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Commentary: The Journey to Individuation – and Responsibility - Part III


It is here that I am going to take a departure from simple commentary and get into something more substantively. In part I and part II, I described the issues with foisting adult responsibilities on children, the educational system failing students, and the need for adults to take up their rightful role as “elders” who are re-learning the inherent sense of responsibility that used to be expected of adults. As “the Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes” suggested, this sense of responsibility is paramount, or else the new generation of young men and women will have to do what we refused to do out of apathy, superficiality over substance, bickering, feigned ignorance, or sheer laziness—which may or may not have something to do with the sense that, following the atomic bomb, some part of us, even subconsciously, started to believe that all life—and everything on the planet—is inherently disposable, and that short term gain was preferable to looking toward a long-term that may not even exist.

To learn to take up that responsibility and to move through the Wasteland, as it were, to learn how to grapple what humanity has gotten itself into, we need to perhaps revise Jung’s timing in terms of Individuation—we can no longer wait to do our soul searching until after middle age—we’d better find what’s important to us now, not as selfish human beings, but ones with a little more depth than that, and we’d better act on it for the benefit of more than just ourselves. What we leave the next generation has to be an undisputed priority, and that indeed means cleaning up our mess.

To do that, we need some kind of paradigm to remind us of what it takes to find that substantive core—that which allows us to take up the gauntlet and walk forward. We already know that this world has become smaller over time, and no action—whether by nation or by an individual can be seen as existing in a vacuum. What we do—and for that matter do not do—has a profound effect.

There is a paradigm that has existed since time immemorial, and it’s particularly well-suited for these “post-nuclear” generations; it involves the heart of indigenous wisdom, the wisdom of Romantic poets, and the wisdom of psychology and mythology, each of which marked the very idea of the Quest. The Quest is something many have written about. The New Age contingents capitalize on it—often I can’t read about it in the books published since the 90’s, because the superficial aspects of the Quest resemble that dime-store profundity rather than the depth of intense soul-searching that resides at its core. For any Quest to succeed, it can’t solely exist in the ether--there needs to be a firm foundation to it—one marked not just by flights of fancy, but also by hardcore reason which translates into subsequent and substantive action. Mind and emotion must merge to bring some level of pragmatism to human endeavor. Often tenets surrounding the Quest are sheer lip service, hearkening back to placating our egos, or the sense that belief alone is enough.

Belief without action is wholly impotent. And more than that, belief, combined with action, has to be about more than solipsism.

To tie in with the concept of Individuation, Jung’s concept, Individuation is achieved post-quest. It is the illumination that is possible following the journey through the Wasteland to the other side of what has been a harrowing journey. This is no endeavor for the shrinking violets of the world, or those who love to pronounce future action without taking it, believing, again, that intent, like belief, should be enough. We each must go through it as individuals, and it is vastly apparent that we also need to go through it as a society. Societies have done this since time immemorial; it is what marked the Renaissance after the Medieval period and the Dark Ages. Humanity moves in cycles—and it is when there is a pronounced call to action that cannot be ignored, such a quest is triggered, perhaps refused at first, but must be undertaken.

If anything, the nature of the world relies upon balance, and when imbalance prevails, there must be those who will step up to the proverbial plate to do what is necessary if others are unable or unwilling to do so themselves.

It is here that I’m going to go back to my academic roots, leaving the rest of this article as inspired by something I wrote back then, including quoting from certain sources I warmly believe are important to make my point. Here I’m going to also delineate the indigenous version of the Quest, which offers vast wisdom we inherently ignore or take for granted for being wise without actually listening to it; also here is wisdom from more Western sources, wholly linked both in theme and in importance. I hope that this will help to bring some attention to a process that has been lacking for many; or else one to which we have been trained to go through the motions, without digging deeply enough to truly have the experience itself. The Quest teaches us how to be both responsible to ourselves and to others. For there is no point of the Quest at all if you haven’t changed for the better by virtue of the process, and more than that, if you don’t contribute what you have learned to others after the Wasteland has been navigated.

Indigenous Wisdom, Romanticism, Modernism, and the Search for the Self

The Quest itself is often seen primarily by "modern" man as a romanticized notion that has no bearing on present-day existence—or otherwise, again, a New Age notion that exists primarily in the ether, some of its inhabitants using ethereal verbiage, and are otherwise perhaps glassy-eyed and well-meaning, but who cannot translate intention into action. Instead, we seem to exist in a world of extremes—either diving into transcendent ideas without coming up for air and applying them, or otherwise it deal in sheer, uninspired pragmatism, shirking any responsibility to the inner journey, leaving such harebrained ideas to the “artists of the world” whom such people would believe have no real responsibility to anyone but themselves.

(In many ways, unfortunately, this can be the truth. The idea of “solipsism” is often used for artists who believe themselves to be more important than their work.)

But as with most things, there is a middle Path. The inner and outer journeys must inherently communicate and coexist, and there must be, at some point, a purpose that motivates us to not just do what we need to do for ourselves, but as importantly, to make a contribution that affects the world in some positive sense. The best and most profound artists and writers havedone that since time immemorial in undertaking an inner journey that would result in works that would be born into the outside world. And images of the Quest were prevalent, particularly among the Romantics, who evoked images of the transcendent, the sublime, and the intrinsic heroic journey that would inherently find a way to link Imagination to the physical world.

Such literature used myth, metaphor and the transcendent to teach humanity about the nature of the Universe and the part human beings were expected to play. The guides to this realm were the poets and writers who sought its truths, entering the abyss to seek knowledge, encouraging others to pass beyond the veil of consciousness to an inner world in which they would encounter a "maelstrom" that would challenge their very psychic, if not physical, existence. This, indeed, was the ultimate Quest--one that would challenge the very nature of reality, and by virtue of that the human being him or herself showing that there was more than that which existed on the surface. This was expected. But what was also expected was that from the transcendent world, from the questioning and depths of searching—a lifelong quest—still, one also needed to return to play the role of an individual amidst society, offering a unique lens of perception—a unique expression of individuality—for the very purpose of making an offering of that individualism in service to a greater whole, changing humanity for the better.

In tribal cultures, this idea of the transcendent is well known. Human beings are nothing more than a physical manifestation of the soul, that which can communicate with and is directly connected to the transcendent. It is the soul or spirit that causes humans to feel emotion, to transcend the ego, to connect itself with the Universe.

In Dreamtime and Inner Space, psychological anthropologist Holger Kalweit discusses the role of the soul in the larger context of the transpersonal realm, that which the Romantics sought to understand in their analysis of and experience with the Sublime. In tribal cultures, shamans undertake a journey into this realm to bring back knowledge that will be of use to their community. They "alter" the "structure of their consciousness," acquiring "access to the soul body, to the Beyond, and to a non-material cosmic reservoir of energy" through which the shaman seeks answers to pressing problems of both a practical and existential nature. In this state, Kalweit explains, the shaman is exposed to a place so "charged with energy" that it transcends the "causal mechanics of our world,” "cleansing" the shaman, providing him with images that he will take back to the human world, most often in the form of song.

The "song of power" is "lyrical--a spontaneous rhythm freely unfolding without intervention of the will" that takes its form poetically, unlike the prose of "ordinary consciousness" which is often "hard, unmelodic, and calculated.” Accompanying it is a sense of "euphoria and bliss" which are "clear indications of transcendence.” In this state, a shaman encounters the death of the ego, facing a reality in which there is no form of opposition, as the "dichotomy between 'I' and 'other'" collapses. It is this idea that Kalweit agrees is a terrifying notion, as the fear of "self-dissolution" becomes imminent, as it represents the "inner structure of our solid, conceptual world.” But it is only with this transcendence of the ego itself that the shaman can gain illumination, as there is no psychic barrier that will prevent the shaman from gaining the knowledge he seeks to bring back to the outside world. He "enters living nature so fully that he becomes able to see what lies behind its external forms,” observing calmly, without "carefully considered action," "following events from behind the veil.”

The Romantics, being members of Western society, had little such hardcore experience with this kind of transcendence, at least during the time which they attempted it. If anything, they feared the loss of the ego, not willing to go so far as to lose themselves in the same way tribal shamans and even western Druids had done for centuries. However, for ones who had forgotten much of their tribal past in ancient Europe, they knew enough to understand that there was something there that intrigued their imaginations--something that Emerson described as "primal warblings" in his essay, "The Poet.” It is this fear of ego-dissolution that, for instance, causes Alastor in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem of the same name to be so self-conscious and narcissistic that he "descends to an untimely grave” when he searches the Sublime for his perfect vision...in this case, that of a woman. He wanders, seeking "strange truths in undiscovered lands,” facing darkness only to encounter a "woe too 'deep for tears,” "pale despair and cold tranquility,” only to fail...a message from Shelley that "relentless," selfish questioning in the presence of the Sublime can only lead to psychological and spiritual torment and "self-destruction.”

It is this self-centeredness that most of the Romantics tried to condemn, perhaps understanding consciously or unconsciously that it was what kept them from crossing the threshold fully from consciousness into the realm of the Sublime. It is narcissism that is necessarily evil, but as Geoffery Hartman discusses in his essay, "Romanticism and Anti-Self-Consciousness," the oneness of the transcendent and the individual nature of the poet creates a difficult paradox:

The question is, how is art possible... His art is linked to the autonomous and individual; yet that same art, in the absence of an actively received myth[which allows for transcendence], must bear the entire weight of having to transcend or ritually limit these tendencies...

Hartman says further that if a poet cannot create an "anti-self" as poet W.B. Yeats had done, seeking "a return to the 'Unity of Being,'" then the poet can only hope to see himself as "Solitary," or "Wanderer," "doomed to live a purgatorial existence which is neither life nor death.” It is this existence, Hartman writes, that may be found in poems such as "Tintern Abbey" in which "the poet looks back at a transcended stage and comes to grips with the fact of self-alienation.”

William Wordsworth seems to realize this paradox in The Prelude, as he looks upon his life and realizes the mistakes he has made, searching once again for the "'unconscious intercourse' with a nature 'as old as creation,'" or "self-forgetfulness" that Hartman calls "unselfconsciousness.”

So in essence, the Romantics faced a quest not only to understand better the nature of the Sublime, but to reach the state of transcendence that they are most afraid of--that which will enable them to experience true illumination, past the stage of ego-consciousness. Besides William Wordsworth’s
The Prelude, other poetry describes the perils of this quest, such as Lord Byron's autobiographical epic, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in which he describes his own journey from the time he was a child, awakening to the call and searching for the transcendent, as many of the Romantics did, in Nature. Although he can feel the power and grace of the Universe through Nature, he is not fully prepared for the quest, having visions that signal illumination, though he is unable to pursue them. "...but I am not now/That which I have been," he writes in the last stanzas, "...--and my visions flit/Less palpably before me--and the glow/Which in my spirit dwelt is fluttering, faint, and low.”

This inability to pursue the Quest leads, as happens for many of the Romantic poets, to a kind of melancholy, inherent in the purgatorial state from which some poets never seem to escape. Again, knowledge of the transcendent is unfulfilled by the inability to merge with it fully, the memory of the opportunity lingering, as Byron writes, "like the remembered tone of a mute lyre/Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move/In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.”

It would seem that this inaccessible or impenetrable nature of the Sublime would cause the Romantics to lose all hope of ever succeeding in slipping behind the veil separating consciousness from the transcendent. Ironically, nowhere in Western literature is that hope more alive. Despite the failures experienced by the various poets, in these past ages, poetry was the one vehicle through which they continued to aspire to reach this state, believing that one day, there would be a poet who will succeed in the poetical Quest of transcending his own self-consciousness, allowing him to go where others could not. Such a person would be a poetic genius...that title having been attributed to various men from Dante to Wordsworth and Blake. To use Coleridge's definition as written in
Biographia Litraria, "the prime merit of genius" is that by revealing a kind of "unequivocal" manifestation of truth, the poet "awakens in the minds of others a kindred feeling" and "freshness of sensation" that an audience would not have experienced otherwise, bringing "the whole soul of a man into activity" by "fusing" "tone and a spirit of unity" that is wholly representative of true "imagination.” Imagination would, then, be generally considered an aspect or a product of the Sublime, manifested in the soul and/or mind of the chosen poet.

Two other poets, Shelley and Emerson, also describe their interpretations of poetry as written by the True Poet who is touched by the Sublime. In "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley describes the poet as a participant in the "eternal, the infinite, and the one" in which "a poem is the image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” In fact, the poet may not even be aware that he is the agent of the "eternal"(which would support the idea of "anti-self-consciousness"), as:

neither poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellence of poetry: for it acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness.

Like Coleridge, Shelley believes that poetry "awakens and enlarges the mind" by "rendering...a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.” Further, because it comes from a "divine" source, it "strengthens" "the moral nature of man"--a statement which will support Shelley's idea that—one that has been debated inside and outside of English classrooms--that poets, then, are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." The Sublime is the realm of "divine" truth...the truth that can only be provided by the transcendent, which has dominion over humanity, and only provides full illumination to those who have the humility and strength to leave behind their ego-consciousness to fuse or connect with the whole. The knowledge gained from this realm is therefore analogous, according to Shelley, to the power of good over evil--for evil would be found in the narcissism that would prevent someone from being worthy of the knowledge he or she seeks, causing one to act selfishly instead of seeking knowledge—and inherent action, whether through art, poetry, or some other endeavor—for the benefit of humanity.

Such sentiments are echoed again by Emerson in "The Poet," who comments that the true poet, long sought after, must be found-- for "on the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying.”
This is a sentiment that has always existed about humanity, but now, in the post-nuclear age of ultimate disposability in terms of both humanity and the planet itself, this takes on an even more harrowing meaning.

While Emerson was confident that a Poet such as this will one day again exist, humanity would invariably face a period of greater cynicism and apathy, during which ideas of the transcendent realm would need to be maintained so that the "morality" of humans could continue, on some level, to survive. Emerson’s prescience is ultimately astounding, as we are realizing the resulting shift in human thought during the technological boom and subsequent hangover of the Twentieth Century.

It is now more than ever that if taking the idea of “poetry” as a metaphor, the insight of Emerson's words would be a call to action for any "chosen" person who might use the power of a poetical, Quest-laden metaphor to battle the abuses and growing insensitivity of society.

For what tribal cultures have known all along, and what the Romantics sought in the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth centuries, now seems lost to the majority of Western humanity in the apathy of the technological age. This is also true of both the indigenous populations’ and Romantics’ respect for and reverence of Nature as the force of healing and truth for those who have the humility to seek it. For such seekers, Nature has always been the physical manifestation, like the soul, of the Divine—of the Sublime—of the transcendent.

For populations of the world who are now at Nature’s mercy, which includes us all, we might be wise in remembering we have two choices: we can either act as respectful, humble caretakers or as a pestilence that Nature, much stronger than we ever will be, can see fit to eradicate. Nature was reverenced by both tribal cultures and the Romantics for a reason; any group which seeks the transcendent cannot help but see inherent beauty and wisdom in its presence, for the transcendent recognizes that which exists beyond ourselves and is inherently imbued with significantly more power—that we in our hubris continue to disregard to our peril. Instead, it seems that we are instead content to live in a world increasingly bent on defining itself through technology, the primary hazard being that we will continue to find ourselves mirroring this definition to the point of eliminating the very humanity that once formed its creation and center. This is indeed the outer manifestation of an inner Wasteland.

In this "modern" age, it was once a common, and often thought paranoid notion, to think that the world would one day, perhaps, be controlled by machines, fostering those qualities onto the human population as human affect would seem less and less logical in such a world. Where once upon a time—even at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution--this would have been seen, perhaps, as insane, we’re coming to accept this as some subconscious possibility, as reflected in popular culture. In popular culture (which often seems, in many ways, to take the place of literature), dystopian movies predominate, showing the dangers of such a society, whether made of automatons drugged or lulled by collective mesmerism to keep from showing visible affect, to a world where machines are powerful enough to try to render humans obsolete in any capacity.

In both of these worlds, the hero is not one who seeks transcendence in a natural, poetic context, but one who tries to break the mold and further the cause of human, sentient existence outside the cold, controlling realm of mechanization and high technology.

(From Metropolis, TX-1138, to the Terminator franchise, to The Matrix trilogy, the list goes on.)

Here, as we are seeing every day in the news and even in our own lives, in this post-modern world, the individual, who would once have gone on an intrinsic quest seeking the knowledge of the Sublime in order to aid the rest of humanity, cannot even define himself easily as an individual. The role of what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century amidst the roar of "progress" is hazy at best--the main question seeming to be, how can a person reach the transcendent or the Sublime and achieve Jung’s Individuation, when he or she doesn't even know him/herself well enough to know what to transcend?

While industrialization and mechanization loomed well on the horizon during the late 1800's through the early part of this century, a modern science, psychology, began gaining credence in combating the disillusionment of the modern age by presenting a new paradigm for the inner Quest. Aspects of the psychological were taken up by philosophers and academics alike--those who presented various theories concerning the nature of the individual and his societal role. Two men in particular tried to re-introduce the idea of the transcendent, showing that indeed, the intrinsic quest is not obsolete, but continues to be wholly essential, especially in an apathetic society. And their message is perhaps even more relevant now as our own desire for progress spins out of synch with our ability to handle its results.

Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst and philosopher, and Joseph Campbell, a venerable academic and lecturer, both of whom have been lauded by the New Age movement, but often without understanding either’s true purpose, or without having read either man’s original material beyond books which quote them so as only to fit them into inappropriate paradigms, have taken up where the Romantics left off, making the idea of the esoteric realm beyond consciousness accessible once again, to Western, post-modern society.

And both have done this for a reason; it is to help modern humanity cope with the world in which it has found itself by offering universal themes which can bring about a Quest relevant to modern times. And again, it is with the full knowledge of the work involved—for such work is not just for the individual him or herself, but for that individual to contribute something transcendent of ultimate narcissism.

In
The Undiscovered Self, Jung shows modern society as an antagonist to the needs of the individual, who, as Jung states, is the "true and authentic carrier of reality"(Jung, 12) although more often than not, he defers to the more "common" reality of an entity larger than himself:

The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed, and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance with the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the mass.

Modern society, Jung believes, is inherently corrupt in certain fundamental ways; its purpose is to sustain “pleasure and satisfaction,” not in the sense that comes from a process of Individuation, but from sheer escapism from reality itself.

A person's own individual reality would determine what Quest he or she would need to undertake in order to be "whole"--physically, spiritually, and emotionally. The beliefs of the mass, tending to value general materialism over emotional stability, individual goals that would come from true soul-searching and subsequent understanding of the true role one can play by virtue of such depth, are, as Jung points out, "no substitute for inner experience.” Instead, man is a "slave and a victim" to the mechanics of his society if he so chooses to be, faced with machines that "conquer space and time for him", pinning him to a "technique which is supposed to safeguard his physical existence", while his "spiritual and moral freedom" are "threatened with chaotic disorientation.”

It is this kind of disorientation that creates the need for that personal Quest--a Quest to find an identity in a world that touts individuality, but at the same time reduces the individual to nothing if he or she cannot "succeed" based on society's own, set guidelines that amount to a "collective prejudice.” For the average individual, because of the way we tend to think about mythology, as there is no literal quest for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece, no Twelve Labors, or a need to place the Dauphin on a disputed French throne—which misses the point entirely of seeing such Quests as metaphor for an inner experience. The Quest must reside in a person's own psyche, which in turn will provide its own importance, outside of the external possessions or tangibles valued in our society that Jung believes "block the way to immediate inner experience.”

"Man's environment," Jung says, "cannot give him as a gift that which he can win for himself only with effort and suffering,” "in giving his life to an undivided goal--for which, as a rule, he must pay very dearly by repressing other sides of his nature.”

And here, again, no cheap, dime-store New Age philosophy will suffice. No spouting of catch phrases or quoting of The Secret will substitute for the real, blood and guts work of that Quest. It is not supposed to be easy, and it isn’t always pleasant. At the end of even our own known inner world, indeed, within our own psyches, as the old explorers were once told, “There be dragons.”

But this is part and parcel of what shamans, poets, artists, explorers, and others have always known. One cannot expect any journey worth taking to be easy. If it were, we would learn nothing from it, and more than that, there would be nothing worth bringing back to others to be of use when it matters most. If a person is to be an individual separate from or existing in society, he must undertake his quest and rely on his instinct, which, as Jung states, "form[s] an a priori which no man can overlook without gravest risk to himself.” I would add to that, it is one that no human being with his or her salt can overlook without denying the world perhaps some single insight or unique flash of wisdom that might make all the difference to this journey we as a society are also taking into our own maelstrom.

So indeed, in one way or another, if a person wants to "live" as an individual and not merely "exist" as one of many automatons—devoid of affect, or otherwise embittered and apathetic of his or her rights as human beings--depicted in futuristic movies, then a Quest even for identity must theoretically be undertaken. The physical challenges of a quest of old where body and spirit become one in the process of traveling for miles and overcoming tumultuous obstacles to slay a dragon must be seen metaphorically. We have no other choice.

A man or woman then, to activate the metaphor, must travel to the mystical realms of his or her psyche, in many cases a vast wasteland where demons may appear at any given moment and where a flash of insight may appear as a guide who furthers the journey. The seeker would then have to overcome obstacles that represent his greatest fears, and if he is successful, then he will gain the boon at the center of his psyche, at the very deepest core of his own interior realm, which will become his illumination--the identity through which he will know and express himself regardless of outside influence. Because he or she has taken that journey, such an identity is hard-won and not so easily dissuaded from existence or expression—or pressure by society. Strength comes from such a journey, and it becomes second nature. In fact, it becomes the foundation of what once was known as character, and from character comes compassion, empathy, and what Schopenhauer in his treatise on morality suggested was a deep sense of connectedness with others that forms the recognition that we and others are not as separate as we think.

It is here that I will bring into this the man who represents the “Holy Grail” as it were, of teachers, and particularly of the New Age movement—many of whom, again, have never bothered to read his works, reading only quotes taken in a vacuum. Here, perhaps, I am running the risk of doing exactly this same thing by quoting a great man; but it is with the hope that it will encourage others to read what he has written and seek such knowledge for the best of reasons—as a tool for the Quest—rather than as a temporary means of placating a constant desire for easy affirmation. Once diving into the deep end of the proverbial pool, there is no such thing. Rather, what I quote is for the purpose of doing the most difficult, if the most important of work one can do when undertaking the process of Individuation, questing, and bringing back both knowledge and passion to make our own unique contribution to bring society out of this dangerous, collective malaise in which we categorically find ourselves.

Joseph Campbell, a student and teacher of world myth and its influence focuses on the Quest—and in fact is known for it—starting with his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Using comparative literature (including indigenous cultures as well as that of the Romantics, themes of which found themselves in everything from Star Wars to The Matrix trilogies), philosophy, and psychology, he focuses on the commonality among all heroes, delving into the phases of their journey that will ultimately result a spiritual "death" and "dismemberment" so that the seeker may be reborn, transfigured, rising from the ashes a new man or woman who holds greater knowledge and a newly forged recognition of his spiritual center to which he submits. Here, Campbell says,

The hero has died as a modern man; but as an eternal man--perfected, unspecific, universal man--he has been reborn. His second solemn task[the first being his quest for rebirth]...is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lessons he has learned of life renewed.

and further:

"It is those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight is truly desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart.”

In an extended interview with Bill Moyers that was turned later into a television series on PBS called
The Power of Myth, now easily found on DVD, Campbell further discussed the importance of the journey in the both ancient and modern contexts, expressing that what a man looks for is "a way of experiencing the world that will open to us the transcendent that informs it, and at the same time forms ourselves within it." "That is what people want," he continues, "That is what the soul asks for.” He further goes on in Hero to describe the phases of the quest or "adventure" that will result in this kind of "illumination": The Departure, consisting of the call to adventure, the refusal or denial of the call, the supernatural aid, and the crossing of the threshold to the "belly of the whale" where the destined rumination takes place, to the Initiation where the hero meets the road of trials resulting in the gaining of his boon, to the Return, where the hero refuses to return from the world he has now known and must be rescued "from without" to cross the return threshold, live in two worlds, and have "the freedom to live" as he has become instead of existing as he was.

The "freedom to live", Campbell continues in Myth, focuses on the "illumination" he has gained from his marga [Sanskrit], or the "trail back to yourself” :

The illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things, whether in the vision of time these things are judged as good or evil. To come to this, you must release yourself completely from desiring the goods of this world and fearing their loss... 'If the doors of perception were cleansed,' wrote Blake, 'man would see everything as it is, infinite'.


But perhaps the main question is, is a man or woman up to that kind of challenge in today's world? Is that person willing to withstand the hardship, the wasteland he must encounter "unprotected," leaving the known behind to try and seek the elusive bounty that Buddhists know as "Nirvana"? Would it be possible to live that kind of existence, "like heaven, but a psychological state of mind" in which a person is "released from desire and fear" to become "harmonious, centered, and affirmative" when all he has known thus far is the turmoil that surrounds him from without and within? And again, if someone is to be a self-actualized individual changing society from within, so that the microcosm can influence the macrocosm to such an extent that the world itself can change, is there any choice?

The Romantics expressed an ideal that was based on hundreds of years of thought, including a Renaissance and a religion that believed wholly in something "divine" that was akin to the Romantic Sublime, though wholly less secular in nature. They believed in the quest...that which was undertaken by the individual, but meant giving up self-consciousness for the greater good, relaying back to humanity the knowledge gained through the Universal "oneness." In this sense, they were our version of the shamans of tribal culture, cluing us in on that which we could only trust was there in a transcendental realm if we were unable or unwilling to look for ourselves. They provided a truth that came from beyond...that caused human imagination to expand and dream of things that formerly seemed impossible. They challenged our perspectives...reaching into a chasm that formerly had been hidden to the Western world, existing as truth in other cultures.

The Romantics, then, allowed us to understand the importance of an intrinsic quest...the need to transcend the ego and reach the Sublime, in which we would gain the illumination to return to the human realm and offer the newly-gained transcendent knowledge to the rest of humanity.

Shamans of tribal cultures knew—and continue to know (as indigenous populations worldwide continue to be systematically destroyed by “progress”) of this process long before the Romantics did, but the Romantics made this knowledge more accessible to Western man of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and even today, should we read them outside of the realm of a high school or college classroom.

The solipsism, cynicism and escapist tendencies of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries now, out of sheer necessity, need to be challenged by these same ideals, as we realize that the need to understand our own intrinsic natures is an innate one, showing itself during every upheaval throughout several thousand years of civilization during which humanity has asked itself some very difficult questions. Under the guidance of modern psychology and ancient myth which cut to the heart of what it inherently means to be human—regardless of time period--we may regain our sense of "morality" --that which illuminates a larger world of inter-connectedness that at once makes us individuals and a part of the whole. The poets of the Romantic age may not have been fully able to reach that level of understanding wholly, but they knew it existed, enough to make Nature the very epitome of wisdom and the expression of the transcendent here on Earth. It is also what made our own forefathers see Nature and Natural Law during the Enlightenment as the very foundation of our very pragmatic Constitution, which continues to be the basis for our most fundamental laws governing this country in particular. There is pragmatic use for such ideals; it is now our job to utilize these same notions and the same Quest others took on our behalves centuries ago to pass on hope to future generations. Already there are signs that these generations might one day understand the Sublime enough to go where we could not--allowing humanity to understand, if it can, its role as an integral, peaceful part of an infinite universe.

But it must start with us.

Do we have what it takes to actually do our parts as individuals and as members of society, instead of simply expecting that others will do all of the work for us? Do we have what it takes to stop finger-pointing, behaving badly, seeing ourselves and everything else on this planet as disposable, combating that “post-nuclear” embittered sense of being cogs in the wheel of “progress,” ever turning, every churning even if it means to the extent of our own destruction?

It will not be easy. In fact, in moments, it may seem impossible to break the collective vitriol, lack of a willingness to take responsibility for anything of importance, and pervasive escapism that seems to be the hallmark of even this decade.

But humanity is worth it, as is the planet itself. Future generations are worth it, including the upcoming generation who look at us with both disgust and fear for what we otherwise will leave behind if we fail them.

We are indeed better than our worst moments. All it takes is remembering that even with the horror we produce, we are also truly capable of the most profound beauty, courage, and enlightenment when it matters most. It has been true in the past, and it can be true again.

We just must take responsibility, and we must take the first steps. For we don’t know what courage we have until it is needed, and better yet, when it is most fervently tested.


K.J. Wetherholt is the Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF) and the HMF Consultancy, a published author, and a producer of an upcoming documentary on the power of the media with MediaStorm.


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