AGING IS SEEING

“No woman is old”—Vincent Van Gough

We appear to live our lives in linear time, watching the inevitable biological changes that accompany the aging human form.  Much attention is given to preserving physical health, curing diseases, holding on to our connection to what poet Mary Oliver calls, “your one wild and precious life.”

What if we peer behind the illusion of linear time, beyond the wrinkles and stiff joints, the deep fear of losing what we look like, how we function, indeed our very identity?  The aging process of the body is an event on the surface. What of the aging of the soul?  If we are much more than the person on the surface, what phases of our being accompany us on this journey?

What if our physical body is cradled in a timeless sheath that contains all the identities we have passed through, and the aspects of our development that have lived often a secret existence,  in our unconscious? As we age, our memory for details begins to fade, but, if we look deeply and listen to the voices of our inner world, we can become initiated into the unconscious reality present in our life lived as a child, an adolescent, a young adult…

For example, I have a memory of my 7 year old self, lying in front of an open window on a hot summer day. I had come in from playing in the hot East Texas sun. My fox terrier, Foxy, lay up against me. We were both sweating. A sheer white summer curtain hung in the window. The breeze was blessedly cooler than our toasty bodies.  I remember a feeling of deep contentment, just being there: the movement of the curtain above us, our sweat, our breath, the gentle breeze flowing over us. I had no words for this at the time, but I believe that early experience was my first clue that there was a part of me, watching the rest of me move through my days. Another part of me that lived, quite literally, in a different world.

What if our human life is like the moon? Certain phases of it are illuminated at any given time, but the whole moon is always there. The dark side of the moon supports and observes, tends and records the life lived in the brilliance of the outer world. Without an awareness of the part of our consciousness that lives in shadow, we can go through our days waiting only for the next brilliant phase.  This can lead to a life style that is ultimately incomplete,  reactive, grasping, believing in the illusion of the temporary.

If, like the moon,  we are all there from the beginning,  this means that as we age, our younger selves are still with us. If we are fortunate, they come to us in dreams or waking images, unfolding stories from the secret wisdom.

Do you ever dream of yourself as a person younger than your current age? Or dream of “a girl” or “a boy” who is also “you?” Why has your younger self come forward? What is he or she teaching you?  An ambassador from your unconscious mind, she or he has been living in a world of archetypes, eternal knowings,  poetic and symbolic languages for years, while you were earning a living, raising a family, paying your taxes…

There are many paths to communicating your younger selves. You can use reflective meditation. Close your eyes, get in touch with your breath. Slow down your breath. Ask for a wise younger self to come forth. You could imaginatively place yourself in a setting. For example, I could put myself on the floor beneath the open window – feel the soft fur of my fox terrier, the hot sweat cooling on my small, sticky legs… ask my 7 year old self to describe what she is thinking and feeling. She will tell me.

Another possibility is to watch the cycles of the moon. Some nights ago, I was awakened by the brilliance of the moon coming through the closed blinds of my bedroom. A moon so bright I had to go out into the back yard for a full look. Not quite a half moon, but fuller than a crescent. Just beyond adolescence, the time in my early twenties when on the surface I felt very lost. Rather than fall into the temporal story that so often comes with self recrimination, regret, shame, anxiety, it seemed much more interesting to look at the rest of the moon – the 3/4ths of it in darkness, and wonder what was happening in that part of me while the rest of me was “lost”….What part of me was dormant, but alive, and what can that part of me reveal to me now?

I will conclude with a dream of someone in her 60’s, and a dialog she wrote with a younger version of herself that appeared in the dream. Jung called this Active Imagination.

            I dream I am in a canyon with a rugged, outdoors-type man who is no one I know from waking life. There is also a plump young woman in her 20’s who has long dark hair and dark clothing covering her whole body. It seems odd she would wear such clothing in the desert.  She is accompanied by a man who is slender and also well clothed. She goes with him down a steep path and disappears. I join the rugged outdoors-type man and we proceed to crawl onto the ledge of craggy rocks. I follow his lead, not questioning the danger or why we need to keep climbing. We only come down to seek out another stony outcrop. At one point he speaks very analytically: how is it that our bodies seem to know how to find a stable position in each of these rock formations, all of them on the precipice? He continues all this intellectual talk. I can see the blue sky and the river far below, but they seem very far away….Then I am at a way station with another group of rough men, and the plump young woman appears. She is the same age, early 20’s, with long black hair and black clothing covering her whole body. We are so very happy to see each other. We embrace.

 

Dialog with the Young Woman in Black, and the dreamer, who I will call the Crone:

 

Crone: It is so good to see you.

YWB: You as well. The years have been good to you.

(they smile)

Crone: I have the feeling it has been a long time since we saw each other.

YWB: Oh yes, over 40 years.

Crone: (silence, she reflects) Why did you wear so many cloths in the desert?

YWB: You were so ashamed of me. I was very hungry in those days, and I did not want you to see me so fat.

Crone: I’m sorry. I hated you.

YWB: I knew I could not be close to you, to feel so much hatred. I knew to survive, I had to find another place to live.

Crone: Who was the young man who went with you?

YWB: My soulmate. He never hated me. Not for one second.

Crone: I know someone he reminds me of now, but when we were together 40 years ago, I had no idea such a man existed. (silence) I am so glad you knew it, and that he was with you.

YWB: I would have been lost without him.

Crone: Why have you returned to me now?

YWB: I can feel that you don’t hate me any longer.

(Crone weeps)

Crone: I don’t. I think you have much to teach me.  Please, I am listening now.

YWB: (sighs) I do have much to tell you. (reaches out her hand) I cannot put into words what it feels like, to be with you.

(weeping with love and gratitude, the Crone takes Young Woman’s hand)

 

I invite you to explore the parts of yourself that live in this timeless reality.

WINTER’S TALES OF SANTA AND SAINTS

Book review: Mischief and Mercy: Tales of the Saints by Jean McClung. Tricycle Press. Berkeley, CA 1993

As the Winter Solstice approaches and we are inundated with images of Santa and Christmas, what a joy to discover Jean McClung’s often-hilarious, sometimes-macabre, adventurous, illuminating tales. The author, now known as Jean Goodwin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas wrote this book over the course of thirteen years as gifts to her children.

No cream-puff bed-time fare. The author warns, “These stories have about as much violence as old-fashioned Brothers Grimm-type fairy tales, which means there is some chopping up, and about as much sex as the average Greek tragedy. Children should use judgment when reading these stories to grown-up!”

Humor abounds in tales of Mary Magdalene (unlike anything in the Bible!), Joan of Arc (a true horror story), Valentine, Judas, Saint Francis and eight more. Enough to read aloud each day for all the twelve long nights of Christmas.

Choosing one to share with you is easy this time of year.  The year is 300 A.D. The boy who would become Saint Nicholas had a traumatic childhood of loss and abuse. As an orphaned but somehow wealthy teenager he was drafted into a position as bishop of the town, a job more worldly-wise folk avoided like the plague.  Sure enough, Nicholas became the scapegoat for the powerful elites, hauled away to the salt mines, then to prison and torture. On rare occasions he was let out and allowed to do some good.

The most famous story involves a penniless father who was about to sell his three daughters into prostitution. This man was apparently so proud, he was willing to sell his children, rather than ask for help.  Our author writes, “Nicholas’s solution was breathtaking. He dropped three golden balls down their chimney, one for each daughter to use as dowry. As it happened, the sisters had just done their wash that night (well brought-up girls to the bitter end!) and had hung their stockings out to dry near the fire. The part that was magic was the way each gold ball, after Nicholas dropped it, bounced slowly from the grate then spun off in just the right direction to land in the stocking of the appropriate sister. That’s why we all to this day hang our stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve.”

Next we find Nicholas appointed by Emperor Constantine as a delegate to the Council of Nicea in Turkey. Those who follow religious history know that this is where the church fathers chose what to include and what to exclude from the Bible. (Omitting, among other things, writings on Sophia, the Feminine Divine; The Book of Mary Magdalene and other Gnostic Gospels.)

Nicholas came to Nicea with his old friend from the salt mines, Big Peter, a gigantic Ethiopian who was sent to the salt mines for piracy, and often carried the frail Nicholas in his arms as they escaped harm’s way.  While in Nicea, Nicholas punches an arrogant bureaucrat who insults him. By the time the physicians and centurions reach the scene, Nicholas is “not there.” He is in Big Peter’s arms, yet Peter feels a certain lightness familiar to him when Nicholas experiences trauma, ie, Nicholas goes to a place he discovered in childhood when he was burning with rage and injustice . Our author writes, “He found himself riding through the snow on the back of a gigantic deer with tall antlers. For many years Nicholas thought is was a daydream, but once he was a grownup and a bishop, other people…started telling him about dreams where they had seen him, Bishop Nicholas…riding in the snow country on a reindeer.”  Add to this Nicholas’s red bishop’s robes, and we have the origin of Santa Claus in a red suit, with his mighty reindeer dropping those golden balls (oranges) down the chimney.

I commend the entirety of this story, and all the others in Jean McClung’s wonderful book, as we celebrate the holidays – Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, and all the rest. Beyond the frenzy of gift-buying and parties, it behooves us to give – of our time and money, surely, to those who are in need, but also, to touch that sacred place in our hearts that longs for the constancy of love, and peace for all humankind. Without it, we are all consigned to a snowy wonderland.

IN WINTER DARKNESS, LIGHT

This year in Seattle we have been blessed with light. Yes, the usual spate of rainy days, but today, sun penetrates the golden maple tree, its leaves, big as dinner plates, sailing down, to cover my window.

And yet, even with our bounty of exterior light,  I feel an activation of inner darkness, in myself, in those around me: an increase in dreams of shadowy figures. images of alleyways going nowhere. Waking in the night with unanswered questions; something has been stolen, longed-for, not retrieved.

I tell myself, and others, this is a fertile time. Write down the dreams. Search for meaning in the darkness.

A dream of my alcoholic mother calling my name. I cannot see her, yet I hear her voice, calling, as if off-stage. I climb a tower of plastic toys. When I come down, I discover my wallet is stolen.

Terrifying?  I felt so some years ago, in the days before I learned to look for rich healing symbolism, especially in shadowy, or evil figures, or long-departed ancestors.

I invite you to open to multiple possibilities of meaning in your dreams, even scary ones. Ask yourself who is trying to get your attention. If you find yourself running from a monster, what can this mean in your waking life? If you turned and faced the monster, what would you ask her? What do you suppose she would say?

In the dream cited above, what did the alcoholic mother say to the dreamer?

Simply my name, called out in the darkness.

What is she naming? Perhaps your own vulnerability to alcohol or other addictions? Perhaps she issues a warning, as one who knows so well, that your identity can be stolen by the monster thief of addiction.

At this point it may be tempting to blame the shadow figure. To remember all the times your mother looked at you with gin-soaked eyes. To rage at her: the childhood stolen, the hopes, the love, the grace, diluted in watery silence.

Another possibility is to invite your Shadow to tea.

Don’t demonize her. How easy that would be. The far more difficult choice is to say, “She is in me”. And, most poignantly, “what has she got to teach me about her struggles, her pain, her relationship to her disease that I can learn from in my own life?” Spend some time, listening to her, remembering all the times she tried to quit, the times she did, the tenderness in her voice that was always there somewhere, even in the darkest times.

Let her wisdom come to you, alongside the awareness that addiction stole your loving mother and in some sense, she never returned.

Embracing the wholeness of her reality can inspire a deep compassion – for her, for yourself, for all who are vulnerable to addiction – or to any human suffering.

This is a path open to all of us, even in the darkest inner winter. Armed with wholeness and compassion, we can look deeply into our own life. If we are on a dicey road to addiction – or any other self-destructive or life-destroying path—we can chase down the thief who stole the “wallet” of our identity, and get it back.

Cherish the shadow as she lives in us, ever grateful for her loving, warning call.

THE NUMINOUS NOW

numinous – of or relating to the numen (a presiding deity or spirit of a place; a spirit believed by animists to inhabit natural phenomena or objects; Creative energy; genius.  –American Heritage College Dictionary

Reflections, including a review of The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.Vintage Books. New York.

It is happening. Even as I stand on the edge of the North American continent mourning the passing of summer, I notice with joy the shifting of light, the sweet crisp smell in the morning, the odd leaf floating lazily to the ground.  Last year I was so grieved to see the end of our all-too-short sunny season, I took to scolding the trees for dropping their leaves. “Go back,” I chided rudely, “not yet.”

It is impossible not to see a reflection of my own fear of mortality in this unseemly behavior toward the innocent trees.  I’m not doing that this year. I watch each leaf floating toward me on the wind with a new sense of wonder and respect, even humor. “Feels good to let go, doesn’t it?” I whispered to a descending maple leaf. Letting go of all illusions, all of the expectations we humans heap upon ourselves to be or think a certain way, achieve a standard of perfection defined by a world ignorant of the unique inner landscape, needs, and creative forces within each of us.

I attribute much of the change in my relationship to my trees, leaves, and luminous water droplets cradled on the fronds of cedar to David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. He captures, in a most original way, a vision of the numen, the divine, embedded in nature that follows in the tradition of Black Elk Speaks, or The Tao of Physics, or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fragrant Palm Leaves.

Using references from Native tribes around the world, including Navajo and ancient Hebrew, Abrams opens a world to the reader where everything of the soul is right here, now, a vibrant, observable spirit present in plant, and animal life, the water, the wind. Human beings are, in one way, simply a part of this evolving plant/ animal kingdom. We are not split off into a higher realm of intellect and projections of a patriarchal God, looking down on the creatures we can dominate. The “happy hunting ground” of native lore was never separate from the landscape, simply over a near hillside, just out of view.

Abram nourishes us with many chapters on the history of oral language, an art form that came from the observable natural world as interpreted by the human mind. He goes on to tell us how the creation of  written language became an inadvertent tool for separating us from our direct experience. Later the Cartesian scientific model taught us to ignore direct perception and focus on abstract ideas. All of this is fascinating – not that we need reject everything created by the “left brain”, but that it too, requires integration into the whole reality of our natural, perceivable soul-rich world.

The most transformative section for me is on pages 202-203. Abram shares an exercise he did in the woods one day. This certainly evoked for me images of the young Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir, forebearers who found meaning and spiritual reality in the wilderness. Abram invites us to join him in sitting in the woods, or any natural setting, Close your eyes. Imagine your Past, everything you have ever lived or remembered – joys, losses, regrets, in a giant bubble. Beside it, imagine the Future: projects, deadlines, hopes, plans, fears, desires. Breathe into these joined states. Then, gradually, imagine the Now. As you breathe, take in the smells, sounds, coolness of the wind on your face. As you focus your mind on the Now, imagine the Past and the Future as two giant balloons, growing smaller and smaller. They grow small as the Now increases, until they go away, and it is only the imagined, expansive Now. Open your eyes.

Abram describes what he sees, “I find myself standing in the midst of an eternity, a vast and inexhaustible present. The whole world rests within itself—the trees at the field’s edge, the hum of crickets in the grass, cirrocumulus clouds rippling like waves across the sky, from horizon to horizon…”

            He goes on to describe how long it lasts, that this vast world includes his rusty car parked at the top of the hill…nothing is separate.

I do my own version of this on my morning walk. This vision of a birth-less/deathless world is not some floating ideal. It is quite down to earth, known to my senses. Nor does it take away the loss and violence in the world. Last night a storm came through, knocking down trees and power lines. We humans continue to make war. All creation and destruction is contained in Abram’s “vast and inexhaustible present.”

I invite you to try this exercise. It has brought to me a sense of calm, wonder, and acceptance that was clearly needed for my psyche’s development.  I no longer scold the leaves for dying, or rage at the Universe for taking the life of a beloved. Living in this numinous now does not take away the tragedies and injustices of the world, but it does, for me, bring a sense of wholeness and peace, to see so clearly my place, humble but conscious, in the vibrant fabric of Being.

THE BEST KEPT SECRET

I hear it all the time: marriage, or any form of long term commitment is so hard! In popular media, in adult gatherings, or on Facebook, the lament seems to run along predictable lines: people get bored with one another, people want more excitement and diversity as time goes on, why have children if divorce is so commonplace, etc.

Few people talk about it from the other point of view. What if, instead of instilling boredom, people can actually get more energy and engagement with each other , the longer they stay together? What if it is possible, as we change, grow, and develop as individuals, to actually increase the curiosity and level of discovery in the relationship? What if it is more interesting – and less humdrum – to get to know more and more facets of each other, than to contemplate “moving on” to a new relationship, or opening the marriage to multiple partners?

Not very modern, you say. Perhaps. Or, perhaps this is a neglected dimension in evaluating the benefits of  a long term relationship. What if it is more important to cultivate depth and diversity in yourself and others, than to seek excitement or stimulation in new partners?

You are skeptical. Fair enough. Certainly some relationships do need to end. People do out grow each other, or grow in different directions, and need to part ways. This is all quite true, but if you make a commitment first to your own individuation and development, I believe it is entirely possible to find great joy in observing and nurturing a parallel evolution in your significant other.

I have seen many examples of this, in my own life and in my work. It is particularly touching to see a couple who share similar scars of emotional wounding learn to trust and to open up to each other. I was told years ago, “water seeks its own level”.  We think we select a mate based on compatible values or physical attraction. In fact, while this has a hand in it, the real “glue” of love is something unspoken, and often unconscious. We choose a mate who will help us work through our emotional barriers and blind spots, one who will give us the space, the love, the respect to do our own work, and develop the trust to share our vulnerabilities.

In the process of peeling away layers of a defensive, proud or false self, we suddenly see deeply into the other person. “Oh, you feel that?” “Really? I always thought you were so confident.”  “I had no idea you were so afraid”…..

From this place of evolving trust, sharing, and openness, the wounds of childhood can be healed. Not by depending on the other to do our work for us, but by healing ourselves, and becoming an independent whole person who can reveal himself/herself in all of our dimensions.

Does this mean perfection? Absolutely not. In every individual, in every partnership, there is shadow: the dark side of the personality, or simply that which is unseen. But if the foundation is based on the positive aspects of growth, openness, and joy,  patience and stamina emerge, and the tough stuff can be worked through.

From a Jungian perspective, we all have many archetypal personalities within us. Another way of framing this is that we all have multiple personalities or character traits, which vie for dominance in any given situation. In a trusting, long term relationship, as the armor melts, we get to know each other in every possible dimension. Changes and new directions in your partner are not threatening because you are committed to your own growth. Say a woman of middle age drops her career as an engineer to become a landscape designer (trading her inner Athena for the earth goddess, Demeter), or a man who has devoted every ounce of energy to family and profession embraces his inner Orpheus and picks up a guitar. Rather than be threatened when a new archetype surfaces, these transitions can be embraced with enthusiasm and support.

“I love you,” a partner might say, “I never know what magical new adventure you will discover next!”

Not that the changes have to be terribly dramatic. The most delightful, devoted, and animated couple I know had a very quiet life together, raising children, loving their grandchildren, spending their senior years reading to each other from the New York Times, or simply watching birds and butterflies cross their back yard. These people loved life on an equal scale, and lived every moment as an opportunity for discovery, humor, and hope. They shared this approach together, for forty wonderful years.

A role model for us all in the modern, creative possibilities of long term love.

Letter to a Young Girl

In this season of graduations and rites of passage, a dear friend asked me to write something to her daughter, who stands on the cusp of becoming a woman.

The first thing that comes to mind is how drastically the world has changed for emerging young women since I stood on this threshold fifty years ago.  Back then, people simply did not talk openly about normal, healthy biological processes like getting your period or growing breasts, or all the new emotions and bursts of energy that come when a little girl becomes a woman. My mother was embarrassed to talk about it. In school they separated the boys and girls and showed us different films about sex and biology that were stiff, self-conscious, and “scientific”.  This communicated that there was something “not okay”, even shameful about growing up in a female body. This began to change with the feminist movement of the 1970’s, but my caution is to be on the lookout for anyone or any ideas that attach shame, dread, or lack of worth to becoming a woman.

In ancient matriarchal cultures, the onset of menstruation was celebrated. A young girl got to go into a scared structure with other women and be cared for, adored, and educated. Sadly this changed when patriarchy conquered the goddess civilizations. The effects of this are striking today. I just saw an interview with former US president, Jimmy Carter, who has written a new book about addressing the plight of women around the world. He said today (March 23, 2014) that when the Pope says that women can’t be priests, it sends a message to men that they can devalue and dominate their wives.

As a girl becoming a woman, I believe it is important for you to understand that modern women must fight this kind of oppression, wherever they can. Not only by helping women around the world in school projects or volunteer opportunities, but in everyday interactions.

Simply asserting your worth, and standing up for who you are and what you believe communicates that women are valuable, whether it is insisting that a salesclerk gives you correct change, or masterminding a school research project on the lives of women in countries like the Congo, or the Middle East.

In the working class suburb where I grew up, girls were expected to grow up to be housewives and mothers. Period. Opportunities in education, sports, and the arts were scarce. There were no sports teams for girls. In high school you went out for cheerleader or drill team, both window dressing for the boys’ teams. So, my first thought is to shout from the rooftops: “How fortunate you are to be coming into womanhood in the 21st century!!” Today women are expected to have careers, whether they get married or not. Women’s sporting events are mainstream. Women excel in the arts, education, and politics. We now have the first woman CEO of a major auto corporation, the first woman chairman of the Federal Reserve, and we just might elect a woman President of the United States in 2016. In global affairs, three women jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in empowering women of the Third World to free themselves from abuse, domination, and oppression.

As you contemplate entering this brave new world of womanhood, it is good to ask, “How do I prepare for a future that is true to my own deepest needs, desires, and abilities? What am I curious about? What kind of power do I want for myself?  Do I want to be powerful as many men have been in dominating others, or do I want a power that suits my own unique nature, and also brings a new compassion and humanity to our world? How do I learn to value power that is not about gender – whether someone is male or female, but about what they think, what they value, what they care about?”

A wise teacher once told me that it is important to “carry the question” – not to leap to quick solutions or to come up with answers that will please others. If you carry the question long enough, one day you may come upon the answer, and it will be something you could never have imagined, and yet it will feel “right”.

One great benefit of being a woman is that over time, we can develop, refine, and nourish our power of intuition. This is a way of knowing that does not come from obvious logical approaches. It is the ability to listen to that still, quiet voice within. To listen to our dreams. To observe situations, people, and systems from multiple points of view. To allow paradoxical truths to co-exist. For a deeply intuitive person, reality is rarely black and white. In my experience, growing into maturity as a woman has been largely about learning, not only to carry the question, but to hold seemingly contradictory realities as see the truth in both. For example, I may want to be a powerful woman in the world, and it may also be important to marry and have a family.  I may want a career in business or the arts, and I may also want to take a year off to travel around the world with a friend.  I may want to grow up and become a woman, and I may want to stay a child. Both are true.

When I was thirteen, I felt very sad. I knew I was leaving my childhood behind. I even thought I should write a book about what it felt like to be a child. I was afraid I would forget, and all the joy and wonder of my child self would be lost. Sadly, I moved into adolescence, and never wrote that book. I regret it, because I might have captured something that now I can only reach with my imagination. So, if you have an idea to create something or write about something from your unique perspective at a very important point in time, do it. Do it now.

Some part of me still grieves for my childhood, and yet, the spirit of child wonder is alive in me whenever I discover a new idea, or act on my own curiosity, or feel the sense of power rising in my adult woman self. For me, power is simply the opportunity to pursue what I love, to make my own living, to care for my family – to contribute to organizations like the Motherhouse Fund, Women for Women International, and Mary’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Seattle.

You will find your own path to power, meaning, opportunity, and joy.

It has never been a better time to become a woman in the Western world.

Welcome to the adventure.

GIFTS FROM THE CREATIVE UNIVERSE

This quiet Easter morning, I am blessed to feel the silence. There is a bush tit nest in our English birch. It is a fragile, tiny construction, a hanging weave of grass and moss, well camouflaged by the gently bowing leaves.

Fragile. This word has been traveling through my mind of late. I feel it deeply, remembering the hands of those I have lost.  The hands of my beloved Aunt resting next to mine as she slept during her final days. A hand I knew so well. I placed mine next to hers. The features, tone of the skin, shape of the thumb: hers, mine.

I remember the hands of her son, my beloved cousin. Only a few months ago we sat in a restaurant, ordering triple berry pie. I had given him the ring of my father and grandfather. “It’s a bit gaudy for my taste,” he said, but he wore it that day. I watched his hands as they pushed his slice of pie toward me. He couldn’t finish it. He smiled as he watched me savor each bite.

My cousin died two weeks ago. His long, gentle hands, his wild laugh, his loving eyes are no longer manifest on our earth. I weep and wonder where he has gone, if his consciousness still exists anywhere in the vast dimensions of the Universe.  Many years ago we watched a movie together, Ramblin Rose, a comic, poignant story about a Southern family who take in a teenage foster child. Rose, played brilliantly by a very young Laura Dern, has had a wild past, and proceeds to educate the family’s 12 year old boy on the glories of sensual human contact. The film takes a hilarious, tasteful, compassionate look at this all too common behavior from young people who have been abused. The mother in the family, played by Diane Ladd, proves a powerful role model for young Rose. In fragile health, this soft- spoken Southern matriarch studies for her Master’s Degree in psychology. A conflict arises when she asks her tradition-bound husband, played by Robert Duvall, to do the dishes. He is outraged: Rose should do the dishes, he shouts: “it is a ‘woman thing!’ ” Diane Ladd rolls her eyes and calls to the heavens, “Man things, woman things, what does the Creative Universe care for such nonsense?”

My cousin and I howled. For some time after we evoked the Creative Universe, and acknowledged that She knows what is best, in every situation.

Now, I find myself wondering where he is in the Creative Universe. Even if he is in “a better place”, we can’t text him or phone him, or hear his voice, so what good is it, this elusive gnome called “faith”?.

And yet, in the blessing of dreams, my cousin continues to teach me. Last night I had a dream that I was in a car, going to a Memorial. I was worried about the arrangements, where I would stay, what I would wear, what I would say if asked to speak. He appeared beside me and said, “Have an orange, purple coconut cookie.”

I woke laughing. Life is too short to waste it on worry! Eat the cookie: enjoy the moment. An irreverent, loving message from my cousin in the Afterlife, or perhaps….a message from the Now life.

Jungian psychologist James Hillman wrote that the “Afterlife” is not some magical kingdom we go to when we die, it is alive, here, now, in our unconscious mind. The part of us that makes dreams and fantasies and takes in the impulses of the world to create works of imagination. The Creative Universe inside of us.

I see this as a sort of Jungian Reincarnation. We lose the body of our beloveds, but their archetypal reality endures. How many of us have lost someone, only to discover their essence appearing in a new friend, a relative your reconnect with as a result of the loss, or, perhaps most profoundly, emerging in your own character? Viktor Frankl wrote, “Nothing is lost.” I used to rebel against this as sentimental nonsense. Now, I am beginning to understand what he means.

If we are fortunate, not only do we see our loved ones’ characteristics mirrored in the temporal world, we are visited by them in our dreams. “But they don’t come to me in my dreams,” you say. Fair enough. If you want to take charge of that process, you can imagine your departed ones, and have a dialog with them.  The people who always knew just what to say, how to soothe, and what questions to ask, are still available to us. We have only to call upon the Creative Universe within, and they are there.

This practice, conceptualized as a version of Jung’s Active Imagination, or intentional meditation or guided imagery, can be a powerful aide in the grieving process. It is a paradox. On the one hand giving us the experience of being with the person in our imagination is joyful, and yet it can be bittersweet, because they are within us, but not beside us in the sensual world.  Someone said (Rumi? Jung? Thich Nhat Hanh?) “tears are the river to the soul”. So if the dream visitation of a loved one or their dialog with you in your mind can inspire grieving, and this too is healing.

There is no way to avoid the pain of loss, but the gift of continuing your relationship with your loved one, in dreams and meditation, can give you the visceral experience that they are walking through this with you.

And, who knows, wherever they are in the unknowable dimensions of the Creative Universe, it may be healing for them to be with you in your imagination and  dreams.

You can share a cosmic coconut cookie, in a place of that touches the eternal in all of us.

BEING SELFISH VERSUS HAVING A SELF

I hear this a lot: “Isn’t that being selfish?  I once got so frustrated with someone, I said, “Worry about being selfish when you have a self!” This was an overreaction, and I apologized. As with many mistakes, it was regrettable, but led to a very fruitful discussion about the nature of self, and why so many of us, both women and men, often suppress our healthy wants and desires out of fear of selfishness.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines selfish as “concerned chiefly or only with oneself”. This doesn’t quite capture it.  A concrete comparison often helps. A truly selfish person would respond to a crisis with her aging father by saying, “That’s somebody else’s problem.” Such a person would be concerned only with their own comfort or convenience. A person with a strong sense of self might respond with disappointment, especially if it meant getting on an airplane and missing her daughter’s school play, but she would realize that an important aspect of having a deep connection to oneself is honoring the value and needs of others.

You might ask, isn’t the person getting on the plane practicing self-sacrifice? It depends on the circumstances, and on how conscious the person is. Self sacrifice implies martyrdom, and its companion, inflated self-worth.  If a healthy person had the option to delay hopping on that plane in order to attend the school play, she would take it. A martyr would dash out the door, saying to her child, “Sorry I have to miss your play, but I am so desperately needed, things will fall apart without me.”  This is selfish behavior, in the name of self-sacrifice. In this hypothetical case, our person is putting her own need to feel important above the child’s desire to have her mom come to her play. Even more to the point: our martyr is playing out a role she believes  will bring esteem and self worth in the eyes of others. She is not looking deep inside to see what action would be most important and meaningful for her.

These dynamics are complex. As we get psychologically healthier, most of us enter into an ever present dance of becoming more conscious of our own needs and desires, giving ourselves the permission to act on them, and also being aware of the needs of other people.  Ideally this includes recognizing when we stop self-motivated action in response to an old message, often forged in childhood, that we are “blowing our own horn” or “too big for our britches”.

In the process of what Carl Jung called “Individuation”, layers of old defenses rise to the surface. We come to see that many of the things we grew up feeling guilty about, don’t add up on the scale of emotional justice. It is not only okay to act from the center of our own desire, it is the only way to have healthy, balanced, honest relationships.

Sorting this out is often subtle and requires listening to voices deep inside of us. We can’t come up with hard and fast rules in the exchange between self and other in a reality that changes with every heartbeat. In our hypothetical about the woman responding to her father’s health crisis, it may be that she can check in with others attending him, ascertain that it is all right to wait a day so she can see the play, and make the choice to do so. Or, it may be that everyone back home is begging her to come right away, even though the situation is not that critical. Does she “cave” to pressure from her family, or listen to the priorities of her own heart? Or, it may be that everyone is telling her she doesn’t need to come right away, and her daughter is looking at her with hopeful eyes, and yet, a dream comes in the night, and our woman realizes she must go to her father right away. Their emotional bond is too strong, and his condition too unpredictable.

Listening to our dreams, and to that intuitive voice or images that comes to us in waking life, can be our greatest resource for discovering how to proceed in fidelity to our true self. Freud said, “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” Great treasures lie in the unconscious mind, just below our waking awareness.

So, before throwing down the self-demeaning label “selfish”, look closer. Truly selfish people are operating from a split-off psyche. When they reject others, they are rejecting a part of themselves. In our hypothetical story, if our woman had said, “That is someone else’s problem”, she would have been confessing that she feels she is someone else’s problem, a person incapable of seeing the depths of her own complexity, value, and vulnerability.

My hunch is that a vast majority of us are not “selfish” at all, but struggling to find, to own, and to operate from, our own complex and valuable self.

A NECESSARY COMPANION

 Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote in The Red Book of the distinction between “The Spirit of the Times” and “The Spirit of the Depths”. We see this vividly demonstrated when we put Ari Shavit’s acclaimed new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel  alongside Erel Shalit’s classic work, The Hero and His Shadow: Psychopolitical Aspects of Myth and Reality in Israel. The former takes us through the history of the heroic creation of Israel, including the darkest “shadow” behaviors of the Jewish state in the 1948 massacre of the Arabs of Lydda.

In the latter work, Erel Shalit tells us why.

This is no simplistic psychological analysis. The brilliance of this Israeli Jungian analyst is that he offers no easy solutions, plumbing the paradox of the necessary heroic identity of the Jewish state, and yet, around every corner is the shadow of every hero: the beggar, the frightened one, the part of all of us that is dependent on forces outside of our control.

It is also very important to note that Erel Shalit’s book is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the inner workings of the soul.  On one level Israel is the backdrop for the author to explore how shadow, myth, and projection work in all of us, regardless of our life circumstance, nationality, environment, or history. It even includes a comprehensive glossary of Jungian terms that has some of the best definitions I have ever encountered, and hence a find for readers new to Jung.

And, of course, for people who are fascinated by the scope and depth of the story of Israel, this is a simply great read. It stands alone, but read as a companion to Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land,  Erel Shalit’s Hero and His Shadow gives us The Spirit of the Depths in all its dimension.  We may not be able to resolve the Arab/Israeli conflict, but we can learn many things from this brave, complex Israeli author, that we can apply to healing the inner and outer wars in our own lives.

THE MEANING SEEKERS

VIKTOR: I have come to believe that it is death itself that makes life meaningful. All the losses along the way give us the opportunity to learn we can be stronger than we thought, take a new path, try a new skill, love again. We make a friend of our own free will and create a life of beauty from the rubble, like pearls of great price on a golden chain. Nothing is ever lost.

 EDITH: Sentimental tripe, Dr. Frankl. Everything is lost for the Jews.

 VIKTOR: If it takes all night, I will convince you otherwise.

 EDITH: To find meaning —here?

 VIKTOR: Most particularly, here.

Timeless Night: Viktor Frankl Meets Edith Stein by Elizabeth Clark-Stern

We constitute a most universal club : humans seeking the meaning of why we are here, what is our purpose, what do we really want, how do we transcend suffering, find meaning in injustice, overcome cynicism and self-doubt?  Answers seem illusive, yet we keep asking. Some grow weary of the quest and seek safe harbor in dogma, an understandable choice, and yet, as Bill Moyers once said of the “congregational polity” of his Baptist roots, in true religion, each person must forge their own relationship with God and struggle to make meaning in a world of paradoxical truth.

The breadth and depth of humanity’s meaning seekers never ceases to engage and surprise. As soon as we think we know what it looks like, who belongs to our “tribe”, someone comes along who is an unlikely candidate. A person who seems devil-may-care in all other ways, drops his voice and stares into space, suddenly humbled by a most universal question: “Why did she stop loving me?” This leads to the nature of love itself, the complexity of our need for one another, to the question of an inner life where none of us is alone in psyche. Judgments melt as common denominator is revealed.

In her beautiful book, Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning , Jungian analyst and author Jean Shinoda Bolen writes about the meaning search in one of the most challenging arenas of human experience: confronting the  life-threatening illness in ourselves or those we love. She evokes Viktor Frankl, who observed the full range of choices available to humans in the concentration camps. Some gave up, some took on the role of their captors and oppressed others; some found a deep compassion for others and made sacrifices to keep others, even strangers, alive.

In facing illness and possible death, we know that some are able to face it with assertiveness and courage, while others are passive, hostile, irascible. How are we to make meaning of this? What is the meaning of choice and free will in such a context? How does the existence of death influence our attitude about life?

Dr. Bolen uses story to dramatize this journey. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth learns that her sister, Ereshkigal is suffering and in mourning in the underworld. Inanna is compelled to descend to Great Below, to be a witness. The proud and powerful goddess enters naked and bows low, looking into the baleful eyes of death. She is struck down, her body left to rot on a hook.

The once-powerful Queen is humbled, as we are all humbled by endless cat-scans, x-rays, blood tests, and surgeries that leave us feeling like meat on a hook. Inanna symbolizes the part of us that is successful, ego-satisfied, master of our world. Her sister, Ereshkigal, is the part of us consigned to the underworld of life, not top of the class, smartest, fastest, much adored. She is the bad patient all doctors and nurses dread, whining, fearful, blaming, self-pitying. She is the person in our lives, or the part in ourselves, we most want to avoid. And yet, to find meaning in the mending of our souls, we are called, as Inanna was called, to enter the underworld and make peace with our inner Ereshkigal.

We are aided in this by a third character in the myth, Ninshubur, Inanna’s messenger, warrior, faithful servant, messenger, minister, general and adviser. She accompanies Inanna to the gate of the Great Below, and when she learns of her Queen’s fate, Ninshurber cries her lament loudly, beats her drum in the assemblies and seeks help from the father gods.  The first two gods cannot be bothered, but the third feels compassion for Inanna and acts immediately – in a curious way. He cleans under his fingernails and brings forth the dirt and lint and fashions two small creatures, neither male nor female, small as flies, who can pass through the gates of Hell unnoticed. These tiny flies find Ereshkigal and mirror her very particular woes: “Oh, my back!’ “Oh, my belly!” “Ahh my breast!”. The little fly-creatures respond, empathetically moaning, groaning and sighing with her. Ereskigal feels seen, understood, and cared for. Her petulant, wrathful behavior transforms to gratitude and generosity.  She offers the little fly-like beings riches and jewels. They ask only for the piece of rotting meat hanging on the wall, and thus Inanna, is restored to life, able to ascend from the Great Below to the Great Above.

Each of us must find meaning in our own way.  My search has brought me to the meaning-source himself, Viktor Frankl. Surely the enduring popularity of Man’s Search for Meaning is a testament to the universality of our club, as broad and deep as humanity itself.

I discovered that Viktor Frankl and philosopher/Carmelite nun Edith Stein travelled parallel paths in phenomenology, psychology, philosophy, and human rights.  They were also in the concentration camp at the same time. They could have met…

In my new play, Timeless Night, they are troublemakers tossed into an old storage shed in Auschwitz. They have one night to get to know each other, to tell stories, to learn, to explore, to laugh, to remember, to feel. With the dawn comes liberation or extermination. They don’t know which, but have opinions and theories about that, and everything else.

A teacher once told me, “All death scenes are life scenes.”

Nothing is lost.

And so the journey continues.