Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jung’

I am taking shelter in a bamboo house which stands above a road, on tall stilts. Access to it is by ladder to a trapdoor. The road leads off into the distance, both ahead and behind me. To the left and right are impassable ranges of forested mountains. People are processing along the road towards me. There are many of them, like a column of wartime refugees. As they pass under the bamboo house, some try to climb the ladder, wanting to get in. At first, I resist, preferring safety in isolation. But then I relent, open the trapdoor, and lower my hand to help the people up.

It’s a fragment of a dream I’ve been pondering for a few days, and it’s not making any sense. I’m also out of the habit of remembering dreams, and this fragment is the best I could rescue from a much longer dream sequence. I like to write dreams down, and mull them over. Sometimes they chime with my preoccupations, but even when they don’t, I enjoy them for the surreal imagery they serve up. Once you fall out of the habit, though, it can take several days for the dreams to start sticking again. And we’re not exactly there yet.

On the one hand then, this could be a dream about dreaming, and my neglect of it. You know? It could be an allegory about my looking to haul the dreams up into consciousness again, like I haul the people up. But the people do not strike me as representing dreams. They are people in distress, escaping a crisis, from what appears to be my future. Since all dream elements are aspects of the dreamer, what aspects of my future self might they be? What aspects of my self are migrating from a future crisis, to the past, which is (currently) my present?

I fear I am missing a significant punch-line here.

In other, not unrelated, matters, I have been pursuing this apparently new-fangled thing called “the meaning crisis”. Various learned authors are pontificating on it, and I’ve been hitching a ride with them, looking for answers, doubling down on my reading. And I’ve been listening to lengthy lectures on You-Tube. It is the main talking point for the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.

The meaning crisis is something afflicting the western world in particular. But any nation that becomes “westernised” will inevitably fall victim to it. It sounds very serious, and has to do with the individual’s loss of meaning in the midst of material plenty, including such technological wonders as the Internet and Android telephones. But then it strikes me of a sudden, I’ve been writing about this for twenty years. What seems to have happened is I’ve forgotten all of that, and allowed myself to be bedazzled by charismatic intellectuals into thinking the meaning crisis is something new, when it isn’t. Its effects are simply more prevalent now.

The Jungian school of psychoanalysis bottomed it a century ago, Jung himself describing mankind as hanging by a thin thread, that is the psyche. The poets, particularly the Romantics, nailed it too. I came to the gist of it, intuitively, through my reading in the late nineteen nineties, as my own psyche began to mature and to pick up on these things. Through that maturation, I began to see materialism not as a panacea, but for the spiritual poison that it was. I explored it in my first novel, the Singing Loch. I was clumsy and naive, though, and fudged the conclusion. I’d not a clue how you went about solving a problem like that. The clever men who write books about it now don’t know either. I think we have a better idea of the causes, not least from our understanding of Jung. But knowing the calibre of bullet doesn’t help you, when it’s aimed at your head.

A good metaphor, is the right-left brain dichotomy. The left hemisphere of the brain deals with what’s in front of it. It’s logical and mechanical, and it jumps to conclusions. Our ego finds its most natural home there. Meanwhile, the right brain hemisphere is more holistic, deals with ambiguity, and is the source of our creativity. It’s more nuanced, and can bring intuition to bear in situations of complex ambiguity that will stump the left brain. But in a materialistic society, the left brain dominates. Indeed, it shapes society in its own image. Thus, our world becomes unimaginative, superficial, materialistic, and pointless.

This is the nub of the meaning crisis.

The left brain should not be in charge. The right brain is the better master, and without it, we’d be sunk. The left brain’s proper place is as the right brain’s gopher. But the gopher has staged a coup to the extent we don’t even know what the right brain is for any more.

The left brain also killed God. This was sometime in the Victorian period. Neitzsche called it out, and said we’d never be able to wash away the blood. We can interpret this as meaning that when we stop believing in God, we discover we need a material replacement. So, the left brain presents us with any number of man-made ideologies to choose from. The downside is, the history of the twentieth century teaches us all those ideologies end in terrible suffering. The twenty-first isn’t shaping up any better.

A little before his death, Jung had a vision of the end of humanity. His daughter wrote it down and left it in the care of his associate, Marie Louise Von Frantz. If we take it in the context of its times, we were in the midst of the cold war, only a few years away from the near nuclear catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps he had projected himself into an alternate future, where that particular incident went badly. I don’t know. But the thrust of his thesis was always that man is the greatest danger to himself. And his greatest danger is his inability to deal with his own shadow.

One of the great psychological conundrums concerns the most evil acts in history – there are plenty to choose from, but it’s basically this: what is it that can drive basically good people, into doing very bad things. What is that transforms the ordinary baker and candlestick maker into the mass butcher of men? It has to do with the shadow, at both the personal and the collective level. And we only spare ourselves the shadow’s excesses by realising everything we label as evil, is actually a part of us. Refusing to accept that, and to integrate the shadowy parts of us into our awareness, it takes very little for us to begin acting out what we say we are not. A group is labelled as “other”, thereby dehumanised, trumpeted in the collective-shadow-tabloids as vermin, and we too are but a heartbeat away from killing.

Religion is important in tempering the shadow. Or rather, it’s not any more. Religion is easy. You learn the lines, and you pay your lip-service once a week. Anyone can be religious. It’s the spiritual journey that tames the shadow, and spiritual matters, once upon a time the purview of religion, are more difficult. We can’t ignore the spiritual in us, though the left brain has been trying to eradicate it.

It was the Jungians who demonstrated the need for human beings to grow, spiritually. How we deal with that en-masse is a complicated business, but religions used to handle it reasonably well, until the left brain of religion decided it was all about power and influence, and to hell with that airy fairy business of the spirit. But ignoring the religious function – the spiritual function – the need to grow, people lose direction, become sick in the head, start believing in stupid things, and then they start killing each other.

The spiritual path, however you define it, is about dealing with the personal and the collective shadow. The modern psycho-spiritual types call it “shadow work.” But who has the time and patience for that, when the most pressing issue for many westerners now, is how to pay the rent, or the gas bill?

Jung hoped enough would wake up to spare the total extermination of the species, but we seem a long way off. It’s not exactly talked about, let alone taught at a level aimed at capturing the popular imagination. And of course any mention of Jung, even sixty years after his death, is still enough to trigger the shadow-splenetic of all manner of left brained intellectual and cultural punditry.

But what has all this to do with my dream of the Bamboo House? Well, given that this is an outline of my current thinking, it’s a fair bet it has something to do with it, because such is the stuff that dreams are made of. I trust another dream will come along and clarify it, that is, if I can stick around long enough to remember the punch-line.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

Some Jungian stuff today. I’m attempting to read Erich Neumann’s “Origins and History of Consciousness”. The book is beyond me, and I’m having to use a dictionary at some point on every page, which breaks the flow. In one sense it’s a technical work, aimed at the psychoanalytical community. In other ways, it’s a four-hundred-and-odd page poem about coming into being.

It’s about the development of an individual’s sense of “I”, also the psychological development of mankind, since the one reflects the other. What I don’t think is mentioned, since even Jung avoided direct talk of it, is that both are functions of an underlying metaphysics, built into the universe itself, that indeed it is the universe. Thus, psychoanalysis crosses the boundary into spirituality.

It’s heavy going, and this is my second attempt. Neumann, a student of Jung, lacks – for me at least – Jung’s ease with language. That said, it’s instructive to come at Jung from another direction, if only to rediscover old ground in a new light. What I’m reminded of today is how the metaphysical universe communicates in the language of symbols. Symbols are mental shapes given motion, and they arouse feeling. They might look like one thing, but we interpret them as something else. Symbols cloud together, so we can cross-reference, and map their meaning to something specific. Interpreted literally, the universe has no meaning, indeed appears, at times absurd. But when seen metaphorically, archetypally, the way is illumined as something else entirely

Culturally, western man thinks of the universe in physical terms, that what we see is all there is. Even what we can’t see we can glean by our ever more sophisticated instrumentation, by our science and our technology. There is nothing else. But such thinking leads to an impasse. Worse, it results in a breakdown in our natural development, because it’s not the full story. There is the universe as we see it, and then there’s the universe as it really is, and the two are not the same. Denying even the possibility of the universe as it is, we cut our selves off from our natural path and we disintegrate, as people and as a culture.

Jungian thinking posits the notion of a psychical underpinning to the universe. This is not to say the stars, the galaxies, the planets are alive and conscious of themselves. These are merely the bigger manifestations of the universe as we see it, not as it is. We don’t know how it is in itself. All we know of it is what we can perceive upon the screen of our senses. But while the rules governing material processes tend towards ever increasing states of disorder, universal consciousness tends towards greater levels of order, and it finds its greatest order, its sense of self-awareness, in each of us.

The formless aspect of the universe is a realm of archetypal pattern, whose behaviours we interpret through the language of myth. Myths are those stories which form the basis of human culture. They deal with the perplexing mysteries of where we come from, of how we should conduct ourselves while we’re here, and ultimately where we’re going. But since the individual mind is a microcosm of the universal mind, these stories can also be turned inward and used for self analysis. The world’s mythologies have more wisdom in them than any book on psychology.

And what the myths teach is that the individual life is the universe playing hide-and-seek with itself. We are born into the world, immersed in its material complexity, and having forgotten entirely who we really are. But we also have this strange kernel of longing for a greater understanding of the meaning of our lives. A life’s journey then becomes a journey to the realisation we are different versions of the same awareness, that we spring from the psychical ground of being. However, it’s one thing to be told such a thing, to be aware of it intellectually, quite another to feel it, and so to “know” it. To truly “know” it is to awaken.

To awaken, however, is a rare thing, even when you know the destination. But for the ordinary travelling souls, like me, what this also means is that if the road is of interest, we need only declare ourselves open for business, and the universe will co-operate to a degree that suits our personal limitations. It will constellate symbols around us and, if we can interpret them, they will draw us in a direction that is right for us. This is a little like confirmation bias, where we agree with those speakers who reflect best our own dispositions, and dislike those who do not.

The universe communicates by synchronicity. It leads us by coincidence to those things, events, or people that are most meaningful to us. And what is meaningful is that which will trigger the emotions we most need to address, they being of a negative, regressive variety. They cloud our vision, and muddy our minds. Whilst the goal here is not happiness, happiness becomes a more reliable companion, as a by-product of the process, while awakening remains the true goal.

The deeper we are lost in the game, the harder will our awakening be, and the more profound the lived experience. To what end, I don’t know. If I can ever get to the end of Neumann’s book, I may find out. But I’ve a feeling the universe was just having me on when it pointed him out to me, and by so doing is pointing out – symbolically – my own limitations.

And if so, then fair enough, but I remain, as ever, open for business.

Read Full Post »

It was a Friday much like any other, the day I retired. Such a strange year, though. Most of the office have been working from home, the rest split into long shifts, so those still on site could maintain social distancing. It just meant each shift squeezing the working week into three days. It had worked, as far as I know, and none of my colleagues had caught Covid, though we were all looking pretty knackered as we approached the year’s end.

As I counted down my last hours, after forty-odd years of work, it felt unreal that I would soon be walking out for ever. There was just this final tick-sheet of tasks to make sure I left behind a tidy ship. The last one was the handing over of my pass to the security guy at eleven forty-five. The sparsely populated office was absorbed in their separate Skype calls and video-cons, eyes glued to screens, headphones to block out the world around. At the appointed time, I rose from my desk, put on my jacket and walked down to the security desk, unnoticed by anyone. I didn’t want a fuss.

The guy on duty didn’t know me, but he wished me well when I said I was retiring, that I wouldn’t be coming back. His sentiment was genuine. I’ve noticed an uncharacteristic tenderness amongst my male colleagues in these last weeks. It’s as if the fact they won’t be seeing me again has given them the opportunity to speak from closer to their hearts than they would normally do. But I think it’s also Covid. We’re all trying to make the best of it, to put a brave face on it, but we also need to speak of the feelings we have for one another. So don’t wait until that old guy is retiring. Tell him now. Tell your mates, tell your colleagues how much you respect them, how much they mean to you, hell just tell them you think they’re doing a great job. And okay, maybe I’ve been lucky with my work-mates, but if you think your colleagues are a set of lazy, incompetent, bullying, bastard psychopaths, you should tell them that too. This, like no other, is a time for truth.

It had rained all day, rained like the devil on the drive in, this being my last commute, thank God, pitch dark at half seven down the M61. It was all rain and spray off the heavies, the usual tit-mobiles brightly lit and speeding blind. The rain hammered down all morning, but as I stepped out though the sliding doors that lunchtime, a thin, watery sun came out, like it was doing its best to mark the moment. I appreciated the effort.

How best to deal with this period, I’d asked. Disentangling, was the reply, with various intricate caveats. Bowing out with honour was one such caveat, but otherwise I should be ruthlessly determined in slipping free, of clean-breaking from the past. I’d asked this of the yijing, an oracle of considerable vintage, and with which I have a tempestuous relationship. Sometimes we’re on, sometimes we’re off, but for the early years of the millennium we were very close indeed. This was the result of a chance meeting under pressed circumstances, when we first established trust in one another. So, disentangling, yes. Good answer, that.

It’s not a good time to be changing tack, but is it ever? I’m not sure if I’ve caught the wind right on this one, and BREXIT is a worry. The markets had been recovering well from Covid, but they’ve been jittery again all week, scared of another dip, while the lorries are queued for miles either side of the channel, and the supply chains lie broken in a million places. But I’ve been planning this for a long time, and there’s no going back now.

Stepping more into the soul-life is what I’m aiming at. I’ve twenty years until I’m eighty. Anything more than that is a bonus, but I want a good crack at the time I’ve got before then. What for? Well, if you’re young you might think a guy of my age, approaching sixty, is pretty much spent, and better off dead, but I think this last few decades of life is as important as the first few, and I’m looking forward to them:

“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning”

So said Carl Jung, and I’m not going to argue with him.

Sure, my early and middle-stage work is done, but I still have important connections to make. Indeed, this latter stage of life is potentially where the way becomes most interesting, providing we can let go of the idea we are still young, when clearly we are not.

The nature of work has changed and, in truth, I was no longer of a mind to be charitable towards it. I had a hands-on job, one I enjoyed, a technical specialist, lab based. But like all workplaces increasing amounts of useful time were spent simply answering emails. Take any time off, and there might be easily hundreds of emails waiting for you on your return, so much so one hesitates before taking any leave at all. Sure, most of them are junk, but each has to be eyeballed for the one that’s going to ruin your day, and I was unable to develop a strategy for dealing with any of that without increasing amounts of anxiety.

My impression is we’re approaching a self referencing loop, when simply answering emails about emails becomes the point of our days, our months, our years. Our communication tools are more advanced than we are, and we lack sufficient relevant information to be usefully communicated by them, so we simply make up the rest to pad out the void, and copy all.

I wondered about casting round for a fresh identity, now I’m no longer a fully functioning, commuting, salaried C Eng MIET. I didn’t like the idea of becoming just another grey old man pushing a trolley round Tescos. But of course, I’m still the same as I’ve always been, just this guy who writes and walks, and takes pictures, only now I have more time to do it. Sure, I feel blessed to have escaped that email inbox, which I imagine filling up even now in my absence. Nor will I miss the snarling deathtrap of a twenty-mile commute on pitch black roads, lit by dazzling headlights on hateful winter mornings.

If I can close in on the meaning of my life, if I can correctly judge my journey in this time of “spirit”, is yet to be seen. But whatever, success or failure, the adventure continues. Many of my well-wishers wished me a long and happy retirement, which I translate as meaning: “Don’t drop dead too soon, mate.” And fair enough, I know what they mean. So to those well-wishers, to whom I wish an equal share of wellness and more, I say also this: I’ll do my best.

Thanks for listening.

Graeme out.

Read Full Post »

shadow games2I caught a snippet of TV news. It was a politician talking, and it provoked a strong reaction in me. He’s a liar and a sleaze, I thought, which of course he might well be, but my temptation to shout at the TV suggests something else, something deeper. It’s more about my self and my unacknowledged potential for lies and corruption, I think. You see, it’s never wise to be holier than thou.
 
Then there’s this guy I know who irritates the hell out of me. He blathers on about stuff he doesn’t understand, but like he’s some sort of expert anyway. My reaction to him says there are parts of myself that are also prone to arrogance and bluff, but which I hide from. Then, what about my irritation at the couch potato, the shirker of fresh air, exercise and health? That suggests I harbour a similar penchant for sloth and a warm duvet, to say nothing of a craving for fatty treats.
 
But I filter these things out of the virtuous image I have of myself. I polish up my mask of perfection for the world to see. Meanwhile, what I judge to be the less attractive aspects of my nature, I push aside. But refusing to own them does not mean I do not still possess them. Instead, they lurk in the unconscious mind, from where they  project themselves onto others. There’s much worse they’ll do, too, if I don’t spot them and own them back.
 
These are aspects of a psychological archetype called the Shadow, and  we all have one. It forms in childhood as we find our way through early life. We try out various behaviours, looking for attention, or approval from our parents, teachers and social groups. We want to find out what helps us fit in, to be whatever is considered “normal” by our society. Thus, we learn to hold onto those parts that get us liked. The rest of the stuff, the stuff that’s caused us embarrassment, or ridicule, or earned us a good telling off, we suppress.
 
It’s troubling that we have this hidden, darker side, a piece of us we cannot see. But the bigger danger is if we deny its existence, because then our shadow can have us rejecting people who might otherwise mean well. They just have this foible that enrages us, because we have not recognized it in our selves and made peace with it. It can have us wearing facial expressions we are unaware of, rebuffing or even frightening others. It can also blind us to the real power behind world events and render us manipulable by a cynical media even to the extent of causing us to behave violently and irrationally. Remember, media headlines are hooks, fishing to land our shadows, and when we are in thrall to the shadow, we’re not exactly looking where we’re going. We can get lost in some very dark places.
 
The shadow is mostly viewed negatively, but this need not always be so. There are public intellectuals and spiritual leaders I have become quite a fan of. I watch them on Youtube, and I project feelings of admiration towards them. This suggests the aspects I so admire lie undeveloped in myself. Sure, I wish I was a confident speaker who could hold an audience. I wish I was better at thinking on my feet, and could explain a complex phenomenon in simple terms. I wish I could exude an air of Zen-like calm, and thereby comfort those around me. So why don’t I? Well, it’s hard, isn’t it? And it takes courage.
 
On the world’s stage, certain populist leaders operate by deliberately polarizing the population. They attract all manner of projections, both good and bad. The negative aspects of the current US Presidency need little introduction. But there are other aspects his followers find hugely inspirational. Is it more useful then for his detractors to become paralysed by negative emotion? Or are they better withdrawing their shadows and trying to understand how he energizes his following? Then we might see our problems from a more transcendent perspective, and that’s got to be better than simply squaring up and shouting uselessly at one another?
 
The Shadow haunts every aspect of our lives. Unless we come to terms with it, it will arrest our emotional and spiritual development, have us languishing in adolescence, even into old age. But more than that, it is our inability to deal with our shadows, collectively, that has always rendered mankind the biggest danger to itself. After all, what else can reduce an innocent human being to a figure of collective hate? What else can launch an army to war, if it is not the collective shadow? What else can cause us to view desperate people risking the world’s perilous migrant routes, and speak of them as if they were vermin?
 
We are all vulnerable to the shadow. We are all thereby vulnerable to manipulation by those who know how to use it to play our weaknesses against us. Only by defusing the shadow do we release its power back into our own hands. But dealing with the shadow isn’t easy. These darker aspects of ourselves can be disturbing to acknowledge. For example, would you be happy to know you have it in you to hurt someone and enjoy it? Even the positive aspects of the shadow can be dangerous to us because they set an ideal that can make us resentful when we realize we have not the character to work towards realizing it in ourselves.
 
It’s a slow process, unpicking the shadow. Indeed, it’s a life-time’s work, but it begins with that person who annoys you. You feel the emotion rising, and you pause, then ask yourself what is it, that part of me I’m feeling? Then you try to make friends with it, as if it were a sullen child – that is, we do not act it out, but more we say: “Aha! There you are, you little rascal. I remember you. Now come, we’re better than that.”
 
And so, in the words of Carl Jung:
 
“Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic unsolved social problems of our day.”*
 
*Psychology and religion (1938)

Read Full Post »

inner work

Robert A Johnson (1921-2018] was a pioneering Jungian Analyst and a respected figure in the international psychoanalytical community. A student of Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Sri Aurobindo school in Pondicherry, he was also an author of many insightful works on human nature and self development.

In “Inner Work” he deals with dreams and active imagination as ways of communicating with the unconscious mind. The unconscious, while largely unknown, holds great influence over us. If we can meet it half way, it can be a powerful ally. It will fill our lives with enthusiasm, colour and meaning. But if we ignore it, our world becomes grey and meaningless. Worse, the unconscious will come back at us as depression and neuroses. On the world’s stage, those neuroses manifest as chaos, authoritarianism, and war.

To pre-modern cultures, unhindered by materialist prejudice, dream-work comes naturally. We all dream, but moderns tend to explain them away as an artefact of neural processing – in other words, garbage. But we have only to spend a little time with our dreams to see this is not so. Dreams provide us with an abstract picture of the flow of our inner psychical energies. They also provide a channel for making those energies conscious, and they challenge us to accept them as part of our waking lives. We feel better, more relaxed and motivated, and the world becomes once more a magical place of infinite possibility.

Serious dream work is not about looking up the images in a dream dictionary. Dreams are personal, the images in the dream being for us alone, and that’s how they must be interpreted. But dream-work isn’t easy. Its imagery is at times beyond bizarre. It can be by turns seductive and horrifying, and all too often incomprehensible.

A more direct way of engaging the unconscious is through active imagination. Here we seek dialogue with the personifications of whatever imaginary energies we can summon. We close our eyes, relax, a figure appears in our mind’s eye, and we talk to it.

Active imagination is risky because it can get out of control. Most authors advise against it unless you’re under the supervision of an analyst. That’s fine, but reading this book, I realize I’ve been doing it all my life. Also, writing fiction, we talk with the archetypal energies who take shape as characters in our stories. If you’re a writer you know what I mean, and this is probably safe territory for you. If you’re not, then best leave it alone.

Both techniques, as described here, come straight out of the Jungian tradition. In dream analysis, we write the dream down, then work through each dream-image. We list all the associations we can think of, returning each time to the image. Then we ask what dynamic, what mood, what emotion it might represent. Having done the groundwork then, the actual interpretation of the dream – the message – drops out more easily and the energies are released as a powerful “aha!”. Johnson then advises us to honour the dream by acting out an appropriate real-world ritual.

Dreams sometimes recur, but for most of us they last just the one night. In that single set piece they present us with an allegory of our inner psychical disposition. Active imagination is different and can go on for days, weeks, years. This is a difficult thing to describe, because it’s easy to say we’re just making stuff up, and it might indeed start out that way as we set the opening scene with our characters. But then we must prepare for the dialogue to go off script very quickly as the unconscious becomes an equal partner in the conversation. It can tell you things you did not know you knew. But it can also dominate the conversation and is therefore dangerous.

Dealing with archetypal energies, Johnson advises us to be mindful of the moral sense that comes with human consciousness. The archetypes are instinctive drives. They are often insightful and numinous, but they are also amoral and ill equipped for life in the conscious realm. A vulnerable individual might all too easily subordinate themselves to an archetype and become possessed by it. Then they act out its amoral tendencies in real life. It’s crucial therefore the ego uses its discernment, and brings to bear its moral sensibilities.

This touches on Jungian metaphysics which describes the universe as an idealist realm of pure mentation. The archetypal energies pour forth as collective or personal myths. The purpose of the human being then, is to use the gift of consciousness to shepherd these raw drives as best it can into something more compassionate and moral. Without that intervention, nature remains red in tooth and claw, and our evolution towards something higher is stalled.

Inner work can sound self-indulgent and new-agey. But unless enough of us attempt to awaken to these powerful energies, and deal with them positively, they will possess us in negative ways, possess the world too and run amok. They’ve done it before – just pick your century. The difference between past generations and ours though is we have the power to destroy ourselves several times over. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock approaches midnight, and right now it’s touch-and-go if we’re going to make it.

The book is very approachable, and clarifies for me some of Jung’s more difficult concepts. It features several fascinating dreams and examples of active imagination from Johnson’s work as an analyst. It’s a valuable guide for anyone undertaking serious inner work, but it will also appeal to anyone simply interested in dreams, the imagination, and the fascinating conundrum that is human nature.

Read Full Post »

blake-newtonIn attempting to understand the world’s ills it’s all too easy to fall foul of low-level egoic thinking. In the olden days a writer might have addressed waspish letters to the Times on whatever issue vexed him. Now he’ll keep a blog and thus similarly satisfy his need to shout at whatever devil enrages him. But to do so is to overlook the fact the forces at work in the world we rub up against are the result of whatever myth the human race is living at the time, and are generally impervious to the individual will.

The left shouts at the right and vice versa. Meanwhile the world moves inexorably in a particular direction, one dictated by the myth of infinite growth, a story in which the ego must for ever feed itself in a frenzied attempt to maintain its relevance, its dominance in the daunting void of the universe.

One way or another, we are all invested in this idea, but since we live on a planet of finite size and resource, it’s clearly impossible we should continue to grow, to consume, to expand for ever. There is a point at which the earth will be stripped bare of its resources, the seas turgid with our trash, and the atmosphere choked with the smoke of our fires. It’s irrational then we should continue in this vein, but we are not dealing with the rational, more a tide of mythic being emanating from the collective psyche, and we are powerless to subvert it. Unless we can renew this myth, the story must play out, and us with it.

I’m all too guilty recently of sniping in my blog, and in my fiction at who I see as the villains of the piece. My ego is infected by the fever of a righteous anger and this weakens my ability to think in more feminine terms, to see beyond the material, to see through the witch’s scrying-glass, into the realms of the psyche where the myth-making begins.

The dreams of the individual dictate our conscience, our actions and our speech as we each live out our story, but since that personal myth is not shared by everyone we can have little effect at large and would do better to mind our own development, prevent our own devils from becoming manifest and troublesome to ourselves, yet thereby also learn something of the troubles of the world, for as the old Hermetic adage goes: as above, so below.

Most of us struggle with the concept of a collective dimension to the inner psyche since it implies a supernatural ground to our being, and this is not fashionable in a world built on rational thinking. We struggle also with its early theoreticians, like Carl Jung, because these were not one dimensional thinkers, and were often flawed in themselves, as are all men. But, at its simplest, the direction of travel is for the unconscious in man, to become conscious, thus there is nothing we do or say or think that does not first have its origins in our unknown depths. What each man then discovers in himself becomes his life’s work, and in a similar vein what humanity discovers in its collective dreaming becomes its destiny, one to which all of us are tied.

Thinking psychologically then, we see reflected in the current state of world affairs the kind of strife the individual inflicts upon himself by an unhealthy domination of the psyche by the Ego. Our affairs stagnate and the unconscious sends monsters to torment us, not because that is its nature but because, by our actions and our faulty thinking, we have invited them. The remedy is the oldest story in the world, this being the Hero’s quest, told in many ways across many and diverse cultures, but essentially a metaphor for renewing the myth of our moribund times.

In this light we see the current somewhat sinister jokers at large on the world’s stage less as individuals and more as manifestations of the trickster archetype. The trickster has two faces, one jocular and provocative, the other malign and destructive, though both presage the disruption of the status quo. They appear at a point in the world-myth when the old ideas have run their course, their function being to usher in chaos, from which new psychical structures, new ways of being, both collective and individual, can emerge.

This is not to say these figures see themselves as embodying that role – indeed who knows if they even see themselves at all, beyond their own will to power. It’s more that we, inspired by the great dream of life, and our despair at its apparent end-game state, project that archetype upon them. And if it’s true, it tells us we are close to a transition between myths, one in which the hero journeys out at last to bring home the wisdom of renewal, and the secret of a new way of being. That’s the good news. The bad news is the tricksters foreshadow a collapse before any transition is possible, so while there may be a silver lining, there is a lot of darkness yet to come, and the question is shall the hero return in time to usher in that new dawn, or will we by then have already extinguished the sun?

Read Full Post »

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885

The material life is what it is. We are born into certain circumstances – an ethnicity, a religion, a family, a nationality, a moment in time – and we make of our circumstances what we can. We do this within the limitations of our personality, intelligence, and energy, also the limitations placed on us by history, culture, and by prejudice – our own prejudice directed at others, and theirs directed back at us.

Thus constrained we make way as best we can, always striving for personal happiness. But for all our hopes to the contrary, life is messy, impermanent, beset by tragedy, and there is nothing to suggest what we make of our material lives, whether we find our balance, or we thrive or are utterly crushed, is actually of any importance at all.

For proof we need only observe those among the rich and powerful, people who are the most materially successful and surely want for nothing, yet whose ignorance and cruelty suggests they are operating at a very low level of self awareness, that indeed as human beings, not only have they a long way to travel, that wealth or power or popularity is not the real measure of success at all. But then we all know this, don’t we?

Without a certain level of self awareness, we are like automata, we are as lacking in the essence of life as the material things we crave. Self awareness is standing beneath a starry sky and feeling one’s smallness while also awakening to a deep connection with the mystery of all before us; it is the realisation that without our eyes to see and hearts to feel, there is no beauty, that our exquisitely fragile presence is the only thing that grants the universe meaning. Thus the soul in man awakens.

Many confuse this soul-life with religion, and though it is indeed a spiritual matter, it is not about “getting” religion. Religion is easy. Spiritual matters are more difficult. They develop, not supernaturally, but from the psyche and they grow from enquiry into one’s self. Religions can provide a path to self awareness, but one that is too often subverted by the tendency of all hierarchical structures towards corruption.

As unlikely as it sounds, writing – or indeed any form of art – provides another path. There is in all of us a transcendent function that enquires of life and seeks wholeness, seeks oneness with “something”. We can ignore it, or we can grant it creative expression. It’s not a path for everyone, and really rather depends upon one’s psychological type. But it suits me, so I write.

When we write, we are dealing with the unconscious and its unknown contents. Through writing, we invite these contents to become known through the imagination. Once known, or at least hinted at, they become our life’s work, our life’s story. We work then at a pace in partnership between the forces that support us and our natural ability to assimilate them.

My own story thus far is contained in twelve novels, beginning with the Singing Loch, first penned in my twenties, and ending with my most recent, the Inn at the Edge of Light. It begins with the natural world, with the sublime nature of the hills and mountains of the British Isles, and the realisation that the sublime isn’t “out there” at all, but is actually a thing we project from within, like an archetype, a pattern of psychical energy, that the sublime is an abstract impression of the divine ground of being. We were separated from it at birth and we crave reconnection.

The paradox however is that, once awakened and craving reconnection, we realise the river of unconscious contents emanating from this inner universe we are seeking to re-enter, is flowing against us, striving ever more towards an awareness of itself in the physical world, a world that, to a human life, seems curtailed to the point of frustration and despair. It is as if timelessness seeks the ephemeral, a phenomenon as strange as the thought of a free man seeking imprisonment. This is a hard one to crack, but in writing we state the problem, and we invite the answer.

Sometimes the answers come directly from the unconscious, revealing themselves on the page, often trivial details in themselves but which form, over time, a greater structure of understanding. And sometimes it comes serendipitiously, the unconscious guiding us towards the works of others, works we may have perused many times and seen nothing in them, but through our continuing enquiry we awaken sufficiently to return and take what meaning is meant for us, at the time when we are ready to grasp it.

And finally, with the Inn at the Edge of Light I take my seat at the bar and the landlord pours me out a glass of the water of life and I begin to understand through all this mythologising the role of a man with one foot in the camps of both his conscious and his unconscious life. Either that or I fall victim to my own delusions, and what I have achieved is no more than a voyage of Romantic speculation – take your pick.

But if I can close by paraphrasing Carl Jung,…

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without.

Nor is there any reason why we should.

Read Full Post »

high angle photography of people in ground

Photo by sl wong on Pexels.com

The study of personality helps explain why people behave the way they do. Likewise, it can help us understand our own idiosyncrasies and guide us over the occasional bumpy road. We’re all different, but these differences can be categorised as differing blends of a finite number of basic psychical patterns.

Though there are numerous models of the psyche now, it was Carl Jung who first developed a psychoanalytical theory of personality, defining a primary pair: the introverted and the extroverted types. Then each of these is further characterised by two pairs of opposites: Sensing and Intuiting, which determine how we perceive the world around us, and Thinking and Feeling, which determine how we decide how to act in any given situation.

Although we each possess characteristics of all the types, we have a dominant type, a mode of being we tend to favour under all circumstances. But when the dominant type fails to make headway against life’s ever-changing demands, we get stuck and lose our energy – what Jung called the libido. It’s this progression and regression of the libido that marks how well we are adapting, and in turn how happy and motivated we feel. The personality needs some flexibility. The more rigid we are, the more we suffer and struggle.

The mother and daughter team, Myers-Briggs, built on Jung’s work, adding in another pair of opposing functions: Judging and Perceiving. These determine whether we relate to the world in a structured (Judging) way – always making plans and striving for control of events, or unstructured (Perceiving) – more spontaneous and always keeping our options open. It’s the Myers Briggs type-test you’re most likely to come across in business and human resource studies today, and defines a total of sixteen possible types.

I map closely to the Introverted, iNtuitive Thinking and Perceiving type (INTP), which means I undervalue the feeling approach, can come across in person as a bit of a cold fish, and I can be wilfully blind to the evidence of my senses. I’m also evasive of schedules, only ever making plans at the last minute and I’m impatient of pushy, outgoing people who never seem to know when to stop talking.

If we’re unable to recognise our flaws, if we think we’re perfect, we cast a strong shadow over our potential for growth. Our shadow is our type’s opposite and it’s there we find the solution to whatever ails us. But it’s one thing knowing our faults, quite another to know how to go about correcting them.

I’m writing a weird, semi-mystical novel at the moment, relying heavily on the dominant intuitive side of my nature to draw a mind-picture of this world I’m creating, and then the thinking side of me decides what makes sense, what to keep, and what direction to head off in. But having your head in the clouds all day, counting fairy dust doesn’t help much when things are literally falling apart all around you in the real world.

An intuitive imbalance can be countered by getting to grips with some hard facts. As unlikely as it sounds, when you’ve run your dreamy ship aground on the sandbars of improbability, fixing that leaky garage roof can get the energy moving again. There’s a burst of satisfaction, and a confidence that comes on completion, allowing us to return to the dreamy stuff feeling refreshed. But sometimes it’s not so easy; we find there’s an irrational reluctance to engage with the very thing we most need, so when I’m in deepest intuitive thinking mode, the sight of a dripping tap can tip me over into a foul mood, have me cursing the numpties who fitted it, and endlessly procrastinating rather than simply reaching for the spanners and getting to grips with it myself.

Sometimes this imbalance of function can lead to deep seated neuroses, things we try to avoid all our lives because they make us anxious and depressed, and since our dominant type is what we’re stuck with, it’s not so easy to get to the root of things. But if we’re fishing for solutions, it’s at least useful to know where to cast our net. Indeed freeing up our inferior functions might take the whole of our lives, but it’s also one the most useful and liberating things in life we can do.

Read Full Post »

eyes1

Human cultures the world over traditionally revolve around a defining myth. Myths are stories explaining the nature of being, and they change as society evolves, because what does not change to serve the times cannot be true, so myths that do not evolve inevitably die.

In the west we have lost our ability to mythologise. Also, with the decline in religious observance we are losing touch with that canon of mythology recorded in the old and the new testaments of the Christian tradition. This is a sophisticated system, though rendered opaque by the corruptions of piousness, demagoguery, and our enslavement to guilt. So the myth dies and nothing rises to take its place, leaving only an oppressive void in the western soul.

We might argue that, since we live in an age of reason, there is no need for stories to comfort us, that science explains everything we need to know. Science has, after all, vastly improved our material lives but it hasn’t made us any happier, or any less inclined to cruelty and war. True, there are still some myths kicking about, but they have shrunk, become fractured, taken shelter in a million “New Age” ideas, as people cluster around any fragment that gives warmth.

It was Carl Jung who said:

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without. Nor is there any reason why we should.

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

Myths are not histories to be proven. In trying to prove the historical provenance of myths, we miss the point and rob them of their power. We do not have to believe in them, but there is something in the instinct that requires we maintain at least some degree of supernatural observance.

Nor do we invent myths. They are not fictions created merely for our entertainment or to frighten our children into obedience. They take shape by a process of cooperation between the imagination and the unconscious realms. Beyond waking awareness, the mind is an unknown country. It is unconscious, and only some of what is unconscious is personal. The rest is shared. It is a sea of psychical energies from which common patterns arise.

So, the myths take shape, and it falls to us to birth them into reality. In the past we have called these patterns Gods, and in more recent secular language, Archetypes. They have an autonomous nature, are rich in both personal and worldly meaning and they seek expression through us, for there is something special about us they do not themselves possess, this being the fact of our existence in a realm defined by limitation, number one of which is our mortality which lends a sharp and urgent focus to our thoughts. And it is this, our exquisitely fragile jewel of being, which causes the Archetypes or the Gods to seek relationship with the world, through us.

But the thing about the Gods is they will have at the world, whether we prepare the way or not, and I speak of Gods here in the classical sense, where they manifest as a pantheon of sometimes benign, sometimes mischievous, sometimes blood-hungry energies. Preparing the way, we negotiate with them our defining myths through dreams and visions. This contains the Gods within certain parameters, allows them a presence in the world and a useful function, but without the risk of overwhelming us. Our ultimate reward is death of course, but we trust also, a smoother passage through the underworld. However, when the Gods arrive to find no myths prepared, they act out their excesses without restraint, drive us to madness and despair. And what follows then are the hell realms of our own most terrible imaginings.

I recognise now a negotiation with my own daemons has been played out across the pages of my more speculative novels, allowing a personal mythology to evolve and to give shape to a thing that is otherwise unknowable. Thus a myth becomes symbolic, a totem for the ineffable – if you like the best of a bad job – yet which, as Jung said, heals the emotions and, by its seeming validity, grants a certain glamour to existence we would not like to do without.

Such personal myths are unlikely to appeal to anyone else, so I won’t go into mine in any detail, though you’ll find the threads of it coming together in my various stories. These are perhaps best viewed as an entertainment, aimed at a certain resonance in the hearts of others by virtue of their collective archetypal nature. But personal myths are important all the same, at least to the individual intent on saving his own soul in the absence of any other trusted option. To do otherwise, would be to ignore the very human imperative to mythologise, tempting madness, to say nothing of ignoring a crucial part of our reason for being in the first place.

Read Full Post »

IMG_20190412_223801

A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »