The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and…
“All times are changing times,” writes author Ursula K. Le Guin. Change is reliable, faithful, constant – an ever-present tide in our lives. We, on the other hand – fickle, contradictory, changeable souls – are of two minds about that constancy. Some days we hate change, wanting everything to stay exactly as it is. Other days, we want everything about our lives to be different, even wishing something outside us would burst in and change things in a way we don’t have the courage to do ourselves.
At its simplest, change is movement from one state of being to another. That movement applies not just to our physical world, but to our goals, our beliefs, and our acceptance of what we think is normal. The movement can be gentle: ice becomes water, the grass grows long, another year goes by. We glance up to realise we’re further along a road we were already on, happy with our progress or worried we’re headed in the wrong direction. Change can also be sudden and violent: we’re revolutionised on a personal or global scale, a single event transforming us completely and forcing us to reframe how we think about the world and our place in it, forcing us to develop a whole new skill set in order to adapt and survive. Uncertainty and chaos become the norm and life gets turbulent, a least for a while.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell said that when we want to get from one place to another in our lives, we first have to overcome an obstacle, cross a threshold. We do this by journeying inward and beginning to follow our deepest impulses, leaving the known path and entering the darkest part of the woods where there is no path, not knowing where we’re going, not knowing what will happen, not knowing where we’ll end up. This is the first step of what Campbell called the hero’s journey. On that journey, we search for what’s missing in our life in an arena with no rules, no security, and no guarantees of happy endings.
Entering the dark forest represents entering the world of original experience, where you work out your life for yourself instead of having it interpreted for you by others. By following your own life force, you grow into maturity and become the authority for your own life, living out of your center. While the journey is intensely personal, the goal is to bring new possibilities you’ve discovered for your life back to the community for other people to experience. This is the flow of life that renews the world.
Naturally, leaving the known path isn’t an easy choice. A journey into the dark is uncertain, and our fear of uncertainty makes it easy to justify why we should stay where we are, unchanged, where it’s safe and warm. The psychologist Erich Fromm described how we admire those who face down their fear, who gather their courage, leave what they have and move forward, forging a new path. In mythology, Fromm explained, that way of life is symbolically represented by the hero. “We admire these heroes,” he said, “because we deeply feel their way is the way we would want to be – if we could. But being afraid, we believe that we cannot be that way, that only the heroes can. The heroes become idols; we transfer to them our own capacity to move, and then stay where we are – ‘because we are not heroes.'” Instead of taking a chance, we’re tempted to regress out of fear, avoiding the risk, uncertainty, and potential failure of the unknown. We excuse ourselves from the responsibility we would assume by taking that risk in our own lives. We justify staying put, believing other people’s choices aren’t available to us and explaining those choices away to ensure we couldn’t possibly make the same decisions.
Still, if you have a nagging feeling that the way you’re living now isn’t quite the whole story, that there is another way of life for you just out of sight and out of reach – an adventure waiting to be had – then it’s a matter of finding the courage to follow the risk. Tension, a lack of honesty, and a sense of unreality are the fruits of following a life force that isn’t your own, Campbell said. If you hear the call to adventure and refuse it by staying where you are, life dries up.
When the adventure you feel is your own doesn’t match the one society has for you, change brings conflict and creates a sense of danger. On the hero’s journey, the inevitable dragons we battle aren’t to be avoided or escaped so much as endured and tamed – as much as any dragon can be. Once you’ve lived long enough, you know that problems aren’t always neatly solved the way you thought they’d be when you were well, or sane, or rested. Get rid of one and another takes its place. There are the external difficulties: the state of the world any day of the week, people crippling and killing each other without end, the job you hate, the relationship that’s over. Then there are the internal difficulties: the shame, the sadness, the fear. Overcoming obstacles in our pursuit of change doesn’t mean the problems go away. Sometimes we endure until we learn to cope. Maybe one day you realise a problem doesn’t loom as large as it did a month ago, a year ago. Maybe one day you realise the dark isn’t quite as dark as it was when you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
At times we come to bear hardships better not because the problems have changed but because we have. We can be psychologically transformed by realising and coming to accept what will not be changed. Campbell talked about this need to learn how to live in the world as it is, to accept the nature of life as it is: light and dark, sorrow and joy. As we learn to accept what will not be changed, we join in reshaping what will be reshaped.
The beautiful thing about the hero’s journey is that our trials aren’t just something to get through; they are veiled opportunities. They are the threshold of change itself. What obstructs us, Campbell said, can be transformed into what is loved when we recognise that what causes us to fall is a hidden entrance to the change we’re seeking: “Where you stumble, there is your treasure.” Where you’re brought to your knees is where you dig for gold.
At the end of the day, being of two minds about change is forgivable enough: some things do change and some things don’t. Which is which is a mystery we won’t know the whole of until we follow our adventure to its close and return to the world, bearing our possibilities for others. In the end, maybe all any of us can do in changing times is listen for the call to adventure and then respond to it, risking the known for the unknown and facing our fears to become who we hope to be.
From the ‘Frida’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.