Have you ever put yourself in a relationship or situation that filled a deep need and seemed totally harmless? And then suddenly something happened that made you aware of an unsuspected dark side of what you were doing? And it got so out of hand that you couldn’t control it and were swamped with anxiety and dread?
Most of us have experienced something like this at some point in our lives. So what do you do? Ignore it? Keep plugging away and hope for the best? Pray? Fantasize? Wait for a prince to ride up on a white horse and rescue you? Lay the blame on someone else while denying your part in it? Ask for help then get angry when it doesn’t come? Run away? Carry your guilt, fear, hurt and anxiety in a secret compartment and refuse to visit it while telling yourself you’re just fine? Only to put yourself in another situation somewhere down the road that’s just as bad as, or even worse than the first? Then go through the whole thing again?
These are the responses of an immature ego with limited self-awareness. When we see this happening to someone we know, it’s obvious that whatever they’re doing isn’t working. Yet, like a hamster on a wheel, some people keep traveling the same old path without getting anywhere no matter how good their intentions or wise their counsel. I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. Old habits and attitudes have strangleholds on our egos, regardless of how toxic the consequences. So how do we break free?
“To live fully, we have to…bring back to life the deepest levels of the psyche from which our present consciousness has evolved.” Carl Jung
But how do we follow Jung’s advice? Ask your unconscious for a dream. Dreams compensate for our conscious attitudes by showing us different ways of viewing our issues, especially problematic ones. The unconscious contains everything about ourselves of which we are unaware, including hidden potentials we haven’t yet discovered or alternative ways of being we’ve disowned. Situations like the above are invitations to bring them into our awareness so we can move forward.
This is not easy for an ego that’s oblivious to the inner life and thinks dreams and fantasies are “just our imagination.” Plus, few of us welcome the effort it takes to reflect on them. Most difficult of all is giving up our illusion of being in control and trusting some unknown part of ourselves to help us out. We experience the power of these archetypal entities all the time in strong emotions, urges that seem to come from nowhere, and synchronicities, yet we rarely “waste” much time trying to understand them. But it’s the only way to go if we really want to grow. Consider this:
“The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. That is the technique for stripping them of their power. It is not too difficult to personify them, as they always possess a certain degree of autonomy, a separate identity of their own.Their autonomy is a most uncomfortable thing to reconcile oneself to, and yet the very fact that the unconscious presents itself in that way gives us the best means of handling it.” Jung: Memories, Dreams and Reflections, pp. 185-188.
If we’re dead serious about wanting out of our ruts—and it usually takes desperation to bring us to this point—asking the unconscious for a dream about our situation will trigger an immediate response. Within a night or two we’ll get one or more dreams. We won’t understand their symbolic language or meaning right away, but, if we persist step by step the rewards will come. My certainty of this comes from 26 years of treating my dreams “as if” they have objective meaning. Once I chose this path, it wasn’t long before I realized they actually do!
Our highest purpose is to grow more conscious and accepting of the benevolent otherness within and without so that we might live in love instead of fear. We can’t will ourselves to manufacture love or consciousness with mental effort alone. These and other rewards only come with personal experience and a regular practice like dreamwork. With time, our toxic fears, shadows, habits and attitudes lose their power and are replaced with trust, peace and overflowing gratitude and compassion.
If you’re looking for love, I promise: you can find it in your dreams.
You may have noticed that the imaginative and symbolic way I perceive dreams and ordinary life is somewhat different from the way we are normally taught to think in school. I assure you this is not just sloppy thinking, but a conscious choice I’ve made to use more of my brain’s potential.
Plato was the first great thinker in Western history to define the two modes of thinking that are the specialties of the two hemispheres of the brain. He called them logos and mimesis. Following the lead of psychologist Gisela Labouvie-Vief I call the latter mythos. It is generally accepted that while there is some overlap, the left hemisphere of the brain is primarily oriented to logos and the right, to mythos.
Mythos thinking is symbolic, metaphoric, instinctive, imaginative, visual, intuitive, emotional, and subjective. Receptive to chaos, mystery, newness, and change, mythos is a compass that points us to the eternal and the universal. Mythos is the mother of original thinking, self-discovery, spiritual growth, and personal meaning. It is the basis for all forms of creative expression and every form of inner work that leads to self-knowledge.
Although Plato loved mimesis/mythos and was himself very imaginative, inner-directed and spiritually oriented, he considered reason to be a more advanced and mature form of knowing. He preferred logos to mythos for two reasons: because of mythos’s appeal to the emotions — which, of course, can be dangerous and uncontrollable when they are not made conscious — and because he thought logos was fostered by written language, which he considered an advancement and refinement over oral language. Following Plato’s example, the writer of the Gospel of John proposed that logos is cosmic reason and the self-revealing thought and will of God.
Plato passed this bias on to Aristotle, Aristotle passed it on to us. Due to the enormous influence of these men on Western philosophical thought, today virtually everyone but writers, artists and mystics vastly underrates the potential of one half of our brains.
I find it very bizarre that we still haven’t overcome this prejudice against inherent qualities of our own minds! Certainly there was a time in the history of our species when it was essential to hone our left-hemisphere qualities if we were to continue to evolve beyond our earlier, right-brained orientation, but we’ve had this bias for the past 5,000 years now, and expanding our consciousness has never been more crucial.
Why? Because we’re killing ourselves, each other, and our beloved planet. In his bookThe Alphabet Versus the Goddess, vascular surgeon Leonard Shlain writes about the brain’s role in the evolution of our species. His research suggests that historically there has been a cause-and-effect relationship between an obsessive left-hemisphere orientation and the ascendency of the separate, abstract, male Sky God, the dominator mode of governance, and the repression of women and minorities.
If Shlain is correct, the root cause of many of the world’s current problems is the intolerance the left hemisphere of our brains has for right-brained otherness! In short, we’ve been projecting our fear and hatred of vital parts of ourselves onto others and now we’re suffering the consequences.
We can change this state of affairs by taking our imagination seriously and using it to bring balance and fulfillment to our lives. Imaginative explorations of meaningful symbols and images that pop up spontaneously in our dreams and waking fantasies can show us who we are beneath the surface: what we love, what we despise, what we really want to do with our lives. Carrying on inner dialogues between conflicting parts of ourselves can provide valuable new insights. Noticing the emotions that rise up during our inner play reveals unsuspected parts of ourselves that may need attention or healing. And we can bring every insight we gain into the outer world where we can act on them.
We don’t have to spend our lives alone and clueless. All the help we need is inside us, and we can find it by consciously and deliberately exploring the neglected side of our minds. Isn’t it time we started flexing our mythos muscles?
Last week’s visit from Elaine Mansfield was fun and productive. We talked, walked, ate, laughed, and wrote a proposal for a workshop on loss and grief. And an especially wonderful thing happened. I, the Lone Ranger of writing who has always written and revised every word of every manuscript with no help from anyone until entrusting it to an editor, experienced a significant breakthrough.
Knowing Elaine had recently sought advice from friends for her Tedx talk, I asked her to listen and comment on my first rehearsal of my upcoming keynote presentation for the IASD convention. This morning’s dream had something to say about my “bold” new approach.
I’m in the lobby of a large library. Before I can find and study an article I need for my work I have to be interviewed by a person in charge. When it’s my turn she grants me a permit, but by then it’s so late I have to leave. As I gather my belongings I realize I have too much baggage to carry alone. Just then, Fred arrives to help me.
I find myself alone on the side of a very steep stone mountain outside the library. The path is extremely precarious and as narrow as one of my feet. The trail ahead disappears into the cliff wall. My only support is a very slight bulge in the wall to my right. When I grasp it it flakes off like disintegrating slices of cardboard.
The ground is very far away. A jump or fall will kill me. I feel no fear and trust that whoever created this path provided a way out. I look over my left shoulder and see a wider, more gradual slope about 30 yards behind me. It has no stairs, but a metal railing offers man-made support down the middle of this rock road. I must have been on that path before branching off onto this one. I wonder why I left it.
My only option is to return to that place of relative safety. I inch slowly backwards, trusting in my balance and supporting myself with a gentle touch on the crumbling ledge with my right hand. After a few steps I look down and am surprised to see the ground a foot away. I’m safe.
As usual, I had no idea at first what this dream could mean, but when I started reflecting on my associations to the symbols I soon realized it was about my speech.
Looking for an article in a library: My mental work of acquiring knowledge and writing.
Baggage: Too much knowledge and too many memories to sift through. Which mental “stuff” shall I use for my talk? Which stories, ideas and pictures are the most relevant to my topic?
Fred arrives to help: My sweet helpful husband and an image of my Animus, both of whom are always there for me without my having to ask.
Finding myself alone on a narrow, dangerous and disappearing path on a steep mountain: My independent way of traveling through life is becoming increasingly challenging and outmoded. Something needs to change.
Trusting and feeling no fear: Many dreams in recent years have placed my dream ego in situations that would once have terrified me but no longer do. This speaks to my growing trust in the benevolence and internal guidance of the Self.
Walking backwards: Relinquishing my need to control my way of living and working; returning to a place (attitude and way of living) of more receptivity to help and comfort from outside myself. Even the Lone Ranger had a mother once! And what about Silver and Tonto, for heaven’s sake? “Lone” may not have realized it, but he was never really alone.
Gently touching the rock with my right hand: Staying in touch with my instincts and the physical world which are always there to support me.
This morning I sent a summary of this dream in an email to Elaine, who, by the way, has arrived home safely despite the hazardous travel conditions. Here’s part of her comment: “You descended from the mental realms and hit the earth. It’s a promise to work through the huge amount of material available to you and pull all the ideas down to earth. And you’re already so close. Love, love, love that gentle right hand inching down the precarious rocks and going down backwards.”
I’m so grateful that 26 years of dreamwork have taught me to trust my inner resources, especially the Self, to help me through life. And I’m so grateful for a husband and friends who want to help. Despite my unduly proud and independent spirit, I never really was alone, was I?
As you read this, I’m enjoying the company of my friend Elaine Mansfield. Many of you will recognize her name from comments she frequently makes here, or from my Facebook page. She flew down from New York to spend a few days with me before she goes on to Tampa where she’ll be presenting a workshop for a small fraction of the half million women who lose spouses each year. While she’s here, we’re planning a new workshop on grief.
We met about 16 years ago. She was with her husband, Vic, a physics professor who had written a new book on synchronicity, when he came to speak at the Winter Park Jung Center where I was teaching. Fred and I took them out to dinner afterwards and enjoyed them so much that Elaine and I began an email correspondence. Nine years later Vic died of cancer.
Some of you have lost a spouse; some, even two. Others have spouses with terminal illnesses that could take them within the next few years. So I want you to know about Elaine’s new book called Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief.
One reviewer describes it as a “touching and courageous memoir about love, illness, death, and grief.” Another says, “This magnificent, profoundly moving book gives encouragement and solace to all.” Alison Lurie, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist writes, “Elaine Mansfield knows far more than most people about love and loss, and she tells it with admirable honesty and clarity.”
A mutual friend of ours and sister lover of Jungian psychology, Candace Boyd, wrote to Elaine some weeks ago and copied me. Candace wrote, “I read your book in two days. Your writing is so powerful, and so beautiful. I wish that I had had this book to refer to a year and one half ago.” That was when her husband was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Synchronistically, as I was writing the beginning of this very paragraph I received another e-mail from Candace saying, “Cancer seems to be endemic to our lives now.” I think I’m supposed to be writing this post today!
One of the more remarkable aspects of Leaning into Love is how honest and personal it is. Elaine doesn’t shy away from sharing occasions when she and Vic were irritable with each other. You don’t always see this kind of candor from loved ones who’ve been through the grueling day-to-day stress and strain of caregiving. And when you do, it’s often accompanied by terrible guilt.
What’s so beautiful about this is that Elaine seems to have found a way to forgive herself for being human. Maybe that’s because of the remarkable tenderness, understanding and love that infused their relationship. Maybe she could forgive herself because she knew Vic forgave her for her flaws, just as she forgave him for his. And for dying and leaving her all alone.
A big factor that undoubtedly influenced the patience and kindness these two consistently showed each other through their ordeal was their mutual desire for psychological and spiritual growth. In the early years of their marriage they studied together with Anthony Damiani, a brilliant teacher who introduced them to Jungian psychology, meditation, and the philosopher Paul Brunton. Later he guided them through Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many Western philosophers. What they learned from him influenced them and their marriage in the best possible way.
Nobody is free from suffering, not even Anthony, who died of cancer at an early age. And we don’t usually get to choose what causes our suffering. But we can, like Vic and Elaine, choose to respond to it with courage, mindfulness, and kindness. Of all the beautiful messages I received from this book, this is the one that made the deepest impression on me. They practiced kindness. What a beautiful thing to share in this dangerous, chaotic world.
Kindness. That’s what Elaine shares in her book. And, knowing her, I think it’s also one of the reasons she wrote it.
You can check out Elaine’s author page on Facebook here and buy her book here.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.