Psyche & the Language of Transformation
Keynote Speech for the 2014 Graduating Class of Southwestern College
November 1, 2014
When I came to Southwestern College this past summer as the new Dean and VP for Academic Affairs, I became very curious about the word psychology. As a poet, I care a lot about words for I know the power they hold. The seedcorn of thought is embodied in language. What we think is what we make real. I know our stories carry medicine and have the power to heal. Each word has its story. So I did a little research, a little thinking and feeling, and I want to share with you what I discovered.
In the late 17th century, the word, psychology, entered the English language from modern Latin, psychologia, literally, the study of the mind. But the root of the word is much older. It is buried in the Greek myth of Psyche, a beautiful, innocent young woman whose story teaches us about human desire, love, jealousy, suffering, perseverance and fulfillment. The Greek word, psyche, originally meant spirit, mind, breath and butterfly.
Here at Southwestern College you have been studying the mind, but also spirit, breath and butterfly. Yes, you have begun to develop expertise in the symbolic meaning of butterfly, for the butterfly has long been a symbol of the human soul’s capacity for transformation. The Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, once had a dream about being a butterfly that flew without care of humanity flitting about joyously. When he awoke he realized that it was just a dream, but it was so real. He thought to himself, “Was I a man who dreamt about being a butterfly? Or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”
The butterfly arouses questions about the very nature of reality. It embodies one of the most dramatic metamorphoses in nature. It begins as an egg, and then hatches into a caterpillar, ultimately spinning itself into a cocoon in which the very cells of its body dissolve into what are called imaginal cells. It imagines itself into one of the most fragile and beautiful winged beings. How can it survive such dramatic changes? How can we?
Take a moment right here and now to pause and reflect in on where you are in the four stages of this cyclical transformative process. Are you incubating an idea or possibility, holding still and keeping quiet, gestating as an egg? Or like a caterpillar are you restlessly seeking, conducting research, devouring everything you can in your quest for fulfillment? Have you spun yourself inward until the very structure of your life, your identity, begins to disintegrate? Then within the shell of that chrysalis, your imaginal cells are free to form who you will become. After the appropriate period of time, you will emerge, fragile and new, displaying the colorful realization of your potential.
Wherever you are today in this cycle, trust that it will carry you through. And once completed the butterfly’s purpose, you will lay another egg and the cycle begins again. You will return to darkness, burst forth devouring new information and new experiences, then cycle inward to reflect, disintegrate, and re-emerge once again with new wings. As a student at Southwestern, you have chosen not simply to be more aware of your own transformational cycles, but to help midwife othersto undergo their own metamorphoses.
Psyche is synonymous with spirit, essence, being, inner self, inner knowing. In your time at Southwestern, you have deepened your relationship with psyche.
But who was Psyche? What is her story? And what does she have to do with us?
Psyche is the third and youngest daughter of a king. She is so beautiful that mere mortals become completely carried away when they see her. They bring her gifts and riches. They forget about the Temple of Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty, and instead pray to the girl, Psyche.
What happens when we forget we are sacred beings and begin to pay homage only to the flesh, to the physical and material?
Psyche’s parents become worried. They understand the situation. Their youngest child is in grave danger. She is being worshipped, and this is out of balance with the rightful harmony of the universe. Psyche attracts so much attention, yet no man approaches her. Her older sisters are soon married, but the youngest daughter does not have a single suitor. So her father seeks counsel from the Oracle of the God Apollo.
Some think of Apollo as the pre-eminent Sun God, epitome of the rational mind, but in the old ways it was considered that the Sun rose from the dark and returned to the dark. Darkness itself is the mother of the sun.
Wisdom arises from the dark, from the inner realm of the unconscious. The oracle brings to the surface what is buried below to help us shed our brilliant light in all directions. Sometimes we have to go into the darkness, into despair and grief, to find insight and understanding.
The Oracle, leaning upon the sacred tree with roots in the underworld and branches reaching toward the sun, tells the King that the only one who will marry his daughter is Death itself.
The King is horrified, but knows truth has been spoken. So his daughter is dressed in her wedding gown, and a great procession leads her to the top of a cliff. Wailing and moaning, they leave her on the edge of a rock.
Have you ever been taken right to the precipice where you had to face the end of all that was yours? The end of childhood, safety, family, friendship, marriage? The end of good health? The end of a job, home, career? It does end. And you stand alone facing death. This is what happened to Psyche.
She had no choice, for there was no turning back. Life as she had known it was gone forever. She had to marry death, which is to say she had to embrace the end of childhood, of home and safety. She had to give herself up to life by embracing death. So she threw herself off the edge. Like a butterfly she sprouted wings and the West Wind caught her and floated her softly to the ground. She is sometimes represented as the butterfly-winged goddess. This is when Eros, Love, the son of Aphrodite, the boy with a quiver of arrows, sees her and falls in love.
Eros hides Psyche in his personal castle in the valley of delight. Each night he spends making love with her in total darkness. They fall asleep in each other’s arms. Before dawn he flies away. He forbids her from even trying to see him. And she accepts this as her fate, for he loves her and she loves him even.
But when we love in the dark, we love unconsciously. When we love blindly, are we in love with another person, or are we in love with love itself?
Psyche’s older sisters discover that she is not dead but living in luxury. They press her about her husband’s identity. Jealously, they warn her that he might be a monster. And when they find out she is pregnant, they say surely she will birth a demon.
Eros warns Psyche of her sisters’ treachery, but in her innocence she refuses to believe that they would not have her best interests at heart. So she does what they tell her to do.
After her husband is fast asleep, she takes the lamp of consciousness and leans over him to let it light his face. She beholds the most beautiful man she’s ever seen. And in her eagerness she leans too far and the lamp spills one drop of hot wax on his shoulder. He awakens enraged by her betrayal and flees.
When we awaken to our lives and decide to see the truth, whatever that truth is, it can be terribly painful, heartbreaking. But here is when we begin to shatter the shell of the egg and emerge as a caterpillar to seek truth. We must venture out into the great unknown to seek what we have lost, to fill the emptiness inside. Psyche, carrying her child in her womb, begins to roam the earth seeking Eros, Love. Sad and confused, lost and alone, Psyche does not give up seeking.
We see in Psyche’s tale the true story of the human soul. It must lose everything, move beyond the familiar, face death, and begin its own conscious journey toward the unity of love. The soul cannot give up.
Do not give up on yourselves, on your clients, on your family, on your friends. Keep seeking that unity of love. This is the ultimate journey toward becoming a butterfly. You are already on this journey, so you know it is not simple.
Again we turn to the myth of Psyche.
Eros has fled and returned to his mother’s house to nurse his wound. Psyche, seeking him, goes there and that’s when Aphrodite makes Psyche her slave.
What do we become slave to in our journey toward freedom? Are we enslaved by an addiction, an idea or attitude, a theory or person? And once enslaved, we must use everything we are, everything we know if we are ever to get free.
Aphrodite forces Psyche to undertake harrowing feats. She must go to the mouth of the spring, survive the treacherous path and bring back the sacred water. She must journey to the realm of the dead and return with the beauty potion of Persephone. Psyche perseveres. She listens to her inner guidance. She seeks help. She carries herself honorably.
At times she feels utterly defeated, filled with despair. She doesn’t want to live. There is no end to the tasks she must complete. With every step she is accompanied by Sorrow and Melancholy. Yet she completes each task, and at last she is free.
What difficult things must we face, must we do, in order to free ourselves from pain and misery? Whose assistance do we seek? How do we engage patience, endurance, forgiveness and joy? How do we show up for others as they journey toward freedom?
At last Psyche and Eros are reunited, and they marry. They give birth to Pleasure. Pleasure reminds us to have fun along our Soul Path. Remember no matter how hard it gets, make room for play, enjoy life, and take care of you. Pleasure is a necessary part of sustenance.
At the end of Psyche’s story, the greatest god of all, Zeus, welcomes her into the abode of the immortals, and she becomes one of the Divine. Yes, we, too, belong among gods and goddesses, as co-creators of our experiences, we are part of the holy family of life.
Psyche is ours. She lives within us. Our personal stories of tribulation and triumph, of suffering and survival, are mythic tales that show us who we are, each one of us, as divine beings.
Within our psyche lives the language of transformation. It is communicated to us through dream, story, image, through the outer events of our lives and the inner mystery of our being. We embody this language just as the imago, the adult butterfly, embodies the metamorphic life cycle of egg, caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly.
I honor you; the graduating class of 2014 for you have completed a transformative cycle. As you embark upon the next phase of your journey, you will help others touch the sacred within themselves and learn to fly.
On this podium are a stack of butterflies made colorful by the staff and students of Southwestern. We will honor the gods of synchronicity and happenstance, for whichever butterfly is on top when you come up to accept your diploma is the one that is meant for you.