In our journeys we use many “rafts,” tools or vehicles that carry us from one point in life to the next. In the Parable of the Raft, Buddha tells us that it is foolish to carry these “rafts” after they have served their purpose. They burden us unnecessarily, tying us to our past rather than opening us to our future.
A journey toward new meanings
Parable of the raft
To attach oneself to the words after they have done their job is as foolish carrying around the raft for the rest of your life. If the words have worked, you have been transformed and will never be the same. The words are no longer necessary.
Buddha once told his disciples the story of a man who is trapped on one side of fast-flowing river. On the far side lies safety. Unfortunately, there is no boat to ferry him across the river nor is there a bridge that he can cross easily. What does he do?
Being ingenious, the man builds a raft from logs and vines he finds by the river. Then, by lying on the raft and using his hand and feet, he is able to paddle across the river to the safety of the other side.
Then Buddha asked his monks the critical question: Which would be wiser, for this man now to carry the raft with him across the land because it carried him safely across the river or for this man to think that this raft has served him well but that it is no longer of any use and should be left on the shore? Of course, the monks thought the man would be foolish to carry the raft around on his back after it had served its use and carried him across the river.
The Buddha was making the point that once his teachings had transported the monks to enlightenment, there was no need to continue carrying the teachings. The words have done their work and should be left behind. To attach oneself to the words after they have done their job is as foolish carrying around the raft for the rest of your life. If the words have worked, you have undergone a transformation and will never be the same. The words are no longer necessary.
The raft and the journey
This same concept applies to the existential transformation at the heart of the hero’s journey process: the journey is the “raft” that carries us from one stage of life to the next. However, we don’t always think of the journey that way. When we speak of the journey, we usually talk about going on a journey and returning as a changed person. In a general sense, this is correct, but in a deeper sense, the person who returns from the journey is not the same person who set out on the journey. That old person is gone, dead in the purging, transformative flames of the abyss, the “crossing.”
The person who emerges from the fire is truly a new person because the understandings and ways of being that had made him the person he was have been replaced by new, broader understandings and a more profound way of being that is consistent with who he is and who he is becoming.
One danger for the person who has undergone a transformative experience is, of course, trying to “carry the raft.” It can be difficult to release the comrades, excitement and trappings of the adventure. However, if we hold on to the journey—the processes, experiences and people that carried us across the river of transformation—we tie ourselves to our past. The key here is to realize that we don’t need to forget the people or experiences that helped us, but we do need to revise the relationships we had with them. For example, we may need to adjust our relationships with people who guided us through our journey: students and mentors may become peers.
The same idea holds true for the return, when we must leave behind vestiges of our old life that have served us to this point, but which will serve us no further. As William Bridges wrote in his wonderful book, The Way of Transition (2001),
Transition does not require that you reject or deny the importance of your old life, just that you let go of it. …honor the old life for all that it did for you. It got you this far. It brought you everything you have. But now—although it may be some time before you are comfortable actually doing so—it is time for you to let go of it. Your old life is over (p. 16).
So, we don’t need to forget the journey we have taken or the life we had. In fact, we can’t–and shouldn’t–forget them. What Bridges means is that we must relate to our former lives and experiences in a totally different way; we must give them new meaning in the context of the life we are living now. In short, we must not abandon the experience; we must abandon the old meaning that we ascribed to that experience.
A lesson from the chambered nautilus
I’ve found that one of the best metaphors to illustrate this concept is the chambered nautilus. Essentially, the chambered nautilus lives in one chamber of its shell until it outgrows it. Then it builds a new chamber and lives in that. I describe this concept in my article “Illustrating the Journey:”
Like the old chambers of the chambered nautilus, [our experiences from the past] will always be with us. However, we do outgrow them, and when an experience– or, more accurately, the meaning of the experience–no longer serves us, we must reframe its meaning in its new context: it becomes only a part of our life up to this moment rather than all of our life at this moment. The experience becomes a part of our story rather than the end of our story.
This is, then, one of the most important lessons of the hero’s journey. We must learn to “leave the rafts.” We use rafts to carry us to the next stage in our life’s journey, and we must recognize when they have served their purpose. But we can’t forget them because they are become a part of us through the transformation they have brought. We hold them in our memory, much like the nautilus carries old chambers but no longer lives in them. We can look back on them for what they have taught and the deeper meaning they have brought to our lives, but we cannot live in them or carry their old meanings with us. We have greater journeys to take and more rivers to cross. Carrying old rafts will only make travel more difficult.
~ Reg Harris ~