The second of my two very vivid childhood dreams reveals why I am not crushed by the other one, where our world crumbles away beneath our feet. While that dream foretold the extinction event we are currently experiencing, this one reminds me that no matter how much terror, anxiety, depression or grief we experience, there is wisdom in the shadows.
In this dream, i am a boy, wearing a classical toga and leather sandals. I run across the desert sands to an enormous dome building. I am very comfortable here and climb some stairs, which wrap around the dome to a flat concourse. There is simple, unreflective joy in my heart – the kind we experience so easily as children and so rarely as adults.
Suddenly, something moves in a shadow to my left. I look back, jolted by a ripple of fear in response to this movement. Out of the shadow of a stairwell an old man appears. We stare at each other for a moment, while I am frozen to the spot, wondering what will happen next, still a little scared. He smiles. There is warmth in his eyes, knowing emanates from his visage; he is comfortable in the world and wants me to feel the same.
At his smile, my childish innocence and faith in life instantly reappear. I turn back to run along the rampart. As i do, i look more closely into the clay bricks of the domed wall. There i see tiny capillaries in the wall, which i had never noticed before.
The renewed depth i discover in my vision, as a result of this apparition, works to balance the joyful innocence of the boy. Importantly, out of the shadows appears not threat, but comfort; the wise old man of archetypal power contains a frisson of danger, as true gnosis (or inner knowing) always has. But with his smile I do not fall into fear, but into an edge of discovering the unknown instead; it is the mystery that lasts and draws me along.
The Old Man expresses that wisdom or spark in us that is beyond the comforts of everyday life, what we have become used to, the personality we identify with. He is not an emissary of conventional religion, like the priests who promise hope for our lives after death if we obey their holy writ. He obeys only the imperative that is crystallised in the image: the archetypal Old Man brings wisdom from the realms beyond what we are thus far aware of; that is the whole point. Jung became wise enough through his contact with the archetypes to know they bring together a wide range of possibilities.
Coming out of the darkness, he brings wisdom – and we never needed it more than now, as we face the catastrophic, combined realities of anthropogenic climate change, ecosystem breakdown, increasing political instability and the widespread extinction event that has already begun. However, it would be facile to claim that out of the darkness (of what is happening to our planet right now) a light will come. I write of my dream now not to promise a new dawn, or comfort us with any other simplistic metaphor designed to avoid taking responsibility for the ecocide our species is responsible for. Empty hope and cheap consolation do not honour the untold suffering that will be visited upon humanity as we begin to discover what crop failures, superstorms, megafires and freakish flood events really feel like. The extinction of so many of our animal cousins and plant kin alike deserves more. It deserves awareness.
We can develop deeper awareness by looking into the Shadow, seeking the wisdom that arises from our place of not knowing. This is how the Mystery Schools found faith in gnosis for over 2,000 years. Yet, while we explore our own inner realms and Wizened Old figures, staring into the darkness without guidance can lead to despair. For as Nietzsche so presciently wrote, when we stare into the abyss, it stares back into us. What do I find when I look into the shadow, of myself and of my race? Something tells me that, if I look deeply enough, I will find not only what I fear, but what grants me greater insight, too – and perhaps even an element of solace.
I have written before about how we can find this, even when we realise that we are enmeshed in, and therefore part of, the system that is destroying the earth. With the dream of the Old Man, I recall that there is wisdom beyond courage; beyond environmental activism, beyond righteous indignation at the failure of our leaders, beyond the sad but inevitable realisation that the world as we know it is now collapsing beneath our feet.
The Old Man does not forgive the evils of transnational corporate greed, which have ensured our downfall; nor does he forget the corrupt media that sells the stories of the military industrial complex. But neither does the archetypal Old Man want to beat us up with guilt, since we have failed to stop the madness and destruction. He understands that the evolution of technology, the politics of power, the fact that we were born into this damnable system without willing it, the way we were sold the modern mythology of work, profit, holidays, breeding up and finally retiring to play Scrabble or bowls … all of this is beyond our power to change, except to the extent that we can make better choices.
The better choice we could make right now is to transfer our values from the damaging system of capitalist profiteering to the timeless tales of power, wisdom, grace that remain available to us in our dreams, our myths, our symptoms and even in our nightmares. The Mystery School lives on, because it is a representation of the ancient wisdom coursing through our veins and dancing in our DNA right now.
There is no future – the kids doing tang ping have figured it out – but there never really was. What is left to us now, beyond apathy and resignation, is deepening of the soul, refining of the spirit, transformation of the self. Nothing good will come of our planetary death throes and no amount of hand wringing, sobbing or admission of guilt will alleviate this awful reality. Rather, i will recall the wisdom of that old man and consider the life of the butterfly as my guiding metaphor. We crawl away to create a cocoon, withdraw within it, and dissolve into goop. These old selves must die.
Every traditional culture teaches that part of us passes over to another realm. With an ear on that wisdom, i have faith that my soul will crystallize into a new lifeform, in a new dimension, where i will find the strength to grow, until i am ready to break out and fly free, on another adventure. One day i will be that old man, looking out from the shadows, unexpectedly frightening the children i meant to comfort, while helping them to see that looking into the depths will deepen their vision, their insight, their capacity to look more clearly into who they are and what their relationship to the earth is.
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Images: Featured Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash;; clay Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash; Painting of a sea monster by Carl Jung, from his Red Book; painting of a fire serpent by Carl Jung, from his Red Book.