Friday, February 5, 2010

Turning Point

One of the turning points in my own life took place in the mid-90s when I encountered depth psychology. It came about at a time when I was looking for a way to better interpret and make sense of the ways life had unfolded, and its emphasis on symbolic images within the psyche was very appealing. Even more helpful was time spent with a Jungian analyst, who insisted the image was less important than the way I took it to heart.

Two of these images are ones that appear in the dreams of men and women, usually in the form of contrasexual figures. Sometimes they are recognizable, a friend, former or current lover, and sometimes we can't place them at all. In any case, their function is to reveal aspects of ourselves that have been neglected or have the capability of enhancing our lives. They don't necessarily represent real persons and instead, serve as symbols of the persons we wish to become, of directions we need to take in personal growth.

Jung called the female figure, the anima, and the male figure, the animus. The former shows up in the dreams of men and the latter in those of women. Now, to be sure, there are other figures who populate our dreams, and we can get to them as time goes along. For now, though, I'd like to concentrate on the animus. Tomorrow we'll develop the anima.

The first thing to keep in mind is, these do not represent a man's "feminine side" or a woman's "masculine side." We often speak in those terms because we associate certain qualities with masculinity and femininity, something reflected in dream imagery. But strictly speaking, the attributes revealed by the anima and animus transcend gender. Personally, I think assigning gender to the traits revealed by these figures gets in the way of what we need to learn, but that's me.

It's simplest to try to visualize the animus and here the film industry comes to our aid. In the movie, Medicine Man, biochemist Rae Crane is sent by a drug company to the Amazon basin in search of one of their scientists, reclusive Robert Campbell. From the very beginning, Campbell challenges her assumptions. This is one of the things an animus does for a woman. She begins the film relying on a corporate image for self-definition and by the ending, has chosen one uniquely suited to herself.

Anima/animus figures can be negative (inhibiting, critical, persecuting) or positive (encouraging, nurturing, vitalizing). For Crane, the negative animus is associated with conventionality and represented by a wealthy young man to whom she has become engaged. Pointing out that her fiance is a major financial contributor who comes from "good stock," Campbell hints her choice was motivated by social acceptability and not necessarily her own preferences. 

When a woman chooses conventionality over originality, it's because she has given in to an image of womanhood derived from the expectations of others. Her task is to establish an identity based on what she envisions for herself, which may or may not be in agreement with the one assigned and approved by society.

As a positive animus, Campbell also forces Crane to look closely at the resources she possesses for dealing with life. Hiking through the jungle, for instance, she develops a massive headache and asks Campbell for an aspirin. He brushes her request aside and hands her a local remedy made from the bark of the Yoko tree. This scene shows how the healing of her identity, the cure of her soul, requires her to embrace intuition and become more instinctive.

In a late night encounter with the village medicine man, she receives a tatoo on her forehead marking her as a person in transition. She is moving away from the person she was toward a stronger, independent character. In the final scene, we see that she has abandoned the heavy boots she wore when arrived in the jungle that represent protection from the passion of real life, and now walks with bare feet through the jungle, like the native villagers. She's gotten in touch with her capacity for making her own choices as opposed to those made for her. Instead of returning to civilization and marrying her fiance, she decides to remain with Campbell, suggesting the changes she's undergone are permanent and there's no going back to the way she used to be.

Whether a woman chooses to use dream imagery or depictions in film or literature as a guide, the image of the positive animus points in the direction of wholeness. It urges a woman to be true to herself, trust her own judgment, and develop new avenues for growth and fulfillment. The women I described in my recent post on relationships are all ones who have nurtured healthy relationships with their animus, becoming not less feminine but more so, as they become completely themselves.

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