Searching for soul


(Image from the farside: a sheep searching for transcendence)

I love House M.D., and the social questions which get asked. It’s been interesting to explore how a doctor who asks the hard question of “Who benefits from this status quo.” can bring about debate and exploration.

The asking self is described by Whitmont as absolutely crucial. Evoking the myth of the holy grail, he explains the importance of going beyond the wastelands, dried and barren, and into a space of moistness, soul and transformation. Whitmont explains:

What matters most is the asking itself – regardless of what the answers might mean, or even whether there is an answer. (p173).

Questioning or challenging the status quo is uncomfortable though. Going beyond the given answers offers a space for creativity and transformation. And yet, in a very technocratic culture, we are taught that discomfort is to be avoided at all costs. We can take pills (which are likely to be very helpful if a person feels incapacitated and cannot manage to explore new answers without them), buy things in search of happiness and ease, or take up spiritual goals as a means of bettering ourselves. But one thing it seems we cannot do is feel anxious, angry or out of control.

A couple of years back, I read Boler’s critique of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and her opinion that EQ values empathy and optimism, while casting anger and anxiety out of favour. I’d never been very interested in EQ. It felt quite corporate and measured, and I find HOW TO/SHOULD guides frustrating. And so I read what she said, felt grateful for the information, and then I moved on.

But as this year has gone by, EQ, or the debate around it has raised its head again. Because how can we question the world we live in if we won’t let ourselves feel anxious? How can we feel outraged at abuse or contempt if anger is cast out of favour. And how can we feel true empathy, or claim to value empathy, and cast certain emotions into shameful boxes, encouraging people to repress them instantly?

I’m not saying people should be free to be abusive, but why do we want to judge, silence or repress emotions, and who gets to decide when that should happen?

Should we stay happy and optimistic when people treat us with contempt, or should we be able to share our anger and our anxiety? Repressed emotions burst out all over the place, or they create scape – goats who are ‘bad’ or ‘faulted’ and just not ‘good enough’. And the questions which come with these emotions, questions like “Who benefits?” go unexplored.

James Hillman speaks of the importance of soul, that grounded, connected, emotional aspect of life which feels, processes and explores. Modern psychology, James Hillman explains, is afraid of soul. And in a world with a lack of soul, we move into spirit, logic, masculinity and a quest for goodness. In an attempt to transcend all that is human, we are unable to address our wounds, bring about transformation, or process our lives, histories, or the feelings which come with this.

Hillman gives us the theory of the soul code, encapsulated in the image of an acorn, which must grow down into the ground, as well as up into the sky. That grounded, emotional, and, Whitmont explains, feminine aspect of ourselves brings about the possibility of healing. Unless, of course, we are taught to deny it.

Working towards constant happiness, although noble, means we deny our own souls, and the souls of other people. And ironically, this leads to a world of war, hierarchy, discrimination, pain, and the inability to question or process why this is happening. We lose our own voices when we don’t process our feelings and allow them to guide us, shaping new options or possibilities. We lose imagination and the ability to respond to the world.

Allowing ourselves to feel pain, discomfort and the crisis this sometimes evokes within us means allowing our hearts to explore different answers to the ones we have always been given. And so we recognize our own lives, our humanity, and the rights of others, both human and non human, as the very first step in working towards a more just world.

James Hillman asks that we do not work towards enlightenment, but towards the transparent self, no longer ashamed, but open to who we are (and therefore human), accepting of that, and therefore able to accept others.

Edward Whitmont. Return of the Goddess. Continuum.

James Hillman. A Blue Fire. Harper Perenial.

Boler. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge.

Tagged , , ,

mountain on a train

Imagine we could let a mountain be just a mountain, that we could respect nature, that we understood that we need to respect mother earth in order to properly respect human rights…

Tagged , , , , ,

Beauty…an exploration

What makes you feel open to beauty?

What makes you feel closed off from the natural world?

James Hillman says that we carry the need for nature within us, stating that we need soul in order to be fully human. In Ecological Intelligence, Ian McCallum explains that soul refers to our earthiness, our connectedness to ground, to life, to moistness, and to mother earth. And yet we live in a world which values rationality, science, masculinity and commerce.

When are those times you feel most connected to soul? What makes you open up, and do you find it healing?

DSCN4930 DSCN4951 DSCN4965 448 022 290 DSCN3853 DSCN3962 - Copy (3) DSCN3984 DSCN4037

Tagged , , , ,

Rollo May: the meaning of care

In a world where war is happening, Rollo May shares the importance of care:

There is a strange phenomenon about the Vietnam war.  It lies in the fact that the photographs from this war – the movies for TV and stills for the newspapers and magazines – are different from those of any other war.  No more pictures of victory, no more planting of the flag atop a mound…there comes something else:  not a planned effect, or one consciously decided by someone else’s brain.  It comes from the photographers – those journeymen who represent the unconscious of all of us, whose stand on the war is irrelevant…whose sole concern is human interest.  From these photographers come pictures of wounded caring for each other, of soldiers taking care of the injured, of a marine with his arm around a wounded comrade, the wounded one crying out in pain and bewilderment.  What comes back in the photos is, on this elemental level, care.

He provides an example of a marine, staring at the face of a child, who had been driven out of his hut by soldiers:

He looked up with an expression of bewilderment, now beyond crying, not knowing what to make of such a world.  But the camera shifted immediately to the black American marine looking down at the child, commanding and somewhat hideous in his battle uniform.  He had exactly the same expression:  bewilderment, his eyes wide as he stared down at the child…I think he only sees there another human being with a common base of humanity on which they pause for a moment in the swamps of Vietnam.  His look is care.  And the cameraman happens to see him…and keeps his camera trained on his face…rendering to us an unconscious expression of the guilt of us all…the cameraman, anonymous at this moment and forever…keeps his camera pointed at the face of the…man staring down at the crying child, nameless in the whole sad quicksand of modern war.


This is a simple illustration of care.  it is a state composed of the recognition of another, a fellow human being like one’s self; of guilt, pity and the awareness that we all stand on the base of a common humanity on which we all stem.

The recognition of a common humanity may end wars. If ‘the other’ is just like us, and has a human face, s/he will be impossible to destroy.  And so we cannot recreate race or barriers between groups of people.  We must refuse to recreate ‘race’ even as we condemn human rights abuses.

Rollo May explains the need for care as:

the dogged insistence on human dignity, though it be violated on every side.

In caring for ourselves and the world around us, let us refuse to violate the dignity of another person.  Lets not put any life on a hierarchy.  Let’s see the life-spirit in all of us as equal, valuable, and entitled to the life we are born with.

Tagged , , ,

Cape Point

DSCN4855 DSCN4854 DSCN4852 DSCN4850 DSCN4837 DSCN4828 DSCN4826 DSCN4825

All photos taken by Danny Attfield

Space and belonging: an exhibition

This exhibition was shown in Sea Point, Cape Town, and looks at what it means to belong, as immigrants, into a new country.  These works are part of a public display which appeals to a diverse community of people who frequent the Sea Point Promenade.  The Promenade, and the Sea Point Community, presents a juxtaposition to photographs of people and areas which exist on the outskirts of Cape Town.  There are many Cape Towns, and Ms Willow Smith presents this version, on display, to be shared by the public.


 055 - Copy (2) 053 - Copy 052 - Copy 051 - Copy 054 - Copy (2) - Copy 056 - Copy - Copy - Copy 058 - Copy - Copy - Copy 061 - Copy - Copy - Copy 062 - Copy - Copy - Copy 063 - Copy - Copy - Copy 064 - Copy - Copy - Copy 065 - Copy - Copy 066 - Copy - Copy 067 - Copy - Copy (2) 068 - Copy (2) 069 - Copy - Copy 070 - Copy (2) 071 073

Tagged , , , , , ,

What are we really saying?


(Every perspective or viewpoint excludes a different possibility)

I first became interested in critical theory when I heard my mentor (at that time) speak about domestic violence. A teenager was involved in an abusive relationship, and this man spoke about the importance of recognizing the role of the social world and its impacts. Women are taught to make relationships work, to understand and to be supportive, he explained. And so we have to help her find a space where she can explore what she would like out of the world. Then he said something else, something which has played an important role in re-thinking my work this year:

” Her parents must make it plain that they don’t approve of this relationship.”

I got into a debate earlier this year on daughters. And I didn’t mention the moment which awakened me to social context, which focused on a deep respect for women and girls, and which asked, above all else, for care. I didn’t mention it because the debate I was involved in was ideological, rather than human. And I felt as though I hadn’t responded to the debate in a very human way myself. I tried to show an alternate perspective, but that was about it.

This particular debate happened about a week before an intervention I did with the Agents of Change Project, which has one of the most respectful and humanitarian approaches to people I have seen. In that space, standing near the water on Muizenberg beach, I realized the contrast between empathy and deep listening, and the contempt which sometimes happens in ideological debate.

I value deep listening, respect and care. I explored social context because it seemed to offer a human approach to understanding people, and it took the blame off the individual for difficulties or struggles. The importance of social responsibility was recognized. I thought this would lift the burden of blame from the shoulders of the people who struggle. I thought it helped us to see social, contextual and historical people.

This year, I have been astounded to recognize how people with a little bit of knowledge can wave it around like a scalpel, stabbing at anybody around, without any respect for the humanity of the people involved at all. It makes me feel ashamed to be associated with the words which get hurled about. More than that, it makes me sad, because all humanity is ignored in quest for ideological victory.

Looking at social context as a way of deepening human rights can bring powerful understandings of what can be done in the world. When rape myths are challenged, and the power of the community gaze of protection is acknowledged, dangerous situations can be rectified. I heard a woman explain how a block of flats had been developed, facing a dangerous piece of ground. The flats were available to people who were elderly, and who stayed home, and who would be able to look upon this space, helping to keep women safe.

Understanding a community responsibility to keep women safe, rather than shouting that every woman can look after herself, and everybody who says she can’t is a misogynist, can bring about changes which actually do keep people safe. It’s about re-building a sense of community, a sense of care, and a sense of belonging. It’s about recognizing that people have a right to dignity and value. I think it’s also about questioning what the conversations which declare people to be competent and highly individual actually mean, at the same time.

Separating people off from social context and declaring each person highly capable of looking after him/herself can be very, very harmful. It means saying that every person who is in a vulnerable position is responsible for this rather than able to respond to it. In a highly individualized world, it’s possible to view people out of context, and instead of changing a context which harms people, we say people should be able to cope. And that is not helpful at all.

What does it mean to say that older people should not protect younger and more inexperienced members of a community? Does it mean we don’t have any value for wisdom? Does it mean older people are redundant? Does it mean the young had better learn quickly how to protect themselves, and if they can’t, they have failed? What does that mean for our social world? What does it mean for the people who are sometimes blamed for their individual struggles?

Every conversation must be reflected upon and explored. We need to look at how arguments impact on people. There are so many different perspectives to explore, and no right answers. It’s about deepening and widening conversations instead of imposing answers upon people who will possibly struggle with them. But it is hard to do this, when opinionated people steal all of the life from a debate. And it is impossible to do this when it’s difficult to be reflexive.

Social justice activists sometimes argue that debate has to be uncomfortable. I think exploring situations where people are harmed is always very difficult, purely because of its context. But I think it has to be about conversations, multiple voices and exploration too, because if it isn’t, how can anybody learn anything at all? We need to be able to trust each other enough to learn from each other, and until we do that, and until we are willing to not just listen, but be reflexive, all we are going to do is build up walls. This creates the belief that we just cannot speak to each other at all, and that is the worst possible outcome when trying to engage in dialogue.

Tagged , ,

My Dinner with Allen Ginsberg

Originally posted on The Fall Creek Review:


Allen Ginsberg

Photo of Allen Ginsberg from Revista de Cultura .

The Beat 1950s were over, crowded out by the Beatles, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, LSD, Flower Power, and Easy Rider. Jack Kerouac had just died at 47 of drink and Catholic bad karma, and so had Neal Cassady at 41, while on the road in Mexico. It was 1969 or 1970. And I, in my first year as a college teacher in northern Pennsylvania, was having dinner with Allen Ginsberg.

Allen had accepted a spot on the college’s speakers series and would fill an auditorium for an hour on the following day. A colleague in the English Department had picked him up at the Elmira airport and was entertaining him for the evening. Would I care to make a fourth for dinner?

I didn’t know what to expect. A diffident soul finishing a doctoral dissertation on…

View original 802 more words

Everyday Beauty


Animal love: Danny with her cat.

waterfront clouds

Clouds at the waterfront


The Liesbeek River

conifer sunset




“I lower my eyes to see a small gap in the stone steps, and there in the darkness, six inches down, at the bottom of the narrow crevice formed by the rough slab of granite, grows an exquisite purple flower. It is like a forget-me-not, five petals of magenta radiating from the central mandala of a five-pointed yellow star, reaching bravely toward the light with an extraordinary life force and I am the sole witness to the courage of its struggle. In this moment I am led to an understanding that not only must such tiny, beautiful, and delicate living things be charged with love, but also the inanimate stones that surround them, everything giving and receiving, reflecting and absorbing, resisting and yielding, and I realize perhaps for the first time that love is never wasted.” (Sting, Broken Music, p 47).

Tagged , ,



I’ve been thinking a lot this year about agency, or freedom to respond to the world we both shape and which has shaped around us. These past six months have been very rewarding, and I’ve come to realize that life is a constantly evolving and creative process which shifts and changes all of the time. Nothing is static.

What do we choose to put into the world? This question has taken away the idea that the world is a place of limits and destiny, and helped to explore the ability to respond, to use imagination, and whatever insights I have in the moment, as a source of creativity and possibility. They doesn’t always work, but I’ve realized how part of the process is about learning as I go along.


This year, I also worked through what makes me feel pain. And the answer that came up (and which I have been writing about as a way of trying to work through it) focused on inhumanity. And so I’ve been very inspired by the work of James Hillman, who speaks of the importance of soul.

Andy Fisher’s book on Radical Ecopsychology has been very inspiring as well. When I read the different chapters, I notice different aspects each time. But what comes to mind at the moment is the very deep respect which he shared for life in all forms. Andy Fisher focuses a lot on how people are made to feel inadequate or ashamed, and how this sense of shame or inadequacy keep us needing to prove ourselves. We try fit into a system which may not necessarily meet our needs, but promises to, and then uses our frustrations and pain to get us to try again for what we’re told we want, rather than giving time to what really matters.


Like all healers, Andy Fisher argues that the only way out is through, and the struggles and difficulties of the world have to be acknowledged for people to move forwards. If we stay ashamed, then we stay vulnerable to all of the messages which tell us we are not good enough. And we allow others, both human and non-human, to be harmed, because we are unaware of what is happening to ourselves and the world around us.

It’s quite a profound message, and a humanist call for empathy towards emotion, pain and upset. In calling for a deep respect for ourselves, other people and the world around us, I think Andy Fisher is also calling for a world where humans (and non-humans) can feel at home. And that feels like a world worth working for.


Tagged , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 108 other followers