Once, I was eaten by a lion. It was a fearful occasion, and I was plenty thankful when I woke from the dream.
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The dream featured being chased and swallowed whole by a lion, where I convalesced in its stomach for a time, after which I was released again into the world. It was an unusual and decidedly vivid dream, that shook my childish sensibilities and threw me off my game for a while. Eventually, memory of the dream slipped into obscurity.
Then, when I was in my late twenties, I was lost in a copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, part of the excellentBollingen series of lecturesthat were later published in uniform editions. Half-way through the book I received a proverbial slap in the face when there, on the page in front of me, was a reproduction of a fourteenth or fifteenth century engraving that depicted a swarthy, bold king about to eat his young son, with jaws gaping, ready to receive this unusual, if not cruel, offering. Memory of the childhood dream, and associated emotions, came screaming back from the shadowy past, and demanded resolve. It wasan alchemical symbol, part of theOpus Magnum, as it turns out, depicting the story of a king who sacrificed his son to the crucible; the throne behind the king was theNigredo– the blackening: the burning away of the corpus, the shell, the husk that traps the spirit ever seeking release.
Similarly, thealchemical “green lion” devouring the sun(the son) relates to the experience of consciousness being obliterated by violent and frustrated fears and desires.
There are countless examples in the historical record, in historic literature, of symbols, drawings, paintings, etchings and carvings, of being swallowed whole. The deeper question, however, is this: How and by what mechanism – by what biological drive – does this image flash through a young child’s mind – when odds are distinctly in favour of said child never having encountered alchemy in general, and the crucible and Nigredo in particular, in his day-to-day?
Frederich Nietzscheonce commented that he feared his soul was being consumed by some dark and creeping force; that he was somehow in danger of being obliterated. The fear, mortal and fretting, was the inescapable feeling of impending darkness – a creeping shadow come to plunge his soul into darkness, uncertainty, and all manner of human affliction – this, the physical equivalent of “the process” itself, equal to that of the alchemist’s dream.
We know now that Nietzsche did eventually go mad, whether by the hand of impending doom, by some genetic eventuality, or whether he drove himself mad fretting and obsessing about shadows real or imagined.
It seems there is a surprising commonality in the human experience: archetypal dreams in particular, that are “charged”, and which resonate profoundly within the human psyche. It fits in, roughly, withJung’s Archetypes– symbols which, by their very essence and manifestation, residing as they do, deep in the psyche, resonate in layers beneath conscious perception, but altogether very much influence perception, behavior, manifestation of ego, and how, ultimately, we go about making our mark on the world.
The notion of being consumed hearkens the need to overcome and transcend the weak aspects of ourselves; the body and self are disassembled – the very thing Nietzsche feared – and are rooted in the annihilation and deconstruction the ego – the weak link. The ship is thus cast adrift, rudderless and subject to the will of the wind and the waves.
All that is left after being consumed, or transmuted, is the core of being, whereby we finally know what it is to truly be alive.
Taunkaname (Tungunka), a Tibetan Buddhist, whose job it was in the 60s or 70s, and through the 1980s, when resident Tibetan Monks were in charge of liberating and enlightening the West, to bring“the Middle Way”to Canadians and Americans who were obstinate, and firmly anchored to their own very limited notion of spirit and of freedom itself. Tungunka was noted for his blatant, if not rude, manner – even to the likes ofAllen Ginsberg, whom he insisted shave his epic beard, for which he was widely recognized. After he persuaded Ginsberg to lose the beard, Tungunka ridiculed him that, rather than rely on his written notes he’d prepared for every live presentation, instead, he should free himself from his dependence and rely, rather, upon his intuition and inner genius, where the information he called upon ultimately resided. Though he seemed to struggle at first, he eventually achieved a prodigious skill level that by all accounts demonstrated a rare brand of genius. This, as Tungunka rightly pointed out, was the breaking down of limiting perspectives, however justified they seem in the moment. It is only thus that the reasoning mind can find its peace. In this place there is an odd relationship, a balance – odd because it seems to fly in the face of the duplicitous state of human nature – between the logical brain and the emotional mind; a marriage of logic and feeling.
When it’s right, it feels right.
Tungunka brought joy, peace and happiness to thousands upon thousands with the challenge to surrender, to break free and shake off the shackles of our extremely limited perceptions, to disassemble and strip away obsessive attachment to unproductive ways of thinking and seeing, that keep us shackled with a narrow run.
But how do we get there?
Sun and Moon are the opposites to be united. Fire and air are elements that stimulate decomposition. The black crow is another symbol for Nigredo – two birds, male and female, coming out of the body, are the soul and the spirit. The circle emphasizes the idea of union or unification.
‘Matter’ has to be stripped from its superfluity in order to arrive at the centre, which contains all the power of ‘the mixture’. The seed is the essence and contains all the essential powers of the body. One must go within and observe emotions in detached way to get to the center of oneself. This is the power of transformation.
Je ne craignais pas de mourir mais de mourir sans etre illumine.
(I was not afraid to die, but to die without having been enlightened)
Comte de Saint-Germain, La Tres Sainte Trinisophie
To come full-circle, the example set by the Tibetan monks, and what they required of followers, was not unlike the notion of the alchemical Nigredo, the material chemical process to strip away the waste and the needless chaff in seeking the pure form. The gold the alchemists sought, and believed to be thephilosophers stone– the purest of elements – was, and is, not unlike this stripping away of the residue of the Western mind.
Returning, now, to the notion of being consumed, where does this innate fear come from, however repressed it might be? It stands to reason this fear – perhaps the greatest of our fears – would become entrenched in the human psyche over time.
The Greek God, Zeus, swallowed the children ofDionysus, to stem the tide of mutiny among his children – a deep and sweeping fear he suffered at length. His solution to eliminate this persistent fear was to eat the kids. He was later fed a rock, in place of what he thought was another child, so that he would be induced to regurgitate the rock, and with it, the gaggle of kids he’d ingested. In this way Dionysus’ brood was saved.
In one South African legend, a giant snake swallows the first human, and subsequently gives birth to all of humanity and to nature itself. In this case, the process can be related to the birth of creation, the emergence of order from chaos. In the same way, the search for purity, or the true essence of life, becomes the goal of humankind. Likewise, the substance of many religions is the spiritual renaissance, the journey, the sacrifice, the purge, the goal to be achieved is purification and, ultimately, Nirvana.
Through pure ingenuity we have earned ourselves the privilege of being one of only a handful of creatures on the planet that is essentially “un-chased”. Unlike many of our living counterparts, we do not have to worry about predation, and being hunted by hungry carnivores as we once did. That is, we do not have any prevalent predator that exists as a constant in our environment, though some might ask if we are using the privilege to its fullest benefit. It seems, by all accounts, we have replaced this pervasive fear with overwhelming stress of everyday life in a highly competitive society.
Essentially we have become our own predator.
Catfish, Foxes, and Polar Bears also have no natural predator, but they don’t suffer from life-threatening stress. So what’s the difference?