Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness

The Return of Persephone (1891) by Frederic Leighton for descent post

 

As the siege of global instability continues, many of us are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and despair. From the beginning of human history, upheaval and change have sent entire populations into states of helplessness, frustration, exhaustion, and fear. If you are currently being derailed by powerful feelings, please know you are not alone. Your feelings are not to be disregarded or dismissed. Our lives and our planet are being shaken by enormous shifts. The good news is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform.

When we feel powerless and overwhelmed, how can we reawaken our spirits, uncover new possibilities in intractable problems, and enliven our sense of hope? Where can we find new resources to meet the challenges of our time?

Echo and Narcissus (detail) (1903) by John William Waterhouse for descent blog postOur deep human past may hold the answers. Ancient myths—so crucial to every thriving civilization—remind us of who we have been, what we have learned, and how we have prevailed. Myths offer deep insight about human travails, illustrate the internal and external obstacles we encounter on the road to developing resilience and show where we can find help. Refined and retold over millennia, they are nutritive stories that feed us an infusion of trustworthy and eternal wisdom.

Imagine the world’s great myths as a vast library containing a record of human hardship and struggle, heroic undertakings and surprising rewards. Mythic stories depict archetypal, universal themes concerning our most basic instincts and emotions—fear, greed, bravery, family relationships, power, injustice, conscience, our relationship to nature and the natural world—situations and dilemmas not unfamiliar to our modern psyches. These myths survive, sometimes in the form of popular entertainment, and continue to absorb us.

They highlight issues that are still ripe in our lives. An entire industry exists to mine ancient myths for television and movie scripts. Consider how stories about family rivalries, sibling jealousy, corrupt leaders, dissolving empires, and alien invasions fill our imaginations. The old myths reappear in new forms, often so disguised we barely recognize them. Narcissism, a mental health diagnosis much discussed in public forums during the past four years, is a term derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. To return to the original myth is to understand the tragic and sorrowful story of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a spring and, unable to love others, dies pining for his own image.

The underworld and overworld. Both have always existed—in myth, dream, and reality. In our lifetimes we navigate each domain, the dark and the light. Lately, I’ve been investigating what the metaphor of descent, a common motif in myths, might reveal.

"Jona in the whale" (2010) by Janny Brugman-de Vries in Groningen, the Netherlands.Descent into the underworld appears in many myths as part of a transformative process that is an initiatory rite for our souls. “Katabasis” is the Greek term used to describe “going below.” To go below means to be separated from the daylight ordinary world. Symbolically, it signifies being cut off from one’s usual resources and helpers; it means finding a way to see and respond when the familiar falls away. (Imagine Jonah in the belly of the whale or Alice down a rabbit hole.)

Storyteller and mythographer Michael Meade reminds us that in the underground, in the darkness and unfamiliar territory of “below,” renewal occurs. Meade points out that in myths, going beneath the earth can be understood as gaining access to forgotten, secret or hidden wisdom buried in our depths. What may feel to us as “being in the dark” is a sacred space deep within us rich with new or cut-off energies.

“Wisdom can reveal the light hidden in dark times; but it requires that we face the darkness in ourselves. People may desire pearls of wisdom, yet most are unwilling to descend to the depths where the pearls wait to be found. Wisdom involves a necessary descent into the depths of life, for that alone can produce ‘lived knowledge’ and a unified vision.”—Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny

The depths in the subterranean basement of our unconscious are where archetypal and instinctual knowledge percolate. Think of seeds incubating beneath the soil, stirring with new life, or the multitude of invisible creatures at work preparing the soil for regeneration. Think of dream images that come in the midnight hours to awaken our curiosity and bring fresh insights to our conscious minds.

The Rape of Proserpine (ca. 1650) by Simone Pignoni (1611–1698) for descent blog postA classic Greek myth that features descent as one of its key motifs is the story of Demeter and Persephone. Attributed to Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” recounts the story of the rape and abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. The myth has many variations and interpretations, but simply told, the story unfolds as follows:

One day while Persephone is picking flowers in a meadow, the ground beneath her begins to shake and splits open. From the crack in the earth emerges Hades, driving his horse-drawn black chariot. Hades, most powerful god of the Underworld, brother of sky god Zeus, kidnaps the young maiden and drags her into the depths.

In the above world, her mother, Demeter, grief-stricken, flies across the land inconsolably crying out for her child. As the goddess of harvest and grain, Demeter’s lamentations and rage at Zeus for allowing this event to happen cause a blight over the earth. Crops wither, fields go fallow.

Persephone’s cries for help fade. Soon the mother can no longer hear her daughter. In the Underworld, the daughter can no longer hear her mother. Here the descent is neither expected nor made by choice. It is a brutal act of male power and privilege. But does the story convey a truth? In life as in myth, we must separate from the all-embracing, all-protective mother love.

Persephone holding a pomegranate (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti As the story resolves, Zeus pleads with Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agrees but tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed, an act that consigns her to have to return to live with him for one-third of every year as Queen of the Underworld.

The violent separation and ultimate reuniting of Demeter and Persephone have many dimensions: it can be seen as a story about the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, about maternal love that is too binding, and about a daughter’s need for maternal love juxtaposed to her need to discover her own resources and strength.

Our descent into the “below” might feel like death, as depression sometimes does. Life, energy, the ordinary world might feel forever lost and irrecoverable, but the great myths tell us otherwise. A descent is often followed by an ascent. When we return to the upper world, we bring with us new life. This is the meaning of Persephone’s reunion with Demeter.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone feels particularly relevant at this time. Many of us, myself included, are looking for wisdom to be garnered when we are plunged into darkness. Inhabiting this troubling new terrain, our vision must adjust. In the underworld, the future is murky and unknowable, but the myth is a reminder that the stolen daughter does not die in Hades—she escapes, matures, and thrives. She learns to see in the dark.

We are not given details about Persephone’s experience in Hades, except that she obediently serves her four months as Queen of the Underworld. What does she see below? What does she learn in the darkness? I’ve always wondered what riches, what gems, what secrets might be visible in the strata beneath the earth.

Close your eyes for a moment. What do you see in the dark?

Persephone is allowed to return to her mother for two-thirds of the year, her annual emergence generating the springtime renewal and flourishing of the land. Like the natural world, like history itself, we, too, experience cycles of flow and dormancy, depression and aliveness. We might take from this a lesson about patience with ourselves as we explore new, unfamiliar, and even frightening dimensions of ourselves in a world turned upside down.

The next time you feel the tug of despair or an encroaching mood about to pull you below, the next time you are tempted to lament our dark times, remember how the terrible winter of Demeter’s grief was followed Persephone’s re-emergence into the world, and with her, the blossoming of the trees and fields.

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.”



Landscaping Our Own Gardens: Cultivating Your Essential Self

Topiary in The Topiary Park, Columbus, Ohio. for Gardening blog post

 

It’s spring. City and land dwellers are out and about, faces raised to sunshine and newly leafed trees. The pandemic’s brutal onslaught, if not quite over, is less severe. The gardeners among us have spent the long winter months studying nursery catalogs, fantasizing about what we will plant in the coming season.

My own yard has undergone several incarnations. When our children were small and willing to pick and can, we grew apples and plums, asparagus, tomatoes, and rhubarb. As the kids grew older and weary of those tasks, the yard morphed, as did my family. Along with the children, my husband and I were undergoing our own transformation. These were our quasi-hippie days when we happily foraged in forests and ate wild plants. (The main lesson about most plants was that if you boiled them a dozen times, doused them with butter, and ate them, you would not die.) Our yard became a glorious wilderness of prairie flowers and grasses, a colorful sanctuary for butterflies and bees.

Now our lawn has terraced slopes and the gentle woodland feel of an English country garden. Gardens are a metaphor for many things, and one aspect we can explore is how they relate to our inner gardens. What nutrients are missing from the soil? What seeds do we wish to cultivate? Which are the volunteer plants and invasive species that pop up unexpectedly, and are weeds that must be dug out by the roots?

Our front garden in Wisconsin for Gardening blog post When we bought our house, we inherited Mr. Peterson’s formal gardens: pruned conifers, symmetrical beds of imported tulips and peonies, exotic roses that required infinite care. My taste and garden ambitions did not match his.

In the same way, we inherit seeds from our parents, genetic markers, along with more subtle influences—propensities, inclinations, predispositions—and what some might call ancestral threads.

But we also come into life with our own essence, our own karma or destiny, if those words fit your worldview. Recognizing who we are as particular souls and living out our authentic lives constitute the great lifetime work of becoming whole, becoming a self.

The great depth psychologist Carl Jung called this process “individuation” and saw it as a cornerstone to his psychology of self-realization, “the discovery and experience of meaning and purpose in life.”

In Awakening the Soul: A Deep Response to a Troubled World, Michael Meade, storyteller and scholar of mythology, describes the process of becoming a self in slightly different terms:

“As fingerprints as well as footprints have always implied, human life exists in the particular, in the distinctive shape of the unique individual who bears an original soul within. Because each soul is by nature distinct from all others, it is each person’s singular way of seeing and being that is ultimately at issue. Because each person born is a unique being, to truly “be” means to be as oneself, to act in authentic ways. . . .Typically, the dilemma of who we are is solved in too narrow a way. We limit ourselves to prescriptions of what others consider attainable and renounce the hidden potentials that our souls hint at all along.”

Baby eaglesLike all mammals, human offspring must learn to fend for themselves. When the time is right, mama leopards walk away from their cubs. Eaglets must learn to fly and catch fish on the wing. Hatchlings eventually build their own nests.

Becoming independent from our families is something we do naturally. Becoming an individual requires something more: not only separation but knowing yourself. Knowing your tastes, values, fears, and desires. Knowing exactly what you want growing in your garden.

In today’s world, we are mightily swayed by social media. Influencers of all kinds barrage us with how we should dress, how we should fix our eyebrows, our hair. What we should listen to, what we should read, who we should or should not befriend. We are even being encouraged to ignore our own perceptions and accept truth as others see and experience it.

How difficult, under these conditions, to sort out your own feelings and impressions from the mass of leadspeakerish pronouncements of shoulds and should nots. More reason to sit quietly with yourself, feel the rhythm of your breathing, the rise and fall of your belly, the pulse in your neck. This is you, your body, the vehicle and vessel of your soul on earth. Why do you think you are here? What is your purpose in this lifetime? Do you feel connected to a larger, cosmic order? If not, how might you remedy that? Approach the still small voice within with patience and openness. Trust that answers are waiting to reveal themselves.

The 11th century Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu in a 1765 woodblock print by Komatsuken for Gardening blog postPoetry can be your friend in quieting your mind. Poetry enlivens our attention to the particular and the specific. It opens the windows of our perceptions and provokes curiosity about our inward voice in dialogue with the outward world.

Here is a poem by Izumi Shikibu, a renowned poet of the Japanese classical period. The speaker allows us to experience an intimate feeling and moment in her life. It is particular to her, but it is also a universal experience. What would you name as one of your longings?

Lying alone,
my black hair tangled,
uncombed,
I long for the one
who touched it first.

From The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.

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.”



Fate and Destiny: What Role Do They Play in Your Life?

The Three Fates, Flemish tapestry for fate and destiny blog post

 

Six months after recovering from a serious illness, I got on a train and headed west to Montana, where I rented a car and drove up into the mountains. Not only had the illness, with its gripping mixture of uncertainty and fear, been a voyage into the unknown but now I was setting forth on a different kind of journey, this time in search of healing.

Brooke Medicine Eagle by her tent for fate and destiny blog postFor a month, I lived on the wilderness property of Brooke Medicine Eagle, a Native American wisdom teacher and author, in a caravan by myself. Every day Brooke and I went into the mountains or to the river and performed ceremonies for restoring my mind, body, spirit. I had never done anything like this before. I didn’t know what I really believed about so-called “energy” or “spiritual work.” What I did know, however, was that though my surgery and treatment had been successful, I did not feel completely healed. Intuitively, I sensed something in me still required repair. I understood I needed a different perspective on the meaning of “well-being” or “being well.”

The mythographer and storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that life is our great teacher. We are most aware of this at big turning points in our lives, when a crisis arises that can’t be ignored, dismissed, or laughed off, when no simple or previous solution fits the remedy. At such times, old ideas, patterns, relationships, and jobs can feel depleted of relevance, requiring that we let go of the past and start anew. Decisions must be made, a path forward uncovered.

In his book, Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Meade writes:

“What I am calling fate has to do with the way a person’s soul is seeded and shaped from within, like a story trying to unfold and become known. What I am calling destiny has to do with the inner arc and arrow of one’s life. For each soul is secretly aimed at the world and inclined toward a destination that only becomes revealed in crucial moments and at turning points in life. The elements of fate and destiny are intimations of the story our soul would have us live, both the limitations that must be faced and the destination that would be found. As fate would have it, they are often found through what seems like a big mistake, a strange accident or a surprise.”

Fate. Destiny. Soul. These abstract nouns sound outdated, even ludicrous to some. We are much more comfortable with words like adversity and resilience, empowerment and recovery with their scientific, reality-based aura. However, the concepts of fate, destiny, and soul have always been interwoven with humankind’s search for meaning and underlie the roots of most religious traditions. They point to a vastly larger, wilder, and incomprehensible universe whose mysteries we are still unlocking, and which can never be fully known.

Of fate, Meade continues:

“Fate is a mysterious presence found within each life and encountered in all serious undertakings . . . Fate appears as whatever limits, restricts or even imprisons us; yet fate is the territory where we must go if we are to awaken to our inner destiny.”

Many traditions contain a similar understanding of a guiding force that is both a part of us but also connected to a larger cosmology. Call it our Buddha nature, our daimon or genius, the Self, or the Soul, something beyond our ego that exists as a governing principle that shapes the story we live out. It manifests in the twists and turns, struggles, possibilities, and opportunities for growth.

We often talk about being “resigned to our fate” but “seeking our destiny.” Here is how Meade distinguishes the two:

“Fate may involve the earthly limitations of our ‘lot in life,’ but destiny, from the Latin, destinare, implies that we are also ‘of the stars.’ . . . Destiny can mean ‘to stand out, to stand apart, ’ especially to be seen standing in a visible relation to one’s inner genius. Destiny involves an irreversible process of becoming from within.”

The caravan photo for fate and destiny blog postWe are called to acknowledge the interplay of fate and destiny during life’s most perplexing moments when something beyond the rational seems to have laid its hand on us, often when life and death hang in the balance. Why did my house escape the tornado when all the houses on the block were destroyed? Why did I get stuck in traffic and miss the fire at my office? Why did I get the position when I’m not as credentialed as the other applicants? When we look deeply into these questions, we uncover how the fateful event serves a deeper purpose threaded throughout our days. While we enter life with both limitations and unique talents, our destiny plays out in how we creatively incorporate these into the unfolding narrative of our lives.

To return to my own story, illness knocked me out of complacency, swept me out to sea, and deposited me on the shores of a new continent. It altered my sense of safety and security. An enormously important event had disrupted my world. The way I perceived life had been forever changed. This was my fate. My destiny involved honoring an inner voice that prompted me to go in search of healing, but I would have no map. This is exactly what fairytales teach: to find the golden egg, to escape the ravenous monster, to reunite with our lost soul we must be extraordinarily brave, abide with uncertainty, trust the helpers along the way, (instincts and intuitions are often represented in tales as helpful animals or humble elders), and most fervently bring our faith and all our heart to the task.

Honoring the promptings of my intuition, I contacted Brooke and set out on destiny’s adventure.

We have been living through a hard season of plague and disruption. Many of our assumptions about ourselves as a society and as a country have been shattered. The time is ripe for considering how the thread of our individual fate is interwoven with the destiny of the country and the planet. Here are some prompts for beginning that exploration.

  1. Make a list of the major turning points in your life. (You can illustrate these questions with a brainstorming mind map to help you see the connections between turning points.)
  2. What do you think was being asked of you at each of these fateful moments?
  3. Were you required to make a decision?
  4. What was the result of your decision?
  5. What do you understand now about the situation that you did not understand previously?
  6. What pattern and toward what inner goal do you believe these events were leading you?
  7. What do you feel is still unresolved and perhaps waiting to unfold in your life story?

Bringing your full attention to these questions will prompt your psyche for a creative response. Watch and note your dreams as your answers take shape!

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.”