My Soul in Space - Copyright 2009, John Manimas

Once upon a time, I participated in a spirituality workshop at the Pumpkin Hollow Retreat (in New York State) of the American Theosophical Society. A group of seven plus our participating facilitator, Michael, sat in a circle each with a lump of clay before us. The exercise assignment was to think of the person to your left, and then use the clay -- but no words -- to communicate something to them that you would like to communicate.

I contemplated the clay, and taking this exercise seriously, I asked myself what would be the most basic, most essential thing about myself that I would want to communicate to the person beside me. Also, what would be the most basic universal thing I would want to communicate to another person, not just about me but about everyone, about life, about the world, about the universe.

I decided that I wanted to use the clay to sculpt a soul. What does one do with a lump of clay to make it look like a soul? We don’t even know what a soul looks like. The old stereotype of the soul as a kind of glowing white sphere would not do. If I just made a sphere of clay, that sphere could be construed as many other things other than a soul. I had no means to make the gray clay white, or to make it glow with the light of life. So, I had to sculpt something that would be unavoidably not perfectly clear, but as close as I could make it to my soul, or a soul. I would really have to make only a metaphor for a soul, because I could not conceive of any sculpture -- to be made within a few minutes -- that would be unmistakably a soul. My thoughts felt the pressure of time, and I thought of my soul as a butterfly, a light but sturdy thing floating and gliding in the clear, open atmosphere of heavenly cosmic space. Atma, atmosphere.

My hands started and I immediately grasped the substantial challenge before me. A butterfly has wings as thin as a pleasant thought, thinner than a flower petal. How could I make the wings of a butterfly with clay? It would not hold any shape rolled so thin. Therefore, I concluded that to mold my metaphorical butterfly I would have to settle for the shape of butterfly wings at best, but certainly not filmy thin butterfly wings. And of course the wings would have to be attached to a cylindrical or oval body.

My hands worked as the time flew by. Each of us showed in our accelerating efforts that we had to come up with a shape soon, a finished or almost finished sculpture that communicated without words. Time was up, we were done. We each took our hands off of our spiritual communications in clay. They were before us. As communications of the mind, about the spirit, they were ready to be received, interpreted.

As we all have egos, I recall only vaguely what others sculpted, and what they communicated, often an expression of the self-image of the sculptor. Each piece was discussed briefly, but not overly analyzed or dwelled upon. I remember mine of course. People had some interesting comments, most of them far from any understanding that my oddly shaped, somewhat amorphous sculpture began with my intent to depict my soul or a soul or a butterfly.

Then, in a moment that captured a special place in my memory, Michael said that it looked like a kind of “space turtle.” What a wonderful concept, a space turtle. And in the moment he said that, I felt inside myself that my communication -- often difficult for me -- had been eminently successful. My soul, the soul, is a space turtle, a turtle that feels the weight of physical life, pressed down to the earth, flattened, carrying a shell for protection, slow moving, ponderous, reptilian, close to the smell and texture of mud and algae, yet somehow floating in a heavenly cosmic space. The butterfly IS a turtle, I thought, a turtle that has transformed to a lighter body that rises up above the ground and flies on the winds of an expansive sky. The soul is a space turtle, a bony, shelled body with scales and claws that is also light and reaching, seeking the freedom and eternity of space itself. Butterflies also have scales, microscopic scales on their wings. A butterfly has a protective shell around its soft inner body. The two wings of the butterfly are modifications of the two shells of the turtle -- the upper half and the lower half -- which are both required for full protection, just as the two wings of the butterfly are required for flight. My thoughts went on, but we had accepted the limitation that we would not get into any lengthy analysis or defense of our own or anyone else’s communications. This exercise was intended to help us understand meditation and detachment. And that meant detachment from words and wordy analysis. Empty the mind of words, empty the mind of wordy explanations, communicate with the cosmos without words, with an image, with one impulse sent and received. We may have forever to live, but we do not have forever to communicate. We moved on but I was then and forever satisfied that I had depicted my soul effectively -- a space turtle, an animal bonded to the Earth but able to become detached and float through endless space. For me, from that time forward, I have always thought of the turtle and the butterfly as the same being, and the body, mind and soul all encompassed in this turtle that is also a butterfly.

John Manimas, June 18, 2009

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