Thursday, January 17, 2013

Books that were life rings: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Simplicity is great, and it has a price. We start out with the simplicity of children, but lose that, almost always, and get caught up in the confusion of the modern world with all its contending streams of data and theory and distraction. To become simple again is a gift that requires some degree of mastery and integration, whether the theme is a single subject, or a whole life experience.
    I am seeking simplicity in my understanding of the psychic storms and mythic dramas in 1987-1988 that led me to transform my life and eventually to follow the path of a dream teacher, for which there is no career track in Western society. I had no external mentor in this period. But there were three books, beyond the others, that helped me to construct a working model of understanding for my experiences, and made me know that I was by no means alone in my depth encounters with life in the multiverse. I wrote recently about the first of these books, a collection of essays on shamanism and art titled Stones, bones and skins. The second was Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

2. Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I discovered Jung in high school and devoured many volumes of his Collected Works when I was an undergraduate, though I probably failed to digest the most difficult passages. In the midst of the psychic storms of 1987-8, I turned to Jung again, to see how he made sense of his own "confrontation with the unconscious". My main source book was Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his life story as recorded and edited by Aniela JaffĂ© based on conversations he began when he was eighty-one.
     His great life crisis began in 1912, after his break with Freud. For several years, he lived in a house of the spirits. The contents of his dreams and visions seemed to be spilling over into his physical life, producing poltergeist-like phenomena and apparitions that his children could see. Night after night, he descended into a dark and thrilling Underworld where he met mythic characters who seemed to him to be entirely real and transpersonal. He often felt he was under an avalanche of psychic events, "as if gigantic stones were tumbling down upon me." His survival required him to draw on a "demonic strength" that brilliant, mad Nietzsche  had lacked.
    He kept seeing patients, but stopped lecturing at the university and ceased publishing for three years, no longer confident that he could make sense of things for other people. He had no mentor now, in the ordinary world. He sought stability through his family, his continuing work with clients, through painting and through "hewing stone", building a miniature stone village that he thought he was making in collaboration with his eleven-year-old self.
    He realized that he had to reclaim beginner's mind. He said to himself, "Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me." Then he took the shaman's plunge. "I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious."
    Central to Jung's ability to restore his inner compass was his daily recording of dreams. Now divorced from theory, his main preoccupation was to set down an unedited, uncensored chronicle of his experiences. "Dreams are the facts from which we must proceed." This was one of his central discoveries, and it is one of the most helpful statements that has ever been made about dreams and dreamwork. Let's start with the facts of the dream, leaving aside theory until we have recovered as much of the experience as possible. This was confirmation for me of the method I was obliged to improvise in my own time of testing. I journaled my dreams and visions as exactly as possible, giving each a title noting the time and duration of each experience. I most required clarity when my experiences rebuffed interpretation and linear thinking. I found it essential to disentangle the reports of inner adventures from other material so that their nature and content was not blurred. I underlined Jung's statement that "otherwise the material would have trapped me in its thicket, strangled me like jungle creepers" and put a big check mark in the margin. Exactly right.
    In his storms of emotion, Jung sought to let images take form. Images gave him a way to work with the raw power of emotion rather than being torn apart by it. He was learning how to harvest images and rework them through what he later called "active imagination" in the laboratory of his own psyche.
    He recorded the facts of his inner experiences even when he found the content nonsensical, repugnant or freakish. In this way, he hoped that instead of being drowned by the contents of his inner life, he would gain a means of navigation. 

    He felt himself pulled into the Underworld. Instead of resisting, he let himself drop and began a harrowing journey of Underworld initiation, played out over years rather than hours, reminiscent of the shaman's path of tests and ordeals. In this time, he found an agreed form for an inner guide: an old man with the horns of a bull and wings of kingfishjer blue that he named Philemon. "It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche."

Near the end of his life, Jung observed that "all my works, all my creative activity, has come from those initial fantasies and dreams which began in 1912, almost fifty years ago. Everything that I accomplished in later life was already contained in them, although at first only in the form of emotions and images."
    He had had a plan for his life, to become a professor and pursue a scientific line that had seemed clear to him. "But then, I hit upon this stream of lava, and the heat of its fires reshaped my life." What overthrew his plans and expectations also gave him the prima materia for a greater life work. "That was the primal stuff which compelled me to work upon it, and my works are a more or less successful endeavor to incorporate this incandescent matter into the contemporary picture of the world."
    On my own stormy path of initiation in 1987-1988, I felt immense affinity for the great shaman of the West who spoke those words, and took comfort and courage from his example. I felt the deep truth of his ringing assertion that "he who takes the sure path is as good as dead", and spoke those words aloud, as I walked with my dogs to the old white oak behind the house, and scrambled up the slippery banks of the creek to the highest of the waterfalls.

Quotations are from C.G.Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections recorded and edited by Aniela JaffĂ©, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1965). I am using the copy I purchased at a now-defunct bookshop in Albany NY in July 1988, according tom my note on the flyleaf. I have revisited this book, pencil in hand, at least twenty times since then.  



Patrick said...

Thank you for this entry Robert, it's very personal, and a perfectly timed reminder for me as I stand at another crossroads in life - that there is no sure path, and where real answers are to be found..

nance said...

Thanks for an inspiring post.