Perennials, Archetypes, and Eternal Life

By Glenda | May 22, 2009

Today the daylily that Rebecca Estes’ father hybridized in memory of Shelia and Rich’s son, Kenneth Collins, is blooming again here at Earthsprings. This morning, after taking a picture of it, I walked up the hill to the big old pecan tree under which some of Ken’s ashes were sprinkled. I spent some time thinking and praying.

Actually the old pecan tree has its own story and history with me. It was an old timer when I first set foot on this land back in 1980. The old man who owned the land back then, himself in his late 80’s, told me that that old pecan tree was dying. He said you could tell that because of the “resurrection fern” that was growing on the branches of the tree. (The resurrection fern is an amazing plant; it grows on wood, but it can completely dry out for a long, long time, and then, with a little water, come back green again; hence the name.) But this old pecan tree, year after year, puts out new green leaves. It’s green again this year.

So, today I stood under the tree and thought about Ken and about eternal life.

What a topic! Soon enough, I had to let those thoughts dissolve, for the mystery of that was so great. I went back to my flower garden to weed. But as I sat there, pulling weeds from around the daylily, my mind was free to wander. And wander it did.

The daylily is a perennial. Perennials are plants that, though they may die back completely in winter, they come back in the spring, year after year after year. Perennials are my favorites in the garden, so generous, so faithful.

Some people have asked me how I can afford so many plants here at Earthsprings, given my low income status, and I tell them about perennials. These plants not only come back year after year, they multiply.

Take my mother’s daylilies, for example, those growing right next to the Ken of Arlington. Mama got her “starts” some sixty years ago from a relative, who had gotten them from someone else, and so on. Who knows where or when they began. Likewise the Louisiana iris at the edge of the meadow. The four or five original bulbs I brought here have multiplied into the hundreds and are continuously moving themselves, without any help from me, down the low drainage runoff, so that, if their progress continues, they will be in the next county in due time! I planted six asparagus roots this year. They’ll last for hundreds of years after I’m gone, if conditions permit.

So, this morning, as I paused in my work, resting my aching back, looking at all the beautiful flowers that are blooming so generously around me, my wandering mind linked these perennials with the perennials of my inner landscape, those things that ancient philosophers and modern psychologists call archetypes.

Plato spoke of archetypal “ideas” or “ideals” that are everlasting, recurring again and again. The Swiss psychologists Carl Jung spoke of archetypes as innate patterns of behavior or thought that are embedded in every human psyche, patterns that can and will come up in any human person anywhere or any time automatically (without conscious thought) if the circumstances are right. Perennials.
Our word archetype comes from the Greek words arche, meaning “first,” or “original” or “source,” and typos, meaning “type,” or “model,” or, oddly enough, “mark of a blow.” So these types or patterns of behavior are innate, laid down from the beginning (from repeated “blows” of circumstance) as the human species experienced certain situations and responded to them, over and over, and a “mark” was left on the human psyche in general. These archetypes are embedded in the oldest, pre-logical layers of the psyche, Jung believed. (So archetypal patterns belong to the human race collectively, hence Jung’s term collective unconscious).

Examples? Well, there’s the archetype of the hero, the savior, the mother, the garden of paradise, the dragon in the underworld, the scapegoat, the innocent who is cast out into the wilderness, etc. We recognize Darth Vader immediately, as we do Yoda. We all long for some idealized something or other, and we worry about some inevitable monster. These archetypal patterns show up, over and over, universally, in myth, fairy tales, literary and artistic work, religious symbols, dream images, and images encountered in altered states of consciousness.

I went once with my daughter’s fourth grade class to the San Diego Zoo. A guide, attempting to explain instincts, pointed to a small chicken-like bird walking around. (She called it a pea fowl.) She said that whenever the shadow of a large predator bird, like a hawk, flies over, causing a hawk-shaped shadow to fall on the little pea fowl, the pea fowl will freeze in its tracks, becoming very still, hoping to avoid detection and thus avoid being lunch for the hawk. That is instinct, she said. The very youngest pea fowl knows to do this, without being taught. The behavior has been incorporated into the behaviors of all pea fowl; they are born with this instinct.
Instinct. Archetype. Perennial.

But here’s the odd thing. The guide at the zoo said that sometimes a kite or a small airplane flies overhead, with a hawk-shaped shadow, and the pea fowl will freeze. It doesn’t know the difference between a hawk and an airplane; when the “trigger” goes off, the little pea fowl just acts instinctively without discriminating.

So instincts (and archetypes and perennials as well) can be triggered inappropriately. And, I think, often that causes problems.

For example, sometimes perennial plants get “triggered” inappropriately by an early spring heat wave. They come up earlier than usual, and then a late freeze comes and kills their blooms. That’s what happened this year. That’s why there are no peaches on my peach trees this year. The timing of that late freeze was just wrong for peach blooms.

But, the freeze didn’t hurt the blackberries or some other perennials. Chancy thing, then, these triggers. Perfect for some circumstances; poison for others.

Many of the troublesome issues and conflicts in people’s lives, I believe, can be attributed to this. We find ourselves acting out in certain ways because something “set us off,” even when whatever it was wasn’t even what we thought it was. Often it is something from a deep, archetypal, layer of consciousness, something we can’t understand, or even identify. (“The devil made me do it.”) An archetype, an automatic behavior. Something “older than the hills,” as my aunt used to say about certain ideas that she held on to even when I said they didn’t make any sense, so that I had presumably “moved on” to some “new-fangled notion.” (Odd how many of those old ideas of hers I’ve come to appreciate.)

Working with women back in the 60’s, I used to say that you could scratch any woman and you would get to archetypal anger. And it was important for every woman to distinguish what belonged to her individually and what was coming up in her out of a collective anger, based on centuries of oppression and violation of women in general. That collective anger was immense, and could erupt out of all proportion to what some hapless male had done, all unwittingly. We women can’t take out our collective rage on one man or even on modern men in general, any more than an angry black person can take out his or her revenge on all white people, etc. Muslims who generalize that all Americans are devils, or Americans who generalize that all Muslims are terrorists, these are all guilty of mistaking the origins of their responses and ignoring the varying layers of consciousness.

Political conflicts, even wars, draw their energy from such confusion about archetypal layers of consciousness, in individuals and in cultures. Certain adept politicians are consciously or unconsciously motivated by archetypal patterns. Other politicians are activated by contrary archetypes. Hence the intensity of the “battle” between ideologies; they are no longer personal, they are archetypal. We must look to that layer of consciousness if we are to find balance, let alone resolution.

Certain other politicians successfully manipulate the public using archetypal symbols. Hitler was great at this. (And it’s happening every day, now, I might add. I saw an article the other day, inappropriately placed on the first page of a local community college catalogue, that was blasting Obama himself as well as his agenda; the illustration for the article was a close up abstracted, stylized image of Obama in lurid black and red, splashed over the full page. I thought, “Here we go again, this could be straight out of Nazi propaganda; they have used color, symbols and designs that evoke fear and deep memories of horror and bloodshed to manipulate negative public opinion.”)

So, if archetypes can be so strong, and are often conflict, what can we do? Jung even spoke of the archetypes as having “godlike” power over us, over our behaviors. He said that the individual ego is like a tiny boat afloat on a great sea of deeper collective patterns and archetypes and energies.
But, remember, Jung spent his life both working with individuals and also writing about the possibility of expanding any individual’s awareness, to bring balance between these conflicting human tendencies, and thus to achieve enlightenment and well-being for oneself and for the rest of the world.. Jung, like the Greeks from whom the word archetype originates, located the solution in the same place: Know thyself. Know thyself better and better, and on all the layers of consciousness.

Recognize, for example, that no matter what position one takes up in one’s life, the opposite of that will be automatically and inevitably constellated and activated. (Jung called this the archetype of the “shadow” of one’s conscious perspective.) The shadow’s purpose, it seems, is always to re-create balance, but usually, initially, we experience it as a tension, as a conflict within (or without), while the opposing archetypes “battle it out” from their differing perspectives.

Examples, please. Ok. I move to East Texas, which I love, living often like a hermit (that’s an archetype, by the way) to get back to nature and away from the stress of city life; then the opposite of that comes up for me when I get lonely for any or all of you, or when I miss the culture and vitality of the city (another archetypal conflict: Athena was the Greek goddess of civilized life while Artemis was the goddess of the wilds, of woods and the natural world. Mutually exclusive.)

Again, this kind of conflict within is inevitable. When I am on the mountaintop, I cannot be at the ocean. When I am writing this piece, I miss my nap. When I sing, I don’t have silence. Inevitable opposites. What are we to do?

If we are aware and wise, we continually get to negotiate between these opposites within ourselves, attempting to find balance, walking “the razors edge” of consciousness, not falling over into either extreme.

I’m looking at my poppy plants, blooming so gloriously (despite the earlier attacks by feeding deer). I have to be very careful of extremes. If I water them too little, they dry up and stiffen and die. If I water them too much, they mold and soften and fall over. If I get a good balance, they bloom profusely, and then reseed themselves for next year’s glory.

When one of my dear friends got married, she asked me to do some ceremony with her and her mother and her bridesmaids. So I asked each of her attendants and her mother, using Greek mythology for vocabulary, to take the position and the voice of a different archetype. My friend was stepping into the “temple” of the goddess Hera, the goddess of marriage, commitment, fidelity to a single male partner. So one of the bridesmaids spoke to my friend about remembering, even after marriage, her Aphrodite self. To the goddess Aphrodite (and the archetype bearing that energy), fidelity to a specific partner is not the deal at all. Aphrodite will sabotage Hera. And Hera will blast any Aphrodite-inspired seductress coming near her man. But the bridesmaid told my friend that she could be “sexy” and “sensuous” and “attractive (all Aphrodite traits) and still balance that with being married. And she made some great suggestions in that regard. Another bridesmaid brought up Artemis, who is not only the keeper of the “wild freedom” of nature, beyond rules and regulations of civilization, she also has such an “independent” tendency that she can be deadly when dealing with any man whom she perceives to be difficult. This bridesmaid advised my friend to make time and space to “do her own thing” even though she was happily married, so she could kept her own inner Artemis in good order. And so on.

In good order. That’s the thing. I am told that the ancient Greeks had many temples to many “gods” and “goddesses.” And they wisely visited all the temples, appeased all the archetypes, keeping balance. As circumstance dictated, one might call on the god of war, while in other circumstances, one could call on the Great Mother for fertility, or the god of healing, or whatever.
Remember though, blessing in one instance could be poison in a different circumstance. We have to be discerning. And therein lies the rub.

We, in our western culture, wisely understand the concept of monotheism, the One God who is All, Infinite, Everlasting, etc. We do not, I think, have clear enough vision of the presence and power of the multiplicity of various and differing ways that the One manifests. We reject pantheism as though it has to be in opposition to monotheism. That need not be the case.

For example, we can take care of an individual without negating the community. We can acknowledge one nation, while being aware of individual states within that one nation. Likewise in the psyche, we can acknowledge the presence and power of differing archetypes without denying the unifying, overriding power and wisdom of the One, whatever we call it.

In my simple way, I refer to the eternal and unchanging as “Grandfather,” and to the eternally changing as “Grandmother,” or “Grandmother Changing Woman.” Obviously what that means is not simple at all.

Beyond those distinctions, unifying the opposites, balancing them, is what I call the Great Mystery—what some refer to as the Great Spirit or Allah or God. (The names may vary, the concept matters.)

Ah, but I have wandered far afield in my musing, far from my little daylily. That’s what happens when I garden. That which is so near, so present to my touch and sight, yet connects me to what seems so other worldly. My meditation takes me back and forth, here, there, anywhere. So, let me circle back.

When I think of the power of the archetypes I begin to question the idea of change. If these archetypes are such “first principles” in the psyche, so powerful, is there any hope for change?
The Ken of Arlington, the daylily, informs. It is, as I said, hybridized. That means that the original perennial, the daylily the Ken of Arlington came from, was, in fact, changed, altered forever. The new Ken of Arlington daylily is now its own unique self. The change is permanent. And it can reproduce itself. Indeed, it has. From the one tiny start I was given by Sheila, I now have several plants, all the same. So, change, then, even in that which is perennial, is possible, I say to myself.

This morning, as I admired the Ken of Arlington daylily, I was remembering Kenneth Collin’s own dear face and his voice, singing Broadway show tunes with me and others in the Lodge, not so long ago, and now he is gone from us, to another dimension, to eternal life. But the daylily is a sign, a symbol, not only of what he meant to us, means to us still. It is also a sign, hybrid that it is, that things can change. Have changed. Not so many people die now of HIV related illnesses as did when Ken was so ill. We haven’t solved that problem completely, I know, but change is happening.

In fact, it seems that the possibility for change is built into the whole system, is a part of the “givenness” of the whole she-bang, is part of the over-arching archetype Jung called the Self, the archetype of wholeness. Amazing. Paradoxical.

So, even the archetypes can and do evolve, Jung thought.

But slowly. Oh dear, so slowly. That’s why some “flower children” and “new agers” gave up on the “harmonic convergence,” on the idea that we would all, so easily, miraculously, change our level of consciousness just by deciding to do so.

But others of us went to work, knowing that, as Obama keeps saying, change happens from the “bottom up.” We begin by changing ourselves.

I continue to be amazed at how creatively nature evolves to deal with specific issues. Certain birds at the beach have long beaks to get down into the sand to get at those little sand crabs or whatever it is they eat. Cows have tails with which to brush off stinging flies. Nature evolves to fit the circumstances, but, oh, so slowly.

To say that nature is conservative is not to say that things don’t change, only that they change slowly, so that it is likely that any permanent change is life-giving and not destructive. Mother Nature is careful to try to preserve life—life in general, the life of the species, the life of the individual—and in that order, it seems to me.

So, part of me wonders, what’s with “endangered species,” and “extinct species?” And what about so many predictions and mythologies that speak of coming times of destruction, to be followed by a new, evolved age when things are better? What about dire predictions, global warming, say? The apocalypse? The rapture? The death, eventually, of the old pecan tree, and of me? What about everlasting life?

One of my good friends told me once, when I lived in California, about a dream he had. I’ve quoted it, with his permission, many times. He said he dreamed of a beautiful woman, larger than life. She looked at him, right at him, with such intense love that, in the dream, he felt more loved, more valued, more known, than he had ever felt in his life. It was incredible, he said. And then, after a time, he said, in the dream, although the woman’s eyes did not move, it was as if the woman was looking right through him, as though he was transparent, or not there at all; she was looking at the whole big picture. He said that he felt bereft. Then he woke up and thought about the dream. He was wise enough, and had the vocabulary to use, to know that he had dreamed about an archetype.
The archetype relates both to us as individuals, and also to the “whole,” to the big picture. It is not that individuals don’t matter. We do. But we are only part of the whole, part of something larger, something infinitely more enduring and essential.

We’ve learned to use the word ecology. We speak of interdependence. We are being called, at last, back to service, to concern for community and not just to “me and mine.” This is good. A needed correction in our cultural and individual habits. And a return to an older, more basic archetype, the Self, the archetype of wholeness.

So, to conclude this rambling morning meditation, I tell myself, yet again, that eternal life depends upon where we put our identity. If we identify with this body, even this situation, and hope that it will go on forever, we can be sure that some late freeze will nip us in the bud, we can be sure that circumstances will change, that we all will eventually die, and that any most wonderful (or awful) situation will change (the economic downturn today is bringing that hard lesson home again).
But if we put our identity in the larger whole—in the community, in the species, in life itself, ultimately in what I refer to, respectfully, as the Great Mystery—then we discover that there are eternals, perennials, things that live on, and endure, and recur.

It’s not one or the other. We move back and forth between layers of consciousness. We can grieve on the personal level, as we should, for our losses, while we may be serene on the eternal level. We are both, immanent and transcendent, all of us, and we must remember that we are much more than we usually think we are.

A deer can come and cut off everything above the ground of this daylily. But there, underground, is still a root, carrying the pattern of this beautiful bloom. From that root would come another plant, another bloom, also beautiful. One tree falls down, the old pecan maybe. But “treeness” goes on. As the old Buddhist once told an inquirer, after a long series of existential “what’s beyond that” questions, “It’s elephants all the way down.” It’s what Zen and Taoist folk call “suchness,” the essence, the core, that which is archetypal, what Native peoples call the “medicine” of a thing. Ken’s body is gone, but the experience of Ken’s beingness, the essence of him, that we have still with us. Eternally, I believe. He “made his mark,” and it lingers in the wholeness of eternity, beyond time and space and explanation. Love lasts.

I’m now, it happens, “friends” on Facebook with Kenneth Collin’s brother, Kevin. Kevin is a fine young man, in his own right, who has, incidentally, lost not only his brother to Aids, but also his sister to cancer. I pray for Kevin always, as I know he has been through much. I think, though, that, for all of his losses, he has also gained much in inner wisdom and appreciation of life’s complexity and beauty. He posts great links and wonderful quotes on Facebook, many having to do with the meaning and purpose of life. And I noted recently a posting by Kevin, a quotation from Euripides: “He is not a lover who does not love forever.”

Love lasts. Perennial. Circumstances—Aids, cancer, death, suffering—nothing overcomes it ultimately. We love, we love forever, we are made of love, and we endure as love.

Love is, I guess, the original perennial.

So, my love to all. And gratitude for this opportunity to muse “out loud” here on the website today. I’ve touched, however briefly, upon so many ideas. All of them could be expanded, turned this way and that, seen from many directions.

So I welcome your comments, which can be written in the space below.

One comment | Add One

  1. Silence Singing - 05/23/2009 at 11:39 am

    I talked of yesterday, a day far back, even dimmed in my memory, of waking to the smell of gardenias beneath my window. That tiny memory has been re-awakened somehow, It is living again. In saying it, it became stronger.

    And then yesterday, for my birth day, my brother planted two small blooming gardenias beneath my bedroom window…..I smelled the perfume and the phoenix rose, completely reborn, I was seven again and waking to a new dawn…inhaling the essence of gardenias.

    Memory too…that which we once were, runs in cycles that die and are reborn.

    in love,

    Silence Singing

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