“The Lament of the Dead”: Five Questions for the Ayahuasca Adventurer
“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our lives; it is they who direct at the end.
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living.
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.”
W.H.Auden, “In Memory of Ernst Toller” (1940)
The marvelous line from this poem – “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand” – provides the link back to my previous blog about mind control.
In this blog, I tried to show how the encounter with La Madre Ayahuasca, especially when combined with a long term dieta of a powerful Amazonian medicinal tree or plant, shows us unequivocally how much of our mind is shaped by cultural conditioning and ‘outside’ influences – whether we conceive these in the form of reptilian beings and/or more positive other-dimensional beings such as spirit guides and angels and /or by unconscious processes based on repressed childhood experiences, as Freud would have us believe.
The view of the psyche that I am most at home with, and which I have most adequately articulated in another entry here, comes from Henri Corbin, Carl Jung and James Hillman. In their different but related ways, they provide an essential antidote to the limited and superficial ego-psychology beloved of conventional Western psychology and shared, though they might deny it, by many so-called spiritual psychologies such as the ‘Law of Attraction’ and ‘Positive Thinking’.
As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of James Hillman. I have just finished reading his last published work, co-written with Sonu Shamdasani, called “Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book”.To read this book, written in the form of fifteen conversations between the two men, is to have the privilege of occupying a ringside seat listening in on two great minds and souls conversing.
Sonu Shamdasani is the foremost Jungian scholar of our times and President of the Philemon Foundation, an organization dedicated to publishing Jung’s Complete Works.
In 1997, he started talking with Jung’s family for them to permit the publication of ‘The Red Book’, the legendary notebook Jung had kept. Then, over ten years, he engaged in an extraordinary labor of scholarly love poring over a mixture of manuscripts – handwritten, typed and in calligraphy – to recreate The Red Book, which was finally published in October 2009.
Jung chose not to publish this work, written between 1914 and 1930, in his lifetime, believing that it could discredit his clinical work with the medical-scientific establishment.
The main theme of the “Lament of the Dead” book is what it means for psychology now that this very personal account of Jung’s descent into the underworld/the shamanic realm/the deeper psyche has been published, but, as always with Hillman, his thought refuses to be confined along conventional lines and within narrow disciplines.
The special interest I found reading this book is its great relevance to my encounters with La Madre Ayahuasca and my wanderings in the spirit world or the visionary realm. This of course, is no surprise. Jung’s ‘Red Book’ illustrates in great detail – both in text and in striking paintings – his own encounter with this world.
Part of what Hillman and Shamdasani are doing in the book is showing that this shamanic descent was at the heart of Jung’s life and work. The conceptual theories he elaborated – the theory of types, ideas of complexes, the anima and animus, the archetypes, the collective unconscious etc. etc. – are secondary. For Hillman, in particular, the book validates the whole way he has developed Jung’s legacy in contrast to more orthodox Jungian schools.
The area I want to focus on in this blog entry is: how does this book help us enrich our experiences with La Madre?.
I’m going to follow the format highly recommended by blogging experts and do this in the form of a list, which is deeply counter to the whole thrust of Hillman’s work, though at least it’s a list of five questions rather than key bullet points. As Hillman once said, with equal measures of pride, dignity and defiance, nobody can diagram my work – unlike the totalizing diagrams and master-plans of Ken Wilber. In contrast to a ‘Theory of Everything’ a la Wilber, Hillman’s is a ‘Theory of Nothing’, in the sense of offering no overarching explanatory framework. In this way, he is very much part of the post-modern project.
One of the many remarkable aspects of Hillman’s work is how he constantly resists casting his ideas in any kind of developmental frame, as he sees the idea of development as a dominant cultural assumption and limited perspective, which offers an underlying template for thinking in many fields – from biology to personal development to economic development to spiritual development. He is also not slow to point out how ideas of personal development neatly dovetail with capitalist neo-liberal ideologies of growth and individualism.
Anyway, now to the dreaded list of five questions.
1. What or who is significant?
On page 106, Sonu Shamdasani says: “There is one point where he [Jung] says you’re not significant because you see something significant.”
Hillman replies: “That’s holy. You are not significant just because you see something significant.”
This line should be tattooed on the arm of every ayahuasca drinker.
Hillman goes on to elaborate:
“You see, this question comes up with many people who get in touch with that stream [of images, which both Jung and Hillman think is the primary activity of the psyche]. They then set up shop as a prophet. They’re convinced by what they’ve encountered. It’s utterly real, utterly powerful, utterly true, and it needs to be told. It comes with its own impetus.”
This helps me greatly to understand the prophetic, high-blown, dogmatic tone of some of the visionary writings I referred to in my last blog.
Hillman and Shamdasani point out that what was exceptional about Jung was that at the same time he was having these compelling, powerful experiences over a period of fourteen years, he maintained a skeptical attitude to them and was always reflecting on the way these experiences came into being. In that sense, as a psychologist as well as a pioneering psychonaut, he was as interested in the way the psyche produces these experiences as their content.
2. Why do we enter the visionary realm?
This is the question that has been preoccupying me for the past three years.
An answer is now finally beginning to emerge but that might be a theme for another time.
On page 38, Shamdasani says:
“One way I formulated it was that you have Swedenborg going into this visionary realm to create revelation, Blake doing it so to create art, and Jung to create psychology, which is a different enterprise and purpose.”
The competent, good shamans that I know go into this realm in order to heal others. Or, better put, to offer themselves as the channel through which healing can occur.
3. What is the personal?
On p.40, Hillman says:
“Psychology says the personal is my history, my parents, my childhood, the trauma, my life, my wounds, my aspirations, all of that, that’s me, that’s my soul, the deepest feelings and loves and pains that I carry. Jung is saying the deeper soul is not personal at all, in a very curious way. He’s saying it’s an objective soul that is the deepest personal. ……..So the idea of the personal has to be rethought.”
In response, Shamdasani says:
“He [Jung] finds that his innermost, the most deeply subjective, is no longer subjective and that it opens out into something far larger, and that’s what in a certain respect saves him. In the depths of his solitude, his isolation, in his confrontation with himself, he finds an opening. He finds that what animates his depths is the weight of human history, in the sense of the figures he encounters there, such as the mythic figures and biblical figures. His deepest conflicts are expressed in the form of the interplay between these images.”
This brings Hillman back to the poem at the beginning. We are lived by powers we do not understand. And our explanatory frameworks are just pretenses of understanding, crutches for the ego to create the illusion of control. Although we cannot understand these powers, however, we can enter into relationship with them, ideally right relationship, especially by personifying them as Jung showed.
I can validate this from my own experience. Freed from the burdensome perspective of my isolated, explanation-seeking ego, on the occasions when grace has allowed me, (over which I have no control, I can only prepare myself as best I can), I am given access to this vast, imaginative other world. As this happens, loneliness and anxiety vanish and the mysteries appear.
“My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak. I call you—are you there? I have returned. I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you again.” C.J. Jung, The Red Book, p.232
4. How permeable are the different worlds?
On p. 25, Hillman says:
“It may seem as if these are two distinct paths, or even stages. You first go in and then you come out with what used to be called the return or the descent from the mountain and so on. But I think there’s something else there. I think it’s more a matter of realizing that there is a porous permeability between the living and the dead. Between life and death…….And it seems to me that this offers a completely different way of realizing that the day world is permeated with the other world – in all kinds of small ways, that they’re always inner voices, that the dead are cautionary figures. That you are living with the dead.”
This aspect of the profound permeability of the different worlds is something that I appreciate the more I drink ayahuasca.
One of the characteristics I most admire about my mentor Maestro PapaM. is that during ceremony he can switch effortlessly between these worlds. He is acutely aware of what is happening in the normal everyday world, for example someone stumbling on their way to the bathroom, at the same time as he is aware of the subtle energy patterns of the people and the spirit entities present.
Furthermore, what I am finding from my own experience of the medicine, is that the more I drink and learn to navigate the other world, the more competent I become in normal consensus reality. That is one important differentiating factor with marijuana. The people I know who use marijuana a lot, with some few exceptions, are less able to be present in the so-called normal world.
5. Why turn to the the ancestors?
“Then turn to the dead,
listen to their lament
and accept them with love”
C.G. Jung, The Red Book, Chapter XV
One of the key themes in ‘The Lament for the Dead’ is the denial of death by contemporary, secular Western culture. Our ancestors are not properly recognized and given their due weight – there is no real place for the dead in our culture.
Shamdasani says on p.176:
“The first task that Jung finds himself confronted with [as I think anyone engaged in this descent is] is reanimating the dead, acknowledging that the dead are, and they have presences, they have effects. We turn our eyes away from future-oriented living and to what has gone before, in the shape of animated history, history that is not simply a record but history that is active.”
Therefore, by denying the dead we are denying ourselves.
The conversations in ‘Lament for the Dead’ were recorded between October 2009 (immediately after the publication of ‘The Red Book’) and autumn 2010. In the preface, Shamdasani says, in relation to the process of writing the book: “We both went over the text, finalizing the manuscript before his [Hillman’s] death in the fall of 2011.”
Hillman’s death gives added weight and poignancy to the text. My writing this blog is a further way of honoring him.
For those of you who like me, love Hillman, he can be seen here on YouTube, (just over an hour into the video), sporting a large sculpted plaster cast on his right arm, discussing The Red Book with Shamdasani and other Jungians, at an event in the US Library of Congress on 19th June 2010.