This is the first of our planned series of blog posts Despatches from the Retreat. With these posts we hope to provide support and encouragement during this difficult time for the planet and for its inhabitants.
Our Inner Struggles
These are difficult times for us all with the coronavirus. We all feel the need for support, at many levels, when so many certainties about our world have dropped away. Many rely on the internet for much of this support. And while there are practical suggestions and community groups that are doing a wonderful job, at another level people may also feel the lack of internal support – support that is available in moments of solitude, moments of family pressure, or during long sleepless nights.
So here are some ideas for internal support, that occur to us, and that we ourselves use. They are ideas to support your inner, psychological, realm; to help find ways through dark times. We hope they’re useful.
In Jungian thought and in the work of James Hillman the idea of a nekyia or katabasis is explored as a initiatory rite in which the individual is invited (or compelled) to undergo difficult passages or processes that are associated with the underworld, with darkness and with great difficulties.
Examples from mythology abound: Jonah in the belly of the whale, Persephone’s time in the underworld, Psyche’s descent into the underworld to be re-united with Eros.
Hillman says (in his book The Dream of the Underworld, p47):
Being in the underworld means psychic being … where soul comes first.
So there is perhaps a way to revision these dark, difficult times as invitations to travel into the dark places within ourselves, and to explore these places. To question, What is soul for us? What resides there?
What can sustain us and what can we learn from this period in which we may not be able to get our outer world needs met – connection, control, money, desire? What can replace partying, travel, shopping or eating out in our favourite restaurant?
Traditionally, the nekyia is an initiatory experience, a process that differs significantly from a heroic conquest. Although the person undertaking the underworld journey returns, they return as a different person (with perhaps more understanding of the idea of soul). One foot may forever after remain in the underworld. Their psychological world has deepened permanently.
Ram Dass and the Witness
The witness place inside you is simple awareness, the part of you that is aware of everything — just noticing, watching, not judging, just being present, being here now. – Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror.
The witness is another layer of consciousness, one untroubled by our incessant anxious thinking layer. It is an awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. For some, staying as the witness can be a powerful practice, a way out of the maze of attachments to worldly concerns.
Although there are many awareness and mindfulness practices on the web, Ram Dass’s own Cultivating the Witness can be one of the most powerful.
G.K. Chesterton and Allowing Mystery
An approach that may have power for some is to reflect upon the fact that we are all surrounded by mysteries – ones far greater than those of which we can be aware.
There is no need for religious or spiritual beliefs here (though these are not excluded): our senses detect only a small proportion of the energy systems within which we are immersed. Although our scientific instruments vastly extend these ranges, they are merely devices for converting these extra-sensory ranges into what is amenable to the human.
We use, for example, sonar, radar, and wifi for these purposes. Dogs hear way more than we do! And telepathic experiments leads us to believe we may be interconnected at very subtle levels.
For some, to know that day and night we are surrounded by mystery, is a solace.
G.K. Chesterton wrote about this in his 1908 book Orthodoxy:
As long as you have mystery you have health.
The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
(You can read the full quote here.)
As an analogy, Chesterton speaks of the sun:
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything.
(All quotations are from G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.)
Whatever difficulties we experience in the outer world, all of this rests on a far greater mystery than we can possibly envision.
Easwaran and the Mantram
The mantram (or mantra) is a tried-and-true device for drowning out the incessant chatter of a troubled mind. Traditionally, spiritual gurus gave specific mantras to their students. However, it can sometimes be a powerful practice to take our own short phrase or sentence that provides comfort, and to repeat this quietly in times of stress. Our anxious mind takes a break, as we rest into words that soothe.
Eknath Easwaran wrote a beautiful book called The Mantram Handbook which discusses in detail how one can arrive at a mantram that is personal and powerful.
In the introduction to this book, the neuroscientist Daniel H. Lowenstein says:
From studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we know that concentrating on a short phrase will activate specific areas in the front and side of the brain. These areas, the frontal and parietal lobes, are involved in selective attention – the capacity to maintain a single focus despite the presence of distracting stimuli. In this way, the mental repetition of a simple phrase like a mantram can provide a guidewire to move your attention away from a troubling stream of thoughts. It is as though the mantram provides access to a peaceful, grounded center that puts our cravings, drives, and other immediate needs in perspective.
We recommend Easwaran’s book as a practical guide for choosing a mantram. Easwaran also gives examples of mantra from Eastern and Western spiritual disciplines, and advice on how to make the mantram you choose go deep into your subconscious, replacing anxiety-creating thoughts and energies.
Sometimes simple is best!
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
See more on the serenity prayer on the Serenity Prayer wikipedia page.
It is easy to miss what we can still be grateful for in troubled times. We are all an integral part of nature and respond deeply to other parts of nature – such as ever-changing clouds in a blue or a dark sky; to the beauty of rain falling, leaves on a tree (even when seen only from our window).
We can be grateful for our loved ones, for the abilities of our bodies, for the food we can still eat, for the legions of essential service personnel who are putting themselves on the line every day at the moment, to help us be safer. We can be grateful for art and for music. We can be grateful for our breath.
We can reflect on how grateful we are for these things, to not let them go unnoticed. And we can also choose to share our gratitude with others.