A Few Thoughts on Solitude

In preparing the Greek mythology class, as well as readings from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and other reflections, the theme of solitude has come up many times.

In the story of Odysseus and Penelope, they are separated for many years because of his involvement in the Trojan war. On his long journey home, he hears the beautiful singing of the sirens, barely escapes from the Cyclopes, is invited to stay and become immortal by Calypso, is washed up on the island of Phaeacia where he hears his life sung for him at a banquet, and finally returns to his wife Penelope. During his absence Penelope has been showing the same heroic qualities of inner strength as she weaves out a solitary life and relies on her intelligence and wit to protect her home from those who would invade it.

From a certain perspective, what seems to be involved here is a struggle on the part of both Penelope and Odysseus that takes place for each in solitude. In this struggle they come to recognize their limits and mortality as well as their deeper longings. From this hard won wisdom, they are now capable of a profound love for each other which gives meaning to their lives.

In a very similar way, Rilke writes: “Your inner solitude will be a support and a home to you. It will be the starting point of all your journeys.” He suggests that this solitude can be a source of profound awareness: “Go into yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs.” Elsewhere he writes: “Slowly and with time the natural growth of your inner life will bring you to fuller awareness.” From this solitude can arise a profound love: “the love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and great each other.”

Solitude differs from loneliness. Loneliness can be described as a felt absence and isolation that is unwelcome. This sense of isolation has been made more difficult and painful as a result of the prolonged pandemic which often evokes an irritability and weariness of soul.

Solitude, distinct from loneliness, is a time of quietness by ourselves. It may be initially uncomfortable, but if we are able to be immersed in life with awareness and openness, that time in our own company can be a time to reflect on our life, our experiences, our relationships, our place in society. One example that comes to mind is the difference between being alone by oneself in an unfamiliar and somewhat cold hotel room, and being by oneself in a home that knows or has known the presence of people with whom we have shared our lives. One place tastes of absence and the other of presence.

We are each a unique person, and there are no carbon copies of any of us. We are also quite complex, with a vast variety of backgrounds, life-situations, experiences, reactions, thoughts, feelings, and much more. We are to a considerable extent a puzzle, a question, a mystery to ourselves, as well as to one another. Solitude, time spent quietly by oneself, is a way to journey to and get in touch with our inmost self. This dawning awareness may come from reading something reflective, going for a walk at dawn or twilight, spending time in a natural setting, listening to music, or engaging in some form of meditation. This need not be seen as a probing into oneself from without with a kind of psychological pliers.. It can be simply allowing what is within to arise, hopefully in a gentle way, to the surface of our awareness. As an example, if we go to a pond and stir up the bottom with a stick, everything becomes murky and cloudy. But if we and the water become perfectly still, the water becomes clear and what is at the bottom can be seen.

Part of this process is to allow our feelings to arise in a safe place for us and we may find that one feeling dissolves and another emerges. What is helpful is to recognize that all of us share the whole range of human feelings from sadness to joy, from anger to compassion. It is also important to recognize that while we have such feelings we do not either have to deny them to ourselves or unleash them on others. We can simply notice them and let them be, somewhat as we would notice a cloud floating by.

Sometimes we may find it to difficult to sit quietly by ourselves. Then it can be helpful to be with a caring other person with whom we may discover our own feelings through conversation in a context of trustworthiness and trust. Or we may share these feelings with another whom we can trust..

If we try to spend some quiet time by ourselves, we may at first feel uncomfortable. We may recognize that we are in fact living most of the time in what we could call our hurt or fear or angry town. I think that these are part of all our experiences. At the same time, we may also gradually be aware of something in us that is deeper than all of these feelings. It is who we are beneath and beyond and more than these. We may also sense that this is a place of sacredness and worth, even if we are not often there. And it is our real home.

We might say that we are truly free when we are at home to our inmost self and can then be truly at home to and even a home for one another. In the words of Rilke, to discover a “ love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and great each other.”

May your loneliness turn into a solitude in which you discover your true self and its sacred worth May you find your true home within yourselves and live there and from there. May you become more and more a home for those near to you and a place of compassion for others.

Norman King

Remembering What Is Essential

We have spoken lately of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience, especially through images and stories. Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles, perhaps most helpfully through the lens of our sacred worth.

This past week, I began teaching a five week course on Greek Mythology. Besides looking at their original context, we can ask what these stories look like through the inclusive lens of the sacred worth of each human being and of all that is. From that perspective, we can also ask what their wrestling with basic life issues can offer to us today.

Sam Keen, a writer mentioned before, says that every mythology tries to answer in story form basic life questions. These concern our search for meaning in our lives, for a sense of identity and worth, a sense of purpose and belonging. He suggests that, instead of taking their answers, we try to uncover their questions. Then we can ask these questions of our own life story. Some of the questions he suggests are these. Where did I come from? With whom do I belong? What is the purpose of my life, my vision? Whom should I imitate? Who are the heroes and heroines? Who are the villains? Why is there evil in the world? Who are my helpers, guides, allies?

He adds that we have inherited a life-script, a story, a mythology from our family, education, culture, religion, and the like. The challenge is to sift through this inheritance and decide what to keep, what to refine, and what to discard. In his words: “The task of a life is to exchange the unconscious myth with a conscious autobiography.”

I would add that the challenge is to see as clearly and truthfully and deeply as possible, to see with the eyes of the heart. This is the difficult challenge to learn to see beyond our childhood scripts, our fears, our insecurities, our hostilities, our judgments. We may recognize that earlier images of ourselves and of the script we have been following are not an irreversible fate or a lifelong prison sentence but, to some extent at least, are optional and open to change. With the help of caring others, we may gradually come to look at ourselves, and others, and life itself, with a sense of our own worth and with eyes of compassion.

An example of a change of vision is offered by author, Stephen Covey. He tells the story of sitting on a subway when a man with four young children enters. The children are acting up and creating somewhat of a disturbance around them. With what he believes is restraint, he suggests to the father that he might do something to control his children. The father replies that he believes that is so, but that he does not know what to do since they have just left the hospital where their mother died an hour ago. Immediately Stephen’s response is transformed to one of compassion because he sees the situation differently.

An example from Greek mythology is the story of the sirens. These are creatures who sing so beautifully that whenever sailors are passing, they are irresistibly drawn to the island of the sirens. In so doing, their ships strike reefs and they perish. One approach sees this as a tragic tale which says that our life is over before we get to experience fully its beauty.

Yet we can ask if it there is another angle of vision that may see it differently. Perhaps its enduring lesson is that it is essential to experience beauty in our lives. Along the same line, the Muses (from which we get our word music), are part of the makeup of the universe and therefore necessary to our lives. Whether it is the beauty of music or of a starry night or of the conversation with a friend, these are essential to a meaningful life. We are more than a human having or a human doing, but are a human being. We need in our life things that are for their own sake and not just a means to something else.

I recall one evening class in which an elderly women told of a fire in her house which destroyed the house itself and all its contents. As she and her husband stood outside and watched with a tear-filled sadness, her husband said to her that it would be alright because they still had each other. Amid such a tragic loss, something deeper remained.

In a similar vein, after the death of his mother and his own flight from Nazi persecution as a teenager, social theologian Gregory Baum recalls that he sought a vision of life that could outlast tragedy. This is a way of looking at life that takes into account both its joys and sorrows, yet retains an underlying sense of hope in its lasting meaning. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl offered a similar perspective in the light of his own experience in a concentration camp.

Of course, story and music and friendship, and other things in life that are for their own sake, can fill us with the conviction of meaning. Ethicist Daniel McGuire has expressed it: “People see the bird in flight, the rose in bloom, the infant blessing us with smiles,” and they proclaim: ‘There is more to this than meets the eye.’‘ In simple terms, there is a central line from the story, The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Experiences and stories such as these can enlighten and heal us. They may assist in transforming the pain of the past into a resource for the present and future.

May you more and more discover and experience deeply the music of your soul, the bonds of friendship, a life-giving script, and all else that is essential and of lasting value in your lives.

Please visit our website: www.touchingthespirit.ca
Norman King, September 19, 2021

Growing from Past Experience

One of the thoughts recently expressed is that we may look at and name or interpret different events in our lives from different angles. We can look at our lives and the world of persons and things and happenings from different eyes. We may see the same behaviour of a child as coming from anger or from hurt. How we see affects how we act. In the case of the child, we may act with hostility or with compassion. Our attitude and action towards ourselves follow a similar pattern, and many often be abusive, judgmental, or simply blind in a way that is unhelpful.

Counsellor and writer, Wayne Muller, tells of a common situation. A young women, who was physically abused by her father in childhood, continued to ask, “Why did he hurt me? Why was I hurt.” After a time, and when he sensed it was appropriate, he asked her to let go of the “why” and just say simply a few times, “I hurt.” As she did, she began to weep as she allowed herself to feel the wound, the ache, the sadness, and the healing process began to unfold.

Muller comments that we would rather explain our hurt rather than feel it. We are drawn to think that if we can find a reason why, we can ensure that we can avoid any hurt in the future. Yet, he adds, hurt is an inevitable part of life. It blows through every life, sometimes like a gentle breeze or other times like a violent wind. It may arise from simple events, like a cut finger. Or it may be cruel and unjust, like the abuse of a child.

He comments: “Once we remove the question ‘why,’ we may see our pain face to face, accepting it for what it is . Then we can begin to truly grieve, which softens the pain. The deep hurt and anger and sadness can then lead us to letting go, to forgiveness, and to healing.” He refers to author Stephen Levin who also observes that examining what we feel, not analyzing why, can gradually open a path to our heart and to joy.

We have previously added the caution that, along with the importance of feeling and then naming our experiences, we need to do so in a safe place, whether in silence by ourselves or in the caring presence of a trusted other.

In another work, Muller stresses that we must be careful how we name ourselves, since the way we name ourselves colours the way we live. We may too readily names ourselves as a child of an dysfunctional family, as an addict and so on. These can imprison us. Regardless of the shape of the sorrow or victory or grief or ecstasy we have been given, there remains in us, he insists, an inner light that is always alive. I would call this the light of our sacred and inextinguishable worth.

Here as in other situations, the angle of vision, the eyes through which we look at ourselves, and others, and life, are crucial. Some of the ancient stories emerged in a patriarchal context. Theologian Rosemary Ruether addresses this issue by saying that while these stories are patriarchal, they also involved a wrestling with matters of life and death. We can leave aside the patriarchal wrapping and distill the insights of that wrestling. In many folk tales, for example, the hero is male and the one rescued is female. In Sleeping Beauty, for instance. It is a young woman who is awakened by the kiss of the prince. Extracted from this framework, we may draw the insight that it is who we are, not just what we do, that can evoke a true response from another. Conversely, we are most fully awakened by another who sees behind our thorny hedges to the person that we are and summons us to see and live from that awareness.

Along similar lines, spiritual writer, Sam Keen, asks how do we know whether or not in our life journey, we are following a creative and meaningful path. His response is that the path of greedy and fearful egocentricity is always the wrong direction and that the path towards compassion is always the right direction. “Whenever you are confused,” he advises, “keep heading in the direction that leads towards deepening your love and care for all living beings, including yourself, and you will never stray far from the path of fulfilment.”

As we said in the previous reflection, we cannot change the past but we can lessen its hold on our present and future. Instead of prisons that ever enclose us, we may then regard the as part of the4 resources from which we can move forward. We are more than the worst thing that has been done to us or that we ourselves have done. These certainly affect us and can push us in certain directions. As we become aware of them, they can lose their hold on us, and we can move in a different direction. As a simle example, we may view ideals differently. Instead of contrasting where we seem to be now with alleged ideals and using them as a club to beat ourselves down, we can try another route. We can start with the conviction of our sacred worth, that is not undermined by any shadows in our lives. Then we can ask, starting from where we are, what is a good direction to move towards.

One way of looking at this is that in our life journey we have been hurt by others mistakes and by our own,. We may have made some questionable choices. At the same time, in that process, we have been gradually gathering ourselves into our own hands. If we have put that self in less than ideal ways, the gathering or integration of ourselves has nonetheless occurred. We can take our progressively more gathered self and give it a new direction. We can take who we are an walk down a different path.. Outward change may not occur, but an inward transformation is occurring. There is a little poem about a person walking down a certain street and falling into a hole in the pavement. With some difficulty, they struggle to climb out. The next day, they walk down the same street with the same result. After a few days they decide to walk down a different street.

May you more and more in your life journey follow the path of your own sacred worth, with a compassion for yourself, and one that gradually radiates in wider and wider circles, as you see yourself as a unique person, a human being, an earthling, and a child of the universe.

Norman King, September 12, 2021

Reinterpreting Inherited Scripts

We have been speaking of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience, and stressed that images and stories name these far better than everyday language. We added further that stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles, perhaps most helpfully through the lens of our sacred worth.

Some of our own experiences can also look differently at different times in our lives. Some events during high school, such as our early romantic adventures, seemed dramatically serious at the time. Looked back on after many years, they now seem hilariously funny. Some painful experiences of the past we now realize have been helpful in our growth. My own struggle towards fluency in French during a three year stay in Quebec City gave me a realization how every language and culture provides a window to life, and that each is at once enriching yet limiting. Many colleagues there, for example, found the English distinction between “like” and “love” very helpful. I found the French word “épanouissement,” richer than any English translation, such as “flourishing” or “personal development.”

We have spoken before of how the script or story by which we form an image of ourselves and name or interpret our lives first comes to us from those who took care of us–or failed to do so even adequately–in our early childhood. That family script in turn was influenced by the predominant cultural script or by that of a minority group to which they belonged. As we grew, something within us may have pushed against that inherited image and script, or in some way accepted it and made it our own. One writer, Joan Halifax, says that to think of painful childhood experiences not as “gifts” but as “givens.” We cannot change the past but we can lessen its hold on our present and future. Instead of prisons that ever enclose us, we may then regard the as events from which we can move forward.

In his book on folk tales, The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes that our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. This task involves developing our inner resources, and sensing that we may make a significant contribution to life. What most helps the child to find meaning, he says, is the impact of those who take care of the child, and the cultural heritage, especially through stories, such as folktales. These stories help the child by providing images for all their positive and negative feelings, and give them confidence that they can deal with and grow from their struggles. Like the fairy-tale hero they may feel lost at first, but be assured that they will find their right place in the world and develop meaningful relationships. Hansel and Gretel, for example, wander lost for a time, but gradually discovers hidden treasures,. These are their sense of self-worth and compassion.

We might add that those who take care of the child may succeed or fail in different degrees. But, the heritage of stories can enrich and expand the child’s vision of self and life. This development can occur through exposure to stories of real depth. These are that take into account and help to name all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures. What we need in a story is a vision of life, an image and a script, that enable and challenge us to celebrate our joys, survive our sorrows, share our lives, and help build our world. The truth of a story concerns not so much the facts of the story–whether or not it actually happened. It concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means.

What is involved here is the situation of our own story within a larger story. The larger story can help us understand and interpret–and change–our own story. Yet this wider story, which may come from nation, culture, religion, etc., can itself be confining, limited by setting our own group against those of others. Spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, stresses an inclusive both/and rather than a dualistic either/or approach to life. He says that our own and our “tribal” story needs to be seen in the context of a still wider. more universal story, one that is part of the perennial wisdom of humankind. Joseph Campbell’s story of the hero or heroine and Thomas Berry’s Universe Story would be examples of this wider context. In our perspective, that wider context is the unfolding of the vast universe in the direction of the sacred worth of each and every human being and of all that is.

May you find a story that holds you in respect and compassion for yourself and in ever widening circles for others.

Norman King. September 05, 2021

The Fire of Longing

We have been speaking of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience whether of joy or of sorrow, light or shadow. Images and stories name these far better than everyday language. They give pictures of our feelings so that we may take them into our hands and place them carefully in our lives.

Every story contains a way of looking at life. A myth is a vision of life, or a basic dimension of life, in story form. Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles. When looked at through the lense of our sacred worth, these stories are like a mirror in which we see reflected who we are and the direction of our becoming. This reflection helps to unveil our core of sacred worth, while also acknowledging our wounds and shadow.

The story of Prometheus tells how he coaxes humans out of caves into the open sun and sky, and gives them many skills for living. Most memorably, he brings them fire, not without opposition from Zeus. Here is our retelling of the story, before adding a few further thoughts.

The Story of Prometheus retold
Once upon a time there was a wise and thoughtful person named Prometheus. His name means thinking ahead.
At this time people lived in caves. He came to help them . He told them: “You will be better if you come outside and stand tall. Feel the warmth of the sun in the day and the beauty of the stars at night.”
He gave them many kinds of fire. There was the fire to cook their food and warm them on cold days. But he warned them of the fire of lightning and the wild fire that can hurt them.
He gave them also the fire of their mind to think with and the fire of their heart to love with. But he warned them that the fire of their mind can make them smart but not wise. And the fire of their heart can turn to hate.
So, he told them, “I give you these gifts but it is up to you to struggle to use them for good and not ill. You may not always succeed, but if you try to be wise and loving, you will have a good life and help those around you.” Retold by Norm and Aidan (6 years old)

The story perhaps reflects an earlier history of humankind as cave dwellers. One way of looking at the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus is to see it as a reflection of the conflicts within human beings. The adage of beating swords into ploughshares expresses a similar awareness. Fire can be used to build tools that are helpful or weapons that kill. The fire of our intellect can be expressed in mere cleverness without ethics, or cultivated in a wisdom that is compassionate. As in the colour red in Snow White, fire can embody both love and hate.

What this story portrays in images is the ambiguity of the human situation. There is within us both light and shadow. Yet Prometheus pushes humans in the direction of growth. His response to Einstein’s question is that the universe is friendly.In other words, the orientation towards meaning and goodness is the more profound impulse in us and can offer a basis for hope. We can inquire as to how we stoke the fires within us. Are they a fire that refines and purifies us as gold in a crucible. Or are they a destructive force unleashed on those around us.

When I think of fire I think of energy, but I also think of longing. Many writers have told of this longing within us, that is somehow never stilled. Ron Rolheiser notes: “At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, and religion lies the naming and analyzing of this desire. …. whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing–an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital ache that lies at the centre of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else.”

These are a lot of different yet familiar words that speak to our inner experience of longing. We see it in the energy of the small child struggling to walk and to talk. I have seen it in the sadness behind the words of someone who learned of a terminal illness and said: “I wish I had more time” I have heard it in the words of a mentally challenged child who lamented that they could not do anything right. It seems to be the experience of limitations and incompleteness that bump again this unstilled longing.

At its heart is perhaps a longing for love: a longing to take ourselves into our own hands as precious raw material to be shaped into a work of art and offered to someone or something valuable. It is perhaps an aching to gather and give ourselves. Yet it is never complete and is held back by scripts imposed in childhood that still affect us, by our lack of awareness and understanding, by the many fears that hold us back, by our frustration and anger that push us to take and to attack rather than to give.

Yet, as in the story of Pandora’s box (really a large jar), hope always remains despite all else. This, I think, is a hope that somehow our longing is not in vain, We may never experience completeness, but we are enriched and enrich one another by moving in that direction, which is essentially the direction of love. Love here is not meant as a surface sentimentality, but an ongoing struggle towards openness and trust, beginning with ourselves, and a gradually dawning conviction of our own sacred worth. It is a growing recognition of the sacredness of all persons and of all life, beginning with those closest to us. (The lovingkindness meditation seeks to implant that sense more deeply within us and extend it in ever wider circles.). It comes with a recognition of our need for forgiveness and healing.

Thomas Merton has a whimsical description along similar lines. Our existence he writes is one “in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic. In which there is much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is at the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity.”

In your life struggles, may you come to the deeply felt conviction that–whatever your life situation and experience– you are loved in the core of who you are, and that the gift of who you are is worthy to be shared and given in many ways.

Norman King, August 29, 2021

Revisiting Familiar Stories to Discover Our Own Script

Last week, we spoke of how important it is to experience and name our real feelings, however varied and even contradictory they are. I mentioned also the need to do so in a safe place, whether by ourselves or to a trusted and caring other.

In naming our experiences, especially the deeper ones, everyday language falls short. Images and stories are far better. They give pictures of our feelings so that we may take them into our hands and place them carefully in our lives. Their truth lies not so much in their being factual or not, but in the vision of life they contain.

The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, writes: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” He is not talking about a physical place “out there” He is rather pointing to what I would call the sacred core of each of us. It is a place within us that is deeper than our moral behaviour and that remains and calls us home, even if we have somehow violated or betrayed ourselves or others. It is this place that we visit or are allowed to enter in another or another in us, when we are truly present to eaxh another.

Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer, made a similar comment. The world, he wrote is not merely a physical place traversed by jet plane and cars, but is a complex reality made up of my own and everyone’s hopes and fears, attitudes and actions. It is discovered not by looking out the window, but by looking within myself, as part of that world.

Images and stories help us to name our experience. I would define a myth, not as a falsehood, as it is taken to mean in much language today. Rather it is a vision of life or a basic dimension of life in story form.. I think that every story, even a television commercial, contains a way of looking at life. One old Star Trek episode told of how, in order to avoid endless destruction of property, two rival groups played a kind of chess game in which those who lost had to submit members of their society to a death chamber. The story implied a critique of war as a practice in which property was of more value than persons.

Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles. In a few weeks, I will be giving a five classes on Greek Mythology. The last few months, I had the privilege of spending time with my godson who developed a tremendous interest in these ancient stories. As a matter of fact, he did better on the topic of Greek Mythology than all the contestants on Jeopardy. In our conversations, we developed a more child-centred, inclusive, and egalitarian approach to these stories. The vision that they contained could be drawn out from some aspects of their cultural framework. They are then able to speak to us today with a real resonance.

A good example is the story of Narcissus. Here is how we retold it.
The Story of Narcissus Retold
Once upon a time there was a very handsome young man, named Narcissus, He was very popular with everyone, but did not let anyone get too close to him. He was afraid that anyone who saw into his heart would dislike him.

One day, while wandering through the woods, he came upon a clear pond of water. He looked into the pond and saw a reflection of himself. That person is beautiful, he said. Suddenly he realized that he was looking at a reflection of himself. He was startled to see his own goodness.

All at once a flower rose slowly out of the water. It was white with a centre of the colour of the sun. That flower stands for my sudden coming from shadow to light. I will call it Narcissus, like me.

From that day on, Narcissus was not afraid to let someone see into his heart. And he recognized that every heart is the colour of the sun. And he learned to be loving to himself and to be kind to everyone he met.

This approach is different from the more common view called narcissism, which has the negative idea of someone who is totally self-absorbed and devoid of compassion for anyone else. Our interpretation is more in line with that of writer Thomas Moore, whom I know from his days at the University of Windsor, and more recently from a workshop in Oakland, CA, as well as from a number of his books.

In Moore’s understanding of the myth, we will not let anyone get close to us unless we have an image of ourselves as lovable. To come to this understanding is a profound transformation, a kind of death and rebirth. In his words, “ The Narcissus story supports the adage that one has to love oneself before he or she can love others, but it is more precise. The story implies that before a person can love others, he or she has to have a deeply felt image of self as lovable.”

As we mentioned some time ago, our lives do follow a certain script with a related image of ourselves. These come from family, school, community, culture, and the like. We first think of ourselves in terms of who we are told we are and how we are treated. But our inner self tends to push against this model, whether to accept or reject it, ot to modify it. We are drawn to find an image and script that is more true to our deepest self. In this process we can be aided by entering into dialogue with the great stories of humankind.

Before accepting a first teaching position, I consulted Gregory Baum, who later became my thesis director. I was hesitant because of some inner struggles. He said that if you are humble you won’t hurt anyone, and suggested that I reads novels, go to plays and concerts, listen to great music, and the like. These will enrich your humanity and heal whatever needs to be healed. I have since that time realized even more how myths and other stories are like a mirror in which we see reflected who we are and the direction of our becoming. This reflection helps to unveil our core of sacred worth, while also acknowledging our wounds and shadow.

As in the story of Narcissus reinterpreted, our lives are made up of endings and new beginnings, marked by transformation, hopefully to a truer, more compassionate, and more just life. May the sun of a new day ever rise up within you, in a direction that enriches your hope.

Feeling and Naming our Experiences

I have often spoken of experience, and particularly of the deepest experiences, whether of joy or of sorrow. I’ve also stressed the importance of being in touch with our experiences and feelings and allowing ourselves to feel them. I’ve also added the precaution that we need to do so in a safe place, whether by listening to ourselves in a quiet place, or entrusting our experiences–including thoughts and feelings–to an intelligently caring other.

A key element in this process is that it is important to recognize that such feelings are neither good not bad, but just are. The whole range of human feelings belongs to every human being. In addition, these feelings can teach us where we are at the present moment, but not necessarily what to do. There is a profound difference between awareness and entrusting of feelings, and unleashing them on another person. I believe it was Albert Camus who said that the freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins. In a similar vein, debates about Covid need to take into account not only alleged rights of individuals, but also their responsibility to respect others rather than inflict oneself upon them.

I have often used the image of tears as instructive. Tears well up within us at moments both of profound joy and of profound sorrow. As an example, when we are truly at home with someone, our conversation can range from being hilariously funny to deeply serious and back again, without our hardly noticing the transition. This reality suggests that there is a place within us deeper than and prior to the differentiation of feelings. Listening to beautiful music, for example can evoke a response that seems at once to combine both joy and sadness

Many years ago, at a spontaneous writing workshop, the image arose of several children within me, the playful, the lonely, the angry child, and many others. With that experience came the sense that each must be given its voice but none should drown out any other. In part, it was a response to the dominant social image of self-mastery or self-control with one part of us dominating the others. Instead, this was an an image not of domination but of cooperation. At the same time, there emerged an image of a child behind a wall. This seemed to be the basic self beneath all the other selves. In a kind of conversation with that child, it seemed that this core child was the unique self as it emerged from the universe and whatever underlies the universe.

The model of understanding that followed was one of recognizing, coordinating, and naming all our experiences, and them deciding whether or how to express them outwardly, perhaps in trusting words, perhaps in actions. Yet underneath all of these lies this sacred self of intrinsic worth.

I mentioned last week reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book. Leaning to Walk in the Darkness, She brings out positive aspects of darkness, as do some folk tales. She refers also to a book by Miriam Greenspan, called Healing through the Dark Emotions. I have begun this book which also stresses allowing ourselves to experience and name our real feelings. At the same time, she brings out that feelings reside in the body and need to be felt there, that in allowing them to be felt they gradually modulate into different feelings. Over time for example, grief at the loss of a loved one slowly transforms into gratitude for that life as well as for our own life. She also mentions that feelings can be inter-generational. This thought was also expressed by another author, who described this effect in terms of his grandmothers hands, which bore the marks of an enslaved person compelled to pick cotton.(My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem)

Greenspan also brings out that, while deeply personal, our experiences also contain and are impacted by the wider world in which we live. One helpful practice she suggests is meditation, including the lovingkindness meditation. This is the meditation stressed by Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Centre. She advocates as well that we can practice such meditation, not only by extending the wish for happiness to others near and far, the significant and the so-called neutral people in our lives. But we can also practice it towards ourselves as a child.

One therapist, whom I encountered at a Creation Spirituality workshop, also suggested this practice. When people came to him who were grieving over a difficult or even abusive childhood, he suggested that they talk to themselves as they wished their parents had talked to them. I have also used the expression that we should never speak to ourselves in a condemning way, but only how we might speak to a hurt or angry child on our best day. Greenspan also mentions that children can absorb in a fear-inducing way the cultural problems of a society, such as climate change. Another author, Robert Lifton, has said that we best help children and give them hope by working in some way, however small, towards a solution. My young six year old friend expressed it in these words.”Whenever you pick up a piece of garbage or recycling, then you can see the earth smiling.”

There are certainly many considerations here. One is that we all bear wounds from our life experience, both internally and in our relationships, and as a member of our society. But the move towards healing and growth, though difficult, is always possible. Another consideration is that it is vital to allow ourselves to feel our real feelings, but always in the safe place. And in all things, it is essential to hold on to a sense of worth, even if we cannot feel it at the time.

May any difficulties, pain, or wounds you have experienced, as well as all your joys and gratitude-evoking experiences, give birth to a fuller sense of worth for yourself, for those who are close to you, and for the earth on which we live out our lives.

Norman King, August 15, 2021


The Light of Darkness

Many authors suggest that out of still smouldering ashes of an old world order, a new world of greater interdependence, relationship, and openness is slowly being brought to birth. One element is a worldview that moves beyond a dualistic either/or vision to more inclusive vision of both/and. One of its features is not longer viewing light as good and darkness as evil, but seeing in them a complementarity, with darkness having many positive connotations.

One such observation comes from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes.
“You darkness, of whom I am born/I love you more than all the fires that limit the world,
…But the darkness embraces everything: … and it is possible a great energy/ is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.”

Darkness is in some ways akin to silence, the absence of light corresponding to the absence of sound. Our truest and most resonant words come out of our silence; and music, as Leopold Stokowski observed, is painted on a canvas of silence. I recall a beloved professor who taught the philosophy of art. He once read a poem in class and was so moved by it that, as he read, tears welled up in his eyes. On one occasion, he also told of visiting a factory where the machines operated incomplete silence, and said that the experience was one of total power or energy.

I recently told of the experience of a friend who left his place in the county, in the middle of winter. He was groping his way towards his car in the enveloping darkness when the moon emerged from behind a cloud and cast a pale light on everything. He recounted how he was overwhelmed by the experience that he was loved. On reflection, you might say that this experience was “grounded” in darkness; that just as meaningful words come out of silence, so also meaningful feelings, images, and relationships come out of darkness. Perhaps we may think of darkness, not merely as the opposite of light, but as the creative source from which light emerges.

A story is told of Winston Churchill that, after supper, with a friend, they retired to the living room where no one spoke for a time. The friend commented that it was surprising that, after so many years of friendship, they had nothing to say to each other. Churchill replied that it was all the more surprising that, despite their lengthy friendship, this was the first time that they were able to be silent together. It has also occurred to me that there is a tremendous difference between being in darkness with someone who hates us and experiencing darkness in the company of someone with whom we share a mutual love.

I have just finished reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She brings out some of the creative and necessary elements of what are considered the experiences of darkness both in the world outside of ourselves and in our own inner universe. At the outset, before drawing on enriching experiences of darkness, she learned from childhood on that darkness stood for all the things that scared her either because she feared she could not survive them or because she did not want to find out. Later she notes: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” She then goes on to discuss a variety of creative experiences both of the darkness of the world outside her and of the darkness within.

When I taught a course on folk tales, I was also struck by a few images of darkness. In a lesser known story, The Three Feathers, the youngest son, who is initially regarded as of limited intelligence, turns out to be the wisest. In the quest to succeed the aging king, that is the old dying order, the two older brothers confine their search to the surface. The youngest son finds a trapdoor at his feet and enters into the darkness of the earth. He goes into the dark depth of where he is and of the world around him. There he discovers the wisdom and compassion necessarily for a creative and meaningful life for himself and for others.

The story of Snow White focuses on the powerful attitudes and feelings within oneself, symbolized by the colour red, which stands for the red of love and the red of hate, and the challenge to choose between them. Before arriving at her decision, the young woman must travel through a dark forest. She must enter all the unknown and unexplored regions of her self, and then decide on her basic life direction.

Another image, reflective of Rilke’s words, may be found in the question posed by Albert Einstein. “I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.” We may perhaps think of a favourite analogy of mine. When someone speaks openly and vulnerably to us of their joy or sorrow, the challenge is to listen, to hold a place of silence around their words. Yet that silence is not an emptiness but a caring presence. In a similar vein, in response to Einstein’s question, we may hope that the silent darkness that envelopes and permeates the universe may also be thought of in terms of compassion.

As you become aware of all the seeming dark spaces within you and times of darkness that sometimes surround you, may that darkness be the womb of new and fuller life for yourself and for others whom your life touches in some, even anonymous way.

Norman King, August 09, 2021