On a walk today morning, some images offered by various psychologists, spiritual teachers and artists came to mind.
Coming to awareness is like taking a walk in the forest, where two friends walk together and talk of what matters the most in their lives. The aliveness and fullness of the forest offers them a space of infinite possibility – anything new can peek out from behind the tree. It may be a sweet kitten, it may be a fiercer animal. A fresh scent may waft into one’s face as one walks along, a little body of water may provide a contrast to the green, rising trees. The infinite possibility of the forest is a mirror to the infinite possibilities in our consciousness for all kinds of emotions – joy, sorrow, peace, fear, and much more.
The image is from the writings of the spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti, who took many people on such walks in the forest. It emphasises the undending depths, the beauty of the inner world, as well as the spaces of fear that it is home to.
For others, the self is an island, and consciousness, the vast ocean in which this island subsists, from which it emerges, and into which, one day, it will submerge. The life span of the ocean is immeasurably large, as compared to that of this island. While the island is afloat, waves crash on its shores, sometimes softly and gently, and sometimes harshly. They bring things from the depths of the ocean – strange, beautiful creatures; plants; pebbles; debris of wrecked objects and lives; waste that has been thrown away from the island itself.
Awareness means widening the shore of the island, so that more and more things from the depths of the ocean, the source from which both the waves and the island arise, can be brought ashore, picked up, understood, appreciated. When we are unaware, we build walls on our shores, and there is a constant battle in the inner world between the waves that come to us and the walls that we hold to keep them away.
This image is from the psychoanalyst Barbara Stevens Sullivan. It deeply portrays the interplay between finitude and infinity that our lives are, and the struggles we experience as we are called upon to open up to infinity.
Barbara Sullivan works in the tradition of Carl Jung, whose autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, begins with the line – “My life is the story of the self-realisation of the unconscious.” Further in this book, Jung writes of his first impressions of Africa, where he journeyed in 1920. He writes of walking into the deep desert, and stopping at a point to rest, with a vast expanse of desert ahead of him, the wind blowing in his face. After a long while, as he rests, Jung sees a herd of black oxen, perhaps hundred or more, walking past at a distance. He is struck by this movement in a space that so far was in absolute silence and stillness. The movement seems to amplify the silence and stillness.
The oxen walk up a small sand hill, slowly, with a mature confidence and strength, looking down on the ground as they walk. Jung observes them walking for several minutes. As the herd reaches the top of the hill and is about to descend to the other side and disappear from the view, Jung sees a man sitting on top of that hill. Jung gets up and walks a little closer, to see him more clearly. It is an African man, bare chested, sitting on his haunches, silently watching the herd.
Jung writes that in that moment, he felt that the whole purpose of the landscape was fulfilled. A being who had emerged from the same earth was present. He was not merely making movements on it, but being still and looking with wonder at the earth, the animals, the sky. It was an outer symbol of the self-realisation of the unconscious, or in other words, nature becoming aware of itself, looking at itself with wonder, and learning what it is.
The image emphasises the capacity of the human being to not just think, feel, sense, but to truly realise the meaning of his experience on earth, to look with wonder and ask why he is here, and find that life offers an answer.
Jung’s contemporary, Sigmund Freud, was less contemplative, and more scientific. He spoke of self-awareness as an archaeological endeavour, where we dig deeper into the structure of the self, and unravel layers and layers that we did not know exist, and that have been there from very long ago in our lives. There may be strange artifacts we uncover, there may be times we may slip into a ditch and hurt ourselves, or get stuck, but if we continue diligently, we will find deeper understanding of who we are, how our life has reached the point it has, and what life was at earlier times, which we have partly forgotten and partly misunderstood. Unlike Jung, Freud did not travel to other civilisations, but, as if embodying this imagery, he kept scattered on his desk numerous little statuettes from ancient civilizations – Vishnu from India, Isis from Egypt, Athena from Rome, and many others.
Some days ago, a client offered me a similar image. She said therapy is like paleontology, where you find objects that you thought didn’t exist on earth, that have been here for eons, and that you slowly brush and chip at, to understand their meaning and their significance in your life.
While archaeology works with objects that can often be correlated with other objects and give us a vivid picture of ancient civilizations, paleontologists unearth fossils, which are more remote, unknown remnants of our pre-history, which remains shrouded in mystery and silence. The distinction is similar to our memories from the time our brain was capable of recording incidents in memory; and the imprint of words, actions, incidents on our psyche that occurred before this time, which we perhaps cannot put into words, but embody in how we live, love and work in the world. Sometimes, even in our current lives, these two layers exist together. In moments of deep pain and in moments of deep meaning, words elude, but our being, our face and our eyes convey what words don’t.
Another image that Freud offered was of a man riding a wild horse. The horse needs to be reined in. It is dangerous if let loose, yet it is the source of energy and strength that will allow the man to travel the journey of life and reach his chosen destination. Deepening awareness is all about understanding the impulses of the horse, controlling them, and harnessing them in in the right direction. At times, Freud would perhaps characteristically add, one needs to resign humbly to the power of the wild horse and the powerlessness of man and his rational self. The modern endeavour to control and utilise nature is exemplified in this image, as are perhaps many of our elders’ exhortations to discipline ourselves, work hard and rise beyond the obstacles life puts to us.
Almost a century later, the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar suggests that perhaps it is truer, and wiser, to realise that the animal is not a wild horse but a wise elephant. The elephant knows his way, he has a long, profound memory, and he has endless strength like the horse, but is not wild. The rider is powerless, and can at best nudge the elephant slightly, and the elephant may listen if the rider has been kind and caring to it.
At times, the elephant will tear through gardens and destroy things one has built with care. Such is its nature, but for the most part, it has a deeper knowing that the rider is better off trusting, and confining himself to caring for the elephant rather than fighting a battle with it, for there he does not stand a chance. Such a battle for control will simply be an exhausting waste of the rider’s life, who has mistaken an elephant for a horse.
The image we may end with is a simple couplet from an ancient text:
Two birds, twins, sit on a tree.
One eats the fruit, the other watches.
Beyond all our eating of the fruit, the bitter tastes, the joy of eating, the hunger for more, the anguish of starvation – there is simply an observer, barely witnessing all there is. The human being is both, the actor on the stage of life, and the witness. To allow the full expression of both, to not inhibit the seeds of action, and to not forget the vast, invincible observer behind all action, who will live on, irrespective of what fruit the actions bring – that is a life lived in full awareness of the order of existence, dharma.
The couplet was written in the Rig Veda, 4000 years ago. Over the centuries, the imagery would be elaborated in the Samkhya Karika, and the philosophy in the Bhagavad Gita.
Perhaps all these images tell us that the vast, powerful world of nature is not only outside us, but also within.
The ocean, at times calm and at others, tumultous; the infinite forest; the silent desert – these are living realities in the undending expanses of our consciousness, waiting for us to discover them.
The slow, strong oxen; the wild horse; the wise elephant; the silent bird and her vibrant twin – all live within us, hoping to be embodied.
The images, often dream-like and visionary, suggest that human existence and the cosmos are inextricably interwoven, and to know deeply about oneself is to know the texture of this weave, and live in harmony with it.