About Time… how being with kids shifts our perspective

krishna_universeBeing with babies and small children invites us to leave, at least occasionally, the familiar constraints of clock time, and enter into the timeless fluidity of the moment. One minute, we can be entirely focused on a mundane task, doing something we did a dozen times last week, and will do a dozen times more before the week is out. And then something happens to shift our perspective, and through our children’s eyes, we have a dizzying glimpse of something immensely greater than ourselves. How many times a day do we as mothers switch back and forth between these two perspectives, one time-bound, the other timeless? The painting shows the toddler Krishna, whose mother Yahsoda scolded him upon hearing that her had been eating dirt. She asked him to open his moth for her to see. When she looked in her little boy’s mouth, she saw all of creation there.

It seems to me that both the time-bound and timeless perspectives are good and necessary ones. That they are sometimes at odds with each other is merely part of the fascinating tension of mothering. I remember feeling both deeply moved by those moments of timelessness, and also resentful that I couldn’t operate like an adult a lot of the time. I had a dream that I took off my watch to bathe the kids, and then was unable to find it again. It was not a comfortable feeling.

It may at times be difficult for us to allow ourselves to enter the realm of timelessness. Trying to get out the door on time with one or more young children can be exasperating, and it can be nearly impossible to appreciate our children’s wonderful immersion in a world where time means nothing. This will likely be even more true if we are juggling lots of time-bound responsibilities, such as jobs outside of the home. For our sake and our children’s, we will need to take on the role of clock watcher. However, if we can’t allow our children to at least occasionally drop us into timelessness as the young Krishna did for Yashoda that day, then I think we are missing out on a wonderful gift that motherhood has to offer.

The Dark Mother

other motherI love Neil Gaiman’s wonderful short novel “Coraline.” It seems to me that this terrifically frightening book shows how the dark side of the mother archetype is always present in potential. Carl Jung coined the term archetype to describe universal patterns of human experience that are inherent in all of our psyches. He likened the archetype to the crystal structure of molecules. In a solution, the crystalline structure is inherent, and only manifests when the conditions are right for the substance to take form. So these forms exist in potential in us from infancy as part of our human inheritance, and when the right conditions exist, we experience them in inner and outer ways.
Jung also said of archetypes that they always have both a positive and a negative pole, and you can’t have one without the other. The Great Mother archetype encompasses both the loving, nurting Madonna, and the devouring, terrifying witch. If Jung is right, this means we can’t be a mother without experiencing some of each side of the archetype. Likewise, our children will bring with them into the world their own inherent potential for experiencing both good and bad mothering.
In “Coraline,” the young protagonist has an adequate if somewhat disappointing mother. Her plunge in the dark world of the terrifying Other Mother is seemingly precipitated by her own mother’s lack of attunement during a shopping trip to buy new school clothes. Coraline would like the day-glo green gloves, but her mother ignores her, and buys only dreary, practical things. We as readers feel Coraline’s hurt and disappointment. We relate to her feeling of not having been seen or understood on this shopping trip.
Once home from the shops, Coraline’s mother runs out quickly to get something for dinner, and Coraline in her boredom while waiting for her mother to return takes down the key that opens the door in the living room. The door used to lead to another part of the house, but the passageway had long ago been bricked up. This time, however, Coraline mysteriously finds a passage where before there had been just a brick wall. The experience of the Negative Mother has been constellated for Coraline by the disappointment of the shopping trip, and she now has access to the Dark Mother’s world. The passage leads to the fascinating, but ulimately terrifying realm of her Other Mother, a woman with paper white skin, and black button eyes, who wants to devour Coraline.
It’s worth lifting up that we will all, like Coraline’s real mother, sometimes hurt, disappoint, thwart, and frustrate our children, sometimes in ways that are truly damaging. We can’t possibly only embody the bright pole of the archetype. And when we do hurt them, we will likely create the conditions for our child to experience the archetypal Negative Mother. I remember when my daughter was three, and I firmly asked her to clean up after herself. She yelled at me stridently that I was like Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Well, yes dear. I suppose I am. In time, Coraline again finds her “real, wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious mother.”
As real, human mothers, we will at times be both wonderful, and maddening.

Carrying Authority — The Legend of the Gargoyle

gargoyleMy mother was never very good at saying no. When as a teenager I would ask her for something she needed to deny me, it would tie her in knots. She would get angry at me for having even asked. When my daughter became a toddler, we began to have battles over TV. She would scream and cry if I turned it off, and beg for me to turn it on at times. I remember feeling tied in knots. And then one day it hit me like someone throwing a brick through the window. If my kid asked to watch TV, I could say no. She might scream and throw a fit, but I could still say no. All I had to do was hold firm to that one simple word, “no,” and be prepared to tolerate her reaction.

This was the beginning of a new phase in my learning about how to carry authority. Like many women, saying “no” in the face of fierce opposition and then tolerating the other’s unhappiness has never come easy for me. In my late 20’s, I achieved a senior management position at a non-profit. A seasoned employee came to my office with an outrageous request. He smiled, chatted me up, and asked nicely. I said yes. Some part of me knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t even imagine how to say no.

 So having children helped me learn how to say no. I remember being curious as to whether being able to say “no” to a screaming four year old demanding dessert after consuming no dinner would carry over into “real” life. Would I now begin to feel more firmly rooted in my own authority in all areas of my life?
 Several years ago, I had the following dream. I was in a beautiful boutique, and in a lit glass case was a priceless object carved in black stone. It was a gargoyle-type figure about the size of my fist. I somehow knew that it had been carved and used for religious purposes a long time ago. It hung on a cord. I asked the proprietor if I could see it. When I put it around my neck, its eyes began to glow red, and it came to life. It attacked the people I was with, choking off their breath, so that they clutched at their throats. I was frightened, but I fought to control the figure. To do so, I used the same counting technique I used with my strong-willed son when he needed to have a limit set. “That’s one!” I told the gargoyle firmly. It ceased its attack. My companions were alright. I had controlled this fiery power. I felt a little afraid, but also slightly exhilirated. The others in the shop agreed that the totem obviously belonged to me by right.

I couldn’t really figure out how to describe the carved figure until the kids and I were driving past the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and they asked me about the gargoyles on some of the dorm buildings. Then it hit me that the totem in the dream had been just like a gargoyle. “Mom,” my daughter asked. “Are the gargoyles there to scare things away?” “Yes,” I explained. I reminded her about the Chinese New Year celebration we had been to the previous year, where dragons were used to scare off evil spirits. “Sometimes you need one kind of demon to scare off another,” I found myself saying.

This discussion gave me a new appreciation for my dream, and made me want to learn more about gargoyles. It turns out that gargoyles originated with a medieval French legend of a fire breathing dragon-like creature called the “gargouille” that inhabited the Seine, devouring boats and terrorizing villages. Saint Romanus subdued and conquered to creature with the help of a convict and brought its remains back to be burned. The head and neck would not burn, however, since they had been long tempered with the creature’s own fire. This head and neck were hung on the cathedral to serve as a water spout.

It’s significant that the saint is able to conquer the gargouille with the help of an outcast and criminal. The convict in the legend would correspond to Jung’s concept of the shadow. This was the name that Jung gave to those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not know were ours. The shadow often contains elements that are truly objectionable, but also those that were unacceptable to our parents or culture, but may be of great value. Anger and aggression are likely to be in the shadow for many women. Certainly, they have been for me. Just as in the legend, accessing disowned parts of ourselves can help us to conquer our demons in a way that produces something of lasting value. The terrifying gargouille becomes a helpful gargoyle. Its energy is no longer destructive, but can be used for scaring off evil spirits, and channeling water.

 My dream was showing me how, as a mother, I had begun to learn to tap into my own aggression and anger in a constructive way. My anger has always scared me, but in part through my experiences holding authority with my kids, I was beginning to access that side of myself in a way that makes this tremendous power available to the conscious part of my personality.
My favorite quote about motherhood comes from the novelist Faye Weldon, who said that “The most wonderful thing about not having children must be that you can go on thinking of yourself as a nice person.” Maybe one of the gifts of motherhood is that we no longer have to be stuck thinking of ourselves as nice people.

What is Healthy Entitlement?

dress storeDining out with my father, I was always amazed when he would call the waiter over and send something back. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but if he found something that was amiss, he didn’t fret over asking for it to be addressed. There was no drama or doubt about his right to do so. He didn’t worry about being a burden, or offending, or being too demanding.

Watching the easy self-assurance with which he made this request, I was amazed. Because he was so confident and comfortable, the request was always matter of fact. There was no edgy energy attached to it. It simply wasn’t a big deal.

When we feel a healthy sense of entitlement, we can ask for what we need and want in a comfortable, easy way. Our requests are firm, but not shrill; clear, but not tense. When, however, we have stuffed down our feelings of entitlement, they are under pressure, and will pop out with some violence when given the chance.

When our entitlement is in the shadow, we may sneak the things that we want or need, without perhaps even being honest with ourselves that we are doing so. If we have been shamed for wanting or needing things, and have been given the message by our parents or culture that our needs are bad, our entitlement may be stuffed down so hard, and under so much pressure that there is a lot of energy and anger associated with them. In this case, we are likely to alternate between being meek and undemanding, with being at times shrill and overly demanding.

To go back to the restaurant scene, if we don’t feel comfortable in our entitlement to send back the overdone meat, we may be a bit combative or defensive, over-explaining or even over-stating what we found fault with. We might be nervous to send it back, and so keyed up and ready for a fight.

The stereotype of “bridezilla” strikes me as an example of wounded entitlement that has gained too much energy by being forced underground. The stereotypical bridezilla is often a young woman who may not have felt entitled to be the center of attention before, but has secretly longed to claim that. Her wedding gives her carte blanche permission to do so, and the entitlement emerges in an unbridled – and often unflattering – way.

Undoubtedly, a wounded sense of entitlement is a much more common occurrence for women and minorities in our culture. Those who have been disenfranchised by social and cultural norms are likely to find it much harder to claim what should be theirs. But entitlement is an interpersonal issue as well as a political one, and I have known people of all races and sexes to struggle with this. (Admittedly, white men generally have an easier time “recovering” from wounded entitlement.)

A client’s dream that addressed the dual nature of wounded entitlement clarified for me that this is a key theme of Cinderella stories. With her permission, here is the dream:

I am in a store with my sister. There are beautiful dresses made out of brightly colored silk. We are trying them on. My sister takes all of the most beautiful ones for herself, including one that is a brilliant turquoise. I begin feeling sad and desperate. I am getting only the ugly dresses, including one that is patchwork. My sister does not even think about whether or not she should be taking all the best dresses.

My client was consciously identified with the experience of wounded entitlement, which she is very familiar with in her waking life. Though she is in fact an only child, she has an unconscious inner “sister” who feels unquestioningly entitled. These outsized inner experiences of entitlement leave her conscious ego feeling victimized, disenfranchised, and squeezed out of the way because the ego has been disallowed the experience of entitlement.

In all Cinderella variants, there are step-sisters, and the step-sisters always feel very entitled to various material possessions. They also usually feel entitled to make the heroine do their work. The fairy tale mirrors my client’s lived experience and her dream. It is a picture of a psyche which has been prohibited from experience uncomplicated, healthy entitlement. Those feelings have “gone underground,” where they exert pressure on the ego, and make impossible demands of her. Make everyone happy! Do without! Always be nice! Meanwhile, the entitlement that has been disallowed builds up energy in the unconscious.

In a psyche with a Cinderella complex, the step-sisters carry that aspect of the psyche that has disproportionate and misplaced entitlement needs. The entitlement is misplaced because it is imposed on the poor beleaguered ego rather than being appropriately expressed to the outside world. Because a healthy entitlement has been blocked, the inner step-sisters keep dumping on the overworked ego, who is struggling to negotiate the inner psychic demands as well as to please those in the outer world.

There is another level on which this image of disowned entitlement in both the dream and the tale works. If we have been taught by our parents and our culture that our entitlement is selfish, lazy, rude, or unbecoming, then our experience of feeling entitled feels dangerous, ugly, and threatening. Hence, it gets pictured as reprehensible, overstated, and even grotesque. The “step-sisters” are ugly and even dangerous because the ego has allied itself with the view that entitlement of any kind is ugly and dangerous.

The task here is to integrate some of the step-sister sense of entitlement. Note that this is not the same as becoming like them, rather, we need to become a little more like them, move in that direction. In the fairy tale, Cinderella’s sneaking off to the ball in a magically acquired gown is an image of her sense of entitlement coming into conscious awareness. She hasn’t claimed it fully enough to go to the ball without subterfuge. She needs help from the inner positive mother to find her entitlement to go.

In most Cinderella stories, clothing plays a key role. Our choice of clothing of course relates to our persona, or the mask that we elect to wear. There is a clear relationship between persona and what we assert and feel entitled to in the outside world. One sure way to communicate what we aspire to is to “dress the part.”

Integrating healthy entitlement will mean allowing oneself to integrate healthy aggression as well. In some Cinderella variants, aggression is more explicit than others. In nearly all of them, the step sisters fall to some violent fate. This is an image of aggression that is being wielded on the right side of the equation. In some versions, we see the heroine being responsible for this act of violence, a more explicit image of aggression being claimed by the once weary ego.

Interestingly, what allows the heroine in all Cinderella tales the world over to claim healthy entitlement is some contact with the healing positive mother. The answer in all of the tales is for the heroine to have the correct attitude toward the unconscious. When we are too arrogant and demanding of our own unconscious, attempting to force our ego desires, then we will meet with misfortune.

In many version of the tale (including the best known one by Perrault), the climax of the tale is reached when the heroine steps forward and asks to be allowed to try on the slipper. This is an important act. She is not passive any longer. She has integrated some entitlement, and is claiming her right to be allowed to try on the slipper. The tale tells us that she laughs as she slips her foot in, so confident is she.

Literature has given us many fine examples of a similar dynamic in a male psyche, Harry Potter being a ready example. Throughout the series, Harry experience the different stages of healing a wounded sense of entitlement. At first, he is utterly disenfranchised and downtrodden, happy to live beneath the stairs. Later, he progresses to stealing, lying, sneaking and breaking every rule at Hogwarts, much to the delight of the reader. During this stage, which comprises much of the series, he tends to avoid the adults who could help him because he does not yet know that he is entitled to their help and protection. Finally, he is able to openly claiming his role as a leader. As he matures in the last few books, we see him claiming more, directly confiding in Dumbledore and others, and feeling less confused about his right to ask for and receive help.








Can There Be New Fairy Tales?

comikazeThis piece about a panel at Stan Lee’s Comikaze 2015 raises a couple of interesting questions about fairy tales. First of all, can we still call it a fairy tale if it is authored? Traditional fairy tales, of course, have a more collective, informal origin. Can a single psyche give rise to something that has the depth and resonance of a fairy tale?

I think the answer is yes. The clearest example of this is the work of Hans Christian Andersen. While his early fairy tales were re-tellings of traditional stories, he later wrote bold and original stories that accessed the same psychic depths as the authorless tales. Andersen’s stories have clearly entered the canon, and belong beside the collections of Grimm, Straparola, Perrault, and others.

For me, one test of the universality of a story is whether it becomes an important image for individuals. In my consulting room, I have heard many references to Dorothy and her companions in Oz. Clearly, Frank Baum’s story is one that conveys some important psychic truths. Other 20th century stories that have entered the collective deeply would include The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. I am sure there are other worthy candidates as well.

The panel at Comikaze dealt with women characters in modern day “fairy tales.” In some real sense, I think the issue of gender in fairy tales is a false dichotomy. If every character in a tale is an aspect of one psyche, we are acknowledging that the evil queen is not “other,” but that we all have this potential inside us, just as we all have the male hero, the female heroine, or the evil sorcerer within.

Panel member and author Francesca Lia Block mentions Jung’s theories specifically.

“Block explained the significance of Carl Jung’s theory on dreams, saying, “everything in your dream is part of you.” Applying that to the process of creating characters, she believes that the characters are also a part of the writer. Block said that she teaches her students to develop characters by taking a personal character trait and fleshing it out with a name and their physical description to start. “It’s the best moment when the character starts talking themselves.””

When “characters start talking,” we know that we are in touch with an aspect of our own unconscious. That our creative offspring can find their own voice and speak to us confirms Jung’s assertions that our complexes have their own autonomous existence. Our unconscious is peopled with every manner of monster and human, of every possible gender.

Baba Yaga and the Challenge of Darkness. Or, I Love the Smell of Manflesh in the Morning

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

baba yagaJust in time for Halloween, I wanted to write about my most favorite fairy tale character for whom this blog is named, Baba Yaga. If you do not know her, you should. She makes several important appearances in Russian folklore, most notably in Vasilissa the Beautiful.

Baba Yaga is a fearsome, bloodthirsty hag. She rides through the Russian forest in a mortar, pushing herself along with a pestle. Her hut stands on chicken legs, and can turn around at will. A fence surrounds her house made out of human bones, and on every fence post stands a skull with glowing eyes. She is “eats people as one eats chickens.” She is an embodiment of archetypal evil.

And yet, she is also ambiguous. In Vasilissa the Beautiful, we learn that Baba Yaga controls the coming and the waning of the day. She has access to powerful, elemental magic which she can choose to bestow on ordinary mortals if they prove their worth. It is she who holds the secret to overcoming the terrible situation faced by the heroine in the tale, and it is she who possesses the colt that Ivan will need to defeat Koshchei the Deathless.

kaliShe is more than a witch. She is a great nature goddess, possessing the power of both life and death like nature herself. She is an image of the Divine Feminine, that which is capable of ruthless destruction and loving nurturing. She is the folklore equivalent of other bivalent goddesses such as Kali. In this sense, it isn’t correct to categorize Baba Yaga as evil, any more than it would be to describe nature itself with this word. Nature is amoral, sometimes fantastically destructive and cruel, and other times just as life-giving and nurturing. Jung explores this theme in his famous essay “Answer to Job.” In it, he makes the case that Yahweh is unconscious, and therefore amoral. “This is I, the creator of all the ungovernable, ruthless forces of Nature, which are not subject to any ethical laws. I, too, am an amoral force of Nature, a purely phenomenal personality that cannot see its own back.” Evil can only exist where there is consciousness.

Baba Yaga’s grotesqueness and power are illustrative of the problem of dealing with these dark, primordial psychic contents. All of us contain this kernel of darkness. We manage to hide it away from ourselves for the most part, remaining naïve to our own capacity for evil and destruction. What happens when we do confront it? Sometimes, it can destroy us, overwhelming us and turning us into the very monster we sought to overcome. This is a story of the ego’s hubris, the imperial belief that it can colonize and rule over the contents of the unconscious. When consciousness does not approach the archetypal energies within the collective unconscious with sufficient humility, it will be vulnerable to being devoured or corrupted by the darkness therein.

Here, I invite you to watch this delicious award winning short film by my very talented friend Dr. Jamieson Ridenhour called The House of the Yaga. It illustrates what can happen when the ego confronts the heart of darkness. It contains the wonderful artwork of Ali LaRock.

kurtzRidenhour’s take on what happens when we stare into the abyss is similar to Franics Ford Coppola’s. In Apocolypse Now, Captain Willard is assigned the mission to infiltrate the compound of Col. Kurtz who has gone “insane” and set himself up deep in the jungle as a self-styled demi-god. Willard is to confront this evil and terminate it. Of course, whether Kurtz is actually insane or making rational choices in the midst of an insane war is an open question. He has stared into the abyss and seen the truth about our capacity for evil that the rest of us would be happy not to know about. His ability to confront this darkness is what has given him power over his tribal followers, what leads Dennis Hopper’s character to praise him as a “genius.” Kurtz has left aside the trappings of human morality that is valued by consciousness, and lives a life of archetypal evil. Now Willard confronts the same horror. Like Natasha in Ridenhour’s short, the risk is that he will become the successor to the evil he set out to conquer.

larock yagaBaba Yaga is in image of nature herself, capable of great destruction and great creativity. Kurtz and Natasha, however, are human. When a mortal psyche encounters an archetypal force too intimately, it is destroyed. Semele is immolated immediately upon Zeus revealing his true form to her. The ego cannot survive a direct confrontation with the Divine. Such a direct experience is de-humanizing in all senses of the word. Kurtz and Natasha both are robbed of their humanity as a result of their contact with darkness. What they share in common that makes them susceptible to total corruption is hubris. Kurtz has declared himself emancipated from the rules of society. Natasha’s decision to stop and enjoy the soup is naively over-confident.

Vasilissa’s journey into the depths and her confrontation with archetypal evil go very differently, however. She has a correct attitude toward the unconscious – she is humble before it. She is able to use her wits and her mother’s blessing to serve Baba Yaga well, and she does not presume too much upon her. (This is revealed in her being careful not to ask too many questions of the witch.) In the end, Baba Yaga grants her the light she had come to seek. The witch gives Vasilissa a glowing skull and bids her to take it home to her cruel step mother. Baba Yaga is helpful to the heroine. This ambiguous psychic energy is serving the ego here in the interest of individuation. The secret boon that Baba Yaga has to offer Vasilissa is a knowledge of dark things – anger, aggression, and even violence. These are shadowy contents that we must come to terms with and even integrate if we are to grow beyond our innocence complex and claim our own authority.

Baba Yaga is hideously ugly. She has a prodigious appetite. She does not care if she is liked or admired. She is fully authentic in her witchiness. Many older women feel liberated as they age from having to be “nice” or “pretty.” They can be cantankerous and ugly if it pleases them, and this brings with it a kind of freedom and authority. Baba Yaga is able to give the young woman in her care the gift of fiery rage that can protect. When Vasilissa is almost back home to her cruel step-mother, she thinks to herself that they must have found some light already, and throws the skull into the hedge, but it speaks to her, and tells her very directly to bring it inside. When she does so, the eyes of the skull burn up the evil step mother and step sisters who treated Vasilissa so cruelly earlier in the story. Returning home, Vasilissa was about to slip back into her former “nice girl” role, forgetting the dark secrets she learned during her apprenticeship to the goddess. She was going to throw away the aggression Baba Yaga had encouraged her to own. Fortunately for her, she did not do so. As a result, she was able to continue on her individuation journey.

Whether our own encounter with shadow contents leads us to being devoured, burned up, or dehumanized will depend on many factors. In little ways, each may happen to us at different times. To grow fully into whom we were meant to be, we will have to confront these contents.

yaga stewThe dark corners in the soul will forever hold great fascination for us. They inspire fear, horror, but also curiosity and even delight as we enjoy being scared or violating taboos. Titrating our exposure to darkness can help us take in healing doses of it. Allow me to offer another way to enjoy the darkness this Halloween, a special recipe for Yaga Stew created especially for Ridenhour’s short by chef Jenni Field. Be warned! Ingest with caution — and an attitude of appropriate humility toward the dark places in the psyche.

Around the Central Fire

boa“I have my eye on the central fire, and I am trying to put some mirrors around it to show it to others.” C. G. Jung

Thirty people gathered around a circle, lead by a man with a drum. “I believe,” says the man, “that we all met in heaven, and we decided that we would meet in Philadelphia at 7:30 on October 9, and that somebody would bring a drum. And the drum and the myth will remind us of what we knew before we were born, and why we are all here together tonight.”

The man with the drum was Dr. Kwame Scruggs. Dr. Scruggs founded Alchemy, Inc in Akron, Ohio. Alchemy mentors urban male youth using drumming, myths, and fairy tales. Dr. Scruggs had come to present in Philadelphia at the invitation of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. His work with Alchemy has come to national attention in big way over the past several years, and I was looking forward to hearing more about how he uses the ideas of C.G. Jung to bring about healing among urban male youth. I did learn more about that, but I learned so much more as well.

Dr. Scruggs is completely undefended and fully authentic, and the quality of his presence immediately established a sense of temenos, a feeling of being in a place apart from ordinary life. Scruggs shared that, in his work with youth, Alchemy attempts to recreate the healing temples of Aesculapius, and indeed, the temple was invoked. After sharing some of his personal story with us, Scruggs began to drum and tell a myth, recreating the work he does with the youth.

Scruggs told the story of a poor hunter, hungry and desperate. No matter where he set his traps, they turned up empty. He was about to give up, when in the very last trap, he snared a boa constrictor. The snake, however, spoke to the hunter, begging for his life, and promising to make the hunter rich beyond his wildest imaginings if he agreed to spare his life. The hunter had a decision to make. If he killed the snake, his family would eat that night, and he could sell the skin in the market. If he spared the snake’s life, perhaps something even better was in store for him. Should he trust the snake’s offer?

Here, Dr. Scruggs paused, and asked us each to write down what resonated for us in this brief introduction to the tale. After  a minute or two, he invited each one of us in the circle to in turn share what we had written. As we went around the circle for the better part of the next two hours, something remarkable happened. Quakers have a term for what happens when attendees at a meeting for worship seem to tune into one another, and contributions flow into one another, so that members feel mysteriously to each be a part of some larger intelligence. This is referred to as a “gathered meeting.” It is a kind of group mystical experience. This discussion of the myth was just such an experience.

The first person in the circle to speak noted that what resonated for her was the repeated use of the word “trap” at the beginning of the story. Those who spoke next, including me, all seemed to focus more or less on the early part of the exposition, the futile setting of the traps.

Of course, as a Jungian analyst keenly interested in fairy tales, I had my immediate intellectual reaction to the story. But I know well that an intellectual analysis of a tale doesn’t get you very far at all. Fairy tales and myths need to be experienced to be understood. We need to enter them, and to allow them to enter us and work on us. I took note of my emotional reaction to the hunter’s desperate, grasping state of mind. I could resonate with that feeling, when I in my own life become anxious and attached to a given outcome. I can become frantic, trying too hard to force something to happen when maybe it isn’t what needs to happen at that time.

As we continued around the circle, participants were reading what they had written in those first minutes after Dr. Scruggs paused. Even though we had all written down our responses at the same time, and were not discussing the tale in the sense of reacting to each others’ reactions, the comments made by each successive participant mysteriously unwound the tale, like a snake uncoiling. Later participants addressed later parts of the story. There was a gradual deepening of understanding as we went around the circle, until the last few folks spoke with almost oracular clarity about the heart of the hunter’s dilemma at the moment that the story telling paused. They were each reading from their pads, remarking on how unusual it was that they seem to have reached similar conclusions independently.

Their comments pierced me, deepening my understanding of the tale and what it meant for me in a way I don’t believe I would have been able to take in if they had spoken first. Everything everyone had said, including Kwame’s wonderfullly meandering digressions into other tales or stories about himself or Alchemy participants, served to pave the way organically to a collective revelation of the myth by the end of the evening.

Here is a summary of some of the last points made by those of us on the other end of the circle. When the hunter is offered great riches, he is being presented with something that is beyond his ability to imagine. He suffers from a poverty of imagination wherein he has difficulty conceptualizing what might be possible. This lack of imagination can affect us all as we live into our futures. Scruggs gave examples from his own life and those of the youth with whom he works. For many of them, prestigious academic futures were not something they could even imagine for themselves before engaging in the work with Alchemy.

At this point, something dropped down for me. My understanding of the myth on a deeply personal level bubbled up from below, rather than arising from an intellectual exegesis. I saw how my tendency to be fearful about cutting back on my practice to work on writing my book was like the lack of imagination on the part of the hunter. Just as the hunter was being asked to have faith in the vision of the magical talking snake, my faith in myself and my vision of my book is being tested. I could plunge myself back into my practice, just like the hunter could kill the snake. I would be earning more money now, and the hunter’s family would eat tonight. There is an immediate possibility there that provides some momentary security. But choosing this would require sacrificing a higher potential of something not yet known. I am being asked to have faith. Can I let go of my grasping, anxious tendencies and trust what my psyche is calling me to?

Jungians have their own language for what Quaker’s call the gathered meeting. we talk about it as the appearance of the transcendent function, the appearance of the analytic third that arises spontaneously when the tension of the opposites can be held. The opposites were in the room last night — the sober minded hunter of a mind to make the most practical decision, as well as the magical snake mysteriously offering something transcendent and as yet not imagined by the ego. The sacred circle that Dr. Scruggs created invited the opposites, and held them, so that a new understanding could arise.

Healing the Wound to the Creative Self — Rumpelstiltskin

rumpelWhen Rebecca was 12 years old, her father took to audition for the prestigious youth orchestra in their Midwestern city. For years, her parents had enjoyed bragging to their friends that Rebecca was on the road to becoming a concert pianist. When Van Cliburn came to town, her father took her to see him perform, and told her that that would be her one day. Rebecca was not selected for the highly competitive youth orchestra. Her father was silent on the way home. He didn’t speak to her for two weeks.

Much later in her life, Rebecca became my patient, and we worked together to excavate the enormous father wound that had held her captive, leading her to a life of addiction and abusive relationships. The Grimm’s tale Rumpelstiltskin sheds light on the inner landscape of someone like Rebecca. It is a story that illustrates how paternal narcissism can rob a woman of her creativity.

Once upon a time there was a miller who was poor, but he had a beautiful daughter. Now, one day he happened to talk to the king and said, “I have a daughter who knows the art of transforming straw into gold.” So the king had the miller’s daughter summoned to him right away and ordered her to spin all the straw in a room into gold in one night, and if she couldn’t do this, she would die. Then she was locked in the room where she sat and wept. For the life of her, she didn’t have the slightest inkling of how to spin straw into gold. All of a sudden a little man entered the room and said, “What will you give me if I spin everything into gold?”

The miller has few resources of his own, and decides to profit off of his “beautiful” daughter. He boasts about her to the king, almost certainly to make himself look good. Meanwhile, his brag has delivered his daughter to a state where her very life is in danger.

The plight of the miller’s daughter is a poignant expression of what a father wound of this type does to the psyche of a daughter. When paternal love feels conditional – on academic performance, for example – a daughter can feel exposed and vulnerable to crushing feelings of shame and inadequacy. She can feel as if her very existence is at stake.

When a parent has co-opted a child’s interest and talents to further their own narcissistic agenda, that child’s creativity and achievements are no longer at the child’s disposal. They have been made to serve someone else. Their talent can then can feel demonic, as if their mood or sense of self depends entirely on their ability to perform and achieve.

My client Cecily was a talented singer in high school. She loved to sing songs from the Renaissance, and had a sweet, clear tone that was well-matched to that music. As a junior, she was the only person from her school accepted into the All State Chorus, an accomplishment of which she was proud. When she heard the news, the meaning she made from this was that she did indeed have some vocal talent. Her corporate executive father, however, interpreted the achievement differently. He didn’t support her interest in music, and hoped that his daughter would follow in his footsteps and work in the business world. “You really have a competitive spirit!” he told her when she told him she had passed the audition. “You succeed at whatever you try!” Cecily recalls being crushed by this “spin” on her accomplishment. She says it was as if her father took it away from her, and made it something that he could value.

When our creative potentials get split off in order to serve a parent’s narcissistic agenda, creativity can become compulsive, dark, and even dangerous. In his book Ungifted, Scott Barry Kaufman talks about the research on passion conducted by Robert Vallerand and his colleagues. They distinguished between two very different kinds of passion – harmonious passion, and obsessive passion.

“People who are obsessively passionate have lost control of their activity. They feel pressure to engage in their activity either because of contingencies such as social acceptance or self-esteem, or because of an uncontrollable urge. They often can’t disengage until the compulsion runs its course. What’s more, their activity has not been well integrated into their overall self-concept. Their ego is dependent on the activity, and their rigid persistence frequently conflicts with other aspects of their lives.” (Kaufman, Scott (2013-06-04). Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (p. 105). Basic Books. Kindle Edition)

In the research, obsessive passion was correlated with negative emotions such as shame and anxiety. No matter how well someone performed in their domain of passion, the activity did not inspire sustained joy, but was rather a kind of torment. The girl’s desperate effort to spin straw into gold with the help of her split off creative daimon is a powerful image of obsessive passion.

The miller’s daughter has no idea what her own talents or desires might be. She has been told by her father what she ought to aspire to – and it is indeed an impossible task. In fact, she does have vast creative ability, but she is unable to claim it as her own. It appears to her to be outside herself – a grotesque little man, who can work prodigious magic. But just as with any creative process that has become compulsive, it does not feel nurturing and joyful, but rather torturous and impossibly demanding. Rumpelstiltskin keeps upping the ante, taking everything she has in the present, and then finally demanding the ultimate creative offspring in the form of her first-born child.

The miller’s daughter is presented with a harsh choice – perform at an extremely high level, and I will marry you and make you a queen, or fail, and I will kill you. This is very much the choice my client Rebecca had. We can imagine that if she had gained admission to the youth orchestra, her father would have been thrilled, and she would have been showered with praise. Children who grow up in such an environment often find themselves later in life in relationship that recapitulate the childhood wound, as was true for the miller’s daughter. Cecily had a series of hurtful relationships with men, in which she was treated as if she were “never quite good enough.”

The miller’s daughter, of course, does have a child, but is threatened with having it taken away from her, as her earlier creative offspring was. This time, however, she doesn’t give in so easily. Once she is able to accurately name the inner compulsion that has held sway, it loses power over her, and disappears. Psychologically, this is an image of reclaiming one’s creative energies for oneself, allowing them to be experienced harmoniously and joyfully.

The Wooden Baby and the Restoration of Maternal Attachment

wooden baby1I love lesser known tales that vary from the more predictable narratives. The Czech fairy tale The Wooden Baby is a fantastically macabre tale that does not have many common variants. Better yet, it deals with the dark side of parenthood.

A poor couple lived at the edge of a forest. Even though they barely had enough to feed themselves, they longed for a baby. One day, the man was in the forest cutting wood, and he found a stump that was shaped vaguely like a baby. He roughly carved it to look more like a child, and then he took it home to his wife and presented to her as a gift. When she wrapped the stump child in a blanket and sang to it, he opened his mouth and cried, “Mother, I am so hungry!”wooden baby2

So far, this is a familiar tale. There are many stories of longed-for children made from inanimate objects who come to life; girls crafted from snow, and of course a famous literary boy carved from a piece of wood.

In our Czech story, however, things go a little differently. The mother rushes to feed the hungry baby, but he cannot be sated. He eats, and eats, and finally eats her. Then, dad comes home, and the wooden baby eats him. He goes out into the world and eats other people and flocks of animals. Finally, an old woman tending her cabbage patch slices him wide open with her hoe. Of course, everyone who had been swallowed earlier in the story emerges from his giant belly unharmed. The poor couple go home together arm in arm, and we are told that they never again wish for a baby!

There are several different ways to understand this story. For one, it is a snapshot picture of a commonplace experience in parenthood. What mother hasn’t felt devoured by her child? When she is up every ninety minutes nursing a colicky baby who can seemingly never be made to feel happy, she can feel devoured. When her teenage daughter rails against everything the mother does, no matter how well-intentioned and loving the action, the mother can feel eaten up. We have all had our moments when the needs of our child overwhelmed or even frightened us.

On a larger level, the tale explores the psychology of attachment between a parent and a child, and how that process can be damaged by emotional or actual poverty. At the start of the story, the parents have barely enough for themselves, and are told by neighbors that they are lucky they don’t have another mouth to feed. The parents reply that they have managed to feed themselves. Surely, they could also manage to feed a tiny baby. This shows a kind of arrogance. They do not have a sober assessment of the tremendous resources required to raise a child – and we can understand these resources to be both material and psychological. We have all likely known someone who blithely moved forward with having a child even though they seemed in no way able to handle the challenge. Many times, parents who look unprepared for child rearing rise to the occasion, often quite stunningly. But there are times when parents, like those in the tale, naively bring a child into the world amidst poverty, mental illness, addiction, or other factors, and are predictably overwhelmed.

The experience of parental competence is the factor that sets in motion the maternal attachment system. Feelings of panic, fear, dread, and overwhelm are common among new mothers (and not so new mothers at times as well). When she is able to calm her child, to confidently read his cues and provide the needed balm, is when connection starts to solidify. A mother’s experience of her own competence is the foundation of love and attachment for her baby. Without this, the baby only means frustration, fear, and inadequacy.

Psychologists and neuroscientists Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes have written about the neurobiological basis of attachment in parenting. When things are going well between a mother and child, both experience being capable of eliciting joy in the other. This is a powerful experience that helps our brain connect with our heart, lungs, voice, facial muscles, and even hearing so that we may stay exquisitely attuned to our child. The positive reaction that we are likely to get from our child as a result of these attuned interactions helps sustain and strengthen this loving experience of each other.

Neuroscientists are getting a clearer picture of what happens when things aren’t going so well. When a mother has inadequate mothering herself or when she is under stress, her brain’s “threat detection” system is likely to be activated by her child’s distress or perceived anger. This shuts down the brain systems required for connection and attunement, resulting in what Baylin and Hughes call “blocked care.”

When we are struggling with “blocked care” as a parent, our child may indeed appear to us as “wooden.” His suffering fails to mobilize our empathy, and we feel only anger, revulsion, or resentment. The Wooden Baby in this tale is how a child might appear to us when we are in a state of “blocked care.” It is notable that he begins life by complaining of how hungry he is, and even after being fed, is not satisfied. When a parent is unable to soothe a child, and a negative interaction ensues, the mother’s dopamine system may crash, leading to feelings of rejection, anger and frustration. If the mother cannot regulate these emotions in herself, a state of blocked care can occur.

One of my favorite filmic fairy tales addresses itself to this psychological territory. The mother in Steven Spielberg’s AI cannot access her care system toward David, her adopted AI son, once her biological child has been returned to her. Though David is all innocence and love, she cannot see him that way. Like any parent with blocked care, she incorrectly perceives maliciousness, anger, and danger in David’s actions. These perceptions in turn cause her to shut down further toward David, until she abandons him in the wood. Importantly, David is not actually a threat, he just appears to be. When our threat-detection system is activated by a negative interaction with our child, he or she may appear to us momentarily as monstrous. AI, of course, is Spielberg’s retelling of the most famous wooden baby story – that of Pinocchio.

The end of the fairy tale provides us with some clues about how to resolve this difficult parental impasse. It is an old woman tending her cabbage patch who dispatches the overgrown baby with her hoe. Some seasoned bit of feminine wisdom, receptive and connected to the earth, uses her powers of discernment and separation to split open this psychic content that is carrying too much power. She reveals him to be merely an overstuffed tree stump, really no threat at all, restoring psychic equilibrium.

This tale echoes a key scene in the Miyazaki film Spirited Away. No Face begins devouring everyone, terrifying the bath house. It is Sen who knows how to restore him to his rightful size, who can see through the monstrosity he has become and reconnect with his true nature. When our child appears monstrous and devouring to us – devouring of our time, our identity, our energy – it takes a certain earthy, humble wisdom to face our frightening feelings, cut them down to size, and restore our sense of connection.

There is a recent film adaptation of The Wooden Baby by Czech film director Jan Svankmajer. It looks delightfully creepy, and is currently in my Netflix cue.


Finding the Inner Prince

rough facedOur culture loves and hates Cinderella, but mostly we misunderstand her. Either romanticizing or disdaining Cinderella causes us to miss the psychological truth of the story and the chance to reach for its wisdom.

Cinderella is one of the oldest and most universal fairy tales. The Chinese version, Yeh-Shen, was recorded almost 1,200 years ago. There are more than 500 versions of the Cinderella story around the world: African, Native American, Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Asian variants. Surely the story communicates something of great importance.

In today’s popular culture, Cinderella’s stereotyped image of femininity has never been more profitable. Cinderella and other princess dress-up clothes are in huge demand, and Disney Princess (of which Cinderella is a featured member) was the top-selling licensed entertainment character merchandise in 2011, beating out Star Wars and Sesame Street. Princess-themed movies such as 2013’s Frozen are huge financial successes.

On the other hand, feminists have taken issue with Cinderella, resulting in modernist reformations. In The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, Collette Dowling used Cinderella as a symbol for women who depend on men because they lack the moxie to change their own lives. Peggy Ornstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is written from the perspective of a mother of a princess-crazed preschooler. She argues that marketing “girly” values has pernicious effects on the self-esteem of girls. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is a children’s picture book that turns the traditional tale on its head: the heroine, wearing only a paper bag, saves the prince from a dragon. When the prince subsequently scorns her shabby attire, this Cinderella tells him to hit the road.

Cinderellas come into therapy with stories that don’t always end “happily ever after.” Accomplished professional women are inconsolable when they discover that their prince failed to embody their purpose in life. Invitations to explore what the love affair asked them to engage in themselves are met with resistance. On the other hand, some women seek therapy because they are lonely—while simultaneously devaluing their longing for an intimate relationship: “Do I really need a man to make me happy?”

These Cinderellas either over-burdened or under-valued any potential prince. What are we to make of these various misunderstandings of the psychological message of Cinderella? Are we passively to hope that “someday my prince will come?” Or should we assert ourselves and tell the prince to get lost? Both these ways of understanding the tale concretize the prince as an external other instead of understanding the tale symbolically.

A Native American version of the tale, The Invisible One and the Rough-Skinned Girl, points the way to the internal space that all Cinderella stories encourage us to discover.

At the far end of village by a lake lived a mighty hunter who was invisible. His sister lived with him, but he would not marry until he found a woman who could see him. Many approached his wigwam and his sister would ask, “Can you see my brother?” Many tried but none succeeded, so the invisible hunter remained unmarried.

In this village lived a widower with three daughters. The two eldest were very cruel to their younger sister. They hacked off her hair with a knife and burned her skin with hot coals, leaving scars that made her known as the Rough-Skinned Girl. One day the two elder sisters decided to try their luck with the Invisible One in hopes of winning him.

“What is his shoulder strap made of?” asked the mighty hunter’s sister.

“A piece of rawhide,” fibbed the first sister.

“Braided grass,” the second sister lied.

The Invisible One and his sister were not deceived, and sent the sisters back to the village. The Rough-Skinned Girl decided that she too wanted to try her luck with the Invisible One. She had no finery to wear, so she made a dress out of birch bark, and the villagers and her sisters laughed. But the Invisible One’s sister welcomed her.

“My brother comes. Do you see him?” she asked. The Rough-Skinned Girl’s eyes lit up with wonder.

“Yes! I see him! But how can there be such a one?” She went on to describe him: “His shoulder strap is a rainbow! His bowstring is the Milky Way!”

The sister smiled. She gently bathed the Rough-Skinned Girl’s wounds, and dressed her in soft deerskin. The Invisible One took the Rough-Skinned Girl’s hand and they were married. Her disfiguring scars were healed, and she became known as the Lovely One.

This story helps us see that the prince is not a person who rescues women from meaninglessness or restricts them to limited roles. The prince is an image of an inner reality and its potential for connection with something greater. This kind of union—an inner marriage—is what moves us into an experience of wholeness that is transformative. When we understand the story of Cinderella in this way we see her and her prince without sexist or feminist distortions and can welcome union with the truest of princes as a profound experience that is well worth the quest.