Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom

Think Pyschologically; Live Spiritually

Disney Princesses August 30, 2011

In the 1970’s Westerners experienced a huge surge of awareness about gender stereotypes and we began a concerted effort to free ourselves from them. One issue receiving a lot of attention was how the depictions of female characters in traditional literature unconsciously influenced little girls’ beliefs about themselves and their place in the world. This led many women, myself included, to revisit our personal stories to see how we had limited ourselves.

Huge changes occurred in our cultural stories too. Television shows like Charlie’s Angels  featured women in roles that had been traditionally reserved for men.  Scholars like Marija Gimbutas (The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe) and Merlin Stone (When God Was A Woman) wrote books that examined feminine aspects of spirituality. New volumes of fairy tales were re-written to give the female characters more power and control over their lives. Since then, our growing awareness has fostered greater gender balance in many sectors of society.

How then do we account for the phenomenon of the Disney Princesses? Some see them as positive role models for their daughters, but many see them as stereotypes which are bound to scar our daughters’ minds.  Why do they think this?  Because the rule for female leads in such tales as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast is that they must be young, beautiful, sweetly shy, innocently seductive, charmingly vulnerable, and, for the most part, deferential to males. Moreover, although there are occasional deviations, the plots almost always follow the  masculine-hero-rescues-feminine-victim-and-conquers-villain formula for heroic behavior.

If we take these stories as literal models for gender behavior in the outer world  they are, indeed, limiting. But what if we see them as symbolic of the inner life of the soul which has a masculine and a feminine drive? What if we realize that each of us contains a sweet and vulnerable Cinderella/Snow White/Aurora/Belle Orphan who needs to be rescued from its child-like dreaminess so we can become conscious, mature, and responsible? What if we recognize the cruel Stepmothers, Stepsisters, and untamed Beasts within us who can influence us adversely if we do not become more aware of them?  What if we see that helpful Fairy Godmothers, noble Kings and Queens, and heroic savior Princes are also part of our potential and we can choose to empower them if we wish?

The characters and plots of our cultural stories are projections of our psyches that show us who we are and who we have the potential to become. If we view them as opportunities for self-reflection they can be portals to growth and self-discovery. The Disney Princesses represent a youthful stage of development of our feminine sides. As such, they will appeal to most children for a little while. A few might even stay in that stage throughout their lives — perhaps because the archetype is simply a powerful part of their true personality, or perhaps because they’re afraid to risk changing — but most will grow beyond it. And when they do, there are plenty of other role models out there to pick from.

At 6 and 9 my granddaughters have already outgrown the Disney Princesses. I wonder how long it will be before they discover Barbie and Ken…

 

The Authentic Hero’s Quest August 26, 2011

The other day I read an article on the internet about a mostly male mindset called the “culture of honor”  which places such a high value on defending one’s reputation that it results in more risk-taking and accidental deaths. Reportedly, this way of thinking is most prevalent in small towns and rural areas of the South and West in such states as South Carolina, Wyoming, and Texas. I wondered: What myth inspires these unfortunate men to take such dangerous risks that they are killing themselves?  Why do they follow it?  I found my answer in the wisdom of two of my favorite authors: Joseph Campbell and Carol S. Pearson.

Campbell tells us that classic hero myths feature powerful male warriors who slay dragons to prove themselves and become masters of the world. Instead of recognizing this as a metaphor for the ego’s heroic struggle for consciousness, patriarchal cultures have tended to take it as a literal model for external achievement, encouraging people to climb to the tops of hierarchies where they can define what the heroic ideal is and decide who is entitled to it: usually the few. We see the dark side of this interpretation in ruthless political leaders and business moguls who deliberately spread lies and foster conflict and hatred to keep their money and power rather than trust the masses enough to share with them.

Pearson describes another unhealthy consequence: “focusing only on this [interpretation of the] heroic archetype limits everyone’s options. Many…men, for example, feel ennui because they need to grow beyond the Warrior modality, yet they find themselves stuck there because it not only is defined as the heroic ideal but is also equated with masculinity.  Men consciously or unconsciously believe they cannot give up that definition of themselves without also giving up their sense of superiority to others — especially to women.” Pearson gives the example of the main character of Owen Wister’s book, The Virginian, who leaves his bride on their wedding day to fight a duel for honor’s sake. Why? Because the only other role available to him is the victim, or antihero.

An obsession with the hero-kills-the-villain-and-rescues-the-victim plot distorts healthy heroic behavior (having the courage to fight for ourselves and change our worlds for the better) into the dangerous “culture of honor” ideal we see among the young working-class and minority men who still embrace it in many parts of the world. Isolation, impoverishment, religious fanaticism, social disenfranchisement and inadequate education all feed this mentality. The only thing apt to change it is the awareness that not everyone thinks this way and there are healthier alternatives.

Pearson’s research in the 1980’s revealed that women were rediscovering the true meaning of the dragon-slaying myth. Their story in which there are no real villains or victims — just heroes who bring new life to us all — is being adopted by males and females alike. While the timing and order may be slightly different for men and women, we all go through the same basic stages of growth in claiming our heroism.  “And ultimately for both [genders], heroism is a matter of integrity, of becoming more and more themselves at each stage in their development.” This is the Jungian path of individuation.

The heroic, self-disciplined quest to avoid the inauthentic and the superficial conquers the slumbering dragon of unconsciousness and births the courage to be true to one’s inner wisdom. An individuating person knows, in Pearson’s words, that “assertion and receptivity are yang and yin — a life rhythm, not a duality.”  Freed from the tyranny of conflict between opposites, such a person names our divisiveness and promotes care, cooperation, compassion, community and unity. Do you know someone who fits this description of an authentic hero?

 

Qaddafi vs . Kali: Who Will Win? August 23, 2011

I started blogging almost a year and a half ago. So far I’ve avoided repeating any posts, but recent events in Libya prompt me to reconsider. Originally published on March 12 of this year, this post addresses the traditional interpretation of the hero myth which elevates “masculine” values and represses “feminine” ones. In my next post I will describe other toxic aspects of the old version and describe characteristics of the newly emerging one.

In an early post I wrote that the film Avatar highlights the differences between the heroic and immature ego. Avatar’s hero, Corporal Jake Sully, succeeds because of his bravery, receptivity to Princess Neytiri and her culture, and willingness to heed his wise and truth-pursuing mentor, Dr. Grace Augustine. His adversary, the obsessive and soulless Colonel Miles Quaritch (there’s an interesting similarity between his name and Colonel Mohamar Qaddafi don’t you think?), fails because of his resistance to the Na’vi and their spiritual leader, Queen Mo’at, and his determination to destroy whatever threatens his power.

Quaritch and Qaddafi exemplify the Old King/Warrior ego. This is the part of us which attains power and success with two primary strategies: first, by believing we are the supreme authority of the psyche and the world around us; and second, by rejecting otherness, which in Jungian psychology is associated with the feminine unconscious. As long as we function in this mode, sharing our power and trusting the wisdom of forces we consider inferior is unthinkable.

This way of thinking gave rise to, and still supports, patriarchal cultures with their hierarchies of authority. The old ego believes that climbing to the top to become a colonel or king will immunize it from the suffering, victimization and failure experienced by all that is below. Thus, being forced to surrender to the corporals of the world feels like a mortal, humiliating blow administered by a cruel enemy. Likewise, for many people including Job and Jung, an experience of God — the ultimate Other above everything — as a force with far more power than our puny ego is, in Jung’s words, an “unvarnished spectacle of divine savagery and ruthlessness” that produces shattering emotion.

I imagine Colonel Qaddafi might be feeling some uncomfortable emotions himself about now as he faces growing rebellion in Libya. Perhaps in the secret places of his soul he’s even questioning his God-image. After all, if he who did everything right (from the perspective of his ego) can be threatened by the loss of control of his country, what has his life been all about? This is exactly how every ego feels when confronted with the divine power of repressed otherness. Losing control feels like a violation. Like utter unfairness. Like death, the ultimate feminine mystery.

In Hinduism this mystery is symbolized by the aspect of the Great Mother known as Kali, the Mistress of the Dead who reminds us that when new healing is required, the old ways must change or die. Her natural cycles of birth/death/rebirth terrify the Old King/Warrior/Ego who wants to escape the darker demands of growing up: things like aging, becoming vulnerable in relationships, and losing power, money, status, loved ones, health. So he deludes himself into believing that controlling or destroying otherness proves his omnipotence and protects him from the Great Mother’s power. It doesn’t. The Old King/Ego aided the survival of our species. But the rules have changed. Now he is a dinosaur whose dominator mind-set is rapidly becoming extinct.

Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Our world is in trouble. Dying to the old ways and birthing a stronger and wiser ego is the great work to which each of us is called today. Will we, like Corporal Sully, attain our heroic destiny by embracing otherness in ourselves and the world, or will we, like Colonel Quaritch and Colonel Qaddafi, ultimately fail?

 

Ghost Stories August 19, 2011

Last weekend I was telling some house guests about how my golden retriever Bear woke me up at night with his booming bark several times after he died. When I was finished, the husband nodded with solemn knowing and shared his story.

They had an orange cat that was very attached to him. When he was outdoors it would sit on a low table by the pool and watch him. One day after the cat died he was working by the pool and glanced over at the table and there it was, staring at him as it always had. “It wasn’t my imagination,” this very down-to-earth man said.  “This was real. I looked away for a minute, and when I looked back, he was gone.” We all nodded with solemn knowing. We believed him.

Some years ago we re-connected with a high school friend with a history of mental illness. A delightful charismatic actor, writer and scholar, he was living with a lovely woman, also a writer, to whom he was devoted.  When he was on his medications he was great fun to be with, but occasionally he’d think he was well enough to stop taking them and before long he’d be in trouble. One day while Fran was at the corner store he shot himself in the head.

In Fran’s words, “Then, just 26 hours after his death, Bill came to visit me. Suddenly, a space opened in my mind, as a door in a wall would open. There, as close as the air, was Bill in another form.  I was still somewhat aware of the room and the people in it, but my attention was riveted on Bill. He was himself, my love, the man I knew, but not in a body with flesh. Instead, he was a lovely, soft, white being, full of pulsing lights that slowly appeared, peaked, and extinguished to be replaced by others.

“Bill wasn’t alone. His spirit seemed bonded, or somehow fused, to another person in the same form. This spirit was an older man, I thought, whom I had never met. Their relationship was like that of a child at a party and a loving grandparent looking on. Bill was ecstatic — full of pure joy and terribly excited to be with me. The older man was joyful, but calmer and not at all surprised by what was occurring. Months later, someone suggested that the gracious old spirit might have been Bills’ beloved “Grandpa Tom,” whom I had never met, and who had died two years earlier.

“I think that Bill went to some trouble to let me know the truth about what happens after the death of the body. He wanted me to know that the spirit goes on in a most lovely and ordinary way, and that people stay the same in essence. Even in his “second skin,” featureless, Bill was immediately recognizable to me. He also wanted me to know that he was not alone, but experiencing intense joy, love, and freedom from pain.

“Just before he left me, Bill wrote a message in my mind. I cannot overstate the importance of this message, which seems to me to hold one key to understanding a human continuum between earthly life and immortality. I suspect he chose the written word because he knew I would take his writing seriously, as I had done in our life together. His words appeared slowly, one at a time: ‘Nothing exists except love.’”

I don’t know about you, but as I read Fran’s moving words I’m nodding with solemn knowing.

 

Embellishment August 16, 2011

Last Saturday my half-Italian husband told me about a funny thing that happened earlier that day when he was at the grocery store with his brother-in-law, Gary. “Where’s the tomato sauce?”  he asks Gary. Gary looks up and points to a sign and says, “Aisle 3. It says ‘tomato sauce.’”

They go to aisle 3 but all they find is ready-made spaghetti sauce in jars. “Hey!” Fred says.  “I’m not using that Paul Newman, Chef Boyardee crap.  I’m Italian.  I make my own spaghetti sauce.” Just then a 50ish blonde bimbo-type comes up behind him and in a nasal New Jersey accent says, “Hey! Don’t ask a man where something is in a grocery store. It’s in the next aisle with the vegetables. I know how to make spaghetti sauce.  I’m married to an Italian. My license plate says: “Fugeddaboudit!”

So they go to the next aisle. He sees cans of tomato paste, tomato puree, whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, but no tomato sauce.  He’s complaining to Gary about this when a very proper, well-groomed Atlanta matron standing nearby says politely, “Excuse me, sir. You’re looking for tomato sauce?  It’s in the next aisle!”  This cracks him up. As he tells me this story he’s giggling so much he can barely talk.

My husband’s ability to tell a good story is one of the things I love most about him. I used to have trouble with it though. Coming from scrupulous-minded, strait-laced Dutch stock, I worried about his blatant distortions of the truth. Maybe he had a serious memory problem. Maybe even a character flaw. “That’s not how it happened,” I’d say in shocked disbelief.  “I was there!”

His whole family’s that way.  I think they got it from his step-mother, Helen.  His youngest brother, Tony, and I were talking about her the other day and he said, “You know, I think the word that best describes her is…” he paused for dramatic emphasis… “Embellishment.” “Embellishment?” I asked. He nodded emphatically, “Embellishment!” He would know.  He’s an interior designer who jokes, “Never done ’til overdone!”

While I was pouring my homemade limoncello after our spaghetti dinner Saturday night Fred told everyone about an incident at a friend’s villa in Florence, Italy many years ago.  “So,” he says, “after we’re installed in the guest cottage we go up to the villa where the chef has prepared a fabulous meal and our friend tells me to go to the wine cellar and pick out a good wine. I’m down there looking at all these dusty bottles thinking they have to be old and expensive. I didn’t know much about wine in those days and I didn’t want to take the best one so I choose a smaller bottle thinking it’s probably less expensive.  Upstairs I open it, pour it in our wine glasses, and it’s yellow! Turns out it’s limoncello!”  Everyone had a good laugh while I did a mental eye-roll.  “There was no guest cottage.  There was no chef,” I told them. “That’s embellishment.” More laughter.

Unfazed, he went on to tell the story of our wedding. “Jeanie’s mother made her dress and said she could either give us $300.00 or spend it on a fancy wedding,” he said. My mother didn’t make my dress, and it wasn’t $300.00.  It was $200. I know. I was there. Embellishment.

So what’s more important?  Telling a good story or telling the truth? One of the happiest outcomes of my inner work is that I’m learning the wisdom of lightening up. Sometimes truth is overrated.  Like limoncello,  a little bit of embellishment can be good for the soul.

 

Will the Real Little Orphan Annie Please Stand Up? August 12, 2011

Archetypes have enormous power over us whether we realize it or not. Usually we do not, and it is precisely our ignorance of them that fuels their power. Most people could care less about archetypes. Some of you will stop reading at this point because what I’ve just said holds absolutely no meaning for you. But if you’re still reading, indulge me for a moment in a little experiment. Think of the people you dislike: some you know personally and maybe a public figure or two like a politician or media personality. Now, without reading any further, write down at least five qualities about those people that annoy you the most.

Finished?  Okay.  Here are some qualities I might have listed around the age of 40.  I would have said I disliked 1) people who secretly feel superior to other people, 2) people who feel mistreated, unappreciated, or sorry for themselves but deny their own pain, 3) dependent people who expect to be taken care of, 4) pseudo-martyrs who sacrifice their own needs to stay safe and be loved, and 5) people who blame people close to them, God, or the culture as a whole in order to feel less bad about themselves. Now here’s the embarrassing truth. The qualities we most dislike in others are strong unconscious components of our own personalities. Hint: If you are tempted to feel superior to me, re-read the first quality on my list!

So what does this have to do with archetypes? After discovering Jungian psychology I began a regular program of study. One of the earliest books I read was Carol S. Pearson’s brilliant The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. It contains a self-test of 36 statements — each related to one of the archetypes — which are to be scored from 0 to 4 in terms of how frequently they reflect our attitudes. When I tallied my score the Orphan got zero points. Great! I thought, giving myself a mental pat on the back. That’s my least favorite archetype.  Thank goodness I’ve grown beyond that childish mentality!

But when I began recording my dreams that same year I found that orphans kept popping up to demand my dream ego’s attention. At first I couldn’t imagine what these sad, needy urchins had to do with me. I was nothing like them. I had high ideals and saw myself as the heroic person I wanted to be: brave, humble, tough, competent, independent. But with continued self-study I gradually saw the powerful hold the Orphan archetype really had on my thoughts and behavior.

The Orphan’s primary characteristics are the very attitudes I most disliked in others during those early years! The fact that I disowned them and tried so hard to be their opposite proves how unconscious I was and how unworthy I felt. I had not grown beyond the Orphan mentality: it was such a deeply buried bedrock reality of my psyche that I simply could not see it. In truth, beneath my plucky Little Orphan Annie persona lurked the Orphan’s problem: despair. Pearson says, “The Orphan is a disappointed idealist, and the greater the ideals about the world, the worse reality appears.”

If it causes you pain to know that the attitudes you dislike in others describe the attitudes of your undeveloped archetypes, please do not despair.  There is hope for us the moment we set out on the path to self-knowledge. Everyone goes through an Orphan stage on the hero’s journey and we can encourage the development of our archetypes along the way. To that end you might want to add The Hero Within to your backpack.

 

Does Writing Suit Your Personality? August 9, 2011

Writing has always suited my personality.  One of my earliest memories is of folding pieces of paper together to make a book. When I was ten I was 30 pages into a novel before I tore it up in discouragement because I didn’t know what I wanted to say. As a teenager my favorite thing to do when I got home from school was to write plays.

Today I can sit down at my computer and, with only a few breaks in between, get up eight, nine, or ten hours later with little awareness of how much time has passed, feeling excited and utterly rejuvenated.  The next morning I can’t wait to get back to my computer.  When I was working on the manuscript for my next book I ran this marathon three or four days a week for almost three years with only a couple of months off in the summer.  For two of those three years, I had zero input about my writing from any living person. It was just me, my Self, and my computer.

Obviously, this way of life is not for everyone.  Our friend Howard enthralls all who know him with fascinating stories about his very unusual and interesting life.  People are always telling him he should write a book and I think he finds this idea attractive;  but not enough to actually do it.

Carl Jung’s theory about personality types helps explain why one person can be very well-suited to writing while another is not. He found that two basic attitudes affect the focus of our attention. Extraverts are primarily oriented toward the outer world of people and objects; introverts toward the inner world of concepts and ideas. Jung saw these attitudes as mutually complementary and believed both were necessary for maintaining a balanced personal and social life.

In an article about the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, Wikipedia cites these major differences between the two types: 1) Extraverts are action oriented, while introverts are thought oriented; 2) Extraverts seek breadth of knowledge and influence, while introverts seek depth of knowledge and influence; 3) Extraverts often prefer more frequent interaction, while introverts prefer more substantial interaction; and 4) Extraverts recharge and get their energy from spending time with people, while introverts recharge and get their energy from spending time alone.

Of course there are lots of extraverted writers and plenty of introverts with no interest whatsoever in writing. Moreover, both types struggle to complete writing projects because of myriad other issues such as education, financial limitations, attention deficits, self-confidence, self-discipline, and time restrictions related to work and relationships. But understanding our basic attitude toward life greatly enhances our chances for success with writing or any endeavor.

I’m a strong introvert and my story-telling friend is a strong extravert.  As Dr. Judith Rich says about her extraversion, “We E’s live outside the cave and struggle to find our way in, while the I’s live inside the cave and struggle to find their way out.” The bottom line? Cave-dwelling doesn’t suit my friend’s personality and writing just isn’t his passion.

If you’re wondering what to do with the rest of your life, you might want to reflect on these questions: When you were a child, what did you choose to do in your spare time? Are you an extravert or an introvert? What kind of work best suits your personality?

 

 
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