– Homer’s The Odyssey
In Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.
Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.
And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.
In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.
The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.
I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.
Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.
Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.
In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.
Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.
This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.
Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.
It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.
So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.
But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.
Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.
Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.
The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.
Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.
This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.