Heroes and Villains

People say, “everyone is the hero of their own story.” A hero overcomes opposition and adversity to win the day, often possessing some great moral virtue or charisma that makes us align with the hero and against those opposing the hero.

What troubles us is when we flip the story and see that the villain is also the hero of their story, and from their vantage, everything the “villain” does makes sense. We might begin to empathize with them, align against the former “hero.”

An image of a cat in a green lawn, behind which is a fence. Beside the cat is a yellow flag with an image of a cat in a space suit.

The first, by Sticker Mule

In the past twenty or so years, a theme has become prevalent in hero stories in which we see the hero and the villain creating each other. Batman explores this in its many iterations, through many tellings and retellings. Sometimes it is The Joker who kills young Bruce Wayne’s parents, beginning the quest that leads toward Wayne becoming The Joker’s nemesis. In Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman creates The Joker during a botched robbery by knocking him into a pit of chemicals that leads to The Joker’s eternally frozen clownish face.

We are mirrors for each other, and sometimes we don’t like what we see in those mirrors. Sometimes we define ourselves by our opposition to something else, in which case our opportunities for evolution narrow and we become somewhat dependent upon that opposing force to maintain identity.

Lately I’ve observed a lot of discussion about bullying and abuse, with both “sides” of an issue accusing the other “side” of engaging in this kind of behavior. These discussions are so tricky and rife with miscommunications and egotism. People who are abusive and disruptive to community are so good at leverage the language of being victimized by abuse and bullying. And, people who are truly abusive and bullying are so good at appearing innocuous and likable that their victims are disbelieved.

Sometimes, people can be in conflict with neither being the victim. This happens more often than we want to admit. We can be locked in patterns of mutually hurtful behavior, both of us having completely legitimate reasons to feel hurt and disliking of the other, both deserving of an apology for some things. We are human, fallible, and in a constant state of growth.

Lately I have reflected on defensiveness and justification. Both seem entirely about maintaining the ego—either maintaining the image of myself that I want to believe in, or maintaining the image of myself I want you to believe. When I apologize with justification, I am taking some responsibility for my harm but still trying to make sure you think what I want you to think of me. When I get defensive about your opinions, more often than not it’s because there’s an image of myself that I treasure that your opinions are threatening to expose as inaccurate to downright false.

The more honestly I know myself and openly I express that knowledge, the more easy life becomes. In the short run, this honesty troubles and uproots relationship, but over time my relationships become more intimate, more open, more resilient. I am better able to express my experience without blaming you for it, and hearing your experience without taking it personally. The ego expands to include an honest self-appraisal rather than gripping, white-knuckled, this precious idea of who I want to be.

We take part in many stories, and we’re the hero in very few of them.

Inflated Needs and Vulnerabilities

One expression that’s become common when self-psychologizing is “I have a need for [x].” “I need to be liked.” “I have a need for approval.” Most of us understand what we mean by that—this “need” is unusually forceful and controlling of our behavior. We struggle to hold positions that are not immediately validated, or take actions that upset others, because our “need” is so strong. When we have wounding around these particular needs, they become both inflated and hypersensitive.

Being liked and validated are, to an extent, desires that all humans have in various amounts. We are social creatures, and experiences such as being liked, validated, and approved of are to some extent implicit to belonging. Yet we are also individuals, able to recognize when our relationships and communities need challenging, which requires the willingness to take a stand that may cost us some social currency.

As I explore this in therapy, I find that a “need to be liked,” for example, is only one facet of the problem. Along with that is a sensitivity to being disliked. It seems obvious when written out like this, but the thought was illuminating to me, for it suggests two facets of a problem that may on the surface look singular. Some people truly aspire to being liked, while some people don’t actually care if they’re liked but are really bothered when they’re disliked. 

A blooming flower whose petals are yellow toward the center and bright red at the tips.

Something beautiful. Photo by Paul Morris

More important is that this inflated and hypersensitive “need” for something is akin to a person who is starving yet cannot take in the nutrition they need. We recognize when someone has a “need for approval” (or sensitivity to disapproval) as they seem unable to choose without others’ opinions, or disagree with a person in authority. That person often solicits approval, over and over, in various ways—even putting themself down to invite others to argue with them. One wonders, how much approval do they need before they have enough?

The problem is, though this person is desperate for receiving approval, they never allow themself to take it in. Indeed they may argue with the approval—inwardly or out loud—or become overwhelmed with discomfort. The reasons for this are myriad and unique to each of us.

What this perspective offers, in my opinion, are options on how to work with one’s inflated and hypersensitive needs. In brief:

  1. Recognizing that my “need” is a healthy, normal human need that for whatever reason I have trouble getting met
  2. Practicing being present with and taking in the positive feedback I desperately crave, and not immediately invalidating it
  3. Practicing managing the pain I feel when I feel this need has been invalidated (or my secret fear that I am “not worthy of” the need is validated)

Suggestions for how this could go:

For #1 — When you start getting down on yourself, you might say something like, “It’s okay that I want to be liked/approved of/included, but I would feel the most fulfilled if I could be liked/approved of/included as my true self, even if I say things people don’t agree with.”

For #2 — When someone gives you a compliment, take a deep breath, check in with how your body feels as you hear the compliment, and say “Thank you.” Only “Thank you.”

When you find yourself spinning and needing approval, find someone you feel willing to take a risk with, and acknowledge something like: “I’m feeling a little tender today. Could you tell me something you like about me/my work?” (You might ask for honest critical feedback as well. I’ve learned that people who are honest with me about my faults are also people whom I trust when they compliment me.)

For #3 — To be honest, this one is too big for a blog post, and depends on what arises in you when your secret fears are confirmed or your deep need shrugged away. Perhaps a good place to start is to think about what you’d like to hear in those circumstances—ideally when you’re relatively calm and in a good place. Asking for help effectively when we’re already in the middle of great pain and feel invalidated is incredibly difficult. Some ideas: write a letter to your wounded self that you can read when you’re in the midst of your pain. Or write some tips and pointers and give them to trusted people you can call when in the middle of it.

Another option is to practice what in Internal Family Systems is called “unblending.” Recognize that the pain you’re feeling is a part of you that carries this wounding and vulnerability. It is not the entire truth of you. Inwardly acknowledge that part, let it know you are here and listening, and see what it needs.

What is in the Way?

Recently I was in a class that offered an exercise to write down my desires and vision of my goals, and then to write down about what I see as “in the way.” I had this “A-ha!” moment that is vulnerable to share, sounding perilously close to the kind of thinking I used to make fun of in my more cynical days.

When I think of “what’s in my way,” I imagine a path that’s impossibly blocked off, and I feel discouraged and defeated. When it comes to practical goals, any number of things could be “in my way.”

  • Someone who desires intimacy might feel that what’s in the way are the risks of rejection; previous betrayals; transphobia; and so forth.
  • Someone who desires meaningful work might feel that what’s in the way is financial insecurity; fears of failure; ignorance about what work is available; lack of support; and so forth.

In the past, I let my fears and these risks deter me from taking the steps I wanted. I imagined the risks or met setbacks and interpreted them as a judgment that my desires were wrong or impossible. But the desire didn’t go away, it simply festered and sapped the joy out of living. Only when I started moving toward my desires and dealing with the problems as they arose did I start to feel a sense of true purpose.

I still failed. I experienced shame and embarrassment. I met frustrating circumstances and found ways to avoid important tasks until I realized that avoidance was another layer of this problem. But still, moving forward, meeting these things as they arose, my life became deeper and richer.

Getting back to what’s in my way. During the class, my brain suddenly changed the statement into “what’s on my way” to desire. All of these things I consider barriers are only that if I am unwilling to meet them and work through them. If I think, these are the things I must meet on the path of desire, then are simply the tasks I must accomplish on my journey.

Image of a snowy path on which a person in red flannel walks, between large pine trees. In the distance is a mountain.

Photo by Megan Lewis

In fairy tales, the girl escaping the wicked woman encounters the creaky fence, the tree that wants pruning, the cat that wants milk. They are on her way to freedom, and caring for them slows her down, but befriending these obstacles turn them into her allies for escaping her tormentor.

If we accept that we’ll meet obstacles, opposition, and setbacks, then it’s not so painful to work through them. Some of these obstacles, opposition, and setbacks are bigger and far more dangerous than others. Not all of them are about emotional pain and personal belief, some are systemic, some arise from people who are threatened by our goals.

Yet many things may meet us on our way to desire. We may find people who love our goals, who are ready to support us. We may find unexpected reserves of strength and joy. We may find our aliveness.

Offering Okayness

Some folks who struggle have been convinced they are broken and need fixing. This often appears to come from the rational mind, completely lost amidst overwhelming and conflicting feelings and striving for order.

Emotions are not rational. They have reasons to exist, but not ones that the rational mind grasps. We have to learn to relate to the nonrational world on its own terms, not to demand it work on the mind’s terms.

I am exploring the process of validating, or offering “okayness”, to my emotions. This is in many ways the opposite of “fixing,” and closer to Tara Brach’s process of Radical Acceptance.

In a practice of offering okayness, we turn toward all the feelings and offer them acceptance and safety. This is harder than it sounds, and some of my readers have already tuned out. For the rest of us—instead of trying to understand “why I feel this way,” or trying to decide which of my conflicting feelings are the right ones, or making feeling-based choices while in upheaval, it’s a process of sitting with the storm of emotion.

As always, I like to start by connecting my feet to the ground and sinking my awareness into my body. Some of us struggle to feel anything, but if you’re in a state of emotional overwhelm, you probably have some contact with the physical layer of your emotion.

Here is my current map of mental-emotional anatomy: At bottom is the emotion, the physiological experience that we codify with one word: “sadness,” “fear,” “anger.” We access that through what’s happening in the body—tightness in the heart? Heaviness? Tension in the back? Flushed cheeks and clenching hands?

Then there is the layer where emotion meets mind in an interpretation, commonly called a feeling: “I feel I want to run away,” “I feel threatened.” In the past I would discourage people from using feeling language, but that is a losing and perhaps unnecessary battle. What is important is to recognize that “I feel” is an interpretive strategy that makes sense of the emotion, not necessarily the truth of what’s happening.

Then there is the mental layer, which is often about analysis and planning: “There is no reason to feel this way,” or “What am I supposed to do about this feeling?” or strategizing, thinking, thinking, thinking.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

So first notice yourself in the mental layer, and with every deep breath in and out, invite your awareness to drop a layer deeper. Instead of trying to solve the feeling, allow the feeling to be articulated. “I feel I’m in danger.” Then, as best you can, let that feeling know that it is okay.

“It is okay that I feel this way.” or “It is okay for this feeling to be here.”

Then notice another feeling, and offer okayness to that one.

After a few minutes, you might be able to drop even deeper to offer okayness to the emotion itself. “It’s okay that I feel scared.”

Spend at least a minute to five minutes doing this. What I experience is both relaxation of intensity and a sense of warm expansion. The emotions do not go away so much as they shift energy in a way that feels easier.

Notice, too, how this offering of okayness differs in experience from the attitude of “fixing” and “figuring out,” which often increases my feelings of tension, constriction, and irritability.

When the feelings have settled, then you might decide the next step.

We Heal Together

We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship.

Shame says, “You are alone. Your problems are unique. You are broken. You are bad.”

As we sink beneath the surface explanations, the blame, the constant stories and analysis and begin to touch the heart of the pain and wound, we find a river feeding into the collective pain of our family, our communities, our larger circles.

As we claim and name this pain, we break the bindings of shame. We discover, “We are together. Our problems intersect. Our healing and freedom is bound together.”

We will not fully love ourselves so long as there are people we consider unlovable.

We will not find safety if we live in fear of others.

We will not feel security so long as there is hunger.

Image of a circular crossroads, surrounding which are trees of various colors. In the center is a person laying as though wounded. Image by Martin Riesch.

Image of a circular crossroads, surrounding which are trees of various colors. In the center is a person laying as though wounded. Image by Martin Riesch.

These thoughts might engender despair and anger, for how can we ever find happiness if the world must be made right first? It’s easy to feel not enough. And yet there is a flaw in this, the idea that happiness is a destination at which we arrive when the circumstances are right.

Happiness and joy arise from living what we value, accepting what arises. Our wounding leads to our work.

When I grow tired of making myself smaller and putting my “bad” parts in cages—when I find that bringing those parts to consciousness and finding what is beautiful and worthy about them feels so much more empowering—then I look out and wonder, why do we put people in cages?

As I uncage myself, I realize if I want to continue to grow, I must also work to uncage others. There is no single, correct way to do this, but it is the work.

Humans are strange creatures, not solitary like a turtle but not social like a bee, existing somewhere in the in-between of needing solitude and connection. We are interdependent, having our own private struggles and gifts but needing each other to fully do what is possible.

At a certain point, we get tired of nursing the private pain of being told we’re worthless, unattractive, and we realize the problem is not us but those forces that keep telling us these things. At a certain point, we notice that being divided from each other, made to compete with colleagues at work, allows our employers to keep heaping more work and expectations on us without resistance.

Being in community is hard and sometimes exhausting, particularly when the geographic and economic terrain of living seems so hostile to allowing the time and energy necessary to do that work effectively. Yet being in solidarity is a choice that helps us to transcend the shame and suffering of personal struggles. We experience a greater sense of power and love when we allow our struggles to interlock. We break out of the stifling sense of personal responsibility, that somehow I have to fix all the problems in the world.

Of course you feel you’re not enough for that task. It’s not meant to be a one-person job.

Sink Beneath Your Reactions

Last week, I received an email. It was one I had expected for a while, and though I was in the middle of a stressful day I paused to read it. The contents challenged me, and I noticed my heart felt like a painful metal disk. Within moments of reading the email I found myself typing a response, editing it, typing more. The defensive part of me thought I was being very grounded and rational. A deeper, quieter voice kept reminding me that I did not have to respond to this email right now, and suggested it’d be best to wait before sending it. Yet I sent.

That quiet voice was a sign I wasn’t being fully grounded and rational, as was the later realization that part of me wanted to reread the exchange repeatedly while another part felt uncomfortable about it all. My ego idea of who I was did not easily accept that I could respond impulsively, and as someone who often overthinks everything it was hard to recognize that I was avoiding sitting with the response engendered in me by the email. After a few days, I finally reread the exchange with a cooler head and decided I needed to acknowledge my defensive response and apologize for it.

I felt attacked, and I reacted. Responding in the heat of the emotion, however, I did not pause to reflect. What in me feels a need to defend? Is there something in these words that are true but hard to look at? Is there a story about myself that felt attacked? Is there some old vulnerability that got hooked? Am I upset about something else happening in my life? Is this a sign the person is communicating in bad faith?

These are all good questions and not ones that will be answered in the microseconds between feeling the emotion and acting on it. Reacting in the heat of the emotion tends to make things messier. Though it feels relieving, it does not always bring the resolutions we truly want. The emotion itself is valid, it is pointing toward something that needs to be known and named, but to get there we need some pausing and self-observation.

Image of a sunset over water; in silhouette is a land mass and a person looking downward, as well as the person's reflection in water.

Image of a sunset over water; in silhouette is a land mass and a person looking downward, as well as the person’s reflection in water. Photo by Seth Willingham.

I’ve been particularly reactive lately, so after that big one I’ve been practicing the pause. Here’s one way a pause could play out:

  • Recognize the emotional upset
  • Notice the first stories of what my upset is about
  • Check in with my body, what is physically happening
  • Take a deep breath, and invite my awareness to deepen into the body
  • Take another deep breath, and invite my awareness to deepen
  • Quietly watch the thoughts and feelings
  • If that takes a while, find a trusted friend or confederate who will let you vent
  • Wait until the stories shift to ones that feel calmer and more grounded

This practice is not so easily done in face-to-face conversations, or situations that need a quick response. In that situation, when you recognize you are upset, you might:

  • Stop saying or doing whatever it is you’re saying or doing
  • Take a breath
  • Say, “I am feeling [defensive/angry/upset/reactive]. I need a moment.”
  • If the people around you continue to behave in ways that escalate your feelings, excuse yourself.
  • If not, continue with the process by checking in with your body

 

Meditation – The Two Worlds

We live in, at least, two worlds—the inner experience and the outer world. Each of us has our preference, often understood as a personality that is more introverted (inner-focused) or extroverted (outer-focused).

I’ve seen several memes and articles about the care and feeding of the introvert and the extrovert, and we benefit from knowing our tendencies, but I find it unfortunate that we seem to view them as fixed and unchangeable personality types and not preferences we can develop.

The inner and outer worlds are separate yet in relationship with each other. We need not defend against one to protect the other.

This meditation helps you to find your best balanced style of attending to and interacting with your inner and outer worlds. With practice, this may help you feel more at ease with your natural social style, better able to manage stressors in the environment, and strengthen your ability to maintain your self.

This meditation guides you through making contact with your inner experience, being present to the surrounding environment, and then being with the flow of information between the two worlds.

Link to audio file of the Two Worlds meditation.

Cultivating Will

Sometimes I feel like a puppet, dangling from the moon, pulled by erratic moods and the needs and desires of others. Sometimes my intuition is profoundly helpful, and following it makes my life richer and more profound. Other times I wonder if what I am sensing is accurate intuition or something more misleading, my hopes and fears. As someone long drawn to the richness of the unconscious and the spiritual realms, I have learned to appreciate both the limitations and the necessity of reason.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

The more we look inward and reflect on habits, compulsions, and automatic thoughts, the more we might begin to fear there is no underlying self. Perhaps we are simply a mess of competing drives and biological imperatives. Yet one wonders how we are capable of even recognizing this without the conscious capacity of self-reflection.

Yet apart from reason and intuition is the faculty of will: that ability to commit to and follow through on a course of action. This faculty is something we can grow through practice, starting with small steps and building upon successes. It is the faculty we draw upon when we have the thought, “I don’t feel like it,” but we go ahead and do “it” anyway.

Will has picked up unfortunate connotations from its widespread Victorian usage, in which it was used without an appreciation for compassion and used to shame people who struggle. We do not have to be wholly in control of our thoughts and feelings to exercise will effectively. Neither do we have to trample  vulnerability and pain and force an outcome. But cultivating will does require a bit of sternness, a certain nonattachment with the self.

Will is the faculty that says, “It is our duty to win,” and makes consistent effort toward winning. Hardship and defeat do not become invalidations of the duty; they become information and fuel to help continue the will’s journey toward victory.

By this time of year, most of us who have set New Year’s resolutions tend to realize that we’ve forgotten about them, or begun letting them slip. It’s easy to go into shame and feelings of failure. Both are awful, but they also let us off the hook. Thinking that I’m worthless means I don’t have to try again.

When I exercise will, reason and intuition are the wings that keep me steadily moving toward my goal. When the weather conditions change, as they do, reason and intuition help me to adapt. Without will, however—without a destination in mind—there is no reason to adapt, no particular place I’m trying to go, no need to coordinate these functions.

If you do not have a grand goal, or know what you desire, you still can begin developing will. Pick a small activity, something silly or unimportant, and commit to doing it regularly according to a schedule. Studies have shown improvement in will when people commit to brushing their teeth with their opposite hand for two weeks. The trick is to do what you say you’re going to do.

Lemonade: The Alchemical Opus of the Queen

“Take one pint of water.
Add a half-pound of sugar,
the juice of 8 lemons,
the zest of a half lemon.
Pour the water from one jug
then into the other
several times.
Strain through a clean napkin.
Grandmother, the alchemist—
you spun gold out of this hard life.
Conjured beauty
from the things left behind.
Found healing where it did not live.
Discovered the antidote in your own kitchen.
Broke the curse with your own two hands.
You passed these instructions down
to your daughter, who then
passed it down to her daughter.”

-from Lemonade

“The Great Work is, before all things, the creation of man by himself, that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future; it is especially the perfect emancipation of his will, assuring him… full power over the Universal Magical Agent.” – Éliphas Lévi

In my reading of Beyoncé’s work through the lens of psychospiritual alchemy, I traced the trajectory of her solo albums through Adam McLean’s analysis of the sevenfold alchemical process. The first three albums (Dangerously in Love, B’Day, I Am… Sasha Fierce) correspond to the “involutionary arc” of the spiritual impulse descending, meeting opposition in the inner world, synthesizing the opposition into a whole, and then manifesting. After the fourth step (4), manifestation, the work moves into the “evolutionary arc” which parallels the involutionary arc. The fifth stage (Beyoncé) shows the experimental steps at manifesting the new energies, which then leads to the sixth stage meeting opposition again, this time in the outer world: Lemonade.

In Lemonade, the Artist delves into her personal pain as a spouse betrayed by infidelity and then goes even deeper, into the collective pain of Black women and Black people in the United States. The film is rife with images reminiscent of sites of Black suffering and liberation: the plantation, a flooded New Orleans, mothers holding images of their children killed by the police, a Black boy in a hoodie confronted by a line-up of police in riot gear. Alchemy turns lead into gold, and the alchemy of Lemonade transforms bitter fruit into a sweet, golden drink.

Betrayed by her lover through infidelity, the Artist begins quietly singing her suspicion and pain until leaping from the top of a building—her anxiety and self-doubt—into the watery unconscious. Here the Artist gazes upon herself, drifts in numbness, recites a litany of denial and realization, and suffocates before emerging as a beautiful being of power, joy, and destruction—not only does she emerge with a flood of water, she is then surrounded by fiery explosions, blessed by a gust of wind, and takes the wheel of an enormous and heavy monster truck. Thus she is blessed and empowered by the four elements.

 

Beyonce in a yellow dress stands in an open doorway as water flows down the staircase before her.

Beyoncé emerges in the form of a water power. Still from  Lemonade.

The sevenfold model of alchemy predicts a thematic reflection between complementary stages of the involutionary and evolutionary arcs. Read in this context, Lemonade returns to issues and themes originally confronted in the second phase of the working, in this case B’Day, which was itself an act of emancipation and increased ownership of her career when she chose to break away from her father’s management. Two of the most significant themes have unfolded around the Artist’s relationship to her lover and to her capitalist ambitions, each shaping the other in an ongoing tension, and Lemonade renegotiates the resolution achieved in B’Day. 

My previous reading of B’Day suggested that the alchemical working at that stage required the Artist differentiate from the rigid but potent role of the archetypal Virgin Queen and connect in love and partnership with another, both personally and creatively. The Artist at that phase confronts her fears that gaining intimacy will undermine her power, particularly her pleasure in discipline, hard work, and consumption. Self-doubt and an emerging awareness of her vulnerability as a female artist beset her, but by the time she reaches Lemonade her script is fully flipped. Instead the Artist wears, inhabits, and works the guises of the Orisha. The surprise first single “Formation” is a spell, its lyrics chanting in a loping cycle that falls back, leaps forward, falls back. The Artist rests upon a submerged police car before sinking it, and herself, back into Oshun’s territory, the great waters. This is purgation, wielding her powers of art and magic to remix and remake the world.

Two songs show the distance the Artist has come: In B’Day‘s song “Upgrade U,” the Artist promotes her worthiness as an offer, calling upon a figure of nonviolent strength: “I can do for you what Martin did for the people.” In contrast, the Artist in Lemonade takes her worthiness for granted and calls out her partner with a righteous anger in the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: “Bad motherfucker. / God complex. / Motivate your ass, / call me Malcolm X.”

At each phase of working, the Artist has increased in consciousness of the strengths and challenges of a black woman’s power within a white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. While she fully owns and celebrates capitalism, Lemonade shows her interrogating patriarchy and racism more explicitly than ever before. In the song “Formation,” the Artist hearkens back to the B’Day stance of power-through-supporting black men by singing, “You just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.” After a brief reflection, she seems to recognize the old pattern and realize it’s time to think bigger: “I just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.”

As much as the Beyoncé who celebrates capitalist achievement and wealth energizes Lemonade, increasingly we see the Artist standing outside of patriarchy and white supremacy, identifying with her communities, her culture, her heritage and family. This time she’s not telling other women to “bow down, bitches,” instead she’s inviting those who are up for the task to “get in formation” with her.

B’Day‘s song “Ring the Alarm” presages the rage around infidelity explored with maturity in Lemonade, yet in that song the Artist seems avoidant of challenging her betrayer directly, instead focusing her rage at the other woman whom she imagines exploiting her wealth. In Lemonade, outside of a remark about “Becky with the good hair,” the Artist spends little time thinking about the “other woman” and much of her effort calling out and repairing her relationship with the husband who broke his covenant.

The grandmother’s alchemical recipe of lemonade cited above, passed along the matrilineal line, shows an alchemy distinct from the masculine Self-formation of Lévi. This alchemy is quiet and collective, drawing upon the powers of domesticity and craft. The grandmother possesses power but does not keep it for herself, she passes it to her daughters, she shares her concoction with others. The Artist returns to her queenship, extending power to uplift.

Beyoncé upon her throne. Still from the “Sorry” video.

Previous Jungian readings of Beyoncé’s work:

Keeping Your Head On in a Post-Truth Era, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed propaganda as a tool of control and subversion, and observed that the cultural climate has shifted in such a way that it behooves us to engage consciously with the strategies and consequences of it. Instead of bemoaning propaganda or relegating it to one “side,” it seems to me wisest to acknowledge that it exists, it is effective, and it is widely employed.

What to watch for is whether propaganda leads us toward personal and collective danger. The information we take in influences the mind, the heart, the body, and then our actions. Thinking about things that terrify me, I feel fear in my body, and I respond fearfully to otherwise innocuous things around me. When I can calm and defuse that emotional reaction within me, however, my mind is freer to engage rationally with propaganda.

Thoughts and propaganda are similar in that trying to get rid of them is a poor use of energy. What is more useful is engaging mindfully, cultivating the ability to observe one’s thoughts and reactions with some distance and curiosity. Here are some ideas on strategies to do this:

Image of a fist above text:

Image of a fist above text: “Keep Calm and Decolonize Everything,” in a poster that evokes British wartime propaganda. From Oppression Monitor Dailey.

  • Understand you are being manipulated

Objective truth might exist, but there are no objective people. We all have agendas, conscious and unconscious, and we want things from each other. I write this blog post because I want to live in a world of conscious human beings and I believe this is an important contribution to that. I also write this because I want potential clients to read this, go to my website, and sign up for therapy from me so I can make money. Both are true.

These motivations shape the way we communicate information to each other. Effective persuasion offers information in ways to motivate desired behaviors. Ideally, we communicate accurate information in health-affirming ways. Sometimes, however, this motivation comes through deception—knowingly stating something that is false, or stating accurate information in misleading ways. (Much popular reporting on scientific research exemplifies this, presenting the research as much more conclusive than it truly is. See also most clickbait headlines.)

When interacting with others, it’s useful to consider what agendas are in play and decide how we want to engage with them. Does my agenda match yours? Can I work with your agenda in a way that meets mine? What I do then is an active choice. Even if someone is actively trying to con you, and you recognize it but decide to go along with it, you are now a co-participant rather than a person being manipulated.

  • Cultivate curiosity about what you know and what you feel

Even when you have a practice of not clicking the obvious clickbait-y titles of articles, it’s hard not to see that “[Celebrity] DESTROYED [this politician] over [controversial issue]” and unconsciously internalize the story. At times, reading the actual article In some cases, reading the article intentionally would be more helpful, as it would help you evaluate for yourself whether someone was “DESTROYED.” You might also attend to the ways the article is shaping the story. Some articles will take one sentence of an actual thing that happened and add paragraphs of speculation and unverified claims.

Dangerous propaganda roots in unexamined assumptions and those Id feelings of lust, anger, fear, vindictiveness, hope, comfort, and pleasure. It finds safe harbor in our bias and bigotry, our assumptions about whomever we perceive as an enemy or an “other.” It is nearly impossible to stay conscious about all of this at all times, but when we feel particularly provoked we might sit with some questions:

  • “How do I know this to be true?”
  • “Where did this knowledge come from?”
  • “What evidence supports this knowledge? What evidence contradicts it?”
  • “Is there someone I respect with whom I can talk to about opposing views?”
  • “What feeling does this bring out of me? How strong is this feeling?”
  • “Who benefits from my thinking and feeling this way? Who gets harmed by it?”

This is largely about curation of the mind and the heart. It’s difficult to make thoughtful choices when I’m ramped up into fight, flight, or freeze. If this article or commercial stirs up panic about the future, is that going to help me effectively navigate it? If this propaganda wants me to meekly accept what’s happening and go along with something that assaults my core values, is doing so in my interest?

It’s easier to engage this practice when we don’t want to believe what something is telling us. It’s harder to do this when we do hope or fear something is true. Doing this practice with both is useful. When something seems to confirm your greatest hope or your greatest fear, take a step back.

  • Make a list of what matters to you

What do you stand for? How do you think people should treat each other? Who are your allies in this?

I recommend identifying five core values, often one to three words, which could be written on a card you keep in your pocket or posted on a note around your home. Periodically I will revisit these core values in terms of my life or responses. If I say I value kindness, for example, I could spend a week looking at how I am practicing kindness in my interactions with others, and whether the media I’m consuming supports kindness or undermines it.

Having five might not seem like a lot, but the interaction between them becomes complex. If you need help, here is a post that includes an exercise on identifying your core values.

  • Ground regularly
An image of a fist, surrounded by rays, around which are the words

An image of a fist, surrounded by rays, around which are the words “Defend Equality” and “Love Unites.” Does this align with your values?

In this context, grounding is the act of bringing awareness into the body, the present moment, and our connection to the earth. Simple ways to do this include: focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, your butt in the chair, or the weight of gravity holding you to the earth. Look around the room and notice what is there. The body lives in the present moment, and so when the mind and heart get ramped up into intense fantasies, contacting our senses brings us gently back to “what is”.

When I guide people in grounding, I often encourage them to notice the stability of the ground in this moment. When I do this, a part of my mind says, “But there could be an earthquake.” And I acknowledge, yes, that is true, but in this moment I can feel through my feet that the ground is stable. That is the point. I don’t need to deal with an earthquake that’s not currently happening.

Recall this next time you feel stirred up by potential threats to your safety, especially when it’s the hypothetical possibility of violence, or a conflict that is happening miles from where you live. Notice the feelings engendered and how the media you consume invites you into a political “us-vs-them” drama, away from listening and connection.

Then try grounding. Right now, in this moment, is your body safe? Does the ground feel stable? Are you around people you trust? Is anything catastrophic happening? What in your life at this moment could benefit from your attention? You have power in your life, more power than you do in those political narratives. Do something meaningful for yourself, and then revisit the drama. What feels important now?

If you want support, this link will take you to an audio recording I made of a grounding exercise.

Most of all, I urge us all to turn away from these grandiose, Internet-fueled feelings toward engagement with what’s in our lives today. When you find your energy being turned against a vague enemy, redirect that passion toward what you value, what you are for.