StAugustineHow do we change?

Change takes one tiny step, but to take that one step can require a journey of a thousand miles.

So many of us can dream of the life we want to have and the person we want to be. It can be especially frustrating when we get to the stage in our adventure where we acknowledge our problems and have agreed to do the hard work of self-cultivation and still find change slow in coming. Despite our efforts, which may include years of therapy, we may still suffer from shame and self-denigration. Perhaps we still feel socially anxious, can’t find a lover, procrastinate or binge eat. For those of us who experience unremitting emotional suffering, being told to have patience provides small solace.

The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which is so popular because it makes change sound easy and simple, tells us that if we just imagine something it will come to us. Unfortunately, what we discover when we try to implement this program is that though this is a necessary condition for change, it is not sufficient. We do need to imagine a better life, but sometimes we find it impossible to truly believe the vision. The Work of Byron Katie provides us with the wisdom that if we believe our thoughts we will suffer. Her solution, then, is to question, and modify, our thoughts. This too, is good and true, but all too often we find that our thoughts grip us with such a rigid tenacity that they won’t let us go.

The truth is, change is hard.

We find the archetypal story of the longing for transformation in St. Augustine’s Confessions. St. Augustine was a pagan who felt compelled to drink and screw around. He was exposed to Christianity, and understood the value of the virtuous life that Christ represented. But he also knew that if he took on the behaviors that he knew were good, he would be a hypocrite, because they were not congruent with where he was in his heart. He knew that if we was to change his behavior it had to come from the true center of his being. He would have to discover this good person within, so that he wouldn’t want to behave in the ways that he knew were wrong. If he stopped himself from those behaviors by forcing himself to, it wouldn’t be authentic, and it wouldn’t work. His book is his struggle to figure out how to truly transform.

At the key moment in this story,  St. Augustine’s struggles and suffering reach an unbearable point. He is overtaken with shame. He fights an inner battle between two aspects of himself. One part wants him to continue his self-destructive behaviors. These parts do not want to surrender their power over him. These parts  want him to stay as he is and do the things that, though they provide momentary relief, keep him miserable. On the other side he hears the voice that entreat him to a better way. These parts hold little sway. Unable to tolerate this struggle, and the pain of his existence, he finally  surrenders utterly. He throws himself under a fig tree and allows his tears to flow. He cries in a profoundly deep way. The measure of the length and depth of his struggle to change is felt when he asks God, “How long?” How many of us have asked this question about our own suffering?

At this moment Augustine hears a young boy chanting from a house near by, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He had never heard this particular chant. Believing that he is receiving the direction of an oracle, he determines to follow the direction of the boy. He opens the gospel to any random page and reads what he finds there. In the instant that he reads the passage, his suffering falls away. He is absolutely transformed.

What happened to Augustine in that instance and what can it tell us about the essence of transformation? Augustine’s story has many of the classic elements of the process that leads to transformation. These include a long period of struggle with no success, an inner battle that has no solution, total emotional surrender, a connection with a mythic symbol like the tree, the voice of an oracle that provides direction, a connection with a text of the heart, and total transformation in an instant.

But isn’t this just a 1500-year-old myth? How can this apply to our life today? Though aeons have passed since this moment, something similar happened to an acquaintance recently. He wrote me about the experience. Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.

“This spring, I had an experience which I would like to describe here, if you don’t mind. One day, I went to a museum. I went alone, and I was generally having a good time. At one point, however, I was overcome by some extremely strong (and possibly long-suppressed) feelings of anger. These feelings could have been directed at people who have harmed or betrayed me in the past, or at myself; I was not sure. In any case, my anger was not directed at anyone in the museum! Nonetheless, I had been feeling such upwells of anger quite regularly at that time. And the anger I felt in the museum that afternoon was potentially explosive, and I needed to confront it–although I did not want to act on it, and I certainly did not want to unload it onto anyone around me! So I stepped aside and let myself consciously experience these explosive feelings of anger. All of a sudden, the words “I hate you” entered my mind and–silently–passed my lips. These words, like the feelings, could have been directed either towards tormentors from my past, or towards myself; I did not know. As soon as I acknowledged those three words, a large amount of my anger quite literally melted away. I could actually, PHYSICALLY, feel much of my anger melting away. After that happened, I felt much more relaxed, peaceful and calm. I was astonished. It was an unbelieveable experience, quite visceral and soul-cleansing. Before that night, I had been feeling physically stiff and blocked in some parts of my body, especially around the middle region of my back–it was as if all the cells in that part of my body had been tightly crammed and jammed together; after experiencing, acknowledging and (silently) articulating my anger, I began to feel like many of those “crammed and jammed” cells were suddenly being set loose (although still connected to one another) and were allowed to breathe again. I suppose that this is one of the more physiological consequences of successfully confronting anger and other extreme emotions resulting from traumatic experiences. I still feel some blockages, but they are nowhere nearly as great or as powerful as they once were. Since then, I have been experiencing fewer upwells of anger, and these upwells are nowhere nearly as intense as they once were. Even so, I continue to confront them whenever necessary. In any case, this experience confirmed one thing which I already knew: There is a major difference between experiencing a feeling and acting on a feeling! I would very much like to know your thoughts on all that I have described here. I’d be grateful for anything you have to say on this matter.”

What had happened to this person in this situation that was so like what Augustine experienced? Very often, what causes us suffering is not our emotions themselves, but our struggle against our feelings. One way that so many of us have been chronically hurt as children is that we are taught that our emotions are unacceptable. We then experience our emotions as bad things, not to be felt. We learn how to get rid of our emotions when they come up, either by suppressing them or acting them out. These unlived emotions transmute into shame. Rather than feel our anger and sadness about what was done to us, we blame ourselves and see ourselves in a negative light.

We may not only learn that our negative feelings are bad. We may also learn that we shouldn’t have our excitement. Then, if we are excited around people, we feel shame. We want to hide this feeling. We experience the danger of the exposure of these feelings as anxiety. This anxiety is correlated with all kinds of distorted thinking. We assume we will be judged and hated for who we are and what we feel, as we project our self-loathing onto others. Wanting to avoid our emotions and listening to the voice of shame, we act out compulsively, with drugs, drink, food. Just like with St. Augustine, an inner battle goes on between parts of the self. One side shames us for our behaviors, the other side agrees, but says we’ll deal with it tomorrow. And so it goes on.  In this way our unfelt emotions lead to the symptoms of our life.  Often we are not aware of the deep suppression of feeling that is under our compulsive behaviors. We are just aware of the suffering the behaviors cause. If we simply did not avoid these feelings we wouldn’t need our destructive behaviors, and we wouldn’t have the problems that plague us.

We want the suffering to end, but we won’t do the thing that will bring us eventually to the place of transformation. We will not feel the core emotions that are underneath our anxious, depressed, misery. How do we do this? The first part of the journey is the realization that we must search for an answer. This may require a long period of being lost in the woods. During this time we come to an experienced realization of where we are in the moment. We need to journey within as St. Augustine and my friend did. There we discover our early wounds, our patterns in the present that hurt ourselves and others, our underlying shame, our physical and emotional restrictedness and the unresolvable inner arguments that go on within us.

As we come closer to our hearts, we then feel our longing for that which we never got. As the inventor of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, would say, we reach the “hurt child” layer of the personality. This is a time of protest and complaint where we feel our unmet needs acutely. This takes us one step closer to our authentic pain but it is still not enough for transformation.

Finally, when we have traveled along the yellow brick road long enough, we slay the witch. We can no longer hold ourselves together, and we feel all the feelings that we have contained for a lifetime. We experience our pure sadness or anger at having been hurt in the ways that we were. We may not be able to articulate it in that moment, but our longing for getting unconditional love in our childhood turns into grief. This comes with the recognition that we will never get that which we never got. We cannot go back in time, we can never relive our childhoods, we can never get our parents to treat us differently than they did because we will never be two-year-olds again. Once we surrender  this hope and fully grieve our loss, change happens automatically. Once we allow ourselves to feel the totality of our feelings and penetrate to our core of emptiness that which keeps us spellbound magically dissolves. The inner battle ceases to rage. What seemed impossible a moment before become inevitable. All Dorothy needs to do to get home in the Wizard of Oz is click her heels, but it takes her the whole movie to figure that out.

When we grow up being shamed for who we are, including our feelings, we store these wounds in the cells of our bodies. We learn chronic habits of muscular restriction in order not to feel. Our unfelt experience then lives outside of our awareness in our bodies. These traumatic experiences also live in our brains, unprocessed, alive like they are happening presently. Our natural ability to realize the fullness of our potentials remains restricted until we can free our bodies and our minds. When we face what we fear, and reown all of our feelings, we experience a tremendous release. We find access to the lifestream of energy, our ch’i. Just like in Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, there is almost an infinite amount of energy in every atom.  When we free this energy that is bound up in our muscles and psyche, we are wholly changed and we are motivated for a lifetime to accomplish all we want and to become all we want to be. We find an alignment with our own nature, and the nature of the universe.

As the great psychologist, William James discovered in his exploration of the change phenomenon, The Varieties of Religious Experience, an absolute recentering of personality is almost without fail preceded by a time of absolute emotional despair. But by the testimony of endless pilgrims who have made the journey of the heart before us, this suffering itself is reason to hope. If we let ourselves fully go into this feeling, without resistance, change will happen.

We discover in the end  that our very desire for wanting to change, for being something other than what we are, means that we are still stuck in the shame of negative self-judgment. When we free ourselves from the bonds of our emotional wounds we realize we do not need to change. Instead, we simply become what we have always meant to be. We become ourselves. We find the lost heart.

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The traditional Chinese character for love (愛)...
Image via Wikipedia

Where does love come from?

Contemporary science tells us that love is built into us. As the great researcher, Allan Schore, proves, we enter the world pre-wired to love the first person who takes care of us. Once an infant is born it works like this. When an infant sees his mother gazing at him with love in her eyes, happy neuro-chemicals flood the infant’s brain. The child feels happy. He or she likes this feeling and wants more of it. This sets up an attachment to the source of this good feeling. Since the good feeling comes from mom, the kid starts to love mom. We are genetically set up so that when the brain gets a good dose of those happy-making chemicals, we grow neurons in our brain. These neurons form the basis of our feeling confident in the world. They enable us to create and sustain loving connections with other people.

As we grow into childhood, when we receive the proper emotional attunement from our loved ones, our brains continue to develop and we mature our natural propensity to love and be loved. It is when we get our emotional needs met that we grow the ability to love more and more people in deeper and deeper ways. John Bowlby makes a great case that this built in ability to love is evolutionarily adaptive. That is, it contributes to the survival of our species. Helpless infants and mothers need to be bonded because little babies can’t survive without that protection and care. Without love, we do not thrive. Those neurons that grow from love also contribute to the development of our ability to think, feel, create, imagine, act and care for ourselves in the best possible way. Our ability to love and connect is what is natural and adaptive. Our destructive aggressiveness happens when our natural emotional needs for a loving relationship get frustrated.

When we understand that our love is innate, we realize that children are not bad without a moral basis and need to be “trained” and restrained to be obedient. This view that children are evil and need to be broken has justified all kinds of abuse. We now know that this kind of child rearing leaves permanent scars. Instead, if our task as parents is to cultivate the love that already exists in our child by giving love, it makes our job clear.  Our children are precious with potentials that need to be nurtured, nourished and lovingly tended.

Our natural ability to love is our common human bond. Mencius, Confucius‘s disciple, said that every human heart is alike. When we realize this, this becomes our basis for living.  Since we are all alike, we must live our lives according to the golden rule, which has been understood in every culture and religion, including the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese character for this reciprocity, that is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is shu, which is a combination of the characters for “heart” and “alike.” It’s common meaning is forgiveness.

Our central core of loving compassion is what Mencius called heart. This is what he believed defined what it meant to be truly human or humane. This natural empathy, or the ability to feel what others feel, is what Mencius used as the primary proof that man is essentially good. In order to be fully human, we need to cultivate and develop this heart of compassion.

If this is the case, then the best thing we can do for ourselves, the ones closest to us, and for the planet is to develop our ability to love. Certainly, as we understand the great chain of being, it is our love that helps grow love in our children. Though we understand this scientifically today, this wisdom was understood by Confucius and his follower, Mencius, 2500 years ago. Confucius’s main concern was human relationship. He understood that we were in alignment with our intrinsic purpose on this planet when we were able to have the best relationship with others.

The Confucians believed that our whole society needed to be built on this principle. Our leaders needed to run the state so that relationships would be in greatest harmony and there would be the ultimate conditions for the realization of love. This is a great model for our own leaders and one we need to encourage them to embrace.

As part of this societal imperative, learning about love needs to be central to our education. 70 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt, after seeing the catastrophe of a world war, said that schools needed to expand from the three R’s to four: reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships. He believed that the very survival of the world depended on us learning how better to love and connect through relationship and that it was the responsibility of society at large to provide this direction. In some ways we seem further from this educational goal almost a century later.

This common core of love also means that we do not need to look outside of ourselves for what we seek to become in life. Confucius also said, “the measure of man is man.” What this means is that we can all begin where we are, and by developing our best attributes, we can become wise, strong, passionate and optimally loving.

Confucius’s idea of this ideal person was captured by the Chinese character, Jen. This character is made up of the characters for “man” and “two,” signifying that the measure of an individual is his or her ability for good relationship. The ideal person is one who can connect with others, who can love.

Within each of us is such a fine person, because we can become one, given the proper cultivation. This begins with how we are raised. But once we become grown ups, we need to take over the task of cultivation. We must self-cultivate.

How do we develop our capacity for love and compassion? This is an especially important question because not one of us received the optimal nurturance growing up.

Confucius would say that this begins with tireless self-education. We must explore our great cultural heritage to understand what the pilgrims who have gone before us have learned about love and how to achieve it. We must imagine this ideal, and continue to develop this image so that we have a goal to aim for. We must immerse ourselves in the arts, because this is the food of love.

Finally, our heart of love and compassion is cultivated through our actions, what we do every day. Each day we must practice living up to our highest vision of love. We become more humane – we find our hearts – through giving. To be what we are meant to be, we need to open ourselves and passionately risk all for the sake of loving others.

Science has now joined philosophy and spirituality in understanding that love is our root, answer, and what we are made of.  Through a commitment and devotion to a lifetime of self exploration, you must travel within yourself to find the lost and hidden heart, because there you will discover that the source of love is within yourself. That’s where love comes from.

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making-of-an-elder-cultureOne of the great thrills of existence  is that there is an endless amount to learn. I recently wrote a blog post predicting that as baby boomers entered the last third of their life there would be a resurgence of the 60’s values that many held in their youth. I was excited to discover that I was not alone in this hope. Dr. Theodore Roszak, famous for his culture-defining 1968 work, The Making of a Counterculture, and as a leading proponent of ecopsychology, has written a book on this very topic called The Making of an Elder Culture , published by New Society Publishers.

It has been a joy to read this book and become familiar with the work of Dr. Rosjak (who I am embarrassed to admit I was not familiar with — there’s that joy of new discovery!). This 76-year-old maintains and embodies the spirit that he writes about. He writes with a vigor and an idealism of a person one-third his age. In his latest book Rosjak makes a compelling case that as the baby boomers live for decades past 65, they will reengage with their original, countercultural values and take a leadership role in making the world a better, fairer place.

Roszak sees the baby boom generation as the leading edge of a profound change in demographics that will dominate world culture for the foreseeable future. The combination of lowering birth rates and longevity will make the world an older, and hopefully, wiser place. The 60’s were a time when we believed that if we raised individual consciousness we could change the world. Dr. Roszak agress with the Confucian concept that we cannot “pull the shoots.” That is, we must respect nature’s rate of growth and change. There is nothing, he asserts, that has the potential to raise consciousness like aging.  When vast numbers of people live into their 90’s and beyond, their values will shape our world. We will become a world that prioritizes wellness, sustainable living, and learning. The values of consumption and growth for growth’s sake will give way to a world where mutual care will be of utmost concern. He lays down a challenge for this aging generation. He says that, “Theirs must be a noble, far-sighted cause. They must be the spearhead of a compassionate economy that spreads its benefits to everyone.” He has the audacity to propose an optimistic world vision that results in a healthy relationship with the places we live and our broader environment, and leads to a spiritual realization.

Discovering the works of Roszak has particular meaning for me because I am a proud member of the Radical Passe. The values of the counterculture have stuck with me through the decades of narcissism, greed and fear. It isn’t just the ’60’s that have had a sustained appeal for me. I’m a fan of a whole world of thought that flowered with romanticism in 19th century Europe and passed on into a coma in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. This was a tradition of humanism. It included the belief that the unexamined life was not worth living. It questioned the alienating values of industrial capitalism. Its religion was love. This tradition included Carl Jung, John Lennon and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It brought us the art films from Jean Renoir to Vittorio De Sica. We believed in the experiential educational principles of John Dewey and the therapy of Fritz Perls. It was based on the belief that there was something better to life than the world we inherited: that money, stuff and fitting in were not life’s ultimate goals and something “more” was worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, since this scene is mostly passed and not comprehended by most, my heroes are mostly dead. Ashley Montagu, Erich Fromm, Confucius and Tolstoy are all gone. (There are a few exceptions, including Harville Hendrix and some of my personal teachers who are not so well known). So I sometimes feel a little lonely at this end of the philosophical spectrum. This has increased my joy at discovering Roszak. Here’s a guy who is alive and whose thought and life I can admire. Here’s an invite, Theodore. How would you like to take on another piece of your “eldering” role? I’d love to add you to my mentor list.

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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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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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snowhite in the woodsWhen people say, “That’s just a fairy tale!” they mean that what the person believes is a naive illusion, a lie told to the self. But this is the opposite of the truth. Fairy tales succeed because they wear the clothing of simplicity and innocence, when they are in actuality deadly serious. Fairy tales are ironic. In many tales there is a character with a name like “Dummling” who turns out to be the hero. The stories themselves wear the guise of such foolishness. They do this because telling the truth can be dangerous. The only member of court who could speak truth to the king was the jester, the fool. As George Bernard Shaw said, if you are going to tell the truth, you better make it a joke.

Rather than being shallow fantasies to entertain the kiddies, fairy tales describe the human process of development in all of its mystery. They tell us the harsh facts of our beginnings, how we come to find ourselves in trouble in our lives, and they provide the only viable way out of life’s dilemmas.

They reveal their message in symbolic form because the conscious mind resists and rejects what it cannot easily incorporate. They speak to what every child knows in his heart, but all are afraid to say. As grown ups, we have all too often forgotten these realities, and we dare not admit them now. We have relegated this knowledge to a hidden place, the place where our heart resides beyond our access.

Fairy tales address our deepest existential challenges. They aim to answer the question of how to have, as philosopher Paul Tillich calls it, the courage to be. How do we live fully in the face of the threat of non-existence, insignificance, and moral failure? As Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment,

“The fairy tale takes (our) existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life and the fear of death.”

Fairy tales address the problems of human life and relationship. The stories tell us that we are all wounded in the core of our being. The result of this woundedness is that we are all distanced from living out what Aristotle called our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. This is what it means to have a lost heart. The stories tell us how we came to be wounded in the first place and how this has led to a loss of connection to our essential selves. They remind us of what we have lost and how to find our hearts and bring our essential nature back out into the light again.

How have we become so wounded? The psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tell us that fairy stories reveal the truth about our inner lives. What these pioneers on the quest for the secrets of human nature could barely admit to themselves was that they also revealed the truth about our outer lives and our most important relationships. They reveal the archetypal patterns of the struggle between generations, between parents and children, that has plagued humanity and been repeated over and over back to the murky recesses of our most distant past.

Freud would have us believe that the story of Oedipus is all about the fantasy of the child wanting to kill the father and bed the mom. But Freud leaves out the essential beginning of the tale. The story starts as all the hero myths do. The father is threatened by the birth of the child, because there is a prophecy that the appearance of the prince means the end of the king. So threatened, the king does all he can to rid himself of the threat by having the boy killed.

The dangerous truth that fairy tales reveal is that our beginnings are fraught with peril and danger, and almost always at the hand of a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father gives his daughter away to a beast to save his own skin; Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest to starve; Cat-Skin’s father aims to marry his own daughter; Cinderella lives a life of ignominy and shame at the hand of her stepmother; the examples go on and on.

In contrast to our sentimental beliefs, the relationship between parent and child is not made up exclusively of love. Instead, parents, on a level far below their awareness, and influenced by the depth of their own woundedness, are fundamentally threatened by their children. The prophecy that each oracle reveals in the myths is that the appearance of the child means that the wheel of time is turning. It is only a matter of a few cosmic instants before the parent loses his or her beauty and power and succumbs to death, and the child achieves dominion over the realm. The appearance of the child foretells the parent’s doom.

The tales tell us that this is the natural flow of life. Unfortunately, most grown ups have a hard time accepting this reality. To the extent that we cannot accept this, we are out of harmony with what the Chinese Sage Mencius called the Heavenly Mandate. When we live in harmony with this mandate and accept the natural flow of life, we make way for the next generation wholly and completely and all is right in the world. When we resist against this flow then our hidden aggression against our children comes out in various ways and we cause harm. If we do not accept our own death, then the next generation does not have their turn to advance the human experiment. We hurt our children, and the result is that they lose their hearts.

Part Two will appear tomorrow.

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