“I only went downhill skiing once in my life, Chuck, many years ago,” states a client who has graciously given me permission to share her experience. “I was with a friend who kept telling me to lean. Every time I did, I fell. I just couldn’t get what her words meant. Eventually, I shifted my weight and didn’t fall. I realized, oh, that’s what she means by lean! You’ve been telling me I need to detach for years; I think I’m finally getting it.”
Next she shared what she described as a very powerful dream. “I’m with my son, (currently twenty-four years old, incarcerated in the New York prison SHOCK program) only he’s eight years old, at a summer camp, yet it’s also the SHOCK program. He seems removed. He’s playing with other kids. I’m furious and confront him. There is no outlet for my anger. The scene changes, I’m with an old best friend and her husband who moved down south years ago. I want to vent my feelings to her, but she doesn’t want to listen. Her husband has started a small fire behind a door. I fan the flames of the fire. He gets angry and chastises me. His wife tells him to leave me alone, but he forces his knuckles against my throat so tightly it cuts off the air and I begin to suffocate. I awaken, deeply sobbing, gasping for air. My first thought: my son will die in my arms; I can’t cope with the pain.”
She went on to explain that she realized that she’d been holding onto her son, frozen in time at eight years of age, and felt terror that he’d never stand on his own as a man in this world; that he would die, a boy, in her arms.
Since the dream experience she has received two letters from her son and noticed a marked shift in her own attitude as she read his words. “I finally am experiencing what you mean when you tell me to detach,” she said. “Something is definitely different. I love him, he’ll always be my son, but I’ve let go.”
I went on to suggest to my client that she had been approached by her dream shaman, in the form of the friend’s husband. Her preparatory work of long-suffering having been completed, she was ready to be grabbed, killed, and reborn, and ushered through the rite of passage where parents release their children to be adults in their own right. This rite transformed her inner experience, a transformation far more comprehensive than a rational understanding of letting go. She is changed. Our work together had been part of her necessary preparation for this rite, but this mystical rite was performed by her own unconscious, which had determined the time and the method for this terrifyingly necessary ritual.
Jung pointed out how the modern rational world had stripped away the ancient rites of passage that once ushered humankind through the stages of life. These rites had a social context where the entire community participated and acknowledged the shifts and new roles in the community for the newly initiated. Inwardly, the initiate experienced a profound and permanent change, a recasting of self. No one in the community was exempt from rites of passage. What is left in the modern world are mere vestiges of these rites, watered down and nearly meaningless, in the form of sacraments in our various religious institutions. Jung realized that the collective unconscious inside all of us had become the home of these necessary rites of passage and, when activated, provide an experience so powerful that we can’t help but be changed by them. This is why the rational mind fears the night and sleep, where conscious control can be usurped by the powers of the deep; yet this is the healing power of the instinctual psyche, which, if held back, results in psychic disequilibrium and unpreparedness for the unfolding journey of life.
In truth, the loss of the collective rites of passage leaves the vast majority of people emotionally unprepared for adulthood, especially since a living relationship with the unconscious has been subsumed by a modern scientific focus on brain chemistry as the solution to psychic disturbance. In the absence of genuine transformative experiences, we move into adult roles faking maturity and preparedness or dallying in a prolonged adolescence of lawlessness, irresponsibility, and addiction. Ironically, my client’s son has been participating in the SHOCK program, a program within the prison system where participants are ushered into adulthood along the lines of an ancient rite of passage. Participants are taken out of society and forced to submit to an arduous period of suffering where they are subjected to the whims and irrationalities of those in control. There are no mommy and daddy protectorates, and life is not fair. If you are to succeed, you must die to your infantile fixations and become an adult, prepared to take responsibility for self in the real world.
Amazingly, as my client now reads her son’s letters, she sees a maturing man behind his words. He is no longer her eight year old boy. She has released him and he has released his dependence upon her. In the truest sense, he is completing the “graduate school of life” and despite the fact that he will be saddled with a mark on his record, much like a scarlet letter, it pales in comparison to his solid maturity, hard won, as he is fully capable of taking on the challenges of adult life. This “degree” is far more valuable, in my judgment, than a graduate degree from Harvard in the hands of an immature, uninitiated personality. Of course there are no guarantees of success in life, but if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on him.
We must all go through our own SHOCK program. Unfortunately, there are far too few societal institutions capable of providing the necessary rites of passage. However, as my client’s experience demonstrates, the collective unconscious will come forth and perform the necessary rites. However, the prerequisites for a successful transformation are often a long period of suffering, including many groundhog day experiences, as well as a softening of ego control, as ego often alienates or devalues the deeper instinctual psyche. This experience of my client’s was well prepared for, and thus was transformative. I ask that we all energetically congratulate her!
If you wish to correspond, please feel free to post a comment below.
Until we meet again,