Soul Notes #2: Flying a Sign

A friend who used to panhandle at freeway on ramps told me that “flying a sign” is slang for that activity. The signs are usually hand lettered on cardboard. This post concerns a man I’ve seen flying a different kind of sign.

Last July, when temperatures hovered near 100 degrees, I noticed a skinny guy in his early 30’s, with beard, jeans, backpack, and baseball hat, standing at one of the area’s busiest intersections.  His sign was larger than average, maybe 18″x24,” on a decent quality white board, although the lettering was crude. The sign read,

Nuclear invasion
Jesus saves
Sin no more

My first reaction was irritation – I have little patience with people arrogant enough to think they’ve got a handle on “the one true path.” I started seeing him almost daily, so it seemed he stood on that spot for hours. On days that were especially hot, he moved half a mile east, to the shade of a stand of oaks.

Curiosity overcame irritation. I figured he must be on some kind of public assistance, for he was out there too often to have a day job. If he had anything like independent means, he would have had a professionally lettered sign. I remembered a line from the poet, Theodore Roethke: “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” The sign bearer disappeared around the end of August. Now and then I wondered what happened.

Then, in a strange bit of synchronicity, on the day I posted the first of these Soul Notes, I stopped at a Starbucks on a different corner of his usual intersection, and out the window I thought I saw him holding a different sign as he sat on the bench at a bus stop. I could only see him from behind, and only a portion of his sign was visible, but it seemed different – well lettered, for one thing.

I finished my coffee and stopped at the restroom. As I came out, he passed me, carrying this new sign under his arm as he ducked into the other bathroom. I could only read the first line, “The Anti-Christ is Among Us,” and a portion of the second line, something about “One World Order.” I couldn’t see enough to tell whether he favored the idea or not, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to hang around and ask him after he came out.

Since that encounter, I’ve been mulling over a question. I believe that Soul connects us to meaning, passion, and calling, and also that Soul has a religion concern. If true, is this man expressing Soul, or something darker? After all, the Spanish Inquisition and countless religious wars have been perpetrated by people who found meaning, passion, calling, and religious concern in horrific acts.

My own opinion is that acts like proselytizing may be motivated by compassion or by the fear of hell, and although they may outwardly look the same, qualitatively, they are worlds apart. However, that doesn’t really answer my question.

I’m reminded of “the ability to distinguish between spirits” that St. Paul’s lists among “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” in 1 Co 12:9-10. Post Age of Reason western culture seems to be unique in disbelieving in “spirits,” although Jung reintroduced them in the guise of “archetypes.”

Regardless of what we call them, the essential point is that not all of our inner voices mean well for ourselves and others!

I believe that learning to distinguish between the spirits (or archetypes or voices) as best we can is an essential part of soul work, with serious implications for our own wellbeing and that of others!

The Hour of the Wolf

On Tuesday night, while I was watching the episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music that featured Hank Williams, my friend Randolph sent a text message about people who are up at 3 am – “writers, painters, poets, over thinkers, silent seekers and creative people.” He wondered if I was among them.

The answer is not very often, at least since the end of my misspent youth, but we can all feel that dark, haunted hour viscerally in the music of Hank Williams. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, for instance, has the feel of a shabby little room, lit by a bare lightbulb, at 3:00 am, reeking of stale cigarette smoke, when the whisky is gone and the liquor stores won’t reopen for a few more hours:

“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.”

Those times when I’m up and sleepless at 3:00 am I have always called “the hour of the wolf.” Google on the phrase and you mostly get reviews and analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film of that name – not one of the best from his surrealist phase, IMO, but the trailer offers a good definition of Hour of the Wolf: “The hours between night and dawn. The hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fears, when ghost and demons are most powerful, the hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”

In searching on the phrase, I discovered an earlier Hour of the Wolf post on this site, uploaded in July, 2012. In it, I quoted another good definition from the 1996 “Hour of the Wolf” episode of Babylon 5:

“Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? … It’s the time between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.”  – Michael J. Straczynski, writer, Babylonian Productions.

Any time I think of the Hour of the Wolf or 3:00 am, I think of Michael Ventura, a brilliant journalist, versed in Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, who co-wrote, with James Hillman, We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Ventura over the course of a weekend when he was a visiting lecturer when I was studying psychology. My thoroughly worn copy of his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA contains a number of early essays from the series, “Letters at 3am” that he wrote over several decades, first for the LA Weekly, which he cofounded, and later for the Austin Chronicle.

Ventura is nothing short of a visionary. In 1986, when he published Shadow Dancing, a time that many recall as one of the “good old days” eras of this country, Ventura saw something darker, more tumultuous in the shadows. The title of the introduction to Shadow Dancing, It’s 3 a.m. Twenty-Four Hours a Day, refers to the malaise that everyone has come to feel clearly in the 33 years since the book was published:

“…what you are doing – standing in the dark, full of conflicting emotions – isn’t that what the whole world is doing now?

…the world’s clock is at about 3 a.m. of the new day, the new civilization. For the new day doesn’t start at midnight. The new day starts in darkness. Right now it’s 3 a.m. in whatever we will call that period of human history that comes after A.D.

When your clock reads 3 a.m. it’s a time of separateness, of loneliness, of restlessness. Nothing on television, nothing in the newspaper, nothing much anywhere that suggests that our restlessness, felt so privately, is part of something huge, something alive all over the world…”

I find that to be a very powerful thought – at 3 a.m., the Hour of the Wolf, it isn’t really that personal anymore…

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 3: Soul in a Dark Time

Edvard Munch, “The Lonely Ones,” woodcut, 1899

“the darkness around us is deep.” – William Stafford, 1960

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.” – Theodore Roethke, 1963

“There’s a darkness at the edge of town.” – Bruce Springsteen, 1978

In a recent post I quoted Sri Daya Mata (Faye Wright), successor to Paramahansa Yogananda as president of Self-Realization Fellowship, describing a vision she had on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas in 1963:

“A huge black cloud suddenly swept over me, trying to engulf me. As it did so, I cried out to God…Through the practice of meditation, the all-knowing power of intuition develops in each one of us. I had intuitively understood what the Divine was telling me though this symbolic experience. It foretold a serious illness I was soon to undergo; and it also indicated that all mankind would face a very dark time during which the evil force would seek to engulf the world.

Daya Mata’s vision came to mind during the 2nd Democratic debate on July 30, when Marianne Williamson, a candidate I had initially dismissed as a lightweight, made the most pertinent observation of the evening:

“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in the country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Both the concept of world ages and that of dark forces are pertinent metaphors for something we sense – and most cultures have explicitly believed – there are forces greater than what we can see behind and within what unfolds in the visible world.

An especially important image for me, is Soul as James Hillman used the word, (as when we say someone or something “has soul”), and the parallel image of soul loss. This metaphor has grown in importance for me as I’ve recently read both Hillman’s and his colleague, Michael Meade’s speculations on what loss of soul can mean for an individual or culture: Continue reading

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 2 – Why Do We Fight?

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”

Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.

As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.

Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..” 

Arete means seeking to do what is right in every circumstance.
Continue reading

James Hillman on “The Soulless Society”

I often wonder what James Hillman (1926-2011), the most widely known post-Jungian thinker and someone whose work continues to inspire me, would make of our current times.

Yesterday I found a clear indication in this excerpt from an interview, published on youTube four months before he died of bone cancer. To me, this brief conversation ( just over seven minutes) is far more important to consider than any other message I’ve seen on the eve of our nation’s birthday. In it, Hillman says:

“Where are we now? What’s psychology worth now? I mean look at the world, look at the USA. Look at all the people who have taken psychology courses and look at the lack of psychology in our government and in our attitudes. I mean we haven’t a clue!

We go around the world as if there was no such thing as a psyche, no such thing as a soul. I mean we bomb and exploit and take and kill as if this had no effect on the soul of our own people, let alone other people…I’m worried about the soul of our country from the effects of what we do.” Remember – this was said in 2011.

Hillman’s was never a “comfortable” psychology, for he always aimed to help us “see through” our comfortable illusions, ever deeper into the often uncomfortable dynamics that underly what is visible on the surface of personal and national life.

Some of the comfortable illusions I would like to believe but cannot include ideas like:

  • Our problems began in 2016.
  • One man (or) one party is responsible.
  • We are better than this.

This last one I find to be the most harmful illusion of all, for it suggests there may be (relatively) straightforward fixes, as if we simply got off on the wrong freeway exit.

If we were better than this, it wouldn’t be happening!

And if we aspire to be better than this, Hillman would likely suggest we take a clear eyed a look at where we are, and how we got here, and what we can do now in service to Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World.

Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

His triple breasted chin,
arranged in folds upon his chest,
he blunts my life with a technicality.

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!