Archive for the ‘alchemy’ tag
This is a photo I took about an hour ago while enjoying a long walk along the Bow River in Calgary. I had on my backpack with the camera and the laptop for weight as I work hard to both lower my blood pressure and to regain my fitness level with corresponding weight loss. Ideally I would lose about ten pounds (5 kilos) over the next month and a half. It seems that since my return from China I have put on these extra pounds due to being overly focused on analytic work. It helps that the sun has finally decided that it is summer time in Calgary. The sun motivates me.
Now that I am moving again in the sunshine, I find that meditation has become deeper, especially after pushing the pace for more than an hour. My body temperature goes up and there is a corresponding heating of psychic contents. It is as though my body heat with the rays of the sun have begun to cook unconscious contents which in turn have caused a sense of shifting – alchemy of the psyche in action. Now, I will step aside and not try and control the process. It will unfold as it will.
Taken just a few days ago, this is one of the various varieties of cactus plants that burst out into blossom. The flowers are large and delicate in comparison with the cactus plant itself which is tough and painfully thorny should one make the mistake of stepping on one of them, something that I have been known to do on a number of occasions. Of course, if I was truly present when walking in the semi-arid hills, I would see the cacti and avoid unnecessary pain.
One of the things that I am finding difficult is to find presence, as I have been bouncing back and forth between places so much that no place becomes the centre. All the bouncing between leads me to relocate even more into an inner space making outer space even more like a foreign country. All of the routines that I used to mark my days have stopped being routines. Of course, there is something good to be said for having routines fall away:
“Most of us have a set routine that gets us through our day. Somewhere along the line, we solidified that routine into a way of life. The question then becomes, “Is it working?” Day by day, we may find ourselves getting restless with the same classes or job, the same relationship, the same hangouts or hang-ups, and we long for some radical change.
However, it is not our world that is necessarily problematic; it’s our point of view.” (Rinzler, The Buddha Walks Into a Bar,p. 4)
Restless! Yes, that is a good word to use here. It is a word that helps explain some of what is churning inside. What is missing is the point of view that would help clarify life lived fully present rather than through routines. My routines are dissolving, but there is no clarity emerging. Rather than continue to follow a Buddhist train of thought, I find myself turning to an alchemical way of looking in hopes of understanding what is happening.
The first of the four major stages is called nigredo. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about nigredo from a Jungian standpoint:
’the nigredo of the process of individuation on the other hand is a subjectively experienced process brought about by the subject’s painful, growing awareness of his shadow aspects’. It could be described as a moment of maximum despair, that is a prerequisite to personal development. As individuation unfolds, so ‘confrontation with the shadow produces at first a dead balance, a standstill that hampers moral decisions and makes convictions ineffective or even impossible…nigredo, tenebrositas, chaos, melancholia’. Here is ‘the darkest time, the time of despair, disillusionment, envious attacks; the time when Eros and Superego are at daggers drawn, and there seems no way forward…nigredo, the blackening’.
In this stage one has entered into the Dark Night of the Soul. It is hard to be present when the inner realm is breaking down all the routines, the convictions, the assumed truths and the convenient lies that have allowed us to ignore the dark shadows that lurk within the psyche.
Sometimes I find an image on the Internet without going in search of it. Sometimes the image comes to me through a “Tweet” or flashing passed my screen as I search for some unrelated information. Today’s image is one of those gifts that appear as it was passed from one viewer to the next to the next – a dynamic found on Tumblr. I was sent to the site of Aphrodite where I found the photo with an accompanying text:
“…We leave our homeland, our property and our friends. We give up the familiar ground that supports our ego, admit the helplessness of ego to control its world and secure itself. We give up our clingings to superiority and self-preservation…It means giving up searching for a home, becoming a refugee, a lonely person who must depend on himself…Fundamentally, no one can help us. If we seek to relieve our loneliness, we will be distracted from the path. Instead, we must make a relationship with loneliness until it becomes aloneness.” (Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth Of Freedom And The Way Of Meditation)
These are heavy words, the words of the “Hero’s Journey” that C.G. Jung calls individuation. The image is perfect in terms of showing the isolation of one on a path for only one. In a previous post I talked about the idea of the “crooked road” that is the only way to get from here to there which is curiously the straightest path through the wilderness, the swamplands. As I read these words I wonder at what losses must yet come on my own journey to healing.
Like most people, I am a lonely person even though I am surrounded by people who love me and whom I love. I am lonely because I am trapped in a body, a mind and inner shadows that hide the essence of who I am from myself as well as those around me. The only way through loneliness is to become one with my body, my mind and my inner shadows rather than be isolated from these key aspects of self. Then as Chögyam Trungpa tells us, I become alone rather than lonely.
Because I am in a separate body with a separate mind and heart I can never bridge the distance to lose this “aloneness.” I try, as do most others, by falling in love, making love, becoming a spouse, a parent and a grandparent – but the distance remains.
When I finally reach the goal of “aloneness” then, and only then, will relationship with others be full and nourishing to both myself and to those others.
The Internet access in the condo is very sporadic. I’ve had very little access for the past two days so I have focused on other things that need some attention. I am posting this photo without much commentary so that you have something from me to let you know that I am still here even if it appears that I am quiet. If the opportunity arises later in the day, I will write more with a different photo. Just remember – there can be presence, even in silence.
Another scene of the sunset taken on the first evening in Pattaya is one that is all about alchemy for me, a fitting image for this is my task in Thailand – transformational change. Of course in making such a claim I want to qualify this with a bit of reality and caution. Transformational change isn’t all about some mystical and spiritual transformation from ordinary person into some sort of Buddha or Christ-figure or anything even remotely approaching some world-changing being. Rather, for me it is about little things.
Each time I dive into the unconscious, usually as a somewhat unwilling participant, doubtful and dubious of what is going to happen, I seem to suffer with the exposure of some inner darkness I wish didn’t exist, an inner darkness that I hope is nothing but a figment of my imagination – “Did that really happen, or am I making it up?’ sort of darkness coming to light. Once exposed to the light I have a few choices; well, not really. I can own up to the facts, the moods, the events, the shit exposed and do it without laying blame, refusing to take the role of victim; or, I can deny, deny, deny; or, I can justifiably lay blame and become a victim thus relieving myself of any personal responsibility for becoming a better person, for healing myself.
For me, it is all about owning the shit – it happened, I was there, I am now here. I need to acknowledge the shit that happened to me, the shit I received, the shit that I caused. I need to release its power over me. And the only way to do this is to expose it to the light of logos, to allow the sun to remove the cancerous cells and leave me lighter in both spirit and in dead weight.
Thailand is my fiery furnace where I am risking the exposure of darkness, risking sanity and relationship. What will emerge? I don’t know and in the end it doesn’t matter. For this is about process for now. And I have learned to trust the process.
This student really did choose to have his English name as “Star.” He was one of my Journalism students last year. He was the a student who smiled a lot and didn’t work too hard. As is my usual practice when teaching at the university, I used the break time between class hours to chat with my students and learn more about them. Star had described himself as having a simple dream for the future, unlike most of his peers. There was no talk of being a businessman or journalist, no talk of setting up his own business. For him it was simple. He just intended on being rich and enjoying a happy life with his family. Of course his parents would live with him forever in this future, and perhaps his grandparents as well.
There is a cultural dynamic at work here, that of a son taking care of his parents and having his parents care for his future child with all living in the same home. This is considered the “norm” in China, in modern China where there is a one-child family policy. Star, like almost all of his classmates, has been the focus, the centre of the world for his four grandparents and his parents. The protection and coddling of children, especially boy children, makes it almost impossible for a boy to “move out and away from his family” in China.
The grandparents and parents see their future well-being and security all wrapped up in the one child. That one child, must be protected at all costs, must be given every advantage that money can buy. And that money, is saved as parents and grandparents funnel every cent (jiao/mao), every dollar (yuan/kuai) into the child’s education which includes more than is to be found in the school. The child rarely learns the meaning of the word, “No.” The last thing the parents and grandparents want is for the child to grow up wanting to escape the family, angry at the family. And, as a result, China is suffering a generation of children, adolescents who behave as if they are little emperors and empresses. Like Star, there is no sense of reality, no sense of boundaries, there is no chance for becoming psychologically mature as men.
I was in a local business talking with a friend of the past six years, a Chinese woman who had married a foreigner and has since divorced him on the grounds of adultery on his part. I asked her why she wasn’t going to get married again and she told me her reasons. She told me that Chinese men were spoiled. They married as required by his parents, provided the grandchild they needed and saw that as the end of his “duty” as far as being married was concerned.
Life is now all about playing while the grandparents raise the child. Now is the time to indulge his every whim; girlfriends and mistresses, parties with his buddies at the newest International Men’s Clubs or KTV, expensive luncheons where the food is basically ignored while the guys constantly toast each other until they are pleasantly drunk. Life, for these men, is all about play, about living their fantasies.
Of course not all of the young Chinese men are like this, but many are, too many. Young Chinese men like Star, will remain stuck in the world of adolescence until reality bursts and takes down the all the walls separating these men from protection of their parents and grandparents.
Walking through an older area of Saigon, near the Cho Binh Tay, a market place, I came across a couple of Buddhist temples that were Chinese rather than Vietnamese. On the outer wall of the temple I saw this T’ai Chi symbol, otherwise known as yin yang, surrounded by leaves. It made me think of how the union of masculine and feminine in the real world is an act of creation, a union from which new life springs forth.
I am amazed at how experiencing different cultures in different parts of the world has been so powerful in affecting change within my psyche. It is as though the small discoveries which are more often more about numinous image than about analytical thought, seep into the unconscious soup and find resonance and become part of the soup out of which I continue to grow as a person.
In a way, it is like this image which takes on a mandala like power. I grow larger consciously while the centre holds. The more conscious I become is akin to adding yet another corresponding symbol on the mandala that represents that consciousness, numinous symbols that also point back to the centre and back to the unconscious core that remains to be discover. As I go through this process, the centre doesn’t shrink, doesn’t empty. Rather, that centre becomes a portal to something beyond containment.
Experiencing countries such as India, Vietnam, China, Laos, Cambodia in the far east has taken me to the exotic and turned that exotic into something that is natural, something that becomes integrated into the new me, a transformed me. And, as I find out about the process of self-change, that change is not about adding something new, but more about discovering what has always been there.
Life is a fragile thing as are the relationships one has during the incredibly short span of years allotted to each of us. We often find ourselves walking on eggshells around those we hold closest to us, hoping that somehow nothing will disturb the relationship. We understand how fragile relationships are in the modern world as we see divorce rates rise. Abandoned wives, husbands and children talk to us of relationships broken intentionally, even those who take their own lives abandon those they leave behind. Death through illness, accidents and old age – all unintentional breaking of relationship just adds to the sense that one can never take for granted the presence of another person.
But yet, we rarely think twice about abandoning ourselves, our dreams, our uniqueness. How quickly we abandon a principle or a belief about ourselves if we think it will please someone we hold in high regard. Often we abandon our principles simply in order to keep a job, ensure that our relationship with the employer isn’t challenged – we come “yes” men and women. Often we abandon our principles in order to live within a community knowing that it is better for our spouse and children in the community if we adopt the community norms as our norms. Often we abandon our sense of self in order to encourage our spouse to believe that it is worth it to stay in relation with us. But most often, we abandon the relationship with our soul, with the core of who we sense/know/intuit/feel we are. We fall into a trap in which we have a problem balancing what others expect from us in return for a relationship and what we need to keep in order to have a healthy relationship with the self.
In today’s photo, I get a “dream” sense in which the woman is anima, the soul and she is retreating into the distance, heading back to the sea, back to the anima mundi. And the self is left alone on the shore, standing tall and proud, a precarious and temporary standing.
What do we keep, what do we give up when it comes to being in relation? This often is a critical question faced by those who enter into the journey of individuation, a journey of alchemical change, a journey that highlights differences in the face to face world in the eyes of others. The loneliness tempts us with relationship if only we would abandon the journey and rejoin the collective. But at what cost?
I found this flower isolated from a field of such flowers which seem to prefer the shade of trees rather than the open fields and direct sunlight. Not too far off, a large number of similar flowers huddled together. They made me think of a community holding together and with this one flower, an outsider or outlier. I had chosen this flower for today’s post early this morning and then got busy with the making of school lessons and then shopping for needed foodstuffs for the week. I knew that this was the photo for today but didn’t know what I would talk about or why I would talk about it. Looking again at this solitary flower, I thought of myself, an outlier or outsider, and I thought about how willingly entering into the process and journey of self-awakening, individuation, leaves one positioned on the outside of a community even though still contained by the community. Then, one of my readers, Urspo asked a question in commenting about yesterday’s post which had community and rituals as the topic. Then, I knew where this photo was taking me – and so I enter into into the idea of ritual and individual for this post, a place and idea that I have not consciously thought about before this moment. I am excited about seeing where this will take me, not knowing what will emerge when the post is completed and published.
Yesterday, through wandering through the words of King and Heimbrock, I came to understand about how ritual sustains community, in a way defines community; and how community gives rise to the rituals. Doctor Urspo asked about rituals for the individual, rituals other than analysis or therapy which is a ritual in itself. My first thought was to say, of course there are rituals for the individual, that person who dares the journey of individuation. But, where does that come from? And in beginning the search for answers I found that ritual is embedded in the spiritual. Anything that connects ego, self, with the all-encompassing whole that we name as God, as the One, the source of light and life, is a ritual.
I noted that my blogging here is a ritual, a practice I engage in to honour my own journey and to light my path on this journey. In a way, it has become such a part of my life that it causes me discomfort when outer life interferes with this private time, as though these words are like prayers. Rituals in a Jungian sense are repetitions of an action which are meant to transform. To enter into a dialogue with that spiritual centre which Jung called the “Self” is to invite the conscious “self” to change. Change means something dies so that something new can be born out of that death. For Jung and most Jungians, this is an alchemical process, a process of psychological transformation.
To be alive is to be growing, becoming a better person with “better” being defined by each individual. No one wants to be stuck in one place, spinning one’s wheels so to speak. We pray in order to grow, to become a better person; we study for the same reason; we practice skills in order to perfect imperfect skills. We fear being stuck, not growing as we sense that this would somehow be psychologically fatal for our well-being. So, we do what we can, both consciously and unconsciously to stay alive.
Somehow we know that soul is near that centre, a part of that centre. For ritual to assist an individual, it must reach for the centre, it must honour the soul, the mystery of the unknown and the unknowable. So, what can I do as a practice, as a ritual that would honour and assist the journey of individuation, a journey of wholeness, of holiness?
For me, blogging, daring to step into ideas and paths that lead me out of my comfort zone of what I know. For Jung, the drawing of mandalas played a large role. For others, sand play or sandwerk or a return to a church or dance or . . . it seems to me that the paths of ritual are endless. Silent meditation is one path that I have used and will continue to use though the form of meditation seems to change. Sometimes that meditation is active such as in gardening or wandering with a camera. Sometimes the meditation is passive as in sitting still with music or incense or simply with one’s quiet centre.
Now, I want to ask you, the reader, what rituals assist you on this journey toward light?
When I came home yesterday afternoon from teaching at the university, I noticed a lot of activity at the entrance to my housing compound. I immediately rushed up to the apartment in order to get my camera as I knew it was an event that was about religious rites following death. I was woken about 4:00 am with the sounds of evenly paced fireworks explosions, sounds that I have come to associate with a death in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is a place for the wealthy and many of these wealthy people are old. Death and funerals are frequent occurrences. The difference this time was striking as I kept busy with the camera – the white arm and headbands were missing. The event was quieter and when there was sound, it was more musical than noise.
Death, the ending of all earthly relationships, the final separation of self from other as we know it. As James Hollis puts it:
“All relationships begin, and end, in separation.”
But, I wonder. Does death which ends our connections with other humans mean the end of separation? Fire is symbolic of renaissance for rebirth. The transformation for isolated individual into a state of union with the source from which human life emerged, a pre-conception starting point is an idea that haunts me, that makes me wonder. Something to think about.