Tourist or Pilgrim? Which Are You? October 14, 2014
In October of 2012 I was invited to make a presentation at Journey Conferences, an annual gathering of Jungians. There I met Phil Cousineau, an author, filmmaker, lecturer and expert on mythology, and learned that he leads trips to some of the world’s most sacred sites.
Fred and I love to travel, so when we heard about his trip to the sacred sites of Greece with Sacred Earth Journeys this fall, we signed up. My favorites among Phil’s many books are The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, and Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Time. Since our return last week I’ve been thinking about how this trip combined the themes of these two books in a magical way that made this my favorite travel experience ever.
“In each of us dwells a pilgrim. It is the part of us that longs to have direct contact with the sacred.”
The focus of our previous guided tours has been on the outer world. What drew me to this one was the promise of equal time for the inner life of the soul.
I was not disappointed. Each morning began with an hour-long conversation about the sites we would visit, the ancient myths associated with them, and the way they are still being played out in our lives today. Phil’s passion for mythology combined with his passion for mentoring turned what could have been just another interesting tour into an extraordinary personal odyssey.
“The force behind myths, fairytales, parables and soulful travel stories reveals the myriad ways the sacred breaks through the resistance and shines forth into our world. Pilgrimage holds out the promise of personal contact with that sacred force.”
For me, one of the most problematic aspects of past tours has been the lack of opportunity for close observation and reverie. Not so this time! At least once a day Phil offered prompts for writing poetry or essays or making sketches. Always, he built in plenty of time for reflecting on how the celebrations and myths associated with sacred spaces triggered lost memories and inner stirrings. As if that were not enough, he provided even more time for sharing our impressions, insights and healing experiences with each other.
“Our task in life is to find our deep soul work and throw ourselves headlong into it.”
At the ruins of Eleusis, site of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries which celebrated the sacred death/rebirth fertility myth of Demeter and Persephone, we rested in the cave reputed to be the portal to the Underworld. There some of us shared evidence of the buried spiritual depths that lie beneath the surface of our lives. I spoke of how I shut down painful emotions and lost my tears at the age of 11 when my father died. That night I dreamed I was as angry as I’ve ever been at family and friends who were thoughtlessly trashing my house and expecting me to clean up. The dream ended with me hurling volleys of creative curses at them like Zeus throwing his thunderbolts, then laughing in delight at my uncharacteristic behavior!
Where was the anger coming from? Was being in Greece influencing me to channel my inner Persephone, Dark Goddess of the Underworld? Is she still mad at Hades for violating my personal space and stealing my father away? What about the laughter? Could Persephone finally be lightening up about a personal crisis which she has learned to view as a mere speck in the cosmic view of things?
Over drinks two evenings later, a woman in our group shared a shattering life-changing experience she had as a young adult. At dinner she made a mind-blowing connection: The myth of Demeter and Persephone is her story, one she has lived ever since her youthful trauma. She never knew it until that moment!
“What is sacred is what is worthy of our reverence, what evokes awe and wonder in the human heart, and what, when contemplated, transforms us utterly.”
The night after we visited Olympia, site of the original Olympic games, I dreamed of another Dark Mother who reminded me of Ereshkigal, cruel Queen of the Underworld who hung her sister Inanna, Sumeria’s Queen of Heaven and Earth, on a meathook to die. In a show of unwanted patronizing attention, dream Ereshkigal asked her attendants to escort me down some stairs. I refused to go. As I was falling asleep that night she visited me and gave me a light kiss on my lips. Her presence was oppressive and filled me with dread.
Why does the Goddess of the Underworld visit me now? It seems obvious. I’ve entered a phase of life when my task is to make peace with death. I’m not thrilled about this, but I’m ready to face what comes next.
“What every traveler confronts sooner or later is that the way we spend each day of our travel…is the way we spend our lives.”
The bearlike rock formation in the Skotino Cave in Crete reminded me of Elephant in the Cave, an early dream which showed me how frightened I was of reflecting on my inner life. Greece’s ancient goddess figurines; images of snakes and initiation rituals; sacred vessels and ceremonial masks; ruins of labyrinths and altars; the sacred tree worshiped at the Palianis nunnery: all these and more symbolize issues that used to haunt me in waking life and appeared at night in some of my most memorable and life-changing dreams.
Greece’s antiquities are not meaningless historical facts to me. They are living realities within me. Having experienced these realities for over 25 years, I feel blessed by this trip and the direct contact with the sacred it provided every day. I guess this makes me a pilgrim.
How does travel impact you?
All quotes are from Phil Cousineau’s Art of Pilgrimage.
Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.
Embellishment May 28, 2014
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.
Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Diesel Ebooks
The Sacrament of Paying Attention August 13, 2013
The Church conducts sacraments to infuse life-changing experiences like birth, marriage, and death with sacred meaning. Many find these rituals deeply satisfying and enjoy the positive feelings they bring long afterwards. But inevitably our sense of the Sacred fades and the good feelings are replaced with less comfortable ones. What do we do then? Formal community rituals don’t address the inner discomfort of an individual psyche.
Every ego experiences wounding in the process of growing up, and sometimes the normal pressures of life reactivate our wounds. Then they speak to us in uncomfortable moods and emotions like tension, anxiety, agitation, self-doubt, depression, sadness, longing, frustration, irritability, self-pity, anger. Most egos learn to repress certain thoughts and feelings that bring inner discomfort, and we tend to feel proud of our ability to do this.
This is a mistake. Even the tiniest emotional twinge can be a valuable message from our unconscious, but ignorance turns the opportunity for a blessing into an obstacle that separates us from our awareness of the Sacred. Thus, do we deprive ourselves of the love and balance that are our spiritual inheritance.
There is a sacrament anyone can conduct to free and heal the wounded and imprisoned parts of ourselves. I call it the Sacrament of Paying Attention. The first step is to notice when we’re feeling or acting uncomfortable or moody. The second is to imagine which of our many wounded inner characters is causing the feeling or mood. And the third is to treat this shadow with warm welcome and kind attention until it becomes our friend.
Dream analysis and journal-writing help us perfect these steps. Dreams depict our wounds in the feelings, emotions, and behaviors of our dream ego and other characters. Writing about these things brings understanding and self-acceptance. After 21 years I can feel the wound and befriend the shadow in a few moments under normal circumstances. But as I write this I’m traveling with a group in a foreign land and have had little opportunity to tend to inner business. A few nights ago I had a dream in Saigon that spoke to how my soul was feeling about this.
In the dream I’m hosting a wedding shower in my childhood home and nothing goes quite right. I keep the guests waiting outside for ten minutes, and when I let them in I realize I haven’t tidied up the house or prepared refreshments. Then I rush the bride-to-be into opening her gifts without taking the time to welcome my guests, make them comfortable, or conduct the opening ritual I had planned. I try to justify this by telling myself I’ve done the best I can, but the dream ends with me feeling ashamed and wishing I had paid more attention. My guests deserved my best effort.
I wanted to ignore this dream and the feelings it evoked, but it had alerted me to the stress and self-criticism that prolonged interaction with others produces in me, and I knew it would only get worse in the days ahead. So, on the long bus ride from Saigon to the Mekong Delta I sat alone, recorded the dream, wrote my associations, and tried to identify the wounded shadow who’s feeling this way. In doing so, I recognized my introverted child (I was in my childhood home) whose conditioning to solitude left her ill-equipped for lengthy and intense communal situations.
The sense of release and relief was immediate and dramatic. Attending to this dream soothed my child, showered my inner bride-to-be and other inner guests with the attention they deserved, and gave me the refreshing respite I needed. The Sacrament of Paying Attention reunited my ego with the Beloved. I’m all better now!
Note: I’m not in Viet Nam now. This is a revised version of a post that first appeared in December of 2010!
Insights from Ireland: Getting the Human Thing Down May 24, 2013
I love the humanness of the dream I’ve been sharing. It’s so “lower chakra” with its symbolism of a possum and its excrement. Why do I love that? Andi sent me this quote in which Catholic priest Richard Rohr explains: “History has revealed too many people who have tried to be spiritual before they have learned how to be human! It is a major problem. Maybe this is why Jesus came to model humanity for us—much more than divinity….Get the ordinary human thing down, and you will have all the spirituality that you can handle.”
Kundalini yoga and Jung say the same thing. The colors of the rainbow represent the entire spectrum of human experience, from the infra-red of instinct and emotion to the ultraviolet of spiritual transcendence. We can devote our lives to spiritual strivings in the heady, upper chakra realms, but if we ignore our earthy roots we’ll still be plagued by issues related to self-esteem, security, physical identity, survival, fear, power, sex, pleasure, anxiety and relationships.
Ideally, the first half of life is for getting the human thing down, but life is rarely ideal. My parents were ill-suited to each other and when I was born my hard-working mother’s emotional health was precarious. Mom had just learned of my father’s infidelity and her mother-in-law blamed her for his moral lapse. Only now do the puzzle pieces, vague hints about family secrets, fall into place. Deeply sensitive and intuitive from birth, I absorbed the crisis-laden atmosphere into which I was born. I see it now. My mother’s deep pain. The profound anxiety of a little girl who did not receive the nurturing she needed and assumed the fault was hers. The shameful secret I have borne since childhood:
I am unlovable.
Seeing this belief at the root of my personality is the biggest insight of all. So this is why I’ve always been so hard on myself! Guided by the high-minded spirituality of my family, I responded to my unworthiness with self-consciousness, perfectionism and self-blame. I hid my anxiety beneath a smooth persona of stoic calm and poise. I tried to kill strong emotions. I played dead. X, the shadow animus in my dream who also has a deep mother wound, wants me to maintain this persona. Acting reasonable, calm and cool can be a survival strategy for an insecure child who fears the emotional abandonment of its mother.
At the start of the conference the strain of playing dead was wearing me down. Dream Mother wanted me to know I’ve grown strong enough to deal with my lower chakra realities. So she let the possum out from her hiding place and she let my dream ego have the temper tantrum I was never secure enough to have as a child: “I’m not cleaning up this shit!” I yelled with no trace of a perfectionist persona in sight.
The alchemical detail of electric blue possum excrement suggests spiritual transformation. Am I getting the human thing down? The dream said I knew cleaning up after the possum was my responsibility and I would deal with it. Dream Mother was right. I’m cooking my inner contents in a sturdy golden vessel of writing and dreamwork. And now I have a new shadow to learn to love.
Hi, Little Possum. Welcome to my conscious world. Your mother may not have been able to carry you, but I can. You won’t need to play dead any more.
About the picture: On Monday’s hike I found a stick that looked half-dragon, half-snake. Meaningful symbols are keys to hidden chambers of the unconscious. Dragon represents difficulties that must be overcome before an important goal can be reached; snake is a symbol of transformation. I brought my stick to Maeve’s Tomb on Tuesday to leave as an offering on her special hazel bush. When Fred found a swatch of red (root chakra and Maeve’s color) cloth, I tied it to the dragon-snake’s back with dental floss. The red scarf tied to the trunk below is Monika’s.
Insights from Ireland: Cooking Possum Stew May 21, 2013
After I wrote my associations to the symbols in my Ireland dream, I started on its message. The biggest clues to a dream’s meaning are recent waking life experiences and how you responded to them. I was aware of some issues, thoughts and feelings in the days before the dream, but which were relevant and which were not? In the month since then I’ve pursued several dead ends but feel close to the core now. Here’s how my thinking has evolved.
Act I: It’s obvious that my psyche (mansion) is undergoing some kind of alchemical transformation (golden urn). I get it that my animus envisions a nourishing (dining room) change that would unite the vessel and its contents. But what is the nature of this change? I don’t know.
Act II: I understand that my ego wants to maintain a smooth and shiny persona (pinboard). As a “J” personality type, (see this site for an explanation), I like keeping the outer aspects of my life orderly and organized. But what less-obvious parts of my persona (covered pin holes and scraps of paper) still need work? And why doesn’t X want me to expose them? Is he afraid people will see that he’s/I’m not always smart, confident, in control, or right? Could be. New situations like this do bring out this concern. Maybe he’s my overly self-conscious perfectionist who fears I’ll say or do something thoughtless or annoying?
Act III: Another aspect of my animus (my thinker/spiritual striver/writer?) thinks some valuable old (as in inherited or acquired at an early age) qualities should be openly displayed. This could refer to personality traits that have been helpful in my inner and outer work, and also to the fact that I’m comfortable with aging. But what’s this primitive instinct (possum) hidden beneath the externalities that I don’t want in the house of my psyche? Which of my five instincts—nurturance, activity, reflection, sex or creativity—does it represent?
The mention of the dining room suggests the instinct for nurturance. Physical survival has never been an issue, but what is problematic is my emotional need for approval and security and my resistance to admitting to these needs. This is a root chakra issue that would have begun in my infancy.
Someone at the conference noted that possums play dead when they’re frightened; hence, the phrase, “playing possum.” Another said that baby possums cling to the mother’s fur when they ride on her back. These associations felt important then and still do. There’s a frightened young possum in me that didn’t get all the mothering she needed and somehow plays dead as a result. But how does this show up in waking life?
Here’s what was going on with me. We left Orlando on Thursday and arrived at the conference site on Sunday afternoon. The pre-trip packing, airport hassles, flight to Dublin and lack of sleep left me exhausted. Two days of hectic touring in a new city reduced my normally low tolerance for excessive stimulation to zero tolerance for practically everything and everyone! Then we left the Dublin hotel, took a taxi to a meeting point, had a long bus ride to Cromleach Lodge, checked in, unpacked and organized luggage. Then there were 37 new people to meet.
Maybe these things aren’t problematic for some personalities, but for people like me, they’re challenging. Why? Partly because I’m an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging Type. Partly because I was fully conscious of my feelings and didn’t like them. Stoic as usual, I was doing a pretty good job of containing my emotions (playing dead), (Fred told me later he had no idea how stressed I was), but, perfectionist that I am, I considered them unworthy. Inwardly I was shaming myself and my self-criticism was dragging me down. I couldn’t forgive myself for being human!
Next time, the big “Aha!”
With my 70th birthday coming up this year I’d been giving some thought to how I wanted to celebrate. Top on my list was to be with my family, but might there also be something a little unusual and special?
I was still considering possibilities this winter when I received an e-mail catalogue from the New York Center for Jungian Studies about their annual spring conferences in Ireland. Each lasts a week, takes place in a different location, and has a different theme. When I came to the third and last one, my heart quickened. “Jung, Yeats & the Creative Imagination” would take place during April 21 – 27. My birthday week. As if this weren’t enough, one of the presenters was Jungian analyst Monika Wikman!
If you follow my blog you know I think very highly of Monika and her book, Pregnant Darkness. And I’ve written posts about creative imagination. Moreover, although I’d never read the poetry of William Butler Yeats, several people have recommended it to me. One was the founder of Innisfree Press, the publisher of my book, Dream Theatres of the Soul: Empowering the Feminine through Jungian Dream Work.” Innisfree’s motto was “A call to the deep heart’s core,” the last line of one of Yeats’ most beloved poems, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
I felt the call. So with the full support of my husband—who, although not a lover of Jung or poetry, is a lover of travel and me—we signed up. We have just returned and it was all I’d hoped for and much more. Since my way of processing experience is to write about it, I’d like to share a few of my thoughts in upcoming posts. I hope some will be meaningful to you.
Our group of 35 people checked into our lodge in rural County Sligo on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, the day before my birthday, we climbed up a steeeeep, hill to the Caves of Kesh. As the bird flies, it wasn’t that high or far, but as the human walks, this was no piece of birthday cake. There was no trail, so we each had to find our own way.
The first part of the hike featured a grove of scrubby trees, a locked gate that had to be scaled, thick black mud, and prickly undergrowth like heather and stinging nettle which we occasionally had to grab to keep from sliding and falling. Some fell anyway. The next phase was up a deceptively innocent-looking pasture dotted with more quagmires, slippery grass, and a plethora of sheep poop, some of which ended up under our fingernails when grabbing grass was the only way to maintain balance. By the way, as you will learn in an upcoming post, poop steadily gained in importance that week until it became a defining symbol for the entire conference!
In Celtic mythology the Caves of Kesh were hiding places for two lovers pursued by an angry King/husband. But it was the climb that held significance for me. Not only have I had many dreams of ascending steep stairs only to find the way blocked at the top, but as a soon-to-be-70 elderwoman, I was on a mission to shatter stereotypes about aging and gray-haired women. Determined to prove to myself and all present that 70 is not synonymous with doddering, I kept going. As it turned out, Fred and I were two of only 14 people who enjoyed the stunning view from inside the caves. I’m proud of us!
So here are a few things I’ve been thinking about my visit to Ireland last week:
- 70 is a number, not an excuse to forego adventure.
- Inheriting healthy genes is not within my range of choices, but staying open, listening to myself, accepting challenges and doing my best are.
- Most successes are the result of sheer determination and perseverance.
- When viewed through the lens of creative imagination, everything—even the names of islands and publishing houses, climbing, caves, stinging nettle, mud and poop—has symbolic meaning for our soul’s journey.
- No matter how difficult the climb may be, following the heart’s call is worth it.
Note: I’ve just seen the ad that’s been placed on this post and I want you to know I have nothing to do with it and can’t figure out how to take it off. I apologize. Please know it’s not authorized by me.