On this day a hundred years ago

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” – Otto von Bismarck, 1888.

“To have to go to war on account of tiresome Serbia beggars belief.” – Queen Mary of England, August, 1914.

By all accounts, the summer of 1914 in Europe was the sweetest anyone could remember. To many, it seemed like the new century had ushered in an era of prosperity and peace. Everywhere, the middle classes were growing. Globalization was the order of the day. There hadn’t been a continental war in 50 years, and you could travel the world without a passport.

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

Below the idyllic surface, a storm was brewing. At the beginning, as at the end of the 20th century, the Balkans were the least stable region in Europe. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia from the Turks, whose influence was waning. Nationalistic fervor ran high through the region, and the Bosnian Serbs longed to reunite with the nation of Serbia. During the last weeks of June, 1914, six young Serbian men, members of The Black Hand, a radical nationalist group, slipped into Sarajevo with the intention of killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on his scheduled visit to Bosnia. By a strange coincidence, five of the six would-be assassins were tubercular teenagers, including, Gavrilo Princip, 19, whose ambition was to die as a martyr.

On the morning of June 28, the six positioned themselves along the route Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, would travel by motorcade. The first assassin hurled a pocket bomb at the Archduke’s car, but the driver, alerted by the detonation of the bomb’s percussion cap, accelerated and the device exploded under a following car, injuring two other passengers. The motorcade rushed past three more assassins who did nothing; when they were captured, two made excuses while the third confessed that he’d lost his nerve.

After a speech at the city hall, Franz Ferdinand announced his intention to cancel the rest of the parade and go to the hospital to visit the two wounded men. Unfortunately, no one told the driver of the change in plans. He continued along the original route, past another assassin who did nothing.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28.  Public domain.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28. Public domain.

When the driver was finally alerted to his mistake, he stopped the car to turn it around – by a fateful coincidence, just five feet away from the sixth assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Princip fired two shots, hitting the Archduke in the throat and Sophie in the abdomen. “It is nothing, it is nothing,” Franz Ferdinand said. An hour later, he and his wife were dead.

Initially, the assassination caused little stir in the capitals of Europe – it was all too common in the early years of the century. In the previous two decades, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay, and the Dominical Republic had been assassinated, as had Prime Ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt. So had kings, queens and empresses of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece (source: A World Undone by G.J. Meyer).

No one went to war over assassinations. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, did not even like his nephew, Franz Ferdinand, who had become the heir after his own son committed suicide. The emperor seemed almost relieved that the Archduke was gone. First the nephew had defied his uncle by marrying Sophie, who, as “mere” countess, was not of a suitable rank to be wife of a head of state. Even more onerous, the Archduke espoused progressive ideas which his uncle, born in 1830, could not tolerate.

While the rest of the world and the Emperor himself moved on, other high ranking officials within the Austro-Hungarian government sought to exploit the assassination, as an excuse to punish Serbia. By the turn of the century, Austria-Hungary was a second-rate Empire in decline, economically, militarily, and in the eyes of the other western powers. Field Marshal Franz Conrad was convinced that the empire could only recover its standings by asserting itself in the Balkans, beginning with ending the “Serbian problem,” which ideally meant, ending Serbia itself. He had proposed war against Serbia 25 times in 1913.

Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, was a wealthy, pleasure loving aristocrat who owned a racing stable and was famous as a ladies man. “He was also widely regarded as weak, lazy, frivolous and unreliable,” according to G.J. Meyer. Knowing he needed to boost his reputation, he too saw war on Serbia as an opportunity. In Meyer’s words, he had become dangerous – “a weak man, determined to appear strong.”

Conrad and Berchtold drafted a 10 point ultimatum so strict they were sure the Serbs would reject it. For a number of reasons – internal wrangling as well as external political considerations – the ultimatum was not delivered until 25 days after the assassination, when its connection to the event had grown even more tenuous.

Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, had been led to expect a milder response. Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, flew into a rage. “You are setting fire to Europe!” he told the Austrian ambassador. Advisors told the Tsar that failure to help their Slavic brothers in Serbia might trigger a revolution.

After almost a month of quiet following the Archduke’s assassination, the crisis burst upon all the nations of Europe. Forty-eight hours after receiving the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia announced it could not accept all of the demands. Diplomatic relations were severed, and both countries began to mobilize. Adding to the chaos at the end of July, “mobilization” meant different things in different countries.

In Russia, the process took weeks. Thousands of peasant reservists had to be notified, some living hundreds of miles from the nearest railroad. In sharp contrast, German mobilization was based on “the Schlieffen Plan,” which assumed the nation would face a war on two fronts. Mobilization meant war, with a lightning attack to the west, designed to defeat France in 40 days so the armies could turn east to face Russia. Frantic last moment diplomacy failed. Persuaded of the necessity by the military, Kaiser Wilhelm gave the order to proceed. On August 2, German troops crossed into Luxembourg, and the shooting began.

Fired by nationalism and 19th century ideas of honor and glory, young men in all the combatant nations flooded recruiting centers. French troops, boarding trains for the front, called, “A bientot” (“See you soon.”) to those who waved from the platform.

Not everyone was so sanguine. On August 3, after Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary stood at his window as dusk fell and the lamps were lit. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

If we think of the current chaos in the middle east – the use of poison gas and the crumbling of national boundaries that were drawn in the wake of the first world war – we have to say that the lights have still not come back on…

Guarding the mind

guard mind 1

One summer when I was working in high-tech, I had the following experience for several weeks: I’d leave the house, enjoying the fine weather. After a pleasant enough commute, I’d grab some coffee at the cafe, greet co-workers who were doing the same, and then find myself, when I arrived at my cubicle, in a foul mood, angry, and/or depressed.

Finally, I began to notice the almost subliminal self-talk that started the moment I hit the parking lot: imagining negative outcomes for everything I had going on that day. I’d picture meetings, or presentation, or projects falling apart. A quiet but persuasive inner voice would label co-workers’ motives in the harshest light. My boss at the time was a friend who had just finished his MBA and was still finding his way by trial and error. This made him a perfect projection screen. I’d sometimes find myself wondering if he was now out to get me.

Once I caught this inner thought train and started to listen, it fell apart, as such things do in the light of day. This is one key result of mindfulness practice: attend to a thought – any thought – and it begins to shift and change, revealing its nature as something far less substantial than we think. Jung had a parallel insight when he realized, “My thoughts are not my own,” and compared them to animals encountered while walking in the forest.

Hist Center Window

Since that summer, I’ve learned to listen more closely for thoughts flying under the radar. That’s part of what prompted several posts this spring with the theme of consciously choosing where to place the attention. A recent post on the Shambhala Publications blog quoted a verse along these lines written more than 1200 years ago. A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Shantideva (c. 685-763), a great Buddhist master and scholar, is still widely studied today (see note 1 below). In chapter 11, “Vigilance,” he deals with guarding the mind against against unwholesome states, for this is where all our actions are born. The chapter is composed of 109 quatrains. Here are the first three:

Those who wish to keep a rule of life
Must guard their minds in perfect self-possession.
Without this guard upon the mind,
No discipline can ever be maintained.

Wandering where it will, the elephant of the mind,
Will bring us down to pains of deepest hell.
No worldly beast, however wild,
Could bring upon us such calamities.

If, with mindfulness’ rope,
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around,
Our fears will come to nothing,
Every virtue drop into our hands.

Shantideva. Public domain.

Shantideva. Public domain.

Guarding the mind is not just a Buddhist concern. When I Googled the phrase, most of the hits came from Christian websites and blogs. These discussions centered on Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things”

Many of the thoughts, suggestions, and practices were similar to Shantideva’s writing as well as a more recent statement by the Dalai Lama. I am even aware of both Buddhist and Christian scriptural practices for wearing imaginal armor to shield the heart/mind from negative influence. I would not be surprised to find similar practices in other spiritual traditions.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few days away from my usual routines and concerns to consider these things. I’m struck again, as I was in the work episode I related above, by how subtle the negative inner voices can be.

Another bias I find in myself was articulated by James Baraz, a Buddhist meditation teacher in an article on the Huffington Post, Can We Afford Joy in a World of Suffering. Baraz describes “the Kumbaya factor,” as the fear that if we consciously turn away from what is negative, we may simply wind up “in La-La Land singing Kumbaya.”

Everyone has to work this out for themselves, but Baraz makes several key points. Depression saps our energy. No one benefits self or others while wondering, “what’s the use.” In the work experience I related above, I wasn’t the best of co-workers while imagining others were out to get me.

I’m reminded of a story I heard several times in college. In 1927, Buckminster Fuller walked to the shores of Lake Michigan, thinking to end his life. He had just lost his job and felt responsible for the death of his daughter a few years earlier. He would later tell lecture audiences that as he looked into the waters, he felt surrounded by light and heard an inner voice say:

“You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.” (Fuller)

The experience led Fuller to re-examine everything and resolve to live his life as “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity” (see note 2 below). In this epiphany, Fuller locked onto the same truth that Shantideva articulated 1200 years before:

Examine thus yourself from every side.
Note harmful thoughts and every futile striving.
Thus it is that heroes in the bodhisattva path
Apply the remedies to keep a steady mind.

With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect, and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.

Speaking in the same tradition for a 21st century audience, James Baraz summed up the idea this way: “So can we afford joy in a world of suffering? I believe, in a world of suffering, we can’t afford not to find joy.”

reflection 4

Notes: _____________________________________________________

(1) In Buddhist terminology, a Boddhisattva is one who vows to seek spiritual awakening not for self alone but for the benefit of others.

(2) Some historians, finding no account of Buckminster Fuller’s epiphany in his writings for 1927, have wondered if he made up the story later. I can only speak for myself and observe that I’ve never put my most profound experiences in a journal: the writing is too pale, and there’s no need, since the events themselves remain vivid.

More notes from the Wasteland

Joseph Campbell considered the Wasteland and the quest for the Grail that heals it to be a core myth for our time.  During “The Power of Myth” series at the end of his life,  Campbell said the Wasteland results from a worldview that divides matter and spirit.  Referring to the Fisher King’s wound he said:

“the Christian separation of matter and spirit…has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been, as it were, emasculated by this separation. The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed.” (1)

Generations of western thinkers, culminating in Descartes, built upon the split Campbell cites to elaborate a mechanistic view of nature that made the world ripe for human exploitation.  Results of this world view are visible everywhere, both in the headlines and in the landscape around us.  This part of California, for instance, still bears the scars of hydraulic mining 150 years after the gold rush.

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river.  Malakofdigginsstatepark.org

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river. Malakofdigginsstatepark.org

Deliberate exploitation isn’t always the culprit.  We think of Native Americans as attuned with nature, but even they made mistakes.  From AD 900-1150, such a large concentration of Pueblo people lived in Chaco Canyon, NM that they cut an estimated million trees from the surrounding Colorado Plateau.  The resulting erosion, loss of game habitat, and flooding is thought to be one reason why they abandoned the site.  The surrounding landscape, once forest, has been desert ever since.

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon.  Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner, scotthaefner.com

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon. Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner, scotthaefner.com

Now that humans have the power to disrupt the environment on a global scale, the question of whether the harm is deliberate or inadvertent may be moot, but serious differences still lie at the heart of competing world views.  Campbell touched on this issue in Creative Mythology, the last book of The Masks of God, a four volume study of world mythology that he wrote between 1962 and 1968.  In this series, he ascribed four functions to myth (2)

  1. The Metaphysical Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being
  2. The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe
  3. The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order
  4. The Pedagogical Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life

The Grail story resonates on all of these levels, but since I want to consider the Wasteland myth in light of our current environmental crisis, the third and fourth functions have the greatest relevance here.

Campbell points out that humans are born too soon, “absolutely helpless,” and unlike most other animals, learn how to survive from a social group.  Our earliest myths derive from the hunter/gatherer era, “hardly greater than large families, of which every adult member was in possession of the entire cultural heritage.”  

These earliest myths “served a fostering, educative function, bearing the unfinished nature product to full, harmonious unfoldment as an adult specifically adapted for survival in a certain specific environment, as a fully participating member of a specific social group; and apart from that group he would neither have come to maturity nor have been able to survive.”  There was room for diversity, but no one who threatened the group was tolerated.

The next strata of myth emerged when humans settled into agricultural communities, beginning around 7500 B.C..  Villages grew into towns and then into cities and “it was precisely at this point of space and time, in the Near East, and specifically Sumer, c. 3500-3000 B.C., that the evidence first appears among the ruins…first, of a disciplined social order imposed from above by force, and next, of deliberate expeditions of military conquest against neighbors…campaigns of systematic conquest and subjugation.”  The principle here, said Campbell, was “greed for more than one’s share.”

Imposed social orders are not inherently bad, says Campbell.  Despite romantic fantasies of the noble savage, few people really want to live in caves or give up such boons as advanced medicine, arts, spirituality, and transportation, to say nothing of indoor plumbing.  Like conventions in writing, music, or painting, cultural conventions may spark creativity when they are new and later stifle it as they atrophy.

“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which…force and not love, indoctrination not education, authority not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”

This was the situation when the European Grail myth emerged; the first written version was composed in the 12th century by Cretien de Troyes at the very time the inquisition began.  The Grail legend served as a counterpoint to the institutional church; the tale can be read as the map of a quest for personal realization, safely couched in a story of ladies and knights.  In the earliest versions, the Grail was not the cup of the last supper but a stone or a large stone dish, which like the philosopher’s stone of alchemy, granted the heart’s deepest desire.

Even at our remove from the middle ages when the stories emerged, the Grail remains one of our living myths, at least if you pay attention to popular fiction and movies.  Think of The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

As much as the population of the middle ages, we are, in the words of 19th century poet, Matthew Arnold, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”  The Grail continues to speak to such eras, especially one in which the Wasteland is not just the metaphor of an inner desert, but a world in which that desert is visible around us.

The Grail remains a shining image, never quite clear, but unforgettable, of the kind of life and world we seek among the confusion of possible futures.  At the end of “The Power of Myth” series, Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell what the myth of the future might be.

“You can’t predict a myth anymore than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight,” Campbell replied (3).  “Dreams and myths come from the same place.”  Then he went on to say, “The only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be one that is talking about the entire planet.”

Earth from space

“You don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This may be the symbol of the mythology to come. That’s going to be the country we are celebrating.” – Joseph Campbell, 1987″

Next:  Some people who are already question for the Grail.

Help wanted, heroes and heroines: must be civil and adroit

This unusual job description comes from the opening lines of a Grimm’s fairy tale I recently read for the first time.  Fairy tale characters never get more than a word or two of description, and most of the time, tags like “clever fox” and “evil stepmother” are so familiar they don’t make us stop and think.  The opening of “The Glass Coffin,” was different enough to catch my attention:

“A civil, adroit tailor’s apprentice once went out traveling, and came into a great forest, and as he did not know the way, he lost himself.”

Civil and adroit are good terms for key attributes of successful folklore protagonists.  Though the words may sound quaint to us now, the traits they describe are as relevant to our own world as they are to travelers in Faerie.

The Glass Coffin

The Glass Coffin

The virtue of civility:

Some of the Grimm Brothers’ stories seem to locate these attributes along gender lines, implying a world of civil females and adroit males.  But if we review a number of tales, much of the time we find both characteristic needed by men and women alike.

Girls who are rude or mean may wind up dead or have their eyes pecked out like Cinderella’s step sisters.  Toads may jump from their mouths when they try to speak.  Feminists point to such story features as efforts to domesticate young women and make them docile.  Yet for many youngest sons, success also hinges on civility, often to seemingly insignificant creatures.  It’s a dwarf who offers council in  The Water of Life.  When the worldly-wise older brothers mouth off to the little man, they end up imprisoned in stone.  The youngest brother, who is respectful and heeds (most of) the dwarf’s advice, wins his heart’s desire and more.

In many of these stories, motives are greater than simple expediency.  The hero of The White Snake shows genuine compassion.

The White Snake by Arthur Rackham

The White Snake by Arthur Rackham

Through a bit of (adroit) trickery, a king’s servant gains the power to understand the speech of animals. He goes traveling and saves three different kinds of “lowly” creatures – fish, ants, and baby ravens.  Kind heartedness rather than self-interest drives him, for though the creatures promise to help him, they only do so after he sets them free.  There were no strings attached to his generosity.

The story is not just a simple call to spare the lives of all creatures, for the servant kills his horse to feed the ravens.  It would take another post to explore this detail, but to the extent that these stories dwell on  compassion, their theme is both ancient and timely.  The Dalai Lama put it in simple terms:  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The virtue of being adroit:  

The dictionary defines adroit as “skillful in a physical or mental way; clever; expert.”  In fairy tales, this sometimes means knowing when to kill your horse to feed the ravens.  At other times, it means cunning, trickery, and lies.  In stories, we often imagine these as men’s attributes, perhaps because traditional full time tricksters, from Hermes to Coyote, are usually male.  Yet in Grimm’s stories, young women need to understand and master deceit as often as men.  In Bluebeard-type tales, and notably a frightening story called “Fitcher’s Bird,” it’s a matter of life and death.

Part of being adroit is the intuitive sense of when someone or something feels wrong; when civility is not in order.  In fairy tales, women often do this better than men.  Typically, in three-brother stories, the youngest prince will trust his older brothers, even after the dwarf has warned him not to.  Cinderella and girls like her know better than to be fooled by older siblings.

Instinctively knowing when something is off has new relevance in the 21st century.  Interviews with 9/11 survivors adds to research suggesting our brains are not very good at processing radical changes or threats.  People on the upper floors of the South Tower had just over 16 minutes before the second airplane hit; those who left survived and those who waited did not.  On average, people took 1o minutes to choose.  In times of radical change, we need that cunning, adroit part of our ourselves to cut through the illusion that things will right themselves and return to “normal.”  It can be a matter of life or death.


Few things in fairy tales are certain, and the first story in the Grimm’s collection, The Frog King, is an exception that proves the rule proposed by this post.  The princess is neither civil nor adroit.  She’s a petulant brat, who gets what she wants by hurling the frog against a wall (the kiss only comes in later versions).  To our sensibilities, she doesn’t deserve the prince who appears when her act of violence breaks the spell.

There’s an irony in the original “Frog King,” however.  When the transformed prince reunites with his faithful servant, Heinrich, he almost seems more delighted than he is with his new bride.  At least one illustrator, Walter Crane (1845-1915) implies that the princess won’t have everything to her liking.  Who does the prince have eyes for in the closing scene, and how does the princess appear to react?  Does this story end with a twist that the Brother’s Grimm shied away from?

The princess, the prince, and Heinrich in Walter Crane's 1874 illustration.

The princess, the prince, and Heinrich in Walter Crane’s 1874 illustration.

Experienced explorers warn us that the way through Faerie is perilous.  Trails may shift beneath our feet, and hard-and-fast rules don’t apply.  As Joseph Campbell observed, everyone must find their own way through the forest.

My latest exploration leads me to wonder if “adroit” is another word for “street smarts,” something we need in our own world as well as in dark imaginal forests and castles frozen in time.  And isn’t “civil” an attitude that understands that our own wellbeing, even in the most practical terms, must include the welfare of others?

The old stories may offer no certain answers, but with careful reading, they can always lead us to ask interesting questions.

Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

Jung's Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland, by Andrew Taylor, 2009.  CC BY-SA-2.0

Jung’s Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland by Andrew Taylor, 2009. CC BY-SA-2.0

Recent news of technological incursions into consciousness itself (virtual reality and altered memories); almost daily revelations about NSA spying; suggestions that social media “isolates people from reality;” it’s enough to make you want to unplug all the gadgets – at least for a while!

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) did just that, for months at a time, in a tower-house complex he started building in 1923 and continued to work on for the rest of his life.  He often spent months each year living as simply as possible, without electricity or running water.  It’s easy to think he lived in a simpler time and couldn’t have imagined modern complexity, but consider these words he wrote in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published in 1961, the year he died:

“We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise.  We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us.
…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.  They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.”

The tower, phase 1, 1923.  Creative Commons

The tower, phase 1, 1923. Creative Commons

Ten years before starting the tower, Jung had a painful break with Freud that precipitated a period of disorientation and a huge uprush of the kind of unconscious contents he had witnessed in schizophrenic patients.  Feeling that his experience was purposeful, he chose to submit to the unconscious with writing, art, and the effort to understand.  Out of this phase of turmoil and uncertainty, his unique psychological insights were born.  Paper and ink, he said, did not seem “real” enough to represent his discoveries, so in 1922 he purchased land on Lake Zurich for a “representation in stone” of his “innermost thoughts.”

Phase II, 1927.  Creative Commons

Phase II, 1927. Creative Commons

Jung wrote at length of the parallel developments of his inner life and the tower, over more than three decades, saying things like:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself”

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.”

“I pump the water from the well.  I chop the wood and cook the food.  These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960.  Library of Congress

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960. Library of Congress

While drawing inspiration from Jung, an obvious question becomes, how do I connect with this kind of depth in the midst of my own too-hectic life?  The good news is, we don’t need a tower to live in for months at a time.  The bad news is we need to unplug every day and tune into activities that nourish the soul; this is often hard arrange.  It takes focus, intention, and experimentation to find those things that center us and we are drawn to.  Any number possibilities come to mind:

  • “Spend an hour a day in a quiet room by yourself reading old stories that you find nourishing.”  That’s what Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked this question during the “Power of Myth” interviews.
  • Meditation, of almost any kind.  This my own core practice.  Zen teacher, Cheri Huber said, “If you start by watching your breath for as little as five minutes a day, it can change your life.”
  • Sports that allow one to get in “the zone,” especially walking, running, or bicycling.
  • Keeping a dream notebook.
  • Writing, though I suspect most bloggers will have the same difficulty I have in putting words at the service of psyche – how do I turn off the writing sophistication I’ve worked so hard to gain?  Can I ever truly use words in a “purposeless” manner, allowing them to go where the wish, without thinking, “Gee, this would make a good blog post?” For any chance of success, I need a definite strategy, like writing fast with a rollerball pen in cheap notebooks.
  • Visual arts or crafts.  Training or skill is not required for this kind of work, and in fact, can get in the way.  Those with artistic training may find it useful to paint or draw with the non-dominant hand.  Jung had no formal art training, but his private journal, The Red Book, only recently published, gives an idea of what may emerge if one is determined to honor the psyche.
Red Book, p. 131.  Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

Red Book, p. 131. Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

When I truly examine my own habits, it’s clear that I fritter away enough time with gadgets each day to find the space for this kind of exploration.  It doesn’t need to be with the kinds of activities I outlined above.  I find it’s ok to schedule “time for inner work” the way I schedule time at the gym, but the most powerful new discoveries seem to emerge from those quiet voices at the edge of consciousness, the tiny impulse it is so easy to overlook in our busy lives.

Such an impulse woke me one night at 1:00am one morning.  Instead of going back to sleep, I got up and wrote down a sentence.  That led to a paragraph, and then a page, and then another.  That was the start of the first (and so far only) novel I’ve finished.

Something similar happened to Jung at his tower.  He gave the stonemason at a quarry precise measurements for blocks he needed to build a new wall, but one of the stones arrived in error; it was square, about 20″ on each side.  When Jung saw it, he said, “That is my stone, I must have it!”  Over time, he carved a testament to his life and work on stone which “stands outside the Tower, and is like an explanation of it.  It is a manifestation of the occupant.”

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In a seminar in 1939, Jung said:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are “nothing but.”

The Bollingen Tower became a vital way for Jung to live the symbolic life, but he would have been the first to insist that we don’t need to carve stone or build houses to find it for ourselves.  All we need is the hunger.  And the will to begin.

Queen Bothildur: an Icelandic Christmas folktale

I found this story in a beautifully illustrated book of Icelandic folktales for children, Tales of the Elves, that I brought back from that country after a visit in 2012.

Tales of the Elves 400

One Christmas Eve, a richly dressed woman knocked at the door of a farm house in Hrutafjord and asked for shelter. The sheriff lived there and said she could stay.  When people asked her name, she said it was Bothildur, but she would not say anything else about herself.

She stayed home while everyone else went to midnight mass, and when they returned, they had never seen the house so clean and beautifully arranged.  The sheriff invited her to stay on as housekeeper, and she excelled at her work.  The following Christmas Eve, she stayed home again, but this time, when the household returned, they found Bothildur’s eyes red from weeping.

On the third Christmas Eve, Gudmundur, the sheriff’s shepherd boy, vowed to discover her secret.  As everyone walked to church, he feigned illness and turned back.  Gudmundur possessed a magic stone that made him invisible.  Holding it in his hand, he slipped into the farmhouse, where he saw Bothildur dressed in the finest clothing he’d ever seen.  She took a green cloth from a chest and set off into the night, with Gudmundur following closely behind.  They came to a lake where Bothildur spread the cloth on the water and stepped onto it.  The shepherd boy just had time to step onto a corner before the cloth began to sink.


It seemed like they were passing through smoke as they sank deeper, but at last they came to a grassy plain in front of a fair city.  Bothildur entered the city where everyone cheered.  A man who wore a crown embraced her and then everyone entered the church for Christmas mass.  Bothildur’s three children ran around the pews playing with three golden rings, until the youngest dropped his and couldn’t find it because the invisible Gudmundur had slipped it into his pocket.

When the service was over and it was time for Bothildur to leave, everyone was sad.  She walked alone with her husband onto the plain before the city.  Both were in tears and Gudmundur heard them say this was the last time they would ever meet.  They parted with great sorrow as Bothildur stepped onto the green cloth with Gudmundur behind her.

Bothildur returned home and was cleaning when the sheriff and the rest of the household returned.  Gudmundur came home later.  When asked where he had been, he told the entire tale of his trip to the land below the waters.  When Bothildur asked if he had proof, Gudmundur withdrew her son’s golden ring.  At that she was joyous.  She explained that she’d been a queen in Elf Land until a witch cursed her.  She could only return home on Christmas eve, and only a human brave enough to follow her to the world below could break the spell.  “Now you have released me and you shall be richly rewarded,” she said.

After saying goodbye to the household, Bothildur vanished.  That night, Gudmundur dreamed she came to him and gave him coins and jewels which he found beside his pillow when he awoke.  Later, he used that money to buy a farm of his own and get married.  In time, he became known far and wide as the luckiest man alive.


In Iceland, winter solstice celebrations were huge events – understandably, for by mid-December, the southern part of the country gets only four hours of light each day, and the northern regions, above the arctic circle, get only three.  Icelanders embraced Christianity in 1000 AD, but to this day, Christmas is a dual holiday, celebrating both the birth of Christ and the return of the sun.

Charming as it is that the doorway to the Other World should open on Christmas Eve, it’s a safe guess that Christmas is peripheral to the tale.  Stories of release from enchantment are found in every culture and predate Christianity.  Sometimes love and compassion break the spell, as in “Beauty and the Beast.”  Sometimes it’s bravery and cleverness, and sometimes even violence – in the first version of “The Frog King” published by the Brothers Grimm, the frog is disenchanted not by a kiss, but when the princess becomes so annoyed with him that she hurls him against a wall.

Aside from its simple charm, what fascinates me about Queen Bothildur’s tale is that Gudmundur, the young disenchanter, brings his own magical implement for the task.  Where do shepherd boys pick up magical stones of invisibility?  Jung believed that stones are frequently symbols of the Self, his term for the fully integrated personality.

Babylonian stone seal, ca 1595-1155 BC.  Creative Commons

Babylonian stone seal, ca 1595-1155 BC. Creative Commons

 Normally, such psycho-spiritual integration is the task of a lifetime, but in stories, legend, and scripture, young heroes as diverse as King David, St. Patrick, and Krishna worked as shepherds or cow herders when they were young.  However simple this folktale may be, it reflects what can be done by a person with a noble cause who is not at war with himself.

Belief in the Huldufólk, or Hidden People, the Elves, is common to this day in Iceland; in a 2007 survey, 57% of the population said they “do not disbelieve” in Elves.  In 2004, Alcoa had to pay a government expert to survey their proposed site for an aluminum smelter to make sure it was Huldufólk free.  Last year, we travelled a highway that had been diverted around an Elven dwelling.  We saw many small houses built on remote hillsides as homes for the Hidden People, and some Icelanders build them churches, in hopes they will convert to Christianity.

That may be an iffy proposition.  “The Icelandic word for Christmas, Jól, contains no reference to Christ or to the church. It is a Norse word that also existed in Old English as Yule.” (1)

Even so, as we read and tell their stories, I suspect the Elves are wishing us a Gleðileg jól go farsælt komandi ár – a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


James Hillman on world change and political polarization

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

For decades, James Hillman brought us unique observations on modern life from the perspective of a depth psychology that embraced soul as its highest value.  Recently, I’ve wished I could hear his take on our current climate of political divisiveness, but Hillman, who died two years ago at the age of 85, wasn’t here to watch our most recent shenanigans.  Happily, I recently stumbled upon a pair of interviews in which Hillman discussed this very subject and set it in a context of massive cultural change.

Author and journalist Pythia Peay published the first interview on The Huffington Post in February, 2011 (Jungian Analyst Explains the Psychology of Political Polarization).  The occasion for their talk was the mass shooting in Tucson, which had happened a month earlier.  The most prominent victim was Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Tragically, memory of that event, just two and a half years ago, has been lost in the wake of more recent carnage, including the Nevada school shooting earlier this week.  Though Hillman’s comments focused on the role of political divisiveness in the attempt to kill a congresswoman, his additional statements now seem eerily relevant to the 12 year old in Sparks who was so alienated that he ended his life with murder and suicide.

Hillman began with a general discussion of polarized thinking.  “Polarity,” he reminds us, is an electrical engineering term.  Batteries have poles; the psyche is far more nuanced than that, dwelling in shades of gray rather than black or white.  Ideological extremes subvert our ability to judge individual issues on their merit.

When asked if violently polarized politics caused the shootings, Hillman changed the focus to another kind of cultural rigidity and its effect on the Tucson shooter:

“I think that this kid was made a loner by an American educational system in which there is no room for the weird or the odd…We need to have an educational system that’s able to embrace all sorts of minds, and where a student doesn’t have to fit into a certain mold of learning. Our educational system has become so narrowed to a certain formula, that if you go through a weird phase, you’re dropped out — often at the age of schizophrenia, 19-23 — and that’s the danger.”

Arguments in the wake of gun violence bog down in specifics, like background checks and how many bullets a magazine should hold – we don’t ask why and how we’re producing more and more people prone to mass violence.  In the end, says Hillman, for a culture that pays so much lip service to “the individual,” we are terrified of real individuality, and attempt to stamp it out.

In the second interview, America and the Shift in Ages, Hillman suggests that much of that rigidity has to do with futile attempts to shore up outmoded systems and institutions during a period of massive change.  Not just one but “three or four” myths that are central to our culture are collapsing.

Everything we fear has already happened said Hillman:  “The fragility of capitalism, which we don’t want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States; and American exceptionalism. In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. But we’re in a stage of denial.”  Other beliefs and structures are crumbling as well, he said.  White supremacy, male supremacy, the influence of monotheistic religions, and the belief that we are “the good people.”

If such institutions do not appear to be in decay, it’s because they are so staunchly defended, and that, Hillman says, is a sign of their lack of vitality — “If they were vital they wouldn’t need to be defended. And the fanaticism we’re witnessing goes along with the deterioration of the vitality of these myths.”

Many of our fundamental beliefs are under scrutiny and need to be.  Hillman mentions the meaning of “freedom.”  For many, freedom means, “I can do any goddamn thing I want on my property; that I am my own boss and don’t want government interference; that I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and can’t do.”  This, he says, is the freedom of an adolescent boy.  What of the different kinds of freedom, such as “freedom from the compulsions to have and to own and to be someone?”  What of the freedom Nelson Mandela found in prison?

Hillman cites economic assumptions that need to be questioned as well.  Falling demand needs to be stimulated, according to current assumptions, but from an ecological point of view, that’s exactly what the world needs at this time.  Sustainability models, which may be our hope for the future, terrify those in positions of power.

Many of our current fears, says Hillman – from fear of immigrants crossing our borders, to fear of failing education, to fear of cancer, to economic insecurity, terrorists, and of course fear of “the other” political party, results from the lack of a wider framework in which to understand the massive shifts that are already underway.

There is no going back, but as obsolete structures crumble, we can glimpse, if we look, new forms emerging.  Hillman gave the example of a “Bioneers” conference he attended where Paul Hawken showed a film that was simply the names of individuals and organizations involved in trying to innovate ways of building communities, economic systems, and ways of dealing with the natural world.  Hawken said there were thousands of names, and the film could roll for weeks.

Hillman said it’s important not to try to fit emerging structures into the patterns of the past.  For our peace of mind, a new kind of faith is required:   “I think it’s a matter of being free-wheeling, and trusting that the emerging cosmos will come out on its own, and shape itself as it comes. That means living in a certain open space — and that’s freedom.”

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007.  Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007. Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Such words are a fitting conclusion to the lifework of a man who lived in defense of Anima Mundi, the World Soul and who taught that animals, trees, and rivers are intelligent and alive, and that at some deep level of the psyche, we can hear their voices.  In Hillman’s life work, observation of the modern psyche led to conclusions that mesh with the myths of the ancestors.

A thousand years from now, people will read of our times and shudder, as we do in contemplating the rigors of life in the middle ages.  A few visionaries stood out from the rest, those like Saint Francis, Dante, and Leonardo, who pointed toward a more benevolent and expansive future.

We cannot write our own history, but we can wonder how it will look to those in the future.  I am convinced that James Hillman will be remembered when most of what passes for news on TV is blessedly forgotten.

Two views of the hero myth

In a recent post, I discussed heroes and anti-heroes in spy movies and westerns.  This is the followup post I promised, but I’m going to leave the realm of popular heroes – those of fiction, entertainment, sports, and all who wear masks and tights.  I’m going to discuss the heroes of myth, especially the “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell summarized it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Here is a graphic that makes the elements of this type of story clearer:


I can’t think of heroes without remembering James Hillman, (1926-2011), the father of archetypal psychology and one of the most creative thinkers of our time.  The two differing views of the mythic hero announced in the title of this post are Hillman’s own.  He never shied away from ambiguity; “I don’t have answers, I have questions,” he said.

James Hillman

James Hillman

Hillman often railed at the negative effects he saw flowing from the hero archetype, which he saw as ego enshrined as narrow self-interest, both individually and collectively.  For Hillman, the “heroic ego” was often a source of evil and mischief.  Noting that heroes slay dragons, and earlier generations of Jungians wrote of dragons as “the mother,” Hillman claimed that heroes like Hercules in Greek mythology were emblematic of the modern world’s subjugation of women, “the feminine,” and “mother nature.”  On another occasion he said, “Killing the dragon in the hero myth is nothing less than killing the imagination.”

Yet a recently published collection of Hillman’s work (Mythic Figures, 2012) includes a chapter on Joseph Campbell, compiled from talks he gave in 2004 in which he spoke at length of the positive hero.  He put his earlier negative comments in context:

“A mistake in my attacks on the hero has been to locate this archetypal figure within our secular history after the gods had all been banished.  When the gods have fled or were declared dead, the hero serves only the secular ego.  The force that prompts action, kills dragons, and leads progress becomes the Western ‘strong ego’ – capitalist entrepreneur, colonial ruler, property developer, a tough guy with heroic ambitions on the road to success.”

When Hillman used terms like “soul” and “the gods,” his concern was religious, but not in the way of the literal truths of most organized religions.  For Hillman, such literalism was the enemy of soul.  He spoke only and always of the truth of the psyche because it precedes every other kind of truth:  “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.” (Revisioning Psychology, 1977).

This understanding of the true hero in service to a Power greater ego prompted Hillman to revise his understanding of the “Father/Dragon/Ogre/King” the hero slays:

“A civilization requires the Ogre to be slain.  Who is the Ogre?  The reactionary aspect of the senex who promotes fear, poverty, and imprisonment; who tempts the young and devours them to increase his own importance.  The Ogre is the paranoid King who must have an enemy.  He is the deceitful, suspicious, illegitimate King whose Nobles of the Court [have] committed themselves to the enclosed asylum of security where they nourish their world-devouring megalomania.”

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

I think we know what he meant in 2004 by speaking of “paranoid kings” whose nobles live in “the enclosed asylum of security.”  It has only gotten worse. How desperate the Ogre is to quash any budding heroes was revealed in a piece on August 19 on Time.com, “School Has Become too Hostile to Boys,” by Christina Hoff Summers.  Three seven year old boys, in Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado, were recently suspended from school for the following acts:

  1. Using a pencil to “shoot” a “bad guy.”
  2. Nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.
  3. Throwing an imaginary hand grenade at “bad guys” in order to “save the world.”

The rationale for these suspensions were “zero tolerance for firearms” policies.  Punishing pop-tart weapons in a culture that went on a gun buying binge in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings seems too ludicrous to believe unless you see it from Hillman’s perspective – another step in the dragon’s war on imagination, in this case, the male imagination, the perspective from which most of our current hero myths derive.  Along with banning snack food guns, such schools have renamed “tug of war” games as “tug of peace,” and halted dodge ball as too violent.

Fortunately, as Christina Hoff notes, such efforts to “re-engineer imagination” are doomed to fail – all they will do is “send a clear and unmistakable message to millions of schoolboys: You are not welcome in school.”

In We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, 1993, Hillman made clear his belief that pathology lies in cultures as well as individuals, and we deprive the world of something when we take our rage and our grief exclusively to the therapist.  Hillman never shied away from critiques of the world at large.  Depression is “an appropriate response” to the world we live in, he said.

Yet stronger than the Ogre, said Hillman, is the myth of the Hero – not this or that particular hero, but the heroic pattern itself that Joseph Campbell restored for our times, which renews culture “by revivifying the archetypal imagination displayed by peoples the world over…The panoply of materials that Campbell catalogued shows that the hero wears a thousand faces and cannot be reduced to the modern ego.  Especially important in recognizing him is recognizing the heroic liberating function of myth – that it speaks truth to power, even the Ogre’s power.”

We know from history and the nightly news how much suffering the decay of empires involve as paranoid kings strive desperately to hold on to power.  We also have the examples of James Hillman and Joseph Campbell, who spent their lives pointing toward soul, psyche, and the language of myth and imagination.  That is where we must look to find the larger truth – the hero brings the gift of renewal as surely as spring returns after the darkest time of the year.