Friday, April 23, 2010

Everything is Illuminated in Light of the Past

How is the path of our individual lives related to the lives of our ancestors? This question has surfaced for me, in various forms, over the last several month -- perhaps I have taken note particularly because of my own process of losing my grandmother, my last grandparent, and reflecting on what it means that my life is inherently part of her legacy.

I had the fortune to see Sonu Shamadasani, editor and translator of The Red Book, lecture on Wednesday night. As part of his presentation, Sonu included some commentary on Jung's 1916 work, The Seven Sermons to the Dead. Of this work, which Jung wrote nearing the conclusion of his deep engagement with his inner figures (as are documented in The Red Book), Sonu commented boldly: "It's the dead who depend on us for their souls, for their evolution. . . . You think you're living your life, but your life is set-up by a framework of your ancestors . . . your own endeavor is one for your ancestors."

As Jung wrote in his autobiography about The Seven Sermons, "the unconscious corresponds to the mythic land of the dead, the land of the ancestors" (1963, p. 191), stating later that after writing the Sermons the dead became for him "ever more the voices of the Unanswered, Unresolved, and Unredeemed" (p. 192).

The notion that the dead may depend on us for their evolution, not exclusively the other way around, has been starkly illustrated for me recently in a pop culture TV show. The new NBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? tracks a famous person as he or she researches his or her ancestry through a variety of archival means. As each individual uncovers the history of his or her family line, uncanny "coincidences" reveal themselves. Each episode brings forward visceral and emotional realizations for the individual exploring their lineage in regards to how they are connected -- in ways not fully understood -- to a lineage of people stretching sometimes centuries into the past. Sarah Jessica Parker, who stared in the film Hocus Pocus and whose brother stars in the play Wicked on Broadway, discovers in her journey that one of the two ancestors she finds was the final woman accused in the Salem witch trials; she narrowly escaped with her life as the courts were disbanded before her sentencing. Sarah is visible shaken by this discovery, mourning this woman's life and tragedy centuries later. One gets the feeling that the ancestor sent her on this discovery so that she could be remembered. Meanwhile, Emmitt Smith, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, discovers in his explorations with an emotional awe that the number he has worn on his back each game since college, 22, is also the number of the book in a historical library where the information about his family's slave origins is found. Finally, for Matthew Broderick, the discovery of a great-great-grandfather named Robert who fought and died as a Union soldier in the Civil War drew forth emotion as he played the role of Robert, a Union soldier, in a Civil War era film. Moreover, this discovery was also the discovery of a previously unknown soldier with a unmarked grave; his great-great-grandfather's name is now known to all.

It is remarkable to observe this journey and see that each individual tracking their genetic past is in visible mourning for the lost relatives they never knew, as well as overwhelmed with a sense that these individuals have wanted to be known. Each individual expressed, and the sentiment was palpable, that they felt they were drawn to discover their ancestors stories, and that they themselves felt more whole knowing the past of these relatives they never knew.

Finally, this same theme was highlighted for me last night while watching the film Everything is Illuminated, in which the grandson of a Jewish man who narrowly escaped death in WWII, returns to the Ukraine to find the village where his grandfather had grown-up. His grandfather had a young wife before he left, a wife who was killed by the German soldiers. After discovering a wealth of previously unknown history of the massacre in his grandfather's village, the narrator comments on the previously mysterious journey of the grandson: "Everything," he says,"is illuminated in light of the past."

Photography copyright 2004, Satya Doyle Byock.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dreaming of García

A friend called the other day to catch-up and we spoke for a while about life and plans for the future. When we hung-up the phone, I realized she had been a part of my dreams the night before. I wrote her.
I forgot to tell you, you were in my dream last night.

We were traveling together and happened upon a little store with old books in the back. I walked up to one shelf that had small, almost square books, covered with old white leather. There were simple titles on the spines. I picked-up the first one to examine it, a book that had just three or four short words in the title, including either "One" or "God." You walked up to look at it too. We talked about what a great old book it was. On the inside page there were numbers written in pencil, it turned out to be $95, I think, with just the number 95 and a dash written on the inside page. It was signed too, we saw, realizing why the price was so high. The author's name was something Garcia, three words, though it was not Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A male author. We were both were intrigued and loved the little book though we chose not to buy it.
My friend shortly thereafter wrote me back.
Federico García Lorca? I was just at a used book store today and came across a biography on him, and it did have the price written in pencil on the inside cover...
She also went on to write that when she had been exploring topics for her thesis, she had given great consideration to writing on Lorca's exploration of the concept of Duende -- a hard to translate Spanish term that explores the visceral experience of becoming possessed by a muse or a dark instinct, a feeling typically associated with being overwhelmed in the creation of art or music. The phrase "Tener duende," in Spanish, can be understood as meaning "to have soul."

The mystery of our shared experience is what draws me into the study of psyche. It was in some ways the smallest of coincidences. I did not dream of a death that then occurred shortly after in real life, nor did my dream offer her any terrific insight into her life. Nonetheless, it holds tremendous meaning. The reality of the uncanny exchange suggests to me how much we do not know. For me, it is like the mystical experience of realizing that God is everywhere, always, but rarely seen. When such inexplicable overlaps of experience occur, it offers a glimpse into other levels of life in the world, a sixth sense that we all have but rarely remember to use.

The experience is a reminder for me of the collective unconscious, the potential fallacies of our notions of linear time, the explorations of human physics and the boundaries between singular human experiences. These questions are less explored in the field of psychology than in physics, but they blend in analytic psychology in a way that keeps me hooked. There is so much that we do not know, so many layers of existence and consciousness that we do not yet even know to question.

I just came upon this wonderful passage by Jung on synchronicity that offers a thorough discussion of the concept and the questions it raises.
Though synchronistic phenomena occur in time and space they manifest a remarkable independence of both these indispensable determinants of physical existence and hence do not conform to the law of causality. The causalism that underlies our scientific view of the world breaks everything down into individual processes which it punctiliously tries to isolate from all other parallel processes. This tendency is absolutely necessary if we are to gain reliable knowledge of the world, but philosophically it has the disadvantage of breaking up, or obscuring, the universal interrelationship of events so that a recognition of the greater relationship, i.e. of the unity of the world, becomes more and more difficult. (from CW 14 in The Essential Jung, p. 293)
Jung goes on to say that the term "Synchronicity," which he defined as "a meaningful coincidence," is a principle which "suggests that there is an inter-connection or unity of causally unrelated events, and thus postulates a unitary aspect of being" (p. 293).

Could such unitary aspects of being be the "One" or the "God" in the title of the book that I was meant to ponder?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Origins and Intention of the Red Book

In Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he discusses the inner experiences that led him to create his magnum opus, what is now known as The Red Book, set to go on display at the Hammer Museum in LA this weekend.

After a series of very disturbing dreams, Jung wrote:
On August 1 [1913] the world war broke out. Now my task was clear: I had to try to understand what had happened and to what extent my own experience coincided with that of mankind in general. Therefore my first obligation was to probe the depths of my own psyche. (1961/1989, p. 176)
And probe he did. The result was a near psychosis, or perhaps a full-blown psychosis, that Jung learned to manage through yoga, familial and friendly support, and his own will and determination to continue the inner exploration. His pursuit was unprecedented.
I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. . . . I would do the exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. . . .To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images--that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions--I was inwardly calmed and reassured. . . .I wrote down the fantasies as well as I could, and made an earnest effort to analyze the psychic conditions under which they had arisen. (1961/1989, p. 177)
The incredible compilation of his work, images and written fantasies, is the Red Book, a book which I have already had the great pleasure of seeing in-person in New York, and which I plan to visit again in LA in a few weeks. I strongly recommend you go see it as well, if you're anywhere in the area. Jung himself understood his book not simply as an exploration into his own unconscious -- and, therefore, the basis for his entire psychological theory that was to come -- but as an exploration into a new way of seeing the world, and of being in it. In a time of war, Jung went inside to understand the world and the race of people causing chaos and suffering. The lessons he learned in himself should not be lost on us today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Curing Vision

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
~Carl Jung