Resolve, the Fire behind Resolutions


Janus, Roman god of beginnings and endings


It occurs to me as we draw close to year’s end and I think about those seemingly obligatory, and too often perfunctory New Year’s resolutions, that what may be lacking for myself and others who struggle with following through with New Year’s goals is contained in the root word of the thing in question: resolve.

Resolve, as a noun, means “firm determination.” Flipping to its verb form, and researching the etymology, we find:

late 14c., “melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;” intransitive sense from c.1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere “to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel,” from re-, perhaps intensive, or “back” (see re-), + solvere “loosen” (see solve). Early 15c. as “separate into components.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

It’s interesting that there are opposing senses of the word: “firm determination” suggests solidity and uniformity of purpose, and a kind of bracing or tensing up for anticipated effort, quite a difference from the verb meaning (or its root meaning anyway) of loosening, breaking down, undoing. But maybe the two senses are related after all. Perhaps the key to building the force of resolve, that unwavering resoluteness of purpose, is to spend some time first on reflecting on the past year, and the past in general, breaking down (analysing) and letting go of what is asking for release, including resentments or grudges, feelings of shame or guilt, baseless fears, limiting or unkind self-talk, unreasonable expectations, and past goals that may have been concocted out of such a dubious substrate.

Alchemically, in the stage of dissolution, we may face painful realizations and feelings of grief and regret, but it is out of this state that a healthier, more authentic, and more productive outlook and focus can emerge:

A key to the stage of Dissolution is the awakening of passion, and the harnessing of the energy of emotional pain toward an object of creativity. We do not just passively witness the reality of our inner pain; we redirect its energy, wedding it to our authentic personal desires and constructive aims. In so doing we are participating and aiding in the dissolving of our false self. We are using the energy freed up by letting go of old, stale ego-positions, in the service of re-aligning our life in the direction of our higher purpose. (See: Psychospiritual Alchemy.)

Without doing this sort of resolving, this dissolving and reforming, before setting resolutions, I don’t think we resolve the question of how to best direct our energies in the coming year. This oversight may lead to misdirection: it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in resolutions that don’t really serve them. For instance, you might initially come up with a host of resolutions that relate to a business you’ve started, but upon deep reflection realize you don’t enjoy or believe in this business–maybe you got involved with it to impress or please someone–and need to do something else altogether. Or you might initially plan on some hard-core gym workout regime, but, thinking deeply about it, realize that this is really a self-punishment scheme for some presumed failing, and that mildly challenging hikes in nature would feel much better as a route to self-care.

My guess is that, in most cases, when resolutions are in line with true desires and needs, rather than external pressures and/or feelings of self-doubt or unworthiness, our unconscious selves will not be as inclined to sabotage us in their implementation. With the right attitude, which is never grandiose, self-flagellating, superficial or myopic, resolve will be burgeoned with the force of our whole selves, budding and developing naturally rather than being artificially injected by our latest “self-improvement” schemes.

My New Years wish for myself and my readers is that we make sacred time in the coming year for what matters most to us, whatever that is, and no matter what we think we “should” be doing.

Thanks for reading–see you in 2015!

Pursuit of Spirit in “The Golden Bird”


Image by znodden, a.k.a. Susanna. Visit her here.

For this month’s inspiration I’ve selected the fairy tale, “The Golden Bird,” (read it here, so I don’t have to summarize!) a story collected by the Grimm brothers and falling under the category of “supernatural helper” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. The helper is not the golden bird of the title, but rather a speaking fox, who deserves the supernatural helper award of merit for his patience with the hero, who ignores his advice more often than he heeds it, and thereby gets himself into some very bad scrapes. Through the course of these predicaments, many other motifs arise as well, including the seeking of a princess and betrayal of the hero by his siblings.

One of the motifs I have focused on before in my post about “The Maiden Tsar” is falling asleep. In “The Golden Bird,” the youngest brother (son of the king’s gardener, not the king himself, which is interesting) is the only one of his siblings who can stay awake overnight to witness who is stealing the apples from the king’s “pleasure garden.” It turns out to be the radiant golden bird:

The gardener set his eldest son to watch; but about twelve o’clock he fell asleep, and in the morning another of the apples was missing. Then the second son was ordered to watch; and at midnight he too fell asleep, and in the morning another apple was gone. Then the third son offered to keep watch; but the gardener at first would not let him, for fear some harm should come to him: however, at last he consented, and the young man laid himself under the tree to watch. As the clock struck twelve he heard a rustling noise in the air, and a bird came flying that was of pure gold; and as it was snapping at one of the apples with its beak, the gardener’s son jumped up and shot an arrow at it. But the arrow did the bird no harm; only it dropped a golden feather from its tail, and then flew away. The golden feather was brought to the king in the morning, and all the council was called together. Everyone agreed that it was worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom: but the king said, ‘One feather is of no use to me, I must have the whole bird.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

Much later in the tale, when the hero is compelled to accomplish yet another impossible task, he must not stay awake and work to overcome the problem, but instead must sleep and let the trusty fox do the work. I would call this kind of helpful symbolic sleep, “the sleep of trust,” versus the harmful “sleep of carelessness” the hero avoided at the start of the tale. There is a time, suggests the story, for the ego-mind to be watchful, attentive and active, and a time for it to step aside and let another aspect of mind take charge. Creatively speaking, there is a time to stay sharp and do one’s work, however grueling it may seem, and a time to rest and incubate, secure in the fact that your inner storyteller, painter, poet, etc. is working with you and for you on the problem/project.

Coming back to the start, the psychological key to the story appears to be this golden feather, which is “worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom.” It represents, I think, a brush, a tickle of transcendence, a token of a psychic state or inner dimension of the psyche or soul that is unfettered, complete in itself, and indestructible. Those touched by this feather–for example, those who’ve had “near death experiences” or transcendent interludes during meditation, drug use, etc.–often value their experience, however fleeting, above all else. They too typically long for “the whole bird,” i.e. a way back to the experience, and a way to deepen it and integrate it into everyday life. In a bit of a different vein, taken as a metaphor for creativity, we might consider the feather as a glimpse of inspiration, with the golden bird representing a full-fledged gift of the muse. Whatever its precise meaning, as it is with spiritual things in general, the glorious bird is difficult to access and retain, and therefore its brief appearance precipitates a difficult quest involving many tests, for those who are willing.

Another theme in the story I’d like to highlight is the idea of shabbiness, that is, the quality of being well-worn, ordinary,  plain, mundane, cheap, perhaps even ugly. In the story the fox alerts the hero that he must enter the “shabby” inn rather than the bright and slick one, stick with the wooden cage for the golden bird (not the gold one), and the leather saddle for the golden horse (again, not the gold one). Inevitably the hero does not listen, and complications ensue.

This “embracing the shabby” instruction is, I would say, some good advice about grounding one’s spiritual impulses, aspirations or insights in the everyday, and not letting the gold one has found lead to pretentiousness, or becoming too “precious” for the actual lived world. Creatively, down-to-earth detail, disorder, and rough edges of different kinds are often what make a work of art sublimely interesting, rather than boringly perfect. Simply gilding the lily will not do, for as the alchemist Gerhard Dorn said, “our gold is not the ordinary gold.” It’s of a higher order, and conversely, it must have some muck in it. After all, what really begins our tale, if you think about it? It’s the earth from which the trees grew that bore the apples, which attracted the golden bird. And I’ll bet the gardener who dug in the earth and fathered the hero looked a bit shabby.

Finally, dismemberment figures in the tale, as it does in others, and often, as it is with the indispensable fox in our story, it is the supernatural helper who requests being slain and cut to pieces:

Then the fox came, and said, ‘Pray kill me, and cut off my head and my feet.’ But the young man refused to do it: so the fox said, ‘I will at any rate give you good counsel: beware of two things; ransom no one from the gallows, and sit down by the side of no river.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

It seems the hero’s refusal leads to the fox becoming more cryptic in his advice, which had previously been quite direct. For although it is repugnant to the hero, he must concede to dismembering his friend and companion. But why?

Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of fragmentation and dissolution, which may lead to differentiation and renewal . . . Surviving dismemberment  initiates one into the intimacy between sacrifice and creation, suffering and transformation. (The Book of Symbols, ed.s Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin, 2010)

Putting things in psychological terms again, why would one consent to dissolve or fragment the very element of one’s psyche that has so enriched one’s life? The fairy tale’s answer is that it must be done to break a spell or curse, free the princess’ brother. Through dismemberment, the helper is not obliterated but humanized; what was before a wise, instinctive factor working mainly unconsciously or semi-consciously now enters full consciousness, in integrated fashion. Instead of lamenting and hoping the fox will show up to save the day, presumably our hero can now easily consult his brother-in-law before there is cause to lament. Psychologically speaking, with integration comes the possibility of consulting our own wisdom, or creative intuition, before taking action, rather than waiting for insight or inspiration to visit out of the blue.

Of course there are always those characters and animals running loose and wild in the forest of our stories and dreams who have no desire for full integration or humanizing, and it’s probably best to let them be, stay respectful, and heed their advice when it’s granted. Some of them may not be as patient as the helpful fox!

Writing Exercise of the Month: Bibliomancy as a Random Input Strategy for Writer’s Block


Alchemical image in the public domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Bibliomancy is an old oracular practice using passages of texts at random to divine something.

Random Input (see here) is a general creativity technique of seeking random images, words, etc. as sparks to solve creative problems.

Why not combine these ideas as a writer’s aid? I’m a great believer in random input and intrigued by the idea of bibliomancy, so it seems like a fun writing exercise to try.

Here’s the situation: I’ve been working off and on with this story of mine about a sort of ugly duckling character and am stuck regarding how to proceed. If I had to describe the difficulties behind this stuck-ness, I would say that: 1. I’m not sure what he wants. He is not, as I’ve written him so far, overly upset by his condition—maybe I’ve written myself into a hole here?; and 2. I want to incorporate a kind of bizarre element, as I think it will make the story fresh, and would keep it truer to the dream inspiration on which the story is based, but I’m unsure of exactly how to do so effectively. O.K., I’m going to go off to my bookshelf to pick three books at random, and from each book I will then pick one passage at random that will tell me something about these difficulties, or others I’m not aware of right now. (I know it’s not real time as you’re reading this, but let’s pretend.) Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ll say that:

  1. The first passage will give me insight about why the story is stuck.
  2. The second passage will give me clues about what is most important about my story.
  3. The third passage will give hints as to how to proceed.

Note: I’m totally making this up right now, but have in mind how oracles like the Tarot, runes, etc. are supposed to operate as “spreads.” Ready? Here I go. (Note to reader: imagine minutes passing while anticipatory clock is ticking.)

Here we are:

1. From Alchemy by Marie-Louise von Franz: “Thus you would interpret sulphur as drivenness, a state of being driven. It would not be right to speak of the drive itself; it is rather the state or quality of being driven or overwhelmed. If you look at it from a certain religious angle, that would naturally be the devil… Sulphur is the active part of the psyche, the part which has a definite goal…To get to the bottom of someone’s problem it is necessary first to find the make-up of such drives. We all have them in us and until we bring them up and face them, we have a hidden corner where they live autonomously.” (pp. 126-127)

2. From Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us by John Rowan: “. . . the ‘totalitarian ego,’ characterized by egocentricity, beneffectance (the tendency for self to be perceived as effective in achieving desirable ends while avoiding undesirable ones), and cognitive conservatism.” (p. 177)

3. From The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss: “In his later years, Mark Twain wrote of journeys into nanoworlds, such as a world inside a stone, or a society of microbes inside a human cell…In August 1898, Mark Twain noted a dream that gave him the idea for one of his most intriguing later stories…In ‘The Great Dark,’ he creates a world inside a drop of water on a glass slide under a microscope. The traveler gets inside it, with an appropriate ship and crew, with the aid of a person identified as the Superintendent of Dreams, who appears by his side while he is musing on a sofa. Once inside the waterworld, it becomes hard to know whether it is this world or the one with the sofa that is real; the traveler’s shipmates know no other reality than the ship and the sea. Mark Twain is playing with a favorite theme, Which is the dream?: the world we inhabit  when we think we are awake, or the one we know when we think we are dreaming?” (p. 207)

Note: I picked the first two quickly, without forethought, trying to subvert conscious choosing, but found myself starting to be deliberate with the third. So I closed my eyes, ran my hand along the book spines, and got around myself that way.

First thoughts:

At first glance, I am feeling pleased that the passages seem to echo and approve of where I was going with my “bizarre element” which I envisioned as my main character meeting up with a seemingly imaginary figure, and I’ve thought of having the so called “imaginary” figure tell my main character that he is the real one, while my main character is imaginary. I do really love the which is the dream? theme! In relation to that theme I like the idea of having a literal superintendent character who assists my main character as a kind of psychopomp. That could be really interesting. I’m also pleased that Mark Twain made creative use of his dreams—seems I’m in very good company!

With regard to 2, I have put my character at odds with the superficiality of his culture, which does amount to a rather stifling conservatism. As I’ve written him, he rejects those values and lives somewhat free of restriction, not caring much what others think but 1, the idea of the sulphur gurgling away behind the scenes, gives me the idea that he really DOES mind, that what he wants is to be seen, acknowledged, even acclaimed, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I certainly want that for him.

I think as a follow up, I’m going to read the Mark Twain story. I found it here on Google Books. 

Something overwhelming needs to happen to my character to awaken this sulphuric action, to ignite his desire and his quest. That’s what I need to dwell on at the moment I think. Then I can think more deeply about the rest of my divinatory input.

Thanks for being witness to my process here. Do you think such a method would be helpful to you? Do you employ a similar exercise yourself? Any ideas for tweaking it?