Transitions as Liminal and Archetypal Situations
From a lecture delivered by
Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.
at the Mythic Journeys Conference
June 2004, Atlanta, Georgia
Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. is a psychiatrist, a Jungian analyst in
private practice, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California
Medical Center, and an internationally known lecturer. She is the author of
Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, The Millionth
Circle, The Tao of Psychology, Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology
of Women, Gods in Everyman: A New Psychology of Men's Lives and Loves,
Crossing to Avalon: A Woman's Midlife Pilgrimage, Ring of Power, and
Close to the Bone.
My topic is about transitions or the stuff out of which life is made, liminal
and archetypal situations. The word "liminal" refers to being over the threshold but not
through to the other side. It comes from the Latin word "limen" meaning that place in
between. When you're in a transition zone, you're neither who you used to be before
you got into this transition, nor have you crossed over that threshold to where you will be
settled next. Sometimes those transitions are very long, as when people talk about being
in dark tunnels and taking a long time to even see the light at the end of the tunnel. There
is always an ending of one phase of your life in order to develop and grow into another
I've been interested to pick up along the way what people are saying about transitions.
The cocoon is a place where the caterpillar totally dissolves; it is insolutio in the
alchemical model of dissolving into the water, or the emotional side of life. Then it moves
on, and from that beginning a butterfly forms in the chrysalis — that in between
place that is neither caterpillar nor butterfly. I'd like to examine that whole notion of the middle
phase. You don't know whether it is the ending or the beginning. You don't know whether it is
a womb or a tomb. This is the whole image of the return to the earth. In the beginning is the
end and the whole cycle.
Every time there is a major transition in your life, and you are in that in between
place, you are in the chrysalis and you haven't yet emerged into the next place. What is
interesting to me is how you gather those pieces together when you are insolutio.
What you chose to keep and what you chose to leave has a lot to do with what pieces form
and move into the next stage with you.
There's a very simple myth that applies to all of us at every major stage of life (when we
want to be approved of, to be accepted, to have the right friends, or get into that right club
or degree program, etc.) Whenever we have an idea of goal, whenever we have a feeling,
it's about destination and not about journey. Then we encounter and live out the myth of
Procrustes and his bed — a very short myth.
In ancient Greece, if you wanted to be famous or creative, to have influence or power,
or to be where all the interesting people were doing and writing and acting or what have you,
then you were certainly on the road to Athens (which is obviously a symbol of where all the
action was.) In the myth of Procrustes, you had to pass by his bed in order to keep on the road.
He put you on the bed and whatever part of you did not fit, he just cut off. Whack! So much
for that piece! It's not going to be with you on the way to Athens. Whatever it was about you
that needed to fit into what was accepted got stretched to fit the bed. So you got processed
on the road to Athens.
Who among us has not been processed and reprocessed over and over again? What
was acceptable to your family? What was acceptable to your significant other? What was
success? What did you have to cut off and, in many cases, deny that was a significant part
of you or a potential part of you?
Often there are gifts that emerge in childhood, only they're not the kind of gifts or abilities
that your particular parents wanted you to have — and you got them. When people
who are important mirror us, they focus on that which they find pleasing, and they cast a
negative light on that which they find undesirable in us. We pick up the cues very early. And
very early on our road to Athens, on the road to acceptability, we cut off that which was not
supported, that which was not mirrored positively. We stretch those kinds of gifts that made
us pleasing. It might have been our personality, a certain quality of charm. It might have been
our brains or athletic ability — whatever was acceptable in our particular beginnings
on the road to Athens.
The road to Athens is played out over and over and over again, and at every step along
the way. New school: what's acceptable? New profession: from what do you have to cut
yourself off? Sometimes in order to fit the mold, you have to do a major job of repressing your
past in order to pass Procrustes' bed. In order to look like, to act like you belong in that fraternity
or sorority or profession, you cut off and don't talk about certain historical parts of yourself that
Very often, when childhood was far from beautiful and included some very painful things, that
which is cut off gets actively repressed and forgotten on that first road to Athens — and
the second, and the third, and the fourth road to Athens. There are psychic elements about
whatever we cut off, potential elements in our personality. Nothing we cut off dies; it just goes
into the underworld. There we reconnect with that which we cut off from ourselves, but only in
times of transition, and sometimes through major descents.
Sometimes that which we denied in ourselves meets us as Fate. We are in a transition
because we were attracted to someone who carried that which we repressed in ourselves,
and we're drawn to it. Very often major attractions begin transitions. We are attracted to that
part of another person that we have denied in ourselves, and yet is our growing edge. By falling
in love with that woman, that man, that guru, that capacity, something of our old form gives way.
We are attracted by the projection, drawn towards something else that disrupts our old form
and often cracks it, destroys it. We are in this in between period of chrysalis, and we
don't know what will happen next.
The reality of metaphor is that death and new life happens often. For example, when you are
in transition you may have a dream that someone is dying. Your first reaction is to think that it is
a little precognition dream. It could be; that's not out of the question. Much more usual is that
something is dying about that particular relationship as an external event, or that particular part
of you represented by that person, that character in your dream. Dying puts you on notice that a
transition is taking place. Your dream life often knows that some transition is happening before
you consciously acknowledge it.
Transitions are often referred to as midlife transitions, but they happen when they happen.
Sometimes transitions are described as a crisis (midlife crisis, late life crisis, menopausal crisis,
whatever crisis) because they can shake things up so. The Chinese pictograph for the word
Crisis is comprised of two different characters: Danger and Opportunity. That is what the chrysalis
looks like. Is it a womb or is it a tomb? Is it going to kill something? Is it going to kill you in some
fashion? Are you going to despair? Are you going to give up that life has meaning? Or is this
going to be a new opportunity to truly grow and enter the next phase of your life? And you don't
know in between.
The image of the snake is one of the major symbols that you might be drawn to. It may show
up in a dream about transformation and transition. Human beings once lived much closer to all
kinds of animals and very much close to nature. We observed certain behaviors. There's something
about the snake that we project on. It is archetypal because it touches a symbolic layer of the psyche
from which dreams come. It is comprised of those latent patterns and images that humans recognize
and give form to when they are activated.
It's like a chemistry experiment. You pour a compound into a beaker of water, some of this,
some of that. You stir it up and it is cloudy for a while and then becomes clear. You keep doing this
and doing this, and it stays clear until it reaches a critical mass...or a critical amount of whatever
this energy of the sauce that you now brought to the solution has entered the solution. When a critical
amount enters, a crystalline structure precipitates out. Now you can see the form that was latently
there all the time. This is one of the metaphors of an activated archetype.
Another way of talking about an activated archetype is that it is like the seed of a potential.
You have this little seed in your hand. Only when it is put into the earth, and watered, and enough
time goes by, do you actually see what grows from it. That plant always becomes what was present
in that particular seed. So there are seeds (or archetypes) in our soil (the archetypal layer of the
collective unconscious) that we all have. Given circumstance and possibilities of birth, it is born
with emotion and image together.
I liked what Michael Meade said this
morning. He wasn't talking directly about transition, but he also was. Something is born that
has both form and sound together. Michael Meade's comments moved my thoughts into the
whole idea of womb/tomb and birth. Humankind has observed routinely and, at times, numinously
the major transition and liminal experience of new life emerging from the body of a pregnant woman.
The pregnant woman who carries this new life is herself the cocoon, the carrier of that fluidity out
of which grows a whole new life. The time comes when the new life is able to live outside of the
mother. In the timing of birth there is the movement, shifting, labor pains, and the cervix that held all
the fluid stretches and unblocks. The waters break and labor is initiated.
Well, labor is something that almost all of us have gone through. Cesarean section births
cut short that usual process, but there is this experience that we've archetypally actually all lived
out. Most of us came through labor, delivery, and the birth canal. There is a moment in the birth process
which is called transition, and it is the most dangerous time of the delivery for both the
baby and the mother. The head of the baby must pass underneath the pubic arch of the mother
and enter the world. If this is going to work, if this baby is going to come out of the mother into
the world, it has to go through that danger moment. This is often the most painful part of the labor
for the mother. Mother and child go through this transition, which is a crisis, danger and opportunity.
Then there is a new being that has never existed on earth before, but that has just come through
the birth canal to the other side.
One of the fascinating things about the creative process and actually giving birth is that, not
only have you brought something new into the world that wasn't there before, but when you go
through this experience, you are changed. It affects you. Once you have delivered a baby you
are no longer in the mother/maiden/crone archetypal form that women can go through
physiologically. Your body has changed. You now have given birth to this child. Out of the
darkness of your own creative process, out of the unconsciousness of your process, out of
your labor has come new life.
Any artist, any writer, anyone who has birthed a business, who has had a vision of something
new that can come into the world, knows that they must be willing to commit to whatever amount of
time it takes. A baby takes nine months; an elephant takes two years. Businesses usually take
twice as long and twice as much capital to return half as much profit as predicted. Maybe that's
true about children, too. (Laughter) But anyway, there is this commitment that changes. An
eternal adolescent, or in Jungian terms a puer (the eternal young man) or a puella
(the eternal maiden), is transformed by making a commitment that changes him or her through
the pain of laboring to produce something. You experience the commitment to bring it through
the pain of the production. This is also that period when you don't know whether it's going to work.
You don't know whether you have spent nine months of your life (or even years of your life) on something that is not going to survive. That you accomplish it is one of the most maturing things
that we have all experienced. If we're talking about being a mother, it's not enough just to do
something biologically. You can be a biological mother and the Mother archetype of commitment
and caretaking, which is part of raising this child.
So, after the birth comes the raising, but this is true of most creative processes as well.
If you want to take your book that you have written out into the world, you can't just write it and
say it's done. Or you can finish a painting and put it away in a closet, but if you have something
to bring out into the world, then you now have a responsibility to it. Whether it is the child or
the business or the painting or the book that you are offering to the world, you do have to bring
it out into the world.
The next phase of it is that you've committed to raising it in some fashion. This is a maturing
part of most of our lives. In making that commitment we often cut ourselves off from other
possibilities in another way. It's not a Procrustean bed in terms of, "I have to cut myself off from
this in order to be on the road to Athens." It's much more. "For now, in terms of time and
commitment, I have to let go of certain parts of myself that I cannot give life to any more
because I have this other something that I brought into the world. I am committed to bringing
it into the world. I'm going to devote my energies to this task."
What I'm talking about now are, in one form or another, mostly experiences in the first half of life.
But these days people are doing different things in different phases of life. Let's say that, in the
first half of your life, you made a commitment to a relationship. You made a promise to bring
something new, whether it was a family or a business or a creative idea, into the world. By doing
that, you left others of your gifts behind. They sort of languished in the underworld of potential.
What often happens next is that we are successful at what we set out to do, which is always a mixed
bag. If you are praised for whatever you do so well, it is like stretching you on that Procrustean
bed. One part of you now has this energy and form. Everybody has expectations that this is
who you are. A transition occurs when you break that agreement that you are going to stay the
same. That's what causes major crises in the relationship over and over again. One person
grows and the other person says, "You're not the same person I love. You are somebody
What happens often when there are major choices of one's own personal integrity
versus the collective? Somewhere around midlife, and yet more than just once, are crises
of integrity, where you have to choose to either stay with the group or break with the group
and be expelled. This is something that is especially hard for men, for whom the brotherhood
of the corporation, the fraternity, the gang, matters a great deal. We learn from the work of
people like Deborah Tannen that, as a general rule, conversation differs between men and
women. Young women learn and continue to converse as a means of bonding, actually as
a means of reducing stress.
When I was in medical school, the understanding was that we all exhibit flight or fight
under stress . Recent research at UCLA came from watching women whose department
happened to be studying stress and happened to have both men and women in it. What
they noticed was that men and women behaved differently. Men as a group went into flight
mode; that is, they withdrew. As stress rises, men are concerned about their jobs; men
are concerned about how things are going to work out. In that moment men do not feel very
powerful or in control. The two ways of expressing this stress reaction are flight (watch
television, go to the basement, withdraw) or fight (anger, road rage). Women in this study
noticed that their male companions as researchers did seem to withdraw, where the women
reacted in a different manner. Women ended up talking to each other a lot about the
stresses the department was going through. Then they started to examine whether men
and women physiologically behave differently. It led to the research that said that women
talk under stress, reducing the stress level. Oxytocin levels rise, which is the friendship and
maternal bonding hormone. Oxytocin is enhanced by estrogen. Men experience flight or
fight because adrenalin levels rise. Adrenalin is enhanced by testosterone. So, men and
women react to what happens to us when we are stressed in this different way.
If, for example, there is this individuation experience where life looks like you're doing
pretty well, you're part of the group, you're successful. Then you break the form either because
you fall in love, or because you have a crisis of integrity over what your relationship is about.
It takes a lot of courage for men to break from the group or to blow the whistle in the hierarchy
because it's such an acculturation. Deborah Tannen talked about how men use conversation
not only for information purposes, but also to find out, "Am I one up or am I one
down?" Who is the more alpha?
If you're a boy, in order to get along and know your place within a group you've got to
have your antennae out to learn how and what kind of indications mean more alpha/less
alpha. Usually you can rank an alpha in casual conversations. "So how's business?" is
not really asking about business. Now, women asking, "How is business?" want to
commiserate over the worst news. "Business is terrible, really." By talking about the
vulnerabilities, there is a reduction of stress and a sense of support. Women don't support
winners as well, actually. There's much more of a bonding that happens if women share
If you do it as a guy, you're automatically one down, and men don't want to do that.
It takes courage. Let's say that you are on your path, and life is moving along. Rituals develop
as a matter of form. You always do this at every holiday. You're expected to behave in a
certain way. At first it was who you were growing into being. Later you
began to feel constricted by everybody's expectations (including your own) that you'll always
do Thanksgiving this way, you'll always do holidays that way, you're always the person who
speaks up, or you're always the person who doesn't say a word. Then something happens
in which new life threatens the old form. This is when transitions happen.
As an example, someone decides to blow the whistle on something that's going on in the
company. Someone decides to speak up and challenge others in some kind of form saying,
in effect, "I don't want to go along with how we've been doing it." If the idea isn't put out there
and consciously worked through as a process, then what often happens is repression. The
potential whistle blower says, "Oh well, I don't want to rock the boat." The potential challenger
says, "I don't want to have the discussion. I don't want to talk about my vulnerabilities or my
irritations because he/she/they will react negatively, so I'll stuff it." Jung pointed out that what
we truly suppress is likely to encounter us as Fate. So, there we are, unconsciously drawn to
that person who carries that which we have repressed in ourselves. We have a crisis between
who we used to be and who we are in our current situation.
As most of you know, psyche is the Greek word for soul. It's also the Greek
word for butterfly. If you have a protagonist in a story whose name is Psyche, you might
expect that she will go through a major transition and crisis. Will she survive it? Will she come
through and be transformed, or will she die? That's one way of looking at the Psyche myth.
Those of you who heard Robert Bly's White Bear story on the first day of this conference
heard a variation of the Eros and Psyche myth.
The form that Psyche broke was the understanding with her unseen lover who came every
night. The piece of the story I want to focus on is what happens in an unconscious relationship
when it is broken. Psyche was the third most beautiful princess. She was considered so
beautiful that she was worshipped rather than sought as a partner. Her father the king seeks
to know whether his beloved daughter Psyche will ever find a husband. He goes to the Oracle
at Delphi. You know, if you go ask the Delphic Oracle for advice, you are bound to fulfill the advice,
so be careful. Don't ask for the advice unless you are prepared to really do what you are told to do.
The Oracle tells the king that he must abandon his daughter on a mountain top to meet her
fate — an inhuman bridegroom. And so, with death is the beginning of the next stage,
Psyche is dressed as for a funeral. All the people of the kingdom grieve. Undoubtedly the king
must have had second thoughts of, "Why did I ever ask?" The kingdom then mourned beautiful
Psyche, left her on the highest crag, abandoned and wailing.
As it turned out, Psyche was wafted down into a wonderful, magical valley where all her
needs are cared for. All day long she wanders the valley, enjoying this wonderful home that has
all the conveniences and provides for everything. Every night her bridegroom comes through
the window, makes love to her, and leaves by morning so she never sees him. In some ways
this sounds a little like the suburban idyllic gated community. (Laughter) This goes on and it's
fine for a long time. In Robert Bly's version of
the White Bear it may have gone on for hundreds of years before anything changes.
Psyche's older sisters, who thought their youngest sister dead, came to the crag to mourn
and cry at her loss. And so Psyche beseeches her unseen bridegroom, asking him to let her
see her sisters. She cries...and he tries to persuade her that this isn't what she really wants.
And she cries. Eventually, he gives in, only agreeing "as long as you do not tell the secret."
And he tells her, "Psyche, you're pregnant. The child you are carrying will be a god if you keep
my secret. It will be a mortal if you reveal it." Then he leaves and allows that the sisters come
down, which they do on two occasions.
In coming down and raising questions, the sisters reminded Psyche that she was supposed
to wed an inhuman bridegroom. They stirred up the idea that "You must be married to a monster."
In her innocence Psyche thinks, "Oh, my God, what have I done? Maybe they're right. What should
I do?" And they say to her, "You must take a lantern and a knife. After your bridegroom comes to
you at night, makes love, and falls asleep, take the lantern that you've hidden under this bushel
basket. Lift it up over his head. If it should be a monster that you're married to, take this knife
and cut off his head."
Now, those are the two symbols that really do matter to us: the lamp and the knife. If you are
going to examine the relationship that you are in, you need both. The first step is the willingness
to really take a look at the situation. You need the illumination of the lamp. This symbolizes your
willingness to actually take a good look at the person you're working with, or who you're living with,
or what you're doing that is a question in your mind. "Who am I in relationship to this?" So the lamp
But what good is the lamp if you don't have the knife? This is a symbol that can discriminate,
cut through the situation, end the relationship by severing its bonds. What good is knowing that
you are in a very dysfunctional relationship, if you haven't the capacity...that is the symbol of the
knife...to draw a boundary, to discriminate, to cut it off, to end the relationship if it turns out that what
you see really is negative?
In this part of the story, Psyche takes both symbols in her hand. As you know, when she
raises the lamp and sees her unseen lover, her unknown bridegroom, he turns out to be the
immature god of love, Eros. Immature in that he was carrying on this secret affair. He had
promised his mother, the goddess Aphrodite, that he would punish Psyche who was so
identified with the goddess because of her beauty that the goddess's shrines were ignored.
People were worshipping a human girl as if she was a goddess, and the goddess plotted
revenge for what psychologically is true. If you identify with an archetype, you lose your humanity,
your individuality. You get inflated by it. You get taken over by it. You do get Aphrodite's revenge.
In this case Aphrodite had told her son Eros to aim his arrows at Psyche in punishment
so that she would fall in love with the vilest of men. This is the negative power of Aphrodite
and Eros: to have Psyche fall in love with someone who would really be vile for her and her
development. Instead Eros sees Psyche and falls in love with her himself. He decides to
keep all that from Mother, and so he's been having this clandestine, hidden affair with Psyche.
Psyche betrays his admonishment, which was to really keep the form. ("Don't change
anything. Stay unconscious about the basic agreement that we have.") She breaks it by lifting
up the lamp. Then the lamp sputters, and a drop of oil falls and hits Eros' shoulder. He awakens,
hurt and angry, blaming Psyche for destroying the situation as it was. He's got wings, this god,
so he flies away and leaves her.
In this story we have a transition zone that begins with the end of the unconscious
relationship. Pregnant Psyche is now abandoned, left on her own with no employable skills,
as it were. When Eros leaves her, she feels so unable to cope that she throws herself in the
river to drown and the river throws her back on the bank. It's like the river saying, "Your life
force is too strong, honey. This isn't going to be the end of your story." Psyche then proceeds
to go to the various temples of the goddesses, and they all say, "Ah, your issue is not with us.
It's with Aphrodite." She's not who she used to be, but she must still confront the offended
Aphrodite gives her four tasks that she must learn to get through this particular zone.
The story, then, is about her four tasks and her growth. As she learns each task, she grows
beyond what she knew before. The first task is to sort all the seeds that are heaped up in
a room. This is a wonderful metaphor for all of the possibilities, all of the emotions at the
beginning of a transition period. Sorting the seed is really taking stock. What are all of the
seeds of possibility in your psyche of your world? How much money do you have in the bank?
How much energy do you have for this? How much talent do you have for this? What are you
putting together out of all your possibilities? To plan to have a conference? If this is your
particular dream, then you've got to sort out the seeds.
In this particular story, Psyche's first reaction to every single task is despair. It's more
than she's ever done before, she's consciously not up to the task, and she wants to give up.
Sort the seeds of possibility. At the beginning, she doesn't know how, and then the symbol
comes to her. Ants. All the ants come sorting out the seeds, one seed at a time, so that by
morning they've been sorted, each into its own kind, every one into its own stack.
Aphrodite comes back to find the task is done. The goddess doesn't seem to be at all
pleased about it, so she then gives Psyche another task. The second task is to get some
golden fleece from the rams of the sun, gather a small amount of it, and bring it to Aphrodite.
So our young Psyche goes and looks at these animals ranging up and down the field, in this meadow,
in that valley, all having a wonderful time. These rams are butting their heads up against each
other, roughing each other up. They've got a great deal of competitive power, but they're big
and they've got the strength and they're doing fine. It's just a big game with them, this
Psyche realizes that, if she goes out and tries to grab some fleece from the rams as they're
charging and hitting each other and running up and down the field, she would be trampled.
This does not seem to be the thing to do. So she goes down to the river again, and this time
a reed tells her, "Psyche, you don't have to go out there and do it that way. The rams are
energized by the sun. Wait until the sun goes down. Then you can go pick fleece that they have
scraped off against the bushes and trees. Gather enough of it for your use and fulfill the task."
The reed that tells Psyche to bide her time has wisdom. It isn't just about attaining a certain
amount of power, climbing to great heights or participating in competition. The wisdom of the
reed tells you to listen to your own rhythms. It advises when and how you can gain the power that
you need, but not have your soul destroyed in the acquisition. Listen and learn from the voice of
the reed, which is organic and grows out of the water, the river.
The application here has something to do with the feminine psyche or soul, but it has to do
with the soul of both men and women. When you are in a competitive game (and almost
everything that is about outer commerce or outer success involves competition), you can be
trampled if you get caught up in wanting to grab more and more and more golden fleece.
If you go out and take on the archetypes to play the game (because these are archetypes,
these rams of the sun) and leave your soul behind or forget that you have a soul, it will be trampled.
The third task was the creative task: Psyche is told that she must fill a crystal flask with
water from a stream that runs in a continual cycle from the River Styx to the highest crag. The
great water of life, the water of creativity, cycles. It is archetypal. It moves and moves and
moves, and yet each person needs to seize some of that fluidity and give it shape. Some
of that is a conscious desire to capture archetypal energies, visions, emotions and give them
shape through your own personality, which is relative to the great expanse of the archetypal
world of gods and goddesses. It is symbolically fragile, and yet this is the task.
Again Psyche looks at the task. She sees this river that is carved into the side of the mountain.
It goes down to the River Styx and then rises up through a spring to come up to the top again
and down the face, etching its way into the mountain. If that isn't bad enough, there are snake-like
dragons on either side warning, "Stay away! Stay away!" The water itself is hissing. Psyche
again thinks, "Too much! I can't do it!" when another symbol comes to her aid.
Now, this third task is supported by Zeus' eagle. Zeus is an archetype that succeeds
very well as an entrepreneur in this world. After all, he is the Chief Executive Officer of
Mount Olympus. He has lightning bolts. He can punish. His symbol, the eagle, has the
ability to see what it wants and plunge from the sky to grab it in its talons. That ability to
see the overall picture, to see the forest but not each individual tree, is a way of being in
the world. If you're a man with Zeus as your innate archetype, then the world (especially
capitalistic United States) rewards you very well. An entrepreneurial woman with Zeus
as an archetype finds it really helpful to see the overall picture, to not get emotional about
losing a sale or being undercut in business. An eagle doesn't stop and have an emotional
fit if that succulent mouse that she had her eye on suddenly follows intuition and runs under
a rock. The eagle just flies up again and looks for another dinner somewhere else. That
unemotional ability is very successful.
Of all the innate male air sign archetypes that have to do with the sky like Apollo and
Hermes, Zeus succeeds very well in this world. Some people have more of them than others.
If you are a man in this culture and you happen to have these archetypes, they will be
stretched on that Procrustean bed to fill the picture. Those parts of you that have to do with
creativity and emotionality are often ignored and, therefore, you are cut off from them.
Zeus' eagle now comes to this very personal Psyche giving her an overview of how to
go after what you need, how you avoid the dangers, keep your eye on the prize, and go for it.
The eagle takes the flask. It returns to give Psyche the flask, now filled with Stygian water
that she was to get for task three. One would say that at each step Psyche has learned
The fourth step is the first time that Psyche will end up accomplishing the task herself.
As her very last task, Aphrodite commands that Psyche must go into the underworld, fill an
empty box with beauty ointment from Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, and
return it to her. For the first time, Psyche thinks, "She must want me dead." The only way
she knows to go into the underworld is to die. Psyche now climbs up the highest tower to
throw herself off. This time the tower talks to her saying, "Psyche, there is another way to
finish this task. Go into the underworld via the Vent of Dis. Take coins with you for the
ferryman. Take two cakes for the three-headed dog; one to let you into the underworld,
and one to let you out again."
And then the tower warns her saying, "Three times you will be asked for help, Psyche.
You must harden your heart to pity, refuse, and go on." And so Psyche does. Three times
she is asked by very pathetic creatures or people to stop for a moment and help. Each
time she remembers the advice. She says "No" and she walks on. She gives one of the
coins to the ferryman who ferries her across. Even as she's going across the River Styx,
a pathetic man says, "Just hold my hand and pull me across. I didn't have a coin." But she
ignores his plea. There was one other piece of advice from the tower. "Psyche, once you
get the beauty ointment in the box, DON'T OPEN THE BOX!" (Laughter)
Psyche enters the underworld, gives the three-headed dog one cake, fills the box with
beauty, gives the three-headed dog another cake, comes back across the river (because
she has one more coin) and returns to the upper world.
All of the advice that the tower gave her was good. Psyche, having done exactly what
the tower told her understands that, if she had stopped to help, she would have had to
lend a hand. In each hand she had one cake and one coin. Had she lost what she was
holding, she would not have had the means to return from the underworld.
People in the transition often have limited amounts of strength, health or energy as they
go into the underworld. For example, the story of Psyche speaks to people living with cancer.
They say, "Cancer was a cure for my co-dependency. Cancer was a way in which I could
say to people, "I can't do that." The ability to say "No" is one of the challenges for a feeling
man or the feminine psyche. When other people expect you to always be there for them,
and you break form by saying "No," you create a crisis in a relationship. It may be that you
need to not stay in the underworld of your own depression or your own addiction or your
own whatever it is, it is there. Addiction, illness, and depression are images of the
underworld that you need to get through in order to get out. This liminal period of transition
is a very long one. The tasks to be done keep on growing. It's hard. It's scary. If you're
going to make it through this transition to the new phase of your life in which you have
integrated the new you, with all that you are for the next phase of your life, you've got to
often learn to say "No." Otherwise the people who have expectations of you will use your
energy. Say "No," and they'll say, "You're selfish." Psyche manages to do all of that.
She returns to the upper world. She's no longer in the underworld. She has made it through.
By now, you can imagine, she's very tired. She's pregnant, and she's been on this
journey a long time. Because she is who she is, her archetypes are related to the relationship
goddesses. That is, her archetype is she's the Mother. She started out the Maiden very much
like Persephone. She became a Lover, so she was like Aphrodite. She is pregnant, so she's
like Demeter. And she wants to be reconnected with this bridegroom, so she's got the persistent
energy of Hera.
For all that she has learned in mastering these good things, these are not strengths that
she particularly feels deeply connected to as her meaning. What she wants most of all, after
accomplishing all these tasks, is to be beautiful in order that Eros might love her and return.
Psyche opens the box and death-like sleep envelopes her. She falls, like Snow White, as if dead.
This is the point in the story where some people find fault with her decision. "Oh Psyche, after all
this, did you have to become unconscious again?"
It is this action that calls Eros to her side, but Eros has been transformed as Psyche has
grown through her ordeals. He used to be this child who ran home to mother, who hid things
from mother. He felt betrayed because Psyche actually looked at him. It didn't matter that
when she looked at him she actually consciously loved him. He was so wounded that she
broke the form and disobeyed him. Now we see a very different Eros who comes to her side,
wipes the death-like sleep off of her, and then takes her to Olympus. There, in front of all the
gods and goddesses, Eros announces that this is the conscious relationship that he wants.
The Olympians celebrate a grand wedding now, no longer a hidden affair, not this unconscious
relationship of love and soul, because those are the names of these two folks.
What is really fascinating is that we know all along she was pregnant, which is the symbol
of the journey. A new child is often present in dreams when you are growing into the next
phase of your life. Sometimes the dreamer is actually pregnant, but more often the dreams
I've listened to over the years show an exceptional, divine child (divine in the sense that it's
exceptional; it's little and it talks.) Something of this wonderful child is growing as a symbol
in the person as they move into this new phase of life.
When it's announced on Mount Olympus that the marriage of Eros and Psyche is celebrated,
she gives birth to the child that was forecast to be a god if she kept the secret and a mortal if
she gave the secret away. The child is born, a girl, and her name is Joy. This is the first
mortal in Greek mythology that is made an immortal. The soul (Psyche) is elevated and
made divine as well, becoming part of the Olympian landscape. This is actually the archetypal
world of the gods and goddesses in our psyches. She goes through this chrysalis phase. That's
her name, after all: it is butterfly, it is Psyche, it is soul. Trust emerges when there is a willingness
to die to the old, to be vulnerable and have faith. There is a time when you know that you have
been taken only so far by your own human abilities. Something else must come in to make the soul
reconnect with Eros. And often when we start the transition journey there is a loss of love, or
of our ability to love. We're depressed. We have had difficulties.
In a very similar way, womb or tomb is a story of Jesus. The short-form is that all kinds of
people expect him to be the Messiah. He arrives on Palm Sunday with great hosannas, and
by Good Friday he's crucified. On Saturday he is in the tomb. At that point in his story, Easter
Sunday hasn't happened yet. Is this going to be a tomb? Or is it going to be a womb from
which a new aspect is born out of suffering and descent? Most of the myths that have to do with
the underworld have, as a story in our psyches, an implicit descent. There is the possibility of being
like that caterpillar. In the cocoon stage, you enter into solution, and become vulnerable. You
do not know whether this is a birthing place or whether it is an ending place.
I'm going back to the images of birth, of people who help others deliver babies living out
the archetype of Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads, the goddess of twilight, the crone.
Hecate was also the archetype of the Mid-wife/Healer. The first women who went to the
stake in the Inquisition lived out of this archetype. As goddess of the crossroads, Hecate
appeared at every major fork in the road where transition decisions are made. She sees
where you are coming from and where the two paths will take you. At important forks in the
road in ancient Greece, you'd see a little statue with three faces: one facing the direction you
had come from, and the others facing two paths you might choose. This is the archetype of
people who act as midwives to other people. It is also the archetypal observer in ourselves
who has seen us through many descents and many transitions. This observer has an overview
of the pain and the joy, the suffering and the changes.
This is the archetype of the midwife who is a therapist, because every therapist is a midwife.
People come to therapists at times of transition and crisis. The Hecate in us can see where
they came from. We have some idea of where their choices might take them. Patients stay
with us at the crossroad until they become clear which direction they will choose. The path that
is most authentically them is about individuation. The choices often are to conform and go back
to an old form, one that other people are comfortable with, as well as a part of themselves.
Then there's the individuation path that does not promise that everyone will like you at all.
Instead, this path promises that it will feel true as long as you do what Joseph Campbell says
about living your personal myth.
Keith Thompson writes about how a man in his audience asked Dr. Campbell, "But how
do I find my personal myth?" And Campbell answered with a question: "What gives your
life bliss and harmony? Find it and follow it." Bliss is a strange word. It sounds too, too,
When you live from an archetype it means that you're in the world with the energy of
whatever that role is that the archetype holds. That archetype is deeply rooted in the matrix
of your self. There is a sense that when life is lived from an archetypal depth, that life has
meaning. Someone else doing the same thing might feel like they were doing time. That's
what it feels like when you've outgrown or chosen a path that is not deeply your own path but
someone else's idea of who you should be. You're going through the motions. Life is okay
if you can conform. When you live from an archetypal depth, then it may take suffering, but
there's something worthy and true about who I am when I do it that is me. Living your
personal myth, in fact, is all about the crises, the transitions, and the suffering. It is about
integrating your personal myth into yourself as you move along the path. Those of us that
are psychotherapists or artists or writers or anybody here who draws from the stuff of your
own life, know that no experience you have ever gone through is wasted. You can use it in
your art, in your therapy, in your compassion for or understanding of what comes through
the suffering that you personally integrated into yourself. You can use the experience in your
work, and nothing goes to waste.
As you get older, your path becomes increasingly a realization that you have moved
in an authentic way along the journey. There are the archetypes in both men and women:
goddesses in every woman, gods in every man. Had I known better, I would have written
a big book called Gods and Goddesses in Every Person. As I stand up here and talk
about archetypes, I am not embodying a goddess archetype. I'm being Hermes, the
messenger god, talking about entering the underworld and returning to the upperworld.
Most men and women find that they're a mix of different archetypal energies, much as
we are all mixes of human talents. Imagine if you had the gift of a Mozart and you never
heard music. Then in the second half of your life you were introduced to music. You had
a sense that said, "This is who I am!"
This individuation happens to people often in the second half of life. The middle-aged
person has done that which was possible for them to do. You were either successful in
fulfilling the educational/career/relationship patterns that the first half of life is about (or not.)
You either do it or you don't. And here you are. I wrote in my last book called Crones
Don't Whine that the third phase of life is the actual real essence of being present to
the path that you are on. Unless you can grieve for losses, let go of your sense of
entitlement, you will stand at the gate, never get through that transition, never get under
the pubic bone to the other side. If you sit at the gate whining, you're looking back at the
past feeling that you, of all people, deserve better. Your kids should have turned out
differently. Your marriage should have turned out better. The world should have
recognized you differently. You're whining about what happened or didn't happen to you.
You have no perspective on the whole wide world experience of being human. For one
thing, you don't understand the amount of suffering and pain and reality that exists if you're
still here. You're standing at the gate into the individuation path of the Crone. The Crone,
an archetype that both men and women draw from, is about wisdom, and compassion,
and active action, and healing humor, and a lot of other good things. But it's an internal
experience. The Crone archetype exists in men and women who can change the world.
I see in the metaphoric story about Psyche, the much more dramatic whistle-blower
experience that Jesus represents. Did Jesus have a sense that what he was supposed
to do would go against everybody's expectations, would scare everybody to death, and
yet would involve him with great suffering? In the midst of the great suffering, he even felt
that maybe he was wrong, that this was not what he was supposed to do at all. He did that.
A number of people go against expectations, and they suffer as whistle-blowers. Or they
make a choice that other people just didn't expect, and they experience anger and
disappointment and crucifixion at some symbolic level. Once it happens, the old self dies.
We've returned to the symbology of death/rebirth. When you are no longer who you are,
you're in a transition zone. You're learning something about who you are now, and what
you have in terms of sorting seeds. You're giving form to your creativity. How much power
do you have? Do you have the ability to put boundaries on your own energy? Then you
can pass through into the next phase, a spiritual path, which may also demand of you that
you now call upon something greater than yourself.
I've often said to look at us all as spiritual beings on a human path, rather than human
beings who may or may not be on a spiritual path. At some level, think how absurd it is that
an immortal soul comes into the dysfunctional lives we all have. An immortal soul has
chosen to be human. Human path is very strange. At the beginning, most people seem
to have their own version of dysfunctional family with lots of mistakes, and difficulties, and
loves, and sufferings, and lessons along the way. Then it's over so soon. Nobody gets
through without suffering. Now why would an immortal soul do that?
Yet, all of us intuitively would say, "I believe I have a soul." As soon as you do that,
you assume that you are essentially a spiritual being in a human body for now. There
must be something about this journey of vulnerability, of sharing it with others, of suffering,
of learning, of trusting, of finding that sometimes grace comes in the form of love, and that
Eros rescues us when we're unconscious again.
This is a story that resonates at many different levels and it's about us all. It's also
about reconnecting with that which is in solution. We were caterpillars; we enter this
solution in which everything got dissolved. Somehow, if we're fortunate, we reform and
come out as a butterfly. In our transition times we travel down to the underworld, down
to the unconscious, and reconnect with what mattered to us before. Or we uncover a
talent that gives our life meaning, and we claim it consciously and bring it up. We make
it part of what gets reformed when we break out of our cocoon into the next phase of our life.
As human beings and immortal souls in this life, the major metamorphosis for us all
is just to know that the last metamorphosis is the great mystery. When we die and we
leave this body, what of us continues on? What I find enormously heartening and fascinating
on many different levels is how many people have had after-death communications from
others who have gone on in many different forms. Sometimes there are visitation dreams.
Sometimes there is a sense of presence. Sometimes there's actually a hearing or a seeing
Recently, I've had a number of people who are close to me who aren't here
anymore but of whom I have had a real sense of presence. Now I'm going to tell you a story
that was told publicly. I believe it because of my own other experiences.
I went to a memorial service for the son of two friends of mine. He had a head-on
accident and died on the spot. It was a great loss. Jed was only 26 years old, and he
had this wonderful soul and spirit. His sister was angry and weeping a day or two before
the memorial service. She was really having trouble with it, and finally she just wanted
to be by herself. So she said, "I'm just going to go for a walk." As she was walking, Jed
appeared to her and walked along with her. He spoke to her saying,"I'm really okay, and
I want you to be okay. I want you to hold my hand." The sister said, "People must have
thought I was really dumb because they saw me holding his hand. I mean, I'm sure they
couldn't see Jed, but there I was holding his hand."
Now, Jed was known for giving big hugs. It seemed to be his trade mark. Once
he even got hit by a man who fell into a homosexual panic. The fellow moved toward Jed.
Of course, Jed interpreted it as "He wants a big hug." And when Jed hugged him, the man felt threatened by that closeness and hit Jed. This is a guy who had this type of physical
This walk with Jed, which his sister said was 28 minutes long, calmed his sister down.
At the end of the walk Jed asked,"Can I give you a hug?" and she said,"Sure." He gave her
a big hug, and then he asked, "Can you feel it?" He was disembodied so, of course, she
couldn't feel it. In her wisdom she said, "I can feel it in my heart."
The journey of spiritual beings on a human path holds major questions that have to do
with the big picture at each major transition fork in the road. What did I come to do? What
is my purpose? What did I come to learn? Who did I come to love? From a psychological
viewpoint, those questions can only be answered from deep within. Nobody else can ever
answer them for you.
I see this all as having many incarnations, many important relationships
that come and go, and many important experiences including this intensive conference to
which the same questions could apply. What did really I come here to do? You may
not find the answer to that question until the conference is over or almost over. What did
I come to learn, really? Who did I come to love? What did I come to love in myself, out here?
What am I remembering and reconnecting by this emerging experience?
The journey continues. Whether it's a long weekend, or a marriage, or a career...
whatever it is...if it did not go to waste, then it was part of your journey. There's something
now to remember and learn about it in order to bring it into consciousness and have it in
the full circle of who you are. You can reclaim those things from which you have cut yourself off
because of shame. That's part of the learning experience: you might have compassion
if you have compassion for yourself. You can then have compassion for others.
This is an amazing story, the personal myth business that we are all on. When that's said,
I think it's an amazing story that we are in. We are here now. Humanity has the capacity to
destroy this planet, the garden that we were given. I heard Robert Bly talk about the poem in
which he presents men with the question: "What did you do with the garden I trusted you with?"
There has never been a generation of women the likes of which are in this room right now.
The lives of 45 million American women over the age of 50 have been influenced by the
Women's Movement. They have therefore had responsibility, the ability to have major choices,
education, the birth control pill, and reproductive rights that may be taken from us.
Here we are, this generation of conscious people, spiritual people, disoriented people who
have possibly something to do with the fate of the earth. I think so. Something that has grown
out of my work is the notion of us needing to be in circle where the spiritual center is egalitarian
in order to admit the feminine principle. This circle is necessary for men as well as women to be
able to talk about vulnerability, share stories, and enjoy the strength, connection, and depth of being
human with each other. Because I'm of the generation of the Women's Movement, I know that
women together in consciousness-raising groups have changed the world. It doesn't seem at all
strange to me to think that we could create a critical mass of consciousness from the hypothetical
millionth circle which grows out of the hypothetical hundredth monkey (which was a story that
kept the anti-nuclear activists going.) It is, as Malcolm Gladwell says, "a tipping point." We should
serve ourselves to have a support system of like-souled others who understand that the personal
myth is something we are trying to live.
And so, I leave you with all of this as a transition because we are all in transition as a planet.
We are in a transition as individuals. And we have a remarkable opportunity to make a difference.
Every one of us who has gotten older and wiser can be a circle of influence in our nuclear
extended families, our institutions and, really, the world. I think it matters a lot that we do
spiritually oriented activism, political activism based not on anger and hate. Again, like the
Beyond War people moved us with the anti-nuclear activist movement, it has to do with love
of our potential and a wish not to destroy it. It may be, because we are born at this time
and are here now, that we each have as part of our personal mythology to do something
politically beginning now.
Jean Shinoda Bolen on the web
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