Craig Chalquist, PhD
If you are a citizen yearning to take intelligent action but not called to the activist path, or an activist burned out from the frustrations and perils of activism, or a sensitive person just plain worried about how events in the world are unfolding, this is for you.
The Problem: Splitting Reflection and Action
Activism uninformed by sustained deep reflection easily slips into unhelpful aggression and moralizing. “Quit shaming and depressing people,” for example, is advice I often give activists who do not think about the emotional impact of their words on their audiences. Unending gloom and dismal numbers, melting icecaps and body counts, guilt trips: is it any wonder people with no way to deal with all this retreat and numb out? The unreflective activist shines a spotlight into the eyes of people sound asleep and expects them to wake up and get active. Instead, eyelids close tighter.
Activists must also deal with burnout, lack of funding, lack of support, rage from opponents, misunderstanding from allies, and, very often, state violence and the lingering emotional and physical costs of it.
Activism is responsible for protecting most of the rights we still enjoy, but when split from self-care skills and knowledge of human nature, it can also reinforce and energize what it wants to curtail.
On the other side flies the lofty idealist who believes that meditation, chanting, or inner work will cure the world of its ills—which they have never done in any of the societies that practiced them. In the United States, where millions flock to yoga studios and therapy jargon permeates politics, unlimited campaign contributions go on flowing into elections as ecosystems die off, state violence looms, and millions do without three meals a day.
When permeated by energy talk of “vibes” and “manifestation,” appeals to prismatic cosmic principles look foolish to those still on the ground. As clouds of incense rise, the ruthless seize high office, the super-rich get richer, and the tractors pave entire forests.
Inner work kept separate from the messy business of outer life also tends to collapse when confronted with serious opposition, leaving the world stage to the shallow, the greedy, and the ambitious.
What is available for people either disenchanted with ordinary activism or not called to it to begin with? For followers of synchronicity, oracle, and dream who see their intuitions pointing out into the world? What is a third alternative to unreflective activism and insulated subjectivism?
Origins of Archetypal Activism
The idea is actually quite simple, even though its ramifications are potentially enormous. It is this: if our dreams arise from the World’s Dream, then we can perhaps glimpse what the world itself desires. And knowing this, we can then act in the world, on behalf of the world. This is the concept that I call “Archetypal Activism”….
—Stephen Aizenstat, DreamTending: Awakening to the Healing Power of Dreams
In April 2002, Pacifica Graduate Institute hosted a conference called The World Behind the World. With 9/11 only a year in the past, the conference featured many political perspectives. One of these was Aizenstat’s call for an “archetypal activism” capable of fathoming and responding to collective catastrophes like terrorism and global warming.
Most of the analysis at the conference applied psychological ideas to current events. Christine Downing applied Freud’s concept of the uncanny to what the Department of Homeland Security promises to protect us against: the return of the terrifyingly unfamiliar. Henrieka deVries linked terrorism to the stern father imago behind patriarchy. Lionel Corbett looked for archetypal themes in the fall of the World Trade Center. Pushing beyond applied psychology, Michael Meade called for public mourning and for mythic stories and rituals performed right out in the streets, “grounding in zero.” Sobonfu Somé highlighted the ever-increasing need for the presence of wise elders and the fabric of strong community.
However, some presenters attacked the very idea of archetypal activism as contradictory. Deep psychological work, they claimed, is about reverie, resonance, and non-linear understanding, whereas activism concerns itself with short-term solutions in a context of oversimplified linear thinking.
For those of us aware of the community involvement of several key depth psychology pioneers (including Jung, who collected Nazi leader profiles for the US Office of Strategic Services), this refusal to even ask how depth work might inform action in the world seemed odd, a symptom of the very splits under heated discussion.
Although James Hillman did not present at the conference, “Psychoanalysis,” he had stated in InterViews, “has to get out of the consulting room and analyze all kinds of things. You have to see that the buildings are anorexic, you have to see that the language is schizogenic, that ‘normalcy’ is manic, and medicine and business are paranoid.” In The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World he wrote,
Recognition that the soul is also in the world may awaken us from the psychotherapeutic trance in which we pay a hundred dollars for an hour of subjectivism and no more than $19.95 for a beach chair in whose cold metallic arms and plastic lap reflection actually takes place, day after day.
Taking on this challenge, archetypal activism sees into and through current events, in effect tending them as one tends dreams, and converting this tending into direct action. How?
Soul Work in Action
At the conference, Aizenstat outlined four moves of archetypal activism:
- Moving into the event by translating it into metaphor. One of my students did this by amplifying the image of the falling World Trade Center towers with meanings gathered from the Falling Tower card of Tarot. This move creates new questions: What else is collapsing, around us and within us? Who is falling? What hurls the lightning at the tower?
- Maintaining compassion by withholding judgment while understanding events from within multiple viewpoints. Moralizing gives way to resonance, reflection, and self-questioning. When Donald Trump was elected president of the US, his followers were condemned as racists and bigots. Can I try to imagine their point of view, however uncomfortable the effort, without taking refuge either in reflexive condemnation or in blithe denial of what has happened? Can I do the same with those who condemn? With those on the sidelines?
- Getting curious instead of reactive, especially about the particularities of the event. This requires setting aside habits of thought and perception so we can look for the novel and the unexpected. Instead of railing against too much digitization and mass media, what if we noticed the presence of Indra’s Net shimmering behind the Internet? What does the collective psyche intend with all these nodal cross-connections?
- Holding the tension of the opposites so what is new can emerge from turbulence and rupture. Former Irish president Mary Robinson invoked the mythical Fifth Province in the center of Ireland as an ideal for hubs of reflection, storytelling, and reconciliation. In my psychotherapy days I brought together a former US Marine and a former Viet Cong soldier for a series of healing conversations. Imagine a restoration project dually devised by industrialists and environmental poets. All this relies on an ability to acknowledge and endure polarized oppositions in ourselves as well.
When teaching archetypal activism, I have included a few additions. Dreams make good starting points, but we can also tend our strong, heart-based emotional reactions and persistent fantasies and even symptoms as they respond to outer events. While tending as many conflicting viewpoints as possible, we maintain the awareness that some of these viewpoints have been oppressed or otherwise marginalized by powers that be. We also use imagination to explore the positions of beings who are not human (e.g., factory-farmed animals, ecosystems under siege). We must remember to receive adequate support and to assess the results of our actions.
Putting all this together, we arrive at the following overlapping activities involved in doing archetypal activism:
- Witnessing or dreaming something (a “pressing concern”) in and from the world that needs tending,
- Heeding its images as potent metaphors in motion,
- Resolving to reflect on and respond to the concern with soul,
- Creating a support network for the effort,
- Viewing the concern empathically and non-judgmentally from different points of view, especially those pushed to the margins of collective consciousness,
- Maintaining openness and curiosity about the particularities and details of the concern,
- Amplifying them (Jung) by doing cultural and historical homework on them,
- Staying in a space of uncertainty, exploration, and tension until new understandings emerge,
- Allowing these understandings to shape action on behalf of what is witnessed or dreamed,
- Taking three concrete steps on its behalf,
- Assessing the effects of these steps, and
- Either ritualizing a closure for the project or deciding on further efforts on its behalf.
These could be thought of as modes of one two-phase operation: Listen to the guidance of imagery in an event and act on behalf of that imagery. In systems terms, the moves above provide a potentially continuous feedback loop for encouraging a complex social system to evolve.
Examples of Archetypal Activism
The following projects were created by participants in Stephen Aizenstat’s DreamTending™ workshops and in my Deep Storytelling and Archetypal Activism classes. All began as responses to a pressing concern that arrived via a dream or other signal event reaching across the inner-outer split to touch the heart directly.
After recurring nightmares about an old woman weeping near a cathedral in a deserted village, an attorney remembers this to be a place he knew in childhood. Visiting the village, he learns that an old section of it is to be bulldozed to make way for a resort. As a result of his actions and community networking, the cathedral is saved and renovated.
A management-level engineer initiates a series of informal in-house conversation circles on the topic of leadership that inspires and mentors potential leaders. These circles in turn inspire others and give rise to presentations that contain figures from mythology to teach organizational lessons.
A middle school teacher draws on mythology to give students living in ecologically damaged areas important lessons in psychological resiliency. The students also make use of this safe, non-judgmental space to creatively tend the images and feelings that arise through art, video, and photography.
A hospice volunteer adds storytelling and listening to end-of-life stories to the usual activities offered to the elderly, who receive deep attention and witnessing. On another level, these practices modify public attitudes with new and positive narratives about how life can end with warmth and grace.
A graduate student designs an elementary school project: planting, growing, and harvesting vegetables for making lumpia, a dish popular in the Philippines. This way, the children learn about spiritual capital, about quality, about relationships and what things are and what they are really worth. They also explore an alternative to buying food from a grocery store far from the source.
A psychotherapist and educator creates a series of life story writing and storytelling courses followed by an open community event in which participants share one of their stories. Although the stories focus on struggles with mental health, addictions, and other kinds of trauma, the tellers are not diagnosed or required to visit a clinic. The events are open to the public and include music and food.
A museum curator combines stories about Artemis and Diana with designs of myth-rich graphics, logos, and social media campaigns to organize action on behalf of abandoned pets, dogs in particular. She also trains animal rights activists in these techniques.
A rainforest aid worker solicits funds, donations, and volunteers by changing from fact- and number-based reports to presentations of the stories of the local community interacting with staff.
A writer plans an Earth-honoring holistic health center at the edge of a forest. The center includes courses on herbalism, growing food, ceremony, and “practical dreaming” focused on the question: How do we come home to an ensouled world?
The Global Dream Initiative is what happens when many archetypal activists work together.
A beauty of archetypal activism is what it offers to those of us who avoid protests and crowds and more public activist endeavors. It works for introverts and extraverts alike. And it enlists those who would normally not consider themselves activists.
A Myth for Archetypal Activism: The Yellow Emperor’s Dream
According to Taoist monk Lieh Tzu, the Yellow Emperor of China searched everywhere for enlightenment so his people and their lands would be happier. After going on long journeys and consulting with hermits, he came home, frustrated, only to wake one morning in joy.
Calling his ministers, he said, “I spent three months in seeking and seclusion trying to learn how to govern the country and cultivate myself, but thinking this out did not help. This morning I woke up enlightened, at last, from a dream.”
Everyone in the kingdom got to work to make it resemble the mythical land in the dream. After twenty years they had come very close indeed. When the Yellow Emperor finally died, the people mourned the passing of a visionary leader.
As Eva Wong writes in her “hermetic opening” of Lieh Tzu,
On the islands in the eastern seas are immortal beings who live on dewdrops and pinecones.
They do not eat grain, they feed on the wind and vapor, and their minds are as clear and still as the mountain lake…. They are open, friendly, and have no inhibitions…There is no fear, no anger, no tension, and no dissatisfaction. No one is superior or inferior to anyone else. Everything is bountiful and everyone enjoys the providence of heaven and earth…. The deities bless the land, and the monsters never go near it. This is the land the Yellow Emperor visited in his dream.
But archetypal activism doesn’t take an emperor.
Beyond Sarumanism: It’s Up to Us
In his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien coins the word sarumanism to denote the customary belief that only money, power, and publicity create change in the world. He firmly disagrees. It is (he points out to one fan) not the great generals, armies, or wizards who transform Middle-earth, but the determined actions of little hobbits. And so it is in life.
In the 2012 film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the wise woman Galadriel asks the wizard Gandalf why he chose to send the unmotivated and decidedly unheroic Bilbo Baggins on a dangerous mission: “Why the halfling?” Gandalf replies with a statement that does not appear in the novel but is echoed in Tolkien’s letters:
Saruman [the corrupt head of the wizardly order] believes that only great power can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small things, the everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love…. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.
It is vital to bear in mind that change on a large scale depends not on huge, spectacular actions so much as on more modest ones performed soulfully and with devotion. The impact of such actions increases when they are linked.