The Archetypal Model
Note: Although your dear author has earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, nothing in this book, to include this chapter, is intended to be psychological, counseling, or medical advice, and should not be viewed or used as a replacement for the reader’s treatment by various professionals.
A Brief Overview of Archetypes
If the Bioregional model is about totems connecting you to the world around you, and the Correspondences model is about bridging the gap between the external world and your internal perceptions, then the Archetypal model is where totemism centers itself firmly within your psyche.
I spent a lot of time in New Paths to Animal Totems on the basics of archetypes: what they are and who developed them. Rather than revisit that again, I’ll offer a few salient points here. You’re welcome to refer to my earlier book if you really want to find out more about Jung, Erikson, and other such personalities and how their concepts can be woven into totemic practice.
We often think of “psychology” as a solo endeavor. If you go to most therapists as an individual patient (as opposed to in couples or family counseling), although your relationships with your family, friends, and other people may be made note of, the primary focus is on you and your psyche. And especially in the United States there’s a very strong thread of individualism in the dominant cultural fabric. These aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but it’s all too easy for us to forget that we are part of larger systems, such as our community or our bioregion.
In psychology is a concept known as the collective unconscious, the world within which archetypes reside. In its original imagining, this wasn’t seen to be a literal Otherworld apart from us, but simply the recurring set of images and concepts common to every (or almost every) human mind. So it is essentially shared human consciousness not in some mystical, telepathic woo-woo manner, but part of our evolved inheritance as members of Homo sapiens. Just as we’ve passed certain brain structures and neurochemistry down through the generations, some mental states, patterns, and ways of perceiving have also tagged along for the ride.
The fact that it is pretty well universally shared across our species gives it a certain level of added reality compared to, say, the world in a writer’s novel or the parameters of a given religion. The collective unconscious is hardwired into us, but the richness of its symbols and structures makes it more compelling than, say, our species’ shared ability to perspire.
A rather simplistic example is the common motif in mythologies of a world axis, such as a tree or mountain. This “axis mundi” not only connects the sky and the earth in this world, but also is thought to intersect other worlds and realities. Because we are bipedal beings grounded on a largely flat surface, one of the things we first notice about ourselves, each other, and other things in our field of vision is their height. We notice what stands out to us the most. So this up-down orientation is a primary way for us to perceive the world and take in information about it. But what if were able to fly? What if we were low to the ground as horizontal beings? What might our perceptions be like if we were insects living in a grassy field with all sorts of surfaces pointing in all directions, on whose top and bottom sides we could walk with equal ease? Would the up-down axis be so important?
I hope this illustrates, a little bit, how the peculiarities of our species can affect what we think is most important. Archetypes are a much more complicated set of examples thereof. An archetype is a manifestation of a deep-seated instinct or impulse within the basic human psyche. For example, the Shadow archetype as described by Carl Jung, who pioneered the concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious, embodies some of our most basic—and often repressed—animal instincts. Working with our own Shadow often challenges us to approach and confront some of our darkest parts, the things we don’t want anyone else to see. At their heart, these may be perfectly natural—in an evolutionary sense, anyway—urges toward violence, sex, and the like; things we believe make sense in other animal species but don’t fit into human civilization. Because we don’t always have a good outlet for these instincts, we may act them out in unhealthy ways.
Jung initially described archetypes in the context of dreams; they were the figures who would repeatedly show up in many people’s dreams, albeit sometimes in different guises. Dreams allow people to access parts of their psyches they’re normally not aware of as well as the collective unconscious. During dreams, certain barriers of consciousness come down and the mind is able to flow through less-traveled waters.
However, we can access archetypes even in our waking lives, particularly (though certainly not exclusively) through meditation and ritual. We may recognize them in spiritual beings or symbols, story characters and stereotypes. Even when we are awake, these unconscious elements filter into our consciousness.
One more thing: what’s the difference between an archetype and a symbol? While an archetype can be considered a symbol, it’s a very complex and multifaceted one. Unlike something simple like “red symbolizes stop” or “a rose means love,” archetypes embody entire parts of the human psyche. So where the color red may mean “stop” when we’re driving, the Red Bull in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is the Adversary—not just a scary thing but a representation of what ultimately stands between us and what we need or want. We have a relationship with the Adversary more than we do with the color red.
So What Does This
Have to Do with Totems?
Good question! While for some people totems are independent beings that exist whether we believe in them or not, for others they are strictly archetypal: elements of the human psyche given fungus, plant, and animal forms. Although they aren’t traditionally Jungian in the sense that the Trickster or the Great Mother are, they can still be emanations of aspects of the self.
I’m not going to strictly stick with Jung’s archetypes here, but I am going to remain true to his idea that archetypes spring from our psyches. While you may find some totems that ally themselves with classic archetypes, you may also discover some that combine elements of more than one of these, or access archetypes that remain unnamed and largely unexplored. Because this process requires you to have some level of self-knowledge, the next part of this chapter is going to involve getting to know the archetypes—and yourself—
better, and then after that we’ll talk about looking for your inner plant and fungus totems.
This activity requires you to do some research and reflection. First, you’re going to need to make a list of archetypes, or at least peruse some lists made by others. You can search for “list of archetypes” in any search engine, but here are a few quick references available free online that I particularly like:
-of-character-archetypes.html—a good collection of archetypes common in modern fiction books, movies, and other media; I like it because it includes some examples.
.asp—if you have even more time to read, this link includes dozens of archetypes with several paragraphs devoted to each, again including valuable examples.
_Archetypes—acting out archetypes, especially unscripted, presents different challenges from writing them, and this list of archetypes designed for White Wolf tabletop and live action roleplaying games takes some different angles I really appreciate.
_archetypes—okay, so using Wikipedia is kind of cheating, but this is one of the larger lists of properly Jungian archetypes.
These are just starting points; you can research individual archetypes more as you see fit.
Once you have some idea of what archetypes are out there, make a list of some that you feel you particularly resonate with. You can make separate lists of others that stand out to you, too, such as those that make you uncomfortable, or that resemble people or characters you like but don’t really feel allied to yourself. Next to each archetype’s name, try and come up with at least one or two examples of that archetype in books, movies, myths, and other storytelling media. So you might list “The Trickster” and under it include Coyote from various Native American cultural myths, Tyler Durden from Fight Club, Jiko-bō from Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), Bugs Bunny of Warner Brothers fame, and so forth.
Alternately, you can work the other way around, and take your favorite books or movies and the like, and connect each character to an archetype. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is the Heroine heading off on her journey and bringing wonder back to her home at the end. The Wizard of Oz himself could be the Wise Person, though with a hint of the Trickster as well. Toto is a Trickster too, one who often acts as a catalyst for shifts in the story. Glinda the Good Witch is a fairly typical Mother figure, keeping watch over Dorothy. Archetypes like these exist in all stories to one degree or another, so pick your favorites and go from there.
Know Thyself: The Personal Narrative
Next, it’s time to get to know yourself a bit better. As you’ve been working with the archetypes, there are probably some that have felt especially familiar, like you can empathize with them quite well. Here you’re going to recruit them into helping you with some self-introspection.
Have you ever daydreamed? Did you perhaps see yourself as a heroine or hero riding off on adventure, or the rebel—with or without a cause—making a place for yourself in the world? Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of being a caretaker, mother, or father figure to children or others. And yes, it’s even okay to daydream about being rescued, so long as your rescuer can help you turn from victim into victorious. You might even have recognized some of the roles you’ve taken on in your daydreams when you were looking at archetypes in the earlier exercise.
Let’s put those daydreaming skills to more active use. Choose a few archetypes—no more than half a dozen or so—to work with one at a time. Pick one and go into your nice, quiet place where you can be undisturbed for a while. Start thinking about ways you embody this archetype in your life. If you’re working with the Investigator archetype, consider where you’ve tried to ferret out important information or resources, finding the things that need to be found. Do you read tarot or work with another divination system to explore possibilities not immediately obvious? Or are you a researcher in school or in your profession, gathering and compiling data? Do you just like to know more about the people you share your world with, and love little bits of trivia about your loved ones, no matter how seemingly insignificant? Make sure you give yourself a good amount of time to consider all the ways you may embody the archetype you’re thinking about; you may find it manifests in some surprising ways!
It is okay if you want to get some outside help with this. We each are rather biased in our views of ourselves, and others who know us well may notice things we overlook. So feel free to ask someone else who cares about you whether they feel a particular archetype fits you and how. Just be aware that they have their biases, too, and you are welcome to disagree with them.
Also, don’t feel you’ve done something wrong if some of the archetypes you resonate with aren’t the most positive. They spring from common human experiences, and you’d be surprised how many people have felt like the Villain sometimes, or the Coward, or the Betrayer. The next part of the activity will give you a chance to reframe some of the experiences you’ve had that you feel may connect you to these seemingly unflattering archetypes, and even find something constructive in them.
James has always wanted to save people and to go on grand adventures. He joined the Peace Corps when he was younger and enjoyed the chance to travel and to help people out. Today, he lives a much more sedate life, working as an auto mechanic with his own shop specializing in older, high-mileage vehicles. It’s not an especially glamorous profession, but it’s a necessary one. The best days are when he gets a particularly challenging repair job, like reviving a teenager’s well-loved, well-traveled VW Bug for the umpteenth time, or solving a mysterious electrical problem in a minivan owned by a small local nonprofit. Descending into the intricate workings of a complicated system is always an adventure where he never knows what he’s going to come up against, but it’s always worth it when he reappears with a solution for a working vehicle, and even moreso when the owner is openly grateful for his work. Maybe saving someone’s ability to get to work isn’t quite so exciting as slaying dragons, but James is more than happy to be a small-time Hero.
The second part of this activity involves storytelling. You don’t have to be a great writer; just be able to play a little make-believe. You can, of course, write your stories if that’s what works best for you, but you can also imagine them in your mind through daydreams and the like.
Think about the current role this archetype plays in your life. Is it a positive one where you’d perhaps like to strengthen and solidify its presence? Or is it a more negative, possibly even destructive influence? You can’t change your past, but you can at least rewrite it in your mind, which can affect your attitudes toward yourself and your future.
First, tell the story that you currently think fits yourself within that archetype—let’s say the Trickster for this example. It might go something like this:
When I was a young child, I loved laughter. I loved to laugh myself, and even more, I loved to make others laugh. And so as I got older, I took every opportunity I could to make people laugh, just so long as I wasn’t hurting someone in the process. That was sometimes a hard lesson; there were people who would laugh at me, not with me, and that hurt, so I learned not to be the butt of my own jokes. I wanted everyone to enjoy the fun! Today I still love to laugh with others, and I take every opportunity to make my friends and family smile.
Let’s continue the story, only this time concentrate on “writing” the future. If you wanted to make the Trickster archetype a stronger presence in your life, what could you possibly do? Here’s what you might write or daydream about while brainstorming:
I noticed that I would make jokes when I was out in the world, at work or at the store or while walking in the park, and people I didn’t even know enjoyed that. So I decided to do more to help those I hadn’t even met yet. I began to write some stand-up comedy routines, nothing too big or complicated, but with some of my favorite jokes. Then I volunteered at a local nursing home and did the routine for the residents there. They loved it! And I did, too. So I wrote more in my spare time, and even wrote jokes that I could tell in the local children’s hospital, and for other people who could use some cheering up. After a while, people would come to me and say how they or a loved one had so enjoyed my time with them, and in some cases it seemed to help them recover from their challenges more quickly.
But what if it’s an archetype you’d like to transform more dramatically? Let’s say you resonated really strongly with the Victim archetype, and it seemed to be a common theme in your life so far:
I came from a stressful home; my parents had split up when I was young, and I hadn’t seen my father since I was three. My mother tried hard to take care of me and my siblings, but as the oldest I often found myself put into a caretaker role I didn’t really want, even when I was still just a child. Her struggle with alcoholism, along with a string of abusive boyfriends (who were sometimes threatening to me and my siblings as well), made our home a chaotic place. In my teens, I began to follow in her footsteps, drinking too much and getting into unhealthy relationships. Today, even though I’ve stopped drinking and partying, and I’m in a wonderful relationship with someone I love dearly, I still can’t seem to leave that past behind. Sometimes when my boss gets upset at work, even when it’s for legitimate reasons, I find myself trying hard not to panic. And even though my partner loves me so much, I sometimes fear I’ll be all alone. I know these things aren’t real, but they stick with me so much.
As I said earlier, we can’t change our pasts, and we can’t magically erase the effects of them. But we can rewrite the story we tell about ourselves, and what we emphasize. Here’s one way to transform the Victim into the Survivor:
Life has never been an easy thing for me, and I know others share that experience. We’ve all been there, and I have friends and even family members like my siblings with whom I can share a knowing look, an expression of understanding, and sometimes even a conversation where we trade notes and know we aren’t alone. Life was hard growing up, but I learned a lot from it. As the oldest, I had to care for my siblings early on, so I picked up basic cooking, cleaning, and organizational skills along the way. My siblings were real sweethearts, too, even at the darkest times, and seeing them grow made it worth it. We all made it through together, and I’m not sure if we’d be as close otherwise. I learned the hard way that following in my mother’s footsteps wasn’t a good idea, but unlike her I managed to blow it all out of my system when I was still young, and started clawing my way back up from rock bottom. I knew how much her problems had hurt me, even though I know she loved us in spite of everything, and after I saw how my behavior was hurting those around me, I promised myself I’d quit. And I did. I broke that cycle. I still have scars, emotional and otherwise. I still have days where I’m terrified of losing everything and everyone around me. But you know what? Deep down in my heart of hearts, underneath the fear, I know that won’t happen, that I am safe. And that helps me when times still occasionally get tough today. I can be tough, too.
The goal here isn’t to banish or cut out a part of yourself entirely, but instead to rewrite its story so that it transforms into something better. You can even use this in shorter versions in everyday life. If you find that you’re being hard on yourself because of some perceived mistake or flaw, take a moment to rewrite the story. Instead of thinking “Geez, all I do is seek attention from others; I’m so needy!” you can try thinking “It’s natural to want to be acknowledged; we’re social animals. I can ask others to acknowledge me and my accomplishments, but the strongest acknowledgement needs to come from myself. How can I be my own best fan in all this?”
Of course, sometimes the problems we face and the legacy our pasts leave are more than we feel we can handle on our own. You may uncover things while doing work with archetypes that feel overwhelming, and so it may be helpful to go to someone who cares about you to talk it over, or consider a good mental health counselor—there are even Jungian therapists out there who specialize in archetype work among other things.
Keep doing this work with the other archetypes you chose at the beginning, and once you’ve worked over the stories with that first half dozen or so, you may have a clearer view of yourself and your motivations. Archetypal work is a worthy pursuit in and of itself, but that’s not the primary focus of this book. Hopefully, now that you have a few archetypes that you understand and really identify with, the rest of this chapter can help you connect them with fungus and plant totems.
Finding Archetypal Totems
It may seem a little odd to be assigning archetypes to plants and fungi. After all, for the most part they just sit there and grow, not displaying much of the active behavior that animals do. How can a plant be representative of the Anima, or the Child? A little extra imagination may be necessary to be sure, but keep in mind that totems have more recognizable (to us) personalities than their physical counterparts. And as I’ve described earlier, fungi and plants are far from passive participants in the world.
As you’ve been researching archetypes, you may have found some fungi or plants you believe embody some of these concepts. You might have been working with the Wise Person archetype and felt that an ancient tree like a sequoia or bristlecone pine reminded you of it—though so could the giant, thousands-of-years-old specimen of the fungus Armillaria solidipes in Oregon. On the other hand, a wild rhododendron might resemble your personal Anima—not always adorned with flowers, but maintaining an ever-green and lively countenance throughout the year. Keep a record of these hunches, but keep an open mind too, since first impressions aren’t always the final result.
Your Inner Garden
Here’s where we’ll start connecting the archetypes to plant and fungus totems that can help you to know yourself better. Your psyche will be represented by a garden; the different plants and fungi that grow there are the totems that embody the archetypes within you.
Why a garden instead of a wilderness? Because gardens are almost uniquely human,14 and because fungi and plants from different ecosystems and regions around the world can be grown in the same place if the climate and soil or substrate allow. Some might need a little more tending than others, and some may have gone half-feral, but isn’t that always the way of things? If your Inner Garden isn’t neatly-trimmed and orderly—or even if it is—either way, it’s okay. What’s important is that you can find your way around there.
Do keep in mind that even though you may only resonate personally with a few archetypes, you may find all sorts of them in your Inner Garden. After all, the garden doesn’t just tap into your psyche; it’s also your personal gateway into the collective unconscious. We all possess the deep impulses from which archetypes are born; we just may emphasize some more than others. So allow yourself to be open to whoever shows up.
There are a few ways you can explore your inner garden. One is through visualization and guided meditation, where you use your imagination to explore and build that alternate reality. However, the Inner Garden also lends itself well to artistic trance (or trance-fueled art?). This means that you can also get into your artistic “zone” and allow the garden to express itself through your creativity. You can even find an open field (preferably with relatively few things to trip over) and pretend that you’re walking through the garden, stopping every so often when you feel you’ve connected with a particular archetype, and trying to imagine what fungus or plant might be growing there. It may not be there physically, but some people are very kinetic in their perception of the world, and pacing out the garden can help facilitate connections to the totems of the archetypes.
To that end, choose your method of accessing the Inner Garden, and get yourself settled, whether that’s in ritual space or at a table with paper and colored pencils; whatever works for you. Then start by going to the beginning of the garden, either visualizing or drawing or “walking” it. Take a moment to get a general impression of the garden, whether it’s small and cozy, or large and overgrown, or a mixture of sunny spots and shadowed nooks, or however it appears to you. Know that if at any time you need to come back to this starting point, all you have to do is ask for it, and you’ll find yourself right back here, able to head home.
Now, begin to explore. Don’t go in with any particular agenda; just let yourself go where you will, whether down carefully manicured paths, or small gaps in between tightly-spaced bushes. If you feel drawn to a particular spot, head over and see what may be growing there. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable going into a spot, you’re not obligated to; for example, you may find your Shadow resides in a rather spooky place, and if you don’t feel quite brave enough to even take a little peek, just save it for another trip.
So how do you know what archetypes you’re working with? A lot of it is intuition. As you were researching and exploring various archetypes, you may have gotten a good sense of what they “feel” like when you come into contact with them. You might feel their presence within you more as you recognized them within your personality, or they might have displayed certain signs such as a color or other symbol anytime you encountered them, like a sort of calling card.
Since this is a garden, the archetypes you meet should be manifesting as plants or fungi. If you don’t know the identity of a particular fungus or plant, just make note of its characteristics and go from there; you can always research later. Note how each one makes you feel, and how it responds to you. This is a good indication of your relationship to that part of yourself.
Sometimes the archetypes will show up as something completely different, like a human being or other animal. In this case, ask it if there are any plants or fungi it would introduce or recommend you talk to. It may make the introduction right then and there, or it may tell you where to find it. It may even tell you that the fungus or plant doesn’t actually grow in the garden yet, why it doesn’t, and perhaps even how to invite it to grow there.
As with other interactions with totems, you may find some of the totems and/or archetypes make requests of you; make note of them, and if they happen to be things that aren’t realistic, let the being know and ask for an alternative. You might also find that in order to access some parts of the garden that you need to provide keys for gates, or look for bridges to cross brooks, and so forth. These can be representative of potential barriers in working with the parts of yourself that are beyond these challenges. If you don’t make it through the first time, just try again later and explore what you can now. Some of these barriers even may resolve themselves over time as well.
Once you’re ready, head back to the start of the garden. Some people feel safer closing and locking a gate once they leave. Just be careful that the gate doesn’t become so solid that you can’t get back in, or that you use it to shut absolutely everyone away from you. Boundaries can be healthy and good, but they can also become personal prisons. Conversely, if you feel comfortable leaving the garden open, go right ahead! Just be aware you can still keep it safe without gates or guardians.
This exercise does beg the question: where are the lines drawn between “archetype” and “totem”? Unsurprisingly, the answer isn’t so simple. For some people, the totem is just one of many guises the archetype can take on to interact with us; when a person’s Animus takes the form of a white oak tree, they may feel that the totem White Oak is simply a manifestation of the Animus archetype. Some people prefer one sort of symbol over another; someone may find that the traditional Jungian archetypes are rather stuffy and hard to identify with, but when the same archetypes are “translated” into fungus and plant form, suddenly everything makes better sense. For others, the Inner Garden exercise is a way for our inner archetypes to introduce us to plant and fungus totems they work well with, but are distinct from. Like counselors or spiritual mentors, the totems can help us to know ourselves more deeply through the archetypes within us.
However you see the relationship between archetypes and totems, you can visit the Inner Garden whenever you like as a place to work with and learn from. Over time you may find that it changes and grows, and you might even discover parts of it you hadn’t previously noticed.
This is meant to be an open-ended exercise with no “right” answers. The important thing is that you get a good sense of your Inner Garden and who’s in there. It may take multiple visits just to get a very general understanding and map of its layout. Just keep in mind that there’s no hurry; you have the rest of your life to get to know yourself and your garden better.
Cultivating the Inner Garden
You aren’t only a passive viewer of the Inner Garden; keep in mind that this is your psyche in the form of a garden, and ultimately it’s yours to care for, shape, and change. This doesn’t mean that you should make changes indiscriminately; while the Inner Garden is made of symbols, they’re very deep-seated, and changes to this representation of your psyche can affect you more significantly than you might think. So don’t go into your garden with a machete and start hacking and slashing indiscriminately. Instead, like any good gardener, assess the role of each fungus and plant in the beds and fields, and decide what needs to be there and how best to care for it. Here’s one example of the sort of thing you might encounter:
While exploring his Inner Garden, Andrew finds a particularly thorny plant, a milk thistle. There are other thorny plants there, like roses and cacti, but the thistle just seems to not quite fit in. It’s big, with many spiky purple flowers and pointy leaves everywhere, and it threatens to overtake some of the other plants around it. So he calls on the totem Milk Thistle to find out why one of its children grows here. The totem tells him to smell the thistle’s flowers. Instead of having the usual floral scent, the flowers smell like his room did when he was a child. It’s a comforting scent, but it makes him incredibly sad. Suddenly he has a very visceral memory of that room; he can see all of his toys and furniture, and the sunlight streaming through the window like it did on long summer days. “Why does this make you sad?” Milk Thistle asks. Andrew thinks for a few minutes, and then says “Because I miss it. I miss the simplicity. I work so hard, and I feel like I barely have time to have fun anymore.” “And so you remember what it was like to have more freedom?” “Yes, that’s it.” The thistle then parts its stems, and out rolls a basketball, the one Andrew had when he was young. In that moment, he realizes that the totem Milk Thistle is allied with his Child archetype, not just the time when he himself was a child, but also his sense of play and fun and innocence. He picks up the basketball, and almost immediately the thistle growing in the garden starts to look less threatening. Over time as he continues to visit, the thistle integrates itself more into its bed and in his waking life Andrew starts to make more time for relaxation, and to revisit some of his favorite things from his childhood, like his old baseball cards and some of the books he learned to read with that he remembers so well.
Sometimes you may need to be a little more hands-on. You might need to use pruning shears to cut back a wild shrub and to remove dead growth so it can grow back more healthy leaves and twigs. Perhaps you’ll discover a fungus being eaten by insects that need to be removed. Maybe a group of seedlings needs to be thinned, and some of them relocated to a new place in the garden.
If you aren’t sure whether a particular change is a good idea, sit with it a while. Talk to the relevant totem. See if you can identify what effects this change may have on you or your everyday life. But sometimes you may find that a change just needs to happen, and that it feels like the right thing to do, too. Take each situation as an individual decision to make.
The Life Garden
In every Inner Garden, there’s a particular section called the Life Garden. This is a series of beds wherein grow fungi and plants that represent different stages of your life. Each person’s garden will be different. Some will have a different plant or fungus for each year; others, one for every seven-year stage, or for every decade. Often the stages change organically, guided by important experiences in the person’s life that change them deeply, like graduations, or the death of a loved one. The present bed is often a microcosm of the Inner Garden as a whole; because the Inner Garden is a larger map of your psyche as it is now, the Life Garden—past, present, and future—adds the dimension of time to it. Sometimes the present bed is even a small map of the entire Inner Garden, ever changing as you change.
In the future there are empty beds, waiting for something to be planted. Sometimes each stage has a variety of plants, and what grows in each stage may change a little—or a lot—as time goes by. And all of the beds can change size and shape to accommodate different sorts of fungi and plants; one that features a tree may be much bigger than one that’s mostly tiny mushrooms. The “bed” may even be a pond with aquatic plants in it.
The Life Garden is related to developmental psychology; this is the study of how humans develop mentally and emotionally (and even physically!) throughout their lifetimes. Developmental psychology also divides a person’s life into stages. Some developmental stage systems, such as the work of Erik Erikson, are based mostly on how a person develops through their biological and neurological lifetimes. They tend to emphasize development in the child more, with adults relegated to the last one or two stages. Others, such as Bill Plotkin’s Wheel of Life, are more holistic. They take into account not only the individual’s brain and body growth, but also personal rites of passage, relationships to other people, other living beings, the environment, and other factors. Rather than pinpointing the transition from one stage to the next at a specific age, these stages of development are instead dependent on a whole host of personal developmental factors, life experiences, and ways of perceiving. A person can even be in two stages at once, if they haven’t learned all the lessons from a previous one but are precocious enough to start on the next.
The Life Garden is more closely related to the latter sort of developmental cycle. It allows a person to grow and develop at their own pace. However, the empty beds in the person’s future represent even more flexibility and mystery; there are no expectations as to the size or the contents of the garden of the future.
So how do you work with your Life Garden? First, you need to explore it, just like you did the rest of the garden. You might have seen it at some point during your explorations. If not, go into the garden with the intent of finding your Life Garden. If you’re having trouble finding it, think of a plant or fungus that was important to you at some point in your life, and see if you can feel its presence in the garden, then go to it. With luck, it should have a presence in the Life Garden.
Once you’ve located this part of the garden, spend some time examining it. Take note of the beds’ sizes and shapes, what grows in each of them, and if you can tell where one ends and another begins. You may recognize fungi and plants that were prominent in various stages of your life, and these can be valuable clues in determining the identification of each bed. It’s not unheard of for people to even have signs up in front of each bed making it quite clear what’s what.
And, of course, start talking to the totems of the plants and fungi in each bed. This is especially true for those you don’t recognize. They may watch over parts of your life you weren’t consciously aware of, or they may help you gain more insight into memories and experiences. The ones in your present life-bed, too, may be able to assist you in the challenges you face right now, or highlight things that could be very helpful in the future. It is possible to have plants and fungi that seem to be out of place because they serve a purpose in the workings of your mind well below where you’re aware of them. And, yes, you can have some that grow there simply because they’re pretty or are supportive to other beings in the garden.
Identification is just part of the story, though. Some of us carry baggage from various parts of our lives. Others look to the good times we’ve experienced to give us strength to get through tough situations now. Just as with other parts of your Inner Garden, you can also tend the Life Garden. Again, you want to be very cautious about ripping out plants and fungi entirely; often the totems are there to help you deal with and transform bad things in the past, or may have hidden lessons you haven’t discovered just yet. Keep in mind that there’s only so much you can change about the past, too. You’re welcome to use the present bed as a place to experiment more, but make sure you have good reasons for what you do with what grows there.
The future beds are another story. They’re where you can plant hopes and dreams. The problem, of course, is that you never know exactly when the closest bed in the future will become the present one, and how long before it becomes the past and allows the next one to become active in your life. We simply can’t predict the stages of our lives and when the transitions will occur. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plant seeds and spores and hope for the best.
Let’s say you’re in a stage of your life where you don’t have a good significant other. You might have had relationships fairly recently, but they were generally unhealthy or disappointing or otherwise unsatisfactory. But when you were younger, there was someone who was very dear to you who showed you what love could be. You can’t bring that person or people back, but you can ask the totem that represents your time as the Lover to help you actively embody that archetype in your life again.
You could talk to the totem about why you may not have that sort of relationship right now, why you’d like it again, and what else in your life can support you and fulfill you in its absence. This can even involve totems within the present-time bed, giving their feedback about what you can do right now to improve your life overall so that the lack of a significant other isn’t such a distraction. After all, being the Lover isn’t just about having an active sex life or a committed partner (or partners). It can also be about being in love with other things—activities in your community, your local bioregion, even the sunrise every morning. It goes along with the adage, “in order to be loved, be lovable.” If you can be a whole, happy person in and of yourself, then if and when you do have another living partnership, you’ll have so much more to share!
And you can ask the Lover totem for spores or seeds to plant in a future bed in the hopes that it will grow again. As with anything in the future, there’s no guarantee they’ll sprout, or when and how. But sometimes just placing a hint of that desire into the future can help it manifest as time goes on. Just don’t plant the seeds or spores with specific expectations. Let the fungi or plants grow however they see fit.
As with the rest of the Inner Garden, the Life Garden is a collaboration between your conscious mind, your unconscious mind, and the collective unconscious represented by archetypes. But in the end, it’s the story of where you’ve been, where you are now, and the mystery of where you may go. Tend it with care.
Jennifer is exploring her Life Garden for the first time. There are a number of beds filled with a variety of fungi and plants, and each one has a sign in front of it marking out seven-year stretches of her life. Looking back, she can think of important things that significantly changed her life every seven years—moving to a new town when she was seven, the death of her grandmother when she was fourteen, graduating from college when she was twenty-one, and so forth. Although she didn’t become a completely different person the day after each of these things occurred, she could see certain themes in each stage and how each significant event marked the beginning of a shift in her life. In looking in the first bed, she notices it was the only place where dandelions grow. When she was young, she would explore her big back yard, which was punctuated by these bright yellow flowers and their puffy white seedballs. But after the move, her parents moved to a condo with a much smaller, weed-free yard, and she lost touch with her Explorer self. In subsequent stages of her life, she found herself even more and more constricted physically, emotionally, and mentally, as work and other obligations kept her distracted. At thirty-four, she feels so distant from the child she was, she can barely remember what it was like to roam freely in the yard. And yet … and yet, maybe there is hope. She goes to the dandelions in the first bed, and picks one of the seedballs. Then, standing at the cusp between her present bed and the next, she blows the seeds into the future beds. She hopes that if there is a new stage when she turns thirty-five that it may include a rebirth of the Explorer, and in the meantime she resolves to start looking into taking more time off from work for things like hiking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities she’s always wanted to try.
The Guided Tour of Your Inner Garden
Remember earlier in this chapter where I talked about writing your personal narrative? This is a similar concept, except you’re designing a tour of your Inner Garden. You’re going to tell the story of each of the plants and fungi that grow in the garden. This is a way to examine what parts of the garden stand out the most to you, and why you may emphasize them more than others. It’s also a way for you to rewrite the relationships you have to various parts of the garden. Keep in mind that you don’t have to share this content. You can keep some or even all of it private, or only share it with very specific people. Mainly this is an exercise for your benefit. We tell stories differently to others than we do to ourselves, and when we’re trying to explain our Inner Gardens to someone else, we may notice or skip over certain places or totems that we wouldn’t when we were just there on our own. So in a way, even if no other actual person is involved, our guest on the tour can be a valuable sounding board and alternative perspective.
Go into your garden and pretend you have someone with you who’s curious about it. You can present the garden however you like, either walking wherever you feel inspired, or with a route in a specific order. You can even let your imaginary guest decide the route. Depending on how big your garden is, you may not be able to explain every single thing that grows in it, at least not in one tour. Just pick the highlights if that’s the case. Introduce your imaginary guest to the totems that you want them to know about the most; your guest isn’t going to judge you or think less of you, so you’re welcome to share even the scary ones. You can explain how your relationship with each totem began, what archetype they’re connected to, and what you’ve learned from them. You can also add in some anecdotes from your life that illustrate how you embody these archetypes.
Once the tour is completed, review it. What parts of the garden did you take your guest to, and why? Which ones did you avoid, and for what reasons? What does this say about your relationships to the archetypes in these parts of the gardens? If you have a favorable view of them, are they being positive influences in your everyday life, or could you give them more room to manifest? If you have a negative view of them, can you work with them to improve your relationship and turn them from perceived threats into beneficial allies?
Try giving the tour every few months, maybe three to four times a year. Keep track of how your reviews change over time, and let that help you decide how to tend your garden best.
Phoebe has decided she’s going to take Katie, her imaginary friend from when she was an imaginative kindergartener, through her Inner Garden. Katie was always her best friend, even though she had “real” friends, too, and even when she had a bad day Phoebe knew Katie wouldn’t make fun of her. This makes Katie the perfect imaginary guest to this garden. She pictures Katie as she did as a child, as another little girl with pigtails and grubby clothes from playing outside. As Katie runs from one place to another in the garden, Phoebe follows her and answers her questions. There’s one part of the garden, though, that Phoebe doesn’t want to go to; it’s dark and damp and dreary, and surrounded by blackberry brambles with sharp thorns. Katie, of course, runs right up to it and asks about it. “Well, I don’t want to go there. You see, that place began to grow back when you first came into my life, because that’s when kids started picking on me. You helped me through it, but these brambles never really went away.” Katie frowned. “Well, I’m here now, why can’t I help you again?” And with that she touched the brambles, and they parted in an instant. In the center of the blackberry bramble patch was a young girl—Phoebe when she was a child! But when Phoebe tried to go to her, the brambles blocked her again. “You can’t save her just yet,” Katie said. “I showed you where she was, but you have to face the brambles yourself. Once you can do that, then you can go in and get her.” Phoebe thought about it for a moment, and then she realized what was going on—in order for her to become a Survivor, she had to first find a way to work through the brambles trapping her Victim-self, born so early in life. Katie, as her safe imaginary friend, provided her the ability to look at her Inner Garden with a new sense of vulnerability and bravery. Phoebe promised herself that once she was done with this tour, her next visit to the Inner Garden would be to visit with the totem Blackberry; even as scary as it was, she knew that was the first step in freeing herself.
I realize I’ve spent a lot of this chapter on the Inner Garden and its workings. Just keep in mind that these are suggested activities. If you like the general concept (totems + archetypes = better understanding), but aren’t fond of the garden motif, feel free to swap it for something more appropriate for your needs, such as a forest or field, or even a kitchen full of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, and herbs. Or, having gotten an understanding of archetypes, you may find a different way to connect them to plant and fungus totems. Remember, this is all open-source; there’s no holy writ.
14 I say “almost” because invariably someone will bring up leafcutter ants. These insects deliberately cultivate a particular kind of fungus underground for food. Different species of ant will grow different types of fungus; however, they get their name “leafcutter” from their practice of cutting off and carrying away pieces of leaves to use as mulch for the fungi. While it’s not the same sort of aesthetic and multi-species gardening that humans engage in, I figured I’d head off the leafcutter pedants with this footnote.