The Twelve Labors of
I - The Nemean Lion
In order to become a
hero—Greek for spiritually realized being—Hercules was assigned twelve
The first Labor of
Hercules was to defeat the invulnerable Lion of Nemea. Its hide was impervious
to all weapons; it turned out it could only be cut by its own claws. The
symbolic reference is to spiritual vanity or spiritual ego, which parries all
attempts to destroy it and yet contains the seeds of its own undoing.
All of us are
wrapped in a thick skin of words that has been growing thicker since birth.
Words are very enchanting, but they only represent reality, they are not real
in themselves. By adulthood we have all pretty much substituted word reality
for essential reality, which we often refer to as spiritual reality. It is not
enough to merely recognize this. Somehow the beast must be killed and the skin
cut away. The myth tells us how: we must use the claws themselves, nothing else
will do the trick. This means that only through words can we slice through the
web of words which binds us.
Many of us recognize
the conundrum we’re in due to being caught in word reality, but few understand
the power of words to extricate us. We fail to realize that everything we think
and do is based on words. False and misleading words can further entangle us,
but wise words can actually set us free. The fact that this occurs in the very
first Labor means it is of preeminent importance.
The appeal of drugs
and religious rituals is that for a time one can enjoy nonverbal experience
through them. It is very refreshing to be released for a time from the thrall
of word-mediated reality. But the Herculean myth reminds us that this doesn’t
cut away the skin; it’s only a temporary respite. We always come back into our
persona made up of our own thoughts and attitudes. The solution is to find an
intelligent orientation made out of the same thing that holds us fast.
the Lion with his bare hands. Dr. Mees, in his comments about this myth, sees
these as symbolic of the Guru, and he is probably right. But to me it also
means that weapons (tools) are superfluous. We have to wrestle directly in
hand-to-hand combat with our own spiritual vanity that is based on the beliefs
we have made out of words. The weapons symbolize religions or thought systems.
These are to be abandoned and the situation addressed directly.
The Lion is driven
into a cave, where Hercules strangles it. This certainly looks like words being
stifled in the throat, though I doubt it’s as literal as it looks. Mere
suppression won’t work, but a successful attempt may stop the flow of
web-weaving words or thoughts. (In fact the futility of suppressing the life
force is the issue in the second Labor of Hercules, when he took on the Hydra.)
Then Hercules tried to cut off the skin, but nothing would work. Finally he
tried the Lion’s claws and the skin came away with ease. As noted above, this
means that words are the only way to defeat a defective philosophy. The claws
are very sharp and pointed, like the words of the Guru.
Hercules next made a
protective coat of armor and a helmet from the hide. This means he forged an
intelligent frame of reference which henceforth would help him in his quest.
His armor made him impervious to other weapons (beliefs) and the helmet gave
him an invincible outlook.
stories use an elephant’s hide in the same way as the Lion’s hide in this
story. It is incredibly tough, but beautiful enough to appeal to one’s vanity.
Once wrapped in it, no outside influence can get through.
The following exchange is an
appendix you might find interesting:
Please can you define your understanding of "spiritual
ego/vanity" for me in more detail. Wendy
Your question is totally to the point, and impossible to
answer simply. I wish we could spend an hour in a garden somewhere talking
Vanity means emptiness. "Vanity of vanities, all is
vanity" means everything is made up of our ideas about it and in reality
has only the qualityless Absolute for its nature. We have substituted our ideas
for what is. We live wrapped in those ideas. If we sit and reflect, we know
that the first time we experience something it is really profound and powerful.
The next time it's still pretty profound, but mixed in are our thoughts about
how good it is going to be, based on our memories. These in a way block part of
the experience and water it down. Over time the memories become the whole
thing, and the experience in itself is barely noticed. We have decided we like
that object of experience, and don't much experience it ever again. Still, we
are certain we know what we like.
The ego is the part of us that says "I know what I
like." It holds fast to its little likes, and dislikes too for that
matter. It knows what it dislikes. It dislikes anything that might dislodge it
from being in control.
Spirit itself is a living, flowing emptiness that is ever
changing. The ego is continually challenged by the movement of life, and so
builds a defended nest where it coddles its likes and dislikes and protects
them from the assaults of the newness of spirit. This ego nest is a lot like
the thick skin of the Nemean Lion.
When we embark on a spiritual search, we do so because we
have had some exciting or blissful experience that makes us think there is much
more of that to be had if we follow a certain path. If we were truly open, then
bliss would be our everyday state, but instead we begin to replace spiritual
experience with ideas and memories about it. We replace bliss with notions of
bliss. The skin that's woven around spiritual ideals is even thicker than the
rest, and more impervious to any weapon, weapon meaning religion or belief
system. Our own beliefs trump all others.
The Indian idea of the need for a Guru is based on this
conundrum. We are helpless to extricate ourselves from our self-deception based
on our best thinking. We have to have an outside agent who can cause us to
surrender our spiritual ego. Hercules, however, was able to kill the beast
through intense concentration and determination. Most of us are too lazy to
bring that kind of intensity to bear, but I'd like to agree it's possible.
Still, our ability to delude ourselves that we are making
spiritual progress when in fact we are merely stuck is legendary.
One thing that's very important is to cultivate and maintain
a sense of humility. We are not much in charge of anything, even when we
believe we are. Reminding ourselves of how much comes to us from the divine
side of life, and how little we contribute ourselves, is very helpful. Admiring
the zillions of really talented and wonderful people (and minerals and plants
and animals) with which we are surrounded, helps keep things in perspective.
And continually challenging our own assumptions is extremely important. Friends
and family do this, but it can come from a simple openness to what's around us.
Above all, extrication from spiritual egoism can be a gentle and sweet process,
in contrast to the violent imagery of Hercules. The most important thing is to
Your study of That Alone, the Core of Wisdom is a Herculean
task which is sure to strip off the skin of the Lion and fashion it into a
helmet of wisdom to guide your way on. We are unusually blessed to have that
resource at our fingertips.