A World Without Grandmothers: What Would We Lose?

The Welcome One (La Benevenuta) (1882), by Gaetano Bellei (1857–1922) for grandmothers blog post

Many years ago, I dreamt that I was living in a cottage in the Irish countryside with a kindly old woman who claimed she was my real grandmother. In the dream, I was terribly confused. My flesh and blood grandmothers, both deceased, were natives of Eastern Europe, and neither carried a speck of Irish DNA. Why the dream designated Ireland as my birthplace I can only guess—Ireland is the land of fairy folk and bardic tradition, a place where I’d feel right at home.

Carl Jung would have called this a “big dream.” Big dreams are archetypal (I wrote more about this in “Dreaming Our Lives: Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us”) and compensate for something missing in one’s conscious life. In the case of this dream, I had no meaningful relationship with either of my grandmothers. One died before I was born; the other had been an orphan, had not been mothered herself, and was too worn out from her difficult life to provide succor. The dream about an Irish granny signified my unacknowledged yearning for a nurturing elder female presence.

Illustration for Sweet Porridge (1917) by Arthur Rackham in the book Little Brother & Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm. For grandmothers blog postThe need for a grandmother or nurturing elder female figure (the fairy godmothers of fairy tales) resonates below our level of consciousness.  She appears in many guises, both animal and human, as a staple in popular children’s picture books. Wemberly, a tween mouse with anxiety issues in Kevin Henkes’s’ Wemberly Worried has a supremely wise and hip grandma who advises her fretful granddaughter to just “go with the flow.” Tomie dePaola’s classic series of picture books about Strega Nona introduces an old Italian witch granny who has magic curing spells up her sleeve.

Grandmothering can be a blissful experience, reciprocally devotional and cherishing, less fraught with the self-sacrificing and exhausting aspects of parenting, but it can also present considerable emotional and real-time hurdles depending on the psychological and financial family situation. Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother, a kind of primer about being a grandmother, offers engaging essays that read as “reports from the front” on the joys and pitfalls of the role. In her introduction, editor Barbara Graham describes the delicate balance between being available to love and support a grandchild and her parents while maintaining a hands-off non-intrusive distance. Graham writes, “I soon learned that I could love my granddaughter fiercely, with a passion that made me hunger for her when she was out of range, but I could have no say—in anything. She was mine but not mine.”[1]

In our collective experience and imagination, grandmothers provide the attention, wisdom, comfort, and guidance that can supplement or repair parental care. The percentage of children living with at least one grandparent (called skip-generation households in which a child lives with a grandparent but no parent) has increased 36% since 2000 (from 9.3% to 12.7%).[2] The reasons for this are complex and are related to larger numbers of single-parent households headed mostly by single mothers. Lack of adequate provisions for childcare and healthcare have put tremendous emotional and financial burdens on these households. Skip-generation homes ensure the survival of at-risk children.

Evolutionary scientists have something to say about the role and origins of grandmotherhood. In her book, The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, Nichola Raihani, Professor of Evolution and Behavior at University College London, writes that our species is almost unique in having a prolonged post-reproductive lifespan. Other species, including our closest primate relatives, continue to breed until they die.

In humans, our evolutionary time clock sets a daughter’s reproductively active period to click on just as her mother is undergoing a transition to menopause. This allows the grandmother to turn her energy and attention to her grandchildren rather than to her own newborn offspring, which benefits the chain of species survival. As Raihani writes, “It is likely that these ancient grandmothers acted as repositories of knowledge, passing vital information on everything from breastfeeding to dealing with infants’ illnesses.”[3]

“Age of menopause is also heritable,” Raihani notes, “as more and more women living in industrialized societies delay having children until later in life, menopause also seems to be getting later.” Data from the Journal of the American Medical Association affirms this. [4]

Playing Grandmother (1890) chromolithograph Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company / Public Domain Today, about 10 million women in the U.S. use the birth control pill and 13 million have undergone sterilization.[5] These facts, along with unstable working conditions, the pandemic, lack of paid leave, and a world in flux have contributed to a decline in birth rates. A 2022 report by the World Economic Forum detailed a 50% decline in fertility rate worldwide over the past 70 years.[6] A recent report in The Lancet concluded that 97% of countries will not have high enough fertility rates to sustain their population size by 2100.[7]

Couples are deciding to have smaller families than past generations, plus unplanned pregnancies and the rate of teen births are down.[8] If fewer children are being born, more post-reproductively active women will not become grandmothers. How will this change our society?

Can we imagine a world without the crucial contributions of grandmothers?

Across time and millennia, matriarchal goddesses have been a sacred aspect of many cultures. As figures of wisdom, they carry knowledge of the ancestral past and can offer practical, skillful guidance for the future. As archetypal figures, they point to an eternal need in the human psyche, a need that is still with us. In the coming decades, will older women who have no children or grandchildren step forward to fill a gap in a society that more than ever needs the positive caring values we associate with grandmothers?

Whatever stage of life you are in, take a moment to consider these questions. Did you know your grandmothers? If yes, what was your relationship with them? What do you remember about them? What lessons did they teach? What did you learn from that relationship?

[1] Graham, Barbara, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother, HarperCollins: New York (2019), p. xiii.

[2] E. Link, T. Watson, S. Kalkat, “More kids are living with their grandparents. Can safety net policy keep up?” Brookings Institution, December 20, 2023.

[3] Raihani, Nichola, The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped Our World, St. Martin’s Press: New York (2021), p. 105

[4] Appiah, D., Nwabuo, C., Ebong, I., Wellons, M., Winters, S. “Trends  in Age at Natural Menopause and Reproductive Life Span Among U.S. Women, 1959-2018,Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), April 6, 2021;325(13).

[5] Daniels, K. and Abma, J., “Current Contraceptive Status Among Women Aged 15-49: United States, 2017-2019,” NCHS Data Brief, October 2020

[6] Alvarez, Pablo “What does the global decline of the fertility rate look like?” World Economic Forum, June 17, 2022

[7] GBD 2021 Fertility and Forecasting Collaborators and researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, The Lancet: Dramatic declines in global fertility rates set to transform global population patterns by 2100, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, March 20, 2024

[8] Prakash, Prarthana, “Millennials and Gen Z won’t have enough kids to sustain America’s population—and it’s up to immigrants to make up the baby shortfall,” Fortune, January 25, 2023

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at Transcending the Past.

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story,” “The Fear of Abandonment: Missing Mothers and Fairy Tales,” and “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Are We Hard-wired for Poetry?

Still Life with Mackerels, Lemons and Tomatoes (1886) by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) for poetry and neuroscience blog post

How is neuroscience research affirming that the pleasure of sound and rhythm in poetry is linked to the internal rhythms of our heartbeat, our breathing, our pulse?

When I first began to do public readings of my poetry, I reached out for advice to my friend, Jody, an actor and improv teacher. Her first suggestion was mastery of voice. “Let’s work on expanding your lung capacity and opening your throat.” As homework I was instructed to hum from the belly up and to practice certain tongue twisters. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Susie sells seashells at the seashore. I was told to repeat these while washing dishes, showering, or walking the dog, saying the phrases faster and faster but keeping the enunciation perfect.

Soon enough, my lips, tongue, and brain were working in unison, and each word became a clear bell sound. As my practice continued, I grew more attuned to the language itself, its sounds, its rhythms, and the pure delight that comes with expressing something close to song. Most of us know this joy—of belting out a familiar tune—the enchantment of chanting prayers or mantras or singing hymns. We clap our hands, stamp our feet, and discover the deeply satisfying enrichment of reading a meaningful poem whose lines resonate within our bodies.

The British/Irish poet/philosopher David Whyte recounts that when a person is tasked with informing another of unfortunate news, they will often lean in and speak in iambic pentameter. Whyte relates that this rhythm is how humans speak English when they want to be intimate with another person. (An iamb is a unit of two syllables where the first is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable as in the word delight, de-LIGHT.)

April is National Poetry Month and while I’m not making a case for tongue twisters as poetry, I am suggesting poetry is an inherently sensual, meaningful, spiritually enlightening companion, especially during times of upheaval. Poetry asks us to befriend it, to sit with it patiently, as with a friend who is speaking from their depths. It invites us to dive deep into a still space where we can be intimate with ourselves without a barrage of ads, slogans, opinions, criticism, and general rantings from the digital world. Poetry reflects the complexity of our experience, naming the agony and devastation, but without condemning us to catastrophic thinking; poetry offers a place of refuge from the apocalyptic edge.

Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation and 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, calls out the harm that arises when we insist on our “stardust parts” and interconnectedness with the universe yet turn from our stewardship of the planet. Good poetry holds the tension between the terrible and the beautiful, oscillates between them, and insists on being honest. It is a conversation with ourselves, others, and the world. It does not categorically reject any experience.

Harjo writes:

“I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.”—Secrets from the Center of the World (Sun Tracks Book 17)

She sees the mishandling and misjudgments we make. In “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” she writes, “I was born / with eyes that will never close.” Bearing witness and speaking out are, for the poet, acts of courage.

In a similar vein, Zen Buddhist Roshi John Tarrant has written that attention is the most basic form of love. This is the difference between someone listening to you and someone pretending to listen to you. Or the difference between glancing at a flower and contemplating that flower with intention and curiosity. Such contemplation often leads to a sense of awe and to existential questions about how the flower, its shape, its color, its fragrance came to be? And how did I come to be myself?

Poetry heightens our awareness of the extraordinary in the ordinary. It gently induces us to see. Take Mark Doty’s poem, “A Display of Mackerel,” written after a visit to a fish market.

“They lie in parallel rows,

on ice, head to tail,

each a foot of luminosity . . .”

More than description, Doty’s poem is an honoring of reality in all its spectacular luminosity. Conflating dead fish on ice with human mortality, the poem considers what it might be to lose oneself “entirely in a universe of shimmer.” If “beauty is truth,” as the Romantic poet John Keats said, and “truth beauty,” a thing is beautiful if it is true to itself.[i]

The pleasure of sound and rhythm is hard-wired in humans and linked to the internal rhythms of our heartbeat, our breathing, our pulse. Neuroscience researchers at Bangor University in the UK found in a 2016 study that readers with no particular knowledge of a traditional form of Welsh poetry unconsciously distinguished phrases conforming to its complex poetic construction rules from those that violated them.[ii] In another neuroscience study, researchers at the UK’s University of Exeter had participants read different types of prose – installation manuals, passages from novels, poems – while they lay inside an fMRI scanner. Poems with high emotional content activated areas on the right side of the brain often activated by music.[iii]

Matthew Stillman, a poetry educator in NYC who teaches students the art of poetry recitation, writes to me: “Taking up poetry into the heart and memory and spoken aloud is a chance to practice the old and enchanting skill of beauty-making through eloquence. Having well-crafted beauty bumping around in the head and on the tongue might change the ecology of the heart and mind by adding something into the field of the more brittle and caustic thoughts that usually reside there.”

What did you pay attention to this morning? What was the first sound you heard when you woke? What scent was in the air? What drift of memory or association is floating through your mind right now? What beckons to be renewed, reframed, restored in your life? How is the world trying to speak to you?

Poetry doesn’t aim to be therapy; it doesn’t try to cajole or convince. It isn’t trying to sell you anything; it’s not a scam. David Whyte, again: “Poetry is language against which you have no defense.”[iv] It reveals us to ourselves and reveals the world to us. It is the language of the heart’s unspoken truths.

Sitting Bull, the renowned Lakota leader of the Standing Rock rebellion is credited with this teaching story: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins, I answer, the one I feed the most.”

Which dog are you feeding?

[i] Keats, John, “Ode on a Grecian Urn

[ii] Vaughan-Evans, A., Trefor, R., Jones, L., Lynch, P., Jones, M., Thierry, G. “Implicit Detection of Poetic Harmony by the Naïve Brain,” Frontiers of Psychology, Volume 7, November 24, 2016.

[iii] Zeman, A., Milton, F., Smith, A., Rylance, R. “By Heart: An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 20, 9-10, January 1, 2013.

[iv]Seeking Language Large Enough,” David Whyte on On Being with Krista Tippett, April 7, 2016.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “The Healing Power of Poetry: Appreciating a Primal Pleasure,” “Published! M, celebrating the heroic dimensions of women’s lives, my first poetry collection,” “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Reframing How We Think about Women and Courage

Throng of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Woman's Vigilance League, march on New York City Hall to protest the soaring cost of food, March 12, 1917 for gender women and courage post

In March 2024, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken presented the International Women of Courage Award to twelve women from countries around the world “who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in order to bring about positive change in their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” Since 2007, over 190 women from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Cuba, and Uganda have received this little-publicized award. To read the biographies of the chosen women is to marvel at their strength, fortitude, moral integrity, and outstanding courage. Witness Fatou Baldeh from Gambia fighting to extinguish female genital mutilation and cutting in a country where 75% of women have endured some form of it.

What is courage? Is courage defined differently for men and women? What are the gender stereotypes associated with women and courage? Is courage socially conditioned, innate, or some mixture of nature and nurture?

Let’s begin with a loose definition. Bravery and courage are often used interchangeably, but the origin of each word illustrates the difference. Bravery is thought to be a quality a person possesses that is acted out spontaneously and without fear. For example, if you see a dog about to be hit by a car, you run into the street to save it. You do not feel fear; you simply jump into action. The origin of “brave” translates as bold, savage, and wild.

Courage is a learned skill and an aspect of character. One undertakes a perilous risk despite being fearful, often for a moral reason that serves the greater good. The challenge may create overwhelming fear; it may subject a person to ostracism, disapproval, and danger, but one takes action anyway. The war journalist Jane Ferguson reported from some of the fiercest battlefronts on the planet. In her memoir No Ordinary Assignment she writes that courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. Belarusian human rights activist Volha Harbunova, one of this year’s IWOC award winners, said, “Courage is the ability to act in big and small ways every day, despite fear and pain, and to remain compassionate in the face of evil. Courage is when you care.”

Traditionally, in Western culture, courage has been the domain of male heroes, warriors in battle, men undertaking risks of derring-do.[i] Role models for women of courage too often center on physical bravery or athletic stamina, celebrating exceptional women like Serena and Venus Williams or Megan Rapinoe. But let’s pause to consider more invisible but equally courageous women.

As a nation of immigrants, many of us have female ancestors as well as contemporary relatives who demonstrated enormous courage in arriving at these shores. Their journeys may have occurred centuries ago as a child crossing an ocean alone on a ship, or as an enslaved woman, or more recently as an endangered mother entering the country with her children. Other examples include the myriad of unknown Indigenous heroines who defended their native lands and people, women who challenged Jim Crow laws, or single mothers across centuries who raised a family under dire circumstances.

Today’s everyday heroines might include the thousands of women, especially those with children, leaving abusive relationships, despite the loss of financial and other support, and the real fear of retaliation against herself or her children; and those willing to challenge a pattern of unfair or unjust practices in their school or workplace, when they know they need a job in that field.

Celebrity role models offer validation and inspiration to thousands of young people, while less iconic courageous women go unnoticed and unnamed. These women are our unsung heroines, dismissed by the culture, and, because they are unacclaimed, they are unaware of how courageous they are.

Recognizing ordinary women as role models for exceptional acts of courage reframes what courage looks like and expands the vision of possibilities for the development of courage in young girls. Social role theory states that males and females learn different qualities through socialization processes and from role models during their formative years.[ii] Males, for example, may learn and be socially rewarded for displaying agentic behaviors (including feats of physical bravery) and socialized against behaving in ways thought to be feminine.[iii] This may account for some of the apparent gender differences in types of heroic behavior.[iv]

Our culture exhibits strong reactions in how traits related to courage are perceived based on gender differences. A 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center involving over 4500 Americans found that people said traits related to strength and ambition are more highly valued for men and compassion, kindness, and responsibility are more highly valued for women. Specifically, the study reported that being powerful was viewed as positive in men in 67% of replies, whereas women being powerful was viewed negatively by 92%. Strength in men was found positive by 80%, but in women, only 60% found it positive. Aggression was viewed significantly more positively in men than women.[v]

Evolution has wired us to sense danger and feel fear. Fear is one of the emotions that ensures our survival, part of the basic equipment shared by all humans. The good news is courage is a learned skill.

According to social scientists, developing courage can be an ongoing learning process. We are never too old to learn courage. Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformative learning, studied adult women who returned to school. His research led him to conclude that when faced with new situations, adults don’t always apply their old understanding. When the learning involves critical reflection and review, it can lead to a transformative learning experience.[vi]

Transformative Learning Theory suggests that when we lean into a challenge, we have the potential to be transformed. We may be terrified of public speaking, but if we allow ourselves to face the fear and engage with it, we obtain a new perspective. We can be in the world in a new way. For women, especially, claiming our quiet acts of courage can lead to a revitalized sense of agency and a willingness to expand our sense of self.

Take a minute to consider courageous women you’ve known or admired. What do these women have in common? What qualities do you associate with female courage? Are there books, movies, poetry, or other sources that have modeled courage for you? Consider making a list of positive influences concerning courage and sharing it with friends. Where and when have you been courageous in your life?

[i] Kinsella, E.; Ritchie, T.; and Igou, E., “On the Bravery and Courage of Heroes: Considering Gender,” Heroism Science: (2017), Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 4.

[ii] Eagly, A. Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation. Erlbaum (1987)

[iii] Bussey, K., & Bandura, A.. “Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation.” Psychological Review, (1999) 106, 676–713.

[iv] Becker, S. W., & Eagly, A. H. “The heroism of women and men”. American Psychologist, (2004) 59, 163-178.

[v] Walker, K., Bialik, K., van Kessel, P., “Strong Men, Caring Women: How Americans describe what society values (and doesn’t) in each gender” Pew Research, July 24, 2018.

[vi] Dirks, John, “Transformative Learning Theory in the Practice of Adult Education: An Overview,” PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, (1998) Vol. 7, 1-14.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Fatherless Daughters: The Impact of Absence,” “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” and “Mindfulness for Women: Confronting and Overcoming ‘Othering’

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Why Trauma Affects Some People Differently Than Others

Vision (1919) by Otto Lange (1879-1944) for trauma blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Three of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Two.

Large swaths of populations, including Americans, are experiencing the devasting effects of trauma. To honor this epidemic, to offer new insights into its mechanisms, and to inspire hope for the reduction of human suffering, I extended my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience.

Dale Kushner: Can someone suffer the effects of a traumatic memory, but be unaware of the event that caused it? If someone had trauma, but doesn’t remember it, what’s going on?

Daniela Schiller: A lot of what is happening in the brain is unconscious. We have learnings that we are unaware of. We can have events that impact our behavior such that when there is a trigger, we’ll respond in a certain way, but we won’t remember the association that formed it. A simple example is phobia. People are afraid of flying, but it wasn’t always because of a traumatizing event. The same is true with phobias about snakes or blood. The heart of these could be some event that they’re unaware of. There are events that shape our behavior, that make our behavior habitual or strongly associated with something without our awareness.

DK: But if your research is about eliminating or muting the negative feelings and someone doesn’t know the original trauma, how could they be helped?

DS: There are several lines of research, like the research on reconsolidation, the idea that you have to reactivate a memory in order to modify it. Also, the research that we’ve been discussing, that traumatic memory is an experience of the brain as if it’s happening in the present[1] These point to the fact that a memory, in order to be modified, has to be active and engaged with. At the same time, there are other ways to approach behaviors when their source is unknown — by analyzing the behavior. Even if we think we know the source, we don’t always necessarily know, because sometimes we can have a memory that is very disturbing for us, or a focal event, which very well can be not accurate or was revised or reconstructed over time.

Dr. Daniela Schiller for trauma blog postThe interesting thing is that now there’s growing research on the effect of psychedelics in treatment for PTSD and other conditions like depression. What people are reporting is that while they are on this psychedelic trip, many memories come up, memories that they didn’t know they had, memories they never linked. So there’s an event and suddenly there are additional peripheral events like, oh, and then you make new connections, and that suddenly makes the memory either more understandable or frames it differently. That type of flexibility seems to be occurring in research on psychedelics. When you don’t have that, that could be part of the rigid response or not necessarily accurate response that you have to a particular event that you think you remember.

DK: What determines the severity of the effect of trauma? We know that some people who have experienced severe trauma don’t seem to be affected while others who have had less severe trauma, or maybe just bad experiences, seem to be very altered by them.

DS:  Yes, that’s interesting because the definition of the trauma is not in the event itself. You don’t compare events, you compare the responses to the events. That’s why there’s no competition between someone who was at 9/11, for example, close to the building versus far from it but with a different interaction. There’s no measure like that. It’s all in the response. The definition is: to what extent does a trauma affect your daily life and functioning? If it impairs functioning — this is the measure of the severity. If you can’t get out of bed, if you don’t interact, you can’t work, you don’t need — these are the degrees of severity, how it affects you at that personal level.

DK: Are some people more vulnerable? Who is more likely to be affected? Can we predict who will be affected?

DS: Yes, some people are more naturally resilient than others. Many factors come into play. One is the past, like childhood trauma. The other could be genetics. Some processes make your brain more sensitive. The way the brain reacts could lead to some processes versus others, like epigenetics, which is the experience of your parents. We see this in studies of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, and also in animals. If the parents were stressed, then the pups, the offspring are also more reactive or more sensitive to negative experiences. This is because of the way the genes are being monitored, what is being inherited. In this sense, experience is being inherited. It’s also about the context. In what conditions do you have social support? Many parameters will influence resilience.

DK: Which is more important: the intensity or the duration of the trauma?

DS:  These all come into play. The intensity, the duration, and also the age of the memory. In the present moment, each of these can have a serious effect on trauma. There are traumas that are one-time events, and there are traumas that are very much chronic or prolonged. These are complicated types of trauma. They are different from a one-time trauma. So now you get into the different forms that trauma can take, and each one comes with its own characteristics and complexities.

DK: Can someone who has inherited the epigenetics of a traumatized parent change their epigenetics, if intervention is early enough?

DS:  Yes, I would expect so. It is not my research, but in principle what epigenetics means is that you have the DNA, but peripheral factors affect which gene is being expressed. They’re like the monitors, the modulators of the genes that you already have, and some of them will be expressed more or less depending on your experience. What is shaping the next generation is the environment in the fetus when the fetus is evolving. This is where epigenetic factors come into play, what is formed in the growing fetus of the next generation. Whatever is in that environment at the time of the pregnancy will have an effect. If you did have a negative experience, but then it was mitigated, this will have an influence because epigenetics is about the environmental and experiential context of your development.

DK:  One last question. Where are you headed now with your research? What are you excited about?

DS:  I’m excited about diving into complexity, diving into experiments that touch on personal experience. They’re difficult to study in the lab, which has to be very controlled. With new methods of analysis and also with artificial intelligence, machine learning gives us approaches to study more complex processes. I hope science will become more personal in the sense that it could characterize and be able to focus on the individual. Science is usually about statistics in large groups, and you need large samples to see effects, but I am hoping we can explore it more at the individual level.

For artists and scientists, their goal is to understand experiences in life. Their goals are exactly the same, and even as specific. If your character in the novel you’re writing is struggling with a certain memory, it’s a very specific sliver of reality you are trying to capture. I think science is trying to do the same.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories,” Part One of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, “Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember,” Part Two of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” an interview with Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone.

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember

The Last Survivors of a Family (c. 1870s) by Félicie Schneider (1831–1888) for Memory blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Two of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Three.

Thank you for joining me for Part Two of my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. Today we discuss how current research in neuroscience is confirming many of the working hypotheses of psychotherapy and also the role of narrative in creating memories.

Dale Kushner: There’s been a lot of research about how our brains are wired for narrative.[1] Your research[2] has to do with contextualizing a memory, that when a memory is contextualized that somehow mitigates the traumatic effects. How would you explain that?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. I think it’s important to emphasize that many of the insights I’m talking about are widely known and used in psychotherapy and psychological research. We’ve known for many decades that memories are not accurate, that there can be false memories, that they can be affected. And also that you need to create a narrative. Many therapy forms are about creating a narrative around memories because traumatic memories are fragmented.

In a way, neuroscience research is catching up or even occurring in parallel. When you interpret the neurobiological or neuroscientific findings, you see that, oh, it comes to the same conclusion as the therapists. Neuroscience brings a mechanism, whereas, for psychologists and psychiatrists, the therapy has been developed through trial and error or through hypothesis. It brings structure and constraints. But if there’s a mechanism, together they can kind of constrain each other. Now there’s a mechanism, now we know exactly what to target in a more well-defined treatment. The neuroscience resonates with many observations in psychology. It’s exciting.

DK: Now that you and your team and other researchers understand these mechanisms, what impact will this have on pharmaceuticals? Or in treatment? We hear of people recreating their nightmares in imagery rehearsal therapy.[3] How could this be used?

Dr. Daniela Schiller for memory blog postDS: Let me answer in two steps. In terms of narrative, memories are part of a narrative almost by definition. A memory is something that is embedded in time and space in a certain context, at least episodic memory. And if it’s not, then it’s a fragment of a present moment. To make something into a memory, it has to be part of a narrative because memory is a narrative. The brain is prone to that. The reason is that narrative is something that gives you cause and effect. It allows you to understand and predict, which is precisely what the brain wants to do.

So the connection with narrative is very tight. At the same time, there’s room for flexibility in that narrative because we know that memories are not accurate. We keep changing them, we reconstruct them. So when we do hold onto a narrative, it’s like a hypothesis. It’s a plausible explanation of the event. And that is what is liberating because if you’re stuck in a very harmful, negative narrative, there’s room to think that maybe it’s not the reality. There’s room to modify it and turn it into something more accurate and more conducive.

In terms of pharmaceuticals, it’s an interesting interplay because it depends on the impairment. In some cases, it could be at the neurobiological level, so you need something to, let’s say, enhance the brain’s plasticity or help neurons recover or return to balanced action. For this, you would need some type of invasive, like a drug or brain stimulation.

But at the same time, once the brain is functioning, you need to overlay behavior on it. It’s like having a car that works, but not driving it or driving a car that doesn’t work. If the car works and you don’t learn how to drive, there’s no point, right? It doesn’t really help you that the car works. So, if you can stimulate the brain to put it on a functional level, you then must practice behavior. The combination is very important. For different people, it depends on the situation. Sometimes the neurological is fine and you just need to practice behavior. Behavior itself is like a drug in the sense that it shapes the memory. It can stimulate, can train the memory. Behavior is a product of the brain, but it’s also a trainer, a manipulator of the brain. Behavior is very powerful. There is a lot of room for pure behavioral interference or adjustments that people can make in their daily lives when they understand how the brain works.

DK: That’s fantastically hopeful. What else should we know about what you have learned in your research?

DS: All these insights that come from neuroscience and psychology about memory are changing the way we think about memory. This is potentially important for how people engage with their memories. Because in everyday life we assume that our memories are accurate and they define who we are. This is what meditation is giving you. It’s a way to observe and interact with your thoughts and with your memories such that they don’t define you. You have a relationship with them, and that gives you a great deal of flexibility. On the one hand, it can be disturbing to think that I am not being correct in what I think about myself. But it changes your perspective in the sense that you don’t need to look in the past to understand who you are.

You need to look at the present because whatever you retrieve now reflects who you are now. For example, if you’re in a negative mood, you will retrieve negative memories. This is what will come to mind. It doesn’t mean that this is your entire life. It just means that now this is what you’re experiencing. So, you kind of think about memories differently. It’s not about telling you who you are or not, they give you actual information about the present in a way that helps you predict the future. Each one of us is becoming like an artist in the sense that we feel the memories and interact with them and have more of an intuitive sense of the process. I think it frees us, it gives us much more flexibility in moving forward in our experience of ourselves.

DK: Great. And that aligns with a sort of spiritual perspective. That our capacity, our perceptions, are narrowed by memory and many other things. But our capacity is so much more expansive.

DS: I think the affective world, the world of affect, which is everything from emotion, feelings, and mood, is best understood from the perspective of being an organism. You’re an organism in the world. You interact with the world and your reactions to the world. What we call emotions are concerns that we have for our survival. If we interact with something in the environment, that’s important to our survival or the way we interact with it. It indicates the importance or the relevancy of that object. That could be a mental object or a physical object, but the way we interact with it signifies what it means for us in terms of our survival.

[1] Westover, Jonathan, “The Power of Storytelling: How Our Brains are Wired for Narratives,” Human Capital Innovations, January 11, 2024

[2] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[3] . M. Albanese, M. Liotti, L. Cornacchia, F. Manzini, “Nightmare Rescripting: Using Imagery Techniques to Treat Sleep Disturbances in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2022: 13: 866144

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories” (Part One of my interview with Daniela Schiller),  “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories

Sagittal MRI slice of a brain with highlighting indicating location of the posterior cingulate cortex. The study cited found traumatic memories engaged this area, usually associated with narrative comprehension and autobiographical processing, like introspection and daydreaming.

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part One of a three-part interview. Read Parts Two and Three.

Does the brain encode traumatic memories differently than it does other memories? This question prompted a recent series of experiments by a group of researchers at Yale University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The publication of their breakthrough findings in Nature Neuroscience[1] in November generated news media headlines.[2] To learn more about these findings, I interviewed one of the authors of the study, Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. In 2014, The New Yorker did an extensive profile[3] of Dr. Schiller’s achievements in memory research.

Dale Kushner: Is it accurate to say your goal is to untangle a traumatic memory from the strong emotion it evokes so that a person might be able to remember something traumatic but not feel its negative effect?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. That’s the ultimate goal. The way to go about it is to ask questions about how to understand the mechanism: how the brain forms emotional memories, how it maintains these memories. Are these memories malleable? Do they change over time? Under what conditions do you retrieve them, in what way? To prevent the malfunctioning of it or the negative impact of it in certain cases you try to understand the entire mechanism of it. How does it work in the brain before it goes awry? And then what might change that it has such a negative impact?

DK: Could you briefly describe what you’re looking at now and how that unfolds for you in the lab?

DS: Sure. Here you have two main approaches. One will be the very, very controlled way that you create some experience in the laboratory and then you test it. For fear or for emotional memory, we can use this basic process that is called classical or Pavlovian conditioning, where you take one stimulus and associate it with something negative. That stimulus that used to be neutral is now negative. This you can do in the lab. You just present something on the computer, and they can get a mild electric shock, or they can lose money, something negative. They then develop this emotional response to the stimulus because they know that something negative is going to happen. When you look at that in the FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, you can see specific responses in the brain to that stimulus before and after learning, or in comparison to other such stimuli, or such cues.

Another approach is to investigate memories that the participants themselves bring. This is what we did in the research that was just published. The participants had been diagnosed with PTSD and they had their own real life traumatic memories and also sad memories. We reminded them of these memories while they were in the FMRI scanner, and we then looked at the brain. So, we found a way to analyze that very naturalistic experience and real-life memory. And of course, this is personal. In classical conditioning, everybody undergoes the same stimulus. All the participants look at a blue square paired with a shock. Then we’ll see in the entire group on average how the brain is reacting. With the PTSD group we see each and every individual brain reacting to the personal memory, but we still find commonalities. And these commonalities tell us what is different between traumatic memories and sad memories.

DK: That’s very interesting. So, the participants in the first group who have not had PTSD, you’ve induced some kind of shock so that you have a parameter of what an untraumatized person might experience when they are initially getting traumatized in the laboratory. Then you compare that to someone who comes to you with a history of trauma and look for the same things. Then you compare the responses and figure out how the brain is working in both cases. Is that accurate?

DS: Yes. What you’re describing is a challenge to the field because we really cannot induce trauma in the lab. What you have in the laboratory is a model, something that mimics aspects of trauma. With animals, you would do an animal model, an animal will undergo something negative, and then they will be afraid. In humans, you can do the same, but what you do in this case is you’re asking questions about basic learning and memory processes in the brain. And by understanding these processes, which are in the neurotypical, in the healthy realm, by understanding these, you assume that when these systems are impaired or you can envision or try to manipulate the impairments, then you can hypothesize what is happening in the traumatic state. In this case, it’s more like an extrapolation or an assumption that it would apply to trauma.

That’s why our last experiment was exactly to address that issue or those assumptions. Is it true that very simple emotional processes by way of exaggeration become traumatic, or is it a whole alternative process?  It can either be an extension or really a dissociation. It’s a challenge to study trauma in the lab.

DK: Yes. I bet. So, what are your findings on that question so far?

DS: My understanding now is that it’s really both. It depends on what you’re asking. You can see these basic processes in relation to emotional stimuli that are not a traumatic event. You could still see impairment in the aftermath of trauma because for example, people with PTSD would be more sensitive to negative information or some negative surprise or the way they compute and interact with emotional stimuli. You do see changes at the basic level. So that approach is very informative. In addition, when we look at the specific individual personal traumatic memory, we did see a difference between the traumatic memory and a sad memory. It wasn’t just more of an exaggeration of it, which in the brain you would see as more activation, more impact. It really looked like an alternative path of representation. This stayed virgin between the two memories. So, I think both are occurring at the same time. I hope that makes sense.

DK: Yes, it does. And it gives me a sense of what clinicians are dealing with and going to have to deal with. This research is going to be applicable and so crucial for coming generations.

Part two of this interview will follow in January.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[2] Barry, Ellen, “Brain Study Suggests Traumatic Memories Are Processed as Present Experience,” The New York Times, November 30, 2023.

[3] Specter, Michael, “Partial Recall,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

 Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Revenge Is Rarely Sweet

The Fallen Angel (1847) (Detail) by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)  for revenge blog post

 

Experimental research suggests revenge costs more than it delivers.

Revenge is a universal human instinct. Who hasn’t nursed fantasies of transforming into an all-powerful being—an avenging Batman or Black Widow? We seek to harm those who have humiliated, shamed, dominated, or oppressed us. When our rights are trampled, when an abuser inflicts wounds, when our self-image or our collective identity has been dishonored, we desire retaliation.

Revenge, retaliation, retribution—these words are not as interchangeable as they seem. The Latin root of revenge is vindicare, which is also the root of vindication. It’s interesting how the meaning of these words has evolved over time. Revenge typically involves the desire to inflict harm, suffering, or punishment in response to a perceived wrong and often includes strong emotions like anger or a desire for personal satisfaction. Vindication is now associated with clearing one’s name or proving one’s innocence. Retaliation seeks to address a perceived harm but does not necessarily involve inflicting harm in return. Retribution seeks to impose just penalties within a legal or moral framework.

In all its permutations, revenge aims to redress a perceived injury and punish the perpetrator. Ironically, revenge can also act as a deterrent in preventing further injury. In situations in which laws or government are weak and where gangs, militia groups, or bullies rule, the law of the jungle prevails: Be careful who you mess with, or else. (or, in less friendly terms, kill or be killed). The warning may suppress further violence but also reinforce an authoritarian or coercive regime.

Does personal revenge work? Does it restore justice? Is it cathartic? The answer from various disciplines suggests not. Behavioral studies indicate revenge does not grant the euphoria of satisfaction, but instead sets up cycles of rumination and ongoing distress.[1] The diaries of school shooters and mass murderers testify to the obsessive nature of revenge. Venting anger through the written word or social media does not seem to alleviate the impulse toward violence.

Fantasizing about revenge may be tremendously gratifying but psychologists observe that acting out revenge does not diminish feelings of animosity and can even prolong the avenger’s reaction to the original offense. Contrary to popular belief, revenge is rarely sweet! Nor does it automatically lead to catharsis or closure, but instead invites continued brooding and dissatisfaction. Increased rumination sets the stage for retribution and more cycles of aggression. Addressing this toll on the avenger, journalist Eric Jaffe writes: “The actual execution of revenge carries a bitter cost of time, emotional and physical energy, and even lives.” [2]

Some researchers have suggested that unacknowledged revenge, when the victim does not know the source of their suffering, is especially unsatisfying to the avenger. (You get beat up coming home from work. I want you to know this is happening to you because of what you said to my sister and that I am responsible for your pain.) Writing in the November 2010 issue of European Journal of Social Psychology, the authors, Mario Gollwitzer and his cohort, conclude that successful revenge is not merely about payback, but about delivering a message. “When the offender understood revenge as punishment, revenge led to satisfaction and deservingness among victims.”[3]

Who seeks revenge and why is shaped by our individual personalities and cultural heritage. Most of us do not succumb to acting out our revenge. Some people when slighted are not tempted to retaliate and instead move on. Scientists speculate we may have evolved an adaptive internal scale that weighs the costs of revenge against its benefits. In his book, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, experimental psychologist Michael McCullough contends that we may have evolved a secondary system of forgiveness that enables people to suppress the desire for revenge in favor of forgiveness. This internal system supports forgiveness and allows for the repair of a relationship.[4]

In some cultures, a desire for revenge arises out of public shame, while in individualistic cultures like our own, vengeance is sought when we believe ourselves or our rights have been dismantled or ignored. In societies that value collective identity, revenge can be evoked in response to the mistreatment of someone in our tribe or group: dishonoring my brother dishonors me.

The moral argument often cited for revenge goes back to Exodus 21-23, which dictates reciprocal justice: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[5] It is often misinterpreted as a call for revenge, but the Biblical phrase puts limits on retaliation, one eye for one eye, not two eyes for one eye. Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Retribution can sound like a claim for justice but the problem is that everyone’s justice looks different. Revenge can signal to the original victim an end to their exploitation or abuse, but the result of seeking justice through revenge is often more destruction and death. Tease a bear out of a tree and it may come charging at you in self-defense, but self-defense is not revenge. Revenge has a bitter and spiteful aspect that intends the other to suffer. The British philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.” More recently, I heard a podcaster say, “Revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die.”

If the instinct for revenge is automatic and universal, how do we control its destructive urge? As thinking animals with the capacity to evaluate our thoughts and imagine future consequences, we are free, unlike the bear, to objectively assess and regulate our behavior. We can discern behavioral patterns that are troublesome and disentangle from the motivating revenge stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others. In each situation that inspires revenge, we can reevaluate our narrative and rewrite the ending. Perhaps we can ask ourselves, Instead of revenge, what would my forgiveness look like here? 

[1] Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T..D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008) “The paradoxical consequences of revenge,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1316-1324

[2] Jaffe, Eric, “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge,” Association for Psychological Science Observer, October 4, 2011

[3] Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., and Schmitt, M., (2010) “What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge?” European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(3), 364-374.

[4] McCullough, Michael, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (2008). Jossey-Bass.

[5] Exodus 23, The Bible, New International Version

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me,” “The Fear of Abandonment: Missing Mothers and Fairy Tales,” and “Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power”

 Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



The Long Battle of Cruelty and Empathy

Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) (1893) by Eero Järnefelt (1863–1937) for Cruelty blog post

What is cruelty? To be the target of cruelty—whether by a troll on social media trying to intimidate you, by a friend or family member who strikes out in anger, or as a victim of political violence—is to be trapped in a world where innocence is betrayed.

In a world reeling from violent confrontations and the horrific behaviors they precipitate, it seems not only wise but necessary to take a deep dive into the nature of cruelty. Acts of cruelty have been rationalized for the sake of family, tribe, religion, country, and empire since the beginning of humankind. Gruesome depictions of child abandonment, mutilation, starvation, and even murder fill our early folk and fairytales. Ancient legends and bible stories of pillage and revenge remind us of the brutality latent in our species. Aggression in humans is multifactorial, an adaptive survival mechanism with social and biological roots.

A favored definition of cruelty was put forth by psychologist Victor Nell in a 2006 article for Brain and Behavioral Sciences. “Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on other living creatures, sometimes indifferently, but often with delight.”[1] Nell hypothesized that cruel behavior evolved millions of years ago in early hominids out of predation, the killing and consumption of one living creature by another. Modern examples of cruelty are products of adaptations from our ancestors and have helped us establish social control as urban dwellers. In Nell’s view, the public spectacles of cruel punishments acted as deterrents to criminal behavior.

Cruelty, Nell maintains, exists only in humans and not non-human creatures. A cat “playing with” a live mouse cannot be said to be “enjoying” the suffering of that mouse. As far as we know, cats cannot imagine the consciousness of another creature, whereas some studies suggest the suffering of others pleasurably and sexually arouses humans engaged in the torture of other humans.[2] Cruelty can have a psychologically rewarding effect.

Bohumil Stibor. Soubor dřevorytů z koncentračního tábora. [Portfolio of Woodcuts from a Concentration Camp] (V Pelhřimově, 1946) for Cruelty blog post How does empathy or the lack of empathy impact the capacity for cruelty? Empathy is the ability to feel what another is feeling. Do persons who commit acts of cruelty derive their “enjoyment” from their empathy with their victims? Or do they have damaged brain circuitry that limits or nullifies their capacity for empathy? If one definition of cruelty includes the positive or pleasurable feedback the perpetrator receives from harming another or in watching the other harmed, then that person clearly can feel what the recipient is feeling. That person does not have a damaged capacity for empathy, just a warped response to what they do feel. Contrary to popular belief, disruption in our wiring for empathy is not the primary cause of cruelty. Empathy, we often forget, is not necessarily bonded to compassion, defined by emotion researchers as “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help.”[3]

Neuroimaging suggests that individuals who consistently exhibit violent aggressive behavior, including children who harm animals, show decreased activity in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain responsible for executive functions like impulse control. Those who display reactive emotional and physical violence (someone hits you, you hit back) have a different neurological profile in brain scans than the small substrata of individuals with psychopathic personalities characterized by callous unemotional traits. Psychopaths do have damaged empathy circuits but account for only a fraction of the cruelty on the world stage.[4]

Is cruelty a learned behavior taught by a culture and reinforced by its societal norms? Would most of us commit acts of cruelty under dire, life-threatening circumstances? Cruelty erupts when individuals or societies are unable to contain their anger, frustration, and desperation. Feelings are contagious and mass hysteria metabolizes ordinary citizens into frenzied action. Research psychologist Jeff Greenberg from the University of Arizona developed the Terror Management Theory to explain this phenomenon. TMT posits that as hominids became aware of their own mortality, they adopted a cultural worldview in the form of a religion or a communal morality. When this worldview is threatened by another group, that’s when cruelty and violence emerge.[5]

We are all too familiar with the process of dehumanization, the assignment of non-human status to other humans. In his book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, the philosopher David Livingstone Smith writes that acts of genocide can occur when the despised group is considered less than human. We can see so many examples of this: the dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, the methodical extermination of Jews and other so-called “undesirables” in Nazi Germany, the mass slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic minority during the Rwandan civil war, the Armenian genocide or the massacre and displacement of Native peoples by white settlers in North America. Each of these demonstrates how one group has rationalized violence to justify the domination of another group and inflict culturally sanctioned violence for so-called moral or societal purposes, like honor killings and revenge. The labeling of marginalized and ostracized groups further dissociates them in the eyes of the dominant culture. Call a group of people “bloodsuckers,” “vampires,” and “parasites,” as Hitler labeled the Jews in Mein Kampf, and somehow ordinary citizens are able to accede to their mass extermination.

Are we as a species doomed to relive and recycle the violence and hurts of the past? Can we enlist the vast powers of our imagination to envision a new world? Sociologist Gareth Higgins recently said: “If you want a better world, tell a better story.”[6] Can we learn to balance our biologically determined aggressive instincts with our capacity to love and care for each other and the earth? It’s worth encouraging.

[1] Nell, Victor. “Cruelty’s rewards: The gratification of perpetrators and spectators,” Behavior and Brain Sciences, 09 August 2006

[2] Longpre, N., Guay, J. P.’ Knight, R. A. “MTC Sadism Scale: toward dimensional assessment of severe sexual sadism,” Assessment (ASM) 26 (2019)

[3] Goetz, J.L., Keitner, D., Simon-Thomas, E. “Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical ReviewPsychology Bulletin May 2010

[4] Viding, Essi, “Explaining the Lack of Empathy” from Psychopathy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2019)

[5] Greenberg, J., Arndt, J. “Terror Management Theory” in Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume 1, Sage Publications (2012)

[6] Higgins, Gareth, “Revolution Stories” on Learning How to See with Brian McLaren podcast, October 20, 2023

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Transforming Empathy into Compassion: Why It Matters,” “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination,” and “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Using Storytelling and Hypnotherapy to Bring About Change

Quarrelling Couple (mid-19th century) by Meikeisai Hōjitsu (Japan, died 1872) for Hypnotherapy blog post

 

This is part two of a two-part post. You can read part one here.

Stories give us great pleasure. Whether we are listeners or storytellers, stories help us build strong mental pictures that confer meaning on the daily flood of phenomena and events. We create stories from our experience to make sense of the past, the present, and to imagine the future. The stories we create are individual and yet reflect our culture, our upbringing, our ancestral history, our neurobiology, and more. They help us survive by ordering random information into a linear sequence of cause and effect. We say: This happened and caused that to happen because of this. Driver #1 thinks: “He rammed into me because he was texting and driving too fast.” Driver #2 thinks: “She drove through the stop sign and wasn’t paying attention.” Conflicts in relationships arise when each party believes their story is the only truth.

In part two of my interview with Melinda Bailey, the psychotherapist and educator explains the benefits of using storytelling and hypnotherapy in her couples therapy practice and illustrates how a compassionate and creative counselor can help clients imagine new possibilities within a troubled relationship.

Dale Kushner: What is the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy?

Melinda Bailey: Hypnosis is a state of consciousness and hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis in therapy.

D.K.: What have been the most significant changes in the field of clinical hypnosis since you first trained? 

M.B.: When I first trained in hypnosis, there were two separate approaches to hypnosis, referred to as direct and indirect. The storytelling approach of Milton Erickson represents the indirect approach. Direct suggestions take the form of telling the person directly what to do. Today, it is much more common for the hypnosis practitioner to be familiar with both approaches and to utilize the induction and suggestion method tailored to the client.

D.K.: You are also a skilled storyteller and I believe belong to a guild. Do you weave storytelling into your practice or your teaching methods?

M.B.: I do like to weave storytelling into therapy and into teaching. It is sometimes as straightforward as saying, “I know a story about that, would you be open to hearing it?”  I still tell students the polar bear story (see part one).

Dr. Melinda Bailey for hypnotherapy blog postStorytelling induces a light trance state and speaks to the unconscious mind. When presented in stories, ways to think about a problem, possible solutions, or steps to try are about someone else, somewhere else. It is not didactic instruction about what to do or how to think or feel.

Therapeutic storytelling is often a story that parallels some aspect of the client’s life or therapy issue and offers a solution or new way to think about the situation. There are a number of really fine books of therapeutic stories written to address specific clinical issues for children and adults.

When it comes to receptivity to stories, we adults aren’t that different from children. We read books, go to movies, watch television, go to plays, read the newspaper, listen to podcasts, webinars, or lectures. Children’s stories are often just as helpful for adults as for children. I have a special fondness for nature stories, Native American stories, Buddhist stories, and ones I make up myself.

As a child, I lived in the country and had a special tree that was a friend, listener, and protector—it provided the makings of a story about protection, safety, and a place to play. I often tell a story about the deep roots that nourished the tree and kept it firmly planted while its leaves and branches could move with the wind and changing weather and seasons. Some people are natural storytellers and others, like me, can learn the skill by listening to other storytellers, reading, going to classes that teach how to create an effective story and how to tell stories so others listen.

D.K.: Could you offer an example of how an exchange with a couple might go when you are employing storytelling?

M.B.: There is a specific story that I like to tell couples about a vase that is a family treasure. It gets broken, and then the couple decides to put the pieces back together again. The new/old vase is strong, beautiful, and both the same and different in important ways. The couple is different too as they work together to recreate their vase.

D.K.: Do you see story-telling and hypnotherapy as related modalities?

M.B.: Yes, storytelling and hypnotherapy are very much related. Storytelling is often woven into the hypnotic experience. And storytelling by itself can lead to trance.

D.K.: If possible, I’d be grateful for any examples of how that effort, that treatment might work.

M.B.: I think of storytelling as one intervention, not a complete treatment. Hypnosis is an intervention used for a specific purpose in a treatment plan. For example, one might use the ability to take oneself to another time and place and imagine a walk along an ocean beach with the sights, sounds, and smells of the beach to absorb your attention during an uncomfortable medical or dental procedure.

Read part one of this interview with Melinda Bailey, “Treating Some Common Issues in Couples Therapy.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Write Your Own Fairy Tale,” “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?” and “Fate and Destiny: What Role Do They Play in Your Life?

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



Treating Some Common Issues in Couples Therapy

Scene 4 “Tongue (Couple Arguing)” from The Tale of a Wedded Life, in Ten Scenes (1877) by Cassius M. “Kash” Coolidge (1844-1934) for couples therapy blog post

An Interview with Psychotherapist and Educator Melinda Bailey

This is part one of a two-part post on couples therapy.

What is it like to be on the other side of therapy, to be the therapist, not the client? The answer is as varied as individual practitioners.

To explore the other side, I decided to interview Dr. Melinda Bailey, a practicing psychotherapist and educator in a Marriage and Family Therapy degree program at a college in Madison, Wisconsin. I thought it would be enlightening to talk to a therapist whose curiosity and creativity about the human psyche had led her to extend her learning beyond her rigorous academic doctoral training.

One of Dr. Bailey’s teachers, Milton Erickson, refined the use of hypnosis as a viable intervention for psychological issues. As more research reveals the complex connections between mental and physical distress—for instance between the brain and the gut—medical psychologists use hypnosis to aid in the treatment of bowel disorders like IBS, migraines, and other physical afflictions. Like hypnosis, the therapeutic use of stories and storytelling engages the mind’s capacity to reflect and reframe habitual patterns of thought and belief and generates a sense of freedom from and mastery over difficult emotional states.

As a writer and student of Jungian psychology, I am particularly interested in Dr. Bailey’s experience using hypnotherapy and storytelling to help clients access deeply buried material otherwise inaccessible to the conscious mind.

Dr. Melinda Bailey for couples therapy blog postDale Kushner: What would you say are the most common issues that couples bring into counseling?

Dr. Melinda Bailey: Based on my personal experience, I would say that many couples that I see seek therapy for what they describe as communication issues. This means that one or both of them feel that their relationship isn’t as close as it once was. They don’t talk together as much as they used to, or, if they do, the talk is about the logistics of everyday life, not their deeper wishes for life individually and together, not their needs. The warmth and spark have lessened or gone. Other couples feel that communication is the major issue because they have more conflict, argue and fight more often, and have fewer positive, caring, supportive interactions.

From the therapist’s point of view, these presenting issues may be an entry to deeper issues, Do I matter to you? Do you see me? Do you love me? Can I count on you to have my back? Sometimes just working to improve communication skills is enough to restore the ability to speak and be heard, feel safe, and be vulnerable.

In addition to communication issues, there are other specific issues that bring couples to therapy, like an affair, verbal or physical abuse, alcohol or drug use, sexual issues, stresses with children or former spouses, or family of origin. These specific problems, and others, also have specific interventions.

D.K.: Have those issues changed in the years you’ve been practicing/teaching?

M.B.: What has really changed most, in the 40+ years that I have been practicing is the willingness of couples to reach out for help. The stigma around therapy in general, for individuals, couples, and families is lessening. The ways that therapists try to understand the presenting complaints are a lot more complicated now as therapists try to take into account the impact on the couple of our multiple identities of race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, developmental or acquired disability, religion, indigenous group membership, and nationality.

D.K.: Can you describe how you became interested in therapeutic hypnosis and why?

M.B.: I became interested in therapeutic hypnosis early in my professional career. I trained at the University of Wisconsin Psychiatry Dept in Madison when Carl Whitaker was there. I was drawn to the early experiential model of Whitaker and came to believe that change happens with new experiences.

Milton Erickson was also doing exciting things with hypnosis during this time period, and he worked with hypnosis using storytelling and suggestions to initiate change. Erickson created change experiences with hypnosis, which focused on one’s internal world. The common denominator here is change through experience.

In those early days of learning hypnosis, I attended a workshop and after several days of didactic presentations, the workshop ended with a memorable story about the St. Louis Zoo. Over the years I have modified the story to fit my hometown and structured the story around the Vilas Zoo in Madison.

“In the early days of the Vilas Zoo, when it didn’t have much money or resources and was under construction, the first gift the zoo received was a large white polar bear. There wasn’t yet a permanent home for the bear so it was given a temporary home that was several hundred feet long and half that distance wide. The bear, in its new enclosure learned to pace back and forth… back and forth… When the bear’s final home was complete, the zookeeper and all the workers put their heads together to decide how to best introduce the bear to its new home. After much discussion, they decided it would be less disruptive to take down the temporary enclosure at night while the bear slept. One night, they quietly took down the temporary fence, and when the bear woke up the next morning, it began to pace back and forth…back and forth… as it had learned to do. The bear had yet to learn the truth of its situation, which was that it had a lot more room to move around in than it knew, a lot more space to explore, a lot more freedom than it knew about.”

I loved this story. I knew then that therapeutic storytelling was a vehicle to initiate change. I still tell that story to the students that I teach. To learn more about storytelling, I took a workshop in therapeutic storytelling, joined a local storytelling guild, and co-taught a class on storytelling.

The second part, “Using Storytellling and Hypnotherapy in Couples Therapy,” will follow next month.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Denial: Telling Ourselves Stories That Hide the Truth,” “Self-Sabotage: Which Parts of Ourselves Are We Fighting?” and “How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



Making Uncertainty Your Friend

Courage, Anxiety and Despair: Watching the Battle (c. 1850) by James Sant (1820–1916) for uncertainty blog post

 

Facing an unknown future is on all our minds. I’m reminded of the adage: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Recently, awaiting medical results for someone I love, I was swamped by feelings of uncertainty and apprehension—the devil I didn’t know. Waiting and wondering felt more charged than learning the results, good or not so good. (Thank goodness the outcome was positive!) Once I had the facts, I trusted my warrior self would step forward and cope with whatever the future held. Perhaps this resonates with you? My experience inspired this blog to enlarge our understanding of uncertainty and offer some tools to ease distress.

Uncertainty. Why does this word make us shudder? One reason is that we are living in a time of accelerated and radical change. When our personal and communal lives feel at risk, when uncertainty is a frequent visitor, anxiety is likely to follow. As Dr. Mazen Kheirbek, an associate professor in UC San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, tells us, “Uncertainty is not knowing what is going to happen.”[i] The combination of uncertainty and threat generates anxiety.

Evolution has wired us to adapt to uncertainty but what in our brains activates the sense of being uncertain? Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have been investigating this in humans and developed tests that demonstrated that the neuromodulator noradrenaline is the key chemical that underpins behavioral and computational responses to uncertainty. Their research focused on a small area in the brain stem, the locus coeruleus, that regulates noradrenaline and enhances sensory learning.[ii]  Another set of researchers at University College London created human experiments that found two other neuromodulators, acetylcholine and dopamine, which affect uncertainty.[iii] Understanding of how these neurotransmitters work is evolving.

Uncertainty (1878) by Arthur Hughes (1832–1915) for uncertainty blog postOur brains are agile and can sometimes assess an uncertain situation by remembering and comparing it to a past experience—Oh, when my partner goes quiet like this, I know they are about to explode; I’d better change the subject—but for other situations we can’t rely on past experience. They require quick thinking and a new approach to uncertainty. Understanding how our brains adapt to volatile and changing situations will be ever more important as food and water scarcity, climate disasters, wars, and migrating populations challenge us at an unprecedented pace.

When we feel uncertain, our brains are trying to figure out how to balance risk and loss. Our capacity to decide is hindered by doubt, anxiety, and avoidance of a perceived threat. Anyone who has waited for medical results for themselves or loved ones might feel, as I did, that when we know what we are facing, even when it’s difficult news, we can make a plan and take action. We are no longer holding our breath.

According to Dr. Aoiefe O’ Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences who studies the ways psychological stress can lead to mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “Uncertainty means ambiguity, which means that we have to expend effort in trying to predict what will happen in addition to preparing to deal with all of the different outcomes.”[iv] The stress of uncertainty, especially when prolonged, is among the most insidious stressors we experience as human beings, said O’Donovan. But, when faced with these feelings, it can help us to recognize that gnawing uncertainty is the amplification of a cognitive mechanism that’s essential to our survival.

At her Life Events Lab at the University of California, Riverside, Dr. Kate Sweeny focuses her research on “high stakes waiting.” “[Psychologists] don’t know that much about waiting and uncertainty,” according to Sweeny. In 2019, her lab looked into whether engaging in “flow,” a state of complete immersion in one activity, helped people during anxiety-provoking periods. They found that engaging in “flow” boosts a person’s sense of well-being and makes the waiting period easier.[v]

To answer questions about how we function, science researchers probe the structure and mechanisms of our brains. Spiritual traditions address the nature of being from a different perspective. Their inquiry is not centered on neuroscience or molecular biology but on how to live a full and joyous life that includes difficult or unpleasant experiences. These traditions help us recognize that uncertainty can have a positive side. Uncertainty can be an aid to curiosity, creativity, and inner peace. When we are overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty and dread as we face an unpredictable future, we can expand our perspective and consider reframing our belief: what we habitually regard as a distressing state can be a benevolent friend.

In the Buddhist practices, uncertainty is a certainty and considered a wise teacher.[vi] The wisdom of uncertainty is that it teaches us that the nature of reality is impermanence; all things arise and disappear. All things are transient. Flux and change animate the universe and are not under our control. No matter how careful we are crossing a street, we cannot control the maniac driver who sweeps around the corner and hits us. No matter how much we exercise or eat broccoli, we cannot control the time or manner of our death. These are uncomfortable truths. Most of us have not been schooled in trusting the unknown and surrendering to life as it presents itself in the moment. This is the challenge of “calm abiding” as we meet uncertainty.

The benefits of yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation to settle a jittery nervous system are well known. From a place of stillness, we become aware of a larger presence within us that observes life as it ebbs and flows without constricting into fear. We simply observe and note this is the way life is—unpredictable.

Monday Metta from Spirit Rock Meditation Center for uncertainty blog postA specific Buddhist practice that helps ground us during times of uncertainty is Metta. Considered a concentration meditation, it is also called a loving-kindness practice. When we focus on a repetition of phrases, or a mantra, or the sensations of breathing, the frontal part of our brain responsible for attention is activated and the areas responsible for excitatory emotional response stop overfiring. The body relaxes. The Greater Good Center, Science-based Practices for a Meaningful Life at the University of California, Berkeley has a seven-minute Loving-Kindness-Meditation that can get you started.

Can you think of a time when uncertainty sparked a sense of aliveness and adventure in you? Or perhaps an insight arose during a period of waiting and not knowing? Uncertainty begs for a playful attitude toward life, invites the inner child to step forward without fear of success or failure. Uncertainty calls on us to do something that may be difficult but rewarding: to embrace unpredictability as a constant companion

[i] Reynolds, Brandon R., “There’s a Lot of Uncertainty Right Now — This is What Science Says That Does to Our Minds, Bodies,” UCSF News, November 1, 2020.

[ii] Lawson, Rebecca P., et al., “The Computational, Pharmacological, and Physiological Determinants of Sensory Learning under Uncertainty,” Current Biology, January 11, 2021.

[iii] Marshall, Louise, et al., “Pharmacological Fingerprints of Contextual Uncertainty,” PLOS Biology, November 15, 2016.

[iv] Reynolds, Brandon R. Ibid.

[v] Rankin, K., Walsh, L., and Sweeny, K., “A Better Distraction: Exploring the Benefits of Flow During Uncertain Waiting Periods,” Emotion, Vol 19, No. 5, 2019.

[vi] Rinpoche, Anam Thubten, “The Wisdom of Uncertainty,” Buddhist Door, April 17, 2020.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “What Ancient Traditions Can Teach about Coping with Change,” “Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?” and “Waiting: a Source of Anxiety or Opportunity for Discovery?

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



Understanding and Addressing Narcissism in Ourselves and Others

Narcissus (1597–1599) by Caravaggio (1571–1610) for narcissism blog post

A conversation with Jungian analyst and psychotherapist Monika Wikman

Today, we ask Dr. Monika Wikman, psychotherapist and Jungian analyst, to speak about her insights into the deep layers of the psyche and offer her penetrating understanding of the problem of narcissism as it manifests in the personal realm and the world at large. In a culture saturated with provocations for self-aggrandizement, which often seems to value braggadocio over humility, individualism over communal good, most of us have experienced narcissistic harm, with others and within ourselves. As Dr. Wikman points out, the risk of harm is not only to ourselves, but to the planet, which suffers from our withering capacity for empathy.

With compassion, depth, and skill, Dr. Wikman opens new vistas for healing old narcissistic wounds.

Monika Wikman:

In simple terms, we can think of narcissism as a protective, adaptive defense against feeling unloved, unworthy, unseen, not of value, invisible, ineffective/impotent, rejected, abandoned, or empty. Narcissism may be nature’s way of creating another kind of strength when the developing self is challenged.

Dr. Monika Wikman for narcissism blog postAn analogy might be how scar tissue forms around surgery sites or broken bones. On the one hand, the new tough tissue may seem like a new kind of strength, but in reality, the adaptation limits the flow of life. The growth of scar tissue restricts the flow of blood and creates stiffness and loss of flexibility, although it does bring protection from further injury. This process mirrors narcissistic adaptations in which one’s character can become constricted, stiff, and rote, distorting the shape of one’s life. A “narcissistic feed,” (the need to be admired and feel superior) dominates the interpersonal relationships in the narcissist’s world. The individual unconsciously and part consciously uses relationships to affirm the value of the grandiose self, this false self.

Often there is a great shine and charisma to parts of the narcissist’s personality. When the split between the false public self and the shamed rejected self is fortified, the narcissist feels “afloat,” “looking good.” Praise bolsters a sense of self, but the shadow aspects of personality and the unworked trauma that underlie it remain split.

The rejected self is buried deep in the shadow where unconscious feelings of unworthiness, self-doubt, shame, and psychic pain fester. Often those who live with a narcissist feel the effects of the splitting in disturbing ways. Parts of self the narcissist disowns may come to roost in the psyche of the other. Thus, feeling unloved, unseen, devalued, or used is common for children or partners of a person deeply caught in this narcissistic pattern. The lack of relatedness among narcissists reveals itself in a lack of empathy for others, sometimes including animals. The missing empathy for others is also the missing genuine empathy for oneself. The basement voice of the narcissist cries out: “There is going to be only one of us who survives here, and that will be me.”

Depth psychological ways of relating to the problems of narcissism in our post-modern world are of central importance to issues of our day, including psychopathic explosions of aggression, usury attitudes toward the environment and one another, hierarchy, the polarization of political parties, power problems, lack of intimacy with self, others, and the natural world, (therefore affecting our relationship to climate change), and much more. The works of C.G. Jung add to this dialog by linking the personal dimensions of narcissism in dreams and other unconscious material with the archetypal dimensions found across cultures. The collective problem is what the Hopi people call Koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and ‘Healthy Narcissism,’” “Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness,” and “The Imposter Syndrome and Your Hidden Self.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



Fatherless Daughters: The Impact of Absence

A Sad Girl (La Nina Triste) (1921) by Carlos Saenz de Tejada (1897-1958) for fatherless daughters blog post

 

One summer day when I was nine, I came in from playing jump rope, discovered my father unconscious in his chair, and thought he was dead. He survived another twenty years, but for the rest of my childhood and early adulthood, I lived with the fear of losing him. The possibility that at any moment I might suddenly be a fatherless daughter shaped the woman I would become.

Mothers and mothering occupy a lot of space in psychological literature, but the role fathers play in a daughter’s development does not get equal attention. The National Initiative for Fatherhood, the nation’s leading provider of research on evidence-based fatherhood programs and resources, reports that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 data, 1 in 4 children in this country live in a home without a biological, step, or adoptive father. Their research indicates that children raised in a father-absent home face a four times greater risk of poverty, are more likely to have behavioral problems, are two times at greater risk of infant mortality, are more likely to go to prison, commit crime, become a pregnant teen, abuse drugs or alcohol, drop out of school.[1]

Daughters growing up without a father face specific challenges. Fathers influence their daughter’s relational lives, their creativity, sense of authority, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Her relationship to her sexuality and response to men will in part be determined by her father’s comfort or discomfort with her gender and her body, starting at birth. (This post addresses one’s personal or biological father. The capacity for “fathering” is not based on anatomy nor is it gender specific.)

Birth of Minerva (1936) by Joseph Kuhn-Régnier (1873-1940) for fatherless daughters blog postIn post-modern societies, both parents may contribute to the family’s financial stability, or the mother may be the primary wage earner. However, through the lens of patriarchal values, a father is a failure if he cannot provide for and protect his family. Fairy tales convey societal and psychological truths in magical settings, and many of the most popular tales—Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White—depict the reality of inadequate, neglectful, or harmful fathers. The story of Hansel and Gretel portrays the quintessential feckless father. He can neither provide for his family nor stand up to his wife’s cruel demands. Instead, he succumbs to her insistence that they leave their children in the woods to die so that they, the parents, can have enough to eat.

Why does the father disappear after the first page in some tales as if his relevance hardly matters? In real life, though, we know that an absent father is a haunting presence for his daughter. She will wonder why he left, why he has abandoned her, and if she did something to cause him to disappear. She will look for him in the men in her life or perhaps choose men who are the opposite of her father.

“How the Girl Lost Her Hand” (1910) by H. J. Ford (1860-1941) One positive outcome for fatherless daughters is hinted at in some fairy tales, as in The Girl Without Hands. The story recounts the survival challenges faced by a daughter who flees the father who maimed her. Without a father, and no sympathetic maternal figure to rely on, the heroine undergoes a self-revelatory process. In undertaking a series of impossible tasks, she discovers her moral and emotional strength, her courage and inner authority. She survives and thrives.

Psychotherapist Susan Schwartz has written extensively about the wounds daughters suffer from inadequate or harmful fathers. In The Absent Father Effect on Daughters: Father Desire, Father Wounds, she notes that fathers often have difficulty relating to a daughter’s emotional life. Even if the father is physically present, the daughter may feel unseen and unknown and will take on the burden of this failure as her own. She will feel a lack in herself. She may also strive to fulfill her father’s expectations in sports, in scholarship, in financial success, or she may try to fill his emptiness, his depression with her own energy. Dr. Schwartz describes how a father’s wounds can depotentiate a daughter’s capacity to use her energy for herself which can compromise her ability to focus and value who she is.[2]

Author Patricia Reis’s book Daughters of Saturn: From Father’s Daughter to Creative Woman is part memoir about her father, part analysis of the father-daughter relationship. She finds Freud’s theory that the meaning in life is found in work and love too reductive. For women, she says, another dimension must be added. That question is “Whom do I serve?”—self or other.

“It is not enough to claim our power as women: we must be able to use our powers consciously, knowing where and how our energy is spent, on what, on whom, for what purpose—both in work and in relationships.”[3]

Chronus (Saturn) and His Child (1637) by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662) for fatherless daughters blog postTo be a fatherless daughter is to feel abandoned by a paternal figure, emotionally, physically or both. A father may be absent from the home for reasons beyond his control. The list of reasons is extensive, and each situation impacts a daughter differently. Illness and death may burden her with additional grief, while military service, deportation, adoption, incarceration, divorce, or disinterest will have their own effects. A father who is physically present but emotionally distant, manipulative, abusive, or depressed also sets up a daughter for psychological distress. Her sense of herself, her ambition, her independence, her trust of the world will be shaped by her relationship with her father.

Fathers who long to have a deeper relationship with their daughters might ask themselves: what is my daughter trying to tell me about herself? What does she want me to see? How can I be more curious about her and her experience in the world? And they might ask their daughters, “How can I be more attentive?”

[1]The Statistics Don’t Lie: Fathers Matter,” The National Fatherhood Initiative

[2] Schwartz, Susan, The Absent Father Effect on Daughters: Father Desire, Father Wounds. Routledge, 2020

[3] Reis, Patricia, Daughters of Saturn: From Father’s Daughter to Creative Woman. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995, Preface pp xiii-xix.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” “Fathers: Heroes, Villains, and Our Need for Archetypes,” and “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



The Healing Power of Poetry: Appreciating a Primal Pleasure

Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree (1879) by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) for poetry blog post

 

Uncertainty is a word that pops up frequently in conversations. The pandemic, gun violence, international conflagrations, and the escalating number of climate disasters have increased our concerns about safety and heightened our awareness of our inability to prevent or control many current challenges. Global and societal changes that affect us personally are occurring at an accelerating pace, often without warning. No wonder we’re invaded by pervasive anxiety and feelings of vulnerability and isolation.

We know that stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, exercise, and walks in nature mediate the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. Another time-honored but much-overlooked modality that can restore a general sense of well-being is the reading and writing of poetry.

Poetry reconnects us with the beauty and goodness of the world, while also naming its difficulties. Rather than dismissing hardships, poetry calls them out and reminds us that others have also lost a loved one, experienced disappointments, endured sleeplessness, lived with depression—have suffered as we now suffer. Poetry allows us to identify our personal turbulences, breaks our feeling of isolation, and affirms our sense of belonging. Poetry steers us toward wisdom and acceptance.

Science agrees. The International Arts & Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University offers convincing evidence from a number of studies that poetry is good for our health.[i] A 2021 study at a Rhode Island hospital found that hospitalized children who read or wrote poetry experienced decreased negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue.[ii] Another study from 2013 in the Philippines showed that guided poetry writing sessions significantly lessened depression in a group of traumatized and abused adolescents.[iii] Reading a poem that speaks to us, we realize we are not alone.

Rumi (2017) by Chyah for poetry blog postConsider “The Guest House” by Jalal al-Din Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and one of the most cherished poets today. Written over eight hundred years ago, the poem invites us to view all of life’s experiences and the feelings that arise from them as temporary visitors in the “guest house” of self. With patience and compassion, Rumi counsels us to recognize that even negative moods are precious teachers for our growth.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the effects of traumatic stress on mind and body. I suggest that the body keeps the score on pleasure, too. One of our earliest and most fundamental pleasures as humans is the sensory delight of language. The lullabies, rhymes, and nightly prayers of our youth linger in the recesses of our brains. Some of us wished upon stars. Wish I may, wish I might, make this wish come true tonight. Some of us played clapping games. Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack/all dressed in black, black, black. Some of us made up silly limericks. A flea and a fly in a flue/Were imprisoned so what could they do/Said the flea, let us fly/Said the fly, let us flee/So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

A 2019 study in Finland measured the surface brain activity of 21 newborn babies listening to regular speech, music, and nursery rhymes. Only the nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.[iv]

Our innocent delight at nonsensical rhymes and metrical rhythms brings a smirk now, but as children those sounds provided sensorial pleasure to our tongues, lips, and ears. In a 1978 essay called “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” the poet Donald Hall identified the origins of poetic form in the preverbal babbling of infants, in the mouth-pleasure of sounds and sucking, and muscle-pleasure of clapping, tapping, repetition.[v] (When faced with a cranky baby, try a round of peek-a-boo, repeating the word itself, or cradling the baby while swaying and singing a rhythmic tune.)

“Hey Diddle Diddle” (from Nursery Rhymes (1885) by Edward Cogger) for poetry blog postWe have forgotten how intimately we are connected to poetic meter. Iambic pentameter, the ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM of one unstressed and one stressed syllable in a five-beat line, mimics the percussive beat of our hearts. In his ground-breaking book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist cites numerous instances of how across cultures people display a general appreciation for art, including poetry, which suggests that the brain has a non-socially constructed intuitive capacity to apprehend “beauty and the understanding of its expression through art.”[vi]

Are we somehow aware that there is something beyond its grasp? The great Swiss depth psychologist Carl Jung believed we have an inherent desire to connect with the deeper mysteries of existence, what he called “the religious attitude,” that creates a bridge between our inner world and the vast boundless outer one.

Especially during times of need, poetry acts as a bridge and invites us to participate in a greater understanding of our travails, and awakens our perceptions to beauty and joy, right here, right now. In “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver calls out praise for the natural world and urges us to find our place in the natural order. Like Rumi, she asks the reader to recognize life’s preciousness and encourages us to consider how we might make the most of that precious gift. Mary Oliver once said, “I got saved by the beauty of the world.” This is the advice her poems offer us, to approach all experiences with gratitude and wonder.

Think of poetry as a portal to a timeless place where we find solace, companionship, enlightenment, enchantment, mystery, connection, wisdom, humor, healing. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, names the disconnects as well, where we have gone blind to existential threats and personal sorrows that threaten to overwhelm us. With its adherence to precision of language, its concision of thought and meaning, its naming and interrogation of experience, poetry, in a small space, usually one page, packs a wallop.

To enter a poem is to escape the clamor of the ordinary world. Poems can be reminders of things we know but have forgotten. Painful experiences are reframed and given a new understanding by a poem. That’s because poetry reflects a rich brew of the sweetness and bitterness that is life. It refreshes our temporal minds and offers invented landscapes of imagery.

Rumi and Mary Oliver lived centuries apart and yet they speak to each over, and to us, across time. It’s a long way from Hickory Dickory Dock to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, but a direct line exists between the formal poem and our wiring for pleasure in pattern, rhythm, and form. Poetry is not an escape from but an escape to: a place to land, a refuge.

For your own health and peace of mind, I encourage you to take up a friendship with poetry.

[i] Sima, Richard, “More Than Words: Why Poetry is Good for Our Health,” International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), Johns Hopkins Medicine, March 11, 2021

[ii] Chung, Erica et al., “Effects of a Poetry Intervention on Emotional Wellbeing in Hospitalized Pediatric Patients,” Hospital Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, March 1, 2021

[iii] Brillantes-Evangelista, Grace, “An evaluation of visual arts and poetry as therapeutic interventions with abused adolescents,” The Arts in Psychotherapy, February, 2013.

[iv] Suppanen, Emma, et al., “Rhythmic structure facilitates learning from auditory input in newborn infants,” Infant Behavior and Development, November, 2019.

[v] Hall, Donald, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” in Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, 1970-76 (Poets On Poetry), University of Michigan Press, 1978.

[vi] McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2019.

Poetry resources: Poetry Foundation  Academy of American Poets   International Poetry

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy Dale’s recently published collection of poems, M, or these other blog posts about poetry: “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity,” “How I write; love and forgiveness,“ and “Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words that Heal.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.



The Fear of Abandonment: Missing Mothers and Fairy Tales

Hansel and Gretel (1890) by Marie Wunsch (1862-1898) for Abandonment podcastOne of my earliest and most frightening memories is the time I became separated from my mother in one of last century’s massive department stores. I must have let go of her hand, or she mine; which one of us wandered off I will never know. I looked around, and suddenly, inexplicably, she was nowhere in sight. I felt pure terror. In the busy aisles, unfamiliar adults brushed passed me with cold impassive faces.

Abandonment is one of our primal fears. For nine months, we inhabit our mother’s body, completely dependent on her for life-giving essentials. When the umbilical cord is cut, we become separate beings, unmoored from our source. Unlike other primates, at birth we are helpless and dependent.[1] Humans develop self-sufficiency at a slower pace than our primate cousins and remain immature longer than most. Without an attentive caregiver, our early existence is precarious.

Before Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, speculated that separation from our mothers at birth is the central trauma of our lives[2], European philosophers, among them Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, theorized that fear of abandonment is a major component of modern consciousness. What they understood — the existential nature of our anguish, despair, and aloneness — we now embrace as a condition of our post-modern psyches.

Long before these renowned thinkers espoused their theories, our foremothers sat around a fire exchanging wisdom tales. P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series, shares her literary detective work: “When a woman is the chief character in a story, it is a sign of its antiquity. It takes us back to those cloudy eras when the world was ruled not, as it was in later years, by a god but by the Great Goddess.”[3]

Maternal mortality, dying while giving birth or thereafter, must have been high on women’s lists of ever-present dangers to their lives. Medical historians Van Leberghe and Debrouwere estimate that maternal mortality could have been as high as 25% in prehistoric times.[4] In traditional societies, a solicitous maternal presence insured safety, security, survival. Her absence could be catastrophic, often presaging an arduous struggle for her offspring for food, shelter, and love.

Common wisdom often comes down to us through folk and fairy tales. So it is not surprising that the tragic event of a mother’s death or absence, due to separation or illness, found its way into them. These cautionary tales illustrated the challenges an orphaned child might encounter after such a grievous loss: loneliness, poverty, despondency, victimization by revenge, competition, jealousy, envy, greed. The tales don’t just depict these woes, some were maps to transformation, from naïve and untested young girls to brave, self-sufficient young women. For heroes, the transformation required a warrior stance, slaying the enemy or killing the monster. But for heroines, the prescription was the deployment of charm, wit, cunning, generosity, kindness, gratitude, and respect for nature. Remedial attributes and virtues, rather than sheer courage and brawn, secured her success over malevolent forces.

Cinderella (1899) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904) for Abandonment blog postMany well-known tales begin with a mother’s death. Most often, though not exclusively, stories about mothers and daughters start in this manner. (“Cinderella” and “Snow White” are the best-known examples in the United States.)

In fairy tales, as in dreams, the opening event presents the initial situation or predicament that sets the story’s action rolling. “Vasilisa The Beautiful,” a Russian tale, begins with these words:

In a certain Tsardom, across three times nine kingdoms, beyond high mountain chains, there once lived a merchant. He had been married for twelve years, but in that time there had been born to him only one child, a daughter, who from her cradle was called Vasilisa the Beautiful. When the little girl was eight years old the mother fell ill, and before many days it was plain to be seen that she must die. So she called her little daughter to her, and taking a tiny wooden doll from under the blanket of the bed, put it into her hands and said:

 

“My little Vasilisa, my dear daughter, listen to what I say, remember well my last words and fail not to carry out my wishes. I am dying, and with my blessing, I leave to thee this little doll. It is very precious for there is no other like it in the whole world. Carry it always about with thee in thy pocket and never show it to anyone. When evil threatens thee or sorrow befalls thee, go into a corner, take it from thy pocket and give it something to eat and drink. It will eat and drink a little, and then thou mayest tell it thy trouble and ask its advice, and it will tell thee how to act in thy time of need.” So saying, she kissed her little daughter on the forehead, blessed her, and shortly after died.

The death of the mother precipitates the daughter’s journey to find her way in a seemingly cruel world. Bereft of a tender, caring maternal presence, sorrow and woe besiege the grieving child, a trope much more common in stories about a daughter’s loss of her mother than a son’s. In both cases, the abandoned child must “grow up,” that is, become her own true self; but the masculine-identified child is encouraged to take immediate action, while the feminine-Identified child is encouraged to suffer through the hardships. However, the tales also indicate that without the initial difficulty, abandonment, the heroine would not be required to discover her courage, self-respect, self-worth, and maturity.

In some tales, the mother figure is not dead but metaphorically “missing.” She is emotionally neglectful, passive, or narcissistic and inadequately loving, like the mothers of “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Or she is beholden to her male counterpart. The consequences of having this type of mother are just as devastating as if she had died.

What do we make of all the wicked stepmothers? The frequency with which they appear indicates a truth about human wholeness. No person is all-good, all-giving, all-knowing. No human is without anger, jealousy, greed, what Carl Jung called the repressed shadow, the split-off and unacceptable aspect of our psyches. In the tales, the negative qualities society rejects are projected onto the figures of the wicked stepmother, the witch, and the hag.

Woe to him who thinks to find a governess for his children by giving them a stepmother! He only brings into his house the cause of their ruin. There never yet was a stepmother who looked kindly on the children of another; or if by chance such a one were ever found, she would be regarded as a miracle, and be called a white crone.

So begins the Italian tale of “Nennillo and Nennella.”

What mother hasn’t had moments of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and resentment and felt like a monster? What mother hasn’t wanted, against her best judgment, to lash out at a child? How shameful we feel accepting our emotionally-nuanced humanity!

In fairy tales, the dead or missing birth mother is idealized and angelic. In “Cinderella,” the perfect mother is represented by a fairy godmother who appears when Cinderella’s need is urgent. Like all good fairy godmothers, she supplies the necessary goodies for Cinderella’s transformation. In “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” before Vasilisa’s mother dies, she gives her daughter a wooden doll, a stand-in for a fairy godmother, and a perfectly attuned maternal presence.

Vasilisa finding her way using a shining skull (1899) by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1952) for Abandonment blog postBoth fairy godmother and magical doll represent the capacity of an abandoned child to internalize and elicit “the good mother” within. Despite early life disturbances, through facing adversity, the child develops the ability to trust her inner resources and intuition. Stories like “The Handless Maiden,” “Vasilisa The Beautiful,” and “The Miller’s Daughter” in which the heroine must perform a series of impossible tasks show the development of self to a greater degree. Help also comes from the natural world, from a frog that appears on the path, a wise bird, a friendly wind, and here, too, the heroine must consult her inner wisdom in deciding where to put her trust.

Human wholeness admits we are complex creatures: generous AND selfish, caring AND disengaged. In fairy tales, as in dream work, we can interpret all the characters, including the non-human ones, as “parts” of our psyches. We are the needy helpless children, AND we are brave heroines/heroes. We are Beauty AND we are the beast. We can be sturdy as a tree, blown about like a feather. We burrow in the mud of not-knowing, like frogs. We open our petals in the sunshine, like fragrant roses. Every aspect of a tale can be interpreted and considered symbolically for a more expansive and revelatory understanding of our nature.

The fantasy ending “of happily ever after” can be re-visioned with the knowledge that our suffering does not preclude joy and transformation, possibility and fulfillment. What the tales tell us is that we may be alone, but we are not forsaken; we are part of a vast universe in which helpful forces abound.

[1] Wong, Kate, “Why Humans Give Birth to Helpless Babies,” Scientific American, August 28, 2012

[2] Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, “The act of birth is the first experience attended by anxiety, and is, thus, the source and model of the affect of anxiety.”

[3] Travers, P. L., About Sleeping Beauty (1975), p. 59

[4] Van lerberghe, Wim and Vincent Debrouwere, “Of Blind Alleys and Things That Have Worked: History’s Lessons on Reducing Maternal Mortality,” Research Gate, November 2000

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “How Snow White and Her Cruel Stepmother Help Us Cope with Evil,” “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes,” and “Write Your Own Fairy Tale.”



Transforming Empathy Into Compassion: Why It Matters

Compassion. Holding Hands. for Empathy blog post

 

On a recent nightly news, I witnessed the tragic scene of a Turkish father wailing over the bodies of his wife and young children who had been crushed under debris from the February earthquake. Tears flooded my eyes and my body bent into the posture of mourning; the emotional distress of a stranger a continent away had become my own. Was this an automatic empathic response, an act of mimicry or emotional contagion? How do these affective states differ?

In “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm define mimicry as “the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person.”[i] If I see you crying, I cry, but my response is automatic and not the result of my ability to feel what you are feeling. In one study, when participants were shown photographs of sad faces, their pupil size mimicked the pupil size of the people in the photographs they were shown.[ii] This provides evidence that mimicry occurs outside our awareness.

Emotional contagion, like mimicry, is related to empathy and is sometimes thought of as a primitive type of empathy in which one person “catches” another person’s emotions. The word “catches” reflects the infectious quality of the phenomena. For instance, before they have developed any sense of an individual self, babies cry when exposed to other crying babies. Anyone who has attended a tense football game or soccer match can feel emotional contagion at work in the crowd.

Emotional contagion can occur at political rallies, in combat zones, in mass protests and revolutions, at public killings, or in ecstatic religious rites. Within families, emotional contagion can set the tenor of a household. A sensitive child may absorb a mother’s non-verbally expressed depression or a father’s pent-up anger and feel it as their own.

A personal experience comes to mind: when my sister was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, I had difficulty separating her family’s panic from my own unexamined feelings and was swept up in the family trauma. At that moment, my feelings were undifferentiated from the family’s. The ability to be attuned to the inner lives of others is a great asset for me as a novelist who delves deeply into her characters’ unconscious fears and desires; but my characters’ problems stay on the page, not in my heart.

An undifferentiated self is unable to identify, protect and separate their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions from those of others. Differentiation requires self-awareness and the ability to know one’s internal world and express it to others without fear. While it’s important to be aware of the emotional state of others, internalizing their distress can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate helpful action based on altruistic love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, current social neuroscience research points to gender differences for men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries. In no country did men score better on “cognitive empathy.”[iii] Cognitive empathy is when someone is intellectually able to understand what someone else is feeling or thinking. Researchers distinguish this from affective or emotional empathy when someone feels another’s emotions and responds with an emotion.  In this test, participants were asked to guess the facial expression just by looking at a pair of eyes. You can take a version of  this ten-minute test here.

Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and is foundational to our existence as social creatures. Without empathy, we would be unable to perceive the suffering of others and take steps to alleviate it. Without empathy, we would feel lost and alone in a cold and indifferent universe.

As Lamm and Singer take pains to note, “Empathy crucially depends upon self-awareness and self/other distinction, that is, on our ability to distinguish between whether the source of our affective experience lies within ourselves or was triggered by the other.”

Mimicry or emotional contagion usually precede empathy which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may lead to prosocial behavior.

But empathy burn-out is also a fact of life, especially for those engaged in caregiving services. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of happiness, compassion, and empathy. Functional MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson has drawn from his research: while the ability to feel our common humanity is essential to a cohesive, caring world, empathy without the skill of compassion diminishes our capacity to be of help.

Compassion is other-centered (feeling for); empathy brings us back to a focus on our own suffering in response to the suffering of others (feeling with). During the height of the COVID pandemic, we saw medical personnel and other front-line workers expressing mental and physical exhaustion, what popular science calls “empathy fatigue.” This is not limited to the helping professions but can occur within families and groups where difficulties may abound.

As Richard Davidson writes, “When people experience raw empathy, regions of the brain associated with pain and negative emotions become more active rather than the brain regions associated with positive feelings and a capacity to view things from another’s perspective. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.”[iv]

To cultivate compassionate regions of the brain, Davidson suggests noticing what small gestures we can undertake when someone needs help—offering to carry a heavy grocery bag for an elderly person or aiding someone in crossing a busy street. Infinite possibilities exist for enacting daily random acts of kindness. Dr. Davidson and other spiritual teachers offer guided meditations on fortifying the neural networks for compassion. Big changes are not necessary to alter our attitude and understanding of how individuals can contribute more fully to a more compassionate world.

[i] Singer T, Lamm C. The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 81-96

[ii] Harrison, N. A., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., et al. (2006). Pupillary contagion: Central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing. Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci., 1, 5–17.

[iii] Greenberg, David M. Sex and age differences in “theory of mind” across 57 countries using the English version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, PNAS,  September, 2022

[iv] Davidson, Richard “Shift from Empathy to Compassion,” Healthy Minds Innovations, December 8, 2020

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?” and “Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination”.



Self-Sabotage: Which Parts of Ourselves Are We Fighting?

No. 48 The Seven Vices: Envy (Detail) (1306) by Giotto (1266–1337) for Self-Sabotage blog post

 

Are you old enough to remember Heaven’s Gate?  On March 26, 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff’s department entered the Rancho Santa Fe compound in San Diego and discovered 39 dead bodies laid out on bunk beds. Wearing identical outfits, a square purple cloth covering their heads, the deceased had belonged to a religious cult called Heaven’s Gate. Members believed they were chosen to ascend to a “Higher Evolutionary Level.” To accomplish this, they were told they needed to leave their bodies, humanity, and the planet behind. When the Hale-Bopp comet came closest to earth, their leader assured them a spaceship would arrive to bring their souls to the “Next Level.”

The thirty-nine found were people of different ages and cultural backgrounds—successful businessmen, mothers who had left their families, pastors and nurses —some had been living together for twenty years. Eight of the eighteen dead men had elected to be castrated to be “more pure.”[1]

Image of comet C/1995 O1 (Hale-Bopp), taken on 1997 April 04, shortly after perihelion for Self-Sabotage blog postThis horrific ritual mass suicide provokes questions. What compels seemingly rational people to adopt wildly irrational beliefs? What makes us willing to forfeit our autonomy and agency and succumb to a set of rigid ideological or religious rules that cause harm to ourselves and others?  In “Programming the True Believer,” a 2020 post on Psychology Today, Dr. Matthew J. Sharps considers three specific cognitive cult dynamics that could explain Heaven’s Gate: disassociation, group psychology, and cognitive dissonance.

In a 2017 interview, Benjamin Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion and Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College, speculates that “The same demographic forces (that helped spawn Heaven’s Gate) are still at work. People are looking for truth, meaning, community, and not finding it in existing religions. So, they look for new ones or form their own.”[2]

The Heaven’s Gate suicide pact was extreme, shocking, and unique. However, in our own struggles with powerful impulses and destructive behaviors we may recognize the phenomenon of self-sabotage. Self-sabotage is when we consciously or unconsciously act against our own best interests, harm ourselves emotionally or physically, and block our way to success. In “Self-Sabotage: How to Recognize and Conquer It,” a 2020 Psychology Today post, Dr. George S. Everly helpfully identifies eight self-defeating patterns.

Often, we frame our struggle with self-sabotage as an inner battle between a good part of ourselves and a bad part, a part we feel helpless to change, as with addiction. Instead of a bullying cult leader, we face an internalized commando, a severe critic, or a self-defeating behavior or attitude.

Early in the last century, Sigmund Freud experimented with hypnosis to delve into his patients’ unconscious minds, hoping to uncover and release repressed memories of trauma. His student and later rival, Carl Jung, devised a method of self-interrogation called Active Imagination in which a person dialogues with a dream or visionary figure to gain access to its revelatory knowledge.[3]

Later, Fritz Perls contributed his theory of Gestalt therapy to psychotherapy. One method used by Gestalt therapists is the empty chair technique. A client sits across from an empty chair and dialogues with a part of herself or himself or with another person, like a parent.[4]

Empty Chair (2016) Photo by Thomas James Caldwell. Each of these approaches supports a holistic attitude toward the Self: we are more than what we consciously know about ourselves, and we are more than our parts. As Walt Whitman famously wrote: “I contain multitudes.”

Today, the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapeutic model builds on the work of these early psychoanalytic pioneers. IFS theorizes that we embody “parts,” sub-personalities or families within our mental system, which vie for power and attention.

In IFS practice, no part is labeled “bad” but is understood as acting to protect a more vulnerable part. However difficult our struggles and no matter what destructive actions we have perpetrated, uncovering the vulnerable part, honoring its experience and feelings, and giving it a voice is a crucial aspect of the work.

The Internal Family Systems Institute website lists their stated principles:

  • It is the nature of the mind to be subdivided into an indeterminate number of subpersonalities or parts.
  • Everyone has a Self, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system.
  • The non-extreme intention of each part is something positive for the individual. There are no “bad” parts, and the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles.
  • As we develop, our parts develop and form a complex system of interactions among themselves; therefore, systems theory can be applied to the internal system. When the system is reorganized, parts can change rapidly.
  • Changes in the internal system will affect changes in the external system and vice versa. The implication of this assumption is that both the internal and external levels of our system should be assessed.[5]

We can’t know what drove the individuals who participated in Heaven’s Gate to commit ritualistic suicide. We can conjecture it was some combination of external brainwashing techniques, unconscious longings, and existential needs. Beliefs dictate action. A complex web of dysfunctional and distorted beliefs no doubt contributed to the participants’ fatal capacity for self-sabotage. We might say that in seeking to evolve spiritually to a higher level, they lost touch with what was available to them within. This reminds us that we must understand and accept that we are not creatures locked into the binary labels of good or bad, but complex, nuanced, ever-evolving beings striving for unity and wholeness.

Addendum: As a writing exercise, find a picture of your child or teenage self. Sit with it in silence and gaze into the child’s eyes. What do you see? What message does that child want to tell you? Write in your journal for fifteen minutes without stopping.

References

[1] Dan Weisman, “26 Years ago, Heaven’s Gate Couldn’t Wait,” Escondido Grapevine, January 23, 2023

[2] John Wilkens, “20 years later, Heaven’s Gate lives on — via internet, scholarly debatesSan Diego Union-Tribune,  March 18, 2017

[3]What is Active Imagination?” on carl-jung.net

[4] Dr. Ryan Howes, “Cool Intervention #9: The Empty Chair,” Psychology Today, January 20, 2010

[5] The Internal Family Systems Model Outline on IFS-Institute.com

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Seven Principles for Recovering from Trauma

A lone Desert Marigold for recovering trauma blog post

A conversation with Jungian therapist and rabbi Tirzah Firestone about epigenetics and recovering from trauma

Today I’m delighted to welcome Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone for another information-packed conversation together. (See “Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing” and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma” for our earlier conversations).

Dr. Firestone is a Jungian analyst, rabbi, and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, whose research is on recovery from trauma, including the mechanisms of inherited trauma. In the revised edition of her deeply wise book, Wounds into Wisdom, Dr. Firestone draws on the latest neuroscientific and psychological findings, interweaving them with compelling stories of trauma and healing, to offer readers hope, understanding, healing, and the means to discover how suffering can be transformative.

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for recovering from trauma blog postDale Kushner: There is a lot of new biology out there that is changing how we think about health, lifespan, trauma, and our genetic inheritance. Your recent book explains this in a way that I found very accessible to non-scientists. Can you give us an overview here?

Tirzah Firestone: There is a lot of fascinating research going on. The last ten years have given us much more insight into the growing field of epigenetics, which studies the impact of life’s stresses on our genes’ activities.

We used to think that our genes were the major determinant of our health, our lifespan, the diseases we would get, etc. Now we know that our genes are incredibly responsive. They answer to the environment in which we live. Depending on our stresses, there are a host of epigenetic mechanisms that turn our genes on or off. Scientists call this gene expression.

So, for example, if you are living through a war, or have lost your home, or a parent dies, or some other traumatic life event is occurring, your genes will adjust to these environmental stresses by means of epigenetic mechanisms that act on (epi means upon or above) the chromosomes. They tell the genes what to do.

Epigenetics draws on clinical studies with mice and rats, demonstrating that stress and struggle can imprint not only on us but upon future generations. For example, early nurturing patterns by the mother, for example, have been shown to pass to grand-pups and great-grand-pups, even when they had never interacted.

In a study from Emory University,[1] mice were exposed to a sweet smell, acetophenone, and then received an electric shock to their feet. Associating the two, whenever the mice smelled the smell, they became fearful and froze. Amazingly, their offspring—even the grandpups who had never met their grandparents or been exposed to the smell or shock—showed panic in the presence of the smell.

These offer evidence for what many of us have been intuiting for a long time, that stresses and traumas experienced by our ancestors influence us, say in our resilience or lack thereof, several generations later.

But epigenetics also speaks to the impact of socio-economic stresses on entire ethnic groups. Moshe Szyf, a very prolific epigeneticist, shows how gene expression differs among those who grow up well-off vs. those who grow up disadvantaged, making the latter group more vulnerable to a host of diseases and shortened life spans.[2]

“Children of War” (2022) Graffiti in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Photo by Rasal Hague for Recovering from Trauma blog post

DK: Your own research is on recovery from trauma. Can you tell us about your study and findings?

TF: My study was on Jewish people from around the world who had gone through extreme traumas such as war, racial and religious discrimination, the loss of a child to terrorism, and such. My focus was on those who were able to go through the many stages of healing and integration and come out transformed by their traumas.

I discovered among all of them strong common denominators. But there is no one formula for trauma healing! Every one of us has a unique trajectory for our healing. My thirty years of experience in the healing field tells me that human beings are intrinsically primed for healing. We get directives from the inside that tell us what we need to do to work through our traumas and come back into full life.

DK:  Can you share with us today the seven principles that emerged from your research? 

TF: Yes, I’d be happy to. These are common denominators that I found in my research subjects who thrived again after their tragedies, having transformed their lives.

  1. Facing the loss
    More than anything else, directly facing our losses initiates the process of healing. This first principle means resisting our friends’ well-intentioned urges to get back to work or “get on with life.” We must give ourselves the gift of time and ride the waves of our pain.
  1. Harnessing our pain
    Once we face our losses, we may encounter intense pain. Because trauma disconnects us from our bodies, there’s a tendency to numb out. The alternative is to re-inhabit our physical selves. Physical exercise and self-care are paramount here. Pain made conscious can turn into fuel.
  1. Finding new community
    We may find ourselves changed by our trauma, feeling that there is no going back to how we used to be. Now we have to find people who understand us. Because traumatic experiences often leave us with a sense of shame or isolation, finding authentic connections with people who can hear and hold us compassionately is essential. The people I worked with felt a need to build a new social network, to find other like-minded people.
  1. Resisting the call to fear, blame, and dehumanize
    Unprocessed trauma can leave us permanently defensive. The human tendency to “other” people around us is the obvious next step. But that leaves us isolated, self-righteous, and lonely. Those who do the hard work of healing their traumas succeed in melting the walls of separation and resisting hatred for those who hurt them.
  1. Disidentifying from victimhood
    One of the main keys to trauma recovery is agency, the inner sense that we are in charge of our own lives, and we can shape their outcome.
  1. Redefining specialness
    One of the legacies of trauma can be the feeling that we are different, alone, and separate. But these feelings can flip into their opposites: feeling special, chosen, superior, for what we have gone through. One of the most important takeaways from trauma healing is that human beings are interdependent, that our healing depends on one another.
  1. Taking action
    Trauma recovery means facing what has happened directly and deeply mourning our losses. Then—and for each person there is their own internal timing—some kind of work or meaningful action in the world emerges.

DK: Our interview will be appearing around the holidays and just before the new year.  Do you have any special advice for readers at this time of year?

TF: Yes, holidays can be a particularly challenging time of year, especially for those of us who are raw from losses and traumatic upheaval. We are often bombarded by family or lack of family, outward cheer that doesn’t match our inner felt sense, and so many distractions that pull us out of our own inner experience. Take alone time to feel your feelings, journal, take walks, move your energy to let off steam, and avoid excesses like sugar, alcohol, or recreational drugs that unground you. Main point: This is the time for doubling down on our self-care. Stay in touch with yourself and lead with self-compassion!

References

[1] Dias, B. G. and Ressler, K. J. (March, 2014). “Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations.” Nature Neuroscience 17:89-96

[2] Nada Borghol, Moshe Szyf, et al., “Associations with Early-Life Socio-Economic Position in Adult DNA Methylation,” International Journal of Epidemiology 41, no. 1 (February 2012): 62-74

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



How Dreams Help Identify Areas We Need to Address

"Tartini's Dream" (1824) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). Illustration of the legend behind Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata." for dreams as compensation blog post

Exploring Jung’s revolutionary idea of dreams as compensation

One of the physiological marvels of our species, which we share with animals, is a process called homeostasis. The word means “steady state” and refers to how our bodies adjust to internal and external changes to maintain a dynamic equilibrium of our systems. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, homeostasis is “any self-regulatory process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival.”

To adjust to external temperatures or to fight an infection, our bodies shiver to raise our internal temperature or sweat to lower it. When we ingest sugar, our pancreas secretes insulin to help us balance glucose in our blood. Our blood vessels contract or expand to direct blood flow as needed. None of these functions are under our conscious control any more than sneezing or itching.

One of the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s most significant concepts was that our psyche seeks this same kind of balance between our consciousness and the unconscious and that our brain uses dreams as the psyche’s self-regulatory system. He proposed that one of the functions of dreams is to compensate for our conscious thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs by providing a different point of view through dream imagery.

Tree and Its Roots in Yin Yang Symbol for dreams as compensation blog postBased on his work as a psychiatrist at the Burghöizli Hospital in Zurich, and analytic sessions with his private clients, he concluded that by presenting repressed and archaic archetypal material from the unconscious, dreams offered a remedy to the one-sidedness of ego-consciousness. This led to his concept of dreams as compensation.

In The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Jung wrote:

The unconscious content contrasts strikingly with the conscious material, particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual. The more one-sided his conscious attitude is, and the further it deviates from the optimum, the greater becomes the possibility that vivid dreams with a strongly contrasting but purposive content will appear as an expression of the self-regulation of the psyche.1

Consider this simple example of the compensatory function of dreams and how it might benefit the dreamer: a client carries a low opinion of herself and struggles with depression. During this period, she dreams of a grammar-school teacher from her past who praised her creativity and determination. This memory has been excluded from her conscious mind but returns in dreams to remind the dreamer of her forgotten potential buried under the depression. After working with these dreams in therapeutic sessions, she finds new energy to enroll in painting classes and reunites with her creative energies.

In his wonderfully engaging new book The Four Pillars of Jungian Psychoanalysis, the distinguished Jungian analyst, Dr. Murray Stein, includes a chapter on dreams that clarifies Jung’s notion of dreams as compensation. He writes:

The unconscious is another realm with a life of its own, and often it runs quite contrary to what is going on in the world of consciousness. When a person is sleeping, another type of thinking is taking place that is different from waking thought. Dreams can give us important information about what is going on within ourselves and about possible developments for the future. But beyond that, and more important for the outcome of analysis, is that dreams build the way to psychological wholeness.2

Working with dreams and using dream interpretation to decode their symbolic content can lead to the transcendence of repressed material and the renewal of the self. As Dr. Stein suggests, we might ask ourselves, “Why this dream at this time?” What the unconscious brings forward, he further suggests, depends on the present state of one’s consciousness. Viewing a dream as compensatory medicine, we then might ask ourselves: what wound or trauma is the unconscious aiming to heal?

Salamander from The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry (Emblem X from the "Book of Lambspring" (1679) for dreams as compensation blog postSeveral months ago, during a difficult time of personal questioning, I had a dream in which a salamander became a healing talisman I was to wear around my neck. When I awoke, the oppressive feelings that had been haunting me were gone. Salamanders are not creatures I commonly encounter in my daily life, nor do I think about them, and yet a numinous and magical salamander appeared in my dream. The dream, in turn, changed my relationship with my feelings. Later, when I looked up the symbolic meaning of salamander, I was amazed to discover salamanders have long been associated with totems of transformation.

The nature and function of dreams continue to provoke spiritual, scientific, and psychological debate. However, in honoring their symbolic meaning and potentially healing function, we resource the hidden treasures in our depths that can alter our relationship to our inner world and restore us to a more balanced life.

What images, symbols, or dream-stories are knocking on the door of your consciousness?

References

1Jung, Carl. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Volume 8, p 346. Princeton University Press. 1970

2Stein, Murray. The Four Pillars of Jungian Psychoanalysis, Chiron Press. 2022

You may also be interested in my other recent blog posts about dreams

Dream Incubation: Solving Problems in Your Sleep

Dream Disturbances: The Healing Function of Bad Dreams

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: Changing the Ways We Adapt

Ripples and bubbles on water for treating Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part Two of Two

In Part One of my interview with trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute, we discussed how Brad and his colleagues distinguish between PTSD and complex PTSD. In Part Two, we explore how NARM’s NeuroAffective Relational Model addresses the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma. Brad and Dr. Laurence Heller outline the therapeutic framework of NARM in their new book, The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma.

(Note: This is the second of a two-part  interview)

You are currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute. What does NARM stand for? What is your working definition of trauma?

NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, which is a model designed by my long-time mentor Dr. Laurence Heller, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience.  But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas.

NARM’s five core needs and their associated core capacities for treating complex PTSD blog postWe use a developmental framework that describes five Adaptive Survival Styles which are ways we learned to adapt to attachment and environmental failures early in life. These styles form the blueprint for our adult personalities.  We focus on five specific developmental stages early in childhood when the Self is just being shaped, and the ways that attachment and other environmental failures impact healthy development in each of these stages (which we are learning so much about through the Adverse Childhood Experiences research).  The way that our brain and bodies adapt to these early traumas – specifically through shame – leads to various levels of often profound Self-disorganization and creates various symptoms, disorders, and syndromes.

In Part One of our interview, you identified the important differences between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD. How might the treatment for each differ?

I am biased as to how I’m going to answer this question since I have been a somatic psychotherapist and trainer now for over two decades. I believe that any form of trauma healing must involve the body. Many of my colleagues have been pushing back against the more prominent “evidence-based approaches” that are usually derivatives of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and which demonstrate questionable long-term efficacy. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, continues to be a best-seller ten years after it was first published. Many people intuitively, and experientially, know that talking and thinking about our issues only take us so far. To make true and lasting change, they have to shift deeper internal patterns.  This is where somatic approaches come in.

I have practiced Somatic Experiencing for over twenty years now and I find it to be the most effective model out there for PTSD.  As I continued to seek models that worked more specifically with attachment, emotional, and relational trauma, I found NARM, which I believe is the most effective model out there for treating C-PTSD.

Please tell us what you mean by a person having “agency.” Why is it a game-changer?

The simplest way to define how we use the concept of Self-Agency is to highlight the various ways that individuals organize and relate to life experiences.  Agency is a by-product of secure child development where a child progressively experiences themselves more as actors in their life than simply passive conduits for life experience.  Other models may refer to related concepts such as Self-Activation, Self-Actualization, or Self-Realization.

When a child has experienced developmental trauma, they experience everything as just happening to them. They feel helpless to change not only their external conditions but also how they feel internally. Children may grow up feeling out-of-control (i.e., lack of impulse control), reactive (i.e., affect dysregulation), fragmented (i.e., dissociative self-states), and fragile (i.e., decreased sense of resiliency).  Their lives are significantly impaired by their inner sense that they cannot self-activate, let alone change the way they feel or how they relate to the world.

NARM is grounded in an inquiry process that explores Self-Organization – how clients are organizing their internal worlds, and then relating to both their inner and outer experiences, in ways that either support connection and health or lead to disconnection and disease.

Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences for treating complex PTSD blog postFor example, your client shares a story about their experience at work last week where they were walking in the hallway and said “hello” to a colleague they were passing, and the colleague didn’t say hello back. Immediately, your client started feeling worthless, unliked, and lonely, and then started telling themselves that “I’m stupid and no one will ever like me.” They use this experience to justify why they withdraw from social interactions and experience social anxiety and depression.  However, they later found out that their colleague had just received a text from a family member of a sudden loss in their family, had been in a state of shock, and not even heard your client say hello. Your client describes shaming themselves for having such a strong reaction, saying that “I’m stupid for telling myself that I’m stupid based on this situation.”  This cycle of shaming oneself for shaming oneself can go on and on.

As we help clients begin to gain greater awareness of the unconscious and often automatic ways they are organizing their inner reality and relating to themselves and the world through self-shame, self-rejection, and self-hatred, they begin to experience more possibilities for organizing and relating to themselves differently. This is not just a cognitive process. It entails working psychobiologically to shift long-standing personality patterns that keep shame-based identifications intact.

Collective and intergenerational trauma are vast and necessary subjects worthy of discussion. Individuals can’t change their ancestry, and in many cases, individuals cannot change their marginalized status or persecution within a society. Can the NARM program help people traumatized by an unchanging trauma-inducing culture?

I know from my own personal experience, as well as years of clinical experience, that NARM does impact unresolved cultural and intergenerational trauma. We focus on how clients are relating to the “unchanging trauma-inducing culture” that they are born into and are still part of.  For many people, the concept of “post” in post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t truly exist.  Many people are still living within and adapting to environmental failures, including sustained oppression, violence, and dislocation.  And yet despite these traumatic realities, we see individuals and communities cultivating health and well-being within.  It is inspiring to watch as people stop defining themselves by how others define them and embody their own authentic humanity.

I see our modern times, at least in the U.S., as defined by a widespread failure of empathy.  We care less and less about our impact on others.  This leads to relationships based on objectification and systems reinforcing dehumanization. The social fabric is rapidly dissolving, leaving an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection in its wake.  To counter this reaction, NARM supports the development of authentic empathy.  As we help people develop an increasing capacity to relate to themselves and others through acceptance and compassion, they begin to shift their own internal objectification and experience themselves as more fully human. This increased sense of humanity allows people to begin to shift the way they are relating to their family, community, and cultural systems.  So while it will likely take time, I do believe NARM can impact larger changes within society.

(Read Part One: Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”)

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”

Azalea flower with stones Photo: Solange Cabe / CC0 Public Domain for Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part One of Two

I can’t remember the first time I heard the word trauma. Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? When did “trauma” enter popular parlance? Was it after 9/11? I recently learned that there are now 6,000 podcasts with “trauma” in the title. Are we somehow in the midst of a trauma epidemic? Or does this reflect our growing understanding?

Trauma refers to a wound to the psyche or the body or both. We now know that not only experiencing trauma oneself but witnessing trauma or being told about a traumatic event can be traumatizing.

Brad Kammer for Complex PTSD blog postTo help us understand one of the emerging approaches to diagnosing and treating trauma, I’m delighted to introduce my guest, trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute.  NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, a treatment model developed by Dr. Laurence Heller, Brad’s long-time mentor, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  “In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience. But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas,” he explains.

Brad brings to his work a holistic approach that includes body-oriented therapies as well as a deep knowledge of attachment theory and survival styles. He and Dr. Heller recently co-authored The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma. In a world reeling from destabilization, violence, hatred, and suffering, Brad Kammer and his colleagues at NARM present an opportunity for healing and hope.

This will be a two-part interview.

When many of us hear the word trauma, we think of soldiers, people caught in war zones or natural disasters, but you make a clear and valuable distinction between what you call shock trauma and relational or developmental trauma. Can you explain the difference?

It is difficult to differentiate because as humans we experience both shock and relational traumas, often at the same time.  For example, a parent who physically hurts a child will create a shock trauma reaction in response to the physical violence in the context of the relational failure of the parent not protecting or keeping their child safe from harm.

This is an extremely simplistic way to differentiate it – but in my teaching, I often use this as short-hand to distinguish between PTSD and C-PTSD: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of fear, and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of shame.  While there is certainly much overlap, research suggests there are different neural circuits responsible for fear than for shame.

The example I often use is you’re walking in the woods and a bear jumps out at you.  In that very moment, you’re not worrying about your relationship with the bear, you just want to survive.  So your brain will bypass the emotional, relational and cognitive centers and go straight to activating the hyperarousal centers of the brain in order to optimize your chances for physiological survival.  Mortal threats activate the fight/flight response.  This is experienced through fear.

Now imagine that the threat isn’t a bear jumping out of the words; it’s your parents, and each day of your life you feel that your sense of security in the world, and within yourself, is not welcomed or supported, but may be dismissed, undermined or attacked.  This puts you into a bind – as young children, we cannot run or fight against the people we are 100% dependent on for our survival.  While these threats may not be immediately life-threatening like the bear, we still have to find ways to survive the ongoing, persistent failures of in our development.

Humans are designed to be connected to themselves and others.  When connection to self and others becomes fraught with pain and danger, we use various strategies to disconnect from ourselves and the pain that we experience internally.  One such process involves the way we relate to ourselves through shame and self-rejection.  We internalize the failures of our early environment and personalize them as our inherent failures.  These shame-based identifications form the foundation of our personality development.

For so many people, they don’t even consider this “trauma.” I have had so many people – not just clients, but mental health and other healthcare professionals – push back that we are broadening the term trauma too much.  “This is just life” they say, or “This is just how childhood is.”  But minimizing and dismissing the effects of these failures is itself a sign of unresolved trauma.

My mentor used to say, “In a world of bent-over people, the one standing upright looks strange.”  So I push back on the notion that we use trauma too broadly. I argue that we don’t have a broad enough understanding of the impact of unresolved complex trauma.

What are some other ways in which PTSD is different from Complex PTSD?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Pyramid shows how adverse childhood experiences are related to risk factors for disease, health, and social well-being. For Complex PTSD blog postAs the trauma field continues to evolve, we have begun to more clearly differentiate between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).  PTSD, which is sometimes called “shock trauma,” is generally caused by one-time events like accidents, assaults and natural disasters, and leads to hyper- and hypo-arousal in the nervous system that creates symptoms like intrusive images, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance and dissociation.

C-PTSD is generally caused by relational and social failures, and leads to disorganization and insecurity in one’s sense of Self, as defined by the three symptom categories that include affect dysregulation, negative self-concept, and interpersonal disturbances.  Developmental trauma, a subset of C-PTSD, is generally caused by adverse childhood experiences that impact a child’s development.  NARM was created specifically to address C-PTSD, focusing on attachment and developmental trauma, but also working with larger social failures such as cultural and intergenerational trauma.

A word cloud of vocabulary related to PTSD, in the outline of a human brain.  Q / CC0 Public DomainThe trauma-informed field has been rapidly growing over the past 40 years since the first introduction of PTSD into the DSM in 1980.  While this field has made tremendous strides, our understanding of complex trauma has lagged behind.  Trauma pioneer Dr. Judith Herman suggested that PTSD doesn’t go far enough, and presented “a new diagnosis” in her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery, which she called C-PTSD.  And yet here we are in 2022 and we still don’t have an official complex (C-PTSD) or developmental trauma disorder (DTD) diagnosis in the United States.  This means that so many people are being misdiagnosed, or at the very least, are being treated for secondary issues.  What if many of the symptoms and disorders we see in our clients are driven by unresolved early trauma?  This changes the way we look at diagnostic categories and even challenges how we currently view psychopathology.

As we describe in our work, maybe it’s not about “what’s wrong with you,” but about “how have you adapted to what happened to you?”  For many of us in the trauma field, we see many “symptoms” and “disorders” as understandable reactions and adaptations to abnormal conditions and environments.  This is particularly true for children and how they have learned to adapt to persistent failures in their early lives.  These are not one-time traumas that can easily be resolved.  This is the territory of complex trauma, and it truly is very complex to understand.  It is also challenging to treat.  This is why we need comprehensive therapeutic models that understand how to identify, navigate and address this complex territory.

Part Two of our interview will be posted next month.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Dream Incubation: Solving Problems in Your Sleep

Constantine’s dream, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD prompted his conversion to Christianity. For dream incubation blog post

What if we could direct our dreams? What if we could ask our dreams for solutions to our most pressing problems and receive important answers while we sleep? What if we could deliberately seed our unconscious mind to evoke helpful dreams?

This is the territory of dream incubation, a practice dating back to Babylonian civilization and extending into our current time. The ancients developed their own language and explanations for human behavior, and they well understood the relationship between trauma, memory, creativity, healing, and dreams. As their descendants, we are the recipients of their knowledge,  and today discoveries in neuroscience and psychology expand the old understandings. Depth psychology shares with shamanic and other dream interpretation traditions the practice of extracting meaning from symbolic dream images. (Why do I continue to dream about a burning house? What does the image mean?) Innovations in imaging technology and brain studies bring to dreamwork new insights about the anatomy of dreaming and techniques to manipulate dreams for purposeful answers or to alleviate nightmares.

One reality about dreaming, however, has remained constant since human existence: the unconscious mind is inaccessible to the conscious mind. Dream incubation, then and now, is an attempt to connect the dreaming “me” to the wakeful “me,” and to access the valuable insights hidden within.

“Dickens' Dream" (1875)  unfinished painting by Robert W. Buss (1804-1875)  Charles Dickens Museum, London/Public DomainI recently had a surprising experience with dream incubation. After reading Machiel Klerk’s easy-to-follow book, Dream Guidance: Connecting to the Soul Through Dream Incubation, I asked for a dream to help me understand my feelings of abandonment that had no discernible cause. That night I had a joyful dream of getting a puppy as I young child. In the morning, a long-buried memory of a painful childhood incident flashed into my mind.

When I was nine, after much pleading, my parents bought me a puppy. It was love at first sight. One day about a month later, I arrived home from school to discover the puppy was gone. Heartbroken, I asked my parents what happened. They told me the dog had run away. I went to my room and sobbed, convinced the dog would not have run away if she loved me. Feelings of failure and abandonment took root. Years later, my father confessed they did not want to take care of the dog and gave her away. The emotional repercussions of his lie never occurred to him.

My challenge is to untangle the symbolism in the dream, its meaning and relevancy to my life now, but I doubt I would have had the dream and the morning recollection had I not incubated a question to the dream maker. I use the term “dream maker” as a personification of that which is in our unconscious minds that composes and directs our dreams.

Graph showing the passage through the four principle phases of sleep over the course of a night. Portions marked in red indicate REM sleep. Kemsters/GNU FDL. For Dream Incubation blog post.The root of the word incubate is the Latin incubare, (in-‘upon’ + cubare ‘to lie’), referring to how a mother bird sits on her eggs with patient nurturing attention, an apt image for nurturing our dreams. Harvard professor Deirdre Barrett straddles the worlds of academic psychology and neuroscience. Over the last decades, she has been a chief investigator in dream research. Her newest book, Pandemic Dreams, explores how collective traumatic events such as the COVID pandemic, 9/11, or the experiences of POWs in Nazi prison camps share similar patterns or motifs in dreamers’ nightmares. In a previous book, The Committee of Sleep, she delves into how the dreams of creatives in art, science, and technology have informed their work.

Here’s a brief recap of her instructions for incubation:

  1. Write down the problem or question and place this by the bed. Be clear, specific and brief.
  2. Review the problem or question for a few minutes just before going to bed.
  3. Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image. For instance, if you are experiencing a sense of isolation, imagine yourself alone in a house, looking out a window wearing a sad face.
  4. Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you are drifting off to sleep.
  5. Keep a pen and paper—perhaps also a flashlight with a red lens or pen with a lit tip—on the night table. I use a small Dictaphone.
  6. Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed.  Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible.  Write it down.

Depth psychologists Machiel Klerk, Stephen Aizenstat, Robert Bosnak, and others recommend creating a ritual around dream work. Ritual played a crucial part in dream incubation in antiquity. The ancient aspirants were advised to sleep in a sacred precinct—a temple, or the Asclepions in Greece, or in tombs, as was the custom of the North African Berbers, or on mountaintops favored by indigenous peoples. The idea was to retreat to refuge or sanctuary far from the daily world. Today sleep experts concur, and recommend creating a calm, darkened, digital-free space used only for sleep.

Dormio tracks your transition into stage 2 sleep and interrupts it, suspending you in a semi-lucid state.  Source: Fluid Interfaces group, MIT Media Lab/CC BY 4.0. For dream incubation blog post.If rituals around dreaming harken back to earlier times, the latest research in sleep provides new discoveries about what happens during the four stages of sleep. Scientists have determined that the non-REM 1 stage called hypnagogia, an interval between wakefulness and sleep when our brain is transforming electrically and chemically as it enters unconsciousness, is a time when we are most suggestible to outside prompts.1 The prompts may be in the form of spoken words, which become visual images in our minds. These images enter our dreams. Positive suggestions played on audio tapes become lived experiences through dreams. New therapies that track dream stages and provide auditory biofeedback (Targeted Memory Reactivation) are being employed to interrupt nightmares and guide the dreamer to rewrite disturbing dreams.2

The combined efforts of researchers and depth psychologists have reawakened a primal wish in us to befriend the wise dream-maker within. Together, neuroscience and depth psychology are two portals into the mystery of dreams.

References

1 Adam Haar Horowitz, “Dormio: A Targeted Dream Incubation Device,”  Consciousness & Cognition, August 2020.

2 Francesca Borghese et al., “Targeted Memory Reactivation During REM Sleep in Patients With Social Anxiety Disorder,” Frontiers of Psychiatry, June 2022.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Dream Disturbances: The Healing Function of Bad Dreams

Gustave Doré Iilustration for Little Red Riding Hood for Nightmares blog post

Archetypes abound in fairy tales, dreams, and nightmares. What do they mean for you?

“Granny is ill,” says the mother in the fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood,” handing her daughter a basket of food for the ailing old woman. Wearing her red cloak, the little girl skips off on the path through the woods to granny’s house.

Along the way, Red Riding Hood meets a wolf. He tricks her into telling him her destination, then races off to grandmother’s and gobbles up the old woman. When Red Riding Hood arrives, the wolf is in granny’s bed wearing her nightclothes. Peeking out from beneath the covers, granny looks odd! We know the fearsome litany. What big arms you have, Grandmother! What big teeth you have! Even young listeners at this point get prickles up their spine and understand that Little Red Riding Hood must flee. But Red Riding Hood disregards the signs of danger and is soon devoured by the wolf.

Walter Crane illustration for Little Red Riding Hood for nightmares blog postIn her ground-breaking book, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estés discusses naïve women as prey and the common fairy tale motif of the animal groom. According to Pinkola Estés, the animal groom in a tale is “a malevolent thing disguised as a benevolent thing,”1 a shadow aspect of our psyche. This type of character, wolf or human, represents an inner predator. Unrecognized, this predator can destroy us, but recognized and confronted, it can lead to an awakening of the strong Self that faces down self-destructive tendencies.

Do not talk to strangers. Do not stray from the path. Do not open the door to strangers while we are gone. (The seven dwarves to Snow White.) Here are my keys, but never unlock that closet door. (Bluebeard’s Castle.) Fairytales pulsate with warnings. Trickster spirits—embodied by greedy witches, calculating wizards, and charming wolves—appear without fail. Trickster spirits pop into our lives as well, mercurial figures that enchant, bewitch, attract. The role of the animal groom or other destructive figures in fairy tales is to wake us up to our need to not be easily deceived or to fall into a clever trap, and to our sense of agency.

Fairy tales transport us to a timeless space in which we inhabit the domain of eternal situations—abandonment, displacement, poverty, orphanhood, war, childbirth—and meet archetypal figures, basic human types like the good daughter, the jealous sibling, the feckless father, or wise old woman that have existed across time and cultures. In dreams we may also meet archetypal figures in the shape of robbers, wicked queens, authoritative kings, kindly animals or trees, and dream figures also serve an alerting function: to awaken us to our personal unconscious, to very real situations mirrored in our psychic lives. The dream clown (archetypal figure) has the face of our first boyfriend (from personal memory) who reminds us of our current boyfriend and the uneasiness he inspires (a present situation that needs attending to). The great dream theorist and depth psychologist, Carl Jung, wrote: “The dream shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is. “2

In dreams as in fairy tales, disturbing or brutal images capture our attention. That is their purpose, to rouse us from our habitual ways of seeing and knowing, to alarm us enough so that we sit bolt upright in bed and ask: What is going on in my life?

Walter Crane illustration for Cinderella for nightmares blog postJung believed that healing images lie within. Dreams, he assessed, are “small hidden doors in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul.”3 When we study our dreams, we discover the personal motifs, patterns, and themes that actively, though unconsciously, govern our lives. They are our own private fairy tales in vivid color calling to us from within. Revisiting fairy tales, especially ones we are drawn to, can shed light on our own complexes, and provide insight into the images that appear in our dreams. Do we identify with the abused Cinderella taunted by her female kin and find ourselves dreaming of a waif in rags? Are we self-sacrificing? Waiting to be transformed by a godmother? Are we the youngest son competing for our father’s attention? The tales that attract us may give us a whiff of our psyches and appear in some variation in our dreams.

If the haunting images in fairy tales stalk our sleep, and nightmares awaken us, heart thumping, the mood can sometimes carry over into the next day. Neuroscience research on nightmares and other night terrors has enlarged our understanding of what is going on in the brain. For example, researchers have found that in post-traumatic nightmares, a type of nightmare in which a real traumatic event is relived, the amygdala, the structure deep within the brain associated with fear, is overly sensitive. In other types of nightmares, researchers speculate on a neurological fear circuit involving the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.4 Knowing the anatomical mechanism of nightmares aids clinicians in creating specific therapies to help clients work with disturbing dreams, such as rewriting or reframing a frightening dream and meditating on a positive ending.5

Gustave Doré illustration for BluebeardLet me invite you back into your dreams. If you have tried keeping a journal of dreams and stopped, begin again. If you are exploring dreamwork for the first time, consider this moment a pivotal time to turn within. Whatever you record in your dream journal has value—entire dreams in all their specificity, snippets of dreams, single images or words, associations, doodles, drawing, graphic comics—whatever comes, welcome it.

Record the feeling associated with the dream, both in the dream and upon awakening. If certain feelings and moods continue throughout the day, note them too.

Another way to work with dreams is to make a list of the characters in the dream including non-animate objects like a train, a suitcase, the landscape, rainclouds. Notice where there are conflicting needs and desires between the characters. The train may tell you it’s on a strict timetable. You can ask yourself: Where in my life am I on a strict timetable? How do I feel about this? Notice which characters answer readily and which are hesitant to speak or remain silent. Do these exercises several times over a week and notice what changes in the responses.

Regard whatever comes to you as the vastness of your innate wisdom asking to be heard.

 

Notes

1  Pinkola Estés, Clarissa, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype

2 Jung, C. G., “The Practical Use of Dream Analysis”, Collected Works, 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy.

3 Jung, C. G., The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man,” Collected Works,10: Civilization in Transition

4 Nielsen, Tore, “The Stress Acceleration Hypothesis of Nightmares,” Frontiers of Neurology, June 1, 2017.

5 Tousignant, O. H., Glass, D. J., Suvak, M. K., & Fireman, G. D, “Nightmares and nondisturbed dreams impact daily change in negative emotion,” APA PsycNet 2022

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Alternate Visions of Motherhood

Momentum (2019) by Kate Langlois for motherhood blog post

Ma-aaa!

In almost every language, a variation of mama is a baby’s first sound-word. And rightly so. The infant’s wail signals an urgent need, a summons to a nurturing maternal presence. To consider the cry being unanswered you must imagine a world without mothers, without nourishment, a world of unthinkable despair.

Mothers represent birth, life, sustenance, and the continuation of the species. In the symbolic world, Mother Earth embodies the mother principle. Numerous indigenous myths partner her with Father Sky. The two principles, matter and air, (matter/material from the Latin mater or mother) combine to create life. Father Sky provides sun, wind, and rain that replenish the earth, but all living things depend on the benevolent fecundity of Mother Earth to flourish and grow.

Our human roots are in the soil. Like most life forms, we spring forth from the earth and are dependent upon her for subsistence. In our conventional world, the Great Mother is not part of our daily reality. We no longer believe in the spirits of trees or the souls of animals. We know her through myths and fairy tales. “The archetype is, so to speak, an ‘eternal’ presence,” Carl Jung wrote in his Collected Works, “and it is only a question of whether it is perceived by the conscious mind or not.”

Across cultures, the Great Mother manifests in dreams and visions and artistic renderings and in inarticulate movements within our psyches that touch mind and heart.

Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the earliest discovered use of ceramics (29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE) for Motherhood blog postIn her idealized form, the Great Mother is a loving goddess, a good fairy or fairy godmother. (Think Disney’s Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.) She watches over us, recognizes our longings, sends helpers. Sometimes she appears disguised as a wise old woman or kindly animal, a protective she-bear or a lioness that pops up in a dream. All power and magic are hers; what we lack, she supplies. She sees our situation, knows our needs. We never feel abandoned or alone. Whether we face internal or external chaos, enemies, tricksters, or evil forces, her strength, her courage, her fortitude support our efforts. She is loyal to us, unconditionally. In the most archetypal, primitive layers of our psyches, we believe in her existence. The idealized good mother/Great Mother is abundant Nature herself, all-giving, all-loving. She is super-human, a far cry from the flawed and fallible women who gave us birth.

In her destructive aspect, the Great Mother steals into our lives as the bad fairy who causes us to prick our finger on a spindle and sleep for a hundred years. She is the evil stepmother disguised as a friendly apple-seller. She is the shadow side of our feminine nature, vengeful because society does not accept her ferocity, her passion, her power. She is therefore despised or ignored. Much to society’s peril. But that is another story.

With our outer world broken and in decline, feelings of helplessness and confusion increase, and we are in need of a caring, comforting maternal guiding spirit that can offer refuge and restore our faith in our capacity to adapt and re-vision a future.

Inhabitants of the ancient Roman world looked for help from the Goddess Cura, or Care. According to Hyginus’ Fabulae, it was Cura who shaped clay into human form. Cura asked the god Jove to blow his spirit into the clay, and he agreed. But when she wanted to name her creation after herself, Jove objected and insisted it be named after him. While they were arguing, Earth rose up and demanded it be named after her since she supplied the clay. They asked Saturn to arbitrate. He ruled that since Jove gave the creature breath, he shall reclaim the breath after death. Earth, having given it body, shall reclaim the body. But because Cura first shaped the creature, she will possess it for as long as it lives. And it shall be named “human” because it was formed from earth (humus).

The myth tells us about the relationship between humans and care. Human beings are the creation of Cura. Her care and devotion are her lifelong gifts. Our educated modern minds easily distinguish between the factual and the mythological, between the symbolic and the literal, and yet because the universal motifs and patterns in tales energize the unconscious layers of our psyches, we are strangely comforted by them.

However, we look to science to fortify and confirm ancient truths.

Wire and cloth mother surrogates for rhesus monkey infants, from Harry Harlow’s “Nature of Love” experiments (1958) for Motherhood blog postStudies in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology support what the ancients knew about our innate need for mothering. In the 1950s, American psychologist Harry Harlow’s now classic laboratory experiments with rhesus monkeys concluded that for healthy development babies needed more than food from their mothers. Comfort, companionship, and love proved to be equally important for an infant’s healthy physical and mental survival. Harlow’s revolutionary experiments built on the research of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby who studied the effects of institutionalization on child development, especially the traumatic impact of separating infants and young children from their mothers. Their work led to a deeper investigation of parent-child bonding and encouraged a greater understanding of how infants attach to their caregivers and led to more sophisticated theories about attachment styles.

As our institutions tumble and fail, as we suffer destructive new weather patterns, face diminishing financial resources, and are unable to find or afford healthcare — fear, anger, and anxiety escalate. COVID, too, has altered the landscape of mothering. Especially during periods of stress and instability, we need maternal care and comfort from those who embody a mothering presence. Overburdened and lacking government or community support, mothers and caregivers who are tasked with overseeing family life, children’s at-home education in addition to earning a decent wage are now speaking out.

On social media platforms, in print journals and novels, in grocery aisles, laundromats and on park benches, the subject of motherhood is provoking confessions, arguments, and bonding. An online search of the subject reveals dozens of books that address the frustration mothers are experiencing. Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson. Or the competitively assuring, The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp.

I sympathize. As a young mother, I entered graduate school not knowing exactly what I’d signed up for. As it turned out, that decision was more than choosing a career path; it was a life-changing event that opened me to undiscovered parts of myself. A conflict arose between my creative and domestic selves.

The writer needed silence, solitude, enormous energy, opportunities for adventure, muses, and the time and space to explore the hidden tunnels of Self. I was prompted to go down into the darkness to discover self-truths that had the potential to de-stabilize my identity.

My role as a mother demanded opposite qualities: predictability, stability, sacrifice, endless patience while enduring boredom and mind-boggling repetitive menial tasks. Above all, being a mother meant I needed to provide a constant loving presence for my children. It struck me then, as now, that the Greek goddesses, much like other pantheons of female deities, represent different and sometimes warring roles in our unconscious. Aphrodite (Venus), the love goddess. Demeter (Ceres), the Mother. Artemis (Diana), the solitary virgin huntress who lives in the wild. (The Goddesses in Every Woman).

At times, I was lost, frustrated, but I was also lucky. My children came into this world with exuberant spirits and abundant resilience. My husband abided with me; I had resources. Today’s mothers are burdened in ways I was not. School shooters were not a daily reality. “Pandemic” was not part of my vocabulary. Institutional safety nets, while not sufficient, allowed me to believe universal childcare and healthcare would soon be offered. My wages were not great, but we had hope. If anything, we mothers earnestly believed our efforts to improve the conditions of motherhood would bear results.

A foundation of hope may be part of our survival equipment. Has hope for our future disappeared? How do we mother our families as well as the greater community when we ourselves are exhausted and depleted? How do we address empathy fatigue? What are the collective values around “good mothering”? What does it mean to be a good mother to our family? To our country and our communities? We are both the frightened, tired, angry infant wailing in the darkness and the competent, alert, responsive, cherishing mother lifting that child to comfort and soothe.

To paraphrase Jung, the face we turn toward our unconscious is the face that turns toward us. If we view the world through the lens of fear, hostility, violence, how can we expect a wise, loving, and caring universe to reflect our gaze?

What we seek is a model of mothering that is not confined to gender or role identity and that benefits both the individual and the community. One I’ve found that comes closest to that is set forth in a transformational book titled: Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth by Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. The introduction addresses the critical differences between the dominant Western anthropocentric, materialistic worldview with its emphasis on rigid hierarchies of race, class, gender, dualistic thinking, and individualism versus a worldview that acknowledges nature as sentient, benevolent and composed of biocentric interconnected systems. The contributors to the book are tribal wise men and women who call us to the maternal care of the planet and each other, prizing mutual dependence, humility, gratitude, generosity, and community welfare over competition and personal gain. This book holds many voices. There are other visions, other pathways to transformational change. Angeles Garbes’ book, Essential Labor: Motherhood as Social Change, calls us to a new perspective on motherhood.

Jung proposed that if we hold the tension between two opposing ideas or choices, what feels like an impasse eventually births the spark of a third thing, a fresh spark from the unconscious that transcends the opposition.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



What The Shadow Knows: What Part of Yourself Do You Reject?

People Shadow Photo by Purity of Spirit/Public Domain for Shadow blog post

 

In 1932, a new radio show called The Shadow, adapted from a popular pulp fiction magazine, premiered on the nation’s airwaves. Its narrator, Frank Readick, had the perfect menacing voice to embody the show’s protagonist. Lamont Cranston, a rich man-about-town by day, morphed into the indefatigable and invisible crime-buster, The Shadow, when summoned to uproot evil. The show’s signature line was: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” A sinister, knowing laugh followed. Audiences were mesmerized. In later episodes, the young Orson Welles voiced The Shadow.

Ad for The Shadow radio show (1934) CBS Radio/Public DomainIn the thirties, the economic and emotional effects of the Great Depression still lingered in the public’s mind. Awareness of the spread of fascism in Europe and its threat to democracy captured headlines. The country was ripe for entertainment that provided a character endowed with superhuman powers and knowledge of enemy-defeating esoteric practices. In our own troubled times, media icons, cult stars, and a handful of political figures attract similar projections. Wishful thinking, a collective sense of doom, nostalgia for a previous (and non-existent) innocent era, and a rejection of the hardships of change have elevated certain leaders to savior status.

in Jungian terms, the “shadow” refers to those aspects of ourselves we reject. They remain hidden from our conscious mind but often appear in dreams as fearful or hated figures. Whenever we have a strong hostile reaction to a person or to an idea, or feel overly self-righteous, we can be sure the shadow is at hand, showing us something about ourselves we do not wish to see. That’s because the shadow presents a threat to our ego ideal, the good personality with which we identify.

We play out the tension between our ego ideal (I am a smart, respectable, dutiful, kind father, daughter, wife, son) and the reality of our more complex wholeness, which includes split-off aspects of the Self, in our personal relationships but also on the broader stage among religious or ethnic groups and among nations.

J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson sitting in beach lounge chairs, circa 1939. J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI who served under eight presidents, offers an example of someone in conflict with his shadow. A notorious homophobe, he was instrumental in persuading Present Dwight Eisenhower to ban gays from all government jobs. For decades, Hoover engaged in illegal wire-tapping and spying activities against his enemies and kept extensive dossiers on their sexual and private lives. His rationale was that he was upholding the values and laws of this country. After his death, several of his biographers found evidence that Hoover was himself a man of secrets and lived a closeted gay life.

No one likes to feel vulnerable, humiliated, or ashamed. No one wants to show their neediness, but all humans share the same instincts and emotions. If we can bring compassion to the disowned parts in our own psyche, we have a better chance of extending compassion to others who are needy, hurt, vulnerable.

The aspects we deny in ourselves are not always negative. Some psychotherapists refer to a “golden shadow,” disowned unconscious energies that fuel and are necessary for a vital life. A young man may cut off his creativity as a dancer to conform to some societal or family norm. A young woman may fear being too brainy or too assertive to fit stereotypes reinforced by her upbringing. Our personal shadows are shaped by individual experiences but also by the society and family in which we live.

When shadow material is guiding our thoughts and actions, we’re inclined to see the other who carries our projections as all bad. What we cut off in ourselves we see outside of us and respond by attacking those traits in others with displaced aggression. In some instances, this leads to scapegoating, a process in which we attribute all the “badness” to another person or persons who are persecuted and exiled from the dominant group. When we own our split-off parts, we no longer need to project them onto others.

Shadow puppet theater likely originated in China or India in the first millennium BCE. Monkey King character in a Haining Shadow play. Image by Cat’s Diary/CC 4.0I’ve written before about Jung’s concept of the shadow (“How Facing Our Shadow Can Release Us from Scapegoating”), and it’s a topic worthy of further exploration. Jung’s contention was that through the inner work of recognizing and owning our shadow and integrating it as part of one’s totality we can hope to balance our personal nature and prevent the repressed aspects from spilling out into the world. This is one of the ethical dilemmas of our time, a global era that is ripe with fear, hatred, and blame.

What we don’t realize is that the battle between opposites is within us. Locked away in our unconscious mind are unacceptable drives, fantasies, and beliefs that appear in dreams as dangerous invading forces—thugs and vigilantes, the figure of an arrogant neighbor, a Nazi soldier, or the ex-partner we demonize and disdain. In biblical stories, fairy tales, and literature we can easily identify the polarized parts: Cain and Abel, God and the Devil, wicked stepmothers and innocent stepdaughters, derelict fathers and victimized children. Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello and Lady Macbeth are two of the most fascinating evil characters in literature. With our more aware social conscience, we might question why the great bard made Othello a person of color and a scheming woman the engine of tragedy in Macbeth. Jung suggests that our task is to peer within, to acknowledge the shifty, malevolent, or frightened parts and make them our allies.

As a novelist, I pay a lot of attention to the shadow aspects of my characters, what they don’t know about themselves but which the reader will learn by reading the book. I am each character’s psychoanalyst, digging deeper into their psyches to reveal the driving forces and the points of conflict in their being. In early drafts, I think I know what’s going on in their internal lives, but just as in analysis, it takes time and great patience for a character to reveal herself to me. Sometimes I’m saddened by what I learn. Sometimes I have a great “Aha” feeling when the contradictions in their actions and words cohere and make sense.

When we say writing novels is not for the faint of heart, we mean that as writers, we are deeply invested in the world we’ve created. We expend vast amounts of time and energy in the act of creation. We want our characters to evolve and grow wise. But since art follows life, and life can’t be counted on for producing happy endings, so neither can we guarantee fulfillment for our characters. In The Conditions of Love, for instance, part of me wanted troubled, self-centered Mern to reappear reformed later in her daughter’s life, but Mern wouldn’t have it. Instead, resilient Eunice had to grow independent and find love on her own.

How can you recognize your shadow? Notice when you have a spontaneous and disproportionate response to a person, an idea, or a group. Take some time to entangle what has agitated you. What characteristics do you find most problematic in the other? Where might they live in you?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Feeling and Thinking: How Logic and Emotion Shape Who We Are

The Tree of Emotions, Desires, and Attitudes. for Emotion blog post

 

Have you ever been in a meeting, about to make a presentation, and your heart starts to thump? You tell yourself: Calm down. Take a deep breath. You hear your mother’s voice telling you you’re too emotional. But the trapped bird in your chest just won’t chill.

Or, do you pride yourself on making decisions based on “just the facts”? Do you refer to yourself as a logician, a stoic? Have you been chided for being too much in your head, not enough in your heart?

Western culture sometimes divides us into being either “feelers” or “thinkers,” binary labels for dichotomous personality types. At least since the Greeks, we’ve prized rationality over emotion, relegating the latter to the bottom rung of our psychic life. We’ve been conditioned to consider hunger, sexual desire, and the emotions the baser instinctual drives, inferior to willpower and intellect, the markers of “high civilization.”

The extremes of the Greek gods: Apollo (the intellect) and Dionysus (the senses) for Emotion blog postIn The Dragons of Eden (1977), Carl Sagan laid out a three-part model of the human brain that reinforced this hierarchy of functions. In this model, our brains evolved in layers. The oldest and deepest layer is the reptilian brain, the seat of our basic survival instincts. The second or middle layer is the limbic system, sometimes called “the emotional brain.” The outermost layer, the most sophisticated and most recent part of the brain, is the neocortex, thought to be responsible for rational thought. Emotions were located in the lower two strata and deemed counterproductive, even damaging.

Until recently, there were few challenges to this model of the human brain. But new imaging techniques and advances in neuroscience have overthrown the old understanding of brain anatomy — and even introduced a new field of study designed specifically to address the role of emotions: affective neuroscience.

In his new book Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking (2022), author and theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow makes a solid case for a more nuanced understanding of brain interconnectivity and the role emotions play in our lives. A marvelous storyteller, he illustrates through anecdote and current research the myth of objectivity: we do not make decisions, the best decisions, solely with our logical minds. On the contrary, emotions are always part of our decision-making process, whether we are aware of them or not.

View of the brain from front and underside showing amygdala and hippocampus, both involved in processing emotions Emotions, Mlodinow explains, are intricately networked within our brains. He points to studies in affective neuroscience that indicate that the way our brain processes information cannot be divorced from emotion. He writes: “While rational thought allows us to draw logical conclusions based on our goals and relevant data, emotion operates at a more abstract level—it affects the importance we assign to the goals and the weight we give to the data. It forms a framework for our assessments that is not only constructive but necessary.”

Simply put, emotion helps us judge and place value on the facts.

An overwhelming negative emotion can alter our view of reality. But logic alone is limited. Sometimes what you are trying to cope with has more nuances than a systematic or rational approach can apprehend.

In his Teaching Company course “Questions of Value,” philosopher Patrick Grim distinguishes between facts and value. “One could have a complete factual picture of the universe yet not know the first thing about value,” he writes. “One could know all the facts about the history and methods of execution and still not know whether the death penalty is justified.”

Our feelings not only connect us to others and to the natural world, but they help us determine what is important to us and why.

Most of us are aware of how we habitually respond to certain situations: Do we go with our “gut feelings” or do we analyze the pros and cons? As a novelist, I dive deep into my characters’ personalities so that I can write them from the inside out. I have to ask myself, is this a person who will act calm and collected, but throw up the minute they walk out of the room? Trying to understand the emotions of the characters I create leads me to deeper self-knowledge and the desire to do more research into our fascinating human world.

Consider this: on January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, presided over a meeting of fifteen high-ranking Nazis, eight of them scientists. One of the participants was Heydrich’s advisor on Jewish policy, Adolf Eichmann. The reason for the meeting, later called the Wannsee Conference, was to discuss the Fuhrer’s plans for the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, the Final Solution.

For several hours, with utmost precision and logic, the men at the conference discussed methods of transporting massive Jewish populations to crematoria as well as methods of mass extermination. The scientists and technocrats at the Wannsee Conference were embroiled in a discussion of facts—the facts of the evacuation of Jewish populations, the facts of how many people might be transported, and how could they calculate the cost, in Reichsmarks, of human slaughter. If there was an emotional outburst or response from any of the participants, it was not recorded. These were men with a job to do, the job of genocide, and they reported for duty with measured thoughtfulness and interest.

In Plato’s allegory of the Chariot, Reason (the charioteer) must control the white horse (boldness) and the dark horse (desire) for Emotion blog postHistory offers us this chilling example of logical thinking divorced from emotion and its consequences. The current humanitarian tragedy inflicted by a despotic ruler upon the population of Ukraine offers another horrific example.

These are the grimmest pictures of logic split off from feeling. We shudder and think ourselves incapable of such dissociation, but what should we expect when we continue to encourage boys not to cry or girls not to show anger? What today’s neuroscience is showing us is that we make better decisions when we acknowledge and integrate our emotions into our thinking. We don’t have to choose.  Emotions ignored become troubling emotions. Logic by itself is incomplete. Being sensitive to and expressing how we respond to circumstances emotionally are key to self-awareness and a few giant steps toward a balanced life.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



When Our Dreams Feel Like Warnings: Precognition, premonition, or coincidence: Are our hunches real?

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot for Precognition blog post

 

About three years ago, I started a series of poems in the voices of women caught in war. These poems arrived with absolute clarity, as if the speaker was sitting beside me, clutching my hand. First, there was Maria-Isabella, whose husband had gone to join the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Soon after, Marieke from the Netherlands and Myriam in Lebanon confided their urgent war stories. The poems that followed felt as if I were channeling. Later, they became part of my new book of poetry, M.

When I read these poems now, while images of wounded Ukrainian women and children haunt the media, the hair on the back of my neck goes up. My poems now seem prescient. Had I foreknowledge of what was to come?

How to explain this?

The Dream of St. Joseph (c. 1645) by George de la Tour for precognition blog postIn one study, a third to a half of the 1,000 surveyed reported having “anomalous” dreams1. Many of us have premonitions, warning “flashes” that alerts us to an unseen danger or a fortuitous event. Perhaps we dream about a plane crash and cancel our flight. The next day, scrolling our newsfeed, we read about a plane crash. It’s not the plane we would have taken, but we’re chilled by the coincidence. One of the difficulties in substantiating precognitive events is how do we untangle precognitive knowing from mere coincidence?

In 1966, in the village of Aberfan, Wales, an avalanche of coal waste from the Merthyr Vale Colliery poured down the mountainside, engulfing Pantglas Junior School and killing 144 people, 116 of them children in their classrooms. The scope of the horror spurred an inquiry into whether the disaster might have been prevented or foreseen. A consulting psychiatrist, J. C. Barker, decided to investigate.

According to reports, Dr. Barker “approached Peter Fairley, Science Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, who became an immediate ally in what developed into a nationwide investigation. One week later, Fairley published an appeal in the newspaper on 28 October 1966, requesting any persons who had experienced a premonition or dreamed of the tragedy before it occurred to get in touch. Widely syndicated in the national and psychic press, over the following two months Barker and Fairley received letters from 76 people all claiming to have experienced dreams or premonitions of the Aberfan disaster before it occurred. Some of the reported premonitions were so vague and indefinite that Barker judged there was nothing linking them with Aberfan, but 60 were deemed worthy of further investigation.”2 Here is a chilling recounting of a tragic dream by one of the children who died.

One of the saddest and most poignant dreams had been noted by the family of Eryl Mai Jones, aged 10, a pupil of Pantglas school who was killed in the disaster. Two weeks before, she had suddenly told her mother: “Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.” Her mother replied: “Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?” “No,” Eryl said, “but I shall be with Peter and June” (two schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother: “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently: “Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.” The child replied: “No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, her daughter went off to school as happy as ever. That morning her mother was also due to go into Pantglas Junior school soon after her daughter, but curiously, just as Eryl Mai Jones left her home for the last time, the clock stopped at 9.00 am. As a result, her mother mistook the time, delaying her and saving her life. 3

Precognition derives from the Latin, praecognitio, “to know beforehand.” Precognition is the ability to obtain information about a future event, unknowable through inference alone, before the event actually occurs. A truly precognitive experience can only be confirmed after the fact. Research on paranormal phenomena is often flawed and difficult to obtain. For one thing, laboratory settings are not conducive to producing paranormal phenomena on-demand. Pinning down the mechanism of precognition is difficult partly because the idea that a future exists prior to our experiencing it pushes against our notion of free will and our experience of time. Time, as we experience it, flows forward, but some physicists disagree and assert that time flows both forward and backward.

In their book, The Premonition Code, The Science of Precognition: How Sensing the Future Can Change Your Life, authors Theresa Cheung and Dr. Julia Mossbridge, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Innovation Lab at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), remark that current uncertainty exists about causality and time in philosophical and scientific circles. Some physicists believe the flow of time is “a complete illusion and we live in a series of ‘nows’ that are static and not flowing in any sense of the word.” As the authors suggest, this does not fit with our personal experience. While they fail to shed light on the specific how of precognition, Cheung and Dr. Mossbridge provide compelling examples and a tantalizing argument based on quantum theory and theories about the relativity of time.

Abraham's Dream! Coming Events Cast Their Shadow Before.” Lithograph by Currier & Ives (1864) for precognition blog postFamous stories of precognition abound. Shortly before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln dreamed of a corpse laid out in funeral vestments in the East Room of the White House. In the dream, he asked a crowd of mourners who had died. The president, they told him. Several days later, the president was killed and his body laid in state in the East Room, exactly as he had dreamed.4

Another example. In October 1913, C.G. Jung was on a train journey when he had an overpowering vision. As he later recounted in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps,” and recognized he was viewing “a frightful catastrophe.” The sea had turned to blood and uncounted thousands of bodies had drowned. Jung worried he was going mad. Two weeks later, the vision recurred. That August, the first World War erupted.

An older Jung recalled these visions and prophetic dreams and used them as evidence for his theories about consciousness. He called these Big Dreams, meaning they were archetypal and arose from the collective, not personal level of the unconscious. Our psyches, he posited, are composed of three interacting systems: the ego-complex, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The ego-complex functions in our everyday life and is the personality, the “I” with which we identify. The personal unconscious is composed of an individual’s ideas, thoughts, experiences, and fantasies hidden from the conscious mind, but which often directs behavior. The collective unconscious is that part of the psyche that does not arise from our personal experience but contains ancestral memories and the experiences of all sentient beings.

When we tap into the collective unconscious, we are in touch with information we could not have known from our own lives. This is the realm of inherited patterns handed down from our ancestors (archetypes) that shape how we view and relate to the world. It is the realm of Big Dreams, poetry, shamanism, mysticism, synchronicities, art.

One of the diagrams Jung exchanged with Pauli in a letter as he developed his concept of synchronicity. Jung delved into esoteric traditions, Eastern theology, and occult practices, hoping to bridge the gap between metaphysics, depth psychology, and science. in a series of letters and exchanges with his patient and friend, the renowned Nobel Laureate in physics Wolfgang Pauli, Jung endeavored to uncover a unified theory that would bring psyche (mind) and matter into a more cohesive and congenial relationship. Both men were deeply interested in the nature of the universe in relationship to time, causality, meaning, and interconnectedness.5 But current psychological investigations have moved away from these grand metaphysical inquires, and have been superseded by research into AI, artificial intelligence, neuroanatomy, and neuroscience.

Were my poems prescient? I have no way of knowing, but I stand with artists across millennia who have used their dreams and premonitions to produce works of art that touch a universal core. Might you turn your premonitions, hunches, dream images and visions into art? You’d be in grand company if you do. Consider the paintings of Goya, William Blake, the Symbolists, and Surrealists. Imagine keeping a premonition journal. Imagine dreaming of a very beautiful tree, one you don’t recognize, and a week later, on a new path, you see the tree from your dream. Perhaps the secrets of the mind are willing to reveal themselves to welcoming listeners.

References

1Pechey, R., and Halligan, P. (2011) Prevalence and correlates of anomalous experiences in a large non-clinical sample. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2011.02024.x

2Foreseeing a Disaster?” Fortean Times February 2017

3 Ibid.

4 I describe this incident in more detail in a previous blog post “Can Dreams Be Prophetic?”

5 Paul Halpern details this fascinating relationship in his book Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect (Basic Books, 2020).

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “Understand Your Dreams Using Jung’s ‘Active Imagination,’” “Soulwork: Why Dreams Are So Important in Jungian Analysis,” and “How Dreams Help Identify Areas We  Need to Address,” as well as other blog posts on dreams.

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by following her on Facebook and .



Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma

The Wounded Angel (1903) by Hugo Simberg for inherited trauma blog post

 

One fine spring day when I was five, I decided to jump on the back of a neighbor’s schnauzer and ride him around the yard like a horse. Mikey had other ideas. He leaped up and tried to chomp on my cheek. Back then, no one called my run-in with Mikey a trauma. The word “trauma” had not yet entered the popular vernacular. But my experience with Mikey was a trauma, and for many years, I was terrified of dogs.

Times have changed. Discussions about trauma appear everywhere. Simply defined, trauma refers to any deeply disturbing event; in reality, trauma has many nuanced manifestations. Native American scholar and psychotherapist Eduardo Duran calls trauma “the injury where blood does not flow.”

Reference to trauma is now so ubiquitous, it has become almost meaningless. A recent newspaper article suggested that TV audiences are tired of watching gritty, realistic shows about afflictions; they now prefer plots with indomitably cheerful characters like Ted Lasso. It’s understandable we seek entertainment that makes us feel good, but are we denying, ignoring, or dismissing trauma’s impact on our lives and world? Have we seen, heard, read, experienced more trauma than we can process? Do we have trauma fatigue?

The truth is there is still much to learn about traumatic experiences. With deeper knowledge, more healing can occur.

Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone (Photo by Kirsten Boyer, 2019).Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone has been investigating this terrain for most of her adult life. Her teachings offer new insights, synergistic modalities of healing, and instill a sense of agency and hope to the burdened. In her second interview with me for Psychology Today, she offers more insights on the heritability of trauma, and how we may be carrying emotional afflictions that do not belong to us.

Dale Kushner: In a recent article for the “International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma,” you state that trauma can be transmitted by parents and other adults to the younger generation. This is a startling revelation. Can you explain how you became aware of this fact in your own life?

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone: It’s only in the past several years that evidence of the transference of trauma has been studied in depth. In my own life, the residues of war were deeply imprinted in my parents—my mother escaped Nazi Germany narrowly in 1939 and my father was stationed in the death camps as a U.S. soldier—but they kept their horrors a secret. It was only when I began to seriously study trauma science at midlife that I was able to identify their behaviors as the sequelae of trauma.

DK: Can actual memories be transferred?    

TF: It’s well known that children’s psychic borders are highly permeable. Like mirror neurons in the brain,[1] the feelings that echo between people, mental images can also be transferred by parents and other adults to the younger generation. Although actual memories aren’t transferred, it’s not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit,[2] that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.

So yes, mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—with the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation. They become part of the internal reality of descendants. Seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground is an experience that rarely dissipates. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma from war—the images he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people—became part of my visceral inheritance.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre (1891) Photo by John C. H. Grabill for Inherited Trauma blog postDK: How exactly might an adult or caregiver transmit an image deposit?

TF: Numerous studies show that children absorb the stress responses of parents and other caregivers in the wake of traumatic events and invest them with their own meaning[3]. For instance, after the events of September 11, 2001, studies on children whose parents and caregivers responded with heightened emotion suffered far more post-traumatic stress than those whose caregivers remained calm or detached.[4]

Vamik Volkan, who is a student of Erik Erikson and scholar on the topic of collective trauma, calls the powerful mental representations of large-scale trauma internalized images. We’ve already mentioned how permeable the psychological border between the child and caretakers is. Volkan maintains that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child. The child then becomes a reservoir for the adult’s trauma images.[5]

DK: How can a person know if the anxiety, depression, or other mental states of suffering are the result of traumas in the ancestral line or have emerged from their own life experience in the present? Are the two intertwined?

TF: That’s an important question. We hardly need studies to tell us that our family’s trauma affects us. With so much research coming out on intergenerational patterning, it can be a relief to know that we didn’t make up our mental and emotional disposition, but that there may be an ancestral precursor for our anxiety, depression, and even feelings of guilt, shame, or alienation. If we are in doubt, we can do some genealogical work on our families and look at the historical traumas they lived through. Did they endure poverty, displacement, or war? Or maybe their lives were continuously hampered by racial discrimination. These and other residues of extreme life conditions can travel down to us, especially when they are not metabolized.

DK: Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the WWII.(near Minsk,Belorussia) June, 1941 for Inherited Trauma blog postOne trauma researcher has noted that a generation can inherit the “unfinished psychological tasks” of a previous generation. What are some examples of these tasks? What is your role as a therapist in helping a client unburden herself from the unfinished task?

TF: I see intergenerational or ancestral transmissions like suitcases stuffed with important family heirlooms. No matter how weird or troubled you think your family is, there are ancestral treasures in your suitcase, like good values, resilience, or gems of hard-earned wisdom. When I taught at San Quentin, the men shared with me the beautiful legacies they carry and think about daily, mostly from their moms and grandmothers.  And then there can be trauma images that we inherit, too.

Think about the Vietnam or Syrian wars, or the incursion of Russia into Ukraine. When a large group has experienced massive trauma and severe losses at the hands of enemies, the children of the next generation receive the emotion-charged images of war. Volkan, who studied post-war populations around the world, maintains that embedded in these memories is a task. The next generations receive a “to do” list associated with the transmitted image.

Unmetabolized tasks translate to the next generations as many things. They might require completing the mourning process over losses, converting shame and humiliation into pride or helplessness into assertion. All these tasks are connected to the mental pictures that are the residue of traumatic events. The image binds the members of the group together in an invisible way.[6]

DK: Unless younger people are helped to address the unfinished tasks and their psychological legacy, is it true/is there evidence that the psychological reverberations travel horizontally through families and nations, and vertically through time and generations?

TF: Ultimately, it’s up to us, members of the younger generation, to decipher our own psychological landscape. We have to discern what inherited legacies we want to bring forward with us, and what we need to work on and discard. Often we find ourselves doing the hard psychological and emotional work that was left unfinished by our parents and grandparents. Will we continue to internalize our people’s defining historical traumas or reject them? These are the questions every psychologically mature person must ask themselves.

[1] van der Kolk, 2014, pp. 58-59, 111-112

[2] Volkan, 20062013

[3] Allen & Rosse, 1998Scharf, 2007

[4] Shechter & Coates, 2006

[5] Volkan, 2006, 2013

[6] Volkan, 2006, p. 154

References:

Transgenerational Trauma Shaping History: The Power of Images” by Tirzah Firestone, PhD., in International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma, Issue 1, Professional and Philosophical Perspectives, February 1, 2022.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk (Penguin: New York, 2014)

Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts by Varnik D. Volkan (Pitchstone Publishing: Durham, NC, 2006, 2013)

“Children’s Response to Exposure to Traumatic Events” by Richard D. Allen and William Rosse, in Children, Youth and Environments, Vol.  14, No. 1, Collected Papers (2004) Published by University of Cincinnati.

“Long-term effects of trauma: Psychosocial functioning of the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors” by Miri Scharf, Journal of Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 19, Issue 2, April 25, 2007. Published online by Cambridge University Press.

“Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations on the Macarthur Story Stem Battery” by Daniel S. Schechter, MD, and Susan W. Coates, Journal of Attachment and Human Development, Vol. 9, Issue 3, December 4, 2007. Published by Taylor & Francis.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Belonging: The Quest for Your Inner Home

Family Warming Their Hands by a Fire (c. 1740s) etching by Noël Hallé for Home blog post

 

What is one of the first stories we learn as children of Western culture? The cautionary tale of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, a story that sets us fretting, evoking fears of abandonment and loneliness, worries about identity and belonging. So we get our first taste of what happens when we lose our sense of home.

When we speak about home, we usually mean a physical place, a dwelling, a place of shelter or refuge. But home also has a symbolic meaning: we are at home in a particular landscape: forest or mountains, desert or beach. We are at home in a nation, on a continent, among others who share our values, our language, a cultural context. Our bodies are also our homes, spirit and soul, mind and heart. To be at home in one’s body is to feel one’s authentic and whole self, our flesh and blood animated with the invisible aspects of Being.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) fresco by Masaccio for Home blog postFor the sin of seeking knowledge, the God of the Old Testament pointed His finger at Adam and Eve and expelled them from paradise to wander the earth in exile. Many great artists have envisioned on canvas the ravaged faces of the mournful couple. When we stand in front of these paintings, we are struck with a primal feeling of sorrow, the ping of our own fear of desertion and displacement from home.

Famine, climate change, natural disasters, political violence, and governmental upheaval uproot thousands from their homes and homelands and force multi-generational populations to undertake arduously dangerous journeys to find a new home. The Jungian analyst John Hill tells us that the loss of home is a quest for identity. As he writes in At Home in the World: Sounds and Symmetries of  Belonging, “As home is intrinsically connected to a sense of self, its loss may have devastating effects on people’s lives.”

My friend Myron Eshowsky, M.S., an expert in working with refugee and marginalized populations, most recently Syrian refugees in Jordan, suggests that “historical trauma is remembered in the land.” What is missing from the discussion of treatment for communal and personal trauma is an understanding that as “citizens of the earth,” we are extensions of the landscape we call home. Eshowsky writes, “When a sense of home is upset . . . individuals and communities may exhibit what may be commonly understood as psychological trauma, but the root of their experience—and healing—may call for the inclusion of place and all it can hold.”

Saami family of reindeer herders in front of their lavvu, Norway (1896) In a paper titled “Place, Historical Trauma, and Indigenous Wisdom,” Eshowsky tells the story of a healing ritual on the site of the now-demolished building in Milwaukee where years earlier serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer committed macabre acts of dismemberment and murder. “The sense of death at the site was overwhelming,” he writes. The lot was barren and devoid of living plants. In a communal prayer accompanied by a priest, the family of victims and neighborhood people joined with tears and prayers in shared grief. The blessings included a wish for the land to return to life. A year later, flowers and grass were poking up through the rubble.

The lucky among us who have been not compelled to flee and resettle are faced with a different kind of loss of home. The landscapes we have grown accustomed to, the daily landmarks that were once as familiar as our own hands, have disappeared. The grocer on the corner has gone out of business, as has our favorite pizza parlor, barbershop, and drug store. Our toddler’s daycare center has shut its doors. Where raging fires have consumed the earth, entire towns have vanished, the woods we once hiked turned to ash. Floods and hurricanes have remade our beaches; new apartment complexes are springing up to replace old neighborhoods of duplexes and one-family homes.

Is it any wonder our bodies, our most intimate homes, are reacting to these dramatic and swiftly occurring events? Home is a felt reality as well as a physical reality. Consistency, reliability, attachment to beloved objects and persons are essential aspects of our well-being. When we feel groundless and distressed, our bodies display physiological markers of stress. Currently, we are plagued not only with the COVID virus, but with elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, restless nights, depressed and anxious moods. Our minds struggle to rise clear of a perpetual fog. Like other animals who have experienced a change in habitat, we respond.

Since the pandemic, our homes have become the site of both our public/work/social lives and our private/domestic lives. Paradoxically, while we may be spending more time in our homes, we are less “at home” in the world.

The Family (c. 1640s) etching by Adriaen van Ostad What does it mean to be more at home in the world? How can we create a sense of belonging and identity despite our rapidly changing environment? One way is to enlist our imagination. “Home” is rooted in our core self as memories, dream images, reveries. Home is linked to kinship bonds, to the landscapes of our origins, to collective archetypal patterns that exist at a level of being unaltered by external circumstances. These foundational archetypal patterns are like secret treasures buried within.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, argues that reveries carry us back to our childhood. He writes, “childhood remains within us {as}a principle of deep life, of life always in harmony with the possibilities of a new beginning. . . From our point of view, the archetypes are reserves of enthusiasm which help us believe in the world, love the world, create the world.”

We can revisit images of home and well-being through guided meditations. We can imagine ourselves walking along the river path of our ancestors. We can imagine ourselves in the treehouse where we spent time as a youth. We can choose a special tree or rock or sit in a garden and imagine roots growing from our heels into the hot magma at the center of the earth to which we belong. We can embrace the belief that we are never without a home because we carry our home inside us.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing

“Black Friday” May 19, 1780. Detail from Pictorial Quilt (1895-1898) for Ancestral Healing blog post

 

Imagine yourself at a family reunion. Aunt Sadie puts her hand on your shoulder and tells you you’re the spitting image of her sister Rose. Uncle Mo swears your soccer prowess comes from his side of the family, superb athletes all. The baby has the thick black hair of your Irish ancestors, and though you’ve always said you’ll never scowl like your mother, as you age identical scowl lines appear around your mouth.

The heritability of physical traits is a known and accepted fact, but a burgeoning branch of scientific investigation, epigenetics, has unlocked the mystery of how the emotional lives of our ancestors, and the traumas they suffered, affect our well-being.

In the ancient world, when a tragedy recurred in a family line—sons murdering their fathers, suicides, madness—the cause was thought to be the workings of a curse, or Fate, or the actions of punishing, vengeful gods.

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)With the aid of our vibrant imaginations, humans have spun tales about how the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children and their children’s children “unto the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34.7). The great Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—warned audiences that transgression against the gods weighed heavily on future generations. The chorus in the opening lines of Sophocles’ Antigone proclaim the horror in the family line:

“How many miseries our father caused! And is there one of them that does not fall on us while yet we live?”

In contemporary fiction, novelists Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer), among others, explore manifestations of transgenerational trauma. We’ve come a long way from pinning our misfortunes on family curses and the whims of the gods, but we are still discovering how the emotional experiences of our ancestors, their personal stories, told and untold, have altered our bodies and minds.

What stories whispered behind closed doors did you grow up with? How many relatives suffered with depression? Were there suicides? Violent behavior? Exile and displacement? A history of poverty? Unmourned griefs? Which questions about your family’s past do not get answered? Evidence supports the claim that what has not been healed in our lineage may manifest indirectly in us, a new generation, as anxiety, depression, physical illness, or other afflictions.

In my own life, for a long time, I felt that the heaviness of a grief I carried did not originate with me. While researching my second novel, I discovered that one of my grandmothers died in a state mental asylum. She was never mentioned during my childhood, and I assume she was a source of pain and great shame. No one is alive now to tell me her story, but I am aware that her presence has always been with me. A character in my second novel is loosely based on her story, and through workings of my imagination, grandma has been returned to her glory!

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for Ancestral HealingDuring the years writing this novel, I began a period of searching and seeking, hoping to uncover, face, and resolve the hurt in my lineage. Toward the end of this time, I discovered the work of Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone. As the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Dr. Firestone has spent at least one lifetime investigating intergenerational trauma from spiritual and psychological perspectives. She offers insight into the manifestations of inherited trauma and generously supplies stories and healing practices from many traditions in her online teachings. Her most recent book, Wounds into Wisdom, is a guide into deep inner excavations and explorations. In a world so harshly and painfully broken, her encouragement for us to heal as individuals expands the hope that we can also heal globally.

It brings me pleasure to introduce Tirzah Firestone to you in this two-part interview series.

Dale Kushner: Briefly, what is ancestral healing?

Tirzah Firestone: Ancestral healing is an ancient and currently burgeoning field that is based upon the spiritual premise that consciousness continues after death. After we pass from this world, regardless of our age or station, our bodies return to the earth, but our non-corporeal self continues to travel in non-visible realms, ultimately passing into an ancestral plane. Most spiritual traditions in the world agree that the ancestors, those who are no longer in the physical world, are still tied to us here on earth, for better and sometimes for worse.

DK: Why worse? 

TF: Generally speaking, ancestors wish to play a beneficial role to their living offspring. Their job is to guide and care for their living progeny, assisting them to remain in life and flourish here. But because the deep residue of our lives continues to reverberate after death, it is not only our ancestors’ wisdom but their unprocessed traumas that affect their next of kin. Ancestral healing is the garnering of wisdom, guidance, and blessings of the well and wise ancestors, and then, with their support, helping to resolve and repair the unhealed wounds of those who are not yet well and wise.

DK: Is ancestral trauma, inherited, transgenerational, and intergenerational trauma the same thing? If not, how are they different?  Please clarify collective trauma.

TF: All of these terms are related.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers 1895-1898 for Ancestral Healing blog postAncestral traumas are the unworked legacies of those who have died. This might include unresolved life stories, secrets, resentments, or other injuries that never had a chance to heal. The scientific field of epigenetics bears out that these unprocessed life stresses can influence future generations in the form of inherited tendencies to similar kinds of stress, anxiety, and psycho-emotional issues. The term transgenerational trauma is much the same as intergenerational trauma, used more widely in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.

Collective trauma is the residue of extreme life circumstances that occur (historical trauma is another term for this) that continues to affect not only individuals, but entire groups, ethnicities, communities, and entire nations. One example is the African-American community whose ancestors were abducted, shackled, and forced into centuries of slavery. We might say that their ancestral trauma is also a collective trauma that is still being worked through intergenerationally, in the lives of their living offspring as well as in the life of American society.

DK: In the last several years, you’ve worked privately with individuals and taught experiential courses on ancestral healing. Do all lineages have ancestral wounds?

TF: Yes, we might indeed say that all lineages carry ancestral wounds. Those who colonized others bear great moral wounds; the human pain incurred by their misdeeds is a legacy that continues for generations. Likewise, those who were colonized, enslaved, or murdered bear wounds that reverberate intergenerationally.

DK: You are a revered rabbi as well as a Jungian analyst. What led you to ancestral work?

TF: I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, leaving behind scores of relatives who were murdered in unconscionable ways. Even though she never spoke of them, I felt the reverberations of the family’s unprocessed shock, grief, and trauma. Ultimately, this led me to uncover the family history and then as a rabbi and psychotherapist, to study the effects of collective trauma in my people and far beyond.

DK: Does a person have to know about their ancestry to benefit from your teachings?

TF: One can begin this work with the tiniest amounts of information about one’s family (country of origin, political events there, etc.) Finding out about one’s ancestral history is relatively easy online these days. If we bring sincere intention, the unconscious will assist. Dreams and synchronicities come to inform us and help us to uncover more and more information.

DK: What are the dangers of not acknowledging ancestral/transgenerational trauma?

TF: Uncovering the dimension of intergenerational (or ancestral legacies) in our lives is extremely important. Without understanding the historical context of our lives and what came before us, our tendency is to think that our problems and imbalances began with us, that we created them. It is more often the case that the issues we are working on—whether we suffer from anxiety, fear, addiction, shame, or a feeling of not belonging, to name just a few examples—have roots in the lives of those who came before us, in what they suffered, and what they could not complete in their lifetimes. Often we are doing the work that was left to us, and it becomes our work. This then is ancestral healing! In doing our own inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing and untangling, we are also healing the legacies of those who gave us life.

You may also be interested in reading my two other posts about intergenerational trauma: “Family Deeds: Constellation Therapy & Generations of Trauma” and “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Memory: Can We Trust the Stories that Shape Us?

Photos – memory for Memory blog post

 

What is your earliest memory? Where were you? What season was it? Was the sun shining? Clouds in the sky? How old were you? Were you alone? What were you wearing? What did you smell? Were you happy or confused, sad or dreamy?

The world created by memory lives inside our minds. We believe it is an inviolate reservoir of facts. This is what happened, we say. I remember it clearly. And yet if you ask yourself the same questions stated above several weeks apart, you may discover your earliest memory has altered, expanding some details, subtracting others, or offering up a completely different image. Let’s face it: “facts,” as memory sees them, are not stable.

Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses for Memory blog postAs long ago as the Greek philosophers, we were attempting to unravel the mystery of memory. For centuries, memories were thought to embed themselves in our brains like a stamp onto soft wax, stored forever in archival files. Current cognitive neuroscience conceives memory as a more creative and adaptive system, a complex interconnected neural network involving many areas of the brain. Even when specialized areas of the brain are damaged, causing speech and memory deficits, other parts of the brain can step in to complement the injured functions. This is what’s truly remarkable about the brain: its plasticity, its capacity to transform through learning.

Research on memory continues to unfold, but what we do know is that memory is fallible, and shockingly so. Most of our most cherished memories are confabulations, an intricate blend of fragments from our past, images from dreams, movies, books, and even other people’s memories assimilated as our own. This is the fantastic, frustrating, perplexing nature of memory: it is endlessly redefining and refining what we remember. Ask three siblings about a shared experience and you are likely to get three different versions of the event.

In his autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, the renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks detailed a memorable childhood event that occurred one evening during the Nazi bombing of London when his family members tried to douse an incendiary bomb with water. With immaculate specificity and the astute eye of a scientist, Sacks wrote:

“There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.”

He remembered, unequivocally. droplets of white-hot aluminum oxide from the thermite bomb cascading over the lawn. He had been seven at the time.

Only later, after his book was published, did he discover that he and his brother Michael had been away at boarding school when the bomb landed and that his recounting of the incident could not possibly have been an eyewitness account. The details he recalled were from a vivid letter written by his older brother who had been home at the time.

The Bologna station clock for memory blog postOur flawed memory unnerves us. We count on memory to validate reality. As our brains develop, we begin to create an autobiographical first-person narrative that defines who we are. Our identity formation depends on memories strung together into a recognizable story. (Autobiographical Memory.)  In childhood, remembering positive choices and outcomes enhances a positive sense of self. We also remember bad choices and their consequences, which enables us to make better choices in the future. When neurodevelopment is interrupted or delayed, by trauma, illness, poverty, or other factors, children have a harder time using memory to assess how to relate to a situation or prevent negative patterns from repeating. Their sense of self lacks the support of positive memories to reinforce a positive self-image.

What we remember about ourselves shapes the stories we tell about who we are, which in turn shapes who we become. The art and science of psychoanalysis, of talk therapy, in general, respects the role of memory and its significance in our mental health. Examining long-held stories spun from memory and placing them in the context of a life history and a family history elucidates and untangles, and importantly, revises the hurts of the past. People with memory disorders face an inability to retrieve a coherent past. Sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases lose a cohesive sense of self as they experience the erasure of personality. As Sacks writes in his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”

For those of us who have witnessed the ravages of memory loss, the rupture of mental processes shakes us to the core. I’ve been drawn to explore the byways of memory for both artistic and personal reasons. Several years ago, my sister was diagnosed with and subsequently died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As my sole sibling and only living member of my family, she alone carried the memory of our shared childhood. As her mind dissipated and she began to weave fantastic tales from the images that remained, I realized I would soon lose the only person alive who could corroborate my memories. After she died, to work with grief, I plunged into writing my second novel, which explores family secrets, intergenerational trauma, and how what seems to be forgotten in the family line never really is.

Sacks’ faulty memory about the Blitz bombing did not have serious consequences, but when a witness’s unreliable memory results in a defendant’s prison sentence, or when public policy is based on invalid eyewitness reports, the consequences can be disastrous. Nor are photographs or digital images to be trusted. Photoshop and a slew of other technological advances can change our reality by altering images of real events and inserting them into our collective consciousness. How do we separate the real from the fictitious? The imagined from the remembered? And does it matter? Could it be that our memories are not just the vessels in which events are stored but are the foundation of our beliefs and values?

In the 1950s, when anti-communist sentiment was raging in this country, noir thrillers and futuristic science fiction movies became dramatically paranoic, centering around foreign regimes or space-aliens intent on reprogramming our brains. Words like “thought control,” “indoctrination,” “brainwashing” filled our nightmares. Popular culture featured movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Grotesque extraterrestrial pod people were dropping into our world, intent on colonizing our bodies. The contested territory was not land or empire, but our minds. The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 film, featured a POW returned from the Korean War. Memories of his former life and allegiances had been wiped out. As a robotic puppet of the nefarious enemy, he had been programmed to assassinate the U.S. president. A year after the film was released, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the movie was pulled from circulation. Life seemed to be confirming fantasy.

A more recent example is The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood that tells the dystopian story of Offred and her Handmaid sisters, slaves in mind and body to their masters in the new Gilead, where memory of the past is forbidden. But Offred has flashbacks to the before-time, pre-Gilead. Images of her loved ones appear in dreams and waking fantasies. These are forbidden as is all mention of the past, its values of individual freedom and compassionate humanity.

Throughout history, entire populations, nations, and empires have been coerced to annihilate the past so that a new regime can flourish. Chairman Mao understood this as did Stalin, as do all authoritarian regimes. In our own country, amid much debate, we are in the process of collectively remembering the unspoken stories of the indigenous peoples and the enslaved.

Even when faced with exile, gulags, beatings, torture, or the invasive progression of disease, the mind mutinies and remembers. Even suffers from dementia can be spontaneously gifted with gems of memory. Until the very end, I would sit with my sister and she would suddenly take my hand and start swinging it, as if we were children again. The old mischievous brightness would return to her eyes. Remember the time, she would say, and with absolute clarity she would tell me a story from our youth.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Celebrating the Mysterious and Why It Matters

The Sleep of Caliban (1895–1900) by Odilon Redon for Mysterious blog post

 

We all love a good dog story. Let me tell you mine.

One chilly winter evening, long past midnight, our golden retriever Daphne woke us with her urgent bark. This was very unusual. Assuming she needed to do her business, we let her out. She had always returned promptly in the past, but on this night, Daphne ran off and disappeared into the darkness. Long minutes passed before she reappeared at the back door, her bright eyes strangely dull. Where had she gone, we wondered. What had happened?

Daphne and the author Rex, a beautiful Collie and Daphne’s playmate, lived next door. We thought of them as a doggy couple, true love. The morning after Daphne’s adventure, we met Rex’s tearful owner. Elise related a mysterious occurrence. At about 2 AM, the elderly Rex had collapsed. Elise was carrying him to the car to bring him to the vet ER when Daphne bounded up. Rex roused himself, and the two dogs stared intensely at each other. It seemed, she said, that Daphne had come over to say goodbye. And indeed, Rex died that morning.

Perhaps there is some scientific explanation for this event. We know what animals experience is different in kind and scope from our experience. But I’m choosing to call what happened between Daphne and Rex a mystery. Why? Because seeing things through the lens of mystery adds an expanded dimension to what we know is possible factually. To engage with mystery is to open our minds to new possibilities and to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about reality are limited.

Albert Einstein once wrote: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of all true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”—“The World as I See It

Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi) by Ike no Taiga for Mysterious blog post“Mysterious,” the adjective, is a descriptor, but “mystery,” the noun, is pregnant with meaning. It comes from the Latin mysterium, pertaining to a secret rite, a hidden or secret thing of which the meaning, cause, or explanation is unknown. I want to bring the word “mystery” forward, out of the recesses of our minds, so that you, as reader, can consider your own relationship to it. The inexplicable and unexplainable, rather than being problems to solve, can become portals to a sense that our cosmos is much more intricately connected, much more astonishing in ways we have yet to understand.

A mystery is different from a problem. We may not yet know all the causes of climate change, but we do have methods and technology we can use to investigate the issue. Climate change is a problem, not a mystery. Some mysteries do get solved. The moon, we’ve discovered, is not a ball of cheese.

When a mystery presents itself, we have a felt sense of its presence. This sensation can be uncanny and a bit thrilling. Surprise and recognition tell us we have been touched by something we can’t name. We sometimes say we apprehend a mystery without comprehending it.

Mystery asks big questions in search of answers. Why are we here? What is death? Does fate exist? How real is our reality? Mystery is not opposed to reason but mystery challenges reason as the only method of interpretation. Hold an acorn in your hand. You may be able to explain how an acorn becomes an oak, but do you know why? Why do such things as trees even exist?

Constantine’s Dream Illustrated painted parchment Greek manuscript (879-883 AD) for Mysterious blog postThese questions may seem privileged and irrelevant in a world filled with great suffering, and yet to be able to put our hearts into tackling the pervasive problems of our societies—inequality, poverty, war, displacement—we need to embody hope. Mystery enlarges our awareness that the inexplicable, the troubling, the devastating can be held with the thought that something we can’t name may exist as a governing force that works for harmony in the universe, something that opens us up to new imaginative possibilities.

Mystery intersects with our lives in dreams. Dreams transport us to another existence that seems as equally real as our daylight life. Freud speculated that dreams arise from unconscious repressed wishes and desires and represent sexual and aggressive drives that the conscious mind censors. Jung, after his split with his early mentor Freud, developed his own theory of dreams. Rather than exploring childhood and its traumas for the roots of neuroses, that is, the past, Jung understood dreams to be messages from the Self, the dream-maker in each of us, whose intention is to supply us with a symbolic picture of our psyche, culled from the personal and collective unconscious. Dreams might then be considered a map, including roadblocks and detours to our personal unfolding, a pictorial path to our destiny. Jung called this process individuation.

Jung wrote: “But when at last we penetrate to its [the dream’s] real meaning, we find ourselves deep in the dreamer’s secrets and discover with astonishment that an apparently quite senseless dream is in the highest degree significant, and that in reality it speaks only of important and serious matters. This discovery compels rather more respect for the so-called superstition that dreams have a meaning, to which the rationalistic temper of our age has hitherto given short shrift.”—Carl Jung, Problems of Modern Psychotherapy (1929)

Dreams arrive mysteriously and leave us with a sense of having been taken someplace. In dreams, the profound mysteries of symbol, image, and meaning combine. We inhabited an “elsewhere” without leaving our minds or bodies. “In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”—Carl Jung, Civilization in Translation (1928)

If exploring mystery sparks your interest, I encourage you to spend some time discovering where mystery appears in your life. Write down your thoughts, dreams, musings. What are you encountering?

And if you would like to take your journey of discovery to the next level and work on your dreams with a Jungian analyst, the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts lists analysts by state.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Altruism, the Helper Archetype and Knowing Your Intention

Kindness by Michael Leunig for Altruism blog postWhat compels us to engage despite a warning from an internal Geiger counter signaling alarm? What impels us to ignore our wisest intuitions? When is self-sacrifice disguised as altruism? Our instincts tell us a situation will not end well, and yet we feel unable to turn away from our habitual behavior.

To satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife, the distraught husband in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Rapunzel sneaks over a boundary wall to steal a special type of lettuce from a witch’s garden. He knows, as every reader of the tale knows, that stealing from a witch is risky business. His wife’s plea, however, sends him scurrying. As the story progresses, his weak judgment and transgression will be paid for by the sacrifice of his daughter, Rapunzel.

“Seeing her so pale and wretched, her husband took fright and asked: ‘What’s the matter with you, dear wife?’“She tells him she will die unless she gets that lettuce. Whatever the cost, thinks the loving husband, he will supply her with what she craves.

“How dare you sneak into my garden!” (1948) by Nils Stenbok from “Rapunzel” in Tales of the Brothers Grimm The husband’s dilemma has a distinctly modern resonance: I can’t let him/her/them suffer. Just this once. Next time it will be different. I did it because I love him/her/them. As social creatures, we’ve evolved to hear and respond to another’s distress. It’s our nature to empathize and want to help, but discernment is necessary to know when our help will be beneficial or result in causing further injury. The bind between refusing and acquiescing, between standing in one’s power or succumbing to the power of the emotional complex is a human conflict and afflicts not only families but also individuals caught in cycles of addiction or abuse.

An alternative way of interpreting the husband’s role in Rapunzel is to see that making wrong choices, even seemingly disastrous choices, may be necessary for enlarging self-awareness. As any good fiction writer knows, a transgressive act starts the story rolling. A world without disastrous decisions, coercions, failures, perverse and complicated reactions does not exist. Great novels depict characters assaulted by contradictory tensions and desires. Learning occurs only when errors in judgment are made conscious and their lessons absorbed.

The idea that our deepest Self is constantly initiating us toward wholeness and psychic cohesion is one of Carl Jung’s great gifts to depth psychology. For him and his followers, every challenge has at its core a gift, a mystery to be understood. In accepting this as a guiding principle, we become seekers and move from passive victimhood to actively shaping our personal destiny. However, this can’t be accomplished until we recognize the difficulties that confront us. Like the husband, our ego and agency are vulnerable to being taken hostage by a malevolent force. In Rapunzel the witch takes this form.

Parable of the Good Samaritan (detail) (1670) by Jan Wijnants for Altruism blog postThe question arises: when are we being altruistic and when are our motives compromised by self-interest? How do we disentangle our desire to help from our desire to please or avoid conflict or keep the peace?

Another of Carl Jung’s most significant contributions to psychology is the concept of the archetype. In the case of what we have been discussing, the archetype of the helper is useful. Individuals dominated by the archetype of the helper are driven by a need to nurture, protect, and care for others. Of course, the world would be a sorrier place without their soulful and compassionate generosity. But the desire to help, when it becomes compulsive or inappropriate to the situation, can result in a feeling of depletion, resentment, and confusion if one’s efforts are rebuffed. To discern if you are trapped in this kind of helping behavior, you need to examine your motives and your genuine intention for taking action.

Japanese print by Toshichika (1850) shows a woman offering assistance to a destitute man lying on straw. for Altruism blog postBuddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg encourages students to examine their intentions as a way of understanding the motivation behind their actions. By honoring our intentions, we connect with the heart space that guides everything we undertake. Salzberg suggests that our intention is not a matter of will, “but about our overall everyday vision, what we long for, what we believe is possible for us.” To genuinely assess what motivates our intentions, she advises us to investigate the spirit of our endeavors and the emotions that drive it. “When my hand reaches to offer someone a book, only my heart knows whether I’m doing it because I like the person or because I think, Well, I’ll just give her this and perhaps she’ll give me what I want in return.”—Sharon Salzberg, “The Power of Intention,” O Magazine, January 1, 2004

This is helpful advice. When confronting a moral or ethical decision, we might ask ourselves: What is my true intention here? Am I stuck in a familiar pattern? Am I a hostage to someone else’s desire? What do I hope to achieve for myself? What am I avoiding? Is my action truly compassionate toward the other? Am I more afraid of confronting someone or courting displeasure than I am of being caught by bewitching energies?

(Learn more from meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg in my interview with her last year on Psychology Today, “Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?”)

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness

The Return of Persephone (1891) by Frederic Leighton for descent post

 

As the siege of global instability continues, many of us are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and despair. From the beginning of human history, upheaval and change have sent entire populations into states of helplessness, frustration, exhaustion, and fear. If you are currently being derailed by powerful feelings, please know you are not alone. Your feelings are not to be disregarded or dismissed. Our lives and our planet are being shaken by enormous shifts. The good news is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform.

When we feel powerless and overwhelmed, how can we reawaken our spirits, uncover new possibilities in intractable problems, and enliven our sense of hope? Where can we find new resources to meet the challenges of our time?

Echo and Narcissus (detail) (1903) by John William Waterhouse for descent blog postOur deep human past may hold the answers. Ancient myths—so crucial to every thriving civilization—remind us of who we have been, what we have learned, and how we have prevailed. Myths offer deep insight about human travails, illustrate the internal and external obstacles we encounter on the road to developing resilience and show where we can find help. Refined and retold over millennia, they are nutritive stories that feed us an infusion of trustworthy and eternal wisdom.

Imagine the world’s great myths as a vast library containing a record of human hardship and struggle, heroic undertakings and surprising rewards. Mythic stories depict archetypal, universal themes concerning our most basic instincts and emotions—fear, greed, bravery, family relationships, power, injustice, conscience, our relationship to nature and the natural world—situations and dilemmas not unfamiliar to our modern psyches. These myths survive, sometimes in the form of popular entertainment, and continue to absorb us.

They highlight issues that are still ripe in our lives. An entire industry exists to mine ancient myths for television and movie scripts. Consider how stories about family rivalries, sibling jealousy, corrupt leaders, dissolving empires, and alien invasions fill our imaginations. The old myths reappear in new forms, often so disguised we barely recognize them. Narcissism, a mental health diagnosis much discussed in public forums during the past four years, is a term derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. To return to the original myth is to understand the tragic and sorrowful story of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a spring and, unable to love others, dies pining for his own image.

The underworld and overworld. Both have always existed—in myth, dream, and reality. In our lifetimes we navigate each domain, the dark and the light. Lately, I’ve been investigating what the metaphor of descent, a common motif in myths, might reveal.

"Jona in the whale" (2010) by Janny Brugman-de Vries in Groningen, the Netherlands.Descent into the underworld appears in many myths as part of a transformative process that is an initiatory rite for our souls. “Katabasis” is the Greek term used to describe “going below.” To go below means to be separated from the daylight ordinary world. Symbolically, it signifies being cut off from one’s usual resources and helpers; it means finding a way to see and respond when the familiar falls away. (Imagine Jonah in the belly of the whale or Alice down a rabbit hole.)

Storyteller and mythographer Michael Meade reminds us that in the underground, in the darkness and unfamiliar territory of “below,” renewal occurs. Meade points out that in myths, going beneath the earth can be understood as gaining access to forgotten, secret or hidden wisdom buried in our depths. What may feel to us as “being in the dark” is a sacred space deep within us rich with new or cut-off energies.

“Wisdom can reveal the light hidden in dark times; but it requires that we face the darkness in ourselves. People may desire pearls of wisdom, yet most are unwilling to descend to the depths where the pearls wait to be found. Wisdom involves a necessary descent into the depths of life, for that alone can produce ‘lived knowledge’ and a unified vision.”—Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny

The depths in the subterranean basement of our unconscious are where archetypal and instinctual knowledge percolate. Think of seeds incubating beneath the soil, stirring with new life, or the multitude of invisible creatures at work preparing the soil for regeneration. Think of dream images that come in the midnight hours to awaken our curiosity and bring fresh insights to our conscious minds.

The Rape of Proserpine (ca. 1650) by Simone Pignoni (1611–1698) for descent blog postA classic Greek myth that features descent as one of its key motifs is the story of Demeter and Persephone. Attributed to Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” recounts the story of the rape and abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. The myth has many variations and interpretations, but simply told, the story unfolds as follows:

One day while Persephone is picking flowers in a meadow, the ground beneath her begins to shake and splits open. From the crack in the earth emerges Hades, driving his horse-drawn black chariot. Hades, most powerful god of the Underworld, brother of sky god Zeus, kidnaps the young maiden and drags her into the depths.

In the above world, her mother, Demeter, grief-stricken, flies across the land inconsolably crying out for her child. As the goddess of harvest and grain, Demeter’s lamentations and rage at Zeus for allowing this event to happen cause a blight over the earth. Crops wither, fields go fallow.

Persephone’s cries for help fade. Soon the mother can no longer hear her daughter. In the Underworld, the daughter can no longer hear her mother. Here the descent is neither expected nor made by choice. It is a brutal act of male power and privilege. But does the story convey a truth? In life as in myth, we must separate from the all-embracing, all-protective mother love.

Persephone holding a pomegranate (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti As the story resolves, Zeus pleads with Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agrees but tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed, an act that consigns her to have to return to live with him for one-third of every year as Queen of the Underworld.

The violent separation and ultimate reuniting of Demeter and Persephone have many dimensions: it can be seen as a story about the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, about maternal love that is too binding, and about a daughter’s need for maternal love juxtaposed to her need to discover her own resources and strength.

Our descent into the “below” might feel like death, as depression sometimes does. Life, energy, the ordinary world might feel forever lost and irrecoverable, but the great myths tell us otherwise. A descent is often followed by an ascent. When we return to the upper world, we bring with us new life. This is the meaning of Persephone’s reunion with Demeter.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone feels particularly relevant at this time. Many of us, myself included, are looking for wisdom to be garnered when we are plunged into darkness. Inhabiting this troubling new terrain, our vision must adjust. In the underworld, the future is murky and unknowable, but the myth is a reminder that the stolen daughter does not die in Hades—she escapes, matures, and thrives. She learns to see in the dark.

We are not given details about Persephone’s experience in Hades, except that she obediently serves her four months as Queen of the Underworld. What does she see below? What does she learn in the darkness? I’ve always wondered what riches, what gems, what secrets might be visible in the strata beneath the earth.

Close your eyes for a moment. What do you see in the dark?

Persephone is allowed to return to her mother for two-thirds of the year, her annual emergence generating the springtime renewal and flourishing of the land. Like the natural world, like history itself, we, too, experience cycles of flow and dormancy, depression and aliveness. We might take from this a lesson about patience with ourselves as we explore new, unfamiliar, and even frightening dimensions of ourselves in a world turned upside down.

The next time you feel the tug of despair or an encroaching mood about to pull you below, the next time you are tempted to lament our dark times, remember how the terrible winter of Demeter’s grief was followed Persephone’s re-emergence into the world, and with her, the blossoming of the trees and fields.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy these other related posts about myths: “Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and ‘Healthy Narcissism,’” “Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine,” and “The Hero’s Journey in the Time of COVID.”



Reconnecting with Wonder: When Were You Last Amazed?

Trochilidae (hummingbirds) by Ernst Haeckel for Wonder blog post

 

The first time I saw a hummingbird I was nine years old on a camp road in Maine. A tiny creature with an emerald head, ruby breast, and propeller wings whizzed in front of my face, hovered for a second, and then disappeared into the brilliant morning light. I was dumbfounded. Had I been visited by an angel? Or Tinker Bell? My body tingled. Everything around me sparkled with new meaning. The entire landscape vibrated with aliveness.

Hummingbird for Wonder blog postThis event was brief but spectacular, and I have never forgotten it. The veil between the ordinary world and the extraordinary had been lifted, and I was given a glimpse of something mysterious, enchanting, and yet concretely real. The moment didn’t last. Earthly life quickly regained its familiar contours, and I returned “to my senses,” but some knowledge of the matrix of life and my place in the biosphere had been laid down in me.

This is what it feels like to be touched by wonder: amazement, astonishment, fascination. Without wonder the dark clouds of gloom, alienation, and loneliness sweep in.

For the past two months, this blog space has been dedicated to exploring anger with renowned Jungian analyst and scholar, Dr. Murray Stein. The pandemic, the devastating effects of climate change, the spread of violence on most continents have put us, to use the terms of another Jungian analyst James Hollis, into the “swamplands of the soul.” Might not this be the perfect time to resurrect the value of wonder as an antidote, or “complementary medicine,” to the heavier emotions of our time?

I’m not suggesting wonder as a breezy spiritual path that, to use a cultural cliché, keeps us “in the Light.” Think of wonder as a hard-wired instinct and the true birthright of our species. Wonder is worry’s more light-hearted twin. Science locates wonder in a complex network of interactions within the brain that set off dopamine reactions induced by pleasurable feelings and activity in the hippocampus, the storehouse of long-term memory. Curiosity — the impulse to discover new things — is wonder’s companion.

Children connect effortlessly with their sense of wonder, but as adults, we become bound to our habitual perceptions of reality. The scope of our curiosity and our ability to be astonished shrinks, but wonder enlarges our being and connects us with a vast cosmos of marvel and beauty. We are built to respond to marvel and beauty, to the animate nonhuman universe in which we are embedded.

As the poet Stanley Kunitz, an avid gardener into his nineties, remarks in The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden: “The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.”

As we venture out into our communities after the pandemic, a resurgence of wonder encourages an exuberant feeling of expansion. Confinement’s opposite is freedom, and if we let ourselves pause and pay attention, we may notice on our daily walk the astonishing rainbow hues of a pigeon’s breast. How did that happen, we might wonder. Or we might consider the miracle of any creatures built for flight, from honeybee to bat. Or ponder the strength and determinations of a single dandelion pushing up between cracks in the walk. Why dandelion and not crabgrass? A dozen more questions arise.

Wonder asks us to slow down, to contemplate, to dream in reverie. It asks for our focus and attentiveness as well. It may unexpectedly inject itself into our lives, as the hummingbird whirled into mine, but if we aren’t paying attention, miracles will be missed. Wonder requires the cooperation of our inner world to meet the outer world with reverence and fascination.

Muscinae (Mosses) by Ernst Haeckel for Wonder blog postIn his book The Philosophy of Wonder, Dutch philosopher Cornelius Verhoeven stated:

“More happens in wonder than in doubt. Haste is a total lack of interest,” Verhoeven continues, “for interest means precisely to dwell in between. . . In contrast to pausing wonder, haste is a passing by which misses everything.”

“And now I have gathered six or seven deep red, half-opened cups of petals between my hands,” writes the poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Count the Roses.”

“And now I have put my face against them

and now I am moving my face back and forth, slowly…

Eternity is not later, or in any unfindable place.

Roses, roses, roses, roses.”

Oliver is a poet of praise, gratitude, and supreme wonder, in love with the particularity of the world. For her, an intimate reciprocity exists between her and her environment. Here she is writing in her essay “Upstream” about a tree in her beloved Blackwater Woods

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel?”

If Mary Oliver has her gaze fixed on the minutia of rose petals or the golden eye of a gull, Brian Greene, theoretical physicist, mathematician, and chairman of the World Science Festival, understands that humans are “bags of particles” that are organized in a unique way, as he notes in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe:

“When you recognize that we are the product of purposeless, mindless laws of physics playing themselves out on our particles — because we are, all, bags of particles — it changes the way you search for meaning and purpose: You recognize that looking out to the cosmos to find some answer that’s sort of floating out there in the void is just facing the wrong direction. At the end of the day, we have to manufacture our own meaning, our own purpose — we have to manufacture coherence . . . to make sense of existence. And when you manufacture purpose, that doesn’t make it artificial — that makes it so much more noble than accepting purpose that is thrust upon you from the outer world.”

Clouds, trees are also made of particles. In fact, all earthly matter is composed of the same particles that compose us. Greene’s amazement, wonder, and thrill flow from the recognition that the particles which make up human beings have evolved to have consciousness, to become a species — the only species that contemplates its own mortality and can produce a Beethoven and an Einstein.

If you are interested in welcoming more wonder into your days, consider these questions:

When was the first time you remember experiencing wonder?

Where were you? What happened?

What feelings do you associate with the event?

Can you reconstruct the feelings now?

Write the word WONDER at the top of a page.

Begin the first sentence with the words On that day.

Write for 10 minutes without stopping.

What have you discovered?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

 



Murray Stein on Understanding and Coping with Anger

The cover page for Thomas Dekker’s 1625 plague pamphlet “A Rod for Run-Awayes” for Murray Stein blog post

Part two of a conversation with Jungian analyst Murray Stein about the ways anger pervades our culture.

Like most young girls of my generation, I was raised to be kind, considerate, and quiet. The message was clear: anger was verboten and had to be squelched. Or else. Learning how to transform and transmute anger begins early and engages us throughout our lifetime. We may try to control anger, but in many instances, anger has a mind of its own. Anger combusts spontaneously. It arises on its own timetable and under its own conditions, sometimes for reasons our conscious minds can’t decipher.

Images of anger haunt our imagination. Visions of apocalyptic fires appear in our earliest literature. Myths and fables and folk tales serve as precautionary warnings that forces outside our control can throw down thunderbolts or cause villages to go up in flames.

How do we explain anger’s force and prevalence? How can we cope with its destabilizing energy?

Dr. Murray Stein for Murray Stein blog postIn this second installment on anger, my guest, the distinguished Jungian analyst and acclaimed author, Dr. Murray Stein, expands our discussion: how anger is showing up in our inner and outer lives, and how, when examined closely, anger relates to feelings of vulnerability and despair.

Dale Kushner: Is the anger you are seeing in your patients related to their age? What do you think is causing this eruption of anger?

Murray Stein: I am seeing anger in patients of all ages. If they are young, they are angry about being denied the normal path to educational experiences because of the pandemic. If they are old, they are angry because of the insensitivity of the young about their vulnerability to COVID-19. And so forth. Anger is present in every age group and for similar or different reasons, some stimulated by the pandemic, some by the political conflicts raging in almost every country of the world, some by economic disadvantages and vulnerabilities. No age group is free of anger these days.

DK: Are there redeeming aspects of anger? What might they be?

MS: Anger can be the prelude to necessary change. It motivates one to act, and sometimes this is needed for development. Anger can lead to necessary changes in life if it is channeled in a direction that is constructive in the long term. A battered woman in an abusive relationship who uses her anger to change her situation is for the good and in the interest of individuation if it leads to greater consciousness and self-affirmation. As a psychotherapist, I am pleased when a depressed and passive client becomes angry and stands up for herself. Anger can serve the goals of psychological development and individuation. It demands that things change.

DK: What is the value of dreaming about anger? Is it cathartic? Does dreaming about anger help a person process it?

MS: Dreaming about anger means that it is becoming conscious. Anger can simmer under the surface, on the fringes of consciousness. In the dream, it erupts. This signals the emotion is becoming conscious and can be felt and processed. Anger in a dream is anger on its way to consciousness, and once conscious it can be worked with and does not get expressed by acting out.

DK: What myths or fairy tales instruct us about anger?

Juno, seated on a golden throne, asks Alecto to confuse the Trojans (ca. 1530–35). for Murray Stein blog postMS: We can learn a lot from myth about the impersonal psychic forces that can take possession of our conscious selves, individually and collectively. For instance, in Greek myth, the chthonic Alecto, whose name means “unceasing in anger,” is a Fury conceived by Gaia when the semen from Ouranos was spilled into her when their son, Kronos, castrated his father. Alecto lives in the underworld and can be summoned to action, sometimes in service of justice for moral crimes committed and sometimes simply to instigate violent anger on behalf of a political cause. In the Aeneid, she is sent by Juno to stir up furious anger in the Latins against the invading Trojans. In the narrative, you see how Alecto (relentless anger) invades and takes possession of humans and drives them to action that we would judge to be insane. She enters the body of the Latin Queen Amata who incites the Latin women to riot against the invaders. Then she enters the body of Juno’s priestess, Calybe, and proceeds to incite King Turnus to go on a rampage against the allies of the Trojans and slaughter at random to the point of absolute exhaustion.  Virgil’s great epic tells the story of angry heroes battling over territory and the subsequent founding of Rome by the victor, Pius Aeneas. The Trojan hero stakes his claim in Italy at the command of the high god, Jove, and Venus, his mother. They tell him it is his destiny and he must not settle for less than their ambition for him and his Trojan survivors from the fall of Troy.

The poem is generally seen as a celebration of Emperor Augustus and the establishment of the Roman Empire, but it is also a moral critique. Anger permeates the epic from start to finish, and the final climactic lines reflect the overall tone. It is a scene on the battlefield; Aeneas is standing over the wounded Turnus, who is begging for his life. I quote the closing lines in the fine new translation by Shadi Bartsch:

Aeneas drank in this reminder of his savage

grief. Ablaze with rage, awful in anger, he cried,

“Should I let you slip away, wearing what you

tore from one I loved? Pallas sacrifices

you, Pallas punishes your profane blood” – and,

seething, planted his sword in that hostile heart.

Turnus’ knees buckled with chill. His soul fled

with a groan of protest to the shades below.

 

From The Aeneid by Vergil, translated by Shadi Bartsch (Random House, 2021)

This is the end of the epic, and a bloody and angry ending it is. Empires are founded on such.

Quakers meeting at the house of Benjamin Furly in the Fall of 1677DK: Is there anything in popular Western culture that gives us remedial lessons about anger?

MS: In Jungian psychology, we try to bring opposites in contact with each other and wait for a uniting symbol to bring them together. What is the opposite of anger? In the Western tradition, its opposite is peace. In popular culture, there are many songs, films, TV shows, etc. that promote peace. They suggest putting anger aside and making peace. “Make love, not war” was a popular slogan in the sixties during the protests against the American war in Vietnam. The problem is you have to want to choose peace over anger, which usually also means giving up the desire for power over the other. If there is injustice afoot, it is not easy to choose peace. Alecto may be summoned and stir up rage in an injured individual or population. The natural response to injustice is to become angry and to fight for change. But there is another response to injustice, which the Quakers in America are known for with their efforts to cultivate peace even while being activists for social justice. They attempt to combine anger and peace in their protests and messages. Some individuals have found a way to contain anger and use it to fuel the peace movement. Others, of course, sink into depression and resignation.

DK: How did Jung think about anger? Did he relegate it to the shadow aspect?

MS: Jung reflected on the topic of anger as born of inferiority and resentment in his essay “Wotan,” where he writes about the social and political climate in Germany in the 1930s. He himself had a fiery temper and would occasionally lash out in angry outbursts toward opponents and critics. I think he would say anger was part of his shadow, which at times he could channel to constructive ends and at times not. Barbara Hannah claimed that when Jung would get angry at her it was also meant to teach her something and came as a lesson for improvement. She may have been rationalizing a bit. Basically, Jung would say that if you are possessed by an emotion like anger to such a degree that you lose control of your judgment, you have been taken over by a complex or archetypal energy. On a collective level, this archetypal energy is symbolized by mythical figures like Wotan or Ares/Mars. Entire masses can become possessed by these archetypal energies, and then you have warfare.

DK: To what degree do you think social media fuels or contributes to personal anger?

MS: Social media pours fuel on the fires that are already burning. A person is somewhat anxious and then gets messages that confirm the fears she is already feeling. This leads to angry responses, and the ball gets rolling. Social media intensifies the emotional tone of the times. I don’t think the answer is to cancel the media or ask them to tone it down. A better answer is to have leaders who show a better way forward. Social media is a follower, not a leader.

Read Part One of this interview, “Murray Stein on the Eruption of Anger in Today’s World.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Murray Stein on the Eruption of Anger in Today’s World

Street Brawl (1953) Woodcut by Jacob Pins for Murray Stein on Anger blog post

 

One of Carl Jung’s most haunting statements: What we do not make conscious appears to us as Fate. We may sometimes call an outside event like an illness or an accident “fate.” Jung’s great insight, however, was to recognize that what “happens to us” is intimately connected to what is going on inside and that only by turning inward and exploring the hidden aspects of ourselves, our shadow parts, might we gain a deeper knowledge of who we are and attain a sense of agency about our destiny.

When I asked renowned psychoanalyst and Jungian scholar Murray Stein what he’d like to discuss together here, he didn’t hesitate: “Anger.” Anger is one of the emotions that often remains unconscious, in our shadow, as Jung might say. But in today’s world, unprocessed and unrecognized anger, and its destructive buddy, violence, is rocking the foundational supports of individuals and nations.

Photo of Murray Stein for Murray Stein on anger blog postHow are we to process this powerful force, personally and as a species? I can think of no better person to illuminate how inextricably connected the inner and outer worlds of anger are than my dear friend and mentor, Murray Stein. Murray’s perspective comes from his scholarly investigations of Jung and from his past role as president of The International Association for Analytic Psychology as well as being a clinician and teaching analyst in Zurich with an international following. I’m delighted to introduce you to his work. This will be the first in a series of two interviews with Dr. Stein.

Dale Kushner: What is the difference between anger, rage, and aggression? Is it important we understand the difference?

Murray Stein: Anger has many degrees of heat. Rage is the highest. It is red hot, burning, emotion in uncontrollable flames. Aggression is action sometimes taken as the result of anger, or rage, and sometimes not. Aggression can be quite cold-blooded and calculating as we see in the strategic moves of chess players and politicians. Anger and rage disrupt clear thinking and so are not much in evidence if aggression is carried out for strategic purposes. Of course, anger might be behind the strategic moves of aggression as a fundamental motivation for acts of calculated aggression, like the raging dictator ordering his rational military to go to all-out war.

DK: Are you now encountering more dreams about anger in your practice and among your students?

MS: The short answer is “yes.” We know that anger is one of the basic emotions and is always with us as a species. However, it seems to be an exceptionally predominant emotion throughout the world nowadays. It’s as though the entire human population has become choleric, edgy, quick to anger. This hot emotion rises fast and furious in families, boils up in social and professional circles, infects political arguments, and rages on the roads and highways. And yes, anger even erupts among Jungian students in the classroom over issues like wearing the mask or not. We live in a world where splitting energy is rampant everywhere. It feeds on divisions and fuels hatred of the perceived “other.” Dreams sometimes reflect the emotionality of the awake mind, and sometimes not.

DK: Are similar images or themes appearing?

MS: A related theme is vulnerability and victimization. This comes up frequently in dreams. Dreamers find themselves in dangerous situations and have to make decisions that could prove life-threatening or life-saving. I haven’t made a statistical study of the frequency, but my guess would be that dreams of vulnerability – to oneself, to a child or loved one – have increased during the Pandemic.

Harvard researcher Deirdre Barrett’s dream art which appears in her book, Pandemic Dreams DK: How do these more recent dreams of anger differ from anger dreams you saw earlier in your practice?

MS: Maybe I’m just more sensitive to the issue of anger now, but these more recent dreams of anger do seem exceptionally intense. I personally had a dream recently in which I became angrier than I can remember ever being. A brief summary of the dream: a man carelessly ignited a fire that nearly destroyed the building I was in and then nonchalantly refused to take responsibility for his action. I flew into a rage at him. It was his lack of accepting responsibility for the fire that made me so angry, more than the fact of the fire itself. When I woke up from this dream, it took me some time to cool down. I immediately associated the irresponsible individual with a notorious politician who will go unnamed.

DK: How is anger manifesting in your patients’ lives? Would you say it is related to the current collective global turbulence?

MS: I hear accounts regularly of anger flare-ups in their lives. Sometimes it is at home – for example, a mother of a young child who can’t go to school and is overwhelmed by her responsibilities toward her child, her work, her husband. Anger flares quickly and without much immediate cause in this circumstance. It’s simmering constantly in the background and flares up at the slightest provocation. This is not her usual pattern.  Another instance is a father who becomes furious with his grown daughter because she voted for the other political party and he now refuses to speak to her. Sometimes it is in the online work situation – short tempers flare because of distance and poor communications among the members of a team. I get the feeling that Ares, the angry god of war, is taking over as the dominant archetypal energy of the times. Everyone seems ready to go to war at a moment’s notice and often with the thrill and pleasure associated with the war-monger god.

DK: Does anger seem more prevalent in this decade than previous ones you’ve practiced in?

MS: Yes. More precisely, in the last five years, since the manifestation of political divisions between left and right have sharpened worldwide, and also the economic disparities between the ultra-rich and the rest have become intolerable, and then also since the Pandemic has generated its dynamics of tension and anger. The patients I see are subject to all of these collective stresses, and we have to deal with them in the sessions of psychotherapy while also of course dealing with their particular issues from their personal life histories. The collective tensions come into dreams and personal relationships. We are all embedded in the collective and cannot avoid the emotions that collective issues generate in the people around us.

Ares Borghese, a Roman marble statue of the Greek god of war for Murray Stein on anger blog postDK: What are the consequences of personal and collective anger?

MS: As I said above, the consequences are both destructive and creative. James Hillman, who was an astrological Ares, once said that he could not write if he was not angry. Anger motivated him to create. In other cases, anger results in rubble and ruin, of individuals and civilizations. The splitting energy that we see rampant in the world today might be the harbinger of a new civilization in the making beyond the angry present, or it might be nothing more than a signal that the present systems of organizing human society are broken beyond repair.

DK: What guidance might you suggest to populations overwhelmed by righteous anger?

MS: Righteous anger is still anger, and it can become so powerful and convincing that one could speak of possession. Jung defined psychosis as a state of possession by archetypal energies. In this condition, you say and do things that are not balanced. Fueled by righteous anger, they can lead to committing acts as unjust as the injustices you are protesting against in your righteousness. My suggestion would be to hold on to your thinking and feeling functions, that is, to your capacity to think rationally and to follow the guidance of your best values. If you lose contact with these functions, you are in trouble and in danger of possession. The expression of this usually leads to backlash and retribution, so not to a good result if you think about it. However, righteous anger must be expressed or it will turn to bitterness and hatred. It’s a question of how to express this type of anger. The form is important. My suggestion is to express the anger but not to let the anger per se take control of your actions.

DK: What would be a positive way to mitigate collective anger?

MS: Leadership! The anger must be heard, and there must be a response from collective leadership that gives hope of remediation. Then action. Words are not enough.

DK: Are there other extreme emotions being expressed more often in this decade (in America)? Positive or negative.

“The Darkness of the Putrefied Sun,” Plate 19 from Salomon Trismosin's alchemical treatise, Splendor Solis (1598)MS: It’s hard to say. Maybe despair. This has been a time of what I’ve called umbra mundi, the shadowed world, as though we’ve been living in a longtime eclipse of the sun and moon. It’s a dark time, and in this global mood, the dominant emotions have been anger and despair, in my experience. At the same time, there are moments of hope and vision and determination to make things different. I think we are emerging into an era of activism when the vast majority of conscious individuals will put their energies into remedial efforts to restore human values and repair the global environment.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Landscaping Our Own Gardens: Cultivating Your Essential Self

Topiary in The Topiary Park, Columbus, Ohio. for Gardening blog post

 

It’s spring. City and land dwellers are out and about, faces raised to sunshine and newly leafed trees. The pandemic’s brutal onslaught, if not quite over, is less severe. The gardeners among us have spent the long winter months studying nursery catalogs, fantasizing about what we will plant in the coming season.

My own yard has undergone several incarnations. When our children were small and willing to pick and can, we grew apples and plums, asparagus, tomatoes, and rhubarb. As the kids grew older and weary of those tasks, the yard morphed, as did my family. Along with the children, my husband and I were undergoing our own transformation. These were our quasi-hippie days when we happily foraged in forests and ate wild plants. (The main lesson about most plants was that if you boiled them a dozen times, doused them with butter, and ate them, you would not die.) Our yard became a glorious wilderness of prairie flowers and grasses, a colorful sanctuary for butterflies and bees.

Now our lawn has terraced slopes and the gentle woodland feel of an English country garden. Gardens are a metaphor for many things, and one aspect we can explore is how they relate to our inner gardens. What nutrients are missing from the soil? What seeds do we wish to cultivate? Which are the volunteer plants and invasive species that pop up unexpectedly, and are weeds that must be dug out by the roots?

Our front garden in Wisconsin for Gardening blog post When we bought our house, we inherited Mr. Peterson’s formal gardens: pruned conifers, symmetrical beds of imported tulips and peonies, exotic roses that required infinite care. My taste and garden ambitions did not match his.

In the same way, we inherit seeds from our parents, genetic markers, along with more subtle influences—propensities, inclinations, predispositions—and what some might call ancestral threads.

But we also come into life with our own essence, our own karma or destiny, if those words fit your worldview. Recognizing who we are as particular souls and living out our authentic lives constitute the great lifetime work of becoming whole, becoming a self.

The great depth psychologist Carl Jung called this process “individuation” and saw it as a cornerstone to his psychology of self-realization, “the discovery and experience of meaning and purpose in life.”

In Awakening the Soul: A Deep Response to a Troubled World, Michael Meade, storyteller and scholar of mythology, describes the process of becoming a self in slightly different terms:

“As fingerprints as well as footprints have always implied, human life exists in the particular, in the distinctive shape of the unique individual who bears an original soul within. Because each soul is by nature distinct from all others, it is each person’s singular way of seeing and being that is ultimately at issue. Because each person born is a unique being, to truly “be” means to be as oneself, to act in authentic ways. . . .Typically, the dilemma of who we are is solved in too narrow a way. We limit ourselves to prescriptions of what others consider attainable and renounce the hidden potentials that our souls hint at all along.”

Baby eaglesLike all mammals, human offspring must learn to fend for themselves. When the time is right, mama leopards walk away from their cubs. Eaglets must learn to fly and catch fish on the wing. Hatchlings eventually build their own nests.

Becoming independent from our families is something we do naturally. Becoming an individual requires something more: not only separation but knowing yourself. Knowing your tastes, values, fears, and desires. Knowing exactly what you want growing in your garden.

In today’s world, we are mightily swayed by social media. Influencers of all kinds barrage us with how we should dress, how we should fix our eyebrows, our hair. What we should listen to, what we should read, who we should or should not befriend. We are even being encouraged to ignore our own perceptions and accept truth as others see and experience it.

How difficult, under these conditions, to sort out your own feelings and impressions from the mass of leadspeakerish pronouncements of shoulds and should nots. More reason to sit quietly with yourself, feel the rhythm of your breathing, the rise and fall of your belly, the pulse in your neck. This is you, your body, the vehicle and vessel of your soul on earth. Why do you think you are here? What is your purpose in this lifetime? Do you feel connected to a larger, cosmic order? If not, how might you remedy that? Approach the still small voice within with patience and openness. Trust that answers are waiting to reveal themselves.

The 11th century Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu in a 1765 woodblock print by Komatsuken for Gardening blog postPoetry can be your friend in quieting your mind. Poetry enlivens our attention to the particular and the specific. It opens the windows of our perceptions and provokes curiosity about our inward voice in dialogue with the outward world.

Here is a poem by Izumi Shikibu, a renowned poet of the Japanese classical period. The speaker allows us to experience an intimate feeling and moment in her life. It is particular to her, but it is also a universal experience. What would you name as one of your longings?

Lying alone,
my black hair tangled,
uncombed,
I long for the one
who touched it first.

From The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



The Power of Naming: How Our Mothers Coped and How We Can

The Knitting Lesson (1869) by Jean-François Millet for Naming blog post

 

March is my mother’s birthday month. This year she would have turned a hundred and ten. She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, which she spoke of with bitterness, sorrow, and resignation. The image that stays with me is her description of cutting up cardboard to cover the holes in the bottoms of her shoes.

Like so many, her family lost all their money when the economy collapsed.  Soon after, whether from despair, alcohol, or a combination of both, her father died. My mother, then in her first year of college, had to forgo the education she so desperately wanted to help support her mother, an immigrant with few survival skills. A smart and intrepid woman, my mother eventually enrolled in secretarial school and became the private secretary to a bank president. Later, she got a job as a lab technician at a local hospital, where she met my father and became a housewife in the booming fifties.

Knitting sweaters for the Red Cross. (1942) for Naming blog postOn my mother’s birthday this year, I thought about how much changed over her lifetime, how the world she was born into had been transformed into a very different society by the time she died in the late 1990s. I never asked her, but now I wonder what sustained her through all the upheavals. I wonder where she turned for support and comfort, and what notions she had to let go of and move beyond.

These questions poke at me as our own world is in the throes of changes so monumental we don’t have language for them. We say, “climate change,” but each of us has a different reference point for what that means. We say, “social justice” and “world hunger” and a variety of images and situations arise in our minds. Even “pandemic” means different things to different people, though the common threat of mortality and contagion abides with us all.

To name a problem is to make it objective, to make it into some “thing,” an entity we can walk around, examine and relate to. Naming a problem confers meaning on what might feel abstract and vague. Naming gives the feeling an existence, makes it real. Naming feelings that arise during meditation is one aspect of mindful awareness, a technique used to observe thoughts and feelings that capture our attention and derail our state of meditation. In mindfulness meditation, we are instructed to name thoughts and feeling for what they are—anger, restlessness, frustration, thinking, solving, etc.—then let them go and return to our breath.

My favorite tree, a White Oak I call “The Mother Lode.” for Naming blog postMy mother did not have the benefit of modern psychology or meditation practices. If she was alive now, and I asked her what were her anchors when she felt awash in difficult emotions, I doubt she would have said, “I named what was bothering me and that helped.” More likely, she would have said, “I just got on with things,” or “I focused on my job.” Or she went to the movies. Or she learned how to knit. These would have been her anchors, and they are surely tried and true methods—denial, distraction, refocusing—many of us use to cope when we feel overwhelmed.

It strikes me that this may be a very good time to take a minute to sit down and take inventory. What are the anchors in your life?

You might start the list with the things in your life that bring you a sense of well-being. Pets, prayer, meditation, exercise, chocolate, a favorite playlist, a favorite tree. The list may take up pages or not. Sometimes, we don’t see the flow of the positive into our lives until we begin to acknowledge and name it. If your mind wanders, wander with it. As you scrutinize your daily world, you’ll discover abundance where you may have assumed lack.

To add to the list of anchors, you might start another list naming the qualities in yourself that have helped you navigate through difficult waters. What qualities are familiar and what qualities have surprised you? When you feel frightened, anxious, or depressed, what gives you courage? Write it down. What has the pandemic taught you about yourself? Let yourself be surprised.

Greek motto gnōthi sauton (know thyself). Mosaic from the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome.My mother survived many hardships, but I don’t believe she ever absorbed the lessons they might have taught her. Her experience of the Great Depression soured whatever native optimism she possessed. For the rest of her life, she guarded against hope, lest she be disappointed, a strategy that might work in the short run, but which dulls one’s capacity for pleasure and joy.

Her lessons are my lessons. As her offspring, she bequeathed me an emotional legacy that isn’t entirely mine. This returns me to a one-sentence summary of this blog, straight from the mouths of the ancient Greek sages: know thyself.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Art and Empathy: Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

Give Me Shelter, painting by Kate Langlois for empathy blog post

 

Despair, boredom, restlessness, fear, worry, lack of pleasure: these are conditions that have haunted so many of us during the pandemic and interfered with our feelings of joy and accomplishment. One resource that’s always available to us is our creativity.

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, touched on what makes art so powerful in What Is Art?

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

Art is the passing of feeling from one human heart to another. We pass on the feelings that we have in our hearts to others.

After witnessing on TV George Floyd’s murder, I felt speechless, mute, but also compelled to “say something.” But what could I, a white woman very far removed from Mr. Floyd’s world, contribute? I did not want to appropriate a story that was not mine, and yet I was deeply unsettled and needed to find my words. The result of this inner conflict surprised me.

I don’t just write for Psychology Today. I write fiction and I am deep into work on my second novel. But my original training and background is as a poet. When George Floyd was murdered, I hadn’t been writing poetry for quite a while. And yet, something rose in me. The tension I felt to speak against violence, oppression and privilege, about victims and perpetrators, sprung forth in what became a series of fifteen new poems. They are now a section of my forthcoming book of new poems.

Poster from BringBackOurGirls.ng for empathy blog postThe poems are in the voices of women who have suffered violence, mothers who have lost children to war or disaster, women in exile, girls kidnapped by rebel forces. I felt I could get inside their skins because I know about loss too, perhaps not as dramatic a loss as in these cases, but I know I carry in my DNA the grief of ancestors and a lineage of persecution and diaspora. My novel-in-progress, The Lost Mother Archive, delves into the enduring pain of intergenerational trauma.

Empathy enabled me to write my poems. Difficult times invite us to cultivate our inherent capacity for empathy by exposing us to suffering, to feel into the pain with our entire being, and to understand that when we give these feelings form, as we do when we make art, they are redeemed from the darkness. We take what’s inside ourselves and objectify it so that we can walk around it and study it, so that we represent our private reality outside ourselves and offer it to the culture. We don’t have to “learn” empathy as much as allow ourselves to feel it.

Feeling connects us with what is most vital and powerful within us. It’s one of the ways we know we are alive, and a barometer of what matters to us. Fear, sadness, rage can be great motivators to create, but we don’t need to be embedded in catastrophic events for our creativity to flourish. We do, however, need the courage to be vulnerable to our own truths and realities.

The path forward is like a hero or heroine’s journey in which we set off into the unknown, unsteady and unsure, but with a sense of urgency. Along the way we meet demons and obstacles. Many times, we desperately want to turn back. But an unnamable faith urges us onward. When the hero or heroine attains the treasure, she returns with it to her place of origin, refreshing and renewing the culture.

To make art we first have to believe that making it matters, which is a serious and profound question in a world filled with very real, very concrete struggles. Why create art if we don’t think it matters?

In a world such as ours, might we not conclude that art is superfluous, an indulgent privilege of certain classes and populations? Might we not ask: how can my poem or my painting or my song matter in the grand scheme of things, and therefore, why should I spend time and energy in that direction? My answer is a resounding yes!

Our desire to create springs from the depth of our soul. This urge is hardwired in our chemistry. One piece of evidence for this is that, across time and cultures, some form of art has been with us since humans walked the earth.

Seventeen thousand years ago, Paleolithic people descended into caves in southwestern France, and blowing mineral pigments through tubes, painted scenes of hunting and other ritualized activities on the rock walls. The cave spaces are assumed to have been spiritual sanctuaries that were decorated with pictures of horses, oxen, birds, and people, and it may be guessed from these gestures that art’s origins are linked to a human need to document our lives and to create a sacred space for ceremonies in which we connect to the divine.

 In the Living Quarters by Bedřich Fritta (1906–1944). Drawing from Theresienstadt for empathy blog postArt creates new forms and visions that help us survive. Gospel, hymns, blues, jazz were born out of the joys and tribulations of a people. In the Nazi ghettos and death camps, the persecuted made drawings and paintings, wrote poems and stories that leave a testimony of how they lived, suffered, and died. The friends and families of the disappeared in Latin America; the incarcerated, interned, and exiled in camps and gulags and on reservations; the political prisoners in China and in other Asian countries have all left us their poems and stories and paintings. The need to tell our stories and to bear witness urgently pushes us to find our voice. The personal is always political. In an interconnected universe, what happens to you influences me and everyone else – and vice versa.

The brilliant writer and thinker James Baldwin said: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in people.” What he meant is that not only are we born into a particular time in history, but we are born into a particular family with particular struggles and life experiences and backgrounds. This is our material. This is what we bear witness to and document in our stories, songs, paintings, dances.

You may be listening to this and saying, “What does this have to do with me?” Maybe it feels like you are in exile and you spend every day trying to survive in a system founded on oppression and colonization. Or maybe you say to yourself, “I’m not in a death camp. I’m not in exile. My issues are minor compared to these.” In both cases, the question remains, “Why are my work and my voice important?”

Believe me, it is.

What we all share is a desire to give form to something that has not been expressed ever before. It is our own individual stamp on the ineffable sorrows, joys, pain, anger, sufferings that compose our lives. Each one of us lives a life that contains these things and so each one of us has a unique perspective, an individual way we view the world. Our individual perspective is what composes the whole, the collective, and each of us participates as actor and witness in creating a society.

This means that in some ways, we are already prepared, and we already have the raw material to create. We come to our creative being with a personal temperament, with specific social circumstances, with specific historical circumstances, with our ancestral influences, with inclinations, and with a great deal that we don’t know about ourselves, that is, with a great deal of mystery.

Please know you already have at your disposal all the material you need. If you can allow yourself to follow your curiosity even into states that are uncomfortable, like anxiety or depression, and become the observer of them, and seek to find within them some nugget of worth, you will discover that inside these darker elements there is often a hidden treasure, a gift. This, I believe, is the deep secret of art. It is life-restoring and life-enhancing for both the creator and her or his world.

Art is a bridge to empathy, to connection with our pack. Because humans are pack animals, we suffer when we become isolated. Isolation, loneliness, despair are the breeding grounds for our darker emotions. But the act of creation is life-giving. This is the reason why writers sometimes refer to completing a book as “giving birth” or “having a new baby.”

In my own experience, the ability to focus intensely on a project provides a buffer from worry and anxiety that is so much with us during this time of uncertainty. No matter what comes of the attempt, there is satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in the effort. Crucially, a sense of hope is restored.

Experience, that is our material, all of it, the good, bad, the ugly. What is it you will remember most about this time of the pandemic on planet Earth? What is pressing inside you to get out?

As the great jazz musician Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”

One of my favorite things in the world is discussing with book clubs the themes of this post – creativity and empathy – as well as the themes of my novels and other posts – resilience, writing, intergenerational trauma, mother/daughter relationships, Carl Jung and Jungian therapy, dreams, and even fairy tales. If this interests you, please find my contact info here.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Fate and Destiny: What Role Do They Play in Your Life?

The Three Fates, Flemish tapestry for fate and destiny blog post

 

Six months after recovering from a serious illness, I got on a train and headed west to Montana, where I rented a car and drove up into the mountains. Not only had the illness, with its gripping mixture of uncertainty and fear, been a voyage into the unknown but now I was setting forth on a different kind of journey, this time in search of healing.

Brooke Medicine Eagle by her tent for fate and destiny blog postFor a month, I lived on the wilderness property of Brooke Medicine Eagle, a Native American wisdom teacher and author, in a caravan by myself. Every day Brooke and I went into the mountains or to the river and performed ceremonies for restoring my mind, body, spirit. I had never done anything like this before. I didn’t know what I really believed about so-called “energy” or “spiritual work.” What I did know, however, was that though my surgery and treatment had been successful, I did not feel completely healed. Intuitively, I sensed something in me still required repair. I understood I needed a different perspective on the meaning of “well-being” or “being well.”

The mythographer and storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that life is our great teacher. We are most aware of this at big turning points in our lives, when a crisis arises that can’t be ignored, dismissed, or laughed off, when no simple or previous solution fits the remedy. At such times, old ideas, patterns, relationships, and jobs can feel depleted of relevance, requiring that we let go of the past and start anew. Decisions must be made, a path forward uncovered.

In his book, Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Meade writes:

“What I am calling fate has to do with the way a person’s soul is seeded and shaped from within, like a story trying to unfold and become known. What I am calling destiny has to do with the inner arc and arrow of one’s life. For each soul is secretly aimed at the world and inclined toward a destination that only becomes revealed in crucial moments and at turning points in life. The elements of fate and destiny are intimations of the story our soul would have us live, both the limitations that must be faced and the destination that would be found. As fate would have it, they are often found through what seems like a big mistake, a strange accident or a surprise.”

Fate. Destiny. Soul. These abstract nouns sound outdated, even ludicrous to some. We are much more comfortable with words like adversity and resilience, empowerment and recovery with their scientific, reality-based aura. However, the concepts of fate, destiny, and soul have always been interwoven with humankind’s search for meaning and underlie the roots of most religious traditions. They point to a vastly larger, wilder, and incomprehensible universe whose mysteries we are still unlocking, and which can never be fully known.

Of fate, Meade continues:

“Fate is a mysterious presence found within each life and encountered in all serious undertakings . . . Fate appears as whatever limits, restricts or even imprisons us; yet fate is the territory where we must go if we are to awaken to our inner destiny.”

Many traditions contain a similar understanding of a guiding force that is both a part of us but also connected to a larger cosmology. Call it our Buddha nature, our daimon or genius, the Self, or the Soul, something beyond our ego that exists as a governing principle that shapes the story we live out. It manifests in the twists and turns, struggles, possibilities, and opportunities for growth.

We often talk about being “resigned to our fate” but “seeking our destiny.” Here is how Meade distinguishes the two:

“Fate may involve the earthly limitations of our ‘lot in life,’ but destiny, from the Latin, destinare, implies that we are also ‘of the stars.’ . . . Destiny can mean ‘to stand out, to stand apart, ’ especially to be seen standing in a visible relation to one’s inner genius. Destiny involves an irreversible process of becoming from within.”

The caravan photo for fate and destiny blog postWe are called to acknowledge the interplay of fate and destiny during life’s most perplexing moments when something beyond the rational seems to have laid its hand on us, often when life and death hang in the balance. Why did my house escape the tornado when all the houses on the block were destroyed? Why did I get stuck in traffic and miss the fire at my office? Why did I get the position when I’m not as credentialed as the other applicants? When we look deeply into these questions, we uncover how the fateful event serves a deeper purpose threaded throughout our days. While we enter life with both limitations and unique talents, our destiny plays out in how we creatively incorporate these into the unfolding narrative of our lives.

To return to my own story, illness knocked me out of complacency, swept me out to sea, and deposited me on the shores of a new continent. It altered my sense of safety and security. An enormously important event had disrupted my world. The way I perceived life had been forever changed. This was my fate. My destiny involved honoring an inner voice that prompted me to go in search of healing, but I would have no map. This is exactly what fairytales teach: to find the golden egg, to escape the ravenous monster, to reunite with our lost soul we must be extraordinarily brave, abide with uncertainty, trust the helpers along the way, (instincts and intuitions are often represented in tales as helpful animals or humble elders), and most fervently bring our faith and all our heart to the task.

Honoring the promptings of my intuition, I contacted Brooke and set out on destiny’s adventure.

We have been living through a hard season of plague and disruption. Many of our assumptions about ourselves as a society and as a country have been shattered. The time is ripe for considering how the thread of our individual fate is interwoven with the destiny of the country and the planet. Here are some prompts for beginning that exploration.

  1. Make a list of the major turning points in your life. (You can illustrate these questions with a brainstorming mind map to help you see the connections between turning points.)
  2. What do you think was being asked of you at each of these fateful moments?
  3. Were you required to make a decision?
  4. What was the result of your decision?
  5. What do you understand now about the situation that you did not understand previously?
  6. What pattern and toward what inner goal do you believe these events were leading you?
  7. What do you feel is still unresolved and perhaps waiting to unfold in your life story?

Bringing your full attention to these questions will prompt your psyche for a creative response. Watch and note your dreams as your answers take shape!

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” “What Ancient Traditions Can Teach About Coping with Change,” and “How Dreams Help Identify Areas We  Need to Address.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by following her on Facebook and .



Transforming Conflict through a Restorative Framework

Cambuci Tree (2017) by Cristiane Mohallem for Restorative Framework blog post

A Conversation with Conflict Specialist Jessie Kushner

Peace on earth. At this time of the year, this is what people all over the globe wish each other. Paz en la tierra! Siocháin ar talamh!

Peace, the resolution of conflict, has been on my mind. The subject concerns me as a member of a family, community, and nation, and as a fiction writer with a keen interest in empathy, trauma, and healing. Of late, our species has been mired in the opposite of peace—division, conflict, violence. Bryan Stevenson, the Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has said, “Hope is our superpower. Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people want you to sit down. Hope is what gets you to speak when others tell you to be quiet.” The question arises: how do we find the courage and confidence to engage in difficult conversations with our friends, family, and the larger community? What skills can we learn that can lift us out of the anger, frustration, and helplessness of our current state?

Today I’m privileged to have a conversation with a crisis responder, grief counselor, and facilitator of restorative justice practices in family and group settings. This person is my daughter, Jess.

Jessie KushnerJessie has worked with teens, young adults, families, and professionals for almost 30 years through Outward Bound as well as the non-profit she co-founded, Forward Learning Youth and Young Adults. At Outward Bound, she directed the national high-risk teen program and introduced and implemented restorative practices into its curriculum. She was honored to work over the decades in numerous roles for both wilderness and urban centers and has served as a national staff trainer and facilitator at the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding. In 2019, she founded Collective Voices.

Dale Kushner: What is Collective Voices and what does it offer?

Jessie Kushner: Collective Voices is the company I founded whose mission is to help people reconnect, repair, and rebuild their relationships. Collective Voices provides a structured approach to healing and to interrupting cycles of misunderstanding, conflict, and even violence by seeking to understand the underlying issues. My methods begin with building relationships and trust. Together, we uncover what lies at the root of the dynamics and work to find a path forward that is agreeable to everyone involved.

DK: Describe what you mean by conflict.

JK: Culture and conflict are inexplicably tied. What constitutes a conflict differs among individuals and is dependent on the culture(s) with which they identify. No one definition of conflict is perfect. Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist often referred to as the “father of peace and conflict studies,” developed a theory that all conflicts have three components: 1. Behaviors (actions, statements, insults). 2. Attitudes and assumptions (feelings, prejudices, trauma, and beliefs). 3. Contradiction or context (inequality, dispute over territory or regions). What we “see” in any conflict is only the tip of the iceberg (the behaviors).

DK: What are some manifestations of conflict? What is a “restorative framework” and why is it important?

JK: Conflict can manifest as tension, silence, abuse, oppression, repression, trauma, and grief, to name a few. Many communities and individuals are deeply affected by systemic and generational cycles of conflict, violence, and harm that shock one’s sense of self, security, and connection with others. Silence is often a protector of conflict that includes abuse, violence, as well as relational dynamics that hamper people’s ability to overcome challenges, sustain wellness, and be effective (and productive) in a workplace, community, and/or family setting.

violence-peace spectrum for restorative framework blog postA “framework” is the attitude, lens, and value system one inhabits that guides interactions, conflict, repair, and communication. A “restorative framework” is grounded in the question “How am I impacting others?” A restorative framework is the opposite of a “dominant framework” that is built on systems of colonization and oppression. A dominant framework inhabits one voice, one harm, one point of view, and leads to blaming the circumstances or other people. Johan Galtung speaks of peace existing on a spectrum. On the left side, he puts violence. In the middle, he puts negative peace, which he defines as the absence of war and violence or fear thereof. On the right, he places positive peace. Positive peace can be used to gauge the resilience of a society. In a dominant framework, positive peace cannot exist because the primary belief is that there are a right and wrong in every situation.

In a restorative framework, everyone’s feelings and needs are a priority. All voices and perspectives are valid and deserve to be heard, and explanations are not considered to be excuses. The overall goal of restorative-based dialogue is to seek mutual understanding and practice respect, even when serious conflict exists. Restorative practices are aimed at promoting positive peace. They build the capacity within people to identify and solve their own problems. Restorative services have been found to be more effective and successful for resolving conflicts and interrupting violence than their counterparts. What is essential to the process and what makes a band-aid approach (focusing only on solutions or quick fixes) different from sustained peace is the dialogue that takes place to allow for all perspectives and needs to be heard. The end result is increased safety, unity, and an understanding that the “collective good” is essential in order for each individual to get what they need.

DK: Why do families and groups seek your help with conflict and repair? 

Mist (photo by Jessie Kushner) for JK: In my thirty years of experience working with youth on long wilderness expeditions (in which the family is a part of the program, although not in the wilderness), as well as in community and/or clinical settings, I have discovered that while no two families are alike, many struggle with similar issues—communication, boundaries, violence, addiction, finances, power, culture, identity, and incarceration—and are looking for experienced and objective guides and facilitators who can help them navigate the turbulence.

In addition to working with youths and families, I also have had the privilege and honor to be hired as a consultant to run training and facilitate conflict and repair work across a range of clients: childcare centers, drug and alcohol clinics, First Nations tribes, an auto clinic, nonprofits, and other agencies. All of the work centers around helping people reconnect, repair, and rebuild their relationships to one another, themselves, and/or the group. My work has included facilitating dialogue around topics such as racial and social justice, equity, violence, workplace culture, diversity, employees’ roles and responsibilities, and impact. After some initial hesitation in trusting the process, participants find that they have an increased understanding about the roots of their conflict(s) and are willing to find a mutually agreed-upon path forward, even if that means they simply learn how important it is to listen to opinions other than their own.

DK: What does being “repaired” mean in repair work?

JK: A great question. Simply put, repair implies that something was once in full form “before,” and repairing is about restoring the relationship, the community, or group to a new harmonious state. Humans are layered creatures. We aren’t broken or fixed like a toy or machine. Repair work seeks to uncover the root of the barriers to healing, addresses the need for ownership of the impact one has had on others, while also recognizing the spoken or unspoken needs of each person. The process builds a capacity for empathy and mutual understanding and aids in discovering durable solutions that work for all parties involved.

DK: How is the conflict resolution work you do different from therapy?

JK: My work is therapeutic; however, I am not a therapist. Every interaction we have has the capacity to be therapeutic dependent on one’s ability to master the craft of being a guide as well as a nonjudgmental but knowledgeable resource and listener. My direct care services appeal to people who have tried therapy and feel that it either does not work for them or that they want to take a slightly different approach. I am a strengths-based practitioner and work to understand and address the root causes of issues before moving into collaboratively exploring solutions and tools to increase one’s capacity for managing conflict and repair.

DK: Could you share a story where repair figured prominently?

Collective Voices logo for restorative framework blog postJK: Sure. One client was an equine specialist who worked in Tribal Behavioral Health and Family and Youth Services. This is how she described her experience:

“The training I received from Collective Voices has completely reshaped the communication in my program for the better. I primarily work with at-risk Native American youth, some with severe behavioral issues. Implementing circles (and allowing our teens to call for them) has empowered our kids to slow down in time of conflict, listen, gain empathy, restore relationships, and diffuse emotionally high stakes situations. The training I received from Jessie has facilitated healing and helped this community begin the process of repairing intergenerational harm. Jessie as a trainer is fantastic!  She has strong intercultural awareness and creates an environment that is safe, accepting, and encouraging for all.  I am grateful for the training I received from Collective Voices and to have a resource like Jessie Kushner.”—P.G.D, MM, BM.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 

 



Denial: Telling Ourselves Stories That Hide the Truth

Denial Denial Denial painting for Denial blog postDenial is a word we hear a lot these days, but what is it and why is it so important to understand? Why do we engage in denial? How can we recognize when we do it, when society does?

The Proto-Indo-European origin of “denial” is ne, meaning “no!” When we are in denial, we refuse and repudiate something with which we do not want to engage.

Antigone and Oedipus for Denial blog postSigmund Freud, and later his daughter Anna, also a psychoanalyst, understood denial as a defense mechanism the involves a refusal to accept reality. By blocking distressing reality from our awareness, denial is a psychological strategy our unconscious invokes to protect us from thoughts and feelings we may find unacceptable. To use a familiar expression, we turn “a blind eye” to an issue or situation that probably bears looking into.

Recently, I had a discussion with friends about denial. Each had her own poignant story. One involved a denial of infidelity in a troubled marriage when the clues and signals were in clear sight. Ignoring the signals, blocking them from her awareness, my friend was able, for a time, to fool herself into believing all was well. Inevitably, the time passed for restorative help and her marriage broke up.

As experience teaches, what we choose not to acknowledge does not disappear. In my friend’s situation, the sorrow, rage, and grief aroused by her husband’s infidelity needed to be faced and worked through. Denial may have provided short-term relief, but ultimately it proved self-defeating.

Popular culture abounds with stories about denial. Novels and memoirs of people struggling with addictions of all kinds fill our bookstores and rivet our attention. Many biopics about iconic entertainers—Johnny Cash, Elton John, and Queen, to name a few—trace a trajectory from denial to redemption as the subject faces his demons. From podcasts and videos to major works of art, so prevalent is the theme of denial and waking up from denial that we might conclude that as a culture we are obsessed with it. However, being immersed in such a popular culture does not mean we know how to apply to ourselves the lessons these stories depict.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby for Denial blog postAt one extreme, horror movies supply images and tropes of denial for us to marvel and laugh at. In movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Psycho, the viewer is aware before the victim that evil is afoot and that the victim is ignoring the warnings or not paying attention. Part of the thrill for us as audience is that we are privy to knowledge the protagonist rejects. As the scary incidents increase, we tense for the explosive situation to erupt while the victim chooses to remain innocent and dismiss reality—until it’s too late.

What motivates these fictional characters to deny the facts mirrors what we experience in our very real lives: when we numb out, deny, avoid and distract ourselves, and in extreme cases, dissociate, our coping mechanisms have broken down. Denial is our mind’s canny ability to “keep us in the dark” when thoughts and feelings become too overwhelming. Our mind says: “This isn’t happening, can’t happen, won’t happen,” despite evidence to the contrary. Today, we can see the impact of this on a global level in people who deny the reality of COVID-19, resulting in death on a grand scale.

But denial can have another aspect, one that is beneficial, and can even be lifesaving. Here is a story from a different friend:

Robert had his first physical therapy appointment when he was still a young baby because it was clear that he was at risk of having cerebral palsy due to his difficult birth. His tone varied from floppy to stiff and he had significant oral motor problems that led to feeding difficulties. After her assessment, the physical therapist showed me three easy exercises she recommended I should have Robert do several times a day. I clearly remember thinking “I can do this, if this is all I have to do it’s not going to be hard”. At the same time, part of me was aware that this was only the beginning of a very long process of many more exercises and interventions, but my mind clearly couldn’t deal with thinking ahead, so I told myself to just focus on what she had given me and not think about anything else. This denial was the only way that I could cope, and it served me well.

 

The day Robert died, his kidney output was clearly decreasing. Medically, I knew that meant that this could be the end, but it had happened before and he had recovered, so I told myself that I wouldn’t think about it. I even went to visit a woman in a nursing home that night, telling myself that even if Robert was dying, he wouldn’t want me to stop my life and not see her since she was so sick. When I got home, I did some energy work with him and felt his aura moving farther away from his body. I told myself that meant that his aura was getting stronger, not that it was leaving him. Denial of his impending death was the only way that I could cope and not break down in front of him. I could not imagine life without him and realized that no amount of thinking about what lay ahead could prepare me or be helpful.

 

At the same time, deep in my heart, I knew that he needed to die soon. His body was in so much pain and it was no way to live. Part of me tried to let his soul know that it was okay for him to leave, but one of my regrets is that we didn’t talk directly about his death because I didn’t have the strength.

 

I think denial can be helpful in staying in the moment and being present with what is. Without it as a coping strategy, it’s easy to ruminate about what could lay ahead and not be able to do what you need to do at the time. In my experience in taking care of Robert, denial has served me very well!

Depth psychologist Carl Jung famously wrote: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Becoming conscious and aware requires courage, resilience, and a mind willing to be flexible in its attitudes. Denial occurs when our mind is stricken and overwhelmed and contracts against a full knowledge of the truth. But we are not helpless to change. Fear and anxiety do not have to constrict our notions of reality.

This beautiful Japanese haiku written at the turn of the twentieth century encourages a trust in facing the darkness and the unknown. In the silence and stillness, and even terror of looking into a dark sky, hidden sparks of light grow visible.

If you put out the lamp

distant stars enter

your window

—Natsume Sõseki

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 

Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888) by Vincent van Gogh



Mindfulness for Women: Confronting and Overcoming “Othering”

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai for othering blog post

A Conversation with Psychotherapist and Teacher Mare Chapman

This month, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to a dear friend and extraordinary teacher, Mare Chapman. Mare has traveled many paths in gathering wisdom, including degrees in Occupational Therapy and Counseling as well as studying with Native mentors and acclaimed Buddhist teachers. She is a respected and fearless voice within the tradition of Vipassana Meditation. Using the lens of mindfulness training, Mare offers a unique and clarifying roadmap to facing the demons of fear, doubt, and internalized oppression, while learning to embody equanimity and self-compassion. Her book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, will transform the way you see the world and how you live in it.

Dale Kushner: You practice mindfulness-based psychotherapy.  What is your basic view as you approach your work?

Mare Chapman for othering blog postMare Chapman: I believe we are each trustworthy beings for ourselves.  By that I mean, as spirits living in these human bodies, we all possess an innate drive that moves us towards our well-being and full potential. Our bodies, minds, hearts and spirit are continuously giving us information to help us evolve in this direction.  But the habits of our conditioning and the beliefs we unconsciously internalize as we grow up bias our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. More often than not, these habits and beliefs block our access to and our trust in that vital information.  My primary job is to help the person I’m working with access their own system’s reliable data and find their own truth and wisdom. This requires mindfulness: cultivating a sensitivity and acceptance of one’s full present moment experience – perceiving what’s happening in the body, realizing the thoughts and stories going through the mind, receiving the feelings residing in the heart, and listening deeply to one’s spirit. By relating to one’s authentic experience in this way, insight and deeper understanding, along with acceptance and compassion, naturally emerge. Healing then happens organically, and trust and confidence in one’s own being deepens.

D.K.: How is mindfulness helpful with this?  Does this always involve meditation?

M.C.: The core intention of mindfulness, as I understand it, is to free the mind from its conditioned habits so we can perceive reality accurately and access our true nature/who we are ultimately. It requires learning to relate to whatever we’re experiencing, with curiosity, kindness, acceptance, and without taking it so personally. Learning to be a compassionate observer of one’s experience enables the inner room to realize what’s authentically happening in the moment. This internal spaciousness allows one to clearly see those conditioned beliefs and behaviors that create misery, without self-blame. As a result, self-compassion and wisdom can naturally arise. With practice, instead of reacting habitually under the rule of those conditioned beliefs, there is the possibility of choosing a wiser and kinder response.  Mindfulness trains our mind to become our reliable friend instead of being our inner bully, and we learn to stay connected, steady, and kind with ourself, even when the going gets rough.

The Buddha in meditation for othering blog postI teach clients how to establish an inner stability by connecting with their breath, encourage tons of curiosity, and help them be aware of the stories in their minds and the sensations in their bodies as we explore their distress, coaching them to remain accepting as we dive more deeply into the discomfort or habit pattern they want to explore.  Although I don’t require clients to meditate, I do encourage it, and occasionally will teach meditation in our sessions.  This often includes teaching about the nature of thoughts, emotions, the body-mind connection, and the principles of mindfulness. By trusting their own reliable data, the clients maintain their agency and I remain open, receptive, and curious as we work together.

D.K.: A few months ago, I interviewed the meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg. She recommends your book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, for any woman who feels stuck in insecurity.  How do you identify that as a key issue for women?

M.C.: I see so many amazing women who appear successful and competent on the outside, but internally suffer from so much self-doubt, insecurity, and the resultant anxiety and depression. Even though they are doing whatever they can to make sure others are happy with them – always being responsible, doing their best, striving to be perfect – deep down women commonly believe there is something wrong with them, or they aren’t enough. Consequently, much of one’s inner life is spent dwelling on and worrying about others, wondering how they feel about us, fearing they aren’t approving of us, all of which naturally disconnects us from knowing ourselves and leaves us cut off from our wisdom.  We assume that when others are happy with us we will finally feel secure and then we can relax. But given that we never know for sure if we’re really okay in the other’s eyes, we’re left with chronic insecurity and self-doubt and feeling exhausted by this constant inner turmoil.

I call this pattern of seeking approval and security from others while disconnecting from one’s own authentic experience “othering”: it’s the habitual movement of attention away from self to the other, based on the assumption that the other has more power, authority, value, or privilege. I see it as the common normal coping strategy and natural reaction to women’s gender conditioning.  Because we live in a world that is predominately patriarchal, as we grow up, we internalize the misogynistic beliefs inherent in patriarchy: men are superior and should be dominant and women are inferior and should be subordinate.  Although we know intellectually we’re all equally valuable, nevertheless the innumerable and insidious ways patriarchy inserts its views and the resulting behaviors into our society cause women to believe we don’t matter as much. This trains us to give our power away to others as we look to them for the validation and approval we’re unable to give ourselves. Addressing and transforming women’s internalized misogyny is thus a key aspect of feminism’s unfinished work.

D.K.: How do you treat this issue and the habit of “othering”?

“The Creation of Eve” from Illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost by William Blake (1808) M.C.: First, I help women realize that othering, the false beliefs that underpin it, and the various ways it plays out in our lives are all deeply conditioned patterns and a normal response to our internalized misogyny. This intellectual understanding helps mitigate the habit of self-blame or the charge of co-dependency. Then I teach the skill set of bringing mindfulness to present moment experience. Through the increased awareness and inner space this creates, one is able to spot othering habits, choose to pop out of them, and connect with authentic experience, just as it is in the moment.  Whereas othering trains us to place our reference point in others and ignore our authentic experience, mindfulness creates balance in our attention.  We learn to be aware of ourselves, our own valid data – what we’re feeling, thinking, knowing, wanting, intending – as we perceive and relate to the other. This makes it possible to express clear boundaries, take wiser care of ourselves, let go of what isn’t our responsibility, respect our wants and needs, and empower ourselves to follow our own truth and dreams. Since mindfulness inherently teaches us to relate to ourselves with kindness, acceptance, curiosity, and less identification, over time with practice, one begins to build an inner frame of reference that is respectful, loving, and resilient. Gradually, with practice, we develop a growing trust in our authentic experience, the belief that we are enough just as we are, and the confidence we can handle whatever arises.

D.K.: Does your book give practical advice, instructions for women to help them to overcome disempowering beliefs, to achieve or improve confidence?

M.C.: Yes, my book is very practical. It’s based on a 10-week class, founded on a successful pilot study, that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years. It explores the notion of self, both conditioned and authentic, how patriarchy trains us to other, the common patterns of othering and how these affect us, and then step-by-step teaches the basic aspects of practicing mindfulness, as well as loving-kindness and compassion practices, in order to transform these disempowering habits. With numerous examples of women’s experiences as well as my own, specific instructions, guided meditations, informal practices, suggestions for reflection, and “ownwork,” my aim is to lead the reader into cultivating an accepting, wise and kind relationship with herself so that she gradually discovers and comes to trust that her own experience is always valid. It’s through this understanding and way of being that we empower ourselves to be our whole amazing selves.  And, since we are all interconnected, the effect of our own healing and freedom always ripples out and benefits the whole world.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Soul Care During COVID-19: How Have Your Rituals Changed?

Two young Buddhist monks for rituals blog

Once upon a time (and we know how that goes; the unimaginable is about to happen!)…. Once upon a time, we knew ourselves to be creatures of the earth. We passed our days traversing landscapes green with vegetation, blue with sky or water, brown with rock and dirt. After eons passed, we travelled by train, rode bikes along windy roads, sat impatiently in traffic fiddling with mobile phones. Some of us waited for buses or subways, walked through neighborhoods as familiar as our hands. The air we breathed carried the fragrance of the season and the scent of our locale—fumes from a bread factory, hot asphalt, algae bloom on a lake, diesel exhaust.

If we bumped into a friend, we offered a hand or a hug. In elevators, stomachs growled, wheezy breathers gave off stale air. Someone’s shirt smelled of cigarette smoke, someone’s neck stank of cheap perfume. On escalators we looked each other in the face, smiled politely, and turned away. We lived social lives: we bowled, sat in movie theaters, met for lunch dates, pressed our noses to store windows and browsed inside. Our days were full of tactile pleasures and small injuries, which we took for granted as familiar and mundane.

The Fertility Dance in the Magura cave for rituals blogIn our minds, we separated work time from fooling around time by occasion and place. After work at home, we stepped out of our panty hose and high heels, our overalls or uniforms, showered and changed into casual clothes. We ate dinner with our family and put the kids to bed or plonked ourselves in front of the TV and took a pull of a beer. Watches and digital devices kept us punctual and noted the passing hours. The world was a vast palette of shapes and colors. We lived an embodied life.

This was the world pre-COVID. Now, except for our courageous first responders and front-liners in crucial jobs, our world has shrunk to the size of our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes. We wander our rooms from sunrise until bedtime, often without stepping outside. Contact with other humans may be limited to a perch in front of a computer screen, Zooming or Skyping or Facetiming. We now have more empathy for animals captured from savannahs or rain forests and put into cages. COVID-19 has been with us for nine months, and while it’s too soon to make conclusive statements about how the pandemic is affecting our mental and physical health, we know we are grieving the loss of our familiar world.

Naming and honoring what has been lost can be a powerful tool. Along with enduring personal losses, our communal relationship to time and space has been altered since the pandemic, as has our physical relationship to each other and to the sensory world. Many of our most important and sustaining rituals have disappeared or been put on hold. Linked to the loss of ritual is a loss of our sense of a meaningful existence, a felt disorientation, rootlessness, restlessness, even despair. Some anthropologists suggest the instinct for ritual is hardwired in our brains and point to evidence of prehistoric rituals honoring the dead in the caves of Europe and on other continents.

Opening of the Mouth Ceremony. Papyrus of Hunefer (1275 BC) For rituals blog postNations have rituals. Think of the Pledge of Allegiance and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Religions, ethnic groups, local communities, kinship clans all engage in rituals that elevate and mark important aspects of life. Our most common rituals—weddings, funerals, birth rites, birthdays, communions, bar mitzvahs, fasting or serving special holiday foods—are so commonplace, we rarely think of them as rituals with roots in primeval times, but their dismemberment during COVID has made us aware of their importance to our well-being.

This experience of loss is likely to continue into the new year. How can we creatively interact with this formidable challenge? One way is to become aware of the rituals that have vanished or changed in your own life, starting with the actions and ritual observances with which you begin your day. Ask yourself: what new patterns do I see emerging since sheltering in place? Do I sleep later than I did pre-COVID? Do I stay in pajamas and a robe all day? Do I have the same morning hygiene habits? What about breakfast? Do I eat the same breakfast at the same time and in the same way as I did before COVID? If not, what has changed?

Scriptorum Monk at Work from Blades, William: Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges (1891) Have I stopped “dressing” for different occasions because they are occurring online? Before COVID, we often marked transitional time, that is, time between a change of action—work and home, home and leisure play—by a change of clothes or a change in our tempo. How are you marking transitional time now? Get curious about the different events in your day. What rituals might you put in place to create a sense of order and differentiation between events? Some suggestions include lighting a candle before you speak to an important relative or person; step outside between work-related meetings, breathe deeply and gaze briefly at the sky; say a positive mantra or prayer blessing at the beginning and ending of each day; use different rooms, if possible, for different work-related dates; place a wishing stone or a piece of paper with a wish on it into a bowl for each day COVID is still around; look into your own eyes in a mirror for five minutes, a practice that can be as deeply centering as it is soulful.

A camera can be a useful ally in creating new rituals. A friend of mine goes out each morning to photograph the changing face of the lake near her house. When the pandemic is over, she plans to make a book of her photographs. Another friend manages her depression by photographing every sunrise. You might choose a nearby tree to photograph through the seasons, or the daily expressions of your cat. Let whimsy and chance be your guides.

Creating new rituals can refresh and uplift our spirits. Let in and honor what arises from the depth of your being. The wisest part of ourselves, whether we call it Higher Self, Soul, our Buddha or Christ nature, is waiting to be summoned.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



The Hero’s Journey in the Time of COVID

Jason, Athena and the Golden Fleece for Hero blog post

In only seven months we have watched the dissolution of our familiar world. The viral outbreak has fractured our social order and dismantled the scaffolding which has held our society intact. Institutions we have come to rely on for our well-being—healthcare, education, government itself—are altered in ways we couldn’t have predicted.

We wonder how our future will look. Some of us even wonder if we will be alive in the future. What will survive? Will there be restaurants? Movie theaters? Malls and sports arenas? Will our children have human teachers, or will tele-teaching and tele-medical visits become the norm? Social instability appears to be chronic and unfixable and our psyches are suffering greatly. How could we not be swept up by feelings of abandonment, worry, anger, fear, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation and loss, or numbed out and grieving? If any of these feelings ring true for you, you’re not alone.

So where can we find strength and resilience when hardships proliferate and we need to accommodate even more change? One way is to turn inward to our heroic self who seeks our greatest potential and guides us toward authentic wholeness. Here’s how depth psychologist Carl Jung described this inner companion: “Inside each of us is another who we do not know who speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from how we see ourselves.”

These days most everyone knows about the hero’s journey, whether they are aware of it or not. Popular culture brims with stories structured around the hero’s journey, including some of our most popular fictional characters like Harry Potter or Atticus Finch. The film industry has notably co-opted the hero’s journey to plot movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, Frozen, and all the James Bond films.

Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces for Hero blog postMythologist Joseph Campbell first wrote about the hero’s journey in 1949 in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell compared myths from around the world, some dating back thousands of years, and found that many of them shared a common structure, which he called “the hero’s adventure.” On an outer level, Campbell noted a sequence of events each hero/heroine encountered and he outlined their stages: departure and separation in which the hero/heroine leaves their safe world; initiation and ordeal in which the hero faces obstacles and ordeals that test her wisdom and skills; and the return, in which, having successfully overcome hardships, the hero returns to where she started, changed by her experience. On an inner psychological level, the hero’s journey depicts a maturation process of discovering one’s potential and becoming one’s true self; it is a portrait of profound transformation.

Hard times spur us to embody our hero-self. As Campbell and others discovered, many classic fairytale motifs as well as myths begin with a statement of misfortune, then progress through challenge and struggle, and finish in triumph. These stories chart the call to a higher purpose that catapults the hero/heroine out of the ordinary world into the unknown where she must undertake a series of tests and tribulations and ultimately secures a treasure or elixir for herself and the collective world.

Little Brother and Little Sister by Rackham for Hero blog post

The Brothers Grimm’s version of “Little Brother and Little Sister” illustrates how the initiating journey starts with misfortune:

Little Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step-mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot. Our meals are the hard crusts of bread that are left over; and the little dog under the table is better off, for she often throws it a nice bit. May Heaven pity us. If our mother only knew! Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.”

Likewise, “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn” begins:

There were once three brothers who had fallen deeper and deeper into poverty, and at last their need was so great that they had to endure hunger, and had nothing to eat or drink. Then said they, “We cannot go on thus, we had better go into the world and seek our fortune.”

Illustration for “The Six Swans” by Warwick Goble (1913) for the Hero blog post.In both stories, bad luck leads to good fortune as it does in “The Six Swans”:

Once upon a time, a certain king was hunting in a great forest, and he chased a wild beast so eagerly that none of his attendants could follow him. When evening drew near he stopped and looked around him, and then he saw that he had lost his way. He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he perceived an aged woman with a head which nodded perpetually, who came towards him, but she was a witch. . . .

In each story, we hold our breath as the hero faces impossible odds that seem unsurmountable and deadly. We read on, hoping against hope that some unseen force or influence will save the day. As in fairytales, so in life, but the helpers that come to our aid are not good fairies or friendly animals, they are our own brilliant but latent resources, instincts stirred to assist us.

Like dreams, these tales and their variants express the universal experiences of our inner worlds. The life of the soul comes to us through story. When we dream or dream our way into a tale, we are getting a glimpse of the archetypal images latent in our souls that are bound by neither time nor place. To be in touch with this deep personal resource allows us to be lifted from the familiar and every day to view our lives from a God’s-eye perspective—and to see that the wasteland of today may be only a stage in the renewal of a new world.

Illustration for “The Little Match Girl” by Arthur Rackham (1932)

What images are currently emerging in your dreams that speak of inner fears and challenges? Do you feel yourself abandoned by our government and leaders? Do you see yourself as a child lost in a wood, or freezing to death on a snowy evening ignored by the happy celebrants who pass you by, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”? Do you feel unseen in a society that doesn’t seem to care? Do you dream you have an impossible task to complete and not enough time? Do you arrive too late to take the exam, or your driver’s test? Have you missed the train, forgotten your suitcase, misplaced the ticket, or can’t start the car? Do you dial for help only to discover your phone battery is dead? These are dream images of difficult beginnings, the conflict or misfortune that sets you on the path. Carl Jung summed up the mystery and importance of dreams when he wrote, “A dream is a product of nature, the patient has not made it, it is like a letter dropped from Heaven, something he knows nothing of.” (ETH Lecture V 23, Nov1934. Page 156.)

Did you have a favorite fairytale growing up? (Preferably not the Disney version, which has usually been altered quite a bit from the original.) If “Rapunzel” or “The Frog King” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” enraptured you then, reread the story and note what stands out for you. What emotions do you feel? Is there something in your life now that has a similar theme? Does a different fairytale capture your attention? Ask yourself how this particular tale affects you now.

Many of us are now managing anxiety, depression, anger, and fear through psychological and spiritual support. Working consciously with a creative channel by dream journaling, reading or writing your own fairytale, or simply thinking about the stages of the hero’s journey can complement more conventional ways of managing difficult feelings. They could even bring fresh insights and creative solutions and restore energy to our feelings of “battle fatigue.”

The more you honor and stay in contact with feelings and images that arrive unbidden and give them space, the more they will share their wisdoms with you. This is what Jung discovered during his decades-long exploration of soul and psyche. “The privilege of a lifetime,” he writes, “is to become who you truly are.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



What Ancient Traditions Can Teach about Coping with Change

Sol Niger by Adam McLean for Alchemy blog post

Not too long ago I had a disturbing dream. The dream accomplished what dreams often do— illuminate for the dreamer unconscious feelings that are hidden to the waking ego. Carl Jung believed dreams serve a compensatory function: to balance our conscious attitudes, they present symbolic images that complement and enlarge how we experience ourselves in daily life. A conceited person full of himself, for instance, might dream he was an ant. In my dream, I cradled a dog while its life ebbed away. I knew I couldn’t save this beloved creature, and as I rocked the dog in my arms, I saw in its eyes how it felt I had betrayed her. When I woke, I knew there was no escaping what I felt: my sense of helplessness and repressed sorrow over our “dying” society, a reality I needed to embrace.

Here is the backstory to that dream: during the early months of COVID-19, I had surprised myself by remaining relatively calm. What anxiety I had I succeeded in confining to an hour of nightly news. But as the viral pandemic grew into a more diffuse global experience of social breakdown, and the nation witnessed on video the murder of an innocent man pleading for his life, heavier emotions took over.

What my dream indicated was that beneath palpable anger and anxiety, a walled-off, unacknowledged “sadness beyond sadness” lived in my psyche. Had it not been for this powerful dream, I might have gone weeks or months being out-of-touch with those feelings. I share this personal story as a reminder that the fractured, fragmented, broken outer world influences our inner lives as well.

If you, too, find strong emotions making you feel unbalanced, please read on.

                                                                        ***

Greek god Pan for Alchemy blog post“Pandemic” comes from the Greek pandemos, which means “all of us.” Related to “pandemic” are “panic “and “pandemonium” and all three words reference the mythological Greek god, Pan. Stories about Pan refer to him as the terror-awakener. Whenever Pan appeared, panic spread and grew contagious. All of us on the planet are facing inescapable, difficult, and unacceptable truths. Our current government and health care systems are straining under an attack by a powerful and unpredictable new adversary. The future is unknowable and new structures meant to stabilize society will be slow to evolve.

Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. If Pan, the terror-awakener, has entered into our midst, the stories assure that he is not a permanent feature of the landscape. One way to gain a new perspective on the changes we are undergoing is to view them as part of an unfolding process and not as an inevitable or fixed state of ruin. A brief overview of the ancient art of alchemy can serve as a model and a way to frame transformation and perhaps discover hope and potential betterment as an outcome of the process.

The Three Phases for the Alchemy blog postThe antiquarian alchemists were originally concerned with turning base metal, lead, into gold. What I’d like to do here is to view the great work of alchemy symbolically:  as a spiritual metaphor for the transmutation of human souls from the lowest to the highest, as a breakdown of old attitudes and habits of being. The alchemists described their work as proceeding in stages identified by colors. The original four stages include the nigredo (the blackening), the albedo (whitening), the citrinitas (yellowing), and the rubedo (reddening). We won’t get into the intricacies of each stage, but let’s note that the trajectory from blackening to reddening is a process of attaining illumination and spiritual wholeness through the work of bringing the unconscious into consciousness. Not just individuals, but entire cultures can and do undergo dark ages that evolve into a golden age or an age of enlightenment.

Carl Jung spent years of intense study reading the codices of the ancient alchemists. In 1944, he published Psychology and Alchemy, and later included a section on alchemy in his Collected Works. He deeply analyzed the ascendency of Nazi Germany and the unacknowledged anger, depression, and resentment bound in the German collective unconscious as a result of the country’s humiliation after World War I. Jung would likely agree that the pandemic we are currently living through along with our increased racial strife has placed us inside the experience of the nigredo, at the beginning of the alchemical process when decomposition, dismemberment (of the culture), and putrefaction reign.

During the nigredo, changes great and small occur. Old forms decay and are dissolved into “a black blacker than black,” as when a fruit or body rots, eventually to become soil and nourish new life. We have all seen how at the right season apples drop from branches. As the natural process continues, the flesh of the apple withers and shrinks, turns soft and rotten. This allows the seeds at the apple’s core to bury into the earth where they germinate new life. The “death” of the apple provides the opportunity for the seeds to do their work.

Winged sun for Alchemy blog postAs a metaphor for dissolution and the dark night of the soul, the nigredo speaks to us now as we suffer a kind of collective death, despair, and disillusionment. It is a time of putrefaction and mortification—putrefactio and mortificatio—but the nigredo, as the alchemists saw it, and Jung agreed, is the beginning of the great work. It is a time of massa confusa, creative chaos. Jung would often refer to the beginning of analysis as the nigredo, that is, “dark at the beginning,” which he took from the Rosarium Philosophorum, an alchemical treatise from the sixteenth century. The Rosarium states: “When you see your matter going black, rejoice, you are at the beginning of the work.”

And isn’t it true that what drives us to seek professional help is often driven by our lives falling apart?

We are in it—a period of waiting in uncertainty and grief. Many of us, individually, know cycles of generativity alternating with fallowness and depression. We have learned that the energy that has slipped underground is not gone, but is incubating, soon to push through and renew life. If there is hope in the moment, we can turn to the next stages of alchemy. The albedo (white) and rubedo ( red) that promise renewal and a transformation of what was base and leaden into light. We can take comfort in knowing the wisdom traditions have charted a way through epochal changes, and we can have faith in our creative capacity to adapt and re-vision a more just, safe, and equitable world.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?

North Star by Ginger Graziano for Sharon Salzberg blog post

A Conversation with Meditation Pioneer Sharon Salzberg

A meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher, Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition; Lovingkindness, her seminal work; and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September 2020.

Sharon Salzberg for Sharon Salzberg blog postSharon has been my friend and teacher for over a decade. On my very first retreat with her, I fell in love. Using stories from her own life as well as others, she imbues our poignant earthly suffering with compassionate laughter. Over the years, her talks and books have inspired a new understanding of what it means to be human. Sharon has many gifts as a teacher. One of them is to instill faith and courage in her students, and I am one of the millions around the world who deeply admire her wisdom. It is a great pleasure to interview her for Psychology Today.

Dale Kushner: For any readers who don’t already know you, your illuminating work, and before we talk about your new book, Real Change, would you tell everyone a bit about your background, and about lovingkindness meditation?

Sharon Salzberg: I went to India to study meditation as a junior in college, on an independent study program. As a sophomore, I had taken an Asian philosophy course which inspired me to look for meditation training. I wanted to learn how to utilize direct, practical skills, rather than simply learn the philosophy, to see if they could help me be happier. My first immersion into meditation practice was an intensive 10-day retreat in January 1971. It was a mindfulness retreat, using tools like focus on the breath and awareness of the body as the main trainings. It was like a revolution for me, to connect more deeply with myself, and with kindness. Right at the end of that retreat, S.N. Goenka, who was the teacher, introduced lovingkindness meditation, which is very related to mindfulness but is also a distinct technique. Through that, I saw the possibility of connecting much more deeply with others.

D.K.: It’s been helpful for me to sit quietly and focus on the questions I’d like to ask you today. Like so many others, my inbox is flooded with links from friends and from various groups offering opinions, invitations, strategies, and messages of equal amounts of hope and despair. Sorting through all this material is overwhelming, and yet I’m inspired that so many unheard voices are now being heard.

 In one of my favorite books of yours, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, you encourage readers to rely less on outside authorities, gurus or abstract principles and to trust our own insights and lived experience. Today, many of us live with doubt and confusion that our insights have been in error or inadequate in addressing issues of social justice. We wonder how to affect transformational change without falling into guilt, doubt, fear, or anger. From a Buddhist perspective, how best might we uncover the true nature of our biases that distort our ability to see how our actions shape the collective? Are there particular practices that can help us?

Covid Compassion by Lynne Adams for Sharon Salzberg blog postS.S.: One of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice is that it enables us to see our thoughts as thoughts, before we say or do something on the basis of the thought that has arisen. The illuminating and ultimately empowering aspect of this is that we can see our assumptions as they come up, so they are not unconscious. Not all of our assumptions are wrong of course, but many of them are, and grievously so. My friends have a daughter who was born in China. Two blond Caucasians, they adopted her at a young age and formed a very happy family. When the little girl was in the first or second grade, her teacher presented this assignment to the class: “Name a physical characteristic you have in common with one of your parents.” The little girl started sobbing, and kept on sobbing at home. Her whole sense of family, and belonging, was suddenly ripped away. The teacher was making an assumption about what makes a family. It’s unlikely that her intention was to cause harm, but not seeing her assumption as a thought and carrying it into action did in fact hurt someone.

D.K.: Your new book, which was to be released this month but will be launched in September, is presciently titled Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. What prompted you to write this book?

S.S.: I encounter so many people who inspire me through their dedication to their work in the world, some of whom function in very tough situations. I have a lot of respect for people who have a vision of the world that is inclusive, who navigate the world with love and care as their north star, and who try every day to make it real.

D.K.: In writing Real Change, you consulted with veteran activists and agents of social change. Were there common threads among the consultants that aligned with your own experience of Buddhist teachings?  Could you give us three or four brief examples of the principles that emerged from your conversations?

S.S.: I think that there are many Buddhist principles that emerged for me out of the lives of the people I interviewed, even though they weren’t all Buddhists or even formal meditation practitioners. One was a belief in the innate dignity and worth of everybody. I think of Shantel Walker, one of the leaders of Fight for $15, a nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize for fast-food workers. I’ve met several of the striking workers. They work very hard, at times are homeless because even with a full-time job they cannot afford rent, and in many cases, they are denied the wages owed to them.  Some would recount how even their parents would tell them “don’t make waves.” But Shantel is an exemplar of someone who realized she (and not only she) was worth being treated with respect—because everyone is.

Meditation Bowl (2015)This brings to mind the fundamental truth of interconnection the Buddha talked about. It doesn’t mean we like everyone or want to spend time with them, but there is a deep realization that our lives are intertwined. The corollary to this is that everyone counts, everyone matters. Everyone I talked to had this worldview. That’s why they do the work they do.

And a third principle is the conviction that love is stronger than hate. No one I talked to believed that meeting hatred with hatred was the way forward. They derived their energy from a sense of justice and a vision of what could be possible. This certainly echoed the Buddha, “hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only cease by love. This is an eternal law.”

D.K.: Does practicing mindfulness always involve meditation or are there other ways to achieve it?

S.S.: I think there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness. Life gives us many opportunities every day, really every hour. Meditation is a little like strength training—a dedicated period of immersion where your focus is on cultivating the different facets of mindfulness—awareness, balance, and connection. It then becomes easier to apply mindfulness in conversations, at work, commuting, whatever we might be doing.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Soulwork: The Role Archetypes Play in Jungian Analysis

Guardian Spirit of the Waters by Odilon Redon for Archetypes blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Three)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions. In Part Two, we discussed the importance of dreams in Jungian analysis. In Part Three, we turn to archetypes.

Perhaps you are wondering: Why pay attention to dreams and archetypes when our daily life seems on the verge of collapse? Stores are shuttered and bare. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some have lost our health. Many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a more just and equitable world. Isn’t turning toward our inner life rather indulgent?

Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. The future is uncertain and our energies limited. To turn inward toward our dreams is to honor life’s mysteries and place trust in a source beyond our ego’s domain. In dreams, contradictions and paradoxes abound: we can be both shattered and strong, frightened and brave. We can run from the tiger, and in the next moment, be the tiger.

Think of a dream as a portal, or a portal leading to other portals, by which we enter wildly new terrain where at any moment fresh insights might impress themselves upon us.

Dr. Kenneth James for Archetypes blog postKenneth James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago, where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: What is the definition of “archetype?”

Kenneth James: Archetypes are best conceived as organizing principles that are part of the human psyche simply by virtue of a person’s existence in the world of space and time. Archetypes in themselves are a priori givens and are not derived from an individual’s particular experiences in their lifetime. The images associated with particular archetypes, including visual images, myths, legends, scriptures, and any other artifacts of human presence on earth, are created through individual experience and cultural transmission. Thus, the images I associate with, for example, physical love and sexuality, will be informed by the mythological image of Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, because given my age, society, culture, and educational experiences, her mythic image emerges as dominant for me. The archetype-in-itself has no image, but images quickly attach to the archetypes. As I go through life, the archetype of physical love and sexuality is also amplified by my own personal experiences of physical intimacy, the attractions I feel, the images I encounter from art, cinema and literature, and even myths I encounter from other cultures and religions, either through education. From a Jungian perspective, experiences are not provided for us by the environment; rather experiences are constructed through an interaction between the archetypal ground and the particular day-to-day stimuli that we encounter.

D.K.: What archetypes have the COVID-19 virus constellated and how might they appear in a person’s psyche?

K.J.: The COVID-19 virus is an interesting phenomenon. All of the depictions of the virus offered in the media show a spherical center with projections coming off the surface perpendicularly. In Analytical Psychology, the sphere, or any mandala (circular) shape, is usually thought of as an emblem of the Self. Jung wrote that at times when an individual is experiencing significant chaotic emotional challenges in daily life, a round image may emerge in dreams or daydreams. Jung felt that the multiple axes of symmetry found in circles and spheres, all arranged around a center point, were an attempt on the part of the psyche to provide an image of order and stability in the face of psychic chaos. How curious then that the image we are given of the COVID-19 virus should be, of all things, a mandala.

COVID-19 Mandala by Christina Lee for Archetypes blog postIn my practice, dream images of the virus itself has not figured significantly, but the effects of the pandemic have appeared abundantly in dreams. Fear of being overtaken by a flood; concerns about whether the foundation of a high-rise building will be able to withstand the impact of runaway hurricane winds; jogging in territory familiar to the dreamer, but in spite of attempting to run “full out,” the dreamer feels like she is running through a lake of molasses—all of these have been dream images which, upon investigation between analyst and analysand, point to the anxiety, fear and confusion surrounding psyche’s attempt to come to terms with this exceptional time.

Perhaps the images that medical science has given us of the virus itself, the sphere with perpendicular protuberances, is a way for the Self to remind us that wholeness lies at the core of every experience. Even in the global chaos that we are now experiencing, the fundamental processes of life are in order and can be considered not only as destructive but also as providing an opportunity to form a new relationship to the world. Just as death and birth are characteristic of every cell of our bodies throughout our lifetimes, so may we be being reminded to find the wholeness amidst the chaos, move toward that, and begin to organize our experiences in a more coherent, symmetrical and balanced manner.

D.K.: How do archetypes figure in Jung’s view of the personal and collective unconscious?

Central oval of James Thornhill's "Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny" (1714) on Archetypes blog postK.J.: The archetypes are the organizing principles which constitute the collective unconscious. It is because of the archetypes that the collective unconscious exhibits such a high level of organizational structure, and why more or less direct expressions of the collective unconscious patterns such as are found in myth, fairy tales, religion, and literature are also highly organized with a rich web of connections among all the archetypal images in any given system. With this as a foundation, the personal unconscious also can achieve a similar architecture. Whereas the collective unconscious is populated with contents (the archetypes) which were never part of the space/time experience of any particular individual, the personal unconscious is composed of material that was at one time part of day-to-day experience. Aspects of this personal material, which may be thought of as residue from encounters in the so-called outer world, finds its way to the personal unconscious so that it may be processed by the ego and ultimately integrated into our understanding of who we are. Most of us discover the contents of the collective unconscious through intense consideration of personal experiences, including dreams, daydreams, projection, displacement, somatization, parapraxis, and synchronicity. These “disclosures” from the unconscious, if considered respectfully as sources of valuable insight into personal suffering, show the intimate connection Jung believed operated between personal and collective aspects of the unconscious.

D.K.: Does analysis involve trying to identify which archetype mostly closely “fits” an analysand?

K.J.: Absolutely not! To do such a thing is completely ego-based, which is not the Jungian way. Finding a fit can be seen as a sort of parlor-game approach to the collective unconscious made popular nowadays in a variety of ways, from decks of cards depicting subsets of “the archetypes,” to disjointed considerations of individual mythic characters who may be seen as motifs that may, at times, bear a strong resemblance to some aspect of an individual’s life. If we try to identify “the” archetype which “fits” an analysand, we would be doing the opposite of what analysis seeks to accomplish. Such a static understanding of the archetypes ignores completely the vast web of interconnection among all of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

The meaning of analysis is “loosening.” Therefore, one goal of analysis is loosening up the unconscious identification with particular episodes in one’s personal history. Analysis can also shed light when we feel stuck in patterns of relationship to our experience which, upon deeper consideration, can be seen to exemplify particular archetypal motifs. This loosening comes about by exploring the connections among archetypes and finding ways of encouraging psychic movement that can free us from the possession we can experience at the archetypal level. It is perhaps more correct to say that we come to analysis already unconsciously identified not only with aspects of our personal history but also with a fixed subset of the characters and situations from the archetypal ground. Analytic work seeks to free us from those unconscious identifications. We are always far more than we can ever believe ourselves to be, and analysis makes this abundantly clear. Throughout our lifetime, we will experience many parts of the archetypal ground, and believing there is one particular node or element of that ground that “fits” me is an egoic attempt to control the dynamic nature of the human person. It is this dynamism that analysis seeks to support and encourage.

This closes my three-part conversation with Jungian analyst Kenneth James. I described my own experience with Jungian training in “Treating Patients or Creating Characters,” and my decision to choose to become a novelist rather than a therapist. No surprise that readers sometimes comment on the Jungian themes in my novel, The Conditions of Love. I’m happy to participate virtually in reading group discussions of my work, and the themes I explore, whether Jung, dreams, archetypes, resilience, mother/daughter relationships, intergenerational trauma, etc. You can find information on how to reach me on my Contact page.  

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at 



Soulwork: Why Dreams Are So Important in Jungian Analysis

The Strange World of Your Dreams comic book cover for Jungian Dreams blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Two)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions.

The COVID pandemic is reshaping life as we have known it on the planet. For many, the absolutes we have counted on to sustain us during times of crisis have already disappeared. That we have lost all sources of income, that our hospitals are understaffed and inadequately supplied, that we may die alone without a beloved near are the unthinkable realities we must now face. During the long weeks ahead, fear, loneliness, and despair will be uninvited visitors. As our sense of catastrophe deepens, so will our feelings of isolation. How can we cope? One way is to turn inward and pursue a relationship to our inner world. In this second conversation, Dr. Kenneth James will discuss the importance of dreams and how making the unconscious conscious is a giant step toward becoming self-enlightened.

Kenneth James is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University, and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Dr. James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: Most contemporary models of psychological counseling do not value the examination of dreams. Why do Jungians place so much value on dreamwork?

Kenneth James: The dream is considered the purest expression of unconscious dynamics, both personal and collective. Jungian work is not strictly speaking ego-based. We rely on disclosures from the unconscious to guide us in analysis and more importantly, in life outside of analysis. There are many ways that the unconscious seeks to communicate with the ego. These ways include daydreams and reverie, projection, displacement, somatization (the production of medical symptoms with no apparent organic cause), parapraxis (the so-called “Freudian” slip) and synchronicity. Dreams we have while we are asleep are highly esteemed because the ego is not involved in the generation of dreams (while we are asleep, the ego is absent). By examining dreams, the analyst and the analysand are guided to explore critical areas of the analysand’s life that may lead to unsuspected breakthroughs in self-understanding and growth of consciousness.

D.K.: In your experience, how does working consciously with dreams benefit an individual?

K.J.: Dreams point both the dreamer and the analyst toward issues and concerns that are in need of exploration and understanding. These may not be considered important by the ego, but when considered calmly and openly, dreams can awaken awareness of connections that can help the dreamer resolve problems, alleviate suffering, and calm conflicts. I often refer to dreams as the “MRIs” of the psyche. They show what the ego can’t see. A skilled analyst can use the dream to help the analysand explore areas that may not be brought up in any other way. Dreams circumvent the dominance that the ego wishes to claim for itself, and help facilitate both individuation (see Part One for our discussion of individuation) and its close companion, the relativization of the ego to the unconscious.

D.K.: Is there a positive side to nightmares or so-called bad dreams?

Mysterious Dream by William Blake for Jungian Dreams blog postK.J.: Although uncomfortable for the dreamer, nightmares can serve as “stat” directives for the analysand and analyst, calling us to deal with something right away, now. Nightmares can be thought of as dreams that will no longer be ignored. Nightmares often motivate people to question what is going on at deeper levels of human personhood, and as such can be valuable in bringing the ego to the place it needs to be for psychological health. No matter how hard we try, we cannot take into account all of the exigencies of human life. The ego is always thwarted when faced with phenomena that can be referred to as luck, fate, and hazard. Each of these is an event that happens without regard for causality, intention, planning, or personal volition. We go along in life, making our way and formulating decisions, and if all goes smoothly, things seem like they are under our control. This is a pernicious egoic illusion, or perhaps delusion. Experiences of luck (who knew that would happen?), fate (I had no choice, I was destined to undergo that event) or hazard (an event that seems to come out of nowhere, usually suddenly, with significant consequences for the individual) show the ego that, despite its good-faith efforts to plan and provide for all contingencies, life has more to offer than any ego could dream possible. The nightmare supports this, bringing the ego to the place where it can experience fear, and possibly terror. This capacity for utter terror, which would be avoided at all costs by the ego, serves to shake up the complacency of even the most resistant person, if the nightmare can be respected for its gifts, and not explained away as “nothing but a dream.”

D.K.: Can you give some examples of how dreams contribute to the development of the individual?

K.J.: Dreams can help individuals approach events in their lives more slowly and reflectively than one might do habitually. Because dreams can shine new light on situations and relationships that the ego thinks it already understands, an individual who can become more open to dream symbolism will find new and different perspectives by which to consider aspects of their experience. Dreams are viewed as works of art produced by the unconscious, and as such, can be explored again and again throughout one’s life. Jungians rarely simply “interpret” a dream and then abandon it as having been understood. Dreams never cease to be sources for deeper and deeper insight. A dream image, whether a person, place, or event, can serve as a seed for what Jung referred to as “active imagination.” Active imagination is sometimes referred to as “dreaming the dream forward.” In active imagination, the individual gets into a relaxed state and focuses on a particular element in the dream.

Glory of Commerce (1914), a sculptural group by Jules-Félix Coutan (1848–1939) featuring Mercury as the central figure atop Grand Central Terminal, New York City for Jungian Dreams blog postFor example, one analysand had a puzzling dream about being in Grand Central Station, a place familiar to him because he was born and raised in New York City. He wondered why he should dream of what was to him a very mundane setting. I suggested he do an active imagination on Grand Central Station, relaxing his body and then focusing his mind on the place, letting himself move through it as though exploring it in waking life. His visions began in an ordinary way, and he went through areas of the station he remembered from waking life. But then he turned a corner in the imagined station and found a doorway down to the sub-sub-basement, where he witnessed rats carrying on their lives unbeknownst to the people bustling to meet their trains or greet their loved ones. He then was taken, in the active imagination, to the top of the station, where he saw a large statue. He didn’t know what it was. When we discussed his active imagination, I suggested that he investigate what statue might be on the top of Grand Central Station. He did, and discovered it was a statue of Mercury, or Hermes in the Greek mythological form. I explained that Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods, entrusted with carrying messages from humanity to the Olympian realm, and returning with divine message for mortals. He then said, “so Mercury is what helps us do this analytic thing!” I agreed. I believe that one of the functions of this dream of Grand Central Station for this analysand was to help him accept the reality and the autonomy of the psyche. He also was able to see that the rats might represent things going on “really deep inside me” that he either ignored or judged to be disgusting. Because of his valuing of the dream, he came to see that even the disgusting parts need to be witnessed, understood, and respected.

Please watch for Part Three of my conversation with Dr. Kenneth James. This series is an invitation to turn toward your deepest internal resources. How we respond as individuals to the overwhelming emotions generated by this global crisis will affect not only our own lives and those in our circle, but the entire planet. When we know ourselves, when we can name and face our fears, we are in a stronger position to act with clarity and brave hearts. We also recognize we are joined to others in our suffering. As Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, “What if compassion could go viral? What if love could?”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at