Bringing the mythic into the literal world
I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know about you, but I have uttered this refrain many times, often on the brink of crisis. The last time was when I had come to a point in my working career where the gulf between my aspirations and my day-to-day reality appeared a bridge too far.
I tried to settle, accept the slow degradations of aging and thwarted dreams. Low expectations would keep me safe, I figured. But untended dreams haunt rather than promise. I couldn’t give up, though I tried.
Instead, I had made some Big Gestures.
I walked across Spain in pilgrimage… Twice.
I sat with indigenous Shipibo healers in the Amazon… Many times.
I wrote an overly long manuscript on post-traumatic stress… Thankfully, only once.
But after every adventure, I plunged into despair.
It was only while living in Peru on another sojourn that I understood why: when you push back the frontiers of consciousness, you cannot be sure what you will find. As Carl Jung said:
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.”
Inner transformation did not necessarily yield external change. I came back to the same job and the same sense of alienation, but now it was amplified. I was still dealing with the darkness I had made visible. I felt like a floating exile among the crowd.
After all my Big Gestures, the answer lay in the small, persistent details. I needed to change how I engaged with the world, rather than seek refuge from it. That began with my working life. I could spend a lifetime as a wanderer and miss the obvious. I was forced to confront the two myths – stories that I repeated – at the heart of my resistance.
Myth No.1: The sacred and the profane don’t mix
Money and the commercial enterprises that raked it in, were tainted. The accoutrements to happiness were pre-packaged and sold by oily marketeers. Salaried slavery was culturally ordained. I had made an artificial separation between my real life and what I had to do to support my real life.
Myth No.2: I’m not ready yet
I had spent too many years toiling away anonymously in a newspaper office, parsing the tangled web of media-speak. Then there was my fascination with psychology, consciousness, healing and spirituality – ignited and then driven by my personal struggle with depression, social phobia and anxiety. The two worlds seemed impossibly divorced.
But the truth was I didn’t believe I had anything to offer. I thought the fruits of my personal seeking were useless to the workaday world. I needed a new story, one that gave value not just to healing but also to the gifts of trauma.
The two faces of the story
Stories get a bad rap in some quarters and rightly so. These are the stories we tell ourselves that keep us trapped within a closed system. Experience is interpreted as a recapitulation of old themes. Self-victimization and disempowerment are their subtexts.
This always happens to me… I don’t have… I’m not good at… Others are lucky, but me… I will never escape this issue, this disjunction, this curse….
It’s too easy to get caught in the flatland of compulsive repetition rather than trace the evolution of personal consciousness according to its arcs and spirals. My stories were often self-fulfilling prophecies that blinded me to alternative histories.
Histories can be used to define the present and preconfigure the future. Yet if myths survive through the power of repetition and history exists only in memory – and memory itself is fickle – then everything is up for grabs. It’s not only a different future that is possible, but also a different past.
Psychiatrist and author Norman Doidge MD referred to the “plastic paradox” of the brain. Neuroplasticity doesn’t just allow the brain to change but can also entrench rigid behaviors. Similarly, stories have the potential to liberate or imprison.
Still, when I am reminded that I am indulging my “story”, it can feel like a well-meaning form of spiritual correctness. What if another type of story was begging for attention?
Unacknowledged trauma can ghost between the lines of the self-defeating story. Trauma distorts memory. It is rendered fragmentary and dreadful. History is to be kept at a safe distance from consciousness for its awful secrets. Meanwhile, guilt and shame are internalized. We are capable of all sorts of self-deceptions, often in the name of survival. As Judith Hermann wrote in her landmark Trauma and Recovery:
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”
In shamanic traditions, when the ego contorts itself into a new shape to accommodate the death of innocence, this is called soul loss. Memory is also held in the cells. The vicious feedback loop between the brain, the spine and the nervous system offers an unadulterated repetition of the past. The body remembers. Panic can escalate into terror.
I shouldn’t be feeling this. I don’t deserve this. Nothing ever changes. There’s something wrong with me.
The story may be a coded attempt to tell the story without telling the story, and a bid to explain the terrible rush. If nothing else, what I have experienced and understood about trauma gives me compassion for the reflexive stories I told, and hope for the potential of stories yet to be told.
Writing a new story
In Yann Matel’s Life of Pi, the young protagonist is confronted with a dilemma after spending 227 days in a lifeboat on the Pacific with a hyena, zebra, orang-utan and a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker. When Japanese officials reject his story as implausible, they ask for a more mundane version and he obliges.
Pi Patel: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Mr Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
If only we could see, in the same breathtaking colors lavished on the film version of Pi by Ang Lee, the hero’s journey of simply being human: our internal struggles, sacrifices, traumas and the ego-confounding truth of our mortality. Our journeys are epic.
Stories are a way of transcribing a common quest. I was motivated never to give up by something shapeless and mysterious. It was a simple feeling that there was a better way to live and be in the world. Yet it was paradoxical. I had no idea what it would look like. How could something so vague compel such resilience?
I believe it was because there was no place for what I was seeking inside existing cultural models. But if our lives are mundane and our stories heroic, I could reinterpret the literal from the perspective of the mythic. From here, the past and the future are made anew in the present moment.
This would mean that everything in my long story, my uncensored biography, were experiences calibrated for a purpose. Every byway, wrong turn, dead end and pilgrimage were not just useful or random but essential. The biblical angels in Jacob’s dream didn’t just ascend the ladder – they also descended. Likewise, I had developed just the right skills and sensitivities for the task of bringing the mythic back down to the literal.
This is what I now do for others: help them trace the hidden trajectories of their stories, so they too can reengage the world on their terms. If there are no cultural models for authentic self-expression then we must create a new paradigm.
We are the map makers.
The beauty of this approach is that the self-contortions can stop. We can present an image that is wholly consistent with our ethics, our histories and our stories. Someone said it a long time ago: the truth can set us free. And I suspect that at the heart of our best stories is the quest for freedom.