The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Path through the Woodland Garden

“For me beauty is the primary proof of the existence of God. Beauty is sublime, transcendent, and fulfilling. It takes us to the very edge of our capacity for knowledge…The world considered without its beauty is a world perceived without its God.” – Thomas Moore

“You must protest, you must protest, it is your diamond duty; ah but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

James Hillman often railed against psychology’s “medicinal complex.” He looked to Greece and the Renaissance for inspiration as he championed a psychology of soul, image, and eros, in which “the primary value is beauty,” (A Blue Fire). A lack of beauty is pathological, he said, both in the lives of individuals and cultures. I thought of this often during this seemingly unending summer, with its record heat, smoke from another disastrous fire season, and a resurgent pandemic, set against a backdrop of too much traffic, too many angry drivers, and too many miles of billboards and decaying strip malls. For those, and other reasons, in mid-September, we set out for the coast, which we hadn’t visited since 2018.

Begonia Pavillion

Two days before we left, the temperature hit 106, so the 60 degree days alone would have made the trip worthwhile, but there was more than just a preview of fall in Fort Bragg, where we hadn’t stayed before. There were independent restaurants, coffee shops, a marine museum and the Skunk Train terminal, in the “downtown” area along the coastal highway. A few blocks away, wide streets and and quiet neighborhoods invited evening walks in glow of the coastal evening light. But the real surprise and most inspiring feature of the trip was the Mendocino County Botanical Gardens, just a few miles south of Fort Bragg www.gardenbythe sea.org.

We spent portions of two days at the gardens, which was only enough time to begin to explore, but that didn’t really matter. When a place mirrors the landscape of the soul, feeling like home on a deep level, it’s enough to just be there, and rest, and pay attention, letting the sense of presence arise.

“The flowers had the look of flowers that are looked at.” – T.S. Eliot

In the Dahlia Garden

Multiple paths meander through multiple groves, gardens, and open spaces, opening onto new vistas a every turn. Huge old trees bend and twist as if synchronized to the smaller plants that surround the trunks.

I’ve always enjoyed Japanese gardens, which blend the natural world with design and draw us into stillness. Here, there’s a wildness at the center of the garden designs, like an echo of the wildness of the ocean. The result is to draw us into wonder.

Memorial benches border the paths, with small plaques given by families of people who loved or supported or worked on these gardens. What a wonderful tribute that seems as one sits, surrounded by the beauty of the place they helped to create!

“The soul is born in beauty and feeds on beauty, requires beauty for its life.” – James Hillman

It rained the second day we went to the gardens, but everyone there seemed to enjoy it, both those who live on the coast and those, like us, visiting from inland. The clouds and rain added an extra shimmer to the foliage.

These gardens are an inspiring place to visit if you get a chance to visit the Mendocino coast. They brought to mind at least one similar feature near home that I haven’t explored in some time, and must get back to. Tt was also rewarding to pot several of the succulents we brought home. Just a small thing, but nothing that feeds the soul is ever too small.

At Year’s End

Winter sun and shadow on the back fence

A week or so ago, at noon, I was sitting on the back porch, gazing at the sky. I was dressed warmly for it was 50 degrees and windy, which is cold if you live in a hot climate. Suddenly – and this made no sense – I heard the distinctive jingle of an ice cream truck. Stephen King came to mind, and I imagined a truck full of killer clowns. It has been that kind of year.

King himself has tweeted that nothing he’s written is as scary as 2020 has been. To be precise, he said nothing he’s written “is as frightening as the current administration,” which is to state more clearly what has made America the epicenter of many of the horrors the world has endured this year.

My father was born exactly 100 years ago, on December 31, 1920. As I sat on the porch this afternoon, on another chilly day, I was thankful that he didn’t live to see this year. Then a pleasant memory came to mind. Continue reading

The Social Dilemma: A Movie Review.

The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:

What is your history with social media?

I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.

When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides. Continue reading

A Contemplation of Heroes, Toilet Paper, John Wayne, and John Ford.

Paramahansa Yogananda told a story of two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, who were neighbors during the violence that preceded Indian independence in the late 1940’s. Food was scarce due to rioting, but the mother of the Hindu family got hold of a bag of rice. When she realized her neighbors had nothing to eat, she took half the rice to the Muslim family before lighting her own stove. When we were young, many of us aspired to that kind of heroism. Now we hoard toilet paper.

In all fairness, this is a manufactured crisis, driven by our online yellow press with so many pictures of empty paper good shelves that anyone paying attention might conclude that they better get some extra. But the TP story brings up one of our culture’s major living room elephants – our worship of individualism. Me first. I gotta be me. Do your own thing.

When I studied counseling psychology, we had a unit on “cross-cultural differences,” to learn not to project our biases onto people from other cultures or sub-cultures where identity rests as much on family and community membership as it does on our northern European focus on individuation. Without such training, we would have been ready to put labels like “enmeshed” and “codependent” on anyone who didn’t regard “self-development” as the pinnacle of psychological development.

Fun Fact: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, the bible of mental health or its lack in our culture grew out of a study commissioned by the Marine Corps after WWI. They sought a personality test to filter out those who were most at risk of shell shock. In other words, our mental health norms in this country  are based on the attributes of a good combat soldier. Think about that for a while… Continue reading

James Hillman – on Changing the Object of our Desire

Watching this video in which Hillman so clearly shines a light on the core issues of so many of our current crises, it is hard to realize he left us 2011. It makes what so often passes for journalism and analysis of events seem trivial…

Soul Notes 5: From a Nobel Laureate in Literature

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 7, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk, born January 29, 1962 in Sulechów, Poland, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She received her prize this year, and yesterday, delivered her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm.

All who have been following these Soul Notes will appreciate what she has to say, for her eye and heart register mysteries in places and situations we often take for granted. In tuning the radio in her childhood home, she says, “I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.”

She tells how an old photograph of her mother led her to find find within herself, “something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.” Later she she says more about what she means by tenderness. “Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.”

I was especially struck by this passage in which she captures the difficulty of trying to describe today’s world and possible futures with an earlier era’s language and imagery, which are proving inadequate to the task:

“Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.”

Phrased in that manner, the simple effort to imagine and speak of where we find ourselves today becomes a soul issue. As her mother told her, just as we often miss things that are gone, it’s possible to miss things that haven’t arrived yet.

This is a dense lecture, filled with wise observation and speculation, that I expect to read again and again.

Soul Notes #3: A Dog’s Life

Seven years ago today, we lost Holly, our second dog. She was 16 1/2, which objectively, is a good long life, but when it’s your dog, it’s never long enough. She was about two in this picture. At that time, I’d get up around 5:30, do some stretches, and spend about 20 minutes in the meditation room before getting breakfast for myself and the dogs.

One morning I found Holly sitting in my chair, gazing at the altar. She looked over her shoulder at me, with a “Yes, may I help you?” expression before turning back to her object of contemplation. I thought of the incident this year, when a Tibetan lama mentioned an old saying that many dogs will be reborn as humans, and a lot of humans will be dogs in their next life. It all has to do with having a good heart…

One other notable thing about Holly was her love of water. One time Mary and I were walking her by a stream in Yosemite, talking as she stopped for a drink. After a splash we looked down to see her paddling about with delight.

On her first visit to the ocean, she insisted on playing tag with the waves and letting them win:

Mary and Holly, Bandon, OR, ca. 2000

In honor of Holly, here is an article I posted in 2013, called Dreaming With Animals. The pictures and text are just the barest glimpse of how deeply intwined with Soul the animals are, all the more so now that most of them have been banished from our lives.

Soul Notes: #1

Art as the Mirror of All Nature, Matthaus Merian the Elder, 1617. Numerous Jungians have used this engraving as an image of “Anima Mundi,” the World Soul.

Last summer, after writing on soul and soul loss, I said I’d have more to say about these subjects, but I was stymied by an underlying assumption that such a weighty subject requires a weighty post, or realistically, weighty tomes, such as the writings of Jung and Hillman, who took soul and psyche (they used the terms interchangeably) as their central concern.

Google on “soul,” and you get two billion hits. “Soul loss” returns 213 million. Soul has been a central concern of humans and their ancestors for millennia. The earliest known burial with evidence of rites “that one might characterize as religious”(1), is a 300,000 year old Neanderthal tomb!

So how do you begin to talk about soul in a blog post?

Eventually, two realizations emerged.

The first was that if blogging doesn’t support weighty tomes, it is perfect for writing notes, a valid and necessary form.

The second, and even more important realization was that no one needs to be introduced to the concept of soul, for they already have one. I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this post has an idea of soul – it’s one of those terms like “angel” or “demon” – even those who don’t believe in angels or souls or demons have an idea of what it is that they don’t believe in.

So I figure I pretty much get to do what I usually do here – “think out loud,” in this case on the notion of soul, without any expectation that my ideas may or should match anyone else’s, though I suspect we think alike about many things connected to soul ( True or False – The music of B.B. King has soul? ).

I’m speaking of something in each of us, something we feel but cannot define, which carries supreme importance and value. No matter how badly I may have screwed up this day, this month, this year, this life, if I am in touch Soul, there remains something precious within something within me of value. Soul carries a sense of what’s holy. According to James Hillman, soul is intimately connected with love, religion, beauty, and mortality.

I take the position of Jung and Hillman, that soul, aka psyche, resides in the imaginal world, between the physical realm, which is apparent, and the spiritual, which is beyond our senses and ordinary conceptions. Jung said, “The psyche creates reality every day.” Hillman added, “To be in soul is to experience the fantasy in all realities and the basic reality of fantasy.” (2)

Soul carries meaning and purpose and keeps us energized when we’re on the right path. It is present at moments of great beauty, joy, or loss, and is always a part of any “peak experience.”

T.S. Eliot said:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

So this is what I am going to reflect on here for a while, and we will see where it goes. The obvious question is “Why now?”

I suspect the answer has to do with the belief of many indigenous cultures, that soul can be lost by individuals and groups, but that it also has the possibility of being retrieved. Enough said…