What Happens When the Ice Melts
The River of Life and the Need for a Symbolic Consciousness
a frozen surface
While in deep meditation I am drawn into awareness. Rather than dissolving deeper into the emptiness of inner silence I am asked to listen for a sound, the specific sound of ice cracking. But I can hear nothing, no sound of ice cracking. Then I am shown the image of a river which has been frozen so deeply that it is like solid ground, and it has been frozen for so long that it has been forgotten that it is a river of water. On the banks of the river there is a village or town, and I am left with the thought of what would happen to this town if the ice melted. Would the river rise and flood the houses?
There is no sound of ice cracking, no sign of the river beginning to melt. But the very question, the very suggestion of a frozen river and cracking ice, brings into consciousness a predicament that belongs to life as we know it. This river is the river of life, which has been frozen for so long that we think of life as something solid, rather than fluid, which is its natural state. We have forgotten the normal properties of water, how it flows, how it moves and carries us along with it. We are divorced from any natural understanding that we have constructed our lives, our whole civilization, on a misconception, unaware of the danger that the ice could melt and the river begin to flow again.
Since the seventeenth century when Newtonian physics gave us the basic laws of the physical world, we have developed a scientific understanding and a mechanical view of life as something that can be defined and quantified.1 Rationalism was elevated over symbolism and we created an approach to life based upon logic and deduction. Recently, the development of computers has generated ever more sophisticated models upon which to base our understanding of our environment and how to plan for the future. They offer the illusion of security, the notion that we can predict what might happen—though the recent banking crisis illustrated their limitations, such as the fact that they can lack basic common sense! In complete contrast stands the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao, which taught how to be a part of the flow of life rather than how to protect oneself against unexpected changes. From the same culture come the teachings of the I Ching which explore the dynamics of change, with the understanding that change is a fundamental part of life. This primordial wisdom images life as a constantly changing interrelationship of possibilities, similar to the proposition in particle physics that even the forms of the physical world are just a probability rather than a definable fact.
But today we are living upon a river than has been frozen for centuries, whose ice is solid and deep. There is no natural flow, or even a memory of a time when it was so different. As long as the ice remains frozen we can remain with our image of life as something we can define and plan for, believing we can protect ourself by buying insurance against anything unexpected. We feel secure with what appears permanent.2 The cities we inhabit are designed to last like the concrete of which they are constructed, rather than to constantly adapt and change. We are not prepared for what is fluid. We are taught how to live with facts rather than possibilities.
Part of the problem comes from the very way we think and are educated to think, and in particular how we have banned symbolic consciousness. We are taught to think in an analytic, linear manner, using words to explain ourself. Symbolic consciousness is holistic rather than analytic, and rather than thinking in words it thinks in symbols and images. It was prevalent in our Western consciousness as recently as the medieval period, as expressed in the sacred geometry and iconography of the gothic cathedrals.3 Symbols connect us to the interior world of the soul, and symbolic consciousness enables us to realize the sacred meaning that underlies our physical existence. In symbolic consciousness everything is part of a pattern of interrelationship connecting the visible and invisible worlds; and, as anyone knows who has worked with dreams and their symbols, this is a very fluid, amorphous language, in which images change and evolve, giving us possibilities of meaning rather than definable facts.
Symbolic consciousness was central to human consciousness for thousands of years.4 We lived in both the inner and outer worlds without any contradiction. Shamanic wisdom carried the understanding of how these worlds interrelate, how they reflect and flow into one another; and the destiny of a tribe could depend upon a dream. Symbolic consciousness presents a worldview so different from our present model that it is difficult for contemporary consciousness to grasp how much it was once a part of everyday life. We do not realize the limitations of our rational consciousness, or how we have become caught in its constrictions without even knowing that we have lost part of our natural awareness. We believe the facts with which we are presented, without fully recognizing that they are only a probability, and that nothing is fixed or definite. We have become strangers to the symbolic world, and we have lost the fluidity of consciousness that belongs to this more primal awareness.
Symbolic consciousness is a part of our natural relationship with the soul and the sacred that is present in all of creation. It connects us to a world full of meaning and wonder. Rational consciousness instead imposes its vision of reality, instructing us with the laws and scientific principles that now define our life. Initially rational consciousness was seen as an “enlightened view” that could free humanity from the “darkness” and fears that had imprisoned us in superstition.5 But it has been imposed so successfully that we are no longer aware of what it is excluding, of the sacrifice of the symbolic and our connection to the sacred. It has cut our consciousness off at the roots so that we no longer have any natural connection to the mystery and joy of life.
The question that then needs to be asked is whether the icebound river is just part of the flow of the ages: a time of winter that has lasted for centuries. Or has the development of rational, analytic consciousness itself produced this frozen landscape? Particle physics has proven what Buddhist teachings have long known, that mind and matter are not separate but influence each other. If the reality we inhabit is created by our consciousness, then we could have frozen the flow of life with our vision of a solid, definable world. We would then be like the ice queen who has turned the world to winter. And now we inhabit this desolate landscape where joy and symbolic meaning lie hidden beneath the ice.
Symbolic consciousness allows for a deeper understanding of life with all its patterns of interrelationship than does a purely rational approach. Symbolic consciousness gave me an image of the river of life as frozen, and asked me to listen to the sound of the ice cracking. But there was no sound, nothing. All I was left with was the thought of what would happen to the town on the banks of the river if the ice were to melt. In this symbolic picture there is no solution. It just gives an image suggesting that something so fundamental to our existence as the river of life is no longer flowing, and that we do not remember that the real nature of the ground upon which we live is not solid. Maybe we have based our whole civilization upon mistaking a temporary state for something permanent. And we have not begun to question this self-imposed belief.
movement in the depths
But the river itself remains alive. It may be frozen, waiting for a thaw, but it still carries the energy of life. We exist so much on the surface of life that we have little understanding of its depths and the currents that run there. Our lack of a symbolic consciousness has not only isolated us from the flow of life, but also cut us off from its depths—the primal, archetypal depths of life that have always communicated to us through images rather than words. And even though the ice is not yet even cracking, there are changes taking place deep under the surface. The energy of life is beginning to flow in a new way, to follow different patterns. Carl Jung described these archetypal patterns as the riverbeds through which the waters of life flow. And the archetypes are shifting, some awakening from a long slumber. They are beginning to move in new ways: a new energy grid is constellating.
Our knowledge of history is so recent and so censored that we cannot imagine what might happen if these energy patterns of the deep change. We live so much on the surface that we have lost any knowledge of the depths of life, of the energies that underlie our existence and how they affect us. We also live with the illusion that we determine our own future, create our own destiny. We may feel that something fundamental in our lives is shifting, experience an unexplained insecurity. We may look for predictions and even prophecies to comfort us. But the movement in the depths of the river of life is real, even if it is still hidden under the ice. And when the ice breaks the river will carry us along however much we resist. We are a part of life, even if we have tried to separate ourself from its primal energies, built our cities and towns to protect ourself from the forces of nature.
For those of us who are awake to the symbolic world, our work is simple: to listen and watch with a consciousness attuned to the depths. There are signs all around us, and in our dreams there are messages of meaning. We do not yet need to “interpret” what they say, because what is more important is that we listen to this symbolic language, be receptive to its images, and in so doing attune ourself to the energy that underlies life. The symbols themselves will reconnect us, because this is a part of their function. And through this reconnection we will come to know what is happening in the core of existence, in the sacred depths of our being. Life itself will tell us what we need to know, just as it has communed with human consciousness for millennia. We just need to be attentive and listen: then we will feel how the currents are changing and what this will mean to our surface lives.
Only if we reconnect to the sacred core of our being will we have any understanding of what is happening. Because it is here, where the divine energy comes into manifestation, that the real changes are taking place. All energy, all real change, comes from within, from the divine of which outer life is a manifestation. It is partly our collective separation from this center that has caused the river to freeze. It is our denial of the divine that has isolated us on the surface of life. The changes taking place are a reawakening to what is real, to the sacred of which all of creation is an expression. But in order to read the signs of this reawakening we need to relearn the language of the sacred. This is of primary importance. Only then can we play our part and welcome the waters as they start to flow.
Our hesitation will come from our holding on to the image of life as frozen, as something solid. Sadly, many of the skills we have learned and technologies we have developed belong to this image of life, and will be as useless as a car without gas. We will have to relearn many skills, change many of our attitudes. We will have to relinquish many of our patterns of control, our images of power. We will also have to learn again how to live with the divine not as some transcendent being but as a real presence and energy that is central to our existence. And we will have to learn what it means when the waters of life start to move.
Many things that we thought valuable may be lost in this flood. Maybe even the towns upon the banks of the river will have to be sacrificed to the water. They were built without any understanding of the real, volatile nature of the river. We cannot afford to spend too much energy protecting our property and possessions, because then we will miss the opportunity of movement, of where the water can take us. We will get caught in a toxic backwater slowly dying. Life is about change and learning how to be with the energy of change. It is not about protecting ourself from the future. The changes will bring possibilities we cannot imagine, and also bring their own dangers. How we adapt to the awakening flow of life will determine the future of humanity.
But at present the work is to learn to listen to the signs, even if as yet there is no sound of the ice cracking. We need to regain our symbolic understanding, because it is in these images that the book of life is being written around and within us—“We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves.”6 This is the first step to take: to reconnect with this ancient language of the sacred, where the divine and human meet. Only then can we begin to understand what is happening.