October 30, 2012 § 17 Comments
By Tai Carmen“The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.” ~ Thomas Moor
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” ~ Pema Chödrön
So named after St. John of the Cross’ classic religious poem of the same title, the dark night of the soul is described by seekers of all mystical traditions as an important stage of the quest for deeper knowledge — as unavoidable as confronting the dragon who guards the treasure in every mythic hero’s story.
“The mythological goal of the dragon fight is almost always the virgin, the captive, or more generally, the ‘treasure hard to attain.’ This image of the vulnerable, beautiful, and enchanting woman, guarded by and captive of a menacing monster gives us a picture of the inner core of the personality and its surrounding defenses,” relates Donald Kalsched in Myth & Psyche.
The maiden or treasure on the other side of the dragon symbolize our own inner wealth or spirit, awaiting reunion with the conscious mind, guarded by the ego and shadow-side aspects of the personality.
“Only one who has risked the fight with the dragon,” notes the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, “and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the ‘treasure hard to attain’. . . . he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby gained himself.”
In myth and life alike, when the seeker first sets out upon the path, it is often not by choice but by necessity. To live in denial of the call simply becomes unbearable. Many times transformation is triggered by a crisis of meaning, forcing a reassessment of values and priorities.
Increased awareness shines a light on dark corners of the personality and/or the world at large. So the dark night period is really a sign that transformation is occurring — the labor pains of personal rebirth.
If processed, all who have undergone the dark night of the soul agree that it is ultimately a doorway to deeper awareness and understanding. On the other side awaits a more authentic self and a broader concept of the world. But in the meantime the false constructs and denied aspects of self become increasingly uncomfortable, even painful, giving the impression that something awful is happening, when, in fact, this period can be seen as nature’s way of encouraging regeneration — as a snake’s partly shed skin irks and itches him until he rubs the husk off entirely.
Because of his powerful ability to shed old layers of himslef, mystical traditions the world over associate the snake with transformation and regeneration.
Jesus had his forty days in the desert, Jonah his time in the belly of the whale. In Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker asks Yoda what he will encounter in his first test, the mini master replies: “Only what you take with you.”
“Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In other words, the more we deny it, the more power the shadow self has over us.
“The Shadow is an archetype—a universal motif or image built in to all human beings. You can no more get rid of this inner Shadow than you can avoid casting an outer shadow when you’re in sunlight. For most of us, that creates a problem, because the Shadow appears as the sum total of the weakest, most flawed, inferior or even disgusting parts of yourself. It’s everything you don’t wish to be, but fear that you are.” (“The Tools” by Phil Stutz.)
When one is experiencing a dark night of the soul, one inevitably comes face to face with one’s shadow side.
“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings,” says Zen monk and author Pema Chödrön. “We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
Continues Chödrön,”It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately trying to fill up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.” By spaciousness, Chödron means the vast calm available to us in the “inner space” of turning inward in meditation and conscious presence. (For more on third eye meditations and inner space travel see “The Art of Seeing: Third Eye Perception and the Mystical Gaze”).
“It takes a long time to learn to listen to the still, small voice within,” notes Psychology Today writer Wendy Lustbader. “We tend to seek direction outside ourselves, while our soul’s language is drowned out by the commotion of day-to-day doings, all the external strivings that distract us.
“It is possible to lose awareness of this inner voice for years and to be carried along by the force of society’s dictates and other people’s conceptions of a worthy life. At any point in the lifespan, suffering makes our need to hear what is within acute.”
“We see our Shadow as a source of humiliation that we try to hide—usually through some kind of perfectionism,” explains Phil Stutz. “The counter-intuitive truth is that when we reveal the Shadow… its nature changes. It becomes a source of creativity and confidence.”
This is because it has been noted by students of the psyche, and Jung in particular, that, as psychologist Ken Page puts it: “Our deepest wounds surround our greatest gifts.” Continues Page, “Cervantes said that reading a translation is like viewing a tapestry from the back. That’s what it’s like when we try to understand our deepest struggles without honoring the gifts that fuel them.”
“Core gifts are not the same as talents or skills,” continues Page. “In fact, until we understand them, they often feel like shameful weaknesses, or as parts of ourselves too vulnerable to expose.” He gives examples of a client who feels she is “too much,” whose core gift is passion. Another who feels he is “not enough,” whose core gift is humility.
“Yet [these vulnerable parts of ourselves] are where our soul lives…” Page observes. “But gifts aren’t hall-passes to happiness. They get us into trouble again and again. We become most defensive-or most naïve-around them. They challenge us and the people we care about. They ask more of us than we want to give. And we can be devastated when we feel them betrayed or rejected…”
“Since the heat of our core is so hard to handle,” details Page, “we protect ourselves by moving further out from the center. Each ring outward represents a more airbrushed version of ourselves. Each makes us feel safer, puts us at less risk of embarrassment, failure, and rejection. Yet, each ring outward also moves us one step further from our soul, our authenticity, and our sense of meaning…
“So, most of us set up shop at a point where we are close enough to be warmed by our gifts, but far enough away that we do not get burned by their fire. We create safer versions of ourselves to enable us to get through our lives without having to face the existential risk of our core.” (“How Our Insecurities Can Reveal Our Deepest Gifts”).
Considering these angles, it becomes easier to see how the symbolic dragon of the shadow side protects our greatest riches, and how shining a light on our darkness is one time-tested way to liberate the luminous gold of our authentic self.
The only way out is through. Once we begin to see the value in our shadow aspects and dark night periods — whether it’s a dark night day, month or year — we can learn to stop resisting the discomfort and surrender to the process, to view it as an initiation, a transition. If we view every aspect of the journey as sacred, we are better able to glean its gifts, for behind the dark night awaits a silver dawn.
October 29, 2011 § 46 Comments
“I see too deep and too much.” Henri Barbusse
“The visionary is inevitably an outsider.” Colin Wilson
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Jiddu Krishnamurti
“I get a kick out of being an outsider constantly. It allows me to be creative.” Bill Hicks
The outsider, by definition, is isolated in some way from the dominant thrust of society. They do not, like the majority, expect to find satisfaction in striving for material success and status, seeing these limited focuses as necessarily generating a mediocre and myopic existence.
What others accept easily, the outsider has trouble accepting. They tend towards pressing the issue — “But why does it have to be this way?” And so within the restlessness of the outsider rests the seed of the visionary.
But no great visionary is comfortable in their time, or they wouldn’t be a forward-thinker in the first place. We are the misfits for whom the world feels strange. Common to this personality type is often a prevailing sense of dislocation, a feeling perhaps that home is somewhere but not here.
“What can be said to characterize the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, or unreality,” details Colin Wilson in his fascinating and influential book, The Outsider. “This is the sense of unreality, that can strike out of a perfectly clear sky.”
“Good health and strong nerves,” Wilson continues, “can make [this sense of unreality] unlikely; but that may be only because the man in good health is thinking about other things and doesn’t look in the direction where the uncertainty lies. And once a man has seen it, the world can never afterwards be quite the same straightforward place.”
Literature is rife with stories of outsiders experiencing this moment in which the world is turned on its head, assumptions fall to pieces, and the truth of society’s blindness revealed — from Holden Caulfield to Siddhartha. Philosophy, and its accompanying questions of being and meaning, go hand in hand with the great literary tradition of the lonely hero who undergoes this disorienting transformation of consciousness.
Classic existential novels such as Sarte’s Nausea and Camus’ The Fall explore this relationship between the outsider and the crisis that awakens him from the sleep of the average citizen. A more modern example would be Haruki Murakami’s Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
Here we see the poet as outsider watching the daily trudge to work of the average citizen and feeling the life of the city somehow “unreal.” He notes how “each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” and that the sound of the clock striking nine o’clock, signaling the start of the work day, has a “dead sound.” Elliot is not — and does not wish to be — one of them.
Colin Wilson expands, “the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. ‘He sees too deep and too much,’ and what he sees is essentially chaos.
“[…] When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that the truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.
“[…] The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos. He may have no reason to believe that chaos is positive, the germ of life (in the Kabbala, chaos—tohu bohu—is simply a state in which order is latent; the egg is the “chaos” of the bird); in spite of this, truth must be told, chaos must be faced.”
The person who finds themselves alienated from the dominant thrust of society tends to have a more responsive emotional life, a more vivid imagination, a hungrier mind than their peers. Because of this sensitivity, they are more affected by the world around them than others — more easily hurt, but also more discerning, more astute.
Most outsiders don’t decide to be outsiders, but are born with an inner sense of difference, a sense of seeing or feeling, observing, more than others, often with a driving sense of purpose (however vague) and a lack of interest and/or ability to conform with the expectations of the status quo. Others are made into outsiders because of a particular experience which separates them from the average person’s experience of the world — perhaps an early encounter with loss, a difference in appearance or desire.
Whether the cause for their difference is a priori or posteriori, the outsider is invaluable to society. As Wilson asserts: “The vitality of the ordinary members of society is dependent on its Outsiders. […] It is their strenuousness that purifies thought and prevents the bourgeois world from foundering under its own dead-weight; they are society’s spiritual dynamos.”
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
The qualities for which the outsider is ridiculed may prove to be his greatest asset – his difference from others, obsessions, introversion, unconventional perspectives, all fuel the landscape of creation. In his article, “Creative Thinking,” Michael Michalko muses, “Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken.”
August 3, 2011 § 40 Comments
“You’re happiest while you’re making the greatest contribution.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” ~ Eric Hoffer
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
“If you want to be happy, be.” ~Leo Tolstoy
We all want to be happy. The question is, how? As philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.”
Certainly, this holds truth, as anyone who has become preoccupied with the question can attest. Yet the question must be asked. After all, we are given this one life as we know it, and to spend it unhappily seems a terrible waste.
We often confuse happiness with its showier cousin: pleasure. Pleasure and fun can mimic happiness for a time, perhaps even stimulate it, but since it comes from an external source — a good meal, a good time, making love, making money — once the experience is gone, so is the feeling.
And then we are left chasing it, wanting more food, more fun, more love, more money. This can become compulsive. We become like drug addicts always looking for our next fix of circumstantially induced happiness.
But a life spent running after fleeting pleasures wears down the body and starves the soul.
In the Republic, Plato addresses this issue, distinguishing between the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the intellect. We must choose to live well, he says, if we want to experience true happiness.
For Plato, “living well,” entails cultivating the virtues of wisdom (morality, intellect,) courage (how we face adversity, how we stand by our values,) moderation (self-control, temperance of unhealthy desires,) and justice (fighting for it and demonstrating it.) According to Plato, developing these traits will lead to a good character, which creates a balanced and happy soul.
Plato sees the soul as having three parts: the appetitive, which seeks pleasure via food, sex and drink; the spirited, which seeks victory, honor and social status; and finally, the rational, which seeks knowledge, and truth. To be happy, Plato says the rational element must rule.
The other aspects have their role, but the highest element, the rational, must discern when to pursue the lesser desires, and to what degree. For Plato, cultivating the virtues of good character will allow a soul to experience eudaimonia, or happiness, which, tellingly, translates from the ancient Greek as ‘flourishing.’
Though we typically think that achievement and success will bring us what we want –and working towards goals we care about does give us a sense of purpose — to think that lasting happiness will be granted to us once we achieve those goals is a mistake.
Statistics (and the all too common tragedy of celebrity suicide and drug overdose) show that this proves true only temporarily. Like other short-lived joys in the “external source” category, the experience giveth, and the experience taketh away.
According to Psychology Today the clamor to understand happiness and its recipe has reached a fever pitch: in 2000 just 50 books on the subject were published, while in 2008, 4000 books on the pursuit of happiness hit the shelves.
A new branch of psychology has developed over the past two decades: Positive Psychology, which aims to study the healthy thriving human, rather than making the neurotic mind its research model. The Positive Psychology approach expands upon Plato’s theory of the cultivation of virtues as the recipe for happiness:
1) Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.)
2) Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)
3) Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)
4) Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)
5) Temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, self control)
6) Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.)
Positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar believes our greatest obstacle in achieving happiness lies in our desire for perfection. Drawing on the idea of Plato’s Theory of Forms (wherein there exists a perfect, ideal abstract version of each flawed form within the material world,) Dr. Ben-Shahar maintains that our constant measuring of things as they are against their imagined ideal leads us to unhappiness.
The perfectionist within us all is convinced that not only is it possible to attain this ideal version of our circumstance, but often we feel entitled to it. When we do this we are doing ourselves and our circumstance a twofold disservice:
1) we are being mindless, i.e. not present in the moment, appreciating and experiencing what we truly do have; and 2) we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure, as we are never going to be happy with what we have, comparing it to a fictitious, mental ideal.
According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfection is the downfall of our quest for happiness. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, he distinguishes between what he terms Perfectionists and Optimalists.
The ideals of the Perfectionist (also known in psychology as a negative perfectionist) are unrealistic, based in fantasy. Perfectionists are extremely uncomfortable with failure, and tend to turn on themselves and/or others when their expectations are not met. This rejection of failure and painful emotions in turn leads them to anxiety and more pain.
Conversely, Optimalists (also known as positive perfectionists) have attainable goals, and base their high standards in reality. They accept failure as inevitable and instructive. With this awareness, and by adjusting our attitudes accordingly, we can move from Perfectionism to Optimalism, and, theoretically, from distress to the happiness we seek.
Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora observes, “Happiness is not about smiling all of the time. It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment.”
Which brings up the question…what is happiness?
“The most useful definition,” details Flora, “—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than ‘happy’ in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.
“It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort.
“It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.”
She also points out that happiness is not our reward for escaping pain, but rather demands that we confront negative feelings head on.
In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous, as they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” Real life is full of disappointments, loss, and struggle. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankle describes how he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by finding personal meaning in the experience. He recalls a moment, amidst the brutal, demoralizing conditions, when he suddenly conjured the mental image of his wife’s face:
“…my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness […] A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.
“The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”