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Dancing with fate and freedom

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Dancing with fate and freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twelve-step Serenity Prayer says it best:

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

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

Encountering Fate

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

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

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

At these times, we suffer.

But what is it that we are really suffering from?

The loss of myth and story in our times

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

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

Meeting the Fates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fate vs. Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

How do we embrace our fate? By practicing Amor Fati

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

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

So how do we love our Fate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollis continues:

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

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

Kairomancy: the dance partner of Amor Fati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Moss’s twelve rules of Kairomancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, a dance between Amor Fati and Kairomancy

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

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

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

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

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

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