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Symbols and symbolic language-developing your own personal language
Symbols and symbolic language has always intrigued me. When I was an art therapist, I tried to understand the symbols in the art of the troubled children I worked with. Struggling with painful realities and often unable to process what they were going through, these children found ways to express and release their troubles through their art. There were a lot of sports figures (the Chicago Bulls logo featured heavily) and many representations of Sadaam Hussein, standing in symbolically to respectively represent good and evil in their drawings, paintings and sculptures. Sometimes, their imagery veered into imaginary territory, with fantastical animals and dream-like landscapes.
My interest in symbolism goes way before my years as an art therapist. When I was little, I remember I once had what felt like an auspicious dream. In a beautiful mountainous landscape I saw a strange, huge set of runes (symbolic language) in the sky. It felt eerie and full of portent but I didn't understand it. This dream stayed with me for a long time, but I never could figure out what it meant. I still don't know what it meant and I wish I could remember it well enough now to look it up. The more I get familiar with my own art, I can see that most of the symbols are the same ones recurring again and again. No more symbols hanging in the sky but I'm always interested to see what new symbols show up.
Harkening back to a pre-verbal time, a time of symbolism and deep meaning
One of the things that intrigues me most about symbolic language is that it harkens back to a time when nature and the world around was felt to have deep meaning that affected the daily lives of those who felt themselves deeply connected to nature. Too long, our culture has denigrated societies that still have connection to this rich symbolic well of meaning, such as Native Americans, and the indigenous populations of places such as the Northwest of the Americas, ie: Canada and Alaska and Australia and New Zealand. And of course, cultures like the Celts. What would it be like to reconnect to a time when we as humans had a direct experience of the spiritual world, a world where we could hear plants and animals talking to us and guiding us through our days? A world when everything was truly alive.
Bears, snakes, turtles, the “Green Man,” elephants. These are a few of the symbols that have shown up frequently in my paintings and dolls. Some of these are very powerful and show up not just in my art but in my life in general. For instance-the turtle has been with me for a long time. I have long been drawn to the turtle and turtles have shown up in my dreams and in my art. My home altar is full of turtles. I'm most drawn to sea turtles for their ability to travel in land and water and to survive long distances and to dive deep into murky waters. According to the book, Animal Speak: the Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, among many other things, "the turtle was an animal whose magic could help you unite heaven and earth within your own life." (see symbol above.)
I love being able to discover new facets of the same symbol over time. Some newer symbols in my work are the giraffes, a white goat/sheep and a green bird. In the images below are some examples of these newer symbols as they show up in my paintings. The giraffe, in the first two images, has a feeling of protectiveness to me. These first two images have a lot more going on in them, including the made up symbolic language in the first one, similar to what I describe below. According to Animal Speak, "the (giraffe's) long neck..makes it a powerful totem for farsightedness and for seeing what lies on the horizon for you." Hmmm? The white goat in the second two images suggests to me, the ability to navigate difficult terrain but there is also a playfulness to it. And the green bird, in the last two images has a feeling of magic and protection. In both images, the green is balanced with purple-colors have important meaning as well. To me, green has to do with life and life energy and purple is associated with magic.
From reading these brief descriptions of my response to some of the symbolism in my work, you can get a sense of how individualized their meanings can be. And, as I said, the meanings can change and morph over time, even within the same image. Sometimes I look back on an old image or doll and new meanings emerge that I didn't see at first.
Hand of Mysteries
Recently I have been working on a series of talisman dolls. The image at the top of this article is a detail of one of my dolls from this series. I intend to make eight over time. I'll be writing more about these in a future post. These are also inspiration for the Maiden, Mother, Crone, Death course that I am offering, starting in March. Each of the dolls starts from the same two sided soft sculpture flip doll pattern, but each time I am led in very different directions in the way I create them. For one of the dolls, I used as inspiration an image of a sculpture of a hand with little figures on each finger, that I saw in the Sackler Museum here in DC. This sculpture intrigued me but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.
Later, in researching this symbol of a hand with little saints on each finger, I found this Mexican painting called "Mano Poderosa," and was intrigued by the similarities. I then found a different image of a hand with mysterious alchemical symbols on each finger, called the "Hand of Mystery." I’m not sure if these two are related but for my doll, I combined the two. I wasn’t so much concerned with the “true” meaning of the symbol. I just liked the idea of these mysterious symbols. For this blog post, I tried to look up the meaning of the alchemical symbols and was only able to find three of them. Salt, nitrogen, sal ammoniac. What I was able to figure out was that these were various elements that would have been used in an alchemical process to create the transformation required. And I learned that the “hand of mysteries” with its additional symbols of a key, lantern, sun, star and crown had to do with a series of steps that helped to transform human into divine. It turned out that this fit with the theme of my doll. I enjoy the way in which the symbols that occur in my art can be woven into mysterious images from the past. Discovering new meanings in this way, I am able to deepen the meanings of my dolls and paintings.
Some examples of runes, sigils and other symbolic languages
There are many sources for symbolic language that can be used as inspiration in your art. Sometimes I just make them up too, in the way that I remember making up languages as a child. And my children did this too. Did you do this as a child? I want to be respectful of the origins of these words and at the same time honor them in my own creations. The image to the left is of Viking runes. Runes are an alphabet that can be adapted for magical purposes. Sigils are created specifically for their magical purposes. As I mentioned, you can use ones that you find in any brief review on the internet or you can make up your own. I am just skimming over the top of a very detailed and complicated subject but I encourage you to do your own research if you are interested.
Ancient goddess bodies as symbols and source
Take a look at these original sculptures of goddesses from ancient times. In the wonderful book, Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, the authors describe how these ancient goddess sculptures were usually quite small. Instead of meant for display, the were intended to be held in the hand, carried as talisman of support and protection, just as now, many carry the rosary in their hands for comfort and protection.
This reminds me of the story that recently came out in the New York Times, that contrary to what had been previously been assumed, it was not men who created most of the cave paintings that have been discovered in places like France and Greece. It turns out that more than half of these paintings were created by women. I am not sure how they were able to figure this out, but what an amazing discovery. To me, it confirms the idea that early, preverbal societies were matriarchal and mostly peaceful. And that instead of focusing on war and struggle, the paintings they created were about mothers and babies (animal and human), representations of nature and of a mother goddess.
These sculptures with their earthy and simple shapes could also be an inspiration for you to create a symbol of nurturance and protection. They also serve as an antidote to the overly skinny models of feminine figures that are forced upon us in modern society.
Some links to artist friends whose use of symbolism in their art inspire me
I wanted to end with sharing some links to art by friends of mine. Sometimes I am so amazed at the people I know and am inspired by. When you look at their art and imagery, consider what symbolic language they are using. What can you notice about their symbolic language? What is revealed/concealed?
Julie Dziekiewitz, makes encaustic paintings that speak out for women's rights. Her large wax paintings are colorful and engaging and full of meaningful symbols, both political and personal. Look for the different ways sharks show up in her paintings.
Sybil Archibald I've written about Sybil before but if you haven't already taken a look at her work, please do go and look. Her paintings and sculptures and most recently monotypes, are rich with personal spiritual symbolism. She is working on a book about her monotypes that will expand on the meanings of their symbols.
Pauline Siple, another artist friend from my Torpedo Factory days, has recently added to her repertoire of evocative paintings to add soft sculptures. These playful figures and paintings speak to themes that interest her and reflect stories of her life.
Polly Sonic/Linda Wingerter, I've known since my New Haven days. Her puppetry, (one of many creative talents, including children's book illustration) continue to amaze me. She is infinitely inventive and creative-take a look.
Living a Life Attuned....
In preparing for an upcoming course, entitled Maiden, Mother Crone, Death, I added the word death, because it seemed important, even though a part of me was strongly resisting adding this word. In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts about how death fits in with the cycles of a woman's life from maiden to mother to crone.
Several years ago, a close friend of mine who is more comfortable with thoughts of death than most people I know, (she meditates often on her own death in a yoga "corpse meditation") recommended an app called “We Croak.” This app reminds us that we are going to die someday, with five times a day messages that are less about death and more about the preciousness of life. Since then, I have come to appreciate these reminders throughout my day. For instance, I just got this message on the app:
Even when the plum has wilted and the winter has reached its deepest cold, do not let your body be numb or your mind absent. Dōgen Zenji.
This post is meant to be an introduction to a way of viewing death, rooted in the worldview of our deep ancestors. If this (within the context of the feminine divine) interests you, I share a list of books for further exploration below. What if we see death the way our paleolitihic ancestors viewed it, as a welcome stage in a life lived in relationship to a greater whole? In this way, rather than cut off from each other, from the divine and from nature, we are profoundly connected to the web of life.
A couple of caveats:
One: if death itself feels too scary to think about, consider the many smaller "deaths" that we experience throughout our lives as we let go of experiences, abilities, loved ones, as part of the inevitable changes of life.
Two: you don't have to be a mother to experience the "mother" part of the maiden, mother crone cycles of life. We are all mothers to ourselves, to our friends and even sometimes to those we happen to meet in the course of our days.
Our Culture’s Negative View of Death as the “Grim Reaper”
When you think about death, do those scary archetypes in our culture come to mind? If you ever watched a horror movie, or even if you have paid any attention to popular culture, you would have come across the archetype of death as the “Grim Reaper.” There is an older, Celtic, version of this scary character, occurring also in other cultures, a horrifying-looking monster with a black cape and carrying a scythe, and called “Ankou.” “Ankou,” the lord of death, ferries people who have died to their life beyond. He sometimes pushes a cart and his eyes are holes filled with fire. He is terrifying and yet he serves primarily as a guide and messenger, not someone who is here to punish you for your sins in life. A general word for someone who guides you into the land of death is a psychopomp.
What is a psychopomp?
The definition of psychopomp in Wikipedia is, “creatures, spirits, angels or deities in many religions, whose responsibility is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but to guide them.” This definition goes on to describe a list of male deities from various cultures and religions whose roles may be seen as psychopomps. These include: Egyptian Anubis, Hindu Yama, Greek ferryman Charon, and the god Hermes, Roman God, Mercury. In Christianity, Saint Peter, Archangel Michael and Jesus can be seen as psychopomps. In addition to these better known male psychopomps, I would also like to consider some female psychopomps, some of whom are better known in their other roles.
The need for psychopomps only occurred when death became scary and separate...
In a wonderful book, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, the authors make the point that in a time when our ancestors worshipped a nurturing Mother Goddess (tracing back to the paleolithic era,) they didn't have the fear of death that we experience now. This was a time, 20,000 years ago and more, when "human beings experienced themselves as the children of Nature, in relationship with all things, part of the whole."
Living deep in caves that represented the womb of this mother goddess, "with death, they would have felt that they were taken back into the dark womb of the Mother and believed they would be reborn like the moon." (p 19 The Myth of the Goddess.) This view persisted through the following Neolithic era (10,000 to 5500 BC) and it wasn't until the Bronze age (3500 to 1250 BC) that the worlds of life and death became so separate that it was believed that a guide was necessary to transition from one world to the other. Not surprisingly this transition also occurred at the same time as the introduction of weapons of war, with the invasion of "migratory warrior tribesmen who imposed their mythology and patriarchal customs on the agricultural peoples whose territory they invaded..we are in the presence of the Indo-European (Ayran) and semitic inheritance. (p 155, The Myth of the Goddess.) As our existence became more and more separated from nature, from the divine and from a sense of connectedness with each other, death also became more scary. And in more recent history, even the psychopomps themselves became scary and threatening.
Divine feminine Psychopomps
What if the psychopomp, instead of being a terrifying dark monster holding a scythe, were someone who holds our hand? What if she were a loving guide? In Greek mythology there is Hecate, who I discussed in another blog post and who is known for guiding women at crucial life crossroads, and certainly death is one of these. In Greek and Roman mythology, Hecate guides Demeter, the mother goddess, also in charge of agriculture and growth, to find her daughter, Persephone, in the underworld. This is one of many stories of goddesses searching the underworld for lost loved ones. This story has many layers of meaning, but on one level it was seen as a metaphor for the change of seasons. During the times that Persephone is above ground, Demeter allows the sun to shine and crops to grow, and when Persephone is below ground, winter comes and growth stops. There is still a sense of connectedness to nature and to cycles of life.
Mary, known in the Catholic faith among many other names, as "mother of God", can be seen as a psychopomp in her guise as the Queen of the Underworld. In this role, she is also deeply connected to the earth, to the soil, to the cycles of life. In this way, she fits into a framework of the psychopomp as a guide and companion to the underworld, that is part of a cycle of death and rebirth. Rather than a punishing and terrifying monster, such as the Grim Reaper, she holds us in her arms.
Journey into Death as a Metaphor for Spiritual Integration
Jumping back into time, another version of a psychopomp is the Sumerian goddess, Inanna, who in the poem The Descent of Inanna, makes her way into the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal. An interesting dimension to her story is that she has to shed a layer at each stage of the journey to the underworld. The layers that she removes include, her crown, earrings, breast decorations, girdle, and skirt. These outer adornments each correspond to a chakra in the body, from the crown chakra, on down to the sacral chakra. In this way, her journey can be interpreted as a metaphor for a deepening of spiritual integration. As Inanna descends to meet her sister, who in this story serves as Queen of the Dead, she sheds layers of her outward identity and reveals her innermost soul. In some ways, Inanna and Ereshkigal can be seen as two sides of one identity, light and dark, upper and lower, goddess of the upper world and goddess of the lower world.
Delving into Our Inner Dimensions
In the realm of psychology, Jung describes the psychopomp as the mediator between conscious and unconscious. The connection here is with death as a metaphor for the formlessness of the inner life of dreams and the imagination. Just as we need a guide to assist us in our final journey, we also need a guide to assist us in navigating the threshold between our imagination and our waking lives. In living fully, we are healthiest when we have a balance of the two. Jung saw our psyche as divided into a consciousness above the line and the unconscious below. Within the unconscious live all kinds of collective archetypes, symbolic representations of various spiritual and emotional aspects of who we are collectively as human beings. His definition of healthy aging had to do with an integration, a coming together of all those disparate parts. And in order to do that, we need a guide to help us navigate between these worlds. We can find this inner guide in dreams, in the creative process (writing, art, poetry) and in living creatively and fully.
How does this matter in our daily lives?
Questions that come up when we reflect on these ideas are many. How do we mediate our own unconscious worlds, our own psyches? What happens when we embrace the feminine archetypes for psychopomps, rather than the often ferocious or warlike male figures? I've been hearing more often lately about people who are living a "normal" life but who suddenly experience a spiritual awakening. What's this about? Does this say something about a sea change in the way people are navigating their lives? It feels like the veil that used to separate our "average" day-to-day life from what's bubbling underneath is getting thinner.
Things are changing fast and in a way that isn't a moment too soon. Our crazy world needs us to be connected to all of what is available to us, to our inner lives, to our spiritual lives, to nature and to our ancestors, in order to meet the challenges that are facing us today. It behooves us to tune into and welcome a more integrated view of the full spectrum of human existence, one which integrates the whole spectrum of life and death and rebirth, rather than fearing death as a representation of the dark/unknown. No matter where you are in terms of your beliefs about these things, I hope that this article piqued your imagination for further exploration.
Books to read:
Here are a few books to explore some of these ideas further…
The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, Maria Tatar
Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, China Galland
The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power by Barbara G. Walker
Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers the Human Story Changes by Elizabeth Lesser
The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image by Ann Baring and Jules Cashford
And I’m really looking forward to this one coming out soon: Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life, Sharon Blackie
Finding a new way of tracking time
I’d like to nominate the three-faced Roman Goddess, Hecate as a replacement for the two-faced God, Janus, as a symbol of the transition into the new year. Janus, the origin of our word, January, looks forward and back in a linear way, to the past and future. But Hecate adds the dimensions of up and down. As do many of the feminine divine, Hecate has a more complex relationship to time. Hecate’s ability to move through time is layered. She represents a web of time with no real beginning and end but instead a cycle that spirals back on itself and returns again. In this way, she captures more accurately our true experience of time, always circling back to the past and projecting forward into the future, integrating all the selves we once were and are meant to be.
More about Hecate
Hecate also symbolizes crossroads and portals. Her three faces, sometimes seen as a dog, serpent and horse, all originally had associations with the underworld. She protects women through life transitions, from childhood to womanhood, to marriage, to pregnancy and childbirth. Among her symbols are keys, torches and portals. One of Hecate’s best-known roles was to use her torch to guide Demeter down to the underworld to find her daughter, Persephone, who had been abducted by the lord of the underworld. Hecate, though a goddess of the darkness, is also a light-bringer. Using her key to open the door (portal) to the underworld, Hecate then guided Persephone back out of the underworld. Hecate is a very complex goddess, that would take much longer than one blog post to fully describe. But what I am trying to capture here is her ability to navigate space and time in a way that we can greatly benefit from if we want to disengage from a surface-oriented relationship with time and space.
A few examples of my non-linear calendars with tracking joy
Non-linear calendars, circles, spirals and infinity loops
Why would we want to disengage from time and space in this way? Doesn’t this sound kind of wacky? Maybe on some level yes, but on another level, there is a freedom in letting go of a linear, goal-oriented narrative of life. I used to write goals at the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. I would plan what I was hoping to achieve in the new year and tally up what I had achieved in the year before. But it never felt right. It often felt like a set up for frustration and disappointment of expectations. I felt stuck in that linear track of achievement and accomplishment.
Then in 2015 or so, I started to track joy in my calendars. I created non-linear calendars-circles, spirals, and infinity loops, one for each month. And I used symbols or colors to track how much joy I had experienced in a given day or month. I gradually stopped making these calendars but they had an impact on me and influence the way I think about my intentions today. Now I think about intentions in a more flexible way, allowing for change and adjustments along the way. Rather than setting goals, with their association to outward structures and achievements, I set intentions, just one or two, that have more to do with how I want to feel in the coming year and who I want to be.
Ancient goddesses as portals
What happens when we use goddesses like Hecate to open up a new portal into our relationship with time? She opens us up to a world beneath the surface of linear time. She helps us to see a doorway, where we may only see a wall. She opens us up into a new way of seeing our path ahead. She opens us up to overlapping dimensions of time. We may, in encountering one of her portals, find ourselves suddenly in contact with our deep ancestors, whose wisdom we might need at that moment. Or, we may open a door into the future, gaining a goosebump-inducing glimpse of who we might or could be, if we lived out our best intentions.
Life becomes more messy and chaotic this way, but more connected to the present moment. One of my mentors, Sally Kempton, in her book, Meditation for the Love of it: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience, talks of the potential for any experience, especially those with a sensual dimension, to be a portal to the divine. In reflecting on the ‘tree-ness” of trees or in stopping to fully experience the taste of a strawberry for instance, we can drop into a deeper sense of our rootedness to all beings. Or in looking into our children’s faces, we can see the echo of our great-ancestors, speaking to us from the past.
Portals to joy, Hildegarde of Bingen and “greenness”
I’m reminded too of Hildegarde of Bingen, a mystic who lived at the turn of the first millennium, in a time that in some ways was much like ours. Her joyful vision of life centered on the idea that to be awake is to be “filled with greenness.” To her, every being on earth, not just humans, could potentially be filled with a spark of life, “for no creature exists that lacks a radiance, be it greenness or seed, buds or beauty…otherwise it would not be a creation at all.” (p. 67 Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.) Each element of our living earth is a potential portal into aliveness and gives us an opportunity to experience our fullness and divinity. The mystics, poets and artists of the world remind us of this connection and yet we are each capable of experiencing it ourselves if we open ourselves to it. The ancient goddesses such as Hecate live in all of us, as potential to our fullest, most joyful and alive selves.
“The real voyage consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
The Room in Which We are Every Age At Once
by Naomi Shihab Nye (from Honeybee)
As if there were
a home in the air around us from birth,
spaciousness bidding us enter,
we live inside the long story of time.
And it was language giving us bearing,
letting in light.
When I was 3, rimming pink above rooftops,
Grandpa planted a redbud tree
that would bloom for years beyond us.
Each year it would say spring first.
Vocabulary falling into place,
we were always old and young
feeling familiar lines resound,
my favorite Margaret Wise Brown,
who died right before I was born,
and precious solitary Emily D.,
the words of all time waiting,
latched together like small huts,
stories of wise animals
and human beings
rising up inside us
to shelter our days.
The messy lineage of the Fierce Feminine
For the last couple months, in preparation for an on-line class I am teaching this Spring, I have been immersing myself in myths, fairy tales and lore related to the messy lineage of the fierce feminine. During my lifetime, the last 60 years or so, there has been more interest in the stories of the feminine divine hidden within the patriarchal world religions. There are many books about the feminine face of God written in the past 60 years. These books tell of fierce dark goddesses who were connected to the earth and its rhythms. Yet, sometimes I feel a resistance in myself about embracing these stories. Is it that they sound too “woo woo?” Am I afraid of appearing too “out there” myself? Still, another part of me feels in my bones a connection to these powerful archetypes. And this part of me feels that it is worth taking the risk of embracing the fierce feminine, no matter how foolish or New Agey it might make me appear.
The Crone and the Un-nesting instinct
For instance, the crone has something to say about an experience that many of us begin to have as mid to late middle-aged women. Our culture speaks often of the nesting instinct of women, our wish to have children and to procreate, our wish to create a home, to nurture those in our care, and to sacrifice our needs for them. But you don’t hear much about the “un-nesting instinct” that comes later in life and that the crone archetype represents so well. At the time of the crone, we take apart our nests, jettisoning all that we no longer need in our lives. This feels necessary and scary at the same time.
We are still mothers and yet, our responsibilities have changed. Instead of focusing on those in our care, we turn inward to the riches of our inner world, riches accumulated after years of experiences of caring for others and contributing to society. Now it is time to shed layers of experience, of roles and of expectations and time to begin to live truly for oneself. This can feel kind of uncomfortable and awkward. The famous poem, Warning, that starts, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple…” speaks to this instinct to shed all the unnecessary baggage of our lives lived for others, and begin to turn to our true soul identity.
The end of the year, with the coming of winter and the solstice can be a good time to meditate on meanings of coming into crone-hood, whether we are fully in the midst of it now, or whether it is an experience far in our future. Because, none of these faces of the divine feminine exist in isolation. Instead, the maiden, mother, crone and death are usually seen as faces of the same central figure.
The turning of the year, hope of light at the coming of the dark
The winter solstice is the time of year that corresponds with mid to late middle age for women. Along with the coming of winter, this time is celebrated in all the world religions in a similar way, as a time of hoping of light in the midst of darkness. At this time of year, we release what is no longer needed from the previous year. The element associated with this time of year is earth and the direction is north. The crone is strongly associated with the earth and the darkness of the northern climate. She is dark, elemental, and grounded-in-the earth. One such figure is the Dark Madonna, (a dark-skinned representation of the Virgin Mary, often seen as an advocate for the poor and underserved.) She has roots in earlier figures such as Tiamet (Babylonia), Europa (Greek and Roman), Cerridwen/Caillech, the Morrigan, (Celtic) Kali or Durga, (Hindu) and in Eastern European fairy tales, Baba Yaga.
Who were these ancient feminine figures?
All of these powerful crone-like figures derived energy from the earth itself. They were wild souls, free from constraints of a structured existence. Turning away from society’s norms, they turned towards the healing darkness of the forests, of under the ocean, of caves and of under the earth, where the dark soil rejuvenated itself for the growth of another year. They connected also to the plants and animals that hid themselves in the dark woods and knew how to source their potions and remedies from these places. Stones too were sources of power, not just for the protective qualities of stone caves but also the power contained within the stones themselves. So much mystery here, things we don’t know.
Ancient goddesses who in fact, were the earth
I mentioned a wide range of seemingly disconnected ancient goddesses above. Some, like Tiamet and Europa were themselves the body of the earth. In ancient stories, it was told that the bodies of these goddesses were torn apart to make the mountains, valleys and waters of the earth. They were in fact, the earth. Instead of an association with the celestial bodies, as their more celebrated male counterparts, they were rooted in the earth and grounded in the cycles of the seasons. Many of their stories had to do with the ways in which they had the power to bring or withhold the warmth of spring and summer. One such story is the Greek and Roman goddess Persephone whose banishment to the underworld for six months out of the year meant the coming of darkness and winter.
Where did they go?
What is my point in moshing all these various ancient figures together? I am not claiming in any way to be an accurate religious scholar or historian. For those of you more steeped in knowledge of the ancient goddesses, please forgive my inexactitude, in exchange for my enthusiasm. What I am alluding to is the truth that we as women all know in our bones, but was not reinforced in the world around us. Instead, this feminine form of the divine was for centuries strenuously denied and rejected by what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls the “over-culture.” In the over-culture, a male dominated, hierarchical divine force perpetuated violence, greed and hierarchy. This force destroyed and is destroying the earth under our feet in order to meet its relentless needs. Its hierarchical order was imposed from without. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in today, a world that is most likely to destroy itself in the not-too-distant future. We know in our bodies that there is more than this. Our yearning for a more cyclical, nurturing, regenerating way of living is our turning towards the crone, not only for us as individuals, but also for our planet.
Baba Yaga, one of my favorite crone stories
One of my favorite figures of the crone archetype of the dark feminine is Baba Yaga, from Eastern European folk tales. I can’t presume to be able to describe her many guises because there are so many stories about her, and they originated from oral narratives. But she represents to me the way in which the crone holds such rich inspiration for us as women. She carries within her some of the elements most common to the crone archetype. She lives in a way that is one with the forces of nature around her and derives strength from nature, rejecting the norms imposed on women, especially older women, by society. One of her symbols is the cauldron, most often associated with crones, symbol of the ability to gestate, create, dream. She is fierce and feared. She lives far away from “civilized” life. She, like many crone figures, is often demonized and denigrated and yet, for those who are brave enough to meet her, she carries wisdom and truth.
An archetypal figure of the crone, Baba Yaga
One does not go out and seek Baba Yaga. Rather, you surrender and in your lostness, you come upon her. And it helps if you have the right intentions, if you seek her out of true curiosity and innocence. She immediately senses falseness and greed. In one of my favorite stories about Baba Yaga, the person who finds her is a young girl called “Vasilisa the Brave.” This young girl is sent, in one version of the story, into the forest to get fire from Baba Yaga, by her wicked step-mother, who intends for Vasilisa to be killed. The step-mother wants to get rid of Vasilisa.
But luckily, Vasilisa has, in her pocket, a wise doll that had been given to her and blessed by her mother on her deathbed. (Here are also the elements of the maiden, mother and crone in the story all at once) This wise doll is able to guide Vasilisa through her visit with Baba Yaga, so that she knows what to ask, what to do. Impressed with the respect and care with which Vasilisa interacts with her, Baba Yaga doesn’t kill and eat her, but instead, after Vasilisa completes all the tasks she is given, Baba Yaga gives her a skull with magic flames coming out of its eyes. Using this magic flaming skull, Vasilisa vanquishes her step-mother and nasty step sisters. The point is, the fierce feminine is potentially dangerous but if handled with the utmost respect and with some intelligence as well, one can gain great wisdom and power from interacting with her. In her own way, Baba Yaga is still a guide and protector.
What is it like to encounter your own inner crone?
What permissions do you give yourself when you allow this crone being to come into your consciousness? What is it time to clear out now? If you are inspired, take some time now to reflect on what you are ready to let go of, whether on a physical level, as in clutter, or emotional level, to-do lists that no longer apply, relationships that no longer serve or spiritual level, creating spaciousness for what might want to come in at this time. Release these in a silent meditation, either sitting in a meditative space in your home, or a silent nature walk.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us—listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
One of a series of images interpreting a recent waking dream journey, colored markers
I’ve had a lot of time to think lately…
Over the past month, I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle and have been forbidden to put any weight on the foot for six weeks after surgery. I had the surgery three weeks ago and am getting closer to being able to walk but I still have a “road” ahead. After the six weeks, there is still the rehabilitation. My husband, other family members and friends have been wonderful in supporting me and helping me to feel accompanied. And I have figured out some ingenious solutions, like having a little rolling cart next to my bed that holds my art and doll making supplies until I can get back into my studio, (which is up two steep flights of stairs so it is going to be a while!)
It has been helping me lately to think of this time as a sort of retreat. A chance to reflect, to read, to write and to make small dolls (and teach Befriending Our Shadow IV!). Here is one of the things I have been thinking about, at those times when I get impatient with my limitations and start to expect myself to do a lot more than I am really capable of at the moment.
Another drawing in the waking dream series, colored markers
Why can it be so hard to listen to inner guidance?
Sometimes the simplest truths are the most difficult to take in. For instance, you know how important it is to slow down in order to truly receive inner guidance and yet sometimes it is hard to do this. Maybe it helps to think of an analogy of yourself, your little ego self, steering a boat, the boat of your guidance and Divine self. When things are smooth sailing, no perceived threats on the horizon, you can go on for a long time just fine. But, if, acting in fear of an imaginary danger, you grab the wheel of the boat and yank it all the way over to the other side, you can find yourself spinning in circles. When you forget this simple truth of the need to slow down before changing course, you can find yourself frantically making one wrenching shift in steering after another, in response to fears that are coming at you. Before you know it, you can end up completely lost.
Real change starts with very subtle shifts in direction
I’ve been thinking a lot about how a very subtle change, a tiny shift in the steering of a boat, is all that is needed to make a dramatic change in overall direction. With that subtle shift, over time your course changes dramatically and you end up in a completely different place than you had originally imagined. And if you are steering a large tanker, the shift is even more dramatic. Just a slight shift in the steering direction and again, the whole course changes. But the bigger the ship, the slower it is to turn. So, it is so very important to slow down this process, to make only the most subtle shifts and then wait.
Ancient Bird Spirit Crone, she provides long term guidance, cloth, paper clay and mixed media
In alignment with the Divine
When you slow down enough to notice, you have the opportunity to change direction mindfully. You and the Divine are aligned. On one level, the Divine is a current that is moving along and that you have no control over. And yet, on another level there is the element of choice, of free will. You are guided by your inner guide, by the Divine, however you want to call it, but you are free to choose whether or not to listen to that guidance. The Divine, in the form of that boat, is moving you along with the current but you are free to grab the wheel and try to fight against it. You are even free to try to sail directly against the current, which takes supreme amounts of energy and force. And sometimes you can get pretty far steering against the current. But it is terribly exhausting and impossible to do if there is a waterfall ahead.
A small child steering a grocery cart car
Sometimes it can be like the experience of a small child in one of those grocery carts with an attachment for children, that has a little car with its own steering wheel. The mother pushes the cart but the child has the illusion of driving it herself. You are in a situation that you have no control over and yet are imagining you can control. All of your furious efforts have no more effect than of that small child blithely steering the grocery cart, while her mother chooses what direction to go in all along. Your sense of control is an illusion.
You and the Divine in tandem
Ideally, when you are in alignment internally, you can direct your course in tandem with your guidance, making those small adjustments as you go along and stay in tune with that inner guidance each step of the way. The whole process takes a whole lot less effort and is so much more rewarding in the end. It seems to be the difference between acting out of fear and acting out of attunement.
"The Ride on the Big Bear" An image from the book Peterchen's Mondfahrt, (Little Peter's Moon Journey) a book that my mother used to read me and my sisters when I was little and that I realize has inspired my art today.
What does this mean in a practical sense?
There is so much more mystery and unknown in life than we realize. So much, most really that we have no control over, and that can be terrifying. And yet, we do have power when we can align ourselves with the inner guidance deep within us. How to do this? By slowing down. And how do we slow down? By taking breaths. By noticing what is going on within our bodies. By noticing the synchronicities that are going on around us and that we don’t see unless we slow down. Do you ever have the experience of saying a word or hearing it spoken and then seeing that same word written in front of you? That happens to me all the time. When you start to notice synchronicities more, it is a sign that you are more in tune with inner guidance.
That tiny, quiet voice
You are always getting messages from the world around you, from nature, from other people, from your body and from that little voice in your head. Not the noisy, yelling, judgmental voice telling you how awful you or someone else is. But that tiny, very quiet, subtle voice that makes gentle suggestions and then waits for you to act on them. For some it is a voice, for others it is a kind of knowing in the body, for others, it is tuning into those signs around them and reading the messages. It is different for everyone. It helps to stop and remember what you already have and what you have already received. And in that stopping to appreciate, you can take a deep breath and slow down.
Pushing the river
Recently I found myself starting to try to, “push the river,” in response to a sense of internal pressure and frustration that I had not accomplished everything I had set out to do that week. But I was able to stop and instead, take naps, visit with a friend, sketch in my new art journal with markers, or read more in my Harry Potter books in French (I am up to book six! I read a chapter in French and then read the same chapter in English to get what I missed.) Healing is exhausting and I needed those times to rest and recuperate. Instead of berating myself for not getting more done on a new course I am planning, or more stitching done on a series of talisman dolls I am working on, I needed to just rest. So, the subtle steering was to stop and see what was going to be realistic to accomplish in that day. Or week. But more often that day or hour. And to find gradual healing in a way that allows room for rest and self kindness along the way.
Here are some other things I have been listening to and reading over the past month and that I recommend highly.
These books: The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, Illuminations of Hildegarde of Bingen, Matthew Fox, Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by Life on the Move, Nanjala Nyabola, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago, Judy Chicago
These movies: Love Sarah, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Finding Your Feet
This series: Lupin
This podcast: A Psychic’s Story, Nicole Bigley
Red Russian Shaman, stick doll, mixed media, standing, 21 x 13 x 12 2021.
I just received notice that this doll, from my most recent crone series, Red Russian Shaman, was accepted into the November Open Show at the Art League in Alexandria, Virginia. The exhibit was curated by Nicola Charles and it will be open from November 10th through December 5th. This is an in-person exhibit. If you are local, you might want to head over to Alexandria, VA to see the exhibit. I'll post again with a link to the actual exhibit when it goes up.
I won't be able to make it to see it live, unfortunately because of my broken ankle. I am healing though and hope to be back on my feet in a couple months.
NOTE: I have been updating my website, including the gallery and workshops pages. Please take a look and see some of my most recent dolls. And stay tuned for up-coming workshops and other offers.
This doll, Bloodlines: Five Generations, from my Ancestor dolls series, was accepted recently into the virtual exhibit, Chasing Ghosts IV: Piercing the Veil through Remembrance, Legacy and Beyond. Curated by Jennifer Gillia Cutshall in the Verum Ultimum Gallery, Portland Oregon, this exhibit features work that, "listens more deeply to the shadow places...or sees a link between grief and hope..or explores memory and melancholy."
This was a wonderful show to be a part of. The curator has made a book of the exhibit, available here. And here is her most recent blog post about the exhibit, where she featured statements by many of the artists in the exhibit. It was an honor to be a part of this show.
This doll is about five generations of grandmothers in my family, on my father's side. My father, who died two years ago, is also featured in this doll. My father's mother and the mothers before her, were matriarchs, strong women. Many of them were schoolteachers, some were writers and I wanted to honor them with this doll. The heart inside the doll shows how all the generations are connected.
Here is what I said about the doll for the Chasing Ghosts exhibit:
"I was immediately drawn to the theme of this exhibit because I always include the shadow in my work. There is no light without shadow, no shadow without light. As living beings (part of this earth), we need the full spectrum from light to dark (and all the colors). We are all connected by the roots and threads that hold us to the earth (with invisible lines). Rather than forgetting, I see the dead as with us always. In my doll, Bloodlines, Five Generations, I pay homage to the grandmothers and to my father. This doll opens up, so that if you open the door, you can see the heart that beats, connecting all the generations, back to the beginning of time. This doll is not meant to represent my ancestors only, but yours too."
Please take a look at the exhibit though. There were many wonderful artists. I am not sure which is my favorite.
All will be decided and there will be joy and there will be sorrow in equal measure, Homage to Dürer, gouche and watercolor crayon in altered book, 2020.
One of the participants in the first week of the e-course, Befriending Our Shadow IV, said, when asked the question, “what would the landscape of your shadow journey look like?” that she was at a precipice. I won’t go into the specific conversation that this led us to, but it made me think that the idea of the precipice is an evocative image for so many aspects of the time we are living in right now.
The world situation as a precipice
On the macro level, living on a precipice has been used to describe our world situation as far as climate change. Things are pretty dire from that perspective unless we do some pretty drastic changing as a world culture. But in other smaller ways, we are living at the edge of a precipice right now.
Greetings from a very warm place, Goauche and watercolor crayon in altered book, 2020.
That the seasons change was a precipice to our ancient ancestors
One is that we are at the start of the shift of seasons, which to our ancestors had dire consequences and brought fears of changes that they feared were irreversible. In very ancient times, it wasn’t really certain that winter would turn to spring, that the sun would rise again and that life would go on. The ancients had very powerful ways of coping with these fears, practices that helped and sustained them in a way that was deeply connected to the earth. We have largely lost these ways, but that is a topic for another article. Now, we know that the sun will rise and that spring will come again, we know these things, and yet, in our bones, some of those old fears are still there.
And for those of us, at mid to late life, our lives are at a precipice
And in another way, for those of us, like me, at mid to late life transition, we are at a different sort of precipice, teetering into old age. Maybe not just around the corner, but not as far off as it once seemed. Skills and competencies that we completely took for granted earlier in life, may not be as available now. Many of our support network may have dropped off for various reasons. We just don’t feel the same as we felt when we were younger. And, to top it off, the over-culture we live in doesn’t have a very affirmative, nurturing view of what it means to grow old. Instead of seeing aging as a natural process, with benefits and drawbacks, the dominant culture tends to equate an aging body and mind with an aging machine-that will ultimately break down and need to be thrown out and replaced with a new model.
What matters most is your perspective
Through all of this, what seems most important to me is how we think about the precipice. What does it mean to me, to you? And does it get you to change your view, when you are at a point of no turning back, when an urgent action is called for? What do I mean by this? Let’s say you are at that precipice right now. Take a moment and imagine that you are there. What do you see? I see a vast mountain landscape ahead of me. And I am on the top of one of those mountains, having reached a point in the road where there is no turning back but no way forward either. And before me is a long way down. What to do?
Ancient Bird Spirit Crone, soft sculpture, mixed media, standing, 19 x 12 x 7, 2021.
How fast were you going? This matters…
Several things matter here. One is, how fast were you going when you were on this road? This makes a difference. If you were speeding along at a break-neck pace, you may just go off the edge without even being able to stop. But if you were following a more deliberate pace, there is time to consider options. Such as, do I have alternate ways to move forward? Such as climbing gear, or maybe even wings? Is there help around, or help if I wait? What other resources do I have available that I might not otherwise have thought of?
How you are holding the thought matters
It also matters how you are holding this thought of “I am at the edge of a precipice.” Is it really a precipice or does it only seem like one because of the way you are thinking about it? This can be a tricky one. For instance, when I think about aging from a more loving, accepting perspective, I easily back off from the fears and start to see possibilities. I could go back and do this sort of reframe about the other precipices I was talking about earlier, but you get the idea.
Slowing down helps
To expand on what I said two paragraphs ago, it helps if you are going slow enough to be able to stop and assess the situation and make informed choices. This is a big one for me, because my mind moves very fast and sometimes this can get me into trouble. Sometimes we really are confronted with situations that require immediate action and resources. But it helps if we come into them with a quiet and spacious mind, well as much as possible.
What do you have to call forth from within yourself to best cope with this situation?
Also, it helps to have resources to call on, support networks, knowledge and information that can guide us as to which next step to take. But what I want to focus on here, and end with for now, is a reminder that you already have many of those resources within you.
What I mean by this is that you have within you a portal to tremendous source of strength and wisdom, if you can take the time to access it. We all have this within us. Some of it is immediately accessible if you ask. Some of it might take a little longer to become available. It may have gotten buried under unhelpful beliefs or fears. Here is where shadow work can come in handy. When we have the willingness and courage to reach down deep into ourselves, and paradoxically, this is also a place where we are deeply connected to others and to the earth, we begin to see that we have many answers right there.
How to access that portal? There are many ways but it is not very complicated. Mostly it has to do with listening. Listening to that voice within which knows the right next step. It is a quiet and very patient voice and easy to dismiss. But it is always there if you take the time to listen to it. The way there is also a topic for another article, but for some it is meditation, for some yoga, or slow walks or creative practices such as doll making. This is a huge topic and I am only scratching the surface of it, but I would love to hear your thoughts. More coming soon.
NOTE: I have been sorting through and organizing my gallery page here on my website. It is a work in progress. In this post, I have included some paintings in handmade and altered books, something I have been inspired to do over the past couple years. I will be finding a way to add these to the gallery page as well eventually. I find that the paintings are a wonderful way to find inspiration for my doll making. One of my greatest inspirations has been the work of and classes with the wonderful, Fonda Clark Haight, especially her Down Deep class.
Two shadow flip dolls by (left) Ruth Tamaroff and (right) Linda McNutt
Everything is Better Accompanied...
Today I am featuring the partnership of two participants in the last Befriending Our Shadow workshop. Linda and Ruth had already formed their creative partnership during the pandemic. Each, with the time and inclination to work on creative projects was seeking someone to work alongside of, to make the process more meaningful and rewarding. Then they heard about the Befriending Our Shadow e-course and decided to do that together as well.
In each of the three times I have offered this course, there has been at least one such partnership, sometimes two, of friends or relatives who decided to take the workshop together. In each case, it was wonderful to watch the ways in which they encouraged and supported each other. At the same time they found ways to connect with the intimate group of participants who had signed up on their own.
The importance of accompaniment on several levels
In the Befriending Our Shadow course, I talk about the ways in which accompaniment is such an important part of the healing journey. The more layers of accompaniment, the better. Within the intimate group, each participant can accompany the others on their shadow journeys and at the same time receive accompaniment. There is also the self-witnessing that occurs during guided meditations, journaling and the doll making explorations. Hidden and often previously unacknowledged parts of the self make themselves known and receive accompaniment and love. And once the doll is completed, it also becomes a witness to the process and a resource to return to as a way to witness what has been revealed about the self.
Accompaniment is like butter on a croissant
In the words of writer and researcher, Sarah Peyton, accompaniment is like butter on a croissant. No matter whether the an experience we are having is positive or negative, our systems do better when we allow ourselves to be present to what is occurring. In the process of making croissants, butter is smoothed across each layer of the thin, flaky dough, thus making it more delicious. Our loving presence and the presence of loving witnesses, acts just like that butter on the croissant, helping the experience to soak in and become integrated into our being.
Back to Linda and Ruth. Here is the story of their dolls and of their experience of participating in Befriending Our Shadow.
Ruth had always been drawn to an embroidered face on black fabric that had been given to her on one of her many journeys to exotic locations, such as Bali, with her husband. She wasn't sure exactly what drew her to this face but she knew it made her happy. Linda pointed out several times that Ruth always had this doll face to hand, "why don't you make a doll?" she had suggested. But Ruth hadn't been ready. Finally, for the purposes of a shadow doll, Ruth decided to use this treasured piece of fabric.
Reflecting on the process of aging
Ruth's journey began to be about the aging process, what is lost when one grows older. She spoke of an image of herself from a high point in her life, when she had successfully sold her business, upon retiring. She loved this photo of herself and at times felt sad that she no longer looked this way. Linda suggested that perhaps she would like to use that face on the other side of her shadow doll.
The doll comes together easily
Once the theme had been determined, Ruth set about, with encouragement from Linda to create a doll, with her young self on one side, even adding a skirt from fabric that she had loved to wear when she was younger. And on the other side, this wise black face, perhaps a representation of the Black Madonna, though she wasn't sure. It just felt right.
Linda came to the Befriending Our Shadow class in the midst of a radical transition in career and life. And then the pandemic hit. She made a decision to put her career on hold for a bit, sensing that some deep inner work was needed. She was happy to find Ruth as a partner in this exploration and they decided to meet weekly for sewing sessions, encouraging each other, first on line and then when it was safe, in person.
Inspiration comes in a guided visualization
During a guided visualization, Linda encountered a goddess-like figure who seemed to be coming out of the murk and darkness of a muddy pond. She realized that this murkiness was reflected the way she felt about the path ahead of her, murky and unclear. Linda worked with this murkiness as it became the shadow side of her doll.
As she continued in the journey over the eight weeks, and especially as she began to create this image in her shadow flip doll, the figure coming out of the murk morphed and changed. In the guided visualization and in her stitching the doll, she encountered a new figure, forceful and strong. Perhaps a nature goddess, connected to trees. This became the other side of her flip doll, strong and tall, a woman merged with a tree. At first she added a face to the top but then decided that, no it was going to be part of the tree.
Ruth encouraged Linda throughout and shared of some of the beautiful fabrics from her fabric stash. Linda's completed doll became a representation of both being with the murk of uncertainty and at the same time the feminine strength and power of Mother Nature. Linda was reminded of the strength within her that would guide her on her continued journey, whether through murk or clarity.
Linda's testimonial about the Befriending Our Shadow course
My expectations were more than met. The transformational aspect seemed appropriate for both the transitions happening in my own life, as well as for these uncertain times we’re in. It seemed that it would open some new directions, and I wasn’t wrong. I’m always interested in what involves stitching and healing.
I was unfamiliar with flip-dolls, and I wanted to do something with my friend Ruth. We’d made many dolls and stitching projects over the years, and now that her sewing abilities are declining, it sounded like the class would be appropriate for all levels. I was surprised at the deeper level of inner exploration. What I didn’t realize was that it would become such a personal journey, and how my compassion for myself would grow in so many directions. The process is ongoing. And, you get a really cool doll at the end.
I really enjoyed seeing and hearing about everyone else’s dolls. I felt we became a supportive and safe community. Amazing women, so heart-opening, creative. I so appreciated being allowed into their process. Keeping a journal and making a small Guardian doll were things I wasn’t sure I would do, and they turned out to be very powerful. The journaling was a great place to jot down dreams that came up, or other symbols or images or phrases. I found that many things that I was encountering during those 8 weeks began to inform and influence the becoming form of the doll. Very good facilitating, Erika, thank you.
Ruth's testimonial about the Befriending Our Shadow course
My expectations of the course were that I would learn to make by hand a flip doll. These expectations were definitely met. There were some unexpected surprises, which included the discussions that Erika brought to us about different ideas. My experience of the course was much more rounded than I expected, and I liked it very much..
I enjoyed the eight-week time frame and I enjoyed having the small group Zoom participants. All in all, I enjoyed the process and would be interested in doing it again. Thank you very much.
Some more words from Ruth about her doll
Regarding my process I decided to dress my doll in lovely clothes and chose the pink silk for the blouse and the mixed bright colors of the skirt. I had worn the skirt fabric to high school dances and parties and thought it to be a lovely skirt for the doll. I wanted her to look good and think she does look good. As I told the class I named my doll after myself since I used my own photo for the doll's face and related well to the dark face of the doll also. I felt very close to the doll and shadow as I worked on the doll.
Image credit to Matt Paul Catalano, Unsplash
Imagine yourself at the shoreline of an ocean. Sometimes huge waves sweep over you, washing away and scattering everything familiar. At other times, the ocean recedes for a while and you have a moment to breath. What if the world-wide challenges that we have been collectively experiencing, especially in the past year and a half were this ocean?
It can feel like an endless cycle, the washing in and out of these huge waves. And each time the waves recede, it's easy to try settle back into the way it was before, but this is not to be. The only certainty is that another wave is coming. And yet, there is a deeper certainty. The truth that there is a way to find your footing even in the midst of crashing waves....
Down Deep image from my 2020 art journal-Riding the Waves
What if we are living in a collective undertow?
To continue with this metaphor, the waves of challenge seem to be getting larger, to the point that the risk of getting swept away in an undertow seems imminent.*
We are literally out of our depth. What to do then? It is so easy to grab onto seeming certainties in a swiftly changing world. Easy to try to build complicated protective structures, ways of acting or being that might save us. There are so many different directions we can go in, so many potential strategies for coping and many of them are probably just fine. But if these strategies are not grounded and connected to our beings in a meaningful way, they will collapse and be swept away if there is an undertow. Things are changing too quickly.
How do we find certainty in the midst of constantly shifting ground?
What is needed is a certainty that isn’t grounded in things outside of us, that isn't grounded in outward structures or scaffolding. But instead, a way of starting from within ourselves, as a way to look at the world around us in a way that creates space for huge shifts in reality. A flexibility that allows us to bend and pivot, rather than stand rigidly on tightly gripped feet. How to do this? Difficult as it might seem, it helps to turn inward, to find an inner spaciousness and timelessness, where we have access to creative thinking.
It helps to be able to release into a sense of a being stronger than yourself. Yet, even if you don’t have a belief a being greater than yourself, it still helps to take time for a for pause. When nothing seems to be working in the world around you and when there seems to be very little certainty, it helps to pause and take stock. Two of my mentors, Sandra Ingerman and Tara Brach, recently posted about using the “pause” of the recent lockdown as a time to reevaluate their priorities. They both were inspired by the large-scale “pause” of the pandemic, to choose time for themselves to care for themselves, psychologically and spiritually, to let themselves have quiet time.
In order to do this, they are cutting in half their public programs and turning down engagements. This made me think about the impulse to find certainty in the midst of the waves of recent changes. Maybe you can't find certainty, but you can use the times in-between each crashing wave as a chance to reevaluate your life and see what needs to stay and what can be left out. In this way, the time you have seems more precious. In a way, it feels like a wake-up call to alertness and presence.
A wake-up call to alertness and presence
Maybe it helps to see the pandemic and other scary things in the world right now as waves that are waking you up. To see these waves from a broader perspective, as tragic and painful experience but also as a wake-up call, a reminder to pay attention. They remind you to wake up to spaciousness and inner stillness. And they remind you that you have within you a still, small voice that can guide you step by step.
Or, if you don't yet have access to that inner voice, you can start with simply taking time to breath, to connect to the inner wisdom of your body, when the waves of the ocean get too large and scary. And if you are interested in exploring a way of accessing this inner guide, consider joining in the Befriending Our Shadow course which begins in October. See here for more information.
*credit to this undertow idea to Sandra Ingerman and Renee Baribeau’s recent podcast about the Undertow
We are living under a poisonous shadow during this divisive time. The weight of this shadow hangs heavily on all of us, no matter our political or personal beliefs. It might be helpful to look at one of the founders of psychology, Carl Jung’s, concept of the collective shadow to understand more about what we as human beings are facing right now. Jung saw each of us as having a shadow, a sort of internal dungeon, where we throw all the experiences and feelings we don’t want to face. The shadow doesn’t go away but instead weighs us down and influences us from below, influencing everything we do and say.
The collective shadow
Just as this personal shadow weighs us down, we are also affected by collective shadows. Whole groups of people within a culture reject painful feelings and uncomfortable experiences and throw them into a collective shadow dungeon. Whatever this first group doesn’t own, gets projected onto an “other,” usually another group within the culture. The other then becomes seen as not human, not worthy of the same care and empathy, becoming a two-dimensional symbol of everything that is wrong with the world.
An extreme example of a collective shadow from Jung’s time
In Jung’s time, and in an extreme example, it was the rise of the Nazi party, which represented the dangerous effects of a collective avoidance of the shadow. A charismatic leader can take advantage of the suffering of one societal group by claiming that another group is to blame. This targeted group becomes the collective scapegoat, allowing those within the first group to have someone to blame for their suffering.
What gets lost, our ability to empathize with the “other”
What gets lost is the ability to empathize with what becomes the “other.” Whole groups of people, or living beings are seen as not human, or not real, not deserving of empathy. This can happen not only with other humans but also with other living beings, such as animals, trees and protected land. The mind wants to make sense out of a painful reality, to find someone or something to blame. This can make it easy to grasp onto an explanation, especially when it seems to be held by many others.
Collective shadows can take all forms
Climate denial, racism, homophobia, sexism-all of these can turn into collective shadows, but so also can the tendency to reject people or groups who hold these beliefs. Not to say that climate denial, racism and all these collective shadows are not extremely dangerous. But it can be easy to see those who embrace climate denial and other shadow beliefs and throw them into the shadow as well. Finding a balance can seem extremely difficult, even impossible.
How do we as individuals resist the pull of the collective shadow?
How do we as individuals, resist the pull of this powerful dynamic to throw whatever we reject into a collective shadow? We are creatures of community; we need each other and we need the company of others. When the communal atmosphere is poisoned by judgments, rejection and other negative emotions, how do we find a place for compassion and kindness? We need to be able to resist dangerous and destructive forces, from a place of inner strength and integrity, rather than from a place of hatred and judgment. As much as we can, we need to reject the temptation to react from a place of shadow, and instead find ways, however small to connect with our common humanity and aliveness.
How can shadow doll work help?
In the shadow doll work, we start with ourselves. We begin to befriend this “other” within ourselves and to see that this part of ourself is worthy of love. We begin to see that rather than a strange and scary other, the shadow, like all parts of ourself, is part of a whole. We can reject it out of hand, or we can try to understand and find potential wisdom within it. And then, from this place of self-acceptance and integrity, we can look at the ways in which we might have joined a collective shadow, perhaps even a shadow inherited from our ancestors. Gradually we become stronger, fiercer and more whole.
Deep and Important Work
The is deep work and important work. And it cannot be done alone. We need each other and we need to find those still places within us and within our society, to have the compassion and forgiveness to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us.
I've been making dolls for about ten years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am excited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!