The Octopus and the Sky, a parable by JSB

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The octopus, caught on a hook, and desiccating on the pier, sees God in the sun.

There are octopuses living near the sea bottom. They live their entire lives under water. One day one of the octopuses gets caught on a fisherman’s hook. Fearing for his life, he tries to hold onto some coral, but isn’t strong enough and painfully loses his grip. He is dislodged and reeled upwards. Finally he breaches the surface of the water and is slowly pulled higher and higher, beside the column of a pier. The octopus feels wind for the first time, and can’t make sense of it’s surroundings. He also knows he’s somewhere where he can’t survive.

Finally he is reeled in, and then flung on the wooden floor beams of the pier. What he is most struck by is NOT the rough handling of the fishermen, which he hardly notices at all. It’s the SKY. His lidless eyes are singed by the sun. His moist skin rapidly dries. He can’t swim or propel himself. He looks at the sky and though there is no familiar weight of the sea upon him, he feels crushed by the immense heaviness of it. He is completely awestruck. As he begins to stick to the wooden floor of the peer, he only sees the sky and loses himself completely.

He becomes bodiless. He has no thought. There is only the sky.

The fisherman grabs the octopus, removes the hook, and throws it back into the sea. Upon hitting the surface of the water the octopus just sinks, but eventually regains his senses and orientation, then navigates back to the sea floor.

At the sea floor he can’t tell the other octopuses about his experience because they have no framework, and no words or concepts for understanding it. It’s not a part of their world at all. The octopus keeps quiet about it, but now knows that there is another world above theirs. Their world is not the only one or the only way of being.

Later the octopus finds out that there is some ancient writing, and this world is called “The Sky”. He’s surprised that the descriptions of the blue sky fit his own experience. He knows that this place he went to was the sky.

In the course of time, he begins to meet other octopuses who talk about “the sky”. They say it is in all of them, and that if one can vanquish one’s ego one will be at peace with the sky. But he knows that he lost his ego when he couldn’t cling to the coral and was reeled up to the surface of the water, and that was just the beginning. You can lose your ego and still be comfortable in your underwater world. He argues with a few of the octopuses, and asks how they can be the sky when they are under water? How can they be the infinitely bright blue sky when they are dimly lit? The sky is not within them, it is a real place. You can’t know the sky while you are under water. You can’t BE the sky without ever leaving water. The sky is not a metaphor for being at piece with the universe while remaining underwater.

The other octopuses congratulate themselves on their wisdom, and feel superior to the octopus that had been caught by the fisherman. They are confident that he is not as spiritually developed as they are, and too attached to his ego. But they also have compassion for him. They are sure that the sky is within them, and the other octopus has not seen it, and probably never will.

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11 thoughts on “The Octopus and the Sky, a parable by JSB

  1. Hmm.

    Well I would guess that as coral dwelling octopi have no shared experience of the sky when they talk about “the sky” they probably mean “great expansive blue thing that you experience when your boundaries disappear”. As they are all in the ocean all the time they probably haven’t got a word for ‘oceanic’ either – any more than a fish would have a word for ‘wet’.

    But an octopus who has never experienced this ‘sky’ feeling but who had a profound experience of something else vast and blue might call it ‘sky’ and assume he was talking about the same thing. He would go back to the ‘sky-mergers’ and explain that they are wrong because he has had the experience and they have not, therefore he knows more about their experience than they do, when really the whole thing is an example of mutual incomprehension due to the inadequacies of octi-speak.

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    1. The sky is real. It isn’t a metaphor for something else, any more than the moon is. A few astronauts have traveled to the moon and walked on it. We wouldn’t presume to tell them that we know what it’s like to go to the moon because we’ve had some other experience that we said was, “out of this world”. In the story only one octopus has seen the sky, and the others falsely assume it’s just a metaphor for something else – such as a state of egolessness – which they already know without ever having left water. They think it’s a part of their world because they can’t fathom something outside of their world without direct experience of it. Therefore they reduce the real sky to a metaphor for something else, and in so doing deny it’s very existence. In the end they are the authorities on the sky, and the only one among them who has seen it is dismissed as incapable of ever seeing it.

      You are arguing that it’s just a matter of semantics, and that the octopuses have experienced the same thing in their ways as the one who was caught by the fisherman. That is precisely the opposite of what I am saying.

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      1. I am saying no such thing.

        I am saying that the octupus who was caught has not experienced boundlessness.
        The octopi who were not have not experienced the sky.
        Therefore they have no ability to communicate their experiences accurately to each other, so they will use allusions.
        If the allusions seem to overlap they could very easily believe they are all talking about the same thing when they are not.

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        1. I understand your interpretation, but it’s not the story I wrote. Most interesting about your version is the way you turn the tale on its head so that the octopuses who have never seen the sky nevertheless possess an experience of “boundlessness” which they call “the sky” and which, significantly, transcends actual immersion in the real sky. They would be very pleased with your reading indeed.

          You missed that the octopus who was caught lost the boundaries of its world completely and literally when it was lifted out of the water. After it was flung helpless on the boards of the pier, desiccating, with a hook in it, and seeing only the sky because it has no lids, do you imagine it had boundaries? I wrote, “He becomes bodiless. He has no thought. There is only the sky.”

          That octopus was lifted out of it’s world, high into the sky, and cemented down with its lidless eyes fixed on the sun. It could not possibly have boundaries or see the sky as a metaphor. Unlike the blissful experience the octopuses deep under the water tell of their immersions in the metaphoric “sky”, the octopus that was caught perceived the unimaginable crushing weight of its immensity and profundity.

          Deep under water, comfortable in their dim lairs, the self-professed masters of the sky tell of their blissful, willing immersions in the sky. When the octopus who was caught by the fisherman mentioned the overwhelming power of the sky, they assumed he was weaker than them. They knew that the sky was not threatening at all, and the only threat was one’s own fear of losing oneself. It was, they said, empty and nothingness. And they said they’d made their peace with it. They WERE it.

          However, the octopus who was caught got burned by the sun and knew that the sky was everythingness. It knew it was impossible to confuse everything-at-once with nothing-ever. The threat was not losing oneself in nothingness, but being enveloped in everythingness. If the sky was not impossibly intense, it was not the sky.

          Nevertheless, in the end, it was agreed that the octopuses who were the masters of the sky had a knowledge of nothingness and egolessness that ECLIPSED the silly sky of the octopus who had seen it.

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          1. They would be very pleased with your reading indeed.

            They would probably be misreading my reading then.
            Neither ‘sky’ stories transcends the other because they don’t even discuss the same thing.
            Both groups are committing category errors due to their inability to comprehend what the other is saying.
            If the non-hooked octopi have an advantage it is that at least that they have an experience shared among themselves and so can reciprocally self-validate. The hooked octopus has no-one to talk to but himself.

            But ‘sky’ has no independent meaning at all. It is a potentially useful symbol among the non-hooked but utterly useless to the hooked because when he says ‘sky’ he is speaking a language only he can understand.

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            1. You’re interpretation appears to be a determined misreading.

              Your argument is that the octopus who was caught by the fisherman saw the real sky, and the other octopuses don’t understand what that means. At the same time, the other octopuses have experienced “boundlessness” (to use your word) which the octopus who saw the sky has not. You say it is a matter of miscommunication, because neither side has known the experience of the other.

              The idea that the other octopuses have some experience of “boundlessness” which the octopus who left the water does not is your addition to the story. The octopus who was burned by the sun and became one with the sky knows the sky both literally and figuratively. It knows precisely what the other octopuses are talking about, because literally being peeled from its world and immersed in the infinite sky includes the mere sense of being in the sky that the others use. But it knows the sky it is not just a metaphor, and that when the other octopuses talk glibly of gliding in and out of the sky and basking in the sun at will, or of being the sun and sky themselves, they are not talking about the real thing at all. They are denying its existence and trivializing it..

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              1. ‘Boundlessness’ was speculative on my part, but what was in your story from the start was the fact that the octopi who weren’t hooked used the term ‘sky’ between each other without ever having seen what we call the sky. Therefore they either had some transcendental experience that gave them a concept of ‘sky’ without having to experience it with their senses or they are actually talking about something else which they can apparently agree about regarding meaning.

                The hooked octopus could not have had a concept of the sky either, but may have had concepts to hang off the word ‘sky’ or not. However when he was hooked he immediately found an octopus word for what he experienced when he looked up – so there must have been a concept he had shared with octopuses that somehow evoked the experience of sky. But his experience made it different in important respects to what the others meant when they said ‘sky’.

                He returned to the others and started insisting that his ‘sky’ was the one true sky and thou shalt have no other skies before it. He was incapable of transmitting his experience because there was nothing in it he shared with the others – so he tried to change the language instead.

                It’s not a question of semantics but of epistemology. The basis for knowing not just communicating.

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  2. Again, you appear to be making a rather stubborn and strenuous effort to miss the point.

    You argue that the other octopuses must have “had some transcendental experience that gave them a concept of ‘sky’ without having to experience it with their senses.” Yes, according to them, that is the case, and that is why they are the self-proclaimed authorities on the sky, and have the one true account of what it means. They have their definitions and foregone conclusions which they refuse to question. They believe that their experience of “boundlessness” is the ultimate knowledge and anything else must fit within their experience and their rhetorical framework. They use “the sky” as a metaphor for a state of abiding in nothingness, and glibly congratulate themselves for dipping into it whenever they feel inclined. They even proclaim themselves to be the sky. And they are the ones who will not tolerate any other concept of the sky.

    Enter the lowly octopus who has the misfortune to be caught on a fisherman’s hook. It is taken completely outside of the physical world of the octopuses, out of their consensual reality, civilization, and all concepts. This is not a sensory experience within their universe. There isn’t even a question of whether or not this is a transcendent experience. it can’t not be. The octopus has no choice or recourse to return to its familiar world and framework. It can’t even blink. And the sky it discovered was beyond the literal sky that is the atmosphere. As it was being destroyed by the sun, it found itself dissolved in a sky that was NOT a nothingness, but the opposite. It was everything at once. It was an infinite and overwhelming reality and crushing sense of presence.

    When the octopus returns to its underwater world, the other octopuses reject its experience as inauthentic. Its not that the octopus is incapable of expressing its experience, but rather that the others are incapable of understanding it, because they will only listen to it via the filter of their own forgone assumption that their experience must encompass all others, and anything it knows must be explainable with their established definitions and framework. They haven’t been on the other side.

    The octopus doesn’t deny their experiences of “boundlessness” or “nothingness”. It just knows that there’s a real sky that is the opposite – an all-consuming everythingness – and if they’d seen it they wouldn’t go around boasting about being able to glide in and out of it at will. To go into it is to be annihilated by it. It’s not a nothingness, but an unbearably intense reality. It’s easy to say that one is God, which would include all of the galaxies of the universe, but could one person really handle being even one sun for more than an instant? Could a mind handle the profundity of all knowledge for more than a second?

    The octopus knew that if you aren’t awestruck dumb, you aren’t in the sky. But you could very well be in your house, sitting in an arm chair, wearing a sweater and sipping tea, and having a experience of non-separateness. That’s just NOT the sky, or the void.

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    1. “You look at trees, he said, and called them “trees,” and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a “star,” and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, “tree,” “star,” were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf patterned.” – from Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

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  3. Not sure where you’re going with the Tolkien, but it’s a wonderful quote. Love the image of the sky as a jeweled tent.

    Anyway, we might have agree to disagree on the parable of the octopus, which is probably good for both of us, having another who has a strong view that we can’t persuade of our own argument.

    Regardless of our debate, don’t get the impression that I’m not inspired and intrigued by your testimony of non-dual experiences.

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