Wrestling Crocodiles In the Courtyard of the Sun
Tom Kenyon, published 2006
You can still see it today, and in fact, it is often one of the first stops for cruise boats as they ply up and down the Nile. The ruins are of a temple the ancient Egyptians called Kom Ombo. It is here that one of Egypt’s most ancient of gods resides—Sobek.
Sobek is part human and part crocodile. He represents our most primal feelings, including fear and terror. His symbolic message is poignant. In order to reach the inner sanctum of spiritual illumination, we must confront and transform our deepest primal negativities.
It is here, at Kom Ombo and the waiting crocodile-god, that neophytes desiring to become Initiates undertook a dangerous rite of passage. They had to jump into an underground chamber filled with water, and swim deep into a dark and murky pool to one of two openings. To make matters a little more challenging, the pool was home to actual physical crocodiles—hungry ones.
One of the holes was pitch black, while the other radiated light. And the neophytes had to make a split second decision—swim to the light or swim into the dark. If they swam into the wrong opening, they would not have enough air to make it back to the top. Their initiation would end right then and there. If they didn’t die from lack of air, the crocs would get them.
It turns out that the two openings were the reverse of what you might think. The opening that was light filled led to a dead-end. But the dark portal led to a channel that opened into air and new life. A result of this life and death rite was that the would-be Initiate had to discriminate between true light and that which was false.
Things haven’t changed much, except that now we don’t have to go to some distant temple for initiation. Modern life provides us with a plethora of opportunities for spiritual discrimination.
I think one of the essential elements to understand here is that safety or spiritual ascent does not always come to us when we follow the light. Sometimes it comes to us, paradoxically, when we find the courage to enter the dark. By darkness, I do not mean evil, as is often associated with the dark, but rather I refer to the dark as the subconscious (meaning that which is below the level of conscious awareness). At another level I am also speaking about the dark as an entrance into the collective unconscious—that transpersonal repository or inner pool of the collective mind. Finally, I refer to the dark as a portal into space itself, not so much outer space, although it is certainly part of it, but more inner space—the space between subatomic particles and that most subtle space that is the quantum womb, the Mother, if you will, of matter itself.
A lot of my writings have dealt with the subconscious mind, so I won’t go into it much here—except to say that it is a good thing to know what’s down in the cellar of your own mind. Self-knowledge is power, and when we disregard our personal issues; we do so to our own peril. You can go to our website to read some of my thoughts on these matters if you desire. Just go to the articles section.
What I wish to focus on here is what I referred to earlier as the collective mind. And as I look out at world events I am deeply troubled by what I see. It is as if we are, as a collective, going stark raving mad. And it reminds me of a comment made by the late psychiatrist, Carl Jung, shortly before his death—mankind, he said, must come to terms with its own collective shadow, or humanity will destroy itself.
What is it that fuels our tendencies toward self-destruction? Some of it is, no doubt, due to a quirk in human psychology, and some of it is, I think, due to our biology. There is evidence that self-destructiveness and aggression may be rooted in our mammalian natures. Baboons and monkeys have been observed to occasionally organize their aggression into group activity—a kind of war. And dolphins have also been observed to kill their own kind, especially their young, all of which bears a striking resemblance to human violence.
Darkness in the Temples of Light
Several months ago, I read an account of an attack that occurred in, of all places, a Buddhist temple. It seems that a personal growth trainer had been asked to speak. As part of his presentation he went over and peed in front of a statue of Buddha. Maybe it was to stir things up; I don’t know. But it pissed off the sangha (spiritual community). Enraged, some of the male members of the community jumped up and beat the living you know what out of the dude. I don’t know if Gautama (Lord Buddha) was aware of what was happening in front of his statue, or not. And I don’t know if he would have laughed, cried or been unmoved. But it was indeed odd that such a thing could occur in a Buddhist community. If anything, Buddhists strive to be harmless to other sentient beings. What then, short-circuited the minds of those men in the sangha to the extent that they got up and pummeled their guest?
While we are on the topic, what allows some Christians to righteously kill others in the name of Jesus? I mean, for Christ’s sake, didn’t they read his words? If these Bible thumping zealots believe in taking the King James Version of “the good book” literally—then they should do what the Messiah said—love your neighbors. I don’t know about you, but in my mind that doesn’t mean kill them.
To be fair, not all Christians are fundamentalist hotheads. Some of them actually do their best to live a life that imitates Christ, and I have no qualms with these people. Many of them do wonderful and even great things. And I think the world would be a much better place if we all lived with more love and charity in our hearts and actions.
But the question continually crosses my mind, how do we humans manage to get so far off track? Well I think a lot of it has to do with our shadows—our un-owned psychological material. And this is nowhere more clear to me than in the New Age. Let me explain.
While I agree that spiritual light is a vital part of our spiritual evolution, so is the dark—meaning again, the inner recesses of our own consciousness where we are less aware—in other words, our subconscious and unconscious minds.
The problem is not with living in the light. The problem is when we disregard the dark. I actually feel uncomfortable with many “spiritual people,” meaning people who call themselves spiritual. There is something in their fields that makes me wary. I can’t relax because their own darkness (un-owned shadows) is eking out all over the place. And rather than take responsibility for their unresolved personal issues, they project it onto others. In fact, if I had to spend my last days with either an un-conscious–all-love-and-light-new-ager or a cowboy, I’d take pretty much the cowboy any day (with the exception, of course, of G.W. Bush and his gang of borderline sociopaths). I say the cowboy because you pretty much know where you stand with these guys. But someone who is all-love-and-light and without any self-knowledge regarding his or her own negative aspects speaks, as the Native Americans say, with a forked tongue.
On the one hand they are busy living a spiritual life as best they can, while on the other hand they disregard things in themselves that they have judged not to be spiritual. It is very uncomfortable to see our self-reflection when it is petty, cowardly, hateful or vindictive—just to name a few uncomfortable self-reflections. Thus, some of us strive to live a spiritual ideal to the exclusion of everything else, especially when we catch a glimpse of an unflattering reflection of ourselves. When there is a mismatch between a spiritual ideal and the reality of life, many of us spiritual folk have a tendency to tuck away—out of view—that which does not match the ways we have been told we should be. In an extraordinary mental slight of hand, we dim the light of self-awareness and deny to ourselves, and perhaps others, that we are actually thinking and feeling something that is taboo—and I don’t mean the perfume. In certain spiritual circles, we could be condemned simply for what we think or feel. Diversity of opinion or experience is not always welcome in spiritual and religious communities.
Yes, the mirror of self-awareness can be a real son-of-a-bitch, and anyone who has wrestled with his or her dark unconscious aspects can attest to this. But without coming to terms with our own darkness, we risk the distinct possibility of losing our way, and losing our way, in, of all things—the light. Now here I am not speaking of what could be called true spiritual light, but the false light that seems to be true.
In Search of the One True Path
Let me be a little more clear here. There are all kinds of paths to god/goddess/enlightenment or whatever you wish to call it. Some of them may appear a bit strange or even spooky to you or me, but if they get the person where they want to go without harming anyone else, then I don’t see the problem. The problem is actually with the Spiritual Gestapo, those petty, narrow-minded hall monitors that keep an eye on everyone in their spiritual community to make sure they are doing what they should be doing and not doing what they shouldn’t. Of course the question here is—who had the audacity to actually make up the rules on how to be spiritual?
I know some people who pray when they smoke, and their holy ritual is just as valid for them as High Mass or an Empowerment might be to someone else.
I have a fellow Buddhist friend who was working at a Zen Buddhist center and after his work was done he headed off to a local bar with a friend. A member of the sangha (spiritual community) reproached him as he was leaving. She demanded to know how he could still be a good Buddhist and go off to a bar. Didn’t he owe the sangha more than that? What type of example was he setting for the younger Dharma students? My friend politely gave her the finger (metaphorically speaking) and headed off to the bar with his friend for another type of spiritual experience.
I guess he shouldn’t have felt too bad because the same thing happened to Jesus. He was asked on at least one occasion why he hung out with harlots and sinners. I forget his response to this hard-nosed line of questioning, but I suspect that part of the reason may have been that sinners and harlots are often a lot more interesting and a lot more fun than the self-righteous. And it doesn’t matter whether the self-righteous are fundamentalist, evangelical, Bible-pushing Christians, or all-love-and-light NewAgers—at least in regards to the A.S.S. (Annnoying Spiritual Stupidity) scale. But then you see, I must confess that I am fundamentally a Libertarian. I say let the people worship the Great Mystery in whatever ways they wish. Just don’t annoy me by pawning off another one of those “one-true” versions of the truth. In this matter, I agree with the Agorha yogis of India. These dudes are fascinating, and by our western standards really, really odd, but there is a method to their madness.
Agorhas are sadhus, which means they wander around India without possessions, other than the clothes on their backs, which ain’t much because some of these guys run around naked. They may have a begging bowl and some carry a trident (a three-pronged kind of pitchfork that symbolizes mastery over the three gunas, or the most subtle forces of consciousness. And that is pretty much it. They believe that every atom of the universe is a manifestation of God; every speck of dust is as sacred as anything else, including the great marble temples where the Brahmins worship.
They sleep on garbage heaps. They meditate on corpses, yes, corpses. You see, in India and many Hindu countries, bodies are burned in public. While the bodies are waiting to be tossed on the funeral pyre, an Agorha may be found meditating near or on top of the corpse. Why do they do this?
Remember, everything to an Agorha is sacred. And they see life as it is—an ever- changing juxtaposition of life and death, the living and the dead.
I suspect it is a type of shock therapy to dispel the grand human illusion—that death will somehow not touch us. But to an Agorha, this is not comfort; it is delusion. They seek to pierce the facades that we use to protect ourselves from the awareness of both our divinity and our temporality. Every action of an Agorha is a form of worship, but were you to visit, say, Calcutta and run into one of these sadhus, you might simply conclude that you had stumbled onto a madman.
But madness, especially of the spiritual variety, is highly relative. Without understanding the philosophical and yogic underpinnings of an Aghora, you cannot begin to understand his external actions or behavior.
My point in even bringing up the Agorhas is that there are many paths to self-realization. It’s just that some of these are more exotic than others, and although they may look weird from the outside, they make sense to the one who is traveling that path; otherwise he or she wouldn’t be on it to begin with.
If you take a good hard look at spiritual and religious traditions (without the gauzy filter of misplaced devotion), it is quite interesting. Take for instance, Christianity. It is hardly the homogenized white bread religion many of us in the US believe it to be. It is an extremely diverse religion, as I might add, are most other religions as well. Consider the Eucharist, or Communion, as it is referred to by Protestants.
In Catholicism, the Eucharist is one of the sacred rites of the Church. Beneath the beauty, pomp and circumstance of the Mass, the sharing of bread and wine is a primal ritual that traces its origins straight back into the roots of a more ancient religion—paganism. You see, the Church still believes in the concept of Transubstantiation. What this means is that when the faithful partake of the bread and wine, a miracle of alchemy takes place. The bread literally becomes the flesh (the body) of Christ in the belly of the one who has eaten it. And the wine becomes, literally, the blood of Christ.
Is this not a type of spiritual cannibalism? To non-Catholics in the modern world, spiritual cannibalism may seem shocking. But this would not be a source of concern to a pagan. It would make sense.
To some Protestants, the Catholic way of giving Communion is an abomination. Some Protestants consider it a sin to drink wine, or even dance for that matter. So they give out grape juice when it is time to celebrate the ritual remnants of the Last Supper, even though their language still refers to the bread as the body of Christ and the grape juice as the blood of Christ.
Some Christians worship their God by handling poisonous snakes, harking back to a statement in the Bible that the faithful will not be harmed by even the most deadly of vipers. Although snake handling is illegal in some states, it is still practiced in churches especially in Appalachia. Snake handling may seem really weird to some Catholics, but to some of these snake handlers, their ways of worshiping the Lord make more sense than drinking his blood and eating his flesh.
Another group of Christians worship by surrendering themselves to the power of the Holy Spirit. Their spiritual ecstasy comes from speaking in tongues and shaking uncontrollably in the aisles. Other Christians sit quietly in group prayer, and when they speak, it is in hushed whispers. I am not taking sides, mind you. All are welcome at the table of the Great Mystery. My point is that one person’s way of worship may seem odd or even downright heathen to another. Relativity operates not only in the realm of physics, but in religion and spirituality as well.
But let’s not end our quick survey of the diversity of Christianity here, lest we leave out a fascinating offshoot of this religion—voodoo. You see, when Christian missionaries entered Africa in order to convert “the heathen barbarians” to the one true religion, their pure breed of Christ’s message underwent a transformation, an amalgamation really. (Side bar: What the missionaries could not have known was that ancient African cultures eclipsed Europe centuries before the Renaissance. But I digress.)
Some of the African converts (especially those who were taken into slavery and shipped off to the New World) incorporated the new religion into the banquet hall of their old gods and goddesses. They did not abandon the old ways; they just added some new faces to the party. Thus voodoo is a rich tapestry of ancient African deities along with Jesus, Mary and some of Saints. There is a great misunderstanding of voodoo in the US, associating it with evil intent and darkness of the deepest kind. Some voodoo priests and priestesses, no doubt, have questionable intent, but, frankly, so do some Catholic priests who have been caught with their pants down, literally. The Catholic Church, in case you haven’t been following the news, has been awash in lawsuits from adults who had been sexually molested as children by their priests in the back rooms of their Churches—talk about misplaced trust.
Hollywood has also added to the misconceptions of voodoo because we Americans love to be scared by exotic and strange rituals. Again, to someone outside the understanding of its philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, voodoo may seem very strange indeed. But much of voodoo is undeniably positive, at least in its intent. The packaging may be a bit squeamish for the average white person, but that does not detract from the fact that voodoo is a valid form of worship.
A similar situation exists in South America. When the Spanish Conquistadors invaded, they brought with them missionaries from the Church of Rome. True to their European history and strategy, the Catholics promptly dismantled the temples of the conquered and built their new cathedrals from the very stone and on the very sites of the former religion. But, the symbols and deities from these ancient civilizations did not die so easily. As in voodoo, isolated groups joined together the figures of the new religion with their old gods and goddesses. To this day, you can find fascinating forms of Catholicism throughout South America. But although they are Catholic in name, their allegiance is not to the Pope or the Vatican. It is to a uniquely personal territory of the psyche where myth is still alive and well, and the old gods dance with the new in an extraordinary tango of diversity.
What is my point in all this comparative religion? Well, for one, there are many ways to worship God, or in some cases, the Goddess. I think it is truly a form of spiritual arrogance to deem any one religion or spiritual path the one and only true way. And I find it personally annoying for a traveler on one of these paths to declare someone else on another spiritual path a sinner and doomed to an eternal life in hell. Or if you are Eastern in your orientation, your arrogance might be to say that only your spiritual lineage will lead to Enlightenment. To which I say—dudes, you are really getting up there on the A.S.S. scale.
The Dark Mirror
In the Great Hall of the Self there are two mirrors. One reflects only our good qualities, and when we look into that reflection we see ourselves only in the ways that match our spiritual ideals. It is good to look into this mirror from time to time so that we can acknowledge the goodness that we have attained. But it is dangerous to look into this reflection for too long. The danger is quite real and has snared innumerable persons on the spiritual path, drawing them into self-absorption and self-adoration. When we look into this mirror for too long without looking into the second mirror, we can fall prey to an insidious psychological and spiritual trap—narcissism.
In the myth of Narcissus, the youthful boy-man is so dazzlingly beautiful that he falls in love with an image of himself that he sees in a pool of water. He becomes fascinated and enthralled with his own reflection to the exclusion of relationships with all other persons. This tragedy of misplaced attention reaches its climax when a tear falls from an eye and disturbs his reflection on the surface of the water. He realizes that his love affair with himself has been illusory. There was, in fact, no one there. When we become seduced by our own spiritual reflection without regard for others and the realities of the world around us, we are lost. For a time we may revel in the legend of ourselves that we have created in our own minds, but we lose our souls in the process. And unfortunately, we may harm those around us because we are not attending to anything or anyone but ourselves.
The second mirror is discomforting to gaze into, and so most people avoid looking. It is the Dark Mirror in the Great Hall. It reflects our flaws, our defects and sometimes our most vile attributes. Who would want to gaze into this hideous thing when the beautiful mirror of goodness is right beside it?
But without gazing into the Dark Mirror we lose contact with vital information about ourselves—our behavior, as well as our hidden agendas, and cloaked intent.
Sometimes the Dark Mirror is revealed to us through the hard won act of self-awareness. We catch ourselves thinking or doing something that we know to be wrong. Although the Mirror gives us the grace of clear in-sight into our questionable thoughts and actions, it cannot stop us from thinking or doing them. That takes an act of personal will. For some of us, the Dark Mirror can be so disturbing we will do anything and everything to avoid looking at it (and ourselves).
Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Who can I get to toss you out of the hall?
Sometimes the Dark Mirror takes the form of a person who tells us in no uncertain terms that we are out of line—doing something, in other words, that we have no business doing. But to someone who is lost in the labyrinth of narcissism, such feedback is not appreciated. And in fact, such persons can become downright hostile or in some cases, dangerous, when confronted with their dark un-owned material.
Spiritual leaders and religious figures are particularly vulnerable to this dangerous abyss. And many a spiritual teacher has fallen from grace by not looking long enough or deep enough into the Dark Mirror.
The thing about spiritual narcissism is that those of us who fall into its trap do not recognize that we have been snared. We do not see that we have become self-obsessed. It just seems natural for us to be the center around which all things should revolve. We become a legend in our own mind. And all our self-importance grows like poison mushrooms in the shade of night—the deep darkness of self-forgetting.
But it is equally important for those of us who find the courage to gaze into our own Dark Mirrors not to gaze too long, or become too obsessed with what we see. Confrontation with darkness requires some degree of detachment if we are to survive the encounter.
While it is imperative to gaze into these uncomfortable reflections of ourselves as well as our behavior, it is vital that we do so in balance. And so it is best if we look in both mirrors—the mirror that reflects our goodness and the mirror that reflects our unconscious questionable intents.
Crocodiles In the Courtyard of the Sun
All of this brings us full circle back to Kom Ombo, the Initiatory Temple by the Nile. Back then, one had to outwit the hungry reptiles and decide in a moment’s notice which portal to enter—the portal of light or the portal of darkness.
Today, few of us have to swim through crocodiles. Instead we must wrestle with them in what I call the Courtyard of the Sun.
This Sun is not the central star of our solar system upon which all life on Earth depends. But rather this is a Spiritual Sun, a metaphor actually, for Spirit itself. It is an ancient symbol of spirituality that we have inherited from cultures before us. And it is deeply imbedded in our collective mind and religious aspirations.
It is not in the scope of this article to go into this as deep as I would like, but I think it important to at least mention it. There are two major celestial symbols for consciousness that we have inherited, and they are in fact, held to be antagonistic by many. And what are these two symbols? They are the sun and the moon.
Symbolically, for at least last two thousand years or so, perhaps longer, the radiant light of the Sun has been associated with Spirit as well as the masculine aspects of consciousness. The moon, on the other hand, has been associated with the Earth, the feminine and darkness.
For various reasons, way too complex to go into here, the Light has become associated with all that is good. And indeed, many religions and new age philosophies aspire to leave the world behind and enter into the Promised Land of Eternal Light. Darkness is feared by many people on the spiritual path, and yet it is within some types of darkness that the greatest self-awareness and spiritual illumination takes place.
In the Courtyard of the Sun we are surrounded by light and seeming goodness. But all is not what it seems to be. Best not be fooled by the radiant light and think that our journey has ended. The crocodiles are waiting. They take many forms—arrogance, spiritual pride, envy, impatience, to name just a few. Perhaps the most dangerous of them is self-importance. Many of us on the path have been devoured by this insidious creature.
The bitch of it is that there is not just one courtyard. Each time we grow spiritually and gain a little more light, a little more wisdom, our path opens up into a new courtyard. And a new initiation awaits us, and the outcome depends upon what we have learned about ourselves and the world.
I have no words of wisdom here, for each of us must take our own journey into the Mystery and find our own ways through the labyrinths that confront us. I do, however, have a few final words of advice. In the Great Hall of the Self, there are two mirrors. Take the time to look into both of them. Don’t become seduced by either. Keep your wits as well as your sense of humor. Sometimes your laughter may be your best ally on this strange and wondrous adventure. And may the cosmic farce that passeth all understanding be with you.