Tree manThere is an odd thing about nature; everything is quite adept at being what it is, except humans.

I look out
at everything
growing so wild
and faithfully beneath
the sky
and wonder
why we are the one
part of creation
to refuse our flowering.
(David Whyte)

The problem with understanding why we make ourselves so complicated is not easy, because the part of you that makes it simple cannot be engaged with words, and this is, by necessity, a collection of words. so instead I need to dig around it.

This is merely the call to adventure.

An adventure feels dangerous, risky. We are not in control.
It costs us our comfort.
It demands our participation.
We cross a threshold.
We are no longer in normal space or normal time.
Life does not function as it normally does, tick, tick, tick.

In other words, to discover who we really are requires liminal space.

It requires a new way of seeing, and although this article uses the usual way of seeing, it will hopefully also help you believe that you can see beyond it.

The chosen vehicle we use in the West to understand ourselves is therapy. While counselling is helpful, it is only the tip of the iceberg. After the Rwanda genocide, a Tutsi leader observed “you placed our men in a softly lit room, away from other men, away from their music, away from their drumming, away from nature, away from sunshine, and ask them to talk about pain, and wonder why we can’t?”

Imagine a tree.

The top third of the tree, represented by branches and leaves, is what we can see, know, evaluate, analyse. It is the word of disembodied, theoretical concepts. In this, we gain a sense of certainty, but certainty is a slippery thing, so we have to constantly prove or disprove everything that comes into the machinery (this conscious egoic self is very mechanical). Things that are known, static and fixed are right, and things that are unknown are wrong.

Everything gets coded into categories, so this is that, never its essence, only the sum of its parts. That tree. That person. The ‘thatness’ of life makes everything two dimensional, a weary succession of problems to solve, barriers to move around, items to consume. This creates a sad isolation, a disconnect from life lived to a life observed.

This world is loud – even for introverts – because the judging mind never shuts up. It’s only as we age that we notice how repetitive and relentless it is with its formulae. A form of cynicism slips in over the decades. There really is nothing more, because I have seen and tested it all. It’s very explicit because it uses words – thought, spoken or written – to do this codifying.

In the end, this consciousness gives us a sense of control. It thinks it knows, because it can name, explain and reduce everything to a closed set of things. It gives a sense of perfection but this comes at the price of emptiness, a world without any essential value, but a price tag on everything.

At the bottom of the tree are the roots, buried in the dark ground. This represents our unconscious selves, what the ancients called our souls.

This field is embodied in a visceral, immediate and concrete awareness. It is open to what is not known, to mystery and to wonder, and is profoundly surrendered in trust, which is why dreams are a way in. It engages with what is, without explaining it. It does not seek for the name, for that would be to leave the experience, and experience is the great teacher.

Down in the roots, things are silent. John Keats calls it the child of silence and slow time, not the tick tick tick of conscious time. It is only through silence (and dreams) that this world where our life hides can be directly accessed.

This implicit world sees the whole, which it senses (it is very sensory) as far greater than the parts. Because it is sensory, it is tactile and intimate with its environment. Empathy works like braille for its blind comprehension.

The unconscious is completely relaxed with imperfection. The conscious ego will find this loss of control terrifying and seek to categorise, cleaning up the mess of the unconscious. But imperfection holds no terrors to the unconscious.

In his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr wrote

“The most amazing fact about Jesus, unlike almost any other religious founder, is that he found God in disorder and imperfection—and told us that we must do the same or we would never be content on this earth.”

An open field of view of the whole that is empathetic and connected embraces the ‘thisness’ of everything encountered – this flower is as precious and vital to my life as anything could ever be.

The problem remains, how do we get to our actual lived lives down in the roots of the tree?

There remains a third part of the tree, which is not really part of the tree at all, but merely a conduit between the energy of the leaves and branches, and the life of the roots. This of course is the trunk of the tree. The trunk can best be described as the subconscious, a bridge between the two ways of engaging with life.

We have been wonderfully gifted with tools in this subconscious that, when used skilfully, invite us into our deeper lives. These tools include music, art, poetry, story, dance, story, drumming and nature (notice how these were what was missing from the treatment offered to the Tutsi survivors). Perhaps it is not surprising that we lean into things that technology left behind to rediscover who we are.

But it takes a skilled craftsman to integrate these tools in a way that we can learn about our lives. This is the role of ritual, myth, symbol and image

What is this word ritual? On the eve of World War II, Carl Jung observed how poor our lives had become (one wonders what he would make of us 80 years later!):

“You see, man is in need of a symbolic life – badly in need. We only live banal, ordinary, rational, or irrational things . . . but we have no symbolic life. Where do we live symbolically? Nowhere except where we participate in the ritual of life. But who among the many are really participating in the ritual of life? Very few.

“Have you got a corner somewhere in your house where you perform the rites, as you can see in India? Even the very simple houses there have at least a curtained corner where the members of the household can perform the symbolic life, where they can make their new vows or their meditation. We don’t have it; we have no such corner. We have our own room, of course, – but there is a telephone that can ring us up at any time, and we always must be ready. We have no time, no place.” (C. J. Jung, Guild for Pastoral Psychology, London 1939)

Einstein said “that intuitive (soul) is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” In his acclaimed book The Master and His Emissary, Oxford University professor Iain McGilchrist wrote “we have created a society that honours the servant but have forgotten the gift.”

Using the latest findings in neuroscience, McGilcrhist discovered that what I am calling the unconscious self and what ancients called the soul is in fact accessed through the right hemisphere of our prefrontal cortex, and what we identify as the calculating mind is really no more than the left prefrontal cortex. This ‘fact’ however can only be held by the left hemisphere, so it might soothe it a little in describing what it might otherwise dismissively call “pixies at the bottom of the garden” but it will not help the right hemisphere encounter life one iota (The Master and His Emissary is a helpful exploration at why Western society is struggling to thrive, in its elevation of the left hemisphere and dismissiveness of life from the right hemisphere).

Rites are ancient, and were forgotten – almost entirely – by our classifying, categorising world. In her book “Becoming Wise,” Krista Tippett wrote

“For most of history, religion was a full body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualised the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. They are like physical corollaries to poetry. Rituals tether emotion to flesh and blood and bone and help release it. They embody memory in communal time.”

Ancient sophisticated, two words we rarely see alongside each other. Fr Jim Clark, a weaver of MROP in the USA, described rituals as “symbolic encoded gestures, with a concise meaningful vocabulary, to give meaning to our lives.”

Here is our problem. We pursue pleasure, but are not happy. We codify meaning, instead of living it. We have no container to help us access our true lives and our deepest truths. We live lives stripped of inherent meaning. We grasp at the external, never digging deep enough into the soil, the dark mess of our realities, to find the buried treasure.

This is why ritual is embodied, unlike our conscious world which is disembodied.

In ritual, your soul cannot differentiate between what is real and what is symbolic. Our ego defences are ambushed and we don’t know what to make of it right away. We don’t have any categories. The truth is stored in our bodies, which is where transformation can take place, because that is where our pain is stored.

Rituals, done well, are a depth charge. You will leave a Men’s Rites of Passage not really knowing what it has done in your life. This will take years to unpack.

It is participatory, unlike ceremony. It draws your whole life into truth, through myth.

Myth is collectively what a dream is to an individual. It is a universal truth expressed symbolically in story. it uses few words and few symbols. It does lean into images, which lets our soul access truth directly, as it is, not as we think it should be. It is a striking experience for a man to wake up from decades of slumber and see life for how it really is.

So much of life is lived from what we should be. Notice the titles of self-help books. The Men’s Rites of Passage is about what your life actually is. In his book ‘Everything Belongs’ Richard Rohr wrote

“Everything belongs and everything can be received. We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore. What is, is okay. What is, is the great teacher.”

Rituals always uncover our shadow. We are working down in the soil, the ancient and sacred depths of our lives. This is not easy work, but it is essential. The energy hidden within our shadows is 90% gold which, when integrated, brings an awareness that heals our own lives and the communities we live in. If it is ignored, however, it will continue to wreak havoc on our lives and society.

In A Lever and a Place to Stand, Richard Rohr wrote:

“The beauty of the unconscious is that it knows a great deal—whether personal or collective—but it always knows that it does not know, cannot say, and dare not try to prove or assert too strongly; because what it does know is that there is always more—and all words will fall short. The contemplative is precisely the person who agrees to live in that unique kind of brightness (a combination of light and dark that is brighter still!). The Paradox, of course, is that it does not feel like brightness at all, but what John of the Cross calls a ‘luminous darkness.’”

If we stay in our ‘in control’ minds, we will miss life entirely, perhaps only noticing in the fading moments that we gave away our unprovable gold for labels that say what we want others to see.

In her beautiful poem “When Death Comes” Mary Oliver expresses the contrasting approaches to life – lived from the conscious illusion and the unconscious heart of transformation. She asks, what will we be like when that final hour beckons us?

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.