Pan and the forest dark

A three part series.

 Jung once observed that “The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room” (CW 13; §54). This is an idea that vexed me when I first heard it. But we are in the middle of experiencing Pan, the god of the Greeks, in the form of panic, through this pandemic, which has created pandemonium. The god Pan plays the tune that flows through the mythic mystery of our relationship to this pandemic (look for more on Pan in part two of this series). With Jung’s riddle of the gods in mind, the current essay explores the phenomenon of panic as we all squirm and many resist to embrace (myself among them) the reality of this pandemic (the first of its kind to truly register on my internal Richter scale). This period of time is one of those “I remember where I was when….” moments, and we all need to pay attention to our lives now, as it is likely that they will change forever. Disclaimer: I think that the only way that we can consciously make it through this, is to slow down, focus, reconnect with ourselves and those we love, observe the modes of thinking and feeling that dominate our daily lives, and surrender to those feelings from which we all tend to retreat – namely: fear and anxiety… panic. Wait? Surrender to those feelings? Yes, let it stoke your creative fires. Allowing our fear to be and to follow where it may lead us is to merge with an emotional reminded that you are valued, because fear is the feeling that lets you know you matter and are worthy and able of surviving and being alive. Fear, and its close companion anxiety, are both deeply connected with survival. Making our lives matter enough to respond, to create, to reach out, and to protect. These emotions, often spoken of as if they are “negative,” need not be reduced, solved for, or eradicated, but reconceptualized. And this process often comes in the form of a trauma.  

On a personal level, the way in which you interpret the above will largely depend on your personal circumstances. While we are all in this together, we are also each facing our own unique experience as well. For example, no one in my family is sick, and for any of you that is sick, or know someone who is, my heart is with you now. I desire for you and your family to recover as quickly and as completely as you possibly can. But, sadly, as I write this, the numbers and a close to world-wide shut down indicate that we are in the middle of an event that is on the one hand terrifying, and on another hand life-giving. This may feel confusing, or it may just feel right.

I am a psychologist who has many private and personal conversations each day, and the surprising part of what I am hearing is hope. Hope for a change. We all feel it. We feel that the way in which we live is just a bit off. Don’t get me wrong. We are getting many things right. If you need some hope, check out, or search for how many people are working to bring us together with love and peace as their guide. Not convinced? Just check out the message my brother, Jeff Price, has been working to bring to the world for over a year, as he works to remind people that every day is “peace and kindness day!” Really, his project is completely inspiring. Remind yourself, that you can both be responsive to this threat, and remember all of the good in both yourself and the world. Hold the paradox.  

My mentor and friend Pittman McGehee used to remind me that one of the primary paradoxes of our lives is that while we are in this world alone, we cannot be in this world alone. Spend some time with that for a second before reading on. The paradox posits that two seemingly opposite realities can be simultaneously true. A mindblowing idea for the one-sided aspect of us all. The riddle at the beginning of this paper reminds and connects us with what we have forgotten, the both/and proposition. The trauma that populates our daily lives is the trauma of either/or. The one over the other.

Trauma comes in the form of too much or not enough, and we are living out both. Too much consumption, not enough preservation. Too much busy and not enough bliss. Too much me and not enough we. You get the point, but let your mind keep going, though. What is too much in your life? What is not enough? And if the answer is more money, more admiration, more things, or more time, in the words of the great American poet, Otis Redding, “Try a little tenderness.” While humans experience and solve problems, we are not a problem to be solved. We are a poem to be lived, spoken, and expressed.

When William Butler Yeats writes…..

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I imagine that Yeats is not offering a mathematical problem for the engineer within us to solve. We do not approach this poem with the problem solving mind, but one of experiencing. Hopefully, when reading a work such as this, our best self emerges and we allow our minds to transport us into a deeper existence, if even for a moment. And in this moment we may meet with deeper meaning knocking at the door of our awareness alerting us to the fact that there is more to life than solutions, consumption, and conquest. The gift and miracle of consciousness comes to mind. The way I would rewrite Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am,” is “I am, and that is beautiful.” What would life be without the beauty of a Beethoven symphony, or friends holding hands and supporting each other, or the sacrifice that a parent makes for a child, or a million other things. Even the breath you just took. Focus on the next one. Take it in, for there are many of us now who struggle to breathe. Of course, there is suffering, deep suffering, and sometimes this suffering is at the hand of another whom we believe to be evil. Many thinkers have analyzed the problem of evil, and I do not dismiss the overwhelming nature of this form of suffering, especially at the hand of another human being who seeks to do me harm. But our suffering or the possibility of suffering, does not have to make us retreat. I’m not suggesting that if I experience a threat that I should see the poetry of the danger. No, I respond to the threat. But if the attitude I adopt to my “problem,” which in reality is a pattern of my life, then maybe, rather than trying to get rid of my anxiety or fear, I approach the pattern as a poem and allow it to transport me into a deeper relationship with myself. Maybe what you discover is not the meaning of life, but the meaning of your life.

In a recent conversation with Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, she notes that not only is our core trauma tied to the varieties of too much or not enough, but that to some extent we are ruled by a part of our neuroanatomy and identity. This ego, that part of us that maintains a belief that my self or sense of self-worth is connected to externals such as how much money I have, how big my house is, how approved I am by others, or how much better I am doing in life than the next person (see the pattern, there?). Dr. Taylor’s claim is that the tasking, problem solving, always consuming, calculating, and calibrating mind is only one very small part of us and that the core trauma here is that we have managed to create a culture that supports the singularity and sovereignty of this small part. Dr. Taylor knows this dynamic first hand because in 2008 she suffered a stroke to her left temporal lobe. With this flood of brain blood came a mystical experience wherein she toggled back and forth between the depth, love, unity, and expansiveness of the right brain to the egoic, differentiating, and solution focused part of the left brain. I need my ego. I’m glad for this psychic organ of orientation, although to personify it a bit, perhaps the ego imagines itself to be a little too important. And if this is the case, then the way we understand our reality is incomplete. There must be many of us out there who are thirsty for this message because Dr. Taylor’s TED talk is one of the top five most viewed TED talks of all time with about twenty-six million views. Once we are exposed to this reality, it is difficult to deny the ubiquity of this dual dynamic. Take a look at a few symbols and pay attention to what you see…

Do you see it? Duality held within the tension of opposites. Two triangles and two lines, both held by an opposing tension. Two forces, each holding just a bit of the other. Both/and.

Jeff Kripal, professor of religious studies at Houston’s Rice University writes, “Each human being is two, that is, each person is simultaneously a conscious constructed self or socialized ego and a much larger complexly conscious field that normally manifests only in non-ordinary states of consciousness and energy, which the religious traditions have historically objectified, mythologized, and projected outward into the sky as divine, as “God” or introjected inward into the human being as nirvana, brahman, or located in some sort of experienced paradoxical state that is neither inside or outside, as in the Chines Dao or the American paranormal (The Secret Body, Kripal, 2017, p. 36). Or as one of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes, “Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance.” We are both. Republican and Democrat, male and female, friend and foe, lover and loathed. This dual consciousness calls for our curiosity, not our complacency, or conflict. We too, as Jung put it, “hold the tension of opposites.” Or as the Zen tradition states, “if it is not paradox, then it is not true.”

With this attitude, we may expand who we envision ourselves to be, and thereby start the process of reconnecting with the repressed, forgotten, and lost dimensions of self. We reclaim, reauthorize, reorient, and rediscover what really matters, and who we really are through this process of self-discovery. Take that term “self-discovery.” To dis-cover is to remove the cover. To get rid of the boundary between who you understand and believe yourself to be, and a deeper dimension of your self. There are many reasons why the cover was placed there in the first place: culture, family of origin, early experience, essentially the time and place of your birth. Jung called this “the spirit of the times.” Essentially, we are born ready to adapt to our world. Much of our early life involves the necessary amputation of impulses, expressions, ideas, and identity to accommodate the world around us. If we are lucky, our later life involves repairing what was lost through the necessity of the earlier stages. We each need early healthy connection and attachment to our environment, and we each need to rediscover our self through this process of reclamation. Hence the split. Or as Kripal notes, “The human as two.” As a result of this conflict, and the split that occurs, the cover closes over the container and concealed within it, are all of those parts of us not deemed desirable by the “spirit of the times.” At the risk of belaboring the point, consider this thought experiment. Who would you be if you were born into an Aboriginal tribe, or basically any culture other than the culture of your birth?

Therefore the trauma of which Dr. Taylor speaks is that we, as sovereign individuals
have lost touch with both the multiplicity within ourselves and the unity that links all of us together as one. The current crisis, this pandemic, as it isolates and sickens the individuals among us, it also links us to one another in thought, in feeling, and with one unified voice that cries out, “We are all in this together.” The choices that we make on a daily basis; the ways in which we view ourselves as individuals and as part of the collective; essentially our reality is changing right now. You are part of one of the largest, collective world-wide events that humanity has experienced. This is not the first and it most certainly will not be the last, but it is now. And this is the moment in which we get to collectively choose how we want our human reality to look.

Reality is not fixed. The fact that we take it to be fixed says more about our ego and, by default, our routines than anything else. Maybe you do not believe that we can drastically shift our reality. This has happened many times before.

For now, we prepare, we suit up and show up, we learn and we love, and we grieve … together.

Look for part 2 next week.