Robert Johnson and the Sleeping Gypsy

My friend and teacher, Robert, grew to be over one hundred years old, an old forest Oak tree standing above the tree canopy of the teeming world of a growing discipline of Californian based humanistic psychology of the late 20th century.  Robert’s uniqueness, aside from his 6’3” frame and missing left leg, was an endless gentleness of spirit and absorption of the psychological and spiritual environment surrounding him which he cultivated within a finely tuned awareness.  Individual consciousness, for Robert, is the alpha and omega of all psychological life.  People became drawn to Robert precisely for this quality, as if his consciousness held the balm to soothe wounded souls.  But he provided this comfort with a simultaneous challenge to become an individual, to take responsibility not only for their darkness and shadow, but for their highest and most valuable potential, their inner gold. 


I found Robert when I was 26.  I had just begun a graduate program in depth psychology in California but I had met Robert previously during a psychological conference on an island on the outer banks of Georgia where he had been lecturing.  I was the youngest one at the conference and one day I saw Robert in his slow gait walking back to his room when I approached him for the first time. As is style of openness, I found talking with him to be quite natural and affirming. I was planning on going to a graduate program in California and asked his permission for me to look him up if I got there.  He said ‘yes’, of course.  When I got to California, I wrote him a letter, placed it in the mail, and a week or so later received a letter back from him with a four-leaf clover taped underneath his signature inviting me for a visit.  At that time, I had a particularly active dream life with very pronounced archetypal themes, and so when I did have the chance to sit across from him in his living room / consulting area, it did not take long before Robert was listening to my most recent dream.  After I finished, he abruptly got up from his chair, left the room and returned a few moments later.  When he sat down again, he offered to do my analysis.  This was significant, for both of us, he had just recently retired and was not working with clients any more.  In effect, I was his last client. 


Robert is a very interesting synthesis of Christian mysticism, Neo-Platonism and Indian guru.  He is a master of telling stories from Arthurian legend, Greek mythology and Indian mythology.  I did not know it at the time, and only towards the end of our time together, that Robert was passing down his mantle of ‘King of the Inner World’ onto me.  ‘Heavy is the crown who wears it’, especially in a realm that resides principally in the unseen world of psychological and spiritual experience.  The possibility of passing along his inheritance is why he had to leave the room because he had experienced a deeply personal convergence of archetypal substance that could potentially keep his legacy and lineage alive.  Shortly after I had a dream in which he removed an outer layer of his body, a subtle energetic robe, and passed it along to me.  Robert’s comment was that this is the Indian guru’s way of passing along his ‘dhamma’, his teaching, to his student.  My life was very intertwined with Robert’s for the next three years, I saw him at the minimum once a week, opening up both of our dream worlds and listening to him expound about Jung, mythology, religion, philosophy, and psycho-analysis.  I must admit, as far as my own development was concerned, I was terribly immature, but even so felt grounded in my ability to hear what he was saying, bringing it downwards into the depth of my being where it was forming structures for eventual growth.  We were not so much concerned with the ‘noise’ of current problems.  We had a larger vision in mind.


The most painful part of this experience was a quasi-sentencing or warning towards joining collectively based groups.  Robert mentioned how Jung had given this warning to Robert when he was only 26 years old in response to a big dream Robert had had while Robert was in analysis with Emma, Jung’s wife, at the Jungian Institute in Zurich. Emma had passed the dream along to Jung who then brought Robert into his house and garden and told Robert what to expect in his future case of development.  Now, exactly 50 years later, Robert was passing this same advice along to me when I was 26 years old., “Trust the inner world, it will take care of you”.  This has been a terrible tension in my life ever since to find a balance between a deeply felt instinct to seek out proverbial hermetic groves in the wilderness to nurture the inner world while simultaneously earning a living through acquiescing to the expectations of preestablished professional and cultural systems.  Freud’s acute diagnosis of the fundamental tension between satisfying the needs of the Id and withstanding the abstract demands of conforming to culture ring very loud.  Jung’s ‘transcendent function’ and Freud’s ‘sublimation’ is an incredibly apt description of how this untenable tension becomes resolved; cultural achievement of novel creations on one hand and spiritual transcendence grounded within the archetype of the Self on the other.  Being true to both culture and nature is a paradox of utmost degree and it does not matter if you hew to the atheistic materialistic philosophical stance of Freud or towards the pan-psychism, re-imagining the nature of God perspective of Jung, the ability to balance both heaven and earth is a project unfolding on both individual and collective levels.  In the midst of such an overwhelming expansion of technological and informational codification, it is even more paramount to establishes places of inner refuge that can be at peace amidst the rising storm.


Robert’s hermitage was a house situated in the Anza-Borrego desert at the confluence between the desert valley floor and the sudden rising wall of mountain near the cusp of where the valley began.  From his living room through the large picture window we would gaze at the immensity of the gentle, downward sloping expanse of desert spreading down into the valley and ending, at the very verge of the horizon, at the Salton Sea, a small shimmer of light reflecting off the surface of a salt-lake.  Biblical parallels not-withstanding, it was a dramatic view capable of taking one’s breath away.  Robert would often invite friends and guests; they would mostly sleep, tired and exhausted from the pressures of ordinary life.  When they woke, they would take their time in the desert environment, walk the trails leading into the mountains and hidden springs with groves of white sage, sit outside on the porch watching birds and kangaroo mice carefully foraging for thrown bird seed, or listen to the deep and broad silence of the desert floor occasionally interrupted by sounds of diving birds and flying insects.  Friends and guests would have opportunity of joining together at the table beneath the picture window for tea and discuss the previous night’s dreams, imperceptibly scanning the desert horizon and mountainous heights as if looking for direction in their own inner journey.  As the sign on the wall of the screened porch read, “Asclepius Slept Here’, the Greek archetypal physician of healing, Robert quietly presided over this desert space for friends to come and heal. 


Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy hung on the wall outside of the kitchen.  Robert did not put it there, it came with the house, an inherited artifact from the previous owner.  I had known about this painting since my youth, I had always a certain attachment to it due to its dream-like atmosphere, and I enjoyed standing before it at Robert’s desert house meditating on all of its possible meanings.  One day Robert joins me at the picture and after a while I ask him what he thinks it may mean.  He replies, “When you journey to the desert, take your guitar to sing and the lion will protect you”.  With that he moved on to the kitchen to boil water for morning tea.


Stripped away of cultural conventions we stand in the desert with the forces of the earth.  Some people measure growth by their outer accomplishments, others by their ability to remove these outer robes.  In the past we, the West, had monasteries supported by the culture at large to effectuate the process of becoming united with the wilderness of God, but these places have become less utilized, less valued, or left behind in time sealed inside of medieval dogma and convention, and we are now mostly dependent on our own individual fate to recreate contemporary hermitages for the soul.  The process itself is like journeying through a desert, the vast expanse of culture and wilderness merge into a single landscape.  You must find your guitar, learn how to play, and the lion will come.  For whom does this apply?  Clearly not just for me …  how many Sleeping Gypsies are there, after all?