A change coming

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Arthur Hughes, 1870, public domain.

I’ve been enjoying the recording of a discussion at a conference with James Hillman and Michael Meade on literal, psychological, and mythological modes of understanding.

Hillman, a former director of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, has been the most prolific and influential of post-Jungian thinkers. He spent his life as champion of psyche, soul, and imagination in a world that has too few such champions. Hillman took particular aim at literalism, which he called “an idol that forgets it is an image and believes itself a God, taking itself metaphysically, seriously, damned to fulfill its task of coagulating the many into singleness of meaning which we call facts, data, problems, realities.” (Revisioning Psychology).

When I think of literalism, I recall the last lines of a poem a brilliant young poet I knew wrote about his high school principal:

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

Hillman also takes aim at much psychological thinking in books like The Soul’s Code. In this conference, he points to the 20th c. understanding that “The Gods now live in the psyche,” as a core statement of one of our greatest collective problems: the world and nature have lost their connection to the divine, and as such, are ripe for exploitation by greedy men who have traded their souls for profit. If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Ronald Reagan famously said when he was California’s governor.

Michael Meade noted that one of the hallmarks of myth is a sense of abundance. The current miasma of scarcity thinking – that there isn’t enough to go around, so you better get yours while you can – is a clear indication, if we need it, that we have no myth, no shared stories of who we are as a people. Continue reading

The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading

What would James Hillman say about all this?

James Hillman (1926-2011)

James Hillman, a genius in the field of psychology, is largely unknown to the general public. Only one of his many books, The Soul’s Code (1997), is widely known, and only because Oprah featured it. Hillman’s long time friend and editor, Thomas Moore, wrote a tribute and summary of his life after his death in October, 2011. Moore said, “Jame’s books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.”

Hillman, who was, for a time, director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, founded “Archetypal Psychology,” an extension of Jung’s thought, centered on the poetic, imaginal basis of psyche or soul: “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all. Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.”

He criticized most 20th century psychologies as materialistic and literal, giving no space to soul. With journalist, Michael Ventura, he co-authored We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World Is Getting Worse (1992). He was vehement in his condemnation of the exclusive “inward” bent of most psychotherapies, which deprive the world of our outrage and our energy. He gave the example of a man who works eight or ten hours a day at a meaningless job, at an ugly, uncomfortable desk, under flickering florescent lights. When he goes to a therapist for relief from depression, he’s likely to be asked how he got along with his mother… Continue reading

The Summer of Love, Repression, and Stuff.

USA. Washington DC. Seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir, confronts the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo gave birth to our nation, and has been part of our heritage every since. Fifty years ago this summer, this undercurrent burst into the loud and colorful limelight as 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury with mottos like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

I was a high school kid in San Jose, wearing torn jeans and love beads, reading the literature of discontent by authors such as Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, and Nathanial West. After Saturday excursions to the head shops on Haight Street, with their incense and posters of Lakshmi and Ganesh, I bought a copy Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I still have, and one which, fifty years later, I more or less understand, because doing so became one of the core priorities of my life.

“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” sang Grace Slick, and in the explosion of new music, art, literature, and the ideas of change embodied in The Whole Earth Catalog, there was a sense of expansion, a sense that we could stop the war, and we could leave the world of ticky-tacky houses, and create a nation where Peace and Freedom would reign as supreme values.

We didn’t understand our own shadows. We didn’t knew that Charles Manson was roaming the Haight during the summer of ’67, winning friends and influencing people with techniques he had learned from Dale Carnegie’s book, which he studied in prison. We didn’t know that “Do your own thing” was a double-edged sword, and that we would see bitter fruits of that motto fifty summers later.

*****

When I turned 40 in 1990, I was halfway through a Masters program in Psychology, which I’d entered in part because in the wake of the Summer of Love, I’d discovered Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Tolkien, and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. And also because, the ethos of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” doesn’t really work very well.

Yet when in that course of study, we came to look at the psyche’s defense mechanisms, most of us thought repression was a bad thing, inhibiting self-expression and individuation. I gotta do my own thing, man!

“Don’t be so fast to put down repression” said the instructor. “It’s one of the glues that holds a culture together.”

I’ve thought of this statement many times since then, never more so than when I read a woman’s letter to the editor in the local paper sometime in the mid-nineties, reporting on an incident she’d seen at a local multiplex. For whatever reason, no one was behind the concession counter, so some of the patrons clambered over the counter, help themselves to popcorn and drinks and then dash into the theaters.

That’s not quite what we meant by “Do Your Own Thing,” but it’s a pretty telling, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of snapshot of the kind of societal breakdown parading through our streets this summer.

One of the four major functions of a living myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is “the sociological function,” which teaches us the norms of living together. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Other roles are more dicey – gender and class roles for instance. These get rigid as times change, and are then modified by pioneers or movements, or in extreme cases, by revolutions if leaders are really stupid and tell their starving masses to eat cake.

Perhaps with enough acts of popcorn theft, large and small, because we feel entitled and we want what we want and we want it now – perhaps the kind of president we have was inevitable. Sooner or later, just as inevitably, he’ll go.

What will we do then? Will we be sickened enough by current events to turn in another direction together? What does a culture do when it’s fragmented by so many contradictory stories that Campbell’s sociological function of myth has completely broken down? What will it take to restore a genuine sense of “us” in our national life, a sense that we’re all in this together? The most obvious and frightening answer is a shared disaster.

Ironic to realize that the youthful idealism that brought us the Summer of Love, and two years later, the high water mark at Woodstock, carried the seeds of its own demise, partly because of the self-righteous sense of “us and them” that still drives our national life. And yet, it is profoundly valuable to review those youthful ideals, that sense of a better world within reach. Without such dreams, we are left with little better to do than rail at each other on social media.

“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “It’s going to be a long time gone.” It will come around again, sooner or later, but the question is, how long a time will that be?

Notes from 2017 – What is your innermost truth?

truth-2

I  started this post several days ago – in what now seems like a galaxy far away – with something different in mind. My title is paraphrases a question asked by Zen priest, Edward Espe Brown, at a retreat in 2011: “What is your innermost request?”

In the context of the retreat, I took his question to mean, “What is the deepest desire at the deepest core of your being?”  The word, “request,” implies not just desire, need, want, but something akin to prayer. What do we want our lives to be about? What would it take , when our time comes to leave this world, to exit with a sense of peace, victory, satisfaction?

I mean the same kind of thing with, “innermost truth.”  Not just beliefs, ideas, concepts, deductions, or any of the contents of consciousness, for they inevitably change. How many beliefs, ideas, concepts, and so on do you hold from this time a year ago, let alone 10 years ago, 20, or from childhood? What do you know more deeply than emotion and reason both?  Jack Kornfield, in A Path With Heart described this as something you know so deeply that if Buddha and Jesus both said, “You’re wrong,” you would answer, “I am not!”

It’s not an easy question, and there is no simple answer, but it has never been more essential to look to our truths, try to clarify and hold them close over time.

Knowing what we truly believe is an anchor, a center, a “know thyself” tactic at a time when the new president and his minions are trying to normalize lies as “alternate facts.”

The day will come when telling “a Spicer” is a synonym for “telling a whopper,” but until that happens, we need to guard our sense of right and wrong, true and false, as the greatest safeguards we have against the fascist administration that now occupies the White House.

voltaire

Notes from 2017: Six ways to be miserable (and one way to be happy).

Public Doman

Public Doman

The following aphorisms on traits to avoid were written by Patrul Rinpoche, a 19th c. Tibetan master. A contemporary Tibetan lama, Phakchok Rinpoche, gave a teaching on the text that was printed in Tricycle in January, 2016. Here are the aphorisms:

The proud will never be pleased.

The jealous will never be happy.

The greedy will never be satisfied.

The hateful will never be reconciled.

The stingy will never have enough.

The ignorant will never accomplish.

By contrast, here is what the Dalai Lama advised to cultivate happiness and wellbeing:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

My Fulfillment Package

retro-1310353_640

The voice on a recent robo-call, in the masculine-but-chirpy tone of a game show host, said, “Hi, this is Tod, here to tell you your fulfillment package is ready! Having just come from the meditation room, I wondered what kind of fulfillment Tod was selling. “Stay on the line for details on how to get your medical alert package.” I hung up.

We all know Big Data is watching our every keystroke, and that “secure information” is an oxymoron, but although “they” may have accurately placed me in the medical alert demographic, they don’t understand my idea of fulfillment.  Or do they?

Every “positive psychology” poll I’ve ever seen on the key factors of happiness lists “good health” as most important, so perhaps Tod wasn’t that far off.  Or so you might think, unless you’d seen the third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which lists the flip-side of happiness, things that get in the way of fulfillment. The top fear, listed by 60.5% of the 1511 Americans surveyed was, “Corruption of government officials.”

Understandable, especially this year, but it also tells me that the survey is skewed toward a young demographic. Trust me, when you get old enough to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s, the things you fear change dramatically. Plus, I’m cynical enough to believe that “corrupt government official” is usually redundant – like speaking of “wealthy millionaires.” (There are 383 of those in Congress, by the way).

Here are the results of the survey:

  • Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015) — 60.6%
  • Terrorist attacks — 41%
  • Not having enough money for the future — 39.9%
  • Being a victim of terror — 38.5%
  • Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition — 38.5%
  • People I love dying — 38.1%
  • Economic or financial collapse — 37.5%
  • Identity theft — 37.1%
  • People I love becoming seriously ill — 35.9%
  • The Affordable Health Care Act/”Obamacare” — 35.5%

Interesting to note that by a small percentage, more of us fear losing our guns than losing our loved ones.  Nope, not my fulfillment package.

However, fear of clowns didn’t make the top ten, so perhaps we can let Stephen King off the hook….

The medium is…

Republican debate

“The medium is the message”, said Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 1964. Fifty-one years later, I’m still not certain we understand media, but a light bulb went on for me Thursday night regarding McLuhan’s iconic phrase. While watching the Republican presidential debate, I had a minor epiphany; that television cannot help transforming politics into entertainment.  

I am not suggesting that either party has a monopoly on show business.  Yes, the Republicans are likely to be funnier this year, with their Jerry Springer moments, and The Donald, who’s public persona is a weird combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles.  I expect the Democrats to be far less interesting, more like infomercials on the home shopping channel.

There’s nothing new about politics as entertainment. If we believe television and movie depictions of pre-television and movie campaigns, there was plenty of bunting, and bluster, and brass bands in “the good old days.” But every now and then, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see something real happen on political TV?

The last time I saw reality break through was during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.  The Democrats had barred one of my heroes, the late Senator Robert Byrd, from the podium. Byrd could not be trusted to stay on script. Massachusetts Senator Kennedy invited Byrd to speak at the Old North Church, where Paul Revere worshipped, and his address was broadcast on Democracy Now. Byrd held up his well-worn pocket copy of the US Constitution and warned us that it was under attack…

Politics, of course, is not the only thing that TV flattens out. I recall several surreal moments with TV news. One early evening in college days, when I was living in an off-campus house, my roomies and I were watching a shoot out on Mod Squad on an old black and white TV. I went to the kitchen to fix a sandwich, and when I returned, the shootout had grown more intense; the house where the bad guys were hiding was on fire. But it looked different.  “Did somebody change the channel?” I asked.

“Nah, man,” said a house mate. “The news cut in. The cops are having a shootout with those guys who kidnapped Patty Hearst.” The visceral difference between watching a fictional versus a non-fiction firefight on TV was nonexistent without the dialog or voice over!

In a very real sense, that’s simply the nature of things according to both western depth psychology and Buddhist psychology. Every experience we have, noted James Hillman, begins as an event in the psyche. And Buddhist thinkers will tell you that our so-called realities are far more like the dreams we have at night than most of us dare to believe. Yet, as a practical matter, in order to make the right decisions, we have to be able to tell them apart, and that means turning a critical eye on the stuff we see on television.

I have recommended it before, but as we begin another presidential election mini-series, I can think of no better guidebook than Neal Gabler’s Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, 2000.  In it, he says:

“the deliberate application of the techniques of theater to politics, religion, education, literature, commerce, warfare, crime, everything, has converted them into branches of show business, where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.”

Unless we choose to live with the wolves, we’re going to be part of that audience, but at least we can remember that wonderful Buddhist bumper sticker:  “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”