Myth And a Desire to Live
Today is the 5th Anniversary of the day when my husband broke his neck in a “Hangman’s Break”, where 95% of the injured die instantly; of the 5% who live all but 3% are quadriplegic. (Read a post from right after the accident here or read a post from last year about it here).
Here’s one version of that story, a mythic version, a depth psychological version, one that explores myths and synchronicity. It is up to you to decide what is real and what is myth.
A Desire to Show Up: The Case of Jung, Ganesh, and Guan Yin
Depth Psychology leads us “beneath the surface of thought, behavior, and action to the inclinations and the impulses of the soul they are rooted in” posits Joseph Coppin and Elizabeth Nelson in The Art of Inquiry (2004, p. 41). Central to the philosophy of Depth Psychology is Coppin’s (2011) claim that myths are not only relevant but desire to be lived, thus begging C. G. Jung’s question; “in what myth do we exist?” (p. 171). This leads to questions of how do we engage with the imaginal and what difference does this make? To paraphrase James Hillman (1998), we may want the imaginal passionately and desire to enter it, but we cannot will it — it is a creation of faith, need, and desire (p. 86).
While Philip Cushman (1995) argues that the self configures to conform to its historical time and place, Thomas Moore (1996) suggests that as we move toward a mythic sensibility we arrive to an appreciation of the divine in our everyday lives (p. 25).
This analysis of a narrative of mythic personal encounters with Jung, the Hindu deity Lord Ganesh, and the Buddhist deity Guan Yin illustrates how the mythic can co-exist, albeit a bit uncomfortably at times, with a self that conforms to its historical time and place bringing the divine into life daily.
During the first term of my PhD in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in December 2011, Professor Coppin shared with us an idea, which many might consider a radical one; that
“myths are not just relevant to modern day but they, the myths, have a desire to show up and be lived and relived”.
Professor Coppin’s revelation about myths was not exactly shocking news to me. I am aware and sensitive to the mythic in daily experiences, on the look out for the instructive metaphor, aware that we are surrounded by deeper meanings to our seemingly mundane experiences, more interested in interpreting the signs of the narrative in which we find ourselves rather than the purely imaginary material of traditional literary analysis.
I set out on the task outlined by Thomas Moore (1996) in his essay “Developing a Mythic Sensibility” to “return myth to modern life and thought” and to be “a daring spirit willing to live in a mythic animated (imagination-filled) world where everything is sacred, where angels appear unexpectedly and in many guises and where devils make it all interesting and complicated.” The challenge is to do so “without reducing it to eighteenth century notions of reasonable divinity and yet without literal archaism and mythological fundamentalism” (p. 27).
In November 2011, while reading Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung himself appeared to me in a night terror with his “twelve dead” (1989, p. 172) conflated with a second dream of his of the mummified men in graves wearing antique clothes who come alive and move their hands (1989, p. 172-173). In my night terror, in a semi-circle around my bed stood Jung and twelve towering pillar tree stump figures , which were actually the “mummies” in Jung’s dream. I screamed and woke my family.
In my journal the next day, I recorded “There was something about their eyes — maybe they didn’t have faces?” Even now I can “see” their tree bark faces with glowing golden red eyes yet in my journal I described it differently. What were these figures here to tell me? I knew Jung spoke to me before I screamed but his words were lost upon waking. While Jung discusses several meanings, my mother, a Bible scholar, taught me that the number 12 in the Bible typically represents completeness and wholeness.
Even though I screamed in terror, I felt completeness and wholeness. Indeed what attracts me to Depth Psychology is that it feels “whole” or “complete”, not fragmentary or reductionistic, integrating nature, culture and the psyche. Hence the men as trees and as tree stumps are not “dead” to me – they represent the fullness of the cycle of life.
In a dream the following morning Jung again visited me. In my journal I wrote: “There was a very vivid dream, with a clear message, so clear that it was a lucid dream so lucid. I remember saying to my dreamer self that I will remember this dream and this message forever. The only word of the message that I remember is ‘constancy’” This relates back to the idea of wholeness and completeness and that this mythic experience is constant not erratic.
I wrote about the Jung night terror dream on my blog “Compassionate Rebel,” prompted by the words of Pema Chodron: “[t] his very body that we have, that’s sitting right here …with its aches and pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” I concluded the entry with: “We are surrounded by the lessons we need to learn…we just have to pay attention to them. I am trying to figure out my dharma, to travel on the path. Too often it is too noisy to hear. Sometimes our bodies and our dreams must lead the way.”
Myths are not just relevant to modern day but they, the myths, have a desire to show up and be lived and relived. Joseph Coppin, Lecture November 2011
On Friday February 5, 2010, I was moving forward in a new direction in life, working as a writing coach and a social media expert when my expectations of the future suddenly changed. I had signed up that day for a Women’s Economic Ventures Self-Employment training class to learn to write a business plan. Rain moved in that afternoon.
Since it was a First Friday, I led the ArtRide in the rain; the theme was “Tweed Ride.” My 6-year-old son and husband joined us at a rehearsal for an AIDS benefit honoring “angels” in our community. Because of my leadership as a bicycle and arts activist, I was one of those angels, and fourteen ArtRiders — close friends and my nephew — were to be part of a segment in a variety and fashion show. Our children wouldn’t be in the show but many were there for the rehearsal and for a party at a nearby gallery afterward.
We hauled our bikes up the stairs to the second floor of the Elks Lodge on Main and Ash. When it was our turn, we walked our bikes across the stage and down the catwalk where the MC and I bantered.
Four of the ArtRiders who were skilled and experienced cyclists — including my husband — were going to ride off the end of catwalk which was about 30” off the ground.
At about 8pm, my husband went first. And last.
There was not enough room for him to gain the necessary speed do the jump off the catwalk. He needed the speed to lift the front of his bike in the air and land on his back wheel first and then land his front one.
Instead he went down front tire first, flew over his handlebars, and landed headfirst. He was not wearing a helmet (which the doctor said later likely saved his life).
Over 50 people were in the room and I heard them take in one collective breath. I felt an odd sense of quiet and peace — I knew he was all right, not that he was going to be all right but that he was in the moment all right — whatever that meant. Instead of feeling like I was in shock or fog, I experienced extreme clarity and calm. Instead of feeling like I needed to be strong, I was strong.
Blood was everywhere.
Someone called 911. Rachel held her cotton scarf to his head to apply pressure to stop the bleeding. We kept him still to prevent further injury. Paramedics stabilized his neck in a brace to carry him downstairs. My nephew Kyle took our son and friends loaded our bikes. I followed the ambulance to the packed ER where we got xrays and eventually the on-call neurologist, Dr Sabit, said my husband’s neck was broken, his C2, in what I learned later is called the “Hangman’s Break”, where 95% of the injured die instantly; of the 5% who live all but 3% are quadriplegic.
While my husband could wiggle his toes and everything else, the risk was great. If he survived a fall, the doctor said he could still become paralyzed at anytime.
The doctor told us that if he performed his preferred surgery — to fuse his neck from the front or the back — his risk of paralysis was 60% or more.
A third method was also extremely risky but it did not entail fusion of the bones and might allow him to completely recover with his full mobility or at least heal enough to allow the doctor to fuse his neck with less risk of paralysis. In our conversation with the doctor in the ER as well as in the pre-op area, the doctor learned about my husband’s athleticism, his ability to heal well from previous broken bones, about his healthy diet, his non-smoking habits, and how he had avoided previous recommendations for fusion of his lumbar spine through natural health strategies like yoga, and chiropractic. A little after midnight, they put my husband under, and I let go of his hand. The doctor encouraged me to go home and rest.
Thomas Moore (1996) writes that “The closer we move to a mythic sensibility the more we appreciate the divine in the every day” (p. 25).
I don’t remember if I had a glass of wine or cup of tea when I got home but I do know went to work. I knew that there were 50 or more people from the rehearsal who formed a prayer circle. I called my mom; she had been praying since I had contacted her earlier. I put the word out asking for prayer and support on Twitter and Facebook. Soon I was getting messages back; many people had already heard what had happened.
As I sat on the couch with my computer on my lap and my feet on the coffee table, I still experienced that eerie calm confidence that he would be all right.
Then I felt a cool hand smoothing my forehead up up up, over and over from my eyebrows into my hairline. It felt peaceful and soothing. Were those the hands of my friends?
In my imagination I saw the broken bones of my husband’s neck very gently being moved into place; I thought of them being grouted together with love and I held on to this image as I prepared to go to sleep. The telephone rang. With toothbrush in hand, I answered a call: the doctor said the surgery was a success.
In the morning I joined my mom beside my husband’s hospital bed to listen to Dr. Sabit describe what he did and what our future held.
Because of my husband’s youth, health, and activity level, and because of the risk of paralysis, the doctor decided to dislocate his jaw, slide his hand down my husband’s throat, gently smooth the bones back into place, and then shove his head back onto his neck.
His illustration was very much as I had imagined the previous night.
Dr. Sabit continued telling us about the plastic surgery he performed on my husband’s head: Marsh had cracked his skull, lost a sizable chunk of skin, and split open his scalp from his eyelid up and over his forehead and arching back toward his ear.
The doctor put his hands on his forehead and showed us how he smoothed the skin up and up, over and over to get it stapled and stitched back into place, very much like I had experienced a few hours before.
Because of the fracture to his skull, Dr. Sabit could not attach a “halo” to Marsh’s head — he had a latex collar holding the bones in place. Until the bones healed, he would be at great risk.
My husband was self-conscious about his stitches and didn’t want to scare our son or others so we kept a bandana on his head. The bandana at hand was one of several we had made the summer before for Burning Man. The bandana depicts Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity, Remover of Obstacles, riding a bicycle. We also gave out stickers at Burning Man and told everyone about Ganesh and his birthday that week.
I am not sure when it dawned on me that a myth was living through me. And that this myth had begun six months previously on August 5. 2009.
“But in what myth does man live nowadays?”
–C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1989, p. 171).
I don’t remember when or where I first heard about Lord Ganesha or when I knew that he was not only the Remover of Obstacles but also the Patron Saint of Artists and Lord of Letters, who shows his readiness to make any sacrifice with his broken tusk which he gave to write the Sutras. He first turned up in a 3:15 experiment poem of mine in August 2007 which I published on my Art Predator blog the following December 3.
In early 2009, I bought a small statue of Ganesh playing a keyboard that reminds me of the laptop keyboard on which I play. In June 2009, I saw an article in the LA Times about a show on the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration in India and blogged about it: “Discover Ganesh” I called it. We saw the show (photo below from the show) and I bought an inexpensive resin Ganesh necklace that I slipped on.
On August 5, 2009, Ganesh took an interest in me. He came for a visit, which I wrote about in this 3:15 Experiment poem that I posted on August 10 (https://artpredator.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/poetry-from-the-315-experiment-august-5-2009-its-lord-ganesha/).
Ganesh and I “talked” for a long time. Even as I am writing this down, I have a hard time believing or accepting that anyone in the world would believe me that Ganesh appeared to me. But I know from this experience that myth has a desire to show up and be lived and relived.
What was perhaps the most memorable moment in the experience, this vision, was near the end when Ganesha invited me to dive into the ultimate unconditional love in His eyes; I was tempted but chose to be in/with the love of my child and husband. When I said “no”, Ganesh suggested that I dive into the absolute and omnipotent power in the fiery waters of His mouth. This was much harder to reject. From the last stanza of the poem: “I would have willingly drowned in the depths/of moon in his eyes, but the waters of His mouth/are wicked and dangerous and scared me.”
This experience led me to research Ganesh, which became a 3:15 experiment poem and published as a blog post:
No wonder he showed up
people were praying to him
to protect them on the
eve of the third lunar
eclipse of the lunar cycle.
An eclipse signals momentous change
and not always good change.
Three eclipses indicates massive
changes afoot –terrible ones.
During the days before and after an eclipse as well as during the ten days before his birthday Lord Ganesh leaves Mount Kailash to walk the earth. At that time, of course, I didn’t know what massive terrible changes were afoot in my own life. I didn’t even know I was supposed to pray to Ganesh. I’m not even Hindu. Yet something had stirred in me. It wasn’t like I was led or directed to put Ganesh on a bike and tell everyone about him. It was just what I did. It was just something I had to do.
In my research I found Rajan Iyer, a blogger in India who exclusively publishes his drawings of Ganesh; I asked if he had any pictures of Ganesh on a bicycle and he sent me two drawings. It was a big project to turn his drawing into 144 hand tie-dyed and silk-screened bandanas to bring to gift at Burning Man and as a means to tell everyone about celebrating Ganesh’s birthday which would take place during Burning Man that year. We also made about 400 stickers to pass out and two banners with the colors of the chakras and Ganesh and a few t-shirts and other clothing items.
Two weeks after his first visit, Lord Ganesha returned and I wrote about it when I awoke to write for 3:15 Experiment poem which I subsequently posted on my blog “The closest thing to a night terror/has been when I knew “they were here”/& Lord Ganesh stepped up to say he was too.”
“The imaginal is entered primarily through interested love; it is a creation of faith, need, and desire. We must want it passionately even if we cannot will it.” James Hillman in The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays on Archetypal Psychology (1998, p. 86).
Following our trip to Burning Man, my husband went in for surgery to remove a cancer on his lip. The night before, I was a featured reader at a local poetry venue and I was reviewing the poems while getting a manicure. The young man doing my nails noticed they had images of Ganesh and insisted that I go to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple that Saturday — monks from all over the world would be there.
Going anywhere that Saturday was out of the question — my husband would need me as he recovered from his surgery. I did take our son to his soccer game.
I stopped for a cup of coffee where I noticed a man reading a newspaper article about a slide show about Mount Kailash, home of Ganesh, at the Buddhist Temple. On my way out of the coffee shop, the man’s wife now had the newspaper open facing me — open to the same article. I could not have willed these two people to put this article in front of my face and I could not ignore it either. After my son’s soccer game, we claimed a spot on the floor in front of the slide show screen at the Buddhist Temple; the journey there was nearing Mount Kailash and with a shock, I knew I was going there too and bringing my son with me.
A Q and A followed with “The Divine Mother,” the woman who presented the slide show and I was invited to join her and the monks for lunch. I didn’t understand why I was there but I let the tide take me. After a talk and a meditation, we went home where my husband had spent most of the day peacefully sleeping. I fixed dinner, and then headed to the temple in time for the evening meditation.
At the temple during the meditation, I had a vision. Someone I loved deeply — was it my my son? He looked older — falling off a horse and having a fatal injury but then recovering. How could he fall, die, and recover? Tears seeped from my eyes.
Following the meditation, people gave testimonies about blessings from the Divine Mother and about her guidance. I grew brave enough to tell the story of how I came to be there and about the vision I had in meditation. In the telling, I knew, and was calmed and comforted by this knowing, that this community and the Divine Mother would be there for me when this vision came to pass. In fact, they were already here for me. Confused and bewildered, I cried. The Divine Mother said something to me. I don’t remember what she said but I imagine it was meant to reassure.
“The self has been configured in order to conform to the requirements of a particular time and place,” argues Philip Cushman in Constructing the Self, Constructing America (1995, p. 25).
Over the 2009 winter holiday, we visited a “new age” store full of crystals and such in Flagstaff. A small bronze bust caught my eye. I picked her up and put her down. She was Asian with a distinct white area on her forehead, which could be seen as a flaw or a bonus. Everything in the shop was discounted but even then I wasn’t going to pay $20 for an Asian bust without knowing who she was or what she meant. I needed to know why she was speaking to me before I took her home.
Together with the women in the shop, we determined she was Guan Yin, the Compassionate Rebel “one who hears the cries of the world.” A compassionate rebel, now that was something to aspire to! I knew then why she was calling to me. They wrapped her in purple tissue paper and away we went.
On the long drive home, I put my smart phone to work to learn more about her. According to Wikipedia, “Guanyin is the bodhisattva, associated with compassion as venerated by East Asian Buddhists, usually as a female. The name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin which means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World”.
As I read aloud to my husband, I couldn’t help but hear how similar her name “Guānshìyīn” is to mine: “Gwendolyn.” I also learned that she is the one to turn to when all else fails, when all seems lost, when there is no hope, and a miracle is needed. I started a blog on January 4, 2010, called “Compassionate Rebel” as a place for those who hear and respond to the cries of the world.
A month later, on February 5, 2010, just like Lord Ganesh, my husband lost his head.
He didn’t fall off a horse like in my vision but from a bicycle like in the bandanas and it was my husband, not my son, who miraculously lived and recovered. Just one month prior I had started honoring and learning about Guan Yin, who, with her thousand eyes and hands, observes the cries of the world and responds when a miracle is needed.
Being a Westerner, it seems surprising that a Hindu deity and then a Buddhist one would “speak” so clearly to me. Yet Thomas Moore (1996) writes in “Developing a Mythic Sensibility” that “Eastern and Africa sensibilities have the advantage of being rather fresh and unfamiliar to the Western mind. They are not loaded down with centuries of canonical readings and therefore offer new vision” (p. 22). Moore (1996) continues, “The whole idea of talking and doing art mythically is to find those images that give a divine base to a particular human event or tendency” (p. 25).
Have I accomplished the task set by Moore to “return myth to modern life and thought without reducing it to eighteenth century notions of reasonable divinity and yet without literal archaism and mythological fundamentalism?” I admit I am not certain. It is a slippery slope. I am however confident that I possess “a daring spirit willing to live in a mythic animated (imagination-filled) world where everything is sacred, where angels appear unexpectedly and in many guises and where devils make it all interesting and complicated” (Moore, 1996, p. 27).
I recognize that there is more to learn in a continuing interrogation of these myths living in and through me today—as I try to live a mythic, divine life in a constructivist world.
Alley, G. Exactly what we need to be human. Compassionate Rebel.
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Coppin, J. Lecture. 7 Nov. 2011.
Coppin, J. & Nelson E. (2004). The philosophical commitments of depth psychology. . In The art of inquiry: A depth psychological perspective (pp. 38-87). Putnam, . CT: Spring.
Cushman, P. (1995) Constructing the self, constructing America (pp. 1-209). . Cambridge, MA. Perseus Publications.
Hillman, J. (1998). The myth of analysis. (pp. 3-116). Chicago, IL: Northwestern.
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