My Octopus Teacher: the Soul and Her Beloved

I. “It is not necessary that you go out of your house. Remain by your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be completely still and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise, in ecstasy it will writhe before you.”

Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms

II. “It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions. At the center is the most important dwelling of them all where the most secret things unfold between the soul and her Beloved.”

Teresa of Ávila

Minoan Octopus vase from Palikastro, ca 1500 BCE

In the documentary film My Octopus Teacher the narrator (Craig Foster) finds his lost soul. It reveals herself to him as an octopus – an ancient, totally bizarre sea creature with highly-developed cognition. A beloved motif in the Cretan art, “the octopus is related to the spider’s web and the spiral, both being symbolic of the mystic Centre and of the unfolding of creation,” writes Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols. The eight arms of the octopus contain neurons, which means that the animal’s cognition is both central (located in the brain) and peripheral. Number eight is symbolically fitting here, since eight is bound to the infinity emblem, which in turn is connected to the caduceus with its two twined serpents. In Kabbalah eight is linked to Hod, the eighth Sephira. Its keywords are splendor, thoughts, communication and absolute intelligence. The magical image associated with this Sephira is Hermaphrodite, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Eight is also connected with the wisdom of the cycles as well as death and regeneration.

This makes the octopus an ideal canvas for psychological projection so beautifully shown in the documentary. For Craig she is both the anima and Mercurius – a psychopomp that guides him through her underworld. A broken man, as he describes himself at the beginning, he decides to look for healing in a very cold underwater kelp forest near his native Cape Town. He decides to dive without a wetsuit so that he can experience the underwater environment without any barriers. There he encounters a curious octopus that captivates him and so he decides to visit her every day for a year. What starts as a semi-scientific venture turns into an encounter with the Beloved. In his own words, he becomes “sensitized to the Other” and even suffers the feelings of “dismemberment” when she gets attacked by a shark and loses a tentacle.

The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila distinguished between a spiritual engagement of the soul and a spiritual marriage. Craig is definitely spiritually engaged, which means that he tries to carefully guard his boundaries. And yet the most touching moments are when the separation between him and the creature starts to loosen, when he starts to think and feel like her. As Teresa of Ávila wrote in The Interior Castle:

“But in total union no separation is possible. … The spiritual marriage…is like rain falling from the sky into a river or pool. There is nothing but water. When a little stream enters the sea, who could separate its waters back out again? Think of a bright light pouring into a room from two large windows: it enters from different places but becomes one light.”

When the soul experiences such a union, muses Saint Teresa, it “is taught so many different things that she could never fit together a thousandth of them, no matter how many years she labored with her mind to create some kind of systematic order.” The lessons Craig received from his octopus teacher are manifold. Among other things she teaches him about relatedness and loving awareness, but also about death and sacrifice. The life of every female octopus ends after she lays her eggs, making way for a new cycle of life. By the same token, Craig experiences his soul rebirth.

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2 Responses to My Octopus Teacher: the Soul and Her Beloved

  1. lovely post on spiritual union. like we join in matrimony so do souls merge their unique features in discovery learning and evolving and loving at a tangent from our lust but just as intense. love for an animal is like that. my fish a giant gorami a foot in length knows when i come to feed him and would like to bite in love but i warn no biting only my petting on your head or no food and he has begun to understand and behaves himself to allow the petting keeping his mouth shut and then is rewarded by food. later when i stroke the glass he responds with pent up emotion and opens his mouth wide to bite through the glass and i pet him again this time through the glass. he is so sweet. though i dont know if its he or she.
    8 reminds me of goddess durga the primal energy of the universe responsible for its creation and energy being shown as seated on a lion with eight arms .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dear Indrajit. That is so true about the communion of souls that may happen with beloved pets. I love your tender-hearted fish story.
      I did not know that Durga had eight arms – that is fascinating.

      Like

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