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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