It is common wisdom that healing comes from creating a coherent narrative about our lives. Getting to know our story. Clarifying our story. “Integrating” myriad life experiences into a “whole.” Owning our story. It all seems to make eminent sense, and is a mainstay of many healing and therapeutic modalities.
Lately, however, I have been wondering, more and more, whether “owning our story” could also be a problem. I see a fine line between accepting who we are, and “getting married to our story.” The latter results in rigidity, dogmatism, and a frozen stance in front of life.
Recently, I was at a conference entitled “Displacements – Inner and Outer.” The focus of the conference was on the international refugee crisis. Organized by the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in collaboration with the New School, the conference pondered the “story” of mass migration. What is the inner and the outer experience of those who are being displaced, against their will, from what they consider their “home?” And what is the experience of those in recipient countries who experience their “home” being “invaded” by the “Other?” As different speakers addressed the problem from their specific vantage points, a set of questions arose. “In any social, political or environmental crisis that leads to mass migration, is there always one unique story?” For example, how does a given story look from the vantage of a refugee, an aid worker, a political activist and a nationalist? And if indeed there are multiple versions of the story, whose story is “correct?” Can there be multiple versions of a story that are equally valid? And if so, how can we, as society, hold the different strands of the story as representing different facets of a larger “truth,” instead of fixating on who is right and who is wrong?
At this conference, one of the speakers was a very charismatic young author, Maaza Mengiste. Maaza, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia, and now lives in the USA, is the author of the award-winning debut novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.” The novel is a gripping portrayal of a “normal” middle-class family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the early 1970s, and how fates of the members of this family become intertwined with the fate of their country in the throes of political, social and environmental collapse.
At the end of the conference, there was a panel discussion, and Maaza was reflecting from her experience as an author of fiction. She said something that felt spot-on for me.
She said that when she is contemplating a character for a book, or an essay, there are many possibilities… many ways in which that character could unfold. Many directions the “story” can go. But once the story is written down and published, one of these possibilities is chosen, foreclosing all other possibilities! She said that she was very aware of this tension, and was currently playing with the strategy of using “or” in her writings. This character could do this. Or, this character could do that. The two will result is strikingly different stories. Could one narrative hold both possibilities?
Since the conference, I have been sitting with this idea of multiple stories, and the risks of becoming “fixed” in a story – from a spiritual and psychological perspective.
On one hand, all of us who pay attention to the psyche know that the psyche likes to weave myriad threads of experience into a tapestry. In some ways, that is the function of the psyche. It is our “meaning making organ.”
And many of us know the sensual pleasure we feel when disparate ideas floating in our heads finally “fall into place.” When they make a story that “holds together!”
How do we then work with Maaza’s “or” in our lived lives?
The myth of Penelope
A myth that comes to mind is from Homer's epic poem, Odyssey. It is the story of Penelope, the wife of the story’s hero, Odysseus. In the story, Odysseus is gone for two decades – a decade of the Trojan war followed by another decade of his return journey to Ithaca. As time passes, people start believing that Odysseus is either dead, or is never planning to return to Ithaca. There are many suitors to want Penelope’s hand in marriage. But Penelope is still in love with Odysseus and believes in her heart that he will return. So, she develops a ploy to ward off the increasingly amorous suitors. A well-known weaver, she puts out the word that she would consider marriage with one of the suitors, but only after she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, who is grieving over Odysseus's long absence. She sits at her loom all day, weaving. But every night, she goes to the loom in secret, and unweaves what was woven during the day.
Although this myth is ostensibly about Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus (her “one story”), for our purposes, what is relevant is the image of the tapestry she is weaving by day, and unweaving by night. A tapestry that is ever-incomplete, and thus, ever-evolving. And the courage that is needed to unweave what is woven.
How might it look like in our lives if we took this metaphor to heart, as a psychospiritual practice?
Weaving and unweaving as a spiritual practice
Initially, when we just begin on a psychospiritual journey, we begin by pulling together the scattered threads of our life, to create a narrative. A story that fits. A story that is large enough to accommodate “all of me.” It is the time of integration, of weaving.
Indeed, it is essential that we first accomplish this task. Carl Jung would have called this task – of generating a coherent narrative of who we are – the task of the first half of our lives. It is the task of “ego consolidation.”
But, then, there comes a point in our lives, when the “story” we created begins to limit who we are. There are desires and drives our soul uncovers that do not fit our story. Elements we thought were essential ingredients of our story fall away. At such a time, we really have two choices in front of us. Either we consciously unweave the tapestry that we have woven up until then, or we become, in Joseph Campbell’s delightful language, “a stuffed shirt!” We then live a petrified life of outer order, but a life with no juice, no fire!
Unweaving requires ritual
Unweaving a story that we have woven with so much care, so much effort, over so much time – is not trivial. If weaving is integration, then unweaving is indeed dis-integration. It is untangling. It is incinerating what is no longer alive.
And we must remember that sitting with unwoven threads - of not knowing what is to arise from this chaos - and when - is terrifying! We need to acknowledge, and indeed, “accompany” our terror into this as-yet-unkown psychic landscape.
Before we can do this letting go authentically - we need to honor our story. We need to mourn it appropriately. We need to speak our story. Write our story. Sing, dance, act or in some way meaningful to us, “sacrifice” our story. Remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from old Latin sacer (meaning “sacred, holy”) and faciō (meaning “do, make”). Thus, when we tend the fire of our grief, our fear, and maybe even our rage, at the passing of a beloved story - we make it sacred. We make it holy. We surrender. We sacrifice our story into the care of the Divine.
This is precisely what a ritual is designed to achieve.
Tibetan sand mandalas – a ritual honoring impermanence of all things
Many of us are familiar with the Tibetan sand mandalas – those intricate designs that are created with tremendous effort and dedication by a group of monks – only to be destroyed once it is created. In the Hindu and Tibetan worldview, a mandala is considered a “yantra,” literally meaning “a machine.” It is a machine, a device, that helps us focus our meditation.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, popularized mandalas in the West, as a symbol of wholeness. But what may be harder for the Western mind to contemplate is that “wholeness” is not static. It is not a thing of beauty to be created and then hung on the wall to be contemplated. Many mandalas – both permanent and temporary ones – serve as tools to meditate both on creation and on destruction (“pralaya”). The Tibetan sand mandalas are a poignant demonstration of this knowing that all things – however beautiful and “whole” – must end in chaos. That death is in the very nature of what is alive.
What a ritual does is to contain both the synthesis and the chaos within a container that makes the entire experience sacred. Below is a clip from a Werner Herzog documentary entitled "Wheel of Time," which shows construction and destruction of a sand Mandala, presided over by the Dalai Lama. Note how the “destruction” happens in a highly reverential ceremony – indeed, a ceremony with a gravitas appropriate to the act of destruction. Also, once the mandala is dismantled, every grain of sand is collected, and then released into a body of flowing water, so it may carry the “merit” or the blessings of the work to all beings everywhere.
Weaving and unweaving the tapestries of our lives
Those of us who have been around the block for some time know how often strands of our stories come to an end. A loved one dies. A cherished job is lost. A lover cheats. Relationships fray and break. A child does the one thing we hoped and prayed they would never do. We all know how easy it is for us in those situations to cling to what was. To try to repair what is irreversibly broken. And even if we eventually accept the break, we continue to blame the other, or ourselves, or both. “If only…” is the common refrain of our lament.
Or suddenly in mid-life, we are struck with a new fascination. A new draw. Maybe towards spirituality. Or toward making art. Or some other “unproductive” venture. Maybe it is just that we enjoy looking out the window – watching the formation of migrating birds in the sky… when our ego tells us we should be “focusing on work!”
What if at those moments, we could allow the tapestry that we had woven until that point to unweave? To sit with the disentangled threads – and really grieve the beauty that once was? To sit in the not knowing of what comes next.
It is clear that we would need a safe container to do this unweaving. Whether it is a friendship, or a mentorship, or a therapeutic or counseling relationship – or the presence of our beloved community in whatever form we define it… It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the container is. But it matters that there is a container. There is a safety of walls surrounding and protecting us as we unweave our tapestry.
And equally important, we need to make sure that we have all the help and support we need to reweave the tapestry – maybe creating a new and different and richer story – when we are ready. Because if we stay with unwoven threads forever – it would lead to an ineffectual life at best, and psychosis at worst.
So, weaving and unweaving the tapestry is necessary for us to live a truly meaningful life – a life where we are able to respond to the changing calls of our soul – to change and grow and expand (and when necessary, collapse). To do this well, we need to develop inner practices of spaciousness, as well as outer community – so we may be able to engage in this dance of weaving and unweaving safely. This is what the Buddhist psychologist, Mark Epstein, calls “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.”
May we all be able to experience the ecstasy (and the necessary heartbreak) of this weaving and unweaving of the tapestry of our lives. May we have the strength and the courage to respond to new calls and release what is no longer alive in us.
And may we hold each other tenderly as we dance this dance… together.
Heartfelt thanks to my beloved teacher and mentor, David Wallace, for reminding me of the myth of Penelope at an opportune moment.