Does shining light have value beyond avoiding darkness?

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I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet

Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.

The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting: Continue reading

What if our role is to balance the opposites?

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Today begins a series looking at the role of the shadow in cultivating new stories. Madness, darkness, the untamed and unpredictable—what do we do with these fearful things? Fairy tales and myths always made a place for the shadow: the evil stepmother, the witch, the monster in the forest. The wild forest itself. The bottomless well, the unexplored cave, the labyrinth beneath the king’s castle. Those unknown, uncharted places that house beasts, witches, demons, and all manner of nasties.

In the stories, they mirror our own psyches—at least that was the understanding for quite a long time. We tend now to prefer our villains to live outside of us, so we can point to them and say, “Not I.” Depending on who you are, your proxies might be Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and Ann Coulter, or Amy Goodman and Barack Obama. We impoverish ourselves by offloading our inner darkness onto other people, real or fictional. As Carl Jung teaches us:

“Wholeness . . . is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.”

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Daphne and the laurel tree

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As with Ariadne, Daphne is usually depicted as a passive actor in someone else’s story, in this case, a contest between two males—Apollo and Cupid. She is a victim who must be rescued by another man, her father. Well, this story is about much more than that. It is a story of transformation.

Daphne was another of those independent, love-and-marriage hating young huntresses who frequent myths. She is said to have been Apollo’s first love. It is not strange that she fled from him. One unfortunate maiden after another beloved of the gods had had to kill her child secretly or be killed herself. The best she could expect was exile, and many women thought that worse than death. Continue reading

Reimagining the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth

1998_7.19_620wBritish mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says that the stories we most need now arrived right on schedule, 3,000 years ago. This story is a reimagining of the Greek myth of Ariadne that I put together from various sources. (Since this isn’t a scholarly work, I didn’t footnote it, but the references are cited at the end). I told it last weekend at the Restorying the Heroine’s Journey retreat to a circle of women gathered in a clearing in a very special forest in West Virginia. While it is about a woman’s journey to authenticity, it is relevant to men, and to our culture at large.

When Martin Shaw told an old fairy tale to our group seated around a campfire on a rainy summer day at Schumacher College, he prefaced it with a suggestion. Certainly, the effect of a story is heightened in a setting like that, gathered in a circle before a fire, listening to a master storyteller. Reading written words off a computer screen strips out the mysterious process that the collective unconscious works on us, the sensual connection to ancient practices. Since these old stories carry their own power, his advice has a place even here. Continue reading

Working past limits to learn from a wise teacher: my body

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Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.

Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading

Hiding when out of sync is a generous act of love

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When I am unconsciously following the rules and stories installed in me during childhood, I sometimes worry that I am doing my life wrong. For instance, I was never taught that there are times when it’s perfectly justified to follow my instincts, to do or be what my heart urges. In fact, a life well-lived is a life entirely guided by the heart’s urgings. Still, I can feel a bit guilty when I need to withdraw from the world’s demands on me.

For so long, I believed that my retreat from conflict, difficulty, boredom, hostility, shame or blame was a bad thing that I inflicted, selfishly, on my close relationships. In this beautiful essay on hiding, the poet David Whyte sees it as a form of self-preservation, a drawing inward to prepare for transformation, and a necessary storing up of vital energy for growth.

“Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world. . .”

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Momentum: an ode to Baltimore

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I see a Baltimore who mines her gold
from the shadows behind abandoned houses.
I see a city of parks
with tree roots reaching deep beneath surfaces
tapping hidden sources
and joining the disconnected
with living bonds
visible even to eyes grown weary of witnessing.

I see neighborhoods of parades
of dancing and singing
lighting sacred fires
standing arm in arm in solidarity
kneeling down on cracked pavement to pray
to ask blessings and invoke peace
to appeal to the wisdom of the ancestors
the vision of the young. Continue reading

Respecting the unknown by illuminating what we can

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Where there is darkness, light;

One of my favorite aphorisms is the advice to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This has always made sense to me, although I sometimes forget to do it. Many wisdom traditions teach that we are, or we contain, light as the fire of consciousness. In my imagination, I can interchange light with energy with spirit; somehow this means that we are the stuff of the universe, we are light energy, animated stardust. The word, light, shows up in our language in so many ways, any one of them could be the basis for a whole journaling session.

We are said to be lighthearted, enlightened, to take things lightly, to shed light on a problem. Some people light up rooms, others may feel lightheaded or light on their feet. We have light in our eyes, so the phrase “lights out” refers to more than bedtime, as you know if you’ve ever had your lights punched out. A great leader is a guiding light. We “see the light” or “see in a new light” when we understand something afresh. Near death experiences often describe moving to a bright light. Revelations “come to light,” or we might see the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a long project or struggle. Continue reading

In the terrain between stories, trust that maps do exist

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I am a framework junkie. I love the satisfaction of seeing a complex process or perspective distilled into diagrams, able to be grasped at a glance. Sure, some detail is omitted, but the best frameworks capture essence and convey key information to guide understanding and/or action. A good map is one example, or an infographic about, say, the growth in income disparity over the last decade.

I keep hearing it said that, in this time between stories, we’re wandering in unknown territory without a map. And that is how it feels much of the time. Yet, there are workable maps and frameworks that can inform both personal and cultural choices, if not direction. I’m thinking particularly of various takes on developmental psychology, like Spiral Dynamics, or Rudolph Steiner’s seven-year cycles, or Bill Plotkin’s map of the human psyche. I find it comforting to have a picture of where I’ve been and to see possible routes on my continuing quest for wholeness and belonging. Continue reading

Speculations on courting synchronicity

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Living from trust, magic and play means stepping out of received ideas and habitual thinking about will and action, goals and results. Recently, a friend told of an event that happened in Costa Rica, during a period of crisis and change in her life. Working for an eco-tourism project, she was on the beach sketching a logo, thinking about an image from a well-known children’s book. Pretty soon, a shadow fell over her, belonging to a man who questioned why she was working in this beautiful place. Sure enough, the man was the author of that famous book.

When things like this happen — as they do, to all of us — I’m often amused, sometimes a bit bemused. It shakes up my usual concept of time, of cause and effect. I have come to accept such occurrences as confirmation that I’m on the right track, though I may have no clear idea of where, exactly, I will end up. These events are usually so singular, an entire exchange with someone well met takes on a heightened quality. Continue reading