The Eternal Quest for the Grail
An Interview with Jean Shinoda Bolen
for Common Ground Fall ‘94
by Virginia Lee
One of the foremost pioneers of feminist psychology, Jean Shinoda Bolen distinguished herself ten years ago with her groundbreaking book, Goddesses in Everywoman. Published in 1984, it was one of the first books that inspired women to look within to discover their divine archetypes: Aphrodite (love goddess), Artemis (free spirit), Demeter (earth mother), Minerva (warrior woman), and Hera (devoted wife & mother). Since then, Dr. Bolen has written its sequel, Gods in Everyman (which is equally valuable to the men’s movement), and Ring of Power.
Initially trained as a Jungian analyst, Dr. Bolen reaches beyond the conventional boundaries of psychology into the personal realm of the spirit in her newest book, Crossing to Avalon. Through facing the issues of midlife within herself, Dr. Bolen addresses the universal quest for the “grail”—the quest for genuine spiritual meaning—that women can face as they cross the threshold of midlife. Dr. Bolen’s journey—both literal and metaphorical—is written for every woman on the spiritual path.
CG: What does the title of your new book, Crossing to Avalon, mean in terms of feminist psychology?
JB: To me, Avalon refers to the realm of the Goddess—and the title describes my own journey to the realm of the Goddess. In a greater sense, this is a collective time of “crossing to Avalon.” Increasingly, women—and some men— find themselves entering a state of awareness of the Goddess as a sacred experience. It is a very different view of what is “spiritual” than what is defined by patriarchal theology.
CG: How would you define feminist psychology and what role have you played in its evolution?
JB: I just spent an hour with another interviewer trying to answer just that one question. “Feminist psychology” begins with women defining their own experience. It begins with women sitting in circles telling the truth about their own lives. Out of that comes a different view of what women are like. The basic principle of feminist psychology is trusting that women know something about themselves. We begin to realize how living in a patriarchy has shaped and limited our perceptions of ourselves, our self-esteem, and our actual potential. Feminist psychology sees a woman in her own context, rather than in the context of the patriarchy.
Patriarchal culture is based on patriarchal theology, whether it’s eastern or western. Any monotheistic religion that places God the Father at the top and has man created in his image, with power and dominion over everything else, is the basis of patriarchal culture. Any country with a sense that the earth is sacred (and doesn’t exist just to be exploited) usually has both masculine and feminine expressions of the divine.
CG: What inspired you to write this book?
JB: Several experiences. It’s my own story of midlife and what I learned. And it tells the story of an actual pilgrimage—an out-of-the-blue gift that taught me about the effect of sacred places in my body. There is a profound connection between the sacred places of the earth and us as sensory beings, which can be felt as pressure, vibration, energy and warmth when the body is in resonance with one of the earth’s “power spots.” As with most pilgrimages, it was an inner experience as well as an outer one.
The title also came from the effect of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fiction, especially The Mists of Avalon which is the classic Arthurian legend written from a woman’s perspective. Although the story and its characters are obviously fictional, the sense of what Avalon was like rang true. For me and a great many other women, it was like having a repressed memory come forth. Reading the book prior to my pilgrimage made me rethink the grail legend in terms of the woman who carried the grail, rather than the elusive search we are familiar with in conventional Arthurian legend.
CG: In your book, you refer mythically to the quest for the grail. What is it, how does it begin, and is it something everyone experiences?
JB: Not everybody experiences a quest for the grail. People who have a feeling for the metaphor are usually people who are already on the spiritual path and have made choices in response to a greater calling. Without being aware of it, many of these people have been on a grail quest all along. Some simply have a greater need for meaning in life than others.
Midlife is a challenge that makes you question the trivia that fills up daily life. You may ask yourself, “Is this what I am going to be doing the rest of my life?” There’s discomfort in just being a consumer of the media and material goods. The quest is an internal stirring that intimates there is more than this.
CG: Why is the grail a significant symbol in today’s culture?
JB: The grail is an archetype in our culture. Most people have the sense that the grail is something to be sought of spiritual value, something that has the power of healing.
In Crossing to Avalon, I ask the reader to rethink the story. It is usually thought of as the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper over which he said, “This is my blood.” This has become the metaphor of holy communion. But when I started to rethink what the chalice is as a pure symbol, it clearly reflects the feminine—in its receptive shape, in its life-bearing purpose. Ironically, in the lore of old the chalice was always carried by a woman, but in the practice of Christian religion it was never even allowed in the hands of a woman. To my way of thinking, the chalice of sacred blood is a divine symbol of the Goddess.
CG: In what way do you see midlife as a rite of passage? What is the next phase of life that a woman passes into?
JB: I think of midlife not as a chronological age, but as a shift in persepctive. For some it comes quite early in life, and for others quite late. It has to do with realizing how fast life has passed so far. There’s a clear appreciation that life is precious and it doesn’t last very long. It’s a time for turning inward and asking the deep, spiritual questions about what you are here to do. When questions like that are stirring, those are typically midlife questions. This can happen to a woman when she’s twenty.
Midlife is clearly a time when you have either chosen to set out what you are here to do, or you haven’t. Either way, there’s a sense of “what now?” The first part of life has so much to do with fulfilling what family and culture expect of you, often at considerable cost to your true self. I think of midlife as a turning point, which can be brought about by a life-threatening illness or the death of a marriage. There’s a quality of vulnerability and humility toward life which opens you to a much more spiritual attitude.It often comes out of some degree of solitude and a dark phase of your life, but is usually a growing phase for which you can ultimately be grateful. Hopefully there aren’t too many of these lessons to be learned.
CG: Is the midlife phase ever characterized by a rebellious attitude, somewhat like adolescence?
JB: I think rebelliouness can happen at any time in life, but I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to adolesence. Menopause is more like adolesence since there is a shift in hormones and a shift in identity.
Some women who “rebel” are simply acting out against authority, and that is different from the midlife calling I am describing. At the same time, you have to be careful about putting a definition like “rebellious” on what someone else is feeling. Maybe a woman is just reaching for some new dimension of life, an affirmation of herself. The word “rebellion” makes it sound as she doesn’t have control over making her own choices. Sometimes a woman has finally chosen to take care of herself. In her book Passages, Gail Sheehy describes this as the point when you can finally declare yourself an “adult woman.”
CG: Would you say that menopause and midlife happen at the same time?
JB: Midlife used to take place in a woman’s mid-thirties. But women of my generation are living longer and better, so midlife doesn’t really come until the forties or fifties—the same time as menopause.
CG: How have you used crisis and uncertainty in your own life for positive growth?
JB: The Chinese pictograph for “crisis” is a combination of the image for opportunity and the image for danger. A crisis is like that. Something comes to a head. You are in a position where you have to make a choice, and doing nothing is also a choice. You are aware that what you do or don’t do during this time will shape what comes next. And it really does matter. When you have the attitude that it matters what you choose, then there’s a need to be as conscious and caring as possible. To balance the truth about who you are and what you need is that challenge, especially in regard to what others in the world think you should be doing. You have to decide between staying in the same secure place or taking the plunge into the unknown. There’s a major opportunity—and danger—for growth.
In Goddesses in Everywoman, I go on the premise that women are all very complex people. Decisions that are true for one woman differ from what another woman chooses to do. What may make one woman feel trapped may make another woman feel fulfilled. The choice must come from her archetypal depths. For example, a certain type of woman needs her freedom (Artemis), while another needs her domestic sercurity (Hera).
Even if what it looks like on the outside may be the same, whatever the choice is must reflect what’s going on inside. If a woman lets other people determine what she’s going to do, she’s going to feel caught. (And there’s always someone around who’s willing to make her decisions.) Even if the result of that choice is hard, it’s worth it to her. It’s better than not having it at all.
CG: What is your advice to women who are going through a “midlife crisis”?
JB: It’s a time of great change. In general, it’s important to have people you trust who are witnesses to your life, who care about what is happening to you, and are not invested in what choices you make. Listen to your own feelings and dreams and synchronicities. Develop an attitude that bases your life on what truly matters to you.
Rather than advice, I like to think of giving encouragement to do whatever you need to do. Or not do. You need to require for yourself—if others will give it to you—the right not to make a major choice until you are ready. People often try and force choices on others according to when and what their needs are. I believe in a high tolerance for “not knowing.” You need to trust that things will change and clarity will come.
CG: You say that the hero resopnds out of choice and the heroine out of necessity. Why is there a difference?
JB: I start with Joseph Campbell’s classic definition of the hero which is the “call to adventure.” But this is not what sets the heroine out into the unknown. (Now I am not saying that the “hero” is male and the “heroine” is female. I happen to be using the terms metaphorically.) The heroine is someone who never really intends to go beyond the known world, who is very happy within the boundaries of family and society. Typically, the heroine does not have the urge to be different or have an adventuresome life. But often the circumstances of life take the heroine beyond where she was before—out of necessity rather than by choice. It’s not a piece of cake.
The hero tends to go out on adventure alone, whereas the heroine prefers to keep bonds with others intact. The hero is more of the “lone ranger,” while the heroine has those she cares for and those who care for her. For the heroine, the adventure happens when she isn’t looking for it.
CG: What role does synchronicity play in our lives?
JB: I think synchronicity plays an enormous part in life, especially for people who are in a state of turmoil, growth, conflict and/or creativity. When the psyche of a person is activated, both synchronicity and dreams become more vivid and significant.
Personally, my dreams were more important in my younger adult years. Since my forties, synchronistic events have been the more awesome phenomenon in my life. Synchronicity has been defined as God (or the Goddess) acting anonymously.
CG: Are there people who simply dream more vividly than others?
JB: I think it’s a matter of recollection. Researchers have proven that we all dream about seven times a night, but even the best of us who recall dreams can’t remember seven a night. Some people come close. I think it has a lot to do with the energy available for recollection. When you’re tired and have a very busy outer life, the amount of energy it takes to remember dreams is demanding. You need time to sleep and relax in order to remember your dreams, like when you’re on vacation. That’s when people dream more vividly.
CG: What was the significance of meeting the Dalai Lama?
JB: It was the childlike quality in him that touched me deeply. For me he was like a dream figure. He was spiritually wise—and that was obvious. But what wasn‘t so obvious was the absolutely joyful happiness in his personality. The element of the divine child is what really captivated me about him. I later came to realize that was the part of me I had lost in my responsible adult years. And I think that is true for a lot of people.
CG: Would you discuss the phenomenon of power spots and which ones have affected you?
JB: “Power points” is a new age term for places of pilgrimage. These sacred places are located on “ley lines” of magnetic force, “snake lines” or whatever you want to call it. If you think of the earth as a living organism, these are the electro-magnetic “acupuncture points” of the planet. When we go to these power points, we have a greater capacity to feel our connection with the earth. Perhaps we activate the power in these places when we visit them, as well as the place activating something in us.
The place that affected me the most on this particular journey was Chartres cathedral. But the place that I keep returning to is a circle of stones in western Ireland called The Grange at Loughgur. The standing stones have been there for over 4,000 years, and the circle is about 100 feet across. It’s a different kind of energy than what I felt at Chartres. It’s more like being in Avalon. According to Celtic mythology, the island of Ireland is the Goddess.
I think that you can go to the same place under different circumstances and have very different experiences. Within the realm of synchronicity, it’s as if we are called to certain places at certain times.
CG: Can you describe the “tuning fork” effect you felt in Chartres cathedral?
JB: That was the experience of picking up the energy of a place through the heart chakra. I felt the pressure, vibration, and warmth in the center of my chest in response to the specific spot in the church. It made me realize that when people refer to being “quickened by the divine,” quite often they are literally affected by a physical reaction to being in a holy place. I did actually feel the sacred places I visited in my body. It was like the movement, the “quickening” I felt furing pregnancy.
When you’re pregnant, you usually know you are. When you feel another entity move inside you, the reality of the pregnancy deepens. It becomes more real. The quickening of divinity during a pilgrimage works much the same way. We are spiritual beings on a human path, rather than human beings on a spiritual path. If we all are spiritual beings, the divinity doesn’t so much have to do with what’s happening outside of us. It’s an inner resonance with the sacredness of the place itself. It’s an awakening of the latent spirit that is always there.
CG: What is the function of artists and writers in our culture?
JB: They are like dreamers for the tribe. Writers, artists, and musicians tune into the culture’s collective unconscious—often before the rest of the culture is aware of it. That’s why most of the “leading edge” movements of our time are not initially welcomed. And then the culture shifts. That’s why some artists are recognized retrospectively, long after they are dead.
CG: Having done years of therapy as a Jungian therapist, what do you think is the source of anxiety and depression in modern life?
JB: When the ego is cut off from what Jung called the archetype of the self (a generic term that covers everything from Higher Power to God), it denies a relationship to something greater than itself. A person needs this to experience the divine and feel connected to all life. When that sense of connectedness permeates a person’s psyche, solitude is of value rather than perceived as loneliness or emptiness.
Depression has a lot to do with anger. Anger and depression are what’s prevalent in the culture, with men more often being angry and women more often depressed. They really are expressions of being alienated, of having no control over things that matter, and of not being loved.
CG: How did you choose to be a psychiatrist?
JB: I didn’t choose it. At first I thought I wanted to be an internist, but when I came to UC San Francisco I ended up in a psychiatric residency. It was one of those synchronistic circumstances that helped me realize I had found my life work.
CG: How is your new book different from your earlier writing?
JB: It’s far more personal. It had to be because the realm of the Goddess comes through personal experience. And if the Goddess is to come into the world it will be through individuals who will bring what they know into consciousness by sharing their stories. It’s not the kind of knowledge that is passed on to a prophet who descends from the mountain to tell the people what has been revealed. It’s much more about each individual person acknowledging the sacred moments available to everyone in life. It’s about giving a voice to our own experience, whose collective consciousness will change the prevailing culture. It’s born from each of us—one at a time.
CG: What is a “mystery”?
JB: It’s beyond what is known and born out of mystical experience. There is a revelation but often it’s one which cannot be explained. It’s like a picture that is slightly out of focus, but that which is out of focus is what’s significant. It’s an overlapping of the invisible world with what’s visible.
CG: How is childbirth like a spiritual initiation?
JB: It is an initiation during which one is transformed—and it is an ordeal. There is a risk of actual death during childbirth which is collectively known by all women. To go through it literally means bringing life into the world and becoming a mother in the process. It is truly amazing.
CG: In what way are women midwives of the soul?
JB: Women instinctively know how to comfort someone when they are dying. Although it is the end of life, it is not the end of existence. Even though comfort is given because death is a difficult and painful time, the instinct to embrace a dying person is a natural one. To be held by a woman at death is as significant as being held by a woman at birth. It is the passage from life into another form of existence, and is blessed with an overwhelming sense of peace. It is the essence of the Mother spirit.
CG: Why do you think a return of the Goddess is essential for our society ?
JB: When the Goddess returns to our culture there will be a major change that will affect the future of the planet. Imagine how different this world would be if our priorities were different, if the money and energy we spend on war went to health care and education. We need to give people knowledge about reproductive choices so that we don’t suffocate ourselves with overpopulation. We need to present child-bearing and sexuality as something sacred; it’s not something that someone takes or has a right to. Rather it is the expression of a woman’s self.
As a society we need to nurture our children and make sure that they grow up well mentally and physically, rather than throw them into a life full of violence, war, and jail. Unless the culture changes, we will keep on doing the same thing. To me the “return of the Goddess” is a broad concept used to describe a great many experiences and values characterized by care and compassion. The mother principle needs to be extended from the psyche to the planet, as well as that of the good father.
I believe that the archetype is changing from the matriarchy vs. patriarchy to that of a more egalitarian partnership. I think that President Clinton and his wife, and Vice-President Gore and his wife are examples of this. It’s no longer the scenario of the authoritarian masculine over the disempowered feminine. Instead, there is mutual appreciation and shared power.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since, including Harper’s Bazaar. She was a regular feature writer for Common Ground from 1992-2004, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She is currently living as a writer in Santa Cruz, CA.