Marion Woodman

Poisonous silence

I finished reading “Addiction to Perfection” last night – with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is much to be learnt from Marion Woodman’s insights, on the other – her perspective can be very narrow. When claims to universality are made using a limited  range of symbols, it all falls apart – there are just too many caveats. Also, too much normativity. Part of me wants to follow and believe, another part is left cold. However, I found the section on filial complexes very revealing. Woodman would call me a “father’s daughter,” Athena, Brunhilde. It’s funny, and at times unsettling, to see oneself in these categories. Psychoanalysis makes me feel superstitious. There is so much vagueness in the unraveling of symbolic meanings, so much berth for transference. Well, I’ll let good lady Marion rest for a while. Her conclusion is, as any wise woman’s would be, to go inside and find what needs to be found there. Fair enough. Oh and do body work to express emotions without exploding. I’m on it. This is definitely one plus of being unemployed: there is time to move and write. The only thing I don’t like about writing is sitting.

Actually what I have been reading and watching most lately are books, articles, interviews, lectures, videos, etc. on the way the body works. I do yoga and just started boxing, and I try to figure out what hurts, what is locked, what to do with tensions, why I can perform one move but not another, how to challenge myself and not get injured. I discovered Kelly Starrett and Mobility Wod and I am impressed. Starrett is annoyingly macho at times (most of the time, tbh), but his mission of bringing physiotherapy home, so that everyone can “perform basic maintenance on themselves,” is just plain awesome. He is a geeky jock, if you will imagine. I also study a yoga anatomy atlas and do psoas exercises with Liz Koch, and I am learning to do self-massage (myofascial release) with yoga therapy balls. I miss dancing. In a week or two I am taking my bike out of the basement and, once the snow in the Olympic Park is thinner, go running. I can’t wait. I am sleeping well, drinking lots of water, trying to make sure that my joints and muscles are strong and in good order. The body is endlessly fascinating. It is sadly amazing how little we know about ourselves, how easily we delegate that knowledge to specialists. I want to know me, so I listen hard and treat well this awesome body of mine.

I finished the text on that art event I mentioned earlier, and I am pretty pleased with it; waiting for feedback now. It’s very dense, poetic, and sensual, a tad on the heavy side.

In a creative writing workshop I am taking I get intense, positive reactions to my stories. Last week, a fellow writer began encouraging me to get them published. I realized how much I wanted it – encouragement – and also how afraid I still am to step forth. I am afraid! In so many ways. The workshop is my little safe outlet, where I write either memoir-type stories or fiction, often based on family stuff, and even thinking of making it public feels sacrilegious. Even writing these very words here feels wrong. I shrink as I write, as if someone was standing behind me and reading this over my shoulder, disapproving. This someone looks a lot like my mother.

On the other hand, I really want to do it. Family secrets are poison and they have made me sick to the core. Even now, I feel angry as I type – angry that I should feel like I have to “protect” (i.e., not talk about) a person who crushed me with all her might, all in the name of love. This is absurd. I don’t hate, I just suffocate, and the more balance I am seeking out in my life, the less sense it makes to go along with the old family narrative. There is no one left to please, I tell myself. I don’t want to be angry forever. The prize  is being expelled from the family, losing the last imaginary stronghold of belonging. But that has already happened, I guess. 

I am dizzy with incertitude and made to think of Marion Woodman again. This time her words ring very true:

“Having sacrificed our old attitudes and traditional structures, we are not at all sure that Yahweh won’t destroy us. We stumble along, walking as proudly as we dare, trusting in the love of others who are walking their parallel paths, mustering the same kind of courage, trusting that there is meaning in the irrational.” (187)

Djuno Tomsni

Djuno Tomsni

Wise Old Men, Wise Old Women

I don’t think I will go through everything that is available on the J. Krishnamurti website (it is so vast!), but I’ll stick with it for some time still. In the concluding talk of his 1967 series, Love and Loneliness, he offers a kind of closure, promising a way out of the crazy, self-destructive mind and world:

“To be aware of thought, of feeling, never to correct it, never to say it is right or wrong, never to justify it, but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching and moving with that thought, with that feeling, you begin to understand and to be aware of the whole nature of thought and feeling. Out of this awareness comes silence, not simulated, not controlled, not put together by thought.”

This is true meditation, according to Krishnamurti, who at the same time brusquely rejects all other contemplative practices (involving sound, visualization, etc.) as phony. I wonder: does this rejection not lead to further division and thus conflict? I would rather believe that any path leading to a worthy goal (such as peace) would be commendable, but Krishnamurti seems to question the very idea of “taking a path” and insists on everybody assuming absolute authority over their own existence:

“We cannot depend on anybody, there is no guide, there is no teacher, there is no authority, there is only oneself and one’s relationship with another and the world, there is nothing else. When one realizes that, faces that, either it brings great despair from which comes cynicism, bitterness and all the rest of it, or in facing it, one realizes that one is totally responsible for oneself and for the world, nobody else; when one faces that, all self-pity goes.”

What follows is that “each individual human being is responsible for all the misery, for the wars, for the hunger, for the brutalities and . . . enormous violence that exists in the world,” and so each one of us must bring about a revolution in ourselves if we ever want to end this vicious cycle.

I want to retort, shut up Krishnamurti, I did not commit atrocities in my life, but I know that essentially he is right. If we are one, then each individual is also humanity, and so contains in herself the seeds of all good and evil. Thus the need to cultivate virtue… except it sounds so puritan and cold that I am taken aback. The idea of watching oneself carefully all the time, being aware of each thought, each motive, and the consequences of each action – and hoping for grace which may or may not descend – gives me shivers. Then I turn to the belly-laughing Alan Watts, who likes to say, “Don’t worry so much; it’s only a game.” But as I was listening to “Out of Your Mind” the other day, it struck me how lightheaded Watts sometimes was. Speaking of world poverty, for instance, he affirmed that humanity is at such an advanced stage of development that, thanks to robots and machines, hunger and deprivation will soon be absolutely eliminated. And then what, he asks, what will a modern man do? When all the sick and poor are taken care of? Imagine having that dilemma for real. Sure, he was a product of his times, and that was a common belief in the sixties, but it only goes to show how detached the overspiritualized people can be.

Anyway, who isn’t. I know I am. I don’t believe in objectivity, and I know that universality tastes different to everyone. All the wise men say essentially the same thing, albeit in different words, using different examples, appealing to different facets of their listeners’ personalities. When I leech onto their words and try to follow with too much intensity, I miss the message, just as I fail to grasp it by way of criticism. My critique is partly motivated by the fear of being naive, gullible, and easily manipulated, and partly by the confidence of being smart enough to see through them. And yet I keep coming back for more, instead of effin’ taking the cue and following my own lead. How fascinating is that. How addictive.

To counterbalance the voices of wise old men, I am reading Marion Woodman’s “Addiction to Perfection.” I discovered this Canadian psychologist and writer thanks to a documentary film, “Dancing in the Flames” and loved her immediately – she makes for a great mother figure. The book was first published in 1982 and deals mainly with eating disorders from a Jungian perspective.Woodman’s insights on addiction and dysfunction, especially in women, is extraordinary. Identifying the drive for perfection (bodily as much as spiritual) as a deadly threat to sanity, she writes:

“The further I move into the white radiance on one side, the blacker the energy that is unconsciously constellating behind my back: the more I force myself to perfect my ideal image of myself, the more overflowing toilet bowls I’m going to have in my dreams. . . . As human creatures, not gods, we must go for the grey, the steady solid line that makes its serpentine way only slightly to left and right down the middle course between the opposites.” (15)

Again, the path emerges. Woodman does not promise her analysands a dissolution in the ocean of bliss – it is what they often pursued prior to admitting that they needed help – but feeling one’s own way through life, which also means heeding the needs of one’s own body, needs that find sneaky, often destructive ways of expressing themselves if they are denied.

A younger Canadian author, Matthew Remski, questions the extremities of spirituality from another angle. Inquiring into the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the ancient foundational text of Yoga) and its value for contemporary yogis, he asks in a recent interview:

“Do we really believe that our ultimate goal as human beings is to ascend into the splendid isolation (kaivalya) of pure consciousness? Do we really want to maintain good hygiene so that we can discover how disgusting our bodies are? Do we think that meditation can allow us to be bodysnatchers? It’s ‘no,’ I think, to all of these. So why has this text been translated and commented upon uncritically as an object of faith for the last 150 years with vanishingly little regard for the paradigm it is encountering currently? Why is an ascetic meditation manual advocating anti-social goals at the heart of the modern postural movement, as if it has anything specific to say about asana? Why is it held as a textbook to salvation, when it can’t even come close to addressing the complexities of neoliberal narcissism or radical climate change?”

So many questions! I love it even as I proclaim the end of intellect. And I can’t deny it.

What is it that is aware?

“What is it that is aware?” is a question I’ve been turning under my tongue for over ten years now, without ever arriving at a reasonably satisfying answer. When I’d first heard it from an annoyingly admirable man, it was meant to encapsulate the essence of zen Buddhism and higher consciousness, and so it seduced me instantaneously. I kept it as a poetic souvenir and my life’s koan. It returned to me last night.

Over the past few months I have been binging on spiritual texts of all sorts, ranging from self-help, through mythology, anthropology, Jungian psychology and neuroscience to spiritual writings par excellence. Interestingly enough, I still haven’t touched the Bible, but yes it’s on the list.

I have also been trying to develop rituals that would help me write regularly. This blog is an attempt at one such productive habit. Every morning, I want to devote one to two hours to noting down my thoughts on what I had read the previous day, to track my own mental processes. I have some misgivings about this idea, and fears too, naturally, but here I am, more ready than not.

Currently on the agenda are transcripts of J. Krishnamurti‘s public talks, delivered in Saanen, Switzerland, in the summer of 1967, under the collective title “On Love and Loneliness.” In contrast to Alan Watts, another teacher popular at the time, Krishnamurti is no spiritual entertainer. He demands utter seriousness on the part of his audience, and often sounds impatient. There is no charm to his persona (a quality that Alan Watts oozes), and he may sometimes seem irritated at the inability of listeners to grasp his ideas, which he claims are not opinions, beliefs or judgments. He seems convinced to have found the truth, but also to know that truth is incommunicable, which is why his teaching method involves guiding listeners through stages of logical reasoning. He frequently insists on having everybody follow his line of argument with full concentration (or leave the tent), and stresses that not just listening, but full mental engagement is essential. The goal is to arrive at an understanding which is universal and yet absolutely, earnestly individual and particular.

The unity of all being, love as universal power, thought as source of attachment and misery, attentiveness to the present moment, and the necessity to quiet the mind are recurrent themes in Krishnamurti’s teachings. When listed in this manner, they could be attributed to any Buddhist guru, mindfulness coach, or New Age enthusiast, but Krishnamurti is no feel-good preacher. His dismissal of lowly forms of human activity, such as sex or entertainment, reminded me of Marion Woodman‘s characterization of the archetypally male energy:

“[T]he spiritual feminine is always grounded in the natural instincts so that no matter how spiritualized it becomes, it is always on the side of life. In this it is different from the overspiritualized masculine (in man or woman) which tends to seduce us into the sleep that ends ‘the heartache . . . that flesh is heir to.'” (Addiction to Perfection)

Granted, Krishnamurti’s vision of truth evokes anything but sopor, but it does seem rather heavy and ascetic in its disregard for instinct, drive and liveliness.

But what did I read last night? In the ninth talk on love and loneliness I found reiterated the question that has pursued me for so long: “Who is it that is aware?”

Advice given to meditation novices goes somewhat like this: to quiet the mind, do not try to suppress the thoughts that arise, but rather gently acknowledge and push them away, much like you would a balloon floating your way. Watch from the outside, see them as a product of your frantic ego that forever wants, and remembers, and plans, and attracts, and distracts, and rejects what is. Create an observer that brings benevolent awareness to ego’s selfish antics. It is not easy to achieve, but when it works, it brings calm and contentment. Krishnamurti, however, points to the paradox of dividing one’s own consciousness into the observer and the observed. For if the observer is outside the observed, where does it place her in the realm of consciousness? Says the teacher:

When we say we are aware, we generally mean the image becomes aware of itself in relation to the other image – which is part of awareness, but we have gone much farther than that. And we say that when there is this image there is a centre which observes, there is a division and hence a conflict. Where there is conflict there is no awareness at all. To be free from conflict one has to become aware and do so without creating another centre which is aware of the image that I have created about myself or about another. So, is there an awareness without the centre, of this whole of consciousness, with its boundaries, its limitations, its content?

I love this intimation of heaven, or oneness, or ocean of consciousness that belongs to no one in particular but always is, a promise of belonging. I dream of this awareness without a centre, a dissolution that is pure existence, which cannot be reached the way I keep trying to reach it, that is through mind.

I asked my aunt the other day how she understood “surrender,” which is one of the basic ideas in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. She has been member of AA for many long years now and regularly sponsors (offers guidance to) inductees. She said, “It means admitting that alcohol is a power greater than myself, and that rationalizing only took me that far.” Apparently, the smarter, the more intellectual a person is, the harder it is for her to surrender. Highbrows may memorize the whole book, quote from it profusely in the meeting, and hit the booze right after. Their power for self-deception is as vast as their vocabulary. They often want to reform the organization, or to boss over it; they may claim they’ve understood it better than anyone since and so they proffer sophisticated criticisms with their own twist on the issue – but they do not make space for truth in their hearts. “Surrender” means shutting up, listening, and admitting that we are essentially no different, no better from others. That we are all one. It means humility and not striving to impress and achieve. It is the most difficult thing for the kicking and screaming ego, for the intellectual alcoholic, for me.

I am on a quest to understand something that escapes my grasp, and even if this is not the the right way, I will pursue it for a while still, just because I feel that I must. I admit that I binge on spiritual writings to fill my bottomless curiosity, hunger, thirst, and that I am still a smart ass. I will keep on writing and flexing for as long as it takes. Perhaps one day I will find a way of acting from the place of surrender. Bear with me. I will not take advice and I will go wherever I want to, because I don’t feel the difference between being lost and exploring.