The Magnus Opus

There is a tight complementarity between the emotions and the imagination. The imagination is a powerful solvent ‒ it keeps things fluid and prevents the world from freezing up. It breaks down walls. It refuses the literal and sees all things as metaphoric and symbolic. Imagination perceives correspondences. To do this it must flow. It is the essential element for any work with the crippled and uncontrolled emotions that dominate the literalist psyche. The emotions all have their own dynamic and style of imagination, but when they are dominant, monolithic, autonomous, and automatic it is as if the whole person has been caught in some vast eddy of energy, cut off from the broader stream and unable to escape. Jung had a name for these reflexive, habitual and semi-conscious emotions that so often dominate our lives. They are the feeling-toned complexes. The great challenge of psychic development is to become conscious of the complexes that dominate your life. It is the great work ‒ the magnum opus. And I think the one of the best ways to think about the process involved is by means of the metaphors of alchemy. The psychic and spiritual battlesthat alchemy describes are difficult and painful almost beyond description. The prima materia of the opus consists in a massa confusa of wild emotions ‒ a powerful chaos of pain, shame, rage, fear, anger, hatred, and anguish. All of it must be contained in the vas bene clausum ‒ a well-sealed vessel, and a veritable furnace. For the impossible rule of this work is “don’t repress; don’t act out” ‒ the only allowable action is to stay sealed in the furnace and Imagine. In the heat at the heart of the great work the cooking occurs by means of a series of operations repeated over and over again in a seemingly endless process of psychosomatic stresses and transformations. The goal is to get some distance between the soul in the oven and the dominating and impersonal emotions that engulf her. The struggle is to discover that the all-consuming passions, whatever they are, are not inevitable responses to features of some stable, objective world but states of the psyche ‒ and so, the world they arise in response to is not literal and objective, not permanent, not the Truth. This distancing is the difficult process of becoming conscious of a complex. It is the chief key to freedom from the passions. Only through this distancing, the dis-identification with the complex, can clarity be had in any emotional situation. And the one certain rule here, so very hard to keep front and center, is that any time there is strong affect, any time the passions rage, there is a complex at the center of the storm.

Tom Cheetham

from his wonderful book IMAGINAL LOVE The Meanings of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman TOM CHEETHAM SPRING PUBLICATIONS THOMPSON, CONN.

Conceptual Language

From IMAGINAL LOVE The Meanings of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman TOM CHEETHAM SPRING PUBLICATIONS THOMPSON, CONN.

Conceptual language is the rhetorical style of this directed thinking ‒ as it is the rhetorical style of the ego, that master of direction and control. Hillman says conceptual language “is the chronic locus of our collective neurosis as it appears in language.” [37] The concept is the workhorse of rationalism. Rationalism accounts for the world in concept words rather than images or thing words or craft words. It is based on establishing identities ‒ what something is rather than what it is like. And to say what something is we have to treat it schematically, abstractly, since the real thing itself is far too complex, individual and immediate to be anything but itself. So we take this being away from it, and rather than describing it metaphorically, we categorize it with a concept and say what it is. So, Hillman says, we may claim that our hypotheses and conceptual statements are only heuristic, but in practice was substantiate everything because we are trapped in the literalism of our language. Of the rationalism of psychology he writes, We speak in concepts: the ego and the unconscious; libido, energy and drive; opposites, regression, feeling-function, compensation, transference… When working with these terms we curiously forget they are concepts only, barely useful for grasping psychic events which they inadequately describe. [38]

Tom Cheetham

Another Momentum

People have been curious as to why I am such a wanderer and why it is that I have not settled in one place, wondering what it is that I am searching for in my journeys. I haven’t always been sure what it is that has kept me moving and have at times wondered if there was not something pathological that prevents me from staying in one spot for long. I have always lived this way. A contradiction to the notion that I am not comfortable in sitting still is that I have participated in over twenty silent, meditation retreats over the years, many of them spanning a week or more in length.

These days I see what it is that influences me more clearly, that a consequence of everyday, repetitive, habitual activity in modern civilisation is that it builds a wall around the ordinary state of consciousness and makes it almost impossible to see beyond it. It encourages behaviour aimed at keeping one safe. In some ways, my way has become a way of stepping outside of that, (there are many ways), that allows me to have a deeper experience. James Hillman says that anytime you’re gonna grow, you’re gonna lose something. You’re losing what you’re hanging onto to keep safe. Colin Wilson talks about the contemporary norm being life within our ego consciousness, with a sense of complete self-sufficiency that denies the presence of spiritual worlds.

The way that I have come to live allows for awakening to an energy that has its own momentum, that is its own cause and effect, an energy that has no resistance and does not deteriorate. It involves a strong relationship to silence, allowing myself to be led by what I discover there. That silence heals fear, influencing how I perceive life; seeing that the world and others have a more holy quality, more than an emotional experience: something that I do not experience in a more ordinary state. Robert Sardello writes “Our ordinary consciousness cannot perceive in this way: it bifurcates our experience, and in our usual perceiving, things are either possessed by our consciousness or left “out there” alone, as independent, abstract objects. It is not the peace that Silence brings to us that makes us want to move toward it, but this aspect of holy anticipation within the very things of the world! An anticipation of what? By whom? The answers are not given within the experience of Silence itself. The sense of anticipation is simply present and opens us to experience the world as on the way, as unfinished, as still in the process of being created, of coming into being, and as moving toward some unknown completion.”

Inner Reservoir

A meditative way of life for me simply involves developing a deliberate awareness of vital life energies. In that way the concentration of these energies is most important in accessing a flood-tide of inner warmth and connectedness that is a more desirable state to live in as opposed to more conventional perception of realty which imposes a demand of sense impressions, thoughts, uncertainties and related emotions, (all man made concerns), that inevitably leach away vital powers. For too much of my life I have allowed myself to be exposed to the force of cold facts, mechanical perceptions and dry criticism.

In fostering an inner reservoir and associated features of inner warmth the expression of my life experience through painting writing and other forms has emerged as a passion. I have been painting for over thirty five years, my love of art emerging from a contemplative practice. In this I experience ongoing intimations that true creativity is something that arises from beyond and through the self out of that reservoir that I have nurtured. As May Sarton the poet implies; the painting is often more mature than the painter of it; always a messenger of growth. In painting and writing I open to this influence of something beyond my limited sense of self. I ultimately find myself in that.

Ultimately an inner reservoir is not an illusory refuge. It is something authentic of me that must be considered if I am to live in a way that is whole. My intimation is that it has always been a part of our human origins regardless of how much we have created another impression of life and reality. It is not a place where I do not succumb to denial ir avoidance of what is true but more of complete awareness of my human limitation and vulnerability and as my existence as a vital part of all creation. When awareness falls I find old habits and conditioned perceptions returning influencing a more sober, fractured reality until the return of a grace filled intimation illuminates for a way back.

Growing Weary

In my travels its been hard to find a place that man has not alienated himself from nature. For me I am so fortunate that I have Canada as a refuge, but for how long will this be so. Modern technology is certainly taking its toll as it now dominates most all cultures, contributing to the devaluation of that which is natural and organic. We have become enslaved by technology, out of touch with nature and experiencing obvious symptoms and consequences. Humans have become cutoff from themselves, even their intimations of a return to some deeper self. We have been too long absorbed and too battered to function in more collaborative way with each other and/or with nature. I am growing weary of this increasingly artificial lifestyle living. We call it civilization but cultivation is the better word. We dont seem to be aware of what we have sacrificed in our obsession with control and such a shallow illusion of self, comfort and security. I am lost in it, not able to find a place to rest where there is balance and where I can find nourishment in what is natural in life. There does not seem to be a way out of this conundrum as the unrelenting progress of technological development seems never ending. The ending may in fact be that civilization is doomed, destined to be consumed from within and destroyed.

A Letter to a Friend

I can relate very much to what you say about declining health and control of it. Sorry to hear about all those struggles. It sounds like an insightful step with your doctors. I guess you have to hear what they say and decide from there. How can they really know what is best for us. I am surprised to hear about you stepping back from involvement with your life teacher and that group. It seemed to be such a vital support for you. But as you suggest I also seem to be embracing, more than ever, the shift into living from an essence that I find fundamentally in solitude. Im not sure that I find it in any group or such.
Iris and I were quite sick on returning to Germany from Myanmar and haven’t yet fully recovered from that. I just feel myself getting older and I want to be allowed to do that rather than have to fight with it or adopt some conventional way of coping with it. There have been moments in Myanmar when I was sick where I realized the possibility that one day I will not be able able to go on and maybe it will arrive sooner rather than later. At one point I went on an expedition and was 200 kilometres away from Iris in the north of Myanmar by myself on the Chen State Rebel Front, hiking in the hills and rice paddies alone realizing that I could get sick or that something else could happen and that I might not make it back as I planned. At one point iris and I were told we could not get on a flight in the southern most part of Myanmar and that we had to go back to the border and through customs on the Thailand border. It was a stressful few hours and I was reacting in a habitual way but there was more of a settling into the possibility that my time here is completely limited but at least Im living fully. I might not like everything about life, in fact I don’t. I am so aware of the war and poverty and most of all how individuals and cultures attempt to cope in a way that is laced with ignorance, arrogance and vanity that perpetuates more abuse in Myanmar, Germany and most everywhere in the world.
I can relate to what you say about things unfolding in our male dominated world and as well feel that we would be much better off with more women in the role of leadership. Men just are not able to really realize how their egos are so limited. The male ego keeps repeating the same patterns and mistakes and perpetuating suffering over and over. Of course women are capable of this as well. I have a chance to observe women in the medical system here in Germany and they can be propelled by the same egos and confusing intentions, mixing up their own personal neediness for what is best for all. But women seem to be on the whole, inevitably more capable of transcending their own neediness and of an authentic concern and compassion for others. They are so much more close to something more authentic, creative and loving of our being.
As far as myself goes I seem to be waking up to more acceptance of where I am in the moment. Its not that I don’t have feelings about it but that I can see them more clearly and move beyond them. There is something of my ego that is not happy about wherever I may be. I know enough not to pay too much attention to it or to let the essence of it arise without being to attached to it. As you suggest it is something of my cultural male conditioning. These days I am able to operate and be in the world from a more fundamental place than that conditioning. There is something in this that is more accepting of difficulty. I see that part of that male conditioning involves a never ending search for security, comfort and control. Its not that I am rejecting these things but that I am more able to enter into difficulty and move through it. Im seeing more that these moments are inseparable from a joy in life. It is a different kind of joy and embracing of life that I have forgotten. The feelings of child like exploration, creativity and unfolding in a mystery are more common now than they have been in some time.