JOURNAL 2006 - 2014
narrative writing & arts
Circling the nexus
coming winter 2014
A living myth
The seeds of wisdom
Life as myth
A vision quest
A feminine myth
Impressions at sunrise
Following a white hart
COMING WINTER 2014
THE SPIRAL OF TIME
The Incarnation Initial (Chi and Rho which are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek). The Book of Kells. Trinity College, Dublin. ca. 800 AD.
Examine it carefully, and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies so delicate and subtle, so concise and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might think all this was the work of an angel, not a man.
12th C. commentary on The Book of Kells.
THE YEAR IN REVIEW 2013
SEVEN YEAR CYCLES
(above) Joy. Usher. 2013. (left) Saint Mary Magdalene from the Master of Palazzo Venezia Altarpiece Panel, artist unknown. 1350. National Gallery, London. According to the myth, at dawn on the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus, in resurrected form, first appeared to Mary Magdalene. During this encounter he commissioned her to become the messenger of his resurrection.
Life evolves in seven year cycles. If you have lived long enough, you can probably identify them. Find a major event from your past -- a marriage or possibly a serious illness. Counting forward or back, see if you experienced another major Life event at the next seven year juncture. If you continue counting, a road map of your life emerges.
This little web site, quite dear to me, is at the conclusion of a seven year cycle. This site has been my writing home and because of that, it has served as a transitional space between the part of my life where I had all the answers -- and the next part where I have mostly unaswered questions.
2013 is fast approaching its wintry conclusion. As I attempt to discern meaning from this year's writing and work, I have returned to the message of joy I first described in an essay seven years ago. Since that time, that joyful revelation has taken on deeper meaning. Without further ado, a new look at old things.
Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description.
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) novelist, poet, essayist
Someone in the southeastern United States recently bought one of my paintings and yesterday I mailed it to him. In order to save shipping costs, I packed the box myself. The end result weighed just over seven pounds and measured an unwieldy 33" by 41" by 3". In other words, though light in weight, the box was still long enough and wide enough to be extremely difficult to carry. Unwieldy-ness notwithstanding, since the Fed Ex satellite store was only a few blocks away, I decided to carry it there myself.
While making my way up Broadway, the box slipped and shifted constantly. I tried several ways of carrying it but none worked for very long. Finally I had an inspiration and lifted the box up to my head and in that way I successfully made it to the Fed Ex store. What a comical sight I must have made, like some Dr. Seuss imagining -- a quite tall, so freckled, white lady with a box growing out of her head.
Which brings me to what happened yesterday on the way to the Fed ex store: I experienced the workings of my mythic eye. My lens on the world is my "mythic eye." That means I tend to use symbols and metaphors when interpreting the world around me. And yesterday my mythic eye contemplated the spectacle of walking down Broadway with a box growing out of my head and saw something larger.
It's kind of hard to explain but in that particular moment I felt connected to other women, possibly all other women, women and how they work through their day, whether raising children or governing countries or walking around with boxes on their head. And I saw my part in that bigger picture as both unique and yet also universal. For a few moments I experienced the beautiful groove of my life and how amazing that felt to be in it. And interestingly, I understood in that moment that joy is not only found at my easel -- but it is also found in the simplest experiences of everyday life.
A LIVING MYTH
(above) Sculptural detail of sacred ox. nd. Louvre Museum, Paris.
(left) The four evangelists (detail, St. Luke as the ox). The Book of Kells. Trinity College, Dublin. ca. 800 AD. The Book of Kells, also known as The Book of Columba, is an illuminated manuscript containing the Four Gospels in Latin. This winged ox is the spiritual symbol of St. Luke. Luke was an apostle of Christ, a doctor and a writer (Gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles). Tradition also credits him with the creation of the first icon of Mary and Jesus. The Guild of Saint Luke, one of the earliest artists guilds, takes its name from this legend. Luke is the patron saint of artists and healers. His feast day is October 18.
Ox: ochse, German origin; also Dutch os, from the Sanskrit uksan, meaning bull; in Zen Buddhism, a symbol for enlightenment
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao Tzu (604-531 B.C.), philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching
Samhain approaches. It's an ancient holiday, officially beginning at sunset on October 31.* Lasting three days, Samhain marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the "dark half" of the year. According to Celtic mythology, it is a time of enchantment, a time when both mortal and immortal can pass back and forth between this world and the Otherworld. Like many of the Celtic holidays, Samhain aligns exactly with a Christian observance -- All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day (October 31- November 2).
Samhain marks the time of year when the ancient Celts began their storytelling cycles, gathered as a community around the winter fires. This cycle continued throughout the "dark half" of the year, until Beltane, May 1, when the warm weather and agricultural duties required full attention.
Recognizing the approach of the storytelling season, I have put together a narrative cycle of my own, framing it inside the Ten Oxherding pictures. What I particularly like about this series is how the path to enlightenment concludes by returning us to the world and the human experience. The series reflects precepts of Zen meditation, a Japanese tradition of Buddhism (Mahayana) that emphasizes a combined spiritual practice of meditation and intuition. In other words, in order to truly understand these images, we must reflect and intuit their meaning.
The writing that accompanies these illustrations incorporates ideas from this web site. In that way, this particularly telling of the Ten Oxherding pictures explores the idea of a living myth. And if you take time to reflect and intuit, you might discover more than the writing itself. You might find some new aspect of yourself and your own personal myth.
*Samhain celebrations traditionally coincide with All Hallow's Eve (Halloween, October 31). However, Samhain is a cross-quarter day, meaning the actual date lies at the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Varying from year to year, in 2013 the date is November 7.
Picture One: Seeking the ox. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper. Museum of Shokoku-ji Temple. Kyoto, Japan.
There are no endings, only new beginnings.
I have been feeling nostalgic this week. It was ten years ago today, on August 27, 2003, that I flew into New York to interview for a graduate program in art therapy. That trip was only the second time I had ever been to New York.
The first time was in 1973. I flew into the city one bright spring afternoon and, as the pilot banked the plane over the East River, I unbuckled my seat belt and stood in the aisle so I could catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. My ultimate destination was Princeton University to visit my cousin. He was not able to pick me up at La Guardia and sent a friend in his place. The aforementioned friend met me at the airport gates in a navy blue blazer, striped tie, buttoned down oxford, khakis and suede bucks. His Ivy League preppiness in combination with Manhattan's operatic vastness was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
We only spent a few hours in the city, an afternoon largely centered around an ice cream sundae at Schrafft's (probably somewhere near Rockefeller Plaza) and a collision between the front of his car and the rear of a yellow taxi (just outside the doors of Penn Station). I was in New York no more than three hours -- but how those three hours have stayed with me. It was the first time I had traveled so far on my own. Looking back, I regard my first trip to New York as one of the markers of my entrance into young adulthood.
Flash-forward almost thirty years.
Second trip. This time, instead of the Statue of Liberty, the city greeted me with the pavé sparkle and sapphire velvet of a Manhattan skyline at dusk. Coincidentally, my travel package placed me in a hotel in the area of Rockefeller Plaza. However, thirty years later, Schrafft's was long gone and I was a lifetime away from the girl who stood in the aisle of an airplane to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Looking back from this vantage point, I see now that the second trip was another beginning as well.
There are two journeys in a lifetime. The first is in young adulthood. We seek to learn about the world and the Self, the adaptive Self, the one which is shaped by parents, culture, institutions. It is a normal developmental stage, one which lends itself to building careers and family. However, if we are lucky, sometime in midlife, we begin our second journey. It is the second one in which we discover the authentic Self, the one which transcends the parameters of our adaptive Self and our heretofore known world. What lies within each journey is, of course, unknown at the beginning. As we begin, we can only hope and imagine.
There are many ways of viewing the "soul's high adventure," as Joseph Campbell would put it. The Ten Oxherding Pictures from Zen Buddhism is just one. But whether you define your process through the visual images of ox taming, or the narrative stages of the hero's journey, or the mystical symbolism of alchemy, you begin the journey in the same way with each -- by first hearing the call to seek a higher Self. What follows next is nothing less than all the joys and sorrows of the world -- in other words, the experience of Life.
TELLING AN UNTOLD STORY
Picture Two: Noticing the footprints. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Maya Angelou (b. 1928), American poet
Prior to New York and a writing life, I relocated to New York City to attend graduate school at New York University in clinical counseling. It was my time at NYU and most particularly an independent study in the final year that proved to be a watershed for my life. The independent study focused on the connections between gender bias, narrative and the emergence of the Self. That study reshaped my identity as a woman and as an artist. It also produced a self-narrative paradigm which I named the Scheherazade Model, after the famous Arabian storyteller of the same name, who told stories to save not only her own life but the lives of other women.
Seven years ago, I graduated from NYU and later that same year I launched a web site, The Scheherazade Project. The goal was to have a place that I could have a voice, explore the narrative work I began at NYU and, quite simply, begin my writing life. Over that first year, I wrote about the three prongs of the Scheherazade Model: mythology of self, mythology of other and mythology of planet. The focus was on feminine values, community and harmony, as opposed to masculine values, individuation and conquest.
I was slow in finding my way and there were frequent rewrites, editing, misdirection. The web site has been rechristened and reimagined several times. But, looking back now, I realize that is part of the process of discovering and claiming your own voice. It is also part of the process of discovering and naming your own life.
A DIFFERENT WAY OF SEEING
Picture Three: Perceiving the ox. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
In search of my mother's garden, I found my own.
Alice Walker , author, poet, activist
The Scheherazade Model offers a suggested paradigm for meaning which has three story-based elements: mythology of self, mythology of other and mythology of planet. The model derives its name from the famous Persian storyteller of The Arabian Nights. Scheherazade is known for her spiral of nested stories which she told over a period of 1001 nights. By telling her stories she not only saved her own life, but she transformed the heart of a kingdom.
The Scheherazade Model emphasizes the elevation of feminine values. Feminine values, also known as intrinsic values, focus on the importance of community and harmony, as opposed to masculine values which center on the elevation of the individual and the mastery of the environment.
The way we tell our stories directly affects the way we live our lives. And our storytelling is largely based on the monomyth, a masculine narrative model also known as the hero's journey. The monomyth has several distinguishing characteristics. It centers around an individual who is almost always male. It also values skills which enable the hero to master the environment and realize personal achievement (e.g., career, awards, money). These values are commonly referred to as extrinsic or masculine, as opposed to feminine values which are grounded in harmony with the community and the environment. What we can lose when our stories are skewed to the masculine is a recognition of our essential interdependence with creation and each other.
This shift toward a feminine narrative that the Scheherazade Model provides is important both individually and globally. On an individual basis, feminine values are the ones that are more strongly correlated with a sense of well-being and satisfaction with life. This is true for both men and women as they age. On a global level, an embracing of feminine values is a necessary step toward lessening hostility and violence. By focusing on our interconnectedness, we can create a world in which there are fewer divisions between us, a world in which we share more equally in our natural resources and abundance, a world in which we exist in harmony with each other and with our environment.
THE POWER OF UNANSWERED PRAYER
Picture Four: Catching the ox. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
The stories we create can influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others, and soon we find meaning and connection within a web of story making and story living. Through our personal myths, we help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.
Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By: personal myths and the making of the self (1993)
On a Friday in March I read two things in the news.
The first report was on a study on the power of intercessory prayer to heal. The study, soon to be released by the American Heart Journal, was done with cardiac patients who were undergoing bypass surgery. Christian volunteers from three different groups were recruited to pray on behalf of some of the participants. It was the largest study of its kind to date and according to the review, it was also the most meticulous to date, attempting to address the flaws in previous studies.
The bottom line? Prayer made no statistical difference. In fact, cardiac patients who knew others were praying for them experienced more complications post-operatively.
The second was an article in Time on the state of the environment. The cover of the magazine read: Be worried. Be VERY worried. It was about climate change and global warming. The article talked about the tipping point for climate change and that once set in motion the change is not necessarily gradual, as we expected. That we actually seem to be seeing a feedback loop rather than a gradual decline, destruction that is fueling further destruction, an accelerating reordering of the environmental system.
The bottom line? Left unchecked we could begin seeing widespread disease, species extinction, environmental collapse. To some extent, the process has already been set in motion and the ground that has already been lost may not be regained. Well, not for millennia.
Personally I have wondered more and more about the power of prayer in recent years. The idea that prayer might not affect a change in the world seemed possible. But to live in a world of unheard prayer is a very scary notion. Consequently, early Saturday morning found me rebuking my god for not taking better care of things.
Are You even listening to us? The world is falling apart and it feels like there is nothing we can do about it. Is this what You want? Tell me what to do. Just tell me -- what kind of world do You want?
I don't think I expected a response. But then a voice asked,
What kind of world do you want?
What kind of world do you want? It sounds more like a challenge than a question. A kind of un-answer to prayer for it returns to me the responsibility for the world that I create, the world we all create.
But can one person really make a difference in a world facing such enormous challenges? Quite simply, yes. I believe so. However, it will likely require that we each change the story we are living. And if we change our individual story, the stories all around us will change. As the stories around us change, the world itself will change.
SITTING WITH THE BUDDHA
Picture Five: Taming the ox. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart . . . Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.
C. G. Jung [1875-1961], Swiss psychiatrist
New York is full of places that restore the spirit. For instance, the parks are quite beautiful here. Riverside and Central Parks are the best known and the most sprawling. But there are smaller parks throughout the city, beautiful green gems that break the city rhythm with the comfort of a park bench, the chatter of a fountain, the unexpected intrusion of grass and trees.
Nature is a great healer and she has many temples. But art is a great healer as well and in a city full of museum-temples, the Sackler Gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a personal favorite. My first visit in October 2003 is not particularly vivid in my mind. The museum is so immense and its treasures so rich that only a few individual pieces secured a place in my memory. Perseus with the head of Medusa. A bronze Florentine mermaid. Shiva dancing in the ring of fire at the far end of a darkened gallery. But somewhere in my cluttered remembering there was also a place for one specific gallery, the Sackler Gallery, a vast open room with veils of white light and a massive weathered painting.
I have revisited that room about a half dozen times over the past four years, usually when I needed a place to clear a troubled mind or to reflect on an important choice. But it was only when I visited the gallery two days ago that I took the audio guide with me and learned the significance of The Pure Land of Bhaishajyaguru, the painting which spans one wall of the gallery.
Bhaishajyaguru is a bodhisattva and the healing Buddha. He cures illness, provides daily necessities and oversees the birth of healthy children. When a bodhisattva attains enlightenment, he or she does not leave the world and its suffering but chooses to stay and bring enlightenment into it. These bodhisattvas emanate a radiance which forms a pure land or world which fosters enlightenment. The pure land of each Buddha, however, is not a separate place but is found embedded in it. Therefore, Bhaishajyaguru, who is the Buddha of medicine, creates -- in this world -- a place for healing and enlightenment.
The Pure Land of Bhaishajyaguru and the Sackler Gallery are in perfect harmony. Though vast and bright, the room feels so intensely intimate. I have shot many photographs there but to date have never been able to duplicate what the experience is like. My present attempts are on a sketching pad as I try to capture the relationships between space and art and afternoon light. Whether or not I am ever able to express my vision of this place through art, perhaps these words will carry the healing energy of Bhaishajyaguru and his pure land out into the world instead. That is my wish.
COLLIDING WITH SAINT JOHN
Picture Six: Riding the ox home. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
One wonders why it is necessary that a part of one be so badly wounded . . . But many legends inform us that we must pay a price for the departure from the Garden of Eden and the journey to higher realms of consciousness.
Robert Johnson (b. 1921), author, lecturer, psychoanalyst; quote from The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology
St. John. We first met in an exhibition room at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. His face, however, was not nearly so clear that day as online reproductions that I have viewed since. In the museum it was clouded by fluorescent lighting, the colors and soft details shrouded by dim, blue light. But the poor lighting actually contributed to an atmosphere of mystery which was part of the wonder of encountering Redon's St. John for the very first time. Encounter would be the right word here. Or maybe collision is even better.
I circled through the d'Orsay numerous times, leaving St. John behind to visit other exhibitions -- only to find my way back, time and again, to Redon's visionary world. What was it that kept calling me back? The answer is at the heart of great art and great artists, the idea of pointing to something unseen, something transcendent, something beyond words and ideas. And that is what I experienced while colliding with Redon and St. John.
(left) Parsifal, also known as St. John. Odilon Redon. 1912. Musée D'Orsay, Paris. Redon (1840-1916) was an outstanding Symbolist artist. His early work, monochromatic with dark themes, reflected his struggle with depression. He recovered at midlife, his art transforming into luminous color-driven work.
NOTES ON ST. JOHN
John, also known as the beloved disciple, was a fisherman and a disciple of John the Baptist before joining the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament portrays him as a favorite of Christ, the only disciple who stayed with him during the crucifixion, and the one who promised to honor Christ's request to care for his mother Mary.
According to church tradition, John is the author of several New Testament writings: the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation. However, there is disagreement among modern scholars as to the authorship of the Book of Revelation. In this debate, there is a distinction drawn between the Apostle John and the John of Patmos, who is the author of Revelation.
John was the only disciple to survive into old age, dying of natural causes at the age of 94. He is the patron saint of writers and his feast day is December 27.
THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
Picture Seven: Transcending the ox. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper.
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
Socrates (469-399 BC), Greek philosopher
There is a deep wisdom in the waters and stones and softened light of Inwood Hill Park. A wisdom that can be experienced but not known. A kind of evergreen wisdom that heals what it touches. And though I struggle now to capture it in words, perhaps I can simply point to it and you will see it, too -- without my naming it.
Over the past ten years my face has changed. I see it mirrored back to me daily. Age has played most liberally upon it -- but that does not quite capture what has transformed it. At times, my face is the face of Eve, the face of Eve at the moment her teeth broke the skin of the apple, at the precise moment she was shattered with knowledge.
That moment and that face. That's where I'm pointing.
And another moment. A cool and damp spring twilight. I was wrapped up in a man's sweater and marveling at the azure and coral in spaces left by green black poplar leaves when someone mirrored back to me, "I look at your face now and I can see the child you must have been."
That moment and that face. That's where I'm pointing.
A SINGLE FLOWER CLEARLY
Picture Eight: Both ox and self transcended. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper. (below left) A lotus breaking the surface. Yun Shouping. 17th century, Qing Dynasty. Palace Museum, Beijing, China.
If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.
There is nothing better than finding a new friend and Marie Howe qualifies as that for me. Earlier this summer I met her through an interview on American Public Radio and Speaking of Faith’s series "Repossessing Virtue: Marie Howe and Laura Ingalls Wilder". In the interview Howe describes how she and her daughter are embracing a simpler everyday existence. This gravitation to the simpler things paralleled changes in her professional life and her reading of the Little House on the Prairie series with her daughter.
Siddhartha Buddha (563 - 483 BCE), spiritual teacher
In life as in art, Howe explores the wonder of the everyday and the beauty of communal living. This reverence for simplicity and relationship is what I hear in her poem, “What the Living Do”. Throughout the piece she holds up small jewels of daily living and in doing so she venerates life itself. Her veneration is the fear, "terror" if you will, of that which is holy. When we encounter the divine, ancient texts command that we show respect through our fear or, if you will, "terror". Howe knows this though she would choose other words for fear, probably awe or wonder.
That first interview with Howe inspired me to look for more of her work, as spoken word, online. There is a recording of “The Gate” from NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett. Howe’s language and voice are finely tuned, stripped, spare and light, yet deeply intimate. The poem is quite beautiful as a written piece but it is breathtaking to hear Howe give voice to it.
"The Gate" draws from her brother's AIDS-related death, an event that Howe frames as a personal awakening. She chronicles her discovery of the transcendent in the everyday through her brother’s recognition of these beauties. When Howe writes in “The Gate” of a moment in the kitchen with her brother, we are there with them. Her brother becomes our Buddha-teacher, illuminating the mystery as he holds up a cheese and mustard sandwich and says, This is what you have been waiting for.
The death of Howe's brother is the gateway to a richer life experience not only for his sister but for us as well. Through Howe's poetry, we awaken to a deeper truth, the truth that it is the ephemera daily miracles that matter most. According to Howe, it is this truth that we have been waiting for.
THE TEACHING OF THE FLOWER
The Buddha was on a mountain teaching when he picked a flower and held it up. The disciples looked at him in bewilderment until one, Mahākāśyapa, began smiling. The Buddha said, I have the true Dharma eye, the mind of Nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless Dharma gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.
Through this teaching of the flower, the Buddha shows that enlightenment is beyond theories and teachings, and is possible through the intuitive experience of Life.
THE DEEP UNCANNY MINE OF SOULS
(above) Picture Nine: Reaching the source. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper. 11/01/13.
(left) Female. Cycladic, Early Cycladic II. ca. 2700-2200 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Typical of pieces from this period, the form presents without hands, eyes, ears or a mouth. The artist has stripped the representation down to the sense of smell, her nose the only discernible facial feature. Smell is our most primitive sense, located in the area of the brain linked to emotion, memory and creativity. Unlike the other four senses, smell functions out of the olfactory cortex found in the intermediate brain (old mammalian) or Limbic system. With the addition of broad hips and rolls of abdominal flesh, this female becomes emblematic of primitive man's understandings of the feminine ideal, as an object of procreation.
For the full text of Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes, link here.
10/31 - 11/02/13
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
Lao Tzu (604-531 B.C.), philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching
First, a story.
Orpheus (meaning the darkness of night) was a poet whose music was so enchanting that he could charm all creation when he sang and played his lyre. Eurydice (meaning wide justice) was an oak nymph and the daughter of the sun-god Apollo.
Eurydice and Orpheus fell deeply in love. On their wedding day, Eurydice danced across a meadow while Orpheus played on his lyre. During the dance, a viper bit her heel and she died. The loss of his bride was so profound that Orpheus descended into the underworld to beg the gods to release her, petitioning Hades and Persephone through song. His music was extremely sorrowful, the story says, bringing tears to the eyes of the gods.
Hades agreed to return Eurydice to Orpheus on one condition: she must walk behind her husband for the entire journey out of the underworld and Orpheus must not look on her face until they had both exited. Despite the warning, just as they neared the surface, Orpheus turned around to make sure that Eurydice was still following him. When he turned, she vanished and Orpheus returned to the land of the living alone.
Why? That's the philosophical question. Why did he turn? Didn't he know what would happen? The most common explanation was that he loved her so completely that he could not risk returning to the world without her. He had to know she was still there, that she was following him. In other words, his heart overruled his reason and he turned to check even though, in doing so, he lost her forever.
That explanation aligns with a traditional narrative structure, one that is deeply embedded in our world. Classical storytelling focuses on male individuation and conquest, and identifies women as trophies, the ultimate reward of the hero. However, I think there could be something far more interesting going on in this particular myth, if we bring a little Zen to it. And a little bit of Rilke.
That was the deep uncanny mine of souls, writes Rainer Maria Rilke as he opens "Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes," a poem based on this myth. With Rilke and through his poem, we descend into the land of the dead, arriving at the intersection he creates between the death of an old myth and the birth of a new one. That intersection is the point where Eurydice and Orpheus see each other. It is not just that Rilke reimagines the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, he also radically reimagines the meaning of their parting.
At her death, Eurydice, no longer the bride of Orpheus, becomes instead his muse. Consider. After her death she inspires music of such exquisite beauty that all creation stills to listen and the gods weep. In other words, her absence provides access to greater creative depths than Orpheus had heretofore achieved on his own.
Eurydice, as Rilke describes her, has gone through an irreversible transformation, one that was taking her to an existence far richer than the one she ever knew with Orpheus. The poet writes,
She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.
She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.
She was already root.
Eurydice had reached the source. She was no longer able to follow behind and in her husband's footsteps. She was whole; she was subject.
Why? We return to the philosophical question. Why did Orpheus turn? Didn't he know what would happen? I believe that Rilke answers yes -- on some level, Orpheus knew the result of violating the prohibition against looking and that is what he chose. He wanted to lose her. The only way that could happen was to break the one condition that Hades made. I believe that Hades gave Orpheus a choice, already understanding the transformation in Eurydice and knowing in advance how Orpheus would choose.
Eurydice was now subject and Orpheus, as artist, needed her to remain object, muse, forever a reflection of his desire, never subject, never root.
(above) Picture Ten: In the world. Ten Oxherding Pictures. Attributed to Shubun (n.d.) Japan, Muromachi period.
Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper. October 2013. (left) The letter, psi, is the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet and is often used as a symbol for the science of psychology. The etymological root of psychology is psyche (Greek), meaning both soul and butterfly. Expressing that dual meaning, the ancients Greeks symbolized the soul as a stick figure with wings. Finally, the myth of Psyche and Eros further explores the nature of the soul in relationship with the divine and the resulting transformation of consciousness.
11/03 - 11/07/13
When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves.
Dogen (1200-53), Buddhist monk and philosopher
Diwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, is a five-day harvest celebration (November 3-7, 2013). The name is a derivative of deepavali, meaning row of lamps. Hindu mythology links Diwali to the worship of the goddess Lakshmi. According to tradition, on Diwali, Lakshmi re-emerged during the celestial event known as the churning of the milky ocean.
In the final image of the Ten Oxherding pictures, the Self, like Lakshmi, returns to the world. This newly enlightened Self is many things, both shadow and light. Our individual challenge is to balance our duality, the opposing potentials which reside within us. This enlargement of our core will transform us, the lives of those around us, the creation itself.
When we call up our inner depths, we can reclaim our lost and hidden gifts. According to the Hindu myth of The churning of the milky ocean, our effort will result in healing and new life. The divine physician Dhanvantari will manifest in our lives, bringing us nothing less than the nectar of life.
(left) Sri-Lakshmi (from the Sanskrit lakS, meaning to see or perceive) also known as Padma (meaning lotus). Sri-Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of material and spiritual abundance as well as the embodiment of beauty. She is a protectoress of her devotees, shielding them from misery and poverty.
THE CHURNING OF THE MILKY OCEAN
During one of the prior ages, the goddess Sri-Lakshmi abandoned the gods for their overindulgence and neglectfulness. Without Sri, a great dark gloom descended on both heaven and earth. The divine ones learned that the goddess could be brought back only through a penance that involved the churning of the milky ocean.
A phenomenal effort was necessary for this task, requiring all the gods and demons to accomplish it. Vishnu himself assumed the avatar of a tortoise. This enabled him to hold the cosmic mountain Mandara in place and to prevent it from sinking while the ocean was churned. The celestial snake, Vaasuki, coiled around the Mandara mountain. The gods pulled one end of the snake while the demons pulled at the other and in this way, they churned the milky ocean.
Sri-Lakshmi returned, erupting out of the ocean, accompanied by the moon god Chandra. She summoned all the planets and stars from the ocean depths and sent them into the skies. Then she called forth a great number of celestial gifts. The celestial cow. The sacred gem. The divine elephant. The divine bow and the divine conch.
Yet the story does not end here. With Sri restored, the gods and demons continued churning the ocean for Amrita, the nectar of life and immortality. But as they churned, the ocean released a powerful poison which gave off toxic fumes. The gods and demons appealed to Shiva for help and without hesitation, Shiva consumed the poison. It was then that the divine physician, Dhanvantari, rose out of the waters bearing the celestial pot of Amrita. The demons immediately began drinking all the nectar but Vishnu intervened. Taking the form of an enchantress, he charmed the Amrita away from the demons and served it to the gods.