Apr 30, 2023
Martin Goodson

Seeing is Believing, Right?

The iceberg story

How do we become conscious of the unconscious?



One of my favourite metaphors for explaining the relationship between conscious awareness and the unconscious or unseen realm and its effects is that of the iceberg.

Imagine the scene, a polar landscape on a fine day, the sea is calm and a chunk of ice breaks off (or calves, as is the proper verb), from the ice sheet. As the newly fledged iceberg separates out from the mother sheet it finds its equilibrium and it floats away.

Now, as we all know, the density of the ice in the water means that only around one-fifth of the ice  shows above the waterline and the remaining four-fifths lie below, out of sight of the upper airy world.

The calm day and the cloudless sky mean that the sea is like a mirror reflecting the sky and the sun above. Looking down, the one-fifth of ice that is above the waterline sees itself and the sea below, which appears opaque since the reflection obscures the ‘below’ world that lies underneath the surface. As far is this one-fifth is aware, and if it is aware, there is no below, just the sea’s surface with an occasional ripple.

Seeing another iceberg, a way off, this one-fifth decides to go over and say ‘Hello’. It’s feeling a bit lonely and in need of a friend. The berg exerts itself in that direction; however, what it does not realise is that below is a cross-current that has caught the remaining four-fifths and instead of moving forward in the direction it wants to go it finds itself moving sideways, against its will! What is this strange and annoying force that is thwarting one-fifth’s wishes? Looking over at the iceberg he wished to visit, he begins to wonder if this other berg has some kind of magical power that can repel him? What has he done to deserve the indignity of being rebuffed by this other berg who has clearly mis-read his good intentions!

Because one-fifth does not realise the true nature of itself and is unaware of the four-fifths, it mis-attributes the cause of its frustrations.

Many years ago, I had a tom cat, alas no longer with me, who caught a cold. It was his first time having a cold. At that time, he was asleep on my bed, curled up and eyes closed quite content when out of nowhere he sneezed! The sneeze shook him so violently that he jumped up most alarmed and ready to fight. He looked at me suspiciously, as if I might be part of the plot. I told him it wasn’t me, so he turned and looked at the dent in the duvet where he had been sleeping. Eyeing that suspiciously now, he moved away from that spot and settled down once more. A few minutes later another sneeze shook him and again he jumped up, miaowing this time and again moving from the spot looking at the dent in the duvet with grave suspicion. After this and a couple more sneezes, he realised that the sneeze was not coming from outside but from within. I’m glad to say that he did recover from the cold quite quickly.

There is a Tibetan story that gives a good account of how this misattribution can deceive us as to the true source of a problem.

A young monk was part way through a long retreat which consisted in long hours sat on his cushion deep in meditation. Such retreats are held in silence and the restrictive practices allow for the quiet to pervade the hearts and minds of the practitioners. Deep quiet can feel threatening to the inner narrator, the stream of thoughts and daydreams in which we normally engage. When this screen becomes ‘thin’, then the sense of myself which is always planning, judging and commenting also becomes thin. Even though this ‘self’, which the Buddha said is not something that is natural to consciousness, is added like legs painted on a snake, even this illusion of self can generate some fear and this fear is met during long sitting meditation.

The young monk was not experienced in meeting this existential fear to his sense of self and so did not realise that this fear latches onto things, such as a thought that something dreadful is about to happen.

As he was sitting there in deepening quiet, a small spider walked into his field of vision. As a monk sits, he may look as if his eyes are closed but they are slitted and he can see out. This spider stopped in front of him and appeared to sit back on its haunches like it was doing a dance. The monk became fascinated by this antic and, as he became more engrossed, the tiny spider began to grow. This only increased his fascination which in turn caused the spider to grow further. As he watched the details of the spider’s body became increasingly visible. The abdomen swollen with venom, the articulated legs, the hairs on the outer shell and the fangs dripping poison. Eventually the spider was as big as the monk and then it grew bigger still. At this point, the monk’s fascination turned to terror! What would happen to him, those fangs dripping poison were coming to get him! It was at that moment that he was literally saved by the bell that rang to signal the end of meditation. The young monk was up and off his seat and he ran as fast as he could to his teacher. Breathless, sobbing and drenched in sweat he stammered out his story. The teacher listened carefully. The monk ended his account by reaching into his sleeve, where there is a pocket, and drew out a curved knife: “And even though I have taken a vow not to harm living beings, if it comes down to a fight between me and it then I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

The teacher could see that the young monk was quite beside himself and that no reason or explanation was going to get through to him. So, he bent down and picked up a piece of chalk that was lying on the ground. Giving it to the monk he said firmly: “Go back to your seat and sit down for the next period of meditation. That spider will come quickly to you again and will also grow in size as it did before. Just sit it out and when you can no longer bear it reach forward and draw a little chalk cross on the abdomen of the spider and then come straight to me.”

The monk did not really fancy going back to his seat, so frightened was he, but as he had been instructed to do so by his teacher, he would not dream of disobeying him. So, back he went and sat down. The bell for the start of the next period of meditation sounded and everyone became still. In moments the little spider appeared once more before the young monk and began to quickly grow. Once more, the monk could see those fangs dripping poison lowering towards him. When he could no longer stand the sight, with eyes now shut tight he reached forward and drew a chalk cross on the spider’s abdomen. Like a shot he was up and off his seat and he ran to his teacher.  “I did it! I did it!” He exclaimed. His teacher nodded and replied: “Good, now lift up your robe.”

“What?” said the monk

“Lift up your robe.”

The monk lifted up his robe and there on his own abdomen was that little chalk cross.

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