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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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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

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

The dream vignette

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

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

Some of the most significant dream images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the salt

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

So, what is salt?

The common salt

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

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

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

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

So, what is really so common about salt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alchemical Salt: the fulcrum between sulfur and mercury

Cinnabar crystals

Cinnabar crystals

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, according to Pythagoras:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much salt

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

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

Returning now to the dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is the message of this dream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Sources:

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

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

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

Mandala - viriditas

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

Mandala as a tool for finding wholeness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viriditas: The medicine of the green container

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

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

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

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

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

The shadow side of green

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

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

Red: Green’s fiery complement

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

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

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

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

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

Blue: the threshold guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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