“Where do we live symbolically? Nowhere except where we participate in the ritual of life.”
For those who have children and pay attention to them, observing their behavior is a gift of grace: an opportunity to re-connect with the rituals that meant the most to us as children, and hopefully to rediscover rituals that our souls may need again – or still.
Throughout his life, Dr. Jung sought not only to find and understand, but to enact what his soul needed to be whole. As an adult, he came to understand the importance of ritual and “the symbolic life.” In his work with his own unconscious he revived activities which he had dismissed as child’s play:
“The first thing that came to the surface was a childhood memory from perhaps my tenth or eleventh year. At that time I had had a spell of playing passionately with building blocks. I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles . . . “Aha,” I said to myself, “there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?” . . . I began accumulating suitable stones, gathering them partly from the lake shore and partly from the water. And I started building: cottages, a castle, a whole village.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pages 173-174)
As a child, I liked to collect sticks. Both my daughters do as well; I wonder if there is any child who doesn’t. I imagine that some readers will understand this: think back on your own childhood for a moment with me.
Natural materials like wood give an immediate access to opportunities for symbolic ritual.
One summer when I was a boy, I picked a scab on my leg. I had nearby a stick I had been whittling. I smeared some of the blood from my leg into that stick, watching how the wood soaked it up, noting the change in color as it dried. Over that summer, I anointed that stick with several applications of blood from the scratches I picked up in my rambles. When I read Dr. Jung’s recollections of his childhood rituals I recognized the same process at work. Had anyone asked me why I was smearing my blood onto a stick and carrying it around with me, I would have been unable to give any kind of explanation that made any sense. Quite likely if an adult had observed this, they would have told me that what I was doing was foolish, or disgusting, and told me to stop – and I would have.
In fact, I’m not sure that wasn’t what did in fact happen. The shape of my life as a middle class American boy relegated such mute rituals to times of play, which of course became less frequent and more regulated as I got older. Why else do so many grown men go fishing, or camping, or plinking? “Boys and their toys,” people say with tolerant indulgence (which usually masks contempt). There are many other activities that adults do in which I see the same psychic processes at work, for example, cosplay.
This is not to be despised: there are things from childhood that don’t go away as the body grows to maturity. Adult egos try to deny this and unconsciously rip up the world with their toys. We can do that, or we can choose to engage these lingering inner children, enter into a relationship with them as part of the great work of bringing the shadow into inclusion with the Self.
One of the sticks I have worked on.
So, now in my late 30s, I have revived my childhood fascination for sticks: I look for branches from fruit trees that I can sand and polish. Making a beautiful walking stick, wand or baton is a satisfying handicraft, but more importantly for me it’s a ritual, a powerful connection with something in my soul that still needs to be expressed.
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Archivist, author, musician
Staff Writer – Jung Society of Utah
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