Tuesday, July 05, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 17

How Mythology helps in Healing the Soul

Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny, August 2003, old camera
I have long believed in the potential of healing that can lie in mythological stories and trace this back to courses I did with Dr Brendan Purcell on philosophical anthropology in the late 1970s.  Incidentally Dr Purcell has a new book out called From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, (Veritas, Dublin, 2011) See this link here: BP Book.  Another person and book comes to mind here, too, viz., Mortally Wounded. Stories of Soul Pain, Death and Healing by Dr. Michael Kearney a palliative care physician here in Ireland. This book concerns the care of dying persons. Hospice care provides a multidisciplinary approach to caring for the whole person, including his or her physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.  However, what interests me about this little book is the fact that Dr. Kearney proposes several models to describe what occurs in dying persons whose "soul pain" is relieved.  One of these models is based on powerful visualizations/meditations based on the Greek myth of Chiron.  In this mythological story, we read of a hero who is wounded, struggles, makes a choice, then descends into the depths, and finally returns transformed. 

In our present book, Professor Levine takes the myth of Orpheus as his healing myth or paradigm for his theory and practice of Expressive Arts Therapy.  In this essay we learn where our learned professor got his subtitle "The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul," - it is in fact a quotation from the archetype psychologist Dr James Hillman.  In short, in line with Hillman and others, we can say that psychology is an attempt to develop a scientific understanding of mental life, while the language of the soul is a different language altogether from the "clear and distinct" ideas (René Descartes) (science), being in fact a highly symbolic and metaphorical language, well stocked with images.  I like what Levine says here:

Stalactites, Dunmore Cave, August 2003

The soul is characterized by depth rather than clarity.  Clarity is a phenomenon of the surface, of sight.  It requires light or, in this case, consciousness.  But the soul is obscure to us; it is hidden, dark.  What we see of it, we see as through a glass darkly.  The soul is what is unknown, unconscious.  It cannot be grasped directly through clear and distinct ideas.  (Poiesis, p. 95)  
Now, Levine offers mythology as a container for the hurt soul where quite obviously clear and distinct ideas (or scientific methodology) simply do not work.  In working with the interpretation of words, stories and myths we are essentially dealing with images.  These images allow for multiple interpretations, indeed interpretations that are always relative to the situation in which the interpreter finds him or herself.  In other words it's "the meaning for me" that counts, not any kind of "objective" meaning that is in question here.  Now, Expressive Arts Therapy rests on the premise that imagination is the healer, and this will surprise no artist.  The suffering of the human soul is central to the human condition, and there simply is no gainsaying this.  Unfortunately, modern culture suppresses suffering in all its incarnations, especially dying and death - making this the greatest modern suppression.  Once again, in Levine's words we read:

Within the framework of an archetypal psychology...we would need to find an image and a myth that can contain the poetic.  The myth of Orpheus seems to me to be one such container. (Ibid., p. 97)
The Myth of Orpheus

Orpheus (Greek: Ορφεύς) was considered one of the chief poets and musicians of antiquity, and is still a symbol of the art of music. By dint of his music and singing, he could charm the wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, even arrest the course of rivers. The best known Orpheus myth is about his love for Eurydice, described in several musical masterpieces as well as literary ones. When his wife, Eurydice, was killed, he went to the underworld to bring her back. Fascinated by the beauty of his music, the god of the underworld allowed Eurydice to return to the world of the living. Although warned against looking back, Orpheus did so anyway and lost his beloved wife once again.  Apart from being a symbol of music, he is also considered as one of the pioneers of civilization and is said to have taught mankind the arts of writing, agriculture, and even medicine. 

Orpheus' lyre becomes for him an instrument to express his grief (hence the relevance of our myth to healing the soul!)  The hero of the piece has to descend into  Hades, the land of shades and shadows (the cauldron of suffering which we are all heir to as human beings) to seek his love (the dead Eurydice, symbolic of loss in general).  Once again in the words of our learned professor we read:

The myth of Orpheus exerted a powerful hold on the Greek imagination.  His capacity for renunciation was celebrated in rituals of purification or catharsis.  These rituals invoked Orpheus not only as poet but as priest, physician and seer.  In the Orphic religion, we see a unity of poetry, music and healing that presages the development of expressive art therapies today. (Ibid., p. 98)

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