by Mehrdad Noorani
Over a thousand years ago a certain spiritual master expressed many of the principles, and obstacles we all face in our everyday and spiritual lives by famously declaring that ‘the water takes the shape of the container that contains it’ .
Deep reflection will no doubt bring ever deeper understanding for each of us on the nature of this statement and its applicability in many spheres, such as the individual’s spiritual journey and our physical lives as well as how we relate to one another and to the outside world.
What follows should be seen as merely a few reflections on this statement and its applicability to our lives, and by no means a complete analysis. As after years of reflection, I am still continually amazed at the symbolic profoundness of this statement and how it defines the human condition, with regard to our interactions with each other and in relation to our inner and outer worlds.
Unravelling the symbols
The container in this statement can be thought of as a symbolic reference to a receptacle or the corresponding receptivity of a person towards an issue, message, solution, knowledge, or wisdom etc. The container, which is a vessel, is made of many layers, one of which is its colour. If, for example, the container happens to be made of red glass, the water inside will appear to be red. This has nothing to do with the real colour of water, which is a transparent colourless liquid.
This ‘colouring of water’ can be viewed as a symbolic reference to the many misconceptions and preconceptions that exist in the mind of the observer. There are often many sources of such misconceptions, such as cultural and social beliefs like dogma and superstitions which colour the reality behind the observations or experiences of a person.
It is precisely these filters that can act as barriers to understanding people’s experiences, which then can become obstacles in conveying experiences to others. In order for a spiritual seeker to become clear of these filters, the seeker needs to evolve to the level of a gnostic rational scientist.
In the sense that just as a scientist conducts their experiments in a sterile laboratory, the seeker must initially clear their mindset from all superstitions and dogma. In this analogy, the laboratory for spiritual experiences is the physical body of the seeker and the senses used for such observations are both the inner and the outer senses of the person. The inner senses are a reference to the senses of the metaphysical dimension of each person that are activated during spiritual exercises, like deep meditation.
Otherwise, the experiences of the seeker can be coloured, just as the coloured glass colours the water it contains. Thus, the reality that is the basis of a seeker’s experiences, even though it is in actuality their true Self, can be covered and be misunderstood. This is an issue that is often faced by seekers who are interested in the comparative analysis of the spiritual experiences of different practitioners from different paths.
Even though the spiritual journey, regardless of the path, has the same point of departure, destination and many common way-stations, when the seeker comes to describe their experiences they often tend to give it a colour based on their culture, social or even religious background. That often has nothing to do with the essence of their experience, which invariably is a personal encounter with the different layers of their own consciousness or the phenomena that gives each person their ultimate sense of awareness, commonly referred to as the soul.
The journey is endless
The other aspect of the phrase that needs to be examined is the capacity of the container. As the container in question is also a symbolic representation of the unique physical and metaphysical aptitudes which we all possess as human beings, some of which are waiting to be discovered as a result of a person’s spiritual journey.
However, what tends to often happen is that a seeker makes judgements on their experiences based on the capacity of their aptitudes, or based on the way-station they have arrived at. Not realising that each seeker’s journey is an endless journey, no matter the station from which the seeker is making observations, they will always be relative.
As all of us, regardless of our levels, are exploring the infinite. Even during the advanced stages of the journey, where the drop representing our individual consciousness is connected to the ocean of the Universal Consciousness, it nevertheless always remains the experience of a drop.
Faced with this realty, the seeker’s only way forward is through their inner humility, and realisation that no matter what their level, there are always others who are further along the path. Making absolute remarks about a relative experience will only lead to a dangerous detour. As Jesus famously said to his apostles: ‘The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’
All spiritual seekers need to learn from these wise words by becoming aware of their inherent relativity and maintaining their humility while they continue their inner journey. Only by keeping humility and continuing the journey will we realise that the actual capacity of their vessel also increases due to divine mercy the further we travel along the path. This is the means by which the Higher Consciousness encourages each seeker to maintain their journey.
The point of Unity
Another important aspect of the phrase that needs to be examined is the water itself. By definition it is a formless, transparent substance. This part of the phrase is a symbolic reference to the reality of our own essence, which is an invisible, formless reality. The only way to understand this reality and experience it is to move beyond our worldly obsession with forms.
As long as each of us are obsessed by form, we fail to understand and appreciate the underlying Unity that is running through each of us, and indeed the whole universe. As a seeker we must not only seek to experience this reality, but also help to act as a bridge in order to help our society to recognise this fact.
All seekers who have realised their own essence invariably have a true respect for the whole creation based on the Unity that they see underlying the whole universe. It is the level of manifestation of this Reality within each form that this Reality uses to express itself. As Saadi, the famous 13th century Sufi master, famously said:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human being you cannot retain.
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Mehrdad Noorani teaches the method of Heart Meditation and the Alchemy of Inner Silence. He has explored many spiritual paths and studied Gnosticism for 20+ years under the guidance of renowned Spiritual Master Dr Seyed M. Azmayesh. He is interested in bridging science and spirituality, and creating a link between the East and the West.