Life and death and the elephant


Nick and Jonathan, photographed by Flavio

My friend Nick has been reading Carl Gustav Jung’s biography, Dreams, Memories and Reflections, and particularly the final sections titled ‘Life after Death’ and ‘Last Thoughts’. The challenge set by Nick and Jung was to give serious consideration to life after death and then create a myth that made some sense of it.

The reason for so doing was because according to Jung, man’s evolution has been built around the myths of life after death. So to ponder and create one’s own myth might engender something positive. Not to do so impoverishes. Jung writes that ‘meaningless inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness.’

So what was Jung on about? One theme was that that the unconscious is very important but we have tended to ignore and concentrate on rational thought. He writes that dreams are ‘hints from the unconsciousness’ and he argues that ‘reason sets the bounds far too narrowly’.

One result of our dependence on reason is that to make sense of the power of the unconscious we have had to create god … or a daemon (in Greek mythology a genius, deity or kind of spirit), or mana (in Polynesian, Melanesian, and Maori an impersonal supernatural power).

Such entities are according to Jung, man’s creative confrontation with opposites.  And he suggests that we have been ‘robbed of transcendence by the short sightedness of super intellectuals’. Now our destiny is ‘creating more and more consciousness’ instead of ‘kindling a light in the darkness of mere being’.

‘People are only what they know about themselves’, a simple phrase but with enormous echoes and connotations.  And if we only use rational thought and never give serious consideration to our dreams and our myths then we are failing to engage fully with ourselves and life itself.

He develops his own myth when he writes: ‘through the achievement of an individual, a question enters the world to which he must provide some kind of answer’. He suggests that the psyche requires no space and no time and he describes his driving force in life as ‘a passionate urge towards understanding’.

And so to my myth-making. I am inspired by a talk called Nirvana and the Waterfall from Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. He compares an individual life to a drop of water in the Cathedral Falls in Yosemite National Park. It falls and then merges with the water below. That’s a sort of myth.

So what might my myth be?

I have a friend that you cannot see, you cannot touch, and who does not talk. But if I am quiet he comes bearing gifts and insights. He lives by the sea … or perhaps he is the sea of unconscious. I walk along his shoreline picking up flotsam and jetsam. Many things are washed up, examined and then  washed back out to sea where they float or sink beneath the waves. I make a point of visiting the beach, maybe looking for a message in a bottle. Sometimes I may even venture out into the water dive down and pick things up off the bottom.

I take it that when I am old and infirm I will come more often to this beach. And I will sit and watch the waves rolling in. See the flats bared as the tide pulls out and hear the seagulls soaring overhead. What happens to me when I die? I too am washed out to sea where I sink to the bottom. I hope that my loved ones will come and visit me in their dreams or in those quiet moments when they are on the seashore.

We talked of evolution and the part that we play in the process and the fact that everything is just the way it should be. And where is evolution taking us? Who knows! Nick was keen to play down our individuality while Flavio had a certain fondness for his self.

In the story of the blind men and the elephant, each man tells a different story after an encounter with the elephant. That’s because they have touched different parts of the elephant and can’t see the whole. Taking this one step further maybe we are hairs on the back of the elephant. We can’t see the whole elephant from the hair but where the follicle buries beneath the skin we become part of something bigger. As for the elephant, maybe he is the hair …

Some (useful) links:

On Life after Death by CG Jung: PDF
Dreams Memories and Reflections by CG Jung: PDF
The Art of Dying Well: A Jungian Perspective on Death and Dying: Blog post

1 thought on “Life and death and the elephant

  1. Lovely piece. Good snapshot of Jung’s thoughts on life & death and the rational vs the unconscious. And the importance of enriching our earthly experience by creating myths about our unconscious transcending it into the afterlife. Love your myth about the ‘sea of unconscious’ from which we stem and into which we are all ultimately subsumed again. All beautifully and poetically written. Not unlike Suzuki’s drop of water, or for that matter, religious or other myths about the duality of mind and body cosmologically connected by a God (or Nature) that also unites us all.

    I’m just not sure that in urging us to ‘create myths’ about our unconscious and transcendence in order to ‘engage more fully with ourselves and life’, Jung is doing much more than advocating a substitute for a religious or superstitious belief in a God or some transcendent being residing in ourselves and binding us to the cosmos and eternal life. Saying we should resist the excessive rationality of the super-intellectuals to create more and more consciousness and ‘kindle a light in the darkness of mere being’ sounds very poetic and appealing. But in essence he’s simply calling for more blind faith in the unknown and using ‘glimpses’ he gets in his dreams as proof or at least signs of its existence. I started off trying to think of a myth of my own but found it difficult as I suppose I’m a skeptic at heart though I still cling to the idea of something ‘other’, ‘ineffable’, ‘indefinable’ and always just beyond reach. I came across this quote from WB Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” in a piece about facing up to death in the Guardian last Saturday:

    “That is no country for old men.
    The young are in one another’s arms,
    But you, you are outside of all of that.
    An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.

    And then he says to death:
    “Consume my heart away; sick with desire
    And fastened to a dying animal
    It knows not what it is; and gather me
    Into the artifice of eternity.”

    So there you have it, “..fastened to a dying animal, It knows not what it is..” That’s us, trapped in our mortal bodies and not knowing what we are.

    I also heard this poem called “The Flight of the Sparrow” by James Harpur on Poetry Please on Radio 4:

    “My Lord although we cannot know the mysteries of the afterlife,
    The span of time we spend on earth appears to me to be like this:
    Imagine sitting in your hall in winter feasting with your chiefs and counsellors
    Your faces glowing from flames that crackle in the hearth.
    Outside the wintry night is lashed by winds and driving rain and snow.
    Suddenly a sparrow darts in through a door, flits across the hall
    And flies out through another one.
    Inside, cocooned in light and warmth it can enjoy
    A moment’s calm before it vanishes rejoining the frozen night from which it came.
    Such is our journey through life
    But as to what’s in store for us beyond the doors of life and death
    We are completely in the dark.”

    I’ll keep trying to think of a suitable myth that suits my thinking. Thanks to you and Nick for the discussion and the stimulating piece.

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