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The Still Point of the Turning World

NASA, ESA, The Hubble Heritage Team, (STScI/AURA) and A. Riess (STScI)

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;Deleted: Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is — T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

This December at JCF, the theme guiding our MythBlast compositions is “The Turning.” In this final month of the year we have a sense of the present turning into the future, of dark turning to light. Contemplating the mythology of Christmas, one must turn from the literal, outwardly religious understanding of the celebration to the inner enterprise of finding “the still point of the turning world.” That phrase, the still point of the turning world, belonged to T.S. Eliot, and Joseph Campbell often quoted it while describing a “state of release” from the delusions, fears, and commitments “by which lives in this world are compelled to their sorrows and pains.” (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, 106) Achieving a state of release or illumination is achieved by learning to see through the illusions the effort of living creates, learning to see through the numberless obscuring images, beliefs, and ideas to the dynamics of the soul itself, and “The required method to this end,” Campbell teaches, "is known as the turning about of the energy,” a shift in which we bring all our energies to bear on these qualities as they exist within ourselves, and “not outward to the correction of the world” (Inner Reaches, 38. The emphasis is Campbell’s).

Such a mechanism for seeing through the ephemera of existence exists innately; it is an archetypal movement belonging to the soul that I have termed “leave-taking.” All things flow, Heraclitus noticed, and nothing remains the same or holds its shape forever. The leavings and the losses, the growing and the groaning, the knowings and the no-ings, altered states of consciousness, birth, death, and change—change, change, change—seem all too often to constitute the greater part of living. I call this movement leave-taking because the soul is always and invariably drawing one away from a place of familiarity, of physical and emotional comfort, and plunging one into situations of confusion, risk, and psychic danger. The soul urges one to leave the known and the familiar for the unknown and undreamt of. 

We are, on this spinning world, constantly in the situation of turning: turning toward, turning away, turning in, turning out, turning around, and even turning upside down. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke puts it this way: 

Who has turned us around like this, so that whatever we do, we find ourselves in the attitude of someone going away? Just as that person on the last hill, which shows him his whole valley one last time, turns, stops, lingers—so we live forever taking our leave. ("Eighth Duino Elegy," The Essential Rilke, 129)

Plato writes that within the soul was formed the “corporeal universe, and brought the two together and united them center to center. The soul, interfused everywhere from the center to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself…” (Timaeus, 36e. Emphasis is mine). Plato’s answer to Rilke is that it’s the soul that turns us around (and inside out) and bids us say our goodbyes. 

Leave-taking, at first blush, always seems like a loss; it’s a kind of dying, and it’s a death that’s generally attended by suffering and fear. We often seek to avoid suffering and try to recreate a safe, secure, womb-like existence at the cost, of course, of our own stillborn life. It is as if we are only able to know something as we lose it, as we let go, as we witness its decay and decline. It is as if leave-taking supplies us with the knowledge of what something is in itself. It is in its absence that we find the meaning and importance of what we once beheld. 

It’s often the case that the separations, losses, and turnings of life are regarded as obstacles to living and misfortunes to be avoided or, if possible, mastered as individual expressions of will. But I think that the archetypal leave-taking movement of the soul is in no small way the soul’s quintessence. Leave-taking is an encompassing psychic reality separate from ego directed activities. If such a distinction is not made, one impulsively undertakes a series of geographic relocations, or ends relationships, and quits jobs, hoping to quiet Psyche’s relentless call to inner movement. 

I believe that one may not have such an experience of the soul without a sense of grief or loss, but the grief and loss needn’t be understood as tragic, and pit us more strenuously against life. Seen as an expression of the soul, the leave-takings we’re subjected to may even make us more tenderly disposed to life. The paradoxical psychic tensions generated between safety and loss are essential to living and are constituents of the very tensions that sustain life itself. Paradox is the lure that fuels the evanescent, shimmering mystery of existence, and as it vanishes and reappears, it draws one along after. And since leaving is fundamental to living, we should take a cue from Shakespeare, and not be shy about embracing its import: “And let us not be daintie of leave-taking, but shift away” (Macbeth, Scene II, act iii). 


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