Master, Mentor, Teacher, Guide

And so we have sat with the baby, calling to mind how small and helpless we were so long ago, how patterns we have had in our lives since infancy and early childhood have stuck with us, in some cases crippling or hindering us in ways we do not wish–in ways that we can’t seem to quite overcome just yet. Just days after my own birthday, I thought about my experiences in the hours, days, and weeks following my premature birth and subsequent lengthy hospitalization, and I have looked at the patterns I began to learn then, and wondered. I wonder because in our Jungian studies classes, over and over again the seasoned analysts, writers, and scholars who teach us say that even their clients in their 50s, 60s, and 70s haven’t been able to adequately compensate for the patterns stamped indelibly on their souls, patterns that give them problems their entire lives and which, in later ages, bring them to the analyst’s office.

“Given how difficult it is to change,” I ask, “do people really change? And if so, how?”

I direct this to Dr. Hollis, whose presence and generous contributions of self I so appreciate, who replies that yes, people do change sometimes, but change is difficult if it occurs, and it cannot occur unless a person has a mentor of sorts, a conscious, wise, and mature counselor to whom one is accountable. This someone is there to ask after the what and wherefore of one’s actions, to gently point out the pattern and how it lames a person or hinders her, and to listen. This mentor is one who sees and hears you, and tries to understand. Without this person in your life, you are flying blind and without adequate training to make it through.

Another analyst who is also a priest taught us that he was taught that one in a hundred people are actually analyzable. What does this mean? It means that most people don’t consider unconscious motivations, don’t believe they have patterns that drive them to repeat and revisit their wounds over and over again, and will not cooperate with any kind of analysis of the evidence of their unconscious. They don’t want to see and therefore there is nothing to be seen, no matter how in-your-face the obvious is to the observer. We are being slapped in the face with the other person’s unconscious patterns, but they’re oblivious. It’s painful to experience, and out of necessity one has to move outside the range of the flailing if one hopes to escape harm.

A person who changes lifelong patterns does it through consistent, wise, reliable accountability to another, and also by having the structure that supports the pattern systematically dismantled. This dismantling is easiest to observe in addiction recovery, where the first thing that happens is an addict is removed from his usual environment and put into a treatment facility. There, his old friends and haunts and substances are not available. He has no familiar tools or routines, nor access to the destructive treatment program he’s designed for himself. We remove the structure supporting the addiction and then we look at what remains. What remains is what we’re after. An addiction functions very much like a complex, or what Buddhists call a knot, in that it has a cold, calculating, and single-minded obsession with serving itself. It seems to have a life of its own, which is why it’s called a disease. The addiction, like the neurosis, complex, or mental illness is very much like a wicked witch who has cast a spell over a person and holds him in her thrall. We are helpless in the face of its power unless someone comes to our aid, some elixir is found, some rescue attempted.

A prince goes by and hears Rapunzel singing; the prince kisses the Sleeping Beauty–something happens with a force of “Otherness” to it that on an archetypal level is about an imprisoned, poisoned, sleeping part of ourselves that needs rescuing by the awake, alive, and virile part. This is one reason why we love a good romance, long for the knight in shining armor to come over the hill on his white horse bearing his coat of arms. We sense that the power of rescue is within us, but we can’t do it alone. We need help. We need a force stronger than ourselves to get us out of the clutches of our own destructive process.

And so the addict goes to treatment. There he eats new food, does not use harmful substances but is given new substances, new tools, even a new language for conceptualizing life and communicating with others. He is given a new peer group and, yes, a sponsor. In every single system of recovery, recovery and consciousness begin with a mentor and a big change that puts the old habit pattern on its ear. But even this isn’t enough; we hear all too often about addicts relapsing, because the power of the old pattern is so much stronger than the loose and frightening feeling of being uncontained after being released from treatment. Therapy, group work, or analysis may provide enough of a constant context of care to counterbalance a person’s lifelong patterns; but more often than not, people regress or fall back into the hole again. Anyone who has tried to stop smoking, to diet, or to change any habit or reoccurring pattern of relating or reacting knows how hard-won any change is.

Though I use addictions as an example, what I mean to say is that change is difficult for anyone. We really can’t do it without an accountability partner and mentor. We also need a friend or friends with whom we can partner, if possible. But we need a teacher. We need the Zen master, priest, rabbi, mentor, counselor, crone, analyst, therapist to whom we are accountable over time–over a long period of time. The pattern that your mother and father set going in you from infancy onward is not going to be modified, corrected, improved, much less eradicated if we are lone wolves, loping off into the dark night on our own. We are likely to remain predators or even become prey, doing things that way.

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