PSYCHOLOGICAL LIFE begins in the imagination. That’s one reason I have a sign in my office, dangling from the mantel, that asks clients if they have a dream to share or if something unusual happened since their last session.
The latter — odd, sometimes surreal experiences — often communicate at great depth what is going on in a person’s life, conscious and unconscious. They essentially occur in an altered state when our repressed feelings — even the refusal to acknowledge our circumstances — demand expression. Such occurrences typically transcend hopelessness and often point to needed change. But they aren’t altogether without pain.
In the last few months, I have been in a dark night of the soul that is still too painful to describe in detail. Suffice it to say that it involves the loss of love — probably the most painful blow life delivers — and severe financial trouble.
My longtime friend and colleague Rose D’Agostino has been helping me with twice-weekly sessions. Rose works with energy and the way our psychological blocks are somatized. Like me, she believes the heart is an organ of perception. If you shut down its perceptual function, life loses much of its beauty and, as if suddenly blinded, you turn obsessively inward and feel hopelessly lonely, aimless.
I left a recent session with Rose to meet my friend Frank to see the new film, “Kill Your Darlings.” I decided to stop at Rhodes Bakery to buy some of their famous cheese straws for us to eat during the movie.
WHEN I CAME OUT OF THE BAKERY, a pathetic guy in his early 20s — obviously a crack or meth addict — approached me and asked for money. I balked, as I usually do, then felt guilty, then gave him a dollar. I apologized that I couldn’t give him more and he laughed. “Don’t feel bad about that,” he said. I got in the car, tearful, wondering if I would have given him more money had I not just spent $7 I couldn’t afford to waste. Probably not. My priorities seemed pretty distorted.
I headed up Cheshire Bridge to Piedmont but found the intersection completely blocked by an accident. I made a u-turn and headed down a side street, which also turned out to be blocked. I made another turn and, before long, I was lost in Morningside, worried that I was going to be late to the theater.
I reached another intersection and couldn’t decide whether to turn right or left. Out the corner of my eye, I saw someone waving and yelling. It was an old man. He was bent over an elderly woman, his wife. She was lying in the grass next to the street and he was trying to help her get to her feet. I threw my car into park and joined them.
She was lying on her side, wearing a full-length blue coat and a faded pink scarf. As we lifted her, she smiled eerily, making no sound. Her husband took one of her arms and I took the other. We began a very slow walk up their inclined driveway to the front porch. As we walked, I rubbed her hand and startled myself by raising it to my mouth and kissing it. She squeezed my hand in return. I felt a tremor go through me.
We got her up the porch stairs to a chair where she sat smiling, still holding my hand. Her speech was very garbled — a stroke patient, I presumed. I was aware that she kept asking my name, squeezing my hand, looking me in the eyes, smiling. I felt like I was going to cry; my heart — my closed and broken heart — was aching. She was really old and her teeth were mainly gone, but I saw her as beautiful — odd, to say the least, since I hate every sign of my own aging. But beauty is what her gaze communicated — just like that of my sometime teacher, Mother Meera.
Her husband was clearly emotional, too, shaking my hand and thanking me over and over. I had the sense that he felt somewhat embarrassed too.
WHEN I HEADED DOWN THE DRIVEWAY, I realized that I was walking nearly as slowly as we had going up. I didn’t have a choice because my knees, ruined by a botched surgery, make descent so difficult. At that moment, lost on the streets in Morningside, walking in slow motion, I realized I was in a labyrinth.
Labyrinths, like the one at Chartres Cathedral that Rose and I visited years ago (photo above), have been part of spiritual traditions since Greek and Roman times. In truth, their original function remains unknown, but they became tools of walking meditation and prayer, with the goal of entering higher consciousness or stillness at the center. (There’s one at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta.)
As I descended the driveway, I kept looking back at the couple on the porch and felt the radiance of gratitude. So much went through my mind, I could write a book about the experience. There was, first, the metaphor of the labyrinth and the reminder that opening the heart to suffering — my own, as well as others’ — is far less painful than trying to avoid its experience.
THERE WAS THE SENSE that the couple and the kid at the bakery both represented the path of compassion, something that has called me my entire life. Journalism appealed to me as a chance to “change the world,” as my mother sarcastically put it. But the industry turned into just the opposite — a heartless and often stupid defender of the status quo. I wanted out, or at least not to be wholly dependent for my living on it. When so many of my friends died during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, crying for the parents who had abandoned them, I went back to school for degrees in psychology.
My Morningside labyrinth also evoked the feeling of being set free. Among the perpetual agonies of recent years have been both guilt and anger with my deceased parents — guilt because I wish I had been more forgiving and helpful in their last years, anger because my father disinherited me while telling me how much he loved me. And before that, there had been years of fear that I might embarrass them, always reeling myself in before actualizing my soul’s yearning. Now, as I descended the hill to get in my car, the old couple smiled and waved at me, as if giving me permission to be myself. Was I really so awful? Did my fate always have to be the loss of love? Am I really too old to make something more of my life? And there was the old man’s embarrassment — the reluctance to ask for help that has been my own curse.
Finally, and perhaps most important, was the experience’s reaffirmation of the reality of the spiritual — something that greatly drained out of my life in recent years with one inexplicably painful experience after another. Rose had remarked on this during our session.
I SAY IT WAS SPIRITUAL because it seemed so full of synchronicity and grace — demonstrative of a level of existence outside immediate perception that can’t be apprehended without slowing down to become mindful of this very present moment. The remarkable thing in my experience is that I did not seek it. But life’s archetypal forces will at times corner us, slow us down and demand we look at what’s before us. For such moments to unfold fully, one must give the heart its precedence. The brain does not feel cheated, I promise.
I got in my car, assuming I was too late to make the movie. I checked the time and was startled to see that only about 10 minutes had gone by. This is another aspect of such numinous experiences. An entire world, even one wrapped in narrative, can disclose itself within moments. It’s like a line of poetry or an image in a dream.
* * *
I FOUND MY WAY TO THE THEATER on time. The meaning of my experience was really just occurring. I tried to communicate it to Frank but such stories never seem to make a lot of sense in their immediate telling. Besides, I’d left the damn cheese straws in the car!
The movie turned out to be a perfect conclusion to my labyrinth “epiphany.”
“Kill Your Darlings” is about Allen Ginsberg when he was a student at Columbia, hanging out with others who founded the “Beat” movement — Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
Listening to them talk, I got very annoyed at first. It all sounded so over-the-top intellectual and ridiculously impassioned. Then I realized, with an embarrassed jolt, that it was just the way my friends and I at William & Mary talked freshman year, when we read poetry and conspired to create an “underground” paper on campus, “Iskra” (named after Lenin’s newspaper). While there, I created a tutorial program for poor kids, which in turn won me a teaching fellowship to Yale.
I REMEMBER WALKING INTO MY DORM SUITE at Yale, the first day. My three roommates were sitting in the living room having an impassioned discussion about T. S. Eliot’s poetry. I was shocked. I thought I was the only one with such exuberance for his work. But I was completely intimidated, listening to them. I uttered a few hoarse comments and they tried to draw me into the conversation, but I fled the room. One of them even chased me down, wanting to hear what I had to say.
I was, as had already become my life pattern, too overcome with fear to permit myself full expression. On top of being an anti-war, poetry-loving, intellectual socialist, I had come — like Ginsberg — to realize I was likely gay. I became terrified of my intellectual preoccupations, with my dawning sexual awareness, with my love of the strange — the things my parents always discouraged. I kicked aside the Yale fellowship and only spent one more semester at William and Mary. I moved home with my parents and absurdly undertook a life of comparative “normality,” even getting married for five years just before I finished at Georgia State University. I still feel ashamed when I run into someone from that period of my life.
Ultimately, I abandoned myself, sinking into the nihilism of depression and alcoholism. As I watched “Kill Your Darlings,” I compared myself and heard that inevitable, dark mantra of all depression — that I’d wasted my life. But I also thought of the couple on the steps of their home, thanking me so profusely for such a simple act. I felt some compassion for myself, remembering the freshman me, puffing on a hash pipe while writing poetry and listening to Ravi Shankar, yearning for love more than anything but unable — always, it seems — to sustain it, even to recognize its arrival and departure.
* * *
IF MY PSYCHOLOGY PRACTICE HAS A MOTTO, it’s from Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist of the imagination, who wrote, “The psyche’s reality is lived in the death of the literal.” That’s another way of saying, as I stated at the start of this essay, that psychological life begins in the imagination. The soul and the spirit call us to enter what Henri Corbin (one of James Hillman’s main inspirations) called the mundus imaginalis — a world or state of mind between physical and spiritual reality described in esoteric Sufism. The psyche finds its way to spiritual reality through the help of angels, personifications of the mediator that arise in active imagination. (The Greeks believed essentially the same and understood their mediators, their gods, to be similarly evoked through imagination.)
I have no doubt that the young man outside the bakery and the elderly couple were angels of this sort. They arose during the reopening of my heart during my session with Rose to call me back to the terrain of soul and spirit and love. But they also reminded me that the journey is not a straight line. It twists and turns back on itself, demanding perseverance and patience.
(Jan 8: I’ve made a few edits for clarity here and there.)