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Until I was about ten years old, I like to travel with a super strong and super sensitive black panther named Striker. I remember padding around the living room in the depths of winter, climbing over the furniture, imagining I was in a vast and gorgeous jungle. Striker padded beside me, my guardian and consort. Not only was he able to see and sense what I could not–he possessed powers of invisibility, teleportation, and telepathy. I remember having the feeling of being accompanied, of traveling along with a life force that was exquisitely powerful and free.
I remember my mother pausing in the doorway, watching me as I played my jungle game. Sometimes she looked amused, sometimes bemused, sometimes impatient and annoyed. Stop climbing on the furniture, she told me. And where were my slippers? And why was I wearing shorts in the middle of the winter? It made her cold just looking at me.
Parents were subject to moods, I knew. Sometimes they were open and present, sometimes rushing past. But I remember feeling as if I had an unwavering resolve, as if I was headed somewhere, towards the beating heart of the jungle, and always Striker was with me, offering a coiled strength and wild freedom beyond anything I could express. Yet somehow I knew it was possible.
I remember leaping from the sofa to a big chair. The arm of the chair was draped with a big shaggy stuffed dog named Dino, saddled with the pillow from my bed. Striker slipped in and out of the dense foliage as I perched on this elephant. Sometimes I pressed my twin brother into the game, inviting him to ride the other arm of the chair, describing our journey towards the center of the jungle, towards a secret stronghold in the very heart of the world. He would pretend along for a time, then jump off and go to his room. It wasn’t his journey.
“All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds are within us,” said Joseph Campbell in a long-ago interview. “They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other.” The gods, the heavens, the worlds are also outside us, I believe. But we are born with a capacity to echo ad to mirror what is beyond us. We know a greater freedom is possible. We sense that we could travel through the world with a lighter tread–we could be with life in a deeper yet happier way. Yet inevitably this aspiration gets bogged down in the business of being someone, in carving out an identity.
I think the sense of identity may begin with a sense of contrast—I was different than my brother, on a journey. The sense of self may even start before that, with the sensation of the difference between inside and outside. In the simple terms of the game I used to play, padding around in my living room in the winter felt like being in the jungle because I usually played outside in the snow all morning (unlike my mother). I remember spending hours digging tunnels through snow banks, relishing the hush and the blue light inside the burrow, dreaming of going farther, making interconnected tunnels and a vaulted central chamber—only to have my whole creation suddenly smashed by Johnny and Joey from next door. I remember suddenly being exposed, looking up at bruise colored sky, my dream in ruins all around me. Johnny or Joey would be wrestling and pounding each other in snow suits dark and slick with snow, writhing like seals, oblivious to what they had done. I remember feeling stranded and bereft, then going inside to play, certain I was not like them. And it was just this conviction that I was someone–someone other than those agents of chaos I left beating each other up in the snow–that kept me from making it to the heart of things. I needed to be less like a princess and more like a panther (or maybe even a seal).
I needed to learn to savor those moments when I was in that happy manner of travelling where we forget all about being a self, when we stop delighting in or clinging to any thoughts— especially those that flow from craving this or yearning to be that, those thoughts that flow from I, me, mine.