Many people have heard about the riddle of the Sphinx, a ferocious creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. The riddle reads:

“What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”

According to legend, the Sphinx was the guardian of the temple and anyone who could not answer it would be killed and devoured by the monstrous beast. No one was able to answer it, until finally the hero Oedipus gave the answer, “Man.” As the legend has it, the answer caused the death of the Sphinx.

After considering the riddle for a moment, it occurred to me that it could be told from an inner perspective, or the growth of consciousness, rather than an outer, physical point of view. Coming from the outer world, we can see that a human crawls on all fours as an infant (morning), two legs as an adult (noon), and uses a cane in old age (evening). Of course, this would not be universal because not all humans use a cane late in life. Still, we get the point.

Look at Both Sides of the Coin

In order to fully understand the depth of the meaning of myths, legends, riddles, and the like, we must consider both the inner and the outer world. Only then can we grasp the meaning of existence, and only there will we find that meaning comes with existence, and existence comes with meaning. They are two sides of the same coin, and everything we experience is a coin with two sides. The key is to see beyond one side or the other, and in turn, see the coin. What might the riddle look like with the inner growth of man rather than stages of the body?

First let’s consider what it means to be on all fours from a place of consciousness. This means being bound to earth, or the world of 10,000 things, as it is put in the Buddhist literature. It is coming from the place of the lower three chakras, with the first of survival, the second of connections with others or relationships, and the third about self identity and taking on the role of the adult, which is when we ascend from the material bounded child self who relies on others for his very existence and subsistence.

As we move into adulthood and walk on two legs (noon), we enter the time of life when the soul exerts its will on the newly defined self, prompting one to act in ways that make it expose itself. Then awareness grows, driving the expansion of consciousness. It involves the suppression of the spirit by societal conditioning to such a degree that the force moving outward cannot be missed. And it can only be denied for so long. Soon there will be no stopping this outward moving expansive energy, which gathers momentum as it crosses paths with other similar energy, and as we age we gain  experience, and hopefully, become wiser.

After coming to grips with this expansive energy, and getting a sense it is for our benefit, we come to the latter stage of the growth of consciousness, where we develop the “third eye”, (evening). According to ancient Hindu literature, the third eye (referred to as the “ajna chakra” in Sanskrit) is located between the eyebrows, is the sixth energy center (chakra) of the body, and provides us with divine wisdom. In addition, it is in a part of the brain that can be made more powerful through practice, much like a muscle. Indeed, current research has demonstrated that the frontal lobes, responsible for executive attention (ability to focus on something), show signs of increased electrical activity in proportion to hours spent meditating.

Accessing Divine Wisdom

When we develop the third eye of divine wisdom we become more adept at following the guidance of the universe. Now we are “walking with God,” which is to say, walking with two feet planted firmly on the ground and the third “leg,” which is the symbolic third eye, in heaven, which paradoxically means in the here and now. This is why Zen teaches us to come from the place of absolute presence, where the knower, the known, and the process of knowing become one. The present moment is the place of spontaneous action, acting in flow with the Tao, or the “way of things.”

When we act in the now it is said to be “right action.” It is said to be “right” because it comes beneath the level of the conditioned ego, which has been trained to act from the past. Obviously, this cannot be authentic. Moreover, it cannot be appropriate, at least not entirely, as the present moment is completely unique in its own right. This is why Zen teaches to act with spontaneity. It is the only place where we can find the place of right action, as every other place has been tainted, even if ever so lightly, by the lens of the ego.

Like much of the ancient teachings, the information above suggests that viewing the outer world of form as primary and the inner world of consciousness as secondary is to miss the point, for both are of equal importance. If anything, it is consciousness that is primary, because the world of form is but a mirror image of the perceptions from within. Moreover, to change what has already manifested into objective reality takes much time, as it only occurs in the three-dimensional space-time continuum. However, to change the way we look at things can occur in the blink of an eye.