Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom

Think Pyschologically; Live Spiritually

What Meaning Can We Find in Numinous Encounters with Otherness? July 7, 2014

blackbearLast week I wrote about an encounter with a rattlesnake on our forested mountain property.  The day before that I found a skeleton of the head of something that looked like a baby alligator.  Friends later confirmed that it was another snake. A bigger one.  I had my third wild animal encounter in as many days the day after the live rattler appeared. This time it was a very large, very alive black bear! I had just arrived at a friend’s house to meet with my Jungian summer study group and it walked into her garden, knocked over a bird feeder she had filled only fifteen minutes earlier, and sat down to enjoy the feast. It wasn’t 30 feet away from her porch.

Humankind has always found significance in threeness.  Three fairy tale brothers set out to win a princess, a wolf terrorizes three little pigs, a little girl explores the forest home of three bears, a hero receives three wishes. Christianity has its trinity and its three wise men. If two movie stars or old friends died within a few weeks of each other, my mother always waited for the third.

We also attach spiritual meaning to animals.  Native American warriors were visited by their power animals on vision quests and in dreams.  A stray dog appears out of nowhere to bring comfort and companionship to a grieving widower. A widow whose husband loved hummingbirds has never seen a hummingbird in her garden until one taps on her kitchen window the afternoon of his funeral.  When Lawrence Anthony—a legend in South Africa who bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human atrocities—died on March 7, 2012, 31 wild elephants showed up at his home two days later to pay their respects.

Perivale BearSo I ask myself, what meaning is there for me in these three  “truly numinous encounter(s) with Other-ness?” as Jungian therapist Melissa LaFlamme said  about the rattlesnake.  She continues, “Very auspicious…. [snakes] come as Teachers of the ancients.”  Writer Elaine Mansfield agrees, “Wow, Jean. A visitation. Respect and caution needed, but what a gift to mine.”

Snakes are at home on the ground, in water, in trees. They shed their old skins (or old lives) and grow new ones to emerge reborn, transformed. Two snakes entwine the Rod of the god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. A similar image, the caduceus of the Greek god Hermes, is still a symbol for medicine and healing.

And what about bears?  I’ve written about them many times in earlier posts:  here, and here, here, here, and here.  A symbol of spiritual introversion in Native American lore and of psychological transformation and rebirth in Jungian psychology—bears hibernate in the winter, as if dead, and emerge in the spring as if reborn, often with a cub or two—Bear has been one of my two animal totems (the other is Horse) ever since it asked to be included in my first book, The Bridge to Wholeness. When we remodeled our summer home in the Smoky Mountains, a large bronze bear was installed in a place of honor. Over the years I’ve had several Big dreams about serpents and bears, (Jung saw both as symbols of the Self), but this is the first time a live rattlesnake or bear has appeared in close proximitiy to me.

Three encounters with Snake and Bear in three days.  Synchronicity. Fairy tales and myths. Vision quests—I’ve been on one since I was 17 through forest and mountain, both physical and spiritual. Jungian psychology. Animal Teachers. Writing. Healing. Teaching. Comfort. Dreams.  Spiritual introversion. Psychological transformation. Growing respect and gratitude for the gift of physical life. Home. The Self. These are my primary associations with last week’s numinous visitations.  They speak to the themes of my spiritual journey and connect my outer and inner worlds.

They say:  You are on the journey you were meant to take:  finding the meaning of your myth, living your passion, sharing what you have learned. You are a valuable part of the whole, sacred interconnected web of life. You are seen. You are known. You are loved.

And I am grateful.

Jean Raffa’s newest book, 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 Golden Bear June 4, 2011

Last June I wrote two posts about the symbolism of bears. Now I’d like to tell you how my interest in bears came about. Twenty-two years ago I decided to forgo college teaching and follow my passion to write only of things that held meaning for me. For months I wrote without an agenda about every denizen of the deep that captured my interest. Often these topics presented themselves via haunting dream images that would not re-submerge. Then, one morning while reflecting at my makeup mirror, I reeled in a fairy tale. Parts of it were modeled on the old Grimm brothers’ tale, The Handless Maiden. But other parts were original to me. I realized this was a story about my personal journey and the very thing I needed to tie together the heretofore unconnected threads of the book I was weaving.

My fairy tale contained the requisite princess, castle, queen, and king, as well as a dangerous wilderness with fierce beasts and a raging river. It also featured a remote island with an intriguing princess-sized hut; over the front doorway was a sign that read, “All Who Enter Are Free.” I followed my instincts with the fervor of a bloodhound as this story spun itself out piece by tantalizing piece; I was definitely on to something here.

But one important detail eluded my understanding. Something profoundly compelling had to lure the princess away from all that was familiar and draw her into the wilderness. Otherwise, why would she leave? I knew her departure from the castle of conformity was crucial to the fairy tale because it represented the pivotal transition of my life; but I needed a powerful symbol to express the overwhelming compulsion that had emboldened me to abandon the safe prison of my closed mind. I needed a big, dangerous animal, something that fills the princess with awe and dread while fascinating her beyond reason. And then I knew: it had to be a bear.

In Mark of the Bear Paul Schullery writes “…the bear was a primary presence in early human religion (and if you’ve met one, it’s not hard to understand why). We turned to it even before we found our way to the huge variety of superhuman and supernatural deities that peopled the world’s later belief systems.

“Nor did the power of the bear fade when all these later belief systems flourished. Human ecologist Paul Shepard says that “the bear is the most significant animal in the history of metaphysics in the northern hemisphere.” Indeed, Shepard maintains that even when humans became largely urban and lost touch with wild landscapes, they didn’t really leave the bear behind; they simply brought it along in subtle, even subconscious forms, so that it haunts us as an image and an idea, somehow all the more powerful for being so remote.”

I didn’t know all this when I wrote my fairy tale and finished my book, The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth. I knew only that a magnificent golden bear was somehow the perfect guide for a princess on the quest for self-discovery and freedom. But as I have read more about bears, surrounded myself with images of them, sought out flesh and blood examples in my waking life, and studied those that visit my dreams, they have become profoundly meaningful spiritual symbols for me.

More about this next time.


Sophia’s Gift of Meaning December 21, 2010

Psychologists look for meaning in dream, myth, and fairy tale symbols because, as products of the unconscious, they compensate for the narrow visions of our egos and show us what we need to know to grow and thrive.  Reflecting on the metaphorical  meaning of our stories educates, encourages, and empowers us.

Here’s an example of what we can learn from fairy tales. The initial situation in a fairy tale represents the conscious state of affairs in a culture or individual. Leaving the original setting and going into the forest opens up the possibility for new insights lacking in the conscious orientation. What happens to those who enter the forest depends on their attitudes. The one who is indifferent, self-centered, self-righteous, proud, or disrespectful; the know-it-all who does not listen to advice; the person who must take charge, dominate, or control; the one who refuses to change: these people fall by the wayside or return home in disgrace. Such characters represent the weak and immature ego which does not easily acknowledge the significance of otherness. As the fairy tales illustrate, this attitude is ultimately destined for failure.

The hero or heroine in fairy tale and myth is always the one who succeeds because s/he has the correct attitude — the same attitude of humility, alert attention, trust, reverence, and respect that characterizes the deeply religious — toward the strange and magical beings encountered in the forest. This theme reflects a very profound truth. According to Jung, acquiring a religious outlook is an essential component of the journey to wholeness. By “religious” Jung did not mean believing in specific creeds that reflect personal or cultural biases. Rather he meant having reverence for every form of life including the unconscious, unknown otherness in the world and ourselves.

Religions try to develop religious attitudes by teaching their devotees to revere the symbols and themes of their myths and find spiritual meaning in them. Meaning is a human necessity. With it, there’s nothing we can’t bear; without it, there’s nothing to live for. There is nothing logical about meaning. We cannot see it, explain it, measure it, or prove it to anyone’s satisfaction. Nevertheless, it is a profound reality. If we have it, we know it because we feel a sense of purpose and vitality that was formerly lacking. Meaning is the “Aha!” of understanding; the “Eureka!” of discovery; the light bulb that turns on with a new insight or idea; the joy of finding the purpose of our lives; the blissful participation in eternity when we’re absorbed in work we love; the awed awareness of the miracle of being alive and knowing we are known and loved by something beyond ourselves.

The Greek myths provided sacred meaning for people in the Golden Age, but as the world changed and people grew more conscious they no longer found meaning in the old myths. The same is true of many people today for whom the myths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam are no longer tenable. While losing faith in our religious traditions can be devastating, it is a signal that we are ready for a newer, more personally meaningful and experiential spirituality. We receive this gift from Sophia, our spiritual mediatrix and mother, by looking within, listening to our hearts, discovering our true selves, and following our bliss:  in other words, by creating and living our own myths.

If you seek a deeper, more fulfilling spirituality, listen to what nourishes your soul with meaning. That’s Sophia talking and you can trust her. She knows the way home to your Self.  May you experience more of her gift.

You can find Healing the Sacred Divide at this Amazon link and at Larson Publications, Inc.


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