Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an ode to self-determination through transcendence of the body and discovery of the limitless nature of the mind and the spirit. Jonathan longs to be in control of his own life and govern himself independently of his hegemonic, small-minded Flock. His experiments in airborne acrobatics begin as a way to distinguish himself from the rest of the group and explore the possibilities of his small life. However, as Jonathan becomes a more serious flier and eventually ascends to a new plane of existence where mystical, gleaming gulls practice flight in peace all day long, he realizes that flight is a means of integrating his mind, body, and spirit as one singular entity. Through Jonathan’s journey toward self-discovery and self-determination, Bach uses Jonathan Livingston Seagull to make the controversial argument that the self—the product of mind, body, and spirit in perfect harmony—is a limitless entity that reaches its fullest potential when they are united in harmony with one another. Though the specifics of how to achieve this integration are left vague and intentionally circular (Jonathan achieves transcendence of his physical limitations in the instant that he tells himself he is unlimited and truly believes it), Bach uses Jonathan’s journey toward perfection as a means of illustrating the importance of striving to align one’s mind, body, and spirit in synchronicity.
At the start of the novel, it seems as if Jonathan’s journey will be one simply of learning increasingly complicated aerodynamic tricks. As Jonathan becomes a more accomplished flier, though, he is recruited by a group of gulls on a higher plane of existence who see flight not simply as an athletic or physical pursuit, but a spiritual one as well. Under the tutelage of Chiang, the Elder Gull of the higher plane, Jonathan comes to understand that the fastest kind of flight—transportation from one place, or one time, to another in the blink of an eye—can only be accomplished by understanding that one’s body, mind, and spirit are all connected. That “perfect speed,” Chiang the Elder says, “is being there”—when “there” is understood as the borderline holy place where all aspects of the self are united. With Chiang’s help, Jonathan begins to understand that he is not “trapped inside a limited body” but instead exists “everywhere at once across space and time.” He then accomplishes feats of flying he’d never dreamed of. Forget mere loop-de-loops, nosedives, or barrel roles—Jonathan, with the newfound knowledge that his body, mind, and spirit are one unified entity, is able to travel between planets, planes, and spiritual realms with ease. Jonathan’s spiritual transformation, and resulting godlike powers, have been seen by Bach’s readers as an allegory for the powers of self-help, positive thinking, and even attempts at spiritual and philosophical transcendence through meditation. The book’s controversial spiritual bent, and its associations with late 1960s and early 1970s “hippie” counterculture, has been seen as facile by many of Bach’s critics, but nonetheless speaks to a very real belief many spiritual people hold—that the body, mind, and spirit are all united, and only through realizing this can one’s larger goals of happiness, unity, and peace be achieved.
As a novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is many things—self-help guidebook, religious parable, and tome advocating for the pursuit of spiritual unity. Bach, who himself had had near-death experiences in his youth and longed to spread a message of peace, gratitude, and the search for higher meaning, created a character whose spiritual self-actualization might serve as an inspiration to others, and as an emblem of the glory that self-determination through unification of the mind, the spirit, and the body might bring.
Self-Determination Through Mind, Body, and Spirit ThemeTracker
Self-Determination Through Mind, Body, and Spirit Quotes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull
He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his forewings, extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged directly toward the sea. By the time he passed four thousand feet he had reached terminal velocity, the wind was a solid beating wall of sound against which he could move no faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per hour. He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he'd be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.
Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but he flew way out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see. He learned more each day. He learned that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find the rare and tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean: he no longer needed fishing boats and stale bread for survival. He learned to sleep in the air, setting a course at night across the offshore wind, covering a hundred miles from sunset to sunrise. With the same inner control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into dazzling clear skies […] in the very times when every other gull stood on the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain. He learned to ride the high winds far inland, to dine there on delicate insects. What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.
“Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. The same rule holds for us now, of course: we choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome."
"I want to learn to fly like that," Jonathan said, and a strange light glowed in his eyes. "Tell me what to do."
Chiang spoke slowly and watched the younger gull ever so carefully. "To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is," he said, "you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived." The trick, according to Chiang, was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body that had a forty-two-inch wingspan and performance that could be plotted on a chart. The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.
Jonathan kept at it, fiercely, day after day, from before sunrise till past midnight. And for all his effort he moved not a feather-width from his spot.
"Forget about faith!" Chiang said it time and again. "You didn't need faith to fly, you needed to understand flying. This is just the same. Now try again. […]"
Then one day Jonathan, standing on the shore, closing his eyes, concentrating, all in a flash knew what Chiang had been telling him. "Why, that's true! I am a perfect, unlimited gull!" He felt a great shock of joy.
"Good!" said Chiang, and there was victory in his voice. Jonathan opened his eyes. He stood alone with the Elder on a totally different seashore—trees down to the water's edge, twin yellow suns turning overhead.
Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn't help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!
“Sully, I must go back," [Jonathan] said at last. "Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along."
Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. "l think I'll miss you, Jonathan," was all he said.
"Sully, for shame!" Jonathan said in reproach, "and don't be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? lf our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we've destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think that we might see each other once or twice?"
"To begin with," he said heavily, "you've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself."
The young gulls looked at him quizzically. Hey, man, they thought, this doesn't sound like a rule for a loop.
Fletcher sighed and started over. "Hm. Ah […] very well," he said, and eyed them critically. "Let's begin with Level Flight." And saying that, he understood all at once that his friend had quite honestly been no more divine than Fletcher himself.
When Fletcher didn't show up on the beach in the next week, when he vanished without leaving a note, the Flock was in brief consternation. But then they gathered together, and thought, and decided what must have happened. It was announced that Gull Fletcher had been seen, surrounded by the other Seven First Students, standing on what would henceforth be known as the Rock of Oneness, and then the clouds had parted and the Great Gull Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself, clad in royal plumes and golden shells, with a crown of precious pebbles upon his brow, pointing symbolically to sky and sea and wind and earth, had called him up to the Beach of Oneness and
Fletcher had magically risen, surrounded by holy rays, and the clouds had closed again over the scene to a great chorus of gull-voices singing.
And so the pile of pebbles on the Rock of Oneness, in sacred memory of Gull Fletcher, was the biggest pile of pebbles on any coastline anywhere on earth. Other piles were built everywhere in replica, and each Tuesday afternoon the Flock walked over to stand around the pebbles and hear the miracles of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his Gifted Divine Students.
ln time, the rites and ceremonies that were planted around the name of Jonathan Seagull became obsessive. Any thinking gull altered course in the air so as not to even fly in sight of the cairns, built as they were on the ceremony and superstition of those who preferred excuses for failure instead of hard work and greatness. The thinking gulls, paradoxically, closed their minds at the sound of certain words: "Flight," "Cairn," "Great Gull," "Jonathan." On all other matters they were the most lucid, honest birds since Jonathan himself, but at the mention of his name, or any of the other terms so badly mauled by the Official Local Students, their minds snapped shut with the sound of trap doors closing.
Because they were curious, they began experimenting with flight, though they never used that word. "It's not flight," they'd assure themselves over and again, "It's just a way of finding what's true." So, in rejecting the "students" they became students themselves. ln rejecting the name of Jonathan Seagull, they practiced the message he had brought to the Flock.
“Now look," [Anthony] had told his official Local Student, "the birds who come to hear you every Tuesday come for three reasons, don't they? Because they think they're learning something; because they think that putting another pebble on the Cairn is going to make them holy; or because everybody else expects them to be there. Right?"
“And you have nothing to learn, my nestling?"
"No. There's something to learn, but I don't know what it is. A million pebbles can't make me holy if I don't deserve it, and I don't care what the other gulls think about me."
"And what is your answer, nestling?" ever so slightly shaken by this heresy. "How do you call the miracle of life? The Great-Gull-Jonathan-Holy-Be-His-Name said that flight […]."
"Life isn't a miracle, Official, it's a bore. Your Great Gull Jonathan is a myth somebody made up a long time ago, a fairy tale that the weak believe because they can't stand to face the world as it is. Imagine! A seagull who could fly two hundred miles per hour! I’ve tried it, and the fastest I can go is fifty, diving, and even then I'm mostly out of control. There are laws of flight that cannot be broken, and if you don't think so, you go out there and try it! Do you honestly believe—truly, now—that your great Jonathan Seagull flew two hundred miles per hour?"