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
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.
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 public 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.
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.
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
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.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
We all know the story of Narcissus, and the dangers of falling too deeply in self-love, mesmerized by our own reflection.
And we all know that fairy tales warn us of the black arts of deceptive mirrors which seduce us into the belief that we are indeed the “fairest of them all”
Psychoanalytic theory has wrestled with the idea of the reflected self – and the hunger we all have to see ourselves accurately and completely. The need to gaze at ourselves is simultaneously labeled as narcissistic disease, and the same mirroring gaze is the cure itself.
Self-involvement, self-regard, self-love, self-awareness, self-negation, self-esteem, selfishness and self-reflection. Our fascination with mirrors speaks to our archetypal hunger to see ourselves in both a flattering and an accurate light, our fear of what we may find, the tricks and dangers that lurk through the looking-glass and the wish to know realities that require the aid of the reflecting glass.
For without such reflections we cannot begin to know ourselves at all.
Relationship as Mirror
I your glass Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
Shakespeare ~ Julius Cesar
The first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is “the gleam in the mother’s eye” – a glimpse of our infant-selves, feeding, reflected in the dark pupil of a care provider. For those lucky enough to first see themselves in an eye-mirror that is smiling, admiring, bonded, and loving our most primordial sense of Self will be surrounded in adoration and security. For those with depressed, absent, distracted or indifferent care takers the first glimpse of ourselves may be anxious, disrupted, hopeless or fragmentary.
And some cannot find themselves there at all.
Mothering and mirroring are archetypal functions entangled and intertwined long before psychoanalysis conflated them:
In Christian art the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. As the medieval writer Jacobus de Voragine wrote:
“As the sun permeates glass without violating it, so Mary became a mother without losing her virginity… She is called a mirror because of her representation of things, for as all things are reflected from a mirror, so in the blessed Virgin, as in the mirror of God, ought all to see their impurities and spots, and purify them and correct them…” ~ The Fitzwilliam Museum
Over time early caretakers wield their parental power with “an increasing selectivity of responses.” As the mother’s face-mirror shifts from admiring to disappointing, approving to disapproving, flattering to shaming it prunes our sense of our own strengths and weaknesses, and helps us to assemble a socialized self – a mask, a false-self, a personae to introduce ourselves to the world.
The first experience of a disapproving mirror casts us from the garden, initiates us into the processes of repression and introduces us to sin and shame.
The most destructive energies within us must first be met with some approval for their self-preserving, evolutionary function in order for us to integrate them into our own self-image, and learn to modulate them and use them effectively.
The consequence of the parental self-objects inability to be the joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness may be a lifetime of abrasiveness, bitterness and sadism that cannot be discharged- and it is only by means of therapeutic reactivation of the original need for the self-objects responses that the actual lessening of rage and a return to healthy assertiveness can be achieved. ~ Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of Self.
In Kohut’s model, the psychotherapist creates an opportunity for a corrective experience by assuming transferred responsibility for these mirroring needs – as a self-object that helps to repair and integrate distorted or unmirrored aspects of the Self. The therapist offers an accepting, admiring gaze, one that allows the client to shed the distorting self-representations left over from being raised surrounded by fun house mirrors.
For Kohut, the need for healthy self-mirroring objects, accurate enough, even through its imperfections, is life long. Psychotherapies that span a life-time are not seen as failed – but as necessary compensations for our ongoing need to see and accept ourselves as we are over time.
No one looks in a mirror just once. We feel the need in to check in on ourselves, to peer and peek, take in and groom our reflections, sometimes several times a day, every day as we grow, mature and decline over for the course of our lives. We wonder if we could know ourselves over time, if we could have a sense of how life passes through us at all without our mirrors.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
Mirrors & Shadows
In myth, scripture, fairy tale and legend, the mirror as archetype serves far more uncanny functions, functions more dangerous, ambivalent, sacred and transcendent than merely regulating our self-esteem.
Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.
Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. ~ CG Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”
Our truest face, our whole Self includes a shadow that is terrifying to us, as almost every scary movie will attest to. What is more frightening than staring in a mirror, alone, in an empty house, at night with nothing to encounter except yourself in the quiet dark? What horror will be revealed? What chilling doppleganger lurks underneath our daytime persona?
We are horrified and titillated by seeing our denied, demonic shadow selves reflected.
There are destructive creatures lurking in our personal unconscious that can only be vanquished, by taking indirect aim through their reflection, as Perseus defeated Medusa. Complexes that are so potent, that if we attempt to face them too squarely, too directly we could be turned to stone.
There are monsters and entities which are only recognized by empty mirrors which reveal their soul-lessness. Our undead selves, the haunting self-apsects not alive but not dead either, vampiric states that drain us when we are unaware, our eyes closed to what has emerged to feed when we were not awake to ourselves.
In Psychology and Alchemy, C.G. Jung details a dream in which a mirror appears as “an indispensable instrument of navigation” referring “to the intellect which is able to think, and is constantly persuading us to identify with its insights (reflections).”
Metabolizing shadow content is one of the functions of psychotherapy too, as well as safely and incrementally, breaking down the repressions, fear, and judgement which caused those self-states to find themselves banished to the mirror-lands to begin with.
Here the focus of psychotherapeutic work is less on the psychotherapist as corrective mirror, but more as a warm and accepting guide, who’s job is to usher us into active relationship with our own Unconscious.
Mirrors can also show us glimpses of worlds far beyond our personal unconscious.
Mirrors, Soul and Spirit
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
~ 1 Corinthians, 13:12 King James Bible
Mirrors are windows into alternate universes, to magic realms, to the upside down places, and can transport us to the dream-lands and spirit worlds. They are the looking-glass we can fall through, and the portal which both dark and benevolent spirits pass through to contact us.
Faust on his journey with Mephistopheles first falls in love with face of Divine love – Heavenly beauty, the Anima, manifest as the face of Helen of Troy when her image emerges in a magic mirror. It is this contact with his own soul and the redeeming spirit which, in the end, will ultimately save him.
And from her living body, lying there
Comes there indeed all heaven my soul to bless?
~ Faust, Goethe
Mirror phenomenon are also representative of the intuitive function: To look in a mirror lit only by candle light reveals the spirits of those who have died. Or practice mirror gazing, catopromancy, as Pythagoras did, and divine your fate as it emerges in the glass. Reflection under the moonlight opens the mind’s eye to the images, intuitions, and guidance of larger psyche: the instincts and perceptions unconsciously repressed or consciously dismissed in the light of day.
Without the silvered glass we may never retrieve unknown, forgotten or lost pieces of our own soul.
It was a maxim both in ancient India and in ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in the water and …the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul ‘under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Like photographs, when isolated cultures without mirrors were introduced to them for the first time, it was often assumed that the reflection was their actual soul, having left the body.
We cover mirrors following a death so the soul does not become lost within them and a broken mirror is an image of a shattered soul in pieces, and it will take seven years before its wholeness is restored.
If the mirror is “‘a thing that has been made the screen for man’s projections” (Elkish) then through the processes of projection we lose some part of our soul.
So, what then are psychotherapists as personified blank-screens and mirroring-objects gathering up client’s projections and transferences – but soul-stealers and head-shrinkers, holding our client’s souls hostage for a weekly ransom? As psychotherapists we must always acknowledge the darker aspects of our powers and the archetypes that are present in the therapeutic transaction. As clients, the mirror as archetype reminds us that we must remain always cognizant of the dangers of becoming trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.
It seems that the fear of loss of self (or soul) together with the attempt at retrieving the lost makes the mirror so fascinating ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Mirrors, Tricks and Miracles
The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game ~ Alan Watts
Of course stage magicians also rely on mirrors to create pleasurable tricks and amusements. It is a deception that we participate in happily, willingly, suspending our disbelief to delight in the hidden mirrors ability to make things appear or disappear, or to make something or someone dense, burdensome and heavy transform into something as light as a feather. As we watch the volunteer from the audience levitate, mirrors obscuring the mechanisms of suspension, our own burdens feel lighter too.
Mirrored tricks and illusions can have profoundly healing effects: Mirror-boxes are used to effectively treat phantom limb pain following amputation. The intact limb is placed in front of the mirror box, which masks the missing limb. The patient watches the mirror while they stretch, unfurl, scratch, or massage the intact limb, relieving the discomfort of the missing limb. The mind is not fooled into the literal belief that their missing limb has been restored, but the brain is fooled and the illusion soothes and relieves.
And perhaps psychotherapy is at its very best, a similar curative illusion, a healing trick, a soothing substitution – rather than a literally corrective experience for losses incurred in the past. A trick which both participants must remember is both an illusion and a cure.
Or maybe it is something else:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
An image presented itself to me in a hypnogogic state recently – as I drifted in between sleep and waking:
I sat in my office chair, my face hidden from view, my head behind a mirror inside a box much like a medicine cabinet. I sat across from an unknown Other, who I could see only dimly, but who saw their soul reflected when they faced me. They were transfixed, filled with yearning, with deep hunger for more contact, to forge a deep and lasting relationship with the face in front of them. I was not fooled. I knew that I was not what they sought. But it was nearly impossible to impress the truth upon them: What they thought they could only access through “me” was merely a reflection of their Self: “wholeness, totality, the union of opposites, the central generative point where God and man meet… the fountain of our being which is most simply described as God” ~ Edward Edinger – Ego and Archetype
“Mirror”: from the Vulgar Latin, “mirare” to look at,” variant of Latin mirari “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished” – also the historical source of “Miracle” and “Miraculous”
What you seek is already within you. This reality is subjective, not the outer, objective reality. ~ Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror quoted in Parabola vol, 39, issue 1
It is your own lush self
you hunger for
~ Lucille Clifton, Eve’s Version
Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c. ~ ( http://www.etymonline.com)
So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.
Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me. I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.
Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.
People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.
Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.
Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.
Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag it out of them:
“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”
“No. I am not angry….”
“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”
“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”
Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.
Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.
Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.
Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.
Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.
And of course, I get angry too.
I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?
If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.
Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.
And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.
In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.
As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.
I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it. I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.
I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:
“There will be times when I disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’ If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable – and its an essential part of how therapy works.
It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”
It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.
Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.
Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)
Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.
And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.
If I can. I can’t always.
And sometimes even that is not enough.
It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.
Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.
Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.
Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)
If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.
The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.
What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.
It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?
If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?
The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
But first we must embrace the wrestling match.
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
~ Hard Times lyrics by Stephen Foster
I didn’t mean to write this, or intend to write anything – it is probably unwise to publish it, but I suppose I will anyway. Frankly I’ve been thinking I should take a break from writing altogether for a bit.
I’m just not so filled with easy inspiration, or reassuring confidence, or heart warming feel-goodisms.
My husband and I are in midlife and are, like many of our peers, sandwiched in between caring for our elders and our children. All of whom, for the time being are in significant and legitimate need of our support through some more and less challenging medical realities. Testing, appointments, evaluations, treatments, follow up, referrals. We are in the thick of it and it looks like we may be for a while.
A summer which felt like it was ripe with openings, fortune, potential and new growth crashed into a shocking and frightening fall which will unavoidably open up to a tiring cold winter.
It happens sometimes. We’ve faced such things before, and will again. I’ve seen and supported clients and friends and neighbors as they’ve passed through similar hard times.
Just as all human beings do.
But psychotherapists are supposed to be invulnerable, no? Fully actualized? Enlightened? Able to absorb anything that comes their way?
And who would want to see (or read) a psychotherapist in the midst of hard times?
Better to source out some therapist who is perky and happy! Who feels in control of life! Who can make you feel better!
Yet, sometimes life gets heavy. Sometimes there is work to be done. Sometimes we are pulled in many directions. Sometimes our choices are narrowed down by circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes a great deal is required of us. Sometimes, despite our plans and intentions, our possibilities restrict themselves to a very few or none at all. Sometimes our external freedoms become constricted. Sometimes the wolf is at the door.
So, for me, this isn’t a silly, playful, easy season filled with boundless, bouncy energy.
I am sometimes weary. I am sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes I want to run. Sometimes I am incredibly proud of myself and my ability to keep moving, to get done all that I need to, and stay connected to myself and others. Sometimes I want to spend a day in bed with the covers over my head. Sometimes I am swelling with appreciation for the tender comforts around me, the honesty and intimacy and contact that the relationships in my life, personal and professional, offer me whether they know it or not.
Sometimes this season has offered me glimpses of deeper truths, timeless ones, that transcend and soothe through the rough and jumble of the road I am on for the moment.
I am all right. I’m okay just as I am. Where I am feels healthy and appropriate. To be too cheery right now would be denial of reality, a self-deception, and would pull me further away from the phase of life and the external challenges I am passing through for the foreseeable future. But certainly not forever.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
Happiness doesn’t last forever, but nor does sorrow, and neither does trouble. All states have gifts to offer, lessons to teach, blessings to bestow.
Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.
Sorrow has its season.
Even for psychotherapists.
Energy retreats, retracts, and peace can be found in small, still moments, in quiet spaces deeply internal. Fake smiles, chit chat, false reassurances would make me less present, banish me, send me away, exhaust and deplete me more and make me abandon myself, thinning out my resources to connect to others.
“How are you?” Some clients routinely ask – usually I respond, honestly, “Fine! How are you?” Now my response is more subdued, but still honest. “I’m okay. And you?” or “I’m hanging in. What is happening in your world?”
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
To do this work I need to be in contact with myself, and I need to stay in contact with myself, and remain loyal to my own energies, even when it is not comfortable.
Through my professionally arranged face, through my slower, quieter responses, through the circles under my eyes, (which can betray me – no matter how much “concealer” I apply) some still feel the shift in my energies. Some, especially those who come for time limited short term work, to focus on a single issue, or who use therapy as a problem solving space, take it as their cue that it is time to finish up, assuming that if I am offering less, that it is a signal that our work is complete.
Some clients know part of the story, as medical appointments for family members have caused me to cancel, reschedule and rearrange appointments more than I have ever before. Some know the whole story because they dream of it, or read me so closely, and so hard that it frightens them more not to be told what is happening.
Some don’t know anything, or know a little, but need me to protect them from thinking too much about me – as it is hard enough for them to stay loyal to their own experience.
Some become angry with me, without knowing why, because they sense, unconsciously, in their pre-verbal places that part of my psyche is working on my own challenges and conflicts. For those who had depressed or preoccupied early caretakers it is especially threatening, as they are sure that if they sense any dip in my energies that I will become unable, unavailable, to sustain my caring, loving attention.
There are those who are immersed in much harder trials, more consuming, more traumatizing, more violent conflicts, more emergent circumstances and more acute crisis than mine and it snaps my perspective into place, as I move my own experience further down the triage list – and immerse myself in the need that is in front of me with the skills I have accumulated over many years.
Some, who perhaps I have enabled by being more active than was necessary when my tank was full to overflowing, are being given more space to take up the reflective, interpretive work as their own, as I hold back to listen more, perhaps offering less direction or guidance than I might in a more buoyant time.
And there are many moments through my workday which lift and inspire me: A client falling in healthy reciprocated love. Another who feels ready to marry. The birth of babies through hard pregnancies, the courageousness of a client trusting me enough to share the ways that they do not yet trust me. The bravery and integrity of another in the face of danger. A piece of creative work shared, beautiful and transforming. The incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring imagery of dreams. Undeniable growth, accomplishment, achievement, mutual admiration, appreciation. Closeness in all forms, shapes and sizes.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
And then there are actual gifts that come with hard patches.
When the ability to engage in the Extraneous is eliminated, the Essential reveals itself more quickly and incontrovertibly.
Priorities become crystal clear. And when you trust your exhaustion, you know that it will steer you away from the superfluous, unnecessary.
And when you feel alive and engaged you know you are in the presence of something vital and healing for all involved.
I can feel when I am barking up the wrong tree almost instantly. I can tell when it is better to wait something out, rather than bang my head against the wall. I can spot any opportunity for relieving contact with the healing processes of Life as they move continuously between and around us all.
I have more compassion for myself: if I have a harder time organizing, scheduling, getting my bills done, or it takes me a beat or two longer to understand what is playing out in the room, I know that I am doing my best. I accept and take responsibility for my errors without being tempted to punish myself for them. I am doing what I can do. I can model self-compassionate behavior, a way of being that is less concerned, for now, with pushing past limitations than accepting them.
I may now have less energy for heroic maneuvers, for flashy interpretations. I will not be leaping over tall buildings in a single bound or pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the season ahead – I am currently unable to be seduced by inflation or grandiosity, it is just too tiring – and life is simply too humbling at present. I cannot over-extend, bite off more than I can chew, or take on anything that could prove to be too much later.
I am in exquisite and direct contact with my own needs, and the fact that I am finite.
I treasure and value the impact and the necessity of stillness like never before.
And I understand “self-care” less as a discreet activity or a scheduled event and more as an on-going way of being, moment by moment, in the presence of people who need me – as I negotiate the balance between their needs and my own and attempt to honor them both.
We will all pass through such times. And we can receive something from them as well. And if I can do nothing other than try, and fail, and try again to model an experience of being simultaneously intact and overwhelmed, of staying in caring and compassionate relationship to myself, my family and my clients, perhaps, through hard times that is more than enough.
Never to ask for easier circumstances, but for greater strength, and to accept gladly, (when they come) rest and ease along the road. ~ Pierre Ceresole
Jung hung a plaque on his threshold which read:
“Invited or Uninvited: God is Present.”
The sign that I’ve often imagined placing over my office door, not quite as cozy and inviting as Jung’s, would read as follows:
“Surrender Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
Although I suppose that a slogan lifted straight from Dante’s Gates of Hell might be a little daunting for new clients.
For some Hope may float, spring eternal, and be a thing with feathers. But very often my job seems to be to squelch, sink or pluck it.
Hope is an angel, but also a demon.
Nearly everyone who walks into this office does so because, whether they know it or not, one way or another, they are trapped in Hope’s dark clutches.
Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness. Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night. One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope,- in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Human All Too Human, 71. Hope)
Hope, may be the center of the three theological virtues along with Faith and Charity, but it carries dangerous and pathological aspects as well.
Hope, misdirected, misplaced, can cement our attachments to people and places that are destructive to us. Hope can dangle, like bait, with a sharp hook embedded inside to keep us waiting for transformations that will never come. Hope gone haywire lurks at the root of all addictions – and we all know the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.
Hope can block out necessary grief, forestalling or arresting entirely, the sweet release of necessary loss and healthy mourning. Hope can deceive us, obscuring realities that we need to face. Hope can keep us waiting for Godot, who will never come. Hope to “get out of” is the root of all denial.
Pernicious hope lures the gambler to go “all in” on a long shot, and invites cowardice to search for means of magical escape. Hoping for divine intervention, waiting passively to be lifted out of circumstances that require our labor and our conscious intention, Hope can bind and paralyze us.
Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. ~ Aristotle, Rhetoric
Hope can keep us places that we need to leave, and seduce us into leaving places where we should stay.
Hope futurizes, pulling on us to abandon the present moment, and numbing us to it.
Hope insinuates that we can get out of our distress – when our soul’s only salvation may be to go through it.
Where Hope is, fear lurks just below.
We dread the dark lessons, the painful transformations, the inevitable losses that life requires of us. We do not want to give up on the dirty well. Pernicious hope tempts us to return to it over and over in search of clean water.
Hope is grippy, sticky, grasping.
It sneaks up quietly and carries a big hook:
Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. ~ Pema Chodron
Hope is the ally of quacks and con-men, and the sidekick of all duplicity. We cannot be tricked if we do not hope for an easy solution or a free lunch. Hope helps Illusion disguise itself as Reality.
Hope can distract, divert, drain our energies away from dreaded but unavoidable responsibilities, stealing our focus, and our acceptance of the task at hand.
Every defense, every resistance, every form of self-sabotage contains, at the bottom of the box, Hope in some form.
Many describe themselves as hopeless, who are in truth, being tortured by pathological hopes that they cannot let go of.
To surrender hope is an exhausting and terrifying process. Hope is a habit that is hard to extinguish, a fix we can’t stop jonesing for. It reasserts itself, stubborn, persistent, sneaky, a craving, a crutch.
The work of psychotherapy is often to chase down and sort through the flock of slippery and Pernicious Hopes in all their diverse and daemonic aspects. To capture one at a time, examine it, to challenge and question its true mission, to uncover exactly which god this particular Hope obeys.
To exorcise it.
And the therapist’s hopes can have as much destructive power as the client’s. To hope too much on behalf of a client is a rejection of where they actually are. To hope to cure a client is inflated and grandiose as that prerogative is theirs alone. To hope to rescue someone from their circumstance is avoidant and can instill more fear in the client toward what may lie ahead, implying that it cannot be faced. Therapists may also hope to escape the painful or frightening aspects of a client’s journey and wrestle with the tempting hope, like Jesus did, that the dark cup will taken from them both.
Surrender All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
And much maligned Hopelessness, always given short shrift, can bring sweet relief. Giving up, surrender, admitting defeat, hitting bottom, allows us to lay on the damp earth, face down, grounded, maybe bloodied, but on the earth, and of the earth for good, for ill.
We can breathe again when Hope releases us from its clutches. When there is nothing left to lose, we are no longer afraid. We can rest, heal up, and when we have gathered our energies, face what is real squarely and without letting Hope deceive us. Without Hopelessness we cannot embrace our fate or face our destiny.
The great gift of angelic Hopelessness is Acceptance.
To write without hope is the very best way to write.
Dante passed through the Gates of Hell, and descended through its terrible rings before he was permitted to rise up through Purgatory to glimpse Paradise.
True, angelic Hope lives on the other side of Hopelessness. It does not protect us from hopelessness or help us avoid it. It is the gift we are sometimes given when we have withstood hopelessness past the point of what we thought we could endure. It is often hidden, buried, or dwelling just past the horizon line of our limited perceptions. Sometimes it is just the sound of water, the smallest trickle, in the far distance. It is hard to hear, impossible to see, and rarely obvious.
Angelic Hope descends as an unexpected visitor, as a moment of grace as something we can never expect, demand, and will turn destructive if we cling to it too tightly.
It comes on its own. And not when it is called.
And we must too often abandon it, surrender it, kill it, in order to receive it again, anew.
And to extinguish hope is no guarantee of its arrival.
It will come in its own time anyway.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
~ T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.
They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.
And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.
Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.
I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.
Is healing always even the goal? Sometimes the goal is just surviving.
Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of life’s suffering.
Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises, mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.
But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.
But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy. But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me. Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so. Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest when all I did was water it once or twice a week.
But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!
I will try to talk briefly (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.
I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to be near a boy – who I thought was a man, a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”
I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over 20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese. He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.
So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me, so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.
And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine. And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.
And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.
I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I unable to tell what I looked like. I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.
I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall and reorder for myself what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.
This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.
It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.
At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.
Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story? How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?
The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.
And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself? How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.
This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.
My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.
I mourned for all of those I had to let go.
I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation. And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.
And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.
So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?
I guess the answer is yes.
I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.
“Hi! Nice to meet you – you are a therapist too?! That’s great – I do CBT, Motivational Interviewing and Behavioral Activation – what do you do?”
“I have an office…” I’ll vague out and drift off.
When faced with the alphabet soup of “evidenced based psychotherapies” I find myself lost and speechless.
I don’t begrudge or devalue any of those interventions for the therapists and the clients that find them useful and meaningful.
But that isn’t what I do.
None of the methodology, measures, the cognitive distortions or neuropsychological reprogrammings would have pulled me from the quagmire I inherited – there were only a few simple things that had any chance of aligning me with my soul’s mandate and the pursuit of meaning in my life: Image, Words, Metaphor, Relationship.
I can’t eliminate behavior, and wouldn’t even dare arbitrate which behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. I can’t fix a damned thing. And I don’t practice therapy that fixes anything, because, frankly, I never wanted to participate in a therapy or enter into a relationship with a therapist who wanted to fix me.
I can’t make anyone’s problems go away, including my own. And as I get older, and watch myself revisit the same conflicts and complexes in subtler forms I wonder if “change” in the sense that most people imagine it when they speak of psychotherapy, is possible at all, and if it is even desirable.
Healing is a word that means more to me than “behavioral change” but only if “healing” primarily means living with ever deepening compassion for our own, and other’s wounds and vulnerabilites. I am not a “healer” who knows how to make wounds disappear entirely, if at all. Scars, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, residues, susceptibilities, remain, even if the bleeding stops.
And often enough life gets better and worse and better and worse on its own – with or without psychotherapy.
So what do I do?
Its not just other therapists that want to know – clients also want to know “what kind of therapy” I practice – and they are especially entitled to an answer, and one that is not cloaked in mystification.
And here even the language of depth therapies fail me: I do not “do” psychoanaylsis or analytical psychology, existential or Buddhist psychotherapy – although these models and many others feel useful and meaningful to me at times in making sense of my own experience.
So I have an office. I sit in it. People come to see me, or sometimes we go walking together.
I care when the people who come to see me are angry, murderous, numb, disappointed, in agonizing pain, terrified, lost, stuck, bored, nauseated, lonely – even when it is very hard, very painful, or when they feel these things because of something I have done, or something I have not done or cannot do.
Sometimes when things turn brutal for someone I care about I’ll just hang on for dear life. I don’t give up. I don’t turn away. I am not pushed over.
I stick around. I listen and I don’t retreat, and I am not easily scared or chased off.
I try to picture in my mind’s eye the people, places, things, and images that I am hearing about or sensing. Sometimes images, feelings and pictures seem to float up in my own mind, drawn from my own life experience, themes from stories I have read, myths I have heard – and I put these into words to see if they are connected to the pictures and feelings that are bubbling up in the person near to me. I remain curious and committed to understanding the words and pictures and sensations that are being communicated to me as precisely as possible. I surf through the waves of my own watery unconscious and the unconscious of my therapeutic partner. I keep my filter down and my aperture open wide. I try to stay connected in the bumpy, rocky, scary, severe, extreme places where most social relationships will not venture. Where even familial relationships can’t, won’t or don’t go.
I lend my self out. Not my “healthy ego” – my Self, my heart, my dreams, the pictures in my head.
There are many of us who work in this way, and who could work in no other way.
I do this because it was done for me, and this meant the world to me.
Once, many many years ago, when I worked on a unit that served severely mentally ill adults, a psychiatrist pulled me aside to offer me some encouragement. “Do you know why your clients are doing so well?” she asked. “Do you know why they are getting better? Its not because you make sure they are compliant with their medication. Its not because you set clear behavioral objectives and treatment goals. Its because you love them like you belong to them. It’s because you take them into your heart like they are your own. You give of yourself, and they feel that and it makes them stronger. I don’t know why everyone just doesn’t do that.”
At the time I didn’t know what to make of what she said. But I didn’t then and don’t know now how to work any other way.
A few years later, at that same job, I would come to understand the need people had to work from objective and objectifying stances rather than out of their subjectivity.
On the unit we all had small safety windows in our offices – so therapists and mentally ill clients could feel both safe together talking with the doors shut. As I sat at my desk to take my lunch break, and get some paperwork done, I felt several pairs of eyes peering at the back of my neck. I looked out the window to see four or five of my clients lined up to peek in on me, one after another, while I ate.
I opened the door:
“What’s up ? Can I help you guys? I’m on a break right now okay?”
“Come on” one of the older guys said to the crew “we better go so that we don’t use her all up!”
I was getting used up, although it was never because of them. The agency and mental health system I worked in wasn’t designed to support those who worked like me. It was designed to socially control the greatest number of people for the least amount of money. Commitment, abidingness, endurance, resolve, availability, intuition and meaning were far less important than outcomes and measures, and the elimination of unwanted behavior.
Although it is true, then and now, that I must always be vigilant not to give too much, not to give more than is required, or needed. I remain careful not to ever give in a way that will make others feel indebted to me or that leaves me drained or resentful. But that is my job, my responsibility to regulate. And if, and when, I give more than I can afford, or more than others need of me, it is my job to correct and compensate for, and never ever because others have used me up.
On my long morning run just after an introduction to a perfectly nice evidence based psychotherapist who had recited his alphabet soup of what he “did”, I heard these words rising up from my beating heart:
“Its the relationship that heals it is the relationship that heals the relationship that heals. This is my fervent belief and this is where I put my professional faith”
When I got home, I googled a bit trying to locate the rhythm and the cadence of these familiar words and realized that this mantra had resurfaced, slightly paraphrased, from a book I had read only once over twenty years ago:
It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals – my professional rosary. ~ Yalom, I. (1989), Love’s Executioner, London: Penguin Books, p.91
My acupuncturist once said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. How you work the way you do.”
I don’t always manage as well as I would like.
When my own life becomes a challenge or crisis erupts for me, or when I foolishly attempt an “objective” survey of the scope of what I have undertaken I can overwhelm myself: Caring for my elders, for my children, for clients. When I attempt to itemize the breadth and depth and range of all the different forms of care-taking I am immersed in, when I look at my days and weeks and attempt to catalogue all the pain, fear, vulnerability and dependency that is attached to me I sometimes fear that I can be used up and that I could drown in a flood of other people’s needs.
But, when I breathe, and move through my day moment by moment – I see that I am more buoyant than I realize and that I am tethered not only to my teachers, mentors, guides, and therapists, who stayed afloat with and for me, but that I stay afloat with, for, alongside and because of the deep and real relationships I have forged with those who pass through my office.
Image, words, metaphor and relationship cannot use me up. They fill my heart and keep me afloat.
It’s the relationship that heals the relationship that heals the relationship that heals.
Both members of the therapeutic couple.
All of us. Always.
“We are lost, afflicted only this one way;
That having no hope we live in longing” I heard
These words with heartfelt grief that seized on me
Knowing how many worthy souls endured
Suspension in that Limbo
~ The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinky translator
The position of the (hanged) man: upside down, head below, hanging by one foot…. plunges us into the heart of the problem of the relationship between man and gravitation, and the conflicts the relationship entails. ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, by Anonymous
I’m not sure what, if anything, will come of this.
Its all up in the air, and it could leave you hanging too.
I sit with my clients and listen as they move through their daily lives. Building careers, raising families, moving among and around weekly rhythms – work, commute, dinner, home, therapy appointment, weekend. The world is comfortably, or perhaps even oppressively predictable. The ground underfoot becomes a well-trodden path. The disruptive power of the Unknown, of the Unpredictable, seems reduced to a piffle. Lives are ordered. Choices are made. Cause and effect rule the day – if x , then y.
Our sense of agency and ability to structure ourselves can appear inviolate. We imagine that we have the tiger by the tail, and that tragic, upsetting, disruptive things happen only to other people, to a colleague you don’t know too well at work, or a friend of a friend, or to the person whose photo is splashed across the cover of of the NY Post being held by the stranger sitting across from you on the subway.
When suddenly, in a split second, the rules of every day are suspended. And we can find ourselves in a whole new world. A instantaneous slip into an alternate universe, one we did not choose and would never have picked if the choice was offered.
But it wasn’t.
The table turns in a flash – and any expectations that the next day will be better, or even vaguely resemble this one are disrupted. Crisis erupts or we fall into it, it flips us upside down – a job loss, a change of fortune, an unexpected diagnosis, a natural disaster.
Entrapping uncertainty can also creep up slowly: we can find ourselves bound, against our will, in long, excruciating waiting periods, slow builds, protracted searches for something or someone that may never be found, precarious processes with unclear prognoses. States where any and all predictions might be reasonable – and our need to know what might come next is thwarted. Incrementally or violently pressed into Life’s Waiting Room we thrash and writhe, or go limp and sleepy – we do all we can to escape this In Between Place where Life is neither feast nor famine, neither fish nor foul, neither here nor there.
This is the sorrowful state of souls unsure….
Who, neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him,
Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.
~ The Inferno of Dante
There are times when we find ourselves suspended.
And I find myself strung up as often as anyone.
Dante locates Limbo as the first stop on the “deep and savage road.” a place just inside the Hell-gates of hopelessness. But we commonly think of it as a space between Heaven and Hell, where even the noblest souls may suffer.
Will circumstances stabilize? Or deteriorate? Is hope useful or foolish? Should we prepare for the worst? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or the birth of a better one? Is it the gateway to a perpetually unfolding tragedy, the horror and losses of our greatest fears? Or will we be granted our heart’s deepest desire?
Whether to invest in our dreams coming true, or resign ourselves to despair there is no way to know. Souls in Limbo are abandoned by the very ability to anticipate or prognosticate.
Those who are activated by anxiety find it a place of tortuous buzzing agitation, as their inherent optimism leads them to believe that proactivity could positively affect the outcome.
Hapless ones never alive, their bare skin galled
By wasps and flies…
~ The Inferno of Dante
The anxious-avoidant can find passive comfort in the intermission – some even draw it out – experiencing the enforced break in the action as reprieve from pessimism and fear: at least the worst hasn’t happened… yet.
This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. ~ Oscar Wilde
Limbo is an inconsolable, tension-filled deprivation. A lack of. A halting, a freeze, a holding of the breath, a nothingness sandwich with hope on one side and despair on the other.
The soul seems to me to be in this state when no comfort comes to it from heaven and it is not there itself, and when it desires none from the earth and is not there either…
~ The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
Few recall Cicero’s morality tale about King Dionysius and his courtier Damocles who wished aloud that he might be king himself, and was cruelly threatened into gratitude for his lowly station. Yet, everyone remembers the heavy archetypal sword, the shiny point dangling just over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single horse hair.
We hope, like Damocles, for the opportunity to be returned to the moment before the threat loomed over us, to go on as we have been going on, to be spared further suffering or any darker transformation of our fate.
In suspense, we find ourselves exquisitely alone, the tension exacerbated by isolation:
The soul is suspended between heaven and earth; it experiences complete solitude. For here it is no longer a matter of ordinary solitude where one is alone in the world, but rather of complete solitude where one is alone because one is outside of the world – the celestial as well as the terrestrial world ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
The therapist needs to be acutely aware of their own and their client’s coping style, for when they are sitting with clients who are dangling between the worlds, one’s strategy may be intolerable to the other. “Let’s-get-this-over-with” mixes with “I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow” as effectively as oil and water. And any misattunement merely exacerbates the sense of banishment from the realm of the everyday.
My own experience twisting in the wind reminds me it is all too easy to fall into empathic error with those who are hanging in the Unpredictable In-Between. We cherish our rhythm of life and when we encounter others whose patterns have been disrupted we can too often rush past their powerless pause: “Oh I’m sure it will all be ok!” minimizes potential and looming threats. “Oh my god that is terrible!” smothers hope. Real empathy requires tolerating the dialectic, joining the tension of the opposites: “It must be so uncomfortable to not know what to expect, and to have to wait for any answer – I’ll hope along with you that all will be well, but know I will also be here for you if it doesn’t – I know that both possibilities feel very real right now.”
And although we may not be able to guess which way this cat is going to jump, the archetypes of myth indicate that there are gains to be had, lessons to be learned, from uncomfortable, even fatal suspension.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
(~ Stanza 138 & 139 of the Hávamál)
The tarot’s Hanged Man is a rendering of Odin, who has strung himself upside down in order to acquire wisdom. He will die from the suspension and be reborn hanging from the world tree, a mighty ash known as Yggdrasil.
Perhaps the wisdom that Odin gains from his ordeal, and that suspension imbues is merely this:
We are always in Limbo, whether we recognize it or not. Life itself is a feral and untamed beast. Anything can happen, and many things beyond our control will happen. Even the most ordered and controlled life unfolds in a wilderness of unpredictability. We succumb to inflation when we forget this.
The Hanged Man is the eternal Job, tried and tested from century to century…~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
And maybe the only cure for such puffery and complacency is to intermittently find ourselves upside down, hanging, in a state of suspense until we are humbled and reminded that living is a wild unfolding, an eternally unpredictable event.
I am wrestling with a slippery new post – but in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to some to know about a new (yet related) venture we are undertaking.
And he (Jung) asked himself by what mythology he was living and he found he didn’t know. And so he said “I made it the task of my life to find by what mythology I was living” How did he do it? He want back to think about what it was that most engaged him in fascinated play when he was a little boy. So that the hours would pass and pass. Now if you can find that point, you can find an initial point for your own reconstruction.
~ Joseph Campbell
I might have liked to be an astronomer, as a child I spent hours on the deck behind our house looking up at the Great Nebulae in Orion and feeling a part of the entire universe. But, unfortunately I can’t do math.
In young adulthood, being a priestess of some sort seemed my best shot at a satisfying career and I supposed the sacred rituals around the theater came close. But, as you may know, there aren’t really too many priestesses in show biz.
A ritual is an action that puts the individual not only in touch with, but in the place of, being the agent of a power that does not come out of his own intention at all. He has to submit to a power that’s greater than his own individual life form. ~ Joseph Campbell
For several years thought it might be nice to be a Unitarian or a Quaker minister: I could picture myself in my 60’s plump and happy, with spikey short white hair, extremely sensible shoes, curled up in a worn leather chair in a well stocked church library surrounded by books written by theologians, ecumenicists, philosophers, anthropologists, depth psychologists, mythologists, my days filled with study, sermon-writing, teaching, and pastoral counseling. I still occasionally fantasize about getting an M.Div one day so that my psycho-spiritual practice might one day extricate itself from the professional restrictions and expectations of the medical model.
Although I imagine all that theism might get a bit wearing.
God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought…. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they call them lies. Those are the atheists. ~ Joseph Campbell
When I am fatigued or overwhelmed I think it might be nice to be a cobbler. The smell of leather, the pleasure of making something tangible, real, practical, useful, that did not require that I take my work home with me, or feel too much. Maybe I could even get some elves to make the shoes while I sleep.
There is much much harder work in the world than mine, but every once in a while, after the 100,000th “I just don’t know how you can sit and listen to people’s problems all day. I couldn’t do it!” I begin to wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.
Every individual has his own very special problem in this late mid-life crisis about what he has been doing. How deeply has it really involved him? Has he had other outside marginal interests of any kind whatsoever? What were they? All these are very special problems. ~ Joseph Campbell
No paid vacation, no sick days, and the out of pocket cost of crappy medical insurance for a self-employed family of four are daunting enough. When my kids or a family member are ill, there is more lost income. Income which fluctuates with the economy, with the season, with the twists and turns of fate, history, chance and my own bandwidth depending of the circumstances of my own life and ability to pay deep attention. Clients just don’t come, or don’t stick when you don’t have the psychological space to take them in.
Economics is what controls us. Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today and that’s why everything is screwy. You have to get back in accord with nature; and that’s what myths are all about. ~ Joseph Campbell
Late nights and weird hours mean missing several nights a week with my kids, who can also never call to check in or to chat while I am working. As well as being out of synch with those who live and socialize on the 9 to 5 time grid. “Time off” means running errands, answering email, doing paperwork and billing, none of which can be done during client hours.
There are therapists who have partners with large corporate incomes, or some inherited wealth, who are heavily invested in real estate, or who have discovered passive income streams of some kind. They have small part time caseloads and the luxury of pursing their work, not out of logistical necessity, but merely because it is meaningful to them. There are others who charge extraordinary sums and cultivate boutique practices geared at serving clients in the upper classes.
I am none of those. I am a working, work-a-day therapist. I have made my living as a private practitioner and nothing else along side my husband, who does the same thing. We have learned to ride the roller coaster together, and support each other economically and emotionally through painful binds and financial drought. We have learned to rest when we are “light” and not allow our financial anxiety to eat up all of our chance to renew ourselves. There will be another wave of overwork to come, an influx of new cases, a sudden mass return of old clients when the weather turns cold, or it is time for New Years resolutions.
So, if the goal is merely amassing wealth, early retirement and cultivating ease, this is not the profession, at least not the way I practice. My scale slides and my fee drops as I try to make sure that no client is abandoned when they fall into financial difficulties, or excluded because of their ability to pay. I’ve made choices not to accept insurance, which too often attempted to conscript and lure me into becoming my clients “care manager” -labeling them with diagnoses, counting out their allotted sessions, and referring to a psychiatrist if they don’t “get better” before their capitation kicks in.
And when you’ve got an invisible cure for an invisible disease, you’ve got something you can sell. ~ Joseph Campbell
And often, the work hurts too. It can burn and sting and instill fear sometimes, as clients often need to explore and test out the capacity to keep them safe in your most vulnerable, weakest places and moments. Narratives of trauma, cruelty and abuse can break your heart, and eat you up, and shatter illusions about yourself, about the goodness of humanity, about the realities of life. Even the best days, the ones filled with vicarious excitement and accomplishment are about other people’s accomplishments and successes, and can leave you totally tuckered out.
Its one thing to be equitable and give everything away. Its another thing to be equitable and give away yourself. Then you can’t really help anybody can you? ~ Joseph Campbell
And the people you work with often experience you as more powerful and fully self-actualized than you are or could ever be, and often feel abandoned, or annoyed, or intruded upon when you stumble and trip or they experience your limitations.
When I was young in this field, I once asked my therapist if he ever hated his job: “Just every time I see a copy of Travel and Leisure magazine” he said. And immediately looked worried, and began to back pedal a bit – as though his honesty might make me feel rejected.
Who wants to be remembered by the notes of his students? ~ Joseph Campbell
It didn’t make me feel rejected. It was a relief. There is a shadow that attaches itself to every job, every choice, every path. And in this field, which practitioners take up primarily driven by their own wounds, whether they know it or not, the shadow can be a particularly dark and thick one.
Who wouldn’t want to escape sometimes?
The saying that a friend of mine has given me for letting me know when you are in middle age is: You’ve got to the top of ladder and found its against the wrong wall
~ Joseph Campbell
Freud had clients lay down on the couch for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to be looked at, scrutinized all day. And I sometimes wish that I could escape the watchful, fearful gaze of clients who read the smallest crease in my forehead as a sign of my impatience, or intolerance, or judgement, when it may just be that my glasses are pinching the sides of my head. Consciously arranging my face all day to reflect exactly what the client needs to see reminds me often of what intensely physical work the process of “mirroring” can be.
My days, in and out of the office, are completely and continuously centered around people. Other people. No matter how much “self-care” I invest in myself, a life of meeting clients, living in a co-op, walking crowded city streets, caring for children, for older family members, is intensely peopled.
I’ve just come out of New York, and a place like this on the Big Sur coast just wakes another whole consciousness. Its further down. And the body feels, Yes, this is my world; Ive been missing this And it seems to me its out of the body and its relationship to experiences of this kind that the mythic imagination comes. This other experience of the city is far more rational, ethical… the I-Thou relationship in the city is to people The environment in the city is geometrical and rectangular, and there are no curves; its contrived by man, the whole environment is manmade. And here you find that there is a primal being experience of which man and nature are themselves manifestations; whereas in the city you just don’t get it. ~ Joseph Campbell
Everything we do, every choice, every gesture requires the sacrifice of some alternative, potential reality. At midlife, the sacrifices we made to establish an adult identity in our culture, to create security, to live out our values, to do what we should, to start a family, to build a life and pursue a career or a vocation – return to us, as fantasy. It returns as day and night dreams, yearnings or sometimes as symptoms. Whatever is repressed always returns to us in some other form
Jung speaks of the impact of the parents unlived life upon their children, and we should also wonder about how the unlived life of the psychotherapist impacts clients and the therapy itself. How does it constrict and constrain us in the room and why? Are these choices made consciously, with an awareness of their shadow and their costs, or unconsciously, reflexively, fearfully? How do our clients teach us about what we have given up? How do we respond to the experience of envy or yearning in the countertransference? Do we heed it as a call to reach for our own unfinished business? Or do we feel diminished? How do therapists, subtly or not so subtly encourage clients to make choices that either validate their own sacrifice, or diverge from our choices so that we can watch them live out our unlived lives?
The mid-life crisis is that of unshelling a system of life and immediately moving into a new system of life. Because if this life is unshelled and you don’t have a new intention there is total disorientation. ~ Joseph Campbell
These days my escape fantasy involves a farm house at the foot of small mountain. There are green trees and fields all around. There is a small food garden growing behind the house with big wide windows, with more sky, stars, trees, crickets, birdsong and empty space, both inside and outside, than will ever be available or affordable to me in NYC.
I read stacks and stacks of books filled with pencil marks and marginalia, and write a significant part of every day. Perhaps I teach a class or two at a nearby junior college, just for the pleasure of compiling the reading lists.
I remember Alan Watts asked me one day, “Joe what kind of mediation do you do?” I said, “I underline sentences.” ~ Joseph Campbell
I see as many clients a week as I now see in a day, some in a cozy home office, some for walking eco-therapies, others long distance by video conference or e-session. All arrange to talk to me only when and as they want to. They pay whatever they can afford, whatever they think the process is worth. I don’t concern myself with accounts or collections, or how big the children’s orthodontia bill is getting.
Or maybe, in this fantasy I stop seeing clients entirely. After a lifetime of operating as a Helper, a Caretaker perhaps I have sacrificed enough to that archetype to enable that myth to release me, as I take on a new role, a new task, a new myth.
This is the big problem of retirement … the life with you have involved yourself has suddenly been moved. And so what? I’m told that the life expectancy of a blue collar worker after retirement is about five years. That means his body says, “You’ve got nothing for me to do so lets just say goodbye” ~ Joseph Campbell
There is a trail out back behind the house that leads up the mountain and I take a long, contemplative hikes several times a week. I watch for hawks and eagles, woodpeckers, and other wild-life in an entirely deer-tick free woods. Up on the hillside I have constructed a small shelter where I sit for long stretches of each day silently asking that all sentient beings be relieved of their suffering, until my thermos of green tea is cold and empty.
I work in the garden, I cook meals for my family. I wash the laundry and hang it on the line to dry near the lilac bushes, so that in the spring, the sheets smell sweet.
But when the individual is acting only for himself or his family then you have nothing but chaos. ~ Joseph Campbell
This idyllic farm is somehow near to a racially and socioeconomically diverse small city which gives me a chance to engage in community processes and cultural and charitable activities. We travel whenever we want to. Take sabbatical years to live in other countries, in other cultures. My children never bicker. They climb trees, tame wild animals, swim in a clear water creek.
Fatigue is rare, and sweet, following labors that are restorative, generative for myself and others. Each night before bed, we climb the creaky narrow wooden stairs to the widows walk and aim our telescope toward the bright and visible Milky Way searching out our proper place in the universe.
Now there is a wonderful saying in the Buddhist world: “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” All life is sorrowful. You are not going to change that. Its all right for everyone else to be sorrowful, but what about you being sorrowful? Well, participate!” ~ Joseph Campbell
And as I dwell deeper in my soul’s fantasy, my unlived life, the life not (yet) pursued, new sorrows emerge of the clients and of the work left behind in this life. Those who would never tolerate a Skype or phone session, who would feel abandoned, who I might harm by leaving, or a least cause significant discomfort. The stories I would never see unfold.
And the people I would miss.
Fantasies of Eden, of Shangrila and the Land of Oz live in all of us, in different ways, and serve many functions. They compensate and correct our course, remind us of who we are, what we have forgotten and who we are supposed to be. Sometimes it is necessary to chase these images literally, although they will rarely be entirely captured. The processes of midlife can involve dramatic overthrow of pre-existing orders. We do out grow old shells and need to find new ones. But sacrifices can be mourned and managed consciously as well, responded to as metaphor, channeled into creative processes, or integrated into present structures through ritual and symbol.
The work can be heavy, and costly in ways that are rarely fully tallied or reckoned with.
But it is mine, for now.
The gate guardian is a symbol of your own fear and holding to your ego which is what is keeping you out of the garden. Buddha sits under the tree and his right hand says “Don’t be afraid of those guys. Come through.”~ Joseph Campbell
But sometimes, through a long day, as I nod, and listen, my brow furrowed, my ears and heart open to the pain that the person across the room is sharing with me, I imagine, that my office window, just past my peripheral vision, offers a different view.
I imagine that – instead of the floodlight and fluorescence of windows upon windows, instead of the sounds of a harsh and noisy city, instead of helicopters and barges, firetrucks and ferries – there are instead green branches, and the smell of fresh cool mountain air.
I imagine that together we could, if we choose to, pause to watch Orion, with his belt, and his sword, rising through the night, reminding us of our proper place in the universe.
All quotations from The Hero’s Journey, Joesph Campbell on his LIfe and Work, Phil Cousineau editor.