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

Last night I dreamed Roy Rogers died…

Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.

Me as Roy, probably age 4.

No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.

Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”

There is no way this ends well!

For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.

In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:

“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”

I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.

Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:

MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”

CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”

MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”

CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

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

Notes on Truth

George Washington and the cherry tree

One time when I was four or five and caught in a lie, my parents admonished me with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. I do not know if they thought the event really happened. I suspect they did, although historians have long known the story was invented by Washington biographer, Mason Weems.

Such stories are part of the fabric of the myth of American exceptionalism, and here I use the word “myth” as Joseph Campbell did. One of the four main functions of myth for Campbell was the sociological view,”supporting and validating a certain social order.” At their best, such myths can inspire us to greatness.

Many sociological fictions are not benign, which motivated Time Magazine’s current cover, and its cover story, “Can Trump Handle the Truth,” by Michael Scherer (Time, Apr. 3, 2017, pp 33-39).

Scherer says, “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.”

Except when it doesn’t…

As a sometimes writer of fiction, I remember a news report from the seventies, when “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a popular TV series. A five or six year old boy jumped off the roof of his home, believing that if he sustained serious injuries, he’d receive bionic limbs and implants like Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) in the series. The news report said the boy was in traction, but expected to make a full recovery. He discovered something our president and many politicians have yet to learn – that physical reality enforces it’s own truths.

The most important truths of life, truths of the spirit and truths of the heart, are non-material and non-visible, yet to enjoy them, we need to survive, and this involves understanding the truths and laws of a material universe:

If we jump off a roof, we’ll get hurt, and no one will spend six-million dollars to make us bionic.

Oil pipelines leak, and oil trains sometimes explode. Climate change is not a Chinese hoax. The US just killed at least 112 civilians in airstrikes in Mosul.

The man who used the “birther” lie to launch his career in politics does indeed seem incapable of appreciating the truth, and as a result, is propelling this nation, at breakneck speed, into the very “loss of greatness,” he promised to turn around.

The Soul’s Code by James Hillman

the soul's code

James Hillman (1926-2011), a prolific post-Jungian psychologist, thinker, and cultural critic, wrote more than 20 books, but The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (1997) is probably his best known work.

In a head-on attack upon the reductionist nature of both the nature and nurture camps of western developmental psychology, Hillman proposes a view of individual destiny based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Are we nothing but helpless products of our mothers in the first year of life or our luck-of-the-draw genetics? Or is there a deeper meaning to how we grow and unfold?

Hillman proposes an “acorn theory,” arguing that each acorn holds the pattern of the oak it may become, just as each soul that enters the world may bear a destiny shaped by intelligence rather than random chance: “what is lost in so many lives and what must be recovered [is] a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”

Hillman expounds his theory in a number of biographical sketches. He writes of Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of 20th century Spain. As a child, he was sickly and frail. “He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.” Then, at the age of 11, he became fascinated with bulls.

Current psychology theory would hold that Manolete chose a macho vocation to compensate for his mama’s-boy childhood. Hillman wonders if somewhere deep inside, was “the acorn” that realized his destiny was to face down charging, thousand pound bulls, including the one that gored him to death at age 30. Of course that was too frightening a vision for a boy of 8 or 9 to hold!  Of course he held tight to his mother!

Hillman also discusses the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the 20th century’s most influential women. As a child, Eleanor was “funny,” as well as “sullen, stubborn, spiteful, [and] sour…She lied; she stole, she threw antisocial tantrums in company.”

She lost her mother, a brother, and her “playboy father” before she was nine, but all the while carried on a vivid fantasy, “the realest thing in my life,” in which she lived with her father in a large household and traveled the world with him.

Psychotherapy would have regarded her fantasies as delusions and prescribed psychotropic medications to try to return her to normal. But what of the possibility that her visions meant something? What if her fantasies were “invented by her calling,” Hillman asks, and “were indeed more realistic in their orientation than her daily reality.”

“Imagination acted as a teacher, giving instruction for the large ministering tasks of caring for the welfare of a complex family, of a crippled husband, of the state of New York as the governor’s wife, the United States as its first lady, and even of the United Nations. Her fantasies of attending to “Father” were a preliminary praxis into which she could put her call, her huge devotion to the welfare of others.

Hillman is always provocative, inviting us to look deeper into, or “see through” the ideas that limit soul and it’s individual expression. Psychological literalism is often in his crosshairs, as when he says, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.”

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

The Soul’s Code is a challenging book, but valuable as it sheds new light on many unquestioned assumptions about development, the individual, and destiny that need to be questioned.

Another note on tricksters

Groucho

I want to argue a paradox…that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. – Lewis Hyde

It has always made sense to me that the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when times were hard for so many, gave birth to our great movie tricksters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges. Their send ups of the 1%, among other things, are still hilarious. Where are their equivalents today?

My self-imposed moratorium on negative blog themes has passed. As I caught up on news I had kept at arms length, I found myself thinking often of trickster stories. In part because they are funny, and most of the news is not. And partly because the folly of tricksters has a sacred dimension while the folly of our headline makers is often just foolish.  If you invite the Three Stooges to lunch and serve pie, the outcome is fairly certain. I read that the Georgia legislature voted to allow patrons to carry guns into bars; the result is likely to be just as predictable, but without the catharsis of laughter.

stooges pies

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde emphasized several key points:

1) Tricksters both make and violate boundaries and live in relationship to them. Where there are no boundaries, trickster creates them, as in several Native American creation myths where Coyote makes the land and separates it from the sea. Where there are cultural boundaries, tricksters blur or invert the distinctions: right and wrong, friend or foe, male or female, living or dead.

2) Tricksters are usually on the road, and this makes them outsiders.
Through most of human history, solitary travelers have been rare. Until the last century, most people lived and died close to the area where they were born. Nomadic people travelled as tribes or clans, but Hyde says trickster is “the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road of dusk,” who may pass through city and town but only to “enliven it with his mischief.”

charlie chaplin and dog

Hyde points out that although there is an abundance of clever women who know how to be deceptive in world mythology, they are seldom full-time tricksters. Once the evil is vanquished, the curse lifted, they tend to settle down. Coyote and Loki do not domesticate, and the older cultures who gave us these stories would have had trouble imagining a woman who opted for a solo life on the road.

3) Tricksters are liars and thieves, but they are not petty criminals.
Tricksters steal things like fire and cattle, and according to Hyde, are often honored as creators of civilization. “They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”

We cannot be too doctrinaire about these things, for there is a distinction between “large” stories, like creation myths, and “small” folktales, where trickster sometimes steals cattle for himself. When he does so, however, in tales like “The Little Peasant” from Grimm, it is usually a case of swindling a swindler, or people who are dishonest and greedy to start with.

For obvious reasons, trickster isn’t welcome in corporate boardrooms. Like Robin Hood, he is into redistribution of wealth. He’s the patron of whistle blowers everywhere, and will gladly gum up the machine when it is no longer serving the greater good.

Perhaps that is why we need him now more than ever. We don’t even have to do anything. Hermes travels as fast as thought. For good and for ill, trickster is already here.

Chaplin modern times

The wishing tree revisited

I spent a lot of time this week staring at a blank screen while trying to sum up two recent posts (No discouraging words 1 and 2). The ways in which thought/stories create reality is a massive topic. Not only has it been central to eastern thought for thousands of years, but I wrote several chapters along those lines in a master’s thesis in psych. So that particular screen is going to stay blank.

I did, however re-read one of my early posts where I discussed an Indian story that centers on the creative power of mind. The story itself provides a nice summary. “The Wish Fulfilling Tree” is recorded in Hindu scripture as a story Shiva told Parvati. I quoted a version written by Paramahansa Yogananda which I like for its clarity:

Embed from Getty Images

In their kindness toward spiritual seekers, the gods placed certain “wish fulfilling trees” in remote Himalayan regions so pilgrims could refresh themselves. Once a young man with mixed aspirations climbed to the heights in search of one of these trees. At last, out of food and seemingly out of luck, he spied a solitary tree at the center of a small valley, and hurried toward it.

Under it’s branches he wished for a meal, and instantly, servants appeared and set out a feast before him. After his hunger was satisfied, he wished for wine and music, and then dancing girls, and all of his thoughts materialized. Enjoying himself immensely, he wished for a castle, with fruit trees, fountains, and soldiers to defend it.

By then he was tired and sought out the lush master bedroom for a rest. As he closed his eyes, he noticed a jungle not far away and felt a prickling of danger. “There are no bars on the window to keep jungle beasts out. A tiger could easily leap into this room.” Sadly, that was the last thought he ever had.

In his commentary, Yogananda said everyone spends their life beneath a wish fulfilling tree. Fortunately, ours don’t work as fast as the one in the story, but in the end, inexorably, they manifest what we hold steady in our minds. The name of this tree is imagination, and it is important to realize its power and be mindful of how we use it. it.