I had lunch today with one of my best friends. She spent several minutes describing this “weird” time she is going through.She isn’t depressed, but she is quieter and more introspective. She isn’t worn out, but has less energy, and wants to sleep more. She is tired of playing roles and ready to “burn the whole thing to the ground.” She is stopping all of the things she has been doing and looking at the things she is being. She is a little afraid of these strange feelings, but trusts her journey.
I suggested that what she was experiencing wasn’t weird at all, but a normal phase of psychic growth. She was describing a pretty standard ego-death from a Jungian perspective.
I decided to write this post because this is a well-worn path for me. In the last two years, I’ve gone into the underworld of my spirit more times than I can count. I’ve destroyed my identity and been left with a complete dissolution of everything I can possibly know about myself. I’ve researched mythology, psychology, literature, and DNA. I’ve written a novel about this journey that I’m halfway through rewriting. Still, I trudge down to the edge of the Lethe and flag down the ferryman.
This place doesn’t scare me, even though it’s creepy the first few times you pass through. I know this road. I know the landmarks. I had a dream not too long ago that Hades has set me up a guest room in his palace. It’s quite lovely.
Every time I emerge from the depths, I’ve become more me. A more authentic, more firmly grounded version of the me I’ve always been but hidden from.
Why I Call Ego-Death a “Wintering”
I’m not talking about the season that’s coming up in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m talking about a wintering of the self. A wintering of the soul. Things aren’t dead inside, they are just dormant.
There’s a sense of stillness. And a sense of death, but the kind of death that speaks of renewal. Leaves that have dropped from trees that we can use to mulch the flower beds. Nutrient-rich, useful death.
This form of hibernation is really a marinade of deep transformation. As Maureen Murdock says in The Heroine’s Journey, “Being is not passive; it takes focused awareness.” Even if that awareness is in the subconscious, it’s still really going on.
When women who describe this state to me hear me use the word “winter” in response to their emotions, they invariably sigh, relax their shoulders, and look at me with deep relief.
Winter is a relief.
It’s a relief because it gives them knowledge that there will be a spring. They know that this strange place is a temporary thing, and one that is incubating wild, riotous growth.
Winter is a time of stillness that is, in truth, containing deep transformation.
The myths that supports this wintering are:
- Persephone’s descent to the Underworld (I prefer to give her some agency).
- Inanna’s descent to the underworld (said to take place when Venus switches from being the morning star to the evening star, which is in the fall, switching back in the spring)
- The Guatemalan Mayan story of Tall Girl
- Amaterasu’s retreat into her cave
Death and Rebirth Require a Tomb and a Womb
I also give these women permission to sleep more. To sit in the dark. To build blanket forts. To take lots of baths.
Transformation needs a container. It needs a safe, still space that can hold all of its growth and change.
Consider these transformational containers:
- cooking pots
The things they have in common are that they are tight, enclosed, warm spaces. They are safe and dark. They are still. Their contents are changing like crazy, but the space – the container – is steady and firm.
People’s eyes light up when I suggest they swaddle themselves in blankets and sit in the dark. These are people who need a safe place to transform. They need holding and stillness because so much is churning inside them.
Where’s the Spring, Yo?
The greatest fear when the ego is dying is that Humpty-Dumpty won’t be put together again. The second greatest fear is that they will be stuck in the winter forever.
The good thing about my having been in and out and down and through this journey so many times is that I’m a decent guide. And I can help scoot a person through the dark. I’ll hold the torch.
First, you have to let it happen. The only way out of this is through it, and fighting it will only make it take longer.
Therapy will turn up the heat on the stove, if you really want that. But fair warning, that journey can go deeper than you expect it to.
Humor! If you look at the myths I pointed out above, bawdy humor at a woman’s joy of life and sex was actually the way the Spring started. Both Demeter and Baubo and Amaterasu and Uzume tell this parallel tale.
Empathy. Empathy. Empathy.
Like my friend’s description above, much of the transformation that takes place in this wintering of ego death is in the state of being rather than doing. And when we say “I am X” instead of “I do X” we are talking about a different layer of work.
If we are looking at something regrettable we have done, and we think of it as “I did something wrong”, that feeling is one of guilt. Guilt can be used to learn lessons and to decide what not to do again. We can apologize and move on.
If we are looking at something regrettable we have done, and we think of it as “I am something wrong”, that feeling is one of shame. Shame does nothing but harm. And the only way we can get over shame is by experiencing empathy.
Ego-death is often about unearthing and exorcising shame. The transformation is often about facing shame, and releasing ourselves from it. This requires empathy with ourselves, and it requires asking for empathy from other people.
In the Inanna myth I mention above, empathy is the key to the goddess’s release from the underworld. The creative moon god, Enki, sends tiny beings made of the dirt under his fingernails. And when Ereshkigal moans with labor pains and cries “oh, my insides!”, the little mannikins cry “oh, your insides!”. When Ereshkigal mourns the loss of her consort, and cries “oh, my outsides!” the mannikins cry “Oh! your outsides!” Only their empathy can create the space for Inanna to be released back into the world above.