The Prince loves the room and won’t leave it. All he does is look at himself in the mirrors and at the reflections from every side. He never looks out of a window.
The next day he’s woken by a creaking sound. And the creaking wakes him every morning. He thinks nothing of it; then after several days he notices that the mirrors are becoming wider than the windows. …
Well, the Prince is chuffed with the bigger mirrors, and every morning he wakes at the creaking and goes to see how much more they have widened. This goes on until, one day, he thinks the mirrors are getting dirty, because he can’t see himself clearly, so he sets about polishing the glass. But it makes no difference. Then he sees what’s happening.
The mirrors aren’t dirty. It’s the windows that are getting narrower and letting less and less light in. He tries to force the windows apart, but he can’t. Outside, the sun is shining and he sees all the bright colours. And when he looks in the mirrors all he sees is a dimming reflection.
Each day he presses his face against the mirrors, but he can see no more than his own self fading. Then there is one last creak, and the wall and roof becomes all mirror, and the Prince is alone in the dark.” (1)
Meanwhile, outside and “In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key but does fit it!” thought he; “no doubt there are precious things in that little box.” He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.” (2)
These two fairy stories, the first from Alan Garner’s novel “Thursbitch” and the second, “The Golden Key”, the last of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, come together in my mind as a metaphor for our time.
As we know, one usual way of the fairy story is to start with an old King who has no sons … or perhaps he has sons but they are lost … or the youngest son is apparently a simpleton … in any event, the end of an era is nigh and a miracle is needed, an act of transformation to enable the creation of a much needed new order. At the start of the story it is completely unclear where the transformation is to be found, which character(s), which plot turn(s), which juxtaposition of opposites will birth the magic …
As an image of Western culture’s fixation with itself, which it is energetically exporting to the rest of the world, Alan Garner’s story is compelling. It reminds me of eco-philosopher David Abram’s (3) talk to GreenSpirit in April 2004, my first meeting with that organisation. I will never forget how he described the impact of the moment in human history when we changed from pictorial writing to alphabets, using letters expressing only the sounds made by the human mouth: moving his right hand back and forth between an imagined page in his left hand and his own mouth, it was then, he suggested, we first turned away from the natural world that our pictograms evoked and chose a mirror over a window.
The trouble in Alan Garner’s fairy tale is that the King is not old and dying. Rather, he is alive and well, the designer, architect and builder of the Prince’s tower, facilitating without challenge his son’s bedazzlement with himself and his fine clothes. No graceful abdication here, no allegiance to the cycle of life, no making way for the new. Rather, a seeding of more of the same.
Herein lies the deepest danger to humanity and the rest of large life on this planet now. There may be sophisticated story lines in The Archers where ‘true greenies’ splutter and argue that being sustainable is not about technological fixes … but most people do believe that the whole problem will be solved by technology with little noticeable impact on our current lifestyles. Our culture holds technology in such bright light that few recognise that we are, indeed, living in the darkness of the Prince’s tower of mirrors. While we live in such relative material comfort, the proposition that we (4) are harming ourselves profoundly through our cultural norms and that the damage we are doing to the rest of life on Earth is an inevitable extension of our self-harm, seems preposterous.
Yet, in the ways we live, it is as if we no longer know what it means to be fully human.
Autumn 2007 saw me helping a friend sift her two large compost bins, which had been left to their own devices for over two years. Once a week, I walked up the hill and for one or two hours repeatedly thrust my spade into the compost and then spread it out with my hands, looking for unbroken-down matter. Of course, there was hardly any and I marvelled at the fineness of this soil. Each time, my next two days were transformed. Everything I engaged in, work or play, filled the ‘right’ amount of time and I was in an effortless, grounded, calm, light and joyful state! As the week wore on, these qualities gradually faded. I became hungry for those compost bins! Sometimes I went twice. I seemed to understand innately that, on my hands and knees in the compost, I was in the heart of the cycle of life itself. Some days I wanted to burrow deep into that soil, breathe in its smell, feel its fine granules and its clumps, cover myself with it; move myself into the very centre of life. I was home. At home, my body feels secure and my mind can settle in its safety, in its solidity, in its fluid responsiveness. At home, my unified mind and body relate anew to time, space and motion, accurately measuring them while flowing expansively within them. Reconnected with my ‘creatureness’, more is available to me: my whole, instinctual intelligence as well as that of my intellect, working in harmony. Why is this unified, flowing state so elusive in modern life?
In her lecture to the Guild of Psychotherapy in November 2007, Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust highlighted how Freud expressed Western humanity’s attitude to Nature: “The principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature. We all know that in many ways civilisation does this fairly well already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the elements which seem to mock at all human control; the earth which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them. … With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilisation.” (5) With this, he named our fear, inherited through generations and generations since earliest humanity and still as live today; our fear of being overwhelmed and, ultimately, of death. How accurately he described our project of compensating for our smallness and vulnerability by erecting bigger and bigger towers … for the work of civilisation is twofold: not only does it serve our pragmatic needs and creative aspirations, it also compensates for our collective, cultural inability to be at peace with our individual, small and finite place within the cycle of life.
In September 2007, at the GreenSpirit annual gathering at Scargill House in Yorkshire, I facilitated a workshop ‘Re-Turning to Earth’, during which we found another living being and regarded it with loving attention and then imagined it regarding us in the same way. I was drawn to a beautiful flaming tree, gorgeous in its autumn coat. Up close, inside its branches, I found myself contemplating its trunk, surprised at its firmness and strength. I admired the level of protection its bark gave the tree – and when I imagined it looking at me, for the first time I realised how vulnerable I am under my soft outer layer. I understood in a new way why we humans build defensive walls in our minds.
Freud also addressed this, for his words describe not only our relationship with Nature, but also our relationship with our own minds and, particularly, the unconscious. The powers of the unconscious mind can feel like the tumult of Nature, and therapy rooms and great literature across many lands resonate with vivid accounts of quaking and feeling torn apart, buried, deluged, drowned, in turmoil, and blown before the storms of the deep layers of our minds. Here, in this inner landscape, we must civilise ourselves too or be swept away. When we look at how he described the project of building consciousness, we can see that the thread of conquest continues: “Where id was, there ego shall be.”(6) He explicitly equates the unconscious with Nature when describing the intention of psycho-analysis as “to strengthen the ego, … to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id … it is a work of culture not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee”. (7) With his verb “appropriate”, the founding father of psycho-analysis draws attention to our plunder, our taking to ourselves what is not ours to take. Out of its fear of the unconscious, the modern ego does that within the ecology of the mind, aspiring to make itself large and dominant and take the credit for creativity, order, value and intelligence. Within this mindset, denying those qualities to the Earth and, indeed, the Cosmos is a tiny, inevitable step.
From inside and out, then, a core aspect of humanity’s experience is one of being threatened and assaulted by powers vastly bigger than us. How welcome, how vital, the idea of a rational self – an island of certainty! And how greatly we feel we need to build up this experience of rationality, of logic, of control, against the forces opposing us. How safe and attractive those towers feel! Perhaps, if we can build them high enough, we will finally feel secure.
Carl Jung built a tower, between 1923 and 1955 and largely with his own hands, right on the edge of the upper lake of Zürich at Bollingen. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he wrote: “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself. … At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” (8) His whole description of how he built the Tower, in successive sections, each when he “once more had a feeling of incompleteness”, 9 shows how it traced the evolution of his personality, expanding and spiralling as he allowed in and explored different aspects of his own and universal human experiences as they surfaced from the unconscious. What a different project! And how beautiful the paradox that when he is most deeply himself inside his tower, he also is spread out, inside everything in the external landscape … These moments of interconnection allow us access to the truly infinite – here we can experience largesse without having to compensate for our smallness. Here we can find our loving empathy.
For Jung, individuation is achieved through dialogue, allowing in as many facets of our minds as is humanly possible so that each can take its place within the personality and be consciously mediated – not eradicated – by an ego that can also take its rightful place, both strong and humble. This endeavour is counter-intuitive to the modern mind, for it involves turning to meet exactly that which one fears, despises and hates, experiencing time and again our “weakness and helplessness” when grappling with something new, alien and previously rejected, learning to love and respect it and finally making room for it within oneself. Even with the ultimate gains of strengthening and growing, settling within one’s own skin rather than continually running scared, this rich but sometimes arduous, life-long journey seems an unattractive undertaking in our material age, where immediate success, power, and practical effectiveness are so highly prized.
Jung understood too the vital tragedy that the modern mind has cut itself off from earlier times when we valued our live connection with the mythic orders of life. In unexplainable ways, this connection enables us to be with both our smallness and our magnificence, just as tales of the gods the world over expose their foibles as well as acclaim their powers. In this connection, we can acclimatise ourselves to Nature within and without; we can meet the vastness of life and not feel that we have to conquer it. Upon this bedrock, the expansive experience Jung describes is available to us and, in its turn, feeds our inner security, from where we can be at peace inside with the small, finite nature of our individual lives and our relativity to Earth. This, perhaps, is the psychological/spiritual plane of the cycle of life.
Instead, so fixed are we on the dangers evoked by Freud, our modern minds seem hardly able to understand the dangers of the over-specialisation, one-sidedness, and mono-culture we are generating in our hunger for comfort and certainty. Never has “as within, so without” been so visible: As 21st century humanity cultivates our linear, rational, literal, either/or aspects of mind until they flourish and colonise the majority of our inner being, so we impose that inner state on the outer world. As we crush more and more of our imagination in our inner lives, siphoning it off into the realm of artists rather than welcoming it (unless for advertising) into the business of our everyday concerns, so we squeeze out the habitats of other, fantastic species. As we train our children to become commercially useful, so we commodify the natural world. Intoxicated by the apparently limitless capability of the technology we have engineered, as we denigrate and seek to escape the limits of our bodies, so we cannot bear to engage with the finite capacity of Earth. And, as we treat ourselves increasingly like machines, refusing to honour and heed the stress and breakdown of our sensitive bodies and psychologies, so we deny the feedback signals of the sentient, living Earth herself, equally stressed and breaking down under the strain of modern living, of being treated like both a machine and a huge warehouse of resources existing only to service our every unfeasible, material whim.
As we hate and conquer our inner multiplicity, so we hate and destroy the sheer biodiversity of life on the planet. In so doing, we forget that through our evolutionary journey we are her descendants; with our bodies made of the same elements as the Earth, we are expressions of her. In so doing, we dishonour what it means to be a full human being, which is to be a member of the Earth community. In our forgetting and dishonouring, roundly we attack our whole self!
This is where our fear has brought us. Small wonder that we shop and binge in myriad ways, alternately exciting, numbing and comforting ourselves in the face of our ongoing self-assault. And no wonder at all that we do equal violence to our larger body, the Earth, and the other species sharing her with us as home.
On 16th January 2008, Microsoft announced that they have developed sensory pads wired up to computers, to be placed on the skins of the people operating them. The pads’ purpose is to monitor the people’s efficiency, measuring their bodies for signs of stress and, equally, drops in concentration and breaks in work. So this also is where we have come to: human being as battery hen – both abominable! What an image for our age: humanity in service to the machine.
Why are we willing to subject ourselves to this?
Contemplating the conflicting realities of human life, our wrestling with the duality of aspiring to so much while inhabiting small, fragile bodies, I have reconnected with the image of the “iron chest” of “precious things” buried in the ground underneath the snow. The story speaks to one, central quest of human life; the desire in each of us to find the treasure, whatever form it takes. Our commercial culture may have frozen out ancient aspirations to inner wealth and no doubt this fuels our inability to feel sated and rich. Yet Jung’s explorations of the collective unconscious, “the dynamic psychic substratum, common to all humanity, on the basis of which each individual builds his or her private experience of life” (10) show that all of us have access to older, deeper and wider wisdom. However thoroughly modernity denies olden truths, there is a layer of knowing that is ever present, within us and beyond, always available to us if we turn towards it. So, I believe, it is within human nature itself to cherish our individual portions of the soul, even unconsciously. This, too, is why our minds build walls; to protect our inner riches. For their nature is itself paradoxical – resilient and delicate, perhaps like whatever is closed inside the buried iron chest. With its tiny key and almost invisible keyhole, to me that chest represents the very thing that our precious inner selves need in this age of reason, in the conditions we are creating for ourselves, our communities and the rest of life on Earth – a place of safety. Where can that be, now?
In a leap of imagination I instantly feel myself resisting, I suddenly wonder whether today it is within technology. With our physical being under such onslaught, such denigration, it seems the modern mind cannot contemplate humanity itself as a safe harbour. In the unconscious process of projection, what if we have collectively, secretly, unknowingly and imaginatively placed all that is precious of the inner life of the human being inside the hard outer boxes of our exalted computers and our machines … for safe keeping? Of course, then, we would become fascinated with our souls’ new home … of course we would engage animatedly with whatever the machines can do, exhorting them to become greater and greater, achieve more and more, craving sight of our magnificence. I can hardly bear this idea. Yet it makes a macabre sense to me. In this frame, Microsoft’s dream of human beings wired up to computers becomes an image of our linking ourselves to life support machines … More than tolerating it, we would intuit that our lives depend upon it for, unlike Mrs Coulter and her experimenters at Bolvanger, (11) we unconsciously know that we must never sever ourselves from our daemons …
It may be that the machines provide a temporary safe house; I can feel I want to allow it in. But I also shake in the immense danger of tethering ourselves to equipment which operates only in linear, either/or ways and then identifying with the sense of control it fosters. There lies the road to destruction.
“The Golden Key” provides an image of hope for this moment in time. In his need for warmth, the boy allowed himself to be called to the Earth. Herself an expression of the Cosmos and a true home of the soul from which ‘our individual portions’ derive, (12) the Earth endures, waits and calls to us, out of her yearning for reunification and to receive, once more, our adoring gaze. Could we but know it, we too yearn for reunification. And here is an essential paradox: we need to know, experience and express our unity in the Earth, in the Cosmos, and simultaneously we need to know, experience and express our separate individuality. For us, at our current stage of evolution, it is two-ness not one-ness, it is relationship between opposites, not identification, which provides the conditions for creation. In the modern era, Western culture has lost this perspective. Rather than continually endeavouring to hold these two different realities in our consciousness and bear the unbearable tension between them, we have collapsed them together, living as if we believe ourselves to be the sole unity, the only unit of value. This is not an instance of ‘the macrocosm in the microcosm’; our relinquishing of this mighty, core effort and replacing it with the pursuit of happiness and comfort is both effect and cause of an impoverished, increasingly exhausted psychological state, developed over millennia as we have profoundly struggled to find our place in the world, to come to terms with our greatness and our smallness, our very humanity. Our exhaustion can only exacerbate if we continue to seek replenishment through the seductive substitutes, including adrenalin, which we are currently creating for ourselves; in which case we will continue to impose exhaustion on the Earth’s resources.
In my view, one major question for our age lies in the iron chest’s key and in the nature of its keyhole. Rather than being a matter of one more turn in the same direction, surely, just like the circular dial on a safe it requires turning to the opposite: To embodiment! To imagination! To relating to the living Earth herself! For, could we but know it too, whilst safety and certainty of life cannot be guaranteed, there is greater safety in fully occupying and relying on the resources of our whole, human being, embedded in and in relationship with Earth’s ecology. Inside our whole being, we may withdraw our projections from technology and discover how extraordinarily rich and powerful we ordinarily are. In such a place of security, we may become open again to desiring the extraordinary richness of the rest of life also to flourish into its full power. And in that place, we may remember that the health and wellbeing of the whole supports the health and wellbeing of the individual whereas, when an either/or world view dominates a finite system, the converse is not true.
Only relationship – engagement with the other – develops our sensitivity to that other and our capacity to meet their needs as well as our own. Like many, I believe that the redemption of our age lies in our reviving the field of mutual attraction between human creature and Earth, and rooting ourselves here. For me, the iron chest provides a tiny metaphor for the Earth’s own ability to protect her treasure, of course just like ours, keeping it safe and waiting until we are ready to find it … hoping that we will eventually feel the bite of where we are – isolated in the Prince’s dark tower. Inside each of us is the being, here in the Golden Key a boy, who has always known the value of the gold he glimpsed and who holds the hope that a different, fruitful, life-sustaining relationship with ourselves, with our human communities, with the whole Earth community and indeed with technology can be birthed. For, by first listening to his freezing body and then digging with his bare hands in the snow, down into the Earth to find the treasure chest, this boy answers Nature’s call, out of her echo within him, out of his own knowing that he is “spread out over the landscape and inside things, and … living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” …
How will we turn the key?
1 Garner, A Thursbitch (The Harvill Press 2003) pp.120-121
2 ‘The Golden Key’, in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1975)
3 Abram, D The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books 1997) pp. 256-257
4 Whilst respecting that many of us choose to live differently from the dominant cultural norms I describe, I use “we” throughout to avoid a false ‘them and us’ dichotomy
5 Freud, S The Future of an Illusion (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1961) as quoted in Dunann Winter, D Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (Addison Wesley Longman 1997)
6 Freud, S New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1933)
8 Jung, C G Memories, Dreams and Reflections (Fontana Press 1993) p.252
9 ibid., p.251
10 Stevens, A A Very Short Introduction to Jung (Oxford University Press 1994) p.22
11 Pullman, P Northern Lights (Scholastic Ltd 1998) pp. 274-275
12 For some discussion of alchemical ideas about the ‘Lumen Naturae’ see Jung, C G Collected Works 8 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche paras 388-389 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969)
Sandra White works as a Jungian counsellor and an ecopsychologist and she is in preparation to become a Jungian analyst. She also offers coaching and, together with others in a range of settings, is co-creating programmes which facilitate enrichment through embodiment, imagination and relating to our living Earth. She walks regularly on Hartham Common near her home, loves to honour and celebrate the sacred in all life and was a member of the GreenSpirit Council when this was first posted.