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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother Load

“Every Mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother and every mother extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.”
― C.G. Jung

A “big” dream, recalled vividly, from well over a decade ago, from a time when my professional identity was central to me, and I considered myself happily child-free.

The dream has served as a herald, a warning, a reminder, a road sign, a comfort and a counterweight.

My eyes are following a sea bird as it circles strangely in the sky over the city streets. Directly beneath is a young woman, in a old coat, tightly buttoned over a large pregnant belly. She is walking away from me, and I decide to follow her.

She slips into a church yard.

I follow her inside, but she has disappeared.

A tunnel. A man (a priest?) gestures for me to enter. I must crawl on my knees to pass through. I feel a claustrophobic panic begin to swell:

“Tengo Meido!!”

I have fear. Fear has me.

And I break free into a small chapel.
In the center of the room is a large fountain which rests on top of a sacred, ancient spring. A circle of women move around it, in a slow, methodical ritualized dance. They have cut crystal pitchers in each hand, and are pouring the waters back and forth, from the fountain, into their own and each other’s pitchers and back again.

I know this is the dance of the Mothers Who Mourn. And I am soon to be initiated into this dance.

and that although this is a dance filled with sorrow, it is also a dance of beauty and power.

This is the dance that keeps the entire world in balance.

Therapists spend an extraordinary amount of time each day talking to clients about motherhood, their mothers and their own motherhood.

Surely my sample is skewed. Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Those mommies. In this era. In this place.

Mothers in my community who know what I do approach me at school, at the park, on the corner, confessing their failures and their fears, seeking reassurance or direction – assuming I have the power to absolve and point them toward the right path over a quick cup of coffee.

And in my office the mommies tell me their secrets. These other mothers take off their protective armor of seeming perfection when they talk to me.

They confess their darkest mommy moments: they scream at their children, lose their shit, they are exhausted beyond comprehension. They admit that they have had it, are up to here. They are drained, feel ill used, disrespected, reduced. They are riddled with guilt, regret, and inadequacy. They whisper their fears that that their son or daughter is explosive, defiant, passive, obsessive, distractible, depressed, diagnosable, has a learning difference or neurological disability.

They are fearful that they have already failed, or soon will fail at their chosen calling.

Overwhelmed by the perceived power that they wield with every choice they make about the physical and emotional well being of their child. The power to create, to contaminate, to shame, to mold, to shape, to instruct, to guide, to damage.

Every one of them desperate, frantic to do “what is right” whatever the hell that is.

Wincing, braced for cold shock of shame, of blame and judgement by their extended family, the therapeutic community, their neighbors, their spouses, and above all: by Other Mothers.

Fretful that they have not done enough, cannot do enough, have overlooked something essential, that any and every decision they make, or fail to make, will have destructive life long consequences.

All anxiously grieving their failures, or their perceived failures, or straining to defend against failures they cannot acknowledge.

Everyone in need of forgiveness and reassurance whether they know it or not. Struggling to forgive themselves, or unable to acknowledge that they need to be forgiven.

Scared to death that their children will not love them, do not love them, or will know better than to love them by the time they reach adulthood.

All desperate to hear they are “doing a good job” at the central task of their lifetimes.

An old myth of motherhood, ascendant a generation or two ago, now fading still persists for many in our culture:

In order to become adults, women must become mothers. Motherhood as a culturally mandatory initiation rite. Imposed. Not chosen. Expected. Normal.

“It was Just What You Did” all the mothers a generation before us say.

Not a decision to make or agonize over. Think about whether or not you might be good at it or if you want it? Why? It is just the labor, the task, the only opportunity for real mastery assigned to you. Have feelings about it if you like, and powerful attachments, resentments losses and burdens, but its no use thinking about it too much because there isn’t a choice. Like it or not, you are expected do it. A cultural, mythological mandate.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically and on their environment and on their children than the unlived lives of the parents.” – C.G. Jung

Their unlived lives: Who would any of our mothers have been without us to distract, and devour and divert their energies? If they had chosen, would they have chosen us? Who would my mother have been if I had not been born? What parts of herself did she foreclose on to take on this role? What parts of her motherhood did she not live out, did she resent or reject in order to preserve her own identity in the face of an unchosen maternal assignment?

We have surely made some of our mothers better people, stronger than they knew, braver. Some of our mothers were embittered, resentful, rebelling against the maternal mandate by withholding their authentic selves or by venting their rage at their assigned charges. Some of our mothers carried and bore us, but could not or chose not to raise us or both. Some of us taught our mothers to love, others of us had to head for the hills to escape a mother who, starved of any other means of satisfaction, threatened to devour us whole. Even if they made the best of it, even if motherhood is exactly what they would have chosen anyway – if with hindsight they know they would have chosen to have us, or know that they might never had us at all…

We feel their lack of choosing in our bones.
We smell it like the weather.

Their unlived life lurks there. What would it have been?

If Jung has named a psychological truth, then we all live out the previous era’s unlived lives. We are all exploring the identities our mothers lost, had taken away, rejected, or foreclosed upon themselves.

In this era, we have defined ourselves by the very choices that mothers before us did not have.

The present day rising myth of motherhood as discussed on blogs and chat rooms, splattered provocatively on magazine covers and style sections: Chosen Motherhood.

We believe that we are empowered by our choosing and that choice is freedom. We believe in the myth that our children will be happier and will love us better as a result of all of our choices. We believe that we, since we have chosen our maternal role, will be better, less conflicted, more fulfilled, more conscious mommies. After all, it was our choice! The Mothers of Full Intention will compensate for the shadow of the earlier era’s Unchosen Mothers.

Jungian theorist Guggenbuhl-Craig would say that all of us are led or at least influenced by the collective myths of our era. He would also warn us that one-sided, incomplete myths have pathological and damaging consequences.

Motherhood of Choice and Unchosen Motherhood are both incomplete myths. They are different myths, with different omissions, with different unintegrated shadows, and each half-myth does its own damage:

The myth of Unchosen Motherhood acknowledges that women’s choices are significantly restricted by lack of opportunity, by economic reality, by poverty, by hardship, by oppression, racism, by imperialism. Yet, it minimizes the responsibility within the constricted range of choices that mothers did and do have.

Existential therapists, such as Viktor Frankl might speak at this point of attitudinal values. Jung might insist on the autonomy of the soul. They would do so to remind us that under even the most oppressive circumstances, we can maintain a choice about how to internally respond to external realities, to organize a consciously chosen attitude of submission, acceptance, or resistance, to the realities that may externally oppress or restrict us. The myth of Unchosen Motherhood casts a shadow of fatalism, victimization, passivity, abdication, thoughtlessness, resentment, and ambivalence.

The present day myth of Chosen Motherhood has its own destructive aspect – We have chosen it, so we must find it completely fulfilling and we must do it to perfection. We have accepted it after lengthy deliberation and as a sacred calling, and therefore we must pursue it and hone our skills to make sure we are good at it. Why on earth would you ever choose to do something that you didn’t think you could succeed at?

The everyday, constant, inevitable, unavoidable failures of motherhood take on a crushing weight for the Mothers of Choice. The shadow of this myth is control, inflation, perfectionism, anxiety, magical thinking, and over-protection.

A complete myth includes, incorporates its own shadow. There are many complete myths of motherhood, this is one:

A woman finds herself unexpectedly pregnant before marriage. The father of her child is not her intended husband. She and her husband are homeless at the time of her son’s birth.

Although his childhood seems in general too normal and unremarkable to bother commenting on, there were some red flags. On one memorable occasion, the boy snuck away from the family on a trip to the city defying his mother’s instructions to stay nearby – After frantic city-wide search she finally found him. He showed little empathy for her fright or understanding of what he had put her through. She thought it was normal testing at the time, but perhaps this was an early sign of what was to come.

In adulthood, he grew increasingly distant from her. He began consorting with religious and political extremists. She approached him once during a large wedding party where everyone had clearly been drinking a great deal, he shunned and shamed her: “Woman! What have you to do with me?”

He was completely uninterested in marriage, his mother would never see grandchildren if he were her only child. Over the next few years his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was homeless, wandered through the cities and country side. He didn’t work, didn’t seem to have a penny to his name, and apparently begged for food and lived off of the charity of others. He kept company with a troubled crowd of vagrants, drifters, criminals, revolutionaries and prostitutes.

When she sent his brother one last time to try to bring him home – he rejected her yet again saying: “I have no brother. I have no mother.”

Eventually, her son was arrested, tried and executed in front of her for crimes against the state. Some witnesses say that just before he died, he asked a close friend to take care of her. Other accounts indicate that he did not mention her at all.

Do you think if she’d made different choices, it might have turned out differently?

I have sat with, and listened to and heard tell of thousands of mothers over the years:

French mothers and Asian-American mommies. White mommies, mothers of color, mothers in transracial families. Mother’s of wealth and privilege, mothers of limited means, mothers by choice and by accident, single moms, widowed moms, gay mommies, queer mommies and male mothers. Divorced and divorcing mothers, adoptive moms, and adoptees who are mothers. Mothers of kids with special needs, of gifted children, of children with severe disabilities. Mother’s of infertility, mothers of miscarriages and still births. Women who yearn for motherhood and those who are repulsed, reject or fear it. Motherless mothers. Non-custodial mothers, mothers of children born to them but being raised by others. Full time at home mommies, working mommies, free-lance mommies setting their own schedules. Mothers on public assistance, mothers with live in nannies. Mothers alienated, cut off, or rejected by their adult children. Mothers of children incarcerated, institutionalized. Mothers with emptied nests. Unknown mothers, mothers never met.

Dead and dying mothers. Bereaved mothers of deceased children. Masochistic mothers, pathological mothers, devouring mothers, enraged and indifferent mothers. Addicted and alcoholic mothers. Mothers with dementia who no longer recognize their offspring. Abusive mothers, abused mothers. Mothers who spank. Mothers who negotiate. Mothers who hold the line and soft mommies who cave. Organics only mommies, fast-food mommies. Mommies who are too angry. Mommies who are too nice. Mothers who do too much, and those who do too little. Those who would give “everything” and those who feel they have given “enough.” Moms who co-sleep who Ferber-ize, who breast feed, who pump at work, bottle and formula mommies, sling and stroller mommies.

Mothers reluctant, begrudging, regretful, neglectful, exhausted, blissed-out, competitive, smug and superior. Lost mothers. Terrified mothers. Defensive mothers. Mothers who have fled, and those who dream of escaping out from under the burdens of motherhood. Mothers utterly fulfilled.

Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

There are probably some very wrong ways to mother, but there is no right way.

None of our choices will protect us, or our children from loss, from suffering, from life, or from death.

We choose, and we can’t choose.

We all have fear of what we cannot control or prevent.

Like Demeter, Isis and Mary of the Pieta, a mother’s capacity to mourn is also a source of great power, a central function of her love, and her only salvation in the face of all that she can and cannot choose.

And it is this maternal dance of mourning that keeps the whole world in balance.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Mutual Conflict Unto Death (with apologies for the missing umlat)

I don’t do a lot of couples counseling. I do some.

I first tell everyone who calls me that my husband, a psychologist, is actually much better at it. He was trained systemically, with the whole supervisory-team-calling-into-session-from-behind-the-mirror thing. I imagine he is more confident in his ability to break up the destructive brawls that inevitably erupt on his couch.

I don’t know why, sometimes I suppose, based on a referral from another therapist, or a friend I have treated, or some other couple I have seen – a few couples persist in wanting to see me, and we enter the second trial. If we make it through the ridiculous rounds of insurmountable scheduling obstacles and are able to find a compatible hour for three busy New Yorkers to meet I assume that there is something I am supposed to learn and am meant to provide while being temporarily triangulated into their relationship.

Inevitably, I spend the first several weeks feeling like a nine-year-old hostage forced to watch the grown ups battle, bicker, and struggle for dominance. Feeling my alliances, my empathy, sympathy and budding attachments to each one challenged, injured, and shamed. I feel emotionally split apart, as I struggle to understand enough about each of their perspectives and pain. Just as I am able to sense one partner’s vulnerability, it is then attacked, undermined, distorted by the other’s rage and pain.

At some point, my own powerlessness is intolerable to me, and I start to get angry at the fouls, the low blows, the unconscious manipulations, the belief in the supremacy of their own individual injuries, as I watch them both bleeding in front of me. I just need it to stop. The internal anger and impatience helps – it gathers my energies and consolidates my power – I am not a child, I am not an impotent audience member watching an ugly drama unfold, I OWN this couch damn it. This is MY office, and I have some say about what behaviors I will permit and enable in my own space.

I borrow Mr. Gottman’s invaluable behavioral tools: I teach about using non-inflammatory subjective “I” statements and fair fighting techniques. I confront and reframe expressions of contempt and toxic resentment. I express my deeply held wish that that all committed couples world-wide would be assigned heart rate monitors the moment they move in together and would be legally mandated to STOP TALKING when their heart rates become elevated. Adrenaline is as altering and intoxicating as any drug, and there is no chance of engaging in constructive discussion or debate with anyone who is in fight or flight mode.

I encourage some, usually heterosexual couples to visit Gottman’s site, and grab any tools, aids, DVDs or books that speak to them. (http://www.gottman.com although his longitudinal research has been on heterosexual couples – a lot of his data on conflict resolution is useful in any intimate relationship)

I feel a little better after taking some concrete action.

A little braver, less cowed. I’m off the ropes and into the ring.

Some folks toddle off a this juncture, after a handful of sessions, happier with a few, shiny, brand-new relational skills in their pockets.

Other couples find it all quite useful, but want to use the tools in service of something deeper.

Here is where I begin to love the work. I hear the voice of Mr. Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig and his mad, brilliant, if terribly dated 1970-something book with a horrifically translated title: “Marriage Dead or Alive.”

Seminal in most Jungian circles, I’ve never met a non-Jungian who has heard of him.

Since the book is usually out of print (there is a newer edition with a somewhat less cringe worthy title: “Marriage Is Dead, Long Live Marriage” that may be more available) I don’t agree with all of it, it remains somewhat trapped in its era, (step over the jarring references to “angry women’s libbers”) and god knows you don’t want to be caught reading it on the subway or at the playground in front of other smug mommies – I’ll summarize its key points, as I see them, here:

“Marriage” for purposes of this discussion is defined simply as a life-long committed partnership – legalized or not, between any two people. Such commitments may, or may not include actual or implied monogamy.

Guggenhbuhl-Craig suggests that people in western cultures currently enter into marriages for primarily two reasons: The first, and most common is to pursue comfort, ease, well-being, what he calls “mere happiness”. He suggests that marriage is actually a pretty lousy method for achieving happiness, and that there are many other ways to arrange your personal affairs to make your life easier. The most rudimentary forms of comfort and happiness can be more easily and reliably procured through other processes.

Marriage partners too commonly irritate each other’s raw spots, scrape, bang and stagger into each others spiky and brittle bits, making marriage an inefficient institution for insuring pleasure and well-being.

I often think of G-C’s “happy” couples as being organized around an avoidant contract: Love means never making me uncomfortable. Love means avoiding potential embarrassment, shame, exposure, judgement, rejection unhappiness in the relationship. Love means never telling your partner what they don’t want to know about you, or about themselves.

The second, (and the only real reason to live in a life long committed partnership in G-C’s view) is to pursue “salvation,” to reach for individuation, to learn more about what we don’t know about ourselves, to take more responsibility for our undeveloped aspects, to confront our own shadow and to press our partners to integrate their own denied, disavowed, unacknowledged bits.

This model of committed life long dialectical partnership, he suggests, is not a “merely happy” process.

Moreover, it is not the only or the best route to salvation and individuation. It is only one of many established paths up the mountain. No better, no worse, and not for everyone, and certainly not for the feint of heart or those who are looking for the easiest way up.

The call of committed dialectical partnership involves entering into generative, on-going wrestling match. A painful one at times, where we are certain to be confronted with nearly intolerable truths about ourselves and about our loved ones as we struggle to see ourselves, our partner as whole.

Mutual conflict unto death.

There will be necessary sacrifices. Sometimes profound ones. The pursuit of “wholeness” in this context doesn’t mean getting to do whatever we want, or living out all of our desires and needs. Wholeness means being aware of our needs, and having them acknowledged in relationship whether they can be fulfilled or not.

Especially when they are not.

The saddest cases I see are the utterly unreconcilable ones where one partner yearns for a relationship of mutual, intimate respectful conflict and the other wants to be kept as comfortable as possible.

I have also seen avoidant couples grown so disconnected and unhappy that they finally discover their capacity for mutuality and take the risk of intimacy together only through the process of dissolving their marriage. Dead marriages reborn as vital, respectful honest, divorce.

Courage, respect, intimacy, honesty, acceptance, inspiration, growth seem to me to be true purpose of relationship. Happiness is only a feeling, love is a way of behaving with courageous acceptace of yourself and others.

Happiness, comfort is of course a lovely thing, a wonderful by-product of intimacy earned, of trust hard-won.

And in the spaces in-between battles fairly-fought, we should accept all the rest and ease that comes to us along the way.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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