Updated: Mar 23
September 2020 Soul Notes
The poem above is a teaching story written in the native American teaching tradition and is the answer to the question “What do I do if I’m lost?” Children are more likely to be found when they go missing in the wild, as they know to stay where they are. Grown ups however, think they will find their way out and so head off with a seemingly purposeful stride even when they have no clue. Then they get more lost and often die before they are found. If they had stood still and enquired of the immediate surroundings, then they may have survived. Standing still is a struggle for many of us, in the most ordinary of circumstances. We’ve been taught to keep moving, forge ahead, look for the exit, make the change. This is what our society values. Constant movement. Perpetual forward motion. Even if it too leads to an untimely end. I’ve been reflecting on this in light of the last few months, where physical movement has been severely restricted. I’ve felt myself restless, longing for the journeys, mundane and far flung – the daily travels to places and people anew and the exotic possibilities of a new country, a new culture, a new discovery. This poem feels so relevant right now. Like many, I feel quite lost in this mad world, and feel my inner urgency to find a way out/through to a place that is more familiar. I feel a clamour, a panic, a tearfulness, a volatility, a tension, anxiety – what if we don’t find our way out of this burning place? What if this is the future? I wake with this energy. It quickly drives me to frantic activity as I head off with my purposeful stride to check my emails and phone messages, my bank accounts, Instagram, news feeds, podcasts and other online paths. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Some reassurance. Some hope. Some sense that all is right with the world. Rarely do I find it in these places. Instead, I find myself more lost, less sure of what I really think, feel or believe and befuddled by the sheer volume of information available. On a conscious day, I will take the native American advice and stay still.
“Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known”
On these days, I will pick up my pen and capture the remnants of any dreams still floating around. I will write my Morning Pages, the wonderful ritual introduced by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, to discover what “Here” means for me in this moment. I will walk and meditate by the trees. All before I look anywhere else outside. This stillness takes me on my own adventure into my inner life and invites me to listen and tend to what I find. If I can do this for myself, I find I feel less lost in the world. I become more at home with and in myself and more accepting of where I am right now. Without these practices, I can bounce into an ego-created version of myself, that is composed and unruffled and all knowing. This is a front for the uncertainty, the scramble beneath the surface, the half-baked ideas and shallow beliefs based on a speed reading of a prominent article, or a gulping down of popular ideas that I haven’t fully understood or digested. Poet, John O’Donohue described this contortion in this interview at onbeing.org on the inner landscape of beauty. He describes how we reduce our identity to a biography, with a beautiful face telling a story that doesn’t hold a candle to the actual identity of the person. Our identity is flawed, imperfect, vulnerable and shamed, whereas our bio is spruced up, cleaned, airbrushed, ready for consumption. I see us all doing this. How we’re encouraged to do this. To know. To have an opinion. To speak up. Even when we haven’t a clue. I see how we deny something so essentially human as our struggle. We leave this behind the scenes, believing it’s not something that others want to see. I often sit before my laptop to pen Soul Notes, wondering just how much to share with you all and I feel the edges of my ego-created identity as I reveal myself. One of my tutors during my therapy training observed that part of my development is to “dare my own authority”. At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant but it stuck in my mind. As I understand it now, it is to be willing to be the self that is emerging as I live life, rather than stuck within the boundaries of the identity that I assumed in order to survive growing up. To know that I don’t have to live within the confines of others’ expectations for me, but that I can get to know the self beneath the layers of those expectations and live truthfully. To do that, we need to both know and build a relationship with that self. Psychologist Carl Jung may be familiar to you for his work on personality types that led to the definition of the familiar MBTI categories. However, I really appreciate him as someone who offers a bridge between the rational and spiritual worlds, through his rigorous investigation of his own inner life and experience. He believed that we are so much more than our ego and conscious mind and encouraged active engagement with our inner life and voices to uncover our true needs, wants and desires. I recently attended an online workshop led by Jungian psychoanalyst, Murray Stein, exploring Jung’s Active Imagination method, a process which invites us to actively engage with our inner lives. Jung's own Active Imagination experiment ran for 15 years during the First World War and resulted in his iconic Red Book, which details his journey in calligraphy and images.
In here are the embryos of the theories which he later went on to develop and he refers to this time of pursuing “the inner images” as “the most important part of my life”.
Active Imagination encourages us to believe in the reality of our inner life as much as our outer reality and to turn our attention inwards. Stein explained that there are four rules for the process:
Let it happen – create a blank space in your mind and turn inward; actively follow your thoughts and bring your real ego into the imagination with you (this is what distinguishes it from meditation).
Whatever comes, receive it – you may see, hear, feel or otherwise sense something. Whatever it is, don’t reject or edit.
If it offers itself or moves, then follow it and engage it – treat the symbols and characters as real and engage with them so as to get to know them.
Create an artefact – bring the inner world into the outer by creating something from it – a picture, a poem, etc.
I’ve been experimenting with this process and am discovering a rich trove. It’s taken me back to making things, allowing the images and symbols to appear in art.
This mandala is one that I drew after an Active Imagination session. My conscious mind wanted to draw something blue, but what emerged was joyous and colourful and absorbed me. I’m finding a real deep relaxation in this inner exploration, and am enjoying it as a way of connecting with something beyond the news, the Covid updates, the fears and uncertainties of the current outer world. But it doesn’t feel like escape, more a deeper reconnection with something more primal, more unconscious and also more collective. It is a different kind of connection, and I am learning to value what it offers. Psychoanalyst, Donald Kalsched writes in Trauma and the Soul that therapy and imagination go hand in hand as a way of healing. He observes that his client’s inward relationships to other resources “especially imaginative resources” facilitates the healing. Right now, and in the era of social media, people are freely sharing their pandemic dreams and we see that there are themes emerging that reveal, not surprisingly our fear, isolation and loss during this time. Philosophers, psychologists and scientists are interested in what this reveals about us as you can see from this recent Guardian article. It is something we all might get interested in – what joins us – what connects us – what do we know without knowing? Jung referred to this as the “collective unconscious” – the human experience we all understand and share, irrespective of what life we are born to. Here lie the archetypes of human behaviour, from which all our mythology and stories are taken. This is why fairy stories offer such a rich insight into human nature and experience – they carry our shared knowledge and fears and can be used to decipher the path if we truly listen to their wisdom. Jung himself wrote of multiple dreams where he foresaw World War I:
“I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps.”….I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress……..Then the whole sea turned to blood.”
The war broke out two months after his third dream. People often diminish the value of this inner work, considering it to be “navel gazing” or “self indulgent”. These criticisms bely a fear of knowing ourselves more fully. As we each come to know ourselves, we come to know each other. When we hear people speak of their innermost experiences, we are often touched at a deep level because they have revealed not just their personal experience, but a deeper human experience which we share. By staying present to ourselves, we stay present to us all. Our inner work is a selfless act, not selfish. Once we know we are lost, then the possibility of being found is closer.