Children of a Difficult Labor

Bruce Bond

There is no birth of consciousness without pain.
          —Carl Jung
You must revise your life.
          —Rainer Maria Rilke

When I first read Jung, I was 23, fresh out of my first masters program, jobless, newly moved to Boulder, Colorado to make a life performing music. Opening Campbell’s Portable Jung was, for me, opening the gates of hell where I felt powerless and empowered at the same time, as if I were the protagonist in an enormous mystery that promised to make life hazardous and new. Not that I was the only character in this adventure, but it seemed too that all characters were me, in part, and ancient, and suddenly unfamiliar. I had some inkling then the mainstream of psychology in America had turned away from the psychoanalytic tradition, especially depth psychology with its new-age aura, but I did not see yet how a spirit of resistance, impatience, and misreading (or lack of reading altogether) would eventually characterize the more dominant strains of philosophy and literary criticism. Many attacks on Jung were valid of course, but some were ad hominem, some directed at Jungian culture, some prone to reductio ad absurdum. Truth was, I too did not find Jungian literary criticism very interesting: so many easy deployments of ready-made categories, as if the accumulation of correspondences amounted to some profoundly new awareness. What I did know was, as I wore my Portable Jung to tatters, my dreams went bonkers. I heard strange uncontrollable music in my sleep. Something was happening to me. It was not painful, as revelation was supposed to be. I did not suffer the knowledge yet. But something was moving in there. Something had yet to move.

Those days planted important seeds in me, and though Jung too often conjures one idea, the archetype, it was his work on alchemy and three particular conceptions that haunted me most: the shadow, the complex, and the Self. While “the shadow” verges on self-parody given the word’s familiarity of tone and idea, what I did not fully appreciate at first was that the shadow (the inner dynamic that runs counter to one’s identity-sanctioned values) has no particular content. It may or may not have anything to do with sex, death, or corporeality in general. Chances are, it does have to do with power (so does virtue for that matter), but it should be noted that shadow-power can be directed against anything, anyone, including oneself. As for “the complex,” that too seemed distant to me. I did not know that the wounds I so often respected in others and myself also created blind spots, reflexes by way of splinter psyches that operate with relative autonomy. The concept of the “Self” was perhaps the most profound and most confusing—mainly because it was supposed to be the totality of psyche as “objective” or “transpersonal,” and yet it bore that label: “Self.” To internalize these notions, I needed to live with them, to suffer them into a fuller understanding.  In time, without trying, I would.  No need to look for hell.  Hell will find you.
It’s true: I am driven: by nature, by culture, by choice, by complex, by all that has given me the playfulness, anxiety, narcissism, generosity, curiosity, vulnerability, empathy, productivity, will, impatience, dread, and exuberance that fuels the desire to make things. Call me “hypomanic.” My wife says that the knobs in me are all turned up. Like her, I see that as a good thing, or mostly good. In my 20s, in spite of my meditation training, I had yet to fully integrate meditation’s habits of listening. I gave myself over to the study of classical guitar and composition, went to a music school with a great guitar program, studied with amazing people, and played many hours a day tapping that well of energy that made those years so exciting and rewarding.
I improved quickly and morphed some of my angst into pride, some of my pride into a mix of gratification and more angst. Sometimes I would have three gigs in one day, playing two to three hours of memorized repertoire at each to pay my rent. Then, one day, after rehearsing for a concerto I was scheduled to perform, I used a chainsaw on a lilac tree-stump in my back yard. Turns out, the chainsaw was dull, and I channeled my crazy determination far too long into that stubborn thing. So baffling, how the hard wood refused to yield, how I went at it for a good hour or two. It might have been a garden sculpture left well enough alone if not for its place in the middle of the patio, the oddly writhing abruptness of it jutting up like some rude interjection in an otherwise intimate conversation. That was it. My body could not take any more. I scrambled my tendons and nerves and God knows what—damage that a nurse told me was permanent. It wasn’t. But that fear kept me sleepless for two weeks straight. When I finally slept, I had wild dreams once again, and in one, I saw my teacher Ralph Towner come to me and say, the problem is your teeth.  It’s in your teeth.
No medical professional ever could explain what had happened to me. Not fully. Some were overconfident. Some demeaning. Several saw the problem as my spine. One dilated my veins. One recommended rest. Another exercise. One implied the problem was imaginary, perhaps because he had no other explanation. One actually admitted he did not know. I turned down offer after offer to perform until, in time, the answering machine went silent. The single friend that I most visited back then was a woman who, albeit kind, was so wrapped up in her own issues that it was a comfort. I could go to her place, listen to her tell stories and fret about her career, her art, her weight, her parents, her low self-esteem, and I did not have to worry about being a drag. I was there for her. Weird as it sounds, I needed a friend like that, a protagonist. I needed to be, for her, a shadow.
It is only now, 30-plus years later, that I see clearly the roots of my long-standing physical issues as congenital problems in my shoulders and hips and a resulting instability in the whole system of nerves and muscles. With my rowing machine, my morning stretches, leg lifts, and deep tissue work, I am fine and performing guitar once again. What I suffered long ago was in part the general ignorance of the time—the study of injuries to musicians was in its infancy back then. One doctor told me to just get another profession, and then he shrugged. Then there was the acupuncturist who, in over-stimulating the damage seemed to set my nerves on fire. That pain went on for days, and I thought, that’s it. It’s my responsibility now. Mine alone. If there’s a solution, I’m the only guy who can find it. And I lay on my bed and meditated for six, seven hours at a time, every day, for weeks, until, in time, the pain subsided. I lay with my silence, with my shadow, my complexes, my Self, my slow, mysterious capacity to heal.
During the many periods of physical difficulty that followed, I always knew a certain silence would help me, for the time at least. I knew my body had limitations, but the precise nature or extent of those remained unknown. One can say the same of the brain, which is more plastic than the material determinist would acknowledge, more physically determined than idealists of individual responsibility concede, they whose shadow is projected shame. What does not kill us makes us stronger? No. I do not believe that. If only the world were that simple. If only people were. Life would be a lot more predictable, more dull, less insulting to our desire for justice. If only growth were the fate of pain, it would make every story the stuff of familiar archetypes, of heroes returning from the underworld, redeemed.

About a decade ago, I watched my mother wither in chronic pain, becoming increasingly panicked, obsessed, demanding, enraged, deluded, and self-centered, until she lost her friends and all but the slightest capacity to listen. When she finally agreed to see a therapist, just once, he deemed her “untreatable.” Even my dad, my mother’s dutiful servant who rarely said anything negative, least of all about her, whispered to me in confidence and aphasic English, “she’s nuts.” It was a shock then.  Still is. Such were the boundaries he needed then. To be honest about my mother’s difficult personality is not to underestimate her suffering—quite the contrary. Hell, it was so damn lonely in there. No wonder she demanded a reciprocity of frustration. I empathized of course. Anguish like that can kill you, if not now, later, physically and spiritually. No. Pain is not wisdom, although it can occasion wisdom in us.  It can make strong those with strength enough to become stronger.
Part of the challenge of chronic pain lies in the way the brain changes. My intuition is that daily physical suffering takes energy, literal nerve-energy in the brain, some of which might otherwise maintain defenses around our complexes. Once broken down, the ego feels overwhelmed by the contents of the unconscious. The psyche struggles to find new resources of self-esteem. These too are the conditions of possible revelation. Sources of unease come out of hiding. We dream awake, exploring the parts of us that seem to exist outside the pain, outside the cruelty of others and ourselves. We see, if fortunate in the discipline of inner vigilance, our consciousness unfold, there in the quiet context of awareness, our priorities more clear, our vulnerabilities more empathetic, love more vocal in the many expressions of our craving.
Times like this, some seek the comfort of creative work. In my 20s, I turned to poetry, first as a diversion, then, in time, a calling. I dropped in on the best university in the area, in hopes that I could just sit in on classes and get a little farther outside my “self.” I had no ambitions about career. Just a need to leave the house, to make new things, to write about anything but my own problems—at least not directly. Oddly, mercifully, in the middle of the semester, the folks at the university gave me a fellowship, based on a handful of poems, some words exchanged. In time, the washed-down slate of my identity had new chalk on it, but that chalk was only as redemptive as its engagement in a complex world. Writing summoned a wider repertoire of curiosities from me than my career in music did. And yet poetry was music. I would never lose that pleasure, that resonance with the soulful necessity of song. Now I cannot imagine life without it—it is so healing still, thanks in part to the large measures of silence there, how the art of poems calls upon and hones a larger art of attention. My feeling of gratitude for poems and poets is overwhelming sometimes. Thank you, teachers, you who took me in, a stranger. Thank you, all those hours spent with inner listening, speaking, listening once again. Thank you, sweet final line of a poem by Rilke, where I lower my shoulders, raise my head, and, if only for the moment, appear to grow.
Bruce Bond is the author of fifteen books including six forthcoming: Gold Bee (Crab Orchard Award, Southern Illinois University Press), Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and The Other Sky (Etruscan Press).  Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.