(6/12 of the Heroic Journey)
Rise to the Challenge
Miracle May Happen
Rise to the Challenge
Miracle May Happen
“Ogres will appear on her path to test her endurance, her decisiveness, and her ability to set limits.”Maureen Murdock
Many years ago, while travelling with a friend and my 4 year old son in Tunisia, we were invited for dinner in a tent by a small group of fishermen. They were very friendly, we were tired and hungry, we appreciated the hospitality and generous invitation.
It was a working tent near a small harbour, and the men were on night duty. We hadn’t made plans where to stay the night, and when the guys offered that we could sleep in the tent we happily accepted.
My travel-companion and young son dropped off to sleep almost instantly. I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of the Tunisian night.
After half an hour or so I heard the men talking to each other in hushed voices. They were speaking in Arabic. Because we were foreigners they had spoken to us in French. They didn’t know that I spoke Arabic too and understood every word they were saying.
They were getting into an argument, and I soon figured out that it was about me! 3 of the guys wanted to rape me, the fourth one was against it.
I froze in fear. It was pitch dark. I wanted to kick my travel-companion to wake him up but couldn’t move. The conversation got to a point where the guy who didn’t want to be involved in the rape was about to leave.
All of a sudden I began to speak in a loud and clear voice in fluent Arabic. I asked them about their God and their religion, I asked whether they were sons of donkeys and bitches and what they thought their mothers would think of them, I let out a whole barrage of Arabic curses I didn’t even know I had in my vocabulary.
Everything went quiet for a moment. Then one guy started to speak and apologised profusely. I assume it was the one who didn’t want to rape me. He explained that they didn’t realise I was their ‘sister’. He assured me he wouldn’t let any ‘son of a mule’ harm me in any way, I had nothing to fear, he would protect me with his life and honour, he would be my brother.
I don’t think I slept much that night, despite the promises of my newly won ‘brother’. However, I was and still am deeply grateful to him and my guardian angels for having been saved from an extremely traumatic experience.
“Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed – again, again, and again.”Joseph Campbell
Campbell calls the 6th stage on the Heroic Journey the Road of Trials. It is a passage marked by a series of ordeals, tasks, and challenges which the hero has to overcome.
In the equivalent chapter of The Heroine’s Journey Maureen Murdock notes that the heroine “will encounter the forces of her own self-doubt, self-hate, indecisiveness, paralysis, and fear. The outer world might tell her she can do it, but she battles with demons that tell her she can’t.”
Campbell’s heroes have to go into battle with external forces. For Murdock’s heroines the outer world may seem supportive. It may offer all the opportunities, but certain internal obstacles seem insurmountable.
Murdock explains this conflict as follows: “The most challenging dragon of all, however is the societal reptile that smiles and says. ‘Yes dear, you can do anything you want to do,’ while continuing to sabotage her progress… What this dragon really means is, ‘Yes dear, you can do anything you want to do as long as you do what we want you to do.’”
Breaking free from the ‘societal reptile’ is a quintessential aspect of the Heroic Journey. Men generally might have some advantages in climbing the corporate ladder. True heroes and heroines, however, are all faced with the societal reptile. We all have to meet external challenges as well as internal ones.
The Road of Trials is the first part of our initiation process on the Heroic Journey. ‘Ogres and Dragons’ may jump out at you unexpectedly, and it feels as if you are left on your own to deal with them.
This is all part of the plot. Will you face those inner and outer demons? Or will you fail to meet them?
“The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves.”Sarah Lewis
In myths and fairy tales the main character is not expected to pass the tests with flying colours. Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, fails many times along his epic journey home. But failure doesn’t make him any less of a hero.
It is the experience of failure and moving through it wholeheartedly that provides the maturing process for the initiate.
Survival of the ordeal is a valid achievement and allows the heroic traveller to move on to the next stage. For many heroines it is not uncommon to be utterly unable to accomplish her task – unless she receives a lot of help from some friends, such as an army of ants or a flock of birds.
And despite the help she may fail miserably. Remember Snow White? She gets three chances to pass the test and refuse the poisonous offerings of the wicked witch. Snow White fails every single time! Despite clear instructions and unwavering support from the seven dwarfs she makes a mess of it. As a heroine you could consider her a complete failure. Yet in the end she gets her prince anyway.
In the classic narrative of the Heroic Journey, failure or imperfection is a natural part of the process. Failure is also an inevitable part of the road to mastery and success in any field of endeavour.
The personal experience of failure enables us to broaden our horizon. We reject failure for fear of being judged. This is because we are so focussed on results that we don’t allow for the process to unfold. We fail to remember that failure is an essential part of any growth process. Failure is the shadow of success.
Rise to the Challenge
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”Eleanor Roosevelt
On the Heroic Journey tests and trials need to be welcomed – irrespective of success or failure. In everyday life this is easy to forget. We want to do things perfectly first time. We expect instant success. We focus on results instead of the process.
American writer and Aikido master George Leonard reminds us that, “mastery is not about perfection. It’s about a process, a journey. The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.”
Assuming that every obstacle or difficulty is a unique opportunity to rise to a personal challenge – and assuming that all tests and trials are placed in our path for our own good – then what exactly does it mean to rise to the challenge?
Rising to a challenge can be summed up in three key steps:
#1 – tune into the challenge,
#2 – expand your horizon,
#3 – do what you can do given the circumstances.
In the example given in the introduction to this article I took these 3 steps spontaneously. (1) I tuned into the challenge by listening in on the hushed conversation of my hosts. (2) I expanded my horizon and grasped the seriousness of the threat in a flash. (3) I blurted out whatever came to my mind.
Since that night in Tunisia I’ve had many opportunities to rise to challenges of various kinds. Every situation is unique and different. The three key steps, however, appear to be consistent. I see these three steps as equivalent to handling an opponent in the art of Aikido.
Aikido teaches us that we can transform an incoming opposing force through non-resistance. We can use the energy of the opponent, absorb it and harmonise it through a small but skilful move.
When we tune into a challenge we let go of our resistance. This is absolutely essential. As long as you resist an opposing force you are giving it power, you are in a position of defence, and you can only act from a place of relative weakness.
Expanding your horizon puts you in a higher position and opens up a space for new possibilities. As soon as you open a gap, new information can come in. Suddenly you’re able to see a whole new vista. The new expanded view also offers insights into what you can do.
Doing what you can do may be very little – in Aikido it’s often not much more than the flick of a wrist. However, when we do our bit, somehow the collective forces of the universe can step in and do theirs.
Miracle may Happen
“My barn having burned down / I can now see the moon.”Mizuta Masahide
The Heroic Journey doesn’t progress in the way we expect it to. Surprising things happen, pleasant ones, and not so pleasant ones. That’s the whole point. Pleasant surprises are nice, but they are usually not made from the stuff that helps us grow.
What fuels our progress more than anything else on this path are the tests and trials, the obstacles and difficulties, the nasty surprises that make us get up and go – FAST! Those can really spur you on. If you want to make a quantum leap on your journey, look out for your tests and trials.
In December last year the American artist Maitri Libellule posted a personal account on her blog, which illustrates this stage on the Heroic Journey.
Maitri writes, “My life had become one of secrets and shame where I was drowning in a life I couldn’t manage and I can’t do it any more. The miracle of this year is that everything finally fell apart, the “other shoe” dropped, and I’m still here. I don’t know what will happen but I know that I will survive and live a simpler, more peaceful life than I ever have. And it is a relief, the relief that I have needed for years, and it seems that I had to be whipped hither and yon before I would let go of everything. That is the biggest miracle of all, the worst finally happened, and I’m still here.”
Miracles happen when we stop resisting adversity, when we stop giving power to our imaginary opponents. This is because the universal forces can only support us in our own actions. If you resist, you’ll get more resistance.
Real miracles happen when we embrace our challenges, when we broaden our minds to understand them, and from that higher vista point do what we can do, however awkward or ridiculous it may seem.
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