All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie.
W. H. Auden discovered his calling when, at the age of 15, a classmate asked him if he’d considered writing poetry. By the age of 23 his Poems had won him acclaim well-deserved. I first came upon Auden’s work as a young man when in India I encountered the translations and interpretations of the sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa through the work of Christopher Isherwood. I was not only looking for sagely wisdom from the modern Bengali sant, I was in search of searchers.
I needed to know who had come before me, what they had found, and how they’d brought their encounters with India into their personal lives. Isherwood, I soon discovered, was a complicated person and when I found out a bit about his relationship with Auden, well, one thing led to another. Auden was not interested in India’s spiritualities but his voice pierced my soul.
During the time Auden collaborated on plays with Isherwood in the 1930s, the young poet began a complex journey involving politics, love, and a relentless pursuit of the soul. When in 1947 he won the Pulitzer for his long form poem The Age of Anxiety, Auden established himself as a voice of the age. The war was over but the depths of anxiety were only beginning to emerge in a world threatened by the price of nuclear victory and harrowing revelations of the evil made manifest during the Holocaust. What human beings could do to one another brought into painful focus the deep conflicts that reside in every soul. Anxiety might not be only another feature of our experience: it is the soul’s light casting shadow as a constant companion. And what might we do about that?
During this same time in my own India journey reading about Ramakrishna ad then Isherwood and Auden, my studies of Jung were deeply connecting, I felt like what these sages, storytellers, and poets were offering was the primary resource, the well-spring from which Jung was developing his theories of analysis. This provided my first collision with Jung’s notion of colliding.
What makes us grow, Jung says, is bringing our ego in collisions, that is, into troubles, anxiety, sorrow, even suffering. Now it’s important to understand that the ego is not itself a problem, at least not necessarily. In contrast to some readings in India where ego is nothing less than the problem to be solved or even eliminated, for Jung the ego focuses human consciousness and is rooted in the unconcious.
Without a strong ego we cannot obtain or transform the content of our inner experience and a weak ego will succumb to mere impulse and reaction. Thus while the ego can be selfishness, it can also be the source of altruism—ego as such is morally neutral and is better construed in terms of how we create agency. Engaging ego-consciousness is a key to creating purpose and direction and, importantly, we are free to choose and make choices because our ego can learn and we can move with, through, even past the powers of mere impulse and emotional reaction.
Sometimes we need to hold our egos in check because it’s freedom is limited, we’re so eaily and profoundly moved both by internal events and what the world is offering up. In his Aion, Jung told us that the ego “is not a simple or elementary factor, but a complex one…which cannot be described exhaustively.” He is telling us here that we are somatic, physical beings and psychic ones and that these are commingled, integrated complexities: what we feel in our bodies and conjure in our minds are coextensive. The ego is body-based insofar as it experiences itself through the body but it is as much the case that the body that the ego expriences is psychic: we are body imagers, not just bodies.
To develop a closer and more empowering connection with our selves we are going to have to learn how to engage with our ego collisions. Those experiences are going to happen, there’s no avoiding our inner conflicts, anxieties, and sorrows. But we’re going to have to take great care because the word is collision and that can be problematic, even catastrophic in terms of inner turmoil. An important strategy is to invest in creative potential, taking up modalities of inner expression that give us purpose and meaning. You might paint, do your yoga practice, write in a journal but you gotta get in to get out.
When we study mythologies together we enter into cultural virtuosities creating structures, symbols, and modalities of self reflection that can give voice and invite participation—-the collisions we are experiencing can be brought into images and framed in ways that allow us to deal with the difficult work. Myths are hard to understand but one of their great purposes is to soften the blow, make accessible the harder truths despite the fact that they themselves can be difficult to penetrate. When we can dismiss as so much fairy tale or flummery we are using it to protect us from its more challenging messages. But when we take the time, learn together, and put the myth into a context of healthy conversation, then the collisions become opportunities, we deflect less and engage more.
It can feel “demanding” when we try to make meaning out of mythology but what we now know is that we are dealing with collisions. How could it be otherwise? Best not to go it alone, like I said. Best to bring along sages and storytellers and poets who can provide the resource and the insight. To develop our own, best to make the effort in safe company.
Here’s a bit more from what I wrote about this morning.
We must not lose our voices, resign or relinquish, forsake or surrender. Stay in the conversation and allow, even create what Jung called “collisions.” We collide when the world and our inner self find incongruity, discomfort, impediments or vexations. Our natural tendency is to retreat, allow the withdrawal to bury the experience.
When we can’t “collide” then our circumvention turns this shadow experiences into latent resentments and painful, undisclosed feelings. We usually try to camoufloge and disguise further, dissemble, stifle, and duck. Next thing you know we’re acting out and we don’t know why and it all compiles. So what can we do? We have to unfold the folded lie, as Auden puts it. We have to give permission for the collision and be kind enough, gentle enough, committed enough not wreck ourselves.
There isn’t only one way to lift those shrouded curtains of the soul but it’s not going to be easy because seeing yourself isn’t easy. The power of storytelling, mythic symbolism, and thoughtful contemplation can shelter and at the same time encourage disclosure.
We don’t have to lay ourselves bear, exposed and unprotected to address the inner collisions. But when we commit to the endowments of human genius in the cultural grace of the story, we can learn how to release and unwrap the inner narratives. Myths conceal themselves behind veils of truth so that the anxious unknown becomes less daunting, so we can enter into a more delivering, exonerating conversation with the self. The undiscovered territory is you.
This week we begin again our studies of the mythic possibilities: Thursday with poems and songs to Goddess Kali, Saturday with a fresh, innovative look at Krsna stories, and Sunday in the greatest tale ever told again and again: Mahabharata. You can find the Zoom links in your Newsletters But I’ll put them here too. Come if you can. We’ll make some safe collision, play inner bumper cars with the self in the cherished company of friends. Don’t try too many collisions all by your lonesome. Best to keep good company because you will become the company you keep. See you soon.