According to an old Gnostic myth, before the universe existed, the Great Goddess bore a son who was the Creator God, but before he grew into maturity he began creating things so he could have something to play with. He thus created our world while he was still only partly conscious of what he was doing. Since he was Spirit, he wanted a connection with the matter he was creating, and this connection was Soul, a kind of switchboard which made communication possible between our body and the Spirit, but since he was himself not yet fully conscious, the Soul, like most of Creation, turned out to be technologically primitive and rather unconscious.
As you can see, this myth is a metaphor of our present imperfect condition in the world. Indeed, he made such a mess of things that when his Mother tried to find him among all his toys she herself got lost and caught in the creation, and this was the purpose of alchemy, to extract her from the matter in which she was caught. Alchemists did not discuss this much in the Christian world, however, since it tended to arouse the Inquisitors. Where, then, does our spirit derive the consciousness needed for the creative process to occur? This process is, as the myth points out, dependent on the link between spirit and body. Thus the soul has no meaning unless it is brought into consciousness. This, in effect, is what the alchemists were attempting; discovering the spiritual process within the material world and freeing it from its bondage within it. This spiritual-material process is what we may call the Soul. But this process requires an ability to recognize and accept misfortune, pain, and other miseries in an attempt to understand their meanings. As Rumi wrote:
“I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out: “It tastes sweet, does it not?” “You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”
It seems that pain and pleasure play a considerable role in the relationship between matter and spirit. Spirit apparently derives the energy necessary to support life from the living body and this sometimes creates problems for the body, especially when the body is incapable of supplying the amount necessary. This process can lead to various afflictions such as illness, accidents, and even eventually death. This does not mean, however, that the affliction is the enemy; something to overcome. This was made apparent to me in a rather extraordinary dream which took me some time to figure out
I was in a room with several other people whom I could see through so I assumed they were spirits. In the center was a glass tank full of what appeared to be water with a human body in it pressed against the wall of the tank. This pressure caused it to emit a fluid which I was to drink. I assumed that the others were there to get some fluid also (since they too were spirits.) I was given some of it, about 3 or 4 oz., and drank it. It was the color of water but the consistency of blood.
This dream caused me to assume that I was being told that the function of the body is to provide energy to the spirit. The spirit uses the body to attain its ends in the material world, but it needs the energy from the material world to perform these functions, and the body is required to provide it. This may be true of all living forms, not just humans. As the body ages, less energy becomes available, and as energy runs low, pain or other afflictions sometimes result, and some, like injury, can further restrict the flow of energy. This flow of energy can be limited also by the switchboard used to determine the direction of this flow, which we call the Soul. Indeed, if we do not recognize the existence of a soul, or are unaware that we even have one, there may be no limit to the amount of pain and confusion we can experience, although soul is also inherently capable of providing much pleasure. Love is an example.
This dream also seems to express the scientific view that matter consists of energy in various forms. Waves and particles seem to be different forms of energy; particles perceptible as matter and waves imperceptible which may be what we mean by spirit. One of our meanings of spirit has always been ‘energy,’ a ‘spirited person.’ In living creatures, or at least in mammals, spirit and body are linked by Soul. Thus it might be correct to say that the soul is the switchboard which selects the proper form which energy is to take as it passes from spirit to body or the reverse. The soul can turn pain into pleasure, love into hatred, hope into despair, or vice versa. Feelings can be turned into emotions and even into actions using the body as an instrument.
James Hillman stated that the soul naturally pathologizes. It presents itself variously in abnormality, twistedness, pain, exaggeration and mess. He does not romanticize abnormality, however, but he authenticates it as native and essential to the soul. He is the founder of the school of psychology called ‘archetypal psychology’ which is Jungian in its foundation but goes beyond where Jung perhaps felt it safe to go.
In our attempt to achieve or maintain health and normalcy, we can find the heroic ego at work. The ego is always ready to wage wars on poverty, disease, and any and all kinds of trouble. By trying so hard to transcend, the hero represses feelings of inferiority, which can strike one from behind as grand failures. Rather then cure these manifestations of the soul, Hillman believes they should first be investigated for their intentions. He wrote:
“One day in Burghölzli, the famous institute in Zurich where the words ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘complex’ were born, I watched a woman being interviewed. She sat in a wheelchair because she was elderly and feeble. She said that she was dead for she had lost her heart. The psychiatrist asked her to place her hand over her heart to feel her heart beating: it must still be there if she could feel its beat. “That,” she said, “is not my real heart.” She and the psychiatrist looked at each other. There was nothing more to say. Like the primitive who has lost his soul, she had lost the loving, courageous connection to life — and that is the real heart, not the ticker which can as well pulsate isolated in a glass bottle.”
This is a different view of reality than the usual one. It is so radically different that it is usually considered to be a form of insanity. But I am certain that you can understand what the woman felt in her psychosis as well as the view of reality in his attempting to convince her that her heart was still there. Despite the elaborate and moneyed systems of medical research and the advertisements of the health and recreation industries to prove that the physical is what is real and that the loss of heart and loss of soul are only in the mind, it seems that, like the primitive and the woman in the hospital, we can and do lose our souls. As Jung said, each of us is ‘modern man in search of a soul.’ Actually, dealing with symptoms can help us find our soul, just as suppressing the symptom may cause us to lose it. Pain may just be the soul crying for help, comfort, love and attention, trying to impress the stupid and stubborn mind — that impotent mule which insists on going its unchanging, obstinate way by suppressing all pain with its demands for remedies. In some cases, the symptom may be the first herald of an awakening psyche which will not tolerate any more abuse. Jung said that sickness is the body’s way of relieving an overloaded psyche. Do not deplore sickness, he said, but be grateful to the body for helping to carry your burden! When dealing with a symptom, one must first listen and look carefully at what is being revealed in the suffering. An intent to heal can get in the way of seeing. By doing less, more is accomplished. Observance is homeopathic in its working rather than allopathic, in the paradoxical way that it befriends a problem rather than making an enemy of it. Through the symptom the psyche is demanding attention, and every living creature needs recognition, The ancient Egyptians apparently were aware of this in their view of the neter. Working with the symptom through dealing with the neter, or spirit of the affected part of the body, can improve one’s relationship with the body generally. I tried this the last time I was in serious pain and it worked. Not only on that occasion but I have not had serious pain since. Remember that God is said to have created the world in order to know Himself, so the world being the manifestation of Himself, the more of a mess that the world is in, the more likely it is that He will get to know it.
Even our view of death need not be so negative. For the Eskimo, when one falls ill, one takes on a new name, a new although diseased personality. To get over a disease, one must literally “get over” it by transcending it, that is, by dying. The only hope for cure lies in the death of the ill personality. Health requires death. Perhaps that is what Socrates meant with his last obscure words about owing a sacrificial cock to Asclepius. Once the cocky pride of life that crows hopefully at the dawn of day is sacrificed, the need for tomorrow is sacrificed along with it; Death then is the cure and the salvation and not just the last, worst stage of a disease. That disease which the experience of death cures is the rage to live.
It may be considered strange that our society considers death the worst punishment our criminal justice system can inflict on evil men, even though it is a fate met daily by thousands of innocents. Furthermore, according to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, our greatest offense is that we were ever born since such an offense is inevitably punished by death! But our fear may be preventing us from seeing that death may have a positive side. Death is really a means of abstracting the life principle from the form or body it assumed in the world. Our scientific consciousness has focused attention wholly on the form which life takes in biological evolution, on the organisms in which life manifests. We seek the explanation of life in the physical elements, and the evolution of life in the transformation of forms. It occurs to few of us that the outer form merely serves the inner life and consciousness, and that these are the motivating factors in evolution. We know from psychosomatic medicine that the physical organism reacts to the inner emotions and mental life of the human being, and that this is responsible for up to 90% of all illness. We also know that the body and consciousness can separate themselves both in life and in death. Sadly, because we identify life and consciousness with our physical bodies and the material world, we tend to think of bodily death as the terminal point of our existence. A religious belief in an afterlife softens the fear of death for many, but few. even among the religious, know death of the body as anything but the end of life, as complete annihilation.
In death, the indwelling life and consciousness is in the process of withdrawing from the form in which they have until then been manifest; this identification with form-life begins to break up, consciousness knows itself as still alive and sees the disintegrated form as a thing apart from itself. Many have experienced the beginnings of this in near-death experiences. The bodily form begins to be seen as a limitation from which, in becoming free of it, the subjective consciousness is liberated for wider experience. This is a characteristic found in dreams frequently among older people. Here dying is experienced as a liberation and widening of the horizon. In fact, many who survive a near-death experience resent returning and feel it as a return to confinement — as Carl Jung put it after he recovered from a heart attack: “Now I must return to the ‘box system’ again.” This idea is expressed by Dion Fortune:
Life, having evolved beyond the capacity of lowly forms to give it expression, builds itself higher forms.The fossilized remains of the abandoned lower forms are found among the debris of life. They have undergone death; their race is extinct; they are no more; but the life has achieved rebirth into a higher type of vehicle. it is only by the abandonment of the simpler form that life can enter the more complex, though the consciousness that is on the plane of the simpler form sees therein a tragedy because it cannot conceive the higher life and it sees its own passing prefigured; but the consciousness which is of the higher life sees the birth of a new manifestation and rejoices, for it sees the fuller expression of its potentialities.
Death comes in many guises. As T.S.Eliot wrote, “Death has a hundred hands and walks by a thousand ways.” It may come not only as a physical death, but also as a paralyzing fear, as a sense of utter rejection through the loss of love, as a loss of values resulting in a sense of mean-inglessness, as the threat of nonbeing leading to self-loss, as spiritual darkness or the death of God, etc. What all of these deaths have in common is their effect on the psycho-spiritual con-sciousness of the human victim — on the way that one experiences loss. Death is actually thought of as the ultimate enemy. This was apparently the meaning of this dream:
I am looking through a kind of scaffolding so I can not at first see their faces — men of all ages dressed in ragged overcoats and jackets waiting in line. They had been forced to stand there so long that some of them had urinated on themselves. The line was slowly moving forward toward the scaffolding which was part of a chute or steps down to a sheer drop which I could not see. I only saw the top, but I knew they would drop to their death. I twisted about so I could see the face of the one about to step off and saw that he was a young man whose face was twisted in grief, although he was trying to be as stoic as the others. His thick wavy hair had one hand placed on it in compassion, the hand of the man next in line. As I began to wake, I asked, “Why am I being shown this?”
I now think I can answer that question. These are all people who fear the unknown, which is always associated with death. The people were clad in poor clothing, indicating that this life has not provided them with what they assumed they needed. They could not see beyond the stepping-off point so they feared that which was unknown. Compassion was the only comfort, but that was inadequate. I did not understand this, so I asked the question which was apparently answered in a later dream which had a completely different view of death.
I was waiting in line holding what seemed to be a wadded-up sheet bound in a light-weight kind of chain. The others in line carried the same, and at the front of the line was a teller window with a woman behind it collecting these packets. When I got to the window, I handed the packet to the woman and asked if I were to get a receipt. She replied, “No, but if you ever need it just come back and I’ll give you your packet.” I then stepped outside and found myself in an open field with a cliff on the left dropping about 60 feet down to a large body of water with a narrow rocky beach and a group of people standing there seeming to be waiting. I thought I’d like to go down to see if there was anyone I knew and so stepped off the edge, with only a momentary concern about whether this was the right thing to do, but soon found myself drifting down and landed on the beach. No one was speaking to anyone or relating in any way, but seemed to be waiting. I decided to leave and explore this new world and so took off in flight, but noticed a young man was accompanying me, and so I said, “Oh, you can fly too?” He answered, “Yes. Everyone can. They just don’t know it yet.”
They did not expect that death could liberate them. This was apparently another dream about death. I disposed of all earthly connections, which I might need again some time and could then receive back, The dream might be telling me what to expect. The people on the beach were experiencing the ancient myth of standing at the shore of the River Styx waiting for Charon to take them to the other side. We experience our own myth throughout our many lives which can be understood as metaphors if we wish to see them that way.
That death can also be a welcome friend and the companion of spiritual growth needs to be better understood. Then the death that leads to transformation can be embraced in an attitude of confidence. No longer will it be seen as a dead end, but as an end to death as we have always thought of it. We know that death is infinitely generous, never omitting anyone from its ultimate embrace. Can’t we show it some gratitude? After all, it is the Great Transformer. There are times when we get stuck in a rut, life seeming to go nowhere. And a rut. after all, is simply a grave with the ends knocked out. The flow of life has ceased. Is this not death? Or is death itself simply Nature’s way of telling us to slow down?
Thomas Moore in “Care of the Soul” raises a point which Leonardo da Vinci noted:
Leonardo da Vinci asks an interesting question in one of his notebooks:
“Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?” One answer is that the eye of the soul perceives the eternal realities so important to the heart. In waking life, most of us see only with our physical eyes, even though we could, with some effort of imagination, glimpse fragments of eternity in the most ordinary passing events. Dream teaches us to look with that other eye, the eye that in waking life belongs to the artist, to each of us as artist.”
The idea that we are captive in the prison house of matter is of ancient origin, that consciousness is blinded by the material world. I experienced this myself when in a shamanic experience, Demeter reconstituted my body with light which did not blind me until my body was restored, at which point I had to close my eyes or squint it was so bright. I thus realized that our senses are not so much to permit perception of reality but to limit it. It is our birth, not death, that brings about our limitations. When we are born we forget our spiritual origins. This is an ancient idea. In Greek myth one was said to have drunk before birth from the spring of Lethe (Forgetfulness), thus forgetting one’s origin. When we are bound by things of the material world, something of our higher nature surely dies; we then become lost in a world of matter, no longer realizing that matter is but a metaphor of what is real. From that point on, our entire bodily life is made up of a series of initiations, mostly unconscious, intended to bring us into consciousness of this material aspect of life. This is essential for our understanding of this world and our learning of its nature. As the saying goes, “God created the world so He could know Himself.” We may share that aspect of divinity and are here for the same reason. But the spirit must not be completely forgotten, and perhaps that is the origin of the term ‘midlife crisis.’ We must again come to the realization that our body and its immediate physical environment can no longer be the sole basis of our reality. We begin to search for meaning elsewhere. This latter part of life is the return. Remember, the early birds may get the worm, but its the second mouse who gets the cheese.
I may have told you before of a dream a woman had which supports this idea that the spirit derives its energy to operate within this world of time and space from the body which it needs to bring it into manifestation. It is actually the most moving dream I have ever come across. It was dreamt by a woman who lives in a rural town in north-central Italy which had existed since ancient Etruscan times, and still had a ruined temple dating from about 2500 years ago. This woman felt a strong connection with her Etruscan ancestors which probably helped to bring about this dream.
She was standing outside her house when she saw a boy walking toward her who was dressed in the ancient style. He appeared to be completely lost and was weeping. She felt sorry for him and wanted to help him. She took him by the hand and led him toward the temple, assuming that that was where he wanted to go. They walked to the temple hand in hand, and when hey reached it she could see that it was not in ruins, but appeared as it must have 2500 years ago, At the bottom of the steps leading into the temple, he released his hand and he went up the steps and entered the building. She then noticed that he had left his hand in hers. She was shocked by this and awoke.
After awakening the next day she knew she had to go to the temple. She went there and saw it again in ruins, and stopped at the foot of the steps where the boy had left her. She noticed that she was stepping on something protruding from the ground, reached down and dug it out. It was a sculpted hand.
Naturally, we can look at this dream only from an archetypal standpoint since we do not know the personal life of this woman. But we can look at it as a myth. The boy could be viewed as an ancestral spirit who had perhaps unwittingly stepped out of his time and, although still in his home space, he is lost in time. He therefore goes to the one person who would understand his needs, and she leads him to the place of the spirit where he needs to go. In doing so, she briefly enters his time and sees the temple as it had been. He leaves her the only part of him that was bodily, the hand which she had been holding, perhaps as a gift. This would seem to indicate that she was being told that the body is only needed in time and space, that being in time and space without a body, as he had been (except for the hand which he needed to relate to her) wounds the spirit since the spirit needs the energy provided by the body, which may be why he was weeping, and so the spirit must leave space-time if it wishes to be whole. To remain in space-time would require that he, as a spirit, obtain a body in order to provide the necessary energy.
In the 15th century, Ficino wrote that spirit and body, religion and world, spirituality and materialism can all be trapped in a polarizing split: the more compulsively materialist we are, the more neurotic our spirituality will be, and vice versa. His recommendation for healing such a split is to establish soul in the middle, between spirit and body, as a way to prevent the two from becoming extreme caricatures of themselves. The cure for materialism, then, would be to find concrete ways of getting soul back into our spiritual practices, our intellectual life, and our emotional and physical engagements with the world.
In the broadest sense, spirituality is an attempt to approach or attend to the invisible factors in life and to transcend the personal, concrete, finite particulars of this world. Religion stretches its gaze beyond this life to the time of creation, what Mircea Eliade called “in illo tempore” that other time outside our own reckoning, the time of myth, as you found in the dream you just heard. It also concerns itself with afterlife and with the highest values in this life. This spiritual point of view is necessary for the soul, providing the sense of meaning it needs. Spirit, according to the Platonic philosophers, lifts us out of the confines of the human dimension, and in doing so nourishes the soul.