The Feminine Symbolism of Vessels February 16, 2016
Our relationships with nature and matter are closely connected to our relationships with our bodies. In certain orthodox religious circles, love for God as remote masculine spirit has gone hand in hand with physical self-loathing. For example, Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish medieval philosopher, was merely stating a commonly held belief when he said that “all philosophers are agreed that the inferior world, of earthly corruption and degeneration, is ruled by the natural virtues and influences of the more refined celestial spheres.” Likewise, St. Augustine considered his body to be the major source of his spiritual problems and sufferings.
This attitude is an obstacle to the fullest development of our spirituality. In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes:
“Spiritual life does not truly advance by being separated either from the soul or from its intimacy with life. God, as well as man, is fulfilled when God humbles himself to take on human flesh. The theological doctrine of incarnation suggests that God validates human imperfection as having mysterious…value. Our depressions, jealousies, narcissism, and failures are not at odds with the spiritual life. Indeed, they are essential to it….The ultimate marriage of spirit and soul, animus and anima, is the wedding of heaven and earth…”
Vessels are classic symbols of feminine matter. Of the many vessels symbolizing feminine containment, one that is particularly dear to Christians is the chalice or grail, the highest level of spiritual development and heavenly and earthly happiness. The female body is a vessel which receives sperm and produces eggs. A womb is a vessel within a vessel, the cradle of life that receives, holds, nurtures, and protects a growing embryo. A breast is a vessel which creates and dispenses milk. A skull is a vessel containing the brain, itself a vessel teeming with creative potential. In Christianity, Mary is a vessel for new spiritual life.
Another vessel-like symbol is the tower. A tower’s elevated position links it to heaven; its impenetrability to virginity; its vertical aspect to the human figure; its roundness to the womb; its containment to creative new life. Hence, towers that are closed and windowless were once emblematic of the Virgin Mary. In early Christian times a tower was often used to suggest the sacred walled city, another feminine symbol. The Herder Symbol Dictionary notes that a tower with a light is a lighthouse, which has long been a symbol “of the eternal goal toward which the ship of life [is] steered across the waves of this existence.” Its light suggests Sophia, the divine spark of life within us.
For Jung, too, the tower was a feminine symbol with sacred meaning. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes the stone tower he built at Bollingen, a small town on the upper shores of Lake Zurich, and writes that it “represented for me the maternal hearth.” He wrote,
“From the beginning I felt the Tower as in some way a place of maturation — a maternal womb or a maternal figure in which I could become what I was, what I am and will be. It gave me a feeling as if I were being reborn in stone.”
Vessels accept, contain, protect and preserve the birth/death/rebirth cycle of life at both the physical and metaphysical levels. Our planet Earth is a living vessel whose life cycles mirror the soul-making processes of psychological and spiritual transformation. The matter (L. mater) of which our bodies are composed is our mother, teacher, partner and guide on the spiritual journey. For that, it deserves our everlasting gratitude. How do you honor and thank your mother/body for nurturing the life of your soul?
Photo Credit: “Chalice” by Barbara Sorensen
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 Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.
A Lasting Solution to Terrorism December 15, 2015
“. . . today most people cannot see the beam in their own eye but are all too well aware of the mote in their brother’s. Political propaganda exploits this primitivity and conquers the naive with their own defect. The only defence (sic) against this overwhelming danger is recognition of the shadow.” ~Carl Jung
Creating a persona, or social mask, to gain acceptance from our family and groups is normal. Being accepted as part of a group is important to us, especially during adolescence, and usually well beyond. But problems arise when we grow into adulthood believing our persona is the whole story about who we are. It isn’t. Life isn’t just about what you see; it’s also what you don’t see.
Psychological realities have energy. When we deny them honest expression they become like weeds that find their way out through cracks in the foundations of our personalities. My father’s death created a crack in my psyche and I turned to religion to heal it. But instead of finding a loving Father God to keep me safe, my religion’s shadow, a judgmental God of retribution, crept in through the crack. The more I sided with and tried to emulate a gentle, forgiving god-image, the more power my punishing god-image acquired until it became an overly scrupulous spiritual bully.
My spiritual bully usually shows up in my dreams as mean, critical men, but I have occasionally dreamed of a hostile female authority figure. Once she was a Russian policewoman who tried to throw acid on my face. I knew these characters must represent something in me, but I couldn’t see how they showed up in my waking life. After a while I realized that sometimes I had negative thoughts about myself, and once in a while I could see how these thoughts brought me down and sapped my energy. But it took years of dreamwork before I knew my bully for what he is: the strategy of a fearful child trying to protect myself from more trauma. After all, my inner Orphan must have reasoned, if I punish myself, maybe God won’t punish me again!
To gain approval from the “good” God of my religion, I decided to be good too. Adopting a “good girl” persona required me to repress any “badness.” But instead of going away, some of my repressed qualities merged into a spiritual bully. My bully thought he was doing me a favor and I believed him. We thought self-criticism was good for me. We thought constant vigilance to root out the tiniest infraction would build character and keep me humble!
Perhaps it did in some ways, but in other ways this habit of negative self-thinking had the opposite effect. Constant reminders of your flaws hurt. If I’ve been feeling self-critical and someone adds to my pain by saying something hurtful, I forget that when other people hurt me it’s all about them. In this vulnerable state my Orphan can break through my persona. I know she’s arrived when I start feeling sorry for myself. Wisdom and compassion fly out the window and I feel a childish resentment. I can feel superior, self-righteous, and yes, critical. I can be thoughtless, insensitive, unsympathetic. I can be a spiritual bully.
We need to see these things because we don’t just hurt ourselves when we blanket our shadows (everything we disown about ourselves) under thick, impenetrable layers. We also hurt others. Because the longer we ignore our own darkness, the more power it acquires to become the very opposite of who our masks proclaim us to be. Thus, self-righteousness and mean-spiritedness thrive beneath Church Lady’s piety; manipulation and control fester under the martyr’s mask; self-pity, sadness and depression hide behind the clown’s face; fear and powerlessness feed the excessive violence of warriors and terrorists; and lustful desires torment those who would be obsessively chaste and pure.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”~Carl Jung
The Western world does not recognize the shadow as a powerful entity in every individual. Most of us will admit to certain flaws, but there are others we simply cannot see. We can easily see our most despised qualities in others, and are usually happy to point them out, but rarely can we admit to their presence in us.
This is not just psychologically ignorant, but dangerous. Our inability to understand and accept our personal and cultural shadows is the reason for our prejudices, hypocrisy, thoughtlessness, cruelty, broken relationships, crime, genocide, terrorism, imperialism, war, and destruction of our environment. The only lasting contribution I as an individual can make to world health and planetary peace is to know my own shadow well enough to restrain it without projecting more darkness into a world that already has enough to destroy us all.
Politicians take note: Killing dragons in the outer world will never free humanity from terrorism and tyranny. The only lasting solution is for each of us to make peace with the enemy within. Everyone has the power to do that.
This video is from my new YouTube series called Dreams as Guides to Self Discovery. You can find the entire 5-part series here on my blog (on the above right of this page,) on my website , and at this link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMS7ZEV9HgLz1wuOVOCkDrLx6YR7ZfQSU Or simply google Youtube, Jean Raffa.
The Tao of Popeye November 3, 2015
It seems I’ve always wanted to know who I am and why I am what I am. I smile as I write these words because they remind me of the very first official Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon: “I Yam What I Yam!”
Remember Popeye? He’s a runty, uneducated, playful, squinty-eyed guy with a speech impediment who sails the seven seas, adopted an infant foundling he calls Swee’Pea, and is in love with a tall, skinny drink of water named Olive Oyl. Unfortunately, his nemesis, the musclebound bully Bluto, is also attracted to Olive Oyl and keeps trying to kidnap her. When Popeye comes to her rescue, Bluto beats up on him until he starts feeling weak. Then he eats a can-full of spinach (and occasionally the can itself), which immediately gives him superhuman strength and problem-solving abilities to defeat Bluto. Usually.
I find two characteristics of this flawed little guy of special interest. First, he has found, and regularly uses, a magical panacea which gives him strength. Second, according to Wikipedia, he has a “near-saintly” perseverance to overcome any obstacle to please his sweetheart, Olive Oyl.
Now of course this is just a silly little cartoon meant to entertain and amuse. But like every story ever told by any human anywhere, there’s also an underlying psychological meaning. Why? Because the way the psyche is made influences our every thought, word, and action. So in psychological terms, I could say that Popeye represents the ego which has embraced the vulnerable inner child (Swee’Pea), found a wonderfully helpful way (spinach) to strengthen and stabilize itself enough to overcome adversity (Bluto), and connected with the inner feminine (Olive Oyl).
Why spinach? Well, when I google spinach I discover that its main nutritional element is iron. And when I google iron I find that psychologically it can symbolize inner strength and the will and determination to see things through to the finish. What is it Popeye always says? “I’m strong to the finich. Cause I eats me spinach.”
But Olive Oyl? Surely the name of this goofy, gangly gal can’t mean anything important, can it? Check it out. Apart from its many health benefits, particularly for the heart, olive oil has spiritual meaning. Olives come from the olive tree, which in the Bible is associated with love and charity. And olive oil was used for anointing kings and priests (earthly and spiritual authorities) and for fueling lamps which, of course, bring light, and by association, enlightenment. So psychologically, Popeye’s beloved Olive Oyl symbolizes the healthy inner feminine authority which brings spiritual enlightenment! I love it!
If you’ve read my earlier posts you’ll know why I can relate to Popeye. I’ve adopted an inner orphan. I strengthen my ego by regularly “digesting” Jungian psychology and dreamwork. I wrestle with an inner bully who’s always trying to steal my feminine authority. And I persevere in my efforts to connect with the Beloved of my psyche. Like Popeye, I don’t always defeat my bully, but I am getting stronger. And like Popeye’s relationship to Olive Oyl, the partnership between my ego and unconscious is by no means problem free. In fact, my failures are sometimes laughable.
But I, too, am determined to be “strong to the finich. Cause I eats me spinach!” I yam what I yam. And that’s becoming okay with me.
Signs at the Crossroads September 8, 2015
“To understand is quick and exciting but to embody is slow and penetrating.” ~John Tarrant
As I write this post I find myself at a crossroads; it’s my last week in our Smoky Mountain summer home. By the time you read this I will have left. Part of my heart doesn’t want to leave this sanctuary; the other part looks forward to returning to my Florida home and family.
Both places hold special charms for me. Here it’s secluded, cool, mountainous, and forested. Everywhere I go I’m surrounded by nature’s wild beauty. My life is slower, less “mental”, more contemplative and physical—perhaps I should say, “embodied.” I have lots of solitude, plenty of time to listen to my inner promptings and do whatever appeals, a large granddog companion to accompany me on daily hikes, and occasional house guests to enjoy and entertain…all at an easy, reasonable pace that feeds my soul at a deeply satisfying level.
My life in Florida has a different kind of beauty with its daily and weekly routines: regular workouts, ukulele lessons, social commitments, holiday celebrations, and fun times with my family, always with enough time left over to write. The pace is faster and more exciting, given Orlando’s thriving and diverse cultural offerings, but since I prefer a minimum of “fast and exciting,” I usually manage to stay within my comfort level there too.
The meaning of events is the way of salvation that you create. The meaning of events comes from the possibility of life in this world that you create. It is the mastery of this world and the assertion of your soul in this world. ~Carl Jung, The Red Book, Page 239.
The thing that makes dividing my time between these two paths work so well is that I’ve finally learned to listen to how I really want to spend my time and to look for meaning regardless of where I am. In Florida I find meaning in my family and friends, writing, music, and art. Here in the mountains I mostly find it in nature, a road less traveled in our fast-paced world.
I’d like to show you what I mean. These are some of the meaningful signs I’ve found in nature during this crossroads week. Each one speaks to how I want to live my life, regardless of where I am.
This morning I saw this magnificent display of light in the bathroom. It came from a single sunbeam that found its way through the slats of the window blinds.
The first thing Izzy has to do on our walks is chase the trout around the pond while I feed them.
As we stepped onto the trail, the trunk and green necklace circling the base of this beautiful old tulip poplar captured my imagination.
The next thing to catch my interest was this unusual curved tree trunk.
Izzy loves to run ahead, nose to the ground, while I like to take my time on the trail. But she doesn’t go far, and before long, she always comes back to check in.
Yes, she does wait for me, but not always where I would prefer!
She also waits at crossroads to see which way I’ll go.
I think she prefers the road less traveled too.
The other day our friend, Sam, found what we’ve decided is an old moonshine jar almost buried beside the new path. Over the years, Mother Nature has turned it into a terrarium filled with green life. We left it there for Nature to do her thing, and to remind us of the history of these mountains. And to enjoy on our next walk.
We were being serenaded by crows near the end of our walk today when I found a crow feather. At the trail’s end I placed it on our Crow Altar.
This last sign came when we returned from town one twilit evening. I heard a loud rustle in the woodpile and saw a hawk fly up to a nearby branch. It peered down at us with interest and patiently waited while I pulled out my cell phone and took pictures.
Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.
Meeting the Mistress of the Forest August 11, 2015
Once I read about a horse that lived in the same pasture for over 30 years, eating the same old tired grass, trying to find shade in the noonday heat under the same scrawny tree. After many years of neglect, the fence that separated this pasture from a lush, grassy meadow studded with beautiful leafy trees crumbled and eventually fell. Stepping over the fallen wood would have been a very simple matter for the horse, yet it stood at the border where it had always stood, looking longingly over at the grass as it had always looked.
I feel so sorry for that horse. It had become so accustomed to its old boundaries that it never noticed when they were outworn. I wish someone from the other side had called it over so it could have spent its final years grazing in a greener, fresher, infinitely more satisfying space.
Many of us have felt our spirits quicken through glimpses of something ineffable in the mist beyond normal awareness and longed to pursue it. But concerns about the judgment of others and habitual assumptions about what we think we should be thinking and doing are not easy to recognize or change. Moreover, the daily demands of life are so compelling that we usually defer our journey into the deeply alluring recesses of the forest until another day.
What are we to do if we do not want to end up like that horse? Luckily we humans have a special someone who beckons to us from beyond our outworn boundaries: she is the wisdom of the Deep Feminine traditionally called Sophia. But to hear her call we need to turn off the constant flow of words and listen with our hearts and bodies.
The promptings that come from this inner being are so faintly heard at first, however strong on their own plane, that we tend to disregard them as trivial. This is the tragedy of man. The voices that so often mislead him into pain-bringing courses–his passion, his ego, and blind intellect–are loud and clamant. The whisper that guides him aright and to God is timid and soft. Paul Brunton (22-1-201)