You can't write a blog about politics and culture without appreciating the contribution made to progressive thought and insight by an impoverished single mother from Great Britain back in 1997, when she stepped meekly and without fanfare onto the literary stage of the world, with a children's novel called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Since then, of course, J.K. Rowling has become a literary phenomenon without precedent in the history of letters. She became the first billionaire author; sold more copies of her books in more languages than anything or anyone this side of the Bible; saw her work publicly burned and demonized by right wing Christian fundamentalists (a sure sign of popular and artistic success); and has singlehandedly erased (or at least blurred) the dividing line between art made for children and for adults.
"Exit polls" of readers at bookstores selling the fifth tome in the Potter series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) revealed that 40% of folks taking that book home were adults (who bought it for themselves); and this trend has ramped up even higher in favor of adults for the latest book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, released this past July. You know there will be plenty of grownups flocking to see the fourth film this weekend: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Some of them might even have children escorting them.
For some six years now, I have been an unabashed adult Potterphile, both because the stories have been pure fun and because they've taught me a lot about myself. So much, in fact, that I wrote a book about it. This week, in tribute to Mrs. Rowling and her extraordinary creations, I thought it appropriate to offer some excerpts from my book on Harry Potter and transformative practice, The Tao of Hogwarts. Here is a piece from the chapter in which I discuss "The Pensieve".
A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge: runes and symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the basin's contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind, and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid—or like wind made solid—Harry couldn't make up his mind.
—from Chapter 30, "The Pensieve" of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
In one of Rowling's more finely placed and crafted scenes within the Harry Potter series, Harry finds himself at another turning point in his young life: he is soon to face the third and final task of an elite wizard's triathlon, which had been designed exclusively for the participation of students much more advanced than he, but to which he has nevertheless been magically called. There is a deepening mystery surrounding him, which began with a troubling dream, followed by a foreboding display of group violence at a major professional sporting event, and continuing with Harry's selection for the "triwizard tournament." Harry's situation has now been further darkened by an attack on one of his fellow competitors, along with the brief appearance of an apparently psychotic man who had once been a vaunted official within the wizarding government. At the moment of the story where we now join Harry, he has come to the headmaster's office to see his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, for help and advice with another violent and ominous dream that had awakened him from a nap during Divination class. But Dumbledore is preoccupied with an inspection of the site of the aforementioned attack, so Harry waits for him, pondering this odd container with its "light made liquid."
Sitting alone in the headmaster's office, Harry feels his inner strength and poise return. All the elements of his inner truth are symbolized by the aura of Dumbledore's space, and the objects it contains. There is the phoenix, and there the sword and the sorting hat, which had come to his aid in overcoming the dragon-snake known as the basilisk just two years before (in Book Two). He is entering a realm of hidden resources and deep strength, where inner truth connects with Cosmic energies; within this realm, Harry will find protection as well as insight. In every story of the spiritual quest, these two functions coalesce and support one another, furthering the seeker's growth in an expansive dance of light and dark, yin and yang, retreat and advance. We all have the ability to draw on such resources: their presence is accessed through such means as meditation, the awareness of dreams, the use of oracles, and transformative practices such as can be discovered in the hut of the shaman or the office of the psychotherapist. All such practices relate fundamentally back to the same simple trust in, and attention to, the invisible realm of being, where feeling-consciousness transforms difficulty and transcends suffering.
But, as we all know, inner life is not a pool of perfect stillness: it is often a journey through choppy seas and hidden depths, especially for those who are new to the seeker's voyage. By the time we encounter him in the Pensieve scene, Harry has had many experiences of the quest; yet he is still but fourteen years old, and there is much learning yet to be experienced. Indeed, the journey is never over, and is continually reaching new depths of discovery and regeneration. Frequently, these depths are encountered in memory, where the path of inner growth is entered upon through the doorway of the past. Mrs. Rowling understands this, and so she takes us, and Harry, beyond the comfort of prior achievement and into more mature depths of inner experience. We often approach a path of inner growth with a conditioned position of distrust, suspicion, or outright malice; or we may find the prospect of inner learning to be filled with mystery and a kind of esoteric holiness. Either perspective is, of course, erroneous, and must be discarded before any seeker on the psycho-spiritual path can make true progress. Harry initially approaches the Pensieve, this magical basin and its glistening contents whose diaphanous light draws his attention, with a cautious combination of attraction, suspicion and awe:
He wanted to touch it, to find out what it felt like, but nearly four years' experience of the magical world told him that sticking his hand into a bowl full of some unknown substance was a very stupid thing to do. (Goblet of Fire, p. 583).
Then Harry decides to test the silvery substance with his wand, and things begin to happen. Once he initiates contact with the mist within the bowl, the silvery substance clarifies and takes on a crystalline transparence. This is the symbolic opening of inner clarity, the point at which understanding is synergized with commitment, in which an encounter with the past can point us forward. It is a breakthrough point in the quest, where the silvery cloud of Mystery clears within us, and transformative practice then becomes as natural and effortless a process as eating or going to the toilet—and no less rewarding. In the Zen tradition, it is that moment where "the mountain is again just a mountain," where wonder merges with acceptance to give birth to "ordinary mind," and the quest becomes a natural part of daily life. This is the point at which we, like Harry, are drawn in—"pitched headfirst", as Rowling puts it, into the Pensieve of inner growth.
Harry enters the Pensieve when his nose—the organ of the most primordial and feeling-oriented of our senses—touches the silvery mist within the bowl. We, too, are meant to approach our inner life with our feeling-senses heightened; the seeker's journey is led and nurtured by the aspect of being that is the most commonly repressed or neglected by our culture. When we approach the invisible realm of being, we must discard, or at least suspend, that conditioned obsession with rationality which has been programmed into us by our culture: in turning within, we can no longer "be reasonable"—we must "follow our nose." Healing and growth—the twin goals of all transformative practices—occur when we are able to engage ourselves and our past with all the intuitive and noumenal capacities of our total being.
As in the first Potter book, where the encounter with the magical "Mirror of Erised" brings Harry face-to-face with his personal ancestry, or in Book Two, where Harry is pulled through an enchanted diary into a distant but living past, the outer action of the story is suspended for a moment of reflection, in which perspective is obtained and insight added upon what has gone before, to inform what is to come. Here, in the scene where he encounters the Pensieve, Harry's consciousness again is drawn into an unknown past, which he must clearly perceive in contemplation before he can be ready to undertake the challenges that lie ahead. Error will be a part of this process, just as it was for Harry when he obsessively studied the images of his family in the mirror of Book One, or when he misinterpreted the scene of his friend Hagrid's past in the diary scene of Book Two. Once again, after his encounter with the Pensieve, Harry's perception of the past will lead him to the experiences that will help to complete his understanding—even if his initial perception is clouded by error. For error, when it is led by humility and the insight of recognition, becomes the spiritual seeker's true guide; it is only when error is ideologically hardened into Sin, or else is completely mistaken and labeled "Truth" or "Reality", that it becomes or leads us into what is known as Evil. This, in essence, is the understanding that Harry achieves within the Pensieve.
Good writers seem to have a way of tilting received truths and thereby giving them new life; Rowling's treatment of Harry's "regression" within the Pensieve is illustrative of this principle. This is a transformative moment of learning for Harry, yet he does not explore his own memory in the Pensieve—he instead enters the memory of another, his mentor, Albus Dumbledore. In this context, Harry's experience moves past the conventional setting of modern psychotherapy and into a deeply personal and primordial realm. He is not receiving treatment, but initiation. But it is not initiation into a particular culture or ideology, but an introduction to his unique destiny, through a lens upon the past. This is the induction of the youth into manhood, in which he finds his place within his world through the teaching memory of the elder—this is the moment of the encounter with the sacred spring that Robert Bly describes in the story of Iron John. The Pensieve, with its crystalline depths, runic decoration, and magical allure, is Rowling's version of that sacred spring: it is where Harry experiences the interior transformation that will complete his outer life, and support him through the challenges that await. Just as the boy of the Iron John story discovers his true nature through contact with the spring's water (the metaphor is of his hair and finger being turned golden through touching the water), so also does Harry receive a glimpse of his destiny through being immersed in the Pensieve. In the following chapter, he will enter upon the third and final task of the triwizard tournament, a journey through a maze which will end in his being transported to the graveyard-realm of Lord Voldemort. There, the insight that he received within the Pensieve will serve him well, for it is in the courtroom-flashbacks of Dumbledore that Harry is presented with a vision of the fundamental weakness of evil.
The well of memory that Harry falls into within the Pensieve is of a series of trial scenes, in which alleged "Death Eaters"—the accomplices of Lord Voldemort—are brought before a court of justice. They are guarded by black demons, known as dementors, and indeed a demonic consciousness fills this courtroom, infecting both the accused and their judges. In a montage of scenes, Harry is presented with a convict who turns informant against certain members of Voldemort's circle, then a popular sporting figure who parlays his celebrity into an acquittal, and finally a group of criminals that includes the chief justice's own son. The rot of decadence, like the breath of the dementors, is seen to waft between the condemned and the righteous: Harry is given a visceral illustration of the ambiguity of evil, its incapacity for clarity and its obsession with the noise of appearances. Indeed, the scene ends with the chief justice's son screaming for mercy, another of the condemned declaiming evangelistically that "the Dark Lord will rise again!", and the chief justice himself, in a spitting fury, bellowing condemnation upon them all. It is a scene played out today in real life—in our courts, our media, our workplaces, our centers of government, and our homes. Evil cannot hear the quiet voice of insight, because it perpetually shouts it down—sometimes with the self-righteous shriek of human justice.
Harry is led, through the insights drawn from his time within the Pensieve, to the very center of his psyche, where he finds the resources that enable his escape from the demonic consciousness represented in Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The Pensieve within our own lives can be a practice of meditation, a therapeutic experience, a particular creative activity, or any deeply personal psycho-spiritual practice that alchemically merges past and future in the crucible of a continually transforming present. This is the moment of eternal childhood, in which the process of inner growth can freely play ("re-create"). Shunyru Suzuki called it "beginner's mind." It is no wonder, then, that the work of a "children's author" should have so much to teach us here. Throughout the Potter stories, Harry learns that he can safely discard, or separate from, whatever is false to his personal journey—the attachment to the images in the Mirror of Erised, the distortions of a magical diary, the fabrications reported in the wizarding newspaper ("The Daily Prophet"), or the instruments and symbols of Power. In this respect, both Lao Tzu and Professor Dumbledore have the same crucial lesson to teach, which is the way of inner disburdenment:
Pursuing knowledge: daily accumulation.
Following Tao: daily unburdening.
Decrease, diminish, deprogram:
Continue in this till power is dead.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48
"I sometimes find...that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind....At these times," said Dumbledore, "I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form."
—Goblet of Fire, p. 597
This is the process that is spoken of in many spiritual traditions as "detachment." If the seeker's way is, in essence, a process of revealing incipient truth through the disburdenment of error, then in order to know true progress in our lives the only thing we have to learn is how to unlearn. Detachment or disburdenment is simply a matter of independently examining all the received beliefs that have seeped into consciousness from childhood onward, and as Dumbledore says, "siphoning the excess." This is how delusion is discarded, and how the mist that clouds one's personal truth is burned away. As Harry discovers throughout the five stories published to date, this movement from group-dependence toward individuality does not mean that we are divorcing ourselves from society, just as "learning to unlearn" does not mean that we are spurning our intellectual gifts; what it does mean is that we are making a commitment to draw upon all of our inner resources in living our lives. When we join Harry Potter in this process of opening ourselves to all that is real and invisible within ourselves and Nature; when we play freely, joyfully, in the field of consciousness, the quest is fulfilled; the past informs the way forward, and we are perpetually made whole.