The coronavirus and the alchemical battle leading to metamorphosis

We may feel that we’re facing an unprecedented crisis in the world as a result of the coronarvirus. Every day, we receive new public health announcements that seem to be changing, at an inexorable pace, the features of the landscape of our world that we had previously assumed were immovable.

However, there is no need to panic. Our ancient ancestors had this sort of scenario so buttoned down they even told about it in their stories, which we call myths, and they have left us plenty of clues about how to survive it.

It is all about our perception to what some call a Black Swan event:

What we call here a Black Swan is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There is a good reason why a Black Swan “lies outside the realm of regular expectations” to my way of seeing, shamanically. It is also multi-dimensional and it is alchemical. It is the revolution that always comes like lightening at the end of a long period of slow and steady evolution of a specific stage in the process.

In other words, it may look like chaos and this can make us feel fearful and uncertain. But that is just because we cannot see the whole picture. It is like trying to do a hundred-piece jigsaw when we don’t have the lid of the box.

I spent a couple of years in India, in the Nineties, studying the Vedas. So I hope here to ease some of that fear and uncertainty by sharing one of those Vedic stories. It gives us a more zoomed-out and wider perspective of this Black Swan event and some cognitive tools to apply to it.

The first thing to understand is that during a Black Swan event, “good” and “evil” are lined up against one another in equal force.

So in the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, from the Srimad Bhagavatham, the devas (good guys) are lined up in a tug of war against the daemons (bad guys).

They are using a huge serpent as the rope, and it is tied around a holy mountain, which is acting as the churning rod. Their aim is to churn the Ocean of Milk (Garbodhaka Ocean) in order to bring to the surface the nectar of the Elixir of Life, which is the same substance that Western alchemists call the Holy Grail or the Philosopher’s Stone.

Both sides, in other words, want the Elixir of Life and so initially there is cooperation between the two.

At first, during the early stages of the churning, all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff is dredged up from the depths – the good, the bad and the ugly: old boots, rusty kettles, an odd sock and so on. After all the dross is disposed of, the healing herbs begin to surface but, at the same time, poisonous plants also bob up on the waves which, in order to protect everyone, the god Shiva swallows, and it turns his throat blue.

The tug of war goes on for many days until eventually, Dhanvantari, the god of healing, suddenly appears on the surface, holding the cup of the Elixir of Life.

Dhanvantari, the god of healing, holding the cup of the Elixir of Life

Then, just as you might expect, the daemons leap up as one and fly into the air to steal all the toilet rolls … er, I mean, the cup.

However, just at that moment, the great god Garuda the Eagle appears in the skies above.

He swoops down in a flash, takes the cup in his beak, and then soars off with it. But as he flies on across the Earth, a few drops of the nectar drip down from the cup on to the land below, and it turns those places into sacred sites that people would be able to visit to receive healing.

I am telling this story in the present tense because it is about a timeless wisdom.

This Vedic tale is also just one version of the Holy Grail-type of myth which is found in many other cultures, such as the Scandinavian Eddas, in which the god Odin plays the part of the eagle stealing the nectar. It is the origins of the Greek myth of Prometheus, who “steals” the nectar of the gods. It also the underlying story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I devote a whole chapter of The Sacred Sex Rites of Ishtar to breaking down Shakespeare’s alchemical allegory.

So what are our ancestors trying to tell us? Well, in a nutshell, “keep calm and carry on … and just enjoy the show.”

I see so many people using limited vision to try to make sense of the cause of this event because, as Taleb says, “human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Some people are following avidly the side of the daemons, and others the devas. So some are seeing nothing but bad, while others are seeing nothing but good.

We feel the need to take a side and a stance because being able to explain things makes us feel safer. There are some who would almost prefer it if turned out that the coronavirus was all the fault of the “aliens” or the “Illuminati”, rather than have to face the terrifying abyss of “I don’t know” yawning beneath their cognitive ‘feet’. But at the same time, they would then be ring-fencing the whole issue, and thus shutting themselves down to further possibilities, which would have led to inner growth.

The daemonic and the devic forces can be seen all around us in how they are causing people to act in different ways to this crisis.

On the one side, fear and greed is the driving force currently afflicting the panic-buyers and the looters. On the other side, there just as many extraordinary acts of kindness and sacrifice, such as the doctors and nurses who are risking their own lives to treat victims of the virus. Neighbours who haven’t spoken to each other in years, because they were so caught up in their working lives, are now going out into their gardens to smell the Spring in the air and chat over the fence.

So to my way of seeing, we should continue to use the cognitive tools that we’ve acquired over many lifetimes to take the longer view, and encourage our friends and family to stay calm and have patience and wait, for the nectar to appear on the surface. Then the daemons will make their move, and we will be able to watch and enjoy the show as Garuda the Eagle swoops down to rescue the Elixir of Life and convey it to the people.

Of course, this is all metaphor, but sometimes, only poetic or picture language will do to describe the unknowable and the indescribable – the inner metamorphosis which this Black Swan event will cause to manifest differently in each person’s life as an evolutionary rite of passage.

Another expression for Garuda the Eagle’s role is the Law of Unintended Consequences, over which none of us has any control, including, rest assured, the daemons!