Samudra manthan
The churning of the ocean

Once again, the gods and the asuras are fighting and as usual the gods are losing. At the beginning of their fights the gods always lose, just like in ourselves: the good parts may be good-willing but the dark parts are stronger. When the devas and the asuras are fighting, the devas lose until the moment comes that they call in the help of the Supreme, whether in the form of Shiva, Vishnu, or Brahma. By themselves, the gods are not strong enough, just like our mind is not always strong enough to conquer the instincts of the vital nature. But in the end, the devas always win because the devas know that there is something beyond them. They may call it Shiva or Vishnu, depending on the tradition the story belongs to, but the important point is that they call the Divine to help them and it is then that they win. Now in this story, while the fighting is going on, the devas hear that in order to win, they need first to find the nectar, amrit. Amrit is a secret substance that makes both blissful and immortal, and the way to find it is to churn the ocean of life. And so they try. They take Mount Meru, wind the world-snake which is the force of evolution, around it and they start churning the ocean by pulling and then letting go, pulling and letting go, just as it is done when you churn butter out of milk. But unfortunately the gods are not strong enough, so the ocean hardly stirs and they are getting nowhere. Vishnu then gives them a rather dangerous suggestion: he says they should ask the asuras to help them. It takes them time to agree, but when they finally do, things suddenly speed up: the gods pull on one side, the devils on the other, and an epic tug of war begins. It goes on and on, mount Meru turning then this side, then the other, and slowly, slowly, something deep below the surface of the ocean begins to stir. But, poor gods: it is not the amrit that rises to the surface, what comes out are the most terrible poisons!

This is the level where Freud got stuck. When one stirs up the ocean of the subconscient, the first thing that comes out is the darkness. All the things that we do not like to know about ourselves, all the things that we have suppressed, the subconscious stuff, that is the material that comes up first. What happens next is of the greatest practical importance. In the ancient story, to protect his friends, Shiva drinks up all the poisons. This is a wonderful rendering of something that is crucial for self-development and psychotherapy. When the darkness comes up, one can try to deal with it oneself, but that doesn't always work: if it is too strong one must pass it on to the Divine to handle. So our anger, our jealousies, our desires, we should hold them up to the Divine and let the Divine handle them. That is the quickest way to get them out of our system. If we start a fight with them on our own, the fight may well go on forever. The quickest and safest way is to pass them on to the Divine, and in the story it is Shiva who drinks all the poison and becomes blue in the process.

Only after a long and tedious struggle, when all the darkness, all the poisons have been dealt with, then finally the amrit also appears. The moment this happens, the gods get again terribly worried, because they think the asuras will get it first as they are always faster and way more clever, but luckily, Vishnu comes to their rescue and manages that the asuras start fighting amongst themselves so that the devas can obtain the bliss and immortality that will enable them to defeat the asuras.

Psychologically, all this is real and concrete enough. As long as we are fighting with our mind against the darker impulses in our nature, there is not much chance that we will get anywhere. But if we find our soul, the eternal essence of ourselves, we can take distance. We can get to the free, observing puruṣa, and from there we can call in higher powers of harmony which can deal with the darkness far more effectively than we can do with our small egoic strength. One could say that this is the core of Indian approaches to self-development as well as psychotherapy. We need to find our eternal centre to set our nature right.

And it is not just about yoga and therapy: it also describes what happens in ordinary life. We are all the time churning our own subconscious, sometimes the good forces win, sometimes the bad forces win. The churning of our consciousness takes place and we all know what comes out first. The story is there to tell us what to do next.

The story gives a good description of how our nature works. We have our surface nature where we receive positive and negative influences. We try to keep it all in neat order so that we make a good impression on other people and we feel good about ourselves, but it doesn’t work very well because these dark forces are too clever and can overcome our best efforts. When we begin to look inside, the first thing we find are more problems, and we realise we had many more defects and difficulties than we thought. On the outside things looked quite ok but once we start looking behind the scene we notice that we have all kinds of things that we would much prefer not to have. We do find some good things as well, there are little bits of amrit mixed with the poison. There may be bits of unexpected beauty inside, but we tend to find things that we thought only other people had. We never get angry, only other people get angry; we never get jealous; we are not vain; we are so good, we never get any of these things, but then...

We can divide our nature in an outer layer, a part that is well known and visible on the surface, and an inner part which has both the good and the bad in a much stronger intensity than is visible on the surface. Freud found one particular dark corner of this subconscient realm. He called it the unconscious, the place where we store the stuff that we don’t want to see in ourselves, but which remains there nevertheless. He realised, correctly, that till we have properly dealt with this negative material, it continues to put up its dirty head and spoils the apparent beauty on the surface.

Where Freud went wrong is that he thought this negative stuff was all there was in our subconscient, and he seriously overgeneralised the rather limited discoveries he made. In the subconscient there is besides the suppressed material he knew, a wide variety of other "inner" material that influenes us far more than Freud was aware of. Perhaps because we are deep inside ourselves not as narrowly concentrated on the little we can receive through our physical senses, we are much more connected to others and we can get influenced by forces from above as well as from below. We can receive inspirations, visions, and intuitions, but we can also be influenced by much that is far darker than what we know on the surface. We are open to all kind of influences both negative and positive.

Cleaning our inner nature up is a tedious and difficult labour, and the only way to get it done is to call the power of harmony, the divine Grace, at every step of our journey.

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