The depth of popular culture

 

Some folks see popular culture as inevitably shallow. But is that true? And is it true that shallow is bad?

First, is shallow bad? No. There is nothing inherent in life telling us what we should be into. There are no requirements.

Many have stressful and busy lives and need something undemanding to help them relax and switch gears. Nothing wrong in that. (Although we can question a society that sets us up for such busy and sometimes stressful lives.) At one time or another, easy pop culture serves a helpful function to us.

And for most of us, it’s just one part of a much more varied cultural diet.

Is it true that pop-culture is shallow?

Yes, it’s perhaps true in a conventional and limited sense. There may be less soul and more formulas in much of what we find in pop-culture.

It’s easy to find exceptions. There is often depth to aspects of what we find in pop-culture. Something surprising, moving, or something that gives us an insight into ourselves or the lives of others. And some of what we find in pop-culture obviously has more depth, richness, and complexity to it, for example, stories rich in archetypes like Star Wars (original trilogy) and Pan’s Labyrinth.

It also depends on what we define as popular culture. Bach is quite popular. Is that pop culture? Chopin was a pop-culture superstar in his time.

And it depends on how readily available something is to us. When we have to put more effort and intention into finding something, it can seem more sophisticated, for instance when we are into the pop-culture of another time or culture.

Finally, we bring the depth to it.

When I watch movies, including the most mainstream Hollywood movies, I often look for archetypes and archetypal dynamics.

I take it as I would a dream, see the different parts of the story as parts of me, and find it in me.

I notice what I react to and look for the beliefs or emotional issues it triggered in me.

I notice what I am fascinated by and find what the fascination is about and then see if I can find that in myself.

So when it comes down to it, if we see something as shallow, we can only blame ourselves. We take a shallow approach to it.

We bring the richness or the shallow to it.

A personal note: In my late teens and early twenties, I had judgments about pop culture and went deep into more “high” and “sophisticated” art, music, books and movies. There was nothing wrong with this, and it was very rewarding and I still enjoy that type of culture. But it also came from insecurity. I wanted to be “better” and more sophisticated. I didn’t feel good enough as I was. Now, fortunately, I feel more free to enjoy all of it.

If we have ideas about high or low culture, or one thing being better than the other, it’s a reminder to take a look at ourselves. Where in me does it come from? Do I try to create an identity for myself to feel better about myself? How would it be to enjoy it all independent of labels?

The saint and the beast: when I modeled for a painting

 
Twins with knives, Odd Nerdrum

Back in the 90s, I was a student (aka apprentice) of Odd Nerdrum and also modeled for this painting.

I knew he saw me, but I was also embarrassed to admit it. I was embarrassed by the knives and that aspect of me.

If people asked me what the knives represented, I would innocently say “I don’t know”.

So here it is, all laid out.

This painting is of a saint and a beast.

The face is that of a saint, and I have that side of my personality.

The arms and knives are those of the beast.

What is the saint-beast dynamic? And what is the beast? It can be seen in several ways.

The first is one I don’t like to admit to so much. I have a tendency to people-please and set aside my own needs, and that comes with suppressed anger, feeling like a victim, reactivity and so on. The face is the people-pleasing, and the knife is the suppressed anger. (This also reflects a family and cultural pattern.)

More generally, any identity comes with a shadow side, and if I identify as good and “spiritual”, what in me doesn’t fit goes into darkness. It’s more hidden. Not acknowledged. And I have spent a lot of time exploring and owning – or owning up to – those sides of me, even from before this painting was made.

The beast also mirrors a ruthless side of me. If something is important to me (awakening but sometimes other things), I can be ruthless going after it.

And that’s related to another way to look at the knives. Swords and knives can represent cutting through the bullshit. Going for the truth and reality, even if it’s uncomfortable (see Manjushri). (This is best applied to oneself.)

I think this dynamic in me is also why I resonate with characters like Hellboy (especially as depicted in the del Toro films). He is born a beast (demon) but has a pure heart.

Why the twins? I am not sure. If this image was in a dream of mine, I would wonder if it represents a division or kind of a split. The saint on one side and the knives and beast on the other. Something that’s not (yet) brought into or recognized as part of a whole. That was more true of me then although it’s still part of me. I am still working on it.

And the primal clothing and setting? It’s typical for Nerdrum (and one of the reasons I resonate with and love his art). And the theme is primal too, whatever the theme is. That too is typical for Nerdrum.

Most of the subjects have a mythic or archetypal feel to them, and we can have a sense of it, but the exact meaning is hard to pin down. My sense is that by trying to pin it down, we miss the point and the power of the paintings. They are meant to work on us at a more primal level.

Here are some comments about the painting from Alejita, my partner.

The painting: They are two. Two parts of you. Although the clothes and the hair are of a mystic, the look of him (especially in the man behind) is bestial. And with the knife, he is opening the left side of your body, your heart. One of them covers the heart of the other. One, the one behind is more beastly than the one in the front. However, most beastly is the one who opens the heart. The force with which he is taking the knife is abysmal. And the horizon is at neck height, splitting your body from your head.

And what she wrote after reading this post:

I feel that the two of you are both a beast, both have a knife, both are ready to kill the “things” are not any more “useful”. I don’t see the two characters as a separation, rather they are the complete image of you. It looks like the two coexist with the beast, there is no separation. The double image is more the feminine and masculine together, living with the beast that is not a third party. It is completeness, union.

I resonate with that way of looking at it. The one on “stage right” is more masculine (this is the original) and the one stage-left is more feminine (he copied this based on the first). And both have the saint and beast together. It’s all one – feminine and masculine, saint and beast.

Christ with a sword

 

I sense that this really powerful aspect of the Christ, the one that carries the sword is the next really powerful archetype that is about to unfold for the collective.
– from an email from Barry responding to my dream about the white wolf.

Here is something very simple that comes up for me around the white wolf and Christ with a sword:

Through Tension/Trauma Release Exercises (TRE), tension and trauma is released from the body. A facet of this process is a reorganization of me at all levels – mental, emotional, energetic and physical – in a way that is more natural and healthy, wise and kind. And this more healthy and natural functioning includes (what appears as) the most primal aspects of me, the ones that have an earlier evolutionary origin.

Through inquiry, there is more clarity around thoughts, and this also opens up for a more natural, healthy, wise and kind functioning. Some of these beliefs are very basic and form my perception about life and death, me and the world, survival and so on. And these and any other beliefs create my whole world. They filter, label and interpret perception. They create emotions, the appearance of instincts, and even what appears as the most primal impulses. So when there is more clarity around these thoughts, even what appears as most primal in me is more aligned with reality (Spirit). It functions in a more healthy and natural way, in a way that looks more kind and wise. The primal aspects of me are more aligned with reality, and – in a certain sense – are more in service of reality awake to itself.

So the white wolf can be seen as the primal impulses aligned with reality. And Christ with a sword can be seen as Christ functioning through a human self where more of the most primal is more aligned with reality. (I use the word “more” since I assume it’s an ongoing process for anyone, even – or perhaps especially – for those where there is more clarity.)

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Archetypes here now

 

All the conventional ways of looking at archetypes (the Jungian ones) are of course valid and useful. Looking at them in an evolutionary/biological perspective, arising in stories of all types, shared among people from different cultures, and so on.

But there is also a way of exploring them as they arise here now, and this one has been alive for me since I started working with the sense fields, noticing each sense field for itself, and then how thoughts combine with the four others to create gestalts.

When the fields are each seen for itself, the thoughts component of archetypes becomes very clear and distinct. I see that the archetype is a gestalt, arising here now, and I also see (some of) the different components of the thought, and how and why it has the effects it has as a gestalt, when it appears solid and real.

And as with any other gestalt, when it is seen in this way, simply, clearly, there are no hooks in it anymore. The hooks are there only when I get absorbed into the gestalt, when it appears solid, real, substantial, when I don’t see it as a combination of simple sense fields.

Inner and outer shadows and darkness

 

In any explorations of the world of form, even within the utterly simple context of all as Spirit, it quickly gets very complex – infinitely complex.

The whole topic of the fertile darkness, and it symbolisms and archetypes of the dark goddesses, is one example of this. There is so much here, explored to far more detail and from far more experience and clarity than I can bring to it, but here is a simple overview of what comes to mind right now.

First, there is the projection and shadow aspect.

Consequences of the split: covering up the ground

If the world of form is split into good and bad, and the division is seen as real and important, the drama will hinder us in recognizing the ground that is always there. The fascination with the drama itself distracts us from noticing the ground. The dust kicked up in the drama of pushing some aspects of form away and holding onto other aspects, covers up the ground.

It covers up the Ground of seeing and seen, it covers up the fertile dark ground of form, and it covers up the inherent absence of an I anywhere in these grounds and all form.

Inner and outer consequences of the split

In our western culture, we associate light with good and dark with bad (or evil). Light is used to describe the light of consciousness, of what is known, of the divine, the masculine, mind, heaven, civilization, technology, purity, truth. Darkness is used to describe the opposites, including the unknown, the feminine, the body, the earth, nature, the uncivilized – all seen as less desirable.

We all know what this meant at our collective level: men, (western) civilization, technology, mind, the known and purity is elevated and gain power, while women, non-white, non-western cultures, nature, the body and the unknown have been seen as defiled, less valuable, and is excluded from influence.

The same split is of course right here as well, at our individual levels: we value the mind as a source of information and less so the body, we want to be right not wrong, we want knowing not not-knowing, and so on.

Reversals

As with life in general, at whatever level we look, the pendulum eventually swings back. So now, there is a growing appreciation of most of what was left out: non-western cultures, non-whites, women, the feminine, the earth, the body, and even – in some circles, not knowing.

A good examples is the flourishing of Wiccans who explicitly include women, the feminine, the goddesses, the Earth and the bodies. Within traditional religions, there is a similar shift, for instance seen in the renewed interest in the Black Madonna (of interest because she is dark skinned, a woman, and also represents other things left out by the masculine light-seekers.)

Shadow work at collective and individual levels

So there is shadow work at both collective and individual levels: we notice the split, the (undesirable) consequences of the split, and try to mend it at social and personal levels – using whatever means are available to us.

Shadow work, in whatever forms it takes, cannot itself bring about a shift, but it can certainly set the stage for shifts and deepening to take place. Without it, there is little chance for any shift to occur.

And this includes, for those of us into those things, a shift into endarkenment – where the fertile and dark ground of form comes alive in immediate awareness.