A Man
Overboard

 

 

 

An interview with Thomnas Moore: The Initiated Life


Thomas Moore is more of an artist than a psychotherapist.

I discovered this by recently reading Dark Nights of the Soul – A Guide To Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals, published by Gotham Books.

Moore has a PhD in religious studies from Syracuse University, an MA in theology from the University of Windsor, an MA in musicology from the University of Michigan, and a BA in music and philosophy from DePaul University.

He considers himself a musician first, and an author second.

His other best-selling books include The Planets Within, Rituals of the Imagination, Dark Eros, Care of the Soul (#1 New York Times list for ten months), Soul Mates, and Meditations. He also edited A Blue Fire, an anthology of the writings of James Hillman.

With all his academic background, however, his words read more like lyrical musings from a poet than self-help aphorisms from a professor. His writing goes straight to the heart. Maybe his 12 years as a monk in a Catholic religious order gave him time to develop his own muse.

He spoke to me by telephone from his home in New Hampshire.

“It’s a beautiful day, today,” he began. “September’s a great month here. I just started playing golf. I played my second game today. It gives me a reason to get out and walk … and to enjoy the fresh air.”

Although Moore spends most of his time lecturing, he said he sees himself more as a writer.

“I’m interested in words and sentences,” he contemplated. “That’s very important to me. A lot of times people put me into a self-help category where the writing is not as important as the message. I’m a writer writing words worth reading. Primarily I’m concerned about the form and flow of words; everything else is secondary.”

I enjoyed immensely his words, mixtures of science and art. He’s imminently quotable. I will quote him here periodically.

“The whale’s belly is, of course, a kind of womb. In your withdrawal from life and your uncertainty you are like an infant not yet born. The darkness is natural, one of the life processes. There may be some promise, the mere suggestion that life is going forward, even though you have no sense of where you are headed. It’s a time of waiting and trusting. My attitude as a therapist in these situations is not to be anxious for a conclusion or even understanding. You have to sit with these things and in due time let them be revealed for what they are.” – From Dark Nights Of The Soul

Moore does not do very many interviews. He said most people who contact him don’t have much of their “heart or blood into it.” He said he can tell “… if a person really wants to have a conversation or just fill up pages.”

It was a treat to have this talented writer share a rare glimpse into his creative process.

“Just last night I finished reading Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker,” he recalled. “That’s the kind of thing I will read too whet my language. I either read Pinter or I play the piano. Music … music really is my main art. I was trained as a composer. I studied composition. Composing is what I really work at … it’s what I do with my life. There is a relationship between music and writing where the form is very important. Working with form is essential to creating. When I listen to some contemporary music, I can hear when the composer is unconscious of form. It comes through like mush. Like music or drama, good writing has to build tension. Writers must be aware of the rhythm of their words. Otherwise, it becomes white noise for 300 pages.”

“… the end result is not a final victory nor an end to suffering. It is a moral development, the result of an initiation in which the mysteries of life stamp themselves into you more deeply, not necessarily making life easier or happier, but allowing it to take place more intensely. You are more fully who you are. You engage life more energetically and in that engagement discover a level of meaning that dissolves any discontent you may have. In other words, a dark night of the soul can heal, where healing means being more alive and more present to the world around you. It heals by opening you up, sometimes to the point where you might feel dismembered. It opens the doorway between you and the world.” - From Dark Nights of the Soul

This is the kind of initiation language I look for in great writers. I resonate with it as a reader. So what advice does Moore have for aspiring writers?

“I would say that the key is to be loyal to the voice that speaks to you,” he counseled. “Yeats said that we have two selves: the one self, and then an antithetical self that moves against what we want - that’s the one that inspires ideas and form. The first thing people have to give up is the ego stuff. I run into artists and musicians so eager for success that they can’t hear the muse. You’re got to get yourself in a situation where you can listen, and then move. C.G. Jung talks about the anima and animus as a deeper sense of who we are. It’s the aspiring spirit that gives life to the intellect and keeps it from being just a mind and a set of ideas. Creativity comes from an erotic and moist place within ourselves. That’s where I get the love of words and where the sensuality meets the ideas.”

I’d heard once that great art was a great idea greatly expressed.

“Great art is the ordinary idea expressed as the beautiful ordinary,” he stated emphatically. “I favor the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. I don’t go for great ideas. I go for whatever ideas are already present. I take whatever comes.”

“As a therapist, I am careful not to offer false means of escape from impasses and relationship binds. I am in the business of caring for the soul, not engineering a person’s life. It’s tempting to become the hero and savior, but getting life in apparent order is not the same as giving the soul what it needs. It may need more chaos, deeper impasse, and increased darkness.” - From Dark Nights of the Soul

Dark Nights of the Soul is one of the meatier books I’ve read. I don’t think it’s for the beginner or the faint of heart.

Although Moore was not familiar with The ManKind Project and its work initiating men around the world, he was a strong advocate of this necessary rite of passage.

“There’s a fundamental need for initiation,” he declared. “Yet the process of initiation varies, I think, from one person to another. People talk about having learning experience where they take something they can conceptualize and put into words. Initiation is an experience that so effects you that you’re a slightly different person than before. It’s not a matter of “learning,” it’s more of a chemical thing. It’s more of a change of nature than any kind of intellectual achievement.”

“Flight from the dark infantilizes your spirituality, because the dark nights of the soul are supposed to initiate you into spiritual adulthood. You have to be exceptionally alert in the sphere of religion, because, for all its beauty and substance, it can be full of traps. Even those who perpetrate religious nonsense don’t seem to be aware of what they are doing, and that makes it only more difficult for the susceptible seeker of spiritual wisdom. You have to use your intelligence every step of the way.” From Dark Nights Of The Soul

Moore quotes C.G. Jung often in his books, but refuses to be pinned down as a “Jungian.” I asked about how initiation works with Jung’s transcendental function.

“… it’s the attempt to reconcile one’s conscious life with the rich fruitful material that is not part of the conscious life,” Moore said. “Jung refers to the transcendental function by discussing symbols. It takes some kind of symbolic or imagistic experience to achieve this change where your life becomes bigger than it was before. You gather more of that unconscious life and make it more available to the conscious. That’s the role of initiation. It is an experience you get from set up conditions like college, or graduation, or you might go on an Outward Bound course, or go into the mountains, or a vision quest. [Or a ManKind Project weekend.] Another way experience comes is unbidden. You don’t seek them out, but they come and they become the occasion for initiation … the dark nights of the soul, the rites of passage … it’s not something you seek as a kind of initiatory experience, it’s something that happens to you, and you stay with it, and you don’t defend against it - then it becomes an initiation.”

In this modern world, so many grow up without the presence of a father or a tribe of elders to facilitate a man’s initiation. How did Moore do?

“My father was always the key person in my life,” Moore stated. “I got my elder blessings from him. He’s 92. He’s still important in my life.”

Moore’s father was a plumber, and a teacher of plumbing. Young Thomas Moore was the first in his family to go to college.

“My dad was a teacher most of his life,” he remembered. “He was a born teacher. All my life he was very, very conscious of teaching me, and not just the facts in school … he knew a lot about initiation. He knew what was important and he went out of his way to make sure I knew. When I was 11 or 12 years-old, he had the job of trying to fix a plumbing problem at the county morgue in Detroit, Michigan. He had designed a curved vacuum pipe at the end of the autopsy table. The workers had been hanging their coats on the pipe so the vacuum wouldn’t work and the water from the autopsy table was getting into the drinking water. He was called down to see what the problem was. On that occasion, he invited me to join him. He went ahead to check it out first and then he took me through a tour of the morgue. We went into the room full of bodies. My dad talked to me about the bodies in the room. At that time, for me, this was a descent into the underworld if ever there was one. He knew it was important for me to have that experience at that age.”

“In many traditional cultures a person becomes an adult by hearing the secret stories of the community that have been handed down over generations. Elders give instructions, teaching the elements of ritual and art. Black Elk describes this process in detail in his memoirs of growing up in the Oglala Sioux. Sometimes the neophyte has to endure ordeals designed to draw out the adult. The point is to stir the young person so deeply that he or she experiences a major transformation of character. If the father seems absent in families today, that may be because he is absent as a soul figure in society at large. - From Care of the Soul.

In Dark Nights of the Soul Moore quotes C.G. Jung, the father of modern psychology, when he began making a tiny model village from blocks and stones.

“The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack …. This moment was a turning point in my fate, but I gave in only after endless resistances and with a sense of resignation. For it was a painfully humiliating experience to realize that there was nothing to be done except play childish games.”

Moore continued in his book: “James Hillman says that we have to find a way neither to romanticize nor reject this child quality of the soul, to sense both its promise and its shame. This is an important point: If you don’t feel some shame, as Jung did, in the child’s inferiority, you are probably caught up more in your idealized notion of the child than in the child spirit itself. The feeling of inferiority that often accompanies the child archetype is not necessarily negative. It can keep you humble and let your creativity flow without interference from an ego desperate for fame and accomplishment.”

The lack of masculine influence in the American home is “a very huge problem,” according to Moore.

“We see it in the way the world is going now,” he said. “We see our leaders not knowing the difference between having personal power of heart, and soul, and mind - instead they’re thinking that power has to do with weaponry and violence. Or it’s about power in business, where to be a patriarch it means to lord it over everybody else or by stealing from others. We have a terrible crisis. In my work, I have always tried to speak for the patriarchy and to redefine patriarchy. We need the father stuff, not only in our families, but in business and politics. It’s related to many other things. We also need the mother stuff along with other figures. It’s all related. We have quite a superficial society, and it’s a shame. We have allowed it to become this way. Just look at television or movies and see what level we’re living at … far from the depth of grounding for what it means to be a person.”

“If you don’t reconnect with certain phases of your childhood, you may find yourself living out that segment of your personal myth in your adult life. Many people seem stuck in a specific phase of their personal history, and it is that intruding piece of personal narrative that gets in the way of their leading a creative existence. Their long dark night is due to being stuck at a certain level of development.” From Dark Nights of the Soul

As strong an advocate as I was with him regarding the need for tribal initiation rites, Moore stuck to his guns.

“We can’t set up a program of change,” he insisted. “I don’t think it works that way. We each have individual gifts and callings. If we’re loyal to our talents, forcefully and publicly, there’s a possibility that things can change. There are many good people in education who teach, but in most cases, teachers and administrators are focused on information and training. They don’t know how to teach. So young people don’t get this culture of paedeia, a Greek word for the full education of a person into the human community, which is the education of their heart, of their own being. If we each did what we could in our own way, we’d have a chance. I don’t trust a big movement.”

“Love is a dark night. Dark nights are largely about love. Once you give up the bright light of consciousness and understanding, you may discover that you can be in this world in a darker way, living by love and desire rather than by rationality and control. You don’t give up your intellect, but you allow love its natural dominance.” From Dark Nights of the Soul

I was very excited after reading Moore’s most recent book, Dark Nights of the Soul, because I thought he was so rooted in Jungian psychology. After talking with him for an hour, Moore was still unrelenting about being labeled.

“I’m not a Jungian,” he declared. “I read him all the time, but the doesn’t make me a Jungian. I read Pinter but that doesn’t make me a Pinterian I resist the labels. I was a Catholic and that is that. One religion at a time for me. I don’t need another orthodoxy, or another pope. For many people Jung has become a Pope.”

I confess I am among the Jungian throngs.

“I like the Catholic religion,” he continued. “I consider it a living thing. And, I don’t have to do what the pope is telling me. I’m out of all that. I think religion is a very deep soul experience as opposed to an organizational experience. For me, my religion is very real and rich. I keep going back to it and being quite excited about it. It has, however, made me wary of any kind of system that says join us. I was born into Catholicism and I’m still rooted in it. Yet, I love to speak in churches and spiritual communities of every possible type.”

For Moore, a person’s development or evolvement is not about “balance.”

“You’ll never find the word balance in any of my work. I don’t look for balance, I look for inclusion with the dominant and the weak. Weakness is valuable. I expect life to be out of balance. I prefer an out of balance life. I really don’t want to strengthen what’s weak. To me it’s attempting to reduce … to make is simpler than it is … that’s not the best way. That’s not my muse.”

Where does Moore stand on Men’s Work? He talked about James Hillman, his friend and mentor.

“There are many ways to deal with shadow,” he explained. “There’s a fiery place and there are also other ways. There are dangers in only dealing heroically or courageously with shadow. After awhile, it can create a kind of hyper-masculinity. James is a tough character. He’s strong and forceful, kind of fiery. I’m not. I’m a Libra. It’s just not my nature to be gutsy, and dark, and shady. I’ve had men come to me and say they were disappointed that I didn’t have darker shadows … to be more of a brute. I tried to tell them there are different ways to get to the point. I’m not artificial. That’s not who I am. I am strong in my own way. I would get mad when they said that and think, ‘Who are you to say I’m not doing it in the way you want? What are you accomplishing? Show me that I should change.’ So, I think there are different routes. I don’t think courage is the only route. It depends on what one is called to do. One way might be humor Or Eros might be another way. Beauty could be a route. Nature could be a route. There are many ways to address this weakened male patriarchy. It’s multifaceted. There’s no such thing as one father. There’s many fathers. The archetypal father doesn’t exist in one person. You’ll never run into the totality of the archetype on the street.”

“Some people believe the images of normality and maintain the secret of their family's corruption, wishing they had been born elsewhere in a land of bliss. But recovery of soul begins when we can take to heart our own family fate and find in it the raw material, the alchemical prima materia, for our own soul work.” From Care of the Soul.

Moore said he bristles when someone tells him he has a “strong feminine side.”

“Men can have these feelings,” he emphasized. “This is a man. This is not my feminine speaking. You get a man. I’m a male human being. Don’t make me into something else. That’s an affront to my being. This is my original self. Gender is not a thing in itself. You don’t meet a male or female on the street, you meet an aspect of a person with the gender embodied in the way of that individual. I like to talk about gender as a quality of the individual. I address mixed audiences of men and women … if there’s 100 people out there, then there are 100 genders. It’s always artificial if you take it away from the individual. I’d rather talk about people.”

Moore said he has consciously taken a “sweet approach” to life.

“Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) wrote a great deal about the soul. I get a lot of my ideas from him. He did recommend a rather sweet approach to life and was doing it in the midst of great struggles, battles, threats to his own life, and friends being poisoned by the ?Borgias? He was an Epicurean. He looked for the deep solid pleasure in life, no matter what was going on. I do that. I think beauty, good music, good food, and good friends are very important. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be tough, or end friendships, or break relationships, or get divorced. But sweetness is still important. It’s important to be civil. It doesn’t mean there aren’t times to be mean, angry, and say mean things and break relationships. Sometime you have to do that to stay in the tension. As a therapist I try to remain in the tension as long as possible. I have a nose for it. I have a feel for it. I rarely take the sentimental side. Sentimentality is not the same as sweet. I think there are times I am misunderstood to be that way. I understand that people won’t always get the whole.”

And the ultimate goal?

“It’s to be alive. That’s it. The ultimate thing is to be alive. We come into this life, take a breath, and live. Take it in. Take a big inhale. Die when it’s time, but not before your time. Society is set up on Freud’s death principle. We define all kinds of ways not to live. We make sure children stay in school the rest of their lives, we make sure that some people are not dancing, there’s no alcohol, no life … they say let’s get out there and praise our heroes who are dying. We love our soldiers who are dying, but they don’t care for the beings who are living. ‘Soul” means breath … or to live. The care of the soul means to take your breath in, and live.” Check out www.careofthesoul.net

© 2005 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.



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