Marvels: Letters from an Elder, Part 12
Letter # 8 September 7th, 1948
I can see that the swimming analogy has resonated with you. To recollect, then: we are talking about the mortal plane, life in the physical universe, as though it was the spirit ‘swimming’ in matter, entering the ‘water’ at birth and departing from it at death, in the hopes of using this analogy to achieve further enlightenment about that state and what follows it after bodily death. More profoundly, by viewing this analogically, it might be possible to discern the purpose of entering the 'pool' in the first place.
In particular, you are fascinated by the concept of being ‘out of your depth’ in this ‘water’ and what to do about that.
In my last letter, we touched upon two safety principles, recommending that you don’t ‘swim’ alone, and that you seek to learn to swim in still waters. Before we can develop the analogy along the lines you are interested in, I would suggest that there are some other key precautions you should take, if possible.
To phrase one of these analogically, ‘Avoid swimming during inclement weather conditions.’ This is an extension of the second rule. In life, though, as opposed to being in a lake or pool, it’s not always easy to predict the ‘weather’. A human being needs some experience of living before he or she can begin to assess evolving situations with any accuracy: what seems calm can often hide the storm. But it remains a deeply important precaution: one cannot express oneself fully in Life nor understand Life’s lessons in chaotic or rapidly changing situations. If you are looking to ‘find yourself’ or to gain some kind of mastery over mortal existence, you must first seek peace and quiet, as with our second rule above: search for still waters. Even the most practised spirit needs to seek safe harbour before he or she can make much progress in understanding.
This can be further expanded to this: find waters in which you are comfortable. Remove from your environment as much as possible those things which prompt extreme reactions or which are upsetting. Now, many might object to this. To withdraw from all elements in one’s life which create discord or upset, some might suggest, is to run away from Life’s challenges and risk becoming spiritually atrophied, blinkered or lethargic. Unless one is prepared to face the difficulties which Life presents, the argument goes, then one is simply avoiding one’s responsibilities and opportunities.
It’s an old argument, but it misses the point in a fundamental way.
If you are seeking to understand Life’s mysteries and maxims in an environment which contains upheaval, distress, pressure, upset and trauma, you are unlikely to be able to discern the underlying pattern of things sufficiently to be able to tell the difference between what your life is challenging you with in particular and the general chaos of your surroundings. In other words, in a noisy room you are most likely to miss the essential thing that someone is trying to tell you — or, to continue the swimming analogy, in a crowded sea in which a storm rages, it is profoundly difficult to learn even the basic strokes of swimming. It is far more likely, in such a sea, that one will drown; it is almost inevitable that one will fail to master the strokes which would have guaranteed one’s survival and progress. Removing trauma and drama as much as possible calms the waters enough for you to be able to learn the fundamentals. When you have mastered those, you may be able to face more turbulent seas — but even the most practised swimmer avoids the most dangerous waves.
Finding placid, comfortable waters means that you are more likely to be able to become proficient in the first of Life’s (and swimming’s) most basic skills: how to 'float'.
With swimming, when a beginner is in the water, they usually hold on to the side of the pool or a dock, and let their legs float out behind them. If the person permits it, their legs lift easily and are soon resting close to and upon the water’s surface. Buoyancy is achieved. In Life, first of all then, one needs something to hold onto.
As you will no doubt have realised, this is a crucial component in mastering floating in both swimming and Life: finding something which is stable enough to ‘hold onto’, to grip with sufficient confidence so that the rest of the ‘body’ can relax and rise upwards to achieve stasis. The good news is that this stable point is not necessarily something which has to be searched for intellectually until one finds the ‘ultimate rock’ upon which the rest of one’s reality can depend: this process does not begin with a prolonged search for the stability and security with which it should end. No; as a beginner, one is permitted to start with some short cuts, and the first of these is this: to locate a stable point, one simply invents one.
In other words, anything which a person can train themselves into thinking is stable, even temporarily, can serve as a point from which to begin. This is why ancient priesthoods, and other practices which have meditation and prayer at their core, engage in ritual and routine over prolonged periods: they are training their own minds and hearts into regarding some set of words or motions or combinations of actions as ‘stable’. The stability is not necessarily inherent, but arises from rhythmic repetition. A mantra or short prayer or liturgy or series of movements, done over and over again, trains the individual’s body and mind to regard the words and actions as points of stillness. This is all to do with rhythm: if a mind can accept something as rhythmic, it tends to also regard it as stable. In the repeated pattern of words, symbols or motions is a stillness; upon that stillness, the remainder of the body and mind can be ‘rested’. By gripping onto that repeated mantra or prayer of set of exercises, the individual can permit everything else to ‘float’ just as the swimmer allows his or her body to rise up in the water.
This requires time and practice — in fact, Time, as a repeated pattern, is its essential ingredient. It is no good adopting a mantra and expecting it to permit the floating of the rest of one’s mind or heart after a day, or a week, or even a month of continual repetition. Obviously, the more time spent on it, the better the gain — but the degree of stability of any ‘fixed’ point is determined by the amount of time spent fixing that point. Time, if you like, is the fuel which makes this run; any attempt to short cut the time will inevitably lead to a reduction of stability. This is why gurus spend decades upon mountaintops — not particularly because they relish ascetic denial and deprivation, but because they have come to terms with the fact that creating stable points in a time-driven universe depends upon investing enough time into making them stable.
Finding a mantra or prayer is relatively easy: it needs to be a set of words or a pattern with which the individual feels comfortable and relaxed. Turning that mantra or prayer or whatever it is into a point which will enable the individual to ‘float’ requires the investment of Time in the same way that turning an idea into a business requires time, or turning a tune into a symphony, or transforming a seed into a tree.
The time between this letter and my next — assuming you wish me to continue writing — will not be sufficient time to achieve the stability required for you to master this act of ‘floating’. But I will, if you wish, continue to describe how to ‘swim’, on the assumption that the beginner might wish to know what is forthcoming should he or she remain invested in the subject.