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Creating an evolving life narrative: weaving and unweaving the tapestry

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Creating an evolving life narrative: weaving and unweaving the tapestry

It is common wisdom that healing comes from creating a coherent narrative about our lives. Getting to know our story. Clarifying our story. “Integrating” myriad life experiences into a “whole.” Owning our story. It all seems to make eminent sense, and is a mainstay of many healing and therapeutic modalities.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, more and more, whether “owning our story” could also be a problem. I see a fine line between accepting who we are, and “getting married to our story.” The latter results in rigidity, dogmatism, and a frozen stance in front of life.

Recently, I was at a conference entitled “Displacements – Inner and Outer.” The focus of the conference was on the international refugee crisis. Organized by the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in collaboration with the New School, the conference pondered the “story” of mass migration. What is the inner and the outer experience of those who are being displaced, against their will, from what they consider their “home?” And what is the experience of those in recipient countries who experience their “home” being “invaded” by the “Other?” As different speakers addressed the problem from their specific vantage points, a set of questions arose. “In any social, political or environmental crisis that leads to mass migration, is there always one unique story?” For example, how does a given story look from the vantage of a refugee, an aid worker, a political activist and a nationalist? And if indeed there are multiple versions of the story, whose story is “correct?” Can there be multiple versions of a story that are equally valid? And if so, how can we, as society, hold the different strands of the story as representing different facets of a larger “truth,” instead of fixating on who is right and who is wrong?

At this conference, one of the speakers was a very charismatic young author, Maaza Mengiste. Maaza, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia, and now lives in the USA, is the author of the award-winning debut novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.” The novel is a gripping portrayal of a “normal” middle-class family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the early 1970s, and how fates of the members of this family become intertwined with the fate of their country in the throes of political, social and environmental collapse.

At the end of the conference, there was a panel discussion, and Maaza was reflecting from her experience as an author of fiction. She said something that felt spot-on for me.

She said that when she is contemplating a character for a book, or an essay, there are many possibilities… many ways in which that character could unfold. Many directions the “story” can go. But once the story is written down and published, one of these possibilities is chosen, foreclosing all other possibilities! She said that she was very aware of this tension, and was currently playing with the strategy of using “or” in her writings. This character could do this. Or, this character could do that. The two will result is strikingly different stories. Could one narrative hold both possibilities?

Since the conference, I have been sitting with this idea of multiple stories, and the risks of becoming “fixed” in a story – from a spiritual and psychological perspective.

On one hand, all of us who pay attention to the psyche know that the psyche likes to weave myriad threads of experience into a tapestry. In some ways, that is the function of the psyche. It is our “meaning making organ.”

And many of us know the sensual pleasure we feel when disparate ideas floating in our heads finally “fall into place.” When they make a story that “holds together!”

How do we then work with Maaza’s “or” in our lived lives?

The myth of Penelope

A myth that comes to mind is from Homer's epic poem, Odyssey. It is the story of Penelope, the wife of the story’s hero, Odysseus. In the story, Odysseus is gone for two decades – a decade of the Trojan war followed by another decade of his return journey to Ithaca. As time passes, people start believing that Odysseus is either dead, or is never planning to return to Ithaca. There are many suitors to want Penelope’s hand in marriage. But Penelope is still in love with Odysseus and believes in her heart that he will return. So, she develops a ploy to ward off the increasingly amorous suitors. A well-known weaver, she puts out the word that she would consider marriage with one of the suitors, but only after she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, who is grieving over Odysseus's long absence. She sits at her loom all day, weaving. But every night, she goes to the loom in secret, and unweaves what was woven during the day.

Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples. (Date: 1864; Medium: oil on canvas) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Roddam_Spencer_Stanhope_Penelope.jpg

Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples. (Date: 1864; Medium: oil on canvas)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Roddam_Spencer_Stanhope_Penelope.jpg

Although this myth is ostensibly about Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus (her “one story”), for our purposes, what is relevant is the image of the tapestry she is weaving by day, and unweaving by night. A tapestry that is ever-incomplete, and thus, ever-evolving. And the courage that is needed to unweave what is woven.

How might it look like in our lives if we took this metaphor to heart, as a psychospiritual practice?

Weaving and unweaving as a spiritual practice

Initially, when we just begin on a psychospiritual journey, we begin by pulling together the scattered threads of our life, to create a narrative. A story that fits. A story that is large enough to accommodate “all of me.” It is the time of integration, of weaving.

Indeed, it is essential that we first accomplish this task. Carl Jung would have called this task – of generating a coherent narrative of who we are – the task of the first half of our lives. It is the task of “ego consolidation.”

But, then, there comes a point in our lives, when the “story” we created begins to limit who we are. There are desires and drives our soul uncovers that do not fit our story. Elements we thought were essential ingredients of our story fall away. At such a time, we really have two choices in front of us. Either we consciously unweave the tapestry that we have woven up until then, or we become, in Joseph Campbell’s delightful language, “a stuffed shirt!” We then live a petrified life of outer order, but a life with no juice, no fire!

Unweaving requires ritual

Unweaving a story that we have woven with so much care, so much effort, over so much time – is not trivial. If weaving is integration, then unweaving is indeed dis-integration. It is untangling. It is incinerating what is no longer alive.

And we must remember that sitting with unwoven threads - of not knowing what is to arise from this chaos - and when - is terrifying! We need to acknowledge, and indeed, “accompany” our terror into this as-yet-unkown psychic landscape.

Before we can do this letting go authentically - we need to honor our story. We need to mourn it appropriately. We need to speak our story. Write our story. Sing, dance, act or in some way meaningful to us, “sacrifice” our story. Remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from old Latin sacer (meaning “sacred, holy”) and faciō (meaning “do, make”). Thus, when we tend the fire of our grief, our fear, and maybe even our rage, at the passing of a beloved story - we make it sacred. We make it holy. We surrender. We sacrifice our story into the care of the Divine.

This is precisely what a ritual is designed to achieve.

Tibetan sand mandalas – a ritual honoring impermanence of all things

Many of us are familiar with the Tibetan sand mandalas – those intricate designs that are created with tremendous effort and dedication by a group of monks – only to be destroyed once it is created. In the Hindu and Tibetan worldview, a mandala is considered a “yantra,” literally meaning “a machine.” It is a machine, a device, that helps us focus our meditation.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, popularized mandalas in the West, as a symbol of wholeness. But what may be harder for the Western mind to contemplate is that “wholeness” is not static. It is not a thing of beauty to be created and then hung on the wall to be contemplated. Many mandalas – both permanent and temporary ones – serve as tools to meditate both on creation and on destruction (“pralaya”). The Tibetan sand mandalas are a poignant demonstration of this knowing that all things – however beautiful and “whole” – must end in chaos. That death is in the very nature of what is alive.

What a ritual does is to contain both the synthesis and the chaos within a container that makes the entire experience sacred. Below is a clip from a Werner Herzog documentary entitled "Wheel of Time," which shows construction and destruction of a sand Mandala, presided over by the Dalai Lama. Note how the “destruction” happens in a highly reverential ceremony – indeed, a ceremony with a gravitas appropriate to the act of destruction. Also, once the mandala is dismantled, every grain of sand is collected, and then released into a body of flowing water, so it may carry the “merit” or the blessings of the work to all beings everywhere.

Weaving and unweaving the tapestries of our lives

Those of us who have been around the block for some time know how often strands of our stories come to an end. A loved one dies. A cherished job is lost. A lover cheats. Relationships fray and break. A child does the one thing we hoped and prayed they would never do. We all know how easy it is for us in those situations to cling to what was. To try to repair what is irreversibly broken. And even if we eventually accept the break, we continue to blame the other, or ourselves, or both. “If only…” is the common refrain of our lament.

Or suddenly in mid-life, we are struck with a new fascination. A new draw. Maybe towards spirituality. Or toward making art. Or some other “unproductive” venture. Maybe it is just that we enjoy looking out the window – watching the formation of migrating birds in the sky… when our ego tells us we should be “focusing on work!”

What if at those moments, we could allow the tapestry that we had woven until that point to unweave? To sit with the disentangled threads – and really grieve the beauty that once was? To sit in the not knowing of what comes next.

It is clear that we would need a safe container to do this unweaving. Whether it is a friendship, or a mentorship, or a therapeutic or counseling relationship – or the presence of our beloved community in whatever form we define it… It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the container is. But it matters that there is a container. There is a safety of walls surrounding and protecting us as we unweave our tapestry.

And equally important, we need to make sure that we have all the help and support we need to reweave the tapestry – maybe creating a new and different and richer story – when we are ready. Because if we stay with unwoven threads forever – it would lead to an ineffectual life at best, and psychosis at worst.

So, weaving and unweaving the tapestry is necessary for us to live a truly meaningful life – a life where we are able to respond to the changing calls of our soul – to change and grow and expand (and when necessary, collapse). To do this well, we need to develop inner practices of spaciousness, as well as outer community – so we may be able to engage in this dance of weaving and unweaving safely. This is what the Buddhist psychologist, Mark Epstein, calls “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.”

May we all be able to experience the ecstasy (and the necessary heartbreak) of this weaving and unweaving of the tapestry of our lives. May we have the strength and the courage to respond to new calls and release what is no longer alive in us.

And may we hold each other tenderly as we dance this dance… together.

Heartfelt thanks to my beloved teacher and mentor, David Wallace, for reminding me of the myth of Penelope at an opportune moment.

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Befriending Time

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Befriending Time

Who among us has not, at least on occasion, looked at a clock and felt a sense of dread? Heard the approaching footsteps of the inevitable? The clock in those moments feels cruel, uncaring – tick-tocking away merrily – with complete disregard to our terror of the impending end… of a life, a career, a love… or just the end of a work deadline! We quake in our proverbial boots, as we watch those moving hands of doom, or choose to look away and pretend it is not happening…

It may be safe to say that we live under the tyranny of Time.

More precisely, though, what we live under the tyranny of is what we perceive as the inevitability of the linear progression of time - from birth to death, from beginning to end, without us having much input into how, and how fast, it progresses.

We live under the tyranny of the clock and the calendar.

But, it was not always so. And it is still not so in many indigenous cultures today.

Time was circular before it became linear

To our ancestors, before the advent of modern technology and lifestyle, time likely felt quite different from how it feels to us today. Time, back then, was less linear. The sun came up, only to go down, and come up again the next day. The tides rose and fell. The seasons came, and went, only to come again. Animals had babies, the adults grew older, the adults died, the babies grew into adults, had babies, and the cycle continued. Same with people. We humans, before becoming “civilized,” lived in the “round” with other beings. We experienced time as circular rather than linear.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice

This deep intuition, about time being circular, was most likely present in our far ancestors, as evidenced by megalithic stone circles all over Northern Europe and Great Britain, some of which date back to the Neolithic times. Many of these, such as the famous Stonehenge, were laid out precisely such that specific stones and structures would be illuminated at sunrise or sunset at the solstices and the equinoxes. Such precision is very unlikely to be purely coincidental.

The ouroboros

The ouroboros

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Kalachakra sand mandala constructed by Tibetan artist, Lobsang Samten

Both Gnostic and Hermetic alchemical traditions speak of the ouroboros (or uroboros)  as a symbol of eternity. The symbol represents a serpent (or a dragon) eating its own tail, and refers to a circular notion of time and existence. It illustrates poignantly the worldview: "what was at the beginning is also at the end." 

This reverence for circular time is still seen in almost every indigenous culture. Most Native American tribes utilize some variation of the Medicine Wheel as a central symbol and tool for spiritual practice. We are all familiar with the circular Navajo sand paintings. Mandalas – again circular paintings – whether temporary or more permanent, constitute a central device (a yantra) in the spiritual practice of many Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. In fact, a very important teaching in the Tibetan tantric path is called Kalachakra, meaning the “Wheel of Time.” The Kalachakra is the basis of an entire tradition, the so-called Kalachakra tantra.

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

The Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (formerly known as the Bighorn Medicine Wheel)

A brief history of time in the West

Plato (427 – 347 BCE) understood time as divinely meaningful – a result of mathematical harmonies derived from the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. Interestingly, it is this movement of the celestial bodies that lie at the root of music theory – as musica universalis (universal music), also known as the “song of the spheres.” Plato also understood this dance of the seven heavenly bodies as happening in relation to an eighth supraplanetary sphere – the Aion (or Aeon; in American English, eon) – who can be understood as the God of Eternity.

Thus, for the ancients, time was divine, and it was meaningful.

This understanding continued in the writings of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), who differed from Plato in many respects, but still believed time to have a telos, i.e., a purpose. Thus for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground not because it was divinely ordained (thus disagreeing with Plato), but still, for Aristotle, the apple fell to the ground because it was the apple’s purpose to fall to the ground. The apple, in Aristotle’s scheme, had an intimate relationship with the earth, which made it fall to the earth, instead of, say, rising up to the sky.

This sense of time as circular, and purposive, lasted many centuries. It was not until the time of Galileo (1564 – 1642), and later Newton (1643 – 1727), that our conception of time changed drastically. Now, we were taught that time was in fact linear, and followed unalterable mechanical laws. From then on, the apple did not fall to the ground because the earth was its natural home, nor because it was ordained to do so by a divinity; it fell thus because of the purely secular laws of gravity.

With these mechanical laws, we moved firmly into the domain of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. 

From Plato and Aristotle to Galileo and Newton, Time (or more correctly, our conception thereof) moved from the realm of Aion (eternal time) to the realm of Chronos (linear clock time).

The Gods of Time in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, one encounters Time in three different forms. Or, if we want to use mythopoetic language, we can say that different types of time were under the dominion of different Gods.

Let us now briefly meet these Gods.

1.       Chronos: From the Greek word Chronos comes our word “chronic.” Chronos is “Father Time,” seen astrologically as the planet Saturn with all those rings (limitations, rules) around it. Mythology of Chronos is complex and many-layered. Chronos is often conflated (and with good reason) with the Titan Chronus, who was Zeus’s father. Chronus's claim to fame is that he ate up all his children as soon as they were born – in order to hold back (in Time) a prophecy that he would die by the hands of one of his offsprings! Chronos represents linear time – with a past, present and future – a time officiated by the clock and the calendar. It is our “consensus time,” which provides us social cues. Interestingly, though, our concept of second and minute, of months and years, quickly falls apart as soon as we leave planet Earth!

2.       Kairos: Kairos, for the Greeks, represented another divinity who also has to do with time, but this is a very different kind of time. Kairos represents the "right, critical or opportune time." It is the time when something can be done, or done well. For example, in archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos is the moment when the shuttle can be passed through threads on the loom. Kairos is also an alternate spelling of the Greek deity Caerus, the God of luck and opportunity. Thus, whereas Chronos time is linear and quantitative, Kairos is qualitative, and may be understood as “time out of time.” Here is a beautiful obeisance to the God Kairos by the poet, William Blake:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

3.       Aion: Aion is yet another Greek deity associated with time, but this time representing the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the entire zodiac. Aionic time is unbounded, and may be best understood as eternity. To my knowledge, the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave one of the best definitions of eternity (although he did not use the name Aion when he talked about this idea of time):

“Eternity isn't some later time. Eternity isn't even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off.... the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.”

Synchronicity: an effort to understand the experience of nonlinear time in lived life

In recent times, Carl Jung was instrumental in reimagining time in a manner much more akin to the ancient Greeks. Granted, we live in Chronos time. But every once in a while, as if by magic, another type of time seems to fall into our experience of time. Jung was specifically interested in what he called synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences." Synchronicity occurs when events occur with no causal relationship (you can't demonstrate a linear cause, leading to an effect), yet seem to be meaningfully related. An example would be dreaming about an event that later comes to pass, but the dreamer could not have predicted the event from the information available to them at the time of the dream.

Jung was brought to an intimation of the presence of such mixing of times by his own dreams, as well as those of his patients. Here is an excerpt from Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that describes a series of dreams he had that presaged World War I, without him having any way of knowing that a world catastrophe of such magnitude was just about to unfold:

"In October (1913), while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.

Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.

In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd...

On August 1 the world war (World War I) broke out."

Although almost everyone experiences such events (albeit most often on a smaller scale) at some point in their lives, synchronicity is a notoriously difficult concept to define using our common logical language (logos). Jung struggled for many decades to find an expression that would describe its essence, without him being dismissed as a romantic or a mystic by his scientific colleagues (he was deeply invested in his identity as a scientist and a doctor). The best he could come up with, as a definition of synchronicity, was an "acausal connecting principle," which of course does not make things any clearer! Many people have further elaborated and amplified on this idea, including the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, who has coined the term "kairomancy" to describe a practice of navigating life by being attentive to, and taking advantage of, synchronistic events. 

Synchronicity (and kairomancy) is a vast subject area, and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this post. I hope to speak more to this subject in a future post.

Time in other cultures

Most ancient cultures, when looked at mythologically, have ideas of time that differ significantly from our current linear, mechanical and chronic conception of time.

The Universe as Vishnu’s dream

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

Vishnu (with his consort Lakshmi) sleeping on the serpent Adishesha, with Brahma meditating on a lotus growing out of Vishmu's navel, thus creating time

In Hindu mythology, what we know as manifest Universe, is seen as the dream of Vishnu. Vishnu lies asleep on the serpent Adisesha Ananta (Timeless Time, without beginning or end). Adishesha floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar (the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness). From the navel of the sleeping Vishnu grows out a lotus, on which sits a Brahma – the creator of the Universe! Brahma sits on the lotus of the world in meditation. Every time he opens his eyes, a world comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the world is annihilated. He opens his eyes, another Universe comes into being. This happens for many millennia. Then, the lotus retracts. A new lotus blooms, on which sits a new Brahma, opening and closing his eyes...

What a different concept of time from one where we rush about to meet deadlines by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month!

Kali (Kālī), Kaal or Kālá, and the tantric concept of SpaceTime

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

Kali, our Mother, who is both primordial Darkness and Time

The name of the Hindu Goddess Kali has two meanings: one who is Dark (black), and one who is Time. She is not one or the other, she is both. She is the womb and the tomb. Both are places of undifferentiated SpaceTime. The darkness refers to a primordial condition – before space and time separate – before they separate for each of us at birth, and collapse again as we breathe out for the last time. Kali is thus the fullness of time and space – or Space pregnant with Time – or maybe Time pregnant with Space!

A name for the God of death, Yama, is also Kaal or Kālá. He is the keeper of time and timelessness. In this understanding, Kali, as the feminine manifestation, is understood as the changing aspect of time – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

 

Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal concept of Time

Francis Gillen (1855- 1912), an Australian anthropologist and ethnologist, coined the term “Dreamtime” to understand the religio-cultural worldview attributed to Australian Aboriginal beliefs. This idea of “dreamtime” or “dreaming” is a complex one, and is so different from the Western conception of time that it cannot be properly translated, and still maintain its original meaning. I have done some reading on the Dreaming, but certainly not enough to write anything comprehensive at this time. Thus, rather than give incorrect information brimming with cultural colonial bias, I offer you another word, also coined by Gillen, to try and capture this conception of time that cannot be neatly divided into past, present and future. That word is “Everywhen.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in the journal, Australian Psychiatry, written in 2003 by Aleksandar Janca, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia:

“The Aboriginal view of time differs from the JudeoChristian linear approach in a number of ways. For Aboriginal people, time is multidimensional and can be described: ‘as a pond you can swim through – up, down, around’. The same notion can also be illustrated as follows: ‘Time is around you at every moment. You can’t pull time apart or separate it – in the abstract or when talking about it – from living, nor can it be viewed as purely functional groups of seconds, minutes and hours’."

Time contains no innate or inherent importance as such to an Aboriginal person; it is not adhered to and rarely directs an Aboriginal person but rather works for the person, family or community. In general, the units of time are not part of discrete or absolute systems, but are specific, concrete and contextual to what is being measured. The extraction of time from the environmental system as a whole is a foreign notion to most Aboriginal people, even to those who work and live within mainstream Australian society.”

Rather than trying to understand what an Australian aborigine might mean by the equivalent of the word "Everywhen" in their language and through their worldview, for our purposes here, it may be more useful for us to meditate on that word might mean for ourselves – in our daily lived lives. What if we, living our lives in “Chronic time,” can take a break – every once in a while – to sample the experience of being in the EveryWhen? How might our lives, and the experience of living, change as a consequence?

The Sacred Pause: an access ramp to Kairos (and/or the Everywhen)?

Contemporary Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, offers us a tool that may help us change our experience of time, and especially, the tyranny of time. She calls it the “Sacred Pause.” Here is the Sacred Pause described in her own words:

“In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.”

Using the language of the Greeks, we can say that the practice of Sacred Pause can create a pathway for Kairos to enter into our unmitigated experience of Chronos. Or, we can say that the Sacred Pause may offer us an experience of being in the Everywhen. This may be experienced as an easing of "time pressure," and/or a renewed sense of freedom and joy!

An afterthought

Just as a last teaser... look closely at the image of Chronos above (in the section about the Greek deities of Time). Do you notice what the old patriarch is up to? He is chopping off the wings of Cupid, the God of desire and newborn lust for life! This indeed is our fate if we let our lives be ruled by Chronos and Chronos alone. To live a meaningful life, we need to drink deeply from the well of Kairos, at least from time to time. And as we deepen our spiritual lives, if we are lucky, we learn to trust that we are indeed held within the overarching circle of Aion!

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

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

My intention for this post

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

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

A primer on the Chakra system

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

Here is a brief description of the seven chakras:

The seven chakras

The seven chakras

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first three chakras: basic ego consolidation

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

The fourth chakra: the center of our being

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

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

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

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

Engaging the “upper chakras”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

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

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

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

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

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

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