Into and Out of the Woods
Updated: Jun 30, 2019
Photo by Dominic Nazeri
One of my favourite musicals is Steven Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’. The plot interweaves four Fairy Story characters, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, into a central story of a baker and his wife who are childless because of a curse placed on them by a witch. The witch agrees to lift the curse if they find four ingredients for a magic potion she needs. And so their quest into the woods begins.
Much has been written about the psychological significance of fairy stories, helping the child interpret and understand the world it is growing up to face. The death of the perfect and idealised mother/father replaced by a wicked stepmother or an absent father/huntsman/ogre helps the young adolescent make sense of its ambivalent response to what was once an adored parent but is now a ‘monstrous’ adult to be battled with over boundaries. Similarly, themes of death, separation, abuse and the darker emotions of anger, envy, sadness etc. can be projected and understood before a healthier reintegration takes place. Pixar’s brilliant new film ‘Inside Out’ captures this beautifully with the personification of our five core emotions within an 11-year- old girl’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. It is an incredibly sophisticated film in which we see how Riley learns to accept and integrate all her emotions to help her lead a fulfilled and more emotionally complex life.
I took two young children to see ‘Inside Out’. One, a 7-year-old boy, had just started a new school and was very anxious. As we sat waiting for the film to begin, he began to talk to me about this new experience but he inevitably struggled to put language to such intense and confusing feelings. Immediately after the film he named his emotions really proudly and with a great sense of relief and excitement. I bought him an ‘Inside Out’ journal with the 5 emotions and every day, he ticks off the range of emotions he’s experiencing. As a result, he is feeling much safer and is becoming emotionally literate at a very young age, understanding that experiencing paradoxical emotions of, for example, joy and sadness is very ok: one does not automatically cancel out the other. The opposite is true. It is only when we allow ourselves our full range of emotions that we can begin to experience true joy.
And so back to the woods, a consistent metaphor for psychological confusion and ultimate growth: from Dante’s ‘dark wood’ in his Divine Comedy to Shakespeare’s ‘Forest of Arden’ in ‘As You Like It’ to Dorothy and her friends entering the woods to reclaim their True/Authentic Self in ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
I watched ‘Into the Woods’ for the first time, entranced as the four fairy stories I had imbibed in my mother’s milk unfurled into their much loved happy endings. Cinderella and Rapunzel get their Princes, Jack his golden harp, the Baker his son etc. The ‘Ever After’ rousing song finished, lights came up and I looked around deeply contented…but confused. This was only the interval. How could there possibly be a Second Act when all the happy endings had happened??
Act 2 begins: ‘Once Upon a Time…Later’. We meet the Fairy Tale characters again. They are not content. Trying to be happy but still wishing for something more. Then life steps in to wake them up again in the form of a very angry Giant and they are all forced back into the woods.
And this is the point of the woods and why we will keep being forced back until we learn to accept and integrate them. The woods are our shadow, that part of ourself we reject or bury. It is where our unconscious is and the root of our intuition, our creativity and our passion, and our psychological task as human beings is to transform our shadow into a healthy integrated synthesis, as depicted in the film ‘Inside Out’.
The first time we go into the woods we have no idea what is in there. We enter in naïve unconsciousness, propelled by external requests/forces or by a strong inner yearning for something other than our current life, and often our naivety protects us, like Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf. We do not make a fully conscious choice to enter and any change we seek is what I call ‘pick and mix’ change, one that we think we can control. And once the crisis is over, once we have gained the treasure we seek, we leave the woods certain we can return to our old life untouched.
But this is the rub: psychologically we can never go back once we have been into the woods, once our consciousness has changed. If we persist in that victim mentality, still keep taking that blue pill that reinforces our ‘Adapted Self’, curve balls will continue to pummel us, like the Giant in Act 2 of ‘Into the Woods’. We are again forced back into the woods but this time our eyes are wide open. We are no longer naïve and we enter in fear. But, if we have learned from our previous experience, we enter with greater internal resources, namely our wisdom, strength courage…and most importantly, our intuition.
So what have I learned over these last 10 years about my own woods?
· I've learned that we are propelled into the woods first time round. That the second time it's a choice, we don't want to, don't embrace it but we know it's the only way through our predicament. That the only answer lies within. And here again, intuition will be our guide.
· I’ve learned that some people get lost in the woods. They lose consciousness and forget why they are there. That way madness lies.
· I’ve learned that we have to go into the woods to grow up. Resisting its summons will keep us in arrested psychological development. We will remain forever infantile, overly dependent, clinging too tightly in fear.
· I’ve learned not all is what is seems and that it is only by entering the woods consciously that I now listen to my inner voice, my inner truth which is vastly different to the good girl/Adapted Self I was before. As Sondheim says: ‘Witches can be right, Giants can be good/ You decide what's right, you decide what's good’
· I’ve learned that life without the shadow/woods is soulless and empty. That to experience joy, passion, excellence in all things we have to accept the woods. That not to do so brings a sanitized, homogenous ‘Stepford Wives’ existence, a half-life. We need the woods. It is not an either/or. Yes, we will have moments out in glorious sunshine basking in a pure bubble of joy and yes there will be many times when we are immersed in the density of the woods. But to grow strong and healthy we need to integrate the woods into our life. That these are two realms and we can learn to cohabit both simultaneously. Both feed and nurture us: our soul, our creativity, our passion, our joy.
· And finally. This fiercely independent girl has learned that she cannot do this on her own. That she had to go into the woods to find her own path and this demanded great stillness and aloneness. But then she found others also in the woods, also finding their own path and she learned that joy comes from the deep love and connection this brings.