“The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis.” —Stephen Jay Gould
Over the past year, this blog has reflected within the varied posts, an ancient framework based on a Sufi parable of the horse, carriage, driver, and the Master. In the ideal circumstance, the Master is sitting in the well-maintained carriage being driven by the experienced driver and pulled by a strong, well-trained horse. The trip is not a leisurely excursion but the journey to fulfill our destiny. This parable shows the various interrelationships among our inner states of mind, body, and emotions and how they need to be balanced in order for our aging journey to be long, productive and successful in achieving our life’s purpose. To me, it provides an elegant metaphor with deep insight and many layers of understanding that provide a way for us to focus our thinking about successful aging, health, and conscious evolution.
The carriage symbolizes our physical body with its instinctive, sensory and motor components; the horse represents our emotions with our feelings, fears, and desires; the driver signifies our intellect with its ability to observe, think, compare, and concentrate. The Master is our soul, the essence of who we really are. When everything is in balance and in good working order a conscious transformation may take place within us. The driver is effectively guiding the horse and the Master is resting comfortably in the carriage headed toward the destination, which is our destiny. Mystic George Gurdjieff taught that this conscious transformation is like a cake composed of various ingredients such as sugar, flour, butter, and milk. Once the ingredients are appropriately mixed and placed in the oven to bake, the resultant cake is a new and different reality and not just a mixture of ingredients.
The parable begins with a man, who is the driver, drunk in a public bar having abandoned his duties and responsibilities. He feels that he is in full control of his situation and is not a servant of a higher master. He completely wastes his time, money and energy and has neglected his care of the horse and carriage. As a result, the horse is untrained and is starving and in a weakened condition. The carriage has fallen into disrepair. The Master, the driver’s employer, is not apparent and will return when the driver, horse, and carriage are ready to travel to a destination far away.
The driver’s state of drunkenness illustrates our self-deception through illusions, daydreams, fantasies, pleasures, and frustrations. These, in turn, are based on our sensory inputs, our past suffering, our future imaginings and a continuous flow of internal dialogue and images relating to our work, our relationships and our possessions. This self-deception reflects our prior conditioning and the things we identify with, an imagined perception of self that consumes all our energies. In our usual daily behavior, we mechanically react to external stimuli in a preprogrammed way under the seductive illusion that we are in control of ourselves and our destiny. The fact is that intellectually we are stuck inside in the metaphorical public tavern and fail to realize that outside we have a body we need to maintain and emotions we need to manage. These three basic components of our being are not even close to an asynchronous and harmonious relationship with each other. We waste our time, energy and potential.
The first thing that needs to happen is for the driver to wake up and see his or her sorry state. Some type of attention-getting shock is needed to awaken the driver and to get him or her to smash the myths and face the reality. Then a more sober and aware driver may be able to recognize his or her predicament, quiet the drunken imagination and quit wasting energy on self-deception and unreality. While we are far more than our intellect, our intellect will have to take responsibility for our personal growth. Trying to restore balance by starting with the horse or the carriage will not work because our bodies and our emotions react to stimuli and cannot accomplish meaningful activity on their own. Our intellects must leave the comfort of our habits and imagination and carefully examine the poor condition of our body, the carriage, and the neglected mistreated horse that represents our emotions. This objective examination requires surveying their needs and understanding how to take the necessary corrective actions. To state this in another way, the driver now knows he must learn how to repair and maintain the carriage by challenging his body and feeding, training, and resting the horse by disciplining the emotional self. And he also realizes that he has some work to do on himself by becoming a more informed, skilled, humane, and humble driver, which requires our intellect to recognize the reality of its role.
Once all this preliminary work has been initiated the driver realizes that each of the parts needs renewed interconnection. The horse must be carefully harnessed to the carriage and fitted with a bridle and reins. When everything is in its proper order the driver can take the reins, mount the carriage, and go on some short, practice rides to await the Master’s directions. Only now will the Master appear and occupy the carriage. The driver must be patient, alert, and intent on hearing the Master’s guidance and then proceed in the appropriate direction.
In applying this parable to our reflections on aging and health we realize that we have considerable control over our aging and that we may not be living a life within our full potential. An awakening begins when we recognize we are going nowhere and may not know where to go. At a fundamental level, we understand there is more to life than the mechanical struggles to maximize comfort or pleasure and to minimize pain or distress, important as those aspects of life may be. The realization that we can objectively observe and contemplate our personal situation and begin to take corrective action is a critical factor in getting us started and in maintaining the process of aging well. Perseverance, the triumph of our willpower over our will, in establishing a more positive and realistic approach to our aging and productivity is vital in this process. A Buddhist saying is “If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”