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Posts Tagged ‘Mental Health’

In Euripedes’s the Bacchae, Dionysus, god of wine, intoxication, madness and the revel rolls into Thebes with a train or crazed maenads in tow. Thebes is Dionysus’s homeland, although that is not widely known. The Thebans go out to the wilderness to join in the frenzied worship, dressing the part and dancing the dances and partaking in the mad rites of the god. All of the Thebans, that is, except Pentheus, the king of Thebes and a cousin of the god, who is livid. To Pentheus, the god is a pretender, an interloper and a chartlatan who disrupts the social order, makes fools out of wise men, and makes the women of Thebes act… inappropriately. Pentheus fobids the worship of Dionysus, and orders the arrest of anyone who gets involved.

Pentheus has Dionysus detained and brought before him, and he peppers the god with questions in a scene not at all unlike Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and Dionysus gives the same kind of wise but evasive answers that we see Jesus give centuries later in the gospels. Pentheus is unhappy that Dionysus’s answers are not more clear to him, so he has the god imprisoned. Of course, Dionysus escapes easily; he’s a god after all, and in the process, he reduces Pentheus’s palace to flames and rubble.

Angry but curious, Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into going out to see the maenads, and Dionysus inflicts madness on Pentheus because Pentheus fought against the god’s worship. The frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces, and the king’s own mother parades his head through the streets, unaware that she holds the head of her son.

This is a work of profound spiritual and theological importance. If you have not read it, you need to.

Inside each one of us is a dark side, a shadow to the Jungians, a part of us that needs to break free from our bonds, break all the rules, go crazy, be wild, be drunk, and in short, to transgress the boundaries of civilization. That part of us can be tamed and channeled, but never destroyed and never completely suppressed.

Dionysus calls to that part of us—he is the living embodiment of that dark, beautiful and terrible shard of the human soul. When we give in to it, we are his. But Dionysus is not a jealous god! It is enough that we, like the Thebans, go out to meet him and join in the revel every now and then. Our shadows need to be expressed but they can be expressed deliberately, channeled into appropriate and healthy pursuits.

We don’t need to let our shadows devour us: that would be the end of civilization and the end of virtue, and that’s not, as a general statement, what Dionysus wants from us at all. He certainly does not demand it. But we have to give our shadows a place in our lives. We have to entertain Dionysus in order to stay healthy and balanced. Because when we suppress our shadows, war against our shadows, pretend they are not there—when we imprison Dionysus and threaten those who do give him the honor he deserves—we do so futilely and at our own peril.

Dionysus is a god; he will not be imprisoned. He will not be defeated. The god of breaking bonds will never be bound. And if we, like Pentheus, refuse to admit Dionysus into our lives, the results will be catastrophic. Dionysus will have his way with us one way or another. The choice is ours: either we give honor to Dionysus on our own terms, or he compels us to give honor to him. And he is a god who knows no limits. Dionysus does not use safe words or designated drivers.

When we suppress our shadows they gnaw at us from the inside, and they tear us apart just as Dionysus tore the king’s palace apart. Healthy appetites become unhealthy obsessions. When we do not engage with our shadows, our shadows make ever-greater demands from us; our psyches fester in ever-deeper darkness. And eventually, we lose. Eventually, because we refuse to bend to Dionysus, we are broken by him. The results are ugly, and they leave a wake of victims. Pentheus ended up dismembered and decapitated by his mother; the psychosexual implications are not accidental.

So we party. We dance. We fuck. We drink. We fight. We let our hair down and have a good time when good times are called for because we have to. Its built in to who we are. If we think we can suppress those urges all the time and conquer that part of us completely we are fooling ourselves, and the script for our destruction has already been written, centuries ago.

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The other day, my little boy brought me a clay pot that he had planted a seed in awhile ago and he was concerned that nothing had ever grown in it (it had, but unfortunately we have a mischievous cat that likes to pick at and eat young growing things). I realized that we had a bunch of pots and seeds that we had never used, so he and I decided to just go ahead and plant everything.

So we took down a handful of red clay pots, got out our half-full bag of potting mix, and our packets of seeds, and just kind of started planting. We’re moving soon, so it is not certain that these seeds are going to amount to anything–even if we manage to take them with us, they won’t necessarily survive the trip. But it was an intense reminder of how much I long to be connected to the cycles of life and death and nature and growing things.

I’m not much of a gardener, but for at least a couple of years I have had the unshakable instinct that I need to be. Something inside of me desperately craves a connection to the living world, even if I’m a big-city-lawyer. If I do not get it, I am certain that I will go insane.

It;s not practical for me (for us) to just run away to the backwoods and become self-sufficient subsistence farmers, even though I fantasize about it all the time. I have a mountain of debt from law school that’s only going to get paid off by slaving away in the Biglaw Law Mines. And I’m not unhappy about it, to be honest with you–I am fortunate in that I have found an area of the law to practice that I genuinely enjoy. But I am intensely aware that I am going to need to be connected to nature and to growing things, even as a busy urban professional.

I have big dreams for our new place in Chicago–I’ve been poring over my book (a christmas gift last year from my beautiful and sexy wife) The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City and getting all kinds of ideas for projects, depending on how much space and how much access we have to the outside we wind up having when we get to Chicago. But I can’t wait that long: even if planting now is a fool’s errand, it was something I had to do (and it was an awesomely fun way to spend the morning with my three-year-old as well). So we have pots of spinach, rosemary, and sage sitting on our windowsill, where the little monster-cat hopefully can’t get at more than one of them.

We’ll see how it turns out, but in any case, this is definitely a taste of things to come.

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I referred to myself as a pagan in conversation with my beautiful and sexy wife a few days ago (we were talking about piddly, meaningless stuff like the meaning of life), and she recognized the significance: it was a casual but meaningful declaration of spiritual identity of the kind that I have not been able to make in years.

It wasn’t just a slip, either. I have been thinking about this and I came to an important realization. One of the issues I have been grappling with in the background of my mind is if at the end of the day I basically think that religion and spirituality are highly subjective and have more to do with assigning meaning to human existence than they do with making objective truth-claims about the universe, why shouldn’t I have just stayed Mormon? Wouldn’t it have been easier, after all, for me to just figure out how to reconcile the religion I was raised with than to try to blaze a completely new spiritual trail? My gut rebels against the idea of staying Mormon, but why? I think Mormonism’s truth-claims are bogus, but that’s not really the issue for me (except it kind of is, because Mormonism spends a lot of time and spiritual effort insisting that its truth claims are literal truth). I have problems with the Church as an institution, but a lot of liberal and New Order Mormons figure out ways to deal with that, and the insistence of the orthodox believer notwithstanding, my relationship with the organizational church should not really affect how I feel about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, right?

So why do I feel like remaining Mormon, or going back to Mormonism, would just be unacceptable? I think it is because I never really internalized Mormonism in the first place. Sure, I internalized some ways of thinking about religion because I didn’t know any better–some cultural transmission from my parent subculture is inevitable–but in a spiritual sense, I was always torn and doubtful about Mormonism and I was always drawn to mythology, the gods, and the spiritual power of the wild places of the earth. As a little kid I was obsessed with mythology. As a young adolescent I stayed awake all night with my best friend on Boy Scout camp-outs talking about Beltaine. As a teenager I flat-out just wanted to be a druid. As a young adult I was absolutely enthralled by Joseph Campbell, the Arthurian romances, Celtic myth, and the cosmic and spiritual significance of poetry and literature.

Yes, when I was nineteen, I “got a testimony” and went on a mission, and began to live a fairly orthodox Mormon life. But let’s not give my conversion too much credit. The coercive pressure from my family was immense-it was made clear to me that being an adult meant setting aside childish things like entertaining the possibility of paganism, and taking Mormonism seriously as the One True Religion. People I trusted and relied on made it absolutely clear that there was no viable moral alternative, that anything less than fully getting with the program meant personal weakness, laziness, and a lack of integrity. So I did what I was supposed to.

But the pagan inside me did not sleep too soundly. As a young adult I was captured by the power of Norse myth, by the dynamic majesty of romantic-era classical music (I discovered Sibelius, and it was love), and ultimately by the brutal, mythic energy of heavy metal.

On top of this, I have noticed a clear pattern in my life: when I have lived out of touch with nature, I have been depressed, unbalanced, and extremely mentally unhealthy. Proximity and involvement with the natural world are simply things I need for spiritual wholeness. And I have consistently had feelings about love, the feminine, and sex that have been reverent, passionate, and worshipful.

The point is, I have been a pagan all along. It doesn’t matter that I went to sacrament meeting every week. It doesn’t matter that I spent two years as a missionary trying to convert people to Mormonism. Mormonism never really fit. My mother and I had countless discussions and arguments about religion and point of view: in her mind the right thing to do was to completely internalize Mormonism, and subvert your entire mind to it, to relinquish all non-Mormon thought as something unwelcome and alien. I always wanted to take the point of view of an outsider, because I always was an outsider.

I was a pagan, and I always have been.

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After I finished with final exams, I was able to take a day for myself and go tromping around the woods. It was a few days after any reasonable dating for the holiday (the full moon was on the 9th, but I wasn’t able to get out and about until the 15th), but it was close enough and my most practical option.

So I spent a day exploring undeveloped parkland in Montgomery County, which was a lot of fun. Most of these areas are parcels of land bought by the county and technically part of the park system, but with no access or anything–they’re just pieces of woods that you can go play in if you can find a way to get there. The day was tough on my allergies, and I wound up really exerting myself with a day full of exploration, but it was a lot of fun. I even found a cool snake under an old corroded piece of metal. Getting a chance to be outside in nature does me a lot of good and generally makes me feel a lot saner.

My other project for the day was to try out the Beltaine liturgy from Greer’s Druidry Handbook, as a way of kicking off my AODA candidate year. So one of my goals while exploring was finding a suitable place for a ritual. It took me a bit of time and expense to gather all of the needed materials (and I wound up not having a sprig of hawthorn, or any idea of how to find one). I used a katana instead of a medieval European-style sword because it’s what I have on hand, and I wound up just putting my white altar cloth on the ground for lack of anything more altar-like. I also made an on-the-spot substitution of gods, invoking Aphrodite in the ritual instead of Niwalen (I already have a close relationship with Aphrodite, and she seems like an entirely appropriate goddess for Beltaine).

Honestly, I could have come into it with better preparation, so it was a definite learning experience. Without a sprig of hawthorn, I just used a sprig from a sapling nearby, which was a little unsatisfying. And I had to carry the book around with me because I hadn’t learned the liturgy very well. No spiritual fireworks went off during the ritual, but when I was finished, I had a sudden and very interesting sense of spiritual wholeness and satisfaction, like I had accomplished something that was actually significant.

My location was kind of fantastic, with a few exceptions. It was pretty difficult to get access to (I had to park on the side of the highway and tromp in past some backyards), and there were an insane number of ticks, but that’s partly an issue of season and not going to get much better in any wooded area. But I was flicking the little buggers off of my arms and legs all day long. Those issues aside, it was a wooded hilltop with a bunch of clearings covered in this vibrant green ground cover, and the hill was almost entirely surrounded by two branches of a little creek. It was the kind of place where you could almost feel a spiritual presence. If I get the chance, I would like to go back.

I wasn’t wild about Greer’s seasonal liturgy before I gave it a spin, and now I’m rather excited about it. This is not to say that I am prepared to accept it as scripture or anything, but I would like to try it again. The holiday-specific stuff didn’t drive me wild–really it is just an offering, an invocation of deity, and a meditation session (it was hard fro me to concentrate when I was imagining ticks crawling all over me)–but the general opening and closing of the Druid’s circle was pretty awesome, and I will definitely keep using that, even if I wind up cherry-picking the rest.

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