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

Monday, 11 July 2011

ego, the wild, the west & a hornets' nest: Part 1

The ego is a funny beast. It's driven by fear primarily, and power and greed stemming from that. It seeks more than anything to 'have', to make its stamp on the world, to control and shape things according to its own needs, to close out and destroy that which threatens it/is different from it/it can't understand. Unless we make a conscious effort to relate to it differently, or unless a dramatic incident of loss or love breaks its defences, it can determine our life based on those three principles.

I'm not saying, by the way, that I believe the ego should be dismissed. In the New Age a common fallacy (one I shared in my 20s, with my imperfect understanding of Buddhist teachings on slipping the tight grip of ego) is that ego is 'bad' and we should 'rise above' it – that's crude misunderstanding, I think.

Things changed for me when I embarked on a training in transpersonal counselling in my late 20s/early 30s. One of the defining features of the transpersonal approach is a taking-into-account of the human search for meaning, and therefore the recognition of a spiritual dimension, whatever the individual understands by that. The training course drew on, as well as Jungian and post-Jungian thought, many sources of psychospiritual understanding from both West and East; its aim of course was towards wholeness.

My very wise teacher, Joan Swallow, gave me an insight into the proper place of ego (I'm paraphrasing): 'One needs to have developed a strong ego in order to weather the storms that are created by any serious journey towards consciousness. What one is aiming for is that the transpersonal self (known in Jungian circles as the Higher Self, or simply Self with a capital S) in its wisdom shapes our journey, and the work is integration of ego and Self, so that it is the Self that directs our journey, rather than the inflated ego.'


Maybe 25 years ago I wrote: we can't bear the wilderness 'out there' because we can't bear it 'in here' either. It has seemed to me for many years that our urge to destroy the natural world is as much to do with the fearfulness of the ego as it is to do with the more obvious excesses of greed and power (well and according to my earlier definition that's simply stating the obvious). We have a need, as a species, to stay in tight control of our environment, and are threatened by what we perceive as disorder. Our ego clamps down tight and attempts to bring it under our power via our personal will. In archetypal psychology we might call this the pull of the god Apollo (representing order, reason and the cerebral) as against the god of Dionysus (representing earthy sensuality and relationship to natural cycles). Either taken out of balance is destructive, albeit in very different ways. We need both, arguably.

When we make a vegetable garden, we are taking a patch of wilderness and shaping it to our own needs. Yes, this is controlling the environment; and within reason, based for me on 'how little do we need?' and an awareness of how our actions affect others, rather than the consumerist 'I have therefore I am, and how much can I have?' approach, seems healthy. We do need to shape aspects of our outer environment, as our inner, and the healthy, functioning ego is crucial to that. Trouble is, we don't stop there and can't leave the Wild to be itself. We need to change it to suit ourselves.

This may come initially from a perfectly valid adaptation-to-survive strategy, but it's undeniable that it's become savage since the beginning of our Industrial era, though the impulse might well be inherent in our species. Robert Bly makes an interesting distinction between 'wild' and 'savage' – if I've mentioned this before in my blogs forgive me – memory cells migrating into ancient untouched woodland: he says that the 'savage' man has a wound and does not know it; but the 'wild' man is in touch with his wound. The savage human hits out and destroys, and we see the effects all around us, all the time.

I'm talking about this for a couple of reasons: one is because the preservation of wilderness, the healthy functioning self-regulating ecosystem of this planet with a natural balance of species and their impact, seems so utterly crucial in its own right, for its own sake, let alone for our continued survival here (and not even starting to take into account the species we are losing every day as a consequence of our actions) that for me it eclipses almost every other concern.

The second is that the preservation of wild is also crucial for our own souls.

I cannot help but see our attitude to the wild as a mirror of collective and individual internal processes. The soul needs its wild places, its beaches, its rivers. It needs to feel itself part of this, part of the All. The Fall, it has been said by many in various ways, is/was the severance of our experience of ourself as being one with everything; our loss of a sense of interconnectedness, into our experience of separation. (This is why falling in love is so amazingly wonderful: the experience smashes through our egoic defences and for a little while we feel ourselves to be at One with another; perhaps the closest we get in a secular society.)

If we cannot relate healthily to our own need for recovering some of this sense of belonging, and to our healthily wild impulses – and I am speaking of the simple childlike joys of eg not watching the clock, walking barefoot, forming relationship to animal, bird, tree, plant, place, sleeping out, paying attention to our environment through the senses, learning from it, feeling the wind in our hair, being overawed by a mountain or risking the power of the sea, speaking the truth from the heart, learning about wild food, not being in a hurry to wash off mud, being spontaneous and creative, being able to disrupt routines and live by a deeper rhythm, being aware of our dream life, our daydreaming, our fantasies, our needs for 'time out' and not being overly-civilised (which word comes specifically from the Latin word for 'those who live in cities'), our need to express ourselves according to our best connected nature rather than others' expectations, spontaneous expressions of affection, also becoming aware of and listening to, rather than simply repressing, our impulses towards sadness, anger, fear, hunger and learning to recognise them without necessarily having to act them out, and playing – then how can we form a healthy relationship to the untrammeled and unshaped-by-human-hand wild places? And what loss do we risk on many levels if we don't?

And I shall stop there today; but I am leading towards speaking of the wild, the west, and a hornets' nest I inadvertently kicked in relation to that wonderful book by Jim Perrin I mentioned a few weeks ago when I was talking about compasses. That will be Part 11.

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