from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 14 August 2012



On a different tack here, though some of you will recognise a return to one of my preoccupations: the journey to wholeness via in this case the symbol of the mandorla.

It seems to me that part of our 'purpose' here, not just for our own sakes but for the sake of the world, is that we do the work of consciousness consciously. If we can unify as much as possible within ourselves the (apparently irreconcilable) pairs of opposites, then we are much less likely both to perceive them 'out there', and to inflict our own fragmentation and schisms on others.

In Jungian psychology this is known as the work relating to the Shadow function: that in us which is unconscious, which we fail to see, or don't know. We most often encounter it via projection: those things we see in another that most inflame us  – whether with romantic or sexual passion, with admiration/envy, or fury/revulsion – are usually a key to what we need to make conscious in ourselves.

Robert Bly says, in his typically poetic and wry way, something along the lines of the Shadow being the long bag we drag along behind us, heavy with the parts of ourselves that our parents, our teachers, our society or we ourselves don't like in us, and that therefore get repressed.

Trouble with repression is that these active constellations of energy get restless and burst out, often inappropriately, sometimes disastrously, unless they're made conscious. I'd say that this sits behind much of our global trouble, too, including war – what we hate in Other is what we are so often driven by but unconsciously in ourselves. Making it conscious defuses it.

The yin/yang symbol is of course the image par excellence of this unity. Although it is related most commonly to the apparent oppositions of male and female, it applies to any polarisation; and in the yin yang symbol, beautifully, there is too in each part a small 'eye' of the other – a reminder that no one and no thing is ever completely black or completely white; that there is always potential for embracing and understanding the other, for inclusivity.

Much less well-known is the beautifully simple Western equivalent: the mandorla. I first came across this at Chalice Well, in Glastonbury, where it forms part of the well cover (it is usually seen in the horizontal more egalitarian plane).

The form is two overlapping circles: the opposites are drawn together, each sharing something of themselves, and then transcending their duality in the synthesis. Mandorla is 'almond' in Italian, and describes the shape at the heart of the overlap. This is supposedly an ancient symbol. The ancients Egyptians used it, apparently, as sacred geometry in their architecture.

In Christian mysticism and iconography it is known as the 'vesica piscis' ('fish bladder', but 'vesica' is sometimes rendered as 'womb' or 'vessel'). The fish, of course, was adopted as a symbol of Christianity, and in its early and Gnostic forms in the mandorla it was sometimes used as a way for Christians to recognise each other. This happened by the one drawing a circle in the sand and being 'met' by the other, at a time when discretion might mean the difference between persecution or not. At times in the Church's history, masculine and feminine were recognised as equal and complementary forces, and the mandorla occurs in a number of mediaeval churches in Europe. Sometimes it has the Madonna in one circle, and Jesus Christ in the other. It symbolises, of course, the drawing together both of the masculine and the feminine, and also of heaven and earth.

Wikipedia says: 'The most famous example in nature of the vesica piscis is a solar eclipse. At various points in the Moon's orbit, it appears to be exactly the same size of the Sun when both are observed from Earth. As the Moon moves to cover the Sun, it forms a vesica piscis. This had great significance to the ancients. In many ancient cultures, the Sun was a male god and the Moon a goddess, and the vesica piscis symbolized an opening or gateway between these two polarities through which creation can take place.'

It's not, of course, simply a prescription of the outer world, but more a representation of the work we need to do in ourselves.

After I first saw it at Chalice Well, I came across it again in my Transpersonal Psychology training, which draws heavily on Jungian thought. Later, novelist Lindsay Clarke, whom I'm privileged to call a friend, spoke of it in relation to Parsifal and the whole Grail Quest story when he writes of the job of the 'neutral angels' in the 'war in heaven', which is to hold the struggle between heaven and hell in ongoing creative tension until the opposites are resolved in each other.

And Jungian Robert Johnson speaks too of our understandable need to try and 'choose' when in a situation of inner conflict (and who isn't, from time to time, living this earthly life and not knowing how to be in heaven?) until we risk being torn apart by fear and guilt and struggle; when actually our work consists in staying with the tension until a bigger solution than our ego-driven fears can provide manifests. When the ego gives up, the Higher Self, or 'God-part', in ourselves, can speak  and show a new more inclusive way.

'The mandorla,' says Johnson, 'reminds us that we partake of the nature of both heaven and earth, and instructs us how to engage in reconciliation.'

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