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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Lochan na Eala

After so long hankering for broader travels, these pandemic years, and for the Romantic, I have decided to bring my travels to romantic lands closer to home. Today, then, we venture from my doorstep, to the small lake that is once more appearing on the Lancashire plain, and which I have today named Lochan na Eala. It means Lake of the Swans. I admit it’s an unlikely name to find on the maps of west of Lancashire, but then this place is not to be found on any maps at all.

In summer, it dries to a puddle, so cannot be said to exist, and therefore does not require a name. But over the course of winter it swells to such a proportion it looks embarrassed without one, so I have named it, because the migrating swans have found it, and they seem to like it, and “Swan Lake”, though more prosaic, and “English” and obvious, lacks the romance of a thing that is not always there. One needs the Celtic, bardic tongue, when it comes to dealing with the more subtle levels of reality.

The farmer has tried to drain it by digging a ditch, but the cause is more elemental, this being a general rise in the water table, and what looks like the slow return of the area to wetland. As I understand it, it’s part of the Environment Agency’s planned flood management programme for my locale, this inundation of natural flood planes. I was there some weeks ago, and had noted its return. In the near future, I suppose, it will become permanent, and named officially but, until then, Lochan na Eala it is, or at least it is for me.

So far, the day has not gone well, and we are in need of a change of scene. My good lady’s pipe has been put out by early morning leaks to the media we are to lead the world in rendering Covid endemic in the population. Free lateral flow tests are to end, and no further booster programs are under consideration. The reports are now disowned, but there is a rule of thumb which states one should never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied.

True or not, my good lady has eased her despair with an overly aggressive cleaning of the oven. This has caused the glass to pop out of the door, so we are currently without an oven. The glass was only glued in, and I think I might be able to repair it with a suitable adhesive, so have ordered special oven-door-glue from the aptly named oven-door-glue company. We now await the good graces of the postman, and the goddess of good fortune.

We’ve had a murky few days, and they’ve kept me indoors. I’ve passed the time reading Gary Lachman’s “Secret History of Consciousness”, which is a look at the nature of consciousness, and the ways in which we have come to approach it, over time. It’s rather a tour-de force, building a persuasive argument from the erudite blocks of the more obscure literature, both psychological and, for want of a better word, the theosophical. It’s making sense of other works I have read, but which proved rather heavy going at the time.

One of the remarkable things he describes is the theory of how we represent reality, that what we see is not what is truly there, that our concepts effectively boot up from different levels of the unconscious mind, whose origins lie in deeper, older parts of the brain. We have only to back-track a little in order to see the world in a radically different way. I remember coming round from being gassed by the dentist, as a child, and the way my return to waking reality was presaged by something I can only describe as abstract. At the time, it was explained away as an effect of the gas, nothing more, but I have always wondered about it.

None of this helped, of course, when I was considering the ugly fact of a broken oven door. Indeed, for a time, I was at a loss. The literature may have explained my dilemma in philosophical or neurological language, in addition to my own more prosaic terminology, but it could not help find a supplier for high-temperature adhesive that stood a cat in hell’s chance of working. Like everything else, that was down to Dr Google. The lesson here is that such explorations of the inner universe are all well and good, but whatever our reality is, it makes a good show of presenting a hard and uncompromising face, that if we have a purpose at all, part of it must be to manage the problems it presents us with first, before taking off on flights of fancy – alluring though those fancies may be.

Anyway, it’s rather a cold day, grey this morning, but forecast to break into sunny spells, later on – much later by the looks of it. Indeed, it’s only a few hours before dusk, now, and I’m half-hearted, setting out, having procrastinated most of the day away. But you never know, we may just catch a nice sunset at the last minute.

I am often dismayed by the two-dimensional emptiness of the Lancashire plain, which, these days, I call home. There are just a few trees that excite the senses by their near alien three-dimensional presence, but which would not be noticed anywhere else. The rest of it is reedy ditches and hawthorn hedgerows, and vast fields of black earth. The appearance of a lake is something of a revelation then.

Lachman speaks of an evolution of consciousness, that there is evidence our forbears saw the world in a radically different way, being barely self-conscious at all, but more intimately connected, as a collective, with their reality, which is internally, mind generated. Our evolution into fully self-aware beings came at the cost of a sense of separation, of alienation from the world, one he argues we have compensated for by mostly violent means. These are speculative ideas, but not implausible. The next phase is a level of consciousness that reconnects with that earlier phase, so we remain self-conscious, calculating beings, but also once more fully connected with the reality we represent. At this point we will be able to see, or rather experience, various levels, and various modes of being. This stage is a long way off, and we may of course extinct ourselves before we get there. If we do, by the same reasoning, the world itself too, as we know it, will also cease to exist, so the burden of responsibility is heavy.

The Romantics were on the right path, using the imagination to explore their inner worlds, and the qualitative nature of experience. But many went mad, since reality itself refused to bend to their will; it remained ugly and inconvenient. It was their oven-door moment, and Dr Google had not been invented to provide a source of glue. All of this might be idle speculation, and of only passing interest, but others have wondered and felt strange things, intimations of other levels of reality, as have I.

One of the writers Lachman quotes is the Russian philosopher, P D Ouspensky, who describes an experience he had in 1908, while on a ship, crossing the Sea of Marmora, and how, for a moment, he became everything he was looking at. So profound an experience this was, he spent the rest of his life trying to explain it. It’s the clearest account of a similar experience I had in the Newlands Valley, twenty years, ago, but could not articulate so well as he. Such a thing becomes your life’s work, whether you’re up to it or not. He was. I’m not, so why that doorway opened a crack for me, I’ll never know, since there is, I fear, so little I can do with it, except wonder.

Anyway, here we are, the lovely Lochan na Eala. Just a short stretch of the legs. And what’s this? The sun makes an unexpected, last minute appearance as the sky opens. Nice that. It seems there may once have been a time, like Ouspensky, when I remembered I was it – I mean all of this. And if that’s true, then, whatever we choose to call it, so are you.

Thanks for listening.

Play me out:

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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.

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It’s nineteen eighty five, October, a Tuesday evening, and I’m in the Library of the Bolton Institute of Technology, as was. It’s been a long day; ten hours of lectures so far, and another two to go. It’s pitch black outside and raining, and I’m reading something up on the mathematics pertaining to electrochemical erosion. My diary tells me this much. It also tells me that across from me there’s a bunch of girl students in their teens, and at twenty four, I’m already feeling like an old man.

It’s hard to say what attracts a man to a woman other than, like I’ve said elsewhere it’s the reflection of something as yet unknown within himself, though I understand this makes little sense when you play it back. But there’s this one girl in particular and I don’t know why she stands out but she does. She has long, dark hair, wears a denim jump suit with a small enamel teddy bear in her lapel. She speaks to her friends with a soft, Scottish accent, never looks my way, never notices me at all.

Twenty years later she becomes a character in a short story I’ve hawked about pointlessly before sticking it up on Feedbooks – The Man Who Could Not Forget. And, like the man who could not forget, and with a little help from my diary, I have not forgotten her, but it’s not her I want to talk about tonight.

There’s this other girl in the library that night, a psychology student. She’s gorgeous, as all girls seemed to be back then, or maybe, like sunny days, I only remember the pretty ones. I’m up at the book shelves now seeking out another reference, and she comes up to me with a piece of card.

“I want you look at this,” she says. “It’s a picture of two people arguing.”

Thus primed, she flashes this card at me. It shows a cartoon of a black man and a white man. Their arms are out, as if gesticulating. Right. So, these guys are arguing.

She covers the card and asks me: “Which one had the knife?”

There’s something of a challenge in her tone, like she already knows the answer I’m going to give.

I’m confused for a moment, and want to see the picture again, because for the life of me I don’t remember either of the guys having a knife, but I understand this will defeat the point of the exercise. Yet, if there’s no knife, she’s forcing an answer to a false choice. Why would she be doing that? There must have been a knife. I must have missed it. By the way, did I tell you I’m basically this young white guy, and she’s this beautiful Asian girl, with long shiny hair and glittery eyes?

Then it clicks. There was no knife, and yes, she is forcing a false choice on me. I can read her mind, and I’m a bit upset by it. I’m supposed to say it was the black guy who had the knife, because I’m a white guy, and all white guys are supposed to have these prejudices about black guys, or any other guys not the same colour as myself, so even if I’m not sure there was a knife, if I’m forced to admit there was, because she’s saying there was, then I reveal my racism by saying it’s the black guy who had it.

At the end of her survey she expects to count up all the ticks and show a graph that most white guys like me are basically racist. But even in Bolton, in 1985, if racism was an issue, I was unaware of it, but then I had my head in things like Electrochemical Erosion, so maybe it was. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should reverse it, I’m thinking, say it was the white guy who had the knife. Then maybe the girl will think I’m not a racist and might be more inclined to like me, because the goddess is strong in this one and I really want her to like me. But this is too deep, and a pointless application of reverse psychology anyway, one than can only screw up her experiment. The inside of my head is strange sometimes. People think they are sealed up, secret from others, when by the slightest thing they render themselves nakedly transparent.

“I didn’t see a knife. Sorry.”

Her expression gives nothing away. She does not thank me for my participation. I think she’s beautiful and I wish we could talk some more. I manage a smile. It is not returned. I think the experiment was flawed anyway – a definite experimenter effect. I do not ask her if she fancies a coffee sometime. And not because it would be a crass and desperate thing to do in that situation, nor yet because she’s the daughter of another culture and I’m a white guy, because really I’m too naive to take such things into consideration. It’s more that she’s beautiful, and I’m afraid she will reject me.

There was a time when I saw the goddess in all women. She has many aspects, sometimes alluring, sometimes scornful, sometimes challenging. She is the thing that animates a man, but projecting her into the material world renders him vulnerable to the fallacy that women are something other than human. It’s a fallacy that fades with age and experience. A fallacy also that in trying to understand the goddess within ourselves, a man should expect women to know anything about it at all, like expecting the canvas to understand the painting. More likely she will look at him blank, or suggest he goes to see the doctor.

I muddled through my final exams that coming summer – mostly an average student on that course, having reached the limit of my mathematical and technical ability by then. But over the years I’ve found little use for mathematics anyway, that intuition is a surer guide when it comes to the oftimes shady byways of the daemon haunted world I live in now. I rest assured neither aspect of the goddess in the library that night remembers me, and it’s puzzling I should remember them, when there are other human beings I have more reason to remember but do not.

I’m not sure what else I’m trying to say here, except I swear I did not see a knife.

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The storming of the US Capitol building is an inauspicious start to the year, but a logical enough step in the ongoing manifestation of the phenomenon of Trumpism. I hesitate to call it the endgame, as I suspect there is more to come in the months and years ahead. I’ve hesitated to write about it, not because I don’t have an opinion, but more because I’m growing tired of opinions, including my own, and I am struggling to make sense of a world that defies analysis.

We are none of us capable of persuasion to the other’s point of view any more. It’s the conclusion I come to at the end of “Winter on the Hill”, where I have my protagonist transcend the fray and hunker down, preparing instead for the storm he knows is coming. Storms cannot be resisted. They have to blow themselves out, and you pick up the pieces afterwards. The storm of Trumpism hasn’t passed and, no matter what happens to the man himself, his legacy will dog every step of the Biden presidency, and beyond.

Footage of that mob, some of them armed, some of them seemingly bent on hostage taking, some militarised, some bizarrely costumed, presented an outrageous assault on the senses. It was sinister of course, and shocking, but there was something else, and I couldn’t get at it until now. It was the image of the horned man – an element of the absurd.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of events, quite the opposite – people died. But the absurd is an element in all encounters with the Daemonic, and there’s a significant element of it too in Trumpism and its deployment of “conspiracy”. By “Daemonic” I’m not talking about the familiars of old Nick, or demonology. It’s more subtle than that. It has to do with the psychology of mass events, and the influence of the collective unconscious in shaping human affairs.

In the personal psyche, what you do not acknowledge is lurking within you, you will be made to own ten times over. The same goes for the collective psyche, and there have been aspects of it we have been failing to acknowledge for a very long time. Rising inequality, endemic racism, sexism, xenophobia and white supremacy are the more manifest symptoms, but the sickness is an innate lack of meaning in western life and our ability to blame it on the “other”.

The American election, though fair, was hardly a rout. Close to 75 million people voted for Trump. Not all of these voters will be Trumpists. Many were traditional Republicans with nowhere else to go. But he still maintains a substantial base of believers who fervently deny his sins, and whose reality is bounded by information they fully believe in – though that information seems absurd to others. Attempts to falsify their belief system with reason counts only as proof of the validity of the Trumpist world-view, to the Trumpist, and to the universality of the conspiracy against them.

It’s like dreaming. The dream sets the rules of the game, and we believe in the dream-world totally, only realizing its absurdness when we wake up. It’s no use pointing out the dubious nature of absurd beliefs to those still locked in the dream. Critical thinking is crushed by the Daemonic. People possessed by it appear grotesque and, in its darkest manifestations, they are murderously absurd.

Here in the UK, we have not yet seen Parliament overrun by the Daemonic, though female, leftist and black and brown MPs are routinely threatened by white, right wing nationalists. Meanwhile the Conservative party is still polling at 40%, even with 100,000 dead from Covid, while it ducks and weaves around one scandal after the other. Yet sufficient numbers of the beleaguered are still dreaming them an easy ticket, so they are able to do no wrong. This too seems absurd, another symptom of the emergence of the Daemonic in the collective psyche, one that denies the rational. It has us applauding the Health Service, while simultaneously denying it the means of survival. (I recognize of course my own partisanship in this paragraph, and therefore the parameters of my own reality).

I don’t know where America is going, not with the belief system of so many completely at odds with the rational. Certainly the face of it is an ugly one, a rejection of democratic norms in favour of a violent white-nationalist anarchy. That’s not a reality I would be glad to own as a white person. The UK has its problems with the absurd too of course. In spite of assurances to the contrary, we’re likely looking at another lost year, spiralling deaths, and an economy in ruins, to be paid for by the poor. How we find our balance in such madness remains to be seen, but my prognosis isn’t hopeful. Holding to the virtues of selflessness, and at least some degree of self-analysis, society staves off the collective rampage of the Daemonic. But once it’s broken through and begins to alter our reality it cannot be dealt with, or contained and must run its course.

There’s plenty more to come, I fear. It will be violent, irrational, and above all absurd, like another world merging with our own, sweeping away all norms, a dream-world where down is up and up is down, and where seriousness of purpose is defiled by horned men, shouting.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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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)

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mazzy at rivington

I broke cover from Covid and drove thirty miles to Glasson. It’s the furthest I’ve been all year. I was there for nine, and the car park was empty, but by mid-afternoon it was full. I did a walk through the meadows to Cockerham, then back along the Lancashire coastal way. It was hot and humid. The Cockerham leg was quiet, but on the meadow by the abbey, I hit the crowds coming the other way.

By now I imagined there’d be a vehicle parked within a wafer of mine, and a big ding in my door because that’s what I assume most people are like – gormless, and void of social awareness. My car is eighteen years old now but still looks good. I’m trying to keep her that way against the press of time and entropy, and the carelessness of others. Naturally, as with anything manifest, it’s a losing battle, but we do what we can.

I know, I know,… I have a problem with people. It’s been worse in these Covid-haunted times which makes avoiding them all the more urgent. I’m not sorry to admit it. Indeed I’m less sorry as I get older and begin to understand myself.

Understand myself? Let me see:

I find others draining on account of a strongly introverted nature. That’s just what we introverts are like, and we need make no apologies for it. I’m also often taken advantage of on account of my agreeableness, and in turn I take that bad on account of my neuroticism. Then I don’t say anything in my defence on account of my aversion to confrontation. Instead, I withdraw my support, or more likely these days withhold it in the first place, before some others start feeding off me.

It’s worse at times of imbalance, when I’m shadow boxing. Then I behave in a passive-aggressive way, which is stupid and self-defeating. What I need to do is stand up and be more assertive. But that’s easier said than done. Understanding one’s self is only the first part of the problem, you see? The second part is deciding if it’s a problem or not. These are shadow issues, and you can’t beat them. The best you can do over time is accept them as part of yourself, make peace and move on.

As I walked, horse-flies had found the undersides of my fingers. I’ve never known them do that before. By the time I noticed, my fingers were already swelling from the bites. Nature’s all well and good until you’re bitten by horse-flies, and then you’d rather do without it. We aim for better than nature, at least in the raw, and mostly we manage it, I think, but at times we get above ourselves, and nature sinks its teeth.

Coming back to Glasson harbour, there was by now a carnival atmosphere, crowds milling about, and a couple of yachts coming through the lock to meet the tide. The cafés and ice-cream-vans were doing a roaring trade, kids and dogs running amok. I pulled my bandanna up like a bank-robber and bought a brew from the chuck-wagon. Then I sat with it, well away from the crowds. Few were wearing any sort of face covering. In shops, it’s compulsory, at other times optional. But the “optional” will likely get you stared at, face coverings being a new front in the culture wars.

While I ruminated, a group numbering twenty or so came steaming down the car park on bikes, raising dust and hollers. They crowded me like wasps, while complaining among themselves how busy it was. They couldn’t see they were their own crowd, crushing my two meters of safe space down to a dodgy less than one. I took my brew to the car.

She was unmarked, and my neighbours had allowed a good deal of space between us, redeeming humanity for me somewhat – sure weren’t we all out here just enjoying the summer as best we could? I sanitized my hands with anti-bac gel, which also took some of the sting out of the bites. Then I dropped the top. Driving used to be a bore, but since teaming up with this little car, I’ve rediscovered its pleasures. Plus, we’d had the best of the day and – okay – the crowds were pecking my head. It was time to be off.

I drove home through Cockerham, kept her in fourth, kept the revs up, so she met the bends and the undulations with a bit of zest. It’s still such a lovely car to drive, well-balanced, not powerful – about a hundred and twenty-five horses – light as a feather, and a bottomless well of torque. But, as much as I treasure her, she’s worth about the same these days as some of the bicycles I overtook – pelotons of men in Lycra, spitting. It’s not a good look, guys, the spitting I mean, especially now amid a pandemic spread by body fluids.

I picked up the M6 at Broughton. Traffic eastbound from the M55 was fast and stupid. You have to change lanes early here, so you’re right for the southbound M6. Miss it and you’ll be scooting back north to Lancaster. Even though I was indicating my intentions, an SUV zoomed up and sat on my shoulder, pinning me northbound, so I stamped on the gas, and the car responded like a rocket. The SUV shrank in the rear-view, and I picked up my lane just in time. The way ahead was clear, so I kept on with the power, and we ate the road, fled the crowds and the heat, and all those damned horse-flies.

None of this sounds like me. It’s more like something unravelling, or working its way through the psyche. I’ve been thinking about the novel, Winter on the Hill, and something Annie said to me. Annie’s imaginary of course, which makes her both real and not real at the same time, at least in the phenomenological sense:

You’re a warrior, Rick, but you’re tired, and right now you’re up to your knees in mud, and your sword’s blunt from swinging it at shadows all day long, and the snow’s lying thick on the ground, and you’re cold because it’s winter on the hill. What can you do about that? Well, you get back on your feet, find somewhere warm for a while, and sharpen your sword. Because remember, a warrior can’t live without a fight. Anything else is just death. So you sharpen that damned sword and get back out there,…

For the introvert, it’s easier to take the way of the Lover, especially after a few knock-backs. We just cosy up with a good book, unplug the ‘phone and close the door. We sheathe our sword, withdraw support. Sometimes then, the warrior has to fight first the lover in himself. Then, like Annie says, get back out there and do the best we can, even if all that amounts to is standing our two meters, and telling others to back off.

Keep well, keep calm and keep going.

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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.

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Dreaming.*oil on canvas.*128,5 x 201,2 cm.*1860.*signed b.r.: J. Israels

Dreaming – Jozef Israels 1860

The way of the West does not suit the dreaming life. Indeed, we do everything we can to suppress any intrusion of unconscious influence into waking experience. Instead, we work, we party, we spend long hours in front of our devices, numbing our minds with junk images, junk tasks, and junk narratives. When a dream does pierce the blank wall of our materialism, we dismiss it. It was just a dream, we tell ourselves. But what if that dream could tell us something useful we didn’t already know? It would make sense to listen, wouldn’t it?

When the analytical psychologist, Carl Jung visited Africa in 1925, he was interested in studying the dreams of isolated tribesmen, but to his surprise he was told by a medicine man he didn’t dream any more. After the Colonial powers came, he said, everything changed, “that dreams were no longer needed, because the English knew everything.”*

That a people could use their dreams to guide their lives seems primitive to the rational mind. Yet anyone who has sat down with a big dream, say the morning after they have dreamed it, cannot help but be affected by it. A big dream can colour the entire day and provide an emotional undertone that’s hard to shake. Some dreams we remember all our lives. That they can be so powerful suggests that to dismiss them is to lose our connection with important aspect of living.

The art of dreaming is not taught. You have to listen to other dreamers, read their books, sort the wheat from the chaff, and just do the best you can. But it’s inevitable, when we do stumble into a dream, we no longer have the sophistication we once had to deal with them properly. It is difficult to accept for a start we did not create the dream ourselves, that we are the dream’s guest, that the dream is the landscape on which we walk, its characters the fragmentary but autonomous denizens who can help or hinder us on our way. Only by accepting this can we play our proper part as pilgrim and, come morning, reflect usefully on the experience.

It’s natural for one interested in dreaming to want to push the boundaries. To whit, the Rolls Royce of dreaming is said to be the lucid dream where we enter the night-land fully conscious. Then we can make of it a playground, and all the characters we meet there our play-things. But my intuitions warn against the lucid path, and I consider myself fortunate I have never been able to dream lucidly.

Enthusiastic reports from lucid dreamers tell us we can take the dream over and have a hell of a time, flying about and having the best sex ever with whomever we can dream up. But that’s like colonizing the dream world, and then, like the bushmen in Jung’s day, our dreams become mere husks and psychologically useless, because the Ego, like the Englishman, knows everything.

Still, that the lucid dreamers have established such doors are open to human experience suggests a greater role for the dream than we give credit for, but we should tread carefully. The dream is no place for the crass, hedonistic tourist. But if we have lost our way with dreaming, or worse, if we have lost our way with sleeping, the techniques of the lucid dreamers can help enormously.

We close our eyes. What do we see? Do we see nothing? Look again.

The darkness behind closed eyes is not complete. It is grainy, speckled with colour. There are pale areas, like clouds, and they drift in the midnight blue. Deprived of visual stimulation, the mind idles with pattern. But if we can focus the inner eye upon them, the patterns will take on more recognizable forms. We do not willingly imagine these forms into being. They are entirely spontaneous and will show themselves if we allow it. They will be indistinct at first but, with practice, we can develop an inner vision that is capable of staggering clarity and detail.

At some point, say the lucid dreamers, the entire field of vision becomes active and detailed, and we can simply step into it at the point consciousness falls away. This has never worked for me. I am asleep long before this happens, and that’s fine. I prefer to lose my self-awareness and be of the dream rather than consciously in it. But as a way into sleep when the mind is otherwise resistant, this is a powerful method. I also find the dreams more vivid, and more easily remembered on waking.

We are alive at a time of deepening world crises. Without the counsel of dreams our mental well-being depends upon whether we really do trust the English to know everything. And if not, then where do we turn? We each have access to a wise, inner voice, through our dreams, but it’s been forgotten, and it’s rusty. It has forgotten how to speak to us, as we have forgotten how to listen. Few are interested anyway, and willingly join the downward spiral of our culture, presided over by the joker archetypes, and all the strutting demi-gods of chaos.

Chaos is inevitable, but it’s also a bad place to be. It is an indeterminate period of transition, and with no guarantee it’s leading us to a better place. When the ground is shifting daily, and reality is frozen out in a blizzard of lies, the rational mind is of no use to us any more. Only a keen native instinct, born of the dreaming life can tell us where best to place our feet, so we’re not constantly unbalanced by whatever damned thing is coming next.

*Jung – Memories, dreams, reflections (Kenya and Uganda)

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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?

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