Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Fisher King: Finding One's Center

Holy Grail in Valencia, Spain
Holy Grail in Valencia, Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When we left him in yesterday's post, the Fisher King was doing the only thing that gave him relief from suffering -- fishing. As it turns out, he lives in the Grail Castle of Arthurian legend, wherein resides the Holy Grail. Every night, a procession takes place in the castle and the Grail, along with the lance that pierced the side of Christ, are brought forth. Anyone who is served from the Grail receives whatever s/he wishes, even if their desire has never been put into words. Anyone that is, except the king.

Unfortunately, there are some wounds that are unresponsive to simple solutions. A few weeks of cognitive-behavioral therapy might be sufficient to learn basic skills for coping with depression, but some things take time and deep cultivation to overcome. Wounds to the feeling function such as the king received as a youth are like that. Even a sip from the Cup of Christ cannot touch his pain.

Legend has it a young man will come, view the procession, and ask a question that has the power to alleviate the king's suffering and its effect on the kingdom. In other words, instead of focusing on the king's symptoms, he will direct attention to the core issue. The time for symptom management is long past; we need to find the cure.

Enter Parsifal, the innocent "fool" (see 1/24/09), who has been traveling the country, engaged in knight errantry much as the young king, years before. Seeking shelter one evening, he encounters an old man fishing in a lake who informs him there is no inn for miles. Should Parsifal wish, he may ride down the road a little further, take a left turn and cross the drawbridge, and stay the night in the castle. In order to fulfill his destiny and open the way for the king's healing, he will have to "turn left" and enter the realm of the unconscious mind (see 1/16/09).

Parsifal accepts the offer, witnesses the procession, but fails to ask the question. Why does he hold back at the critical moment? It may be because he does not know the question. He is still a youth and hasn't experienced the kinds of things that keep us awake at night, wondering what if? But there is something else, something
beneath his armor, that works against him as well. Parsifal wears a garment of homespun made by his mother to protect him against the wiles of the world. Though he wishes to appear a man, the homespun signifies a desire to be nurtured and cared for by mother that is more appropriate to a younger age. He is not yet ready to ask the deepest questions of life.

Twenty years later, Parsifal once again finds himself in the woods near the Grail Castle, seeking shelter. He has spent his life rescuing maidens, slaying dragons, and living out the Knight's Tale. Now grown, he has finally put off his mother's homespun and learned to meet the world on its own terms. Once again, he is encouraged by a curious old man fishing in a lake, to ride down the road, turn left, cross the drawbridge, and spend the night in his castle. This time, however, he possesses the maturity to ask, "Whom does the Grail Serve?" At that moment, the king is healed of his wound and the kingdom is restored to vitality. Three days later, the king dies.

Boyishness is a wonderful quality and its spontaneity, exuberance, and delight in living can be vivifying in a man. But it needs to be coupled with depth and experience to be effective in dealing with such things as a wounded feeling function. Some men are never quite able to shed their homespun. There have a quality of indecision or uncertainty about them, especially in the clinches, that seems to say, "Life is too much for me." Having never let go of reliance on mother or mother figures, they are virtual boys in a man's body.

For most men, however, mid-life arrives carrying the baggage of loss -- perhaps a divorce or the death of a parent. Loss can be a gift that drags a man out of self-absorption, showing him how he may have wasted precious time, or missed important opportunities. He begins asking what has motivated him and how does he wish to spend the rest of his life. Questions like these place him in a position to ask whom the Grail serves. The answer, as you might have guessed, is something or someone greater than oneself.

When the young prince took a piece of salmon his thinking was ego-centered: "I'm hungry, there's no one around, why not?" He was untrue to his own sense of what was right -- in the grandiosity of youth, we often do things we come to regret, that wound us for years. Healing comes about with the recognition that living for ourselves, to appease the demands of our own appetites, isn't a sufficient basis for a meaningful approach to life. There has to be something more, something that transcends us, and gives life significance, savor, and meaning. The mature Parsifal could ask the question because he'd gained confidence, learned to provide for and care for himself, and knew what it meant to have his own questions.

When a woman or man finds a center outside themselves, whatever they choose that to be, they are in a position to gain the perspective to help identify what is truly important for them. Misplaced priorities can be clarified and the regrets associated with what is beyond recovery can be addressed, mourned and let go. The consequence of this curative process is a feeling function that can actually serve, rather than oppose us by generating weariness, anxiety, and depression. Uncovering and befriending our capacity for feeling enables us to become more human, more humane, more the persons we'd like to believe we are.

Or have always wanted to be.

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