Seasons, growth and maturity


The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning;

only its meaning and purpose are different.

C. G . Jung

The first of the leaves are starting to change colour here in Ireland, announcing the immanent arrival of a change in the seasons. So, a short reflection on the different rhythms and periods in our lives. Nikos Kazanzakis once told of a talk he had with an old monk about the changes that happen in life. He asked him “Do you still struggle with the devil?” “Oh, no,” the old man replied, “I used to struggle with him, when I was young, but now I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. We leave each other alone!” “So it’s easy for you now?” asked the young Kazantzakis. “Oh no,” replied the old man, “it’s worse, far worse! Now I wrestle with God!”

The Old Testament story of  Jacob wrestling with God all night long is in the background here. What the monk suggests is that there are different challenges or tasks at different times in our lives, and that struggles can mean growth and are not necessarily a sign of problems.  In the early part of our life the main task is to develop the ego sufficiently to leave ones parents and establish oneself in the world. There is a certain, necessary, focus on establishing a career, independence and relationship, with a paradigm of succeeding. So one can be driven by the strong forces of ambition and the need for achievement, position and a recognized role.

The task in the second part of life is quite different. The struggles can be can be other than what we had to face earlier on. The drive for success which marked the first years has achieved all it can or has not delivered the fulfillment it promises. The underlying needs of the Self begin to assert themselves. What I notice most in working with clients is that a new paradigm is needed. A deeper struggle – this time largely inside the person –  takes place, often to fill in the missing pieces of the personality, neglected up to now. The challenge is to become more honest and more whole, to free what was blocked and live life most fully. We have to wrestle, sometimes with a crisis, defeat,  disappointment or loss, in order to leave behind patterns or strategies that are no longer effective and will no longer bring us growth.

I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament …
Whoever was beaten by this angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater things.

Rilke, The Man Watching

Living with meaning

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Yesterday was a long rainy day here in Ireland and a sense of autumn approaching has settled into the days. So I will post for the next few days some reflections on maturing and deepening, and the meaning of fruitfulness in life, as opposed to just indicators of “success”.

The central paradox of our current feel-good culture is that we grow progressively more and more uncertain and less and less persuaded that our lives really mean something. Feeling good is a poor measure of a life, but living meaningfully is a good one, for then we are living a developmental rather than regressive agenda. We never get it all worked out anyway. Life is ragged, and truth is still more raggedy. The ego will do whatever it can to make itself more comfortable; but the soul is about wholeness, and this fact makes the ego even more uncomfortable. Wholeness is not about comfort, or goodness, or consensus — it means drinking this brief, unique, deeply rooted vintage to its dregs.

James Hollis, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of LIfe

photo Scmtb49

Balancing different aspects

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When I was young I went on holidays to my uncle’s farm in the West of Ireland and this day, which was a holiday, was seen as  marking the change from the Summer season to Autumn. My aunt would say that the days started getting shorter once this day was over.  Maybe so,  here in this part of Western Europe.  However, there is a different awareness in mainland Europe  –  in countries such as Italy – where this day ,  Fer Agosto , is the central day of the Summer Holidays, characterized by warm weather and family meals.  This is an ancient day of celebration, stretching back to the Roman feriae Augusti  (August break) when horse races were organized, as they are still in the famous Paleo in Siena.  It marked the high point of the Summer heat, realizing a human need for a break before the important work of the harvest began,

The religious calendar often piggy-backed on these human rhythms and celebrations and August 15th is no exception, celebrated by Catholics as the Assumption of Mary,  the mother of Jesus, believing that Mary was taken directly, bodily,  into heaven.   I am not too interested in understanding the theological mystery of this day or looking at things from the viewpoint of what may or may not happen at the end of time. I am more interested in the fact that Carl Jung stated that establishing this feastday was the most important religious event since the Reformation in the 16th Century. He felt it finally gave due recognition to the feminine aspect of the person, emphasizing the role of the anima alongside the animus.

Jung said that this was “the profoundest problem afflicting the human psyche: an imbalance which favored masculine principles and archetypes over the feminine ones”It is an imbalance which seems to have been recognized in all religions and wisdom traditions, as we find representations of female figures from the Virgin Mary in Catholicism and Orthodoxy  to Quan Yin in BuddhismHowever, what  Jung is drawing our attention to, is the need to acknowledge these aspects not just outside us, in our religious figures, but also within ourselves and within society, a task which clearly has a long way to go. 

It is clear that Western Society is built on an over-emphasis of traits and activities that are considered masculine –  logical thinking, analysis, action, and has neglected its feminine,  more contemplative side (while ironically at the same time, having an objectified,  sexualized version of romantic love). So Jung prompts us to reflect on the need to balance aspects within ourself and within society, embrace the energies and understandings that come from both male and female principles.  In simplistic terms this may alert us to the need to hold both logic and creativity, decisiveness and compassion, inner work and outer ambition. He goes on to say that this can fulfil “that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest”. 

Jung seems to suggest that the unrest we experience comes when we do not get a balance between the different elements within us. It seems that becoming whole is a matter of balancing the different intelligences with us, the head, body and heart, and this can be help by a meditation practice which consciously holds the  inner and outer, the self and others.  However,  we frequently overemphasize one aspect over another. working too much at times, such as spending too much energy on the outer while neglecting relationships or leisure. Furthermore, when we do not find the balance inside we tend to project it outside.  This can often be noticed when we are moved to see in another person or in an object or career all the qualities which we think will definitely fulfil and complete us, alerting us to the fact that what we are actually glimpsing are missing aspects of ourselves, or unlived parts of our life. .

The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves. Since much of our relationship to ourselves  operates at an unconscious level, most of the drama and dynamics of our relationships to others and the transcendent is expressive or our own personal psychology. The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, and with the transcendent, then, is to render our relationship with ourselves more conscious.

James Hollis, The Eden Project

photo Fir0002/Flagstaffotos



Moving toward wholeness, not perfection

This part of Ireland has quite a lot of interesting early Christian remains,   so last weekend I visited the ruins of the monastic settlement in Castledermot.  It is a site which is left somewhat untended, so that the crosses and tombs have a certain craggy beauty in a natural setting.  Rough stones, some seeming unfinished.  And yet, unfinished or ongoing does not mean “not right”, much as we tend to prefer tidyness and a clear direction or order.  We often think we have to be the finished product, or have everything resolved and clear, so that other people will give us the feedback that we are doing OK.  Seeing this “lack of completion” reminded me of these words from  Jung  – which echo the idea from Pema Chodren posted last Friday. We never really arrive at “perfection” (even though the mind thinks in terms of it) but rather at a wholeness which is more like a continual “coming together and falling apart”.  When we give up that notion of  the idealized life we wish we had, we allow ourself to work with the life we actually have.  Each moment may not be perfect, but it is, in some way, complete.

The realization of the self….leads to a fundamental conflict, to a real suspension between opposites …and to an approximate state of wholeness that lacks perfection. . . . The individual may strive after perfection . . . but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.

Jung, Christ, A Symbol of the Self,

photo of ancient Celtic cross Castledermot, Ireland, taken from dialogue ireland website.

Shedding dead skin

Just as a snake sheds its skin,so we should shed our past, over and over again.  The Buddha

For  many ancient people,   the snake was a symbol of life, shedding its skin again and again to be born anew.  This was frequently represented in the  image of the snake as a circle eating its own tail.  Jung  believed that this symbol had an archetypal meaning for humans, with snakes having the enviable quality of being able to let go of what was no longer needed for growth and start again, seeing the world from a fresh new perspective. For example, the Dunsun tribe in Northern Borneo have a myth about the origins of humankind, which really  reveals their way of grappling with some of the ongoing realities of human existence.  In their Creation Myth, humans are contrasted with snakes, who are seen to continually renew themselves by shedding their skin. In this way it was believed that they did not die.  Growth for us sometimes means letting go and moving on from the past, shedding dead skin in order to live fully.

The way to stay closest to the pulse of life, the way to stay in the presence of that divine reality which informs everything is to be willing to change. Still, change what? To change whatever has ceased to function within us. To shed whatever we are carrying that is no longer alive. To cast off our dead skin because dead skin can’t feel. Dead eyes can’t see. Dead ears can’t hear. And without feeling, there is no chance of wholeness, and wholeness remains our best chance to survive the pain of breaking.

Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

A crisis is an invitation to grow

Crises come at critical points in our lives. Usually they make it painfully obvious that the previous world view or attitudes of consciousness are inadequate to encompass the new situation. Accordingly, the crisis requires the development of new attitudes, however disdainful the ego may be. Often these crises are tied to the exhaustion of the dominant attitudes of consciousness and are indications that neglected portions of the psyche need to be brought into play. Any crisis bring the limitations of conscious life to the surface and reveals the need for enlargement….The meaning of crisis for us all [is] the invitation to sort and sift, to discern, to move to enlargement, to outgrow the sundry comforts of the old vision of self and world

James Hollis, Creating a Life