Like most individuals reading this post, I’ve been in lockdown for pretty much the last 2 months. (well actually, it’s a lot longer than that for me, but that’s another story). Like many people, I have followed certain media, and social media channels each of them buzzing with opinions and narratives about what’s really happening – each one spouting a different perspective relating to the COVID 19 totalitarian ‘war’ list. I’ve made my way through news, fake news, rumours, conspiracy theories, suppressed information, politicized narratives, and propaganda. From financial and political analysts to futurists, and medical specialists, I’ve listened to those who adopt the dominant ‘factual’ narrative together with those who embrace the dissenting ones. Each account postulates a very definite opinion about a version of the ‘truth’.
Although my maverick tendencies see me leaning to a particular line of thinking, I am certainly not in a position to determine what is truth and what isn’t. If I’ve learned one thing through the course of this pandemic, it is this: I don’t actually know what is happening and neither does anyone else. One thing, though, is abundantly clear. In the face of an unravelling political, financial and economic system, we as a society, simply do not know what to do when a crisis hits. We are all floundering around like headless chickens, wondering which way to turn, grasping at the latest data, science or opinion, but still, we find ourselves no closer to a solution that promises light at the end of the tunnel. Our standard, human, go-to response, of taking sides, digging in, controlling, blaming, overpowering and conquering its seems, is completely inadequate when dealing with a situation such as this.
Almost everyone I speak to is caught in the grip of fear, anger, anxiety, hopelessness or despair,
Almost everyone I speak to is caught in the grip of fear, anger, anxiety, hopelessness or despair, Each has an opinion, yet nobody is comfortable to admit that they really don’t know. I wonder how much are we missing by adopting these herculean efforts to ‘know the truth’ and stay in control, instead of stepping into the adventure of uncertainty and not knowing which might just enable us to fashion a more authentic narrative for the future.
When we are standing on the edge of the abyss, staring into the dark, and the ‘common sense’ rational insight of the futurists, economists, political and financial leaders fails to point a meaningful way forward, a different type of imagination is needed. One that bypasses the rational mind and senses and beckons to the uncommon sense which is timeless and exceptional and seeded deep into the dream of the individual soul before we were born. This uncommon sense points to something deeply authentic and transcendent in human nature. When all around is uncertain, it is this uncommon sense that we must tap into if we are to begin fashioning a different narrative that can awaken the inner wisdom for how to deal with the situation which is seeded inside every single one of us. Myths and stories are a catalyst for this to happen.
When we are standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into the dark, and the ‘common sense’ rational insight of the futurists, economists, political and financial leaders fails to point a meaningful way forward, a different type of imagination is needed.
I’ve always been comforted and inspired by the capacity of myth to reach a level of truth deep inside of me which my adult, logic fails to grasp. Of course, the prevailing common-sense narrative is that myths are simply fanciful stories and distractions, but the wise part of me knows there is something important in myths that the neocortex can’t yet fathom. When nothing makes sense on the surface of life, myths and stories have always helped me to somehow make deep inner sense of any confusion that confronted me by reframing the dilemmas I faced and connecting them with the endless dance between uncertainty, chaos and the cosmos. (Perhaps this is why quantum science talks of ‘chaos theory’ and the ‘uncertainty principle’?). Ancient stories passed down through tradition and culture form a vital but unseen aspect of the human condition, which can help us make soulful sense of any situation when the prevailing narrative doesn’t. The stories I speak of, come from a time when people were willing to learn from the natural world, instead of trying to dominate it. They come from a time when we respected the cycles and ways of nature by considering the earth to be a ‘living story’ and a veritable storehouse of wisdom and resource instead of a thing to be manipulated and plundered. Here is a story that touched me deeply, which offers the possibility of picking up a new thread from the chaos we are all experiencing while giving us the opportunity, both individually and collectively, to weave together a different destiny for the world.
My favourite storyteller and mythologist is Michael Meade. In one of his recent books, he narrates an old Native American creation story about an old woman unaffected by the rush and clamour of time, who lives in a cave high up on a mountain which cannot be reached by any road or path. She is the keeper of a special place where knowledge and wisdom can be found, together with the origin of the wonders and workings of the world. Every now and again, some of the native people try to find the cave, but without success. Even with modern technology, cartography and detailed ancient maps, the entrance to the cave remains secret and hidden. ‘That is a pity,’ the tribe leaders say, ‘because inside the cave is genuine knowledge about how to act when the dark times come and the balance of the world shifts from order into chaos.’
Genuine knowledge about how to act when the dark times come and the balance of the world shifts from order into chaos.
The story has it that the old woman has a capacity for great vision. Day after day after day, month after month and year after year, she sits at a large loom at the front of the cave, weaving together a beautiful garment. She never leaves her work except to stir a great cauldron of soup bubbling away on an endlessly burning fire at the back of the cave – a fire which began at the beginning of time. The soup is important. It contains the seeds of every living thing on earth. The old woman knows that if she doesn’t stir the cauldron from time to time, then the seeds will burn and all of nature will be forever damaged.
After working tirelessly, she approaches the end of the garment. She intends to finish it off with a fine fringe of porcupine quills. Because this is an intricate, long and detailed task, she knows that she must once again stir the cauldron of soup before she begins. As she rises from her old stool in front of the ancient loom, she glances down at an old black dog laying at her feet, quietly sleeping. The dog is her only companion. As the old woman is very old and her joints are very stiff her movement is slow and laboured. The journey to the back of the cave takes time, Yet, she is in no hurry.
As soon as the old woman is out of sight, the black dog awakens. As she begins stirring the soup to sustain the seeds, he moves to where the garment is draped across the floor awaiting the final touches. Remembering the playful times of his youth, which was also very long again, he takes one of the threads at the bottom of the garment into his mouth and gives it a hard tug. As he does so, the beautiful garment begins to unravel. As one thread is woven to another, the whole garment begins to disentangle until it becomes a chaotic and dishevelled mess on the cave floor.
Its time to weave together a new creation that has never before been seen in the world.
When the old woman returns to take up her weaving once again, she arrives at the place of light and shadows, at the front of the cave, to find nothing but chaos and destruction where there had once been elegance and beauty. Confronted with catastrophe, the old woman simply sighs, pats the old dog on the head, and sits down once more in front of her loom on the old stool ready to begin her work all over again. She sits silently for a long, long time, staring at the loom. Eventually, she bends down to pick up the end of the thread and as she does so, a new idea comes to her, an idea for a garment much more beautiful than the previous one. With her old design fading from memory, her old hands once again set to work to weave together a new creation that has never before been seen in the world.
When I first heard this particular story, I identified strongly with the old woman. I felt a tinge of sadness for the loss of something she’d laboured so long and hard to achieve. All her efforts had come to nought. (As has happened so many times in my life). I was reminded of how unfair I often believe the world to be. If it wasn’t for that darned dog then everything would be all right. I wanted the woman to finish the garment so that I could see the end result and get to wear it with comfort in my life going forward.
When the Native Americans interpret this story, they point to the Weaving of the World and its relation to the cyclic nature of life. The garment the woman is weaving is the garment of the earth. It’s a highly creative act, born out of her imagination, The black dog represents the darkness which also lives alongside creation. In creation stories, the two co-exist. The dog never fails to unravel the garment and the old woman never actually completely finishes it, for if she, then life on the planet would be completely over. Our world is forever being woven together whilst at the same time, it is constantly unravelling. The nourishment of the earth is also continually being attended to in the great cauldron of soup which is bubbling on the fires of creation. The constant stirring of the soup is necessary so that creation does not stagnate or boil over. Chaos and turmoil, then, are part of the natural order of things and the only way the world changes. It’s a process through which life continually renews itself, unravelling, developing and evolving at the same time. Nature means change. Whatever fails to change will disintegrate or die.
Whatever fails to change will disintegrate or die.
When things fall apart, when tragedy, loss, failure or pain strike, human nature tends towards resentment and entitlement. This narrative becomes one of ‘this should never have happened to me, to us, not now’. We look for answers, we look to blame others, we look to make ourselves right and others wrong so that we can feel safe and secure. We fall into rigid polarised positions of us vs them. This is so easy to see in the case of COVID 19, we have the individuals who support the mainstream narrative paraded by the national media, vs the more dissenting theory linked to a sinister plot underpinning the mainstream rhetoric. Each side goes out of its way to search for holes and pitfalls in the others theory, shaming and ridiculing those that don’t agree with their viewpoint. The haters are out on social media in full force. As we search for truth and certainty. We look for any reason possible to nullify the position of the other. We believe we will find comfort when we sure up the situation and concretise the way forward so that this can never happen again, not in our lifetime at least.
In the face of this uncertainty, polarity, and vehement rhetoric, I would like to make a prediction. The crisis will play out. It will come to an end and the final death toll will always be subject to dispute. If it is lower than expected we will say that the controls worked, or the disease was not as dangerous as we’ve been led to believe. Who is right? It’s not my skill, nor purpose with this article to debate or advance one particular theory over another. Whether the virus is bioengineered or a natural part of the infinite order of chaos and change that drives planetary evolution, we are faced with a facticity of our existence which continues to unravel as the cosmic soup is stirred up, again and again, bringing chaos, pain and turbulence to life and livelihood across the globe.
Wisdom stories connect us to an inner wisdom that helps us navigate the paths of uncertainty when the world as we know it falls apart.
Wisdom stories don’t always provide tangible ready answers to problems which we so value in the West. But they do connect us to an inner wisdom that helps us navigate the paths of uncertainty when the world as we know it falls apart. As this COVID crisis continues to unravel, perhaps we will each reach a point in the process where we can stop polarising our positions and turn to face the darkness and pain of our existence. Fixing the pain is not the issue here, it is facing the shadow of our biggest fears that is required. Only then can we give birth to the genius inside each of us that knows what to do and how to be authentic when times get tough. Discomfort and difficulty, the black dog, has been with us all along, mostly relegated to ‘other’ communities to which we pay little attention in our comfortable Western lives. Chaos is part of the natural order of things, there is always an unravelling that is about to happen. Once something has unravelled then we have a choice about the possibilities we would like to pursue going forward. We can fall on the side of blame and righteousness or we can, like the old woman, calmly, silently, meditatively, look for the loose thread that is closest to us, the thread of our authenticity, our courage and our willingness to figure it out as we go along, and start to re-weave our individual and collective destiny from there.