Parvati, Kali, and Balance

Siva, god of destruction, is associated as the consort or husband of Devi, the Mother-goddess, who is represented in the form of several goddesses. Two Devi representations that stand out are Parvati and Kali because they are so very different, especially in the way they relate with Siva. Parvati is a calming force for Siva while Kali incites him to greater destruction. Parvati attempts to civilize Siva, to change him, but Kali is even more uncivilized than Siva so through their relationship another, more civilized, Siva is revealed. Studying the myths and relationships with these three deities demonstrates both duality and balance.

Western perspective and confusion

These myths and information about the deities can be very confusing, the more information that is uncovered, the more confusing it becomes. Part of the confusion, for me, was from looking at these myths through western eyes. Zimmerman warns about reading these myths through western perspective, but every person uses their background knowledge when reading so it is almost impossible not to incorporate your own cultural perspective in any reading. The other part of the confusion is the fluidity of the characters. Parvati is identified as the reincarnation of Sati, Siva’s first wife, but she is also being represented as Durga, Rudrani, Uma, and Kali, entirely different goddesses, but in truth, all of these goddesses are aspects of Devi. How can one deity be so many different goddesses; such extremely different personalities? I believe the way to reconcile this is to look at our own natures, are we as individuals easy to label? Are we calm or wild, happy or sad, or funny or serious?  The truth lies that we identify somewhere in the middle, we are at times happy, at times sad – we are complex beings and so are the gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion. In the western world, it is expected for religious personalities to be easy to label and understand, not fluid; they are extreme. However, to a person who understands the nature of duality and the complexity of whole characters, it is understood that no one is all this or that but a mixture of qualities, this is what is known as duality. What the myths show with these two consorts is a need for balance of these extremes. Siva must be at times destructive, as is his nature, but at times he must also be calm to allow for Brahma and Visnu to create and preserve. With Parvati, we see her as the cause of balance but with Kali, we actually see Siva as the one that calming force for the wild goddess.

Another misconception that arises with looking at the myths with the western perspective is that the Devi goddess is not as important as her consort god, Siva. Since Parvati doesn’t have any history separate from Siva, she would be seen as less than to westerners. “Her identity and nature and nearly all her mythological deeds are defined or acted out vis-à-vis her consort/husband, the great ascetic god Siva” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 35). In fact, she was reincarnated specifically so that Siva could have a child that was necessary to save the world. In reality, she is equal to or more powerful than Siva. She is the only one powerful enough to make Siva change his mind. It is implied that “the great male gods are entirely dependent on the Devi for their strength and power and that if she withdraws her power, they are impotent and helpless” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 137). In the westerner’s mind, it is he who does the action that is important, not the one that inspires it. The mind can be much more powerful than the body. What westerners do not often recognize that both have power and importance; it is about balance.
Who is Siva?

Siva, pronounced and often written as Shiva, is one of the three gods responsible for the creation, upkeep, and destruction of the world. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Visnu is the preserver, and Siva is the destroyer. He must destroy the illusions and imperfections of the world so we can have positive change. Often, destruction is thought of in negative terms but it is necessary to have destruction in order to have creation, it is balance.

Siva contains many contradictory elements and an untamed passion; he can be seen as both good and evil. His behavior is often extreme, especially when without Parvati. “Paradox is the very heart of Saiva mythology” (O’Flaherty 300-337). He is an ascetic that abstains from all worldly pleasures while at other times; he is a hedonist that gives in to his every whim. “Although the apparently contradictory strains of Siva’s nature may well have originated from different times and places, they have resulted in a composite deity who is unquestionably whole to his devotees; this is why the Hindus accept and even glorify what might otherwise seem a meaningless patchwork, a crazy quilt of metaphysics” (O’Flaherty 300-337). It is Siva’s contradictions that make him whole and more realistic because upon reflection, it is apparent that humans also have contradictions and this makes Siva more relatable. The way Siva achieves balance is through his marriage with Sati and later her reincarnation, Parvati. “Together they are fertile, generative, and equilibrating, but apart they are potentially destructive” (Handelman 133-170). Siva also achieves balance with Kali, however with Kali; he is the calm to her destructive nature, showing that Siva contains both the wild and out of control as well as stabilizing aspects in his nature. The inclusion of the Kali myths demonstrate that Siva contains duality and balance within his own personality.

The Devi Goddesses, Parvati and Kali

Since Parvati is the reincarnation of Sati, the two are often seen as the same goddess; two lives of the same goddess. Parvati, Sati, comes back to the world for the purpose of bearing Siva’s child to the world. There are many versions of the myth of Parvati and how she becomes mother to Siva’s offspring. This is a synopsis of the history of Parvati: there was a demon named Taraka terrorizing the world and the only way this demon could be defeated and balance restored was by the offspring of Siva. Since Siva did not have any children and had no interest in having any sort of family, Sati was convinced to return to the world to persuade Siva to have an offspring. Parvati gains Siva’s admiration by performing tapas, cutting herself off from the world and mastering her physical needs. When they are finally married and make love, they are interrupted and Siva’s seed is spilled outside Parvati. It is eventually deposited into the Ganges River and becomes the child Karttikeya, also called Skanda and other names. He returns to his parents and saves the world and restores balance by defeating the demon Taraka. Parvati raises Karttikeya as her own son but she also creates a second son, Ganesa, on her own. The reason Parvati decides to have the second child is to guard for her so she can have privacy. When Siva returns, Ganesa does not allow him in and Siva cuts his head off. Parvati demands that Siva brings their son back to life so Siva grabs the head of an elephant and places it on the boy’s body. The complete family is Siva, Parvati, and their two sons, each created individually by one of the parents.

Even though Parvati is the daughter of the Himalayas and lures Siva out of his ascetic isolation by becoming an ascetic herself, she values the household and society. She “represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, which cherishes the house society rather than the forest, the mountains, or ascetic life” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 46). The couple represents the tension between the ideals of the ascetic and the householder. Siva has no desire for family or in settling down but Parvati desires, in fact is born, to marry Siva and have children. “Contact with his properly cultured spouse seems to connect him with ordinary social reality and temporarily domesticates him” (Yocum 119). While Parvati does partially domesticate Siva, she does not fully succeed in achieving her desire for a “normal” life. For instance, Parvati desires a proper home but they never do . Also, Siva retains his wild, ascetic appearance, and continues some of his wild behavior. Since Siva is a god of many extremes, it is Parvati’s role to be the tamer of these extremes, both ascetic and sexual and create balance. Siva never fully gives in to her desires as a householder and she never goes back to asceticism so they remain in a constant state of tension or balance.

The relationship of Parvati and Siva is a case for opposites attracting, duality and balance, but Kali and Parvati are also a representation of duality and balance. While Parvati hardly has any independent history, Kali is rarely associated with her male consort, Siva. Parvati is the householder that desires children yet Kali is often depicted as virginal and violent. Kali prefers the battlefield, Parvati prefers the home. Parvati and Kali may appear to be opposites but Kali is actually represented as part of Parvati. Parvati and Kali are an example of duality and balance existing within one individual.

Kali exists with Siva as the personified wrath of Parvati or Sita. She comes into being when we need to see the otherwise calm and beautiful Parvati be fierce. While Parvati is known for her beauty and quiet grace, Kali is known for a terrible and frightening appearance. Even when compared to Siva’s most terrible forms, she surpasses his wild appearance. “She is always black or dark, usually naked, and has long, disheveled hair. She is adorned with severed arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children’s corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 117). Her nature is fearsome and she enjoys battlefields and cremation grounds. While Parvati calms the wild nature of Siva, Kali intensifies it. In fact, Siva is the one that needs to calm Kali’s wild behavior. In their relationship, they are depicted “in situations where either or both behave in disruptive ways, inciting each other, or in which Kali in her wild activity dominates an inactive or sometimes dead Siva” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 119). When they are together, she is always extreme and uncontrollable.

While Parvati tries to tame Siva, Kali compliments his destructive habits and madness, bringing them to even higher levels, the opposite of balance. She is seen in most images as dominant over Siva, often standing on his body. She is never “subdued by him and is most popularly represented as a being who is uncontrollable and more apt to provoke Siva to dangerous activity than to be controlled by him” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 120). She is the one that needs taming, even in her role as demon slayer, which one would think would help bring balance. In battle, Kali becomes so drunk on blood that she becomes out of control and must be subdued or she may just destroy the world. Balance in these situations is attained by the intervention of Siva.

Duality and Balance

Through the relationships of Siva and Parvati, Siva and Kali, and Kali and Parvati the theme that we see over and over again is the existence of duality and the need for balance. Balance between the spiritual and social worlds with Siva and Parvati is important in Hindu culture since the stress towards living a spiritual life would almost suggest a break from the world of the household but balance is actually the message, not just renunciation. “Both renunciation of action ant the selfless performance of action lead to the supreme goal. But the path of action is better than renunciation” (Easwaran 29). Balance between out of control, destructive behavior and the need to have that destruction reigned in as seen with Siva and Kali is important since Siva’s destruction is meant so that a better world can be created not the entire world destroyed. Finally, the balance of independence and interdependence, wild destruction and calm house making, and beauty and terror are seen in one being with Kali and Parvati which demonstrates how we all have the capabilities of extremes within ourselves.

“It is sometimes said that Indian culture generally betrays a love for extremes, that moderation and balance tend to get lost in the Indian tendency to exploit everything to its ultimate limit” (Kinsley, Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali 183-207). However, it is in these dual natural extremes that we see balance. Siva, Parvati, and Kali are extreme in nature but together they have balance. Humans and the gods and goddesses of Hindu myths have dual natures that contain extremes and balance. It is by nurturing different aspects of our natures that we become more to one extreme or the other. Often, it is the people we surround ourselves with that causes us to be either more extreme or balanced, like demonstrated by the relationships of Siva with Parvati and Kali.

Even though it may appear that the Indian culture has a love for extreme, I believe it is the western culture that actually embraces extremes, or absolutes. As demonstrated, the relationships of these three Hindu deities show a desire for balance, they show complex characters that contain dualities and balance. It is the dominant, western religion, Christianity, the non-human characters are extreme; Satan is purely evil and the personification of god, Jesus, is purely good and without sin. Even the actions taken by god in Christianity are extreme; when Adam and Eve commit the first sin, they are cast out into the wilderness; when the society is too corrupt, a flood is sent to wipe out all of humanity and life save for one family and pairs of each animal. This is why it is so difficult for westerners to comprehend the wholeness, the dualities that exist in Hindu deities. It is hard to think of a supreme being as both out of control and stable. For the western mind, these deities are too human which makes them hard to understand or respect. That is why, even with Devi, it is hard for a westerner to grasp that she is both Parvati, the householder, and Kali, the bloodthirsty warrior. The duality of the gods and goddesses in Hinduism doesn’t lessen their importance, it increases their ability to be relatable and makes the lessons from their myths relatable to our lives.

There are two lessons shown through these relationships, balance and duality. First, is duality; all humans have duality, we are not extreme. This is important to remember when dealing with each other and when reflecting on ourselves. We can be less judgmental by remembering that everyone has a dual nature and is struggling towards the second lesson which is balance; balance within the individual and balance in relationships. Balance is necessary within the individual, without balance there is dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It must also exist in a relationship or there will be the same result of dissatisfaction and unhappiness and often the termination of the relationship. Sometimes qualities can shift back and forth between the individuals in a relationship, as we see with the shift of Parvati to Kali with Siva but tension and balance must exist.

Balance and embracing our own duality can lead to a happier, more enlightened life. The Bhagavad Gita tell us “they live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and contend with whatever comes to them” (Easwaran 25). We can be happier with who we are because even when we fall short, we know we have the qualities to be better. When we feel overly proud that we have a specific “good” attribute we can become more humble by recognizing that we also contain the “negative” attribute as well. By recognizing duality in others and having less judgment or comparison to them, we can be happier with who we are and who they are.

I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes from The Bhagavad Gita. “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity” (Easwaran 21).  This relates to the messages of balance and duality. We need to recognize and embrace both our inner Parvati and Kali. Even if others may see one trait as better than another, it is within ourselves that we need to strive to succeed, not in the eyes of others. It is not competition or scrutiny of others that will make us happy. All people must strive to contend within their own dharma and understand their own duality in order to maintain balance and attain true joy and spiritual enlightenment and these are the lessons I learned from studying Siva, Parvati, and Kali.

Works Cited

 

Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. 1st edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.

Handelman, Don. “Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic .” History of Religions. 27.2 (1987): 133-170. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062666&gt;.

Kinsley, David. “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen. 22.3 (1975): 183-207. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.pgi.idm.oclc.org/stable/3269544&gt;.

Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

O’Flaherty, Wendy. “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva, Part I.” History of Religions. 8.4 (1969): 300-337. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062019&gt;.

Yocum, Glenn. Hymns to the Dancing Siva: A Study of Manikkavacakar’s Tirubacakum. Columbia, Missouri: South Asia Books, 1982. Print.

Zimmer, Heinrich, and Joseph Campbell. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Eighth printing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Storytellers: Weekend retreat for women with a story to tell

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

     I lived most of my life with untold stories inside of me. I wouldn’t acknowledge the stories from my past and was afraid to believe in stories for the future. This was a painful way to live because I wasn’t my true self. It took years of studying mythologies and depth psychology to begin to understand the importance of our stories. Once I embraced my stories – both lived and unlived – life began to change in ways I had not before imagined possible. I was no longer content to live the life that was easy. I wanted a life that was interesting and fulfilling. I learned how to write my story and actually live it! I had control of my life. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was terrifying, and continues to be an ongoing journey but the rewards are certainly worth the effort. In fact, the effort has been its own reward. I invite you to join us for a weekend of self-discovery to find out what stories need to be told and how to tell them to shape a better future.

Our speakers Juile Paegle, Kathy Jaffe, and myself, Tracy Marrs are enthusiastically preparing meaningful experiences for our exciting weekend focusing on the power of words. You don’t need to be a writer to have a story to tell but if you want to write, Julie and myself have years of experience guiding writers of all levels to awaken their untold stories and make them alive on the page. Oftentimes, facing these stories can be difficult, Kathy is a licensed therapist with a background in word power and living mindfully. Her experiences and training give her the ability to help others as they navigate their narratives to find their authentic selves.

If things get a little too cerebral, take a break and go for a swim in the pool, relax on the deck and listen to the birds, or wander along the many scenic trails, on your own or with a friend. Also, make sure to take time to quiet the mind and stretch the body with our amazing yoga instructor. Stories can heal the past, enrich the present and comfort and inspire us for the future. Your story is important – let us help you find it, express it, and live it.

September 16-18, 2016

Camp de Benneville Pines

 

Transmuted interpretations

The elements in the crucible of the classroom combine in a specific way to transform my base comprehension of alchemy into something precious, something new; new interpretations for alchemy. The transmutation of knowledge was as deliberate as any alchemist in a lab mixing elements to transform metals with both students and teacher as alchemists attempting to create something of value. The purpose of this paper is two part. First, to introduce and validate organic and intellectual alchemy by showing the similarities with traditional alchemy. Next, I will attempt to demonstrate that while the similarities within these interpretations are how I relate to alchemy, the differences in value, personal cost, and availability of both creation and elements is what defines that value and ultimately, these versions of alchemy as transmutations, not replications of alchemy.

At first, I had a great aversion to the study of alchemy. It was very foreign to me and the idea of taking something and attempting to change it into something better bothered me. Also, I am a lover of nature and I mistakenly thought that to accept alchemy was to betray nature. I had the idea that to embrace alchemy, one had to concede that synthetic could equal or transcend nature. So, while I acknowledged that great things had been accomplished through the alchemist’s attempts to recreate or improve nature, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to transcend nature. Not to mention the idea of individuals spending all of their time and wealth trying to find a way to get more time and wealth seemed ridiculous to me. Alchemy seemed so remote and slightly ridiculous to me until our third class session when we listened to Judy Collins sing William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aegeus,” talked about James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Way,” and Dr. Evans Smith discussed the idea of the artist as an alchemist. All of a sudden, this topic which seemed so foreign took on a whole new meaning and became relatable. Alchemy isn’t just a quest for everlasting life or how to make gold, it can be about change and creation.

Suddenly, I could relate to alchemy. I enjoy art and while I am not by any means an artist, the idea of transforming colors or raw materials into something better, something beautiful is familiar to me unlike the mixing of metals. The attempt of art is to take raw materials and create something of value is like the alchemist taking base metals and mixing them in different combinations to solve the mystery of the puzzle to make gold. Affecting change on the canvas or on a lump of clay and creating something of value can be argued to be a form of alchemy. To differentiate this form of alchemy, I will call it organic alchemy because even though it is deliberate; it is not the traditional alchemy of crucibles and laboratories. To take the idea of organic alchemy a step further, I found I could relate to organic alchemy through my role as a parent.

The alchemical process didn’t stop there with my understanding of and relating to alchemy. From traditional alchemy to organic alchemy, I thought I should also include what I will call intellectual alchemy. While an artist affects physical change on raw materials, so too does an author take mere words and create whole new worlds. This change happens within the mind, it is not a physical creation like with traditional and organic alchemy but it is a conscious attempt to change and create. Authors aren’t the only people to practice intellectual alchemy, I will show that teachers are intellectual alchemists, and we use selected materials to create knowledge and understanding within a specific topic.

The concept of organic alchemy became relatable through my misinterpretation of the William Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and because of the name of the character from “Finnegan’s Way.” I like to call it a miss-interpretation because I saw the poem through the female lens, specifically through the lens of motherhood. It may have been because it was sung by a female or because I have recently become a mother to a little girl or most likely, both of these elements come into play. While the poem is a love poem of a man to a woman, I read it as a poem from mother to daughter. In this reading, the mother is the organic alchemist and her precious creation is her child. Like an alchemist, so engrossed in their pursuit for gold, this misinterpretation was so powerful and resonating with me, I did not even stop to think of any other interpretation until I started to do research. I do know this was not Yeats’ meaning when writing this poem but the alchemical process from adding this poem, having it sung so beautifully by Judy Collins and heating it in the crucible of my mind made this interpretation of the poem and alchemy. Here is my miss-interpretation of the poem as it relates to organic alchemy and parenting:

“I WENT out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,”

Here we have a deliberate capitalization of the word WENT, the act is deliberate, it is the authors decision to actively make a change. To start the change, “she” goes out into the hazel woods, hazel is associated with creativity. The author wants to make a change through creation and the fire in the head is how the crucible gets heated. Here it is like parenting since it is with the deliberate act of trying to have a child, the parent thinks they will create something more precious than gold and better than themselves.

“And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;”

Here the interpretation is purely personal. Fishing and especially by using a stick and berry makes me think of fishing with my grandfather as a child and fishing with my son now. He taught me to value simple things, like a homemade fishing pole and we always fished with salmon eggs which are small, red and round and look like little berries. He instilled in me a love of fishing and an appreciation of nature as a small child and I hope to do that for my children and grandchildren. It makes me think of so many generations constantly trying to create something better than themselves.

“And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,”

The moths are out so it is still dark outside and they are white, pure and new. The next line with moth-like stars flickering out actually indicates that it is during a time of transition from night to early morning, the beginning of a new day. This relates to the beginning of the alchemical process of creation.

“I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.”

Since the berry makes me think of fishing with salmon eggs it makes sense that these lines relates to biology of creating a child. The egg that the author drops into the stream is her own and the stream which represents the father’s contribution also represents change because it is always moving. It isn’t just putting these two elements together that creates the new precious material it is putting them with something that combines and changes. The trout is the child and like a little silver trout, a small baby is slippery and wriggly when it is pulled from the stream, the place where the elements combined and transformed or born.

“When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire a-flame,”

Here it the author lays the creation on the floor and goes to the work of getting the fire started. I live in the mountains and our primary source of heat is a wood stove so I often set my daughter on the floor with some toys and make a fire for us. To me, these lines represent how quickly the time goes by as a parent, people often say it’s like they blinked and the child had grown. Which is represented in the next six heartbreaking lines, the moment you turn your back the child is grown and speaking your name. Then she is a glimmering girl who calls your name, she is has a blossom in her hair so she is already a child. Next she calls your name and runs and fades away through the brightening air. Children as they grow naturally pull away from their parents and eventually move away and create their own life and family and into the brightness of the future.

“But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.”

I could not accept the interpretation of the author’s daughter growing to the point that she fades away into the future but that was reconciled through the next six lines:

“Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done”

The author says if this separation from her daughter were to occur to she would wander the earth to find her and kiss her lips and take her hands and walk with her until time and times are done – how breathtaking is that? I see no comment is needed on these lines, they stand so beautifully on their own.

‘The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.”

The last two lines I interpreted as showing that this poem is both personal and universal. An apple is literally a fruit, the product of the parent. It is also round and contains the seeds for the future, a continuation of life through the generations, an attempt to have a part live on forever. Silver and moon represent the female and the golden and sun represent the male. I saw two possible interpretations for the male and female. The surface interpretation that they represent the parents that created the child but it could also be showing that this poem and its sentiments are universal. Since the apples are the fruit that will transform and holds the future then they are the children so this poem relates to how mothers feel to all their children, their silver daughters and golden sons, precious metals and precious creations. This is organic alchemy, a deliberate transformation of two base elements to create something precious.

Sometimes as with alchemy when the elements mix, they do not make a better creation. There are sometimes problems like mental illness which was the case for James Joyce and his daughter, the writer of “Finnegan’s Way.” As pointed out in the lecture in class, Joyce may have intentionally named his character Nuvoluccia to try to transform his daughter through a different kind of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy, changing something through the mind, he remade his daughter Luccia without the schizophrenia as the New Luccia. The artist as an alchemist. Parenting is also so much more than the organic alchemy of creating through the combining of elements, it is also very much a long process of intellectual alchemy. The parent is like an alchemist toiling away for endless hours, often into the middle of the night to effect the transformation from themselves into something better. They try many different elements to effect change in order for the child to transform and improve. This is also like teaching.

The teacher is an intellectual alchemist. They take a selection of elements and combine them into something new and valuable. Had Dr. Smith not combined the exact elements of the poem, the song, and the interpretation of the artist as alchemist, I would not have made such a lasting personal connection to alchemy, which to me is gold. A transformation occurred intellectually that was purely intellectual but it was a combination of elements that created something new and better. The thing that is beautiful about intellectual alchemy is the ability for it to be shared with many people at once. For each student, there is a different creation based on what they bring to the crucible classroom. Each element is necessary for that exact transformation because they each add something to the mix so it is like a recipe in alchemy, attempting to mix the elements for something precious. The teacher like the alchemist toils away night and day over the betterment of their recipes and creations, always striving to improve their lessons and products they create. They also have to choose between the many elements of texts to assign and materials to be included and left out. The teacher, like the alchemist, has an endless combination of elements to experiment and attempt to make a precious creation. The creation of something precious, gold and silver apples.

This leads us to value, how do we determine what is precious and how does availability of creation and elements transform value within the three methods of alchemy, traditional, organic, and intellectual. First to look at what is valued, what is the precious creation the alchemist is pursuing and what elements does the alchemist implement in that pursuit. Next by looking at the availability of the elements and products and how this defines value within each form and inevitably separates each practice of alchemy.

In traditional alchemy there are two primary pursuits, gold and endless life. Both of these are limited which gives them high value. They also both have attractive qualities that give them obvious desirability. Gold equaled wealth and to possess gold was to have wealth which represented comfort, stability, protection, and power. Who doesn’t want all of that? The problem is that if gold could be created, it would no longer be limited. In this case, success in the creation of the precious metal would devalue the gold because it would no longer be limited. The same applies to the other quest in traditional alchemy, life. Part of what makes life so valued is that it is limited. We cherish the time we have specifically because we don’t know how much we have but we do know it is limited.

The elements used to pursue these precious creations are unlimited. Alchemists used combinations of metals, in different amounts, using different shaped crucibles with various heats to attempt to create gold. They used elements from nature and basically any combination they suspected could lead to the universal elixir. The elements for creating the precious goal had an unlimited supply because there were endless combinations. Compared to the goal, the elements have little value but many alchemists spent fortunes chasing the precious outcomes. The personal cost was high even if the elements are unlimited, the acquirement of the elements and the necessary equipment came at a large cost. The cost was not important to the alchemist because the goal was so valuable and to achieve it was worth the great cost. To give an example of personal cost and value, I will relate my current situation.

As I write this, I have my six-month-old daughter sleeping on my lap. It isn’t ideal but it is limited. While it would be easier if I could put her in her bed and type more comfortably, her desire to be with me is endearing. Part of me enjoys holding her as I write. I know that it won’t be forever that she will be sleeping on my lap. Too soon she will be the small girl with an apple blossom in her hair. Because it is limited, I embrace it and enjoy what I can but if it was endless it would lose value. As pretty as it may sound in poetry, if I were actually to hold her all the time until the end of time, it would lose the endearing quality. The ability to endure through the personal costs like back pain and difficulty doing most any task is due to the fact that it will not last forever. It is for only a short time so while it can at times be difficult, it is something of high value. If it was to be endless, it would lose value. Time with children is especially limited, they are growing and becoming more independent progressively through time. This gives childhood and children value because it has defined limits that can only be kept by transforming them into intellectual creations through memory.

For organic alchemy, specifically parenting, the elements are limited and as a consequence, so is the creation. For women, the limitations and personal cost are much higher so motherhood often has higher value in many societies. In American society, parenthood and the creation of a family is the highly sought after quest of many unsuspecting organic alchemists. They desire to create something new and better by using the elements of self and partner which makes them organic alchemists. Art is organic alchemy and parenting is part organic, part intellectual alchemy.

Intellectual alchemy differs from the first two interpretations of alchemy because it does not produce a tangible product. An author may write their words on a page, transmuting them into something that exists within the world but the actual process of creation in writing is purely intellectual. Teaching can also be a form of intellectual alchemy with the goal of transmutation of knowledge. Besides not having a tangible precious creation, intellectual alchemy has the added distinction of multiple alchemists. I would argue that both the teachers and the students are the alchemists and the elements. The teacher is the head alchemist, the one that chooses the elements to include in the lesson but the students are also working toward the goal of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Intellectual alchemy is unique since it requires at least two alchemists and the transmutation which occurs in the minds of the alchemists.

Knowledge while not tangible, is highly valued. The elements used to create it are endless but at the same time, limited. The teacher as an alchemist has a wide assortment of materials for the procurement of knowledge but it is also limited by circumstance. Teachers can only assign so much reading which means with each element they are choosing to add, they are choosing to leave something else behind. Also, each individual brings their own set of elements with experience and interpretation to the material. For each person in the room, knowledge is usually acquired but it is different for eachc individual. Intellectual alchemy is the easiest to successfully practice but the results are never the same. The precious goal in this alchemy is attained and still valued.

This is a major break from the other interpretations of alchemy. Intellectual alchemy increases in value as it is shared. The knowledge created does not lose value from multiplication because it is still precious and unique to each individual. The personal cost of knowledge leads us back to traditional alchemy, time. All of these things cost us time. While science has managed to extend the time we have on this earth, it is still limited and that limitation is unknown to us. Time, our most precious resource which has yet to be produced by the alchemists will remain the common thread to all that is precious because it is the only thing that truly can’t be replaced. It can be transformed into memory and story telling but not duplicated.

 

Works Cited

Smith, Evans Lansing. “The Romanticism to Postmodernism.” Third Session: Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpenteria. 8 Nov. 2014. Lecture.

Yeats, William. “Poetry Archive | Poems.” Poetry Archive | Poems. 1 Jan. 1899. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.poetry-archive.com&gt;.

Collins, Judy, and William Yeats. “Judy Collins – Golden Apples of the Sun.” YouTube. 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alIUW_JY03I&gt;.

Dante’s midlife transition: Learning to live and love

(I have been working on this one in my head and will rewrite it soon with new insights)

Transitions are part of life. Nothing in this world can remain unchanged partly because the world itself is in a constant state of transition. Transitions follow natural order – spring follows winter and caterpillars become butterflies. In nature, the only alternatives to change are stagnation, purification, and death. Humans are no exception to this rule but what about the inner world, the world beyond the biological, physical realities and laws? Fortunately, while these internal transitions may feel foreign and unknown, they too are natural and have a natural path to follow in order for growth to occur. When a person does not follow the natural order in psychic growth the result is the same, only psychological. A person can suffer psychological stagnation, purification, and death. However, unlike biological consequences, a person’s inner consequences are not fixed and while the person may seem “dead inside” they can be resurrected. In order to grow, a person has to find their individual purpose and to do that, they have to discover their individuality.   The most true self, psyche, or soul is individual and the transition will have different revelations for different people but the journey to enlightenment will not change. The natural path to inner light is through the darkness.

For the first half of life, a person follows the natural path of life, moving forward and upward. Suddenly, they reach the top of the hill and from this new perspective, they begin to see things differently. The urge to continue up is challenged and a new direction is introduced. This transition sets the tone for the second half of life.  When a person is at midlife, they look forward and face death and realize that their time is limited. They feel lost and don’t know which direction to go. If they continue to climb, they find themselves no longer making meaningful progress and stagnate. If they try to go back and live in the past, they see themselves as less than their former selves and putrefy. Finally, if they refuse to change, they face the worst fate of all, psychological death. Growth at this point means to move down and make a descent into the unconscious. Instead of onward and upwards the movement becomes inward and down. This transition is difficult. It turns everything upside down and inside out. Many people do not make it through this transition unscathed. Marriages, careers, and identities are in jeopardy at this point because the goals of the first half of life no longer seem the same. In the face of death, these world-based successes have different meaning and may lose importance. Creation is not without destruction and in order to grow at this point, some tearing down of ego and discomfort is necessary. The process is difficult but the rewards include continued growth and a life with meaning, love, and joy.

“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray” (59). This is the opening line to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Commedia, one of the most prolific pieces of poetry ever penned to paper. Dante wrote The Divine Commedia in the early 1300’s about the poet’s journey through all of the levels of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Dante describes in great detail the realms of the afterlife but the poem isn’t really about what happens after death. It is a guide to navigate the midlife transition and a warning of what can happen if a person doesn’t fully make the transition. The shades in the poem suffer or rejoice endlessly in their assigned places. Fortunately for us, we are still alive and capable of growth. We don’t have to remain stuck in purgatory or inferno. We can reach a psychological paradise. Just like Virgil guided Dante in his journey, Dante illuminates the way for the reader.

The afterlife can’t be known. The only way to attempt to understand it is to look at it as a reflection of life. Dante uses this reflective awareness to reveal how to love and how to live. Centuries before Freud and Jung gave us the vocabulary for depth psychology, Dante wrote about the midlife experience as he transitions from darkness and fear to light and love. His quest for knowledge of the afterlife is a metaphor for the quest for knowledge of the unconsciousness.

The time setting of the poem is no accident. Dante begins the story on Good Friday during his own midlife transition.  In the Christian faith, Good Friday is the first day of the Easter weekend. It is the day that Jesus is said to have died for the sins of the world. This is considered the ultimate act of love. He sacrificed himself in order that Christians would have eternal life. The final day of the poem, Easter, is the day that Jesus is said to have risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. This mirrors Dante’s experience as well as the midlife transition all people go through. It is in this period that people experience a profound shift in the psyche. They are faced with their own mortality and it creates the need for a new way of being. All through life to this point a person follows the natural path, the “path that does not stray” only to find themselves lost in a shadowed forest. This period in life is often labeled as crisis because it can be jarring to have the world turned upside down. As Dante demonstrates through his poem, while the experience is jarring, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. With guidance, it is possible to illuminate the darkness to find the path to light and love.

In order to understand this transition, it is important to understand why it occurs when it does to people throughout recorded history. What is it about the late 30’s to early 40’s that makes people change their perspective so dramatically that a change of life occurs? Jung wrote that for a young person, it is not good to be too occupied with the self. When a person is young, they still need to climb up in order to grow. They are not ready to face the shadow. For a person to face the shadow, they need to have a strong ego. “The journey into the unconscious – encountering, befriending, and integrating the shadow is not to be undertaken lightly. Nor can it be undertaken at all until one’s ego development is strong enough and consciousness truly valued and secured” (Brewi and Brennan, 261). Around midlife, a person has an established identity. All the conditions ripen to this point and it is “a duty and a necessity to give serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illumine itself” (Jung, 109). What Jung so beautifully expresses using the metaphor of the sun, is this period of time is about shining a light on our inner selves. The thing about shining a light is that light creates shadows. The more light that is turned in, the more shadows are revealed. There are transitions through life but the midlife transition, by its very nature, is the point people are closest to their most creative (womb) and destructive (tomb) energies at the same time. Many people find themselves, like Dante, lost in a shadowed forest. The unknown and change are both scary and exciting. While the transition will be experienced differently by different people, the goal is the same – to find meaning beyond the natural functions of worldly successes.

Facing mortality does something to the psyche. Humanity is uniquely aware of the finite nature of existence but when the sands of time begin to be more plentiful on the bottom half of the hourglass, that awareness transforms. Time becomes so much more valuable and the question of wasting that time comes to the forefront. It is both a blessing and a curse to be aware that the time on this earth is limited. Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech to Stanford students after he had been given the diagnosis of terminal cancer. In this speech he told the audience “death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new” (2005).

Before the midlife transition time feels unlimited. The person before midlife is aware of their mortal status but when a person realizes that they are half way through this life; time takes on a whole new value and experience. Once a person realizes the precious nature of time they first look back to see whether they wasted their time. This is the time when they have to face their perceived inferiorities. If the person reaches this point and is not happy with how they spent their precious years, they may get stuck in a self-flagellating state similar to purgatory or refuse to turn inward at all and continue on a path of ignorance similar to the inferno.

This journey to the self is fraught with danger. Dante believes to get out of the forest, he needs to climb just like he had done through his life to this point. Virgil comes to him and tells him that in order to escape the forest, Dante will need to journey down. Dante can’t make the passage on his own, he needs Virgil to point the way and keep him moving. Like Dante, we find that this path should not to be taken alone – even though the journey is a personal one through the inner workings of the soul, we need guidance and support to make it through. This is why works like The Divine Commedia are so important because they help guide us through the treacherous journey from the pits of hell to the heights of paradise. Dante often has to be told to keep moving by his guide, Virgil. Without guidance, it is easy to get stuck in hell or purgatory – it is only through others that we can reach the final level of enlightenment which is knowledge, acceptance, and ultimately – love.

This poem illustrates metaphorically what happens to the psyche during and after the midlife transition. There are three distinct realms for the soul, three possible outcomes for the soul in and after midlife. The first possibility is that the person can refuse to transition. This person will continue to chase worldly pursuits. Without the light, without change, these people have no hope, they will stagnate and die. Their soul will suffer a type of inferno. The second possibility, as I have previously mentioned is purgatory.   The shades from purgatorio no longer have a shadow because they are acting out their shadows through their punishments. The light created the shadows. They are acutely aware of their shadow but they fear it, they are unable to accept it. They spend their time looking back and punishing themselves over past transgressions. The final possibility, the desired outcome, is for the soul to reach paradise, love. This is where the person has successfully navigated the midlife transition, integrated the shadow, and learned how to love and live a life with meaning.

Dante uses the play of light and shadow as he travels from hell to paradise to explain concepts that psychology wouldn’t ‘discover’ for hundreds of years. To talk about these concepts, I must first define some terms as I have come to see them through Dante. The first and most difficult term is love. Love is the key to living a meaningful life. Love is something that is not easy to put into words, it is complicated and mysterious yet also incredibly simple. In the poem, love is simply light and acceptance. Since this poem is trying to illuminate the path to enlightenment and love, it makes sense that light represents knowledge, specifically the quest towards knowing the self. With light comes shadow. The concept of shadow in the poem follows the concept of shadow for psychologists today, it is the unconscious, our inferiorities and inflations. Last, I would like to define fear. Fear is as hard to define as love. It is the opposite of love, simple yet complex. Just as love is knowledge and acceptance, fear is ignorance and denial. It is fear that in the poem, just as in life, blocks the path to love.

Each realm of the afterlife has its own relationship to light and shadow as it pertains to this midlife transition. The first realm is the inferno. One of the most well-known lines from Dante’s poem are the words above the gate to the inferno “Abandon every hope, who enter here” (68). The inferno is a place of hopelessness. In this realm, there is no light, no shadow, and as a result, there is no personal responsibility taken by the shades and they are hopeless. Lack of introspection and responsibility diminishes hope. “By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them” (Maraboli, 37). Since the shades are past the point of change, they are without hope but we are alive. This represents the psyche when a person does not make the midlife transition. These people are without hope because without light, they don’t even know that they need to change. They lack knowledge and without knowledge, there can be no hope, just endless action. When the shades enter the inferno, they are judged and sent to a level for eternal torment. They do not even know themselves enough to know where they are to be placed for punishment and often refuse to accept responsibility for their fate. They are doomed to suffer from the unenlightened actions of life for all of eternity. The inferno is a place that isn’t just absent of love, it is a place for love betrayed. The sinners in the inferno failed to love themselves enough turn the light inward. Without this self-awareness, they were incapable of loving others because they didn’t have knowledge. They were absent of light and thus absent of love.

The next realm, purgatory, has light and shadow but not love. Love is light (knowledge) and acceptance. The shades of purgatory started the transition but became stuck. This is the only of the three realms that still allows for movement because this is the only realm where the shades place themselves. The shades have the power to move up or down the mountain of purgatory and even have hope to move into paradise. This is because these shades have light, they have knowledge. They are lacking acceptance not knowledge. Once a person begins the transition into midlife and turns the light inward, they rarely like what they see. Every person has ugly truths they do not want to bring into the light because the shadows those truths cast can become so overwhelming they crush the psyche. The shades that exist in this dimension can’t get over the past. Many of the shades in this dimension ask Dante to have people pray for them because they say this will help them move up the mountain. This is their biggest flaw, they are looking for acceptance from the outside instead of seeking it from within. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it is fear. The shades are afraid they are not worthy of ascension, they fear that they can’t be loved because they don’t accept themselves. They have seen the shadow, they have faced the past, but they have not accepted it. They may have also faced the future – the possibility that there is hope but again, they can’t accept it. In purgatory, the light, because it is absent of love leads to fear and rejection. Whether the light casts shadows on the past or the future doesn’t matter – it is the lack of acceptance that makes purgatory absent of love.

Purgatory is the most complicated of the dimensions. The inferno represents the absence of love, it is a place of betrayal and fear. Paradise is love, a place of knowledge and acceptance. Purgatory can be summed up easily by saying it is knowledge without acceptance but what that means is much more complicated. People in life become stuck, usually in the past but also in the future. A person stuck in the future loses sight of the here and now. They fear to move forward because of some future that doesn’t even exist. These people are passive in life, they are waiting for something to happen, and they do not truly live. Since they do not live, they do not love. Theirs is a life of purgatory.

The second way to live in purgatory is to know the past and not accept it. When writing about men at midlife, Levinson writes “If he is burdened excessively by his grievances and guilts, he will be unable to surmount them” (263). It is impossible to live tomorrow or yesterday – it is only possible to live today. The past has already happened, so in order to experience life and love it is necessary to accept it. This means to allow it to be as it is and move on. People stuck in the past are beyond passive, they are victims. They can’t get over the transgressions of the past and continue to see themselves as less than because of that past. This is the person that is still wounded by childhood abuse or angry at themselves for not pursuing a dream. They have the knowledge but instead of accepting these things they, like the shades of purgatorio, are doomed to relive these events over and over and allow themselves to be defined by them. Knowledge is the first step, turning the light inward, but knowledge without acceptance is as crippling and useless as knowledge without action. The key to accepting and overcoming the past is to embrace it and allow it to work for you. The purpose of shadow work isn’t merely to expose the shadow, it is to accept that the shadow isn’t separate from the self – it is a part of the self and has purpose and value. Often people find their greatest strengths in their perceived weaknesses. The shades of purgatorio have seen the shadow but they allow the shadow to crush them instead of integrating it to allowing for it to heal.

The final path is the one that leads to paradisio, to love. Paradisio is full of light, reflections, and acceptance. This is what happens when a person successfully integrates the shadow. The shades of paradisio know and accept the past so it doesn’t have power over them like the shades of purgatorio. Accepting the past doesn’t mean to condone it, it simply means allowing it to be as it is. It is only through light and acceptance that love can exist. Love is letting go of fear. When a person is able to know their true self, shadow and all, and accept themselves as they are, they will find to love themselves. Once a person can love themselves, they can love others. Love them in a way they deserve to be loved, completely, with knowledge and acceptance.

 

 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Everyman’s Library. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Print.

Brewi, Janice, and Anne Brennan. “Emergence of the Shadow in Midlife.” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. By Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: Putnam, 1991. 260-61. Print.

Jobs, Steve. “‘You’ve Got to Find What You Love,’ Jobs Says.” Stanford University. 14 June 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Jung, C.G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1955. Print.

Levinson, Daniel. “For the Man at Midlife.” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. By Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: Putnam, 1991. 262-264. Print.

Maraboli, Steve. Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience. Port Washington, NY: Better Today, 2013. Print.