Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Am I doing it? How can I know? Will I ever know? Is there an underlying pattern to it all?
These are some of the Big questions that philosophers, Spirit Persons, and ordinary seekers are compelled to ask and answer. Some rely solely on intellectual methods: following teachers, reading, studying, getting degrees, writing books. Some seek answers in traditional religions and ‘religious’ practices. Some experiment with various forms of self-reflection aimed at self-discovery, self-knowledge and consciousness. Some try combinations of these plus alternative practices like body work, mind-altering drugs and artistic pursuits.
As I noted in my last post, our hunger for answers to these questions is motivated by the ‘transcendent function,’ a form of archetypal energy we all inherit just by being human. As a reminder, here’s Jung’s definition:
The cooperation of conscious reasoning with the data of the unconscious is called the ‘transcendent function’…. This function progressively unites the opposites. Psychotherapy makes use of it to heal neurotic dissociations, but this function had already served as the basis of Hermetic philosophy for seventeen centuries. ~Carl Jung, CW 18, par. 1554.
In other words, even though we think of enlightenment as a strictly spiritual pursuit, it also has psychological (mental/ emotional/intellectual) components. Further, I would argue that it has physical components. In fact, I have come to believe that enlightenment is not solely a function of any one aspect of human nature, but of the whole package.
Buddhism expresses this idea through four “Aims” or goals of human life. As I see it, each goal is met within a particular domain of human functioning. Each domain is fueled by a physical instinct and represented by a masculine and feminine archetype. These stand at either end of the pole of energy in which that instinct specializes.
To be fully functioning spirit persons, we need to awaken, activate, and heal our fullest potential—masculine and feminine—in each of these four areas. ~Jean Raffa, Healing the Sacred Divide, p. 203.
Here’s my summary of these relationships:
(1) The aim of Lawful Order and Moral Virtue takes place in The Social Domain. Our social lives receive energy from our physical Instinct for Nurturance. Psychologically, this instinct is symbolized by the King and Queenarchetypes, our inner authority figures who govern our social behavior for the benefit of all.
(2) We accomplish our aim for Power and success inThe Physical Domain. This goal is primarily accomplished through our Instinct for Activity. We cannot just think or will our way to success. Our bodies have to be engaged in studied, committed, goal-oriented and self-disciplined practices. For me, the Warrior and Mother archetypes represent the opposite poles of physical energy available to us in pursuit of our goals in the material world.
(3) Release from Delusion: The Mental Domain. Our search for truth and enlightenment relies on our cognitive functioning, or intellect, which matures as we consciously activate our Instinct for Reflection and its archetypal representatives, the Scholar/Magician and Wisewoman.
(4) Love and pleasure: The Emotional Domain. To find emotional satisfaction in life, we need to activate our Instinct for Sex and its psychological equivalents, the Lover and Beloved archetypes. This does not necessarily require our participation in physical sex, but the aspect of our libido which specializes in this kind of energy does need to be activated. In other words, we need to experience passion, and being loved and loving in return.
Since Jung believed we have five instincts, and in keeping with his insight that the transcendent function progressively unites the opposites, I respectfully offer a fifth domain which is equally essential to enlightenment.
(5) Perfection and Completion: The Spiritual Domain. In my experience, spiritual growth is fueled primarily by our Instinct for Creativity: our capacity to imagine and find meaning in the inner forces which influence our journeys through life. Our creativity is symbolized by the Couple archetype, or Self, which gradually manifests in every area of our lives via the transcendent function.
I see the Couple as integrating the other four archetype pairs in a sacred marriage of fully individuated and fully related opposites. This union activates the creative instinct and brings us into the spiritual domain and Epoch III integrated consciousness. ~Raffa, HSD, p. 203.
As you can see, the search for enlightenment cannot be compartmentalized into one domain, but requires cooperation between every part of us in every domain in which we function. I stress this point to dispel the common misconception that putting all our spiritual eggs into one basket—traditional religious participation and belief—is the only way to attain enlightenment. This obsession with using only intellect and emotion to connect with a loving God not only dismisses the sacredness of the physical body, but it ignores the fact that our actual words and behaviors can be decidedly unspiritual. Moreover, it can lead to a dangerous split between mind and body, spirit and soul.
In conclusion I would like to note that despite all the thought and energy I’ve given to the pursuit of enlightenment, I cannot say for certain what it is. As I wrote in response to a comment after last week’s post:
“I wish I knew what enlightenment is. If it’s a conscious, consistent, ongoing process of trying to understand, individuate, love, realize our true selves, and appreciate the miracle of our lives, then, perhaps all of us who do this kind of work could be considered such. I mean, we know we’re part of a process, and we’re consciously involved in it. But if enlightenment is not a process, but an end-product, then I know I’m not “there.” I keep re-hashing old stuff and coming up with new stuff to process, so in this definition, I’m only as ‘enlightened’ as my thoughts, behavior, and motivations are in this very moment!” ~Jean Raffa
My last three posts were about the psychological underpinnings of the upcoming U.S. election. In keeping with the purpose of Matrignosis, (mother-knowing), I’ve focused on the feminine principle and the importance of activating it in ourselves and society as a healthy corrective to the excesses of patriarchy. As you read this revised post which originally appeared here a year and a half ago, I hope you will examine yourself and the candidates with the aid of your right brain’s symbolic language for insights that might aid America’s advance in that direction.
A while back I wrote about a very damaging manifestation of the feminine principle sometimes called the Death Mother or Evil Queen. Often clothed in black, this force in us represents parts of our feminine sides that have been so devalued, wounded and abused by patriarchal excesses that they are repressed into the dark, unconscious regions of our psyches. There they become twisted, cold, vengeful and self-destructive.
In this post I want to bring some balance to our understanding of the feminine principle by addressing some of its positive qualities. But first, a few relevant words about alchemy and Greek mythology.
Dismissed by some left-brained literalists as pseudo-science, alchemy was, in fact, like mythology, a profoundly wise symbol system that sought to heal humanity’s dangerous tendency toward obsessive one-sidedness. Employing both languages of the brain, logic and imagination, its practitioners described their work as a lengthy process of refining and uniting the King (the masculine principle symbolized by the fiery gold light of the sun), and the Queen (the feminine principle represented by the silverywatery light of the moon) in a Sacred Marriage.
The result of their union was the creation of a rare and precious form of new life called the Philosopher’s Stone. This symbolized the fullest and maturest wisdom and consciousness of which humanity is capable. Unfortunately, we are still so far from this goal that it would be laughable were it not so depressing.
In ancient Greece the feminine principle was celebrated in three aspects of Goddess. These can be represented by colors. The Maiden (green), Mother (red), and Crone (gray orblack), represented the mysterious circle of life–birth, maturity, death and regeneration–celebrated in Lunar Mythology. These were the dominant themes of humanity’s spirituality until the sun god’s Solar Mythology about the battle between good and evil replaced it. Today, many students of psychology, anthropology, religion, spirituality, myth and alchemy personify a missing fourth aspect between the Mother and Crone as the fully empowered Queen. I associate her with the color silver.
In the outer world of work, the Silver Queen is the most visible manifestation of healthy feminine authority. We see her in socially aware leaders and authorities of all kinds; for example, enterprising founders of innovative business practices that weaken the stranglehold of one-sided logic and linearity, or bold and balanced, firm and fair champions of nurturing change in any group, movement, or organization.
Individuals (male or female) with well-developed Queen energy can be effective within the confines of the kingly Solar Mythology that still dominates our culture. However, they do not imitate, limit themselves to, or promote obsessively one-sided patriarchal values. Instead, they consistently facilitate the re-emergence of the Silver Queen’s Lunar values.
My description of these values and how they manifest in people is based on Dr. Carl Jung’s observation, borne out in traditional literature throughout history, that the feminine foundation of the psyche–aka Sophia, Anima or Soul–is the source of our nourishing and transforming energies. It is only when we disown these energies that she turns her dark face to us in the form of Death Mother.
THE SIX C’S OF THE SILVER QUEEN
As Carer, she is there for her true self and others: she feels, gives, listens, encourages, intuits, confronts, affirms. When necessary and appropriate, she sacrifices.
As Container she holds and tolerates tension, conflicts, suffering, uncertainty and change without breaking or giving up.
As Connecter she mentors, guides and networks with other people and respects other perspectives.
As Communicator she speaks her truths, listens to others’ truths, and seeks to integrate otherness.
As Cooperator she shares her knowledge and authority without greed, prejudice, envy, abuse, or expectation of reward.
As Changer she trusts the transformative process and flows with evolutionary energy.
The Silver Queen in each of us has the power to bring healing balance to all of us. May we resurrect and activate her before Death Mother and the obsessively patriarchal system that created her destroys us.
Image Credits: Alchemical Moon and Goddess of the Moon: Google Images
Carl Jung said the Self is both our core and our circumference. Some think of it as our soul, the totality of who we are and who we have the potential to become. Jung called it the archetype of wholeness. In later years he referred to it as our god-image and connection to the Mystery some call God. Composed of the twin drives for self-preservation (i.e. masculine logos, represented in alchemy by the King archetype) and species preservation (feminine mythos/eros symbolized by the Queen), the Self shapes our ideas about what is sacred.
As the source of our irresistible compulsion to grow into our true selves and express our unique creativity, the Self is an ongoing, never-ending process. I see it as the psychological equivalent of the physical exchange of energy and information constantly occurring at the quantum level between the molecules of our bodies and between us and our environments. As I understand Jung, he suspected that the energies of both processes, inner and outer, are united in one intelligent, purposeful, evolving collective unconscious, Force (as George Lucas named it), or Zero Point Field (as some physicists now call it), which promotes increasing order, health, and wholeness.
We associate the Self with six attributes: wholeness, centrality, unity, love, pattern, and the life-giving force. We grow conscious of its guidance by noticing these themes in the symbols and synchronistic events of our dreams and waking life. Benevolent by nature, the Self calls our egos to their heroic destiny of merging with the indwelling Mystery. Our egos often reject its guidance, but it never gives up on us. The more we notice and respond to it, the more it responds to us.
The following story from one of my earliest blog posts illustrates the loving interaction that can take place between ego and Self:
I’ve just arrived at my soul’s home in the mountains of North Carolina where I will spend the remainder of the summer. I’ve often wondered why I love this place so dearly, why it makes me feel so loved and connected and alive and grateful for my life. My answer came last night and this morning.
I’m at my desk looking out an east-facing window. The morning sun enters my backyard late because it has to rise above the mountain before its rays filter down through a thick tree canopy. Most of what I see is in shade but a patch of sun has highlighted the brilliant silver threads of a spider web between two branches of a buckeye tree. Grandmother Spider is busily checking connections, tightening threads, and hunting for tasty morsels that got trapped during the night.
Pursuing the threads of last night’s thoughts, this morning I picked up Aion, Volume 9, ii, of Jung’s Collected Works, in search of symbols of the Self. In paragraph #356 he writes:
“The commonest of these images in modern dreams are, in my experience, the elephant, horse, bull, bear, white and black birds, fishes, and snakes. Occasionally one comes across tortoises, snails, spiders, and beetles. The principal plant symbols are the flower and the tree. Of all the inorganic products, the commonest are the mountain and lake.”
Spiders. Mountains. Trees.
When I entered the gravel road last night my arrival was heralded by a cawing black crow who flapped off toward the house. The first thing I did was feed the rainbow trout in our pond. Black birds. Fish. Lake. (Do you think a pond counts?)
Then I walked around the garden to check out the flowers. My treasured peonies are already spent, but the pink New Dawn roses and purple clematis are a-riot on the trellis, the hydrangeas look like giant blue and white powder puffs, the hostas are sending up tall bud-laden spikes, the astilbe have myriad pointed white cotton candy tufts, the golden daylilies are in full bloom, and there’s a mound of pink petunias by the kitchen door. I don’t garden in Florida. It’s just too hot. But here I can have my flowers. Flowers.
Below Bear Pond and Shadow Brook there’s a small pasture and stable where my horse, Shadow, used to spend his summers. I’ve always had a thing for horses. And Shadow, well, he’s a subject for another post. Horses. By the way, bears are the theme of this mountain home. They’re all over the house. But that’s another story too. Bears.
Speaking of bears, every summer for ten years I’ve come here with my sweet friend, a handsome golden retriever whose name was Bear. He passed on last August, but his ashes are in a white box with a label that says “Bear Raffa: Forever Faithful” in a cabinet four feet to the right of where I sit. I cried when I entered the house without him last night. But this morning when I was still in that borderland between sleeping and waking, I heard his joyous booming bark. Twice. He’s glad I’m back. I’m glad I’m back.
Do I need any further reminders of how loved I am and why I love this place so? Not really, but such is the nature of the Self that I’ll probably continue to get them every day anyway. And night, too. Sweet dreams of the Self, my friends.
Image Credits: Google Images. “Serpentine Fire,” https://albaricoquenalmibar.wordpress.com/tag/la-india/
While empowering our masculine sides was a necessary phase of our psycho-spiritual development, our ego’s repression of our feminine sides has brought about the dangerous imbalances we see in today’s world. But to put all the blame on males and masculine values, or the patriarchies, Gods and religions they created, is just more projecting! The truth is that most of us are still divided and incomplete. The Great Mystery of Life some call God didn’t want to punish Adam and Eve and the people of Babel any more than it wants to punish us. It wants us to grow into our fullness, but our divided egos are resisting it with all their strength.
There is a time for everything. The dualism that gave rise to our evolving ego and developing Christ potential has become our worst enemy: the anti- Christ. And as long as we repress unwanted parts of ourselves and project them onto others—whether these be our compulsive instincts, dangerous emotions, or frightening aspects of our masculine and feminine sides—we will struggle through the darkness of confusion and the world will be a dangerous place.
Fortunately, our inborn urge to transcend our limitations is still at work. For the first time in human history, the relatively new science of psychology is revealing the unconscious forces within us that led us to this precipice, and this understanding is expanding our ego’s awareness. We are seeing that the cherished God-image of a Father/God/ King who is an objective reality beyond ourselves and prefers our tribe to any other is a product of dualistic thinking which has created religious bigotry, divisiveness, narrow-mindedness, repression, persecution, fanaticism, and terrorism.
The extreme polarization that permeates society today is intolerable to many of us. But what can you and I possibly do if the world’s greatest thinkers, philosophers, political leaders and spirit persons have failed to create healing change? Does it make sense to redouble our commitment to the very thought- patterns and ideologies that brought us to this point, or are we ready for radical change? And if we are, what might healthy change look like?
A lifetime of searching has led me to a path that works for me. There’s nothing new about it. Every mystic and authentic spirit person from every religion has always known about it because it’s always existed in us. This is a way of intentional and persistent self-examination in service to consciously connecting all pairs of opposites. I call it the path of Mandorla Consciousness. Imagine two circles that move toward each other until they overlap. The almond-shaped symbol created by their merging is a mandorla. Christianity has long considered this a holy place of transformation and transcendence because Christianity is founded on compassion, and compassion requires integration with otherness.
Our potential for Mandorla Consciousness is the same potential humanity once associated with Sophia’s holistic wisdom. But before we can return to this holy space and know it for what it truly is, we need to undergo the initiatory ordeal of suffering into consciousness. We need to see our resistance to the pain of growing. We need to understand that our ancestors justified their fear of change by imagining a God who didn’t want them to change either. We need to admit to our own fears, and experience the sacred healing power of love that sleeps at our core and is unveiled when we open ourselves to otherness.
Our hope for personal and world peace lies in self-discovery. This work begins as we acknowledge our individual and cultural shadows, and it comes to fruition when we invite our disowned masculine and feminine sides into our awareness. By facing our own capacity for evil as well as good, we will acquire humility and compassion for others. By accepting our soul’s potential for wholeness we will free ourselves from the chains of inferiority and self- hate. And by honoring the nobility and worth of our inner Mother/Queen and inviting her to enjoy equal partnership with our Father/King, we will embrace otherness and return to our true home: a conscious, evolving partnership with the Sacred Mystery of life.
Note: This post and the previous one were originally published by the Center for Action and Contemplation under the title, The Mandorla Consciousness. Radical Grace, Summer 2012, vol. 25, no 3, p. 18.
The powers most capable of halting the escalation of hatred and chaos in our world today are not physical or political. They are psychological and spiritual. They are activated in individuals whose minds are committed to seeking justice for all, whose hearts are filled with caring and compassion, and whose behavior is directed toward connecting and healing.
When everything we say and do originates from that core of love, it spreads through Indra’s diamond net and quickens the sacred spark that lives in every soul. Each of us can make this contribution to healing the separations within and between the peoples of the world.
Throughout history mothers and grandmothers have dedicated most of their energy, and often their lives, to nurturing and preserving life. Of course, many fathers and grandfathers have done the same. But women’s contributions have been educationally, financially, politically and spiritually restricted, vastly underrated, and largely taken for granted except for occasional lip service.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In a world splitting apart to birth a more evolved consciousness, the most important work we can do is to consciously respect and courageously share the blessings we’ve received from the other side of the Divide. To that end, and because Mother’s Day is celebrated this month, I offer these questions for reflection:
How have my female ancestors enriched and improved my life?
Am I as nurturing toward others as the benevolent women in my life were and are to me?
How can I use my unique skills in original and authentic ways that will justify their belief in me and benefit all beings?
One of my responses to these questions is this song to the elder women who’ve made a difference in my life. I dedicate it to crones everywhere.
THE YOUNG WOMEN AND MEN ADDRESS THE CRONES
To the Queens:
Sovereign and brave, you stand
firm against those who would abuse power
and labor tirelessly to bring justice to the voiceless
and downtrodden. You protect all that is vulnerable
and foster culture and creativity. You nourish seeds
of hope and new life in our hearts. Help me
lead with caring and integrity.
To the Mothers:
Wild and free-spirited, you have raced the wind like Horse.
Like Lioness you have fearlessly forged new trails to feed your children.
Like Bear you bear your solitude by boldly entering the dark winter wilderness,
yet you always return to the world in Spring with love honed fierce by sacrifice and birthing.
Great Mother of all that exists, teach us to love our bodies and trust the cycles of our lives.
To the Wisewomen:
Understanding, intuitive and trusting, you have aided birth and befriended death.
You have borne and survived intolerable suffering on paths of deep descending;
yet, aware, authentic, and free, here you are! Still dancing among the living.
You release your attachments to desire as you weave strands of meaning.
Show me how to joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.
To the Beloveds:
Attractive and magnetic, you receive your lovers passionately
and share the truths of your souls with honesty and intimacy.
Your acceptance and encouragement inspire heroic striving.
Your beauty and endless generosity inspire artful living.
“Everything you can imagine is real.” ~Pablo Picasso
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, Mother Nature is in labor once again. All winter long she’s been hibernating, gestating powerful new forms in her underground womb. Atoms and molecules have been moving around in the dark, separating and connecting, ebbing and flowing, and now she’s giving us front row seats, as she does each spring, from which to view Act IV of her Birth/Growth/Death/Rebirth passion play.
Signs of her new life are sprouting everywhere, even here in Central Florida where most of our vegetation stays green throughout winter. On this morning’s walk I photographed tightly folded buds that will be transformed into lemons this summer, brilliant red bottlebrush blossoms still laden with unopened buds, and fresh unfurling leaves of crape myrtle trees that spent the winter naked as skeletons.
Where does all this new life come from? Well, that’s the Big Question isn’t it? The Mystery that’s always confounded us, that we have yet to solve. Humanity has always reflected on it. When our ancestors sank deep into reverie, opening their minds and suspending their judgment, images entered their awareness as they observed the creations and forces of nature. Some images were borrowed from nature; others came from depths we still cannot fathom. Hungry for understanding, our forebears interacted imaginatively with their images, examined them from all angles, anthropomorphised them, embellished their attributes, furnished them with motives, and imagined nefarious plots until they’d created stories that satisfied their spirits and souls.
They told their stories, each culture in its own way, to the people around them, with images and themes that would captivate and instruct. Like the 5,000 year-old story of Sumeria’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, who descends to the Great Below to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Inanna…who is hung on a meat hook to rot while Ereshkigal suffers birth pangs. Inanna…who, with the help of loyal friends instructed to wait for her, is resurrected with the water of life three days later and returns to the Great Above.
Skeletal Crape Myrtles Sprouting Tiny New Leaves
Or the story of Egypt’s king Osiris, first told around 4,400 years ago. Osiris…who is murdered by his brother and becomes God of the Underworld, the dead, and the afterlife. Osiris…whose wife, Queen Isis, restores his body and conceives a son from it. Osiris…who in dying and being symbolically “reborn” in his son Horus, is worshiped as God of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. Osiris…a merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife and the granter of all new life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile. Osiris, the “Lord of love” with whom the kings of Egypt were associated at death; then, “as Osiris rose from the dead they would, in union with him, inherit eternal life through a process of imitative magic.” (Wikipedia)
Or Greece’s Persephone who, according to the 3,500 year-old story, is kidnapped and raped by Hades, God-King of the Underworld. Persephone…beautiful daughter of Demeter, Goddess of Fertility who, in her mourning, allows vegetation to die and people to starve until Zeus allows Persephone to return. Persephone…who, according to the Eleusynian Mysteries, brings the green new shoots of vegetation with her so the cycle of life can begin anew.
And Israel’s Jesus, son of a virgin who is married to a carpenter. Jesus…whose story from about 2,000 years ago tells us that he grows up to challenge the prevailing religious authorities with his gospel of love and social justice. Jesus…who heals the sick, raises the dead, makes disciples of women and fishermen and forgives prostitutes their sins. Jesus…who is killed by the Roman authorities who have invaded and conquered his land. Jesus…who is hung on a cross, buried in a cave, and reborn after three days.
“My whole endeavor has been to show that myth is something very real because it connects us with the instinctive bases of our existence.” Carl Jung, Letters, Vol. 11, Page 468.
The universal story about the sacred Mystery of Life is told in myths. Each of us participates in this story, physically and mentally. Like Mother Nature, we too go through cycles. Like her we go into labor during winters when our souls have grown weary and cold. But beneath the surface, in the underground womb of our unconscious, our life energy continues to ebb and flow, separate and reconnect in new images of insights, possibilities and potential. And if, when they emerge in dreams and fantasies, we will see our images and use them imaginatively, our story can rebirth us into a new spring of hope, meaning, and resurrection.
Note: Most of us are familiar with hero myths. Today we see these “solar” myths from the patriarchal era as metaphors for the ego’s heroic efforts to conquer the “dragon” of unconsciousness and ascend into the heights of power, success, acclaim, fulfillment and enlightenment. Far fewer people are familiar with “lunar” descent myths, some of which predate the solar myths and feature women. Their themes are about loss, suffering, death and rebirth with resultant deepened self-knowledge, wisdom, compassion, trust and love.
Primitive humans probably created these myths to describe the cycles of life as it progressed through nature’s seasons, and to reassure themselves that spring’s sprouting and summer’s blossoming will always follow agriculture’s decline in the fall and apparent death in winter. But Dr. Carl Jung proved time and again that they are also stories about the life of the soul which can be of enormous comfort to individuals who find themselves in a descent phase of life.
In keeping with the onset of winter, this past December Susanne van Doorn featured a series of posts about the mythological theme of descent on her blog, Mindfunda. I was honored to be invited to write her first guest post about the Journey to the Underworld. The following is a repost of that article.
Today’s Guest author is Dr. Jean Raffa, a former television producer and college professor who—with the help of Jungian psychology—began following her passions for self-discovery and writing during mid-life. Jean has written several books. Her first was “The Bridge to Wholeness.” Her second book, “Dream Theatres of the Soul,” got her invited to make a keynote speech at the International Associations for the Study of Dreams in the summer of 2015. You can see her videos about this book at her YouTube channel. Her newest Wilbur Award-winning book is called “Healing the Sacred Divide.” Next week, Elaine Mansfield will write about the darkness of the descent.
A psychological descent can take many forms. Sometimes it shows up in strategies to escape painful present realities by regressing into past memories. We’re consumed by a bittersweet yearning for the “good old days” when we were young and innocent. Life was easy and we were on top of the world.
We were a handsome Apollo, a confident football star and president of the high school student body who is trying to recapture our youth by driving a sporty new car or finding a younger wife. We were a beautiful, innocent Persephone, an entitled daughter and gifted student who has been pulled into the dark realms of obsessive binge eating, shopping sprees and plastic surgery.
A second kind of descent is forced on us by circumstances beyond our control: an accident, illness, divorce, loss of a home or job, death of a parent, child, or spouse. These can plunge us into the depths of a depression where grief and sorrow are constant companions.
Then there’s the existential descent into meaninglessness which appears uninvited at mid-life. Suddenly the beliefs and ideals that served so well in the first half of life no longer work, yet questioning them feels dangerous. Worse, we’ve met our shadow in feelings and urges we can no longer ignore and our naively positive self-image is irretrievably damaged.
Captivated by the archetypal Hero’s widely publicized and deeply satisfying rise to success, we are rarely prepared for our conflicts and losses. To an ego that has prided itself on being in control and doing everything right, it can feel as if we are adrift in a chaotic sea. Kris Kristofferson described this painful experience in his song, “Shipwrecked in the 80’s.” For some, the metaphor of falling into an abyss and plunging into what St. John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul” is more apt.
From the age of 17 I derived all the meaning I needed from my religion. Then at 37, I experienced an existential descent. On the outside it was business as usual, but inside I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Nine years later I was rescued by Jungian psychology. After committing to a regular practice of study, reading, self-reflection and dreamwork I finally began to understand what had happened. My ego had been brutally assaulted by unconscious instinctual forces within my psyche. Brutal? So it felt to me. Nonetheless my ordeal was life-serving. Without it, I would never have willingly explored my unconscious and been rewarded with the elixir of a revitalized life-force and the gold of affirming self-knowledge.
Inanna and the Descent Myth
Myths from every culture and religion are allegories of psychological and spiritual truths. In them, we can find guidance and healing meaning for our lives. Seeing the similarities between my story and the Sumerian descent myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, brought me great comfort.
Inanna Queen of Heaven
unkown artist on easy.com
The first half of Inanna’s life was, like mine, fairly predictable. We both struggled to create a comfortable home, affirm our individuality, and establish our authority. Inanna accomplishes this by having a bed and a throne made for her. Then she cleverly tricks Enki, the God of Wisdom, into giving her the gifts of civilization, which she shares with the city she rules. She tops it all off (she assumes) by courting, seduction, bearing children, and fulfilling her Queenly duties.
I, too, gained knowledge through my cleverness: enough, at least, to get a college scholarship. I earned two degrees, met, courted and married my husband, established a home, and birthed a daughter and a son. Eventually I earned a doctoral degree and a college teaching position. I’ve done it all, I thought with a measure of self-satisfaction. That’s when I learned that cleverness, knowledge, possessions and physical comfort do not define success or insure fulfillment.
My descent from Inanna’s “Great Above” to the “Great Below” began when my shadow broke into my awareness with a moral conflict between two intolerable choices. I was profoundly tempted to break a rule that had always been sacrosanct to me, and appalled at myself for considering it. I spent sleepless nights praying to the God I had been taught to believe in, challenging beliefs that felt outdated and meaningless while fearing retribution for my audacity. I found little joy in living. My stomach hurt much of the time. I lost 20 pounds. At times I knew there was meaning in my ordeal, but my knowing provided scant relief. Mostly I felt alone and miserable. Like Inanna and Persephone, I was introduced to the dark underbelly of the unconscious beneath my naive “good girl” self-image. The shock was devastating.
Inanna is a “good girl” too: a loving wife to Dumuzi, a mother, and a sister to Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. At mid-life Inanna descends into the underworld to, by some accounts, attend the funeral of Ereshkigal’s husband. Or was her call, “Let him come. Come, man, come!” an invitation to her animus, her unconscious masculine side?
On the way down she is humiliated by being stripped of all her earthly possessions: symbols of her beauty, success, femininity and the power she has worked so hard to attain. Humiliation is a crucial element of descent myths because crisis and suffering are the only powers that can destroy an ego’s belief in its invincibility.
The story of Inanna in body and soul
If we look for it, we will find that every detail of a myth can have psychological and spiritual meaning. For example, the number three in myths and fairy tales heralds the arrival of Mystery. Receiving three wishes, asking for help three times, or being the third and youngest child to attempt a difficult task signals our readiness for an initiation that will force us out of childhood innocence into mature responsibility and consciousness.
I Tjing hexagram 3: Difficulty at the Beginning
Sure enough, three shows up in the story of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, too. At the bottom of her descent she is met by Ereshkigal who, perhaps jealous of her sister’s charmed life in the world above, has her hung naked on a meat hook where she suffers for three long days. I hung on my metaphorical meat hook for three years, plus another six during which my suffering gradually diminished.
Like Inanna’s descent, mine was a painful physical, emotional and spiritual experience. But, unwilling to give up or make a terrible mistake, I persevered in my outer life and stirred the contents of my inner world over a low, reflective fire. Ever so slowly, this alchemical opus brought about lasting changes.
My body awakened to instinctual energies I had long repressed. My ears heeded my soul’s cries of pain. My heart felt compassion. My ego’s center of gravity shifted from a place of control and resistance to a place of surrender and acceptance of forces far more powerful than my puny will. My eyes were opened to my sovereignty over my own life and my childish dependence on others dissolved. I began to make my own choices and take responsibility for them. Death took up its abode on my left shoulder and Choice on my right, each whispering daily reminders to savor every moment.
Hero myths have healing meaning too, but “happily ever after” does not tell the whole story. Descent myths do.
On the third day, Inanna is rescued by her loyal priestess, Ninshubur, and Enki, the God of Culture, and she returns to life in the world above. There she faces new problems, but now she has the awareness to handle them with wisdom and balance. With Inanna’s help, I’m getting better at that too.
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.