Being at the Crossroads

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photo by: http://www.martin-liebermann.de

So much of our real growth in life, whether we think of it in terms of the soul or merely personal, happens when we are at a crossroads in some way. It is a place of transition, change or potential new directions, and its hallmark is suffering. So often at the intersecting points of our lives we struggle with the question of Which Way? The quintessential problem in this place is the seemingly opposing directions, however that is manifesting in your life. Invariably when we are getting ready to shed some part of our life that is no longer healthy for us, we often struggle and debate with ourselves – weighing pros and cons, as if this were a rational choice. Deep down we often have an inkling about what we are being called to do, but the other part that resists change sets up a quarrel. And so we agonize, we angst, we go over and over it in our minds and then we go into stall. And the whole thing starts to feel like a cancerous growth, as we are unsure about what the right thing is to do. We are caught in the crossroads, prey to all sorts of mental and emotional machinations. So how can we approach these crossroads in a way that is helpful?

As I was thinking about this image, I turned to A Dictionary of Symbols by J. E. Cirlot as well as The Herder Symbol Dictionary and looked at the references to the crossroads and to the cross (which is at the heart of this image) which are extensive.

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Here are some highlights:

From Cirlot

“The complex symbolism of the cross neither denies nor supplants the historical meaning in Christianity. But in addition to the realities of Christianity there are two other essential factors: that of the symbolism of the cross as such and that of the crucifixion or of ‘suffering upon the cross”. ……The cross is often represented in mediaeval allegory as a Y-shaped tree, depicted with knots and even with branches, and sometimes with thorns. Like the Tree of Life, the cross stands for the ‘world-axis’.

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Placed in the mystic Centre of the cosmos, it becomes the bridge or ladder by means of which the soul may reach God. There are some versions which depict the cross with seven steps, comparable with the cosmic trees which symbolize the seven heavens. The cross, consequently, affirms the primary relationship between the two worlds of the celestial and the earthly……it stands for the conjunction of the opposites, wedding the spiritual (or vertical) principle with the principle of the world of phenomena. Hence its significance as a symbol for agony, struggle and martyrdom…….Jung comments that in some traditions the cross is a symbol of fire and of the suffering of existence, and that this may be due to the fact that the two arms were associated with the kindling sticks which primitive man rubbed together to produce fire and which he thought of as masculine and feminine. But the predominant meaning of the cross is that of ‘Conjunction’…..  

Under Crossroads: “According to Jung, it is a mother symbol. He comments: ‘Where the roads cross and enter into one another, thereby symbolizing the union of opposites, there is “the mother”, the object and epitome of all union.’ “  

From Herder  

Under Crossroads: “In most cultures it is a significant place of meeting with transcendent powers (gods, spirits, the dead). It is often close to the symbolic content of the DOOR, since the crossroads can also symbolize the necessary transition to the new (from one phase of life to another; from life to death). To win the favor of the gods or the spirits, obelisks, altars, or stones were erected, or inscriptions were placed at crossroads. …..”

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In Women Who Run with the Wolves, the wonderful Jungian storyteller, Clarissa Pinkola Estes recounts the Russian version of the archetypal story of Cinderella, who in Russian is called Vasilisa. In this story Vasilisa, who has been given the task of sleeping by the fire to ensure that it doesn’t go out, is tortured by her evil step sisters who steal the fire while she is asleep, and then blame her and harass her for letting the fire go out. They send her out to the deep, dark woods in search of the evil Baba Yaga who is the only one who has fire. The problem for Vasilisa is that no one really knows where Baba Yaga lives, and Vasilisa has no idea which way to go. Utterly terrified of making a mistake and of dying alone in the woods, the only thing that helps her is a doll that her beloved mother gave her. Every time that she comes to a crossroads in the forest, she stops and waits in agony, hoping to be informed by the doll. The doll acts as the transcendent function and the connection to the archetypal Good Mother. If she is on the right path, the doll jumps up and down with excitement – letting her know her inner ‘yes’. In fact, just touching the doll as she makes her way through the dark woods makes her feel better.

Here is what Pinkola Estes has to say about this tale in Women Who Run with the Wolves:

“To my mind, the old Russian tale “Vasalisa” is a woman’s initiation story with few essential bones astray. It is about the realization that most things are not as they seem. As women we call upon our intuition and instincts in order to sniff things out. We use all our senses to wring the truth from things, to extract nourishment from our own ideas, to see what there is to see to know what there is to know, to be the keepers of our own creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.        Stories with Vasalisa as a central character are told in Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland and throughout all the Baltic countries. In some instances, the tale is commonly called “Wassilissa the Wise.” I find evidence of its archetypal roots dating back at least to the old horse-Goddess cults which predate classical Greek culture. This tale carries ages-old psychic mapping about induction into the underworld of the wild female God. It is about infusing human women with Wild Woman’s primary instinctual power, intuition.” Although Pinkola Estes is addressing this book to the woman’s journey, I believe it can have parallel value to men who are in touch with their inner feminine.

For a short synopsis of the story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasilisa_the_Beautiful

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This story goes on, but this part of the story is particularly significant in terms of understanding how to approach the crossroads. Perhaps Jung was right in his understanding of the crossroads, in the sense that here at this intersection there is sacred possibility. It is the possibility of connection with the Good Mother archetype – she who will guide you with wisdom if you but wait and ask for guidance.

So what can we learn from all this? I think the hardest thing we have to do when we are at a crossroads in our life is to wait. There can be an agony of suffering in the waiting, in holding the tension of the opposites. (see blog on Holding the Tension of the Opposites). We are often propelled into action, any action, because it is so hard to wait for clarity. We stew and angst and go in circles, stirring up an inner storm with all the inner community clamouring to be heard, (see blog on Inner Community) until we get utterly sick of ourselves. If only we could get quiet and breathe and pray for guidance, there might be a chance for that still, small voice of wisdom within to be heard. The voice of wisdom has no charge around it, no axe to grind. This is how we recognize it. It is simply an inner knowing or awareness of how things are, and we are often humbled by the realization. When this happens, you must give thanks and then proceed on your journey, trusting your life, trusting that you will be guided if you continually ask for guidance, in all humility.

Daydreaming and Realization

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“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Albert Einstein

One of my all-time favourite things to do is to go to my meditation corner of the house, light a candle, cafe latte in hand (made with vanilla soy), and hang out in my sacred space. I always start with some centering sitting yoga postures, and then I drift – into meditation,or sometimes just daydreaming as I stare out the window at the birds, the squirrels, the trees and the blue sky. I can spend a long time here – it always feels like such a nourishing opportunity to communicate with my higher self. Eventually I move on to some other yoga asanas, depending on what I feel my body needs, but my approach to yoga is very different to the North American variations which so often treat yoga as an exercise program. What much of the west seems to have lost is that yoga asanas were originally designed to prepare the body to sit in meditation.

When I first started to practice meditation, I would worry about the correct way to meditate (certainly no coffee!) and I would wonder whether I was doing it correctly. The inner critic used to have a field day as I tried to find my spiritual path. Now I just soak up the source, the same way a tree soaks up water through its roots and oxygen through its leaves. I no longer worry about whether I am meditating or daydreaming, because I have come to see the value of daydreaming.

When we free the mind to unplug from its daily worries and preoccupations, we open a receptive space inside ourselves  – we allow ourselves to be seeded by something higher. Daydreaming is different from fantasies that usually have an egoic agenda – such as sexual fantasies or fantasies of revenge or fantasies of escape from some karmic reality we are stuck in.

Daydreaming has no agenda. It is a deeply receptive state of inner listening. You might hold a question, in the same way you would hold a question when consulting the I Ching. And then you wait. If you notice that there is a suffering in your heart, or a clenching in your stomach because of some anxiety, you just notice it, allow it, and continue to receive the breath gently through diaphragmatic breathing. Just breath, watch the breath, and watch the thoughts coming in and then receding like the waves on the shore. Just watch and wait for what comes. You may be surprised by the revelations and insights that arrive, unbidden, on your doorstep.

When you allow your mind to quieten down by simply watching the thoughts, spaces start to open up between the thoughts. Don’t worry about trying to control the thoughts – they just start to naturally slow down after you watch them come and go for a while. Remember you are not your thoughts – you have a gazillion a day, most of them of little value.  It’s almost as if the mind gets embarrassed by the amount of trivia it generates when you are watching it. I often think the mind is like the internet – always on, and always able to generate endless content.

Daydreaming is the realm and seedbed of the imagination. It allows you to take a break from all that content and access something higher. Napping has a very similar restorative effect – the only difference is that napping is done under the veil of consciousness, whereas daydreaming maintains a stream of consciousness. Many great leaders and thinkers are natural daydreamers or devoted nappers. Einstein, along with many other great scientists, found that when he let go of the problem he was trying to solve, the solution would come on its own when he was daydreaming or going for a walk. Churchill would not go without his nap. I am sure he was guided throughout World War II, and taking a nap allowed him to connect with his higher self.

So give yourself permission to daydream – make space in your life to connect with that which is higher, which is trying to connect with you. Be open and receptive to listening to your heart in silence. If you listen deeply, it will always guide you.

These are some wonderful quotes of Albert Einstein on imagination, the intuitive mind,  creativity and daydreaming:

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

 “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

 “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

 “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

 “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

 “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

 “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

 “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

 And here is a link to the napping habits of some famous leaders:

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

Healing the Mother Complex or Learning the Power of No

images-1Beware. Many therapists, social workers, ‘do-gooders’ and ‘good mothers or fathers’ have a raging mother complex lying underneath the calm, kind exterior, and it’s a killer. This complex knows no gender boundaries and can be equally present in both  men and women. In my blog on The Inner Community, I talked about complexes in general, and how they can raise their ugly heads when you are least expecting it.

Well the mother complex can be one of the most surprising and disturbing of all the complexes, because it seems so, well, out of character. And when the mother complex is raging, you don’t want to be around. If it is raging in you, walk out that door. If it is raging in a significant other, walk out that door. Wait until the waters have calmed down before you try communicating, and if you are the one grappling with it, do everything in your power to try and understand it. The ONLY way to dismantle or at least disempower a complex is to bring consciousness to it.

Here’s how you know if you have this one running in the underground of your psyche. A big part of your conditioning has taught you to ‘turn the other cheek’ and put everyone else’s needs ahead of your own. You feel that you should be good and kind to others even if that means you put your needs aside, to your own detriment. You are much better at discerning the needs of others than you are at identifying your own needs and desires at any given moment.  You do, do, do for others and then inexplicably feel burnt-out and resentful. You feel guilty when you do assert your own needs, and then are especially guilt-ridden and hurt when others get annoyed that you aren’t being the ‘good mother’ anymore.

When you are caught in the great mother complex, you become so focused on the needs of others that you are not in touch with your own needs. In other words, YOU are not taking care of YOU. On some level, you have abandoned your own inner child and feel hurt and angry that no one is taking care of you the way you are taking care of others.

So here’s the deal. Ultimately we all have to become responsible as mature adults for taking care of our own needs. It is unfair to put that responsibility onto someone else. Of course it is lovely when we have the time, energy and grace to extend to others in kindness and with a generosity of spirit,  but when it comes out of obligation and a big ‘should’ for too long, there is hell to pay.

Another problem that surrounds this complex is that if it has been a large part of your persona (the image you present to the world), the people around you come to expect you to always be there as the good mother. When you stop buying into this image of yourself and begin to become more authentic, it can feel like a rude awakening to those who want you to continue in your old role. However, the individuation process wants you to be in touch with your deeper Self and purpose, and not be trapped in any persona. You will know when you are not being authentic and true to your Self when you feel that you are going through the motions because of expectations from others. You might begin to feel a fierce rage and frustration because you feel trapped in this role.

So what to do? In the myth of Amor and Psyche Psyche (which means soul in Greek) has to journey into the underworld. She has been given many impossible tasks by the raging Aphrodite. (In this story she is not the beautiful goddess of love, but the raging mother). In this final and horrifying task, she has to journey to the heart of the underworld and meet with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. She is given some very sage advice before she embarks on this journey. She is told that many poor souls will clamor most piteously for help, but she will have to remain focused on her task and refuse to help any of them. If she extends her hand to help them, she will be dragged down and all will be lost.

This seems like shocking advice to Psyche because it runs against the grain of everything she has been taught. But she also realizes that the transcendent help she has been receiving all along in order to accomplish the superhuman tasks that Aphrodite has set for her, is the only thing that has been getting her through. So she follows the advice and is able to get to the heart of the underworld, meet Persephone and then return to the world above. In other words, Psyche had to learn the power of her No in order to deal with the raging mother.

So this is the lesson. You must dig deep into the heart of your complex and journey into your own underworld. You must understand it in yourself. If you are feeling an inner rage, then something is afoot, and only consciousness can bring it into the light of day. You have to take responsibility for your own feelings and stop blaming others. If you are operating out of a mother complex, you have to realize it and get in touch with your needs and your feelings and then determine what action you need to take. If it means saying no to what others have traditionally expected from you, try to do so in a kind but clear and firm way.

You may have to negotiate your way out of this. It is not an easy journey for you or for those around you, but tremendous growth and new responsibilities for everyone are in the offing.  As they come to terms with you as a full person, and not just the good mother, they will begin to see you differently and to respect you in a new way. It may be a rocky road in the beginning, but it is a journey worth taking.

Holding the Tension of the Opposites

Owl5You know when you know you just KNOW something? And it doesn’t matter what other people’s opinions are. In fact, further discussion just feels like a spinning of the wheels. Have you ever looked back and wondered about this?

Sometimes you can angst over something for a very long while….waffling back and forth, weighing pros and cons ad nauseum, until you feel heartily sick of thinking about it….but it just keeps creeping back in. Like a stray cat that won’t go away. The tension of feeling undecided and ambivalent – for no good, rational reason – is crazy-making, and it just eats away at the core of you. Your mind becomes even more argumentative, and it could be that you are no longer a pleasant person to be around.

If you look back, and reflect on those times in our lives when you have done this, you realize that one day, for no apparent reason, the clouds just cleared, and you knew what we had to do. What happened? I think it is very valuable to understand that this is a common process in decision-making. Jung talked about holding the tension of the opposites – when the choices feel diametrically opposed to one another in some way. At that point we are caught in the dualistic thinking of either/or, and neither one feels quite right. Feeling pressured by others to make a choice is a suffering. We might also realize that our indecision is affecting others who are also suffering. Some want you to go one way, others think you should do something else. Who should you please?

We all must struggle over the moral and ethical issues, and the feelings of those we care about, but in the final analysis, we only have this life to live (in this body and this personality). Many people have a tendency to shove this struggle underground and deny its existence. This only causes further suffering. Rather, we need to embrace the opposites and hold the tension until our way becomes clear. Don’t move away from it, move towards it.

I sometimes joke that it might be easier if “They” all wanted the same thing of you, but of course they don’t. My old friend Alexander Blair-Ewart used to say, “A third of the people are going to love you no matter what. A third of the people are going to hate you no matter what. And the other third simply don’t care. So you might as well just be yourself.” We always used to laugh about this – it is actually very freeing to think in this way. So, if we are not to base our decision making on what others want of us, then we have to find the felt-sense of ‘rightness’ within.

This process of struggle does deepen you. Kahlil Gibran writes beautifully about this:

The Prophet

And a woman spoke, saying Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over the fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen,
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseeen’
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

By becoming more conscious of the fact that you are in the middle of a very natural life process that requires time and profound patience, perhaps you can learn to become more patient with yourself – knowing that one day you will just KNOW, and the struggle will be over. Jung refers to this arrival as the transcendent third. It is not the either/or of the original dilemma. A third perspective or understanding has come in.

We all come into this life with particular soul-work to do, and our life circumstances provide us with those opportunities, if we take them. In the final analysis, the soul work you have to do is right in front of you, and it is the only work in this life that really matters. When you die, you will know if you have met that challenge or not.

All of your life should be in preparation for that – what else are you going to do with your life? Should you live pretending that you will not have to ultimately deal with this question? I believe that when we cease struggling over an issue, and just relax into our own knowing, we are on the right path, doing the soul work we need to do. But there won’t be a heavy feeling of “should” around it – it will just feel right.

Here is another beautiful poem on knowing; The Journey, by one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver:

How do I forgive?

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How do I forgive?

This was a question that again came into focus as I talked with an old client I hadn’t seen in many years. Deep woundings of the psyche can fester for years, and probably even lifetimes. They are like the deeply entrenched psychic tattoos that simply don’t go away. And so how can we heal these wounds – can they even be healed? Or do they just scar over as we try to move on with our lives? Sometimes we see individuals who are so scarred, and therefore so armoured, that the scarring interferes with their abilities to have and to hold close and intimate relationships.

I think these are deeply personal soul issues that shape our lives, and so of course there is no easy answer. However, as a therapist I am always interested in how we can come into a different relationship with these old wounds so as to free the individual and help them move into an easier flow with life and with significant others.

To forgive or not to forgive? How do you forgive an atrocity or horrible abuse? Somehow we have this notion that if we forgive someone who has done something very terrible to another human being, they are off the hook. This is simply wrong thinking. We are never off the hook for something terrible we have done unless we truly regret or repent with consciousness. And if we don’t do that, and do our best to make amends, we carry that with us in our souls. The laws of karma will inexorably kick in. I have seen this over and over. And it’s not pretty.

But my focus here is not so much on the perpetrator, but on the one who feels victimized and harbours the anger and the sadness, and is unable to live life fully. It is a very human trait to hold onto grudges, and to mentally and/or verbally curse someone. We curse them every time we speak and think negatively about them. We are sending the offenders negative energy, and that will affect them to a degree. While that may be a satisfying thought in the vengeful sense, the deeper problem is that it harms you more. Holding onto anger and a feeling of victimization is very damaging to the person who is holding onto these dark and destructive feelings. We stew in it, dwell on it, and turn it over and over in our minds. It affects our moods, our behaviours, our relationships, our health and worst of all, our self esteem.

We carry it in our bodies without even realizing we are doing so. This is called somatization, and it is very insidious because it becomes part of the unconscious fabric of our psyches. A very useful technique that is used in Focusing (a body-mind therapy first devised by the philosopher/psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin) is to get in touch with what is often called the ‘felt-sense’ of how we carry something in our bodies.

When I work in this way with clients we always start with some diaphragmatic breathing because it helps to bring the awareness down into the core of the body – the area between the throat and the groin – and which I sometimes refer to as the ‘processing plant’.

When you think about the whole thing, connected to x or y, you will probably become aware of some physical or energetic sensation in your body, such as a clenching in your throat, or a tightness in the chest, or a knot in your stomach – something like that. The next part is to explore the feelings connected to x or y, and allow yourself to really feel it. Then, it is always good to hold the question – ‘given that I am feeling this way, what is needed? Or what do I need to do to take care of myself?’

Sometimes, an important intermediary step is to imagine taking the whole thing connected to x or y, and see if you can imagine putting it outside of your body, just for now. Visualizing putting the whole thing all about the situation or the person in some sort of container, outside of your body can be very freeing. You can always bring it back whenever you want, but most people enjoy the experience of getting a little space or perspective on the issue! They also get to experience, often for the first time in a long time, what it feels like not to carry that issue inside them anymore, or even for a while. It allows them to glimpse what freedom from the issue might look and feel like.

One of the most important things to realize and to remember about forgiving, is that it will free you. It does not let the perpetrator off the hook, but you are not in charge of his or her karma. When you truly hand this matter over to the universe and mentally say, “Over to You. You deal with this – I can’t carry this around anymore”, Life will take care of it – sometimes in much harsher ways than you could ever imagine.

The blessing lies in the ability to let go of the old woundings and to be free of the toxic side effects that come with holding onto something negative. We need to access the inner good mother or good father and learn to take care of the inner wounded part or child. This is what you are doing when you hold the question of “what do I need to do to take care of myself right now?’

I don’t mean to over simplify this or to trivialize anyone’s pain. These are just simple guidelines that might be of help, as I am all too aware that not everyone has the means or opportunity to go into therapy. But if we can experience within ourselves how crucial forgiveness is to our own well-being, we can move more fully into the creative expression of our lives.