“Now that I have seen your face,”, he says to Death, “what can I enjoy?”
Nachiteka, Katha Upanishad

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Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

An unexpected crisis can take many shapes or forms.

The world as we thought we knew it is changed, is put into question. Our model of the world and what we thought the world owed to us is put into question. Our identities, our place in society, the order on which our societies rest: all is put into question. A crisis dislodges our expectations, can present a black swan, an event unexpected unexpectedness, to us. It can confront us with the fragility of a world whose stability we take for granted, the fragility of our freedom, of our social order, of our health: and all we can do is watch our sense of comfort and entitlement coming to pieces.

This can be frightening, anxiety-inducing, panic-inducing.

But there can be a bright side: times of crisis have transformative potential. A crisis forces us to change ourselves, to step out of the trod and comfort of daily existence: to think deeply about what all of this means, what the world means, what we value, who we are - and what we want to be.

The Hero’s Journey

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Source: wiki (Public Domain)

Joseph Campbell is famous for popularizing the idea of the Monomyth, the concept that behind tales and myths across all cultures and times hides a common structure, a recurring motif: that of the hero’s journey. Be it in the Tale of Gilgamesh, in Homer’s Odyssey, in the stories of Buddha or Moses, or even in modern classics like Harry Potter and Star Wars, many myths describe the transformative journey of a hero that has to face adversity, only to return a changed and bettered person with gifts to give, with wisdom to share.

The climactic point of the hero’s journey is reached when he or she traverses the underworld and is forced to confront a great challenge, which induces a kind of death and rebirth. Only in confronting this challenge, and in carrying out the transformation catalyzed by struggling with it, the transformative quality of the journey is realized.

A Psychological Hero’s Journey

Carl Jung, Freud’s most famous pupil, developed a psychological perspective on the hero’s journey and other mythological motifs in what he called the collective unconscious: it is the unconscious space spanned by people across cultures and times, the collective psyche of all mankind, and it is populated by archetypes, manifesting in our stories, in our art, in our dreams. I don’t think you need to believe in some kind of supernatural connection between all of our minds to see that there is value to this idea. One perspective connects to Dawkin’s idea of the meme: the archetypes reflect universal ideas that are particularly powerful in capturing our imagination and representing deep structural insights into what it means to live as a human being. They connect to our biological make-up, our social structures, and the realities of life and death that have been at the bottom of all human life for millions of years.

In Jung’s conception, one of the most important stepping stones to becoming a fully individualized human being lies in integrating what he called the shadow into our psyche.

The shadow is the part of our own psyche that we’d much rather like to suppress, that we want to keep out of the boundaries we put around our personality, constraining the space of possible realization of ourselves. It is our unknown dark side. As it is the unknown dark side of us, it is prone to projections, and these projections can be dangerous, for they can make us hate and blame other people for something we do not want to accept about ourselves.

So facing the shadow can change us, but it is a difficult process, an internal hero’s journey. When we journey into our psychological underworld, facing a kind of subconscious darkness in order to re-emerge changed and bettered, we encounter the shadow. It takes skill and courage to hold our ground against it, to learn the lessons it can teach.

A psychological view on the hero’s journey reminds us that personal development doesn’t come for free. Progress and transformation usually entail some kind of through struggle, only comes through courageously facing peril, facing darker aspects of ourselves and of life. And as external states of crisis tend to intertwine with internal states of crisis, they give us an opportunity to move into deeper modes of reflection and confrontation not only about the world but about our place in it.

The Katha Upanishad: Facing Death

“Nachiteka, rare as he is, represents the capacity latent in all of us to face that grim awareness and use it as a drive to deepening consciousness.”
Eknath Easwaran

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Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

One facette of the shadow is our own mortality, which is largely suppressed in modern Western society. Death is not embraced, is not celebrated as in many spiritual and shamanic traditions, but rather pushed aside, ignored until the last moment, hidden away from the view of society in homes for the elderly and palliative care units.

Yet death is unavoidable. There never was a person that did not die, and despite all our medical advances, it doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon. And so the largest crisis, the largest shadow looming at the bottom of all of our minds we all have to confront one day, is the fact of us having to die.

The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, texts of ancient wisdom that lay the foundation of the spiritual tradition of Ancient Indian culture. They give off a sense of timeless purity as if they had been brought down from before the beginning of time itself. They are texts in a style that is poetic and beautiful but can also be pedagogical and provocative.

The Katha Upanishad is one of the primary Upanishads, and it has remained a favorite for ages.

Nachiteka, a teenager, is sent by his father to visit death. Nachiteka might still be young, but he has already realized the emptiness of all worldly pleasures (the world of Maja, as the Buddhists say) when confronted with the fact of death. And so Nachiteka finds himself in dialogue with death.

“Now that I have seen your face,”, he says to Death, “what can I enjoy?”
Nachiteka, Katha Upanishad

The lesson death teaches him finally spark his enlightenment: that there is no true happiness in the finite, and that happiness comes only from the infinite.

Again, this lends itself to a psychological interpretation. Nachiteka realizes the enlightening potential of the grimmest truth of our existence by stepping right into death’s home. And death can represent more than just our physical death: it represents the uncertainty of all of life, the inherent impermanence (what in Buddhism is called Annica, one of the three characteristics of existence) of all of our achievements and possessions.

Facing Fears

Taking all of this out of the mythological/spiritual context (even though stories have a more natural way of capturing our imagination than, say, the brute facts of scientific papers), modern therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy feature some structurally similar features. Because extreme situations are so challenging, they encourage us to avert our gaze and seek out distractions. But this can drag out the problems indefinitely: science shows that anxieties are best treated and even overcome by being faced, observed, and reframed in new ways.

This takes energy, and is in many cases is especially in cases of traumatic intensity, a slow process. Sometimes we hardly feel capable of taking on an additional journey into our underworld. But as difficult as it may be: a crisis is best used not by seeking distractions, but by looking the fears it kindles inside us straight into the face and by understanding, just as the hero reemerging from the underworld, how they can teach us to come out on the other side all the better for it.

I love new ideas. My science podcast: https://anchor.fm/acit-science Connect via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/manuel-brenner-772261191

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