Thirty people gathered around a circle, lead by a man with a drum. “I believe,” says the man, “that we all met in heaven, and we decided that we would meet in Philadelphia at 7:30 on October 9, and that somebody would bring a drum. And the drum and the myth will remind us of what we knew before we were born, and why we are all here together tonight.”
The man with the drum was Dr. Kwame Scruggs. Dr. Scruggs founded Alchemy, Inc in Akron, Ohio. Alchemy mentors urban male youth using drumming, myths, and fairy tales. Dr. Scruggs had come to present in Philadelphia at the invitation of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. His work with Alchemy has come to national attention in big way over the past several years, and I was looking forward to hearing more about how he uses the ideas of C.G. Jung to bring about healing among urban male youth. I did learn more about that, but I learned so much more as well.
Dr. Scruggs is completely undefended and fully authentic, and the quality of his presence immediately established a sense of temenos, a feeling of being in a place apart from ordinary life. Scruggs shared that, in his work with youth, Alchemy attempts to recreate the healing temples of Aesculapius, and indeed, the temple was invoked. After sharing some of his personal story with us, Scruggs began to drum and tell a myth, recreating the work he does with the youth.
Scruggs told the story of a poor hunter, hungry and desperate. No matter where he set his traps, they turned up empty. He was about to give up, when in the very last trap, he snared a boa constrictor. The snake, however, spoke to the hunter, begging for his life, and promising to make the hunter rich beyond his wildest imaginings if he agreed to spare his life. The hunter had a decision to make. If he killed the snake, his family would eat that night, and he could sell the skin in the market. If he spared the snake’s life, perhaps something even better was in store for him. Should he trust the snake’s offer?
Here, Dr. Scruggs paused, and asked us each to write down what resonated for us in this brief introduction to the tale. After a minute or two, he invited each one of us in the circle to in turn share what we had written. As we went around the circle for the better part of the next two hours, something remarkable happened. Quakers have a term for what happens when attendees at a meeting for worship seem to tune into one another, and contributions flow into one another, so that members feel mysteriously to each be a part of some larger intelligence. This is referred to as a “gathered meeting.” It is a kind of group mystical experience. This discussion of the myth was just such an experience.
The first person in the circle to speak noted that what resonated for her was the repeated use of the word “trap” at the beginning of the story. Those who spoke next, including me, all seemed to focus more or less on the early part of the exposition, the futile setting of the traps.
Of course, as a Jungian analyst keenly interested in fairy tales, I had my immediate intellectual reaction to the story. But I know well that an intellectual analysis of a tale doesn’t get you very far at all. Fairy tales and myths need to be experienced to be understood. We need to enter them, and to allow them to enter us and work on us. I took note of my emotional reaction to the hunter’s desperate, grasping state of mind. I could resonate with that feeling, when I in my own life become anxious and attached to a given outcome. I can become frantic, trying too hard to force something to happen when maybe it isn’t what needs to happen at that time.
As we continued around the circle, participants were reading what they had written in those first minutes after Dr. Scruggs paused. Even though we had all written down our responses at the same time, and were not discussing the tale in the sense of reacting to each others’ reactions, the comments made by each successive participant mysteriously unwound the tale, like a snake uncoiling. Later participants addressed later parts of the story. There was a gradual deepening of understanding as we went around the circle, until the last few folks spoke with almost oracular clarity about the heart of the hunter’s dilemma at the moment that the story telling paused. They were each reading from their pads, remarking on how unusual it was that they seem to have reached similar conclusions independently.
Their comments pierced me, deepening my understanding of the tale and what it meant for me in a way I don’t believe I would have been able to take in if they had spoken first. Everything everyone had said, including Kwame’s wonderfullly meandering digressions into other tales or stories about himself or Alchemy participants, served to pave the way organically to a collective revelation of the myth by the end of the evening.
Here is a summary of some of the last points made by those of us on the other end of the circle. When the hunter is offered great riches, he is being presented with something that is beyond his ability to imagine. He suffers from a poverty of imagination wherein he has difficulty conceptualizing what might be possible. This lack of imagination can affect us all as we live into our futures. Scruggs gave examples from his own life and those of the youth with whom he works. For many of them, prestigious academic futures were not something they could even imagine for themselves before engaging in the work with Alchemy.
At this point, something dropped down for me. My understanding of the myth on a deeply personal level bubbled up from below, rather than arising from an intellectual exegesis. I saw how my tendency to be fearful about cutting back on my practice to work on writing my book was like the lack of imagination on the part of the hunter. Just as the hunter was being asked to have faith in the vision of the magical talking snake, my faith in myself and my vision of my book is being tested. I could plunge myself back into my practice, just like the hunter could kill the snake. I would be earning more money now, and the hunter’s family would eat tonight. There is an immediate possibility there that provides some momentary security. But choosing this would require sacrificing a higher potential of something not yet known. I am being asked to have faith. Can I let go of my grasping, anxious tendencies and trust what my psyche is calling me to?
Jungians have their own language for what Quaker’s call the gathered meeting. We talk about it as the appearance of the transcendent function, the appearance of the analytic third that arises spontaneously when the tension of the opposites can be held. The opposites were in the room last night — the sober minded hunter of a mind to make the most practical decision, as well as the magical snake mysteriously offering something transcendent and as yet not imagined by the ego. The sacred circle that Dr. Scruggs created invited the opposites, and held them, so that a new understanding could arise.