Moirology

… Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come;  let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.
 ~ Jeremiah 9:17-18 The New Oxford Annotated Bible

Nowadays I take long walks and talk to dead people. And my favorite dreams are visitations. Sometimes just comforting glimpses, or on fortunate nights rich conversations and a visceral felt presence. Sometimes, when I’ve hit the jackpot I wake and am still surrounded by their smell.

But we don’t only mourn the dead. We must mourn everything we cherish, for all things are impermanent. We don’t get to hang onto much. And even wishes die and are reborn.

And those who cannot mourn and those refuse to will sicken and eventually break under the strain.

I am, and have always been, a moirologist, a professional mourner, a hired lamenter, a grief facilitator. Sometimes I think that is really all that psychotherapy practice actually entails – the ability to notice what is lost, and to make the sounds-  the ritualized keening and ululation – that allows others to surrender to fate, to release their grip, to accept their losses and to bury their dead along with  the hopes and expectations attached to them.

And although it made no sense to me at the time, people called me “wise” long before I was old enough to be entitled to the carry that label. Only now do I know what it means, and it is only this: I had learned, at young age how to lose things, to remember and acknowledge my losses, and to transform those losses into fertile ground to survive upon. And I did this while others around me pretended that nothing of import had happened at all.

When they called me wise all they meant was that they could sense I had survived something. Although I wandered for a while in the empty hallways of nostalgia searching for lost a time and a place that could never return, I had given up the futile search and chosen life. I had surrendered all false hopes and come to a new land seeking  love and faith and sustenance.

In my adolescence and young adulthood I had to learn these lessons over again in the realm of romantic love, but it didn’t take me too long, with some therapeutic instruction,  to learn that ritual lament and find my way across the gulf of grief for lost love.

And my years and years of psychotherapy, as client and as a therapist have shown me that mourning is a skill that must be nurtured and developed. And that those who have learned how to grieve are the ones who are able to survive,  and love,  and appreciate the extraordinary and delicate beauty of Life.  And I remind myself of this as I support my children in facing down their own losses, rather than attempt to shield them from grief.

Only the professional singers of the funeral dirge are truly wise.
~ The New Oxford Annotated Bible: annotation Jeremiah 9.10–26

People seek out psychotherapy for every kind of loss and fear of loss imaginable. Job loss, lost love, lost opportunity. Lost hopes. Lost relationships. Lost childhoods. Loss of innocence. The loss of who we might have been. The loss of who we wish that others might be for us. The loss of the parent we needed but never had. The loss of potentialities that never came to pass. Lost youth. Loss of faith. Lost bearings. Lost motivation. Lost joy in living. Lost investments. Loss of limb and health. The loss of life. Lost friendships. Lost attachments and lost happiness. Lost trust. Lost time. Lost memories. Loss of respect and self-respect. Loss of reputation. Loss of safety and security. Loss of control and temper. Identity and soul loss. Lost freedom. Lost autonomy.

And the losses of essential privation – the things we yearn for and never ever have enough to even lose them.

And above all: what psychoanalyst Charles Brenner calls the “greatest calamities”:  the loss of the object of our attachment and loss of that object’s love.
Mourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia

We fear such losses. And we resist the loss itself. And once all is lost we then resist accepting our losses.  And there are so many scenarios where the only choice in front of us is between  losing something and the loss of something else.

All our  “frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” are in service of one thing: trying to avoid or forestall mourning. If we can’t  grieve, we can’t accept and we can’t release. A refusal to mourn is a refusal to accept the reality of impermanence, injustice, violence and mortality.  If we don’t mourn we will abandon what is real to preserve a comforting illusion, a very expensive one, an illusion that may cost us everything.

I resist too. I cling to my illusion. Such resistances are part of the process. We pretend we are fine. Or that it never mattered. We summon our aggression and ride on our agitation or just feel some judgmental contempt for our utter powerlessness in the face of it all. Sometimes we are just so tired of having to be sad, again or at all and we just would rather not thank you very much.

My therapist was particularly skilled at cracking through my crusty resistances to mourning with a simple technique I have come to call “the boo-boo face intervention.”  I’d be talking about something completely normal for god’s sake, some story or recounting some event that really wasn’t the thing that bothered me one bit because… why was he making that face? Why did he look so sad all of a sudden? His brow furrowed, his lower lip in a slight pout, a grimace of pain in his eyes…  Sometimes he would close his eyes and his breathing would change and I could see him contending with some vicarious hurt.   I would look at the sorrow in his face and see that he was embodying the loss that I could not yet acknowledge, he was not sorry for me, he held my sorrow for me, until the pain of it reflected in his face, and then back to me, and a hot rush of tears raced up through my throat and the pain sounds were now coming out of me and I was the one grieving.

He was my designated mourner.

Mourning allows us to have compassion for ourselves. It is a way of being tender to ourselves in our defeat. Mourning is pain which we are allowed to accept as an understandable and  justifiable response to real events.  We don’t blame ourselves for sorrows which we have defined as mourning. Mourning allows us to see our  sorrows and losses as natural, expectable.

It is also most remarkable that it never occurs to us to consider mourning as a pathological condition and present it to the doctor for treatment, despite the fact that it produces severe deviations from normal behaviour. We rely on it being overcome after a certain period of time, and consider interfering with it to be pointless, or even damaging.
~ S. Freud, On Mourning and Melancholia

We can more easily allow waves of sorrow and pain to move through us – without castigating ourselves as  weak or sick –   because it is natural to mourn. If we are terrorized by mourning, or if we reject the flood of grief we will find our ability to love withers as if in a drought. If we are so afraid of loss and its processes, we will love  life  –  and each other – less,  in a sorry attempt to protect ourselves from inevitable, ubiquitous, loss.

If we hold ourselves out of grief, we will also deprive ourselves of the  opportunity to engage in actions which honor what we have lost and allow us to live meaning-filled lives.

Avoiding loss begets loss.
There is no way out without being a loser. The only way out is through.

And although my mastery of the the  boo-boo face lamentation ritual has never reached the skill level of my dear mentor’s  – I can rarely help a client cry with just a glance – I have found my own funeral songs and spells that I  begin when I am the first professional mourner on the scene of an unmourned loss. That is what we do, a great deal of the time, those of us who have therapy offices –  we are the ones who initiate the dirge.

In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;  in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.
~  Amos 5:16-17 The New Oxford Annotated Bible

We ululate.

We begin the mourning process so that others can join in with the sound of  keening.  So they do not need to be frightened by the sound of their own sorrow alone, their own voice crying out.

We lead the way in, and know the dirge and the ritual and the dance.
We know how the waves rise and fall. We set the pitch and tone of the mourning cry.

We know that the flood of tears fertilizes our lives.

We know how it begins:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
~ Matthew 5:4 New Oxford Annotated Bible:


Address

In psychotherapy no subject is off limits.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes.

Some clients (and some therapists) have been taught medical models of psychotherapeutic care that suggest therapy clients should be focusing on “personal problems” and not “politics.” That talking about their place in the larger world is psychotherapeutic “resistance.”

Well, sometimes it is but sometimes over-focusing on individual problems is the resistance.

I’ve had clients who have talked about nothing other than the latest headline in the Daily News, for years. And clients who are so insulated or overwhelmed that they make no reference whatsoever to 3,000 people dying a mile from their home on September 11th, or a hurricane that floods and incapacitates the very city they live in.

Some are too porous, unable to insulate themselves, buffeted by every news flash, every Op Ed. Some have lost, or never had, the ability to discern between what is their business, their next necessary step, their ultimate work in the world and what lies beyond them, what is a fruitless or even destructive diversion.

Others live as if the larger community has no impact upon them, as if they have no civic or collective responsibilities of any kind.

We all live, embedded, in a particular personal, relational, familial, local, national, international community.

REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

GEORGE: What’s funny about that?


REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.           

~ Thorton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1

We are fragile pack animals living in a particular time, in a particular place, at a particular point – embedded most certainly in the March of History and maybe also in the Mind of God.

Our personal patterns of denial, anxiety, despair, action and paralysis can affect the course of history as surely as historical forces shape and build, contort, lift up, oppress or destroy our lives

My grandmother-in-law told us a story over and over (retold here with my husband’s permission) about how she had learned of the concentration camps from a refugee who had escaped the camps by some miracle, to whom she had offered a meal as he fled, passing through her small town in Hungary.  Her assimilated Jewish husband and family didn’t believe her when she told them about what was coming their way. “You are being hysterical. It would never happen here. The Archbishop dines in our home!”

She wanted to flee. No one would listen. She was a canary in a coalmine, smelling the lethal gas long before the others who were focused on the problems and pleasures of everyday living. She could feel the vibration of the giant, pounding, destructive footsteps of a world historical event as it lurched toward her, soon to load her onto a cattle car annihilating her husband, her siblings, her nieces and nephews.

Her primal fear mounted, hysterical or valid, she couldn’t be certain, culminating in a choice between horrors: Two cyanide pills placed on the table. One for herself, one for her thirteen year old daughter.

“When they come they will put us in a terrible place, we will starve, we will be tortured. They may separate us. We will suffer. We will almost surely be killed. Or, we can take these pills now, together, and die peacefully. What do you choose?”

Our lives shape all of history and history shapes our whole lives.

But in each moment, all any of us can do is to assess, for ourselves: Are my fears founded? Are they over-reactive? Is this a cloying worry or a healthy fear? All any of us can do is to question ourselves: Am I too impervious? Am I in denial? Am I ignoring the signs and signals? Will I be on the wrong side of history? Or is this background noise that has nothing to do with me, that would be pointless to get caught up in?

Her daughter chose life. And they stayed together and survived the horrors of two deadly concentration camps – but the horror never left them. It shaped them forever, and their family and my family.

So: Sometimes I will explicitly ask clients how historical/political events are impacting them. I am certainly asking these questions now, at this point in time, in this particular moment in history.

Clients whose identities are marginalized or oppressed don’t assume I am safe to talk to unless I actively invite the content in. Other clients may simply not know that it’s considered legitimate for them to examine their place, their responses and responsibilities inside these events. Some need to be gently nudged awake or even shaken. Some need to be soothed. Some have constructed denial bubbles to insulate themselves but I can feel the anxiety churning underneath. A few know exactly how they are effected, monitoring their tendency to flood or to shut down or both – and actively work to stay calibrated and grounded. The activists I see are exhausted, absorbing so much vicarious and community based trauma they need extra permission to pace themselves. Some struggle so intensely with the pulls of their own internal conflicts – that there is scant energy left to take note of world events swirling around them.

The place where your identity makes contact with your community, your nation, and the historical moment is you too, and is absolutely as legitimate to discuss in psychotherapy as an argument with your partner or conflicts from childhood.

We can suppose we are insulated. But we aren’t really. It’s an illusion. We live in community. Our communities affect us like the water we drink, the air we breathe.

Almost everyone is feeling of powerless, worried, afraid of the deep polarizations taking place all around. Many are in active conflict, debate, estrangement with family and friends. Some feel that they are asphyxiating in avoidant silence. Some have drawn battle lines. Almost everyone expresses feeling simultaneously activated, and concerned that any action they may take will be impotent or destructive to themselves or others.

This tension of this particular place in time and history is a real psychological force that needs to be tended to and observed. We don’t know whether the tension will dissipate or constellate, and we don’t know how our choices will affect the outcome or how the outcomes will affect us.

Psychotherapy, at its best must make space for all of this too.

But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

 

Nothing More

I can’t write authentically about anything other than early bereavement right now. Except maybe compound bereavement, complex bereavement, working as a therapist while you are actively bereaved. After your toes have been curled around the edge of the abyss watching several loved ones slowly slowly fall into it every single day for a year or two.

How you think, but you have thought before, that it has stopped – that the dying has paused – and that maybe the universe will offer you a decade or two to catch your breath before you again lose someone who is part of your psychological and logistical infrastructure – but what if it doesn’t pause (last time it didn’t) and what if it keeps going – and swallows someone else up you love, or you?

What if lightening strikes repeatedly in the same spot? What if freak events, school shootings, car accidents, house fires, drug overdoses, aneurisms or just more cancer cancer cancer keep coming?

About the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole, the floor pulled out from under you, and having no idea when or if you will hit solid ground again.

About the terror of looking forward – because it means encountering the days, years, minutes ahead without someone who you might have assumed would travel through time with you but is gone, and not just gone for right now, but gone always. Never to be seen or heard again

I can only in this moment write about how it is also hazardous to look back – because if you calculate all that you have negotiated and all the heartbreak of the death and dying cluster you hope you have passed through (but who really knows for sure) you will feel a fatigue so great, so crushing, so heavy that you know your body actually demands three solid months of sleep to recover – but there are children to care for and bills to pay, and the unflinching and unceasing demands of life to keep up with.

And the past has other dangers – sometimes called memories – which can comfort and soothe and strengthen you but can also turn against you into a brutal accounting of what exactly has been taken from you, and what is no longer with you in the present moment.

About the strange alienation when you hear normal people talking about everyday things – and who, understandably try to engage you in conversation about everyday things, while you are actually still living in the crack between the worlds where every second is both sacred and terrible and as far from everyday as humanly imaginable – but you somehow – strangely- without understanding how – are still able to chat and smile and nod and act “as if” you are a part of this earth – when you haven’t really come back yet, and aren’t sure who you will be when you do return.

And the times when you do feel normal – uncannily normal – like nothing happened, nothing changed – when you go about your business, and again, kind and well meaning people treat you as if you are still altered (you aren’t are you?) but you feel regular and you just want to cash in on that for the time being but everyone’s concern disrupts the illusion and you remember you have just had a human being that you cherished amputated from your life.

The self-compassion that you have to cultivate in order not to push or shame yourself, when you feel nothing, or you feel totally fucked up, or you feel fine, or you feel the worst, searing burning pain, or you feel terrified, or you feel lost, or you feel a little manic-y in your love of life, your appreciation for what is good or kind or just or beautiful, or your slightly panicked need to say every positive grateful thing you feel to the people around you over and over again in case you don’t get to say it later, or in case the moment arrives where you will never get a chance to say it at all.

How you search for places to put your thinking – or behaviors to engage in – that comfort you for a second and how you hope that thought or that photo, or that song, or that peaceful spot doesn’t dry up on you and lose its ability to function as a balm for all your sorrows.

Gathering your thoughts before sleep, trying to court dreams which make this make sense, or which offer consolation.

And how, you go to work, and you want to go to work, to tend to and care for others who mean the world to you – and stand shoulder to shoulder beside other people who are contending with challenges and suffering, loss, illness, bereavements, alienations of their very own – and your power to take those in, take those on, and mirror it all back can make your own wound useful – but can also exhaust you and expose you to profound re-injury – the most painful kind of re-wounding when you work from your vulnerability and it is rejected or attacked.

And can you really withstand that right now?

Usually, yes, absolutely. The connection and the potential of intimacy makes it all worth it, and probably there is an internal mandate to keep doing it because what else can you do? What other way of working in the world will cook this stew into something  digestible?

But sometimes momentarily no. Not at all. It is not withstandable and why did I ever take on this fucked up job of absorbing other people’s aggression and confusion and wishes for me to be perfected when I am not I am not, I have never been and I am certainly not now, not at all. Who did I think I was? I suck at this, it is the worst and is there anyway to get out of this at this point?

Suddenly remembering that even your breakability is valuable because it connects you to the brokenness of others

Finding seconds of relief and stacking them upon each other.

Remembering you are grateful for the love that you are now grieving and for the love and kindness, and the attempts at kindness that are all around

Remembering what those you have lost would want for you.

Trying to see yourself as they saw you.

Arguing with them in your head. Giving them back the fucked up bits that they might not have accepted when they were alive.

Learning to speak to yourself in their healthy voice.

Recalling that everything  you are contending with that feels unnatural is natural.

That grief is part of the natural order of things, and allowing it to function in your life as a natural force.

And remembering  that it is all expectable. Necessary. Unavoidable.

That all this is just grief itself.

Nothing less. Nothing more.

 

 

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(For an accompanying discussion on the processes of bereavement and how you can support those in early bereavement please read this. )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dormant

 

…another mechanism used by some organisms… is that of dormancy, during which an organism conserves the amount of energy available to it and makes few demands on its environment. Most major groups of animals as well as plants have some representatives that can become dormant. Periods of dormancy vary in length and in degree of metabolic reduction, ranging from only slightly lower metabolism during the periodic, short-duration dormancy of deep sleep to more extreme reductions for extended periods of time.    ~ Encyclopedia Britannica 

 

I spent the summer in a state of pleasant dormancy, following the Lethargian’s schedule:

At 8:00 we get up and then we spend

From 8 to 9 daydreaming.

From 9 to 9:30 we take our early mid-morning nap

From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.

From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.

From 11:30 to 12:00 we bide our time and then eat lunch.

From 1:00 to 2:00 we linger and loiter.

From 2:30 to 3:30 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today.

From 3:30 to 4:00 we take our early late afternoon nap.

From 4:00 to 5:00 we loaf and lounge.

From 6:00 to 7:00 we dillydally.

From 7:00 to 8:00 we take our early evening nap and then for an hour before we go to bed at 9:00 we waste time.

~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, pp. 26-27

 

Actually: I attended and presented at two conferences, I began volunteering my easy, instinctive labors with a new (to me) non-profit organization, I attended a children’s summer camp that is under the auspices of that organization. I did a little work compiling contacts for a benefit committee that is honoring a friend of mine. I watched a lot of Korean dramas filled with beautiful actors in lovely clothes wandering through gorgeous apartments. I read the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes out loud with my family. I stayed up late. I slept in. I went on vacation.

I met with my clients. I took care of my children.

Here is what I didn’t do: I didn’t read anything longer than a magazine article, I read no psychoanalytic theory. I didn’t write more than a single essay. I didn’t challenge myself, I didn’t worry or strain. I didn’t recall or record most of my dreams unless they felt big and vivid and clear and even then I’d let it slide for a few days. I didn’t see my analyst. I didn’t meditate much. I couldn’t run or practice bagua because I injured my foot, so I walked when I felt like it, and didn’t calculate or worry overmuch about how I was going to get “enough” exercise.

I didn’t try to get better at anything. I didn’t practice anything or try to learn something new. I didn’t challenge or press myself. And I didn’t think about anything that I didn’t have to.

“No one’s allowed to think in the Doldrums,” …. “It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24

Growth and challenge are not always sustainable. And sometimes self-care means not having to think so hard about caring for oneself. Sometimes it means switching off, and staying that way for a bit.

And if not, the switch can flip on its own, a fuse blown protectively and there is nothing you can do about it but bide your time and perhaps even learn how to enjoy the wait.

I went proactively, contentedly dormant. But when dormancy takes over without volition, we often fret and fuss, strain and thrash about, fearful that we will never ever be “productive” again.

A fallow period is has come to mean a period of shameful unproductivity but it actually refers to field that as been plowed but unsown. The ground is in a state of active waiting, resting in service of eventual generativity.

A plateau in the vernacular may be a “stage at which no progress is apparent” But it is also a flat, clear highland. A leveling, a tableland which requires no ascent or descent. In the Americas such mesas are sacred spaces that put humans close to the sky, near to  where Coyote dwells  – and other supranatural entities of the Navajo – Changing Woman and the Hero Twins return to restore themselves every dozen years under exposed skies.

The doldrums has become a phrase associated with depression and lethargy – but it is in fact a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. A zone where sailors dependent upon moving air for income and livelihood pass through a state of enforced stillness.

“The Doldrums my young friend are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 23

Seeds will germinate again in fertile soil, the grade will steepen, and the winds will pick up in good time.

But there are times when there is nothing to work at. when the hamster wheel stops spinning. When the most natural thing is to disengage, to shut off the motor, and drift, rolling along in neutral, without burning any fuel.

“We don’t want to get anything done, ” snapped another (Lethargian) angrily: “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24

What is happening when we pass for months with unrecalled dreams? What goes on when we are stalled, bored, or blocked in our march toward our chosen goals or estranged from our creative force?

We still dream. Even if our dreaming self is simply doing its work without our awareness or involvement. Unproductive periods may ultimately be more life-enhancing and generative than you can imagine.

I hear this all the time:

“Um, nothing much is going on… same old shit I suppose”

or

“Everything is good. Fine. Hmm, what to talk about…”

or

“Nothing wrong really. I haven’t had any dreams. Work is fine. Nothing new there. Stuff is okay at home. This is going to be a boring session I guess…”

And if he wasnt entirely happy, he wasnt unhappy, either. Rather, he found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment” ~ Jess Walter on Pasquale Tursi, Beautiful Ruins

Many in my field are trained to pathologize unproductivity in life and in psychotherapy as defense or resistance. But a pathologized “defense” can be viewed instead as an adaptive “security operation.” And resistances can be respected and honored, rather than confronted.

What if, periods without words, without intense self-scrutinty, without probing active exploration or self-examination were treated as valuable rather than problematic? What if conscious productivity is only a small and culturally, economically over-emphasized part of life and not the most important bit?

“Well if you can’t… think what can you do?” asked Milo.

“Anything as long as its nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything.~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 26

Jung’s conception of the Self places Consciousness – “ego” our identity, thoughts, recognizable feelings, known beliefs, accessible memories and chosen persona as the smallest capstone on top of a large pyramid:

 

photo(1)

(I know,  I know. This attempted illustration is so so sad. Feel free to take a short break to laugh and mock my stunted graphic and technological skills)

Most of the Self, in Jung’s view is unconscious.

Preconscious perceptions and unrecalled memories are stored out of awareness, as is Jung’s Shadow – the repressed, rejected, or unknown aspects of our personality. Anima and animus energies are more easily understood as the realm of unconscious complimentary opposites the strengths which lie under our perceived vulnerabilities, and the weaknesses that live underneath our conscious capacities; the yang to our yin and vice versa; which we project on to our partners, and which assert themselves at mid-life and in our dreams guiding us toward wholeness.

And the Collective Unconscious: ancestral knowledge and the instinctive energies and archetypes which the human species organize themselves around collectively, in much the same way that migrating birds order themselves hierarchically and instinctively in V formation. This is also the transpersonal space – where we are in direct relationship to a whole that is larger than our individuality, to humankind, the Earth, to the Universe, or to the gods.

If most of the Self, most of our organism is operating underground, out of awareness, and without our conscious consent, then the unconscious aspects of our psyche must be quite busy –  whether we know it or not  – continuously making adjustments, metabolizing traumas great and small, preparing for growth and transformation, compensating and correcting our conscious course.

So whatever it is that we think we should be producing, is really just the smallest tip of the iceberg. We are mistaken, and in Jung’s view, and in a state of dangerous ego-inflation if we believe that the conscious aspects of the individual can control the whole Self. We can no more control our unconscious than we can urge our digestion to hurry along or will our eyes to never blink again.

“It is the almost universal mistake of the ego to assume total personal responsibility for its sufferings and failures. We find it, for instance, in the general attitude people have toward their own weaknesses, an attitude of shame or denial. If one is weak in some respect, as everyone is, and at the same time considers in ignominious to be weak, he is to that extent deprived of self-realization.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 153

The Self has autonomic functions to perform. Processes which don’t require our conscious approval or interference. Hunger, appetite, craving and digestion are unconscious processes. Hunting, gathering healthy food, preparing meals, and eating are conscious acts. In healthy organisms these functions work together in mediated concert toward mutual satisfaction. In symptomatic creatures, the conscious and unconscious are operating at cross-purposes.

And egos that have no humility with respect to the totality of the Self will soon find themselves devoid of meaning. Imbalances in either direction will create symptoms: anxieties, despairs, depressions, neurosis – or external conflicts which are symptoms projected out, on to others, or created unconsciously and experienced as ill-fortune.

Just as there are times when we need to exert significant conscious effort to ensure our logistical and psychological survival, and some unconscious forces which need conscious channeling or restraint in order to uphold our part of the social contract – there are also times when our psyche needs our conscious agendas to get the hell out of the way.

While our ego may feel we’ve been stalled, it is oftentimes in service of deeper functions that our ego’s cannot fathom. Fighting against flat, fallow, and windless periods may be as disruptive and endangering to our psychological organism as insisting upon running a marathon with a high fever or immediately following a feast.

It is the ego’s job to be fit and strong enough to bring itself into alignment with and to serve the entire Self as an organism, as an individual and as part of a larger collective. Our unconscious purposes do not perform merely to satisfy our puny egos, or our personal, or culturally instilled “sense of accomplishment”.

In the fall just after the first frost – the North American Tree Frog freezes solid. It just has to touch one single ice crystal and its organism begins the process of sinking into a shocking and complete death-like dormancy.

I don’t know much about frog-egos, or frog-cortexes. Yet I imagine that there is likely a small piece of even a froggy-psyche that would – if given a choice – prefer to keep hunting down juicy crickets and enjoying the full-belly-rewards of its labors.

What does it feel like to the frog, whose body has begun to shut down its brain and bodily functions? First, a slowly mounting paralysis, and then complete gross and small motor shut down, a stoppage of neurological functioning,  sight, smell,  hearing and tactile senses fade.  No heart beat, no respiration. No work of any kind.

Is there a little froggy panic? Any anxiety that it will go hungry if it doesn’t keep hunting? A sense of frog-failure for not living up to its summer-time work ethic? Is it frustrating? Terrifying to feel the pseudo-death begin? Is there an internal protest? Does it put up any internal fight? Or has evolution and Nature herself structured its dormancy so that it feels no discomfort, or maybe even pleasure as it falls into a hard, icy rock-like sleep?

I imagine that animals in their natural state are organized more efficiently than we are – and that some kind of neurological “acceptance” or systemic surrender is activated that is easier and more efficient than fighting against these extreme death-like life-preserving processes.

But we humans fight, fret and judge ourselves  –  usually without ever assessing the whys or wherefores of our systemic shut-downs. And although that frozen frog looks as dead as a doornail –  as close to death as a still living thing can be – it has moved into this inert state to preserve its vitality, its ability to hunt and feed and do its frog work for another season.

Just because it is apparently lifeless and inactive, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still chock full of life, a seasonal clock still ticking, a system waiting for an external signal, a thaw, the opportunity and the conditions for activity and labor to begin again.

“To be aware of individuality is to realize that one has all that one needs. It also means that one needs all that one has, namely, that every psychic content and happening is meaningful.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 168

And maybe what isn’t  happening is as essential to us as anything that ever happens.

Deep Haven

 “There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.

This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

I am simultaneously being pressed by internal forces and consciously resisting writing this. Perhaps that is always the case – but this one feels both like it needs to be written, and that maybe this is not the place.

Is it really about psychotherapy as a practice? Or is it just about me? And to what degree is that the same thing anyway? I seem to understand my client’s experience most when I reach down through some deep point of heavily processed identification, broken down to its nearly universal archetypal core.

So this is personal. And perhaps as it helps me to listen more deeply, reach for unprocessed content, and feel my way into the stories and memories my clients share with me more specifically and thoroughly –  it is also professional.

I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.

And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.

We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.

Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.

They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory refers to human objects, and any non-human object is most-likely merely representative of a human one.

You can’t have relationships with a non-human thing – can you?

Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.

I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or been immersed in a mikvah.”

The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.

But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:

“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.

When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…

Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.

Searles might agree:

“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.

I do to. (See, this hasn’t gotten very personal yet, has it?)

So I’ll wade in:

A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:

A friend is someone who likes you.

It can be a boy…

It can be a girl…

Or a cat…

Or a dog…

Or even a white mouse.

A tree can be a different kind of a friend.

It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….

Or pears….

Or cherries….

Or sometimes a place to swing.

 

A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.

It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.

 

The wind can be a friend too.

It sings soft songs to you at night

            when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.

Sometimes it calls you to play.

It pushes you from behind

as you walk and makes

the leaves dance for you.

It is always with you

            wherever you go,

            and that’s how you know

            it likes you.

A Friend is Someone Who Likes You,

~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

 

And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.

“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.

But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.

“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?

Sometimes you don’t know who

            are your friends.

Sometimes they are there all the time,

but you walk right past them

and don’t notice that they like you

            in a special way.

And then you think you don’t have any friends.

Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…

and move very slowly,

and look around carefully,

to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…

Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…

or a tree that lets you climb it easily…

or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.

 A Friend is Someone Who Likes You ~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.

At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.

I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.

I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.

I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.

The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.

A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?

A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.

An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970’s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance

A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers:  drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.

A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.

A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.

A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.

The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.

I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.

And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.

We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world. We have affected each other. We have been affected.

Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dragon’s Pearl

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

~ Marie Von Franz, Individuation in Fairy Tales

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

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.

 

Pearls

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The First Danger: Refusing the call

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Second Danger: The Descent

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

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

 

The Third Danger: Forgetting, Sleeping and Waking Up

There is more than one way to get lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Fourth Danger: Drowned, Destroyed, Devoured

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Danger: Repression and Defeated Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Ascent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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