The Myth of Psyche and the Myth of Sisyphus: Joining Up the Dots
Updated: May 3
Once upon a time a little girl wanted to become a clinical psychologist. She had some great ideas about what was wrong with the world and thought she knew what was necessary to change it so that people would not suffer so much. Eventually she got on to her chosen course and thanks to this training gained some social power - enough to put into action her ambition. The more she studied the more she could see clearly where the blame for all this suffering lay, she just had to find the right way to educate people and let everyone know what they were doing wrong! Then (maybe after all the thankyous) she would give people a new and improved way to think. She called this encouraging of others reflection!
As the reader might have guessed I very much have a valence for omnipotence. During my Jungian analysis my analyst, in response to many conversations about all of that was wrong in the world, would regularly nod along then gently but wryly say some variation of ‘yes Libby, those people really are the worst sort; thank god you know how to spot them.’
There was a slow painful journey to me actually getting the joke.
"Only a fool is interested in other people’s guilt, since he cannot alter it. The wise man learns only from his own guilt. He will ask himself: Who am I that all this should happen to me? To find the answer to this fateful question he will look into his own heart." C.G. Jung
I have mentioned the mirror symbol in other blogs and to me it is a powerful metaphor for the reflection necessary to assist personal and social change. When I set out on my omnipotent journey to change the world, I thought reflection was about checking my rear view mirror - to
help notice blind spots so I can navigate traffic more appropriately.
The therapy equivalent of this is noticing the social world around me - and what everyone else is doing, how safe or unsafe their driving is and then checking and adjusting my position. Sometimes I might even let other drivers know about their driving and why it is wrong.
In certain ways I think some of this is still true. I am writing this blog after all.
However I can now also see that at the heart of reflective practice (be that in therapy or something else) is an understanding of something deeper than my driving position, reflective practice must also include my driving ability. I then must ask the questions - How do I contribute to the world around me? What is my part in co-creating these environments?
What is interesting to me about my story is that in lots of ways I do now what I always wanted to do: I create spaces for reflection. However, what is different is that I no longer feel the need to change anyone’s mind (well not that often). I hold reflective spaces because I love connecting with people over stories, myths and clinical discussion. I have little idea what will emerge in the conversations: whether my ideas and opinions will change or be consolidated, or, if something entirely new will emerge. What I am aware of is that through connection and conversation something always does happen.
Somewhere along the way I have learnt to very much value the reality that I simply do not know what is in the mind of another person and also appreciate that my own mind is also never fully known to me. Other people’s journeys cannot be my own, and so if I want to learn and live I must focus on my own not knowing. I cannot know what is best for others or how my presence might influence their experience. I can only speak for myself.
However - importantly, I can relate, and in our conversation we might assist each other on our way. Or certainly help get out of each other's way so that we do not block the path. According to Freud, ‘Since the beginning, individual psychology has also been social psychology’. (1921) Foulkes built on this with his ideas of each individual being like a ‘nodal point' in a network field of relationships in space and time (1964). Foulkes refers to this concept as a web of conscious and unconscious communication that metaphorically weaves a group together. We are all both in and are each other's traffic.
Holding these ideas together you might say I have developed a different relationship with driving in traffic. I also know I had to grow into this understanding myself and I would not have been told. I couldn’t know what I did not know. Nor would I have any understanding that what I thought was reflection actually was only a small part of it. To create this shift I had to develop a relationship with curiosity and start to pay some serious sacrifices to the gods of 'boundaries', and ‘I don't knows’ - the gods of unconscious processes. Whilst withholding my more familiar tributes to the gods of 'helpfulness' and 'self-righteousness' - the gods of consciousness and knowing. This has not been an easy process.
As James Hollis states in Living An Examined Life:
We run from ourselves to places of security, of comfort, to the fantasy of fitting in.
... (but) sooner or later we all have an appointment with our soul.
So what might this mean for clinical psychology culture and psychology training ?
Psychology is the scientific or objective study of the psyche. In psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. Foulkes and Carl Jung also included in this definition the overlap and tension between the personal, social and the collective elements of being human.
The word psychology comes from the Greek psukhe, meaning "soul," "spirit," "mind," "life," and "breath, with the Greek logos, here used as "statement," "expression," and "discourse," more often thought of today in the form of "-ology," as "the study of." So psychology can mean the study of our inner mental life or the study of our soul, our deepest self, our breath and life force.
The Greek myth of Psyche is the story of a woman who falls in love, and betrays the god Eros (the god of love and desire) and then her epic quest into the under world to win back her relationship with him. She must maintain humility and be open to receive support and advice from others, including from her enemy to find the wisdom she needs to secure her lover. Psyche and Eros ultimately unite eternally and have a child Voluptas, goddess of bliss.
The word for butterfly in formal Greek is psyche, thought to be the soul of the dead. Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead”. The metamorphosis of the butterfly inspired many to use butterflies as a symbol of the soul’s exit from the body. Thus, the myth of Psyche concomitantly signifies soul and butterfly. It has come to mean the story of the soul coupled with divine eros, but which must nevertheless endure tribulations before achieving immortality. Antonakou and Triarhou, 2017.
As the academic and clinical discipline of psychology has become more diagnostic and therefore more pathology oriented as a profession, the word "mind" is now typically preferred rather than "psyche". The mind is seen as a set of cognitive faculties consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory. It is commonly defined as the faculty of an entity's thoughts and consciousness. It holds the power of imagination, recognition, and appreciation, and is responsible for processing feelings and emotions, resulting in attitudes and actions. This is all necessary and worthy. However is there something lost in this reduction to the use of the word mind? Something that speaks more fully to the human experience. To me what is lost is an authentic valuing of the existence of all that we do not know - honoring a relationship with unconscious processes.
A common symbol of the unconscious in story and myth is that of water. Two thirds of earth is covered by water and they consist of oceans, seas, intertidal zone, reefs, seabed, estuaries, hydrothermal vents and rock pools. This vast component of earth’s natural resource is an aspect of nature we still know relatively very little about. Waters are both dangerous and life sustaining. The oceans and how we navigate them are integral to how civilizations have evolved and shifted over time. People trading and exchanging ideas with neighbouring nations is one of the means by which civilizations advance and evolve. But these exchanges can also be hijacked and civilizations decimated if we utilize colonization as the way of progress.
In Greek mythology Sisyphus was an extremely clever but ruthless King. He was successful because of his cleverness and he had little time for human feelings nor respect for the wisdom of anyone else, including the gods. He kept managing to trick fate and avoiding personal suffering. Much of his story is centered around successfully escaping Thanatos -the god of death. Freud described how Eros and Thanatos are opposite of one another and represent the polar opposite instincts that Freud believes lie within each of us.
In the Sisyphus story the gods ultimately triumph. Sisyphus is famously spending eternity rolling an immense, enchanted boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time the boulder nears the top. Sisyphus was trapped not so much by the gods but by his belief in his own omnipotence as he was given an option: should he get the boulder to the top he can live with the gods in eternity or, he could just not engage in the task and live a plain old human eternal afterlife.
There are many differing interpretations of both these stories. But I thought I might play with one here ...
Despite the compelling connection of the work of a clinical psychologist with the story of Psyche, soul and transformation, in reality the work of clinical psychology is often focused solely on the conscious aspects of mind and group and as a result can feel like a Sisyphean task filled with never ending work, that is effortful and futile in the face of its relentlessness.
Interestingly, one interpretation of the Sisyphus myth by Sansonese, building on the work of Georges Dumézil speculates that the origin of the name "Sisyphus" is onomatopoetic of the continual back-and-forth, susurrant sound ("siss phuss") made by the breath in the nasal passages, situating the mythology of Sisyphus in a far larger context of archaic trance-inducing techniques related to breath control.
Professor Jack Zipes, a renowned author and expert on fairy tales and myths observes “myths and fairy tales seem to know something we do not know ... We keep returning to them for answers.” We may discard them as nonsense, but “these lies are often the lies that govern our lives.”
Another way to look at myths is to view them as symbolic representations of our internal psychic world. By examining their narratives, we gain access to the deepest workings of our minds and hearts. “Mythology is a psychology of antiquity,” writes James Hillman, the great archetypal Jungian analyst, in The Dream and the Underworld. And “psychology is a mythology of modernity.”
Joining the dots, one way of understanding the stories of Psyche and Sisyphus is that they might represent different ways to relate to life and living. Psyche's story, is a story of engagement with both conscious and unconscious processes. This is both painful but transformative. Sisyphus denies there is something bigger than his own conscious understanding and ability and so remains stuck living the same situation over and over again. I know which ending I prefer.