It is March, 1984. I am taking a large group of my students on a trip through China. We are accompanied by the woman who is the chief communist bureaucrat in the Chinese tourism agency. We are not sure why this stiffly formal lady in her Mao jacket and forbidding manner has come along, but suspect that it is to keep an eye on the political correctness of the other Chinese guides. They are clearly afraid of her, and whenever I am lecturing on Chinese history, philosophy, and art, they look over to her to see what their response should be.
What they do not know is that late at night, she comes knocking at my door to discuss in her excellent English the philosophical issues I've raised in my lectures. She tells me that she is deeply drawn to the intellectual traditions of her people and regrets that the political climate in which she was raised did not permit her to study them. I ask her why, then, the government and the Bureau of Tourism have allowed me, a Westerner, to lecture publicly on these subjects, and not just to my students, but to select groups of English-speaking Chinese officials and professionals. Even though I have been a professor of Asian philosophy, I am still embarrassed to find a growing number of Chinese in attendance as I speak of Taoism, the Analects of Confucius, the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, Tang dynasty Buddhism, the philosophy of Chinese calligraphy, and related subjects.
She responds with a sad smile, saying that it is because of the distrust and fear that exists between the Chinese people and the scholars who hold the knowledge of the past after so many years of purging that past.
"The Western teacher who lectures on ancient Chinese philosophies is more to be trusted?" I ask in disbelief.
She does not answer but looks down at her hands and then says, "I am very interested in what you were saying this evening about Chuang-Tzu. Tell me again, please, what he said about dreaming he was a butterfly." I recite for her the famous lines, " Once upon a time, I Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. . .Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now butterfly dreaming I am a man."
"You talk now, please, on the meaning of this."
"Well," I begin in my best Socratic manner, "what do you think of when you hear the word 'butterfly?'"
She makes little wing like movements with her fingers. "Very graceful, beautiful things...like so. But also change, how do you say?....transformation from ugly caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. Something that goes from crawling to flying."
"That is what we call metamorphosis -- the change from an outworn body or concept of one's self or society to a new one that has more freedom, more grace and beauty." I realize that I am treading on dangerous political ground here.
She, however, is willing to go further." Yes, but remember, please, that the butterfly is playful, while the caterpillar seems to be in a labor camp, having to eat all the time in the garden in order to make the fuel to make the butterfly."
It is CLEAR that we both know what we are talking about. I ask her, "So you would say then that all of this labor and sacrifice is to make for a complete change of being?" She nods enthusiastically. "But now we come to the dream part. How would you explain that? Why the confusion between Chuang-tzu and the butterfly?"
"Oh, that is easy," she declares, clapping her hands. "The man is a higher stage than the butterfly. So he wakes up as Chuang-tzu, still confused, because he has been dreaming he belonged to a lesser stage. He is waking up from the old dream."
She gets up and goes to the door, turning to whisper to me, "Thank you for the political discussion, Doctor. It has been most helpful to me."
I have often wondered about the when or what that causes us to recognize our true essence, our butterfly nature. Does the caterpillar look up from its munching and regard the butterfly soaring above the bush, only to forage faster and further down the leaf so as to hasten its own becoming? Do the daimons of time and nature afford us early glimpses of our possible selves so as to encourage certain paths to be taken and discourage others?
In my eighth year, I had two experiences within a month of each other that had the most profound effect on my life and work. They served to call me beyond the show biz "Me too!" imprinting from my parents that was the stuff of my daily life. Quite simply, they lured me into my Essence.
My father had taken me with him to deliver a script to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose weekly radio show my dad was writing at the time. Bergen's chief dummy, Charlie McCarthy, a wise-cracking little fellow in a tuxedo, was one of the best-loved characters in radio comedy and was featured in many movies as well.
When dad and I entered the open door of Bergen's hotel room, we found him sitting on a bed with his back to us, talking very intently to Charlie and then listening with evident wonder and astonishment to Charlie's answers. Unlike their usual repartee on the radio programs, there was no flippancy here, no "in-on-the-joke" sarcasm. In fact, one got the impression that Bergen was the student, while Charlie was quite clearly the teacher.
"What are they doing?" I silently mouthed to my father. "Just rehearsing," he mouthed back. But as we listened to what Bergen and Charlie were saying, we soon realized that this was no rehearsal for any radio program we knew about, for Bergen was asking his dummy ultimate questions: "Charlie, what is the meaning of life? What is the nature of love? Is there any truth to be found?" Charlie was answering with the wisdom of millennia. It was as if the great thinkers of all times and places were compressed inside his little wooden head and poured out their distilled knowing through his clacking painted jaws.
Bergen would get so excited by the remarkable answers that he would ask still more ultimate questions: "But, Charlie, can the mind be separate from the brain? Who created the universe, and how? Can we ever really know anything?" Charlie would continue to answer in his luminous way, pouring out pungent, beautifully crafted statements of deep wisdom. This rascally faced little dummy was expounding the kind of knowing that could only have come from a lifetime of intensive study, observation, and interaction with high beings. After several minutes of listening spellbound to this wooden Socrates, my father remembered his theological position as an agnostic Baptist and coughed. Bergen looked up, his Nordic face turning red, and stammered a greeting. "Hello, Jack. Hi, Jean. I see you caught us."
"Yeah, Ed," my father said. "What in the world were you rehearsing? I sure didn't write that stuff."
"No rehearsal, Jack. I was talking to Charlie. He's the wisest person I know."
"But, Ed," my father expostulated, "That's your voice coming out of that cockamamie block of wood."
"Yes, Jack, I suppose it is," Bergen answered quietly. But then he added with great poignancy, "And yet, when he answers me, I have no idea where it's coming from or what he's going to say next. It is so much more than I know."
At that moment my skin turned to goose flesh, an electric hand seemed to touch mine, and a fractal wave of my future activities crashed on the shore of my eight-year-old self. For I suddenly knew that we all contain "so much more" than we think we do. The image came to me of a house with many floors, and I saw that our ordinary awareness had us living on a shelf in the attic of our selves, leaving the other floors relatively uninhabited and the basement locked. What furnishings and books, what interesting artworks and appliances, what family, friends and pets are to be found in the rooms of the many-mansioned self? Treasure troves of suchness and muchness, to be sure, powers and potentials, archetypes and inner beloveds, but also grand dreams and dramas are always burgeoning within the interior castle. For it is here that the Dreamtime meets the conditions of the everyday, and the universe itself touches into the little local life. So potent is this place of meeting, so beyond ordinary comprehension its real estate, that one often requires guidance into its domain. In ancient times, the guide to the Mysteries was Hermes, the trickster. Charlie McCarthy was Bergen's own Hermes, his guide to the house of many floors that is the mystery of the human condition. Some once and future self woke up in me then and knew that> had no other choice but to pursue the path of Hermes and invent a career that would discover ways to tap into the "so much more" of deep knowledge that we all carry in the many levels of reality and the nested gnosis within ourselves.
That night I had the first in a series of recurrent dreams that I continue to have to this day. I dreamed that I entered a small wooden house. Inside was a single plain room with a single door in the wall. I opened that door and discovered that the house went on and on, each room utterly different from the other, some filled with statues and artifacts of incredible beauty, others with vast libraries with ancient manuscripts and yellowed pages of music. I want to read the books, play the music, enter ancient chambers which I regard with both dread and fascination, but always wake up before I can. I ask myself, am I Jean dreaming that I am in that house of many treasures, or am I the house of many treasures dreaming I am Jean?
One month later I was back in P.S. 6 in Manhattan, my favorite school, which I always returned to whenever we were living in New York. It held special classes in which many of John Dewey's recommendations for experiential education were still being followed. We would mix music with math -- drumming numbers and dancing fractions. We would visit factories to see how things were made, take regular trips to museums, and occasionally be taken to meet a great elder who lived in the vicinity. I recall being taken across the river and put on the bus to Princeton where we were introduced to Albert Einstein. I must confess that all that I remember about him was that he seemed very vague and had a great shock of unkempt white hair.
However, one day, our teacher informed us that we were going to meet Helen Keller, the great woman who had become deaf, blind, and mute before the age of two. In preparation for meeting Miss Keller, Miss O'Reilly read to us the powerful passage from Helen Keller's autobiography that tells of how until she was six years old, Helen had no concepts whatsoever. There was little that could break through the imprisoned flesh to the potential mind within. Her teacher Annie Sullivan tried in vain to help her understand words through hand tappings. Finally, in desperation, Annie pulled Helen out to the ivy-covered pump house and held her hand under the water while she tapped out repeatedly into the other hand w-a-t-e-r, w-a-t-e-r, w-a-t-e-r.
Helen writes that her whole body became still. Suddenly she understood what Annie was communicating to her. That word water broke into her sealed mind like the sun into a frozen winter world. It was her mental awakening, and she learned the names for thirty things by the end of that day. Before that supreme event there had been little in her life but body functions and rage. Helen Keller, of course had gone on to become the great educator, champion of the disabled and disadvantaged, and friend and inspiration to so many people the world over.
After this preparation, Miss O'Reilly took us to the Cosmopolitan Club in the east 60's where Miss Keller would be meeting us. Miss Keller was led out by her associate and companion, Polly Thompson. She was in her late sixties at the time, a large women, quite tall, I remember, and utterly radiant. Her eyes saw nothing and yet were seeing everything. Her smile was a beneficence welcoming the world. I had never seen anybody so full of presence and joy in my life, even though I had been exposed throughout childhood to professional comedians who were always laughing. Helen Keller's joy was of another order entirely.
When she began to speak, I heard the voice of a prophet, a pythoness, whose strange inflections and pronunciations were those of someone who had never heard speech. After she had finished, I was so deeply moved that I knew I had to speak to her. Mind you, I didn't know what I wanted to say, but I knew I had to speak to her nonetheless. When Miss Thompson asked if anyone had a question, my classmates squirmed and looked sheepishly at each other. But I found myself raising my hand and going up to her.
Miss Keller placed her entire hand on my face in order to read my question. Her fingers read my expression, while the center of her palm read my lips. Still I did not know what I was going to ask. Her hand did not move from my face. Finally I blurted out what was in my heart, "Why are you so happy?"
She laughed and laughed, laughter rising from another dimension of sound -- the laughter of a sequoia or of a whale.
"My child," she said, her voice wandering between octaves. "It is because I live my life each day as if it were my last. And life in all its moments is so full of glory."
As her hand lingered on my face for a moment, I felt as if I were lifted into her radiance and that some kind of charge passed between us. When, years later, I lay on my back looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I understood the nature of that charge. For there on the ceiling was the famous painting by Michelangelo of God reaching out his hand to touch the outstretched hand of Adam. In my case it had been the touch of the blind goddess to the little Eve.
These two events, along with my experience of trying to see the Virgin Mary in the closet at six, were the occasions that most deeply impressed me with my future tasks. In observing Bergen talking to Charlie, I saw how deep -- should we not say endless? -- are the wells of the mind, and in meeting Miss Keller, I saw the unobstructed universe shining so brightly through the lens of a person apparently crippled, but present as well as prescient beyond all others. Miss Keller, in mind and body, had spun new webs of connection where old ones had fallen away. These experiences helped me turn a corner into what I was and was meant to be. From that time on, something within me saw it as my essential task to call people into greatness, regardless of their situation, circumstances, or prospects. Whether it be a poor woman in Bangladesh with seven children whose husband has just turned her out, or an account executive in an advertising firm who hates his job and his life and is seriously thinking about suicide, I always try and see past circumstances into an individual's essential self. Such deep seeing makes life move again. I believe that what we think of as greatness is an innate state of the human condition which seeks to move beyond a limited or outmoded condition and pushes us beyond our old edges. Then, whether out of frustration, madness, or yearning, we quest beyond the failings of our culture or circumstance, seeking to regain the taproot of the self which leads us down to the very seedbed of reality and then, beyond that, into the Mind of the Maker.
The communist official has returned. This evening she is curious about how I got started in the work of "raising human butterflies." I tell her about my two experiences when I was eight. She seems both intrigued and disturbed. "Excuse me, Doctor, the talking puppet I can understand. We have actors here in China who put on masks and costumes and become superior beings. But what you tell me about the blind and deaf lady does not seem possible. How could she learn to fly with such damaged wings? She must have had a selfless comrade who accompanied her. I feel that there is much pain and struggle in this story that you are not telling me." I agree and tell her that the glory that was Helen Keller came about through an incandescent partnership with her comrade and teacher, Annie Sullivan. Helen and Annie met because of their incredible woundings, and both became vehicles of grace through their devotion to each other and then to the larger world that met them. In their story we see glimpses of the larger intention and possibility of ourselves when we attune to our own essence. But it was no easy path -- in fact, the hardest path of all -- the path of moving from darkness into what Helen Keller came to know -- an illumined and transfigured darkness. And in the midst of the illuminations lest we think we can cross a bridge into unstoppable glory, there is life more abundant and more filled with challenge, chaos, catastrophe, and sheer human worry and concern. Helen and Annie, after their triumph resplendent with spirit, nevertheless inherit the whirlwind: accusations of fakery, humbug, plagiarism, infestations of mean spirits; forms and fears of victimization by con artists; promises of support and then subsequent withdrawal of support; incessant and voracious appeals for help; fevers and congestions, rheumatisms and lumbago, and the increasing desperate frailty and blindness of Annie; marriage and shattered hearts; the lecture circuit; promises of movie riches; the need to turn to vaudeville for money to support themselves and then being made objects of ridicule for having to work in vaudeville sandwiched between jugglers and trained pigs; accusations from conservatives about Helen's support of the Women's Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Socialist Party; betrayal or seeming betrayal by close friends; endless fund-raising and exhausting trips and appeals for support for programs for all handicapped persons; and almost always, especially in the earlier years, worry and concern about how they were going to support themselves and where the next piece of money for them to live on was going to come from.
I tell the communist official that the miracle is that through all of this, Helen's spirit kept growing brighter, more sensitive of the possibilities of others, more appreciative of the sheer, staggering glory of being alive, living each day as if it were her last .
She nods solemnly. "Yes, that is a good story, a true story. I like the fact that Helen was a socialist fighting oppression. But I wonder, Doctor, if she would have become so great a woman if she had not had so many handicaps and so much suffering. In this she is like China. We have had so many troubles, and we are so handicapped in our resources, that like Helen we must seem blind and deaf to the rest of the world. But you will see; like Helen we shall triumph. We call people like you here to remind us of our magnificent culture, and all the things we have accomplished in the past. This feeds us in our present cocoon and helps us, to become butterflies.
There is a name for that transformation, I tell her. In the West, we call it a renaissance.
It is fascinating to note that the incidence of human greatness increases during one or another of the cusps of social change -- during a renaissance, for example, when the culture is being so newly reimagined that it necessitates a rebirth of the self. However, the reverse is also true. A renaissance, with its accompanying rise of images and archetypal symbols, happens because the human soul has been breached, the psyche unlocked, and a flood of new questions released as to who we are and what we contain.
The European Renaissance was such a golden time when internal and external realities flowed together. In the midst of vast social and religious upheavals, a miracle occurred. Ideas and images were excavated from their Greek, Roman, and Hebraic origins, forgotten texts were translated, esoteric attitudes became more widely available. A veritable archaeology of the Western world's past thoughts and dreams was unearthed, and the horizon of what it meant to be human was greatly extended. Thus Shakespeare's lines of pure Renaissance exaltation:
"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"
But something else was happening too. The human psyche itself was growing, and the imaginal worlds of inner space were budding and flowering into the external world in a phenomenal growth of science, art, music, literature, and statecraft. The internal world knew the cosmos for its own, and the external world became "psyche-tized."
I believe we are in a similar period of cultural and personal expansion today. We are experiencing not just the revival of ancient images, but also the harvest of all the world's cultures, belief systems, ways of knowing, seeing, doing, being. For some, the richness and variety of world culture is just the press of a button or the touch of a computer key away. What with fibre optics, interactive television, global computer networks, and other information superhighways, no one need be ignorant of anyone or anything again. This world network portends a renaissance of renaissances. In many ways, it has already begun. Coextensive with this development is the virtual breakdown all over the globe of traditional ways of being, bringing with it the breaching of the soul and the rise of content from the inner world that up to now has largely been kept hidden. I think of a conversation I had recently in Taiwan with a school teacher who had been brought up in a traditional Chinese family. "I am aware every day of so many new desires, many many new ideas, many new ways of learning," he told me. "I feel like I have inside me a sleeping dragon who has just woken up. I want to go flying everywhere and see what's what. And somehow I know that I must find a way to do it. Otherwise the dragon will devour me."
All over the world psyche is now emerging, larger than it was. What had been contained in the "unconscious" over hundreds and thousands of years is up and about and preparing to go to work. This fact is the news that rarely makes the News, and it will have consequences greater than anything we might imagine. The negative consequences of this revivification of hidden content are there to be seen on the media -- violence, oppression, the explosion of old fears and hatreds in countries that for decades had been contained under the lid of totalitarian regimes, the frequency of alcohol and chemical addictions, especially among those who feel that they have extra life to kill. "Thank God, our time is now," poet Christopher Fry says, "when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere. Never to leave us, till we take the longest stride of soul men ever took." This stride of soul must carry us through every shadow towards an open possibility, in a time when everything is quite literally up for grabs. We can do no less. The psyche requires its greatness, as do the times.
Now, greatness not only demands and acts upon opportunities at opportune times. I have known others who became entrepreneurs of the possible, vehicles of change in the time wave. A friend, Sr. Bridget McCarthy, is Chief Executive Officer of the Mercy Hospital system in California, a huge organization that tries to deliver optimal health care to tens of thousands of people a year. Sr. Bridget, born and raised in Ireland, and blessed with the brogue, has both the spunk and vision to do the impossible. Daily she meditates and prays to discover the ways of making a better health system. Daily, she deepens into her own essence to find new ways of being, helping, doing. Realizing that the times demand that health care must become proactive rather than reactive as well as becoming patient centered rather than doctor or nurse centered, she has introduced a procedure in which all concerned participate in a process which, among many other things, allows for continuous growth and development among all echelon's of hospital employees from top administrators and physicians through those who scrub floors and empty bedpans. By living out of a vision of becoming capable of passionately responding to the needs of the vulnerable, Sr. Bridget and her staff have become entrepreneurs of a whole new era of health care, a teaching-learning organization that liberates while it heals, that breaks boundaries while it creates bridges, and above all empowers the patient with privacy, autonomy, information, and support to make appropriate decisions.
And then there is Robert Dickinson, whose whole life has been a search for essence. A lanky, balding man now in his mid thirties, he knew early on that he had to pursue his destiny and break with all the molds. From the time he was a little guy he was adamant in his desire to learn from experience and was greatly bothered that what he was told in school did not mesh with what he learned in observing people and environments. By the time he was thirteen he had developed keen skills in both outer and inner worlds; as a mountain climber in the Cascades learning a great deal about placing the body in space, and through a serious pursuit of meditation learning to explore internal realms of essence and spirit. At Evergreen College he became fascinated with Oriental philosophy and the ways in which Eastern medicine and practice dealt with health and the energetic patterns of connection between body systems. As a student of Tai Chi he observed how subtle physical movements affected both thinking and learning. He became an accomplished acupuncturist and then studied extensively in China where he was one of the few Westerners admitted into advanced training in both Tai Chi and oriental medicine. The Tai Chi masters would only take someone who could watch them go through over a hundred complex movements and immediately be able to repeat all of them in sequence. Robert found that the body could learn the movements faster than the mind could, but only if one could attune to the essence of the body -- the "chi" power. Always looking for new avenues to opening his awareness further, he discovered that the process of learning was more important than the subject taught. I am honored to say that I have been one of his teachers. And, in the process he has taught me much.
Returning to his home in Washington he set up a practice in which Eastern and Western disciplines were joined to help patients and students to better health and functioning. In this he has been a leading exemplar of the Essence of our era wherein the genius and discoveries of different parts of the world are brought together in a new synthesis. But the most important thing he conveyed in teaching students and patients was to help them to learn the truth about who they are and who they are not. Maybe it has something to do with the purity of the man that allows people to release old patterns of false identity and seek instead the essential reality of the self. Numerous referrals began to come from traditional physicians who had either given up with patients or were worried about the side effects of standard medications. Thus he has been able to heal or greatly improve the quality of life of those suffering from chronic pain and joint disease or even people who were terminal. His remarkable success came about not just through a judicious blending of eastern with western methods, but, most critically, through his insistence on education into essence.
Then suddenly Robert was afflicted with a continuously growing benign tumor on the brain stem. Two operations removed large parts of the tumor but it continued to grow into the brain and with the third operation the effects were devastating as parts of the cerebellum had to be removed. Robert was left with extreme ataxia -- loss of motor coordination, as well as paralysis on the left side, loss of hearing in one ear, and speech impairment. He, who had had the finest and most sensitive use of his body was now confined to a wheel chair. However there was no loss of intelligence and cognitive functions, and his spirit, like Helen Keller's remains strong, surprising, even luminous. This has greatly astounded the hospital psychologist who said to him, "I would like to know your secret. With one operation you have lost your fiancee, your profession, you are physically disabled. Why are you not depressed or suicidal?" Robert wondered if, given the questions, the psychologist could understand his answer. Simply, he had learned patience without anger. He could accept what is without giving in. His essence had not changed, nor his belief in what he could yet create out of that essence. He asks himself, "What can I now do to create the future I want?" But he reminds us that to get from here to there you cant get there unless you are totally here. And so daily he is involved in a long series of physical and mental exercises and processes. Exploring every kind of therapy that can conceivably help he is making remarkable progress and astonishing all physicians who have studied his case. With all this, he continues to work, giving courses by copter, writing for the "differently abled", distributing alternative health products and acupuncture supplies, and continuing to see patients. He has become keenly aware of non verbal communication and has gained other capacities -- as his physical senses have changed his psychic senses have become more acute and he is able to help people with a subtlety and prescience he never had before. "I have learned to invest in loss," he says, "and now it is becoming an asset."
"And what have you discovered Robert?" I ask. "Spirit has no limitation," he replies.
Such are the men and women about whom it could be said that their very Essence corresponds to changing Essence of the time, for an era has its own particular Essence as much as a person does.
I once coined a word to describe the Essence of our era. Kairos in Greek means "the loaded time." To this I added Eros, or "passion" to make kairotic -- the passion of the loaded time. Ours is a time when greatness should be rising -- a time of dissolution and reconstruction -- but we may find ourselves kept from greatness because our Essence is bound up in the culture and psyche of an earlier, non-kairotic time. The question then becomes for each of us, how do we achieve our own kairos and with it our own renaissance of mind and spirit -- in a word, our own greatness?
Greatness may take the form of a great endeavor, or it may manifest as a fullness of life -- a living out of one's Essence self. When I ponder the nature of greatness, thinking over the many truly great people that I have known, I conclude that what they shared was a potent sense of their own Essence. Margaret Mead, Buckminster Fuller, Joseph Campbell, Clemmie, an old black woman in Mississippi, the Trappist monk Theophane Boyd, actress Ellen Burstyn, my oldest friend Gay Luce -- all were able to live out of Essence for longer periods of time than most of those around them. This ability helped them use their gifts and capacities to a fuller extent. From this it follows that we must examine the nature of Essence and discern our own if we are to achieve our greatness.
Essence is neither a place nor a time, an insight or a state of mind. It is the deepest part of our nature, an actual presence that is innate and inborn. Sometimes it wears a personal face and a form and manifests as an image to our mind's eye. When it does, some call it a daimon; others an angel. In its incorporeal form, still others think of it as the soul. Ironically, Essence does not develop with education nor with living for many years. It is beyond symbols, and is, therefore, neither archetype nor angel, wise old man or woman nor divine child. These symbols point the way to Essence, which has been called in a number of traditions "the diamond body" to suggest the crystalline nature of this inner reality. Essence is so real, so substantial, that it exceeds all symbols, images, and language. Symbols and images can provide, perhaps, flashes of insight about Essence, but not its living embodied experience. Language fails in its attempts to describe Essence or denote its activities and capacities. Essence, we must conclude, can only be experienced. As A. H. Almaas says in his remarkable book Essence:
"This level of experience is so deep and profound, so full and packed with a live significance, so moving and so powerful that it is not possible to communicate it in words. Words can describe some aspects of the experience, but they fail actually to deliver the whole impact. Words can communicate the experience to somebody who already has had it or is right on the verge of it. But not to somebody who does not know." (p. 78)
It is hardly surprising that in these "kairotic" times, a bevy of popular recent books attempt to describe the experience of Essence and to encourage its cultivation; for example, Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul, Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With Wolves, Gary Zukav's Seat of the Soul, as well as books by James Hillman. These writers wrestle with the concept of Essence because it may be the most important requirement for our emergence as full human beings. When we have lost our sense of Essence and with it the sense of our potential greatness, the call or lure of our own hidden being, we feel horribly incomplete. If we are going to survive our time and help make the changes which cosmos and history require, we must stop going on as half-light versions of who and what we really are. If we are to become in reality stewards of the earth, co-creators in the great enterprise of an expanding reality, we must democratize greatness and do remedial work in Essence. The Sufi poet and mystic Jalalludin Rumi expressed our situation magnificently:
"A basket full of bread sits on your head but you beg for crusts from door to door. Up to your knees in the streams water and you seek a drink from this person and that.
Would that you could know yourself for a time! Would that you could see a sign of your own beautiful face.
Wretched human! Not knowing his own self, man has come from a high estate and fallen into lowliness. He has sold himself cheaply; he was satin yet he has sown himself onto a tattered cloak.
If you could only see your own beauty -- for you are greater than the sun! Why are you withered and shriveled in this prison of dust?
Why not become fresh from the gentleness of the heart's spring? Why not laugh like a rose? Why not spread perfume?
Why is your Jacob deprived of the lightning of your beautiful face? Hey, O lovely Joseph! Why remain at the bottom of the well?" (Translated by R. A. Nicholson)
When we finally do climb out of the bottom of the well, we experience Essence as a strange and beautiful country of the soul, a landscape of our greatness. Indeed, when we touch into Essence, latent actions and skills suddenly jump into life. A gestalt of qualities rises and fans out to a network of enterprises for those who are many-minded, or potentiates with a laserlike focus on a specific project for those who are single-minded. This explosion of energy and possibilities demonstrates that Essence has many more capacities than does the local self, which is carved out of the conditions of day-to-day existence. These capacities belong to the field of mind; they are very subtle and can be easily overlooked. Though they gather information from the physical senses, the extraordinary human capacities linked to Essence also access "news from the universe." In a state of Essence, all knowing is direct knowing, which goes beyond space, time, and personality; all senses and all systems are "go." In a state of Essence, you know with such a simultaneity of knowings that you can be said to have grasped the whole of anything or anybody. Such knowing brings a certainty, a clarity, and a precision that seldom comes from reasoning, intuition, or insight. Quantum physics would say that the knowledge linked to Essence is knowledge of both the particle and the wave. Thus the deepest values, purposes, and patterns for life, the richest potential coding for existence, the source level of creative patterns, innovative actions, and ideas become known to us. From the perspective of Essence, the power and action of Gandhi is explicable; the sheer genius of perception and of rewriting the world of Emily Dickinson makes marvelous sense; the ability of Thomas Jefferson to study societies and then to reinvent them seems elementary; and Helen Keller's goodness, perseverance, and social activism in spite of immense obstacles appears to be a natural calling and way of being. The compassion of the Buddha, of Christ, as well as of the valiant unsung contemporary bodhisattvas who give over their lives to helping humanity are entirely understandable in the light of living out of Essence. We call such men and women great because they are in touch with the moral flow of the universe. We call them great because they live out of the very stuff of what is trying to emerge into space and time, the continuously creating universe.
Writing of Essence as soul, Gary Zukav suggests that being in this state
"...leads us to another kind of power, a power that loves life in every form that it appears, a power that does not judge what it encounters, a power that perceives meaningfulness and purpose in the smallest details upon the Earth. This is authentic power. When we align our thoughts, emotions, and actions with the highest part of ourselves, we are filled with enthusiasm, purpose, and meaning. Life is rich and full. We have no thoughts of bitterness. We have no memory of fear. We are joyously and intimately engaged with our world. This is the experience of authentic power." (p. 26)
I would add that what Zukav is describing is similar to what I call the experience of the entelechy, a Greek word which means the dynamic purpose that drives us toward realizing our essential self, that gives us our higher destiny and the capacities and skills that our destiny needs for its unfoldment. It is the entelechy of an acorn, I often say, to be an oak tree. It is the entelechy of a popcorn kernel to be a fully popped entity. And it is the entelechy of a human being to be . . . God knows what!
Seen in this light, my eight-year-old experience of witnessing the "conversation" between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy followed soon after by my meeting with Helen Keller can be seen as fractal signpoints pointing the way toward my entelechy, my essential unfolding. Walking backward through our lives, each of us can identify similar small moments in which we experience a prescient shiver of knowing who or what we will become. When such moments are accompanied by profound joy, by a sense of blissful and almost supernatural felicity, we can assume that we have touched into Essence. We enter then into a mythic domain in which the extraordinary is ordinary and reality conspires to bring us to our fullness. Once we have such an experience, we never again doubt that we have the capacity to be extraordinary, and this knowledge spurs us on to actualizing this potential.
I once asked Joseph Campbell if he had ever known the raptures of touching into Essence. After all, he had written extensively about high mythic moments. Surely, he knew the experience first hand? His answer was unexpected, for it had nothing to do with heroes' journeys or legendary encounters. He told me of a time when, as a very young man at Columbia College, when he was on the track team. Always a superb athlete, even up until he died at 83, during this particular meet, he entered a state of perfection. He became, he told me, the ultimate runner and knew that condition of Essence in which he was at once the runner, the running, and the run. In this ecstatic state he left all other competitors behind and won the raceby a remarkable margin.
I knew just what he was talking about, for when I was about fourteen, I had a similar and most palpable experience of the power of identity with Essence while engaged in a sport. I had been training regularly for some years as a fencer. I regularly won at fencing matches and was being encouraged to train for the Olympic team a few years down the line. Fencing, for me, was poetry in action, as well as a kind of intellectual sport. One needed to maintain high style; in my case, my fencing master, Frederick Rhodes, was a Russian who had been taught by a French master, who had been taught by someone who had been taught by one of the great masters of the eighteenth century. So the tradition I learned was the elegant and courtly form of another era, with salutes that looked as if you were signing the signature of God in the air with your foil. At the same time, one was required to respond rapidly, anticipate the opponent's next move, and score points, while maintaining a sense of the style of the old French court. I loved the challenge, and it seemed that fencing was a sport that was bred in the bone for me.
One day I was participating in a round robin -- a match in which you fenced with one opponent after another until you were defeated. My opponents, both men and women, included some of the city's leading fencers, all much older and more experienced than I. As I began to fence, I suddenly found that I was "in the zone." I was no longer just a pretty good fencer. I had tapped into the Essence of fencing. I was the sport, anticipating all moves, seeing all opportunities. I could not tire; endless waves of energy filled me. There was no possibility of besting me, and one after another, twenty opponents came up and were defeated. Quart, six, parry, advance, ehhhhhh la! Strike to the heart. On and on it went, my Essence and the Essence of the sport in rapturous union of movement and esprit. A gallant elan filled me. I was all the great fencers who ever were -- Scaramouche, Cyrano de Bergerac. I felt as if their spirits were joining with mine for one last great bout, until, after six hours of continuous fencing, the match was stopped, and I was declared the winner.
Why was it fencing that evoked my sense of Essence? Could it be genetic? On both sides of my family I come from generations of generals, warriors for whom sword play was the highest art, learned in childhood. Was this then my ancestral skill looped into my chromosomes and casting a long arm into my own as I advanced and parried with the foil? Or could it be that fencing was a sporting fractal of my Essence that finds another form in taking on situations in which I am confronted with the need to make fast and accurate moves in order to get to the heart of things, be they corporations or cultures that require internal change or individuals who are seeking higher personal development? In all cases I find myself within a formal context in which I must appear to play by the rules in order to reach the heart of the matter, the way in past the blocks and the parries that invariably confront me. Or perhaps my warrior quality derives from a higher source, the archetypal face my Essence generally wears, that of the goddess Athena who, in later versions of her story, was born from her father's head fully armed, brandishing a sword.
I firmly believe that all human beings have access to an alternate or archetypal energy system that allows for a mutation of vital capacity through which extraordinary energies and powers become available. Judging from the reports of enriched perception and knowing, such as accounts of mystical experience, heightened creativity, or exceptional performance by athletes and artists, we harbor a greater life than we know, one that informs our everyday functioning. This is the life of Essence, and reaching it, as William James told us, is "but giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there." In Essence we find ourselves hooked into perceptions and capacities that seem far beyond our own and knowings that transcend our given experience. It is then, too, that we agree to relinquish those limited and limiting patterns of body, emotions, volition, and understanding that have been keeping us in dry-dock, and allow ourselves instead to become available to the extraordinary dimensions that we each contain for a larger life in body, mind, and spirit.
There is real science within this phenomenon of accessing Essence. The utter malleability of the body and mind, the psychosomatic complexity and polyphrenia of our natures, and the redundancy of many of our bodily processes make it possible for the transformational programs of Essence consciousness to work in various ways. When we tap into Essence, we unleash extraordinary abilities -- rapid healing, overcoming pain, accelerated response time, and focus and endurance beyond our usual capacity. Then, too, consciousness has many levels beyond ordinary waking consciousness. The laws of local identity at one level of consciousness are not necessarily the same at other levels or, put another way, different domains of the psyche have different laws of form and function. This explains why people in altered states of consciousness can often do things that they would not even think of doing in so-called ordinary states, such as extraordinary feats of strength and courage, as well as very rapid learning and productivity. Unexplored continents, entirely new geographies lie within our minds and bodies, with unique cultures and capacities. Traveling to these places with adequate maps, recognizing them as our soul's domain, and returning with their treasures is the active pursuit of Essence.
This last speculation reminds me that Essence is often activated by a particular geographic spot, as if Essence has for each of us a recognizable homeplace. I know the homeplace of my Essence. It is Greece. Each visit seems to render me available to an inner geography that calls me home. Two recent visits in particular were palpable experiences of Essence. The first was on my birthday, May 10, 1981, when my friend Gay Luce and I were leading a tour in Greece for about seventy of our students. We had come to Epidaurus, the site of the ruins of the Asclepian, the most important healing center of ancient Greece. The air was washed in brightness, and when we came to the place of the Abaton, the place where those who had come in ancient times for healing gathered together to incubate their dreams, suddenly I was happier than I had ever been in my life. I knew this place, and it seemed that it knew me and welcomed me back. Something that was far older than my chronological years, older perhaps by thousands of years, called me for its own. Here, in Epidauros, I was in Essence and Essence was in me. Then, when I thought it was impossible to know greater joy, Gay Luce came up to me knowing my state, for she was in a similar one. She and I had always felt that we knew each other of old and that meeting in the 1960s was merely taking up again a very ancient acquaintance. When we looked at each other in this place, it seemed as if space and time hurtled past us, and we were back then, thousands of years before, in classical Epidauros, although we knew that some part of us had not left the present. We were suffused with "a sense sublime," a joy so great we had to be outside of normal categories to be able to contain it. Indeed, it was many hours before either of us was able to speak, or function at all for that matter. We had joined a larger life, a longer life, and had not yet learned how to use its organs. We had returned to an essential reality that for a few glorious hours opened the door to us to a world beyond calendars or precincts
The following month, Gay and I created the ritual of the modern Asclepian and its dream incubation, hoping to restore for others the Essence of what was. In this extended process, which is always a part of my longer seminars, the participants don ritual clothing, dance, jest, create art and make music, perform dramas and tell tales, and spend the night together in sacred space having been prepared and invoked to dream a healing dream. In the morning, one or more of these dreams becomes the basis for the enactment of a rich and complex interpretation which then often leads to a collective ritual of healing. Kaire Asclepios! (Hail, Asclepios!), we all chant in celebration of the healing power of this ancient form. In creating the modern Asclepian, Gay and I seemed to be recalling and reapplying from our collective memory what had occurred in the sacred temples at Epidaurus -- a means of attaining not just a healing but a wholing as well. As happened in the ancient Asclepian, we sought to quicken the making of new connections between brain, body, mind, and spirit so as to bring one's entire self to a higher integration. These Asclepian rituals also were the roots of my creation in 1984 of the Mystery School.
My second experience of knowing Essence in a place occurred, again on my birthday, in 1987, and again in Greece. My friend and associate Peggy Rubin and I were on a ferry traveling to Odysseus' home island of Ithaca. It had been raining heavily on the trip through the Ionian Sea, the other islands appearing as looming ghosts in the heavy mists. I stood on the very front of the ferry, oblivious to wind and weather, as a sailor called out the names of the islands we were passing, "Kephalonia. Ithaki!" As we rounded the corner into the main port of Ithaca, the sun suddenly broke through the rain and mist, hallowing everyone -- me, Peggy, the sailors, and Ithaca herself in golden shafts of light. The incendiary air seemed part of some great ceremony, light sent by Hyperian as an investiture. Almost immediately we saw the sign in the small island within the harbor:
EVERY TRAVELER IS A CITIZEN OF ITHACA.
Again, my happiness was as bright as the air around me. I had come home at long last, like Odysseus. All those wanderings, meanderings -- being blown off course, meeting monsters of recalcitrance and angels of opportunity, feeling surprised by joy, shocked by unspeakable circumstance, and too often caught for a long time on the island of frustration -- and finally, finally called home to Essence, called home to Ithaca. Later, when we walked her streets, climbed her hills, sat over retsina and shish kebab in her cafes, watched her olives being pressed, her goats being milked, her young girls dancing the ancient round dances, and even investigated the places sacred to the memory of the school of Homer as well as to Odysseus and Penelope and the goddess Athena, I knew that it had all been all worthwhile. I had been ferried back to my own inner home. Ithaca is a state of being.
These experiences taught me that some places are so strongly part of our existence that Essence returns to us there. Essence itself does have a locale, apart from, though frequently primed by, these places sacred to our soul. Essence exists on a geopsychic realm which is within us and yet in a different order of existence than the body. It is a fullness in a different dimension, one that, when recognized, can be bridged to this one. It grants an extended body and mind to the one who recognizes or wakes up to it. Then, self- realization begins to happen naturally and spontaneously. You unfold, cook on more burners. In this, Essence is not unlike David Bohm's notion of the primary implicate order of being that holds all things enfolded within it. Essence is your own special implicate nature. It is a radiance that changes and transforms everything it flows into. It contains the coded energies of change and evolution. Essence invites an extraordinary partnership that becomes a dance, as music plays between the external and the depth selves, evoking our true nature from the welter of possibilities in the inner world. Nietzsche's query is essential: Where do these wise and creative things come from? The depth self is full of mullings and openings within what seems to be chaos. The music of Essence plays over this chaos and pulls patterns up from the depths. How, then, do we rediscover our Essence and, through it, our greatness? In the wonderful book of conversations and letters exchanged between psychologist James Hillman and author Michael Ventura titled We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, Hillman directs our attention to a large painting that Picasso did when he was ninety-one, the year before he died. The name of the painting is Le Jeune Peintre. It shows the artist with an impish boyish face under a wide floppy hat holding a palette board and brush in his hands. It is a haunting picture because, as Hillman says, it is a self-portrait of the deeper self of Picasso. It is the portrait of the daimon who haunted and inhabited him all of his life. We might think of the daimon as the ego of one's entelechy, the personification within one's psyche of the higher presence, which we have been calling Essence. Just a year before the end of Picasso's life, his daimon showed itself. "Here," it said, "this is who you are. Picasso, you are me, the ever-young painter. I am the clown, the innocent, fresh eye, the dark eye, the quick-moving Mercurius, the sentimental, bluish melancholy, the little boy. I am your ghost. Now you see who drives you, what has kept you fresh and eager, and now you can die." Hillman comments that Le Jeune Peintre is a portrait of the acorn painted by the oak. Or, to put in other terms, it is the portrait of the seed of the entelechy painted by the fully realized self. Hillman extends the idea by suggesting that Picasso's painting of his potentiating self confirms Henri Corbin's notion that it is not my individuation but the individuation of my angel or daimon that is the main task; or put another way, it is the entelechy self and its unfolding into Essence that is of primary importance. My local self is in service to my daimon, setting up my life so as to help in its becoming.
We can relate this notion of life's higher purpose to the images that we find in the depths of our psyche which give us significant clues as to who or what within us is orchestrating the show. Corbin's connects his interpretation of the daimon to the idea, drawn from Sufi mystical literature, of the ta' wil -- the art of reading life. In doing ta' wil, says Corbin, "we must read things back to their origins and principles, their archetype..... In ta' wil one must carry sensible forms back to imaginative forms and then rise to still higher meanings; to proceed in the opposite direction (to carry imaginative forms back to sensible forms) is to destroy the virtualities of the imagination."
Corbin's insight speaks to how we might view our lives more creatively. Just as the painting Le Jeune Peintre portrays a daimon who entered the world of space and time and found his individuation through the human being Picasso, so we can create our own unique image of ourselves and, in so doing, rediscover our daimon and its nature. Why is this so? Because as Jung and Hillman suggest, and I concur, the psyche consists primarily of images, and the primary activity of the psyche beyond all other things is imagining. We humans are essentially acts of imagination. Budded from the matrix of psyche, we bloom out of imaginal worlds from which we arise coded in myth and symbol. These imaginal and mythic worlds of the psyche are continuously operative. They never sleep, which is why people often find their finest creations in dreams when they are more closely in touch with their own ongoing creative source levels. Like the aboriginal peoples of Australia, we live in the Dreamtime, the place where physical and metaphysical realities converge. Shakespeare said it best, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of...." If, at our core we are images, then our life is the actualization, the out-picturing over time of the entelechy's image, what Michelangelo called the imagine del cuor. This core image is the ultimate sponsor of your life. Thus all the things that happen to you in the course of your personal unfolding are secondary to the essential givenness of the image in the heart. Following upon Hillman's suggestion, you are not necessarily caused by your history, by what your parents and siblings did or did not do, by your schooling or the events of your early life. These serve to reflect and refract the primary image but did not create it. Before you were ever history, you were imagination. The image is the seed that contains the psychic DNA as well as the motivating forces that shapes the fully bloomed flower that you become.
How do you go about glimpsing this guiding daimon, whose special needs, some may even call them symptoms or idiosyncrasies, direct your life towards its possibilities? You don't start with the child and his or her particular traumas and woundings. Rather you start with who and what you are now in your full maturity; you look at the leaves and the fruits and then work your way back to the roots -- and not just any old roots, but often the gnarled and distorted ones that gave you your unique and peculiar shape. In these gnarled roots you often find the foreshadowing of the larger, more mature person. Often the foreshadowing is found in a symptom. Manolete, the greatest and bravest of bullfighters, was so timid and terrified of everything as a child that he chronically hid behind his mother's skirts. Later, when he became a toreador, he took up the great red skirt of his cape and confronted and mastered raging bulls. Winston Churchill whose golden tongue and equally golden pen forged a bridge of hope in a world darkened by war was dyslexic, stammered until late adolescence, and was considered academically obtuse. Traditional psychology would say that each of these men compensated royally in later life for their earlier problems. But in saying so, we deny the greater mysteries of the psyche and its daimon that are at play here. Hillman suggests, and my own studies of remarkable people agree, that in early life the daimon or angel knows the possibility for the adult life and acts to protect that possibility through symptomatic behavior so that it does not emerge before the person is ready to carry the genius that he or she bears. Thus the literary and linguistic genius of Churchill was shored up in dyslexia and a speech defect, while the immense courage of Manolete was preserved and protected behind an initial timidity. The talent can then grow undisturbed and unchallenged in other levels of the psyche, in the Dreamtime as it were, for no one is yet aware that it exists, sometimes not even the person who has the talent. It burgeons like a night mushroom beneath a protective cover of fallen leaves that look sickly and forlorn. In this cast, the leaves are the symptoms that are protecting and in some strange way nourishing the spores of the hidden genius, so that it may arise at the right time, possessed of its own unique and unadulterated powers.
When I meet a child troubled by one or another inability, I have always taken it as a guiding principle not just to look at the symptoms, but to focus on finding the child's guiding daimon and, thus, the child's potential abilities. As Hillman says,
"Psychology starts with an upside-down premise, that childhood is primary and determining, that development is cumulative, a kind of organic evolution, reaching a peak and declining. The early scars become suppurating wounds or healed-over strengths, but not necessary prunings for the shape of the tree; a shape ordained by the seed itself. Not only is childhood thus overvalued, but again is trapped in an organic, and melancholy model.
Rather than developmental psychology, we should study essential psychology, the structure of character, the unalterable psychopathologies, the innate endowment of talent." (We've Had a Hundred Years, p. 68)
Like Hillman, I think it is important to begin by placing our roots in heaven, in the realm of creation and the archetypal patterns. Then we examine our lives to discover this pattern and its face not necessarily only in childhood, but throughout our lives. Thus we start with what we are and read backwards to what we already were as children -- and to the daimon that was guiding the entire process. Margaret Mead used to say to me that by the time she was four years old, she was completely what she was. All that was added were the details. We have so overvalued childhood in America, and so over blessed that wretched inner child, that we have lost the power and purpose of the deeper directive force and image of our life, of which childhood development is only a small part, and not necessarily the cause of who and what we are.
To find this deeper directive force, we turn again to archetypes. Archetypes are about derivations. The word itself refers to the "first types" or "primal patterns" from which people derive their sense of Essence and existence. Quintessentially, archetypes are about relationship. It is easiest, perhaps, to understand this connectivity in psychological terms. Standard interpretations describe archetypes as the primary forms and constellations of energy that govern the psyche. Carl Jung observed that when archetypes are repressed -- whether within one person or in an entire society -- we are cut off from nature, self, society, and Spirit. The mechanistic view of the world which we have inherited infects us with a split between subject and object (mind and body, inner and outer realities), between individuals and their relationships, and between the world of human culture and the natural realm of biophysical processes. Archetypes, in their finest sense, serve to redress these splits. As inhabitants of the We Are realm, archetypes bridge spirit with nature, mind with nature, and self with universe. They are always within us, essential elements within the structure of our psyches. Without them, we would live in a gray, two-dimensional world. That is why even when archetypes are repressed, they bleed through into other realms of human experience, showing up in dreams, religious knowings, visions, artwork, ritual, love -- and madness.
Unlike the daimon, which we have been discussing as the personal image or face our entelechy may wear in our consciousness, archetypes are shared constructs. We might think of them as greater Daimons, which stand behind and inform the personal images of many individuals. Sometimes the archetypes manifest in their archaic forms as gods or goddesses or as legendary heroes or heroines of earlier cultures, but always such timeless beings ask to be seen in new and fresh ways -- they ask to be regrown. Sometimes they show up as symptoms, because often we need the full shock of pathology in order to take them seriously. Seen from this perspective, the early symptoms of Manolete or Winston Churchill were also the announcement of the archetypal presence that was going to play out throughout their lives. Whenever they move into our awareness, both personally and collectively, archetypes and the old and new stories that they bring with them announce a time of change and deepening. I deeply believe that such is happening all over the globe. Because I travel so much, I have occasion to witness firsthand the changing of the archetypes as society changes.
Recently I found myself in a village in India on a Sunday. Everyone was coming in from the fields, tying up their water buffaloes and parking their goats in order to sit around the village's one television set. In many of the over six hundred thousand villages in India, there is one television which is watched by all. On this day as on previous Sundays that year, all of India stopped whatever it was doing in order to watch the dramatization of the Ramayana. The Ramayana is the great epic poem of India. Poetic as well as scriptural, it tells of the marriage of Prince Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu) and Princess Sita (an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi). They are the perfect traditional Hindu couple. He is handsome, noble, blest with great strength and valor, while she is beautiful, virtuous, subservient to her husband, obeying him in all things. Due to a trick by one of Rama's father's wives, the couple is banished to a life of wandering and living in a forest for fourteen years. One day Sita is abducted from the forest by the demon Ravanna and carried off to his palace in Sri Lanka. With the help of an army of monkeys led by the sainted simian Hanuman, Rama is eventually able to defeat the demon and rescue his wife. He takes her back, however, only after he is convinced of her virtue and the fact that she never succumbed to the wiles of the demon. There is never a month in the Hindu world when this story is not enacted, sung, performed in a puppet show, a Balinese shadow play, or a stage or screen performance. It is the key myth of the Hindu psyche.
As we sat on the ground together watching the drama, I was greatly moved and entertained by the magnificence of the costumes and music, the great style of the performers and dancers, the beauty and munificence of the production. Why couldn't we have something like that? I asked myself. The villagers were as entranced as I, for this was religion, morality, and hopping good musical theater all in one. Suddenly, the old Brahmin lady who owned the television set and who was sitting next to me on the ground turned to me and said in lilting English, "Oh, I don't like Sita!"
"Pardon?" I was aghast. This was like a Sicilian Catholic saying that she doesn't like the Virgin Mary.
"No, I really don't like Sita. She is too weak, too passive. We women in India are much stronger than that. She should have something to do with her own rescue, not just sit there moaning and hoping that Rama will come. We need to change the story." "But the story is at least three thousand years old!" I protested. "Even more reason why we need to change it. Make Sita stronger. Let her make her own decisions. You know, my name is Sita and my husband's name is Rama. Very common names in India. He is a lazy bum. If any demon got him, I would have to go and make the rescue." She turned and translated what she had just said to the others who were sitting around. They all laughed and agreed, especially the women. Then the villagers began to discuss what an alternative story, one that had Sita taking a much larger part, might look like. It was a revisionist's dream listening to people whose lives had not changed much over thousands of years actively rethinking their primal story. It was like sitting in a small town in southern Mississippi, listening to Christian fundamentalist rewrite the Bible. Stunned and bemused, I suspected that what I was seeing in this village was the early stages of the changing of the myth. No matter that it was ancient beyond all knowing; it belonged to an outmoded perception of women, and it had to change or go.
The beautiful production ended, and following the commercial interlude, the next program that all of India was watching was the prime-time soap opera of a several seasons ago, Dynasty! My hostess saw my chagrin at the comparative paucity of American television and patting my arm said, "Oh, sister, do not be embarrassed. Don't you see? It is the same story."
"How can you say that?"
"Oh, yes, indeed," she continued, her head wagging from side to side. "It is the same story. You've got the good man. You've got the bad man. You've got the good woman. You've got the bad woman. You've got the beautiful house, the beautiful clothes, the people flying through the air. You've got the good fighting against the evil. Oh, yes, indeed, it is the same story!"
Thus are myths and metaphors recast, so redesigning the human fabric and all our ways of seeing. It is our privilege and our particular challenge to witness and assist a new story coming into time. As actors in this new story, we are seeing the rise of new archetypes, or, perhaps, the further evolution of old ones. Perhaps what I have described as Essence is what inspires such change over time, finding its expression not only in the transformation of great stories like the Ramayana but in the biographies of real men and women.
Such musings lead me to speculate that if Essence transcends our local life, it may thread through a constellation of lives, as a kind of guiding Oversoul that orchestrates One Great Life that lasts for aeons but has many different parts that bubble up from the cosmic womb in a series of incarnations. I am often asked what I think of reincarnation. Have we lived before? Will we live again? Or is this a sunlit journey to a sunless shore? Not a year goes by that I don't receive any number of manuscripts from people who assure me that they are the reincarnation of some well-known figure, and then, in endless prose, go about proving it. I have received to date four manuscripts from Mary Magdalene, seven from Jesus Christ, an even dozen from Merlin, but none from the Buddha. (He evidently moved on to another plane.) I always reply to such queries and manuscripts that I think that the universe is so complex and diverse in its alternatives that to limit our continuity to just reincarnation is to do the universe a grave injustice. I suspect that many of our "memories" of other lives have other explanations, not the least of which is that we catch the fractal waves of similar folk in the field of our own particular style and history. We may be similarly quickened by the dominant Essence that comprehends the family of which we are a part.
Take me, for example. On the surface of it, I would seem to be an excellent candidate for claiming an earlier and very specific incarnation. One morning when I was about twelve I woke up with a curious rhyme going through my head: "Hocus pocus, where is Proclus?" I had never heard of Proclus but resolved to find out. The information in my encyclopedia was scant. He had been a fifth century A. D. philosopher of the Neoplatonic school and one of the last directors of the Platonic Academy. Translation of his extant voluminous writings was difficult to find, and I didn't try. As the years went by, the name "Proclus" would recur occasionally upon awakening or dropped into my mind out of the blue. I never pursued any formal study of his work, even in graduate school. Something seemed to keep me from it -- a shadow around the name, something familiar and yet forbidden.
Then, several years ago Peggy and I arrived in London, exhausted from giving numerous seminars in Europe. As is our wont when we are in a city anywhere in the world that has theater, we had planned to go to as many plays as we could, but I had a terrible cold and fever contracted in Germany and took to my bed. However, as an inveterate book buyer in the kingdom of bookstores, neither cold, nor fever, nor chills, nor pains could keep me from my appointed task. Leaning on Peggy, I walked from the Great Russell Hotel to Dentons, a bibliophile's heaven. As soon as we got there, Peggy went upstairs to engage her penchant for British mysteries, while I stumbled around on the lower floors. My fever was mounting and, with it, reality was becoming liminal. Nothing seemed either real or solid as I wandered, semi-hallucinatory among the shelves. Finally I collapsed and lay on the floor. The British, being what they are, politely stepped over my supine form, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I tried to get up, but was so weak that it wasn't worth the effort. Instead I cast my gaze over the shelf by which I had fallen. The books facing me were Marianus' Life of Proclus and a study of Neoplatonic interpretations of Homer, with a very long section on the philosophy of Proclus.
I pulled out the biography and began to read. I was so astonished at what I found that I refused to get up even when Peggy found me and wanted to get me back to the hotel. My life and that of Proclus seemed to be ancient and modern variations on the same pattern. He had traveled much, starting when he was quite young; had early shown considerable flair for oratory, philosophy, and theology; had been taken up by well-known scholars; and had become a teacher and, one gathers, a giver of seminars. His schedule was filled to overflowing with writing (he required himself to write two hundred lines a day), teaching, counseling, spiritual practices, and friendships. He made a study of many different religious traditions, as well as honoring them and celebrating their rituals and gods, but was especially devoted to the goddess Athena. In fact, when the Christians pulled down her giant statue in the Parthenon, he had a dream in which the words occurred, "The Lady will come and live with you." His home was within the environs of the Asclepian on the slopes of the Athenian Acropolis, so he was always close to the practical as well as the spiritual healing methods of the followers of Asclepius. He had troubles all his life with the more zealous of the Christians, who were always after him trying to close the Platonic Academy as well as the other philosophical schools of Athens. He was very active in community life, attempting to help in the creation of a more ideal society for Athens. By invitation he traveled to many cities in the Greco-Roman world lecturing and advising on social and human development. He ranged widely and deeply in his studies, not only philosophy and theology, but mathematics, physics, languages, theurgy (working with gods and archetypes), medicine, cosmology, poetry. He attempted to integrate these studies and see the pattern that connected one to the other. He also had a gift for taking a great text, especially the Dialogues of Plato, and writing a commentary which allowed him, while giving an exegesis of the text, to amplify his own thought on many matters. He essentially ran an ongoing mystery school, and people from all over came to it, creating a bonded community of fellow seekers into the nature and practice of a richer reality.
Well now, I felt like saying, here we are again -- the eternal return of the same person in a different form and time. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose! You'd think at least that they would give us a different scriptwriter. Try my Dad, now that he's in comedy heaven. The ruse, however, is in the very repetition. Rather than seeing my life as a repeat performance with the same old soul doing the same old things with a few variations, I would put forward a more cogent explanation. I propose that it may be that archetypes link individuals through time and space into an Essence family or, more broadly, an Essence party. For example, people like Proclus and myself who are given to doing the kinds of things we do might belong to the family or party of "Athena." What Proclus and I call "Athena" may be the archetypal source of the Essence pulse of similar incarnational types. In other words, we of the family of "Athena" are being spored with similar energies and styles to help this archetypal "person" or greater Daimon with "her" unfoldment in the world of space and time. That is to say, our local daimon, which I have called the ego of our entelechy or life purpose, may itself be nested in a greater Daimon, or guiding archetype. Our individual entelechy is the bridge between our local life and the greater Life which is its inspiration. Thus, I was spurred on to unfold my life in the way I have by an entelechy or purpose designed to bring me as close as possible to the high wisdom, compassion, and service personified by the greater Daimon, "Athena," whom I share with Proclus.
Everyone, I suspect has a relationship to a "field" or family of an archetype or greater Daimon. Christianity would generally constellate most who profess to be Christians within the family or field of Jesus Christ, although in the various Catholic denominations as well as Hinduism the "family connection" can be found through a special devotion to a saint or a god or goddess. In Hinduism, and especially in Buddhism, this devotion becomes the richly evocative practice of deity yoga, which is the spiritual path of the present Dalai Lama. One feels oneself partnered by an archetype, and in one's meditation and life knows oneself to be the exotype in time and space of an archetypal being who lives beyond time and space. Thus in deity yoga, one incarnates in one's spiritual practices the qualities and then the actual Essence of the spiritual personage. This one does by first dissolving into one's essential nature, and then in this emptied state, connecting and communing with the archetypal partner. However one reaches them, archetypes may prove to be realities which our world of growing complexity requires for its sanity.
The Communist official has asked me an impossible question. "Explain please, Doctor, exactly what an archetype is."
I bumble through a series of inadequate explanations. While she listens, she studies her own hands . It seems that she is making a cocoon with them. She speaks softly, and is that a tear coursing down her face?
"When I was very small, and we still had the old religion, I loved Kwan Yin with all my heart. Then, after the Revolution, we broke with all the old ways and I had only the party and Chairman Mao. But that too is passing away." She opens her hands into a butterfly. "I know where the new archetype will come from. China is the great cocoon for the birth of the new archetype."
"Will it come from your political system?" I ask.
"Oh, no. It will come out of our hearts when they break open. Then the dream will become real, and the new archetype, the butterfly will fly all over the Earth."
Read Jean's new article now up on the Motley Tractate
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"Of Myth and Science and Patterns Coming Down from the Big House"
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