Christmas can be the most wonderful time, or the most bleak, depending on what’s going on in your life. We associate the festive season with abundance, and as much as it can be an opportunity to celebrate all the good things we have, it can also heighten our awareness of what we lack.
Money, certainly, with so much pressure on us to buy, buy, buy. For some people, a home. Family maybe, or friends. Or a specific family member, now departed, or a specific friend. Like most people, I’ve had some very bleak Christmases in my life, but I’ve never stopped loving Christmas.
Because for me, Christmas is about love. The birth of love in the world, the symbolic baby which, in difficult times, is the gift of hope for a better future.
I think that in the modern world we can sometimes have too narrow an idea of love. We tend only to think of it in terms of other people – children, parents, siblings, wider family and friends. But love is much bigger than that.
We can experience a deep love and sense of connection with our environment, or our work, or our inner world, which is just as transforming as love within relationships.
Carl Jung says the creative mind plays with the objects it loves, and whatever else is going on in my life, I always love the beautiful objects of my imagination, which I meet on the page or in dreams. That love is a force behind all my work, including this blog.
Love of every kind enlarges us, holds and inspires us. When we’re with someone we love, or doing something we love, or in a place we love, we’re not thinking, we’re just being. Time future and past is gone, and we are truly present.
You can call it God, this context in which we lose our small self. You can call it Nature, Great Spirit, Soul, or simply Love. Whatever we love redeems us from the lonely responsibility of feeling we are all that there is.
Love does not depend on money, home, family, friends – it’s a force in the world, and in our human nature. More than ever in these turbulent times, when we can feel helpless and in despair, love is a choice we can always make.
For me, Christmas feels like a reminder of that, in case we forget.
A few days after I last blogged, way back in May, I went to Iceland. I’d always been drawn to the North, so Iceland had been on my must-see list for decades, but what made me actually go this year was a series of dreams I had around the time of my mother’s death last November. They were ‘big dreams’ – dreams that had a momentous quality, a deep sense of mystery and meaning.
They were a call to ancestors, to the place beyond death and, specifically, to Iceland. So like all dreamers, who have learnt how and when to listen, I followed the call of my dreams.
Being in Iceland felt, to me, like being in a dream. I had completely underestimated the size of the island, and the sparseness of the population; I had not expected the vast tracts of volcanic deserts and inaccessible mountains. I hadn’t noticed that the key on my map had only three kinds of terrain – places where something’s growing, places where not much is growing, and places where basically nothing is growing at all, which was about 40 percent of the land.
Ice, water – and fire too. In Iceland, the hot water in your shower smells of sulphur, because it’s piped straight out of the volcanic ground, and when you’re walking in some places, you can hear the gurgle of water boiling and bubbling, breathing out wafts of sulphurous steam, and then the earth feels like a living being. You can absolutely understand why Icelandic people believe in earth spirits – you can believe it yourself.
Land of fire and ice, and of light and darkness too. I visited several art exhibitions which explored the creative sensibility of the peoples of the North, shaped by long dark winters and summer months of continuous light. They made explicit how this environment can drive a psychological rhythm between extremes of celebration and isolation, of joy and depression.
I felt these extremes in myself, the whole time I was there. On the surface, excited and enchanted by everything I saw and everyone I met, but sensing all the time, the darkness moving underneath. A few days in, I had this dream:
The car is packed for the next stage of my journey and I’m having a last cup of tea with my hosts. Looking out over Rekjavik through their big window, I see a sudden darkness coming across the sky – clouds?
I see black clouds rising along the edge of town, pouring up into the air from the ground, and as I watch, a sudden column of sparkling fire shoots up, exploding in a great shower of sparks, orange and red, filling the thick black cloud that’s covering everything.
‘What is that?’ I gasp.
‘The volcano’s erupting.’
Black soot is falling everywhere, covering everything, but it doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve come for. The darkness. Not just fun and distraction. I always knew it.
It was the beginning of what has been, for me, a difficult summer. I went to Iceland following the kind of dreams that will take you deep into your own darkness, as well as bringing you, eventually, to wonder and light.
I had expected to meet the black dog, but black dogs come in different shapes and sizes. This one turned out to be huge and hungry, feral and strong, and he was never going to settle for living in my house like a sad old labrador for just a few weeks or months.
It’s been a long and exhausting trek through his cold darkness but, last week, I woke one morning with a great sense of relief, after my first full night’s sleep for months, and a bright thought filled my mind like a sunrise, ‘It’s over now.’
I’m sorry I was away so long, but very happy to be back.
I’m a great believer in holidays. When you’re away from home, you can see your normal day-to-day life from outside, and it gives you a different perspective. What are you relieved to be away from? How do you chose to pass your days when the constraints of work and other responsibilities are lifted? The answers to these and other questions can surprise you and offer precious insights into fruitful changes you might choose to make when you get home.
As a dreamer, one of the things I enjoy about holidays is that my dream life also shifts perspective. Holiday dreams usually have a different quality, and bring in new kinds of imagery. It was during a holiday many years ago that I first encountered the faceless ones, and began to engage with the archetypes, those images which Jung called ‘pieces of life itself.’
Holidays are times when you can wake slowly and really savour your dreams. You can carry them around with you during the day, and ponder them in quiet moments. The images you bring home with you will have the same sense of time and place as the physical souvenirs you buy.
As a writer, I find the same shift in perspective. Ideas I’ve been working on at home seem different from far away. Sometimes more exciting, sometimes less. They form up in unexpected ways; they show different aspects of themselves to me. I’m sure that’s why so many writers go on writing retreats.
You don’t have to go to exotic places or spend a fortune in order to feel the benefits of going on holiday. In fact, like many other people, I usually go to familiar places I love. The point is simply to be somewhere else, to look at things from a different angle for a while, and come back to normal life feeling renewed.
Have you ever found that being away from home gave you new ideas about life, work or dreams?
The circle is an archetype for wholeness and integration, a universal pattern in nature and the human psyche which is also a template for the stories of life and fiction. You can use the power of the circle archetype in writing, deliberately placing it in your mind by making mandalas.
The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves ~ Black Elk
Stories naturally make circles. The protagonist sets off, achieves or learns something in the course of the action, and returns changed. Often the work of redrafting is about refining the beginning and ending to tie everything into a satisfying whole. The crafting of a story is a process of perfecting the circle.
Dorothea Brande (‘Becoming a Writer’) says the unconscious is not only the source of our creativity, but also the home of form. This is why, when you have plot problems, new ways of fitting things together can naturally spring up in your mind as soon as you stop consciously trying to force them.
When I’m planning or redrafting a story I will often draw mandalas while I ponder.
‘Mandala’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘circle.’ It signifies a geometrical pattern based on a circle, and it’s used in every spiritual tradition as a focus for contemplation, meditation, protection, healing or prayer.
In its most basic form, the mandala is a simple circle, and if you’d like to try making some you can start by drawing circles. I recommend you do this free-hand, although your first attempts may look like lumpy lozenges. Keep working at it until you can do one that looks reasonably round. The process of this will anyway help attune your mind to the archetype.
When you have drawn your circle, you can incorporate other geometrical forms into it and around it. You could put a triangle inside it, crossed by another triangle to make a six-pointed star. You could put your circle inside a square, or squares inside your circle.
Choose any geometrical shapes you like, but try to achieve balance, so that the sides and segments of the circle are the same. Drawing geometric shapes also settles your mind into the beautiful reality of numbers.
Treat the whole process like doodling, not trying to create art, but simply to play and allow your mind to idle. Keep building mandalas until you get one you really like.
Shading or colouring your mandala is a way of staying with the archetype for longer, and allowing it to work upon you. When you have finished, bring the energy of the circle with you into your writing. Bear it in mind as a template for your story, and see whether it gives you a greater sense of direction and clarity.
What creative activities do you use as part of your writing process?
I think of them as the nameless or faceless one – archetypal images which carry the pure power of a universal human experience. In pantheistic cultures they may be represented by gods and goddesses. In our secular world, we encounter them most directly in dreams.
A few weeks ago, I had a series of nightmares about an intruder in my house. I never saw his face because fear woke me up, but rather than feeling disturbed, I felt attentive, because like the Death card in tarot or the Tower, the dark intruder is a messenger of change.
Major changes are always unsettling and being unsettled is always unwelcome. Even if we’re actively seeking new ways of being and want to move forward into new areas of experience, there will still be resistance because change involves letting go of the familiar, and the outcome is never certain. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.
These dark intruder dreams were swiftly followed by a series of dreams about babies. Like the dark intruder, the archetypal baby provokes a powerful emotional response, but rather than fear and anxiety, it’s an outpouring of love, hope and happiness.
It occurred to me to wonder whether baby dreams often follow dark intruders; they kind of should, because they are both aspects of change, the one full of initial fears and the other moving forward into joyfully anticipation.
Our major Christmas archetypes are Santa Claus, the intruder who brings gifts, and the Christian symbol of the wondrous baby who brings redemption, light after darkness at the turning of the year.
Happy Christmas everyone, and may all your challenges in 2014 bring blessed new beginnings.
The award-winning author Susan Price and I are exchanging emails at the moment for a future entry on the ‘A conversation with’ page on her blog. By a delightful synchronicity, her latest response was a perfect illustration of the blog post I had just written last week, and she has agreed to let me publish it here.
There was a time in my life, when I was denying that ‘other’in my head, when I think my subconscious very deliberately worked against me.
I would say something quite innocent to someone – ‘Hello, how are you?’ for instance – and hear myself saying it in a tone, or with an inflexion that completely changed the meaning and made it insulting or aggressive. I had absolutely no conscious intention of insulting anyone, and would be as astonished as the person I’d just offended – but, of course, what could I say? – ‘I didn’t mean it like that! – That came out wrong!’
Sometimes people were polite, but I’d just bitten their heads off for no good reason. It was impossible to explain that the voice they’d just heard wasn’t mine. They would have thought I was mad. I occasionally thought I was mad.
I was at logger-heads with what I now call ‘my daemon’ because I was refusing to acknowledge that it existed, and so it fought me all the way. I would be writing something and would decide to make some change to the plot. What I now call the daemon would object, but I would refuse to listen because I didn’t recognise its voice. I put it down to a mere passing thought, and brushed it off because at that time I was certain that there was only one voice in my head: the ‘I’ voice, which I would now call ‘the editor’.
The daemon took its revenge by withdrawing. The piece of writing I was working on would turn to stone, or dry up, or fall over dead – whatever image you want to use. I had to learn that with writing – or, I think, any art – the daemon does the real work! The Editor may make some great editing decisions, once the real work is finished, but shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the daemon.
A vengeful, spurned daemon is a dangerous thing, I think. Mine not only stymied my every effort at writing, it played those tricks to embarrass me. It was ingenious at finding ways to make such remarks as,“Yes, please,” and “Yes, I’ve heard of that,” nasty and cutting.
I had to learn that talk of ‘muses’ and ‘daemons’ was not the arty-farty nonsense I thought it, but simply a way of talking about something that we don’t quite understand, and don’t have an everyday vocabulary for. I began to solve problems with writing by summarising the problem and saying to the daemon,‘Solve this for me.’ And it did! The more I trusted it, the faster and more inventively it solved the problems.
I started to give way to it. If it insisted that a particular character should – or shouldn’t – die, I no longer argued, but humbly worked with it to make it so. I discovered that the more I worked with and trusted the daemon, the friendlier it became. It stopped playing those tricks on me!
As a result, I paid it more attention and ‘heard’ it more clearly. I started to see how a piece of writing that I’d ‘made up as I went along’ had sub-texts planted in it, and other subtleties that ‘I’ hadn’t written – so who had? And then I read Kipling’s description of his ‘daemon’ and knew what he was talking about right away.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this taster, watch out for our full conversation on Susan’s blog in the coming weeks. You may also like to check out her ‘Muse Monday’ guest post on Katherine Roberts’ lovely blog, Reclusive Muse, where she descibes her daemon and quotes the passage from Rudyard Kipling she refers to here.
In Jungian psychology, the Shadow is one of the major archetypes of the Self. It represents all the things you have identified as ‘not me’ during your formative years, when you were building your sense of who you are. It’s the other side of the Persona archetype, which is your identity, or how you see yourself and expect other people to see you.
A classic depiction of the conflict between Persona and Shadow is ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, which came to him in a dream. In the story, Dr Jekyll is a respectable pillar of the community, but he has a secret other side – at night, he is addicted to the pleasures of debauchery.
He invents a potion which can completely change his physical appearance so that, as Mr Hyde, he is able to go out on the town and not worry about being discovered. Effectively, he turns himself into two people, one embodying his Persona, and the other his Shadow.
Whatever we don’t identify with as ‘me’, we project out. We may disown it so completely that we can’t recognise it in ourselves at all. We can only see it in the mirror of the world.
One way we project undeveloped aspects of our Self is onto the people around us. A person who thinks of himself as hard-working and high-achieving may find other people lazy and unambitious. A person who thinks of herself as ugly may feel that virtually everyone else is good-looking.
In a couple, the tasks of personality are often shared out. One partner may be good with money, so the other can enjoy financial security without having to develop good money-sense themselves. One might be fun-loving and dizzy so the other can be sensible and steady, yet still enjoy a party lifestyle.
On a collective level, cultures, countries and sub-sections of society also have a Persona and a Shadow. In families, for example, it may mean one person becomes the black sheep, with all the family’s unacknowledged problems projected onto them.
Where there is Shadow projection, there is always emotion, because we’re defending our very existence, insofar as that is our idea of ourselves. Which brings me on to Jimmy Savile.
This was a man who appeared to be helping the young and vulnerable but was actually hurting and abusing them in secret. Quite rightly, there’s been huge public outrage, because nobody should have the slightest doubt that what he’s alleged to have done was heinous and wrong.
According to Jung, there may be another dimension to this natural disgust and condemnation – extreme public outcries of the dig-up-his-bones, may-he-rot-in-hell variety may be intensified by Shadow energy. ‘We’re not like that! We’re the opposite of that! We protect children from sexual abuse!’
So, do we? Young children are regularly exposed to highly sexualised music videos on daytime television, and sexual story-lines before the watershed. Magazines and video games which are targeted at children contain sexual content, and children’s clothing which could be seen as sexually provocative is sold in high street shops. A large proportion of primary age children have seen internet pornography. If you google ‘sexualising of children’ you’ll find page after page of examples.
Jung called the Shadow ‘the seat of creativity.’ Embracing the Shadow means letting go of fixed ideas about who we are and the way life is, opening to unconsidered possiblities and engaging with complications, so to create something new.
Something new is happening because of these horrific revelations. People who have kept their own experience of abuse to themselves for many years are suddenly speaking out. Not just the hundreds who were allegedly abused by Savile, but thousands more are flooding helplines with their stories. That in itself is the beginning of a major change.
I hope the high profile and new openness given to the problem of child sexual abuse because of this case will mean that the sexualising of children by adult society in recent years will come under proper scrutiny and be seen for what it is.
Jimmy Savile’s dirty secret may be holding the mirror up to ours, showing us something about our society that we prefer not to acknowledge. Like all Shadow work, simply to acknowledge it is to begin the transformation.
More about the personal Shadow next week – where to look, and how to see it