Why Myths Still Matter (Part Four): Facing Your Inner Minotaur and Following Your Ariadnean Thread

Why the psychotherapy process requires heroic courage.

Posted Dec 19, 2009

Metaphorically speaking, we each must meet the Minotaur lurking in the shadowy labyrinth some day. Often, this occurs during the psychotherapy process. The Minotaur has multiple meanings. And for each of us, the Minotaur signifies something slightly different. What is the Minotaur? First, the Minotaur represents our primal fear of the unconscious. The "un-conscious," as originally conceived of by Freud, conveys exactly its meaning: It refers to that portion of subjective experience of which we are unaware or not conscious; it is that which is obscured, invisible to consciousness--at least, for the moment. The unconscious is that which is unknown to us. For this reason, we humans are born not only with an instinctive fear of the unknown and of death, but also an archetypal fear of the unconscious. This is one of the factors that make the psychotherapy process so threatening: a profound fear of encountering our own unconscious, of entering the dark, lonely labyrinth and meeting the Minotaur.

Fundamentally, the Minotaur represents the primal fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown is deeply-seated in the human psyche. It appears to be a genetic inheritance geared to guard and preserve our tenuous survival in a potentially dangerous universe, in much the same way as our biologically-rooted "fight or flight" response. Developmentally, all infants predictably pass through a brief phase of "stranger anxiety," and children a fear of the dark, a direct manifestation of this innate dread of the unknown. While we eventually more or less outgrow this stage, learning to trust, we never completely leave behind our instinctual fear of the unknown. Anxiety is one way we adults still experience this primitive fear. Indeed, it could be argued that anxiety is the subjective experience of the threatening unknown, whether we are facing or avoiding it.

Indeed, the Minotaur may be seen as a metaphor for death and death anxiety. Existentially, death is a symbol of non-being or non-existence, and, therefore, death anxiety can be understood, in Kierkegaard's words, as the "fear of nothingness." As existential psychologist Rollo May (1977) points out, "the threat of non-being lies in the psychological and spiritual realm as well--namely, in the threat of meaninglessness in one's existence." Death is a great mystery, the great beyond. It is unknown to us, and cannot be known by the living. What happens after death-- if anything at all beyond decay, decomposition, and eventual dispersal --is pure speculation. And historically, such speculation serves one primary purpose: the demystification of death in an effort to mediate or eliminate our anxiety about it. Such speculation, be it religious or scientific, is an attempt to make known that which is inherently unknowable.

In some ways, the Minotaur, as with all mythical monsters, including the Devil, may be understood as but one image arising from and lending concrete form to the nothingness of not knowing. As the proverbial wisdom suggests, it is always preferable to deal with the devil one knows than one which is unknown. Death anxiety can be seen as the self's will to continue, to survive, to persevere, to prosper and multiply in a world which makes this difficult--and finally, impossible. The classic images of death--the corpse, crucifix, sarcophagus, coffin, grave, ghost, tombstone, skull, skeleton, demon, dragon, the Devil, Grim Reaper, Kali, Medusa, Minotaur, etc.-- hold symbolic, spiritual, and psychological significance in addition to the obvious physical implications.

Lastly, the Minotaur represents our basic nature: a complex mixture of animal, god, and human. Indeed, as mentioned in my prior post, the Minotaur was spawned from the liaison of a woman and a bull, and symbolizes this coincidentia oppositorum (meeting of opposites) of feminine and masculine, creature and human, rational and irrational, spiritual and instinctual, deity and demon, good and evil. The Minotaur also embodies both fate (our biological nature) and destiny (our freedom) and the integral interrelationship between the two. But why do we find it such a dreadful image? Because to confront the Minotaur in the dark labyrinth is to confront ourselves: our fears of the unknown, our ferocious, beastly nature, our rage, aggression, sexuality, mortality, the daimonic.  This self-confrontation is successfully accomplished by proceeding carefully yet courageously along one's own Ariadnean thread. The secret is that, metaphorically, we each have been given this thread to follow and lead us to our destiny-- but only if we are brave enough to do so.

Psychotherapy sometimes entails helping the patient who has lost touch with this precious thread to find it, take hold of it, and follow it wherever it may lead, inching along blindly on hands and knees in the darkness through the unknown. This is a heroic yet humbling task. Jungian analyst Irene Claremont de Castillejo (1973) writes poetically of what I refer to here as our Ariadnean thread as follows: "I like to think of every person's being linked to God from the morning of birth to the night of his death by an invisible thread, a thread which is unique for each one of us, a thread which can never be broken. Never broken or taken away, but a thread which can easily slip from our grasp and, search for it as we may, elude us. . . . To be on our thread is in Jungian language to be in touch with the Self."

How can we know when we are really on our Ariadnean thread? That's a difficult question. But one feels as though one is living more authentically and being more true to oneself than before. Anxiety, doubt, insecurity and other symptoms may still be present. But despite such feelings, there is a strong sense of moving in the right direction, even though that movement may be but a step, an inch, at a time. Or sometimes, one step forward, two back. For one patient, it might be something as simple as changing a major at university. For another, it may entail leaving a dysfunctional relationship. For still another, the thread may not necessarily lead so much to outer change as to a fundamental shift in attitude or perspective.

There are also objective indicators that one's thread is being rightly followed: Relationships may run more smoothly, the work life improves, love is found, and sometimes, it seems one's luck has turned around in general. Things gradually begin to fall into place. Life becomes more bountiful. Synchronicity--Jung‘s term for meaningful coincidences--occurs more frequently. The world is more meaningful. And more beautiful. Creativity flourishes. Intuition intensifies. As in many things, trial and error is often needed to discern the elusive Ariadnean thread. Experimentally trying different tacks and painstakingly feeling them out is an integral part of the sometimes tedious thread-seeking process. Listening carefully to and working conscientiously with one's dreams--our connections to the unconscious-- can be extremely helpful in finding and following our fine Ariadnean filament.

But once grasped, proceeding slowly but steadily along one's Ariadnean thread provides a profound sense of purpose and meaning in life. As though one is being pulled or guided by some power greater than oneself. As Claremont de Castillejo puts it: "It is when we are on our vital thread that life happens around us in a way that befits our individual destiny, for we have not interfered. This does not necessarily mean that everything happens as we would like. Misfortunes and mistakes are also part of our pattern. Even illnesses may be necessary from time to time to give us pause or teach us lessons we should not otherwise learn. But everything is meaningful and can be seen sooner or later to fit into the pattern of our lives. It is only when we have lost our thread that life seems purposeless, lacking in significance and unacceptable."