Archive for October, 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years

October 3, 2009

Things are still going well for us here in Swaziland. We continue to be blessed with interesting opportunities to learn about the rich Swazi culture and the workings of our host community. But with the stripping away of the familiar and the loss of our customary escape routes, we are mostly learning about ourselves. We are also being gifted with a different perspective on the United States. For one thing, we more frequently feel a sense of pride in America and feel fortunate to be under its care and protection as Peace Corps volunteers. It is obvious from our interactions that the assumptions many Swazis have about Americans are very positive. We are beginning to realize that we have taken much for granted. At the same time, our perspective on what makes for a comfortable and productive lifestyle is changing. We are becoming more laid-back, losing some of our intensity and harder edges. Our priorities are shifting toward having fewer gadgets, more quiet time and freedom from overly demanding schedules. It will be interesting to see where we land once our obligations to the Peace Corps are satisfied.

Our current life and work situation provides us with a great deal of unstructured time and opportunities for meditation and quiet introspection. We are making an honest effort to make good use of this opportunity. I am just finishing “Man and His Symbols,” an edited book focusing on Carl Jung’s later work, particularly with dreams. The book supports explorations into my inner spaces, most especially those dark and conflicted unconscious places that are in such dire need of light. Without light, the energy of these places must find expression in indirect and often harmful ways. Without light, aspects such as our inherent creativity and imagination are lost to our conscious lives. By not attending to these subtle aspects of our being, we risk becoming caught in a double bind, denied the growth potential of the positive while being saddled with the burdens created by the negative. Seems worthwhile to dig a bit deeper to see what’s hidden in the psyche and to cultivate a more intentional relationship with the unconscious. In what I suspect is a common aspect of this later phase of life, a familiar urgency is presenting itself with renewed vigor. The essential questions that could be ignored in the rush of early and midlife can no longer be avoided. What is life all about? Given what I can discern about the world, what is a reasonable way to live in it? What if anything, am I to do about the suffering and confusion I see around me? These are old questions that have been coming up for me for years. Others are presenting themselves from a new angle as I go through my days here in rural Africa. Whose children are these that need support in one form or another? Are they not mine? Just what is “disposable income?” Where are the boundaries? How far can these artificial barriers be extended before something precious is lost? What is being lost because of them? Attempts at understanding or “knowing” from an intellectual perspective as well as efforts to find acceptable rationalizations are revealing themselves as fruitless investments of precious time and energy. It is clear that I need of a different approach.

I am experiencing a deeper appreciation for some my old familiar insights. For example, it has become more obvious that my experience of the outside world is moderated by the status of my inner world. My experience of reality is colored by past conditioning and related expectations. Even something as volatile as mood can influence, to a disturbing degree, my experience of the world and limit my capacity to accurately interpret any given situation. A true perspective requires a clear and balanced mind to accurately reflect the outer to the inner. It follows then that the effectiveness of attempts at intervening in the outside world would be limited by the degree to which the mirror of reflection, the mind, has been freed of its distortions. Otherwise, efforts “to be helpful” for instance, will be contaminated by unconscious drives to heal damaged and fractured aspects of the psyche. Any offering of help would be self-serving and likely misdirected if not outright harmful, without this healing. As this integration process directly challenges the illusions of security so cherished by the ego, it is often avoided. Frequently, the ego attempts to bypass this challenging inner work by focusing on manipulation of the outer world and chasing hits of excitement. Freedom from these powerful unconscious influences allows a type of energy to arise that can be truly helpful to another. I feel blessed to have experienced this energy in a variety of situations and have become convinced that simply being in its presence is profoundly healing. When offered by a clear channel that is, someone with the freedom to truly act selflessly, an experience of connectedness to the Whole fills the mind and body and any sense of urgency falls away. There is nothing to struggle against, nothing to be done. There is only the profound stillness and for a time, the voice of the higher Self can be heard. Such sweet moments – these gifts of Grace. Yet so quickly lost by the grasping mind. It’s the very fear that the experience will end that ends it. If I could only live as if I believe what I Know. Or had a level of Faith consistent with my history of “being supported by unseen hands.” Maybe I can learn to relax the mind and not to grasp. Rather, surrender fully to the energy and the guidance if offers. Maybe I need a few more sits 🙂

 I find it incredible that I can have these profound experiences and still fall back into the small habits of mind that are so clearly irrational and fear-based. Sometimes I’ll catch myself stressing out over finding my life’s work and a quiet voice reminds me that my true work is to free myself of attachments and identifications so that this energy of Love can naturally manifest through me. And then, I remember that there’s really nothing to do except to surrender to life’s unfolding. I just have to keep myself out of the way.

On a lighter note, here are some recent pictures Jordan and I hope you will enjoy. The first video begins with Jordan and me hiking to the top of the small mountain that rises just behind our home. You’ll see a variety of flowers and some of the views of the larger area including the nearby paper mill. In some of the greener places where the granite rocks were large, we felt we could have been back in the Carolinas. Most of the area was quite dry and the vegetation was mostly brown at the time these photos were taken. We have begun to get some light rains and the countryside is growing greener as you may notice in some of the later photos in this first video. Following the photos from our hike, you’ll see shots taken at a traditional ceremony. It was the installation of a new chief in a neighboring chiefdom. Several hundred attended, including heads of state and a senior prince. You will get a glimpse of the dancing and singing that was part of the ceremony in the second video. The festivities continued through the following day interspersed with rest periods and times of feasting. We were told that 12 cows were slaughtered to provide the beef and there was chicken, fish and a good variety of vegetables as well. Lots of food! We are eating quite well here by the way, but haven’t taken to eating beef again and don’t expect that we will. But chicken and fish have taken on a bigger role for us since leaving the states and the many protein options we had there. While we still depend heavily on veggies, we are finding that following a strict vegetarian diet just isn’t working for us at this time. It will be interesting to see if there are any significant changes in our lipid profiles at the end of these two years. Karma, you know. We are hoping that with so much walking, our bodies will be able to process the extra fat and other stuff that is coming our way. We’ll see. 

A neighbor commented following the ceremony that, “We were doing what we are. It’s our nature. We are happy when we are dancing and singing at our traditional ceremonies.” And indeed it was an excellent example of a community coming together with a place and a role for everyone. The men and women in their traditional dress, singing and dancing like the ancestors before them at similar gatherings. The children of various age groups taking part as well, some with costumes and elaborate dance routines and some simply playing together with toys they had constructed from scrap wire and pieces of wood. Toward the end of the second video you’ll see an older man come out onto the dance “floor” and add his energy to the mix. This is a common occurrence that we’ve seen at other ceremonies as well. It seems that members of the audience are free to join in whenever the spirit moves them. It’s all in good fun.

There is still a lot we have to learn about the Swazi culture but already it’s clear that laughing and having a good time with friends and family plays a major role. Our Peace Corps trainers tell us that, “When PC volunteers come back from South America, they are politically aware. When they come back from the Far East they are spiritually aware. When they come back from Africa, they are laughing.” We’ll have to see how this unfolds for us but we’ve seen already that Swaziland is quite a different place and we feel blessed to be here. Thank you for your prayers. Take good care! John