Dreams at the Interface of Personal and Collective Trauma

Courtesy of Gregory Pagano

Currently trauma is often defined, less in terms of the personal (the individual), and more in terms of the collective (the social-political) with its potentially insidious soul-destroying qualities. This is Maria Root’s concept of everyday or “insidious trauma.” Root, here is referring to the “traumatogenic effects of oppression,” racism, marginalization, and hegemony.

Presently, psychoanalysts recognize the resulting condition of psychic paralysis that exists in an individual exposed to collective psychic trauma. Such individuals are said to have a psyche colonized by collective and colonial imperatives, including the internalized attitudes of cultural inferiority. (Fanon, 2008)[1] This internalization often entails “the loss of an unnamable domain…which one might…mistake for constitutional exile.” (Kristiva,1982)[2]

Constitutional exile (the feeling of being set adrift, disoriented, and disconnected from oneself) produces one of the most damaging aspects of psychic trauma. This is the loss, of a connection to one’s interiority, and access to a creative unconscious that can provide the psychic space for the reparation and reconstitution of internal processes, impacted by trauma. The result is a devastating inhibition in the growth of awareness of the extent of the psychic injury, and above all, a loss of a linking to one’s autonomy and agency that could provide the psychic space for repair.

Many schools of psychoanalysis emphasize the power of the unconscious in the healing of a socially traumatized psyche. Some point to dreams for bringing a more detailed map of the psychic territory impacted by the trauma, and exposing the linkages to other vulnerable places within the individual. In this context, Jung offers what he terms “The Spirit of the Depths,” [3] an aspect of psyche, composed of both conscious and unconscious processes, available through our dreams, that offers a space of reflection, born of an understanding of the images that flow from the unconscious.

It is this force, according to Jung, that offers the vision to unshackle both an individual life and also provides the symbols that offer recovery from the impact of a culture that may be tumultuous, disorienting, and assaultive to its members’ autonomy. These kinds of dreams can prove fertile for the personality, enabling it to move creatively forward, reacquiring or transforming inadvertently overlooked parts of the self, and linking them to those encapsulated by the trauma.

It follows, that our dreams, once embraced, can provide, one way, that we can return from a place of exile, homelessness, rootlessness, and powerlessness, and help reinstate the inalienable rights denied by a corrosive, society. Our dreams can offer us entrance into the psychic space that we can call “home,” a home that offers acquaintance with what is essentially ours, initiating autonomy from what has been destructively imposed. Freedom, redemption, depth of feeling and understanding of the world around us, and ourselves, is intimately connected to keeping the door ajar to this psychic space.

There are some dreams that appear to be specifically commenting on the “Spirit of the Times”—the impact of the social context—the collective—and at the same time seem to be commenting on the personal. These dreams offer the special gift of shedding light on both the distinction between the personal and the political, and their juncture, giving insight to their linkage, and their impact on each other.

I have termed this type of `dream, “dreams at the interface.” Although not all dreams prompt a feeling that they are commenting on the “Spirit of the Times” as well as personal complexes and issues of the individual dreamer, Lama Z. Khouri in her poignant essay “Buried Neck Deep” in Room 10-18.5[4] offers just such a dream and gives us the opportunity to study the linkage between the personal and political in some detail.

As we explore Khouri’s dream we will see how the personal and political have interacted to produce her current experience. The dream, itself, with its message understood, can help her restore generativity and choice in her psyche, a psyche that she describes as impacted through her identification as a Palestinian (a people, both colonized and abandoned by other Arab countries, their plight overlooked) and having a profound emotional connection to, and understanding of the people of a village in Gaza symbolically (and literally) described by her as an “open-air prison.”

It is almost impossible, not to pause, as one attempts to absorb the catastrophic and emotive power of the image, which is center stage in Khouri’s dream, dreamed 12 years ago, when her son was age 4, and now again is rising to consciousness. It seems that such an image can only emerge from a psyche that has had the primary experience, and in addition been a primary witness to, the insidious traumatogenic power of oppression. The dream imagery carries forward to her consciousness and ours the soul-destroying aspects of collective trauma.

However, it is important to note, that dreams rarely restate what the dreamer already knows, their gift is always to be our most informing friend, constantly surprising, urging us to notice shadow aspects of ourselves, existing, in the darkened areas of our psyche. Focusing on these areas, clarifies linkages, and assumptions that may give us the capacity to unlock doors to internally, and externally constructed prisons.

It is this aspect of Khouri’s dream that we look to for the vision to unshackle her personal complexes, and issues that have arisen in relationship to her collective experience of trauma. These personal issues can be just as catastrophic and immobilizing, left unnoticed, as the original collective psychic trauma. In addition, when the collective and personal aspects of the trauma are not sorted, their interaction can dramatically intensify psychic pain.

In addition, when such a powerful dream image rises to the surface of consciousness yet a second time, it carries the suggestion that there must be something important that Khouri needs to notice. Perhaps it might possess the quality of the “unthought known” of Christopher Bollas[5]. a “thought” that is existent in one’s psyche, but its poignant and transformational power makes it impossible to process.

She writes:

Lately, a dream I had twelve years ago has been coming back to me. I dreamt that my four-year-old son (he’s sixteen now) was buried neck deep in the middle of a neighborhood and surrounded by modest houses. Passersby would kick his face, but he remained silent, as if the kicks were part of life and not to be contested — as if, to survive, he needed to keep his mouth shut.

She explains:

This dream has had many meanings for me. Twelve years ago, I thought my four-year-old son in the dream was me: buried in a failed marriage with nowhere to go. Of late, my son in the dream has become the Palestinian people: “You either capitulate or we will continue to beat you to the ground.” Their struggle for freedom is terrorism, children throwing rocks are arrested or killed, many young adults have no hope —

Although many of the assumptions and images in the dream may seem resonant to, and even a result of living intimately connected to a colonized nation, it is important to note that there are many assumptions in the dream that are stated as “just so” aspects of life, and it may be those that the dream seems to be opening up for consideration and questioning. I have noted these in bold above.

Are kicks in the face part of life and not to be contested? The dream figure acts “as if” this is true He acts as if to survive, he needs to keep his mouth shut. Is it true that in orderto survive, one must remain silent?

Khouri says, at first, she thought the dream image was her, buried in a failed marriage with no place to go. However, one can be buried in a failed marriage without being silenced and kicked in the face, and buried neck deep with no efficacy, no motility other than the voice.

She says, later that she felt that the dream image reflected the reality of the Palestinian people. However, one can be oppressed, harassed, socially imprisoned, and impacted by the Israeli’s abuse without assuming kicks are part of life, and not to be contested, or without assuming that abuse is normal.

Most centrally one can be in an oppressive marriage, and/or oppressed by an aggressive nation, and still not decide in order to survive one must keep their mouth shut. The dream describes a certain conscious orientation to reality, certain assumptions about life, and what one needs to do in order to survive, and it shows the dream figure “buried up to the neck” in these assumptions, and immobilized by them. It appears to me that it is these assumptions that allow the dream figure no “wiggle room,”  and that it may be these assumptions, left unquestioned, that have accumulated to construct his “open-air prison.”

It appears that it is not the collective trauma itself that has destroyed the dream figure’s power, and autonomy. Rather it is these assumptions about life that has the dream figure catastrophically and hopelessly mired. The dream figure has no wiggle room in relation to the assumption that abuse is a normal part of life; that there is a normal and natural connection between abuse, and the inability to act; that the connection between abuse and silent acceptance is normal; and that silence, and immobility are the only survival techniques. Above all, the dream appears to be attempting to bring to the consciousness of the dreamer a new option—the possibility of questioning the wholesale truth of the powerful phase—”You  either capitulate or we will beat you to the ground.” 

It appears that the dream is here now, or 12 years ago, and is remembered, again, to continue its dialogue with her. The dream specifically throws light on these assumptions, and opens them to reflection.

Khouri, concludes her essay with these thoughts:

It is not enough for me to hold and contain the client’s pain. I need to do what I can to change their sociopolitical environment.

Impacted by the powerful image in her dream, I would also add that Khouri may notice dream images of her clients, or thoughts and associations that demonstrate personal vulnerabilities and narratives, that exist in their personal psyche in relationship to the larger collective trauma. Bringing these to consciousness, differentiating the power imposed from the outside, from the power given to the outside through internal personal assumptions, and personal narratives, giving the link between the two, heat, focus, and conscious reflection, may bring these “just so” assumptions to awareness, and create a greater inner sense of personal choice for her clients.

Footnotes

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press, 2008). 
  2. Julia Kristeva, (Leon S. Roudiez, Trans.) Powers of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, (Columbia University Press,1982). 
  3. Jung, CG, “Liber Primus,” The Red Book, (New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 241.
  4. Room-18.5: A Sketchbook for Analytic Action. (2018) Iptah.org (analytic-room.com)
  5. Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New York, Columbia University Press, 1987).

Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (drjoangolden@gmail.com)


 

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The True Story of How Frogs Become Princes

frog.jpg

I have been thinking about the Frog Prince, and more specifically about the method, so to speak, of his transformation from frog to prince. I first encountered him a long time ago at the children’s library. The librarian took my mother and me to the shelves to the right of the entryway, where I met Mother West Wind and Tom Swift. I worked my way across and down the shelves four books at a time – the maximum number I could check out – until I got to the fairy tales, a riveting upgrade in drama.

In this fierce new realm bad people, like stepmothers, witches, and Cinderella’s sisters, were punished in gloriously gory ways: burning, beheading, and blood. Good people—aka heroines–were rewarded, usually with a prince, for various virtues: Cinderella persisted in going to the ball, Snow White nurtured dwarves, and Beauty’s compassion transformed a beast. I was hardly into dress-up and dancing, much less homemaking or marriage, but I understood that personal strengths were rewarded. I did have a low opinion of Sleeping Beauty, however, who received her prince merely for falling asleep on the job.

Eventually, I came across the Frog Prince, in which a rather prissy princess makes a deal with a frog: if he will retrieve her golden ball from the bottom of a pond, the princess will allow the frog to eat from her plate and sleep in her bed. The princess gets her ball back, ditches the frog, but when her king father insists that a deal is a deal she has to endure the frog’s proximity. Some nights later, the princess even had to kiss the frog—which turned him into a prince. I didn’t think it would be so hard to kiss a frog, and accepted the rightness of a by now familiar fairy tale trope: eros transforms.

But in the second version of the tale, maybe a couple of shelves down, I read that the petulant little princess, required merely to share her food and pillow with a frog, had a royal tantrum and flung the frog against the wall. I imagined the frog exploding like a balloon filled with Jello, and was shocked that the princess’ rage, revulsion, and rebellion were rewarded with the usual prince. This was a whole new storyline – talk about cognitive dissonance! – and it thrilled me.

Suddenly there was room in the goodnesses of the feminine for the authenticity of no, even if it meant defaulting on a deal, acting aggressively, and defying patriarchal authority. There was, and is, room for protest, even if it’s emotional and messy. This princess – and all our inner princesses – may be rageful, impulsive, and defiant, but they are entitled to no – and to choosing their own bedmates.

The Jungian perspective on fairy tales is principally internal, and considers the characters in the tale (or a dream) as images of individual psychic realities. But before we get to that, I’d like to make the case for a frog-flinging recent event: Christine Blasey Ford’s protest against Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability for the Supreme Court. Her truth hit the media and splattered Kavanaugh’s reputation everywhere.

But Kavanaugh did not become a prince in anyone’s eyes–unless there’s someone somewhere who doubts Dr. Ford’s testimony and the courage it took to provide it. Kavanaugh’s wilding days of inebriated sexual predation belied the “choir boy” persona the PR team had promoted. Perhaps there was some justice for the Justice after all, for when the Kavanaugh frog hit the wall it left a permanent stain.

So where, you may be wondering, is the prince? He resides, as ever, in every woman, and Christine Blasey Ford demonstrated that we all have access to our inner prince. It takes the qualities all those other fairy tale heroines demonstrated, especially fidelity to one’s inner truth, and adds our right to claim it with all the fury and force of an authentic no.

Sisters, if there’s a horrid frog in your life, you know what you can do.

My thanks to Jungian-oriented friend and colleague Lisa Benger, LCSW-R in Brooklyn, NY for a conversation about this tale, and Brett Kavanaugh as an example of an invasive frog who galvanizes the princess into full-blown authentic protest.

Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. She can be reached at www.DeborahCStewart.com  She is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar. She is an active member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other professional organizations. She is co-creator and contributor to This Jungian Life podcast at www.ThisJungianLife.com. She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.

Mythological Dreams

Ligozzi_(Una_quimera)

According to Jung, the unconscious spontaneously produces images that are mythological in nature, meaning that they are symbolic, universal, and address the nature of the cosmos, and our place in it. Mythologems, or mythological motifs, are a kind of pre-existing psychic natural resource, present at least in potential in the deep layers of the psyche of every person. These mythological images are the raw materials from which the grand narratives that we know of as myth are formed.

Myths are products of the unconscious and reveal its workings. Jung wrote that “myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.”[i] Jung believed that myths and dreams spring from a common source – that they both draw from to the same aquifer of universal images. “The whole world of myth of fable is an outgrowth of unconscious fantasy just like the dream.”[ii] Jung believed that the motifs found in dreams and myths were so similar that they were nearly identical.

Dreams, being statements of the unconscious, play no small part in the therapy….The indubitable occurrence of archetypal motifs in dreams make a thorough knowledge of the spiritual history of man indispensable for anyone seriously attempting to understand the real meaning of dreams. The likeness between certain dream motifs and mythologems is so striking that they may be regarded not merely as similar but even identical. This recognition not only raises the dream to a higher level and places it in the wider context of the mythologem, but, at the same time, the problems posed by mythology are brought into connection with the psychic life of the individual.[iii]

Joseph Campbell adds some nuance to Jung’s assertion that myth and dream originate from the same source. He contends that myths are produced with the help of consciousness, and contain not merely upwelling of instinctual wisdom, but the distillation of generations of lived knowledge.

If we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources – the unconscious wells of fantasy – and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. This is true already of the so-called primitive folk mythologies. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the wisdom of the world, not unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy. The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries – even millenniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they touch and actually bring into play the vital energies of the whole human psyche. They link the unconscious to the fields of practical action.[iv]

The grand mythic narratives, therefore, have been forged by culture. Myths tell us how to live and contain the distilled wisdom of the ancestors. Mythological stories, then, always tell us something important about the collective. They instruct the individual about how he or she ought to orient toward the wider culture. It may be that, at decisive moments in personal individuation, our individual choices intersect with larger collective currents. At these times, our personal story becomes part of the larger myth unfolding in the life of society around us. It is likely that mythological dreams appear at just such junctures.

As Jung points out, our dreams often include images that could have come from myths or fairy tales. There are big symbols such as snakes or trees, and these are accompanied by big feelings. Or our dreams have supernatural creatures or occurrences. Animals talk. There are witches or vampires. Then we know we are in the realm of the mythic. When mythological dreams appear, it may be that these are there to link our personal story to collective events, to place our personal drama decisively in a historical context. If we are indeed connected to the entirety of human experience through the underground rhizome of the collective unconscious, and influence flows both ways, then receiving a dream from this level of the psyche alerts us that we are in the flow of a collective psychic happening.

Consider the following dream:

It was a sunny day, and I was carrying a little girl dressed in a long white gown to be baptized. The path to the church led up a steep hill. But I was holding the child safely and securely in my arms. All of a sudden, I found myself at the brink of a crevasse. I had just enough time to set the child down on the other side before I plunged into the abyss.[v]

The image of the little girl alerts us that we are potentially in mythological territory. The child is a profound symbol of futurity, of that which is both fragile and yet destined to survive us. Jung says that the child is a symbol that new thing that appears spontaneously as a result of the union of opposites just at that time when we feel most stuck and desolate.

The “child” is born out of the womb of the unconscious, begotten out of the depths of human nature, or rather out of living Nature herself. It is a personification of vital forces quite outside the limited range of our conscious mind; of ways and possibilities of which our one-sided conscious mind knows nothing; a wholeness which embraces the very depths of Nature. It represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.[vi]

The transpersonal content symbolized by the little girl is being carried by the dream ego toward a ritual experience of rebirth and consecration. The dream is reassuring that this content will survive beyond the destruction of the conscious personality. As a symbol, the child can stand for that which was there before consciousness, and that which will remain after consciousness ceases to be.

The child…is thus both beginning and end, an initial and a terminal creature. The initial creature existed before man wan, and the terminal creature will be when man is not. Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man. His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death.[vii]

Just as our actual children will survive us and go on to carry a part of our essence into the infinite future, the symbolic child carries transpersonal values into the future beyond our personal, temporally limited engagement with them. (The image of the child is used to suggest just such a content at the end of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.)

sophie

In fact, this dream was dreamt by Sophie Scholl on the night before her execution. According to the biography written by her sister, Scholl interpreted the dream to her cell mate thus:

“The child represents our idea, which will triumph in spite of all obstacles. We are allowed to be its trailblazers, but we must die before it is realized.”[viii]

Such a dream reveals to us the mythic substrate on which our personal drama unfolds. Mythological dreams may also perhaps reflect the currents of history and world events which flow beneath us at all times, but which we may not be capable of detecting without the benefit of hindsight.

Mythological dreams are usually Big Dreams, dreams that affect us powerfully, and stay with us for years. Mythological dreams encourage us to fulfill our personal destiny, so that we can take up our unique role in the life of the collective. They seem to appear at nodal points in our life, often prefiguring decisive moments when we face a choice whether to move in the direction of our mysteriously pre-ordained unfolding.

[i] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 261.
[ii] “Principles of Practical Psychotherapy,” The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, par. 17.
[iii] “Foreword to White’s ‘God and the Unconscious,’” Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, par. 450.
[iv] Jospeh Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-257.
[v] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, pp. 107-108.
[vi] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 289.
[vii] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 299.
[viii] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, p. 108.

AUTHOR

Lisa Marchiano, LCSW is a certified Jungian analyst in private practice in Philadelphia. She blogs at http://www.theJungSoul.com and is the co-creator of This Jungian Life podcast. She can be reached through http://www.lisamarchiano.com

 

Meditation on Mothers and Death

Eshu’s Vision

Crows with iridescent rich feathers
swoop in layers in front of my windshield. 
Their chatter hales down like hard pellets
fallen from an August rain cloud in this October month.
I drive into furious black wings, expecting they can be swept aside, made invisible,
that they have not chosen me, but  only like me, are weary after night flight across a sleeping continent.
 
Their black pea eyes refuse to blink.
They push roughly against air forcing me to breathe deeper
like the first time, out of the birth waters,
trying to catch that first breath of air.
 
On this umbilical highway each exhalation releases:
wings rise and fall to earth,
these messengers of Eshu, bring divination, falling like rain,
blur my vision in embryonic thin air.
 
Finished, they fly east to the ocean.
Sunrise reflects like water and oil on wings of charcoal.
The space behind my heart darkens, while nigredo feathers fallen to earth,
predict my mother’s death.

The summer is only beginning, though these hot, humid days suggest August, rather than the light touch of warmth that June most often brings.  For the last several months I have been thinking, actually more ruminating about mortality, and to say it in what seems a more blunt manner, dying.  This is the close personal death—not the distant one of a collective ritual such as Catholic extreme unction or the death of an actor playing someone dying in a movie. It is not the hearing of the death of an actor who has been immortalized on the screen.  I question.  How could he die?  How old was he anyway—surely not that old? Then I remember the years since I first saw him on screen.  I realize that the difference of our age is not that great.  I might be closer to death then I think.  Of course I am because I cannot know the minute nor the hour.  This thought makes dying seem so very close to me. As if I will die. Can die—soon.   For these few seconds I know this and think I can actually feel my body dying.

I have begun with my own mortality but I also want to talk about mothers and our holding and lose of them.  In a soft way, like a small pocket of lightly swirling cove water, under the ocean, I have been thinking only about my own personal mother’s death, and so a patient came not too many days ago, because she is in mourning about her own mother’s recent death.  Of course, every one who walks through the analytical door is carrying a gift, a contributing reason for my existence as I am for theirs. They are each bringing something I must hold with love and bear with courage.  This is because I have forgotten and need reminding of my necessary life work.

I wonder if it isn’t too mournful and dreadful in some way to be thinking about death in the summer.  Doesn’t it belong in a dark month, a rainy, cloud-driven late January day?  As a depth psychologist I can safely say not—it’s all right to bring the darkness anytime as it never really leaves us.  Yes, there is safety here but there is also safety in wanting the light—the beautiful light of a blue-sky June day.

I struggle with wanting both—because I actually need both.  It does remind me of what appears as a paradox to me of having someone bring you into the world, be your first place of heart connection, all the while having them die, and yet still be with them in memory. This is for all the years the rest of my life. This might seem so simplistic in thought but it holds a great importance in how I feel my life and feel into my life.

This apparent eternal connection to life and mother, even through her death, sometimes even more so because of her death, interweaves through my life and that of my patients.

As I read through pages of author discussions in service of writing a book on what I have called Archetypal Grief—African American mothers losing their children for generations due to slavery, and the emotional pain of such losses, I feel myself to now be living within the phenomenological field of mothers and death.  But like many things, I feel myself to have been chosen in this moment because I have chosen a topic—a theme, that wants to be expanded upon and yet carries the weight of intergenerational trauma that remains today.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of writing about death and dying, begins to inform my writing work—allowing me to develop an idea for a new model of consideration.  This idea is that something changes the model of grief with intergenerational dying and mourning caused by an archetypal event such as slavery.  It is almost as if a mother, and all the enslaved future daughters she births and their daughter’s daughters, moving down the maternal line, will have no place for denial or bargaining as regards death.  Emotionally, there can only be room for anger, depression and acceptance.  This is what can frame the lived experiences of mothering slaves bound to death through birthing and intergenerational child loss.  I’m speaking of this because it has threaded through my consciousness for the past year as I write about enslaved mothers.  I also know that it lives in me as a member of this cultural collective.

Working Hands
 
Sunset red next to
azure blue
next to
spring green,
the colors
of the quilt
stream,
an unchecked flow
of
colored river 
gradually meeting shore,
the working brown
of my grandmother’s
hands.

This past Mother’s Day was a May Sunday in the middle of the month. I performed a short ritual in remembrance of my mother and all of the women of my matriarch lineage. I also remembered the women on my father’s side of family.  This day designated for mothers is not the only one in which we think about the women who have given us life.  In speaking of the mother archetype Jung says:

Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects….First in importance are the personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law….or a remote ancestress….The qualities associated with it are maternal solicitude and sympathy;  the magic authority of the female;  the wisdom and the spiritual exaltation that transcend reason;  any helpful instinct or impulse;  all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility.  The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.

C.G. Jung, CW, vol9i, para. 156, 158

As I consider the passage of my own mother into death, I think more of my own to-come experience of dying.  I think about how we can be afraid of dying. As I age, I realize I am in the category of one more likely to die.  This is sobering.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much presence death has when one is younger—in the twenties, thirties, the later years adds a different quality dimension.  How I can be afraid of it, and how each patient who discusses dying of a parent, friend or stranger is actually referencing their own death.  I believe this is why we must consider wisdom as we age.  It seems an important exchange—a trade-off, a softening offered against the hard edge of ego consciousness leaving the body.

As I write now, I wonder about my own purpose on choosing this meditation on mothers, death and dying. It feels not like swimming in a spiral of self-aggrandizement but more like a spider traversing her web.  Seeking a place to belong while knowing that all is at once home.

Blue Pearl
 
Stepping outside of the hospital where she had just died,
my arms have become wings.
 
Blue pearl surrounds my heart
and moves in the birthing motion of a star,
unencumbered by fear of loss,
now desiring only a child’s life.
 
I am warm with sunrays.
All false joys are tossed away like disappointing fruit,
fallen next to discarded sorrow.
All of it waiting to be washed away by the next rainfall.
 
Ocean stone shines cerulean glory,
pierces doubt, recovers with winds of truth
any falsehood about love,
and it’s power to heal all that hurts.
 
Caresses heartbreak.
Breathes tender.
Like the velvet softness of aged skin.
 
Sapphire reflects upon itself,
star to star,
captures my breath,
recreates it pearl by pearl.
 
And by this I know you have arrived safely.

AUTHOR

Fanny Brewster Ph.D. M.F.A., is a Jungian analyst and author of African Americans and Jungian Psychology:  Leaving the Shadows. (Routledge, 2017). She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and can be reached through www.fannybrewster.com

Sleeping Beauty: a Wake-Up Call

thimble

I have been thinking about Sleeping Beauty lately—remember her? She was never one of my favorites. I felt on early reading that she was rather a twit, stumbling upon the one and only spindle left in the entire kingdom and then pricking herself with it. Surely, at age 15, she should have developed more hand-eye coordination. This unlikely occurrence—how sharp could a spindle be, anyway?—caused every living being in castle to fall into a coma, even the flies. I mean really, SB.

As a child, I resonated to tales of ego strength: Jack, after his initial bad bargain (trading the family cow for a handful of beans), climbed the beanstalk and polished off a giant. Cinderella had the chutzpah to go to the ball and was rewarded with a prince. Hansel and Gretel roasted the horrid hag in her own oven—gotcha. SB, on the other hand, zonked out for 100 years, and was then awakened by a prince who happened to show up at just the right moment. If there was a life lesson in this story, it wasn’t apparent to me then.

But let’s get to the Evil Fairy part: EF wasn’t invited to the celebration of SB’s long-awaited royal birth, so she crashed the party and cursed SB, which turned into the fateful spindle-prick and 100 comatose years even for flies, not to mention innocent citizens. All this because SB’s parents were royally witless. In one version of the tale, EF wasn’t invited because the king and queen ran short of gold dinnerware. In another, they thought EF was dead, and didn’t bother to check.

Neither did they explain the evils of spindles to their daughter in case the burning and purging they had decreed missed a few. Or, the minute SB turned 15, assign a bevy of bodyguards to fend off any spindles that might be stalking her. Instead, the king and queen went on a trip, SB went poking around the castle—and guess what? There was a spindle right there in the castle—duh!

With everyone out cold, plant life sprang into action: a Trump-tower high hedge of thorns grew up around the castle and entrapped any would-be hero trying to get through (what a way to die). But on the exact day the hundred-year curse was up, the malevolent hedge opened to Hero Prince, who was visiting the area and was curious about the rumored castle avec princess. Of course HP found SB even though she was up in a remote tower with that terrible spindle. Everyone in the castle came back to life, now very unfashionably dressed, and HP and SB got married, code for Problem Over.

What I found frustrating about this tale was its lack of human agency, and along with it, assurance that I, like many a hero and heroine, can overcome even the most daunting difficulty. Feckless parents are a common occurrence in fairy tales, but even dummlings like Jack could finagle a way out of a situational jam. SB, however, totally checked out, only to be rescued by a prince who was mostly in the right place at the right time—no clever effort, brave feat, or lofty love.

From a Jungian viewpoint all the characters in a fairy tale can represent aspects of an individual psyche. We can recognize parts of ourselves in SB’s clueless parents, an innocent princess, and the fury of a disdained fairy. What an unappealing cast of characters—I mean characteristics.

But what I have found most irritating in this tale is its fatalism: sometimes you-know-what happens and we just have to wait in situ until a savior arrives. But no worries: when the time is right (even if it feels like a century), a hero-prince-rescuer will show up. Life and energy will then be restored without anyone having to make much effort. This is hardly a heartening message.

But wait: the fateful chain of events began when the king and queen excluded the 13th fairy. Because they were unable to engage her darkness, the shadow she represented became actively hostile. The royal couple had hoped to ensure their daughter a rosy life, but her life, and ours, must necessarily include shadow.

Conscious and unconscious must have it out with one another, a process Jung likens to that of hammer and anvil. Two sturdy opposites are required for psychic life and conscious individuation. Otherwise, as we see in the tale, collapse and stasis ensue.

The king and queen’s denial of shadow illustrates one of Jung’s famous dictums: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate—which, as we know from the tale and from life, exacts a high price. Because everyone except the late and lucky hero falls unconscious, resolution resides outside human agency.  Redemption is left to the archetypal realm as fate.

We can, of course, mitigate fate: “We have to discover more consciousness, to extend consciousness, and the more it is extended the more we get away from the original condition.” (CW 11, p. 967) Perhaps that famous, fateful spindle can prick us into the value of ever more conscious engagement in our lives.

AUTHOR

Deborah Stewart is a Certified Jungian Analyst on Cape Cod. She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and a co-creator of This Jungian Life podcast. You can reach her at http://www.deborahcstewart.com

Fairy Tales – How They Heal

swan

This article in The New York Times introduced me to a new concept – “emotional granularity.” Emotional granularity refers to the ability to feel and differentiate finely tuned emotions. It is the ability to identify that you are feeling melancholy, irritable, or teary rather than simply knowing that you feel bad.  According to the article, those who possess emotional granularity have significantly better mental and physical health outcomes. Psychologists explain that being able to identify a range of finely tuned emotions allows us access to a greater repertoire of responses to our distress. While that makes sense to me, I have another thought as well.

Naming is powerful.

When I try to break down what we actually do when we work with someone in analysis, probably 80% boils down to attempting to “feel our way into” their emotional experience, and then translate that into words or images as accurately as we can. Finding words or images that correctly describe the truth of someone’s subtle inner experience is a huge part of how therapy works.

Why? Because language can help contain strong emotions.

I remember the day before I took the oral examinations one must pass in order to become an analyst. I was incredibly anxious about what I was going to face, and I ran into a senior analyst and mentor. When I told her I was there for the exams, she looked at me sympathetically and said, “Oh! You must be scared!” That word “scared” had an immediate calming effect on me. It was much more accurate – and therefore grounding – than the word “anxious.” I was scared – very. And having it put into words instantly calmed and contained. For language to be containing, it has to be highly accurate. You have to understand the particularity of that emotion.

A process in which I use my intuition will turn up a much subtler and more idiosyncratic description of someone’s emotional experience. I am likely to use metaphors or images. These often present themselves to me in an autonomous fashion.

A neurobiologist would say that when I am using my intuition to read someone’s implicit emotional experience, I am making use of the body’s smart vagal system to understand what is going on. I get images or sensations, and this happens faster than conscious thought. I then translate this up using the language centers of the prefrontal cortex to express the experience in words and make these subtle experiences fully conscious.

For example, I might say something like the following:

“What is coming up for me is an image of someone trapped in a collapsed mine. It’s terrible to be in there alone and in the dark. When you hear someone on the other side scraping away to get to you, that makes an enormous difference. If you felt like your husband understood what you are going through, it would be a huge relief, even though you would still be going through it alone.”

When I get it right, or close to right, the whole feeling tone in the room changes. I often see bodily or facial signs of relief or relaxation happen, or hear a marked change in vocal tone just because I was able to find language or image for a subtle emotional state. I contend that translating ineffable emotional experiences into image or language is a significant factor in therapy’s effectiveness.

As it turns out, there is neurobiological research that supports this idea that putting feelings into words reduces emotional reactivity and helps us manage negative emotional experiences.

The amygdala is a key component of the limbic system, that part of the mammalian brain that generates emotion, assesses the environment for safety and survival, and regulates approach and avoidance. Our amygdala is constantly taking in information from the five senses and from our bodies and evaluating this information for threats. From our external senses, it picks up someone’s subtle facial expressions, posture, or vocal tone. From our bodies, it receives information from the visceral regions – the heart and the lungs, for example. Using this information, it makes a determination about the safety of our environment in less than 1/10th of a second, much faster than the time it takes our brains to form a conscious thought or feeling.

A recent study found that when people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in the amygdala, which begins to sound a threat alarm. The researchers found a significant amygdala response even when subjects were shown the emotional photographs subliminally, that is, too fast for the photos to be perceived and consciously registered. When study subjects were shown the same images and asked to label the emotion shown on the face with a word such as “scared,” or “angry,” brain imaging analysis showed a marked decrease in amygdala arousal.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science.The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another  region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateralprefrontal cortex. We use this region when thinking in words about emotional experiences. It also helps us inhibit behavior and process feelings.

So the study helps us understand better a phenomenon most of us have probably been aware of our whole lives – putting feelings into words helps us regulate and contain strong emotions. And we know from the emotional granularity research that being able to make refined distinctions in how we feel can also give us a greater range of options for managing these emotions.

If a single word like “scared” can be so effective, how much more potent a myth or fairy tale can be.

Fairy tales are a rich storehouse of psychic patterns. They provide us with an inexhaustible supply of images that catalog emotional states and life experiences with endless subtlety. Metaphor provides a powerful bridge between the amygdala and the more conscious parts of brain.

For a woman whose whole life has been characterized by feeling misunderstood, demeaned, or unseen, the words “excluded,” “unappreciated,” or “despairing” have the ability to contain aspects of her experience. But if that same person and I begin to discuss her experience in terms of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling,” we suddenly have access to a greatly enriched repertoire of language and image with which to describe her experience. The chicken in the farmhouse disparages and berates the young swan for his love of water, and because the swan has always been cut off from his own kind — his “tribe” — he doesn’t realize that he is being measured by inappropriate standards. Alone and full of despair, he is nearly frozen to death, immobilized in the ice. Many of us have surely had moments where we felt like that.

Images and language can contain strong feelings and allow us better access to our thinking functions to evaluate potential responses. But it also does one other thing.

Being able to put our inner states into complex and accurate language gives us back to ourselves. We can become an observing witness to our process and in this way know that we are having an emotional experience, not being had by one. When we begin to observe our inner weather systems without being overwhelmed by them, we are much better able to regulate and transform them.

Lisa Marchiano, LCSW is a certified Jungian analyst in private practice in Philadelphia. She blogs at http://www.theJungSoul.com.

Hillary and Donald, “Nasty Woman” and “Deplorable” Man: A Glimpse at the New Archetypal Couple

hillary-and-donald

What has Jung and Jungian thought got to do with it—do with helping us comprehend the post-value, post-truth universe that we now inhabit and the leaders, who have come forth to guide us through it?

By the time you are reading this, the people of the United States of American may have elected their new president. They will have chosen from the two candidates the one whom they hope might lower their anxiety, or at least not engender it soaring to the brink of breathless panic. I have seen more than one-person momentarily cease breathing, and sink into agony at the thought of the candidate winning the election that has not garnered their passionate embrace.

The American people have desperately embraced the convenient and comforting “truth” from one or the other candidate that helps them find some solace in the increasingly confusing universe where truth as inspiration can no longer be easily located. For most of us these two figures have become elevated to archetypal principles united in enmity, and in that sense have begun to redefine what it is to be “human.”

For those of us who can put our dreams into words, we know that each of the aspiring leaders has very little chance of helping us create a society that considers the individual, allows personal self-worth, a deep respect for diversity, individuality and the possibility for a safe economic future for all. It is difficult to imagine that either one understands (or has the slightest interest in developing within themselves or in society) a space, for each individual that would support and respect the need for an internal life. An internal life by definition facilitates the reception of the creative unconscious, and the internal play of affects and ideas that generate and authorize private imaginations, creatively informing work and giving continuing resource to interpersonal relations.

Rather, Hillary and Trump are defined by what it takes to survive in an amoral universe. Trump has co-opted the lowest form of the masculine, and Hillary (G-d bless her heart) has co-opted a form of the feminine that we all hope can survive this wild and dangerous masculine energy. Stepping back from what I see as an archetypal possession, and gaining some much needed reflection and perspective, it is clear that for now, and in the near future, we will have to rely for hope and generativity on the simple humanity that remains in each of us.

It is clear why certain people would have more or less sympathy, or to be more precise, be drawn into an archetypal identification with one or the other of these personalities. Trump, as several have said before (Stewart, 2016), is identified with an archetype, and embodies the sheer force of power, a raw amoral life force, the pure force of survival. He embodies a godlike singular titanic energy that explodes truth as we know it, and creates his own truths over and over again. He cannot be seen as contradictory to the truth, as he is truth itself and is positioned to re-define it at a moment’s notice. As an energetic source, we experience him as emotionally and frightening near, riveting and engulfing. When he explodes which is his normal form of communication, his energy and his reality penetrate deeply. His explosions annihilate individuality, but in return for this sacrifice, identification with this world-creating force brings hope to some. Absorbing this godlike power, the recipients can imagine that they can also create new worlds and become gods to and for themselves.

Others are offended at the arrogance and destructiveness of such an identification. The latter group moves quickly to contain this contaminating, usurping energy. They rush to psychiatric diagnosis, to make mythological comparisons, or to make comparisons to historical personages who have who have also developed their personalities into cults. They believe the unleashing of this torrential impersonal titanic force on our country will result in an Armageddon at best! They are correctly terrified by its destructive, amoral and unconscious energy.

Hillary, on the other hand, presents as identified with persona, and as such she embodies a concretization of Jung’s concept, “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” (Jung, v. 7, §305). There is little evidence of a creative, reflective and independent part of her personality involved in “sorting out and becoming aware” of her “masks and identifications” and differentiating “what is unduly pressured by conformity, from what is emergent and true… the work of individuation.” (The Book of Symbols, p.724 as quoted in Berry Tschinkel 2016, p.7)

She presents as a hard working public servant, serious, prepared, and a representative of diversity in all its many colors. The active, vital and creative connection she has with her persona, what motivates, and generates who she is can only be imagined, (perhaps intuited), but it cannot be experienced or accessed directly. With her humanity, and affects inaccessible, she has become the symbol of the pre-fabricated aspects of the ruling elite, untrustworthy, designed to deceive, and seduce others to believe in their ideas, all the while conspiring to obfuscate their true and uninspiring motivations. It is also easy for another large part of the population to appreciate her devotion, a life of hard work and experience and cling to her as the only possible hope for a kinder, gentler nation.

We have had many leaders that embody the possibility of society and a humanity in which the creation of an inner informing life is primary. Their presence and their words have always inspired each of us to remember the better parts of ourselves. They are inspiring because they demonstrate and illustrate by example how each of us needs to proceed to access the most sacred and informing parts of what it is to be truly human. The following quote from Nelson Mandela is a perfect example:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made mis-steps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Mandala reminds us that he both lives his life and has a profound reflective perspective on it. There is the persona that he presents to the world, it is a mask, but like the masks used in ancient ritual it is not used only to limit accessibility but also allows the sacred and transcendent meaning to emerge through it, and touch us all.

It is most important now to try to remember him and all of the people both famous, and not-at- all famous who embody this most human possibility. We are all in dire need to remember that this is still possible for us as we proceed forward in this most chaotic and dangerous of times.

Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (drjgolden@earthlink.net)

References:

Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS), The Book of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images, Taschen Books, 2010.

Berry Tschinkel, S., Colette, A beautiful dreamer, a transformative persona

ARAS Connections, 2016 Issue 3, (For a fuller discussion of persona as a dynamic component of the transformational process involved in individuation).

Mandala, N., Long Walk to Freedom; The Autobiography of Nelson Mandala, Little, Brown & Company in 1994.

Stewart, D, Icarus Aloft, PAJA Blog, June 7, 2016

Image Credit: Tina Fineberg/AP, US News February 26, 2016