Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A dream of eternity.

Ouroboros: Symbol of eternity.
This is a long post but it may be worth your time to read it all.

Some years ago I had a dream that was so startling I awoke immediately and recorded what I saw. In the dream I saw a huge mouth, wide open which appeared to be eating itself. Characteristic of dreams (which can have a convoluted logic) the image came along with its own interpretation, which was framed in the context of Jack and the Beanstalk. The juxtaposition of these two images had special meaning, which appears below.

The quest to establish a secure sense of identity is an ageless story. The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is a fairytale that depicts the essential elements of this quest. They are:

  • A severing of earthly dependency: in Jack’s case this was his poor mother and a cow, both wasting away. Jack was to take the cow into the village and sell it.
  • A bridge or growth-pathway to lasting treasure: for Jack this was a magical beanstalk.
  • An encounter with demons who possess a treasure: this involved a giant who was accustomed to eating those who came seeking it.
  • A possession of the treasure and separation from the monster who held it: Jack steals the treasure and flees, and in order to separate himself and keep the treasure: a goose that lays a perpetual supply of golden eggs[1] he must chop down the beanstalk and thus kill the giant. The magical treasure is then his to keep without threat.


What does this story portray and what is the significance of the role each character plays?

First there is Jack: every person. We all begin with a source of earthly dependence with which we identify. This source is transient, will die and leave us in jeopardy unless we establish our own independent source and identity.

Second there is Jack’s mother and the cow. Both the mother and the cow are growing old and Jack’s survival is in jeopardy. They represent Jack’s earthly treasure, which is passing away. To survive, Jack needs to convert this treasure into something more lasting. We hope that he will make a good trade but instead he trades the cow for a bag of seeds.

What do the seeds represent? They represent the primal source of his path to treasure—the seeds are his temporal identity, which grow over night (as it seems to do during adolescence) into the land where both the treasure and the demon that possesses the treasure reside. All of us must travel this path. It is the only way to ultimate worth (the treasure of our own identity) and in order to get it, we must battle illusions (demons residing in our mind) and be victorious.

Once Jack has the treasure it becomes necessary to possess it himself and separate it from the giant. And he does this by chopping down the beanstalk—the very path that took him to the treasure. Once temporal identity has served its purpose, it is no longer needed[2]. From a psychic perspective, the temporal self is ego, which must be cast off (chopped down like the beanstalk) in order to preserve the treasure, which is here depicted as a golden goose. What was necessary to get to the treasure (ego), now becomes a liability, which connects the real treasure from the sky to the monster. Unless it is chopped down the monster just comes and takes the treasure back again, which in one story variation is what had occurred before with Jack’s father.

This is the story of Separation and Individuation—a commonly recognized psychological construct. It is everyone’s story and depicts an essential growth process, which we must all go through in order to find genuine identity with lasting security.

Consider the parallels to anyone’s situation…

Instead of a mother and cow growing old, there is some form of transient dependency. That dependency will pass away leaving an unfulfilled sense of identity. For this transition to occur, separation must take place. It is necessary for ultimate survival since identity is considered essential to one’s being. The form and magnitude of the transient dependency is not important. Magnitude is never an issue. For Jack the magnitude was an old mother and a poor cow. Gautama Buddha was a prince of enormous wealth. The prodigal son was likewise the son of a King. The magnitude is of no consequence. The story is not about money. The issue is attachment to earthly connection, whatever the form or magnitude, which must be severed. Every form represents a dependency.

There is always a path away from an impermanent earthly treasure and that path is the ego, which Buddhism says is a fabricated phantom without substance. By traveling this path we go into the mythical sky (our mind) to find our treasure. It is not a coincidence that Jack’s beanstalk grew into the sky. The sky 0f mind is where both real treasure, demons (illusions) and God mythically reside. We all pass through this stage where we wrestle with our own demons that seem to be withholding the treasure. The stage of an evolving ego appears before us as a genuine depiction of who we are. And during that phase we seek validation from others and from our own judgments (e.g. an illusion judging an illusion). We believe this validation must come from others so we place a high value on opinions. This pathway, like Jack’s and all paths, is a growing temporal identity. What none of us knows during this phase is that real treasure is not in the possession of others who are also earthly. We go fishing in the wrong fishing hole. We are on a wild goose chase—curious expression in light of the story, but this awareness is hidden beneath the all too real dream.

We all must find our security by traveling our own temporal path to treasure. We all believe we deserve the treasure, we think our friends or others have the treasure—which they don’t. Slowly we come to doubt that desired validation will come from external sources. This is an important juncture where we let go of our attachments and pre-conceived beliefs and become open to the emergence of genuine self-worth.

The next step is critical and entails a sort of psychic suicide and “rebirth”—a phoenix shift. This is a case of ego feeding ego (just like the mythical Ouroboros)—a sort of psychic suicide, which may be necessary for true identity to emerge[3]. It is like the beanstalk eating the beanstalk. The result of this mistaken notion is a frenetic energy and intensity that is perceived as disturbing and selfish, which of course it is. This intensity drives away support, which, in a curious way, is necessary.

So long as the illusion of self is reinforced we will rely upon that source for validation. We all crave reinforcement of our illusions and resist contradictions. This is a case of the self trying to feed the self and it alienates those we mistakenly believe have what we need. This is what you could call “a psychic dry hole.”

The Prodigal Son is another Jack story. So is the saga of Gautama Buddha and so too all of our own tales. The particular form varies (since each of our lives is unique) but if we look closely, the essential elements can be seen. For some there will be a dependency of a career. Others will find co-dependent relationships. The specific forms are without limit. Whatever the form may be, attachment to that form masks and blocks the emergence of genuine identity.

To realize our true nature we must travel the path of a temporal identity. It leads us to the land of spirits where the real treasure is found. Along the way we will find and battle demons. For years, following my leaving, I tottered on the brink of survival until enough time had passed for the pieces to fall into place. There were different pieces and were distributed in different times and places. All of the pieces were needed and they were spread over an extended time period in different places. What I discovered after the passage of adequate time was that I already had what I thought was missing. Since I thought the treasure was outside I understandably looked outside of myself for validation, just as everyone does. Once I realized that the treasure was in me, the outward quest ended. That happened in a Zen monastery nearly 30 years ago.

What I had not done then (and didn’t for years to come) was sever my link with a temporal self-image. My beanstalk was still there and the demons came and took the treasure away. It took many years to realize what the problem had been. The demons came down my temporal identity pathway, which I had not yet chopped down! I had left the drawbridge down and they just came across and took the treasure back again.

This whole Jack and the Beanstalk story repeats in everyone’s life. The same song keeps playing over and over with different lyrics that match each of our unique circumstances. Common psychic forces to find lasting treasure are luring us and we all have to follow our own unique pathway.

Is this interpretation of the fairytale the excepted one? Of course not. Did the original author intend to convey this cryptic message as metaphor beneath the obvious story? That is impossible to say since no one can say exactly who wrote the original story. According to Wikipedia, “The origin of Jack and the Beanstalk is unknown, although the author was almost certainly British or German. The earliest printed edition, which has survived, is the 1807 book The History of Jack and the Beanstalk, printed by Benjamin Tabart, although the story was already in existence sometime before this, as a burlesque of the story entitled The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean was included in the 1734 second edition of Round About Our Coal-Fire.”

If the original author did intend this metaphorical message he/she was not only a masterful storyteller but also an extremely astute judge of the human condition. Many interpretations have been offered up. I have found none that correspond with this dream view. 

My understanding is a product of my own growth process combined with a psycho/spiritual emersion in Buddhist waters, which sees ego as a phantom character masking genuine identity. This premise is integral and basic to Buddhism but foreign to Western perspectives. The fact that the pieces of the story fit so tightly with this Buddhist view is truly amazing. Whether or not my understanding was the one originally intended is perhaps not the point. I can’t help but wonder if we all don’t create meaning by using available material, which gets reconstructed to fit the challenges we face.



[1] In mythology a goose could mean various things ranging from resourceful to eternal. One of the earliest uses of a goose in mythology comes from Ancient Egypt, in the form of Amon (Amen, Amun, Ammon or Amoun—alternate spellings) the god of Thebes. The word or root amen means what is hidden, what is not seen, what cannot be seen and the like. This fact is proved by many examples, which may be collected from all periods. Now, not only is the god himself said to be hidden, but his name is also hidden, and his form is said to be unknown. In the times approaching the Ptolemaic period, the name Amon appears to have been connected with the root men, to abide, to be permanent; and one of the attributes which were applied to him was that of eternity. Amon was self-created according to later traditions. In the context of a goose that laid an infinite number of golden eggs, the most likely meaning would be eternal: an interesting contribution to the understanding of the dream. In truth our genuine identity is like the goose—ineffible, eternal and without name. It is transcendent.
[2] In principle this is the same as the story of crossing a river. Supposedly the two shores are Samsara (the unending cycle of karmic sorrow) and Nirvana (the achievement of liberation) and one crosses by way of a boat. When the shore of Nirvana is reached, the boat (Samsara), having served its purpose, is left behind. No one would carry the boat on his or her back once the destination is reached. The vehicle of transport has served its purpose and is no longer needed.
[3] In my dream I saw an image of a mouth, wide open and consuming itself. Upon researching this image I came across the Ouroboros: a mythical symbol known to exist for thousands of years. It is of interest to mention that a symbol such as that of the Ouroboros is something which Carl Jung refers to as an archetype; it seems to makes its way into our conscious mind time and time again in varying forms. The 19th century German chemist named Kekule dreamed of a snake with its tail in its mouth one day after dosing off. He had been researching the molecular structure of benzene, and was at a stop point in his work until after waking up he interpreted the dream to mean that the structure was a closed carbon ring. This was the breakthrough he needed. Jung saw the ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung defined the relationship of the ouroboros to alchemy:

“The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. In the age-old image of the ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.

The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.’ (Collected Works, Vol. 14 para. 513)”
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