Oscar Wilde’s 1888 children’s classic The Happy Prince tells the story of a statue, heavily ordained in jewels, that is frozen in a state of perpetual bliss. Revered for its decadence, beauty and angelic joyful face, the statue of The Happy Prince towered over the city as a symbol of the human ideal that many who festered below would never reach. The Prince, however, was not as happy as he outwardly appeared.
One day a swallow, who missed his migration to Egypt, decided to make the statue his home. As the swallow perched he felt drops fall across his feathers and upon realising that it wasn’t raining quickly began to investigate. As the swallow looked upon the prince’s face he saw his eyes were filled with tears. The swallow noticed how beautiful his face was in the moonlight and was consumed with pity.
As they spoke, the prince told the swallow of his life before he became a statue. Explaining that once he was a real prince who lived in the palace of Sans-Souci where sadness was not allowed to enter, the prince said that perched above the city he now cannot escape the poverty and ugliness of the world beneath him. The prince asked the swallow to stay with him and deliver the jewels that adorned his body to the people of the city. Initially, the swallow was selfish and refused, however, the prince pleaded with the little bird that he just performs one request before he leaves. One favour rolled into the next and the days turned into weeks and as the swallow continued to perform the selfless acts that the prince requested he noticed that he was overcome by a strange feeling of warmth that was unfamiliar to him in winter.
Over time the swallow removed the sapphires from the prince’s eyes, the rubies from his hilt and the gold leaf that covered his body and gave them to the poor of the city at the prince’s request. Winter crept in, yet the swallow vowed to stay with the prince because he loved him and without eyes, the prince was now blind. Despite his best efforts, the swallow could not survive the winter and as the swallow took his last breaths the prince’s heart, which was once human but now lead, cracked and broke into pieces. The townspeople, disgusted by the condition of the once beautiful prince, removed the statue to replace it with one of the major. The story ends with the prince's heart, unable to be burned, being thrown onto the rubbish heap, alongside the swallow. God requested that his angels bring him the two most precious things of the city and to him they delivered the heart of the prince and the swallow.
Wilde's enchanting tale of The Happy Prince is a profound reflection on the pursuit of happiness and the transformative power of selfless service. As we journey through the captivating story of the statue and the swallow, we discover themes that resonate with our own lives, touching upon the potential for awakening and the unity of all living beings.
This story has many wonderful undertones and lessons about human behaviour but the most remarkable is that of the swallow. This bird underwent a transformation from a self-serving creature to a soul fulfilled through its service to others. Ultimately, this story is one selfless sacrifice, which is considered to be one of the six common indicators of spiritual awakening. These were collated by psychologist Steve Taylor, who examined stories from countless traditions.
Spiritual awakening is largely misunderstood as something that is only experienced by spiritual devotees, however, it is equally common amongst people with no spiritual affiliation. Indeed, many turn to a more spiritually inclined life not in search of awakening, but because of it. Stephen Taylor explains in his book The Leap that spiritual awakening is viewed slightly differently depending on the tradition that is being observed.
The goal of a spiritual practise is to achieve an awakened state, although this isn’t always necessary. Taylor explains that while natural awakening is possible, it is rare. Many artists and writers have expressed an awakened perspective with no real interest or understanding in Eastern traditions. Walt Whitman, for example, is considered to be an enlightened person, however, his wakeful state seemed to develop naturally. One of the first major studies of consciousness was conducted in 1901 by Richard M. Bucke, a psychologist, considered Whitman to be more actualised that even the Buddha as his wakeful state was so integrated that he was able to live and engage with people. Usually, the awakening process develops as the result of some form of spiritual practise that enables the desolation of the ego.
Others, as we have discussed wake up through service. Gandhi, for example, wasn’t always the human rights freedom fighter that we know of today. Encouraged to embark on a career in law because at the time it was easy and guaranteed income, Gandhi spent the first part of his life struggling to find his purpose. Following a disappointing courtroom debut, Gandhi was offered a clerks position in South Africa where, by chance, he was the only one in the office to settle a dispute between family members. Gandhi realised that the purpose of the law was to find common ground between disputes and from this, his practise blossomed because of his intent to serve, rather than work. Likewise, Mother Teresa is regarded as one of the most actualised people in modern history. Viewing the poor of Calcutta as though they were Jesus, she embodied selfless service for the duration of her life.
Philosopher Ken Wilber explains that we can wake up temporarily. In these moments, known as ‘peak experiences’, our imagined boundaries fall away and we transcend the separateness that we have with the world around us. According to Abraham Maslow, peak experiences are essential for one to become self-actualised. Maslow describes these temporary awakened states as the dissolution of one’s own boundaries and the merging of one’s self with other people and the world around them. These experiences share certain characteristics such as a sense of unity, ecstasy, clarity, divinity and an awareness of other dimensions. It is not uncommon for these states to feel more real than everyday normal reality. When they arise in everyday life they generally occur either in times of intense stress, or contact with nature or mediation are all the main reasons for one of these temporary awakening experiences.
Permanent wakefulness, too, is actually a temporary state, as those who experience it are still able to participate within the world. In their new state, they don’t feel the same sense of separation that they once did, they feel a sense of oneness with all of humanity and that is not common in ordinary waking states.
Awakening is also not completely free from conflict as many who experience awakening are unprepared and often everyday life can prove difficult to relate to. When engaged in a consistent spiritual practise we learn to integrate awakening as part of a process. Developed over thousands of years, these practises enable us to achieve awakening in the smoothest possible way.
The goal of the wisdom traditions is roughly the same, and that is to move people away from a “me” centred consciousness and towards the dissolution of the Ego. Philosopher Aldus Huxley popularised the term Perennial Philosophy, which believes that all religious and wisdom traditions are underpinned by one metaphysical truth. Huxley claimed that the world and all of its creatures are expressions of the divine reality and felt that with appropriate training humans can come to know this reality and recognise their unity with this divine ground. Huxley believed that recognition of this divine ground was man’s highest purpose here on earth.
Central to Perennial Philosophy is the Great Chain of Being. Huxley believed that man’s true nature was that of consciousness itself. Consciousness is commonly referred to in the ancient texts as Tao, Brahman and God. Exploring the comparisons that exist within these traditions could allow us to explore the greatest truth of our reality. This truth has been confirmed by modern science, as we will discuss, and although the Buddhists, Brahmans and many others I’m sure, reached this conclusion experientially and the scientists reached it experimentally: the end result is the same.
Although these traditions acknowledge the same idea of consciousness, the idea of a wakeful state differs slightly from culture to culture. In Indian cultures, the Hindu tradition has grown from texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. These traditions view expressions of wakefulness as either transient or permanent. Whether transient or permanent, reality is seen as a manifestation of spirit and through a wakeful state one becomes one with the world. When one achieves this realisation one’s individual self or Atman, becomes one with Brahman, the universe.
Buddhism, which originated from Brahmanism, has differing ideas of awakening that depend on the incarnation of Buddhism you explore. Generally, it is considered to be a natural aspect of our normal waking state that needs to be uncovered. In Taoism awakening is known as ming. This state refers to a distinction-less state where we return to a state of childlike openness. The same is true for monotheistic traditions, although their development has been heavily influenced by societal development. Christian traditions view awakening as a union with God that, following an evolution through stages, one achieves and remains in.
Understanding the commonalities that underpin awakening invites us to explore the greatest truth of our reality—the recognition of consciousness as the fundamental essence of existence. As modern science converges with ancient wisdom, we find that the pursuit of awakening is a universal quest, guiding us toward a deeper understanding of ourselves, each other, and the interconnected tapestry of life.
In the spirit of The Happy Prince and the transformative journey of the swallow, let us embrace the pursuit of awakening, seeking unity, compassion, and selfless service. May we remember that our actions, no matter how small, have the power to touch hearts, transform lives, and create ripples of positive change in the world around us.
Let the wisdom of The Happy Prince inspire us to spread our wings and embark on a path of awakening, where selflessness and love become our guiding stars. In this collective journey of awakening, we unite with all beings, moving towards a more enlightened and compassionate world.
As we embark on this shared quest, may we find solace in the timeless words of the Happy Prince: "I am covered with fine gold, but you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy."
Let us be the swallows that embrace the gift of awakening and share the treasures of our hearts with those in need.