This weekend marks the first classes I’m taking for my MA/PhD in Mythological Studies with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology. I know, how do they fit all that on the diploma, anyway? Basically, those are a lot of words that say I am studying the myths and religions of the world, past and present, using the lens of Freud and Jung’s work in psychology and how they understood the soul.
This type of study requires as much looking inward as it does looking out. And looking inside can be kind of, well, terrifying.
A theme that’s been woven throughout my classes so far has been viewing this inward trip as trying to see in the dark. This is known as The Belly of the Whale in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
The Belly of the Whale is a dark place. I mean, what self-respecting whale would ever let anyone light a candle in his belly. Maybe a flashlight, but no one ever has the right sized batteries when they need them…
The point is, this place of darkness is also a place of blindness, where the only way to get anywhere is to feel around, hoping to avoid the dangerous bits. In the process of feeling, however (see what I did there?), we inevitably come across things we’ve yet to encounter. It’s like someone blew out the candle and now we have to feel our way out of the smoke that obscures our view.
Dreaming is much like this in that we lose our conscious self and, without permission or even asking politely, our deeper selves take over. Jung calls this our unconscious self, or Shadow, the part of us that harbors the desires and terrors our conscious selves, or egos, can’t deal with. Like, literally.
It’s only when we sleep that our inner-monsters can come out and play. Which is the terrifying part. But it’s also kind of cool, because we aren’t alone in this. Take the butterfly, for example.
As the caterpillar builds its cocoon, it surrounds itself with darkness to undergo a metamorphosis.
I once heard a story about someone who happened upon a butterfly just as it was working its way out of its cocoon. The poor thing was struggling, wrenching and pulling as it tried to pry its wings out of the darkened shell. The person watching felt sorry for the butterfly and wanted to help, so he took a sharp knife and gently worked to make the opening a little bigger. The butterfly was able to pull itself out much quicker, but instead of flying away, it dropped to the ground and died.
Turns out that the struggle to escape the cocoon helps to dry the wings of the butterfly so that it can fly. By eliminating the tight space that would have wrung out the wings, the not so helpful but well-meaning person caused the butterfly’s death.
This proves two things:
- Although the struggle is terrifying, it is a necessary step that shapes the life we are meant to live.
- Improper help leads to a death of sorts. The real ordeal must be done alone so that we can reap the benefits.
The true work happens in the dark. Like the butterfly forming in the cocoon, we have to endure as well as climb out of it on our own.
As a third-year student advised us newbies on the first day, we can’t worry about what we will look like as the butterfly; we merely need to accept the pain that will make us beautiful.