It’s my waiting that creates you.
The tapestry I weave,
unraveling you in dreams,
is your secret map.
How you try
to read over my shoulder!
You are too close,
thinking you are too far.
Here’s a seaweed-dripping cave
and a sea-nymph’s bribe:
immortality, but nothing else
will ever happen in your life –
and you pick mortality,
that beautiful blood flower –
while above the ledge of bones,
the Sirens unriddle all.
At the cold mouth of the earth,
the dead greet you, arms of mist –
like an echo of the future
in their shroud of finished past.
Days slide off the loom of hours.
The moon sets, mottled with regrets
like a lamp with islands of dead moths.
Again you think of home.
Wreathed with horizons,
you want me
to stroke your neck,
stiff from looking ahead;
weary of women
opening like shores,
you want my body to lead
into the body of silence.
You beg to know
how the story ends –
and it is I
who tie you to the mast.
Oriana © 2014
THE INNER PENELOPE
What Penelope weaves in Homer is a shroud for the father of Odysseus. To me, that part always seemed unsatisfying. A shroud, yes, but it should be a shroud for Odysseus himself, and the weaving the story of his life? Weaving was often a metaphor for fate (and what is fate if not god stripped of personality? an “overmind” that designs your life, but couldn’t care less if you suffer or rejoice?)
Scholars suggest that Penelope was originally a fate-weaving goddess (as was Circe). Assuming that there is such a thing as a personal CEO in charge of the sense of self and continuity of one’s life story, could the archaic Penelope be the Jungian “Self”? Spelled with the capital letter, the Self, like Being (not to be confused with being), has been defined in so many ways that Penelope the fate-weaving goddess, before she was demoted to Ideal Wife, could very well be the Self, the central organizer of memories and creator of a person’s sense of “this is what I am, this is what I stand for.”
Some Jungians have suggested that Jung wanted to say not Self, but God, an infinite consciousness (hence one of the definitions of Self as “the image of god within man), but was too cowardly to do so. After all, he wanted to be recognized as a scientist. And besides, Jung was always changing the definitions of his concepts. He may not have consciously recognized the Buddhist principle that there is no permanent self but rather a constant flow: each moment we are “born again” and vanish again into the emerging new now, but he behaved in a fluid, fluent way that points to a self (or selves — a person can have several) as a process.
I once mentioned Jung on Facebook. The response was “Jung? LOL!” Nevertheless, I find some Jungian cognitive gropings to be of value, at least in terms of leading to more discussion. “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation,” Wallace Stevens observed — a statement that reminds me of Jung’s faith (some would say dogma) that nothing that happens is just an accident. “There are no accidents.” If so, then everything is connected with everything else — a perfectly acceptable idea that doesn’t violate our modern worldview. Jung’s theology of the Self tried to be the theory of everything. Perhaps we can find something of interest while exploring that black hole that seems to devour all definitions except that of flow: you can’t step into the same self twice. The self is a river that keeps on flowing.
Some think of the self (it seems rather silly to capitalize it; besides, in German all nouns are capitalized) in terms of memory. It’s that unreliable witness, memory, that gives us a sense of continuity. Odysseus constantly reinvented himself according to the listener, but a certain core of experience remained: adventures at sea. Lots of travel. A longing for home.
IF MEMORY IS WHERE WE LIVE . . .
But if memory is where we live, we must remember that memory evolves, a reconstruction involving things that never happened. People are known to steal from their other people’s stories, without realizing it. As we change over time, our memory changes; one can’t step into the same self twice. Furthermore, memory is contaminated by language, the explainer and confabulator.
Still, Jung’s definitions are so vague that we can stretch “self” to be an ongoing process that marries unconscious processing to consciousness. It’s a neural process, of course. Jung himself stated that the psychology of the future will be neither Jungian nor Freudian, but will stem primarily from brain research. At this point neuroscience recognizes the subjective sense of a continuous self that results from the activation of certain brain regions (“I sing the body electric”), but the whole question of consciousness remains murky. Some say we will never understand consciousness by using consciousness — the brain is just too complex to understand itself.
All we can say is that no convincing answers will come from either philosophy or theology (by the way, Freud used the word “Soul” — die Seele — all the time; Jung, embraced by New Age followers, reminded us of the Cosmic Soul, Anima Mundi). Ah, the soul! A lovely concept, formless, naked, totally elusive — still, a noun rather than a verb. Still, who doesn’t love Emperor Hadrian’s Animula, vagula, blandula? So we turn either poetry or religion for a “momentary stay against confusion” — illusory as it may be.
bronze head of Emperor Hadrian, found in the Thames, now at the British Museum
We must patiently (Penelope again!) wait for the researchers to do their weaving and unweaving. Hallucinogenic drugs are being studied again, albeit on a small scale. But a lot of what we know about brain function comes from study of the impact of brain injuries — sadly, warfare and accidents can be counted on to produce much material. Brain diseases are another unfortunate source of clues. An Alzheimer’s victim living in an eternal now, knowing nothing of his or her former self; a schizophrenic who thinks he’s Jesus; a veteran whose brain injury makes him a stranger to his family — these damaged individuals make the need for brain research all the more urgent.
The brain! All this bewildering buzzing activity, only to be buried in the mud. ~ Virginia Woolf
Neuroscience also suggests that there is no single self, much less Self, but rather several selves (seen as patterns of activity), each with different needs and priorities. The Jungians like to think of “subpersonalities” as musicians, and the Self as an orchestra conductor. This immediately brings to my mind a number of distinguished silver-haired conductors.
But outside of the Jungian circles, the multiple selves, or competing neural networks, are seen more as squabbling committee members — or even as unruly children. As a Facebook friend wrote, those are not mature adult selves, but screaming two-year-olds; let’s try to construct a meta-self to bring them to order.
Kelly McGonigal explains multiple selves as follows:
We are a collection of selves that have different agendas, different personalities, different preferences, different priorities, and we shift back and forth among these different selves. You invoke a certain version of yourself through the quality of your attention.
There are these collections of neural networks that represent different aspects of the self. I think it's so fascinating to think that the self is a process—all these different processes we are good at make up the self we think we are. The mind is always generating, composing, or constructing music, let's say, like an ongoing symphony with themes that come into play; sometimes it's the same old themes that repeat, but the music keeps evolving in a new way. This generative ongoing process that in a way is always the same, yet also always new.
“No self” does not mean that there is nothing, rather everything is always changing. It isn't so much a denial, but to believe that some part of you is unchangeable or fixed would be particularly discouraged from a Buddhist point of view. I like that idea, and it's something you can work with scientifically. It's consistent with neuroplasticity and epigenetics: the idea that everything that happens to you influences what gets expressed.
THE SELF AS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER IN NARRATIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Narrative psychology is a school of thought of obvious interest to any writer. Writers realize how a narrative keeps changing as the creative process unfolds. It turns out that we are all “authors” when it comes to our life story. We construct that story to try to get at pattern and meaning, at who we are and what our life has been about. A narrative psychologist helps the client overcome the rigid vision that only one story could be written about the person’s life. The therapist reveals other perspectives, and richer, more complex stories. Even having the client write in the third rather than first person tends to change the tone of the story toward more compassion.
Nietzsche’s “There is no truth, only perspectives” could be changed here to “There is no self, only different plots.” It’s not what happened, but what we remember and how we choose to tell the story. The telling evolves anyway; the therapist tries to nudge this evolution toward a story that benefits the client.
NO-SELF, OR GOING WITH THE FLOW
I remember my bitter disappointment when I began to read books on Jungian psychology. I liked the valuing of the introvert dimension and attention to the second half of life. What disappointed me was the idea of “individuation” and the “Self,” as I first understood it (before I knew that late in life Jung was deeply influenced by the Eastern tradition). I felt I was “individuated” enough — perhaps even excessively individuated. What I craved was less self and a greater sense of connection with others. I wanted community, belonging.
At the same time, my most common recurrent dream was of being in a house or a large apartment where I was about to move in, along with a congenial family. I liked those people and their well-behaved children. I liked the beautiful dining room that promised pleasant meals together and family warmth. But as I kept on exploring the new house or apartment, to my joy I’d find a room somewhere to the side, isolated, apart, a room I’d instantly claim as my own private space. Usually, just before waking, I’d encounter a threat to my exclusive possession of this special room, and felt I'd do anything to keep it.
So I wanted — and still want — both a great deal of quiet solitude and just the amount of emotional and social connection that didn’t intrude on my privacy. I wanted the best conditions for creative work without becoming a recluse.
Since I felt so keenly the isolation of the self, I became fascinated with the Buddhist idea that there was no such thing. The separate, permanent self was a delusion. As I've already remarked, you can’t step into the same self twice. I loved it.
I’ve also always wondered about god’s reply to Moses: “I am who I am” (Sum qui sum — so compact in Latin). Neuroscience suggests that perhaps the answer anyone could give is “I'm becoming who I'm becoming.” I think that constant becoming fits with the Buddhist teachings. It’s the flow.
BUDDHA: NO SELF, OR ANATMAN
By the way, for the sake of precision, let me quote something on no-self by the Buddhist author, psychologist and evolutionary biologist David Borash:
“Anatman (“not-self”), for example, means that no one has an internal self that is distinct and separate from the rest of the world. Similarly in ecology, organisms and environments are inextricably inter-connected. Also, Anitya (“impermanence”) refers to the fact that all things are temporary and eventually return to the non-living world. Anitya has parallels with evolution, in that not only is every individual organism’s time on earth temporary but also organisms ebb and flow across time.”
As for any predestined “meaning of life,” let me quote Borash again:
“Both Buddhism and biology (and also existentialism) teach that there is no inherent meaning to life. We simply are, and that “we” or “I” or “you” or “he” or “she” is merely a temporary aggregation of matter and energy, destined (or doomed) to collapse back into the stuff of the world. Therefore, if we want to make our lives meaningful, we should not look to some outside deity, but rather to our own actions. In the final chapter, I develop what I call “existential biobuddhism,” which adds existentialism to the convergence of biology and Buddhism, emphasizing that there is no such thing as “the meaning of life” outside of how we mindfully decide to live.”
TRUSTING THE UNCONSCIOUS COGNITIVE PROCESSING
The essence of heroism is self-trust. ~ Emerson
I was also becoming more and more familiar with the experience of the creative process. There was no denying that the best, most “inspired” writing came from the unconscious. You only needed to “seed” the process — maybe write just one sentence or one line of a poem. Then what worked best for me was to walk away from the project and engage in some mechanical activity like sewing or housework. Unbidden, the words would come.
I also came to see that a lot of what emerged this way wasn’t really anything I could call “original.” Much of it was collective knowledge: something I’d read or heard or witnessed. I wasn’t a strictly separate self: my mentality drew heavily on the collective psyche.
I don’t mean to set up an unbridgeable gulf between Jung’s “Self” and Buddha’s “No-Self.” Impatient reader, I hear you complain that I misunderstand what Jung meant by the Self. The definition that makes most sense to me is that the Self is the integrated psyche, including both the personal and the collective unconscious. That’s fine with me as long as we understand that we are talking not about a “thing,” but about an ever-evolving activity — multiple neural activities taking place simultaneously, changing over time.
The experience of the creative process taught me to trust the unconscious, to “go with the flow.” In poetry, that flow has often meant verbal music. The sound of the words led me.
ORPHEUS TAUGHT ME
the first rule of survival:
When lost, follow the music.
I walked in a great city
as in a rain of April light,
the streets and squares
dissolving into glass and gleam.
I walked along the riverbank,
my compass the idea
that if I follow the music,
I will remember the sea.
Springtime, the city in torn veils,
train whistles thin
harmonicas of mist,
I nudged the larval chestnut leaves,
carved eyelids of a chrysalis.
From sticky lips of lilacs
I sipped a fugue of rainbows.
I squandered splendors.
How could I have known
where I was going?
Only the music knew.
Across cloud-heavy continents,
under the fog
the river waits,
and I begin to flow.
~ Oriana © 2014
CAN WE AT LEAST PARTLY DIRECT THE FLOW?
I think I’m really not interested in the quest for the self anymore. Oh, I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that you really must make the self. It’s absolutely useless to look for it, you won’t find it, but it’s possible in some sense to make it. I don’t mean in the sense of making a mask, a Yeatsian mask. But you finally begin in some sense to make and to choose the self you want. ~ Mary McCarthy, The Art of Fiction No. 27
In youth we simply don't have enough control over our life -- we are too tossed by the hunger to be loved and valued. We are told to conceal that hunger because no one likes a needy person. As soon as we drop wanting anything from someone else we stop suffering — but we don’t yet know that principle. We don’t have enough money — youth is generally the time of lowest earnings. We are too insecure, not yet having any accomplishments to point to. What a privilege, to be able to grow older and wiser.
Still, let’s try to evaluate if Mary McCarthy is right. We can certainly increase valuable skills, and the increased self-confidence will create an “upward spiral” of benefits. Craftsmen are generally emotionally strong: they know they are good at something, and thus valued (not least by themselves) for something. And personality traits can be broken down to skills — or lack of them. Some people have learned to how to control anger, and some haven’t. Some are good at soothing themselves and staying cool in times of distress; others panic.
After I made the decision not to be depressed, I was so astonished by the results that I started casting around for what else I could decide that would significantly improve my life. After all, I had witnessed my own power to change — but not being depressed only brought me up to normalcy.
(A shameless digression: I just remembered one of the steps that led me to drop depression. In a book, I came across the statement: “You can practice being strong, or you can practice falling apart.” I instantly chose to practice being strong. It was a life-changing choice — after decades of chronic depression alternating with more acute episodes.)
(shameless digression continued: Note that the statement in the book spoke about PRACTICING being strong. It didn’t treat being strong as a fixed trait: you either are and are not strong. Instead, it was a behavior. I always understood that a behavior could be learned.)
I was very impressed by the decision not to be angry made by both Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. Obama noticed that young Afro-American men tended to be angry, sometimes to the point of making a kind of career out of anger. Since people don’t like to be around angry persons, that anger was an obstacle to success. Obama’s strategy was refuse to sound or act angry. He decided to speak in a controlled, rational tone. It reminded me of another man I knew, who said that all of his success in life followed his decision never to raise his voice.
And Mandela famously said that when he left the prison, he left behind all anger and resentment at having been imprisoned. Otherwise, he said, he’d always be in prison, always carrying the prison within.
But anger and raising my voice were not my problems. Resentment about having been cheated of the life I wanted disappeared when I made the decision not to be depressed. I had good impulse control, and could keep promises to myself. I wanted to become a calm person, but typical meditation like counting breaths didn’t work for me (I suspect that people who succeed are already calm — maybe genetically or maybe because they’ve had a secure childhood, or both).
And then I read something in my notebook which I must have read several times before, always delighted by it, but not otherwise affected:
“How did you cross the flood?
— Without delaying, friend, and without struggling did I cross the flood.
But how could you do so?
— When delaying, friend, I sank, and when struggling, I was swept away. So it is by not delaying and not struggling that I have crossed the flood.”
This time I wasn’t merely delighted. In my mind I exclaimed, “That’s it!” Not delaying and not struggling. Above all: not delaying. After all, the greater the delay, the greater the agony, since the undone is a thorn in the mind.
This time the meaning of the “flood” was personal: the whole practical side of life. “I resent anything that takes me away from my desk,” a friend said, and I instantly identified. Intellectual work is easy for me. It gives me pleasure. It’s what makes life worth living. But shopping, ordering online, driving to new places, making appointments, renewing prescriptions, filling out forms, paying the bills, doing the taxes — talk about resentment!
I even found myself developing a phobia about picking up mail: the unending bills and demands. “I’ll open it in the morning,” I thought. But another day would come, with its own burden of mail, and the old envelopes still lay unopened. I realized that unless I acted I’d become one of those people who are too scared to open their mail, and let heaps of it accumulate, unopened, for months. So I decided to get rid of mail right away: either by recognizing it as advertising and instantly tossing it, or by opening it and paying the bill, or otherwise acting on it without delay.
And it turned out to be easy. By not delaying I wasn’t turning mere unopened envelopes into dragons. By taking action right away I didn’t have the thing hanging over me, intruding on my thoughts and draining my energy. If the task was large, not delaying also made it possible for me to divide it into smaller, more doable units. And if I learned to wipe away coffee spills with no difficulty, I could learn to wipe any spills in my wash-and-dry life.
As Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” Once we’ve started, the flow takes over.
And yes, immediately there is resistance from within. After a lifetime of maintaining a self-image constructed around the contrast between the Intellectual Princess and the Nervous Immigrant, some backward region in the brain absolutely balks and asserts that this is the holy core of my “unique self” . . . It says the angst dealing with a brutal medical receptionist is the “real me.” But that neural network will be transcended. Without delay. And by not struggling. By knowing that there is no “real me” — just a succession of me’s that have the power to change.
It’s my understanding that "I am that I am" can also be translated as "I will be what I will be.”
Yes, I've read that too -- I think the more liberal rabbis hold that view. Still, I could never quite get the gist of it, regardless of the tense. I know if I answered that way, in either the present or future tense, I'd be called a smartass. In any case, the Old Testament writers and editors were very clever here, refusing to have god label himself, keeping all options open. Too bad that the rest of the OT narrative doesn't live up to that level of sophistication (though I rather like the idea of angels coming down to mate with women and producing giants -- that kind of totally archaic level along with something more evolved, starting with the Tree of Knowledge, rather than simply the Tree of Life.)
In 12-step meetings, the chaos is often referred to as 'My Committee', and an attempt is made to develop a meta-personality to chair a meeting of screaming two-year-olds.
I like this a lot. A meta-self, yes, as a kind of ideal. The meta-self will be also be evolving with time, but once we drop the idea of IS in favor of EVOLUTION, of PRACTICING, life becomes easier. I experienced that when I dropped the idea of depression as a feeling, and saw it as a behavior -- and a behavior can be changed. Best of all, the desire to engage in this behavior was suddenly gone to the point of the behavior becoming impossible. I read a discussion of ending alcoholism in very similar terms -- the craving is no more.
The last year has been the first in memory when I haven't been obsessing over the Self, that pursuit toward knowing myself. And it occurred to me while reading your post why that is.
I have a slightly different take on what Jung meant by individuation--in my opinion having little or nothing to do with individualism but a settling into our place in humanity, where our connections, or tethers, are firmly attached. Thus, when individuated, we are more firmly part of, or participatory in, community, in family, in the processes of life. It's a coming home.
I'm home. Finally. And concerns about the Self have gone away I think, because I have arrived at Self. It's a beautiful place to be.
I'm glad you posted again. I hope you don't give up. I understand about low readership and that must be frustrating. If you do continue, please know that I appreciate your work and commitment to understanding and broadening our world.
I’ve given up on trying to pin down what Jung meant by either individuation or Self — he rarely defined anything clearly, and his views were constantly evolving. In his old age he even admitted that we are different psychological type at different stages of our lives. So we never step into the same river twice not only because it’s never the same river, but also because we’re never the same self. And by self I don’t mean just the ego, but the totality.
I suppose that you don’t mean: I have arrived at the Self, so now my personality is fixed, and ten-twenty years from now my habits, interests, values, my whole outlook, will remain exactly what they are now. But possibly you mean the kind of shift that I experienced regarding my poetry and poetic ambitions — how I came to see myself as posthumous, and that feels so much more peaceful. Obsessing about anything is awful, and while I used to call poetry “my glorious obsession,” the cost in terms of suffering and damage to health was too high. I don’t entirely preclude a return to poetry, but I know it’s unlikely. I'm quite happy with the essay.
I suppose that as with religion, people interpret Jung as they wish, some seeing community, others individualism, etc. I prefer not to conceptualize the self (capitalizing it seems at least slightly ridiculous) as a noun. If it exists at all, then only as a verb, a process. But that’s OK. I no longer have a need to claim that I am extremely introverted. I’ve come to realize that it depends on the context, and factors such as my energy level at the moment.
Will this blog continue? I’d rather not make predictions. I have another venue now, so my own need to continue the blog is not very strong. Now and then, a new blog post may happen, probably not as often as in the past.