~ Inspired by Peter Matthiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’ ~
Neatly parcelled and resting on my patio table the pristine white package is radiant beneath autumn’s early morning light. Somewhere within the padded envelope, bubble wrap and tissue paper hides a book I’ve long waited to read.
It’s not just the high expectations I have for exposure to a little existential wilderness and reflective consideration that shine in the air above the parcel with the same unspoken sense of excited anticipation as befits a child’s face on Christmas morning: the packet simply glows as brightly from within as it does from without because the book itself is solid gold. To the questing pilgrim setting out on a spiritual adventure, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is a discreet exploration of the perplexing aspects of what it means to be a spiritual force living within a material body. To those who take up the challenge of considering this classic tale a worthwhile effort, the manuscript may be read as an owner’s manual for the human condition.
‘The book is both an understated description of natural history and also an extraordinary account of an inner journey taken by the author Peter Matthiessen during the course of a 250-mile passage by foot through the Himalayas to the mythological Crystal Mountain on the Tibetan plateau. Accompanied by the field biologist George Schaller and a small team of Sherpas and porters, the two friends set out with the intention of studying the wild blue sheep, the Bharal, but also hoped to see the beautiful Snow Leopard, a mysterious and highly elusive creature so rarely seen as to be regarded as supernatural.’ (1) And so it is that burdened beneath the weight of a heavy expedition backpack and laden down by an accumulated weariness and mistrust of love and life, Peter Matthiessen sets out from civilization with courage and determination to succeed in completing the physical adventure and in returning home metaphysically en-lightened.
By any reasonable standard, setting out on foot to walk 250 miles is an arduous affair. Setting out on foot deliberately with the intention of leaving normality far behind is an arduous path to escapism and freedom from restraint. One leaves behind a psychologically woven quilt of existence tailored from many different cloths, but somewhere within that patchwork of understanding will be our entrenched ideologies, our conventional philosophies and our established body of knowledge on ways of being that we have accumulated through hardened experience and systematic indoctrination, and most, if not all of this proffered freely by the state and accepted blindly by the easily fooled. Each of us are unwittingly dissolved as spiritual beings by a culturally dysfunctional world based on historical complexity, political mismanagement, and the sometimes questionable and self-effacing misjudgement of ruling classes seeking power through wealth, and foolish reward through material ownership by the exploitation of finite resources and human beings. What has sadly been lost in this depreciation of our gift of life is a list of personally defining qualities such as Compassion, Gentleness, Contemplation, Love, Peace, Wisdom, Mystery, Healing, Transformation, and Transcendence. Without these qualities persisting with equal eminence on Earth our species will not evolve beyond a needless subservience to base desires or an abandonment to mischief and cunning or indeed rise above the enticement and bright allure of shiny trinkets, all of which are severely distorted aspects of a misguided and ill-fitting human nature subjugated by media intrusion, propaganda, and authoritarian misdirection, and attributes more closely attuned to dogs, foxes and magpies. Surely mankind is far more than just a lowland dweller subsisting in the margins of true Freedom and left scavenging for the scraps and titbits of a life dictated at our every turn by the puppeteers whose immense wealth and bank ownership finances the world’s governments, stratifies social ordering through monetary coercion by way of immoral, unethical, indiscriminate, nonrelativistic and arbitrarily valued products and services and our perceived dependency on them to sustain life: and then greedily demands our fullest co-operation within their game for fear of social exclusion and/or psychological alienation.
Is it little wonder then that Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is more than just a breath of fresh mountain air! It is an engaging story, rich in emotional sensuality, intoxicating with intellectual flavour, and healthily nutritious when thoroughly absorbed as a counter point to a World spinning on an axis of fool’s gold. The reader doesn’t just follow one man’s journey through an unfathomable and expansive wilderness by an interpretation of impressionistic words, one lives the full emotional experience with Matthiessen: walking side by side with thick staff in hand to open up the snow-filled mountain passes or by following in single file along narrow precipices and precarious ridges and quite literally stepping in his sunken boot prints. The journey takes a lengthy stride through an open doorway to walk an elevated pathway that unfolds across the high altitudes of a vast mountainous backdrop untouched by the follies of man, and at times carries the reader airborne to witness an alternative understanding of life and one’s part within its continuous flow. With little else than an enquiring sense of open-minded acceptance at the profound simplicity of Buddhist spiritualism the reader will be adequately equipped to encounter aspects of Matthiessen’s truth within the high peaks and descending valleys of the awe-inspiring and mighty Himalayas.
There is an intimacy to be found in reading Matthiessen’s compelling words describing his journey taken on foot in the Himalayas: a certain sense of acquiring an immediate connection with the landscape that encourages the reader to engage very quickly with a completely different emotional experience to that which may not have been encountered before. The passage to Crystal Mountain leads the questing soul further and further from civilization and the intellectual density on which it is built to journey through small and infrequent market towns that dissolve to become random hamlets, and hamlets that melt away with the thawing snows to become isolated dwellings, and then onwards still further towards unsophisticated isolation and the opportunity to unpack, evaluate, define, and redefine ourselves. The physical requirements of walking in a climatically hostile domain focus the mind on the immediacy of the present and the urgent task in hand, that of survival. As the story unfolds, as one travels deeper and deeper in to the milky wilderness with Matthiessen there is a stripping away of all that is unnecessary to maintain life until little remains other than an empty shell of our former self: a ghost adrift in an ocean of snow and ice. We find ourselves becoming increasingly deprived of opportunity for personal reflection and thought on non-essential matters: there are no correspondences and no reference points to our established life-styles to be gleaned from the purity of a homogenised landscape. There is no reason and no purpose whilst in the Himalayas with Matthiessen to toy with such superfluous notions as wishing one had chosen the red ski-jacket rather than the blue, which I think would have complimented my sun-tanned complexion and hair colour much better anyway. It is far more appropriate, far more fitting, and of a greater urgency just letting go of everything that is not essential, illusionary and constructed by the mind in favour of embracing a feeling of overwhelming humility at one’s isolated abandonment within inhospitable surroundings of humbling beauty and unsurpassable magnificence.
And so it is that at every stage on the journey there draws closer a sense of acceptance at the inevitability of loss: whether that be in the depletion of essential supplies, in the casting off of needless distractions to make room for a positive affirmation of the immediate, or even in confronting and reflecting upon the perceived brutality of subsistence living amongst the mountain dwellers. (Subsistence is still existence, and happiness still abounds despite the very obvious absence of material wealth.) In whatever guise it appears, in all longer-term engagement within the wilderness there is a fundamental removal of the structures of the ego and with it the displacement, or removal and replacement of one sense of reality with an alternative perception of reality born from one’s direct experience of it. To arrive at Shey Monastery on Crystal Mountain and to stand alongside Matthiessen, the reader must let go of what is inconsequential and insignificant in their life and embrace instead the real truth that lies at the heart of their being. Refusing to listen to the constant chatter and noise of a left-hemisphere dominated mind that offers no more than a repetitious viewing and reviewing of a perfidious Capitalist-driven worldview with its deluded propensity for self-gratification and lust, insatiable greed, acquisition of material wealth, and insidious profit-mongering through exploitation, lies, deceit and despair, is at the most reductive and fundamental level the only prerequisite for successfully completing the journey. One must choose without remorse to be psychologically dislocated from a lifetime lived in darkness if the Spiritual wonderland waiting in the right-hemisphere of the mind is to be found, but just how far down the labyrinth one chooses to go accompanying the proverbial rabbit is ultimately for the individual to determine.
It is September 28th, the day after the book arrives, when I begin reading the Snow Leopard. Intriguingly, and without any a priori knowledge, this date and time corresponds exactly with Matthiessen’s departure from the edge of Pokhara in 1973 and at once I feel party to the mounting anticipation as if I too am truly embarking on the gruelling expedition Westwards with them. The atmosphere amongst the group is tentatively reserved, the air charged with a heady mix of hope and uncertainty, but preparations have been meticulous, and plans, schedules, and routes all organised with deliberate attention to detail; once past the outlying homesteads the snow-bound wilderness will offer little guarantee of survival beyond a total dependency on what is physically carried there and the fortitude and courage to adopt, adapt, advance and improve: and these four key attributes will be carried to an individual’s ultimate destination in their own heart.
From somewhere inside the dung-smoked confinement of the departure tent comes the order to move out. At once the place is alive with shiny-eyed Sherpa’s and indefatigable porters busily transferring equipment and supplies on to the steaming backs of stubborn mules, excitement spills over in to animated discussion, dogs bark, straps are tightened, last second purchases are completed, and within minutes we are walking in single file and taking our first tentative steps towards Crystal Mountain. In the midst of this organised hustle and bustle one small quiet voice shouts to be heard. I pause momentarily to listen, unsure at first from where the voice emanates and then startled to realise I am mumbling to myself out-loud. ‘This is really, really happening! I am really here in the Himalayas waiting to leave on a transformative adventure and very soon there will be no turning back. With one more step ‘I’ won’t be coming home ever again’. Quite unexpectedly, I am overwhelmed by the weight of a heavy backpack and the unexpected press of indecision, uncertainty and doubt at the immense significance of what really may be laying ahead of me on my pilgrimage. ‘I am quite possibly journeying towards my own absolution, and in the process I will be divested of the falsehoods and lies that constitute aspects of my manufactured identity, and seriously, I just don’t know what it is I shall find waiting there for me. This really is a huge moment in my life, and nothing will ever again be as it was before I arrived here! As a consequence of leaving Pokhara to journey in Matthiessen’s company I may very well end up returning my soul to an infant-like state of innocence: one undefiled by the artificiality of a man made world, cleansed and made as pure and white, and as uniformly even as the boundless snow fields stretching away between the distant crested peaks. It is going to be one hell of an adventure. But am I truly ready to let go?’
And more importantly, should you ever decide to read the book, would you also be ready to cut the threads that bind you to a finite world and rise? Or would you be found wanting in inspiration and individuality and be content to remain disquietingly isolated amongst the majority holding on to a conviction in your own sense of limited happiness?
It is at this juncture, one immense footstep beyond the point of departure, that I will leave the reader, and those with an idling sense of curiosity and adventure, to follow Matthiessen with his or her own eyes. It is not my intention to describe either my individual experience or present a road map for others to follow in search of their own end. After all it is not my imagination that will be processing the words it reads but yours. I want instead to return to one unambiguous aspect of Matthiessen’s story that lies very much at the centre of his personal journey: the spectral-like entity that is the elusive Panthera uncia, the equanimical, enigmatic and phantasmagorical Prince of all big cats: the singularly unique Snow Leopard.
Asking only for the reader’s indulgence in my understated perspective I offer a sympathetic and compassionate detailing of my beloved big-cat. Unlike Matthiessen, who may well not have seen this sublime work of nature during the entirety of his 250-mile walk, I include within this post a striking image of the Snow Leopard for both your visual reference and enjoyment. (2)
I also admit in advance to being aware of certain of my cat like ways, although not in the narcissistic manner that comes with Felidae pomposity and aloofness attached, but as a result of humility, drawn out personal reflection and acceptance of my self: I do sleep a whole lot and quite often, exercise infrequently and without guilt, and enjoy the meatiness of my food and the richness of full-fat milk and cream. Most days one might also find me at home wrapped in a bathrobe of light mocha coloured pile and generally enjoying my creature comforts by reclining with a good read and my laptop in front of the fire and playfully pawing with the ebb and flow of my thoughts and dreams. And I do not like to be touched, stroked or petted by just anyone either, at least not without an introduction or small piece of chicken being proffered anyway.
The photograph I’ve included in this post is hauntingly provocative and powerfully alluring in both its charming eloquence and tender portrayal of feline intensity. It is skilfully shot in black and white and I think deliberately so, yet the absence of colour does not lessen the authority of the subject it strengthens it substantially by removing all unessential visual stimuli. Stripped back to depict the fundamental quintessence of the subject, the viewer is immediately charged with the responsibility of engaging their imagination in the object and returning the colours intrinsic to photographic realism back to the image. And that requires a more sustained period of focus, an incisive level of higher cerebral functioning, and the exercising and use of an influencing imagination. In addition to these principle requirements, there is a further layer of complexity to be negotiated: that of intuitively deducing an understanding of the subject through contrasting tones. Visually speaking black and white are polar opposites existing at either end of the same colour spectrum and act as reference points to each other to delineate depth, mass, weight, form, and perspective through gradations in tonal value and the perceived movement and dynamics of light between these poles. In a similar fashion, by using corresponding mechanisms, one may address all other ‘opposites’ existing in a state of comparative polarity to each other with the same regard: good and bad, right and wrong, yes and no, life and death, friendship and enmity, and truth and falsehood. But Nature does not distinguish itself in such an unequivocal way; it is only human consciousness that considers ‘duality’ a phenomenon. Nature does not defer to intellectual reasoning alone, its primary motivator is synthesis through syngenesis. For example, there is no separation in Nature between life and death for there is no differentiation and/or acknowledgement of time by which to identify the state of one’s being at any moment in existence. We exist only in the immediate. This is the paradox that Schrodinger’s boxed and somewhat cramped cat finds itself continually in. Nature it seems flows as a single continuum whereby the cessation of both organic and inorganic life, indeed of everything revealed in reality, is broken down and reconstituted to become prima materia for something else to take seed and be made manifest in space. With every death comes new life elsewhere. In a universe that might well be considered a closed self-perpetuating system encapsulating a finite number of sub-atomic particles (mathematically referred to as ‘Kevin’) held in constant equilibrium, new matter is created only by the death and dispersal of something else that had come before.
What is initially fascinating about the coat of the Snow Leopard is that the two opposing colours of black and white bound within its fur exist on the one animal to create a seamless unified whole. Whilst this is an intuitive interpretation based on visual correspondence between two colours held in opposition and reflecting the idea of duality, in actuality there is only singularity in its unity. There is only the one skin. In this way the Snow Leopard may be regarded as a manifestation of the totality of Nature with both black and white being one and the same aspect of its physical being. It is a creature responding to sensual input and acting continuously at every situation and circumstance in an instinctive and intuitive manner. The Snow Leopard could not operate effectively in life if it resorted to emotive violation or psychological reasoning and internal debate to assess its best course of action. Animals do not behave in a similar fashion to human beings who yield so helplessly to human weaknesses that are so easily distracted by the fool’s gold of sateless emotion, the allure of charm, or indeed by intelligent reasoning. Creatures such as the Snow Leopard exist ‘at one within themselves and nature’ and not in conflict or opposition to it. Snow Leopards act solely on cognition and precognition, intuitively deriving a sense of knowing, perceiving and conceiving the world around them, which suggests at a faculty of awareness altogether separate from reductive left-hemisphere dominated direction.
The Snow Leopard is a predator living in the pristine snow-filled mountains, and this in itself expresses something mysteriously unique. Within its unified whole exists a creature of intense beauty and magnificent grace but also a beast of startling ferocity and animalistic power, and both attributes packaged in the one being living free to roam within an outwardly passive landscape of whiteness and undisturbed purity. Superficially at least, the contrast between these expressions of ‘one nature’ is quite thought provoking in as much as it describes a set of circumstances also prevalent within the inner world of man. A man can either ascend to achieve great things by engaging with the superior intellect and strive to reach beyond his grasp, or he can descend and touch the realms of darkness within which vast reserves of power are also available to him, but it is a limited power that comes at a great cost: anger, pain, suffering, hatred and death are the inevitable result of living perpetually without an expansive horizon. The darker realms of man’s nature are not bottomless; it is finite to the point where molecular breakdown through entropy and decay are finally absorped by the universe and matter dissipated elsewhere to seed new life. Eternity does not exist as an existential idea within the dark realms of human consciousness: such a notion would be folly, a romantic ideal built on sand and as ephemeral and fleeting as our transient lives. Living in the realm of expansive thought by way of determination, focus and controlled emotion, and with sensuality, empathy, compassion and good grace, a man may engage in life with true purpose and honest intent and is therefore limited only by what he chooses to achieve. There are no finite states to his being when there is motivation to reach towards infinity and take from all manner of possibility and all potential as yet unrealised and mould it by his will. Matter brought forth by a cessation, decomposition, assimilation and dispersion of molecular life is held in an unbounded state of being until it has been made manifest in reality: it is matter in its innocence, a seed of light momentarily suspended at the start of becoming something other, it is infinity’s potential waiting for thought to transform it to become temporally perceived as finite. The totality of our cognitive reality exists in the present moment with new matter flowing from the future upon death occurring in the past, and as such life is therefore a product of instinctual living as opposed to predetermination or prolonged engagement with the past. Instinctual living does not rely on fate or destiny, but manages its affairs by dealing with the immediacy of the moment. It is deeply fascinating, and I think profound to consider that everything man has brought forth within his world is the product of thought and the application of thought to achieve its realisation. If man is the apex life form of a monumental creative singularity many millions of years ago and has achieved sentient consciousness, then by extension (God is thought, or Good thought is God) whatever word one uses as being wholly representative of our concept of infinity must be at the purest and most fundamental level transcendent thought.
There is another dimension to the Snow Leopard’s opulent fur coat that holds fascination with me. When the animal is studied up close the open black rosettes within its thick pile are conspicuous and easily distinguishable from the Snow Leopard’s white and almost translucent misty grey colouring. They have the deliberate intention of disrupting the uniformity of its form and therefore allow the Snow Leopard to seamlessly blend with its environment in snowy areas where the dark rock and vegetation push up through its surface. These black rosettes are however not in themselves an entire whole but a summation of their parts: the rosette is made up of many hairs, with each hair individually patterned both black and white. It is only when these hairs are drawn together is the illusion of a single rosette made manifest. In considering this phenomenon from an esoteric point of view it eloquently describes a state of balance: the illusion of the black rosette exists as a manifestation of both male and female characteristics. The white area represents (yang) elements, the dark area (yin) elements and express the concept of opposites existing in harmony within a unified whole, or as it is sometimes expressed in Taoist literature, The Supreme Polarity that is Non-Polar: ‘Non-polar and yet Supreme Polarity’. The Supreme Polarity in activity generates yang; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness it generates yin; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing yin and yang, the Two Modes are thereby established. The alternation and combination of yang and yin generate water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. With these five phases of life force harmoniously arranged, the Four Seasons proceed through them. The Five Phases are simply yin and yang; yin and yang are simply the Supreme Polarity; the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally Non-polar. Yet in the generation of the Five Phases, each one has its individual nature.
The magnificent Snow Leopard is an extravagantly fanciful creature for which Nature has provided a singularly unique and highly evolved design intended for a specific purpose and function. Amongst the Panthera species, the Snow Leopard is classified as ‘new’ or ‘unique’. Like all organic life, the Snow Leopard is born from both light and love: the Sun’s light as a prerequisite for Nature to bring forth life. One does not exist entirely without the other. When seen from a distance under certain light conditions, the Snow Leopard’s fur takes on a remarkably different appearance to the expected misty grey and black rosettes: it glistens with a delicate lustre of deepening gold. The furs translucent nature, a little like delicately frosted glass, absorbs and returns back much of the sunlight reflecting from its immediate environment as would a mirror imitate the terrain. Such an inspired natural mechanism is superbly effective in providing camouflage in either the rocky outcrops and pebble-strewn scree of the lower slopes or in the undisturbed snowfields of its more natural high-altitude habitat. So sophisticated is this device that when seen at even a short distance from the observer the cat becomes almost fluid in its movement amidst the shifting powder of snow and ice, a shimmering mirage, a crystalline breath left dispelling in the air. In essence, as in reality, the Snow Leopard is a White Phantom, and an inspiring demonstration of nature’s exquisite thrust towards esoteric synergy.
So elusive and so ambiguous is Panthera unica that its very existence remained generally unknown to the wider world (naturalist community) until the mid 1800’s. Up until that time the Snow Leopard was little more than a mythological beast and a supernatural entity which found inclusion very readily within the folklore and superstitions of the nomadic cattle-rearing communities existing within its vast mountain territory. Rarely if at all is it seen in the wild, living as it does in the high mountain ranges where, with the exception of wolf-packs, it is supreme and seldom has need to descend to the lower slopes where the surroundings are more erratic and the natural terrain more heavily disfigured by deforestation, commercial farming, lakes, rivers and townships: the unsanitary and grubby world of man. More infrequently still does the Snow Leopard choose to physically engage in the immediate world of man other than to perhaps take prey from well-stocked farms, and only then when adverse weather conditions and poor sustenance on the higher ground prevail: or indeed when man encroaches to close to its territorial space and finds its presence intolerable. Its physical form is exceptionally well adapted to live in the cold and inaccessible areas that exist at high-altitudes. Amongst all Panthera species, the Snow Leopard is singularly unique in this way: adapting, adopting, advancing and improving its evolved state until it has become absolute. Its tail is huge, fat rich and thickly furred and specifically designed to assist with balance when manoeuvring over ice and snow and across rocky terrain. The tail is also used to wrap around its body as an aid to keeping warm, whilst huge paws and splayed toes are webbed with fur so as to act like snow shoes, distributing it’s weight across the surface of ice and shifting snow with a transmission of power in to fluid motion unequalled on this terrain. Powerful forelegs, and long rear legs give the Snow Leopard the ability to manoeuvre through areas of deeper and thicker snow, whilst large lungs and a large snout aid its breathing in the very thin air of the high altitudes it calls home. I have seen a short piece of video footage showing Panthera unica walking in snow down a slight incline. It is like a whisper, an ephemeral breath in space momentarily crystallised in the cold air before vanishing without a trace of it being there. In the video, the Snow Leopard lifts its paw with delicate precision and places it on the ground by rolling it gently from the side before laying it flat and transferring its weight upon it. This it does to ensure that any twigs or leaves beneath its paw do not go unnoticed and are broken when stepping down: stealth and grace are the fundamental reasons for its phantom-like elusiveness and success as a solitary hunter. At a certain point in the video a small stone is dislodged from the ground beneath its paw and sent rolling gently down the slope. Without breaking stride, or changing either its body form or forward-looking gaze, that same paw swiftly stops the role of the stone and continues with the forward step. It is not simply the mechanics of balance and motion behind such a manoeuvre that are a fascination but more the instinctive manner by which the Snow Leopard achieves such a feat. It is just one more mystery to add to the enigma that is Panthera unica. What a truly beautiful creature it is.
From what little is known of the Snow Leopard’s natural behaviour in the wild it would appear that they have no clearly defined boundaries to the territories within which they operate. The cats have been seen to scat and scent areas around them but the true purpose of this activity is questioned and debated amongst the scientific community. One theory suggests that the practice of defining loose boundaries as opposed to rigid perimeters is to indicate more readily where they might have once been. When one considers the obliterating nature of prolonged and heavy snowfall, this argument carries a degree of credibility. If division between territories exist at all, then perhaps it is as a result of the natural physical features, resources and localised climatic conditions of the region that dictate and contain the Snow Leopard’s domain. As a consequence, it is rare for male Snow Leopards to engage in physical confrontation with other cats that unwittingly enter or seek by way of necessity to share space within a select area of the ranging wilderness. It is also fascinating to learn from certain authors that even following a kill should the Snow Leopard be sufficiently distracted it will abandon its prey and simply melt away. Perhaps Snow Leopards are not so easily provoked by pride and have nothing to prove in seeing which cat can scent mark the highest, they are after all not dogs. It may also be that diminishing numbers in their genus and declining habitats have returned a sense of brotherhood, lenience and understanding to their deeper animalistic ways and in so doing provided a degree of assurance in the longevity of the species. The sole exception to this generally affable characteristic is found in the paternal and maternal instinct to protect and preserve life, especially the life of young cubs: mother Snow Leopards are a formidable adversary to either man or beast. Interestingly, Snow Leopard cubs are chased from their den by the mother within two years of their birth, and disperse widely into the wilderness to find their own way in life, establish their own loosely defined territories and perpetuate the species. Whilst this is not unique amongst big-cats, it does appear to be something of a harsh approach to parenthood when one considers the climatic hostility of its high-altitude domain.
The Snow Leopard is a solitary and highly independent creature that has evolved in a symbiotic relationship within its inhospitable environment to occupy the zenith of all Panthera species. One gets the feeling that Panthera unica is generally unconcerned with all superfluous matters that lay outside of its world to the point of complete nonchalance and forceful dispassion. Quietly self-assured, principally self-reliant, supremely self-sufficient and absolute in every way, the Snow Leopard walks its own path amongst the high-altitude peaks as a pure spirit without feelings of disquiet, discontent or general concern for any other creatures who share its high-altitude world. The collected mythology of its substantial being is unmistakably focused on its elusiveness, it’s isolation and solitude, and it’s ability to walk as an apparition unseen and unheard and yet all seeing and all hearing within its world and therefore a witness to everything in the individual world of its cohabitants. Panthera unica’s enigmatic stare is evocative and deeply insightful, it sees all, seemingly having the ability to look ‘through’ and ‘beyond’ everything it surveys, but is itself never seen, so perfectly does it blend in perfect unity with nature. To gaze directly in to the glassine eyes of a Snow Leopard is to be stripped naked, psychologically unfolded and truly undone to the very core of one’s being. Enigmatic, penetrating, piercing, and incisive, a Snow Leopard’s eyes probe, sense, unwrap and disrobe every thought, every fantasy, and every desire found lingering in the spaces of the mind. What one sees in its eyes are the unveiled reflections of all aspects of the human condition: every delusion, doubt and fear are clearly revealed, every suppressed memory, every wish, want and need readily dissolved until nothing more remains to be seen in the mirror but for the waxen-like echo of one’s soul mirrored on the surface of a Moon-struck pond.
Within the playful dance of Tibetan Buddhism, the mythological Snow Leopard is described as a Phantom, a White Shadow, and a Mountain Ghost, which lives and moves with self-possessed freedom within the isolated tranquillity of a frozen wilderness high in the peaks of ice and snow of an undisturbed world as yet largely untouched by the Machiavellian perfidy of man. In inhabiting such a high-turning realm, Buddhist thought identifies the Snow Leopard, as a symbol of transcendence describing a perfect state of being where one is able to access and occupy the faculties of higher cerebral functioning and sustain a connection with Divine Consciousness. The Snow Leopard’s kingdom is primarily established high above the tree line amongst the crested peaks of towering sun-kissed mountains where the delusory qualities of fear and doubt that plague the world of man cannot reach to cloud and dilute its vision, but where the authority of Nature’s finitude finds it’s highest form of expression. The symbolism transfers readily to the ability to see into the depths of Nature and hence into the darkness and light of all of nature’s majestic creatures. The Snow Leopard is at the apex of the Buddhist doctrine for one very special reason: it has mastered its evolutionary purpose and found the power to subdue all beings with its great Love, Compassion and Wisdom.
I read a very emotionally powerful and undemanding piece of self-reflective writing by an individual predisposed to bi-polar disorder. By using the characteristics and beguiling charm of the Snow Leopard as well-appointed metaphors, the author set about establishing the many associations he had with this wonderful creature and his own transient condition. He considered his unique psychological circumstance as a blessing: a gift that enables him to rise towards enlightened infinity and touch pure consciousness balanced with the fortitude and courage to descend deeply within the cavernous dark recesses of his mind in search of his own seeds of light. He believed that rather than be intimidated by this ability to see deeper and further into the dualistic nature of his own being he would try to understand that there were incredible benefits to be found in traversing between such opposing extremes. The author considered that the presence of the Dark Destroyer with whom he met in the gloomy labyrinth of his blackened Soul and which brought forth his depression and psychological dislocation was there to repeatedly destroy a temporary manifestation of Ego and Self and in the process permit the Warrior of Light to come forth and ascend towards elation, ecstasy, rapture, and bliss. A detailed investigation of his text established further thought on the mechanics of Nature’s continuum; that through death comes the birth of new life, and through entropy in life comes the presence of death. It is this fundamental and self-perpetuating continuum in and of all things that exists at the heart of Cosmic Nature and remains the mystical experience at the very centre of Buddhist Wisdom.
Bi-polar disorder, and indeed many of its variants and associated conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder, may therefore represent an opportunity for the imaginative mind to access an incredibly rich resource for creative enterprise and artistic endeavour whereby destruction and construction of the Self stimulates renewal in the perception of reality and the subsequent expression and delivery of an Art form. Capitalising upon a highly creative imagination requires a degree of controlled psychological dislocation from reality if it is to be best utilised. For example, an Artist such as a landscape painter can never truly portray realism as it exists with a high degree of certainty or accuracy, but this painter can however offer an expression of it by generating an image which is clearly supplanted by an emotional stimulus rather than being entirely objective in it portrayal. More importantly I think, it is the method by which an Artist goes about the process of supplication and reinvention that is critical to the delivery of a final piece of work: there must be honesty and there must be truth. Bi-polar disorder is therefore a ready-made mechanism through which perception is dislocated and the mind sufficiently repressed so as to allow the imagination to take over. And an altered state of consciousness offers a multitude of potentials and possibilities to come forward: reality has not bent to meet the mind, rather the quality of mind has bent to determine reality. As Mark Twain once noted…’you cannot believe in your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.’
It is a fascinating piece of contemplative writing and of sufficient strength to draw together many of the incredible characteristics innate within the Snow Leopard. The author went further in establishing allusion to the Snow Leopard as a descriptive expression of the creative impulse and included in their commentary: the solitary nature of bi-polar disorder, the self-reliance, resilience, courage and fortitude it necessitates in order to deal with such extremes of the mind, the single-mindedness of pursuing one’s longer term goals, the passivity exhibited in avoidance of trouble, the secretive and seductive nature of their being, the ability to remain independent and patient whilst still remaining opportunistic and fiercely truthful in the face of extreme adversity, the modesty, intolerance and impartiality required to surrender to both blissful pleasure and vengeful pain, the ability to sustain periods of acute awareness and the self-control required to exercise craftsmanship and expressive fecundity through stealth, personal control and high-functioning logical reasoning, the ability to best utilise an incisive mind whilst being supremely aware and open to everything they see and feel in the world whilst also remaining thick-skinned to the general view of others yet constantly sensitive to their needs, and lastly their dispassionate and apathetic natures: creative individuals don’t know anything other than how to encounter an experience of living in the immediacy of the moment. One may even go so far as to suggest that they are pure Spirits inhabiting a material vessel who witness life with shock and awe and with amazement and wonder as if seeing every event as a new experience. After all, a person can never place a foot in to the same river twice.
Perhaps Panthera unica may not be as provocative as Panthera Leo (the Lion) as a symbol of the mind’s forthright power and creative ferocity, but above the tree line, nestled in the realm of higher consciousness the Snow Leopard has no earthbound equal on our Planet.
The elusive White Phantom that is Panthera unica: what a most fitting symbol for the Creative Imagination and of Transcendence beyond the solidity of earthly thought.
– With thanks to my singularly unique friend PSJ, Druid of Maesteg, Welsh Bard, Enchanter of slippery Dolphins, and a true Lion amongst men –
(1) Quoted almost complete from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, Vintage UK, Random House, London SW1V 2SA, 2010
(2) Black and white photograph of a Snow Leopard. Author unknown. Widely published on-line.
DN – 12/02/2014