In the Depths of the Process
At twenty one, I was introduced to Jungian depth psychology, and a creativity cycle of descent and return, that informs my process. It is in the unconscious caves our psyche that we find our deepest magic.
I had transferred from the University of California, Santa Barbara, to the much smaller Humboldt State University, after the tragic death of a dear friend. I was in the throws of my first real confrontation with mortality. The air all around me had a weightiness to it. I hung around with intense, edgy people. Many, on the brink. Several friends had psychotic breaks within months of knowing them. The moody rainforest of Humboldt County was the perfect back drop to my mental landscape.
At that time, Humboldt State had a requirement that was not part of general education at the UC. We were required to take one class that dealt with the a subject of introspection. They called it a self development requirement. One class, unique to Humboldt, that satisfied this offering was titled “Paths to Center.” In it, we covered the topics of Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism, and the teachings of Thomas Merton. The impact on my development was profound.
One of the first things we did was to take the Myers-Briggs test, in which we discovered that the class was populated almost entirely by INFPs. A truly unusual situation, given that this personality type is 1% of the human population. It turns out, Humboldt State is filled with introverts. Go figure, a school in the cold rainforest in a town isolated from everything, self contained and friendly.
Learning that I was an INFP was a revelation. At the time, I was acting out my shadow. I lived a very extroverted, sensory, existence. Constantly surrounded by people, partying every day, not finding internal reflection. I was miserable. Armed with my new personality test data, I gave myself permission to retreat from the world, and slow down. I allowed my feelings and intuitions to emerge, rather than burying myself in overwhelming, fast paced, sensory overload. I became witness to the cycles of my own creative process.
The class unpacked concepts of alchemy and the unconscious. Metaphors for the cycles of descent into the underworld, reduction into the heavy lead stage, cooking down into a purification process that results in golden rebirth. We were required to sit meditation, in a Zen retreat. And blessing of blessings, we read Seven Story Mountain, the autobiographical writings of Thomas Merton. I learned that he came from a bohemian family like me. That he did not start out clean and perfect and spiritual, but had carved a spiritual, seeking path, for himself.
I became aware of contemplative practice. It was a critical time in my creative development, my strange crooked dance. From there I began strands of exploration that have moved into the weaving of my creative work. I carved out my personal archetypal imagery. I approached contemplative practices like yoga and meditation, to balance the ecstatic practices I am drawn to. I attempted a path toward sobriety and self possession, a containment and clarifying where there had been none. All as a result of this seed. Paths to Center, meant cycles of descent and return, a leading metaphor in my journey.
Later, in the midst of writing my PhD dissertation, I was confronted with a myth that I had not been particularly attached to at any earlier stage in my life. I recognized that it was a new archetypal image opening up for me, Ariadne and the labyrinth. Once I turned my attention to it, the myth became a primary metaphor. I found myself stumbling into it, or referring to it almost daily. The stages of Ariadne’s journey informed my previous underworld progressions, with a new layer of maturity, that I hadn’t felt before. It was a next stage of processing the emotional implications of descent. I was infatuated with Persephone. I read the Descent of the Goddess by Sylvia Brinton Perera, a Jungian analysis of Inanna’s descent. I used alchemical metaphors to describe my process of internalizing, and returning, for the sake of creativity, emotional recalibration, or simply illness. Ariadne felt different.
Something in the labyrinth: the twists and turns; the potential to be lost; and the monster at its center; the death, or abandonment she faces as a last point of her journey; shifted the previous simplicity of a cycle of return, to something far edgier. I saw the potential for confrontation, mutation, of the Self, not simply acceptance. It resonated as a process of deep self awareness. I also became more clear about its shadow presentation, potentially narcissistic contemplation, described in James Hillman’s Dream and the Underworld. Thoughts of the detrimental heroic ego of Theseus, verses the receptive nature of the gender (fluid) balanced “masculine” of Dionysus, started to speak to me of individuation. Of course this was all coming on at mid-life. Predictably, at this time of life, I began to transform and break open the static structures I had put in place for myself. My contained and predicted life, started to fall apart. My household, my marriage, my sense of self, all shifted, and much of what I was holding tight to, fell away.
I found that following the red thread Ariadne offered me, led me into other descent metaphors, Hekate, The Morrigan, Arianrhod. I explored my shadows, my opposites, and the magic spaces inside of me that I had shut doors on years before. The doors had been shut in order to sustain a necessary healing, my wounded childhood ego. Now the doors needed to be reopened, reawakened, to revivify. I had shut myself down, and I needed to find the energy that I had turned away from. That energy has fallen to the bottom of the well. It was still alive in the deepness of my emotions, in the movement of my body, in the ownership of feelings hard to hold. By taking Ariadne into my sphere, I understood the stripping down of Inanna, with a new insight. Crete became Babylon, as I found myself deeply attracted to rocks and caves, and the dryness and silence of the desert. My thoughts could not land, my actions seemed often nonsensical, and I sought out the company of people whose energy could spark and inform my deepest unconscious places, both positively and negatively.
Awakening is a dangerous act. Sometimes it seems like the worst of mistakes. It shines a light on shadows that have intense energy. Shadows capable of destruction, and chaos. Yet, this energy is the well spring of personal creativity, of magic. The art of life sits in authentic expression, and authenticity is the realm of the shamanic. It is healing and revivifying. A necessary catalyst to transformation, it keeps culture and individuals from falling into static death. And it is one step away from madness. The creative process lives in this realm, in the darkest caves of our psychic transformation, where we wind through the labyrinth to find our boon. The opposite of Plato’s famous story of leaving the cave, there is a time when we make a shift, returning to a deeper cave, not the one where people are chained and held hostage by their illusions. More like Jung’s descent into the ancient cellars below the basement, where our earliest manifestations of sacred ritual remain a necessary mystery, for the sake of potency. We are called there in moments of crisis, when faced with loss, or critical transitions. The artist, like the shaman, or the mad man, returns regularly to that realm, cycling in and out, a psycho-pomp, becoming familiar with the surprises of unseen things in the dark.