January 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” ~ Jack Kerouac
“Yet it is in our idelness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” ~ Virginia Woolf
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Bewildering, inspiring, sometimes horrifying, embarrassing, or just plain surreal—dreams have the power to recreate the rules of reality & transport us to places where we can fly, shift from one place to another instantaneously, converse with loved ones, long dead; or people we have never met. In a dream, a person can be simultaneously themselves & someone else.
These ever-shifting, quicksilver landscapes of the subconscious have fascinated humankind for time immemorial.
Dreams have been given mystical & personal significance throughout the world’s spiritual traditions for centuries—from the Bible to the Quran. A revered part of almost all indigenous cultures—from traditional African to Native American beliefs— the concept of dreams & “dreamtime” is particularly central to traditional Australian Aboriginal cosmology.
While initially considered divine messages from God or the spirits, the Greeks were the first to propose that dreams came from within—many a mystic would not see the difference.
Jung felt his contemporary’s focus was too narrow & contributed the idea of the collective unconscious—a universal pooling of archetypal figures or personified ideas, such as The Wise Old Man (which, incidentally, according to Jung, is the archetype that represents the collective unconscious.)
Most modern students of dream interpretation agree that, while certain symbols & their accompanying implication are universal—such as stormy seas indicating a sense of emotional turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life—the most important aspect of decoding a dream’s meaning lies in the personal significance of the symbol to the dreamer.
For instance, a serpent appearing in the dream of someone who likes snakes, or owns a snake, or considers snakes symbols of life force & personal power, (as is propagated by Hindu mythology, among others) will necessarily interpret a snake dream differently than a person who fears snakes or has a strong Judeo-Christian background, in which the snake is a classic symbol of evil.
(To extend this metaphor further, a snake owner with a strong Judeo-Christian background can determine the snake’s significance in their dream by assessing how the snake made them feel.)
The idea that the dreamer’s relationship to the symbols in question is the most important aspect of dream analysis was first proposed (in our known cannon of history) by diviner Artenidorus two thousand years ago, who wrote the first known book on dream interpretation.
In order to understand what dreams are, we must first dig a little into the idea of human awareness & its compartmentalization.
While the psyche is obviously made up of many layers, it can arguably be reduced to two basic components: the conscious & the unconscious mind—an intuitive, even self-evident idea. Though popularly connected with pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the term “unconscious” was actually coined by 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling—later introduced into English by the poet & essayist Samual Taylor Coleridge. Developed by Freud, expanded upon by the trailblazing Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the conscious/subconscious split is the basis for all modern psychology.
The conscious mind, as the name implies, contains all the memories, feelings & beliefs—preferences, desires & fantasies— that we can easily draw into our awareness; essentially, what we “know” (or, if you prefer, “what we know we know.”)
The unconscious mind, by contrast, is composed of the remaining psychic terrain, of which we’re not consciously aware—all the feelings, desires & experiences we did not know how to process or reconcile with our lives, buried & hidden from ourselves until we are equipped to deal with them.
(The idea that we can hide knowledge from ourselves—like alcoholics hiding bottles throughout the house & then forgetting where they are—is one of the most fascinating aspects of psychology & the conscious/subconscious split.)
Not everything in the subconscious is emotionally charged. It also contains simple data deemed meaningless by the conscious mind, but non the less retained.
You could call these exiled & forgotten fragments “what we don’t know we know” (in some cases, too, “what we don’t want to know”). There is wisdom here, like buried treasure, along with the ghosts.
For instance, a person in a relationship with someone who is overly controlling might dream they are being suffocated. Later, after the relationship has ended & the dreamer has admitted the truth of the unhealthy dynamic to themselves, they can deduce the dream’s meaning. But if this reality was not acknowledged consciously at the time of the dream, then it will appear a meaningless night terror.
Freud famously likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg & the unconscious to the vast hidden depth beneath the visible top.
For, like the hidden yet far vaster depth of the submerged half of an iceberg, the subconscious still exerts power over the conscious mind’s choices—no less powerful for its lack of “conscious” awareness, in fact, more so. The brain’s influential but hidden “shadow government,” if you will
This is one of the reasons why dream analysis can be an important part of personal development; dreams reveal the raw nature of the rejected, unprocessed aspects of our psyches & their accompanying life experiences. They also reveal the buried gems, creative talents & powers—like treasure at the bottom of the sea.
Dreaming is commonly described as the way the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. Through dreamwork we can become more conscious of the lenses through which we view the world & better see which are serving us & which may need some polishing.
Why do we say that dreams are symbolic?
A symbol represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or person. Since we are not “really” doing the things in our dreams, but experiencing images & sounds as if they were real, the visual & audio cues “stand for” their real-life counterparts. This is one level.
The deeper level is that the subconscious mind is not a logical, tame beast that communicates neatly in language. It is a primal aspect, emotionally charged, which speaks in the symbolic universal tongue of images. It is the wild jungle-forest aspect of our psychic terrain which has not been colonized & farmed by the socially conditioned conscious mind.
So the unconscious uses symbolic language to express itself—presenting images & scenarios that may represents or suggest things or ideas beyond the thing itself. For example, a red rose symbolizing romantic love.
Jung popularized the now mainstream wisdom, “Everyone in the dream is you.” But many dream scholars, including myself, believe that there are many different types of dreams.
Different characters in the dream may in fact represent different aspects of the dreamer’s self. But it is equally possible that they represent actual people or circumstances in the person’s life.
September 26, 2013 § 21 Comments
“Why do we describe a distraught person as being ‘beside himself’? Because the ancients believed that soul and body could part, and that under great emotional stress the soul would actually leave the body. When this happened a person was ‘beside himself.'” ~ Dictionary of Word Origins
Our language is rife with references to what has traditionally been described by shamanic cultures as ‘soul loss’ — “Nobody’s home,” we might say of an empty-eyed co-worker. Or, in a funk ourselves: “I feel like a part of me is missing.” Popular songs site it casually — I don’t know where my soul is / I don’t know where my home is (Nelly Furtado, “I’m Like A Bird”).
Yet, these expressions are so common, we often use them as descriptors without fully investigating their implication.
“Few of us live as fully as we could. When we become aware of this, we want to recover the intensity of life, and the intimacy, that we once enjoyed…We want to come home more fully to ourselves and to the people we love.”
Many turn to the shamanic arts for language and methodology which address our collective angst with a soulfulness lacking in modern lexicon.
“The re-emergence in the late twentieth century of shamanism — with its lively and concrete notion of soul — seems to be a response to a very depressing cultural reality,” notes Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule. “In the past six or seven hundred years we have undergone a consciousness-shift of 180 degrees. Formerly soul was our primary reality. Now we have only a body and a rational ego.
“The material conditions of our lives have improved immeasurably, but we’ve lost the imaginal and transcendent scope that belongs to the reality of soul. In a situation like this, it is often the depressives among us who are the most realistic regarding the impoverishment of our human existence.” (“Depression & Soul-Loss.”)
According to modern writers on the ancient subject, soul loss accounts for depression, anxiety, a sense of alienation, incompleteness and disconnection, a feeling of being “spaced out,” or “sleepwalking” through life. Extreme cases include coma, psychosis, fugue states and dissociative identity disorders.
Interestingly, the concept that a vital aspect of the self flees or retreats during experiences of extreme pain or disturbance is an idea shared by shamanism and psychotherapy alike. Psychotherapy calls it “disassociation,” shamanism calls it “soul loss.” The purpose in both cases is self-protection.
Modern shamanic healers explain that we all lose bits and pieces of our soul, or vital essence, as we go through life.
The cause doesn’t have to be something as monumental as an accident or as extreme as abuse. It can be as simple as a small child’s sensitivity to their parents’ psychic tension or continued arguing. Little by little, parts of ourselves withdraw and become seemingly lost to us.
Rejected elements of the personality are banished from conscious awareness — Jung’s concept of the psyche’s “Shadow” aspect. This is done unconsciously, to ease the cognitive dissonance of harboring seemingly conflicting or ambiguous feelings; what modern psychology calls “compartmentalization” and repression.
Denied aspects — such as repressed sadness, anger, inner child or libidinous impulses — are effectively exiled. But they do not disappear. They continue to exist “underground,” as it were, in the subterranean caves of the psyche, causing emotional alienation, discomfort and disconnection from self.
The good news is that excavation of these buried aspects — and a renewal of their accompanying vital forces — is always possible, and the focus of psychotherapy and shamanic healing alike.
“An aspect of the infinite soul fleeing under duress is a state everyone has at some point experienced, regardless of terminology or ideology applied,” comments Kelley Harrell in her Huffington Post article, “The New Treatise on Soul Retrieval.”
The most common approach of neo-shamans is to echo the ancient model of shaman-as-guide in the netherworlds of psyche/non-ordinary reality. As pioneering anthropologist Mircea Eliade wrote in his now classic text “Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”:
“Only the shaman can undertake a cure of this kind. For only he ‘sees’ the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it, in ecstasy, and return it to its body….Everything that concerns the soul and its adventure, here on earth and in the beyond, is the exclusive province of the shaman.”
However! A fascinating synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic soul retrieval has been in the works over the past several decades. A growing number of healers are shifting the agency from themselves to their patients.
Practicing psychotherapist & shamanic healer Selena Whittle attributes the modernized soul retrieval method to her mentor Ross Bishop. Upon his return from studying with teachers in India, Australia, and South America, Bishop transformed the Soul Retrieval process into a method that could be embraced by the Western mind and heart by making a simple shift in the roles of Shaman and the healing recipient.
“In this contemporary method of Soul Retrieval,” relates Whittle, “the essential elements of the process are the same. There is a shamanic journey into the inner world where the wounded part of the self is identified, healed and brought back; however, the client does the work and is guided by the Shaman. The client takes the shamanic journey. The client identifies the part of the self that is wounded. The client builds a relationship with that part of the self, heals it, then brings it back for integration.
“The Shaman guides the client every step of the way, helping the client navigate the internal world of the psyche, guiding the client in the potent words or actions that are needed to build the relationship with the fragmented aspect of the self, to heal it and to bring it back. The shamanic journey becomes a shared experience, the Soul Retrieval a shared healing intervention.”
But let me initiate you right here and now into a simple yet profound method, which you can practice in the comfort of your home.
1. Create your inner sanctum.
Visualize anything from an ornate temple to a simple spot by a running brook. The important part is that the setting has identifiable features, which can be recreated, and that the space makes you feel empowered, centered, safe and calm. Mentally construct as many details — sights, sounds and smells — as possible. Lie back, get comfortable and spend some time really making your inner sanctuary come to life behind closed eyes. (*The bath, with some low light, candles, calming scents and salts, is an excellent place to do soul work.)
2. Call in the missing soul part.
Decide which aspect you are going to reach out to before settling in by first looking at the problem areas in your life. For example, if you are having issues with anxiety, call in “the one who feels anxious.” If you are dealing with addiction, call in “the one who is addicted.”
If you are a visual person, the rejected aspect will likely take form in your mind’s eye. If you are not, you may simply get a feeling or “thought package” of insight — though visualization is encouraged with this particular method.
3. Reach out, reassure, & connect.
Remember, these inner aspects are in hiding because they have been wounded, ridiculed, banished, frightened. They are like scared children — who have not developed beyond the age at which they fled — and must be reached out to accordingly. So it’s important to access & project a sense of deep compassion towards them if you’re to inspire their trust.
Tell them you wish to discuss their unmet needs.
These rejected aspects, which you may have deemed bad, difficult, or unacceptable, actually have legitimate needs, which — as they are not being met by you, their guardian — are being substituted with unhealthy behavior. The coping mechanism employed by the exiled aspect, however far from your ideal, is truly its best effort with the tools at hand.
Explain mentally to your exiled aspect that you are here to increase communication between their awareness and your conscious personality. Remind them you both have the same goal of wellbeing and wholeness, because ultimately, you are one being. Any sense of isolation and disconnection has been a fear-driven illusion based on pain and misunderstanding. Now you are calling home your missing parts. If they have felt unloved, give them the love they crave. You have all the power. Use it.
These injured aspects have a long history of feeling unsafe in the presence of the too often accusatory and judgmental conscious mind. As a result, they will often cloak themselves in guarded energy, which can have a menacing impression. This is not the true aspect, but a self-protective mask.
Like any vulnerable creature attempting to seem stronger than it feels, this protective presentation may take the form of something frightening. Practitioners refer to this as “entity” presence, which denotes fear-based energy that isn’t yours but is being used by the wounded inner aspect like armor.
This same goal can be achieved by the inner aspect through opposite means, by presenting an overly “goody-two-shoes” image (“See? I’m perfectly fine. Not hurt at all.”)
So it is necessary to gently test and question the initial appearance of the invited aspect by asking if it is an entity. In your sacred space the aspect can not lie. Even if it says “No” with its mouth, it’s shape may shift or the eyes may flicker, telling a different story and betraying its true nature.
It should be noted that simply because an image is disturbing does not automatically make it false “entity” energy. It can just as easily be the symbolic representation of the feeling-state of the soul part—it may feel, and thus present as, bruised, starved, beaten-up or neglected.
Keep probing its authenticity gently until you feel it has lain down its defenses and actually offered its true, vulnerable self at which point reach out and initiate a compassionate dialogue. A good place to start is by asking how you can help.
If the answer is simple and true, you know it’s the soul part speaking. If the reply is too convoluted or complex, it’s an entity-energy defense, or your cerebral analysis kicking in; start over and await the answer without assumption, projecting compassion.
5. Identify Source of Disconnection, Correct Misunderstanding
Once assured of the fragmented aspect’s authenticity, ask it to show you at what age it became separated. It may show you a particular scene or instance. Ask how this situation made the soul part feel. What was the message it received? Usually, something in the “Not good enough” category will surface. As with small children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce or general unhappiness, the impression of unworthiness will invariably be based on a misinterpretation of events. With compassion, correct this misunderstanding. The fragmented aspect needs to hear it is worthy of love. Bring it home by embracing this exiled aspect of yourself; give it the love and acceptance it has been hereto denied.
6. Stay connected afterwards.
The goal is to continue the newly forged relationship beyond your inner journey into your everyday life, eventually forming a full integration between the formerly exiled piece and your conscious awareness. Check in with the newly rediscovered aspect throughout the days following your journey. How does he or she feel? Are you meeting the needs discussed with more awareness?
What makes this method different from, and often more effective than, regular “talk therapy” is the willingness to surrender conscious mind constructs to the wild and telling symbolism of the subconscious. In this way cerebral analysis is transcended and the beating heart of true experience touched.
What may read as hokey can be extremely powerful in a real-time, step by step process. After all, these are the parts of self from which we are always running, from whose pain we so often seek distraction. Giving them back their voice, and gracing their needs with our attention, can be a life-changing integration.
Ultimately, whether you regard this excercise as symbolic or literal doesn’t matter. As French poet Baudelaire said, this world is a “forest of symbols.”
The inner fragmentation experienced by so many in this modern time mirrors the compartmentalization tendencies of society itself.
“The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society which is split into different nations, races, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments — in ourselves, in our environment and in our society — are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, ecological and cultural crisis.” ~ Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics)
In a so-called civilized world, which so often dismisses the idea of soul and then complains of feeling empty, soul retrieval — reclaiming personal wholeness — is a heroic act.
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.
January 12, 2012 § 15 Comments
Each of us has a calling, a unique voice, a song we must sing, a vision we must enact. ~ Circles of Air, Circles of Stone
Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ~ Norman Cousins
Traditionally, the vision quest is a sacred right of passage in native cultures. It signifies a turning point in life taken to find oneself and one’s direction.
Usually done in conjunction with some consciousness altering practice — traditionally, fasting, sleep deprivation or the use of natural hallucinogenic drugs — the young initiate would go out alone into the wilderness, after much preparation by elders, to seek communion with the forces of the spirit world.
Often the period of return to the tribe was marked by sacred celebration, a ritual or a tribal event, such as a drumming ceremony, in which the repetitive rhythms induce a meditative state of prayer, spiritual receptivity, connectivity and communion among participants.
We have no modern equivalent. Or more specifically, our modern equivalents are stripped of the sacred; debased. For example, going to college and venturing out into the world of newly-freed freshman to drink, dance and party is largely considered a rite of passage. But what visions can be found in a night of binge drinking?
Yet, we yearn for this type of self-expression. To unleash the inner animal and find self-renewal. We thirst to connect with something greater than ourselves, to engage our fellow man and find our direction. While there exist retreats to guide one through a modern vision quest, these are always a gamble. Apart from being expensive, operators have been known to get in over their heads, as happened to James A. Ray in 2009, wherein three participant deaths occurred as a result of a botched sweat lodge ceremony. As with many self-help practitioners, the line between the shaman and the charlatan is often difficult to ascertain.
Because of this ambiguity, and the inherent risk of trusting a stranger with your life — particularly a stranger who stands to gain monetarily from your acceptance of their authority — I propose an alternate solution to express this ancient desire in the modern age: Create your own vision quest.
This can be done in a multitude of ways. The simplest option is to give yourself a day for self-reflection wherein time is taken in solitude in nature to go inward and reconnect with the earth. Running water is particularly stimulating for introspection, as it creates a meditative soundscape of soothing white noise, not to mention energetic properties of movement and cleansing. Even if your nearest creek or river can be found hours outside of town, it’s worth the trip: simply removing oneself from one’s context is a source of renewal within itself.
The ocean, too, is tremendously healing, as most people can agree. A day spent alone at the sea can yield great self-renewal. Salt water specifically has therapeutic properties both on a physical and energetic level. Once alone with the sea, woods or river, one can ask oneself the big questions one may be avoiding: what do I want to do with my time on this earth? What do I have to give? What do I want to be doing?
If you stumble upon a thought which excites you, pay attention. As writer-mythologist Joseph Cambell famously said, follow your bliss. And as the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran said: ““Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.” Go there & ask. If pain comes up, address it. The pain is the dragon that guards the gold.
I find it helpful to ask myself questions I feel I do not know the answer to, and see what comes. Something always comes. Writing these questions & this process down can be tremendously helpful in crystalizing the inner jumble of thoughts.
If you have an open enough mind, try asking a tree or a bird for advice — though it’s likely just our own self projecting an answer onto the other, new insights can be achieved by this kind of reshuffling of one’s typical thought process. You may be surprised by the answers you receive.
If self-analysis just amps up your angst, go for a more meditative non-thought approach. Equal clarity can be gained by a restively blank mind. The simple act of taking time out for oneself and journeying out into the natural world is restorative, nurturing that aspect of self unengaged by modern past times.
Relax your mind and every time you have a new thought, label it “thought” and let it go. Tibetan Buddhist monk and writer Sakyong Mipham, author of Turning the Mind into an Ally, recommends labeling the specific kind of thought. I.e. “memory,” or “fantasy,” or “worry.” You may be surprised by how often one’s thoughts are pointlessly and compulsively reliving some scene from the past, or falling into a projected fear or fantasy about the future. Once we begin to break our thinking down, we can better understand and control its mechanisms.
These are mini-quests we can take at any time. All it takes is a day free of obligation, the desire to rediscover one’s inner sense of direction and the commitment to finding some beautiful spot to think, or not think. In a similar vein, a mirror meditation —consisting simply of the prolonged facing of oneself in the mirror, in solitude, while lovingly dealing with whatever mental-emotional issues arise —can do wonders for breaking open the shut down parts of the self.
So often we look in the mirror only to asses and self-critique. A quick cursory glance on the most superficial level. Yet prolonged gazing into one’s own eyes can yield wonders of self-discovery.
It is the eyes which should be focused on. Don’t focus on flaws of complexion or compare your face to a magazine image of false perfection. It’s easy to do, but you are not using the mirror for meditation if your mind becomes engaged in this direction, you are using it for its profane purpose and adding to the problem, not the solution. The mirror meditation is a sacred tool in the quest of return to the self, and must be used as such.
Also, we can create our own communities of questers.
One fun and powerful way to embark on a modern vision quest is to do it with friends. Gather together a group of like-minded individuals, who share your goal of self-renewal and inner questing, pool your resources and rent a lake house or a cabin in the mountains for the weekend. The day can be dedicated to solitary journeying — everyone goes off into nature and does their own thing, whether it be journaling, meditating, or simply an introspective hike.
In the evening, everyone returns to the group house to share their day’s experience and storytell. Music and dancing are primal keys, particularly in conjuncture with a day of quietude and meditation. Apart from having therapeutic properties, intimate dance parties are among life’s joys. It’s not the same at a club, where you have to watch your physical space and may, despite your best efforts, still have your appearance in mind — this kind of movement in a safe space with friends and lots of room is more akin to dance therapy. If you throw your all into an hour of dancing out the demons, I promise it will leave you feeling luminous.
In a world so full of possibility, yet so often perceived on the go, creating this kind of intentional space to journey, together and alone, supplies a much needed psychological reboot to the modern dreamer.
*For a modernized version of traditional soul-retrieval check out the post “Soul-Retreival.“
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.”
April 10, 2011 § 5 Comments
Since the first prelinguistic human put rudimentary paint to rough cave wall, the human race has sought to bring its inner visions into the world through form, sound and story.
These early depictions focus mostly on animals, or on human-animal interaction, perhaps having some kind of magical pre-hunt ceremonial meaning.
The next trend we see in ancient art (Egypt, Mesopotamia) is the portrayal of mythic power beings, often a merger of human-animal traits into superpowerful hybrids, perhaps an attempt of man to internalize the power he sees in animals.
As his consciousness evolves, man begins to wonder why.
To answer questions about origin and meaning, to instill a sense of control and some kind of system, the gods are born. Unless, of course, they really existed (ancient alien theory, anyone?). The most simple explanation of course is mythological — that man was symbolically growing wings, imagining himself greater than his past, stretching his imagination.
Next, the Ancient Greek interest in human form and aesthetic balance emerges.
In The Mission of Art, Alex Grey writes: “The new vision of Greco-Roman art began to shift away from the fusion of human-animal deities and focus more on ideal and naturalistic human forms. Naturalism corresponded more with the ascending world-view of rational investigation and description of nature (including human anatomy) which was the beginning of organized scientific medical inquiry.”
By the Renaissance, we see many self-portraits; in correspondence with humanity’s birthing self-awareness.
“As the ninteenth and twentieth century human psyche matured into the analytical rationalism of objective science,” Alex Grey notes, “the moderns turned their attention to analyzing the formal characteristics of painting and sculpture itself [. . . ] The search for unique and personal approaches led artists to increasingly clever explorations of abstract, surreal, and nonobjective [art.]”
Each “ism” signified original insights and inventions of the artists: impressionism (small but perceptible brushstrokes, realistic representation of light, usually indicating movement or passage of time, simplified form). . .
fauvism (French for “wild beasts”, strong color, simplified subject, mood over realistic representation) . . .
expressionism (the world represented in an utterly subjective manner, radical distortion of reality for emotional effect) . . .
. . . cubism (objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context). . .
. . . futurism (violent rejection of classism) . . .
. . . dadaism (ridicules the so-called meaninglessness of the modern world through the use of the absurd, precursor to surrealism) . . .
. . . constructivism (practical art, stripped of emotion, mechanized). . .
. . . surrealism (dreamlike juxtaposition, visual surprise) . . .
. . . abstract expressionism (anti-figurative aesthetic, emotionally intense, rebellion with nihilistic tinges). . .
. . . pop art (images from popular culture, ironic use of kitschy and/or banal found objects). . .
. . . minimalism (work stripped down to most fundamental features) . . .
. . . conceptualism (concept over aesthetic).
As you can see in this brief visual history of modern art, we’ve deconstructed ourselves to bits. Alex Grey details, “Today’s culture of high rationality has been dubbed post-modern, because we have deconstructed reason and language itself, finding that there are always multiple points of view on any subject.
“Any attempt to comprehend a ‘whole’ or ‘higher’ truth must take the cacophony of indivduals, each with his or her own opinion, his or her own “truth,” into account.
“Postmodern doubt has replaced the confident trajectory of invention and progress which characterized modernism.”
In light of our recent artistic past, it seems the current cultural situation calls for today’s artists to transcend the fractured vision of postmodernist deconstruction and find a new connectivity, a new vision, which does not so much rely on reaction to the past, as mining for deeper truths within the collective human psyche.
It is the first vision that counts. Artists have only to remain true to their dream and it will possess their work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other artist — for no two visions are alike, and those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama. — Albert Pinkham Ryder