Friday, February 22, 2013

"To Thine Own Self Be True"

When the world was much younger than it is now, and the gods were less shy about making themselves visible to us mortals, there was a king called Pygmalion. The king had fallen hopelessly (and inappropriately) in love with no less a being than Aphrodite, the goddess of love. However much he begged her, she refused (naturally enough) to sleep with him, until at last in utmost despair he fashioned an exquisite ivory likeness of her, placed it in his bed, and lay down beside it.
When Aphrodite saw him lying there lovelorn, with only the embrace of cold ivory for company, she at last took pity on the king. Her spirit then entered the sculpture, imbuing it with the seed of life which it is the grace of a goddess to give. With a king's kiss the transformation began, as beneath Pygmalion's wondering touch hard ivory became yielding female flesh. And this is how the carved likeness became transformed into a living woman, who in later retellings of the story acquired the name of Galatea.

Whether or not Pygmalion found happiness with his Galatea is for us to speculate upon. What we both recognize and respond to in the story is the way in which the king projected all his fantasies and his longings, not onto a real person, but instead onto a mere image which he himself had created. The heart of the story contains the powerful recognizable truth: that we often do not see another for who they truly are, but rather as we would wish them to be. And so it happens that, like Pygmalion, we create someone in our own image. 

This can have its appeals - but when it happens within a relationship, it also can have its dangers. A top sportsman might find it flattering to his ego to have a supermodel on his arm, but there still is a human being beneath those supermodel looks who might not be seen for who she truly is - either by him or by the hotly-pursuing paparazzi. But the story of Pygmalion's fixation with a created image can also apply to more spiritual 'sculptures' which we create - even unconsciously.

We all have our own ideas about 'God', both according to our beliefs (or lack of them) and to our personal views within those beliefs. But just how difficult it can be to let go of these thought forms is demonstrated by the mystic Meister Eckehart when he cried: 'Oh, God, help me to release myself from God!' He understood that unless he could let go of all the preconceived images of God which he held, and so make himself a receptive 'empty vessel', he would never be able to draw close to the true nature, the true being of God.

And it even can be the case that we create Pygmalion-style 'sculptures', not just of others, or of the forms in our beliefs, but of ourselves. This could happen because we wish to project a certain image of ourselves to others, or because we seek to please someone - perhaps a partner - by being who they wish us to be, rather than who we truly are. And so we turn ourselves into sculpted 'statues', for the sake of wishing to be more accepted and loved by another. For this reason I can't help wondering if Galatea was herself truly happy. After all, she was the living creation of the wish fulfilment fantasy of Pygmalion, and (assuming that the story has its own inner reality) must have wondered about her own true identity.

"To thine own self be true" advises Polonius in farewell to his departing son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is the best - and at times the hardest - advice to follow!

Drawing 'Pygmalion' by Edward Burne-Jones


  1. What an insightful and revelatory blog brimming with great wisdom! In our searching for "happiness" we are like Pygmalion, looking for that perfect someone, that perfect set of circumstances and events, that great accomplishment that would finally bring us happiness. Alas, they don't. Even if they do, the happiness does not last. This world of illusion, this play of light and shadows, is so ephemeral and so transitory. So where do we find happiness? To answer "within" would be true, but it does not always resonate with people, and such a quick answer seems superficial. And it is so unless we truly inquire within our hearts and question why we are looking for happiness, love, wealth or whatever - the "object" that will bestow us happiness. In the midst of our daily lives, in the middle of our business transactions, in the midst of being in debt, in the midst of apparent chaos, we must stop. Stop, and be still and find out who you are beyond any external circumstance, beyond any form, beyond success or failure. Everything we grasp and try to hold will sooner or later evaporate. By stopping, and being still, we start to look within. Find that which you are that is not dependent upon one's physical form, other people, or outer circumstances. Thank you Emma for this piece of eternal wisdom!

  2. Thank you too, dear friend!