This morning as I walked into the kitchen, our Echo device prompted me to ask Alexa for today’s word of the day. I couldn’t help it, I had to know (I also learned about the Mcnab, the dog breed of the day).
Alexa told me today’s word is “convivium”, Latin for feast, banquet or gathering. Fitting, since many families across America are gathering for Thanksgiving feasts today.
As the news of the war raging in Gaza continues to dominate the news, and the ongoing war in Ukraine takes a back seat despite the unimaginable toll it continues to take on life, I’m struck by how fragile life is, and am thankful for the gift of life, peace, safety and abundance.
It’s hard to reconcile that while we celebrate Thanksgiving and gather with loved ones, many on the planet are suffering and dying because of war, climate change, and other human made disasters.
Life and extinction
My son and I have been binge watching the breathtaking series Life on Our Planet on Netflix (narrated by Morgan Freeman in that unmistakable baritone). We are now on the fifth episode, which describes the five mass extinction events that obliterated most of the species on earth over the last 500 million years.
It reminds me of another spectacular series I watched some years ago, National Geographic’s Cosmos, with America’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the episode The Halls of Extinction, Tyson leads us down several tall arched corridors, each representing a previous mass extinction event on earth.
He gravely informs us that this place is “a monument to the broken branches of the tree of life.” Names like Ordovician, Permian and Triassic are carved into the imposing high stone arches leading to the different hallways. He guides us through various museum-like dioramas of our planet that tell the stories of how these five cataclysmic events killed off almost all life forms on earth.
As Tyson comes to the unnamed sixth corridor in the halls of extinction, he slows down and seems to hesitate. He pauses and looks up at the eerie entrance. He gives us a strange look then turns away, telling us, to our relief, that we won’t be going down that hallway – yet.
It’s a chilling and sobering moment that leaves us with disturbing questions. Is our extinction imminent? How long before we go down that dreaded corridor? Are our fates sealed, or is there something we can do about it? Had I watched this episode during the COVID lock down, I’d have been convinced that the sixth mass extinction was upon us. As I look around our world today, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether we are now experiencing its beginning stages.
Growing up in Kenya, war was always around the corner, just on the other side of our borders. I was a student at Kenyatta University during the horrific Rwandan genocide. Our other neighbors in the region, including Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda all experienced wars at different times in recent history. Somehow I lucked out just by being born on one side of an imaginary line on the ground. When civil unrest came to Kenya, we were fortunate that the incidents were few and short lived. Many believe that we dodged a bullet in our recent general elections that could have ended badly.
A warning of how fragile peace is.
A thanksgiving blessing
I end with these opening words from a traditional Native American greeting, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.
May our minds and hearts be one on this Thanksgiving Day as we give thanks for the life that we collectively share with fellow inhabitants and all life forms on our planet earth.
How about a quick break? It’ll only take a minute. Pause what you’re doing and have a good stretch. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes and think of five things you are grateful for today.
That was your gratitude break. Felt good, didn’t it?
Counting your blessings can help you pivot from negative to positive feelings. It can help boost your mood, build anticipation, teach you to focus, even change your biochemistry.
I’ve been listening to Valorie Burton’s podcast Successful Women Think Differently. Valorie is a life coach who helps people enrich their lives through the application of principles from positive psychology. In her own words, she helps people “get unstuck and be unstoppable in every area of life”.
I always find something positive on Valorie’s podcasts and YouTube videos, something I can take and use practically in my life. Many of her episodes are about gratitude, including taking a gratitude break like the one above.
Most people know of the positive psychology movement through well known psychologists like Martin Seligman, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (see my previous post) and Abraham Maslow. Maslow, the humanistic psychologist famous for his hierarchy of needs, is quoted to have said, “It’s as if Freud supplied to us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.” (Weiten, 2007). Positive psychology, rather than focusing on psychopathology, highlights positive human experiences and emotions, and explores how we can thrive and lead fulfilling lives.
As we approach Thanksgiving and the holiday season, many of us are becoming more mindful about cultivating gratitude and other positive emotions, like generosity and kindness. Gratitude journals are a great way to start the momentum. Valorie suggests that when we write down our gratitudes, we mention not only what we are grateful for, but why. Why are you grateful for your spouse, work, neighborhood park, cat, microwave, yoga mat? How do they enrich or ease your life? This kind of reflection immerses you deeper into the feeling, makes it last longer and allows you to access it easier over time.
Some folks like to set a specific time aside for a gratitude break, others like to just use it randomly throughout the day. Valorie mentions how gratitude breaks can be particularly useful when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or frustrated and need some headspace. They can stop you from spiraling into that negative rabbit hole. When you take time to appreciate simple things like a hot shower, a soft pillow, a child’s laughter, you not only feel better, you make your brain and nervous system healthier.
I’ve been incorporating gratitude breaks into my morning workout routine, which includes a gratitude for each sun salutation on the yoga mat my sister gave me. I love that yoga mat – it has just the right hardness and stiffness, it’s not the soft squishy kind. I am thankful for the unbridled enthusiasm with which our dog accepts each invitation to take a walk, for the friendly neighbors who greet me, for the changing leaves on the trees and the colorful flowers still in the yards despite the cooler temperatures. I so appreciate the Indian neighbor who gave the children organic reduced fat chocolate milk instead of candy when they went trick-or-treating earlier tonight. I am grateful that when I’ve been sitting too long, I can get up and stretch. I’m thankful each time I see a new message from my WhatsApp chat that keeps me connected to friends and family in different parts of the world.
Around a decade ago, I joined a group of friends called The Intenders of the Highest Good. We met on Monday evenings. We’d have a potluck dinner, sit in a circle and take turns to share all the things we were grateful for in the past week, and the positive things we intended for the week ahead. No dramas or traumas (even though I’m sure we’d all have had some to share). When we did share the bad stuff, we’d keep it brief and pivot to something we were grateful for even in the bad situation. Then we’d read from our book selection, sing or chant, and leave.
Another group that I loved was the Conscious Living Circle, which was based on the similar principles and had the same kind of setup. During the week, I’d find myself taking note of the things and people I appreciate in my life so I can share them in the circle. It made me more conscious about being grateful. It’s great to count our blessings alone but it’s powerful when we can connect with others in community in the spirit of giving thanks.
Weiten, W. (2007). Psychology: Themes and Variations, Seventh Edition. Thomson/Wadsworth.
I’ve been coming across the Japanese word ikigai lately, mostly from personal development coaches describing how your life can be more fulfilling when you do what you love, when your passion and your vocation intersect.
I wanted to learn more, so I checked out the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles. According to the authors, ikigai refers to living a life of meaning and value, having a passion that makes life worthwhile. It is also described as “the art of staying young while growing old”, “the happiness of always being busy”, and “your raison d’etre” – your reason to live.
A natural result of ikigai is longevity. Garcia and Miralles spent time with supercentenarians in the Japanese village of Ogimi, also known as “the village of longevity” in the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan. This village has been recognized as a “blue zone”, a place with one of the highest life expectancies on earth. People who live here enjoy vibrant health, vitality and mental sharpness well into their 90s and beyond. They are trim, physically active, and have lower BMIs than average. Chronic diseases and conditions like dementia, diabetes, and high blood pressure are rare here.
While their high antioxidant diet of natural anti-aging super foods certainly contributes to their longevity, there’s more. These elders have close family connections and community ties. They support one another, enjoy social activities and experience a deep sense of belonging in their close knit communities. They take time to enjoy their hobbies, which include Japanese croquet, singing and dancing. They spend time outdoors, gardening, taking walks, and enjoying the natural beauty in the forests and fields around them.
Blue zones have been popularized by author Dan Buettner, whose books and TED talk examine the habits and practices of supercentenarians who live in these areas. Buettner has a documentary currently airing on Netflix, Live to 100 – Secrets of the Blue Zones, that takes viewers to five blue zones on the planet to discover how folks there maintain their abundant health, happiness and longevity.
Meaning in life
A central theme in Miralles and Garcia’s book that captures the core of ikigai relates to finding meaning or purpose in life. The authors discuss existentialism, positive psychology, medical and mental health research, cultural and spiritual traditions that incorporate various aspects of ikigai.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, is highlighted in the book. Frankl’s own experience as a holocaust survivor, and his research on how humans can find reasons to live even in the midst of extreme pain and suffering, exemplify the idea of ikigai.
Miralles and Garcia mention how Nietszche’s famous quote “one who has a why to live for can endure almost any how” inspired Frankl. He survived a Nazi concentration camp by shifting his mental state to focus on what he wanted to do with his life and his psychiatry practice if he survived, which, incredibly, he did. He got to live a productive life after Auschwitz, researching and publishing his work on logotherapy.
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known for his research in the area of flow states, is also mentioned in the book. Coincidentally, as I write this on 29th September 2023, a Google Doodle highlights Csíkszentmihályi’s achievements in the field of positive psychology and tells me that today would have been his 89th birthday.
Ikigai is related to Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of “flow”, a mental state where you’re immersed in an activity where you experience deep satisfaction and focus. Time flies, creativity flows, you’re super productive and nothing else seems to matter other than the task at hand. The authors mention Albert Einstein, Japanese filmaker Hayao Miyazaki and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami as people whose creative work is enriched by flow states.
The authors also introduce readers to Morita therapy, developed by Japanese psychiatrist and Zen master Shoma Morita. It is a therapy where patients welcome whatever feelings are present without judging or fighting them. Garcia and Miralles draw similarities between Morita’s work and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhism, and mention that Morita was influenced by the Hanh’s work.
Find your ikigai
I remember being intrigued by the idea of being paid to do what I love as I was contemplating graduate school and career options decades ago. I read a book titled Do What you Love, the Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar, which inspired me to envision what I’d like my work day to look and feel like.
Looking back now, I see how my career as a teacher and psychotherapist, two professions that are deeply fulfilling for me, evolved from these reflections. I had been teaching for several years when I began part-time work as a psychotherapist in community mental health over a decade ago. This was at a non-profit organization in a small refugee community in Clarkston, GA.
Over the next few years, the refugee crisis exploded and the small refugee community became a refugee resettlement city. Then in 2020, national and global mental health was amplified by the COVID pandemic and racial unrest. Suddenly, everyone was talking about trauma, mental health and therapy. I transitioned from teaching into full time therapy, where I continue to work in both my private practice and in refugee mental health. I have a sense of being where I need to be, doing what I must do. This is my ikigai.
Do you have relationships that are nurturing and supportive, that make you feel connected and alive? How about that thing that you’re good at (or could be), that takes you a little out of your comfort zone, that challenges, excites and satisfies you, gets your passion and creativity flowing? Can the world use it and benefit in some way from it? That could be your ikigai.
Alan Watts appeared on my YouTube feed the other day. Probably because I’ve been watching Eckhart Tolle videos lately. While I don’t listen to Watts much, I’m somewhat familiar with his work and admire his vast knowledge of Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices.
The episode was titled Just Trust the Universe. Watts’s style moves quickly from one topic and analogy to another: he discussed evolutionary biology and democracy, Eastern traditions and Western symbolism (from the Upanishads to Greek mythology), folk tales and esoteric spiritual texts. I found myself rewinding frequently to catch stuff I kept missing.
In this episode, Watts spoke about letting go of control – or the illusion of it – by going with the flow, trusting the process of life, and allowing Nature to take its course. He described Eastern practices where the practitioner allows whatever is happening to just be. He touched on a variety of themes including utopia, making decisions, delegating authority, and taking risks.
But it was his brief discussion of synergy that really caught my attention. I’ve always loved the word “synergy”, as well as other similar snazzy words like “syzygy” that I learned from Carl Jung’s Collective Works. (In Volume 8, Jung describes syzygy as a universal motif of the divine couple that is found in mythologies across the world, as well as in Jung’s own concepts of anima and animus – a fascinating topic for another day. I also found out that syzygy is a concept used in astronomy.)
Watts described synergy as “the intelligence of a highly complex system, the nature of which is always unknown to the individual members.” The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.”
I like both definitions because they point to a creative intelligence that oversees the natural order of things. This is comforting to me. It means that I don’t have to try to orchestrate everything on my own or worry about all the many moving parts (though this doesn’t always stop me from doing so anyway).
It also means that when I’m in a synergistic system, every small action I perform is critical to the functioning of the whole system. My input matters, and so does everyone else’s. So when other actors in different parts of the system add to an action, it is compounded, and this transforms the entire endeavor into something so much more powerful and effective.
Watts went on to describe how biological evolution is possible because of the synergy contained in the “constant delegation of authority”. He explains that when an organism encounters a new environment, the delegation of authority in the form of instructions given to its different parts allows the organism to survive the new conditions. In fact, this process happens so naturally that the organism is unaware of this higher organization until the adaptation has already occurred.
According to Watts, democracy is also an example of synergy. Which gives me hope that our struggling democracies may yet survive ongoing threats, as long as we can sustain the synergy that gives the democratic machine its momentum.
Listening to Watts makes me marvel at the synergy in my daily life, both natural and human made. This human body, which, through an astonishing exchange of synergistic cellular intelligence and complex biochemical interactions, keeps me alive – and sane – even in extreme conditions. Ideas and conversations with others that unfold and dovetail in such satisfying and productive ways that they turn out to be way more impactful than imagined. Airplanes and vehicles that convey me through the skies and on land to arrive safely and precisely at my destination. Goods delivered from China and Australia that arrive miraculously on time at my doorstep on the other side of the planet. And the ability to connect with people and information no matter where I am or where they are. All made possible because of synergy.
I’m gradually learning to trust Nature, flow with life and become a cooperative component of the synergistic systems that sustain me and sustain life.
A couple of weeks ago, This American Life podcast producer Bim Adewunmi hosted an episode called The Show of Delights. I love the fun insights and interesting cultural perspectives Bim brings to the show, many of them from her life experiences as a Nigerian-British woman in America.
In this episode she admitted that embracing delight is not easy for her. It makes her feel self conscious about being “too much” emotionally, which was often frowned upon in the British culture she grew up in. The antidote? To seek delight as a daily discipline and build the habit of sharing it with others.
The Book of Delights
In The Show of Delights, Bim talked about ordinary joys in her interview with poet Ross Gay, English professor at Indiana University and author of The Book of Delights. For an entire year, Gay wrote down daily by hand everything that delighted him, which was later published in his book. Bim shared how much she loved the book and described her efforts to practice an awareness of simple pleasures like the ones Gay writes about in his essays and poems.
I recalled having The Book of Delights somewhere at home, so I went looking for it and sure enough, there it was next to another book by Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a collection of poems with irresistible titles like To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian and Armpit and Ode to Sleeping in my Clothes.
I hadn’t read much of the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which I had intended to gift to a friend but never got round to it. So I picked both books from my book case and enjoyed rediscovering Gay’s effusive expressions of appreciation for the oddest things like figs and his “ugly feet” and bird poop on his face.
Like Bim, one of my favorite stories from The Book of Delights was Gay’s account of carrying a tomato seedling with him on a flight, an adventure that evoked all manner of delightful encounters with people, from a TSA agent and flight attendant to fellow travelers and curious onlookers.
Today our culture increasingly embraces present moment appreciation, which makes invitations like Gay’s to delight in small joys around us more approachable. So as I was driving home this week after a long day, I offered my appreciation for the flow of traffic, the (mostly) nice drivers, air conditioning on one of the hottest days this summer, and my Phil Collins playlist.
Later that evening, I paused to delight in a simple family dinner of pasta salad and ginger beer with fresh mint from our garden. And it was so lovely to feel the freshly laundered cool sheets that night as I slipped into bed.
Moments of delight can be found daily. Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that mindfulness is an awareness of the “refreshing and healing elements” that can be found in the here and now. If we can pause and come home to the present moment, we can discover many “conditions of happiness” that can nourish us right where we are.
That’s got to be the most number of times I’ve used the word “delight” in an article. Now for the joyful daily practice of acknowledging the different ways it shows up in my life.
And finally giving that book to my friend, that he may delight in reading it.
Recently I found myself wide awake at the crack of dawn in the Kenyan countryside where I’d been spending several days with my parents. It was that liminal period just before daybreak. As I lay in bed in the dark, my senses were drawn to a variety of noises surrounding me that accompanied the breaking dawn.
There was the crowing of roosters that wake up way too early and crow way too loud. And those must be the weaver birds that yesterday had started nesting in the acacia thorn tree at the corner of the front yard. Next came a cawing cacophony from the crows that my father had been telling me have been invading the area and threatening the smaller birds. Now I’m hearing several birds joining in the call and response songs. I try to separate the numerous tunes they are singing. I think I can make out at least four. And are those crickets? Do crickets sing (or is it chirp) at daybreak? Aren’t they nocturnal? Gotta google that sometime. Shortly thereafter comes the sounds of scattered traffic and vehicles, boda bodas (motorcycles), radios (someone needs to turn down that volume, no reason to have it so loud at this time), and the stirring of human activity in the neighboring homes.
I’m struck by the simple luxury of getting to savor the first moments of the day before being overtaken by all its events, to enjoy the sounds of Mother Nature stirring, sustaining us like she’s done for millions of years. I feel lucky to witness the gift of another sunrise on this amazing planet. I’m filled with appreciation for this moment as I remember the words from Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha (mindfulness poem): “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment”. I savor this moment and silently repeat the gatha as the sun begins to light up the sky and my room.
The words of Mary Oliver come to me from her poem “The Sun”:
…and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
Photo: weaver bird nests on a thorn tree – by Nyambura Kihato.
An EMDR Certified Therapist has engaged in at least 20 hours of consultation with an EMDR Consultant for EMDR and has practiced their skills with at least 25 different clients in at least 50 EMDR sessions. An EMDR Certified Therapist has voluntarily met standards of consultation, clinical practice, and continuing education to provide EMDR therapy. An EMDR Certified Therapist is committed to fulfill ethical standards and is engaged in continuing education. To maintain this certification, a therapist must continue to satisfy the EMDRIA requirement including completion of continuing education requirements and adherence to ethical standards.
I just finished binge watching the Netflix miniseries Beef, starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as strangers whose fates become unexpectedly intertwined through a series of unpredictable twists. It was so satisfying.
I love Wong as a comedian but have never watched any of her movies until now. Wong is intense and thrilling in Beef. Her wit and humor as a comedian come through in her gritty performance as Amy Lau, a devoted mother, wife and entrepreneur. Amy is at once funny and tragic, provocative yet relatable. It’s refreshing to see this stellar cast of actors – many of them of Asian origin, directed by Korean director Lee Sung Jin – playing a wide range of believable and complex characters.
In Beef, we see Amy investing her all in various areas of her life: her marriage, her parenting, her business. Clearly she’s doing the best she can. Yet she still falls short. We continue rooting for her even when she makes poor choices, waiting for that moment when she will make a turnaround and get back on track. Except that she doesn’t. It is unbearable to watch her getting stuck in dysfunctional behavior patterns and descending into chaos.
The series starts fairly innocuously when Danny Cho, played by actor Steven Yeun, is attempting to return previously purchased goods at a store (in a later episode we learn something deeper about him from the items he’s returning). We feel his frustration and helplessness as he is slighted by a checkout clerk and ends up not returning the goods. Then a random encounter at the store’s parking lot unexpectedly turns into road rage and a car chase. Didn’t see that coming. From there, it just escalates from intensity to intensity and you begin to feel the dread and despair of an unfolding train wreck.
Beef is unafraid to explore many difficult issues including rage and revenge, sex and infidelity, trauma and suicide, stereotypes and the cultural expectations and burdens that are part of the immigrant experience and psyche.
It’s been said that one of the most valuable tools to master in life is the ability to make good decisions. In this series, there are so many points along the road where the characters, particularly Amy and Danny, could have made decisions that would have led them (and those they love) down a less precarious path. Why didn’t they?
As objective viewers, we have the advantage of seeing such possibilities for the characters. We keep going through the episodes waiting for them to seize these moments, and are heartbroken when they don’t. I think this is one of the reasons why this series is so binge worthy. It keeps us hoping that the promise of a turnaround is still within reach.
It’s hard to watch people make decisions that you know will reach a point of no return. Can’t they see the danger approaching? Can they not anticipate the consequences? Do they think luck will protect them? Or do they believe they have the skills to avert danger and avoid the worst of it?
While watching Beef, I often felt that the characters simply couldn’t help themselves because they were caught up in the heat of the moment. But even when that red hot moment passed, they were unable to salvage whatever remained and choose a different path. Their destructive impulses kept plunging them back in hot water despite their better intentions.
As the story progresses and we become more invested in Amy and Danny and their families, we start to find out about some of the inner demons that drive them – which only makes them more human and compels us to root harder for them.
A fork in the road
Every now and then, life presents you with a fork in the road, representing opportunities to explore, take risks, maybe develop a useful life skill and learn something new about yourself and the world.
Follow one fork and there may not be a way to turn back. Follow another fork and you find yourself in a place where a certain range of choices is available to you.
Pick this choice over that one and your range of choices increases. Pick another choice and your options start diminishing. Now you are limited to even fewer choices, until such a time arrives that you have no more options available to you.
All that’s left is for you to sit in a pile of ashes as everything around you burns. Such is the tragic nature of the human condition as portrayed in Beef.
I’ve been rereading Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. It’s a little gem of a book that explores a much loved topic in Jungian psychology: the shadow side of our personality.
My interest in the book this time was less about the shadow – I’ve written on the shadow in a previous article – and more about Johnson’s descriptions of the terms paradox and opposition.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a paradox as “one (such as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases”. Paradoxes can exist either as inner or outer contradictions, in the way we struggle to come to terms with opposing energies both within ourselves and out in the world.
Paradox vs opposition
A useful way of seeing paradox is as the coexistence of opposites, another favored topic in Jungian psychology. According to Johnson, the major difference between a paradox and an opposition is the psychological attitude we adopt in the face of opposing tendencies. Johnson states: “If we accept these opposing elements and endure the collision of them in full consciousness, we embrace the paradox”.
I find Johnson’s use of the word “collision” interesting, suggesting a strong, even forceful crash of energies, a big clash or impact. This is no gentle harmonious blending.
Opposites are part of our daily life. Hot and cold, life and death, night and day, love and hate. If we live long enough, we will experience (and hopefully appreciate) them all. Resisting opposites is an exercise in futility, and yet we spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources trying to do so. In the process we waste valuable psychic energy that we could harness and use in the service of something useful.
This collision of opposites can result in conflicts in our daily lives and warring factions within ourselves: you want to exercise (and know you will feel better for it) but it feels so good to laze on the couch instead. You agonize about whether to leave or stay in a job or relationship that has both rewards and unpleasant consequences, leaving you paralyzed with anxiety and uncertainty.
Johnson describes oppositions and contradictions as “meaningless”, “useless”, “barren”, “destructive”, “static” and “unproductive”. A paradox on the other hand is creative. Adopting the proper psychological attitude towards a paradox can allow the energy of creativity to flow, transforming “the pain of contradiction” into “the mystery of paradox”.
The tension of the opposites
Johnson discusses humanity’s incapacity to tolerate opposites. We tend to make up our minds about things, situations, and people in rigid and uncompromising ways – without nuance, without exploring the gray area in between things. Something or someone is either this or that. In our political and religious debates, you are either with me or against me. This is an oppositional stance.
Jungians talk about the “tension of the opposites“ to describe how contradicting values, perspectives, or states of mind can exist simultaneously, seemingly in opposition to one another. In Jungian parlance, the psychological task in such situations is to consciously suffer the tension of the opposites “until the third appears”.
According to Johnson, we experience opposition and contradiction when we reject the paradox. So instead of rushing into premature action in order to avoid the discomfort of a problem, we are better off allowing ourselves to sit in it for a while. We develop the capacity to feel the discomfort and allow it to reveal valuable information about ourselves and the troubling situation.
Easier said than done.
Johnson’s ideas got me thinking about how our attitudes towards life’s dilemmas are described in our languages and cultures, thus revealing whether we are embracing the paradox or fighting the contradiction. He reminds us that the Latin root meaning of the word suffer is “to bear or allow”. When we suffer the paradox, we allow the opposites to be present in a non oppositional way. We do not use defensive strategies to rid ourselves of the discomfort.
Eastern philosophies encourage us to develop the capacity to tolerate ambiguity and opposites. I’m reminded of the Sanskrit word samatva, often translated as “equanimity”, which is used in Hindu and Buddhist teachings and in mindfulness practices. It describes the mental skill of learning to balance opposing tendencies evenly in our mind, weighing them equally in turn. Another of my favorites is the German word jein, a combination of ja and nein – yes and no. A simple yet powerful invitation to take a nuanced position between two extremes.
While Johnson’s insights contain deep wisdom, in typical Jungian style he does not leave us with easy answers on how to handle life’s paradoxes.
Am I comforted, satisfied? Jein.
I’ve always wanted to start a book club. Specifically, one which focuses on books by writers from Africa and the diaspora. There are so many amazing Black authors out there. I loved the African Writer’s Series of my high school days: writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Okot p’Bitek. Literature classes were my favorite.
We devised creative code words and phrases from our literature books: When budding entrepreneurs would sneak contraband toffee into school to sell – “Three for a bob!” (a shilling) – we referred to the sweets as “kola nuts” (taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) in order to avoid detection and punishment. (Okonkwo and the elders always broke kola nut before a meeting). You’d hear whispers in class: “Who has kola today?” And if you wanted to boast about an achievement, you’d declare: “I’m the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree”, borrowed again from Achebe’s delightful collection of Igbo proverbs from the same novel. The full proverb is, “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which for us simply meant permission to brag.
Book club reveries
I revisited my book club idea during the COVID-19 lock down three years ago and again last year, when I put it on my to-do list for Black History Month 2022. Well, finally it’s done, thanks to my sister, who gave me the Viola Davis book Finding Me: A Memoir as a Christmas gift last month. We decided to start a book club with Davis’s book and then include writers of color in general. Our first meeting is next month, just in time for Black History Month (I’m only one year late).
The idea of a group of people sitting together to share their experience of a book delights me. As I prepare to host my first book club gathering next month, I notice that as I read a passage that moves me, I find myself in reveries about how other book club members are reacting to the same passage, where they are when they first read these words. I’m grateful that they are setting time aside from their busy lives to read before we get together. I wonder what their favorite reading spaces look like, whether they have a ritual that gets them started. I can’t wait to hear them talk about it at the meeting.
Finding Viola Davis
Remember the arctic spell we had in December? Perfect excuse to live in my pajamas by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, immersed in Finding Me. When the sun would peek out, I’d move to my favorite sunny window to find my cat already there (she follows the sun around the house) and continue reading, enjoying a satisfying afternoon together in companionable silence.
Previously, I had watched Davis’s interview with Oprah when Finding Me had just been published (she got a Grammy Award for the audio book). I was moved to learn about the enormous hardships Davis endured throughout her childhood, and was inspired by how far she’s come to be able to play the powerful roles she is known for. She describes how she was excluded from acting roles that she was qualified and had auditioned successfully for, just because she was dark skinned. I learned about the insidious word “interchangeable”, used in acting circles to describe light skinned Black actors with who are deemed acceptable enough to play roles typically given to white actors.
I’m in awe of Viola’s incredible talent as an artist: from Broadway to Hollywood, from acting to producing; her exceptional range and intensity as an actor in movies like Mending Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, How to get Away with Murder, Doubt, and The Help. I have yet to watch her powerful performance as The Woman King, another thing on my to-do list. Among Viola’s towering achievements is being one of the few actors to receive an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony).
What’s on your reading list?
We’re already lining up interesting book club picks for the year. I got curious about what’s on other peoples’ reading lists – I believe that your favorite books say a lot about you. So I decided to check out the latest reading list for one of my favorite authors, Barack Obama. He admits to being biased that his wife’s book The Light We Carry (another one for the book club) is first on his list, but we don’t blame you, Barack. The former president also shared his favorite music and movies for 2022, which included songs by Burna Boy and Lizzo, and movies like The Woman King starring Viola Davis, another reason why I must watch it soon.
Happy reading and movie watching to all bibliophiles and cinephiles everywhere.
Do you sometimes find yourself – especially now during the holidays – waking up in a strange place feeling disoriented? You look around and can’t find anything familiar. Your brain and body struggle for several moments to reorient you in time and space. It can range anywhere from confusion to discomfort to outright panic.
Holiday travel for me brings with it some weird feelings of disorientation. I wake up 30,000 feet in the air to the smell of coffee being served by flight attendants and the sound of a baby crying across the aisle. (We just had lunch, jumped two time zones, and now it’s breakfast?)
Back on the ground, I wake up after a jet lag induced nap on a friend’s couch to the sound of conversation and laughter. Then in the city, I find myself startled from sleep by the sound of barking dogs, fighting neighborhood cats, and the muezzin’s call for prayer at 5 am.
The sound of roosters crowing starts way before dawn in Nairobi. The Swahili saying jogoo la shamba haliwiki mtaani (the country rooster does not crow in the city) tells me that these are no country roosters. Nairobi roosters start crowing at 4:30 am every morning – I checked. In contrast to the brutal city awakening, when I am out in the country, I’m gently awoken by chirpy songbirds and sunshine filtering through my window.
Then there’s the dreaded hypnopompic state – that liminal place between sleep and waking consciousness – where you’re in bed trying to wake up but feel paralyzed. You may get a sense of a sinister presence either near your bed or sitting on your chest. You can’t move and feel helpless. You’re filled with dread and fear. While sleep scientists tell us this experience is quite common, it still feels scary and discombobulating. Luckily, the feeling goes after a few seconds (or were they several minutes?).
5-point sensory grounding
I’m taking time nowadays to notice the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures that orient me to my current time and space. I’m aware of how the birds and crickets in Georgia have different melodies and syllabic phrasing than those in Nairobi or Nanyuki or Sagana. I’m noticing how the local flavors of mandazis, bhajias, samosas, bitter lemon, and masala chai transport me emotionally to old memories from my childhood in Mombasa or to my college days at Kenyatta University. As I look into the familiar faces of old friends or hear songs on the local Kenyan radio station (remember the Boney M Christmas album?), I’m aware of the waves of nostalgia that wash over me.
I learned this beautiful technique called 5-point grounding or the 5-4-3-2-1 technique that I practice when I feel disoriented. It is used in mindfulness practices as a way to help bring us back to the present moment through the senses.
It is also used in trauma therapies like EMDR to decrease anxiety and establish a sense of calm and grounding, and is particularly helpful for trauma survivors who tend to dissociate. I like to use it when I first awaken from sleep to help reorient myself into waking consciousness, especially in unfamiliar places.
Here’s how it goes:
- Five sights: When you open your eyes, what are five things you can see in the room? What colors pop out at you? If it’s dark, what shadows or silhouettes can you make out? Are there familiar pictures or furniture or people in the room?
- Four touches: Reach out with your hands. What four textures can you feel with your fingers? How does the room temperature feel like on your skin? If your head is on a pillow, take a moment to distinguish whether the pillow feels soft or firm, fluffy or crisp, warm or cool. How does your body feel in the sheets, blanket, pajamas, chair or bed?
- Three sounds: Shift your awareness to things you can hear. Are the sounds coming from inside or outside, far or near, are they natural or human made? What about sounds from your own body? Perhaps if you listen closely you may hear your own heartbeat, your breath, your stomach growling.
- Two smells: Focus on smells around you: food, perfume, smog from the city streets, rain on the earth. Some people like to carry around their favorite fragrance (like lavender, peppermint, sandalwood) and take a whiff of it to feel calm, alert or grounded.
- One taste: What kind of taste is in your mouth? Or what was the last thing you remember tasting? Some food, or maybe some coffee, water, or juice you drank earlier. What did it taste like: refreshing, cool, bitter, savory, sweet, sour, fruity, creamy?
Practicing sensory orientation while awakening from sleep can make you feel grounded by the time your feet hit the floor, especially when you’re away from home and your familiar environment.
Or it can be a simple mindfulness exercise that allows you to experience the present moment no matter where your mind or your travels take you.
Do you sometimes feel so overstimulated by your environment – bright lights, strong smells, loud noises – that you have to retreat to a quiet place or wear noise canceling headphones to find relief? Does that cup of coffee leave you feeling jittery, on edge? Do you find yourself easily immersed in your inner world of fantasies and ideas? When you’re hungry, do you tend to lose focus and become easily irritable? (I love how that informal word “hangry” captures this feeling). These are some of the items psychologist Elaine Aron lists in her Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Scale. You can take the self assessment here.
Aron, who herself identifies as a highly sensitive person or HSP, has published numerous books and papers on this topic, some with her husband, psychologist Arthur Aron. Among her popular books are The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You and The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. She has developed scales for younger populations – from adolescents to preverbal children – that professionals and parents can use to identify highly sensitive children, and has also written about love and relationships for HSPs. Aron also has a list of therapists on her website who use HSP informed approaches in their clinical work.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, Aron points to HSP research that looks into genetic and neurobiological determinants that contribute to high levels of sensitivity in individuals. What I found interesting about this research is that many species, from fruit flies and fish to deer and monkeys, have been found to have highly sensitive individuals among them (which leads me to believe I have a highly sensitive cat).
Many introverts would likely endorse a good number of the items on Aron’s HSP scale. After all, introverts have rich inner worlds, need to withdraw in order to recharge, and experience sensory overload when they are in loud, busy environments. Read more on introverts in my previous blog post. It is therefore easy to attribute sensitivity to introverted personalities. People generally don’t expect extraverts to score high on sensitivity; yet Aron’s research tells us that 30% of extraverts are HSPs. They are the neglected minority. Aron gives them a shout out (not too loud) in her work, encouraging us to become more aware of them and give them room to be themselves.
Introversion has been popularized by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, whose Youtube video on introversion has over 14 million views. I think this demonstrates the changing attitudes that society is gradually developing towards introverts, which is about seeing introversion as a personality trait and not a defect.
Aron’s background and training in Jungian psychology is evident in her work. Psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of personality as used in the Myers Briggs Trait Indicator or MBTI has been a popular entry point for people to gain a better understanding of differences in personalities, and specifically introversion as a trait. Introversion is also prominent in other personality assessments, like the Big 5 Personality Test (also known by the acronym OCEAN) and Eysenck’s Personality Inventory (EPI).
Aron describes the concepts of introversion and extraversion as they were outlined by Jung, providing information and examples to help dispel myths, negative stereotypes, and misconceptions about introverts. In the same way, she challenges the negative social judgment and cultural biases we have against HSPs and invites us to open our minds to a broader understanding of sensitivity as a trait. What I find particularly valuable in Aron’s work is that she provides scientific evidence from research studies that can help HSPs reject false labels and acknowledge their gifts.
The pathologizing of HSPs
Highly sensitive people, like introverts, are often pathologized, especially in American culture, where the average “well adjusted” individual is supposed to be outgoing, lively and gregarious. Highly sensitive children particularly tend to be misunderstood and mislabeled. Their sensitivity is trivialized, seen as an impediment, or misdiagnosed as an abnormality.
Highly sensitive children, for instance, may choose to enjoy the quiet of their rooms instead of watching TV with the family, since the noise, lights, or violent images on TV can be an assault to their senses. For this reason, they may be labeled as fearful, fussy, shy, withdrawn, or lacking confidence. They are often compared to their more outgoing siblings or peers: “Why can’t you be more like your sister who loves hanging out with us?” or “Stop making such a big deal about it, it’s just a movie.” These negative messages can follow children into their adulthood and make them think there’s something wrong with them. And precisely because they are sensitive to their surroundings, Aron tells us that HSPs learn to adapt to fit into different environments based on what is required of them, thereby disguising their sensitive nature.
In discussing mental health outcomes among HSPs, Aron distinguishes between the term “vulnerability” which indicates risk, versus “differential susceptibility”, which demonstrates a responsiveness not only to negative but also positive environments and experiences. This means that while HSPs can develop depression and anxiety if they have had difficult childhoods, negative parenting styles, or changes and unpredictability in their environment, they also tend to integrate positive experiences in their lives more readily. This is because their high level of sensory awareness and responsivity to their environment accentuates positive influences, such as natural beauty, art, music, pleasant scents and soothing textures, that can enhance their lives, all of which can have lasting positive effects on their mental health.
SPS vs SPD
Aron’s research helps us see sensitivity as a trait and not a disorder, a strength and not a weakness. She differentiates between sensitivity on the one hand, and shyness, introversion, neuroticism, fearfulness and inhibitedness on the other, which are often erroneously used to describe sensitivity. She distinguishes between Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) which is not a diagnosis or disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which is different from and unrelated to SPS.
On a separate note, WebMD defines SPD as “a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses”, which could involve both under-responsive and over-responsive reactions. While SPD is not listed as an official medical diagnosis in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) or ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision), there have been arguments in favor of making it an official diagnosis, particularly so that children can receive early clinical interventions like occupational therapy and psychotherapy. These can help children develop coping skills to better adjust to school and peer environments that can be overstimulating and disruptive for them. Proponents add that making SPD an official diagnosis would also help families pay for these interventions using their health insurance.
Aron clarifies that she didn’t discover sensitivity, she merely provided a more descriptive (and accurate) explanation of it to help people better understand and appreciate this complex trait. She created the acronym DOES to describe sensitivity as a trait.
D stands for depth of processing. HSPs tend to pause and take in their environment with a higher level of awareness and responsivity than the average person. They pay attention to details that others may not notice, for better or worse.
O is for overstimulation – attending to small details and noticing everything in one’s environment can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload.
E refers to the high levels of empathy and emotional responsivity that come naturally to HSPs.
S describes sensitivity to subtleties. HSPs perceive and process information carefully, both information that is coming from the outer world of people, things and situations, and their inner world of perceptions, reflections and emotions.
Perhaps you or someone you know (maybe a child or even a pet) may be highly sensitive. Aron’s work helps us appreciate HSPs and celebrate their gifts to the world.
How much would you risk to retrieve your lost memories if they felt important to you? The movies I’ve been watching lately happen to have themes revolving around this question. They explore how past memories shape our identity and ideas about who we are, affect our relationships, and reveal information that is crucial to our sense of self.
Love, loss and risk
In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on Walter Mosley’s novel, Samuel L. Jackson plays Ptolemy Grey, a 91 year old man suffering from dementia. We first meet Grey in a pitiful state, living a lonely life with no ties to the outside world, except through a caring nephew who comes to his apartment to check in on him.
As the story progresses and Grey’s condition deteriorates, we watch him endure an unconventional treatment that he opts into at enormous risk to his life in order to regain his memory. The treatment uncovers memories that bring him both pleasure and pain, revealing the deep loves, losses and betrayals in his life. Yet these recovered memories ultimately bring life back to Grey’s days. We witness his transformation as he exercises agency in his life and makes some tough choices that he can live (or die) with.
The miniseries Surface, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, immerses us into the bewildering life of Sophie, a woman who has just survived a traumatic accident. She has lost memory of everything about her life: who she is; who her friends, loved ones and acquaintances are; what matters in her life. The episodes I’ve watched so far hint that what happened to Sophie may not have been an accident; that perhaps she or someone else had a hand in it. Sophie appears to have a perfect life: financial security, a beautiful home, a loving and supportive husband, a loyal friend, a caring therapist, and a mystery man whose place in her old life she is trying to understand.
All these people appear to be helping Sophie heal and unravel the mystery of the incident. But who are they really? Doubt is cast on all the characters (including Sophie) and we find ourselves questioning everyone’s motives and wondering what they are hiding. Like Grey, Sophie finds out about an experimental treatment that could help her retrieve her lost memories. Her therapist is opposed to it because it’s too risky, but Sophie is desperate to find answers. There is a sense that underneath Sophie’s seemingly perfect life, something sinister is striving to surface.
The seductive past
Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, who describes himself as “a private investigator of the mind” and uses a machine he invented to help his clients relive their forgotten memories. The movie is set in a dystopian future where climate change has brought Miami partially under water, and temperatures are so high during the day that people live their lives by night. (It’s scary how sci-fi is becoming current reality – evacuations in Florida due to flooding are currently underway as I write this). Life has become so bleak that the only way to feel alive is to revisit a nostalgic past. The movie explores the lure of this idealized past that becomes an escape for people living in a state of individual and collective despair.
But the past is complicated. Nick’s words, “Nothing is more addictive than the past”, prove to be premonitory as he falls victim to the very addiction he cautions against. His assistant, Watts Sanders, played by Thandiwe Newton, tries to steer Nick away from his obsession with a client whom he falls in love with while working to help her uncover a memory. The client disappears and, using his memory machine on himself, Nick gets embroiled in the dangerous world of his client’s past in an effort to find her and unravel the mystery of her disappearance. Meanwhile, Watts helps Nick fight for his life and tries to keep him rooted in present day reality.
Memory – blessing or curse?
The exploration of trauma, love, risk and loss as they relate to memory in these movies makes me wonder: how much should one risk to retrieve lost memories? Since memory is a mixed bag, all of it comes back: the good, the bad and the ugly. If we could selectively pick memories that keep us comfortable and help us avoid pain, would it be worth it?
Memories are complex and confounding – they reveal and they obscure, many times offering more questions than answers. They can be both life giving and life draining, trapping us in seductive illusions and false realities – we may find ourselves addicted to an escapist fantasy or trapped in a terrifying hell. We may learn truths about ourselves and others that could liberate or paralyze us.
Memories show us what core values and mental programs run our lives, revealing our strengths and weaknesses, our evolution or regression. If we don’t have our memories to remind us of what has been, how do we find our place in the world? How do we know who we are, or decide who we now choose to be?
An upcoming lecture on the shadow of technology by Jungian analyst Doug Tyler, PhD, reminds me of a recent experience:
One morning on my drive to work, I noticed my phone wasn’t in its regular position on my dashboard. A dreadful panic gripped me. Heart racing, I fumbled through my purse, work bag, pockets, passenger seat, frantically looking for it. At the lights just before the ramp onto the highway, as I was plotting an illegal turn to head back home, I found the culprit lying calmly on the floor near my feet. A gush of tearful relief and gratitude overwhelmed me: My phone is with me. All will be well today.
It’s hard not to notice how increasingly dependent on our technology we have become today. We hear people swear they never leave home without their phones, laptops or tablets. Our electronic devices connect us to our work/school and social lives, literally open doors (and garages) for us, guide us to our destinations, keep our homes safe, monitor our heart rates, confirm or reschedule our appointments, store our codes and passwords, track our to-do lists, update us on world events and stock market trends, store our random notes and ideas. They facilitate connection with our family, friends, and clients. They hold our documents, photos, treasured memories, and secrets.
Connection through technology
When I first came to the US about twenty years ago, I had to buy a “calling card” from a gas station and enter a long series of numbers over again from a landline phone in order to reach my parents in Kenya. Often the lines were busy and it took ages to get connected. When we finally did, the line was full of static. Sometimes, after we got the greetings out of the way, my $10 would be up and the line would go dead. That was then. Now I have apps on my phone that will connect me instantly on a free and clear line to friends and family around the world. Sometimes my dad will say, “You sound like you’re just next door.” The wonders of technology.
Technology serves us in so many ways. Yet in other ways, it can hold us hostage to crazy demands, data storage panic, social media stress, and overstuffed schedules.
Jung Society of Atlanta hybrid lecture Saturday August 27, 2022
Join us in person or online at a Jung Society of Atlanta event, where Jungian Analyst Doug Tyler, PhD, will explore the unconscious shadow elements of our modern technology in his lecture The Blinding Shadow: Technology, Social Media and Soul Loss. How can we engage more consciously with our technology in ways that serve us both individually and collectively? Come explore with us. Two CEUs available. (Make sure your electronic device is charged and updated for a better online experience.)
Around me lately, the talk has been about winding down the summer fun and getting students ready for a new school year (can you believe that August is already upon us?) Although I taught for almost two decades and found teaching to be a deeply satisfying career, I’m so relieved that I’m not one of those educators now scrambling to review the curriculum, prepare syllabi, check class lists, read course texts, post material online, beat crazy deadlines, and brace themselves for another busy semester. Not to mention the testing and grading nightmares that happen later.
It’s only when I left teaching a couple of years ago, right after that first grueling COVID-19 lockdown semester, that I realized just how much preparation goes into it, how exhausting it all is (and how much free time I have now).
Supporting students with mental disorders
A report I recently heard on NPR Marketplace brought me back to those days, this time from the student perspective, and specifically, students with mental health challenges. If trained educators are overwhelmed by the sheer workload, imagine what students with mental disorders (such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders) have to go through to prepare for college and successfully graduate years later.
It’s not just about enrolling in the right courses, navigating financial aid, budgeting and saving, buying (super expensive) text books, meeting the registration deadlines, finding a place to stay, managing time and social activities, maintaining healthy relationships, coordinating work schedules, all of which are daunting.
For students with mental health diagnoses and learning differences, it’s also about finding a disability coordinator (if the college has one), applying for disability accommodations and disability testing (if applicable and available), ensuring your instructors are aware of (and comply with) your classroom accommodations, finding affordable medical and mental health services that can meet your needs (if you’re lucky enough to access them, they will most likely be with a new provider), monitoring and adjusting your medication carefully for a new schedule and lifestyle, keeping stress levels manageable.
In an ideal school environment with adequate funding and resources – which of course many schools don’t have – the needs of children with learning differences are addressed through IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) and other accommodations that are supposed to provide academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral support to these students during their school years. (I used to be a Special Educational Needs Coordinator or SENCO in my early teaching career in Kenya, and I remember how challenging this work was). However, when these students graduate from high school and are suddenly adults, they enter a scary and chaotic world where they have to navigate their personal and professional lives on their own. They are supposed to know what they need to be successful, find the internal and external resources to meet these needs, and be their own advocates. We are asking too much of them.
Bridging the mental health gap
That is why it was so inspiring to hear the radio report of two businesses in the US that were created to bridge this gap for students with mental illnesses and learning differences. One of them is EdRedefined, started by a father whose son is on the autism spectrum and needed support in navigating college life. When the father, Scot Marken – who describes himself as a social entrepreneur with a lived experience in the field of mental health – realized that these supports were not available for his son, he decided to create a company that provides them. The other is The Dorm, a company with locations in NY and DC that provides mental health support for students to build community, independence and well being during their college years.
Years ago, I worked with a local US company in the field of supported employment. I had never heard of the term, but got to learn and appreciate this line of work.The business was started by a former teacher who noticed that the needs of students with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities often go unaddressed, particularly after they graduate from school and “age out” of the supports that are provided mainly to children under 18. This teacher founded her company with the goal of filling this gap and helping these adults find meaningful employment in their communities and thrive in life. And while I remember those days fondly, I recall how challenging it was to encounter the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and misconceptions that many companies have about individuals with mental disorders.
I love the idea of businesses centered around providing services and resources for community mental health. Hopefully, more can be done to help such social entrepreneurs thrive and make their services more accessible to people in underrepresented communities who need them most.
Have you ever awakened from a dream and wondered what it all meant? Was it just random brain activity, or could there be a valuable nugget to take away and use in real life? And then there’s recurring dreams and nightmares. You may notice similar images, motifs, and characters showing up in your dreams and nightmares month after month, even year after year. What is the unconscious psyche trying to tell you?
Dreams can be downright weird and unfathomable. But with an expert guide, they can be insightful and affirming, revealing important information about our complexes, our shadow, our Self, and how we relate to our inner and outer worlds.
Dream Event at the Jung Society of Atlanta: April 22 and 23, 2022
Join us at the Jung Society of Atlanta for a lively hybrid lecture and workshop (both in person and on Zoom) titled: Another Whom We Do Not Know: Dreams as the Voice of the Inner Companion. The events will be on Friday April 22nd (lecture) and Saturday April 23rd (workshop) with Lisa Marchiano, LCSW, Jungian analyst and co-host of the superb podcast This Jungian Life. If you’re interested in dream interpretation (and all things Jungian), this podcast will satisfy. The three Jungian analysts and co-hosts interpret a dream from a listener of the podcast in each episode.
This is our first in-person program since the pandemic, and it feels auspicious that Lisa is facilitating this event as we mark our exit from this strange dream-like/nightmarish pandemic. Lisa will be sharing with us the Jungian method of understanding dreams and using them for our personal growth and individuation process. Come listen to what messages Psyche has for you.
Two CEUs available for the Friday lecture; 5 CEUs for the Saturday workshop.
February 2021 was a blur. We had just witnessed the swearing in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harrison, and the beautiful poetry of Amanda Gordon. All this while hunkering down in pandemic mode and reeling from the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection.
It was a weird mixed bag. Black History Month was over before I realized that I’d done nothing to celebrate it.
Not so this time! Here are ten things we can do to celebrate Black Love, Black Pride, and Black Power this year.
- Watch movies, documentaries, and shows that feature Black artists, Black voices, and Black talent. I’m currently enjoying Amazon’s free selection of Black History Month shows, including Phat Tuesdays – The Era of Hip Hop Comedy, which describes how Guy Torry created a space where Black humor and Black talent could thrive. His efforts resulted in the discovery of Black artists who inevitably reached and transformed mainstream entertainment in America and across the world. Another favorite is Black History, Black Freedom, Black Love, a masterclass featuring outstanding thinkers like Cornel West, Jelani Cobb, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and John McWhorter, who discuss the evolution of Black thought and ideas in America.
- Check out some Black History Month events in your community. Currently in Atlanta, we have the Obama Portraits at the High Museum. Last weekend I watched a spectacular musical performance by Orchestra Noir, an Atlanta-based all-Black orchestra which “aims to celebrate the cultural achievements of African-American music pioneers across all genres of music”. And it was only $30 (with some tickets selling for less). Take advantage of free and affordable events that work for all ages, pocket books, and tastes.
- Grab a blanket and a book (or join/start a book club) and read Black authors from the diaspora: African-American, British, African, Cuban, West Indian, South American: Black writers are everywhere! Read a Black author you have never heard of, and reread some the well-known Black classics. In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am, poet Sonia Sanchez says that we should read Toni Morrison every ten years “to reimagine ourselves on the American landscape”. I’m rereading Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy which I first encountered in high school.
- Read to a Black child (or have them read to you). Some excellent books that I’m enjoying with young readers are: Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings, I’m Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter, In the Spirit of a Dream by Alina Chau and Aida Salazar, and – how could I resist – Nyambura Waits for the Bus by Cath Alexander.
- Tell that hard working, inspiring Black parent, professional, front line worker, community member you know that you appreciate and admire their skills and presence. Mail a card, send an email, or call and thank them for their service and contributions.
- Support mental health for Black communities: Make a donation to organizations like the Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund, established in 2018 by Rachel Cargle to provide financial assistance to Black women and girls to receive therapy from licensed professionals. Also check out Therapy for Black Girls, which Atlanta psychologist Dr Joy Harden Bradford founded in 2014 “to make mental health accessible and relevant to Black women and girls”. Positive Growth, Inc, a nonprofit organization in Clarkston, GA, is doing amazing work providing mental health services to minority and refugee communities (full disclosure: I’ve worked with them for almost 10 years now and I’m proud of the work we do). You can also donate your time, money, or expertise to a nonprofit organization that supports Black communities in the areas of racial and social justice, LGBTQ rights, legal assistance, nutrition, education, etc.
- Listen to podcasts by Black hosts. My current favorites are NPR’s It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment, and Code Switch.
- Support Black-owned businesses in your community. And when you go shopping in stores like Target, look for aisles that highlight Black products. When we support our Black businesses, we inspire more Black entrepreneurs and help our communities thrive.
- If you’re old school like me and still enjoy sending people cards and packages via snail mail, buy forever stamps from the Black Heritage series. Right now I have Gwen Ifill and August Wilson and can’t wait to get my hands on Harriet Tubman and Ma Rainey stamps.
- Spend time with a Black Elder. Bring them flowers and a home-cooked meal. Sit or walk with them. Put your phone away. Listen.
Today our human family grieves as we reflect with deep gratitude on the extraordinary life, legacy, and gifts of beloved Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as Thay or teacher), who died at age 95. Through his simple and elegant life, his healing poetry, and his dedication to the principles of engaged Buddhism, he gracefully demonstrated how the practice of mindfulness can transform us and our world.
I encountered Thay’s teachings about fifteen years ago when Al Lingo, a dharma teacher in Thay’s Order of Interbeing, invited me to join the mindfulness meditations at the Breathing Heart Sangha in Atlanta, GA. The sangha, which is at the heart of Thay’s Zen tradition, is a mindfulness community “that lives in harmony and awareness” (Nhat Hanh, 2007). At the Breathing Heart Sangha, we had sitting and walking meditations, dharma talks, delicious vegetarian potluck dinners, and mindfulness retreats. I learned about mindfulness practices such as Touching the Earth, the Five Remembrances, the Five Mindfulness Practices, and the Five Contemplations.
One of my most memorable sangha events was in 2011 at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, where I joined hundreds of people in a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh titled “Cultivating the Mind of Love”. It was also at Magnolia Grove that I attended a New Year’s Mindfulness Retreat in 2010/2011 with my partner, now husband, where we both received the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and our dharma names. At our wedding ceremony a year later, we recited the Five Awarenesses, from Thay’s book Chanting from the Heart (p. 170), which we were instructed to recite together at each full moon:
The Five Awarenesses
We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.
We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us.
We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy, peace, freedom and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children.
We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.
We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us; that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow.
Thay’s soothing words from Chanting from the Heart (p. 238), provide comfort during this time of reflection and loss:
Contemplations on No-Coming, No-Going
This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous True Mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2003). No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. Penguin Random House: New York, NY.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2007). Chanting from the heart: Buddhist ceremonies and daily practices. Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA.
Image is of Thay’s own calligraphy, taken from the cover of his book No Death no Fear. Learn more about his calligraphy collection here.
A strange feeling overcomes me as I write this from my childhood bedroom in Kenya in the home I grew up in. I’ve been sorting through my old stuff and getting rid of things like old college notes, books, postcards, and aerogramme letters (remember those)? It’s a mixed bag of nostalgia and enormous gratitude for my life experiences, my parents, my country.
As I grow older, I’m developing a deeper appreciation for the trajectory that has been my life – how circumstances and events have moved me from one thing to another, leading me to where I am now. Coming home is revisiting this past.
Our languages express this nostalgia in different ways. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos which means “to return home”, and algos meaning “pain” or “ache”. I’m contemplating how both being away from home and coming back home can bring us pain. In English, words like homecoming, homesick, and home base capture some of the sentiments that we associate with home. The Germans have Heimweh, literally “home pain”, which describes an aching for home.
When I arrive in Kenya, I’m often greeted with the Swahili words, “Karibu nyumbani” – welcome home – which evoke in me feelings of belonging and pride. In conversation with my father the other day, he shared with me the Kikuyu proverb: “Mîciî nî ndogo” which translates literally as “homes are smoke”. He explained that you know that a hut is a home when you see smoke coming from it, signifying the warmth, comfort, and sustenance that indicate that this place is inhabited by people and life.
Sometimes home is the place where we remember some of our earliest feelings of love, safety, friendship, and belonging; a foundation upon which our lives and personalities are built. At other times, home is where our psychological complexes are triggered, where we re-experience old childhood insecurities that shake our confidence, expose our vulnerabilities, and fill us with shame, fear, and regret. For many, it’s a combination of both.
During this trip home, it was interesting to hear from my college friends from over two decades ago how I’ve changed and how I’ve remained the same. Through their recollections, it was fun to remember the younger, more carefree and expressive me. My sister was also home from abroad, and we talked about how during sleep, our dreams become more vivid and memorable in Kenya. It is as if our psyches recognize their source – those first impressions of what it means to be human and conscious – and are stimulated by this recognition. It was also on this trip home that I found clarity on some decisions I needed to make in my life – what to move forward with, and what to leave behind.
Feeling at home
Earlier this summer I took a trip with my family to a game reserve in Kenya, where we stayed for several days in the middle of the savanna, surrounded by flora and fauna that have existed there for eons. On a safari drive, we emerged from the bushes to see a solitary reticulated giraffe outlined against a clear expansive sky, munching leaves from the tallest branches of an acacia tree.
It was breathtaking.
Our driver immediately stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine. The giraffe paused its chewing and peered at us through long, thick eyelashes. Our eyes locked as we gazed at each other in complete silence for what seemed like ages before it started chewing again and went on with its life.
Numinous moments like these move me. What a gift to witness this magnificent creature in its natural habitat. Here is a place where an ancient wisdom is in charge, where living things do not have to justify their existence, are not besieged by insecurities. They just live their lives simply and elegantly in this perfect (or imperfect) moment. I felt that sense of acceptance and knowing envelope me.
This is what coming home means to me: being at ease with life, nature, and myself. Not having to explain myself to anyone. Fitting in without having to try. Perhaps that’s why I love coming home – because each time I do, more and more of this feeling accompanies me back to the other spaces I inhabit and infuses them with value and meaning.
Photo taken by Nyambura Kihato
Swahili call and response storytelling sequence
|“Paukwa!” —- “Pakawa!”||(“It came to!” —- “It happened!”)|
|“Sahani!” —— “Ya mchele!”||(“Plate!” — “For rice!”)|
|“Giza!” ——- “La mwizi!”||(“Darkness!” — “For thieves!”)|
|“Hadithi, hadithi!” —– “Hadithi njoo!”||(“Story, story!” —-“Story come!”)|
Ashanti beginning for stories
“We do not really mean, we do not really mean,
That what we are going to say is true.”
Call and response from the Xhosa tradition
|“Sukela ngatsomi.” —- “Chosi.”||(“Once upon a time.” —- “Tell the story.”)|
Stories are invoked in countless ways in African oral traditions, many of which use the classic call and response style, which invites the audience’s active participation in an immersive experience.
You cannot sit still when a master African storyteller is telling a tale, nor should you. You’re moving with with drumbeats, joining in the call-and-response songs, shouting out magic incantations to release a poor character from danger, cheering when mama bird escapes lion’s jaws.
Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
Lately, I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s anthology Favorite African Folktales, which contains a variety of delightful African stories: Myths that explain the mysteries of nature. Animal tales with familiar characters like the crocodile, spider, and hyena that reveal personality strengths and weaknesses. Transformational stories about how things can change for better or worse when a chain of events sets things in motion. The book also contains stories from Malay, Dutch, Arab, and Welsh cultures that have been incorporated into African storytelling traditions.
There are a total of 32 wonderful stories in this anthology. From Kenya comes The Lion, the Hare, and the Hyena, which teaches us about friendship and betrayal. From the Xhosa people we have the story of The Snake With Seven Heads, reminding us to do the right thing even when it comes at a price, to stay steadfast and hopeful. The Clever Snake Charmer comes to us from Morocco, a delightful tale about being creative, taking risks, and living life fully, without fear or hesitation. And from Nigeria we have The Spider and the Crows, a trickster story of greed and cleverness.
African folktales delight us with exciting plots that twist and turn; with songs, music, and dance; with fun and playfulness. They also deliver tough life lessons to us in a digestible form, inviting us to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in ourselves and others; to honor and respect the rhythms of life and nature; to find hope in hopeless places; to deal with the problems and realities of life in creative ways.
Unconscious psychic processes
Psychologically, folktales invite us to tap into our own unconscious processes, like our intuition, instincts, animal nature, dreams, and premonitions. They connect us to the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. They reveal to us the true nature of things, people, and life. They lower our psychological defenses so that we can see ourselves more clearly: we are more willing to listen to a story about the greedy hyena than to hear about our own greed. Yet the story may help us become aware of the greed in our personality and how it harms us and others. We may learn to acknowledge our shadow and our shortcomings instead of denying them or projecting them onto others.
Treat yourself to this flavorful smorgasbord of tales from Africa – you might learn something new about yourself or how to deal with that thorny situation or person in your life.
Or just suspend belief and have fun getting in touch with the magical and childlike part of yourself.
I attended my first lecture by Jungian analyst Dr Donald Kalsched almost a decade ago, when he did a weekend workshop on trauma at the Jung Society of Atlanta titled The Soul in Hell and its Liberation, and shared insights from his book Trauma and the Soul – a psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption.
I’d attended several workshops on trauma but had never heard it being discussed in such a fascinating way. Dr Kalsched balanced the scientific findings from neuroscience, attachment and relational theory with an exploration of the mythopoesis in dreams, images, archetypal themes and symbols that inhabit the inner landscape of trauma survivors.
He demonstrated not only how trauma impacts our mood, thoughts, behavior, and relationships, but how it can penetrate into the core of the psyche and split the soul. He guided us on a descent into the deep layers of hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrating how a trusted friend or therapist can be a guide and witness who walks with a person through the hellish regions of their traumatized psyche.
Healing through rekindling connections
It wasn’t all grim stuff. Kalsched provided inspiring visions of hope and healing that can come through rekindling connections that have been split by trauma: connections between one’s inner and outer worlds, between the past and the present, between the conscious and unconscious, the personal and archetypal, the self and other. Dr Kalsched’s workshop got me thinking of another story of trauma and hope and inspired me to write on trauma and splitting the soul, using J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Voldemort as examples.
December 2021 Zoom workshop
Donald Kalsched is back at the Jung Society of Atlanta on Saturday, December 4th, 2021, presenting a Zoom lecture titled Violence in Fairy Tales: A Symbolic Key to Violence in our Culture and its Possible Transformation. Using the Grimm fairy tale The Handless Maiden, Dr Kalsched will discuss how we can transform and heal the senseless, mind-numbing violence that saturates our culture today. Two CEUs available.
Here’s how much of a fiend for the HBO series In Treatment I am: I watched the entire series when the show first aired about a decade ago. Then every few months, I kept looking to see if there was a new season. When it didn’t come, I just watched the old series over again. Four times. So imagine my surprise and delight when, out of habit, I looked up In Treatment online, to find that there is a new season out, with Uzo Aduba as psychologist Dr Brooke Taylor. I was ecstatic. A smart Black woman in the therapist’s chair, holding it down professionally while battling her personal demons. Irresistible.
In Treatment Seasons 1-3
In the first three seasons of In Treatment, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne was spectacular as Dr Paul Weston, a psychologist with a private practice from his home (which allowed us to see him fumble around in his family relationships). He was brilliant as a psychologist but deliciously flawed and vulnerable in his personal life, as seen in his interactions with his wife, his therapist Gina, and – spoiler alert – a patient he falls in love with. Dr Weston’s Irish lilt, penetrating insights, wry sense of humor, deep commitment to his vocation, and poetic melancholy reminded me of my first therapist, also an Irishman, when I was in Kenya in my twenties – I’ll call him Frank.
The Irish therapist
I ended up as Frank’s patient through a frustrating comedy of errors that is a story for another day. But we connected as soon as he invited me to sit in his office, and I instantly knew that he was the perfect therapist for me. He made a deep impression on me and inspired me to become a therapist, which is how I ended up leaving my teaching job in Nairobi to come to America to study psychology. He signed off on my hours of personal therapy, a prerequisite for my graduate program.
Frank introduced me to the ideas of, among others, Irish poet John O’Donohue, humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, and psychiatrist Carl Jung. He prescribed Anam Cara to me as bibliotherapy, which I couldn’t find in the local bookstores in Kenya at that time. But in an uncanny display of synchronicity similar to the one that led me to Frank, the book fell off the shelf of a bookstore I visited in Johannesburg a few months later, landing at my feet. Later, Frank and I shared a moment of laughter and awe when I described the encounter in session. I brought that book to America with me when I was accepted into my counseling psychology program. It still sits on my shelf today, two decades later.
There are so many things I love about this new In Treatment season: a formidable Black woman therapist who, like her predecessor, is brilliant yet flawed, making her at once inspiring and relatable. A fantastic cast of ethnically and culturally diverse patients, resulting in rich explorations of race, class, culture, gender, language, and sexual orientation. We learn about clinical stuff like maternal and erotic transference and alcoholism. Carl Jung is quoted a couple of times, and there are references to dreams and the unconscious. There are raw and real conversations about topical matters such as the stigma of mental illness and trauma in Black communities, racism and Black Lives Matter, environmental and LGBTQ issues, politics and white privilege.
We drop in on telehealth video sessions with Dr Taylor’s patients and see them navigate the challenges of COVID-19. We hold our breaths as Dr Taylor reveals her eloquent and unstinting views on white entitlement and misogyny. We marvel at her political activism, and we cringe every time she falls into self-imposed traps and dysfunctional behavior. Actor Liza Colon-Zayas is outstanding as Rita, Dr Taylor’s friend and AA sponsor, whose piercing insights and fierce love will move you to tears.
I am thrilled that In Treatment is back in this superb iteration. I adored Dr Paul Weston, and now I get to revel in Dr Brooke Taylor’s life and foibles, and those of her patients. In Treatment Season 4 is a deeply satisfying and refreshing portrayal of the broad range of people and messy issues that make up today’s America (and show up on therapists’ couches near you).
OK then. Time for me to get back to eavesdropping on Eladio, Laila, and Colin’s juicy sessions.
The enormous challenges of the past year, particularly the COVID-19 outbreak and racial justice protests, highlighted what people in minority communities have long known: that there is an urgent need for mental health services in our communities, and that we must dismantle barriers that prevent folks from accessing these resources. Barriers include cultural stigma, racial biases and disparities, mistrust in medical personnel and programs, economic hardship and socio-political factors, all of which lead to high levels of undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses in communities of color. These in turn result in increased hospitalizations and ER visits, loss of income, legal involvement, poor quality of life, and preventable deaths.
Positive Growth, Inc. (PGI) is a non-profit in Clarkston, GA, that has been working since 1994 to overcome these barriers by making mental health accessible to a wide range of people, from individuals and families in our local neighborhoods to refugees from many countries across the globe. Part of PGI’s mission is to facilitate and encourage conversations about mental health.
Minority Mental Health Virtual Symposium, July 30th, 2021
Positive Growth invites you to its 4th Minority Mental Health Symposium on July 30th, a virtual forum where workshops and discussions on mental health in our minority communities will be presented. Topics include: trauma and the brain, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the Community Resilience Model (CRM), cultural competence and humility, suicide prevention, and parenting. We will also provide resources for mental health and social programs.
Come join in our conversations, where I will be a panelist in a discussion about the mental health issues that impact our communities. Three free CEUs are available. We’d love to see you there!
Remember how these words enchanted you as a child? If you’re lucky enough to still be connected with your inner child, they probably still do. Fairy tales inform, delight, guide, and inspire us. They come in various forms but are universal and present in all cultures. Jungian analyst James Hollis describes humans as homo narrans; we are natural story tellers and love to share our ideas and life experiences through stories. Hollis goes as far as to say: “The purpose of life is to realize your life is an interesting story.”
Jung Society lecture, 7/17/21 with Steve Buser, MD
Join us at the Jung Society of Atlanta on Saturday July 17th for a virtual lecture with psychiatrist Steve Buser, who will guide us through an exploration of the first three volumes of Marie-Louise von Franz’s recently released 28-volume magnum opus, The Collected Works of Marie-Louise von Franz. Von Franz was a highly respected early student of psychiatrist Carl Jung and is considered the foremost Jungian authority on fairy tales. Dr Buser will discuss fairy tale motifs, archetypal symbols, and the socio-cultural, magical, and transformational power of fairy tales.
The verdict has been passed. George Floyd’s killer has been found guilty of charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It’s hardly been a year since we saw the horrific images of Floyd’s murder all over the news and social media, and now we see Derek Chauvin being led away in handcuffs. Many people feel relieved that justice has been served, that a white man does not go home scot free for taking yet another Black life. Others say this will never bring George back, that there have been and will continue to be more George Floyds, that justice will finally be served when we no longer have these killings. Many just feel numb, hollow, and exhausted with the recognition that this struggle for racial justice continues indefinitely.
How do we come to terms with the racial reckoning that is a part of America’s past, present, and future? Psychiatrist Carl Jung said that the journey to wholeness, or what he called individuation, is an opus contra naturam, a work against nature. I take this to mean that this kind of work often goes against our natural human inclination towards apathy, passivity, and unconsciousness in the face of a lifelong, ongoing process towards completion. We yearn for something easy that we can do with little or no effort, something that has an end in sight. Yet the opus must be engaged with consciously, vigorously, endlessly. There is no other way.
It may be an opus contra naturam for some sections of white America to acknowledge the worth and dignity of the Black and Brown people who are their coworkers, neighbors, and fellow humans. Yet it must be done. Or for conservative governors to allow Black voters equal access to the vote (see Georgia’s new voter suppression bill) and to laws that uphold their humanity. But this is what is called for. It may be an opus contra naturam for conservative legislators to support diversity, equality, and inclusion at all levels of society for BIPOC, LGBTQ, Dreamers, refugees, and other minority communities, when it’s so much easier to cling to the status quo and remain opposed to whatever “the other side” proposes. Yet our conscience and our humanity hinges upon it.
Rest in peace, George Floyd. You helped America begin to acknowledge that Black lives do matter.
Onward, America, we have work to do.
This month’s speaker at the Jung Society of Atlanta is Jungian Analyst Susan Olson, who will be presenting a lecture titled When Things Fall Apart – Holding our Center in a Broken World. She will be sharing with us a Jungian perspective on how to develop the psychological attitude required to hold our center as the world around us falls to pieces, a timely message for these extraordinary times.
The African Trilogy
It got me thinking about one of my favorite books from high school, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is part one of the African Trilogy that includes Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. I remember growing up with these books and seeing them, and others from writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Meja Mwangi, and Alex Haley, in our family bookcase (my father was and still is an avid reader), but I never got to read them until I was in high school. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone from my generation who didn’t read Things Fall Apart as a “set book” in high school in Kenya. It was also in high school that I got to know of other authors in the “African Writers Series”, including Francis Imbuga, Ali Mazrui, and Shaaban Robert (remember Kusadikika?).
Recently, I was thrilled to learn from my friend’s daughter that American high schoolers today are reading Achebe in their African literature classes. It is inspiring that so many generations across the world continue to enjoy Achebe’s storytelling, just like I did decades ago. Here is what some of my favorite people have said about Achebe’s work:
Toni Morrison: “His courage and generosity are made manifest in the work”.
Nelson Mandela: “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down”.
Barack Obama: “A true classic of world literature….A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”
Reading Achebe’s masterpiece in Form 1 was for me pure joy, and made for some memorable memories from my high school days (shout out to Mrs Linge and Mrs Gathenji). We took turns to read aloud, discussed the story and characters, laughed at their foibles, memorized and recited parts of the book that we loved, and learned Igbo phrases and proverbs. A class favorite was: “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which I translate as permission for me to highlight my own achievements, whether or not the world acknowledges them.
Achebe’s title for his novel was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
In the novel, Achebe describes the fate that befalls our tragic hero, Okonkwo, and his community in Umuofia, as they reckon with the forces of colonialism that descend upon them, creating and exacerbating divisions among the people, testing their values, identity, traditions, and their vision for their future. Achebe writes that although Okwonkwo was young, “he was clearly cut out for great things….As the elders said, if a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings.” (Achebe, 1958, p. 9).
What I love about Achebe’s writing is his ownership and command of language and use of African expressions in such a natural and vivid style that he takes us right into the village with Okonkwo, sitting with the elders, eating kola nut, watching the wrestling matches, gossiping with the wives, contemplating the fate of the people.
Lately I’ve been feeling inspired by the novels of my youth, which keep showing up unexpectedly in my conversations and readings. So I decided to buy Achebe’s African Trilogy and reread it. I can’t wait to immerse myself in Achebe’s masterful writing and rediscover the words and stories that delighted me so many years ago. (And brush up on my Igbo proverbs.)
Achebe, Chinua. (1958). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
W. B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming from the Poetry Foundation.
On an online chat with my former schoolmates a couple of days ago, we talked about our high school motto “servire est regnare”, Latin for “to serve is to reign”. We waxed nostalgic about our high school days and how we loved to belt out this phrase from our school song in assemblies and speech days. It got me thinking about what servire est regnare really means to me: that by serving others, we uphold our humanity, exercise our agency, and reign over our lives.
This Black History month, I’m contemplating the many ways in which Black people around the world have served and reigned, by uplifting their communities and inspiring the world with their incredible vision, humanity, and courage.
Starting (naturally) with our Vice President Kamala Harris, an inspiration to Americans, to women of color, and to people all around the world. By electing this Phenomenal Woman to serve our country, we affirm our values as a nation and demonstrate that we firmly believe in The Truths we Hold. As I reflect on Harris’s monumental achievement, I remember the visionary leadership and sacrifice of other exceptional leaders, from Dr Wangari Maathai, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Barack and Michelle Obama, to Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X (and so many others that I’m unable to mention here).
I’m soaking up the deep wisdom, insights, and creativity from the words of young Black women writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi, and Amanda Gorman. They follow in the footsteps of other great women like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, and iconic African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, all of whom dare to write in human and relatable ways about the ordinary lives, ideas, and experiences of Black people.
As a proud Atlantan, I’m deeply indebted to the extraordinary legacy of renowned Atlantans like Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. , John Lewis, and a long line of Black mayors who have served this historic city, from civil rights icons Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, to phenomenal women Shirley Franklin and current mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. I’m inspired by the racial justice advocacy and activism in this multicultural city, spurred by Stacy Abrams, Killer Mike, and the Black Lives Movement, founded by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. These outstanding people have all contributed to the freedoms, privileges, and opportunities that I enjoy today as an African immigrant living in America.
In my personal life, I’m filled with gratitude for the fierce support and encouragement of my parents, the sacrifices that they and their parents made to make this life that I live first a possibility, and now a reality. And to my friends and siblings who, whenever I have bouts of self-doubt, remind me and reflect to me, through their own successes and resilience, who I really am. Everywhere I look, I see the remarkable legacy of Black achievement and pride surround and embrace me.
Servire est regnare. By our service, we reign over our lives and our circumstances; we challenge the ignorance and prejudices that we encounter; we create joy, hope, and opportunities, and leave enduring legacies to those who come after us.
This Black History month, I’m celebrating the incredible ways in which so many Black people have embodied this dictum with their acts of service and their towering human achievements.
Together, we rise. Together, we reign.
Ever been in a situation where you had to make a choice between one thing or another, but for the life of you, you couldn’t decide – one part of you wanted to go one way and the other the opposite way? Our languages express this dilemma in different ways. We may say, “Part of me wants to stay, the other wants to go”, or, “My mind says no but my heart says yes”, or, “I have half a mind to accept the offer, but…”, or, “I’m torn between this and that”. Or, or, or.
A non-pathologizing approach
Psychologist Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), says we all have “multiple personalities”, which he simply calls “parts”. Different parts, such as managers and firefighters (protector parts), and exiles (wounded and vulnerable parts), have different interests, agendas, and motives, and devise clever methods of achieving their goals. It may be a simple (but sometimes agonizing) case of deciding between eating pizza or a healthy salad; between working out or skipping it and feeling awful all day. Or it can be more ominous: a harsh inner critic part may be abusive, exacting, and judgmental, constantly putting you down and fighting with the part of you that feels vulnerable and scared. Finally, there is the Self, which Schwartz describes as the “compassionate leader”, the “seat of consciousness”, “the ‘I’ in the storm”, which balances and connects all parts to form a whole.
Many of us can recognize these parts in ourselves. But parts are not always what they appear to be. For instance, we may get to know a persecutory part (through journaling, therapy, meditation, reflection), and discover to our surprise that it actually wants to protect us from being ridiculed or attacked by others, a strategy that it may have developed when, for example, a person got abused, molested, or traumatized as a child. If we do not acknowledge and negotiate with this part, it may fight and blend with other parts, resulting in a crisis: having failed to consciously undertake the task of engaging and negotiating with all the parts, this rogue part simply goes ahead and acts through subterfuge in a way that alienates and hijacks the other parts. In extreme cases, a persecutory part can cause a person to take their own life.
Although our various parts can wreak havoc in our lives, they can also be a source of deep insight into ourselves, our patterns of behavior, our relationships, and our psyche, which can lead to creativity and psychological healing from trauma and emotional wounds. According to Schwartz, there are “no bad parts”. Rather than pathologizing these disruptive parts, Schwartz emphasizes the need for all parts to be valued, acknowledged, and allowed to play their “natural” roles in service to the whole or Self.
For instance, Schwartz states that the goal isn’t to go to war with or get rid of a harsh inner critic part; it is to dialogue with it and eventually transform it by “unburdening” it from its extreme roles, and beliefs that got attached to it through some traumatic experience or emotional injury. Having done that, this part can play a more supportive role, e.g. it can allow a person to access courage and confidence.
Collective and individual parts
Writers and poets have captured this human condition, both on a collective and individual level. In works like Goethe’s Faust and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the characters fought it out between their moral and virtuous parts (Carl Jung would call this their persona) and their more impulsive, selfish, and insatiable parts (their shadow).
On a collective level, in Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, the inhabitants of an African precolonial community have to decide who they are as a people by either continuing their traditional way of life, or accepting the religion, education, and culture of the white man, with dire consequences either way.
Most recently, Amanda Gorman’s heart wrenching description of the challenges America faces in her stirring inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, depicts the struggle between the part of America that strives towards lofty democratic human ideals on the one hand, and on the other: “a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it/ Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”
We have witnessed America’s ugly parts, parts that every now and then get exposed when they erupt from their hiding place in the collective unconscious, take possession of people, and take root in our communities. Can we as a nation bring together our warring parts to become a coherent whole? We must actively engage this question as we usher in a new year and a new administration.
Psychologically, we bear the responsibility to become aware of opposing personalities within ourselves and learn how to manage and balance all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly, or else suffer the consequences of having them knock us about or worse, annihilate us. We could ask ourselves: when and where do our parts come out to play or to wreak havoc: in relationships, at work, in the way we sabotage our health, or avoid making decisions?
If you feel ready to explore and dialogue with your parts, it is a good idea to have a guide and witness to accompany you through these inner realms of your psyche. It may be helpful to seek out a therapist, particularly one trained in Schwartz’s IFS model.
As for me: for now, I’ll just go for the pizza.
The Jung Society of Atlanta is honored to host a lecture on C. G. Jung’s Black Books on January 31, by renowned Jungian scholar, Sonu Shamdasani, PhD, Professor of Jung History at the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (German) at University College London.
Jung’s Red Book
Jung’s eagerly anticipated Red Book created much buzz and excitement when it was published in 2009. Many people in Jungian communities around the world rushed to buy their copies of this exquisite book. I remember spending around $300 for my copy, my largest book expense ever. I opened the red hardcover and jacket, marveling at the book’s size and Jung’s spectacular calligraphy and paintings. The Red Book is the largest book I own, more suited for display at a museum than in a bookcase in my house; we had to shift the height of the shelves to place it in its new home on the bottom shelf.
Our Jungian community here had an informal group to discuss the rich imagery and writings from Jung’s masterpiece, a collection of experiences, reflections, and paintings that Jung recorded during his “confrontation with the unconscious” that happened after his traumatic break with Freud. This was the period Jung described himself as suffering from his “creative illness”. He was terrified that he might “do a schizophrenia” and go over the edge like Nietzsche, whom he admired. One of the ways he coped with these powerful forces in his unconscious was to acknowledge their wisdom and record their insights in The Red Book.
We plunged into The Red Book and were inspired by Jung’s reflections, stories, dreams, and artwork. We laughed and cried as we broke bread and drank wine together, sharing experiences from our own encounters with our unconscious. Later, in February 2012, the Jung Society of Atlanta hosted an exhibition at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art by Vicente de Moura, C.G. Jung Institute archivist and Jungian analyst, where we got a chance to see mandalas of Jung’s patients that were reminiscent of some of his own mandala paintings from the Red Book.
Jung’s Black Books
Now, we get to experience Jung’s Black Books, published last year, which provide deeper insights into the evolution of Jung’s intimate thoughts, creative process, and visionary ideas that formed the basis of his analytical psychology. Much of the material we have enjoyed in Jung’s Red Book was first captured and drafted in his Black Books.
We invite you to a stimulating and informative event with Professor Shamdasani. Be ready to be inspired by the rich and creative mind of one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.
Lecture (via Zoom) on Sunday, 1/31/2021, 2-4pm – Tickets and information
Buy your copy of Professor Shamdasani’s books at the Jung Society of Atlanta’s Bookshop affiliate site to help benefit independent bookstores and our organization.
Image from Carl Jung’s own paintings in his Red Book
The word trauma gets thrown around a lot these days. As a trauma therapist, many people come to me “to do trauma work” or “to process past traumas” or “for trauma recovery/healing”.
Broadly speaking, psychological trauma happens when a person witnesses or experiences a negative event that is so overwhelming that they are unable to metabolize or make sense of the experience. Their brain and nervous system cannot cope with this emotional intensity, which can include fear, horror, guilt, shame, etc. People might say they feel “broken”, “devastated”, “damaged”, “stuck”, “flooded”, “numb”.
If not dealt with, over time this unprocessed negative experience can remain in a “frozen” state in the brain, nervous system, and the physical body, months or years after the event. It can cause people to get “triggered” by stimuli like sounds, people, and situations that remind them of the original negative experience. When this happens, they relive the event as if it were happening here and now. This describes some of what we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma can negatively impact people’s relationships, work, thinking, emotional and physical well being, in some cases causing chronic pain and leading to physical illness. If left untreated, trauma can be debilitating and can drive people to suicide.
We all respond to life differently. Not everybody who undergoes a negative life event experiences trauma. This is why some survivors of extreme adversities like war, natural catastrophes, torture, domestic violence, etc. are later able to lead healthy, normal lives and have fulfilling relationships with others and the world at large. Why is this? There are several factors, including that of psychological resilience. People with “hardy personalities” are resilient and can bounce back after a traumatic life event. Others may be lucky enough to have loving and nurturing relationships, which provide emotional support and gradually help them heal. Conversely, research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) tells us that the higher one’s ACE score, the more susceptible one is to mental and physical health problems, which decrease one’s psychological resilience and ability to cope with life stressors. However, there are ways we can build up our psychological resilience so that we are able to withstand adversity and increase our flexibility in responding to unpleasant life situations.
Name it to tame it
Sometimes people are surprised to see a therapist and find out that the source of their anxiety, suicidal ideations, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors and other symptoms is unprocessed trauma. We do not always have the knowledge or language to understand our experiences or name things as they are. People may think they have moved past a difficult life event because after all they survived it, and have since adapted to their current circumstances. Yet they continue to suffer from underlying unease and dysfunctional behavior patterns, never realizing this is psychological trauma until they see a doctor or a mental health professional. Often they are relieved to find out because it allows them to begin to make sense of their symptoms and behavior.
So is it trauma or not? Everything is subjective and no two experiences are the same. It is important to see a licensed mental health professional for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Some therapists specialize in trauma modalities like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Somatic Experiencing. Like many therapists, I offer a confidential 15-minute free consult where people can discuss what kind of treatment is right for them. It is possible to process and heal from trauma and learn adaptive coping skills and self-care to mitigate the impact of trauma in one’s life.
Contact me if you are interested in learning more.
I love the word “transcendent” and all its derivations, like transcendentalist, transcendental meditation, and the psychological concept of the transcendent function. The International Cambridge Dictionary defines transcend as “to go beyond or rise above”. During these intense times, this definition conjures for me the image of a person floating up above our planet in space, rising above the conflict, chaos, and confusion, and looking back on humanity with a sense of compassion, calm, and clarity; understanding the higher cosmic order of things and the meaning of it all, or acknowledging the mystery that can never be fully grasped.
Holding the tension of the opposites
In analytical psychology, the transcendent function refers to the capacity to hold the tension of the opposites (such as the conscious and unconscious, the known and unknown), until “the third” appears. This is not an easy task and seems counterintuitive. When there is tension, why not find a quick release and feel some relief? Why hold the tension, with all its accompanying discomfort and pain? It takes an attitude of patience, trust, and courage to do so.
As we work our way through the seventh month of COVID-19, the still rising infection rates, teleschool and unemployment, and the much anticipated US general elections next month, it strikes me that we have no choice but to hold the tension of the opposites in our politics and Weltanschauungen, between our current reality and our future dreams (or nightmares), in order to pave the way for something that is waiting to emerge. We must stay vigilant and engaged in order to recognize this “third” when it appears, and to use it as a gift, whatever it may bring, because it will be a reflection of our level of consciousness as a people, a product of our own making.
Many of us are approaching the election results and the end of 2020 with both hope and dread, as we straddle the tension of the opposites and find ways to manage it without breaking apart or falling into the abyss. Our task, as I see it, is to continue to find ways to be flexible and open to the changes that are inevitable. To find a home of sorts between confusion and clarity, calm and chaos, right and left, stimulus and response, rising above and sinking below our comfort thresholds, as we move beyond what is now, and into whatever the next phase of life brings.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
What does it mean to be an ally in the struggle for racial justice?
Jungian analyst Dr Fanny Brewster, author of Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss, was recently in conversation with the hosts of the podcast This Jungian Life, discussing the racial pandemic in America. [Listen to this powerful episode here]. One of the hosts and fellow Jungian analyst, Joseph Lee, spoke about the “archetype of the ally” and explored how white people can be better allies to African Americans in actively supporting efforts towards racial justice. In discussing the protests after George Floyd’s horrific murder, Lee mentioned how there is a tendency, for example, for white male protestors to “rise up to a heroic stance”, whereas being an ally calls for a deeper emotional engagement and human connection in the face of suffering, grief, and tragedy.
[Fanny Brewster will be giving an online lecture on 9/19/20 at an event hosted by the Jung Society of Atlanta. Details here.]
Psychiatrist Carl Jung described archetypes of the unconscious as emotionally charged images and ideas that are universal in nature and carry rich symbolic meaning in all human cultures, e.g. the archetypes of the Great Mother, the Wise Teacher, the Healer, the Sorcerer/Magician, the Tree of Life. Throughout the ages, ancient and modern humans have encountered these archetypes in myths, legends, religion, literature, music, art, rituals, and dreams.
A familiar universal archetype is the archetype of the Hero, which our modern storytellers have retold in books, comics, and movies like The Black Panther, Wonder Woman, The Matrix, The Hobbit. Predictably, every hero faces the opposing force of a villain. Popular villains in modern culture like Maleficent, the Joker, Saruman, Killmonger, and Agent Smith, play crucial archetypal roles in the development of the heroes in their stories because they dictate the direction and actions of the hero, and draw out his or her courage, strengths, and weaknesses.
Archetypes can play out in our personal lives; for instance, you may find yourself possessed by the Child archetype when you throw a tantrum, or feel vulnerable and helpless, or playful and innocent. Archetypes transcend age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.: for instance, anyone who cares for, supports, and nurtures the life of another embodies the Mother archetype, whether or not they are female or a parent; we see children of all genders in this role when they take care of their stuffed animals and pets, or comfort a hurt friend.
The archetype of the ally
Throughout history, allies have played essential roles in the transformation of societies and nations, from ending slavery and apartheid, to defeating the Nazis and the colonialists; from fighting for civil rights and gay rights, to fighting for Black lives. Being an ally is not for the fainthearted. It involves bravery, sacrifice, soul searching, and a commitment to universal human values. Characters like Virgil, who accompanies Dante down into the depths of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Samwise Gamgee, who sticks with Frodo all the way to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and helps him destroy The One Ring, portray the archetype of the ally at its finest: as a courageous supporter and witness who walks with a person through darkness and terror.
It is significant that we are using the word “ally” in the discussion of racial justice in America: therapists are being called upon to be allies for their African American clients in catering to the specific mental health needs of Black people and other minorities who often cannot access psychological care, yet historically have been the ones most negatively impacted by racial trauma. Businesses, governments, schools, hospitals, the police, military, and legal systems are being called upon to be cognizant of how they contribute wittingly or unwittingly to the racial biases that underlie American society, and are being challenged to dismantle oppressive structures and become intentional allies for people of color. People of color themselves are also learning how to be allies, since we can consciously or unconsciously engage in actions that oppress our own communities and other minorities.
Becoming an ally
Being an ally is an active call of duty for every one of us. Imagine the transformation that would take place in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, police departments, if we had allies calling out injustice in all these places. We can all be more aware of the hidden biases, policies, and behaviors that oppress others, and can actively advocate for racial and social justice wherever we encounter prejudice and discrimination.
Here’s what I’m doing to be a better ally:
- Self-education: The United States of America was built on lofty ideals that unfortunately do not apply to everyone. Toni Morrison defined utopia as who is excluded from it. How does it feel for entire groups of humans to be excluded from areas of society that matter most: family, health, education, housing, political and legal matters? I am educating myself by reading authors like Fanny Brewster and Ibram X Kendi about what we can do to address intergenerational trauma, racial inequities, poverty, mass incarceration of African Americans, which all have their roots in slavery and Jim Crow. I’m following the advice of poet Sonia Sanchez “to reread Toni Morrison every decade in order to reimagine ourselves on the American landscape.” What does a reimagining of ourselves and our nation look like? How can America live up to the lofty ideals upon which it was founded?
- Access to mental health care for minorities: As a therapist, I’m keenly aware of my responsibility to facilitate, participate in, and advocate for programs that strive to make mental health services accessible to people of color through psychoeducation to destigmatize mental health, and the implementation of community programs that provide psychological care and social supports to minority communities.
- Active witnessing: Whenever I ride the train or wait at the airport, I hear the familiar announcement: “If you see something, say something”. Allies speak out when they witness injustice, wherever it may show up. They use their voices and actions to call out impunity and demand accountability. It is disturbing that the shocking murder of George Floyd may never have come to light had there been no active witnesses. How many other Black lives were snuffed out and never acknowledged, and perpetrators never brought to justice, because nobody bore witness to those atrocities? I am renewing my commitment as an active witness as I reflect on the words of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: “The presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
References and resources
Brewster, F. (2019). Archetypal grief. Slavery’s legacy of intergenerational child loss. London: Routledge.
Brewster, F. (2020). The racial complex: A Jungian perspective on culture and race. NY: Routledge.
Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist. NY: Random House.
Podcasts and videos
The events of the past few weeks, particularly the sickening, cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in broad daylight, was devastating not only to Black communities in America, but to all decent humans everywhere. The outcry from across the country and the world was clear and immediate: it is time to fix the racial pandemic in America.
We are fed up and fired up. And while dialogue is certainly an essential first step, most of us feel that the time is long overdue for swift action to implement policy changes that end racial oppression and inequities. As we grapple with the horror and trauma of what we witnessed, we are outraged to acknowledge that this kind of racism is part of the daily lives of so many African Americans and people of color.
The alchemy of change
The fires on the streets have since been put out, but the fires of injustice, outrage, and anger continue to burn inside us.
Alchemically, fire has rich symbolism as the element of purification and transformation. The ancient art of alchemy (from the Arabic al-kimiya) was practiced in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. It was believed to be a process through which base metals and other materials underwent certain operations in order to transform them into valuable substances like gold, or the elusive elixir of life.
In Anatomy of the Psyche, psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Edward Edinger relates fire to the alchemical stage calcinatio, where a solid is heated until it turns into a dry powder. Edinger explains that this process could also refer to the transformation of a mental or emotional state.
By applying intense heat, something is destroyed, or undergoes purification, purging, or drying out, so that it emerges in a transformed state. In the religious traditions, we see this in descriptions of hell fire, tongues of fire, purgatorial, crematorial, and sacrificial flames.
Fire is a good thing, when we know how to use it. Psychologically, fire symbolizes libido, desire, passion, commitment, rage, primal instincts (Edinger, 1985). It has the power to consume us, destroy us, transform us.
The fire, intensity, and pressure of these turbulent times has the potential to transform society for the better, for instance, through the dismantling of old oppressive structures that have sustained racism for centuries. Like the ancient alchemists, we are called upon at this time to develop the ability to wield fire in constructive and transformative ways.
Fired up? Here’s what you can do
Exercising agency over things that matter to us is empowering, increases optimism, and decreases feelings of isolation as we collaborate with others towards a common purpose. Here are some suggestions for action:
- July is Minority Mental Health Awareness month. The timing and urgency of addressing the crisis of mental health in our minority communities could not be greater. Check out activities in your area and join in the conversation. Issues like cultural stigma, limited access to mental health care among minorities, generational trauma, racial inequities, LGBTQ+ activism, cultural competency training, etc. are being addressed.
- This is voting season. Research the candidates running for office in your county and city and vote for people who are committed to racial and social justice. The people we put in our sheriff’s office, courts, city councils, and schools influence the kind of progress and policing we see in our neighborhoods.
- Participate in civic, faith-based, and community organizations in your area that provide resources for education, employment, nutrition, mentoring, affordable housing, legal and health services in minority communities.
In the meantime, we keep the flames of justice, vigilance, and remembrance burning in our hearts, in our communities, and at the ballot box.
Black Lives Matter. A luta continua.
Edinger, E. (1985). Anatomy of the psyche. Alchemical symbolism in psychotherapy. Illinois: Open Court.
Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash
When I posted my previous article on solitude earlier this year, who would have thought we would soon find ourselves using new verbs like “social distancing”, and old ones like “quarantining” and “isolating”, in everyday speech? This is what COVID-19 has presented to humanity: a new reality, a shift from what we knew as normal. As I was writing that blog, the Coronavirus was already starting to wreak its havoc in China and was getting ready to break out to the rest of the world.
Now the full reality of its impact is upon us and we find ourselves, like it or not, in forced opportunities to spend less time in the outside world and more time in our inner worlds. I recently listened to a psychologist on NPR talking about how people’s nighttime dreams are becoming more intense and vivid during this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, indicating the activation of our unconscious psyche as it tries to regain its equilibrium.
Podcasts, online discussions, and social media posts are busier than ever, discussing meditation and inner reflection, gratitude and acceptance, webinars and Zoom meetings (what’s the proper lighting and background for online meetings? Must we wear pants?) And who would have imagined that election fever would suddenly become a lukewarm headline of a forgotten era?
I do several weekly webinars, teach classes, have teletherapy sessions, attend online group meditations, and show up to work meetings all from home. I Skype, WhatsApp, and FaceTime with friends and family, I take the dog for long walks. While stuck at home, we are learning to cook, learning new languages, learning to homeschool, recalibrating our priorities. We are falling to pieces or coming together. It is a blessing and a curse.
Jungian analyst James Hollis gave a fascinating talk a couple of years ago at the Jung Society of Atlanta about how quickly our world is changing, how the terrain we traverse now as a human species is so different from what we have been familiar with in the past. The personal and collective imperative to make conscious choices has never been greater. He described how we find ourselves in a singularity, a place where our reality has already shifted so much that we cannot possibly get by with our old maps, and yet we still use them because we are unconscious of this shift and are still holding on to old realities.
His point was that we need to awaken, discard our old maps, and create new maps to navigate and thrive in this new terrain. That we must be flexible and above all, conscious. Only then can we be active participants in the transformation that is already occurring. Such prophetic words for our current times.
Certainly, everybody now is feeling this shift. Whether in terms of COVID-19, politics, climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ+ activism, technological advances, everything is changing so quickly. And nobody knows how it will all play out in the end. Do we emerge in paradise or in hell? Only time will tell. Yet this question can best be answered by how conscious we are as we proceed, how we handle this opportunity to evolve.
A couple of days ago, I attended, yes, a webinar! by Rick Tarnas, cultural historian and author of Cosmos and Psyche, in which he described some of the challenges and opportunities we face as a human race in the face of this global pandemic. He emphasized that in spite of the chaotic feeling that everything is out of control, we still have agency in the cosmos, which responds to our actions. We can always do something about whatever shows up in our reality. Hearing him say this makes me feel like we are in a kind of cosmic game show. What will we choose? How will we choose? Our survival appears to hinge upon this.
While I hope that collectively we will make conscious choices, ultimately, each of us has a responsibility to make personal choices that benefit our immediate environment. We can be more mindful of the resources we have, we can be kinder, more flexible, more present.
Now where did the time go? Excuse me while I attend my next Zoom meeting.
While waiting for my friends to show up for our dinner date, I met a delightful woman at the bar who struck up a conversation with me. I asked her whether she was also waiting for someone; she said no, she was out alone celebrating her 58th birthday.
After wishing her a happy birthday and making introductions, she talked about the freedom she feels now that she is in her late fifties, and how she wished she had experienced this “life giving, don’t-give-a-damn freedom” earlier in life. She went on to tell me how it took being in her fifties, with her children grown and her husband dead, for her to feel okay about spending time alone, treating herself to dinners and movies, taking walks alone, sleeping alone. She was forced into learning to appreciate solitude, rather than choosing it willingly. We had a lovely conversation about the value of enjoying one’s own company at any age.
It got me thinking about enjoying solitude.
I appreciate how in some ways, we as a society are becoming more open-minded and accepting of solitude: meditation, silent retreats, and journaling are now commonplace solitary activities.Travel groups advertise trips for the solo traveler. Young folks are delaying marriage or choosing to remain single. You no longer have to be a monastic or widow/widower to justify your solitude. I love that instead of the heavy, judgmental “spinster”, we now use the more fun and free “bachelorette” to describe single women, or, my favorite: “singleton” (shout out to Bridget Jones).
Yet in other ways, we are still wary of solitude and being single; even the words “unmarried” and “childless” have negative connotations (especially for women), implying that something is missing or you are somehow incomplete if you are single or have no kids. Certainly loneliness is painful and can be emotionally and physically devastating. As humans, we are wired for social connections with others, and we benefit from nurturing relationships. Extreme loneliness can contribute to chronic illnesses, depression, despair, alienation, or suicide, the ultimate loneliness.
But being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. It may take some practice, but we can learn to enjoy our own company without using others (or our electronic devices) as defenses.
Enjoying your own company
I’m reminded of the joke: “My mind is like a bad neighborhood – I never go there alone”. If you are unable to tolerate physical or emotional solitude, need constant distractions, and tend to fill your life with so many events, dates, friends, work, screen time, etc. that you are left feeling drained and empty, then it may be useful to ask yourself whether you are using these things as defenses to avoid some underlying problem. Sometimes we may need a life coach or therapist to help us explore the inner motives for our outer behavior, and the negative self-talk or anxiety that makes us fill our headspace and lives with too many activities, people, and things.
With practice, we can relearn the enjoyment of solitude. We were good at it as kids. We may remember this from our own childhood, or from watching a child play alone for hours, delighting in every moment, unconcerned or unaware of the gaze of others.
So don’t wait until friends and loved ones are gone or are unavailable. Go alone to that movie you’ve been dying to watch, treat yourself to a solo dinner at a nice restaurant (with the phone turned off! – phones are not dinner companions), sit at the mall and people watch, take yourself to an art show, museum, or play, or just stay home with the sole purpose of having fun hanging out with yourself.
Knock yourself out.
Recently I was at a restaurant with some friends when I mentioned that I was an introvert. They were surprised and attempted to disagree with me: “But you’re so friendly,” they argued, “and not at all shy!” As evidence, they pointed out that I was the only one in the group who had engaged our server and started a conversation with her while she was taking our orders.
This is a common misconception about introverts – that we are shy, antisocial, or unfriendly. These erroneous ideas have tainted the definition of “introversion” from the way it was originally proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung himself was an introvert, and described introversion and extraversion as orientations of energy, i.e. whether a person is energized more by acting in the outer world, or by reflecting in their inner world.
In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (who else but an introvert would have such a title for their book?), Jung describes how he wandered off alone to spend time in quiet spaces, where he immersed himself in his inner world of ideas, theories, and fantasies.
Where do you draw your energy from?
Introverts tend to focus on their inner world and need to withdraw in order to recharge their batteries, while extraverts feel more alive in the external world of people and activities; they draw their energy from the outside world like solar panels.
If you like reflecting on ideas, tend to think a lot before acting, and hate interruptions while working, you could be an introvert. If you prefer to act in the outer world, enjoy stimulating environments like lively parties or active workplaces, or if you welcome interruptions as just the perfect diversion to take a break from your work, you may be an extravert. In reality though, we occupy various positions along this continuum, with ambiverts falling somewhere in the middle. These states are not always static; we can move up and down this scale depending on the situation.
I’m a classic introvert. Respect my quiet time, and please turn off the radio while I’m working (I don’t even own a TV). Those friends I ate out with? I was happy to hang out with them and catch up, but it was so satisfying to decline their offer to join them at a club and head straight home afterwards, where I curled up in bed with a book for the night.
I once heard Oprah talk about how she deals with being a successful Black business woman in a white man’s world. She said she often walks into a meeting to find she is not just the only woman, she is the only person of color. Some of the people she meets can be intimidating or even outright hostile.
In times like these, she calls to mind all the strong Black women who came before her, like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. She remembers Maya Angelou’s words: “I come as one but I stand as ten thousand.” And Shirley Chisholm’s advice: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” She reflects on the hardships these women encountered and how they impacted the world in such powerful ways while remaining true to themselves. Oprah describes how she invites these powerful women to walk into the boardroom with with her, to sit next to her at the table, to help her respond to the environment and the people with courage and conviction, and to remind her to be true to herself. This helps her find her own power, especially in unfriendly environments.
Courage to be you
Who gives you strength and courage to show up and be yourself? Who do you walk with into that work meeting where you are giving an important presentation? Who sits at the negotiating table with you as you ask for that raise you know you deserve? Your ancestors, your grandmother, a teacher or mentor? Listen to the wisdom they are sharing with you as you engage with others. Take a moment to reflect on how it feels to know that they have overcome insurmountable odds and are here to help you do the same, to support you, to be your guide and witness during the interaction.
Some of my favorite people to walk into such situations with are Oprah, Wangari Maathai, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. To me, these incredible people represent the essence of humanity, creativity, and courage. As I reflect on who they are, I remember who I am. I feel their power and empathy surge through me; it infuses me with the courage to show up authentically and deal with whatever the moment brings.
Have you ever found yourself doing something that you felt was totally out of character? Perhaps you got into an argument and suddenly physically attacked someone, much to your surprise and horror. Or you felt a surge of an intense emotion such as jealousy or rage that seemed alien, like it wasn’t coming from you. It was as if someone or something else had taken over your body and mind and you were no longer in control.
Hello, meet your shadow.
Everybody has a shadow. While the shadow part of our personality can do much damage, this doesn’t mean it is evil. In fact, it can be a source of much creativity and insight, if we engage it consciously. Psychiatrist Carl Jung stated that it is healthy to have a good balance between our shadow (the part of our personality that we repress) and our persona (the mask we wear in the world to fit into society’s norms).
Our personality is healthy when there is a balance of opposing tendencies: extraversion balanced by some introversion; kindness and self-sacrifice balanced by some selfishness and aggression. The problem comes when we deny our shadow, or are unaware of it. If not made conscious, stuff from our shadow can develop into a complex, which hijacks us and our relationships, and traps us in dysfunctional patterns of reactivity.
Know your shadow
So how can we know more about our shadow and its contents? Because it is unconscious, we are likely unaware of its presence. Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to someone close to you that you trust: your best friend, spouse/partner, therapist, sibling, close family member; someone with integrity and who knows you well. Chances are, they’ve seen you being seized by the complexes that constitute your shadow. And if they are comfortable being honest with you, they could give you insight into this part of your personality.
- Pay close attention to your dreams: write them down or draw images that appear in them, maybe even join a dream group. The characters, plots, and situations that show up in our dreams can give us clues about the contents of our shadow.
- If you feel ready to have an intimate relationship with your shadow, find out about Jungian analysts or certified dream therapists in your area. When we decide to explore our unconscious, it is a good idea to have a guide and witness to help us navigate through the dark, deep reaches of our psyche. If you are a trauma survivor, however, it is recommended that you see a trauma therapist and work on the trauma before starting on shadow or dream work.
Embrace your whole personality, the good, the bad, the ugly. It all makes up who you are. Work on parts you want to change while allowing all parts to balance one another. Honor your shadow; it balances your light.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Have you ever watched someone (or even your cat or dog) sleep, and noticed their eyes darting back and forth under their closed eyelids? This is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the part of the sleep cycle when we are dreaming. Sleep scientists tell us that REM sleep is important for memory consolidation and helping us process events that we experienced during the day.
Researchers believe it is likely that this process is activated when EMDR is used to help people process trauma by using eye movements. The difference is that during EMDR, we do the eye movements while we are awake and conscious instead of during sleep. This technique is commonly referred to as bilateral stimulation.
Sometimes, instead of eye movements, other forms of bilateral stimulation are used, such as tapping gently on one’s knees with the hands, using the feet to tap on the floor, or even listening to a recording that moves back and forth from the left to right ear.
Research has shown that when these kinds of bilateral stimulation are used in EMDR therapy, they can help integrate communication between our left and right brain. This allows us to use the brain’s capacity to problem solve and process traumatic experiences by decreasing the emotional charge from the experience, while updating the brain with new adaptive information.
Updating negative beliefs
For instance, after being assaulted or abused, people tend to have the belief that they are damaged, unlovable, or worthless. EMDR can help the brain find a more adaptive belief, such as: “I am OK just as I am”, or “I can accept myself”.
By using a strength-based approach that updates old negative beliefs with more adaptive beliefs, a person is able to move forward through a traumatic experience and not feel stuck in the past, or in repetitive patterns of behavior.
EMDR can also be used to manage anxiety and depression, overcome addictions, work through grief and loss, enhance performance, build self-esteem, etc.
I always thought my favorite hero’s journey was Frodo’s in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which was the story I intended to write about. But as I started writing about Frodo, I began to think about his uncle Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and felt I should probably mention him.
Then it occurred to me: surely he deserves more than a mere mention in the whole saga. It was Bilbo who took Frodo in when Frodo’s parents died in a drowning accident. He was the first adventurer, the reluctant hero. He was Everyhobbit, living a comfortable and simple life in the Shire, doing things that hobbits do: spending lazy days reading in his cozy home in the ground, enjoying hearty meals (making sure never to miss second breakfast), and avoiding any disruptions to the normal order of things.
The call to adventure
Until Gandalf the Grey, “that old, wandering conjuror”, approaches him with the offer of an adventure. Mythologist Joseph Campbell writes about “The Call to Adventure” being the first step in the separation or departure stage of the hero’s journey.
If Bilbo had not accepted his call to adventure, had not found The One Ring to Rule Them All and outwitted the creature Gollum to become its new owner, had not bequeathed the ring to Frodo, then the sequence of events and coincidences that led to Frodo being the hero in another larger adventure would never have happened.
So, here’s to the hero Bilbo Baggins (with Frodo getting an honorable mention).
There and back again
Bilbo’s book about his adventures, There and Back Again, in essence summarizes Campbell’s hero’s journey: separation, initiation and return. It describes Bilbo’s friendship with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, his departure from the Shire, his encounters with goblins, elves, orcs, trolls, humans, woodland creatures, the wretched Gollum, and the terrifying dragon Smaug of Lonely Mountain. And finally, his return to the Shire with a treasure trove of wealth and experience.
There and Back Again was taken from Bilbo’s accounts from The Red Book of Westmarch, under the title The Hobbit. (It’s striking to me that Bilbo had a Red Book, just like psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose accounts of his adventures into his own unconscious mind and inner world were just as fantastic and terrifying).
The Hobbit begins with Gandalf the Grey showing up (uninvited) in the Shire, “looking for someone to share in an adventure.” Bilbo, predictably, is horrified. He had never set foot outside the Shire. “An adventure?… nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.” But the seed has been sown, and so begins Bilbo’s journey to help the dwarves reclaim their mountain home which has been taken over by the terrible dragon Smaug. Bilbo encounters fantastic creatures and magical realms and survives countless perils in this quest.
Campbell writes about the hero of the monomyth possessing special gifts or qualities that are often unrecognized: it turns out that Bilbo is no regular hobbit after all: he is courageous, clever and quick; he outwits Gollum in a riddle game and acquires The One Ring; he turns out to be an expert swordsman and burglar, fighting orcs and stealing treasure from Smaug, then destroying the dragon by cunningly discovering his weak spot.
The witnessing consciousness
Throughout his perilous adventures, Bilbo receives what Campbell calls “supernatural aid” or the “unsuspected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure”. For Bilbo, this aid comes in the form of magical feats from the wizard Gandalf. He also receives protection and refuge from the Elves, who give Bilbo magical gifts like “Sting”, the orc-slaying dagger, and other enchanted objects that help Bilbo (and later Frodo) survive hunger, cold, loneliness, despair and darkness as they battled with terror and evil.
Bilbo and Frodo do not embark on their adventures alone. Those who undertake epic and dangerous journeys need a companion to guide them safely through the horrors that lie in wait for them. Campbell and Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched mention the crucial role played by the poet Virgil as the “witnessing consciousness” who, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, accompanies Dante through the underworld as his witness and guide as he descends into deeper and deeper layers of hell.
Both Bilbo and Frodo made descents into the underworld: in secret tunnels, in dark underground dwarf cities, in orc caves, in the heart of mountains, in the fires of Mordor, in the depths of despair. Bilbo has Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves as companions to help him defeat Smaug. Frodo’s loyal companion is his best friend, Samwise the Brave, who at the beginning of the adventure thwarts Frodo’s plot to sneak away on his own and insists on coming with him.
Frodo would never have made it without Sam, who carries him on his back through the dark caves leading to Mordor and rescues him when he is trapped in the lair of the giant demon spider Shelob. Sam provides much needed levity and deep companionship for Frodo in his lonely and dark journey to Mordor, and ultimately saves him from the fiery depths, helping him finally to destroy The Ring and save Middle-earth. (Maybe I should have picked Sam as our hero.)
The return threshold
In the hero’s stage of “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” Campbell states that the hero’s return and reintegration with society is the hardest task of all. Before Bilbo’s adventure, he asks Gandalf, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Gandalf’s reply: “No…and if you do, you will not be the same.” What heroes experience in their journeys leaves them changed forever. Their old life, perceptions, relationships, and activities pale in comparison to what they have lived in their adventures.
This is true for both Bilbo and Frodo: they returned at separate times to Hobbiton but seemed to suffer from a deep kind of loneliness; they could no longer relate to their old lives or habits any more. Bilbo leaves the Shire after disappearing mysteriously in the middle of a lively party he threw to celebrate his eleventy-first birthday. It later emerges that he went to Rivendell to live with the Elves in the House of Elrond, which is where Frodo later finds him after his narrow escape from the Ringwraiths.
After Frodo destroys The Ring and saves Middle-earth, both Frodo and Bilbo sail away with Gandalf and the Elves to the Undying Lands. Why the Elves? Perhaps because Elves are immortal and will never forget these stories. Or because Elves have seen unthinkable things and survived endless wars through so many lifetimes that they understand the bigger picture; they are unfazed by it all, or maybe just accept it. Or maybe they can empathize with the deep emptiness and loneliness that comes from experiencing the eternity of time, whether through a life-altering experience or the curse/blessing of immortality.
I think Bilbo and Frodo’s hero journeys can help us empathize with those who leave “home” (any familiar physical or emotional place) and have life-changing experiences: loss and grief, exile and forced migration, war, illness and hospitalization. Some may be lucky enough to eventually go back home to relative safety. Yet they may be unable to metabolize the experiences they have lived, or synthesize them with the normalcy of their daily routines.
It seems that once you accept the call to adventure (or it is thrust upon you), you can never go back: you know too much, you have seen too much, you are never the same again. This can be the source of profound loneliness, where life seems meaningless and you feel like nobody can relate to your experience.
Perhaps if we had something like the Undying Lands of the Elves, we could sail there to find refuge, healing, and meaning for our life’s adventures and travails.
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the Soul. New York: Routledge.
Tolkien, J.R.R (1965). The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (2001). The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
A handsome young boy in an orphanage receives an unusual visitor. This is, in itself, a singular occurrence, since the boy has never had a visitor in the eleven years he has lived in the orphanage.
But if the circumstances seem strange, the visitor is even stranger. He has deep, warm eyes and an aura of agelessness about him. He speaks in a firm and reassuring tone. The man tells the boy that the two of them share something in common: they are both “different” and have remarkable abilities—they are wizards.
The man enrolls the boy in a school for wizards and witches and takes him under his wing. So begins the story of the strange and troubled relationship between young Tom Riddle (who later becomes Lord Voldemort) and Professor Albus Dumbledore. You may recognize this scene from J.K. Rowling’s sixth installment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The present past
How does the gifted, charming, and handsome Tom Riddle become the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort?
In order to understand the wicked villain, we must travel back into his past to discover what energies and forces may have shaped his life, much in the psychodynamic manner of seeking clues to a person’s adult personality by investigating his or her childhood. In fact, Dumbledore tells Harry that the only way he can defeat Voldemort is by gaining insights into his early life.
This is how we find ourselves in this bleak orphanage. We are traveling back in time by means of a Pensieve (another of Rowling’s delightful magical creations) through Professor Dumbledore’s immaculately stored memories. The memories have been carefully captured in the form of swirling silvery substances that are poured from tiny crystal bottles into the Pensieve. In this way, Harry Potter (and the reader) plunge into the wretched childhood of the boy Tom Riddle. Here, we see some of Riddle’s past experiences, as well as the ancestral forces that shaped his life.
It is by traveling into Voldemort’s past that we find out that he is the heir of the powerful and ruthless Slytherin family; that his mother, a witch, fell in love with a handsome Muggle (nonwizard); that she was ridiculed and ostracized for this; that Voldemort was born of this union. Voldemort’s fate and troubles appear to stem from his tempestuous past: he looks just like his Muggle father but intensely hates that part of him that connects him to this non-magical family. He despises his mother for not using her magical ability to prevent her own death while giving birth to him. He detests the children and staff at the orphanage and plays cruel tricks on them.
He kills his father, drops his Muggle name, takes on the title of Lord Voldemort, and wages war against all Muggles and Half-Bloods. We are now beginning to understand the makings of a villain by peering into the complex inner world of a brilliant but disturbed young boy.
Splitting the soul
But it isn’t until the seventh and final book in the series that we learn about Voldemort’s grand master plan: his scheme to split his soul in order to gain immortality.
Voldemort secretly discovers the Dark Art of soul-splitting as a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and spends many of his adult years in exile working on it. But splitting the soul comes with devastating consequences and is considered one of the most dangerous things a wizard can do—the deepest violation against the soul—because it renders the soul, in Dumbledore’s words, “unstable.”
Literary, mythical, and cultural narratives are filled with cautionary tales about what happens when our souls are violated: Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles and begins his rapid descent into depravity; Okonkwo transgresses against his chi or personal god (some may call this “soul”) and everything crumbles around him in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; in Rowling’s masterpiece, Voldemort is defeated when he splits his soul and its fragmented pieces are destroyed.
Jungian psychology is not new to the phenomenon of soulsplitting. Donald Kalsched, Jungian analyst and guest speaker at the Jung Society of Atlanta in February, presented an insightful workshop on how unprocessed traumas, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse, can cause the soul or psyche to split.
According to Kalsched, because unbearable traumatic experiences “cannot be fully metabolized” by the individual, they cause the soul to dissociate in fragments. This trauma becomes what Kalsched refers to as “the inexperienced experience.”
Kalsched sums it up thus: “If you are in an impossible situation and you are helpless to leave, then a part of you leaves.” So the individual may well survive the trauma, but does so in pieces. This phenomenon has been seen, for instance, in people who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, where, as a result of intolerable trauma, the person’s psyche dissociates into different identities or personality states. In this way, says Kalsched, “the psyche provides a partial cure of trauma so that life can go on, but there is a great price for this self-cure—loss of soul.” (Kalsched, 2013, p. 20)
In Trauma and the Soul, Kalsched states that the process of soul-splitting is orchestrated spontaneously and unconsciously by what he refers to as “the self-care system”, a survival mechanism that “protects and defends the vulnerable core of the self from further annihilation.” But after the soul splits, where do these vulnerable, fragmented pieces go? Kalsched contends that they retreat into the personal or collective unconscious for refuge and support. In this way, they may remain relatively inaccessible except through processes like psychotherapy, dream work or active imagination.
But Kalsched warns that the self-care system is not benign. While it may initially take on the protective role, it tends to turn persecutory by keeping this vulnerable part of the self sequestered and in a regressed state, thereby preventing psychological growth and healing. Also, because the self-care system has access to powerful archetypal forces in the collective unconscious, traumatized individuals may enter into altered states of consciousness where they find themselves encapsulated in inner worlds with powerful archetypal figures that can be at times numinous, at other times mephistophelean.
Because the ego often cannot deal with the tremendous psychic energy and emotional content from the archetypes, it may regress into that infantile period when it got split by the trauma. In dreams, this regressed part of the personality may appear as a vulnerable and innocent animal or child that needs protection.
I would like to offer a recurring dream vignette that reaches back into my own childhood here. Over the years this dream continues to be one of my most frequent nocturnal visitors. First, a little bit of background and context for the dream: As a child, I was very small and sickly. We moved to a coastal town in Kenya where the weather was hot and humid. My father worked as a manager in a huge oil refinery, and we lived right next to it. The air was thick and polluted and I often found it difficult to breathe. I developed painful rashes and other skin ailments which made it difficult for me to be outdoors. I also developed asthma, bronchitis, and malaria all within the same period, at the age of 9 or 10. In one of my hospitalizations, I remember being placed in a women’s ward because the children’s ward was full. I felt lonely, vulnerable and frightened. Also, because I was in the women’s ward, I did not get to see or play with any children during my hospitalization. I was treated by the women’s nursing staff, and not the children’s nurses. The dream:
I am in a forest and I hear a weak meowing sound. I come closer and realize it’s from a tiny abandoned kitten. The kitten is scared and weak with hunger. I pick up the kitten and realize there are more, a litter of around 5 or 6. I feel overwhelmed and wonder how I can feed and protect all of them. Suddenly, I hear a loud, menacing sound. A wolf-dog is approaching. It looks fierce and ominous. I know it is here for the kittens, and because I am in its way, it will harm me too. I want to run away but can’t leave unless I take all the kittens with me. I decide I will scoop all of them in my arms and make a dash for it. I am filled with terror and panic.
What I have noticed in this dream and its other variations is the presence of a protector, a predator, and helpless creature(s), usually kittens. (Incidentally, as a child, I would always bring home tiny orphaned kittens. Today, I have a cat that I rescued as a kitten three years ago.) The dominant feeling tone of the dream is always one of fear and vulnerability. In my interpretation of this dream, I see the protector as the archetypal Self appearing in order to assist the various parts of the wounded or traumatized self, which appear as vulnerable, helpless kittens. I view the malevolent figure of the wolf-dog as an externalized threat representing the frightening environment and experiences around my illness and subsequent hospitalization. These unconscious energies still accompany me today whenever I walk into a hospital and get that strange feeling of uneasiness that I haven’t been able to shake off after all these years.
It has been said that none of us ever leave childhood unscathed. If this is true, we are all carrying the wounds and scars from our childhood traumas. For the majority of us, these are traumas that the psyche, with time, can process on its own, perhaps through positive life experiences and nurturing relationships with others. Some may be fortunate enough to find a good psychotherapist to guide them through the journey into healing.
But these traumas can be dangerous to the psyche if left untended over time. Kalsched points out that this is why a trusting therapeutic relationship is so important to a person who has suffered trauma: it offers a safe container in which the individual can gradually begin to “re-open the transitional space” between his or her inner and outer worlds, between the spiritual and the material worlds, the unconscious and the conscious, the past and the present. This then gives the soul an opportunity to dwell in what Kalsched refers to as the “mytho-poetic matrix,” a place where one’s imagination, hopes and dreams can be rekindled, where the figures in dreams, whether diabolical or divine, can lead towards a larger mystery and healing.
Back to Harry Potter: Voldemort learns that there is only one way to split his soul: he must commit the most heinous act possible—cold murder. Each time he kills, his soul splits again. But splitting the soul is just the first part. He must then find new “homes” for the split fragments. This is where we learn about Horcruxes, which are considered the darkest of the Dark Arts. A Horcrux is an object that has been enchanted using powerful spells in order to conceal a fragmented part of a person’s soul. Horcruxes are such taboos in the magical world that Dumbledore himself cannot bear to talk about them. Having found what he felt were excellent Horcruxes for his fragmented soul, Voldemort embarks on his final business: obtaining the Elder Wand and wielding its power over the wizarding and Muggle worlds. This gripping story is told in the final installment in the series.
As the Harry Potter narrative progresses, it is clear that Harry and Voldemort have a lot in common: both lost their mothers in infancy, both wizards can speak to snakes using Parseltongue, both learned they were wizards at the age of eleven, both were exceptional students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, both their wands share a strange and powerful connection, and later it emerges that they both, in fact, share parts of the same soul. The gravity of this fact is not lost on Harry, and he agonizes over it more and more as the story progresses. For if it is possible that he and Voldemort share the same soul, does that not make him just as contemptible as Voldemort, whom he so despises? Are all Harry’s efforts to fight the dark forces just a defense against facing who he truly is? Harry is plagued by these questions throughout the book.
It is interesting to note that although Harry experienced enormous traumas in his past—the murder of his parents at an early age, painful rejection, excruciating loneliness, and neglect at the hands of his relatives, the Dursleys,—he ends up for the most part, psychologically whole. Where did Harry find the psychological resilience to deal with his traumas?
A central theme that follows Harry throughout his adventures points to one of his best defenses: his close friends and fellow students Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, who walk with Harry through his perilous adventures, much in the same way that Kalsched describes Virgil acting as Dante’s guide and witness in the underworld. Additionally, Harry has the wise and benevolent Dumbledore as mentor, the loyal friendship of Hagrid, and support of the stern but kind Professor McGonagall.
Lastly, Harry has the most powerful defense of all: his mother’s fierce and protective love, a legacy she left him when she died. In contrast, Voldemort had nobody—he was unwilling to form any kind of reciprocal relationship with others, and this became a key element in his defeat.
Re-finding the soul
In a sense, I think we are all a bit like Voldemort. We split our souls—unconsciously, by not accepting all parts of ourselves—then conceal these “soul pieces” and continue to live our lives with the discarded fragments scattered messily about.
Our task then (if we are conscious of it), is to embark on what Jung called “re-finding the soul.” Jungian psychology offers the process of individuation as a way to do this, where all aspects of the soul—the good, the bad, the ugly, the scary—are gathered and embraced into an integrated whole.
In Jung’s Red Book he writes very personally about his own journey to re-find his soul. But like all archetypal journeys, it is not for the faint-hearted. Jung referred to his own individuation journey as “plunging into the depths” of a sort of personal hell, filled with both terrifying archetypal figures and numinous entities. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung states that the years he spent on what he described as his “confrontation with the unconscious” were so emotionally devastating that he felt he was “doing a schizophrenia” and would fall apart; yet he also asserts that they were the most productive years of his life.
In order for Voldemort to re-find his soul and piece back its fragmented parts, he would have to feel remorseful about his evil deeds and suffer the pain and agony of his victims. Harry and Dumbledore know that this kind of undertaking is much bigger than Voldemort’s limited egoic machinations, and would require certain character traits that Voldemort clearly does not possess, such as insight and empathy. Therefore, only one solution remains: Harry must destroy the Horcruxes.
Towards the end of the Harry Potter series we encounter Lord Voldemort again in what appears to be an alternate timespace reality. But he is completely unrecognizable now. Gone is the powerful, merciless sorcerer who terrorized both the Muggle and wizard worlds. Instead, we see a pitiful regressed creature: wounded, tiny and naked, it is curled up on the hard ground. It is helpless and alone, and emits gut-wrenching whimpers of unspeakable suffering. Harry feels a gush of pity— mixed with a good measure of repulsion—for the creature, but Dumbledore’s stern advice is clear: the creature is to be left alone to deal with its own fate.
Voldemort violated his soul when he split it into pieces, and was unwilling to do the “soul work” of retrieving and integrating its fragmented parts when he arrogantly rejected Harry’s final offer for remorse. His monumental failure became his final death sentence when Harry destroyed the Horcruxes and recovered the Elder Wand.
Nothing can be done to save him now.
Nyambura Kihato is a therapist who works primarily with refugee and immigrant communities in Clarkston. She also teaches psychology part-time at Georgia State University.
Achebe, Chinua. (1958). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. A. Jaffe (ed.) (trans R. Winston and C. Winston). New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book. Liber Novus. S. Shamdasani (ed.) (trans. M. Kyburz, J. Peck, and S. Shamdasani). New York: W. W. Norton.
Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the Soul – a psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge.
Rowling, J. K. (2005). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Inc.
Rowling, J. K. (2007). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Inc.