across the thin bridge of the wild psyche
Endings shape stories
As the year ends I want to review what I’ve written this year. Endings help create stories. As the end of something approaches our psyche begins to spin story from the coming loss. We return back to the start and try and piece together what happened. Story gets created from this process of loss. The psyche travels back through the threads of memory it has spun, seeks out what’s significant and links them together. Mostly it does this through searching for moments of strong feeling.
Certain moments from the year appear. I think of moments I’ve engaged with the practice of an imaginal ecology. I remember the Old Oak that stands in a particular woods. These ancient woods grow dense on the steep chalky slopes that lead up to the South Downs way. The steepness has protected them, meaning this is one of the oldest woods in the area. One steep ride from the high ridge opens up into a lower lying bracken field that faces this old tree. This Old Oak stands solitary amongst a shock of ferns and brambles, placed just by a crossroad of five ways. This bracken field resembles a kind of wild village common. But no one comes here to play cricket or set up market. After dark, the moonlight on the uncurled fronds gives the place a eerie quality, filled with a kind of wild calm. As I returned to it, it began to take on this quality stronger, such that I imagined it to be somehow a grandmother sentinel within the wood’s matrix, a place to stand and feel keyed into a network that I sometimes feel but don’t know.
One night I come to a fork in the path in these Woods at midnight, the paths obscured by darkness as I guide a small group of friends through the woods at night to a place to a sheltered place camp on the high ridge. The pressure is on, it’s dark and no one else knows the way except me, and I’m suddenly not sure which path to chose. The night has changed everything and challenged my sense of knowing the place, reminding me that I’m still a visitor here, a stranger.
Memory as myth
Strong feelings of memory get composed and threaded into images by psyche. When I speak of images I don’t mean a personal visual slideshow. Understanding images as feeling toned, as embodied, not only visual but sensory, synaesthetic, linked to interoception, proprioception. Deep images flow from these perceptions, a pulse of images, like a pulse of blood. Ritual serves to heighten feeling through creating strong boundaries and containers for it, like the banks of a river it allows images to flow or a lake to hold water. Storytelling lends itself to ritual, with it’s crossing over and return into the imaginal. Endings create stories through the container they offer. All that happened becomes able to be felt and seen, as if a cup had been dipped into a river and can now be drunk from.
As I look back at what I’ve been drawn to write this year, certain images and themes repeat- most notably pathways and doorways. Finding an repeating image within memory draws that memory closer to myth. What seemed at the time like just wandering through the woods takes on a soulful level. To take on the role of the guide and reaching a forking path in the dark woods has a mythic quality as well as a practical necessity in that moment.
I wrote a series of essays called “Pathways into the imaginal.” I felt that the problem with an imaginal ecology, is that despite Corbin’s intentions and my love of it, the word “imaginal” contains confusion and tension. On the one hand it starts to collapse back into the word “imaginary” with it’s meaning of something being unreal. On the other hand it also can become spiritualised and superior, referring to something lofty and unattainable. The concept of the imaginal as mediating and permeating these two realms is something Corbin offers us, we might be alert to this tendency to split the imaginal apart. It’s worth finding ways to ground our desire to ascend and to make the mundane soulful.
So I wanted to show how the imaginal is always already present. Encountering animals, listening to music and experiencing heartbreak may seem like quite different kettles of fish but they all offer pathways into an imaginal ecology. One of the challenges of an imaginal ecology, to find the the psyches roots in the dark earth. Yet in doing so not turn nature into a parent substitute, filled only with unresolved projection and yearning. Timothy Morton calls this task “Ecology without Nature.” I take him to mean it’s good to find the ecological thought and where it is present in the city, in work, in the home and where it is not. This is a task similar to the one that faces us at the end of therapy, where the challenge becomes to withdraw and digest projections placed upon the therapist or client.
Digesting projections through imaginal ecology
One way of doing this subtle work is to become more and more aware of our fantasies. We can become aware of how they permeate our identity, and ask what they want from us. We can notice how they have protected us and also prevented us from becoming. Psychology, as Jung taught it is certainly a process of dis-identification, a via negativa. We certainly do project our fantasies onto nature just as we do culture heroes, mentors, supervisors, writers, musicians.
And this is fine up to a point; it might be that this is just how we learn and how we relate; that the need to throw out flailing hook from our vulnerabilities to latches on to the generous loops offered by our culture heroes or Old Oak trees. The Old Oak seems well able to withstand such projections. What though, stands behind the projection, and how might we honour that? After all projections are not “just” projections, and certainly not only interior experiences; the world really does contain majesty and mystery that envelops our lives and soaks into our psyche, connecting it to the dreaming beast of the living world.
One thing that stands behind our projections may be an immense power that has only a partial interest in us. Something invisible that wants to come into the room that we don’t see, block or forget, but that keeps living within and around us, much as last night’s dreams keep bubbling away during the day even as the memory of them slides back into the body. One way of working with what stands behind our projections, is to discover what binds art to life. Art holds the incredible capacity we have for soul renewal . Art helps us to find the new in the old, in memories and histories.
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
wrote William Carlos Williams toward the end of his poem “from Asphodel, Greeny Flower.”
A strange seeming statement, given the peripheral position of poetry in most people’s lives. How does the line read if we think of “get the news” as not just the state of current affairs, but get the “renewal”? In this reading it’s not that it’s hard to get the 6 o clock news from reading poems. It’s that we need the newness that poetry offers us. As Ezra Pound said “poetry is news that stays new.”
We have become very used to an internalisation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where physical needs, cognitive needs and safety need to be established first and then “aesthetic needs” or ” spiritual needs” might then be satisfied. But the problem with this is that it makes beauty and what art does seem to be the icing on a cake, and so disposable. If icing seems like a luxury then we are smothered in that, podcasts, netflix, instagram.
Poetry as confession, death and renewal
Consider though, that Carlos Williams was 77 when he wrote “Asphodel”, and near death. He wrote the poem as he approached death, penniless, nearly blind having suffered both stroke and heart attack. His career was in peril due to MacCarthyism and blacklisting. The shame and despair he felt drove him to spend three months in a psychiatric hospital where he worked on this poem. In it, he confronts and expresses his love for his wife of 40 years, shame and regret he feels about infidelity, pride, desire. The joy he feels at the beauty and love they’ve shared. It’s fluid, complex, controlled and full of beauty. In it he renews his love, and re-affirms it in the light of the deep vulnerability of his position and the contingency of his words. He does not plead or try to persuade, but rather presents image after image like wave of a sea. He finds a deep and rare love, one that has persisted and has become strong through renewal.
“It is the mind
that must be cured
short of death’s
and the will becomes again
a garden. The poem
is complex and the place made
in our lives
for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
but you do not get far
Even great art with words cannot guarantee such trivial miracles as being forgiven, becoming loved and atoning for hurting others. Yet as Williams words follow his poetic bent his confessions becomes less pleading and more like a strings of images. The injunction he gives here is to “begin again” – to be renewed. That’s easier than it sounds, given that rebirth of necessity must be preceded by death. So given that the pathways I chose to take this year into the imaginal were animals, music and heartbreak, it’s worth considering the death of a relationship, the death of an animal and the death of music as part of the pathway into the imaginal that leads to renewal. One great pathway into this renewal is a blue path, the blue of melancholy, grief, heartbreak and the blues, the blue that arises from the black rot of anger, resentment and revenge , softening it and bringing in feeling. Memories, like dreams can be a royal road into the alchemical blue of renewal, and that brings pain. For that reason we sometimes prefer to forget or to avoid memories.
Stories are not constructed but grown
However, in avoiding endings we also avoid story. And if we avoid our own story, we avoid both our own soul and our place in this world. It’s been another theme of the essays and posts this year that stories are not constructed but grown. That stories have a kind of life of their own, that changes a room in the telling of them. That what story is has been fundamentally and basically misunderstood, misused and abused in the worst ways possible, to create a wall.
Story had been excluded from academia as a way of knowing due to the perception of it as childish, untrustworthy and lacking authority. However, it’s fair to say that the “narrative turn” began in the 1960’s has permeated deeply into the general culture. Yet it often arrives in ways that reveal techno-capitalism’s deep influence, with “changing the narrative” understood as if it meant switching the channel, or getting a new team of scriptwriters in to improve your life. Narrative as a means of knowing has been used to escape the complicated insights of medical science as though we could chose a story we want to hear or as if personal resonance between story and data were the sole guide to it’s best interpretation. The desire to “change the narrative” often rests not on the tangled moss of stories, but on concealed convictions about purity – the desire for a pure story, rather than one that’s been corrupted, or manipulated, spun, twisted, re-framed or faked.
Yet this desire for purity, rather than offering a chance of genuine renewal, instead involves an avoidance of what alchemists called the “putrificatio” – the rotting process involved in genuine transformation. It’s worth remembering that our modern secular consumer society also has it’s roots in a mercantile puritanism that attacks imagination and seeks to dismantle myth and ritual and communal structures, replace them with a pure relationship with God. And that this same puritanism venerates the accumulation of money through the veneration of “hard work”.
Our desire for purity in a world that we have poisoned, our own fear that this poison will get into our bodies through the ecological matrix we belong to, brings near the darker aspects not only of our culture but our own psyche. For in order for purity to be maintened, some other group or person must be impure, be it men, women, catholics, puritans, doctors, politicians, witches, businessmen, demons, archons, antivaxxers, vaxxers, immigrants, brexiteers, liberal elites, George Soros, Trump supporters. When listed in this way it seems obvious, yet how often these generalisation infect our thoughts and speech when we are under pressure. And who is not under pressure now in a time of pandemic and ecological crisis?
It’s not to say we give up on making sound judgements about the issues and sit on the fence as if floating above the whole difficulty. That’s an abdication of judgement. It’s just that The Devil seems to take the costume of those we feel to be impure and it is when we are most righteous and opposed to him that we are listening to his plans the best. Marie Von Franz probably says it best when she writes that as a general rule our assumptions about who or what is evil often need to be thought of in relation to our own unconcious psyche first before applying them to the world. They so often contain projections, and our psychologies and moralities are far better served to seek them in ourselves rather than a crusade against others. Talking about narratives as if they are simply consumable scripts fundamentally abuses them as archetypally resonant patterns.
A Medicine for Story
Well, if story is being abused when we chant that we must “change the narrative” what’s the medicine? I wouldn’t claim to be a doctor for stories, but I can recommend the following medicine:
Find a story that has images in that speak to you. Here are some that spoke to me this year:
A rowan berry falls into the well at the end of the world. It’s eaten by the salmon that lives in the bottom of that well, granting it wisdom.
A sorcerer calls at the house of three orphaned sisters, disguised as a beggar. The youngest sister falls into a trance when she touches him, and is taken back to his mansion, where she opens a door to a room full of horrors.
A prince follows a bird who sings the most beautiful song through the hole in an oak tree. It leads him down a black tunnel, past a man with a red spear to a white horse that guides him onward towards his soul-bride.
Once you’ve found an image that speaks to you, read the whole story. Let it go in, image by image. Draw the images that speak to you in a notebook.
Go for a walk and tell it to the hedgerows. Tell it to one other person. Tell it around a fire to a circle of people. Tell it to a room full of people.
The medicine for story is to tell it, outloud. When done, the story starts to shift on the tongue. It shifts the neural networks towards the image, away from mechanical linear sequences and reaction towards ecological webs of reflection and association. Little details become available in the story that weren’t visable before. The linkages between the imaginal and the personal start to resonate. But what also becomes clear is that stories often have a mind of their own, and cannot simply be “changed” to match the curtains. They can be told with different emphasises but they cannot be changed entirely. To tell them you need to know them as fully as you can.
It may well be that all of the scripts of our life stories and of our wider political narratives have their origins in the mythic patterns that they emerge from. Yet the deeper you go into this mythic water by telling stories rather than simply talking about them, the clearer it becomes that such patterns have deep roots that don’t easily get swapped over or taken back to the shops for a better one.
A renewal of a story comes each time it’s told – this applies to personal confession and to fairy tale. Yet it’s a kind of descent into a world of chimerical poetics. Like dreams, it responds to your intention, so it might tell it to you straight, or lead you down a winding pathway. In each of those images from stories above a hook bound the archetypal material to something personal to me. Yet renewal also involves being touched by something deeply impersonal – something wild.
Ted Hughes puts it like this in his poem “Abel Cross, Dimsworth Dene” :
“Where the howling of heaven
Pours down on Earth
Looking for bodies
Of birds, animals, people
A happiness starts up, secret and wild,
Like a lark song just out of hearing
Hidden in the wind”
The poem is set in a specific location in Yorkshire, where two wayside crosses stand in the forbidding countryside. The wind pours down, strips the warmth from animals, people and birds. In this wild elemental power, the poet detects a hidden secret wild happiness, like a pagan reframing of the holy spirit’s descent. It’s something free of the need to be born or die. This might be part of the process of renewal, the regaining of contact with something not human, more than human, the capacity for life to renew itself in ways that spiral out beyond the ken of the human. Certainly in transitions in life, it feels like something needs to die, some part of the psyche. These crossings are made across very thin, fragile bridges, made of the soul’s attempts to find something beyond it’s known territory. I described such a thin bridge in a song that came out of taking my own song writing practice into nature, seeking for a way to cross:
“A bridge that spans
As thin as my chest
As thin as my hips
As thin as my mouth
As this as my lips
As thin as my soul
As thin as my heart
As thin as the thought
That keeps my courage apart”
(from “The Thin Bridge”)
The search for psychic renewal is basic to many fairy tales, one’s that feature the waning powers of a King and the need for a young son or daughter to ascend to the kingdom. This challenge shows up in the difficulty of defining an imaginal ecology – what are we doing when we engage the imaginal in nature?
I’d say that we are lowered down a hole in the old oak tree with a rope woven of three threads,
An imaginal ecology needs to have a real relationship to a specific place, not “nature” in general but an actual place to be returned to and re-visited. Just as love is the simple revelation of the specific nature of another person, that is often choked by the concept of love and the desire for a phantasmic ideal lover so the love of nature needs to be grounded in a specific place – that Old Oak tree at the bottom of the woods at Blackcap, or Abel Cross. There is something about establishing a place and returning to it that strengths the soul, and builds a bond with a place.
Just as nature needs to be grounded in place, the imaginal needs to be grounded in a practice. It could be crafting words into poems or stories. It could be gardening, whittling sticks, walking to a place. It could be breathing exercises, meditation, journal writing. Whatever it is, it helps to think of a practice as a pathway in to the imaginal and of a way of crossing that thin bridge.
Perspective lies in the reflective area between the world and experience of it. A perspective towards soul, the imaginal and nature actively seeks to find and create moments where this reflective space can become threaded into experience. Moments of soulfulness.
Rilke writes of the basis of his practice in this poem “Praise”
“O tell me Poet what you do? – I praise.
But the deathly and the monstrous,
How do you accept them, bear them? – I praise.
But the nameless, the anonymous
How, Poet, can you still invoke it? – I praise.
Under every costume, every mask of us,
What right have you to be true? – I praise.
Or that the calm and the impetuous
Should know you, as star and storm? – Because I praise.
The symptom is revelatory
Here we reach a particularly difficult area of psychology. Rilke doesn’t actually suggest we praise the monstrous and the deathly, or masks and illusion, or pride. He is suggesting praising anyway, that the thin wire of joy that actually runs through all things can still be praised. Yet it is certainly possible to find unexpected meaning in places that appear meaningless and destructive – or rather it’s worth turning them over and around to find what’s the feeling that’s trapped in them. As Michael Meade says in his rememberings of Robert Bly: “the symptom is revelatory” – our problems, illnesses and travail may show the soul’s reactions to them and may reveal where soul is hidden. Soul as psychopathology.
James Hillman wrote about a “poetic basis of mind” – that the psyche itself has it’s basis in poetics. That’s still a radical proposition. It’s hard to bear the truth of it. Anyone who works in mental health – and given the precarious state of the human psyche and our world that may well be every one of us by now – knows that it’s not easy to affirm beauty in the face of suffering. To do so seems to rob us of something. It takes away our complaint, and replaces it with the image of a crow bending on a thin sapling branch as the storm comes in. Or it shows us the vivid poetics of a chid’s reaction to being born into it’s parent’s deep trouble in the alchemies of slime that the child makes, or the six eared child a boy paints in a therapy session whose father broke into the house to scare his estranged mum. A boy with six ears may be six times more vigilant.
This creative power, both gift and curse rides with us as the year begins to spend itself out and head towards the darkest day. Each of us have this creative gift, in different ways, but strangely we seem to both fear and desire it. Perhaps that’s how come we need to praise these poets, Rilke, Hughes, Carlos Williams, for they seem to be doing it for us.
Jung had a word for the power other people have to hijack our individuation for us – he called it “manna personality.” In a world of petrified fathers and hyper stressed mothers, it’s not hard to see how come manna personalities hold such an appeal. It’s not just poets. Keith Richard’s writes of how in the depths of one of his legendary escaped he had the deep intuition he was doing this for someone else; someone bored of their life in the suburbs. The problem though is not with the enjoyment of other peoples creativity, which is a deep pleasure. It’s more of a problem when the image of the other person gets into the cracks of our personalities and starts to compensate for that which we feel we cannot be.
A large amount of pain arise from this, as we tend to revere and despise the people who fill these roles. And with social media this phenomenon can be monetised and repackaged as a career – after all what else is becoming an “influencer” than attempting to fill a psychological void for others?
Such is the difficulty we have with relationships, that we can even think of Nature itself as a mana personality to be revered or despised – or as a pastime.
Yet nature is not a pastime really, it’s the form given to reality. The soaked leaf litter, the fallen twisted branch, the has tree rotten with boring beetle, they all have not just a beauty but a reality. It’s also not human, and can be the holder of deep and vast mystery.
Sooner or later, we have to face our own creativity, and it’s not necessarily easy. It demands certain things of us, asks us to pay a price. Hughes, Rilke and Carlos Williams were certainly paid wages in difficulty. My own practice this year has been to find out particular wild or semi wild places and to write a song there. To paint and to take dreams seriously, give them space, and then take them back into the places i’ve found.
Poems have been another way to open a doorway to renewal. I wrote this poem after reading Blake, and wanted to write something with the kind of a simple rhythm and rhyme and archetypal images I’d found in that hardworking agitator of angels, maker of illuminated book. I felt for something that held together the contraries of pain and beauty, of heart and life and that was able to affirm life at the end. I want to close this piece of writing with it, to offer it to you the reader as an exit to the year, and to wish you well for the holiday season, and for your own practice and soul work.
Here is a Lock
Here is a lock
there a gate,
There is an hourglass
clock that states:
“here lie the awful
A cage of flesh,
a cage of plans.
There is a man
on board a train
rocked by motion
numb to pain.
There is his life
it has a heart
it has an end
it has a start.
There is a you
there is a me
within the thorns
shall grow a tree
a lonely gutter
loves the street
that holds the steps
on which we meet
and all of heaven
in your gut;
on old men’s huts
and all of hell
lies in your heart;
a wedding ring
the darkest art
and all my pride
conceals my shame
these snakes uncoil
i cry her name
and all the green
that’s in a field
sings “let me live”
and “let me yield”
and all the rivers
filled with shit
the crayfish swell
the trout’s egg split
and all the money
for tattered coats
as corals bleed
oh all the fear
and all the pain
a world of flowers
each one named
and every spoke
on every wheel
knows every thief
reclaims their steal,
I see my hand
upon your face
yet every closeness
brings it’s space
wants to show
each hidden thing
and every tomb
each broken sigh,
still pointed star
a bag of crisps
a lump of tar
each drop of water
pure as salt
mash of malt
a body trapped
a body sung
a swan of neck
a kiss, a tongue
a wound that bless
smiles that curse
and pain persists,
a darkling nurse
an owl that blinks,
as ivy creeps
from morning’s wreck
til blessed sleep
will not be tamed
cannot be trapped
by maps of brains
as much as tides
or grass in wind
or slender trees
i love these things.