Living Myth: (3) Dancing for the Crows
From Core Experiences to Personal Myths.
This series of posts is adapted from D. Stephenson Bond's Living Myth: Personal Meaning as a Way of Life (Shambhala, 2001).
My life is a story of the realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem. What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis [in our universal form], can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science. Science works with concepts of averages which are far too general to do justice to the subjective variety of an individual life. Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories.” Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.
— C. G. Jung
THE VALIDITY OF SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE:
ONE WOMAN’S STORY
Outside the walls of culture we come upon the dark wood where the individual walks alone. We come upon the personal myth. In doing so, we come up against one of the fundamental insights of Jung’s psychology: the validity of subjective experience. In other words, what we experience as our own individual life as well as what we experience as universally human can only be expressed—which is to say, can only become a meaning—through a personal myth. Because in a very real way general and outward facts fail to do justice to experience-as-lived precisely insofar as one cannot live a life generally, but only subjectively.
This suggests that the meaning of what we live—our behaviors, feelings, longings, work, and play—does not come ready-made. Our problem is thus not so much to preserve the meanings we inherit, as to participate in the process of meaning unfolding.
The paradox, however, remains. While the perception of meaning captured in the personal myth is a subjective experience, the process unfolding is impersonal. Like a crystallization process that occurs when the right chemical field is created, the images of the myth can form as so many molecules arranging themselves along the lattice pattern. The individual contents vary, but the patterns of organization are impersonal. The personal myth is a crystallization of a subjective set of images organized by deeper, impersonal patterns. So it is personal (individual, unique, subjective), while at the same time mythic (collective, universal, impersonal).
With those considerations in mind, personal myth might be defined as an individual creation that crystallizes from subjective experience of impersonal psyche and becomes a way of life.
A personal myth is an uncommon thing. The trouble with a theory is that it claims to be objective, and for that very reason the overtones of inner life dry up like flowers cut from the roots. Psychology must somehow find the language of experience-as-lived. The living myth can never be a theory because it cannot be an object. Stand outside and you find it already dead, an artifact or a fossil. We need to see it inside out, to speak out of the context in which our own experience is already its own validation.
I’ll tell you a story. A woman on a retreat got up early one morning to go for a walk in the woods. She was unfamiliar with the territory, but felt safe on the path leading off to the east. Lost in her thoughts she wandered happily for a while until suddenly, looking up, she came upon a startling sight. Four jet-black crows sat side by side on a branch slightly above her head, silently starting at her. She froze. She could not move. For a long time they faced one another wordlessly, four crows on the branch and she not three feet from them.
Then all in one motion the crows shot into the air and cried. The woman jumped. Round and round they circled until each fluttered to rest in four different trees just up ahead on the path. Mystified, she followed. She found herself in the middle of a small clearing with the four crows one to each side, as if marking the four directions. All of a sudden she had a strange impulse: she must dance for the crows. Without any hesitation she swept her arms and legs in swirling motions, like the wings of a bird. She was a dancer and at the same time she was danced. She didn’t know how long she danced, but she danced as long as her body wanted to move. And the crows sat by as silent watchers.
When she was finished, one of the crows flew over to the next tree up the path and waited. She followed. And then another crow sat on another tree and beckoned her to come. Still she followed. One by one they led her through the forest.
She had no idea where this all might lead her, but she could not help but feel that this game of the crows was important. The feel of its importance struck her with great intensity. So she went on with it. She went on with it even when the crowd veered off the path and brought her through some underbrush to a blacktop road. It was absolutely still in the early morning light. No cars were in sight. The crows waited for her in a tree across the other side. But on the other side she found a steep embankment and wondered for a minute if she had the strength to climb it. She had to dig her fingers in the dirt and pull herself up on all fours. They cawed as she climbed. Out of breath, she paused. Still they called her onward. By the time she caught up with them, she told herself she could not go another step.
When she looked up, she found herself standing in front of the grandest oak tree she had ever seen in all her life. Tier after tier it spiraled almost out of sight into the sky. Its roots were taller than her knees before they plunged into the ground, into the sacred ground. For this was a holy place, she realized, a place to practice reverence. It was as if she could stand in utter stillness and the energy of that moment would soak right up through her legs like sap flowing in the springtime. For a long time she stood, lost in wonder. And through it all she could not help but notice the sense of awesome familiarity, like some vague but fragrant memory of a time and place when she had been here before, like the lingering smell of long-forgotten home. She knew now why the crows had brought her here.
After some time had passed, again the crows flew just ahead. “More?” she said. “How can there be more?” But there was more. They waited in the trees. Reluctant as she was to leave the sacred place, she followed, somewhat fearfully. It was a fear she could not name. She only knew it held her back and seemed to grab her ankles. Slowly she came round a turn and saw another vision.
Stretched before her was a wide and open field of unmown grass. It was one of those summer mornings when the dew still lingered after sunrise, so that here and there across the field she saw a sparkle like a gemstone or maybe more like stars. And far above, straight in a line, the crows flew fast away until she saw, looking far beyond, a stand of trees still taller than the oak she’d seen before. Ancient trees. Mighty oaks still growing. From over there across the field the crows cried for her to come.
But she could not come. She could not move. She was anchored by her fear. They called and called. It made her weep. She spoke as if they could hear her most human voice in tears, “I cannot cross, I cannot cross.”
When the crows fell silent, she wondered what to do. She stood just on the edge of time, staying there or leaving, when all at once, sharp as a shot, a single crow came streaking back over her head the way she’d come, as if to give permission for her to let the moment pass. And so she left, step by step reentering the normal landscape, except for the feather she found on the trail, a clear and present signal of what lies just the other side of common ground.
FUSING INNER AND OUTER WITH IMAGINATION
We have to enter the personal myth by the back door, by way of subjective experience in which the myth is not a “myth” but lived experience. This is historically the method of phenomenology, which asks how an experience presents itself. This is how the woman encountered the crows, from her own subjective experience. If we start from the outside, if we maintain our distance through objectivity, then we know very well that crows do not lead people around or want them to dance. And yet that was her experience in the moment. The events I described in the story are precisely as they happened to her phenomenologically.
We are, however, often at a loss in trying to claim the validity of our subjective experiences because they represent a paradoxical union of internal and external realities. For us, looking on from the outside, there is no paradox—this was her internal experience. The dancer, on the other hand, was not in her chair at home meditating when this experience happened. She and the crows were in the external environment. She experienced the crows subjectively as internal and external at the same time. The experience was both internal and external, or rather neither, because it comes from that transitional state that to my mind is the root of mythological experience. It is a different state of consciousness altogether from our grown-up objective consciousness.
D. W. Winnicott, the British pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, noticed that this puzzle of inside and outside is a problem we wrestle with throughout our life. Although initially Winnicott was referring to the experiential reality of an infant, before long he saw that the subtle state called the transitional state is very much part of an adult’s experience as well. First as an infant and later as an adult, we have what Winnicott calls the “illusion” that an outer object behaves exactly as an inner image of the object “wants” it to behave. However, it is important to notice that Winnicott used the term illusion here in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, he meant illusion in the sense of “nonreality,” implying the necessity of disillusionment in order to differentiate inner and outer. On the other hand, Winnicott pointed precisely to the necessity of an “unchallenged” illusion—an intermediate space wherein the imagination is granted a subjective validity that can be “enjoyed.” How and why this “illusion” might need to go unchallenged, how it is that one might dance with crows, brings us to the psychological value of play. I want to suggest that play is our participation in the process of our own development through the imagination. Adults mature through play just as children mature through play precisely insofar as play represents the intermediate step from potential development to actual “work.”
Experiences such as the dancer had are phenomena of the imagination. Imagination came between her and the object. Her imaginal world and her phenomenal world all of a sudden seemed to be in sync. Her internal crows and the outer crows came together in that moment (so to speak) when she moved into the “play space,” a space in which the external object behaves in such a way as to approximate the inner object.
So this woman was playing. She was playing “as if” she were being guided by the crows. And therein lies the danger—living out of the imagination, acting out the fantasy. What is he difference between a personal myth and a delusional system? Both have their roots in the raw experience of psychological intensity. Both show again and again the amazing and ingenious forms that the autonomous imagination may take. Both underlie actions taken and lifestyles adapted in the world. How do you walk the line of valuing a subjective experience without crossing the thin edge over into objective pathology?
“Should an adult make claims on us for our acceptance of the objectivity of his subjective phenomena, we discern or diagnose madness,” Winnicott also said. Madness or play has everything to do with the attitude or state of mind within which the dancer might be able to hold such an experience. The danger lies on either side of “objective” consciousness. It requires a symbolic consciousness to hold the “as if” quality of experience. Somewhere she is conscious that she is “playing,” what Winnicott calls “enjoying” the personal intermediate area—play, creativity, art, religion. In such a case we do not call her mad who dances with crows, but may regard her as genius. What Winnicott called madness has to do with falling back into a state of subjective participation, getting caught in the fantasy thinking without the participation of consciousness.
The danger is that either way she fell out of our culture when she followed her individual experience, when she followed her crows. In another culture, in a primary culture, any claim she wanted to make about the “objectivity” of her experience would not necessarily be regarded as madness, but might be seen as wisdom. A Sioux might simply say she’d found her totem animal and think no more about it. Just how much a saturation of the participation mystique is considered madness varies from culture to culture.
However, we have little choice in the dilemma. Whether we come across experience as madness or creative play, inside or outside of the cultural milieu is not a conscious decision. Whether or not we are able to be contained in the myth of our culture is not a matter of choice, but of fate; not at all a matter of education and training, but one of subjective experience and circumstance; a problem not so much of social development but of the mysterious and unaccountable factor of individual potential.
FALLING THROUGH CULTURE:
THE RISKS AND REWARDS OF UNEXPLORED TERRITORY
So far we have seen how from time to time certain remarkable fantasy experiences break out in an individual life. In many ways these experiences are fraught with psychological danger: more often than not they are at odds with the cultural “reality”; since they are so profoundly internal their incommunicability often results in a sense of isolation; they often demand a complete reappraisal of one’s self-identity.
And yet, at the very same time, these experiences are fraught just as well with psychological potential. We are often concerned about the ways in which fantasy might take us over the edge, but every step forward is a step across an old boundary. We grow around the edges, in personal ways and also in cultural ways.
Recall Malinowski’s description of those gaps and breaches left in the “ever-imperfect wall of culture.” He saw that the mark of the outstanding personality—the “person of genius”—was the unaccountable ability to fashion method and meaning from falling through the holes of culture. In those perilous openings between the cultural myths, the individual is measured. Some are lucky to get away with their skins, clinging to the walls. Some are swept right through and perish. Those who are able to conceive, formulate, and give to others a mythic statement out of such experiences have achieved an individual status. They are swept through the breach of culture but return to tell of their travels.
In other words, whether or not the eruption of powerful internal experiences turns out to be a breakdown or a breakthrough depends upon the ability of the person to give it form and meaning, upon the ability to mythologize. This is what happened to the woman who danced for the crows. I have already told you the story, already made it myth, and in so doing I have brought it back into culture. But for her in the moment of her experiencing, and for all of those who find themselves just the other side of common ground, the outcome hangs in the balance. Whether or not she experienced the crows in such a way was beyond her conscious choice. She was simply seized. However, if she had the ability, she might through individual labor fashion from this powerful encounter a meaning that sustains her, and not only her, but given her potential perhaps sustains those around her. It is the potential of development, in other words what Jung called the restless urge of the psyche to realize itself more fully and completely, which is the deciding factor.
This is why I call such experiences “core” experiences, the raw material of myth. They can be the beginning of a developmental process, in fact they are only a beginning. A core experience needs to be matured and ripened. In small ways these breakthroughs in development happen all the time. The size of our world, of our cultural horizon, expands from the warm comforts of our childhood home when the limit was the end of the block and the unfamiliar was the next street over. As we mature, our framework of meaning, our mythology, expands to include a larger and larger variety of experiences. The limit is always that point at which the experience exceeds the framework, and psychological development begins where the framework expands to include new experience.
Culture, however, is already its own limitation. Culture represents a particular adaptation, a particular level of psychological maturity. Here we come upon the fundamental dilemma of the culture versus the individual, because what happens when the capacity of the individual to expand the framework exceeds the cultural capacity? The two come into conflict. Where the individual potential for development exceeds the cultural limit the need for new meaning erupts.
Jung claimed that the force that pushes a person out of the myth of culture and into individuality comes not from the will, but from the psyche. The real development for Jung was the discovery of a “personal myth.” Therefore, for Jung, the “genius” who is able to go beyond culture, to leap into the breach in the walls of culture’s perception, is the psyche itself. In Latin genius means literally “the begetter.” It is the Egyptian ka soul, the greater soul, and the Greek daimon. It was said that the genius was the god of a man’s birthday (called the Juno for a woman), a guardian angel. And that is psyche. The genius is the million-year-old man. It comes not through an act of will, but through an act of grace. And when the woman danced for the crows, in many ways she was beside herself. It was a more ancient part of herself that she lived going off into the woods alone. In that moment she was psyche dancing.
THE RELIC FEATHER: LIVING YOUR MYTH
The woman who danced with the crows appeared to be led across a road and had to climb a steep embankment. There she found a sacred ground upon which stood a giant oak. Against her will she went another step and came upon an open field that she could not cross, but saw far beyond herself some trees of a different nature. And when it was over, to her surprise, she found a small reminder of the day that she could not explain, but clutched her feather nevertheless as if it had some meaning.
There is a movement beyond conscious play. We all have private fantasies. We all have guiding fictions of our life in our “personal intermediate areas,” that we may or may not share with others whom we trust. But there comes a time when we must make a claim, when simple insight seeks a lifestyle; a time when we’ve played long enough with what may or may not be, and in that day simple play becomes a game with rules for living meaningfully.
I think it must be the inherent mystery of experiences that go beyond ourselves that makes us want to claim more than private satisfaction. Perhaps it is the other way around: such an experience makes a claim on us. By its very nature such an experience compels expression and elaboration, as if it will not let us go until, through us, it can be self-known. And that is meaning—participation in the larger thing that wants to make a claim.
The only claim that can be made from such an experience will by definition be a mythological claim—“Four crows led me”—which, as long as one is in the myth, is unchallenged and unchallengeable. It claims itself, and then it claims us, and if by creative work it finds a cultural form, soon it’s claiming others.
The answer we make to the claims that our own experience imposes on us is through what we actually live, not through our opinions. And the answer we make is ambiguous, inconsistent, and tension-filled. Perhaps this is the fundamental difference between a religious and a secular lifestyle—religious, not in the sense of any outer institution, but in the sense of a living relationship to the ancient, living psyche.
PERSONAL RELIGION: CREATING A FRAMEWORK FOR EXPERIENCE
The claim of the crows on this woman has the beginnings of a personal religion. To make a statement, even to herself, about what happened to her, she has to put it in a framework. She needs the frame that tells her how to relate to this experience, that is to say she needs a religious myth to guide her in the relationship to her living psyche. Dancing for the crows was a religious experience, a numinous experience. It forms a core experience. Jung defined the religious function as the careful and scrupulous observation of the numinosum. She may attempt to put it in a cultural religious frame. This woman, for instance, may embrace Native American mythology rather than having to labor over a personal myth. Often nowadays people turn to religious forms and practices outside of their own culture.
We do not know if such a “conversion” will be adequate to the claim. The difficulty with conversion has to do with the restless urge of psyche to know itself ever more fully. Where the potential of the individual relationship to psyche exceeds the potential of the culture—any culture, ancient or living—the ground is set for the individuation process to unfold. She may have to find the rules of this relationship from inside herself, from what her psyche teaches rather than what her culture teaches. Whether or not she must in the end take her individual development of this experience all the way through depends upon if a cultural form had adequately developed the potential inherent in this experience. If it has not, the conversion will represent a substitute that in the long run will impede her individuation. The need for a conscious, living participation in our own development process predominates in such a situation.
In other words, she will need a personal myth, a living myth, to guide her in her individuation from her culture. Jung’s view was that if she succeeds she not only grows in her own psychological development, her own consciousness, but she also stimulates the development of her culture.
“Every advance in culture is, psychologically speaking, an extension of consciousness. …Therefore an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”
Here Jung stresses the value of individuation. We’ve been working with the definition of individuation as being conscious participation in the process of our own unfolding development, as the process of conscious realization in the actual personality of the greater personality. When Jung wrote that “in the last analysis every life is the realization of a whole, that is, of a self, for which reason this realization can also be called ‘individuation’” and that “All life is bound to individual carriers who realize it, and it is simply inconceivable without them,” he seemed to mean the process itself—the self-realization of psyche. However, a more technical definition of individuation, characteristic of some of Jung’s earlier statements, emphasized the distinctive individual. Individuation is the process that unfolds in those “smitten by such a fate”—those whose individual potential exceeds their culture. In this sense Jung underlined the contract between culture and the individual.
In that specialized sense, then, the personal myth is the form that potential takes in an individual—someone who is forced to become an individual. It is beyond our choosing. It is what life has imposed on us, rather than what we have tried to impose upon it. The potential is not consciously chosen, but subjectively perceived. Its form emerges as a personal myth rather than being “made up.” The personal myth is even the vehicle through which such a person becomes an individual. The myth opens up a way of life through which the potential can be lived.
YOUR PERSONAL MYTH: THE WORK OF A LIFETIME
Once crystallized, the form a personal myth takes follows the same pattern in individual life as found in cultural life: elaboration, functional “peak,” subsequent decay, and rebirth. It emerges as the best, most proper expression of its contents at the moment. Its vitality comes from the energy field it carries at the moment. It is a “living” symbol. But no symbol lives forever. Just as our collective myths emerge from a given culture at a given time, crystallize into culturally recognizable patterns, then dematerialize as the functional relationship shifts, so the particular form of a personal myth carries the individual only for a time, only to slowly lose its energy and become a dead shell. No myth is eternal, but the potential underneath remains.
This is a vital distinction. The potential of development is a mysterious factor. It erupts in a life usually as a core experience that is wounding at the very same time it is empowering. But the mystery may take many forms. Too often, of course, we cling to a personal myth past its time. That is the inherent difficulty with any powerful metaphor, which any powerful truth. To be realized it must be lived, it must be particularized. We tend to want to build a shrine around it so that we’ll always know where to find it. But the living myth is also process, not only content.
So over a lifetime we don’t so much live out a personal myth as live out the death and rebirth of a personal myth. We fall into and out of myth several times over the course of a lifetime. The core experience remains but over a lifetime must be worked and reworked. Along the way different forms, different images, different metaphors approach a more developed realization of the core mystery: “If [the individual] succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”
THE GREAT ENDEAVOR: A NEW MYTHOLOGY
A woman danced for the crows. Whatever dancing for the crows might have seemed at the time, it is too late now for her to step back from the experience, and as yet there is no guarantee that a meaning will emerge to preserve her. Whatever comes, her experience has already carried her beyond her former way of life. With that we come close to the experience of living out a personal myth—the feel for the “life-line at the moment” that sustains the widened consciousness of individuation. It sustains the widened consciousness of psyche ever seeking to know itself more fully, not only individually, but also for the good of those among whom we live.
Our culture is now experiencing the death of myth, which is precisely what Jung meant when he said that when the aging myths of former generations pass away, the mythmaking process is constellated in the lives of individuals. For the birth of the personal myth in the imagination of a single individual may become the rebirth of the greater myths in the imagination of the culture.
“If [the individual] succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.” That is the promise of the personal myth. It goes beyond the individual. Jung implied that the personal myth must be seen not only in the light of individuation, but also in the light of evolution—cultural evolution, and at its furthest reach, human evolution as well. This is not in contradistinction to individuation; on the contrary, this evolution is the underlying aspect of individuation itself. Jung claimed that every advance of culture is an extension of human consciousness.
In that sense, the long and lonely labor, the fears and doubts and countless failures that the evolution of a personal myth claims in the life of a single individual, are endured not only for self, but for others as well. I do not think it is possible to realize just how large an unconscious foundation for a newly evolving myth may already have been built on our behalf, though unacknowledged and as yet undiscovered.