“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ― Joseph Campbell
We run from the bear chasing us in the dream. We run from the panic that rattles the doors of psyche. We run from the thoughts in our heads. But when we turn to face them, and can reach into our backpacks for the proper tools, we discover our treasures. Encased inside your intrusive thoughts is a light that you can only imagine. But in order to tap the light you have to know how to work with intrusive thoughts effectively.
As I’ve discussed frequently in my work, I view intrusive thoughts in three ways:
1. As distress flares that alert us to something inside that needs our attention. Here we become curious about where in our four realms of Self – body, mind, heart, and soul – we are off-kilter.
2. As protectors that prevent us from touching into our emotional vulnerability. Here we ask, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
3. As metaphors that, when unlocked, help us heal in body, heart, mind, and soul. Here we settle into quiet and become deeply curious about the non-literal metaphor encased inside the alarming thought.
I’ve written about the first two messages from intrusive thoughts in multiple posts and in my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety. It’s the last message, that intrusive thoughts are metaphors, that deserves more explanation. For it’s when we land on our personal metaphor that we realize that thoughts are not literal and are instead carriers from soul that contain a medicine that can transform us from the inside out. And yet it’s this third message that is often most difficult to decipher for one simple reason: we have forgotten the language of metaphor, or perhaps we never learned.
Marion Woodman, in her extraordinary audio series Sitting by the Well, explains:
“The language of soul is metaphor. People say, ‘If Shakespeare’s so smart, why doesn’t he say what he means? And if your dreams are so smart, why don’t they say what they mean? Why do you have to pay all the money?’ I’ve had analysands say that to me, ‘Why do we have to pay all this money? You say the dreams are so wise, bu we don’t understand them.’ It’s because we have forgotten the language. All you have to do is learn the language again.”
We have to learn the language again. We’re not schooled in metaphor; we’re schooled in literalism. We don’t live in a culture that reveres the right brain, the world of imagination, art, instinct, and wildness. In order to gather the fruit in the orchard of intrusive thoughts, we have to learn the language of the soul, which is the language of metaphor.
Consider the following metaphors (keeping in mind that the metaphor encased in an intrusive thought is personal to each person, just like a dream image):
Health Anxiety Intrusive Thoughts:
What if I have cancer: What is eating away at you?
What if there’s something wrong with my heart: Rhythm issues: How are you out of rhythm or overriding your rhythm. Pacing: Are you over-pacing? Doing too much? Emotional: How is your heart hurting? What is the ungrieved pain?
What if these tremors mean I have _____: Where do I feel unstable? Where am I shaky?
I have a skin rash: How have I been rash or impulsive? Is there an area where I haven’t honored and implemented healthy boundaries? (Skin is a metaphor for boundaries.)
Digestion issues: What am I having a hard time metabolizing and processing emotionally and psychologically?
Pedophilia Intrusive Thoughts:
I wrote more extensively about this common and highly shame-laden intrusive thought here. In terms of metaphors, you can ask: How am I harming the innocent part of me? How am I not tending to my inner child? Because this intrusive thought appears for highly sensitive people who are incapable of hurting any innocent being, even believing that you’re capable of harming a child is a way that you’re harming your own inner child.
Self-Harm Intrusive Thoughts:
Just like death in dreams is “the most reliable symbol for psycho-spiritual change,” as Jeremy Taylor says, so intrusive thoughts, including thoughts of death, are indicators that the soul is ready to grow and integrate to a new level of consciousness. In this sense, we must interpret an intrusive thought the way we would interpret a dream and not take any element of it at face value but instead dig deeper until we unearth the metaphor and, thus, the true meaning that is longing to be known.
Jeremy Taylor explains this best with a story about Jungian analyst Robert Johnson:
“On one occasion, at the end of an iteration of this talk at an Episcopalian retreat center, I watched and listened as a clearly distressed and depressed young person asked him for clarification on this point.
“Robert responded that, yes, that was indeed what he was advocating: every person facing an important life decision should pay particular attention to the suggestions and implications of his/her remembered dreams and fantasies.
“…But Dr. Johnson!” the youth replied, “my dreams and fantasies are all telling me to kill myself! Surely you are not telling me I should kill myself…!?”
“Ahhh!” Robert replied, leaning forward, his posture reflecting his serious and caring tone, “If that’s the case, then, yes, by all means, kill yourself!”
At this point in his discourse, Trickster Robert paused and took a long sip from the glass of water provided for him on the podium. During that pause, I observed audience members responding with facial expressions and body postures reflecting shock and disbelief, accompanied by gasps and other expostulations of surprise and dismay… Then Robert set the glass back down on the podium and completed his unfinished sentence: “but do not harm your body!”
“No one laughed, but the atmosphere of sudden relieved amazement and surprise in the room was palpable…
“By all means, kill yourself, but do not harm your body!” is in my experience absolutely the best advice that anyone contemplating suicide can receive.”
What does this mean in practical terms for someone who is desperate and feeling like they’re at the end of their rope? It means that we understand that thoughts, fantasies, and dreams of suicide are psyche’s way of communicating that something inside needs to die: a belief system, an ego-identity, a pain that is ready to be release into the fire. As humans we’re in constant flux: some part of us dies in order for something else to be reborn. If we can see thoughts of suicide as an opportunity to enter into a new spiral of growth and healing, an edge of suffering may be alleviated enough to take action in a new direction.
Relationship Anxiety Intrusive Thoughts:
My partner isn’t enough = I am not enough.
My partner is unattractive = Where was I harmed regarding how I feel about my physical body?
Something’s missing = What is missing in my own self?
I’m not in love = Am I in love with my own life, separate from my partner?
When I’m working with a clients and we land on the metaphor together – when “What if I harm my child?” becomes “How am I harming my inner child?” – I can nearly see the rivers of light intersecting in all four realms. I see the light of relief when they realize, not only at the level of thought but somatically, at the cellular level, that the thought is not literal, that they’re not capable of hurting their child or any child. I see the heavy cloak of shame lift off their skin, again as if each cell weight has been reduced. I see the soul being nourished, as if it is drinking from a great well of cool water, quenching the heat of pain and shame that the misunderstood thought has caused.
Again I turn to Marion Woodman to explain what I witness every day – that metaphors are a powerful somatic healing modality:
“If the metaphor is working, it’s working right through the body. Every cell of the body is responding. For one instant we are whole. Body, heart, mind, and soul come together in the metaphor. Emotion, imagination, mind. The metaphor is the transformer.”
The metaphor is the transformer. The metaphor is what brings together our four realms and sets us free for one blessed moment. When we land on the metaphor we taste into our wholeness, our forgotten goodness, and remember that we are brilliant manifestations of the divine, chariots of poetry that are waiting to be seen and revealed.
This is why art heals. This is why poetry heals. This is why music heals. This is why dance heals.
Of course, landing on the metaphor is often only the first step in the healing process. Once we receive the message, it’s time to work with it: journal it out, investigate its roots with the headlight of curiosity leading the way, ask where this belief began, time travel into past memories with the loving inner parent and wise allies guiding the ship, write it, dance it, sing it, draw it. Without the shame truncating the process, the inner work takes on a new intention, one led by curiosity and powered by love. And, as always, it’s love that heals.
What are the metaphors inside your intrusive thoughts?