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.”



What Ancient Traditions Can Teach about Coping with Change

Sol Niger by Adam McLean for Alchemy blog post

Not too long ago I had a disturbing dream. The dream accomplished what dreams often do— illuminate for the dreamer unconscious feelings that are hidden to the waking ego. Carl Jung believed dreams serve a compensatory function: to balance our conscious attitudes, they present symbolic images that complement and enlarge how we experience ourselves in daily life. A conceited person full of himself, for instance, might dream he was an ant. In my dream, I cradled a dog while its life ebbed away. I knew I couldn’t save this beloved creature, and as I rocked the dog in my arms, I saw in its eyes how it felt I had betrayed her. When I woke, I knew there was no escaping what I felt: my sense of helplessness and repressed sorrow over our “dying” society, a reality I needed to embrace.

Here is the backstory to that dream: during the early months of COVID-19, I had surprised myself by remaining relatively calm. What anxiety I had I succeeded in confining to an hour of nightly news. But as the viral pandemic grew into a more diffuse global experience of social breakdown, and the nation witnessed on video the murder of an innocent man pleading for his life, heavier emotions took over.

What my dream indicated was that beneath palpable anger and anxiety, a walled-off, unacknowledged “sadness beyond sadness” lived in my psyche. Had it not been for this powerful dream, I might have gone weeks or months being out-of-touch with those feelings. I share this personal story as a reminder that the fractured, fragmented, broken outer world influences our inner lives as well.

If you, too, find strong emotions making you feel unbalanced, please read on.

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Greek god Pan for Alchemy blog post“Pandemic” comes from the Greek pandemos, which means “all of us.” Related to “pandemic” are “panic “and “pandemonium” and all three words reference the mythological Greek god, Pan. Stories about Pan refer to him as the terror-awakener. Whenever Pan appeared, panic spread and grew contagious. All of us on the planet are facing inescapable, difficult, and unacceptable truths. Our current government and health care systems are straining under an attack by a powerful and unpredictable new adversary. The future is unknowable and new structures meant to stabilize society will be slow to evolve.

Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. If Pan, the terror-awakener, has entered into our midst, the stories assure that he is not a permanent feature of the landscape. One way to gain a new perspective on the changes we are undergoing is to view them as part of an unfolding process and not as an inevitable or fixed state of ruin. A brief overview of the ancient art of alchemy can serve as a model and a way to frame transformation and perhaps discover hope and potential betterment as an outcome of the process.

The Three Phases for the Alchemy blog postThe antiquarian alchemists were originally concerned with turning base metal, lead, into gold. What I’d like to do here is to view the great work of alchemy symbolically:  as a spiritual metaphor for the transmutation of human souls from the lowest to the highest, as a breakdown of old attitudes and habits of being. The alchemists described their work as proceeding in stages identified by colors. The original four stages include the nigredo (the blackening), the albedo (whitening), the citrinitas (yellowing), and the rubedo (reddening). We won’t get into the intricacies of each stage, but let’s note that the trajectory from blackening to reddening is a process of attaining illumination and spiritual wholeness through the work of bringing the unconscious into consciousness. Not just individuals, but entire cultures can and do undergo dark ages that evolve into a golden age or an age of enlightenment.

Carl Jung spent years of intense study reading the codices of the ancient alchemists. In 1944, he published Psychology and Alchemy, and later included a section on alchemy in his Collected Works. He deeply analyzed the ascendency of Nazi Germany and the unacknowledged anger, depression, and resentment bound in the German collective unconscious as a result of the country’s humiliation after World War I. Jung would likely agree that the pandemic we are currently living through along with our increased racial strife has placed us inside the experience of the nigredo, at the beginning of the alchemical process when decomposition, dismemberment (of the culture), and putrefaction reign.

During the nigredo, changes great and small occur. Old forms decay and are dissolved into “a black blacker than black,” as when a fruit or body rots, eventually to become soil and nourish new life. We have all seen how at the right season apples drop from branches. As the natural process continues, the flesh of the apple withers and shrinks, turns soft and rotten. This allows the seeds at the apple’s core to bury into the earth where they germinate new life. The “death” of the apple provides the opportunity for the seeds to do their work.

Winged sun for Alchemy blog postAs a metaphor for dissolution and the dark night of the soul, the nigredo speaks to us now as we suffer a kind of collective death, despair, and disillusionment. It is a time of putrefaction and mortification—putrefactio and mortificatio—but the nigredo, as the alchemists saw it, and Jung agreed, is the beginning of the great work. It is a time of massa confusa, creative chaos. Jung would often refer to the beginning of analysis as the nigredo, that is, “dark at the beginning,” which he took from the Rosarium Philosophorum, an alchemical treatise from the sixteenth century. The Rosarium states: “When you see your matter going black, rejoice, you are at the beginning of the work.”

And isn’t it true that what drives us to seek professional help is often driven by our lives falling apart?

We are in it—a period of waiting in uncertainty and grief. Many of us, individually, know cycles of generativity alternating with fallowness and depression. We have learned that the energy that has slipped underground is not gone, but is incubating, soon to push through and renew life. If there is hope in the moment, we can turn to the next stages of alchemy. The albedo (white) and rubedo ( red) that promise renewal and a transformation of what was base and leaden into light. We can take comfort in knowing the wisdom traditions have charted a way through epochal changes, and we can have faith in our creative capacity to adapt and re-vision a more just, safe, and equitable world.

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.”