For the last 30 years, dreamwork has been my primary psychological and spiritual practice. Nothing has brought me as much self-knowledge, self-acceptance, meaning, and all-around life satisfaction as remembering, recording, analyzing, ritualizing, and journaling about my dreams.
My dreams are my personal treasure trove. They have known me better and guided me more surely toward my true gifts than any human seer or counselor could possibly do. They have been wiser than any teacher, more valuable than material possessions, more constant than any friend, more affirming of what’s true and important to me than any compliment, mirrored reflection, or admiring glance I’ve ever received. Had I not discovered this hidden wealth within me, none of the accomplishments I hold most dear—not my loving relationships with my family, my mentoring of my students, my books and other writings, or my spiritual growth—would have been possible.
Knowing of my passion and long experience working with my dreams, two weeks ago, Tzivia Gover, Director of the Institute for Dream Studies founded by Justina Lasley, hosted me as a speaker for an online class with her international group of students. I was asked to talk about my new book, The Soul’s Twins, with its emphasis on the feminine and masculine archetypes and how they can appear in dreams. After my talk we had a lively Q & A session. Tzivia wrote today to tell me that her students were still discussing some of the topics and had a few more questions for me. I’m sharing my answers here for other like-minded souls.
Q: How did you make the transition in your late thirties when you underwent a spiritual dark night and shifted your focus from the outer world of achievement and conformity to the authentic inner life of the psyche? What challenges did you have to overcome? How was this beneficial in the long run?
The transition was long, slow, and difficult. It began with an experience that awakened an instinct that had been relatively unconscious until that time. It centered around a painful conflict between two very real and valid parts of myself. The part that felt new, scary, and bad (my instinct) wanted to act. The part that had always been “good” and proper and careful and conforming—and felt rather proud of herself for being that way (my ego)—most certainly did not want to act! The problem was that both sides were extremely compelling and both choices would have been intolerable.
Until that time, I had believed I was doing everything right. For the first time I was faced with challenges to the persona I had carefully built over the years and could not dismiss them with self-discipline and will power. My religion was no longer a helpful guide. Prayer didn’t take my problem away. My major challenge was to face my spiritual questions and doubts and have it out with my God-image, who was really my church’s God-image, not mine, although I didn’t realize that at the time. These internal dialogues kept me awake for hours many nights.
Another challenge was to carry on normally by day without allowing my suffering to infect my family life and work. A third was to think through all the possible scenarios that could result from either choice without taking any impulsive actions I might later regret. A fourth was to trust a tiny intuition that this was all happening for a reason. A fifth was to tolerate the tension of clarifying my conflict and persevering until the solution arrived. When it did after about six months of this, I chose to go against convention and honor my instinct.
Once I was firm in my intention and made that original choice, the conflict was resolved by outer circumstances beyond my control. Acting on my decision was no longer an option. I felt cheated, betrayed, abandoned, mistreated, abused, and deserted by my God. My grief was intense. I suffered the deepest anguish I’ve ever felt for about two years without allowing my suffering to hurt anyone else. This was my trial by fire, and it lasted nine years.
During that time I began to experiment with trusting my instincts and pressing needs more often. I also became aware of a new God-image of compassion and love that was emerging in me, although I often failed in my intention to put love first in my everyday life. I still do. I faced and endured many agonizing conflicts because I wanted to protect the realities of my inner and outer life at the same time without betraying either one. When I discovered Jungian psychology and my dreams, I finally quit a job I hadn’t liked for years and started my first book about the inner life. That’s when the light started streaming back in.
As for the benefits, I’ve answered that question above. The fact that I’ve discovered my calling and befriended many of my dragons doesn’t mean I no longer have conflicts or flaws. It just means I’m much better at forgiving myself and seeing, facing, and resolving them quickly.
Q: Can you say more about the discoveries you uncovered when exploring the feminine approach to the hero myth?
I learned the hero myth is not about acquiring the outer trappings of success in the eyes of the world. That’s been patriarchy’s interpretation for thousands of years. It’s really a story about your masculine side (usually your conscious ego), cooperating with your feminine side (your soulful, feeling self), so that together these parts of you can find the courage to uncover and befriend the forces of ignorance in your own unconscious.
I learned it’s okay to have a shadow and to experience conflicts with it. Everyone does. And it’s never as bad as you think it is at first.
I learned that just because my religion and family and country have definite ideas about right and wrong doesn’t necessarily mean their views are correct or good for me. I realized that the point of the hero’s journey isn’t to kill my dragons–my shadow, instincts, and true feelings–but to build a relationship with them based on trust and compassion for myself and respect for their differing realities. Because they’re the ones guarding my treasure. And until I get past them by approaching them in peace and friendship—carrying on dialogues with them, and accepting their qualities as mine—I’ll never gain access to it.
Tzivia’s students at the Institute for Dream studies have two more questions about archetypes, but this is already too long so I’ll answer them next time. Dreamers, please know that it’s true that your treasures lie within. You are courageous warriors to seek them, and I salute you. This post and the next are dedicated to you.
Image credits: Dream, artist unknown, Google Images. St. George and the Dragon, Rogier van der Weyden.
Late at night a baby cries out in hunger. The exhausted face of its young mother appears over the top of the crib. She thrusts a bottle of cold milk in the baby’s hands and hurries away. Alone, yearning for the softness and warmth of her mother, the baby greedily drinks the milk while a tiny portion of her soul’s light flickers and fades.
A toddler taking his first steps crashes into a table and breaks a lamp. “Now look what he’s done,” his father shouts at his mother. “I paid good money for that lamp,” he yells as he storms out of the room. The confused child sees the hurt and fear in his mother’s eyes and begins to wail.
A third-grader on the playground says to her friend, “Look what I can do!” and executes a dance move she saw on TV. A sixth-grader nearby rolls her eyes and says scornfully, “Trust me. You’ll never be a dancer. You’re too fat. They have to be skinny and pretty. Like me.” She leaves without seeing the death of innocence on the little girl’s face.
“Can I play?” a boy asks some neighborhood kids. When a baseball rolls his way he tentatively tosses it back. “You throw like a girl,” jeers an older boy. There’s laughter. Someone taunts, “Sissy girl. Sissy girl.” The boy runs home so they won’t see him crying.
“See my muscles, Daddy?” a ten year old girl says, flexing her biceps proudly. Her father looks away and says, “You smell sweaty. Better go take a bath.” “And brush your teeth,” her mother calls after her. “You won’t catch a husband smelling like that!” As their daughter heads for the bathroom, the pleasure she felt in her strong and healthy body is erased by shame.
“I want to be an astronaut,” a 13 year old boy shyly admits after a lesson on astronomy. “It’s time you faced facts kid,” says the discouraged teacher of this unruly class of low achievers. “You’re an average student at best. And I happen to know that the men in your family have never amounted to much.” The boy feels the place inside that was left empty by the loss of his beautiful dream filling with ugly resentment.
Sitting alone in her room on prom might, an introverted honors student writes in her diary: All my friends have boyfriends. Why don’t I? What’s the matter with me? Am I too serious? Too boring? Will any man ever love me? Fearing to test her divorced mother’s emotional fragility, she suffers silently.
“When will I be loved?” asked Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers in their 1960 hit song.
I’ve been made blue, I’ve been lied to
When will I be loved
I’ve been turned down, I’ve been pushed around
When will I be loved
When I meet a new girl that I want for mine
She always breaks my heart in two, it happens every time
I’ve been cheated, been mistreated
When will I be loved
When will I be loved? If we’re like that lonely honors student, musically gifted teen-aged boy, or any of these wounded people, we probably believe the answer to that question is, “When I make people love me by showing them the false self they want to see.”
Unfortunately, that’s the wrong answer. The correct one, the one that leads to a love-filled, self-fulfilled life, is, “When I become the true self I’ve been denying and discard the false self I’ve created.”
The hungry baby deserved her mother’s full attention, but the mother was too wounded by her own inadequate mothering to give it to her.
The toddler’s first steps should have been celebrated with looks of delight, but when he gazed into the mirrors of his harried parents’ faces he saw only anger and fear.
The dancing girl could have been appreciated for her enthusiastic efforts, but the mean girl was too insecure and intimidated by the perfectionistic standards of the adults she knew to feel compassion for someone who clearly fell short of their ideal.
The more experienced kids could have shown the tentative boy how to throw a ball, but in their desire to impress each other and the adult males in their lives they imitated their demeaning and disrespectful attitudes toward girls and less athletic boys.
And so it goes. Many of us cover them up quite well, but all of us, children and adults alike, suffer from secret wounds that make us feel unlovable. And unfortunately, the less lovable we believe we are, the less able we are to love.
When will I be loved? When I stop showing others a false self, they will see my true self. When I listen to my true self, others will listen to me. When I respect myself, others will respect me. When I love myself, I will be loved. And I will love.
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”― Joseph Campbell
One warm summer evening when I was five years old, my father took me for a walk down a dusty Tallahassee road. At the nearby stable I saw my first horse and fell passionately in love. From that day on, I went to the stable as often as I could. It was bliss just to be near these magnificent animals—to see them, smell them, and if I was lucky, to touch them.
From then on, I had one goal in life: someday I would have a horse of my own. Each year as my birthday drew near I fantasized about the horse that would be standing outside my window when I awoke on my special day. I nursed this fantasy when we moved to a big city. It continued throughout elementary school, where everyone knew I was horse crazy. If I wasn’t drawing pictures of horses or writing stories about them, I was reading Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books from the school library.
The summer before sixth grade I wrote myself a letter to open when I was sixteen. In the envelope I included the best present I could think of to give my future self: a picture I had drawn titled “A Wild Stallion Sniffing the Air.” It showed a stallion standing high on a cliff overlooking his herd of mares far below.
My father died that winter and I began to lose my unrealistic dreams (Chink! go the bricks as they are added to my protective wall: “Playtime’s over; it’s time to grow up!”). I was also losing my utter confidence in myself (Chink! “Face it, kid; you’re a victim!) Occasionally, however, I got to be with horses, and the month I spent with my mother’s Michigan relatives who leased a black-and-white pinto for me made for the best summer I ever had.
By high school and college my love for horses took second place to boys. I married after graduation, got a job as a third grade teacher, and dreamed about having a child of my own. But the horses were still there, running around in the shadowy summer pastures of my mind, and I still dreamed of owning one someday. Five years later my dream came true when my husband bought me a white albino gelding with light blue eyes. But my dream was short-lived: I was pregnant within a few months and my cautious doctor warned me against riding. We sold Bamboo before my daughter was born.
It was the only thing to do. Motherhood is a full-time job. Isn’t it? When we grow up, we need to be reasonable and give up our unrealistic childhood dreams. Don’t we? Passion is a foolish and dangerous emotion. Isn’t it?
It can be enlightening to examine the symbols that prevail in our outer lives; sometimes they have an amazing correspondence to our psychological development. My youthful confidence and self-sufficiency were symbolized by my fixation on the black stallion, the epitome of powerful masculine energy, combined with dark, feminine, instinctive passion. Had I lived in another place and time, I might have continued to develop the capabilities of this powerful symbol, but, wildness and darkness were not quite acceptable in my world which preferred reason to passion and masculine to feminine.
As I grew older, my symbol acquired some balance and became a tamer, more reasonable, and less passionate (lighter-colored) black-and-white pinto. (Chink!) By the time I was a wife, mother and teacher and had accepted the restrictions placed on women, my symbol was a colorless gelding. Passion and dark femininity were lost and masculine light and reason overshadowed my horse energy, which had become dormant and impotent. (Chink! Chink!)
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell
My choice to be a teacher was guided by my needs for security and societal acceptance, not my real interests or skills. I didn’t even know what these might be. And although becoming a wife and mother were the right choices for me, I was not fulfilled in either capacity. Why? Because I was conforming to ill-fitting, societally transmitted renditions of these roles.
I lived on the surface of my life for several more years. I was a good sport, a good wife and mother, a mediocre tennis player, and an enthusiastic church- and party-goer, looking outside my Self for answers, approval, and temporary relief from my discomfort. Unaware of the wall that covered my true Self, a place where my passion for the black stallion was still alive and well, I assumed I was who and what I appeared to be. What I really was, was a woman following a path laid out for her by her forebears, a woman living her life for others.
Let go of the life I planned? Out of the question….much too dangerous to even think about, for in the first half of my life I was obsessed with building. Rebelling and tearing down weren’t even on my radar. Fortunately, the life that was waiting for me wouldn’t be denied.
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.