We have all been swallowed into the belly of the whale at some stage in our lives. For some of us it has been a repeat journey.
We may have been tossed into the dark sea by our fellow travelers, as in the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, or we may have just slipped on the pathway of life and fallen into the dark depths of the unconscious.
It is an uncomfortable feeling to recall the dark despair of being in the belly of the whale. When I speak in social settings with people and ask about their sojourn in the whale, most people become uncomfortable, turn away, or change the topic of conversation. None of us enjoys the memory.
What does it mean to be in the belly of the whale?
The idea is frequently linked to two central notions in Jungian psychology. The first comes from the writings of St. John of the Cross. He wrote about the dark night of the soul. A German anthropologist, Frobenius, wrote about the dark night sea journey. It is to this second idea that we direct our attention. Frobenius of course did not come up with the idea of the dark night sea journey, rather wrote about it in his research as an anthropologist. The dark night sea journey is a mythical idea, hence has been in our language and thoughts since our early history as humans.
In this mythical story, an individual is tossed into the ocean, or falls into the ocean, whereupon he or she is swallowed up by a Leviathan, a sea monster, or more commonly a whale. The journey takes an enormous amount of time, with the individual losing any track of how long the journey actually takes. Inside the belly of the whale the individual is in darkness, and is constantly washed by the contents of the whale’s stomach. They cannot see, they lose their hair, and the clothes melt from their body.
Finally, the whale coughs them up onto a distant shore. They are in the land they do not recognize, in which they are a stranger, do not speak the language, have no sense of purpose, and are essentially as if newborn. And they are naked!
From that last idea we can view the journey of being in the belly off the whale as a death-rebirth cycle. We could also view the cycle as having the three stages that the Belgian anthropologist, van Gennep, used. These three stages are separation, liminal, and incorporation. One is swallowed by the whale, thus being separated from everything we know and we take for granted. While in the belly of the whale we are in the liminal stage. Finally, when we are coughed up on dry land, we are in the final stage, of incorporation, however this final process may take an extended period of time. Some may argue that the liminal stage actually extends from being in the belly of the whale to being coughed up on strange land. It is when we finally recognize ourselves and develop a new connection with the world, that the stage of incorporation has begun. Liminal means between phases or stages.
How do we relate these ideas to our lives in the 21st century? We can answer this question by using a variety of states we may find ourselves in. Examples of these states are changes to the ego, changes to the persona, changes to our sense of identity, changes to our connection to our soul. But very useful in this idea is the belly of the whale so often is associated with a state of depression.
Let’s start with the idea of depression and the belly of the whale. Many people that I work with will describe the depression as creeping up on them. It is as if they’re walking down a dark country lane in the middle of the night and they know that someone is following, however, whenever they stop and turn around there’s no one there. We hear the gentle footsteps of someone following us, but when our feet stand still, so do theirs. Over time the footsteps get closer and we begin to run. Finally depression grabs us by the shoulders and pushes us into the earth.
We all know how this feels. Now think of it as wading into the ocean, going deeper and deeper into this unconscious state, until suddenly we have swallowed by the whale. Once we are in the belly of the whale everything we know, believe in, expect, ceases to be. We find the simplest of tasks almost impossible. We cannot concentrate, remember, sleep, work, or attend to so many of the everyday tasks of life. Worst of all is that we feel we have lost all control and will hope. This is being in the belly up the whale.
If we take up the idea of the persona we can also develop the belly of the whale concept. So often we identify with the persona, in that we become what we do, rather than being who we are. This is that common difference between being what I do versus simply being myself. At some point this over-identification with the persona, usually professional occupation, irritates the psyche to the point that it precipitates the descent into the belly of the whale.
This is that painful but necessary capacity of the psyche at self-regulation and self correction. As we all know it is not as if we haven’t been warned by the psyche, usually through symptoms of anxiety and depression, or a general malaise about our purposeless life. Once in the belly of the whale my persona has no value, because there is nothing I can do with it, but more importantly, there are no longer any witnesses to my persona. I am lost, alone, and without any distraction. This is being in the belly of the whale.
When I am coughed up on strange land I walk amongst people with no clear sign of my persona. Who am I, what do I stand for, what is my social identity? It is at this point that one of two things may happen. If I panic, I may have what Jung referred to as a regressive restoration of the Persona. By this is meant that I go back to the persona that wasn’t working before in a desperate attempt to establish some meaning. I’m sure you can or recognize the next stage in this unfortunate process. After some time, I will be swallowed into the belly of the whale all over again.
The other outcome when I finally reach land Is that I am able to defend a new persona that is more in keeping with a balanced lifestyle. A persona that I don’t identify with, rather use for its intended purpose.
The real question we should be concerned with is not just what happens at the end of the journey but what we do while journeying in the belly off the whale.