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What Happens When the Ice Melts

The River of Life and the Need for a Symbolic Consciousness

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

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.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a sheikh in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadidiyya Sufi Order. Born in London in 1953, he has followed the Naqshbandi Sufi path since he was 19. In 1991 he moved to Northern California and became the successor of Irina Tweedie, author of Chasm of Fire and Daughter of Fire. In recent years, the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, and the emerging global consciousness of oneness. He has also specialized in the area of dreamwork, integrating the ancient Sufi approach to dreams with the insights of modern psychology. Llewellyn is the founder of The Golden Sufi Center and author of several books.,

Read more about Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


[1]  Interestingly, Isaac Newton himself was an alchemist, leading John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton's writings on alchemy, to state, "Newton was not the first of the age of reason: he was the last of the magicians."

[2] In complete contrast are the teachings of Zen, as expressed by the Zen master and hermit, Stonehouse, at the beginning of a retreat, “From dawn to dusk, whenever you lift your feet or put your feet down, you may not step on permanent ground.” The Zen Works of Stonehouse, trans. Red Pine, p.171.

[3] For a fuller understanding of the symbolic consciousness of the medieval period, see C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

[4] Symbolic consciousness has been described by Carl Jung as “mythological thinking.” It allows for the formation of symbols and as such, for a symbolic relationship to life. It is older than analytic thinking and is fundamentally subjective, pre-verbal and mythological.

[5] In the same way Western colonialists imposed their “enlightened” views upon “primitive” indigenous peoples.

[6]  Qur’an 41:53

Comments (19)
  • Thank you, Llewellyn.  This offering resonates so truly and so deeply. As I read your words, I can feel a deeper awakening of the living symbolic expression of life within me…....This tiny glimpse feels so much richer and so much more alive than the shallow and limited experience that is past off as life. At this depth, my heart is touched and called to meet all with complete acceptance, merging with the heart of life.
    When life is lived from this place there is nothing that can be lost.

    — Celeste Walker on February 5, 2010

  • As I am presently living through an ice storm where I live, the image outside is one of the “snow queen”.  It is very beautiful yet so still and void of life.  And yet I can hear the “cracking” of the ice and the dripping of water.  Thank you Llewellyn for such perfecting timing…..

    — Deborah Tomchuk on February 5, 2010

  • Thanks Llewellyn. I am much preoccupied with the state of the planet - the melting of the ice and rising of the sea, and our collective inability to grasp how this is affecting everything we think of as “permanent”.  If I were more connected to this a deeper consciousness, my own inner “ice” might begin to melt and I might be able to relax, flow with the river of change and leave despair behind.

    — Dorothy Craig on February 5, 2010

  • A jewel of an article from the heart of a visionary, a mystic and a Teacher beyond compare.

    — Anon on February 5, 2010

  • A jewel of an article; the reason why it resonates so deeply is that it comes from a heart which is immersed in Truth and from a Teacher that is beyond compare.

    — Anonymous on February 6, 2010

  • I’ve had the simple thought of the solid state of ice vs. water for a while now, but of course it takes a master to articulate it so eloquently and put it in context of our current situation.

    An excellent reminder that we cannot navigate the currents with the broken pieces of ice, even if they may keep us afloat for a while.

    — Mark on February 6, 2010

  • The symbols and signs are the language present all around us just like the scientific truths present all around in the world and heavens. We do need an inner conscious to understand this language of symbols and signs to connect to the devine truth. Just like the proteins can be arranged to give rise to life and then subtle emotions arise from them. This development of science will pave its way through to recognition of symbols and sign that they will have to believe, the river will melt. The life of world is like that of a crop, it grows, looking nice to eyes, green and dancing then it ripens yellow and finally whithers away, surely there is a sign in it.

    — Naeem Iqbal on February 6, 2010

  • Thank you Llewelyn.  This article was very inspiring for me as it has revealed a level of my own dreams that I am often so confused by.  An encouraging word for those of us who may be a bit discouraged about how we are in the world.

    — Jivani on February 6, 2010

  • Llewellyn,it is written:“Many are called, but few are chosen”. I say,many are called,but few are frozen…Thanks for your in-depth perceptions…melting into states of higher-consciousness…Peace,Rog!

    — Rogelio on February 6, 2010

  • when the ice melts in the heart of the world, the buds begin to open in the darkness. may it be so.

    — Tracey Harrington on February 7, 2010

  • Michael Ortiz Hill, in his book ‘Dreaming the End of the World’  traces our 5000-yr brushes with apocalypse in Western culture to the period when cities were created. Perhaps that was indeed the point when we separated ourselves from the river of life, and from an enlivening knowledge of death. We need myths, stories, symbols, and experiences that return us to a felt oneness with life and nature. As Kafka wrote, “A story must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” But a golden sun is better than an ice-axe…

    — Tyee Bridge on February 7, 2010

  • This struck me deeply. Thank you Llewellyn. Three days ago the image of a river came to me, and I could feel that for me, joining in the river of life—an eternal flowing-out that does not halt every few minutes to collect and solidify an image of itself, that doesn’t stop to admire or separate itself from the stream of being—is something my mind cannot grasp. And that my small self recoils from. A river is an incredible symbol. It is, I think, the way of the heart. To be unfrozen is to live in the presence of the heart, which flows out without knowing itself, without pride. After so many years, I still resist this flow. It is partly maybe that I am made of that black ice—where as Irina Tweedie says it feels like God has been dead a thousand years—and it is partly a contraction of the personality, the ego, that wants to be somehow concrete. But deep below this ancient ice is a golden essence. A warm sun that grows with my remembrance. The light in the heart IS that flowing; and I don’t have to become a river, or learn to be ‘in the flow’. Instead I just have to offer the river my head, and be in the heart. Thanks for the chance to consider this again, and to share this.

    — Tyee Bridge on February 7, 2010

  • “Life is a river of change.” We can use the forces of change to help us learn lessons and grow. Thank you for this article….Peace, Payam Ghassemlou

    — Payam Ghassemlou on February 8, 2010

  • Thank you for this perspective on the river of life. I felt to share that this came alive in my consciousness in a new way today, when after reading your contribution to Seven Pillars, I attended a Christian service this morning and the rector spoke of the many times that Jesus was beside the sea and on the water in the four gospels, but especially in the experience of the fishers and Jesus - his advice to go into the deep water when the whole night of their fishing had not been fruitful. The nets came up filled to overflowing. It seems it is important to be at the right place at the right time - and to trust while listening. Too, I was reminded of River, a song by Joni Mitchell - and how the emotions around loss, grief, and fear - the sheer all-encompassing depth that is possible - can freeze the human being and leave them in a suspended state - neither here nor there. This is often the experience of the Feminne, it seems. And there is the beautiful experience of the submersion of Jesus by John, in the river Jordon. Your creative expression has amplified the deeper meaning of this narrative as well. With gratitude, peace be.

    — Elm on February 8, 2010

  • “We have forgotten the normal properties of water, how it flows, how it moves and carries us along with it.” “WE” have forgotten??? Sorry, it´s your vision: YOU (!) have forgotten.Frightening that you cannot even hear a cracking…

    — Anonymous on February 8, 2010

  • I just caught the end of a PBS this am about the wisdom of the Native Americans recounting a story about Thunderbird and Raven and how their tribal story telling helps teach about the interconnectedness of us with the natural world of the mountains and rivers. We can freeze our thinking and our souls. Thankfully there are teachers like you who help us think and thaw.

    — Kateri on February 8, 2010

  • When we refer to “God” it tends to give it the attribute of a noun, a fixed entity.  Instead we can see Devineness as a moving river.  Thank you for this article.

    — Bob Maslow on February 10, 2010

  • How wonderful! Dreamt last night that part of my local park which I love is transforming in to a lake and felt regret. Then I begin to walk deeper in to this part and find the currents very strong, am fearful and holding on to a weak branch of a tree against the current. hope I can just let go….......

    — rajan arulganesan on February 18, 2010

  • Sounds like you have read “Decoding Design” by Maggie Macnab?

    — Mark on February 18, 2010

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4 February 2010

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