The Circus Animals’ Desertion by WB Yeats

This being the year of William Butler Yeats’ 150th birth, one of the great poets of this era, I thought I’d take a look at one of this last poems, written in the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying.



From his youth he was what nowadays we refer to as a spiritual seeker. He regularly read and discussed The Upanishads, the ancient Hindu books of wisdom. I have seen a photograph of him with Jiddu Krishnamurti. His lifelong interest in spiritual matters is well documented.

Any interpretation I have seen of this poem describes it as Yeats lamenting the loss of his creative streak and being depressed by this. I have to wonder if what he is saying in it isn’t something else – a description of his of spiritual awakening – the loss of his sense of self. This is a condition well documented in spiritual literature, and Yeats was undoubtedly familiar with this idea or possibility for a human.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion

by WB Yeats


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,

First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose

Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,

Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,

That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;

But what cared I that set him on to ride,

I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,

`The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it,

She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away

But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy

So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough

This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread

Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;

Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said

It was the dream itself enchanted me:

Character isolated by a deed

To engross the present and dominate memory.

Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


My circus animals were all on show,” By “circus animals” I take it to mean the contents of the mind. He enumerates the contents of his mind under various classes – mythology, politics, ideals, romance, and so on.

It was the dream itself enchanted me” Being lost in the dream of life is the root problem of all human suffering. We have become identified with the dream, thereby having lost awareness with the source (“but out of what began?) of our dreaming and our essential selves. This is the core message of The Upanishads.

As a result of this loss of connection to our inner self we mistake the contents of the mind and the mind itself for something real whereas they are “emblems” arising from a deeper source.

And not those things that they were emblems of”. We have taken these ideas, beliefs etc as

“Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start”

When the mind is seen through, the root of all beliefs, mythologies and so on are seen as having arisen from our conditioning by the world,  and enchantment with it. The ego collapses.

Buddha’s comment on this conditions is:“Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving.” (Dh. 153-54)

Perhaps this or something like it is what Yeats was saying in this poem and not lamenting the loss of his creative faculty, but seeing it for what it is.

He is now facing is death, and this is well known to be the vital step in the final collapse of the ego.

I wonder if there are others who might see the same interpretation in it.

Family relationships, Friendship and spiritual work

Family relationships, Friendships and spiritual work

Seven Sisters

Seven sisters.

Perhaps the issue that comes up most often in dealing with spiritual seekers is the issue of family relationships.

We can class these relationships into two categories: current and legacy relationships.

By current I mean the relationships we have with members who are part of our everyday existence now: those we share a home with, those for whom we have an ongoing responsibility or commitment, maybe paying for their education, those we are involved in business with, shared responsibility for caring for maybe elderly parents, those with whom we have financial or other involvements, and so on.

You’ll notice that in each of these relationships there is an element of an ongoing contract. We don’t usually think of relationships in terms of contracts but basically that is what is going on. Sharing a home involves unwritten and usually unarticulated contracts about how we are going to manage our daily living with another. Contracts mean that you give something in return for something else.

The old-fashioned contract between husband and wife was, she was provided with a home and food in order to have children and he got a home and family to come to, if he provided for them. Having children automatically creates a contract of dependent and dependee until such a time as the dependee is fit to provide for themselves. It’s not by its nature a lifelong contract.

Like all relationship contracts, they change over time and run out when no longer relevant or needed in order to fulfil their original needs.

As long as the contract is working, everyone involved having their needs met, at a fair rate of exchange, we feel good. We feel love. In a well functioning family everyone in the family is in on the contract of family survival. Children care about each others welfare.

This is what CS Lewis calls “Affection” in his book The Four Loves. It is the most basic and immediate kind of love. It is conditional love. It is a powerful influence in our lives because of the strong feelings it produces in us. After all, it arises out of the survival need.

The second kind of family relationship that arises is the legacy relationship. The original contract has run out. We no longer need or want to have particular needs met by the person who used to meet that need for us. Children become independent, wife becomes independent, husband want to fulfil his sexual needs elsewhere, and so on.

The contract needs to be re-drawn in order to keep the relationship alive as opposed to becoming a mere arrangement or maybe scrapped.

The thing is that we are not usually aware of the changes in the contract as it happens gradually over time. Circumstances change and so do the contracts or the value of them.

For many people the contract with their siblings, which used to be based on mutual welfare becomes redundant as the children leave home but they are left with the strong feelings of affection or maybe resentment from that time.

The feelings last a lot longer than the usefulness of the contract. This is why people still have strong feelings about their family of origin long after they have left that situation. The hidden contracts are so powerful that they do not dissipate automatically, even after they are redundant. We need to revisit these contracts, allegiances, in ourselves in order to re-draw them and bring them up to date.

Contracts include expectations, motivations, beliefs, and so on. Usually we think that the other party have the same ideas about the contract as we have. They may have quite a different idea of say what is expected in this contract. One in a family may think it is the obligation of other family members to help them in a difficult time, another may think it’s a case of everyone for themselves.

The underlying contracts manifest as guilt, resentment, longing for the old days or friendships, feeling abandoned, expecting help, feeling mis-understood and so on.

In a family where there was good affection and friendship between the family members, we want it to continue even after we have left home. The memory of the friendship outweighs the current relationship, the nature of which has changed over time.

This is why people often wonder what happened to their friendship with siblings. We feel that we have grown apart and feel the loss of it. We want the affection to remain, despite the circumstance no longer being able to support it. We are now having our needs met elsewhere and the affection goes there.

The difference between family relationships and other friendships is in the contract.

With friends we have lighter, less binding contracts. The contract might be to play golf together or share some mutual interest. It might be, having children of the same age that we share play time with them. The thing is that friendships are usually based on simpler, clearer contracts, not many sub-clauses as with family contracts. And, we still get the affection we crave.

We don’t usually think of our relationships in terms of contracts, because they are the norms of society. We just go along with society not realising that society has imposed contracts on us. Examining our relationships is a good way to become aware of what contracts we have unwittingly bought into and re-evaluating them in terms of valuable they are to our current life situations.

This is really about bringing what we are unconscious of into consciousness and in that way coming to know ourselves. We come to know what contracts we have made, not just with others, but with ourselves because basically every contract we make with others is really our best effort at getting our needs met. These needs are based on assumptions and beliefs that are usually hidden from view. So, uncovering the contracts is a way of uncovering our hidden assumptions and beliefs. This is getting to the root of our ego, which is what is veiling our true nature from us.

We may come to see that we always act in a subservient way to authority  or that we are inclined to take on authority in every situation because we have found that this is a good ploy for getting what we want. Seeing this we are likely to also see what this is costing us, maybe in terms of self honesty or something else.

My writing is always about self-knowledge, attempts to point others towards ideas that  may be beneficial in coming to know yourself and in that way see how you have been blinded by your own hidden contracts, the ones taken on unconsciously in childhood.

CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes them as Affection, Eros, Friendship and Charity.

Affection and Eros are both arise from instinctive, tribal, biological, gregarious roots. By “charity” I understand him to mean what nowadays we would call unconditional love or what the Greeks called Agape. But, friendship, as he describes it, is love that does not have the strings attached that that go with affection and eros – no contracts or at least non-binding contracts. He says this is the purest kind of love between people, because it is freely chosen and not emotionally encumbered.

Richard Rose, Jesus and Buddha all spoke of the value of true friendship. I think that what happens to many of us is that we expect or want to find friendship in family but this does not often happen. It can happen but something must change along the way to turn that relationship of affection into friendship.

We long for friendship but in a society which does not value friendship for its own sake we may not have thought about it.

Lewis says that real friendship is less understood and less valued in this era than in Greek times. Real friendship is what many long for but maybe have not been able to distinguish it from affection and eros.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes on Friendship.

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.  Lucius Seneca

There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.

Thomas Aquinas

Friendship… is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything. Muhammad Ali

Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. Khalil Gibran

Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.  Octavia Butler

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake. Aristotle

The only way to have a friend is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. Henri Nouwen

A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself. Jim Morrison

Friends are the siblings God never gave us.  Mencius

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

and the last word goes to Oscar.

True friends stab you in the front. Oscar Wilde




Where Do We Come From…..

“Where Do We Come From What Are We Where Are We Going” is the title of a Paul Gauguin painting. 


D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. The inscription the artist wrote on his canvas has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897

He had a plan to kill himself after he finished this painting, considering it to be his masterpiece. His plan failed.

John Kent summarized the core questions in the Richard Rose teachings as:

  1. Who am I (ultimately)?
  2. Where did I come from (before birth)?
  3. Where am I going (after death)? 

Richard Rose is the one whose teachings I have found most useful on my spiritual path.

But the questions, these  big questions are the perennial questions for us self-conscious beings – humans. They are the existential questions.

Gauguin’s painting, which is read from right to left, goes from an image of a baby to an old woman, with life in between. An image of a life, any life, you could say. Each life is but a variation on a theme, the theme of life and death.

The Tibetan Buddhists have been making images addressing this same idea for centuries. They are called Thangkas.



The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Thangka

Before literacy was common, images were the main method of sharing ideas.

All children, I suspect, ask questions about where they came from. We tell them that they come from their mothers belly. That is true in a sense, the relative sense. Biological beings come from biological beings. Minds come from minds. Spirit comes from spirit. These are the three dimensions of a human.

The pressing question for a child is about where they came from but for an older person it becomes about where we are going.

My three year old granddaughter has copped on to the fact that I am her mothers mother. She recently asked me if I had a mother too. I showed her a photo of my mother. She stood staring at it. I could see her mind trying to take in the fact that even grandmothers have mothers. Of course she couldn’t ask or even think,  where did the first mother come but I’m sure that the seed of some question like that was being planted in her little mind?

She did ask where is my mother now and I said “she died” knowing full well that “She” did not die, only her body died.

So, over the course of a reflective human life, our question of where do we come from changes from “where did I biologically come from?” to “where does the world, all creation come from?”. There are many lovely mythological stories about the origin of the world or the universe, all based on the assumption that the world is out there.

Spiritual teachings say otherwise. As Jesus said “The  kingdom of heaven is within”, within us.Spiritual work is about finding what is within us and what we really are at core.

The question, where do I come from, takes on a different perspective. We look for the source of ourselves within ourselves by removing what is blinding us from this.

The child’s version of the question is based on the assumption that what we are is a biological being. This assumption is not often questioned later on. Sure, we have a biological aspect but it’s not the whole story. Later on most of us become more identified with our mental/emotional aspect. We try to figure out the answer to our questions, in an effort to heal our emotional discontent or insecurities. This very effort to figure out is the giveaway that we are identified with our mind. We’re operating from the assumption that the mind can understand life ( consciousness). This would mean that life was of a lesser order than the mind. The opposite is true.

Assuming that what we are is a mind/emotional being,  we are not conscious of the fact that there is the underlying assumption.  The hypnotic belief in the mind/emotional dimension is very convincing but it is also not the whole story. In spiritual literature this operating on unconscious assumptions and being hypnotically under the spell of beliefs is referred to as “being identified with”.

The mind can never figure out where we come from since it also comes from the same place -the mind trying to figure itself out. It’s a closed self-reflective circular loop. But, we can observe and examine our own mind and become aware of its underlying assumptions. It is this quality of self-reflection that leads to our mis-identification and consequent suffering.

This process of examining the mind and uncovering the assumptions, which are the root cause of the various floating (mis)identifications, leads to a dissolution of the assumptions.

In this process we become less fooled by the mind and something else comes into our consciousness. The hypnotic spell cast by the underlying beliefs and assumptions begins to lift. We gradually come to see and trust that there is another dimension beyond the mind.

So, our once childish question of where do I come from takes on a different meaning. Where do I come from, before birth? Where does creation come from? What is the backdrop to my being? What are we? Who am I?

What am I, ultimately?

This question cannot be answered by the mind, but it can be answered experientially by a change that happens in us. This change happens as the false identifications and assumptions fall away and another aspect comes into view. This other aspect or dimension is what we call spirit. Consciousness of our spiritual dimension gradually replaces our roving and changing identities. This is often referred to being present. Spirit is not changing but is a stable, permanent consciousness against which all changes take place. It is the unchanging nature of spirit that causes us to overlook or ignore it. A time can come when complete identification with this aspect of ourselves replaces the roving identifications of our biological and mental/emotional dimensions but it does not delete them. They continue to function as a necessary aspect of our existence in the world, until such a time as they are no longer useful – with death of the body.

This shift in identification is what is known as Christ consciousness, Enlightenment or Self-realisation.

Knowing versus unknowing.

Knowing and unknowing

That we can know and know that we know is the core of being human. Mostly we are lost in what we know, thereby losing sight of the our knowing nature. This capacity to know is usually referred to as consciousness. Being conscious that we are conscious is the doorway to the possibility of self-realisation – the coming to know what we really are in essence – the Knower.

There are four degrees of knowing.

1. Not knowing and not knowing that you don’t know. Personal versus universal consciousness.

2. Knowing but not knowing that you know. The child effect.

3. Not knowing but knowing that you don’t know. Seeker.

4. Knowing and knowing that you know.

Below I describe these stages in terms of spiritual seeking but they apply to any area of knowledge. With spiritual seeking we are seeking to know the knower. Knowing the knower is not an intellectual understanding but it is found through the intellectual investigation. So, having an understanding of our minds work and how consciousness develops helps. It’s a journey from the personal to the universal.

Not knowing and not knowing that you don’t know.

This could be termed ignorance in a general sense of any fact or idea. For instance, if you had never heard or heard of, let’s say, Irish Sean Nos singing, you would be totally ignorant of its existence. But it is a knowable fact. This is my interpretation of what Carl Jung meant by personal consciousness versus universal consciousness. Universal consciousness refers to anything that is knowable, in the universe. Personal consciousness refers to what an individual knows. or has a way of knowing within the universe. To know in this sense means that we have to have something to know it in relation to. It is relative knowing. Sean Nos singing would be known against a background of music in general, which is known against a background of sound. Having the capacity to hear is dependent on having a sense that can interpret the universe through sound. All the senses are capacities based in the relative, in the universe, for the purpose of the organism being able to interpret and survive in the universe. The senses belong to the relative but the capacity to know does not.

Knowing but not knowing that you know.

This could be seen as child syndrome in the sense that children know things but they do not know them in relation to the bigger picture or the universal. A child may know and be able to sing Sean Not but not know that there are other kinds of music. They don’t know that it’s relative. Their personal consciousness is all that they know, not yet having developed an understanding of it in relation to universal consciousness.

Any new knowledge at first looks like personal knowledge or experience and with time this becomes seen in terms of universal knowledge and experience.

The personal consciousness develops before it can be seen in relation to universal consciousness.

Not knowing but knowing that you don’t know.

At this stage an individual has learned that their personal experience or knowledge is a limited thing. Others have experienced the same experiences as them. They have become aware that their life is but one example of a human life. This is really the stage of the seeker, who has come to realise that the search for contentment or meaning is not just their personal quest, but a quest that has been sought over the course of human history. The individual comes to hear that others have set out on this quest and come to a resolution of their quest. They have heard about self-realisation and come to understand that this is possible for all humans.

Knowing and knowing that you know.

In terms of spiritual seeking this is self-realisation. The knower comes to know itself.

We come to know what we are in essence. We come to know that ultimately each one of us is The Awareness that generates the universe and the consciousness of it.

I cannot describe this knowing because it is not describable but it is knowable for all humans. It is an experiential knowing.

Attributes necessary for spiritual progress

I started out writing this article thinking in terms of obstacles to progress on the spiritual path, but fairly quickly it turned into an article about the attributes necessary for spiritual progress.

We all start out in life with the seeds of these attributes in us, but along the way some may become dormant. As the saying goes “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Being dormant, they have not disappeared, only unused. This means that they can be recovered at any time once we become aware of their value to us, not just for spiritual growth but for every aspect of our lives.

These qualities are used and developed in daily life and are then available to us for use on our spiritual search.




The dictionary definition for courage is:

1. the ability to do something that frightens one;

2. strength in the face of pain or grief: he fought his illness with great courage.

You’ve heard the phrase “to have the courage of one’s convictions” -to act on one’s beliefs/values despite danger or disapproval.

Have you developed the strength to act on what you value despite disapproval? Another way of saying this is “have you become your own person?” While becoming “your own person” is a characteristic of being a mature human being and doesn’t of itself necessarily lead to spiritual seeking, it is a necessary attribute for successful spiritual progress.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you decide to seriously follow your spiritual path that you will be met with disapproval, ridicule, dismissiveness,     or even downright horror. The reason for this is that many do not have the calling to this themselves (at least, at the time you are starting out), and so it looks strange and unnecessary to them. There is a fair chance that the path that calls you is different from those around you and may look to them like you have become involved in a dangerous cult or strange activity.

Courage is necessary in order to get over this hurdle.

Courage is necessary, not only to deal with external pressures but along the way you’ll be met with situations where you need to face inner changes, not knowing where they are taking you. It may be that you are faced with finding that the group or teacher you have long been associated with are no longer helpful to you or doubts have arisen. It takes courage to move on.

It may be that you feel you are driving yourself to a nervous breakdown by continuing with your practises, since you are noticing that life no longer makes sense to you according to your old ideas or what is commonly accepted.


We all have minds. We need to understand what is going on and we have our interpretations of life and the world. This is an ongoing project for everyone, constantly interpreting and re-interpreting and fitting new experiences and ideas into what we already feel we know. or what we have settled for.

When we first come across spiritual teachings we usually find them incomprehensible or disturbing. At this point many simply dismiss them but there are those whose interest is piqued by them, especially if someone feels that there is something missing in their understanding or quality of life or that they are missing out on some very important aspect of life, they may be drawn to find out more along this line.

On first coming across statements or questions such as: “Who am I?” “you own your actions but not the results of them”,  “You never learn the answer; you can only become the answer.” “life is suffering and suffering is caused by craving and aversion”, “there is only this”, “not my will but Thy Will be done,” we are bound to be perplexed as we do not have a category for interpreting them in our minds. Ideas and experiences are interpreted in relation to what ideas and interpretations we already have in our minds.

Over time, through reading spiritual books, listening to spiritual teachers and so on, a category of knowledge about the spiritual path develops in our minds. At first everything goes in, and what is retained is a conglomeration of discrete ideas. These ideas then begin to support or contradict each other – we wonder how this teaching relates to another by a different teacher and so on. It is a phase of active accumulation and gradual sorting of ideas.

Now there is a new category in the mind which has an alternative way to look at life as opposed to the common beliefs and ideas of our culture.

Since spiritual teachings are obviously not necessary for daily survival, one at some point comes to realise that this kind of knowledge has a purpose other than daily survival. It dawns on us what the goal of spiritual teachings are about- what The Buddha termed as “the end of suffering,” or returning to our true nature as phrased in other teachings.

From this point on we are likely to read this literature with a different mind set, understanding the goal and the methods suggested by the various strands of The Perennial Wisdom.

Along the way there is regular re-interpretation of ideas as we gain a better understanding and greater focus on what we are trying to achieve.


Question everything! Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Test out ideas in your own experience and in relation to what you already think. If you believe something, feel attached to some belief, ask yourself where does that belief come from and is it valid in your own experience.

For instance; if you believe (feel) that being wealthy will make you happy, check for evidence of this in the world. Look at your own life to see what beliefs or ideas have you founded your life on. Is it working for you? If not, then why not?

Have you any assumptions about what happens after death? What are you ideas about death, if indeed you have been willing to look at such a radical question? And if you have avoided looking at this question, why? What belief or assumption or fear prevents you from it?

The inclination of the human mind is to settle for beliefs and to avoid looking at what is uncomfortable or in conflict with already held beliefs. This is much easier than questioning yourself but in settling for this attitude you are doomed to continue living the life you have been living up to this. Many, it seems are content with this but for one who is driven by the desire for profound inner change, self-questioning is necessary.


The Christian tradition has many descriptions of “periods of aridity” documented by the lives of the saints, as do all the main traditions. These are periods when, despite much practise and longing for God, and an end to the search, there appears to be nothing happening. In these periods we are bound to doubt the efficacy of our practise. There is the danger of giving up, or walking away from the search in these periods, especially if we have not heard of this phenomenon as being part of the path.

Many wonder along the way why it is taking so long, what they are doing wrong and so on. The thing is, fruition of this path is not in our hands. All we can do is to do what we can on our end and hope for fruition. But, we have to do what we can on our end. Jesus said “seek and you shall find”. The various teachings have said the same thing as Jesus and produced the desired result for many, so don’t give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel may take longer to navigate that you would like.

The goal of spiritual seeking is not like any other kind of goal we have in life. It’s not something we can aim for directly, knowing how we are progressing along the way. This is a path of losing what is not true, a backing away from the conditioning and wrong assumptions we have picked up in the world in favour of moving towards what is real within ourselves. The movement towards what is real is facilitated by spiritual teachings and practises, which are always pointing us towards our inner selves, our True Nature.


One last attribute I am going to mention is trust, trust in yourSelf, in God, in the teachings. Trust doesn’t mean you can guarantee a result but acting as if you trust this path and this search and the teachings ( guidance) that you come upon, certainly helps. It allows you to live the spiritual life wholeheartedly, and this facilitates the desired inner transformation.