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Christiana Morgan’s drawing of her vision.
Note: These Seminar essays are usually for subscribers, I have opened this essay to the public because race, racism, and racialized symbols emerge commonly in dreams, and seem to be often confusing and distressing for the dreamers. Perhaps this essay will help some begin to consider the layered complexities that such symbolic images might speak to:
This essay explores Jung’s Visions, Notes on the Seminar 1930-1934, Lecture 6, November 19th, 1930, pp 96-116 . (To read the Visions essay series from the beginning please start with Seminar #84 )
The next lecture begins with content that is uncomfortable and challenging to read. Jung and the group attempt to explore the symbolism of the two dream characters described in Seminar #98 – a vision of a Native American man in a black and white world, who transforms into a Chinese man.
The challenge in front of us is to distinguish among:
1) The ways that our human psyche may draw on internalized cultural biases, tropes and stereotypes to create symbols that may contradict or align with the conscious beliefs of the dreamer,
2) Stereotypes which may point toward deeper, fuller, more integrated archetypes.
3) The ways that oppressive, devaluing or reductive racist tropes and stereotypes most often represent a bias or internal conflict that the dreamer holds against repressed or devalued aspects of the self, and
4) The need to differentiate such content from and maintain respect for cultures, communities and their individual members who live with the harmful and oppressive repercussions of racist projections.
Jung posits that the Chinese man (using an outdated expression/ slur) in the previous dream “is the antipode of the white man” – and then states “What is black with us is white with them.”
Later in the discussion the group attending the lecture refers to “primitive” and “brutal” and “unholy” aspects of the Native American man in ways that seem to refer both to the behavior of the symbolic character in the dream and to the audience’s biased beliefs about indigenous people.
I was tempted to simply skip over these paragraphs as problematic and useless and simply proceed to the next dream. But I also know that our dreams and our unconscious produce many symbols that upset and disturb us, that challenge our consciously held moral values, that test our notion of taboo and that reveal amoral, immoral and destructive aspects of the self.
We may dream of sexual acts that revolt us or that violate incest taboos. We may dream of alliances with those we detest in waking life, or dream of murdering those we love. In our sleep we produce monsters, and horrors and fantasies and engage in acts that would be scientifically and/or morally impossible for us to enact in the day time. And of course, we may also dream of attitudes and beliefs that are in agreement with our conscious perspectives.
We are not morally responsible for what we dream, but we are morally responsible for what we might learn about ourselves from our dreams.
Dreams need not reveal “our true selves” or our “real beliefs” or wishes in any literal way. If you dream of pushing your elderly grandmother down a flight of stairs it does not necessarily mean that you have any impulse, desire or capacity to do so in waking life. The dream could mean a million different things depending on the dreamer’s context and circumstance. It could point to a profound internal conflict in the dreamer about their own mothering capacities. It could speak to the dreamer having an internal argument and wanting to dominate or “push down” aspects of themselves that they see as old or weak. If, it turns out, that the dreamer experienced some form of abuse from their actual grandmother in waking life the dream may expressing repressed rage that the dreamer holds, but we would not view someone who once dreamed of pushing their grandmother down the stairs in the same way that we would view someone who pushed their grandmother down the stairs in actuality.
It would also be important, not to draw any conclusions about the type of person the grandmother may or may not be in reality from the way she is used or behaves in a dream. We should not listen to such a dream to draw conclusions that the grandmother is in fact dangerous, an enemy, a threat, or an obstacle to the dreamer. We should not assume that the grandmother – who perhaps appeared weak or frail or menacing or critical in the dream – is in fact any of those things in actuality.
Jung makes these distinctions very clearly and emphatically when he is talking about dreams that we may have about family members. He asserts that the characterizations that a dream or a dreamer produces about their mother or father or partner speak to the dreamer’s complexes, and the way those complexes are projected onto others and that dreams usually offer little that is useful in understanding anything about the dreamer’s actual family member’s behavior or motivations.
But Jung, and those he is lecturing to, don’t make these distinctions clearly when discussing white Euro-American’s projections and distortions onto non-white cultures and communities. Jung – bound up in matrix of white supremacy of the intellectual tradition he is embedded in – does not see that such reductive stereotypes are the racial complexes of himself and the white people whose dreams he has gathered, the projections and devaluations of white people onto those they see as “other.”
It is extremely common for people, of all races, to unconsciously draw on race, ethnicity, gender, and other identities – symbolically- in their dream lives. Increasingly, people are distressed and perplexed when a racist trope emerges in a dream – and often feel apologetic or ashamed by the image their unconscious has produced. I have heard dreams of people of many different races and nations – I have listened to dreamers from Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Europe – as well as the dreams of people of many different American cultures and communities. We all dream about those we see as “other” – whether it is other tribes, castes, classes, religions, political factions, nationalities, ethnicities or races. We dream of the broken cultural myths and projections that our own communities have assigned to “the Other.” And regularly, the dominant culture then collectively acts out in response to these unnamed cultural projections, imposing these distortions on those they can oppress.
And when we do have such dreams, it is most often because we are trying to come to terms with some “foreign” or othered aspect of ourselves.
I have seen many non-white and/or non-American people for example dream of a boorish, selfish, white American figure:
“.. and then all of a sudden, this loud (white) American was banging on the table next to me demanding attention.. “
Sometimes, such dreams of whiteness/Americanness stand in for a national value placed on the aggressive and entitled pursuit of individualized happiness – especially when the dreamer is from a culture that defines happiness in collective ways that de-emphasize personal fulfillment. Sometimes the “Ugly American” stereotype is reflective of the dominance of our national or collective cultural behavior and/or international policies. It may refer to specific individual or collective experiences of trauma at the hand of white institutions.
And sometimes “the entitled white American” represents an unruly, selfish, individualized or self-regarding desire of the dreamer’s that they are having a hard time ignoring.
We have all internalized cultural myths – perpetuated in all our popular media – about various races or ethnicities. Understanding what these projections and associations have to say about the dreamer themselves is the central work. The symbol points to the dreamer’s psyche, and rarely – unless it is a culture /community/country that the dreamer is deeply immersed in in their daily lives – does the dream says anything valuable, useful or sufficient about the community that has been reduced to a symbol in an outsider’s dream.
We can’t escape the fact that we represent things to each other, that we continuously see other human beings as symbolic of our own conflicts or yearnings-or as symbolic of cultural conflicts, biases, distortions or oppressions.
Jung, seeing himself as a student of global mythology, as a world traveler, does not often make these distinctions clearly when race & ethnicity emerge in dreams.
It may, or may not be true that the dreamer, sees Chinese people as the” opposite” of white people. Perhaps, like many Americans, she was taught that China is on “the opposite side of the world” and it is therefore possible that the Chinese man in her dream does represent something in her psyche that she feels is as far way as possible from herself. She may or may not associate indigenous men with “unchristian” impulses of her own, or the part of herself that is lives closer to her natural instincts.
Jung offers little information about her personal associations to these dreams, for two reasons: One – he is still trying to maintain her privacy and confidentiality and her identity has not yet been “outed” to those attending the seminar. And two – he is hoping to focus on the archetypal elements of these visions – and is evidently attempting to consider these white Euro-centric racial complexes/projections as reflecting instinctive, archetypal differences among cultures. Our instinctive ways of perceiving are often shaped and filtered by our cultural, religious and linguistic differences, but Jung is too often willing to sort these differences in to racial hierarchies or stereo-typed reifications of communities and cultures he views as “other.”
Even while Jung often attempts to be thoughtful and respectful of many different cultural perspectives – when he succumbs to ego-inflation Jung becomes incautious, and prone to making inflated an sweeping commentary on cultures he knows very little about while conflating white-centric cultural distortions of other peoples as fact-based differences between cultures. Our work now, is to examine these cultural internalizations, explore what they may mean, and become more conscious of the ways our acculturations lure us into oppressing others. The call of such dream content is coming to terms with the parts of our own identities that we attempt to keep down and outside of our conscious identities.
I’d been on an oral chemotherapy for nearly three years after a few rounds of inpatient chemo. The average life expectancy on this medication was ten years. I was told I would need to take it “for life.” So, seven years left? Just long enough to see both my children graduate from high school and not much beyond that.
If I was lucky. If the cancer didn’t mutate. If the chemo didn’t damage my heart or destroy my liver first. If I didn’t succumb to anaphalaxis as I tried to continuously suppress my body’s allergic response to the medication with steroids and antihisitimines.
The treatment fatigued me, caused my joints to swell painfully and intermittently – for several days I would lose the use of a hand, and then a week or so later, a foot, a hip, or a knee. My brain felt like a soundtrack played at sixty percent of the normal speed. My short term memory and my ability to organize any more than the smallest amounts information evaporated. Most people assume those who have cancer are actively dying, or that they don’t have cancer anymore and that all the unpleasantness has all been tucked neatly away in the past. Almost no one could comprehend or remember that had cancer, and would have cancer, long term. If I seemed “normal enough” one day, they would tell me that I looked fantastic – and then from that point on assume that my limitations were because I was lazy, ditzy, entitled, rejecting, withholding, depressed, or not “pushing myself” sufficiently. I flailed, forgot and failed again and again – as I attempted to meet the emotional and logistical demands of friends, clients, and kids, as well as the bills, the school, the neighbors, and the community.
I had no prognosis. No cancer co-hort. I was a cancer “unicorn” as my oncologist said. “Its never good to be a rare case, and worse to be a unique one” the resident said one cheery afternoon at my hospital bedside. It was astounding to me that with almost eight billion people on the planet that there was any unique, undiscovered human experience that remained.
The existential isolation – the alienation from the world of “healthy-normals” was almost unbearable. Chatting at parent gatherings or dinner parties – listening to vacation plans years ahead, or talk about their fantasies of life after their kids left for college, their expectations of retirement and eventual grandchildren made me want to scream or flip over the dining room table. The palpable discomfort when someone would try to include me in conversation by asking where I saw myself in five or ten years – and I dared to answer truthfully: I didn’t think ahead because the road ahead was heartbreaking and moved me closer to deterioration and death. The future had been amputated from my imagination the moment I received my peculiar diagnosis. I lived right now, or at most one or two days ahead when my children needed me to be planful. That was it. When I disrupted other’s naïve futurizing, they looked at me aghast, as if I had placed a turd on their dinner plate.
But I had buried too many people whose denial of death had not extended their lives, and if avoiding thinking or speaking of death could save any of us, I had a solid handful of chosen family members would all still be walking around on earth. I’d watched my mother fantasize about getting better even as she moved into residential hospice care. Ellie asked for a second opinion a day or two before her death.
I spent a lot of time talking to dead people. I would argue with them, ask forgiveness, tell them how hurt I was that they had all abandoned me. They were the only people I knew who had lived for some period of time with this much uncertainty. I was enraged they weren’t here to console and advise me: “Oh, I when I was on chemo, I sucked on frozen fruit to soothe my mouth sores… ” I wished they could mentor me in finding the right way to sort all this discomfort, fear, confusion and uncertainty in my head. I yearned to be understood, and who else could understand the psychological labor of such uncertainty?
But, they were dead after all. They had walked ahead of me on this path, one after another, to oblivion, some decades ahead, some just a few months before. It felt dangerous to yearn for them while I was sick, terrifying to identify with them as though it would tie our fates together. If I allowed myself to miss them a thick cord of attachment might yank me into the abyss after them.
I could touch acceptance and peace sometimes, meditate or write my way to it. I would take a few deep gulps of liberation– and then sink back into the existential netherworld – alienated from the community of the living and the family of the dead. I needed to find an in-between place to accept my reality and everything that might come to me in the future. Miraculous cure, remission, resurrection – or deterioration, suffering, loss, death.
My grandmother used to tell a story about caring for my mother, who contracted small pox in infancy. The doctor sent her home from the hospital, saying there was nothing further they could do for her. My grandmother had been completely frantic for many days trying to manage the baby’s fever, “doing” anything and everything she could think of to keep the baby comfortable and alive, feeding her medicines, covering her with poultices and cool compresses. Exhausted, she left the hospital carrying a baby she was told would die. But when she got home and put the baby in the crib – a sudden gratitude came over her, her love for the baby girl became far more important than her fear about losing her. She said she felt an almost mystical calmness, knowing that whatever happened next, whether her infant lived or died, the baby would be all right. She held and patted the baby calmly, holding her against her skin – not driven by fear for the first time in days – and in an hour or so, the baby’s fever broke. And obviously, my mother lived, until I had buried her a few months earlier.
Maybe my mother would have lived anyway. Maybe my grandmother being able to hold the baby with the equanimity of love rather than terror activated some healthy, secure, immuno-response in the infant. Maybe the action that was needed was fundamentally different than my grandmother could imagine when she was terrorized. Maybe what my mother needed only became clear to my grandmother only after she withstood her terror past the point of anything she imagined she could tolerate.
I was near to that very breaking point. I needed to blow the gunk out of my pipes.
I was familiar with the psilocybin studies and their remarkable effectiveness with end of life anxieties. I’d tracked them and kept them in the back of my mind as my mother and our dear friend Ellie were dying, in case it was something that they showed any interest in. I’d never used psychedelics with any healing intentions. In college I once “babysat” a house full of college friends who dropped acid “for fun” and spent a long boring evening watching them discover the meaning of life in the bathroom faucets and an anthill on the driveway. That same year I had eaten one magic mushroom with friends in the parking lot at Disneyland and spent the evening laughing hysterically in The Happiest Place on Earth.
Would such a thing help? Was I even experiencing “end of life anxiety”? What I felt most consistently was exhaustion from working hard on an intractable dilemma. I felt fucking frustrated. I felt alone. I felt overwhelmed by the relentless impossible expectations of others. I felt unsure of how to contend with the clinical “uniqueness” of my circumstance. I felt terrified of further harming my children by dying, or worse, by a long, protracted, resource-consuming deterioration on the way to death.
Traditional religious narratives about reincarnation and other forms of life after death were not comforting or compelling. I wasn’t looking for reassurance that I would live on. Admittedly, I would actively imagine the essence of all my dead ones, my personal communion of saints – lingering somewhere nearby where they could hear me cry and rail at them, but I did not cognitively place any faith in the idea of human personality continuing in recognizable form after death.
I could imagine “my” matter and energies being repurposed, recycled more easily than I could hope for resurrection. “I” would dissolve most likely, leaving an imprint behind in the memories of others. The causal chains that I had initiated or perpetuated or disrupted would continue to unfold throughout time. Perhaps some of the good I had done for my clients and children would be passed down through their off-spring and their communities.
My illness taught me so much that I’d wished I had known while I was caring for the dying. I’d spent all my energy managing my own terror, trying everything I could to alleviate their discomfort, and creating as many indelible memories together as possible. I’m not sure I could comprehend that as I struggled to say goodbye to them, they were saying goodbye to everything and everyone, contending with the imminent erasure of their beings, their memories, their loves, their hatreds, the loss of their very identities.
As my mother lay dying she cried out: “But how will you ever survive without me?” The violation of the parental mandate to protect her off-spring was so excruciating that even though I was fifty years old, she assumed her absence could jeopardize my survival. When I was diagnosed eighteen months later, I was grateful that my mother had not lived to experience her daughter face a confounding, eventually terminal illness.
We may be able to bear our own sufferings, but the suffering of children, of any age, is intolerable. The idea that I would be responsible, against my will, for the pain that my deterioration and death would inflict on my children tore my brain to pieces. Trauma was coming into their lives through me, through my body, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. As an adoptive mother this horror was compounded by the fact that both of my children had already lost a mother before they were placed in my arms. Now, my threatened departure would compound such monumental losses. The weight of this was the most excruciating suffering of my life, one that I wrestled with daily. I tried to rally and find the energy to perform all the mothering duties I could for a pair of bereaved and traumatized tweens. How could I ever come to some kind of peace if it meant abandoning and harming them? All the saints and avatars who faced their death with blissed out lucidity and martyred acceptance had it easy – none that I could think of were mothers of young children. Facing death, I enviously imagined, would be a comparative walk in the park, if my children were consolidated adults or I was child-free.
I hoped my family and I would be spared somehow, that a miracle would happen – that the few extremely lopsided statistics that might be generalizable to my unique case might tip in my favor. Fewer than fifteen percent of “normal” cases on this treatment ever tested clear enough to stop chemotherapy. Of that fifteen percent, only half stayed in remission in the first year off of medication. But even as I hoped for the miraculous, I knew I could not demand or expect it. Miracles must always be surprising.
This all churned through me for the few coherent, non-fatigued hours of my day. These were the fears that haunted my dreams and startled me awake in the dead of the night.
I wanted relief from the churning and the isolation and turmoil. I’d gone as far on my own as I could.
I re-read and reviewed all the studies. Followed the news from the psychedelic research organizations. I bought the pertinent books and dusted off my old Ram Dass paperbacks. I sought to understand more about the sacred function of plant medicines in the traditional communities that were intimate with them. I became increasingly convicted that this was what I needed to do to get to the “other side” of the psychospiritual mountain I was trying to climb.
The university studies were full or had moved on to test new populations, as psilocybin was already conclusively effective in circumstances like my own. I fanned out into my community. I sought out a facilitator. I interviewed with a few people and hemmed and hawed and learned to beat around the bush and read between the lines in emails and skype calls –cognizant that the support I was seeking was necessary and substances, even for established therapeutic purposes, were illegal. One suggested I travel with them to South America. I could barely commute into the city and back twice a week. South America wasn’t happening.
Finally I spoke to someone who asked all the same assessment questions I would have. A person whose natural clinical skills I would have been pleased to encounter in a supervisee. They worked primarily with people who psychedelics to address PTSD, but it was clear they would be quite capable of withstanding whatever existential anxieties that I might need to process on my “journey.”
I called the bravest, most supportive, most attuned friend I had to see if she felt comfortable giving me her apartment for an 8 hour stretch. She didn’t hesitate, and we scheduled for a month or so later.
I did not confer with my oncologist. Perhaps, if my doctor had better bedside manner and basic emotional-intelligence I might have considered it – but when you have a cancer so rare as to be unique you need a cutting-edge scientist, not a hand-holder. As it stood, I did my own medical research for contraindications and adverse interactions. The daily chemotherapy I took was primarily processed by the liver and in order to avoid additional stress to that organ – I chose to discontinue the chemo for 4 days before and 3 after “the experience.” I’d already been told that if I ever needed a tooth pulled or surgery I should discontinue for a week – so I assumed that if it was safe enough to miss a week for a tooth extraction, it was safe enough to miss a week to see if I could gain some peace of mind.
I spent the intervening weeks honing my intentions and journaling:
I want to be open to miraculous healing without losing access to a healthy relationship with death. I want to live freely with the reality of death, accept the gifts it has given me. I want to accept all that I cannot remedy.
I want to release any fear for my children’s future, trusting that their life is their own. I would like to parent from love and faith, not from fear.
I want to be able to feel how to make decisions and prioritize my energies based on whatever time I have allotted to me. Whether my time is shorter or longer I want to do whatever I am meant to do with that time. I want to cherish time and never waste it.
I want all my archetypal guides and guardians, all the bohdisattvas to surround me. I want to draw strength from the love of friends who have faced illness and death and not be afraid of their presence in my heart.. My grandparents, my in-laws, Tommy, Bob, Ellie, Jason. My parents only if they can serve some healing function. I ask them to help me set down old ways, and help me release all that is unnecessary.
I want to find a new center to live from, now that my former life has been stripped away. I want to locate that center, and operate out of it, and have a clear sense of what is, and is not my business. I want to work in the world from a new center.
I wake up early to ride the 6:30 train into the city. I am mildly nervous – not because I am scared of what might happen, but because I am worried about what might not happen. The facilitator arrives with nuts, fruit, chocolate, an eye mask, an expensive speaker that they synch to their phone, and a package of novelty socks. I choose a pair with Van Gogh’s sunflowers on them.
The ceremonial frame is thoughtful, brief and to the point. The instructions for the journey are simple: Say “yes” to every aspect of the journey. Move through every doorway. Accept whatever might come.
It takes a while to begin. I wait thirty or forty minutes – and sit up frustrated and as sober as a judge. I increase the dose, by only half of what the facilitator suggests – and settle back down into the cozy nest of pillows on my friend’s floor, put the eye mask back on, and begin to sink into meditation.
I am at once hit with wave after wave of grief. For friends and family gone for decades, and for those who left a few year, or a few brief months earlier. Their faces, their stories, their departures assault me, in vivid detail, and I am flooded with the emotional realization of how much, how many I have lost. The sorrow, the pain feels good somehow – like a tension that had existed just under my sternum had finally cracked open. I breathe into that opening, and weep quietly for a time.
I then find myself in a particular space that has come to me in dreams and in meditation since I began treatment:
I lay on the ground, on my back, on the ground of a contained and insulated biosphere, surrounded by plants with broad leaves and the smell of rich loamy earth. The arched glass dome above me is silvered with mercury. The quicksilver allows only a healing opaque light into the sphere while it also obscures and protects me. Its outer shell impermeable and reflective.
And for months I lay there in that spirit-bubble. Inert. Unable to move at first, and then over time, having no idea how or where to move.
I had fallen into a new world. A space between life and death.
But now, under this dome, toward my left, a pair of doors opens to an outer-world. Geoffrey Holder, in his guise as Baron Samedi, the Voudou Lord of the Dead, stands in the doorway with his top hat, as he had in so many of my childhood dreams. This time I am happy, relieved to see him, a familiar face, a guide I have come to respect and trust. I follow him out of the grey light of the protective dome into a lush landscape of tall, broad leafed bright tropical plants. Sometimes he dances – the banda dance – along the trail ahead of me, sometimes he circles me. We move along this way without speaking, up and down hills, deeper and deeper into a dense undergrowth, the plants and trees growing taller as we proceed. Eventually the canopy of leaves overhead blocks the sun, and we move through a green-gold glow of filtered sunlight.
And then the path ends.
I stand there and wait for guidance – Geoffrey Holder gestures toward the rainforest but doesn’t move in that direction himself. All my dead people arrive. My mother, my grandparents, my old friends Bob and Tommy. My grandmother-in-law and father-in-law. Ellie is there near the front. And Jason. They look at me expectantly. I don’t know what any of them want from me. The path has come to an end! I can’t go further – there is nowhere to go! Increasingly agitated, I pace back and forth on the soft dirt trail, for what seems like a very long time. I wait for some opening somewhere to emerge. The dead just stand there, with their hands in their pockets, looking at the impenetrable thicket of thorns and vines.
The facilitator notices my impatient breathing and asks if I am okay.
“There is supposed to be a path here! They led me down this path into a thick forest and it just stopped – and they keep looking at me like I’m supposed to do something but there is no path!”
“Maybe you are forging the path.” the facilitator responded.
“Fuck” I hear myself respond, my voice too loud. “FUCK. You are totally right and I hate that. I wanted a path. But ugh, of course you are right.”
A machete appears, or maybe Baron Samedi hands me one. I step into the bush and begin hacking. The dead come along with me, but Baron stays behind, watching me as I hack a narrow indentation through the thick foliage. The work is hot, buggy, sweaty. Thorns scratch red stinging welts into my arms. The dead have become smaller, floating above the ground. They hover hear my head, beside me, just beyond my peripheral vision. They don’t lead or guide or advise me. They don’t pull or assist or help. They aren’t followers. They accompany me. That’s it. That is their function. They keep me company through the hard, tedious slog. I am accompanied but the labor is mine alone.
It grows darker as I continue to whack away through the forest, when I come to the edge of a high bluff. The sun has recently set, there is a deep red glow along a mountain ridge on the horizon and the first stars are emerging high in the dark sky. The dead ones seem to have all have left, except for Jason. He takes me to the top of an unfathomably tall mountain. We sit at the edge of earth’s atmosphere and he shows me sunset after sunset after sunset. Thousands of sunsets, decades’ worth. Each one is excruciatingly beautiful, setting the entire sky ablaze. After what seems like hours he turns to me and he says the only spoken words I will encounter in this vision:
“Do you see? Endings are so beautiful and important.”
I leave Jason and the mountain. The stars and the night sky disappear. I am flung into what I can only describe as a wash cycle submerged in a spinning tub of dirty water. Here I encounter all kinds of imbalanced relationships, connections turned toxic, deteriorating friendships, people I feel trapped by, clients I can no longer serve, acquaintances better avoided.
These are the attachments I must release, and they are being spun away, the psychological cords that connect us dissolve. These are all the relationships that I gave more to than I received, more than was healthy for either of us. Those that could not give back to me sufficiently, even when they wanted to, even when they tried. I am responsible for staying attached as long as I did, for over-investing. Many of them are angry, hurt, disappointed as I re-collect my energies. I try to find a way to disconnect from them in this spinning whirlpool, without abandoning or distressing them – but I soon see that this is impossible. I allow the severance to happen and acknowledge that it is necessary even if it is experienced as brutal or hurtful on the other end. These were the relationships that persisted in believing that I should give more when I had nothing at all, those who felt entitled to “their share” of the finite energies that belonged first and foremost to myself and my children. We spun around in the swirling waters, as if circling an invisible drain. Some were sucked under, and my task was to resist trying to rescue them, and to avoid their grasping when I could barely stay afloat myself. I had been tasked with saying “yes” to the challenges presented to me, and this was the challenge of saying “No.”
In time, the “waters” began to rinse clear and settle down. The hungry ghosts were gone.
Everything transformed into simple, hollow line drawings, like a Therber cartoon come to life. I was a thin outline of myself, swimming though the air, among a few other pencil line caricatures spotted here and there at a distance. I recognize one nearer me to be a “drawing” of Carl Jung swimming by. He conveys, without speaking, that he is relieved that I see him as human and fallible, as a fellow traveler. I convey to him that I am just grateful for the company he has offered as I have spent so much time negotiating these strange waters entirely alone.
The scene changes:
I am in the desert on some high purchase, looking over a wide basin with dramatic mountains on the distant horizon – a Georgia O’Keefe vision. Perhaps this is the same place I sat with Jason to watch the sunsets –but now I am in the bright sun and can see my environs. I am in the center of a rounded stone courtyard or patio, with four whitewashed adobe columns squaring the edges of the circle. It could be an outdoor stage – like the orchestra of a Greek amphitheater, or an altar of some kind, or maybe the transcept of some outdoor church. It is unquestionably a sacred, central space.
I know that this space is my responsibility – I am the guardian, and it is gloriously empty. The emptiness is an exquisite relief. There is no fountain, no piece of art, no bench or pulpit, or pew, no bird feeder or garden. Just stone slabs and adobe and sun and sky and wind and the distant mountains. There are ravens and hawks, perhaps even some eagles, soaring in lazy spirals high in the sky overhead.
I lay on my back on the warm stone slab covered with pebbles and stare up at the sunny blue sky. I can feel my children nearby, although I cannot see them. Their souls circle in the air like the birds – in and out of the sky above me, in and out of this holy place. It is clear that as caretaker of this place that nothing and no one may enter without my permission. I am not to allow any junk, clutter, noise or distraction into this gloriously empty arena. I feel a deep sense of peace as I imagine my children “landing” here after a challenging adventure, lingering to rest and heal as long as they desire, before flying off out into the wider world again. It feels easy, effortless to preserve this space for all of us, and to release them to the danger and adventure of their fates -as naturally as I would allow a wild bird to land and refresh themselves and return to the wild without excessive worry or concern. The wild is where they belong, whatever the outcome. I do not have to protect them or provide them with anything else. They have eternal permission to retreat to this refuge. I do not need prepare them for anything – Nature herself has done that, and they have instinct and the still small voice to guide them. I only have to preserve this space for them to move in and out of when they are ready and as they choose.
I weep with relief as something heals inside of me. I do not need to be afraid of leaving them – because they are in the process themselves of leaving and returning, and will always have access to what is permanent between us. This feels as it should.
It occurs to me as I lie there, that I do not know if this “space” exists in life, or in death, or both or neither. I do not know if creating and keeping this space, literally or archetypally is my life assignment for whatever time I have left – or if this is an image of work already completed, and a taste of the peaceful emptiness of death. I realize, within the vision, that it doesn’t matter –It is the same responsibility, the same task, and the same relief – past or present, alive or dead.
My teenagers lives will be what they will be. They will meet their fates and falter or fulfil their destinies. There is nothing I can or should do to interfere with that. My own fate will impact their for good and for ill no matter if I live or die. I have given them a protected, maternal space, they have eternal permission to rest in the center of my soul, for all eternity. It has always existed, and will continue to exist, inside of them, inside of me – as surely and as permanently as I hold the accepting, restful love of the dead ones inside my own heart. Perhaps life would offer me the opportunity to create such a space in the external world, but if so – it would only serve to reinforce this archetypal reality – a receptive maternal container open to the world, to the sky, in every direction. I do not know whether my parenting work is “done” or only begun, but the vision assures me my work thus far, has been sufficient.
I weep and weep with relief, the eye-mask absorbs my tears.
I then I find myself standing in the center of this outdoor altar, this squared circle alone. What am I to do with this space, what should I build or manifest here? How should I use it?
My first thought is that I could simply enjoy the emptiness for a good long time. The unobstructed crystalline view. The wind and the sun and the clouds and the mountains. This empty uncluttered space exists for me, a power-spot, a place to feel my relationship to the earth, to the universe. I imagined I could enjoy this emptiness forever, and never be moved to “do anything” with it at all.
Yet, as I sat there – I began to suspect that lessons, spirits, visitors, leadings might materialize here. Anything might emerge from the ground, or the world around or the sky above or the valley below. I sit still and receive whatever might grow, blow or wander in. Animals, dreams, wildflowers, storms, strokes of lightening, or acts of God could arrive or descend. I could sit still and receive them all.
I realize can also create anything I like here, give away anything that I generate here, sing out to this world from this stronghold if I choose to, if something rose up in me that I wanted to create or share or communicate. I could release a message and it would ring out to the far mountains. It wasn’t mandatory, nothing would be extracted from me, but if I am filled with something to share I can do so from this platform. It is a space where anything at all, and nothing at all could happen.
This altar offered a restfulness so deep, so rich, so free from all striving or obligations – that it was almost unfathomable to me. I could respond to what presented itself, or I could do nothing at all. And it occurred to me again, that I had no idea if this is what the rest of my life on this planet might feel like, or if this is an image of “resting in eternal peace.” And also, not knowing didn’t matter at all, because it felt eternally true.
The facilitator let me know that seven hours of real time passed, although if felt like twenty years in the land of Narnia. I thank the souls and entities I met along the way: Geoffrey Holder/Baron Samedi, all my dead family by blood and by choice, Jason, Carl Jung, and the birds I had watched circling in the sky.
I thank the facilitator for their care and labor, especially for their help at a crucial and frustrating moment. I eat some blueberries and dark chocolate, and sip some herbal tea. I pay in cash before the facilitator leaves and my friend returns home. We flop on the couch and spend the rest of the evening watching gardening celebrity Monty Don help people transform their little dead courtyards into exquisite gardens. When it is time for bed, I sleep peacefully through the night – with some light waking here and there that I use to revisit the scenes I had passed through. After brunch the next morning, I feel enough myself to travel back home.
A few days later, the facilitator offered me a recording of our session that I chose to delete without listening to. I trust that if my psyche forgot or confabulated through some of the experience – just as we unconsciously reshape and find coherence in our nighttime dreams upon waking – that it did so for good reason. What I retain, and how I do or do not retain it feels to me to be as elemental to the process as the medicine journey itself.
The facilitator scheduled a follow up session to process anything that might have been unsettling. I appreciated that this is a responsible practice, that I would offer myself if I did such work, but I felt no need for it. The experience was grounding, not unsettling. I felt quite lucid and oriented through the entire experience – maybe because I had kept the dose low and set my intentions clearly. Or maybe because I had been working with my dreams, and active imagination practices for decades and interacting with the parts of my being and brain that the mushrooms brought forward were second nature. Or maybe the plant medicine had simply granted me the capacity to work my way through the mental/emotional/spiritual challenges I had been wrestling with for years with an intensity of focus and endurance that was beyond my day to day capacity.
The next day I took a long walk with my husband, and shared the events I had experienced with him. I made some notes in my journal. I drew a silly picture of the overlook that offered me such a wide view of the world. And then, I knew all I had to do was simply step back, return to life and let it all sink in.
In the months that followed, the lessons I had been offered solidified on their own, and. continue to solidify. I saw my boundaries shift and consolidate around protecting the stillness that had stayed with me. I watched my interactions with extraneous, disruptive relationships rearrange – many coming to a close entirely, some gently, some abruptly.
As I headed into my next round of medical tests, I noticed I was not afraid. The results could be negative, positive or neutral. The scans would either change everything, or change nothing. I would accept and respond to whatever came. I no longer thought of my mother or Ellie or any of the rest as “ahead” of me on a road that would lead to inevitability. There was no path to follow. They had all walked their own routes and met their own fates. My fate was my own, and one that I would continue to have carve out for myself, like it or not. If “bad” news came, and it meant it was time to begin the beautiful and important works of ending. If “good” or neutral news came – it meant that I could continue to hold and solidify a protected nesting space for my children as they became young adults. I could continue to “swim” in waters near to Jung but not centered on him. And I would continue to move toward that peace-filled powerful plateau, where I could create or respond as I felt led. Whatever happened, there was nothing to fret or worry about.
A few weeks later the result came in and were surprisingly positive, miraculous even. A cancer that in its usual manifestations is almost always chronic – incurable but manageable – was no longer detectable, in my spinal fluid, in my bone marrow, in my blood, or on the MRI’s of my spine. After almost three years of side effects, I could stop the chemotherapy. I watched, over the next several months –cognitive processing speed and executive functioning returned to near normal – although it left more and larger swiss cheese holes in my memory than before. I gained weight back, my appetite returned, and although the cancer had left some permanent nerve damage, the other side effects lifted with each passing week.
I noticed how much of my guilt and feelings of failure stemmed from the confusion and fatigue of the medication. I became remorseless about setting limits with those who had constantly called me to overextend myself. I decided that the boundaries the cancer and chemotherapy had set for me were boundaries I would respect for life, as there was no knowing when it would return. I would guard that inner/outer temple, vigilantly and for the rest of my days.
Over the summer we would vacation in New Mexico, and I would recognize the landscape of my vision, and begin to organize a fantasy of moving when our nest was empty in a handful of years. By mid-September it was clear that our kids were suffering in a deteriorating school, and that there was no compelling reason to remain on the East Coast. By October I had found a house, on an outcropping of a foothill, on the precipice of an enormous basin surrounded by mountains. On Christmas Eve we arrived in our new home, and I sat near the window each winter evening and watched the first of hundreds, hopefully thousands – of sunsets.
I know that the vision I was given made permanent changes in my behavior and my being, created new neuro-pathways, and led me all the way to my core. I do not prescribe or recommend such experiences for others, although I do help people integrate their experiences afterward. But for those who feel led to this on their own – I have no idea what kind of experience may await you. These are just the gifts I was given.
It is only upon writing this, and reviewing the journal entries that preceded this vision that I see how precisely the plant medicine gave me exactly what I asked for. I know now, that I have spent many months since studying psychedelic healings that the medicines most often give supplicants what they need, and not necessarily what they think they want. I am grateful that my requests were aligned with what the medicine wanted to offer me.
Would I do it again? Well over a year later, I can’t imagine the resonance of this experience fading, or needing the plant’s assistance for any problem that life could place in my path. If death were to approach again from such a significant distance as opposed to a sudden stroke of fate ? If I found myself needing to engage in long bittersweet goodbyes with too much time to contemplate my final exit? I might ask the medicine again for help in soothing my sorrows and to shore up my ability to trust and surrender to the course of nature.
But until then, I rest upon this archetypal experience, as real as any lived event, as solid as any formative memory. I continue to wait and watch what emerges as I sit in stillness, occasionally singing out a message into to valley below, accepting whatever tomorrow may bring.