Care of the Soul: Happy Accidents

Care of the Soul: Happy Accidents

In telling the story of the Bollingen Stone, the large boulder he installed as a monument at his estate on the shore of Lake Zurich in Bollingen, Switzerland, Carl Jung taught a few subtle lessons. The psychologist came upon the stone during the construction of his “tower,” a habitable, two-story structure on the property. Jung had wanted the tower to be raw and primitive in design, to inspire him to extend his sense of time and be more open to experiences in the world around him. One day, he says, workmen mistakenly delivered a very large stone to the construction site. It was of the completely wrong proportions for building the tower. But instead of sending it back to the quarry, Jung instructed them to leave it.

This is the lesson that interests me most in the Bollingen story: Jung doesn’t miss a beat knowing that “accidents” can be both revealing and useful. Some people say that there are no accidents, that everything has a purpose. But Jung’s story suggests that he believed something different: that some things are indeed accidents, and we have to always be ready to respond to them openly and creatively.

Jung had learned stone carving from local craftsmen, and so eventually he got to work carving words and images on the sides of his stone. For instance, he etched the image of a small figure wearing a hood and carrying a lantern. The accompanying words indicate that this is Telesphoros, a minor figure in Greek spiritual art whose name means “bringing fulfillment” and who was a healing figure related to the medicine god Asklepios.

I could veer off into a discussion of how illness should not really be cured but brought to a meaningful conclusion, offering the soul an education in the mysteries of human life. But I’m more interested here in the lantern.

I’ve never appreciated the common spiritual recommendation that we be “in the light.” I’ve carefully avoided talk of light. I’ve never wanted to be an “enlightened” being. Yet, I pay attention when I read about Jesus saying that he is the light of the world, and when I see images of the Buddha as a being of light. But then, I remember that Jesus also spoke of showing our lamps, and the Buddha seems almost always understated—a subtle light, not glaring. So I feel all right about pursuing a spirituality of small lights, like lanterns and lamps.

On his stone, Jung carved the following words: “Time extending through the ages is a child playing at a game of chance. The child is king. Telesphoros runs through the dark places of the world like a star sparkling in the depths, leading the way to the gates of the sun and the land of dream.” Jung said that everything he tried to write in the 18 volumes of his books is on this stone. So I assume that this sentence was important to him. Try carving words into a block of stone. You want them to mean something.

The name Telesphoros comes from two Greek words: telos, meaning “end” or “purpose,” and phoros, meaning “carrying” or “bearing.” Many people are looking for purpose, especially in today’s world that is so manic, so externalized and without reflection. Jung’s statement hints that purpose is not static. It’s like a twinkling planet in orbit through the universe. It’s a small but meaningful light.

Try to see a fast-moving light in the night sky, like a meteor or comet. You have to be alert and look closely. This is how you look at your life, as it moves along day by day, trying to catch a glimpse of telesphoros, the purpose in your struggles and suffering. You have to be ready for the unexpected in order to catch a hint of those moving, purpose-filled signs, just as Jung was awake when they delivered the wrong stone. He saw Telesphoros in it long before he carved it.

This is the small lesson I take from the Bollingen story: Be ready to accept the many things that happen regularly that are not in your plans, the mistakes that may have meaning for you. This is a particular way of living, in which you are not stuck on your plans and expectations and are ready to deal positively and quickly with things that go wrong. You don’t want to be enlightened in an exalted way, but, like little Telesphoros or the child king who plays games with us, offering only twinkles of guidance, you pay attention to the little lights of epiphany that demand attention.

To see the lanterns and sparkles and lamps of meaning, your self or ego has to get out of the way. You need the freedom and the practice to respond without thinking. You become a person who is not so focused on enlightenment and control that you can’t appreciate the spark of life when you see it. You understand that life is a child playing a game of chance, where accidents and mistakes carry the most important revelations.

Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.

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