Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Looking Glass

This winter has been difficult. For me, it seems that January is the cruelest month. I guess if I was to be fair, it's not been a total disaster, and probably better on the whole than last January. Some good things did happen--I got a second teaching job, furnace issues may have been finally sorted out, and even our big snows this month have been light and powdery--no heavy shoveling. But it has been so cold--unnaturally cold for us. My sister tells me that this was like winters she remembers as a child in the 1960s--subzero temperatures, lots of snow.

I feel like a shut-in, and the cold and snow makes Spring seem very far away. Some nights I am unable to sleep; I have many irrational fears about the furnace going out, or the power going out. Both things have happened, so maybe it's not totally irrational. I would just like for the extreme cold to go away, and stop draining our resources. I know that places like Canada deal with this kind of cold routinely, but I also think that they are better equipped to deal with it. Just as states like Florida have heat pumps as a regular feature in their homes to save on cooling costs, I'm sure that those in colder climates have found a way to efficiently heat their homes without heavy reliance on tenuous resources.

So, this is one of many mornings where I am up, maybe not so early, with wool blankets tacked over both doors to the outside to help keep the cold out, a cup of hot green tea, and a vague sense of being overwhelmed by everything I have to do. The cat crawls under a blanket on the sofa and snores. I wish I could do that so easily.

I received word last night that my mother's sister died, succumbing to lung cancer. It seems very natural in this winter setting; death is everywhere. Yet with the death is a hope of release from suffering. I am mostly sad for my mother and her other sister, as well as my uncle, and my cousin's family. In some cases with those mentioned there was a great reliance on my aunt, and the transition to life without her is going to be difficult. Years ago her first husband died, also of lung cancer--it was at least 30 years ago. Shortly after his death one of my sisters, and possibly my brother, saw him walking down the street in my parents' neighborhood. My sister called out to him questioningly, and he just looked at her and smiled, and walked off. They didn't see him again. After reading this recent article on NDE's, it made me wonder if my uncle, or whatever remains of his personality, met my aunt when she passed. I guess we'll never know.

In my insomniac moments, I like to read. One of the stories I read in the last couple of days was Walter De La Mare's "The Looking Glass". The story centers around Alice, a sickly girl who has a persistent cough. Much is made of the line between freedom and imprisonment; she likes to visit the garden outside her house in the afternoons. She is free of those around her, and yet that freedom of being alone in nature made her a little frightened. A local old woman, described as "slovenly ponderous" and "arrogant" seems to know that Alice will be visiting the garden at this time, and always manages to be there. Alice doesn't like the woman, who is called Sarah, but her sense of aloneness there makes her welcome Sarah's appearances.

Sarah, who is an archetypal witch figure in this story, spins her "lore" about the haunted garden. At first she says "the house", and rather sharply corrects Sarah when she says the house is haunted--she MEANT the garden. The implication is that if Alice comes dressed as a bride on May Day, she will have a vision of the garden's secrets, and what is implied is that she will see a young man, a lover-figure. Alice questions Sarah endlessly about this, until Sarah is weary. Alice notices, as Sarah seems to, that the garden shimmers "like a looking glass". There is a certain clarity of the "other side". However, Sarah does not seem to be enamored of the garden; she talks about taking out the birds with a blunderbuss, and when pressed about what is "on the other side" (because Sarah has surely seen it), she says it is nothing but "death".

Alice makes her way back, and makes the telling statement that it is she herself that haunts the garden. She makes preparations for the May Day ritual, and is anxious for it. Ultimately, however, she does not go through with it, and in the end she is "done with looking glasses" and spends her time worrying about the practical domestic things of life.

Archetypally, this story is loaded with meaning. The secret, imaginative world of childhood, where fairies and Santa Claus are real, is replaced by adolescence, where we fall into the dreamy world of the anima or animus. An interest in boys or girls replaces childhood play, though that sense of the "other" world hasn't entirely gone away. Then we become adults, and it all falls away. Between education, heartbreak, and issues of survival, we step into a life that was not what we would have expected in our dreams. So, we settle into our routines, get jobs, pay bills, become "practical", and forget about the "nonsense" of childhood. In short, we trade one illusion for another.

"The Looking Glass" mentioned in the story is what shows us the other side of our consciousness--the seemingly unreal world of the Collective. We have direct access to this as children. I remember watching the documentary "My Amityville Horror" about Danny Lutz, one of the children in the house at the time of its demonic activity. He told his story, and at the end, the filmmaker brought in a psychologist who basically wrote him off as being in a "childhood fantasy". I was very angry that the filmmaker did that. Danny's childhood experience and his account of it is more real than the gibberings of some idiot psychologist. The psychologist no longer has access; the psychologist doesn't know. Danny was reluctant to tell his story for that very reason.

In a documentary on the belief in fairies in Iceland, a police officer tells the filmmakers about his childhood. He walks among rocks, and says that they had doors that opened when he was a child, and he would play with the elves that came out. Then he said what was translated as "my testicles came down" (i.e., he entered puberty) and "the doors were closed and I never saw them again."

I have often thought about what that means. Jung has said that imagination is a fact; everything we have, all our technologies, had to come from someone's imagination. We are a race of storytellers, and stories shape our lives. Illusions shape our lives. The illusion we create for ourselves as adults is called "business" and "economy". Now, it does take a certain amount of cooperation and work to make a society "go round". But our systems are artificial. We have rocks and paper that are assigned a value, and we spend our adult lives trying to accumulate those pieces of paper. They only stand for wealth; they are not really anything. As Alan Watts pointed out, money is no more wealth than the words on a menu are food. But this is an illusion that we all participate in, and it is so accepted by society that it is "real". It is the game adults play, and a difficult one to not participate in.

When illusions vaporize or are shattered, we become "disillusioned". As a result, we cease to trust ourselves. As children, we were magical; as adults, we cannot believe that we can control our destinies. It just seems "illogical". We have been taught that the rational mind is the only reliable thing--never trust your inner self, your gut feelings and intuitions. This is not really helped by a mythical view that says we are all machines, or like machines.

This is why people hang onto religions, and onto so-called "irrational beliefs"--the paranormal, supernatural, etc. We question that imaginative reality all the time, but we don't question the one we accept as "real". The "reality" is that one is not necessarily more "real" than the other. The Hindus have a concept called "maya"--illusion, and they say that this is what the visible world is--the real world is that of undifferentiated consciousness. You can choose to distrust everything as a result, but I have always hoped that this means that I can write my own illusory story instead of accepting everyone else's. If I don't like the picture, I want to be able to paint another one.

That might sound crazy, but once again I think of Iceland. When their economy collapsed due to bad banking practices, they threw the bankers in jail and forgave loans. Their recovery has been remarkable. Thinking differently about our illusions might not be so "crazy" after all.

Thursday, January 02, 2014


On my long holiday vacation that has now been extended due to snow, I've been cleaning out a lot of files to make room for more research material. In the process, I handle a lot of paper. On pulling out one stack, I gave myself a paper cut, and my first instinct was to put my bloodied finger in my mouth. I realized that in our germophobic society, I would have been advised against doing such a thing; after all, the mouth is so disgusting with germs, even a dog's mouth is cleaner.

I then started thinking about all the "gross" things that kids do (or did)--eating mud pies, picking their noses and eating it, handing all manners of creepy things out in nature, and sometimes putting those in their mouth as well. Little babies, while going through their "oral" phase, will put anything in their mouth, including things that have just been in the toilet or have come out of the dog or cat's dish. I can almost see you shuddering as you read this.

However, it also occurred to me that kids who did all these "gross" things are probably healthier than the kid who didn't. When you encounter germs and bacteria, you are better able to naturally adjust your immune system to their presence. Kids get all kinds of weird diseases because they are building up their immune systems, and their exposure to other children and to Nature allows them to do this. All those disgusting things are probably going to guarantee that you live longer.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be hygienic. Of course you should wash your hands after using the bathroom, you should bathe and change your clothes every day. If you get a cut, you should probably treat it with iodine. If you are in a hospital environment, you should take even more precautions. It is interesting how in hospitals the greatest risk is of secondary infection, not the thing a person came in to the hospital for originally. Secondary infections are nasty--MRSA and other staph-like infections abound in such sterile environments. Basic hygiene helps you avoid these things.

But we live in society that is beyond basic hygiene. We have "antibacterial" everything, we take ourselves (and our kids if we have them) to the doctor at the slightest sign of a cold and demand antibiotics. Colds don't respond to antibiotics--they're viral, not bacterial. But I often hear that people take antibiotics anyway, "just in case". And they wonder why they are always sick, and so are their kids. Antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but often doctors will prescribe very high-powered antibiotics for illnesses that would do just fine with good old amoxicillin. If I get an upper respiratory infection that is actually bacterial, I always request amoxicillin. I don't need Bactrim or Cipro.

Our uber antibacterial culture is a reflection of our psychological culture. I see a lot in schools these days about anti-bullying policies. When I read accounts of bullying, I'm not sure if some of them are exaggerated, but I'm surprised 1. at how much more aggressive bullying has become when it happens, and 2. how fragile children are when dealing with it. I hear a lot more about suicides from bullying. Maybe it's just the Internet and an increase in information; maybe things like this have always happened. But I've started to see a trend in both physical and psychological health that might be summed up this way: When you fight against life and nature, it will fight back aggressively.

Many of you probably experienced some form of bullying growing up. I know I did. I put up with two years of intense bullying before I switched schools. No one enjoys being bullied, no one likes to hear about it happening to kids, and no parent wants to see their kid go through it. But a certain amount of bullying, especially in adolescence, is normal. Children are naturally defiant, and testing their boundaries. They are in the painful process of becoming adults. Lacking any kind of real transformational rituals, they are only transformed by traipsing off in the woods by themselves, or making a wrong turn in a dark alley and meeting a gang of hostile teenagers. If we don't come into conflict or face danger, we never learn to deal with it. You don't grow as a person or as a citizen of your society if you are sheltered from everything. This is why the very rich can't understand the poor. If you've never struggled to make ends meet, it is very easy for you to say that those requiring assistance are just "freeloaders". Of course, I have known people who have struggled in this life, and say, "why should they get assistance if I worked hard?" Both points of view suffer from the delusion that everyone else is "just like us", has the same opportunities and the same challenges. It didn't happen to me, why should it happen to you?

In ancient tribal societies, a young boy was often forcefully taken from his mother at a young age, and put through vicious initiations and scarification rituals, to make him one of the "men" of the tribe. We don't do things like that in "conscious" civilizations. (I tend to think of tribal cultures as "pre-conscious", because they are so immersed in nature, there is no split in their psychology. That said, there isn't rational consciousness like ours, either.) But that external adolescence ritual now takes place in the atmosphere of junior high school cliques and bullies. And it is vicious, because the process of growing up is vicious, both psychologically and physiologically.

Both parents and schools have become protective of kids to the point that most kids today don't have normal growing-up experiences. Everything is pre-scheduled and arranged. They have their own stresses, but they are different. They are not really free to be themselves. Which is why I often get students in college who really can't be bothered with things like class attendance, proper formatting, deadlines, and such. For some of them, the rebellion process is beginning at 18 rather than at 11 or 12.

Occasionally we see backlashes against movies that depict violence or death to children, and there has even been a questioning of reading fairy tales to children. Sometimes the objection to fairy tales is that they are frightening; other times, it is because they encourage "irrationality" in children, and belief in monsters. This is because we are so cut off from our inner life, we really believe that it doesn't exist. We are told that we are only rational machines. But that doesn't change the fact that the inner life is there. In Bruno Bettelheim's classic work on fairy tales and psychology, he says the following:

In order to master the psychological problems of growing up--overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation--a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it by spinning out daydreams--ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. ... It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child's imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own. (Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment. Vintage Books, 1989: 6-7).

Social media doesn't really help. I am an avid Facebook user, I admit. But often, online relationships take the place of real ones. We text rather than have phone conversations. This is not all bad; if I just need to ask you what time you're coming to visit, I don't need to get into a conversation, I just need a text confirmation. When friends and family are far away and busy with their lives, this may be the only viable way to keep in touch. However, there is the other extreme as well. I hear about families where the kid is sitting in his room, and texts his mother in the kitchen two doors down about what's for dinner. Having taught both online and in-person, I was rather surprised to find that my online students were more interactive than my in-person ones. If I ask a question in a regular classroom, I often get an uncomfortable silence. Online, some brave soul will speak up. He or she is not facing their peers, so it is easier to interact. But if all of our conversations are electronic ones, we don't become fully human. You can't be fully human until you interact with humans, and have some empathy for them. You haven't lived life if you haven't been hurt and traumatized. You don't learn if you don't make mistakes. It's part of the package deal, and is not something to be eliminated. When learning to walk, we frequently fall down. Should we give up after the first time we fall?

I am a fan of Jungian psychology because Carl Jung is the one who pointed out this polarity in our consciousness. If you are good, you are also evil. If you are happy, you are also capable of being depressed. If you can love, you can also hate. And if you encounter God, you will also encounter the Devil. This is his concept of the "Shadow"--the part of ourselves that is weaker, and that we'd rather pretend we didn't have. In our "good vs. evil" society, we seem to feel we must eliminate one, and the other must triumph. But we don't "choose" one over the other. We need to integrate all of these factors and experiences into our lives, because that's what life IS. This is what the Genesis creation story is actually about. Eve HAD to eat the forbidden fruit in order for life to happen. Adam and Eve should not have remained in the garden for all eternity. Being one with God may be wonderful, but it's not conscious living. Once the fruit was eaten, they came into the field of time, which is the field of opposites--dark and light, good and bad, male and female, etc., etc. They noticed difference. And they now experience suffering, because being in the temporal world IS suffering. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are ripped apart, and regain their meaning as they are put back together. Our lives are about putting the pieces together--our opposites. But it's the process of figuring out and putting together that is important; the journey and not the destination. For better or for worse, we need to suffer, we need to encounter others, take risks, and occasionally fail. Otherwise, we are nothing but the walking dead; or, as Joseph Campbell said, we may be living someone else's life, not our own. "Perfect" means "finished"--we are not finished. The only way to move towards being finished is to experience ALL facets of life, not just the ones we prefer. You can't sanitize yourself against life.