Saturday, January 14, 2017


‘Relieve me of the bondage of self …’ from Chapter 5
of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the ‘Big Book’ of AA).

There’s nothing like fairy tales for telling it like it really is. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the best. It depicts just how terrible it is to be in bondage to self.

An old queen sits sewing at an open window during a winter snowfall. She pricks her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fall onto the snow on the ebony window frame. The queen admires the beauty of the red on white. ‘Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that is as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as that wood of the window frame,’ she says to herself. Shortly thereafter, the queen indeed gives birth to a baby girl as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony. Snow White is her name. Then the old queen dies. A new era begins.

A year later, the king marries again. His new wife—the new queen—is beautiful but also wicked and terribly vain. As in other fairy tales such as Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel we have the familiar appearance of an evil stepmother. It makes you wonder if there are any nice stepmothers out there! Of course, there are plenty of them—nice ones, that is—but never, it seems, in fairy tales. The new queen has a magic mirror. Every morning she turns to the mirror and asks, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest in the land?’ The mirror always replies, ‘You, my Queen, are the fairest in the land.’ This new queen is very much involved with herself. Indeed, she is in total bondage to herself. Far too many of us are like her. It’s a terrible predicament to be in, for there is no joy being in bondage to self.

Time passes. Snow White is now aged seven. She is very beautiful and much more beautiful than her stepmother, the new queen. So, when the stepmother queen asks her magic mirror, it responds, ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’ This comes as a great shock to the queen, to put it mildly. Funny, isn’t it? We only like to hear what we want to hear. The stepmother queen becomes yellow and then green with envy. Her heart turns against Snow White. Indeed, with every following day she hates Snow White more and more. So, the stepmother queen orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the deepest woods and kill her. She orders the huntsman to return with Snow White’s lungs and liver. That way, she will know for sure that Snow White is finally dead. The huntsman takes Snow White into the forest but is unable to kill her. He leaves her behind alive. ‘She will be eaten by some wild animal,’ he says to himself. Instead, he brings the stepmother queen the lungs and liver of a young boar, which is prepared by the cook and eaten by the queen. (This is an unsuccessful attempt on the queen’s part to relieve herself of her bondage to self.

Snow White wanders through the forest for some time. Eventually, she discovers a tiny cottage which belongs to a group of seven dwarfs. (In sacred numerology—that is, in myths, fairy tales, sacred literature and so on—the number ‘seven’ represents such things as fullness, individual completeness (the number ‘twelve’ representing corporate completeness), the perfection of the human soul and grace. It is considered to be the divine number and thus the most spiritual of all numbers. Read the Bible and the sacred texts and you will see that I am right on that.

No one is at home in the dwarfs’ cottage. So, Snow White decides to eat something, drink some wine and then test all the beds. Finally, the last bed is comfortable enough for her and she falls asleep. In due course, the seven dwarfs return home and discover Snow White asleep. (Life is very much trial and error. We experiment and we experience.) The dwarfs come home and find Show White there. She wakes up and explains to them what happened. The dwarfs take pity on her, saying: ‘If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want.’ (A bit old-fashioned, that. Where are the feminists?) The dwarfs warn Snow White to be careful when alone at home and not to let anyone in when they are away in the mountains during the day.

Meanwhile, the stepmother queen asks her mirror once again: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest in the land?’ The mirror replies, ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’ The queen is livid. She realises she was betrayed by the huntsman. Worse still, Snow White is still alive. All the stepmother queen can think of is how to get rid of Snow White. So, she disguises herself as an old peddler, walks to the cottage of the dwarfs, and offers Snow White colourful, silky laced bodices. She convinces Snow White to take the most beautiful bodice as a present, then she laces it so tight that Snow White faints. The queen leaves her for dead. However, the dwarfs return just in time and Snow White revives when the dwarfs loosen the laces.

Next morning, the stepmother queen consults her mirror again. Shock, horror! She is told that Snow White is still alive. The queen is incensed. She is aflame with rage and hatred. She decides to dress up as a comb seller and pays Snow White a visit. She manages to convince Snow White to take a pretty comb as a present and proceeds to brush Snow White's hair with the comb. Unfortunately, the comb is poisoned. Snow White faints again but is revived by the dwarfs. The next morning the mirror tells the queen that Snow White is still 'a thousand times more beautiful' than the queen. The queen is now apoplectic with rage. She makes a poisoned apple and, in the disguise of a farmer's wife, she offers it to Snow White, who is at first hesitant to accept it, so the queen cuts the apple in half, eats the white harmless part, and gives the red poisoned part to Snow White. (I am a bit like Snow White. I can resist anything except temptation.) Snow White takes a bite of the apple—the poisoned part—and falls into a state of suspended animation. This time the dwarfs are unable to revive the girl because they can't find the source of Snow White's poor health and, assuming that she is dead, they place her in a glass coffin.

A prince travelling through the land sees Snow White. He strides to her coffin and, enchanted by her beauty, instantly falls in love with her. The dwarfs succumb to his entreaties to let him have the coffin, and as his servants carry the coffin away, they stumble on some roots. The tremor caused by the stumbling causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White's throat, awakening her. The prince then declares his love for her, and soon a wedding is planned. The couple invites every queen and king to come to the wedding party, including Snow White's stepmother. Meanwhile, the queen, still believing that Snow White is dead, again asks her magic mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror says: ‘You, my Queen, are fair so true. But the young queen is a thousand times fairer than you.’

The stepmother queen reluctantly accepts the invitation to attend the wedding. Why? Well, call it fate, karma or destiny. We cannot escape our destiny. A pair of glowing-hot iron shoes are brought forth with tongs and are placed before the queen. She is forced to step into the burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead.

Well, what are we to make of all this? I have already given you a few clues above. Remember, this is my take on the fairy tale.

The story begins with the old queen who has a vision of a beautiful, joyous human being. Such a person will have overcome their bondage to self. He or she is enlightened, so to speak. Of course, we don’t become such a person overnight, and the path to becoming a fully functioning human being is fraught with difficulties. Inside each of us are hundreds of little, false selves in the form of our many likes, dislikes, opinions, beliefs, attachments and aversions. The process of dis-identifying with self is never easy. The new queen appears. Unfortunately, she is very vain and proud, and she seeks to use selfish powers and wisdom for her own entirely selfish purposes. As I see it, the new queen represents any one or more of our false selves which we mistakenly believe are the person that we are. The seven dwarfs symbolise different aspects or facets of the person each of us is. For example, among others there’s Happy, and Sleepy, and Bashful, and Dopey. The latter is especially me! Anyhow, take your pick. One thing to remember. These ‘dwarfs’ are very important and they can help you and me. They are all facets of the spiritually developing person.

The spiritually developing person Snow White, like you and me, is attacked in various ways. Of course, our worst enemy is ourselves—that is, our ‘selves’. The task for each one of us is to overcome the bondage of self. Ultimately, as I’ve said over and over again, we need a power-not-ourselves (that is, a power-not-our-false-selves’) to be relieved of the bondage to self. In the fairy story of Snow White and the seven Dwarfs that power comes in the form of the prince.

The stepmother queen is a graphic representation of all our inner demons—our unruly passions, hates, aversions and attachments. Our ego-self, if you like. It is a paradox of immense proportions that, for something which has no separate, independent existential reality of its own, the ego-self causes us so much damn trouble? Why? Because we let it.

The ego-self has to be thrown off-centre, and if we wish to be truly happy we must give up all things that stand in the way of our spiritual development—things like bad habits, obsessions, addictions, hatreds and resentments. In fact, all forms of self-obsession. Norman Vincent Peale (pictured left), who for 32 years was the senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, wrote in his book Sin, Sex and Self-Control (Doubleday, 1966) that each of us must experience ‘a shift in emphasis from self to non-self’. However, there’s a problem. Self cannot overcome the problem of self. The ‘self that tries to overcome self’ is just one more self, having no power in and of itself. In my many blogs and other writings I have quoted often these immortal words of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’ What this means is that each of us needs to find a power-not-our-false-selves to overcome the problem of self and bondage to self. In one of his memorable so-called ‘Zen sayings’ Jesus said that we must lose our ‘selves’ in order to find ourselves (cf Mk 8:35). So true.

Snow White—the real person each one of us is—wanders from the path that leads to being a fully functioning human being. The illusory power of our false selves can and does cause that to happen. Eventually, she comes to see the false as false and the real as real. The prince opens her eyes to what is real. Experience, and trial and error, can do that. So, can mindfulness, that is, living with choiceless awareness of what is.

When we practise mindfulness, we learn, bit by bit, to dis-identify with our false selves. It may be our angry self, our resentful self or our frightened self. We learn to give those selves no power. They are not the person that we are. They are images in our mind which we have created over time. Yes, they are quite persistent and, if we allow them to dominate and take over, they can almost come to define the person that we are. However, they are never, never, never in truth the person that we are. You and I are persons among persons. Live as such. Overcome the bondage to self. No effort of the self can do that, but you, the person that you are, is power-other-than-self. Only the latter is real.

I will finish with these words from G K ChestertonIn his book Orthodoxy, in the chapter titled ‘The Maniac’, Chesterton wrote, ‘How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it … .' Indeed.




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