Speaking in Symbols

Learning the language of the subconcious

Archive for the category “Depression”

Sh*t Ain’t Worthless

Note: This post is about excrement. The title is the only place I will censor myself, either in talking about the act or the stuff. If this is a topic that you are squeamish about, I suggest either finding one of my other lovely posts, or moving on to another blog. 

 

There are images that get stuck in my head. These are the themes I use to write these post, and the images I explore with my therapist. Sometimes, the symbolism behind the images are so complex and overwhelming that I shelf them permanently (for instance, a while ago I had a dream about a snake with a broken back that was still alive and functioning as if nothing was wrong), other times, the image sticks in my mind, and insists that I examine them in great detail. The image of shit has definitely been the latter. About a month ago, I was feeling extremely depressed. I was stuck in a cycle of negative self talk, and what I kept saying to myself was “I’m a worthless piece of shit”. In my depression, I was invoking the image of shit as a substance that is to be extruded, flushed down the toilet, and forgotten. In the middle of the cycle, the image, first, of a dung beetle, then of a rich, well fertilized field came to mind, along with the phrase “shit ain’t worthless.”

The image page from my art journal documenting this event.

The image page from my art journal documenting this event.

Now, beyond the modern, western squeamishness about bodily functions, the symbolism of shit has been difficult for me to research, mostly because there is so much of it (both shit and literature on it). Not to mention the various words used to describe the substance–shit, excrement, feces, scat, poo, etc. Where to even start? I talked to my therapist about this…constipation, for lack of a better word, and we explored some of the symbolism together. Even with help on the research, I felt like I could only really explore the imagery that came to me during that bad episode.

The reason I colored the dung ball in the first picture to the left  yellow is to invoke the sun. I don’t know much about Ancient Egyptian mythology, but I know that some of their legends states that the sun is rolled across the sky by a scarab, or dung beetle. Taking this to the logical conclusion, this would make the sun a giant ball of shit.  This…makes a surprising amount of symbolic sense to me. I don’t know how much animal dung Egyptian farmers used on their fields–I know they depended on the flooding of the Nile to refresh nutrients. But, to have feces in the sky and feces on the ground nourishing the plants that are needed to sustain life has a beautiful symmetry to it.

The second image, that of soil, is one that re-occurs in my life. I live on the third floor, so what gardening I can do is restricted to pots and containers. I love the feel of soil, though. I love the rich darkness of it, I love the smell. I love the promise of new life, of nourishment and beauty.

Soil, though, is an interesting thing. If you break down the bits that go into making a good soil, you’d end up with shit, rotting plant matter, and dust. None of these on their own are very pleasant but combining them turns them into something magical.  Soil becomes the heart of alchemy to me–it’s a substance that consists of horrible, noxious things but is in itself beautiful.

When I was discussing this with my therapist, she asked me what I wanted to do with it. (And that’s the million dollar question, right?) I talked about taking this shit, the foulness in my life and turning it into something good. My therapist then asked where I thought I was in that process. When she did, I remembered an incident.

My grandfather and two of my uncles are farmers, and live in a tiny village about 50 miles from the town I did most of my growing up in. Every year or two, we would go to one of their farms and get a truck load of manure to bring back to dig into our vegetable garden and flower beds. The year my sister was 16, she went by herself to pick up the manure, and our cousin overloaded the truck. She had a hard time driving home, and kept fishtailing because of the heavy load. She made it home safely, but was shaken by the incident (and more than a little upset at the cousin).

I feel like that’s where I am right now, is halfway home with a truck load of foul shit. It’s heavy enough that I can’t go as fast as I want and stay safe, but going slowly is a painful experience. I have to cling to the idea that when I get where I’m going (and I’m not sure where I’m going) that I’ll be able to turn it into something beautiful.

Until then, I’ll imagine a scarab taking my load of shit from me, forming it into a ball, and rolling it across the sky as the sun.

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Suicide as Symbol

I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately, trying to be more cognizant of the symbols around me, especially those that show up in dreams. I’ve mentioned my depression before, and it seems that when it rears it’s ugly head, doing anything, especially something that might lead to getting better, becomes difficult to the point of being impossible.

I’d like to state, that, despite being in a dark place, and despite the symbols of death and suicide that I’m going to examine in this post, I am not currently suicidal. I have been, as recently as January, but right now, I am not seeking my own death.

If you are, suicidal or otherwise considering hurting yourself, please get help. There’s the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as numerous local helplines. If you’re the religious type, talk to your pastor. And, in the very worst case scenario, go to the emergency room. I know how dark and scary it is standing on that brink, but I also know that it can and will get better.

I’m also still hanging out at my parent’s house as I write this post, so I don’t have access to the books that I use to look up symbolism. I’m going off of what I wrote in my art/symbol journal. I’d also like to reiterate that when I talk about symbols, I’m bringing up what they mean to me–in no way am I writing a comprehensive symbol encyclopedia.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those dreams that is so powerful, it stays with you. In this dream, I have broken in to the school where my mom used to teach. I’ve gone there with the intention of hanging myself. I went first to her classroom, and, using her key, let myself in. I stand in the middle of the room for a while just breathing in the scent. I want to remember the way it smelled.

I then go to another wing of the school, and break into a random classroom, this time, picking the lock. Once there, I stood on a desk and looped a rope through the drop ceiling, and hanged myself.

Searching out the symbols in this dream have been difficult, naturally. It makes me wonder why my subconscious can’t be giving me rainbows and puppies and unicorns, but it is what it is.

astral-tarot-hanged-manI kept coming back to the tarot when looking for these symbols–specifically, the Hanged Man, and the Death card. Now, I’ve tried tarot, but the cards just don’t “speak” to me–and I’m slightly jealous of those who can read and understand the cards. If you are such a person, and see that I’ve missed something in my interpretations, please let me know in the comments. All that I’ve written here comes courtesy of Google.

Anyway, Suicide by hanging.  Suicide is the act of ultimate despair. It’s forcing and ending by taking matters into your own hands. In the western world, it’s wildly perceived as the ultimate sin, while in the east, it’s more of a mixed bag. Hanging is a disgraceful way of dying, especially in places that execute criminals on the gallows. It’s also one that’s very easy to arrange. You can walk into any hardware store or sporting goods store and buy rope with no background checks or waiting period.

The Hanged Man of the tarot is hanging from the World Tree, like Odin seeking wisdom. He symbolises suspended action, feeling of being stuck, and sacrificing for a higher goal.

tollundman4

While researching symbolism of hanging, Tollund Man came to mind. This man lived and died in the 4th Century BCE in Denmark. Now, Tollund Man probably died by strangulation, not hanging, but the noose was left around his neck.

I don’t know if I have a genetic connection to Tollund Man, but I do know I have Danish ancestry, and it’s likely my ancestors worshiped in the same manner as those who sacrificed Tollund Man. (I am interested in learning about Pre-Roman Europe, especially the religion, but, alas, there’s just not that much information.) We can speculate as to why Tollund Man, and the other bog bodies were sacrificed, but, unfortunately, if there is a definitive answer, I could not find it. Tollund Man for me represents family, however distant, and the religious traditions that I don’t believe in anymore. He also becomes a symbol of mysticism, in that I don’t know why he was sacrificed, what god or gods the people were trying to appease (or even if he was a criminal or prisoner of war, rather than a religious sacrifice). He, and the culture he comes from, represents a lost knowledge, something for which there are currently not answers.

DeathFor all the negative imagery, death, in the Tarot, at least, is a positive thing. It represents change, endings, the old giving way to the new.  I don’t know if I’ve talked about soil on this blog or not, but I know I’ve mentioned it with my therapist. The individual bits of soil–manure, dust, rotted leaves and other organic matter–are vile things, but when they are combined together, they create something beautiful and useful. Without death, not only would the world be over-crowded, but nothing new could grow.

In the modern, Western world we are removed from death, while for the generations before us, death was simply a part of life. So death, for me, becomes a symbol of knowledge lost.

800px-Standard-lock-keyThe other powerful image in this dream is that of a key. I let myself into the school, I didn’t break in to the school, and it wasn’t my intent to cause property damage–I didn’t want to harm anything but myself.

In this light, the key represents being in charge of my own destiny, controlling what the change is I need to make in my life. A key can open or close, lock or unlock. Keys are associated with 5f22683e4576b147cb783984111263c4Janus, whom I’ve written about before. The image of a two-faced person, especially when the two faces represent opposites, has been a reoccurring symbol for me, and one that I’ve adopted to represent myself.  I especially like this particular image, where the balance is between male and female figures.

As I was looking over these symbols and images in my art journal, I realized that they are all about being stagnant, standing still, and stopping, as well as being indicators of change. This flat out scare me. I tend to get comfortable in my ruts, and being forced out of them, even when it’s for my own good, is always a painful experience.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been getting a lot of images about death and change, and this is only a small sampling of those symbols. I don’t know if the change I’m being asked to make is related to my recent medication change, or if there’s still something else that I need to do.

 

Finding the Stories

One of the problems in using a blog as a tool for coming to grips with depression is, well, the depression. I’ve been hit hard the past couple of weeks, to the point where I’ve been resentful of my dogs because I have to get dressed before I can take them outside to potty. Being in such a state, I haven’t noticed many symbols, and have lacked the motivation to write about the ones I have been seeing.

Jerks

Jerks

Still, even if I’m in a place where it takes me all day to muster up enough enthusiasm to go grocery shopping when I’m out of food, the dogs need to be cared for. And it’s a whole lot easier to get dressed and take them downstairs than it is to scrub various bodily discharges out of the carpet.

Taking the dogs outside has the additional benefit of getting me out in nature, or at least into the suburbs with a few hold-out farmers nearby. I’ve been making a point on our walks to pay attention to things like the sky, birds, the feeling of sunshine and wind, etc.  I especially make a point of watching the sky at night. While it’s true that my neighborhood is inundated with light pollution,  I can still see a few stars.

Northern Constillations, December. Via http://astronomycentral.co.uk/

Northern Constellations, December. Via http://astronomycentral.co.uk/

When I was out with the dogs a few nights ago, I was looking at the constellations in the northern sky.  Cassiopeia is easy to spot, and once you’ve found her it’s easy to locate Andromeda, Perseus, and Pegasus.  While looking at these four constellations, I was thinking about how they share the same story (except for Pegasus–he’s connected to Perseus by virtue of being born when Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, but that’s a story for another blog). The thought “Find the stories” came to my mind. While I don’t think it meant the literal stories in the constellations, I realized that it made sense to have have them there. It’s easier for most people to remember stories than it is to remember the random grouping of stars that kind of almost looks like a bear, and means that north is that way.

The stories served as literal guides for eons, pointing the way for travelers to go. They also served as moral guides, reminding people to, say, not boast against the gods or you’ll have to end up sacrificing your daughter to a sea monster.

Good advice, really.

I’m not sure what to do when the symbol is a story, and not the words therein. If the symbol was the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, for instance, I could easily pull out the symbolisms and meanings. Likewise, if it were the stars themselves, I could find symbols in the constellations, as well as in the science. But, stories?

The best I can figure is that my subconscious is telling me that I need to find my bearings, that I need to find my guiding stories and principles. This makes sense, because I’ve been feeling lost, like I’m spinning my wheels, for months, now. But between the feeling of being lost, and the depression, I don’t know if I can trust myself.

 

“The dagger represents you completely”

A few nights ago, I had a dream. I dreamed I was at a seance (for lack of a better term). I was in a small room dominated by a large table, with many people gathered around. The walls were covered with pictures, plates, and other tchotchkes. The table was covered in a cloth, with many random images painted onto the fabric. The table was also bisected with a line of ash.

The man leading the séance (or whatever it was) instructed us to gather as closely around the table as we could, but to be careful not to touch the line of ash. He began by talking to a young man a bit to my right. As he pointed out symbols on the wall and on the table-cloth that represented the young man, his thoughts, feelings and desires, I unconsciously leaned forward to listen, resting my arms on the table, and disturbed the line of ash.

Pre-Roman Iberian iron dagger forged between the middle of the 5th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Pre-Roman Iberian iron dagger  Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The man turned to me and called me by name–which startled me, because most people mispronounce my name the first time around. He said that I should not have been able to touch the ash, and that in doing so, proved that I had a great potential. He then pointed to an image of a knife on the tablecloth. He said “The dagger represents you completely.”

This dream, especially this line from the dream, have been subject to a great deal of scrutiny and confusion since that time.

A dagger is a weapon, pure and simple. It is designed to stab and slash–it is not a tool for, say working with food or skinning an animal.  It is ancient, with daggers being found from the neolithic era.

It is also a very masculine, aggressive symbol.  It represents conquer and aggression.  Everything about a dagger speaks of aggression, of force, and power. It is a tool of betrayal–to be an effective weapon, the wielder of a dagger has to be close to his victim.

In short, I couldn’t find much of anything to reconcile the dagger as a symbol for myself.

A few days of pondering this dream, and the thought came to me “What makes you think he was telling the truth?”

Huh.

I’ve been dealing with major depressive disorder for over 20 years now. That voice inside that’s telling me that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not ANYTHING enough is very familiar to me, and I’m still learning to control it. The thing about that voice is that logically, I know it’s a product of my brain not processing chemicals correctly. Emotionally, it’s really hard to ignore.

By realizing the man in my dreams was a liar, it puts a face to my depression (which would be infinitely more useful if I could remember his face). It also shifts the important symbolism of that dream away from the dagger, and onto other elements–the ash, perhaps, or the fish and rice that played a role in a different part of the dream.

In speaking about depth psychology to my therapist, she said that learning these symbols is like learning the language of the soul. Different symbols, different images will have different meanings to different people. While books and websites like the ones i use as reference materials are helpful, I’m really the only one who can interpret what my soul is saying, and what my personal symbols are.

And that includes characters from my dreams.

 

After the Fire

This weekend, I spent some time exploring the Tintic Mountains of Central Utah with my dad.  In our wanderings, we came across a small stream (Though, that it was flowing in it in mid-October said that it was a pretty significant water soucre) that followed the road for a ways. Eventually, we came to a meadow full of shrubs and grasses, much greener than one would expect for this time of year. This meadow was punctuated by the skeletons of juniper trees that had died in a fire a few years back.

As we were driving through this meadow, I said “This is a pretty area. Or was, before the fire came through”.

Dad thought about this for a second. “It’s probably the fire that made it pretty.” He said. “Those junipers would have taken up all the water that let the other plants survive.”

Image

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

It didn’t take me long to figure out that he was right. I love the pinyon-juniper forests that cover much of my part of the world, but the trees don’t leave much for flowers and grasses. You’ll see sagebrush and rabbit brush abutting the juniper forests, or an occasional tree in the middle of the sagebrush range, but the two don’t play nicely together. Juniper and pinyon generally don’t allow for other plants to grow in their soil. When you’re in a juniper woods, you really could be anywhere in the west.

I didn’t get a picture of the meadow we saw. I wish I had. I just didn’t realize that it would be the archetype that would stick in my mind.

I’ve been thinking about the classical elements–earth, fire, water, and air–all week. I’ve been drawn to the figure of the Earth Mother, and have started–and discarded–several posts about water. My post “Winds” fits the air category. I would never have thought, then, that it would be fire that got me out of my blogging slump.

I am terrified of fire.  I can handle, say, cooking on a gas stove, or being around a lit candle, but not much more. Even campfires make me nervous. This fear has mellowed over the years, but it was especially bad when I was a child. I couldn’t watch a TV show that had a fire in it after dark. The yearly wildfires that sweep through the Intermountain West were terrifying to me.  My first full-blown panic attack came at the age of 12, during one of these wildfires, when my family was the last vehicle let through on a road before the firefighters shut it down. Even writing about it, I’m starting to hyperventilate.

My point is, I can, and do, connect to earth, air, and water. Fire is something that is to be avoided, if at all possible. Fire is not my friend.

Plants regrow among trees burned in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker - See more at: http://wyofile.com/kelsey-dayton/burned-areas-from-1988-yellowstone-fires-aid-research/#sthash.i4KVSVNu.dpuf)

Plants regrow among trees burned in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker – See more here

And yet…

The image to the right was taken after the massive wildfires that swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988. I was seven, at the time, and can remember seeing (or thinking I was seeing) the smoke from the Yellowstone Fires a state and a half away.

As destructive as they were, the Yellowstone Fires turned out to be very important to researchers because of their size. Yellowstone became a laboratory in how nature heals itself after the devastation of a fire.  And how nature heals itself after a fire is pretty amazing.

When fire comes though, it destroys the trees, but it also clears away for new growth. In Yellowstone, for instance, wildflowers were abundant in the years following the fire.  Fire clears the clutter, so to speak, while leaving the ground unharmed. Fire resets areas the way nothing else can, and the results become a matter of point of view.  Yes, the trees are gone, but they have opened the way for new plants, and new ecosystems.

When I look at my psyche, I see something incredibly dense and crowded. The thought patterns and habits I have are not especially healthy. And yet, clearing them out, setting fire to them, as it were, is incredibly scary to me. I think the image of the meadow I saw, as well as remembering the years after the 1988 fire are telling me that I do need to make these changes. And when I do, the results will be beautiful.

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