We are Like Squid: The Gift of Shape-Shifting

“He explained that [shamans] see infant human beings as strange, luminous balls of energy covered from the top to the bottom with a glowing coat, something like a plastic cover that is adjusted tightly over their cocoon of energy.

He said that glowing coat of awareness was what the predators consumed, and that when a human being reached adulthood, all that was left of that glowing coat of awareness was a narrow fringe that went from the ground to the top of the toes. That fringe permitted mankind to continue living, but only barely.

As if I were in a dream, I heard don Juan explaining that, to his knowledge, man was the only species that had the glowing coat of awareness outside that luminous cocoon.

Therefore, he became easy prey for an awareness of a different order; such as the heavy awareness of the predator. He then made the most damaging statement he had made so far. He said that this narrow fringe of awareness was the epicenter of self-reflection where man was irremediably caught. By playing on our self-reflection, which is the only point of awareness left to us, the predators create flares of awareness that they proceed to consume in a ruthless, predatory fashion.

They give us inane problems that force those flares of awareness to rise, and in this manner they keep us alive in order for them to be fed with the energetic flare of our pseudo-concerns.”

Carlos Castaneda — “Active Side of Infinity”


A prismatic perspective changes the nature of a conversation. When we realize that thought is not actual, but fictional, then answers, and the deceptions necessary to defend those answers, both go extinct. They become archaeological artefacts of a world that has ceased to exist.

We stop trying to compete to be right the moment we realize that nothing we say is right.

In fact, nothing we say is even Close to being Right, because what we Say about life and life itself are composed of utterly different substances.  The map can’t get closer to being the place itself, no matter how precise it tries to be. They are different substances entirely and never the twain shall meet.

But in this case, we’re making maps of a world that becomes more complex and profound as we learn. So beliefs are essentially out of date and primitive the moment they’re formed.

Out of date if they’re proposed as answers, that is. But they become more profound as metaphors – freer to experiment with angles and stories, because we’ve discarded the burden of being right. So we’re no longer being pressed into working towards a singular conclusion.

And then discussions stop being debates over who is right. We stop acting like prosecutors of one another. We stop trying to undermine an “opponent’s” point of view, because it would be self-limiting. So argument dies and questions become subtle requests for directions to the vantage points being discussed, because every new metaphor adds interest and color to everything.

This means we stop asking questions that corral thought into old prejudices, such as, “But isn’t it Utopian to think that people can be free of competition and argument?”

We start asking questions that widen the field of possibility: “When we are in a brain-storming frame of mind, what competitive assumptions have been dropped?”

How do we drop our old assumptions and look at things freshly? The absence of answers provides the freedom to do this. When we can’t argue over answers it becomes a communal project of inquiry.

But it’s not an inquiry that seeks anything specific – it’s not trying to end some deficit in oneself. A surplus of new metaphors and insights propels a joyful and open-ended exploration. It becomes a communal reconnaissance mission into an infinite geography of possibility. Every metaphor helps.

And in the absence of answers we become honest. It was the belief in answers that made us liars. It made us see the mystery as a horrifying groundlessness, and it made us see answers as the only solid ground. And so we clung to those answers as islands of certainty and became defensive and self-deceptive.

But when we lose the delusion of having an answer, then we want to learn from one another. When that burden of being Right is removed, it’s like peeling an ancient chain from the human body. It had grown into us like a collar on a neglected dog, constricting our personalities and visions.

The metaphor of the predator is valid here too. We can’t always feel the predator holding us in its grip. We see and feel what it wants us to see and feel, but it’s a caged world that has developed in a very narrow direction towards certainties and control. We have taken on the shape of its values.

But we can think of ourselves as shape-shifters. We are like squid in an ocean of meaning. But we are like squid who have been suppressed by a foreign shape for so long that it has lost any sense of itself. It has merged with the foreign object that holds its shape.

The human squid needs to distinguish itself from the shapes of its constricting thoughts. Otherwise it can’t grow and change.

So to free myself I have to realize that almost everything about me is a foreign shape – it’s not me. It belongs to a system of prejudices and assumptions that keep me locked in place, restlessly moving as far as the structure allows, draining my energy to maintain the “foreign installation” itself.

Realizing this I begin peeling away from the predator’s body. Losing the predator means being stripped of everything I thought I was.

It’s a defeat we have to allow ourselves to undergo. We have to lose all our answers, all our static certainties (although there are dynamic certainties that replace them, such as love, joy, and kindness).

We have to work our way like a squid into a position to see what I’m trying to convey. It’s not an argument, because I’m not saying that this is the only way to see things, as if this were the final word on the matter. I’m saying that this metaphor of the squid and the foreign object, or of the predator, are new vantage points that provide pivotal information otherwise invisible.

I think we are shape-shifters of profound subtlety, but we don’t appreciate this ability.

Look, my face is turning color, the emotions show. And it would be interesting to realize that our changes of color, changes of vision, and the corresponding changes in personality that come with this squid-like capacity, are untapped gifts. I can squeeze into any point of view to inspect its motives, deceptions and insights. Nothing can contain me if I realize this potential. The predator is afraid of this discovery.

These capacities have been repressed by a need to stay confined to the predatory forms that I’ve been taught to see as me and mine. We are trying to bend the world to conform to the shapes of thought.

But this personality distorted by trauma is not the actuality of my shifting being; but only an idea of me, a substance utterly unreal in comparison, a foreign installation; a predator who would be defeated if we dared to look it in the eye, for then an unnamable and uncontainable actuality would begin to find its strength and distinguish itself.

We need to stop listening to the predator tell us that we are weak, selfish and stupid. We are the earth itself. We have no limit. Only thought does.

And maybe this predator may eventually be seen, not as a vicious villain, but as a disguised angel, who is helping us over a tremendous threshold. See how strangely the truth of metaphor twists and turns and contradicts itself, without losing the rhythm, like it is dancing!

And I’m reminded of these lines in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, The Man Watching (full poem here):

“… … When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.” (Bly translation)

5 thoughts on “We are Like Squid: The Gift of Shape-Shifting

    • Well, it’s reflected also in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and is the main point in the great movie (the older version at least, I haven’t seen the newer one) Jacob’s Ladder.

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      • But I need to quickly confess I only know this through the movie, not through the book itself!

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    • Here is a quote from the movie: Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you”, he said. “They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and … you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

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