The Edge Where Change Happens

Change happens in a narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. In psychotherapy and analysis where we hope to find help for better ways of dealing with our problems in living, the good therapist or analyst unsettles us enough to move us out of our stuck places (the inflexible status quo), but doesn’t plunge us into intolerable confusion (structure-less chaos). When we are able to stay long enough in that uncomfortable, disorganized emotional zone between inflexible form and panicked anarchy, some better way of dealing with our problem begins to emerge.

Human consciousness is psychologically conservative: whatever our emotional and behavioral habits may be, a part of us wants to preserve them. Whether wild or tame, whether our habits serve us well or ill, the prospect of change – even the vision of change “for the better” – means altering our patterns. The pious “I’d like it to be different” means very little if we cannot face the short-term discomfort that comes with entering the zone of change.

What signals the need for change in our lives? Obviously, when we have “hit bottom” and can’t stand what we are, we may be ready to face what we have been trying to avoid, medicate away, or blame on others. Of course there are less emphatic signals that all is not well with the organism that each of us is. Physical ailments for which our physician can find no organic or metabolic cause suggest that the body is trying to tell us something we have not otherwise noticed. Since the body does not tell lies about itself, yet we suffer physically for no medically identifiable cause, we need seriously to consider that we have been consistently missing or misreading other signals: for example, enduring situations, conditions and / or relationships that do not suit us; engaging in activities that regularly leave us feeling dissatisfied, depleted, or exploited; neglecting to explore repeated unsettling dreams; and innate potentials that are calling for attention and cultivation.

In earlier editions of the Ommani Jewel I have written wrote about adaptation. Adaptation, I have pointed out, means finding the optimal fit in two ways. “Outer adaptation” means finding the optimal manner to live in the world where we actually are. This involves the people we live and work with, the community we reside in, as well as the mood and tenor of the larger society.

“Inner adaptation” calls attention to what we actually are and potentially can become: our physical constitution and body, our life-long likes and dislikes, the abilities and skills we have developed, those that are now calling for our attention, and even more. This is where inner adaptation becomes more of a challenge. That “more” embraces the emotions, fantasies, day-dreams and night dreams, and the thoughts – all that comes unbidden into our consciousness. 

The challenge is a balancing act: what is optimal in terms of adapting to the world and what is optimal in terms of adapting to what I actually am and to what intrudes on my waking consciousness? And this puts us in that a narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. There are two additional pieces of information we need to know to make sense of this balancing act.

  • First, the psyche-body that each of us is attempts to maintain a dynamic balance among all the systems and levels of systems. We know this at the physical level, for example, in terms of thirst as the signal that the organism needs hydration, or sleepiness telling us that we need rest. An upset GI tract may be informing us that we ingested something unsuitable and noxious. Dreams can address many dimensions of our existence, offering information that is important in maintaining or restoring a balance that we have lost. 
  • Second, each of us is, so to speak, a seed that is programmed to develop into a full-grown plant. Each of us comes into this world gifted with a variety of talents or endowments that press for actualization. We may have a hunch or an inner image of what we could be if we could grow to full stature. We recognize these innate gifts as inclinations, interests and fascinations. Part of inner adaptation means developing these potentials. The world around us may embrace and celebrate some of our innate gifts and support our developing them. However, some of our gifts do not look like gifts to the people we grow up with or later live with. This marks the threshold where we may enter the narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. 

How vigorously do we press on? Where do we call a halt? To whom do we defer? And for how long? How much can we stand to be at odds with the world around us (in terms of our outer adaptation), and how much of what’s urging and pressing and nagging “from inside” do we stifle (our inner adaptation)? What balance works for us? And at what price?

Here we stand at the edge where change happens. Or doesn’t happen. Here we make our choices – not necessarily the best choices we know but the best we are capable of making at the time. And we live with the consequences until we feel or are pushed again to that edge where change can happen. 

Every innate potential in us can be a gift to the world if we have the courage to develop it. With every step in development we challenge our status quo and timidly or boldly step into that zone between rigid structure and structure-less chaos where change happens.

In a book I have recently been reading, the author writes about the value of pain. He writes, “There is nothing to prompt learning like pain and necessity ….”* The pain comes when new information we had not taken into account or even been aware of stretches our consciousness (which never encompasses all that already exists in some form somewhere). This pain offers the possibility for change and, potentially, more adequate adaptation to the world outside us and / or the world inside us. 

We don’t have to invite pain. Life takes care of that. But when we can discover how our pain is attempting to stretch and “grow” us, we are on the edge where change happens.

* Principles, by Ray Dalio

The Feeling Function as Foundation of the Healthy Person

Somewhere in one’s person, relatively distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it, is a self that knows what is good for itself.

Fundamentally the organism that each of us is – the totality of what we call psyche and body – knows what is good for itself. We can see this most vividly in infants who have not yet been significantly conditioned by their environment. They suckle, they sleep, they cry, they smile, not on any imposed schedule, but, as we might say, “naturally,” in response to something innate. In Jungian terms, this “innate something” that regulates the organism – the physiological processes as well as the stages of physical, emotional, and psychological growth and development – functions as an “authority” with an agenda and a goal. This is part of what we mean by the term Self: an inner authority “distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it.” The inner authority with its agenda and its goal “knows what is good for itself,” which means that the Self in you and the Self in me knows what is good for you or for me as whole persons. This “knowing” is evidence of the feeling function in operation, independently of the conscious personality.

“Feeling” is a messy word in English: we use the same word to refer to several different experiences. “I feel hungry.” “I feel happy.” “I feel we should do xyz.” “What do you feel like doing?” Here we have four different usages of the same word: a physical condition (hungry), an emotional state (happy), a thought or belief (we should do xyz), and a desire or preference (feel like doing). 

The first two usages – feel hungry, feel happy – express a perception of something going on in oneself. We could more accurately say “happiness is happening” and “my consciousness perceives happiness,” or “hunger is happening” and my consciousness perceives it. The third usage – “What do you feel like doing?” – may really be asking: “What does the Self in you want you to do?” “What does that part of you, not your conditioned ego, want you to do that is good for itself [and therefore good for you, too]?” The fourth possibility – feel we should do – expresses some sense of duty or obligation and the possibility of choice. That may be the Self nudging consciousness, but it could just as well be a “learned should,” an artifact of something taken in from our environment that may have very little to do with the Self, with our innate capacity that “knows what is good for itself.” 

Our conditioned conscious personalities – your ego – and my conditioned conscious personality – my ego – may have other ideas of what’s good for you or for me. That’s where our conditioned consciousness and the essence that we call Self come into conflict. The conflict between the innate feeling function (one of the voices of the Self) and what our environment tells us is right and good for us collide shortly after birth. This conflict arises because we have to adapt to the environment in order to survive. In fact, we have to adapt to our environment throughout life, but we also have to find a way to live as much of our innate uniqueness as possible (i.e., the potential contained in the Self). Typically in the first half of life – up until 35 or 40 – establishing ourselves in the world takes most of our energy and attention. But after the decade of our 40s it becomes progressively more important and even urgent to develop a better balance between adaptation to the world and adaptation to what in us “wants” us to pay attention to it. 

Adaptation to our environment necessitates compromises, but they become problematic when the compromises block expression of our innate potential, i.e., the actualization of the Self. Blocked potentials don’t disappear; they remain as unlived life, showing up in daydreams, night dreams, fantasies and fascinations, or emotional and/or physical symptoms, and various forms of “acting out.” As we get older, the more the Self does not inform our waking life, the more our level of vitality suffers. We can recognize one aspect of our compromises in the sense – sometimes vague, sometimes clear and distinct – that what we are doing doesn’t suit us, “goes against the grain,” takes our energy but doesn’t give us anything in return. One of the major tasks in therapy with people after age 40 consists in developing a conscious relationship to the feeling function so that they can chose to evaluate everything in terms of suitable or unsuitable. “Am I operating out of habit, because it ‘feels’ comfortable?” “Is an activated complex driving me?” “Have I been infected by an emotion that could carry me off somewhere that really isn’t good for me?” “Am I crossing a developmental threshold, hence the ‘feeling’ of unfamiliarity?” “Is the Self is moving me on in life?”  

Developing a conscious relationship to the feeling function (one of the voices of the Self) means we have to scrutinize everything that moves us, pulls or pushes us toward one choice or another. We have to ask whether conditioning taught us to prefer something, or whether what we sense as a preference is the Self nudging us to actualize more of our innate potential. In principle, this is simple. In practice this demands careful reflection on what we value and why we value it. 

As I was writing this piece a former client in her mid-fifties whom I hadn’t seen for several months scheduled a “tune up” session. She had had “Great Success,” she said. “I have managed to disappoint several people.” She went on to relate several instances when she, an independent contractor, had gotten several job offers, all of which she had turned down. This had not been easy. Typically in the past she would have devised some compromise work-around to accommodate the other person. “I can make it work for a few months,” she rationalized as she thought about how to accept the offer. “Then I heard myself.” She had begun to be able to notice and honor the voice of the Self.

Somewhere in one’s person, relatively distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it, is a self that knows what is good for itself.

Beyond My Comfort Level II

In an earlier article, I wrote about going beyond my comfort level. In that essay I began by focusing on the so-called “outer world:” loss of species that pollinate our food plants, climate change, political activism, and the discomfort I and many experience when we finally chose to speak out in some manner. In the earlier essay I wrote: “We now need all the self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and courage we can muster. Why? Because going beyond one’s comfort zone is what offers us the only opportunity to know what we are made of and to discern if what we do is good enough.” This month I will deepen the “inward” look. Hence the title: Beyond My Comfort Level II.
The word “shadow” reminds us that we are not pure light. So easy to say, but not so easy to deal with, shadow draws our attention to our attitudes, behaviors, and habits that embarrass and humiliate us when they slip past our well-groomed self-presentation (our “persona”) and our sense of ourselves, or when they take over and possess us. Most basically, shadow is “not I.” Shadow, used in this sense, comes from the work of C.G. Jung.
Shadow encompasses everything of which I am not aware, but also everything that I experience as Not-I. Case in point: When I was in postgraduate training at the Jung Institute in Chicago there was a fellow student whom I could barely tolerate. Every time he spoke I could feel rage boiling up inside me. I felt that his way of being canceled me out, made my way of being superfluous, negated me. How could the world be big enough for both of us, let alone the postgraduate program we were both enrolled in?
Over the decades I have mellowed somewhat. He has not become my favorite colleague, but I don’t get enraged when I hear him speak. Two qualities make him a shadow figure for me: first, there is expansiveness about him such that he fills the entire space, wherever he happens to be. Second, he appears to have a sense of easy-going self-confidence. Both of these qualities lag behind other human potentials I have developed to a fair degree. He is not evil, but his strengths painfully remind me of my deficits, those less-well adapted human behaviors and attitudes that lie within his comfort zone. And this takes me back to the title of this essay: beyond my comfort zone. I can (somewhat) develop my ability to fill the space I occupy; I can, and have, cultivated more self-confidence, and on a good day my self-confidence is more easy-going.  But I’ll never be as good at it as he is.
How do we know what is shadow for us? As my experience with my colleague shows, our reactions to other people (especially our negative reactions) provide a mirror in which we see what we are not. The people with whom we live can describe our shadow in detail – if we can stand hearing it! (Of course, we can return the favor, too.) At the societal level, “the other,” the out-group, those people who look different from us, or speak differently than we do, or support the other political party frequently carry shadow for us. Currently for many in the U.S. and other countries on this planet, migrants and immigrants serve as the mirror for the dominant culture’s shadow. They challenge us individually to scrutinize our cultural conditioning and recognize other valid ways of being human.
It often happens that we condemn in others what we ourselves unconsciously do. For example, I know a very talkative person whom I have heard complain bitterly about another person who talked, seemingly, incessantly. Black pots and kettles? Another example from my distant past comes to mind. Once in an interview at a professional meeting I was asked whom I didn’t like. I immediately thought of a man who spoke very circumstantially. Later I had to realize that I had difficulty making a simple, declarative statement. That fellow was doing what I did, but I didn’t see the same behavior in myself – until later.
Our dreams often confront us with shadow figures and behaviors. The classic shadow figure is that person who appears to be everything I am not, and whom I cannot stand, or fear. Sometimes this is a known person, but often the figure is unknown. As much as I may protest, and as often as I see the shadow figure as other, that shadow figure nevertheless is my human potentials that I have not developed and integrated into my conscious personality. This is where I have to go beyond the limits of my comfort zone. That is an ethical challenge.
Most of the time, nobody can succeed in forcing us to go beyond the limits of our comfort zone and begin to deal with shadow, the “Not-I.” For that matter, we see exactly the same inability to deal with the societal Not-I on the global scale in ethnic cleansing, racial superiority claims, mass immigration, and so on. It seems to me that we deal with personal or collective shadow only when forced by necessity.
What qualifies as necessity? The most pressing necessity is survival: unless we mend our ways, we will not survive. (Here we are at politics again.) However, necessity may also be less dramatic than brute  survival: We become problems to ourselves. When a person says, “I can’t stand myself, the way I am, and the things I do,” that person has taken the first step toward dealing with a shadow issue. That person has made an ethical/moral choice, and will necessarily go beyond the limits of the personal, and perhaps collective, comfort zone.
We are all called to grow into more mature – which means more ethical and more responsible – human beings who have worked on realizing not only our best gifts, but also our lesser gifts. This includes “gifts” that we struggle with, but do not fully master. Our struggle with the shadow usually begins when we say, “Enough. The changes I need to make can’t be much worse than enduring the present.” This journey leads to self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and a coming-to-terms with the shadow.

Beyond My Comfort Level

Recently the United Nations published its 2018 research paper, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. “In addition to conflict and violence in many parts of the world, the gains made in ending hunger and malnutrition are being eroded by climate variability and exposure to more complex, frequent, and intense climate extremes ….”

In November, Mary Hoff wrote in Scientific American that

In the 1990s, reports started cropping up around the world of disappearing pollinators. In 2006, researchers reported dramatic declines in counts of moths attracted to light traps in Great Britain. A 2010 international gathering of firefly experts reported unsettling downward trends(1).  In 2017, scientists reported a decline of more than 75 percent(2) in insect biomass across 63 nature areas in Germany between 1989 and 2016. A 2018 census(3) found an ominous drop in monarch butterflies along the California coast. Anecdotal evidence from Australia(4) earlier this year indicates insect declines there as well.


Although these results are disturbing, they’re not definitive.…

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to expect declines. Widespread use of insecticides is one obvious one. Others include habitat loss and degradation; declines in or disappearance of plants or animals that specific insects depend on for food and shelter; displacement by nonnative species; air, water and light pollution (5); the global spread of insect diseases; climate change; and even, says Wagner, nitrification due to fossil-fuel burning.

On Friday, March 1, William Brangham interviewed David Wallace-Wells, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist and editor at “New York Magazine,” who has just published The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.”It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wallace-Wells writes. “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions ….”

In addition to what climate change brings, we see all around us bullies and tyrants imposing their view and their will through disinformation, spin, fear, lies, and money. In the 7 December 2018 Washington Post, Charles Edel discussed the message of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s novel, The Captive Mind.

It was his attempt to explain why individuals moved along the path from resistance to surrender, submission and ultimately advocacy of a system of government they had detested. Written to explain what intellectual life was like behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Milosz’s work is freshly relevant today…. This process [of accommodating to an authoritarian regime] hardly ever occurred all at once. The changes happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, and began by a weakening of the will to resist.” [Milosz left Poland and fled to the relative safety of the West. Edel quotes Milosz: ]“I have won my freedom; but let me not forget that I stand in daily risk of losing it once more.”

Edel continues, “For those willing to resist, and for those wanting to encourage others to do so, Milosz recognized that refusing to be complicit is insufficient. The harder and more enduring task was recognizing that they had merely won the privilege to fight for [their freedom] for another day.”

Adding more examples of nastiness happening on the planet would be easy. These references set the background for discussing why I do what I do.

As a young man in my 20s, many of my contemporaries engaged (at least verbally) in various forms of protest and political activism. They vigorously criticized me for pursuing the psychological point of view. Of course, I felt both attacked and guilty. I couldn’t deny that awful things were happening on the planet. Neither could I deny that angry confrontation, or the prospect of angry confrontation, terrified me.

What I “do” is psychotherapy and psychoanalysis (as well as teach analysts-in-training and write my monthly blog for the Ommani Jewel). Since my 20s I have struggled with my awareness of the world mess and with my innate preference to work with individuals. How can I justify doing psychotherapy and analysis with one person at a time, or teaching psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to fifteen or twenty people at a time, when “the world is burning”?

For a long time, I have been painfully aware that an inclination, a predisposition, a fantasy, or an impulse in the psyche precedes whatever happens in the world. I know this from self-observation and from decades of working intimately with individuals. I also know that the native endowment for self-observation varies from person to person. Some people are naturally more predisposed to self-awareness than others. Fortunately, anyone can develop greater skill in self-observation and self-awareness. A person feels compelled to do this when one becomes a problem to oneself. Self-awareness and self-observation before acting give one time to evaluate the immediate situation as well as the fantasy, impulse, image, thought.

Victor Hugo is credited with saying that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.(Fascinating and important as it is, I will not attempt to establish when the time has come for any particular thought. That would make for a good essay; I’ll think about it.) Suffice it to say here that “ideas” often precede “their time,” some by decades (e.g., racial, ethnic, and gender equality) and others by seconds (e.g., the pertinent or impertinent observation that the king has no clothes, or is a cheat, liar, racist, con, and thin-skinned bully). Effectiveness depends on timing, and timing depends on some ability to sense the other person’s receptivity for what arises in one’s awareness. Effectiveness also depends on action, and action depends on a sense of self and on courage.

“Know thyself” is as old as western civilization. It admonished pilgrims to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and we find it in the Bible. In several of his letters, St. Paul repeats this injunction. In both instances – classical Greek and Biblical – self-knowledge comes from a source other than the conditioned mind. In the Greek context, pilgrims sought the guidance of Apollo – the Greek god of the sun, light, reason, medicine, and healing – through his mouthpiece the  priestess called the Pythia. Similarly, St. Paul references the Holy Spirit as the source of knowledge. Both the Greek and the Biblical sources clearly imply a “source” other than our empirical, worldly personalities. As C.G. Jung has pointed out, since we no longer experience either the classical gods or (for many people) the Christian deity as vital experiences, they have become, for many, myths, stories, historical images that have no relation to how we live or to our sense of ourselves. The vitality they once carried has disappeared from our conscious experience. They have, in effect, fallen into the unconscious.

Nowadays people say “from the unconscious,” as if that were a place or a part of the brain. The “unconscious” is everything of which I am unaware at the moment. Now the energies that filled the gods of Greece, or the Biblical Prophets, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit still move in us, but instead of recognizing them as powers greater than we are, we say “It,” thereby lumping a host of emotional energies together under one puny pronoun. “It makes me angry.” In mythological terms, that would be the god of War, Mars. “It demands a lot of me.” Saturn, the Greek god of limits, confinement, the difficulty would be a more vivid and informative way to talk about the experience. “I’m really enthusiastic!” Who asks, “What god fills me with energy?”

I am arguing that energies exist outside our conditioned consciousness which can sweep us up and carry us away if we cannot perceive them infecting us. When that does happen many of us may say, “I never behave like that. Something must have gotten into me.” Indeed. Self-awareness and self-knowledge must also include our awareness and knowledge of exactly these powerful energies that can and will have their way with us unless we can notice, monitor, and chose how to express them.

“Psychological polytheism” (i.e., what I have been talking about with the Greek gods as figures imaging energies with specific emotional and behavioral characteristics) represents a significant development of consciousness beyond unreflecting victimization by these and other energies. Remember, however, that whether the appeal goes to Apollo’s Pythia or to the Holy Spirit or a Higher Power, the supplicant seeks direction from a source other than his or her ego-consciousness that “stands” behind or above or outside of the manifest world, but is nevertheless involved in and concerned with the here-and-now. The notion of a  “higher power,” and I mean a “power” superior to the plurality of mythological gods, becomes desirable when one recognizes the reality of powerful conflicting forces, each trying to dominate our consciousness and our behavior. If this sounds far-fetched, just look around: Where did you recently see a bully on the loose? What about somebody driven by rage? Or another person crushed by physical or circumstantial or emotional limitations?

Theological terms (God, and gods, and demons, and such) don’t mean much to many people these days. Many branches of psychology prefer to talk in terms of diagnostic categories. Alas, many people identify themselves with diagnostic labels: “I’m OCD.” “I’m a depressive.” I am not trying to “sell” mythology or theology. What I want to emphasize is this: People do have a sense of incompleteness, that something is lacking, that they don’t feel themselves. How often do we hear someone say, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

These words imply some people’s dim awareness that there must be more to what they essentially are than what they have manifested, embodied, developed. For want of a better word, I will refer to this as “core,” the central, essential core of the individual.

I think of “core” as a “higher power,” superior to all the other powers that have at us as emotions and passions and sufferings. To be in touch with one’s core subordinates everything else to a more comprehensive sense of self than the passing fascination, fury, passion, or sadness. As C.G. Jung eloquently expressed the experience of being in touch with one’s core:

It is always a difficult thing to express, in intellectual terms, subtle feelings that are nevertheless infinitely important for the individual’s life and well-being. It is, in a sense, the feeling that we have been “replaced,” but without the connotation of having been deposed.” It is as if the guidance of life had passed over to an invisible centre.

This brings us back to why I do what I do: psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, teaching, and some writing.

If it is in fact true and real – as my study and experience testifies – that whatever happens manifestly on the planet emerges through the individual as an impulse, fantasy, reaction to something, or a thought, then changing the world depends on individuals’ having enough consciousness to notice what’s moving in them and being able to choose when, where, and how – and whether – to give expression to that impulse, etc.

Many of the impulses and fantasies we experience are less than pure gold. Often these impulses and fantasies are the expression of activated complexes. Technically, what we call complexes – more precisely, feeling-toned complexes – are emotionally-colored memories or memory clusters. Many complexes form around hurts and wounds. When something in our environment resembles any complex in us, that complex responds to some degree, first with the emotion characteristic of that complex, and then often with memory associations. “I cringe every time I hear that voice because it sounds just like my father when he was trying to be funny.” Hearing “that voice” activated emotions and memories experienced with father, and the present begins to feel like the past. To the extent we are conscious of what’s happening, we have the possibility of choosing what to say, what to do, how to react. If we aren’t aware, the activated complex takes over and we become its mouthpiece and agent, often to our regret.

But not all the energies that invade us come from personal complexes. C.G. Jung’s writings have made the words “archetype” and “archetypal” part of our contemporary vocabulary and each and every one of us has a full pantheon of archetypal patterns just waiting for the opportune moment to come alive in us and take over our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Jung wrote that the gods of the pantheon are not dead:

We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.

So part of what I do aims at helping people identify their complexes and the archetypal potentials that may be activated: both the typical emotions as well as the specific triggers that activate them. But beyond the complexes and archetypes we have yet to deal with the issue of the “core,” the essence of the individual.

As I wrote above, a person experiences the core, the essence, the Self (in Jungian terms) as a “higher power.” Some people are blessed with powerful experiences in which their essence reveals itself to them in a vision, a dream, a waking-life encounter.  Near-death experiences, for example, can have this effect. The paradigmatic example is Saul on the road to Damascus. I suspect, however, that most people are not granted this sort of boon. Most of the people I see professionally struggle with their complexes and their adaptation to the world and to themselves, wondering what they will be when they grow up. Through trial and error, they – and I – grope toward finding and following what C.G. Jung called “the implacable law of one’s being,” their “life-lines … not to be confused with the “guiding fictions’….”

Jung goes on to write that these life-lines have only “provisional value.” They are “points of view,” “never general principles or universally accepted ideals.” We do the best we can at the time, maybe not the best we know, but the best of which we are capable. Hence struggle, false starts, blind alleys, bad choices, dead ends, messy relationships. And, we hope, learning something along the way toward identifying, as well as we possibly can, the life-lines that lead toward the implacable law of our individual (and collective) being. All this is necessary but not enough.

It’s not enough because all over the planet we see people driven by their wounds and passions and visions and fantasies and hates and loves. And by the look of it, they are not plumbing their depths to examine what’s driving them.

As fundamental as it is, working with individuals is not enough. I will continue doing what I do, but I also have to do the hard thing – speak out and act publicly – not only in a blog in the Ommani Jewel, not only in the classes I teach but as a human being and a citizen. The prospect does not appeal to me. I’d much prefer to get lost in my books and follow the ideas that appeal to me.

In October 1916, Jung lectured his group of colleagues in Zurich. Three years had passed since he and Freud broke off their relationship. During this time Jung was plumbing his depths. In his lecture Jung  identifies the roots of neurosis: When a person prefers to look only within or only to look without, that is a one-sided, and therefore inadequate, adaptation, a failure in affirming the wholeness of one’s being.  We have to learn how to live with what we are (inner adaptation) as well as figure out how to live in the world (outer adaptation).

As if this weren’t demanding enough, Jung then talks about the individual’s relationship to the collective, specifically the individual who prefers to look inward, who preferences inner adaptation. This is the person who goes his or her own way, following his or her life-line for as long as it has energy.  This often violates the expectations, norms, and values of his or her society. Going one’s own way – the path of individuation – “cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity” and produces guilt. The individual “must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective personal sphere.”

For years I have struggled with my sense of guilt in relationship to the society and to the world in which I live. I have struggled with Jung’s hard words about “ransom” and about bringing forth “values which are an equivalent substitute for [my] absence in the collective personal sphere.” As my sense and acceptance of what I essentially am has grown, I feel safer with myself. Self-knowledge and self-acceptance make it easier to speak and write more openly about what I have experienced, what I have observed, and the “lessons” I have learned. I am less fearful than I used to be. I like to believe that in the course of my life I have recognized some “objective values,” as Jung puts it.

We now need all the self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and courage we can muster. Why? Because going beyond one’s comfort zone is what offers us the only opportunity to know what we are made of and to discern if what we do is good enough.

I will continue “to do what I do,” and I must now speak out more publicly. I must now contribute to the public discussion, the public dialog, the public debate. And to the public protest against what is hateful, wrong, and destructive. I have to move beyond my comfort zone to work in concert with others because isolated individuals cannot effectively confront the challenges we face as a species.

And so, Gentle Reader, what about you? Are you gaining ground against the complexes and archetypal energies that will colonize and run you if you let them? Is your self-knowledge and self-acceptance increasing? Do you have a sense of the “core” you, your essence, from which you can speak with integrity and act with others beyond your comfort zone?

March 2019 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and Director of the Analyst Training Program. He has been in practice since the mid-1980s.  To schedule an appointment, call the Ommani Center, 262-695-5311. Learn more at


1 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,, vi.

2 Hoff, Mary (2018). As Insect Populations Decline, Scientists Are Trying to Understand Why. Scientific American, November 1, 2018.


4 Edel, Charles (2018). “How democracies slide into authoritarianism.” The Washington Post, 2018-12-07,

5 Attributed to Victor Hugo. Various references found on the Internet (2018-02-27).

6 See 2 Corinthians 11:31-32, Galatians 6:4, 2 Peter 1-10. Also 1 John 1-9.

7 “Pertaining to possession by a deity,” from Greek enthousiastikos “inspired,” c. 1600.

8 Jung, C.G. (1938/1967). “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” Alchemical Studies, vol.13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton” Princeton University Press, para. 4. 

9 Jung, C.G. (1938/1967). Para. 54.

1Ibid., para. 77.

11 Jung, C.G. (1916/1980). “Adaptation, Individuation and Collectivity,” The Symbolic Life, vol 18, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton” Princeton University Press, para. 1095.



The Public Face of Psychological Type

Extraversion and introversion – most people know these two “type words.” They refer to basic orientations. Extraversion designates an individual attitude that looks outward, focusing on “what’s out there.” “Much as we feel the radiant warmth of the sun, the extraverted experience is mostly determined by the external thing being experienced.” Extraversion moves to create a shared experience. “The key thing about introversion … is its focus upon the personal process, even if it is in response to an external stimulus.” In a sense, the introverted experience tends to be private.

In addition to the attitudes of extraversion and introversion, we have two functions for perceiving and two for making judgments and decisions. One of the perceiving functions depends on our physical senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, etc. This is called the “sensation” function, abbreviated as capital “S.” The other perceiving function operates in such a way that we get a “whole picture” or the “whole story” at once. We call this “intuition,” abbreviated as capital “N.”

We also have two functions for making choices, judgments, and decisions. The thinking function (T) organizes information in some logical manner. (I like to think of the periodic table of the elements that we all saw in high school chemistry class where the elements are arranged by the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.) Alphabetizing, for example, depends on the thinking function. The other judging function is a little harder for some people to understand because the word used to identify it also substitutes for several other activities we engage in. This function is called “feeling” (F). Immediately you recognize the problem: the word “feel” sometimes means “feel with my fingers,” i.e., sensation. Or for “believe,” e.g., “I believe that to be true.” Or one more: “I feel we’re going to get a phone call,” meaning “I have the intuition, have a hunch ….”

It is a generally well-accepted view that the U.S., as a country, privileges extraversion over introversion, focusing more on externals than on internals. More: our U.S. culture tends to pay attention to what’s immediately happening (rather than, e.g., long-term trends or consequences) and to whatever can be quantified and monetized. That roughly defines what I’ve called a “public face” (in terms of psychological type). We see the up-side of this extraverted, sensate approach in some political leaders, for example. “Extraverted sensation (Se), which we all have to varying degrees, is particularly suited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics. When political leaders bring out this function-attitude, we see a pragmatic, energizing facilitator of movements. Adept at sensing where the ‘heat’ is, these types pick up on what the masses are feeling and leverage that energy towards an end.” That’s the positive expression. But there’s also a down-side to extraverted sensation (Se):” Extraverted sensors at their worst … miss the deeper meaning of their actions and long-term consequences. As leaders, they struggle with the long view. They prioritize the urgent over the important. They discount the value of a strategic vision or plan, and they disdain any rigorous planning process. Their impatience with detailed policies or procedures can cause them to miss critical steps on a checklist, for example.

I encourage you to read the article from which I have taken these quotes. The author, Cash Keahey, offers a well-informed understanding of populism and extraverted sensation (Se), one of the “public faces” of psychological type. His “Populism and Extraverted Sensation,” viewed from the vantage point of psychological type, reveals varieties of populism: that of Donald Trump, that of Bernie Sanders, and the populism of Andrew Jackson.

Run amok, populism can turn into mob mentality, which Keahey also discusses in depth.

Psychological type is personal, but also affects other people. Of course we know this from the people with whom we work as well as those who hold positions of authority and power in the workplace or public life.  As we see in the contrast between Trump and Sanders, the development of an individual’s type makes a huge difference in the way the individual presents and would govern if elected. Keahey’s inclusion of Andrew Jackson reveals what a more balanced development of the four functions and the two attitudes looks like.

Keahey’s article will stretch your mind in valuable ways. I encourage you to dig in. There’s a rich reward of insight and understanding if you persevere. This understanding should help you with making sense of our current cultural affairs, as well as bring consciousness to your own behaviors.

Here’s the link to the article:

1. Hunziker, M. (2016). p. 136f.

2.Eahey, Cash (2018, Oct). “Populism and Extraverted Sensation,” in Personality Type in Depth, 36, October 2018,

Holiday Alienation

Writing this between Christmas and New Year’s days, and having seen a few clients in between, the experience remains fresh: the year-end holidays offer the occasion for alienation. I mean the worst kind: self-alienation.  It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I hesitate to say “universal,” but certainly many people know what I’m talking about. And I know, too.

By self-alienation I mean that terrible feeling of having lost your sense of who you really are. The set-up is perfect: Cultural and family expectations around the year-end holidays, family patterns going back years, if not generations, and the reality that people really are different from one another. Christmas and New Year’s “as usual” present two ways you can end up feeling self-alienated. You can participate, blend in, “go with the program;” or you can attempt actively to structure the situation, hoping to make everybody involved comfortable and feeling welcomed.

To the extent that you blend in long enough without holding on to who you really are, you run the risk of losing your sense of self in the business-as-usual of the holidays. That tends toward depression.

To the extent you actively try to make everybody else feel at home, but don’t adequately attend to your own need for being real and authentic, you lose yourself. This route tends toward anger and exhaustion.

What I write here doesn’t apply to those for whom the Christmas message of spiritual renewal really works. Once upon a time (I want to believe), the Winter Solstice and the birth of the Christ child signaled the end of Darkness and the renewal of the Light, not only the solar light and the coming days of increased daylight but, more importantly, the re-awakening of an “inner” Light that promised to save us from our condition as mere human animals. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.” “Whoever lacks the “inner light” cannot bring it forth.

“Inner Light,” as I understand it, informs my sense of self: that which gives me the sense of being real, authentic, “on track,” doing and being “what I’m meant to do and be.” Jung expressed it in psychological terms when he wrote about the “life-line”: The construction of “life-lines” reveals to consciousness the ever-changing direction of the currents of libido [i.e., psychic energy].”(1)

An individual’s “life-line” (usually) does not appear as a four-lane super highway. Neither does it follow a straight course nor does the same direction last forever. “These life-lines, therefore, are never general principles or universally accepted ideals, but points of view and attitudes that have a provisional value.”(2) You can begin to recognize your individual, current life-line as an interest, an inclination, as a fantasy that preoccupies you, that time and again appears in your consciousness. “I think I’d like to . . . .” By noticing and following our current, provisional individual life-line as soon and as far as we can, over time we gradually uncover “an individual nucleus which is covered by the personal mask,”(3) by our conventional adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in at the moment. In this way we discover progressively more of ‘that which we have inside us that will save us if we bring it forth.’ Over time—months and years—the meanderings of our individual life-line reveals the path our life has taken, “made up, unfortunately, of fateful detours and wrong turnings,” the goal of which is the “whole” individual that reveals and incarnates the essential nucleus, “hidden and as yet unmanifest.”(4) I understand the notion of the individual life-line as one way of imaging a spark of the “inner light” of which Christmas and the Winter Solstice (should) remind us.

In the moment, however, when you recognize that you have lost your “feel” of who you really are, you need to reconnect with yourself. Psyche may help in the form of a thought, image, memory, or fantasy of some activity—however inconsequential or significant—that you have found to some degree satisfying. (Often for me it is either going back to studying something that interests me, putzing-around in my wood shop, or tending my house plants.) If nothing comes to mind, your situation is more distressing. Then you may have to try one thing, then another, and another for a few minutes until you discover something, some activity or focus of attention that holds your interest for a while. Paraphrasing, the Gospel of Thomas tells us, we have to find something within us and bring it forth that will save us—and I add: from self-alienation and meaninglessness. Recall what Jung wrote: the life-line is provisional. It works for a while until the flow of your psychic energy changes direction. Then you have to pay attention and change with it if you don’t want to end up stranded in some sort of self-alienated funk.

You are reading these lines—mid-January— and, I hope, you have survived. To the extent you have recovered from holiday self-alienation, you again have a sense of being your real (at least to some degree). The challenge does not end with the holidays. Everyday each of us has the opportunity to lose our sense of who we are and the challenge of re-discovering our life-line, that provisional sense of self-identity. We can’t take the current life-line for granted because our psychic energy does not follow any straight line, as we know from observing how our interests wax and wane.

So with these cheerful (?) thoughts, I wish you a Happy New Year. Best Wishes for staying in touch with who you really, essentially are this and every year.

(1) Jung, C.G. (1916 / 1970).  Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, vol. 7, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para. 500ff. (“Libido” is Jung’s term for psychic energy.)
(2)Ibid., para. 501.
(3)Ibid., para. 504.
(4)Jung, C.G. (1953/1968). Psychology and Alchemy, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para.6


Soul Work

Clients first schedule an appointment with me when they feel lost, confused, frustrated, anxious, or depressed. Perhaps they have the sense that they have lost – or never found – their path, or that the path they have followed has turned into what feels like a dead end. In scheduling time with me they hope to gain or regain their sense of direction and purpose: the source that makes their life meaningful. Some may have been living lives that suit other people and living their life less and less, or, sadly very little, or not at all.

As Jung writes in The Red Book,

Woe betide those who live by way of examples! Life is not with them. If you live according to an example, you thus live the life of that example, but who should live your own life if not you yourself? So live yourselves. (1)

This is potent stuff! Advertising and propaganda promote many examples for us to follow. They boil down to two: consume and compete. Jung does not set himself up here as an example to be followed: “There is only one way and that is your way. You seek the path? I warn you away from my own. It can be the wrong way for you. May each go his own way.” (2) What Jung does propose is this: cultivate and maintain an open channel to what exists beyond the limits of your waking consciousness. Jung calls that “open channel” the soul.

People use the word “soul” in various ways. In the sense, I use the term, “soul” names the ability of our consciousness to remain receptive and responsive to thoughts, images, fantasies, emotions, feelings that appear in our awareness without invitation. It’s not enough only to see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Soul, in the sense I use the term here, means that we feel whatever enters our awareness has an effect on us. It moves us emotionally in some way. And this experience of feeling and being moved tells us what we value.

The aroma of certain foods take us back emotionally to the times when we have smelled and eaten those foods, and especially to the emotional atmosphere of those times. Certain sounds work the same way; so does the quality of being touched physically. In other words, soul is a function of relationship to memories and experiences and possibilities that are not in our momentary or current awareness.

King Midas of ancient myth offers a vivid example of what happens to a person whose soul has withered. He got his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. The story is told that Midas, a king of great fortune, ruled the country of Phrygia in Asia Minor:

He had everything a king could wish for. He lived in luxury in a great castle. He shared his life of abundance with his beautiful daughter. Even though he was very rich, Midas thought that his greatest happiness was provided by gold. His avarice was such that he used to spend his days counting his golden coins! Occasionally he used to cover his body with gold objects, as if he wanted to bath in them. Money was his obsession. One day, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, passed through the kingdom of Midas. One of his companions, a satyr named Silenus, got delayed along the way. Silenus got tired and decided to take a nap in the famous rose gardens surrounding the palace of king Midas. There, he was found by the king, who recognized him instantly and invited him to spend a few days at his palace. After that, Midas took him to Dionysus. The god of celebration, very grateful to Midas for his kindness, promised Midas to satisfy any wish of him. Midas thought for a while and then he said: I hope that everything I touch becomes gold. Dionysus warned the king to think well about his wish, but Midas was positive. Dionysus could do nothing else and promised the king that from that following day everything he touched would turn into gold.

The next day, Midas, woke up eager to see if his wish would become true. He extended his arm touching a small table that immediately turned into gold. Midas jumped with happiness! He then touched a chair, the carpet, the door, his bathtub, a table and so he kept on running in his madness all over his palace until he got exhausted and happy at the same time! He sat at the table to have breakfast and took a rose between his hands to smell its fragrance. When he touched it, the rose became gold. I will have to absorb the fragrance without touching the roses, I suppose, he thought in disappointment. Without even thinking, he ate a grape but it also turned into gold! The same happened with a slice of bread and a glass of water. Suddenly, he started to sense fear. Tears filled his eyes and that moment, his beloved daughter entered the room. When Midas hugged her, she turned into a golden statue! Despaired and fearful, he raised his arms and prayed to Dionysus to take this curse from him.

The god heard Midas and felt sorry for him. He told Midas to go to river Pactolus and wash his hands. Midas did so: he ran to the river and was astonished to see gold flowing from his hands. The ancient Greeks said they had found gold on the banks of the river Pactolus. When he turned home, everything Midas had touched had become normal again. Midas hugged his daughter in full happiness and decided to share his great fortune with his people. From now on, Midas became a better person, generous and grateful for all goods of his life. His people led a prosperous life and when he died, they all mourned for their beloved king. (3)

The story of Midas teaches many lessons, but one big one is this: the capacity to experience interpersonal connection, pleasure, delight is more precious than gold. More: soul – that openness and receptivity to whatever enters our awareness –  connects us to the source, however, we want to name it.

A recent cartoon vividly depicts what happens when a person does not maintain one’s soul. The cartoonist, Mr. Fish,(4) indicts our soul-less orientation: “After years and years on not performing routine maintenance on his soul, Brad was sickened to discover that Amazon did not offer a replacement.”

Care of the soul is a practice of paying attention: paying attention to whatever enters one’s awareness unbidden. Thomas Moore, the author of the popular Care of the Soul, writes in another of his books: “The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for regular excursions into enchantment. It requires them like the body needs food and the mind needs thought. . . We have yet to learn that we can’t survive without enchantment and that the loss of it is killing us.”(5)

However, enchantment, and what the soul delivers to our awareness, may not always be straight from a Disney movie. “It would be a mistake to imagine enchantment in sentimental terms . . . (6)” Enchantment, he continues, “takes place easily in the margins—among marginal people and marginal activities,”(7)  and I might add in the “form” of marginal thoughts and images and fantasies and dreams. We need to hold our awareness open.

A lot of the work in therapy and analysis consists in developing openness: openness to whatever appears in our field of awareness. Among other things, this means withholding judgment (but also delaying action) until we have, with the fingers of our mind and feelings, felt the contours, rough edges, and soft spots of the new visitor in our waking mind. This is the nature of soul-work that keeps us in touch with the flow and current of our unique life path. This is how we live our life, not the life of someone else.

  1. Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book – A Readers Edition. Ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 125.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Source
  4. Used with permission
  5. Moore, Thomas (1996). New York: HarperPerennial, p. ix.
  6. Ibid., 351
  7. Ibid ., 355

The Heroic Attitude

The mood of the times in which we live affects all of us in one way or another. Weary, discouraged, disoriented, and depressed—and I could add angry—describe what many people feel. These emotions affect each and every one of us to some degree. We could talk about the political situation, or climate change, or the stock market, or corruption in high places, or any number of “issues.” But what, if anything, lies at the root of the malaise many perceive in our society?

In a recent essay, Henrique C. Pereira (2018) addresses this issue. In “The weariness of the hero: depression and the self in a civilization in transition” Pereira “raises the hypothesis that depression could be related to an increase or inflation of ego-consciousness which, in turn, is inseparable from the development of modernity.” (p. 420). He acknowledges that there can be many causes of depression. However, historically the ‘hero’ has symbolized the process of the development of self-consciousness and autonomy. As the sense of independence increases, the sense of interdependence tends to decrease. At a societal or cultural level, emphasis on individual aspirations and goals tends to lose sight of shared community aspirations and needs. Gradually some people begin to wonder: Where are we (as a couple, a family, a nation, as a species) going? Hence the confusion and call for strong leadership to set things right, and the appeal to get back to the way things used to work. But we also know that trying the same old thing hoping for a different outcome is one of the definitions of insanity.

In her introduction to the 2004 edition of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Clarissa Pincola-Estés describes the heroic attitude when functioning healthily:

This heroic way offers depth of insight and meaning. It is attentive to guides along the way, and invigorates life. We see that the journey of the hero and heroine are most often deepened via ongoing perils. These include losing one’s way innumerable times, refusing the first call, thinking it is only one thing when it really is, in fact, quite another—as well as entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude. Campbell points out that coming through such struggles causes the person [or the culture, I might add] to be infused with more vision, and to be strengthened by the spiritual life principle—which, more than anything else, encourages one to take courage to live with effrontery and mettle.” (p. xxiv)

When an individual, or a society, cannot pay attention to the guides along the way, nor face ongoing perils, nor deal with “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude,” that individual or society can become depressed; or worse, endangered. As William Butler Yeats wrote so powerfully in his poem, The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The heroic attitude runs amok is weary or misdirected. Perhaps the current hero attitude doesn’t know what to make of or do about an endangered civilization in transition.

We need to say more about the hero, specifically in terms of ego. The journey of the hero or heroine models the development of ego, that sense of “I.” Joseph Henderson (1964) writes that in the myths of diverse peoples all over the world,

Over and over again one hears a tale describing a hero’s miraculous but humble birth, his early proof of superhuman strength, his rapid rise to prominence or power, his triumphal struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a “heroic” sacrifice that ends in his death. [This pattern, he continues,] has psychological meaning both for the individual, who is endeavoring to discover and assert his personality and for a whole society, which has equal need to establish its collective identity. (p. 110)

The hero pattern informs the development of both individual and society, and both individual and society risk hybris when they become inflated with their accomplishments, as Shakespeare has Anthony ironically say of Caesar in act 2, scene 1, “scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.”

Hybris, inflation, in the psychological sense, identifies a condition of consciousness characterized by “a feeling of power in which we are blown up by an unknown force that is not our own . . . . However, it feels as if it were and we claim it as our own. It makes us feel cocksure and self-righteous . . . .” (Whitmont, 1969, 59) Inflation differs from the experience of being “swept away.” When one feels swept away, one recognizes one’s loss of control and feels the exhilaration or terror that accompanies it.   Inflation feels strong, powerful, self-righteous, holier-than-thou. Assertions like “I’m the most successful” and “I’m the greatest” and “I’ve got the biggest audience” betray ego-inflation.

To return for a moment to Clarissa Pincola-Estés’s words about the hero’s or heroine’s struggles, “These [ongoing perils] include losing one’s way innumerable times, refusing the first call, thinking it is only one thing when it really is, in fact, quite another—as well as entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude.” What are these “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude”? Societal and cultural habits, natural challenges (such as climate change), as well as personal and tribal conflicts constitute one set of challenges. The other set of challenges with which both the individual and a society or a culture must contend consist in the “invisible” transpersonal/archetypal forces once upon a time referred to as “gods and goddesses,” or the Zeitgeist which we now can also study astrologically and psychologically in the writings, for example, of Richard Tarnas (2006) and Stan Groff (1988, 2012).

The development of modernity (from the late 18th and through the 20th centuries) has included the mechanization and industrialization of work, the development of experimental sciences, the historical-sociological-critical study of Christianity but also the steadily increasing interest in “Eastern” beliefs and religions as well as the rise of various psychologies that have, to a great extent, supplanted the role counseling and therapeutic role formerly fulfilled by clergy (to name only a few salient characteristics). Many people in industrialized countries have gradually but steadily lost their living connection with the  “invisible” transpersonal / archetypal / astrological forces, those “powers” greater than the individual ego-consciousness that one must take into account lest one risk ego-inflation, the erroneous belief that “I did it all myself; aren’t I wonderful,” and the consequent fall from power that every hero and heroic consciousness or society must experience when it meets its match as outer opponent, inner obstacle, insuperable limit to its expansion, or the sense that all the toys aren’t worth the effort. When the experience of feeling held back lasts long enough, weariness or discouragement or depression follows. Then neither pill nor stimulant nor conquest can alleviate. So what do we do now?

 “Head knowledge” doesn’t help much. Intense experience does. Intense experience worked through transforms. The client who deeply grieves with me in session does the emotional work necessary to move past the loss. The client wracked by sobs about life and opportunities squandered does the emotional work necessary to move on to new opportunities, often never dreamed of. The client raging to exhaustion at mistreatment suffered often settles the old score with a parent or an abuser and can return to life with renewed energy. The client shaken by a dream has met with an “inner” reality that can no longer be avoided. Further, the client who has some knowledge of the archetypal forces working on her or him can better understand and address current moods, impulses, and experiences.

As a child of our times, for several months I have been keeping up a faster pace than I really like. Many people with whom I talk have also felt similarly pressured. Maybe, I thought, I’m “just” getting old and can’t keep up like I used to. Then recently my wife and I watched the 1977 movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I almost got impatient at the end when what seemed like several minutes passed as we watched the leisurely approach of the spaceship. What a contrast to the velocity of current films! There appears to be some degree of objective reality to the difference between the pace in 1977 and the haste in 2018. Clearly, I (we all) need to slow down, intentionally make time to clear our busy minds so that we can become aware of “ guides along the way” that appear as dreams, synchronistic events, meaningful encounters with other people, and conversations in depth with dear and trusted friends.

Recently I notice that both my wife and I are more irritable, more impatient with each other. Our tempers flare faster than in the past, but the old irritants have no new additions. What’s going on? Finally, it occurred to me to check my astrological birth chart. What might be going on there? Am I experiencing a transit to something? Is my wife experiencing a transit to something?  

What I found in both her and my natal charts made sense. The planet Uranus—which, among other things, corresponds to an energy that volatilizes whatever it touches—was coming into relationship with the Mars, the planet corresponding to self-assertion, action, drive. Our Mars energy was getting supercharged by the Uranus contact. Knowing this bit of “astrological weather” made sense. We’re still short-tempered, but we don’t have to take it so personally as we might have without the astrological knowledge.

Individually we suffer to some degree. Similarly, our society or culture suffers. The Greatest Generation endured and mastered terrible times—the Great Depression and World War II—and discovered the power of shared ordeal and support of community. As a species we live in terrible times: climate change, massive species loss, and continuing population explosion endanger not only human life but all higher forms of life on this planet. Where is the collective grief? Where do we see the shared suffering that reminds us that we’re all in this together?

 “We the people” are in fact keeping a faster pace than we did in the 1970s. What has changed in the forty intervening years? We pay less attention to feelings, intuitions, physical signals (“symptoms”), dreams. That signifies a diminished conscious connection to those well-springs that invigorate life. Hence Pereira relates depression to an increase or inflation of ego-consciousness in the context of a civilization in transition. First, what does an inflation of ego-consciousness mean?

Intense experience worked through transforms. “Working through” means finding ways to come to terms with what has been experienced. Working through means integrating the content of the intense experience into ego-consciousness. Working through the “entanglements and confrontations with something of great and often frightening magnitude” (as Pincola-Estés wrote) reconnects ego-consciousness with something beyond ego-consciousness, sometimes even the Source.    

We are all children of the times in which we live—willingly cooperating with or bucking the system. In therapy and analysis, I see women and men—problems to themselves—who bring their experience of the world with them. Explicitly or implicitly for most of them, their ‘heroic’ attitude is weary.

Part of my task with clients consists in helping peel away layers of conditioning and accommodation in order to get to the vital core where the real hero awaits, the real hero who can face the challenges, the “false starts, and wrong turnings and blind alleys,” as Jung once wrote. We need the heroic attitude that is willing to face the perils, the dangers, the personal and cultural unknowns. As we work through the layers, both of us—client and analyst—must feel and experience what we are touching. That, too, is part of the heroic attitude. Otherwise, we’re on a head-trip that fails to transform and liberate.

There is a saying attributed to Gandhi: Be the change you want to see happen. This may not be accurate. In a column in the New York Times, “Falser Words Were Never Spoken,” Brian Morton (2011) writes:

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

One client and one analyst in one room for one hour a week—that seems so pathetically little in the face of the challenges we face as a species. Repeatedly I have to remind myself that change begins one person at a time; first with me, then through me, perhaps in others. Yes, there is any number of small acts; it is not the stuff of passivity, but the stuff of courage. As you reflect upon what the “mood of the times” means for you…how will/do you live and embrace the heroic attitude?

  • Henderson, J. (1964). Ancient myths and modern
  • Groff, S. (2012). Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift. Newcastle, Washington: Stream of Experience.

_____. (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. [Any and all of Stan Groff’s books are important.]

  • Jung, C. G. (1921). Psychological Types. Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton; Princeton University Press.
  • Morton, B. (2011). New York Times, August 29, 2011.
  • Pereira, H. C. (2018). The weariness of the hero: depression and the self in a civilization in transition. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2018, 63, 4, 420-439.
  • Pinicola-Estés, C. (1949/2004). Introduction to Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton Princeton University Press.
  • Tarnas, R. (2006). Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations f a New World View. New York: Viking. (There are a number of YouTube videos featuring lectures by or interviews with Rick Tarnas.]

Whitmont, E. C. (1969). The Symbolic Quest. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Willfulness and Greed vs Mother Nature

Guess who’s going to win? It’s Mother Nature every time. Two traditional stories—“fairy tales,” Märchen (in German) – tell the fate of human greed and willfulness. One, Frau Holle, I will discuss this month. I will take up the other, The Fisherman and his Wife, in August. Both tales teach the same lesson: given half a chance and a little help, Mother Nature always wins in the end, and the greedy, willful person loses.

We can read some of these traditional stories literally. Other traditional stories don’t make any sense at all from a literal point of view. Up to a certain point, the Frau Holle story could describe a family triangle: widowed mother, daughter, and step-daughter. But after a certain point in the narrative, literally makes no sense. We have to move to allegory. But I’m getting ahead of the story. First, the story, originally recorded in the 19th Century by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their Kinder und Hausmaerchen.

Once upon a time, there was a widow who had two daughters; one of them was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. The mother, however, loved the ugly and lazy one best, because she was her own daughter, and so the other, who was only her stepdaughter, was made to do all the work of the house and was quite the Cinderella of the family. Her stepmother sent her out every day to sit by the well in the high road, there to spin until she made her fingers bleed. Now it chanced one day that some blood fell on to the spindle, and as the girl stooped over the well to wash it off, the spindle suddenly sprang out of her hand and fell into the well. She ran home crying to tell of her misfortune, but her stepmother spoke harshly to her, and after giving her a violent scolding, said unkindly, ‘As you have let the spindle fall into the well you may go yourself and fetch it out.’

The girl went back to the well not knowing what to do, and at last in her distress, she jumped into the water after the spindle.

She remembered nothing more until she awoke and found herself in a beautiful meadow, full of sunshine, and with countless flowers blooming in every direction.

She walked over the meadow, and presently she came upon a baker’s oven full of bread, and the loaves cried out to her, ‘Take us out, take us out, or alas! we shall be burnt to a cinder; we were baked through long ago.’ So she took the bread-shovel and drew them all out.

She went on a little farther, till she came to a tree full of apples. ‘Shake me, shake me, I pray,’ cried the tree; ‘my apples, one and all, are ripe.’ So she shook the tree, and the apples came falling down upon her like rain, but she continued shaking until there was not a single apple left upon it. Then she carefully gathered the apples together in a heap and walked on again.

The next thing she came to was a little house, and there she saw an old woman looking out, with such large teeth, that she was terrified, and turned to run away. But the old woman called after her, ‘What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do the work of my house properly for me, I will make you very happy. You must be very careful, however, to make my bed in the right way, for I wish you always to shake it thoroughly so that the feathers fly about; then they say, down there in the world, that it is snowing; for I am Mother Holle.’ The old woman spoke so kindly, that the girl summoned up courage and agreed to enter into her service.

She took care to do everything according to the old woman’s bidding and every time she made the bed she shook it with all her might so that the feathers flew about like so many snowflakes. The old woman was as good as her word: she never spoke angrily to her and gave her roast and boiled meats every day.

So she stayed on with Mother Holle for some time, and then she began to grow unhappy. She could not at first tell why she felt sad, but she became conscious at last of great longing to go home; then she knew she was homesick, although she was a thousand times better off with Mother Holle than with her mother and sister. After waiting awhile, she went to Mother Holle and said, ‘I am so homesick, that I cannot stay with you any longer, for although I am so happy here, I must return to my own people.’

Then Mother Holle said, ‘I am pleased that you should want to go back to your own people, and as you have served me so well and faithfully, I will take you home myself.’

Thereupon she led the girl by the hand up to a broad gateway. The gate was opened, and as the girl passed through, a shower of gold fell upon her, and the gold clung to her so that she was covered with it from head to foot.

‘That is a reward for your industry,’ said Mother Holle, and as she spoke she handed her the spindle which she had dropped into the well.

The gate was then closed, and the girl found herself back in the old world close to her mother’s house. As she entered the courtyard, the cock who was perched on the well, called out:


Your golden daughter’s come back to you.’

Then she went into her mother and sister, and as she was so richly covered with gold, they gave her a warm welcome. She related to them all that had happened, and when the mother heard how she had come by her great riches, she thought she should like her ugly, lazy daughter to go and try her fortune. So she made the sister go and sit by the well and spin, and the girl thrust her hand into a thorn-bush so that she might drop some blood on to the spindle; then she threw it into the well and jumped in herself.

Like her sister she awoke in the beautiful meadow and walked over it till she came to the oven. ‘Take us out, take us out, or alas! we shall be burnt to a cinder; we were baked through long ago,’ cried the loaves as before. But the lazy girl answered, ‘Do you think I am going to dirty my hands for you?’ and walked on.

Presently she came to the apple-tree. ‘Shake me, shake me, I pray; my apples, one and all, are ripe,’ it cried. But she only answered, ‘A nice thing to ask me to do, one of the apples might fall on my head,’ and passed on.

At last she came to Mother Holle’s house, and as she had heard all about the large teeth from her sister, she was not afraid of them, and engaged herself without delay to the old woman.

The first day she was very obedient and industrious, and exerted herself to please Mother Holle, for she thought of the gold she should get in return. The next day, however, she began to dawdle over her work, and the third day she was idler still; then she began to lie in bed in the mornings and refused to get up. Worse still, she neglected to make the old woman’s bed properly and forgot to shake it so that the feathers might fly about. So Mother Holle very soon got tired of her and told her she might go. The lazy girl was delighted at this, and thought to herself, ‘The gold will soon be mine.’ Mother Holle led her, as she had led her sister, to the broad gateway; but as she was passing through, instead of the shower of gold, a great bucketful of pitch came pouring over her.

‘That is in return for your services,’ said the old woman, and she shut the gate.

So the lazy girl had to go home covered with pitch, and the cock on the well called out as she saw her:


Your dirty daughter’s come back to you.’

But, try what she would, she could not get the pitch off and it stuck to her as long as she lived.

This tale of the Dirty Daughter gives me a lot of satisfaction: I haven’t succeeded at greed and willfulness like a lot of people, and I’m always gratified when they get their just desserts, fall from grace, or otherwise run out of what they call their “luck.” There’s a part of me that wants what it wants when it wants it: now. My unsatisfied greed shadow is “happier” when someone else’s greed shadow loses out.

We can read this story in several ways. We can take it as a family drama: a widowed mother, daughter, and step-daughter. Unfortunately, stepchildren sometimes get stepchild treatment. Some parents treat their biological children far better than their stepchildren. In some families, one child works overtime trying to please the parent(s), but without success. Unfortunately in waking life such a family drama usually doesn’t have the “fairy tale ending” of this story. We can also read the story from the viewpoint of either daughter. And in principle we could take the stepmother’s stance as our point-of-reference, or – more challengingly – look at the events in the story through Frau Holle’s eyes. However, the story told in Frau Holle makes the most sense when we look beyond the literal reading and take the setting and the actors in terms of allegory and symbol.

First, what do I mean by “allegory” and “symbol”?

I mean a story (or poem or picture, etc.) in which the characters and events express or reveal a pattern that informs/structures the narrative of different characters in different circumstances. Usually, an allegory represents particular moral, ethical, religious, or political ideas. And I would add psychological insights.

A symbol, 1) means more than it (literally) is, and 2) seems to convey endless meanings. Said otherwise: we can legitimately understand a symbol in many ways. An authentic symbol continues to fascinate us. If only we had more words, we could better say what it means.

Back to Frau Holle via a detour. Many years ago I had a young man client who came because his uncle thought it would be good for him. We didn’t have many sessions because a dream alerted me to his lack of interest in anything outside of his consciousness. Here’s his dream:

I enter an underground room. It’s very large. There are all sorts of things there on tables and shelves. In one corner there is a little old woman sitting. I walk around, looking at all the stuff, and then walk out.

When he told me this dream, I immediately thought of the Frau Holle story: he wasn’t interested in all the “stuff” underground, nor in the old woman. Here’s why this is important.

We, humans, live above ground. For us, what’s underground is hidden; we are “unaware” if it, that is, “unconscious” of its existence. In the Frau Holle tale, the girl finds the bread ready to be taken from the oven and the apples ready to be picked, and then Frau Holle herself, whom, as the girl leaves for “home”, showers her with gold coins as a reward for her service. In his dream, my client saw nothing of value in the underground room. Only the above-ground world meant anything to him, so I concluded that he wouldn’t be able to do anything useful in therapy with me. As I said, we humans are unconscious of whatever may be “underground,” i.e., outside of our conscious awareness. However, both the story and the dream tell us that there is much of value “underground,” below our threshold of awareness.

Let’s think about both the “good” daughter and her “ugly” sister, and the different conscious attitudes they portray.

In the story, the good daughter cooperates with the oven, the apple tree, and Frau Holle. Translated into conscious terms, she pays attention to “messages” that emerge into her awareness of “the unconscious.” In terms of the story, these messages are the baked bread, the ripe apples, and Frau Holle herself. The good daughter has the correct relationship to those real needs, possibilities, hunches that enter her consciousness unbidden. Because she has a right relationship to the unconscious (Frau Holle’s underworld realm), she prospers.

Willfulness and greed characterize the ugly daughter’s conscious attitude. She – and her mother appear to operate on the basis of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  She and her mother want the “gold,” but the only way to get the gold comes through honoring and workings with the natural growth and fulfillment processes of the unconscious dimension of the psyche; or in terms of the story, taking the bread out of the oven when it is baked, picking the apples when they are ripe, and fulfilling to Frau Holle’s – i.e., Mother Nature’s – requirements. For her part, Frau Holle – Mother Nature – can and does respect the good girl’s need to relate to her conscious world, her home, crappy though it may be.

Now what about the “stepmother”? We all know that “stepmother” neither necessarily, nor always, refers to a woman who is not the biological mother. Similarly, feeling treated like a stepchild characterizes a second-class (or worse) status in a family. The stepmother and Frau Holle reveal two aspects of mother: mother as a conscious, waking-life experience — the stepmother – and mother as an “inner” or “in-born” capacity to nurture and provide guidance.

Maybe this is a little difficult to get our heads around. We’ve all heard the admonition, “Be good to yourself.” But some people really do not know how to be good to themselves. Sure, they may indulge in food, drink, shopping, or something else, but indulgence doesn’t work. “Be good to yourself” means open to your innate, inner good mother, or as in the story, open to Frau Holle and her realm. Following the story, we could say that people who do not know how to be good to themselves have, in effect, a cruel stepmother, just as does the girl.

Early childhood experience influences whether a person – man or woman – has, in effect, a stepmother or a Frau Holle, an abuser or a nurturer, dominating their conscious life. Early relationships establish patterns of expectation and behavior that can and all-too-often do endure for life unless a person realizes that change is possible. Then with courage and perseverance, a person can gradually replace old patterns of relating to others and to oneself with less-punitive and more nurturing patterns.

We can easily extend this story from individual to mass psychology. The blessings of industrialization on our little planet no longer look quite so inviting as they did over the last seventy years following the Second World War – if you are old enough to remember the advertisements and the promises of “better things through chemistry.” Monsanto, anyone?  Chernoble? Deepwater Horizon? Dakota Access Pipeline? And yet we also know that, given half a chance and a little help, Mother Nature rebounds: Bison again “gradually roam much of the 3,500-acre Nachusa Grasslands — the key part of an ambitious prairie restoration 95 miles west of Chicago.” And this is only one example of many.

Nevertheless, the struggle between Frau Holle and the evil stepmother – personal and collective – is far from over.

What I have written here only begins to discuss the richness in this “fairy tale.” If this story touches your compassion or your wounds, think on it. Note down what comes to mind: emotions, memories, thoughts. As you live with Frau Holle, chances are you will deepen your understanding of this powerful and paradigmatic tale. And maybe it will begin to change your life, if only a little bit . . . at a time.

  1. Text from “This eBook of “Fairy Tales” by the Grimm Brothers (based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor and Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes) belongs to the public domain.”

July, 2018 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW

Nature In Uproar

The tale of “The Fisherman and his Wife” tells a story for our times: Our human willfulness can finally ask too much of Mother Nature. In “Frau Holle,” discussed in last month’s article, we saw that cooperating with Mother Nature brought golden rewards. Attempting to manipulate Mother Nature likewise got results: but tar, rather than gold. “The Fisherman and his Wife” depict Mother Nature becoming more and more agitated by human demands.

As I wrote in last month’s article, we can read some of these traditional stories literally. Other traditional stories don’t make any sense at all from a literal point of view. After a certain point in the narrative we have to move to allegory and symbol. First, what do I mean by “allegory” and “symbol”?

I mean a story (or poem or picture, etc.) in which the characters and events express or reveal a pattern that informs/structures the narrative of different characters in different circumstances. Usually an allegory represents particular moral, ethical, religious, or political ideas. And I would add: psychological insights.

A symbol, 1) means more than it (literally) is, and 2) seems to convey endless meanings. We can legitimately understand a symbol in many ways. An authentic symbol continues to fascinate us. If only we had more words, we could better say what it means.

So when you read “The Fisherman and his Wife,” let yourself “hear” the tale on many levels.  

There was once a fisherman who lived with his wife in a pigsty, close by the seaside. The fisherman used to go out all day long a-fishing; and one day, as he sat on the shore with his rod, looking at the sparkling waves and watching his line, all of a sudden his float was dragged away deep into the water: and in drawing it up he pulled out a great fish. But the fish said, ’Pray let me live! I am not a real fish; I am an enchanted prince: put me in the water again, and let me go!’ ’Oh, ho!’ said the man, ’you need not make so many words about the matter; I will have nothing to do with a fish that can talk: so swim away, sir, as soon as you please!’ Then he put him back into the water, and the fish darted straight down to the bottom, and left a long streak of blood behind him on the wave.

When the fisherman went home to his wife in the pigsty, he told her how he had caught a great fish, and how it had told him it was an enchanted prince, and how, on hearing it speak, he had let it go again. ’Did not you ask it for anything?’ said the wife, ’we live very wretchedly here, in this nasty dirty pigsty; do go back and tell the fish we want a snug little cottage.’

The fisherman did not much like the business: however, he went to the seashore; and when he came back there the water looked all yellow and green. And he stood at the water’s edge, and said:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

Then the fish came swimming to him, and said, ’Well, what is her will? What does your wife want?’ ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’she says that when I had caught you, I ought to have asked you for something before I let you go; she does not like living any longer in the pigsty, and wants a snug little cottage.’ ’Go home, then,’ said the fish; ’she is in the cottage already!’ So the man went home, and saw his wife standing at the door of a nice trim little cottage. ’Come in, come in!’ said she; ’is not this much better than the filthy pigsty we had?’ And there was a parlour, and a bedchamber, and a kitchen; and behind the cottage there was a little garden, planted with all sorts of flowers and fruits; and there was a courtyard behind, full of ducks and chickens. ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’how happily we shall live now!’ ’We will try to do so, at least,’ said his wife.

Everything went right for a week or two, and then Dame Ilsebill said, ’Husband, there is not near room enough for us in this cottage; the courtyard and the garden are a great deal too small; I should like to have a large stone castle to live in: go to the fish again and tell him to give us a castle.’ ’Wife,’ said the fisherman, ’I don’t like to go to him again, for perhaps he will be angry; we ought to be easy with this pretty cottage to live in.’ ’Nonsense!’ said the wife; ’he will do it very willingly, I know; go along and try!’

The fisherman went, but his heart was very heavy: and when he came to the sea, it looked blue and gloomy, though it was very calm; and he went close to the edge of the waves, and said:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’Well, what does she want now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said the man, dolefully; ’my wife wants to live in a stone castle.’ ’Go home, then,’ said the fish; ’she is standing at the gate of it already.’ So away went the fisherman, and found his wife standing before the gate of a great castle. ’See,’ said she, ’is not this grand?’ With that they went into the castle together, and found a great many servants there, and the rooms all richly furnished, and full of golden chairs and tables; and behind the castle was a garden, and around it was a park half a mile long, full of sheep, and goats, and hares, and deer; and in the courtyard were stables and cow-houses. ’Well,’ said the man, ’now we will live cheerful and happy in this beautiful castle for the rest of our lives.’ ’Perhaps we may,’ said the wife; ’but let us sleep upon it, before we make up our minds to that.’ So they went to bed.

The next morning when Dame Ilsebill awoke it was broad daylight, and she jogged the fisherman with her elbow, and said, ’Get up, husband, and bestir yourself, for we must be king of all the land.’ ’Wife, wife,’ said the man, ’why should we wish to be the king? I will not be king.’ ’Then I will,’ said she. ’But, wife,’ said the fisherman, ’how can you be king–the fish cannot make you a king?’ ’Husband,’ said she, ’say no more about it, but go and try! I will be king.’ So the man went away quite sorrowful to think that his wife should want to be king. This time the sea looked a dark grey colour, and was overspread with curling waves and the ridges of foam as he cried out:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’Well, what would she have now?’ said the fish. ’Alas!’ said the poor man, ’my wife wants to be king.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish; ’she is king already.’

Then the fisherman went home; and as he came close to the palace he saw a troop of soldiers, and heard the sound of drums and trumpets. And when he went in he saw his wife sitting on a throne of gold and diamonds, with a golden crown upon her head; and on each side of her stood six fair maidens, each a head taller than the other. ’Well, wife,’ said the fisherman, ’are you king?’ ’Yes,’ said she, ’I am king.’ And when he had looked at her for a long time, he said, ’Ah, wife! What a fine thing it is to be king! Now we shall never have anything more to wish for as long as we live.’ ’I don’t know how that may be,’ said she; ’never is a long time. I am king, it is true; but I begin to be tired of that, and I think I should like to be emperor.’ ’Alas, wife! Why should you wish to be emperor?’ asked the fisherman. ’Husband,’ said she, ’go to the fish! I say I will be emperor.’ ’Ah, wife!’ replied the fisherman, ’the fish cannot make an emperor, I am sure, and I should not like to ask him for such a thing.’ ’I am king,’ said Ilsebill, ’and you are my slave; so go at once!’

So the fisherman was forced to go; and he muttered as he went along, ’This will come to no good, it is too much to ask; the fish will be tired at last, and then we shall be sorry for what we have done.’ He soon came to the seashore; and the water was quite black and muddy, and a mighty whirlwind blew over the waves and rolled them about, but he went as near as he could to the water’s brink, and said:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’What would she have now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’she wants to be emperor.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish; ’she is emperor already.’

So he went home again; and as he came near he saw his wife Ilsebill sitting on a very lofty throne made of solid gold, with a great crown on her head full two yards high; and on each side of her stood her guards and attendants in a row, each one smaller than the other, from the tallest giant down to a little dwarf no bigger than my finger. And before her stood princes, and dukes, and earls: and the fisherman went up to her and said, ’Wife, are you emperor?’ ’Yes,’ said she, ’I am emperor.’ ’Ah!’ said the man, as he gazed upon her, ’what a fine thing it is to be emperor!’ ’Husband,’ said she, ’why should we stop at being emperor? I will be pope next.’ ’O wife, wife!’ said he, ’how can you be pope? There is but one pope at a time in Christendom.’ ’Husband,’ said she, ’I will be pope this very day.’ ’But,’ replied the husband, ’the fish cannot make you pope.’ ’What nonsense!’ said she; ’if he can make an emperor, he can make a pope: go and try him.’

So the fisherman went. But when he came to the shore the wind was raging and the sea was tossed up and down in boiling waves, and the ships were in trouble and rolled fearfully upon the tops of the billows. In the middle of the heavens, there was a little piece of blue sky, but towards the south, all was red as if a dreadful storm was rising. At this sight, the fisherman was dreadfully frightened, and he trembled so that his knees knocked together: but still he went down near to the shore, and said:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’What does she want now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said the fisherman, ’my wife wants to be pope.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish; ’she is pope already.’

Then the fisherman went home and found Ilsebill sitting on a throne that was two miles high. And she had three great crowns on her head, and around her stood all the pomp and power of the Church. And on each side of her were two rows of burning lights, of all sizes, the greatest as large as the highest and biggest tower in the world, and the least no larger than a small rushlight. ’Wife,’ said the fisherman, as he looked at all this greatness, ’are you pope?’ ’Yes,’ said she, ’I am pope.’ ’Well, wife,’ replied he, ’it is a grand thing to be pope; and now you must be easy, for you can be nothing greater.’ ’I will think about that,’ said the wife. Then they went to bed: but Dame Ilsebill could not sleep all night for thinking what she should be next. At last, as she was dropping asleep, morning broke, and the sun rose. ’Ha!’ thought she, as she woke up and looked at it through the window, ’after all I cannot prevent the sun rising.’ At this thought, she was very angry, and wakened her husband, and said, ’Husband, go to the fish and tell him I must be lord of the sun and moon.’ The fisherman was half asleep, but the thought frightened him so much that he started and fell out of bed. ’Alas, wife!’ said he, ’cannot you be easy with being pope?’ ’No,’ said she, ’I am very uneasy as long as the sun and moon rise without my leave. Go to the fish at once!’

Then the man went shivering with fear; and as he was going down to the shore a dreadful storm arose so that the trees and the very rocks shook. And all the heavens became black with stormy clouds, and the lightning played, and the thunder rolled; and you might have seen in the sea great black waves, swelling up like mountains with crowns of white foam upon their heads. And the fisherman crept towards the sea, and cried out, as well as he could:

’O man of the sea!
 Hearken to me!
 My wife Ilsebill
 Will have her own will,
 And hath sent me to beg a boon of thee!’

’What does she want now?’ said the fish. ’Ah!’ said he, ’she wants to be lord of the sun and moon.’ ’Go home,’ said the fish, ’to your pigsty again.’

And there they live to this very day.

At one level of reading this tale needs no interpretation. Even though I have read it many times and thought about it often, the figure of Dame Ilsebill, her intimidated fisherman husband, the enchanted prince / fish, and the progressively more agitated ocean arouse an instinctive gut-level fear in me. The Greek word hubris characterizes Dame Ilsebill’s attitude and behavior. “Hubris . . . describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance. In its ancient Greek context, it typically describes behavior that defies the norms of behavior or challenges the gods, and which in turn brings about the downfall, or nemesis, of the perpetrator of hubris.”

Enough said?

Without going into details about each of the figures, we understand the message of the tale: For months now, the news has reported the fall of prominent men who have exploited their social, professional and/or political positions for personal gratification. But can we get more out of this story than meets the eye? In this story we want to understand more what the fisherman, his wife, the fish (who is an enchanted prince) and the ocean may mean. We can deepen our understanding as with a dream that makes an emotional and intuitive impact. This moves us into the allegorical and symbolic dimension. I’ll start with the ocean.

Myths and stories from the past give us a clue to the meaning people have experienced in various natural phenomena. We recall that creation according to the Book of Genesis commences when God separates the waters above from the waters below. The Babylonian account predates even the Biblical account:
When skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them.

Another set of creation myths feature a creature that dives deep into the primal ocean to find bits of sand or earth out of which the solid land is formed.

The earth-diver is a common character in various traditional creation myths. In these stories a supreme being usually sends an animal into the primal waters to find bits of sand or mud with which to build habitable land. . . . Earth-diver myths are common in Native American folklore but can be found among the Chukchi and Yukaghir, the Tatars and many Finno-Ugrian traditions. . . .

Characteristic of many Native American myths, earth-diver creation stories begin as beings and potential forms linger asleep or suspended in the primordial realm. The earth-diver is among the first of them to awaken and lay the necessary groundwork by building suitable lands where the coming creation will be able to live. In many cases, these stories will describe a series of failed attempts to make land before the solution is found.

Following the pattern of these creation stories, the ocean in The Fisherman and his Wife contains all possibilities, not just for life, but for life on dry land, which is where we humans live. Viewed psychologically, the ocean symbolizes everything of which we are consciously aware and the source of everything. The shorthand for this is “the unconscious:” everything that exists but of which I am not now, and perhaps never yet was, conscious, but nevertheless “something” real, powerful, some potential or “energy.” I want to call this “the matrix of being,” the source and continuing ground of our existence.

The human figures of the fisherman and his wife form an ambivalent pair. We must not get hung up on the gender of the figures. Rather they correspond to a capacity to take action and make choices and decisions (the fisherman), and the innate human function of desire (the wife). If we must personalize the figures, then the fisherman could be a flesh-and-blood man, and the wife would then be that man’s desire nature. (As I suggested earlier, from this point-of-view the fisherman and his wife characterize many men who have fallen because they have abused their powerful positions for financial, professional, and/or sexual gratification.) Turn this around, and the pattern can just as accurately describe a flesh-and-blood woman who lets her desire nature compromise her ability to make appropriate choices and decisions. In either case we see hubris as the outcome: over-weening ambition or greed or lust for power leads to downfall.

Back to the story.

The human capacity for judgment (the fisherman) encounters something bigger than (human) life: a powerful content from the matrix of being (the fish, which is actually a prince under a spell). The human desire nature (the wife) overpowers the capacity for judgment (the fisherman), who then exploits a powerful content from the matrix of being (the fish), with the consequence that the matrix of being (the ocean) becomes more and more agitated.

I need to introduce one more term into the discussion of this tale: inflation. We have various colloquial terms that vividly depict inflation: too big for his britches; all puffed up; pompous; high-and mighty. All of these terms, and others, identify a state exceeding the human dimension. I might add, as a paraphrase of hubris; the phrase, “pride commeth before the fall.”

In the tale, the human capacity for judgment (the fisherman) becomes inflated by the prospect of profiting (new cottage, castle, etc.) from the matrix of being (the ocean). With each demand, the fisherman (the capacity for judgment) initially hesitates, then, after getting what was demanded, the fisherman believes the wife (the desire nature) will be satisfied. He has an anxious little conversation with himself: Surely we’ll live happily ever after. But Dame Ilsebill, “We’ll see.”

For some reason I am reminded of what J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, said as he witnessed the first above-ground atomic explosion in the desert of New Mexico: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The fisherman goes to the ocean every day to fish. We all do that: the intuition, the insight, the hunch, the surprising discovery, the bright idea. We seek human-scale fish that feed us. But what if we hook the enchanted prince? That could be the get-rich scheme, the “killer app” that will make us rich and famous, the “angle” by which we gain power and prestige, the “ultimate truth” that everybody “must” embrace? Then we have usurped the power of the enchanted prince who is powerless to stop us.

So who is the prince? And what has enchanted him or put him under the spell in the ocean / matrix of being / the unconscious?

Although there have been exceptions, over the last several thousand years a male has been the dominant figure laying out the laws in most social groups. In other words, the human capacity for taking initiative, making judgments and decisions has been imaged as male whereas the human capacity for containing, birthing, nurturing, desiring has been imaged as female. In many societies, these two capacities have become “personalized,” that is attached to anatomical males and female, as in our tale of the fisherman and his wife. Hence our human history of kings, emperors, strong men, dictators, and imperial presidents, and the dynasties they sire.

In our tale, the enchanted prince stands next in line to be king—but not yet. The figure in line to rule, to articulate the way the society is to function, can be dominated by human desire. Shifting from viewing the pattern organization of society to organization of the human psyche, we see that human desire and an inflated although anxious consciousness can usurp that power of the matrix of being to satisfy its own boundless desires.

From time to time each of us faces the temptation to get high and mighty, bigger than our britches, to yield to the temptation to “have it all out” with someone, to “lay down the law,” to “fix it once and for all.” It’s a rush of power – Intoxicating, Self-righteous, Dangerous, Hubris. We don’t have to look far around us to see it doing its mischief in the world today. That’s the easy part. Seeing it operating in ourselves challenges our honesty.

Most of the people I see for psychotherapy and analysis have suffered under one or another form of tyranny: parents, siblings, spouses, employers. Most of them survive on a catch of very little fishes. The temptation, however, sometimes—maybe often—arises in the fantasy of catching the “big fish:” the prospect of setting things right once and for all, of telling it like it is, of finally giving as good as they have gotten. In the long run nothing good comes from acting when in the grip of a bigger-than–human power. We call that “archetypal inflation,” being in the grip of a transpersonal power, a “god.” Legitimate power does acts decisively, soberly, from a position of integrity, and calm inner strength. No drama. No fireworks. No uproar.

As a friend of mine so simply puts it to his clients: Discover who you are. Be who you are. Tell others who you are. Then forget who you are and just be.

That’s the great challenge to us human beings.

1. Originally recorded in the 19th Century by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their Kinder- und Hausmaerchen.

2. recorded in the 19th Century by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their Kinder- und Hausmaerchen.  

3. Genesis 1:2