Mother's Day Prayer

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Mother's Day Prayer

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers out there. You know who you are! You are not just women, but can be of any gender. You may or may not have physically given birth, but you have cared for another - to the point of allowing your heart to break. It may have been another human that you loved and tended to, it may have been an animal companion. It may have been the trees or the waters or the land you tended. Today is your day to be celebrated.

And a happy Mother’s Day to Mamma Earth and Grandmama Moon. We love and honor you today and every day. And Mamma Earth, today we renew our vow to be better, more loving children. To reduce the harm we inflict on your body every day.

And today, we also remember and honor our deeply held Mother Wounds. Our sense of either being abandoned or smothered, or both. Wounds that live so deep in so many of us! But today, we say, yes, we acknowledge the hurt, but we also acknowledge how we have become today who we are, because of them.

Today, we honor our mothers, the mothers in us, and the Great Mother who nurtures us all - through times good and difficult. May all relationships with all mothers everywhere begin to be healed today. And may we hold this vision not just today, but every day. That is my prayer for this Mother’s Day. May it be so!

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Soul-tending: an exploration of the essence of spiritual counseling

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Soul-tending: an exploration of the essence of spiritual counseling

I do not know the original source of this video. If you are the creator, or know them, please reach out to me. I would be honored to provide credits.

This video, created by an unknown blessed soul, came to me in a rather serendipitous manner. For me, it speaks more deeply to the essence of spiritual counseling than any definition I have ever come across.

The video as a metaphor for an ideal spiritual counseling relationship

Here, the cupped palms hold a steady, safe and highly reliable container, within which the bird is free to find its own rhythm and direction. If we take the cupped hands to be the counseling container, and the bird to be the soul of a counselee – then this image really comes alive. Within the container there is divine grace, which flows steadily. The container does not “create” the water, its source is “transpersonal.” The palms are cupped enough so the bird feels safe and contained, but not are so closed off that the bird may suffocate or feel strangled. The bird trusts the container enough to engage with the water at its own pace and of its own volition. Diving into the water when it feels ready, even drinking from the font for a time, and then jumping out to “dry land” to rest and recoup before diving back in. The container appears safe enough that the bird can move across the threshold of dry and wet at its own pace. It is not being forced. So, it does not need to fly away in an effort to escape the pressure.

Depending on our orientation, we can describe and relate to the water in the video as divine grace, God’s love, an encounter with the unconscious, or an encounter with one’s disowned emotions. But whatever words we use to frame the experience, ultimately, it is an experience of freedom as one approaches a threshold of a numinous encounter.

A reality check for the counselor

One of the risks of this type of interpretation would be that the counselor may begin to identify oneself as the source of the “steady, safe and highly reliable container,” and forget that while the counselor is indeed being called to provide a container, that they are equally the bird, being held in the cupped palms of the divine. And in the cupped palms of their own teachers and mentors. We will do well to remember that we do not do this work alone. We are each held gently in the compassionate cupped palms of an infinite wisdom beyond all our conceptions. When we do not know where to go next, we can trust and relax into this ever-present container of safety.

The naming of the profession

I must admit that as I am establishing my identity as an (inter)spiritual counselor, the question of what to call myself keeps popping up. I have not yet come to a place of comfort and ease with any of the monikers.

In the world of professions, the known names are “spiritual director,” or “spiritual counselor.” Neither of these sit right with me. I am certainly not a “director.” I do not believe that any person can “direct” another person’s soul (although I know that not everyone agrees). Nor do I feel like a “counselor” or a “coach,” because I very rarely tell people what they should do.

One of my teachers uses the word “spiritual companion.” I like that a lot more than either director or counselor, although it is still missing something for me.

Some people use the term “soul friend,” or “Anam Cara,” or “Kalyanamitra,” but I am not sure the relationship is truly one of “friendship” as we conventionally understand that word.

“Soul-tending”: a newly emerging sense of my calling

As I sit with what I feel I am called to do in this work, the word that is emerging for me is “soul-tending.”

First, the word “soul,” for me, feels more embodied than “spirit.” “Spirit” feels more airy; more up there. In my stance in life, I am leaning more and more towards “soulful,” rather than “spiritual.” I also like the fact that the Greek word for soul is “psyche.” So, soul-tending includes all inner or “psychological” work.

And I am really falling in love with the word, “tending.”

First, when I sit with the word “tending,” it conjures up the image of a gardener – tending to the plants. Sometimes the tending is gentle – like in watering, adding fertilizer, or turning the soil. At other times, it can feel ruthless – such as when the gardener is weeding, pruning and shearing. But the gardener’s ultimate goal is the thriving of the plants under her care.

When I look up the etymology of the word “tend,” what I find is fascinating!

Our word “tend” comes from the Latin, “tendere,” meaning "to stretch, extend, make tense; aim, direct; direct oneself, hold a course." The PIE (proto-Indo-European language) root for this word is “ten,” meaning "to stretch." So, our word “attention” or “attending” originates from Latin “attendere,” meaning "to stretch toward" [from “ad,” meaning "to, toward" + “tendere,” meaning "stretch"].

Taking the idea a bit farther, we find connections with the word “tender.” “Tender” comes from Latin “tenerem” (nominative “tener”), meaning "soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful." It is related to Sanskrit, “tarunah,” also meaning "youthful, tender," to Greek “teren,” meaning "tender, delicate," and to Armenian “t'arm,” meaning "young, fresh, green."

And that brings me right back to the beginning image of the gardener – tending the young, green “tendrils” of possibility. It is an image of the potential for healing and wholeness.

So, the job of the “soultender” (just like that of a bartender), is just that. To tend (or attend to) the soul – the psyche. And the goal of this tending is to nurture the green tendrils that bring “greening power” (Viriditas) to the soul being tended. For a deeper delve into the idea of Viriditas, please see here.

The soul, infused with this Viriditas of attention and tending, becomes vital and verdant. It can now thrive, and in time, transmit its Viriditas, its greening power, to other tendrils in its proximity.

And the gardener, the soultender, watches with fascination, this tremendous mystery of growth, of this greening and renewal. In rare instances, the gardener may be gifted with a glimpse of the blossoming of the mystic heart. A blossoming of which he/she was an agent, yes, but also equally, a beneficiary.

~~~

Acknowledgment: many of the nuances of this post were born in conversation with my Spiritual Companion, Rev. David Wallace.

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Creating an evolving life narrative: weaving and unweaving the tapestry

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Creating an evolving life narrative: weaving and unweaving the tapestry

It is common wisdom that healing comes from creating a coherent narrative about our lives. Getting to know our story. Clarifying our story. “Integrating” myriad life experiences into a “whole.” Owning our story. It all seems to make eminent sense, and is a mainstay of many healing and therapeutic modalities.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, more and more, whether “owning our story” could also be a problem. I see a fine line between accepting who we are, and “getting married to our story.” The latter results in rigidity, dogmatism, and a frozen stance in front of life.

Recently, I was at a conference entitled “Displacements – Inner and Outer.” The focus of the conference was on the international refugee crisis. Organized by the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in collaboration with the New School, the conference pondered the “story” of mass migration. What is the inner and the outer experience of those who are being displaced, against their will, from what they consider their “home?” And what is the experience of those in recipient countries who experience their “home” being “invaded” by the “Other?” As different speakers addressed the problem from their specific vantage points, a set of questions arose. “In any social, political or environmental crisis that leads to mass migration, is there always one unique story?” For example, how does a given story look from the vantage of a refugee, an aid worker, a political activist and a nationalist? And if indeed there are multiple versions of the story, whose story is “correct?” Can there be multiple versions of a story that are equally valid? And if so, how can we, as society, hold the different strands of the story as representing different facets of a larger “truth,” instead of fixating on who is right and who is wrong?

At this conference, one of the speakers was a very charismatic young author, Maaza Mengiste. Maaza, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia, and now lives in the USA, is the author of the award-winning debut novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.” The novel is a gripping portrayal of a “normal” middle-class family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the early 1970s, and how fates of the members of this family become intertwined with the fate of their country in the throes of political, social and environmental collapse.

At the end of the conference, there was a panel discussion, and Maaza was reflecting from her experience as an author of fiction. She said something that felt spot-on for me.

She said that when she is contemplating a character for a book, or an essay, there are many possibilities… many ways in which that character could unfold. Many directions the “story” can go. But once the story is written down and published, one of these possibilities is chosen, foreclosing all other possibilities! She said that she was very aware of this tension, and was currently playing with the strategy of using “or” in her writings. This character could do this. Or, this character could do that. The two will result is strikingly different stories. Could one narrative hold both possibilities?

Since the conference, I have been sitting with this idea of multiple stories, and the risks of becoming “fixed” in a story – from a spiritual and psychological perspective.

On one hand, all of us who pay attention to the psyche know that the psyche likes to weave myriad threads of experience into a tapestry. In some ways, that is the function of the psyche. It is our “meaning making organ.”

And many of us know the sensual pleasure we feel when disparate ideas floating in our heads finally “fall into place.” When they make a story that “holds together!”

How do we then work with Maaza’s “or” in our lived lives?

The myth of Penelope

A myth that comes to mind is from Homer's epic poem, Odyssey. It is the story of Penelope, the wife of the story’s hero, Odysseus. In the story, Odysseus is gone for two decades – a decade of the Trojan war followed by another decade of his return journey to Ithaca. As time passes, people start believing that Odysseus is either dead, or is never planning to return to Ithaca. There are many suitors to want Penelope’s hand in marriage. But Penelope is still in love with Odysseus and believes in her heart that he will return. So, she develops a ploy to ward off the increasingly amorous suitors. A well-known weaver, she puts out the word that she would consider marriage with one of the suitors, but only after she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, who is grieving over Odysseus's long absence. She sits at her loom all day, weaving. But every night, she goes to the loom in secret, and unweaves what was woven during the day.

Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples. (Date: 1864; Medium: oil on canvas) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Roddam_Spencer_Stanhope_Penelope.jpg

Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples. (Date: 1864; Medium: oil on canvas)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Roddam_Spencer_Stanhope_Penelope.jpg

Although this myth is ostensibly about Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus (her “one story”), for our purposes, what is relevant is the image of the tapestry she is weaving by day, and unweaving by night. A tapestry that is ever-incomplete, and thus, ever-evolving. And the courage that is needed to unweave what is woven.

How might it look like in our lives if we took this metaphor to heart, as a psychospiritual practice?

Weaving and unweaving as a spiritual practice

Initially, when we just begin on a psychospiritual journey, we begin by pulling together the scattered threads of our life, to create a narrative. A story that fits. A story that is large enough to accommodate “all of me.” It is the time of integration, of weaving.

Indeed, it is essential that we first accomplish this task. Carl Jung would have called this task – of generating a coherent narrative of who we are – the task of the first half of our lives. It is the task of “ego consolidation.”

But, then, there comes a point in our lives, when the “story” we created begins to limit who we are. There are desires and drives our soul uncovers that do not fit our story. Elements we thought were essential ingredients of our story fall away. At such a time, we really have two choices in front of us. Either we consciously unweave the tapestry that we have woven up until then, or we become, in Joseph Campbell’s delightful language, “a stuffed shirt!” We then live a petrified life of outer order, but a life with no juice, no fire!

Unweaving requires ritual

Unweaving a story that we have woven with so much care, so much effort, over so much time – is not trivial. If weaving is integration, then unweaving is indeed dis-integration. It is untangling. It is incinerating what is no longer alive.

And we must remember that sitting with unwoven threads - of not knowing what is to arise from this chaos - and when - is terrifying! We need to acknowledge, and indeed, “accompany” our terror into this as-yet-unkown psychic landscape.

Before we can do this letting go authentically - we need to honor our story. We need to mourn it appropriately. We need to speak our story. Write our story. Sing, dance, act or in some way meaningful to us, “sacrifice” our story. Remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from old Latin sacer (meaning “sacred, holy”) and faciō (meaning “do, make”). Thus, when we tend the fire of our grief, our fear, and maybe even our rage, at the passing of a beloved story - we make it sacred. We make it holy. We surrender. We sacrifice our story into the care of the Divine.

This is precisely what a ritual is designed to achieve.

Tibetan sand mandalas – a ritual honoring impermanence of all things

Many of us are familiar with the Tibetan sand mandalas – those intricate designs that are created with tremendous effort and dedication by a group of monks – only to be destroyed once it is created. In the Hindu and Tibetan worldview, a mandala is considered a “yantra,” literally meaning “a machine.” It is a machine, a device, that helps us focus our meditation.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, popularized mandalas in the West, as a symbol of wholeness. But what may be harder for the Western mind to contemplate is that “wholeness” is not static. It is not a thing of beauty to be created and then hung on the wall to be contemplated. Many mandalas – both permanent and temporary ones – serve as tools to meditate both on creation and on destruction (“pralaya”). The Tibetan sand mandalas are a poignant demonstration of this knowing that all things – however beautiful and “whole” – must end in chaos. That death is in the very nature of what is alive.

What a ritual does is to contain both the synthesis and the chaos within a container that makes the entire experience sacred. Below is a clip from a Werner Herzog documentary entitled "Wheel of Time," which shows construction and destruction of a sand Mandala, presided over by the Dalai Lama. Note how the “destruction” happens in a highly reverential ceremony – indeed, a ceremony with a gravitas appropriate to the act of destruction. Also, once the mandala is dismantled, every grain of sand is collected, and then released into a body of flowing water, so it may carry the “merit” or the blessings of the work to all beings everywhere.

Weaving and unweaving the tapestries of our lives

Those of us who have been around the block for some time know how often strands of our stories come to an end. A loved one dies. A cherished job is lost. A lover cheats. Relationships fray and break. A child does the one thing we hoped and prayed they would never do. We all know how easy it is for us in those situations to cling to what was. To try to repair what is irreversibly broken. And even if we eventually accept the break, we continue to blame the other, or ourselves, or both. “If only…” is the common refrain of our lament.

Or suddenly in mid-life, we are struck with a new fascination. A new draw. Maybe towards spirituality. Or toward making art. Or some other “unproductive” venture. Maybe it is just that we enjoy looking out the window – watching the formation of migrating birds in the sky… when our ego tells us we should be “focusing on work!”

What if at those moments, we could allow the tapestry that we had woven until that point to unweave? To sit with the disentangled threads – and really grieve the beauty that once was? To sit in the not knowing of what comes next.

It is clear that we would need a safe container to do this unweaving. Whether it is a friendship, or a mentorship, or a therapeutic or counseling relationship – or the presence of our beloved community in whatever form we define it… It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the container is. But it matters that there is a container. There is a safety of walls surrounding and protecting us as we unweave our tapestry.

And equally important, we need to make sure that we have all the help and support we need to reweave the tapestry – maybe creating a new and different and richer story – when we are ready. Because if we stay with unwoven threads forever – it would lead to an ineffectual life at best, and psychosis at worst.

So, weaving and unweaving the tapestry is necessary for us to live a truly meaningful life – a life where we are able to respond to the changing calls of our soul – to change and grow and expand (and when necessary, collapse). To do this well, we need to develop inner practices of spaciousness, as well as outer community – so we may be able to engage in this dance of weaving and unweaving safely. This is what the Buddhist psychologist, Mark Epstein, calls “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.”

May we all be able to experience the ecstasy (and the necessary heartbreak) of this weaving and unweaving of the tapestry of our lives. May we have the strength and the courage to respond to new calls and release what is no longer alive in us.

And may we hold each other tenderly as we dance this dance… together.

Heartfelt thanks to my beloved teacher and mentor, David Wallace, for reminding me of the myth of Penelope at an opportune moment.

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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

The mystic quest for oneness with the divine

Most mystical traditions, in one way or another, speak of being “one with the divine.”

This is the final goal of the quest.

As Joseph Campbell says, there comes a time in the practice when the seeker is no longer satisfied with beholding the beloved. At last, the beholder wants to become one with the beloved. Campbell likens it to the moth who, after many failed attempts, finally breaks through the glass of the lamp, and for one brief moment – that “eternal” moment – becomes one with the flame. The moth has finally experienced the divine without any intermediaries. This is the goal of all mystical seeking.

In Hinduism, one hears repeatedly the refrain, “Soham.” Composed of two Sanskrit words Sah and Aham, it means “I am That.” Similarly, the phrase “Shivoham” means “I am Shiva.” Or, the teaching, “Tattwamasi” means “You Are That!”

Al Halláj (858-922 AD), an Iranian Sufi master who came some three centuries before Rumi, is famous for his utterance “Ana al-haqq,” which earned him eight years of trial and then a gruesome prolonged execution in the central square of Baghdad, for blasphemy. Al-Haqq, literally meaning “the Truth,” is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Thus, Ana al-haqq means “I am God.”

Some three centuries later, another Sufi mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, would write thus (translation by Coleman Barks):

"There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight."

This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.”

Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic from the seventeenth century, describes his encounter with the divine using these words (translation by Andrew Harvey):

“What God is, no-one knows.
God is neither light, nor spirit
God is not bliss, not unity,
Not what we call “deity.”
God is not wisdom, nor reason,
Nor love, nor will, nor goodness.
God is not a thing, nor a nothing,
Nor is God essence.
God is what neither I nor you
Nor any creature can understand
Without becoming what God is.”

Deity Yoga in Vajrayana Tantra

Tantra is one of the paths within both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the latter, this path is known as the Vajrayana, or more generally, as Tibetan Buddhism. It is this version of Tantra that is most well known in the West.

The word Tantra means a loom, and refers to the act of weaving.

Weaving what?

Of course, there can be as many interpretations as there are interpreters. It could be seen as an interweaving of various teachings, texts, rituals. It could be the interweaving of masculine and feminine energies. The Yin and the Yang. The opposites.

Also, it is the interweaving of the profane and the sacred.

Tantric practices are often held suspect by other practitioners because of its explicit use of the “forbidden” material – such as alcohol, meat, hallucinogens and sexuality.

One of the central practices within Vajrayana, the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt” Vehicle of Buddhism, which is explicitly tantric, is what is called in the West as “Deity Yoga.” The adept here is invited to more and more deeply “embody” their chosen deity.

This concept of the “chosen deity” is very common in the East. In Tibetan, it is called the Yidam, whereas in Sanskrit, the Ishta devata. The words translate to a “preferred” or “desired” or “cherished” deity. The relationship here is personal.

The adept does not “worship” their deity, they “become” the deity. Typically, the practice progresses from the “outer” deity, with attributes that can sensed by the five senses, to the “inner” deity, who is felt more internally, and finally the “secret” deity, where the adept is filled with the essence of the deity.

It is also important to note that not all deities in Vajrayana are benign and “peaceful.” There are many who are “embodied” in their “wrathful” aspects by the practitioner.

Below is an image of the deity Yamantaka (called Vajrabhairava in his Hindu incarnation). His name literally means the “ender,” or “terminator, of Death.” His teaching is thus about conquering death. He is a wrathful expression of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva associated with prajñā (insight) in Buddhism. If Yamantaka is the yidam of a practitioner, they would then work to embody this buffalo-faced deity whose hands hold various weapons, while he sits on a water buffalo, exposing his immense manhood. This very masculine deity is shown in embrace with his feminine consort, Vajravetali (the wrathful form of the patron Goddess of learning and the arts, Sarasvati). He is adorned with a garland of severed human heads, strings of human bones, and a crown made of human skulls. He is drinking blood from a human-skull-cup offered by his consort, while wisdom-flames emanate from, and envelop them both. The entire scene rests on the trampled, naked body of “ignorance.” Interestingly, however, the entire scene, including the body of ignorance, is held within the matrix of the world-lotus, a symbol of cosmic renewal and “primordial purity,” which in turn floats on the ocean of eternal bliss!

It is this complex, magnificent, and yes, terrifying deity, that the adept is asked to embody - in order to one day himself/herself become the “Destroyer of Death” (in other words, escape from the cycle of rebirth, and achieve nirvana).

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52291450

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52291450

What about the risk of psychological inflation in such practices?

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, used the term “archetypes of the collective unconscious” to describe precisely the kind of potent primordial energies that are represented by the deities of Vajrayana. Jung warned repeatedly of the risk of what he called “psychological inflation” if one became identified with aspects of an archetype. According to Jung, precisely because these archetypes are “numinous” (i.e., magical, and with the power to impress and fascinate), if one becomes identified with them, then one loses their conscious ego function. It is often said within Jungian circles that when you are able to consciously relate to a “Complex” (an affect-laden activated archetype), you “have the complex.” If you are unconscious of it, however, then “the complex has you!”

We all know how it looks like when a complex “has” someone. We see extreme examples in psych wards where someone believes they are Jesus Christ, or Hitler, and act the part. A more day-to-day example may be someone who is so taken by the positive polarity of the Mother archetype that they will carry out the task of being available and nourishing to their children to the point of smothering them, and preventing the children’s own personalities and resiliencies to arise. Or the spiritual teacher who is taken over by the Wise Old Man aspect of the Father archetype, and does not see how his actions are making his followers dependent on him, rather than them cultivating their own relationship to the divine. Remember, the opposite polarity of the Wise Old Man is Chronos, or Saturn - the father who devours his own children to avoid his power being usurped by them!

In Jungian understanding, then, the more we consciously identify with one polarity of an archetype, the opposite polarity “constellates” in the unconscious as a “Complex.” If constellated with enough force, this complex can completely submerge the ego-consciousness and take over the functioning of the psyche.

If psychological inflation is indeed real, and we can see it being played out all around us (and if we are honest, in us), is then there something fundamentally wrong with Vajrayana, and other tantric practices? At least for the Western person, as Jung suggested? Is the Western seeker indeed better off “praying” to God, instead of “becoming” God?

The answer lies in our angle of relating to an archetype

The risks of psychological inflation, and in extreme cases, a complete loss of ego identity and with it, the ability to function in consensus reality, are indeed very real. And this risk is invariably present when a novice approaches a tantric practice such as Vajrayana.

This is precisely the reason why, within the cultures where Tantra is a known and practiced path, it is not a path entered into lightly. One can think of a tantric practice as preparing to climb Mount Everest. One doesn’t roll out of bed one morning and head over to the base camp of Everest. There is years of training – developing optimal physical and psychological fitness, learning the techniques of rock and ice craft, learning survival strategies. And then climbing smaller mountains, over and over again, before heading to Everest. Finally, when one is ready, one plans the expedition carefully, looks at the weather, the fellow climbers, the guides, the equipment, and then starts off slowly – acclimatizing as one goes – and always keeping an eye out for the odd storm or the cantankerous relationship between two expedition-mates that can derail the whole show!

Similarly, before one begins serious deity yoga, one practices different aspects of what in the West has been translated as “emptiness practices.” One of the fundamental Buddhist practices in Vajrayana – as in all other form of Buddhism – is called Prajñāpāramitā. The Sanskrit words prajñā means "wisdom," or “insight,” and pāramitā means "perfection". Prajñāpāramitā thus refers to a set of practices that leads to a perfected way of seeing the nature of reality. A central element of this practice is the so-called “Heart Sutra,” whose main contention is that “Form is Empty.” What this sutra, and its repetition daily by the adept, is designed to do is to convince the adept’s deep psyche, that ultimately all phenomena are “śūnya,” empty of any unchanging essence. This emptiness is a “characteristic” of all phenomena, and this emptiness itself is "empty" of any essence of its own.

What a practice like this does, is that it places the adept in a mental stance where they are aware – in a deeply felt way – that they themselves are empty and all experiences are empty. Becoming this empty vessel, they can now fully embody a deity – whether peaceful and wrathful – and work with its poisons and get to its medicine, without the risk of their ego becoming identified with the deity (i.e., becoming “possessed”). There are many, many tools that help the adept along the way – tools of imagery, tools of ritual, tools of meditation, tools of sacrifice. And it is all done under close supervision of an experienced guide – the Lama – who has made this journey themselves, and is familiar with the terrain, and its dangers.

Eventually, though, the reason one can practice the Deity Yoga of Vajrayana, and does not fall prey to permanent psychological inflation, is that at all times during the practice, and during their daily mundane life, they are hearing a constant refrain, "Form is emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is form."

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra:

“Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”

which means, "gone, gone… everyone gone… to the other shore… awakening… and so it is!”

It is only from this place of total surrender that one can safely engage numinosity, without being devoured by it.

If nothing else, may this passage serve as a warning against approaching tantra as a “flavor of the month” weekend workshop!

Finally, like everything that is alive, deep mystic experience is a dance of opposites

I want to emphasize as we end this reflection, that the “surrender” or the “sacrifice” of the ego that we speak of here, is not static. We are not asked to be ego-less forevermore! Because we all know, from our lived experience, that what is static is dead. And what is alive is ever-changing, pulsating with the life force.

It is the same with psychological inflation.

The risk, really, is not of being inflated, but of being stuck in the inflated place forever. Indeed, the repetition of inflation and deflation – of expansion and contraction – is what is essential for any birthing, and for the elimination of bodily (and psychic) waste. In medical language, this movement is called peristalsis. It is this movement that propels forward the fetus along the birth canal – from the maternal womb of darkness and unity-consciousness, and into the outside world of light and duality and ego-identity.

Similarly, to be a tantric practitioner, or a spiritual practitioner of any kind for that matter, psychological inflation is unavoidable. Too much fear about any possible inflation can leave us dead on our tracks - never risking to deepen our spiritual practice to the place where a real encounter with the divine is possible.

It is no wonder that the encounter with a divinity is described as “numinous.” This word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 book Das Heilige (which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923). Translating from Latin, Otto describes the experience of the numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Translating this into Jungian psychological parlance, we can say that a true encounter with the divine (including our own divine essence, the Self) is not all roses and holy choir – that it involves both positive and negative inflation. We may think of the negative inflation as the surrendering or “sacrificing,” (i.e., “making sacred”) of our ego. It is about emptying the cup. It is about becoming the hollowed out reed flute. It is about embracing the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. And the opposite polarity of this stance will be the positive inflation - where I am Shiva. I am the deity of my worship. It is the movement of identifying with, and fully embodying, the divine.

Neither of these positions are dangerous in themselves. Indeed, both are necessary for a true “numinous” experience. What matters is that we do not get stuck on either polarity. If that happens, then we are no longer having a numinous experience. Then, we are “possessed” and “devoured” by the deity.

The invitation, then, is to a dance. A dance along this infinity symbol where inflation and deflation flow into and intermingle with each other. We dance - over and over again in this graceful spiral movement – until we are brought to that numinous experience of a mystic birth!

And then, when this particular movement of the dance is concluded, we come back to “chop wood, carry water.” Or, as the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry!”

May it be so.

May it be so for you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all beings everywhere.

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The Dance of Ego and Shadow

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The Dance of Ego and Shadow

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and behavior of psychological Shadow. The word “shadow” has now entered mainstream consciousness – and is certainly a much-discussed topic in the New Age circles. Shadow, as we know, includes all aspects of our personality that we do not actively identify with, or own as “ours.”

When I read many of these New Age texts, though, I am often left with the feeling that a lot of the so-called “shadow-work” is really done from the perspective of, and in service to, the Ego. It is about “conquering,” “vanquishing,” “depotentiating” the Shadow. It is about becoming “pure” and “enlightened.”

While it is indeed possible to integrate aspects of our Shadow into our conscious personality, we need to tread carefully in this domain; lest our “shadow-work” become another ego-project in its relentless perusal of perfection! And as we will see later in the essay, the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for our soul!

Tree of Life and Death: from a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

The relationship of Ego and Shadow is magnificently depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript (see image caption). In this image, we see Adam reclining, as if exhausted, in the center of the field. From his navel rises the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the side of the “good,” we see Mary – wearing the blue robes of purity and virginity – offering the “fruits of salvation” to a long line of penitents. On the “evil” side, we see Eve – naked and sensual – offering the “fruits of damnation” to her line of… shall we call them celebrants (as opposed to penitents)? Mary, in her pious act, is watched over by an angel; Eve is assisted in hers by Death!

If we take a moment to connect with the image more deeply, we see that Mary serves as the conscious “right hand” of Adam. Thus, she represents his conscious stance – his Ego. Eve, represents his unconscious “left hand” Shadow.

What this manuscript illustration tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that as we are busy picking the socially acceptable, even laudable, fruits – of service, good work and piety with one hand, the other hand, unbeknownst to ourselves, is picking other fruits (of whatever we see as our personal Shadow, e.g., greed, lust, neediness…).

It cannot be any other way.

Birth of shadow

In the Jungian worldview, Shadow is seen as the most superficial, the most reachable part of our Personal Unconscious. Thus, many aspects of the shadow are, theoretically, possible to be brought into consciousness, and thus “integrated.” Integration of Shadow here does not mean that they are necessarily acted out, but that we are aware of, say our inner thief, or our inner jealous lover. In fact, the more we are aware of these parts – the less likely are we to act them out, and the more likely we will be not to judge harshly when we see another person acting them out! True empathy is born out of knowing our own Shadow.

It may not be wrong to assume that we are born shadowless. Shadow, in all likelihood, begins to form as we develop an Ego – which is very much colored by our family and culture – that tells us what is acceptable and what is not. The child soon learns that if he smiles and follows orders, he is loved and fed and played with. If she throws a tantrum, she gets a time-out, or is sent to bed without supper. The child thus learns, quite early on, that obedience is good, and anger is bad. The child needs its parents for its very survival. So, the murderous rage of the infant moves into the child’s unconscious, and a piece of the Shadow is born.

My Jungian analyst often likes to remind me, “every object casts a shadow!” True indeed. But only in the presence of light. As long as we are in complete darkness, like a fetus in the womb, we are in participation mystique with the Mother, who represents for us the whole of the Universe. In this mystical-magical sense of oneness of the fetus/newborn with the mother, there is no separation of Subject and Object. All is one. Thus, there is no Shadow. But as soon as there is a dawning of Consciousness, of identification of Objects – inner and outer – as “mine,” these Objects begin to cast their Shadow. It is simple physics, really. Whenever there is light, and there are objects on its path, there is also shadow.

As we grow older, we consolidate our identity (“this is me, and that is not-me”) and find our place in the world. The more we progress along this path of “Ego Consolidation”, the more our shadow deepens. One can almost say that for us to become conscious, we have to cast a shadow.

Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, in his book “Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” uses the metaphor of a seesaw, or a teeter-totter, to describe the relationship of Ego and Shadow. As we go through the first half of life, where we are consolidating our Ego, we begin to accumulate things on one end of the seesaw that are “me” (Ego aspects), and on the other end accumulate the “not me” (the Shadow aspects).

Unfortunately, culture is only comfortable with a narrow range of attributes, and what goes into Shadow is not just what is negative, but also the things that are great about us. This so-called “Golden Shadow” will be the subject of another essay soon.

In any case, around midlife, when the Ego has been sufficiently consolidated and functions well in the world, there comes a time when we tend to get bored with our narrowly-defined, culturally-sanctioned and often-bloodless life. This is typically a time when the seesaw can flip, bringing on the famous “midlife crisis.” Thus, the perfectly mellow gentleman begins to collect fancy guns and go on hunting parties with buddies, taking savage pleasure in butchering innocent animals; and the stay-at-home mother-of-four begins a secret affair. This sudden shadow explosion can also be easily somatized as physical or mental illness. But that again is a subject for another day.

Shadow always first appears as projection

It is very difficult, some Jungians will say impossible, for us to meet our Shadow unmediated. We first “encounter” our Shadow (both positive and negative Shadow) as a projection on an outer “Other” – which could be a person, an institution, or even an idea or a philosophy.

So, one of the best ways for us to identify our Shadows is to see who or what triggers us. Any time we feel angry, upset or judgmental toward someone, or are overly in awe of someone, there are probably Shadow elements at play!

An interesting phenomenon often noticed is that our Shadow is most often projected on someone or something that offers a “hook.” So, it is easy for us to hold on to our righteous indignation and put the blame on the Other. They are the one who is bigoted, nasty or greedy! And indeed, a large part of the blame may correctly reside in the Outer Other. But, most often, not all of it belongs to this Outer Other. Thus, if we can find enough space inside us to separate our feelings from the Outer Other, we find that these feelings are our best “mirrors,” in which we first glimpse our “Inner Other.”

How do we “integrate” a shadow element?

Now, the most important question in this investigation. Now that we are aware of a Shadow element, what do we do with it? What exactly do we mean by Integrating the Shadow?

In Jungian terms, Integration of Shadow means integrating Shadow elements into Consciousness. We are now conscious of possessing that Shadow aspect and accept it as our own.

Of course, integration is different from willy-nilly enactment. Culture cannot exist if we all enact all our Shadows.

How do we then “integrate” our inner thief or our inner murderer?

The power of ritual in making the shadow conscious within a safe container

Ritual is a time-honored way to “enact” aspects of our personality that cannot be safely enacted in daily life. Ancient cultures had rituals to “sanctify” lust, for example, through various Dionysian rituals and temple prostitution.

Robert Johnson, the Jungian author mentioned above, draws our attention to the gruesome shadow imagery of the contemporary Catholic Mass:

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect. The Mass lost much of its effectiveness when it was modernized and made to serve the cultural process. One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.”

It is interesting how the use of the world “awful” itself has been profaned in modern times. Our contemporary words, awful and awesome, originally meant "worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread." How different that is from this slice of pizza being awful, or awesome!

One of the great advantages of a ritual, participated in with full awareness, is that it allows a transpersonal container – a temenos – for the shadow aspects that will be too much for cultural cohesiveness, if enacted in daily life.

Our deep shadow elements have archetypal cores

There is an important fact that is often lost in the facile reading of what I have come to call “Jung lite.” Many of our deepest shadow identities – e.g., the Murderer, the Prostitute, the Dark Devouring Mother – are in fact archetypal images. Archetypes, if we remember, live in the Collective Unconscious, much deeper in our psyche than the Personal Unconscious. They belong not to us personally, but to the entire humankind.

Archetypes represent powerful, primordial instincts or “prototypes” of ways of being, that are then translated into archetypal images. It is important to remember that archetypes are not images - images stem from an underlying, eventually undefinable prototype of experience. An archetypal image may change with time and culture, but the underlying archetype stays rooted in the very depths of our psyche.

Another essential feature of an archetype is that it is always bipolar. If the smothering, devouring Mother is one pole, then the all-nurturing, all-absorbing Mother is the other. And if we really work deeply with any archetype, we eventually experience both its polarities. And therein lies its potential to balance (and thus “heal”) the psyche.

But this brings us to an important fact - one that we can ignore only at our peril. I will reiterate here. Archetypes are extremely powerful, potent, archaic instincts that we can never “integrate,” or assimilate into our conscious self-identity. These “instincts” of the psyche are so potent, that if we try to “integrate” or “embody” them in our day-to-day life, we risk what has been called “inflation.” In other words, our conscious Ego personality is then so completely overwhelmed by these powerful, “awful” images, that we dissociate and fragment. We go mad! Robert Johnson describes this situation as trying to run 10,000 Volts on circuits designed to carry 110 Volts!

To encounter these deep archetypal images, then, we need a “transpersonal container.” This is what makes rituals so powerful. A ritual provides an outer (physical) as well as an inner (psychological) space that is clearly demarcated from our daily life. Within this container, this temenos, we can “encounter,” and even briefly embody, the archetypal affects and images.

For a ritual to effectively allow us to become conscious of our Shadow without being overwhelmed by it, it is absolutely necessary for the participant to have a felt access to the transpersonal realm.

In olden days, this transpersonal realm belonged to God, or the gods.

The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat

We often talk about “scapegoating” someone, or someone being the family’s scapegoat, but few of us know that the word comes from an ancient ritual of the Hebraic people.

The original ritual of the scapegoat happened once a year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Two goats were selected for the ritual. One was sacrificed (“made sacred”) to Yahweh. Its blood was then used to ritually purify certain powerful ceremonial objects. The other goat (the one “not chosen”) was then ritually designated as the carrier of the community’s sins for the entire year. After being laden with the community’s sins, it was cast out – scapegoated – into the desert (outside the communal boundaries). By carrying the sins of the community outside its boundaries, this goat ritually cleansed the community of its sins... until the next year.

It was understood that the goat would perish shortly afterwards – either due to exposure to the elements, lack of water in the desert, or to predators lurking outside the communal boundaries.

What was interesting, though, was that the realm outside the communal boundaries was also seen and experienced as a transpersonal realm – the realm of Azazel. According to the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, Azazel was a fallen angel — one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers in the time preceding the Flood. He taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail; and taught women the art of ornamenting their bodies, dyeing hair, and painting their faces and their eyebrows. He is also said to have revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft.

Thus, the scapegoat carried the sins of the people – the Cultural Shadow – into a transpersonal realm – the realm of the deity Azazel. Etymologically, the name Azazel is composed of azaz (meaning “rugged”) and el (meaning “of God”). In other words, Azazel was the keeper or the manifestation of the Shadow of Yahweh, and thus, the appropriate recipient of the excluded “Other” – the Scapegoat.

How, then, do we sanctify our scapegoat – our shadow – in our time and place?

Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to viscerally believe in an Azazel who will receive our offering of the scapegoat. How then do we relate to our Shadow elements that are just too potent to integrate in our all-so-human personality?

In the absence of communal gods with whom we have a viscerally felt connection, we now have the task to define, for ourselves, a sense of the Sacred that lives beyond our conscious personality (out in the desert, beyond our conscious boundaries). We do not need to be religious, but we do need a container, an image – for that which is bigger than our individual selves. Once again, this sense of the Sacred cannot be just theoretical, but it has to be felt - in our guts! In other words, it has to have numinosity. Numinous is a word derived from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. For an image to be numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (a sense of mystery that has the power to cause fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

What is this numinous transpersonal image for us – the “modern” human?

For some, it is still God. For others, it could be the psychological Self – the center and the totality of our psyche that encompasses a much larger range of experience that just our Ego identity. For others, it could be the Earth or the Cosmos. It could also be a particular piece of music, art or philosophy. It could be a “therapeutic temenos” held by a therapist, a mentor, or a counselor. It could be a modern image - such as Yoda or Galadriel, or Professor Dumbledore. As the psychologist Matt Licata says in a recent blog post, it could even be “a reindeer who has come from the moon!”

In the end, the specifics of the container does not matter. What matters is that it be able to serve as an alchemical vessel, a vas, during our encounter with the Shadow. It needs to be strong enough – in a felt sense - such that it will not shatter when the 10,000 Volts of archetypal energy flows through it!

Finally, a word of caution

As we discussed above, it is imperative that before we do any serious shadow-work, we must first find, and build a trusting relationship with, this ritual container – this “divine container” – in whatever way we understand (“feel”) the Divine to be.

In alchemy, there is a saying, “festina lente,” which means "hasten slowly." This is sage advice for anyone seeking to do deep shadow-work. One needs to ensure that one has a safe container to do the work, and then to proceed slowly, increasing the temperature in the vas only a bit at a time - so we can “cook” our soul instead of burning it to a crisp! In fact, this work is best done within a relational field - where another soul can watch over ours, while we are being fragmented and put back together.

So, here is the message once again. In any serious inner work, our first order of business is to be gentle with our soul. We cannot beat it over the head to “integrate” its shadow in a weekend workshop! The psyche has its own timeline, and it is wise to respect that. In fact, any attempt by the Ego to fast-forward Soul Time is a hubris that could literally kill us - at least psychologically and spiritually, if not physically.

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Hospitality toward our inner monsters

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Hospitality toward our inner monsters

For the past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the word “hospitality,” especially in the sense used by my favorite poet, John O’Donohue. He uses this word often in his writings. Hospitality, of course, may be literal, and refer to inviting in the stranger – the “other” – into our midst. It is a stance of curiosity and non-judgment – of trusting that whoever is at our door has a gift for us (although we may not always like the package in which it is wrapped).

Indeed, every ancient and indigenous culture has this type of hospitality as a central tenet. The guest is considered a manifestation of divinity, and is treated as such. If you are ever in doubt about your own divinity, all you have to do is walk into the home of a poor farmer in Bangladesh, or India, or Peru – and you will be amazed by how easily you’ll be invited in, offered the best morsel of food in the house, and the best seat by the fire, or under the tree in the yard!

John O’Donohue has a beautiful description that captures this spirit in his book, Anam Cara:

“In the West of Ireland, many houses have open fires. At wintertime when you visit someone, you go through the bleak and cold landscape until you finally come into the hearth, where the warmth and magic of the fire is waiting. A turf fire is an ancient presence. The turf comes out of the earth and carries the memory of trees and fields and long-gone times. It is strange to have the earth burning within the domesticity of the home. I love the image of the hearth as a place of home, a place of warmth and return.”

Inner hospitality

However, today, the type of hospitality I have on my mind is inner hospitality – a welcome for all the “monsters” that our ego tells us to run from! O’Donohue continues the passage above as follows:

“In everyone’s inner solitude there is that bright and warm hearth. The idea of the unconscious, even though it is a very profound and wonderful idea, has sometimes frightened people away from coming back to their own hearth. We falsely understand the subconscious as the cellar where all of our repression and self-damage is housed. Out of our fear of ourselves we have imagined monsters down there. Yeats says, “Man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.” In actual fact, these demons do not account for all the subconscious. The primal energy of our soul holds a wonderful warmth and welcome for us. One of the reasons we were sent onto the earth was to make this connection with ourselves, this inner friendship. The demons will haunt us, if we remain afraid. All the classical mythical adventures externalize the demons. In battle with them, the hero always grows, ascending to new levels of creativity and poise. Each inner demon holds a precious blessing that will heal and free you. To receive this gift, you have to lay aside your fear and take the risk of loss and change that every inner encounter offers.”

Who are these “monsters?”

Each of us has a lineup of our very own inner monsters - ones that have unique costumes and languages. They like to dance their own special jigs, and tell their very own horror stories! However, underneath all this superficial variability, they are really universal. We all have little (or not-so-little) gremlins in our basements, named fear, anxiety, jealousy, envy, rage, shame, guilt, judgment, self-doubt, and on and on… Each of these feel unacceptable, “not me,” – and are thus relegated to the shadows.

The more we turn towards them, and engage with them - ask them what they are pointing toward - the more they turn not-so-scary, and eventually, even warm and fuzzy!

In fact, soon enough, if we can tolerate the initial revulsion and accept these gremlins as parts of ourselves, they point us towards a cache of our inner treasures.

Remember that deep, abiding jealousy that wouldn’t let us go, the one that sank its teeth in deeper the more we tried to ignore it? When we finally face it, acknowledge it, “meet” it… it turns around to point us toward a neglected yearning of our soul. Maybe we always wanted to write a book, to travel to Antarctica, to attend Burning Man… The specifics are not that important. But our soul has had a yearning, likely all through our life, but we kept telling ourselves why it wasn’t practical. How we didn’t have enough money, enough time, enough talent… But every time someone else did one of these things, our praise was just a little stilted - our celebration marred by a rumbling deep in our bellies. The jealousy was the little monster that was trying to point us toward our treasure - our soul’s desire. And the more we ignored, the more insistent its voice became. Maybe it even moved to active sabotage of a dear friend’s project! But we kept telling ourselves that we were “nice,” and “decent,” and yes, “spiritual,”… that we wouldn’t do such a horrid thing as feeling jealous!

But once we finally acknowledge the green-eyed gremlin as truly a part of ourselves, and accept the gift it has been trying to offer us all along - the intensity of the emotion vanishes and we are suddenly selling off that family heirloom we never really liked, and arranging boarding for our dog, and shopping for tickets on ocean liners to Antarctica!

Similarly, we might have felt inklings of a ravenous rage just under the surface, but told ourselves that we were loving and kind, and this emotion was certainly not ours! We had been shoving this gorgeous beast into an iron cage in the basement, and no wonder, our floors rumbled often and we had to usher guests out on one pretext or another!

But now that the cage doors have been opened and the beast is able to roar freely, it leads us directly to the relationship in our lives that is no longer working. We are trying very hard to put up a loving and accepting face, while developing a large, ugly ulcer in our guts! The beast of rage is here to remind us that what we are really afraid of, and what keeps us clinging to this dead relationship, is not our goodwill, or even “goodness,” but rather, our fear of all the freedom and all the open time and all the resources we will suddenly have, if only we can walk away from this dead relationship!

Practice of hospitality toward our monsters

What if we created a spiritual practice of being hospitable to these monsters? How would our life change?

Again, all religious and spiritual traditions have practices that specifically urge the seeker in the direction of darkness and difficulty, and it is well-appreciated that only by going through the darkness that the adept will one day arise into the light.

In different traditions, these practices have different names. Whether called the “dark night of the soul,” or tantric practices at the charnel grounds, or taking entheogenic plant medicines that make you violently sick - the underlying message is the same. The monsters are waiting, just across the veil, to reveal their secrets to us. However, they will only meet us in their own territory, and under their own terms.

An invitation from the thirteenth century mystic Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi

The poets have always had the language to speak about the ineffable in a way that we “get it.” Here is one of Rumi’s poems, translated as “the Guest House” by Coleman Barks:

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

A story about Milarepa, a Tibetan mystic who lived between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, AD

The story of Milarepa is a fascinating one in many respects. In fact, his entire life story can be read as an encounter, and finally, a reconciliation with “the demons.” He was a vengeful and ruthless killer of many, before he met his Buddhist teacher and began on the long and arduous journey of redemption.

Here is a story I have heard from one of my teachers, which I love.

According to the story, Milarepa was once meditating in a cave. The demons – whose job it is to spoil anything good – of course could not sit by and watch. So, they came. They gathered outside his cave, and hooted and hollered, and created a racket! First, Milarepa tried to ignore them. But, they persisted. Then he got angry – but meditated on his anger for days. The demons continued. Then finally, Milarepa stopped his meditation, and emerged at the mouth of the cave. The demons rejoiced, thinking that they had won. They had broken Milarepa’s concentration.

Milarepa stood at the mouth of the cave and said, “I know you’ve been here for days, shrieking and dancing. You must be tired. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”

Suddenly, there was utter silence!

“Why are you inviting us for tea? Aren’t you afraid of us?” they finally asked. Milarepa said, “Yes, I am afraid. And now, will you please come in for some tea?”

At this, the demons were defeated and just disappeared, leaving Milarepa in peace to continue his meditations.

I find this a wonderful teaching story, which tells us that the demons will only remain demons and bother us, as long as we are oppositional with them. Once invited in for a cup of tea, their power will vanish!

Rubeus Hagrid: the caretaker of monsters

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

When we say that we are too afraid to “meet” a specific monster – say our rage, or envy, or self-doubt – it helps to remind ourselves that our psyche is in fact not monolithic. Even our consciousness (part of the psyche that we are aware of, or recognize as “me”) is composed of many parts. Let’s say we know that there is a monster that is hooting and hollering outside our cave, but “something” in us is too afraid to go out of the cave to meet it.

These would be the times to go visit our inner Hagrid – the gentle giant who lives at the edge of the “forbidden forest,” and is both the “groundskeeper” and the “keeper of the castle keys.”

I apologize profusely to those of my readers who are not Harry Potter fans. I couldn’t help including Hagrid here, because he is such a good archetypal image for this facilitator role.

In Potterverse, Hagrid is known for his love of large, scary animals that are too much even for the students and the staff of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For example, he has raised a three-headed monstrous dog whom he calls “Fluffy,” and a fire-breathing dragon called “Norbet” whom he has illegally hatched from a clandestine egg!

The point is, Hagrid is not afraid of the animals that live in the forbidden forest (the vast unconscious) that surrounds the Hogwarts castle (consciousness). His hut is physically located at the threshold of the forest. The animals in the forest respect him enough, so that if you do enter the forest under Hagrid’s protection, these “animals of the deep” might in fact approach you, and share privileged information with you.

Establishing contact with your psychopomp

In Jungian psychological parlance, Hagrid would be called a psychopomp – a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms. He is the keeper of the castle keys (and thus has complete access to consciousness) and is friends with the magical animals such as unicorns and centaurs that live deep in the forest (the unconscious). The word psychopomp, in Greek, means “guide of souls.” For the ancient Greeks, the psychopomp was assigned the job of escorting newly deceased souls from this world into the afterlife.

The psychopomp is often somewhat “odd” (in the view of our ego), but s/he is allowed free passage into those realms where the ego cannot tread. Working with our dreams is a good way to get to know our own inner psychopomps, and we may further deepen those relationships through “active imagination” or “dream reentry.”

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

The soul is shy

The characteristic that defines a psychopomp is its hospitality for the “shy soul.” This is what John O’Donohue has to say about encountering our soul (psyche, in Greek):

“Maybe one of the ways to reconnect with your deeper soul-life is to recover a sense of the soul’s shyness… The value of shyness, its mystery and reserve, is alien to the brash immediacy of many modern encounters. If we are to connect with our inner life, we need to learn not to grasp at the soul in a direct or confrontational way. In other words, the neon consciousness of much modern psychology and spirituality will always leave us in soul poverty.”

Hospitality is always gentle

This, then, is my final message in this essay. Hospitality, by definition, is gentle. The shy parts of our soul need to be encountered not with the urgency of our “neon consciousness.” Rather, they can only be met in the “oblique light” of a candle which, in O’Donohue’s words, has a “hospitality for the shadow.”

This, I think, is a cautionary note about any type of “inner work” that feels abrasive and confrontational. It is important to distinguish here between something that feels difficult (or ego-dystonic), and something that has a scratching or scraping quality (like picking at a wound). Most likely, if any spiritual or psychological practice feels like the latter, it is working out of the ego’s agenda to “fix,” “treat,” or even “heal.” But it doesn’t really heal. On one hand, it may scour away what was once alive, albeit wounded, and leave behind an antiseptic barrenness. Or, the “shy soul,” in order to protect itself, may scab over the wound prematurely – so that the wound underneath festers, without any access to the healing light or air of day. Eventually, such subterranean infection will eat through muscle and sinew, enter the blood stream, and poison the entire being.

It is thus critical that whatever our personal practice is – that it allow space for a gentle and hospitable encounter with our inner monsters, demons and gremlins.

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A meditation on our ancient and awesome heritage

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A meditation on our ancient and awesome heritage

“We are made of star stuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Who are we, really?

We humans are composed mostly of “organic matter.” Roughly 96% of the mass of the human body is made up of just four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen.

In this essay, we will take a brief tour of where (and when) these elements came from.

And the next time you, or I, feel small and worthless, maybe we can look up, look down, look around – and remember our common heritage, which is nothing less than awesome!

Constitution of the human body (   Wikipedia   )

Constitution of the human body (Wikipedia)

Hydrogen: the oldest atom in the Universe

Hold on… breathe… if you haven’t heard of this before, it will take your breath away! The nuclei of the hydrogen atoms in our body – as you read this line – were formed when our universe was approximately 3 minutes old (yes, you read it correctly). Granted, this was not yet a hydrogen atom, because the temperatures of the nascent universe was still too hot to allow an electron to be recruited to form an electroneutral atom. That happened around 377,000 years later!

Just to put it in perspective… Our universe is currently about 13.8 billion years old. Our solar system, including our sun and our earth, is about 4.5 billion years old. That means that our planetary home wouldn’t even exist for 9.3 billion years after the hydrogens in our bodies were already created! I have created a graph to bring this point home more visually.

Bar graph.jpg

Interestingly, even today, about 90% of the universe is still hydrogen!

Note that about 60% of the adult human body weight comes from water. Water itself is composed of two atoms – hydrogen and oxygen.

Now on to carbon, nitrogen and oxygen

At the time hydrogen atom was being created, another atom was also being produced – helium (along with small amounts of lithium and beryllium). These are the smallest atoms in the periodic table, which organizes atoms based on their atomic number (number of protons in their nuclei). Smaller an atom, the easier it is to be formed. Hydrogen is the smallest atom, with an atomic number 1, followed by helium, lithium and beryllium (atomic number 2 - 4).

The periodic table (Wikipedia)

The periodic table (Wikipedia)

As the universe cooled further, the atoms left over by the big bang were gravitationally attracted to one another and condensed into massive clouds. The gravitational pressure on the centers of these clouds heated them to temperatures of millions of degrees. This led to the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Thus, stars were born.

These early stars were very massive (several-fold larger than our sun). Due to large masses and dense cores, they were able to continue the fusion reactions to form increasingly larger atoms, namely carbon, nitrogen and oxygen (the so-called CNO cycle). Toward the end of their lives, they produced even larger atoms – all the way up to iron (Fe, atomic number 26). Eventually these early stars died in massive explosions called supernovae – which spewed huge clouds of these atoms. These gas and dust remnants in time formed new stars, which fused more atoms, until they too died in supernova explosions.

Humans as custodians of an ancient heritage

As discussed above, our solar system started its life approximately 4.5 billion years ago as a cluster of gas and dust that was enriched in the materials of life – hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen - which were formed in the bellies of generations of older stars.

In other words, of the 96% of our constituent atoms, 9.5% (hydrogen) is 13.7 billion years old (almost as old as the universe itself), and the rest (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) are at least 4.5 billion years old (and likely older)!

Humans as shepherds of clay

It has been said that poets intuit truths that science arrives at via a different path! Very often, they find a deep resonance. Below is such an example.

The Celtic poet, philosopher and mystic, John O’Donohue, has a beautiful phrase to describe us humans. He calls us “clay shapes,” and even more importantly, “shepherds of clay!”

Here are a few quotes from his incomparable book, Anam Cara, where he lays out our heritage in these terms:

“Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out toward infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully molded from this clay.”

~~~

“Your body is as ancient as the clay of the universe from which it is made; and your feet on the ground are a constant connection with the earth. Your feet bring your private clay in touch with the ancient, mother clay from which you first emerged.”

~~~

“In your clay body, things are coming to expression and to light that were never known before, presences that never came to light or shape in any other individual. To paraphrase Heidegger, who said, “Man is a shepherd of being,” we could say, “Man is a shepherd of clay.” You represent an unknown world that begs you to bring it to voice. Often the joy you feel does not belong to your individual biography but to the clay out of which you are formed. At other times, you will find sorrow moving through you, like a dark mist over a landscape. This sorrow is dark enough to paralyze you. It is a mistake to interfere with this movement of feeling. It is more appropriate to recognize that this emotion belongs more to your clay than to your mind. It is wise to let this weather of feeling pass; it is on its way elsewhere. We so easily forget that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay. In each of us a different part of the mystery becomes luminous. To truly be and become yourself, you need the ancient radiance of others.”

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A scientist’s dance with the divine

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A scientist’s dance with the divine

Fractals: a prayer in images

This post is personal, where I trace my journey with the divine, vis-à-vis my identity as a scientist. As a teaser, I first offer you this delicious visual meditation of the many faces of the divine. These are images from various parts of the famous Madelbrot set, taken at different levels of zoom, and using very similar color schemes. We will speak in detail about fractals another time. Here, I just offer you the beauty and the mystery that is invoked by these infinitely self-similar images. The reason I love the Mandelbrot set in particular is that no matter how close you get to a structure, or how far you move from it, the patterns are very similar. Mind you, they are similar - not exactly the same. This, to me, is important. These are not just mechanical repetitions like a marching army - each image is unique, while also being intimately related to all others.

A Confession

Unlike many of my other posts, this one starts with a personal confession. Although I am an ordained minister, I still have a HUGE problem with the word God. When I really take the time to ask myself – what makes my belly tighten when I hear the word God, I realize that my critique is not really so much about the idea of God. Rather, it is about all the social, cultural and political meanings that have accrued onto the word, and all the horror and divisiveness that has been wreaked in its name. First, the word God, for me, conjures up a patriarchal hierarchy – “our Father who art in heaven.” It also conjures up a cultural supremacy – the dominant culture’s God thrust upon colonized and enslaved people the world over –without any consideration of their inherent beliefs.

I have much less problem with “the gods” (small “g”) of people from various cultures and various times. I love those stories and the powerful symbols they embody!

For a very significant part of my life, I lived the identity of “the scientist,” who by definition, had to be an atheist or at least, an agnostic. Science and the divine could not have a place at the same table – I was told. And I bought it - for the most part; although I must say I was always a reluctant atheist! As an adolescent, I was fascinated by Vivekananda, and his erudition on Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu philosophical school that is based on non-duality of Self and God). Around this time, I also fortuitously laid my hands on physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Thus, Vivekananda and Capra were my earliest influences, but it took me a long and often angry detour, to finally get to the place where I am now. I credit the poets - Rumi, John O’Donohue, Tagore - and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell - in facilitating my return. Each of them, in their own way, gave me the permission to pursue the divine through beauty and wonder and awe, and leave aside the dogma.

Encountering the numinous

The honest answer to the question of why I went into seminary is that even though I resisted the call for a very long time, it is the very part of me that drew me to science in the first place, that has now drawn me to ministry. There’s a part of me that just cannot stop being in wonder – in awe of the world we are gifted to live in. I truly feel that we live in a magical world. I am reminded of it every time I think about the baby galaxies being born in the galactic nurseries, of the massive stars going supernova, of the idea that our “Universe” came out of nothing in a fiery Big Bang, and that we are still riding that initial wave of expansion! …Just sit with that for a moment…

Nearer home, I think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolic pathways that have to work, and coordinate and feed back into each other, just right, for me to take my next breath!

I am right now thinking about a Planet Earth video showing a lion, resting after a prolonged chase and kill, satiated and yawning. The amazing camera work allows me to see right up close; I can see those fluttering whiskers, those twitching muscles in the face, and those huge teeth still with bits of meat stuck between them! I get chills looking at that face!

Is this not what has been called “numinous” by the philosophers? Numinous is a word derived by Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and philosopher, from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. Otto posited that for an experience to be counted as numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a sense of mystery that has the power to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

By this definition, my encounter with the galaxies, with my own metabolic pathways and with the yawning lion, are all numinous (i.e., divine).

And then there’s so much we can’t make sense of! So much that seems horrible, unconscionable. I think of the lion in whose image I just encountered the divine, as he pounces on the baby antelope, drags it, plays with it, and eventually devours it. I think of the mother of the baby antelope, who runs away to save her own life, leaving behind her fragile offspring. I think of the school shooters, of people blowing themselves up in public places in the name of God, I think of violence and rape and torture that is so much a story of our species. I think of my own daily uncertainties and yes, fear, as I parent a teen.

Are these experiences also not numinous – invoking mysterium tremendum et fascinans?

There is just so much poetry in this world of ours! So much beauty and so much pain that it makes your heart ache!

How do we be with it all?

“Living prayerfully” as a choice in the face of unknowing

Could all of this beauty and all this heartbreak be fully explained by a merely random roll of dice? Could it all be nothing but the logical turning of gears by a blind watchmaker?

I cannot bring myself to believe so. Because to believe so will be lose that wonder, that awe… that sense of adventuring into the unknown.

I remember a story told to me by a teacher. I don’t know whether the story is true. But it is a powerful teaching story irrespective of its factual veracity. According to the story, a student asked Socrates whether he believed in life after death. Socrates said he did. The student then asked him whether he had any proof to support his belief. Socrates said he didn’t. But then, Socrates said this: he said that he chose to live his life “as if” life-after-death were true – because it gave meaning to his life. It oriented his life and his choices in a certain way. And if when he died, he found out that it weren’t true… well then… it would be too late then, wouldn’t it? First, he wouldn’t really care one way or another at that point. And second, he would have lived a good life. And if it were indeed true, then he would have been off to a good start!

I think my going to the seminary, and living a prayerful life (although I have no traditional “God” that I pray to), is about a similar philosophy. For me, a prayerful life is a life oriented by awe and wonder and mystery… of always being willing to be surprised. I do not want to live my life cowering under the knowledge of the immensity of this creation, the immensity of my own unknowing and my lack of power in the greater scheme of things. I want to look up to this immensity and unknowing with awe, and with reverence, and say with Rumi:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

When I really think about it, I do not think that the battle is truly between a worldview imbued with divinity and a world governed by science, but rather, about what we mean by “science.” Whose science is it that we are talking about? If we limit our “science” to the Galilean/Newtonian rationalist/positivist ideas, then yes, there’s a conflict. But if we now extend our science to Quantum theory, Systems theory and cutting edge Astrophysics and Cosmology, then the world of spirituality and science could happily coexist. Indeed, they magnify and enliven each other.

I think what is common between all these pursuits is the sense of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, of not being sure… Each of them requires us to be comfortable with not knowing, with not having the final answer. It is about, in Rilke’s words, “living the question.”

Encountering “the Universe” anew

Below I offer you just two quotes from Brian Green’s latest book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene, a contemporary physicist and popular science writer, highlights in these quotes the degree of our unknowing about things we have always taken for granted. Here, he is talking about the possibility of us living in a Multiverse. It is an understanding of cosmology where the idea of “The Universe” somehow feels parochial!

“There was a time when “universe” meant “all there is.” Everything. The whole shebang. The notion of more than one universe, more than one everything, would seemingly be a contradiction in terms. Yet a range of theoretical developments has gradually qualified the interpretation of “universe.” The word’s meaning now depends on context.”

While warning us that physicists are far from proving – in any rigorous way – that we indeed live in a multiverse, he suggests that the idea of multiple – even an infinite number – of Universes – seems quite probable. And indeed, the concept of multiverse itself is not unitary, since different cutting edge theories in physics predict different types of multiverse!

“Each (theory) envisions our universe as part of an unexpectedly larger whole, but the complexion of that whole and the nature of the member universes differ sharply among them. In some, the parallel universes are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time; in others, they’re hovering millimeters away; in others still, the very notion of their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning. A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes. In some, the laws are the same as in ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s at once humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality may be.”

Given this science, how can I conceive of a God that still makes sense?

This is a question that has been on my mind and heart for a long time. Given my deep ambivalence about formal religions and the harm they have caused to humanity by pitching one’s God against the other’s, the only seminary I could go to was “One Spirit” Learning Alliance.

Among all the religious traditions we studied at seminary, the ones that speak to me the most deeply are the indigenous traditions. No matter whether we are studying Native American spirituality, or Yoruba tradition, or the spiritual beliefs of Australian Aborigines, one thing we find in common. And it is the belief that the entire creation is alive, and ensouled. Everything, in this scheme of understanding, is alive – and has a right to exist on its own terms. We have the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the creepy-crawlies, the Flying Nation, the Green Nation. We have the Stone People. We have Mother Earth, and Brother Wind; we have Father Sun and Grandmother Moon. We revere the Stone People as our ancestors, because they were on this earth a long time before we got here! We look up at the stars lighting up the night sky, and we hear the story told by the elders that each of those twinkling lights is a campfire of an ancestor! What a magical way to live! In this way of approaching life, every act of living – eating, sleeping, bathing, hunting, mating –becomes a prayer. More than any religious dogma, this is what I understand as prayerful living – a life that is in direct engagement with divinity at all times. If you truly believe that everything is alive, and everything is related to you, you still take what you need from the earth. But, you give thanks for what you take. You thank the animal who gave its life so you could eat. And you never take so much that the bush, the grove, the herd, will not be able to replenish what you took. If this is not prayerful living, I don’t know what is! And how different this is from our “scientific” and rational lives – which routinely denude rainforests, cause and sustain oil spills, support fracking, and cause extinction of species by the thousands, whose effects on the ecosystem we cannot even begin to fathom…

Indra’s jeweled net: an image of God that (for now) works for me

When I see where science is going – away from reductionist silos of knowledge to Integral and Systems understanding – to interconnected webs that constantly feedback on each other – I find that my understanding of God has to keep up with this movement. My sense of the divine has to be vast enough to encompass my science. For me, that is the only way that the symbol of the divine will remain alive and vital in my life.

Lately, I have been sitting with the idea of “indrajaal” (Indra’s net), as a possible symbol of the divine that I can relax into. Indrajaal is a beautiful symbol that comes out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It perceives divinity as a net, or a web, spread over the entire creation. At each junction where two threads of the net meet, there is a jewel. Each of these shining jewels – of which there are an infinite number – reflect every other jewel in the net… Take a moment to sit with this image… A gossamer net with an infinite number of jewels – one jewel at every contact point – each reflecting all of the other jewels!

I love this image for several reasons.

First, this image is able to hold the tension of the polarity of one God/many gods. The net is one. But each point of the net is manifested by a specific jewel – which is both unique, and at the same time, reflects all other jewels. Each jewel could be a divinity, a religion, a planet, a galaxy, an Universe… Or a point in my fractals above…

Plus, a net is inherently flexible. It has no rigid shape. It turns, folds, twists and adapts, and still stays whole. The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, invokes an image of the webs spun by the Wolf Spiders. These spiders spin their webs not between two solid objects such as stones or wall corners, but between two blades of grass. So, as the wind comes and lifts the blades of grass, the web sways, only to relax back, intact, when the wind has passed! What a beautiful image of tenacity and resilience that is not harsh and rigid! What a beautiful image of the divine!

To me, this image of Indra’s jeweled net is very close to Carl Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious can be thought of as the ocean, in which we are all immersed (he did say, repeatedly, that we live in the psyche, rather than the psyche living in us). Throughout this ocean of the collective unconscious are scattered the archetypes – condensations of instinct and psychic potentialities – that may manifest in our lives at times, in response to inner or outer stimuli – only to relax back into the unconscious when the stimulus recedes. Although this particular post is not the place to discuss archetypes in detail, I want to point out that unlike the “Jung lite” that pervades New Age thinking, an archetype is a potentiality that can NEVER be integrated into a person’s psyche, and thus depotentiated. We can integrate parts of their manifestation in our lives in the form of understanding and owning parts of our complexes, but the underlying archetype never loses – yes – its numinosity. Archetypes are our common inheritance, like the jewels of Indra’s net, and no one person can own them or vanquish them.

Many people from many cultures over time have tried to put into words this dialectic between the general and the specific nature of the divine. However, the concept is so ineffable, that what they have provided us with are more images. So, here are a couple of other images.

One of these images comes from the Indian saint, Ramakrishna, when he tried to explain the nature of God to his disciples. His image was that of a body of water – say an ocean. The water is everywhere, and you can’t distinguish one part of it from another. It is all the same water. But now, imagine that in certain places, the water freezes. Now, there are chunks of ice which have solidified. They have now become manifest, embodied. However, they are still the same water.

Another image comes from Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man from South Dakota, USA. In a conversation with ethnologist John Neihardt, he says that the center of the world – the axis mundi – is the Harney Peak in South Dakota. In the very next statement, he says, “but, the central mountain of the world is everywhere!”

These statements are very reminiscent of the quote below from the medieval theological text, Liber XXIV Philosophorum (The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers):

“God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

This is the paradox we are called to live with. Divinity is not just transcendent or just immanent; it is neither spirit nor soul. It is both. And much, much more – that we cannot put into words.

Thus, in my worldview at this moment, I believe that we live in a world permeated with divinity, and that this divinity “crystallizes” wherever we pay attention to it. In other words, God is present at any place, at any time, and in any activity - as long as we inhabit it in awe and in prayerful wonder!

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Dancing with fate and freedom

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Dancing with fate and freedom

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of self-help books (and self-appointed gurus touting them) that promise us the moon and the stars on a platter, in ten easy steps, for $19.99! It all looks so easy… fantasize, keep your focus on that Red Ferrari, or on that tumor shrinking and disappearing… do not let any negative thoughts break through… and before you know it, your wish will be manifested! With prayer, with positive thinking, with gratitude practice – you will cure your cancer, your child’s autism, lose those twenty extra pounds, and find your neighbor’s lost cat while at it!

And then, when after weeks and months of focusing and fantasizing and praying, you do not manifest your goal – you start to feel like a failure, a good-for-nothing who can’t even get ten easy steps right! You are sure you are the only one who read that book who couldn’t manifest what you desired. It’s all your fault; you are essentially and fundamentally defective – unlike everyone else around you!

So goes our self-narrative, in myriad variations of this stock story.

The problem with this brand of positive thinking is just that – it is relentlessly positive, with no space whatsoever allowed for what the ancient Greeks would have called the “tragic vision.” Or what a teacher aptly calls a “terminally cheerful” attitude! John O’Donohue used to urge people to move away from the “neon glare” of bite-sized spirituality, and to sit instead in a space illuminated by moonlight, or candlelight – the types of light which, in his words, have a “hospitality for the shadows.”

Like it or not, life teaches us soon enough that it is not all party and pink balloons!

Importantly, too, we can learn that it is also not all doom and gloom. Miracles do happen. Tumors do go into unexplained remission, and lost pets are found and joyfully reunited with their loving families.

How do we, then, inhabit our real lived lives, with its exquisite interweaving of what we can do and what we need to accept?

The twelve-step Serenity Prayer says it best:

“Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

Let us explore our relationship to fate (and destiny), and the freedom we may find within the limits of fate.

Encountering Fate

In this day and age, when we are daily promised that a “cure” for every known ailment is just around the corner, we have come to hate the word “fate.” It sounds so old-fashioned, so fatalistic! Surely “they” will find a cure for my cancer before it is too late. And if they can’t, surely “they” can cryopreserve my body and wake me up when the cure becomes available…

What a letdown, then, when death stares down at us in its final victory!

Or maybe we don’t have to be that extreme. It may simply be that we do not get the job or the promotion we crave, the beauty or the life partner we feel we deserve, or the fame that should be rightfully ours, because we have worked so hard to achieve it!

At these times, we suffer.

But what is it that we are really suffering from?

The loss of myth and story in our times

I posit that our real suffering comes from the fact that we are telling ourselves an impoverished story.  A story based solely on our experience of the moment, rather than laying it on the altar of something larger, something grander than ourselves. We have forgotten the hero’s journey – the journey that individuals from all cultures have undertaken. We forget that this journey includes a period of being in the belly of the whale, or rotting in the underworld, as an essential ingredient. The myths of all peoples from all times and places tell us that we do not get to the prize until we have negotiated our passage with the gods that guard the doors at the thresholds.

And even with the blessings of these threshold guardians, we only get, at least in this lifetime, what we are destined to get!

Meeting the Fates

The concept of fate is found in most cultures. In Greek Homeric poems, one encounters Moira or Aisa meaning limit or end of life; in the Hindu Vedas, we find many references to Ṛta, meaning order, rule, truth; in Egypt we find Maat or Ma'at, meaning truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice; and in Islam, we encounter Kismet, meaning the predetermined course of events.

In ancient Greece, there was not one, but three Moirai (plural of Moira).  Their story is rather delightful. The three moirai are sisters, who together determine our fate as follows:  

  • Clotho (the "spinner"), spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Her Roman equivalent is Nona, (the “Ninth”), who was originally a goddess called upon in the ninth month of pregnancy.

  • Lachesis (the "allotter" or drawer of lots), measures the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the 'Tenth').

  • Atropos (the "inexorable" or "inevitable", literally one who is "unturning", sometimes also called Aisa), is the cutter of the thread of life. She chooses the manner of each person's death; and when their time has come, she cuts their life-thread with her “abhorred shears". Her Roman equivalent was Morta (the 'Dead One').

There are many versions of the parentage of the moirai, but the one that is most apropos to our discussion here is that they are the daughters of Chronos (Father Time) and Ananke (meaning “necessaity”). Interestingly, too, the moirai in some versions of the myth have three other sisters who compensate for their roles. These sisters are: Eunomia (“lawfulness,” “order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”). Thus, if we acknowledge and act according to the dictates of the moirai, we also invite in order, justice and peace!

The three  Moirai , or the triumph of death (Flemish tapestry c. 1520, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Note how the thread of life is being spun by  Clotho , measured by  Lachesis , and finally cut off by  Atropos .

The three Moirai, or the triumph of death (Flemish tapestry c. 1520, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Note how the thread of life is being spun by Clotho, measured by Lachesis, and finally cut off by Atropos.

Fate vs. Destiny

The contemporary Jungian analyst and writer, James Hollis, has written extensively about fate and freedom. He writes in the Parabola magazine issue entitled “Free Will and Destiny” (Winter 2015-2016):

“Etymologically our word fate derives from the Latin fatum, meaning “to speak,” in the sense of something spoken or decreed by a god. That something has been spoken does not mean it is inevitable. One may have a tendency to depression, for example, and that genetic probability will surely be experienced in the course of one’s life. But how that plays out is strung along a broad spectrum of chance and choice.”

The word destiny, on the other hand, derives from Latin destinare, which means “to make firm, establish."

This is where I see the difference between Fate and Destiny. Fate is what is decreed by “the gods.” It is the limitations of life – the conditions imposed on us either internally (e.g., tendency to certain illnesses, or even the psychological “inferior function”) or externally (e.g., accidents, wars). Astrologically speaking, Fate is the rings of Saturn; it is limitations imposed by Chronos. Fate is the given, the spoken.

But within those limits, we can make concrete and significant choices that allow us to not only live out our destiny to its most positive manifestation – fulfilling the reason we are on this planet – but to live it out with joy and élan.

How do we embrace our fate? By practicing Amor Fati

Here, we come to the Greek philosophical idea of Amor Fati (literally meaning "loving fate"). Contemporary new age discourse has taken a lot from ancient Greece, but has, for the most part, carefully sidestepped the idea of Amor Fati.

Amor Fati is about loving the Fate we have been assigned – the length of the thread of life that has been cut off for us by the three moirai.

So how do we love our Fate?

According to James Hollis, we do so by taking charge of our story. By owning all of who we are – which includes our limitations – internal and external.

As an example of Amor Fati in practice, Hollis cites Albert Camus’s take on The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus takes the well-known story of Sisyphus, the “lonely prophet” who is fated to forever roll the boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down again, ad infinitum.

But, here Camus adds a genius twist! To quote Hollis, again from his article in Parabola magazine:

Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain (Image courtesy Gerard Van der Leun)

Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain (Image courtesy Gerard Van der Leun)

“Yet Camus adds a radical defiance, a cri de Coeur, a hope. He imagines that at that moment when Sisyphus descends the hill once again, forever once again, he pauses and smiles before pushing that stone back up. In that smile, Camus fantasizes, is our existential revolt against fate. In that moment, rather than being doomed, fated, Sisyphus chooses to push the stone. In his choice he takes the autonomous power away from the gods; he reacquires his freedom, and his dignity.”

Hollis continues:

“Camus is on to something more than revolt, a gesture which may remain forever futile in the face of fate. In that mysterious, inexplicable smile, Sisyphus says yes to his life, a condition he cannot choose, but an attitude which is entirely his. This yes is the achievement of amor fati, the love of one’s fate.”

Thus, in that inexplicable smile on the face of Sisyphus, his Fate turns into his Destiny, and creates for him a life well-lived.

Kairomancy: the dance partner of Amor Fati

In my previous post, Befriending Time, I briefly mentioned the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, and his concept of Kairomancy. Here is a closer look at this idea.

In our previous essay, we explored how we live in “chronic” time, under the dictates of the god Chronos, who rules our lives and the time allotted to us, using the tools of the clock and the calendar. Chronic time is linear and finite – forever moving from past, through present, to future – until it runs out for each one of us.

But we also spoke about how, within this chronic time, we are often graced with another kind of time – the time that is under the auspices of the god Kairos. We said that Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. It is “time out of time,” it is nonlinear and infinite.

Here is a passage from James Hollis's book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, that beautifully describes a Kairos moment:

"One African dawn, while on safari, Carl Jung slipped away from his tent and walked out into the veldt. He heard the sound of scavengers pursuing and eating their prey; he saw in the crepuscular dim great, gray streams of beasts sliding by before his astonished eyes. He knew that at that instant he had stepped from chronos to kairos and had entered a timeless moment... The Swiss psychiatrist stepped out of ordinary time and, for a moment, became the first human once again, staring on nascent brutish nature but bringing consciousness to it, recording it, observing it, conferring on it a reality (as Rilke also concluded) it could never have achieved on its own. So in that moment the unique gifts of our transient tribe are celebrated: an endowment of recognition, a conference of consciousness upon brute being, and the grant of enhanced, reflective awareness."

Robert Moss teaches a practice where we develop a discipline to invite in Kairos into our lives on a frequent basis. He calls this practice, Kairomancy. It is about seizing the special moments that drop into our lives, and really taking advantage of these gifts from the beyond – thus “making magic!”

Here are Robert Moss’s twelve rules of Kairomancy, and if this idea fascinates you, I strongly urge you to read his book, Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols, and Synchronicity in Everyday Life.

Robert Moss’s twelve rules of Kairomancy

  1. Whatever you think or feel, the Universe says yes. In this rule, the idea is to be very aware of what we are carrying, what we are thinking and feeling, and what we are projecting onto others or onto circumstances. It is much more than wishing and praying for that red Ferrai – it is about exploring what is it that we are inviting into our lives through our thoughts and our actions.

  2. Chance favors the prepared mind. I think it is clear enough so as not to need further elaboration.

  3. Your own will come to you. This rule states that we will receive unexpected support from within and without, once we start investing our psychic energy into our passions and activities. When we “show up” and take our seat in the round of life, we draw powers far greater than ourselves to manifest our tasks at hand.

  4. You live in the speaking land. We live in an interconnected web – a conscious Universe, where everything is alive, connected and ensouled. Once we truly internalize this perspective, everything “mundane” becomes an oracle. The crack on the wall, the bird on the lamp post, a snatch of overheard conversation – brings us new understanding and insight, and provides concrete guidance on steps to take, and steps to avoid.

  5. Grow your poetic health. We are encouraged here to take life as poetry rather than mere prose; to hear for the unspoken cradled between words, to hear the multiple layers of meaning in ordinary life and ordinary conversation. This rule invites us to find home in ambiguity and paradox, and in stories with many possible endings.

  6. Coincidence multiplies on the road. Again, this is quite self-explanatory. When we are ready, strange things assist our journey in apparently coincidental ways. Joseph Campbell had this to say about positive coincidences: “When you follow your bliss...doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else.”

  7. By what you fall, you may rise. Every setback is an opportunity to start anew, with new knowledge and wisdom.

  8. Invoked or uninvoked, gods are present. Moss takes this from Carl Jung, who had this line carved at the entrance of his home by the lake: “Vocatus atqua non vocatus deus aderit” (meaning “called or not called, god is present"). For Jung, these gods were the archetypes of the collective unconscious – the dynamic forces deep in our collective psyche that periodically rise up to consciousness. The less we are aware of these gods of the deep, the more likely are we to be “possessed” by them, and being drawn completely off course (which, incidentally, may be exactly where we need to go)!

  9. You walk in many worlds. This rule posits that we do not live in this world alone, but in many worlds. It is up to each one of us how we would like to image this diversity of worlds. Some may consider this purely psychologically (we have many inner personalities and even our inner “family systems”). Others may think of a world populated by gods, ancestors, fairies or spirit beings. Still others may take refuge in the scientific possibility of a multiverse. The bottom line, though, is that it is a very helpful philosophy if we can authentically inhabit it – a philosophy that tells us that we are not alone and adrift in a dead Universe, hurtling towards eventual oblivion!

  10. Marry your field. Here, by “field,” Moss does not mean field of expertise, or what we “do.” Rather, our field is what enlivens us, brings a spark in our eyes, makes us wake up excited for yet another opportunity to engage in it! Our field is what we do for the sheer joy of doing it! The entreaty here is to commit to this field.

  11. Dance with the trickster. The trickster is the keeper of the crossroads – the threshold guardian. A trickster is not always easy to engage with, but is a necessary ally if we are to move from one territory to the next. The trickster asks us to pause as we begin a new venture – to really examine our motives – to clarify our reasons for taking that step. It is a great place to be confronted with agendas that are not in the province of Kairos, but are rather ego-driven, and are thus doomed for failure in the long run! Every culture has its own flavor of the trickster – which I will explore in another essay.

  12. The way will show the way. When we become a Kairomancer, and navigate our life based on synchronicity, we cannot rely on any pre-drawn map. We may start with a map, but very soon, we will be called to either throw away the map and follow the new synchronicities, or continue to follow the map and thus move farther and father away from the territory we wished to enter in the first place!

In the end, a dance between Amor Fati and Kairomancy

Just like everything in life that truly matters, we end here with a paradox. Fate is real. We come into this world with limitations – of time, space, power, ability. But we also come into this world to create something that has never existed before, and that can never exist without us doing our part.

How do we find this freedom to create while limited by fate?

I believe we do it by learning the dance of Amor Fati (loving what is given to us) and Kairomancy (navigating our lives through synchronicity).

At the end, I leave you with a message from Martha Graham, given to a fellow dancer, Agnes de Mille:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

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Befriending Time

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Befriending Time

Who among us has not, at least on occasion, looked at a clock and felt a sense of dread? Heard the approaching footsteps of the inevitable? The clock in those moments feels cruel, uncaring – tick-tocking away merrily – with complete disregard to our terror of the impending end… of a life, a career, a love… or just the end of a work deadline! We quake in our proverbial boots, as we watch those moving hands of doom, or choose to look away and pretend it is not happening…

It may be safe to say that we live under the tyranny of Time.

More precisely, though, what we live under the tyranny of is what we perceive as the inevitability of the linear progression of time - from birth to death, from beginning to end, without us having much input into how, and how fast, it progresses.

We live under the tyranny of the clock and the calendar.

But, it was not always so. And it is still not so in many indigenous cultures today.

Time was circular before it became linear

To our ancestors, before the advent of modern technology and lifestyle, time likely felt quite different from how it feels to us today. Time, back then, was less linear. The sun came up, only to go down, and come up again the next day. The tides rose and fell. The seasons came, and went, only to come again. Animals had babies, the adults grew older, the adults died, the babies grew into adults, had babies, and the cycle continued. Same with people. We humans, before becoming “civilized,” lived in the “round” with other beings. We experienced time as circular rather than linear.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

This deep intuition, about time being circular, was most likely present in our far ancestors, as evidenced by megalithic stone circles all over Northern Europe and Great Britain, some of which date back to the Neolithic times. Many of these, such as the famous Stonehenge, were laid out precisely such that specific stones and structures would be illuminated at sunrise or sunset at the solstices and the equinoxes. Such precision is very unlikely to be purely coincidental.

The ouroboros

The ouroboros

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Both Gnostic and Hermetic alchemical traditions speak of the ouroboros (or uroboros)  as a symbol of eternity. The symbol represents a serpent (or a dragon) eating its own tail, and refers to a circular notion of time and existence. It illustrates poignantly the worldview: "what was at the beginning is also at the end." 

This reverence for circular time is still seen in almost every indigenous culture. Most Native American tribes utilize some variation of the Medicine Wheel as a central symbol and tool for spiritual practice. We are all familiar with the circular Navajo sand paintings. Mandalas – again circular paintings – whether temporary or more permanent, constitute a central device (a yantra) in the spiritual practice of many Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. In fact, a very important teaching in the Tibetan tantric path is called Kalachakra, meaning the “Wheel of Time.” The Kalachakra is the basis of an entire tradition, the so-called Kalachakra tantra.

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

A brief history of time in the West

Plato (427 – 347 BCE) understood time as divinely meaningful – a result of mathematical harmonies derived from the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. Interestingly, it is this movement of the celestial bodies that lie at the root of music theory – as musica universalis (universal music), also known as the “song of the spheres.” Plato also understood this dance of the seven heavenly bodies as happening in relation to an eighth supraplanetary sphere – the Aion (or Aeon; in American English, eon) – who can be understood as the God of Eternity.

Thus, for the ancients, time was divine, and it was meaningful.

This understanding continued in the writings of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), who differed from Plato in many respects, but still believed time to have a telos, i.e., a purpose. Thus for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground not because it was divinely ordained (thus disagreeing with Plato), but still, for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground because it was the apple’s purpose to fall to the ground. The apple, in Aristotle’s scheme, had an intimate relationship with the earth, which made it fall to the earth, instead of, say, rising up to the sky.

This sense of time as circular, and purposive, lasted many centuries. It was not until the time of Galileo (1564 – 1642), and later Newton (1643 – 1727), that our conception of time changed drastically. Now, we were taught that time was in fact linear, and followed unalterable mechanical laws. From then on, the apple did not fall to the ground because the earth was its natural home, nor because it was ordained to do so by a divinity; it fell thus because of the purely secular laws of gravity.

With these mechanical laws, we moved firmly into the domain of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. 

From Plato and Aristotle to Galileo and Newton, Time (or more correctly, our conception thereof) moved from the realm of Aion (eternal time) to the realm of Chronos (linear clock time).

The Gods of Time in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, one encounters Time in three different forms. Or, if we want to use mythopoetic language, we can say that different types of time were under the dominion of different Gods.

Let us now briefly meet these Gods.

1.       Chronos: From the Greek word Chronos comes our word “chronic.” Chronos is “Father Time,” seen astrologically as the planet Saturn with all those rings (limitations, rules) around it. Mythology of Chronos is complex and many-layered. Chronos is often conflated (and with good reason) with the Titan Chronus, who was Zeus’s father. Chronus's claim to fame is that he ate up all his children as soon as they were born – in order to hold back (in Time) a prophecy that he would die by the hands of one of his offsprings! Chronos represents linear time – with a past, present and future – a time officiated by the clock and the calendar. It is our “consensus time,” which provides us social cues. Interestingly, though, our concept of second and minute, of months and years, quickly falls apart as soon as we leave planet Earth!

2.       Kairos: Kairos, for the Greeks, represented another divinity who also has to do with time, but this is a very different kind of time. Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. For example, in archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos is the moment when the shuttle can be passed through threads on the loom. Kairos is also an alternate spelling of the Greek deity Caerus, the God of luck and opportunity. Thus, whereas Chronos time is linear and quantitative, Kairos is qualitative, and may be understood as “time out of time.” Here is a beautiful obeisance to the God Kairos by the poet, William Blake:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

3.       Aion: Aion is yet another Greek deity associated with time, but this time representing the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the entire zodiac. Aionic time is unbounded, and may be best understood as eternity. To my knowledge, the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave one of the best definitions of eternity (although he did not use the name Aion when he talked about this idea of time):

“Eternity isn't some later time. Eternity isn't even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off.... the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.”

Synchronicity: an effort to understand the experience of nonlinear time in lived life

In recent times, Carl Jung was instrumental in reimagining time in a manner much more akin to the ancient Greeks. Granted, we live in Chronos time. But every once in a while, as if by magic, another type of time seems to fall into our experience of time. Jung was specifically interested in what he called synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences." Synchronicity occurs when events occur with no causal relationship (you can't demonstrate a linear cause, leading to an effect), yet seem to be meaningfully related. An example would be dreaming about an event that later comes to pass, but the dreamer could not have predicted the event from the information available to them at the time of the dream.

Jung was brought to an intimation of the presence of such mixing of times by his own dreams, as well as those of his patients. Here is an excerpt from Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that describes a series of dreams he had that presaged World War I, without him having any way of knowing that a world catastrophe of such magnitude was just about to unfold:

"In October (1913), while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.

Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.

In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd...

On August 1 the world war (World War I) broke out."

Although almost everyone experiences such events (albeit most often on a smaller scale) at some point in their lives, synchronicity is a notoriously difficult concept to define using our common logical language (logos). Jung struggled for many decades to find an expression that would describe its essence, without him being dismissed as a romantic or a mystic by his scientific colleagues (he was deeply invested in his identity as a scientist and a doctor). The best he could come up with, as a definition of synchronicity, was an "acausal connecting principle," which of course does not make things any clearer! Many people have further elaborated and amplified on this idea, including the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, who has coined the term "kairomancy" to describe a practice of navigating life by being attentive to, and taking advantage of, synchronistic events. 

Synchronicity (and kairomancy) is a vast subject area, and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this post. I hope to speak more to this subject in a future post.

Time in other cultures

Most ancient cultures, when looked at mythologically, have ideas of time that differ significantly from our current linear, mechanical and chronic conception of time.

The Universe as Vishnu’s dream

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

In Hindu mythology, what we know as manifest Universe, is seen as the dream of Vishnu. Vishnu lies asleep on the serpent Adisesha Ananta (Timeless Time, without beginning or end). Adishesha floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar (the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness). From the navel of the sleeping Vishnu grows out a lotus, on which sits a Brahma – the creator of the Universe! Brahma sits on the lotus of the world in meditation. Every time he opens his eyes, a world comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the world is annihilated. He opens his eyes, another Universe comes into being. This happens for many millennia. Then, the lotus retracts. A new lotus blooms, on which sits a new Brahma, opening and closing his eyes...

What a different concept of time from one where we rush about to meet deadlines by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month!

Kali (Kālī), Kaal or Kālá, and the tantric concept of SpaceTime

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

The name of the Hindu Goddess Kali has two meanings: one who is Dark (black), and one who is Time. She is not one or the other, she is both. She is the womb and the tomb. Both are places of undifferentiated SpaceTime. The darkness refers to a primordial condition – before space and time separate – before they separate for each of us at birth, and collapse again as we breathe out for the last time. Kali is thus the fullness of time and space – or Space pregnant with Time – or maybe Time pregnant with Space!

A name for the God of death, Yama, is also Kaal or Kālá. He is the keeper of time and timelessness. In this understanding, Kali, as the feminine manifestation, is understood as the changing aspect of time – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

 

Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal concept of Time

Francis Gillen (1855- 1912), an Australian anthropologist and ethnologist, coined the term “Dreamtime” to understand the religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. This idea of “dreamtime” or “dreaming” is a complex one, and is so different from the Western conception of time that it cannot be properly translated, and still maintain its original meaning. I have done some reading on the Dreaming, but certainly not enough to write anything comprehensive at this time. Thus, rather than give incorrect information brimming with cultural colonial bias, I offer you another word, also coined by Gillen, to try and capture this conception of time that cannot be neatly divided into past, present and future. That word is “Everywhen.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in the journal, Australian Psychiatry, written in 2003 by Aleksandar Janca, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia:

“The Aboriginal view of time differs from the JudeoChristian linear approach in a number of ways. For Aboriginal people, time is multidimensional and can be described: ‘as a pond you can swim through – up, down, around’. The same notion can also be illustrated as follows: ‘Time is around you at every moment. You can’t pull time apart or separate it – in the abstract or when talking about it – from living, nor can it be viewed as purely functional groups of seconds, minutes and hours’."

Time contains no innate or inherent importance as such to an Aboriginal person; it is not adhered to and rarely directs an Aboriginal person but rather works for the person, family or community. In general, the units of time are not part of discrete or absolute systems, but are specific, concrete and contextual to what is being measured. The extraction of time from the environmental system as a whole is a foreign notion to most Aboriginal people, even to those who work and live within mainstream Australian society.”

Rather than trying to understand what an Australian aborigine might mean by the equivalent of the word "Everywhen" in their language and through their worldview, for our purposes here, it may be more useful for us to meditate on that word might mean for ourselves – in our daily lived lives. What if we, living our lives in “Chronic time,” can take a break – every once in a while – to sample the experience of being in the EveryWhen? How might our lives, and the experience of living, change as a consequence?

The Sacred Pause: an access ramp to Kairos (and/or the Everywhen)?

Contemporary Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, offers us a tool that may help us change our experience of time, and especially, the tyranny of time. She calls it the “Sacred Pause.” Here is the Sacred Pause described in her own words:

“In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.”

Using the language of the Greeks, we can say that the practice of Sacred Pause can create a pathway for Kairos to enter into our unmitigated experience of Chronos. Or, we can say that the Sacred Pause may offer us an experience of being in the Everywhen. This may be experienced as an easing of "time pressure," and/or a renewed sense of freedom and joy!

An afterthought

Just as a last teaser... look closely at the image of Chronos above (in the section about the Greek deities of Time). Do you notice what the old patriarch is up to? He is chopping off the wings of Cupid, the God of desire and newborn lust for life! This indeed is our fate if we let our lives be ruled by Chronos and Chronos alone. To live a meaningful life, we need to drink deeply from the well of Kairos, at least from time to time. And as we deepen our spiritual lives, if we are lucky, we learn to trust that we are indeed held within the overarching circle of Aion!

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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

Last week, I had a complicated multi-part dream. I will not get into the entire storyline, but there was a specific part that intrigued me enough for me to dig deeper. This blog post is an effort to understand and share some of the symbolism that spoke to me. Hopefully, it will also be a good example of how we can work with dream symbols in a meaningful way.

The dream vignette

I am in a very crowded train in India. I am standing among a bunch of other people, with barely any room to move. In my hands are two large (gallon-size) ziplock bags, each filled with salt. The salts in the two bags look somewhat different. They are not pure, white commercial salt made of uniform, fine particles. They have particles of different sizes, some clumps, and some of the crystals have pink hues. Even though the train is so crowded that I can barely stand, I am pouring salt from each of these bags into two other small, snack-size ziplock bags. It seems like an urgent and important operation. It can’t wait. I manage to fill one of the small bags, and drop it into the crook of the arm of an older lady standing next to me. Not only does the lady not complain; she in fact adjusts her position to make sure the packet does not fall to the ground.

Then, I get off the train and am sitting on a bench in an otherwise deserted, what looks like a rural, platform. There is a younger woman sitting with me, and I am giving her the two small snack-sized ziplock bags containing the two types of salts. This offering seems important, even sacred.

Some of the most significant dream images

Trying to understand a dream is a rather personal affair – our associations are our own. The feelings the dream images evoke are personal; so are the memories jogged and the directions of subsequent explorations. What might be important to one dreamer may not be so to another.

With this caveat in mind, these are the main elements that stand out for me from this vignette:

  1. The central importance of salt in this dream
  2. Traveling in a crowded train, possibly from an urban to a rural place
  3. Presence of the triple Goddess motif – maiden-mother-crone

In order to keep this post within a manageable size, I will explore in some detail the symbol of the salt, and only offer a brief amplification of the other two motifs.

Traveling in a crowded train, possibly from an urban to a rural place

A train, unlike a car or a bicycle, is a symbol of the collective. When I am on a train, I have to follow its schedule, get off at designated stops, and share the space with strangers. Thus, the setting of this dream suggests that it has to do with my social engagement, rather than a purely personal problem. The train is crowded – I am engaging with a lot of people. I find a supportive older woman co-passenger – a mentor? This interpretation certainly agrees with my real lived experience soon after this dream. Did the dream anticipate a future encounter with a mentor who would be willing to “hold my salt?” The fact that I get off at a relatively deserted rural station with just one other (younger) woman suggests that I am to engage more deeply, and more personally, with one younger woman. Again, something my lived life is bearing out. The rural setting suggests moving into the more unconscious realms (closer to nature, including my own nature), and there is an offering of something akin to medicine.

The fact that the setting of the dream is in India connotes an ancestral layer in this dream – something about the medicine, “the salt,” of my heritage.

Presence of the triple Goddess motif – maiden-mother-crone

I am struck by the fact that even though the setting is a crowded train, three characters stand out. The older co-passenger who facilitates my “dosing of the salt.” She is the crone. I am the mother – my self-identity, as well as the “carrier of the salt” in this dream. The recipient of the “salt medicine” is the younger woman – the maiden. The maiden-mother-crone is a very powerful motif in mythology, and deserves its own post – even several posts. So, I will hold this idea for another time. Meanwhile, if you are curious, look up the story of Demeter, Persephone and Heckete. Also, remember the admonition that in a dream, all the dream images can be seen as aspects of oneself. The one we identify as “me” is merely most directly aligned with our ego-identity. In fact, this character is often referred to as the “dream ego” in dream analysis circles.

And now, the salt

This vignette from the dream is really all about salt. It is about carrying salt, apportioning salt, and offering salt to another as medicine.

So, what is salt?

The common salt

First, very simply, when we talk about salt, we think about table salt – our “common salt.” It is curious that there is no other food ingredient that we label as “common.”

If we look at the etymology of “common,” we find that it comes from two Latin source words:

  • communis "in common, public, shared by all or many; general, not specific; familiar, not pretentious." 
  • munia "duties, public duties, functions." 

It is only much later, circa late fourteenth century, that the word “common” began to be used to refer to the “ordinary, not distinguished, not excellent.”

So, what is really so common about salt?

When we look at it more closely, we find that not much about it is really “common.”

Margaret Visser, the author of a wonderful 1986 treatise on the mythology of foods, has this to say about salt:

“lt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves, desiccates but is wrested from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years not only as a substance he prized and was willing to labour to obtain, but also as a generator of poetic and of mythic meaning. The contradictions it embodies only intensify its power and its links with experience of the sacred.”

Salt adds taste to food. Without salt, food tastes bland. And it preserves. Salt has been used since ancient times for pickling and preserving flesh and vegetables, as well as for mummification of human bodies. "Sharing salt" is about communal solidarity. You cannot betray someone whose salt you have eaten! In fact, our current word "salary" comes from Latin salārium, meaning ‘salt money’). This is a reference to the Roman practice of paying soldiers in pieces of compressed salt. Hence the phrase: "to be worth one’s salt."

Salt is also very stable. It does not burn or spoil easily (except by absorbing water).

Chemically speaking, a salt is produced from a "neutralization reaction" between an acid and a base. The two have a natural affinity for each other, one seeking to gain an electron (the acid), the other seeking to lose one (the base). When this occurs, the product is a salt.

Since a salt is electrically neutral - it represents a perfect equipoise between the electron-grabbing nature of an acid, and the electron-rejecting nature of a base!

Alchemical Salt: the fulcrum between sulfur and mercury

Cinnabar crystals

Cinnabar crystals

Alchemically, salt is seen as the embodied, “fixed,” result of the primordial tension between opposing polarities. An example (and a symbol) of alchemical salt is cinnabar, mercuric sulfide (HgS) – a stabilization of the opposing tendencies of sulfur and mercury.

In the alchemy of Paracelsus and his followers, there is the idea of the tria prima, the three primary principles: namely sulfur, mercury and salt. Although one can write a treatise on these three elements alone, here I will limit myself to their symbolism for psychology.

Sulfur, in the psychological alchemical sense, refers to the part of us that is fiery, and flammable. It is our desires and passions, the parts of us "ready to catch on fire." Sulfur is often referred to in this literature as soul (although some have claimed it to represent spirit or even body). Some recent  psychologically oriented writers have equated sulfur with superego.

Mercury on the other hand, is volatile and flowing. It slips around, and is hard to pin down in one place. It is the realm of thoughts. It is effervescent. Some have associated mercury with spirit; others with ego.

Salt, in one way of understanding, would be the "fixation" of these opposing tendencies of fiery sulfur, and flowing mercury.

Indeed, according to Pythagoras:

Salt arises from the purest sources, the sun and the sea.”

As is clear, one cannot live in the here and now either in a purely sulfuric state (which will literally cause a "burn out"), nor in a purely mercurial state (which will lead to disembodied "flightiness,"  "floatiness" or "indecision").

When they combine, though, the salt is created - which is stable and embodied. In this state, both the fire of sulfur and the flow of mercury can be preserved.

Paracelsus's writings often refer to salt as "balsam." Balsam, in German, is something that heals and preserves, and indeed salt is the first and the most used preservative for both animal and vegetal material. Indeed, from salt comes salve (derived from Latin sal for salt). Not surprisingly, salt was a major ingredient in the material used for mummification in ancient Egypt.

Salt preserves by desiccation. It preserves by removing water, and thus preventing putrefaction. This action in alchemy was referred to as calcinatio (calcination); and calcination processes required very high heat. Thus, alchemically, salt is understood to hold the inner fire of sulfur. Its ready solubility in water may also be seen as suggestive of its inner mercurial essence.

Salt is thus the fulcrum, the bridge, the "key" - that holds in the present moment, our sulfuric and mercurial natures in dynamic equilibrium.

Too much salt

Once again, in alchemical psychology (as in life) too much of anything is detrimental, especially when it is present to the exclusion of other elements.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where there is too much salt. Everything is dry, desiccated. There is no joy, no celebration. There is no passion and no flights of fancy. There is just drudgery and rules. Too much salt is fanaticism. It is puritanism, and punishment for transgressions.

Returning now to the dream

Now, in closing, I would like to return to the dream vignette, and contrast it with another vignette from an Active Imagination experience from about a year ago. During this latter experience, I encountered a place in my solar plexus, which felt dry and white. When I stayed with the image, I saw an endless expanse of salt flats, where lay the bleached bones of my ancestors.

Without getting into personal story - it was a place devoid of emotion. The salt had all precipitated. It was a ghost of an ancient ocean that was no longer flowing; all the water having been evaporated long ago by the heat of the blazing sun. Psychologically, this was a "barren" place - devoid of tears, sweat or blood - devoid of Life! There was intellect without feeling. I experienced the place as "desolate."

How different is the salt that is in the current dream! It is now contained (in ziplock bags), and the dream ego has learnt the skill of "dosing." (Another subject that will have to wait for another occasion are the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome, who were the "keepers of the salt," and were tasked to ceremonially prepare sacrificial animals by sprinkling them with salt.)

In the dream, the dream ego is not offering a huge amount of salt, but a "snack-size" portion - something that can be safely worked with - to the relatively inexperienced apprentice!

Interestingly too, the salt in neither bag is "pure." There are different particle sizes, colors and lumps. Lumps suggest that they are not totally devoid of water. What is being offered to the maiden is not just dry wisdom, but an empathic attunement.

It is also no wonder that it is the maiden who is the recipient of the salt. James Hillman wrote about the puer aeternus (eternal youth) as "unsalted." Same applies to our puella (female youth). She is young - still in the grips of sulfuric passion and mercurial moods. Life and experience have not yet made her "crusty" with salt. But it may be time for this maiden to begin to embody that which lights her passion and makes her spirit soar.

Indeed, alchemy speaks of sal sapientia - the wisdom of salt (or salt of wisdom)!

So, what is the message of this dream?

As I said at the beginning of the post, the "message" of a dream is finally what resonates, "rings true," feels deeply authentic, to the dreamer. Also, symbols are multivalent. They have layers of meaning. And even after all the interpretations, the roots of a true symbol (such as the symbol of alchemical salt) are always planted deep in the unconscious - from where new meanings arise continually.

What feels authentic to me in this dream is the message that I should pay close attention to salt at this time. I need to be salty - grounded and embodied - but with a little humidity and impurity in the salt - to keep it real! I hear this dream vignette telling me that I am being asked to carry and offer the medicine of salt at this time. It is the medicine of balance, of moderation and equipoise.

Who might be the recipient of this medicine? Who is the maiden of the dream? Immature parts of myself? Parts long forgotten, or left by the wayside? Or people I work with? Or is it my own child? Indeed, it may be one of these, some of these, or all of these. 

Another message I hear from this vignette is that there is support. There is a older, wiser presence supporting me to carry the salt. Is this presence intrapsychic or manifest? Again, it could be either or both. I personally feel it is both.

What I take away from this vignette is the call to hold and offer sal sapientia - in carefully dosed amounts - both to parts of myself that might be feeling too sulfuric or mercurial, and to those who may seek my counsel in one form or another. The dream, to me, is a communication from my deep psyche that the moment right now is not for excess, but for moderation, for careful dosing - both in my personal life, and in my interpersonal dealings. 

In summary, then, this exploration of a salty dream is just that - a snapshot at a point in time of something that is continually morphing. I hope this exploration has helped bring alive a subject matter that may otherwise feel dry and academic.

~~~

Sources:

  1. James Hillman, "Alchemical Psychology" - a collection of his papers on alchemical imagination from 1980 onwards.
  2. Aaron Cheak, "The Hermetic Problem of Salt”

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Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

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Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

My intention for this post

As I grow older, I get more and more tired of the ascensionist attitude in a lot of spiritual traditions. Other than the earth-based indigenous traditions (from anywhere in the world), there’s a general aspiration in most spiritual traditions of purification and perfection; of becoming good and conquering evil; of becoming enlightened. This, when taken literally (as is often done), comes at a huge cost to embodied life. It denies all the muck and the contradictions, all the sweat and the blood – all that constitutes lived life. These traditions often appear to minimize living in the un-perfected here and now – the world that encompasses both the mud and the lotus! The focus is on a perfected future. I am thus deeply drawn to spiritual practices and interpretations that emphasize the dynamic rhythm of life. Put another way, I consider a well-lived-life as a willingness to engage in the dance of the mundane and the sacred, rather than becoming a perfected but static sculpture.

In this blog post, my desire is to cast the Hindu/Buddhist chakra system in a novel light, which allows us to use it as a tool for a dynamic life on this earth, rather than another method for spiritual perfection and a release from the mundane.

A primer on the Chakra system

The chakra system is a way of understanding the workings of physical and spiritual energies. This is the philosophy on which the practice of yoga is based. There are many variations and nuances of the system. But at the most essential level, this system posits that there are seven energy centers in our bodies, organized along our spine. Each of these centers has been variously called a Chakra (a wheel), or a Padma (a lotus). Several modern teachers have attempted to show how these chakras may correspond to major nerve plexi; however, that is not the subject of this post.

Here is a brief description of the seven chakras:

The seven chakras

The seven chakras

  • Chakra 1 (Muladhara): translation: “holder of the roots”; root or base chakra located at the perineum; presides over connection to the earth, grounding, issues around survival; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: behaviorism
  • Chakra 2 (Swadhisthana): translation: “her own abode”; located at the level of the sexual organs; deals with issues around sexuality and flow, feminine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Kleininan
  • Chakra 3 (Manipura): translation: “jeweled city”; located at or just below the navel or Dan Tien; presides over issues around will and power, masculine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Adlerian/ Nietzschian
  • Chakra 4 (Anahata): translation: “unhurt” or “sound that is made without two things striking together”; sound of Om; located at the heart center; place of the open heart, compassion; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Jungian
  • Chakra 5 (Vishuddha): translation: “pure” or “purified”; throat chakra; involved with issues around communication, voice and discrimination or discernment
  • Chakra 6 (Ajna): translation: “permission” or “command”; located at the third eye or the Pineal gland; presides over intution, vision, insight, clarity, self-knowledge; place of witnessing the divine
  • Chakra 7 (Sahasrara): translation: “thousand-petaled lotus”; crown chakra; participation mystique, becoming one with the divine; nirvana

The chakra system comes out of the Vedic Hindu philosophy, which is very much ascensionist, with a focus on ultimate perfection and release from the mundane. Thus, the traditional description of the chakra system, and the way it is typically taught in both the East and the West, is as a progressive, hierarchical process, starting at the base chakra and moving progressively to the crown chakra. The image that is often invoked to the explain the energetics of the chakra systems is that of Kundalini, a tiny white female serpent, who lies asleep at the base of the spine, coiled three-and-a-half times around a symbolic lingam (erect penis). With inner and outer work, she awakens in the yogi, and rises progressively through the chakras. The energy in the yogi becomes progressively more rarified the higher the energy (or Kundalini) rises along the vertical series of the chakras, until it reaches the crown chakra where the yogi finds ultimate unity with the divine. At this point, the body drops off, and the yogi achieves nirvana.

An alternate, heart-centered, understanding of the chakra system

I owe a great deal to the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, for the following alternate explanation of the chakra system. I first encountered this description in his video lecture series, Mythos. Mythos is a compilation of a series of lectures Campbell gave toward the end of his life, and thus, contains some of his most mature thoughts.

In the lecture on the Chakra system in Mythos, Campbell starts by describing the seven chakras in a classical way – as centers of energy stacked along the spine. Life energy (Kundalini, the libido, or the “anima” in Jungian parlance) rises step by step through these chakras, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

However, Campbell, being the quintessential marriage officiant between the East and the West, has a beautiful take on this model. It is an interpretation that I have never seen anywhere else. Here, I present Campbell’s proposed model, embellished with some of my own thoughts and associations.

The first three chakras: basic ego consolidation

I posit that as the energy rises from the first to the second, and from the second to the third chakra, it can be thought of as a consolidation of the Ego in the modern psychological parlance. This allows us to function with more ease and grace in the quotidien world. From mere survival (focus on one; undifferentiated consciousness; first chakra), we move to sexuality (interaction between two; Kleinian idea of obsession with the good and evil breast; second chakra), and then to will and power that engages the larger world (three plus; Fruedian idea of the problem of three: the Oedipal complex; also Adlerian and Nietzschian “will to power”).

The fourth chakra: the center of our being

A Tibetan  thanka  depicting the  yab-yum  of  Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

A Tibetan thanka depicting the yab-yum of Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

Then, the energy rises to the fourth chakra. This is the mid-point of the chakra system. This the place where the mystic heart opens. One hears the “unstruck sound of Om.” From this point on, according to Campbell, the energy, instead of being directed outward, is now directed inward. He has a beautiful name for this qualitative change of stance. He calls it the “turning about of Shakti.” The ego now turns the outward-directed energy, which was thus far only interested in finding a footing in the outer world, to face itself and enter a deep embrace of acknowledgment. It is about arriving home – to be welcomed home into one’s own center. As a visual image, Campbell cites the Yab-Yum dieties of Tibetan Buddhism, where two deities are seen in profound erotic embrace. This is the place where we truly meet and engage with “the Other.” This is the place where prejudices begin to melt and morph, and we find inside ourselves what we until now belived lives only outside of ourselves.

Arriving at the fourth chakra thus qualitatively changes our energetic relationship both with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

Engaging the “upper chakras”

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Once the heart chakra has opened, once one has heard the unstruck sound of Om, one can take the energy that was developed in the third chakra (will and power), and move it up to the fifth chakra. It is the same enery of will and power, but rather than directed outward in an acquisitory stance, it now manifests as speaking one’s truth, as taking a stance in life that is authentic for the individual, and as the development of a finely honed discrimination between the real and the shiny counterfeit.

Once this has happened, this energy of authenticity is taken down to the second chakra, and combined with the sexuality and flow, and the engagement with the “Other.” This “purified” and erotically charged energy is then moved up to the sixth chakra. This allows for vision and intuition of the sixth chakra that is informed by both authenticity/discrimination and flow/acceptance/erotic intensity. The result is the human being beholding his/her divine object. An image that may be evoked here is Dante beholding Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Finally, though, this beholding is not enough. There is still a separation between I and Thou. At this point, this energy of the highly rarified vision is taken down to the first chakra of grounding and embodiment, and is then brought back up to the seventh chakra. As this happens, all barriers break, and the subject and object become one! This is participation mystique, or nirvana. As an image, one may think of the Hindu Ardhanarishwar, the androgynous Shiva/Shakti in one body. There is no longer any separation between the pairs of opposites.

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Living from the heart center: the heart as the fulcrum of the machine of our lives

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

But for Campbell, a person who is to live an embodied life, cannot stop here, at the top of the ladder. For you cannot live in this world without engaging the pairs of opposites – joys and sorrows, life and death, light and darkness, depression and escstacy.

So, our goal is to keep returning to the heart chakra – to live centered at this place of open heart and compassion, with the freedom to move fluidly between the other chakras as demanded by life moment to moment. The heart thus becomes the fulcrum of the machine called our life!

This is a dynamic, “breathing” model for life that can be lived with grace and dignity in the midst of all its suffering and ambiguity.

So, at the end, I leave you with these words from my favorite Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, which seems to summarize this way of living:

“We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. We need to feel the dream with the wonder of a child approaching a threshold of discovery. When we rediscover our childlike nature, we enter into a world of gentle possibility. Consequently, we will find ourselves more frequently at the place of ease, delight and celebration. The false burdens fall away. We come into rhythm with ourselves. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth.”

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Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing

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Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing

Mandala - viriditas

I colored this mandala a few days ago when my mind and heart were in turmoil. I needed to find ground under my feet. So, I colored this mandala intuitively, without really thinking. I let my heart choose; not my head.

Mandala as a tool for finding wholeness

Mandalas are circular drawings that are used in many cultures across the world as tools for meditation. Typically, a mandala has a center, and then radially expanding elements that move toward the periphery. They have been thought to represent, in two dimensions, the cross-section of a temple, with the inner sanctum at the center. Carl Jung brought the use of mandalas to Western psychology, and used them himself and with his patients as a way of finding a symbol for wholeness.

I am deeply drawn to Jung’s idea of wholeness, which is somewhat different from the new age idea of “healing.” Often, though not always, this “healing” is one-sided – choosing love and light and joy, and bulldozing over the unwanted opposites. Consequently, these rejected parts of ourselves lodge themselves in our unconscious, and dictate our behavior from there, without leaving us any choice in when and how they express themselves. Jung called them “autonomous complexes.” Jung’s idea of wholeness, which he called “individuation” (really meaning in-dividuation, or removing divisions), is about accepting ALL OF OURSELVES, warts and all! And working with a mandala, among other things, can be a tool to do that work.

Later, over the next few days, I have sat with it, and as things have revealed themselves, I have done more reading and thinking, and then gone back and looked at the mandala again. This approach, of elaboration and then returning to the symbol repeatedly, is what Carl Jung called “amplification,” or “circumambulation” of a symbol. This process reveals the many layers of meaning often hidden in a symbol, and this same process is utilized in the Jungian analysis of dreams and other imagistic material.

For me, this process of being with this mandala over the past few days has been the act outlined in the title – that of holding the paradox between Being and Doing – between focus and relaxation, between intuition and thinking. And it has felt like the gentle rhythm of the ocean – waves coming in, crashing, and then receding – in endless succession. There is something immensely soothing about it.

Of course, we never fully understand a symbol. Part of its very nature – of being a symbol – is that its archetypal core lives in the unconscious, and is thus mysterious and unintelligible to our conscious, rational selves. In fact, if and when we fully (consciously) understand a symbol, it no longer has its numinous quality (i.e., it is no longer a mystery, with both terrifying and fascinating qualities). At that point, it no longer remains a symbol; it just becomes a sign!

Here are, then, a few insights the symbol of this mandala has brought for me (as of now).

Viriditas: The medicine of the green container

The overall feel of this mandala is one of greenness – different shades of green. Green is a powerful color. The color green is invoked most poetically by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She used the term viriditas for the “greening power” of nature, which to her was synonymous with the greening power of the divine. For Hildegard, viriditas meant green, greenness, and growth, as well as vigor, verdure, freshness and vitality. The presence of green was synonymous with finding divine blessing and sanctuary.

Indeed, the image of spring, spreading her green fingers over a frozen and denuded landscape, is nothing short of a miracle! In the Northern climes, where deep winter lasted a very long time, and the arrival of spring was seen as a return of life itself, images of the Green Man were revered and celebrated. In Egypt, the God Osiris, who is killed by his brother, and then is brought back to life by his sister-lover-Queen, Isis, is often shown to have green skin. He represents the cycle of life, including that of vegetation – of death and rebirth.

Indeed, the word “Green” itself comes from Middle English grene, from Old English grēne, from Proto-Germanic grōniz, which all mean “to grow.”

Many Islamic countries use the color green on their flags, and the interiors of many mosques have green adornments. The dome and the interior of Muhammad’s tomb are green. The Christian crucifix, representing the dying and resurrecting Christ, is also often pictured as green.  

Green is also the color of love. Aphrodite and Venus have been assigned the color green. So is the color assigned to the heart chakra, Anahata, in Hindu/Buddhist system.

The shadow side of green

One lesson we keep learning in life, and one that was emphasized by Carl Jung, is that ALL OBJECTS CAST SHADOW! Nothing is purely and absolutely good! Indeed, the color green’s very relationship to life and growth also makes it a necessary feature of death and putrefaction. Slime, mold, poison, pus, and vomit are all green. So are the threatening faces of witches, the bodies of extraterrestrial enemies, dinosaurs, and monsters. In the psyche, too, there is the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and being “green with envy.” “Being green” is also about immaturity, inexperience, awkwardness, unripeness.

Finally, green growth alone, without a compensating red core of passion and its eventual self-destruction, will give rise to cancer, where out-of-control growth chokes out life!

Red: Green’s fiery complement

It is interesting that my intuitively created green mandala has a core where the dominant color is red.

Indeed, in color theory, red is the complementary color of green. Green is moist and cool; whereas red is hot and dry. The two colors need each other to make life possible and to keep things dynamic. Red is activity, focus, passion; green is relaxation, rest, rejuvenation.

In alchemy, “reddening” or rubedo is the final step of the Work (after blackening and whitening), and in psychological alchemy, it is often understood as the psyche – after going through its night journey of darkness, interiority and depression (blackening, or melanosis or nigredo), and then reflecting on and mentally understanding what it went through (whitening, or leucosis or albedo) – finally returns back into the lived world. This is the stage of reddening, or iosis, or rubedo. Once at this stage, the psyche becomes “sanguine,” i.e., it has life-blood coursing through it once again, and now it can fully participate in the mundane world, but from a transformed place.

The instinctive human psyche has always known this truth. In a Tibetan Buddhist thanka (see image), the serene Green Tara appears beneath a small red Buddha and above a fierce red dakini. To the Greeks, fruitful green Aphrodite was the lover of fierce red Ares. Using the symbolism of psychological alchemy, it is the green vessel that holds the red substance of the highest value – the Green Dragon’s red blood. Similarly, the emerald chalice of the grail contains the holy blood of Christ.

Indeed, this dance of green and red was appreciated by Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote:
“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.
You redden like the dawn
and you burn: flame of the Sun.”
–  Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

Blue: the threshold guardian

In the mandala above, it appears as if the dance of the green and the red is mediated and “officiated” by the blue. Indeed, this is the psychological function of blue in alchemy.

Psychological alchemy is a vast subject, and I will continue to speak about elements of it (as I continue to learn more), because I believe that it is one of the most nuanced symbol systems to understand the evolution of human psyche. Briefly, psychological alchemy begins with the raw material (the prima materia), which corresponds to the psychic stage of chaotic thought and confusion (massa confusa). The Great Work (opus magnum) of psychological alchemy begins with the blackening of this prima materia. This stage is variously called nigredo, or melanosis. It is the stage of turning inward, going into the depths, the depression, the withdrawal from the lived world – in order to encounter what is brewing within. It is the legendary Dark Night of the Soul, or entering the belly of the beast! This stage is eventually followed by the next stage of whitening – the albedo. This is a stage of mental understanding of the inner suffering – a clearing, a lightening, a becoming like a silver mirror. Here we “understand,” what happened to us – a stage sometimes referred to as unio mentalis (mental union). Interrestingly, though, this stage was seen by most alchemists as not the goal of the Work, but only a waystation. However, this stage did represent a much-needed respite from the deep, dark depths. There are other stages that follow, but they are not the subject of today’s discussion.

What is important for today’s discussion, is the fact that this transition from black to white often happened through shades of blue.

To quote James Hillman:
“…the blues of bruises, sobriety, puritan self-examination; the blues of slow jazz. Silver’s color was not only white but also blue… The blue transit between black and white is like that – sadness which emerges from despair as it proceeds towards reflection. Reflection here comes from or takes one into a blue distance, less a concentrated act that we do than something insinuating itself upon us as a cold, isolating inhibition. This vertical withdrawal is also like an emptying out, the creation of a negative capability, or a profound listening — already an intimation of silver.”

Or, as Goethe said in his Color Theory:
“…blue still brings a principle of darkness with it... As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. . . a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.”

Thus, the blue in this mandala gives us that shade, that middle ground – that threshold – between the red core of passion and focus and excitement, and the green container of repose, relaxation. Indeed the blue threshold allows the dance between Doing and Being to flow and merge – to approach and move away – to live in dynamic contradiction that is life itself.

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Why is it that our soul cannot resist the call of the sea?

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Why is it that our soul cannot resist the call of the sea?

The Space Between us - by Thrity Umrigar

...when they gazed at the sea, people held their heads up, and their faces became curious and open, as if they were searching for something that linked them to the sun and the stars...

"The Space Between Us": A powerful novel by the Indian author, Thrity Umrigar

Here is a beautiful rumination about what the sea means to the human soul, from the Indian author, Thrity Umrigar, in her debut novel, "The Space Between Us":

"And now she finally understands what she has always observed on people’s faces when they are at the seaside. Years ago, when she and Gopal used to come to here, she would notice how people’s faces turned slightly upward when they stared at the sea, as if they were straining to see a trace of God or were hearing the silent humming of the universe; she would notice how, at the beach, people’s faces became soft and wistful, reminding her of the expressions on the faces of the sweet old dogs that roamed the streets of Bombay. As if they were all sniffing the salty air for transcendence, for something that would allow them to escape the familiar prisons of their own skin. 

In the temples and the shrines, their heads were bowed and their faces small, fearful, and respectful, shrunk into insignificance by the ritualized chanting of the priests. 

But when they gazed at the sea, people held their heads up, and their faces became curious and open, as if they were searching for something that linked them to the sun and the stars, looking for that something they knew would linger long after the wind had erased their footprints in the dust. 

Land could be bought, sold, owned, divided, claimed, trampled, and fought over. The land was stained permanently with pools of blood; it bulged and swelled under the outlines of the countless millions buried under it. But the sea was unspoiled and eternal and seemingly beyond human claim. Its waters rose and swallowed up the scarlet shame of spilled blood."

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Burning with Rumi

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Burning with Rumi

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

The Reed Flute Song

Listen to the story told by the reed,                                          
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.

~ Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
(Translation: Coleman Barks)

Ney, the Persian reed flute

The lines above open the Mathnawi (or Masnavi), a massive work of mystical poetry, consisting of 50,000 lines of rhyming couplets composed by Rumi. Many Sufis treasure the Mathnawi as much as the Qur'an itself! 

In this section titled "The Reed Flute's Song" by translator Coleman Barks, the reed flute ("ney" in Persian) speaks, in plaintive language, of the pain of separation of the Lover from the Beloved - that of the aspirant from his/her divine source. What I find so attractive about Rumi is that he speaks so eloquently about this human longing for the divine, without making it dense with the language of theology and creed. 

The original poem, "Beshno az ney " in Persian (Farsi), has been translated by many translators, and each translation brings out a different nuance. Persian is a lyrical language, and Rumi's poetry are meant to be spoken out loud - and sung. Thus, no translation can do full justice to the poem. At the end of this piece, I have provided a link to a video of the this poem sung in Farsi, and also a transliteration of the original poem.

The experience of being a reed flute

The words that, for me, are the soul of this poem, and the ones that set Rumi aside as the "king of mystics," are the following:

"...The reed flute
is fire, not wind
."

And

"Be that empty."

What does it mean - that a reed flute is fire, not wind?

And what is this emphatic invitation to be empty?

I received a beautiful explanation to this question from a fellow student at an elective course on Rumi at my seminary. She told us a story from her Sheikh (her teacher). According to this story, when a reed stem is cut from the reed bed with the intention of making a flute, it is still green and wet. To serve as a container for the vibrating column of air which will make the magical song, it first needs to be dried out completely, then hollowed, and finally have holes drilled into it.

The part about the reed flute being fire, not wind, comes from an ancient process of hollowing out the reed. A reed stem, in its natural state, has segments, separated by fleshy pith. According to my friend's teacher, in the olden days, after the reed was adequately dried, it was filled with molten metal, in order to melt away all the pith. Once the metal could flow through the reed without interruption, it was considered empty enough to become a flute. A reed stem is born to make music, but it cannot do so until the loving hands of the flute-maker fills it with scalding molten metal! My friend's Sheikh told her that this was exactly the job of a spiritual teacher - to pour molten metal into his/her students, until they became empty enough to make the music they were born to create!

Rumi uses this metaphor of passing through fire, of melting - again and again - as an essential part of the mystic path. This fire, this melting - is understood as the pain of separation from the divine Beloved - and of this desperate longing for reunification. He speaks of the young chickpea drinking water in the gardens, only so that it can later be cooked by the teacher, to make food "for the Friend." He speaks of the wine-maker trampling the grapes - even though the grapes cry out and bleed - in order to make wine. Again and again, the imagery reminds the student that this path is not just wine and savory delectables - not just ecstasy, but that one does not arrive at these culminations without going through extreme mortification and pain. 

Indeed, the Mevlavi Sufi order that Rumi founded, is one of the most ascetic and rigorous of all Sufi orders! Thus, Rumi's Sufiism is by no means "Islam Lite." On the contrary, through his poetic language, he is able to enter the heart of devotion, and illuminate the essence of both suffering and ecstasy for all of mankind.

In the utter emptiness of the reed flute lies its music. It is this stripping away - that feels ruthless at the time - which births a reed flute - a "friend to all who want the fabric torn and drawn away!" 

Thus, Rumi's invitation to us is to not shy away from darkness - from deep process - from what Christian mystics have called via negativa - in order to one day be able to make music like the reed flute.

Transliteration of the Reed Flute's Song in Persian (Farsi)

Aatasheh ishq ast kandar ney fetaad
Jooshesheh ishq ast kandar mey fetaad

Ney, harifeh har keh az yaari borid
Pardeh hayash pardeh hayeh ma darid

Hamcho ney zahri o taryaqi keh did?
Hamchon ney damsaaz o moshtaqi ke did?

Ney hadiseh raheh por khoon mikonad
Qesseh hayeh eshq e majnoon mikonad

Mahrameh in hoosh joz bihoosh nist
Mar zaban ra moshtari joz goosh nist

Dar ghameh ma rooz ha bigaah shod
Rouz ha ba souz ha hamraah shod

Rouz ha gar raft gu ro baak nist
To bemaan , ey aankeh chin to paak nist

Har keh joz maahi zeh aabash dir shod
Har keh bi roozist, roozash dir shod

Dar nayaabad haaleh pokhteh hich khaam
Pas sokhan kootaah baayad, vassalaam

Beshno az ney chon hekaayat mikonad
Az jodaayee ha shekaayat mi-konad

Kaz neyestaan ta maraa bebrideh and
Dar nafiram mardo zan naalideh and

Sineh khaaham sharheh sharheh az faraagh
Ta begooyam sharheh dardeh eshtiyaagh

Har kasi ku door maand az asleh khish
Az jooyad roozegareh vasleh khish

Man be har jamiyati naalaan shodam
Jofteh bad haalaano khosh haalaan shodam

Har kasi az zanneh khod shod yaareh man
Az darooneh man najost asraareh man

Serreh man az naaleyeh man door nist
Lik chashmo goosh ra aan noor nist

Tan zeh jaano jaan zeh tan mastour nist
Lik kas ra dideh jaan dastour nist

Aatash ast in baangeh naayo nist baad
Har keh in aatash nadaarad nist baad

Beshno as Ney in Persian by Ayeda Husain Naqvi

The Reed Flute's Song recited by the translator, Coleman Barks

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Imperfection As Teacher

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Imperfection As Teacher

For Light

Light cannot see inside things.
That is what the dark is for:
Minding the interior,
Nurturing the draw of growth
Through places where death
In its own way turns into life.

In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.

That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.

That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.

When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.

That the searching of our minds
Be equal to the oblique

Crevices and corners where
The mystery continues to dwell,
Glimmering in fugitive light.

When we are confined inside
The dark house of suffering
That moonlight might find a window.

When we become false and lost
That the severe noon-light
Would cast our shadow clear.

When we love, that dawn-light
Would lighten our feet
Upon the waters.

As we grow old, that twilight
Would illuminate treasure
In the fields of memory.

And when we come to search for God,
Let us first be robed in night,
Put on the mind of morning
To feel the rush of light
Spread slowly inside
The color and stillness
Of a found world.

~ John O'Donohue
(To Bless the Space Between Us)

 

My (unintentional) experiment with light and shadow

The lines above summarize a teaching I was given a few days ago, which was so profound that I thought it deserves a blog post of its own. 

It was 2 AM, and I was wide awake. I had just heard a difficult news about someone I care deeply about. To sort through my own feelings, I decided to do something that often helps me. I decided to create an image that captured strands of what I was feeling. The image I had in my mind as I started was: joined palms holding a candle, as if shielding it from a breeze. It appeared to me as a symbol of hope in the midst of darkness. So, I downloaded an image of the palms, and that of a candle, making sure that neither was copyrighted. I opened them both on Photoshop. The candle image was on a black background. I thought I would be done in just a few minutes. All I had to do was resize the hands and copy them onto the image with the candle. So, I started using the magic wand function in Photoshop to copy the hands - an act that I have done thousands of times before. 

That's when I realized that there were just too many shades of pink through brown in the hands, and that some of these colors were very, very close to the background color! If I chose one area, I was losing another one, or picking up too much background! By this time, it was past 3:30 AM, and I was getting really frustrated. I was about to give up.

And then, I had a thought - a kind of throwing up of my hands in resignation! Or, may be it was a revelation! I said, ok, I'll just take all the pieces I can get with the magic wand, copy them, and then try to fill in the gaps. 

So, I did.

And lo and behold! I had parts of the hand that I had copied, and the black background showed through the places where there was no copied content. As I moved the pieces of the palms around the candle - I realized that I had created something much more complex, much more textured, than I had originally set out to create! In fact, it was much more than what I had conceptualized, and much closer to what I was actually feeling!

I had created these cupped hands holding both light and shadow! Literally - holding the paradox - the pairs of opposites! It was something I had not planned to do. I realized then that if I had continued to insist on perfection, I would have never received this gift! What I had to do was to stop struggling for perfection, and trust that the Universe knows what is best - better than me. I had to stop "managing" my life.

I am now sitting with this realization. How many genuinely worthwhile thoughts and ideas and projects do I sacrifice every day at the altar of perfection? And how would it be, if I really start to see every project as alive, as having its own intention? What if I truly accept my job as a custodian of creativity, as a conduit, rather than a task master? What if I am fully present, moment to moment, to what is arising? What if I stop defining when something is "perfect?"

First, I feel a warm wave of freedom ripple through my body! What? You mean that the responsibility of this entire Universe is not on my shoulders? That I am actually allowed to play? To have fun? Even to mess up? And that things of unexpected beauty can arise from my failings, my imperfections? And then... Does this also mean that I can let others be imperfect? That they don't have to live up to my definition of what is acceptable? And I can still love them? And love their work?

This is my radical realization. Not only is imperfection okay, but it is one of the best teachers.

So, I end with the words of Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you're perfectly free.”

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An Ode to Mother Earth

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An Ode to Mother Earth

Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet and Nobel Laureate, implores us to hear Mother's Earth's cries

It is not news to most of us that our beloved Mother Earth - this beautiful blue-green globe shrouded in mist - has become increasingly imperiled by our greed. We see environmental devastation wherever we turn. It is currently being brought into focus by the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. The concerns have now skyrocketed, as a result of our current political situation. As I have been sitting with the aftermath of our Presidential elections, and how it might impact the environment in the coming months and years, my mind was drawn to a poem written almost a century ago by the Bengali Nobel Laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Back in 1935, Tagore wrote this piece as a protest to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. This is the beauty of good poetry. It has a timeless quality. To me, this poem feels as applicable today, in our current predicament, as it did in 1935.

Here I offer you this poem, both in its original Bangla (Bengali) form, and my English translation of it. This is my offering to the world culture from the culture of my birth. May we learn from the poet the humility of standing with our heads bowed at the door of all that is devalued and desecrated. May we have the courage to say, with deep integrity, "forgive me," as rampant violence and abuse of the gentler, softer, more feminine forms of being swirl around us.

 

Africa, by Rabindranath Tagore, translation by Sushmita Mukherjee

In that confused time in prehistory,
When the Creator, dissatisfied with himself,
Was repeatedly demolishing his nascent creation…
During that time of his repeated impatient head-shakes,
The arms of the violent ocean
Snatched you away from the bosom of the Eastern lands
Dear Africa.
And imprisoned you within the inner sanctum
of her massive trees, in the realm of the miserly light.
There, in your secluded leisure, you
were collecting the mysteries of the unfathomable.
Deciphering the oblique messages from the water, earth and sky;
The unseen magic of Nature
Was birthing new songs within your deep unconscious.
You were mocking the Terrible
In the guise of disregard,
You were trying to defeat Fear,
By giving yourself a despicable and frightening appearance,
Dancing to the beat of the drum of chaos.

Alas, O Lady clad in shadows!
Your human form remained inaccessible
To the confined vision of Ignorance.
They came, with their iron manacles,
Those whose nails were sharper than those of your wolves.
They came, the catchers of humans,
Whose pride made them blinder than your sun-forsaken forests.
The barbaric greed of the Civilized
Laid naked its own shameless inhumanity.
The forest paths, permeated with the steam from your wordless tears,
Were turned into a swamp – mingling the earth with your blood and your tears.
Under the spiked boots of those monster feet
That abhorrent clump of muddy earth
Left an immutable stamp on your history of disgrace.

Across the ocean, at that very moment,
In all their neighborhoods, their temple bells were tolling,
Morning and evening, proclaiming the glory of the God of Mercy.
Children were playing in their mothers’ laps;
The music of the Poet was rising up to the heavens,
In adoration of The Beautiful.

Today, at this impeding dusk on the Western sky,
When the air is stagnant in anticipation of a thunderstorm,
When the animals have come out from their hidden caves,
And are announcing the end of days with their inauspicious howls,
Come, O Poet of the End of Time,
In this fading light of dusk,
Stand at the door of this Shamed One,
And say, “Forgive me” –
Among all this raving violent speech,
Let this be the last sacred words of your great civilization.

Tagore's poem  Africa  in Bengali

Tagore's poem Africa in Bengali

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Jungian Analytic Psychology: a spirituality for the psychologically minded

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Jungian Analytic Psychology: a spirituality for the psychologically minded

Carl Jung and his concept of individuation

“Grapes want to turn into wine.” – Rumi

The line above could very well have been uttered by the Swiss psychiatrist and the father of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Jung believed that the basic tendency of the human soul (or psyche) is towards wholeness. This wholeness, or individuation, is understood as an increased integration of our so-called “good” qualities (i.e., the aspects that our ego identifies as “I”), with the dark or “bad” parts (the shadow; which the ego says are “not I”). Whatever shadow elements are still unintegrated in our psyche (i.e., not accepted as part of “I”) will have to be projected outside on other individuals, institutions and cultures. In Jungian understanding, this disowning and outward projection of parts that truly belong to us is what causes neurosis (“neuro”: to do with nerves; “osis”: abnormal condition). Thus, the goal of Jungian analytic psychology is an increased capacity to accept and integrate formerly disavowed parts of ourselves, and thereby to heal our neurosis and become individuated (i.e., undivided).

Self: our "God within"

Jung defined this larger container that includes both our light and our shadow as the Self, which can be understood as the “God within.” Based on his extensive research on a variety of religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Gnosticism and indigenous/animistic traditions, Jung was convinced that what he defined scientifically as the “drive toward individuation” was the same drive that mystics in all these traditions have described as the search for the divine, which in turn, is a journey to the center of our souls. In fact, it is Jung’s belief in the essential need for a spiritual quest as the only means to truly transcend suffering that lies at the root of the twelve-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all its following derivations.

Ideas of consciousness, the personal and collective unconscious, shadow and anima/animus

Jung’s concept of individuation can be more generally defined as psyche’s tendency to bring together pairs of opposites, and to hold them in dialectic tension (they both exist; neither is lost or “cured”). Whereas above I have described these opposites as light and shadow, they can be conceived of, just as well, as conscious and unconscious, or masculine and feminine. Typically, what we are conscious of is what is “ego-syntonic” (i.e., our ego is comfortable with identifying as “I”). The unconscious, in this scheme of understanding, can be divided into the “personal unconscious” (memories or tendencies that have been suppressed or repressed, because our ego cannot yet accept them as part of who we are), and the “collective unconscious,” which is a substratum of unconscious energies or drives (or “instincts”) that we all share as our common heritage of being human. Jung called these instinctual patterns that live in our collective unconscious as archetypes. Although their specific form may be culturally colored, we all share the same essential archetypes – some of the common ones being the hero, the mother, the wise man or woman, the trickster, the child etc. In this sense, both the Self and the Shadow, as described above, are archetypes of the collective unconscious; so are the basic imprint of our opposite gender in the form of anima (for men) and animus (for women).

Jung believed that the best way for us to access the various archetypes – for the purposes of integrating aspects of them into our concept of Self – is by means of studying their projections in daily life, but more potently, in world religion, mythology and folk tales, as well as in our individual dreams and fantasies.

Gods as archetypes

In order to understand Jungian spirituality, one approach would be to nominally equate the theological construct of “gods,” to the archetypes of collective unconscious. For example, in this scheme, Yahweh may be considered to be a representation of the Father archetype, and Durga would be a representation of the Mother archetype. For a cultural coloring on the archetypes, one may consider Mary, Durga, Kali, Kwan Yin and Gaia, as all archetypes of the Great Mother. Similarly, the Greek god, Hermes, as well as the animal, coyote, embody the Trickster archetype.

"Numinosity" as a quality of archetypes

In Jungian understanding, a spiritually potent archetype has “numinosity.” Numinosity is a complex word, whose definition varies substantially depending on usage. Derived from the Latin word “numen,” it means an image or symbol that has the power/presence/realization of divinity. In addition, Jung believed, like his contemporary, Rudolf Otto, that a numinous experience invokes a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a tendency to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel).

Thus, in Jungian analysis, the spiritual journey involves engaging with numinous archetypal images and working to integrate them into our sense of Self (i.e., our conception of the divinity within). The numinous archetypes may arise spontaneously in night dreams or fantasies (which may be facilitated by active imagination, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeys, spiritual practices typically involving repetitive and rhythmic movements such as whirling, drumming, “daven”-ing etc.), or may be drawn from religious or mythological stories and symbols.

What does "integration" of an archetype really mean?

It is important, however, to understand the idea of “integration” of these extremely potent numinous archetypes in a nuanced way. An archetype is an ultimately “unknowable” energy or instinctual pattern, which is met by our psyche in the form of symbols or images. Thus, for example, a complete merging with the archetype of Kali or Christ will cause an “inflation;” which is a “possessed,” psychotic state. In fact, such possession by archetypal energies is also often seen as a result of moving “too far, too fast” on certain religious paths such as Tantra or shamanism. The goal of Jungian spiritual journey is, for the lack of a better word, an integration of a paradox – “it and its opposite.” For example, if I can identify with Kali but also simultaneously with Kwan Yin, i.e., the feminine maternal energy both in her creative and destructive forms, I am less likely to become one-sided and thus destructive to myself or others. Another way that Jung and the later Jungians have understood integrating the numinous is to use yet another definition of the numinous as the “wholly other” (i.e., an image or symbol with whom one may relate, and as our work deepens, the “angle of relating” may change; but we never completely become one with that symbol). In this sense, the very process of a spiritual journey, that necessarily involves an engagement with the numinous, is a work that requires and depends upon our ability to hold a paradox – to embody completely the numinous energy by integrating it into the Self, while simultaneously relating to it as the “wholly other” (which Martin Buber famously described as the “I-Thou relationship”). We do neither one – solely; we do both. And that is the koan that Jungian spirituality leaves us with.

Image details: Carl Jung understood a mandala as a visual symbol for the Self. A mandala is a circle with no beginning and no end, but one that can nevertheless provide a container for all its constituent elements, which can be held within it in a I-thou dialectic. Jung encountered mandalas in many religious traditions, as well as in the artwork that he and many of his clients produced, as they moved ahead in their healing journeys. The above (computer-generated) mandala holds in dynamic tension pairs of symbols. Specifically, there are a total of four, or multiples of four, of each symbol, which invokes Jung’s powerful concept of the Quaternity as a symbol of completion. Jung understood the most powerful mandalas as representing “the squaring of a circle” (i.e., holding within a circle the most stable organization of pairs of opposites).

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Tensegrity: Where Cancer and Architecture Meet

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Tensegrity: Where Cancer and Architecture Meet

"I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe."
~ Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, in I Seem To Be a Verb

Sure, you’ve heard that regular stretching is good for maintaining muscle tone and flexibility – that it might even stave off ageing. But did you know that proper stretching of an individual cell is crucial for keeping it alive? In fact, if the cells get overcrowded and do not have enough room to stretch, they turn on “suicide programs” and just die. What’s more, there are some cells that will in fact live and even thrive in these congested environs… These are, of course, the universally dreaded cancer cells, which have lost all respect for normal social etiquette.

Professor Donald Ingber of Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital, Boston, has made it his life’s crusade to remind the biomedical research community, through rigorous documentation in system after system, that at the very minutest levels of cellular and tissue organization, we are not just bags of enzymes turned on and off by genes, but equally important, we are finely tuned and integrated micro-machines. Every cell, depending on its location and function, has a different composition of internal scaffolding, termed “cytoskeleton” (“cyto” for cell), which push, pull, anchor and stretch the cell in myriad ways, in response to extracellular as well as intracellular cues. In fact, this network, composed of a variety of cytoskeletal elements, is not unlike the tense strings of a well-tuned violin. From the development of an embryo into an adult organism with dedicated cells and tissues, to the growth of new blood vessels to nourish a nascent tumor, these micromechanical forces are constantly at play.

The concept of Tensegrity

As is so often the case with “outside the box” ideas, Dr. Ingber got his first inspiration not from a biology textbook, but rather, from the world of sculpture and architectural design, which have been his passions since he was a youth. It is while studying the work of a contemporary sculptor, Kenneth Snelson, as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1970s, that Dr. Ingber was first introduced to the concept of tensegrity (or tensional integrity). Tensegrity refers to structures whose integrity and stability are governed not by continuous compression or gravity (as in the case of our typical rectangular buildings or a stone arch), but rather, by a sustained balance between tension and compression. A tensegrity structure is mechanically stable not because of the strength of individual members, but because of how the entire structure distributes and balances mechanical stresses.

The concept of tensegrity as a building principle was first put forward by the maverick architect turned inventor and social activist, R. Buckminster Fuller. The grandson of a Unitarian minister, Buckminster Fuller was an early environmental activist. Very aware of the limited natural resources and the severe shortage of housing in poorer parts of the world, he searched for an architectural form suitable for building houses cheaply, with the minimum amount of material and maximum strength. He came up with the concept of geodesic domes. These almost spherical structures are made up of a framework of compression bearing struts, which are connected into triangles, pentagons or hexagons. Each of the struts is oriented so as to constrain the joints of the struts to a fixed position, thereby assuring stability of the whole structure. In nature, these types of structures are seen in icosahedral viruses, as well as the famous carbon 60 Buckminsterfullerenes or “bucky balls.” 

There is another, somewhat more complex class of tensegrity structures – called the pre-stressed structures. It is this form that large animal biology seems to prefer. According to Dr. Ingber, pre-stressed tensegrity structures (henceforth tensegrity structures) pervade biology at all levels – from individual cells, through to tissue and organ architecture, to the architecture of our whole body. The concept of this type of tensegrity is best illustrated by Snelson’s sculptures, including the famous “needle tower” – a 60 x 20 x 20 feet steel and aluminium affair, which is a permanent exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. These amazing sculptures, which often appear to float in space, are built with isolated steel bars, held together and suspended in space by high-tension cables. In these sculptures, all structural members are always in tension or compression, and it is this continuous transmission of tension and compression that holds the structures together. In the Snelson example, the rigid steel beams are compression-bearing “struts” that stretch, or tense, the tension-bearing cables. The cables, in turn, compress the beams.

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       The Needle Tower      by Kenneth Snelson, 1968 Aluminum & stainless steel 60 x 20 x 20 feet (18.2 x 6 x 6m) Collection: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C     Source: http://www.kennethsnelson.net/icons/scul.htm

The Needle Tower by Kenneth Snelson, 1968
Aluminum & stainless steel
60 x 20 x 20 feet (18.2 x 6 x 6m)
Collection: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C

Source: http://www.kennethsnelson.net/icons/scul.htm

Our bodies as works of art – cells, tissues and higher levels of organization as pre-stressed tensegrity networks

Our bodies have a very analogous situation, where our bones act like the struts and resist the pull of muscles, ligaments and tendons, and the shape stability (stiffness) of our bodies varies depending on the tone (pre-stress) in our muscles. Cells, again, show the same behavior on a microscopic scale. Here, the tensional forces are borne by the cytoskeletal elements – microfilaments and intermediate filaments; and these forces are balanced by the interconnected “fixed struts” – the intracellular microtubules and the extracellular matrix adhesions. Also, in a cell, individual filaments can change roles, going from tension-bearing members to compression-bearing rigid actin bundles, like the ones seen in the filopodia (points where cells make contact with the substrate and the extracellular matrix). Just like a soda straw model of a pre-stressed tensegrity structure, a cell can be flattened under external pressure, and then spring back to its almost spherical original form when the pressure is released. This is seen in many cells when they divide – they go from flattened substrate-attached forms to round “mitotic” forms and back. It is well known that one of the ways cells respond to their environment is through the so-called “stretch-sensitive” receptors and ion channels, which then initiate various intracellular signaling cascades.

Also, just like interconnected clusters of pre-stressed structures work as one continuous tensegrity network in Snelson’s sculpture (e.g., the “triple crown” in Kansas City, MO); so is the case of neighboring cells in a tissue, which exist in intimate cell-to-cell contact.

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       Tensegrity cell models      composed of sticks-and-strings.     From:    Tensegrity I. Cell structure and hierarchical systems biology      By       Donald E. Ingber      Journal of Cell Science     116, 1157-1173 (2003)

Tensegrity cell models composed of sticks-and-strings.
From: Tensegrity I. Cell structure and hierarchical systems biology
By Donald E. Ingber
Journal of Cell Science 116, 1157-1173 (2003)

Cancer as a breakdown of the tissue tensegrity network

Cancer research, as a field, seems to be going through a kind of identity crisis. Oncologists and surgeons often assess the presence of a solid tumor by “palpation,” i.e., by feeling for a change in the firmness, or the mechanical properties of an organ. Pathologists most often base their diagnoses on changes in tissue architecture, e.g., tissue looking more disorganized, cells of a certain type being in a place where they normally shouldn’t be, a breach in an otherwise continuous structure, such as the basement membrane, etc.

However, because of the sudden explosion of information (sequencing of the human genome), technology and reagents, almost all the emphasis in cancer causation has concentrated on the rather reductionist approach of looking at individual genes and proteins as causative agents of cancer. While individual oncogenes, suppressor genes and modifier genes are certainly important, what is not very clear is how it is all interconnected and regulated.

Each of our cells, at any given time and place, has essentially only one of four fates: quiescence, division, differentiation, or death. Thus, all the estimated 20 – 25,000 genes in the genome of each of our cells carry out actions that, in concert with surrounding and far-away cells, push that cell to one of these fates.

To what extent the concept of tensegrity, and specifically, the loss of interconnected pre-stressed structural units within tissue, plays a role in cancer causation still remains to be fully investigated. And of course, it is too early to say whether any interventions may be found in the future that address this architectural problem, as an additional approach to treat certain types of solid tumors.

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Dancing with Cancer

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Dancing with Cancer

On July 1, 2008, the renowned Indian classical dancer, Ananda Shankar Jayant, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ananda dances two major classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Both originated in Southern India, and equally emphasize the technical aspects of dance, as well as emotions and storytelling. They draw on popular myths and symbols to create elaborate and highly ornate dance routines. 

On that fateful day, Ananda decided that while she was going to follow all the recommendations of modern medicine, psychologically, she was going to give a higher priority to her dancer self, than to her cancer-patient identity. Over the next two years, while she went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted (Herceptin) therapy, she also pursued a therapy of her own. She danced. She performed, she taught - she engaged with the cancer raging in her body with the metaphoric energy of the Indian Goddess Durga. Durga, the myth says, was created by the combined energies of all the different Gods. In her ten or eighteen arms, depending on the particular version of the myth, are weapons that were given to her to vanquish the demon, Mahishasura - the buffalo-headed demon. As she engaged with her cancer, Ananda Shankar Jayant embodied this energy of the Goddess. In 2009, she presented a TED talk which features her dance as Durga (please see the video below) and an interview that describes her journey with cancer in her own words.

So, what exactly happened? Would she have responded to the medical treatment in any case, and this entire engagement with the Goddess energy was just a coincidence? A wishful thinking? Or was there more to it? Of course, as we like to say in the scientific circles, we will never know the answer, "because the control experiment cannot be done." Ananda herself credits much of the healing to her relationship with the ritual of dancing in general (she sees it as a form of deep, embodied prayer), and to her engagement with the Durga energy in particular. I leave you to make the final decision for yourself.

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