Recently again, I reflect upon the large reptile spiraling across my shoulder. An early childhood fascination turned University concentration on mythology led me repeatedly toward the metaphor of the dragon.
The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck in China, as well as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In ancient Egypt, Thoth was said to have the form of a huge, fiery, winged serpent. In ancient Greece, Hermes was named the “Great Dragon.” The Buddha was taught and protected by a Naga, or sacred snake. Quetzalcoatl, a winged serpent, imparted cosmic knowledge to the ancient Aztecs. The caduceus, the symbol of healing and patron of physicians, is formed by serpent intertwined.
In Judaism and Christianity, the winged serpent comes from God in Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. The Hebrew words for fiery, flying serpents is Seraphim, which refers to a group of angels of the highest order in the Kingdom of Heaven; they are the angels of love, light and fire, and are in direct communication with God at all times as His messengers, translators, interpreters, and were described as being in serpentine form. Moses carried Nehushtan - a copper serpent staff - after his revelation at the burning bush (Exodus 4:4).
In Hinduism, the snake found on the body of Lord Shiva is considered to be an ornament. The snake around Shiva’s neck symbolically represents the ego which once mastered and transcended, can be worn “as an ornament” or be used at any level of use without attachment.
With my troubled childhood, facing violence, abuse, humiliation and shame for my physical and learning disabilities, I learned early that a weak ego begets prey-mentality. If you behave as a victim, you attract victimization. Modeling my heroes, I sought larger and more difficult challenges in order to sharpen my mettle, increase my confidence and emancipate myself from the constrained, defeatist mindset within which I had endured in my youth. I became a fighter.
But the fighter must be transcended. We must remember how and when to fight, but we cannot be defined by the tool. We do not call the carpenter, a hammer.
This coil around my shoulders constantly reminds me in the mirror that though I may exercise my will to the strongest, transcending my strong ego offers me grace. In martial arts, we walk a slippery slope of believing we impose our will upon another to win; when in reality we impose our will inward to resist our weak ego interfering with the flow which our strong ego allows. In fitness, we discover a sharp cliff, where we can look in the mirror and be fooled into believing that our appearance is your health, or worse our worth.
My daily reminder, in the morning when I awake, after every training session, each public appearance and every night before I sleep: I can fight, but I can choose to not. Only a warrior can truly choose peace.
Marcus Aurelius hired a servant to walk behind him as he received the accolades of his citizenry; every time Marcus was complemented, the servant had been instructed to whisper in his ear, “You’re just a man… just a man.” Marcus also once wrote, “Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you.“
Therein lies the paradox of living an honorable life of service to your family, your community, your country, to humanity and to God. Your ego must be strong enough so that you can boldly live the greatness within you, but you must not let it enslave you so that it perverts your good intentions into a life of self-service.
Every day, I master this ego to make it of use to others… and transcend it to be at peace.