Monday, June 13, 2016

"Participation Mystique" and Moving Through The Therapeutic Power of Myth

The powerful stories of the transpersonal realm – that larger-than-life layer of collective consciousness that is home to heroes, angels, fairies, gods, and goddesses – have a way of drawing us into them like magnets.  Surrendering to their allure, we find that life becomes imbued with magic for a while, allowing us to access a reality that fires our imagination and wakes up our souls.  We tune into the finer frequencies of our higher selves, which open us to the songs of the ancients and the music of the spheres.

Reading myth opens a portal to a rich treasure-trove of symbols and allegory – all gifts that map the way to our inner goddess.  “Symbols are to the mind what tools are to the hand – an extension of their powers.”  They extend our ability to understand things inexpressible via language, and they help us “build staircases of realization to places where we cannot fly”.  Dion Fortune wrote eloquently in The Mystical Kabbalah  on the use of symbols for deeper understanding of life’s mysteries.  She showed how they help us transcend the limitations and language of the ego-mind, because “knowledge of the higher forms of existence is obtained by a process other than thought….it must be crystallized into form to convey impression.”

As a teacher of dance, mythology, and ritual, I’ve always felt compelled to move through the myths guided by my instinctive body.  To move through a ritual re-enactment of the myth is to take it a step further and manifest it in the here and now, giving form to its essence through the body’s expressions.  Within the embodiment cycle of attraction/embodiment/expression, the magic is in the doing, the here and now.  We open ourselves to the possibility of the Higher Self and the instinctual, intuitive body dancing sans ego for a while.  With the ego at rest, we are open to direct knowledge and revelation. 

In Women Who Run With The Wolves, one of the wisest and most beautiful books on the healing power of myths and stories, Clarissa Pinkola Estes distills the psychological attraction the mythic tales exert on the human psyche.

“If story is seed,” she writes, “then we are its soil. Just hearing the story allows us to experience it as though we ourselves are the heroine who either falters or wins out at the end. If we hear a story about a wolf, then afterward we rove about and know like a wolf for a while.  If we hear a story about a dove finding her young at last, then for a time after, something moves behind our feathered breasts.   If it be a story of wresting the pearl from underneath the claw of the ninth dragon, we feel exhausted afterward, and satisfied. In a very real way, we are imprinted with knowing just by reading the tale.

Among Jungians this is called “participation mystique” – a term borrowed from anthropologist Levy-Bruhl – and it is used to mean a relationship wherein “a person cannot distinguish themselves as separate from the object or thing they behold.” Among Freudians, it is called ”projective identification”.  Among anthropologists, it is sometimes called ”sympathetic magic.” All these terms mean the ability of the mind to step away from its ego for a time and merge with another reality, that is, another way of comprehending, a different way of understanding.”

"Judgment of Paris" Anton Mengs, 1728-1779

One ancient myth that holds a lot of revelation potential for modern women is the “Judgment of Paris”.  In it, we see a multi-layered conflict centering on three main characters: the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera, the Warrior, Lover, and Queen. They are pitted against each other in a plot orchestrated by Zeus to cause the Trojan War.  The spark is a golden apple thrown into the midst of the three at a royal wedding.  Addressed to “the fairest”, it results in a bizarre beauty contest between the three goddesses, which Zeus commands the mortal Paris to arbitrate.
Each goddess attempts to bribe Paris into choosing her by offering victory on the battlefield (Athena) sovereignty over Europe and Asia (Hera) and the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman on Earth (Aphrodite).  We all know the disastrous chain of events unleashed by Paris’ choice.

Deconstructing the myth, we uncover themes of manipulation, ingrained paradigms around Beauty, bad judgment and life choices, and the suffering caused when women work against each other and not together.  The Greeks were famous for dissecting the goddesses of the peoples they conquered and re-casting their fragments as new entities in the conquering mythology.  Most of Greek history and myth was handed down by male authors, in service of the patriarchal narratives that have shaped western civilization for thousands of years.

But these stories are also living entities.  They invite us into them because they live on through our telling.  In The Greatness of Saturn – a Therapeutic Mythic  by the Vedic mythologist Robert Svoboda, he shows how the reading and re-telling of myth is one of the oldest forms of therapy, a way of transmitting timeless healing wisdom.  From Svoboda’s viewpoint, it’s a two-way process – the myths inform some of our innermost scripts and paradigms, but they need us as much as we need them.  Their characters beckon to us to step into the narrative and identify with them as we re-tell, and eventually re-write their stories, allowing them to evolve.

What if Athena had won the apple?  What if Hera had?  What if the goddesses decided to plot a different ending to the story?  What if Paris had refused to choose, or Helen refused to elope with him?  What if Zeus’ original plot was exposed – the fact that he wanted the Trojan War to happen?  These and many other possibilities can be played out in the psychodrama of ritual theater.

"Venus and Juno" (Aphrodite Giving Hera the Golden Strap)
 Andrea Appiani, 1754-1817

The myth of Aphrodite’s golden girdle is paired with the Judgment of Paris to bring closure to the episode and catharsis to those of us in the throes of participation mystique.  The Trojan war had dragged on for a decade, and the world had grown weary of it.  The people were starving and even the primordial parents, the Mother and Father Titans, were at odds over it. So much so that they had stopped sleeping with one another, which according to the Law of Correspondences, means that fertility had withered everywhere, love and harmony shriveled in the shadow of famine. 

Hera decides to intervene by trying to broker a peace between Father Okeanus and Mother Tethys, the primordial Titans.  But first she calls Aphrodite to the side and asks her to teach her the ways of charm, sweet words and enchantment that make all beings, mortal and immortal, fall to her feet.  Aphrodite responds without hesitation, unfastening from her bosom a magical golden strap that carries her powers of enchantment and makes the bearer irresistible to anyone.  Thus girded, Hera goes to the Titans and brokers the peace, which results in peace on Earth and the restoration of order.
The lessons and possibilities in these stories are far-reaching.  How do these dramas play out in our daily lives? In our psyches?  How are women pit against each other in societies that value physical beauty over our other attributes?  And how can the meeting of feminine powers like charm and duty bring about healing to the problems that plague our world, our relationships, and our innermost selves?

These and many other possibilities are explored in ritual theater like “Journey to the Temples of Aphrodite and Hera”.  For women in dance, it is also a chance to consciously explore the gifts each goddess bestows on a dancing soulbody – Aphrodite imbues us with enchantment, charm, and attraction while Hera crowns us with majestic presence, impact, and the ability to channel higher ideals through our art.

Every time I’ve conducted “Journey to the Temples”, an immense wave of exaltation and euphoria is a typical immediate result.  Women connect to themselves, each other, and the archetypes for an alchemical healing that ripples out into their lives and reverberates for quite some time.  Cycles of realisation are set into motion as the body and soul begin to reflect and express each other and the profound inner shift the Journey brings.  And it all starts with the mystical call of myth, the old stories, an ancient form of therapy brought to new life through embodied ritual.

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