Whale of a Tale

The epic tale of Moby-Dick is told through the perceptions of Ishmael, the tale’s narrator, who reveals that he must go to seaward whenever he feels bored and caged in ashore. He joins a whale hunt, with the whale itself being highly symbolic. As in the myth in which Jonah is swallowed by a whale and gets another chance at life when he is vomited up from the whale’s belly, here the hero separates himself from his land-life obligations that swallow him up to go seaward and begin his life anew.

Perhaps the whale hunt for Ishmael is a symbolic crossing through a reflective waterway, and is a profound life-centering and life-renewing act. Seen in this way, the epic tale is perhaps symbolic of the individuation process, an image that seemimgly represents a conscious surrender to the power of the unconscious.

Left the only survivor once the boat of his sojourn sinks and all else are gone, it is only his words, his information, that leaves a trace. As Ishmael’s sea journey is symbolic of an individual’s need to find or redefine his or herself, he faces the monster from within, symbolized in the hunt for the great white whale. Instinctually then, he heads out to sea, straight toward that which could hold the key to his calling or destiny.

While some find and stick to a path and never reassess and redirect their course, others respond to the call for a rebirth into new ways of being, as is conveyed in Ishmael’s call and journey. When the boat sinks, the only trace from the epic tale’s initial call to its end is the storyteller’s mark, offering the hope that even from tragic events there is value, as long as even one survivor escapes to tell their stories.

Hats Off to Toni Morrison

Memories in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved “are embodied, substantial, have a shape and a form to them” (Slattery, Wounded 213) and, like the ghost of a murdered daughter, cannot be left behind. Pass it on or not, a story with a character like Beloved who climbs over rocks or obstacles to emerge will not die.

The central figure in the novel by the same name, Beloved quietly slips in—as a memory remembering itself. The ghost, the murdered, in a tale in which slavery is perhaps a metaphor for that which wounds and consumes us (207), enters without an introduction: “She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat” (Morrison xviii). Like paint transforming a blank canvas, these words bring her image into view. As she rises out of water, or the collective unconscious, she comes forward giving her memory life.

Jung speaks of a dreamer who, upon leaving a social gathering, “puts on a stranger’s hat instead of his own” and with that, assumes the personality the hat imparts, as a doctor’s hat imparts dignity (Jung, Dreams 121-2). Later, the dreamer throws off the hat realizing he has come to identify with it as his self. A hat is one of the many defining symbols in Beloved with Beloved easily merging into the landscape as the girl with a nice hat (Morrison xix), bestowing upon her the personalities and promises of the dreamers. She arrives an almost “storyless creature” who “offers to those in her midst what they desire but feel they need to repress” (Slattery 221), like exchanging hats.

Wearing a hat, Beloved is bestowed with her mother’s unresolved guilt and shame on the one hand and, on the other, the millions of lives lost to slavery demanding and deserving memory and justice. While she steps out of water, symbolically bringing memories into consciousness, the story of which she is a part ends with a blatant decree: “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). Though the characters might try to suppress their story, it is integral to their lives and passing it on is their only option.

As Beloved brings memories into focus “with the capacity to begin healing the wounds of injustice” (Slattery 210), so the wisdom and beauty of Morrison’s novel by the same name provides humanity with enhanced perspectives for viewing ourselves in the world. Hats off to Toni Morrison!


Reflections: The Sea

The alluring “watery part of the world” (Melville, Moby-Dick 18) can soothe or stir the soul and awaken within people their desired and feared journey into the Self. Ishmael, like many of us, goes to the sea where he can get beyond the thin veil of his identity to reach the primary springs of human life and thought, the key to the soul’s destination.

In Ishmael, I confront an archetypal image that intrigues me, as I also am drawn to water and the sea. Ishmael, the voice of our own knowing, goes to the sea whenever he needs to be revived and refreshed or, as he puts it, when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth.” For him, getting to the sea is essential for survival, a “substitute for pistol and ball” (18). At the sea, he can engage the soul for, as he asserts, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (19).  For Ishmael, water contains the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life; […] the key to it all” (20). For as a mirror or polished stone, the water reflects and reveals truth; its transparency enables us to see it and see through it.

Rather like Ishmael, I often must leave my work to go for a sail or jump into a pool for a refreshing swim. Doing so, I reflect upon Ishmael, the embodiment and archetype of the nuclear Self setting himself apart from the masses of land dwellers to “get to the sea” to imagine the depths and meaning of existence and soul (18). Reading Moby-Dick, I reflect upon how I seek avenues for separating and freeing myself from e-mails, ringing phones, and life’s obligations. I go to the sea, pool, shower, and bath to be cleansed by and reconnect with the water, the womb, my psyche, my soul, and my Self.

An insightful narrative voice, a character both enigmatic and decisively clear, like the waters of the sea, is Ishmael. The story begins, “Call me Ishmael” (18) and readers are at once engaged; as Jung suggests, human experiences tend to form themselves into story or mythological characters. Ishmael goes to the sea, not as a captain or cook with a defined purpose and care-giving responsibility; he goes instead as in reduction mode from schoolmaster to a “simple sailor” that is, at least, paid for the privilege of being at sea, unlike passengers that pay fares (20-21). He goes to the sea for the wholesome exercise, pure air, and the triumph of catching the first winds on the foredeck (21). So the epic begins with Ishmael, almost at once as spiritual seeker and guru, who yearns for and seeks the sea, as if the pending whaling voyage is fated and at the same time knowing that he goes out of free choice, “unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (22), proclivities that could also be his fate.

According to Jung, there is a universal longing to return to the womb, a longing for reconnection to one’s potential wholeness, Self, and collective unconscious. This may be an aspect of Ishmael’s need to go “waterward” (24). The theme is reiterated at the epic’s end when Ishmael, the sole survivor, in the words of Job: “…escaped alone to tell thee” (427). A coffin life-buoy surfaces at his side for him to safely hold until the “devious-cruising Rachael” (427) in search of her missing children, signifying a search of self‑discovery, rescues Ishmael like a mother finding a son.

The lure of the sea resonates within us all, giving expression to the impulse to complete one’s Self, destiny, and god within. As Jung suggests, consciousness is but a small boat within a sea of unconsciousness and rather than be masters of their own ships, people are ruled by creative and destructive forces and energy sources operating through them. Like other myths, this epic suggests universality and ways to understand the shared human experience and truths that transcend time and place.

Moments of Suspension

Bardo means gap” (Fremantle and Trungpa, Tibetan 1). It refers to experiences of suspension in life as well as in death, for death happens in the process of life (1). Bardo experiences happen to us all the time. They are experiences of not knowing our ground, of not knowing for what we have asked or are going to receive. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, is not about death any more than it is about birth. It is about the uncertainties of everyday life in which birth and death happen to us all the time (2).

Do you remember the moments when your best friend moved away or your grandmother died and everything felt fuzzy, as if you were between two worlds or passing out of one life into another? Poignant moments such as these flooded my mind in the continuous gaps between endings and beginnings as I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, moments when the ground seems to move, moments that happen to us all the time.

I reflected on the moment when, garbed in scuba gear, I jumped off a boat and was totally engaged in the intermediate space after the jump but before hitting the cold water to take my first deep ocean dive, or the moment I became a parent. During these moments, I was suspended between two worlds: the known and unknowable. I remember each as thresholds I had to cross in order to reach today. During such moments, the familiar world seems to fall away before there is the chance to attain a new sense of things. These are moments of suspension. These are not the moments when our lives start or end, but are moments when our consciousness shifts.

“Bar” means in between and “do” means island or mark, so “bardo” is sort of a landmark that stands between two points, like an island on a lake. It is the point between sanity and insanity, the state before confusion is transformed into wisdom (10-11). It is the place between death and birth. It is the moment before the future has manifested itself, yet the past has already been left behind: it is the gap (11).

Buddhism teaches that to view the whole of life from an egocentric view is to live in an “unreal” world and “the remedy is to see through the illusion, to attain the insight of emptiness—the absence of what is false” (xvi). With emptiness is luminosity, “the presence of what is real, the basic ground of which the play of life, takes place” (xvi). The first bardo experience is of the uncertainty about whether or not we are going to die; it is the moment we experience the possibility of stepping out of the real world into an unreal world (3).

The bardo experience can be seen in terms of the six realms of existence that we go through, our six psychological states, or the deities that we meet in our lives, the same ones that we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Within this context, there is no one to save us; everything is left to us and to the commitment we make to who we are (2). The teachings are not for the dying any more than they are for the living, or for those who seek a spiritual understanding in everyday life.

Jung, Nature, and Psyche

In The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C. G. Jung edited by Meredith Sabini, Carl Gustav Jung shares that “Trees […] were mysterious and seemed to [him] direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life” (29). Sitting under the shade from the branches of my favorite tree, I pondered Jung’s plethora of insights.

Within each individual is the power to imagine a life that is lived in harmony with nature. This is actually consistent with the development of human beings as a species on a particular planet that evolved under specific conditions. To live in disharmony with nature is work; to live in harmony is easy but is counter to the mass culture and, therefore, the individual must break away to lead the way back to a connection with the earth.

As Jung puts it, “A fundamental change of attitude (metanoia) is required, a real recognition of the whole [individual]” (167), a far-reaching metamorphosis that comes not from outside but from inside the individual, or the “bearer” of life (168). Individuals must face “the present condition of the world” as well as their own souls (168-169). That is, to reconnect with nature, they must remove the extraneous historical layers and connect with their own “nature within” at the animal level that is not conscious and can, thus, unveil the original patterns and reestablish humankind’s initial bridge to nature (172).

Once the break between humankind and nature is abolished, the “truth, but a truth which [one] cannot prove” (172) can be revealed. The truth is that humans, like trees, live on earth, our home, and we need to take care of our home and ourselves if our lives as we know them are to continue for generations to come.

Jung asserts that the psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders (176) and is aware that people need a better understanding of their own psyches, which is their essence (174). He observes that recently, too much emphasis has been placed on the development of technology and other external objects while human psyches and the earth have been neglected. Jung suggests that the uses of technology are determined by people’s states of mind. He believes that there is a profound need to understand the human soul, and that it is through the wisdom from dreams that people can find their way back to human existence (175-177). Thomas Berry offers, through the wisdom of the “dream of the earth” (Dream 223), humans can find their way back to their biospiritual earth as well (117).

Dew and Human Destiny

The experience of morning dew has been available to people in many lands for centuries. Therefore, its images and symbolism are prevalent in a wide range of mythologies and legends, particularly from ancient times when people lived closer to nature than they do today. These myths and legends help shed light on the human desire to interpret and understand natural phenomena, such as dew (Andrews, Nature vii).

“Dew is moisture that renews the earth. Condensed from the air, it falls in droplets and covers the grass and plant life, seemingly like magic, during the night.” With its sparkle and magical dispensation, people of long ago believed dew to be of celestial origin, as it “healed like rain, cooled like snow, and therefore represented water from some heavenly force” (56).

Many ancient people attributed dew to the sky forces; some associated it with the cold and watery moon which led to the notion of moon dew, a silvery liquid that was sent by lunar gods to nourish the crops; others associated it with the night or thunder. In some Chinese and Japanese myths, dew dripped from the stars; in some Scandinavian myths, it dripped from the bit of the horse that brought night. In an Iroquois’ legend, dew fell from the wings of Oshadagea, the Big Eagle of Dew, who assisted the thunder god and carried a lake of dew on his back to refresh the earth after a fire depletes its vegetation. In a wide range of Classical myths, dew represents the tears of gods and goddesses that lamented their loved ones and fell to the earth as water imbued with the powers from the celestial heavens, to renew life and restore youth (56). These and a vast array of other myths help people understand how dew has been experienced, appreciated, interpreted and understood over time (vii).

While the symbolism of dew is very much like that of rain, its influence is subtler “as the expression of heavenly blessing, it is essentially life-giving grace” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Symbols 289). It is pure water with generative powers. Though highly symbolic and even poetic, the reality of dew can be easily missed by those among us today who are too preoccupied to take notice of morning dew and even of nature’s entirety of which they are a minute part.

The ancient Greeks associated dew with fertility myths, particularly pertaining to the love gods and goddesses (290). In Buddhist terms, the “world of the dew” is that of appearances and represents the ephemeral nature of the material things and of life (289). Dew is symbolic of “the light of dawn; spiritual refreshment; […]; Sweet dew is peace and prosperity” and it can represent change and illusion (Cooper, Symbols 50). People today who do not take the time to attend to and value early morning dew likely lack the time and propensity to become familiar with the breadth of nature’s beauty and vulnerabilities.

Ancient peoples battled with and tried to control the forces of nature. Through worship and sacrifice, they tried to placate the gods in an attempt to influence their will (Andrews xii). The ancients revered their nature gods because they feared their power just as they feared neglecting any power strong enough to control the destiny of the world. Thus, the worship of nature involved the reverence of natural phenomena as animated, conscious forces (xii).

The ancients considered natural phenomena as living beings analogous to people but with more power, as was demonstrated to them with the roar of thunder. With awe, they experienced the sight of dew and its evaporation under the sun’s heat. Natural phenomena were mysteries in the ancient world. Back then, people created myths to help them understand the unexplainable, using the best tools available to them: their experience and imagination, as “nature was revealed to them as symbols” (xii). The ancients lived close to nature and treated it with respect as it fulfilled them. In their wonderment of nature, they created myths and legends to explain natural events and influence the forces that control them.

Today, if people take the time to experience dew and seek information about it to help them understand it, they may be largely satisfied with instantaneous explanations derived from a single click on their handheld devices, while the ancients revered and honored the phenomena as if they were miracles. Perhaps in our contemporary culture of instant answers and fast facts, people have lost touch with miracles and no longer recognize the sacred, nor do they invest physical phenomena with spirit as people did long ago.

Depth psychology takes seriously the process of finding “equilibrium in a world unbalanced” (Lorenz, “Forward.” Depth Psychology 7). Myths provide constructs that make order out of chaos. Today, if people can make an effort to see the wonderment in nature and allow it to awaken their imaginations, then perhaps they can embrace myths about “earth-cultivating” humans (Campbell, Power of Myth 23), myths that inspire humans to develop lifestyles that are in accord with nature, and that champion the protection of the environment and the continuation of the planet and of human life. For in this historic hour, the very destiny of the human species and the earth may hinge on a small shift in people’s perspectives on dew.