Counselling Articles

New Year’s Resolutions – The ritual glorification of egoic heroism

New Year's Resolutions - The Glorification of Egoic HeroismThe word “resolution” once meant “to loosen or release”

The word resolution comes from the Latin re (again) and solvere (to loosen or release). Today the meaning has reversed; resolution is now understood  to mean a tightening or holding. This reversal of meaning is  perhaps most clearly exemplified in our New Year’s Resolution ritual  where we hold tight to the ego’s heroic efforts against the world’s workings upon us and pit our force of will against every and all other voice, intelligence, or influence that might challenge these efforts.

One consciousness or many?

Ego consciousness is connected to the Hero archetype, and the Hero archetype recognizes only its own ego consciousness. The multitude of other  archetypal modes of consciousness – for example the modes of Trickster, Crone, Lover, Martyr, Magician – are either unrecognizable to the Heroic/Egoic mode (they simply do not exist) or they are condemned, demonized. If heroic consciousness cracks or breaks open – usually due to loss, illness, failure, or other tragic events beyond our control – and other modes of consciousness slip in, they tend to be forced out as soon as The Hero’s strength returns.

Our modern New Year’s Resolution ritual can be seen as the blanket denial of any mode of consciousness other than Ego consciousness, and the redoubled fight against any archetypal voice that is not The Hero’s.

According to available statistics, around eight percent of new years resolutions stick, which should perhaps put the Heroic/Egoic approach into some perspective, and yet because ego-consciousness recognizes only itself, the only option available to it is to redouble its efforts at eliminating all else.

This is not to say there’s something “wrong” with the New Year’s Resolution ritual, but rather to point out its associations and limits, and suggest a possible return to origins of meaning. What if we revisited the original understanding of resolution? What if the New Year’s Resolution wasn’t merely a ritual glorification of the egoic heroism that is our cultural default, but rather a ritualized annual return to “loosening and releasing?”

What (or who) is asking to be let loose or released in your life?
What (or who) has the Heroic Ego been holding captive?

Looking beyond The Hero – A different kind of resolution

The Hero takes on more burden and responsibility than is actually theirs, and this blinds The Hero to the existence and workings of the endless number of other archetypal modes of consciousness. We do not often release The Hero of their duties until we have no choice, until The Hero has been killed or otherwise conquered by life (or death) and we find ourselves suddenly in unfamiliar territory, subject to other forces.

A yearly ritual “releasing” could give The Hero a much needed break, and if The Hero was released of their duties, if we were able to loosen our grip on the Heroic/Egoic consciousness that we rely on daily, who else might step in? Which other voices, characters, and personalities could we come to know in the absence of the familiar?

If the trickster made a New Year’s Resolution, what would it  be? How about the Crone? Or the Lover? The Martyr or Magician? Who are the other other personalities silently buried in you? What are the desires of these other characters? What do they offer and what do they demand? What would they say if The Hero loosened its grip at the turn of the year and allowed them a voice?


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Counselling Articles

Michael Stone and The Wounded Healer Archetype

Michael stone and the wounded healer archetypeMichael Stone was a renowned international yoga teacher and author whose death by drug overdose was met with shock and confusion – and of course grief – by those whose lives he touched. Stone’s wife Carina, in an intelligent and compelling statement says “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this,” and adds “…can we find questions?”

Carina wisely calls on us to resist finding comfort or conclusion in answers, and instead to do the difficult work of questioning. But questioning what?

Some of her suggestions include –

What was he feeling?
How was he coping?
What am I uncomfortable hearing?
What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand – Impulses that scare us and silence us?
How can we take care of each other?

(Read the full statement here.)

Michael, it has been revealed, suffered from something we currently call bipolar disorder, a condition or set of symptoms that has been called many things throughout the ages.

Deaths like Michael’s spark regret, outrage, blame, confusion, and increasingly a heartfelt outcry for mental health reform and de-stigmatization. Carina Stone asks “What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand?” Indeed, what can we do? But perhaps before we set about to the business of doing, we might begin at the tail end of her question: understanding.

How do we understand these happenings? What do they mean? We might ask – What does Michael Stone, his life and his death, symbolize?

As with all celebrity figures, Michael symbolized something profound and specific, if not for everyone, for a particular type of someone. Symbolism is the very nature of the celebrity phenomenon; celebrities are celebrated, and they are celebrated precisely for what they symbolize.

Michael’s own words give us a clue – “You’d think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I’d be immune to extreme mental states.”

Apparently the yoga practice and teaching that made Stone such a celebrated figure grew out of an attempt to find immunity from that which plagued him. A picture emerges. It was Michael’s very real and visceral suffering that propelled him to work so hard, and to become a symbol of wisdom, healing, and inspiration to so many others.

We might recognize in Michael the archetype of Wounded Healer (a specific archetype named by Carl Jung, but we might also identify and name archetypes according to our own lives).

The Wounded Healer is motivated through their own suffering to help others, and the kind of help they provide is fundamentally connected to the suffering they experience personally; The Wounded Healer accesses their own pain as insight into the experience of others, and also gleans from the pain of others insights about their own. This biofeedback loop becomes a source of energy moving them through the world.

Most of us do not embody a single archetype in our lives. While The Wounded Healer seems present and active in Michael’s life, it would seem that another archetype was also in the forefront.

The Hero is probably the most obviously celebrated archetype in our contemporary culture. Ours is predominantly a cult of The Hero. We worship The Hero above all.

The Hero overcomes obstacles and achieves goals. They are “unshakeable” (a descriptor ascribed to Michael). They seek immunity.

When confronted with failure, The Hero has only one recourse: try harder. We can see The Hero archetype reflected in Stone’s words, “It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn’t there. When this started happening I’d say my practice needs to get deeper.”

Then he adds “But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain.”

We see in this statement first the quintessential Heroic approach to challenge – “…my practice needs to get deeper” – and then an acknowledgement of a hard-won truth: “…there was a chemical change in my brain.” This chemical change is, metaphorically, a bestowal from the Gods, for better or for worse, a confusing and troubling blessing/curse, resistant to The Hero’s (any Hero’s) best efforts.

This is a potential turning point; The Hero fails, and so matures. A force beyond The Hero’s efforts and control is acknowledged, giving room now for The Wounded Healer to emerge more fully.

To admit vulnerability, even powerlessness, is required in order to move beyond Heroism, and in a culture that worships The Hero so completely, power is the ultimate virtue, the ultimate currency; power to shape one’s own life, one’s own reality, power to slay the dragon and win the treasure; power of force and control. For a yogi or Buddhist teacher, it might be the power of finally achieving a “stability of awareness,” or becoming “immune to extreme mental states” that fuels their Heroism.

When we find ourselves wearing the mantle of Hero, and then we get public attention, we end up carrying not only our own self-burden, but also the heavy unconscious projections of others. Many others. Not only are we a Hero, we are THEIR Hero. This is a tremendous responsibility, and one that someone in the role of Hero does not necessarily ask for, and often does not fully recognize.

I didn’t know Michael, and I won’t pretend to know what would have been best for him. I do feel for his struggles, and of course for the family and community left behind.

I’m writing partly at Michael’s wife’s implied invitation when she states “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this.” I couldn’t agree more. I write this now in the spirit of making some small contribution to the language we might use to talk about this.

Carina asks us not to “Feel the shame and tragedy of it.”

I’ll trade shame for humility. Humility means on the ground, of the earth; humus. Simple. Here and now. This sense of groundedness seems especially appropriate when remembering a man grounded in buddhist practice and philosophy, and also subject to such strong upward forces, forces that threaten to take one upward and away.

And I humbly suggest that this is by definition a tragedy. Not the empty sort of tragedy you shake your head at in bewilderment (“this shouldn’t have happened”), but rather the kind of familiar tragedy you nod at in recognition (“this is what happens”).

Tragedy in the ancient and mythological context connects us to the bittersweetness of Heroism and the glorious futility of living a life. The Hero in all of us is linked to the tragic in this way.

In Michael we might glimpse the tension between Hero and Wounded Healer; upon reflection we might recognize these archetypes active in ourselves and around us in the world.

Further reading –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
Re-Visioning Psychology by James Hillman


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Is victim a dirty word? On victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us.

Is victim a dirty word?Have you noticed that it has become fashionable in personal growth and self-help circles to believe that no one is a victim of anything, ever?

Virtually every day I see some book title, workshop or facebook meme that essentially tells me that victim is a bad word. Not because it’s wrong to harm or victimize others, but because it has become shameful to let any life circumstance stand in the way of you getting what you want. Victim has become synonymous with loser, dupe, sucker, chump.

One implication of this position is that perpetrators, tyrants, bullies, and abusers (even industrial accidents and natural disasters!) apparently no longer exist or hold any power in this magical world of total self-determination where “no one can make you feel anything” and where “we create our own reality”.

Perhaps most troubling is that the blanket denial of victim-hood brings with it a general denial of wounding. To deny our wounds is to rob us of a primary source of wisdom and depth. If we fail to acknowledge the wounds inflicted upon us, we may never get around to examining them, and we we may never allow ourselves the experience of grief, of anger, of tenderness, of humility – experiences that ultimately forge our character and connect us to each other in incomparable and crucial ways.

Victim-hood can be seen archetypally.

Archetypes are universal aspects of ourselves; universal because we can be certain we share them with other human beings. In other words, we all have an inner victim, whether we like it or not. Our inner victim provides us with practice in the areas of receiving, of surrender, of smallness, weakness, tenderness and vulnerability. On the other end of the archetypal spectrum, we all have an inner warrior. Our culture places high value on the warrior, while shunning the victim. We much prefer to see ourselves as strong, powerful, courageous. (The warrior archetype can also be seen as the Hero archetype.)

If our inner victim represents vulnerability, our inner warrior represents strength. Both victim and warrior – vulnerability and strength – have expressions ranging from immature to mature. Our inner victim ultimately needs the strength of the inner warrior to mature (vulnerability, then strength). Our inner warrior ultimately needs the vulnerability of the inner victim in order to mature (strength, then vulnerability). In this way the polar energies of victim and warrior are paradoxically aligned. (As a sidenote, this paradox can sometimes be seen in the couples I work with in therapy. One person is expressing the victim archetype and the other is expressing the warrior archetype. Each simultaneously needs/fears/rejects/desires what the other represents. But wait, when the right cues are triggered the roles switch… No wonder relationships feel complicated!)

We will all identify with different archetypes at different points in our journey, and if there is a goal in this journey perhaps it is to grow through each one without concretizing it into a rigid permanent identity. It is our task to KNOW each archetypal aspect without getting locked into BEING any single one.

Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars. ~ Serbian proverb

Honouring weakness, smallness, woundedness and vulnerability in ourselves and in others can be uncomfortable for those who are currently growing into their warrior archetype. The warrior fears the weakness of the victim (“It may be contagious!”). And so the immature warrior, or “pseudo-warrior”, exploits or dismisses the weak. On the other hand, the mature warrior, the warrior who has learned to honour their own inner victim, protects and supports the weak. The mature warrior may choose to create a protective space for the victim to attend to the task at hand, simultaneously supporting the victim’s journey, and also the warrior’s own journey. This is difficult work.

When we condemn the victim in others, we can be sure there are “victim tasks” remaining undone in ourselves.

When we sneer at victim-hood we reveal our own neglected work in the victim realm. If we attend to our own victim tasks, we will have patience and understanding and support for others when they are faced with theirs.

We are not victims merely of our own thinking, as new age gurus would have us believe.

We are also victims of unjust social and economic systems. We are victims of war and hurricanes, car accidents and cancer. We are victims of family abuse and neglect. Acknowledging victim-hood where it exists challenges a culture that essentially preaches meritocracy – we get what we deserve. If we allow the idea of victim-hood, we allow the possibility that injustice exists, and that it causes harm. This crosses into political and cultural territory, a place that inward focused self-helpers and even therapists seem reluctant to go. It also crosses into the realm of chaos, where bad things happen to good people.

I’m reminded now of a popular term, “victim mentality”. Dismissing victim-hood as a simple error in perspective attempts to provide a tidy solution to the problem of bad things happening to good people. I get the appeal, and I have been seduced by it at times. It’s easy for me to believe that behind the victim denial trend is, at least partly, a well-meaning desire to help people get unstuck, to push them along in a culturally predictable pseudo-warrior “I-did-it-you-can-do-it-hurry-up-and-get-over-it” kind of way. But I’ve come to suspect that it often has the opposite effect. By denying victim-hood altogether, and by abandoning the complex and uncomfortable tasks that the victim archetype asks of us, victim-hood is never allowed to mature, to complete and give way to whatever wants to come next. We collude in our own stuckness.

This collusion is at least partially conscious. Our suspension of disbelief only goes so deep. I recall being at a personal growth workshop where we were dutifully doing some kind of “re-framing” exercises around traumatic life events. At the break, one of the participants told me flatly that these types of workshops are routine for her – There’s a lot of talk of transformation, a lot of shows of deep significance, and a general going through the motions. Then she goes home to reality. She knew I was a therapist and so asked me, how does real change happen? How do we truly get past our victim selves, not just pretend with affirmations and bolster ourselves with self-help jargon?

I didn’t know exactly what to tell her then (“Quick, what’s the key to transformation?”) and I’m not sure I would know exactly what to tell her now. But I think I might say something about our willingness to feel what we feel. To stop pretending that we’re more powerful, or weak, than we are. To take a break from striving to be different and better. To settle more deeply into our experience of ourselves, others, and the world. To go through what we’re going through and to stop looking for shortcuts, for a way around. To question the cultural assumptions we have internalized. To be curious about our experience rather than hell bent on fixing or changing it. To acknowledge the presence and contributions of those who have come before and those who will follow.

We’ll end with a paradox – By rejecting victim-hood, we risk never getting the chance to fulfill the tasks like surrender, vulnerability and compassion that it requires of us. By identifying too strongly with victim-hood we risk concretizing the victim experience. But don’t worry too much about these things. Neither are permanent, or a problem to be solved. Life will provide plenty of opportunities for motion in both directions – toward integrating the victim, and the warrior – whether we like it or not. We need but remain present to the life we live, which is often the most difficult task of all, for victim and warrior alike.

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Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral nature of growth – Why dual impulses are natural, “good” advice is relative, and one person’s poison is another person’s balm

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral path of growthTwo basic impulses –

Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –

  • Hold on vs Let go
  • Trust yourself vs Trust others
  • Take charge vs Surrender
  • Stay the course vs Embrace change
  • Try more vs Try less
  • Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
  • Take vs Give
  • Rational vs Emotional
  • Simplicity vs Complexity
  • Individual vs Group
  • Self control vs Self expression

At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.

The trouble with advice - yin yangNeither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.

As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.

Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.

A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.

Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?

The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.

It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.

Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.

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