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(11/12 on the Heroic Journey)

Resurrection and Sacrifice
Fight or Feed
Dragons of Inner Wisdom
Crossing the Return Threshold

 

“The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world.”Joseph Campbell

One of the most important books of my childhood was Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer by the German author Michael Ende. The story was originally published in two volumes and is a wonderful illustration of the Heroic Journey. There is a brief Wikipedia article in English under the title Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver.

One of the main characters of the story is a fierce and powerful female dragon. Jim’s mission is to conquer the horrible beast. With the courage of a hero and the presence of a beginner’s mind he succeeds in finding the dragon’s weak spot and overpowers the ‘children-eating monster’.

But instead of killing the beast – in the story she could be considered his worst enemy – the young hero keeps her alive and thereby provides a unique opportunity for her metamorphosis into a ‘Golden Dragon of Wisdom’.

Every heroic traveller needs to confront her/his personal inner dragon. The main and final battle with the dragon traditionally takes place at the penultimate stage of the journey as we approach the Return Threshold.

 

Resurrection and Sacrifice

“Resurrection often calls for a sacrifice by the hero. Something must be surrendered, such as an old habit or belief.”Christopher Vogler

In the narrative of a good story this stage is the final climax before the heroic return. The traveller has to undergo some kind of cleansing ritual, a catharsis that prepares him/her for re-entry into the world of his/her home-tribe.

Some stories take their hero through a near death experience. Or the protagonist must leave something behind that was only needed for the journey. Perhaps a beloved horse dies in the final battle.

The sacrifice of something precious and dear to the hero’s or heroine’s heart somehow adds to the value of the treasure which s/he is bringing home to his/her people.

In everyday life this stage of the journey challenges the heroic traveller to reinvent her/himself. This is not an arbitrary exercise. You don’t pick a random role off the shelf and start practicing. In fact, you may not even know what the final task will be until you have passed the ‘Return Threshold’.

There are likely to be signs of the predestined role, and the sacrifice demanded from you is part of that. The sacrifice may consist of having to let go of certain habits and beliefs which you consider ‘normal’. You may have to give up a life-style or a position which is comfortable but no longer suitable.

Most importantly, however, you will have to sacrifice your fears and any beliefs that don’t serve you in your new role. You might be delighted to hear this. You may think this is going to be easy.

But what if those inner monsters don’t want to to be left behind? What if they are scared to death and are not prepared to let go without a fight?

 

Fight or Feed

“Especially women responded more positively to nurturing their innate wisdom and buddha nature rather than to attempts to cut through their egos.”Tsultrim Allione

In the Western psyche the masculine approach to dealing with ‘inner monsters’ is predominant. This is mirrored in the narratives of our mythology.

In his book The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler explains that this stage is “the final exam. Heroes must be tested one last time to see if they retained the learning from the Supreme Ordeal of Act Two.”

The brave warrior is tested to his limits before he can return, battered and exhausted, but heroic.

Having slain the dragon and snatched the gift, the hero of myths and legends is now confronted with the difficult and dangerous task of bringing the treasure home. After the Trojan War was over, the return journey took Ulysees 20 years.

One of the most harrowing examples for a hero’s final fight and flight is the story of Jason. With the help of Medea he managed to overcome all the impossible challenges on his path. But because Medea’s father really didn’t want him to have the Golden Fleece, the battle wasn’t over yet. Jason had to flee from the furious King Aeëtes and commit some gruesome acts of violence in the process.

In her book Women of Wisdom Lama Tsultrim Allione – the first American woman to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun – describes her own heroine’s journey. When reading this book I learned that different Buddhist lineages have very different practices for dealing with ‘inner demons’.

Masculine lineages instruct initiates to ‘slay the inner demons’ and ‘cut through their ego’ on their path to enlightenment. By contrast, the feminine lineage – practiced by Lama Tsultrim and derived from the 11th century yogini Machig Labdrön – teaches practitioners to feed their inner demons and turn them into allies.

 

Dragons of Inner Wisdom

“With regards to dragons as a species, unfortunately I’ve got to admit that science is still very much groping in the dark.”Michael Ende

In Buddhist philosophy all obstacles are considered internal challenges. Therefore anything in life can ultimately be resolved through an internal practice.

To the Western rational mind this is a strange concept. We see our external reality as the cause for our internal experience. Therefore it seems only logical to blame our inner dragons on external events – perhaps something that happened in the distant past.

This theory is not particularly helpful, and it might not even be true. If you let go of the notion of what causes what, then you can view your external and internal experiences simply as two parallel streams of events.

We also tend to think we know the difference between good and evil. Naturally we see our goals as ‘good’ – otherwise we wouldn’t choose them – and obstacles are experienced as ‘evil’.

Inner dragons, such as debilitating emotions, self-sabotaging beliefs, and negative self-images, can be serious obstacles. They are always experienced as ‘evil’. With the usual Western mindset we tend to attack them as if they were our worst enemies. This approach is not only futile, it is also potentially dangerous.

Changing our external reality is not always easy. However, we can always make a significant difference to our internal experience. If you look at your inner dragons with compassion, rather than aggression, half the battle is already won.

It is not unreasonable to assume that all creatures that happen to live within your inner world are desperate to make a constructive contribution to your life. You can help them to do so, and in the process they become your most powerful allies.

Michael Ende’s dragon explains the situation from her perspective: “No evil creature is ever particularly happy… Dragons are only evil because we want someone to come and conquer us. Unfortunately most of the time we get killed in the process. If this doesn’t happen, like with you and me, then something wonderfully awesome can take place… Dragons know a lot. But until we are conquered we can only do evil things with that knowledge… Once transformed, however, we are called Golden Dragon of Wisdom. Then you can ask us anything; we know all secrets and can solve all riddles.”

 

Crossing of the Return Threshold

“With a loving mind, cherish more than a child, the hostile gods and demons of apparent existence, and tenderly surround yourself with them.”Machig Labdrön

Before crossing the final threshold the heroic traveller needs to be ready to handle the outer and the inner world with confidence and grace. Stepping ‘back into the world’ is likely to feel as strange, daunting and unfamiliar as setting off on the journey at the time of Departure.

Our fear of rising to the challenge and bringing our gift to the world is an excellent opportunity for turning inner demons into allies. Conditioned by our culture we tend to think that anything we consider to be negative has to be eliminated. Enemies have to be killed. Demons need to be exorcised. Evil must be destroyed.

We are collectively so fixated on this idea that it can be hard to contemplate that there might be another way. The thought that even external challenges can be met successfully by transforming inner monsters into ‘Golden Dragons of Wisdom’ seems almost absurd and naïve.

The feminine approach to handling life is not taken seriously. This is hardly surprising. The patriarchal influences of the millennia run through the deepest levels of our psyche. This is part of our challenge for all genders.

Apart from assuming a friendly attitude towards inner monsters, another vital difference between the masculine and the feminine ways is a willingness to surrender. The masculine approach is to focus on the goal and fight for a positive outcome, while the ends justify the means. The feminine approach focuses on the process and yields to new information along the way.

In Tibetan Buddhism the feminine practice of ‘feeding the demons’ is known as Chöd. Tsultrim Allione explains that, “It is important to point out that Chöd is not done to get what you want. The point of Chöd is really the opposite, to let go of what you cling to.”

Once the inner demon is fed to satisfaction it transforms into something beneficial and constructive. It needs to be re-integrated in its transcended form. This means that you have to be prepared to change in accordance with the needs of the previously rejected creature.

The effects of this practice can be ‘miraculous’. But it is not a shortcut. It is not an easy way out of life’s inevitable challenges and difficulties. The successful transformation of inner monsters into allies allows you to harness their power – and you have to be ready to handle this power.

Transforming your worst inner enemies into allies allows you to genuinely develop the heroic qualities and activate the potential necessary for a life at a completely new level. You literally become an extra-ordinary human. Now you are ready for arrival in the Extraordinary World.

 

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