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.

Dreamland

“Myth is the dream of the people – the dream is the myth of the individual” Herbert Silberer

Whether my attraction to liminal states comes from a lifelong interest in dream states, or attention to dreams leads to an interest in liminal, non-ordinary states, or a mix of both, is unclear. Perhaps it’s the persuasive sense of something deeper and richer, the hidden treasures calling out as beauty does, that draws me more closely to both.

“The best thing about dreams is that fleeting moment, when you are between asleep and awake, when you don’t know the difference between reality and fantasy, when for just that one moment you feel with your entire soul that the dream is reality, and it really happened.”James Arthur Baldwin

A dream of mine is for a willingness to be changed by everyday communion with the world as it is; an edgeless movement between day and night. Perhaps then, an exchange between the mysterious states of dreaming with day world awareness of time and fate, can bridge the two more readily. Maybe when the day world sense of reality becomes less “me,” then the night world of dream figures and mysterious places becomes less “not me.” The waking dream of the day world blurs the edges into a more seamless connection of day into night, you into me and life into death.

The etymology of the word “dream” is itself evidently controversial, ambiguous and unclear, but surprisingly relates to “joy, mirth, musical sound.”

In his book, Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology, Sonu Shamdasani’s discusses Théodore Flournoy, and his influence on C.G. Jung:

Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology (häftad)“The dream could have a purposive and teleological role in developing latent faculties. It derived this from the special significance that Flournoy attached to the creative imagination. This faculty was “the foundation of our being.” It was stimulated by reality, to which it applied itself through acting to transform it. As a result, “the human soul is a machine to transform the real.”

Who remembers the day world or questions the reality of waking states while dreaming? Dreaming is perhaps a deeper immersion into a more passive state where something other than willed, intentional focus of the day world has its way with us. As the Greeks told of Persephone’s abduction into Hades’ Underworld, so are we immersed into a world not of our choosing.

We may wonder what dreams mean, but one of their gifts is that they do not so readily give up their meaning. While dreaming, who asks what does this mean? In some sense, their gift is the freedom to let the characters, plot and movement of the dream roll on, moving us into unknown territory with no need of anything other than participation.

“It is, indeed, good that no valid method [of dream interpretation] exists, for otherwise the meaning of the dreams would already be limited in advance and would lose precisely that virtue which makes them so especially valuable for psychological purposes – namely their ability to give a new point of view.” C.G. Jung

Although no precise meaning may be found in dreams, they may give us insight as if shuffling the deck of our day world experience and viewpoint. They allow us an experience that may not be available to us in waking states. Who knows where dreams are drawing from? There are many theories, and I suspect they each may contain some validity. I like that we cannot precisely know the dream’s function, purpose and meaning. Yet they can serve creativity by offering insights that bring us new ideas and new ways of seeing when we attend to their presence and messages.

Jung,1910 Prints & Photographs Division Library of Congress

Dreams allow us an alternate way to see ourselves, others and the world. If attended to, they can act as a bridge to the unknown, and in that sense have a creative function.

In a letter to one of his students, Jung says:

“In the deepest sense we all dream not out of ourselves but of what lies between us and the other.”

One of the gifts that Jung gave us is to reconsider the value of the dream world as a counter weight to a one-sided day world experience of both ourselves and others. Dream plots and characters may force us to see ourselves and others in ways that shock us or are entirely unrecognizable.

“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.” Carl Jung

I have found though, that by attending to dream images and movement, they do reveal to me a much-needed understanding, often through a highly charged emotional dream that upon waking, shows me something I was either unable or unwilling to see before the dream.

So, perhaps it is that our conscious, waking, day world self, finds its deepest roots in the mystery of whatever source dreams and life itself may come from. Maybe, in some way we may never fully understand, we carry with us the origins of the universe and all subsequent traces in a blend of physical and psychological experience that serves to further articulate the mystery of being.

Dreamland by the artist Joni Mitchell

“We’re going to lay down someplace shady
With dreamland coming on” Joni Mitchell

Except as noted, all quotes from Sonu Shamdasani. Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Kindle Edition.

Class Notes – Session 9

Class nine of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology, presented by Robert Bosnak and Patricia Berry, technically ends this first season of classes, which took us through the first chapter, Rudiments. Class Ten, notes to follow soon, begins the next chapter, The Suffering of Salt.

Robbie likens the work of alchemy to a downward spiral, deepening the material by slowing down the work, and by the embodiment of the images. Having recently read Robbie’s book, Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, I have much appreciation for his emphasis on embodiment, a work that grounds images and ideas into lived and felt subjective experiences.

The Alchemist, by Carl Spitzweg

Psychological Faith

Robbie and Pat start the session briefly discussing Hillman’s idea of psychological faith:

“The Pelican: vessel of psychological faith, a phrase used by a keen student of alchemy, Robert Grinnell, for an attitude or a devotion that calls for nothing less than giving in, giving over to the opus all personal demands one has upon it, for its sake, come what may.”

Using the example of his work at the Healing Sanctuary in Santa Barbara, Robbie argues that we do bring our expectations to the work, thereby challenging the notion that we “give over to the opus all personal demands.” I’d say, that in many ways, we do need to abandon an expectation of outcomes, or goals, or at least our ideas about how to get there and what the goals look like.

“General terms, simplistic diagnostics – abandonment, need, identity crisis, low self-esteem, depressive mood, dependency, masochistic helplessness – cannot adequately describe, let alone understand, the force of the void.

Because our collective Western natures abhor a vacuum, we reach out to fill the emptiness with anything, everything from junk food to junk self-help, from drink and shopping and the novelty of games and gadgets to the commiseration of soul-mates, or simply endless tears. Alchemy, however, suggests these feelings of emptiness are indications of a vessel forming (emphasis added). The void is building a shape, a particular shape. Perhaps several vessels. Modes of containing. Modes of measuring. Modes of differentiating. The reality of the psyche is forcing its way into life and reshaping one’s life by means of the feelings of emptiness.”

Pat reminds us too, that the void can be bigger than, and also exterior to us, specifically referring to the void in the earth described in Genesis. The void in this sense is necessary for creating, containing and birthing. Pat sees the void as a natural part of our experience, and our refusal of it leads to frenzied actions to fill the void. The emptiness often manifests as anxiety, and may not be recognized as a pregnant pause coming over us while something is being formed. Robbie quotes Hillman, who referred to it as, “lying fallow.”

The particularity and nature of the void, or emptiness, shapes what becomes manifest:

File:Antoine Berjon - Still-Life with a Basket of Flowers - WGA01953.jpg

Still-Life with a Basket of Flowers

“The master painters in Holland and in nineteenth-century France showed the poppies and irises and roses, the pears and apples and grapes emerging from the hollowness of their containers, the void as source of beauty. If you examine the vases holding the flowers, the baskets and plates on which the fruit lies, these vessels are each manifestations of particularized shapes, colors and textures, and they are inherent to what they display. “If God had not given us a vessel / His other gifts would have been of no avail.” “

Ovens and Stoves
The Jewish alchemists believe the origen of alchemy comes from the angel’s desire and passion for women:
“Angels were taken by passion for women. They descended to earth and taught them all operations of nature … They were the ones who composed chemical works … Their book is called Khema and it is from them that chemistry [kumia] received its name. ”
Desire, Hillman says, is akin to fiery heat, as if from the stars, but to be useful requires containment:
“The essence of fire is out of our control. It comes from the celestial region, from angels, from the gods and the earth’s burning bowels. Hence the shamanistic aspect of the smith as fire master, and the crime of Prometheus’s humanism.”
File:Alchemical Laboratory - Project Gutenberg eText 14218.jpg

Un laboratorio alquímico

The furnace then, is responsible for shaping and forming the material. The construct of a stove is intentional, a conceptual system designed for a specific function or operation.

“Furnus: a logic of strong, well-built, carefully joined, enduring system. Ground rules, bricks and mortar of the trade, iron-clad discipline of the church or school or society which keeps the living spirit in focus, concentrated, and able to withstand the blaze of inspiration, the flashes and sparks of passion that would ignite grass fires and scatter the intensity.”

Here is where we find purpose, intention and attention necessary for the work. Discipline and knowledge of the materials is needed for specific operations, or kinds of cooking. Hillman refers to the stove itself as the discipline of multiplicity. Cooking requires an ability to know the qualities of materials and processes. Different processes yield different results: evaporation for condensing, distillation for clarity, sublimation for raising the material out of the sediment, coagulation and cooling to solidify a substance into a definite shape.

Robbie says the work of imagination requires the discipline to slow down any work on a dream image. Only then can it be embodied by the dreamer. Sticking to the image helps our waking self to subjectively experience dream images, so they can then speak to us, and through us, rather than be subjects of our interpreting or imposing a system on them.

As the saying goes though, “we’re playing with fire,” and we’re warned against letting the fire go unattended, therefore raging out of control. The furnace, Robbie reminds us, is focus (latin for hearth), intensifying the heat while containing it, by “holding the focus,” or “sticking to the image.” In alchemical psychology, the furnace is built through the work, by the practice in which we focus more and more intently on particular qualities of images and feeling. Psychologically this means moving away from generalizations of feelings, seeing precise images for the experience of our feelings. Here is where the rawness of the material is then cooked and consumed, allowing the digestion of events that previously could not be incorporated.

The Spirit of the Fire

Understanding and respecting fire’s spirit is essential to alchemical work. Hillman breaks this down to five ideas of fire:

Brian W. Schaller – Own work

“Any worker in fire can easily perceive fire’s primary characteristics. It rises. Its heat overpowers and changes materials. It gives off light. It cannot be touched directly. It cannot be satiated. Ascension, transmutation, enlightenment, intangibility, insatiability: these five ideas empirically witnessed in the laboratory affect the formulations of alchemical texts and later commentators on these texts. In brief, fire gives alchemy its spiritual readings.”

Ascension: fire and heat have a rising nature, from low to high. The images are that of perfecting, progressing, purification.

Transmutation: fire has the power to transform all that it touches, from soft liquids to the hardest metals, such as iron.

Enlightenment: fire lights up our world while darkening that which is not in its reach. The more light, the more darkness, a source of opposition.

Intangibility: fire is untouchable, intangible, grasped only indirectly through symbol, allegory, paradox and hints.

Insatiability: fire wants “only to grow and its appetite is insatiable,” but like a baby requires constant feeding and nursing.

And finally, with these qualities of fire, Hillman, as did the alchemists, warned against a runaway spirituality which knows no limits, ever-seeking more, devouring all for the sake of itself, rather than sticking to the work of the material at hand. The fire of alchemy better serves soul through images, which for Hillman are the rudiments of the work:

“Since soul recognizes itself in its images and since the making of images (poeisis) is soul’s primary natural activity,  “the definite principle” that governs the “increase of fire” are images. They are the essential rudiments of the entire work. They are what the alchemist sees and smells and touches with his hands – and what he imagines. Focus on them limits the infinite metaphysical speculation (“the increase of fire”) to just what is just now.

Alchemy: a study of presentations as these appearances portray, define, and affect the soul. Consequently, alchemy’s insatiable spiritual drive, its “fire,” requires psychological limitations, an alchemy of soul such as this rudimentary chapter and the book as a whole intend.”

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