alfreddepew

Posts Tagged ‘Relationship with Self’

In Flu, Illness, Influenza, Inner Work, Relationship with Self, resilience on May 18, 2013 at 5:54 am
Illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (October 1936). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (October 1936). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Influenza, a musical word, like belladonna. Beguiling and as full of deadly potential.

Flu is the thing we hope to avoid each winter, and whose vaccine we either get or don’t depending upon our opinions.

Shot or no shot, it can infect us—carried by the air we breathe, the objects we touch, the hands we shake.

It is ubiquitous. Like fear. With a mind and life of its own.

And despite my best intentions and massive doses of Vitamin C, it takes me down in January. Stealthily at first. And then with real insistence, it grabs me like a thief and hisses, “Don’t mess with me.”

I’ve heard it can last from three to six weeks—lingering. It can turn into whooping cough or pneumonia. It claims lives.

So I cancel everything that will require my leaving the house for two weeks, including a business trip back East.

And I go back to bed. I surrender to days of fevered delirium, fitful sleep, and waking dreams—nightmares mostly—of my life in various stages of collapse.

The flu as metaphor.

The flu as signifier.

The flu bearing news that I can hear in no other way.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Is that it?

Have I been wrestled to the ground by an angel?

I leave one of the window blinds open each night so that I can look out from time to time and see lights in other buildings, other people awake at three and four in the morning.

I manage to conduct interviews and post two stories about the Egyptian revolution on its second anniversary.

Disillusionment. Uncertainty. Exhaustion.

I ache all over.

I can find no comfortable position other than standing in a hot shower. When I lie on either side or on my back or sit in a chair, fiery tendrils radiate out of my tailbone and down my legs.

I read online that back pain is not unusual with the flu—something about the virus enflaming the nerves. I can’t sleep. The Tylenol I’ve been taking is two years past the expiry date and does no good.

I call the nurse’s line and find out that’s the wrong thing to take in the first place. What I need is an anti-inflammatory. My nerve endings are in flames.

So this is what it is to go viral.

St. Vitus’ Dance.

Suddenly I think I understand the experience of the chronically ill who have surrounded me all my life. So this is what they went through. A tease. The swing from feeling “better” to “this will never end.” Dying would be a relief. Abandoned by my own body. Cut loose. Afloat.

What does one pray for in moments like these?

Deliverance? Peace?

“I no longer believe in a peaceful revolution,” writes a friend from Cairo.

Off the record.

Speak the unspeakable, something in me keeps saying. Tell the truth.

I post both stories about the Egyptian revolution.

I cancel a radio appearance on the East Coast.

The pain subsides thanks to Advil, and I can sleep again.

I dream of a wall of pinpoints—each one opens into a hopeless story. Each story says: if you don’t do it perfectly, you die. Then one opens into a story set in Lapland that says the key to survival is staying connected.

I am delusional if I think I know anything about chronic illness. I have suffered three maybe four days. I know people who have lived like this for years.

The fever breaks. I am giddy with relief.

I know what I have to do: resign all my various jobs and read poetry. I must claim the life I have left. Claim at least two days a week in the studio—one day painting, one day writing.

I don’t want to feel like my old self again. I want to remember what I’ve learned these past few days in bed—about letting go—of all of it.

About freedom. Authority.

The fever breaks, and I wake up in a T-shirt drenched with sweat, feeling clammy.

It’s as if the room has been stripped bare and I must choose what I will put back in it, one object at a time.

I wake up, curious and bemused. Slowly, cautiously, I enter something I will one day call my new life because the old way of being has already disappeared.

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James Hillman: Jungian, iconoclast, philosopher and wizard

In Inner Work, James Hillman obituary, Jungian pyschology, Men's movement, Realtionship on November 6, 2011 at 11:47 pm

by Alfred DePew

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

Its imperiousness, its shameless elitism—the very things we love to love about the New York Times can just as often make me spitting mad. And this time it’s the NYT’s obituary of James Hillman, which calls him “a charismatic therapist and best-selling author whose theories about the psyche helped revive interest in the ideas of Carl Jung, animating the so-called men’s movement in the 1990s and stirring the pop-cultural air.”

So-called men’s movement? Stirring the pop-cultural air?

Am I over-reacting, or does that sound snarky?

And who am I—a pipsqueak journalist, from western Canada, no less—to argue with the Gray Lady?

In my view, James Hillman was among the most important American thinkers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. So there! He was a Jungian analyst, theorist, philosopher, author, mentor, mystic, lecturer, visionary, and enthusiastic gadfly. By turns brilliant and obscure, his presence in the lecture hall is hard to describe.

You just had to be there. And I was, on two occasions.

The first was a retreat in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his co-conspirators poet Robert Bly and storyteller Michael Meade. 700 men gathered for two and a half days to unfold “The Water of Life,” one of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had just returned from my first trip to Russia, so I think this must have been in the late spring of 1990, which felt important to me because I had been deeply in the archetype of Mother Russia (an archetype whose fierceness survived the Soviet years) and now I was surrounded by men embodying a German story. And in both cases, I wasn’t really sure what the hell I was doing there.

I was very uncomfortable. That much was clear to me.

And I knew something important was going on—in and around me—though I’m still hard-pressed to say exactly what. A felt sense of something in me opening or arising. A gathering of men around me (something I quite simply could not have imagined possible, much less desirable). A deep dreaming and a simultaneous awakening.

I experienced the luminosity of my imaginal world and its connection to history, legend, and the present moment.

Heavy stuff, eh? But you have to understand how hard we all laughed at ourselves and the world, even as we were in awe of the story itself. Even as we were in deep grief. Even in outrage, there was a line of pure zaniness in the men. On stage and all around the auditorium.

See what I mean? You had to be there.

The thing I remember most vividly about James Hillman is how he’d get carried away by his own thinking. A true flight of fancy. Until Bly or Meade would shout something like, “Come back to earth, you pedantic old fool,” and rein him back in.

Which gave rise to a spontaneous insult-hurling competition, each insult longer and more bodacious than the one before, until everyone was laughing so hard, it was almost impossible to tell who won.

A few years later, I drove up to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, to hear Hillman lecture for two hours on the colour blue.

Don’t ask me what he said. I have no idea. And yet it was one of the more memorable talks I’ve ever heard. It was the atmosphere he created, the quality of feeling, the wide range of thought and association. Charged, pyrotechnic, astonishing every bit as much for the thoughts and feelings his talk engendered in us, as the line of thought he was following in himself at the moment.

Indeed James Hillman seems the very incarnation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of “Man Thinking” described in his 1837 address “The American Scholar.”

“Him … the past instructs; him the future invites,” writes Emerson.

“The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation.”

And elsewhere in the essay:

“Free should the scholar be, – free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, ‘without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.’ Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him.”

Fearless, James Hillman certainly was, and irreverent when it came to his own profession, as evidenced by the book he co-authored with Michael Ventura: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse.

When it came to myth, imagination, and the resilience of the human psyche, however, Hillman was in deep and respectful wonder.

A wonder he was able to instill in us all.

Since feeling is first

In couples, Realtionship, Relationship with Self, World Work on October 23, 2010 at 12:53 am

Painting, acrylic on paper: Untitled, 2007, Alfred DePew

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

Canadians often put me in mind of Dorothy Parker’s quip about Katharine Hepburn, who, she once said, “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Some weeks ago, at dinner with my friend Hal, he said he had been feeling emotional.

“Which one?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“You know—happy? Sad? Pissed off?

“I don’t know—emotional,” he said.

Then we changed the subject.

As North American white guys, we tend to avoid direct expression of feeling in day-to-day conversation.

Unless, of course, the subject is hockey.

And yet, my stiff upper lip has been known to quiver. I have the kind of face that registers everything—worry, delight, perplexity, and suspicion.

I am terrible at poker.

I’ve had to learn about feelings—the hard way, by being tyrannized by them. Had I been born in southern Italy, I’d have had no problem. Or so I imagine. But I was raised in St. Louis, whose dominant culture was Anglo and Teutonic, despite the French name.

At sixteen, I began to suspect that feeling was not just the root of the problem but the problem itself. My first therapist was a psychiatrist, a bona fide Freudian analyst of the Viennese School. When he’d ask how I was, I’d say “anxious.” I didn’t have a very wide emotional vocabulary in those days, and I don’t recall Herr Doktor as being much help.

Twenty years and four therapists later, I heard myself say that I’d know when I was ready to stop therapy when I no longer had any feelings.

Then I laughed. So did my therapist. It was our next to last session.

What had brought me to that fourth and final therapist was grief. When my father died, I was overwhelmed, nearly paralyzed. My father and I were not close. It didn’t make any sense. It was wholly irrational. And yet, as I came to see, grief had its own kind of logic. My friend, the poet Anne Rubicam Witten, pointed me to Gilgamesh, Innana, Persephone, and Orpheus—stories about the decent to the Underworld. Stories that acted as a map in this new territory of grieving.

Therapists could only take me so far. For the rest, I needed the poets.

Robert Bly used to talk about the grief at the core of the male psyche. He spoke about it as an initiation, the “time of ashes,” essential to the evolution of a man’s mind and heart and soul.

Not that grief is particular to men. My friend Monica insists that at the heart of every silence lies some form of grief.

What Hal chose not to talk about that evening at dinner was his mother’s death and the fact that he’d recently declared bankruptcy.

Emotional indeed.

What then is the language of feeling? Not just one, surely. Proclamations of love. Lamentation. Sidelong comments. Innuendo. Carping. Sarcasm. Body language. A glance. Those looks.

I often work with couples who want more intimacy, better communication, and less fighting. Much of my work involves training them to become exquisitely aware of what  lives in the space between them. Feelings. As they become aware of the impact of what they say and do, they have more choice about how they speak and act in order to keep the relationship space clear.

When I began with one couple, the atmosphere between them was so charged that even an intended compliment could start a fight. Gradually, as they became more aware of how they were interacting and what feelings they were generating, they began trying new ways of communicating—at different times, with clearer intentions, using more neutral language. Then they noticed the impact on their children and how they were treating each other. All this took slowing down and paying attention. Giving themselves time to feel.

Another couple, men who’ve been partners for eight years, wanted to stop avoiding topics they simply couldn’t discuss. So we began with what they could discuss, always pointing to the space between them and what was there. That they loved each other was clear. That the relationship was skilled at any number of tasks was also clear. And so we built on that. Some weeks later during a session, one acknowledged the other, and he began to tear up. A hard place for men, even gay men. He made a joke and looked away. I asked them to pause and invited them to sit with what was happening. In the ensuing silence, they held each other’s gaze, tears in their eyes. This was the intimacy they were seeking to reclaim. A sweet, tender, dangerous vulnerability. And they’d learned to create the safety to experience it.

And what of our relationship to ourselves, the time we give to our own feelings?

All week, I have been busy coaching couples, setting up individual calls with my certification students in Europe, interviewing and assessing new clients. Relationship work. Then all of a sudden I am exhausted. I have stepped over my own feelings of admiration, frustration, impatience, love, envy, and longing.

They clamour for my attention.

So I close the computer, lie down and let everything surface.

After a while, I take my notebook and pen and give myself a half hour to listen and write down what I need to let myself know.

The poem from which I borrow my title is, after all, a love poem by e.e. cummings.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

–the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

It’s the thing that flutters up behind the eyes, a movement in the heart before language.

And then … the words to say it.

Becoming Still (Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

In Inner Work, Peace, Relationship with Self, Spiritual Practice, World Work on January 4, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Let’s just say it’s not at the top of my agenda most days, which is why at Christmas I usually choose to make a retreat.

Chances are, if I had a regular sitting meditation practice, I wouldn’t need to take such drastic measures: booking the retreat, explaining to friends and business associates why I won’t be at their Christmas parties again this year, taking a bus to the ferry, the ferry to Vancouver Island, and a taxi to the retreat centre.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is living in my own skin for four days without the distractions I keep saying I want to escape.

Once they are nowhere to be found, distractions seem like a mighty good idea.

Who wants to face one’s failures and shortcomings? Who wants to face one’s loneliness and cravings?

And who the hell wants to listen to what goes on inside my head?

I sure don’t. And yet that’s exactly what I am faced with in the early stages of any retreat I make. To a certain extent, that’s the whole purpose. The aim is to get beyond the “monkey mind.” My fear is always that it’s nothing but monkeys as far as the mind can see. Experience has taught me that I can get beyond them, but not without going through a considerable amount of chatter.

So far, I haven’t found any short cuts.

I was trained in the retreat process by Sufis. Once—sometimes two or three times—a year, I would drive to a small centre in southern New Hampshire and sit in a tiny hut from three to fourteen days of silence. My guide would give me various spiritual practices when she came to sit with me each morning. And in the evening, she would leave a hot meal outside my door.

The retreat process is analogous to alchemy, the practice of turning lead into gold. Unhappily, it involves a lot of burning, melting and putrefaction along the way.

Not everyone’s idea of a good time. In fact I was sure I had gone stark raving mad my first time out. And I had. That was what I needed to get through before I could find anything akin to peace of mind.

This is the point at which many say the real retreat begins.

Not for me. My retreat starts shortly after I make the intention and finalize the travel plans. I’m eager, and then resistance sets in. I’m suddenly convinced that this is not the right time. My business needs attention. What about Christmas cards? You might meet someone important at one of those parties, you know. They’re going to stop inviting you if you keep refusing.

Then I encounter everything in my life that is out of whack—a sneak preview of what I will be alone with at the outset. The theme. Then I stay up late the night before I leave, trying to get everything done. (O! Human Folly!) Then I’m up in the morning, drinking coffee, then running for the bus, having forgotten to bring along the phone number of the cab company in Nanaimo. But I get there—somehow I always get there—and I begin to settle in.

It’s lovely at first. I usually start out with a nap. And then a long walk or some basic practices before the first meal break. It’s as if my mind wants to let me believe it’s going to behave itself this time and not interrupt the proceedings. Ha! Just another ploy, so it can jump out and get me when I’m not looking. I’m much easier with it than I was when I started. The mind does what it does—distracts, bedevils, tells itself bad stories, worries, and comes up with great ideas like smoking a cigar or sneaking out for ice cream. It’s a wild ride until the mind is also brought in line with the breath and the heart. And it always takes time.

Whether I intend it or not, an examination of conscience begins. Years ago, one of my Sufi guides gave me a short form—three questions. Where am I not right with myself? Where am I not right with others? And where am I not right with God? “Right” here is used in the sense of right relationship, not right vs. wrong. No matter how much experience I have with this, it’s always agonizing—and humbling. An act of radical acceptance. And essential if I am to gain any peace at all.

Peace begins with glimmers—something I read, perhaps, or after I weep. On a walk. Sitting on a stone above the lake. The silence itself is what brings it about. That’s what I’ve come here to find.

Peace is like a pulse that gets stronger as fear and resentment and worry loosen their grip.

And I remember the verse from the 46th Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”

On Christmas Eve, I step outside and watch the moon growing fuller. I’m aware of waiting in a vast silence, the way that I imagine Mary waited to give birth to something beyond all comprehension.

And as I stand there, looking up, there is nothing more to think or plan. In that moment, all the words fall away, and I am surrounded by blessing.