I found myself astray in a dark wood
Where the straight road had been lost”
(Dante, Inferno, Canto 1, transl. Seamus Heaney)
Today’s title comes from a line in the opening Canto of Dante’s Inferno, “Allor fu la paura un poco queta”, ‘then was the fear a little quieted’.
The poem, as Heaney’s translation shows, begins with Dante’s mid-life distress, lost, astray, in the dark and foreboding wood, off the path, ‘la diritta via’, the ‘right way’ or ‘true path’. In short order, ‘like a sleepwalker’ in this ominous dreamlike landscape, Dante encounters not only the dark forest but the ‘hill of difficulty’, the panther, the lion, the wolf, and finally, his guide-to-be, Virgil. In a stroke Dante conjured an epic poem that spoke to the medieval mind as it does to the Renaissance imagination, and indeed to the conditions of modernity. His language and imagery penetrate the core archetype of existential human being, the journey of life, the fear of mortality, the metaphysical urgency of repentance (metanoia), however understood. His influence, through this work above all others, extends through the world of culture, art, religion, politics, psychology, even into the pop-culture forms of our time, yielding an influence of enduring, global reach. Dante’s mid-life crisis, mediated by his radical poetic capacity and immense imaginative genius, split the atom of individuated artistic expression, releasing the blast waves of inspiration that we still sense in reading him today.
It is fascinating that the crisis envelops Dante, and in some way each of us since, in the dark wood – the go-to scenario for all things terrifying, wild, untamed and fatal in the Western psyche. The primal forest, by Dante’s time already much denuded, was either hunting preserve of the aristocracy (with strictly enforced access to the game and extremely harsh punishments for transgressors), or wilderness, home to none but vagrants, outlaws and those beyond the pale of organised society. The Inferno continues to refer to forest metaphors, notably in the ‘Wood of Suicides’ later encountered, and everywhere the gloomy view of forest-space prevails.
And all the while, as centuries of repressed and projected images and objects accumulated upon the forest-space within the Western psyche, the outer old growth forest of deciduous ash and beech, oak and hazel, chestnut and alder was steadily, rapaciously felled. Ancient woodland succumbed to axe and saw, for shipbuilding, land reclamation, fuel and construction materials – we steadily mined our unconscious for an easy profit and a sense of control. And when we’d clear-cut Europe we found a New World to export our greediness unto. So even as our collective unconscious swelled though the years with the dreamscapes of forest-fear, our outer experience of forests and ancient woodlands shrank back into pockets, managed and tamed, edited into a pattern of settlement, industry and agro-business or economic ‘forestry investment’ usage. An apt metaphor, were it not so bleak, for the processes of sin and redemption that the Catholic universe of Dante wrested into psychological modernity – as we do unto nature, we do unto ourselves.
It is well worth noting, for the sake of global balance and wider awareness, that this European (and later North American) disposition to view forest-space as ominous, dark, threatening and, at best, a resource to exploit, is by no means universal. In many Asian settings forests are exalted, for example Kanda (Book) 3 of the Ramayana the Araṇya Kắṇḍa, or ‘Book of the Forest’, is set in the Panchavati forest (the ‘Garden of Five Banyan Trees’) and here Rama (the seventh Avatar of Vishnu) and Sita (an Avatar of Lakshmi) live in grace along with Lakshmana (a Naga), Rama’s brother, during their exile from Ayodhya. Many Eastern ascetics, yogis and saints are drawn to forest life from China to Japan, Sri Lanka to the Northern fringe of India, retreated from the city and the market, into a simpler more contemplative environment supportive of insight and inquiry into the mysteries of being, as we see most clearly in the story of Siddartha and his awakening as the Buddha under a Bodhi tree. In this way one may conclude that to a long established and deeply rooted part of the human psyche, forest-space represents peace, silence, the sublime, transcendent of the artefacts of the human made world – antithetical to the fearful forest of Dante’s fate, proximate to death, the forest of the East mostly represents life.
“Mind and its projections are innocent. They are very ordinary, very natural, very simple. Red is not evil, and white is not divine; blue is not evil, and green is not divine. Sky is sky; rock is rock; earth is earth; mountains are mountains. I am what I am, and you are what you are. Therefore, there are no particular obstacles to experiencing our world properly, and nothing is regarded as problematic”
(Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, ‘Ground Mahamudra’, ‘The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume Three: The Tantric Path of Indestructible Wakefulness’, 2013)
Moving on in our own journey, off the straight path and into the undergrowth, wilfully losing the tyranny of the known, let’s hear the counsel of New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman a moment, by way of insight to our present economic order (that which sees not trees around us, but profit margins – a world where dead things are worth more than living). He whispers
“All economic data are best viewed as a peculiarly boring genre of science fiction”
That will suffice. What else might we know as we wander? I’m reminded of words spoken by Rick Tarnas in memory of the late James Hillman who was “always improvising, overthrowing the literalist dogma of the old monarchy, vigorously asserting the common life of soul – the ambiguous many over the one”. He goes on, and it serves us to hear it,
“He recognised essences without ever succumbing to essentialism.He had an allegiance to the fallen world, yet he risked a large vision.He was a poet of psyche, a psychologist of the polis. Above all, James championed the imagination in its high rightful place at the centre of human reality, with perhaps greater force than anyone since William Blake”
‘You cannot draw a diagram of a single thing I’ve written’
I’d like to think that’s because Hillman’s writing is a reflection of what is living, and to systematize it in this manner, to re-present the living tissue of inter-connective filaments within the corpus, would be to kill it (in order to save it, presumably – or better to ‘understand’ it, which is much the same thing). Reading Hillman is a series of confounding revelations always just out of mental frame, elusive as a Green Man, Al-Khidr (or, in Hillman’s pun-embracing wit, perhaps we’d better say ‘Kidder’, since he was certainly playing with us), being prophetic from the shadows, lobbing intellectual grenades from the treeline, mounting Robin Hood rescue-missions on behalf of Maid Marion’s Psyche, from deep in his guerrilla Utopia under Sherwood green. Thieving as he was, he had no desire to die for his crimes – indeed, true to the highwayman in every genius, he had an epithet for that too – stand and deliver:
“Give me the pearls but not the string – it’s a noose”
“this is the great challenge of our time, the evolutionary imperative for the masculine to see through and overcome its hubris and one-sidedness, to own its unconscious shadow, to choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms”
In turn the feminine becomes
“fully acknowledged, respected, and responded to for itself. It is recognised, not the objectified ‘other’, but rather source, goal, and immanent presence… Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome – and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine”
(Rick Tarnas, from the Epilogue, ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’, 1989)
How might such a process be fulfilled? Is it even conceivable, locked into a temporal phase with the exponential material crises of our age, that such a revolution in psyche, culture, life, can outrun civilization’s collapse, or the looming of extinction? There are no comfortable answers to such an open question, nor will rhetoric shield us from the reckoning – and yet we must ask.
Taking a pocket knife, let’s carve a remembering, a woodland graffito on this fallen bough:
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want” (Eric Hoffer, quoted by Jerry Mander)
What we feel we lost we feel we lost outside ourselves, yet looking outside ourselves for a way to fill the hole has no effect but to further our felt-sense of separateness. Time to look within, to walk the forest-space in the heart, the anima, the one that has been clear-cut closer than a shave, where our slash and burn tactics have yielded their most gruesome prize – a denuded, eroded and broken heart. Welcome to the Theory of Holes, Almaas’ outpicturing of the means by which our early psychodynamic wounding gives rise to the betrayal of our experience of our multifaceted essence, and in turn brings about the creation of our personality structures, as backfilled rubble covering over the original loss. Our holes are infilled with mimics of the essence we feel we have lost, our attentions are directed outward at ‘getting what we need out there’, and the splitting off from the essence we never really lost is complete, the suffering assured. Hideously apposite and scalpel-like as this piece of insight is, (rather like the moments after ingesting a psychedelic or entheogenic substance when the body-mind suddenly, overwhelmingly, smacks into its own taboo – the ‘oh shit moment’, by which time it is already much too late, and the only counsel is one of surrender) it comes with a redemptive kicker. For according to Almaas and the Theory of Holes, the hole is the guide and teacher, the essential state is present at all times, beneath the level of the whole… the praxis then, counter-intuitively, is to keep digging, having come to the threshold do not stop at the welcome mat, having dug back to the ‘original wounding’ of conventional psychotherapies, do not miss the point entirely and ‘have the experience but miss the meaning’, rather, drink in the essence that underlies the mimic of itself:
“a consistent characteristic of the Essential states is the feeling that you have known it before, you have been here before, you are recalling a somehow more fundamental reality which in the process of living your life you have forgotten”
(A H Almaas, ‘The Theory of Holes’, Diamond Heart, Book 1).
So if a wound is born out of, say, the reaction to a distant father, and the personality builds itself a fake strength and protective distancing, and at some later point there is a breakdown of this defence say, when a partner leaves us, or our father dies – and in response to that unfolding narrative we enter therapy, project power and strength onto our therapist, experience our own shame and unworthiness or the abject limitations of our reaction-formation around father figures, and we break further and melt down into the original wound… for gods’ sake do not stop there! Dig and sink further, until the essential strength we always felt Father withheld from us is directly experienced as something that was ours all along – it never was external, it never was missing – the hole was a dream we dreamt in step with the failures of our holding environment, but it never touched anything that is real in us or the world. ‘I don’t need to be forgiven’, we might say, this particular metanoia is more like Ho’oponopono or kriya tantra purification, than it is original sin. This is the work of the individual, but it holds for the collective we call civilization too – indeed civilization may very well be a cloak of many holes, a sort of negatively inverted Indra’s net, preocuppied with its own dazzling jewel-gleam, but secretly terrified of the moth-eaten cloth.
“Essence is not alive; it is aliveness. It is not aware; it is awareness. It does not have the quality of existence; it is existence. It is not loving; it is love. It is not joyful; it is joy. It is not true; it is truth”
(A H Almaas, Essence, Ch.2)
And, for good measure
“Essence transcends life and death. After a while, when you start realizing what your essence is about, even if you are threatened with death, so what? Who cares? Die, live – what’s the difference?”
(A H Almaas, ‘Essence is the Life’, from Diamond Heart, Book 1)
Now we have wandered very deep into this forest, the straight and narrow path disappeared miles back. No telling where we might be. There’s someone else here I’d like us to meet, we’ll call him Alan Watts – and when he got to this place, years ago now, here where we now pause for breath, he said:
“We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves’, the universe ‘peoples’. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is very rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin”
He also knew that these are extremely serious moments in the life of our species,indeed our Earth as we know her, for he knew that wonder is ‘not a disease’ but a distinction, and that to see beauty in the‘marvellous system of wiggles’of nature arising through her million forms, playful and beyond the control of crude Euclidean boxes, is to be opened to radical possibility, our last best hope of transformation:
“The world is in an extremely dangerous situation, and serious diseases often require the risk of a dangerous cure – like the Pasteur serum for Rabies”
(Alan Watts, ‘The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’, 1966)
Alan Watts, A Conversation With Myself, 1971
We are all infected with a mutated rabies of the mind, or worse still, of the heart; and foaming at the glands we run, red-eyed, furious, hydrophobic to the point of desertifying our homes; we go howling, looking for a victim to bite back, to gnaw on the seeming injustice of our fate. The wood we could have run to, for safety or a place to die, is nothing but a desecrated slope of gnarled stumps and diseased, discarded limbs and no extra-terrestrial vet* is speeding to induce a coma in us so they can shoot us up according to the Milwaukee Protocol (*the Church of Scientology may have a differing opinion of the likelihood of this outcome, though many would argue that taking one’s chances with rabies may still be a better option). Doomed we are, and
Swa cwæð eardstapa,
So spoke the wanderer,
Mindful of hardships,
Of fierce slaughters,
And the downfall of kinsmen
“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed”
(Roger Deakin, ‘Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees’, 2007)
And as we wander, transforming, rabidly alert to the possibilities for our demise or renaissance, in this place and time maybe we will notice another graffito – for chiselled into this ash, this ancient Yggdrasil at the still point of the whirling green immensity, someone (Snorri Sturluson, perhaps?) has paraphrased the essence of German Romanticism:
“Tell me what you long for, and I’ll tell you who you are”
Allor fu la paura un poco queta, indeed.