Archive for June, 2007

Dream Horses and Women’s Psyches

Yesterday I did a healing session with a friend, who is at a crossroads in her life and curious about her future (See www.ancestorsway.com). The visualization session focused on having a guide appear. She actually had many guides appear, in the form of animals—first frogs, then a bear, and a snake. Perhaps most remarkably, though, was the appearance of horses.

 Horse Visitations 

In her meditative state, my friend saw her beloved horse Skipper from childhood. She also saw her father’s roan mare with a white blaze, who had died traumatically. As her father was riding her, the mare broke her neck coming down from a jump. My girlfriend then sensed the presence of a herd of wild horses inviting her to live passionately and boldly. She experienced herself running freely, while enjoying the companionship of the other wild horses.

Another woman, my friend Karen, unaccountably found herself making sculptures, paintings, and drawings of horses as she was going through a traumatic and devastating divorce. She poured her soul into the artwork, and it gave her the strength to stand up for her daughter and confront her controlling ex-husband. Karen left her comfortable suburban home and moved to the country where she now has five horses and pursues her art.

I recently devoted four years of my life researching women and horses, even though to this day I have never owned a horse and have rarely ridden them. Horses have, however, visited me throughout my adult life in my dreams and visionary experiences. During a meditation experience, I sought the wisdom of the Great Goddess, when a gorgeous stallion appeared and mated with me. I had an experience of an ancient time when women and horses were sacred, sensual and free. The imagery was so dramatic and startling, that it led me into my research topic for my doctorate.

 

During the course of my research, I was visited by other horses—a white mare, and a herd of wild horses that I call the Horse Ancestors. A few weeks ago, I was visited by the presence of Brownie, a Shetland pony (See The Horse that Got Away Part III: Working with a Core Wound.) Our experiences are unique yet not unusual. Bestselling author Linda Kohanov writes about the Horse Ancestors, while two experts on women’s dreams, Karen Signell and Clarissa Pinkola Estés, have both found that horses are a common motif for hundreds of women.

 Dream Horses 

Who are these other-worldly horses that come to women’s psyches at critical times in their lives? These are the horses I call Dream Horses—the horses that live in our dreams, memories, artwork, and imaginations. Why do they come? Are they real or spirit? Are they a figment of our unconscious? Are they part of our personal unconscious, or of a wider collective unconscious?

Alice Walker has said, The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”  

In just the same way, dream horses exist for their own reasons. We speak of dreams as if they are our dreams, as if they are possessions. This kind of possessive thinking is just enough to chase dream figures away and discourage any kind of meaningful dialogue or learning. Psychologist Carl G. Jung railed against people that would create dream dictionaries in their misguided attempt to pin down the meaning of different symbols.  

How to Work with the Imaginal

Dream horses and other dream figures are imaginal figures. Imaginal is a word coined by depth psychologists in an attempt to find some language that honors the experiences of dreams and myth. In our western rationalistic and scientific culture, an imaginary experience is one that did not happen, so it is devalued. If we can not see it or measure it, then it must not exist.  Use of the word imaginal is a way to insist that these experiences are both real and important. When we are in the midst of a vivid dream, there is no question that what we experience is real.

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and the task of the sculptor is to discover it.” He knew that his job as sculptor was to guide the image out of the stone which had its own personality, needs and voice. This same sensibility and respect should be accorded dream and other imaginal figures. Like Michelangelo, we need to listen in to what wants to emerge.

Jung developed a method called active imagination for working with symbols, images and dreams that helps to build relationship with these mysterious figures. Honoring imaginal experiences through active imagination techniques of art making, journaling, dream drama, dialogue and other forms of creative expression is vital for a healthy relationship with the psyche. 

What Does It Mean? 

At the risk of being simplistic, the aforementioned stories of women’s encounters with Dream Horses show some common characteristics: 

  • Transition: Dream Horses want to help, and tend to come at times of change—they appear as guides, just as sure-footed horses can find their way in the dark.
  • Power: Just as we measure cars in horsepower, Dream Horses often lend their strength and energy to women.
  • Authentic Self: Encounters with Dream Horses often encourage women to follow their soul callings and passions.
  • The Herd: Visitations by multiple horses can bring a sense of belonging and dispel a sense of isolation.

 Dream Horse Exercise: 

If you would like a Dream Horse visitation, try the following exercise:

  1. Go to a quiet, safe place where you will not be disturbed, such as your bedroom.
  2. Light a candle to invite the presence of the Divine.
  3. Close your eyes while sitting in a comfortable position. Imagine you are outside, among a herd of friendly horses. One horse catches your eye. With your mind, invite it to come to you. In your mind’s eye, observe as many details as you can: color, size, age, personality, smell of the horse, the time of day, season and location.
  4. Thank your new friend for coming to you and be patient. See what happens. Perhaps you can “talk” together and you can ask questions. Maybe you will receive an impression or felt sensation. Some people, for example, just feel a sense of acceptance. Accept your experience without judgment. This is the start of a relationship, and relationships take time to build.
  5. Journal about your experience. Try drawing a picture and see what happens.
  6. Try this exercise more than once. You may get the same horse, or a different one. Trust your experience.

Finally, enjoy your Dream Horse experiences. They can be an unexpected blessing, especially during difficult times. I invite you to write to me about your experience (below).

  

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Women and Horses in Mythology: Epona

In the ancient hills just 1.5 miles south of the town of Uffington, England is a three-thousand year old drawing of a horse that is both elegant and mysterious. Best seen from the air, the remarkable stylized horse drawn with white chalk is believed to represent Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. The 374 foot drawing was the focus of ancient religious celebrations. Every seven years, the horse drawing was ritually cleansed. Even today, the members of the English Heritage clean and maintain the beautiful drawing which calls to us with an air of mystery.

 Why Are Ancient Horse Goddesses Important Today?

Epona, like the horse goddesses from Celtic and other cultures, links the horse, the divine and the feminine. These ancient myths and legends can still inform us today and may help us understand the incredible draw that so many girls and women have to horses. Epona, depicted so beautifully on top of the English hill, reminds us of a time when women and horses were sacred, honored, and free. So, who was Epona? What did she represent? And how does she speak to us today throughout the millennia?

 Who was Epona?

The name Epona comes from the Gaulish word epos, meaning horse. The “on” and the “a” at the end of Epona’s name show that she was a female deity. Some translations of Epona are “divine mare” and “she who is a mare.”

 

According to Turner and Coulter,[1] Epona was a deity that reigned over the fertility of the land, who later became the goddess of the equine race. They suggest that she may have been the prototype for Lady Godiva, the woman who protested taxes levied on the poor in 1057 by appearing nude upon her horse in Coventry, England.

 

In Germany, [2] Epona was honored as a psychopomp, or spirit guide for the dead. In Ireland, she was associated with nightmares, and also with crossroads. Throughout western Europe, small devotional figures to Epona were widely found in stables. Epona was clearly revered as a protective deity with deep connections to other realms of knowing.

 Patriarchal Transformation of Epona

It appears that the original sacred meaning of this divine feminine deity was perverted by patriarchal domination and mores. Gaulish horsemen conscripted in the Roman conquest brought the worship of Epona to Rome, where she had her own holiday (December 18) as a goddess of war. Previously, Epona is known to have been widely revered as a protector of horses, cattle, donkeys and oxen. Until the Christian era, roses were used to decorate both horses and stables to honor Epona. Probably because of horses’ critical role in warfare, and Epona’s role mediating between the lands of the living and the dead, the devotion to Epona became linked to the winning of wars. The idea of Epona as a war goddess is repugnant to me, though it makes sense to me that a mother may have prayed to Epona to protect her sons and their horses fighting in a faraway land.

 

Epona’s connection with nightmares was probably a similar perversion and adaptation of her original role in mediating day consciousness, and the unique and uncontrollable world of night dreams. As a crossroads figure, Epona was a mediator between day and night, and between the living and the dead.

 Epona Today

Not much more is known about Epona, so it is up to us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. She is a very real presence that has resonance for many modern horsewomen. Countless women have taken Epona’s name for their stables and riding programs. Epona has appeared as a character in the popular historical fiction The Horse Goddess.[3] Judith Tarr is another novelist who blends history with fiction in her White Mare’s Daughter series that features reverence to the Horse Goddess. Epona’s re-emergence in modern culture may speak to our need to honor the strength and resilience of women, and our connection with the divine feminine.

 

As we ponder the mystery of Epona and the Uffington horse drawing, may the ancient Celtic goddess continue to guide us safely in transitions of life and death, bringing protection and wisdom to us during those times. May she assist us when we are at important crossroads in our lives. And, finally, may we honor Epona when we love a horse freely, provide for her care, and take in horses and other critters that need tending.

 

For more on Epona, See:

http://www.epona.net/introduction.html

http://www.wilsonsalmanac.com/goddess_epona.html

 

For More on the Uffington Horse, See:

http://www.hows.org.uk/personal/hillfigs/uff/uffing.htm

http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/majorsites/uffington.html
 


[1] Turner, P. and Coulter, C.R. (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Held, C.(2006) Horse Girl: An Archetypal Study of Women, Horses, and Trauma Healing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute.

[3] Llywelyn, M. (1998) The Horse Goddess. New York: Tor Books.

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The Horse That Got Away Part III: Working with a Core Wound

But Maybe this Loss Wasn’t So Bad

Last week, I talked about how not winning a coveted Shetland pony as a young girl was a core wound. As a grown woman, it seems ludicrous in some ways that this loss could have had such an impact. My rational brain argues that if I had really loved horses so much, I could have gotten a horse years ago. Instead I locked the loss tightly within my heart, almost forgotten, where it laid buried deep inside of me for decades.

 Comparing Losses

The loss of a pony pales next to other losses I have experienced. My best girlfriend died in a plane crash. Another girlfriend died in a car crash. My younger brother died a premature death due to the effects of alcoholism and homelessness. Both of my marriages to two Vietnam veterans ended in divorce, and the second divorce had a huge ripple effect on my children and stepchildren. I have been physically assaulted and experienced invasive surgeries. Surely, these would qualify as more important losses.

 Minimizing Our Pain

Comparing our losses is a way to minimize our pain. As humans, we especially minimize the losses of loved animal companions. Sometimes minimization can be helpful. When I was laid up from a ruptured Achilles tendon injury, I was relieved that my injury was not permanent when I saw an old man in a wheelchair. When I was taken aback by the long snakelike scar on my leg, I was grateful that I lived in a country and time where such surgery was possible.

 

Yet, comparing or minimizing our pain can also be a way to avoid feeling the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that arise. For example, with my ruptured Achilles tendon, focusing on what I was grateful for kept me from feeling my anxiety about being unable to take care of my young children, and fears of vulnerability, disability and death. Minimization can be the key that locks the pain away into our psyche, and adults are very good at offering explanations to young children in their effort to help them.

 Working with My Loss: Brownie

One effective way to work with grief and loss is through making art, and using the imagination to heal. As I thought about my loss, my sadness was magnified by my guilt over remembering neither  the pony’s name nor its color. I laid down and closed my eyes, holding a horse figure on my heart. As I did, tears came. I also sensed the presence of a friendly chestnut Shetland pony with very kind eyes. I imagined saying to her, “I am so sorry, I don’t remember my pony’s name or its color.” She responded kindly and without blame that I could name her whatever I like, and that she would be my pony.

 Healing Artwork

I did a series of four drawings. In the first one, I drew Brownie first, and handed her an apple. Instead of being on the other side of the fence, I drew us on the same side of the fence. As I look at the drawing, I realized that I drew myself very far away from her, as if in fear of her. I drew Brownie bigger than me, perhaps because she seems so much more powerful. I tried again, and drew another picture.

 

One thing I learned as an art therapist is that the images we hold in our psyche are very powerful. If we change our images, our psyche changes, too.

 

In the second drawing, we are closer to the same size, and my features as a seven year-old are more defined. I hand the apple to Brownie, but she reaches for me, rather than the apple. I found myself thinking, “Oh, she likes me. I thought she just cared about the apple.” In the third drawing, I try to hug her, having difficulty figuring out how my hands should go. Pink rays emanate from us both to signify love. In this drawing, my feet are tilted, and I am not grounded. I look very unbalanced, like a brisk wind could knock me over. I have had this experience in love relationships!

 

In the last drawing in this series, I draw our heads together, surrounded by a big heart. We are equal and in balance. The fear in the first drawing has given way to a warm embrace. My eyes are closed in the drawing—in trust for this beautiful and loving being.

 Healing a Core Loss—A Start

I made a new beginning for myself by doing this artwork. Before losing “my” Shetland pony, I had imagined being able to experience freedom and companionship by being with a horse. These are core needs of my soul that have been compromised in human relationships, especially in my relationships with men. Brownie is real to me. Over time, through art, visualization, and writing techniques, I will continue to develop a relationship with her. I can practice relationship skills with Brownie that will serve me in my other relationships.

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The Horse that Got Away Part II–A Core Wound

Last week I wrote about not getting a Shetland pony at the Chagrin Falls, Ohio Blossom Time fair when I was seven. I turned away from my loss at the time by turning away from my love for horses, with the exception of doing artwork of horses. Yet, horses doggedly pursued me in my dreams, artwork and meditative experiences decades later. I am now 51 years old and have never owned a horse, or even been in their company on a regular basis. Why, then, did I just devote five years of my life to a unique piece of research on the amazing and wondrous relationship between women and horses and what it means for our times?

Somehow, last week, in writing First Love: The Horse That Got Away, I felt my childhood loss and betrayal in a new way, especially after talking to a dear friend and lifelong horsewoman. Pamela spoke compassionately about the enormity of that loss in a way that evoked long-unshed tears and caused me to look at this loss with more respect. She also said that losing that Shetland pony, especially when my dad bought the ticket for the other girl who won it, may have even caused me to lose faith in God as a child. 

The Gifts of Core Wounds

Therapists and psychologists, if they are rigorously honest to their soul work, typically specialize in the areas of their greatest wounds—core wounds. A core wound can both be the worst and best thing that ever happens to us. I say that it can be the best thing because if you work with your wounds with courage and respect, they may reveal special gifts. Indigenous cultures, the ancient Greeks, and modern-day psychologists work with a concept called the Wounded Healer. In indigenous cultures, a healer was chosen by their ability to heal themselves from a life experience/wound that could have killed them or led to insanity. Wounds reveal gifts—often healing abilities, empathy, and spiritual awareness. We all know someone who has taken a tragic situation, and instead of being shattered by it, has instead used it as a springboard to new growth and awareness. One example is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s concept of death awareness, which is the person who lives vibrantly because of the awareness of death. In archetypal psychology, founded by James Hillman, illness, wounds and symptoms are seen as the soul’s way of getting our attention.

Trauma Healing

The core wound cuts deep into our psyche and helps define the way that we experience the world. We try to avoid our core wounds because it hurts so much to feel their pain. Core wounds are typically caused by a traumatic incident. Yet why do different people respond so differently? Two people may experience the identical traumatic incident such as a fire, or a sudden deep loss, yet one recovers and the other is held hostage to the trauma, coming back to it over and over again, unable to “move on.” Like a dog chewing on a bone when the meat is long gone, trauma victims often are stuck in a kind of time warp, forced to re-live their experience over and over.

The interesting thing about trauma, is that it is not what happens to us, but rather how we think about what happened to us that makes it traumatic. Often this thinking has us believing that we are bad, unworthy, or unlovable. Other mistaken beliefs may be that we are alone, and do not need or deserve help from anyone else. We may also, as my friend pointed out, end up with a lingering sense that we are unlovable in the eyes of God, or however we imagine the Divine.

I have worked through numerous issues of loss, betrayal, physical and sexual assault, the sudden deaths of loved ones, and family issues of alcoholism. I have grieved two divorces. I have also been an art therapist to combat veterans, incest survivors and child victims of violence. Currently I work as a hands-on healer with people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.Yet in all my years of personal therapy, training and schooling in psychology, and deep psychological work, until last week I managed to tiptoe around one of my own deepest core wounds—the loss of a horse when I was a young girl. Even as I write these words, my inner critic (posing as my logical mind) is trying to minimize the loss as a way to keep me from feeling its depth.

Next Week: Working With a Core Wound

In the next posting, I will demonstrate how to engage the imagination in working with my own core wound.

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