The real mystery does not behave mysteriously, but speaks a secret language.
–Carl Gustav Jung
Bird poop is the Prima Materia of the opus, the alpha and omega of the great work of the philosophers. Transmuted and transfigured by the alchemical fire in the sealed retort of the adepts, the excretions of our winged brethren reveal the grand pageant of creation on the microcosmic scale. I shall endeavor to elucidate the arcana of avian excrement and thereby elevate my humble office of brush bearer to that of high art; to seek amid the white glyphs that adorn the docks a sign that might illuminate secrets of a hidden world.
Bird poop is the mother of all elements, without beginning, existent from all eternity and mixed with the handful of primal earth Adam brought forth from Eden. It is found always and everywhere. It contains the Divine presence in the obdurate whiteness of its adamantine– and often goopy–reality. It is both the beginning and end of the great work, the primal ooze from which the aspirant takes flight into the rarefied spheres of heavenly gnossis.
This post is the first in a series logging my daily circumambulation, bearing the broom of my high office. The broom is the emblem of adepts, the standard of those who seek the philosopher’s stone among the crustacean beasties that reign over the intertidal zone.
Last June I had the good fortune to land a job at at the Dogfish Bay Marina. Aside from sweeping the docks, parking lot and the endless chores, I found myself cast in the role of a sort of ambassador between the human and the pinniped populations. I experienced the trauma of a seal pup, abandoned by it’s mother, slowly die from starvation.
Seals must get a firm scent at birth in order to establish contact. Immediately after birth, the mother clasps her newborn by the nape of the neck in order to get the scent. If this process is interrupted, the mother fails to establish the link which allows her to “recognize” her pup. Through the interference of a well-meaning child, this process was interrupted, and the mother let her offspring starve. After the poor pup’s demise, she haunted the dock near where her pup had hauled out on the low swim-step of a speedboat; her eyes streaming with tears.
For ages, seals have emanated an aura of magic. In the Celtic stories of the Selkies, a hunter, on a quest for worldly riches, is summoned into the depths by a shape-shifting, seal messenger of Lachlann’s undersea Kingdom. After a lengthy stay, the hero returns to terra firma transformed by his experience–a wiser, more compassionate being. His cruel, rapacious heart is softened by his ordeal and he emerges a changed man; one who has seen the depths of profound reality below the selfish preoccupations with material gain. Such a visitation by the Selkie heralds an epiphany– an awareness of our deep relatedness with all creation.
Among Northwest tribes, seal people played a role as emissary of their guardian King, Komokwa, in the winter Tseteka–shaman–dances where supernatural beings came from the spirit world to initiate the young into the dancing societies. A seal conducted the novice into the submarine world where, after a period of fasting and prayer, he returned to the tribe in a canoe laden with a wealth of copper, to found a new lineage which was then honored in the dancing houses.
By day, the lumbering hulks of seals lounge on the docks. One night, I saw a flash of green phosphorescence as the seals sped below the surface of Dogfish Bay. These mercurial denizens of the deep bridge the yawning divide between the conscious and unconscious energies, and guide the seeker into timeless mysteries where shadowy beings lie below the reflective surface of the sea. Their uncanny visitations shake up our smug assumptions of human supremacy and herald a new awareness based in feeling, compassion, and illumined by the transfiguring light of dreams.
This is my first post telling of my experience as pinniped ambassador, documenting scientific observation, and evoking the mythology of seals. I hope my blog is informative as well as therapeutic. After the traumatic death of Bobby last Summer, I wish to be better prepared to deal with all the many, tragi-comic aspects of the birthing season.
Came the loud scratchy blare of loudspeakers over the still anchorage.
“Ilaha illa allah…”
I rose disgruntled and ascended the companionway to see McWhirr standing on deck, still in his black watch coat despite the fast-
rising heat. His normally stark, grim profile appeared transformed by the dawn light with an aura of rapturous praise.
Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I returned below and put on a pot of joseph.
After a harrowing passage through
the Sunda Strait, we’d anchored in the Sunda Kelapa harbour the night before under the tall spires of north Jakarta. I’d had a fitful sleep, and the portentous imagery of my dreams had been confounded by a blasted, bleeping racket that still echoed over the calm anchorage. Turns out we’d brought up just off the Ancol Theme Park.
McWhirr came below. I handed him a cup and ventured:
“Captain, why have we sailed into this steaming latitude?”
For indeed, it was cruel muggy and a pall of charcoal gray hung over the city.
McWhirr lit his pipe and said:
“I was but a green swab surfing the long fetch of the seven cyber-seas when I first heard of the East Indies. That was a simpler time, when a single multinational corporation called the IndiaRubber.com ruled the whole archipelago. Now it’s dog eat dog, with upstart pirates trying to challenge the Dutch spice monopoly and their quasi-governmental powers by fair means or foul.”
“But take care son,” he said darkly, “one word from the Dutch, colonial CEO and we could be standing before a firing squad before you can say: Garcia Lorca.”
How I came to follow the mystic path of Sufism demands an allusive prose that, I hope, remains faithful to the spirit of initiatory Gnosis at the heartfelt core of all faiths.
Some 20 years ago I come across the book,Alone with the Alone, creative imagination in theSufism of Ibn Arabi by Henry Corbin. At first, this convoluted explication of a particularly arcane branch of Islamic Sufism was way over my head. Yet this book-and a powerful dream that was inspired by my first encounter with it-has since established a steady waypoint by which my spiritual life has been oriented. It has opened vistas onto a world of secret symbols whose meaning continue to elude, perplex and inspire me.
There is a realm, Corbin says, that lies between sense perception and the rarified sphere of pure spiritual essence. This is where divine revelation takes place. Those whose inner vision opens into the intermediate world (alam-al- mithal) are given the insight that liberates from the rigid strictures of dogma. This perception–whose channel is the active imagination–requires we forsake the learned myopia of scientific materialists who accord “reality” only to those objects of sense, reason and measurable data.
In the dream, I was flying through black space, turning with outstretched arms and singing the Basmallah: Bism’allah er Rahman er Raheem [we begin in the name of the One who is all Mercy and Compassion.] I’d learned this beautiful verse–which opens each sura of the Koran–some 20 years earlier at a gathering of the Dances of Universal Peace. It had only returned to me again in this dream.
All was still dark when I felt myself land on solid, dream ground. I heard a voice-over wryly proclaim: “it’s amazing what you can do with special effects” –I am heartened to know that spirits in the Sufi bardo maintain a sense of humor.
I was still turning and singing the Basmalah when I opened my eyes to find I was in the center of a large circle of men, women and children. The men were bearded and wore turbans with long robes. As it seemed presumptuous to occupy the center, I joined the others on the circumference of the circle.
A lively chant was taken up and I was led into a mad dance, side-steping 3 paces to thee right and shouting the word, “Kupt, Kupt, Kupt.” We then took 3 steps toward the center singing: “Pisht, pisht, pisht.” All were caught up in the ecstatic spirit of the dance. It was an unaccompanied, non-melodic chant that filled the place with electric energy. Children laughed as they were swept along in the frenzied tempo. My dream body was being wrenched by my zealous neighbor whose left arm tightly held my neck. Overcome, I retired outside of the circle and woke with a sudden “pop.” My dream bubble had suddenly burst.
After long pondering the two, obscure words–those cyphers whose import I had only dimly glimpsed all those years ago–it is always to the original, immediate apprehension of their sense that I return.
In a Turkish\English dictionary I found the word Kupt, which means vaultofHeaven, [shouting loud enough to bring down the heavens.] The only definition for pisht I discovered was: an areamarkedonthe ground for some sport ordance.
After long contemplation, I can only allude to the true sense of these words by images and feelings that relate to our capacity for theopathy–to know God in a form that corresponds with our innermost being. It is a timelss dance of ritual remembrance, an act of co-compassion between center and circumference, and a moving rite of worship that establishes a sympathetic bond between God and man.
I will return to this theme next post. This brief account can hardly begin to plumb the depths of theophanic mystery. I claim no special ability to navigate the intermediate world. I believe all, if we really pay attention, have the ability for angelic perception; all have the capacity for revelatory experience.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).