After my divorce in 2011, followed by a few tumultuous attempts at virtual dating, and ending with an extremely dangerous dalliance, I gave up, realizing I knew nothing about love and relationships, and told myself that if I ever was given another shot at it, I first needed to move away from the ‘Land of Women’.
So, I wrote this letter; a temporary farewell if you will, to women in my life:
“Now, leave me be! I can’t deal right now with your tears or menstrual blood. Stop seeing me in shining armor. I am no charming prince, nor have all the answers. Don’t ask me to go out and slay more dragons. I am tired, and just want to sleep. Don’t seek in me constancy, or nerves of steel. Don’t expect me to pay your bills at the baker or butcher shop, nor place a new toilet paper roll nor fill the empty ice trays. Don’t expect me to open doors for you or place my coat over a water puddle so your shoes won’t get wet. The only thing I want to do for now is to step down to the serfs’ mess hall to drink a pint of mead with the stableman and devour a mutton’s leg held with my bare hands. Let me sleep on the floor. Don’t daub my face with anti-wrinkle cream. Don’t trim my nails or beard. Don’t hold dinner for me or stay awake waiting for me to read you mushy poetry. I’ll be hunting deer and sleeping under the stars. Besides, for now, the only book I wish to read is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And please, above all, stop asking me how I feel!”
Then, I plunged into a months-long study on love, romance, sexuality, eroticism, relationships, and the personal unconscious. I ran the gamut, starting with the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, to the often-sexless courtship of Medieval troubadours, all the way to our current age of excarnation, hook-ups, serial monogamy, polyamory, and digitized vaginas. I vowed that if I was to have one last shot at love, I was going to be fully prepared, and walk into it with eyes wide open.
I figured that if we are required to study seven-to-ten years to become doctors, for example, or eight to practice law, we should at least dedicate some time to one of the most important aspects of our lives and our humanity. I also knew that I needed to explore the unconscious feelings that surrounded my ideas of women, to dispel false – or twisted – mystifications. If you consider my background, you’ll see what I mean.
“It is the woman in our heads, more than the woman in our beds that causes most of our problems.” – Sam Keen
About two years ago, at eleven at night on January 15, 2016, my phone beeped with this message:
“How are you?”
We had dated for two years while I lived in Costa Rica in my early twenties. Thirty years had passed since we last heard of one another.
I did not feel fully prepared, but so many serendipities were occurring in my life at that point that I considered her message as another sign from the universe. I seized it, we picked up right from where we started, and have been in a wonderful relationship ever since.
Meant to be? Is it true love? Is she my “other half” Plato proposes in the Androgyne Myth?
Genealogy and ancestry are now big business. People are hungry to know where they come from. I prefer to trace the ancestry of our ideas – our cultural DNA. We are the intellectual offspring of the ancient Greeks.
In a nutshell, the myth explains that long ago, there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous. Males were descended from the sun, females from the earth, and those who were androgynous, descended from the moon. They were powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans made to them, so Zeus (the Sky-God of Indo-Europeans) decided to cut each person in two. Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half and reunite with it. When found, they would embrace and stay together, not wanting anything else.
“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one…I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire?’ There is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.” – Aristophanes.
Sweet, but it sounded too cloying and absorbing. I also suspected that the myth had less to do with relationships, and more with the split between our female and male essences I discussed in Part II of my Series on Objectification.
Having unwittingly surrendered my sovereignty – my ‘Inner King’ – during my marriage, the idea of “losing myself”, or melting into another, as the myth says, was not something I wanted in a future relationship.
In my studies, I came across this vow, proposed by Sam Keen:
“I vow that I will defend the integrity of my separate being and respect the integrity of yours. We will meet only as equals; I will present myself to you in the fullness of my being and will expect the same of you. I will not cower, apologize, or condescend. Our covenant will be to love one another justly and powerfully; to establish and cherish inviolable boundaries; to respect our separate sanctuaries. We will remain joined in the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love until we arrive at a synthesis.”
Keen’s words immediately resonated with me, so I added this to the vow, and sent it to my girlfriend:
“Already whole, we will not look for the other to complete us. Rather, we will look for the other to complement us.”
And that was that…for a while.
But something kept nagging at me: neither the myth nor Sam Keen explained what both halves were coming together for.
I dug deeper, finding this quote from the renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion:
“Marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.”
That did not help much either.
What does that “spiritual identity” look and feel like? What is the “synthesis” Keen suggests a couple must arrive at through “the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love”?
Then my girlfriend’s daughter announced her wedding.
Having little money to gift her, I decided to create a recipe box, and in it, I included the quotes on love and relationships I felt could guide the newlyweds when struck by the inevitable conflicts that arise in a long-term, committed relationship.
This one made a lasting impression in my mind:
A few weeks ago, I flew down to Costa Rica to visit my girlfriend and attend her son’s high school graduation. The day after the ceremony, we drove north to the province of Guanacaste, and trekked high-up into the cloud-forest of the Volcán Tenorio National Park.
The night before, we hiked the path leading from our small hotel to a river at the base of the park. I was stunned when we got to its end, having never seen water of this intense blue before.
Its name is Rio Celeste. Sky Blue River.
“Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!” The phrase of the quote I had included in the recipe box rang in my head. I was eager to climb up the top and reach the river’s springhead.
We left very early the next morning. It had rained hard the night before, and it was still drizzling and overcast when we reached the base of the trail. An hour into the hike, I was glad I listened to my girlfriend, and had rented rain boots and ponchos from an enterprising ‘Tico’ who operated a makeshift stall by the parking lot.
Midway up the mountain, we reached a tranquil section of Rio Celeste where the water’s vibrant color makes you understand how it got its name.
We kept going; sloughing across the narrow trail, bruised and scraped, knee-deep in mud, calves burning by then; both realizing, in silence, that age was taking its toll on our tired bodies (she’s 51 – I’m 55).
She walked ahead of me, and seeing her bravely forging ahead, I recalled the fifteen reasons (and counting) I’ve compiled on why, every single day, I make the conscious choice to be with her. One of them stems from this phrase in German: “Jemand mit dem man Pferde stehlen kann”: She is someone with whom one can steal horses – daring, adventurous, insouciant; she has my back, as I do hers.
We were exhausted when we reached this crossroad:
But we decided to climb the remaining 3000 feet to ‘Teñideros’: the place where Rio Celeste is born.
It didn’t hit me at first.
Of course, I was intellectually intrigued by the ‘alchemical magic’ created by the confluence of two ordinary rivers – the clear one to the left, with the mineral-rich, white one in the middle – producing, in their joint flow, such an unbelievable, ethereal blueness.
It wasn’t until I returned home and received the prints of the photos I had taken on our journey that I was struck.
I had found it! The perfect, visual metaphor for love in a committed relationship.
And my memory instantly connected that visual, with the recipe I had given my girlfriend’s daughter:
Love is an art, an activity. It is a standing in, not a falling for. It is primarily giving, not receiving; giving as the highest expression of potency, experiencing oneself as Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!
I also made the connection with the “synthesis” to which Sam Keen alluded:
Syn·the·sis (noun): the combination of ideas to form a theory or system.
So I sent my girlfriend that last photo with this letter:
“Upon receiving the photos of our fascinating trek to Rio Celeste, this one has kept me thinking about us.
Because in it, I visualize the combination of your feminine essence (the earthy and mineral) with my masculine (crystalline) one, producing in their interlacement, something much more beautiful and meaningful than on their own.
It is a visual metaphor for two persons, singular, becoming one person, plural.
Both rivers, merging in that intense and vibrant blueness, have not lost one atom of their singularity. None has absorbed the other. They join to give rise to a new expression of their natures. They combine the best of each other in a new riverbed – a joined enterprise – that by themselves, they could never fashion.
Now they flow together, singing their joys, gurgling their newfound passion, carving in their drift new landscapes and a common future, as they meander towards that final, salty embrace with the sea.
I love realizing that together, we are creating our own Sky Blue River.”
On our way back from Teñideros, we made a final stop here:
The Ideal, the Eidolon, a woman in the league of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Bathsheba, and Helen of Troy, driving Kings, Emperors, Prophets and Poets mad, chewing them alive, then spitting out their bones with regal indifference. Women, as poet Robert Bly noted, who throw a spark into dry wood, pull energy from a stagnant psyche, and are capable of stirring the sea with a single hair.
Often incorporeal – in fantasies, books, and dreams – Theo has also projected this mysterious energy onto flesh-and-blood women whose features matched the blueprint in his imagination: black eyes (avid, plaintive, and supplicant), raven-black hair, and olive skin. Beyond the physical, such blueprint also contained intangible traits, that, upon projection, endowed these women with a fascinating and irresistible allure: exoticness, seemingly-innocent seductive cunning, primitive sensuality, graceful femininity, and maddening elusiveness.
Jungians call her The Anima: the unconscious image of ‘woman’ in the minds of men.
In her two-part essay, ‘The Archetypal Female in Mythology and Religion’, Dr. Joan Relke says that the “anima manifests as an inconsistent creature: appearing positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. She can be cruelly provocative, taunting, seductive, and terrifying on the one hand, and gentle, solicitous, and wise on the other. She is an active protagonist in dreams and fantasies, and male projections.”
Think Marilyn Monroe.
“Thousands, even millions of men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. In the economy of Monroe’s psyche, her death was inevitable [because] no single human being can carry so many projections.” – Robert Bly, ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’.
Fed up with the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the dizzying fevers, the maddening arousals and ensuing disillusions; desperate to rid myself from the chthonic allure of the myth that had caused me so much trouble in life – like Melville’s Captain Ahab, but accompanied and aided, not by Ishmael, but by the psychoanalytic theories and case studies of Jung and Freud, I sailed across my dream-logs, journals, books – harpoon in hand – searching for the archetype, and for clues of where and when it had first infected me with the psychic parasite that feeds on dangerous infatuations, and that makes some men prefer to endlessly pursue a chimera, rather than tussle with a woman of flesh and blood, fury and tears, scars and wrinkles, and a fragile, fractured, but ultimately endearing humanity.
What Theo discovered was shattering but ultimately enlightening.
Pouring through his dream-logs he found this one of August 26, 2001:
She visited me again last night, in a long white cotton wrap-skirt like those worn by peasant girls or gypsies. I was sleeping in the dream, while she sat on the bed with my head nestled in the warmth of her crossed, bare legs, and caressed my hair. I began to dream-up stories, the words forming above us in wraithlike filigrees of smoke, which she rapidly copied inside a small, black leather notebook as her face looked forwards and backwards.
Like a powerful search beam, the last phrase illumed in his memory something he had recently read in Robert Bly’s book ‘Iron John’:
“When a man is ready to make a decisive move toward ‘The Legends,’ a feminine figure whose face looks both waysmay appear in his dreams. It is as if she has two faces: one looks toward the world of rule and laws, and the other toward the world of dragonish desire, moistness, wildness, adult manhood. This dream figure is not a flesh-and-blood woman but a luminous eternal figure. The Mysterious Hidden Woman loves privacy, overhanging trees, long skirts, the shadowy places underneath bridges, rooms with low lighting…she wants passion and purpose in a man, and carries a weighty desire in her, a passion somewhere between erotic feeling and religious intensity.
Again, Dr. Joan Relke:
“They are temptresses, using sexuality to drag one into the depths of the unconscious, to the destruction of the conscious will and ego, and into the wider world of the ‘Self’. The anima lurks in the unconscious, wielding her supernatural power to drive our lives either towards mystical knowledge, consciousness and individuation, or towards oblivion in sensual urges.”
All along, what Theo, time and again, had been searching for in vain, driven blindly by sensual urges with disastrous consequences, was not something, or someone outside himself, but an integral part of his psyche. More than simply “anima”, this luminous figure constellated the intuitive, non-rational and creative energies Theo had repressed for far too long, living one-sidedly in the world of reason, rules, and laws (I wrote about the dangers of such one-sided existence in Part III on my Series on female objectification).
Theo came close to oblivion.
Now, with growing knowledge, passion, and purpose, he journeys towards wholeness, looking to arrive at a synthesis of the World of Legends and the World of Rules; to achieve a harmonious balance between his duties and his dragonish desires.
As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.
In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.
This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.
Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.
The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.
Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:
“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.“
Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.
“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”
But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.
I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.
What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.
We have entered the Age of Anxiety.
‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?
But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.
What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?
Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.
In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.
“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.
It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.
Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.
“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts
But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.”
The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.
It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.
How to become a Willow?
To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.
“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22
The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:
We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.
“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts
When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.
But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?
Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.
“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.
While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.
The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.
A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.
Since I began this series, at least forty men, in entertainment, media, and politics, have faced allegations ranging from inappropriate behavior to forced sexual misconduct to rape. The list continues to grow and has caused the downfall of many powerful “men”. It has sparked an entire movement (#metoo), and led Time Magazine to name ‘The Silence Breakers’ as 2017’s Person of the Year.
It’s encouraging to hear young people such as comedian Sarah Silverman say we need to understand what’s behind all this, or watch actor Justin Baldoni give a poignant TED talk on why he’s done trying to be “man enough”.
Both are choosing the hard and long road of empathy, rather than the easy one of judgment and condemnation.
While my exploration of this issue has revolved around Millennial Men, it is not a stretch to imagine that they could well be on the road of being the Harry Weinsteins, Al Frankens, Roy Moores, or Matt Lauers of the near future.
In my mind, they all share one thing in common: they are uninitiated men, or more precisely, wrongly initiated into what it means to be a man.
Former NFL defensive lineman and coach, Joe Ehrmann, had this to say in the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’:
“My earliest memory is my father bringing me down to my mother’s basement, putting up his hands and teaching me how to throw jabs and punches. It was there that he gave me those words: “Be a Man”. Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions. If you are going to be a man in this world you have to learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances. I left the room in tears, feeling I wasn’t man enough. Football became a tremendous place to hide. You can hide inside the helmet. You can hide behind the roar of the crowd. You get to project this façade, this persona of what it means to be a man in this culture. I thought if I could manifest this hyper-masculinity, somehow, it would validate who I was. Certainly, my father would respect me; see how powerful…how strong I was. Then he’d give me the love and attention that I desperately wanted. I ask every man to think about what age they were, what was the context, when somebody told you to Be a Man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture, I believe.”
This issue not only impacts gender relations, but spills over into our politics and the sustainability of our future on this planet. It is why I am investing so much time on it. If my words – my voice – can be heard by more and more men (women too), and through them, I manage to prevent but one instance of sexual assault, I will have done my share.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve listened to several young men explain why they often objectify women. We’ve talked about the holes in their psyches, and explored ways in which they can begin to heal. We’ve listened to their fears of rejection, intimacy and vulnerability. They have shared their sadness stemming from a sense of being split from their right-brained essence.
We’ll now deal with Ethan’s answer to why he sometimes objectifies women through pornography. We can as well substitute the word ‘objectify’, with harass, exploit, or rape.
ETHAN: “When I use porn semi-frequently, I do so whenever I am disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
This has everything to do with two very famous erections.
Meet Priapus, the John Holmes of ancient mythology
The God of Lust and Fertility, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite, which means that every hard-on is mothered by love and beauty. So far, so good.
Until Hera came along.
Hera is the queen and mistress of heaven. Brought up in a domesticated and orderly household, she is also the goddess of marriage and the family. Suspecting her philandering husband, Zeus, of being Priapus’ father, Hera deceptively offered to help Aphrodite’s delivery of Priapus. With just one touch of her finger on Aphrodite’s belly, Hera caused Priapus’s ‘deformity’ and unshapeliness. Horrified, his mother rejected her son, and banished him to a mountainside on Earth.
What does the myth point to?
We’re back to that eons-old, tug-of-war I talked about in my post on why monogamy is so damn difficult: between our desires and conventions.
As Goddess of Marriage, Hera likes only one kind of erection: the procreating kind within the bounds of conjugal love. To her, Priapus is living testimony of philandering. Therefore, indirectly, she made sexual imagination ugly and shameful, and banished it to the mountainside – our modern day Red Light District, Pornhub, Las Vegas, etc. In his lecture, ‘Pink Madness’, James Hillman said that the Hera archetype is what causes us to see Priapus as deformed and distorted.
Then came this guy, St. Augustine.
I wonder why he doesn’t look as happy as Priapus.
When he was sixteen, back in 370 C.E., he went with his father to a public bath, and there, had an involuntary boner. He called it inquieta adulescentia, or restless young manhood.
Imagining himself a soon-to-be grandfather, Dad was pleased.
Mom, a pious Christian, and the Hera in this story, wasn’t.
“She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine wrote in his ‘Confessions’, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father rather than him.”
A year later, when Augustine was sent to study to Carthage, his father died. Commenting on Sarah Ruden’s translation of ‘Confessions’, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New Yorker:
“If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed.”
“I came to Carthage,” Augustine wrote, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” (Sounds like Vegas)
Within a year or two of what appears to have been a period of feverish promiscuity, Augustine settled down with his mistress.
But his mother was still not satisfied. When Augustine was getting ready to leave Carthage to take a teaching position in Milan, his mother, Augustine writes, “was hanging onto me coercively, trying to either stop my journey or come along with me on it.” Lying, he told her that he was only seeing off a friend, and persuaded her to spend the night at a shrine near the harbor. “I got away, and got away with it.” A few years later, his mother sailed from North Africa to join him, and once settled in his household, sought to change her son’s life by getting rid of his mistress and finding him a suitable Catholic girl for him to marry.
In little more than a year’s time, Augustine had converted to the Catholic faith.
Then something really weird happened…
In the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before setting sail for Africa, Augustine and his mother were standing by a window that looked out onto an enclosed garden, and talking intimately. Their conversation, serene and joyful, led them to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, no matter how great, could ever match the happiness of the saints. And then, Augustine recounts, “stretching upward with a more fiery emotion,” he and his mother experienced something remarkable: they felt themselves climbing higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter and through the heavenly spheres and, higher still, to the region of their own souls and up toward the eternity that lies beyond time itself. (Here comes the creepy part) “While we were speaking and panting for it, with a thrust that required all the heart’s strength, we brushed against it slightly.” It is difficult to convey in translation the power of the account, Greenblatt writes, and of what it meant for the thirty-two-year-old son and the fifty-five-year-old mother to reach this climax together. Then it was over: “Suspiravimus,” Augustine writes. “We sighed, and returned to the sound of our speech.”
Fast forward forty years or so, and Augustine still can’t get over his inquieta adulescentia, or unruly adolescent boner:
“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”
And this ardor, Greenblatt adds, to which Augustine gives the technical name “concupiscence,” was not simply a natural endowment or a divine blessing; it was a touch of evil. What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. “But the action is not performed without evil.” True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: “Surely, any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.”
(Surely, if you say so).
Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal (or hard-on) was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum = original sin.
This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants,and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years. [Greenblatt].
“The insistence to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under a tide of swirling sexual frustrations, libido-killing boredom, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: ‘Sex at Dawn’
Our insistence on opposing spirit and mind to both nature and sexuality, makes us become split (disconnected, in Ethan’s terms), and at war with ourselves and our instinctual appetites. Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed, gave Eros poison to drink.
Pornography is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. According to Pornhub, in 2016, the human race consumed enough hours of porn to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says James Hillman, is the return of the repressed.
“Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. Crucially – in all cases of addiction, it’s never that we are simply greedy or lusty or depraved. The real reason is always more poignant and more worthy of sympathy: we get addicted because we’re sad.” – Alan de Botton
Sad, because, like Priapus, we have been exiled from our natural sensuality, so we now look for it through fantasy.
The problem is that the fantasy starts becoming more lifelike than the real, and we end up, as Alan Watts cautioned, “bestowing more metaphysical and aesthetic value to what is lifelike to what is life”.
Reality begins to disappoint us. (e.g. the movie ‘Her’)
In 2016, an all-new term shot into the top searches on Pornhub: ‘Overwatch’, in reference to the popular video game released earlier that year, known for its fast action and overtly sexualized characters. It appears that the trend is moving more toward fantasy than reality. ‘Generic’ porn is being replaced with fantasy specific, or scenario specific scenes.
Losing our Senses
My friend Theo, who I’m currently helping navigate across his own love and existential tumult, wrote this to me as he entered the wilderness after many days sitting in front of his computer:
“Ninety percent of our human story as hunter-gatherers, forgotten. We’ve retained all the fears of the Savannah, but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we now can’t find our way without a GPS. The world’s shrill cacophony roaring in our ears makes it impossible to listen to silence. The bark’s rugosity, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff, the silk of a leaf…unfamiliar. Our sense of smell and taste blunted by exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality. We now rely on labels to tell us what will nourish us. Our sight, bleared by glaring and flickering blue light, misses the forest’s secret clues and diminishes its rich depth…diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred daily by a lightning storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear – soon losing their effect, requiring more potent doses to keep us hooked – have made it impossible for us to know what exactly it is we are to do with ourselves in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored. Like a violin, discarded in the dusty attic of our past – strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bout – we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. In that state of alienation, rather than attuning ourselves to her symphony and harnessing her power, we now are bent on her domination and destruction.”
Exacerbating our state of exile, our increasingly virtual world is pushing us deeper into Plato’s Cave.
In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets – the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are only the shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. The prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real; they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
In its truest sense, Alan Watts suggested, American culture is the most ‘immaterialist’.
In his blog for ‘The Stone’, Richard Kearney asks if today’s virtual dater and mater is not more like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who can see everything at a distance, but is touched by nothing. “Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation,” Kearney asks, “where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image.”
Pornography, he adds, is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh – one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.
In his book ‘De Anima’ Aristotle pronounced that touch is the most intelligent sense, because it is the most sensitive. As such, it is the most universal of the senses. In this pronouncement, he not only was challenging his own previous conceptions, but the dominant prejudice of the Platonic doctrine of his time, which held that sight was the highest sense. Aristotle did not win. The Platonists prevailed, and the Western universe – our universe – became a system governed by the ‘soul’s eye’. Western philosophy (our ideas) thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower animal senses, stigmatized by touch [Kearney].
We’re back to the battle between spirit/mind vs flesh/nature; Psyche vs Eros; between the ideas of the Myce and the Minos I talked about in Part II.
Enter the weeping, pre-Platonist philosopher, Heraclitus.
This guy is best known for his aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice. But his more important doctrine, in my mind, is his commitment to the unity of opposites, whereby no entity, or person, can occupy a single state at a single time. While Heraclitus did not coin it, the concept of ‘enantiodromia’ has been attributed to him.
Enantiodromia (Ancient Greek: enantios – opposite, and dromos – running course), basically means that the superabundance of any force, inevitably produces its opposite. It is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme, is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite. (For an example of this dynamic, between the interplay of male and female energies, read the excerpt of Elizabeth Zioga’s blog, included in Part II).
In analytical psychology, enantiodromia means that something that is repressed (a man’s natural sensuality, or instinctual appetites, for example), shapeshifts in the unconscious into something powerful and threatening. To wit: St. Augustine’s natural erection turning into the touch of evil.
Carl Jung had this to say about it:
“Enantiodromia. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time, an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
How do we heal this split caused by Hera and St. Augustine?
Enantiodromia also refers to the process whereby one seeks out and embraces an opposing quality, internalizing it in a way that results in individual wholeness. This process is the crux of Jung’s notion, called the “path of individuation”. One must incorporate an opposing archetype (or essence) into their psyche to reach a state of internal completion.
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld – or the body – where they have been exiled by the mind. We convert neurosis (stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior) into authentic suffering, through active participation or soul-making. Illness indicates the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Enter Hedone, Goddess of Sensual Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Delight.
Hedone was the daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction).
Sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight, are therefore, the products of the union and healthy balance between spirituality and sexuality, between mind and body.
Hedone is the deity with whom you, Ethan, must establish a relationship.
Full humanity, Richard Kearney says, requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to “feel what wretches feel” — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth. To close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, “I have been touched”.
The Road Back to our Hearts and Bodies
If you’ve been paying attention, Ethan, you’ll know right away that I am not going to suggest that we return to the sexual liberation of the 1960’s; to an unbalanced plunge into carnal pleasures. Enantiodromia, remember?
Though I am suggesting that we all flip St. Augustine the bird once and for all.
Meet Apollo, representative of logos, mind, reason, and intellect.
I know…not as impressive as Priapus’, but that’s not the point.
The point, as Alan de Botton said, is that the statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished.
So, how do we find our way back to our natural sensuality?
I asked Theo this question and this was his prescription:
1. Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed, as the female poet Kapka Kassabova said, the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting, or having sex.
“Never give a sword to a man than cannot dance.”
Just take a look at our current political mess, and you’ll understand what Confucius meant by that.
Or, if you prefer the French, here’s playwright Moliere:
“There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance. Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, the blunders of politicians…all this comes from not knowing how to dance.”
2. Read poetry every single day. Start with this selection. Then move on to Rumi, or Neruda, or Mirabai. Heck! Even the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’.
3. Learn to cook, and when you do, use your hands to mix, blend, and knead, as if you were caressing a woman’s or man’s body. As often as you can, cook by an open fire.
4. Play music and sculpt.
5. Go out often into the wild, but go alone, and without your electronic appendages. See everything…smell everything…touch everything.
6. Give yourself permission to be who you are. Authenticity is a powerful aphrodisiac. Switch your existence from a mode of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’, and do not squander all your erotic and sensual energies in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power. In Chapter 6 of my journey, I recount a personal, blissful experience of this kind.
7. Have the courage to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why eroticism is dead in our world, as Alan Watts suggested, is because of our culturally-ingrained discomfort with vulnerability which we try to overcome by perfect self-control which is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. Control is a degree of inhibition, and a system, or person, that is perfectly inhibited, is completely frozen.
8. Fall in love with your body, no matter the shape it’s in. Fall in love with your lover’s body, and in its presence, assume it’s virgin territory, and you, a daring, sensual explorer. Discover it with your five senses, every time, for the first time. You’ll always find a new, adorable freckle.
9. Before lovemaking, do as Napoleon did, who once wrote to his wife, saying: “I’ll be home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Our natural scent is intoxicating.
10. And, finally, when you and your partner meet, in love, recite this to each other:
 In his essay, ‘Big Red Son’ written in the late 90’s by David Foster Wallace, he added this footnote to his coverage of the Annual Adult Video Awards:
“Dark’s and Black’s movies are vile. They are meant to be. And the truth is that in-your-face-vileness is part of the schizoid direction porn’s been moving in all decade. For available, more acceptable, more lucrative, more chic – it has become also more “extreme”. In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc. It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade.”
 Enantiodromia. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:52, December 10, 2017.
Two weeks ago, in Part I of this series, we imagined ourselves by an open fire, listening to Joe, Nick, Tyrone, Mike, and Alex, explain why they often objectify women.
They said they did to bond with other men, to avoid rejection, intimacy and vulnerability, to fill the holes in their psyches, and as a way to reject or deny their innermost feelings.
We will now listen to Charlie answer the same question.
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
Before we attempt to understand and tackle these two issues, this is key:
Humans are hardwired to worry. One of the main functions of our primal brain is to protect us from threats to our survival, so our thoughts naturally go there first. In their book, ‘Words Can Change Your Brain’, Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, wrote that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. Positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action. Using the right words can transform our reality.”
Therefore, Charlie, let’s rephrase your answers to properly frame the narrative:
Instead of saying [I’m stuck in the belief] use [I’m stuck with the belief]. Rather than [I’m alienated] try [I’ve been alienated].
You’ll notice that by changing just one word, you have turned yourself from victim, to potential hero, and the motivational centers of your brain have now externalized a ‘Dragon’ with which we can all battle.
Feeling something ‘out there’ that was once inside us, or feeling alienated, signals loss. And when we lose something (think car keys), it is always best to retrace our steps.
WHO was it that stuck men with the belief that the female essence is outside them? And WHEN and HOW were men exiled from their state of wholeness?
It appears the initial blame falls on climate change, the horse, and a volcano eruption.
The Origin of Our Stories
Ancient Greece was the cradle of Western Civilization. It is from where most of us get our ideas…our stories. And it was on the island of Crete where the first European civilization, the Minoans, emerged around 3000 years ago.
A bit earlier, in the Eurasian steppes, a nomadic, cattle-herding culture was on the move. Its expansion coincided with the taming of the horse, and climatic changes that made the steppes cooler and drier. A large group of these Indo-Europeans settled in the acropolis site of Mycenae, two hundred miles from Crete.
These two groups, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, had very different ways of looking at the world, so a clash was inevitable.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoan society was especially prosperous, peaceful, and happy. The prominence of women in palace frescoes and the numerous figurines of goddesses found on Cretan sites, have even prompted speculation that Minoan society continued to be a female-dominated culture of the kind that has sometimes been postulated as the indigenous society of prehistoric Europe.
Hunter-gatherers first showed up in this area near the southeastern Greek seacoast about twenty thousand years before the present. Over the next twelve thousand years, the sea level gradually rose, and large game animals were no longer available, so hunter-gatherer populations came to depend increasingly on plants for their survival, and the problem became to develop a reliable supply. Whatever the ways through which knowledge of agriculture spread, Neolithic women had probably played the major role in inventing the technology and the tools needed to practice it, such as digging sticks and grinding stones. After all, women in hunter-gatherer societies had developed the greatest knowledge of plants because they were the principal gatherers of this food. In the earliest history of farming, women did most of the agricultural labor, while men continued to hunt.
Meanwhile, over at Mycenae…
Inspired by the Greek poet Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, during the 1870’s archaeologists uncovered the Bronze Age site of Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The discovery of treasure-filled graves pointed to a warrior culture organized in independent settlements ruled by powerful commanders, who enriched themselves by conducting raiding expeditions near and far, as well as by dominating local farmers.
Of Myce and Minos
What were the main differences between Mycenaeans (‘Myce’) and Minoans (‘Minos’)?
They spoke different languages.
Minos were by far more artistic.
The Myce made burnt offerings to the gods; the Minos did not.
Palaces in Myce were heavily fortified. Minoan were not.
Weapons were prevalent in Myce, hardly any on Mino.
Mino society granted women higher status (although it was not a matriarchy as some suggest). Myce, by contrast, were patriarchal.
Goddesses played a greater role in Minoa as evidenced by the large number of female figurines. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans that settled in Mycenae, had brought with them their most powerful deity: Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, literally Sky Father (Zeus in Greek mythology).
Then, a massive volcano eruption and tsunami, one that may have inspired the myth of Atlantis, spelled the end of the Minoan Civilization.
The Myce and their stories took over.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
One common myth found in nearly all Indo-European mythologies is a battle ending with a hero or god (masculine) slaying a serpent or dragon (feminine).
The stories woven from these beings, as gods, goddesses, semi-mortals, heroes, and demons, constitute the myths and religious stories of humankind. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, postulated that myths about such archetypal entities constitute the ‘dreams’ of cultures, and that the stories and archetypes originate in the dreams and fantasies of individuals.
Of all the Greek myths, the one that is most relevant to Charlie’s dilemma, is the Myth of Athena, Perseus, and Medusa.
If any Greek goddess conforms to the classical anima – or archetype for the feminine side of man present in the male unconscious – it is Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare.
Athena was born of the Sky Father’s (Zeus) head. As such, she is the anima of the high god, who is born directly from the male psyche without having to go through the intermediary and polluting experience of birth from a female body. She is spared the indignities of dependency, and emerges into myth as an adult: powerful, wise, and masculine. She protects all heroes without undermining their masculine power through sexual attraction. She is most certainly a male fantasy – no sidelong glance from her feminine eyes can drag a man into the murky, uncontrolled depths of his unconscious libido. Rather she protects men when at their most threatened – in battle.
However cerebral, Athena is deeply disturbed by Medusa, a beautiful mortal woman with lovely hair, who is seduced in Athena’s temple by Poseidon, Athena’s rival. Outraged, Athena curses Medusa, turning her beautiful hair into snakes. Thus, she turns Medusa into an underworld figure, and thereafter, should a man glance at Medusa, he turns to stone. Not satisfied with turning beautiful Medusa into a feared and ugly monster, Athena then sends Perseus to behead this Gorgon and bring back her head. To avoid looking at Medusa, Perseus sights her in Athena’s polished bronze shield, using it as a mirror.
Athena is consciousness (the mind, thought); Medusa is the unconscious (instinct, feeling, body). ‘Medusa’ means female wisdom, and traditionally, female wisdom means the wisdom of the body, instincts, emotions: the anima’s chaotic urge to life, and wisdom of a hidden purpose which seems to reflect a superior knowledge of life’s laws.
In teasing out multiple meanings of the Athena vs. Medusa myth, Medusa seems to be a maiden, demonized by the intellect’s rejection of feminine beauty and sexuality, and persecuted by the conscious intellect, with its a-sexual, non-instinctive ideals – the Apollonian, as opposed to the Dionysian principle. In the ancient world, Apollo represented the pagan logos, Dionysus the instincts.
Athena, therefore, is a female version of the Apollo principle – logos, mind, reason, intellect. These are the qualities of the sky, divorced from the world of instinct and non-rational human nature – without soul, hence Athena’s struggle with and ambivalent relationship to her own anima, Medusa.
There you have it Charlie, the answer to your predicament:
Q: Who made you believe the female essence is outside you?
A: The Myce.
Q: How and when were you exiled from your state of wholeness?
A: By changing the story, about 3000 years ago.
The Path Back to Wholeness
The most relevant part of the Athena/Medusa story is not the ascendancy of the masculine (Myce) over the feminine principle (Mino), but the symbolism of Athena’s shield.
Using Athena’s bronze shield as a mirror turns Medusa into a mirror image of Athena – the looking glass image, or the opposite. The configuration of Athena with Medusa’s head on her shield suggests the combination, or reconciliation of the conscious with the unconscious, of intellect (or ego), with the feeling, intuitive, instinctive, hidden aspect of the psyche – of male essence with female essence.
Athena is the ultra-conscious, intellectual, rational sky goddess; her unconscious counterpart is the snaky-haired, sexually-charged goddess of the underworld – Athena’s thwarted, wounded anima, or soul.
If we accept that the sky gods of the nomadic Indo-European herders (the ‘Myce’), usurped and subjugated the pre-Indo European agricultural deities of Greece which were predominantly female (the ‘Minos’), then we might see Medusa as an agricultural goddess of fertility, and Athena’s appropriation of her head as an attempt to integrate and liberate her own unconscious, pre-patriarchal femininity. Athena, identified with her patriarchal, Indo-European father, tries to recapture what Zeus (the masculine principle) in her has denied and destroyed.
Athena was looking for the same thing Charlie is.
Before we look for the path back to wholeness, I believe it is important that we realize the consequences of failing to do so. As Jesus warned in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector said that with the rise of patriarchy (the Myce worldview) our creative imagination polarized into the paranoid imagination and the predatory imagination. The first is based on irrational fear, the second on an insatiable drive for control. Both express a narcissism that objectifies and negates other perspectives.
British philosopher Alan Watts suggested that one of the most important tasks facing Westerners as individuals and Western culture as a whole, is to overcome the dualistic view that spirit (the Sky, Athena, Apollo, reason, ego) is opposed to matter (the Earth, Medusa, Dionysus, intuition, feeling, body). These ideas, Watts said, concern the interrelations of (a) nature and gender, (b) men and women, and (c) sexuality and spirituality.
Watts directly addressed Charlie’s sense of alienation from the larger truth of his completeness as a human being:
“Man’s feeling that he is an isolated being in an alien environment is a basic illusion that leads to other illusions. The West, victim of this illusion, looks down on all things associated with nature, including all things feminine. This, has moral consequences in terms of how we treat or mistreat that which we mistakenly consider to be apart from us.”
The ecological price we are paying for this split is self-evident.
The problem is not men’s alone. As more and more women enter the workforce, and compete in the arena of corporate capitalism, they find that they must surrender – or become separated from – their natural feminine essence, and embody more masculine energy.
In her insightful blog, ‘The Dance of the Masculine & Feminine: How to Harmonize the Polarity of our Relationships’, Elizabeth Ziogas writes:
“Every human being is comprised of both masculine and feminine energies, although we have one dominant energy that is more our true essence. [However], many women have developed masculine shells in order to build their careers, generate income and manage their families and households. A relationship functions like its own organism: It will strive to create balance and homeostasis to ensure its survival. If one partner is embodying their masculine essence, the other partner will subconsciously begin to embody feminine energy to create polarity, attraction, ease, and balance within the relationship. Like batteries, a relationship needs both a positive (masculine) and negative (feminine) pole to generate electricity and create attraction. So when we, as women, are embodying more masculine energy, we will notice our men begin to embody more feminine energy and vice versa. As we choose to express our femininity fully, our partners will naturally exhibit more masculinity to maintain the polarity of the relationship. Our nurturing and empowering feminine presence will actually inspire our men to rise into their true masculine essence; catalyze the evolution of their purpose and leadership.”
Watts emphasized the ways in which, in the Daoist yin–yang model, masculine and feminine gender traits are two poles of the same reality. Seen this way, they can be integrated in a harmonious and balanced relationship. To say that opposites are polar is to say much more than that they are far apart; it is to say that they are related and joined—that they are the terms, ends, or extremities of a single whole. Polar opposites are therefore inseparable opposites.
Here, I want to remind Charlie of the term he used in the second part of his answer: “I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.” You did not say “completeness as a man”.
When old narratives no longer make sense, we need to re-awaken our creative imagination to write new stories, or remember forgotten ones.
“Soul-making”, Spector says, “involves re-dreaming and re-framing our lives as healing fictions. Facts can’t change, but we can change their meaning through artful telling, so that we live not from our wounds, but with them. Cultures with living myths encourage infinite expressions of creativity. In a world that devalues the spiritual, many forget how to think mythologically and are drawn to its toxic mimic, addiction. By ritually enacting our myths, we may be able to keep ourselves from acting them out literally.”
In your case, Charlie, objectifying women is a literal acting-out of the Athena/Medusa myth. You are sending your Perseus, or your male archetype of the slaying hero, to cut-off Medusa’s head, instead of ritually and symbolically re-integrating her female wisdom and skills you feel you have lost. You are having your Myce overpower your Mino, thereby perpetuating an old, destructive story.
A Modern-Day Argument for Integration
Let’s go back about twelve thousand years to the time when climatic changes in Neolithic Greece were seriously impacting the availability of large game animals to hunt, and calling forth the gathering, ‘Earth’ wisdom of women. This scenario – in which drastic changes in the environment call for adaptation and new survival skills – is very much like the one we are experiencing today. In its 2016 report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills’, the World Economic Forum warned:
“Many of the major drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labor productivity to widening skills gaps.”
There are overarching shifts poised to change the nature of work itself over the next decade,” says Devin Fidler, research director at Institute for the Future. “They include a demand for new skills and strategies that could help people thrive in future work environments. It’s going to take a long time for robots to be good at soft skills, like social and emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural competency, which are hugely valuable in a world where you or I could go and be working with somebody in the Philippines within an hour. Virtual collaboration itself is really useful in that environment as well.
Social and Emotional Intelligence, Cross-cultural competency, Collaboration: all preponderantly feminine, or right-brained skills.
Therefore, Charlie, if my psycho-spiritual argument for balance doesn’t convince you, consider that the only way you’ll survive in the 21st Century, will be to recover and activate the right-brained power and wisdom you think you have lost.
I could leave it here, effortlessly accepting this dismissive (even if sometimes deserved) verdict by the extremes of Feminism; a movement whose once rightful outrage has been co-opted by a brittle ideology thundered by a new tribe of shrill Amazons who seem bent on nothing less than the extermination of the male gender.
“One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfaction of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.”
I choose to understand, no matter how hard, messy, and time-consuming.
Which reminds me…if you’re impatiently looking around this article to figure out how many minutes this post will take to read, or furtively looking at the tyrant clock (there, at the bottom-right of your screen) let me save you precious time, politely escort you out the door, and point you towards the many ‘How-to’s’ and ‘Listicles’ out there; the ones that keep promising – in 1-2-3 easy steps – to make you instantly wiser, happier, sexier, brawnier, or brainier.
I don’t do ‘instant’ anything, be it coffee, oatmeal, sex, or wisdom.
To understand (from Old English understandan: “to stand in the midst of”), we must listen. But prior, we must have the boldness and humility to unburden ourselves from our presuppositions and prejudices.
We also need time: ‘Heart-full’ time.
I’m standing by an open fire, somewhere deep in a jungle, in the midst of a group of young men we call ‘Millennials’, between the ages of 20-35.
I ask them: Why Do Men Objectify Women?”
Sit by my side now, and listen carefully to what they have to say. These are, by the way, the voices of real individuals whom I’ve listened to in cyberspace. Only their names are made-up:
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an “easy” road out of the potential of rejections.”
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
ALEX: “It happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
ETHAN: “When I used porn semi-frequently, I was doing so whenever I was disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
ADAM: “To avoid the terror of annihilation…of being reabsorbed back into the feminine.”
HENRY: “For guys who have very little ability to self-reflect, or limited self-awareness, [we] live seeing the entire world as object.”
ARTURO: “The women I typically objectify are the hardest ones for me to understand completely. The thing I notice, is how easily such a mysterious woman can [match] the ideal partner that I subconsciously created as a child.”
Now look deeply into their eyes, and dare to call them ‘Pigs’.
They are disoriented, that’s all, which is something I touched on in an earlier blog post.
1. Men objectify women to bond with other men.
2. They do it to avoid rejection, intimacy, and vulnerability.
3. To fill psychic holes.
4. As a way to reject, or deny, their innermost feelings.
5. It often occurs when they are disconnected from their sensuous selves.
6. Or because they’re afraid of being absorbed by – and are out of touch with – the feminine.
7. Because they lack self-awareness.
8. And because the objectified female reflects an imprinted, mysterious archetype in their beings.
How true, what Sam Keen said:
“The greatest underdeveloped nation in the world lies within the psyches of men.”
Grab your machete, strap on your headlamp, and follow me. We’ll attempt to slash our way through the jungle thicket of these young men’s muddle and darkest yearnings.
For the record, let me state that my last name is not followed by acronyms, such as MD., PhD, PsyaD, PsyD. Like most of you, I’m simply an ordinary human being – confused, contradictory, conflicted, flawed, failed, sometimes, I’ve been told, lovable – who just happens to have the time, curiosity, and inclination to grapple with what I consider some of the most fundamental questions that define us as human beings.
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of the universe.” – Rebecca West
I’m striving to read the riddle.
I’m also doing this for a friend, called Theo. He’s troubled, and has asked me to help him grapple with his own love and existential tumult.
One last thing before we head-in: I take issue with the insistence of defining Masculinity solely in terms of how men should relate to women. Not only is it condescending, but doesn’t advance anyone’s cause. It’s as narrow-minded as men defining Femininity on the shallow ground of physical attractiveness or sexual allure.
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
Our human genus led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence during ninety-nine percent of the time we’ve been on Earth. Such life, I imagine, offered men the needed space to let-off steam, prove their worth and mettle, and refine their cooperation and communication skills. Plenty of Bromance in the Wild.
All that has changed.
Spaces for men to bond with each other (I’ll simplify here for the sake of time) seem now limited to either (a) huddling around a screen to vicariously live out their fantasies through sports, or through reality shows in which tough guys get to do the ‘wild’ things men yearn, but most can no longer do themselves, (b) crowding around a beer keg, or (c) joining a gang, or the armed forces. Not particularly conducive to sincere, expressive, and meaningful conversations, nor to establish deep connections between men. What ends up happening is that they become emotional stutterers, as Sam Keen wrote in ‘Fire in the Belly’, using sexual or [violent] language to express their desire for communion.
“Friendship among men is the most modest and rugged of the modes of love,” Keen added. “Many American men, afraid of close friendships with other men, will become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
I don’t yet have a clear solution for more meaningful ways for men to bond, other than calling for more communal life and less individualism – more male drum circles, fire pits, wilderness retreats, and, most critically, to call for the return of our Wise Old Men, who can teach Joe how to truly bond with his mates, not by objectifying women, but by ‘subjectifying’ himself.
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an ‘easy’ roadout of the potential of rejections.”
I came of age during a time when, at parties, boys stood pressed against one wall of the dance floor, while girls sat – primly on the opposite side – yawning and checking their nails, completely ignoring our jitters. There were no ‘loose girls’ crossing that seemingly endless floor to ask any of us out to dance (or grind). Most often, we struck-out. Boy, it hurt. I was stung by every painful and embarrassing rejection, but now realize how fortunate I was. Because, if I really wanted to get the girl, I had to keep crossing that scary floor, keep getting rejected, gaining more and more courage with every attempt, perfecting my courtship skills until I finally got it right. Which I did.
Here’s the thing Nick: The ‘easy road’ is really a path to degradation – the degradation of your nobility as a man. Yes, intimacy takes work (of the good kind, mind you), and courage, and commitment, but consider their opposites: sloth, cowardice, and indecisiveness = not attractive.
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
From both Nick’s and Tyrone’s ‘easy vs treacherous road’ comments, it appears to me we’ve done a grave disservice to Millennials by insisting on paving for them a safe and frictionless road to the land of plenty and perpetual happiness; a road on which we protectively run by their sides (with sunscreen, trophies, and water of course) drip-feeding them constant recognition and reaffirmation of their personality and worth.
Memorize this, Tyrone.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” – Martha Graham
And what of ‘Vulnerability’?
To be invulnerable requires that we create a ‘safe’ distance between ourselves and the world, so it can’t touch us. But wouldn’t this so-called, safe distance, just exacerbate the disconnect Ethan blames for his occasional forays into pornography?
I agree with Todd May, philosophy professor at Clemson University, who suspects that most of us want to feel caught up in the world. “We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.”
No pain, no gain, I guess is what he’s saying, and, what Zat Rana means by:
“The risk of vulnerability is balanced by the reward of ecstasy.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
We all have them Mike, to one degree or another. I should know; my psyche looks like a block of Swiss Cheese. In fact, I’ve discovered that even those whose last names trail acronyms like tin cans dragged by a newlywed car, are as pockmarked as the Moon. So chill, you’re not alone. But rather than allowing this recognition to cause you despair, you should learn to accept it as the gift of humility and understanding.
A good man does not have empathy, Keen argued. He is emphatic. “Since he has given up the illusion that he is self-contained, he naturally flows out to others. The result of coming to know yourself – to know the wounds of shame and guilt, the disappointments of love, the unfulfilled dreams – is that you recognize the same in others.”
The question Mike, is whether you recognize the holes in your psyche.
Have you taken the time to confront your shadows?
“Emotions that have not been properly avowed have a pernicious habit of wreaking havoc across our personalities.” – Alan de Botton, creator of the Book of Life
Botton goes on to say that emotions that remain disavowed and uninterpreted, manifest themselves as powerful, directionless anxiety. “Under their sway, we may feel a compulsive need to remain busy, fear spending any time on our own, or cling to activities that ensure we don’t meet what scares us head on.”
And if you do recognize the holes within you, what are you filling them with: Pornography? Easy-sex? Opioids? Alcohol? Compulsive eating or exercise? Video games? Objectification of women?
These are not of the same material, or essence, that was first dug out, causing the holes in the first place.
Mike, if one of your holes was perhaps caused by your absent father, who maybe never told you what kind of problems he wrestled with as a young man, what he felt, what it meant to him to be a man, leaving it up to you to figure it all out by yourself, that hole, my friend, cannot be filled with any material other than ‘father-stuff’. What do I mean? That you either return to your Father’s Castle to wrestle that guidance from him, or seek a surrogate – a Mentor, Hero, Author, Philosopher – any Man you admire and respect, and spend soulful time with him, scraping the right stuff off his experience and wisdom to fill that hole.
I agree that a big part of the problem today, as Robert Bly suggested, is that we have stripped the poetry away from our suffering, and replaced it with clinical names like anxiety, depression, stress, burnout. Casting our suffering in such sterilized, cold light might make pharmaceutical companies rich, but it leaves us numb and helpless, which might explain why they do it.
I much rather consider my suffering as a great battlefield, full of the material and symbols of mythology, and be like St. George – noble, valiant, fierce – as I too, battle my Demons and Dragons. That – not Prozac or Xanax – lights a fire in my belly, or under my butt, if you prefer.
Avoidance or Denial
ALEX: “[Objectification] happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
I’ll repeat Keen’s earlier words (here paraphrased): “Men who are afraid of close friendships with other men will predictably become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But, every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need, will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
Anthropophagy and Vampirism are not sexy either.
Here’s the rub Alex. Your unrest will still be there the morning after you’ve devoured Her beautiful flesh and sucked her blood. The Dragon will keep flaming deep inside you, until you clothe yourself in armor, trade your joystick for a sword, mount your steed, and, either tame it, or vanquish it.
Repressing, or denying our grief, not only is fruitless, but blunts our capacity to experience joy. We might look tough on the outside, but remain empty within.
Let’s rest and camp here. We’ll continue slashing our way through the thicket in two weeks’ time, when we’ll enter even deeper into the jungle.