Seems we humans like to represent ideas as cycles, or spirals. In fact, even the things that at first appear to be cycles are really spirals – the seasons form a cycle, but winter 2021 will not be the same as winter 2020 (thank heavens, some might say…). Time moves on, so in the same way you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t live through the same winter twice.

Here are a few cycles for your delectation, including one I made up myself.

The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell:

The hero isn’t a hero when he sets out, but as he crosses the threshold into the unknown, and endures trials, failures, and the innermost cave, he grows as a person before returning transformed, bearing a gift of wisdom for his community. Star Wars famously follows this structure, and it’s no coincidence that George Lucas was good friends with Joseph Campbell.

And then the cycle starts over again. As did Star Wars in its 8 reboots.


The Rise and Fall of Empires:

I’ve written before about Glubb and Ophuls and their perspectives on the rise and fall of empires. Glubb, in particular, asserted that the average lifespan of an empire is around 250 years.

Some people have tracked this to the movements of Pluto. I think the correlation is a bit of a stretch, frankly, but it does at least illustrate our human affinity for cycles. According to this theory, the United States of America is heading for imminent collapse…. but take it from me, as someone who lives in a supposedly post-collapse country, it’s not so bad. We get by.


The Buddhist Wheel of Life:

When I was interviewing Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo for my book, The Gifts of Solitude, she shared with me something tht has stayed with me ever since. She said:

“…the [Buddhist] Wheel of Life… [is] like a wheel which is endlessly turning, called samsara [Note: Samsara in Buddhism is the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation] … At the hub of the wheel are three animals – a pig, a rooster, and a snake. The snake stands for anger, the rooster for desire and greed, and the pig for ignorance. And they’re biting each other’s tails… And their going round and round and round is what sets the whole wheel spinning. And that’s the problem. Our delusion about our true nature, which gives rise to greed and desire for what gives pleasure, and aversion and anger towards that which does not give pleasure. And it keeps the whole wheel circling, no matter our best intentions. So the only way to stop the wheel is to break the hub… Within those three, the important one is our ignorance, our ignorance of our true nature. We identify with our ego, and although our ego is a good servant, it’s a terrible master, because it’s blind… Once we realize that the nature of our existence is beyond thought and emotions, that it is incredibly vast and interconnected with all other beings, then the sense of isolation, separation, fear and hopes fall away. It’s a tremendous relief!”

So what do we make of all this? Are cycles/spirals part of the inevitable way of things? Maybe even the entire Universe is caught in an endless cycle of birth and collapse – how can we know that our Big Bang was the only Big Bang?

For now, we’re not in any immediate danger of stopping the wheel, depending as that does on ending human ignorance…

…so maybe the best thing for us to do is adopt an attitude of acceptance.

Day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, rise and fall… it’s all part of the human condition. We tend to cling to what is known and familiar, but sometimes we have to let go of the old to make way for the new, often without yet knowing what the new might be. That can be scary, but is also necessary.

So maybe the cycle isn’t something to be escaped from. What would existence be like if we somehow ended this endless coming and going? As I sit here typing this, I think about my breath, coming and going. If it stopped coming and going I’d be in pretty poor shape. So maybe cycles of change, like the cycles of my breathing, are essential to life.

So here is my version of a cycle:

The graphic is intended to be read both sequentially as a clockwise cycle, and also as four complementary pairs with the archetype on the opposite side of the circle. It aims to summarise the spiralling nature of human existence, at both the individual and the collective level, to remind us that disruption and struggle are part of the natural cycle of things, and that letting go of the old is an inevitable and unavoidable step on the way to creating the new.

But we don’t have to get caught up in the drama. We can be the eye of the storm, the calm witness to the wheel as it spins around us, not getting over-excited about the “good” stuff nor over-despondent about the “bad”.

Change is the only constant. So we may as well get used to it.

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