Facing the Tiger: Welcoming Anxiety’s Fierce Wisdom

Tiger by Hsueh Shao-Tang for Anxiety blog post

 

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.

Sujith Rathnayake drawing for Anxiety blog postThe 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?

Rumi meets his spiritual instructor, for Anxiety blog postHere 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.”

Oizys, Greek goddess of anxiety for Anxiety blog postA 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.

Anxiety by Edvard Munch for Anxiety blog postOne 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.

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.”



Waiting: a Source of Anxiety or Opportunity for Discovery?

Waiting by Degas for Waiting blog post

 

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.

The Emigrants for Waiting blog postWe 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.”

Waiting for Dad by Homer for Waiting blog postWhat’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.

Slaves Waiting for Sale for Waiting blog postFrench 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.


Wild Geese 

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.

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.”



Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia for sacrifice blog post

 

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.

"How the girl lost her hands" by H. J. Ford for sacrifice blog postIn 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.

Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson for sacrifice blog postAnother 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.

Jephthah sacrificing his daughter by Bourdon for sacrifice blog postUnfortunately, 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.

Sacrifice of Iphigenia fresco for sacrifice blog postYet 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.”

Dr. Jean Baker Miller for sacrifice blog postTo 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.

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.”

 



Trauma’s Lingering Effects and the Creative Self

Social alienation for Trauma blogpost

 

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)

Odin or Wotan for trauma blogpostAs 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.

The Torture of Cuauhtémoc for trauma blogpostTrauma 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.

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.”



Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity

Mother and Daughter by Saundra Lane Galloway for Daughters blog post

 

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.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch for Daughters blog postIn my earlier blogs, I’ve written about the relationship between empathy and literature (See, for instance, “How Facing Our “Shadow” Can Release Us from Scapegoating”), how literature offers a portal into lives like or unlike our own. When we read or listen to fiction or poetry, we are essentially opening our hearts and minds to universal human experiences, stories told in the voice of others that expand our capacity to better know ourselves more fully. Alaa Al Aswany, the celebrated Egyptian author and activist involved in the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations, writes: “Literature is not a tool of judgment – it’s a tool for human understanding.”

While language is a key element to self-identity, the paths to self-knowledge are various.

The spiritual route directs us to prayer, meditation, fasting, chanting, retreat or working among the destitute. Psychology offers an extensive menu of options: dreamwork; cognitive behavior therapy; mindfulness-based therapy; psychodynamic therapy; and the vast world of psychopharmacology.

To the Highest Bidder by Harry Roseland for Daughters blog postVia Creativa is another more rarely considered route to self-knowledge. It is the inspired creation of theologian Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest in the Roman Catholic Church and an admirer of medieval mystics and visionaries such as Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Meister Eckhart.

Via Creativa, the path of creativity, is part of Fox’s Creation Spirituality, a four-fold path to awareness of self through awareness of the divine.

Via Positiva is the path of awe, beauty and joy, Via Negativa, the path of darkness, pain and suffering that are inherent in a spiritual journey, and Via Creativa, according to Fox, is the path of generativity and creativity, the path of poetry, art, and creative work.

The fourth path, Via Transformativa, is the way of transformation made possible through practice and awareness of the first three paths.

We gain self-knowledge through the words and sentences we choose to describe ourselves, but it’s also true that we can learn about ourselves through the words of others. Poems, like stories, offer an avenue into self-discovery.

In the spirit of Via Creativa, and with attention to language as a way of knowing, and to continue my own exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters (See “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes” and “Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story”), I offer several poems by women about their mothers. Here we find ourselves in their hidden moments of praise or sorrow, anger or joy.

Leslie Ullman for Daughters blog postThe first poem is by Leslie Ullman, the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity, and of a hybrid collection of craft essays, poems, and writing exercises titled Library of Small Happiness. She teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts and lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Being Not Her

I did not know how to flirt
or sew or navigate my days without
a trace of self-doubt. My demeanor
was serious (You need to have
a light touch with boys. And remember
to make them feel important). She
stayed married until death did them part
after 69 years. I married twice and did not
change my name. She adored men. I
was afraid men would distract me. Men
adored her. I wanted them to adore me
and also to leave me alone. I wrote poems
she didn’t understand and stopped reading
as our lives deepened into their separate modes.
I resented my native suburb, her comfort zone—
but oh, the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley every
spring, their perfumes thrilling, filling me
with the promise of being grown up, even after
I knew better. Every year I miss them
as I add annuals to my own high-desert square
of decent soil, guided by her words: don’t be afraid
to experiment. You’ll remember what thrives.

When I asked Leslie to tell me a little about the origin of this poem she wrote me the following, in which she stresses how time and maturity mellowed her relationship to her mother. She speaks for many women who awaken later in life to a new understanding of their mothers.

“I had been thinking about what it’s like to be an elder myself, with a mother still in the world. I also had been marveling at how lucky I was to have outgrown my resentment of feeling controlled by a well-intentioned but willful, self-confident, and often tactless mother, to emerge into a friendship with her. It occurred to me that many daughters don’t have enough time with their mothers for this to happen – they’re stuck with old business, which may be as much a matter of perception as of anything else, and never have time to feel liked and appreciated by their mothers, or to like their mothers back. I also think this has to do with outgrowing one’s need for a mother’s approval, which can take a long time!”

Audre Lord for Daughters blog postAudre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who dedicated her life and her work to fighting injustice. In the following poem, she speaks of a painful childhood, her need for motherly love from a light-skinned mother who disdained her dark-skinned daughter. The poet calls on the spirit of her personal mother and the Great Mother to hear her need and to heal her.

From the House of Yemanjá

My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
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
mother
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
before
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.
I am

the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
one.

Alice Friman for Daughters blog postAlice 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.

Snake Hill

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.

I’m lying.
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 for Daughters blog postNaomi 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.

Voices

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!

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.”

Top image, “Mother and Daughter,” courtesy of Colorado mixed media artist, Saundra Lane Galloway. Saundralane.com



Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe for Mothers blog post

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.

Fountain of Goddess of Ephesus for Mothers blog postIn 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).

Kali trampling Shiva for Mothers blog postA 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.

The Return of Persephone for Mothers blog postAs 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?

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.”



Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes

Atticus Finch for Fathers blog post

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.

FDR Day of Infamy speech for Fathers blog postHere is where fatherhood comes in. During that entire ride home, I kept the radio on, waiting for my President’s voice to assure me that this was not the end of the world. I later learned that George W. Bush did broadcast a brief statement from the school in Florida where he had been reading to children. But for some reason, I never heard it on my radio.

The silence I experienced from our president during those long anxious hours driving home has stayed with me. I was reminded of how FDR’s inspiring words after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor not only shaped America’s destiny but reassured an entire nation of its strength and purpose. Churchill in Britain during the blitz, Gandhi in India fighting for independence from colonial rule, Mandela in South Africa, these are the associations that come to mind when we think of national heroes as strong father figures. To be sure, the same human flaws afflicted them that afflict the rest of us, but over time idealized versions of these men persist. They have come to represent the virtues of courage, fortitude, wisdom, and benevolent authority, values that most cultures deem positive and necessary for the continuation of the state.

On the day of the 9/11 attack and during the months that followed, I found myself longing for just such a father figure, one who could assure me that not only did our government have the skills and wisdom to deal with the frightening prospect of terrorism, but also that I could continue to believe in our common humanity and our democratic institutions.

Angling by Caillebotte for Fathers blog postThe projection of values onto a national figure parallels how we project values and qualities onto the most important and guiding presences in our personal lives, our own mothers and fathers. What is projected or placed onto another individual by our unconscious reflects the values of our specific time and place as well as our psychology. A child growing up in eighteenth-century England, for instance, could expect a model of fathering quite different from a child growing up in eighteenth-century Polynesia. Likewise, today, the diversity of fathering styles emerges from the diversity within a culture.

Yet, certain eternal structures within the human psyche – archetypes – exist across cultures and transcend time and place. In The Father: Contemporary Jungian Perspectives, psychoanalyst Andrew Samuels notes that the archetypal father is not restricted to personal experience: “The idea is that, behind the personal father whom we know and to whom we relate, lies an innate psychological structure which influences the way we experience him.”

In classical Jungian terms, the mother archetype is characterized by nurturing, containing, and generative qualities, while the father archetype is assumed to be a more active and aggressive principle dominated by intellect and will. This duality, which current gender issues may question, is nonetheless reflected in our myths and language, and our view of the cosmos. We say Mother Earth (Gaia), Father Sky (Kronos, Zeus, Yahweh); we speak of Eros (Soul) and Logos (Spirit). During the Third Reich, Nazi propaganda favored calling Germany the Fatherland (Vaterland). By contrast, Russians often refer to their country, affectionately, as the Motherland. Why a country should be referred to as one parent or the other may represent our differing expectations of mother and father. The former implies care, belonging, family, benevolence; the latter, order, discipline, masculine strength.

King Lear for Fathers blog postNot every male leader who becomes a father figure is a hero. An alarming number of kings, dictators, presidents, and the like, embody the shadow qualities of the archetype. Historians have accounted for Hitler’s rise to power by his uncanny understanding and manipulation of the desperation and dissatisfaction of many German citizens. If his determination to restore Germany to its former glory won him adoration as a worthy and strong father figure, his inhumanity toward Jews and others expressed a collective need to blame others/outsiders for the country’s troubles. Cult leaders such as Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or David Koresh also took on the status of father figures, playing out on a grand scale the violent, destructive, and anti-social aspects of the father archetype. These men are our abusive fathers writ large.

Whether we think of our fathers as heroes, villains, or just ordinary guys, they (or father substitutes) play a crucial role in our psychological development by presenting a crucial and necessary complement to the bonding relationship with mother. Mothers provide the breast for nourishment, but in our ancestral history fathers were necessary to ensure the survival of offspring. They provided protection from predators and alternative sources of food. In the postmodern world, most mothers work, whether tending crops or in an office. Father as sole breadwinner is no longer an accurate description of his family role. On their website, Parents As Teachers, William Scott and Amy De La Hurt cite the following research on the important role of fathers in raising young children.

  • Early involvement by fathers in the primary care of their child is a source of emotional security for the child (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).
  • Fathers’ affectionate treatment of their infants contributes to high levels of secure attachment (Rosenberg & Wilcox, 2006).
  • Children who have close relationships with their fathers have high self-esteem and are less likely to be depressed (Dubowitz et al., 2001).
  • When fathers acknowledge their child’s emotional response and help them address it with a problem-solving approach, the children score higher on tests of emotional intelligence (Civitas, 2001).

Darth Vader and Luke for Fathers blog postFatherhood and fathering are receiving more attention from psychologists these days.  Economic and sociological changes, more working mothers, more single mothers among them, have put many fathers in the role of primary or shared-time caregiver. Decades ago, a father in the delivery room was unheard of. Now it is a common practice. Fathers can participate in the pregnancy through classes and instructions on everything from birthing techniques to the specifics of breastfeeding. Cultural changes concerning gender identity and same-sex marriage will continue to precipitate changes in how we parent.

In many places around the world, people believe their parents live on as spirits after they’ve died. Through ritual and ceremony, these wisdom figures return to the living to offer advice, supply ancestral memory, or intervene with the gods. For some of us, our fathers have become inner figures who aid and support our journey into maturity. On the level of inner development, we can work with forgiveness and compassion, and form a new relationship to a father who may have been a source of pain. Absent or present, dead or alive, our fathers have shaped who we are.

Here is a beautiful poem by Robert Hayden written by a son, now a grown man, remembering his father with love and remorse.

Those Winter Sundays

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?

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.”



Why We Lie: Are Some Lies More Acceptable Than Others?

 

Eve Tempted for Lying blog post

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?

Pinocchio for Lying blog postWhat about Pinocchio whose foolish fibs cause his nose to grow so monstrously large that he can no longer fit through his front door?

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.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf for Lying blog post“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.”

Sally Kempton for Lying blog postKempton 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.”

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.”



Where Do You Find Enchantment in Your Life?

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.

What occurs next in Mick’s story is a miraculous description of rapture, unexpected, but not unprepared for. Mick’s feet have brought her to this house without her knowing.

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.”

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.”



You Can’t Fail at Love!

Invisible by Laura Williams for Love blog post

 

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.

Sharon Salzberg for Love blog postSharon is my spiritual consigliere. At eighteen she left the States for India on a spiritual quest. Fast forward many years and she is now a world-renowned author/meditation teacher and the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. I seek her counsel because, like many of us, I feel worn down by the grim news around the globe, the sense of escalating violence at home. As a poet and novelist, as a wife and mother, and as a woman concerned about the state of humankind, my work is to examine and articulate the dilemmas of the human heart.

The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, explored familial love, friendship, and a young girl’s first experience of passionate love. My novel-in-progress examines how we can survive terrible things and still keep our hearts open. Over the last year I’ve felt an increased urgency to hone my skills as a “love activist,” to search for new approaches and a new set of behaviors for how to respond to violence and the threat of harm. After reading Sharon’s latest book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, I set up a time for us to talk.

Bodhidharma Seated in Meditation by Gahō for Love blog post Sharon, too, has been a lifelong investigator of love. She tells me the story of her younger self who used to think of love “as a commodity in someone else’s hands,” something like a UPS package that others could deliver to her or withhold. When she realized that her ability to experience love wasn’t dependent on others, that love was inside her, her anxiety about being lovable evaporated. Other people or situations might awaken her love, but she “owned her ability to experience love.”

Many of us grow up believing our happiness is in the hands of other people. We forget that the ability to love others starts with the ability to love one’s self. This may seem counterintuitive, even sinful to those of us raised to put the needs of others first. Self-love is a radical idea. How many of our parents said, “You really ought to love yourself better, dear.”

If befriending yourself feels difficult, Sharon advises offering kindness and compassion to ourselves as if we were our own best friend. Part of my own loving-kindness meditation practice is to imagine a very young self held in the arms of an older wiser self. Effortlessly, my compassion flows out to the little one.

But what if love has beaten our hearts and crushed our spirits? While we can’t undo the past, our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. Science validates what the Buddha instinctively knew: meditation can rewire our brains. Our marvelous organ of cognition is adaptable, plastic, and capable of regeneration. We’re not condemned to live out the negative consequences of rejection, loss, or trauma forever. Sharon reminds me that feeling connected to others has beneficial physical effects as well as mental ones: our nervous system functions better and we get more control over pain relief.

Sara Lazar slide for Love blog postNo matter what we’ve been through, however troubled, we always have the capacity to awaken our potential to love. According to Sharon, “real love is trying to come alive in us despite the distortions of our culture and the habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation.” We’re born with an innate goodness. Our ability to love is our birthright, a tiny seed that may be hidden from view or damaged by experience, but it is indestructible. To keep the seed alive and help it blossom, we can water it with a meditation practice and attention.

How do we practice love? Imagine every encounter as a love encounter—at the grocery store, on a bus, with a pet, or a favorite tree—let each be an opportunity to experience our connectedness. We can even send love to people we don’t like. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considers his enemies to be his best teachers, and encourages us to think of our real enemies as the fear and anger within. The Buddhists liken overwhelming anger to a forest fire that burns up all the trees, destroying its host.

Is it possible to heal the world with love? At an earlier time in my life, I might have thought this sappy. Now I don’t know. I do know that a dedication to alleviating the suffering of others goes a long way in creating happiness within our own hearts. And happiness can encompass a range of emotions. “Anger and compassion,” writes Sharon, “are not mutually exclusive in the brave and willing heart.”

Recently, my husband and I decided to write a new set of marriage vows after decades of being together. You don’t have to be married, or even have a partner to do this exercise. In fact, I highly recommend it as a way to soulfully connect with any person you love. When I sat in silence and brought an image of my husband into my mind-heart, I saw him clearly, with an appreciation for who he is, not for who I’ve wanted him to be. A quality of love is paying attention. Sharon suggests meditation is “attention training.” Love brings us into the mystery of the present moment, to cherishing the smile we see each morning, or delighting in the goofy antics of our dog. Love is a responsibility to ourselves, to our beloveds, to all beings. In moments of stillness, truth comes to us free of our ideas, associations or desires. We start by keeping our hearts open and our compassion ever-ready.

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.”

Cherubs for Love blog post



How to Find Hope in Turbulent Times

Hope and Despair by Yuumei for Hope blog post

 

“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.

Page from 1954 edition of The Little Engine That Could for Hope blog postThe 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.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu for Hope blog postTo 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.

Self-Portrait as a Garden by KRIS-13 for Hope blog postWhen 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.

"God does not play dice" for Hope blog postThe 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.

Purple-throated Carib hummingbird for Hope blog postConsider these small miracles.

  • 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.

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.”



Why Do We Harm Each Other?

Y son fieras Goya for Doing Harm blog post

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.

Hitler Youth in Berlin for Doing Harm blog postWe 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.

Adolph Eichmann for Doing Harm blog postHow 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.

Princesse de Lamballe for Doing Harm blog postIn 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.

Battle of Nandorfehervar for Doing Harm blog postBollas 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.”

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.”



Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power

 

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.

Mandelstams for speaking out postIn 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 for speaking out postAnita 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.

The Emperor's New Clothes for speaking out postHere 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.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi for speaking out postMiller 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.

Susanna and the Elders Restored by Gilje for speaking out postThe 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.

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.”



The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are

Mississippi Mound by John Egan for epigenetics post

 

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?

Darwin's finches for epigenetics postIn 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.

Cave of the Painted Hands for epigenetics postTake, 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.

Dutch Hunger children for epigenetics postIn 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.

1849 slave embarkation canoe for epigenetics postIn 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.

Everyone was hungry children's art for epigenetics postIn 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.”

Tollund Man for epigenetics postWhat 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.

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 Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know

child in tunnel for childhood trauma post

 

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.

brain diagram for childhood trauma postComing 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.

sculpture by Barbara Hughes for childhood trauma postMyoshin 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.”

child in darkness for childhood trauma postThe 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.

mirror with hands for childhood trauma postThe 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.

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.”



Coping with Fear: Face It, Understand It, Overcome It

Buddha and demons for fear post

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.

Los from The Book of Urizen William Blake for fear postFear 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.

Dr. Sophia Yin body language of fear in dogs for fear postHumans 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.

Viktor Frankl for fear postOne 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 for fear postJudith 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Draw, paint, sculpt, dance, or write a poem about what you’ve learned about you and your fear.

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.”



Write Your Own Fairy Tale

Sleeping Princess for Fairy Tale post

 

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.

Grandville Lion and the Hunter for Fairy Tale postI’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.

Princess with Horns for Fairy Tale postOne 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.”

Rackham, Jack the Giant Killer for Fairy Tale postTo 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:

  1. What is my reaction?
  2. What does this stir up in me?
  3. Have I lived something similar?
  4. 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.

One-handed girl for Fairy Tale postThe 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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.”



How Snow White and Her Cruel Stepmother Help Us Cope with Evil

Queen evil stepmother post

“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.

Queen and mirror for Stepmother evil postVanity and envy are the twin engines that drive the story of “Sneewittchen,” the title used by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm when they recorded the folktale in 1812. It became “Little Snow-White” in English translations based on the Grimms’ final 1857 version of the tale. Most fairy tales originate as oral stories repeated over generations and reflect older strata of cultural development when humans lived closer to nature and the membrane between the real and the imagined was more porous. Birds spoke to humans, the wind was a spirit, and giants trod the earth. The collected fairy tales we know today are a distillation of many iterations, the product of countless imaginations told by many tellers. But despite their ancient origins, fairy tales remain relevant to our postmodern selves and depict the dramas of the human soul, one of which is the confrontation with evil. This frequent motif reflects our experiences with destructive forces symbolized by giants, trolls, witches and monsters. The tales suggest ways to recognize and discern good from evil and provide solutions to life-threatening challenges.

Drupsteen Queen for Stepmother Evil postFairy tales set down no single way to deal with evil. In some stories, the heroine outsmarts the opposition, as Gretel does in “Hansel and Gretel” when she pushes the witch into her own oven. In other tales, flattery wins over the devil; in others, a physical battle is required. Sometimes the hero, aided by magical helpers, must become invisible so as not to be seen by the enemy or must simply fly away. In fairy tales characters are typological rather than psychological. They encapsulate known “types” rather than individuals—the king, the queen, the fisherman and his greedy wife, the selfish sisters, the abandoned child. This makes it easy to identify victims and perpetrators.

By taking a closer look at these absolute types, we can spot what roles have dominated our psyches.

Evil is a source of suffering, but enduring suffering brings with it a new level of consciousness, a mature personality, and if we are lucky, wisdom. Fairy tales often begin with a state of deficiency. The king has died or the queen is barren or the poor miller has no money. A crisis ensues that begets suffering, symbolic of psychological pain. The hero or heroine takes up the task to resolve the crisis and end the suffering; radical transformation is in the making. Just so, crises in our own lives can precipitate a search for meaning and a transformation of self.

Peddler Witch for Evil Stepmother postIn “Little Snow-White,” a stepdaughter is persecuted by a stepmother for having something the latter wants: youth and beauty. As in real life, envy provides the fuel for ruthless behavior. In the case of Snow White, the envier demands nothing less than the total annihilation of the envied one.

The D. L Ashliman translation of the 1857 version of “Little Snow-White opens this way:

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

The opening scene occurs in winter when life is buried under a layer of coldness. A wistful mother longs for a child, a daughter like herself. She pricks her finger and drops of blood splatter on the frozen ground, hinting at an ominous situation to come. We soon learn that when the child is born, the mother dies. Here, then, is the deficiency at the beginning of the tale: the absent mother and the motherless child. We are next told that the king, now mentioned for the first time, has taken another wife, “a proud and arrogant” woman. The new queen is Snow White’s stepmother.

In fairy tale language, the stepmother embodies traits we associate with evil: rage, envy, jealousy, greed, self-absorption, cunning cleverness, and uncanny powers. Rarely do we meet a kindly stepmother, for like all fairy tale figures, the stepmother is an archetypal symbol not an illustration of a real individual whose feelings, emotions, and thoughts we are privy to. The wicked stepmother contains all that we fear and loathe in the feminine, a female devil whose diabolical nature and brutality frighten us. Unlike her male counterparts, the monsters and Bluebeards who inhabit other tales and engage in bloody combat and wizardry, the witch/stepmother’s weapons of choice are more devious— gossip, poison, and directing others to do her dirty work. Her power to bewitch and the inexhaustible amount of energy she expends to carry out her nasty wishes is the stuff of nightmares. She is the hag on a broomstick, mad Bertha locked in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre; she is Cruella De Vil. In fact, in a 2014 UK survey, one-third of the 2,000 adults polled voted the Evil Queen in “Snow White” to be “the scariest fairy tale character of all time.”

Dwarfs remove comb for Evil Stepmother postAs a universal figure, the witch or stepmother or evil-doing woman reappears in fairy tales across time and continents. That she is a mother and cruel engenders in us a peculiar dread. The wicked mother figure presents a paradox: if we are to survive childhood, we need our mothers to nurture us, but the evil mother wishes to devour our being. We fear her ravenous desire for power, her one-sided narcissism and obsessive nature as we fear our own hunger for power and rage, the split-off and dissociated qualities in ourselves C. G. Jung called our shadow, those despised parts of self we project onto others. In psychological terms, the denial of what is most troubling in us is a primitive defense mechanism that strives to keep us ignorant of what we are unwilling to face. In “Snow White” we have the positive and negative aspects of the feminine self. While the queen is “all bad,” Snow White is too good, too pure, too innocent, and thus unable to discern the evil in her midst. Psychologically speaking, the unacknowledged dark forces within her have been projected onto her stepmother. However, being “the good one” does not prevent suffering; in her regressed childlike state, Snow White is vulnerable; she fails the test of each of the three temptations offered by the queen, and becomes immured in a glass coffin.

Fairy tales and dreams share a compensatory function in alerting us to unconscious elements in our psyches. The witchy woman in our dreams may well symbolize some stifled, raging, but unrecognized part of ourselves. The stepmother stands in contradistinction to “the good mother” whose qualities lie on the other end of the spectrum. The “good mother” is all loving, giving, caring, beautiful, kind. But she is often too passive, too innocent, or too weary to protect her child. In this tale as in many others, the good mother dies at the outset, leaving the daughter the task of having to find the path to maturity.

For Snow White, the death of her real mother and the arrival of a stepmother appears to portend disaster, but the challenges presented by the new queen’s cruelty are actually good news for Snow White. As Terri Windling notes in her wonderful blog post “Snow, Glass, Apples: The Story of Snow White,” “Unlike sons who set off to win their fortune, who are journeying toward adventure, the daughters are outcasts, running away. The princes usually return at the end of the story, bringing treasure and magical brides. Princesses do not return; they must forge new lives, new alliances.”

Queen poison for evil stepmother postBy forcing her to leave home, grow up, and discover who she is, the stepmother’s malevolence moves our heroine along the path to self-discovery and resilience ending in her psychological growth. The cruel queen makes three attempts to kill her competition, and with each attempt the younger woman is seduced by her own desire and narcissism, accepting the laces, poisoned comb, and ultimately the poisoned apple from the disguised queen. Until she faces the existence of evil and her own naiveté, Snow White will remain a child.

If you’d like to chew on one aspect of this story, consider this:  “Little Snow White” is a story about emotional development set in motion by the arrival of evil. The tale has a satisfying ending: the evil queen dances herself “to death in red-hot iron shoes.” Yet we must remember: we have the evil to thank for the plot twists that lead to Snow White’s awakening. In stories as in life, evil sometimes gets the ball rolling. Without the evil stepmother, there would be no story.

Dance for us! Marcel Mercado http://www.marcelmercado.com evil stepmother post

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.”



Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and “Healthy Narcissism”

Narcissus by John William Waterhouse for "Healthy Narcissism" blog post

 

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.

Narcissus at the Fountain for Healthy Narcissism blog postProfessor Jack Zipes, a renowned author and expert on fairy tales and myths reminds us in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale that “myths and fairy tales seem to know something we do not know.… We keep returning to them for answers.” We may toss them off as lies, but “these lies are often the lies that govern our lives.” One way to look at myths is to view them as symbolic representations of our internal psychic world. By examining their narratives, we gain access to the deepest workings of our minds and hearts. “Mythology is a psychology of antiquity,” writes James Hillman, the great archetypal Jungian analyst, in The Dream and the Underworld. And “psychology is a mythology of modernity.”

What can we learn by examining the archetypal roots of Narcissus’s story, the origin of the term “narcissism,” by which we generally mean self-absorbed and self-referential behavior?

Like all human behavior, narcissism exists on a spectrum, and in itself, is a necessary component of healthy development. The child in a Superman cape ready to leap from his bed, the skateboard champion who flaunts her flip tricks—we accept these as instances of “healthy narcissism,” a pride in one’s ability to accomplish and prevail. Narcissistic traits are universal. Who of us hasn’t snuck a glance at our reflection passing a window, or stared outright into a mirror, entranced by the mystery of self? What is healthy about narcissism needs more attention, especially now, when narcissism is often loosely applied, usually pejoratively.

Narcissus by Caravaggio for Healthy Narcissism blog postNarcissism in infancy and childhood is a crucial factor in helping a child differentiate between “I” and “Other” by establishing a coherent core self. During early stages of development, if a parent’s response to her child’s need for food, soothing and mirroring is satisfactory, the child feels seen and recognized and can proceed to evolve without the anxiety that her needs will not be met. According to British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, the mother (or primary caretaker) must be “good enough.” The good enough mother successfully navigates the path between satisfying her own needs and yet remaining sensitive to her child’s need for nourishment, physical care, emotional warmth and love. The ideal is not for “perfect” parental mirroring. Even if that were possible, it would interfere with the child’s ability to develop a sense of her own agency and resilience.

“Healthy narcissism” in adults facilitates feelings of adequacy and self-worth. The artist who speaks enthusiastically about his latest painting may not be bragging or asking for undo praise as much as trying to share a process that is meaningful to him. He is not driven by self-interest, but rather by a social interest in communicating something important about his inner world. He is talking to us, not at us, and he will be only mildly disappointed, not violently enraged, if we interrupt, disagree, grow bored, or change the subject. We are neither at the mercy of his self-adoration nor captive to his envy and rage. He is seeking an empathic response. We can feel the difference between this kind of exchange with a person and one driven by a person’s compulsive need for admiration and confirmation of his own reality. Dr. Erica Serlin, a licensed psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health says, “No single act defines a narcissist or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Assessment depends on duration, frequency, intensity (or degree of distress), and functional impairment or interference with developmentally appropriate expectations.” The hallmarks of narcissism in its more malignant form are hard to miss: grandiosity, rage, envy, and lack of empathy. The volatility and fury behind these states sting and burn.

Narcissus by Claude Martin for Healthy Narcissism blog postBut in Ovid’s version of the myth, Narcissus does not grow enraged. Instead, he is “undone by unattainable love” and withers away by the pool. The dramatic moment is one of sorrow and grief. His sisters, the Naiads, water nymphs, lament and crop their hair. Here the myth might be telling us that beneath the manifest destructive energy of a narcissistic personality exists a depressed and sorrowful soul. Like today’s diagnosed narcissist, Narcissus sees only an idealized likeness, one that ignores the warts and blemishes that mar our human surface—what Jung would call “the shadow.” His self-identity is inflated, unrealistic, and incomplete. To become whole complex human beings, in Jungian psychology, our task is to accept the disowned and split off energies secreted away in our shadowy unconscious. As Jung once put it, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Once integrated into a new and expanded self-image, these once barred-from-consciousness, shaming aspects of ourselves can rejuvenate our psyches, which have to labor hard to deny and dissociate. Freedom from those labors releases the withheld energy needed to revitalize the psyche.

In “Narcissus’s Forlorn Hope,” the essay he contributed to the book A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Age of Trump, Jungian analyst James Hollis writes,“Is not the central task of psychotherapy to examine, identify, what stories, what concepts, what self-images have captivated us, led us to our current impasse, our suffering, and to bring them to the surface, challenge them, and perhaps replace them with something larger, more capacious? Freud called the process Nachérziehung, or re-education, given the need to repair, or redeem the original paideia, or education, which instructed us as to who we were and what we were to do with our lives.”

Perhaps this is why Ovid ends his treatment of the myth of Narcissus on a note of redemption. The Naiads cannot find his body. Where Narcissus once lay, they find “a flower, its yellow center circled by white petals.” Known as a narcissus or daffodil, the flower blooms in spring, often around Easter, and is associated with rebirth or resurrection. Could this suggest that even those of us stuck in stasis are capable of transformation and change? Neuroscience and research on brain plasticity reflect a growing awareness that our identities, our old gripes and woes, our ancestral patterns, and even our neural grooves may not be fixed, but more fluid and shifting than we consciously understand.

Narcissi flowers aka daffodils for Health Narcissism blog post

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.”



Worried About Safety? Join the Club

Triangles for Safety post

 

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.

Auden for Safety postIn 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

  • Change
  • Unpredictability
  • Being judged
  • The experience of loss
  • Natural disasters
  • Pain, injury, illness
  • Being humiliated or ostracized
  • Being without physical resources
  • Feeling betrayed and abandoned

Peter Wohlleben for safety postMy 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.”

Intelligent Trees from Dorcon Film on Vimeo.

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.”



How Facing Our “Shadow” Can Release Us from Scapegoating

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 for scapegoating postCarl 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

Rainer Maria Rilke for scapegoating postTo 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.”

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.”



Abiding with Grief: Five Things I Learned

 

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.

Nor are the stages she lists exhaustive. A study conducted by Dr. Paul Maciejewski in 2007 found that yearning, not denial or sadness or anger, was the predominating feeling of the grief-stricken. Dr. Holly Prigerson, a colleague of Dr. Maciejewski at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, has been investigating “complicated grief,” mourning that continues after six months, the common time period of bereavement when symptoms often begin to lift. Those suffering from complicated grief experience unrelenting longing for the deceased and are often afflicted by intrusive, preoccupying thoughts and memories. Anti-depressants bring some relief as does cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which can help the bereaved adjust to their new identity and life.

But new studies suggest that intense feelings of grief do not necessarily become intractable or overwhelming, nor does depression inevitably follow loss. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness, George Bonnano, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, writes that some people are not debilitated by grief. According to his research, a majority of people respond to trauma and grief with resilience, that is, with the ability to maintain wellness in mind and body and to enjoy positive emotions. He suggests that not everyone needs a grief counselor or needs to discuss their sorrows in a group. This is a happy thought, backed up by Bonnano’s evidence that smiling and laughter, even when alone, can help an individual establish positive feelings.

The literature on grief has evolved over the decades, but one thing has remained a guiding principle: the deeper and more profound the relationship with the deceased, the more distressing the grief. This is true for animals as well. Anthropologist Barbara J. King has documented the lamentations of elephants, which have been known to keen over their beloveds and exhibit “some of the same visible responses to death… in their emotional distress” as humans do. The criteria for grief in animals even looks similar to grief in humans. “When an animal dies, the survivor alters his or her normal behavioral nature, perhaps reducing the time devoted to eating and sleeping, adopting a body posture or facial expression indicative of depression or agitation or failure to thrive.” (See Kate Wong’s wonderful 2013 article in Scientific American, “How to Identify Grief in Animals”)

The word “grief” comes from the old French “grever” meaning to burden, oppress, afflict. How do we unburden ourselves from our sorrows? In his outstanding book Unattended Sorrow, the poet and teacher, Stephen Levine, known for bringing the practice of Theravada Buddhism to Westerners, writes: “How we approach our not knowing what comes next is what gives meaning to our lives…Then, what may have seem like ‘meaningless loss,’ though it does not hurt any less, often leads to meaningful change, which, like every evolutionary leap, must cross seemingly uncrossable chasms.”

Painting of Bashō for grief post

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

  1. We don’t all follow the Kübler-Ross model of five stages of grief.
  2. Grief can be complicated and include unrelenting longing for the deceased for months.
  3. Some people recover quickly from grief. Its duration is not predictable.
  4. Grief is not just a human emotion. We share grieving with fellow animals.
  5. The process of trying to find meaning in what seems a meaningless loss can be transformative.

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.”



Five Faces of Self-Deception in a Post-Fact World

Emperor's New Clothes for self-deception post

 

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.

Leon Festinger for self-deception postWhen 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.

The Fox and the Grapes for self-deception postMorality 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

  1. Evasion of examining one’s biases or strongly held beliefs.
  2. Moral forgetfulness.
  3. Avoidance of contradictory beliefs or evidence.
  4. Avoidance of feelings that contradict beliefs.
  5. Over-rationalization and the tendency to blame others.

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.”



Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination

Atomic Skull by Jim Leedy for Empathy post

 

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 in 1945 by Imogen Cunningham -- for Empathy postMuriel 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.

Nobel portrait of Albert Einstein -- for Empathy postEinstein 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.”

André Breton in 1924 -- for Empathy postThis 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.

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.”



Understand Your Dreams by Engaging Them Using Jung’s “Active Imagination”

Le Rêve (The Dream) by Henri Rousseau (1910) for Active Imagination post

 

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.

Enkidu tussling with Gilgamesh for Active Imagination postAs 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.

carl-jung-and-pipe for Active Imagination postAfter 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.

Philemon for Active Imagination postWritten 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

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.”



Dreaming Our Lives: Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us

The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli for Dreams blog

 

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)

 carl jung for Dreams blog postAfter 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.”

murray-stein-home for dreams blog postIn 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 . . .”

240px-iching-hexagram-59-svgSeveral 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

  1. Dreams are spontaneous self-portraits, in symbolic form, of the actual psychological situation in the unconscious. (paraphrase of Jung in The Collected Works)
  2. Dreams “offer comment, correction, and contributions toward problem-solving” in our conscious life. (Whitmont & Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source)
  3. Dreams inform us of ignored, overlooked or denied aspects of self.
  4. Dreams present the underlying archetypal and mythological motifs that direct, pattern, and give meaning to our waking existence.
  5. Dreams map our psychological and spiritual transformation.


The Hero’s Night Sea Journey: Lunar Consciousness in Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are cover for post on lunar consciousness

Late one rainy afternoon, while I was organizing my bookshelves, I discovered a copy of Maurice Sendak’s award-winning picture book, Where The Wild Things Are. On the cover was the well-remembered curious creature, part monster (claws, horns, gigantic in size and girth), part human with its dreamy, endearing smile and clean, unhairy man-feet.

It’s a quiet night in the monster’s world. Not a breeze stirs the palm trees under which he dozes, the brightening night sky still dominated by stars. Opposite the sleeping monster a lone sailboat is anchored in a churning river, but no human sailor is in sight.

Child and adult readers alike understand what these images convey: open the book and you too sail into a fantastic world in which known entities – trees, sailboats, moon and stars – coexist with the shapes of things unknown. We have inhabited this territory all our lives, since most nights we too are stirred when our unconscious minds generously initiate and guide us into the unfamiliar and sublime realm of dreams.

Murray Stein for post on lunar consciousnessIn his book, Minding the Self, renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein describes what he calls solar and lunar consciousness, the former relating to our everyday waking consciousness, the latter referring to the unconscious realm of imagination and dreams. Stein writes:

“The dreaming mind is autonomous and free of the waking ego’s controlling influences. In dreams, the ‘I’ figure is one character among others in the dramas, and not the controlling center. In normal waking consciousness, the ego’s position is quite different, usually central. In what we may call solar consciousness, to distinguish from lunar consciousness, the ego is the center of consciousness and holds the levers of control. . . . Solar consciousness can proceed by logical thinking rather than by association, metaphor and image.”

In contrast, the movement of the lunar mind is through musing and reverie that may playfully juxtapose associative images to bring about a new sense of meaning which eludes the ego/solar conscious mind. “In alchemy,” writes Stein, “Sol and Luna are brother and sister. For depth psychology, solar and lunar minds are seen as complimentary aspects of a single entity, the mind as a whole.”

It is into this world of lunar consciousness that Sendak invites us to join him.

Douris Cup from Vatican for post on lunar consciousness

At the core of the story is the archetype of transformation young Max undergoes during the mythopoeic adventure of a night sea journey. Jung writes in The Psychology of the Transference, “The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.” Typically, in night sea journeys the hero is swallowed by a whale or sea creature, but Jung’s description suggests a form of katabasis, the Greek word for “gradual descending,” used in the ancient world to describe a descent in search of understanding, often to the underworld for the purpose of renewal and rebirth.

And so it is with Max, Sendak’s young hero, dressed in his wolf suit, complete with snarly grimace and claws, a boy in a costume soon to meet the monsters of his own imagination.

Max, and his inner monsters, can only be transformed during the night, for it is through unconscious means that the child’s anger, unappeased by logic and rational thought and impervious to parental demands, is assuaged. Sendak tells us as much through his poignant illustrations: within a couple pages Max’s day-world disappears. His bedroom sprouts a forest; shining outside Max’s window, the full moon waxes and wanes according to its own inherent laws and wisdoms. We have entered timeless space, wilderness, where nature, in its weird and lovely fecundity, reigns.

Sendak has written and spoken about how his personal history influenced his work. The monstrousness of the holocaust, the European relatives he thought of as “grotesques,” the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as a manifestation of collective evil, all shaped the children’s tales Sendak wrote. But Sendak is also telling us something more profound about the transpersonal aspect of ego development, that wildness made conscious is energy that can be harnessed for the creative rather than the destructive.

NOW with Bill Moyers: Maurice Sendak from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

Max said, “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

Joseph Campbell has called this scene, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, “one of the great moments in literature . . . because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”

We need not lose our human form to rage or fear. In the dark night of the soul, potentialities and possibilities exist, though a different kind of vision may be necessary to see them.

Carl_Gustav_JungIn Dream Analysis, Jung wrote: “[The] great principle of transformation [begins] through the things that are lowest . . . that hide from the light of day and from man’s enlightened thinking, hold also the secret of life, that renews itself again and again, until at last, when man understands, he may grasp the inner meaning which has been till then hidden within the very texture of the concrete happening.”

“Let the wild rumpus start!” Max shouts after being made king of all the wild things. He is announcing a joyous new order, one that celebrates the integration of solar and lunar consciousness. We have ascended with him from the underworld into a new day.

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.”



The Lady with the Dog and the Mystery of Attraction

The Lady with the Dog TalkachovIn Chekhov’s famous story,“The Lady with the Dog,” Dmitri Gurov, a rich Muscovite and married serial philanderer on vacation in Yalta, becomes infatuated with a young woman he sees strolling the seaside town in a béret, trailed by her white Pomeranian dog. Gurov has had many affairs and what drives this love story is his mystification with what makes this woman different: why has she so smitten him that her memory haunts his every step even after he returns home to wife and family?

I have my own tale about another lady and her dog.

For at least ten years I have walked my dogs along a particular route through the neighborhood and onto a path in a nearby wood. No matter what time I set out, I’ve usually passed the same young, Southeast Asian woman coming from the opposite direction, dog at her heels. Does this odd coincidence count as a mystery? Wait, there’s more!

For all this time, this woman has marched past me without a hitch in her step, eyes downcast to avoid contact, her face like stone. Once or twice I have offered an amiable hello; after all, though strangers, we have brushed shoulders for years. But my attempts at congeniality elicited at best a nod and a blink; she has never stopped to chat, met my eyes or raised her lips in a smile.

As a writer, my fiction-making brain has invented a story: the solemnity of her behavior, her silence, her aura of mystery and sadness provoke an imagined drama including trauma, exile, displacement, possibly war, certainly loneliness. This of course represents my desire to bring meaning and order to an inexplicable experience by shaping a narrative out of shards of reality. I know nothing about the woman and probably never will. But that’s another story.

This past June, with my new dog – and I must point out, a quite adorable Golden Retriever puppy – I was strolling the familiar track from my house through the woods when I again met the lady with her dog. I hadn’t seen her for a while and had been wondering if her dog had died and left her bereft, or if she had moved. Just as I was thinking about her, almost as if I’d conjured her out of the brightness of the summer day, I looked up to see her coming toward me on the path.

As we were about to come face to face, I held puppy Maisie on a short leash to let the woman and her older dog pass. To my astonishment the woman stopped short, a huge smile on her face, and knelt to pet my puppy. A flurry of questions followed: What was my dog’s name? Was Maisie my new dog? How long had I had her? What had happened to my older dog? I answered the woman’s questions eagerly, and then we again went our separate ways. I have been pondering this episode since.

There is no shortage of research on dogs and their relationship to humans. The Canine Cognition Center at Yale is one place to look for the newest research on how dogs can influence our lives. Having evolved from wolves 11,000 to 16,000 years ago, domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, are truly part of our pack, loyalty as well as jealousy and empathy being a few of the traits we share in common. We know that dogs are used in speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical rehabilitation; they aid the blind, the disabled, the anxious and autistic. In lab research, the bond between human and dog has been shown to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, ease muscle tension, slow heart rate. To dog lovers, none of this is news. But here is something to consider: how is it that dogs, or perhaps any pet, can seemingly open our hearts?

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I’m brought back to my lady on the path, her explosion of warmth, tenderness, connectedness, that occurred when she saw Maisie. Is it that animals offer us love free of judgments and conditions – and we mirror their uncomplicated love in return? Does their exuberance for living awaken our own élan vital?

Our connection to our pets is not only practical and utilitarian, but also has a spiritual dimension. Perhaps it is this spiritual dimension that is responsible for our deep love for our critters. In Nepal, an entire day is set aside for a festival, Kukur Tihar, that honors dogs for their loyalty and friendship.

The Greek goddess Artemis, Diana in the Roman tradition, travels with a hound at her side. Dogs feature in Native American lore, and guard the doors to heaven and hell in the Hindu tradition. Dogs have been celebrated in myth, fairy tale, poetry and fiction. The poet Mary Oliver has written Dog Songs, an entire book of poems and essays celebrating her beloved four-leggeds.

Or could the woman’s reaction have more to do with the irresistibility of puppies? And of Golden Retriever puppies, in particular? In their profile of Golden Retrievers, Modern Dog calls out their special appeal:

“Yes, all puppies are cute and adorable, but when it comes to Goldens, they’re in a class of their own. There’s something particularly heart-melting about these bundles of wriggling blond fur, with their oversized paws, soft brown eyes, alert tails and, of course, velvet floppy ears.”

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Shall we ever understand our sudden attraction to someone? Or some dog? What is the moral of my dog story? There is no moral. There is only this: expect life to flummox you. Love may be blossoming where you least expect it.

“A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.”—Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

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.”

 



Earth, Sky, Star, Moon: Bringing Nature Inside Yourself

Buddha with stones at foot of the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.

 

I’m here in the North Woods of Wisconsin at our cabin on Deer Lake. It’s mid-June. The pine and spruce are as we left them last winter, stalwartly evergreen. The phoebe has returned to her nest under the eaves; the snappers are hatching; at night the thousand stars offer their cool ardent light. Sound good?

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggesting that we would all benefit if we could align ourselves with nature’s rhythms. Isn’t this something we already know but disregard, our lives entwined and structured by a digital clockwork that takes no notice of the rising and setting of the sun? It’s too early in our embrace of digital technology to diagnose its effects and benefits, but our conversations betray what we already know: stress and anxiety lead the descriptors.

One of our greatest thinkers, researcher and biologist E. O. Wilson, writes, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I must have intuitively known this when I moved into our cabin to complete my first novel, The Conditions of Love. Every writer has days of frustration, days of fear and despair, when words won’t come and some unknown interference blocks thought and inspiration.

Deer Lake at sunrise, as seen from the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.On those days, I would walk to the Great Red Pine by the lake, place a stone at its base and ask for guidance. The breeze off the water lulled my mind, the pounding of the waves induced a kind of trance that released me from what had been hindering me. I was now able to dip into wiser insights. No one told me to perform these rituals. They occurred spontaneously as though all along I had sensed my need for a more profound attunement to the natural world. To come back to myself, nature was telling me, I first had to disentangle myself from a web of troubling thoughts and open my senses to something larger.

We have these longings—to be soothed, to be at peace, to inhabit our deepest selves. At the same time, we want to feel at home in the world, connected to earth and sky. Mostly we ignore these instinctual needs. Force of habit, the imperatives of productivity overwrite them. At what cost do we forsake them?

On the website for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, I find this:

“Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working…Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and induces pleasant feelings.”

Even if one does not have the good fortune to own a cabin in the woods, the point here is one of values and attitude. This is what Albert Camus might have been alluding to when he wrote, “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” To internalize and have at one’s command an inner state of the natural world is just the ticket.

Henri Matisse put it another way, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Deer Lake at sunset. For Nature blog post.

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.”



Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes

Preparation_for_the_witches'_sabbath._Etching_by_D._Vivant-D_Wellcome_V0025875
Preparation for the witches’ sabbath. Etching by D. Vivant-Denon after D. Teniers the younger.

Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Mamommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.

But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.

“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers

Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:

“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

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Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out.  She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.

“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.

Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).

“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality

The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.

What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.

The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.

Fuseli Night Hag Lapland Witches 2 for Mothers Witches post
The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches by Henry Fuseli (1796) illustrating lines 622-66 from Milton’s Paradise Lost “the night-hag when, called, / In secret, riding through the air she comes, Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance / With Lapland witches, while the laboring moon Eclipses at their charms.”

 

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.”



Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.

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.”



Recalling a Visit to Epidaurus Prompts Five Antidotes for a Toxic World

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I start with a question: how many of us in this post-modern, techno-dependent age trust that we are self-healing creatures? Sure, we know that broken bones mend, wounds scab over, and even the flu can be fought off by our body’s ability to amp up killer T-cells, yet in our over-busy lives don’t we proceed unaware of how to optimize our mental, physical and spiritual health? We’ve got our pharmaceuticals, our herbalists and acupuncturists, our shrinks and expert docs; got our yoga studios, our meditation mats and our mantras too. We gave up tobacco, tossed out the fried donuts and Jim Beam. We count our 10,000 steps, rise early to jog, pump iron at the gym. Still, we are an anxious lot, exhausted, depressed, and often overwhelmed. I know this from personal experience. I join the chorus. Me, too.

I’m a fiction writer, not a therapist, but like those in the field of human psychology, I am vitally attuned to the conflicts and sorrows my characters encounter. As in life, so in fiction: the challenges characters face and how they deal with them are always influenced by the clash of individual inclinations and collective culture. Is it any wonder, given the level of distress in public affairs, that dystopian novels are ever more popular, especially among teens? A writer friend suggests that young adults are fascinated by post-apocalyptic dramas because they are unconsciously preparing for the world they assume they’ll inherit. A frightening thought.

Like many others, I feel vexed by the sensation that time is moving too quickly and anguished that life on earth is evolving in unpredictable and damaging ways. A sense of helplessness ensues. But what if, by simple means, each of us could create a private restorative environment, a kind of personal sweat lodge where self-healing could occur?

A number of years ago I undertook a journey that, like many transformative events, continues to yield riches. Let me take you there.

temple_dreamstime_xs_50989913In 1989, my husband and I flew to Athens, rented a car, and drove around the Peloponnese. This was before Greece joined the European Union, before the tourist boom and the financial bust. The countryside appeared untouched by modernity: crumbling towns built into the hillside, goats and sheep wandering across the rocky switchbacked roads.

As we climbed into the mountains, towns shrank into villages. Shepherds dressed in traditional vests and pantaloons and carrying large wooden crooks emerged from stone huts; in the bare courtyards, in the blazing sunlight, crones in their black widow’s garb glanced up from their sewing to stare. The resonant clappers of church bells and the tinkle of mule harness bells punctuated the silence. Our tiny Citroen Deux Chevaux struggled up the steep inclines; the hypnotic fragrance of white oleander, wild thyme, and yellow broom was everywhere.

Please bear with me. This is not a travelogue. The description is important. We were ascending into another world, a transitional space marked by its embrace of timelessness, something akin to symbolic forests in fairy tales in which the hero or heroine must wander, lost and alone, until the soul is called into action.

Inhabiting transitional space changes one’s perceptions. As we drove into more remote areas, stands of cypress, eternal green against a flawless sky, drew our eyes heavenward. The wind-bent calligraphic pines now seemed to convey coded messages. Meaning rushed back into things and challenged our materialistic point of view.

Looking, apprehending, contemplating, reflecting—these are active verbs that describe the qualities inspired by liminal situations. Liminality, as understood by the anthropologist Victor Turner, means a threshold experience, an in-between place as when one passes from one stage of life to another, or when one is in a suspended state awaiting a transition. Liminality is behind the mystery evoked by closed doors, bridges, fences, walls, and windows, places that enliven us and invite the possibility of stepping into the unknown.

On the fifth day of our journey, we pulled into a graveled lot crammed with tourist buses. We had come to Epidaurus. Spin the wheel of time back to the fourth century BCE and here the Greeks built an asclepion (one of several, the other famous one on the island of Kos, dedicated to Hippocrates), a healing sanctuary in honor of the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius. Under serene blue sky, amid the ancient hardwoods, the ill, the infirm, the wounded and bewildered sought help and refuge in what might be the first holistic wellness center in the West. Refuge from the Latin refugium, a place of protection, a place to flee back to. The sages knew the necessity of solitude and sanctuary, a protected space in which the personality can shed its ego-bound perspective and experience the soul’s continuity with all living things.

dormitory_dreamstime_xs_53047157Throughout the ancient world pilgrims traveled to this site where every view shouted Beauty. The weary slept in the enkoimeterion (dormitory) awaiting the god himself to enter their dreams and bestow curative advice. The body too, was attended. Nearby mineral springs invited cleansing and purification. Altars to Apollo and Artemis provided outdoor cathedrals where one could connect the divine.

Next to the shrines and the hospital and the sleeping dormitory, the Greeks built a huge amphitheater where audiences laughed and cried over Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes. In his Poetics, Aristotle used the term catharsis to mean the purging and emotional release that spectators experience while watching tragedy. How wise those ancient Greeks to understand that catharsis, the physical and mental release of pent-up emotions, restores balance and harmony to mind. The day we visited, school children were reading Antigone on that stage.

I’d always been an eye-roller to claims of “sacred space,” words I equated with the Sixties lingo of “good vibes,” and yet I couldn’t deny the sensation prickling up my arms that day. It was as though I’d entered mythic time and something in my very mitochondria was responding. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower; Drives my green age,” wrote Dylan Thomas, his recognition of Eros, that enlivening spark that runs through the living world. To study the Self is to forget the self and be enlightened by all things, Master Dōgen reminds us. At Epidaurus, I was soon to step out of the lock-box of self, that time-bound, self-interested aspect of one’s nature that reinforces a feeling of isolation, what the MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle describes as loneliness caused by “failed solitude.”

Relief-of-Asklepios-healing-a-dreamerFor a long while I sat on a rock outcropping above the valley, my mind emptying itself of months, maybe years, of accumulated detritus. I did not want to leave the sanctuary and knew I must; I wanted to sleep with my bones on the earth where eons ago others had awaited the god. I longed to reconnect with parts of myself that had gone hidden, and that now, in this sacred spot, felt safe enough to return. But dusk was seeping down over the mountaintop, the shadows along the ground casting their darkness. Three weeks later, I was home in Wisconsin, but something in me had changed.

I have no foolproof remedy for ridding body or soul of their aches, but when I reflect on my experience at Epidaurus, now so far away, my mind conjures a list of more accessible antidotes to today’s toxic world.

  1. Cultivate a space apart from your ordinary world and create a ritual that marks the passing from the profane/quotidian to a sacred place.

This could be a patch in your yard, a tree in a park, a path by a lake. It could be an internal space achieved through visualization. The possibilities are limitless. Observe the three S’s: sanctuary, solitude, stillness.

  1. Seek and attend to beauty.

Beauty is everywhere but we forget to look and linger. We forget the sensation of wonder that accompanies the apprehension of beauty. Study the bark of any tree, or the throat of a morning glory. The philosopher Elaine Scarry suggests that an appreciation of beauty contributes to our moral self.

“It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede the ground to the thing that stand before us.”

—Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

  1. Honor the images and messages that come through dreams.

Contemplate, write down, draw or enact your dreams. They are direct communications from the deepest layers of your psyche.

  1. Observe and respect transitions.

Transitions provide an opportunity to contemplate a readjustment of purpose and perspective. Think how quickly we race from our computer screens to yoga class, from yoga to the grocery store, then on to daycare and the bus ride home. We make many transitions during a day, mostly without full consciousness of the flavor, texture, or vision of each moment. Stop to savor moving from one activity to another, from one place or thought process to another.

  1. Let yourself be moved by art.

To stand outside a painting as a viewer, to analyze a play, to critique a novel is quite a different experience than to weep violently over Lear’s predicament.

This list is of course incomplete. These are not cures but suggestions that align with our deepest instincts: the need for silence and solitude; for beauty and self-expression; for exploring our spiritual nature. If I advocate for anything it is against the notion that we are helpless victims in an ever-maddening world. The Seventies adage has never been more relevant: the personal is always political.

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.”



Nature, Time, Memory and the Childhood Experience of a “Cherishing Force”

Looking at the sky through oak branches for blog post on "cherishing force" in nature

Arriving at a new destination the first thing I notice are trees and sky. People, the details of their physiognomy, their manners and gestures, their clothing and habitations prompt my curiosity, but trees and sky are the welcoming agents that make a place home. This is a bit shameful to admit. As a fiction writer I’m obsessed by the unexpected beauties, swathes of ugliness, and confounding mysteries inherent in the human condition, but I must also confess to being an adoring student and humble acolyte of the natural world.

My attachment to trees began early in life. In a memory I am no longer sure is recollected or fabricated, equal parts invention and truth, I’m in our backyard on Elberta Road in rural Maplewood, New Jersey, washing dolls’ clothes in a galvanized tub. It’s late June, the air still clear of late summer humidity, the sky a pure jewel blue. I am between two stalwart friends: an ancient oak that marked the western border of our property, in autumn host to noisy conventions of migrating crows, and the younger but equally wide-girthed maple at the eastern corner whose winged seed pods we children stuck on our noses and ran around calling each other Pinocchio.

The leaves of both trees were deeply green, a hue more satisfying even than the edible green of Crayola crayons, the shadows they cast enclosing and giving texture to space as they filtered the light. Their overlapping branches created a vestibule of shade, a sort of room or entryway infused with its own particular vegetal scent within whose borders I experienced the pleasure of tranquility and happy solitude.

girl washing dolls clothesArrows of sunlight shoot through the branches and hang in dusty, pollen-filled columns shaped and reshaped by the whim of a breeze. My hands are wrist-deep in sudsy water. I swish the doll nightgown and party dress through the bubbles, then wring them to dry on the sunny flagstone path. Nothing I can remember prompts me to throw back my head and stare at the sky, but on this day when I do, I’m transported out of my body into a separate sphere existing alongside the known one, the familiar world morphing into a wilderness of new perceptions.

If I spin around I see what I always saw: the screened porch with its slider couch from whose safety my grandmother and I watched the gathering darkness of summer storms; the clothesline strung with sheets and jiggling undies; the webbed lawn chairs circling the patio; the ruffled edge of an organdy curtain billowing from an upstairs window—the ordinary is still intact, and yet the longer I gaze at my steadfast guardians, the maple, the oak, the imperturbable summer sky—each stone in the garden, the delicate purple of the petunias—wherever I look each thing is radiantly alive, gazing back at me with equal curiosity.

There was, as I’ve said, a gentle wind and also an astonishing silence, as if I were alone in an invisible walled chamber suffused with goodness and calm. The words reverie, immersion, liminal come to mind. No more than a few seconds elapsed in real time, and even the sensations that accompanied my experience did not linger. I must have immediately gone back to wringing out dolls’ clothes, or I simply left what I was doing, caught up as young children are with another curiosity, a bug I fancied nosing the zinnias, or I ran off to play at a friend’s call. I had no comprehension that anything extraordinary had occurred and attached no importance to the event.

800px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonI forgot about this experience but the experience did not forget me. It sank to the bottom of consciousness awaiting my adult self to resurrect and examine its meaning. It was, I see now, one of my first memories of being fully alive, a person separate but a part of a palpably living universe. As Keats wrote in his Letters: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Certainly not then and not now do I make any claim for a visitation from the divine. In childhood, and my opinion hasn’t changed since, the God of the Old Testament did not fritter away His time spying on children. Wasn’t He much too busy smiting the enemies of Israel to care about me? Yet God knew everything you did without looking, so one could still be punished for bad behavior. The connection I felt was not to a personality—God, Jesus, angels, fairies—but to something ineffable and kindly nonhuman.

Nor can I reconstruct, as Barbara Ehrenreich does in her book Living with a Wild God, that perhaps I had succumbed to some form of dissociative mental illness or epileptic seizure. Neither God nor madness chose me. Enchantment might best describe the threshold I crossed.

For however briefly I was filled with gladness and the feeling of being less isolated, less lonely, as if I had entered my own fairy tale in which trees and birds and flowers whispered their secrets. The oak, with its giant’s torso substantial beyond injury from hurricane or gale, its extended humped roots evidence in my mind of a taproot that surely reached to the earth’s molten core, and the maple with its low-slung embracing arms, were benevolent sheltering presences that bore witness.

I am surprised at how much feeling bubbles up when I write these paragraphs. My self-aware adult self sees with sympathy the small child framed in her fleeting moments of bliss that will shortly be swallowed by chaotic family life; but perhaps it is precisely this duality of inner and outer experience from which we can take hope. It may be that I’m describing a kind of grace, those unwilled, spontaneous transcendent seconds in which we glimpse the eternal timeless.

I suppose now that my early experiences with the benevolent Other may have saved my sanity by providing an alternative to a world often dominated by cruel human motivations and laid the groundwork for a sympathetic imagination. It would be reckless as well as foolish for me to believe that glimpses of the eternal cure our fear of earthly horrors or of death, that end of everything we dread, but I can’t help wondering if we are eased by an experience of a cherishing force charged with maintaining the harmony of the spheres that includes us in its balancing act.

nabokovhuntIn his memoir, Speak, Memory, which is among other things a gorgeous elegy to loss itself, Nabokov writes about his experience of time, its treachery and consolation. Considering the latter, he says:

“I confess I do not believe in time….And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plant. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”

It would have been impossible for my child self to have put any of this together—threshold experiences, love, death, immortality, beauty, solitude, loneliness, fullness, inner and outer worlds—but as I write these words sitting in my rented casita in New Mexico and race to finish a draft of my second novel, I see the timeline that exists from the backyard moment of long ago to this moment now. Newly arrived in the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for a special tree, a companion under whose boughs I can lose my ego-bound self, whose nonverbal teachings will be beyond my wildest imaginings.



What Do We Really Want To Know About a Writer?

Six Tuscan Poets for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?

Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?

In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists.Bloom & Genius for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer? Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?

Wallace and Lipsky for What Do We Really Want to Know About a WriterI recently saw the 2014 movie The End of the Tour based on David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an account of his riveting experience as a journalist spending five days interviewing David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

What struck me after seeing the film, aside from the fine acting of Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, and the evocative cinematography of Wallace’s lair and the blunt horizontals of the Midwestern landscape, was that there were almost no scenes of Wallace actually writing, no real glimpses of his mucking around with language and story-telling. What we get instead is personality writ large on the screen—Wallace’s amiable, introverted, giant genius and Lipsky’s mish-mash of little brother adoration and envy.

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer

Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”

These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished;Virginia Woolf in What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.

Here are my questions:

  1. Are there any early experiences that encouraged you to become a writer and a story-teller?
    Yes. See my previous blog post, “My Jewish Question, My Father.”
  2. Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
    Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
  3. Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others?
    I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and           resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might     spend hours searching for le mot juste.
  4. What props are most necessary for you to write?
    My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.

Readers of my “Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer” post may notice that these are slightly different than those listed there. So now you have nine.

Watch Charlie Rose’s 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace



Xu Bing, Radical Denial, and My “Elegy to History”

Bridge Xu Bing

What’s an appropriate way for one art form to respond to another? At what cost do we forget or deny our history? Can we ever truly escape our past?

These questions preoccupied me earlier this month when, as part of its Bridge Poetry Series, Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art invited local poets to respond to Background Story, A New Approach to Landscape Painting, a new exhibition of an installation by contemporary artist Xu Bing. I enjoy this kind of challenge, eagerly assented and took part in a very stimulating evening on December 10 when we all read our responses. You can read my poem, “Elegy to History,” in full below. But to appreciate the context, I should first tell you a few things about Xu Bing’s iconoclastic and captivating work.

1509_XuBing Background StoryWhen you first enter his exhibition’s gallery, you think you are approaching a traditional Chinese landscape painting. In fact, those familiar with Chinese art might even recognize it as a recreation of the quite famous Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains by Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), one of the Four Yuan Masters. In the centuries since, many artists have tested their skills by copying this masterpiece.

Dwelling_in_the_Fuchun_Mountains_(first_half)

But Xu Bing is no ordinary painter. What at first seems to be an ink painting on eighty feet of rice paper turns out not to be a painting at all. It’s a screen covering a light box. The painting’s brush strokes are actually shadows cast by hundreds of LED lights illuminating dried grasses, plastic bags, sticks, rocks, tape, and other detritus. The box is open on the other side so that you can see how the illusion of the painting is created. It’s quite an astonishing act of conjuring. You can see Xu Bing and his crew at work in the video below.

Xu-Bing-GesturesIn trying to find a way into Xu Bing’s spectacular work, that is, in trying to find the human element within the larger scope of the painting’s natural world, I took as my starting place the small figure of a Chinese man sitting on a bench in the forefront of the screen. It was his voice I began to hear.

He is man having a conversation with the past, a man summoned in a dream to acknowledge the personal and collective past of which he has been dismissive.

George Orwell wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

I couldn’t have predicted even a few weeks ago how timely this quote is and how much it informs my poem. I say timely because right now on planet Earth we are more than ever undergoing sweeping cultural changes, and I believe that much of the turbulence in the world today is the result of collective forgetting and repression. What’s at issue here is not forgivable ignorance but radical denial and I believe there is a price to pay for it.

Picks-Xu-Bing-10152015 Background Story closeupPerhaps Xu Bing’s title, Background Story, refers not only to the material attached to the back of the screen that forms the frontal shadows, but also to the idea that the backstory to Background Story is the artist’s reclamation of Chinese scroll painting, an ancient and sacred art form, in a dramatic new medium.

“A core element of human culture is dialogue with the past.”—Xu Bing

Elegy to History

At first I thought they were only shadows:
repetitive, imitative,
the whole enterprise meaningless.

I was young, arrogant. I only trusted things
I could feel and touch.
Art, beauty, spirit? Outdated ideas.
We bragged
we had even
dismantled Time.
It was
a new epoch.

I wasn’t prepared
when Grandfather summoned
in a dream,
called this place hsin
the meeting of mind and heart.

I sat on a bench tapping my foot
as if at a bad movie.
I lit a cigarette. Mist kept
rolling off the mountain.
Everything was golden,
the color of ripe corn.

I didn’t realize
I had deluded myself.
I’d never escaped.
I was composed
of history.

Memories in the familiar vernacular
of my father and grandfather and his father
before him
stormed my mind.

I began to shake
with a violence I’d never encountered.
I remembered how they had forced my father from his classroom.
He had been teaching
Baudelaire.

In the alley — lashes, rifle butts and boot kicks.
Rain fusing an alchemy
of mud and blood.
My father slipping from this world.
My mother’s helpless eyes.

I lit another cigarette.
All this had happened many years ago.
The Revolution was over.
We had proclaimed
a new age.

I had to ask myself: Why
in this place of serenity
did I still feel torment?

I reached out to touch a pine.
Its needles crumbled to dust in my fingers.
The scent of resin rose in my nostrils
and became the odor
of my mother’s heavy hair.
A thought of childhood
entered my head. I chased it away.
The footbridge was empty. Not a single bird
in the vast, impenetrable sky.

My father was gone, mother, gone.
The others eaten
by sorrow.
My slender fingers
so helpless in my lap.

I fell on my knees and begged
their forgiveness. The earth
was neither warm or cold. The silence
a mockery to the chaos in my heart.

The dream was ending and
I did not want it to end.
I promised to return, I promised to remember,
but already the images were fading.
They were only shadows,
to be replaced by newer shadows.
Watch a video of how Xu Bing and his studio create his installations



Dog Training Maisie and the Power of Name-Calling

Maisie dog training

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.—Talmudic saying

Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day she whimpers to go out; five times a day we tell her: Not now, Maisie — all three of us learning what to expect from each other concerning patience.

Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved earlier dogs, the art of dog training and the knowledge and understanding of canine behavior has exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. This, I think, follows the trend in childrearing — hundreds of “experts” with completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed.

The author Maisie dog trainingDuring the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being a littermate of ten to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy, but after another week or so my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s irresistibly cute puppy face might morph into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics. Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when real dogs run out the door, bone in mouth, and appear to be digging to China, growling if someone gets near, one gets worried. Our hands and arms bore scratches and scabs, and these made us ever more cautious in approaching our new pet.

And so we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately and arrived with an upbeat attitude — You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie — and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when on the first visit Susan, modeling a cheery dominatrix, coerced Maisie into polite manners. Susan managed this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say she was out-bullying the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headscissors lock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”

Maisie learns how to sit dog trainingWe’d never had to use force with our other dogs and were a bit horrified, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.

That night we read Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we were not just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward her had quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress.

Maisie learning to obey dog trainingLater that night, my husband and I held each other and considered returning Maisie to her breeder. Out of desperation I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer. The difference is significant and too long to go into here, but our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys, a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach. We learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand possession aggression as resource guarding. Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs that might be the leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!

This gets me to my takeaway point: how labeling … children, dogs, other ethnicities, races, genders … affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call others and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic. Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.

P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.

Maisie dog training



Treating Patients or Creating Characters? Making the Choice

Zurich-Switzerland-948x362

 

A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”

By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.

Something else was calling.

Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.

simone-weil-1200Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.

Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.

In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.

My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.

The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference

I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.

I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.

Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.

800px-Jung-InstitutI knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.

I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.

And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.



“My Jewish Question, My Father” on Jewish Currents

As I get deeper into the life and experiences of Reenie, the main character in my new novel, Digging to China, I find I am reflecting more and more about my own life and identity. Back in January, 2014, I gave a talk at Temple Beth El in Madison on “The Heroine’s Journey” as part of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s Everywoman’s Journal Program. Something moved me recently to revisit and expand on some of that material for an article that’s just been published on Blog-Shmog at Jewish Currents.

I do find it so strange and mysterious that I should be exploring “my Jewishness,” whatever that is, in relationship to my writing, but I suppose what we imagine to be our identity is a bit like strata shifting over time. I’m delighted that Jewish Currents decided to share my ruminations with its readers.

I’ve pasted the opening paragraphs to the article below. You can read the full article at Jewish Currents.

Dale and her Dad Fred Frankel at her weddingMy Jewish Question, My Father

Twenty years ago, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.

Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore—writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss—I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?

Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Hanukah begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/who can count them?/In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.

Who can retell? Storytellers retell and I am one of them.

Fred Frankel Dale's fatherMy father was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob—these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.

My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor since absurdity ruled the world.

When I ask myself how did my Jewish upbringing influence what I write . . . [read more]



Anne Frank and My Birth as a Writer

Anne Frank at her deskI first read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about nine years old. As you may remember, Anne received her diary as a gift for her thirteenth birthday and she used it to chronicle her life, thoughts, and feelings for two traumatic years, from June 12, 1942 until August 1, 1944 while she and her family hid from the Nazis in several rooms concealed behind a bookcase in a building in Amsterdam.

At the time I was fascinated by what’s now called Holocaust literature and remember also reading John Hersey’s novel The Wall about the Warsaw Ghetto. I grew up in postwar New Jersey and in our house World War II was never discussed, though Roosevelt and Churchill were considered saints. Yes, Jews have saints! It might have been the whispery conversations in the kitchen among the women that piqued my curiosity about the unsaid. Undoubtedly, some of those whispered phrases contained the words Auschwitz and Treblinka.

"Kitty," Anne Frank's original diaryBut it wasn’t Anne’s description of the terror of the Nazi occupation of Holland that intrigued me. Rather, it was that she, like myself, had undisclosed feelings—about her mother, her father, her sister, about Peter van Pels, the young man whose family was in hiding in the Annex with the Franks. It was Anne’s private voicings of her feelings, so similar to mine at the time, that captivated me.

Reading Anne Frank, with whom I identified as a young, sensitive, intelligent Jewish girl, gave me the idea that I could also find words and a place to express myself. I loved the confidential tone with which she addressed her Kitty, the name she called her diary. Anne wrote in her diary: I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

From my perspective, this statement describes the ideal relationship between a writer and her work: truth-telling in the form of an interior monologue. Only later, when I was in high school, did I begin to keep my own diary, never once imagining that I would become a professional author. Almost two decades after that, I returned to school to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, but I trace the seeds of my career to that first intimate relationship with Anne’s voice.

As we all know, Anne was not a survivor, but through her words she has survived and changed us.

Pages from the original diaryPost-script: sometime over the years my original copy of The Diary disappeared. In the foreword to the edition I now own, The Definitive Edition, the translator writes that Anne had hoped to someday publish her diary. In 1944, a member of the Dutch government in exile had announced on the radio that after the war he hoped to publish eyewitness accounts of the German occupation. Anne heard this broadcast and planned, after the war, to publish a book based on her diary. So she began to keep two diaries, her original one and an edited version.

This passage has special meaning for me as a writer. Eunice, my protagonist in The Conditions of Love, also keeps a diary. Like her, I believe our words matter. I believe our suffering matters. I believe that out of the raw material of our lives we form art and create beauty. As Eunice’s downstairs neighbor and confidant Mr. Tabachnik says, “From the terrible the beautiful comes.”

Title page of first Dutch edition of The Diary of a Young Girl



Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience and What I Learn from My Characters

It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.

My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way.  And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”

Gala Eluard by Max Ernst 1924One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelationsWriter’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.

In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.

By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are.  We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”

“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.

In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”

1721mandalajungSomething Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)

As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.

In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.

marilyn monroe handprintsBut I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.

In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.

Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.

Maplewood, New Jersey

May, 1968

Cages

 

They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.

 

She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.

I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.

Varo_Armonia Continue reading…



How We Understand the World: Taking Sides on the Brain


MCEscher-DrawingHandsWhen I was first married, 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, and 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 (was the discipline even called that then?) seemed to reflect our conclusions.

This was at a time just before Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) became a massive bestseller. That book popularized the idea that our brains were divided into right and left hemispheres and that each half was responsible for different, opposite functions.

The right hemisphere was thought to be responsible for intuitive, impressionistic, dreamy, “feminine” functions while the left hemisphere was thought to be the more rational, here-and-now, “masculine” side of the brain.

right-brain-left-brainEven back then, I was aware my husband and I understood the world differently: we perceived and evaluated situations differently, used different models to solve problems, and arrived at different conclusions and solutions. He liked facts and proof; I liked suppositions and 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 shared my husband’s preferences (and this, I think, is true for most of the West). As you can imagine, some of our worst arguments resulted from the differences in our supposed hard wiring and apprehension of truth.

Writers have a special interest in how minds work. As a child, my own mind seemed at odds with my classmates. Friendship wasn’t the problem: I was highly social and well liked, but I often found it difficult to express myself in the classroom. Words were slippery and never quite adequate to what I had to say. Not all people who end up being creative writers fit the description of a highly fluent, highly verbal young wordsmith. Some of us were mute observers, unnoticed by English teachers or others who might have encouraged us toward expression. This isn’t the usual backstory for a writer, which is in part why I’m telling it—in case there are others reading this who recognize themselves here.

Language itself could be problematic. Like many writers, I was a voracious reader, but reading out loud in a reading group was agony. The letters disappeared in front of my eyes. Trying to translate the images I saw in my head into words, sentences, thoughts, was a confusion all its own. This tendency toward inwardness and understanding the world through a flow of images was surely the first evidence of my nascent poet self—the little girl who saw/felt/understood more than her years and was desperate to find words for it—but how could she/I have known that then?

robert blyHow could I have known that decades later, Robert Bly would write a book praising intuitive, associative thought. Leaping Poetry gave birth to a new idiom in American poetry that later developed into The Deep Image School, a reaction to the Modernist aesthetic of highly crafted, rational poetry inspired by T.S. Eliot and company. Bly translated and popularized previously unheard of poets like Neruda, Lorca, and Transtromer, writers who believed the unconscious mind was a source of great energy for writers. He suggested that linked or associated images embodied irrational knowledge and wisdom our conscious minds could not otherwise access. Much like my own associative mind, his proposed juxtaposition of incongruous images (this is essentially what metaphor is) generated a poetry of startling insights. Try to unpack a poem by Neruda or Vallejo and they go dry and lifeless. (Really, don’t try to explain any poem. Just let it sing to you.) Poems resist paraphrasing, and especially in associatively imagined poems, the linear requirements of grammar are absolved. We are in holy territory, in the presence of shamanic chants.

Okay, I know. The truth is: any creative endeavor requires the use of our complete brain, the parts that order reality as well as the regions of emotion, memory, ancestral wisdom. The ubiquitous yin/yang symbol above every yoga store conveys this opposition and interdependence that comprise the whole. The circle (brain) contains the opposites.

iain mcgilchrist1As it turns out, the neat old models of left brain/right brain weren’t quite accurate. According to more recent science the two brain hemispheres have differences but don’t function as independently of each other as previously thought. They differ in size and shape and in the number of neurons and neural size. They differ in their sensitivity to hormones and pharmaceutical agents and other ways as well, but the most significant difference lies in the type of attention they give the world. The hemispheres house different sets of values and priorities.As he describes in The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, a research psychiatrist, believes that over time “there has been a relentless growth of self-consciousness (left brain) and a shift away from a reliance on right brain values (interconnectedness).”

david grossman readingEmpathy might well be another word for interconnectedness. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, and an essential ingredient in creating fiction. In Writing in the Dark, David Grossman writes: “I write. I feel the many possibilities that exist in any human situation.” He speaks about the necessity of writers to examine each character from many points of view. “The role an author plays for his characters: with all his might, with all his talent and empathy, he must exist in their space… He must be completely attentive to all their needs, both the spiritual and the corporeal. He must devote himself to them. Body and soul.” Here, finally, is where art and science meet, where feeling and thinking are not oppositional ways of understanding and judging our universe, but systolic and diastolic complementary ways of knowing.



Writer’s Block: Nine Helpful Tips to Get Going Again

Blank paper with pen

 

I’ve recently had the privilege of teaching several writing workshops and working with a number of talented writers. Since I have never actually taken a fiction workshop, I’m always putting my workshops together out of issues I’ve faced and cures for writing ailments that have worked for me. The thing about writing, about any art form, is that what we create reflects our individuality—our interests, our passions, hopes and fears. Could anyone but Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls? Could anyone but Toni Morrison have written Beloved? I always marvel at the many different ways artists can be creative. Even in one workshop there can be quite a range of temperaments and styles.

HemingwayAnd though the way out of our writing dilemmas will be unique to our own processes and inclinations, often on a trial and error basis, there are certain general techniques that can benefit most of us. Here are nine of my favorite ways to get unstuck. Please feel free to dip in and also add yours to my list.

 

Nine Helpful Things I’ve Learned About Writing

  1. Wherever you start, it’s the right place. Really! Don’t fret. Trust your instincts and keep moving forward. When you finish a draft, you can then assess the need for changes.
  2. Write using every part of yourself: brain, mind, guts, heart. Write from your wholeness and not just your intellect. You are not just a head with feet attached.
  3. Every day, all day, observe. Watch what catches your attention—is it the magnolia tree in the park or the brown dog under it? The girl with the Yoyo or the couple scrapping behind the bushes? Attention follows interest and what interests you will be a key to what makes your writing powerful.
  4. toni by mikeAsk questions—to yourself, to your characters, to the work itself. A character may be quite willing to tell you why he’s acting bratty, or why she isn’t talking to her mother. The project may be happy to reveal its covert stories! Have something handy to write down the answers and be prepared to be surprised.
  5. Understand that all your drafts have been necessary and not a waste of time. Just as mountain climbers can’t ascend from Base One to Base Four without going through Bases Two and Three, so each draft must be written to bring you closer to your final vision. The goal is to write a great book, not a fast one.
  6. Try breaking up your writing time with meditative walks whether you’re in the city or country, and carry a Dictaphone.
  7. Read widely and avidly. Share your thoughts about what you’ve read with others.
  8. Don’t stay wedded to a predetermined outcome. Trust yourself and the material and the integrity of the project.
  9. Send out your hopes and dreams to the universe. How can it hurt?

Annie Dillard had it right when she said:

annie-dillard



Five Remedies for Writer’s Envy

Envy by Giotto 1306A close friend you cherish, a relative, your partner—someone you love and care about—wins the award, gets the job or the raise you thought was in your pocket; charms the socks off the guy you’ve adored from afar, sails for a month-long vacation—attains exactly the goodies you’ve secretly coveted.

Because you do care about the lucky person, you share in the happiness of their good fortune. Well, mostly. Your smiley face congratulations is hearty enough, but isn’t it sometimes tainted by a tightening in your gut, a cold gust sweeping your heart?

If you’re like me, you’re horrified and ashamed that your joy for the other isn’t unconditional, but what a relief to realize envy is part of human nature across continents and down the eons. What child hasn’t made loathsome comparisons between self and other, smoldered with envy, felt envy gulp down their confidence? What child hasn’t suffered the humiliating experience of feeling less than, having less than, wanting more? Who of us hasn’t worried we’re flawed or sinful (see the Bible for brutal stories of envious sibling rivalry), felt cheated when the goodies were doled out?

Most of us identify with the innocent, blameless characters in stories. I am not—the evil stepsister, the vengeful queen, the brother who rats on his brother and steals his inheritance—those archetypal figures we know so well as moral disasters. Aren’t we more inclined to identify with the all-good, too-good Cinderella, express sympathy for the pure and virtuous Snow White? It’s true that today’s heroines have become sassier, edgier, more complicated, but still their strength and fury, like those of their male counterparts, are usually directed toward admirably heroic undertakings.

Frans de Waal narrates a video of his experiment in which two capuchin monkeys are paid unequally.

But whether we admit it or not, we all experience envy. “There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as envy,” wrote the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ain’t it the truth! But it’s just so dang painful to admit that cruelty and betrayal lurk within. I would never have the courage to look at envy so directly, let alone write about it, if I had not come to recognize its universal nature and to understand that denying envy only reinforces its snarky, trickster, debilitating aspects.

Even if we ignore them, the disliked, disowned envious parts of ourselves don’t go away, they simply get projected onto the Other, often in the form of blame. So, along with the personal suffering envy causes, it might well be responsible for most wars and murders on the planet.

meg_jo_beth_and_amy_by_jessie_willcox_smith_wood_wall_art-r023ecc7054f848968dfe9c28135f6c21_z2skx_512A new realm of Envy Hell opened up to me after I became a published writer. Google “Writer’s Envy” and a whole host of links appear. This is no surprise since we artists have our eye on immortality, and fame is a very small ship onto which many hope to sail. I do find it ironic that while envy is the engine that drives many works of literature—think Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles and Achilles sulking in his tent for three years; Iago envying Othello or Edmund Edgar in King Lear; or Amy March’s envy of Jo in Little Women. Authors are forever weaving plots around envy; we are mighty resistant to ‘fessing up about our own.

As a commercially published writer, I have certainly felt both the discomfort of being envied and the equally painful experience of being the envier. To be the envied one causes its own set of difficulties. By definition, the envied receives the projected anger and resentment of the envier whose attacks maybe come across as confusingly passive aggressiveness or as blatant sabotage. Envy is a master at wearing costumes: the gratuitous smile, the devious offers to help. The storybook witches of our childhood abide in our adult imagination. Can’t we still feel the uncanny thrill, the fear and delicious trepidation of being invited by a kindly old lady into the gingerbread house? Envy seems to put us to a test: first we need to recognize and acknowledge its existence, then we are asked to decide how to be in relationship to it. (Run away; hide our face; attack with a weapon; cajole; outwit; succumb; reform. The possibilities are many.)

Dore Pur_12_arachneMyths and fairy tales tell us the gods can be jealous, even ruinous. These stories work well as cautionary tales to warn us not only of the gods that strike from above, but depict representations of the archetypal forces in the human psyche and ask us to consider how envy motivates us from within. For her hubris at claiming to be a better weaver than Athena, Arachne is turned into a spider. We know what happened to Icarus when he, attempting to fly like the gods, flew too near to the sun.

Three thousand years ago, the Buddha recognized envy as one of the root causes of suffering and suggested to his students that they develop genuine happiness for the success of others—mudita in Pali—one of the four brahma-viharas, practices that cultivate our highest human virtues. Mudita or vicarious joy encourages us to develop the opposite of a scarcity mentality that supposes there is only so much happiness to go around. Scarcity mentality is in part responsible for envy since the envier feels the other’s good fortune diminishes the possibility of her own.

May I be happy

May you be happy

May we be at peace

These are simple, elegant phrases I use when I become conscious of envy’s presence. Practicing these cleansing loving-kindness phrases has a quality of restorative justice, whereby I remember that envy, being a universal trait, is yet one more oddball way I am connected to the human race.

Other remedies?

  1. Laugh at oneself! Just plain sit down in a chair and think of the absurdity of assuming life is fair. Fairness was conceived by mankind. The nature of Nature is something altogether other.
  2. Recognize envy is universal condition. You are not being singled out. Every wisdom tradition includes instructions about envy. Educate yourself.
  3. Especially if you are a writer dealing with writer’s envy. It soothes the soul to read writers you love.
  4. Devise a ritual or ceremony to deal with envy. Invest a stone with your uncomfortable feelings and bury it. Light a candle and recite a wish. Draw a picture of envy or the feelings it arises, then burn the drawing and scatter the ashes. Using your creative energies in this way ignites and inspires the good muses to hang around.
  5. Talk to a trusted friend about envy. Find out you are not alone.

Extermination_of_Evil_Sendan_Kendatsuba_700x268

 



How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?

The-Three-Ages-of-Woman KlimtI want to tell you right off that I had every intention of writing this blog about coming of age, what it might mean here and now in the States, and even dip into a look at classic and current coming-of-age novels, of which there are many, and which has, at times been a moniker for my own novel, The Conditions of Love.

But true to how my writerly, associative brain works (I’ll actually be exploring using the associative mind to deepen one’s writing in a workshop I’m giving in July—see events page), I started investigating one thing and it led me somewhere other than where I intended.

My mind led me to the HBO series Girls, a show that has garnered much acclaim, as has its author, Lena Dunham, and which, having recently spent evenings in the company of that most deliciously malevolent of couples, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, and awaiting the availability of the last episodes of Mad Men, in a restless, between-series state of hunting new characters to adore, I discovered Girls.

girls_sexscene14I’d read some interviews with Dunham, heard it was touted as the next Sex and the City, and well, I’m interested in the lives of women and mighty curious about the inner lives and politics of twenty-something contemporary American women. I’m interested in this because I’m a woman and these things concern me, because I have daughters, and because, in part, I write about girls growing into womanhood.

Not too far into the pilot episode of Girls, after Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath loses her job and is rejected by her parents who refuse to support her, Hannah drops by a buddy’s apartment to cheer herself up, and, as therapy or an antidote to despair, has what looks like anal sex.

My first thought was—why this sex scene, front and center, naked butt in the air? Sex depicted so dispassionately, so lacking of the erotic, of ecstasy, fury or fetishistic delight, Samantha from Sex and the City would have yawned and walked away. I had to wonder: what is this about? What’s the meaning here? Is there meaning?

girl-at-mirror-Norman RockwellAnd then I thought—am I watching a rite of passage, a coming-of-age ritual that signifies something I’m too out of it, too focused on the romantic to understand? Is casual, non-emotive sex a marker for a generation that honors irony and detachment, a way of claiming authority over the often urgent needs and drives of childhood, those pressing I needs, I wants of the Id? (Does anyone still talk about Ids?)

I had to wonder, what, if anything, marks the transition from adolescence into adulthood for the representative Hannah and her cohort? Gone, long gone are the days in which the start of menses and a woman’s ability to bear a child held that stature. Especially now when many girls reach menses at the astonishingly young age of eight, long before they are emotionally mature, physical development outpacing moral, ethical, emotional development, it is impossible to consider an eight-year-old menstruating girl an adult.

coming-of-age-sunrise-ceremonyLosing one’s virginity, separating from parents, becoming self-supportive. Marriage, giving birth, at one time these too set the definition for female adulthood. No longer. In other places, rite of passage ceremonies are intact. We do not send our daughters to live for a time with the wise grannies in the Moon Hut; we do not scarify the faces of our young men or set up contests for them to jump over a castrated cow. We do have Sweet Sixteen parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, our Quincenaras, but largely these ritual celebrations stay within their communities and do not translate to a feeling of adulthood in the larger world.

Girls’ Hannah H. is twenty-four, unpartnered and unmarried, broke, and seemingly brimming with despair. From Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah, it’s difficult to discern if the character considers herself part of the adult world, or not. Something seems to be missing in her self-image that places her between stages of development. But how does she feel? In this age how does one know they’ve come of age?

So my pondering continues. How do we know we have come of age? But then, how do we define middle age or old age these days? Aren’t our longer lifespans and the changes in our economy changing how we think of age and aging in general? If only humans had clear stages of development, a discreet and recognizable morphology like the cycles of butterfly development, the lowly earth-bound caterpillar so vastly different in shape and function than the gracefully winged creature that emerges from it. Our human skeleton keeps us bound to one form, but within that form our minds change, our hearts hopefully grow wiser. But we have no rituals or ceremonies, no real way of letting others know this has occurred in us.

Or do we?

tout-est-psycho

 



Where Have All the Fire-Breathing Dragons Gone?

Dragons Play with a Pearl of Lightning, painting on xuan paper by Li Yu-Jun

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.                                                                   —Jose Ortega y Gasset

Once upon a time I lived in a house with my parents, my sister and my grandma from Russia. Grandma Sophie had come to this country as a teenage bride. She was illiterate and spoke in a shifting patois of Russian, Yiddish and English. I didn’t always know what she was saying but I understood her intuitively. We’re going in the machine? raised the question if we’d be taking a drive in the Dodge. Alternatively, Turn on the machine? was a request to turn on the television. “Machine” was a useful word that also applied to the washer and dryer in the basement, but not to the radio or the telephone for which she knew the names.

Lately I’ve been thinking about obsolete language, how the vernacular changes dramatically with time and technology. So many expressions I’ve grown up with have disappeared. Time marches on. Now there’s a phrase that sounds archaic, conjuring up as it does the sweep of seasons across the calendar year, armies crossing the Alps on elephants, the waxing and waning moon. Time marches on, and we feel the rippling of temporality in our bones, light thinning and darkness coming earlier each day. Is this the same Time marked by a digital blink on our computer screen? Yes. And, no. (See: connotative vs. denotative language.)

Mercury on the ceiling of the Loggia of Psyche, fresco by Raphael and his pupils, 1517-1518, Villa Farnesina, Rome.Language is mercurial, and like the substance mercury itself, is skittery and unstable, malleable to the whims of culture and the fortunes of technology. For the Romans, Mercury (Hermes in Greek) was the god of communication, a sprightly figure with wings on his heels who made swift flight carrying messages between humans and gods. Of all the gods in the Roman pantheon, Mercury was the most playful, a trickster figure, and like language itself, never to be taken at face value. What he said was not necessarily what he meant.

What got me going on the subject is the title of my new novel Digging to China, an expression whose origins are difficult to locate. The urban legend during my childhood held that if you dug straight down through the center of the earth you would reach the other side of the world, the land of China.

China had a mystical ring. It offered the promise of adventure, evoked images of fire-breathing dragons and sweeping mountain mists—iconography at odds with the heavily industrialized, tech-savvy China of today. Other words elicited similar thrills: Everest, Zanzibar. The moon. Timbuktu.

The distance between peoples, countries, continents was vast, and for most of us, utterly unknowable except through fairy tales and myths. Certain names lodged in the landscape of our imaginations symbolizing places timeless and eternal, our own sort of Interior Castles where we just might bump into the divinely otherworldly, where we might dream ourselves into heroes with a thousand faces.

Photo by Mike Choi of the Starbucks in Lukla, from his April 2011 blog post on The Fit World Traveler about his Everest Base Camp trek experience. We need our wild, soulful places. Maybe now more than ever, when the world is almost entirely knowable, when we’ve Google-mapped even remote regions of planet Earth; when we can tool on down to visit the blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos, or the penguins of Antarctica; when climbers on Everest carry iPads and coffee from the local Starbucks; when, thanks to MRIs, PET scans and whatnot, the most inaccessible parts of our anatomy have been studied—and the Man in the Moon, the goddess Luna, have become simply craters of rock.

Maybe more than ever we need experiences of the sublime, that state of wonder, awe, and terror that enchants us into other realms. Yes, hooray for science, mathematics, engineering! Hooray for molecular biology! Hooray for astronomy, cosmology, zoology and all the rest, but can our species prosper without niches for our imaginations to hang out?

Maybe our great big frontal cortexes, our rational, logical brains are juiced up by the new synaptical connections technology encourages, but I do believe some primordial, instinctual, not-yet-disappeared part of us yearns to taste the wind on our tongues. Longs to run with the wolves and fly with dragons.



Mother’s Day 2015: Struggling with Being a Mother and a Writer

As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.

Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.

I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”50s

Night Feeding
Muriel Rukeyser

In Mind
Denise Levertov

Even before I took up writing professionally, I was jolted awake by the voices of certain poets, women poets who were shoving open the windows of their houses and shouting in wrath and fury, despair and righteousness, about their lives.

The essay that I read and reread dozens of times, that spoke to me so directly I was astonished anyone could know so much about my life was Adrienne Rich’s When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision. Her words startled me into recognition of my own guilt, my own confusion and isolation.

Rich in ColorShe writes:

 …I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a “full” woman’s life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty…I went on trying to write: my second book and first child appeared in the same month…If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster…about the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.

To feel oneself a monster…to suffer this in silence…to be at odds with one’s deepest desires…and to be isolated in one’s suffering—do these conditions still exist for women writers who are raising families (and male writers who are the primary caregivers in their homes)?

KaliThe truth is, the very attributes that contribute to a rich, deep, profound, and thrilling creative life are antithetical to sustaining a stable home. Writing, at least as I know it, thrives on the chaotic and unpredictable shifts and flashes of the imagination; it demands devotion, loyalty, ruthlessness in the face of despair, enormous amounts of energy and attention—all of which might otherwise be directed toward one’s beloveds.

Rich says:

But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well…a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on; to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away… To be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity and demands instead a kind of conservatism…

Your attention suddenly snatched away. Split loyalties. The soccer game, the swim team, the poem, the essay: they all shouted at once, a confused and confusing cacophony that sent me hurrying in ten different directions.

But like Rich, I felt rise up in me an unquenchable desire to speak the truth about things unsaid and unspoken. I housed a hunger I hadn’t let myself feel until I heard the words of other women writers describing, most desperately, their hunger to have a voice. This is what we can do for each other: mirror, echo, witness, model.

creation-of-the-birdsOver time, I’ve come to adopt a different perspective, one that expands the view of what we are doing when we continue to embrace the warring imperatives of our souls—what the Jungians call holding the tension of the opposites. By creating a literal home we build a place to contain and house all our parts. This place/space holds our love, our security, grounds and shelters us against storms and unpredictable weather—I mean the turbulence inherent in a creative life. We need our homes just as our homes need us; we need a place where the offspring of our imaginations can grow and thrive.

Terry Tempest Williams writes with great eloquence about women’s voices and women’s silences in her poignant memoir, When Women Were Birds, an ode to her mother who died of cancer at 54. Her mother had bequeathed the author her journals—all of them blank inside. Williams writes:

She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.

terry tempest williams book coverAfter reading When Women Were Birds, it struck me that I did not know my own daughters’ experiences of what it was like growing up with a mother who also happened to be a writer. So I asked them each if they would write a few words for this blog.

Jennifer:

  1. I recall falling asleep to the click, click, click….. zing… of the typewriter in the room next door.  There was something rhythmic and reassuring about it.
  2. I grew up with poetry infused into everyday life in a way that most don’t.  It was not uncommon to have you recite a poem (not necessarily yours; often not) in what seemed like random moments.  Before meals… at gatherings…   And to this day, I think I’ve picked up this propensity.  I’m often quoting/reciting poems or openings to books… quotes… at random moments.  I reference you whenever I do this with new people.  I just say “I grew up in a house with a writer.”
  3. Honestly… there were books everywhere in our house.  Before the bookshelves were built in the living room and sunroom, there were piles of books everywhere.
  4. You have this incredible and unique capacity to offer exactly the right “text” to someone (including me) at precisely the right moment.  Did then, still do.
  5. I have poetry books you gave me as a kid (kid versions) that I still have poems memorized from (e.g., “Who has seen the wind…” or “Jenny kissed me when we met…”)
  6. You seemed to struggle then (and still do) with trying to find a balance between being in your writing space and in normal everyday space.  When we were growing up, your writing space seemed to be more around the margins of your life with us (after hours… when we were at school). Now it is pretty central. But I think there is still the tension of how to immerse and be present with your writing and not disappear forever.  Not that you’d want to. . . but it seems the structure of when to go in and then pull out was more defined by us and your wanting to be present with us.

Dale & Young Daughters canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota

Jessica: Growing up with a mom as a writer certainly set me aside from my friends. I was encouraged to learn the language of colors and moods, not of apple pie and golf. My friends did not make the acquaintance of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or the man at the mic bravely sharing his work at a poetry reading on campus. A world unheard of by my friends was at my fingertips. Beyond poems and prose was the way I was encouraged to view the world: ripe, aging, new, dying, tragic, humorous, raw… full of suffering and hidden miracles. I would not trade my upbringing, second daughter of an amazing writer, artist, and poet. I am lucky to have learned and lived (and still do!) the language and veil of creativity from the best, my mom.

My daughters have been kind. Hugely supportive, always. I was, at times, a “space cadet,” a distracted mom, cranky and preoccupied, sometimes gone for weeks at a time to write, but I’ve always been haunted by what Jung said: that our children live out our unlived lives. And so, isn’t it better to live our passions honestly and not drop the burden of unfulfilled desires onto our kids? We never do know when we are launched on creative projects that compel and enthrall us—raising children, writing a novel—how smooth or bumpy the road will be. But follow it we must. And if we are lucky, as I have been, our children will also reap the rewards.

Dale & Adult Daughters at Luna Loon Lodge, Conover, Wisconsin

 

 



Embracing Vulnerability

Hic Sunt Dracones. Terra Incognita.

Vulnerability. Dr. Brenė Brown, a researcher and popular TED-talker who writes about shame and vulnerability, defines the V-word as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” I concur with her definition and also her conclusion that embracing vulnerability is crucial to living a passionate, creative life.

Vulnerability is a word writers toss around a lot, mostly in relation to how exposed they feel to the judgment of others: readers, critics, editors, publishers, agents. The whims of the marketplace, the fancies or fantasies of the book-buying public.

Less often do writers talk, at least publicly, about the vulnerability of putting oneself at risk in front of the blank page (or canvas or stage), where the risk of failure stares back with nothingness on its face, fueling what is sometimes called writer’s block or just plain frigin’ being stuck: the project has fizzled, your muses fled to wherever muses go to loiter and complain.

vulnerableBut I want to talk about another kind of vulnerability necessary to embrace if we want to engage our creative selves. It’s the part of us that gets shut-down early in our lives by parents, teachers, a world that repeatedly encourages us to play it safe.

But within us, I believe, is a self-part that shuns limitations and prescriptions and wishes to cast off the constraints of convention, class, ethnicity, religion or gender. This is the rule-breaker part (even if the rules are ones we set up for ourselves) that seeks to take us to an “edge” inside ourselves, a border that marks an entrance into unknown territory—our very own terra incognita. 

Think here of those ancient maps that marked such boundaries, the edges of the known world where serpents and dragons lurked.

And yes, scarily, this is exactly the domain a writer needs to explore, beyond the known, the certain and predictable, though lets face it, predictable is definitely a more comfortable place to hang out. Anne Lamott recommends writers “write toward vulnerability,” a phrase that sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. We spend weeks on an outline for our next novel. The outline gives us a sense of security and purpose, but on another level it feels confining. Dare we tear it up and proceed without it? Dare we trust instinct over intellect? Dare we trust our own individual, unique way? You bet!

Karl K 2In his essay on America for the New York Times Magazine, the Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard remarks that for a country that prides itself on individualism, we have a strong preference for conformity. (See our chain hotels, our ubiquitous Taco Bells and Arbys, our Gap and Pottery Barn-filled shopping malls.) Unlike so many other places on the globe, we Americans do not tolerate our eccentrics or eccentricity itself very well. Isn’t part of the American expectation that one can go to any country in the world and find a safely familiar Holiday Inn and nearby McDonalds? We are not, I’m afraid, so fond of Difference.

The carry over for a writer in the corporatization of all things American is the pressure to write the next Harry Potter series, the next Fifty Shades of Grey. The next American Sniper. The next novel about a.) Vampires b.) Terrorism c.) Post Traumatic Stress.

Not that there aren’t worthy and necessary stories to be told about these subjects, only that what might be determining their telling is more the lure of the marketplace than anything else. We like new ideas if they fit with our old ideas, and we especially like new ideas that reinforce what we already believe, that is, old ideas dressed up in new clothes.

Mc-McIlvoyIt takes enormous courage to embrace vulnerability as a strategic and crucial aspect of our creative selves. The poet Rilke asks us to “live the questions.” Carl Jung suggested the project of individuation is to “live ourselves.” All creation begins in chaos, begins in the formless void where all possibilities live. For those of you reading this who are writers or creators of any stripe, the risk is to follow our hunches and explore our instincts without any assurance for success. My friend, the writer Kevin McIlvoy, calls this state ‘blessed insanity,” and how right he is! Isn’t it true that what frightens us most about taking a risk isn’t our failure in the eyes of others, but the fear that we have failed to risk living our desires?



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.



Meet Tara Ochs, the “voice” of The Conditions of Love

As a writer I’m preoccupied by “voice” —Tara Ochs the diction, syntax, and emotional registers of my characters. I hear them before I know who they are and what stories they want to tell me. Immediately upon hearing the audio recording of The Conditions of Love, I became smitten with the voice of Tara Ochs, who so effortlessly modulated her reading to give different expression to each character. And she did this for sixteen hours!

Then last month something magical happened. As the credits rolled at the end of the movie Selma, the name Tara Ochs popped out from the screen. I had been watching “the voice of TCOL” play Viola Liuzzo, the white Civil Rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan!

Thus began a correspondence with Tara that has evolved into many exchanges which I’d like to share with you. I’ve often wondered how an actor goes about embodying a character and developing a “voice.” Finally, I had someone I could ask. And you’ll get to meet her because she videotaped two of her answers.

Liuzzo Viola portrayed by Tara Ochs

How did it happen that you became the voice of the audiobook for The Conditions of Love?

For The Conditions of Love, I auditioned with a five-minute sample from the book. I don’t know what happens after that — who chose my sample — but I’m REALLY glad they did.

How does preparing to read an audiobook different from preparing for an acting role?

They are completely different. For me an audiobook is more like singing. I’m choosing the voices for each character as if I were matching a tone. But the tone is something I pull from my personal observations about what a voice communicates about a personality. To prep a book, I use the text to inspire me and I combine that with voices I’m familiar with in my life, and hopefully they are strong enough choices that I can keep them consistent throughout!

Did you find anything especially tricky about reading The Conditions of Love?

It’s always challenging when a character ages, because you want them always to sound real and honest, but also to incorporate that changing register while keeping it believably the same person.

I really love how you gave Eunice, my narrator, a strong, sassy and resilient voice. How did you decide how she’d sound?

viola liuzzo marchingUsually the main character, especially if she is the narrator, is a voice as close to my own as possible. That way I can maximize my range, be the most honest I can in different emotional situations and not wear out my voice!  Beyond that, I simply try to adjust my attitude based on the character’s perspective. In this case, Eunice had an unusual set of influences growing up, but she is such a strong and aware woman as a result — that is what I wanted to deliver. Essentially who I would be if all that had happened to me.

The audiobook of The Conditions of Love runs more than sixteen hours. I’m sure the recording took even longer. How many days does it take to record a book of this length? How can you sustain the same voice over that span of time?

I average about two hours of work for every one hour of recorded material. That includes my “brain breaks,” maybe a short lunch, a moment to take a phone call or use the restroom. I narrate about six hours a day, and that gets broken up by my other work — acting jobs, auditions, etc. I have to be very careful about how I use my voice during the time I am recording. I tend to avoid smoky areas and alcohol and get lots of rest. It’s not hard to blow out your voice when it’s being worked so constantly so I usually spend those days not talking to others very much!

I love how you do Mr. Tabachnick’s voice in your reading. Do you enjoy doing accents? Do you specialize in any one in particular?

Viola Liuzzo real gravestoneHa! Yes, I LOVE anything related to the Russian accent — Jewish, German, all those accents are in my wheelhouse. I love doing accents because the musicality is so universal to our untrained ears. I tend to have a decent ear for accents, but sometimes I have to do a little extra work to make sure I’m not drifting towards a different country!

Is there anything you especially liked about your reading of The Conditions of Love?

I think I may have liked finding Mern the best. Something about her voice spoke to me of how Eunice remembered her more than she may actually have sounded. I liked that idea. . . .That she became larger than life in retrospect.

You’re currently getting a lot of well-deserved attention for your role in the movie Selma playing Viola Liuzzo, the wife and mother of five children who left her family in Detroit, Michigan to join Martin Luther King in March, 1965 in registering black voters in Alabama and marching for Civil Rights. Shortly after arriving, Viola was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. How did you get this amazing role?

As a fiction writer, I hear the voices of my characters, but they are imaginary people and I’m free to make them sound as I like. When you’re preparing for a role playing an historic person, do you try to sound like that person and replicate their tone and pitch? Or do you try to convey more of the emotional truth of that individual through his or her voice?

We had a dialect coach on set (Elisa Carlson) to help us properly match the voices that were recognizable, and to have the correct accents for anyone else. But there isn’t any audio recording of Viola, and sources say she had a southern accent from childhood, but that it was likely that was mostly fading from her time living in Detroit. And of course, I had very few lines anyway, so I simply stuck with my own voice and accent, as that would be the most believable. Beyond that, I prefer to approach a vocal choice from an internal place first.

Other than affecting an accent, most of the work needs to be grounded in my own voice or it’s an impression.  Which I also enjoy doing, but it disconnects you from the emotion then.

In your blog you describe visiting Viola’s grave during the filming of Selma. How has playing Viola changed your life?  

I really love your Lucky Star” blog posts about Selma. Do you enjoy writing?

I really do love to write, when I have something to say. I’ve always had a mind for being a writer of some sort. I even took postgrad courses at UCLA in journalism, but the truth is I don’t have the day-to-day work ethic. I only write when inspired, and as I’m sure you know that means about three times a year.

What’s next for Tara Ochs?

The MILLION dollar question. I don’t necessarily see my career taking a radical course change because of Selma. But I AM going to be working more with Viola Liuzzo’s story and her family. That’s one story I hope to always be sharing.

Tara marching with students MLK weekend



Dinner with friends

Dinner settings for Sappho Woolf_600x315

 

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.

But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?

sapphoSappho
Jane Goodall
Virginia Woolf
Lalleshwari
Muriel Spark
Marie-Louise von Franz
Toni Morrison

All women — at least this time around.
Two poets. Three novelists. One primatologist/anthropologist. One Jungian archetypal psychologist.
One Greek. Two Brits. One Scot. One Kashmiri. One Swiss. One American.

It would take pages and pages to adequately praise the work of each of these brilliant women, but one thing they have in common is their uncommon courage as writers and thinkers. Each has changed the way I see and think about the world, each has astonishing stories to tell.

LalleshwariThe fourteenth-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, lived at a time when Shaivism, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism were alive and entwined in a rich amalgam of religions merging in Asia. I’m told that though she was ridiculed and taunted, Lalla, lit by divine inspiration, danced naked through the Kashmiri valley singing her ecstatic poems. Here is her voice, translated by Coleman Barks.

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

Jane Goodall. I reach for one of her books when I need to remind myself to honor my instincts and rekindle my sense of wonder. When doubt (something I’m examining a lot these days) blunts my energy for taking a step forward, I reach for Jane — a role model for me of a writer who has documented the courage and passion necessary for her work.

jane-goodall-615Among other esteemed achievements, Jane Goodall is credited with changing how scientists study animals in their natural habitats. In 1960, without any formal training or advanced education, she left England to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe project in Tanzania under the tutelage of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey. In her own words, she was then “a naïve young English girl,” but one who’d always held a fascination with wild life. Now, decades and many books later, she’s an international treasure. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her book Through a Window.

There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. There are those opened up by science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant, penetrating minds. Through these we can see ever further, ever more clearly, into areas that once lay beyond human knowledge. Gazing through such a window I have, over the years, learned much about chimpanzee behavior and their place in the nature of things. And this in turn, has helped us to understand a little better some aspects of human behavior, our own place in nature.

But there are other windows; windows that have been unshuttered by the logic of philosophers; windows through which the mystics seek their visions of truth; windows from which the leaders of the great religions have peered as they search for purpose not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. Most of us, when we ponder on the mystery of our existence, peer through but one of these windows onto the world. And even that one is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity. We clear a tiny peephole and stare through. No wonder we are confused by the tiny fraction of a whole that we see. It is, after all, like trying to comprehend the panorama of the desert or the sea through a rolled-up newspaper.

Marie Louis von Franz with JungMarie-Louise von Franz is probably the least recognizable name on my list. Like her mentor and colleague, the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Ms. Von Franz can be credited with helping modern thinkers understand the psychological and symbolic dimension of fairy tales. At my imaginary dinner party, Marie-Louise turns first to Sappho and then to Toni Morrison and asks each their favorite fairy tale. Are you a Cinderella? Rapunzel? A bewitched crow? she might inquire. Can you imagine the lively conversation that would follow? Most of us are driven by the unconscious myths we carry about ourselves, and these motifs, these archetypes (the orphan, the seducer, the wise old man) with which we identify shape our lives. Think about it! What fairy tales haunt your mind?

Space prevents me from quoting more than two writers who’ve inspired me to speak the truth and given me faith in my own process. But to circle back to my specific choices, I see now that these invited guests share certain qualities that in turn reflect my own biases and interests. They are observers, rebels, pioneers, seekers, original thinkers, and I think also, each is in her own way, sassy and determined.

May you too find nourishment in their books, and may you too be awakened to new wonders. Here’s a place to start.

Sappho                                Sappho: a new translation Mary Barnard
Jane Goodall                        Through A Window
Virginia Woolf                       Moments of Being
Lalla                                    Naked Song, translated by Coleman Barks
Toni Morrison                       Beloved
Marie-Louis von Franz           Shadow and Evil in Fairytales
Muriel Spark                         The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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