“The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.” Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Last week I addressed Oneness, an ideal state in which all pairs of opposites are consciously connected and united. Oneness is rare, but worth the effort because it is the path to renewal, peaceful thinking, right action, and the survival of our species.
Like the universe itself, we are in a constant state of flux. Psychologically we are evolving in the direction of greater consciousness. Spiritually we’re evolving toward the highest ideals of every authentic religion: to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This requires awareness — the ability to remember that everyone and everything we meet is our neighbor, and to choose to treat everything with compassion, kindness, forgiveness, honesty, patience, gentleness and self-control.
Most of us aren’t self-aware enough to do this all the time. Despite our best efforts we fall short every day. Yet, there is hope. The disorder can be reversed and we can continue to evolve. But if we refuse to budge from our ego opinions, we will grow more disordered and toxic. We have to surrender before we can evolve. This is the law of entropy.
4.The Law of Entropy: When opposites remain isolated from one another, any disorders within them remain constant or increase.
The law of entropy is a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration. It says that when disorders in us and around us increase, our ability to act in accordance with our highest values decreases. For example, throughout history and until a few hundred years ago in the U.S., it was common for people to have the power of life and death over their slaves. This not only goes against the values of all authentic religions, it goes against the core values of the Self.
We all contain these core values — like love, freedom, and justice for all — but fearful and ambitious egos prefer to ignore them. When we focus on our outer needs and separate from the Self’s truths, we perpetuate personal and societal entropy.
In the U.S., many justified slavery until the Civil War ended it. Some still do. Some believe men are preordained to go to work and women to stay home. Some, even if they won’t confess it, believe that rich, white, males are entitled to be bosses and leaders.
Today, our limitless avarice for more power, material objects, status and prestige; our hatred of ourselves and each other; our mindless destruction of the earth’s creatures and resources, are modeled for us daily via television, cell phones, and the internet. Disordered ways of thinking are gaining momentum because we are seeing more of them while being separated from our spiritual cores.
While it seems that people are no longer isolated from one another because of these technological advances, the truth is that technology is neither good nor evil. We are the problem. if we refuse to see the truth about ourselves, help our neighbors, or curtail our daily diet of disordered images and ego-driven role models, our children will learn our disorderedness and civilization will decline and die. It’s inevitable.
“When I began studying the notion of entropy it became clear to me that thermodynamic entropy was merely one instance of a concept with much broader applications … I became convinced that entropy applied to social phenomena as well.” Sociologist Kenneth Bailey
How can we reverse the decline? In graduate school I wrote a term paper on a book called Social Learning Theory (1977), by psychologist Albert Bandura. He formulated his ground-breaking theories in part by putting children in a room containing a variety of toys and watching them play through a hidden mirror. Here’s a summary as best I can remember. (This was 40 years ago!)
The first group of children saw an adult playing with a Bobo doll — one of those large blown-up plastic clowns that’s weighted in the bottom so that it won’t tip over. The adult had a grand time striking it. After telling the children to play with the toys, the adult left the room. Then another group of children entered the room. The adult told them to play with the toys, then left.
Many of the children in the first group immediately went for the Bobo doll and began aggressively punching and kicking it. Most children in the second group dispersed and played with different toys. A few playfully pushed the Bobo doll around.
Bandura formed three main principles of social learning from his research:
You can learn through observation.
Learning a new way of thinking and behaving through observing it will not necessarily change your behavior.
You are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes you value. You can attain your highest level of observational learning by organizing and rehearsing the modeled behavior symbolically and then enacting it overtly.
“The … ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Steven Pinker
Our bodies will decay and die because our genes are subject to the law of entropy. But in every death there is new beginning and unlimited opportunity to better ourselves. We can surrender our ego’s ignoble ambitions. We can evolve while we are still alive and be so renewed that we can “carve out refuges of beneficial order,” and observe our physical bodies die with joy and meaning.
We can aspire to attain our god-like potential through rituals and practices that mature us.We can transform our lead into gold, our suffering into excellence. We can model our growth to our children and neighbors. The more we try, the better our chance of reversing the death of civilization. And even if our current conceptions of civilization die, those who are left can do the work and model their integrity and boldness.
Whatever we choose, our children will learn from us.
Image credits: Amazon.com book cover; Google images, unknown.
“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls it The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it the Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke called it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it The center of Our Love.
To know this spot of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.” Mark Nepo
Mark Nepo rightly notes that we each live in the midst of an ongoing tension. Part of it is caused by the natural stressors of living in a fast-paced, instant-gratification world, and part is our natural inner compulsion to grow and better ourselves. The reality is, we can’t grow without conflict or suffering. The different energies of the north and south poles need to interact to create our earth’s magnetic field. You have to contend with the different specialties of your brain’s two hemispheres as well as the realities of your inner and outer lives to resolve everyday problems.
Tension motivates change. If we can tolerate the tension of our conflicts long enough without acting rashly, our unconscious can find solutions that will further our growth. But if we ignore our tension too long without addressing it, it can create burnout and physical symptoms.
How do we address our tension? How do we find that magical, unencumbered spot of grace that issues peace? Whether we’re aware of it or not, this is a central question around which our lives revolve, but many of us are so distracted by our outer lives that we don’t stop long enough to hear the question, let alone try to answer it. To further complicate things, the answers vary from culture to culture and individual to individual. But four principles remain constant.
1. Create some personal alone time to find your center. This involves more than saying an occasional affirmation or prayer, listening to a weekly sermon, or hearing a few motivational speeches. You’ll need to be willing to delay some pursuits which your ego finds instantly gratifying in favor of ones that will bring future rewards which may be a long time coming.
2. Try different practices until you find what brings you to a place of love, joy, and peace. Pay close attention to your inner life, not only while you’re practicing, but throughout the rest of the day and coming weeks. Notice how your practice affects your emotions, moods, self-esteem, and relationships. Commit to the one or ones that make you come alive and bring you close to Spirit. Here are some I’ve tried: writing, poetry, meditation, prayer, dreamwork, yoga, playing and listening to music, being with animals and nature, hiking, and reading. Of these, writing, dreamwork, and meditation have been the most helpful and enduring.
3. Persevere. Some practices take a longer trial period than others before you get into the groove and begin to notice beneficial effects that motivate you to continue. For example, I’ve always loved to write — letters, poetry, diaries, journals, stories, plays, etc. — but when I began to write my dissertation at the age of 39, it was far more difficult than fun. Since it was my dissertation, I forced myself to persevere. Because I had a part-time job and two children, I wrote for a few hours every night after they went to bed. Of course, this meant I had to let other responsibilities slide and my husband had to help more with the kids and household duties. At first, these changes were hard for all of us. But day by day my resistance lowered, my writing brought more pleasure, and my family grew accustomed to our new routines. By the time I finished several months later, I realized that this had been the happiest time of my adult life! Hard as it was, the moment I sat down at my typewriter, time disappeared and all my concerns dissolved until I got up again. It was pure magic.
4. Practice regularly. Daily is ideal. Set aside a time when you can be alone and concentrate for at least 20 or 30 minutes. But there’s no need to beat yourself up if you miss a few of these appointments with your soul. For example, when I first committed myself to dreamwork, I recorded and worked on dreams most mornings and totaled over 300 every year. Last weekend I finished summarizing my dreams from 2019 and my total was 119. Weeks passed when I didn’t remember and record a dream. But I’ve done this for so long that I know when I need to get serious about it again. And when I do, it always brings me back to peace and love.
What practices make your true Self come alive? If you haven’t found your center yet, may 2020 be your year of returning to that umbilical spot of grace where you were touched by God.
Image credits: Serpentine Fire, Google Free Images, unknown. Heart Mandala, Google Free Images, Daniel B. Holeman.
What follows is copied from this morning’s dream journal. It seems a fitting post for the holiday season this year. May you find meaning and hope in it during this dark, chaotic time.
Dream #5,000: Tree of Life
I’m in a room in which someone has set up a small square table, like a card table, and covered it with a white cloth. Toward the back center of the table is a small live, potted tree. The front of the table is empty, as if this is a serving table for a Christmas feast and the platters and bowls of food will be placed there.The tree is around 2 feet high. It’s a bit wonky, like Charlie Brown’s little tree, with five skimpy branches sprouting from either side of a central trunk. But unlike Chuck’s tree, it’s not an evergreen with leaves and greenery. It’s a deciduous tree which has shed its old leaves for the winter. This makes sense, since it’s the dead of winter. The branches of this tree are dotted with unusually large, obviously ripening buds which make me think of ornaments on a Christmas tree. As I awaken I hear myself narrating a description of the tree saying, “The Tree of Life, laden with buds (I wrote bulbs) and the promise of new life.”
This dream is very meaningful to me for several reasons. First, because at my first Wise Women’s group meeting a few weeks ago, Jan told us about a group of women who sponsor a movement to plant new trees in the deforested belt around the planet. At the end of our meeting I suggested that we all try to incubate a tree dream to share at our next meeting after the holidays. I was hoping to find some guidance and meaning for our group about the danger of deforestation that is threatening our planet. That night I had dream #4990 with images of a few trees with a few green leaves, but it didn’t bowl me over and I’ve had no more dreams about trees since. Until last night.
Second, last night, knowing the next dream I recorded and worked on would be my 5,000th, I again asked Dream Mother to please bring me an extra special tree dream. Boy, did she deliver!
I awoke some time around 4:00 with the image of this dream and the realization that I was repeating its final words about the Tree of Life. After that I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I got up, wrote it down, went back to bed, and starting thinking about my associations with it. The first thing I thought of was my blog post from some years ago about the symbolic meaning of dreams. I guess that’s what gave me the idea to post this one today.
Next, I thought about what I’ve been writing about in my next book and realized that the Tree of Life represents the trinitarian third force which brings unity between opposites, not just as a metaphysical reality, but also as a physical one. Metaphysically, a tree is an image of the Philosopher’s Stone. Physically, it is a metaphor for the human body, with its central trunk, five appendages (head, arms, and legs), and a feminine and masculine side. This reminded me of the Kabbalah’s sephirot which, in Judaism, represents the divine in humanity and also has a feminine and masculine side.
Then I realized that the Jewish menorah is a Tree of Life too — with its central candle-holder trunk, and four candle holders on each side — and that this image is also like the sephirot. Plus, the lighting of the menorah candles celebrates the divine spark of light, wisdom and divine inspiration that we bring to fullness in ourselves with our spiritual work. The reference to light reminded me of the confusion I had when writing down the dream about the similarity between the words “buds” and “bulbs” — buds signaling new life, and Christmas tree bulbs representing the return of light, and with it, new life.
Another thought was that the Tree of Life, the sephirot, the menorah, and the Christmas tree are all images of the Great Mother, or Sacred Mother, who births new life and light via the buds that will blossom into leaves and flowers with the return of spring. So it’s also an image of the Sacred Feminine which has lain dormant for so long in the collective unconscious but is now showing signs of rebirth. This gives me hope. With women becoming more involved in positions of authority and taking on projects like planting new trees, perhaps they can also influence the world’s governments to take this and other ecological threats more seriously. If they succeed, just as the darkness and barrenness of winter is always followed by the light and new growth of spring, Mother Nature can restore the health of our planet with her natural cycles of life. May it be so.
Finally, the dream felt like a reward from my unconscious for all the work I’ve been doing on my dreams over the last 30 years. It seems to suggest that at my age I am still capable of sprouting with new life, and it made me feel known and loved by the Sacred. It felt like an affirmation and validation of what I’m writing about in my new book, and gave me hope that it might be well-received by the collective. So after lying awake thinking about my 5,000th recorded dream for the rest of the night, I arose at 7:30 and began making revisions to the last chapter based on what I learned from it.
Thank you to my readers for your many gifts of wisdom through the years. May your holiday season be filled with light, wisdom, new life, and divine inspiration.
Image credits: Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree, https://www.macys.com/, The Tree of Life Metal Menorah by Scott Nelles, https://www.artfulhome.com/
“Obviously we do not know how the ego arose in man. We have certain myths showing how ancient man thought about this problem, and we can observe the phenomenon in very young children today. Just as the individual child must undergo training and discipline, so too the primitive nature of man had to be housebroken and domesticated, restrained and adapted, if he was to advance in culture and in ability to control his environment.” Esther Harding, Psychic Energy, p. 197.
Since we learned to talk, humans have told stories around the campfire about the inner life of the psyche and the mysterious archetypal energies which indwell it. We call these stories myths. With borrowed images from nature that instinctively aroused strong emotions like fear, awe, passion, wonder, greed, hope and gratitude, myths presented characters, settings, plots and themes that attempted to answer humanity’s most universal and fundamental questions: Why are we here? Who made us? Why do we act the way we do? How can we stay safe? What are we supposed to do and be?
Most of these images—like the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, bears, snakes, unusual stones, springs of fresh water, thunder and lightning—still have emotional power over us. Early humans would not have understood what their fascination with these images said about them. Nonetheless, they resonated so deeply that the stories are still being told.
“Myths are concerned with origins, the fear of death, and the hope for the overcoming of death in another world.” A.S. Byatt, Introduction to Maria Tatar’s “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” p. xix.
Let us imagine how the Bible’s account of our origins came about. A storyteller wonders where the first parents came from and imagines them being created by a superhuman Father God. Fondly recalling his/her own early carefree days when every need was met by doting parents (Epoch I of self-awareness), our storyteller memorializes this idyllic time in the image of the Garden of Eden, a paradise where humans and animals co-exist in harmony…. as long as everyone obeys Father God.
Early humans would have understood this rule completely. Life was hard, and children who strayed away from camp would be in peril. Parental obedience was essential to their survival.
Other images also called to mind their instinctual need for safety. For example, a gigantic tree could be climbed when danger threatened, and its thick canopy of leaves provided cover from rain. So it made sense to situate a Tree of Life in the center of the Garden. Sometimes tribal rituals were performed around special trees to show gratitude for their protection. So far, so good.
“The further development of the individual can be brought about only by means of symbols which represent something far in advance of himself and whose intellectual meanings cannot yet be grasped entirely.” ~Carl Jung, CW 4, Para 680.
As humans gained more control over their environments, travel and communication with other tribes exposed them to other myths with different images and new symbolic meaning. Whose stories were right and whose were wrong? Which god-images and rituals were good and which were evil? Dualistic thinking had entered the picture.
This advanced the plot further. Enter the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Enter Eve who is fascinated by the luscious ripe fruit, symbolizing the psyche’s readiness for a new level of self-awareness. Enter an evil snake who represents a powerful temptation to challenge the status quo. Enter a new problem: seeing and having to choose between opposites. Enter the consequences: after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, the dire implications of the problem of opposites for the future of humanity was anticipated with the symbolism of Eve giving birth to twin boys, one of whom killed the other.
The symbols speak for themselves. Disobeying the Father God by eating the fruit marked a revolutionary advance in the psyche. What Eve would not have known, and her storyteller probably barely intuited, was that in departing from the collective mentality, she became the mother of Epoch II Ego Consciousness.
“When the ego begins to develop and gains some autonomy—some power, over against the might of nature, to determine and control itself and its environment—it gradually acquires a feeling of being a separate entity. The individual learns to differentiate between the I and the not-I, with an ever increasing emphasis of the value of the I. That is, he becomes aware of being a self. This awareness is accompanied by an intoxicating sense of selfhood, an inner expansion of the I. Unchecked, this will produce an inflation…
“In the outer world the ego seeks to dominate its environment and to subject all things, persons, and conditions alike to its interest. In the inner world, as many psychic contents as possible are brought under its control, and those which cannot be dominated are suppressed.In this way a threshold is built up between the conscious and the unconscious part of the psyche.” Harding, p. 241.
I’ll have more to say about this second phase of self-awareness next time. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the story isn’t over and “happily ever after” is nowhere in sight. If we are to reach our fullest potential we will need to agonize over more conflicts and ask new questions like, What new thoughts, impulses and images are arising in me? Where are they coming from? Who or what do I try to dominate? Which aspects of my inner world do I try to suppress?
Image Credits: Google Images: Garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach. Quote Image courtesy of Lewis Lafontaine.
Two nights before my keynote speech to the 2015 International Association for the Study of Dreams I had this dream.
#4,642: My Animus is Afraid to Trust My Instincts: Old friends have visited us for two days. I’ve just realized they left their dog alone at home. I’m worried about this. Will it have enough food? I say to the husband, “Won’t it poop and pee all over the house?” He says with a shrug, “Maybe. We’ll see.” I can’t believe he’s so casual about this. It feels wrong.
We drive to their house in another town and go inside. As we approach the sliding glass door to the backyard, he points out little piles of poop that make a trail to the open door. I see their dog sticking its cute brown and white head out from some green undergrowth at back of the cement patio. It moves into the open looking wobbly and weak, as if it’s about to drop.
I go to it, sit on the ground, and pet it. It wags its tail happily and climbs into my lap, growing excited and playful. Another little black dog who looks like Peri [our son’s dog as a child] runs to me, jumps all over me, licks me, and wiggles around in my arms. The husband is watching us from the stoop of the open door. With an ironic smile he looks pointedly at his brown and white dog and says, “I’m afraid of you.” He turns away as if he’s lost interest.
My associations: I associate the husband with the part of my animus that identifies with the Scholar archetype. In waking life this man is an intelligent, creative former college professor. The dogs represent my animal, instinctual self, especially my instincts for nurturance and activity. My dream ego enjoys and trusts my instincts, but my animus neglects them and admits he’s afraid of his dog. Why?
The key to understanding this dream is the context. Anxiety about my upcoming speech had dominated my waking hours for over a month. The previous day, an artist friend who used to attend my classes at the Jung Center called and asked if I was ready. When I told her about my concerns she said, as other friends had been saying, “Relax. You’re going to be great. You always are. Just trust your instincts.”
Bingo! My animus was afraid to trust my instincts. As a college professor, my instincts were of no importance. Nothing but an abstract concept. What was important was task-oriented, single-minded attention to texts written by outer authorities. We (my animus and ego) saw this as the only way to comprehend and express the course material clearly and correctly. This was how a good teacher prepared to teach.
When I quit teaching and began writing over 25 years ago, this habit persisted. By then my reading, studying and writing were focused on Jungian psychology and understanding my dreams. But as I persisted in this inner work, something changed. I began to rely more on my dreams and instincts and less on outer authorities to guide the direction of my thinking and writing.
Following some inner compass I didn’t know I had, I spent mornings listening to my anima—my creative, feminine, instinctual self—by meditating and working on my dreams. When a dream image, emotion or theme felt unusually fascinating, I’d spend the afternoon—time reserved for my animus to manifest my anima’s creativity—incorporating it into my current manuscript. In respecting the needs of my feminine and masculine sides I was unknowingly activating the Self, the central authority of my psyche, and learning to trust it.
This transformation awakened my passion and creativity and informed my books. Dream Theatres of the Soul: Empowering the Feminine Through Jungian Dream Work is the book on which my speech for the IASD was based. I knew this material. It had come from listening to my feminine instincts. Yet, in preparing for my speech I’d neglected Her in favor of His traditional, single-minded, outer-referential ego-mode. And like the puppies in my dream, She was starved for attention, nurturance, and love.
Understanding this inner reality had a magical, mystical impact. With no mental effort other than a 30 minute meditation/ritual during which I thanked Dream Mother for this dream and reassured my animus that he could relax now, my concerns simply fell away. For the next several days I was wrapped in a cocoon of calm and trust. Never have I been more relaxed before or after a presentation.
Yes, after 25 years of inner work, my animus’s fear of my instincts occasionally still floods me with anxiety, but so far this tension has served me well. Tolerating the interaction between the different perspectives of my masculine and feminine sides has not only insured my survival and thriving, but created and birthed self-knowledge, consciousness, and spiritual meaning.
“From the living fountain of instinct flows everything that is creative; hence the unconscious is not merely conditioned by history, but is the very source of the creative impulse.” (Carl Gustav Jung)
I’m feeling inspired to write poetry these days, and this has me thinking about creativity. Jung says creativity originates in our instincts. In other words, our body, with its physical needs and functions, is the matter (L. Mater), or mother, of our urge to create. And the psyche governs our responses to our instinctual urges.
Jung said we have five basic instincts:
“Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.” (Brian W. Aldiss)
Nurturance: Our bodies need fuel, and we get hungry, irritable and desperate when we don’t get it. They also need protection from the dangerous and uncontrollable forces of nature. Some human caring and creature comfort don’t hurt either. So if we, our loved ones and our tribe are to survive and prosper, our basic needs for nurturing and being nurtured must be met. Thus, creativity originally arose in the marshalling of conscious thought and focused behavior to create the necessary tools, weapons, strategies, rules and codes of conduct that would satisfy this instinct.
“The essential ingredient for creativity is wasting time.” (Anonymous)
“I have always regarded manual labour as creative and looked with respect – and, yes, wonder – at people who work with their hands. It seems to me that their creativity is no less than that of a violinist or painter.” (Pablo Casals)
Activity: Food and water don’t just automatically show up in edible and potable form when we need it, so we have to get off the couch and do something to procure them! And once we have thoroughly stuffed ourselves it feels good to celebrate with other creative activities such as walking dinner off, participating in games and athletic competitions, and cleaning and fixing up the cave.
“The emotional mind creates, and the rational mind explains it. Another way of saying this is, your ‘heart’ perceives it and your ‘head’ translates it.” (Alvaro Castagnet)
Reflection: If, after all this eating and fooling around we have a spare moment or two, and if we still feel comfortable and secure, our thoughts move into new areas. For example, we might reflect on how beautiful the sunset is; figure out how not to starve or freeze to death next winter; wonder why the kids are so cranky! So we ask questions and try to solve problems. We devise strategies and make plans. We create religious rituals to thank the earth, the animals, the plants and the gods for meeting our needs and to make sure the sun will rise in the morning, spring will return, and a saber toothed-tiger won’t have us for dinner.
“The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.” (Francis Bacon)
Sex: Every living creature is born with the instinct to preserve the species. Plus, humans and other complex animal forms have an instinctive need for love and intimacy with others. And it feels good! So we use our creativity to attract partners and be appealing to them.
“I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem.” ~ Jaime Gil de Biedma
Creativity: So the instincts activate our creativity and creativity is itself an instinct, an urge that satisfies our souls and enriches our lives in numerous ways and forms. Stories told around the fire. Figurines of animals and gods. Vessels for food and flowers, gathering and gifting. Music: songs, dances symphonies and the instruments to play them. Painted images from myths and dreams. Delicious foods. Ornaments for our bodies, fabrics to wear and beautify our homes, poems to enlighten and inspire us, to make works of art of our very lives.
And in the process, to make life worth living.
“Creative activity is more than a mere cultural frill, it is a crucial factor of human experience, the means of self-revelation, the basis of empathy with others; it inspires both individualism and responsibility, the giving and the sharing of experience.” (Tom Hudson)
“If I didn’t have my films as an outlet for all the different sides of me, I would probably be locked up.” (Angelina Jolie)
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” (Pearl S. Buck)
“When I can no longer create anything, I’ll be done for.” (Coco Chanel)
My father-in-law’s funeral last weekend has me revisiting the mystery of death. Organized religions have it figured out. Unfortunately, their explanations stopped working for me many years ago. I often wonder if they work for anyone. Are words and beliefs which originate outside of us really enough to erase our terror of death, or is something more needed? Something powerful and personal that arises from within.
Dad’s church service was beautiful and deeply moving. I was grateful for the opportunity to honor his life in this sacred space and it felt right and necessary to celebrate his memory with family and friends. But this time-honored tradition didn’t answer my questions about death.
Over the years I’ve wondered things like, when I die, what is the “I” that dies? Is it all of me, or just the physical part of me, or some of the mental parts too, or what? If anything lives on, what is it? Where does it live?
Other questions are about how to deal with death while I’m still alive. Shall I fight it or accept it? Ignore it or face it? Is there a way I can come to terms with my eventual death or the death of a loved one now? If so, what is it?
And I wonder about people who say, “Why would I want to think about death? Isn’t it better to be happy and see the bright side of things? What good can it possibly do to dwell on such morbid thoughts?”
I know many people feel this way, but it’s not an option for me. I’ve consciously lived with the specter of death (I imagine it sitting just over my left shoulder) ever since life brought my naively confident ego to its knees at the age of 36. Until then I thought I was tough enough to handle anything. But when I discovered I had a shadow composed of everything my ego believed it was not, the shock was so great and the internal conflicts so painful that I began to fantasize about suicide.
That was when I realized I had a choice. I could escape my pain by killing myself, or I could choose to go on living. For me, staying alive meant tolerating some unbearable suffering for as long as it took to understand and befriend the opposing forces in me that had brought me to this point. It meant choosing to take my needs and gifts seriously instead of allowing them to wither away under a persona of passive perfection and “good girl” conformity. And it meant assuming full responsibility for my choices without blaming anyone else. I chose life. Having confronted death, I had nothing left to lose by confronting my inner darkness.
Ironically, in facing my fear of death, I began to lose my fear of life! I haven’t fully conquered every fear, but if you could magically spend one day in the head of 36-year-old Jeanie and a second day in my head today, you wouldn’t believe they were attached to the same body! (Well, not quite the same!)
I don’t know the answers to all these questions but I have some theories. I do know that one thing that leaves the body at death is the light in our eyes. Light is everywhere a metaphor for consciousness. I suspect my fearful ego, unexplored shadow and all my other unconscious parts may die with my body. But years of inner work have created a new and independent entity of light that does not seem bound to physical life: a Conscious Observer. Like a lamp shining through a window on a dark night, this part of me can see beyond the walls of self-delusion that my ego has built around my psyche. I think this light may live on.
And where will it live? If it is true as some quantum physicists believe that everything in the universe is connected, then perhaps it will join the light of the One Universal Conscious Mind that has been evolving since the first human realized the miracle of his/her life.
How shall I deal with death while I’m still alive? By carrying on a dialogue with it when it whispers in my left ear, drops hints in my dreams, or shows up in waking life. And keep it up until we’re all talked out. Then I’ll just keep on living.
Is it better to be happy and positive instead of dwelling on morbid thoughts? There is no “better” or “worse” answer to this question. Different souls have different paths. Some are born to fly; some must explore the ocean depths. The healing way is to stop worrying about whether our way is right or wrong and start facing our personal realities with courage, honesty and love.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.