The Murmurations of the Psyche
(If you have never witnessed this stunning phenomenon, please enjoy the video above--full screen recommended!) Some researchers believe the purpose of these awe-inspiring murmurations is to foster communication among the individual birds about how to stay safe from predators (Heimbuch, 2014). Their movements suggest they intuitively understand that there is safety in numbers.
Despite such hypotheses, a sense of mystery remains around how and why starlings perform this maginficent dance. My breath always catches in my throat as I watch them shape-shift into one design after another, sometimes taking on mystical shapes or images that evoke many different emotions. It is always astonishing to watch these birds make what seems to be split-second decisions to pivot just-so in a way that seems perfectly natural. It fascinates me how much trust these birds have for each other, how keenly they pay attention to each other in the most intimate way, and how deeply they know each other’s reflexes and intentions.
Our psyches operate similarly: They are made up of many different parts that take the form of thoughts, beliefs, emotions, imaginings, and memories. These parts continuously shape-shift in response to each other. Together, they tell a story that is in constant movement. Imaginal psychologist James Hillman (1989) claimed that the psyche houses “tales within tales that do not further a plot, showing that psychic history goes on in many places at once . . . and in many figures at once” (p. 81). The murmurations of our psyches do not run along a straight storyline. They may appear chaotic, messy, and overwhelming. They twist, dart, and swoop as they time-travel into the past, present, and future, sometimes all at once. They don’t always offer up clear answers on demand, and they have their own language that is often expressed through images.
For instance, when we are in deep grief, we often feel sadness in one moment and anger in the next. Sometimes these intense feelings gather and overlap, forming a dense cloud; other times they thin out enough to expose a spot of clear sky where we may be able to take a deep, replenishing breath or discover a moment of calm or peace. People experiencing grief, loss, or the aftermath of trauma often report feeling as though they are not tethered in the present, but are in a place where time overlaps. Frequently, grieving or traumatized individuals also encounter a shape-shifting within their own identities and roles; these aspects of ourselves are greatly altered by loss and trauma.
The fact that starlings never collide during their murmurations suggests an intuitive, trusting relationship among them where communication flows freely and in harmony. Likewise, the contents of our psyches are to be trusted, even when parts of them seem to be in conflict. Trusting the psyche and learning to tolerate its murmurations can often feel frightening, especially when faced with difficult experiences or painful, overwhelming emotions. In these cases, we frequently respond by trying to direct the psyche’s murmurations by shutting our feelings down or avoiding them. This results in unnaturally grounding the psyche and interrupting the flow of communication, which may lead to an overall feeling of being numb, disoriented, overwhelmed, or lost.
Western culture tends to overvalue a linear, verbal, intellectual approach to our lives; however, once we begin to deeply listen to psyche, we discover an alternative, spiraling language that is expressed through images and metaphor. The psyche speaks much like the murmurations of starlings. When you watched the video, perhaps you saw images emerging from the birds’ movements: A lunging lion, a slithering snake, an inviting wave. Maybe there was a memory or body sensation that arose. You may have noticed different emotions coming to the surface. All of these are examples of how the psyche communicates with us.
Just like the mysterious starlings, psyche’s murmurations have their own intelligence. They have an intuitiveness: They know themselves. Psyche’s murmurations are a limitless resource for us to deepen into knowing ourselves, whether it is during happy times or moments of intense suffering. They contain knowledge and resources that hold the potential for us to zero in on predatory forces in our lives and find our way through thick fog and darkness, leading us back to feeling more balanced, more aware, and more capable of navigating the bolting-and-swooping energy of living, even in the aftermath of loss or trauma.
Therapy offers a space to deepen one’s relationship with psyche. A therapist serves as an informed guide and companion, ensuring that this relationship-building takes place at a safe, tolerable pace. Therapists are skilled at noticing when psyche is speaking, inviting their clients to slow into the swirling motions of their experiences and feelings. During session, a therapist may introduce tools like reflection, active imagination, art, dream work, or body awareness to amplify psyche’s messages. These tools are aimed at improving communication with psyche and among its parts. Therapy often discovers parts of our psyches that have been exiled because of being perceived as dangerous or out of control. By inviting these parts back in for exploration, an opportunity arises to get to know them through the aid and wisdom of the other parts. Once re-incorporated, these exiled parts add depth to the resourcefulness of the psyche.
Appreciating psyche’s dance leads us to build trust in its movements and intentions, much like the individual starlings that gather and separate in expert timing. When the parts of our psyches are murmuring to each other in a collaborative way, their good intentions can be harvested. Listening to the wisdom of the starlings humbles us to the mysteries of the psyche and the majesty of its intuitive and creative nature that provides us with a limitless potential for growth, healing, and resilience.
Heimbuch, J. (2014, January 9). The incredible science behind starling murmurations. Retrieved from https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/the-incredible-science-behind-starling-murmurations
Hillman, J. (1989). A blue fire (T. Moore, Ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Video accompanying this post:
Raisingmaggie. (2010, November 13). Amazing starlings murmuration [video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/eakKfY5aHmY
(Note: the actual artist who put this video together is Dylan Winter. He has an amazing website: www.keepturningleft.co.uk)
Jackie Toth, MA, MFT
is a licensed depth psychotherapist, writer, and academic editor in Santa Barbara, CA.