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Letters from Luna: Mary Oliver’s Third Self + James Hillman & the Daimon

by Rohini Walker

In Of Power and Time, the first essay in the incandescent anthology Blue Pastures, Mary Oliver describes herself as a vessel of, at a minimum, three selves:

“I am, myself, three selves at least. To begin with, there is the child I was. Certainly I am not that child anymore! Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice – I can feel its hope, or its distress. It has not vanished. Powerful, egotistical, insinuating – its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams. It is not gone, not by a long shot. It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.

“And there is the attentive, social self. This is the smiler and the doorkeeper. This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met. It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation. It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom and delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”

Oliver continues on the necessity of this ‘second self’, as the channel through which the important tasks of daily life, and the occasional operating of heavy machinery, must be conducted safely and reliably in order for the human to survive and go about her life with mature responsibility. In the instance of a pilot flying a passenger aircraft:

“Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do – fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship.”

Quite so.

And what then of the ‘third self’? For we homo sapiens are more than a combination of inner child and pragmatic executer of tasks. There is in each of something else, a powerful kernel of mystery – an extraordinary foil to our ordinary selves. Of this self Oliver admiringly and frankly writes:

“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

This is the self that also goes by the moniker of soul.

In the previous Letters from Luna, I spoke of the necessary work of re-membering the indigenous wisdom of our souls, individually and collectively. But what is soul – this much overused and misunderstood term, which nonetheless encompasses that which is authentic in each of us, gives expression to our particularities? This missive is the first of several offerings of what I am discovering soul to be; of what she is revealing herself to me to be. The colonizer mind wants of course to control her: she swims with thrilling abandon in the deep and uncolonized waters of the unconscious, bringing up treasures for us to exhale out into the world. The colonizer wants categorically to degrade, dominate and incarcerate her, so it may suck her gifts from her to use for its own ends. The colonizer regards as futile the arts of participation and reciprocity – it seeks merely to exploit and consume.

Without intimate and frequent communion-play with the soul, the inner child becomes pathologized, and is quickly brought to heel through homogenizing diagnoses and pharmaceutical intrusions; and the second self runs amok as puppet-dictator, hell-bent on making punctual, automaton-consumers of our vast, beautiful, mysterious selves.

And so, to re-member our indigenous soul-wisdom is a radical act.

I use the word radical here not simply for emphatic, galvanizing effect but specifically in reference to its etymology. The word literally points to going to the root of something: in the 14th century, it was used in the context of its late Latin origin, radicalis, ‘of or having roots’. Later, in the 17th century, its meaning evolved to ‘going to the origin or essential’.

Then, yes: re-membering our indigenous soul-wisdom is a radical act. It’s very specifically and literally radical. It asks us to exhume an essential, perhaps the essential aspect of ourselves. Our unique souls are indigenous to us as individuals. Outside of the conditioning of genetic proclivities, familial mandates, socio-economic, cultural and geographic situations, our souls are that timeless aspect of ourselves that we are innately, authentically born with.

The brilliant, iconoclastic Jungian psychologist, James Hillman, in his excellent and provocative The Soul’s Code devotes the entire work into excavating the mythic nature of the human soul. There will be future investigations into Hillman’s theory and practice of soul-making; here, as an initiatory step into an understanding of soul, especially for those who are new to Hillman’s work, we shall explore aspects of his seminal ‘Acorn Theory’, as presented in The Soul’s Code.

It has taken at least a lifetime for me to stop repressing and start paying attention to this essential aspect of myself, and I wager there are countless others who find themselves in similar positions. As an infant, one of my earliest sensations was a feeling of being already complete and whole. But this was not acceptable to the world, to the legacy of ancestral trauma waiting to be bequeathed to me. An environment of wholeness and completeness, of a sense of purpose as yet unknown, was inhospitable, dangerous even, for an inheritance of trauma. And I realized early on that this authentic experience and expression of my essence was dangerous to me, to my safety and survival in the world, especially as a female.

And so began the burial of my soul. Despite early decades of obsessive compulsive disorder fueled behavior, followed by decades of addiction, and the singular urge to blend in and annihilate any semblance of this ‘dangerous’ aspect of self, she refused to die. She would dig herself out, persistently, defiantly; and I, under the trance of colonization, would attack her mercilessly back into her subterranean sanctuary.

Hillman predominantly uses the word ‘acorn’ to describe this aspect contained in all of us, this authentic signature we each carry, along with the interchangeable inclusion of ‘image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul and destiny.’

Using Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ – the concluding tale in his Republic – as point of origin and departure, Hillman constructs his acorn theory, creating a tangible perception of this nebulous and marginalized native aspect of the human.

“The tale we take from Plato about the soul choosing its particular destiny and being guarded by a daimon ever since birth is such a myth – venerable, articulate, complete; and it is there before you began the other myth you call your biography.”

With exquisite courage, sure to resonate with those of us who have been hypnotized into silencing our ‘third self’, Hillman writes:
“[This book] does speak to the feelings that there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give my daily round its reason, feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image…

“Otherwise your identity continues to be that of a sociological consumer determined by random statistics, and the unacknowledged daimon’s urgings appear as eccentricities, compacted with angry resentments and overwhelming longings…We dull our lives by the way we conceive of them.

“At the outset we need to make clear that today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential- the particularity you feel to be you.

“The more my life is accounted for what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.”

In the previous Letters from Luna, I wrote briefly about coming to the desert, where my soul had guided me, far away from all the knowns of a safe and soulless life, where she slowly began to have her way with me. Still, I refused to set her free, to listen to, participate and commune with her. And so began my dark night journey with her. Finally, after months of excruciating physical and emotional pain, I began to awaken, to listen. Sterile diagnoses would have firmly placed me in the neat box of being in the throes of a psychotic break, a breakdown. Had I not been a staunch advocate of whole plant medicine, perhaps I would have been drugged with numbing pharmaceuticals too.

Indeed, as Hillman succinctly puts it:
As in colonial days, drugs to ease the coolies’ pain and increase their indifference will be provided by those who cause the pain.”

But I knew finally and unequivocally that the symptoms I was experiencing were calling me into this journey of descent to meet the roots of me. They were calling me to be deeply radical.

Las Dos Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939

“This was my twenty-fifth night in the desert. This is how long it took my soul to awaken from a shadowy being to her own life, until she could approach me as a free-standing being separate from me. And I received hard but salutary words from her. I needed that taking in hand, since I could not overcome the scorn within me.”
Carl Jung, The Red Book

For me, it was the desert’s irresistible call that was my soul’s coup de grace. I had to go, despite ‘sensible’ advice to the contrary, despite a temporary excommunication of sorts by old friends outraged at my brazenness. Just who did I think I was? And ironically, by answering the call, despite not knowing to what end, I felt rooted in who I was for the first time.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

How then do we chart this mysterious course for ourselves? All of us are born with this innate knowledge of who we are, of our authentic character, of our soul-wisdom. But most of us have, to varying degrees, had to forget, to submit to being colonized by falsehoods that weaken us and rob us of our birthright, and then mine us for our treasures, appropriating them.

To begin with, Hillman advises a paying attention, a remembering in order to re-member:

“Appreciation of an image, your life story as studded with images since early childhood, and a deepening into them slows the restlessness of inquiry, laying to rest the fever and the fret of finding out. By its very motion, given by Thomas Aquinas in his ‘Summa theologica’, beauty arrests motion. Beauty is itself a cure for psychological malaise.”

Hillman’s summary of his acorn theory, which deserves much deeper exploration than is outlined here, oh patient reader, concludes thus:

“It claims that each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.

“The daimon’s ‘reminders’ work in many ways. The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed. It offers comfort and can pull you into its shell, but cannot abide innocence. It can make the body ill. It is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life- and it prefers them. It has affinities with myth, since it is itself a mythical being and thinks in mythical patterns.”

For myself, I have, over the course of this past year, as I emerge from my underworld soul journey, come to know and name my ‘third self’ as Lila – more on which in a future Letters. She is responsive to my clunky advances, and – this has come as a revelation – has my (our) best interests at heart. They are of course at odds with what the colonizers have in mind for me, so Lila and I are engaged in guerrilla tactics, as we sing the songs of re-membering over our bones, like La Loba.

I have found that a simple way to commune with one’s daimon is to use the tool often used for overcoming writer’s block. But as blocked creativity is invariably the daimon trying to make herself known and heard, this practice works equally well when attempting to speak to your daimon. Creative flow then becomes a wonderful side-effect of this attentiveness towards her.

The practice is this: write down the question or statement you would like to put to your soul with your dominant hand. Make sure your tone is warm and friendly- and do not fake this. She can tell and she’ll go all trickster on you in response to your colonial attempts to exploit and appropriate her. If you’re not in a good mood, save it for later.

Respond to your question or statement with your non-dominant hand. This limb connects us to our unconscious, also to our hearts – and this is where the soul can be found. If she asks you to do something, do your best to fulfill her wish. It may seem completely strange, irrational even, but her language is Myth & Metaphor, Art & Magic, and always, always Beauty & Nature. If you cannot, tell her why. Enter into friendly, participatory dialogue with her.

Finally, I end this edition of Letters from Luna with these resonant words from our wise guide, James Hillman:

“…this is the nature of an image, any image. It’s all there at once. When you look at a face before you, at a scene out your window or a painting on the wall, you see a whole gestalt. All the parts present themselves simultaneously. One bit does not cause another bit or precede it in time. It doesn’t matter whether the painter put the reddish blotches in last or first, the gray streaks as afterthoughts or as originating structure or whether they are leftover lines from a prior image on that piece of canvas. What you see is exactly what you get, all at once. And the face, too; its complexion and features form a single expression, a singular image, given all at once. So, too, the image in the acorn. You are born with a character; it is given; a gift, as the old stories say, from the guardians upon your birth.”

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