By some accounts Carl Jung’s favourite story went something like this.
“A tribe sent seekers out into the desert searching for the Water of Life. The Water showed itself in the world by bubbling forth from an artesian well. After a long journey the seekers came upon the well and drank from its invigorating waters. They felt life surge through them and were truly satisfied.
They sent for the tribe, which soon arrived. There were many people gathered around the spring, so a wall was built to protect the purity of its crystal water. As the people arrived shops and buildings sprang up. Roads were built. Eventually to organise access and pay for the necessary administrative costs a charge was made for drinking from the vitalising waters. Still the people came.
And then one day the people woke up and the Water of Life had gone.
Water still flowed, but it was not the Water of Life.
People drank, but in time realised their loss.
The people sent seekers out and the cycle began again.”
I find this story immensely rich, layered and resonant. Like the water itself any attempt to pin it down simply fails as it takes itself off to another place.
I am often reminded of it in numerous conversations I have with teachers (and others in vocational or artistic occupations). For many the initial impulse or purpose that sent them into teaching was strong. Like the Water of Life it invigorates and energises. A real and deeply felt connection to the external and inner world can materialise through entry into a such a vocation. Naturally we build around this. We learn the profession’s language and behaviours, we join a school or organisation, we construct a career.
Yet a certain percentage of those who I sit in conversation with are there because unknown to them the Water of Life has shifted. Often some time ago. They are left with the infrastructure of purpose and the necessary arrangements of a life centered on something very important. But the Water has gone. They work hard and for a time ignore the dryness of the experience, the diminishing satisfaction and the growing sense of lost connection.
It is time to seek again.
Human beings are creatures of loss and discovery. Our souls are designed to pulse between the tasks of seeking and the tasks of settling. This is a necessary rhythm, and denying either side of it denies the other. We must go out. We must come back.
When we realise that the Water of Life has shifted this demands we begin the search, the enquiry again. It may not be a physical change that is needed. Indeed a physical change is a powerful way to delay the real confrontation that is needed between the old and the new arrangement. Changing job, exiting a marriage, buying a motorbike at 45 may not be what is required. Sometimes it is a deep internal seeking. It might be a reconnection to the body, enabling us again to recover the natural intelligence of our childhood and follow the perhaps now faint trace lines of our own satisfaction, wherever they may lead. An enquiry into “what the soft animal of the body loves” as Mary puts it. It may be as simple and hard as building into our work-life enough stoppage time for us to experience the satisfaction of a job done well, rather than speed on to the next task ad infinitum. Sometimes we can live at such a density and speed that the Water of Life cannot enter us. It may be to rediscover a spiritual practice or to drop a long-held grievance or sorrow that has distorted the way we touch and are touched by the world around us.
I find this story incredible optimistic because I see two qualities to the Water of Life.
Firstly, its nature is to move and refuse limitation.
Secondly, its nature is to be found and re-found.
If the shifting Water of Life naturally creates the Seeker we can be hopeful, because it is clear that it desires the Seeker as much as the Seeker desires it.