There's something in each of us that longs to live heroically, to engage life with a passion, to drink deeply from the cup of human experience. Yet, enveloped in the speed, cynicism, and secularity of the modern age, a heroic life can seem so far away.
Disillusioned by the sexual liaisons, substance abuse, and financial dealings of "superstars," political leaders and celebrities, the heroic life might seem a romantic notion, a crutch for those living in denial and fantasy.
It isn't. The ancient stories of gods and magical deeds are not superstitious of a simpler time; they are maps of transformation. They speak to us today, and we must learn to listen.
In his groundbreaking book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces , Joseph Campbell chronicled this journey of the hero. The universality of this theme, found in myth, story, and folklore, in cultures widely dispersed in space and time, was so striking that he referred to it as a "mono-myth." Its commonality was due, he asserted, to the fact it mirrors and gives expression to the deepest structures of our psyche and the potentials and dangers inherent therein. The story reflects who we are.
This archetypal story begins with the call to adventure. In myth, this is often some form of trouble: there is famine or drought in the realm; or civil war; the king or queen is dying; a monster or dragon threatens; the kingdom lies asleep, enchanted. These circumstances and the necessity of their resolution, impel the hero or heroine to step out of the ordinary, to undertake a journey to seek healing aid.
This journey can involve crossing the sea in search of the Golden Fleece; descending to the underworld to seek advice from the dead; facing slaying (or befriending) the monster; or entering the dark forest in search of the Grail or the healing Water of Life.
These calls to adventure and their requisite journeys, refer not to some ancient time, but to universal themes, including the individual and collective crisis we face today.
Crisis: The Call
Civil War: There is conflict in the realm. Daily, the deluge of negative news, the divisiveness of our political and social life, the disintegration of community and civility, divorce, racism, warfare and terrorism splashes in our face. Within the individual, civil war may rage as incessant self-criticism and judgment; one's "inner child" may be involved, abused, screaming in anger in pain; subpersonalities clash and jockey for power. The soul bleeds with self-inflicted wounds.
Famine, drought, failing crops: Our creativity and vibrancy, our zest for life has been lost. We experience "burn out" in life and work. Romance has gone out of relationships. We are personally depressed, collectively cynical. A voice whispers, "There must be more to life than this." Something within us is unfed, denied nurturance. It has shriveled and lies dormant. We await rebirth, renewal.
Dragons, monsters: Like the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, something threatens to devour the kingdom...Militarism? Greed? The monster requires a sacrifice of the young...War...deficit spending...drug addiction...pornography? Personally, the devouring dragon may manifest as a life based on fear. The pain of traumatic events we choose not to face and the dangerous feelings we have kept hidden, eat at us. Collectively and individually we avoid our dark side, deny our shadow. We slowly bleed to death rather than face the truth.
Enchantments, curses: The court, the princess lies in perpetual sleep. Are we asleep? Is life filled with a sense of purpose and meaning, or are we going through the motions? Can we, collectively, watch television seven hours a day and not become a shadow? Is becoming a "consumer" the road to joy or fulfillment? A curse turns the children into swans, the prince into frog...Is a mask hiding our true selves; are we playing roles, arching to someone else's tune? Are we using our potential fully? Have we found our gifts, developed them, and found ways of sharing them with family and community? If not, the kingdom lies enchanted, accursed, asleep.
These archetypal images -- cival war, drought, famine, enchantments, curses, dragons, pestilence -- call out for healing. They speak to our dis-ease, a sense of something missing, wrong, not working in our lives. Modern life breeds this condition -- alienation and anomie -- and it is this condition and its transformation that the ancient stories, with their attendant rights of passage, address.
The resolution takes place through the heroic journey. The adventure beckons, and we must respond, for when the call is unheeded, disaster follows. This hero is each one of us.
Adventure is calling to us. The hero is not someone else. It is not the perfect mommy or daddy the child in us wished for. It is dangerous, in politics, religion, or relationship, to seek it outside ourselves. The hero is a force, a potentiality in us that desires to be activated, that must become activated for us to become whole, to find a "path with heart." The ancient stories and rites of passage are maps, guides and helpers to constellate these forces within us and guide us on our way. They are healing medicine. Their prescription: a journey.
The hero must leave home, cross the dangerous sea, enter the underworld or dark forest. The story is not literal, denoting and requiring a frontier that no longer exists. As metaphor, "leaving home" requires saying goodbye to something. "To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from," says T.S. Elliot.
We must say goodbye to the life we have been living, leave the known for the unknown. We are challenged, on an individual level, to leave the safety of our personal routines, our "old tapes," our way of looking at the world, our "self." We must step out of the rational and ordered life, and our stories about ourselves. We are directed beyond the familiar, if uncomfortable, terrain of the ego. To find healing and answers we must venture into the zone of more primal forces, the world of hidden impulses, forgotten and denied passions, the unconscious. The journey is from the new brain, the neo-cortex, to the old; from logos to life; from the head to the belly and heart.
Culturally, the metaphor tells us that renewal requires something more than "the same old same old." Our problems won't be solved by better management, budgetary reform, or a war on drugs. To leave home is to leave the way we view the world, which can blind us to solutions or be the cause of the problems themselves. It is to "step out of the box," the box which contains our assumptions about ourselves and the world, and all the consequences that result. We need to journey to new territory.
The Realm of Primal Forces
Monsters, dangers, obstacles: The myths tell of monsters in the depths of the sea; of forests containing dense and tangled thickets. There are sirens to seduce us and lead us to our death; the passage to the underworld is guarded by a ravenous three-headed dog. Dangers abound: things to devour or crush us; spells, riddles, and labyrinths to confuse; false treasures and rumors to distract us.
Thus, we are told, the soul's dis-ease is not easily cured, our journey is difficult and dangerous. The Golden Fleece is not waiting for us, on sale, down at the local Seven-Eleven.
There is guidance here: On a simple level, this implies that eating blue-green algae, accepting Christ, or listening to the latest news channel from the Pleiades will not get us to our destination. One cannot fly over the dark and frightening sea; the road to life traverses the valley of death. The light of heaven is reached by entering a long dark tunnel. Spring flowers come after autumn's dying and the numbing cold winter.
This does not sit well with us. Modern prescription is linear. We look for "progress," and growth is a matter of more: more money, more happiness, more exercise, more leisure time, more sex, more knowledge, more time with the kids, an addition on the house. Spiritually, we want to reach a higher plane; we seek enlightenment (more light); we run from darkness, from death.
The new-age metaphor is transformation, a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. But a caterpillar does not become a butterfly by going on a Slim Fast diet, repeating affirmations, and sprouting wings. A caterpillar does not become a butterfly at all. It spins a cocoon around itself and disintegrates.
Monsters, dangers, tests, and ordeals tell us something else: our healing process requires that we face our demons, that we open, not cover our wounds. We must confront, know, accept, and befriend our rage, grief, unworthiness, bigotry, arrogance, numbness, cowardice, terror, losses, and judgments. We must enter the darkness, endure the long dark night of the soul, conduct what Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) calls a "searching and fearless moral inventory."
This healing process is shamanic, not addictive or linear. We must drink our poison and transmute it to nectar, turn water into wine. We recapitulate our lives, claiming what we've lost and giving back what's not ours. Myth and the heroic journey guide us as we move from the personal to the universal. Engaging our personal demons moves us into a universal story, and in this process our personal wounds become sacred.
The Sacred Wound:
Wounding, from the ego's point of view is a violation. The solution is a stronger defense, better boundaries. But from a different perspective, wounding is an opening where the vulnerable self contacts the world. No longer covering and protecting these "sacred sites," in entering the wound itself we create healing and sacred medicine.
Entering the unknown realm of primal experience, with open eyes and an open heart changes us. Our lives become heroic rather than tragic. We see where we have come from and the paths open to us. We claim our present, our path, and our journey.
How one enters the darkness and fully experiences that deep core -- whether through vision quest, therapy, holotropic breathwork, or something else; galvanized by inner pressure or external circumstance -- is a matter of fate, technique, and preference. The wound itself is the opening, and entering it consciously, we reclaim lost parts of ourselves, and, in doing so may find, indeed, that it has given us gifts.
No longer are our wounds tragedies, of which we are a victim. No longer are they injustices in the perfectly comfortable life we think we should live. In giving up our passivity and victimization, owning our journey and actual life experiences, obstacles are transformed into allies. In venturing into even the darkest parts of our lives with acceptance and open heart, the archetype of the hero is constellated in us.
Allies and Guides:
We do not have to take this journey alone, although we must be willing and ready to do so. In the archetypal stories, there is help available, magical aids for those who are worthy, of good heart. Ariadne provides Theseus with a ball of string to make his way through the labyrinth; Athena gives Perseus sword and shield to conquer the Gorgon, Medusa; Dorthy finds companions in the help of the good witch.
Help is always available, but it is not obvious at the beginning. Magical aids and helpers appear, but only after the journey has begun. For those who would begin, the dangers are obvious. The way looks dark, the healing journey frightening.
This is not a Club Med vacation, and it is not surprising so few take it. Experiencing the grief and terror of an alcoholic childhood; exploring the landscape of physical or sexual abuse; plumbing the depths of one's loneliness; entering the darkness of repressed desires or self-hatred -- these are difficult journeys all.
When the die is cast, the commitment made, allies, helpers, guides, fellow travelers and magical aids do appear. When one follows the call, Campell says, doors open where none appeared before. The alcoholic facing her disease finds the fellowship of AA and the guidance of the Twelve Steps. A chance conversation at a coffee shop and a woman reveals her life story; a friend or stranger guides you to a support group, workshop or therapist. An advertisement for a retreat jumps out at you; a book seems to leap off the shelf; we meet other travelers who share their insight, courage and hope. Sometimes a visible or invisible force seems to guide us and show us we are not alone.
The hero journeys to seek the healing aid, to seek that which will cure the troubled kingdom. The goal of the journey may be represented in many ways: Jason seeks the Golden Fleece; Parsifal the Grail, Odysseus a way home. Perseus journeys to slay the hideous Medusa, Theseus the Minotaur, Sir George the Dragon. Aeneas seeks the guidance in the underworld, Christ in the desert, Budda under the Bodhi tree.
The symbol of the healing power of gift may signify the removal of something destructive, confusing, terrifying, or the gaining of abilities, gifts, insights, or powers. Often there are gifts and powers that result from the requirements of the journey, treasures unsought and unexpected. Theseus slays the Minotaur, but returns with Adriadne. Dorthy and her companions destroy the wicked witch and find courage, brains and heart in the process. Gifts and powers may be bestowed, earned, or developed, but there is one constant: they consistently appear to those who are worthy. The gods favor those of good heart.
For those brave souls that set out there are great rewards. Often this journey reveals one's gifts, one's passions, talents, or healing abilities and, in the giving of these, one's place or purpose in life. For others, entering their personal darkness may yield the reclamation of the lost inner child, with its enthusiasm, vitality, and joy, the discovery of true courage, or the development of deep compassion for others. Pluto, god of the underworld, was also god of riches.
The Collective Journey
The message for the individual is clear: to enter darkness, face the demons, open the wounds. There are many courageous souls who have begun that process. Collectively, we are far from it.
Our cultural malaise and dis-ease are obvious. We mistrust government, leaders and institutions. The "news" batters us with violence and cynicism. Movies, set in the future, consistently project a technological police state, a pacified consumer population, with a forgotten, criminalized underclass.
In this context, people long for renewal, a sense of civic and cultural pride, a feeling of community, and a belief in the future. Yet no one offers a unifying vision. The ancient wisdom directs us to the darkness, points us downward. It asks that our culture face its shadow, that the nation grieve its wounds and losses.
The task is immense, frightening. This would mean, among other things, that we take responsibility for the genocide of the Indian people, the original inhabitants who loved and love this land; accept the centuries of slavery and discrimination, the rape, brutalization, and degradation of a whole race, the rounding-up of Japanese.
It would require grieving the massacre of the buffalo, less than one million left alive, and the decimation of wolves, Eastern elk, passenger pigeon, and grizzly bear. It would include accepting our role and responsibility in ecocide, the poisoning of land, lake and waterway, a million species exterminated in thirty years.
It would demand facing the epidemic of child and sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape; the sexual mutilation (unanesthetized circumcision) of males at birth; the attitudes and policies that sentence increasing numbers of children to poverty.
What would it be, culturally, to take the hero's journey, to face who we are, owning the dark shadow and grieving our losses? The pain we carry is enormous. Turning our attention to the TV will not make it go away, nor will turning to some imagined past. Sins can be forgiven after being acknowledged, felt, and accepted, and not before. There is gold to be found, but the coin lies at the bottom of the well, unseen, as we search for pie in the sky.
Devils and Banished Gods
The trouble in the kingdom is not easily cured. Most often it involves risk, a descent, a test, an ordeal. These tests and ordeals in unfamiliar territory require one to access non-ordinary energies or abilities. These may be aspects of our total selves that have never been developed, or parts of our personality that have been repressed.
Repressed parts of the personality, sometimes referred to as the "lost self," are parts of our original wholeness that were not accepted, that were denied expression in our childhood milieu. Learning to control ourselves and become "good" children, we negatively judge the bad" aspects of ourselves -- perhaps our anger or sexuality, our neediness, independence, or expressiveness -- until they eventually "disappeared", becoming our lost self or Shadow. We were left with our good self, a partial and false representative of who we are.
This theme may be represented in stories as the "uninvited guest." In these tales, a deity, a magician, or witch is slighted: A grove or temple sacred to one of the gods is desecrated; sacrifices are forgotten or ignored; someone is not invited to the banquet; or a mortal is claimed to be wiser or more beautiful than they. In each case, the offended party causes trouble, meets out punishment in some fashion.
These offended gods -- the parts of ourselves we will not accept or integrate into our consciousness -- cast curses, enchantments, cause conflicts in our lives. They demand our attention, and our lives will suffer until we make atonement (at-one-ment).
The theme of banishment is one example of this principle. A ruler, hearing that a child will displace him on the throne, attempts to kill or banish the new life. Herod and Jesus; Laius and Oedipus; Pharaoh and Moses; and many more. But the banished child does not die. It grows strong, aquires power, and through unforeseen events that the banishment itself sets in place, the ruler is toppled or killed.
These uninvited guests, slighted gods, and banished children represent not just the parts of ourselves disowned in our particular family dynamics. There are major aspects of ourselves that the culture as a whole has exiled.
Dreaming is one example. Dreams and the presence of non-physical events are not considered "reality." We are constantly admonished to "stop daydreaming and pay attention," and the ability to dream, to contact and act in these non-physical realms is severely stunted. In another culture, it might be a central focus of life's journey, but for we moderns, the "dreambody", the "double", energy body, or spirit world may seem the unwelcomed guest, causing us to suffer until we serve.
Our trouble then, is not easily dismissed. A self-improvement program can not help if the self is the problem. Willful commitments and repression of impulses, whether in diets, affirmations, or enlightenment, rarely work, for they reinforce the ego, and it is the ego, the old ruler, we are directed to say goodbye to. Willful commitments are a favorite territory of the perfectionist, the self-critic. Will as self-control is the domain of the self, the domain of control. This is not new territory. It is well known, the site of civil war, and the journey asks much more of us than this.
"Every devil is but a god we have yet to recognize," Campell once said. It is our willingness to open our minds and hearts to the darkness and ordeals that makes the descent heavenly or hellish.
The Ancient World
"The disaster that has overtaken the modern world is the complete splitting off of the conscious mind from...the unconscious...Dream, vision, ritual, and religion experience...are largely lost to us, dismissed...as primitive or superstitious. Thus, in our pride and hurbris, our faith in unassailable reason, we cut ourselves off from our origins...and from the deepest parts of ourselves." --Robert Johnson, Inner Work
The heroic journey of myth speaks to a sensibility different from the current worldview. Neither the modern notion of progress nor the scientific postulation of an objective reality capable of being known and measured by detached observation belongs to the world of myth.
The ancient world in cynical. it speaks to the rise and fall of great archetypes. It is closer to the world of dreams and to the world of quantum physics than to an "objective reality."
The notion of progress meshes with a linear view of history and with the religious striving for perfection. This striving, the battle to live out the good and root out the evil in ourselves, to feed one part of ourselves and starve another, contains the promise that if we are ever successful, victorious in this war, we will have everlasting peace.
Perfection is not a goal of the ancient world; wholeness and completion are. The ancient world is round, the universe a circle. Therefore, one can not run away from parts of oneself. The notion is ludicrous. Where does one arrive by running in a circle or by discarding parts of oneself? Like the sun, which heads in the west only to reappear in the east, we cannot escape this circle. We continually meet and are tripped up by what we thought we discarded yesterday. To run from ones dark side is to become it, to live it unconsciously.
The ancient stories direct us to the darkness. Our prize, our peace and our healing awaits us there.
The ancient symbol of wholeness, the Tree of Life, is anchored deep within the earth. It's roots seek the darkness, rich and wet. There are hidden springs, nourishment underground. The magnificent crown is nourished, supported, and mirrored in these deep roots.
The modern separation: heaven and earth; spirit from flesh; God from man; and man from nature, creates in us a state of war -- and makes a wounded and dangerous human being. The ancients recognized the flowering crown as a natural result of those deep roots, embracing the primal darkness. The deep nutrients are absorbed and raised to the sky. The energy of the sun is made flesh and stored in the earth. The movement, the dance is in both directions. Perfection, heaven, the seeking the flower by cutting off the roots is folly.
There are many obstacles and detours to the heroic journey. In modern life entire industries are invested in enabling us to avoid it. Drinking and drugs, legal and illegal, help to numb the pain of the troubles kingdom. They allow us to ignore the calling or provide shallow imitation of adventure. Entertainment of many kinds distracts us or encourage us to live vicariously. Addictive pursuits of work, money or sex seem to temporarily fill the dark hole inside, and short-cut religions and self-help programs promise to get us to our destination without ever hitting a pothole.
They are all seductive in their various ways. There are no substitutes for the journey of the spirit or the soul. There are no quick fixes, no gondolas or escalators to the top of the mountain. There are no magic pills or synthetic vitamins for our dis-ease. Reaching a goal without the requisite effort, getting something for nothing tempts even the most diligent, and many stories address this. As in Henny Penny, few offer to help bake the pie, but many wish to eat it.
One of the most instructive is Faust. Mephistocles, "the devil," promises Faust anything he wants -- wealth, power, sex, fame -- in exchange for just one thing, his soul. The bargain looks good at first, until it becomes time for the price to be paid.
Many diversions of modern life offer us this "bargain." Addictive pursuits or substances may deliver, fleetingly, a sense of power and release from constraints or tension. They may offer excitement and color to mask the parched and barren hillsides of our existence.
The notion of technological and material progress has, like Mephistocles, at one time or another, offer us everything: health and longevity, freedom from work, security, spotless, shining cities, unlimited leisure, and material prosperity. The technological "fix" may itself be a form of addiction. When one's dream or visions are hooked to a material or technological star, the life of the spirit suffers, and the cost, as in Faust, is your soul.