(8/12 of the Heroic Journey)
The Belly of the Whale
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. Beautiful people do not just happen.”Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
When I entered ‘the void’ many years ago I thought I was going to die. I was in a very dysfunctional relationship at the time. The man I was with suffered from suicidal depression, and I’d assumed I could rescue him from himself.
He kept making up stories about what was happening to him. He would believe his own stories and then try to convince others of their ‘truth’.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d been a storyteller, but he wasn’t. The stories he made up revolved mostly around other people being against him. And he took every opportunity to defend himself in court against some injustice he believed to have suffered.
He suffered mainly from lack of trust, which is a bad basis for any relationship. First he started to control my actions and who I spent my time with. Then he tried to dictate my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and what I said to whom. At some point he started talking about killing both of us, and that was the time I left.
It took over a year to extract myself from the relationship. During those dark months I experienced death threats, blackmail and attempted character assassination. I became the victim of a stalker and lost virtually all my material belongings.
That was my year of ‘Entering the Void’. The greatest challenge was stepping over my inner threshold of fear, guilt, and shame.
I didn’t want to ask for help because I was so ashamed of having gotten myself into such a mess. I felt terribly guilty about the stress and worry I had caused for my family. And I was terrified every time the phone rang or there was a knock on the door.
Entering the void meant letting go of all my beliefs and concepts of myself, other people and the world, and allowing my whole mindset to reconfigure itself. It was a scary but ultimately very cleansing and liberating experience.
The Belly of the Whale
“Now the hero stands in front of the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave, facing the greatest challenge and the most fearsome opponent yet.”Christopher Vogler
At some point of the journey every hero or heroine must go through a phase where the familiar world is shaken up in its foundations. This can happen either immediately after the first threshold or at a later stage. It is a threshold that needs to be crossed before entering the inner sanctuary to receive the coveted treasure.
In the classical narrative of the hero’s journey this stage has various titles. It is Joseph Campbell’s ‘Belly of the Whale’ and Christopher Vogler’s Ordeal.
Victoria Lynn Schmidt, author of the book Story, Structure, Architect, calls this stage Death: All Is Lost. Schmidt writes that at the Death Stage a total reversal happens. The heroine “faces her own death, or a symbolic one, and learns more about herself.”
Entering a dark and dangerous place – a ‘whale’s belly’ or a ‘lion’s den’ or a ‘dragon’s lair’ – is the ultimate test for the heroic traveller. It is the archetypal trial by fire. You either die or you rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
The ordeal or challenge will be different for everyone. The common theme is that we are being challenged at the very roots of our existence.
Some travellers on the heroic journey might face a serious health condition. Others might lose their livelihood through loss of business or job. The collapse of a marriage or other significant partnership can trigger the descent into the void.
Some heroic travellers start out in life in the most difficult circumstances. They are virtually born into the ‘belly of the whale’. Others have near death experiences or have to survive serious trauma.
The traumatic experience itself, however, is not what determines the heroine or hero. It is how we handle the challenging experience that makes all the difference. Having gotten into the belly of the whale, the most important question is – what do you do with that experience after getting out of it?
“Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”J.K. Rowling
In everyday life there is a name for the successful survival of a life threatening ordeal. It is called post-traumatic growth.
Trauma researchers have found that some people emerge from a traumatic experience stronger than they were before. Others are crushed by it and never recover.
The question, ‘what makes the difference between post-traumatic growth and lifelong struggle?’ is currently a hot topic in trauma research.
In his book Waking the Tiger Peter Levine describes trauma as a powerful energy. He suggests that we can receive the gift of wisdom as a result of learning to harness and transform this energy. “In overcoming the destructive force of trauma,” Levine writes, “our innate potential now lifts us to new heights of mastery and knowledge.”
Post-traumatic growth is a fascinating topic, especially since it affects virtually everyone. In everyday life we all experience traumatic incidents – perhaps not life threatening ones, maybe not terrible enough to make a big noise about them, often at a low level where they are easy to ignore.
But here is an important and little known piece of information about trauma: Trauma is cumulative.
In other words, small everyday traumatic incidents gradually build up. And if this powerful energy is not harnessed and transformed into gifts of wisdom — if this intense force is not used to lift us to new heights of mastery and knowledge — then our cumulative little everyday trauma can become the reason for a BIG CRISIS.
On her website Post Traumatic Growth, psychologist Melinda Moore writes that “some measure of significant distress may be necessary for growth to occur.”
Unfortunately this is probably true. It is true because we don’t know how to harness the force of trauma and use it for our own growth process. If we knew how to transform our pain and suffering into knowledge, mastery, and wisdom, perhaps we would respond to our distress much earlier.
Having experienced ‘significant distress’ – and transformed it – I now use every opportunity to respond to negative events in my life and harness the energy.
I am one of the relatively rare individuals in whom trauma leads to ‘spontaneous’ growth. This doesn’t mean that traumatic experiences are not painful or distressing for me. It means that I have a natural talent for transforming trauma into ‘gifts of wisdom’. And I believe that this capacity can be developed by anyone who is ready and willing to do so.
“No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.”Ananda Coomaraswamy
We all make up stories in our own minds — stories about ourselves, other people and the world around us — stories which we believe and subsequently force onto others. Through our stories we create a limited world for ourselves, and these limitations can become our prison.
Since we’ve created it ourselves, we can also break out of our prison. In fact, we can only do so ourselves. We have to break free “of the prejudices of our own provincially limited ecclesiastical, tribal, or national rendition of the world archetypes,” as Joseph Campbell calls it.
Dissolving our own worldview is temporarily painful and scary. But it is no more scary and painful than remaining in the prison cell of our own trauma. And it is no more terrible than it must be for the caterpillar to build its own chrysalis in order to dissolve inside its shimmering capsule.
Is it worth putting yourself through such a difficult and challenging experience?
Nobody chooses trauma, hardship or negative experiences. However, if the trauma has already happened, then the pain is already within you.
The victim of the trauma is caught up in her own prison. Instead of seeing it as a lifelong sentence out of which there is no escape, we can view it as our chrysalis and take the opportunity to dissolve completely.
It might feel as if you’re going to die. That’s what it feels like when an old mindset is transformed. Those mindsets can be callous, unforgiving, and stubborn. They need to be dissolved. Just like the caterpillar, you have to completely let go of everything – be prepared for a total meltdown.
The butterfly reconfigures itself from the ‘soup’ of the liquefied caterpillar. It is the same creature in a completely new constellation. This is the magical process we can expect to happen when entering the void. We need to learn to trust the transformative process. What happens next, that’s another story.
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