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Posts Tagged ‘path’

i chingSo far as I can work out, finding the centre of one’s self is to attain a state of mind in which we are able to view our selves at the centre of a universe rich in personal meaning. We identify events in the external world as reflections of currents within our own psyche. We feel a detachment, virtue of a transcendent perspective, while also sensing our interconnectedness with the universe and everything in it.

We seek signs, symbols, messages of personal guidance, for clues to guide our way, and we receive them – or at the very least we are comfortable in suspending disbelief and acting upon irrational sixth-sensical notions. Everywhere, and everything becomes alive, numinous, our lives suddenly enriched with a sense of purpose and meaning. We feel calm, awed by the beauty and the mystery of both the inner and the outer worlds.

There are many labels for such a state of mind – pathological, perhaps, but more positively, we could call it living the religious life, or we might call it “Dao” or the “the way”, or in more contemporary terms we might call it living magically. Living the magical life we are armoured against calamity. This is not to say misfortune does not befall us, more that we are not harmed by it, psychologically, emotionally, in the same way. We are also less likely to create calamity for ourselves by unskillful ways of thinking and being.

But the journey to the centre is not a straight line. We circle inwards some way towards it, then back out again, gaining and then losing this cosmic perspective as the ego’s dominance over us waxes and wanes. But each time we circle in, we approach a little more towards the centre. Thus we progress in a spiralling, cyclical manner. Each cycle might take a year, or a decade – there is no way of knowing for sure, and no certain method for gaining progress or holding onto it. We move when we are ready. And when the cycle turns back to winter, there is nothing we can do but shield our flame in anticipation of the storms to come, while trusting in the more fruitful season’s eventual return.

I came upon my own guide to this phenomenon by chance in a book called the Yijing, or Book of Changes. It’s not the only guide. There have been many down the ages, and the one that’s right for each of us will show itself when we’re ready for it. The Yijing has a powerful mythic and symbolic underpinning, and through its use we learn the art of acting powerfully by not acting at all, other than by correctly interpreting and negotiating change. Through this art we come to understand our position within a pattern of existential dynamics, a flow of time – the times when we have influence but don’t realise it, and the times when we think we have it, but don’t. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a humble spirit and a faith in the generally benign nature of the universe – but these are not easy things to hold onto in a world as materialistic and cynical as ours.

It was a favourite of the hippy generation, but we can trace its origins back to China’s Neolithic period and the proto-writings of the Shang dynasty. It first came to the west in late Victorian times through the missionary James Legge, but was largely ignored. It came again in 1923 in a German translation, thanks to another missionary, the great sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, and was championed by Carl Jung who recognised its power as a psycho-analytical tool. A later English translation of the Wilhelm edition appeared in 1950 and is still in print. It’s this version you are still most likely to find in bookshops today.

Every generation has reinvented the Yijing somewhat, re-purposed it to its own times, its own myths and symbols. I collected as many versions of it I could find and boiled them down into my own interpretation, which I laboured over long and lovingly, and still use.

After a promising start though, and a significant change in direction as a result of the book’s counsel, I lost my way with it as a consequence of ego reasserting itself and demanding to know how the book worked. And then, as time, passed, ego began questioning my use of it on rational grounds, effectively calling me a new-age flake, and to get a grip.

To be sure, taking the lid off the Yijing is like opening Pandora’s box. You will never understand how it works, and greater minds than mine have been broken by it. To try is to fall into it and then its alchemical vortices will suck you down and tear you limb from limb. But ego tries, because it must, it abandons humility and loses the centre, is recoiled full circle, leaving us bruised and bleeding, the egoic, “poor me”, cast out once more into the demon plagued wilderness of the old life, the old way of thinking. And there we languish, vulnerable once more to the mortal woundings of every day calamity.

But then the season of the heart changes, and we pick it up again, blow the dust from it, somewhat chastised, and seek to remake the old connections. The book is hesitant, testing us for sincerity, but slowly lets us back in and we resume the journey.

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snowyIt’s been a curiously unsettling week. Twice my commute home was disrupted by serious accidents and motorway closures, turning a thirty five minute journey into an hour and a half marathon, where the normal free flow of things was choked off at every turn, blocked, impeded, restricted, stymied. On the last of these occasions, having finally made it home, exhausted, I left the car on the driveway and set off across the village on foot to get my hair cut, but the ginnel I normally use was blocked, the path being dug up, the way impeded, restricted,… the alternative, a long detour.

I returned home and did not move from the house again until I had slept long and deep.

And in my sleep I dreamed of road closures, of blockage, of the wreckage of trains and vehicles piled high into monuments of destruction. Thus in its own way the universe reflects my inner feelings, feelings of being stymied at every turn, at my lack of progress in terms of psychological and emotional development, my confusion – one path after another blocked, the wreckage of false hope and dreams piled high

The ego will make way at all costs, even if it ends up going only in circles.

And yes I’ve begun dreaming again, unbidden, and ┬ávividly. I used to remember my dreams most nights and write them down in the mornings. It was a Jungian thing, interesting in the early days of my initiation into the way of the soul, but I was too much in earnest in my search for meaning, and those dreams, so lovingly recorded, remain to this day enigmatically opaque. Then for a long time I have not recalled any dreams at all – except suddenly this week I am dreaming vast landscapes, and vivid encounters with archetypal characters. Nor am I making any effort to recall them, yet they remain burned into memory, their feeling tones equally vivid and not a little disturbing.

Then there are the coincidences, trivial things yet astonishing in their persistence and their infuriating meaninglessness: I saw a dog on Instagram, a cute little fox terrier, and though I have never desired to keep a dog in my life, I was suddenly taken by the desire to keep one like that, and I would call him Snowy. Then within the hour I was watching a snippet from a banal TV game show, and the question was: what was the name of Tin Tin’s dog? Answer of course: Snowy.

Such things are only a coincidence if they happen once, but when they cluster they speak to me of other things, of something shifting, a curtain opening, the normal laws of time and space blurring at the edges. I am turning in of a night now expecting to dream next a mystical revelation. Except, I know from past experience this is not how it works. Stability will return, the old ways will open up again, the old grooves. I am left thinking I miss my turn each time, that I fail to grasp the symbolic significance of a motorway closure or even of a cute little dog called Snowy.

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pike o stickle

The mountain path, the lofty peak, the plucky pilgrim. It can be read as a symbolic representation of the journey to wholeness, to self discovery, to enlightenment, individuation, and any of a hundred other labels for the psychological archetype known also as the spiritual path. It’s also misleading. It suggests the way is well trodden, easily discernible, carved into the granite of the world by the passing of the millions of eager pilgrims who have gone before us. But there’s no single correct way to climb the mountain, indeed there is no single mountain to climb. Each mountain and each route is individual, personal and pathless.

And as with any pathless hill, we take our clues from the lay of the land. We skirt the danger zones, we back track if needs must, we contour, we seek shelter when the weather closes in. But each man’s mountain rises from the plain of his own being and to an altitude and of a character that provides a challenge set by the skills he alone possesses. Success or failure is determined by the will and an awareness of one’s own ability. If a man wills it, he will succeed, but then again only if he is able to recognise first the true meaning of “success”, that the summit fever of youth is as big a danger to progress as the abyss.

The summit is an illusion. I’ve often found this in the mountains, that the summit, while indicating the physical high point is not always deserving of its symbolic importance, that the character of a hill changes once we’re on it, and of the high ground the best, the most exhilarating, and the most sublime aspects are not always to be found at the top. Indeed, the top only begs the question: what next? What about that top over there? And over there? Thus the path to wholeness becomes a treadmill, a form of consumerism, when what the path should be is the way to peace.

It’s hard to find peace, so well have we covered it up with the pretence of human affairs. It’s hard even to define it. Early stages of drunkenness come close to simulating it, for at such times there seems a rightness about the world and even a crazy kind of love for it in all its shambolic glory. Other opiates of course can similarly simulate the opening of the gates, but for this feeling to endure we have to conquer the mountain of our own being. And the first step is the realisation that the summit isn’t everything, or even anything at all, that what the mountain provides us with is more the journey of our lives. And even if, after long circumambulation, we end up back down on the plains cursing our lot that we have never once reached the heights we sought, we do well to pause and think: the journey is never wasted.

We realise this perhaps only in retrospect, and after many an ignominious defeat, driven back by foul weather, and the apparent treachery of the way, that the battle is won only by its apparent loss, that we triumph by capitulation, that we succeed by the dissolution of all ambition ever to reach the top.

Peace is more a case of knowing, and we do not come to know the mountain by  the mere token of conquering its summit. Peace comes in the realisation that we are the mountain.

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