The Soulful Sacrifice. 4.

One of my most impressive childhood memories is of the Vervet monkey cage at Mundawanga Park just south of Lusaka in Zambia. I was ten and we were having a family day out. The Vervets were all I can recall of that day. They had the biggest nobs you ever saw. And played with them constantly. As well as pinching my brother’s fruit pastilles. Straight from his pocket. Hermes would have been proud.

What were they up to? It clearly wasn’t proper monkey behaviour and come to think of it they all looked suitably embarrased whilst carrying on as though smitten with terminal viagra. After a while, about thirty years, I realised that they were chronically overcrowded and had resorted to an unusual stratagem to alleviate their situation.

Everyone knows that masturbation is a private thing not to be intruded upon or interrupted and so each Vervet had managed to augment his greatly diminished territory  with the psychological space derived from being deeply erotically involved with himself. No-one would be rude enough to broach such a sacred institution. Psychological space held them where physical territory had failed.

Without psychological space the Vervets would not have faired so well. They look comical and foolish maybe but they had also ensured a degree of going-on-being that worked more or less.

Such a neurotic solution is a kind of trade off, a kind of three steps forward and two steps back dance number in which all parties get to make it through to the end of the song without being stabbed in the neck.

which is always useful.

even if you look ridiculous.

Projecting our inner nobility out into the world, burdening some poor shmuck who can never live up to archetypal expectations, is a neurotic solution not unlike the Vervets. It alleviates the crush of personal responsibility and the trials of Individuation but everyone gets to behave strangely in the process.

”If we stop looking for persons to put in power, there will be no more jealousies among the people.” Lao Tzu

The gift of the inner king once we’ve stopped looking for persons to put in power, is psychological space, internal elbow room, the square foot house in the square inch field, a capacity to reflect and pay attention that is not tied to circumstance or the governance of outer kings.

So its a big mistake to go unseating them in a big show of gore and torch bearing because that is just more of the same enacted story, ”the king must die..

long live the king!”

What’s actually required is the kind of exchange we find in Greek mythology between Hermes and Apollo after Zeus has laughed off Hermes’ theft of Apollo’s cattle. Once Apollo understands that it is in Hermes’ nature to rob people of their collectivity, their herd-like nature, he stops being angry. Having endured and understood the significance of his loss there is a kind of flowering in the space between them,

”The cause of the blooming of all things, with your resonant lyre you command the axis of the heavens, Placing all in harmony, Tempering all the poles.”  Orphic hymn to Apollo

In turn, Apollo gives Hermes the golden Cadeuces, symbol of healing and of being  Zeus’ messenger.

This exchange of symbolic treasures between the two constitutes what I find  useful to think of as a ‘transitional gesture’. Life is never the same again. Something has opened up.

A man dreams that he is the impoverished heir of an old family castle. Reduced in circumstances, he now acts as a guide to the Crumbling Pile, his life a treadmill of repetition. Finally, he is seeing off the last coach trip of the day. He leans back, exhausted, against a wall which suddenly and shockingly collapses, to reveal a great hall within… indeed, upon which his castle has been built, a great hall full of golden beings who burst into song as he tumbles through, inconceivable harmonies, unimaginable symphony..

Hermes, ever one to prank the complacent, has tapped the wall with his Cadeuces and creates some perspective for our bored hero, inviting him across a threshold that brings with it a new interior that wants its own song to be sung.

”There is what I want to think and there is what wants to be thought.” Hiedeggar.

To be able to entertain the song that wants to be sung is to return to the peace, protection and confidence of natural law.. one that is renewed by the transitional gesture of sacrifice, the making of sacred gifts..

”Give me my mouth, I want to talk. My two hands cling like ancestors. My lips are red as ox blood. Give me raisin cakes and beer. Bless me with ancient dreams. Give me songs green as earth.” Giving a mouth to Osiris, Egyptian book of the Dead

The Gods hunger for symbolic gestures for the want of which they will settle for your children. The raisin cakes, or what have you, made with proptious intent, offered in quiet dignity, will do more than open up inner space. It will innoculate you against the compulsion to make unconscious sacrifices.

When blind Oedipus arrives at the sacred grove of Colonus he makes a ritual gesture to the Furies and says, ‘done the right way, an offering may save ten thousand.’ How is that possible? Because ritual life cuts across the collective knee jerk impulse to send its Youth to war for the sake of preserving god-kings beyond their tenure.

How laughable that our culture thinks of itself as so evolved whilst enduring continuous war. Its like Spartans boasting the equality of the sexes, whilst lording a brutal, deadly grip over slave populations ten times their number.

You could call it hypocricy but it’s actually a split, the intensification of Us-and-Them in place of I-and-Thou proliferates like plague once someone can be conned into being king for a day. The gods must be appeased for the priviledge and for want of raisin cakes and ox blood, paint their lips with sap from the Nation’s finest and gouge great holes in the land.

Sometimes transitional gestures happen by themselves. When they do, all that’s really required is to jump up and down about it. I was in a very remote region of Africa, in a crowded smoky hut with a dozen or so locals who hadn’t seen white folks before and to ease the tension someone produced homebrew which I clumsily spilt as soon as it was passed to me. The place erupted and for a moment I thought I was in serious trouble but it turned out that such a great offering to the ancestors meant many of them were present to sanction the occasion and so everyone was immediately friends despite the absence of shared language or culture..

or beer.

The idea of transitional objects is more familiar, typically the magical comforts of early childhood used to create both a separation and a bond, things that somehow constitutes both me and not-me, by which we condense I and thou from fusion with mother. The child’s bear, the special blanket, a twist of cloth imbued with protective significance create an experience of belonging-with and yet distinct-from, the uncannyness of a strange familiar that opens up ‘transitional space’,

”that space of experiencing between the inner and outer worlds, and contributed to by both, in which primary creativity exists and can develop.” D Winnicott 1951

the in-between that includes the sum of the parts.

”In this space, one finds the most authentic and creative aspects of our personal and communal existence, including artistic, scientific, and religious expression.” Laura Praglin

Transitional gesture, something that happens or is done to clear a sacred space, invites new possibility, evoking a response from the Unconscious.

”Look how the charm rests in the hands of Men. I must look at it. Its silence fills me up. It gives power to my hands, light to my feet. It fills my head with heat.” Giving charms to Osiris, Egyptian book of the Dead.

The usefullness of the transitional gesture in containing collective violence is demonstrated by the tradition of ‘counting coup’ among Plains Indians  in North America. This practice was a way of waging war on your neighbour without anyone getting killed, with the intention of gaining honour and prestige rather than horses…

though the horses were also good..

Each warrior carried a coup stick shaped much like a shepherds crook. If you could touch an enemy with it and get away unscathed your entire worldveiw and status would change forever. People would look at you different. You could wear an eagle’s feather in your hair and stories of your exploits would be told round the fire, the unfurling of sacralised space,

”leading to the whole area of mass inheritance and the accumulated culture of the last five to ten thousand years.” D. Winnicott.

You belong.

For as long as we have our kings on the outside and imbue them with the soul’s authority then transitional gestures will be concretised in the form of punitive executive orders and compulsive warfare that consumes its sacrificial victims no less than the obsidian knife.

Sacrifices have to be made in life. Both Hermes and Apollo part with their precious things, not least of all the notion of what constitutes justice.. If we do not make our own sacrifices in the form of relinquishing the fantasy that the ego runs anything in the Psyche larger than a stapler, or the insistence that life should be fair, then sacrifices will find their way into our lives by alternative means.

What cannot come in by the door must come in through the window.

In the Face of Adversity.

When I was a boy growing up in Africa we had a Pawpaw tree in the garden which refused to fruit. The gardener, Kimberley, suggested hacking a large hole in the trunk of the tree and stuffing it with a house brick. He assured my mother that this brutal treatment would have the desired effect.

She was horrified and refused to go along with the idea. In time the tree withered even further. Short of chopping it out entirely she eventually agreed to Kimberley’s extreme plan. The hole was duly cut with a fearsome looking panga right through the trunk of the scrawny tree and a house brick jammed into it. The tree perked up and within a year bore a crop of impressive fruit.

What induces growth is sometimes counter-­intuitive. Providing the best of all possible environs is not necessarily going to yield results. Sometimes what is actually required is adversity.

The pawpaw wasn’t fruiting because its life was too easy. Its comfort made no demands of it. It was being watered, mulched and excessively tended. Life was good for the pawpaw. Too good. Kimberley’s solution was to threaten its comfort zone in order to improve its motivation, to give it a ‘now or never’ ultimatum and the pawpaw duly rose to the occasion.

Are we so different? When did you ever achieve anything soulful when all your needs were being taken care of? When was your last, most productive period? What were your circumstances at that time? Most of us will identify with the pawpaw. Paradoxically we tend to fruit when times are toughest, when we seem to have the least resources.

Under difficult circumstances we are compelled to transcend the cultural and family safety nets that normally keep us safe but also limit and constrain. When we are happily living off the fat of the land we have enough to satisfy ourselves. When times are abundant there is no pressing need to embark on difficult adventures.

From this vantage point hardship and evolution itself are interlinked. Recent studies show that the further away from the cradle of infancy in the Alduvi Gorge humanity roamed, the more complex our DNA became, culminating in the most complex genetic codes in the people of South America who travelled furthest. In other words there is a direct link between genetic evolution and facing the unknown.

www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/using-dna-trace-human-migration

It’s as though the Psyche were compensating the hardship of life by flowering into it. Nature is self­ regulating. If circumstances don’t boom then consciousness will. You may wish for an easy life but the consequences for your inner world could be potentially disastrous. In the music business it is a standing joke that second albums are second rate. Their initial success  can rob the performer of the hunger upon which genius feeds.

Without struggle there is no fruit. We cannot help wishing for some­one to step in and relieve us of the burden of having to deal with the world but if the longing to be rescued is granted it…

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‘sterilizes the inner process’. (Von Franz 1986)

You need only look at the fate of figures like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and dozens of others who lived the dream to see what a nightmare it actually turned out to be. There are just as many examples from history: writer Jakob Boehme who deteriorated under the protective wing of Baron von Metz, abstract artist Roger Hilton who drank himself to death, Mark Rothko who blew his brains out at the height of his career and Tchaikovsky who drank infested water and died after being feted for writing his greatest symphony, the 1812 overture.

All this gives rise to a very real problem. Since creative endeavour wants to be ‘out there‘, bringing success and ease in its wake, how are we to sustain it when the fruit of our labour has a way of killing the tree that bears it?

Perhaps you could say by analogy that the creative principle is like a jealous lover who makes us endure a great deal for her attentions. She will tolerate our being friends with Success and Reward, but if these others become the focus of our attention, if we flirt with them too much, she will storm off in high dudgeon.

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The lived sense of an inner relationship is what helps to prevent the creative fruit from rotting on the tree. Humility is a dynamic quality that acknowledges its sources. I saw this best put by Elizabeth Franklin in a Ted talk. She’s the author of ‘Love, Eat, Play’, and was speaking about how to avoid the dis­ease of success. The trick, she says, is to recognise that genius has its own life.

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In ancient times ’genius’ was recognised as a daemon that inspired, literally, that we breathed in. It was other, not-­me, but helped co-­create the project at hand. Nowadays we are tempted to view genius as an aspect of the personality, which is to remain in an arid, unconscious identification with Sublimity.

When we do this we suffer the fate of Adonis who didn’t know the true identity of his lover, Venus. He has a night of passion but then goes swiftly to his death. Suffering and meaning are indivisible from one another. Struggle is necessary to growth without which meaning withers. We learn the lessons that life has for us through these experiences of suffering or psychic discomfort.

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‘Pain, grief, loss and ceaseless frustration of every kind are there for a real and dramatic purpose; to wake us up, to enable and almost force us to release our imprisoned splendour.’ (Sogyal Rimpoche 1996).

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We may rarely understand what is being invited of us at the time, but if we resist our suffering on account of this we can only multiply our misfortune.

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‘Our suffering is [as much] produced by an attitude of intransigent
rebellion to the circumstances at hand as by the circumstances
themselves’. (Martin Israel 1998).

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The sages agree, that which banishes suffering is none other than itself consciously embraced, or, to quote the Tao te Ching (1993),

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‘only if one suffers from this suffering, does one become free of
suffering.’

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So long as we try to escape our suffering we cannot be free. Why? Because freedom is the experience of unconditional participation in life, all of which occurs in the here and now. Any attempt to escape from suffering means also the attempt to escape from or avoid what is happening in the moment.

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This is not to say that we then find meaning in suffering by the trite formula that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Such a mechanistic rendering simply echoes the archaic beliefs in a vengeful god punishing us for indiscretions we have yet to confess. It also presupposes a childlike wish that we can keep tragedy at bay simply by being good.

As such it is no more an evolved philosophy of life than refraining from stepping on the cracks in the pavement so the bears won’t get you. It is a way of thinking about life devoid of chaos where we can continue to play at reflecting upon life for as long as it is uncomplicated. I much prefer the rendering of Joel ben Izzy (2005),

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‘I still believe that things in this world do, indeed, happen for a reason. But sometimes that reason only comes after they happen. It is not a reason we find, but one we carve, sculpted from our own painand loss, bound together with love and compassion.’

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Wanting to be free of suffering or feeling we’ve deserved it somehow is mostly what suffering is made of. There is no escape and no blame to be had. Any attempt to escape or explain just makes it worse. If you would diminish suffering you can only let it be. It is through suffering that one may begin to gain some semblance of self knowledge that may then throw perspective on the experience. Suffering actively embraced can help us cultivate compassion and empathy for self and others. Our wholeness hatches in some strange nests.

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Consumer culture has so conditioned us to experience any frustration of our desires as something to be surmounted without delay that we find it almost impossible to attribute adversity with value. There is an apocryphal story about Jung who one day had a man come and see him in a terrible crisis. He had lost his job and his wife in the same week. Jung excused himself from the room but quickly reappeared with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the man. ‘Celebrating,’ replied Jung, ‘You’ve just been given the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself.’

This article is an excerpt of my new book, ‘Abundant Delicious’, http://andywhiteblog.com/