A couple weeks ago I attended a lecture by Murray Stein who was visiting London. The title was ‘Transcendence – the missing fourth’. I was in a strangely trancelike state when I arrived which did not serve me well for concentrating, so I took rigorous notes – or so I thought at the time. When I look back at these notes, they are peculiarly sparse and I am left with a sensation of being in the spaces between the cracks – a phrase that feels metaphorically right to me until I think about it and realise it logically means space between spaces – and yet that is precisely how it does feel.
Stein’s central idea as I understand it, based on his lifelong study of Jung, is that when the three vertices of the conscious mind, the unconscious (eg dreams), and synchronicity (an external meaningful coincidence) come together, there is the possibility (offered but never guaranteed) of transcendence – where the symbol has a meaning beyond itself and is like a door opening to a perception and experience of a transcendent life.
I was particularly struck by a story he told about his friend, a nun named Magda. I have found a written account of it elsewhere:
‘Magda was in her eighties when she died. For ten years prior to her death, she could not walk, so I visited her where she lived occasionally. Before that, for about five years, she had seen me in my office to discuss her dreams and emotional life. After she could no longer walk, she would say to me, quite seriously, but with a twinkle: “When I die and go to heaven, the first thing I want to do is kick up my heels and dance.” She missed her legs which had previously been strong and able under her. When Magda died, my wife and I attended her funeral. Driving home, I noticed something fluttering around in the rear window of the car. My wife looked back and exclaimed, “It’s a butterfly.” I opened the windows to let the butterfly out, but of course it would not leave. When we got home, it was nearly dark, and my wife put her hand in the back of the car to get the butterfly to leave. Instead the small brown winged insect hopped to her hand and stayed there. We walked over to the street lamp to look at it more closely. (By this time we were calling the butterfly Magda, and were enjoying her mischievous company.) Suddenly the butterfly flew down to the sidewalk, and, as we watched, it began to dance energetically in circles, hopping occasionally to one or another of our feet. How could we not think that this was Magda, now with legs, in heaven, dancing freely and with abandon as she had hoped she would?’ http://jungcurrents.com/murray-stein-three-butterfly-stories/
also included on Murray Stein’s website in ‘My encounter with Jungian psychology’, http://www.murraystein.com/
And so a sad story about the death of a close friend is transformed to a hopeful and even uplifting story, with the promise of the continuing embodiment of Magda’s spirit in the butterfly. The butterfly is a symbol of the transcendent life.
I always notice butterflies. I’d seen one on a walk earlier in the week as a herald of this long-delayed spring which we were on the night of this lecture experiencing briefly as high summer – and when on my walk I saw one of those early spring small bright yellow butterflies leading the way, I felt hopeful that we were at long last, later than in many years, emerging from the lingering chilly winter. I went on a walk again today – two weeks later, with this amazing weather still pressing on – and a butterfly leapt onto my shoe and then danced around my feet. Maybe this happens all the time, and I just don’t notice.
I also remember two stories about butterflies and deaths that I have been told. One of these stories is quite extraordinary: a woman’s daughter had been named after the mother’s best friend. The best friend died in a car crash a number of years later, and the woman’s daughter asked her mother, ‘will I die in a car crash too?’ Her mother dismissed these fears but then, several years later, that was exactly what happened – and the daughter died on the best friend’s birthday. The daughter loved butterflies and they became a symbol of her remembrance. In the other story, the second wife of a woman’s ex-husband died and whenever the woman saw a butterfly, she knew that her step-daughter was thinking of her, and would make contact. In both of these stories, as in Magda’s tale, butterflies were still-living spirit.
I was thinking about this when I was in a meeting with a client who mentioned he had painted a bright blue butterfly that morning. He was disparaging his artistic ability but seemed focused on the importance of the butterfly. He said it was a message of ‘freedom to fly’ for the children he was working with, liberating their spirit to go on a journey of individuation.
Stein says of synchronicity that ‘the meaning isn’t made by us, it’s given to us’. And if the synchronicity conveys meaning then it offers the potential of a transcendent life. Not all synchronicities are uplifting, some can be dark and terrifying.
I had a sudden glimpse of that in the days after the lecture, as the resonances continued to percolate. I have been feeling a perhaps irrational sense of unease, unsettlement, disturbance for awhile now, and that feeling has been increasing. I have been living with the Destroyer archetype – not my favourite companion. All around me organisations, teams and individuals are losing what they have – from values to budgets to jobs to self-esteem. Of course I too am affected. On a conscious level I have attributed my unease to the economic situation we are all in, the way my clients are feeling, and some of the behaviours I am witnessing and experiencing. Then global events like the earthquake in Japan have happened and the war in Libya.
And then, over the last weeks, some very odd incidents happened in an organisation I work with, that linked in my mind with a mysterious and shady event elsewhere from more than two years ago. When I googled it, I discovered a resolution had been reached only the week before. On a more personal level, in the days immediately following the lecture, I heard from three friends about serious illness in their families.
This feels like a Bad Space. But then I suddenly realised that my internal unease was somehow connecting with these external events which were an embodiment of how I have been feeling – the string of synchronicities in an odd way could also be a reassurance if I choose to take it that way This resonance in the global system can give me the power to rise above.
The close companion of the Destroyer archetype is, of course, the Creator. The Creator has been struggling to take shape inside of me and also in the surrounding world – the caterpillar turning into the butterfly.
The next day the sun shone and suddenly I felt in tune rather than at odds with the world. Visiting the small Northamptonshire village of Turvey, I discovered Turvey House, a magical place I had never heard of which was open specially that day at precisely the time I was there. I had an idyllic stroll around the gardens with calves vying for my attention and from there, a magical weekend unfolded. The other stuff is still there, but just for a moment I feel I’ve made some sense of it – it’s a precarious sense of meaning though, I don’t think it’s quite transcendent, I still feel enmired.
And then I went to the Freud Museum. I have always felt quite cool towards Freud. So maybe I had already decided in advance that this visit would not be a life-changing experience, or even especially enjoyable. I’ve wanted to visit Freud’s home for many years though, so when I was invited to a special event on a day when I was already in London, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Walking up the steep hill to Maresfield Gardens on a drizzly afternoon in the kind of light that reminds me of an Anita Brookner novel, I savoured the architecture near Finchley Road which I have always liked. The warm brick makes me think of late afternoon fires in the grate, tea, reading books under the glow of standard lamps at dusk – in other words, a mid-20th century English novel read by an American. It was the perfect time to arrive. And the shell of the house lived up to expectations. But what about the inside?
I always measure a building by the feeling I have when I’m inside it. This house felt neutral – I had no real feelings one way or the other. It was stuffy, the legacy of the amazing early summer blaze of heat lingering even as the weather was changing around us. I talked with other guests, discovering nearly everyone I spoke to was in a similar line of work to myself which felt a little claustrophobic, echoing the feeling inside the structure. And ultimately I felt unmoved as I drifted around the few rooms looking at the heavy furniture and especially at the prodigious amount of statuary and other items that Freud had collected, over 2,000 pieces in total.
Suddenly I spotted a woman who looked – well, different from most of the other guests and interesting. We struck up a conversation and I discovered she was a librarian and as the conversation unfolded, I learned she was an only child, her Myers-Briggs Type was almost certainly the same as mine, we had both studied English literature….and like me she felt unmoved by the house and she shared my Jungian interests. She too had been struck by the curator’s passing comment about collections, and we both shared a curiosity about what makes people collect and what need does the act of collecting fill? Did Freud reflect on this about himself, we wondered? Both of us had discovered we had shed any slight urge to collect that we might have had in youth, and we linked this with the process of maturing.
A missing warmth was stirred up for me in this connection which felt synchronistic and also symbolic of a hope beyond. Was there a butterfly in the room?
We exchanged e-mail addresses and maybe she will read this post. In any case I feel she is a fleeting friend.
And so I found Jung again, in Freud’s house.
VANESSA HADADY is a third generation classically trained painter who began practicing formalized painting in 1974. Ms. Hadady obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1985. There, amongst several scholars, she studied under Gene Frumkin (poet), Joel-Peter Witkin (photographer), Thomas Barrow (photographer) while sitting in critiques by Julian Schnabel (filmmaker/artist) and the late Joan Brown (artist).
‘Considering artistic creations, when entering the work from any vantage, no matter the media I choose to work in, I am brought to an understanding the work is not necessarily mine….. Skills I use include centuries’ old basic mathematical formulas, ratios from the golden mean rectangle and the like which includes taking artistic gifts from afar. To spontaneously express something naturally takes not creative skill but insight into life and living.’