The Japanese art of Kintsugi describes the breaking of a pot, that is then put back together with liquid gold or silver. It looks like this:
We usually don’t break our vases willingly, but here, what was a mundane piece of ceramics before, can now turn into a unique piece of art.
The message of Kintsugi, that things, which have been broken and have a history, become more beautiful also symbolises a process of personal transformation. Our greatest moments of despair, in which we fall apart, can give rise to a most meaningful process of re-integration, and to a more textured and refined version of ourselves.
The current global pandemic is leading many of us to such a breaking point, and not just with regards to our health, financially, socially and emotionally, but also in terms of our sense of meaning, as we are confronted with a momentary destabilisation of our world.
As society is reluctantly forced into stillness, it becomes more difficult for us to avoid certain issues. A smouldering conflict with a spouse cannot be avoided any longer, if one now spends 24/7 together in shared isolation. An unhealthy lifestyle that has left the body weakened is suddenly becoming a concern.
Equally, on a social level, systems that benefit fewer and fewer people at the top of the food chain, while draining resources away from the middle and lower classes have now moved uncomfortably close to collapse; the printing presses are churning out money at record speed again. On an economic, social and personal level many pots are currently cracking under pressure.
We can look at the principle of shattering as a universal life experience, described in many religious doctrines and mythological tales.
In its most abstract terms it’s about the eternal tug of war between order and chaos, between hope and despair.
It describes a transformational process that was also captured by the much cited Campbellian idea of the mono-myth, a universal pattern found in stories told across cultures. Campbell also referred to it as the hero’s journey.
Heroes are called into action by a threatening force, thrown into a perilous adventure, having to leave their familiar world behind to descend into darkness – the belly of the beast (representing the unconscious), facing up to their adversaries and with that their ultimate fears (representing the Jungian shadow), to then re-emerge and to return and bring home a healing elixir, establishing a new form of balance in their old world.
According to Christopher Vogler, these stories resonate with us, exactly because they symbolise an internal, psychological process that we are familiar with. The hero overcoming external obstacles, inspires us with hope for our own struggles with our shadows, that is to say those aspects of our mind, that are usually too embarrassing, too scary or too painful to deal with and hence they are avoided and pushed away into the shadows of our minds.
Like the hero, we encounter those internal shadows externally in many shapes and forms. While the mythological hero fights dragons, we may get stuck in an abusive relationship that we struggle to let go of, or end up working for a narcissistic boss that pushes us into burnout, or the shadow comes in the shape of a yet unfulfilled dream, that we haven’t dared to pursue yet.
Arguably, the most famous hero’s journey is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Prof. Jordan Peterson refers to it as the a meta myth, a mythological story about death and resurrection so rudimentary and profound that in principle all other myths exist within it.
Here, death also symbolises the death of the ego, a complete and total disruption of how we have given life and ourselves meaning. It’s a shattering of what we thought our identity was, of our relationships and our place in this world. It may seem as though life itself has given up on us.
Finally, in his famous poem, John of the Cross called this psychological transformation La noche oscura (del alma) – “The dark night (of the soul)”. If we experience this kind of complete disruption, we are left confused, distraught, and frozen in chaos. Everything seem to be in pieces, a personal, to put it into HR terms, an ultimate VUCA world.
As painful and frightening as this chaotic “death” experience may be, if we make it through, a profoundly enriching and affirming rebirth can give life to a new sense of self, a new world of meaning that arises out of the ashes.
In 2019 I unwillingly embarked on one of those journeys myself. Sparing you the details of this highly unpleasant tour de force, it lead me to spend about a year mostly withdrawn from the world, quite similar to what many of us are doing right now in times of the Corona virus.
After a while, I began to write a diary of sorts. Instead of words I put (digital) pen to paper and wrote notes. Eventually, tens and thousands of them. I could hardly stop. I’d spend 10, 15, occasionally 20 hours a day, writing and writing. It was tough, confronting and sometimes I wanted to pull my hair out because I got stuck for weeks with a particular passage, but an underlying sense of meaning kept me going.
(If you like classical music and have some time and space, you may enjoy listening to the result here.)
CG Jung once said that:
“it is only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.”
Without falling prey to cheesy positivism, in this context there is perhaps a hopeful element about this crisis – for once the world has firmly pressed the pause button and gets to be still.
A hope, that as our collective Kintsugi pot re-emerges as something transformed, we will come out of this as something transformed and more integrated, as everyone in their own way begins to put the pieces of their shattered ceramics back together.
My own trip into and out of chaos, also encouraged me to distill my professional and personal experience into a process. Consequently, I developed an audio programme that takes the listener on a journey inside oneself.
nine gates – a mindful journey into the darkness of the ego
It’s a compassionate but honest look at our dark side – a mindfulness practice, that invites you as the listener to embark on your own hero’s journey. This programme combines a variety of methodologies, to develop a deepened understanding of oneself, to integrate what we usually don’t want to see and to get us unstuck from our personal traps that we all step into from time to time. It also helps to read other people better, in particular to protect us, when their shadows start to act out.
Once inside, you’ll find 3.5+ hours of practical mindfulness application and a bonus of brain stimulating music, in cooperation with my friend and colleague Diego Taccuso.
In a professional context this programme will:
- Improve self-awareness
- Deepen your “people reading” skills
- It will help leaders to make more rounded and less biased decisions
- Contribute to stronger, more authentic relationships
- Improve openness and effectiveness of communication
- Provide a framework for critical self-reflection
If you’re curious, what you need to do is to:
- click the image below and get access to the platform by signing up (takes 20 seconds – no strings attached).
- You can immediately try one session for free as it is.
If you face any issues, please do let me know, as I’m working on making everything slick and functional as possible.
I hope you’ll enjoy the programme and get lots from it. Any sort of feedback (good or bad) as well as endorsements are very welcome.
In spite of everything, I hope you have a Happy Easter!