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Through the Dark Forest, by Carolyn Conger.

December 1, 2013

Through the Dark Forest, by Carolyn Conger.  Plume (2013), Paperback, 272 pages.


 A wise and wonderful guide filled with imaging and writing exercises to help those facing death find wholeness and balance within themselves.

Carolyn Conger is a clinical psychologist with an interest in the stories and rituals of indigenous cultures, but, for years her main work has been with people in America facing terminal illnesses, helping them to resolve the “unfinished” psychological issues that can intensify the fears and pain of death.  She teaches them to use tools of meditation, imagery and writing to access their own unconscious in order to find balance and wholeness with which to die without terror and frustration.  Her approach could be valuable to any of us willing to realize that at some point we all face death.

This is not a religious book.  It is not about what we believe about the existence of God or life after death.  It could be used by those within almost any religious tradition or by those without any faith.   She asks patients to explore their own beliefs primarily with the aim of releasing those which hinder us or cause us harm, such as persistent negativism.  Conger values all kinds of spirituality. The most spiritual belief that her exercises require is the ability to imagine a transcendent power as a ball of energy, light and love which we bring into our bodies.

Conger makes a careful distinction between curing physical problems and healing our wounded and unbalanced selves.  She has no quarrel with orthodox medicine.  Her patients are being treated within the medical establishment as they work with her.  She does not claim that the processes she teaches can cure, although some of those with whom she has worked have had dramatic relief or diminishment of actual symptoms.  Most of those she helps die under her care, but they die less traumatized by what is happening to them.  One of her patients committed suicide, an act that she discourages but refuses to judge as wrong.

 In Through the Dark Forest, Conger addresses a variety of issues and provides different ways of addressing them.  Each chapter contains several “exercises”, usually involving relaxing and imaging and then writing about what is felt and understood.  Through these she helps us deal with pain and dependence, bad relationships with those we love, and the inability to forgive, especially to forgive ourselves.  One section is devoted to dreamwork, and provides the means to interpret dreams in deeply personal ways.

Her underlying message is to engage in life fully, even as it is ending.  One of the sections of the book that drew me in most was her description of each person having multiple “selves” within, often in conflict with each other.  She uses imagery to create dialogs among these selves, viewing none of them as inherently bad.  Trouble comes when some of them dominate over others.  By engaging with all of them, we can balance them and become more whole.  In addition to everything else, Conger provides a short bibliography for each chapter and even a list of music available on CD that is appropriate for meditation and imaging.

 I loved this book.  I found it enjoyable and look forward to working with Conger’s exercises.  I have no terminal illness, but I am old enough to realize that all of us are mortal and have limited time on earth.  I see no reason to wait until death is staring me in the face to use this book to explore some of my own “unfinished” business.  Conger would agree that learning to die is essentially learning to live.

 I strongly recommend this book to all who are attracted to the kind of work that Conger helps us do.  Some readers with strongly orthodox beliefs in a particular religious or scientific approach to life may be put off by its broad tolerance for individual experiences.  This is a book for those who want to explore their own inner spaces.  As I read it, I made a list of those to whom I intend to give a copy.

 I am always grateful to publishers who send me books to review.  I am particularly grateful for Through the Dark Forest because I think it can help me live in a fuller and more balanced life.  Thank you Library Thing Early Reviewers and Plume.

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