Contraries and complimentaries
The creative process is dependent on contraries – on complimentary qualities that often seem to compete with each other, when it would be of more benefit if they were willing to collaborate. In Taoism these contraries are called yang and yin: the forward driving creative desire and the retreating, receptive, receiving desire. Both are interdependent and truly have no need to squabble!
William Blake’s famous Tyger poem explores a deep question – did ‘god’ make both the tiger and the lamb?
(See the video where I read the whole poem.)
Blake’s descriptive metaphors liken the tiger’s energy to fire, to the elemental power of the blacksmith, the hammer and the anvil. Blake uses the word ‘dread’ three times. He describes the sinews of the tiger’s heart as twisted. The fourth verse ends with the words: what dread grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp? This language is deeply unsettling, reminding us of axes, bayonets, tanks and missiles. Killing fields.
A tiger can easily eat a lamb and there is a significant element of danger when the two confront each other. Blake’s words invoke the fear we would experience if a man-eater was on the loose. His poetry certainly echoes our present day anxieties, as we see an untamed predator rampaging across part of our world. How can the lamb protect itself without having to take on tiger qualities? How can the tiger get what it desires without destroying the lamb? Is the tiger trying to seize more than it actually needs? Would the lamb be taken to the slaughter, unless it calls on supporters who know how to deal with tigers? To protect the lamb, it may be necessary to shoot the tiger. Or, will the tiger lie down with the lamb?
Very recently, a politician was reported as saying that the present war in Ukraine is ‘a battle between good and evil’. It would be easy to claim the holy ground at a time like this, to assume the ‘white hat’, but perhaps we might adjust this comment to a ‘struggle’ (less emotive than ‘battle’) between the ‘not so bad’ and the ‘very bad’. ‘Evil’, in my humble opinion, is not a helpful word. It implies some kind of pre-existent, even supernatural, force, over which we have little power. Any ‘battles’ that go on for we humans are of our own making, and due to our own stupidity. They arise out of our blindness to a real possibility that, despite difference, co-operation is more successful for our evolution as a species than conflict. So, perhaps, we could frame this Ukraine-Russian conflict as a struggle between ‘not quite so stupid’ people who are attempting to collaborate and solve differences reasonably, and the ‘more than usually stupid’. The latter are like playground bullies, driven by semi-conscious fears that are irrational – and very, very dangerous.
Gilgamesh and Humbaba
How can we resolve the tension that seems to naturally occur when tiger energy challenges lamb energy? Our Western spiritual and religious traditions present a fundamental dualistic approach, identifying supernatural forces as ‘princes of light’ waging war against ‘princes of darkness’. Our earliest myths, dating back thousands of years BCE, describe battles between heroes and dragons, demons or giants, that need to be slain. The Epic of Gilgamesh (likely dating back 18 centuries BCE) describes how the ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh tames a wild man, Enkidu. The two of them develop their murderous prowess by slaying bulls. They set off together, full of heroic fervour, into an ancient forest where sacred trees grow – where the gods live. The Cedar Forest is guarded by a monstrous giant:
When he looks at someone, it is the look of death
Humbaba’s roar is a flood,
His mouth is death and his breath is fire!
A hundred leagues away he can hear any rustling in his forest!
Who would go down into his forest!
This description has echoes of Blake’s Tyger poem.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu want to claim sacred cedar trees for the king’s palace. They are not in the business of asking, or of offering a suitable exchange. They plan to take what they want and are willing to murder the forest guardian in order to achieve their ends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu win this contest, but they have trespassed on holy territory and the gods will punish them, sooner or later, for this ill-mannered incursion.
A sacred forest
Humbaba is not a ‘lamb’, he has massive reserves of his own power, but he was not sent on a mission to destroy human civilisation. There was never any need to kill him. He was minding his own business, doing his duty in the forest where he had been appointed to keep watch over the trees. His job was to protect the hidden, mysterious, realm of the gods. What if Gilgamesh and Enkidu had carried a lamp and a polite request into the darkness, rather than a sword and a battle-axe? Negotiation and agreement, not slaughter, would have been a much happier outcome.
It seems as though our collective psyche is embedded from ancient times with a narrative that leads towards conflict. I’d like to suggest the myth of there being an ‘evil’ force we must wrestle with is outworn, We should look to creating a new myth. Gilgamesh experiences Humbaba as an evil threat that must be combated. Gilgamesh also wants to seize sacred cedar trees, come what may. Our Western focus on duality as a basic creative struggle does not only have the potential to unleash world-engulfing wars, it leads us to the destruction of our living, life-giving rain forests, where the nature spirits live. These spirits may be invisible to most everyday humans, but they are immensely powerful. When we experience the ‘other’ as a constant threat, when we relegate the natural world outside the city gates as a place only fit for conquest, then havoc arises – the wholesale slaughter of our fellow human beings and the devastation of our precious landscapes. If we steal what cannot belong to us, if we allow no sacred space for the gods, we will surely die.
The American New Age author Marian Williamson famously said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
A major war is an existential opportunity, allowing us to re-evaluate how we think about ourselves as creatures who are both divine and social. We all want humanity to step into the light and leave behind the fear of darkness. Let us have faith that gentle, easy, flowing relationships will take precedence over tooth and claw. Let us tell the children new stories in which the heroes, women and men, are honoured for demonstrating loving kindness and surmounting hatred by offering gestures of peace. Let us invent new mythologies in which we see the light in every aspect of the natural order, including in each other. Let us demonstrate that, when the ‘other’ is discovered to be just like us, love will overflow in our hearts. Let us reassure the children that the spirits in nature will be our friends and collaborators when we talk to them, when we respect and honour their significance.
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PS You might like to check out my podcast with Cat Rose Neligan, where I give a presentation that investigates the theme of contraries in more depth.