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

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

Your Own Damn Life: an interview with Michael Meade in The Sun

Michael Meade is an author, storyteller, and a passionate advocate of soul values in a world that increasingly ignores them; I’ve written about Meade or mentioned him in half a dozen posts.

In The Water of Life (revised, 2006) he shares his discovery that stories can be a matter of life and death.  As a teen in New York, when confronted by gang members from a rival neighborhood, Meade didn’t just lie his way out of serious injury or worse – he storied his way out, with an elaborate made-up tale that won over the assailants long enough for him to make his escape.  Readers of my recent posts will recognize a thriving trickster in Meade when he was just a kid!

I recently found an interview between Michael Meade and John Malkin in the The Sun that is as timely today, or more so, than in November, 2011, when it was published.  In the interview, “Your Own Damn Life,” Meade quotes an African proverb, “When death finds you, may it find you alive.”  Alive, he goes on to say, “means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live.”

In the past, meaningful stories could guide soul evolution, but now, with the culture and the natural world both in crisis, Meade points to our lack of coherent, guiding tales.  A culture falls apart, he says, when youthful imagination and energy are stunted and when the traditional wisdom of elders is forgotten.  At one extreme, “You’re not supposed to be worrying about the end of the world as a teenager; you’re supposed to be bringing your dream to it. The world seems old and troubled now, and the young are no longer allowed to be as young as they should be.”  At the other extreme, we have a lot of “olders” but not many wise “elders.”

When traditional stories collapse, Meade says, the guiding and healing stories must come from within.  “That means going to the core of your own life and finding the story seeded within.”  Meade has tried to facilitate such explorations through his writings and talks, which first became known in the 80’s when he, James Hillman, and Robert Bly hosted a series of men’s conferences.

Meade continues to teach, write, and offer a variety of community services through the non-profit Mosaic Foundation he founded in Seattle where he lives.  If you’ve read this far, you will find Meade’s interview in The Sun and the Mosaic page hightly rewarding and likely sources for new ideas.


Michael Meade on Genius

We all know what genius means in the modern sense of the word:  people like Einstein, Shakespeare, Leonardo, and Beethoven.  As far as I know, the image of the solitary genius, often suffering and at odds with the culture, is an artifact of the romantic era.  The word and original concept came from Rome, where it meant something else.

“In ancient Roman religion, the genius was the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing.  The rational powers and abilities of each and every human being were attributed to his soul, which was a genius.” Wikipedia.  

The Three Graces – Pompeii fresco

In his blog on the Huffington post, Michael Meade has started a series on genius that delves into this classical meaning. Meade says:

“Genius involves deeply subjective qualities and an inner pattern that marks each person as unique in some way and genius tries to leave that mark on the world. Since the genius in a person is ageless it can awaken at almost any age.”

He then adds,

“An old Greek word for happiness translates as having a satisfied genius. Recognizing and following the promptings of one’s inner-genius can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of life even if all else has been reduced to garbage and scraps.”

Michael Meade

In these terms, genius has little to do with most of our cultural assumptions about the word, like IQ, conventional success, or 15 minutes of fame.  It is more like what we mean when we speak of “marching to one’s own drummer.”

I invite everyone to read Meade’s post and watch for the next in his series which will focus on “the genius zone.”

The Wasteland

One of the books I treasure is a battered old trade paperback with yellowing pages.  I value the book,  Creative Mythology, because of the author’s inscription: “For Morgan with all my good wishes. Joseph Campbell, 3/13/79.”  


You could say Campbell’s  four day lecture series that spring did much to open the path my imagination has followed ever since.  None of the stories Campbell unpacked in his lectures or books affected me more than Parzifal (or Parsifal) and his quest for the holy grail. The version of the grail story Campbell recounts is by Wolfram Von Eshenbach (1170 – 1220).  Wolfram was a German knight and poet, and his Parzivalis regarded as one of the finest medieval German epics.  Campbell looks to this version because it’s roots reach deeper than later Christianized versions where only the pious and chaste Galahad can attain the grail.  What matters for this post are those echoes we can see in the tale of the ancient legends of sacred kingship, and the ways an unfit or weakened king can blight the land.

Wolfram Von Eshenbach from Codex Manasse

Sometimes in youth we receive a vision or powerful experience that shapes much of the rest of our lives.  So it is with Parzival who finds his way to the mystical Grail Castle and meets its wounded king, Anfortas,  who is also known as The Fisher King.  As a young knight, a spear pierced the Fisher King’s “thighs” – a euphemism for testicles according to Campbell.  In ancient times, the virility of the king and the fertility of the land were one.  In the grail stories, Fisher King could not be healed and couldn’t die.  All the realm was barren.

Robin Williams as the Fisher King in the 1991 movie of that name, a contemporary retelling of the story

While in the castle, during a mysterious ritual, Parzival has a vision of the grail, which is described as a stone, though its shape isn’t fixed, and it brings everyone “what their heart most desires.”  Though he is intensely curious, Parzival does not ask the meaning of what he sees.  In the morning, the castle is empty.  All traces of life are gone.  He rides away, and when he tells his story, listeners turn away in disgust.  If Parzival had asked the right question, he would have healed the king and restored the land.    The young knight wanders the blighted realm for 20 year, enduring hardships and contemplating his failure.  Just like us, he watches time turn his youthful dreams of glory to ashes.

“Parsifal” by Odilon Redon

At last, one cold Christmas Eve, Parzival encounters a hermit, tells his tale, and learns the question he should have asked. After that, he achieves the castle again.  When the ritual ends, Parzival asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”   Everything hinges on asking the right question.  Anfortas is healed, spring returns, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King.


Hearing this old tale, we have to ask how the story plays forward.  “Wasteland” clearly describes the state of the world we read about in the papers, and “impotent” seems an apt description of most of the world’s governments.  This perception is not even new, for T.S. Eliot named it ninety years ago in his poem, The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Giving mythical weight to our latest headlines, storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade says: “Like Parsifal, the modern world has awakened from a deep sleep to find that the castle of abundance has disappeared, that the financial markets are in ruins, that blind religious beliefs are once again producing mindless crusades, and that great nature itself threatens to become a barren wilderness. Like Parsifal, we failed to ask the right questions when surrounded by abundance.” From “Parsifal, the Pathless Path, and the Secret of Abundance,” first published in Parabola, Fall 2009.

This has happened before, again and again, Meade reminds us – beginnings and endings, decay and renewal.  The castle of abundance waits for us, individually and collectively, somewhere in the wilderness, but old pathways won’t take us there.  There’s a time to do as Parsifal did – drop the reins and let the horse, an image of our instinctive wisdom, pick its way through the forest. The old stories were told in the winter, when the nights were long and the fires warm.  This winter, I am drawn to look at some of these tales, to see what they are still whispering to our souls, for they are wiser than the daily ephemera that passes for wisdom but is really the source of our confusion.

As Michael Meade puts it: “Despite the current confusions of dogmatic religions and the literalism common to modern attitudes, the earthly world has always been a manifestation of the divine. Call it the Grail Castle, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, the Otherworld; it has many names and each is a representation of the eternal realm that secretly sustains the visible world. When time seems to be running out it is not simply more time that is needed, rather it is the touch of the eternal that can heal all time’s wounds and renew life from its source.”