Soul Care During COVID-19: How Have Your Rituals Changed?

Two young Buddhist monks for rituals blog

Once upon a time (and we know how that goes; the unimaginable is about to happen!)…. Once upon a time, we knew ourselves to be creatures of the earth. We passed our days traversing landscapes green with vegetation, blue with sky or water, brown with rock and dirt. After eons passed, we travelled by train, rode bikes along windy roads, sat impatiently in traffic fiddling with mobile phones. Some of us waited for buses or subways, walked through neighborhoods as familiar as our hands. The air we breathed carried the fragrance of the season and the scent of our locale—fumes from a bread factory, hot asphalt, algae bloom on a lake, diesel exhaust.

If we bumped into a friend, we offered a hand or a hug. In elevators, stomachs growled, wheezy breathers gave off stale air. Someone’s shirt smelled of cigarette smoke, someone’s neck stank of cheap perfume. On escalators we looked each other in the face, smiled politely, and turned away. We lived social lives: we bowled, sat in movie theaters, met for lunch dates, pressed our noses to store windows and browsed inside. Our days were full of tactile pleasures and small injuries, which we took for granted as familiar and mundane.

The Fertility Dance in the Magura cave for rituals blogIn our minds, we separated work time from fooling around time by occasion and place. After work at home, we stepped out of our panty hose and high heels, our overalls or uniforms, showered and changed into casual clothes. We ate dinner with our family and put the kids to bed or plonked ourselves in front of the TV and took a pull of a beer. Watches and digital devices kept us punctual and noted the passing hours. The world was a vast palette of shapes and colors. We lived an embodied life.

This was the world pre-COVID. Now, except for our courageous first responders and front-liners in crucial jobs, our world has shrunk to the size of our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes. We wander our rooms from sunrise until bedtime, often without stepping outside. Contact with other humans may be limited to a perch in front of a computer screen, Zooming or Skyping or Facetiming. We now have more empathy for animals captured from savannahs or rain forests and put into cages. COVID-19 has been with us for nine months, and while it’s too soon to make conclusive statements about how the pandemic is affecting our mental and physical health, we know we are grieving the loss of our familiar world.

Naming and honoring what has been lost can be a powerful tool. Along with enduring personal losses, our communal relationship to time and space has been altered since the pandemic, as has our physical relationship to each other and to the sensory world. Many of our most important and sustaining rituals have disappeared or been put on hold. Linked to the loss of ritual is a loss of our sense of a meaningful existence, a felt disorientation, rootlessness, restlessness, even despair. Some anthropologists suggest the instinct for ritual is hardwired in our brains and point to evidence of prehistoric rituals honoring the dead in the caves of Europe and on other continents.

Opening of the Mouth Ceremony. Papyrus of Hunefer (1275 BC) For rituals blog postNations have rituals. Think of the Pledge of Allegiance and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Religions, ethnic groups, local communities, kinship clans all engage in rituals that elevate and mark important aspects of life. Our most common rituals—weddings, funerals, birth rites, birthdays, communions, bar mitzvahs, fasting or serving special holiday foods—are so commonplace, we rarely think of them as rituals with roots in primeval times, but their dismemberment during COVID has made us aware of their importance to our well-being.

This experience of loss is likely to continue into the new year. How can we creatively interact with this formidable challenge? One way is to become aware of the rituals that have vanished or changed in your own life, starting with the actions and ritual observances with which you begin your day. Ask yourself: what new patterns do I see emerging since sheltering in place? Do I sleep later than I did pre-COVID? Do I stay in pajamas and a robe all day? Do I have the same morning hygiene habits? What about breakfast? Do I eat the same breakfast at the same time and in the same way as I did before COVID? If not, what has changed?

Scriptorum Monk at Work from Blades, William: Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges (1891) Have I stopped “dressing” for different occasions because they are occurring online? Before COVID, we often marked transitional time, that is, time between a change of action—work and home, home and leisure play—by a change of clothes or a change in our tempo. How are you marking transitional time now? Get curious about the different events in your day. What rituals might you put in place to create a sense of order and differentiation between events? Some suggestions include lighting a candle before you speak to an important relative or person; step outside between work-related meetings, breathe deeply and gaze briefly at the sky; say a positive mantra or prayer blessing at the beginning and ending of each day; use different rooms, if possible, for different work-related dates; place a wishing stone or a piece of paper with a wish on it into a bowl for each day COVID is still around; look into your own eyes in a mirror for five minutes, a practice that can be as deeply centering as it is soulful.

A camera can be a useful ally in creating new rituals. A friend of mine goes out each morning to photograph the changing face of the lake near her house. When the pandemic is over, she plans to make a book of her photographs. Another friend manages her depression by photographing every sunrise. You might choose a nearby tree to photograph through the seasons, or the daily expressions of your cat. Let whimsy and chance be your guides.

Creating new rituals can refresh and uplift our spirits. Let in and honor what arises from the depth of your being. The wisest part of ourselves, whether we call it Higher Self, Soul, our Buddha or Christ nature, is waiting to be summoned.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



The Hero’s Journey in the Time of COVID

Jason, Athena and the Golden Fleece for Hero blog post

In only seven months we have watched the dissolution of our familiar world. The viral outbreak has fractured our social order and dismantled the scaffolding which has held our society intact. Institutions we have come to rely on for our well-being—healthcare, education, government itself—are altered in ways we couldn’t have predicted.

We wonder how our future will look. Some of us even wonder if we will be alive in the future. What will survive? Will there be restaurants? Movie theaters? Malls and sports arenas? Will our children have human teachers, or will tele-teaching and tele-medical visits become the norm? Social instability appears to be chronic and unfixable and our psyches are suffering greatly. How could we not be swept up by feelings of abandonment, worry, anger, fear, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation and loss, or numbed out and grieving? If any of these feelings ring true for you, you’re not alone.

So where can we find strength and resilience when hardships proliferate and we need to accommodate even more change? One way is to turn inward to our heroic self who seeks our greatest potential and guides us toward authentic wholeness. Here’s how depth psychologist Carl Jung described this inner companion: “Inside each of us is another who we do not know who speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from how we see ourselves.”

These days most everyone knows about the hero’s journey, whether they are aware of it or not. Popular culture brims with stories structured around the hero’s journey, including some of our most popular fictional characters like Harry Potter or Atticus Finch. The film industry has notably co-opted the hero’s journey to plot movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, Frozen, and all the James Bond films.

Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces for Hero blog postMythologist Joseph Campbell first wrote about the hero’s journey in 1949 in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell compared myths from around the world, some dating back thousands of years, and found that many of them shared a common structure, which he called “the hero’s adventure.” On an outer level, Campbell noted a sequence of events each hero/heroine encountered and he outlined their stages: departure and separation in which the hero/heroine leaves their safe world; initiation and ordeal in which the hero faces obstacles and ordeals that test her wisdom and skills; and the return, in which, having successfully overcome hardships, the hero returns to where she started, changed by her experience. On an inner psychological level, the hero’s journey depicts a maturation process of discovering one’s potential and becoming one’s true self; it is a portrait of profound transformation.

Hard times spur us to embody our hero-self. As Campbell and others discovered, many classic fairytale motifs as well as myths begin with a statement of misfortune, then progress through challenge and struggle, and finish in triumph. These stories chart the call to a higher purpose that catapults the hero/heroine out of the ordinary world into the unknown where she must undertake a series of tests and tribulations and ultimately secures a treasure or elixir for herself and the collective world.

Little Brother and Little Sister by Rackham for Hero blog post

The Brothers Grimm’s version of “Little Brother and Little Sister” illustrates how the initiating journey starts with misfortune:

Little Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step-mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left over; and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a nice bit. May Heaven pity us. If our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.”

Likewise, “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn” begins:

There were once three brothers who had fallen deeper and deeper into poverty, and at last their need was so great that they had to endure hunger, and had nothing to eat or drink. Then said they, “We cannot go on thus, we had better go into the world and seek our fortune.”

Illustration for “The Six Swans” by Warwick Goble (1913) for the Hero blog post.In both stories, bad luck leads to good fortune as it does in “The Six Swans”:

Once upon a time, a certain king was hunting in a great forest, and he chased a wild beast so eagerly that none of his attendants could follow him. When evening drew near he stopped and looked around him, and then he saw that he had lost his way. He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he perceived an aged woman with a head which nodded perpetually, who came towards him, but she was a witch. . . .

In each story, we hold our breath as the hero faces impossible odds that seem unsurmountable and deadly. We read on, hoping against hope that some unseen force or influence will save the day. As in fairytales, so in life, but the helpers that come to our aid are not good fairies or friendly animals, they are our own brilliant but latent resources, instincts stirred to assist us.

Like dreams, these tales and their variants express the universal experiences of our inner worlds. The life of the soul comes to us through story. When we dream or dream our way into a tale, we are getting a glimpse of the archetypal images latent in our souls that are bound by neither time nor place. To be in touch with this deep personal resource allows us to be lifted from the familiar and every day to view our lives from a God’s-eye perspective—and to see that the wasteland of today may be only a stage in the renewal of a new world.

Illustration for “The Little Match Girl” by Arthur Rackham (1932)

What images are currently emerging in your dreams that speak of inner fears and challenges? Do you feel yourself abandoned by our government and leaders? Do you see yourself as a child lost in a wood, or freezing to death on a snowy evening ignored by the happy celebrants who pass you by, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”? Do you feel unseen in a society that doesn’t seem to care? Do you dream you have an impossible task to complete and not enough time? Do you arrive too late to take the exam, or your driver’s test? Have you missed the train, forgotten your suitcase, misplaced the ticket, or can’t start the car? Do you dial for help only to discover your phone battery is dead? These are dream images of difficult beginnings, the conflict or misfortune that sets you on the path. Carl Jung summed up the mystery and importance of dreams when he wrote, “A dream is a product of nature, the patient has not made it, it is like a letter dropped from Heaven, something he knows nothing of.” (ETH Lecture V 23, Nov1934. Page 156.)

Did you have a favorite fairytale growing up? (Preferably not the Disney version, which has usually been altered quite a bit from the original.) If “Rapunzel” or “The Frog King” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” enraptured you then, reread the story and note what stands out for you. What emotions do you feel? Is there something in your life now that has a similar theme? Does a different fairytale capture your attention? Ask yourself how this particular tale affects you now.

Many of us are now managing anxiety, depression, anger, and fear through psychological and spiritual support. Working consciously with a creative channel by dream journaling, reading or writing your own fairytale, or simply thinking about the stages of the hero’s journey can complement more conventional ways of managing difficult feelings. They could even bring fresh insights and creative solutions and restore energy to our feelings of “battle fatigue.”

The more you honor and stay in contact with feelings and images that arrive unbidden and give them space, the more they will share their wisdoms with you. This is what Jung discovered during his decades-long exploration of soul and psyche. “The privilege of a lifetime,” he writes, “is to become who you truly are.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Soulwork: The Role Archetypes Play in Jungian Analysis

Guardian Spirit of the Waters by Odilon Redon for Archetypes blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Three)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions. In Part Two, we discussed the importance of dreams in Jungian analysis. In Part Three, we turn to archetypes.

Perhaps you are wondering: Why pay attention to dreams and archetypes when our daily life seems on the verge of collapse? Stores are shuttered and bare. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some have lost our health. Many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a more just and equitable world. Isn’t turning toward our inner life rather indulgent?

Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. The future is uncertain and our energies limited. To turn inward toward our dreams is to honor life’s mysteries and place trust in a source beyond our ego’s domain. In dreams, contradictions and paradoxes abound: we can be both shattered and strong, frightened and brave. We can run from the tiger, and in the next moment, be the tiger.

Think of a dream as a portal, or a portal leading to other portals, by which we enter wildly new terrain where at any moment fresh insights might impress themselves upon us.

Dr. Kenneth James for Archetypes blog postKenneth James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago, where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: What is the definition of “archetype?”

Kenneth James: Archetypes are best conceived as organizing principles that are part of the human psyche simply by virtue of a person’s existence in the world of space and time. Archetypes in themselves are a priori givens and are not derived from an individual’s particular experiences in their lifetime. The images associated with particular archetypes, including visual images, myths, legends, scriptures, and any other artifacts of human presence on earth, are created through individual experience and cultural transmission. Thus, the images I associate with, for example, physical love and sexuality, will be informed by the mythological image of Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, because given my age, society, culture, and educational experiences, her mythic image emerges as dominant for me. The archetype-in-itself has no image, but images quickly attach to the archetypes. As I go through life, the archetype of physical love and sexuality is also amplified by my own personal experiences of physical intimacy, the attractions I feel, the images I encounter from art, cinema and literature, and even myths I encounter from other cultures and religions, either through education. From a Jungian perspective, experiences are not provided for us by the environment; rather experiences are constructed through an interaction between the archetypal ground and the particular day-to-day stimuli that we encounter.

D.K.: What archetypes have the COVID-19 virus constellated and how might they appear in a person’s psyche?

K.J.: The COVID-19 virus is an interesting phenomenon. All of the depictions of the virus offered in the media show a spherical center with projections coming off the surface perpendicularly. In Analytical Psychology, the sphere, or any mandala (circular) shape, is usually thought of as an emblem of the Self. Jung wrote that at times when an individual is experiencing significant chaotic emotional challenges in daily life, a round image may emerge in dreams or daydreams. Jung felt that the multiple axes of symmetry found in circles and spheres, all arranged around a center point, were an attempt on the part of the psyche to provide an image of order and stability in the face of psychic chaos. How curious then that the image we are given of the COVID-19 virus should be, of all things, a mandala.

COVID-19 Mandala by Christina Lee for Archetypes blog postIn my practice, dream images of the virus itself has not figured significantly, but the effects of the pandemic have appeared abundantly in dreams. Fear of being overtaken by a flood; concerns about whether the foundation of a high-rise building will be able to withstand the impact of runaway hurricane winds; jogging in territory familiar to the dreamer, but in spite of attempting to run “full out,” the dreamer feels like she is running through a lake of molasses—all of these have been dream images which, upon investigation between analyst and analysand, point to the anxiety, fear and confusion surrounding psyche’s attempt to come to terms with this exceptional time.

Perhaps the images that medical science has given us of the virus itself, the sphere with perpendicular protuberances, is a way for the Self to remind us that wholeness lies at the core of every experience. Even in the global chaos that we are now experiencing, the fundamental processes of life are in order and can be considered not only as destructive but also as providing an opportunity to form a new relationship to the world. Just as death and birth are characteristic of every cell of our bodies throughout our lifetimes, so may we be being reminded to find the wholeness amidst the chaos, move toward that, and begin to organize our experiences in a more coherent, symmetrical and balanced manner.

D.K.: How do archetypes figure in Jung’s view of the personal and collective unconscious?

Central oval of James Thornhill's "Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny" (1714) on Archetypes blog postK.J.: The archetypes are the organizing principles which constitute the collective unconscious. It is because of the archetypes that the collective unconscious exhibits such a high level of organizational structure, and why more or less direct expressions of the collective unconscious patterns such as are found in myth, fairy tales, religion, and literature are also highly organized with a rich web of connections among all the archetypal images in any given system. With this as a foundation, the personal unconscious also can achieve a similar architecture. Whereas the collective unconscious is populated with contents (the archetypes) which were never part of the space/time experience of any particular individual, the personal unconscious is composed of material that was at one time part of day-to-day experience. Aspects of this personal material, which may be thought of as residue from encounters in the so-called outer world, finds its way to the personal unconscious so that it may be processed by the ego and ultimately integrated into our understanding of who we are. Most of us discover the contents of the collective unconscious through intense consideration of personal experiences, including dreams, daydreams, projection, displacement, somatization, parapraxis, and synchronicity. These “disclosures” from the unconscious, if considered respectfully as sources of valuable insight into personal suffering, show the intimate connection Jung believed operated between personal and collective aspects of the unconscious.

D.K.: Does analysis involve trying to identify which archetype mostly closely “fits” an analysand?

K.J.: Absolutely not! To do such a thing is completely ego-based, which is not the Jungian way. Finding a fit can be seen as a sort of parlor-game approach to the collective unconscious made popular nowadays in a variety of ways, from decks of cards depicting subsets of “the archetypes,” to disjointed considerations of individual mythic characters who may be seen as motifs that may, at times, bear a strong resemblance to some aspect of an individual’s life. If we try to identify “the” archetype which “fits” an analysand, we would be doing the opposite of what analysis seeks to accomplish. Such a static understanding of the archetypes ignores completely the vast web of interconnection among all of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

The meaning of analysis is “loosening.” Therefore, one goal of analysis is loosening up the unconscious identification with particular episodes in one’s personal history. Analysis can also shed light when we feel stuck in patterns of relationship to our experience which, upon deeper consideration, can be seen to exemplify particular archetypal motifs. This loosening comes about by exploring the connections among archetypes and finding ways of encouraging psychic movement that can free us from the possession we can experience at the archetypal level. It is perhaps more correct to say that we come to analysis already unconsciously identified not only with aspects of our personal history but also with a fixed subset of the characters and situations from the archetypal ground. Analytic work seeks to free us from those unconscious identifications. We are always far more than we can ever believe ourselves to be, and analysis makes this abundantly clear. Throughout our lifetime, we will experience many parts of the archetypal ground, and believing there is one particular node or element of that ground that “fits” me is an egoic attempt to control the dynamic nature of the human person. It is this dynamism that analysis seeks to support and encourage.

This closes my three-part conversation with Jungian analyst Kenneth James. I described my own experience with Jungian training in “Treating Patients or Creating Characters,” and my decision to choose to become a novelist rather than a therapist. No surprise that readers sometimes comment on the Jungian themes in my novel, The Conditions of Love. I’m happy to participate virtually in reading group discussions of my work, and the themes I explore, whether Jung, dreams, archetypes, resilience, mother/daughter relationships, intergenerational trauma, etc. You can find information on how to reach me on my Contact page.  

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”