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Carl Jung

Mythic guidance for times when we are lost in the dark forest


Mythic guidance for times when we are lost in the dark forest

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

These are the words that open the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

Indeed, all of us, who have been around the block for a while, have encountered our own “forest dark.” Maybe more than once. And maybe for prolonged periods of time. Times when the “straightforward path” has been lost for us.

Typically, we encounter this dark forest at times of major life transitions. Although we may encounter the dark forest at any time in our life, there are some specific periods in life – times when we are about to leave a known way of being, and do not yet know how to be the next thing we are called to be – when we are most likely to enter the dark forest and be lost (for a time).

An example of a time when many of us enter these places of unclarity and unknowing is adolescence, when we are no longer a dependent child, but not yet a fully independent adult. Another such time is the proverbial “midlife,” when we may have accomplished many worldly things, but begin to chafe under the “persona,” (i.e., the “mask” we wear to tell the world who we are). It is ironic that it is the very persona that we had worked so hard in the first half of our lives to craft! And then of course there is that final transition, that twilight we approach when life begins to wane, and death’s shadow draws near.

These are times when we often feel confused, clouded, foggy… times when we are not sure how to proceed. Times when the “straightforward pathway” of an obvious next step does not stand out for us.

It is easy to lose heart at these times. It is easy to begin believing that life is always and forever going to be this muddy – this unclear.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has little patience with these dark, foggy, cloudy places. We want to diagnose these places as “depression,” or “lack of willpower,” and want to giddy up and gallop past the obstacle – if necessary, with the help of pharmaceuticals. Or, we (and those around us) give up hope, and accept ourselves as “a failure,” or “just mediocre,” with no unique spark that is our own.

The problem that really lies at the root of this quick diagnosis and attempted remediation is the fact that we, as a culture, have lost touch with the guiding myths that trace the long arc of a human lifetime.

Dark forest as a call to individuation

Instead of beating ourselves up, or mourning our bad luck (as if we are the only ones to ever encounter this dark forest), it might help us immensely to remind ourselves, and each other, that what we are encountering is in fact a known and well-marked spot on the map of the human territory – a spot that many before us have navigated.

Myths from diverse cultures across time and place, speak of this dark forest – this place with no clear way forward. Dante’s Divine Comedy is just one such story. The same story is encountered in a different garb in the Indian epic Ramayana – where the hero, Lord Rama, is banished from his rightful kingdom and into the forest, where he loses the two people he cherishes most – his beloved younger brother, and his wife. It is this loss that eventually sets into motion the rest of the story of Ramayana. Similar motifs show up again and again, in myth after myth, and fairy tale after fairy tale. Just think of poor young Snow White, abandoned in the middle of the forest at the behest of her evil stepmother (but also because of the kind-hearted huntsman who cannot bring himself to kill Snow White as ordered by his Queen)!

What we forget as we face our own dark forests is that without this loss of direction and clear path ahead, Dante would not meet Beatrice, Rama would not slay the demon king, Ravana, and Snow White would not be kissed out of her eternal sleep by the prince of real, lived life.

This dark forest is indeed an encounter with the end of a phase of life, and an invitation to enter another.

Carl Jung would have said – as we stand in this dark forest – that it is in fact a time to celebrate! For arrival at this dark forest may just be a sign that we have now completed the task at hand (childhood, active adulthood, or even this lifetime), and are on the verge of beginning our journey into the next adventure (adulthood, elderhood or ancestorhood). Finally, as we stand at this threshold, we are ready to embark on the voyage toward what Jung called “individuation.”

For Jung, individuation was about the integration of opposites – of no longer shoving things we didn’t like into the unconscious, and/or projecting it on to other people. Instead of seeing what we hate and pointing our finger at the abomination out there, we are encouraged to ask, “what is it that I am disowning in here?” In what way is the tyrant, the thief, and the murderer alive in me? Can I be a bit gentler with those that I disagree with? Can I walk the hard road of effort and failure and humiliation, instead of “stealing” the joy from others through my complaining or my envy? Whose hopes and dreams – and even future survival – am I murdering, by filling up the landfills and water bodies with unnecessary plastic that brings me momentary convenience at the cost of sustainability of our planet?

Another essential feature of individuation is becoming who we really are – at our very core! It is our journey to find and own and inhabit our unique selves. Until we enter the dark forest and lose the straight path ahead, we can be assured that we have been traveling the communal path, the path chosen for us by our family, our teachers, our institutions, our society. But as we enter this dark forest – we are finally confronted with the potential of our own unique selves. Our very own flavor, our very own color, our very own taste.

To the extent that we are able to then find our path out of this dark forest – through its many false turns and hidden snags and snares – we start to become truly ourselves. We let go of our persona, whose main goal is to fit in! We become who we truly are – and have always been – although we may not even have known it ourselves!

Admittedly – this finding one’s path out of the dark forest is no small matter. It is, in fact, an archetypal journey for our soul.

But as with all matters archetypal, help exists – only if we stop and look – and trust!

To quote the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell:

"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known ... We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Hermes: the patron God of travelers

In Greek mythology, Hermes is the God who lives at the thresholds, at the liminal spaces of between and betwixt. He is a patron God of all travelers – whether they be travelers from one place to another, or travelers between this world and the next (the latter role is described as that of the “psychopomp,” i.e., guide of souls from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead).

Hermes is a God of immense complexity and opposing qualities. He has been alternately described as the trickster, the thief or bandit, and the magician. He is depicted as a young God, and as the oldest of all Gods. His child with Aphrodite is Hermaphroditos – the original symbol of the unity of both genders.

The Jungian analyst and author, Murray Stein, in his essay, “Hermes and the Creation of Space,” describes Hermes so:

“Hermes as servant and messenger of the sky god Zeus, Hermes as swift and winged, Hermes as thief and bandit, Hermes as inventor of the pipes and lyre, Hermes as guide of souls and as god of dreams and sleep, Hermes as promoter of fertility among plants and animals and as patron of health, Hermes as god of good fortune, Hermes as patron of traffic and business activities on water and land.”

In ancient Greece, crossroads were marked with heaps of stone in honor of Hermes. In fact, the name Hermes derives from these stone heaps, which were called “herma.” Thus Hermes is “he of the stone heap.” These stone heaps at the crossroads reminded the wayfarer of the presence of divine guidance on the path. Upon arriving at a herma, the traveler would present offerings to propitiate this God of duality. For Hermes is known to have quick changes of mind! (Indeed, in later Roman times, Hermes transforms into Mercury – the God who is equated with quicksilver – neither solid nor liquid – and one of ever-changing hues!)

“Eccentricity:” a lesson we learn from our encounter with Hermes

So, we may ask, “how does Hermes serve as the patron God of the traveler – especially the one who is lost in the dark forest?”

Of course, there are as many answers to such a question as those who seek such an answer. Here is my version.

Hermes intercedes by inviting the lost traveler to let go of fixed positions, fixed identity, and fixed destination. As the dweller at the threshold, Hermes teaches the traveler – the seeker – to move away from the “center” – where things are clearly defined. At the town center, at the place where we know who we are – where we know our roles and professions and what is expected of us – we are unlikely to meet this God with his winged slippers and his unpredictable comings and goings.

Indeed, James Hillman, the post-Jungian thinker, writer, and beloved teacher of many, would often urge his students to stop being so obsessed about becoming “centered.” In his uniquely trickster-ish way, he would challenge his students to instead become more and more “eccentric” – to become their unique selves – rather than a culturally sanctioned cog in the wheel!

The intertwined snakes of Hermes’s caduceus

Hermes carries with him a staff along which rise two intertwined snakes. The caduceus is a symbol of bringing together and “integration” of opposites. Integration is not averaging, it is not about becoming mediocre. It is an invitation to bring together the light and the dark, the masculine and the feminine, the spirit and the soul, the earth and the sky. Indeed, it is the bringing together of life and death – of time and timelessness. It is a “compromise” in the original Latin sense of the word: “com” (with, or together) + “promittere” (to promise). Through the task of individuation, with the help of Hermes’s caduceus, we bring together the promise from two opposing realms – so we may inhabit both and disavow neither – and be able to dance between the two polarities. We become both the earth and sky, both fire and water, both male and female, both lover and beloved.

Discernment and revelation: a practical interpretation of the intertwined snakes

As we become ready to leave to center of the dark forest, we need to pick our path with care, and in consultation with the Gods. This is where we are invited to use the two opposing tools - as symbolized by the two serpents on the caduceus.

The first tool is one of thinking and perceiving, of staying present to what is arising in the moment. This is what has been called “discernment” in the spiritual literature. It is about paying exquisite attention to the choices in front of us, and choosing between them with intention and attention. Do I turn right or left at this fork? Do I rededicate my effort at my current job, or do I quit to follow a newly arisen passion? Do I move to the countryside and live a more monastic life, or do I jump into the sociopolitical fray with both feet?

But as we discern, we need to be equally aware of the presence and importance of the second tool: that of “revelation.” This is what the ancients called “fate,” from Latin “fatum,” meaning “that which has been spoken.” It was understood, of course, that it is the Gods that are doing the speaking. This idea is by no means a Western one alone. In Islam, there is the notion of “Maktoob,” an Arabic word meaning “that which is written.”

Sometimes, our fate is revealed to us with breathtaking intensity. We all know of people - maybe even ourselves - where one outside event has turned around the best-laid plans! Just as someone is contemplating this or that – weighing the pros and cons – separating pennies from dimes – they receive a medical diagnosis that grinds the whole machination to a halt! All the weighing and measuring and balancing are no longer of any use, once the Gods have spoken. When the Gods speak like this, all we can do is drop to our knees in front this immensity!

But we must also remember that not all revelations speak with the voice of thunder. Sometimes, the revelation could just be a simple smile from a stranger, a word on a billboard, or a symbol in an “ordinary” dream. Things that the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, delightfully calls “Sidewalk Oracles.” We must remain open to these omens and oracles that accompany us daily, if only we will listen.

Lila: when fate becomes destiny

The risk, once again, is of becoming too one-sided. We can get so caught up with discerning, that it becomes our next ego project. We can be zoomed in so close to the facts of our life that we lose all perspective. Then, we are deprived of divine grace, or if you prefer, blessings that come from our own souls. Equally, we may just sit around and wait helplessly for the next revelation, for “our ship to come in,” and thereby never embark on the journey out of the center of the dark forest.

But, when we wield Hermes’s caduceus – with discernment and revelation playing off each other – then life becomes an adventure. It does not guarantee a smooth passage or a lack of failure and suffering – but we finally feel that we are taking our fate – the words that the Gods have spoken for us, and transforming it into our “destiny” (Latin: “destinare,” meaning “to make firm, establish”). We are thus finally neither passive followers, nor heartless leaders, but co-creators with the divine will!

The Hindus call this way of being “Lila,” which means “divine play.” And the fruit of Lila is Ananda, or bliss.

May each of us have the courage to inhabit the Lila of our lives! And may we share our Ananda with all our fellow beings everywhere.


Creating an evolving life narrative: weaving and unweaving the tapestry


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)

Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples. (Date: 1864; Medium: oil on canvas)

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.


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


“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,

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,

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.


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


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.”


Befriending Time


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!


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


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.


Jungian Analytic Psychology: a spirituality for the psychologically minded


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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