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Why we need exile, longing, and sorrow

Photo by SAMANTA SANTY on Unsplash

‘Myth is the foundation of life: it is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself…Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of an individual it represents a late and mature one.’

— Thomas Mann

The twin themes of exile and longing, one the shadow of the other, are archetypal energies that sit uncomfortably within each human being. In modern society, the sense of being at home in the world is often absent and too often people step right out of the womb into initiatory experiences that set them spinning before they have the chance to touch ground: separation, abandonment, betrayal, parental addictions, and depressions. There is neither chance nor time to incorporate love and self-esteem into the psyche before it is ripped apart and the Self thrown away. These early experiences almost always signify an expectation of barrenness due to an actual experience of bleak no-thingness from previous incarnations. The pressure to resolve has built over lifetimes and is immediately re-stimulated at the onset of the current life.

But resolution is problematic. People in denial about how wounded they actually feel and suffering from the internalisation of early injunctions to ‘pull themselves together’ by parents or caregivers equally cut off from their own emptiness are the norm, the spiritual deadwood that clogs, and finally strangles, the culture. Most of us have done such a good job of hiding our pain from ourselves — often behind a veneer of success or competence — that it seems there is either no way back to the Self or no need. This is mirrored in our disconnection from the earth.

As the late, great John O’Donohue writes: ‘We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss, consequently, the pain of our spiritual exile is more intense in being largely unintelligible.’ The truth is most don’t know they are in exile and it often takes life to seriously derail to bring them face to face with reality. A divorce, a major loss, an accident, failure, addiction. All of these are sudden initiations that can deepen a person, pulling their soul towards meaning, purpose and new beginnings, which might otherwise remain out of reach. Crisis and opportunity are natural bedfellows.

In older, wiser times initiations were prolonged and planned encounters that acknowledged the need to mark, honour and ground the movements of the soul. The most well-known, still practised in earth-based societies, are the rituals and markings that transfigured boys into men providing a brush with death that may or may not be survived. Such initiations took place only after initiates had been held and contained within the bosom of family, culture, and community and had incorporated the Paradise Garden within the Self. This making and unmaking of personhood is a sacred craft that honours all involved.

How different to the sudden shocks modern westerners encounter, sometimes as soon as they hit the shore. But if the culture is lost and cannot provide what is needed consciously, pressure will gather within the psyche to provide what the soul needs to experience to turn back towards a sense of wholeness. ‘The organism,’ as Jung said ‘is self-regulating.’ Without the necessary container of family (and I don’t include families that demand convention and conformity in the child and quash individuality) and community, the soul finds itself in exile, often without knowing it.

This sense of exile lies somewhere within each human being whether it is felt and accepted or not. Such alienation was experienced in earlier times as a physical banishment, exile to France for instance. It was understood that separating a person from all they had known and loved, stripping them of all possible comfort and sending them to foreign lands was a fate worse than death. The sense of exile is carried within us all — even in an abundant life it waits quietly in the shadows — but so too is the inner king who will one day return to centre stage, though perhaps in another lifetime.

For the brush with death is real. Without the right nutrients and soil during early life, things are hard enough. With abandonments and abuses, the child is too raw to risk moving out into the world. Adulthood cannot be adequately faced as there is simply not enough ground beneath a person and not enough nourishment within. Whichever way the head turns things look bleak. The wilderness is all around and the wolves are everywhere. If you arrive at a crossroads either road looks bleak. The first involves bringing out the survival bag and again toughing life out from within the limits the mask of competence provides. That way involves living from a false self where no authentic healing is possible. The second involves drowning in the sea of sorrows and turning towards escapes, addictions, and fixes. Or you may do a combination of both.

Yet the truth remains hiding in the rubble. The poet Emily Dickinson understood it: ‘There is a swallows substance up…Then covers the Abyss with Trance…So Memory can step around..across..upon it.’ No-one is heading in the right direction, which is towards the wound. Almost everyone is scrambling like fury away from the abyss. But those drowning in the sea of sorrows are infinitely more able to grab the life raft than those trapped by their self-sufficiency and pride. For the waters of emotion and feeling are flowing and can carry the floundering soul to safe harbour or new adventure — the next initiatory experience.

The sea of sorrows has another vital function: it acquaints us with longing. Out of the wound of exile come many gifts, perhaps the chief of which is the experience of longing. The soul calls for home and somewhere in this world and the Otherworld the call is heard and messengers, unseen and otherwise, come to our aid. Earthly exile mirrors our longing for our divine origins and draws us back to our beginnings, before the world turned. As the Sufi master Rumi says, your longing itself is the return message. Crying out for help becomes both call and answer.

In watching The Tudors recently, Catherine of Aragon says she prefers sorrows to joy because when joyful we forget about God. The Sufis gave us the same message. Sorrow keeps us humble.

My own calling is to help bring balm, healing, understanding, and re-orientation to those who are adrift at sea and those whose heart long ago dammed the tide of feeling in order to survive and protect what was left of them. For I have known both experiences and have lived at both poles. I have a particular interest, compassion, and sympathy for those sensitive souls who have been packed off to school at a young age and drilled in a system that replaces essence with conformity. They are those eccentric individuals who did not belong in any camp and have not really found a home in the world where they belong since. Something inside is nagging that all is not well or things are already wildly out of control.

There are many ways to bring the soul home. Deep psychotherapy is one. It is well-suited to those who find groups difficult or experience them as traumatic. When home can be found within through a reparative experience within a true relationship then the individual is ready to respond to the siren song of adventure and turn back once more toward life, this time with an eye for initiation and a glimmer of hope and faith once lost.

Originally published at

Simon Heathcote is a psychotherapist, who works with mythology and archetypal psychology. A former travel writer and newspaper editor, he aims to restore soul to psychology.



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