Friday, May 11, 2007

Jung in Ireland: Removing the Mask

Jung in Ireland Conference 2007
Mid-Life and Beyond
Part I

“Harmony is singing any note your neighbor isn’t,” said Dr. Noirin Ni Riain, Irish vocalist and true Celtic spirit. Music, which is innate to the soul, was certainly intrinsic to this conference.

The first night as many of us gathered under the stars to witness the lunar eclipse, Noirin led us in spontaneous song, while Jungian analyst and author Guy Corneau guided us in reflection.

And the Universe took us through its magic. I actually saw the moon spin, but that’s another story for another time. Apparently, one of us was sending up spirals of energy that I somehow felt, but seemingly so did the moon.

Here is a small overview of what I learned: I saw therapy in a new light, and certainly a possibility for Jungian analysis I hadn’t previously recognized.

What came through strongly for me was the potential for therapy to go beyond our personal issues with our parents. (“We all had the wrong parents,” Guy Corneau declared and then exemplified how the standard birth process and the birth trauma itself are responsible for our existential angst.)

I heard the possibility for therapy to provide a kind of magnificent container in which an individual could incubate, grapple with and work toward living authentically. This is a process Jung called individuation.

Since this was a conference about issues we deal with at mid-life and beyond there was an assumption that we were no longer in the struggle of establishing the ego or our initial steps as adults.

We talked about masks. Wendy Doniger’s lecture, “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was,” captured the essence of this idea about being and becoming one’s self when in fact we are a multitude of selves.

Ms. Doniger differentiated our many selves from multiple or borderline personality disorder, for instance, by asserting that people with those disorders are all mask without a stable sense of self, and in fact are hollow inside.

As a side note, she commented that “there are masks [i.e., certain ways of being] our parents bequeath to us, simultaneously making us incapable of wearing them.”

Another involuntary mask may be imposed upon us by society. Stepin Fetchit, the character who epitomized a racist stereotype, exemplified the mask of servitude. Ms. Doniger also mentioned how the Irish people might act particularly Irish around us, or tourists in general, in order to fulfill an expectation of “Irishness.”

She further asserted that every woman since Pandora has masqueraded as a woman.

She believes that we are likely to choose the mask that matches the mask of the person we’re trying to please. In fact, she said, we fall in love with people who love the self we prefer to be.

Emphasizing paradox, she said, every lie covers a truth. We love and hate, know and do not know. Masks conceal and reveal.

Guy Corneau reminded us that if we’re not careful, we can mistake ourselves for our personas; “the mask rigidifies,” he said, and one no longer knows one’s true self.

Further, he posed questions, such as: “How can I allow myself to be myself in my own life?”

And in a subsequent lecture on overcoming fear of change: “What do you recognize in yourself, by yourself that gives you your own vitality and desire for life?”

“How can we nourish the creative self without relying on depth psychology?”

Mr. Corneau urged us to “decontract," to find a more expansive path that answers the needs of the inner self. He encouraged us to use tools such as dreaming and imagining.

Carl Jung practiced something he called active imagination, a process that many consider essential especially during mid life. This is when we dialogue with inner figures or dream characters. It’s been extended to include pottery work, sandplay, breath work....

The breath can lead us into a liminal space. By liminal space I mean the place between worlds which we experience just as we’re drifting off to sleep, or barely yet awake. In this place we have greater access to the unconscious.

The unconscious is expressing all the time. The more we try to supress it and act like we think we "should," the louder it may sound to get our attention. This reminds me of the Emerson quote, “What you are stands over you and thunders so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying to the contrary.”

We may be blind to parts of ourselves but others can see them quite clearly. And those unconscious parts may be running the show. The more we explore these underworlds, the less they will have to rattle us to get needed attention and introspection.

To nourish the soul, we must create without expectations. Creativity for its own sake takes us into the vital pulse of life. It doesn’t mean we’ll get praise, sell paintings or find our pictures plastered on the cover of Vogue. It’s not about what we do, but the spirit in which it is done.

Mr. Corneau reminded us that we come into this life to live and have fun, not simply to work. As noted, he proposes that the standard birth process removes us from our instinctive inclinations and patterns us to rely upon others.

For example, tests have shown that when left to their own devices, newborns placed upon the mother’s belly, will within 45 minutes find their own path to the breast. We can contrast this with the more typical structure in which the umbilical cord is rapidly cut and the baby is swept into the care of doctors and nurses on whom the newborn must now depend.

Mr. Corneau suggests that in order to come back to ourselves, we need to feel.

One way to restore feeling is to connect with nature. Trees do not ask you to dress up for them, he said. They stay with you in the act of being. How often do we lose ourselves when we feel we have to be someone or meet a set of expectations?

We learn to compensate. Rather than recognizing our true needs, we’ve learned to substitute something easily accessible that’s actually more of a distraction from the underlying desire.

For instance, we substitute food, alcohol, cigarettes, or even television for genuine connection, conversation, and intimacy. “The best compensations are those you can buy at the corner store and carry with you,” Mr. Corneau stated.

One might also call these substitutions addictions. Author and analyst, Jan Bauer explained the etymology of addiction. It means to lose your voice.

If you have lost your unique voice, how do find it? How do you change? We don’t change because we “should,” Ms. Bauer told us. We change because the pain of staying the way we are is greater than the fear of the unknown.

Ms. Bauer introduced us to Ananke, the goddess of necessity and the consort of Khronos (time). Interestingly, Ananke is the only goddess without a physical image.

As an illustration, Ms. Bauer mentioned a client whose lifestyle was at odds with his image of himself. He believed he should change. Ultimately through his dream work and therapy, he realized that an authentic life for him might be quite different from what he thought it should.

“The way we lead our lives tends to some deeper necessity,” Ms. Bauer said. And this point really struck me. It implies that we need to take time and observe ourselves without judgment so that we can truly see who we are and what matters to us, and not simply try to force what we think should matter.

We all know what we should do, but how often do we do it? Rather, we’re apt to struggle with the ideal and punish ourselves for failing to live up to it, often by further indulging the very compulsions we were trying to avoid.

Necessity, Ms. Bauer told us, brings order out of chaos. Further, many of us have quirks and talents that demand we serve different gods from the ones society may currently honor.

She contends that real change takes time, someone to witness it, and necessity. Clearly, there is no change without necessity. If we weren’t facing global warming, would we be actively conserving energy?

It takes time to internalize change; there’s a mixture of progression and regression as we assimilate new information.

Ms. Bauer contrasted this more prolonged sense of time (the time one might spend in analysis perhaps) to the weekend seminar that seems to promise instant gratification.

My experience with short seminars, such as the Landmark Forum, or Est, is that it does facilitate powerful insights and possibly even rapid transformation for people who are willing to fully participate.

However, in order to sustain those intense realizations and inaugurate new behavior, work needs to happen over time. Reinforcement of the new concepts and support from others facilitate the process from the initial “aha” moment to something that can be assimilated, lived and genuinely expressed.

And if there is no necessity for change, why would we ever bother?

Seeking, Ms. Bauer told us, is an innate instinct and necessary for survival. As we seek and explore something new, dopamine is released into the system and there is an increased sense of pleasure.

Clearly, as we age, necessity changes. Old ways of being begin to feel flat. Discontent can push us to seek more fulfillment. If we’re willing to look within, our discoveries may surprise and enliven us.

If we continue to push down our discomforts or cover them up, we may find ourselves in the more classic mid-life crisis. We can dye our hair, find younger partners and racier cars, but that won’t feed the inner life, though it may for a time dazzle, delay and confuse it.

The second half of life is an important threshold that needs to be honored. Ananke calls us to wholeness. How will we respond?

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