The Dragon’s Pearl

 

 

Some say that originally every proper dragon carried a pearl under his chin ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore

 

When a pearl oyster is injured, it will form a pearl sac to contain the wound. as part of the healing process.

 

For wherever there is a pearl there is a monster lying on it, wherever there is a treasure, there is a snake wound around it… You cannot get near the Self and the meaning of life without being on the razor’s edge of falling into greed, into darkness, and into the shadowy aspect of the personality. One does not even know if it not necessary sometimes to fall into it, because otherwise it cannot be assimilated.

~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales

 

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I wake in the middle of the night from a dream:

 

A young man, dressed in dark clothes, lurks nearby on a dark street, slithering in the dark silently, tight next to the buildings he passes. He is following me. I think nothing of him, I feel safe and at home, until I suddenly lose track of myself and drop my wallet, change spilling all over the street, shining in the moonlight. I stoop down to gather the coins, and feel suddenly uneasy – I lift my head up to see the young man charging toward me, at a remarkable speed, with the wide-mouthed unhinged jaws of a serpent. Glistening teeth the last thing I see before I awake terrified, frozen – heart pounding.

 

After a few minutes – I drift back asleep – wondering about the young man, and before I know it, I have gone in search of him. I find him in a cave along the banks of a lake near my childhood home. He is hiding, and has made himself a shelter there, in the damp and dark.  I notice an elaborate graffiti mural, a beautiful work of art on a cement wall with a word painted at its center: “Wound.”

I assume this is his tag, and it becomes the dragon-boy’s name to me.

I climb with Wound up a steep hill and show him up into my self-made childhood tree house. I bring him blankets and bologna and white bread sandwiches.

As we sit together in the tree he says: “You didn’t come and visit me for a long time. I think you forgot about me.”

I admitted that I had.

“If you promise to come back sometimes I’ll give you a gift.”

“I’ll come visit again. I’m sorry I forgot. I don’t need a present.”

He insists on giving it to me anyway: He pulls out a red-velvet bag and tugs open the drawstring to reveal an enormous pearl.

 

In the weeks that followed, I found myself thinking about the sacred gifts that our wounds can sometimes bestow and the dragons that threaten to devour us.

So this is the roundabout story of a dream and where it led me: on a long adventure of mythic research and psychoanalytic theory, in search of an unknown treasure. I got lost along the way in tangential explorations. I forgot my original mission as I wandered through many not-obviously related texts and was engrossed by them. I became deflated as I gathered more and more snippets, pieces and fragments, uncertain that I would ever be able to create one whole cohesive thought. My spirits rose as I saw glimmers of a unifying notion on the horizon, although as I write I remain unsure as to whether or not I have uncovered anything new or valuable, or if I’ve surfaced with any pearls of wisdom at all.

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Pearls have not only been seen as archetypal symbols of healing and wholeness- but have been used through history as actual medicine: ground into powder, dissolved in water, ingested and applied to the skin. It is thought that pearl powder soothes pain, slows aging, coats and heals intestinal distress just as it tends to the oyster’s wound.

Perhaps pearls do have healing properties. Or maybe our very wounds grant us magic gifts.  Or both.

And maybe the mini-myth that emerged in my sleep is connected to ideas and images that could be of some value for others as well as myself, about treasure seeking journeys, wounds and dragons, as well as the gnostic awakenings and creative processes involved in psychotherapeutic healing.

 

Knowledge of the Heart

One of my first associations, as I sat with the dream and began to work with it, was a decades-old memory of the Gnostic poem: The Hymn of The Pearl. It took me several weeks to get around to pulling the text off the shelf, and a week or so more before I had the time and clear head to read it.

Gnosticism refers to a cluster of second-century mostly, but not entirely Christian religions, for there were Jewish and Manichean Gnostics too. Gnosis means knowledge and in this context it refers more properly to revelatory knowledge, or insight. We rely on gnosis as a root word daily when we speak of cognition, agnosticism, and recognition as ways of knowing, not knowing and re-knowing. For the Gnostic sects, the ability to see into our sacred “fullness”, our most whole, authentic self, and our divine, incorruptible nature – is true spiritual awakening.

This knowledge, or Gnosis, they did not see as a rational knowledge or even a philosophical knowledge of truth, but rather a knowing that arises in the heart in an intuitive, mysterious manner. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung

And of course we should remember here that in Judeo-Christian texts it is the serpent that leads humanity to their first taste of gnosis from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Unsurprisingly, Gnosticism had a profound impact on Jungian thought, and Jung’s conception of the individuation process: sorting through and becoming aware of our “fleshly” ego-consciousness and complexes, the pubic persona that confirms to socio-cultural norms and pressures, and the call to apprehend something of our whole encompassing Self, which contains all of our conscious and unconscious aspects.

The Hymn of the Pearl, found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, recounts the mythic journey of a divine youth, sent by his heavenly parents down to the earthly plane in order to:

Bring back the one pearl,

which lies in the middle of the sea

and is guarded by the snorting serpent.”

The descent is treacherous. The guides who accompany him at the start of the journey leave him to complete his trial alone, as he draws nearer to his destination.

 

I went straight to the serpent

and settled in close by his inn,

waiting for him to sleep

so I could take my pearl from him.

But the young hero is waylaid, as anxiety pressures him to conform to the cultural requirements of the nearby villagers.

Then I put on a robe like theirs

lest they suspect me as an outsider

who had come to steal the pearl;

lest they arouse the serpent against me

 

And they gave me their food to eat.

I forgot that I was a son of kings,

and I served their king.

I forgot the pearl

for which my parents had sent me.

Through the heaviness of their food

I fell into a deep sleep.”

 

The divine Father and Mother see what has occurred, and write a magic letter to their boy:

“Awake and rise from your sleep

and hear the words of our letter!

Remember the pearl…”

The letter magically descends to earth in the shape of an eagle – the rustling of its wings wakens the nameless hero.

“I took it, kissed it

broke its seal and read

I remembered the pearl

And I began to enchant

the terrible snorting serpent.

I charmed him into sleep

I seized the pearl

and turned to carry it to my Father.”

The hero then casts off the “filthy” borrowed robe, and begins the ascent back to his heavenly parents, where the glorious pearl is added to his jewel encrusted royal robe, a robe vibrating with living, divine awareness of all things.

(~ The Other Bible, Willis Barnstone editor)

 

Decades ago, I’d read The Hymn of the Pearl as historical theology in a comparative religions course – and always found it a disappointment. I yearned for it to move me somehow, but it hadn’t. A title so beautiful, yet as allegory it lacked interesting tension for me. Divine plane: Good. Material plane: Filthy. Appetite-laden, debased. A call to humanity to shake off contaminated earthly garments in pursuit of being enrobed in divine salvation. I liked my religious philosophy more ambiguous than that. Less dualistic. I’d known about, but had never shared, Jung’s identification and passion for the Gnostic literature.

 

And I’ll admit that re-reading the hymn this time left me just as flat. “Oh, yeah” I thought, “I remember, I never really did like this poem.” But I certainly noticed much in common with my dream: A dangerous serpent, a descent, a deep body of water, enchanting the dragon (although I am not sure that white bread and bologna sandwiches would constitute “enchantment” by any good Gnostic’s standards) an ascent, a forgotten promise, a pearl. So I re-read it several more times and – remained unmoved.

But a few days later, the ball dropped, and flipped my usual orientation on its head: I commonly look to myth to clarify dream content, but perhaps the dream was the key to my understanding the myth itself, as well as the ways that it plays out in my life, and in the psychotherapeutic journeys I undertake in my office each day.

Perhaps mythical dragons are related to our very wounds – and must be pursued, encountered, and contended with before we are granted their treasure.

So maybe this is one way of many to understand pearls and serpents: when we descend to the watery, dark unconscious, to make contact with our wounded, hungry or unacknowledged self-aspects, we fear we may be completely devoured or destroyed.

These dangers are psychologically all too real. The internal energies that are released, the flood of emotion, rage, anxiety, adrenaline, and terror when we approach our most personal vulnerabilities can threaten to consume, flood and drown us.

Fairy-tale and folklore tell us of multitudes who were eaten by dragons, and lived experience has shown us that people can be consumed by their wounds and weaknesses. Too many of us know, among our families and friends, those who go to battle with such dragons as trauma, despair, addiction, denial who do not succeed, who never return, or are never whole again after their encounter. There are many who die of their wounds and the serpent’s bite – some instantly, some all too slowly.

And unsurprisingly, during the arduous process of thinking and writing about this dream and this myth, I would be reminded, both in and out of the office, about how threatening the demons lurking in our psyches can be, how overwhelming the contact with a core-injury, and how visceral the experience of being devoured can be. But they can also serve to peel away the finite, enfleshed self, revealing something beautiful, valuable and timeless hidden under our hard work-a-day armor, growing out of our soft mortal flesh.

The oyster is a fitting symbol of the corruptible fleshy animal nature, but out of it is produced, or there exudes this incorruptible thing… Just as the pearl comes out when you open the oyster, so in death our fleshy existence would fall away and decay, and the immortal part of our personality, the pearl, would become visible.

~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales

 

Our most frightening wounds may be the only things that can ever make us whole.

 

Pearls

And what of  the pearl itself? In the Hymn of the Pearl it is a symbol of gnosis: hard won insight into the luminous Center, the fullness of being, Wholeness. In Quakerism it is called the Seed. Some call it Buddha-nature others call it Christ-consciousness. Jung saw it as the transcendent Self at the center of the mandala, and the Gnostics call it the Pearl.

Only what is really oneself has the power to heal. ~ C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 

Why a pearl and not a ruby, a diamond, a lump of gold or some other treasure? And what kind of pearl (for there are many in ancient texts)? The Vedic text the Garuda Purana lists a group of pearl stones, all blessing their possessor with various virtues and fortunes: Conch pearl, Boar and Elephant pearl (growing out of tusk roots), the Bamboo pearl, the Whale and Fish pearl (intestinal bezoars swallowed by the animal to aid digestion) and the mythical, powerful Cloud Pearl. The Serpent Pearl, also known as Cobra pearl, is probably also mythical – or perhaps grew as an organic stone from the snake’s gall.

The possessor of the serpent pearl meets with rare good fortune, and becomes a pious and illustrious king in time, with a treasury full of other species of precious gems Neither the serpents nor the Rakshas (demons), nor diseases, nor disturbances of any kind would assail the man amidst whose treasure such a snake pearl would lie. ~ Garuda Purana Chapter LXIX

 

It was also common for any large sea animal – whales for example, to be categorized as serpents and dragons throughout antiquity

.Pearls were regarded as in the special possession of the sea-gods and water-spirits; and these beings were often pictured in forms far more fishy, or crocodilian, or shark-like, than were the terrestrial, serpentine dragons ~ Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore

 

The archetypal serpent-goddesses, the Naga of the Mahabharata wear strands of pearls in their underwater palaces. In Buddhist teachings the third eye of wisdom and self-knowledge is represented as a pearl, as is the “jewel in the lotus.” (~ J. E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols) Krishna wears the entire universe strung around his neck as a string of pearls ( The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, The Book of Symbols)  The Tao is also a pearl, and in traditional Christian texts it emerges as an image of the kingdom of heaven:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man seeking goodly pearls who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (~ Matthew 13:46)

We are  cautioned in The Book of Matthew not to cast our pearls before swine– offer up our souls most sacred, True Self to those who will trample it, and “turn again and rend you (7:6) - while the Book of Revelations summons an image of the gates of the New Jerusalem, each carved from a single pearl.

One of the most stunning images of pearls as immortal transcendent bodies crystallized within the mortal body was documented in the film The Unmistaken Child  following the aftermath of the death of Lama Konchog. The monk’s disciples sift through his cremains for a handful of sarira pearl-like objects left behind after the funereal flames have burned out, viewed as a pure embodiment of the master’s accumulated spiritual knowledge and teachings.

So is this what we are seeking? Is this what we may receive after facing down a deadly dragon? Self-knowledge? Gnosis? Immortality? Vitality? Power, Wealth or Wisdom? And/or something else entirely?

Pearls, unlike other jewels, are created gems. They are not discovered, mined, or extracted pre-existent from the earth’s crust. Our personal pearls of wisdom, our sarira, should not be cast before swine, because they heal from and grow out of our very wounds. They are valuable, sacred even, because they encapsulate, emerge from, soothe, and heal our injuries.

They are made, formed, and manufactured: a creative response to damage inflicted upon living flesh. The pearl has an embodied and literal function, more primal that its decorative value. It is a creative and created response to injury, and as such represents healing as an inherently creative act. And indeed, we often experience artistic and creative inspiration as something akin to divine revelation, a passing up of deep mysterious knowledge from the unconscious, to the consciousness, and sometimes onward to the benefit of the community at large.

 

The First Danger: Refusing the call

 

The mythological literature suggests that there is no easy way to apprehend your own vital, transcendent, creative core. There will always be a serpent wrapped around it.

To have eyes and not see, to have ears and not hear; these are the typical unmistakable symptoms of occlusion to the call of creative vitality” ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious

And some will not return, as we know, and others won’t set out on the journey at all.

Which is the greater danger? Is it more dangerous to risk being devoured, destroyed, to face the annihilation anxieties that are activated by the serpents at our wounded core? Or to avoid the central tasks of healing and creative living entirely?

Let’s say that in the severe case all that is real and all that matters and all that is personal and original and creative is hidden, and gives no sign of its existence. The individual in such an extreme case would not really mind whether he was alive or dead… ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality.

 

The Second Danger: The Descent

And even if we do decide to set out on the journey and seek out a life worth living, the descent can be both steep and treacherous. We may require the assistance of guards, sherpas, and guides who know the path and have skills to usher us over the early obstacles, ward off predators and keep us from getting lost along he way. This may be part of a psychotherapist’s function, although not exclusively. There are all kinds of teachers and elders familiar with the twists and turns, slippery spots and predators that lie along the path to Self-Knowledge.

But no matter how far we are led, at some point we will find ourselves facing the central task of forging a meaningful life on our own recognizance with nothing but our courage, cleverness, and resources.

 

The Third Danger: Forgetting, Sleeping and Waking Up

There is more than one way to get lost.

The hero of the Hymn falls into full-belly sleepiness – losing track of his mission entirely – as my own dream-myth was disrupted by startling fearfully awake out of my unconscious processes. Whether becoming engrossed in earthly realities is experienced as a falling asleep or as a waking up, the compelling realness of the “real world” poses its own threat to undertaking the journey toward Self-Knowledge.

Money, power, governments, the raising of families, paying of taxes, the endless chain of entrapment in circumstances and obligations, none of these were as rejected as totally and unequivocally… as they were by the Gnostics. ~ Stephen, A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung

The pressures to conform to cultural and societal expectations (wearing robes like the others) the sleepy seduction of hedonism (satiated by a heavy meal), or chasing after earthly treasures (in the form of scattered coins on a dark street) can all distract us from the central purposes of our lives.

Whereas the normal man to a great extent pays for his adaptation to life in Western civilization with a loss of creativity, the creative man, who is adapted to the requirements of the unconscious world pays for his creativity with loneliness, which is the expression of his relative lack of adaptation to the life of the community. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and The Creative Unconscious

To withstand the solitary aspects of the journey, to reject the comforts of conformity, to pursue Jungian individuation does not mean merely to live a selfish or unrelated life. The call of individuation, the pursuit of gnosis, puts us in deeper contact with our creative generativity, our most authentic business in this world, a clearer sense of who we are, and what we actually have to offer others.

Although we are all certain to fall asleep and lose the thread of what is important and most central to us, moments of grace also intervene: Grace descends, sends us letters, and rustles its feathers re-awakening us to our life’s purpose. And sometimes, late at night, we can drift back to sleep and Grace may lead us back toward the fading wisp of a dream so that a story can continue to unfold.

 

The Fourth Danger: Drowned, Destroyed, Devoured

Then there is the danger of becoming lost at sea, flooded, drowned or devoured in the under-water kingdom of the Sea-dragon. The realm of the archetypes lurks deep in the bottom of our watery Unconscious, and our wounds often reside in dark hidden caves. This is Jung’s Collective Unconscious – where instinctive archetypal forces can grant us extraordinary transformational energy – but only if we have the strength, savvy, cunning, skill and humility to prevent those same energies from taking full possession of us, and tearing us to bits in their mighty jaws.

What does this mythological flooding, drowning, entrapment under the sea look like clinically? What happens to clients, or to ourselves when we tangle with archetypally primal forces and they take us over? It looks like experiences of madness and psychosis, transitory or enduring. Voice-hearing in which the voices have full control. It looks like states of depression, of anxiety, of despair so powerful that we could die from them. It looks like soul-shaking panic attacks, annihilation anxieties in all their most flooding forms.

We need sufficient strength, support, and maybe also some accumulated skill and practice at facing down smaller more manageable reptiles before we descend into the watery realm of the Dragon King. Jungian “ego strength” is measured by our conscious and accrued ability to contain, tame, endure, negotiate, withstand, and survive the dangers that lurk in our Unconscious.

We know that the creative power of the unconscious seizes upon the individual with the autonomous force of an instinctual drive and takes possession of him without the least consideration for the individual, his life, his happiness, or his health. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

But no matter how strong we are, no matter how skilled, practiced, or well-analyzed, none of us makes it through this life without some profound vulnerability or limitation. We are all weakest at the site of a previous injury, and this is where both the dragon and its treasure settle: nearest to our most fragile and broken bits, in the weakened places that require the greatest courage for us to move toward, alongside our most stunted and undeveloped aspects. Only if we can face down powerful archetypal forces in our most vulnerable states will we really have a chance at a life worth living.

And maybe this is also the sacred function of the dragon and the unconscious forces that call attention to the wounds: So that we remain cognizant of them, so we recognize that our injuries and our vitalities are always intertwined, so that we remember to return and visit and comprehend that life without our wounds really just means that we are less alive.

The Fifth Danger: Repression and Defeated Dragons

But if dragons serve their sacred functions, if they are representative of our extraordinary and simultaneous capacity for destruction and creativity, of the forces of woundedness and healing, what future treasures will we lose when the serpents are slain, driven out, or overpowered?

Repression by… consciousness creates an underworld with a dangerous emotional charge, which tends to erupt, to overpower and destroy the world of the victors, this underworld is inhabited by the vanquished and suppressed gods… the dragons which form the perilous substructure of the dominant world of the victors. But as the myth implies, this repression does not transform the powers; it merely chains them temporarily. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

In “Western” cultures organized more explicitly on dualistic Judeo-Christian religious myths – hanging out in trees accepting the gifts of serpents never leads to good outcomes. That is just simple, obvious heresy. That is what gets you cast out of paradise and sentenced to life long toil. Potentially disruptive gnosis must be repressed and overcome.

…And the powers that had been repressed but not transformed must again – at least according to an absurd dogma – be repressed but now forever. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

Dragons can be vanquished in too many ways, and there is a danger not only of killing off a powerful source of vitality, but killing off essential aspects of ourselves in the process. In the Yoga Upanishads -
Kundalini, serpent power or life force is depicted as a snake, “coiled round upon herself
 she holds her tail in her mouth 
and lies resting half asleep”

Perhaps there are better and worse ways to gain the prize.

Why in tales of European dragons is the dragon vanquished, murdered, and her treasure claimed as booty? How is a treasure transformed or contaminated when it taken by violence, trickery, or enmity rather than given freely as a gift?

Perhaps we never get to travel to the depths just once; maybe there are many serpents to contend with, many pearls. Or what if we only have one dragon within us, that produces a
multitude of pearls? One way or another, life may require this journey of us repeatedly.

The heroes that rely on violence and theft are young, untested, frightened men – encountering their dragon-wounds for the very first time. Maybe fear leads to them to overkill, to theft, snatch-and-dash.

Whereas I am a white-haired woman who has spent many years studying the ways of dragons and the energies that surround our wounds. And although I try never to underestimate the feral power of such wild forces, I may have learned through the years of my own therapeutic process and soul-work, that bologna and white bread sandwiches often comfort dragon-wounds. Perhaps without realizing it, I’ve become a little bit of a wound-whisperer, a dragon tamer. I can sometimes teach others how to enter, – cautiously, carefully, respectfully- into relationship with fearsome creatures who may offer up their fortune freely, without need for theft or bloodshed.

So many come to psychotherapy seeking assistance to kill off their wounds, to repress their distress, to eliminate symptoms, to find a way to get away from their pain and somehow snatch happiness from its jaws. They are convinced that the serpent is the enemy. Just like those who petitioned Asclepius, (the Greek God of medicine) for healing, they stare at me flabbergasted when I suggest that they must sleep among the snakes and enter into relationship with their wound in order to be healed. Psychotherapy (as I practice it) is not, after all, the business of dragon slaying. It can only teach us the language of the serpents.

 

The Treasure

And maybe we will also return from the trial with a treasure: the psychic victory of the creative gesture.

Creative transformation on the other hand, represents a total process in which the creative principle is manifested not as an irruptive possession, but as a power related to the self, the center of the whole personality. ~ Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious

This pearlescent “creative principle” is the source of artistic work, both profound and personal. In “From The Wrong Side: a Paradoxical Approach to Psychology” Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig distinguishes between “personal creativity” and “transcendent creativity.” Personal creativity occurs “everywhere human beings are found” in his view; however, transcendent creativity, is rare, moving beyond the creative processes of personal healing, serving a symbolic function for the community as a whole through works of true art. Transcendent creativity is as uncommon as a pearl in nature.

Let us consider the psychological ideas of the majority of us psychologists and psychiatrists. By and large, our ideas are completely unoriginal and collective! We can hardly recognize any kind of creativity and even less something truly new in them. In form and content, these ideas are but repetitions or simply plain hard work. They are not genuinely creative, something really rare. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side

So the treasure, the gift, the mystical pearl we receive is unlikely, for most of us, to manifest as a great work of art, although the journey, trials, obstacles, blocks, and dangers are similar. The psyche of the artist offers up pearls of a truly transcendent quality.

Yet, healing is itself a creative act, as is living.

Not an artistic one, in all or even most cases, but a creative act nonetheless.

The creativity that concerns me is a universal. It belongs to being alive. ~ D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

 

The Ascent

There is a final task, as well as some potential pitfalls once the pearl is in our grasp. The jewel must be acknowledged as coming from, and belonging to forces beyond our conscious ego.

The impulse to keep the gift, hide, bury, or hoard it, constitutes a psychological danger and a severe distortion of heart-knowledge. A corresponding trap is when we succumb to the narcissistically inflating illusion that we have conscious control over the creative process. Grace has always played a hand. The muses must be courted, and dragons must be honored as magical creatures who grant us talismans from realms beyond our own.

Creativity happens outside of the individual psyche. Phenomenologically, at least, it seems that a power external to the one creating is at work, that the creator is but a tool or a vessel. ~ Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig, From The Wrong Side

Moreover, as any devoted reader of fairy tales knows, the gift we receive, must be given away and passed onward or upward in some form, or its powers will turn against those who pretend to own and control it. The hero ascends with his booty, his gnosis, and although he is allowed to adorn his robe with it, it is clear that the robe itself carries a mantle of responsibility along with it. We must make sure that the wisdom we accrue serves purposes far larger and more sacred than our own interests – or it is not wisdom at all.

This is part and parcel of the work of a psychotherapist – to offer up the gifts we have received to strengthen not only ourselves, but also others who have begun their own quest.

In the office, I am always fearful when the descent begins. I am  both confident and I tremble inwardly as I accompany clients through the familiar obstacles and dangers, although I try not to show it.  I am often speechless and awe-struck when, after long and strengthening testing, we encounter the wound directly. And I am always grateful when we survive, and I have the honor of watching clients move more fully, more deeply and creatively into a life worth living.

I laugh, and sigh with relief, as I watch a client take possession of the treasure, and begin to carry it out into the world with them:

“I hoped that this is what would happen!” I hear myself saying “I had faith that it would, but nevertheless, it is always a relief to see it become reality right in front of me! These are the times when I wish I had a time machine, and could record this moment, and travel back to the beginning of this process so I could show us both what amazing things would grow out of the journey. It might have been relieving to you, but it sure would have been relieving to me too!”

It is a fear that I have grown used to, and one that no longer threatens my faith too intolerably. And both the receiving and the giving of the gift are always miracles.

So I share the long and winding story of my dream, and its mother-myth here.

I do this because I was reminded, and perhaps others need to be reminded as well, that the processes of healing, self-knowledge and creative insight always depend upon heroic acts of bravery and Divine Grace together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the Garden

And he (Jung) asked himself by what mythology he was living and he found he didn’t know. And so he said “I made it the task of my life to find by what mythology I was living” How did he do it? He want back to think about what it was that most engaged him in fascinated play when he was a little boy. So that the hours would pass and pass. Now if you can find that point, you can find an initial point for your own reconstruction.
~ Joseph Campbell

I might have liked to be an astronomer, as a child I spent hours on the deck behind our house looking up at the Great Nebulae in Orion and feeling a part of the entire universe. But, unfortunately I can’t do math.

In young adulthood, being a priestess of some sort seemed my best shot at a satisfying career and I supposed the sacred rituals around the theater came close. But, as you may know, there aren’t really too many priestesses in show biz.

A ritual is an action that puts the individual not only in touch with, but in the place of, being the agent of a power that does not come out of his own intention at all. He has to submit to a power that’s greater than his own individual life form. ~ Joseph Campbell

For several years thought it might be nice to be a Unitarian or a Quaker minister: I could picture myself in my 60’s plump and happy, with spikey short white hair, extremely sensible shoes, curled up in a worn leather chair in a well stocked church library surrounded by books written by theologians, ecumenicists, philosophers, anthropologists, depth psychologists, mythologists, my days filled with study, sermon-writing, teaching, and pastoral counseling. I still occasionally fantasize about getting an M.Div one day so that my psycho-spiritual practice might one day extricate itself from the professional restrictions and expectations of the medical model.

Although I imagine all that theism might get a bit wearing.

God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought…. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they call them lies. Those are the atheists. ~ Joseph Campbell

When I am fatigued or overwhelmed I think it might be nice to be a cobbler. The smell of leather, the pleasure of making something tangible, real, practical, useful, that did not require that I take my work home with me, or feel too much. Maybe I could even get some elves to make the shoes while I sleep.

There is much much harder work in the world than mine, but every once in a while, after the 100,000th “I just don’t know how you can sit and listen to people’s problems all day. I couldn’t do it!” I begin to wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.

Every individual has his own very special problem in this late mid-life crisis about what he has been doing. How deeply has it really involved him? Has he had other outside marginal interests of any kind whatsoever? What were they? All these are very special problems. ~ Joseph Campbell

No paid vacation, no sick days, and the out of pocket cost of crappy medical insurance for a self-employed family of four are daunting enough. When my kids or a family member are ill, there is more lost income. Income which fluctuates with the economy, with the season, with the twists and turns of fate, history, chance and my own bandwidth depending of the circumstances of my own life and ability to pay deep attention. Clients just don’t come, or don’t stick when you don’t have the psychological space to take them in.

Economics is what controls us. Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today and that’s why everything is screwy. You have to get back in accord with nature; and that’s what myths are all about. ~ Joseph Campbell

Late nights and weird hours mean missing several nights a week with my kids, who can also never call to check in or to chat while I am working. As well as being out of synch with those who live and socialize on the 9 to 5 time grid. “Time off” means running errands, answering email, doing paperwork and billing, none of which can be done during client hours.

There are therapists who have partners with large corporate incomes, or some inherited wealth, who are heavily invested in real estate, or who have discovered passive income streams of some kind. They have small part time caseloads and the luxury of pursing their work, not out of logistical necessity, but merely because it is meaningful to them. There are others who charge extraordinary sums and cultivate boutique practices geared at serving clients in the upper classes.

I am none of those. I am a working, work-a-day therapist. I have made my living as a private practitioner and nothing else along side my husband, who does the same thing. We have learned to ride the roller coaster together, and support each other economically and emotionally through painful binds and financial drought. We have learned to rest when we are “light” and not allow our financial anxiety to eat up all of our chance to renew ourselves. There will be another wave of overwork to come, an influx of new cases, a sudden mass return of old clients when the weather turns cold, or it is time for New Years resolutions.

So, if the goal is merely amassing wealth, early retirement and cultivating ease, this is not the profession, at least not the way I practice. My scale slides and my fee drops as I try to make sure that no client is abandoned when they fall into financial difficulties, or excluded because of their ability to pay. I’ve made choices not to accept insurance, which too often attempted to conscript and lure me into becoming my clients “care manager” -labeling them with diagnoses, counting out their allotted sessions, and referring to a psychiatrist if they don’t “get better” before their capitation kicks in.

And when you’ve got an invisible cure for an invisible disease, you’ve got something you can sell. ~ Joseph Campbell

And often, the work hurts too. It can burn and sting and instill fear sometimes, as clients often need to explore and test out the capacity to keep them safe in your most vulnerable, weakest places and moments. Narratives of trauma, cruelty and abuse can break your heart, and eat you up, and shatter illusions about yourself, about the goodness of humanity, about the realities of life. Even the best days, the ones filled with vicarious excitement and accomplishment are about other people’s accomplishments and successes, and can leave you totally tuckered out.

Its one thing to be equitable and give everything away. Its another thing to be equitable and give away yourself. Then you can’t really help anybody can you? ~ Joseph Campbell

And the people you work with often experience you as more powerful and fully self-actualized than you are or could ever be, and often feel abandoned, or annoyed, or intruded upon when you stumble and trip or they experience your limitations.

When I was young in this field, I once asked my therapist if he ever hated his job: “Just every time I see a copy of Travel and Leisure magazine” he said. And immediately looked worried, and began to back pedal a bit – as though his honesty might make me feel rejected.

Who wants to be remembered by the notes of his students? ~ Joseph Campbell

It didn’t make me feel rejected. It was a relief. There is a shadow that attaches itself to every job, every choice, every path. And in this field, which practitioners take up primarily driven by their own wounds, whether they know it or not, the shadow can be a particularly dark and thick one.

Who wouldn’t want to escape sometimes?

The saying that a friend of mine has given me for letting me know when you are in middle age is: You’ve got to the top of ladder and found its against the wrong wall
~ Joseph Campbell

Freud had clients lay down on the couch for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to be looked at, scrutinized all day. And I sometimes wish that I could escape the watchful, fearful gaze of clients who read the smallest crease in my forehead as a sign of my impatience, or intolerance, or judgement, when it may just be that my glasses are pinching the sides of my head. Consciously arranging my face all day to reflect exactly what the client needs to see reminds me often of what intensely physical work the process of “mirroring” can be.

My days, in and out of the office, are completely and continuously centered around people. Other people. No matter how much “self-care” I invest in myself, a life of meeting clients, living in a co-op, walking crowded city streets, caring for children, for older family members, is intensely peopled.

I’ve just come out of New York, and a place like this on the Big Sur coast just wakes another whole consciousness. Its further down. And the body feels, Yes, this is my world; Ive been missing this And it seems to me its out of the body and its relationship to experiences of this kind that the mythic imagination comes. This other experience of the city is far more rational, ethical… the I-Thou relationship in the city is to people The environment in the city is geometrical and rectangular, and there are no curves; its contrived by man, the whole environment is manmade. And here you find that there is a primal being experience of which man and nature are themselves manifestations; whereas in the city you just don’t get it. ~ Joseph Campbell

Everything we do, every choice, every gesture requires the sacrifice of some alternative, potential reality. At midlife, the sacrifices we made to establish an adult identity in our culture, to create security, to live out our values, to do what we should, to start a family, to build a life and pursue a career or a vocation – return to us, as fantasy. It returns as day and night dreams, yearnings or sometimes as symptoms. Whatever is repressed always returns to us in some other form

Jung speaks of the impact of the parents unlived life upon their children, and we should also wonder about how the unlived life of the psychotherapist impacts clients and the therapy itself. How does it constrict and constrain us in the room and why? Are these choices made consciously, with an awareness of their shadow and their costs, or unconsciously, reflexively, fearfully? How do our clients teach us about what we have given up? How do we respond to the experience of envy or yearning in the countertransference? Do we heed it as a call to reach for our own unfinished business? Or do we feel diminished? How do therapists, subtly or not so subtly encourage clients to make choices that either validate their own sacrifice, or diverge from our choices so that we can watch them live out our unlived lives?

The mid-life crisis is that of unshelling a system of life and immediately moving into a new system of life. Because if this life is unshelled and you don’t have a new intention there is total disorientation. ~ Joseph Campbell

These days my escape fantasy involves a farm house at the foot of small mountain. There are green trees and fields all around. There is a small food garden growing behind the house with big wide windows, with more sky, stars, trees, crickets, birdsong and empty space, both inside and outside, than will ever be available or affordable to me in NYC.

I read stacks and stacks of books filled with pencil marks and marginalia, and write a significant part of every day. Perhaps I teach a class or two at a nearby junior college, just for the pleasure of compiling the reading lists.

I remember Alan Watts asked me one day, “Joe what kind of mediation do you do?” I said, “I underline sentences.” ~ Joseph Campbell

I see as many clients a week as I now see in a day, some in a cozy home office, some for walking eco-therapies, others long distance by video conference or e-session. All arrange to talk to me only when and as they want to. They pay whatever they can afford, whatever they think the process is worth. I don’t concern myself with accounts or collections, or how big the children’s orthodontia bill is getting.

Or maybe, in this fantasy I stop seeing clients entirely. After a lifetime of operating as a Helper, a Caretaker perhaps I have sacrificed enough to that archetype to enable that myth to release me, as I take on a new role, a new task, a new myth.

This is the big problem of retirement … the life with you have involved yourself has suddenly been moved. And so what? I’m told that the life expectancy of a blue collar worker after retirement is about five years. That means his body says, “You’ve got nothing for me to do so lets just say goodbye” ~ Joseph Campbell

There is a trail out back behind the house that leads up the mountain and I take a long, contemplative hikes several times a week. I watch for hawks and eagles, woodpeckers, and other wild-life in an entirely deer-tick free woods. Up on the hillside I have constructed a small shelter where I sit for long stretches of each day silently asking that all sentient beings be relieved of their suffering, until my thermos of green tea is cold and empty.

I work in the garden, I cook meals for my family. I wash the laundry and hang it on the line to dry near the lilac bushes, so that in the spring, the sheets smell sweet.

But when the individual is acting only for himself or his family then you have nothing but chaos. ~ Joseph Campbell

This idyllic farm is somehow near to a racially and socioeconomically diverse small city which gives me a chance to engage in community processes and cultural and charitable activities. We travel whenever we want to. Take sabbatical years to live in other countries, in other cultures. My children never bicker. They climb trees, tame wild animals, swim in a clear water creek.

Fatigue is rare, and sweet, following labors that are restorative, generative for myself and others. Each night before bed, we climb the creaky narrow wooden stairs to the widows walk and aim our telescope toward the bright and visible Milky Way searching out our proper place in the universe.

Now there is a wonderful saying in the Buddhist world: “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” All life is sorrowful. You are not going to change that. Its all right for everyone else to be sorrowful, but what about you being sorrowful? Well, participate!” ~ Joseph Campbell

And as I dwell deeper in my soul’s fantasy, my unlived life, the life not (yet) pursued, new sorrows emerge of the clients and of the work left behind in this life. Those who would never tolerate a Skype or phone session, who would feel abandoned, who I might harm by leaving, or a least cause significant discomfort. The stories I would never see unfold.

And the people I would miss.

Fantasies of Eden, of Shangrila and the Land of Oz live in all of us, in different ways, and serve many functions. They compensate and correct our course, remind us of who we are, what we have forgotten and who we are supposed to be. Sometimes it is necessary to chase these images literally, although they will rarely be entirely captured. The processes of midlife can involve dramatic overthrow of pre-existing orders. We do out grow old shells and need to find new ones. But sacrifices can be mourned and managed consciously as well, responded to as metaphor, channeled into creative processes, or integrated into present structures through ritual and symbol.

The work can be heavy, and costly in ways that are rarely fully tallied or reckoned with.
But it is mine, for now.

The gate guardian is a symbol of your own fear and holding to your ego which is what is keeping you out of the garden. Buddha sits under the tree and his right hand says “Don’t be afraid of those guys. Come through.”~ Joseph Campbell

But sometimes, through a long day, as I nod, and listen, my brow furrowed, my ears and heart open to the pain that the person across the room is sharing with me, I imagine, that my office window, just past my peripheral vision, offers a different view.

I imagine that – instead of the floodlight and fluorescence of windows upon windows, instead of the sounds of a harsh and noisy city, instead of helicopters and barges, firetrucks and ferries – there are instead green branches, and the smell of fresh cool mountain air.

I imagine that together we could, if we choose to, pause to watch Orion, with his belt, and his sword, rising through the night, reminding us of our proper place in the universe.

All quotations from The Hero’s Journey, Joesph Campbell on his LIfe and Work, Phil Cousineau editor.

Keep Breathing Please

To breathe is to assimilate spiritual power. (~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

The word, in all its variants, that I heard most regularly in the early years of my own treatment, the most painful years, is also the word I repeat most often to my clients:

“Breathe.”

As in:
“Let’s take some deep breaths, please”

Or:
“Are you breathing? I’m pretty sure you’ve stopped breathing”

And more explicitly:
“You are holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you are trying to block the experience of a strong feeling – you are constricting your chest, your throat, it keeps the pain trapped, pressed down, it doesn’t let it move through.”

And sometimes this:
“Okay, listen, I can see this feeling is overwhelming, and your breathing has become very shallow and rapid, you are trying to find a way to keep breathing to stay on top of some frightened, maybe panicky feeling. I don’t want you to hyperventilate. I know you are scared, but I want you to just listen to my voice, and we are going to breath more deeply together. Put your hand on your belly, and breathe in slowly through your nose. Let just inhale slowly…. Good. Now breathe out, slowly… good. Lets just sit and breathe and then we can talk about what was coming up. But, first, I just want us to breathe together for a bit.”

I remember when the consultation room would start to spin. My head would feel very large, on top of a small, atrophied body. Although my therapist sat just a few feet from my place on his couch, he seemed a football field away. Only his reminders to breathe offered me a sense of continuity, an anchor to the present, to him, and to myself.

Other times I’d sit on the couch, certain that I was totally fine, making perfect sense, forming completely rational sentences filled with logically consistent deductions about whatever circumstance I’d been recounting. I thought his direction to take a breath was just silly, reaching for some feeling that simply wasn’t present, wishful shrink-thinking. I’d take a breath just to placate him – and then feel a sudden internal catch, a flipping sensation in my stomach, a shiver of fear. A wave of hot, shameful, dissociated emotion rose up from the depths, tears gathering behind my eyes, my throat shaking, I tried to stop myself from revealing the unbecoming repressed affect in front of his accepting gaze.

Such an intense internal combustion can occur when oxygen mixes with emotion that I sometimes worried that I might actually vomit. He wasn’t distressed by that possibility either – but simply offered to move the office wastebasket close to the couch if I thought I really needed it. I never did, thank god.

It was just pain, riding on breath’s coattails, as it rose up from below.

My own clients often release a small snort of recognition when I make the observation:
“You’ve stopped breathing again I believe… please breathe…” before their own swell of pain begins to crest.

Children, in stubborn fits threaten to hold their breath, a refusal to inhale new experience or unwanted information from the world around them, an attempt to freeze time, to arrest all change and motion, and to assert their omnipotence as Central Commander of the universe.

But, as our pediatrician once pointed out, you can’t hold your breath to death. You will simply fall unconscious and resume breathing.

Holding our breath only creates the illusion that we are in control, but the illusion is fleeting and ultimately empowers our unconscious to solve the dilemma itself whether we like it or not – without conscious assent.

Difficulty in breathing may therefore symbolize difficulty in assimilating the principles of the spirit and of the cosmos… and the rhythms of the universe
(~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

Sometimes the pain is so intense, that all you can do breathe, as all else has become overwhelming or impossible – like a woman in labor, or a post-operative patient in a recovery bed, or the concentrated, labored breathing of the dying.

And sometimes, when extreme emotional/psychological pain makes a client yearn for “Breath’s Departure” all I can ask of them is make a promise to me that they will commit to keep breathing until the next session, or the next day, or the next scheduled check-in a few hours away.

The regularly scheduled therapy appointment lets us know when our next respite (time to breathe) will arrive. The psyche learns that we will only have to hold our breath until the next session when we can at last exhale again.

We breathe in good air, and breathe out the bad. Breathe in cool energizing oxygen, breathe out hot toxic carbon dioxide. Breathing is the ultimate, most inherently non-dualistic, bivalent act of living, our embodied light and darkness.
And the archetypal representations of breath reflect this:

Vayu, (also known as Vata, or Prana) the Hindu god of wind and breath, is “a destructive god who has an intemperate character and is often subject to violent desires which he never strives to repress.” (~ Sumanta Sanyal http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/vayu.html Encyclopedia Mythica™)

In the Prasna Upanishad, the sage, Pippalada describes Prana variously as the primal energy of the universe, as the sun, as fire, as light that illumines all, as food, as the creator, the destroyer, the Self and as the breath. (~ The Upanishads- The breath of the eternal)

We take in anything new by inhaling, and dispose of anything no longer needed through exhaling. This is true in psychotherapeutic process too. And I watch my clients breath closely for clues about where my support is most needed and where the block resides, if resistance obstructs the processes of integration or release.

Ideally, psychotherapy allows previously unexperienced feelings, memories, instincts, intuitions, self-states to transpire (to breathe through, to become known) for the first time. It is where we say things out loud that we would, under normal circumstances, only mutter under our breath. Breath is the vehicle that we ride to conscious awareness.

We aspire to (breathe on) transformation, to new lives, to better worlds, and easier ways of being, fresher air and deeper breaths.

When we try to blow-off discomforting information about ourselves, minimizing injuries and anxieties, our dreams, our Unconscious processes, our true selves and our deepest needs, we become the destroyer, the squelcher, the smotherer of our own internal self-states.

Examining our dreams, our words, relationship patterns, assumptions, projections, and our internal responses to external events inspires (breathes into) and energizes us to press on through the stale air of stagnation. Greek pneuma means wind, soul, spirit, and breath, and represents an internalized fragment of the world soul, the generative, creative, healing principle that moves in and out of us.

Breath is the archetypal initiator of all acts of creation. In creation myths world-wide, gods breathe spirit on to the earth, into inert globs of clay, and in the therapy office the act of breathing likewise enlivens self-states that are inert, repressed or deadened.

The therapeutic process at its most elemental, is where we conspire (breathe together) to bring forth new experience of ourselves, and others into being.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Seed

To see things in the seed, that is genius – Lao Tzu

At the initial consultation with any new case, I search for the seeds. The small, encapsulated point of contact that is filled with all the potential for whatever might be able to grown between us, as well as the seeds of destruction: the previous patterns and pre-existing conditions that will challenge any healthy connection and may even block our growth together entirely.

And there is something else I am scanning for as well. Something more mystical maybe – something that a good evidence-based skeptic would scoff at; a sense of the soul-seed of the person sitting across from me.

There are intuitive indicators internal and external: a client who reports a dream that led them to me, a certain kind of swelling identification, a little empathic heartbreak, the wish to soothe and console or a restrained impulse toward all-out rescue. A sensation that makes my heart feel bigger than it was before we were introduced, a rising courage to withstand something I had been afraid of seconds earlier, for the sake of a just-met person whose name I am not quite sure how to spell yet.

This Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet. This Soul of mine is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds. (The Upanishads, Chandogya 3.14.2-3)

I look for some intuitive confirmation that we may be right for each other and that I can provide the necessary conditions for their truest destiny, the best, deepest, highest, hardiest Self to emerge. I am trying to assess if I have the resources to support them in withstanding and thriving even if the elements are less than ideal, if the therapeutic connection I can provide will prove to be fertile soil.

But even if I spy these tiny potentialities, there is no predicting with any degree of certainty what direction they will grow, or if they will take root at all. What we hope for together may not manifest. Who you think someone will become may bear no resemblance to who they turn out to be. Nothing is as consistent over time as we would hope.

Farmers know this in their bones, there are few certainties.

Except for one:

The Mother and the Mustard Seed
A woman whose child had died asked Buddha to resurrect her babe. Buddha promised that he would do so when she returned to him with a mustard seed from a home that had not been touched by death. She traveled from village to village seeking a home where no one had died. She returned to Buddha without the seed, realizing that death and suffering were inescapable, and vowed to spend the rest of her days seeking to console the suffering of others.

Personas, false selves, and even what were seemingly core identities can, terrifyingly, die on the vine in an instant. As external conditions are always changing, our route to survival and growth can cause us to diverge from any anticipated trajectory. We are epigenetic creatures: we are no fixed thing. There is a step-wise process through which the inner germ of our identities, triggered by external and environmental influences, can lead us to act in ways that we could never have planned for. And which could never be discerned from gazing at the dormant seed, or the picture on the front of the seed packet.

Too many people I thought I had known throughly – both in and out of the office – have suddenly blossomed or gone to seed, flourished or died out, transforming into someone, or some alternate way of being that I could never have anticipated and which surprises me utterly. Sometimes it is a heartbreak as they become something I can no longer recognize, relate to or understand at all. Sometimes the harvest is more abundant than I could ever have hoped for.

And certainly, there are times that whatever I envisioned at the outset – for good or for ill – was just dead wrong. Even the gods don’t hazard such predictions.

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. ~ Matthew 13 King James Bible

The surprise unfolds in both directions. Cases I thought I was foolish to take on become deeply gratifying. Connections easily established fall to pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is when my initial impressions bear whatever fruit I thought they might.

Survival, and certainly the processes associated with thriving are inherently creative, and therefore surprising acts.

The “Seed of Life” is a sacred geometric pattern, consisting of seven circles in sixfold symmetry – an interlocking pattern of spheres and seeds – which forms a basic component of the Platonic solid known as the Flower of Life. ( http://www.geometrycode.com/free/seed-of-life-pattern-construction-using-compass/ ) In Kabbalistic thought it represents the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.

The creative processes of adaptation and Life itself, which seems to unfold in a straightforward, sequential uninspiring manner, can startle and amaze us with their symmetry when viewed all at once or with hindsight.

The pattern repeats, until we become aware, and sometimes continues, even then, without our choosing. Organic growth rarely shows us where it is heading in advance. We never know for sure if the seeds we have sown will feed us or leave us hungry. It is, too often, only revealed after the fact.

Some seeds never sprout above ground at all, but do their work entirely deep below the soil, in the Underworld.

In Greek myth, when Persephone is kidnapped by Hades she retains every chance of being rescued by Demeter, her mother, assisted by Helios the sun – who locates the missing maiden – and Zeus who demands her return to resolve the global famine triggered by Demeter’s grief-tantrum. Until Hades offers Persephone a quick snack: six pomegranate seeds. Unbeknownst to her, swallowing those six small seeds -certain they were harmless refreshment, something she thought she knew and recognized, and yearned for as familiar nourishment – sentenced her to live as the bride of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, separated from her devoted Earth-Mother and all that she loves above ground for six months out of every year, half of the rest of her eternal life.

Attaching too certainly to our expectations of others, banking on potential outcomes can take us on dark and harrowing journeys.

When we fall in love, we are attaching to the archetypal Seed in the romantic Other. In the early months of connection, we fall for their potential, who they hope to be, what they might grow into, and who they wish they were – rather than who they actually are. Only time can reveal that.

And we can be proved wrong. Or perhaps we were exactly right, but that seed exists only as one potential among many. We can fall in love with something the beloved does not even know exists inside themselves. Certainly the mustard seed has no knowledge that it can grow into the tallest and most useful of plants.

Sometimes we can believe so much in the unrecognized potential of another that we can help them to manifest it, but only if it is what they yearn to grow into.

Other times, we find ourselves more committed to a Seed in our loved ones than they are. Anyone can choose to arrest or prune their growth, change direction, or yank a potential Self out at the roots. When this happens, attaching too tightly to our favorite Seed or the as yet unmanifest Best Self in our lovers, friends, children, parents, clients – can deplete all of our resources and yield nothing.

In ego-psychological terms this Seed can be thought of as the ego-ideal. In the Venn-diagram of Freud’s tripartite structure – the Ego-ideal lives in the seed shaped overlap, ( a vesica piscis) between the Ego (our conscious sense of self) and Superego (our internalized moral injunctions) It is the seat of our conscious dreams, ambitions and aspirations of who we believe we could and should be.

Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. ~ King James Bible, Luke 13:18-19

It is our ideal and idealize-able self, the Self that we need never feel guilty or ashamed of. The favorite Self that we wholly morally approve of, the Fulfilled Self, the Be-All-You-Can-Be Self. The Self many of us spend our lifetimes pursuing at a distance, our Actual Self lagging far behind.

Lovers, parents, (and therapists for that matter) need to see this in us, nurture it, admire and believe in it, but not too intensely. If they attach too exclusively this Seed, we will feel abandoned in our daily deficits and vulnerabilities. We will not feel loved for who we are, but only for the potential gratification our Seed-self can offer. We want our shitty, stupid, annoying, pain-in-the-ass bits – to be acknowledged – for that is where our deepest needs lie.

Loving relationships of all kinds wither when they are nurtured in the wrong way, loved too much for incomplete reasons. Too excited for the imagined harvest, there is no quicker way to kill a seedling than by overwatering. You cannot pry open a bud to see the flower or eat the fruit that lies within the pit.

The inherent mystery of the Seed – and perhaps of the therapeutic process itself – is this: It is a small piece of the whole which also contains the whole within it while at the same time it is also nothing definite at all, unmanifest, pre-existent, uncertain.

It is the starting point,
or not,
of a future completely unknowable.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

New Tricks


Therapists become ecotherapists when we… look to nature (both our own human nature as well as the natural world) as a teacher and source of healing; when we see that human suffering is intimately connected with the destruction of the web of life, and that healing is about making deep changes in the way we live and relate to the world around us.
~ Why and How Do Therapists Become Ecotherapists, by Mary-Jayne Rust
from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind

Its happening again. Its happened before – so I know a little about how this goes but it is never an entirely comfortable process.

My stance is shifting, my professional identity reorganizing, my perspective and world view heading in a new direction.

There are always anxieties: How will I bring these new to me thoughts into the room, how will my clients respond? How will this change things? Will my colleagues think I’ve gone off the rails? Will I lose clients, income, reputation, momentum if I veer unexpectedly off to the left? Will I recognize myself in this new model, am I being true to my skills, my gifts, my values, my training, my clients needs, and my community?

When the therapist changes, the work itself changes. The questions we ask, the metaphors we choose, the subjects we become animated about or feel distance from, the defenses we challenge or suddenly accept, all have intended and unintended affects on the content of the work and the client’s communications.

More than that, when the therapist explores new aspects of their own identity – it impacts the client’s experience of themselves, invites new content into the room, changes prior assumptions of what therapy is for, opens up new challenges, and closes down old expectations.

What psychotherapists direct their attentions toward, what we express authentic, energized interest in, and what we consciously or unconsciously overlook has a powerful shaping influence on what clients feel is legitimate to discuss in session. By nodding, or staring blankly, our clinical mirror legitimizes or undermines a notion about the clients idea of themselves and what might be “good” grist for the mill.

A common clinical synchronicity: the very moment that a therapist is able to face down their own anxious conflict and incorporate the previously split off aspects of the Self that live behind it – clients suddenly and spontaneously speak up, initiating dialogue about the very same conflict within themselves.

A supervisor of mine would say with a twinkle in her eye:
“They must have been eavesdropping on your supervision session again.”

Bion says: “When two people meet an emotional storm is created” as their unnamable, ineffable unconscious bits swirl and entangle, exchanging information without our awareness.

My stance has shifted, mutated and incorporated new bodies of thought many times since my original training and clinical inheritance. Trained through social work school in ego-psychological models, and an analysand in a object-relational/self-psychological treatment my earliest clients were used to a certain kind of response from me: one that avoided conflict, was primarily “supportive” of strengths. I saw aggression as a secondary response to injury, as a regressive obstacle to relatedness, or a developmental phase. I believed that it was my job to accept and “absorb” aggression from the client, withstand it, and if I could survive it without retaliating, it would support the clients’ developmental journey to mature relatedness.

For some cases, it provided what they needed – but I noticed that for certain clients, it wasn’t working at all – and perhaps it wasn’t doing me any good either. I began seeking supervision and studying Modern Analytic models and suddenly I found a new voice.

I was joining resistances!
Confronting treatment destructive behavior!
Allowing my aggression into the room to protect the treatment!

New words came out of my mouth and into the room that I would NEVER have thought to say before.

To a client that continually questioned whether or not I was experienced enough:

“It’s certainly a possibility. Would it be more helpful if I referred you to better therapist?”

To another who complained repeatedly about their previous therapists failures:

“When I disappoint you will I get to hear about it do you think? What are all the ways that I am likely to fail you? “

After great prodding in supervision, I finally confronted a client who constantly sought validation by men and regularly missed therapy appointments:

“Perhaps, therapy would be more of a priority for you if I were a man.”

As new concepts trickled down into practice and tentatively inched out of my head into actions and language, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. I never knew what would fall flat, what would be soundly rejected, what might provoke rage or scorn, what error I might make in this new schema or where the unforeseen dangers might hide.

As shocking as it felt to say such things – each time I did it, far more often than not – I saw the client feel safer with me, an obstacle surmounted, a test passed, a barrier between us, removed – and the work would flow again.

Not all clients needed this, but some did – and learning to form these words with my mouth, figuring out what to say – how to implement a theoretical idea about resistance and aggression and make it come alive in practice, was like learning a new language, while simultaneously trying to teach it to someone else.

When I dove into Jungian thought several years later it happened again: a new vantage point, a new clinical language, new tools, added to the old favorites in the box, a new bee in my bonnet, a new schema to try on, and incorporate. A new model to figure out how to make my own, to sort through what was useful, and practical in the consultation room for me for any particular client, and what was not.

I’d always included exploration of dream work, metaphor and symbol in my practice, but this was so much more explicit: I began bringing in more metaphors and analogies drawn from myth, folklore and sacred texts, discussing archetypes, ego inflation, shadow, encouraging clients with sufficient ego strength to reach for their underdeveloped aspects.

I explicitly asked newer clients to keep a dream journal and tried to introduce the notion to “older” ones. Some bit, some nibbled and others spit out the hook.

I encouraged appropriate clients to court and consult their psyches about the topics they were consciously focusing on. We began to bring the Unconscious into the office as a full collaborator to assist and guide the treatment, rather than scorn it as a mere symptom-generating, conflict-laden mess-maker.

I felt the same nervous sense of exposure as I tested out new ways of being in the room while playing with constructs that I was just beginning to understand – and would only be able to integrate and comprehend through use, failure, success and practice.

In ecotherapy we venture beyond the traditional questions. The ecotherapist is curious about human-nature relationships as well as human-human relationships radically expanding the range of discussion. ~ Asking Different Questions: Therapy for the Human Animal by Linda Buzzell from Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.

I am yet again, finding myself trying to wrap my mouth around new words, trying to engage in unfamiliar dialogue about how the natural world effects us, and how we affect the natural world. Attempting to summon the same confidence and professional aplomb that I would draw on to explore any “legitimate” mutually interdependent relationship.

I’ve had more and more outdoor, walking sessions, through the parks of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn riverside. We notice the urban wildlife as we walk – plantings, and wildflowers, cormorants, hawks, mockingbirds, nuthatches, and Zelda the wild turkey.

The hurricane forced many outdoor walking sessions, as well as sessions in the community garden – with clients I wouldn’t have considered interested candidates otherwise – while the office was inaccessible with no power or heat. It has opened up a new world of connection and communication for some clients, and it is clearly second choice, too diffuse and distracting for others.

Words flow differently as our bodies move, as we watch the waves along the river and scan the horizon side by side.

In and out of the office a new realm of connection emerges, as I meet and invite and clumsily try to introduce new aspects of myself and my clients to each other.

To a client who focuses regularly on perceived conflicts with neighbors and co-workers:

“Wait! Did you just say that you were feeding the birds when you spied your neighbor? Do you do that every morning?”

The client no longer clenched with fear and agitation – brightens, and tells me about the taming and feeding wild birds by hand, the fruit trees, past and present that have thrived and died behind the house, and shares photos of carefully tended rose bushes in bloom next to the garage.

To another, a parent, chronically fretful, obsessive and sometimes completely panicked about toxins and contaminants in their child’s environment:

“What if there is nothing you can do? What if you are absolutely right and there are chemical hazards all around? What if our culture has filled our environment with so many pollutants that there is nothing that you can do to prevent exposure? What if there is no way, as things stand now, to keep our children ‘safe’ from toxins in our air, food, water and homes?”

The client breathes deeply as if for the first time in many weeks and says softly:

“Then I guess I’d just have to live in the moment and face each day as it comes.”

Following the hurricane, a client who had avoided the worst disruptions of the storm describes it as a “no big deal for me personally.” When I ask if they had any thoughts or concerns about climate change, and how related events might effect them in the future, the client shuts me down:

“I prefer to focus on things I can control”

It seems a uncontestable given, a unilaterally accepted rule of life, an obvious and practical mandate for healthy coping, proof that the through-line I am pursuing is pointless. I surrender, just a matter of days after the city flooded, to talk of families and jobs, and online dating.

On the subway ride home the response I wished I’d had surfaces -my thoughts too slow, and my new learning too unintegrated to parry-repost in real time:

“Why, I wonder? What would happen if we talked about all the things we cannot control and how we might feel about them? What might we be avoiding in ourselves and in the world around us by focusing only on what we might be able to control? What if that makes your life feel unbearably small, and is not actually safer in the long run? What if that is an illusory construct ? Is it frightening to feel out of control? Too vulnerable? Might there be something reliving or even healing in it?

What if feeling whole in this lifetime comes from understanding our real relationship to benevolent, destructive and wild forces far beyond our control?”

You can lead a horse to water, but perhaps before you can teach old dogs…

You have to learn the new tricks yourself.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Portrait of the Psychotherapist as a Young Artist.

Someone just asked me how I decided to become a therapist.

It’s a question I am asked from time to time. I’ve answered different ways at different times of my life, and understood my trajectory toward this point in different ways.

This is my answer for the moment.

There is of course, a longer, far more complex narrative, of which I am only partially aware. I suspect the unconscious processes, both personal and collective, that set me on this path began the day I was born, or maybe even before.

But there was, in fact, a moment when I actually decided, or perhaps realized, that this was the path I intended to pursue.

I had majored in Theater and Philosophy in undergraduate – and had dropped out, smack in the middle of my senior year – giving my parents a total heart-attack (and completely in keeping with their own history of totally impulsive shenanigans) and certainly disappointing many of my professors in both majors who believed in and supported me.

Why? I only knew that I couldn’t do it any longer – continuing to work to finish my undergraduate degree felt “wrong” and utterly intolerable. In fact, I felt that I somehow needed to “save” my final semester, and any graduate schooling for “later.”

That was the best explanation I could muster.

I could not invest any more energy consolidating the identity I had cobbled together out of scraps and left overs. I could not would not stack one more brick in the construction of a jerry-rigged persona. It would either work or it wouldn’t based on whatever effort I had already put in. “I” was held together with spit and duct tape but I was either “good enough” as is, or I wasn’t. It was time to find out.

I had started therapy the year before dropping out – and was certainly the most annoying, defended, overtly resistant patient that had ever presented voluntarily in a therapists office. Her obvious empathy annoyed me. I didn’t want someone to empathize with my “troubles.” I wanted someone to say I was going to be just fine, I was following my heart and that these instincts certainly meant something important. I wanted her to assure me that there were many roads to happiness, and that I was sure to have a bright future ahead of me if I stubbornly followed my intuition, and so to not be afraid. She said none of those things. She looked concerned. I hated her more than half the time. The rest of the time she scared the shit out of me.

I got a mindless gig in a nearby restaurant, relieved and happier in obedience to the pressing internal mandate. I gazed down on the ceremony from high up in the amphitheater the day my dearest friends and my class graduated without me – without a drop of regret. I had no desire to flip my tassel.

I left that state and that therapist the first chance I had, and never looked back.

The next seven or so years are a blur. I did a brief stint in a regional theater and eventually moved to New York with hundreds of thousands of other 20 year olds to act and act out.

Here is what I remember: the East Village & Alphabet City, waiting tables, various very bad boyfriends, auditions, panic-attacks, bar tending, head-shots, grief, acting gigs, mourning, the Equity Actors union waiting room, flash-backs, and scraping by.

I found my second and final therapist – and used all of my personal resources just to show up regularly. I offered up my cash tips from my black half-apron pockets for what seemed to have become my central task in life: Therapy. Twice a week. I didn’t know why it felt like I was living life in a giant pin-ball machine – buffeted from one misery to the next – and worse: I had the terrible, unshakable sensation that whatever the crap was playing out – it had all happened before.

And I wanted it to stop.

Of course it had all happened before – but I had no idea what a “repetition compulsion” was – I just knew I hadn’t liked it the first round either.

I was pursuing acting as a career. I worked in the restaurant industry. But, it was clear as crystal that showing up for therapy was my real job.

Somewhere in there I met a boy, a stable and kind boy, and would eventually move in with him. His parents had been holocaust survivors, and he seemed completely undaunted by my little shit-show. He remains undaunted and steadfast to this day.

This next part is aesthetically humiliating but true. I paid what must have been seven bucks at the time to see a matinée of the Prince of Tides. I went alone. I remember very little of it. The therapist, played by Barbara Streisand is bad – probably as terrible as the movie, and also bad as in naughty. Does she sleep with a patient? Or just the sibling of a patient? Not that that is okay either. She is categorically a bad therapist in a bad movie – but, I experienced a strange overwhelming confluence:

Here was an actress, playing a therapist. Something shook loose in my head. An actress, one known to have had a lot of psychotherapy, was acting as if she was actually a therapist.

Hmmmmm.

When the movie finished, I spent another seven bucks and saw it again. I next went straight to Samuel French theatrical publishers and bought every little paperback copy of every play I could find with a therapist in it.

It was in the early nineties that I purchased my own first book on psychodynamic theory. The title caught my attention as I had been reading Joyce: “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient” by Gerald Alper.

The first paragraphs of the preface sent me straight to the cashier to smooth out a stack of crumpled bills from the bottom of my backpack:

“The artist who appears here belongs to a special population of struggling, non-commercial, artist-patients rarely seen in the private office of a psychoanalytic psychotherapist (as is the case here) for the compelling reason that they cannot afford a normal fee”

and further down the page:

“Here is the common, recurring profile of the artist as patient: someone in their mid to late twenties, more likely female than male…. generally not indigenous to New York City, but arriving and settling in from the Midwest and even California, an aspiring actor, actress, dancer, musician, painter, singer or writer; generally unemployed in his craft and having to fall back on part-time survival work such as waiting tables in restaurants (almost unanimously despised) predominant presenting problem of depression (often narcissistic) work inhibition, creative block, paralysis of initiative, and day to day functioning accompanied by frequent feelings of inner deadness”

Yikes. Was he supervising my therapist?

In it, he discusses his caseload of young artists, in the 80’s, surviving and suffering and acting out in the East Village, in the ten block radius around my fifth floor walk-up.

I had no idea at the time if it was a “good” piece of clinical writing or not – and had never heard of any of the theorists he referred to – Kernberg, Kohut, Winnicott, and Bateson’s’ “double bind.” The book felt like a cold slap: pathologizing, harsh, objectifying. But, absolutely no less objectifying than the restaurant managers or casting directors that dismissed, criticized or hollered at me every single day. The case examples seemed off-point, and unlike any peers I could identify with. Little was discussed about the complexities of creative processes, or career building. No stories of hope or big breaks.

Just stories of symptoms and dreams of loyalty to a creative process going no-where. No Where.

Yet, Alper was clearly familiar and compassionate toward my tribe of misfits when he discussed us in aggregate. All of us thin-skinned folk, hoping to make a creative living off of the utter sensitivity of our exposed, raw nerve endings, bruised and battered by brute contact with the pointed corners of unyielding reality.

Many of us trapped, feeding the insatiable appetites of demanding patrons during the day, while unable to satisfy our own deepest hungers.

He even describes the “waiter’s nightmare” which haunted me for many years:
“gigantic outdoor cafes, peopled by hundreds of clamoring patrons, situated thousands of feet apart”

Re-reading it now for the first time twenty years later, clinically, it’s not my professional language, or model, and doesn’t speak to my practice or approach. The book is too focused on psychoanalytic diagnostics for my taste – all artistic processes redefined as a cocktail of healthy and pathological narcissistic processes – artist’s relationship to his talent/creativity: narcissistic, to the audience: narcissistic, and all artists and participants in the creative act: narcissistic. Kohutian, Kerbergian, or Winnicottian – it seems unnecessarily reductive of what, in my view, are essentially numinous, spiritual, unconscious processes of the psyche.

Of course, there is always danger of inflation and deflation when wrestling with archetypal content and the Unconscious. But in my work over the past 15 years with the same struggling creative population – too many writers, actors, musicians, playwrights, dancers to count – I have come to think of the suffering artist much more as an “identified patient” in a disordered environment. They are the Cassandras, the too willing scapegoats, the canaries in our coal mine. They feel the toxicity in any system first – and often respond before they know what they are reacting to. Artists struggle to give it voice, shape, movement, and symbol so the rest of the community can confront the shadow content that would otherwise be ignored, repressed, disavowed. The artists I have seen, seem to me, not narcissistic enough. Too willing to be dismissed as flakey, as failures, too willing to absorb the collective toxins, take them into their own systems to metabolize, and transform them into something beautiful or communicative or confrontative. Eternally, masochistically hopeful that they can make the deaf hear, the blind see, artists do so at costs to themselves they don’t always recognize.

A little like therapists.

Yet, Alper was clearly a caring and compassionate therapist, and the parallels between creative and clinical inspiration and artistry are not lost on him. Alper mentions that he was a novelist before becoming a therapist, and describes the pursuit of a career in psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a “decision to try and earn a living doing the thing we most love.”

Twenty years ago this was perhaps the first time I had the notion that 1) I had a not-so-common sensitivity, receptivity, and a relationship to my own unconscious processes, and 2) It was actually a skill set I had developed – as well as a deficit. Also, 3) that this skill set was maybe even directly transferrable to work as a therapist.

The same year, I was working on a piece of experimental theater – “workshopping” some obscure German Expressionist piece, with a group of other wounded waiters I knew. The two “producers” had hired a “director” with some family funds – and we were using psychodramatic exercises, along with our own significant trauma histories to “flesh out” the sparse, strangely translated text. Putting all our horrors “on their feet” and improving our way through our worst and cruelest “high-stakes” memories. Beatings. Abuse. Discovering suicided family members. Psychotic breaks and involuntary commitments. Drug overdoses.

We thought we were being brave and creative. Now, I can see that it was just so obviously, and on every level: A Very Bad Idea.

When the final actor had exposed his own darkest living nightmare for others to enact, I heard the director whisper to himself:
“This is good…. we can use this….”

That night, I called an old dear friend: She had walked through her own house of horrors – and wasn’t all the way out yet, but she had managed to get her MSW a year or two before and was, as a result, way more gainfully employed than I was.

“Use this??!!” I hollered into the phone, back when people talked on phones. “Use this?! Is this what all actors are doing all of the time!? Use this!! This SHOULD NOT BE USED! This shit is SACRED unto ITSELF! We should only respect it and sit near it and bear witness!”

The first eight words of her response changed my whole life:

“You don’t have to be an actor, you know. There are lots of actors who would kill to be getting the work you complain about.”

“Wait?! What did you say?!!?!? Excuse me did you say: “I DON’T have to be an actor?! I don’t have to be an actor..… “

I thanked her and hung up. Called someone and quit the hot German-Expressionist mess. The next day I ordered catalogues from every social work program in the city. And called my would-be alma mater to figure out how the hell I was going to finish my degree seven years after dropping out.

Interestingly enough, I found out that my credits were on the brink of expiration, and if I had waited even a few more months, I would have had to start my Bachelor’s degree over. As it was, I transferred some credits back – and completed some research projects for independent study credits: One on the history of the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, and another on the Psychology of Creativity, extensively citing my favorite book du jour: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient.

One year later: I had tied up my loose ends, and enrolled in a clinical social work program.

So it is with deep gratitude and thanks to my chaotic inheritance, my first half-detested therapist, my disappointed professors, several bad boyfriends, every restaurant manager I ever was oppressed by, my husband, my final and current therapist, a sadistic director, Gerald Alper, my dear friend Julie, a Very Bad Idea, and of course ladies and gentleman, the Incomparable Barbara Streisand, that I exist as I am now:

A psychotherapist, no longer young,
but in many ways walking the same path,
practicing the art of psychotherapy,
with some success and some failures,
still struggling to remain loyal to the inner guidance of my own psyche and the creative process.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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