Seen through the perspective of good and bad luck, of fair and unfair; through the belief that if you have been good you deserve good times and a long, comfortable life, life makes no sense, it’s a perspective that leads nowhere.
For those who are disenchanted with that sort of belief and consider life as a minute piece of a vast existential journey, I wanted to write an article on the relationship between life setbacks and self-realization, since life, just the way it is, provides far greater opportunities than the paltry 70-80 years of pleasantness most of us aspire to.
Besides my own observations, I wanted to provide other perspectives that frame life within the context of the existential journey that consciousness undertakes, from matter to spirit, and the key role that life obstacles play in our personal evolution.
The first example is a famous poem by Rumi called Chickpea to Cook:
The Chickpea to Cook
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it’s being boiled.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
‘Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.
I’m giving you flavour,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.
Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this.
Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.
Eventually the chickpea will say to the cook,
‘Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can’t do this by myself.
I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention
to his driver. You’re my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking.’
The cook says,
‘I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.
My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher.’ (1)
Set: The Adversary
The ancient Egyptians personified the principle of opposing force that is found in the cosmos, in nature here on earth and in the trials and tribulations of life as the god Set.(2)
Set was the brother of Osiris and it was he who killed him. In Egyptian mythology it is Horus (son of Osiris) who ends up having the showdown with Set.
If the story of a kid who grows up to exact revenge on the baddie who killed his father sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Thanks to the work of Joseph Campbell, who meticulously collected the many variations on the theme of the hero’s journey from all ages and countries, Hollywood cottoned on to the power of this story decades ago, so nowadays, pretty much every movie script is adapted from one of the many variations of this universal ancestral myth.
How is it possible to make trillions of dollars recycling old stories you ask?
Because the Hero myths resonate with the human psyche at the deepest level. Why do they?
Because in the greater context of the existential journey, this is your story, playing out in your own form as we speak for you, just like for everyone else who’s ever lived.
Going back to Set, the Egyptians recognised that without the balance of two opposing forces, the cosmos cannot operate or come into being. This cosmic reality spills over into the microcosm of human experience.
It was well clear to the Egyptians that energetic dynamics operate in the same patterns at every level in the cosmos, hence their famous saying: as above so below.
It is through his victory against Set that Horus transforms into the superior being.
Whilst Set represents the principle of opposing force, Horus represents a five stage spiritual evolution of consciousness which culminates in his form Re-Hor-Akhti, the personification of all initiated teachings.
It is only thanks to Set that Horus evolves into his realized form.
It is worth mentioning that Horus’s title is “the anointed one” (in Greek: Christos, in Hebrew: Messiah) while Set’s title is “the adversary” (in Hebrew: Satan).
It is not a trifling detail, because after 2000 years of complete misrepresentation by Christianity of these badly copied elements of Egyptian allegorical cosmology, it is important to recognise that as far as the original authors are concerned, the anointed one is a potential available to every human being, while the adversary is instrumental to both the existence of the cosmos and the maturation/exaltation of every process and every being.
The adversary/satan has been particularly misrepresented because in Christianity he represents evil, something that does not exist among the gods of Egypt, which were all facets of the principles of the Nature they deeply revered.
The Myths of the Hero’s Journey
In his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, American mythologist Joseph Campbell collected a vast number of ancestral Hero’s Journey myths from all over the world.
“When we turn , to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.”
“…from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.”
“The hero is the person of self-achieved submission. But submission to what? That precisely is the riddle that today we have to ask ourselves and that it is everywhere the primary virtue and historic deed of the hero to have solved. […] Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death — the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be — if we are to experience long survival — a continuous “recurrence of birth” (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death. For it is by means of our own victories, if we are not regenerated, that the work of Nemesis is wrought: doom breaks from the shell of our very virtue. Peace then is a snare; war is a snare; change is a snare; permanence a snare. When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified — and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn. ”
“…the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects (social and economic ambitions – Ed.) to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called “the archetypal images.”
This is the process known to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as viveka, “discrimination.”
“The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man — perfected, unspecific, universal man — he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore (…as all the mythologies of mankind indicate) is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed. ”
“These deeply significant motifs of the perils, obstacles, and good fortunes of the way, we shall find inflected through the [mythologies of humankind – Ed.] in a hundred forms. […]
And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. ”
One very significant takeaway of Hero myths is the thing that hides invariably beneath the villain’s mask: attachments.
In some version, the villain embodies attachment to the womb, on others to the mother, in others still “me-me-mine” type attachments to power, prestige and property and in the final type, attachment to life itself/rejection of the idea of death.
It’s almost as if the whole of past humanity is trying to tell us who the real villain is.
It is in the face of that villain that we must wear our war helmet if we want to become the heroes of our own stories.
In 1826, a man was born in Florence who ended up writing a story which I consider (for personal reasons) to be the most important and moving story of personal evolution of all.
The man was Carlo Collodi and the story was The Adventures of Pinocchio.
The story begins with a talking block of wood, fashioned into a dummy by a poor carpenter named Geppetto, who names him Pinocchio.
Geppetto loves Pinocchio with all his heart, but he is a naughty dummy: he runs away, causes mischief, he is a liar, ungrateful, reckless and irresponsible.
Pinocchio is lucky, because he has a loving father and two supernatural helpers: the Talking Cricket and the Blue Fairy.
Unappreciative of his guardians, no matter how much they try to protect him and guide him, Pinocchio always gets into trouble and repays them with heartache.
Pinocchio is so naughty that his adventure gets out of control and he meets lots of villains and misfortune along the way.
His irresponsible choices cause him much pain, but it is thanks to it that pain that he embarks onto a journey of transformation and understanding.
With his wood-strong head, as soon as Geppetto gives Pinocchio arms and legs, he begins to make his own choices, ignoring his father’s commands, choices that are all about short term gratification.
It was only days before that Pinocchio was just a piece of raw lumber, so he is able to make choices but doesn’t have any understanding, hence all the guidance he gets falls on deaf ears.
Karma and Suffering
His bad choices have consequences. He disappears without a trace. Geppetto is worried sick and searches him desperately for months, to no avail.
During that time, Pinoccho risks being used as firewood, he gets swindles by fraudsters, then he gets robbed, then hanged, then turned into a donkey.
The loving Blue Fairy takes him in and promises that if he goes to school and studies diligently for a whole year, she will transform him into a real boy.
Astonishingly, for almost a whole year Pinocchio goes to school and he applies himself.
At the end of the school year, one day before the Fairy was due to transform him into a real boy, Pinocchio meets a boy named Lucignolo, who convinces him to skip school to go to a place called The Land of Toys: a wonderful place where nobody works, and play time is all the time.
Pinocchio spends five months there, all the while having an amazing time along with dozens of other boys, without a care for his poor father or for anything else.
Then one day, he wakes up with donkey ears. He’s told he’s got donkey fever: a condition that inevitably strikes all boys who just play and never study.
To their horror, they see that all the boys are turning into donkeys and soon Pinocchio and Lucignolo are donkeys too.
So the donkeys are all sold off and put to hard labour. Pinocchio is sold to a circus but eventually he sprains a leg and is sold away for meat.
Miraculously he escapes and he regains his wooden puppet form.
No sooner had he done that, that he embarks on another dangerous quest to go and save his father, who in the meantime had been swallowed by a giant fish, while he was looking for Pinocchio by land and sea.
When they finally escape the giant fish, something changes inside Pinocchio.
Him and Geppetto go and live with the Blue Fairy in her wonderful white house and for the first time, Pinocchio finds peace.
All the pain he caused himself through his poor judgment, all the villains he met, all the dangers, all of the things he lost, chipped away at his wooden heart and made him realise the value of all the love around him and the guidance that he was given by the people who loved him.
He began to understand what was really important to him. It wasn’t all the fun and the naughtiness, it was the possibility to live a normal life with the people he loved, as a real boy.
Good Choices and Love
So Pinocchio started working as a farm hand, earning money to look after Geppetto, who in the meantime had fallen ill and saving a few pennies to eventually buy himself a new suit.
No longer ready to put himself and others in danger for his own short term gratification, Pinocchio learns that the most important thing is to look after his father and that if you want something, you have to earn it.
Sacrifice and Transformation
After many months of hard work, Pinocchio manages to save enough extra money to buy himself a new suit.
As he is about to make his purchase, he is told that the Blue Fairy has fallen gravely ill.
Worried for his beloved fairy, he gives all the money he had to buy the medicine the fairy needs to get better.
When he wakes up the next day, Pinocchio is a real boy and his father is back in health, furthermore he finds a brand new suit, boots and forty gold coins.
The fairy, an allegory for the supernatural, only transformed the outside of our hero.
In reality, he had already transformed his wooden heart into a heart full of emotional intelligence and his wooden head, into a real head capable of understanding and the ability to remember what is important.
A head that is capable to understand that your world goes beyond the confines of your own skin. So even if you want to be selfish, you need to bring value wherever you go. It’s the same world you live in that will benefit.
It was Pinocchio who changed the way he made his choices. From throwing away the sacrifices that had been made for him by others for the sake of his own fun, to sacrificing his time, effort and his hard earned money for the sake of others.
The theme of sacrifice is a very important one.
We tend to think of religious sacrifice as some barbaric practice of ancient cultures, but the truth is that the divine creative force, which manifests through the thing we call love, requires a sacrifice, it requires fuel to be activated.
The most important thing is that you sacrifice what truly belongs to you: your presence, your effort, your time and that you sacrifice to the true divinity we have all met: the love that lives inside of us, not to some false idol who lives “out there in the sky somewhere”.
By the end of the story, Pinocchio has forty gold coins, a significant sum.
But the important thing is that the money is only an allegory, Pinocchio is already rich as he has earned his humanity and maturity. The point is that the rewards of authentically gained wisdom and of the love we invite into our lives, go above and beyond the rewards of our pre existing, self-centred plans. This is an important theme not only in Pinocchio, but in all the ancestral Hero’s Journey myths too.
Ultimately, Pinocchio wasn’t somebody who gained his awareness through calculation, but through difficult experience and that’s what makes it authentic.
Without it, many dark things would still hide inside Pinocchio’s heart, but since he experienced the difficult consequences of his choices, he came to say no to ungratefulness, to cockiness, to recklessness, to laziness and indifference through his own hard earned wisdom.
The ancestral myth of the Hero’s Journey has taken centre stage in every human culture because it is the allegory of the journey of the human soul and explains what life is for: an opportunity to face the Adversary and evolve.
In the words of Moustafa Gadalla:
“We learn and act by affirmation of the Horus in each of us, and by negating the Set within us. The obstacles within each of us, represented by Set, must be controlled and/ or overcome. Such obstacles are the ego, laziness, overconfidence, arrogance, evasiveness, indifference, etc.” (3)
Sometimes we get frustrated because we mistake this place for heaven and we complain that life is not as comfortable, fair, rewarding and fulfilling as we want it to be.
The truth is that, in the existential journey, it just isn’t possible for us to live that sort of heavenly existence, because our consciousness isn’t yet at that level.
It is only by cooking in the fierce heat of time and material existence like chickpeas in the pot, that we rise to that level.
To gain the understanding we need to grow, we have to feel things on our own skin, make our own mistakes and make choices with the understanding of what those choices turn us into.
It is through feeling the results of our choices that we grow out of being dummies and become real people.
This article was written by writer and philosopher Francesco Albamonte. You can follow his work by visiting his website and reading his collection of articles here.