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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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“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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