Thursday, December 15, 2016

Time Times Two - Part II

I suggest we distinguish two streams of time: one that runs from the past into the present and another that runs counter to this current. We are familiar with the first: it is linear time, tied to the law of cause and effect. We have, as yet, little affinity with the second. Unlike the Greeks, who developed elaborate rituals to avail themselves of this current, we have no tools to put it to use.
I don’t believe it’s entirely unknown to us as we utilise it in every new insight and creative act: unobserved it serves groundbreaking ideas and inspires innovative approaches. In fact awareness of this current is as common as it is commonly overlooked. We apply it in every moment we appreciate art: The music we hear is never just the music of the moment alone. We hear the totality of the piece through every cadence. As we listen we anticipate what is to come and weigh what we hear against the scale of the whole. Even if we have never heard the piece before we sort of know what to expect.  
Writers do the same when they write. They are sensitive to this second current. They meet it the moment a story takes over, a tale tells itself; a passage develops a life of its own. Suddenly they are in the presence of more than themselves. They realise that the tale is beyond their telling, the composition beyond their ken. Making use of their imagination, they have been made use of by their muse.
The muse is real and capable. In fact more capable than the writers themselves.   
The self that is active in such moments relates to our ordinary self as the future to the past. It is not who we usually are but who we aspire to be and long to become. This part of ourselves is more potential than reality.  It is still in the process of becoming and has, by virtue of its nascent nature, a natural affinity with the future. It is this becoming, growing, potential self that we apply in every creative act, and that we must employ if we wish to learn what the future has to teach us today.
In the Delphi Project we experimented with this second current through collective imagination. Our aim was not story-making in the way described above. We hoped that the use of metaphors in community would lead to a similar place. And it did.

Time Times Two - Part I

All writers are Pythias by default. The moment writers create fiction rather than fact they produce what does not exist: what was future a moment ago becomes past on the page. The capacity they use is the imagination. It is the essential, indispensable tool of creative penmanship. One way to develop this ability is through the making of metaphoric stories.
The process is simple. Students start with an image in their mind’s eye. This image is then further developed and eventually unfolds into a story.
The challenge for the writer is to use imagination rather than intellect, to think in pictures rather than concepts. To do this is not easy. To allow an image to freely unfold is a fine art that requires practice.
The process is rarely smooth. Most students will experience a definite struggle between their intellect and their imagination. The mindset they already have will battle with the one they aspire to. This results in tales fathered by the intellect: The plot feels pre-planned; the outcome is predictable. The composition is deficient in wholeness and the writing lacks lustre.
The reason for this is reliance on linear thinking, and the scientific paradigm that underpins it. Creative writers, of course, are not necessarily scientists. Yet they, like everyone else, have imbibed the scientific paradigm. Like a fish in water they are unaware of the water that is in and around them. The moment they engage their imagination in earnest, the intellectual habits they have, or rather that have them, show forth.
A creative writing teacher can usually tell when this happens. After a while students will start to notice it in the work of their fellow writers. In time they will come to recognise it in their own writing, in hindsight at first and eventually during the process of writing itself. Then they are not far from allowing the image to develop of its own accord, without interference from the intellect or subjective psychology. The former ties the writer to collective conventions, the latter to her personal story. Both relate to the past.
Both are left behind the moment the writer stays fully present in the forming of images. The metaphoric mind, rather than relying on what already is, is open to the future. Undetermined by what is known, the imagination engages with the here and now of everything new. The moment they are able to live into one image and then see it through to the next, their writing becomes fresh. The plot, though unpredictable, possesses a logic of its own. Beginning, middle and end form an admirable arc. Every part of the story resonates with every other and reveals an indivisible totality. Everywhere is necessity and nowhere coercion. This is the natural state of a tale that has been allowed to unfold on its own accord.
The end of such stories is both surprising and obvious. Surprising because there was no way of foreseeing it. It’s obvious because it fits seamlessly with the arc of the tale.
A good story achieves this by means of metaphor, firstly, through the ability of metaphors to unite separate things. This ability allies them to what is already united and intrinsically whole, the reality that constitutes mind and language, nature and myth.
And secondly through the innate mobility that allows them to resonate with the future. The future is never fixed. It remains alive, changeable, fluid. Concepts are often too rigid to go with this flow. They hear the message they want to hear.

In this, metaphors differ radically from concepts. Rather than being like moulds that shape everything according to their own design, they are like wax willing to be given shape. They are fluid, mobile and flexible like the future itself and hence uniquely suited to express what wishes to come. Unfettered by the past they are open to what is new. They are organs through which the future can articulate itself.   

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Structure of Myth

The Remorse of Orestes, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862

When we try to pluck out anything by itself, we find it hitched to the whole world.             
John Muir

If a typical tourist comes to Delphi today, he or she may hear of Apollo’s victory over the Python and perhaps the tale pertaining to his divine birth. But in doing so, the traveller will hear a story that never existed in isolation. Like any other tale, the tale of Apollo was embedded in a complicated, highly organised cosmos of stories from which it derived meaning. Today we encounter in parts what was once whole. In this way we are all bookish tourists and typical in our piecemeal approach to myth. We contemplate the nose without the face, the face without the body. We forget that every story is embedded in the body of Greek mythology just as this sentence is embedded in the structure of the English language.
This makes myths into highly-complex realities. They constitute a body of meaning in which the whole is dynamically present in every part. This body is expressed in time, and at the same time independent of it. The plot is not just impelled by the past. Mythical time is a totality in which before and after, future and past, are linked in intricate, non-linear ways: The fate meted out to Orestes is not just caused by his filial duty to kill his mother because she had murdered his father. 

His destiny is linked to the destiny pattern of his family line of which incest, betrayal, filicide and cannibalism are but the temporal expression. His fate is implicit in that of his ancestor Tantalus (who dared to test the omniscience of the gods by serving them the flesh of his own son) in the same way that the car pre-exists in a carriage and a carriage in the first conception of a wheel.  Orestes is part of his family destiny, as this destiny is part of the Greek myth.  (Tantalus’s own transgressions fit rather tightly into the topic of generational conflict that made Zeus overthrow his father Kronos, and Kronos castrate his progenitor Uranus.)
To the artistic eye the fate of a major character such as Orestes arises like an absolute necessity in the body of Greek myth. Orestes belongs to that body as a finger belongs to the hand. His destiny is there from the beginning even if it manifests only at the end. In myths the future draws the past towards its realisation. 
In this trans-temporal sphere concepts like cause and effect did not apply as they do now. They are appropriate to physics. In the metaphysics of myth a single effect is never entirely explicable by a single cause. Cause and effect are also interchangeable. An event is pushed by the history at its back and drawn by the future in its front. Past and the future conspire to reveal in time what is essentially beyond time. The story is trans-temporal: it is there before it is told, complete before it unfolds
This qualifies the mythological mindset as one that partakes in wholeness. This this is what makes the encounter with myths so salutary to us who tend to understand everything as the typical tourist understands the story of Apollo: in isolation. If this tourist relates the story to the body of Greek myth he or she will do so after the fact of separation. The wholeness achieved is counterfeit. Most knowledge today is of this kind: a body glued together after it has been cut apart. This has its uses, but also its downfalls. It is brilliant when it comes to the construction of machines, devastating when applied to nature, which is intrinsically whole.
This intrinsic wholeness has remained unobserved in nature and elsewhere because it has remained unobserved in the mind: thinking in time, we remain unaware of the thinking before time that partakes in wholeness.  
In this thinking every thought is linked to others in in the same way as Orestes’ destiny is linked to that of his family, and that of his family to the totality of Greek myth. Every concept is embedded in a body of meaning like a fingernail on a finger: the existence of a spoon necessitates that of a fork, a fork that of a knife. The concept of cutlery implies that of tools and tools that of technology and so on. The links between a spoon and CD player may not be immediately obvious, but they are there in the same way as the links between the fingernails and the optic nerve: far apart for immediate perception and yet related through the overarching reality in which they exist.
Language mirrors these overarching realities. The preposition ‘in’ immediately implies that there is an ‘out’ - and everything in-between as well as adjacent to it: invoking every possible relationship be it spatial or otherwise: ‘in’ thus derives its meaning through the context in which it exists, and how it, as an isolated entity, is intimately related to this context.
This may sound terribly abstract. Yet it is on the back of such seemingly terrible abstractions that we understand even the simplest things. We are composers inside a complex music we don’t even know exists. We handle this music as we handle the grammar of our mother tongue: with utmost perfection, without knowing the laws.
We are too occupied with the one-at-a-time products of the mind to give heed to their production, too focused on the particular to see the whole. We forget that we can only understand the part because we have already, albeit unconsciously, understood the whole.
Heraclitus, the most profound of early Greek philosophers, called this sphere of wholeness the Logos, of which he said:

Although the Logos is common to all, many live as if their thinking was their own. They separate from the Logos with which they are in touch at every moment, and therefore the Logos on which they depend at all times remains foreign to them….

Today we must not remain foreign to a realm on which every thought and hence every one of our actions depends. Oracular culture was still aware of this realm and contacted it through rituals. It is the same realm from which artists draw their inspiration, scientists their insights and inventors their innovations. Most importantly it is the realm we must draw from more consciously if we wish to think thoughts that contribute constructively to the world, that is thoughts that do not forget the wholeness on which they, as well as everything else, depends.
Admittedly direct contact to this realm requires philosophic rigour and meditative dedication. But there are other, easier, more indirect approaches: one of them is through imagination and metaphor.
Metaphors, by virtue of their innate connectivity, emphasise wholeness. They connect where the intellect separates. They join hitherto isolated things and establish a surprising, yet in hindsight obvious, relationship: They provide a moment of poetic evidence. And in that moment we have a glimpse of the wholeness that the intellect hides. A window opens into a trans-temporal world. We feel satisfied because context has been restored, and wholeness renewed.
The moment we think in images we approach wholeness. We engage with realities in which before and after, cause and effect, are relative rather than absolute. Time is not the irreversible arrow shot by the archer of accidental creation. It is a translator of tacit knowledge, the medium through which potential becomes manifest.
Seen from this perspective the future appears less arbitrary. It exists as immanent potential. It has intent present in a fluid state that allows for freedom. Metaphors invite this intent to dawn on the horizon of the mind. They are mobile enough to resonate the fluid state of potentials in transit. Open where the intellect is closed, they offer an antidote to isolation. They are remedial, particularly when used in community.
This makes the development of our metaphoric mind more than an entertaining pastime. It offers an alternative mode of cognition that can complement the one we already have. Above all it provides a canvas for the future to paint itself unobstructed from the limitation of the intellect.
This makes the work with metaphor a first, modest and yet very real beginning for capacities that may initiate a new paradigm. 

The Remorse of Orestes, from Wikipedia 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Myth and Reality

After finishing the Delphi Project I am working on a book to document our work with collective imagination. The following essay explores the mythological mindset as a forerunner of contemporary possibilities in this realm.

Tholos, Sanctuary of Athena Proneia, Delphi, Greece

Myth and Reality
Understanding mytho-poetic realities is not easy. They slip through the vanishing point of the perspectives we superimpose upon them. We are left with a heap of bones without a body. And from this heap we assemble a skeleton of misconceptions.
The most notorious of these misconceptions is the notion of myth itself. What today is generally understood by this word is the very opposite of what it once meant. No matter if our meaning is na├»ve fancy, projection of psychological realities, or artful imaginations spun on the heirloom of an older, more imaginative age, it will carry the mark of unreality. Even if we love myth it is hard to escape the condescending feeling of having been emancipated from it. Like the fabled tooth-fairy we treat it as a standard story that casts a charming spell on children, but is otherwise irrelevant. 
Our intellectuality is a hurdle to comprehension of myth. In fact, the notion of myth, the way we understand it today, did not even exist in pre-intellectual times. The content we associate with myth, of course, was current. But it was not a ‘myth’. It was reality. It was part of the perceptual horizon that held the pre-intellectual world in place: not a story that is learned at some point but an envelope of meaning one existed within. It was history, genesis, explanation, orientation, a way of seeing, a lens to look through.  It was to the ancient Greeks what our paradigm is to us: a collective way of experiencing, seeing and interpreting the world.
To us the table is real because the table is there. We see it and others see it too.  There is no need to doubt its reality. We take its existence for granted; and we do the same with everything else that enters the sphere of our perception.
The early Greeks did the same. Yet their perceptions differed from ours. Creatures that we confidently assign to personal fancy were shared perceptions: where we merely see a river the early Greeks saw a river god.  Where we perceive a well, they beheld a nymph, that had a name, a history and attributes that translated into the particularities of place.
No one believed in gods because there was no need to believe in them. They were experienced rather than surmised. The difference between Zeus and Agamemnon was that the Olympian god was a fair deal more present than the Greek leader. That’s why he was a god. 
But how can we who sit in front of computers, use smartphones and travel with aeroplanes, make sense of realities so different from our own? Here the philosophic insights of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (marvelously researched by Owen Barfield), can come to our aid. 
It is well known that the English poet distinguished between personal fancy and objective imagination. It is not so well known that he further divided the imagination into primary and secondary.
By secondary imagination he understands the images and metaphors a skilled poet produces, pictures of universal rather than subjective relevance.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge  1772 - 1834 
By primary imagination Coleridge understands the artistic-poetic capacity that every human being applies to create the perceptual world; everything we see: the trees in front of the house and the table inside of it. He means to say that everything that we perceive as being out there has previously been put there by an unconscious activity we employ at every moment to create the reality we inhabit. Through primary imagination we acquire a particular brand of reality in childhood and share it from then on with those around us. This activity is the poet, painter, sculptor and architect in us all who shaped this world to the specifications of our cultural community. And it is this inner artist who continues to maintain it later. At any moment we recollect what we have created in childhood. We become curator of reality, constantly repeating and reinforcing the parameters of the world we exist in. (Poets, artists and innovators typically retain some of the creative momentum in later life.)
Two hundred years ago this was too daring an insight to be taken seriously. Today there is much evidence to support it. A telling example is people who are born blind and operated on at a later stage of life: What happens when they open their eyes for the first time? What do they see?
Not what most of us would expect. For them the world we take for granted does not yet exist. All they see is a bewildering flicker of colours. The flood of sensations makes no sense whatsoever to begin with. Nothing is there before the inner artist commences work. Only gradually do impressions of blue knit themselves into a pullover, and various sensations of ochre, beige and brown flatten into a surface of a table. Their mind still has to create what for others is habitually fixed: the seemingly solid reality they inhabit.
This illustrates rather marvellously the action of primary imagination. It is the artist that paints the world we inhabit, the architect that designs its structure. Above all it is the builder who lays down the foundations that we accept as solid, unshakable reality.  What is real and what is not, what we perceive as inside and what we perceive as outside, what is fixed and what is not fixed depends on the brand of primary imagination we have imbibed in childhood.
The brand we imbibe today differs from that of the early Greeks. Both are possible interpretations. Both reveal relative rather than ultimate truths.  Both create a highly consistent and meaningful world that is absolutely real to those who inhabit it.
It is extremely important to be aware of this fact. Older paradigms cannot be understood as long as we naively believe in the sole reality of our own.
Each way of experiencing the world needs to be understood as equally valid and hence on its own terms, within the parameter of its own perceptual realties. Otherwise we only excavate our own opinions: we mistake the meaning of myths and fail to learn what they have to teach: another perspective on reality that can widen and complement the one we already have.

I highly recommend Owen Barfield's book What Coleridge Thought

Images from Wikipedia:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Destiny Medicine

History provides surprising perspectives that can be revelatory, even transformative, if we distil timeless validity from temporal manifestation. The history of Delphi is particularly fertile in this respect. It forces unfamiliar thought and offers a kind of mental gymnastics that engages unused muscles of the mind.
With this in mind let us explore Delphi as a centre of healing. Greece had healing centres dedicated to the god Asclepius in Epidaurus, Pergamum, on the island Kos, in Athens, and in many other places.
The Asclepian cure involved two steps. The first was catharsis; the ritual bathing and purging that prepared the patient. The second was called incubation. Applicants spent one night in the temple where a god or even Asclepius himself would appear to them in a dream. They were either treated in the dream or given advice on how to remedy their affliction
In Delphi however, healing followed a different path. Here it had a dimension of meaning we have entirely lost: In many cases the cure was rarely a cure for the individual alone. It was salutary for the community, a potent stimulant for the body social.
I link the motto inscribed over the temple of Apollo, Know Thyself, to Heal thyself, and this heal thyself to the healing of others. Medicine was societal and politic; remedies were restorative for whole communities.
Herodotus’ account of the founding of Kyrene is one of many tales that deals with healing in and through community:

Grinus, ruler of the island kingdom of Thera, came to Delphi to consult the oracle on some matter. The Pythia, however, instead of answering Grinus’ questions, replied with a totally unrelated advice: Found a city in Libya.
The king, taken aback by the Pythia’s reply, retorted that he was too old and infirm for such a precarious undertaking, and that they might be better achieved by some of his young attendants, pointing to Battus in particular. 
When the delegation returned to Thera they disregarded the god’s advice. No one even knew where Libya was (in the seventh century BC geography was a very local and limited affair) and few had the stomach to sail into the unknown.
A long drought descended on the island.  The oracle was consulted again, and the same advice was issued.  Forced by increasing calamities the Therans found a sailor from Crete who had once been driven by adversary winds to the Island of Platea close to the Libyan coast. Led by him, a small and unwilling crew of Therans set sail and established a settlement on Platea, just off the Libyan coast. In time more ships were sent under the command of Battus.
The settlement did not thrive. Battus went to Delphi to inquire why, after following the god’s command, help was not forthcoming. Apollo spoke:

Knowest thou Libya, whose shore
Your feet have never touched
Better than I?
Your knowledge surprises me.

Battus realised that they had settled close to, but not in Libya itself: they had not heeded Apollo’s command and thus not secured his support. Battus quickly returned, left the island behind and settled his men on the mainland. This time the settlement thrived and eventually grew into the powerful city of Kyrene.

The other version of the same story focuses on Battus, leader of the expedition, and future King of Kyrene.

 According to Herodotus, Battus was born to a noble Theran and his servant concubine. Though a youth of great promise, he was afflicted by a severe speech impediment. To cure his affliction he made a pilgrimage to Delphi. The Pythia addressed him thus:

Battus, you ask Apollo for a cure.
The God however sends you to Libya,
a country rich in sheep.
Found a colony!

Battus who had scanty private means and little political power saw no way to fulfil the god’s command. Disappointed he returned to Thera only to encounter one misfortune after another.
At the same time the island suffered from a prolonged drought. The Therans asked Delphi for help and were advised to dispatch a vessel with colonists under Battus’s command to Libya. The stuttering youth became a leader and eventually a king of the new colony.

Together the stories make a whole. The tale of Battus shows how taking up his task in the community healed his affliction. The tale told by the Therans illustrates how the destiny of island community depended on Battus, the one individual capable of bringing about colonial expansion. Delphi artfully orchestrated the needs of both to bring about healing. Battus was remedial for Thera, Thera salutary for Battus.  The trade colony helped Battus to become king and island community to move beyond complacency and isolation.
Herodotus never tells us if Battus eventually rid himself of his stuttering. However, Pindar, in a poem made for Kyrenean festivities, speaks of

That Man (Battus) from whom even roaring lions fled
When he raised his voice from across the sea.’

This passage allures to the transformation, a healing, be it literal or metaphoric, which had made the stutterer into a king whose voice was heard and heeded.
A Kyrenian folktale tells the similar tale:

Battus when walking by himself on the outskirts of Kyrene, was confronted by a lion. In his terror the king cried out violently. The beast fled and Battus never stuttered again.

Though this may be more story than history, it alludes to the greater medicine making that Delphi was capable of.  The historic account of Herodotus, the poetic treatment of Pindar and the Kyrenian folktale all orbit around the same meaning: the meaning from which Delphi manifested by means of Pythia and priest. 

Healing through Future

Healing through community, however, is only one aspect of these tales: another concerns the causes of illness and stagnation. Today we heal by either addressing the symptom or by eliminating the cause. Both have their place. Dealing with symptoms is sufficient in a case of broken bones. If a seasoned smoker has lung problems curing the symptoms alone will not suffice. The cause needs to be eliminated to provide permanent relief.
All this makes sense and was of course part of the Delphic process also. But there is an element in the medicine making at Delphic that exceeds our notion of cause and effect, illness and health. An element, that rightly understood, can shed new light on what medicine could be, and that in turn, can help us understand the oracular tradition.
The medicine made in Delphi also addresses a cause. The cause however is not in the past. The lung problem of the smoker comes from years of smoking. This cannot be said about the drought in Thera or the speech impediments of Battus. Here the cause is in the future.
The causes here were capacities not applied, opportunities not taken, and destinies not lived. The oracular remedies were tailored to unfold potentials. Note that there is nothing general about the advice. Advice was applicable to one person and is not suitable for another, and the directions given to one community would have been definitely out of place in the next. The advice to establish a trade colony in Libya pertained to the Therans and to them alone. Only Battus had the capacities needed for the task. Healing here was the unfolding of destiny, the realisation of potential. The remedy was highly specific as it cured the drought. But it is also broadly beneficial as it linked isolated islanders with the world, invigorated economy and increased commerce.
We can understand such advice by studying contemporary means of divination. For oracles have all but died out. They have changed in appearance, but not in appeal. Even today we cannot do without them. The moment we start planning our future we turn Pythia by default. There is always a Delphi, and if not in ourselves then in our friends, mentors, counsellors, psychologists. We seek advice and often find it through the right book at the right time, by way of workshops and in the ritual of retreats.
Today, as of yore, we consult the future in times of crisis. Or, to be more precise, when a crisis is beyond our ken and solutions are out of sight. This happens when there is no precedent, when what we know is not enough, when the dimension of a problem exceeds our ability to deal with it.
The feeling of stagnation offers a typical scenario: the unease with the status quo, the sense of being stuck and dissatisfied, mildly or severely depressed. Some of these states, of course, have a cause in the past. But others do not.  We have such feelings not because something has happened to us, but because nothing is happening. We suffer because everything has remained the same. We feel stuck with who we are and flat because we have not risen to any occasion.
If we examine such feelings further we may find that their intensity is proportional to the distance between who we are and who we could be.  It may well be that many forms of depression have their origin in this distance, caused by unrealised futures and not by traumatic pasts (sometimes, of course, by both). Then we must consult our interior Delphi, or find it in a conversation with a friend, a meeting with a life coach, a workshop. The solution here is in the future. A job that challenges us to unfold our full potential, a capacity that engages more of ourselves, a task that takes us further, an art that is waiting to teach us more about ourselves, insights that rekindle our interest in life, or a change of place that changes everything.
Such futures are not found by searching the past. The task is to spin new threads and not untie old knots. Like the citizens of Thera, and Battus himself, we have to find what we, and only we, can do. And like them we have to be ready for change, open to unfamiliar advice and unheard of ideas to blow new wind into our doldrums. We must be open to opportunities that heal us from the harm of not being who we are meant to be.