fairy tales


Contemporary religious author, Karen Armstrong, writer of the recent best-selling book for Knopf Publishing, “A Case for God,” and 2009 TEDPrize winner, tells us that authentic spirituality is an embrace of the unknowable. I take this a step further, and say that living an authentic life is to strive to live up to our highest ethical potentials despite the knowledge that we will fail in this quest. I found the words to express this sentiment while watching an absolutely wonderful film, the Alexander Korda 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad.” You will recognize its unique color quality if you are familiar with the work of English directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose classic films include “The Red Shoes,” and “Black Narcissus.” Powell is one of the directors of “The Thief.” This is a great movie to watch with the kids. Though the effects are primitive, the emotional impact makes “Avatar” seem cheap. I found the words to express the sentiment I was looking for in this great scene. To truly live is to embrace of the beauty of the impossible.

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The Unifying Thread

Everyone has problems. People everywhere, and for all time, have been searching for an answer to the great mystery of human folly and self-inflicted suffering. As a psychotherapist, people come to me to provide them with some wisdom, knowledge, expertise and direction on how to find their way out of the darkness and into the light of peace, confidence, success and fulfillment.

In an effort to help myself, my clients, and to do my part in what the Hebrew tradition calls tikkun olam, or fixing the broken world, I have devoted my life to trying to find what Confucius called “the unifying thread” or the psychological theory of everything. Is there a common, underlying, root cause to the unnecessary human pain that plagues us individually and as a society?

After decades of research I have found the answer. The reason for our struggles is that we have a lost heart. In order to understand this defining psychological syndrome and how to fix it, we need to answer four questions: What does it mean to have a lost heart? What is the heart? How did we lose the heart in the first place? And most importantly, how do we find the heart again?

In the next several posts I will answer these questions. In this post  we begin with the first:

Part One: Life With a Lost Heart

We know we have a lost heart when we find ourselves suffering with problems that we cannot solve. We might wake in the middle of the night gripped with terror, or find ourselves smoking pot every day rather than achieving our aims. Maybe we eat too much or do not know the purpose of our lives. Perhaps we can’t get out of bed in the morning or we are lonely and can’t seem to forge loving relationships. We may face a reversal of fortune; a setback in our lives. Our partner asks for a divorce or we’re stuck in work we hate. Where once we found success we now fail.

Whatever the symptom, we may avoid the reality of our situation for a long time. We wander in a somnolent state, as if lost in a dream, stumbling in confusion. Sometimes we make excuses and play the victim, finding the cause of our distress in others. This is the most dangerous phase of the crisis: we don’t yet know the trouble we are in and what we are to face when we try to escape our difficulties.

Whether we suffer a vague sense of dissatisfaction or a total anguish of being—we ignore these signs at our peril. The bells ring. We hear the clanking of chains. The sound gets closer and closer. Despite the danger foretold when things go wrong in our lives, we try to minimize the experience, saying the problem will pass, or it’s just a matter of luck or chance. Yet even as we deny impending doom, the ghost of dreadful consequence looms before us, demanding our attention. The universe, working its mysterious ways, always finds the means to awaken us to our lost condition. Until we recognize that the maze we find ourselves in is a call to confront the truth of our lives, living will continue to bring us pain.

“What do you want with me?” we ask when the ghost enters our room.

“Much!” the voice answers.

When first we confront such conundrums in our lives, we usually discover that the answers are not easily found. Opening our eyes from slumber, our vision remains obscured by sleep. We find ourselves caught in magical binds, ensnared in seemingly insoluble dilemmas.  Trapped in depression, lost without love, riven by anxiety, we want to know why we are being tormented by the universe but we can find no apparent cause. Our mind’s limitations stop us from fully grasping the true nature of our condition. Nothing makes sense. We are bewildered.

The code of life’s problems is inscrutable. What is the secret message they are trying to reveal? (more…)

chi imageIn order to accomplish our life goals we need self-confidence. What is self-confidence, where does it come from, and how do we cultivate it?

Mencius, my favorite Chinese Sage, believed that confidence comes from “ch’i,” the universal source of energy. This power that moves through us has many names — eros, elan vital, libido, kundalini.

The brilliant philosopher, Paul Tillich, called self-confidence “the courage to be.” Possessing this courage means being your authentic self in the face of any danger.

Tillich believed that if we lack such confidence it means we are distanced from our essential nature. Mencius believed this, too. His name for our essential nature was heart. This definition of heart as our essential nature has been found around the world throughout history. In one example, St. Augustine said, “The heart is where I am whatever I am.” Mencius said, “pity the man who has lost his heart and does not go out and recover it.” He, too, believed our lack of strength came from being distanced from what we actually are.

Mencius said that when we are connected to our hearts, we have “free-flowing ch’i.” This means that when we are our true selves we have the ultimate connection to the endless and powerful supply of energy from the universe. It is when we are in touch with this source that we can do anything we set our minds to.

Having this power and confidence is another aspect of our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. We grow this power and self-confidence through being properly parented. When we get what we need from the world, our brain is pumped with chemicals like dopamine, which fills us with energy and confidence. When we are disappointed in life, our dopamine levels drop and we feel like the air has been taken out of our balloon. Getting sufficient positive reflection growing up is the real Popeye’s spinach. When we do not get enough positive support growing up, we chronically have low supplies of dopamine. This can lead us to feel enervated and insecure. We learn that being who we truly are is no good, and so we hide those essential aspects of ourselves. We come to believe that we are not the glorious beings that we are. We live in shame, which is the opposite of having “free-flowing ch’i,” or self-confidence.  Having problems with energy and confidence are sure signs that we have a lost heart.

With self-confidence, we believe in our value and capacities. We can face any obstacle. We can handle the risks of rejection, failure, and mistake. When we live in shame, we believe we are less than, and incapable.

How do we recover our hearts, develop the courage to be, reconnect with our essential being, and find access to our ch’i?

In the fairy tale, Maid Lena, nothing grows in the center of a farm. This is a symbol for a disconnection from heart and ch’i. When we are disconnected from this source of power, there is something in our center where nothing grows. The youngest son, Esben, lives a life mooning about. He is put down by his brothers. He lives in shame, and has no motivation or confidence. After his brothers fail at the task of figuring out why nothing will grow in the center of the farm, Esben determines that he will find out. When his father tries to dissuade him from going, he says, “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going!” When he gets there, he feels fear, but he keeps his feet on the ground, breathes, and determines to face whatever happens. A horrific storm begins. He sees three demons flying straight at him. He looks the demons right in the eye. As they get closer they turn into three swans. Then, just before they reach him, they transform into three beautiful princesses. One of the princesses promises to marry him if he spends the following year completing three impossible tasks. When he returns to the farm he looks completely different. He is filled with power and beauty. After fulfilling the princess’s wish, they marry and he becomes king.

What does this fairy tale have to tell us about recovering our hearts and finding our self-confidence? First, despite the lack of confidence shown in him by others and his own lack of energy,  he determines to find the source of his problems. No matter how frightened he is about facing his demons, he doesn’t run away. When he does, he discovers that what he had been avoiding actually becomes the source of his inspiration. By going to the empty place and staring down his fears, he becomes transformed. This doesn’t mean that his task is complete. In fact, it means that his work now begins. But he now has enough confidence and power to complete the impossible tasks he is given, and in the end he gets all that he desires.

To find our hearts and cultivate our self-confidence, we need to follow Esben’s path. We need to begin by devoting ourselves to a life-long process of growth. Just like Esben, we must say, “I’m going!” We need to go to the empty place within ourselves no matter how scary that seems. We need to learn how to go within, explore and come to understand ourselves. When we do, what we usually find is that we need to heal the wounds of our childhoods that have resulted in the formation of shame.

We must complete the impossible tasks. This means mastering our present. We need to commit ourselves to self-improvement, learning continuously, immersing ourselves in art, spending time in nature, caring for our bodies. We must practice the discipline to recognize and end our negative thinking.

Central to finding self-confidence is acting impeccably. As Mencius said, every time we do the right thing, we come into greater contact with our ch’i. We must take responsibility for our destructive behavior patterns and  surrender to getting help with our addictions and compulsions. We discover that when we do the right thing, we feel good about ourselves and this is the greatest fuel for the growth of our self-confidence.

In order to grow our confidence, we need to have reciprocal, authentic relationships. Like Esben, simply meeting the princess does not win her. He must work to gain her love. We must learn how to communicate and connect with others in true intimacy. This must include both giving and receiving positive validation. Start telling people you know and love that they are extraordinary and you’ll find your own confidence growing.

Another step in growing our confidence is envisioning a better future. By using the examples of the courageous who have gone before us, we call on them for inspiration and help. We must cultivate an image of ourselves as being that which we desire to be. We need to read stories of heroes like Esben, because when we do we realize that we are potentially kings. To fulfill our nature we simply have to follow the path of the heroes who have gone before.

This plan for self-cultivation which provides us access to the “free-flowing ch’i” which is the core of our self-confidence, is known in Asian philosophy as “the Way,” or the Dao. When we live in accordance with the way every day, we find our hearts. By living according to our core truths, we will grow in self-confidence until we can overcome any obstacle, face any fear, achieve any goal, and find true fulfillment and happiness. As Esben learned, that which we fear turns out to be the source of our power. When we follow the way, transformation is guaranteed.

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franciscogoya-Saturn-Eating-CronusAs we have learned in this series so far, fairy tales are ironic. They tell a truth so shocking that it can only be revealed in innocent children’s stories. 2500 years ago, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates said the truth exposed in these stories was so dangerous that they should not be allowed to be read by children at all!

Socrates spoke about one of the earliest Greek myths, the story of the origins of the universe. In this story, Uranus hated his children so much that he buried them in the darkest place. Then his son, Cronus, castrated him. Cronus received a prophecy that he would be dethroned by his children, so he ate them.

Socrates responded to these tales by saying,

“The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him. . .ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.”

What these tales tell us is that the wounded parent has been wounding the child since the beginning of things. Our pain is not the fault of our immediate forebears, our parents, and the wounds that we inflict as parents are the result of a multi-generational pattern that goes back to the earliest times.

As parents, with this knowledge, we have the opportunity to break this cycle and to do our part in healing a broken world. As Confucius said,

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; to cultivate our personal life we must first set our hearts right.”

The creators of fairy tales were in touch with their own child-like nature and so understood things from the child’s point of view. The intent of the inventors of these stories was less to entertain the child and more to return the parent to the child’s world.  Parents need to read fairy tales so they can understand how their children experience them. The harsh lesson of the stories is not one that a child can say directly to the parent and so the story does it for them.  If we can listen to the hidden message, then we can understand what we need to do to become better parents.

From ancient times,  the creators and tellers of the tales were old women. What were the lessons these elders were trying to teach? These women were actually engaging in a subversive act. These crones were able to reach across the generations and communicate on a subtle level the hidden truths about life. They were saying, “Watch out for your parents, and don’t worry, there is a way out.”

These tellers of tales validated the child’s emotional reactions to their world. Children respond to the stories because unconsciously they feel grateful that someone acknowledges their reality, albeit in disguised, symbolic, form.

When the child asks about the story, “Is it true?” they are secretly saying, “Mom, I want you to know that the story is true. You hurt me and make me feel bad about myself, but I can’t tell you.” When the grown up gives their ironic answer by saying “No, this is just a fairy tale,” the secret message to the child is “I understand now what it is that I do, and I’ll do whatever I need to so that I won’t do it anymore.”

Before saying that children should not be exposed to the shocking truth of the murderous rage of the father against the son, Socrates had a hard time accepting the truth of such stories. He said,

“First of all, I said, there was that greatest of all lies, in high places, which the poet told about Uranus, and which was a bad lie too, –I mean what Hesiod says that Uranus did, and how Cronus retaliated on him.”

Before accepting the truth of their own destructive impulses, parents sometimes denigrate fairy stories because they confirm their worst fears about themselves. Denying the reality that we harm our children in big or small ways makes a significant contribution to the problem in the first place. By evading our responsibility, the child ends up believing they are the problem, and this is how they develop shame, or the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. The child comes to believe that if they are being treated poorly by their parents it must be their own fault.

The fairy tales are a way for the the true facts to be introduced to the parent without eliciting this denial and getting the child into trouble. Fairy stories try to make it easy on grown ups by critiquing them without the listener knowing what is going on. In this way, the parent can hear these important lessons about themselves.

For example, the modern story, The Emperor’s New Clothes says to the parents that they are self-absorbed hypocrites, and it is the “child” in the story who reveals this. The story itself symbolizes the process of confronting the parent with their character flaws. The child in the story is the only one who has the guile to reveal the naked truth about the king. Because the story is supposedly about someone fatuous and ridiculous, the parents are not offended. But if they are open to the message, they know the story is about them. Can we grown ups face the truth in these stories? This is the great task, because without it, we will repeat the crimes reported in the tales.

From the earliest times, these stories were told in groups, and adults listened and heard them as well as children. This is still the way it is today. Grown-ups bring their children to see plays like The Lion King, or movies like Coraline. The structure of these fairy tales are barely different than the stories told 5000 years ago. Parents may resonate with them more profoundly than the children, as we have a greater appreciation of the depth of their message. Parents were children once, too, and they had parents, as well. We know the ways we have been wounded by our predecessors and we intuit the ways that we harm our children despite our best intentions.

Here is the message we parents are offered when we enter the world of fairy tales. In a great chain from the beginning of time, you were hurt by your forebears and your society. This has resulted in your having a lost heart. This means that you have not fully realized your universe-given capacities for thinking, feeling, acting, imagining and loving. You are not fully being that which you are meant to be. The result is that you cannot give to your children all that they need to optimally realize these same potentials themselves. In some way, great or small, you are passing down the wounds to the next generation.

The stories then go on to tell us that this does not have to be. You can leave your old ways of being behind. You can liberate yourself from the constrictions imposed on you from without. You can free your capacity for growth become wise, passionate, strong, creative, and loving. You can heal. You can find your heart. The stories tell us that as parents, this is our charge and obligation. The stories demand this of us, because humanity is striving to end this cycle of wounding, shame and self-limitation. In order for the world to survive and thrive, we need to live a life of self-cultivation, where we heal our wounds, liberate our children, and fix a broken world.

The stories provide hope for all children and grown ups who are still spellbound by a giant ogre. The stories tell us that there is a force in the universe which will come to our aid if we show the pluck and courage to fight the demon within.  The stories are revolutionary in this way. The threatening giant may keep the land under a spell for a thousand years but eventually the child in each of us can grow up and save the kingdom. As parents, if  we can free ourselves, then we will not continue the cycle by becoming the tyrant, ourselves.

If parents take responsibility for their own imperfections by sharing the tales with their children, then there can be a relationship based on reality and acceptance. This can help move the child toward self-love and love of others. If parents can take the lessons of the tales to understand their own shortcomings, they can follow the heroic journey presented in the stories, and become King or Queen.  This means becoming a great parent.

When parents share fairy tales with their children, the parent conveys to the child that they accept what the happy ending of the story means. The parent’s main job is to surrender to the great chain of being, and enable their children to become King or Queen themselves. In the end, we need to accept our own death, and give the universe over to our children’s dominion.  Even though, this means, as sometimes happens in the stories, that the parents end up in a vat of boiling oil.

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FAIRY TALES AND THE INNER MALEFICENT

nielsen-scheherazadeIn the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, at the party that celebrates the birth of the new princess, an evil witch named Maleficent shows up and ruins the whole event. She puts a curse on the infant that destines her to a painful existence. Who is this nefarious character that makes an appearance in many different guises in endless stories?

The truth is, there is a Maleficent who lives in each of us. All of the explorers of the human condition have recognized that we are not a unity. We are not simply the singular “I” that we imagine ourselves to be. We possess multiple sub-personalities. There have been countless names and descriptions for these inner part-selves and how they work. Freud divided us into three, id, ego and super-ego. John Bradshaw named the “inner-child.”  Jung named these parts complexes and archetypes. Fritz Perls described the relationship between the parts by calling it the topdog/underdog game. Eric Berne, in transactional analysis, named three interacting parts, the parent, the adult, and the child. The purveyors of the object-relations school split what they call internal representations into at least four parts, the good and bad self and the good and bad object. Watkins describes ego-states, a family of coherent sub-personalities that live and compete within us. Historically, it has been known as the cosmic battle between good and evil. In cartoons, we see an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Whatever name we give it, it is apparent that we are a multiplicity within a singularity, we are many within the one. Our search is for that oneness within our many-ness: like our money says, e pluribus unum, within the many, one.

Freud’s profoundly disturbing discovery is that we are not masters in our own house. Strange as it may seem, these part-selves, sub-personalities, or ego-states, though they exist generally outside of our awareness, have a tremendous influence over our thoughts, feelings, imaginings and behaviors. That person that we think of as “I,” who we believe is in control of our lives, is actually oftentimes not in command of what we do. Despite the fact that this has been well known for well over 2500 years, having been described by Plato, we still have a hard time grasping this fact and accepting it. But the truth is told by fairy tales. Maleficent, the troublemaking fairy, lives inside of us. We know this because we set an intention, but all too often don’t live it through. How many times my clients have said, “I know what I want to do and what I should do, why don’t I do it?”

Some fear when they hear that we have hidden personalities that this means we are crazy and have multiple personality disorder. What we now understand is that this syndrome is merely one extreme end of a long continuum. Only the most wounded of us risk such a complete shattering of personality.

The extreme can illuminate what most of us experience in a far more subtle and integrated way. A schizophrenic may hear disembodied voices that tell the person they are worthless and should die. This does not happen for most of us, but all too many of us, when we dig deep within, discover that there are parts of ourselves that undermine our good intentions by telling us we are worthless and that nothing will work out for us anyway.

These parts of ourselves that sometimes can act against our own apparent self-interest are not evil, or necessarily intend harm. Rather, they serve a protective function. The ways that they protect us may be far outdated and no longer help us, but those parts still think they are aiding us. In this sense, there are no irrational acts. If we can understand the motivation behind the act, we can see the rationality in it, even if they are operating out of wholly false premises. For example, whenever one particular client of mine makes any kind of mistake, he punches himself in the head. Now this is what his father did. His father believed that this was the best way to teach his son not to make mistakes. He did not recognize that what he was doing was completely harmful. He thought he was doing the right thing. Now this client does not want to do this to himself, but feels compelled to. This internalized father behaves autonomously, outside of my client’s control, and he continues to do what he believes is the right thing, even though one day it might kill him.

Very often these parts of ourselves are our own unrealized potentials. Hiding our potential selves is one way of describing what it means to have a lost heart. These unrealized potential aspects not only remain in an unmatured state within us, they corrupt, putrefy or distort through a long period of non-acknowledgment, lack of support and lack of conscious use. They become vitiated. They corrupt because they have gone so long uncultivated. That is what makes their influence negative. They may be enraged, and are protective in the sense that they are seeking revenge on our behalf for a lifetime of neglect and hurt.

The tales reveal this as well. In one fairy tale, a fisherman frees a genie from a lamp. The genie says to the fisherman that he will grant him one wish and that is to choose the method of his death. The fisherman says that is not the way the story is supposed to go. Genies are supposed to give those that free them three wishes of anything they would like. The genie says he would have done that had he not been trapped in the lamp for 10,000 years. After being in there so long, he was too enraged to do anything but destroy.

Oftentimes we battle against these inner demons with our conscious will, but we often lose the battle, because the part of us that we fight with is not invested with sufficient energy to win the battle. We identify with the part that fights, but that is not really our source of greatest strength. All too often, the ogre rules the kingdom.

Fairy tales speak to this outer battle which has become an inner battle. It speaks to those undeveloped parts within ourselves that are hurt and afraid. It speaks to all the lost children within us who feel so all alone. It speaks to those children within grown up bodies who don’t want to come out and grow up, because of the fear that the pain will be too overwhelming if they get abandoned again.

180px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_7_(Beatrice)FAIRY TALES INTRODUCE US TO THE WISE ONE WITHIN

There are also parts of us that are wiser and stronger than we are aware of. In order to counter the power of Maleficent, we need to call on these good powers within us.

One of the most significant collections of tales is the ancient book, “The 1001 Nights.” In this cycle, the Sultan is so troubled by being betrayed by his wife that he plans to marry and then kill a new woman each day. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to save the women of this realm, but in order to do so she needs to put herself into the ultimate peril. She herself will marry the Sultan. She convinces him to let her live each day by telling him a different story for each of 1001 nights.  By telling him these tales, the Sultan becomes cured of his condition. He finds his heart, falls in love with Scheherazade, and eliminates his decree to marry and kill a woman a day. The cycle tells us that in this first recorded course of psychotherapy, the cure was fairy tales.

Scheherazade was an extraordinary woman. She had studied the wisdom of the ancients. She had followed the travels of past pilgrims of the heart. She was a fine poet. She had mastered science and philosophy. She was verse in stories and folk tales. In other words, she had lived the life of self-cultivation that is necessary for finding the lost heart. This gave her true courage in the sense that Paul Tillich described in The Courage to Be.  She did not avoid her destiny, even though she risked death. She was willing to risk all for authentic being.

Scheherazade is what Jung would call an anima figure. This is that great source of wisdom and power that lives deep within each of us. If we can get past the limitations imposed on us by our own woundedness, we will find her, and the great riches she offers. She is our Beatrice, our guide out of hell and into paradise. We need this wisdom figure if we are to counter Maleficent. In the tale “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue,” after the man journeys in a dark forest, he comes upon a garden. In the garden is a beautiful house. In the house is a magical princess. This house in the garden in the center of the wood is our heart. This is the home of the divine within. As The Upanishads tells us, the heart is the home of Atman, the great source of all.

The stories tell us that if we are to overcome impossible obstacles we need supernatural help. In order to access our “inner Scheherazade,” we need to do what she did. We need to live a life of self-cultivation. We must study the world’s wisdom, be creative, become knowledgable, and immerse ourselves in tales. By taking this outer journey of studying the collective wisdom of human kind in its multifarious variations, we call on the power of the magical princess. With her aid we can overcome our shame, and render our demons powerless.

The life of self-cultivation described by the stories combines this outward journey with the inward one. We need to feed ourselves with everything we can from the outside to awaken our inner guide, and then we turn inward and hope for communication. The way to discover the answer to our problems is to enter ourselves the way we enter the story. We look inside, and with patience we wait. If we listen carefully, something eventually bubbles up to the surface. This is the way to find a pathway to our heart. The stories tell us that the inner guide will give us all we need, if we are willing to do the work of finding her. She is the guide to our innermost being, where the world and our nature are one.

To understand ourselves is to understand everything.

king_arthur_8070_smWHAT THE TALES TELL US WE NEED TO DO

What do the tales tell us we need to do to find our hearts and become what we are meant to be? What Bruno Bettelheim says for children is equally true for adults.

“Fairy tales, unlike any other form of literature, direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further. Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach despite adversity — but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity. These stories promise that if a child dares to engage in this fearsome and taxing search, benevolent powers will come to his aid, and he will succeed. The stories also warn that those who are too timorous and narrow-minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence — if an even worse fate does not befall them.” 24

THE TALES TELL US THAT DUMMLING IS A HERO

We internalize the wounds we suffer at the hands of our parents by becoming shame-bound. In order to counter this invention of a false identity as someone inferior, the stories provide us with the image of the hero. These characters often start out being called shaming names like “Dummling,” but by the end they win the princess and become king. The frog turns into a prince. This recognition of the hero within the shamed character awakens us to the truth that we are far greater than we realize.

The stories tell us that hidden within we are king or queen and our destiny is to rule over our own lives, take responsibility for others, and caretake our planet. As the legend of King Arthur tells us, the time comes when it is necessary for us to pull the sword out of the stone and claim our mature identity. With the finding of our heart, we emerge into adulthood. We are capable of fulfilling our responsibilities with all the difficulties that this entails, because we have uncovered the power to do so.

Adults need role models and heroes who provide us with a vision to follow in life. Though we often focus on getting money, sex or a thin body, our deepest need is to find a reliable and true way to significance and quality that we can follow with confidence. The heroes in fairy tales provide us with such a path.

FAIRY TALES AND THE PERILOUS JOURNEY TO THE TRUTH

At a certain point in many fairy tales, the child makes a huge decision. They leave the safety of home and enter the world in search of adventure. In order to end our needless suffering we must be willing to leave the safety of what we know, and enter worlds unknown.

It takes a great leap of courage to leave our childish fantasies behind and face the realities of life as they are revealed in fairy tales. To do this leads to a giant gain, but many who are most in need of this message stay at home and avoid, because they are too afraid. For those who shrink from this challenge, the stories fall flat.

When we leave the house, it means that we are moving to transcend the archetypal, multigenerational, historical wounds that we carry within us from our families. In order to succeed, the child in the story needs to battle their way out of the trapped predicament with their family. In the story “The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body,” the youngest child, Boots, was forbidden from leaving home despite the fact that his brothers were turned to stone by a wicked giant and his father was frozen in grief. Finally, he forced his father to let him go and conquer the evil giant.

We must accept that we can never go back to our earliest childhood and get our unmet needs met by our parents. In one story, the girl lives in a far-away castle with the one she loves, but longs to return to her family. She is warned that if she does it will separate her and her lover forever. She doesn’t listen, returns home, and the prophecy comes true. She must then travel “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” to find her love again.

We need to recognize the ways that we  live out this unsatisfying early relationship in symbolic form, whether it is with the bottle, food or bad relationship choices. Hansel and Gretel are rejected by their parents, and end up in a house made of gingerbread. It looks sweet and appealing on the outside, but  the house is owned by a witch who intends to eat them. Like drugs, alcohol or bad boyfriends, what originally provides an easy release from our childhood pain ends up threatening our doom. Addictions are the ways that we think we are leaving, but actually end up staying in, the house of our families. It is only when we give up our compulsive habits and self-destructive patterns that we leave the house and enter the world on the adventure of finding our hearts.

In order to reclaim the parts of ourselves that we sacrificed in order to maintain our early relationships, we need to sacrifice our child-like relationships to our families. For Hansel and Gretel, in order to save themselves from being spellbound and eaten, they needed to put the witch in the oven.

What we find when we dare to leave and adventure is a grounded sense of identity rooted in purpose. This not only leads to the discovery of our personal destiny, which is our individual goal, but also to the realization of the entelechy of the universe as a whole. We leave the home to enter the heart of the world. We become participants in the world’s growth toward love. Love is what the universe is meant to be.

THE ANSWER WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR: IT WON’T BE EASY

The next painful truth revealed by the tales is that the only way out of our life’s dilemmas is to face our darkest fears. When the hero leaves home for adventure, the first thing that happens is he enters a dark forest and becomes lost. We long for the easy answer, but fairy tales are never so childish. They tell us that we can only get what we want by making our way through the treacherous thicket. This means we must recognize all that we don’t know about ourselves and how to live. We must admit our incompetence.

All too much, contemporary life is structured to avoid these difficult problems. We fear that we do not have the wherewithal to face the challenge. We are consumed with shame, believing that we cannot do anything about our problems because of some intrinsic flaw. We’d rather see things in this way than face the awesome responsibilities of existence, and we end up with relentless suffering as our prize. We feel all alone when we find ourselves in this trapped place, but the tales speak of whole kingdoms being turned to stone. This means that we live in a lost-hearted world, one that is out of touch with its essential nature. This leads to the terrible consequence of us being spellbound, unable to truly live.

FAIRY TALES TAKE US ON AN INWARD JOURNEY

What must we do to free ourselves of this curse? The hero meets a humble figure in the woods who gives him three impossible tasks to complete. And so in order to free ourselves, we must do the impossible.

What this means is that in order to discover the source both of our troubles and our salvation, we must take a trip within. In the stories this journey may be down into a place under the earth, or up to the top of the highest mountain. This journey in is like going into the basement or attic. It is the hidden place where much is stored. When we take the trip within, we come upon the past. We find the remains of our childhood and all the remnants from endless generations. When we travel within we also find depths of being of which we are unaware. We find ways of seeing things that we haven’t contemplated before. We unearth aspects of ourselves that have long gone misplaced. We find the parts of ourselves that have existed only in potential, those things, that with cultivation, we can be. In a sense, this process is like Plato’s anamnesis. In this theory, before birth we have all knowledge and life is a process of remembering all that we once knew.

By entering the world of tales, we reach that deep and hidden interior part of ourselves where we find our hearts. It is a pathway into a level of experience of unimaginable depths and richness. In the tales, when the hero completes the impossible tasks of going to the bottom of the sea, to the ends of the Earth, and to the top of the highest mountain, they find treasure and the water of life.

Thanks for reading. Part 4 is coming soon.

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FAIRY TALES AND SHAMEimages-cinderella-g

The true cause of the problems in our lives is revealed in stories like Snow White. When the queen discovers that Snow White is more beautiful than she, she determines that her heart should be cut out. Mothers can be so envious of their daughters that they will do all they can to prevent the child’s beauty from emerging. One client of mine was shocked when her mother tried to undermine her new love relationship by suggesting that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She said, “I can’t believe it, but I’m sure she is jealous!”

In endless stories the child ends up being adopted by a family where they live well beneath their station. In Cat-Skin, the story of the princess whose father wanted to marry her, the young girl escapes into the forest and finds another castle in which to live. She hides her dresses of gold, silver and diamonds in a walnut shell, covers herself in rags and ashes, and lives underneath a staircase as the scullery maid.

What this means is that in order to protect ourselves from the dangers presented by our parents, we develop a pervasive sense of shame. This is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed about us. We learn to hide our best attributes because they threaten our parents. Instead, we play the scullery maid. That is, we act like we are inadequate. Our screwed-up lives are our way of hiding our true nature.

Our hearts go out to characters like these because we have suffered like her. We live in rags, unrecognized as the princess we actually are.

THE TALES REMIND US OF OUR ESSENCE

Once we live in rags, hiding under the staircase for a long time, we almost forget that there is more to us than our surface appearance. This part of us is so far buried that we may despair of our authentic self ever finding its way to the surface to be realized. Fortunately, the tales remind us that there is more inside of us than we are aware of. We learn from the tales that the forces of nature are stronger than our individual wills. We cannot stop the circular flow of time. The stories tell us that the child can prevail and gives us the way to do so. When we follow the rules of the tales we can transcend our shame, come out of hiding, and become the glorious beings we are meant to be. In the end, the princess takes her dresses out of the walnut shell and lives happily ever after.

The plot of the fairy tale emerges from the struggle to claim our birthright, to become all we are meant to become, to realize our true nature in the face of the dangers we all face. The stories tell us that our goal is to live from the heart despite all the forces that stand in our way.

ADULTS WHO HAVE NOT GROWN UP NEED FAIRY TALES

In many stories the child who has been hurt by his parents lives in hiding for a long time. This is the next painful truth that the tales reveal. Many grown ups have not achieved true adulthood. They have yet to live out the path to dominion that is laid out in the tales. A child will develop their capacities for thinking, feeling, acting and loving which are the mark of true maturity if they are given the proper emotional sustenance in childhood. Our grown-up struggles are the results of the ways that we have been wounded and shamed.  This is part of what it means to have a lost heart.

The messages of fairy tales are for the wounded children that grown ups all too often are. Grown ups need the message of the tales more than any child, because they have yet to go out on adventure and fulfill their destiny. It is not something that is meant to happen in some future time as it is for the child. It is meant to happen now.

FAIRY TALES HELP US TO IMAGINE

Fairy tales help us to cultivate our imaginative faculty. Along with thinking, feeling, acting and connecting, imagining is one of humanity’s five essential potentials. There is no better source for cultivating our imaginations than stories, and no better stories for this task than fairy tales and myths.

When we lose connection to our imaginations, we no longer develop our creativity and moral aspirations. We end up living in our heads. Research now confirms that cogitation without feeling, intuition and creativity does not lead to the best decisions. We do not fully develop our capacity to envision, to see the impossible, which is central to achievement in life. We do not see into the world in depth, and so we lose the ability to fully appreciate our world and ourselves. The world loses its beauty and enchantment. We don’t see the elf or fairy in the forest, we do not trust in the mysterious and half-seen. We have lost spiritual consciousness, the faith in the power of that which we cannot know directly. We lose the humility of recognizing that there are unknown, and perhaps wiser, parts of the self than we know. Without this ability of imagination we do not have the suppleness of sensibility to understand ourselves and the world on a deep and profound level. When we approach the world in a shallow way, we see a shallow self and a shallow world. We end up wanting simple prescriptions for our lives, but this is not the way that life works.

Without the world of symbol embodied in tales, life lacks magic. As Paul Simon said in the song, “My Little Town,”

“All of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back
In My Little Town”

Thus we have become estranged from our inner life and we are left depleted. We are left feeling incomplete. In order to reawaken and cultivate our imaginations, grown ups need to read fairy tales. The way to overcome our stuckness is to engage the forces that connect us to the deepest layers of our being. We must let this deep part of us hear the stories, because it is this part that can hear the truth, and put the answer into practice. This is one way to find the lost heart.

FAIRY TALES HEAL US

Fairy tales should be used by adults the way they have been used traditionally for centuries in Hindu cultures. People who were faced with psychological difficulties were given a folktale to study. Through this meditation the person would come to understand the nature of his or her difficulty, recognizing that the problem is within, and point the way to a solution.

Grown ups need to read fairy tales because, as G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis felt, fairy stories are “spiritual explorations” and hence “the most like life” since they reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside.”

The stories teach us how to be what we are meant to be, how to fulfill our greatest potentials, in a world that hurts us by stultifying and vitiating our greatness and capacity for love. This is our greatest spiritual challenge, and the one that fairy tales address. It is not a battle against our lowest nature, as the Freudians would have it, but a struggle to realize our highest nature.

Thanks to Bruno Bettelheim for some references. Look for Part Three, soon.

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