Holding the Tension of the Opposites

Owl5You know when you know you just KNOW something? And it doesn’t matter what other people’s opinions are. In fact, further discussion just feels like a spinning of the wheels. Have you ever looked back and wondered about this?

Sometimes you can angst over something for a very long while….waffling back and forth, weighing pros and cons ad nauseum, until you feel heartily sick of thinking about it….but it just keeps creeping back in. Like a stray cat that won’t go away. The tension of feeling undecided and ambivalent – for no good, rational reason – is crazy-making, and it just eats away at the core of you. Your mind becomes even more argumentative, and it could be that you are no longer a pleasant person to be around.

If you look back, and reflect on those times in our lives when you have done this, you realize that one day, for no apparent reason, the clouds just cleared, and you knew what we had to do. What happened? I think it is very valuable to understand that this is a common process in decision-making. Jung talked about holding the tension of the opposites – when the choices feel diametrically opposed to one another in some way. At that point we are caught in the dualistic thinking of either/or, and neither one feels quite right. Feeling pressured by others to make a choice is a suffering. We might also realize that our indecision is affecting others who are also suffering. Some want you to go one way, others think you should do something else. Who should you please?

We all must struggle over the moral and ethical issues, and the feelings of those we care about, but in the final analysis, we only have this life to live (in this body and this personality). Many people have a tendency to shove this struggle underground and deny its existence. This only causes further suffering. Rather, we need to embrace the opposites and hold the tension until our way becomes clear. Don’t move away from it, move towards it.

I sometimes joke that it might be easier if “They” all wanted the same thing of you, but of course they don’t. My old friend Alexander Blair-Ewart used to say, “A third of the people are going to love you no matter what. A third of the people are going to hate you no matter what. And the other third simply don’t care. So you might as well just be yourself.” We always used to laugh about this – it is actually very freeing to think in this way. So, if we are not to base our decision making on what others want of us, then we have to find the felt-sense of ‘rightness’ within.

This process of struggle does deepen you. Kahlil Gibran writes beautifully about this:

The Prophet

And a woman spoke, saying Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over the fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen,
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseeen’
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

By becoming more conscious of the fact that you are in the middle of a very natural life process that requires time and profound patience, perhaps you can learn to become more patient with yourself – knowing that one day you will just KNOW, and the struggle will be over. Jung refers to this arrival as the transcendent third. It is not the either/or of the original dilemma. A third perspective or understanding has come in.

We all come into this life with particular soul-work to do, and our life circumstances provide us with those opportunities, if we take them. In the final analysis, the soul work you have to do is right in front of you, and it is the only work in this life that really matters. When you die, you will know if you have met that challenge or not.

All of your life should be in preparation for that – what else are you going to do with your life? Should you live pretending that you will not have to ultimately deal with this question? I believe that when we cease struggling over an issue, and just relax into our own knowing, we are on the right path, doing the soul work we need to do. But there won’t be a heavy feeling of “should” around it – it will just feel right.

Here is another beautiful poem on knowing; The Journey, by one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver:

Pi and All of Life


Pi and All of Life

Sometimes Life throws us into a boat with creatures that seem very foreign, strange or threatening to us in some way. Life of Pi is a beautiful, in some ways mythic story of the hero’s journey by author Yann Martel. As I contemplated the title, I thought about the meaning of Pi – which is a mathematical constant that expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. I was moved to see how this story reveals the importance of embracing our wholeness as opposed to just the good, the bright and the beautiful upper half of the circle of Life.

At the end of the story, the hero reveals that there are two parallel stories – the one of his human survival, and the other a tale of animals in a boat with a boy. The great Aha is the realization that both stories are true.

Therein lies another interesting insight to my mind – which links up with something I was trying to express in The Inner Volcano. We all have a unique inner nature, which is connected with all of Nature. In Life of Pi this is beautifully portrayed as human beings who under duress reveal their animal natures. The cook is the hyena, the zebra with broken legs is the sailor who has been severely injured, the mother, the vegetarian orangutan, and the boy who discovers his tiger nature. In the end, this is what saves him. He discovers his inner ferocity, his power and his will to survive despite all odds. We might say he connected to the Dionysian side of his nature – his wild, passionate, dark, chaotic side.

In his seminar on Kundalini yoga, Jung talked about the fact that the soul hides in the symptoms of the body. Like Dionysius, an encounter with the Self can seem like a savage dismemberment in which we are forced to suffer and submit to some of the harshest realities of life. And yet if we can cling to the Self and who we most deeply are, there is the possibility of redemption, rebirth and renewal. This entails an embracing of our dark side and what is commonly referred to as the shadow.

Jung understood that our Christian mythos was too one sided in its glorification of all that is light, beautiful and true with no homage paid to the other wilder, darker side of life. In Aion he explores this problem of the Christ and the Anti-Christ in great depth. He felt that the pendulum had swung too far in one direction and that what we are seeing now in our recent history of world wars is a fierce backswing in compensation. He emphasizes that God or the Self does not want perfection but wholeness.

And so what this means for us is that the sacred work of our time is not to blindly pursue the good, the pure and the beautiful while ignoring our own shadowy attributes, pretending that they are not there. In Revisioning Psychology, James Hillman summarized Jung’s understanding of evil in this way, “ Integration of the shadow is an emigration. Not him to us; we to him. His incursion is barbarism, our descent is culture.”

When we thoughtlessly follow our animal nature, we are locked into our biological, egoic existence. We are ruled by unconscious processes and are a victim to our symptoms and a slave to our desires. The work is to bring Apollo and Dionysius into right relationship, the light and the dark, the yin and the yang. We must honour both sides within ourselves before we can even think about extending this consciousness into our communities.

When Yeats had the vision of the Beast or Anti-Christ slouching towards Bethlehem, he was horrified and deeply troubled. His poem, The Second Coming, describes this vision. Listen to it here: The Second Coming.

Trailer for Life of Pi

Relationships: Purpose versus Drama

Relationships: Purpose versus Drama

“What’s the point?” A man recently asked me this rhetorical question. We were discussing that age-old topic – relationships. In this case he was talking about whether or not he should stay with his girlfriend. I knew he didn’t really expect me to answer with a yes or no. In fact I had no answers for him, and he knew I wouldn’t. It’s a dangerous business giving advice and there is little pay off. I try to restrain myself as much as possible, but some very general commentary follows!

His question made me think about the common problems in relationship. We are always looking to the other to fill our needs. It seems to be part of being human, but it is such a treacherous pit to fall into. Expectations are set up in the early starry-eyed days, usually followed by disappointment. Don’t get me wrong; I am not against relationships. In fact, they are very important to me. However the art of being in relationship is one that comes with a certain maturity and probably a few grey hairs. Successful relationship often seems to depend on another art – the art of conversation.

Some years ago I learned about the Conversant model of conversation. It is geared towards structuring conversations in the business world, but it has real applications for any conversation that can become contentious.

The first and most important point is to get clear about purpose. Why are you having the conversation and what do you hope to achieve. What principles and values do you share? If for example you are talking about whether or not to continue to be in relationship, then you would each have to think about that purpose. In other words, what is the point? Sometimes it is helpful to consider what success would look or feel like. Both parties should be rigorously honest with each other about what they want, and what they are hoping for.

The next part of the conversation is about alignment. Do our goals align? Can we support each other in obtaining those goals? Can we get aligned? It is important to stay away from all you language, which mostly devolves into blame and criticism in which the other person invariably feels judged, attacked and lacking. Try to stay with statements or expressions that begin with “I think or I feel” or “When X happens, I feel….”

The other side of this of course is listening. Many of us have never learned to listen and become quite impatient when we are asked to do so. We often listen to others in very surface ways. I am sure most of you have had the experience of telling a story, only to be interrupted by your partner who will tell you some version of, “Oh that’s nothing – wait til you hear what happened to me!” What they are listening for is a break in the conversation so they can turn the focus back to themselves.

In order to truly listen to another, the ego has to be willing to set aside its agenda of aggrandizement. One common listening exercise is to see if you can say back to your partner what he/she has just said without adding your commentary or judgment. In fact, you simply try to repeat back the meaning of your partner’s words. You are actually just verifying to see if you have really ‘gotten it’. Chances are your partner will feel heard in a whole new way, which in turn will possibly lead to a more meaningful and deeper communication.

If the two of you can get aligned on purpose, and feel that you can support each other’s individual purposes, then the next step is agreeing on some action steps. What are some action steps that would help you achieve your goals, both individually and as a couple? Remember that all goals do not have to be shared, but the important ones do. These goals should not fight against each other.

As we let go of the requirement that the other fulfills all our basic needs, we start to take responsibility for ourselves in a new way. There may be some things that are non-negotiable. Can your partner live with that? Yes or no? Try to take as many requirements and expectations off your partner as you can so that you can strip it down to the most important elements of relationship for you.

Learning to love another person is to always keep in mind your partner’s deep-seated needs and to be gentle with that. I am not advocating that you sacrifice your own soul needs to your partner’s agenda. Staying true to your deep Self should always be your highest purpose. If your relationship is fruitful you will support each other’s connection to That, and help each other along the path with as few demands as possible.

We are all ultimately alone with the One. A vision of relationship that is helpful to some is to imagine two parallel paths that dip in towards each other from time to time at agreed upon intervals. Finding a friend or partner who is in sync with you can be a source of joy and true friendship.

For more information on the Conversant model of conversation:


Watch this beautiful video of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

The Value Of Suffering:

When Things Don’t Work Out the Way You Think They Should – or – The Value Of Suffering:

“It sucks!” This was the valuation of a young person recently who was commenting on a life situation she was finding particularly difficult. I had to agree. But the part she was missing, was the lesson or learning that was embedded in the experience. When someone is suffering, the last thing they usually want to contemplate is the deeper meaning or learning that is inherent in the situation for them.

As a caring adult dealing with a younger person, there is always the difficult choice of how to respond. All of us, young or old, have to face this challenge in our lives. So often we ask ourselves, “Why is this happening? Is there any purpose or meaning in this seemingly fruitless suffering?” And of course, it is particularly difficult for the young to extract meaning from experience. It is still difficult as an adult.

And yet, paradoxically, it is these difficult experiences that force personal growth. Who stretches and develops their character when they don’t have to? When everything seems to be going swimmingly, why change a thing? Clearly you are blessed and doing things right!

However, when life’s circumstances confront you, challenge you, create obstacles and problems for you, you suffer. We all do. It feels like life is hitting you over the head with a 2 by 4. Then the more intelligent of our species are forced to ask themselves a question. And it is this question that separates the deep women from the ditzy girls, and the strong men from the silly boys.

The question of introspection goes something like this: “What is this really all about?” Or, “what is really going on here?” Or, “What am I supposed to ‘get’ from all of this, if my life has any meaning or purpose?” Some question like that will begin to formulate in your mind. And this is the question that becomes Ariadne’s thread – the thread which, if followed, will lead you on your journey.

Because the real truth is that if you are not asking yourself some version of this question, you are either still in the honeymoon phase or you feeling like a victim. If you are feeling like a victim, go back and read the The-Snake-Pit. Or maybe you are just not too intelligent – but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this anyway!

So if you have read this far, there is some part of you that recognizes that there just might be a value or purpose in your suffering. Of course all of this rests on a foundation of awareness in the deeper meaning and purpose of Life itself. If you haven’t already intuitively come to grasp this truth, this will probably not make much sense. Jung said, “I don’t believe in God – I know God.” If some inner core of you does not know this Truth already, you won’t find this of much value.

For those who do, Rumi tells a wonderful tale of the suffering of the chickpea boiling in the pot, complaining miserably as Life (or the Friend) treats him so cruelly:
Chickpea to Cook *
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it’s being boiled.”Why are you doing this to me?”
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
“Don’t you try to jump out. You think I’m torturing you. I’m giving you flavor, so you can mix with spices and rice and be the lovely vitality of a human being. Remember when you drank rain in the garden. That was for this.”

Grace first. Sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins, and the Friend has something good to eat. Eventually the chickpea will say to the cook, “Boil me some more. Hit me with the skimming spoon. I can’t do this by myself. I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention to his driver. You’re my cook, my driver, my way into existence. I love your cooking.”

The cook says,  “I was once like you, fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time, and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.My animal soul grew powerful. I controlled it with practices, and boiled some more, and boiled once beyond that, and became your teacher.”

Listen to this poem read by: Robert Bly and Coleman Barks

Waiting For Grace:

Waiting for Grace

In my last blog entry I talked about the importance of asking for help from a higher power. In Jungian parlance, this is often referred to as the Self, the divine presence within all of us. Others imagine or conceptualize God in their own way. I think the key thing is having that connection open and vibrant in your life. Like other forms of communication, the most important part is being deeply receptive.

Deep listening to another means that we have to put our own agenda aside. So often when we pretend that we are listening to the other, we are just preparing what we are going to say next. We are more interested in putting our case forward, proving our argument, showing that we are right, the best, the smartest etc. It requires a sincere interest, selflessness and compassionate attention to be a good listener. Have you ever wondered why so many ‘talk therapies’ abound, and why people pay so much for therapy? I suspect that a lot of therapists would go out of business if more people were interested in really listening to each other. The truth is, it\t seems like a great luxury to be really heard by another human being.

We have so much static in our own minds we don’t have the psychic space to let in another person with his or her concerns. Never mind listening to the Self and what it may be trying to communicate to you. We have to be able to clear the mind of its busyness and noise in order to deeply listen for guidance.

It always amazes me that when you are struggling and puzzling over something and are in a state of confusion and uncertainty, it feels like it will never end. Clarity will never come. It feels like the unsolvable Gordian knot. Then one day, you simply know what you must do, and all hesitation and angst is gone. We can often only really recognize this transition in retrospect. Think back to situations where you agonized over a decision or some action you were contemplating. Did the clouds simply lift one day and your path became clear? Most of us can remember some time when that happened and it was a good thing to have waited. That was grace.

And most of us can think of times when we didn’t wait for that clarity, but took some action out of a state of confusion or emotional drama. Those were the times when we probably created more unpleasant karma for ourselves. The proverbial snowball effect. The bad situation just got worse, and then we had THAT to unravel.

Often when we are in the middle of a dilemma, it feels unbearable to not take action. The ego wants results! It is impatient and needs to be in control. It wants to manage the outcome. But the truth is that if you can hold the tension of the opposites and not take action, and pray and ask for guidance, and deeply listen for that guidance, you might be very surprised at the outcome. If the Self is not asked for help, we are often left to bumble along and make your mistakes and experience the rough and tumble we create for ourselves in our everyday life.

It is only when we turn to face the Self, and humbly ask for guidance that you might actually get the help you need. Life can turn itself around in the most surprising and unforeseen ways – in ways that we could never have orchestrated or managed on our own. But we have to let go of what we think that outcome should look like. You can’t say to God, please solve my problem, and please get rid of that jerk for me, and get me a new car while you are at it.

But you can ask for guidance. Sometimes help comes in the most unexpected ways. That is grace. Have faith and trust your life, and trust your inner truth. There is no emotional charge or drama when that realization emerges out of your deep inner core. There is simply a quiet knowing and acceptance of what is.

Rumi, a 13th century poet/mystic, who happens to be one of the most popular poets in North America, addressed all of his poetry to the One, whom he sometimes called the Friend, and sometimes the Beloved.

Coleman Barks, who is renowned as an authority on Rumi and a poet in his own right, has an extraordinary voice and feeling for Rumi’s poetry. Listen to him here. It is a gift from the One.