A Life Made by Hand with Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD, is a senior analyst who has practiced and taught for 20 years. She is the former executive director of the C.G. Jung Institute of Denver, and has a doctorate in Multicultural Studies and Clinical Psychology from the Union Institute. She has served as an artist-in-residence for the state of Colorado. Her published works include Women Who Run with the Wolves and the Jungian Storyteller Series of Audiotapes: The Wild Woman Archetype, Warming the Stone Child, The Creative Fire, The Radiant Coat, The Boy Who Married an Eagle, and In the House of the Riddle Mother (all available from Sounds True).

Sounds True: One of the main themes you explore in Women Who Run with the Wolves is how women can uncover their injured instincts. If a woman's instincts are injured, can they be healed or repaired?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Yes. There are many ways to approach the necessary mending. For example, you can seek out an individual whom you feel has her instincts intact, and then emulate this dynamic figure. You may also form a relationship with her, based on self-study and kinship. Other times, the mending begins by the taking of solitude. Be alone for as long a time as you can. Be away from all the mouths and hands that reach out, plucking at a woman, wanting to consume her mentally, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Time spent in solitude clarifies “the core needs,” that is, aspects of life that you feel you cannot live without.

Another pathway to repair injured instinct is, as Carl Jung put it, to live a natural life. Attempt, if you can, to live close to anything that is natural and cyclical. Live close to black dirt, a garden, a house plant, a dog, or a cat—something that has no artifice to it. Observe and make a relationship with that living criatura, creature. Notice that it moves in cycles. Try then to see what your own cycles are. This brings you out of the clackity-clack outer world into the world of the Self, providing new ideas and new ways to consider yourself.

Sounds True: You talk about how there's a predatory force in the culture that wants to silence and contain the wild nature of women, and how there is also a predatory force within the psyche. It's easy for me to see the predator in our culture, but who or what is this inner predator?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: When we are born, there appear to be in the ego small “nodes” of potential for various qualities—for belief in God, for creativity, for loving others, and so on, and also for negative feelings about ourselves and others. Those nodes remain small and non-intrusive, until or unless a life episode occurs that triggers an enlargement and quickening, causing the nodes to gain energy and power. When a node that was once powerful becomes fully manifest, and especially with a negative effect on our life, we call it a complex.

So, the internal predator is the nay-saying function of the psyche, an aggressive complex that criticizes, “You are not adequate or acceptable.” The two triggers that seem to especially energize the internal predator during the course of a woman's life are abuse and neglect—abuse of her emotional nature, her creative functions and talents. Abuse occurs by restricting or smothering her talents and the development of her ideas and personal voice. Neglect can be understood as the willful or unconscious lack of perception and attention to things that will perpetuate her growth and thriving. A woman who has experienced this lives in a dulled psychic state, as though a bushel has been forced down over a shining light.

Sounds True: How do you protect yourself from your inner predator once you recognize it?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: That is the great sorrow of a destructive environment in childhood. As a child, there is no way to protect one's self. That is why it is so cruel to hurt a child. As adults, and even in adolescence, we learn better to protect ourselves by staying away from the people and things that do us harm. However, if a woman's instinctual psyche has been injured in childhood, then often as an adolescent or young adult, she will not know how to stay away from harmful substances, harmful people, harmful endeavors. The instinctual nature that instructs one to run away, or hide, does not assert itself in a timely manner.

The internal predator grows very large as the result of humiliation, rejection, name-calling, disregard of talents and uncommon gifts. In my psychoanalytic experience, the reconstitution of protection begins when a woman comes face-to-face with the internal predator, and when life has become so unbearably painful, so deleterious, that she has no other choice but to face it, and say “I just cannot live this way anymore.”

It's at this point—whether because her creative life is dry as a bone, or because she is in a damaging relationship, or a life of stultifying boredom—that she says, “I must find something ... something else.” Most often then, she is drawn to something that brings vitality to her life at last. Often she finds herself drawn to the arts—paint-ing, dancing, writing, weaving, carving, creating—because all these comprise the multilingual Self. The arts have the ability to transport the person into the symbolic realm as well as to translate in many ways what one sees there.

Sounds True: In the story of “The Red Shoes,” you introduce the idea of creating a “hand-made life.” Can you help us understand the meaning of this term?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: The hand-made life is based on having an idea of how you envision your life unfolding, and then proceeding with it slowly, but surely. Not being seduced by the dancing girls or dancing boys along the road; not being taken away by promises of a faster, quicker, easier, more wonderful short cut, but staying with the job of crafting your life very closely and very carefully.

In medieval times, it was said that it took an artisan an entire lifetime to make a single rose window from stained glass. The father worked on it, and his son worked on it, and possibly the son's son worked on it. Throughout the entire lifetime of three generations, the family created one magnificent window in praise of the spirit, and of God. Today, when we look at Chartres Cathedral and see this incredible handcrafted devotion in vermilions, scarlets, and verdant greens, we know that each window is a miracle that would not exist had they been created quickly, or cheaply, or in volume.

The handcrafted life is very much like this. It takes a lifetime to accomplish. It emerges from a small and infinitely exquisite piecing together of one's inner and outer lives, these being crafted, played, woven together every day, every week, every month, come summer, come winter, the same. The overall magnificence takes many years. It cannot be fast-forwarded.

So, when there is a hunger in the psyche because not enough love or nourishment is forthcoming from the outer world, then there is temptation to seize at things that might relieve some of the suffering. But the shortcut, the easy way, always falls apart. Then one returns to the handmade life. One has to pick it up painfully, and piece it back together, holding the overall pattern in one's mind, but working patiently, piece by piece.

Sounds True: You speak of stories as medicine—that stories are sisters to dreams. How do you think stories work on the psyche?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Stories instantaneously bypass the ego. The ego cannot absorb the entire pith of story. The ego hears the story as a form of entertainment. While the ego is kept happy, thinking it is being entertained, the soul and the spirit are listening deeply. The flow of images in stories is medicine—similar medicine to listening to the ocean or gazing at sunrises. No direct interaction has occurred—the ocean did not jump into your body and fill you. But there is something about seeing, hearing, and smelling the ocean that has bypassed the ego, and straightened out many things that were in disarray within the psyche. Some people are remedied by thunderstorms, some by music, some by the voice of a person they love.

Story has the same kind of influence. It flows where it is needed, and applies itself there—like an antibiotic that finds the source of the infection and concentrates there. The story helps to make that part of the psyche clear and strong again.

Sounds True: Stories and storytelling are vital to your work—you have already recorded six audiotape titles in the Jungian Storyteller Series. What do you think about audio as a way of documenting your creative output?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Once, a long time ago, there was a one-eyed woman in the north woods where I lived, who gave spiritual readings with an old poker deck. She told me that I was born under the sign of Aquarius, and drew for me with a pencil sharpened by pen-knife, a picture of the old alchemical symbol for Aquarius. It looked to me like a radio antenna on top of the world. When I began working in audio, this was the image that I carried in my mind. Working in audio seems natural to me. This is, you might say, the mother under which I was born, the mother of the voice, the mother of communication and airwaves.

There is something very mysterious and mystical about audio. I think it is akin to La Voz Mitologica, “The Mythological Voice.” Audio, whether on radio, CD, or tape, allows the words to be the focus. The listener is not distracted by what the speaker is wearing or doing. The message is as pure as it can possibly be. What a miraculous thing that a speaker can be almost wholly present to people anywhere in the world by voice alone. That this voice can be heard in California, Australia, and Lancashire, all on the same night, by different persons, and each will hear it as it is meant, as fresh as though it were live.

It occurs to me that this is also how the unconscious works. The unconscious sends messages in voices, symbols and images into our night dreams, and yet the unconscious is never really “there.” It does not appear as a “something.” Where it resides as a point in time, no one truly knows. All we know is that we can hear it, feel it, respond to it. Audio, in that sense, is kith and kin to the unconscious. I feel that kinship intensely.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD, is an internationally recognized scholar, award-winning poet, diplomate senior Jungian psychoanalyst, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories in the Latina tradition). I...

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