Balancing Reflection and Action: A Lesson of King Gesar

Back in the 1970s, James Hillman argued that everyone who could make change in the world was in therapy instead.

He was in conversation with Michael Ventura, the result of which was a book with the provocative title We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse:

“Well, what can I do about the world? This thing’s bigger than me.” That’s the child archetype talking. “All I can do is go into myself, work on my growth, my development, find good parenting, support groups.” This is a disaster for our political world, for our democracy. Democracy depends on intensely active citizens, not children.

I wonder what he’d have made of the 2016 election of a Twitter-addicted grifter to the highest office in the land, followed into power by his Ku Klux Kabinet.

Some responded to this catastrophe by calling for more reflection, more journaling, more “manifesting,” more oracles, more incense: the same practices they recommended before the election. Hillman, a lifelong Democrat, would have ground his teeth.

On the one hand, then, the advice for facing cultural trauma is to contemplate ourselves more, become more subjective. On the other, the advice is to forget about all that and ACT before the planet melts. “It’s not about meaning anymore,” Hillman states in Inter Views; “it’s about survival.”

Neither option by itself is workable.

When we go on reflecting and analyzing at the cost of deciding and acting, we evade our responsibility to contribute to the world we inhabit. Jung, who pioneered deep methods of reflection, was insistent about the importance of taking up an active stance toward events, as his Red Book makes quite clear. (He also helped get Freud out of Vienna before the Gestapo could grab him.) His contemporary William James criticized philosophies claiming an inevitable evolution of absolute Spirit for encouraging people “to see the world good rather than to make it good.”

In a Korean folktale, the Mountain Spirit shows up to perform a warning dance at a banquet. Although the kingdom is in peril, everyone applauds: “Surely, this is a good omen for us!” The king and his priests are so busy decorating temples and making interpretations that they doom the kingdom by ignoring the title of the dance: “Those Who Rule with Wisdom Understand and Flee in Great Numbers.”

But action and will without reflection are also disastrous, as humanity’s ongoing wars, recessions, depressions, wrecked ecosystems, and rising global temperatures so clearly indicate. Like reflection treated as panacea, mere reaction defends against awareness, engagement, responsibility. (As the Democratic Party found out, it also loses pivotal elections, especially for a group long on scheming and short on revivifying stories.) How to find a balance?

When supposed opposites clash, we should seek a third possibility. I have recommended archetypal activism as a mode of response that rejoins reflection and action. Here I will further suggest that they work best when they alternate instead of one being privileged over the other. When a period of reflection is called for, proceeding without it can be reckless and dangerous. When action is needed, waiting for still more guidance from the Other Side guarantees further misery, for the gods are not kind to those who won’t stand on their own feet.

The question arises: Can’t we have both reflection and action at once? Sometimes. There are other times, though, when an emphasis on one or the other is clearly called for. A time to withdraw into introversion and reclusion; and a time to push forward, get out, and show up. Yin and Yang.

Enter King Gesar (“guess-AHR”), whose Epic reaches back in to at least the eleventh century, around the time a second wave of Buddhism entered Tibet. It could be much older. The tale is popular throughout the Far East, especially in China and Mongolia. Its full length is over a hundred volumes. It has never ceased to be recited and sung. The Ladakhi version of Gesar’s name is Kyesar: “reborn, newborn”; also, “anther” or “pistil.”

At one time the earth was wounded, its oceans, lakes, and rivers full of illness. The air was noxious with smoke and poison. Fish were malformed, forests were dying, and birds fell from the sky. People wandered, lost, rootless, cut off from their homes and families. Some drifted around like zombies with dead eyes. Wealthy lords ruled them from behind high golden walls. Violence raged unchecked.

Gesar, who lived in this troubled world, had been exiled along with his mother by a treacherous uncle eager for power. He was a deposed king who knew a lot about meditation but not much about how to restore justice to the land.

Fortunately, the wise figure of Padmasambhava shows up to advise him, saying: You cannot fight demons from within your own walls! You must go out into their realm and confront them there.

Gesar decides to sleep on it. This brings down his sister, the moon goddess Manene, who gives him a warning similar to that of Padmasambhava’s. In the morning, Gesar rallies his men and marches forward to confront the demons turning the earth into an underworld.

As Gesar approaches the first demonic stronghold, he calls out to its human defenders, asking them if they feel respected and appreciated by the demon they serve. Many do not, and they join him. Gesar is not the kind of reformer who writes letters to demons to encourage them to be more humane or reflective; but neither does he confuse the subjugated with those who rule them. He sees clearly that the demons in charge won’t convert—why should they?—and that to succeed, he must separate them from the misled followers who support them.

Before his campaign, the king spent much time in meditation. During the campaign, he exercises the full powers of his ego to plan battles, weigh consequences, and make decisions. After the campaign, when the celebrating ends, he invites everyone in the land of Ling to meditate. Gesar has learned that action and reflection must alternate and support each other.

There is a time to emphasize reflection, and a time to take the reins and ride forth. Two questions to ask oneself that no one else can settle might be: Which time is this for me? How will I know when to switch from one mode to another? 

“Your awareness is yours again,” the king tells his people shortly before his death. “Your power of movement is yours again. Your power to live is yours again.

“Guard this goodness and make use of it, and do not forget it when darkness comes into the world once again. What happens to you is your path.”