Psyche and Eros: The Archetype of Too-Muchness
When I read Jean Houston’s book on sacred psychology in the late 1990’s, “The Search for the Beloved”, I remember thinking I had found the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle I had long been searching for. I identified completely with the dilemma of Psyche and her quality of “too much-ness”.
I had been caught up in a family system best described as “spiraling” toxic shame. I had studied Virginia Satir’s work on family systems and Bradshaw’s work on the family, and this, coupled with a study of archetypes, helped me put together the fractals and jigsaw pieces of what I considered a very sad state of affairs: my family of origin.
Psyche loved Eros, as the mythology goes. Yet Psyche was absolutely hated by her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, for the sin of being who she was. Aphrodite, who represented the old order, or status quo, taught the quintessential divide between gods and humans. At that time I related this to my parent’s hierarchal divide between the untouchables: the children in my family of origin, and the Brahmin caste, the parents. My early perception of my family of origin was that my parents were clumsy and rather childish, making themselves into rigid gods who were both unapproachable yet also quite ignorant. They both saddened and interested me somewhat, having robbed me of my vital energy for being a child, leaving me to feel I needed to protect them in order to watch out for my own safety. This is best talked about in family system’s literature, but any child who thinks of her parents more than herself will know what I mean.
When my mother died in 2008 she and I were completely healed of any past story of archetypal jealousies. I was able to be with her at the end of her life in a way I never thought possible. In Hospice, as she lay dying of lung cancer, more child-like and adorable than anyone I had ever known who resembled my mother, there was no cancer in that room. She and I giggled together. I fed her. I put makeup on her. And she told me again and again how much she loved me, she said: “I know you. I know what you have done.” Her eyes, huge in a skull mostly gone to heaven already, were crystal clear and piercing. I loved her with all my heart as I knew she loved me.
But for much of my life we had not been able to express that love. I was to deal with a father who adored and preferred me and a mother and sister who competed with me for his love. In order to get the love and attention I truly craved without the homicidal rage of jealousy thrown in by my mother with her father complex and my sister with her never-ending competitive need to not only be my sister, but to quite literally absorb and be me, I strove for attention any way I could get it. It was so very lonely wherever I cast my shadow. And like Psyche, I too was betrayed by the women in my family who sided with weak, patriarchal men who claimed to belong to the “real world.” I was lost among the good ole’ boys of the south, weak men who only pretended to be strong, wounded in their masculinity. Sensing their unease, I ceased yearning for the males in the family and cast about craving maternal care and the companionship of sisterhood. I longed for the camaraderie of the women in my family; I sought out women who I felt possessed some maturity and wisdom I was certain I lacked, but most of the women I found were unhappy, and their disappointment in life and love made them doubting and envious, classic representatives of the obvious doubts that arise when things are misunderstood, childlike, and unconscious. I lived in an anachronistic world of longing and doubt, placating those around me, at best somewhat entertaining, at worst, irritating and easy to leave.
For awhile I thought I was screwed up and ravaged by demons. I accepted the introject of my family’s cruel projections; not understanding my demon was a true daemon (god). I continued to be lonely and miserable, craving company at any cost. I developed a personality trait of the super-achiever, and this is what Jean Houston calls the archetype of “too much-ness”. This archetype drives weak men away in droves, but it also represents a deep, tribal wounding in women; an archetypal envy and rage as women see in other women what they perceive they lack. And rather than become self-evolved enough to address the lack in themselves, un-evolved women project their self hatred on any likely target, especially on the very women they both envy and admire. Not only did this set me up for disaster, it set me up for a survivor’s guilt I struggle with today – a guilt so profound sometimes it leads me to want to destroy myself.
Karl Menniger wrote a book about people who achieve success with this complex. Mostly they commit suicide when they become successful. I know how many times I have been close to greatness – and I mean real, public accolades – only to deliberately sabotage my success and destroy it. This happened again and again with acting. I can remember two deliberately sabotaged screen tests with famous directors. The cost of breaking out of my family of origin mold of sameness and becoming successful – especially as a woman on my own – was too much even for my own psyche, so I destroyed what I had achieved before anyone else could do it for me.
This question of too-muchness has always raised sad and poignant issues for me. Later in life, when my mother was unable to keep her competitive edge in check and she was stressed beyond measure by the blistering disappointments in the life she was not to have, she was inhospitable whenever I came to visit, especially when I brought my own daughter, now preferred by my father, as his “favorite granddaughter.” Unable to even share her husband/father, her puella complex brought a terrible need to negative bond with the other women in the family, who in turn gossiped and triangulated with their men, both to the alarming and obvious discomfort of me and my daughter whenever we visited. As a result of this treatment, I would attempt to shrink, to put myself down, to do anything to “make everyone comfortable,” to subvert my intelligence and accomplishments at the feet of anything ordinary, anything to get people to stop humiliating me and to love and “feed” me. Constantly trying to assuage my survivor’s guilt by buying things for my sister and mother and giving them money every opportunity I could, they would turn on me anyway in terrible unkindness. I could not win. I saw how deep the tribal transgression had gone. My own mother had gone so deep into her mythological hatred of me, convinced I was there to take her husband, that she could not even see I was her blood. I was made to constantly feel uncomfortable, humiliated, and to become ill each time I visited. I became “bad,” a scapegoat now that my sister had long been banished from family events due to what surely helped her cope: a long and enduring battle with alcohol. The family curse ran deep.
I was to return again and again to the same lesson: I was best, I was “okay,” there was comfort and even an ecstasy for me when I recognized my aloneness; for I was always at home in the darkness and mystery of soul wandering. Not an isolation or punishment for me, I was, as Carolyn Myss aptly offered the moniker: a “mystic without a monastery.” Nobody could guess what went on between me and the regions of my soul when I was silent, and I was best when I played my cards close to my vest. I was best never letting the “right hand knows what the left is doing.” I lost myself completely when low self-esteem had me announce myself in ingratiating ways, like an arrogant doormat. My essential “seeding”, the very nurturing of the next moment of essential gestation, was harmed again and again when I attempted to bond or talk about what was going on with me. Intuition warned again and again, and a return to my meditation mat affirmed what I already knew.
Like Psyche, I suffer from the quality of too-muchness. Not only have I achieved when I was expected to fail, I have made myself too available, too competent, and too predictable, too often. I scare people who do not know how to express themselves, so they attack me. I become confused and chaotic when I do not nurture the quiet sanctuary in my soul where I go to heal the pain of other’s chaos when it is projected on me and called my own. I try too hard, I try to force solutions to insolvable dilemmas, and I become ridiculous and pathetic. I am left alone, nursing wounds of confusion, betrayal and rage.
The myth of Psyche continues with test after test. Psyche’s final initiation, before any sanctified connection to her beloved Eros was possible, and one which she goes through alone, bereft, pregnant, and quite literally, suicidal, is made all- the- more difficult by her mean mother-in-law, Aphrodite. Psyche is without love, and mostly, without energy. Still, she perseveres. The four tasks that Aphrodite sets before the young woman serve as a series of initiations leading to deepening structures of consciousness and are symbolic of the ordeals many of us endure to deepen our consciousness on the path toward God.
The first task Aphrodite assigns Psyche is one in which Psyche is left stupefied and overwhelmed. She is asked to sort a huge pile of seeds, putting each “in its own place” before evening. She completely surrenders to the impossibility of the task, and in this surrender, a huge army of ants comes to complete the task within the allotted time. This makes Aphrodite furious, and she gives Psyche another impossible task, that of gathering Golden Fleece from sheep, which the innocent Psyche does not know are frenzied and will kill her. Again in despair over the impossibility of the task, Psyche plans to throw herself in the river to die, but she is stopped by a singing reed, breathed through her by some spirit in the wind who advises her to wait until evening when the rams are docile. She listens to her inner wisdom, does just what is advised, and again, completes the task.
Two other tasks are completed intuitively, with surrender, until Aphrodite, completely frustrated, gives Psyche the ultimate and final test, one that people rarely get to, or are extremely hesitant about ever taking. Aphrodite tells Psyche that she must journey to the Underworld and obtain from Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, a jar of her very own beauty ointment. Again, Psyche collapses from the apparent impossibility of this task. She climbs a tower and prepares to hurl herself from it.
Yet this tower is her final ally, and this is the very tower which gives her specific instructions about how to carry out her final mission:
She must go to the outskirts of a nearby city;
She must not help the lame donkey driver pick up his sticks;
She is to take two coins in her mouth and two pieces of barley bread in her hands;
She will give one coin to Charon, the ferry man, as she goes in, and she will give the other coin to him on the way out;
She must absolutely refuse:
-the dead man with the rotting hand who wants her help;
-all others who beg her help along the way;
-a man braiding a rope of the black and white threads of ambiguity;
-the entreaties of the old women who weave the web of fate.
She must also feed a piece of bread to the 3-headed canine guardian of the Underworld, Cerberus, as she enters, and again as she leaves. This will distract the dog as the three heads argue over the bread, giving her time to get through.
Most importantly, she must return the way she came once she retrieves the ointment, and she must, under no circumstances, open the jar.
The symbolism of the tower is the very archetype of wisdom itself. I am prodded to ask myself again and again, “what is the tower in my life?” Is it my profession, my family, my child? Is it my writing? Is it a network, a spiritual group, an affiliation? Is the tower changing? What is essential now? What is now?
The tower warns Psyche to curb her availability to others. How many times have I given up my focus to distract myself on relationships which were of no value? How many times have I allowed myself to be totally interruptible, totally available, for whomever, or whatever needed my attention, moving, however, with resentment and resistance, into expected generosity? How often have I given a part of myself in an inauthentic way only to please another at the expense of my own soul?
Psyche follows her instructions perfectly. She meets Persephone and receives the ointment from her, reminding us that anyone who approaches the deep world with mindfulness and attention receives the gift of beneficence. Her return trip, however, is not so successful. Despite her good intentions, like many of us, especially when she is close to the goal, she falls prey to ancient habits. She opens the jar. Vanity has trumped spiritual development. Psyche’s soul lesson here teaches us that, just when we thought we had something licked, old habits may come back to kick us down again. But ego deflation reminds us that the hallowed aspect of these habits are the tragic flaws that provide the opportunity to claw our ways back up to grace from the tininess of our local selves. Death, resurrection, death, resurrection. Only in this way can we allow ourselves the essence of another “cocoon” phase, to morph into the beautiful butterfly which Psyche was to become. The very diminishment we experience becomes the opportunity for growth; more growth – always more growth.
Understanding ourselves and our experiences in this way, by interpreting the shadow, searching out the nooks and crannies of our humiliation, can give us the capacity to interpret these experiences in the context of the bigger picture, the Weltanschauung. Understanding experiences like this is daily Tonglen – it is compassion practice made real. It is bittersweet and poignant, and often very difficult, to be rejected simply because – as my shrink used to say to me - “You shine!”
It takes time and experience and wisdom to understand this opinion of others and integrate it as one’s own. Sometimes we are held hostage by our lack of understanding of the vagaries and foibles of personality. People will do as people do – they love and hate according to nothing more than their own projections. To stay true to the authentic self regardless…well, this is an enormous accomplishment in the goings and comings of individuation.
It hurts to be rejected. It hurts to be disliked just because someone else cannot stand themselves, so they take it out on you. It hurts when our loved ones become mentally fallible and cannot sustain or even create autonomy and authenticity. It is confusing when someone blurs the boundaries so much we do not know where we begin and they end. And it hurts when an entire tribe moves against the outcast, the one who just isn’t quite like them. But knowing our own small self is held and embraced in the larger Heart is not only comforting, but moves us from our own drama-de-jour to the big picture, the human heart we all share.