One morning in the fall of 2021, as Mary and I walked the dogs in a nearby park, we turned a corner, and at the other end of a parking lot, saw several police cruisers pulled up next to a pickup truck with a camper shell. The area was cordoned off with caution tape. The pickup was there almost every morning, so although we had never seen or spoken to the owner, we assumed it was one of the homeless men who spend their nights in the park. We chose another path to continue our walk, and I remember thinking that it seemed like a lot of police to bust a guy for sleeping in his car.
The next day we learned the man had hanged himself from the tree next to his truck.
It’s impossible to grasp the full extent of suffering and the death toll of the pandemic years, and just as the world did after the 1918-19 pandemic, we seem hell bent on trying to act like things are back to normal, but out of all the statistical and personal losses, this man’s death continues to haunt me. Potentially, there was help nearby if he had been able to reach out. There’s a megachurch, with various outreach programs, visible from the place where he died. A twelve-step group met several days a week that year in the park near the spot where he parked. Other homeless people sometimes gathered in the evenings for company or to share a pizza, but this man he never seemed to have joined them.
Most of us know what it’s like to get stuck in a dark place, where there doesn’t seem to be any way out. Most of us might also agree that the culture, the nation, the world are in a parallel state. In earlier times, in shamanic cultures, “soul loss” was the diagnosis for conditions we now call Anxiety Disorders, Dissociative Disorders, PTSD, and in general, the feeling of being “outside oneself,” “beside oneself,” or “not all there.”
But what kind of soul is it that can be lost and found? This has been a world-wide concern of shamans, spiritual seekers, and poets for millennia and has resurfaced for modern psychotherapists like Carl Jung and James Hillman.
Soul eludes precise definition, though I suspect everyone has a sense of it. Somehow it relates to depth, to intensity, to vibrant experience. Contact with soul, for an individual or a group, involves a sense of connection to an inner wisdom, an inner compass, like touching “the still point in the turning world,” to borrow Eliot’s phrase. To be out of contact with soul was reflected in a line from Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
At the end of 2016, a lot of people in the Bay Area were upset by the election of Donald Trump. I was invited to a two day soul-retrieval ceremony in the Bon Tradition of Tibet, which dates back thousands of years and has shamanic roots. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a contemporary Bon meditation master, wrote that “In the context of the Bon soul-retrieval practice, the soul…is understood as the balance of the subtle energies and related qualities of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space.”
At the end of the second day, the presiding lama performed a traditional test of this ceremony’s success. The result was about 50% effective, and that’s what it felt like subjectively – nothing had really changed. I found the result disappointing though not surprising. The ceremony grew from indigenous roots, among a people who shared the same consensus reality, a condition that no longer exists in America, where it feels like our 20th worldview is gone and the future is not yet in sight. Also, regardless of our conscious beliefs, at deeper levels, we are steeped in the imagery of our native culture, and other iconography, no matter how attractive, remains more distant. As Garrison Keeler once quipped, “In Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutherans because it’s a Lutheran God they don’t believe in.”
Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Grail Legends, which became popular in Europe during the liminal time between the dissolution of the medieval world and the emergence of the Renaissance. The mysterious Grail, which could heal individuals, the kingdom, and the land, was something mystical, sometimes imagined as the cup of the last supper, and at other times, as a stone, like the philosopher’s stone of alchemy. A key feature for Campbell was that every seeker of the Grail had to enter the wilderness alone.
In the Grail stories, a single hero (in some versions, Galahad, in others, Parsifal) finds the sacred object which redeems the kingdom and the king. No single hero or culture or nation can solve the issues as complex as those which confront the entire planet during our time of cultural dissolution. Solutions that seemed to work in the past are the very source of the problems that face us now.
Like it or not, every individual now living has the choice of clinging to nostalgic fantasies of an imagined idillic past, or of looking within to see what our individual soul and the soul of the world need from us now. The time of the winter solstice and the New Year is conducive to such reflections. “Peace and an hour’s time” are needed for creativity, according to photographer, Edward Weston, though he admitted that neither are easy to attain. How to get there is worth reflection as the new year dawns, and worth considering in the new year at greater length here.
Meanwhile I wish you all Happy New Year, with peace and time to enjoy it.