Centering and Isolation

Friends of Jung – San Luis Rey Retreat – Spring Conference – May 23, 1981


Edgar Allen Poe once remarked, “I have no desire to be either thorough or profound, but I do have a desire to be sincere.”  His remark echoed what I felt in relation to my coming this morning.  My own struggle was for honestly and lack of affectation.  I found out that Ceres lives in this word, the Roman goddess of agriculture.  Her legend is identical with that of Demeters.  The Indo-European root is “ker” meaning, “to grow.”  Sincerity is a source of growth and increase.  The words “create,” “produce,” “procreate” and “accrue” are here, as are “kore,” “girl,” “maiden,” and the “pupil of the eye.”  I will hope that such energy and presence will be with us as we attempt sincerity together.

In consulting the I Ching as to whether or not it was timely for me to give this talk, I received Hexagram 53, called “Development” or “Gradual Progress.”  The basic concept of this hexagram is the growth of a slowly developing engagement, leading to a marriage—the inner marriage.  It states that this requires necessary rites and constant restraint from any hasty action—that with a tranquil, trusting, meditative demeanor, a marriage is consummated and the entire state is subsequently set in order.

The image in the hexagram is that of a single tree on a mountain, exposed to all possible weather conditions, growing slowly.  The development of a root system, sufficient to the exposure, will be the key to its survival—to the survival of the inner union.

All of the lines in the hexagram refer to the wild goose, a bird like the falcon that lives in conjugal fidelity.  It is believed that this bird never takes another mate after the death of the first.  The lines invite contemplation of the freedom and the fidelity of the union within the wild core of ourselves.

I felt I had not only received encouragement to come, but the content of the hexagram seemed to reflect the very essence of what I wanted to talk about—namely, the isolation necessary in the process of coming to a solid and free relationship with oneself.  I also felt gently and lovingly reminded that I would really be talking to myself.

I want to bask in two English poems to begin.  Jacques Maritain says that poetry is born in the root life and always implies the presence of totality, integrity and centeredness—everything we are attempting to touch into today.  (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry).  I think these two poems have captured the essence of the feeling of the inner union and of the attitude required to getting there.

“Hawks,” by Elizabeth Jennings resonates with the sound and the spirit of one’s free self in union:

Hawks hovering, calling to each other

Across the air, seem swung

Too high on the risen wind

For the earth-clung contact of our world:

And yet we share with them that sense

The season is bringing in of all

The lengthening light is promising to exact

From the obduracy of March.  The pair

After their kind are lovers and their cries,

Such as lovers alone exchange, and we

Though we cannot tell what it is they say,

Caught up into their calling, are in their sway,

And ride where we cannot climb the steep

And altering air, breathing the sweetness

Of our own excess, till we are kinned

By space we never thought to enter

On capable wings to such reaches of desire.

Thom Gunn’s poem, “Considering the Snail” spirit earth brings a true appreciation of gradual progress.  This was my first experience of Gunn’s Poetry.  He has been described as a “modest and honest individuality.”

The snail pushes thro a green

night, for the grass is heavy

with water—and meets over

the bright path he makes, where rain

has darkened the earth’s dark.  He

moves in a wood of desire,

Pole antlers barely stirring

as he hunts—I cannot tell

What power is at work, drenched there

With purpose, knowing nothing.

What is a snail’s fury?  All

I think is that if later

I parted the blades above

the tunnel and saw the thin

trail of broken white across

litter, I would never have

imagined the slow passion

to that deliberate progress.

The snail is a particularly meaningful dream image of mine.  As an image of the Self, Jung comments, that “the clockwise spiral of the snail’s shell was proof of the existence of God before nature was de-psychized by science.” Its silvery track is the Milky Way, it is the chain by which Lug, the Celtic god of light raised men to Heaven, it is the rainbow bridge in Nordic Mythology, and Jacob’s ladder in Christian imagery.  Snail literally means, “to creep” from the Indo-European root, “sneg.”  The snail carries its availability for isolation with itself at all times.  Perhaps it offers us an appreciation of the necessity for isolation as one moves toward Heaven—available to us in the condition of being soundly related to oneself, along with the reminder that development allowed its own quiet, sluggish course without hasty action has a zeal and passion all its own.

Jung speaks briefly, in several places in the Collected Works, about centering and its relationship to isolation.  He has described being along as “the highest and most decisive experience of all.”  He writes, “-it is only here that we find out what supports us when we can no longer support ourselves.  Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.”  In other words, it is there that any doubt as to who commands and who obeys can be settled.  Mary Richards, in her book, Centering, calls this awareness “courageous obedience.”

In Vol. 6, Jung writes of isolation as the opportunity wherein either one owns one’s weaknesses or not, and also, as a time that will required will, understanding and the greatest objectivity—three pillars that I can’t emphasize enough to build in yourself.

Both the necessity and, at the same time, the threat of the experience of isolation, that is required to reach one’s center is considered by Jung in Vol. 13.  Here he writes, “By becoming conscious, the individual is threatened more and more with isolation, which is, nevertheless, the ‘sine qua non’ of conscious differentiation.”  This threat of isolation brings a profound animation of the psyche and is always compensated for by collective and archetypal symbols.  In Volume 12 he remarks, “The experience of the unconscious is a personal secret communicable only to a few and that with difficulty—Hence, the isolating effect.  It requires courage and is not for the spiritually weak.”  Attainment to a relationship with oneself can bring on an experience of isolation that we hadn’t counted upon.

I think it is quite important to get a taste—a real sense—of the crucifixion and the paradox being presented to us here.  In his definition of individuation Jung emphasized that the process “does not lead to isolation” but to an “intenser and more collective solidarity.”  In paragraph #369 of the same volume, he seems to clarify this issue further when he says, “The way of the transcendent function is an individual destiny.  But on no account should one imagine that this way is equivalent to the life of a psychic anchorite, to alienation from the world.  Quite the contrary, for such a way is possible and profitable only when the specific worldly tasks these individuals set themselves are carried out in reality.”  Being a hermit is not the solution.

In Volume 11 where Jung discusses what he considers a “cure” is for his patient, he writes that he is forced to acknowledge that his facilitation of his patient’s egoism to align itself with the true will of God will estrange the patient from other people, “as they come to themselves”—that it can drive the individual into “complete isolation”—on the other hand, “However wretched this state may be, it also stands him, (the patient) in good stead, for in this way alone can he get to know himself and learn what an invaluable treasure is the love of his fellow beings.  It is only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own nature.”

I want to move deeper and more specifically now into the isolation that results from the constant birthing possible from the inner marriage.  It is in this space that the freshness and uniqueness of one’s own creative response to life is possible—truly here, we are always becoming..

The word “isolate” leads directly to the word “isle” or “island”—the happy home of the isolationist.  An island is often known for its unique, well-defined characteristics.  As a place of integrity within, I think of it as that place which makes each of us distinct and separate from everybody else.  I don’t see this inner island of one’s own distinctness as the same as setting oneself apart from others as different.  “Difference” generally produces an alienating effect.  The two words, “distinct” and “differ” actually stem from very separate origins and give us a clue to the need for this discrimination.  The word, “differ” leads to the word “suffer” and emphasizes “disagreement,” “quarrel,” and “dispute,” whereas the word, “distinct” implies “formulation of the individual” and refers to something being “well-defined.”  In Old English, “distinct” means “pricked apart,” – it has a very interesting history.  It seems that attendance at chapel in English colleges was marked by the prick of a pin next to the name of each person as he entered.  Perhaps we could infer that one’s distinctness is related to whether one is present, or in attendance, in one’s own inner religion center.

The island and the single tree on the mountain then are images of dynamic distinctiveness, not static difference, and symbolically offer strength to our capacity to remain what we are while lashed and beaten upon by the constant erosion of the elements of life.

In a beautiful book, The Mystic Spiral, by Jill Purce   Poe’s, “The Fsherman’s Descent into the Maelstrom,” was referred to as a gripping story of a fisherman’s descent into the vortex of notoriously dangerous whirlpool off the coast of Norway—symbolic of the descent to the cosmic center.

It seems that a fisherman and his brother decided, one day, to head for the violent eddies, for it is there that the fishing is the best—if only one has the courage to attempt it.  The yield of such spots is not only the finest variety of fish, but the greatest abundance.  Setting forth, as they had many times before, in bright sun, with a gentle, steady breeze, that would lead the oldest seaman to trust, there was no possible way either could have anticipated the stark change of horizon into a singular copper-colored cloud.  In less than a minute, the mast and mainstay were smashed and they were headed for the edge of the maelstrom.  One could only curse oneself for having hope.  The seas became mountains, the heavens turned black as pitch and the roaring of the water was drowned into a shrill shriek.  There seemed to be no possibility of survival.  It seems beyond comprehension that will, understanding or any degree of objectivity could ever exist at such a moment, but the seaman writes, “I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself.  I positively felt a wish to explore its depths even at the sacrifice I was going to make, and my principal grief was that I would not be able to share these mysteries… With the sickening sweep of the descent I expected instant destruction, but each moment I lived.  Never shall I forget the sensation of awe, horror and admiration—at first, I was much too confused to observe anything accurately.  A general burst of grandeur was all I beheld—the rays of the moon and the magnificent rainbow through the thick spray.”

Suddenly, such immersion in keen observation brought an awareness of the pieces of debris that had survived the descent and of the ones that hadn’t—and he made his decision—to lash himself securely to the water cash and to cut loose from the boat and throw himself directly into the water.  He could only hope his brother would follow suit and be able to die to the ship.  Once in the water, the barrel sank very little further, and the whirl suddenly grew less and less violent, but his brother, neither a leader or a follower, was unable to change his position, and plunged into the depths below along with this ship.

The sky cleared and the full moon shown radiantly upon his silent and exhausted body, which was carried into the channel and plucked from the swollen seas.  No one ever believed his story, nor was he any longer known as the man he was before.

Poe’s story is a gripping reminder of the dread and the depths awaiting to be experienced within ourselves.  The appearance of the moon and the rainbow, and the fisherman’s sensitivity to them seems to hauntingly remind us that, as we are sufficiently able to be receptive, spirit will see to it that our crises are filled with pointers and markers every minute of the way.  “Symbols unmistakably point the way in the process of centering.”

I am reminded of Don Juan’s wisdom that a man, such as the fisherman, who knows death is stalking him, no longer craves, but has acquired a silent lust for life and for all things of life.  (Reminds me of the snail image.)  Constant awareness of death won’t give him time to cling to anything, so he tries, without craving, all of everything.  Sufficiently detached, he knows he has no possibility of fencing off his death and that he has only one thing to back himself with; the power of his decisions.  He has to be, so to speak, the master of his choices.  He must fully understand that his choice is his responsibility and once he makes it, there is no longer time for regrets or recriminations.  His decisions are final; simply because his death does not permit him time to cling to anything.  With such an awareness and acceptance of his death, with his detachment, and with the power of his decisions, a warrior sets his life, the little he has of it, in a strategical manner.  The knowledge of his death guides him and makes him choose, without regrets, and what he chooses is always strategically the best; and so he performs everything he has to with gusto and lusty efficiency.  When a man behaves in such a manner, one may rightfully say that he is a warrior and has acquired patience.  When a warrior has acquired patience he is on his way to will.  He knows how to wait.  His death sits with him on his mat, they are friends.  His death advises him, in mysterious ways, how to choose, how to live strategically.  And the warrior waits!  The warrior learns without any hurry because he knows he is waiting for his will; and one day he succeeds in performing something ordinarily quite impossible to accomplish.  He may not even notice his extraordinary deed.  But as he keeps on performing impossible acts, or as impossible things keep on happening to him, he becomes aware that a sort of power is emerging; a power that comes out of his body as he progresses on the path of knowledge.

It was the fisherman’s ability to deliberately pause, to detach while dying, to reflect in that isolated space between possibility and actuality, that led him to the willful decision to lash himself to the water cash—to have the courage and the will required to stay in touch with life.

One is either awake, asleep or wobbling in such a moment.  Ideally, this is every moment—every decision made, instant by instant is an issue of our becoming, made for or against our relation to ourselves.  The choice lies between security, based on the old or on the known, or insecure tranquility, based on risk and the unknown.  If I won’t make that deliberate pause, and if I won’t bear the isolation and reflect, I don’t have a chance of discovering the core of myself, nor of centering.  It’s in the midst—or, should I say, in the “mist” of this reflective moment where death and the delicacy of new birth meet and co-exist.  It is here, and only here, that I will find the possibility of my own free, authentic response to the Self.  Without the pause, Self-counsel is impossible.

Ratsuki Sekida in his text entitled, Zen Training states, “It is the reflecting action of consciousness that comes immediately after the thought that makes us aware of our own thinking.”  Reflection looks inward and notes the preceding action of consciousness.  If reflection does not occur, these thoughts sink into the unconscious and remain unresolved where they undergo fermentation and cause harm—they get moldy!

Lack of a deliberate pause, or a mistake in my response to myself and to my situation is always a life or death matter, especially if I refuse full responsibility for my decision.  It was the brother’s wobbling, his lack of tranquil initiative and wrong relation to possibility that cost him his life.  On the other hand, adequacy of expression and response to myself with full responsibility taken will lead to life and to identity.

I want to reflect a little further upon the cost of the refusal to stand upon the isolation of one’s own inner-island.

The immediate result is that the freshness of that space becomes frozen.  The flow in oneself turns to ice.  The individual becomes more and more immune to penetration.  Fear of risk and fear of the freedom of true availability to oneself produces a frozen, demonic, defensive system that closes itself to further change.  In business it’s called the Peter Principle.

This is isolation in its most negative form, for it is total isolation from the core of oneself.  It will eventually freeze others close to that individual, especially those who do not appear to serve their self-enclosed ends.  If this frozenness could be met—and, by the way, none of us is exempt from these inner frost giants—every lethal requirement for one’s growth will be there, ready and waiting to flow in the melting process.

Acceptance of constant dying and birthing– which is a healthy response to isolation, as seen in Poe’s fisherman, will require an undivided relationship to the mystery that I must always be willing to open myself up to.  Willingness to give up the ship, acceptance that there is no place to run, receptivity to the moon and the rainbow provide a fresh response to apparent disaster, to go on living, but in a transformed way.  Can I bear transformation instant by instant?  That is the real issue.

It was a particularly fresh experience when my psyche nudged me to look up the word “fresh!”  I always feel a little silly when pushed in this way, but I am learning to appreciate and trust such inner promptings because they’re always so rewarding!  I knew that I knew that “fresh” meant “new or untried or original,” and “not preserved,” but, to my absolute amazement, I discovered that it comes from the Old French “freis” which means “feminine” and from the West Germanic word, “friskoz” meaning “unattested” or something that has not been officially witnessed—something whose existence is not established by documentary evidence, but is inferred from comparative evidence.  I felt brought back to Ceres and the moon, but then, hopefully, we never left them.

Some vital questions emerged for me at this point:

Can I seriously give consent to constant shaping, reorganization and movement?

Can I undergo isolation with full confidence that my response to present possibility is correct, even though I fear it because it means change?

Can I seriously listen to listen to dread’s counsel—to that silent pause between I can and I will?

Can I bear the space of genuine emptiness in order that I may stay related to the Divine informer who would like to enter there?

Can I risk acting out of the ground of my own being instant by instant?

Can I bear my powerlessness, along with taking full responsibility for my decision?  If so, I can chop wood on Sunday.

Can I stop collapsing myself into the past or into my greed for the future, so I am free to be open to the freshness and splendor of the next moment?

Can I radically trust the future to disclose itself?  Can I stand before it without demanding a preview?

Can I stop asking the Self to submit to my finite and limited measures that never leave enough room for either uniqueness or surprise?

Can I always be ready for the unexpected?

Can I trusty my dissonance, anxiety, discomfort and pain to register my own self-betrayal?

Can I differentiate my genuine hunger to be myself from the hunger just to feel better?

Can I remember that I don’t get to take this moment over, or do I prefer to die to the possibility of no birth or of a stillbirth?

Can I wake up and stop wobbling and stop filling that Divine space of isolation with moods or chatter or babble or lust for power or pleasure?

In other words, can I stop cutting myself off from Tao—from the Self?

If I am serious about the above, I will be faced with the debris crashing about violently in the vortex of myself.  There I will find the naiveties I just won’t give up, the long-standing habits of seeking approval, of pleasing others, of performing on cue, of being nice and of meeting other people’s expectations.  Here will be the debris of self-hatred, excessive self-control and self-judgment, sweet justification, victimization, credit-seeking, tradition bound up and not flowing, collective thinking and the search for collective validation; here spins nourishment of disappointment, alongside wells of remorse, illusion fed by memory, the longing for security against any possibility of a mistaken decision, self-image based on old priorities and identifications that have ensured me emotional comfort for years, mindless repetition of habit—pleasant or painful, they are stuck in the fear of the unknown, and perhaps the trickiest of all—that subtle institutionalization in myself of a tolerance for compromise.  This debris is a dreadful weight to oppose, but I will remain in bondage to it and to all environmental stimuli, both inner and outer, if I will not meet it.

Well, what if I do and what if I don’t relate to the inner island of myself – to the isolation?

I am truly free to make no effort to get clear, to betray the core of myself, to miss the taste of myself and the ping of my own deep intuitive feeling.  Spiritual tonus is cultivatable, but the jolting reality is simply that I am absolutely free to respond or not respond.  If I give it no thought or if I avoid the decision, I contribute to the chaos in both the inner and outer world, and I will freeze somewhere along the way.  Genuine decision is the “cutting into”—an incision that breaks through the routinely habitual, allowing the juices of life to flow.  The Latin root of decision, “caedum,” refers to a “sculptor’s chisel.”  Can you open yourself to the tool of the Great Sculptor?

Besides the frozenness, any evasion of this freedom will set you wobbling between conformity and rebellion, truly a place of shambled realities.  So, if I am insincere and will not engage at this core level with myself, if I fail to miss the registering of my own anxiety, indecisiveness and confusion, I will remain suspended between unresolved opposites without a rainbow bridge, with leakage of all my vital forces and I will be guaranteed an isolation more profound than I can humanly bear.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh must have known something about this in herself and others when she wrote, “The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere.”

The challenge of whether I do or whether I don’t I think is summed up in Sartre’s words, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

Real security lies in the quality of one’s response to Tao – to the Self – instant by instant.  If we haven’t learned to die, we haven’t come to ourselves or to tranquility.  It seems more than noteworthy that “requiem” – a mass for the dead, stems from the same word root as the word “tranquil.” (“kweye”).  Unlike Western culture that views tranquility as an opposite to restlessness or turbulence, the Chinese see it as the basis of life itself.  To die un-tranquilly to the Chinese is to die without touching one’s foundation – to be caught in the opposites.  My body and soul will clearly register both the dialogue and the decision made, for or against myself.  Clarity and energy are won anew in the rare condition of self-acquaintance.

The space of the hawks that you never thought to enter, beckons.  Know from the snail that there is a momentum towards healthy isolation to be trusted, one that I invite you to listen to deeply.  In Eliot Porter’s words, “Grow wild according to they nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay.  Let the thunder rumble; what if it threatens ruin to farmer’s crops? That is not its errand to thee.”

Rolf Jacobsen, a Norwegian poet from Oslo has expressed for me the essence of the quiet trust of one’ own depths and of what one will ultimately meet there.  It has been said that his poetic lines wave lazily like a cat’s tail or a snake’s head, and that his poems are filled with self-acceptance. This one is entitled. “Guardian Angel.”

I am the bird that flutters against your window in the morning,

and you closest friend, whom you can never know,

the blossoms that light up for the blind.

I am the glacier shining over the woods, so pale, 

and heavy voices from the cathedral tower.

The thought that suddenly hits you in the middle of the day

and makes you feel so fantastically happy.

I am the one you have loved for many years.

I walk beside you all day and look intently at you,

and put my mouth against your heart though you’re not aware of it.

I am your third arm, and your second shadow,

 the white one, whom you cannot accept

and who can never forget you. 

“May the riddle of live and not be unendurable!”

Carl Jung, Vol. 18, #1360

Carl Jung, Vol. 12, #32

Carl Jung, Vol. 13 #395

Carl Jung, Volume 12, #61

Carl Jung, Vol. 7, #241

Carl Jung, Volume 11 #525

Carl Jung, Vol. 16, #219

Further conversations with Don Juan,” Esquire, March 1971

Ann Morrow Lindbergh, A Gift from the Sea

Elliot Porter, Wilderness is the Preservation of the World

Carl Jung, Vol. 13, # 302