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All neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering.– Carl Jung

I passed a bumper sticker the other day. It said “Dare to Feel.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that. A few years back I went to a massage therapist who does a massage technique called Rosen bodywork. She’d be working on me and then she’d ask, often right in the middle of the massage, “How do you feel?” At first I answered, “fine” but she would continue on asking me questions. “Do you have any pain? Any anxiety anywhere? Where is it? How does it feel?” At first I found it mildly irritating, because I go to massage to relax, not to think about how I feel, but when I finally stopped to think about how I felt, really think about it, I realized how seldom I paid attention to what is really happening inside me.

Maybe I have a little stomach ache.  I can think to myself (when I remember to anyway) Why does your stomach hurt? Maybe it’s because I dread something that’s going to happen later. If I know about it, I can make a plan on how to make it better for myself. Maybe I can cancel it. Maybe I can eat some ice cream and it might be better. The point is, when I locate my feelings and put words to them, I can actually be proactive on working through the feeling, rather than ignoring it and creating an alternate and altogether unreal existence.

It’s a lot harder, for sure. But it makes me happier in the long run. Up next, what does all this have to do with the right and left brain hemispheres? (I just now thought of the connection while I was writing this…yahoo for therablogging!)

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(Carl Jung, 1909 in Zurich-photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photos division)

I’m presently reading a book called The Shadow Effect, written by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, and Marianne Williamson. It is a book all about the dark side of humanity, the dark little secrets about ourselves that we try to banish from our reality. Unfortunately, says The Shadow Effect, banishing “the shadow” only serves to make it stronger in the long run. An excerpt from Deepak Chopra:

The first step in defeating the shadow is to abandon all notions of defeating it. The dark side of human nature thrives on war, struggle, and conflict. As soon as you talk about “winning,” you have lost already. You have been dragged into the duality of good and evil. Once that happens, nothing can end the duality. Good has no power to defeat its opposite once and for all…There’s a shocking conclusion hidden in this: you can’t have a universe if you don’t have darkness contending with the light (The Shadow Effect, p. 14 and 22)

The Shadow is, according to Carl Jung, the part of us (all of us) that causes us to commit unconscious acts of violence or hate against others, ourselves, or the earth. The Shadow doesn’t want you to know it’s there, it wants you to think that it is you, so that it can remain intact. Once you know it’s there, the power of the Shadow immediately decreases. Once you begin to give yourself permission to have darkness in you the darkness looses its iron grip. Here’s another quote from Deepak Chopra:

The shadow, then, is a shared project. Anyone can have a hand in building it. All you need is the ability to remain unconscious. Countless fear-mongers believe they are doing good. Every defender of the homeland expects to be honored and praised. Tribes warring against other tribes deeply believe that they must struggle in order to survive. We resist our shadow and deny its existence because of past indoctrination and the hypothesis of social conditioning. Childhood experiences can cause unending later reminders that “this is good, this is bad; this is divine, this is diabolical.” Such indoctrination is the way all societies are structured. What we over look is that we are creating a shared self at the time. If children were taught to become aware of their shadow, sharing even dark feelings, forgiving themselves for not being “good” all the time, learning how to release shadow impulses through healthy outlets, then there would be much less damage to society and the ecosystem (p 26).

Of course, for children to be taught that the shadow exists and can be tended to in a healthy way, the adults of the world need to first tend their own shadow, which is very hard to do on your own. Chopra gives four steps: 1. Stop projecting 2. Detach and let go 3. Give up self judgement 4. Rebuild your emotional body. It all sounds so easy doesn’t it?

I suggest therapy. Everyone needs a therapist. It’s an interesting phenomenon that so few people use this amazing tool. Many people would rather pop pills (herbal or conventional) to try to feel better, happier, healthier. The only thing that can truly begin to allow you lasting eternal health, is to face your shadow, a shadow that was created in your childhood and has continued to leach your conscious moments more and more assiduously as you let it go unchecked. I love my therapist. Anyway. I end this blog post with a poem.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~Rumi

(Click here for the story of this amazing nebula)

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(Stonehenge, Winter Solstice-photo by Mark Grant)

I never really knew what a solstice was growing up. I knew it had to do with the sun and the cycle of the year, but it’s exact meaning always slightly escaped me, despite the fact that I visited Stonehenge when I was 16 and Machu Picchu  in my early twenties. Civilizations spent decades and sometimes even centuries building insanely huge, heavy, expensive and incredibly precise monoliths to mark the moments of the solstices. I should know what they are, what they stand for and why they are so important to humanity.

This blog is winter solstice 101. It is an extremely condensed overview of some things you should know about this important day/night.

Our year is divided into two main sections, the time of light (more day than night) and the time of dark (more night than day). The authors of some books I’ve read have stated that during the time of darkness the ancients, not understanding how the heavenly bodies work, weren’t really sure if the sun was going to come back. Of course, say the authors, this was distressing to these folks, because with the longer, lighter and warmer days came the growing season.  If the sun really didn’t come back, the darkness and cold spelled hunger and eventually starvation. And so the people made festivals on the longest night of the year (which falls on what we nowadays call December 21st or 22nd), sacrificing people and animals to appease the sun gods and goddesses, giving gifts and having huge feasts (just in case everybody died the next month).

My own modern sensibilities make it difficult for me to believe that these ancient people thought that the sun (god) might not come back. It is so simplistic a view of the intellectual capacities of these folks that, to me it is immediately suspect of timeline bigotry. I see their festivals more as a celebration in honor of the earth forces that bring us back around into another cycle, another wave of evolution, and less so out of fear that the sun may not rise over the horizon one day.

Of course, it could be both. In the Talmud there is a  description of a pagan festival called Saturna (not to be confused with Saturnalia of the Roman party flavor). Adam saw that the days were getting shorter and he feared that it was because he had sinned and so he sat down and meditated for eight days (which happened to be eight days before the winter solstice). When he noticed that the days were getting longer, he assumed that this was just the way the world worked and ordered an eight day celebration. (I like this Talmudic Adam. He’s got just the right mix of manic extremism and carefree hedonism. He’d go far in today’s modern world.)

However, there is more to this solstice story than just the return of the sun. There is the almighty metaphor here too. At the end of the winter solstice there is a new year to celebrate. The old year is dead and behind us and we have the new time of spring to look forward to. Also, this is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, another story metaphor of the sun/son come to save humanity. If you like ghost stories, there is also the fact that during this time of the year, there is more darkness than light…more places for the boogey to find you. Death has been stretched out across the land plucking buds, freezing shoots and watching you sleep at night. (I just said that to freak you out. I do believe it though. Read this.) but now the light has begun to take a foothold in the battle against the dark. There’s all sorts of metaphor in there.

As history would have it, the winter solstice is a holiday whose origins have largely been forgotten. Here is a quote from John Matthews, author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas:

In our own time the Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply imbedded within us that we no longer ask why we decorate a fir tree at this time, or why we place green boughs and candles in our home. We take these things for granted, as we plunge into the whirlwind passage of preparations that lead up to the all-too-brief day of Christmas itself. Yet even here we forget the season is really twelve days in length–we sing the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but have little understanding of its origin.

Today the festival is most often known simply as Christmas, and it has been celebrated for nearly two thousand years. During that time, it has taken many forms, changed direction several times, absorbed the influence of many cultures, and developed into a modern industry. Yet the simplicity of the Christmas message has continued to ring through the ages, and depsite the commercialism and nonliturgical appropriateness of many aspects of Christmas today, it continues to exert a powerful effect upon everyone who celebrates it, adults and children alike.

There is a moment of silence that occurs every year–a moment we have all experienced at least once in our lives. It can silence a great city like London or New York, and it can bring stillness to our hearts, whoever and wherever we may be. That moment is unlike any other. It offers the promise of new beginnings, of the clean slate of a new year, and it incorporates the breathless expectancy of Christmas night itself.

It always feels nice to stop for a moment and rest in the oldness of our traditions. This year I will light a candle on the solstice to welcome the sun back and to honor all of those ancients who came before me and helped create this magical world I live in.

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A few years ago I attended an animal totem workshop. We did all sorts of activities and meditations including whistling bird calls, walking around imaginary labyrinths, and re-enacting a predator/prey hunt. It was all in good fun. In the end of the thing, I had learned that my animal totems were as follows: a bat, a turtle, a bear and a…vulture.

A vulture? I thought to myself, how disgusting is that? Then I went home and read about them. As it turns out, vultures are now my top favorite animal…bats are second place. And today just happens to be vulture awareness day! So in honor of the regally hamburger-meat-headed avian, I will now speak on why I love vultures.

1. They are mysterious. Vultures hang around dead things and dead things are intriguing. Anyone who likes to hang around dead things is neat, according to me. Also, dead things hang around eerie places like dark forests or lonely roadsides. That means that vultures hang around these places too and make the places even more eerie and enigmatic.

2. Vultures not only hang around dead things, they eat dead things. As a writer, I love metaphor, and as a metaphor this is the greatest thing ever. Vultures transform death into newness. It’s like the phoenix, only it actually exists.

3. They look crazy. I read on Wikipedia that the vulture’s head is bald so that it can keep clean, something that is very important when one is a bloody carrion eater. (Imagine sticking your head into a hole full of rotten meat with no showers in sight. You’d want to have a shaved head too.) They are also huge, which I find reassuring. Vultures are huge birds that roam the earth eating evil and keeping clean.

4. A group of vultures is called a wake. I think vultures are necromancers. Seriously. I think they are.

5. My friend just informed me that the latin name for a turkey vulture is Cathartes aura. My friend thought this translated into “immaculate flight” because the vulture doesn’t appear to need to work at flying, they simply ride the currents. I read that Cathartes aura also could mean golden purifier or purifying breeze. The Pueblo Indians believed that if you wear a vulture feather it will remove evil influences (found this info here). Any way you read it, it’s sure a neat name…

6. Vultures don’t kill things, they find things that are already dead or almost dead (they have excellent sight and smell abilities) and then they eat them.

So then, a good way to enjoy Vulture Awareness Day is to take a moment and meditate upon the fact that vultures eat away the death and rot in the world, taking it into themselves and transforming it into new life. They are sacred mystical beings, despite the fact that they present themselves as profane refuse collectors. Take a moment to thank a vulture…

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(human blood cells)

I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard the end of a report on some military exploit involving death and shooting. I thought to myself how great it would be if leaders of different countries could trust each other enough to know that the other guy wouldn’t hurt him or try to do anything bad to him on purpose. That way everyone could stop the cycle of eye-for-an-eyeing.

But then I remembered that half the time I can’t even get along with my friends and family–people who I know would never wish failure on me.  I hold grievances, protect my assets, make false accusations (sometimes knowingly!), point fingers, and generally act like a tyrant waging war on my fellow humans.

How can I expect world leaders to act any different toward actual enemies when I choose and wage battles with people I know and love?

I am the dictator of Suesylvania.

Yesterday I went to see Swami Beyondananada at the Oregon Country Fair. During the talk he said that he thought men had nipples as decoys in order to attract other nipples. “It seems to be working,” he said, beaming beneath his purple turban.

While that was a very funny bit,  my favorite part of the talk was when he mentioned our human bodies. “We have a system of 50 trillion cells working here. There’s no unemployment. All the organs are working together…you don’t ever hear that the liver has invaded the pancreas now do you? If we could only remember the intelligence of a single cell, we could get along fine!”

Microcosm and macrocosm. If I find myself complaining about the national budget, I’ll think do I have my finances in order? If I find myself angrily muttering about BP polluting the ocean, I’ll think am I making good choices for my own body? If I find myself wondering when our world leaders will get it together and stop ordering the deaths of so many soldiers, I’ll think have I learned to live without fear of attack?

Because until I can do it on my small level, I’m not doing my part to help humanity evolve to the next level. That which is above is the same as that which is below…

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(etching by Durer: Knight, Death and the Devil)

I nearly lit my kitchen on fire burning the plant feces (also called caput mortuum or dead head) in the last steps of my calcining process. Who would’ve known that the grain alcohol would explode with such ferocity? And who could’ve guessed how easily the trusty terry cloth oven mitt would catch on fire when put in direct contact with a 6- inch fireball?

But don’t worry. I got the salts. My tincture is complete. My metaphorical house guest, my little child of spirit has been birthed.

Non nobis Domine! Non nobis, sed nomini tuo do Gloriam! (that means “Not unto us, O Lord! Not unto us, but unto Thy name give Glory!” Mark Stavish says that this is the motto of a true alchemist, because an alchemist is not working just for herself, but to help all humankind.)

I must admit, standing over my crucible (ok, it was a mixing bowl) and stirring the embers of my caput mortuum (I guess I prefer this to feces), smoke filling the kitchen, I felt the presence of Paracelsus. I imagined him grinding black coals and burning them down to ash, perpetually refining his surroundings.

For it is we who must pray for our daily bread, and if He grants it to us, it is only through our labour, our skill and preparation. –Paracelsus

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A friend once said that only narcissists commit suicide. At the time I felt like that a fair enough assumption (we were talking at the time about a wealthy, good looking movie star who had made the attempt but failed), but after reading and doing a little writing on Vincent van Gogh, I think I’ve revised my view. Here was a man who failed at everything. He was wracked with religious guilt (his father and grandfather were ministers for the Dutch Reformed Church, based on the teaching of John Calvin). He was mentally ill, plagued by paranoia, insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares and despair. He was in pain much of the time due to loose teeth, stomach problems (both likely caused by malnutrition), epilepsy, and possibly syphilis.

I was discussing this with my partner and she said that life destroys some people. That they then take their lives is not narcissism, but blessed release. This reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me of that old saying that used to be on everybody’s bumper:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Coming down to the earth burns. And, I think, some people just aren’t capable of building up the same defenses as everybody else, and the world burns them up.

The second thing I’m reminded of is the Hindu story of Ganga, the maiden who sprang from the holy water Brahma used to wash the toes of Vishnu. Ganga was ordered to descend to the earth to wash over the ashes of a king’s ancestors, in order that they be able to be released from earth to ascend to heaven.

But Ganga was so powerful the gods were afraid that she would wash away the earth when she descended. Shiva agreed to take her into his wild mane of hair and to let her out little bits at a time. Ganga is the Ganges River, worshipped as sacred to the Hindu people.

I had a teacher once who showed us a drawing exercise in which you take a pencil and circle it above piece of paper, bringing it closer and closer to the paper, until you are actually drawing the circle. The moment the pencil touches the paper and the circle is drawn, a miracle has occurred. Something that was once an idea (non-physical)  now exists in the physical world. We bring it down and give it form.

You are a porthole. Ideas (inspirations) come into you, products (physical things) come out of you (in the form of artwork, or automobiles, or washed dishes–whatever it is that you do in the world).

We are the spiritual being Ganga descending to the earth. We are Shiva receiving and transforming divinity. We are the earth itself  holding the ash for purification and release. As Vincent van Gogh can attest, finding form in the ocean of chaos is not easy.

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