February 13, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part VI)

(Werner Zurfluh, Part II)

There are two ways in which Zurfluh's work relates to fairy tales.

Zurfluh claims that collections of traditional fairy tales contain numerous examples of slightly coded instructions regarding the virtues of maintaining awareness in the "realms of the night". And, indeed, if you examine the vast treasure of recorded fairy tales, you'll find that a great many of them hinge on things which occur around the time a character in the tale falls asleep. An inordinate amount – one might even say a suspicious amount – of sleeping goes on in fairy tales. But you never notice until your attention is drawn to this fact.

A case in point: last night I read my children "Habetrot and Scantlie Mab" (from More English Fairy Tales, ed. Joseph Jacobs, 1894). Wouldn't you know that the main character "falls asleep" by a knoll while despairing over how to perform a task her mother has set her? She "wakes up" to the voices of some people in a cave she can see through a hole in a rock. These people are performing the task for her. This motif -- a task being performed for someone while they sleep -- occurs again and again in traditional fairy tales.

Zurfluh argues that the tales teach the technique of maintaining awareness, and not going "unconscious," as one slips into "the realms of the night". He draws attention to the Grimm’s tale "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes", in which a soldier takes on the challenge of finding out where seven princesses are slipping away to at night, despite being under lock and key. The princesses have foiled previous attempts by giving their chaperon a glass of drugged wine before bed. By means of a trick (a sponge tied under his chin) he only pretends to drink the wine and fall asleep, but stays awake, and fakes snoring. In this way he is able to follow the princesses into the fantastic world reached by a ladder under one of their beds. Zufluh says this is an admonishment to maintain continuity of ego while falling asleep. There are many more tales in which the characters achieve amazing feats when they fall asleep, or deliberately don't fall asleep.

Another thing he tells us to pay attention to is passages in tales in which the hero arrives at a gate, a wall, a border or any other symbolic threshold. This, he says, is the transition into the other world, at which one must maintain awareness, or risk falling into an ordinary, non-lucid dream state. The hero is usually armed with a magic word, a power object or some other means of passing through the barrier. On the day I read those remarks in Zurfluh, that evening I read my children "The Three Heads of the Well” (English Fairy Tales, Ed. Joseph Jacobs, 1890). In this story, after the heroine proves that she has a good heart by sharing her meager travel provisions with a hungry old man, the man tells her, "There is a thick thorny hedge before you, which you cannot get through, but take this wand in your hand, strike it three times, and say, 'Pray, hedge, let me come through,' and it will open immediately." (I suspect this could be adapted as a visualization for breaking through into the other world with awareness intact. I'll let you know if it works!)

These practices were known in ancient times because, he says, ancient societies always had a certain class of people, mostly known as shamans and priests, who were privy to this knowledge. It later became necessary to code this information because of the persecution of the church, which regarded such practices as witchcraft and sorcery. But once one knows what one is looking for, he says, the message in fairy tales about lucid dreaming is fairly obvious. And I agree.

The other connection between Zurfluh and fairy tales is his perspective on the source of fairy tale content. He is very much in agreement with Steiner that they are retellings of psychic experiences. In his essay "Über den Ursprung der Märchen" ("On the Origins of Fairy Tales"), Zurfluh says that it’s a mistake to look for the origins of fairy tales in historical or folkloristic terms. He regards all arguments over the comparisons of various versions of tales, most of which have only been committed to writing during the last few centuries, to be very academic. He asserts that fairy tales originate in the experiences of those individuals who manage, through hard effort and training (meditation, dream recording, cultivating proper sleep conditions) to penetrate into the realms of the night with their awareness intact, which consequently means they return from such experiences with memory of them intact.

In this essay, he presents a passage from his journal which records his experience of visiting the "Land of the Fauns." He is of the view that the beings he encountered were the actual fauns of classical myth, and that this land (this "plane") exists apart from the material plane. Anyone who develops the proper skills and discipline can visit this world, or any of the other worlds depicted in myths and tales, because they really exist.

And so I've brought you to the point I've reached at this point in my relationship with fairy tales. I'm very pleased that my youthful suspicions concerning their importance to spiritual growth have panned out. Since, besides the other three children who still live under my roof, I still have a 1 1/2-year-old boy, I look forward to reading fairy tales nightly for many years to come. And now that I have been given so many keys from the researches of others, I fully expect that relationship to continue growing and changing.

(Next: conclusions and finals words)

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part V)

(Werner Zurfluh, Part I)

My research into the more mystical aspects of fairy tales led me to the work of Werner Zurfluh, an intriguing explorer of consciousness. The majority of his previously-published German-language works are available on the internet in html format (unfortunately little of it translated into English, and the translations are of substandard quality). Though he is very well-versed in the literature of mysticism, meditation and eastern philosophy, and despite the fact that his works are heavily annotated, the power of what he says in his writings comes from the fact that it is based on his own inner experiences, and does not rely on anyone else’s authority. A large portion of the text consists of extracts from his journals.

Zurfluh, as a child, was prone to Out of Body Experiences (OBEs), or what is also called astral projections, and he had many of them until he was a young adult. During his student years, he noted that due to the stress of intellectual work these experiences stopped and his internal experience became confined to "conventional" dreams. He resigned himself to the situation and later began occupying himself with Jungian interpretation of his dreams. With time, however, he came to the conclusion that this was the wrong way to go about things.

Zurfluh's main theme, in almost all of his published writing, emphasizes the importance of striving for personal experience of those states of mind called dreams (especially lucid dreams), astral projection, and OBEs. Because of his own background as a biology teacher and due to several years of study at the Carl Jung Institut in Switzerland, he spends a lot of his time arguing against the tenets of mainstream materialistic science and psychology, including depth psychology. He is critical of today's science because of its inability to work with, acknowledge, or even entertain the possibility of anything that cannot be measured with state-of-the-art instruments (in spite of the fact that "science" acknowledges all sorts of things now that could not be measured as recently as a decade ago), and he faults depth psychology for still falling into the Aristotelian trap of analysing and categorizing internal experiences in ways that kills them and makes them empty shells like so many mounted butterflies.

In his works he sites hundreds of pages of dream-, lucid dream- and OBE experiences that show a progression over time (many years, in fact). At first he utilized the standard sort of Jungian analysis on his dreams, and the symbols and sequences yielded exactly the type of results a Jungian analyst would expect. But with time, and by applying the lessons these experiences were teaching him, he began to understand that these "internal" experiences are, to a surprising extent, subject to the "observer effect". When he was expecting content that lent itself to Jungian analysis, that is exactly what he got.

But once he had spent more time simply observing, and putting his efforts into being as aware as possible in whatever state of consciousness he happened to be, the nature of his experiences changed dramatically, and he began to understand that these states are not just subjective (i.e. just going on in your head), nor purely objective (i.e. something you are perceiving which exists outside of you), but a subtle interaction of the two. Fact is, he says, sometimes the things one encounters in these experiences are astral beings. They might be other people journeying in those worlds, or other kinds of beings which have been called spirits, elementals, genies, djinn, demons, angels, fairies and many other things throughout the ages. It's not appropriate to treat these like some aspect of yourself, as many depth psychologists might advise, because then you will not really find out what they wish to communicate to you.

So, rather than torture the symbols of dreams for hidden meanings -- using the logic of the material world to analyze and interpret otherworldly experience -- he determined that it was more important to make every effort possible to maintain the continuity of ego (Kontinuierlichkeit des Ichs) while entering the "realms of the night," as he calls them. One must, as much as possible, maintain an awareness of one's own identity, as well as an awareness of the otherworldly nature of one's state of consciousness when one leaves the ordinary waking state. This seems paradoxical to those who have not had this experience: being "awake" while one is asleep. His techniques encompass both what is known as astral projection, and what dreamworkers refer to as working with hypnagogic imagery.

(Next: Werner Zurfluh on fairy tales)

February 11, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part IV)

It wasn't only Bettelheim who influenced me to read traditional fairy tales to my children. Once my children started going to Waldorf kindergarten and Waldorf school, I was made even more aware of the importance of fairy tale narratives in children's lives. Fairy tales are actually a major element of the Waldorf curriculum for the first several years. The teachers tell the children fairy tales -- by heart, so as to make it an oral/aural experience again. The children make drawings of scenes and characters from the tales. Sometimes they act the tales out in class. I knew that, being a "Waldorf parent", I was in contact with a state of mind much closer to what I'd longed for since my youth: a mystical and spiritual mode of relating to the tales. Waldorf pedagogy is based on a spiritual concept of the human race (in German: das Menschenbild). This conception involves not only who we are now, in this physical body, in the early 21st century, but also who we are in other dimensions of being (with our various other energy bodies), where we came from, what we are evolving into, and our relationship to other visible and invisible beings. What is taught in Waldorf schools never loses sight of this big picture, and it endeavours to nurture the entire human being, not just the rational intellect.

References to the nature of fairy tales and myths, and how to put them to use, are scattered throughout the voluminous works of Rudolf Steiner. You will notice that the ways the Waldorf schools use them in their curriculum avoid outright interpretation of meaning, or moralizing. The emphasis on using them instead of interpreting them is the same attitude advocates of dreamwork take toward dreams. The efficacy of the tales (as in Bettelheim's practice) is in experiencing them as deeply as possible.

In an essay on the methods of Rosicrucian initiation, Steiner speaks of the need to experience the symbols of esoteric teachings rather than intellectualize about them. He says:

"But now the pupils of this Master went further still; they learned to feel the inside, the inner nature, of the bones. Therewith they were able to experience a last example of what was practised in manifold ways in the ancient Mystery Schools, they learned to experience symbols by making their own organism into these symbols; for only so can symbols be really and truly experienced. Explanation and interpretation of symbols is really nonsense; so too is all theorising about symbols. The true attitude to symbols is to make them and actually experience them. It is the same as with fables and legends and fairy tales. — These should never be received merely abstractly, one must identify oneself with them. There is always something in man whereby he can enter into all the figures of the fairy tale, whereby he can make himself one with the fairy tale. And so it is with these true symbols of olden times, which come originally from spiritual knowledge..."

Steiner dismisses the notion that fairy tales are merely products of the imagination or the "folk fantasy" as the folklorists would call it. Like Jung, Steiner relates fairy tales to dreams, or more specifically to that more refined variety of "dream" called the psychic experience. According to Steiner, before the human race became what we are today -- that is, oriented toward a brain-centered awareness that focuses on a logical conception of the objective world through the five physical senses -- people experienced life with a natural clairvoyance that left them open to impressions coming from their other senses.* They experienced things that Jung would have called "archetypal." These experiences involved matters and themes that are more universal than the particular and specific experiences of the material world, which are tied to the conditions of time and space.

Steiner compares the conscious experience of hearing and experiencing a fairy tale (as opposed to the long-term process it effects on our deeper, subconscious level) to the pleasant tastes and sensations of eating nutritious food. Although they are a very important part of the process of properly feeding our bodies, they are only the obvious and superficial characteristics of food. It is only once the food is broken down, transformed and assimilated that we enjoy the full value of it. And all these things happen without our conscious awareness. Likewise, he says, it is only as we live with the tales and assimilate them into our beings on subconscious levels that we enjoy their full value.

Steiner points out a motif that can be found, in one form or another, in many, if not in the majority of fairy tales: the bewitched realm, person or object. The world is turned upside down. The prince appears to be a beast. The palace appears to be a humble cottage. This he says, reflects the illusory appearance of things in our waking state, where we are dominated by the veils of the material world. If we can view the same beings, objects and phenomena from another level of consciousness (i.e. while dreaming, or in a state of "astral" projection), then we will see that what we observe with our physical senses is not a clear or true perception. Bewitchment, then, is confinement to, or entrapment in, the material world. If the protagonist persists in doing what is right, which is achieved through following the dictates of the heart, then the spell is broken, and he/she gains the ability to see things as they really are, that is: to pierce the veil.

Another motif he points out is the "soul shepherd"; the old man, old woman, or other conspicuous stranger the protagonist meets who sends him/her on the quest. This contact, he says, awakens the deeper forces within the protagonist and makes the world take on its strange appearance.

Steiner's assertions present further arguments for why fairy tales can't be replaced by either fluffy-light children's literature or by the conspicuously and often ham-handedly didactic materials parents, schools and popular media present to children (often with the best of intentions, I acknowledge). Fairy tales embody truth. Truth, in this case, means an accurate reflection of the nature of being on the visible and invisible planes. They are appropriate for children, and for people of all ages, he says, because "they are able to combine the richest spiritual wisdom with the simplest manner of expression." This simple expression, clothed in the images of a simpler, pre-industrial life, interacting with our sublime inner realities, "brings the roots of human life together with those of cosmic life."

(*I am aware that some readers might find Steiner's claim that the human race once had clairvoyant abilities which have been lost to be an example of what Ken Wilber calls the "pre/trans fallacy." But I don't really think this applies here. He is not idealizing a previous state of the race, but acknowledging that certain developments in human consciousness came at the expense of other aspects of our beings. These abilities are merely suppressed and latent in the average person at this stage of our development, but will have to be recovered and integrated with our newly-won rational abilities before the race can advance to its next stage.)

February 9, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part III)

We can't move on from the subject of psychological interpretations of fairy tales before addressing Bruno Bettelheim. A controversial figure during his lifetime, and even more so afterwards, Bettleheim bucked the trend of the times when he published his book The Uses of Enchantment in 1976. The pacifism of the 1960s had made parents and teachers increasingly squeamish about the rough-edged dark side of fairy tales. All sorts of nasty, violent things happen in their narratives: people have eyes cut out, heads cut off, are burnt up alive in fires and are even cooked and eaten. The evil characters in these stories are truly heartless and despicable. Publishers put out sanitised and softened versions of the classic tales, leaving out such graphic details as the part of "Little Red Riding Hood" where the hunter cuts the wolf open with an ax and extracts a miraculously unscathed grandmother. I recall an illustrated version in which Granny is stuffed in the closet, and there isn't even a hunter. Many parents at the time thought it was kinder and more enlightened to spare their children these "primitive" and "barbaric" tales (meanwhile letting them watch the Vietnam war on the news every evening) in favor of what they thought to be more appropriate contemporary children's books. And children's books of the time also reflected the desire of the era to break from what people saw as oppressive paternal traditions. And as history has revealed, that era's legitimate desire to overthrow tradition and the status quo in the name of freedom and progress often resulted in the baby being thrown out with the bath water.

Bettelheim said, in no uncertain terms, that this trend was robbing children of the very thing they need. He saw the tales as a sort of safe laboratory in which children could confront the problems of life. Since they remain on the oral level, and the children aren’t force fed ready-made imagery as they would be by films or television. The children have the advantage of imagining the elements and occurrences of the tales in the manner and intensity their psyches are ready to handle. It's not like watching a movie in which the dragon is far scarier than the child is ready to deal with. And, of course, the story is told in a the safe environment of the home, in the presence of a trusted, protecting adult.

Bettelheim says the child gets the chance to "rehearse" challenging and threatening situations internally, and develop the strength to handle them when the situations arise later in their lives. The modern kind of fluffy children's literature, he says, doesn't have the genuine content for them to chew on, and adult literature (not to mention adult media) is too strong and too life-like to be of use to them.

Bettelheim also says you should never be so ham-handed as to explain a story to a child, since its impact on the child is through imagery and emotion, not intellect. He also says that one doesn't need to choose stories to read to children out of any intentional therapeutic design. One simply reads the stories at random, and the child itself knows when it has been affected by a story. If something is stirred inside the child (i.e. if something is an issue they need to deal with), it will want to hear it again. Sometimes it can request to hear the same story many times over while it is grappling with the problem. And then, suddenly, one day it doesn't want to hear it anymore, which means it’s gotten what it need and it's time to move on.

I've observed some of this in my own children, to whom I've read Grimm’s, and other traditional fairy tales every night (with the occasional other book thrown in here and there) for many years. Indeed, there are stories they want to hear several times, and you can see from the expressions on their faces that they are working through something as they listen. And sometimes the impact can be intense. I've witnessed fairy tale events make a child burst into tears. There's obviously something being worked out in that child's psyche! And this is where the anti-fairy tale contingent would say the child is being traumatized by the story. But, in my "unprofessional" opinion, I can see the benefit of this controlled, limited exposure to the problems and challenges of life.

And it hasn't only been the children who are affected by the tales I read. On more than one occasion I have felt myself mysteriously moved by one of the tales I was reading to the children, although I didn't know, on the rational level, why. Two that come to mind are "Jorinda and Joringel" and "Hans the Hedgehog." I have promised myself I will make them the subject of deep meditations some day. I know they will yield deep levels of self knowledge for me. And due to my knowledge of Western esoteric traditions, I can't help noticing that some stories are like alchemical formulas ("The Poor Miller's Boy and the Cat"), some are like initiation rituals, ("The Queen Bee"), and some seem to be metaphysical teachings in parable ("The Old Man Made Young Again").

February 8, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part II)

My leanings in academic pursuits, and my interest in mysticism inevitably led me to become acquainted with the ideas of Carl Jung. In the early 20th century, the world of psychoanalysis brought new dimensions to the understanding of fairy tales for the mainstream educated reading public. Freud and Jung -- especially Jung -- declared them to be phenomena arising from that "new" part of the mind they were telling the world about: the subconscious. (As an aside: the subconscious had been known and used as a tool for centuries by the esoteric schools. Buddhism understood it perfectly. Freud just gave it an acceptable "scientific" framework for working it into the Western paradigm.) This put fairy tales in close association with that other expression of the subconscious: dreams. As a matter of fact, Jung said that fairy tales were a product of the collective unconscious, which made them, more or less, the collective dreams of entire cultures, but in fairy tales the archetypes retain clearer, purer expression without the idiosyncratic complexes of individuals' dreams.

On the one hand, it is quite liberating to look at fairy tales as the workings of the human race's collective mind, since it moves beyond a materialist, empirical preoccupation with ethnic, geographical and linguistic origins (i.e. Someone, somewhere thought this story up, and it's been passed on across time and space ever since.) Jung says that fairy tales come from within us: they are an expression of a very deep part of our being.

But on the other hand, as interesting an exercise as Jungian analysis of fairy tales can be (identifying the roles played in them by such archetypes as "The Old Man" who always appears at difficult junctures in the hero's quest, or the talking animals who advise the hero), for an esoteric student, there is something dissatisfying about the fact that it remains psychology. What's this supposed to do for non-psychologists? True, one can use the Jungian system as a framework for aesthetic criticism (of literature, visual art, cinema, etc.), but the question still remains: what does this mean to my quest? It's fine to know what these stories "mean" in some abstract sense, but what are we supposed to do with that knowledge?

February 5, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part I)

(This is the first in a series of postings on various ways of looking at, and working with, fairy tales. Instalments will be published every two to three days.)

The material that makes up the following series of postings was originally written without any references to myself or to my own experiences, but after getting about half way through the project, it became apparent that the essay wasn't really jelling properly. I began to suspect that it needed the context of how my perspective has shifted over time in order to give it focus and direction. So, I went back through and inserted the personal aspect as delicately as possible, and only as much as needed. It's not that my perspective is so important, or any more important than anyone else's. It was just necessary to give the reader a pair of eyeballs to see this subject through. It was Hellibrarian's comment on my last posting about a fairy tale gave me the angle I was after by mentioning "the field of fairy tales as literature."

This story begins when, at the age of eighteen, I rediscovered a lovely cloth-covered hardback German-language edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales on a shelf in my parents' house. The beautiful beige volume with watercolor illustrations stirred memories of childhood, at which time I couldn't read German yet, but often leafed through it looking at the paintings. I began to read the rediscovered treasure, and noticed that there was a different pleasure in reading the tales as an adult than as a child. Part of my new perspective came from being a student of mysticism and the occult. There was a man twelve years my senior who played the role of spiritual mentor in my youth. He owned a vast library including " many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore", to which I had full access. From this perspective I saw the fairy tales as magic universes full of secret coded messages that could only be unlocked with the proper key. I analyzed the stories (as well as I could) pseudo-kabbalistically, and semi-Freudianly (We all know a little Freud, after all. It's in the food we eat.) But as charming as that all was, I knew there had to be more. There must be more one can get out of them.

A few years later I was studying German as an undergraduate. That's where I got exposed to fairy-tales-as-literature. To many people's minds, the phrase fairy-tales-as-literature seems to ennoble what are commonly thought of as "merely" children's' stories. After all, literature is part of what we regard as "high culture." The Grimm’s tales are associated with those towering figures of philological scholarship, the Brothers Grimm, who dedicated their lives to the documentation of the German language in the Deutsches Woerterbuch (The German Dictionary). The dictionary was a nationalistic project, meant to support the various efforts being made at that time to somehow weave the dozens of principalities from the defunct Holy Roman Empire back into some semblance of unity. The Grimms thought that could be achieved through cultivation of the common language.

Because the prime motivation for collecting these "German" fairy tales was actually a political/linguistic project, this left its stamp on how they were regarded in the 19th century. Indeed, the Grimms were not the only scholars collecting fairy tales and myths (i.e. folklore) in the German-speaking realm during that period. Dozens of collections were published by as many collectors. Much of the early scholarship and commentary on fairy tales retained this focus on fairy-tales-as-folklore. The commentaries dealt with geographical origins, and ethnic heritages. If there were similarities between tales collected in disparate locations, the question was how the oral tradition had travelled, and which cultures communicated with which others. Regarded as folklore, fairy tales were seen as “memes” passed from one generation to the next, like the best way to skin a deer, or the most efficient way to build a house.

Let me tell you an anecdote that sheds a little light on the limitations of fairy-tales-as-literature or folklore, that is, the academic approach. While a graduate student at UC Davis, I attended a seminar in German Romantic literature. Four of us met weekly in the professor's office. As we discussed fictional works of such writers as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Clemens Brentanno and Novalis, it became obvious to me that I saw things in some of these stories that the other students (or the professor, for that matter) didn't see, due to my background in esoteric literature. Most of the time I would keep this to myself, but at other times, when they were getting all wrapped up in (i.e. sidetracked by) some theoretical approach, I would reveal to them which legend or mystical doctrine was being referred to in a story that shed light on the author's intentions. On one occasion the conversation had taken some pretty absurd turns before I decided to inform them that the reference to mandrake root in one story had to do with the fact that European lore says the mandrake root has magical powers due to its being shaped like the human body. I further told them it was believed the root screams when it is pulled out of the ground, and it is fatal to hear this scream. For this reason they harvested it by tying a rope to it and getting some beast of burden to pull it out while the humans jammed their ears shut. After relating this information, there was a short silence. Then Brigitte, one of my fellow students squinted at me and asked, "Where the hell do you know these things from?"

My point is that scholars of Romantic literature often fail to understand that there's a dimension of that literature you can't understand unless you take the authors' obsessions with certain metaphysical ideas seriously, and not smile indulgently at their quaint superstitions. Novalis, for instance, made an intensive study of the works of Jakob Boehme. How can you grasp what's going on in Novalis's works without understanding his mystical view of the world? The same goes for fairy tales. The academic approach often leaves something to be desired. The mystical side of me was left dissatisfied.

The discipline of folklore studies has its uses, but fairy tales are much more than folklore. And as flattering a designation as "literature" is, fairy tales are also much more than that.