Friday, March 31, 2017

The Notion of the Cave

Cave along the shore of the island of Capri, Italy
What is it about a cave? Rocks, crevices, gems, creatures, critters, shadows, hidden, secret, intimacy with the earth.... What's not to fantasize about?

I like the notion of a cave when it pertains to yoga, personal enrichment, and love. Here is why: Yoga can easily be associated with the cave since many monks, Buddhist or Zen or Christian, have taken refuge and solace in a solitary existence in caves. This includes refuge in its proper sense for Tibetan monks. The cave is a shelter that one takes by necessity. Whether forced or self-prescribed, a retreat of several years or decades brings about clarity and divine wisdom. Ancient holy texts are preserved in caves, and living beings feel called to caves as if they too will become a living text. Meditation is a regiment dictated by cave walls, and many a brave soul have felt beckoned and heeded the call. A cave serves as a cocoon for the seeking soul. It is a womb matrix in which the person develops clearer insight, and the world outside no longer appears the same; its materiality loses its veneer of importance or dominance. The connection to the divine that resides within grows deeper as if the compact space of the rocky walls hinging above were compressing insight into the monk's third eye, and the vastness of the soul opens up.

In Western literature, the cave or grotto may be a magical place where lovers may lie together. I am thinking of the idyllic scene in the story of Tristan and Isolde: these two lovers, innocent and true, accidentally drink the potion of love that was prepared for the young bride so that she would fall in love with King Mark; however, by accident, Tristan, faithful servant to the King, and Isolde drink of it. In the grotto scene, Tristan and Isolde are finally able to take refuge alone together. The affect of this grotto or cave is amplified by the literary details of its depiction, details which point to the intent, honesty, and purity of love. It is a brief moment in time where love can find understanding between the two, a moment rendered all the more precious when the heavy symbolism of Tristan's sword is laid between them once Tristan learns that the King is pursuing them.

The cave is not always an idyllic place of soul-searching, utopic retreat, or divine pursuit. It is also portrayed in Western literature as a threatening hole where cyclops or beasts or bats dwell. Then, there is the problem of getting lost in them, and being forever swallowed up by the earth. There is also the famous example of cave experience where the prisoners are tricked by the shadows that fall upon the rocky walls, and are conditioned to doubt and fear the reality outside given the limited view they have in Plato's cave.

Yet the lesson of the prisoners in Plato's cave is not unlike the lesson of the various monks who have taken retreat in caves or cave monasteries over the centuries. In Plato's allegory of the cave, the prisoner needs to do whatever it takes to make his way towards the entrance of the cave in order to fully see the light and reach the mind-opening experience that exists beyond the cave's shadows. Yet most people do not reach for this. Likewise, most people do not purposefully go live in a cave to meditate for months and years on end. Yet they, like Plato's freed prisoner, have to some significant extent realized that this world is made up of the illusory. Simply put, it is fascinating that monks have intentionally chosen the cave and walked away from the distractions of the world. In choosing cave dwelling, monks trade possessions for contemplation. They trade clamor of too many voices and opinions for peacefulness, and they exchange stress for simplicity. The intimacy of the cave allows them to focus on the abundance of inner experience - mystical, spiritual, universal - as it unfolds and speaks inside. The silence of the cave is what attracts myth, what makes it more real than the world outside, and what speaks to the awe we feel towards monks who continue to follow a notable calling.