.” In The Places That Scare Us: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2007), Chodron writes, “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. However, it’s not so easy to take a straight look at what we do. Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing.” In The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (1999), Zen teacher John Tarrant echoes this: “Integrity is the inner sense of wholeness and strength that arises out of our honesty with ourselves.”
A Jungian perspective invites a holistic approach that views symptoms as manifestations of something out of balance in our psyches and as a call to healing. Analyst James Hollis, in his book, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives (2013), conveys through theory and case histories how unconscious material appears to come to us from the outside, as something fated or as a physical illness. Jung advanced Freud’s idea that a symptom is the psyche’s way of alerting us to a need that has gone unnoticed and unmet. Somatic illnesses themselves might offer symbolic clues to the unmet need, suggesting that our vulnerability to a given disease may relate to our emotional as well as physical well-being.
In ancient Greece, when a healing practitioner assessed an illness, he would ask: “What god has been offended here?” Jung contended that this connection still exists:
“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic factors that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth: in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases. Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting rooms, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”—Jung, Collected Works, V13 (1929)
If the Greek pantheon of gods and goddess represent aspects of Self, we might consider that each of us houses our own “gods and goddesses” who direct our lives in unseen ways. What if our anxiety acts as a disgruntled or offended spirit? If so, we must listen to its story and find out why it’s offended and what it wants.
One way to work with anxiety is to approach it as a spirit that is asking for recognition and understanding. Anxiety is both universal and personal. Symptomatically, your and my anxiety may look the same, but their roots are in our personal histories. Asking directly what our anxiety wants and why it is here, and then dialoguing with it in a journal can help clarify your personal anxiety’s intention. Is it a wise teacher? A frightened child? A wild medicine man? Working playfully to paint, draw, sculpt or write about your anxiety need not replace traditional treatment but can open a new and surprising connection with what ails. Be curious! What does your anxiety look like? A monstrous clawed hand or an exploding bomb? Is it all black or does it have fiery red or bright yellow parts? Working creatively with anxiety releases the positive forces of empathy, both for oneself and for the anxiety, which is no less than a part of you.
The renowned writer Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to A Young Poet (1929), wrote this advice to a young cadet trying to decide between a military or a literary career:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Empathy, compassion, understanding, patience, embracing our wholeness—these are the qualities that ease our suffering and allow us to heal.
Waiting is ubiquitous in human experience right from our very start. For nine months we gestate in our mother’s womb, waiting to be born. Likewise, at the end of our lives, we wait for death. Every day in a variety of situations, we wait. We wait for the sun to replace the moon, for buds to blossom, for our house to sell, for our carrots to grow. We wait for a lover to call, for the mail to be delivered; we wait for the taxi to arrive and the plane to be on time. We wait in traffic jams and doctors’ offices. We wait for the signs of puberty, the first rattlings of death.
Waiting is colored by the emotion we attach to the experience. We say we feel stuck or pissed, bored or angry. The supermarket line seems to take forever. “Take forever” is one of our favorite descriptors of waiting.
We wait in public and we wait in private. Waiting is a mental space unlike any other: in waiting we find ourselves in uncertainty, between the anticipated and the hoped for, between stasis and action, and our response to waiting often registers as cranky restlessness.
Journalist Andrea Köhler has written a book called Passing Time: An Essay on Waiting, in which she reflects on aspects of waiting. “What I am interested in is the kind of waiting that falls squarely within the realm of individual experience, which in today’s world, faces the paradox of overabundance of too little time.” The paradox here is something most of us know: that while we pack more and more into our busy lives, we feel more dogged than ever by the pressure to keep up. Under such conditions, waiting becomes maddening, a personal affront.
Köhler reminds us that waiting anticipates loss and the fear of separation. Waiting, she observes, is anxiety’s sister. Using Freud as a guide, she refers us back to childhood, to our first experience of our mother’s absence. We are in a crib. We cry out. Mother does not hear our distress. Waiting for our mother induces terror. Of this primal terror, Köhler writes: “Only a brief instant presumably separates the moment when the child believes his mother to be merely absent from the moment when it thinks she is dead. Whenever we have to wait for someone we love, we are subcutaneously thrown back upon this experience. Thus, waiting evokes the curse of a threat going back to childhood.”
But do we have to think of waiting as passive and anxiety-provoking? Financial writer Frank Partnoy would have us consider the benefits of delay. His book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, suggests that rashness is not our friend. Deep reflection requires time. Decision-making requires time and a space in which we can observe, contemplate and process information. Partnoy writes:
“Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more? Our ability to think about delay is a central part of the human condition. It is a gift, a tool we can use to examine our lives. Life might be a race against time, but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why.”
What’s our rush? The answer has to do with our relationship to time. Time fleets, races, gallops or drags. We spend time or grieve its absence. Sometimes, time stands still. Technology and modernization have changed how we experience time. As novelist and historian Eva Hoffman writes in Time: “As we move through time with more speed and freedom, temporality becomes increasingly severed from natural cycles of years, days and seasons. In jet travel we conflate night and day without regard to the twenty-four-hour cycle. . . . But our cognition of time is no longer even linked to the time through which we physically move. Rather, our experience of temporality is becoming increasingly deterritorialised and virtual.”
Waiting can be empty and meaningless or full of richness and meaning. Engagement with the present moment, to what’s right here in front of us—the tree next to the bench at the bus stop where we sit waiting, the child’s quizzical face in the waiting room—offer opportunities to acknowledge and feel the life pulsing within and around us. Buddhist monk and teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches us that when we see a flower, if we pause, wait, and cultivate a meditative moment to look deeply into that flower, we will see not only its shape and color, but we see the sunshine, rain and soil that are also part of the flower and part of us as well. This “looking deeply into” can become a practice while we wait, wherever we are. We can bring our awareness to the quality of clouds while we are in crawling traffic; we can sit with our morning coffee and savor its aroma, feel the weight of the mug in our hands. In these moments when we abide with ourselves, the urge to do, to be somewhere else, subsides. Our breath, our heartbeats slow down. We are not waiting for time to pass; waiting is our friend.
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard takes us a step further in considering the necessity and profundity of time suspended. Tempo giusto, the unrushed time of childhood, or what Bachelard calls reverie, a time-outness in which the preoccupations of everyday life and worries are swept aside and “time no longer has any yesterday and no longer any tomorrow.”(The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos).
Beloved poet Mary Oliver is our spirit guide in reminding us to remain open to the world’s dazzlement; that is, to pause, wait and wonder. To allow the mundane to show us its enchantment. Here is her famous poem “Wild Geese” from her book Dream Work. Poetry opens us to a lyric moment, into the timeless realm beyond waiting where image, music, and revelation meet. Next time you think you might be in for a wait, take a book of poetry with you. You may find that your mind will be happy you did.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
In a recent New Yorker article about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I came across the following description of a meeting she had that included her father, Mike Huckabee, and then-candidate Donald Trump.
“There (at the Atlanta airport) they boarded Trump’s private jet. . . .When Trump asked Huckabee for an endorsement, Huckabee instead suggested that he (Trump) enlist his daughter. Trump needed a stronger link to evangelicals and women, and Sanders was happy to provide one.”
The operative word in the above quote is “happy.” Ms. Sanders was consensual, if not enthusiastic, about working for Mr. Trump. A darker, more sinister version of this enactment, a daughter offered up by a father for personal gain, appeasement, or out of ignorance is a recurrent narrative thread in myths and fairy tales and underlines the role of the sacrificial daughter.
In the Brothers Grimm’s version of “The Girl without Hands,” a poor miller in need of money inadvertently makes a pact with the devil who “will come in three years to claim that which stands behind the mill.” That turns out to be, not the apple tree the miller thought, but his daughter who was sweeping the yard at the time.
The miller’s daughter was a beautiful and pious girl, and she lived the three years worshipping God and without sin. When the time was up and the day came when the evil one was to get her, she washed herself clean and drew a circle around herself with chalk. The devil appeared very early in the morning, but he could not approach her.
He spoke angrily to the miller, “Keep water away from her, so she cannot wash herself any more. Otherwise I have no power over her.”
The miller was frightened and did what he was told. The next morning the devil returned, but she had wept into her hands, and they were entirely clean. Thus he still could not approach her, and he spoke angrily to the miller, “Chop off her hands. Otherwise I cannot get to her.”
The miller was horrified and answered, “How could I chop off my own child’s hands!”
Then the evil one threatened him, saying, “If you do not do it, then you will be mine, and I will take you yourself.” This frightened the father, and he promised to obey him. Then he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will take me away, and in my fear I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you.” She answered, “Dear father, do with me what you will. I am your child,” and with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off.
Eventually, after a journey and travails, and because she is pious and good, the miller’s daughter marries a king and her hands are restored.
Another tale in which a poor miller father sells his daughter to gain stature and wealth is the story of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Here the father brags to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. She is brought to the king, locked into a room and given the command, her life in jeopardy if she fails to succeed at this impossible task. Narcissism, greed, and domination in the figures of father and king are allied against her. With the help of the magical imp Rumpelstiltskin, the daughter succeeds in her task, but in exchange must give him her firstborn child. She is finally able to claim her child and her independence only after she guesses the name of her tormentor, “Rumpelstiltskin.” Psychologically, this rings true: until we name the negative force that has hold of us, we remain within its power.
The unnamed daughter of Jephthah in the Bible is not so lucky to be saved (Judges 11:30-40). Her father makes a vow with God:
11:30 And Jephthah made the following vow to Yhwh: “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, 11:31 then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be Yhwh’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.
Unfortunately, it is Jephthah’s daughter who dances out of his house to greet him. She accepts her sacrificial fate, but asks her father for two months in the mountains with her women to celebrate her virginity. This is granted. Nonetheless, she is consecrated as an offering to the Lord. She is able to tell herself she is not a victim without choice. Unlike the miller in “The Girl without Hands,” Jephthah is motivated by ambition, not necessity. He is a warrior and a leader, and his success against the Ammonites will make him the rosh or head of Gilead.
Yet another story concerning the sacrifice of a daughter for the ambitions of a warrior-hero-father is the Greek myth of Iphigenia. King Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father, is about to wage war on Troy. However, Agamemnon has insulted the goddess Artemis, who in retaliation has becalmed the seas so that his fleet cannot set sail. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. For the glory of Greece, Iphigenia goes willingly to her death.
Fairy tales and myths, as Carl Jung suggested, reveal archetypal motifs that offer insight into our human wishes, fantasies, fears and desires. Whether we identify with Cinderella’s lonely plight, or the frog prince’s yearning to be his fully human self, at the deepest level of fairy tale content, we experience an “Aha!” phenomena. Jack Zipes, in the preface to the 1979 edition of Breaking the Magic Spell, Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, writes:
“From birth to death we hear and imbibe the lore of folk and fairy tales and sense that they can help us reach our destiny. They know and tell us that we want to become kings and queens, ontologically speaking to become masters of our own realms….They ferret out deep-rooted wishes, needs, and wants and demonstrate how they all can be realized.”
Jung saw fairy tales as depicting patterns of development and behavior that reflect the function of the psyche, and even today we can find new wisdom about our human predicaments in the old tales.
With this in mind, how do we think about the tales of sacrificial daughters? What does it mean that in most fairy tales, a jealous or evil king may send his son on a dangerous journey or give him an impossible task to fulfill, but rarely is the son held captive, enslaved, mutilated, or murdered? Might sacrificial daughters represent a collective cultural phenomena of the devalued feminine?
One pattern that emerges in several of these stories is that of the absent, passive, or duped mother. This is the mother who won’t or can’t protect her victimized daughter. Her loyalty often remains with the father, and she will not disobey the ruling masculine hierarchy. (In keeping with Greek themes of inherited or familial revenge, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, does in some version of the story kill her husband for his murder of their daughter.)
The absent, compliant, or complicit mother unwillingly abets the father in treating females as objects by colluding with and succumbing to the spell of his power. Without a positive mother figure in her life, the daughter has nothing of substance from the personal mother or from the world of the feminine. For this daughter, the adored or charismatic father can take on the qualities of a god. Both Jephthah’s daughter and Iphigenia do not resist their fate, but in some sense become martyrs to their father’s cause as in the gruesome example of the miller’s daughter who deferentially accepts the dismemberment of her hands. To be without hands means to be helpless in the world, to be unable to perform ordinary human tasks. Here, the daughter forgoes a part of her humanness to accommodate the father. “Do with me what you will, father,” she says. “For I am your child.”
To identify with the dominant ruling culture is often a way women cope with subjugation and abuse. In her ground-breaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976), decades old but ever more relevant in today’s #MeToo world, Dr. Jean Baker Miller examines women’s difficulties in claiming their “full personhood” and in valuing themselves and their strengths, which are viewed as inferior by the dominant culture.
“A dominant group,” Miller writes, “inevitably, has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook—its philosophy, morality, social theory, and even its science. The dominant group, thus, legitimizes the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society’s guiding concepts.” Not just women, but all marginalized groups share this experience since the dominant group is the model for what is considered normal.
Conversely, writes Miller, “a subordinate group has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated action in its own self-interest must also be avoided…. In our own society, a woman’s direct action can result in a combination of economic hardship, social ostracism, and psychological isolation.”
If we take a quick glance around the globe, we can see that subordinate populations on every continent, and women in general, are subjected to less than equal treatment.
In the stories mentioned above, each daughter acquiesces to the demands of the father, the dominant power figure, and by identifying with him and his goals, deludes herself into believing that his perpetration is a noble act. Her self-worth depends on his status. Historically, women have been “unable to see much value or importance in themselves or each other, when women were focused on men as the important people.”
Miller goes on to say, “There are still few women who can believe deeply that they are truly worthy.” What has been continues to be: women struggle against being cast in the inferior role in society. In reexamining fairy tales we consider how they continue to reflect conscious and unconscious attitudes in a culture. If popular culture, particularly children’s movies and books, has shifted its focus from the sacrificial daughter, what images have replaced it? While vibrant images of sharp-shooting, dragon-slaying heroines occasionally fill our screens, the emergence of the #MeToo and other movements for equal rights and justice suggest post-modern Disney heroines are not enough; unconscious prejudices require our personal and deepest attention and consideration to be confronted, made visible and redeemed. Unfortunately, for now, the prejudices, injustices, and issues of worth that revolve around power, domination, and subordination persist.
Trauma. The word is everywhere these days. And something has happened to it. Something like what happened to the word awesome, once used to describe a profound and reverential experience, one filled with terror, dread or awe. Awesome has become a colloquialism that pops up as both a descriptor, as in, “I just bought an awesome lipstick,” or simply as an exclamation—Awesome! Trauma has also taken a step down from its original connotation. This is not a blog about language, but it’s worth noting that trauma and awe denote significantly profound human experiences and are linked in meaning. The Greek origin of trauma means damage or wound. The Greek origin of awe is áchos, or “pain.”
I’ve written about personal trauma before (see “My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know”) and revisiting that experience led me to want to investigate the wider dimensions of trauma and how its impact can extend across generations (see “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us”). Studies on trauma have increased in recent years and researchers in a variety of disciplines are uncovering new evidence of the widespread presence of trauma in at-risk populations. Global events such as war, famine, migration, immigration, fire, flood, widespread disease and terrorism ambush some of us every day. An expanded view of trauma that respects the influence of cultural and historical circumstances on individual lives helps to clarify how vulnerable we are to these larger forces.
The depth psychologist Carl Jung, in his exploration the past’s influence on an individual wrote: “Just as psychological knowledge furthers our understanding of historical material, so, conversely, historical material can throw new light on individual psychological problems.” (The Collected Works, Vol. 5)
As early as the beginning of the last century, Jung encouraged psychotherapists not only to study a patient’s personal biography but also to learn about the traditions and cultural influences, past and present, of the patient’s environment. Today we understand that trauma can be “inherited,” passed down through the generations, as if frozen in our psyches and/or bodies, repressed for centuries. Jung believed that repressed trauma or what he called “complexes” affect not only the individual but also the collective culture. He wrote: “…they exist (the archetypes) and function and are born anew with each generation.”
In his somewhat controversial essay, “Wotan,” written in 1936, Jung attempted to understand what was happening in Germany with the rise of Hitler, and the embrace by the populace of a militaristic, jingoistic, fascist leader. As Jung saw it, the god Wotan, or Odin, was an unconscious archetype that had been a latent potential in the German people and arose as a dominant force between the world wars. In Jung’s telling, Wotan-like energy, heroic and victorious, was embraced by the defeated Germans after the First World War – in slogans similar to “Make America Great Again.” Jung wrote: “He (Wotan) is the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle; moreover he is a superlative magician and an artist in illusion who is versed in all secrets of an occult nature.”
Jung was discerning a culture possessed by a demon or god, the inherited and repressed inhabitant of the psyche. Repressed archetypes or psychic complexes are consciously forgotten but linger and influence our unconscious behavior. That is, while we may not be aware of certain tendencies within us, they nonetheless may direct our lives.
Trauma is often repressed. Patricia Michan, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Mexico City and founder of the C. G. Jung Mexican Center, has written and lectured on the inherited trauma she has discovered in some of her contemporary patients. In her essay, “Reiterative Disintegration” in Confronting Cultural Trauma: Jungian Approaches to Understanding and Healing, she writes,“…my focus here is the cultural trauma resulting from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire by the forces of Hernán Cortés in 1521, through which the indigenous people were abused, subjugated, and plundered. The Spanish conquest left imprinted a deep cultural trauma.” Quoting the Jungian Luigi Zoja, she concludes with him that “the lacerating wounds have remained ‘petrified for centuries.’”
John Hill, a training analyst in Zurich, in his essay “Dreams Don’t Let You Forget” in the aforementioned book, advises “that we consider the devastation that can happen with trauma,” and become aware of “the vigilance that prevents the survivor from experiencing the world as a safe place, and the difficulty the traumatized person has in connecting with his or her true self.”
In working with our own psyches, we might consider the cultural, historic, as well as the personal aspects that contribute to trauma. By stepping back and evaluating whether the core wound has its origins in childhood or reaches further into the past and comes down as a legacy, we can widen our understanding of the suffering and increase the potential for reconciliation. A significant avenue of hope in healing the wounded part is in engaging our creative selves in the process of restoration and reintegration. Having a voice, speaking the unspoken, refusing to carry on the silence of generations moves us out of the place of victimhood and hungry ghosts.
Interviewed about Things We Lost in the Fire, her short story collection which is filled with both gorgeous prose and horrific horror, the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez has said: “I think my fiction is very Argentinian. And in Argentina there’s something about bodies that is distinct. I spent my childhood in the dictatorship, and what they did with the bodies was to disappear them. This absence of the body is where my ghost stories come from…As much as I wanted to run away from that horror story, it’s in my DNA.”
In our current chaotic and frighteningly turbulent world where new traumas appear to lurk around every corner, might it not be wise to embrace preventive medicine: before trauma can lodge and incubate in our psyches, why not speak the unspoken now? Before repression chases the pain into a hiding place, let’s name what exists—paint it, dance it, sing it, write it, make a poem. There are limits to what can be accomplished through such acts, but the origins of change are mysterious.
One of the ways we learn to know ourselves is through language. Philosophy, psychiatry and psychology, linguistics and neuroscience – each investigates the relationship between language, thought, and self-identity. Some experts argue we can’t have language without first having a thought (I think, therefore I speak or write); other experts espouse the opposite: our language constrains what we’re able to think (the Hopis, for instance, were said to not have a way to express “the day after tomorrow”).
Forgetting the scholarly debates, common sense and experience tell us that thought, language, and knowing ourselves are intricately bound.
My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.
I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.
All this has been
in my mother’s bed
time has no sense
I have no brothers
and my sisters are cruel.
Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
Alice Friman’s poem “Snake Hill” also speaks with urgency to a mother who is frail and dying. It recounts a childhood experience but now the roles are reversed: the child is mother to the feeble mother. Remorse and longing underpin the words that speak of how difficult it is to let go of a beloved no matter what our age.
to my mother
We are on the final avenue.
Hush now. What’s to speak?
Soon we’ll go down Snake Hill,
cobblestones and weedy lots.
Will you sing to me as we go?
In the toy store window, the guitar
I wept my heart out for,
the rubber bands still stretched with song.
We can buy it now. There’s no end
to what we can afford.
It’s gone. The window.
The store. The whole corner where
Frank’s Market spilled crates out to the curb.
But I’m still there, wailing,
and you pleading reason to I want
I want. (What early prick of glass
keeps that vein open still?)
Snake Hill is steep.
The lyrics overflow the hour. After,
it will take me years to turn
and face that climb alone,
each paving stone weed-wet with song
catching at my throat, my throat
filled with you.
Only the child
at the top of the hill
can yank me up again—by the heart’s cord
running down the roof of her mouth
to the cut bands of the throat—the child
who has no other choice, having nothing left
from that corner to retrieve.
Alice offered some background about her poem, which appears in her book Inverted Fire:
“About why I wrote the piece, well I was very close to my mother, and the thought of what was to come haunted me. What I’m remembering – Snake hill, Frank’s market, the toy store window where being three, I wailed for what I could not have, it being the heart of the depression and she surely didn’t have the necessary twenty-three cents – are scenes from my childhood in Washington Heights, New York City.”
Alice Friman’s seventh collection of poetry, Blood Weather, will be published by LSU Press in 2019. She’s the winner of a Pushcart Prize and is included in Best American Poetry. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she was poet-in-residence at Georgia College.
Naomi Shihab Nye is a child of shared cultures, the daughter of an American mother and a father who was a Palestinian refugee. The American Poetry Foundation says of her poetry: “Nye’s experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” “Voices” appears in Tender Spots: Selected Poems.
I will never taste cantaloupe
without tasting the summers
you peeled for me and placed
face-up on my china breakfast plate.
You wore tightly laced shoes
and smelled like the roses in your yard.
I buried my face in your
soft petaled cheek.
How could I know you carried
a deep well of tears?
I thought grandmas were as calm
as their stoves.
How could I know your voice
had been pushed down hard inside you
like a plug?
You stood back in a crowd
but your garden flourished and answered
your hands. Sometimes I think of the land
you loved, gone to seed now,
gone to someone else’s name,
and I want to walk among silent women
scattering light. Like a debt I owe
my grandma. To lift whatever cloud it is
made them believe speaking is for others.
As once we removed treasures from your
sock drawer and held them one-by-one,
ocean shell, Chinese button, against the sky.
Memory, longing, and a deep recognition of what is carried from one generation to the next informs how each of these poets explores motherhood. And these I’ve shared are just a sliver of the rich trove of discoveries poets are engaged in. You may enjoy “Daughters in Poetry,” an essay and tour by Eavan Boland at The Academy of American Poets or you may prefer to explore the exemplary work of the many individual poets available at the Poetry Foundation.
In her book, Of Woman Born, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, wrote: “Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges then the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one which has labored to give birth to the other. The material here is for the deepest intimacy and the most powerful estrangement.”
As you sit with these poems, consider what one event crystalizes your relationship to your mother. What emotions does it bring up? What have you never said to her that you now wish to say? There. That’s your material!
Top image, “Mother and Daughter,” courtesy of Colorado mixed media artist, Saundra Lane Galloway. Saundralane.com
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
How entrancing those nonsensical rhymes were to us as children, the chant more compelling than the meaning. As adults, however, we hear the verses with more mature ears and try to divine their symbolic meaning.
What about the mother portrayed in the Mother Goose rhyme? Her origins may be traced to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, and her large brood, or the rhyme may refer to an ancient superstition linking fertility to shoes. But even if the poor, old, overburdened woman is a stand-in for a real person, she also represents the archetype of a harried worn-out mother, her children starving for attention and love. As an archetypal image of an unfit mother, she reflects a set of conditions that exist across time and continents, as does the depiction of her childrens’ desperate situation.
Cultural images of a range of mothers and mothering abound. Consider the haranguing critical mother-in-the-sky in “Oedipus Wrecks,” Woody Allen’s segment of the film New York Stories. A female deity with tight curls and a kvetching voice, Sadie Millstein is the intrusive and unescapable mother from Hell, a Medea in her own right. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the all-good mothers, Margaret March, “Marmee,” in Little Women, or the self-sacrificing mother in Fanny Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. Dickens gives us the negligent Mrs. Copperfield, and Mrs. Jellby in Bleak House. Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet is a loving mother but a social climbing fool. As we age, witches and hags, fairy godmothers and cuddling mamas tramp through our dreams.
We tell stories about our own mothers—to ourselves, to friends, to our partners and our therapists, but are the stories we repeat the whole picture? Whether our mothers were vicious or supportive, praising or blaming; whether we consider them a benevolent or malicious force, our mothers were our first love. As our earliest and most primary relationship, the way we attach to our mothers in infancy will shape how we respond to love the rest of our lives.
Understanding our mothers as complex figures free daughters to accept their undiscovered or disowned parts. The often painful quest to sort through the past and to explore who our mothers were beyond the stories we’ve told ourselves can satisfy an unconscious yearning for wholeness within ourselves.
In her book, In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter’s Search for Her Mother, Jungian analyst Kathie Carlson invites the reader to dive deeper into the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and to consider that relationship in a fuller context that goes beyond personal experience. Carlson differentiates three points of view from which we can understand our mothers: the child’s, the feminist, the archetypal.
Carlson begins with the woman who raised us, our personal mother: “The primary relationship between women is the relationship of mother and daughter. This relationship is the birthplace of a woman’s ego identity, her sense of security in the world, her feeling about herself, her body, and other women.” Mother is The Source. She is our container, our protectress, the vital entity in which we grow, through which we are born, and upon which our survival depends. (I am speaking here, too, of transgendered women, of men who take on the primary caretaker role of “mother”). As mother, she holds our life and death in her hands. A problem arises, however, when an adult daughter continues to view her mother from the child’s perspective, when she evaluates the mother in terms of how she affects her (the child), expecting the mother to be all things “supportive, nurturing, unselfish, and infinitely caring,” qualities that suppose a super-human flawless being.
Carlson suggests the child’s point of view is egocentric and limited, but necessarily so when we are infants and children. As infants, we need to establish a bond with an all-powerful presence who will appear when we wail in hunger and who can fulfill our basic needs. The degree to which we have missed out on quality mothering is mirrored in the physical and emotional distress that may emerge as we develop. In extreme cases of negligence or abuse, children are vulnerable to a condition called failure to thrive (FTT).
A problem arises when we carry the developmental needs and expectations of childhood into adulthood and continue to suffer the rage or depression engendered by early deprivation. “Many of us,” Carlson writes, “have not had even adequate mothering, much less the ideal; many of our mothers have been too depleted themselves. We end up disappointed in our mothers, hurt, angry, blaming, needy, raging, yet unable to let go of our need for them. We feel starved emotionally…We feel terrified of becoming like our mothers…”
As Carlson notes, many carry within us this unhealed child and an attendant sense of unworthiness, which affects our other relationships. Healing the core woundedness, she explains, involves a deeper and more comprehensive view of our mothers, one that does not negate the child’s view but includes looking at our mothers as women with their own histories, needs, and temperaments as well as expanding our understanding of our mother as part of a transpersonal order.
If the first perspective from which we see our mothers is the child’s egocentric view, the second perspective is what Carlson calls a feminist perspective, and what I call a woman-to-woman perspective. From this viewpoint, our mothers are products of their histories, their biology, their culture, their temperament and genes. Seeing our mothers through this lens allows us to replace the ideal projected image with a more realistic and empathetic knowledge of who our mother really is. This is not to say an abused, neglected, or mistreated daughter denies or excuses wrongful mothering, only that by seeing her mother as a full human being for whom she can feel sympathy, the daughter is more able to separate from her mother and to feel compassion for her own deeply held pain.
The third perspective Carlson introduces in her book is the experience of the archetypal or transpersonal mother who “comes through” to us in dreams and religious symbols, in Mother Nature, and in experiences that help us reframe our emotional connection to our personal mothers. A way to understand how archetypes work in our lives is to imagine that all aspects of all mothers are contained in the collective archetype of Mother. She who is named the Shekhinah, the feminine complement to God; the Great Huntress; the Queen of Heaven; Hera; Astarte; Sophia; the Madonna; Kali; Lilith.
If, for instance, we have felt abandoned by our personal mothers or have felt her meanness and betrayal, we can look to the ancient stories and symbols that depict both the light and dark sides of the Mother. Knowing this, we are more able to relativize our personal experience. We do not deny or excuse the pain or the perpetrators of that pain, but we can feel less isolated, less bitter and resentful knowing our pain is part of the continuum of the human condition.
As an interesting experiment, we can gather tales that speak to us of our experiences as the daughter of our mother. Do we identify with the abandoned and orphaned Little Match Girl, or the under-appreciated object of jealousy, Cinderella? Perhaps we feel closer to Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who is separated from her mother by Hades, and dragged into the underworld. Perhaps there are more contemporary stories that resonate with ours. In any case, find stories that reflect your own experience and think how the story might be told first from the daughter’s point of view, and then differently, from the mother’s point of view. Imagine hearing Mrs. Portnoy’s worried voice narrating the trouble she sees ahead for little Alexander! What might you learn about yourself if you heard your own mother’s whole story?
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan, I was standing on a pier in northern Wisconsin. The day couldn’t have been lovelier. Or more serene. A clear blue sky, the light gloriously golden on a perfect fall day.
The summer folks had left the lake by then. The quiet, for this working author, was a balm. Then the phone rang. It was my husband telling me that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. They did not know what had happened yet, he said, but probably something was wrong with the plane. He told me not to worry and to go back to my writing.
We had no television at our cabin. As soon as I hung up, I turned on the radio. Ten minutes later, the second plane hit. It was the beginning of a national trauma. I immediately packed and began the four-hour drive back to Madison.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with crack hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
One of the very first moral commandments we learn as children is: “Never tell a lie.” From early on, stories of lies and liars fill our imaginations. What child hasn’t felt Eve’s shame for believing that sneaky serpent’s lies, a transgression God punished by expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise, the Biblical explanation for all human suffering?
Or Aesop’s fable about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” who spread false alarms about a wolf attack so many times that when a wolf actually appears, the shepherds ignore his warning, to devastating results.
Most of us lie and most of us know when we’re lying (or fibbing, a less cringe-inducing word) unless we are compulsive liars, a more serious psychological condition related to character disorders. But how many of us have examined why we lie?
A friend recently sent me an essay, “Let’s Be Honest,” by the American philosopher Sally Kempton in which she explores various facets of why we lie, the types of lies, and the crucial role our intention to deceive plays in how we judge the morality of a falsehood. History is full of tragedies caused by the powerful when they use lies to justify the ends they seek (see Machiavelli’s The Prince). Our current embroilment with fake news suggests we have some confusion about lies and the nature of truth. Lying is not simply the stating of a falsehood or the twisting of truth. A desire to deceive can warp and corrupt even a truthful statement.
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed” is a quote frequently attributed to Adolf Hitler or to his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. The quote actually originated in an Office of Strategic Services report on “Hitler’s rules,” which characterized one of them as “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” This quote recalls Napoléon Bonaparte’s observation that “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.”
But day to day, it’s smaller lies that concern us. Sally Kempton offers us a scale:
“If we use a 1 to 10 scale, with polite lies (‘No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat’) at the low end, and outrageous, destructive lies at the high end, your worst falsehoods would probably rate no more than a three of four. Yet those falsehoods are probably lodged in your psyche, still giving off smoke, perhaps even to obscure the clarity of your heart. You can justify them, but some part of you feels the effect of every lie you’ve ever told.”
The harm of lying, we’ve been taught, is the harm our dishonesty perpetrates on others, but Kempton’s first point is that lying is harmful to the self. It corrodes our integrity, damages our trust, makes us suspicious that others, like ourselves, are deceptive. Lying severs our connection with reality, or seriously damages it. Concealing the facts and keeping secrets costs us emotional and mental energy and fogs our ability to recognize the truth.
It is exactly what the writer Virginia Woolf means when she writes: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
Kempton goes on to share an experiment. Inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, she attempted to practice absolute truthfulness for a week. She lasted two days. She explains: “The problem was that practicing factual truthfulness made me even more aware of the web of unspoken falsehoods that I lived with. Falsehoods like the pretense of liking a person I actually found irritating. Or the mask of detachment with which I covered my intense desire to be chosen for a certain job.” Her conclusion—honesty is more complicated than it appears.
Through self-inquiry and investigation, Kempton outlines three categories of truthfulness. Absolute truthfulness, meaning one shouldn’t lie, ever. At the opposite end is the utilitarian position: “Always tell the truth except when a lie is to your advantage.” We can find examples of this in the words of governments, corporations, and religious institutions. The acclaimed Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose anti-Stalinist poems and writings inspired a generation of Russian writers, clearly had this in mind when he wrote, “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”
Kempton’s third category seeks to balance the first two: “It recognizes the high value of truth, but points out that truth-telling can sometimes have harmful consequences and needs to be balanced by other ethical values like nonviolence, peace, and justice.” When a German family lies to the Nazis that they are hiding Jews, or when a daughter decides not to tell her fragile, elderly parent that he has a terminal disease, these lies, though misleading, are motived by high ethical and moral goals.
Kempton encourages her readers to examine how and why we lie. Might we be hoping to make ourselves look better? Are we avoiding an uncomfortable confrontation? Are we seeking to please and gain affection? Is our intent some form of ego gratification, a need to inflate who we are? Are we in denial of something too difficult to face? Do we know we are lying? Do we feel powerful when we deceive?
If all this lies (no pun intended) heavy on your heart, I suggest you take a look at Mark Twain’s humorous essay, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying.” Twain observes that lying takes effort, and a good memory. He summed up his philosophy in a notebook entry: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
Words, like everything else, go in and out of fashion. And sometimes it’s a good idea to rummage through the basement of expired words to see if they still have juice in them.
Such is my inquiry into the concept of enchantment. Ask most Americans what the word conjures and the most common response involves a Disney image: Tinker Bell casting a stream of magical dust in her wake; Peter and Wendy flying off to Neverland. Glass coffins, dancing teacups, talking mirrors; genies and jinns and a super-powered broom. The origins of these images pre-date the genius of Walt Disney. Leprechauns, fire-spitting dragons and fairies filled and thrilled the medieval and early modern imagination. To curry favor from the spirits, the Celts hung bits of clothing on trees; throwing coins or buttons into water—wishing wells—has ancient roots.
As modern Western societies evolved, the belief in spells and charms, marvels and wonders became discredited, associated with groups thought by the dominant culture to be inferior—women, children, lower classes, and so-called “primitives.” By the seventeenth century, the new Newtonian world embraced rationalism, scientism, and industrialization. As the ideas of the Enlightenment took hold, education elevated and rewarded the fastidious regard for scientific proof and rational thought and discounted the irrational fictions of animism, superstition and orthodox religious beliefs.
In a 1917 lecture, the great social theorist Max Weber popularized a phrase that translates from the German as “the disenchantment of the world.” Weber used it to push back against the conviction that reason and science could explain all natural and human phenomena. This intellectualized view, he worried, would result in a world rendered poorer of mystery and richness. In Weber’s view, disenchantment corresponded to a depleted and shrunken universe, one that held that all things are knowable, explainable, and manipulable, that we live in a universe governed by knowable natural laws and mastered by human will. By contrast, Weber believed that the world was a “great enchanted garden.”
A few years after Weber’s lecture, the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto published a book titled in English, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Otto adopted the term numinous, based on the Latin word numen (divine power) to describe an experience of awe and surprise, “a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” By definition, enchantment refers to being under a magic spell or charm, a feeling of great pleasure or delight. While this definition is not the same as Otto’s notion of the numinous, both concepts relate to how we position our egos vis-à-vis a vast non-ego-directed universe.
Otto’s idea of the numinous also has some similarities with the mystical experiences described by the psychologist William James in his famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Like Weber and Otto, James did not dismiss rational and conceptual processes, but neither did he dismiss the value of subjective, often ecstatic, experiences in which one is “shaken free from the cage of self.” The mystical experiences James described were inner, private encounters with Otherness and illustrate an alternative way of “knowing” not based on an objective perspective. While science and rational thought would have us know the world by standing apart from it and viewing it from the outside, mystical experiences establish a mutuality between perceiver and perceived, demolishing the boundary between self and world.
Writing about ecstatic/mystical experience as an archetypal need in The Reenchantment of Art, the artist and cultural critic Suzi Gablik has written:
Our loss of ecstatic experience in contemporary Western society has affected every aspect of our lives and created a sense of closure, in which there seems to be no alternative, no hope, and no exit from the addictive system we have created. In our man-made environments, we have comfort and luxury, but there is little ecstasy—the cumulative effects of our obsession with mechanism offer no room for such a way of life. Ecstatic experience puts us in touch with the soul of the world and deepens our sense that we live in the midst of a cosmic mystery.
Enchantment, then, characterizes a worldview and also describes a state of being. We post-moderns may be less inclined than our predecessors to suspend our systems of belief and face into the unknown, yet our psyches still desire to explore the unknown and unknowable. We seem to have an innate desire for a connection to a benevolent force outside ourselves. In times of distress—when we receive a frightening diagnosis or find ourselves in the thrall of a great passion— even non-believers often turn to wishes, prayers, poetry, and petitions for help. This non-rational instinct, similar to what Carl Jung called the archetype of the religious function, might well be a psychic and somatic memory passed down from our ancestors. Our babushka grandmother who spits in the soup for good luck may trigger our ridicule and disdain, but even if enchantment has gone underground in our consciousness, the hunger for it remains alive.
Enchantment is a concept worth reexamining. These days we are more familiar with feelings of disenchantment, which holds hands with disillusionment and, ultimately, despair. To many of us, enchantment is a sissy word, a deluded nostalgia associated with hokum—conjurors and Ouija boards, snake oil peddlers and spiritualist gurus. And while scam artists, Ponzi schemers and the like abound, as Leo Tolstoy has written: “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.” My suspicion is that our capacity to be enchanted is crucial to our mental, spiritual, and perhaps even our physical well-being, as this capacity opens a wedge of hope in an otherwise mechanistic and material existence.
What might enchantment look like in your life? Where can you find it? A walk in the woods? An afternoon at a potter’s wheel? Music? In most cultures chanting, drumming, dancing and music restore us to the wild aliveness of enchantment.
In Carson McCullers’ acclaimed novel, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, Mick Kelley, a tomboyish thirteen-year-old of deep feeling and sensibility, discovers rapture in music she hears while passing a neighbor’s open window. She is in pain. Her awakening to adolescence is coupled with an awakening to the sorrows and rages of the adults around her. Mick wanders down the dark summer streets and comes to a house she has been to many times before, a house in which a radio plays. McCullers tells us:
Mick sat on the ground. This was a very fine and secret place. Close around her were thick cedars so that she was completely hidden by herself. The radio was no good tonight—somebody sang popular songs that all ended in the same way. It was like she was empty. She reached in her pockets and felt around with her fingers…It was like she was so empty there wasn’t even a feeling or thought in her.
The word “empty” is repeated twice in the above passage. Mick is emptied of her old identity, her old ways of knowing, and this emptying out is preparation for what comes next—in the lush summer evening, hidden by trees, sequestered from the ordinary world and shorn of her persona, Mick is being reborn. Here is an image of the soul in reverie. Solitude is a necessary component for the soul’s manifestation.
One program came on after another and all of them were punk. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven…The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony…she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.
Mick listens some more . . .
For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or a march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only the first part of the music was hot inside her heart. […] It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her.
Then she thinks The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
Finding your way to enchantment might be a thrilling project. Consider that your capacity to be enchanted has never been lost. Enchantment has much to teach us about hidden wonders blocked by our over-analytical minds. Enchantment asks to release us into a world beyond thought in which new perceptions and sensations lead the way to awe. Right now, let yourself muse on the possibility of enchantment. In the words of French poet Paul Éluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
February can be a tough month for love, reminding us of relationships we wish were brighter, deeper, reciprocated or still there. We’re inundated by images of couples walking on a tropical beach or canoodling under the stars. Our heads fill with comparisons, and worse, we imagine we don’t measure up, or have failed at love.
I bring you reassuring news. The words “failure” and “love” live at opposite ends of the universe. Whatever our disappointments in love, we aren’t doomed to relive them. Our minds may get stuck in unhelpful patterns, but love does not. Love isn’t fixed or static. It’s a quality of the heart, a transformative force that blasts through preconceived ideas and stale assumptions. As my wise and wonderful Buddhist teacher and acclaimed author, Sharon Salzberg, said during a recent conversation, “Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is ability.” We can develop our love skills. We can grow as students of love.
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” puffs the little engine that can and it does pull the train over the mountain in the beloved children’s book The Little Engine That Could. Young and old readers rally to cheer the story of a determined train engine (notably, a self-effacing “she”) in Watty Piper’s picture book rendition of the traditional American values of optimism, hope, and can-doism.
The message of The Little Engine goes straight to the heart of our deepest held cultural beliefs and aspirations: however modest our circumstances, by summoning courage and willpower, we can overcome. Like the sometimes bumbling and naïve heroes of Dickens, or the dim-witted dummlings in fairy tales, Piper’s little blue engine begins in self-doubt and ends in victory.
If only in the real world finding hope were as simple as reciting a positive mantra!
The word itself, hope, comes from the old English hopa and means confidence in the future. Wikipedia aligns hope with “expectation with confidence.” Over centuries the word’s meaning hasn’t much changed: to hope is to have trust in the future, even if the future is fraught with uncertainty and unknowns.
Hope is an essential curative for despair and necessary for survival, but as we face a new year in which struggle and sorrow abound, many of us feel depleted of hope. How can we balance accepting a difficult reality with preserving optimism about the future? Hope, it seems, is not backward-looking, but has its arms stretched out to the future.
To feed the seeds of hopefulness, I recently turned to a conversation between sages, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each man has been marked by arduous travels on the road of suffering but has preserved his humanity and his joy. The two venerable world leaders met in Dharamasala, India to celebrate their birthdays (both men are in their eighties) and to discuss the world situation. The result of their conversation is recorded in The Book of Joy.
Despite the title, there is nothing superficial or Pollyannish about The Book of Joy. Every chapter steers the mind and heart toward hope. Their considered views concur: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”
Both men believe in our capacity to do good despite our capacity to also commit atrocities. When faced with video footage of disasters, our compassion “springs up.” We see this often in the flood of generosity from strangers after a national or international disaster. In fact, the desire to do good is our inherent nature, though sometimes conditioning obstructs this instinct. Desmond Tutu and His Holiness advise we can take heart that humankind is slowly evolving toward greater self-awareness. In Buddhist terms, we can count on our genuine warm-heartedness.
When I asked renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein about his perspective on hope, he sent me the following response: “I was thinking about what gives hope to people, and it occurred to me that when dreams of young children come to my patients, they always give a lift because children symbolize a future, and what is hope if not about the future?” He gave the example of a patient’s dream of a pregnancy and birth, images that signified a hopeful prospect for the patient’s new marriage and for a positive perspective on her own life.
“It’s out of dreams like this that hope gets born in people,” says Dr. Stein. In a chapter called “Turbulence in the Individuation of Humankind” in his latest book, Outside Inside and All Around, Dr. Stein draws a conclusion similar to that of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s: “Human consciousness is increasing and moving toward the realization that we’re all in this together…You don’t see this movement toward consciousness from day to day or year to year, but looking over decades and centuries, I see improvement in the human condition on the planet and an advance of human consciousness.”
Of course, miscalculated or misguided hope can lead us into greater difficulty. Psychotherapist Jason Holley admits that in his practice, much of his work is in helping clients recognize they have placed their hope in hopeless situations—the husband who won’t stop drinking, the narcissistic mother or abusive boyfriend. We might call this blind faith, a denial to see reality, something quite different from cultivating an “eyes-wide-open” hopefulness.
The possibility of a more conscious and compassionate humanity lets in a crack of hope in a world seething with difficulties. One doesn’t have to be a spiritual leader or a depth psychologist to find hope in a world seemingly depleted of reasons for hope. Even one of our greatest scientific geniuses, Albert Einstein, having discovered universal laws that govern “things unseen,” speculated that a benevolent force might be at work, a force that coordinates the exquisite workings of the universe. Later in his life, he wrote:
“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves. For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process. If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning. But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”
“God does not play dice with the universe.”
The story of The Little Engine That Could inspires the reader to try harder and invest hope in her capacity for success, but to sustain hope when the odds are against us, and our inner and outer resources have withered, requires that we look beyond the Ego ideals of self-determination and self-improvement. Hope is the domain of soul and what I call “the daily miraculous.” Just as Einstein marveled at the intricate order of the universe, so, too, might we seek the territory of awe and embrace its manifestations. What we feed ourselves matters. What we take in and acknowledge—with our eyes and ears as well as our mouths—determines our health—mind, body and spirit. A steady diet of negativity, defeatism, and cynicism can only perpetuate fear and despair.
Everywhere the daily miraculous sends communiqués to our spirit. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:
. . . Music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
- A hummingbird’s wings beat 720 to 5400 beats per minute. Its metabolism is a hundred times faster than an elephant’s. Its brain is 4.2 % of its body weight, which is approximately the weight of a penny, but despite its tiny size, hummingbirds hear better and see farther than humans. Hummingbirds fly over five hundred miles across the Gulf of Mexico in twenty hours without stopping. They can remember every flower they have ever visited.
- Honeybees can differentiate hundreds of different floral odors from miles away. A honeybee will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1 kilogram of honey. A bee’s brain is the size of a sesame seed but has a remarkable ability to learn, remember and calculate.
- When your skin is cut, you bleed. Unless severe, the cut stops bleeding within minutes. Soon the edges of the wound close. A scab forms and new skin grows over the injury. Millions of complex biological functions that facilitate healing occur without our willing or even noticing them.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated that we live in an inter-subjective field with all life and the natural world. For him, the world is not just speaking to us but is also listening to us. We walk through the woods and admire the trees while the trees may be watching and admiring us! More than a mind-trip, a neatly stated slogan, or immutable orthodoxy, hope may originate in a palpably lived experience of awe and wonder at our interconnectedness with everything else on the planet. To be enchanted by the world is to be a participant and not simply a spectator.
If anything I’ve written here has prodded your curiosity, try keeping a journal of things that daily awe, amaze, or enchant you. Inhabiting this quality of reverie may be your path to hope.
Not long ago, while doing research for my second novel, I interviewed a man who’d grown up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Beirut, once called the Paris of the Middle East, had been a city known for its beauty and cultural sophistication where Maronite Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims lived peaceably side by side. By 1958, however, sectarian politics had set neighbor against neighbor and engendered hatred between the groups. As my interviewee remembered, “The dear friend you played with as a boy might now knock on your door and shoot your mother in the face.”
How do we make sense of this? How could former friends and neighbors suddenly do such harm and commit egregious acts of violence? Reading the oral histories of war victims suggests a pattern: under certain conditions, especially during times of state upheaval or governmental collapse, ordinary people can be persuaded to commit atrocities or to enable others to commit them. The outer chaos of change and disruption fosters confusion that undermines our sense of trust and confidence and can deeply affect our inner lives. Empathy is the ability to feel another’s suffering, but during times of stress, when our circuits for handling negative emotions get exhausted, we grow numb to the fear mounting within us. Self-preservation becomes our focus and our instincts drive us to align with the powerful, the winning side.
We don’t have to look to war zones to see evidence of this. To a lesser degree, it’s enacted on the playground, in classrooms, in corporations and in government. Although it may be comforting to think of a crazed gunman, a revolutionary, or cult leader as the sole perpetrator of evil, “good citizens” everywhere, even in our own country, have been responsible for or complicit in reprehensible crimes in the form of slavery, sex trafficking, child labor and inhumane labor conditions.
Closer to home, who hasn’t indulged in or colluded with the more minor indecencies of taunting, bullying, hazing, name-calling or ostracism? Telling an ethnic-slurring joke may seem harmless; yet if we have been the brunt of such a joke, we feel its poisonous barb. To think of someone as a category–a gook, a geek, a Pole, a retard—is to ignore that person’s individuality and make them into a “thing.” It is easier to hate a “thing” than a creature that resembles ourselves.
Neither hatred nor anger completely explains how intelligent, rational people do the unthinkable. In their testimony, Eichmann and other Nazi officials responsible for the death of millions prided themselves on having a fondness for individual Jews. To them, their lack of hatred exonerated them from their horrendous deeds and proved they were superior to the crass killers who enjoyed murdering others. In the minds of these courteous and civilized killers, they were only doing their jobs (mass extermination), and doing them well, another source of pride.
How do cruelty and meanness become normalized? As philosopher Elizabeth Minnich, one-time assistant to Hannah Arendt, writes in The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking, “We know that we humans can shift our minds into making sense of and accepting things that, before we became insiders of utterly distorted systems, we would have found impossible to imagine ourselves approving of, let alone doing.”
Many people in the U.S. are surprised by the rank bitterness, anger and hatred circulating in the zeitgeist. We may even be surprised by our own vitriol. Our neighbor voted for the other guy (or gal), and we wonder How could he? We feel our differences are irreconcilable. Our friend is no longer our friend, she is Other.
Imagine this: The Powerful declare that people with red hair are to be guarded against. Warnings are issued. At first, no one thinks much about the warnings or laughs them off. How can a group as diverse as red-haireds be lumped together as dangerous? But then the warnings increase, suspicion takes root, and rumors abound. Fear infects people’s thought processes. As the fear increases, red-haireds go from being shunned, to being taunted, to being hunted and killed. Some of the greatest sci-fi movies of the fifties, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and the adaptation of George Orwell’s books, 1984 and Animal Farm (the 1954 American animation was funded by the CIA), aptly symbolize our fear of “aliens,” the national paranoia of communism at that time, and the surreality of living under absolute power. Orwell’s books, in particular, depict how the accretion of propaganda can numb our brains and change our hearts and minds. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote his own version of this phenomenon for the musical South Pacific.
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
In the preliminary stages of propaganda, people’s perceptions of the Other change. Maybe that red-haired banker is embezzling my cash. Should I trust my kids with the red-haired babysitter? Once perceptions change, feelings about a person change. The Powerful proclaim red-haireds are cockroaches. Soon they begin to look like cockroaches. We notice they don’t walk, they scurry. They stink like garbage; they disgust us. The vilification of another leads to his objectification. We know from history that if we dehumanize a person, it’s easier to take violent action against her. If our neighbor is now a bug, sub-human, we are free to remove her from our society. Squash the cockroach!
In his excellent chapter “The Fascist State of Mind” in the book, Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas lists the mental mechanisms we use to dispassionately de-personalize the Other. The list includes distortion or slander of the other’s point of view; denigration or belittling of the other; caricature, or the cartooning of the other individual; character assassination; change of name as in labeling, and name-calling.
Bollas wonders why we often seem to love our monsters, those “most gifted practitioners” who have achieved “places of prominence by viciously attacking others.” “Indeed,” Bollas writes, “they [the monsters] also seem to be objects of endearment to those who otherwise would be horrified by such behavior.” One way Bollas understands this phenomenon is that we may try to recover from the trauma this individual has perpetrated in our world “by reminding ourselves how, in so many other ways, this person is not only sane, but likable.”
What we do know is that when propaganda and the distortion of truth rule, we have stopped paying attention to reality and have ceded moral reflection and self-awareness to an authority outside the Self. As social beings engaged until death with our connection to others, we are called to live a thinking and feeling life. When we dissociate from the depths of our self-knowledge and abdicate the cultivation of our hearts and minds, we make room for the shadowy “Bluebeards” to dominate our world.
Watch the 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
Once upon a time, a little girl in an orphanage heard poems in her head. Unfortunately, the strict matron forbade the children to have paper or pencils, and so there was no way for the little girl to preserve them. Afraid she’d forget the beautiful lines that skittered through her brain, the little girl snuck bits of soap from the showers, and with a stick she’d gathered from the playground, carved the poems into the soap. When the matron discovered the girl’s disobedience, she marched to her bedside ready to confiscate the nubbins of soap, but before she could reach her, the little girl popped the poems that had brought her hope and joy into her mouth and ate her precious words.
In 1933, the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote a poem calling Joseph Stalin a peasant killer and comparing the dictator’s mustache to a huge cockroach, his fingers to “ten thick worms.” Mandelstam had grown increasingly critical of Stalin’s totalitarian efforts and his demand that artists become propagandists for the state. The rounding up of dissidents and mass persecutions of “enemies of the people” imperiled Mandelstam’s life. Refusing to abandon his humanistic values, he suffered years of censorship, desperate living conditions, and exile. Mentally and physically exhausted, Mandelstam died before he could live out his sentence of hard labor in a gulag. Nadezhda Mandelstam devised her own private act of rebellion: committing her husband’s work to paper from memory. Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, tells of their sorrowful but courageously defiant lives.
Gandhi, Mandela, Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few—these are our iconic heroes who have dissented from the dominant culture and changed history. Not all of us have the emotional strength, physical means, or are called to confront dictators or defy the boss. But, if we examine our lives, we may uncover situations in which we remained silent when we have felt tread upon, compromised or betrayed and felt powerless to protect our dignity, creativity, or our bodies from harm.
Anita Hill. Most of us know her story. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominates Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, composed of powerful white men, Anita Hill testifies that while working under Thomas in the Department of Education and EEOC, she was bullied and sexually harassed by her boss. Other women stand in the wings to add their testimony against Thomas, but they are not given a chance to speak. Anita Hill is quickly discredited. When she’s asked why she continued working for Thomas after his alleged indecencies, she tries to explain the pressure she felt to submit to his behavior. The men on the committee do not understand. She tries to explain the climate of fear and retribution under which she worked that influenced her choices. Her testimony is dismissed. David Brock of The American Spectator labels her “a little nutty and a little slutty,” an epithet that sticks, damaging her reputation. Thomas is awarded a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Loss of job, ostracism, impoverishment, exile, humiliation, torture, and possibly death: the cost of speaking truth to power can be life-threatening. History is saturated with sad examples of brave ones who shouted out for freedom, justice, equality, and suffered the price. Punishment is surely a powerful deterrent in keeping our silence intact.
Here we are again in a time of public “he said/she said,” of accusation and rebuttal, a time in which the membrane between truth and fiction has worn thin. What questions might we ask about cultures or subcultures that promote and keep the status quo of silence and victimhood? How do we distinguish revenge-seekers from justice-seekers, propagandists from clear-seers? What psychology is at play within us and within the greater society that keeps repression alive? Is it only innocence and naïveté that allows the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to name the naked truth in front of everyone’s eyes?
These are big questions with multifactorial answers and they have led me to search poetry, philosophy, psychology, the shadow work of Carl Jung, and to Dr. Jean Baker Miller and her pioneering research on relational-cultural theory and the dynamics of domination and subordination to find answers.
Toward a New Psychology of Women, Miller’s groundbreaking book, is not only about the inner lives of women, but about the assumptions and codes of behavior maintained by the powerful over the less powerful. The paradigm she introduces is applicable wherever there are great differences in status. In a society that “emphasizes and values some aspects of the total range of human potential more than others, the valued aspects are associated closely with, and limited to, the dominant group’s domain,” she writes.
Miller reminds us that this paradigm of inequality starts at birth. Naturally, parents have power over their physically and emotionally dependent young children, and we can only hope that they rule benignly until those children are mature enough to stand on their own feet. In the sphere of larger societal structures, however, subordinates are not encouraged or helped to become equals. “A subordinate group,” Miller writes, “has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated actions in its own self-interest must also be avoided. Such actions can and still do literally result in death for some subordinate groups.”
Across the board, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the subordinates in a society are made to feel substandard, defective, or deviant. This is the territory of stereotypes, racial slurs, ethnic jokes. Miller writes, “The actions and words of the dominant group tend to be destructive toward subordinates.” Subordinates are ascribed innate incapacities in areas of intelligence or discernment. They are viewed as defective or deficient in mind and body. If someone tells us we are dumb long enough, do we not believe we are dumb? If someone tells us we are lazy, incapable, passive, submissive, and expects us to be docile and pleasing, do we not begin to act out those traits? The internalization of myths perpetrated by the dominants about subordinates infiltrate our psyches and become internalized as well as becoming the norm of the culture. What’s more is that those who adhere to the norm are considered well adjusted. Those who rebel, reject, or resist the norm are “uppity,” “shrewish,” “shrill,” “treasonous,” “traitors,” and the like. Jean Baker Miller declares, “To be considered as an object can lead to the deep inner sense that there must be something wrong and bad about oneself….To be treated like an object is to be threatened with psychic annihilation.”
Gender, race, religion, ethnicity are all factors that influence who will be top dog in a culture. History too plays a role. Whoever “owns” the land, the plantation, the factory, the military means, education, and, of course, money, owns the power.
The good news is that change can begin on a very individual level. When we feel our personal integrity is at stake, our internal radar warns us: “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough.” Jungian analyst John Beebe, author of Integrity in Depth, suggests that when inner psychic boundaries have been breached, our self-respect steps in to whoop up rage. Rage, outrage, and the demand to be respectfully treated are a healing response to violation. Anger can be a mobilizing force that prompts us to take action to restore ourselves to wholeness. Feeling the injury to our being ideally motivates us to act. Status quo persists when we have gone numb to the trauma, when we are immobilized by fear.
Author and educator Parker J. Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.” Palmer continues: “We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on the ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”
We have a right to protect our integrity. We can begin by holding a lantern to dark places in our lives, to become self-aware, to feel out what suffering at the hands of others has gone unspoken. Our worth is not for others to decide. Speaking out need not be a public event, but our hearts are listening for our words of self-love.
What if your maverick blood sugar, your obstinate obesity, the asthma that has plagued you throughout your life, or the nightmares from which you wake numb and shaking, are not the result of your own lived experience, but are instead manifestations of hidden or unspoken traumas bequeathed from past generations? What if what happened to your great-grandparents has shaped who you are through a mix of external circumstances and epigenetic expression?
In the old Darwinian understanding of genetic inheritance, evolution was thought to be a gradual process that occurred over eons as a species evolved to adapt to a changed environment. On his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, Darwin observed several species of finches. He speculated that the birds probably originated from the same ancestor finch and wondered what could now account for the slight variation among the birds. He noticed that the beaks of the ground-dwelling nut eaters were uniquely suited for their predominant food source, nuts, while the tree-dwelling insect-eating finches had slightly different beaks. From this observation, he postulated that spontaneous mutation accounted for the difference in finch beaks and that a process of natural selection allowed for the mutant birds to thrive.
In The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance, Nessa Carey, a molecular biologist, writes that our understanding of DNA based on Mendelian and Darwinian principles, and the work of Watson and Crick, cannot sufficiently explain rapid changes in species that occur in a single generation. As she sees it, epigenetics is revolutionizing how we understand biology. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, epigenetics is at play.
Take, for example, identical twins who have the same DNA code. In childhood, they appear to be identical, but as they age and are subject to different environmental and emotional conditions, they may lose their look-alikeness and develop different physical characteristics and medical conditions. Let’s say both twins carry a genetic mutation that predisposes a person to get breast cancer. How do we explain only one twin getting the disease? If DNA were completely responsible for shaping a person, we would expect the twins to be identical in every way, including which heritable diseases they get. This isn’t what necessarily occurs. Epigenetics explains changes in gene activity and expression not dependent on our DNA sequence.
Epigenetics is one way to explain the connection between nature and nurture, or as Carey puts it, “how the environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.” The process of epigenetics changes the chemical modifications surrounding and attaching to our genetic material that in turn changes the way genes are switched on or off without altering the genes themselves.
I was drawn to epigenetics while doing research on transgenerational trauma for my second novel which explores how the hidden or suppressed stories within a family line can shape future generations. In my own life, I couldn’t account for the dread that would sometimes descend on me for no apparent reason. It seemed to me there was something vaster, more amorphous and inexplicable at work than the usual psychological culprits. I needed to understand what it was. I began to wonder if the darkness I carried had its source in the suffering of unknown ancestors whose history of banishment and exile was in my blood.
Epigenetics offered some answers.
In a landmark epidemiological study that investigated the effect of famine in pregnant Dutch women during The Hunger Winter, from November 1944 through the spring of 1945, researchers found that a mother’s starvation affected the birth weights of children who had been in the womb during that difficult period. The children of mothers who were malnourished during their first trimester had children with higher rates of obesity in later years. The traumatic stress in the wombs of the Dutch mothers during The Hunger Winter somehow transferred effects to the children, grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of the original mothers.
In the relatively new field of behavioral epigenetics, Holocaust studies and research have studied the physiological and psychological effects of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other overwhelming emotional experiences such as occur from natural disasters, rape, the loss of a child, or an abusive home situation. Their findings have documented that trauma can affect the expression or suppression of certain genes, not only for the person involved but also for succeeding generations.
In a recent talk on NPR, the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson raises the question of “ancestral memory” in the descendants of Africans slaves who crossed the Atlantic in slave ships under horrific conditions. Could the prevalence of high blood pressure among African-Americans today be an epigenetic response to the trauma experienced by the slaves who survived the voyage from Africa? Woodson speaks of her fear of swimming in large bodies of water, attributing this fear, which she shares with other African-Americans, to a set of behaviors loosely defined as “The Middle Passage Syndrome.”
What about the effects of familial shame, guilt, despair, rage, hopelessness? Can these be passed on to descendants? Evidence points to the affirmative. Silence, concealment, denial, dissociation are ways individuals and families cope with overwhelming experiences. Many of us are raised with the dictums: It’s water under the bridge. The past is the past. Don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, what is unthinkable or unmentionable does not disappear from our psyches. While the horror may be suppressed in the victim and even her offspring, third and fourth generations often feel “haunted” by something they can’t name. Nightmares, depression, anxiety, and somatic metaphors that stand for the initial trauma resurrect the historical suffering in new forms.
In her book, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, French psychotherapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger describes a patient she calls “the butterfly chaser.” The case offers a fascinating instance of how ancestral traumas can influence and shape an individual who has no knowledge of them:
“The patient was a geology lover. Every Sunday he went out looking for stones, collecting them and breaking them. He also chased butterflies, caught them and stuffed them in a jar of cyanide before pinning them up.”
Distraught with his life, the man went for counseling. His analyst decided to investigate the man’s family, going back several generations. What the analyst learned was that the patient had a grandfather who nobody mentioned and who was a secret. The doctor convinced the patient to find out more about the grandfather. In doing so, the troubled patient discovered that his mother’s father had done “shameful things.” Among other unlawful deeds, he was suspected of being a bank robber and was sent into forced labor, in French, casser les cailloux, which means, “to break rocks.” Later, the grandfather was executed in the gas chamber. The rock-breaking, butterfly-gassing grandson had known none of this.
Schützenberger continues: “In a certain number of cases, pastimes, hobbies or leisure activities which can derive from family secrets, are surprisingly full of meaning.” Her book was written in 1998, before knowledge of epigenetics, but she writes: “strange behavior, illness or delirium” are often the result of these inherited “ghosts” who are half-buried in our unconscious, like a secret buried alive.
However, we are more than our ghosts, more than the composite of our memories, inherited or otherwise. In The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics, developmental cognitive neuroscientist David S. Moore cautions against viewing epigenetics as “fetal programming.” Writing about the effects of abusive parenting on subsequent generations, he finds recent research encouraging: “The possibility that these sorts of patterns reflect epigenetic effects is exciting because epigenetic effects are potentially reversible, either through interventions with specific drugs or through treatment programs that provide other experiences.”
What might these other experiences be? To this point, Jungian analyst James Hollis, in his book Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, asks: “How do we exorcise the haunting of our separate histories? How do we see outside the lens ground for us by fate…?”
His answer aims to inspire creativity. “The difference between us and the mill horse is our capacity for imagination,” he writes, reminding us that our neuroses keep us stuck in old patterns. Our complexes “can only replay the old events, scripts, and moribund outcomes of their origin.”
In suggesting we look to our imaginations as a portal to healing, Hollis leads us back to the ancient arts of ceremony and ritual, and to our in-dwelling creative spirits that remain alive no matter what terrible thing has happened to us. Here might be the way, exclusive of therapy and medication, to re-imagine and remember who we are beyond our traumas. We are our own best shamans, capable of connecting to those divine forces that lie outside our ego’s tunneled and sometimes tortured vision.
Healing trauma involves movement, intrapsychic and literal. If trauma freezes us to a spot in time, a place-memory, and to inherited patterns of behavior, so self-expression in the form of creative ceremony—dancing, singing, sculpting—inspires new energies to flow. Pick up your drum! Dance under the moon! Start a journal. Transformation begins with following your brave heart into the unknown.
My father’s first heart attack was a rehearsal in loss. It’s August in New Jersey, the air an incense of mown grass and spent lilies, sunlight sizzling off the grille of our Ford. I’m nine, hot and tired from jumping rope. I saunter into the cool interior of our house. On the way to the fridge, I halt at my parents’ door. Why is my father sleeping mid-afternoon, his body skewed across the bed?
Once upon a time, middle-class Americans like us ate fried eggs, bacon, and buttered toast for breakfast, adults topping the meal with cream-thickened coffee and a cigarette. Malnutrition, not obesity, dominated public health concerns; polio, not diabetes, the public scourge. At fifty, my father’s arteries were filled with sludge, and on that day, his heart spasmed its distress. I shake his shoulders, shout his name. When there is no response, I’m frozen with dread.
Coming upon my father’s inert figure on the mattress that day has been a central trauma in my life. Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s not just the triggering traumatic event that can flatten us. Nor is it simply that the memory of the event causes anguish. Far more enduring is the exhausting hypervigilance and anxiety that becomes part of our nature. In The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst and renowned expert on trauma Donald Kalsched tells us that in traumatized moments our entire nervous system is flooded with stress hormones. Our bodies and emotions revert to a primitive state of fear, charged by the brain’s limbic system, while our higher cortical functions like rational thought become mute, unable to be accessed. A traumatic situation throws us into a time-stopped and tunnel-visioned moment in which we might freeze or flee in panic—the well-known fight or flight response. Trauma initiates us into an irretrievable loss of innocence: not only do we feel exposed and vulnerable, we can no longer anticipate feeling protected and safe.
Most of us will never experience the extreme traumas of war or genocide or the murderous rage of an enemy, but coping with smaller traumas are part of human life. Kalsched asks how is it possible to live an ensouled life after trauma, or put another way, how do we accept our suffering and also find joy? The question points to both a psychological and a spiritual answer.
Myoshin Kelley, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says there is a great movement within our hearts to be free from suffering. We may yearn that the hearts of all beings be open and free, but the wounds inflicted by trauma interfere—and persist. A first step in healing trauma is recognizing its presence within us. My own experience has led me to understand that trauma shapes us from below, from the unconscious, where the dissociated parts thrive in darkness. “After trauma,” writes Kalsched, “dissociative defenses are set up in the inner world and these defenses distort what we are able to see of ourselves and others.” These defenses protect us from feeling past and future traumas, and yet the defenses can cause their own problems. They create vacuums in which hope, creativity, and self-love cannot exist.
In her book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, analyst and professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary Ann Beldford Ulanov writes, “When we make an unconscious deal to cut off parts of ourselves, we swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us.” Dr. Ulanov suggests that whatever we are afraid of is asking for our attention. “We must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.” In this space of not-knowing, we assemble all the parts. “It is like collecting all our laundry, even the fugitive socks that seem to lead a life of adventure all their own.” Through this process of discovery, we compose a picture of our wholeness that is an ensemble of parts, a “completeness,” rather than “a seamless excellence.”
The thought of going into our darkness takes our breath away. It seems to require more than we can bear, and yet instinctively we know this is the path to healing. Acclaimed mindfulness author and teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that “when we see our pain, whether mental or physical, as a single, solid, monolithic entity, unyielding and oppressive, it is almost impossible to bear. Fighting a consolidated enemy, we feel overcome, helpless, stuck. But when we can be mindful of exactly what is happening, we begin to see that everything we experience is composed of many ever-changing elements.” Our traumas are part of the rich texture of who we are, but they are not all of us. They are a summons to wholeness.
The power to make meaning of our experience, good and bad, lies within us. As my nine-year-old self stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, in the gap between blinks, I imagined I saw my father’s soul hovering above his body, a fragile blue shimmer similar to what orbiting astronauts report observing as a sort of halo around the Earth. Like the spacewalking Russian cosmonaut who was so awed by the universe he was unwilling to step back inside his cramped spacecraft, so too my father’s soul seemed to falter, trying to decide whether to reenter his flesh.
Years later, the memory still detonates strong feelings. We cannot willingly unremember. Nor could I have predicted how that moment would animate a lifelong investigation into the transforming power of fear. We all lose things — glasses, car keys, memories. Over a lifetime, we lose people we love. Loss and time pick us clean, which may well be why we like to accumulate things, pad our nests with stuff, even as time insists on revealing itself in natural cycles, bare branches slicked with ice later weighted with fruit, pencil marks on a wall behind a door to mark a child’s growth.
The Buddhists say to see the flower is to want to possess the flower. Be mindful, they warn: observe the desirous self and let go. My sorrow, I discover, matches the dilemma of all beings: we fear change and loss. But aren’t we deeply attached to our attachments?
What if becoming attached to things is our way of praising earthly life? The great poet Rilke on the windy cliffs near the Duino Castle wonders: Are we perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window, –at best: pillar, tower. Rilke reminds us of the reciprocity between things and the soul: when we imagine a beloved’s bathrobe on its hook, her worn slipper beside the bed, we see the essence of the person contained in the thing, each object a star in our private galaxy. Here then gone: everyone I love.
We have our shocks, our terrors. However, inside the damage are seeds of change. Childhood trauma forges our identity, lending us our tics and insomnia, our depressions and panic attacks, but emotionally charged experiences also drive the quest for spiritual maturity as we reconcile the controlling part that draws a protective circle around what we love and the surrendering part that recognizes our helplessness. Our heads understand we don’t control the universe, but our hearts pine for a stable, anguish-free life. Head and heart wrestle, but the heart is the queen, the high priestess, the beginning and end of the world.
I sit now and breathe into my heart. Even the troubling memories arrive dusted with the aura of the sacred. What is buried is not lost. The past lives in infinite dimensions. Either way—sorrow is inextricable from joy. Grief itself isn’t a solid fortress, it’s porous. Light shoots through the cracks.
A number of years ago, halfway up a forty-foot ranger tower, I discovered my fear of heights. One minute I was busily chatting with one of my daughters as we trudged up the wooden steps. I paused for a breath, looked around, and realized we were high above the treetops. There was nothing between us and the ground but some weathered wooden posts. The next moment I was unable to move. This was my first and thankfully last experience of a being sideswiped by a fear reaction so intense it turned my legs to stone.
Fear is a neurophysiological response to a perceived threat. Fear activates our fight-or-flight response by stimulating the hypothalamus, which directs the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to prepare our bodies for danger. This can happen suddenly with a surge of stress hormones into our bloodstream, or we can experience a slow drip of anxiety that creeps up on us as dread. We inherited this “survival circuitry” from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those who developed it were better able to survive having to wrestle a tiger or run from a pack of wolves. During an encounter with fear, blood is shunted from our limbs so it’s more available to our hearts. Our breathing and heart rates accelerate; we sweat or shiver; our stomach “drops” and our vision narrows as our bodies prepare to flee or freeze. As much as we might sometimes like to eradicate this disabling feeling from our lives, fear is part of our survival kit.
Humans are not alone in having this “survival circuitry.” The regions of the brain that tell us to run from a threat are basically the same whether an animal runs on two legs, four legs, or has wings. Anyone who has lived with a pooch has probably seen how a dog communicates fear through body language and species-specific vocalizations. Cringing, whimpering, pacing and licking are typical signs of fear in dogs. Horses rear or bolt when afraid. Their muscles tighten, their breathing grows short. A study done at Purdue University suggests that even fish experience pain consciously and perhaps fear as well.
If the experience of fear is inescapable, how do we work with it? One possible way to overcome fear is to study fear, in ourselves and others, become familiar with it and understand it better. Diving into fear is contrary to our habitual reaction, which is to push away or deny what frightens us, but getting to know our fears might actually soften or even incapacitate them.
One of the best ways I know to understand our struggles with fear is turn to literature and read what others have written about it. Open Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and discover how his harrowing experiences at Auschwitz during World War II led him to develop a form of therapy he called “logotherapy.” Frankl found that how concentration camp prisoners imagined their future affected their ability to survive. Or pick up Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and read how he drew inspiration from his comrades:
“Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resiliency that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Not all of us are called upon to be extraordinary heroes faced with genocide or apartheid. Our fears might seem less dramatic, but fear’s excessive presence in our lives can be a drain on vital energy and an obstacle to happiness. We can probably empathize more closely with today’s many memoirs of people dealing with debilitating fears about their health, finances, or security. Understanding that we are not alone but one of many who struggle with fear helps dissolve the sense of isolation that fear perpetrates. Accepting that fear is part of our lot as sentient beings is essential to our ability to generate hope and faith in our survival.
Judith Lief, a Buddhist teacher of Tibetan meditation asks, “How do we walk the path of fear?” She points out that fear restricts our lives, can imprison us, or be used as a tool of oppression. Acting out of fear, we may cause others harm. Fear can stifle us from voicing our opinion if we fear reprisal. But unlike our fellow creatures, humans have the ability to reflect on our fear, and this gives us the capacity to counter the overwhelming sense of anxiety and the dread that infiltrates modern life. Lief says, “The essential cause of our suffering and anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality.” The movement toward fearlessness is in accepting whatever is happening in the moment and looking deeply into what is feared. In this way, we can begin to develop self-awareness of the patterns that inflame our fear and self-acceptance of the nature of who we are. The renowned Zen teacher Thich Nhất Hạnh tells us that if we stay in the present moment, we are not worrying about the past, which is gone, nor are we afraid of the future, which does not yet exist.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his book Letters to a Young Poet suggests we might try to love our terrors and the dangers that confront us, which sounds a lot like the Buddha’s advice: to offer ourselves self-compassion when we are struggling with fear. Rilke writes:
“And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Rilke’s last line is worth pondering. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Love and faith in my ability to move forward is what got panic-stricken me down from the ranger tower when my young daughter held out her hand and said, “Just one step at a time, Mom.”
A helpful way to think of fear is as an edge we come to about what we know about ourselves. As fear is the unknown in us, understanding our fear enlarges our perception of ourselves and can be a transformative experience.
Sowing the Seeds of Understanding
As a way of more deeply understanding your fear, please consider trying the following exercises.
- In a journal, write a letter that begins, “Dear Fear. There is something I never told you . . .” You can write this in a list or as an actual letter. Don’t overthink. Continue to write until you stop.
- In a journal, write a letter that begins, “Dear X (supply your name). I’ve always wanted to tell you …” This is a letter directly from your fear to you.
- Draw, paint, sculpt, dance, or write a poem about what you’ve learned about you and your fear.
One definition of what separates us from other species is our ability to construct narratives from our random thoughts, memories, and imaginings. We are a species of storytellers. How and why we construct stories remains a mystery, one being explored by biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers in semiotics and linguistics. One common thread in the research is that stories help us make sense of our lives.
Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, suggests that we are hard-wired to tell stories. Boyd argues that art, in general, and fiction, in particular, have evolved from cognitive play and serve an evolutionary survival function. Our oldest stories, our myths and fairy tales — the story about the hunter and the stealthy lion, or the one about the fox and his invisible cape — may have determined whether our primordial ancestors lived or died. Over time, these stories have become embedded in the warp and woof of our culture, and while the danger of a humanly cunning lion may no longer fit our lifestyle, we get the point. Viewed literally, lions can maim us; taken symbolically, understanding and honoring the ways of an intelligent and powerful predator might help us navigate certain obstacles in our lives.
I’ve recently written several blogs about fairy tales. Fairy tales present simple stories that are still relevant as guides to the archetypal patterns in our unconscious minds. They are also teaching stories and cautionary tales that speak to the mythopoeic in our psyches, that aspect of our minds that think in metaphor and symbol. Like our ancestors who lived closer to nature, and like the cosmologies of many indigenous peoples, we, too, have the capacity to experience a tree as a spirit helper or a demon or a bewitched prince. While the earliest folk tales emerged from peoples who possessed a less sophisticated notion of the world, their repertoire of emotions and the stories they wove around them were not dissimilar to our own. Greed, loneliness, jealousy, sorrow — these continue to be our human burden. Cinderella, Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty are our contemporaries, their journeys to selfhood or self-destruction familiar to our modern souls.
One way to more fully experience the wisdom of fairy tales is to write your own. Through objectifying the contents of our unconscious by drawing, sculpting, writing, dancing, we find the healing symbols within. The Red Book is a record of Carl Jung’s own plunge into an almost psychotic state after his break with Sigmund Freud in 1913. Characters from his unconscious welled up in his conscious mind. Methodically, with terror and fortitude, he recorded his dialogues with these characters as if they were flesh and blood and Jung even painted images that illustrated his experiences with them. Jung sometimes feared during this period that he was toppling into a psychotic state, but by working consciously with these figures, he found he was able to hear their wisdom “from the other side.” These encounters later lead to his theory of Active Imagination, which he somewhat describes in this advice to an analysand about working with her dreams.
“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book,” Jung instructed. “It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Think of it in your imagination and try to paint it. Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”
To begin, what is your favorite fairy tale? Most of us have a tale that has lingered since childhood, one that strikes a strong resonance in us. Rediscover the story that seems to be “yours” and reread it. That you choose one fairy tale over another is significant. Part of your inquiry is to ask yourself why. Does this tale say something about your life? Is your own myth about rejection or abandonment? Do you feel victimized and left in the ashes like Cinderella? Or pressured to be the hero and save your family from poverty like Jack in “Jack in the Beanstalk?” After you read your chosen fairy tale, ask yourself these questions:
- What is my reaction?
- What does this stir up in me?
- Have I lived something similar?
- What are the symbols in the story and what are my associations to them?
You might want to write your answers in a journal you set apart for this work. The magic of fairy tales is that they transport us into an enchanted realm that is itself “set apart” from ordinary life. By recording your responses to your fairy tale, you honor the creative storyteller in you. In attempting to become conscious of the story, you make sense of yourself.
The second part of this exercise is to rewrite your favorite tale using the story you chose as a jumping off point. The goal here is to get “inside” the story and write it from inside out. “The good writer,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself and all things.” This exercise isn’t about crafting a story that will make you a famous writer, it’s about discovering the richness, subtlety, and astonishing wisdoms of your inner life.
The guidelines for writing your new fairy tale are simple:
- Create a new setting for the story you chose. The writer Eudora Welty, who grew up in and wrote about the Deep South, reminds us that “feelings are bound up with place.” Instead of beginning with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago,” set your story somewhere specific. NYC, 2017. St. Petersburg under Tsar Nicholas. Setting is locale, period, weather, time of day. It includes sense perceptions —smells, tastes, sounds. What about a fairy tale set in a Wisconsin barn or a bar in New Orleans?
- Choose a character from your favorite tale and tell the story from his or her point of view. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. What would we learn if we heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin from Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view? Set your wild imagination free. What if Cinderella’s stepsister confesses she didn’t want to marry the prince, she only wanted to wear his splendid uniform!
In creating this new story you will surprise yourself. The process is one of discovery. Pay attention to what you dream during this process. With inner and outer vision, discover what animals appear to you. What song plays on the breeze? Don’t overthink, strive or fret. There are no rules. Whatever reveals itself wants your attention.
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”
Whether we first heard these words read to us as a bedtime story, or in a darkened theater, enthralled by the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (where it was actually “Magic mirror on the wall,” although most people remember it otherwise), the queen’s imperious question casts a spell. We know trouble will soon follow. Even the littlest girls get it and hold their breath in anticipation and concern. “Fairest of all” shocks us with its competitive edge, touching a core part of our feminine selves. Attractiveness, it presumes, determines our status and value as a female. Beauty, we will come to understand, is an asset, but also a curse.
As portrayed by the eighth-century Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus is a handsome lad pursued by “youths and young girls” but indifferent to their attention. One day, while hunting alone in a shady virgin forest, he comes across a clear pool of water; bending to drink, he is transfixed by what he sees. Instantly, as if pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, he is “struck with wonder by what’s wonderful in him … He wants himself.” Narcissus, writes Ovid in Allen Mandelbaum’s wonderful translation, “tries to quench one thirst,” and “feels another rise.” The lad has fallen into fatal self-admiration.
The story does not end happily. Speaking to his reflection in the water, the besotted Narcissus says, “Your gaze is fond and promising; I stretch my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile and you smile, too…” But when Narcissus tries to embrace his simulacrum, the image disperses.
He knows not what he sees, but what he sees
invites him. Even as the pool deceives
his eyes, it tempts them with delights. But why,
o foolish boy, do you persist? Why try
to grip an image? He does not exist—
—Ovid, Metamorphoses (Allen Mandelbaum translation)
Despite his frustration and suffering, Narcissus cannot leave the spot. He lies beside the pool and wastes away. In the poem’s concluding stanza, Ovid tells us that even in the underworld, after death, Narcissus continues to stare into the pool of Styx, fixated forever on his own image.
My father had a gun. I discovered it one day while snooping in his dresser, the shock of its chill black metal, heavy as stone in my hand. That gun made me feel safe. My father has a gun, and he’s going to kill you. Unbeknownst to my father, I bragged about its existence, wielding my threats shamelessly when confronted with neighborhood toughs. (Back then, bravado was enough to give a childhood adversary second thoughts.) My conscious notion of safety was based on access to weaponry, a model I’d picked up from Mr. Khrushchev and our military, who were duking it out over the missiles in Cuba. The strategy was fortified further by mother’s fondness for warning me it was a dog-eat-dog world, and I had to choose to be either predator or prey.
The memory of my dad’s gun came to my mind recently when watching North Korea’s celebratory parade of its newest missiles and seeing the braggadocio smile of that country’s gleefully menacing leader. How blatantly perverse it is that our species feels safest when we’ve stockpiled enough armament to blow up the world.
In a recent issue on climate change (a subject that provokes its own sense of doom), the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Panic Attack.” The first line mentions a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by the British poet W. H. Auden. “The Age of Anxiety,” a book-length reflection on Auden’s experience as part of the 1945 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey team gathered to assess the impact of the Allied bombing on Germany and the German people, defines a cultural moment in the mid-nineteen-forties just as Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” defined the enormous cultural changes after the First World War. Nitsuh Abebe, author of the Times article, names the present cultural moment, one of diffuse apprehension. “Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response—tension, alarm, fight or flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed—that accompanies this feeling,” he writes.
The word safety comes from the Latin salvus, meaning uninjured, in good health. The correlation between health, injury and feeling safe is compelling. Any injury to our emotional or physical self can lead to a sense of vulnerability. It is, after all, the lame sheep that gets culled by the coyote from the herd. One of the ways we make ourselves feel safe is by hiding our weaknesses, but those bent on power and destruction possess an uncanny ability to sniff out weaklings, as anyone who bullies or is bullied knows. Hiding or disguising our fragility does not provide a sense of safety and may only reinforce our dread of being discovered or “found out.”
The amniotic sac is our first protected space. As fetuses, we cannot survive outside the maternal womb. At birth, when the umbilicus is cut, we’re severed from our original life source and forced to breathe on our own. This separation, which all of us undergo if we are to live, causes us to wail in rage and bafflement. In an unstable environment, we seek stable and predictable objects outside ourselves. But we are also curious creatures, and thus, the learning curve begins: moment to moment, life presents us with reminders of our tenuous relationship to existence. We search for security in an insecure world. Our survival depends on the development of skills of mind, heart and body that awaken us to our position in the net and network of all life. The challenge is urgent to recognize that if our air is not safe to breathe, we are not safe. If our lakes and rivers are not safe to fish or drink, we are not safe. If the Great Coral Reef is bleaching out and dying, some part of us is deeply at risk.
In the interest of understanding how people think about safety, I decided to investigate what helps others feel safe and unsafe. What follows is not scientific research but compiled from online sources of a mostly personal nature. The lists are not in any particular order.
We feel safe when:
- Hugged by a loved one
- Showing dominance
- Have job security, financial security
- People smile at us
- We can hide under a blanket
- Have a protective and protected private space
- Know we can escape
- We are with pets: petting a dog, curling up with a cat
- We feel loved
Conversely, what makes us feel unsafe are
- Being judged
- The experience of loss
- Natural disasters
- Pain, injury, illness
- Being humiliated or ostracized
- Being without physical resources
- Feeling betrayed and abandoned
My brief online exploration persuades me that we best experience safety when we are in the presence of loving others. This aligns with significant studies in animal and human research on bonding and attachment theories. In this we are not much different from other creatures, or indeed, as new research shows, other sentient beings. It also underscores a premise of most Eastern wisdom traditions: we are part of an interconnected universe. New technologies have given scientists the tools to study and document exactly how connected we are to all life. Peter Wohlleben, a professional forester in Germany and the author of the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, poses the question, “Are trees social beings?” His answer, that indeed they are, makes fascinating reading. Though trees in a forest compete for food, water and light, they also nourish and sustain each other through their root systems and the fungi that dominate those roots. There is, he writes, “an advantage to working together.”
Let’s cherish our connections. As Auden wrote in his other great poem about World War II, “September 1, 1939,” “we must love one another or die.”
When we scapegoat, we project what is dark, shameful and denied about ourselves onto others. This “shadow” side of our personality, as Carl Jung called it, represents hidden or wounded aspects of ourselves, “the thing a person has no wish to be,” (Collected Works, Vol. 16) and acts in a complementary and often compensatory manner to our persona, or public mask, “what oneself as well as others think one is.” (Collected Works, Vol. 9).
The desire to disown despised parts of oneself has ancient and universal roots. In his compelling study of comparative religion and myths, The Golden Bough, social anthropologist Sir James Frazer devotes several chapters to documenting the variety of forms scapegoating has taken through the ages: undesired attributes or illnesses being magically transferred onto defeated enemies, living animals, or in some instances, interred inside objects such as trees. The contaminated “thing” was thought to be detachable and disposable, as when nail or skin parings of a sick man might be stuffed into a hole in the ground.
The word “scapegoat” originated in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, a high priest, acting in the service of Yahweh, offered the blood of a slaughtered goat to purify the tabernacle. The transgressions of the community were projected onto a second goat that was then sent out to wander the desert. Though banished into exile, the goat itself was not considered evil, but rather was a sacred vehicle used for atonement, thus ridding the community of its negative elements and reconnecting the tribe with the Divine. While we no longer believe animal sacrifice can purify our communities, the practice of scapegoating continues, although in a much corrupted form.
Sylvia Brinton Perera in her book, The Scapegoat Complex, writes: “We apply the term “scapegoat” to individuals and groups who are accused of causing misfortune. This serves to relieve others, the scapegoaters, of their own responsibilities, and to strengthen the scapegoaters sense of power and righteousness.” One has only to read the world news to recognize that our impulse to transfer rejected and hated parts of the self onto others is everywhere destructively alive. Ostracism, bullying, name-calling, banishment from community all serve a false dichotomy between “us” and “them.” In one example, we may experience aggressive impulses, feel guilty about them, develop a persona of accommodation and passivity while our unconscious and unprocessed anger wears the face of “the enemy.”
Perera continues, “Scapegoating…means finding the one or ones who can be identified with evil or wrong-doing, blamed for it, and cast out of the community in order to leave the remaining members with a feeling of guiltlessness.” By demonizing other racial, ethnic and gender groups for their troubles, scapegoaters are able to maintain their own “innocence” and remain blind to the moral imperatives facing them. In totalitarian regimes, in some theocracies, and even in our own country, conspiracy theorists not only target individuals and other countries as scapegoats, but project blame for the society’s difficulties onto the disciplines of science, art, and the humanities.
Sadly, the tyrannical force of scapegoating, with its cruel thrusts of accusatory judgments, can also erupt in our own backyards. This closer-to-home variety of scapegoating is especially important to note since we may find ourselves condemning bullies and world leaders while denying our own inclination to split off and project fears and anxieties onto our intimates and neighbors. The scapegoat-victim in families is often the “black sheep,” the child who, like the ancient sacrificial goat, serves the miserable role of carrying the unconscious shadow parts of her parents. These children may present with psychological problems and exhibit addictive or self-destructive behavior, but a deeper look into family dynamics points to a lack of awareness of the influence of parents’ unconscious feelings.
Carl Jung believed that scapegoating revealed something fundamental about our psyche. He maintained that we all have a “shadow” side to our personality. As he wrote in Archetype and the Collective Unconscious, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” Our shadow aspects cause us anguish, and much of our mental energy is enlisted in the denial of our perceived imperfections, but we cannot see our shadow aspects except through projection. In Alchemical Studies, Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.” This is where art and literature can awaken us to our own blind spots and human frailties.
The sorrow of the scapegoated child is palpably conveyed in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden through the character of Cal, the no-good son, who carries the weight of his father’s unconscious anger and disappointment. So, too, does the character Biff in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman suffer for his father’s moral blindness. The evil daughter in the film The Bad Seed and the horrifying children in The Village of the Damned illustrate how unconscious shadow aspects can manifest as the ungovernable and unconscionable impulses we assign to psychopaths and aliens. And who can forget the tragic fate of the deformed and scapegoated Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame? The list continues. Tom Robinson, the black man on trial in To Kill A Mockingbird is the victim of racial scapegoating. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter is victimized for her gender and sexuality.
David Grossman, an Israeli author concerned with the brutalization of minds and hearts of people in countries perpetually at war, writes about the results of scapegoating in Writing in the Dark. He calls this radical denial of feelings “a shrinking of our soul’s surface.” Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he writes, “Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated—both morally and practically—we feel it may be better not to think or know…Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends.” The dulling of feeling, the indifference to suffering—one’s own or that of others—hopelessness and despair, these are what we pay for demonizing the other while failing to accept our own darker emotions. Grossman concludes that self-anesthesia solves nothing. The suffering continues, goes underground, explodes in acts of violence against the self or innocent victims.
“It is everybody’s allotted fate to become conscious of and learn to deal with this shadow . . . The world will never reach a state of order until this truth is generally recognized.”—Carl Jung, Collected Works, Volume 10, par. 455
To own one’s rage, aggression, and greed is a lifelong and arduous process that requires a willingness to live beyond binary, black-and-white thinking and to embrace our complicated and messy humanity. Here we might learn a lesson from Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, a delightful and wondrous graphic map to the terrors and ultimate acceptance of the monsters within. Young Max, the book’s protagonist, is furious at his mother. Sent to bed without dinner, he is soon conveyed into a dreamscape of seemingly terrible monsters—And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth. Their insistent plea is to be seen and recognized, a transformational act which turns them into buddies. This turning toward and not away from what is fearsome in ourselves is a deep lesson in self-knowledge and integrity, a counterpoint to the drive to scapegoat. It echoes the poet Rilke’s famous line from Letters to A Young Poet, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
Recently, after a prolonged and hellish ravaging by Alzheimer’s, my sister died. She was the last of my family of origin, my only sib, the single person on earth with whom I shared childhood memories. Witnessing her diminishment was frightening, tender, and humbling. Her death closed the final chapter on her pain and struggle and for all involved was a relief. Still, I expected after her funeral to take up temporary residency in The House of Grief. I’d been there before. With each family death and bereavement—a grandparent, parents, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the heart-wrenching passing of pets—I’d experienced mind-numbing, stomach-twisting, insomniac weeks. Each loss brought its own parcel of tears, days of dazed blankness, and as I look back on it now, a variety of physical ailments symbolic of my body’s way of processing strong emotions. My sister’s death, however, evoked a more crippling response, different from all my previous experiences. This led me to investigate my grief.
Much of the current research on grief question the landmark book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying published in 1969, and her later book based on the same model, On Grief and Grieving. These two books alerted clinicians and the public to what became known as the “stages of grief” theory.
Kübler-Ross posited that grief unrolls in five predictable stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her research was anecdotal and compelling, a necessary first step to awakening the medical profession, including psychiatry, to the range of emotions of the bereaved and the need of patients and their families to have an honest discussion about death. If only our griefs would adhere to the tidy timeline set up by Kübler-Ross! Contrary to our wishes, her paradigm does not align with the wild and unpredictable process grief is.
In a chapter called, “Softening The Belly of Sorrow,” Levine reminds us that we often store fear and anger and sorrow in our guts, the belly being a receptacle, the place we store pains and disappointments we consciously ignore. One healing practice he advises is simply to sit quietly and focus attention on the rising and falling of our abdomens, softening the belly with mercy and compassion for ourselves and the sorrows we carry. Each inhalation and exhalation advances our letting go of distress while making room for a feeling of peace.
In my own experience, grief is not a small and boundaried domain, but a vast and mostly unexplored territory haunted by ghosts and memories. It is a place we pass through and become transformed. In this sense, grief shows its creative potential by acting as a catalyst for discovering and developing resilience and a greater capacity to adapt to stress. Levine says it this way: “Though we may have been told we are and must be a noun, in truth we are a restless verb, a process in process, born into tragedy and grace with unimagined potential.”
We share with other sentient beings the experience of suffering impermanence and loss. Our hearts break over and over, and yet we survive. The master poet Bashō writes with wise knowing of the persistent mystery of death and the transience of all things.
The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.
(translated from the Japanese by William George Ashton)
Five Things I Learned about Grief
- We don’t all follow the Kübler-Ross model of five stages of grief.
- Grief can be complicated and include unrelenting longing for the deceased for months.
- Some people recover quickly from grief. Its duration is not predictable.
- Grief is not just a human emotion. We share grieving with fellow animals.
- The process of trying to find meaning in what seems a meaningless loss can be transformative.
How do we handle the internal conflict that arises when facts or events contradict deeply held beliefs? In his groundbreaking book, When Prophecy Fails (1956), Leon Festinger and his co-authors sought to answer that question by investigating a doomsday cult. The group was led by a Chicago housewife who claimed to channel warnings from the fictitious planet, Clarion. Through automatic writing she was told that the Earth would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The faithful quit jobs, left spouses and gave away money and possessions, in preparation for the arrival of a flying saucer that would rescue them.
When the flying saucer did not appear, and the flood did not happen, the cultists changed the narrative, and then changed it again. They convinced themselves that their clocks were wrong. When they recognized that their clocks were correct, they set a new time for the arrival of the spaceship. When that event failed to occur, they convinced themselves that God had chosen to spare the world at the last minute because of their good deeds.
To explain this behavior, Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance.” This theory states that when there is discordance between our beliefs and external events or actions, we either change our actions or change our beliefs. Many people are reluctant to change their behavior, so they double down on their belief. In the case of the Clarion cult, so many had sacrificed so much in preparation for Armageddon, they were unwilling to change their actions, so they changed the narrative of their belief.
Self-deception is familiar to most of us. Willful ignorance allows us to evade examining situations that conjure cognitive dissonance. (“It’s okay to cheat on my diet on weekends.”) Often we rationalize our deceptions under the pretense of not wanting to hurt others (we know those little white lies are lies!), or to not “rock the boat.” This kind of self-deception occurs in various degrees in most of our relationships, but especially where there is disequilibrium in power, as between employee and boss.
Sometimes self-deception is an unconscious protective mechanism that enables one to survive a threatening experience. Prisoners in concentration camps needed a buffer of self-deception to remain faithful to the idea of their liberation even when their daily lives suggested otherwise. We may deceive ourselves about the seriousness of an illness or about our impending death. The difficulties of such situations encourage us to ignore the truth in order to thrive.
Morality and ethics enter the domain of self-deception when our self-deceiving conflicts with the greater good. As Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo, “How much truth does a spirit endure? How much truth does it dare?”
At its most devastating, self-deception can demonstrate the human capacity to split off or dissociate the parts of the self that perpetrate war, torture, and abuse. Nobel Prize-winning writer Luigi Pirandello captured this when he wrote in a private notebook, “There is somebody who’s living my life. And I know nothing about him.” We see the fragmentation of self not only in those suffering from dissociative personality disorders, but also in those engaged in brutal and bullying acts while maintaining a “normal” persona. We all know the clichéd trope of the mass murderer who lavishes affection on his dog.
The expression “Post-Fact World” has now seeped into our vernacular. We seem to have entered a time not only of questioning facts, but one of moral ambiguity as it relates to truth. Unless we are willing to try to attend to the truth as it is, not as we wish it to be, and to confront our capacity to self-deceive, we may experience an unprecedented turbulence in our lives.
The Five Faces of Self-Deception
- Evasion of examining one’s biases or strongly held beliefs.
- Moral forgetfulness.
- Avoidance of contradictory beliefs or evidence.
- Avoidance of feelings that contradict beliefs.
- Over-rationalization and the tendency to blame others.
Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:
“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”
In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”
For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.
Muriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”
It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?
We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.
Einstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.
Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:
“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”
Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.
Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.
Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.
“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”
And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”
To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”
Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”
This is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”
Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.
Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.
Dreams are a marvel, worlds of wonder filled with phantasmagoric images, surreal plot twists that have their own logic even as they turn us inside out with their shifting points of view. Dreams take us high and drop us low. Whether we’re flying over the Manhattan skyline or being chased through a cornfield by a bull, we sense that our dreams are trying to communicate something—perhaps something essential—to our waking selves. We suspect that what is hidden from one part of our minds in the day-world—our unspoken worries, our secret loves, the destiny we fear to follow—becomes manifest in living color in our dreams.
As far as we know, humans have always dreamed. Some of our earliest written stories include dreams. In the first tablet of our oldest epic poem, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, just before he encounters his doppelganger Inkidu, Gilgamesh dreams of a rock and an axe falling from the sky; his mother explains to him that these images foretell the arrival of “a mighty comrade.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope dreams of fifty geese being killed by an eagle, a wish fulfilled when her husband Odysseus returns and slays the suitors plaguing her. And in the Old Testament, Joseph achieves fame by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about fourteen cows, seven fat, seven lean.
On every continent groups still exist that consult dreams to foretell the future or connect with the Divine. Even some of us “non-believers” decorate our bedrooms with dream catchers. Why? As much as we might want to reject the notion of an invisible world that influences our day-life, don’t we all suspect there is a meaning and purpose to our dreams?
Marie-Louise von Franz, a scholarly colleague of Jung’s, wrote that dreams “are the voice of nature within us.” Dreams may be the sacred place where human and cosmos meet and interact. In The Collective Works, Jung elaborates:
“… in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises . . .” (CW 10).
On the scientific side, we are learning more about the neuroscience of dreams than ever before. As Sander van der Linden describes in an article in Scientific American, one hypothesis, based on where dreaming occurs in the brain, speculates that dream stories “may be stripping the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it.” Other scientists speculate that the purpose of dreaming may not be psychological but physiological. Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep has been thought to help the brain process memories, but a new research in the field of ophthalmology suggests the purpose of REM sleep might be to oxygenate our corneas.
Though we can study the hard facts about our dream-brain, the dreaming mind still remains a mystery.
After losing his mentor and father-figure in a professional split with Freud, Jung suffered a tremendous psychological upheaval, a twenty-year period Stephen A. Diamond describes in his PT post “Reading The Red Book: How C.G. Jung Salvaged His Soul.”
Like Freud, Jung understood dreams to be messages from the unconscious, but rather than viewing dream images as manifest symbols of latent pathology, a storehouse of unwanted and dreaded content, Jung, through his own self-analysis, concluded that our darkest dreams might contain imagery that illustrate our internal conflicts and point to their cure as well.
In an essay on Jung, psychoanalyst Joan Chodrow describes the process by which Jung experimented with ways to restore his emotional equilibrium through dialoguing with fantasy and dream images as if these characters existed in the day-world. She writes:
“… he made the conscious decision to ‘drop down’ into the depths. He landed on his feet and began to explore the strange inner landscape where he met the first of a long series of inner figures. These fantasies seemed to personify his fears and other powerful emotions. Over time, he realized that when he managed to translate his emotions into images, he was inwardly calmed and reassured. He came to see that his task was to find the images that are concealed in the emotions.”
Jung later called the process of working with dream figures “active imagination.” In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes terrifying encounters with his unconscious, which often threatened to overwhelm him. His gradual discovery of how to work with the fearsome material flooding his psyche has been posthumously published in The Red Book.
Written closer to the end of his life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections details perhaps more objectively Jung’s actual experience during the time of his turmoil and outlines how he came to use his own frightening encounters with his psyche to form some of his most lasting theories about conscious and unconscious material:
“… I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. . . . But there was a demonic strength in me, and from the beginning there was no doubt in my mind that I must find the meaning of what I was experiencing in these fantasies.
“I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. As soon as I had the feeling that I was myself again, I abandoned this restraint upon the emotions and allowed the images and inner voices to speak afresh…
“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images that were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them…. As a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions.” (MDR, p. 177).
What if dream figures could step out of our dreams and talk to us, and tells us why they have appeared and what they want?
Using the imagination as a tool for transformation is what drew me to Jung and, later, to work with active imagination. As a writer, I inherently trust the wisdom of my unconscious mind to lead me to the story inside the story. To show me what I am not looking at, what escapes my awareness but wants to be seen. What a revelation to discover that the nightmares that wake us, shaken and despairing, might indeed be coded messages of a healing source within!
Try it yourself. Sit in a quiet place and recall a figure that has appeared to you in a dream. Talk to it. What is your second grade teacher doing in a dream? Why is she grooming a parrot? Why is this happening in your grandmother’s yard? To find out the meaning of the dream, active imagination encourages the dreamer to dialogue with dream figures in waking life. We ask and through their answers we associate what these figures might mean to us. Do they bring any stories, myths or fairy tales to mind? Looking at dream images through an archetypal and a personal lens allows us to see, alternately, the broadest and the most precise meaning of our dreams. What I’m suggesting is a simplified process but many good guidebooks exist. In the animate world of dreams, cars, trees, shoes, dogs can all speak, and what they have to say has everything to do with your life.
Recommended for further reading:
Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson
Jung on Active Imagination, edited and with an introduction by Joan Chodorow
Dreams, A Portal to the Source by Edward C. Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera
One of the many things that fascinates us about our dreams is that they hint at an alternative life. Anyone who has ever tried to recapture or re-enter a dream knows that dreams live in us but are autonomous and impervious to our will. They visit while we sleep, transporting us to landscapes real and surreal, offering wild and awesome narratives, oracular portents, and often hilarious outcomes. The uncanny wisdom or cleverness or solemn warnings of our dreams seem to have everything and nothing to do with us.
To compound the paradoxical mystery of dreams, they are intensely personal, often repetitive, and yet share common themes with the dreams of others. We arrive too late for the train. We are unprepared for the big exam. We forget our house keys, lose our eye glasses. Our hair falls out, our teeth are loose, the toilet is plugged. We lift our arms and fly away. The commonality of some dream images points to universal or archetypal motifs in the human psyche, yet each dream is unique to the dreamer, its meaning and relevance part of an intimate and individual portrait of a singular unconscious.
“The dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious,” writes Carl Jung in The Collected Works. (Vol. 8, para 505)
After splitting with his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung went on to develop his own theories of dream interpretation. For Jung, they were not manifest representations of repressed (latent) Oedipal conflicts and unresolved childhood wish-fulfillment interpreted against a more or less static system of symbol equivalents (snake=phallus; cave=womb); for Jung, dreams are a dynamic aspect of our evolving psyches.
According to authors Edward Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source, “Each dream may be seen as aiming toward a widening of awareness. It offers comment, correction, and contributions toward problem solving. Thereby, it strengthens, coalesces or balances the dreamer’s waking views, and, thus, it serves as an important vehicle to support psychological development.”
Dreams may challenge our assumptions of who we are or may fill out what we don’t already know about ourselves. Jung believed dreams do serve in a compensatory or complementary manner by informing the conscious mind of ignored, overlooked, or denied aspects of self, prompting the dreamer with dream-dramas and narratives the ego has tuned out. Concerning this compensatory function of dreams, Jungian analyst Dr. Murray Stein wrote me: “It’s important to understand that Jung’s use of the term ‘compensation’ means ‘adding to’ and ‘balancing’ and with a prospective, forward-looking meaning that facilitates individuation.”
Viewed from this perspective, the dream is our friend, our ally, our guide over a lifetime. It presents truths that have not yet reached the level of our conscious awareness.
In The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man, Jung wrote, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”
In dreams, we step out of the ego world of order and certainty into the domain of the interior, where we may discover our true selves and the path to our destiny. In his essay, “Jung’s Contributions to Psychoanalysis,” Dr. Stein writes, “With the notion of transformation (Wandlung), Jung introduced dramatic openness and flexibility into the psychic system and laid the groundwork for considering the possibility of prolonged psychological development throughout the lifespan, i.e., the individuation process. With his understanding of the symbol, he radically overcame the prevailing intellectual tendency in psychoanalysis toward reductionism, including psychological reductionism and not only biological reductionism. Together, these two terms open a vast space for investigating the reality of the psyche . . .”
Several I Ching hexagrams coax the practitioner: “It furthers one to cross the great water.” So, too, our dreams encourage us to continue onward despite obstacles and rocky terrain. Over time, we encounter inner and outer conflicts. We change, and our dreams reflect these changes or the changes that still need to be addressed. A dream in which you are at a banquet but lacking silverware may mean one thing when you are twenty and something entirely different when you are sixty. Just so, a dream in which you are about to be attacked by wild dogs might suggest your instinctual life feels threatening. In later years, the pack of dogs may have metamorphosed into a loving and loyal canine friend.
We can’t think our way back into dreams, but we can re-enter them with our conscious minds. We can dialogue with dream figures much as Jung did in The Red Book, and ask them to state their intentions and enlighten us with their wisdoms. There is no finite end to the reaches of our imaginations, nor, as our dreams indicate, are there limits to our capacity to transform.
Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us
- Dreams are spontaneous self-portraits, in symbolic form, of the actual psychological situation in the unconscious. (paraphrase of Jung in The Collected Works)
- Dreams “offer comment, correction, and contributions toward problem-solving” in our conscious life. (Whitmont & Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source)
- Dreams inform us of ignored, overlooked or denied aspects of self.
- Dreams present the underlying archetypal and mythological motifs that direct, pattern, and give meaning to our waking existence.
- Dreams map our psychological and spiritual transformation.