The Eternal War

Ahura Mazda

One of the oldest, most fundamental myths is that of the conflict between the two opposing forces of Light and Darkness – the Eternal War. Every culture has its own version of this story – this is such a commonly encountered theme that we have grown blind to its psychological significance. It has become a cliché, a stereotype. We ‘tune out’ when we hear it. We think we know what it means. We have become blasé about it and so the myth has quite lost its power.


What has become clichéd however is not the myth itself but our superficial and habitual way of understanding it. The story has become degraded through the mechanical repeating of it. The thing about archetypal stories is however that they always find new ways of presenting themselves, new ways of bursting forth into our consciousness. The story itself, although ancient, is never old! As Victor Hugo writes –

Two opposed forces are always in existence, fighting for possession of man, from the cradle to the grave.

Philip Pullman, in The Subtle Knife, expounds the idea like this –

There are two great powers and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

It has been said that there are no new stories, only the old ones retold. It has also been said that there are no old stories – since archetypal stories are always current, always heard ‘for the first time’. The reason for this is that the psychic dramas which go make up our lives are archetypal – it’s just that we can’t see them as such. We’ve lost our connection with the deeper, archetypal level of our being. We keep personalizing these dramas, trivializing them, stereotyping them, and thus losing the very real meaning that is in them. One way of trying to talk about this ‘meaning’ is to say that each one of us has our part to play in the ongoing conflict between the force of Light and the force of Darkness, and that our part, our role, is not a minor one. The way the war goes on the outside is a reflection of the way it goes on the inside and so, ultimately, the only thing that really does matter is the outcome ‘on the inside’ – which is to say, whether it is consciousness or unconsciousness that prevails.


In order to get an unclouded understanding of this struggle, this ‘war’, it is much better to look at a myth with which we are unfamiliar, rather than one which we know so well that we have become blind to. One such story that we could look at is the ancient Persian myth of the two twins Ahura Mazda (or Ohrmazd) and Ahriman. These two twins were the sons of Zurvan, who was the god of infinite time and space and fate. The story of the two twins is related here by Robert Charles Zaehner

When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means ‘fate’ or ‘fortune’. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: ‘What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?’ And no sooner had this thought occurred to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived – Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: ‘Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.’ Ohrmazd was apprised of his father’s thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: ‘Who art thou?’ And he replied: ‘I am thy son, Ohrmazd.’ And Zurvan said: ‘My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.’ And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: ‘Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.’ But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him: ‘Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?’ And Zurvan said to him: ‘O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.’ And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautiful and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.

In one sense the struggle is a very unequal one since while the path of truth is extremely arduous to tread, the path of self-deception is ridiculously easy! We go down it without even knowing that we are. Since we are all very much inclined to look fondly upon the easy path whilst at the same time dreading the difficult one, how things are going to eventually pan out is therefore almost a forgone conclusion. Since we can’t very well just come right out with it and say to ourselves “What the hell, I’m going to go down the road of self-deception!” (because this honesty would of course make us aware of the very thing we don’t want to be aware of) we have to evolve all sorts of sneaky validations, all sorts of clever rationalizations, all sorts of trickery. Ultimately, all the rationalizations come down to the same thing, they all come down to a systematically ‘inverted’ viewpoint which sees the false as being true and the true as being false. So as a result of this super-rationalization we see the truth as being the invention of the devil, so to speak, and we see systematic self-deception as being the only right and proper way to proceed. This equals ‘adapting to the framework’. By adapting to the framework we actually get to feel righteous about turning our back on what deep down we know to be true, and embracing a whole bunch of lies, which we know will make us feel good (on the short term, at least)…


This ‘super-rationalization’, this system of self-deception becomes not just a device that we can whenever it suits our purposes to do so, however. There is a price that needs to be paid in order to avail of this neat bit of trickery and that price is that we lose the capacity to see that we have ever done this thing. We lose the capacity to know that there is such a system, so that if someone comes up to us and suggests that there is then we won’t understand what they’re saying at all, their words will be utterly incomprehensible to us. The system is inaccessible to us – it governs what we see but we do not have the privilege of being able to be aware that it is governing us. To paraphrase Carlos Castaneda in The Active Side of Infinity

We have two minds and only one of them is truly ours.

The system may therefore be said to constitute a kind of a ‘false mind’, which we take for granted in everything we do. The other mind – our true mind – has been repressed, abandoned, rejected, betrayed, and so using this as a metaphor we can say that the war that we are talking about here is the one that between the true mind, which we do not know, and the false mind, which we automatically accept and go along with just about every minute of the day…


Calling this a war is thus not really entirely appropriate in one way since there is absolutely no conflict going on! The false mind dictates and I obey, it is as simple as that. And it is not really true to put it like this either, since I do not perceive my self to be obeying what Castaneda calls ‘the foreign installation’ (which is the false mind) but rather I have the perception that it is myself thinking this that or the other, that it is myself who wants to do this or wants to do that. This complete and utter absence of any awareness that there is any such thing as a ‘conflict of interests’ going on in my daily life means, in Jung’s terms, that there is no consciousness, since “consciousness arises out of conflict”. As Ouspensky says,

If a man gives way to all his desires, or panders to them, there will be no inner struggle in him, no ‘friction’, no fire. But if, for the sake of attaining a definite aim, he struggles with the desires that hinder him he will then create a fire which will gradually transform his inner world into a single whole.

Where there is only pandering to the system, unreflective compliance to the system, there is nothing but the system, and this system has nothing to do with consciousness – it is in fact the very antithesis of consciousness…


Going back to the story of the two twins Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, we can say that consciousness arises when we see through Ahriman’s attempts to continuously misrepresent the truth to us, and that the toxic stasis of unconsciousness prevails when we do not. It is of course the case that this dynamic occurs anew every time we practise meditation – Ahriman may be understood as the principle of distraction and Ahura Mazda (we might say) the principle of awareness. Ahriman’s job is to distract our attention away the state of awareness into the compulsive consideration of some trivial or superficial matter, something that doesn’t matter at all really but which nevertheless seems to at the time. This is of course what ‘distraction’ is all about! This is what the ‘contest’ comes down to – there is the ‘seeing of the truth’ on the one hand (which is difficult) and there is the ‘accepting of the lie’ on the other, which is naturally very much easier and correspondingly more palatable.


The trouble is that when we are actually conscious we can see that the thought in question is banal and empty, but when we get drawn into it we promptly lose all perspective and so then whatever it is starts to seem genuinely meaningful and important to us, purely as a result of this loss of perspective. The false mind takes over the reins. So what is meaningless then becomes meaningful, what is hollow seems substantial, what is banal seems profound, and what is unreal seems real. This is ‘the sleep of the spirit’, this is ‘unconsciousness’.


This same dynamic actually goes on all the time, not just in the time which we spend in formal meditation. Our whole life is the arena for this particular struggle: on the one hand there is the stuff that really does matter to me, and on the other hand there is all the stuff that somehow seems to matter at the time, and which as a result acts as a magnet upon me, drawing me into affairs that – if only I could see it – don’t actually matter to me at all. They don’t matter, they only ‘pseudo-matter’. As a result of this magnetic force (the force which causes me get pretty much permanently distracted from my true interests) I end up spending all doing things that I don’t actually want to do. I end up putting all my money on the wrong horse. I end up putting all my energy and ingenuity into useless and pointless activities – superficial pursuits whose only real purpose is to prevent me from attending to what genuinely does matter in life. Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 1992. P 19) calls this sort of thing ‘active laziness’ –

How many of us, like the man in the story, are swept away by what I have come to call an “active laziness”? Naturally there are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practised to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring out on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsory activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.


If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called “responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up. One master compares them to “housekeeping in a dream”. We tell ourselves that we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there never is any time. Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the cat or dog, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast – the list is endless. Then there are the clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or your make up? Helpless, we watch our days filling up with telephone calls and petty projects, with so many responsibilities – or should we call them “irresponsibilities”?


Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end we feel we have no choice or control over them. Of course we feel bad about this sometimes, we have nightmares and wake up in a sweat, wondering: “What am I doing with my life?” But our fears only last until breakfast time; out comes the brief-case, and back we go to where we started.

Norton Juster addresses the principle of active laziness in this passage in The Phantom Tollbooth

“Pardon me,” he said, tugging at the man’s sleeve and holding the sheet of figures up for him to see, “but it’s going to take eight hundred and thirty-seven years to do these jobs.”

“Is that so?” replied the man, without even turning around. “Well, you’d better get on with it then.”

“But it hardly seems worth while,” said Milo softly.

“WORTH WHILE!” the man roared indignantly.

“All I meant was that perhaps it isn’t too important,” Milo repeated, trying not to be impolite.

“Of course it’s not important,” he snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.” And now, as he turned to face them, he didn’t seem quite so pleasant.

“Then why bother?” asked Tock, whose alarm suddenly began to ring.

“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.

“Then you must—” gasped Milo.

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.

“Don’t try to leave,” he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, “for there’s so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job.”

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.

“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin—if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”

As he spoke, he tiptoed slowly toward them with his arms outstretched and continued to whisper in a soft, deceitful voice, “Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”

There is more active laziness (or distraction) around than we might think there is. This is not just something that we indulge in occasionally – it’s a full-time occupation. The Terrible Trivium (‘the demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort’) is a jealous god and does not allow us to time off from carrying out his wishes. What is more, it is very far from being an easy thing to discern between tasks which are genuine (in the sense that they will actually get us somewhere) and those which are only apparently going to get us somewhere, but which are really only there for the purpose of keeping us wholly and completely distracted on an indefinite basis.


Society itself is a demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, and an ogre of wasted effort. It delights in offering us ‘petty tasks and worthless jobs’. It doesn’t just delight in offering them to us, it bullies the life out of us until we comply! This is what Alan Watts is saying here in this excerpt from one of his talks – [quote taken from joesworld]

The whole point of the dancing is the dance.


Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded—and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of “c’mon kitty kitty kitty…”


And yeah, you go to kindergarten, and that’s a great thing, because when you finish that, you’ll get into first grade. And then c’mon, first grade leads to second grade, and so on…And then you get out of grade school you go to high school—and it’s revving up, the thing is coming…Then you’re going to go to college, and by Jove then you get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school, you’ll go out to join the world.


And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that. And all the time, this thing is coming, it’s coming, it’s coming—that great thing, the success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day about forty years old, you say “My God! I’ve arrived! I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there’s a slight let-down, because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything. By expectation. Look at the people who live to retire, and put those savings away. And then when they’re sixty-five, and they don’t have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, they go and rot in an old people’s “senior citizens” community. Because we’ve simply cheated ourselves, the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy was a journey, was a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end.


Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.


But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.

From a naïve viewpoint, it does of course sound utterly incredible that the social system which we which we all take so much for granted should be accused of having the covert function of being a decoy or red-herring. Are we capable of even hearing the suggestion that the group mind has the secret agenda of endlessly distracting us from what really matters, so that anything else that we might be interested, anything that isn’t a distraction, should be passed over in our constant hurry to reach the next collectively validated benchmark of what we’re supposed to be doing in life, what we’re supposed to be achieving in life? Because this is too much for us to take on board, we end up (as Alan Watts says in the passage given above) falling for the hoax. We end up being taken for a ride…


This suggestion – which is equivalent to the Cathars’ rule of thumb that all institutions are inherently evil – sounds excessively dramatic and outrageously unreasonable, to put it mildly. And yet it ought to be more than obvious that this is of course the case! How could it be otherwise? Let us suppose for the sake of the argument that I do go along with the plan, let us suppose that I do adhere to whatever the template is. So if this is the case and I am sticking with the programme what is going to happen is that I am going to be rewarded / acknowledged when I make the grades, when I meet the benchmarks, when I tick the boxes that I am expected to tick, and – contrariwise – I am going to experience negative reinforcement when I fail to do so. Negative and positive reinforcement isn’t something that was invented by behavioural psychologists in the last century, after all – this kind of business has been going on as long as society has been!


Society is a logical structure (all structures are logical or else they wouldn’t be structures!) and logical structures are made up of rules. Structures are made up of yes and no, right and wrong and the only way to fit into the structure (or obey the rule) is of course to get yes’s instead of no’s, to get it right rather than getting it wrong (the way to successfully adapt is to ‘obey the rules’, in other words). There’s no way around this, there’s no flexibility in the system – the only way to fit into society is to agree with the way everyone else sees the world, understands the world, behaves in the world, etc. A rule is only a rule because we all agree that it shall be but after we agree to the rule we all then become its prisoners. We sign away our freedom as the price for being allowed to join the group!


This is all very straightforward. It’s simple mechanics. There’s no problem at all in it except, we might say, for one little thing and that ‘one little thing’ is that the psyche isn’t a logical system! The rational mind is a logical system for sure, but not the actual person, not the actual individual. When we all agree to fit into a logical system that is to be ‘generically true for all of us’ then what this means is that we are agreeing to conform to something that isn’t actually true for any of us. We’re adapting to the generic mind but that generic mind isn’t who we are.


We can only ‘ever agree’ with or ‘conform to’ a logical system – we can never agree with or conform to another individual unique human being! This of course doesn’t seem particularly obvious to us – we are after all agreeing or disagreeing with other people the whole time. That’s pretty much ‘what we do’ – that’s how we interact with those around us, by either agreeing or disagreeing with them. Our friends are a small group of people who we agree with and society is a bigger group of people who we agree with. This isn’t what we’re saying though. What we’re saying is that true individuals don’t either agree or disagree with other people (except perhaps with regard to very limited and practical matters). It just wouldn’t make any sense at all to say that they do! After developing his own practice beyond the traditional ‘styles’ of Kung Fu, Bruce Lee stated that he could not teach anyone anymore because he no longer had ‘a system’:

…I cannot teach you for I am not a teacher and I have no style. I don’t believe in system, nor in method. And without system, without method, what’s to teach?

If there is no system then there are no rules. There is no pattern to follow and therefore no way of knowing whether you have got it right or wrong. The same is true for all true individuals – we can’t teach anyone to be like we are, or to live life as we do. They would not be following their own path if they tried to do so. ‘Education’ – in the way that we normally understand the concept – is not for individuals, it is for generic human beings. When we agree with an external framework, an external format, we cease to be true to ourselves. If a group of us get together and agree on ‘a way to be’ (or ‘a way to see or describe the word’) then none of us are being true to ourselves and this fundamental lack of authenticity (or lack of ‘integrity’) is the price of conforming to the generic mind.


None of this is exactly new. We all know this to be the case, on some level of awareness or other (we tend to know it intuitively rather than rationally). And yet even though we all do have some kind of awareness around the difficulties of being true to oneself in the face of the coercive pressures associated with the group, we don’t realize just how crucial this struggle between on the one hand ‘staying true to oneself’ and on the other hand ‘succumbing to the generic mind’ is. We’re not paying attention. We haven’t spotted the danger.


This is a deadly struggle – the deadliest of struggles, in fact. It is we might say a game that is played ‘for keeps’ – it is ‘for real’, it is a contest that it acted out in deadly earnest, whether we realize it or whether we don’t, and the odds are weighted very heavily against us even at the best of times. Deep down we know the truth of the ancient philosophical maxim “To thine own self be true” but when it comes to the crunch we almost invariably overlook it in favour of the temporary advantage. When the pressure is on we almost always betray ourselves and side with the collective; when push comes to shove we almost always throw our lot in with the all-persuasive generic mind.

This is no minor skirmish or inconsequential tussle that we are talking about here – this is the Age-Old Conflict. This is the Eternal War. The Eternal War is fought for the highest stakes of all – our autonomy, our integrity, our dignity as human beings, our freedom to be who we really are and not what the system would have us be (which is a tool of itself). The struggle is between the timeless truth of who we really are, and what we are made to believe we are. We lose sight of the truth under the non-stop pressure of all the persuasive lies, under the overpowering force of all the bullying and cajoling that the Adversary brings to bear against us. And at the end of the day we either hold true to what we know deep-down to be true, or we sell out for temporary benefit and regret at leisure. The one who benefits from ‘doing the deal’ with the Adversary is after all not ourselves, it is only ‘who we have been tricked into believing we are’! The system corrupts us and turns us into an extension of itself, and then rewards us for what it has made us into…

Ultimately, the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness (i.e. the tendency to wake up and the tendency to fall asleep) are partners. It could be said that it is through slavery that we learn the value of freedom. The Sufi metaphor is to speak of a caged bird, and being caged or constrained like that bird allows us to fully appreciate what it means to be able to fly freely. Or as Paul Levy puts it, it is only through being tested by the false authority of the negative father that we are pushed sufficiently to draw upon our deepest resources and ‘become truly whole and empowered’:

The emergence of the negative father archetype in this waking dream of ours is an invitation ─ make that a demand ─ to step into our true strength and power. Seen as a dreaming process, the negative father embodies the very process we need to engage with so as to build up our muscle of realization. That the archetypal myth of the negative father is incarnating itself in our world is an expression that this deeper process is available for conscious assimilation in a way that was simply not available before. Whether we are destroyed by the negative father or empowered is up to no one but ourselves. We collectively bear the responsibility for our current situation, and we also have within us the power to change it.

The Adversary (otherwise known as Satan, Shaitan the Whisperer, Mara, or Ahriman) helps us, in other words. It is after all only by being tested that we know ourselves. Or as Nichiren Daishonin says,

When we fall to the floor, we raise ourselves from that same floor.

As Paul Levy indicates in the quote given above, this view that the two forces of Light and Dark are ultimately in partnership does not mean that we can relax in the knowledge that we will somehow be ‘saved’! If we are to be saved it will only be by own own efforts. As Levy says it ‘is up to no one but ourselves’. The view of the universe that is portrayed by the ancient Persian myth of Ohrmazd  (or as he later came to be known, Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman is not a deterministic one. Nothing is set in stone, the outcome cannot be foretold, the balance hangs undecided. The drama has to play out… J.G. Bennett uses the term hazard to refer to this essentially undecided aspect of the contest between the two forces. In a passage from The Dramatic Universe, J.G. Bennett writes –

If man is not a pawn in the hands of an omnipotent and omniscient chess player, then he may be something much more significant: a being upon whom rests real responsibility for taking his own part in the universal task.

If we see life in mythological terms we can see that it is not at all about what we think it is about (that’s just the decoy, that’s just the red-herring. That’s not what’s really going on. What’s really going on is the Eternal War…