The hero of the “Hymn of the Pearl” leaves his home and parents voluntarily. We may not be so fortunate. We have forgotten our original Home and so have made our familiar identity and habits its substitute. When we are evicted from our accustomed expectations by events out of our control, whether external or internal, it is easy to feel victimized or resentful. After all, what did you do to deserve this accident, affliction, or loss? At this critical moment, like standing at a crossroads, the road taken may be chosen by your attitude
So let us say that you have been confronted by a disappointment, a failure or defeat. Maybe someone you thought loved you turned out not to. Maybe your commitment to stop drinking or compulsive sex doesn’t seem to be something you are strong enough to achieve. The ego cannot bear defeat easily since it implies limits on its power. Often spiritual teachers focus on desire as a key to growth; not the desire to grow, but the way we are trapped if we identify with our desires. Buddhism in particular teaches that continuing to pursue desire keeps us on the treadmill of habit and suffering. Detachment is liberation.
The Tao-te-Ching says:
Free from desire, you realize the Mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.1
If you observe your desires, you will probably see that desire is bipolar—it pursues whatever seems to bring pleasure and satisfaction (even if it’s pain), and avoids whatever is experienced as a negative. You seek food and avoid hunger, seek comfort and avoid uneasiness. The point is not what we seek, but that desire exists in a world of opposites. One person desires what another flees.
As we mature from infancy, some of our innate traits are praised and others meet with disapproval. Pressure from our parents, teachers and peers subtly or harshly forces us to choose which of our natural instinctive behaviors we will allow, and which cause too much pain, disapproval or embarrassment and so must be let go. We form our persona, our outer mask in order to adapt to our world. Some of this mask is hopefully authentically who we truly are, and some is fake or pretense. However with the passage of time we tend more and more to identify with this mask, and to forget who we really are at the core of ourselves.
The qualities that have been forgotten or driven underground—both pleasant and unpleasant—come to form a hidden alter ego, a personality in many ways the opposite of who we think we are. This opposite self, or shadow, is the first form of the Other, or the Companion. It is understandable why we have so much resistance to opening ourselves to meeting the inner Companion Who can bring us back Home, because it appears at first to be largely composed of rejected traits and behaviors that have not been developed, and so remain immature, because unused. In addition we carry all the judgments that formed around this other self as being unlovable, unwelcome, repulsive, shameful or dangerous.
In our desire to adapt to our surroundings we have had to cast off much of who we really are, unless we are enveloped by an atmosphere of unconditional love. Thus the inner other self or shadow feels like a cast-of for reject. In order to accommodate this other self we must be willing to experience the shadow’s painful feelings of rejection and shame. But if we do not, we become increasingly crystallized in our false self, which eventually brings us close to a state of death, of emptiness. In this state we may even seek out pain as a way to feel we are alive, or we may feel the need to inflict pain out of our own desperation and suffering. We are then the “hollow men.”2
So the first steps of recovering our true Nature can be unpleasant and lonely ones. Starting with an admission of powerlessness and leading to what the 12 Steps call an honest inventory of ourselves, it is easy to see why we usually avoid this. In alchemy for example, the beginning of the process by which gold (or the true Self) is made takes place in chaos, and starts with what was called the prima materia or primary material, consisting of low and filthy matter like dung and decomposing flesh.
There is in our chemistry a certain noble substance, in the beginning whereof is wretchedness with vinegar, but in its ending joy with gladness. Therefore I have supposed that the same will happen to me, namely that I shall suffer difficulty, grief, and weariness at first, but in the end shall come to glimpse pleasanter and easier things.3
In order to grow beyond the limits of the ego, we have to face death. We have to go through our own death and give up who we thought we were—usually quite a terrifying prospect. Letting go of what we know, of who we were (our false home), and for a time being groundless and without a self, we need something that can “carry” us across the threshold from one state of being to another.
This could be psychotherapy or belief in a religion or philosophy in which such a death is seen as an initiation leading to rebirth. Rebirth is rarely perceived when we are deeply into our “decomposition” or what the alchemists called the putrefactio. What will carry us through this dark and lonely time, which can last much longer than we might imagine? We need something that says it is all right, it is natural and meaningful to be passing through what can be an agonizing experience.
There seems to be very little in our culture that can offer us anything like this. Instead, if we are unable to avoid this natural breaking down we again find ourselves at the pharmacy counter at the urging of our friends, family or doctor. Anything to suppress the pain, and calm the terror that it will not only get worse but will go on forever. When it starts, it looks like a long straight road to hell. There is nothing to reassure us that eventually it will turn of its own accord and that we will begin to see a dim but growing light, other than the testimony of those who have passed that way before.
Even this reassurance does no good unless we are able to muster enough faith. “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” Instead, for example, of reading the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as something one must blindly believe in if one is Christian, we can once again try to penetrate more deeply into the story without prejudice to hear the voice of the Mystery that speaks. When faced with the realization of what he must suffer in order to fulfill his dharma (the true innate purpose for which he was born), Jesus bends his will into a voluntary acceptance, a sacrifice, which literally means “to make whole or holy.”
This is a lesson for all of us, and at one or more key moments in your life, you too, like Jesus, will be faced with the question of whether or not you can accept what seems forced on you as the only alternative, far different from what you would choose if you could. Are there such moments in your life? What have you done then? Is there one now? What will you do?
In the novel The King Must Die the young boy, Theseus, who will someday be king, must witness his beloved grandfather performing the horse sacrifice. The most beautiful and noble horse in the kingdom, for which the boy has much love, is put to death by the king. The boy is heartbroken with shock and despair, having no possible reason for such an apparently cruel and heartless act. His grandfather explains to him:
Listen, and do not forget, and I will show you a mystery. It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the blood-letting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes the heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god. But one washing does not last a lifetime; we must renew it, or the dust returns to cover us.4
The limits forced on us by life are what was known as “fate,” or necessity. There has always been in myth a boundary, a “ring-pass-not” beyond which one simply cannot go. Why this is so and who or what is enforcing it, we do not know. But sooner or later, if we don’t surrender at the start, we will probably encounter this barrier. It is crucial how we react, because at this time we are meeting the Mystery and from this event we will cast our attitude as to how we will be in relation to that Mystery.
Consent and sacrifice honor the Mystery; bitterness and refusal to yield are prideful and will only lead to one’s downfall. The difficulty is in being able to tell the difference between a temporary obstacle that can be overcome, and that which cannot be budged, like death. Yielding to any and all challenges is not likely to lead one very far either.
If we believe that there is a pattern or a design or a flow to our life, then we will seek to attune ourselves to it. This is what the Chinese Tao seems to be about. The Tao or Way is between the opposites—the Middle Way. It is so difficult in our extraverted and out-of-control world to be able to give serious attention to our invisible interior landscape, as well as to find the time for its contemplation.
Concepts like “Tao” and “kingdom of heaven” and “dharma” and alchemical solutio are not easily or quickly grasped, and their great power as maps of the interior is largely lost on our ADD culture. What would it take for us to realize that these ideas are worth our attention? How much further out of control must we be, must our children be, before we begin to realize that the answers to many of our problems do not lie in tasks and activities, but in quiet consideration of who we are?
It is indeed tedious for you and for me to keep reminding us of our difficulties. Why not just have another donut and curl up in front of Entertainment Tonight? Why bother anyway? Who knows if life has a purpose at all? The more chaotic things get, the harder it is to believe. However, the more crazy things are, the more desperate we really are for something to provide a sense of order and sanity. These ancient inner ideas can help us to navigate, just as our atlases and computer programs help us land on the moon.
As you set out on your solitary journey, whether voluntarily because you feel called, or because you have been forced out of your familiar setting by circumstance, it will ensure the best possible outcome if you give some thought to preparation.
Provisions are supplies and the foresight that can meet contingencies. What can you expect when you leave the known and move into the unknown?
You can expect to get lost, and to have no idea of how far, how difficult, or what type of destination you even hope to reach.
2 T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”.