From the Shadow Side of My Bookshelf

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That’s the side I never look at. The side scarcely touched by my superficial housework. Where the dust is.

This week, I stuck the duster behind the books, though I didn’t bother to pull them out, and I encountered a slender volume that had shifted into the shadow side. I’ve always believed that if a book literally, physically jumps out at me, I may need to read it. This one had ducked back and hidden from me. I pulled it out. It was Jungian psychologist Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow. I’m Jungian enough to appreciate synchronicity. shadow3

I opened it at random and found a chapter that’s an interview with Bly and his editor William Booth. It starts with Booth asking Bly how some ordinary person, a hypothetical woman in a small town in Minnesota without access to a Jungian therapist, might find her shadow. (The shadow, by the way, isn’t necessarily the bad side of the mind, it’s the unacknowledged side, the aspects of ourselves that we have, in Bly’s imagery, stuffed into a bag we carry around on our backs.) In his answer, Bly suggests that this hypothetical ordinary person look where her attention is drawn. Does she tend to think too much about a member of her community that she sees as sexually loose and immoral? Does she find herself obsessing on a member of her PTA who she thinks is fake and dishonest? If these other two women dominate her attention, her shadow may be calling her to look at her own sexuality and at her own level of sincerity and honesty.

In essence, Bly says, to find your shadow, look at what you hate.

That’s different from what you disagree with. It’s quite possible—more so face to face than in social media conversations—to disagree without hatred. I find it valuable to talk with people with whom I disagree so we can stay in a constructive relationship. But I hate yappy dogs that won’t shut up. I’m an extravert, a talker, and I’m persistent as heck. Maybe I need to acknowledge my inner yappy dog. The other day during my outdoor yoga practice between the tennis courts and the college president’s house, the president’s dog objected to my presence exactly at the time I was ready to practice savasana. Deep relaxation. Quietness. What could I do? I focused on the spaces between the barks. Maybe I can do this with my own yapping thoughts. My tendency to object to things.

Back to the book. Bly chose Abraham Lincoln as an example of a well-known person who seemed to have incorporated rather than rejected his shadow. I agree. One thing I admire about Lincoln is how he handled anger. He would write his “hot” letter to the person he was angry with, then put it in a desk drawer. A few days later or whenever he felt calmer and could think more clearly, he would communicate rationally with the individual, never sending the angry letter. He felt anger and expressed it, but processed its meaning rather than lashing out. That’s my reason he seems integrated. Bly gives the illustration of Lincoln’s sense of humor, his ability to laugh at himself and not take offense.

A woman meeting Lincoln on a train told him that he was the ugliest man she had ever set eyes on. Lincoln asked her, “What do you suggest I do about it?” She said, “You could stay home.” He liked her answer and enjoyed telling the story.

The shadow, once explored, might be a source of lightness, or of strength, peace, or beauty.shadow_of_a_dune_in_death_valley

 

 

Image: Shadow of a dune in Death Valley by Brocken Inaglory

Working Together, Washington, Wisdom and Walnuts

This week my college’s entire faculty and the president and the provost got together and discussed a major change in the academic calendar, a change which some support and some oppose, and we worked toward a compromise. Though we didn’t solve the problem yet, we agreed to keep talking. If we didn’t keep cooperating and communicating constructively, the institution would cease to function and it would fail the needs of those we serve, the students.

A few days ago, I finished reading an eight hundred page biography of George Washington, which I reviewed at length on my Booklikes blog. Washington was flawed, as all of us are, leaders and unknowns alike. He was successful because he listened and took time to think.

Here are two of my favorite quotations from his letters (also quoted in my review):

In this one, he was writing to his adopted grandson: “Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
 

The following is an excerpt from a letter Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Note that the word “demean” back then related to one’s demeanor and didn’t have its modern meaning of debasing. It meant comport or behave. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He found religious tolerance to be too weak a concept, too condescending toward religious minorities.

Between two classes today, I took an outdoor yoga break. My route out the side of my building passes under a walnut tree and then across a lawn beside the tennis courts. Earlier in the fall, it was hard to tell a walnut in the grass from a tennis ball. A closer look at the bright yellow-green spheres revealed either the smooth texture of a walnut pod or the fuzzy skin of a tennis ball. Now the walnuts are yellow, resembling golden delicious apples, and some have softened open or been punctured by squirrels for the nut inside. The tennis balls, of course, are still firm and green. I place them on the wall of the court or toss them inside, in case they can be used again. Once they’ve been hit past the fence and left there, though, I wonder if they can serve any purpose in the game, or if these wild shots can’t be reclaimed by either the tennis players or the earth.

Bat Medicine

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On a recent evening, I walked to the wetland at the edge of the Rio Grande for the bat-rise at sunset, the silent dance of dark forms against the golden sky, and remembered that I’d written about it a few years ago. I let the bats swoop around me and silence my mind into clarity for a while, and then came back and found that old post. The bats are still sacred and healing to me, so here it is again.

*****

I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.

Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—going to hot springs in a cave, or working at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or the earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.

These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in a sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”

In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”

This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.

Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.

His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattles and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”

Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for a novel, Soul Loss, in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.

I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them, and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.

The Risk of Enjoying Something New

Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.

Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.

I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”

Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.

“How many of you have tasted tofu?”

About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.

In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.

My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.

Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun.  It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.

Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.

Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.

My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.

A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.

Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.

 *****

The Scottish Movie

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15841493-the-scottish-movie