By Cecile Buckenmeyer, Jun 7 2018 04:46PM
Recently, I found myself discussing with a client the idea of experiencing life “like a sardine”. We had both seen shoals of sardines on the BBC’s Blue Planet II programmes and this felt like a good image to speak about “feeling part of” and “being carried by” a flow, an entity much bigger than ourselves.
Since this conversation, I have felt drawn to this image. I keep going back to it a bit like a sardine might briefly wander off and then return to the shoal again. This article is not about zoology or fishery, it is an exploration of the meaning that a shoal of sardines may evoke in the human Psyche.
When I spoke to my client about sardines (and it could have been about starlings), I was in fact thinking about the Tao – the flow of the universe and the idea of becoming one with the Tao. Having made this connection between sardines and the Tao, I am now curious to find out whether I can in fact learn something from the sardines about the Tao and other things.
First teaching: a sensory experience
The first teaching of the sardines is the gift of a vivid, sensory experience: if it was a sensation, how ‘becoming one with the Tao’ might feel like? Watching Blue Planet, one can briefly feel like a sardine, both animating and being animated by the shoal. Meditation is known to facilitate an experience of the Tao, of being in touch and in harmony with the world around us, but the sardines make me think of other human activities such as being in a choir or an orchestra. When a large group of people sing as one voice, they become a living, human shoal; they are not a collection of voices. The singers may feel – even if it is fleetingly – that they participate in something that is bigger than themselves. As listeners, we may also experience that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. What is precious about this moment of awareness is the contrast and tension about being only one person and actively contributing to the life of a group; of animating and being animated by the group.
Second teaching: tin or shoal?
Erich Neumann (1954, p.421-2) makes a clear distinction between group associations and mass associations where group is a living, creative “shoal” and mass is a meaningless collection of individuals. A shoal of sardines is animated by a meaningful instinct. A tin of sardines in contrast, is perhaps a good example of mass, of a situation which is fixed, constrained and somehow dead. People working at “hot desks” within large organisations – who may not know the people who sit next to them and may not have met the people they work with – may feel that they are more a mass than a group, like a tin of sardines. The potentially exhilarating and even ecstatic feeling of being in a shoal, of animating and being animated is absent.
As human being, we are designed to seek and create meaning. So when meaning is not naturally found through belonging to a group, we aim to create it ourselves. People may for example look for meaning through achieving some kind of outstanding performance. Noticeably, they look for meaning for themselves, which may be different from the meaning and purpose of their organisation. As long as I worked within organisations, I often found myself launching new projects, suggesting new strategies. This was exhilarating and of course pleasing to my ego, but it also created some tension or competition with colleagues. I often felt that I was not in a shoal, but on the edge of a shoal, somehow aiming to stir it in one direction or another. Other people may give up on the idea of creating meaning for themselves through their profession: they only experience ‘mass associations’ with colleagues, so they look for meaning elsewhere, outside of work.
The second teaching of the sardines is that the only way to find meaning is to experience it with others, as a group. We may have personal successes that give us some satisfaction, but not in a sustainable way. Meaning gained through personal successes requires that we keep on being successful and that we keep on achieving bigger things. This puts us under an enormous amount of pressure. This may be possible for a while, but eventually it become unsustainable, because we all age, we all go through difficult times and we all eventually die. The meaning gained through the shoal is the only sustainable one, because it goes on even when we are unwell, even after we die.
The third teaching: humility
What I particularly love about the sardine is that it is a small fish (in a big pond) and that it is one of many. The sardines exist as individual fish but they are defined by their shoals. Nowadays, we spend a lot of energy defining ourselves. This was bad enough when we had to re-write our CV once in a while, but now we constantly upload our profiles, status, pictures and updates on social media. Could we try to look at ourselves as if we were a shoal?
A Jungian colleague once told me how she felt the first time she attended a Jungian conference. She thought that she had over the years developed her own unique style but when she looked at other participants, she was shocked to notice that people didn’t only think like her, they looked like her! How unique are we really? Even people who seem to distinguish themselves, are distinguished for a short period of time: after a few years, many people don’t even remember the name of their former prime ministers or the name of some celebrity who seemed significant at the time.
What our ego experiences as significant is often barely relevant in the long-run. What matter are the movements we support, the ideas we develop (they are never completely ours), the children and family spirit we nurture. The third teaching of the sardines is a lesson of humility and an invitation to put less energy in trying to be unique and more in being “a part of”. Groups, families, communities are living, human shoals that survive the passing of time; and they are what civilisation is built upon.
Fourth teaching: individuation
Carl Jung developed the concept of individuation which can shed some light on the relationship between the individual and the group. Jung was aware that individuation could potentially be misunderstood as a form of individualism, so he clarified:
“As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation.” (Collected Works Vol. 6, para.758)
Individuation is not only the process of getting in touch with our true self – the Self, it is a process of finding our place in the world, in other words, a process of joining a shoal. And the process of individuation doesn’t stop when we join a shoal, it only starts a new phase. As a member of a group, we continuously re-negotiate our relationship with the group as a whole and with individual group members. We are sometimes more active, sometime less active, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible: sardines don’t have a fixed place in a shoal.
The fourth teaching of the sardines is that our relationship to a group needs to move and change constantly for it to sustain the life of the group. This echoes Jung’s idea that individuation is neither an adaptation to nor a complete rejection of collective norms (Collected Works Vol. 6, para.758): sometimes we are at the core of a shoal, precisely following its movement; sometimes, we are at the edge of it, creating the possibility of a new direction.
Fifth teaching: culture as shoal
The fifth and at this point the last, teaching of the sardines is the mystery of what makes a shoal a shoal. When we look at a shoal, we can’t help being amazed and enchanted by its movement. This looks magical, but the magic is more in the instinct than in the movement itself: the movement of the shoal is the tangible, visible expression of a sophisticated instinct. What holds a shoal together is invisible; what makes group association different from mass association may also be invisible. An eclectic group of friends may look like they are not connected and don’t have anything in common, but they may share an interest or a history that binds them together in a meaningful way.
The invisible nature of what actually holds a group together reminds me of the invisible nature of ‘culture’. I like to think of culture as a “living myth”, shaped by thoughts, feelings, images and memories that give structure and meaning to our experience. One can see some tangible expressions of this living myth (the movement of the shoal), but the myth itself is invisible; it cannot be fully, meaningfully written down. It continuously evolves. The people who animate it, and are animated by it, change all the time too.
The fifth teaching of the sardines is an invitation to look for the mystery that binds us together in a human shoal – groups, culture, communities. The bond that we experience with other people and with our physical and cultural environments is not visible in an obvious way; and what we see doesn’t necessarily reflect the depth and complexity of this bond. The best and perhaps the only way to appreciate cultural experiences is to be somehow caught in them, to swim with them.
Clarification and conclusion
Before I conclude, I ought to clarify what I am not saying: I am not saying that any group is good. As a matter of fact, the most meaningful thing that one ever does may be to leave a group. And I am not suggesting that it is easy to distinguish between group and mass associations. We may for a long time belong to an organisation thinking that it is a group and only later realise that it is not.
Some of us may at times feel cut off from the creative flow of life. We may doubt that there is a living shoal out there for us. We may feel that there are irreconcilable differences between our personal and the collective values. Still, we are always part of the shoal called “humanity” and “Planet Earth”. This is the overall shoal, the Tao, the flow of the universe that we cannot not participate in.
The sardines have reminded me of how we crave to animate and to be animated by groups; they reminded me that meaningful relationships are essential to our individuation process. But what I most appreciate learning from the humble sardines is how the Tao can be approached as a sensory experience, in our daily contacts with groups and in our cultural experiences. The sardines make these concepts more accessible; they give an image that focuses the mind and helps us look more deeply into the mystery. For that and for the sheer joy of swimming around with them, I am very grateful.
Jung C. G. The Collected Works, Vol. 6
Neumann, E. (1954) The origins and history of consciousness, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press