Traveling in Circles with a Purpose
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
Labor Day Sunday 2018
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
Among the men (and yes, there are women too) who are members of the Advisory Board of the National Guild of Hypnotists I am the only one who is not a high ranking Freemason. Mostly, it’s just a matter of time management as I work in the evenings and on weekends, and could not attend Lodge activities. But my father and uncle were Masons when they were alive, and my father actually had a Masonic funeral ceremony.
I was told about something that happens in a Masonic ceremony. Masons will ritually circumambulate at some of the rituals. That is, they ceremonially moving around an object, usually the Masonic Altar.
Circumambulation is an act we see in many rituals. During the Great Pilgrimage members of the Islamic faith will walk around the Kaaba—the cube shaped building at the center of the most important mosque. During the Mass a Roman Catholic priest walks around the altar with a thurible filled with incense.
Circumambulation means traveling in a circle with a purpose; usually as part of a ritual of some sort. However, I’m going to speak of it as a spiritual and psychological notion, and in this I am indebted to the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
I believe that it was the salty actress Mae West who said “Getting older ain’t for sissies” and as I’ve gotten older I appreciate her wisdom. Yes, it beats the alternative but getting older isn’t a lot of fun. I miss the things I used to be able to do as a younger person and I miss the stamina I used to have. I resent that my body has gotten weaker and that parts of it are failing.
I’ve joked that in my bathroom I should install a roll of duct tape above the toilet paper to be used to re-attach whichever part of my body seems to be in danger of falling off today.
But Jung would disagree with me. He thought that the second half of life was the most important part. In the first half, when we are young, our task is to acquire the social and mechanical skills we needed to survive and hopefully prosper. But it’s in the second half of life, when we have the basics covered, that we grow philosophically and spiritually.
He thought that the purpose of being alive was to become an individual. He called the process individuation. When we are infants we do not experience ourselves as individuals. Our boundaries are poor. We slowly discover that we are different from others in the world, that the world has expectations of us, and that we have a personality. Over time, we hone that personality attempting to create ourselves to be someone we enjoy being. It’s in the second half of life that this process intensifies.
There is a story that in June of 1961 as Jung lay dying in the Swiss city of Kusnacht he was still writing down and analyzing his dreams. Although he knew he only had hours to live, he was still concerned to learn what his dreams had come to tell him. He kept trying to learn more about himself up to the last second of his life. That image is a role model for me.
Jung came up with the image of walking around something, circumambulation, as a way of thinking about ourselves.
Imagine you are standing in the center of a room. Now imagine that you are another person walking in a circle around you. That person sees you from 360 different degree angles. Each view is different than the one before, and the one that would come next. Yet each view is valid.
There isn’t just on view of yourself, there are many. Now imagine that this is true of your personality. You can’t be described by any one description of your personality, there are many descriptions that are also, in their own way, true.
As Walt Whitman said, “[You are] large, [You] contain multitudes.”
Only by understanding ourselves as the collection of all of those different views allows us to really appreciate who we are in the fullness of our incarnation.
The brain is a wonderful organ and brain science has advanced amazingly in modern times. As one of its central functions, the brain tries to make connections between multiple events so that we understand what we might do to influence our world. When we make these connections we come to believe that they are obvious and should be obvious to everyone.
The primitive hunter notices that he or she gets thirsty and needs to find water, and he or she notices that animals tend to flock or herd around water. The brain connects the two facts, and the hunter realizes that the animals are thirsty and then reasons that water holes would be a good place to hunt if you are looking for game.
Usually, this process works well but it can go off the rails if the brain makes a connection it shouldn’t. A soldier in the Middle East learns that an object on the side of the road could be an “Improvised Explosive Device” and avoids it. But when that soldier comes home he or she continues to have an avoidance reaction to any strange object on the side of the road.
The problem is that what is obvious to one person isn’t obvious to another. For example, one person may think that it is obvious we should have universal healthcare while another person thinks it is equally obvious that we should not.
Also, the obvious solution to a problem is not always the correct one. The brain seeks simplicity. A false simplicity can lead one to wrong or incomplete answers. This is nowhere more true than in the way we each think about ourselves.
If I were to ask you to describe yourself, most of you would respond with your occupation first.
“I sell insurance.” “I am a realtor.”
Your occupation may be the obvious thing about you but it certainly isn’t the whole truth. You are much more than your occupation.
The Whole Truth
I have been married twice. My first marriage ended in a friendly divorce after thirteen years, and my current marriage to Lindsay is now in it’s thirtieth year. My “wild single days” between my first and current marriage were all of about eighteen months, and twelve of those months was my engagement to Lindsay, so I wasn’t on the market very long.
Those months when I tried to meet people were awful! Dating has got to be one of the most difficult things a person can do, especially if one is an introvert. That difficulty is amplified when you’re both a minister and a hypnotist.
I’d go to the local singles joint in Oak Park (an oyster bar called Poor Phils) and would strike up a conversation with some woman who seemed nice. Everything would go fine until she asked me what I did for a living.
If I said I was a minister she’d make the Sign of the Cross and immediately vanish.
If I said I was a hypnotist she’d refuse to make eye contact and quickly leave.
The only way I could have a conversation of any length was to lie about my occupation. So I started telling people that I was an Assistant Sales Manager for a company that made rawhide dog chews. I rightly guessed that no one would want to hear any more about that and I could have a conversation longer than four minutes.
Of course eventually I’d have to confess that I was telling a fib and then I’d look like a jerk.
It was frustrating because while I am a minister and a hypnotist, I am much more. But people judge us on the basis of what is obvious. I wasn’t going to get anyone to mentally circumambulate me to really get to know who I was. No one had any interest beyond the obvious.
This is what gets people messed up. Just as few are willing to look beyond the obvious when considering someone else, most of us fail to look beyond the obvious when we think about ourselves.
As Jung said, “I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self. Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned.” (C.G. Jung, Memories Dreams, Reflections).
To get a sense of who we really are, we need to do a circumambulation around our self image. This protects us from making mistakes.
I had a couple as clients recently. They were getting into their seventies and really wanted to retire to enjoy the freedom that some people find comes from retirement. But they had a problem. Their forty-two year old son was still living in their basement. He didn’t finish college. He never had a job that lasted more than a month. He expected an allowance from his parents. When pressured to do a job search by his parents he only applied for management level or executive positions for which he was completely unqualified. Some of you may recognize situations like this in your own circumstances.
When I asked why they were not taking stronger steps regarding this middle aged son, they responded with the obvious. “We’ve loving parents. Loving parents would not throw their son out.”
They needed to circumambulate their image as parents. Yes, they were loving parents. That is on view of who they are. But as we walk in an imaginary circle around their self image other perspectives emerge.
Are they also people who believe that it is wrong to reward bad behavior? Yes, they thought it was wrong to do that. Are they people who fundamentally believe that it is possible for a person to turn themselves around if motivated? Yes, they believed that too.
Only by considering all of these other perspectives about who they are allows them to make a decision about their circumstances based on he wholeness of why they are as a couple. They are loving parents, who believe it is wrong to reward bad behavior and who believes that people can choose to turn themselves around.
When they saw it that way, the vision dictated a different response from the one they had been making.
We all should do likewise in the circumstances we face.
A Spiritual Discipline.
But there is more. Not only does one gain by circumambulating one’s own self image, so that decisions are made holistically—based on the fullness of who we are as persons, there is something deeper going on. Something more.
In his personal writings, published posthumously because he feared scorn from the more materialistic scientific community, Jung came to believe in what he called “The Circumambulation.”
He came to believe that the unconscious mind in each of us has a sense of a future potential self that we might become if we completed he journey to spiritual wholeness.
He believed that this image of a future potential self—the best person we could possibly ever become—was manifested on a moment-by-moment basis in our daily experience by making us interested in those things that will lead us to maximum development somehow. It may not be clear but if you pursue what interests you you will eventually figure it out.
Think about that for a moment. The claim is that you are set up to automatically be interested in those things that can lead to your wholeness. Everyone else in your world might be skeptical about your passion for weaving, doll collecting, martial arts, baseball cards, or studying the mating patterns of poisonous frogs in Brazil, there is something in every one of the things you enjoy that is a clue to how to be your best self.
Joseph Campbell, perhaps the world’s greatest scholar on Comparative Religion, picked up on this theme and argued that the things you found you were interested in were actually a “Call to Adventure.” That is, they were clues about what you needed to do next to become spiritually alive. If you ignored this Call all that would happen is that it would find a way to show up in your unconscious life in a different way, somehow. This is what most people find the there are certain themes that keep repeating in their lives.
The Hero’s Journey
In 1949 Joseph Campbell published his best known work, A Hero of a Thousand Faces.” in which he proposed that the hero stories we cherish as a species (Jesus, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Mohammad and Luke Skywalker) all share a common mythological basis. The heroes start out as ordinary people. Things happen to them that draw them to undertake an adventure. At first they mess up because they are not very good at doing new things, but gaining skills they eventually figure it out and become admirable role models for the rest of us.
There is even a school of theological thought called the “Christ Myth Theory” that holds that the historical Jesus of Nazareth had no actual historical existence, or if he did exist he was so different from the cultural understanding that he had no impact on the founding of Christianity.
Instead, the story of Jesus is just a warmer, more humanitarian version of the Hero’s Journey told about many figures over the history of our species. It reflects, not a supernatural event, but a deep psychological phenomena that arises from the reality that we are programmed for wholeness.
Stories about other people who were also programmed for wholeness and who achieved it in some manner of form become immensely attractive to our minds. Not because they are supernatural, but because they reflect a reality we also find within our own minds.
He argued that we would have better lives if we tried to undertake the “Hero’s Journey” in our lives in whatever way was appropriate for the circumstances and limitations we find.
When I was in college I had a girlfriend who was passionate about tarot cards and astrology. In fact, one day she carefully cast my natal horoscope and immediately broke up with me. But prior to that she used to say that the twenty-two cards in one part of the tarot tell out the story of a hero and his or her initiation into spiritual fullness.
You find yourself interested in things. They attract you but you’re a newbie and so you make mistakes. This relates to the first card in the deck, The Fool. Then, you progress through the realizations suggested by the other cards until you emerge at the last card of the deck, The World, which means completion and fulfillment. That makes sort of sense.
The Circumambulation starts with the path of The Fool because when you follow your interests you are going to screw up as you don’t know much about how to do it. You are interested in all the things that feed your potential future self but you don’t know how to do those things well nor how to put them together into some coherent image of who we might become. But if you keep at it you learn wisdom, and figure out how to become that future potential self that your unconscious mind has been working to help you become.
The Compassion Soak
When I work with a client to overcome a stubborn life problem or a scary medical diagnosis I will eventually instruct them in a technique called the “Compassion Soak.” It was developed by the HeartMath Institute in California, a group that does high quality scientific research into mind-body interactions (full disclosure: I am credentialed by them).
This technique is a way of appreciating oneself. It used to be called the “Soft Heart.” No one can feel good all of the time. Mood swings are as common as commas in a novel. So we ask people to imagine themselves soaking in a warm, bath that can gradually sooth away worry in the way an actual bath can sooth away the aches in our muscles.
Then, find something you find admirable or appreciate—large or small. I often image the loving antics of my animal companions. This helps one get to a “soft” and gentle place in one’s heart. Then, reflect that you are a human who lives in a challenging time and allow yourself to find something about yourself that you find admirable—no matter how small. Give yourself permission to just enjoy this for some time.
This exercise has a tonic effect for the entire body that we can measure using scientific equipment. It’s intended as an antidote for the reality that we are evolved to wrestle with the world. Nothing comes easily to anyone and happiness is hard to find. However, we contain an inner sense of who we might be able to become and day-to-day reality gives us hints of that as our interests change over the course of a lifetime.
If we pay attention, and do not give in to the temptation to overly identify with the most obvious parts of ourselves. If we will circumambulate when we think of ourselves and face decisions, we will make better decisions based on the fullness of who we are.
More, if we pay attention to what fascinates us—no matter how odd or impractical—we can glean clues on how to be a better self. If we are young we may have a lot of time to explore that. If we are older, the inquiry is no less valuable for what it might give us in the time that remains. Like Carl Jung puzzling over his dreams in the last hours of his life.
Remember that we are not reducible to the obvious things about ourselves that other’s see.
Consider all the parts and values that make us up instead of just the obvious ones when decisions are needed.
Pay attention to what hooks your interest, realizing those interests are clues to a better you, sent from your unconscious mind that is always trying to show you a better way as it subjectively walks around your self image and whispers “You are more than you think.”
And that’s my sermon.