Class Notes – Session Eleven

“The Suffering of Salt, Toward a Substantial Psychology,” is the title of chapter three of James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, and the starting point for the first class of year two of the Jung Platform’s online course. Hosts Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak focus the discussion on the notions of salt, commonality and substance.

I am beginning to see an increased importance in the ideas presented in this chapter to much of Hillman’s work, as I understand it anyway. The alchemical marriage itself may be at the heart of Hillman’s proclivity to substantiate ideas, and also to see interiority within substance, even granting to substance a subjectivity. Beyond human subjectivity, he asks us to look within each substance for inherent qualitative aspects. The stones will cry out!

Might there be a subjective truth that invites us to look to the interiority of otherness for its own subjective qualities? That seeking will tell us something about our interiority, but with practice expand the qualitative distinctions we glean from others, enlivening us, and the world as ensouled; an Anima Mundi.

The alchemical work of psychology is precisely then the work of coming to know qualities; to learn of their essence as we learn of ours. Understood this way, we see much of the work as a practice of discernment; separating and specifying the nature of psychic substance, such as ideas and sensation, giving weight to them as we more readily do with physical substance. Here we will find the commonality of experience, as is the alchemical “sal” and salt in nature. At the same time, we educate our perception, looking more directly at the nature of both our, and the world’s suffering.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our modern sensibilities may resist the notion that all substances and beings have a discernible nature accessible to others. Aren’t we locked up inside our skin, limited to knowing only through our own subjectivity? A deeper study of anything, or anyone, will admit that the limitations on what we can know, do not entirely keep us ignorant of the subjectivity of others. We better know that fire can burn, people can harm us, and as well, that we need warmth and love to live. We are not alone. Ours is a between state, one that we continually negotiate. The desire to settle into, or concretize any pattern as permanent, is death or at least ignorance of the inherent motion of all things.

“…we shall be activating the image of salt (1) as a psychological substance, which appears in alchemy as the word sal; (2) as an operation, which yields a residue; (3) as any of many physical substances generically called “salts”; and (4) as a property of other substances.”

In alchemy, psychic quality belongs as part of physical substance:

“The word sal in alchemical texts, especially since Paracelsus, often indicates the stable basis of life, its earth, ground, body. However, the term also more particularly refers to alums, alkalis, crystallizations, bases, ashes, sal ammoniac, potash, as well as to the sense qualities equivalent to these materials: bitterness, astringency, pungency, mordancy, desiccation, and crustiness, dry stings and smarts, sharpness and pointedness.” Emphasis added.

So why the “suffering of salt?”

Robbie and Pat talked a lot about salt as both common and necessary. We suffer the salt through the commonality of our human experience. To find our own essence, we must first see our commonality, how impersonal our fate and suffering may be. Then, instead of the focus of suffering aimed at what was done to me, we turn to the qualitative experience of our suffering. Failing to see the commonality of what we suffer, seeing only what was done to me, we are more apt to crystallize experience into encrusted memories whose force of repetition itself is a rewounding that remains open until we see into, or interiorize the nature of the wound rather than the wounder.

To be clear, it’s not so much how suffering occurs, but how we experience it.

Zubdat-al Tawarikh in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul

Although not discussed, it occurred to me during the class that Hillman begins the book with the suffering of salt because the practice of alchemical psychology, whether in the context of therapy, or within an individual’s life, is indeed a work of deepening experience through the stages of what the material presents to us, transforming not only our relationship to physical substance, but also giving substance to our ideas and coming to see how they work on us. Hillman suggests that we all embody both the ideas and the substances; that they make us. We encapsulate in miniature the nature of the cosmos, physically, and therefore, psychically. That is also the basis for astrological correspondence. We are each of us, a microcosm, salt of the earth.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our work then is to know our common suffering, working the salt as a salve. Through deeper discernment of the nature of ourselves, our wounding, our commonality helps us to belong, embracing it as what unites us. Embracing our wounds and working the salt moves us out of crystallizing, or feeling stuck, towards curiosity, where love, compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others, including the non-living, are granted through our recognition of their own substantial nature, apart from, but always in relation to us. Awareness of the suffering of our commonality, and the commonality of our suffering, frees us to express a life more fully lived.

“The microcosm/macrocosm model requires a micro/macro-awareness. It asks that we feel into the world of matter with sensitivity for qualitative differences. It asks that we find in our objective experiences analogies with and metaphors of physical processes and substances. The micro/macro model works in two directions. While endowing the world with soul, it also indicates that human nature goes through natural processes of an objectively mineral and metallic sort. Our inner life is part of the natural world order, and this perspective saves us from taking ourselves so personally and identifying what goes on in the soul with the subjective ego.”

Previous Class Notes here, or here.

All quotes: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.

My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

Cora'sGirls

My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Character

“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe

“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman

Anna Rebecca Smith

If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for understanding more deeply the nature of life, I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.

Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy of family stories that tell of her adventurous nature, and a sustained presence through reading her letters, postcards and books, I find solace and appreciation for the courage and daring this passionate woman had. She lived a non-ordinary life, and if in some ways her image remains idealized, it has also been a healing fiction.

Aunt Bunny’s distinguishable traits are what James Hillman calls character. Her styling, from the occasional wearing of men’s clothes, living with a female companion, to her exotic collections, stands out with bold acuity in my memories. When I felt misunderstood and misfitted, it was this ancestral connection to Bunny’s oddity that kept me going, encouraging in me a lifelong curiosity to my troubled, youthful attraction to oddness.

So, what is character? How do we account for that which gives us our unique character?

medium[1]James Hillman, in his book titled, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, suggests that character is a shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are. Of the word character he says:

“The very word derives from kharassein, Greek for “engrave,”“sketch,” or “inscribe”; kharakter, which is both one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks made, such as letters in a writing system.”

Hillman refers back to a time when character was understood less as desirable traits and more as the force that forms, shapes and marks us throughout life, which become more striking as we age, evidenced in the lines of our face and in our personality. As we age we are actualising a unique image we’re born with, marked as much by the cosmology of the world at the time of our birth, as it is by inherited traits and afflictions of family and culture.

We can understand then how it is that astrologers envision the influence of the cosmos upon us. Our birth itself is an event compelled by all the prior events of the cosmos. Each birth an expression of the circumstances of both family and tribe and the far-reaching motion of the planets and stars. Modern science, psychology and theology narrows the understanding of birth influence to that of genetics, childhood or original sin, but those explanations can’t account for the full range of the person and our unique drive and expression.

Robert Fludd’s An Astrologer Casting a Horoscope 1617

Character is qualitative and keeps us a little off, never quite normal, or just a type or statistic. Just as the earth wobbles, imperfectly round, eccentrically circling the sun in a not quite 360 degree revolution, the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.

Character’s inescapable force guarantees no particular moral outcome and is both a blessing and a curse. Hillman stresses the importance of seeing aesthetics before morality, not because morality does not matter, but because it’s not enough. To look only at morality catches us in a duality assigning values of right and wrong, tempting us to summarily dismiss what might more accurately be called ungraspable or misunderstood. An ethical evaluation of character leaves out the important truth that all of us have faulty, frail, vulnerable, flawed, shadowy aspects to our character. The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.

“Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

Failings, sufferings, afflictions can then be seen as breakdowns that lead to loosening the armour of idealism and perfectionist tendencies we accumulate in youth. It is through aging that character begins to gather in us a lasting expression of our place and time. What lasts and finally moves us into the realm of ancestors is an accumulative complex image, layered with a lifetime of becoming that places us too in the realm of myth for all who would know us and for those who come after.

“The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles , our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structures inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth.”

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

All quotes except where noted, Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Class Notes – Session Ten

The final class of the 2014 Winter semester of the Jung Platform’s course, hosted by Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak, takes us into the third chapter of James Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology, titled, The Suffering of Salt, and begins with the topic, “Toward a Substantial Psychology.” Salt, although understood by Hillman as metaphorical, to the alchemists was indeed a substance and a common one both sacred and desirable.

Glass salt cellar 1720 Public Domain Photo by Nick Michael – Private collection

To the ancients, salt was sacred perhaps because of its use as a preservative, or salve, back in a time when food storage and medicines were extremely important for survival.

Robbie and Pat open the session discussing the weightiness of metaphors and ideas that become substantial to us. Substance comes through interiority and for Hillman it is the common element of metaphorical salt that adds weight to our experiences. The weight that balances us for living “as above, so below,” where as microcosm, we reciprocally reflect the macrocosm.

“The microcosm/macrocosm model requires a micro/macro-awareness. It asks that we feel into the world of matter with sensitivity for qualitative differences. It asks that we find in our objective experiences analogies with and metaphors of physical processes and substances. The micro/macro model works in two directions.”

The awareness that we are not in nature, but are nature herself, cannot be attended to enough in our culture. How interesting that we humans do not necessarily feel that we are part of this world. Perhaps our lives have become too insulated, or a glimpse of eternity through intuiting that consciousness is not only embedded within us, but may be the source of all being, or deep unresolved suffering finds us longing for the beyond. Whatever the reason, we may be a bit resistant to being embodied. Many myths and religious practices indeed emphasize our spiritual essence seeing physical life as a test, a punishment (karma), or a contest in which the prize is eternal life (meaning either disembodied, or no longer a suffering body).

For some, a fear of being only a body, an evolutionary accident, may drive the spirit to feel disdain for this body of death, widening the sense of separation between mind and body. Through the saltiness of our lives, Hillman sees a way to belong in this embodied state. Troubling as it may be, embodied life offers each of us a uniquely condensed perspective through heightened sensitivity and positions us as refiners of the Anima Mundi, or world soul, through the personal touch of our lives, and the love and compassion we make through the saltiness of our experience.

“While endowing the world with soul, it (the microcosm/macrocosm model) also indicates that human nature goes through natural processes of an objectively mineral and metallic sort. Our inner life is part of the natural world order, and this perspective saves us from taking ourselves so personally and identifying what goes on in the soul with the subjective ego.”

To this Robbie and Pat remind us that unless we let go of the sense that we are special, a common sense may be difficult to access. It is the physical and sensed nature of our lives that we do share, and that sense is the root of what we know as common. Hillman associates the common psychological salt with:

“The word sal in alchemical texts, especially since Paracelsus, often indicates the stable basis of life, its earth, ground, body. However, the term also more particularly refers to alums, alkalis, crystallizations, bases, ashes, sal ammoniac, potash, as well as to the sense qualities equivalent to these materials: bitterness, astringency, pungency, mordancy, desiccation, and crustiness, dry stings and smarts, sharpness and pointedness.

Indeed, bitter and mordant qualities are not only as common and basic as salt, but they are as essential to the embodiment of our psychic nature as is salt in our physical bodies. Our stinging, astringent, dried-out moments are not contingent and accidental; they are of our substance and essence.”

Robbie points out that, especially in our modern world, bitterness can often be measured against sweetness, rather than seeing each quality for its own contribution to life and soul. When we cover life’s bitter moments with too much sweetness, Robbie says, “reality bites” us as a way to bring us back into the salty moment, as the salt of the earth. Or, maybe we need to add salt on the wound in order to heal.

To the alchemists, sulfur was sweetness and worked in tandem with salt. In our psychic work:

“When body is equated with sulfur what is meant is the excitable, palpable urgency, the body of generative passions and will. When body is called salt what is meant is the fixed, consistent, stable body that encloses any existent as its outer shell.”

Here we see how sulfur and salt appear together and in psychological work, it is not always apparent that their different moods are connected. Using the example of a woman who experienced mood swings, Hillman describes the work:

“An alchemical therapeutic approach would not temper one with the other, but would touch both with mercury, that is, free them from their alternating concretism by means of psychological insight. The first step is to see how impersonally autonomous the swings are and how they constellate each other, as do sulfur and salt.”

This insight leads to a discussion on the mining of psychological salt.

Hexagonal Shaped Salt Crust at Badwater, Death Valley National Park

“In fact, because salt is “the natural balsam of the living body” (Paracelsus, 1: 259) we descend into the experiential component of this body – its blood, sweat, tears, and urine – to find our salt. Jung (CW 14: 330) considers alchemical salt to refer to feelings and to Eros; I would specify his notion further by saying that salt is the mineral, impersonal, objective ground of personal experience making experience possible.”

Here, Hillman emphasizes the need to experience subjectively first before the work of alchemy can carry soul between micro and macrocosm. Salt is the ground of deeply lived subjectivity.

“The fact that we return to these deep hurts, in remorse and regret, in resentment and revenge, indicates a psychic need beyond a mere mechanical repetition compulsion. Instead, the soul has a drive to remember; it is like an animal that returns to its salt licks; the soul licks at its own wounds to derive sustenance therefrom. We make salt in our suffering and, by keeping faith with our sufferings, we gain salt, healing the soul of its salt-deficiency.”

Salt then is ironic, as it pains an existing wound out of necessity, when our feeling sense has not been incorporated into our lives. WIthout incorporation we may fixate on our wounds and run the risk, as did Lot’s wife, of solidifying our identity to the woundedness, from too much salt that comes from an accumulative numbness.

“The danger here is always fixation, whether in recollection, earlier trauma, or in a literalized and personalized notion of experience itself: “I am what I have experienced.” “

So, to reconcile the seeming contradiction between full acceptance of subjective pain and woundedness, with the necessity of gaining insight and context that keeps the work moving, we look to the particularities of the salting, and not the person, for solutions to arise.

“Alchemical psychology corrects this sort of literalizing by presenting the personal factor that so dominates in psychologies of salt to be impersonal and commonly general. Then, when we work at our self-correction, betterment, purification, we realize that it is not the self that is the focus of our good work; it is the salt. We are simply working on the salt. In this way, the salt in alchemical psychology helps keep the work from flaming up in the egoistic inflation of personal guilt. I am alone responsible; it’s all my fault.”

Alchemical psychology is truly an art of shifting perspectives, of differentiating between substances and knowing how to work with them by discerning their specific qualities. Therefore, any work on ourselves shifts our focus into the matter and materials of embodied, everyday life, where we can see, touch and respond with the senses, salting our lives to our own taste.

“The very same salt that is honest wisdom, sincere truth, common sense, ironic wit and subjective feeling is also salt the destroyer. Dosage  is the art of the salt; a touch of the virgin, not too much. This dosage only our individual taste and common sense can prescribe. Only our salt can taste its own requirements.”

All quotes from Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) Kindle Edition.

 

JANUARY CHALLENGE… My Awakening Experience And Moving Forward

Here is my contribution to Barbara Franken‘s January Challenge series.

This is a story in which the right kind of trouble unexpectedly brings a gift.

From an early age, I struggled to feel a sense of belonging and identity. As a child I loved play-acting and imagining what it might be like to be a bear, a dog, a fox, or an orphan, a prisoner or conductor. My attempts at belonging were easily expressed by play-acting where I could put on a mask and give myself over to fantasy. But when not play-acting, I felt lost, convinced that I was missing something that others must have.

According to my parents Merriam-Webster dictionary, identity was defined as the quality of being a particular thing and not some other thing. Yes, I thought, my problem has something to do with a lack of being someone in particular. As I grew older, anytime I felt that others were defining me, even when they were being complimentary, I felt alienated. How could they know something about me when I had no clue? I was a fake, and I knew it.

Years later when in my early 30’s I moved to Oregon from Long Island, New York. After a few stormy years of relationships that failed, and feeling the need for solitude to just let myself be me, I started to practice meditation.

Some months later though I started to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions and I could no longer make it through a single day without crying. This was not the kind of crying where a few tears run down your cheeks, but gut-wrenching crying that would last until I finally fell asleep exhausted.

A year later, I was ready to seek out a guide. Having a love and familiarity with the writings of C.G. Jung and James Hillman, I entered into analysis. In the course of a three-year long therapy, traveling to the depths of hell and back, I experienced a most amazing and unexpected healing.

Not that I went from 0 to 250 in an instant. There was plenty of work to be done. Exploring my dreams, memories and relationships led me to see that I was filtering my experience through a very cloudy lens. There was a series of recognitions that came from therapy that both broadened my view and opened me up to not be afraid of an ongoing increase in that opening.

Many insights began to come into view, including a painful recognition that how I understood myself, others and the events of my life needed a revisioning. But with that came a recognition that nothing could happen without seeing how tightly I held on to a view of the past and present which bled into the future. Even if there are objective facts about my life that get to tell the story their way, what I needed was a story that made room for all the longings I ever knew and how to live with and through their power over me. That meant looking fear right in the face and learning how to talk back, and most importantly, learning to talk at all.

Seeing a deficiency in my use of language was a huge part of the work and it still is today. A love of words and language allows for an ongoing stream of ideas leading to new ways to experience and understand all that life has to offer. And for me, learning to open up to deeper levels of myself and others eventually led to the following life-changing experience.

One morning, much later in the therapy, upon waking from an emotional dream, I felt an intense burning and buzzing at the base of my spine. I sat up in bed, and felt what can only be described as an electric shock shooting up my spine into my head. I thought I might die it was so intense, but it only lasted a few seconds. I knew that something very big had happened. Over the course of the next few years, I began to feel different, physically, emotionally and intellectually. I felt tremendous healing as I slowly began to live closer and truer to matters of the heart.

It is as if now I am now more like a hollow reed where before I was a lead stick. It’s difficult to describe, but I continue to feel a sense of opening, enfolding, better able to love and be loved. And especially to belong – in my body, in my family, and in the entirety of this big, beautiful and crazy world.

There’s not freedom from suffering but to suffer as love does when it lives on in spite of the relentless longings. Feelings flow, moving through me without resistance. If I could bottle the experience, I gladly would and give it away. I am most grateful for feeling a sense of renewal.

Surprisingly, the one thing I thought I was missing; having an identity, I now know I never needed.

Next up in the series is one of my wonderful sisters in blogging, Linda – http://lindalitebeing.wordpress.com

People Get Ready

What is Peace? What does it look like? What are its images? Have we ever known peace? What is the difference between one’s individual practice of peace and world peace?

Would anyone not want peace? Some say we’ll never have sustained peace, but who would reject making peace if understood personally as a practice, accessible and as common as is the practice of writing, or T’ai Chi? And what does the dove tell us? Wiki says:

“Doves mate for life, are incredibly loyal to each other and work together to build their nest and raise their young. Because they tend to nest in areas that humans can watch, people picked up quickly on the idea that doves were dedicated, honorable and peaceful. While hawks and other birds of prey would violently attack their neighbors, the dove was a bird of peace, eating seeds, easily trained to eat out of the hand or to become domesticated.

Beginning with the Egyptians, the dove was as symbol of quiet innocence. The Chinese felt the dove was a symbol of peace and long life. To early Greeks and Romans, doves represented love and devotion, and care for a family. The dove was the sacred animal of Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love. The dove also symbolized the peaceful soul for many cultures.”

Peace Doves

Peace is an important idea, but judging by the lack of its sustained presence it remains one of humankind’s most challenging notions. Even defining peace is challenging…

Questions I ask:

Is peace the absence of something; the lack of war, hate, poverty?

Is peace an addition of something; love, cooperation, compassion, a willingness to resolve conflict through compromise?

Will a political solution bring us peace or is it cumulative through an individual’s practice spreading to others?

I make no claim to having answers – but it’s worth considering and sharing all the many ways we do experience peace, both personally, collectively, technologically and politically. Ideas do have a way of becoming viral and perhaps if we could share with each other our notion and practice of peace, describing the small ways in which each of us already does experience peace, we can deepen, encourage and multiply the practice of peace for ourselves and others.

Why wait for someone else to create peace when we can be creators ourselves? I know, crazy, isn’t it? As the saying goes, “nothing worth having ever comes easy.” As well, many of us already do practice creating peace for ourselves and others, and we aren’t always aware of the impact that sharing our experience can have.

Recently, watching a documentary, titled Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007), I was struck by the life of this man; one of music, authenticity, energy, controversy, along with contributions to the community that I was unaware of. I have always been a fan of his live performances with Arlo Guthrie, and am thankful to have seen them perform together a few times in 70’s, and the 80’s in small venues on Long Island where I lived at the time. Through interviews, the movie showed Pete’s efforts towards making a more peaceful world both in the way he lived his life and in local causes he embraced.

Admittedly, I struggle with the perception of him as political figure and specifically his support of communism. I don’t recall Pete and Arlo ever politicizing their performances though, but rather promoting through song and storytelling ideas of peace and freedom for all people and eliminating suffering caused by wars and poverty. I am aware that Pete was involved with the Communist party of the USA, but as the documentary and other sources show, later in life he denounced the violence and harm done by communist regimes that he may have seen as political solutions for humankind. And, even if Pete believed communism to be a solution to humanity’s problems, people’s beliefs do not represent the entirety of their life or nullify their good works (saying this as much to acknowledge the need to dispel this notion in myself as in others).

““I certainly should apologize for saying that Stalin was a hard driver rather than a very cruel leader,” he said. “I don’t speak out about a lot of things. I don’t talk about slavery. A lot of white people in America could apologize for stealing land from the Indians and enslaving Africans. Europe could apologize for worldwide conquest. Mongolia could apologize for Genghis Khan. But I think the thing to do is look ahead.” Pete Seeger in an interview with Ron Radosh. Read more here in the NY Times article.

Bear Mtn Bridge.jpgOne of Pete’s legacies was his initiation of a successful community based effort to clean up the Hudson river in NY by raising awareness of the issue and funding for a non-profit organization dedicated to cleaning up the river and advocating for corporate responsibility for damages done and better stewardship in the future.

There are many others, alive and dead, famous or not, that have dedicated their lives to working for peace. I applaud Pete for working at the local level to make a difference to the local and not so local community.

peace-art

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what peace is and how you practice its presence in your life, in the local community; how is peace made manifest in your life? And is peace in the world composed of our individual practice of peace or is something else needed?

A petition for a Nobel Prize for Pete Seeger:

http://www.nobelprize4pete.org/

For more ideas on the etymology and usage of the word “peace” see here:

http://www.hejleh.com/edna_yaghi/peace1.html

Thank you to Curtis Mayfield:

“People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”