An Interview with Jean Shinoda Bolen
Jean Shinoda Bolen has learned to speak many languages in the course of bridging cultures. In her most recent book she brings the languages of soul, angels, and mythology into dialogue with the languages of medicine, psychology, and psychiatry. Our telephone interview for The New Times is Jean's first interview on Close to the Bone--Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning, and coincides with the book's publication this month.
Dr. Bolen's credentials as physician and meaning maker are M.D. psychiatrist, Jungian analyst in private practice, and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. She has also achieved noteworthy influence as a writer and conference presenter in the shadowlands of transpersonal psychology, women's issues, and the mind-body-spirit connection.
Barbara: In your new book you're addressing life-threatening illness as a "soul-shaking" or "soul-evoking" event. What do you mean when you speak of soul?
Jean: I contrast the usual medical focus on just paying attention to trying to fix the body. When you have the possibility of dying from something, you enter a phase of life that brings you into the realm of what really matters, which is the realm of soul. Soul has to do with your deepest connections to others and to why we're here. Soul has to do with remembering the realm of divinity and prayer. With the sense of gravity, things that were important before often enter into the realm of trivial, and instead you're with your deepest self.
Barbara: As a Jungian therapist and author you're using myths and archetypes as one of your primary frames of reference for the human journey.
Jean: This book was in part inspired by speaking to large groups of women who were surviving breast cancer. All I needed to do was describe their illness as a descent of the soul into the underworld, bring in the metaphor that fit what they had gone through or were still going through, in order for them to have access to their own experience. I think one of the main contributions that I've made in all of my writing is to find the words for experience that people very much know. Without the words it doesn't come up into the psyche in the same way.
I see the major myths and metaphors as being very contemporary and current. The whole realm of poetic experience is the realm of soul. Whenever we deeply despair or fall in love or go through some major initiation or are awed by something, the poetic words, the metaphor words, the mythic comparisons--if that vocabulary is available to us--does it. Ordinary, pragmatic words don't do the same thing.
Barbara: You're addressing the question of how those myths are relevant in the context of our contemporary culture.
Jean: For example, entering a hospital is like going through the gates into the underworld. At each gate you are stripped of something that defined you in the upper world: your identification with what you do; your sense of having power or control; your sense of being, say, on some kind of achievement path. You get a diagnosis or a warning or a symptom; something happens that brings you into the underworld experience step by step. The gates of numbing fall away and feelings of grief or anger or pain come up as you go down into the underworld to confront whatever it is you have cut yourself off from. Now, when a physical illness announces its presence, there is an awareness that something is deeply wrong in the body. As you go through the diagnostic steps, your sense of invulnerability and your sense of being able to pay attention to upper world concerns drop away. If you're a "good" patient in the medical model, you don't speak of the fears that naturally come up, you don't ask questions, you just go into the hospital in much the same way as people bring their automobiles to a body shop.
Barbara: One of the ideas I find provocative in Close to the Bone is that recovery of the soul and recovery of the body may not occur together. Would you comment on that?
Jean: I see how important a sense of meaning is to us all. Meaninglessness--going through empty forms, living someone else's expectations and ideas about what we should be doing with ourselves when it doesn't have to do with what we feel deeply inside--leads to a loss of soul and life, and a pervasive kind of grayness or a kind of anxiety, depression, pain overall. If an illness should strike us or someone close to us, we are confronted--if we allow it--with the major questions we all have: What did we come to do? What did we come to learn? Who did we come to love? What are we here for? Are we authentically in life and connected with our soul's journey or not?
Barbara: Those questions do begin to penetrate to the heart of meaning.
Jean: There's something about moving into that level of reality, where you move out of denial, out of using substances or experiences or busyness to numb what you really feel, to be really present. In the process, maybe it turns an illness around. You might go into a period of remission from whatever it is that ails you, or you might physically recover from what ails you. Or it may be that you move into that place within yourself that is spiritual, soulful, and wise, and which has a bigger view of what we are here for. Each of us experiences it in our own particular way, so we might have a sense of it being Holy Spirit or God or Goddess or a deep underlying meaning like the Tao. We all have this naturally, and when we have access to it there is a sense of mattering in the larger picture. One of the major realities is that a life-threatening illness brings right to the forefront what all of us face and often it is a major underlying reality about midlife. We begin to realize how fast life has gone by, and how little time we have left, and that we die.
Barbara: You often speak of liminal--or threshold--experiences, and wrote movingly of a personal one in your last book, Crossing to Avalon. What thresholds are you perceiving in your own life at this time?
Jean: Close to the Bone and the experiences I draw from for its writing brings me into a place where doctor and healer, body and soul liminally come together. I am seeing the author-book tour as an extension of what I came for. The major reason I have gone on this particular path is a motivation to help people. All of my books have that element. This is the first one that puts me back into the physician concern: helping people who are facing real, difficult, physical illnesses.
The liminal place is an overlapping place between the visible world and the invisible world; it's that place where things are in process of becoming but are not materialized yet. In this particular book, I found that I could bring in all that liminal body/psyche experience: the whole sense of prayer as something that can affect the body, visualizations, believing that psyche can inform body and vice versa, and that it is in that interior dialogue that the outcome of some life-threatening illnesses can be determined. For me to speak as a doctor to other professionals about praying with a patient, about the importance of physical touch, about entering I-thou relationships that will help the patient and the doctor, those are things that are different from anything else that I've written. It comes full circle.
Barbara: As a healing arts practitioner myself, I appreciate the attention you give to various mo-dalities of hands-on and conscious healing work. I am curious about your perspective on the medical community and the bridging that is occurring now between traditional Western physicians and the more body/mind-oriented practitioners.
Jean: A great deal has to do with the effect of the women's movement and meditative practices. I think that more than anything women are acting upon their own interior wisdom and not accepting outer masculine authority as having The Truth about a great many things. It begins with such matters as natural childbirth, the ways that we as women have really changed obstetricians' and gynecologists' treatment of us. There is a gnosis: a place where the patient or the person with the patient--as opposed to the expert--knows something about what is right for this particular person. Then follows what she knows is right, from inside. The patient who has a much better potential of surviving is, in many ways, "an uppity woman!" It's someone who wants to know why and what and then make a choice, not to allow someone else to define you. That's the hope of both individuation from a Jungian standpoint and the women's movement.
Barbara: So there's a synthesis going on for you in your teachings and in what you have to articulate.
Barbara: In Close to the Bone you speak eloquently of this idea of gnosis and of the value of prayer and of ritual. I am wondering if that is language you use in your role as a clinical professor of psychiatry, introducing these concepts to students at the medical center, for example?
Jean: I've always seen myself as straddling worlds. I've always spoken for the counterculture within the medical center, whatever it might be; being able to speak about what might be considered by others even "flaky." If I put it in vocabulary that is understandable to the establishment, and I am establishment-credentialed, I can bring up counterculture qualities. As I've spoken about synchronicity: I might introduce it from the standpoint of right versus left brain thinking, and then expand it and meet the objection. I would say this was defined in Freudian conceptual thinking as primary process thinking, which is, of course, (laughs) not good.
Barbara: Not good?
Jean: Well, primary process thinking is considered from a psychiatric standpoint to be magical thinking, primitive thinking. But to speak as a professor and define it as a right-brain capacity, allows a whole dialogue to happen rather than for it to be dismissed. I first spoke counterculturally about parapsychology and synchronicity. In my particular world, Jungian psychology was also considered pretty "fringey." When I then became articulate about the women's movement, that was another area of bridging. So, with Close to the Bone and bringing in the element of soul in the practice of medicine, It is again a place of bridging.
Barbara: Tell us about the synchronicity of the book's publication date on October 2.
Jean: I was just delighted to find that date is the Feast of the Guardian Angel on the Roman Catholic calendar. I use the metaphor of angels fairly often in the book. I suggest about prayer, for example, that when we pray for someone, an angel goes to sit on that person's shoulder or spreads wings over that person. I love that image, that that's what we're doing. We're directing that kind of energy to the person we are praying for.
Well, what is angelic energy? Can we use it as a visualization? Instead of the white cells going after other viruses or cancer cells--thinking of them as terminators--we can... (recall the descriptions of how many angels could be found on the head of a pin?) ...we can think about sending angels through the system. To send this book out into the world is like a quantum of angelic energy, maybe.
Barbara: As you were saying earlier, Jean, the search for meaning is clearly very strong in the collective consciousness. If you were to articulate a vision for our culture's evolution, what would it look like?
Jean: I think the major symbol that has come into the culture is the image of the earth as seen from outer space. That mandala and that image of beauty moves us into a consciousness of Gaia as Mother Earth and home and hearth. What I would hope is that the feminine aspect--the sense of Hestia as goddess of the hearth--would infuse the whole planet as home; that a sacred element would enter into political and social life. When I think about the budget for war and the aggressiveness, there's a missing feminine element in politics that needs to return if we are going to look out for each other and for this planet.
Barbara: That seems to be part of what your articulation is helping to bring about.
Jean: One of the things that invariably happens to people who recover from life-threatening illness, when a spiritual dimension has been part of that healing, is a recognition that service, an altruism, an I-thou connection with others enters. It's a quality of consciousness that comes in, that gives their lives meaning.
Barbara: In regard to the concepts of healing and meaning you're teaching, how do you assess the environment in the Seattle area?
Jean: I've always had a sense of being related to folks in the Seattle area. I know that a large segment of Findhorn leadership migrated there. I just "get" that Seattle is a real growing edge of consciousness. Maybe it's the beauty of the place. I know soul has to do with an appreciation of beauty and a responsibility and gratitude towards keeping everything beautiful--and to allow it to continue to be--which makes for everything from feminist to environmentalist to New Age consciousness.
Jean Shinoda Bolen will be doing a workshop and book signing on Saturday, November 9, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Bastyr University Campus (formerly the St. Thomas Conference Center), 14500 Juanita Drive N.E., Bothell, WA. Call (206) 455-2676 for registration and information.
Barbara Douglas maintains a counseling and massage practice on Whidbey Island, where she lives and writes.