Who’s Up for Building a Cathedral?
Ecocentric Human Development, the Hero’s Journey, and Cultural Regeneration
~ Bill Plotkin, Ph.D.
Animas Valley Institute
A few months ago, Charles Eisenstein had, as is his wont, some rather interesting things to say, this time about myths, archetypes, and maturity:
The Hero’s Journey is perfectly legitimate myth with a valid place among many others in the pantheon. However, it is not appropriate today as a primary guide for civilization. The main problem is not that it is male-gendered and needs to be neutered or balanced by a female equivalent. It is that the Hero is a boy archetype, not a man archetype. We need to source guidance from more mature archetypes, which comprise the masculine, feminine, and non-gendered.
I agree with much here. Take, for example, Joseph Campbell’s framing of the Hero’s Journey. Campbell, the Western world’s most famous twentieth-century mythologist, describes the Hero as what I, too, think of as an immature male human — for sure an admired, celebrated, and in some ways public-spirited hero but nonetheless a version of what I would name an egocentric adolescent, someone who bravely battles prodigious foes, prevails, rescues the damsel or saves the village, and receives his reward. Adolescent hero themes include the ordeal courageously faced, the triumph, the boon brought back for the people, and the public acclaim. The focus of the story is on the solo superstar. Egocentric.
Adolescent heroism can serve society — and life more generally. But it can also, often unwittingly, be life-harming (consider, for example, the heroes of unjust wars, ecocidal commerce, or toxic technology). Viewed psychospiritually, the adolescent hero narrative might at times, in some societies, encapsulate an important developmental episode for some adolescent males (and even some adolescents otherwise gendered or non-gendered) while at other times be quite detrimental to both the hero and his more-than-human community. But either way, the adolescent hero story contrasts in significant ways with more mature varieties of initiatory odysseys.
While reading my words here, it’s essential that you know that when I use the specific word adolescence, I’m not referring to an age range, like 13 to 19, but to a developmental life stage that begins with psychosocial puberty and does not necessarily end before death. A person can be aged 30, 50, or 80 and still be in the psychological stage of adolescence — even in the first half of adolescence or “early adolescence.”
Please also note that I’m not using the term adolescence in a pejorative way. There’s nothing the least bit regrettable or undesirable about adolescence. Not only is it an essential stage in a human life, but it is also a stage — in its whole, healthy version, anyway — that offers priceless gifts to our human community, the sorts of gifts that people in earlier or later stages are not able to offer as well, gifts such as exuberant and fiery creativity in style, music, art, fashion, and language.
And consider this: Adolescence appears to be a relatively new stage in human development, a stage that may hold the key to the next phase in the evolution of our species. For example, adolescence, fully embraced and inhabited, affords a cultivation of our uniquely human imagination beyond what most people have been capable of in the past. The fact that humanity as a whole has not yet understood what adolescence is for and has so far not taken advantage of its species-shifting potentials does not in any way imply there’s something wrong with it — or with people who are in that developmental stage.
Adolescence itself is not a problem. Rather, pathological versions of adolescence, or overly prolonged adolescence — and the consequent scarcity of true adults and elders — that’s a problem, a world-class misfortune, perhaps the root crisis we now face on this planet.
That Campbell’s rendering of the Hero might be an adolescent framing is not really surprising. He, after all, was a product of not only his time but, like all of us, of his culture, essentially the kind of culture most all contemporary people on Earth now live in and have for many centuries: cultures in which the personal development of a majority of its members is arrested in what I have come to understand as an unhealthy variety of early adolescence, namely egocentric adolescence — a stage whose center of gravity revolves around not just what’s-in-it-for-me (egocentrism) but also competition/ dominance, conformity (and its close cousin, rebellion), consumerism, the pursuit of (mostly superficial) social status, and the dynamic of ingroups/ outgroups, and, consequently, a society — and a world — overrun by materialism, racism, classism, anthropocentrism, endless war, and, for far too many, poverty and mere survival, if that. This is adolescence gone wrong. Very wrong.
If this brief description of egocentric adolescence sounds like an all-too-accurate portrayal of most current human societies, it’s not a coincidence: Most contemporary cultures are indeed thoroughly egocentric and anchored in a particularly pathological form of adolescence (what I’ve named “patho-adolescence”). From where I sit, this seems to be true not only of current North American and European societies but of all industrialized (aka, nature-alienated) societies in Asia, Africa, and South America, including both their elites and their marginalized communities. The kind of sociopolitical system that Rhiane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade, calls dominator society has “won” almost everywhere on Earth — with the resultant grave losses to land, water, and air, to millions of species, to cultural and linguistic diversity, social and racial justice, equity, and, more generally, to the quality of human life and all life.
For those not familiar with our work at Animas Valley Institute, my characterization of most extant societies as patho-adolescent will rightly strike you as radical and audacious. It’s not an easy assertion for me to make — or to offer publicly. It rubs rudely against the way most of us think about ourselves and our societies. If it is correct — if it is — there are enormous implications and ramifications. It changes most everything we believe about who we are as a species on this planet at this time — and what to do about it.
It took many years for me to reach this conclusion and, when at last I did, I was filled with a profound grief with the realization of how many Earthly species, including our own, have suffered at the hands of humanity.
To really consider the possibility of developmental arrest of this scope, most people will want to know more precisely what I mean by “early adolescence” and by “true adulthood” and also how and when it came about that most contemporary cultures have devolved into societies of egocentric adolescents. In this essay, I’ll be able to only touch on these things. For more elaborate explorations and definitions, please see Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World and/or The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries.
But to at least stir your interest: By “a true adult human” I mean someone who (1) experiences themselves as a member, first and foremost, of the Earth community, (2) has had one or more visionary experiences of their unique ecological niche in that community (a niche that is theirs not because they chose it but because they were born for it or as it), and (3) is consciously and successfully embodying that unique place as a gift to their people and, more generally, to the Earth community. Doing so makes them an agent of cultural evolution — and also, in an egocentric-dominator society like ours, an agent of cultural revolution (or regeneration).
True adults are agents of cultural evolution not because they are consciously trying to support the evolution of their culture but because their conscious and successful embodiment of their unique innate niche in the Earth community is what contributes to cultural evolution, which it does precisely because that is the niche that Life (or Mystery or Soul or Nature) gave birth to them to embody.
In the end, it’s who we truly are that matters, not who we think we are — but we must undertake and endure an initiatory journey in order to discover and, more importantly, be able to embody who we truly are. And that journey cannot begin until we are psychospiritually prepared for it.
By serving as an agent of cultural evolution, a true adult is thereby also serving as an evolutionary agent for the human species and for Earthly life more generally. All true adult humans are, in short, visionary artisans of evolution.
How do you become a true adult in this sense? Long story. Short version: After having achieved sufficient success at the developmental tasks of the two stages of childhood and the stage of early adolescence (both the culture and nature tasks of each of these stages), which is way easier said than done in a patho-adolescent society, you enter what I think of as late adolescence and the multi-year journey of soul initiation. A central element of that journey is one or more underworld adventures I call the Descent to Soul, during which, if successful, you have an experience of Soul Encounter, usually in the form of a vision or revelation. If you are fortunate, that encounter results in, over a period of many months or more, the radical metamorphosis of your ego into a form capable of carrying to your people the gift you were born with and as.
People in different developmental stages — for example, egocentric early adolescence, ecocentric early adolescence, late adolescence, and early adulthood — may look and talk in similar ways but there are profound differences in their consciousness, what to them is important in life, and the ways they are in relationship to the world. Life stage makes all the difference as to where a person offers their attention, the choices they make, what they are doing in and with their lives, what counts as valuable or necessary, what they experience the world to be, what they live for, what they’re willing to die for.
The rare exceptions that currently exist to egocentric-dominator societies are of two kinds: First are the apparently very few indigenous, nature-based peoples who have not only physically survived the ravages of dominator imperialism but also managed to stay culturally/ linguistically intact, the latter being more challenging and rarer. These are what Eisler terms partnership societies. Second are the small ecocentric networks emerging now in many places throughout the world, socioeconomic sanctuaries within the confines of the patho-adolescent overculture. These early-stage regenerative communities are learning again how to be in life-enhancing relationship to the land and its flora, fauna, and fungi, how to be in compassionate communion with the great diversity of humanity, and how to cultivate mature and loving relationships within their own human circles.
So, again, it’s not at all a mystery that Campbell would see world mythology as telling an endless variety of what looks to me — and perhaps to Charles and others — as immature or egocentric hero stories. It’s the worldview or lens Campbell was looking through, a lens with a narrative arc that Charles characterizes as:
… the call to adventure, leaving home, the mentor, the threshold, the test, the enemy, the ordeal, the triumph, the return and so forth.
By contemporary standards, that doesn’t sound like such a bad story to live, does it? For example, many of the best contemporary novels and Hollywood screenplays (not just Star Wars) are based on this narrative template. The immaturity built into this arc is not the call to adventure, leaving home, the mentor, or the threshold — mature framings of initiatory myths have these features as well. Rather, the immaturity I see is in the understanding of what constitutes a test, an enemy, an ordeal, a triumph, and a return. And there are certain essential elements of a mature framing that are simply missing from the adolescent storyline. I’ll explore these points later in this essay. But first, my main theme:
What Exactly Do We Mean by “Mature”?
For guidance through the turbulence of our times, Charles recommends “other mythic arcs based on mature archetypes.” But there’s exactly the rub: Not primarily the question of where we might find such myths and archetypes (they’re everywhere) but rather how would we recognize and understand as such a mature archetype or myth if we encountered one? What would enable us to identify what exactly is mature about it?
We shall fail to recognize a mature myth or archetype even when we’re in the presence of one if we’re not able to answer this essential question: What exactly do we mean by “mature”? If, in contemporary societies, all that most people have (like Campbell did) are adolescent frames (whether they be pathological or healthy versions thereof), then we’re fated to endlessly understand through an adolescent lens all myths and archetypes, no matter how mature their elements and themes may be.
And this brings us right to the heart of what I most want to share with you in this essay: The difficulty for any given person in accessing or recognizing a mature framework (a framework for true maturity) is not only that person’s culture but, even more so, their developmental stage. Maybe it’s just obvious: If someone has not themselves matured beyond early adolescence, then their lens, too, will necessarily be adolescent; everything they experience will be seen and understood through that lens. The caterpillar cannot truly imagine the life of a butterfly.
As one example, one that has cut close to the bone for me, personally: Some people who have appreciated my first book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, and have graciously shared with me what they like about it, appear, nonetheless, to not understand it. They see it as offering a path to nature connection, inner peace, a more fulfilling job, or perhaps an improved social or sexual life (all of which are genuine and wholesome early-adolescent desires). And I’m not saying that Soulcraft doesn’t support those quests. But the book was actually created as a manual for ruining your early-adolescent life (if you are among the relatively few contemporary people prepared for such a dissolution), for undermining whatever initial happiness you had so painstakingly achieved in your life. It is, in other words, an introduction to the hazardous and harrowing journey of soul initiation, the journey that takes place during late adolescence and that eventually culminates in true adulthood. I don’t intend this in any way as a criticism of some of my readers; it’s simply the unavoidable reality of attempting to understand — or, for that matter, to articulate — a worldview that lies outside that of egocentric-dominator culture (aka conformist-consumer culture) and the consciousness of people in early adolescence.
Another example of early adolescent framing is, quite frankly, the entire field of contemporary Western psychological science (or at least its mainstream), which, for the most part, attempts to learn what it is to be human by studying the behavior of actual human beings (the “empirical method”). Take, for example, science’s inquiry into what it is to be an “adult” human: If most “adults” being studied by psychologists are actually in the stage of early adolescence — and if most researchers are as well — the entire discipline of psychology becomes a psychology of adolescence. And that, I believe, is exactly what we have. One particular dynamic to note: Due to ease of recruitment, most humans studied in research by university psychologists are college students, usually sophomores enrolled in their first psychology class, with the assumption that college 20-year-olds are representative of human adults, more generally. The irony here is that the results might not be appreciably different if the research “subjects” were older people but still, psychologically, early-adolescent.
I’ll say it again: Due to the dynamics of egocentric-dominator societies, in which most humans now come of age, the majority of contemporary post-pubescent humans are stuck in the developmental life stage of early adolescence.
A culture has to take some major hits and be unravelling for many hundreds or thousands of years to keep a majority of its members from reaching true adulthood. Such a culture is severely degraded. But not by accident. By design. Why would egocentric-dominator leaders do this to their own cultures (and why has this been perpetrated in so many societies for so many thousands of years throughout the world)? Long story, but here’s the short form: Human maturity is bad for business (by which I mean the obscene profits and despotic power of patho-adolescent tyrants).
If what we have is rampant developmental arrest, it’s not the fault of individual humans. Rather, it’s due to the fact that most people now live within the confines of psychologically and socially unhealthy cultures (some of which are, nevertheless, technologically, hygienically, and jurisprudentially advanced, politically stable, and economically wealthy). Consider the depravities — sporadic to frequent — on display every day most everywhere in the world: mind-boggling cruelties (as part of unjust wars or otherwise), outrageous injustices (racial, gender-based, class-based, etc.), unconstrained corruption, rampant greed, extreme inequalities, political insanities, politician juvenility and crudity, and unrestrained eco-destruction: This is never how mature humans (or even healthy adolescents) treat themselves, each other, and this holy Earth.
But in order to make our way toward something more psychosocially wholesome, it helps if we avoid the temptation to frame the dilemma as smaller than it is. What we are facing is not simply a quandary of democracy, economics, diplomacy, or religion. And it is certainly not a mere technological problem to solve with more technology. It is much bigger and deeper:
What we’re facing — and must address — is a catastrophic and nearly ubiquitous failure of cultural health and of human development, each being both cause and effect of the other.
The problem, in short, is not an absence of mature myths and archetypes — they are plentiful and readily accessible — but rather the absence or at least rarity, of a genuinely mature lens, a truly adult or elder lens, which would enable us to understand and recognizemature myths and archetypes. More generally, such a lens is needed in order to support full-spectrum human development and to thereby gradually generate healthy or at least healthier cultures.
Even shorter, it’s not mature archetypes we’re in need of; what’s missing is maturity.
Our Foremost Earth Crisis: Widespread Developmental Arrest
The psychosocial degradation of most human cultures — and its accompanying disturbance of individual and collective human development — is the core dilemma that every species and ecosystem on Earth now faces. The dilemma is compounded by the fact that very few humans are aware that there is such a problem — especially psychologists, who we might have expected to be the most likely ones to notice, the most likely ones to sound the alarm and lead movements for cultural change. Many psychologists might agree there is a lack of psychological maturity in contemporary societies, but most would mean the kinds of maturity attainable within the developmental stage I would call early adolescence (such as responsible and compassionate behavior), while I am referring to the very different spectrum of maturity attainable in true adulthood and elderhood (such as the vision-rooted capacity to contribute to cultural regeneration and evolution). These are different uses of the word maturity, distinct and mostly unrelated continua of maturity. The sort of maturity I am speaking about is essentially missing from the maps of contemporary psychology. Most psychologists have not noticed widespread developmental arrest of the kind I am describing simply because, regardless of one’s profession, career, or art, it’s exceedingly difficult to see beyond the lenses of one’s own culture and developmental stage. And it’s impossible to solve (or dissolve) an invisible problem. Or an unidentified or unidentifiable one. Most everyone sees the symptoms of the problem (e.g., the depression, addictions, suicide, violence, injustice, corruption) but not the psychological developmental arrest that is the root cause of these symptoms.
One dimension of our mission at Animas Valley Institute is to make visible this core difficulty and to offer maps and models for addressing it. Once you can see the extent to which human development has been arrested, it’s a total game changer for the ways you might contribute to the creation of a better world — or a more beautiful one.
Our foremost need now is not so much for more mature archetypes or myths to live by but rather for greater maturity. We need to learn how to support people to eventually reach stages of life beyond early adolescence. Archetypes and myths — in the hands or mouths of mature parents, educators, and mentors — are vital supports of maturation, but an individual does not mature simply by having conscious access to mature myths (nor by going through rites of passage) but by successfully addressing the developmental tasks of their current stage. A society doesn’t become healthier simply because its leaders, regardless of their stage of development, have sourced their guidance in what looks to them to be more mature myths or archetypes.
The most valuable social and cultural changes come about through individual maturation (what Jung called “individuation”), which requires effective strategies for holistic human development, which requires a comprehensive framework for what holistic human development is (including how to address the developmental tasks specific to each life stage), which requires a map of ecocentric stages of development. And it requires mature guides to create culturally appropriate systems for implementing such a framework and such a map within their communities, systems that include parenting, education, and community enrichment (the latter including practical, programmatic, and ceremonial ways to enhance diversity and justice). My colleagues and I have, since the early 1990s, been developing a map of the ecocentric stages of human development. We call this the Eco-soulcentric Developmental Wheel.
Exposing children or adolescents (of any age) to “mature” myths or archetypes might be helpful but won’t turn them into adults. Young people need to do the work of maturing, and their parents and teachers need to know how to help them do that work. This requires those parents and teachers (and other family and community members) to be true adults and elders or at least in a later stage of development than their children and students. Children having time with immature “adults” who happen to have access to what look like mature archetypes won’t do it.
Another thing that won’t do it by itself: psychotherapy. All kinds of both self-help advice and therapeutic support can at times benefit you, yes, can enable you to feel better in your life, more relaxed, less panicked or depressed, less traumatized, less in thrall to addictions, better “adjusted” (if only to a sick society), and so on, but these things alone are not going to help you actually grow up — if by “growing up” we mean progressing from your current developmental stage to a later one. Therapy, at least as generally practiced in the Western world today, will not, by itself, help you reach true adulthood, and it won’t help society in any truly transformative way. Why? Because most therapy as it is practiced in contemporary societies is mainly about removing or reducing unwanted things (problems in egocentric adolescent living) and not enough about accessing and developing positive things (resources for enhancing our individual lives and the health of our human communities and the greater Earth community). Current psychotherapy focuses on alleviating “mental illness,” on healing from trauma and psychological wounds. It is not primarily, substantially, or sufficiently about the cultivation of our innate human wholeness and magnificence nor about addressing the full range of developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence, not about progressing to true adulthood and eventually genuine elderhood nor about enhancing the wellbeing of our human societies or the Earth community. Healing is, of course, essential, all the more so in an insane and psychospiritually degraded society. Absolutely. But healing alone does not mature us developmentally, and, in any case, the cultivation of our human wholeness is the prerequisite for true and deep healing as well as for the psychospiritual preparation for the journey of soul initiation. Contemporary psychotherapy has been fixated on healing when there is so much more to human development and ecological health.
We must decenter Western psychology, at least as it has been, not trashing it but shifting our focus away from the egocentric adolescent individual, so-called “mental illness,” endless emotional processing, and the implicit framework that this is a human-only world in which our needs take precedence over those of all other species and all habitats — and augmenting and expanding its trauma-and-healing preoccupation with a positive-health emphasis on the cultivation of human wholeness (which is the foundation for the deepest healing and so much more), individual maturation, community-building, cultural regeneration, and environmental restoration.
Two last points for this section: First, the goal of personal development is not perfection (as if that were either possible or desirable). And it certainly is not “normalcy” (as if conforming to the psychological health standards of a sick society would be enviable, or as if becoming an “average” person in even a healthy society ought to be anyone’s goal). Rather, the goals of personal development, I would suggest, are twofold: (1) wholeness (cultivating the full rainbow spectrum of our innate human capacities, which enables us to embody the weird and anomalous creature we were born as) and (2) psychosocial maturation or individuation (which enables us to reach true adulthood and elderhood and thereby contribute to the creation of a healthy culture and, more generally, to a vibrant more-than-human world).Genuine personal development does not serve the individual alone (egocentric individualism) but enhances the life of the Earth community (ecocentric individuation).
Second, a focus on the individual is not the problem in contemporary society. Rather, the problem is what we mean by an individual. A human being is not in truth an isolated monad who can shape themselves, authentically, into anyone or anything they want. Rather, a human being is an interdependent participant in a vast and complex web of more-than-human life who was born to fulfill a particular place, role, or niche in that web, who, when psychospiritually prepared, must go through a formidable initiatory journey to discover and be capable of consciously choosing, inhabiting, and fulfilling that niche, and whose primary creative choices in life are the specific ways they will embody that niche (given their particular time, bioregion, and society and their particular personal strengths and weaknesses) so that they can best contribute to the enhancement of the life of the greater Earth community of which they are an essential and immutable part. We don’t get to choose the true card we play in life, but it is possible to discover what that card is, and it is very much up to us how we play it.
Remembering a Mature Lens
The remembering of a mature lens for human development has been one of the quests we at Animas Valley Institute have been pursuing since 1980.
“Remembering”? I use that word here because such a lens is not created but rediscovered in the form that it already exists (archetypically) in the natural world, a.k.a. the real world. We find such lenses waiting for us, as they always have been, in nature, in the unsynthesized, unmanufactured, nonfabricated, noninvented world, the world from which our species and all others have emerged, the world that has given birth to each one of us, the world that is suffused with and animated by an intelligence so much greater than our nonetheless magnificent human variety.
When our familiar lenses are immature, we must return to the natural world, the transcultural source of life-serving lenses, to remember, recreate, or regenerate our own mature lenses. One of the greatest challenges and opportunities in remembering and achieving true maturity is this: We won’t find a mature lens simply by studying myths or other cultures because a mature lens is itself that which enables us to understand and recognize the depths of any myth or culture. (Western anthropologists and ethnographers who are in psychological early adolescence and who study healthy ecocentric indigenous cultures are not capable of understanding the depths and nuances of those cultures. Likewise, early-adolescent Western mythologists are not capable of understanding the depths and nuances of ecocentric myths.) We need to recover the lenses woven into the very fabric of our evolving Earth and of our human psyches.
Charles writes that we “need guidance from post-Hero storylines.” Yes. Or maybe better, pre-Hero storylines or non-Hero storylines, by which I mean the sort that we might find in pre- or non-dominator societies, in older partnership traditions — which are the same sort we can find embedded in the depths of our own contemporary human psyches. Again, the central question: What enables us to recognize non-Hero storylines?
For example — to return to the questions I left hanging earlier in this essay — when looking through a nature-based lens at the mature initiatory journey (that which I call the journey of soul initiation), what would we say constitutes a mythic test, an enemy, an ordeal, a triumph, or a return? And what are the essential elements missing in adolescent-hero renderings of myths? Our work at Animas Valley Institute is, in part, an ongoing living of these questions. In my books, I’ve articulated many of the things we’ve learned so far. This section of this essay illustrates the use of two lenses through which we might recognize, explore, and learn from a non-Hero initiatory storyline. These are the lenses we call the Eco-Soulcentric Developmental Wheel (with eight life stages, in which the journey of soul initiation takes place during the fourth stage, corresponding to late adolescence) and the Five Phases of the Descent to Soul (one or more Descents being the main event(s) of the journey of soul initiation).
First, a mature initiatory journey (as experienced in actual human life, whether or not this is reflected in journeys symbolized in myths) is a prolonged one, a far-reaching psychospiritual expedition, an extended transformational unfolding. It’s not something that takes place in a day, a week, or in the course of a long workshop; it’s rare for it to be as short as a year.
Second, near the outset of the journey of soul initiation (again, I’m not speaking of myths here), the healthy, accomplished, exquisite early-adolescent ego is dissolved. In myths, this is portrayed as a dismemberment, sacrifice, or being slain — a “decisive defeat,” as Rilke has it. This dynamic contrasts with the adolescent hero’s journey in which the ego valiantly takes on its quest and stays quite intact, perhaps becomes further inflated, even if there are lessons learned and even if some varieties of personal transformation occur along the way. In the mature journey, the initiate’s psyche, following ego death, is shape-shifted into a form that will eventually be capable of serving the more-than-human world (not only the human community) in the way that that person was born for, a way that does not enhance or sustain egocentric, life-destroying societies but, as it turns out, is actively subversive to them.
To serve the world in such a way is to inhabit one’s unique ecological niche, a distinctive way of being in relationship with other humans, creatures, ecosystems, and communities. This is to say that we cannot identify a mature way of serving the world in the social or cultural terms of a job, social role, philosophical perspective, or creative project; that’s the way it’s done in adolescence. Rather, a soul-initiated adult can identify their way of serving the world only in the ecological terms of the unique conversation they are having with the larger, not-merely-human world. And this identifying description can be accomplished only through metaphor — through dream, image, symbol, personal mythos, poetry, archetype. In other words, the only way to articulate our unique, soul-initiated way of serving the world is mythopoetically.
My own mythopoetic identity, as an example, includes the core image of weaving initiatory cocoons of transformation, a life task I was shown (by Mystery) to be mine during my first soul encounter experience. This received or remembered image of cocoon weaving points to the truth of who I am and what I do. My true identity (or purpose) cannot be described in terms of any kind of conventional job description; for example, at root I’m not a psychologist, an author, a soul guide, or a trainer of guides, although those have been among the ways I have embodied my soul image (these forms of embodiment being what I call “delivery systems” for soul). Rather, I’m a human who weaves cocoons, ecological-psychological-social-spiritual vessels for the dissolution of healthy early-adolescent egos, chambers of existential terror and beauty as portals to true adulthood and cultural regeneration. This is who I am not because I decided this would be an interesting or fulfilling role to play, but because I was shown that this is who I was born as, this is the image I was born with. (As poet David Whyte writes, “Hold to your own truth/ at the center of the image/ you were born with.”)
In my books, I offer dozens of real-world examples of mythopoetic identities (and the journeys leading to their discovery), especially those of people I’ve been blessed to serve at times as a guide but also those of a few well-known individuals, including Carl Jung, Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Malidoma Somé, and W. B. Yeats.
Unique psycho-ecological niche is what I have come to believe is the best, most useful definition of the word soul. Soul, through this lens, is an ecological concept. Most other uses of the word are, in contrast, psychological or religious (as in, respectively, those aspects of a person’s personality or character that are deepest and most authentic; or a creature’s spiritual or immaterial dimension, usually regarded as immortal). As is true within the discipline of ecology more generally, soul-as-niche is thoroughly of nature and is relational: “It’s all relatives,” as the Bioneers put it. Or as I like to say, everything is what it is by virtue of its relationship with everything else. Everything, including an individual human.
Understood ecologically, the human soul, in other words, is not a thing or an object, neither a physical nor a metaphysical object; nor is it a dimension or facet of our psyches. Rather, it is a relational and ecological dynamic; it is our place — our niche — in the greater Earth community, the singular way a human person was born to serve the greater web of life.
When a person doesn’t know their innate niche, especially when they live in conflict with that niche, they are living some version of “the story of separation.” This is a phrase Charles often uses, but I mean something deeper than an alienation from the non-human world. To be separated from soul (as ecological niche) is to be separated in the deepest way from nature. The separation that Charles describes makes soul encounter impossible. And true adulthood is not reached without one or more soul encounters.
Elements of the Hero’s Journey Reconsidered from a Mature Perspective: Tests, Enemies, and Ordeals
What about those elements of the Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell and other mythologists speak of — the tests, enemies, ordeals, triumphs, and the return?
The “tests” in an adolescent journey (again a reminder that here I am referring not to myths but to actual human initiatory journeys) are those that confirm the initiate’s physical strength, cleverness, or ancestral pedigree. But in a mature initiatory journey, the primary tests are those that reveal the initiate’s readiness for the journey of descent itself: Has the initiate cultivated the necessary personal and social resources to undergo, withstand, and survive the psychological, spiritual, and physical hazards of intrapsychic dismemberment and the subsequent metamorphosis of the ego? If not, the descent will not result in an encounter with soul; more likely are insanity or death. The tests faced early in the journey are opportunities for the initiate to ready themself for what comes later. In The Journey of Soul Initiation, I explore many examples of such tests — and ways to cultivate readiness for the journey.
The “enemies” faced in myth by the adolescent hero are tyrants, dragons, ogres, monsters, and the like, beings who, symbolically understood, are our everyday-life keepers of the status quo and the outworn, or elements of the hero’s own psyche (like a harsh self-critic), in both cases enemies to be slain by the hero. In contrast, the “enemies” faced by the mature initiate during an actual initiatory journey are of three kinds, none of which are slain by the initiate: (1) certain elements of the initiate’s own psyche (this includes what Jung named the Shadow but also three additional categories of what I call Inner Protectors, aspects of the psyche that Jung did not explore to any degree or describe with any clarity, aspects that include what I call Wounded Children and Outcasts, Addicts and Escapists, and Loyal Soldiers and Lion Tamers — all of which must be befriended, loved, thanked, learned from, and, ultimately, retired when the initiate has cultivated more mature forms of self-protection and world-engagement); (2) other humans or human institutions who or which would attempt to derail the initiatory journey; and (3) certain beings, embodied or otherwise, who are in truth allies to the initiate but support the journey by appearing as “obstacles,” the encounter with which calls forth an essential personal capacity that the initiate had not earlier understood or could access or that provokes a needed transformation of the initiate.
The primary “ordeal” faced by the mature initiate is not physical hardship, as in the adolescent version, but ego-death — the utter loss of one’s familiar early adolescent identity or story and all the terrors, disorientations, and social, psychological, and spiritual disabilities that might accompany such a loss. (For someone who is psychospiritually prepared for the journey of soul initiation — namely, a psychologically healthy and socio-vocationally accomplished person — the early-adolescent identity or story that is lost or sacrificed is not egocentric; rather, it is healthy and ecocentric, but the dangers and difficulties faced in its loss are no less dreadful for this fact.)
Turning now to myth, consider, as an example, the ordeal faced by Persephone, the Olympian goddess (daughter of Zeus and Demeter), who becomes Queen of the Underworld following her abduction by Hades. Here I’ll explore with you both the myth and how it might inform actual human life experiences.
An egocentric adolescent framing of the Persephone myth might suggest that this is a story about the patriarchal victimization of a woman by a man, an abduction and perhaps a rape, about the misuse or abuse of power (even by gods and goddesses: by Hades, for sure, but also, as we shall see, by Zeus and perhaps Gaia as well), and maybe about woman-as-survivor — a woman who finds a way to make a good enough life anyway, even as part-time Queen of the Underworld. This egocentric adolescent frame might assume that Persephone would rather have returned full-time to her Olympian Heaven and her mother Demeter; that the only reason she agreed to spend a half or a third of every year in the Underworld was because it was the condition Hades placed on her partial (seasonal) release; and that, by eating three pomegranate seeds, she might have knowingly sealed the bargain but it for sure was under duress. This is a legitimate framing of the myth. Just because it may be an adolescent frame, doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Although this may be an egocentric frame, it’s certainly not a patho-adolescent one.
An ecocentric adolescent framing of this myth, in contrast, might say that, primarily, it explains why we have four seasons. The daughter of the Goddess of Fertility has been forced, in autumn, to go into the Underworld; consequently, life on the surface dies off and does not reappear until Persephone returns in the spring. This is also a valid and useful frame.
Viewed through a mature lens, however, the Persephone myth tells a very different story, a story of soul initiation, a story of the metamorphosis of a healthy adolescent psyche into an adult psyche. For example, most soul-initiation stories include two features near their outset: a crisis that destabilizes the initiate’s ego and an entrancing call, an allurement to the depths. Together, the crisis and the call result in the initiatory ordeal.
Earlier on the fateful day of her abduction, on an outing from Olympus, young Persephone is playing on Earth with some of her nymph friends (the daughters of Ocean, as it turns out), but she is lured away by the sight of the enchanting yellow narcissus flower, a blossom she’d always been mesmerized by. In one version of the myth, the narcissus is planted there by the goddess Gaia, as requested by her grandson, Zeus — Persephone’s father — so as to lure Persephone away from her friends, providing the opportunity for Hades to snatch her. Persephone’s call or longing is for the enchanting flower (in Greek, the name of this flower is narkissos, proclaiming its narcotic effects). The crisis is her sudden social isolation, the severance from her friends, even if brief. Together, the allurement (the call) and the isolation (the crisis) make possible the abduction by Hades. As Persephone goes to pluck the narcissus, the ground splits open and out of the chasm leaps Hades on his golden chariot. Persephone, rather than the flower, is the one who gets plucked. And the rest is . . . mythology.
From a mature mythological lens, however, this is not simply a kidnapping; it’s an initiatory ordeal, an essential element in Persephone’s metamorphosis. Persephone’s abduction may or may not have been necessary for her to eventually take her true (destined, ultimate) place in the world as Queen of the Underworld (as well as Goddess of Spring). But whether through abduction or chosen ordeal, she first has to be shorn of her previous (maiden/ early-adolescent) identity as an innocent Olympian goddess. This, then, is her ordeal, her ego-death — the utter loss of her familiar early adolescent identity, life, and story and all the trials, tribulations, and trauma that accompany that loss. Before her abduction, Persephone’s name was Kore, which means “maiden.” “Persephone,” in contrast, means “to bring destruction,” a name and identity with considerably more gravitas, a name that reveals a core dimension of her mythopoetic destiny as Queen of the Underworld.
It turns out there is a second crisis, one that Persephone isn’t aware of till later. Hades has previously gone to see his brother Zeus to propose that Persephone become Hades’ queen. Zeus not only agrees but even conspires with him by arranging for the narcissus, which Zeus knows will irresistibly allure Persephone. From an adolescent mythic lens, this is a terrible father betrayal, but with a mature frame it is an identity-destabilizing dynamic that engenders a soul-fomenting crisis for Persephone. Middleworld tribulations sometimes provide underworld benefits.
If we now shift our attention to the potentially initiatory ordeal faced at this time by all of humanity — and Earth — we might wonder about the nature of the collective “ego-death” we must suffer in order to transform into a species not only compatible with the integrity of our biosphere but capable of actually enhancing life on Earth.
Elements of the Hero’s Journey Reconsidered from a Mature Perspective: Triumphs, the Return, the Boon — and the Missing Elements
Continuing now with our brief review of some elements of hero myths and actual human initiations:
In the mature initiatory journey (the journey of soul initiation), there is no “triumph” in any ordinary sense. (Again, Rilke reminds us, “When we win, it’s with small things/ and the triumph itself makes us small.”) There is no adolescent heroic victory of having slain monsters, rescued a victim or a village, or become one with a god or goddess. If there’s anything like a personal triumph, it’s the achievement of having died to our former understanding of ourself and of our world and having submitted ourselves to being reshaped by Mystery or by soul (our innate ecological niche) into a real adult capable of truly serving the world — which is what mythological Persephone becomes when she morphs into her roles as Underworld Queen and Goddess of Spring/ Vegetation. The real triumph in the journey of soul initiation is that of the world, which is now more capable of evolving, of unfolding it’s story — compared to what would have been if we had not been able to occupy our destined place in that story.
The mature “return” is not a return of the self that embarked upon the journey. It’s not the return of an egocentric adolescent more inflated and more full of him/her/themself. Nor is it the return of a demi-god that leaves other early-adolescent egos either swooning or twisted in fits of jealousy. It’s also not the return of someone who has achieved enlightenment or, as Campbell would have it, has become the “perfected, unspecific, universal man” — perhaps another kind of egocentric daydream. No, it’s the return of a humble human who, although usually recognizable physically as the one “who went out,” is soon enough discovered to be a radically transformed person. Whether or not their personality has changed, they’re now inhabiting a profoundly different place or niche in the world, a unique place their people will eventually recognize by the way that person enhances the life of their more-than-human community. A mythological example of this dayworld dynamic is Persephone becoming someone who enhances life by presiding over the dead and by enabling the fertility of plants.
Through an adolescent lens, the hero returns with a boon that’s immediately deliverable, a gift for the people. This might be a spiritual message, the secret to immortal life, or food or drink for the soul or body. Through a mature lens, however, if there is a “boon” brought back by the initiate, it’s not immediately evident to themselves or to their people. It is something that takes years to develop and embody. Ultimately, the boon is the initiate themselves and their unique way of enhancing life.
What about the missing elements from the Campbellian, immature Hero’s Journey? Primarily, these are the structural features of what I call the Descent to Soul. I’ve come to understand the Descent through the lenses of the natural unfabricated world — for example, the transformation of a caterpillar into a moth or butterfly. There are five phases to this journey. I’ve named them Preparation, Dissolution, Soul Encounter, Metamorphosis, and Enactment.
Slightly more expanded, these five phases are: psychospiritual preparation (corresponding to the caterpillar’s fashioning of the chrysalis); ego-death (the dissolving of the caterpillar body); the revelation of mythopoetic identity (the awakening of the caterpillar’s “imaginal cells” that have all along been envisioning a butterfly); the metamorphosis of the ego/ conscious self (the formation of the butterfly body); and the gradual learning of how to enact the new personal story and center of gravity (the butterfly breaking out of its cocoon and learning to use its wings).
The next section of this essay is an appendix from The Journey of Soul Initiation, comparing these five phases of the Descent to the phases found in three other contexts. This discussion further elaborates on differences between the early-adolescent hero’s journey and the late-adolescent Descent to Soul that culminates in true adulthood:
The Descent to Soul Compared to Rites of Passage, the Hero’s Journey, and Indigenous Practices
[Because this section might not be included in the final draft of the essay, the references in this section are noted separately at the end of the essay.]
The five phases of the Descent to Soul are both more in number and different in kind and name than the more familiar three phases popularized by the Dutch-German-French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep and the American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Van Gennep’s area of study was rites of passage, ceremonies enacted in all cultures to mark the major transitions of life, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. He was, in fact, the very person who, in 1908, coined the phrase les rites de passage in his book of that title and identified their three phases as separation, transition, and incorporation. Campbell, whose topic of investigation was not rites of passage but what he understood to be the archetypal hero’s journey found in myths throughout the world, named the three phases of that journey departure, initiation, and return. In contrast, my book The Journey of Soul Initiation maps the Descent to Soul, which is neither a rite of passage nor a myth, and on that account alone there should be little surprise that the phases (Preparation, Dissolution, Soul Encounter, Metamorphosis, and Enactment) are different in number, kind, and name.
Let’s further unpack these differences. First, a rite of passage, as described by van Gennep, marks and supports a major life passage, which is an event, a moment in a person’s life, such as puberty, pregnancy, marriage, induction into a secret society, the ordination of a priest, or the enthroning of a king. For van Gennep, these are passages between socially defined roles or statuses rather than between psycho-spiritual life stages (with the exception of puberty, which is, in addition to a social change, the passage between childhood and adolescence). Other than puberty, all these social passages can take place during the psychological stage of early adolescence — and, in contemporary societies, usually do; when they occur in later stages, they are very different sorts of passages in terms of their meaning and significance for the individual and their community. The sorts of rites of passage described by van Gennep are generally brief — often only a couple of hours, rarely more than a few days. The Descent to Soul, in contrast, is an extended process, a spiritual adventure that unfolds over a number of months or years and results in a radical alteration in consciousness as well as a shift in life stage — not merely or simply a change in social role.
A Descent might include a variety of ceremonies and rituals along the way, but it’s much more than a rite. A Descent is a major feature or dimension of the life stage of the Cocoon (my name for late adolescence, a stage seldom achieved by most contemporary people) and is the primary catalyst of the eventual passage (Soul Initiation) that carries a person into the following stage, the Wellspring (early adulthood). A Descent may bring about a life passage but is entirely distinct from that passage.
Campbell, in his classic text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, based his understanding of the hero’s journey on van Gennep’s template: “The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation — initiation — return.” Notice, however, that two of the three terms he uses here for the phases are not those used by van Gennep (separation — transition — incorporation) and also that one term is different from his own sequence (departure — initiation — return). Campbell includes van Gennep in his bibliography and in one endnote, but he doesn’t mention him anywhere in the main text of the book. Nonetheless, Campbell apparently framed the hero’s journey using van Gennep’s model.
When I began my work as a guide, in 1980, I assumed that the Descent to Soul would unfold in accord with both van Gennep’s and Campbell’s models, that it was both a rite of passage and a hero’s journey. Only very gradually did I discover that neither model adequately informs or illuminates the experience. These models do not at all match up with the phases of the Descent to Soul: The phase of Preparation is entirely missing from the two older models; Dissolution is different from and much more than separation or departure; soul encounter is not among the kinds of transitions considered by van Gennep or among the array of possible experiences Campbell identified as initiation; and although Metamorphosis and Enactment each have some similarities to van Gennep’s incorporation and Campbell’s return, they are very different and much more complex. Let’s take a closer look:
I believe the reason Preparation is missing from both of the two older models is largely because the goals of this first phase of the Descent are dimensions of human development that take place as a matter of course in a healthy culture. I added Preparation to my model because my work has been with contemporary people who have not enjoyed the benefits of such a culture and who usually need much preliminary psychological development work before the commencement of their first Descent. So, the absence of Preparation does not suggest to me a defect in the other two models as much as a deficiency in contemporary societies.
With the second phase, Dissolution, my model of the Descent diverges significantly from the other two. Unlike van Gennep’s separation or Campbell’s departure, Dissolution is not a mere social or vocational severance or leave-taking from everyday Village life. Rather, it’s the complete and conclusive undoing of one’s former psychological and social identity and the definitive ending of one’s belief that any and all identities rooted in social life could ever again be fundamental to who one really is. Although the words separation and departure work well to designate a distinct phase in a rite, they do not suggest the total unmaking of an identity and life story in the way this occurs in the Dissolution phase of a Descent.
The third phase, Soul Encounter, brings about a change in consciousness and a psychospiritual shift in identity that is not primarily or necessarily social, whereas the shifts marked by most rites of passage are changes in social status — boy to young man, single to married, inductee to member, novice to priest, princess to queen. (Again, all these social status shifts, for most contemporary people, take place during the life stage of early adolescence.) Soul Encounter for sure sets in motion a type of transition or initiation (into a Soul-infused and nature-based identity), but this isn’t at all the sort of social-role transition with which van Gennep was concerned nor the kind of existential shift Campbell was tracking. Campbell summarizes his understanding of the middle phase (“initiation”) of the hero’s journey myth:
When [the hero] arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divination (apotheosis), or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).
Soul Encounter does not match any of these Campbellian images of “rewards.” Indeed, Soul Encounter would not properly be deemed a “triumph” at all. It’s more akin to a defeat (of the ego), but a defeat that makes it possible for the initiate to merge with Soul and serve the world in the deepest possible way. The performance of that service and the fulfillment that comes with it will be the initiate’s eventual reward — and it is everything one could hope for. “Triumph” is more of an early-adolescent hero’s fantasy (rescuing the damsel in distress, slaying the monster, retrieving the treasure, saving the world). Soul Encounter, moreover, is not anything like a sacred marriage with the goddess-mother of the world, nor is it father atonement or apotheosis. Those are adolescent spiritual daydreams in which the hero is divinized — ego inflation. Soul Encounter rewards the initiate with the opportunity to be a servant of the sacred, not a monarch or a god. Although we could say a boon is received during Soul Encounter, it is not stolen; it is the retrieval and claiming of the identity one was born with. When we merge with something inherently and innately our own, this is not theft. Neither is Soul Encounter an expansion of consciousness, as in enlightenment or illumination or any other variety of transcendent or upperworld experience, but a focusing of consciousness through the specific soul powers of a unique ecological niche. My definition of soul as eco-niche and my identification of Soul Encounter as the centerpiece of the journey are probably the single biggest differences between a Campbellian hero’s journey and the Descent to Soul.
The fourth Descent phase, Metamorphosis, reveals another major difference between a rite of passage and the Descent to Soul, namely the radical transformation that occurs in the structure of an initiate’s psyche, not merely to their social role or status. This might explain why van Gennep didn’t include such a phase, but it’s unclear why Campbell didn’t incorporate the dynamics inherent in Metamorphosis. It might have been because his topic was myth and not the actual experience of the Descent — even though some myths appear to be road maps for the Descent, as explored elsewhere in this book. Or Campbell might have simply overlooked this thread of the mythological pattern due to his focus on Freudian themes and on the goal of spiritual transcendence or divine union as espoused by Eastern spiritualities. Metamorphosis is the phase of the Descent when the ego is shape-shifted into something mature (truly adult) and useful to the world, a dynamic Campbell neglected.
The final phase of the Descent, Enactment, is made possible primarily by the metamorphosis of the ego, not by a change in social status, as in a rite of passage, and not by the mere possession of a boon or gift, as in Campbell’s reading of the universal “monomyth” of the hero’s journey. What is enacted is also not what Campbell refers to as “illumination,” the hero as “perfected, unspecific, universal man,” or “the knowledge of…unity in multiplicity.” Rather, it is the unique and specific genius and singular soul gift of the initiated woman or man. The transcendent goal and outcome of Campbell’s hero’s journey — enlightenment, universality, or unity — is in stark contrast to the goal and outcome of the Descent to Soul: the unique, nature-based, and world-serving embodiment of mythopoetic identity.
Although van Gennep’s and Campbell’s models do not at all match up with the phases of the Descent to Soul, they do accord with my understanding of the journey of soul initiation (JoSI), but only in terms of overall structure: JoSI begins with a separation or departure, in this case from the life stage of the Oasis (healthy early adolescence), enters a long period of transition or initiation corresponding to the entire life stage of the Cocoon (late adolescence), and ends with an incorporation into the life stage of the Wellspring (early adulthood). But, as I’ve been saying, JoSI is a far cry from a rite of passage, not the least difference being the duration — several years or more for JoSI compared to a few days at most for nearly all rites of passage. More generally, JoSI is a complex developmental sequence, while a rite of passage is the marking of a single transition from one life stage to the next (or, in other instances, from one social status to another).
Although JoSI can be understood as a version of Campbell’s hero’s journey (departure — initiation — return), the core feature of JoSI, the Descent with its encounter with soul, is not, as I noted above, among the array of possible experiences in what Campbell understood as the myth of “the hero with a thousand faces.”
Let’s also consider how my model of the Descent to Soul and of JoSI might compare and contrast — in terms of methods, structure, and outcome — with the initiatory processes of earlier and current indigenous traditions. I can’t offer a definitive comparison here simply because I’m not aware of any explicit analyses of either the structure or outcome of indigenous versions of the Descent or of the larger journey of soul initiation. I have read and heard intriguing accounts of indigenous initiatory practices (some are noted in appendix 1 of this book [The Journey of Soul Initiation]), but not structural analyses. Respectful questions and speculation are nonetheless possible.
First, the structure of the Descent may or may not be different from indigenous models in the four ways noted above with regard to Campbell’s and van Gennep’s models. When making comparisons between a particular indigenous practice and the models in this book, we might ask: (1) Does it include a Dissolution phase and is that phase “only” a social or vocational severance or leave-taking from everyday Village life, or is it, as in my model, a complete and conclusive undoing of one’s former psychological and social identity and the definitive ending of one’s belief that any and all identities rooted in social life could ever again be fundamental to who one really is? (2) Does it include a Soul Encounter phase, and does this involve not a union with Spirit or the discovery or gaining of a new social role but a revelation of one’s unique place in the greater web of life (psycho-ecological niche)? (3) Does it include a Metamorphosis phase of significant duration that brings about a change in consciousness and a psychospiritual shift in identity that is not primarily or necessarily social? (4) Does it include an Enactment phase, in which the initiate gradually learns to embody their new identity in their human community?
If there turns out to be significant differences between the indigenous practice in question and the Descent as modeled here, this would not render either as “better” than the other — only as something different.
What about the methods used — the particular techniques, practices, and ceremonies? How much overlap is there with those described in The Journey of Soul Initiation and my earlier books?
What about the outcome of the practice? Within a given indigenous tradition, does their version of what might be the Descent result in a discovery that corresponds to what I name mythopoetic identity, and is this identity a way of fathoming what I refer to as a person’s unique psycho-ecological niche? (In other words, do they have a similar concept of soul?) In addition to the mere discovery of this identity, does the Descent result in a transformation of the structure and nature of the ego — such that it becomes capable of serving the more-than-human world as an agent of or handmaiden for Soul?
My speculation is that most indigenous initiatory practices (those that result in initiated adulthood) have some similarities to but also significant differences from the model of the Descent presented here — in terms of methods, structure, and/or outcome. I make no claim that the model and practices described in this book are more effective or better than any indigenous traditions, past or present — only that they are likely different and necessarily so; each culture must fashion its own unique, authentic, and always-evolving methods for supporting the maturation of its people.
Second, considering the larger journey of soul initiation, does the indigenous culture in question differentiate between two distinct stages of adolescence and the ways both stages are different from adulthood? (See chapter 1 of The Journey of Soul Initiation and chapter 3 of Nature and the Human Soul.) Does this culture understand developmental tasks as one of the core features of a developmental stage? If so, how do they describe the tasks of childhood and adolescence? [For an intriguing resonance between my developmental model and indigenous perspectives, see here.] In their developmental journey from childhood to adulthood, are there two additional major life passages after puberty? Do these passages correspond in some way to those I name Confirmation (the passage from early adolescence to late adolescence) and Soul Initiation (the passage from late adolescence to early adulthood)? As for the outcome of the journey, what is the indigenous understanding of or definition of initiated adulthood? How does this compare with the definition in The Journey of Soul Initiation of adulthood? What are the various methods used for supporting the process of maturation?
I suspect that my model of the journey of soul initiation, with its three distinct life stages and two passages (after puberty), involves a conception of adolescence you’ll not find in indigenous traditions. First, my model has two stages of adolescence, and indigenous traditions may have only one — and possibly none at all if the individual, as a result of the journey, is understood to transition directly from childhood to adulthood. In Nature and the Human Soul, I discuss how adolescence itself may be an evolutionary advance that has become apparent only in the last few centuries and may never have existed before in the human story. I also discuss how the potentials inherent in this advance (which have to do with the higher development of human imagination) have not yet been realized, although the necessary structures of psyche are already in place.
As I explore in the Coda of The Journey of Soul Initiation, the kind of ego that results from the contemporary journey of soul initiation may be one that has not appeared before in human evolution, an ego capable of imagining futures that are so different from any previous human experience that the word future itself must be re-visioned.
[This is the end of the adapted version of Appendix 2 from The Journey of Soul Initiation.]
Individuation vs. Evolution
In addition to Charles Eisenstein’s point about the Hero’s Journey being an immature adventure (“a boy archetype, not a man archetype”), he offers a second intriguing idea:
The conquering hero in countless myths and legends is a proxy for civilization itself, discovering its powers, conquering nature, domesticating the wild, subduing the barbarians. … We have been flogging the Hero’s Journey like a tired horse in hopes that it will drag the wagon of civilizational sense-making a few more decades into the future. … Another mode of development calls us.
Inherent in Charles’ comments here is the distinction between the individual human initiatory journey versus the collective unfolding of a society, culture, or civilization (or even our species). He implies that contemporary societies, at least our Western ones but maybe others, have been navigating their course using a template borrowed from individual human development — in particular, that of the immature conquering hero. He also implies that we could chart a more wholesome, life-serving course for our collective journey (he calls this “our collective soul development”) by borrowing alternative and presumably more mature myths of the individual journey and applying them to the transformations needed now in our society or culture, or in our human evolutionary project more generally.
I’m not so sure.
First, for many years I’ve been convinced that modeling collective development (cultural unfolding or species evolution) on individual development (individuation, maturation, or initiation) is not the best approach, no matter the maturity level of the representative individual the collective development model starts with. There are some essential ways that collectives (like cultures or species) are different than individuals.
For example, individual development unfolds in a cycle, a sequence of stages, that begins with birth (or conception) and ends with death; the life of an individual has a distinct beginning and end. It’s a cycle in the sense that the same general pattern repeats for each individual of each generation, and, if you think in terms of reincarnation, then it would be the same sequence of developmental stages from one lifetime to the next. (This is generally true even if some specifics of the sequence — like the appearance and incorporation of adolescence — might change over the span of hundreds of generations). Cultural or species development, on the other hand, doesn’t have a distinct beginning, and if that culture or species doesn’t go extinct, neither a distinct end. Rather, viable and nonthreatened cultures and species continue to evolve indefinitely, sometimes said to eventually morph into one or more new species or cultures. Cultures and species do not have natural and certain endings in the way that individual lives do. Cultural and species evolution, in other words, is not a circular journey (like the progression of seasons, the unfolding of a day, or the revolution of a planet around its star) but, rather, one-directional arcs (like the expansion and ongoing genesis of the cosmos, like the gradual complexification and diversification of life, like time — at least the conventional understanding of time). This is the case even if some arcs are modeled as spirals, which have a circular feature but are nevertheless fundamentally arc-like in their overall trajectory.
You can have a society, like ours, in which most people spend most of their lives stuck in the psychological stage of early adolescence, often a defective or pathological version thereof, and you might say that such a society is an adolescent society. And we’d know what you mean: You’d be characterizing the center of gravity of the society as early adolescent because most of its physically grown humans are in that developmental stage. You might flesh this out a bit by noting that the values, interests, styles, perspectives, and conundrums of that society are, in general, adolescent (for example, revolving around the development and enhancement of social acceptance and economic status). However, it would be a mistake, me thinks, to go from there and say that the society in question is in its adolescent stage, as if it had been in its childhood stage earlier, or as if it will eventually achieve its adult stage — hopefully before it destroys much of the biosphere — and then, finally, its elder stage, after which it would presumably die out no matter how healthy, mature, or ecologically-harmonious it was.
You could say the same thing, as many have, about a species, like ours: that we are a young species in our adolescent stage, and hopefully we’ll collectively mature before it’s too late.
But do you see? This is the wrong metaphor or analogy. It’s misleading. Cultures and species do not “mature” in the way or in the sense that individual humans (or other creatures) do. Cultures and species do not develop in a circular way. Most contemporary societies may be adolescent in their flavor due to the maturity level of most of its citizens, but our societies (and cultures) are not in an adolescent stage of development. It might be more accurate to say that they are in a long stretch of social, political, psychological, and spiritual decay (while nevertheless exhibiting and benefitting from scientific, medical, and technological advances along with occasional significant social advances, such as women’s suffrage or civil rights).
Besides, the idea that our species is in a temporary adolescent stage may be a racist one, and for sure short-sighted and ethnocentric. It implies that all human cultures (past and present) are adolescent at best and have never been more “mature.” But many anthropologists, such as Wade Davis, or human ecologists, such as Paul Shepard, would tell us that there are many examples of cultures — those of certain nature-based peoples — whose societies were significantly healthier and more life-serving than ours, a few of them still extant (because not yet culturally shattered or wiped out by egocentric-dominator societies). In this sense, contemporary societies aren’t on an ever-maturing trajectory, but more like near the end (we can hope) of a long process of cultural decay, at least as concerns such dimensions as individual maturity, collective wisdom, morality, sanity, resilience, sustainability, and capacity to support biological and social-racial-ethnic diversity.
So, to underline one of the core distinctions I’m making: There’s an essential difference between the way that individual creatures develop and the way that societies, cultures, languages, and species do. Positive individual development is what we might call personal growth, individuation, or initiation, while positive cultural development is what we might call advancement, enrichment, regeneration, or evolution. These are very different kinds of processes — even though both may be referred to as development or maturation.
In short, comparing a human society (or culture) in its development to an individual human in their development is an interesting analogy, intuitive in some ways, but ultimately, I believe, a misleading one that does not yield a path to cultural regeneration. Individuation vs. evolution.
How Do Cultures Evolve?
There’s an additional problem with borrowing archetypes from the individual journey of personal development for the purpose of charting a more wholesome course for our collective journey: Charles’ perspective (a not uncommon one) implies that we could choose a course for our society or our species by everyone getting together and deciding on what the best path might be. But even if most humans were to agree on a certain plan (which would never happen anyway; there’s just too many wildly divergent ideas about the best course — consider, for example, the MAGA folks, on one hand, and the Extinction Rebellion clan, on the other), this implies that societies or cultures evolve (or even could evolve) through conscious decisions to function outwardly in certain ways. This I believe is a kind of hubris — as if we (or some subset of us) can decide how to create a healthier culture by adopting certain political, philosophical, spiritual, and/or religious frameworks, and then make it happen accordingly and maybe even as quickly as a few years.
We can for sure purposely create societies that are healthier than those we have in the contemporary world — interim societies that will have shifted from dysfunctional and ecocidal to functional and sustainable — but truly healthy, life-enhancing cultures are more like a biological species or a natural language: they evolve; they’re not invented, constructed, or planned. There is no way to strategically or rationally figure out the best form for a healthy culture and make it happen by imposing certain structures onto an immature population stuck in early adolescence. Such attempts might as likely make things worse, especially if planned by even well-meaning people in early adolescence
To summarize so far, I believe that the life-destroying trajectory of egocentric-dominator societies is not so much due to a collective embrace (conscious or otherwise) of an immature archetype or myth, but due to cultural decay over thousands of years, a decay that has resulted in pervasive developmental arrest of its citizens. (How and why this decay began is another question and a really interesting one — one that I’ve mused on elsewhere.) Likewise, our salvation will not come from a collective conscious embrace of more mature archetypes or myths.
We might wonder: If cultures do not develop on the same template as individual humans, from childlike to elder-like, what are the stages of their development? Is there in fact a common sequence or pattern or are there many? This is too big of a topic to wrestle within this essay, which is getting too long as it is. I’ll just say here that most Western perspectives on this question might suffer from taking our current (terminal) Western societies as exhibiting the pinnacle of cultural development that all other cultures ought to aspire to. Such a perspective is becoming increasingly untenable and ironic, not to mention political, ideologically misleading, racist, genocidal, suicidal, and ecocidal.
What about species? If species do not evolve in a similar way to how individual humans develop, from childlike to elder-like species, what are the stages of their development? Again, is there a pattern? This, too, is a bigger topic than this essay could embrace. One thing we might note, however, is Darwin’s oft misunderstood point that the species that thrive in the long term are those that best support the health of their environment — the species that enhance biological diversity and the integrity of their habitats. In other words: it’s not the survival of the fittest but the survival of those who fit best (by which I mean not those humans who fit best within a sick society but the species who fit best within the greater Earth community). From this perspective, our species currently looks to have a rather limited run. But this principle — survival of those who fit best — clearly suggests how we, collectively, might most wisely proceed from here: Earth care. Perhaps more than most species, we have the capacity to choose how well we’ll get along with the others.
How to Grow a Healthy, Life-Enhancing Culture
All this leaves us with a more urgent and practical question, perhaps the most critical one we face at this time of our world-shifting meta- and mega-crises: What can we do to support a culture or a society (our own, for example) to become healthier, to change at a deep structural level, to make better collective choices? Can we achieve this by, for example, attempting to shift the consciousness of a critical mass of humans through a certain set of practices, actions, stories, or enacted dramas (perhaps those that introduce more mature archetypes)? Or perhaps, as some say, the only way to foment real change is to do all we can to swiftly bring about the definitive collapse of our current dominator societies, rather than just waiting for this inevitability. Maybe, so the thinking goes, enough people (of privilege) will wake up only when things get bad enough.
I’ve been musing about this question for years. So far, I’m not convinced we can achieve significant life-enhancing cultural change either through societal sabotage or through any kind of societal version of individual self-improvement projects (“social-improvement projects”?) — at least when starting with an egocentric society, most of whose members are in early adolescence.
It seems to me that egocentric societies like ours can become noticeably healthier only through the maturation of a significant percentage of its citizens — and that this unfolds in two distinct stages:
First, a critical mass of a society’s members must become eco-awakened. “Eco-awakening” is my name for the transition from egocentrism to ecocentrism — the life passage from egocentric early adolescence to ecocentric early adolescence. Eco-awakening is that world-shifting moment when someone has their first conscious and embodied experience of their innate membership in the Earth community, their fundamental kinship with all forms of life. This is not a mere cognitive recognition of our interdependence with all life but a somatic, emotional, and spiritual transformation, a profound shift in consciousness and worldview — from that of a dead, mechanical, deterministic world to a fully animate one.
When a critical mass within a society becomes eco-awakened, that whole societybecomes ecocentric and is thenceforth capable of expeditiously transforming its systems so as to make itself sustainable precisely because it sustains the biological diversity of its environment (Earth care, which is also self-care or self-preservation).
In such a society, the majority of its physically grown members are in at least a healthy/ ecocentric early adolescence, although many may not have matured beyond that stage. My guestimate is that perhaps only 10% of current Americans are eco-awakened. At what percentage would we reach the tipping point into an ecocentric society?
In the second stage of the cultural regeneration of a formerly egocentric society, eco-awakened people in their twenties and beyond increasingly become soul-initiated, an entirely different and considerably deeper transformation that usually takes several post-eco-awakened years to navigate and that results, when successful, in true adulthood. With a critical mass of soul-initiated adults, a society can become worldcentric, which is to say not only life-sustaining but life-enhancing. All genuine adults (and elders) are visionary artisans of cultural regeneration, deeply imaginative humans who have learned how to cooperate with the cosmos, with what geologian Thomas Berry has called the time-developmental arc of evolution. At what percentage of soul-initiated adults (or maybe it’s just an absolute number) would we reach the tipping point ushering us into a life-enhancing ecocentric society?
What must a society put in place in order to facilitate eco-awakening and then soul initiation in as many of its members as possible? How do you grow a healthy, life-enhancing culture?
I believe healthy cultures are grown in the only way they always have been grown: by attending, first and foremost, to healthy individual human development. And doing so requires that we attend to the social, educational, economic, technological, spiritual/ religious, and natural systems that support healthy human development.
To begin this project of cultural regeneration, we must first have adequate templates for healthy human development. What does real maturation look like? What are its dimensions? What are the stages of a healthy human life, and what are the tasks that must be addressed in each stage? Then we need to fashion societal systems that support such development: for example, ecocentric schools, soulcentric parenting support, racial and social justice initiatives and programs, mentorships, apprenticeships, and soul-oriented mystery schools. If we succeed, healthy culture is the eventual natural outcome of healthy/ mature humans interacting and living together.
In other words, we can’t start with an egocentric-dominator culture and go directly to a healthy ecocentric-partnership society. Even if we could put into place the most brilliant economic and political systems of what we think a healthy society ought to have in its fully fleshed-out form, this won’t create a life-enhancing society — although it might get us to the interim stage of a life-sustaining society. Rather, we must start with what amounts to a remedial approach: Begin with methods for healthy ecocentric individual development, apply this over a few generations, and then “sit back and watch” as the gradually increasing numbers of true adults and elders interact and inspire each other in such a way that a healthy culture organically emerges.
This takes a good long time. There are no shortcuts.
The project of creating a truly accomplished, ecocentric, and life-enhancing culture from within the context of an egocentric, pathological one (like all industrialized or industrializing, nature-alienated cultures today, which is to say, all egocentric-dominator societies) is a project that will span many generations. It’s not a matter of adopting the most progressive or most enlightened political agenda, economic system, or spiritual/ religious framework — or a set of mature archetypes or myths. Rather, it’s a matter of creating ways to support healthy human development.
This is why we need an adequate model of what healthy human development looks like. One guideline: We can’t create such a model by basing it on one or another or any number of theories, no matter how progressive; nor by conducting research, whether with college sophomores or otherwise. Rather, we must return to the template designed by an intelligence much greater than ours — Earth’s intelligence — and take careful notes. (Rilke: “If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted like trees.”) This is what my colleagues and I at Animas Valley Institute have been pursuing for the past 40 years: modeling human development using three coordinated templates, all circular, namely the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, and the four times of day (sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight).
The project is incomplete, but we’ve strolled a good way down the trail. The model has been constantly evolving and will, hopefully, continue to do so. Here’s one of our methodological principles: The way you know if a model is faithful to the larger intelligence of nature — and consequently is useful (not at all the same as “true” or “empirically confirmed”) — is through continual modification of the model so to make it consonant both with nature’s templates and with what we learn while doing our best to support individual humans to mature. Model building and praxis. Our interim report on building a nature-based model of human development can be found in Nature and the Human Soul.
An Example of Model Use: Male and Female Archetypes
What follows is an example of using a nature-based model of human development.
Charles tells us that one of his current projects is “collaborating with a small group of people to create a dramatic performance — a musical.” He notes that, while creating this musical, it’s important to him to “drive the plot with a story template and archetypes beyond the Hero and his Journey.” This seems to me an intriguing project.
The shape of the musical is starting to come together in my mind. I have already composed two mythic framing stories, but I still have not arrived at the human story that interweaves them. I am excited at the challenge of creating a compelling, immersing plot that is not a journey and not a conflict. There will be a male and a female character. For the male, I’m looking first to Warrior, Magician, Lover, and King for orienting archetypes. In their true expression, none of them seek their own glory. The true Kings walk among us, we who rarely recognize them as kings. That is because the kingdom they serve is beyond most people’s conscious recognition. Part of my purpose is to show the glory of these humble people. For the female, I am starting with Priestess and Queen, looking to those I know who embody those most radiantly. They too are little recognized, especially by themselves.
The four male archetypes here — King, Warrior, Magician, Lover — are borrowed by Charles from a book of that title published in 1990 by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, a book that has been popular within the men’s movement founded by poet Robert Bly and others. But let’s ask ourselves if these four particular archetypes are adequate to represent the full spectrum of healthy masculinity — or the full spectrum of healthy humanity, more generally. We might even ask if each of these four archetypes as described ought to be considered as facets of maturity at all; perhaps some are adolescent in flavor. How would we know? Do we just take Moore and Gillette’s word for it? Do we take a vote? What if Moore and Gillette are missing some essential pieces? The only way to adequately answer these questions — to return to the central point of this essay — requires a mature lens, a holistic model of the spectrum of healthy masculinity, something best accomplished, I believe, using nature’s templates and exemplars.
Over the past 25 years, my colleagues and I have been developing a model of this sort, one we call the Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche, employing as templates nature’s four cardinal directions, four seasons, and four times of day. Through the lens of this model, Moore and Gillette’s four archetypes seem primarily to focus on the qualities of only one of the four nature-based groupings of archetypes, namely the North/ Winter/ Midnight archetypes, which, together, we call the Nurturing Generative Adult (NGA).
When I reviewed how Moore and Gillette describe their versions of three of these archetypes — King, Warrior, and Magician — it seems to me that all three resonate almost