Knowing Oneself: The Story behind the Oracle
Why know oneself? Because the less we know who we are the more we live under an illusion. Our ego thinks it runs the show but the less we're aware of the inner world the more archetypes can take a hold of us and play out in the outer world. Unknown or ignored goals become stories in the hands of the unconscious (Barbara Hannah in her book on the animus calls these "plots") and this hidden magician makes us live these stories in one form or another until we finally notice and begin to peak behind the stage.
(Note: the following material is part of a presentation I gave in a Myth Salon organized by alumni members of the Pacifica Graduate Institute.)
Discovering the Unconscious
My first peak into the unconscious is a bit of a story. It happened at the nail salon while starting a conversation with the girl doing my nails. At some point I asked her if she was born here. “Of course not," she said, "I wouldn’t be doing this if I was born here.” So I asked “what would you do?” She replied that it wasn’t something to even think about. That sort of stuck feeling felt familiar and kind of sad. And all of a sudden I had this impulse to try and guess what she would do.
I noticed how calm she looked, the floral pattern on her skirt, then this image of the movie Après Vous (After You) popped in my head.
I thought about it for a minute then made the connection. “Oh, florist, you’d be a florist!” Because the main character in the movie was a florist. The girl looked surprised. Maybe a lucky guess but as it turns out she gardened in her free time. So she already knew what she liked, yet she didn’t know it!
And that was my first encounter with the unconscious. At the time I thought it was all about the other person, but as I learned later on these insights are actually projections of the things I'm not aware of.
So maybe this was quite literally a call from the unconscious to discover my shadow. Could have been my own yearning for a purpose, or perhaps something the image symbolized itself, like femininity (represented by flowers), or possibly even an oriental counterpart to an outwardly Western attitude.
Reconnecting with Nature
Around that time I had decided I wanted to make a series of treehouses. I’d seen one on a walk in my neighborhood and remembered how we tried to build one, me and my siblings as kids, but never managed to make a good one. I realized then that the treehouse meant a desire for independence, true expression, and also a connection with nature.
On the internet I found these tea houses made by the Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori (also an historian). His tea houses have this whimsical character I really love, so I made them into collages. And because I couldn't find any other ones like that I decided to imagine my own.
Connecting Art to the Unconscious
A few days later after the pedicure I told what happened to a friend at work, to which she replied “Do me, do me!” I wasn’t sure that I could do it again, or if it would work with someone who wasn’t a stranger. But she said “Ok, well think about it and if you get something later, text me.”
That night I was determined to work on a treehouse but I also really wanted to try the guessing game for my friend. And it was already 9 o’clock. So that’s when I got the idea: to put these two things together and draw my friend as if she was a treehouse.
The image that came to me was a photo of her on a surf board, riding a wave. So starting with the roof, I made the lines curve like a wave, the house a bit tilted like the surf board, then when I got to the legs it dawned on me, oh they need to have wheels! My friend is someone who’s always on the move. And she has this dog that she takes everywhere with her so I tacked on a little dog house to the side and put the dog there.
I sent it to her, and said “here that what's I got, I don’t know what it means, could be something to do with travel...” In any case she loved the energy of it (she’s a very enthusiastic person).
It took me a while to realize it, but all that moving around and enthusiasm is really an expression of my friend's willful nature. And it fits what she does in life, which is related to advertising. So even if a job is a persona and not who we are in totality, it seems it's still is an expression of some deep archetype within.
And just to show the archetypal character of the symbolism, recently I went to a workshop at my local art store and the artist giving the workshop made his piece Maison Mobile into a pin (6 years after I did my original sketch). It may look different but it essentially expresses the same elementary idea as my drawing!
After that I decided to continue my tree house series all in the same way, by making a drawing of the essence of another person. I made the second one for another friend at work, as a birthday gift.
The image that came from the unconscious was a photo she took at her house of this beautiful hawk. She and her husband had just moved in a new house, and she was particularly happy to live higher up in the hills where they could have a view. And with both the hawk and the house there’s the idea of vision (plus my friend used to be a photographer for the newspaper). So I made the house like a hawk’s nest, and also gave the whole drawing a Native American feel, because she has some of that heritage. Here again I decided to put in my friend's pets, a calico cat she had just lost, and her dog on the other side.
Symbolism and Archetypes
With these first two drawings although they’re both unique and very different I could see the start of a pattern. My original intention had been to draw treehouses, so the drawings were to have at least a tree and a house, but I hadn’t planned on animals at all. My friends just both happened to have pets. And for that second one I looked up the hawk on the internet to get an idea for a title and discovered the hawk was a symbol. I had no idea that animals, objects, and just about anything has a defined meaning. And with this discovery, I now had a new language to communicate with, and also to resolve problems. Because after a few drawings it dawned on me that with each one there was a lesson for me to learn.
But even though I’m making a drawing about a specific person, the symbols make it not just about that person but about anyone who can see some of themselves in the symbols. When we reach deep enough, in the collective unconscious where the archetypes live, the story of one person truly is the story of everyone.
Connecting Math to the Unconscious
If you think about it, an equation is essentially a relationship between symbols so this type of drawing is the equivalent of an equation or mathematical model. This model is similar to what a typical story plot is (for example the rom-com) and the multiple stories that are made from this basic plot are like different answers of the model depending on the data or story details that go in, in other words the characters or objects we assign to the symbols. So in this way a single drawing can tell various stories of many different people but that all follow a similar underlying plot.
Defining a Common Framework
With this in mind I defined a sort of framework so that each drawing followed a common structure. There was always a primary animal and a tree or plant symbol. After that there could be additional elements if the story called for it, more animals or plants, celestial symbols (sun, moon, stars, etc) and a house or any other thing that relates to humans.
In the first few years I would also write a haiku to describe each drawing and made a rule of only using words ending in "er" and "or" for the titles of the drawings. The idea was that it would limit my options and force me to look beyond cliches and avoid easy solutions.
Healing Shadow Symptoms with an Opposite Drawing
The year and a half or so while I developed most of these concepts (2012-2013) felt almost like a collective effort. Others would tell me about books to read, videos to watch, etc. One of these books was No Boundary by Ken Wilber. That’s where I learned about Jung and his concept of the shadow, and that little table in the book about shadow symptoms blew my mind. To think we could cure symptoms by healing the shadow really appealed to me. So I decided to create an opposite for each drawing, hoping that it would help heal the separation between the persona and shadow and whatever symptom came with it.
Reconciling Past and Present, Nature and Culture
With the discovery of symbolism I also started to put in references from popular culture, for example symbols from well known stories like the swan in the Ugly Duckling, the hat of Babar, the elephant stack and carrying birds of the Little Prince, and other symbols from contemporary movies (The Science of Sleep and Stranger Than Fiction).
In Jung’s terminology you could say there’s a mix of symbols from the spirit of the Depth (Nature: animals, trees, water, ...) and the spirit of the Times (popular culture). I wanted the drawings to be modern and solve modern problems, but also reference and heal the past and nature.
Psychological and Artistic Growth
Coming up with concept for drawings was only the beginning however. "The true work (and method of the transcendent function) happens as the ego and the unconscious shuttles back and forth between products of the imagination and the questioning of their meaning and purpose."
During this long period I questioned what the drawings meant, psychologically, and at the same time made a lot of efforts to grow as an artist. It took nearly seven years to develop enough skills to be able to paint the images in full color.
That period of over 5 years questioning the drawings meant writing numerous versions of haiku poems to complement the visual symbolism and also trying to come up with descriptive names. And although it took a lot of patience to do all this I really struggled with my desire for certainty. Twice I made attempts to share these as products: in 2013 in a greeting card format, then in 2016 as an exhibit and art prints. But both attempts fell flat, and after all this effort my search for answers seemed fruitless, perhaps even pointless. I felt like Larry in the Serious Man, but I didn't want to end up with the same conclusion!
Why not just give up? Well, with the proliferation of podcasts and since I'm working from home I listen to stories all day long, and can't help but notice that the same conflict of opposites I wrestle with also exists in some form or other at the level of society. And it seems that examining these problems from a symbolic yet rational point of view has to be useful, not just for me but also for others.
Renewed Inspiration from the Tarot
While practicing drawing people for an illustration class I researched artists life such as that of Frida Kahlo and she seemed to me like the archetype of strength, to the point of even sharing the same hair style as the woman in the Tarot card! This got me to examine the Tarot with new eyes and notice a few archetypal similarities with my drawings. I wondered if perhaps I could turn them into a similar type of card format. Other illustrators published their version of the Tarot, so why not create a brand new deck of cards from my own original drawings?
The rule that was meant to avoid cliches, having the names all end in "er" and "or", was maybe helpful in the beginning but at this point it became painfully clear that it just kept me turning in circles. The Tarot doesn't fuss with its names, they have all sort of syllables or number of words, and at around 600 years old it's obviously a very successful "product!"
Naming the Cards
If I was the one who made my stupid rule, then I could also change it! Not only was it too rigid but it was also impersonal, a one-size fits all kind of rule, which ended up blocking all progress. But I couldn't just do away with rules, there would be too many possibilities and I would still be circling around endlessly.
Going back to the original idea, which was the individual person, I made three new rules that would help pin down a name, without making it so specific that it could only apply to a small group of persons. One: the name has to fit the personality of the person that inspired the drawing. Two: it has to describe the main animal in the drawing, what makes it different. And three: it has to be a current archetype of modern society.
What these rules have in common is that rather than being based on intellectual ideas they're embodied- they focus on the person, the animal, the society.
Likewise, adding a background to the images means I'm fixing it in time because it forces me to choose an hour of the day and season of the year, and that somehow makes the story also more embodied in reality. Though it sounds straightforward, it's still a pretty challenging process. Not just artistically but also emotionally. Because ultimately it's not a symbolic change but real transformation. While I'm working on a card it seems all kinds of serendipitous events happens in my life so that I experience the emotions the card represent. My job then is to do my best at translating that into the imagery.
“Just as alchemy always involves matter, real transformation always involves embodied experiences, not just ideas.” - J.L. Henderson and D.N. Sherwood
Working with the System
As of now I have 7 pairs of opposites, or 14 cards, completed. My original drawings include another 7 pairs which means I’m halfway through the deck. Although I'm working through the cards one pair at a time I also periodically focus on the system as a whole. On one hand to have the cards work visually together, but also to have all the names combine into a coherent archetypal system. And what's interesting is that now that I have the system more or less defined, it's become possible to compare with other systems of archetypal images like the Tarot, and I noticed uncanny connections with those of the Splendor Solis as well.
There may be something to it, because here's what I read recently from Joseph Campbell: "the very dialectic of the sacred tends to repeat a series of archetypes, so that a hierophany [an ethnic idea of an archetype] realized at a certain historical moment is structurally equivalent to a hierophany a thousand years earlier or later. Furthermore, hierophanies have the peculiarity of seeking to reveal the sacred in its totality, even if the human beings in whose consciousness the sacred 'shows itself' fasten upon only one aspect or one small part of it." (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space p. 69)
Intuitively (and mathematically) I felt that there must exist an archetype of a system, and what Campbell says seems to confirm it. So perhaps my series of drawings is that, an expression of this series of archetypes (or part of it) that tend to reveal itself as a whole at a given point in time. Logically, it would seem redundant for that to happen... here's a perfectly good system that worked hundred and thousands of years ago, why keep creating new ones? My guess would be that just like the sacred evolves, so the systems that represent it also have to change.