Transforming Empathy Into Compassion: Why It Matters

Compassion. Holding Hands. for Empathy blog post

 

On a recent nightly news, I witnessed the tragic scene of a Turkish father wailing over the bodies of his wife and young children who had been crushed under debris from the February earthquake. Tears flooded my eyes and my body bent into the posture of mourning; the emotional distress of a stranger a continent away had become my own. Was this an automatic empathic response, an act of mimicry or emotional contagion? How do these affective states differ?

In “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm define mimicry as “the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person.”[i] If I see you crying, I cry, but my response is automatic and not the result of my ability to feel what you are feeling. In one study, when participants were shown photographs of sad faces, their pupil size mimicked the pupil size of the people in the photographs they were shown.[ii] This provides evidence that mimicry occurs outside our awareness.

Emotional contagion, like mimicry, is related to empathy and is sometimes thought of as a primitive type of empathy in which one person “catches” another person’s emotions. The word “catches” reflects the infectious quality of the phenomena. For instance, before they have developed any sense of an individual self, babies cry when exposed to other crying babies. Anyone who has attended a tense football game or soccer match can feel emotional contagion at work in the crowd.

Emotional contagion can occur at political rallies, in combat zones, in mass protests and revolutions, at public killings, or in ecstatic religious rites. Within families, emotional contagion can set the tenor of a household. A sensitive child may absorb a mother’s non-verbally expressed depression or a father’s pent-up anger and feel it as their own.

A personal experience comes to mind: when my sister was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, I had difficulty separating her family’s panic from my own unexamined feelings and was swept up in the family trauma. At that moment, my feelings were undifferentiated from the family’s. The ability to be attuned to the inner lives of others is a great asset for me as a novelist who delves deeply into her characters’ unconscious fears and desires; but my characters’ problems stay on the page, not in my heart.

An undifferentiated self is unable to identify, protect and separate their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions from those of others. Differentiation requires self-awareness and the ability to know one’s internal world and express it to others without fear. While it’s important to be aware of the emotional state of others, internalizing their distress can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate helpful action based on altruistic love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, current social neuroscience research points to gender differences for men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries. In no country did men score better on “cognitive empathy.”[iii] Cognitive empathy is when someone is intellectually able to understand what someone else is feeling or thinking. Researchers distinguish this from affective or emotional empathy when someone feels another’s emotions and responds with an emotion.  In this test, participants were asked to guess the facial expression just by looking at a pair of eyes. You can take a version of  this ten-minute test here.

Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and is foundational to our existence as social creatures. Without empathy, we would be unable to perceive the suffering of others and take steps to alleviate it. Without empathy, we would feel lost and alone in a cold and indifferent universe.

As Lamm and Singer take pains to note, “Empathy crucially depends upon self-awareness and self/other distinction, that is, on our ability to distinguish between whether the source of our affective experience lies within ourselves or was triggered by the other.”

Mimicry or emotional contagion usually precede empathy which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may lead to prosocial behavior.

But empathy burn-out is also a fact of life, especially for those engaged in caregiving services. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of happiness, compassion, and empathy. Functional MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson has drawn from his research: while the ability to feel our common humanity is essential to a cohesive, caring world, empathy without the skill of compassion diminishes our capacity to be of help.

Compassion is other-centered (feeling for); empathy brings us back to a focus on our own suffering in response to the suffering of others (feeling with). During the height of the COVID pandemic, we saw medical personnel and other front-line workers expressing mental and physical exhaustion, what popular science calls “empathy fatigue.” This is not limited to the helping professions but can occur within families and groups where difficulties may abound.

As Richard Davidson writes, “When people experience raw empathy, regions of the brain associated with pain and negative emotions become more active rather than the brain regions associated with positive feelings and a capacity to view things from another’s perspective. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.”[iv]

To cultivate compassionate regions of the brain, Davidson suggests noticing what small gestures we can undertake when someone needs help—offering to carry a heavy grocery bag for an elderly person or aiding someone in crossing a busy street. Infinite possibilities exist for enacting daily random acts of kindness. Dr. Davidson and other spiritual teachers offer guided meditations on fortifying the neural networks for compassion. Big changes are not necessary to alter our attitude and understanding of how individuals can contribute more fully to a more compassionate world.

[i] Singer T, Lamm C. The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 81-96

[ii] Harrison, N. A., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., et al. (2006). Pupillary contagion: Central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing. Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci., 1, 5–17.

[iii] Greenberg, David M. Sex and age differences in “theory of mind” across 57 countries using the English version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, PNAS,  September, 2022

[iv] Davidson, Richard “Shift from Empathy to Compassion,” Healthy Minds Innovations, December 8, 2020

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?” and “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination”.



Self-Sabotage: Which Parts of Ourselves Are We Fighting?

No. 48 The Seven Vices: Envy (Detail) (1306) by Giotto (1266–1337) for Self-Sabotage blog post

 

Are you old enough to remember Heaven’s Gate?  On March 26, 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff’s department entered the Rancho Santa Fe compound in San Diego and discovered 39 dead bodies laid out on bunk beds. Wearing identical outfits, a square purple cloth covering their heads, the deceased had belonged to a religious cult called Heaven’s Gate. Members believed they were chosen to ascend to a “Higher Evolutionary Level.” To accomplish this, they were told they needed to leave their bodies, humanity, and the planet behind. When the Hale-Bopp comet came closest to earth, their leader assured them a spaceship would arrive to bring their souls to the “Next Level.”

The thirty-nine found were people of different ages and cultural backgrounds—successful businessmen, mothers who had left their families, pastors and nurses —some had been living together for twenty years. Eight of the eighteen dead men had elected to be castrated to be “more pure.”[1]

Image of comet C/1995 O1 (Hale-Bopp), taken on 1997 April 04, shortly after perihelion for Self-Sabotage blog postThis horrific ritual mass suicide provokes questions. What compels seemingly rational people to adopt wildly irrational beliefs? What makes us willing to forfeit our autonomy and agency and succumb to a set of rigid ideological or religious rules that cause harm to ourselves and others?  In “Programming the True Believer,” a 2020 post on Psychology Today, Dr. Matthew J. Sharps considers three specific cognitive cult dynamics that could explain Heaven’s Gate: disassociation, group psychology, and cognitive dissonance.

In a 2017 interview, Benjamin Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion and Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College, speculates that “The same demographic forces (that helped spawn Heaven’s Gate) are still at work. People are looking for truth, meaning, community, and not finding it in existing religions. So, they look for new ones or form their own.”[2]

The Heaven’s Gate suicide pact was extreme, shocking, and unique. However, in our own struggles with powerful impulses and destructive behaviors we may recognize the phenomenon of self-sabotage. Self-sabotage is when we consciously or unconsciously act against our own best interests, harm ourselves emotionally or physically, and block our way to success. In “Self-Sabotage: How to Recognize and Conquer It,” a 2020 Psychology Today post, Dr. George S. Everly helpfully identifies eight self-defeating patterns.

Often, we frame our struggle with self-sabotage as an inner battle between a good part of ourselves and a bad part, a part we feel helpless to change, as with addiction. Instead of a bullying cult leader, we face an internalized commando, a severe critic, or a self-defeating behavior or attitude.

Early in the last century, Sigmund Freud experimented with hypnosis to delve into his patients’ unconscious minds, hoping to uncover and release repressed memories of trauma. His student and later rival, Carl Jung, devised a method of self-interrogation called Active Imagination in which a person dialogues with a dream or visionary figure to gain access to its revelatory knowledge.[3]

Later, Fritz Perls contributed his theory of Gestalt therapy to psychotherapy. One method used by Gestalt therapists is the empty chair technique. A client sits across from an empty chair and dialogues with a part of herself or himself or with another person, like a parent.[4]

Empty Chair (2016) Photo by Thomas James Caldwell. Each of these approaches supports a holistic attitude toward the Self: we are more than what we consciously know about ourselves, and we are more than our parts. As Walt Whitman famously wrote: “I contain multitudes.”

Today, the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapeutic model builds on the work of these early psychoanalytic pioneers. IFS theorizes that we embody “parts,” sub-personalities or families within our mental system, which vie for power and attention.

In IFS practice, no part is labeled “bad” but is understood as acting to protect a more vulnerable part. However difficult our struggles and no matter what destructive actions we have perpetrated, uncovering the vulnerable part, honoring its experience and feelings, and giving it a voice is a crucial aspect of the work.

The Internal Family Systems Institute website lists their stated principles:

  • It is the nature of the mind to be subdivided into an indeterminate number of subpersonalities or parts.
  • Everyone has a Self, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system.
  • The non-extreme intention of each part is something positive for the individual. There are no “bad” parts, and the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles.
  • As we develop, our parts develop and form a complex system of interactions among themselves; therefore, systems theory can be applied to the internal system. When the system is reorganized, parts can change rapidly.
  • Changes in the internal system will affect changes in the external system and vice versa. The implication of this assumption is that both the internal and external levels of our system should be assessed.[5]

We can’t know what drove the individuals who participated in Heaven’s Gate to commit ritualistic suicide. We can conjecture it was some combination of external brainwashing techniques, unconscious longings, and existential needs. Beliefs dictate action. A complex web of dysfunctional and distorted beliefs no doubt contributed to the participants’ fatal capacity for self-sabotage. We might say that in seeking to evolve spiritually to a higher level, they lost touch with what was available to them within. This reminds us that we must understand and accept that we are not creatures locked into the binary labels of good or bad, but complex, nuanced, ever-evolving beings striving for unity and wholeness.

Addendum: As a writing exercise, find a picture of your child or teenage self. Sit with it in silence and gaze into the child’s eyes. What do you see? What message does that child want to tell you? Write in your journal for fifteen minutes without stopping.

References

[1] Dan Weisman, “26 Years ago, Heaven’s Gate Couldn’t Wait,” Escondido Grapevine, January 23, 2023

[2] John Wilkens, “20 years later, Heaven’s Gate lives on — via internet, scholarly debatesSan Diego Union-Tribune,  March 18, 2017

[3]What is Active Imagination?” on carl-jung.net

[4] Dr. Ryan Howes, “Cool Intervention #9: The Empty Chair,” Psychology Today, January 20, 2010

[5] The Internal Family Systems Model Outline on IFS-Institute.com

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Seven Principles for Recovering from Trauma

A lone Desert Marigold for recovering trauma blog post

A conversation with Jungian therapist and rabbi Tirzah Firestone about epigenetics and recovering from trauma

Today I’m delighted to welcome Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone for another information-packed conversation together. (See “Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing” and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma” for our earlier conversations).

Dr. Firestone is a Jungian analyst, rabbi, and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, whose research is on recovery from trauma, including the mechanisms of inherited trauma. In the revised edition of her deeply wise book, Wounds into Wisdom, Dr. Firestone draws on the latest neuroscientific and psychological findings, interweaving them with compelling stories of trauma and healing, to offer readers hope, understanding, healing, and the means to discover how suffering can be transformative.

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for recovering from trauma blog postDale Kushner: There is a lot of new biology out there that is changing how we think about health, lifespan, trauma, and our genetic inheritance. Your recent book explains this in a way that I found very accessible to non-scientists. Can you give us an overview here?

Tirzah Firestone: There is a lot of fascinating research going on. The last ten years have given us much more insight into the growing field of epigenetics, which studies the impact of life’s stresses on our genes’ activities.

We used to think that our genes were the major determinant of our health, our lifespan, the diseases we would get, etc. Now we know that our genes are incredibly responsive. They answer to the environment in which we live. Depending on our stresses, there are a host of epigenetic mechanisms that turn our genes on or off. Scientists call this gene expression.

So, for example, if you are living through a war, or have lost your home, or a parent dies, or some other traumatic life event is occurring, your genes will adjust to these environmental stresses by means of epigenetic mechanisms that act on (epi means upon or above) the chromosomes. They tell the genes what to do.

Epigenetics draws on clinical studies with mice and rats, demonstrating that stress and struggle can imprint not only on us but upon future generations. For example, early nurturing patterns by the mother, for example, have been shown to pass to grand-pups and great-grand-pups, even when they had never interacted.

In a study from Emory University,[1] mice were exposed to a sweet smell, acetophenone, and then received an electric shock to their feet. Associating the two, whenever the mice smelled the smell, they became fearful and froze. Amazingly, their offspring—even the grandpups who had never met their grandparents or been exposed to the smell or shock—showed panic in the presence of the smell.

These offer evidence for what many of us have been intuiting for a long time, that stresses and traumas experienced by our ancestors influence us, say in our resilience or lack thereof, several generations later.

But epigenetics also speaks to the impact of socio-economic stresses on entire ethnic groups. Moshe Szyf, a very prolific epigeneticist, shows how gene expression differs among those who grow up well-off vs. those who grow up disadvantaged, making the latter group more vulnerable to a host of diseases and shortened life spans.[2]

“Children of War” (2022) Graffiti in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Photo by Rasal Hague for Recovering from Trauma blog post

DK: Your own research is on recovery from trauma. Can you tell us about your study and findings?

TF: My study was on Jewish people from around the world who had gone through extreme traumas such as war, racial and religious discrimination, the loss of a child to terrorism, and such. My focus was on those who were able to go through the many stages of healing and integration and come out transformed by their traumas.

I discovered among all of them strong common denominators. But there is no one formula for trauma healing! Every one of us has a unique trajectory for our healing. My thirty years of experience in the healing field tells me that human beings are intrinsically primed for healing. We get directives from the inside that tell us what we need to do to work through our traumas and come back into full life.

DK:  Can you share with us today the seven principles that emerged from your research? 

TF: Yes, I’d be happy to. These are common denominators that I found in my research subjects who thrived again after their tragedies, having transformed their lives.

  1. Facing the loss
    More than anything else, directly facing our losses initiates the process of healing. This first principle means resisting our friends’ well-intentioned urges to get back to work or “get on with life.” We must give ourselves the gift of time and ride the waves of our pain.
  1. Harnessing our pain
    Once we face our losses, we may encounter intense pain. Because trauma disconnects us from our bodies, there’s a tendency to numb out. The alternative is to re-inhabit our physical selves. Physical exercise and self-care are paramount here. Pain made conscious can turn into fuel.
  1. Finding new community
    We may find ourselves changed by our trauma, feeling that there is no going back to how we used to be. Now we have to find people who understand us. Because traumatic experiences often leave us with a sense of shame or isolation, finding authentic connections with people who can hear and hold us compassionately is essential. The people I worked with felt a need to build a new social network, to find other like-minded people.
  1. Resisting the call to fear, blame, and dehumanize
    Unprocessed trauma can leave us permanently defensive. The human tendency to “other” people around us is the obvious next step. But that leaves us isolated, self-righteous, and lonely. Those who do the hard work of healing their traumas succeed in melting the walls of separation and resisting hatred for those who hurt them.
  1. Disidentifying from victimhood
    One of the main keys to trauma recovery is agency, the inner sense that we are in charge of our own lives, and we can shape their outcome.
  1. Redefining specialness
    One of the legacies of trauma can be the feeling that we are different, alone, and separate. But these feelings can flip into their opposites: feeling special, chosen, superior, for what we have gone through. One of the most important takeaways from trauma healing is that human beings are interdependent, that our healing depends on one another.
  1. Taking action
    Trauma recovery means facing what has happened directly and deeply mourning our losses. Then—and for each person there is their own internal timing—some kind of work or meaningful action in the world emerges.

DK: Our interview will be appearing around the holidays and just before the new year.  Do you have any special advice for readers at this time of year?

TF: Yes, holidays can be a particularly challenging time of year, especially for those of us who are raw from losses and traumatic upheaval. We are often bombarded by family or lack of family, outward cheer that doesn’t match our inner felt sense, and so many distractions that pull us out of our own inner experience. Take alone time to feel your feelings, journal, take walks, move your energy to let off steam, and avoid excesses like sugar, alcohol, or recreational drugs that unground you. Main point: This is the time for doubling down on our self-care. Stay in touch with yourself and lead with self-compassion!

References

[1] Dias, B. G. and Ressler, K. J. (March, 2014). “Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations.” Nature Neuroscience 17:89-96

[2] Nada Borghol, Moshe Szyf, et al., “Associations with Early-Life Socio-Economic Position in Adult DNA Methylation,” International Journal of Epidemiology 41, no. 1 (February 2012): 62-74

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



How Dreams Help Identify Areas We Need to Address

"Tartini's Dream" (1824) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). Illustration of the legend behind Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata." for dreams as compensation blog post

Exploring Jung’s revolutionary idea of dreams as compensation

One of the physiological marvels of our species, which we share with animals, is a process called homeostasis. The word means “steady state” and refers to how our bodies adjust to internal and external changes to maintain a dynamic equilibrium of our systems. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, homeostasis is “any self-regulatory process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival.”

To adjust to external temperatures or to fight an infection, our bodies shiver to raise our internal temperature or sweat to lower it. When we ingest sugar, our pancreas secretes insulin to help us balance glucose in our blood. Our blood vessels contract or expand to direct blood flow as needed. None of these functions are under our conscious control any more than sneezing or itching.

One of the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s most significant concepts was that our psyche seeks this same kind of balance between our consciousness and the unconscious and that our brain uses dreams as the psyche’s self-regulatory system. He proposed that one of the functions of dreams is to compensate for our conscious thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs by providing a different point of view through dream imagery.

Tree and Its Roots in Yin Yang Symbol for dreams as compensation blog postBased on his work as a psychiatrist at the Burghöizli Hospital in Zurich, and analytic sessions with his private clients, he concluded that by presenting repressed and archaic archetypal material from the unconscious, dreams offered a remedy to the one-sidedness of ego-consciousness. This led to his concept of dreams as compensation.

In The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Jung wrote:

The unconscious content contrasts strikingly with the conscious material, particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual. The more one-sided his conscious attitude is, and the further it deviates from the optimum, the greater becomes the possibility that vivid dreams with a strongly contrasting but purposive content will appear as an expression of the self-regulation of the psyche.1

Consider this simple example of the compensatory function of dreams and how it might benefit the dreamer: a client carries a low opinion of herself and struggles with depression. During this period, she dreams of a grammar-school teacher from her past who praised her creativity and determination. This memory has been excluded from her conscious mind but returns in dreams to remind the dreamer of her forgotten potential buried under the depression. After working with these dreams in therapeutic sessions, she finds new energy to enroll in painting classes and reunites with her creative energies.

In his wonderfully engaging new book The Four Pillars of Jungian Psychoanalysis, the distinguished Jungian analyst, Dr. Murray Stein, includes a chapter on dreams that clarifies Jung’s notion of dreams as compensation. He writes:

The unconscious is another realm with a life of its own, and often it runs quite contrary to what is going on in the world of consciousness. When a person is sleeping, another type of thinking is taking place that is different from waking thought. Dreams can give us important information about what is going on within ourselves and about possible developments for the future. But beyond that, and more important for the outcome of analysis, is that dreams build the way to psychological wholeness.2

Working with dreams and using dream interpretation to decode their symbolic content can lead to the transcendence of repressed material and the renewal of the self. As Dr. Stein suggests, we might ask ourselves, “Why this dream at this time?” What the unconscious brings forward, he further suggests, depends on the present state of one’s consciousness. Viewing a dream as compensatory medicine, we then might ask ourselves: what wound or trauma is the unconscious aiming to heal?

Salamander from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry (Emblem X from the "Book of Lambspring" (1679) for dreams as compensation blog postSeveral months ago, during a difficult time of personal questioning, I had a dream in which a salamander became a healing talisman I was to wear around my neck. When I awoke, the oppressive feelings that had been haunting me were gone. Salamanders are not creatures I commonly encounter in my daily life, nor do I think about them, and yet a numinous and magical salamander appeared in my dream. The dream, in turn, changed my relationship with my feelings. Later, when I looked up the symbolic meaning of salamander, I was amazed to discover salamanders have long been associated with totems of transformation.

The nature and function of dreams continue to provoke spiritual, scientific, and psychological debate. However, in honoring their symbolic meaning and potentially healing function, we resource the hidden treasures in our depths that can alter our relationship to our inner world and restore us to a more balanced life.

What images, symbols, or dream-stories are knocking on the door of your consciousness?

References

1Jung, Carl. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Volume 8, p 346. Princeton University Press. 1970

2Stein, Murray. The Four Pillars of Jungian Psychoanalysis, Chiron Press. 2022

You may also be interested in my other recent blog posts about dreams

Dream Incubation: Solving Problems in Your Sleep

Dream Disturbances: The Healing Function of Bad Dreams

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: Changing the Ways We Adapt

Ripples and bubbles on water for treating Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part Two of Two

In Part One of my interview with trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute, we discussed how Brad and his colleagues distinguish between PTSD and complex PTSD. In Part Two, we explore how NARM’s NeuroAffective Relational Model addresses the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma. Brad and Dr. Laurence Heller outline the therapeutic framework of NARM in their new book, The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma.

(Note: This is the second of a two-part  interview)

You are currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute. What does NARM stand for? What is your working definition of trauma?

NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, which is a model designed by my long-time mentor Dr. Laurence Heller, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience.  But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas.

NARM’s five core needs and their associated core capacities for treating complex PTSD blog postWe use a developmental framework that describes five Adaptive Survival Styles which are ways we learned to adapt to attachment and environmental failures early in life. These styles form the blueprint for our adult personalities.  We focus on five specific developmental stages early in childhood when the Self is just being shaped, and the ways that attachment and other environmental failures impact healthy development in each of these stages (which we are learning so much about through the Adverse Childhood Experiences research).  The way that our brain and bodies adapt to these early traumas – specifically through shame – leads to various levels of often profound Self-disorganization and creates various symptoms, disorders, and syndromes.

In Part One of our interview, you identified the important differences between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD. How might the treatment for each differ?

I am biased as to how I’m going to answer this question since I have been a somatic psychotherapist and trainer now for over two decades. I believe that any form of trauma healing must involve the body. Many of my colleagues have been pushing back against the more prominent “evidence-based approaches” that are usually derivatives of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and which demonstrate questionable long-term efficacy. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, continues to be a best-seller ten years after it was first published. Many people intuitively, and experientially, know that talking and thinking about our issues only take us so far. To make true and lasting change, they have to shift deeper internal patterns.  This is where somatic approaches come in.

I have practiced Somatic Experiencing for over twenty years now and I find it to be the most effective model out there for PTSD.  As I continued to seek models that worked more specifically with attachment, emotional, and relational trauma, I found NARM, which I believe is the most effective model out there for treating C-PTSD.

Please tell us what you mean by a person having “agency.” Why is it a game-changer?

The simplest way to define how we use the concept of Self-Agency is to highlight the various ways that individuals organize and relate to life experiences.  Agency is a by-product of secure child development where a child progressively experiences themselves more as actors in their life than simply passive conduits for life experience.  Other models may refer to related concepts such as Self-Activation, Self-Actualization, or Self-Realization.

When a child has experienced developmental trauma, they experience everything as just happening to them. They feel helpless to change not only their external conditions but also how they feel internally. Children may grow up feeling out-of-control (i.e., lack of impulse control), reactive (i.e., affect dysregulation), fragmented (i.e., dissociative self-states), and fragile (i.e., decreased sense of resiliency).  Their lives are significantly impaired by their inner sense that they cannot self-activate, let alone change the way they feel or how they relate to the world.

NARM is grounded in an inquiry process that explores Self-Organization – how clients are organizing their internal worlds, and then relating to both their inner and outer experiences, in ways that either support connection and health or lead to disconnection and disease.

Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences for treating complex PTSD blog postFor example, your client shares a story about their experience at work last week where they were walking in the hallway and said “hello” to a colleague they were passing, and the colleague didn’t say hello back. Immediately, your client started feeling worthless, unliked, and lonely, and then started telling themselves that “I’m stupid and no one will ever like me.” They use this experience to justify why they withdraw from social interactions and experience social anxiety and depression.  However, they later found out that their colleague had just received a text from a family member of a sudden loss in their family, had been in a state of shock, and not even heard your client say hello. Your client describes shaming themselves for having such a strong reaction, saying that “I’m stupid for telling myself that I’m stupid based on this situation.”  This cycle of shaming oneself for shaming oneself can go on and on.

As we help clients begin to gain greater awareness of the unconscious and often automatic ways they are organizing their inner reality and relating to themselves and the world through self-shame, self-rejection, and self-hatred, they begin to experience more possibilities for organizing and relating to themselves differently. This is not just a cognitive process. It entails working psychobiologically to shift long-standing personality patterns that keep shame-based identifications intact.

Collective and intergenerational trauma are vast and necessary subjects worthy of discussion. Individuals can’t change their ancestry, and in many cases, individuals cannot change their marginalized status or persecution within a society. Can the NARM program help people traumatized by an unchanging trauma-inducing culture?

I know from my own personal experience, as well as years of clinical experience, that NARM does impact unresolved cultural and intergenerational trauma. We focus on how clients are relating to the “unchanging trauma-inducing culture” that they are born into and are still part of.  For many people, the concept of “post” in post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t truly exist.  Many people are still living within and adapting to environmental failures, including sustained oppression, violence, and dislocation.  And yet despite these traumatic realities, we see individuals and communities cultivating health and well-being within.  It is inspiring to watch as people stop defining themselves by how others define them and embody their own authentic humanity.

I see our modern times, at least in the U.S., as defined by a widespread failure of empathy.  We care less and less about our impact on others.  This leads to relationships based on objectification and systems reinforcing dehumanization. The social fabric is rapidly dissolving, leaving an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection in its wake.  To counter this reaction, NARM supports the development of authentic empathy.  As we help people develop an increasing capacity to relate to themselves and others through acceptance and compassion, they begin to shift their own internal objectification and experience themselves as more fully human. This increased sense of humanity allows people to begin to shift the way they are relating to their family, community, and cultural systems.  So while it will likely take time, I do believe NARM can impact larger changes within society.

(Read Part One: Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”)

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”

Azalea flower with stones Photo: Solange Cabe / CC0 Public Domain for Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part One of Two

I can’t remember the first time I heard the word trauma. Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? When did “trauma” enter popular parlance? Was it after 9/11? I recently learned that there are now 6,000 podcasts with “trauma” in the title. Are we somehow in the midst of a trauma epidemic? Or does this reflect our growing understanding?

Trauma refers to a wound to the psyche or the body or both. We now know that not only experiencing trauma oneself but witnessing trauma or being told about a traumatic event can be traumatizing.

Brad Kammer for Complex PTSD blog postTo help us understand one of the emerging approaches to diagnosing and treating trauma, I’m delighted to introduce my guest, trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute.  NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, a treatment model developed by Dr. Laurence Heller, Brad’s long-time mentor, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  “In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience. But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas,” he explains.

Brad brings to his work a holistic approach that includes body-oriented therapies as well as a deep knowledge of attachment theory and survival styles. He and Dr. Heller recently co-authored The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma. In a world reeling from destabilization, violence, hatred, and suffering, Brad Kammer and his colleagues at NARM present an opportunity for healing and hope.

This will be a two-part interview.

When many of us hear the word trauma, we think of soldiers, people caught in war zones or natural disasters, but you make a clear and valuable distinction between what you call shock trauma and relational or developmental trauma. Can you explain the difference?

It is difficult to differentiate because as humans we experience both shock and relational traumas, often at the same time.  For example, a parent who physically hurts a child will create a shock trauma reaction in response to the physical violence in the context of the relational failure of the parent not protecting or keeping their child safe from harm.

This is an extremely simplistic way to differentiate it – but in my teaching, I often use this as short-hand to distinguish between PTSD and C-PTSD: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of fear, and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of shame.  While there is certainly much overlap, research suggests there are different neural circuits responsible for fear than for shame.

The example I often use is you’re walking in the woods and a bear jumps out at you.  In that very moment, you’re not worrying about your relationship with the bear, you just want to survive.  So your brain will bypass the emotional, relational and cognitive centers and go straight to activating the hyperarousal centers of the brain in order to optimize your chances for physiological survival.  Mortal threats activate the fight/flight response.  This is experienced through fear.

Now imagine that the threat isn’t a bear jumping out of the words; it’s your parents, and each day of your life you feel that your sense of security in the world, and within yourself, is not welcomed or supported, but may be dismissed, undermined or attacked.  This puts you into a bind – as young children, we cannot run or fight against the people we are 100% dependent on for our survival.  While these threats may not be immediately life-threatening like the bear, we still have to find ways to survive the ongoing, persistent failures of in our development.

Humans are designed to be connected to themselves and others.  When connection to self and others becomes fraught with pain and danger, we use various strategies to disconnect from ourselves and the pain that we experience internally.  One such process involves the way we relate to ourselves through shame and self-rejection.  We internalize the failures of our early environment and personalize them as our inherent failures.  These shame-based identifications form the foundation of our personality development.

For so many people, they don’t even consider this “trauma.” I have had so many people – not just clients, but mental health and other healthcare professionals – push back that we are broadening the term trauma too much.  “This is just life” they say, or “This is just how childhood is.”  But minimizing and dismissing the effects of these failures is itself a sign of unresolved trauma.

My mentor used to say, “In a world of bent-over people, the one standing upright looks strange.”  So I push back on the notion that we use trauma too broadly. I argue that we don’t have a broad enough understanding of the impact of unresolved complex trauma.

What are some other ways in which PTSD is different from Complex PTSD?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Pyramid shows how adverse childhood experiences are related to risk factors for disease, health, and social well-being. For Complex PTSD blog postAs the trauma field continues to evolve, we have begun to more clearly differentiate between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).  PTSD, which is sometimes called “shock trauma,” is generally caused by one-time events like accidents, assaults and natural disasters, and leads to hyper- and hypo-arousal in the nervous system that creates symptoms like intrusive images, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance and dissociation.

C-PTSD is generally caused by relational and social failures, and leads to disorganization and insecurity in one’s sense of Self, as defined by the three symptom categories that include affect dysregulation, negative self-concept, and interpersonal disturbances.  Developmental trauma, a subset of C-PTSD, is generally caused by adverse childhood experiences that impact a child’s development.  NARM was created specifically to address C-PTSD, focusing on attachment and developmental trauma, but also working with larger social failures such as cultural and intergenerational trauma.

A word cloud of vocabulary related to PTSD, in the outline of a human brain.  Q / CC0 Public DomainThe trauma-informed field has been rapidly growing over the past 40 years since the first introduction of PTSD into the DSM in 1980.  While this field has made tremendous strides, our understanding of complex trauma has lagged behind.  Trauma pioneer Dr. Judith Herman suggested that PTSD doesn’t go far enough, and presented “a new diagnosis” in her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery, which she called C-PTSD.  And yet here we are in 2022 and we still don’t have an official complex (C-PTSD) or developmental trauma disorder (DTD) diagnosis in the United States.  This means that so many people are being misdiagnosed, or at the very least, are being treated for secondary issues.  What if many of the symptoms and disorders we see in our clients are driven by unresolved early trauma?  This changes the way we look at diagnostic categories and even challenges how we currently view psychopathology.

As we describe in our work, maybe it’s not about “what’s wrong with you,” but about “how have you adapted to what happened to you?”  For many of us in the trauma field, we see many “symptoms” and “disorders” as understandable reactions and adaptations to abnormal conditions and environments.  This is particularly true for children and how they have learned to adapt to persistent failures in their early lives.  These are not one-time traumas that can easily be resolved.  This is the territory of complex trauma, and it truly is very complex to understand.  It is also challenging to treat.  This is why we need comprehensive therapeutic models that understand how to identify, navigate and address this complex territory.

Part Two of our interview will be posted next month.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Dream Incubation: Solving Problems in Your Sleep

Constantine’s dream, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD prompted his conversion to Christianity. For dream incubation blog post

What if we could direct our dreams? What if we could ask our dreams for solutions to our most pressing problems and receive important answers while we sleep? What if we could deliberately seed our unconscious mind to evoke helpful dreams?

This is the territory of dream incubation, a practice dating back to Babylonian civilization and extending into our current time. The ancients developed their own language and explanations for human behavior, and they well understood the relationship between trauma, memory, creativity, healing, and dreams. As their descendants, we are the recipients of their knowledge,  and today discoveries in neuroscience and psychology expand the old understandings. Depth psychology shares with shamanic and other dream interpretation traditions the practice of extracting meaning from symbolic dream images. (Why do I continue to dream about a burning house? What does the image mean?) Innovations in imaging technology and brain studies bring to dreamwork new insights about the anatomy of dreaming and techniques to manipulate dreams for purposeful answers or to alleviate nightmares.

One reality about dreaming, however, has remained constant since human existence: the unconscious mind is inaccessible to the conscious mind. Dream incubation, then and now, is an attempt to connect the dreaming “me” to the wakeful “me,” and to access the valuable insights hidden within.

“Dickens' Dream" (1875)  unfinished painting by Robert W. Buss (1804-1875)  Charles Dickens Museum, London/Public DomainI recently had a surprising experience with dream incubation. After reading Machiel Klerk’s easy-to-follow book, Dream Guidance: Connecting to the Soul Through Dream Incubation, I asked for a dream to help me understand my feelings of abandonment that had no discernible cause. That night I had a joyful dream of getting a puppy as I young child. In the morning, a long-buried memory of a painful childhood incident flashed into my mind.

When I was nine, after much pleading, my parents bought me a puppy. It was love at first sight. One day about a month later, I arrived home from school to discover the puppy was gone. Heartbroken, I asked my parents what happened. They told me the dog had run away. I went to my room and sobbed, convinced the dog would not have run away if she loved me. Feelings of failure and abandonment took root. Years later, my father confessed they did not want to take care of the dog and gave her away. The emotional repercussions of his lie never occurred to him.

My challenge is to untangle the symbolism in the dream, its meaning and relevancy to my life now, but I doubt I would have had the dream and the morning recollection had I not incubated a question to the dream maker. I use the term “dream maker” as a personification of that which is in our unconscious minds that composes and directs our dreams.

Graph showing the passage through the four principle phases of sleep over the course of a night. Portions marked in red indicate REM sleep. Kemsters/GNU FDL. For Dream Incubation blog post.The root of the word incubate is the Latin incubare, (in-‘upon’ + cubare ‘to lie’), referring to how a mother bird sits on her eggs with patient nurturing attention, an apt image for nurturing our dreams. Harvard professor Deirdre Barrett straddles the worlds of academic psychology and neuroscience. Over the last decades, she has been a chief investigator in dream research. Her newest book, Pandemic Dreams, explores how collective traumatic events such as the COVID pandemic, 9/11, or the experiences of POWs in Nazi prison camps share similar patterns or motifs in dreamers’ nightmares. In a previous book, The Committee of Sleep, she delves into how the dreams of creatives in art, science, and technology have informed their work.

Here’s a brief recap of her instructions for incubation:

  1. Write down the problem or question and place this by the bed. Be clear, specific and brief.
  2. Review the problem or question for a few minutes just before going to bed.
  3. Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image. For instance, if you are experiencing a sense of isolation, imagine yourself alone in a house, looking out a window wearing a sad face.
  4. Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you are drifting off to sleep.
  5. Keep a pen and paper—perhaps also a flashlight with a red lens or pen with a lit tip—on the night table. I use a small Dictaphone.
  6. Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed.  Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible.  Write it down.

Depth psychologists Machiel Klerk, Stephen Aizenstat, Robert Bosnak, and others recommend creating a ritual around dream work. Ritual played a crucial part in dream incubation in antiquity. The ancient aspirants were advised to sleep in a sacred precinct—a temple, or the Asclepions in Greece, or in tombs, as was the custom of the North African Berbers, or on mountaintops favored by indigenous peoples. The idea was to retreat to refuge or sanctuary far from the daily world. Today sleep experts concur, and recommend creating a calm, darkened, digital-free space used only for sleep.

Dormio tracks your transition into stage 2 sleep and interrupts it, suspending you in a semi-lucid state.  Source: Fluid Interfaces group, MIT Media Lab/CC BY 4.0. For dream incubation blog post.If rituals around dreaming harken back to earlier times, the latest research in sleep provides new discoveries about what happens during the four stages of sleep. Scientists have determined that the non-REM 1 stage called hypnagogia, an interval between wakefulness and sleep when our brain is transforming electrically and chemically as it enters unconsciousness, is a time when we are most suggestible to outside prompts.1 The prompts may be in the form of spoken words, which become visual images in our minds. These images enter our dreams. Positive suggestions played on audio tapes become lived experiences through dreams. New therapies that track dream stages and provide auditory biofeedback (Targeted Memory Reactivation) are being employed to interrupt nightmares and guide the dreamer to rewrite disturbing dreams.2

The combined efforts of researchers and depth psychologists have reawakened a primal wish in us to befriend the wise dream-maker within. Together, neuroscience and depth psychology are two portals into the mystery of dreams.

References

1 Adam Haar Horowitz, “Dormio: A Targeted Dream Incubation Device,”  Consciousness & Cognition, August 2020.

2 Francesca Borghese et al., “Targeted Memory Reactivation During REM Sleep in Patients With Social Anxiety Disorder,” Frontiers of Psychiatry, June 2022.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Dream Disturbances: The Healing Function of Bad Dreams

Gustave Doré Iilustration for Little Red Riding Hood for Nightmares blog post

Archetypes abound in fairy tales, dreams, and nightmares. What do they mean for you?

“Granny is ill,” says the mother in the fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood,” handing her daughter a basket of food for the ailing old woman. Wearing her red cloak, the little girl skips off on the path through the woods to granny’s house.

Along the way, Red Riding Hood meets a wolf. He tricks her into telling him her destination, then races off to grandmother’s and gobbles up the old woman. When Red Riding Hood arrives, the wolf is in granny’s bed wearing her nightclothes. Peeking out from beneath the covers, granny looks odd! We know the fearsome litany. What big arms you have, Grandmother! What big teeth you have! Even young listeners at this point get prickles up their spine and understand that Little Red Riding Hood must flee. But Red Riding Hood disregards the signs of danger and is soon devoured by the wolf.

Walter Crane illustration for Little Red Riding Hood for nightmares blog postIn her ground-breaking book, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estés discusses naïve women as prey and the common fairy tale motif of the animal groom. According to Pinkola Estés, the animal groom in a tale is “a malevolent thing disguised as a benevolent thing,”1 a shadow aspect of our psyche. This type of character, wolf or human, represents an inner predator. Unrecognized, this predator can destroy us, but recognized and confronted, it can lead to an awakening of the strong Self that faces down self-destructive tendencies.

Do not talk to strangers. Do not stray from the path. Do not open the door to strangers while we are gone. (The seven dwarves to Snow White.) Here are my keys, but never unlock that closet door. (Bluebeard’s Castle.) Fairytales pulsate with warnings. Trickster spirits—embodied by greedy witches, calculating wizards, and charming wolves—appear without fail. Trickster spirits pop into our lives as well, mercurial figures that enchant, bewitch, attract. The role of the animal groom or other destructive figures in fairy tales is to wake us up to our need to not be easily deceived or to fall into a clever trap, and to our sense of agency.

Fairy tales transport us to a timeless space in which we inhabit the domain of eternal situations—abandonment, displacement, poverty, orphanhood, war, childbirth—and meet archetypal figures, basic human types like the good daughter, the jealous sibling, the feckless father, or wise old woman that have existed across time and cultures. In dreams we may also meet archetypal figures in the shape of robbers, wicked queens, authoritative kings, kindly animals or trees, and dream figures also serve an alerting function: to awaken us to our personal unconscious, to very real situations mirrored in our psychic lives. The dream clown (archetypal figure) has the face of our first boyfriend (from personal memory) who reminds us of our current boyfriend and the uneasiness he inspires (a present situation that needs attending to). The great dream theorist and depth psychologist, Carl Jung, wrote: “The dream shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is. “2

In dreams as in fairy tales, disturbing or brutal images capture our attention. That is their purpose, to rouse us from our habitual ways of seeing and knowing, to alarm us enough so that we sit bolt upright in bed and ask: What is going on in my life?

Walter Crane illustration for Cinderella for nightmares blog postJung believed that healing images lie within. Dreams, he assessed, are “small hidden doors in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul.”3 When we study our dreams, we discover the personal motifs, patterns, and themes that actively, though unconsciously, govern our lives. They are our own private fairy tales in vivid color calling to us from within. Revisiting fairy tales, especially ones we are drawn to, can shed light on our own complexes, and provide insight into the images that appear in our dreams. Do we identify with the abused Cinderella taunted by her female kin and find ourselves dreaming of a waif in rags? Are we self-sacrificing? Waiting to be transformed by a godmother? Are we the youngest son competing for our father’s attention? The tales that attract us may give us a whiff of our psyches and appear in some variation in our dreams.

If the haunting images in fairy tales stalk our sleep, and nightmares awaken us, heart thumping, the mood can sometimes carry over into the next day. Neuroscience research on nightmares and other night terrors has enlarged our understanding of what is going on in the brain. For example, researchers have found that in post-traumatic nightmares, a type of nightmare in which a real traumatic event is relived, the amygdala, the structure deep within the brain associated with fear, is overly sensitive. In other types of nightmares, researchers speculate on a neurological fear circuit involving the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.4 Knowing the anatomical mechanism of nightmares aids clinicians in creating specific therapies to help clients work with disturbing dreams, such as rewriting or reframing a frightening dream and meditating on a positive ending.5

Gustave Doré illustration for BluebeardLet me invite you back into your dreams. If you have tried keeping a journal of dreams and stopped, begin again. If you are exploring dreamwork for the first time, consider this moment a pivotal time to turn within. Whatever you record in your dream journal has value—entire dreams in all their specificity, snippets of dreams, single images or words, associations, doodles, drawing, graphic comics—whatever comes, welcome it.

Record the feeling associated with the dream, both in the dream and upon awakening. If certain feelings and moods continue throughout the day, note them too.

Another way to work with dreams is to make a list of the characters in the dream including non-animate objects like a train, a suitcase, the landscape, rainclouds. Notice where there are conflicting needs and desires between the characters. The train may tell you it’s on a strict timetable. You can ask yourself: Where in my life am I on a strict timetable? How do I feel about this? Notice which characters answer readily and which are hesitant to speak or remain silent. Do these exercises several times over a week and notice what changes in the responses.

Regard whatever comes to you as the vastness of your innate wisdom asking to be heard.

 

Notes

1  Pinkola Estés, Clarissa, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype

2 Jung, C. G., “The Practical Use of Dream Analysis”, Collected Works, 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy.

3 Jung, C. G., The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man,” Collected Works,10: Civilization in Transition

4 Nielsen, Tore, “The Stress Acceleration Hypothesis of Nightmares,” Frontiers of Neurology, June 1, 2017.

5 Tousignant, O. H., Glass, D. J., Suvak, M. K., & Fireman, G. D, “Nightmares and nondisturbed dreams impact daily change in negative emotion,” APA PsycNet 2022

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Alternate Visions of Motherhood

Momentum (2019) by Kate Langlois for motherhood blog post

Ma-aaa!

In almost every language, a variation of mama is a baby’s first sound-word. And rightly so. The infant’s wail signals an urgent need, a summons to a nurturing maternal presence. To consider the cry being unanswered you must imagine a world without mothers, without nourishment, a world of unthinkable despair.

Mothers represent birth, life, sustenance, and the continuation of the species. In the symbolic world, Mother Earth embodies the mother principle. Numerous indigenous myths partner her with Father Sky. The two principles, matter and air, (matter/material from the Latin mater or mother) combine to create life. Father Sky provides sun, wind, and rain that replenish the earth, but all living things depend on the benevolent fecundity of Mother Earth to flourish and grow.

Our human roots are in the soil. Like most life forms, we spring forth from the earth and are dependent upon her for subsistence. In our conventional world, the Great Mother is not part of our daily reality. We no longer believe in the spirits of trees or the souls of animals. We know her through myths and fairy tales. “The archetype is, so to speak, an ‘eternal’ presence,” Carl Jung wrote in his Collected Works, “and it is only a question of whether it is perceived by the conscious mind or not.”

Across cultures, the Great Mother manifests in dreams and visions and artistic renderings and in inarticulate movements within our psyches that touch mind and heart.

Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics (29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE) for Motherhood blog postIn her idealized form, the Great Mother is a loving goddess, a good fairy or fairy godmother. (Think Disney’s Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.) She watches over us, recognizes our longings, sends helpers. Sometimes she appears disguised as a wise old woman or kindly animal, a protective she-bear or a lioness that pops up in a dream. All power and magic are hers; what we lack, she supplies. She sees our situation, knows our needs. We never feel abandoned or alone. Whether we face internal or external chaos, enemies, tricksters, or evil forces, her strength, her courage, her fortitude support our efforts. She is loyal to us, unconditionally. In the most archetypal, primitive layers of our psyches, we believe in her existence. The idealized good mother/Great Mother is abundant Nature herself, all-giving, all-loving. She is super-human, a far cry from the flawed and fallible women who gave us birth.

In her destructive aspect, the Great Mother steals into our lives as the bad fairy who causes us to prick our finger on a spindle and sleep for a hundred years. She is the evil stepmother disguised as a friendly apple-seller. She is the shadow side of our feminine nature, vengeful because society does not accept her ferocity, her passion, her power. She is therefore despised or ignored. Much to society’s peril. But that is another story.

With our outer world broken and in decline, feelings of helplessness and confusion increase, and we are in need of a caring, comforting maternal guiding spirit that can offer refuge and restore our faith in our capacity to adapt and re-vision a future.

Inhabitants of the ancient Roman world looked for help from the Goddess Cura, or Care. According to Hyginus’ Fabulae, it was Cura who shaped clay into human form. Cura asked the god Jove to blow his spirit into the clay, and he agreed. But when she wanted to name her creation after herself, Jove objected and insisted it be named after him. While they were arguing, Earth rose up and demanded it be named after her since she supplied the clay. They asked Saturn to arbitrate. He ruled that since Jove gave the creature breath, he shall reclaim the breath after death. Earth, having given it body, shall reclaim the body. But because Cura first shaped the creature, she will possess it for as long as it lives. And it shall be named “human” because it was formed from earth (humus).

The myth tells us about the relationship between humans and care. Human beings are the creation of Cura. Her care and devotion are her lifelong gifts. Our educated modern minds easily distinguish between the factual and the mythological, between the symbolic and the literal, and yet because the universal motifs and patterns in tales energize the unconscious layers of our psyches, we are strangely comforted by them.

However, we look to science to fortify and confirm ancient truths.

Wire and cloth mother surrogates for rhesus monkey infants, from Harry Harlow’s “Nature of Love” experiments (1958) for Motherhood blog postStudies in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology support what the ancients knew about our innate need for mothering. In the 1950s, American psychologist Harry Harlow’s now classic laboratory experiments with rhesus monkeys concluded that for healthy development babies needed more than food from their mothers. Comfort, companionship, and love proved to be equally important for an infant’s healthy physical and mental survival. Harlow’s revolutionary experiments built on the research of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby who studied the effects of institutionalization on child development, especially the traumatic impact of separating infants and young children from their mothers. Their work led to a deeper investigation of parent-child bonding and encouraged a greater understanding of how infants attach to their caregivers and led to more sophisticated theories about attachment styles.

As our institutions tumble and fail, as we suffer destructive new weather patterns, face diminishing financial resources, and are unable to find or afford healthcare — fear, anger, and anxiety escalate. COVID, too, has altered the landscape of mothering. Especially during periods of stress and instability, we need maternal care and comfort from those who embody a mothering presence. Overburdened and lacking government or community support, mothers and caregivers who are tasked with overseeing family life, children’s at-home education in addition to earning a decent wage are now speaking out.

On social media platforms, in print journals and novels, in grocery aisles, laundromats and on park benches, the subject of motherhood is provoking confessions, arguments, and bonding. An online search of the subject reveals dozens of books that address the frustration mothers are experiencing. Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson. Or the competitively assuring, The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp.

I sympathize. As a young mother, I entered graduate school not knowing exactly what I’d signed up for. As it turned out, that decision was more than choosing a career path; it was a life-changing event that opened me to undiscovered parts of myself. A conflict arose between my creative and domestic selves.

The writer needed silence, solitude, enormous energy, opportunities for adventure, muses, and the time and space to explore the hidden tunnels of Self. I was prompted to go down into the darkness to discover self-truths that had the potential to de-stabilize my identity.

My role as a mother demanded opposite qualities: predictability, stability, sacrifice, endless patience while enduring boredom and mind-boggling repetitive menial tasks. Above all, being a mother meant I needed to provide a constant loving presence for my children. It struck me then, as now, that the Greek goddesses, much like other pantheons of female deities, represent different and sometimes warring roles in our unconscious. Aphrodite (Venus), the love goddess. Demeter (Ceres), the Mother. Artemis (Diana), the solitary virgin huntress who lives in the wild. (The Goddesses in Every Woman).

At times, I was lost, frustrated, but I was also lucky. My children came into this world with exuberant spirits and abundant resilience. My husband abided with me; I had resources. Today’s mothers are burdened in ways I was not. School shooters were not a daily reality. “Pandemic” was not part of my vocabulary. Institutional safety nets, while not sufficient, allowed me to believe universal childcare and healthcare would soon be offered. My wages were not great, but we had hope. If anything, we mothers earnestly believed our efforts to improve the conditions of motherhood would bear results.

A foundation of hope may be part of our survival equipment. Has hope for our future disappeared? How do we mother our families as well as the greater community when we ourselves are exhausted and depleted? How do we address empathy fatigue? What are the collective values around “good mothering”? What does it mean to be a good mother to our family? To our country and our communities? We are both the frightened, tired, angry infant wailing in the darkness and the competent, alert, responsive, cherishing mother lifting that child to comfort and soothe.

To paraphrase Jung, the face we turn toward our unconscious is the face that turns toward us. If we view the world through the lens of fear, hostility, violence, how can we expect a wise, loving, and caring universe to reflect our gaze?

What we seek is a model of mothering that is not confined to gender or role identity and that benefits both the individual and the community. One I’ve found that comes closest to that is set forth in a transformational book titled: Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth by Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. The introduction addresses the critical differences between the dominant Western anthropocentric, materialistic worldview with its emphasis on rigid hierarchies of race, class, gender, dualistic thinking, and individualism versus a worldview that acknowledges nature as sentient, benevolent and composed of biocentric interconnected systems. The contributors to the book are tribal wise men and women who call us to the maternal care of the planet and each other, prizing mutual dependence, humility, gratitude, generosity, and community welfare over competition and personal gain. This book holds many voices. There are other visions, other pathways to transformational change. Angeles Garbes’ book, Essential Labor: Motherhood as Social Change, calls us to a new perspective on motherhood.

Jung proposed that if we hold the tension between two opposing ideas or choices, what feels like an impasse eventually births the spark of a third thing, a fresh spark from the unconscious that transcends the opposition.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



What The Shadow Knows: What Part of Yourself Do You Reject?

People Shadow Photo by Purity of Spirit/Public Domain for Shadow blog post

 

In 1932, a new radio show called The Shadow, adapted from a popular pulp fiction magazine, premiered on the nation’s airwaves. Its narrator, Frank Readick, had the perfect menacing voice to embody the show’s protagonist. Lamont Cranston, a rich man-about-town by day, morphed into the indefatigable and invisible crime-buster, The Shadow, when summoned to uproot evil. The show’s signature line was: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” A sinister, knowing laugh followed. Audiences were mesmerized. In later episodes, the young Orson Welles voiced The Shadow.

Ad for The Shadow radio show (1934) CBS Radio/Public DomainIn the thirties, the economic and emotional effects of the Great Depression still lingered in the public’s mind. Awareness of the spread of fascism in Europe and its threat to democracy captured headlines. The country was ripe for entertainment that provided a character endowed with superhuman powers and knowledge of enemy-defeating esoteric practices. In our own troubled times, media icons, cult stars, and a handful of political figures attract similar projections. Wishful thinking, a collective sense of doom, nostalgia for a previous (and non-existent) innocent era, and a rejection of the hardships of change have elevated certain leaders to savior status.

in Jungian terms, the “shadow” refers to those aspects of ourselves we reject. They remain hidden from our conscious mind but often appear in dreams as fearful or hated figures. Whenever we have a strong hostile reaction to a person or to an idea, or feel overly self-righteous, we can be sure the shadow is at hand, showing us something about ourselves we do not wish to see. That’s because the shadow presents a threat to our ego ideal, the good personality with which we identify.

We play out the tension between our ego ideal (I am a smart, respectable, dutiful, kind father, daughter, wife, son) and the reality of our more complex wholeness, which includes split-off aspects of the Self, in our personal relationships but also on the broader stage among religious or ethnic groups and among nations.

J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson sitting in beach lounge chairs, circa 1939. J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI who served under eight presidents, offers an example of someone in conflict with his shadow. A notorious homophobe, he was instrumental in persuading Present Dwight Eisenhower to ban gays from all government jobs. For decades, Hoover engaged in illegal wire-tapping and spying activities against his enemies and kept extensive dossiers on their sexual and private lives. His rationale was that he was upholding the values and laws of this country. After his death, several of his biographers found evidence that Hoover was himself a man of secrets and lived a closeted gay life.

No one likes to feel vulnerable, humiliated, or ashamed. No one wants to show their neediness, but all humans share the same instincts and emotions. If we can bring compassion to the disowned parts in our own psyche, we have a better chance of extending compassion to others who are needy, hurt, vulnerable.

The aspects we deny in ourselves are not always negative. Some psychotherapists refer to a “golden shadow,” disowned unconscious energies that fuel and are necessary for a vital life. A young man may cut off his creativity as a dancer to conform to some societal or family norm. A young woman may fear being too brainy or too assertive to fit stereotypes reinforced by her upbringing. Our personal shadows are shaped by individual experiences but also by the society and family in which we live.

When shadow material is guiding our thoughts and actions, we’re inclined to see the other who carries our projections as all bad. What we cut off in ourselves we see outside of us and respond by attacking those traits in others with displaced aggression. In some instances, this leads to scapegoating, a process in which we attribute all the “badness” to another person or persons who are persecuted and exiled from the dominant group. When we own our split-off parts, we no longer need to project them onto others.

Shadow puppet theater likely originated in China or India in the first millennium BCE. Monkey King character in a Haining Shadow play. Image by Cat’s Diary/CC 4.0I’ve written before about Jung’s concept of the shadow (“How Facing Our Shadow Can Release Us from Scapegoating”), and it’s a topic worthy of further exploration. Jung’s contention was that through the inner work of recognizing and owning our shadow and integrating it as part of one’s totality we can hope to balance our personal nature and prevent the repressed aspects from spilling out into the world. This is one of the ethical dilemmas of our time, a global era that is ripe with fear, hatred, and blame.

What we don’t realize is that the battle between opposites is within us. Locked away in our unconscious mind are unacceptable drives, fantasies, and beliefs that appear in dreams as dangerous invading forces—thugs and vigilantes, the figure of an arrogant neighbor, a Nazi soldier, or the ex-partner we demonize and disdain. In biblical stories, fairy tales, and literature we can easily identify the polarized parts: Cain and Abel, God and the Devil, wicked stepmothers and innocent stepdaughters, derelict fathers and victimized children. Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello and Lady Macbeth are two of the most fascinating evil characters in literature. With our more aware social conscience, we might question why the great bard made Othello a person of color and a scheming woman the engine of tragedy in Macbeth. Jung suggests that our task is to peer within, to acknowledge the shifty, malevolent, or frightened parts and make them our allies.

As a novelist, I pay a lot of attention to the shadow aspects of my characters, what they don’t know about themselves but which the reader will learn by reading the book. I am each character’s psychoanalyst, digging deeper into their psyches to reveal the driving forces and the points of conflict in their being. In early drafts, I think I know what’s going on in their internal lives, but just as in analysis, it takes time and great patience for a character to reveal herself to me. Sometimes I’m saddened by what I learn. Sometimes I have a great “Aha” feeling when the contradictions in their actions and words cohere and make sense.

When we say writing novels is not for the faint of heart, we mean that as writers, we are deeply invested in the world we’ve created. We expend vast amounts of time and energy in the act of creation. We want our characters to evolve and grow wise. But since art follows life, and life can’t be counted on for producing happy endings, so neither can we guarantee fulfillment for our characters. In The Conditions of Love, for instance, part of me wanted troubled, self-centered Mern to reappear reformed later in her daughter’s life, but Mern wouldn’t have it. Instead, resilient Eunice had to grow independent and find love on her own.

How can you recognize your shadow? Notice when you have a spontaneous and disproportionate response to a person, an idea, or a group. Take some time to entangle what has agitated you. What characteristics do you find most problematic in the other? Where might they live in you?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Feeling and Thinking: How Logic and Emotion Shape Who We Are

The Tree of Emotions, Desires, and Attitudes. for Emotion blog post

 

Have you ever been in a meeting, about to make a presentation, and your heart starts to thump? You tell yourself: Calm down. Take a deep breath. You hear your mother’s voice telling you you’re too emotional. But the trapped bird in your chest just won’t chill.

Or, do you pride yourself on making decisions based on “just the facts”? Do you refer to yourself as a logician, a stoic? Have you been chided for being too much in your head, not enough in your heart?

Western culture sometimes divides us into being either “feelers” or “thinkers,” binary labels for dichotomous personality types. At least since the Greeks, we’ve prized rationality over emotion, relegating the latter to the bottom rung of our psychic life. We’ve been conditioned to consider hunger, sexual desire, and the emotions the baser instinctual drives, inferior to willpower and intellect, the markers of “high civilization.”

The extremes of the Greek gods: Apollo (the intellect) and Dionysus (the senses) for Emotion blog postIn The Dragons of Eden (1977), Carl Sagan laid out a three-part model of the human brain that reinforced this hierarchy of functions. In this model, our brains evolved in layers. The oldest and deepest layer is the reptilian brain, the seat of our basic survival instincts. The second or middle layer is the limbic system, sometimes called “the emotional brain.” The outermost layer, the most sophisticated and most recent part of the brain, is the neocortex, thought to be responsible for rational thought. Emotions were located in the lower two strata and deemed counterproductive, even damaging.

Until recently, there were few challenges to this model of the human brain. But new imaging techniques and advances in neuroscience have overthrown the old understanding of brain anatomy — and even introduced a new field of study designed specifically to address the role of emotions: affective neuroscience.

In his new book Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking (2022), author and theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow makes a solid case for a more nuanced understanding of brain interconnectivity and the role emotions play in our lives. A marvelous storyteller, he illustrates through anecdote and current research the myth of objectivity: we do not make decisions, the best decisions, solely with our logical minds. On the contrary, emotions are always part of our decision-making process, whether we are aware of them or not.

View of the brain from front and underside showing amygdala and hippocampus, both involved in processing emotions Emotions, Mlodinow explains, are intricately networked within our brains. He points to studies in affective neuroscience that indicate that the way our brain processes information cannot be divorced from emotion. He writes: “While rational thought allows us to draw logical conclusions based on our goals and relevant data, emotion operates at a more abstract level—it affects the importance we assign to the goals and the weight we give to the data. It forms a framework for our assessments that is not only constructive but necessary.”

Simply put, emotion helps us judge and place value on the facts.

An overwhelming negative emotion can alter our view of reality. But logic alone is limited. Sometimes what you are trying to cope with has more nuances than a systematic or rational approach can apprehend.

In his Teaching Company course “Questions of Value,” philosopher Patrick Grim distinguishes between facts and value. “One could have a complete factual picture of the universe yet not know the first thing about value,” he writes. “One could know all the facts about the history and methods of execution and still not know whether the death penalty is justified.”

Our feelings not only connect us to others and to the natural world, but they help us determine what is important to us and why.

Most of us are aware of how we habitually respond to certain situations: Do we go with our “gut feelings” or do we analyze the pros and cons? As a novelist, I dive deep into my characters’ personalities so that I can write them from the inside out. I have to ask myself, is this a person who will act calm and collected, but throw up the minute they walk out of the room? Trying to understand the emotions of the characters I create leads me to deeper self-knowledge and the desire to do more research into our fascinating human world.

Consider this: on January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, presided over a meeting of fifteen high-ranking Nazis, eight of them scientists. One of the participants was Heydrich’s advisor on Jewish policy, Adolf Eichmann. The reason for the meeting, later called the Wannsee Conference, was to discuss the Fuhrer’s plans for the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, the Final Solution.

For several hours, with utmost precision and logic, the men at the conference discussed methods of transporting massive Jewish populations to crematoria as well as methods of mass extermination. The scientists and technocrats at the Wannsee Conference were embroiled in a discussion of facts—the facts of the evacuation of Jewish populations, the facts of how many people might be transported, and how could they calculate the cost, in Reichsmarks, of human slaughter. If there was an emotional outburst or response from any of the participants, it was not recorded. These were men with a job to do, the job of genocide, and they reported for duty with measured thoughtfulness and interest.

In Plato’s allegory of the Chariot, Reason (the charioteer) must control the white horse (boldness) and the dark horse (desire) for Emotion blog postHistory offers us this chilling example of logical thinking divorced from emotion and its consequences. The current humanitarian tragedy inflicted by a despotic ruler upon the population of Ukraine offers another horrific example.

These are the grimmest pictures of logic split off from feeling. We shudder and think ourselves incapable of such dissociation, but what should we expect when we continue to encourage boys not to cry or girls not to show anger? What today’s neuroscience is showing us is that we make better decisions when we acknowledge and integrate our emotions into our thinking. We don’t have to choose.  Emotions ignored become troubling emotions. Logic by itself is incomplete. Being sensitive to and expressing how we respond to circumstances emotionally are key to self-awareness and a few giant steps toward a balanced life.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



When Our Dreams Feel Like Warnings: Precognition, premonition, or coincidence: Are our hunches real?

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot for Precognition blog post

 

About three years ago, I started a series of poems in the voices of women caught in war. These poems arrived with absolute clarity, as if the speaker was sitting beside me, clutching my hand. First, there was Maria-Isabella, whose husband had gone to join the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Soon after, Marieke from the Netherlands and Myriam in Lebanon confided their urgent war stories. The poems that followed felt as if I were channeling. Later, they became part of my new book of poetry, M.

When I read these poems now, while images of wounded Ukrainian women and children haunt the media, the hair on the back of my neck goes up. My poems now seem prescient. Had I foreknowledge of what was to come?

How to explain this?

The Dream of St. Joseph (c. 1645) by George de la Tour for precognition blog postIn one study, a third to a half of the 1,000 surveyed reported having “anomalous” dreams1. Many of us have premonitions, warning “flashes” that alerts us to an unseen danger or a fortuitous event. Perhaps we dream about a plane crash and cancel our flight. The next day, scrolling our newsfeed, we read about a plane crash. It’s not the plane we would have taken, but we’re chilled by the coincidence. One of the difficulties in substantiating precognitive events is how do we untangle precognitive knowing from mere coincidence?

In 1966, in the village of Aberfan, Wales, an avalanche of coal waste from the Merthyr Vale Colliery poured down the mountainside, engulfing Pantglas Junior School and killing 144 people, 116 of them children in their classrooms. The scope of the horror spurred an inquiry into whether the disaster might have been prevented or foreseen. A consulting psychiatrist, J. C. Barker, decided to investigate.

According to reports, Dr. Barker “approached Peter Fairley, Science Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, who became an immediate ally in what developed into a nationwide investigation. One week later, Fairley published an appeal in the newspaper on 28 October 1966, requesting any persons who had experienced a premonition or dreamed of the tragedy before it occurred to get in touch. Widely syndicated in the national and psychic press, over the following two months Barker and Fairley received letters from 76 people all claiming to have experienced dreams or premonitions of the Aberfan disaster before it occurred. Some of the reported premonitions were so vague and indefinite that Barker judged there was nothing linking them with Aberfan, but 60 were deemed worthy of further investigation.”2 Here is a chilling recounting of a tragic dream by one of the children who died.

One of the saddest and most poignant dreams had been noted by the family of Eryl Mai Jones, aged 10, a pupil of Pantglas school who was killed in the disaster. Two weeks before, she had suddenly told her mother: “Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.” Her mother replied: “Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?” “No,” Eryl said, “but I shall be with Peter and June” (two schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother: “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently: “Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.” The child replied: “No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, her daughter went off to school as happy as ever. That morning her mother was also due to go into Pantglas Junior school soon after her daughter, but curiously, just as Eryl Mai Jones left her home for the last time, the clock stopped at 9.00 am. As a result, her mother mistook the time, delaying her and saving her life. 3

Precognition derives from the Latin, praecognitio, “to know beforehand.” Precognition is the ability to obtain information about a future event, unknowable through inference alone, before the event actually occurs. A truly precognitive experience can only be confirmed after the fact. Research on paranormal phenomena is often flawed and difficult to obtain. For one thing, laboratory settings are not conducive to producing paranormal phenomena on-demand. Pinning down the mechanism of precognition is difficult partly because the idea that a future exists prior to our experiencing it pushes against our notion of free will and our experience of time. Time, as we experience it, flows forward, but some physicists disagree and assert that time flows both forward and backward.

In their book, The Premonition Code, The Science of Precognition: How Sensing the Future Can Change Your Life, authors Theresa Cheung and Dr. Julia Mossbridge, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Innovation Lab at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), remark that current uncertainty exists about causality and time in philosophical and scientific circles. Some physicists believe the flow of time is “a complete illusion and we live in a series of ‘nows’ that are static and not flowing in any sense of the word.” As the authors suggest, this does not fit with our personal experience. While they fail to shed light on the specific how of precognition, Cheung and Dr. Mossbridge provide compelling examples and a tantalizing argument based on quantum theory and theories about the relativity of time.

Abraham's Dream! Coming Events Cast Their Shadow Before.” Lithograph by Currier & Ives (1864) for precognition blog postFamous stories of precognition abound. Shortly before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln dreamed of a corpse laid out in funeral vestments in the East Room of the White House. In the dream, he asked a crowd of mourners who had died. The president, they told him. Several days later, the president was killed and his body laid in state in the East Room, exactly as he had dreamed.4

Another example. In October 1913, C.G. Jung was on a train journey when he had an overpowering vision. As he later recounted in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps,” and recognized he was viewing “a frightful catastrophe.” The sea had turned to blood and uncounted thousands of bodies had drowned. Jung worried he was going mad. Two weeks later, the vision recurred. That August, the first World War erupted.

An older Jung recalled these visions and prophetic dreams and used them as evidence for his theories about consciousness. He called these Big Dreams, meaning they were archetypal and arose from the collective, not personal level of the unconscious. Our psyches, he posited, are composed of three interacting systems: the ego-complex, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The ego-complex functions in our everyday life and is the personality, the “I” with which we identify. The personal unconscious is composed of an individual’s ideas, thoughts, experiences, and fantasies hidden from the conscious mind, but which often directs behavior. The collective unconscious is that part of the psyche that does not arise from our personal experience but contains ancestral memories and the experiences of all sentient beings.

When we tap into the collective unconscious, we are in touch with information we could not have known from our own lives. This is the realm of inherited patterns handed down from our ancestors (archetypes) that shape how we view and relate to the world. It is the realm of Big Dreams, poetry, shamanism, mysticism, synchronicities, art.

One of the diagrams Jung exchanged with Pauli in a letter as he developed his concept of synchronicity. Jung delved into esoteric traditions, Eastern theology, and occult practices, hoping to bridge the gap between metaphysics, depth psychology, and science. in a series of letters and exchanges with his patient and friend, the renowned Nobel Laureate in physics Wolfgang Pauli, Jung endeavored to uncover a unified theory that would bring psyche (mind) and matter into a more cohesive and congenial relationship. Both men were deeply interested in the nature of the universe in relationship to time, causality, meaning, and interconnectedness.5 But current psychological investigations have moved away from these grand metaphysical inquires, and have been superseded by research into AI, artificial intelligence, neuroanatomy, and neuroscience.

Were my poems prescient? I have no way of knowing, but I stand with artists across millennia who have used their dreams and premonitions to produce works of art that touch a universal core. Might you turn your premonitions, hunches, dream images and visions into art? You’d be in grand company if you do. Consider the paintings of Goya, William Blake, the Symbolists, and Surrealists. Imagine keeping a premonition journal. Imagine dreaming of a very beautiful tree, one you don’t recognize, and a week later, on a new path, you see the tree from your dream. Perhaps the secrets of the mind are willing to reveal themselves to welcoming listeners.

References

1Pechey, R., and Halligan, P. (2011) Prevalence and correlates of anomalous experiences in a large non-clinical sample. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2011.02024.x

2Foreseeing a Disaster?” Fortean Times February 2017

3 Ibid.

4 I describe this incident in more detail in a previous blog post “Can Dreams Be Prophetic?”

5 Paul Halpern details this fascinating relationship in his book Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect (Basic Books, 2020).

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma

The Wounded Angel (1903) by Hugo Simberg for inherited trauma blog post

 

One fine spring day when I was five, I decided to jump on the back of a neighbor’s schnauzer and ride him around the yard like a horse. Mikey had other ideas. He leaped up and tried to chomp on my cheek. Back then, no one called my run-in with Mikey a trauma. The word “trauma” had not yet entered the popular vernacular. But my experience with Mikey was a trauma, and for many years, I was terrified of dogs.

Times have changed. Discussions about trauma appear everywhere. Simply defined, trauma refers to any deeply disturbing event; in reality, trauma has many nuanced manifestations. Native American scholar and psychotherapist Eduardo Duran calls trauma “the injury where blood does not flow.”

Reference to trauma is now so ubiquitous, it has become almost meaningless. A recent newspaper article suggested that TV audiences are tired of watching gritty, realistic shows about afflictions; they now prefer plots with indomitably cheerful characters like Ted Lasso. It’s understandable we seek entertainment that makes us feel good, but are we denying, ignoring, or dismissing trauma’s impact on our lives and world? Have we seen, heard, read, experienced more trauma than we can process? Do we have trauma fatigue?

The truth is there is still much to learn about traumatic experiences. With deeper knowledge, more healing can occur.

Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone (Photo by Kirsten Boyer, 2019).Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone has been investigating this terrain for most of her adult life. Her teachings offer new insights, synergistic modalities of healing, and instill a sense of agency and hope to the burdened. In her second interview with me for Psychology Today, she offers more insights on the heritability of trauma, and how we may be carrying emotional afflictions that do not belong to us.

Dale Kushner: In a recent article for the “International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma,” you state that trauma can be transmitted by parents and other adults to the younger generation. This is a startling revelation. Can you explain how you became aware of this fact in your own life?

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone: It’s only in the past several years that evidence of the transference of trauma has been studied in depth. In my own life, the residues of war were deeply imprinted in my parents—my mother escaped Nazi Germany narrowly in 1939 and my father was stationed in the death camps as a U.S. soldier—but they kept their horrors a secret. It was only when I began to seriously study trauma science at midlife that I was able to identify their behaviors as the sequelae of trauma.

DK: Can actual memories be transferred?    

TF: It’s well known that children’s psychic borders are highly permeable. Like mirror neurons in the brain,[1] the feelings that echo between people, mental images can also be transferred by parents and other adults to the younger generation. Although actual memories aren’t transferred, it’s not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit,[2] that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.

So yes, mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—with the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation. They become part of the internal reality of descendants. Seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground is an experience that rarely dissipates. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma from war—the images he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people—became part of my visceral inheritance.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre (1891) Photo by John C. H. Grabill for Inherited Trauma blog postDK: How exactly might an adult or caregiver transmit an image deposit?

TF: Numerous studies show that children absorb the stress responses of parents and other caregivers in the wake of traumatic events and invest them with their own meaning[3]. For instance, after the events of September 11, 2001, studies on children whose parents and caregivers responded with heightened emotion suffered far more post-traumatic stress than those whose caregivers remained calm or detached.[4]

Vamik Volkan, who is a student of Erik Erikson and scholar on the topic of collective trauma, calls the powerful mental representations of large-scale trauma internalized images. We’ve already mentioned how permeable the psychological border between the child and caretakers is. Volkan maintains that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child. The child then becomes a reservoir for the adult’s trauma images.[5]

DK: How can a person know if the anxiety, depression, or other mental states of suffering are the result of traumas in the ancestral line or have emerged from their own life experience in the present? Are the two intertwined?

TF: That’s an important question. We hardly need studies to tell us that our family’s trauma affects us. With so much research coming out on intergenerational patterning, it can be a relief to know that we didn’t make up our mental and emotional disposition, but that there may be an ancestral precursor for our anxiety, depression, and even feelings of guilt, shame, or alienation. If we are in doubt, we can do some genealogical work on our families and look at the historical traumas they lived through. Did they endure poverty, displacement, or war? Or maybe their lives were continuously hampered by racial discrimination. These and other residues of extreme life conditions can travel down to us, especially when they are not metabolized.

DK: Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the WWII.(near Minsk,Belorussia) June, 1941 for Inherited Trauma blog postOne trauma researcher has noted that a generation can inherit the “unfinished psychological tasks” of a previous generation. What are some examples of these tasks? What is your role as a therapist in helping a client unburden herself from the unfinished task?

TF: I see intergenerational or ancestral transmissions like suitcases stuffed with important family heirlooms. No matter how weird or troubled you think your family is, there are ancestral treasures in your suitcase, like good values, resilience, or gems of hard-earned wisdom. When I taught at San Quentin, the men shared with me the beautiful legacies they carry and think about daily, mostly from their moms and grandmothers.  And then there can be trauma images that we inherit, too.

Think about the Vietnam or Syrian wars, or the incursion of Russia into Ukraine. When a large group has experienced massive trauma and severe losses at the hands of enemies, the children of the next generation receive the emotion-charged images of war. Volkan, who studied post-war populations around the world, maintains that embedded in these memories is a task. The next generations receive a “to do” list associated with the transmitted image.

Unmetabolized tasks translate to the next generations as many things. They might require completing the mourning process over losses, converting shame and humiliation into pride or helplessness into assertion. All these tasks are connected to the mental pictures that are the residue of traumatic events. The image binds the members of the group together in an invisible way.[6]

DK: Unless younger people are helped to address the unfinished tasks and their psychological legacy, is it true/is there evidence that the psychological reverberations travel horizontally through families and nations, and vertically through time and generations?

TF: Ultimately, it’s up to us, members of the younger generation, to decipher our own psychological landscape. We have to discern what inherited legacies we want to bring forward with us, and what we need to work on and discard. Often we find ourselves doing the hard psychological and emotional work that was left unfinished by our parents and grandparents. Will we continue to internalize our people’s defining historical traumas or reject them? These are the questions every psychologically mature person must ask themselves.

[1] van der Kolk, 2014, pp. 58-59, 111-112

[2] Volkan, 20062013

[3] Allen & Rosse, 1998Scharf, 2007

[4] Shechter & Coates, 2006

[5] Volkan, 2006, 2013

[6] Volkan, 2006, p. 154

References:

Transgenerational Trauma Shaping History: The Power of Images” by Tirzah Firestone, PhD., in International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma, Issue 1, Professional and Philosophical Perspectives, February 1, 2022.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk (Penguin: New York, 2014)

Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts by Varnik D. Volkan (Pitchstone Publishing: Durham, NC, 2006, 2013)

“Children’s Response to Exposure to Traumatic Events” by Richard D. Allen and William Rosse, in Children, Youth and Environments, Vol.  14, No. 1, Collected Papers (2004) Published by University of Cincinnati.

“Long-term effects of trauma: Psychosocial functioning of the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors” by Miri Scharf, Journal of Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 19, Issue 2, April 25, 2007. Published online by Cambridge University Press.

“Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations on the Macarthur Story Stem Battery” by Daniel S. Schechter, MD, and Susan W. Coates, Journal of Attachment and Human Development, Vol. 9, Issue 3, December 4, 2007. Published by Taylor & Francis.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Belonging: The Quest for Your Inner Home

Family Warming Their Hands by a Fire (c. 1740s) etching by Noël Hallé for Home blog post

 

What is one of the first stories we learn as children of Western culture? The cautionary tale of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, a story that sets us fretting, evoking fears of abandonment and loneliness, worries about identity and belonging. So we get our first taste of what happens when we lose our sense of home.

When we speak about home, we usually mean a physical place, a dwelling, a place of shelter or refuge. But home also has a symbolic meaning: we are at home in a particular landscape: forest or mountains, desert or beach. We are at home in a nation, on a continent, among others who share our values, our language, a cultural context. Our bodies are also our homes, spirit and soul, mind and heart. To be at home in one’s body is to feel one’s authentic and whole self, our flesh and blood animated with the invisible aspects of Being.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) fresco by Masaccio for Home blog postFor the sin of seeking knowledge, the God of the Old Testament pointed His finger at Adam and Eve and expelled them from paradise to wander the earth in exile. Many great artists have envisioned on canvas the ravaged faces of the mournful couple. When we stand in front of these paintings, we are struck with a primal feeling of sorrow, the ping of our own fear of desertion and displacement from home.

Famine, climate change, natural disasters, political violence, and governmental upheaval uproot thousands from their homes and homelands and force multi-generational populations to undertake arduously dangerous journeys to find a new home. The Jungian analyst John Hill tells us that the loss of home is a quest for identity. As he writes in At Home in the World: Sounds and Symmetries of  Belonging, “As home is intrinsically connected to a sense of self, its loss may have devastating effects on people’s lives.”

My friend Myron Eshowsky, M.S., an expert in working with refugee and marginalized populations, most recently Syrian refugees in Jordan, suggests that “historical trauma is remembered in the land.” What is missing from the discussion of treatment for communal and personal trauma is an understanding that as “citizens of the earth,” we are extensions of the landscape we call home. Eshowsky writes, “When a sense of home is upset . . . individuals and communities may exhibit what may be commonly understood as psychological trauma, but the root of their experience—and healing—may call for the inclusion of place and all it can hold.”

Saami family of reindeer herders in front of their lavvu, Norway (1896) In a paper titled “Place, Historical Trauma, and Indigenous Wisdom,” Eshowsky tells the story of a healing ritual on the site of the now-demolished building in Milwaukee where years earlier serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer committed macabre acts of dismemberment and murder. “The sense of death at the site was overwhelming,” he writes. The lot was barren and devoid of living plants. In a communal prayer accompanied by a priest, the family of victims and neighborhood people joined with tears and prayers in shared grief. The blessings included a wish for the land to return to life. A year later, flowers and grass were poking up through the rubble.

The lucky among us who have been not compelled to flee and resettle are faced with a different kind of loss of home. The landscapes we have grown accustomed to, the daily landmarks that were once as familiar as our own hands, have disappeared. The grocer on the corner has gone out of business, as has our favorite pizza parlor, barbershop, and drug store. Our toddler’s daycare center has shut its doors. Where raging fires have consumed the earth, entire towns have vanished, the woods we once hiked turned to ash. Floods and hurricanes have remade our beaches; new apartment complexes are springing up to replace old neighborhoods of duplexes and one-family homes.

Is it any wonder our bodies, our most intimate homes, are reacting to these dramatic and swiftly occurring events? Home is a felt reality as well as a physical reality. Consistency, reliability, attachment to beloved objects and persons are essential aspects of our well-being. When we feel groundless and distressed, our bodies display physiological markers of stress. Currently, we are plagued not only with the COVID virus, but with elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, restless nights, depressed and anxious moods. Our minds struggle to rise clear of a perpetual fog. Like other animals who have experienced a change in habitat, we respond.

Since the pandemic, our homes have become the site of both our public/work/social lives and our private/domestic lives. Paradoxically, while we may be spending more time in our homes, we are less “at home” in the world.

The Family (c. 1640s) etching by Adriaen van Ostad What does it mean to be more at home in the world? How can we create a sense of belonging and identity despite our rapidly changing environment? One way is to enlist our imagination. “Home” is rooted in our core self as memories, dream images, reveries. Home is linked to kinship bonds, to the landscapes of our origins, to collective archetypal patterns that exist at a level of being unaltered by external circumstances. These foundational archetypal patterns are like secret treasures buried within.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, argues that reveries carry us back to our childhood. He writes, “childhood remains within us {as}a principle of deep life, of life always in harmony with the possibilities of a new beginning. . . From our point of view, the archetypes are reserves of enthusiasm which help us believe in the world, love the world, create the world.”

We can revisit images of home and well-being through guided meditations. We can imagine ourselves walking along the river path of our ancestors. We can imagine ourselves in the treehouse where we spent time as a youth. We can choose a special tree or rock or sit in a garden and imagine roots growing from our heels into the hot magma at the center of the earth to which we belong. We can embrace the belief that we are never without a home because we carry our home inside us.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing

“Black Friday” May 19, 1780. Detail from Pictorial Quilt (1895-1898) for Ancestral Healing blog post

 

Imagine yourself at a family reunion. Aunt Sadie puts her hand on your shoulder and tells you you’re the spitting image of her sister Rose. Uncle Mo swears your soccer prowess comes from his side of the family, superb athletes all. The baby has the thick black hair of your Irish ancestors, and though you’ve always said you’ll never scowl like your mother, as you age identical scowl lines appear around your mouth.

The heritability of physical traits is a known and accepted fact, but a burgeoning branch of scientific investigation, epigenetics, has unlocked the mystery of how the emotional lives of our ancestors, and the traumas they suffered, affect our well-being.

In the ancient world, when a tragedy recurred in a family line—sons murdering their fathers, suicides, madness—the cause was thought to be the workings of a curse, or Fate, or the actions of punishing, vengeful gods.

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)With the aid of our vibrant imaginations, humans have spun tales about how the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children and their children’s children “unto the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34.7). The great Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—warned audiences that transgression against the gods weighed heavily on future generations. The chorus in the opening lines of Sophocles’ Antigone proclaim the horror in the family line:

“How many miseries our father caused! And is there one of them that does not fall on us while yet we live?”

In contemporary fiction, novelists Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer), among others, explore manifestations of transgenerational trauma. We’ve come a long way from pinning our misfortunes on family curses and the whims of the gods, but we are still discovering how the emotional experiences of our ancestors, their personal stories, told and untold, have altered our bodies and minds.

What stories whispered behind closed doors did you grow up with? How many relatives suffered with depression? Were there suicides? Violent behavior? Exile and displacement? A history of poverty? Unmourned griefs? Which questions about your family’s past do not get answered? Evidence supports the claim that what has not been healed in our lineage may manifest indirectly in us, a new generation, as anxiety, depression, physical illness, or other afflictions.

In my own life, for a long time, I felt that the heaviness of a grief I carried did not originate with me. While researching my second novel, I discovered that one of my grandmothers died in a state mental asylum. She was never mentioned during my childhood, and I assume she was a source of pain and great shame. No one is alive now to tell me her story, but I am aware that her presence has always been with me. A character in my second novel is loosely based on her story, and through workings of my imagination, grandma has been returned to her glory!

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for Ancestral HealingDuring the years writing this novel, I began a period of searching and seeking, hoping to uncover, face, and resolve the hurt in my lineage. Toward the end of this time, I discovered the work of Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone. As the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Dr. Firestone has spent at least one lifetime investigating intergenerational trauma from spiritual and psychological perspectives. She offers insight into the manifestations of inherited trauma and generously supplies stories and healing practices from many traditions in her online teachings. Her most recent book, Wounds into Wisdom, is a guide into deep inner excavations and explorations. In a world so harshly and painfully broken, her encouragement for us to heal as individuals expands the hope that we can also heal globally.

It brings me pleasure to introduce Tirzah Firestone to you in this two-part interview series.

Dale Kushner: Briefly, what is ancestral healing?

Tirzah Firestone: Ancestral healing is an ancient and currently burgeoning field that is based upon the spiritual premise that consciousness continues after death. After we pass from this world, regardless of our age or station, our bodies return to the earth, but our non-corporeal self continues to travel in non-visible realms, ultimately passing into an ancestral plane. Most spiritual traditions in the world agree that the ancestors, those who are no longer in the physical world, are still tied to us here on earth, for better and sometimes for worse.

DK: Why worse? 

TF: Generally speaking, ancestors wish to play a beneficial role to their living offspring. Their job is to guide and care for their living progeny, assisting them to remain in life and flourish here. But because the deep residue of our lives continues to reverberate after death, it is not only our ancestors’ wisdom but their unprocessed traumas that affect their next of kin. Ancestral healing is the garnering of wisdom, guidance, and blessings of the well and wise ancestors, and then, with their support, helping to resolve and repair the unhealed wounds of those who are not yet well and wise.

DK: Is ancestral trauma, inherited, transgenerational, and intergenerational trauma the same thing? If not, how are they different?  Please clarify collective trauma.

TF: All of these terms are related.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers 1895-1898 for Ancestral Healing blog postAncestral traumas are the unworked legacies of those who have died. This might include unresolved life stories, secrets, resentments, or other injuries that never had a chance to heal. The scientific field of epigenetics bears out that these unprocessed life stresses can influence future generations in the form of inherited tendencies to similar kinds of stress, anxiety, and psycho-emotional issues. The term transgenerational trauma is much the same as intergenerational trauma, used more widely in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.

Collective trauma is the residue of extreme life circumstances that occur (historical trauma is another term for this) that continues to affect not only individuals, but entire groups, ethnicities, communities, and entire nations. One example is the African-American community whose ancestors were abducted, shackled, and forced into centuries of slavery. We might say that their ancestral trauma is also a collective trauma that is still being worked through intergenerationally, in the lives of their living offspring as well as in the life of American society.

DK: In the last several years, you’ve worked privately with individuals and taught experiential courses on ancestral healing. Do all lineages have ancestral wounds?

TF: Yes, we might indeed say that all lineages carry ancestral wounds. Those who colonized others bear great moral wounds; the human pain incurred by their misdeeds is a legacy that continues for generations. Likewise, those who were colonized, enslaved, or murdered bear wounds that reverberate intergenerationally.

DK: You are a revered rabbi as well as a Jungian analyst. What led you to ancestral work?

TF: I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, leaving behind scores of relatives who were murdered in unconscionable ways. Even though she never spoke of them, I felt the reverberations of the family’s unprocessed shock, grief, and trauma. Ultimately, this led me to uncover the family history and then as a rabbi and psychotherapist, to study the effects of collective trauma in my people and far beyond.

DK: Does a person have to know about their ancestry to benefit from your teachings?

TF: One can begin this work with the tiniest amounts of information about one’s family (country of origin, political events there, etc.) Finding out about one’s ancestral history is relatively easy online these days. If we bring sincere intention, the unconscious will assist. Dreams and synchronicities come to inform us and help us to uncover more and more information.

DK: What are the dangers of not acknowledging ancestral/transgenerational trauma?

TF: Uncovering the dimension of intergenerational (or ancestral legacies) in our lives is extremely important. Without understanding the historical context of our lives and what came before us, our tendency is to think that our problems and imbalances began with us, that we created them. It is more often the case that the issues we are working on—whether we suffer from anxiety, fear, addiction, shame, or a feeling of not belonging, to name just a few examples—have roots in the lives of those who came before us, in what they suffered, and what they could not complete in their lifetimes. Often we are doing the work that was left to us, and it becomes our work. This then is ancestral healing! In doing our own inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing and untangling, we are also healing the legacies of those who gave us life.

You may also be interested in reading my two other posts about intergenerational trauma: “Family Deeds: Constellation Therapy & Generations of Trauma” and “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Memory: Can We Trust the Stories that Shape Us?

Photos – memory for Memory blog post

 

What is your earliest memory? Where were you? What season was it? Was the sun shining? Clouds in the sky? How old were you? Were you alone? What were you wearing? What did you smell? Were you happy or confused, sad or dreamy?

The world created by memory lives inside our minds. We believe it is an inviolate reservoir of facts. This is what happened, we say. I remember it clearly. And yet if you ask yourself the same questions stated above several weeks apart, you may discover your earliest memory has altered, expanding some details, subtracting others, or offering up a completely different image. Let’s face it: “facts,” as memory sees them, are not stable.

Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses for Memory blog postAs long ago as the Greek philosophers, we were attempting to unravel the mystery of memory. For centuries, memories were thought to embed themselves in our brains like a stamp onto soft wax, stored forever in archival files. Current cognitive neuroscience conceives memory as a more creative and adaptive system, a complex interconnected neural network involving many areas of the brain. Even when specialized areas of the brain are damaged, causing speech and memory deficits, other parts of the brain can step in to complement the injured functions. This is what’s truly remarkable about the brain: its plasticity, its capacity to transform through learning.

Research on memory continues to unfold, but what we do know is that memory is fallible, and shockingly so. Most of our most cherished memories are confabulations, an intricate blend of fragments from our past, images from dreams, movies, books, and even other people’s memories assimilated as our own. This is the fantastic, frustrating, perplexing nature of memory: it is endlessly redefining and refining what we remember. Ask three siblings about a shared experience and you are likely to get three different versions of the event.

In his autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, the renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks detailed a memorable childhood event that occurred one evening during the Nazi bombing of London when his family members tried to douse an incendiary bomb with water. With immaculate specificity and the astute eye of a scientist, Sacks wrote:

“There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.”

He remembered, unequivocally. droplets of white-hot aluminum oxide from the thermite bomb cascading over the lawn. He had been seven at the time.

Only later, after his book was published, did he discover that he and his brother Michael had been away at boarding school when the bomb landed and that his recounting of the incident could not possibly have been an eyewitness account. The details he recalled were from a vivid letter written by his older brother who had been home at the time.

The Bologna station clock for memory blog postOur flawed memory unnerves us. We count on memory to validate reality. As our brains develop, we begin to create an autobiographical first-person narrative that defines who we are. Our identity formation depends on memories strung together into a recognizable story. (Autobiographical Memory.)  In childhood, remembering positive choices and outcomes enhances a positive sense of self. We also remember bad choices and their consequences, which enables us to make better choices in the future. When neurodevelopment is interrupted or delayed, by trauma, illness, poverty, or other factors, children have a harder time using memory to assess how to relate to a situation or prevent negative patterns from repeating. Their sense of self lacks the support of positive memories to reinforce a positive self-image.

What we remember about ourselves shapes the stories we tell about who we are, which in turn shapes who we become. The art and science of psychoanalysis, of talk therapy, in general, respects the role of memory and its significance in our mental health. Examining long-held stories spun from memory and placing them in the context of a life history and a family history elucidates and untangles, and importantly, revises the hurts of the past. People with memory disorders face an inability to retrieve a coherent past. Sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases lose a cohesive sense of self as they experience the erasure of personality. As Sacks writes in his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”

For those of us who have witnessed the ravages of memory loss, the rupture of mental processes shakes us to the core. I’ve been drawn to explore the byways of memory for both artistic and personal reasons. Several years ago, my sister was diagnosed with and subsequently died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As my sole sibling and only living member of my family, she alone carried the memory of our shared childhood. As her mind dissipated and she began to weave fantastic tales from the images that remained, I realized I would soon lose the only person alive who could corroborate my memories. After she died, to work with grief, I plunged into writing my second novel, which explores family secrets, intergenerational trauma, and how what seems to be forgotten in the family line never really is.

Sacks’ faulty memory about the Blitz bombing did not have serious consequences, but when a witness’s unreliable memory results in a defendant’s prison sentence, or when public policy is based on invalid eyewitness reports, the consequences can be disastrous. Nor are photographs or digital images to be trusted. Photoshop and a slew of other technological advances can change our reality by altering images of real events and inserting them into our collective consciousness. How do we separate the real from the fictitious? The imagined from the remembered? And does it matter? Could it be that our memories are not just the vessels in which events are stored but are the foundation of our beliefs and values?

In the 1950s, when anti-communist sentiment was raging in this country, noir thrillers and futuristic science fiction movies became dramatically paranoic, centering around foreign regimes or space-aliens intent on reprogramming our brains. Words like “thought control,” “indoctrination,” “brainwashing” filled our nightmares. Popular culture featured movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Grotesque extraterrestrial pod people were dropping into our world, intent on colonizing our bodies. The contested territory was not land or empire, but our minds. The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 film, featured a POW returned from the Korean War. Memories of his former life and allegiances had been wiped out. As a robotic puppet of the nefarious enemy, he had been programmed to assassinate the U.S. president. A year after the film was released, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the movie was pulled from circulation. Life seemed to be confirming fantasy.

A more recent example is The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood that tells the dystopian story of Offred and her Handmaid sisters, slaves in mind and body to their masters in the new Gilead, where memory of the past is forbidden. But Offred has flashbacks to the before-time, pre-Gilead. Images of her loved ones appear in dreams and waking fantasies. These are forbidden as is all mention of the past, its values of individual freedom and compassionate humanity.

Throughout history, entire populations, nations, and empires have been coerced to annihilate the past so that a new regime can flourish. Chairman Mao understood this as did Stalin, as do all authoritarian regimes. In our own country, amid much debate, we are in the process of collectively remembering the unspoken stories of the indigenous peoples and the enslaved.

Even when faced with exile, gulags, beatings, torture, or the invasive progression of disease, the mind mutinies and remembers. Even suffers from dementia can be spontaneously gifted with gems of memory. Until the very end, I would sit with my sister and she would suddenly take my hand and start swinging it, as if we were children again. The old mischievous brightness would return to her eyes. Remember the time, she would say, and with absolute clarity she would tell me a story from our youth.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Celebrating the Mysterious and Why It Matters

The Sleep of Caliban (1895–1900) by Odilon Redon for Mysterious blog post

 

We all love a good dog story. Let me tell you mine.

One chilly winter evening, long past midnight, our golden retriever Daphne woke us with her urgent bark. This was very unusual. Assuming she needed to do her business, we let her out. She had always returned promptly in the past, but on this night, Daphne ran off and disappeared into the darkness. Long minutes passed before she reappeared at the back door, her bright eyes strangely dull. Where had she gone, we wondered. What had happened?

Daphne and the author Rex, a beautiful Collie and Daphne’s playmate, lived next door. We thought of them as a doggy couple, true love. The morning after Daphne’s adventure, we met Rex’s tearful owner. Elise related a mysterious occurrence. At about 2 AM, the elderly Rex had collapsed. Elise was carrying him to the car to bring him to the vet ER when Daphne bounded up. Rex roused himself, and the two dogs stared intensely at each other. It seemed, she said, that Daphne had come over to say goodbye. And indeed, Rex died that morning.

Perhaps there is some scientific explanation for this event. We know what animals experience is different in kind and scope from our experience. But I’m choosing to call what happened between Daphne and Rex a mystery. Why? Because seeing things through the lens of mystery adds an expanded dimension to what we know is possible factually. To engage with mystery is to open our minds to new possibilities and to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about reality are limited.

Albert Einstein once wrote: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of all true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”—“The World as I See It

Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi) by Ike no Taiga for Mysterious blog post“Mysterious,” the adjective, is a descriptor, but “mystery,” the noun, is pregnant with meaning. It comes from the Latin mysterium, pertaining to a secret rite, a hidden or secret thing of which the meaning, cause, or explanation is unknown. I want to bring the word “mystery” forward, out of the recesses of our minds, so that you, as reader, can consider your own relationship to it. The inexplicable and unexplainable, rather than being problems to solve, can become portals to a sense that our cosmos is much more intricately connected, much more astonishing in ways we have yet to understand.

A mystery is different from a problem. We may not yet know all the causes of climate change, but we do have methods and technology we can use to investigate the issue. Climate change is a problem, not a mystery. Some mysteries do get solved. The moon, we’ve discovered, is not a ball of cheese.

When a mystery presents itself, we have a felt sense of its presence. This sensation can be uncanny and a bit thrilling. Surprise and recognition tell us we have been touched by something we can’t name. We sometimes say we apprehend a mystery without comprehending it.

Mystery asks big questions in search of answers. Why are we here? What is death? Does fate exist? How real is our reality? Mystery is not opposed to reason but mystery challenges reason as the only method of interpretation. Hold an acorn in your hand. You may be able to explain how an acorn becomes an oak, but do you know why? Why do such things as trees even exist?

Constantine’s Dream Illustrated painted parchment Greek manuscript (879-883 AD) for Mysterious blog postThese questions may seem privileged and irrelevant in a world filled with great suffering, and yet to be able to put our hearts into tackling the pervasive problems of our societies—inequality, poverty, war, displacement—we need to embody hope. Mystery enlarges our awareness that the inexplicable, the troubling, the devastating can be held with the thought that something we can’t name may exist as a governing force that works for harmony in the universe, something that opens us up to new imaginative possibilities.

Mystery intersects with our lives in dreams. Dreams transport us to another existence that seems as equally real as our daylight life. Freud speculated that dreams arise from unconscious repressed wishes and desires and represent sexual and aggressive drives that the conscious mind censors. Jung, after his split with his early mentor Freud, developed his own theory of dreams. Rather than exploring childhood and its traumas for the roots of neuroses, that is, the past, Jung understood dreams to be messages from the Self, the dream-maker in each of us, whose intention is to supply us with a symbolic picture of our psyche, culled from the personal and collective unconscious. Dreams might then be considered a map, including roadblocks and detours to our personal unfolding, a pictorial path to our destiny. Jung called this process individuation.

Jung wrote: “But when at last we penetrate to its [the dream’s] real meaning, we find ourselves deep in the dreamer’s secrets and discover with astonishment that an apparently quite senseless dream is in the highest degree significant, and that in reality it speaks only of important and serious matters. This discovery compels rather more respect for the so-called superstition that dreams have a meaning, to which the rationalistic temper of our age has hitherto given short shrift.”—Carl Jung, Problems of Modern Psychotherapy (1929)

Dreams arrive mysteriously and leave us with a sense of having been taken someplace. In dreams, the profound mysteries of symbol, image, and meaning combine. We inhabited an “elsewhere” without leaving our minds or bodies. “In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”—Carl Jung, Civilization in Translation (1928)

If exploring mystery sparks your interest, I encourage you to spend some time discovering where mystery appears in your life. Write down your thoughts, dreams, musings. What are you encountering?

And if you would like to take your journey of discovery to the next level and work on your dreams with a Jungian analyst, the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts lists analysts by state.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Altruism, the Helper Archetype and Knowing Your Intention

Kindness by Michael Leunig for Altruism blog postWhat compels us to engage despite a warning from an internal Geiger counter signaling alarm? What impels us to ignore our wisest intuitions? When is self-sacrifice disguised as altruism? Our instincts tell us a situation will not end well, and yet we feel unable to turn away from our habitual behavior.

To satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife, the distraught husband in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Rapunzel sneaks over a boundary wall to steal a special type of lettuce from a witch’s garden. He knows, as every reader of the tale knows, that stealing from a witch is risky business. His wife’s plea, however, sends him scurrying. As the story progresses, his weak judgment and transgression will be paid for by the sacrifice of his daughter, Rapunzel.

“Seeing her so pale and wretched, her husband took fright and asked: ‘What’s the matter with you, dear wife?’“She tells him she will die unless she gets that lettuce. Whatever the cost, thinks the loving husband, he will supply her with what she craves.

“How dare you sneak into my garden!” (1948) by Nils Stenbok from “Rapunzel” in Tales of the Brothers Grimm The husband’s dilemma has a distinctly modern resonance: I can’t let him/her/them suffer. Just this once. Next time it will be different. I did it because I love him/her/them. As social creatures, we’ve evolved to hear and respond to another’s distress. It’s our nature to empathize and want to help, but discernment is necessary to know when our help will be beneficial or result in causing further injury. The bind between refusing and acquiescing, between standing in one’s power or succumbing to the power of the emotional complex is a human conflict and afflicts not only families but also individuals caught in cycles of addiction or abuse.

An alternative way of interpreting the husband’s role in Rapunzel is to see that making wrong choices, even seemingly disastrous choices, may be necessary for enlarging self-awareness. As any good fiction writer knows, a transgressive act starts the story rolling. A world without disastrous decisions, coercions, failures, perverse and complicated reactions does not exist. Great novels depict characters assaulted by contradictory tensions and desires. Learning occurs only when errors in judgment are made conscious and their lessons absorbed.

The idea that our deepest Self is constantly initiating us toward wholeness and psychic cohesion is one of Carl Jung’s great gifts to depth psychology. For him and his followers, every challenge has at its core a gift, a mystery to be understood. In accepting this as a guiding principle, we become seekers and move from passive victimhood to actively shaping our personal destiny. However, this can’t be accomplished until we recognize the difficulties that confront us. Like the husband, our ego and agency are vulnerable to being taken hostage by a malevolent force. In Rapunzel the witch takes this form.

Parable of the Good Samaritan (detail) (1670) by Jan Wijnants for Altruism blog postThe question arises: when are we being altruistic and when are our motives compromised by self-interest? How do we disentangle our desire to help from our desire to please or avoid conflict or keep the peace?

Another of Carl Jung’s most significant contributions to psychology is the concept of the archetype. In the case of what we have been discussing, the archetype of the helper is useful. Individuals dominated by the archetype of the helper are driven by a need to nurture, protect, and care for others. Of course, the world would be a sorrier place without their soulful and compassionate generosity. But the desire to help, when it becomes compulsive or inappropriate to the situation, can result in a feeling of depletion, resentment, and confusion if one’s efforts are rebuffed. To discern if you are trapped in this kind of helping behavior, you need to examine your motives and your genuine intention for taking action.

Japanese print by Toshichika (1850) shows a woman offering assistance to a destitute man lying on straw. for Altruism blog postBuddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg encourages students to examine their intentions as a way of understanding the motivation behind their actions. By honoring our intentions, we connect with the heart space that guides everything we undertake. Salzberg suggests that our intention is not a matter of will, “but about our overall everyday vision, what we long for, what we believe is possible for us.” To genuinely assess what motivates our intentions, she advises us to investigate the spirit of our endeavors and the emotions that drive it. “When my hand reaches to offer someone a book, only my heart knows whether I’m doing it because I like the person or because I think, Well, I’ll just give her this and perhaps she’ll give me what I want in return.”—Sharon Salzberg, “The Power of Intention,” O Magazine, January 1, 2004

This is helpful advice. When confronting a moral or ethical decision, we might ask ourselves: What is my true intention here? Am I stuck in a familiar pattern? Am I a hostage to someone else’s desire? What do I hope to achieve for myself? What am I avoiding? Is my action truly compassionate toward the other? Am I more afraid of confronting someone or courting displeasure than I am of being caught by bewitching energies?

(Learn more from meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg in my interview with her last year on Psychology Today, “Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?”)

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness

The Return of Persephone (1891) by Frederic Leighton for descent post

 

As the siege of global instability continues, many of us are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and despair. From the beginning of human history, upheaval and change have sent entire populations into states of helplessness, frustration, exhaustion, and fear. If you are currently being derailed by powerful feelings, please know you are not alone. Your feelings are not to be disregarded or dismissed. Our lives and our planet are being shaken by enormous shifts. The good news is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform.

When we feel powerless and overwhelmed, how can we reawaken our spirits, uncover new possibilities in intractable problems, and enliven our sense of hope? Where can we find new resources to meet the challenges of our time?

Echo and Narcissus (detail) (1903) by John William Waterhouse for descent blog postOur deep human past may hold the answers. Ancient myths—so crucial to every thriving civilization—remind us of who we have been, what we have learned, and how we have prevailed. Myths offer deep insight about human travails, illustrate the internal and external obstacles we encounter on the road to developing resilience and show where we can find help. Refined and retold over millennia, they are nutritive stories that feed us an infusion of trustworthy and eternal wisdom.

Imagine the world’s great myths as a vast library containing a record of human hardship and struggle, heroic undertakings and surprising rewards. Mythic stories depict archetypal, universal themes concerning our most basic instincts and emotions—fear, greed, bravery, family relationships, power, injustice, conscience, our relationship to nature and the natural world—situations and dilemmas not unfamiliar to our modern psyches. These myths survive, sometimes in the form of popular entertainment, and continue to absorb us.

They highlight issues that are still ripe in our lives. An entire industry exists to mine ancient myths for television and movie scripts. Consider how stories about family rivalries, sibling jealousy, corrupt leaders, dissolving empires, and alien invasions fill our imaginations. The old myths reappear in new forms, often so disguised we barely recognize them. Narcissism, a mental health diagnosis much discussed in public forums during the past four years, is a term derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. To return to the original myth is to understand the tragic and sorrowful story of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a spring and, unable to love others, dies pining for his own image.

The underworld and overworld. Both have always existed—in myth, dream, and reality. In our lifetimes we navigate each domain, the dark and the light. Lately, I’ve been investigating what the metaphor of descent, a common motif in myths, might reveal.

"Jona in the whale" (2010) by Janny Brugman-de Vries in Groningen, the Netherlands.Descent into the underworld appears in many myths as part of a transformative process that is an initiatory rite for our souls. “Katabasis” is the Greek term used to describe “going below.” To go below means to be separated from the daylight ordinary world. Symbolically, it signifies being cut off from one’s usual resources and helpers; it means finding a way to see and respond when the familiar falls away. (Imagine Jonah in the belly of the whale or Alice down a rabbit hole.)

Storyteller and mythographer Michael Meade reminds us that in the underground, in the darkness and unfamiliar territory of “below,” renewal occurs. Meade points out that in myths, going beneath the earth can be understood as gaining access to forgotten, secret or hidden wisdom buried in our depths. What may feel to us as “being in the dark” is a sacred space deep within us rich with new or cut-off energies.

“Wisdom can reveal the light hidden in dark times; but it requires that we face the darkness in ourselves. People may desire pearls of wisdom, yet most are unwilling to descend to the depths where the pearls wait to be found. Wisdom involves a necessary descent into the depths of life, for that alone can produce ‘lived knowledge’ and a unified vision.”—Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny

The depths in the subterranean basement of our unconscious are where archetypal and instinctual knowledge percolate. Think of seeds incubating beneath the soil, stirring with new life, or the multitude of invisible creatures at work preparing the soil for regeneration. Think of dream images that come in the midnight hours to awaken our curiosity and bring fresh insights to our conscious minds.

The Rape of Proserpine (ca. 1650) by Simone Pignoni (1611–1698) for descent blog postA classic Greek myth that features descent as one of its key motifs is the story of Demeter and Persephone. Attributed to Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” recounts the story of the rape and abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. The myth has many variations and interpretations, but simply told, the story unfolds as follows:

One day while Persephone is picking flowers in a meadow, the ground beneath her begins to shake and splits open. From the crack in the earth emerges Hades, driving his horse-drawn black chariot. Hades, most powerful god of the Underworld, brother of sky god Zeus, kidnaps the young maiden and drags her into the depths.

In the above world, her mother, Demeter, grief-stricken, flies across the land inconsolably crying out for her child. As the goddess of harvest and grain, Demeter’s lamentations and rage at Zeus for allowing this event to happen cause a blight over the earth. Crops wither, fields go fallow.

Persephone’s cries for help fade. Soon the mother can no longer hear her daughter. In the Underworld, the daughter can no longer hear her mother. Here the descent is neither expected nor made by choice. It is a brutal act of male power and privilege. But does the story convey a truth? In life as in myth, we must separate from the all-embracing, all-protective mother love.

Persephone holding a pomegranate (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti As the story resolves, Zeus pleads with Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agrees but tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed, an act that consigns her to have to return to live with him for one-third of every year as Queen of the Underworld.

The violent separation and ultimate reuniting of Demeter and Persephone have many dimensions: it can be seen as a story about the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, about maternal love that is too binding, and about a daughter’s need for maternal love juxtaposed to her need to discover her own resources and strength.

Our descent into the “below” might feel like death, as depression sometimes does. Life, energy, the ordinary world might feel forever lost and irrecoverable, but the great myths tell us otherwise. A descent is often followed by an ascent. When we return to the upper world, we bring with us new life. This is the meaning of Persephone’s reunion with Demeter.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone feels particularly relevant at this time. Many of us, myself included, are looking for wisdom to be garnered when we are plunged into darkness. Inhabiting this troubling new terrain, our vision must adjust. In the underworld, the future is murky and unknowable, but the myth is a reminder that the stolen daughter does not die in Hades—she escapes, matures, and thrives. She learns to see in the dark.

We are not given details about Persephone’s experience in Hades, except that she obediently serves her four months as Queen of the Underworld. What does she see below? What does she learn in the darkness? I’ve always wondered what riches, what gems, what secrets might be visible in the strata beneath the earth.

Close your eyes for a moment. What do you see in the dark?

Persephone is allowed to return to her mother for two-thirds of the year, her annual emergence generating the springtime renewal and flourishing of the land. Like the natural world, like history itself, we, too, experience cycles of flow and dormancy, depression and aliveness. We might take from this a lesson about patience with ourselves as we explore new, unfamiliar, and even frightening dimensions of ourselves in a world turned upside down.

The next time you feel the tug of despair or an encroaching mood about to pull you below, the next time you are tempted to lament our dark times, remember how the terrible winter of Demeter’s grief was followed Persephone’s re-emergence into the world, and with her, the blossoming of the trees and fields.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Reconnecting with Wonder: When Were You Last Amazed?

Trochilidae (hummingbirds) by Ernst Haeckel for Wonder blog post

 

The first time I saw a hummingbird I was nine years old on a camp road in Maine. A tiny creature with an emerald head, ruby breast, and propeller wings whizzed in front of my face, hovered for a second, and then disappeared into the brilliant morning light. I was dumbfounded. Had I been visited by an angel? Or Tinker Bell? My body tingled. Everything around me sparkled with new meaning. The entire landscape vibrated with aliveness.

Hummingbird for Wonder blog postThis event was brief but spectacular, and I have never forgotten it. The veil between the ordinary world and the extraordinary had been lifted, and I was given a glimpse of something mysterious, enchanting, and yet concretely real. The moment didn’t last. Earthly life quickly regained its familiar contours, and I returned “to my senses,” but some knowledge of the matrix of life and my place in the biosphere had been laid down in me.

This is what it feels like to be touched by wonder: amazement, astonishment, fascination. Without wonder the dark clouds of gloom, alienation, and loneliness sweep in.

For the past two months, this blog space has been dedicated to exploring anger with renowned Jungian analyst and scholar, Dr. Murray Stein. The pandemic, the devastating effects of climate change, the spread of violence on most continents have put us, to use the terms of another Jungian analyst James Hollis, into the “swamplands of the soul.” Might not this be the perfect time to resurrect the value of wonder as an antidote, or “complementary medicine,” to the heavier emotions of our time?

I’m not suggesting wonder as a breezy spiritual path that, to use a cultural cliché, keeps us “in the Light.” Think of wonder as a hard-wired instinct and the true birthright of our species. Wonder is worry’s more light-hearted twin. Science locates wonder in a complex network of interactions within the brain that set off dopamine reactions induced by pleasurable feelings and activity in the hippocampus, the storehouse of long-term memory. Curiosity — the impulse to discover new things — is wonder’s companion.

Children connect effortlessly with their sense of wonder, but as adults, we become bound to our habitual perceptions of reality. The scope of our curiosity and our ability to be astonished shrinks, but wonder enlarges our being and connects us with a vast cosmos of marvel and beauty. We are built to respond to marvel and beauty, to the animate nonhuman universe in which we are embedded.

As the poet Stanley Kunitz, an avid gardener into his nineties, remarks in The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden: “The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.”

As we venture out into our communities after the pandemic, a resurgence of wonder encourages an exuberant feeling of expansion. Confinement’s opposite is freedom, and if we let ourselves pause and pay attention, we may notice on our daily walk the astonishing rainbow hues of a pigeon’s breast. How did that happen, we might wonder. Or we might consider the miracle of any creatures built for flight, from honeybee to bat. Or ponder the strength and determinations of a single dandelion pushing up between cracks in the walk. Why dandelion and not crabgrass? A dozen more questions arise.

Wonder asks us to slow down, to contemplate, to dream in reverie. It asks for our focus and attentiveness as well. It may unexpectedly inject itself into our lives, as the hummingbird whirled into mine, but if we aren’t paying attention, miracles will be missed. Wonder requires the cooperation of our inner world to meet the outer world with reverence and fascination.

Muscinae (Mosses) by Ernst Haeckel for Wonder blog postIn his book The Philosophy of Wonder, Dutch philosopher Cornelius Verhoeven stated:

“More happens in wonder than in doubt. Haste is a total lack of interest,” Verhoeven continues, “for interest means precisely to dwell in between. . . In contrast to pausing wonder, haste is a passing by which misses everything.”

“And now I have gathered six or seven deep red, half-opened cups of petals between my hands,” writes the poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Count the Roses.”

“And now I have put my face against them

and now I am moving my face back and forth, slowly…

Eternity is not later, or in any unfindable place.

Roses, roses, roses, roses.”

Oliver is a poet of praise, gratitude, and supreme wonder, in love with the particularity of the world. For her, an intimate reciprocity exists between her and her environment. Here she is writing in her essay “Upstream” about a tree in her beloved Blackwater Woods

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel?”

If Mary Oliver has her gaze fixed on the minutia of rose petals or the golden eye of a gull, Brian Greene, theoretical physicist, mathematician, and chairman of the World Science Festival, understands that humans are “bags of particles” that are organized in a unique way, as he notes in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe:

“When you recognize that we are the product of purposeless, mindless laws of physics playing themselves out on our particles — because we are, all, bags of particles — it changes the way you search for meaning and purpose: You recognize that looking out to the cosmos to find some answer that’s sort of floating out there in the void is just facing the wrong direction. At the end of the day, we have to manufacture our own meaning, our own purpose — we have to manufacture coherence . . . to make sense of existence. And when you manufacture purpose, that doesn’t make it artificial — that makes it so much more noble than accepting purpose that is thrust upon you from the outer world.”

Clouds, trees are also made of particles. In fact, all earthly matter is composed of the same particles that compose us. Greene’s amazement, wonder, and thrill flow from the recognition that the particles which make up human beings have evolved to have consciousness, to become a species — the only species that contemplates its own mortality and can produce a Beethoven and an Einstein.

If you are interested in welcoming more wonder into your days, consider these questions:

When was the first time you remember experiencing wonder?

Where were you? What happened?

What feelings do you associate with the event?

Can you reconstruct the feelings now?

Write the word WONDER at the top of a page.

Begin the first sentence with the words On that day.

Write for 10 minutes without stopping.

What have you discovered?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



Murray Stein on Understanding and Coping with Anger

The cover page for Thomas Dekker’s 1625 plague pamphlet “A Rod for Run-Awayes” for Murray Stein blog post

Part two of a conversation with Jungian analyst Murray Stein about the ways anger pervades our culture.

Like most young girls of my generation, I was raised to be kind, considerate, and quiet. The message was clear: anger was verboten and had to be squelched. Or else. Learning how to transform and transmute anger begins early and engages us throughout our lifetime. We may try to control anger, but in many instances, anger has a mind of its own. Anger combusts spontaneously. It arises on its own timetable and under its own conditions, sometimes for reasons our conscious minds can’t decipher.

Images of anger haunt our imagination. Visions of apocalyptic fires appear in our earliest literature. Myths and fables and folk tales serve as precautionary warnings that forces outside our control can throw down thunderbolts or cause villages to go up in flames.

How do we explain anger’s force and prevalence? How can we cope with its destabilizing energy?

Dr. Murray Stein for Murray Stein blog postIn this second installment on anger, my guest, the distinguished Jungian analyst and acclaimed author, Dr. Murray Stein, expands our discussion: how anger is showing up in our inner and outer lives, and how, when examined closely, anger relates to feelings of vulnerability and despair.

Dale Kushner: Is the anger you are seeing in your patients related to their age? What do you think is causing this eruption of anger?

Murray Stein: I am seeing anger in patients of all ages. If they are young, they are angry about being denied the normal path to educational experiences because of the pandemic. If they are old, they are angry because of the insensitivity of the young about their vulnerability to COVID-19. And so forth. Anger is present in every age group and for similar or different reasons, some stimulated by the pandemic, some by the political conflicts raging in almost every country of the world, some by economic disadvantages and vulnerabilities. No age group is free of anger these days.

DK: Are there redeeming aspects of anger? What might they be?

MS: Anger can be the prelude to necessary change. It motivates one to act, and sometimes this is needed for development. Anger can lead to necessary changes in life if it is channeled in a direction that is constructive in the long term. A battered woman in an abusive relationship who uses her anger to change her situation is for the good and in the interest of individuation if it leads to greater consciousness and self-affirmation. As a psychotherapist, I am pleased when a depressed and passive client becomes angry and stands up for herself. Anger can serve the goals of psychological development and individuation. It demands that things change.

DK: What is the value of dreaming about anger? Is it cathartic? Does dreaming about anger help a person process it?

MS: Dreaming about anger means that it is becoming conscious. Anger can simmer under the surface, on the fringes of consciousness. In the dream, it erupts. This signals the emotion is becoming conscious and can be felt and processed. Anger in a dream is anger on its way to consciousness, and once conscious it can be worked with and does not get expressed by acting out.

DK: What myths or fairy tales instruct us about anger?

Juno, seated on a golden throne, asks Alecto to confuse the Trojans (ca. 1530–35). for Murray Stein blog postMS: We can learn a lot from myth about the impersonal psychic forces that can take possession of our conscious selves, individually and collectively. For instance, in Greek myth, the chthonic Alecto, whose name means “unceasing in anger,” is a Fury conceived by Gaia when the semen from Ouranos was spilled into her when their son, Kronos, castrated his father. Alecto lives in the underworld and can be summoned to action, sometimes in service of justice for moral crimes committed and sometimes simply to instigate violent anger on behalf of a political cause. In the Aeneid, she is sent by Juno to stir up furious anger in the Latins against the invading Trojans. In the narrative, you see how Alecto (relentless anger) invades and takes possession of humans and drives them to action that we would judge to be insane. She enters the body of the Latin Queen Amata who incites the Latin women to riot against the invaders. Then she enters the body of Juno’s priestess, Calybe, and proceeds to incite King Turnus to go on a rampage against the allies of the Trojans and slaughter at random to the point of absolute exhaustion.  Virgil’s great epic tells the story of angry heroes battling over territory and the subsequent founding of Rome by the victor, Pius Aeneas. The Trojan hero stakes his claim in Italy at the command of the high god, Jove, and Venus, his mother. They tell him it is his destiny and he must not settle for less than their ambition for him and his Trojan survivors from the fall of Troy.

The poem is generally seen as a celebration of Emperor Augustus and the establishment of the Roman Empire, but it is also a moral critique. Anger permeates the epic from start to finish, and the final climactic lines reflect the overall tone. It is a scene on the battlefield; Aeneas is standing over the wounded Turnus, who is begging for his life. I quote the closing lines in the fine new translation by Shadi Bartsch:

Aeneas drank in this reminder of his savage

grief. Ablaze with rage, awful in anger, he cried,

“Should I let you slip away, wearing what you

tore from one I loved? Pallas sacrifices

you, Pallas punishes your profane blood” – and,

seething, planted his sword in that hostile heart.

Turnus’ knees buckled with chill. His soul fled

with a groan of protest to the shades below.

 

From The Aeneid by Vergil, translated by Shadi Bartsch (Random House, 2021)

This is the end of the epic, and a bloody and angry ending it is. Empires are founded on such.

Quakers meeting at the house of Benjamin Furly in the Fall of 1677DK: Is there anything in popular Western culture that gives us remedial lessons about anger?

MS: In Jungian psychology, we try to bring opposites in contact with each other and wait for a uniting symbol to bring them together. What is the opposite of anger? In the Western tradition, its opposite is peace. In popular culture, there are many songs, films, TV shows, etc. that promote peace. They suggest putting anger aside and making peace. “Make love, not war” was a popular slogan in the sixties during the protests against the American war in Vietnam. The problem is you have to want to choose peace over anger, which usually also means giving up the desire for power over the other. If there is injustice afoot, it is not easy to choose peace. Alecto may be summoned and stir up rage in an injured individual or population. The natural response to injustice is to become angry and to fight for change. But there is another response to injustice, which the Quakers in America are known for with their efforts to cultivate peace even while being activists for social justice. They attempt to combine anger and peace in their protests and messages. Some individuals have found a way to contain anger and use it to fuel the peace movement. Others, of course, sink into depression and resignation.

DK: How did Jung think about anger? Did he relegate it to the shadow aspect?

MS: Jung reflected on the topic of anger as born of inferiority and resentment in his essay “Wotan,” where he writes about the social and political climate in Germany in the 1930s. He himself had a fiery temper and would occasionally lash out in angry outbursts toward opponents and critics. I think he would say anger was part of his shadow, which at times he could channel to constructive ends and at times not. Barbara Hannah claimed that when Jung would get angry at her it was also meant to teach her something and came as a lesson for improvement. She may have been rationalizing a bit. Basically, Jung would say that if you are possessed by an emotion like anger to such a degree that you lose control of your judgment, you have been taken over by a complex or archetypal energy. On a collective level, this archetypal energy is symbolized by mythical figures like Wotan or Ares/Mars. Entire masses can become possessed by these archetypal energies, and then you have warfare.

DK: To what degree do you think social media fuels or contributes to personal anger?

MS: Social media pours fuel on the fires that are already burning. A person is somewhat anxious and then gets messages that confirm the fears she is already feeling. This leads to angry responses, and the ball gets rolling. Social media intensifies the emotional tone of the times. I don’t think the answer is to cancel the media or ask them to tone it down. A better answer is to have leaders who show a better way forward. Social media is a follower, not a leader.

Read Part One of this interview, “Murray Stein on the Eruption of Anger in Today’s World.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”