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

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

The mystic quest for oneness with the divine

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

This is the final goal of the quest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deity Yoga in Vajrayana Tantra

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

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

Weaving what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the risk of psychological inflation in such practices?

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

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

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

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

The answer lies in our angle of relating to an archetype

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra:

“Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”

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

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

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

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

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

It is the same with psychological inflation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

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

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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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