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Divine Comedy

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

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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.

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

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

My intention for this post

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

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

A primer on the Chakra system

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

Here is a brief description of the seven chakras:

The seven chakras

The seven chakras

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first three chakras: basic ego consolidation

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

The fourth chakra: the center of our being

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

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

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

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

Engaging the “upper chakras”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

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

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

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

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

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

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