This continues a three-part series of posts which began here.
Just as the loss of story is essential for children outgrowing shoes or adolescents going through a rite of passage, so may collective upheavals be natural and needful. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,16 defines paradigms as broadly agreed-upon theories. Examples of current paradigms include the heliocentric theory, the germ theory, the theory of plate tectonics, and the theory of quantum mechanics. Prevailing paradigms get so firmly fixed in the minds of their adherents, however, that they often seem less like theories and more like reality itself.
Yet everything changes, and the human capacity to conceive the inconceivable is overrated. Anomalies start to appear even in well-established paradigms. Soon they multiply, until the paradigm becomes so riddled with inconsistencies that the map is no longer a reliable guide to the territory.
Then the hunt for a new map (a new story) intensifies, especially on the fringes of the dominant culture. This in turn generates fierce resistance by those heavily invested in the current paradigm. It has been wryly suggested that paradigms change one death at a time.
Thomas Kuhn focused on how scientific paradigms change. But the concept of a “paradigm shift” can now refer to “a change in personal beliefs, complex systems, or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing.”17
Regardless of whether a paradigm shift befalls an individual or a generation, and regardless of whether it’s caused by war, a rite of passage, or a dark night journey, the loss of a defining story can precipitate a perilous crisis of meaninglessness, followed by a fierce desire to find something to hold on to. For as scripture cautions, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”18
Seeking Medicinal Stories
Losing a core story corresponds to losing a sense of self, and sometimes a reason for living. The resulting dis-ease is a sickness of the soul. Those so afflicted leave well-traveled paths to search for new stories, for they instinctively know that good stories are strong medicine.
My first introduction to the idea that stories are medicinal grew out of our dream group. We had been meeting weekly for years, working with dreams and deepening friendships, and were committed to be there for each session unless we were sick or out of town. Midway through one of our evening meetings, during tea break, I noticed a short quote adorning the box of Celestial Seasonings tea.
“Whether you are an old family, a new family or a family in the making, whether you be lover or friend, it is the experiences you share with others and the stories that you tell about those experiences afterward, and the tales you bring from the past and future that create the ultimate bond.”19
I was enchanted. The words were from a small book, The Gift of Story. Borrowing it from the library, I learned that its author, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, is a gifted storyteller. She is also a Jungian psychoanalyst who helps people deal with post traumatic stress. Her first book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, had become an unexpected bestseller. In the opening pages of The Gift of Story, Estés says that,
“in the apothecary of the hundreds of stories I was taught… they are conceived of and handled as a large group of healing medicines, each requiring spiritual preparation and certain insights by the healer as well as by the subject. These medicinal stories are traditionally used in many different ways: to teach, correct errors, lighten, assist transformation, heal wounds, re-create memory.”20
Deep wounds don’t heal easily. Yet Estés observes that “many of the most powerful medicines, that is stories, come about as a result of one person’s or group’s terrible and compelling suffering.”21 This was true for George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Suffering catapulted them into a non-ordinary world which they fully believed to be real. What they found there transformed their lives. Each man’s journey was unique; yet the parallels are striking.
George Fox recalled that “I cannot declare the misery I was in, it was so great and heavy upon me.”22 Out of this suffering, however, came an epiphany. For after much seeking and debating and despair, he realized that neither the priests nor the dissenting preachers could help him. “When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone,” he said, “so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”23
A medicinal Christ story thereby came alive for George Fox and his confusion gave way to ecstasy. He retained the familiar Christian narrative – he didn’t become a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Jew – but the encrusted words suddenly became personal, visceral, and compelling.
“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword,” he exalted, “into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I saw I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell.”24
Carl Jung, in the middle years of his life, likewise found himself in the tightening vise of a spiritual dilemma. He was a mythologist without a guiding myth of his own; a psychiatrist unable to access his own psyche, his own soul. In desperation, he raised a plaintive cry: “My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there?”25
Then Carl Jung waited. Night after night, alone in his study, he waited. Finally, his compulsive need for a new story coaxed open a hidden door to another world. The underworld. The world of the mythic imagination. When he entered this door, however, he did not see the risen Christ robed in glory. Instead, he met and talked with Elijah the prophet, and the prophet’s blind daughter Salome.
This pairing of a prophetic figure with the woman who had danced for the head of John the Baptist deeply disturbed Carl Jung. Many of the other subterranean encounters he would have over the months and years to come were equally distressing.
“An incessant stream of fantasies had been released,” he later wrote in his autobiography, “and I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible.”26
Nor was the irony of this lost on Jung the psychiatrist. For he saw that his daring experiment was conjuring up the same psychotic complexes that plague the insane.
“This is the fund of unconscious images which fatally confuse the mental patient. But it is also the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age. Though such imagination is present everywhere, it is both tabooed and dreaded, so that it even appears to be a risky experiment or a questionable adventure to entrust oneself to the uncertain path that leads into the depths of the unconscious.”27
Carl Jung shielded himself from what he considered to be a potential psychosis partly by keeping meticulous records of what he experienced, and partly by using his family life and professional responsibilities as a buttress against being swept away by a flood tide of psychic incursions.
J.R.R. Tolkien was medically evacuated from the front lines of the First World War in November of 1916. During his months of recuperation in England he began to write about elves. Elvish names arose in his mind: Ilúvatar, Eärendil, Beren, Luthien. Stories grew out of these names. Complex genealogies evolved. Elven languages were invented. Tolkien’s love of linguistics was given free rein.
In a seminal lecture called “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien clearly distinguishes between fairies and Faërie, the latter being the home of the former. Faërie is a primary source of medicinal stories, corresponding to Jung’s imaginal realm. Besides elves, dwarves, and trolls, “it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”28
But Tolkien also warns that “Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.”29
The editors of the expanded edition of Tolkien’s lecture say that Faërie is central to both his worldview and his writing. “He used it to mean the Otherworld beyond the five senses – a parallel reality tangential in time and space to the ordinary world; he used it to mean the practice of enchantment or magic, especially through the use of words; …and he used it to mean the altered mental or psychological state brought about by such practice.”30
My own search for medicinal stories is somewhat similar to the journeys undertaken by Tolkien, Jung, and Fox. After a brief excursion into psychedelics after returning from the Philippines (see Part 1), I was drawn to the less perilous and more sustainable practice of dreaming. Strong dreams eventually led my wife Joyce and I to become part of a small group of seekers gathered around a woman who had cultivated an ability to become still. Out of her stillness came a quickened flow of guidance. Live close to the Earth, it suggested, in small communities of cooperation. Practice dream-work, meditation, and prayer. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The guidance, which lasted for nine months, encouraged us to model graceful acquiescence to an upcoming season of escalating change. So four of us left our known lives behind and moved to an old Appalachian farm where we could put the teachings into practice.
We didn’t believe these teachings were infallible. They were clearly filtered through the conditioned personality of the woman through whom they came. Yet it seemed equally clear that their source was transpersonal and that four story orphans had been gifted with a story worth living.
The third and final portion of this story will be posted next week.