Cyndi Brannen's Search for the Deeper World Amid Modern Life
Reinventions is a questionnaire series with people who are making pivots in their lives. Meet Dr. Cyndi Brannen, who went from academia and psychology to founding Keeping Her Keys and The Covina Institute, where she combines depth psychology with mythology and spiritualism.
Here she is, in her own words, out of Halifax, Canada:
I invite you to sit with me while I am being both awkward and brave. Writing about myself has never been a particular skill of mine. I have millions—zillions—of opinions about anything that crosses my path, but none about myself that I care to share.
Since I'm blessed by Mercury with an abundance of things to say, let me begin with a bit of truth-telling: When it came to answering the following questions, I was completely tongue-tied. This never happens.
Let's stay with Mercury, planet of communication and swiftness, for a bit here, because it's so relevant: It took me four weeks to respond. I was not only unable to answer; I couldn't figure out why I couldn't. Mercury problems, for sure. Thinking about why I couldn't think of answers.
Awkward to admit, since I earn my living communicating. We live in a world where owning up to our flaws is out of bounds. Why is that? Isn't it through failure that we learn to succeed?
I can't answer that for you. But for me, it was only after a glorious defeat that I manifested success. I'm an incurable optimist. A real bouncer-backer. I get bruised, cry a few tears, rage at the machine, and then sort out how to be better. It's a gift I am thankful for—another signature of Mercury, who takes up much of the real estate in my astrological chart.
For me, "reinvention" has required broadening my perception so I could see that archetypes—those foundational essences underlying all there is—are living forces that greatly influence my journey. This is not to say I didn't always know this. Some deeper part of me thrummed along her way, no matter what the conscious, rational me had to say about this quest for the deeper world. This exploration has led me to teach what I call "applied depth psychology."
What were you before?
I wholeheartedly agree with Joan Didion when she said, "I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…"
But to achieve wholeness, it is necessary to integrate the remains—however grisly—of those former selves. I tend to see each rebirth I experience as a composite that includes my previous iterations. They are with me, though we often don't talk much, like housemates who never see each other.
I spent a long segment of my career working as an academic, studying close relationships and how they entangled with individual well-being. Very much in the lane of applied social psychology. I was never blessed by the planet Venus; emotional intelligence and intimacy do not come naturally to me. I imagine that many psychologists, like myself, are drawn to areas where we are lacking.
I earned my doctorate with a focus on human attachment relationships. But I consistently sought the deeper world in my personal life. I even convinced my committee to let me do a research project on models of the self, stretching beyond mainstream ideas to include both William James and Foucault. There was always the lure of the mystical, yet my career trajectory took me further into the rational, practical, quite lifeless world of evidence-based psychological interventions for the variety of health problems that women and their families endure.
While helping them initially bolstered my ego, over the years I became increasingly sickened—physically, even—by my work. There was a not-rightness to where I was in my life.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
A series of events. I fell—hard—down the stairs at home. Literally. My marriage made up its mind that it was over. What pushed me into the glorious world of depth psychology was a truly mystical experience at a conference in Vancouver.
I arranged to meet a psychic, entirely out of keeping with my professional persona. I knew I was at a fault line in my life. As is typically the case, I had no clear vision of the way forward. A psychic didn't seem like a bad idea.
I finished my talk before a large group of women leaders—many from First Nations—and headed to the line for the lunch buffet. A lovely First Nations woman stood beside me in line. She asked me to hold something while she grabbed a Diet Pepsi. As soon as I touched the object, a frisson went through me. We went our separate ways without her acknowledging what I knew she knew had occurred.
At day's end, I was fumbling on my Blackberry (remember those?) when she offered help. I asked whether she knew the address on the screen, and she informed me that my appointment was in Vancouver, Washington; not Vancouver, Canada. She asked what the meeting was about, and I honestly replied.
She said she could help. We arranged to meet at sunrise the next day. That night, I had an horrific dream. A large alien-demon creature was exorcised from my heart center by a woman. When I woke, the curtains in the hotel room billowed ... as though the windows were wide open. I flew out of bed—feeling very much like I'd had actual surgery—to check if they were.
They were not. I counted down the minutes until it was time for me and the woman to meet. She never showed up, and I spent a day listlessly wandering the streets.
The number I had for her didn't work. The hotel had no info on her. It wasn't until late in the evening, after a few glasses of wine, that I realized she kept her word. I knew little about shamanic dismemberment at the time, but something profound had happened to me. I changed in ways I couldn't have imagined at the time.
What did the first steps look like?
"I've got everything I want and still I want more
Maybe some tiny shiny key
Will wash up on the shore."
I can't recall the months after that rebirth without thinking about this song, "Grey," by Ani DiFranco. This is what it looked like. I had to go down, deep underground, to find that key when it didn't magically appear. Eventually, I found and kept it.
In practical terms, once the key was mine, I set to work opening the gate by establishing a blog on a major spirituality platform. I created a Facebook page and figured out how to write for a non-academic audience. I had no grand plan beyond sharing what longed to come out of me.
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
Remember Mercury? He's known to get us zigzagging all over the place. My greatest challenge was to learn to stay in my own lane. Becoming clear about what I do has been an evolving process. Answering the questions for this interview has been so helpful because it required me to get granular about my work.
What was easier than you thought?
Enter my circle of complete honesty. It was way easier to make a decent living than I imagined. I've been fortunate to scale up my income compared to my academic career. I didn't have a financial plan, other than preparing for a couple of years of limited income. How wrong I was.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
Hustle. Hustle. Hustle. But do it smart. Facebook "Likes" do not translate to butts in the seats of my courses. Throwing a lot of effort at ineffective marketing tools is a waste of resources.
Data is vital. Drawing from analytics, I stopped investing time in activities that didn't help get the word out. While talking about marketing, perhaps the most important thing I learned is that people are looking for what I am offering—an online spiritual education institute at the crossroads of modern life and the deeper world. I just need to have the best product possible, stay in my lane, and share it.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
I've built my work around the archetype of the witch and the ancient goddess known as Hekate. More broadly, the mythology and history of the sacred feminine is a constant wellspring into which I dip my little bucket.
My oldest son, who's endured incredible personal challenges, is the proverbial wind beneath my wings. And the thousands of messages I've received from those deeply touched by my work is a huge source of inspiration, motivation and personal healing. Thinkers who inspire me include James Hillman, Marian Woodman and C.G. Jung.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
I spent my life in "freedom from" mode, trying to escape something—work, relationships and so on. Now I have the "freedom to" do my work and live as I feel led. To operationalize this, I would say I've gone from being a woman accustomed to separating her interior world from external reality, to a life where the two are in flow with each other.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
Nope. I closed the gate and threw away that old key. That being said, one of my mantras throughout the journey of creating my organization is that if it doesn't work out, I can always get a job teaching.
Tell us your reinvention song.
"The Mother Road" by Chelsea Wolfe.
How would you define yourself now?
A teacher of applied depth psychology. In practical terms, I'm the founder of Keeping Her Keys, an organization dedicated to offering others the keys to their unique wholeness through my school, The Covina Institute, my books, and free resources. I am a meaning-maker above all my other roles, guiding others to their keys. The best term to describe what I do is psychopomp, which means "soul guide."
Based on the data, I observed that what was missing were realistic methods for helping women find meaning within their busy lives. I studied popular techniques for meaning-making, from mythology to meditation.
My work focuses on teaching others—mostly women—practical techniques and methods for connecting to the deeper world as mechanisms for healing, so they can manifest their truth in the world. I explore astrology, dreams, mythology and art within the framework of a ritual structure inspired by the ancient rites at Eleusis.
All merged with my years developing, and evaluating, self-directed technology-based psychoeducational programs, focused on helping women better cope with life's challenges. What most of us need is not therapy but practices we can do with expert support. Technology is absolutely the best way to deliver these services, because most of us don't have the time or money to heal any other way.
We have a fundamental need to connect with the deeper world. I found that a connection to the sacred feminine was incredibly healing. But here's the thing—these practices were usually not connected to the sort of practical psychoeducational techniques I knew help us manage our everyday lives. My mission is to merge the two through teaching effective psychological strategies, and guiding back to the soul through spiritual experiences. I focus on the history and experience of the goddess Hekate as the soul of my work, because she symbolizes the necessity of going deep into ourselves to heal into our wholeness.
Mercury and I thank you for the opportunity to explore these questions. We've enjoyed it so much.