Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
December 2011 - Volume 11, No. 12
For me, one of the enduring visuals in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” is Gollum’s pool. Although it’s been years ago I saw it, I still recall the opaque liquid grayness that hid any awareness of activity beneath its surface. It was Gollum’s home into which we could see and know nothing.Only when he came near the surface was there any indication of a presence, just before he’d emerge to pull and grope his way across the equally gray rocks of the pool’s immediate landscape.
At least that’s my memory - and it remains my favorite visual representation of the unconscious.
We gaze upon it, and see absolutely nothing. We see only the elusively calm surface of an opaque ooze. Yet we somehow know there’s something there - in the movie, as in life, we wonder what might surface. It’s like being at Scotland’s Castle Urquhart gazing out upon Loch Ness. We have no idea just how deep the unconscious goes, how deep is the reservoir of this mystery, and what goes on there. The psychologist Carl Jung spent a majority of his life plumbing its depths, yet still only scratching the surface.
In my experience, the best access into the ooze is through dreams. I’ve been doing dream analysis with clients for years, yet still only skim the surface of their depths. There are many theories about dreams, but my best sense is that they give us access to parts of the unconscious where healing and creative gifts await our exploration and breakthrough into consciousness.
Sleep and awake
That’s one reason why sleep is so important. Our lives count on the rhythm of sleep and awake time. Sleep is restorative. It helps us get ready for a new day and gives us the energy we need to do all that we need to do. Living in the MidWest I likewise appreciate the rhythm of the annual seasons. I’m also aware through my clients just how out of balance life can be when sleep is disturbed.
A few years ago I had a sleep problem where I’d regularly awaken up in the middle of the night, my mind racing with thoughts and problems. So I developed a small ritual to restore the missing balance. First I’d say ‘thank you’ to the thought-chaos. As with prayer, it’s good to begin and end with ‘thank you.’ I’d tell the thought-chaos that I appreciate its deep and incessant working for me, that my life needs it to work things out and hold it all together at a deep (unconscious) level. But - I also need a good night sleep. So I ask the thought-chaos to “go deeper” (with the image of Gollum’s pool) so I may enjoy the benefits of both. That seemed to work.It quickly got to the point where as soon as I was aware of that “chaos,” I’d say “thank you....” and was immediately back asleep. I’ve never had that problem since.
So often the secrets of life’s questions involve the balancing of opposites.
The surface of that pool is important. It divides what is above from what is below - and those with sleep problem know well the ‘chaos’ when that boundary is weak. It’s important that it’s opaque and hides what’s underneath, except when there’s something very close to the surface.
Also, as a boundary, it has another notable quality. Boundaries are special places, often considered sacred or “thin” places. We know the magic of walking on a beach - the boundary between land and water.We know the magic of dawn and twilight- the boundary between night and day. And there are many many more examples, for example cemeteries, and even sex. Also consider the boundary between waking and sleep. We speak of “falling” asleep. Much like “falling” in love, or to “fall” for something. Those are images of letting go, of trust. Many know the difficulties of “letting go.” A personal example was my great struggle learning to swim. In my youth, I took “beginning swimming” classes at least a half dozen times. To swim is to trust the water to support me - and then move my body in ways that cooperate with that. When you can still touch the bottom, Bill, you’re not swimming.
Betrayal and courage
Let’s consider that the opposite of trust is betrayal. We’ve all had at least some dealings withthis dark traitor. Yet consider this - every story, every novel, every movie, play, opera, drama, epic tale, has a betrayal in it (one or more). Otherwise there’d be no reason for us to pay attention or even enjoy it. The Bible has two - one at the beginning and one in the middle. Great literature always seems to involve the struggle up from a betrayal. That’s where real life seems to come from. Life lived to the fullest always seems to have its roots in something broken. A soldier will fight in order to right something that someone has done wrong to a people. Gollum himself knows a lot about betrayal.
The next boundary is a break-though boundary, courage, and it’s shadow, fear. Out of betrayal emerges courage. That’s why we enjoy good literature. The pool itself can represent fear. We have no idea what’s under there, and it usually won’t come out to show itself (like the childhood fear of something living under the bed). It’s like cave diving, darkswimming into underwater caves (an author-friend, Doug Allyn, once took me there in one of his novels, a terror my psyche can’t forget).
That’s what Carl Jung did with his explorations of the unconscious, with tremendous courage and the stretching of his own sanity, not to mention ridicule from many peers. This is what Stephen King does so well - opening the gates of the unconscious with its horrors of revenge against the stupidity and greed of our own citizenry - to be eventually resolved through the simple goodness of a quiet ordinary person, also of our own citizenry.Both Jung and King know to plunge into the pool’s mysteries - and emerge again with healing gifts for the rest of us.
As we contemplate this pool, aware how much takes place beneath its surface, we then see differently so much of what takes place above the surface. Fullness of life encompasses both realms, both worlds - and frequently seeming to pull us in opposing directions. Yes, much of life seems to be a coincidence of opposites. As we attend to both sides of that boundary, we know we have a rich and interesting time ahead of us.
So stay close to the pool, to the boundaries of your life. For you never know just what or who may show up.
"the closer to danger the farther we are from harm"
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