Forging One’s Own Path: An Interview with Sherene Vismaya Schostak
Sherene Vismaya Schostak, author, astrologer, therapist, mystic

Sherene Vismaya Schostak, M.A. is a psychoanalyst, astrologer, and writer in private practice in San Francisco. She specializes in depression, anxiety, shadow work, creative blocks, eating disorders, and relationships. For nearly 20 years, Sherene has been writing, consulting, teaching, and developing a unique approach to Jungian and somatic healing modalities.

Sherene received an M.A. in clinical psychology from New York University, as well as an M.A. in developmental psychology from Pace University. After completing her graduate studies, she pursued further training in psychoanalytic studies at The New School and Jungian studies at ISAP Zurich. She has been the resident astrologer at Elle magazine for the past 10 years. Sherene teaches classes and workshops internationally, and leads a 40-day online group program called Project 40, or P40. Currently, Sherene is working on a book about the project, exploring how it creates an opportunity for psychological alchemy in modern times.

I met with Sherene on an August afternoon to interview her about her challenging but strengthening journey to becoming a forward-thinking, unconventional Jungian analyst who integrates astrology into her work. We also talked about the impact of technology on Jungian approaches and mental health, as well as the archetype of the hermit, which Sherene presented on at ISAP Zurich in the spring of 2017. Sherene drew many parallels between her path to creating her life’s work and the path of the hermit—taking the uncertain, but ultimately more rewarding, road less traveled after listening to the still voice within. She also gave insights into how we can use the power of the hermit archetype to cultivate the qualities necessary to manage the turbulent, fast-paced cultural and political climate we all live in.

CV: I know you weave a lot of different elements together in your work. How did you come to depth psychology?

SS: That’s a good question. I was interested in Jung, alchemy, and astrology, even in high school. I remember I had to write a psychology paper, and everyone was writing about Freud. I was more interested in Jung, because I always liked the spiritual side of things. I was so excited to find that there was a psychologist who was also into art and spirituality.

CV: And you continued pursuing these interests when you studied clinical psychology?

SS: It’s an interesting story. When I attended college, I started in the psychology program and hated it. I didn’t want to study behavioral psychology. So then I went into general studies and studied philosophy and Latin. I thought I was going to become a philosopher, because psychology was so boring to me back then, especially as it was taught in a traditional college. So after my undergraduate studies, I felt lost.

I almost moved to San Francisco at that time to attend California Institute of Integral Studies, because it was the only school I heard of at that time that had a Jungian psychology focus. Nowadays, you can totally get away with doing that. But at that time, that type of psychology was not widely accepted, and I didn’t know how I was going to make money. I thought, “How am I going to get a job doing this?” So I had to go a more traditional route, attending NYU and doing clinical training.

“I feel like we’re all in a liminal space right now, with where we are at as a society, in our current political climate. It doesn’t feel like anything is really solid.”

And then I wanted to get a Ph.D., which was even harder. I was trying these different programs to do what I wanted to and get a doctorate, because that’s what I thought I needed at the time. I attended three different programs, trying to find a program that would support a more spiritual approach to working with psychology yet was still respected enough to get me employed, and it never worked out. One of my earlier master’s-level programs emphasized developmental psychology, so there was a lot of training in school testing, which wasn’t for me, so I left that program. Then I attended pursuing my Ph.D. in a psychoanalytic program at The New School, but they ended up dissolving that program and turning it into a behavioral psychology program, just like many other schools. And I thought, “Well, I have no future here, either.” So then I made my way to the Jung institutes in New York and Zurich. I had already been in analysis and supervision for 10 years and was encouraged by my analyst to pursue Jungian studies independently via workshops, retreats, intensives, self-study, and ongoing analysis and supervision.

So, it’s kind of funny—my path of pursuing psychology has actually been very Jungian, because I’ve been forced to create my own thing. Every time I tried to do it through an institution, it became more rigid.

I was actually at the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute yesterday, watching a movie with Tom Kirsch, M.D.*, an old-school Jungian, who was being interviewed by Murray Stein. Tom Kirsch is in his 80s, and his parents were actually analyzed by Jung. Luis Moris made this beautiful film of the interview—I recommend watching the DVD. They were asking Tom in the movie if he felt like a lot has been lost throughout the years at the Jung institutes. And he said yes—and I think so, too. If you go to ISAP Zurich, the Jung institute in Zurich, which is where I did the hermit presentation recently, that to me feels like the last place that still has a little bit of the authentic, spiritual, esoteric Jung—like The Red Book.

The film also talked about how back in Jung’s day, the analysts would have the creative arts around—things like pens and paper for clients to draw with. It was just so much a part of the work. But now people don’t really want to do analysis; it’s becoming outdated. I can vouch for that. I used to see 20-30 people a week in New York for analysis. And now most people come for astrology readings. I have a few hard-core, long-term clients who come for analysis a few times a week. Most people just want a few sessions. A lot of people are looking for a quick fix—everything is changing. That was what the movie was about.

CV: Was it your intention all along to weave in the astrology? And I know that you also do dance and movement.

SS: I’ve always loved astrology, but I used to have to keep it under wraps when I first started, because it wasn’t as accepted in the 90s. I was afraid that people wouldn’t take me seriously as a psychoanalyst and an astrologer. Now it’s the opposite. The fact that I’m an astrologer is a real bonus. It’s actually saving me from what’s happening to a lot of psychologists and therapists who are stuck in this horrible insurance prison where if they’re not getting covered by insurance, which is harder and harder, how do they get clients? It’s tough. So I’m lucky that I’ve adapted to social media, doing more online work like P40. So I’m grateful that I’m a little bit of a weirdo eccentric—it’s actually working in my favor now.

CV: The field is undergoing so many changes. And as you were saying before, the predilection for the quick fix, for what is empirically validated, and what insurance will reimburse…all those things have their place. But your offerings are also important, in how you address the soul. What drew me to your work is that you still infuse your creativity and your personal spin on it, and it feels contemporary. As much as I love Jungian psychology, I know sometimes it can get incredibly erudite and heady. It needs grounding.

SS: Yes—it’s not so accessible that way. It was very masculine for a long time. Even though Jung’s main disciples were two awesome women—Marie-Louise von Franz and Barbara Hannah. However, there has been a resurgence of Jungian psychology and concepts since The Red Book. Now you’re seeing the resurgence in language, in quotes.

I recently saw an article online about Marie-Louise von Franz posted by someone who writes with a very trendy, pretty silly tone with cute catchphrases. I always have a mixed reaction about things like that—on one hand, it’s great to make information about Jung more accessible, which I’m being pressured to do as well, but on the other hand, there’s the part of me that wants to keep everything deep and authentic. As they were saying in the Kirsch film, it’s not something that you can sit down with for 10 minutes on an app—it’s deep work and a whole process that takes time. That’s what I love about it.

CV: And our culture tends to shy away from that, from plumbing the depths and going into the unknown. So there’s this tension between how practitioners can carry Jungian psychology forward and help it to morph and adapt, and to make it sustainable, relevant, and appealing (to a certain extent). And yet how do we retain its integrity and not unnecessarily dilute it?

SS: I’m so glad we’re having this conversation about how these collective trends are either supporting the growth of the self, uniqueness, individuality, and the individuation process—and how are they taking away from it. Because we’re all getting pulled into these weird social media trends that are supporting anything but integrity, authenticity, and soul growth. It feels like we’re getting further and further from that. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m old and jaded. But from this middle-aged place, it looks a little scary. What I do like is that there is more pioneering going on. People are breaking out of old modes that keep us stuck and doing what authority figures tell us to do. But I’m not enthusiastic about the trend of “quick-fix” therapy.

CV: In our culture, there is such little talk in general about the soul, and about needing to not only be physically and mentally healthy, but to also be healthy in your soul and to take care of it. To do things that feed your soul and creative spirit. A lot of the training we receive is centered on these values of somebody else’s concept of what health looks like. But it really ignores the soul. It is also centered on these values of what looks healthy in an inherently unhealthy environment, in this workaholic culture we’re in. For instance, there’s a focus on suppressing anxiety and depression, which, in one respect, could be seen as the soul screaming that we need and want more from life. It’s both an exciting time and difficult time to be a practitioner, especially if you’re looking to have a foot in both worlds—the world of licensure and allopathic, conventionally validated clinical approaches and then the world of complementary, “alternative,” and integrative approaches.

SS: I found my way, and I’m grateful for that. I feel like a lot of my time was a compromise between trying to stay in the supposed safety of what was accepted to be respected in the patriarchal world of psychology and denying that I was really more of a healer and artist. I love psychology, but getting a Ph.D. wasn’t my path. I remember how scary it was then—trying to figure out how to get through the system. My personality just doesn’t work well with authoritative systems. I kept rebelling and breaking out of it. The advice I have for anyone is that you ultimately do have to find your own way, even if it feels messy in the process.

CV: I’m curious, how does the hermit archetype connect to this conversation?

SS: It does, actually—in a beautiful way. The hermit is all about finding your own way. The hermit doesn’t follow anyone else’s path. He is very inwardly drawn. If you see the image in the tarot card, he’s alone on the edge of a cliff and the only guide he has is his inner light, which he has to trust. If you think of the hermit as being connected to the archetype of Virgo, it’s the archetype of finding our work, our path. Not your career, your brand, or the mark you came to leave on the world—that’s Capricorn. Virgo asks the questions: “What is my life’s work? What do I want to spend every day doing?” If we think of the hermit as the guide for that, it’s about doing your life’s true calling, your true daily practice. The thing you want to have as a ritual, the thing you want to get better at, the thing you want to devote your soul and your inner world to. No one else can forge that knowledge for you; it has to come from within you.

But sometimes you have to be alone to find your life’s work—because if you’re distracted by other people and external influences, you can lose your way. That’s why people often go on retreat or a pilgrimage. And then they figure out what they want to do with their lives. Sometimes you really have to extricate yourself from all of the external voices, influences, and feedback, and figure out how you really want to do your life’s work. The hermit is a great archetype to work with for that.

CV: What interested you in creating a presentation on the hermit for ISAP Zurich?

SS: I was actually on a pilgrimage of my own in India, doing a lot of soul searching about where I wanted to live—either staying in New York or moving to San Francisco. I was in that hermit mindset when the director contacted me, plus the North Node was in Virgo, so I thought that the hermit would be a good topic for my presentation.

CV: So you were in the liminal space, halfway between New York and San Francisco, taking a respite in India.

SS: I feel like we’re all in a liminal space right now, with where we are at as a society, in our current political climate. It doesn’t feel like anything is really solid.

“Sometimes you really have to extricate yourself from all of the external voices, influences, and feedback, and figure out how you really want to do your life’s work. The hermit is a great archetype to work with for that.”

CV: I’m glad you brought that up. I’m interested in how that relates to the hermit archetype. With the incessant chatter and distraction on social media—the hermit is about getting away from that, going inward, and tuning in to your inner truth, and not what others are telling you to do, feel, and think. Once you take time to periodically disconnect, turn inward, and reconnect to yourself, you’re then able to reemerge and take action—because you’re coming from a place of clarity, as well as trusting and connecting to yourself. We’re in a time where people do need to mobilize and take action, and we can’t be put into the trance. It’s so easy to become entranced by things like social media, advertising, television, and sensationalism. It seems that the hermit is not so much about hiding and not being in touch with reality as it is about taking time out to be able to figure out how one’s energies are best spent and focused to then engage with reality in a thoughtful way. Would you agree with that?

SS: For sure. We need that more than ever right now. The hermit is also the healer—the Virgo element of healing.

CV: How is that?

SS: Virgo is about healing through the reconnection with the self. Before you can be with others again in the social realm, you need that inward time. I do feel like we are all craving that more than ever now. It’s crazy how addicted and enslaved we are to technology. I’m aware of it in my own life; it’s really become an addiction. It infiltrates my life. I’m actively trying to work on some time management stuff now to get grounded. Unless you let go of the addiction, you can’t go into the hermit element, and it’s harder to meditate—you don’t have the time or focus.

CV: Can you share about the presentation you did on the hermit at ISAP Zurich?

SS: What happened when I was working on it, which often happens when you’re invoking an archetype—the archetype reveals information to you. I was in Morocco when I was planning the presentation, and I was surrounded by all of these beautiful stairways. And they made me think of the hermit on the Led Zeppelin album, Stairway to Heaven. I was looking at the lyrics to the song “Stairway to Heaven” and trying to figure out why they put the hermit on the album cover. I realized that the lyrics in that song are really about the archetype and journey of the hermit. So in my presentation, I played the song and then I had the participants do free association with the lyrics, which are very powerful.

In classical Jungian therapy, what is most healing is when you access the numinous. When you have that connection with music, visuals, and the imagination, the unconscious really responds to that, versus just intellectualizing it, where you’re not going to have such a moving experience. When you bring in the unconscious, which relates more to imagery and music, you might really get your own unique download of what the hermit is. So that’s what I recommend to people—using a song that helps them connect to that feeling of isolation, solitude, being on a pilgrimage, or going into your own hermit cave. We all need and crave that.

It’s a great archetype to work with when you’re feeling lonely. Often, loneliness comes because we’re disconnected from the self, and what we’re craving is a deeper relationship with or connection to solitude. So I also cited a lot of Emily Dickinson poetry in the presentation, because she was a classic hermit. She came to peace with it. She wasn’t a victim of it. She chose it. If you read her later poems, especially toward the end of her life, she was really living that archetype and finding the “all oneness” in aloneness—the gift of being a hermit. Of finding everything within, the kingdom within. She wasn’t lonely or missing out. I also used Charles Bukowski’s writings, and examples from my own path.

CV: Can you share about Project 40, or P40?

SS: I started that in 2010, a year after The Red Book came out. I hadn’t even made the connection with that book at the time I started P40. I turned 40 in 2010 and it was an interesting confluence of events. I was doing an authentic movement workshop. It started when some people put $20 bills on an altar at the workshop. Somehow, two of the $20 bills caught fire, I guess by one of the candles on the altar, and they burnt in half. So, of course, as a Jungian, I see symbols and meaning in everything. I was looking at these two 20s, thinking “This is so interesting,” and we had just been dancing to that U2 song, “40.” I was thinking “What is this with 20s and 40s?” So I Googled the symbolism of it. And in my research, I realized that 40 is a very symbolic number—all these things happened in 40 days. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, and in many cultures, it is thought that it takes the soul 40 days to migrate from the body after death. So I compiled all of the sayings for the number 40.

That led to the inception of P40, because I thought it would be a good idea to put something together for 40 days. I wondered if we were to focus on something for 40 days, would it change in that time? If you had a problem, or an addiction? I had just gotten married at the time and was having this question about my marriage. I wondered if I offered it up for 40 days, like Jesus in the desert, I would figure it out. I had a couple of friends join me and we did an experiment to see what would happen in 40 days. And all of these really miraculous things happened in those 40 days. We got all these messages; every day was really magical—it wasn’t normal. Every day was very charged. It had become a magical container. I realized that there really is something to these 40 days. So then I tried to develop a structure for it—trying to figure out how you could work on something every day for 40 days. I wasn’t aware at the time that 40 days was also an alchemical formula.

At the time, I was working with a Jungian mentor, John Hill in Zurich—he helped me to realize what I was doing. He told me that I was creating a sacred temenos, an alchemical structure. We normally don’t do therapy in 40 days, but P40 is an intensive therapy for people where they’re focused on the same issue for 40 days, creating a 40-day alembic.

“Often, loneliness comes because we’re disconnected from the self, and what we’re craving is a deeper relationship with or connection to solitude.”

Then it evolved to an online process where people from all over the world can come together. We have a private online forum, and I send out emails. We all come together, and the topic is chosen based on a dominant energy astrologically. For example, if we’re under Venus retrograde, we might do a Venus retrograde P40. That way, we’re living in rhythm with what’s happening and getting guidance.

The last seven P40s have worked with the planets, including the sun and moon.

CV: So it’s a closed online group that meets in real time?

SS: Yes—we are all living it together. Technically, I have to live the day one day ahead so I can write about it. So first I create rituals, journaling prompts, etc., and do them myself. Then, the following day, I send the same rituals and prompts, along with photos, artwork, and quotes, to participants. Everyone has his or her own intention, but we’re also working under the umbrella of the chosen theme/dominant archetype. So there’s the collective and the individual.

CV: What have you noticed with participants and their journeys?

SS: There’s a high return rate, which is great. People really love it. I tend to attract people who really want to do deep inner work and shadow work. There’s a lot of shadow work. It’s alchemy, so there’s a lot of going into the nigredo and cleaning up the muck. It’s difficult. You are going into your unconscious—it’s not just getting an inspirational email every day. I generate the emails the day before—so they’re not super prewritten, coming from only an intellectual place. There’s a feeling of all of us being in it together, which is really beautiful.

People report a lot of change doing the work. A lot of people say it’s what they want therapy to be. It’s actually changed my view on therapy, too. I have clients in therapy who do it, too—and those people obviously get the best results, because they’re already in a process, and they’re literally working on it daily, so it’s really powerful. That’s the ideal if you can do it. For people who just go to therapy once a week and may feel a bit disconnected from the process, the idea of committing to the work once a day creates momentum. Change can happen because there’s so much intention put into it. It’s a modern way of doing something because we all can’t go to the desert for 40 days. But what’s amazing is that I see people who can devote an hour a day to it, and it’s still working on them all day. Some part of them is still in this deep space.

I originally didn’t know if that would work, but it does. It’s pretty remarkable, in having to make the best of the limitations we have now, the lack of time. The plus of being able to work with people all over the world who can do this—that’s amazing. They’re people who I would never meet in real life who are coming into this. So I’m really grateful for that aspect.

CV: The process of creating that and how it all unfolded is quite something. Thank you so much for sharing about your unconventional professional path, the hermit archetype, and your work!

SS: You’re so very welcome. My pleasure.

*Note: Tom Kirsch, M.D., was alive at the time of the interview but passed away in October 2017, according to the International Association for Jungian Studies website.

References

Hannah, B. Encounters with the Soul.

Jung, C. The Red Book (Philemon).

Schostak, S. Surviving Saturn’s Return: Overcoming the Most Tumultuous Time of Your Life.

Schostak, S. “Transpersonal Psychology: Explorations at the Frontier” in Speculation, Now: Essays and Artwork.

Von Franz, ML. The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption.

Von Franz, ML. Individuation in Fairy Tales.

Von Franz, ML. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.

About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, is currently pursuing licensure as a marriage and family therapist in California. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama from New York University. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist. To find out more about her counseling work, visit www.lapishealingarts.com.


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