Across many of Robert Greene’s books, there a reoccurring theme – to be effective in life, you have to learn to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.
Obviously this is easier said than done. It takes practice to develop and master this skill. We are naturally meaning attribution machines, we spin stories and see patterns to make sense of the events in our lives and the world around us.
None of us really see life as it is.
Or maybe there is nothing to see. Maybe nothing is real.
From a scientific viewpoint, there is nothing at the foundation of reality but the experiences created and interpreted by the observing self. Stimuli from an external environment filtered by the structure and capabilities of our senses, neurons and synapses, brought to life by the ego and consciousness.
But beyond physics and metaphysics, maybe nothing is real even from a social point of view.
The world around us, the one we think we live in, the one with the rules and norms and expectations, the one with the constraints and limitations, doesn’t really exist. We act like it does. We believe it does, and we eventually create it, by our expectations, beliefs and behaviour.
I think about this in terms of the market place and the world in general, questioning my preconceptions around brand, self-image and success in the real world. The battle as a creative, as a maker, is balancing the need to make things for the self, to create to learn and for creation’s sake, against making things that have wide appeal, that get famous, that resonate and succeed in a capitalist world?
How do we do that?
Some things work better than others. There are certain creative formulas that draw eyeballs and grab attention. Appealing to our baser instincts of lust, superiority, righteousness, indignation generally have a more immediate and visceral reaction than appealing to the sublime, or rationality.
Is it good or ethical to change ourselves, to change our packaging, change our story to achieve a goal? Does authenticity still matter, or should we just wear the masks we must, spinning the webs and illusions that get us what we want?
How long can you wear a mask before it becomes your true face?
Can we use this idea as a tool instead? Reaching forward to ‘pretend’ our way into the person we want to become. Is there an ethical way to ‘fake it before we make it’?
If nothing is inherently real, does that free us to be anything we want, anything we choose to be? Or is there a real self waiting to emerge? Where is the space for authenticity?
Is what we call authenticity just trying to hold on to a past story? Trying to make your actions today be congruent with the person you have always been?
If we must embrace forward-facing stories, pressing on to what we must be that we aren’t yet, then perhaps we can embrace the notion that nothing is real and just go ahead to create the new experience we desire.
Which means we second guess ourselves less. We are less tripped up by expectations, by the burden of our self-conception. We no longer use the excuse, ‘no I can’t wake up early because I am not a morning person’. We just go head and work our way to becoming early risers. We are free to change and be who we want to be moment to moment.
I read somewhere a while ago that behaviour drives emotion and behaviour drives desire.
It means that we can change desires. We are who we are now because we have conditioned ourselves through our choices and behaviours. We love junk food, or leisure or low-value entertainment and activities because we have behaved in ways that reinforced those desires in us.
We are also familiar with change, growing out of things and into things as we develop over time.
But if behaviour drives desire, then we can speed up change in the directions we choose. It will feel weird and horrible at first, but over time, after constant action, desire changes to match behaviour.
The more I workout, the more I enjoy it, the more I crave it. Something I would not have imagined possible years ago. The tricky part is that initial hump you have to push across. Doing something consistently enough to change desire.
If nothing is real, (and the timeline is malleable, which is another idea for another time having to do with changing the past) then we face the questions, what should we do, and how should we do it?
If nothing is real, then our fears are unfounded and unreal. It means there are no real lines, no real restrictions, just illusions, promises and agreements. We can honour them and we can break them.
Is there then no morality?
If nothing is real and anything is permissible, it does not mean that it isn’t without consequence.
So, perhaps nothing is real but everything has consequence.
The idea that nothing is real then becomes a liberating idea that allows you to morph and change as needed. It also frees you from constraints of expectation. If nothing is real, then its okay to create the image you need to get what you need to get done sorted. But know that what you create will have an effect.
If nothing is real, and you want success in a certain arena, if you want more eyeballs and attention to your work, to your brand, then you have to work and rework your brand until you find resonance. And that is not something to fight, it is something to embrace, to practice at until you get it right.
But whatever you create, must be aligned with your true values. If you are not aware of your values, you run the risk of building something empty, losing touch with that which is most fulfilling, the highest expression of your soul.
Potential is…dormant ability…reserved power…untapped strength…unused success…hidden talents…capped capability.
Inherent in the idea of reaching your potential – ‘doing more with yourself and your life’ is the fact that where you are right now isn’t enough, that there is more. It is the admission that you are capable of more.
But to get where we need to go, we have to examine where we are now. How have we lived so far? What are the results we enjoy or endure? What the present scorecard of our life experience? How ever we want to judge it.
Life is a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. Asides from circumstances and forces outside our control, where you are right now is as a result of your past choices – your thinking, your mindset, your reactions to events and your actions or non-action towards your goals.
To get different results, to move forward and tap into more of your power and potential, you have to think and do different things. You need to manipulate the variables of your life equation. You need an evolved disposition and a way of being. But you can’t do that if you think you already know everything.
There is an enemy that is so close to us. He is more than close, he is actually within. His favorite trick is to blind us. He makes us feel good but keeps us oblivious to opportunities for growth, for success, and to our blind spots. He promises to trip us up at every point and turn. That enemy is our ego.
There are various layers and levels at which to engage with the concept of Ego.
First, there is the concept of self, and these are esoteric waters, so bear with me if you are unfamiliar. We all experience the ‘self’. We believe we are something, that we are someone. This bundle of thoughts and emotions, this state of consciousness that resides where? Our heads? Our heart? Our gut? All over our body?
Who are we? Where’s our soul? The illusion of self is so persistent that we cling to it very strongly. We are us – a separate entity from them. The rabbit hole here goes much deeper, but my point is we usually think the sense of self is a constant real thing that almost never changes. We say things like, that is just how I am, I can’t help my temper, my procrastination, whatever traits and habits we choose to hold on to. But the self is far more malleable than we think. What we anchor as ourselves, our personality, is nothing more than a bundle of habits and patterns we have picked up. They can be unraveled. They can be changed.
The rigid sense of self especially when it is unconsciously chosen and engineered becomes a stumbling block to our progress. If we must reach our potential, if we must take up new habits, new patterns of thinking, then we must see the self as malleable, and everything as learnable. Which means that we cannot hold on too tightly to our present notions of self, we must be flexible enough to evolve, to grow and change.
Ego as we usually know and refer to it, is having an unnecessarily inflated sense of self. It is pride. It is the scared child within that seeks to protect itself, that needs to be right at all cost. It is the spoilt petulant self that wants to be the center of everything, to be acknowledged, to be validated.
It is also this ego that we must confront and bring into submission. It is the thing that flares up when we are confronted with evidence or ideas that go against everything we believe and stand for. It is that flash of anger and self-defense that spontaneously arises when we are called out or corrected. It is the response that comes to a seeming attack on our character, on our person.
To grow, you have to be able to manage this side of you. Otherwise, you will never move forward. Your ego is the sum total of the ideas and beliefs you have set up around yourself – who you are, and what you are capable of. It is ego that clings to excuses…because it is not really your fault, someone else failed you, harmed you, made you who you are. It is ego that refuses to take responsibility, that chooses the easy way out, that chooses to indulge yourself instead of doing the hard work you need to do to move forward and change your situation.
It is the ego that judges others. It looks at other people enjoying things you would like, things such as material goods, notoriety, fame, accomplishment, and lashes out saying ”…they were lucky, that person thinks they are all that, they had rich parents, they suck up to the boss, I bet if I had what they had…”. It is ego that projects and makes everyone else the enemy.
It is the ego that gets offended. How could that person say that about me? How could that person say that at all? Who are you to refer to me as this kind of person, and yourself as that? How dare you think you are special?
It is ego that must protect the self at all cost. Because the ego really believes in scarcity. Attention is scarce, resources are scarce, success is scarce. The more that person has, the less I do. It is the reason bad leaders hog all the credit and treat their followers like crap. It is ego that must inflate the self and preserve its perch above all others. It is the ego that prioritizes personal short-term gain over the long-term good of the collective.
If you must move forward, if you must live up to your potential, you must go to war against the ego every day. You have to humble yourself and build your confidence not on who you think you are, but on how you actually behave and what you accomplish. Let your sense of pride be earned and forged in the bitter trials of change, of trial and error, of actual learning and education.
Be open to receive correction. You don’t know everything. You don’t even know what you don’t know. The way you have done things has brought you this far for better or worse. But there is so much more to be and to do. To grow, you have to allow yourself to learn new things. Don’t shut down ideas just because they offend you, be willing to entertain, to calm down, to think through rationally and make a decision. It doesn’t mean listen and agree with whatever one says, it just means don’t be so quick to dismiss, at least check yourself. Be continually open to the idea that you might be wrong.
At the core of his ‘Principles’ Ray Dalio has the idea of truth as the ultimate benchmark. He is always trying to find out what is true about a situation or about life. Not what he would like to be true, not trying to confirm his assumptions or beliefs, just what is actually true, regardless of how it tastes. It is humility in the face of reality. To try, to fail, to clearly analyze failure, take instruction, make corrections and try again. It is understanding that as diverse as we are in personality, physicality and inclinations, we are also diverse in perspectives and strengths. Each of us has something to teach the other. If we will move forward and reach our potential, we have to be willing to lean on the expertise of others in search of the truth that will take us where we need to go.
To break through to your highest potential, you have to be willing to do some different, you have to be willing to be someone different. Regulate the ego, stay humble, stay open, don’t judge, don’t be offended, just keep your eyes on the prize, keep learning, keep evolving and keep moving forward.
I had just posted my last piece on the 7 reasons you don’t reach your potential when my friend George hit me up asking if I had ever written about anxiety. Personally, I like to write about what I know best and stick to my comfort zone which is the personal development stuff. But there is the saying that if you can design one thing, you can design anything. So, I’m going to see if that also applies to writing.
I approach matters of mental health with great care. As someone who has had his own fair share to deal with, I understand that it is a triggering and fragile thing to discuss. It is great that lately as a collective, we are recognizing mental health issues as valid conditions and not just sweeping it under the rug or being oblivious like previous generations. At the same time, it is not an exact science, it is a very subjective experience, so these are murky waters.
It is only recently, like 4 months ago, that I started to realize that perhaps I actually am a lot more anxious than I realize. I have always had a low level of anxiety going on. I just never called it that. I just bookmarked it as fear, but this low-level feeling of tension always exists. It rears up its head when I have to do something new, when I sit in the car with a mentor or someone that I look up to. It rises when I have to go out into the world and interact with people. It rises when I get phone calls. It builds when I need to do something important. It flares up when I have to go out to an event or a party. It is my faithful companion. Sure you could call it nervous excitement, but sometimes it never really leaves, there is easy to constantly worry about anything and everything.
But life and growth require that you move forward. They require that you try new things, that you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Because otherwise, you would remain stuck. So, I’ve always viewed this anxiety as fear, and fear as something to be embraced and overcome. One of my favorite quotes is the Latin phrase ‘nihil timendum est’. It means ‘nothing is frightening’. Recently, I’ve come to meditate on fear as a specter, a ghost. There is even the acronym F.E.A.R. meaning ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Fear is just a projection of our subconscious mind unto the screen of life. If it is a matter of projection, perception and interpretation, then perhaps it can be influenced or even controlled.
When my friend asked me about anxiety, he framed it in a specific way. As young men (and everyone really) trying to come up in the world, it is difficult and we are prone to anxiety, whether we talk about it or not. In the prevailing social narrative, as men, we are supposed to have our shit together. It is said the only time a black man is truly loved is for his money. Which means if you don’t have money or means, then you are useless. Now that isn’t completely accurate, because there are a lot of broke men who are loved and supported by their women, but there is still a truth to it. Life is real, and you have to be able to shoulder the burdens.
So, the anxiety mounts, coming into your own as an adult. Figuring out your career, figuring out relationships, paying bills, getting married, raising children. All very real, very weighty things. At the same time, the whole world around us looks and feels like it is going to hell in a handbasket. In Africa, we face hundreds of years of exploitation from outside forces and broken promises and dashed hopes from our own leaders. There is conflict worldwide at every turn, even the empires and structures we used to look towards for stability or a sense of aspiration are all crumbling. Everything is falling apart, the ground beneath our feet seeming to give way. With so much going on, the mounting anxiety is understandable.
I read a copy of the New Internationalist the other night, and it was back to back full of bad news. Printed across its pages was one crisis or the other, from the underdevelopment and exploitation of Africa, to the piling plastic and electronic waste from our consumerist capitalist society, even to the damage of the inner psyche of the average person, we are faced with the most pressing challenges of our species and we are woefully unequipped to deal with them. It gets so overwhelming, it is easy to look out for the check-out button, both literally and metaphorically.
How do we cope?
If you are religious, you hold on to the hope of a life beyond this one, sure that this will pass away and a utopia will ensure. Otherwise you can cope with various philosophical or political responses – nihilism – eat, drink and be merry today because tomorrow we die, resistance – we can change this, we just need to change our prevailing systems, radicalism – let’s just burn everything down, anarchy – let’s descend into chaos and let everyone be responsible for themselves.
I don’t have the answers fam, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. But I’ll share how I think and approach it. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Mindfulness helps. Which is really just the practice of being aware. If you are aware that you are being anxious, then you can resolve it. But it starts with recognizing that it is happening. When I realized how anxious I got around people I looked up to, I started consciously breathing deeper and deliberately relaxing into the present, into their presence and bringing forth my true self – as a human being, with personality, and ideas and a point of view. Basically, acknowledging that I am valid, and I don’t need to pander to be accepted by anyone.
Meditation helps too, and it ties in well with mindfulness. Taking the time out to reconnect with yourself, to deepen your inner reserves, to increase awareness give you more control in your day to day life. You can lengthen the time between occurrence and reaction and fill the space in between with impartial observation. Once you master the discipline of perception you can react or act accordingly.
In stoic philosophy, we are encouraged to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. That also means a radical acceptance of what is. Amor Fati – love what it, as if you wanted what happened to happen. Even if it is failure, even if it is destruction. Once you can accept it, then you can deal with it. Too much psychic energy is spent resisting what is and wishing for something else, instead of dealing with what is and transforming that to what you want, if possible. So sure, things are hard, I am anxious, accept the fact, embrace and then decide what to do.
We are also encouraged to focus on what is within our locus of control. You can’t control everything, not the decisions of other people, not the things happening halfway across the world. You can’t even control what will happen to you in the next 5 minutes. But you can control the meaning you give to it, and you can control your reaction and your action to it.
Cultivate an inner citadel. In a world of chaos, it is imperative to have a space within that you can retreat to, a place to drop anchor. It is a place cultivated in meditation, in prayer and in contemplation of the transcendent. It helps you understand that everything physical will pass away, but that you, your consciousness, your soul is more than just what you see. And you can root yourself in that awareness and draw strength, even in the most-dire of straights.
All these tactics help to deepen our resolve, our reserves and manage anxiety. To be calm when needed and to arouse passion when needed, so that we are not overrun and overwhelmed but with emotional discipline, we have what it takes to meet our challenges.
I love skulls.
I think they are beautiful. A little morbid sure, but beautiful. Over the years, I have accumulated a few skull-related paraphernalia. I had this really nice skull vase that sat on the table in my living room to hold odds and ends. I have a skull decanter and a skull cup. I wear a bracelet with a skull as its center piece. I keep skulls around me as a reminder of death…and as an invitation to life. In this, I follow a long standing philosophic, religious and artistic tradition spanning thousands of years.
Last week, I joined my extended family to lay my late uncle to rest. It was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was a sad thing to say goodbye to one of our own. We mourned a life cut abruptly and unexpectedly short. On the other hand, it was great to see cousins, uncles and aunts I had not seen in so long and to celebrate a life that touched so many. The entire experience was a mix of excitement, celebration, grieving and sombre reflection.
Of course, funerals are a poignant time to think about our mortality.
Remember you must die.
This seemingly haunting, but inspiring phrase has a rich history, evolving through many forms of practice and interpretation in literature, art, fashion, and even current popular culture. To this day, many people keep Memento Mori coins or similar physical totems as reminders of the ever-present nature of death.
For the stoics, memento mori was a key meditation device. A reminder that our time on earth in finite, and this thing called life is fragile, and precious. Most times we don’t think about death. We are too preoccupied with the business of living to stop and ponder something so morbid, so depressing. But such is the fate of all of us. That we are born, and one day, we will die. It is the one constant in a world full of flux.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In art, the genre ‘Danse Macabre’ or the ‘Dance of death’ grew in the late Middle Ages, a time when the Black Death decimated a third of Europe’s population. Paintings included kings, peasants, young and old dancing with the grim reaper or with skeletons, to convey that death comes for everyone. ‘Vanitas art’ arose with Dutch Golden Age artists, emphasizing the emptiness and futility of earthly items. Their still art paintings depicted compositions of skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, time pieces to remind observers that time is relentless, and death is inevitable.
It is said that a lot of our neuroses, our fears and frantic scrambling, stem from our inability to cope with our innate mortality and limitations. We do a lot of things to avoid our death. We seek comfort in things, and pleasures, grasping for security, to stave off facing our end. With all our creature comforts and amenities, we pretend we have all the time in the world, and that we will live forever.
This is understandable, the fear of death is a tough burden to bear. Man lives in constant tension, peering into the sublime and eternal on one hand, and yet severely limited by time, and the fleeting nature of life. Easier to just live and be distracted and try not to think about it for as long as you can.
Yet we must die.
What if we embrace death? Not as something morbid and to be feared, but as something to be inspired by. The necessary end that is death makes the time we are alive that more precious. In the larger scheme of things, none of the things we do will matter much. No matter how much we achieve or accumulate, we will die. Our time will pass, our names will be forgotten, our monuments will wash away with the sands of time. But right now, in our experience, in our lives, the things we do, do matter. How we live, matters. Our actions reverberate across the universe. It’s a paradox.
Steve Jobs called death, probably the greatest invention of life. Life begins, life ends. And it does both all the time. If it didn’t, life would be stagnant, not going anywhere. But we are born, we grow into our prime, and then we die. As we leave, others come to replace us, to do it all over again, to do it differently, to tear down what was done before and create anew. The cycle of births and deaths allow us to continue as a people, as a species, ever present, ever reinventing, ever dying, ever renewed. It is a beautiful thing. Embracing this truth brings release.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
If we must die. then perhaps life, is just learning how to die well. Can we live in a way that honours the people we were made to be? Can our short time be used to mean something more than just our happiness and pleasure? Can we live with a sense of urgency, not putting off our great work to a day that may never come, but tackling it right now, today? Can we live in such a way, that after we are gone, we still live on, in the hearts and minds of the people we touch, and the marks we make in the world?
If we must die. Perhaps we can spend less time and energy trying to impress others, taking on things that do not serve us. Perhaps we cannot be so swayed by the crowd. Perhaps we can allow our truest selves to unfold. Perhaps we can truly value our time, and not waste another second. Perhaps we can pursue our dreams, and goals. Perhaps we can embrace purpose. Perhaps we can unleash our true potential.
If we must die, then we must live. With urgency. We must think of how we want to exit, and what we want those we leave behind to say and feel about us when we are no longer here. If we must die, then we must also savour life, making sure to enjoy it, to live in the moments, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not being preoccupied with worries and fears. Knowing that the forward march of time is relentless, we can live so we get to the end with no regrets, having truly lived, having fought the good fight, having left everything on life’s stage.
“On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye. If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind… The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. – Dudjom Lingpa
It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Elliot
Lately, I have been thinking about the concept of repentance. It is a core tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, its entry point in fact. The idea that you can make a 180-degree change. You can go down one path for the longest time, and all of a sudden, you change and go down a different one. It is the idea of dramatic change. That is the promise of Christ’s message. That no matter how bad you have been, no matter how far you have fallen, no matter how ignorant you have been in your actions and approach to life, there is hope. There is potential for change.
To repent is to turn away, from one course of action and follow another. It is a promise that your past does not have to be your future, that your mistakes do not have to define you. And when you combine that with the concept of substitution, that you can trade in your raggedy-ass self, your less than ideal behavior, and take on the perfect ideal that is Christ instead, you get something profoundly powerful. It doesn’t mean an instant change, even though that is possible, but it speaks to a spark, an awakening, an enlightenment, a cracking open of a hurt soul, so the light can get in and heal.
We know that the way you view yourself influences how you behave, what you go after and what you even think is possible for you. The concepts of repentance and substitution allow you to simultaneously get off one track and adopt a new better one. And the more you walk in this new light and nurture it, the more solid the change becomes, the more this new nature emerges.
But first you have to accept, and then you have to release. You have to admit the mistake and you have to ask and accept forgiveness. If you keep knocking yourself down, playing your mistakes over and over again, you start to punish yourself. Most times you do it subconsciously, shying away from things you should do and be because you do not feel worthy. And then you keep repeating the pattern because you are stuck. You take on the identity of your mistakes, not as things you do, but who you are. You continue to spiral down the less than ideal path.
To change is to forgive. To accept the wrong, to set it aside letting go of all the hurt and negativity around it, and to pick up the right. In Christianity, Christ’s forgiveness is only a prayer away. A true prayer, born of true remorse, born of pure intent. But even if you are not there yet, even when you still like your mistakes, knowing they are not good for you, a simple request for help will do, you can ask for a change of heart, for an evolution of your nature.
The hope here is that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can change. You can be better. And you don’t have to let anyone, even yourself, hold your mistakes against you. If God has forgiven you, surely you can forgive yourself, and sometimes that is the hardest thing. But until there is forgiveness, there can be no progress.
It might take a long way to become the person we want to be, but the fact remains, the great hope, that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can embrace your potential for change.
Going home is always interesting, but going home after a long time, is its own ball game. Things feel familiar and comfortable, but at the same time different. Everything has a quality of strangeness as you settle and reacclimatize to a space you haven’t occupied in years. You are different, home is largely the same, and every interaction is a renegotiation of hierarchy, atmosphere and energy.
For different people, home means different things. For some, they are happy places, for others not so much. As we grow older, what home means to us also changes. They evolve from spaces we occupy as dependents, to spaces we occupy as individuals with agency. But no matter what age we are, children or full-grown adults, going home has a restorative quality. Home is a place of memory and grounding.
Home is where our story begins…
The act of returning home has great significance to us. It is a thematic thread or component of many stories. The hero’s journey codified by Joseph Campbell outlines the typical stages of a protagonist’s adventure. The hero is called or dragged into a quest, goes on the long journey to defeat something evil or acquire something valuable, and then returns back home with the bounty, changed or transformed.
This pattern is recognisable from The Odyssey to The Matrix. They resonate because they are primal archetypal myths, metaphors and stories for our personal journeys. We recognise ourselves in these stories because we play out the same drama in our lives.
The journey to getting what you want is the hero’s journey. We leave the warm cocoon of our comfort zones and head into unfamiliar ground in search of the prize. Sometimes we go willingly, more often, our world is turned inside out, and we find ourselves thrust unwittingly into a quest. Guides appear to help along the way, trials arise to challenge, temptations and sirens sing to test us. On this tough road we press on. We do the work, we experiment, we break the rules, we confront ourselves, our previously held beliefs, our ideas, our expectations.
We lose our way, fall into holes, wind up in dark deep places where we are almost overwhelmed by the chaos. We deal with uncertainty, with fear, with our desires. We battle the dragons of doubt, the beast of a subconscious out of control, plagued and goaded by unresolved trauma and wounds from the past.
But we get through it. We learn lessons, we adapt, we improve. We evolve, we change. We slay the dragon, we win.
This journey necessarily separates us from home. We go into the world, and wrestle with it, and with ourselves, to come into our strength and to become fully formed individuals. If we do it well, we are able to build an internal locus of strength and form an internal compass. We become ourselves, honouring our specific inclinations, impulses and nature. We stand mature, able to engage effectively with world around us, of our society and our time. This journey makes us fully formed and realised people.
However, the journey is not complete once you have slain the dragon and obtained your goods. To complete the cycle, and it is a cycle because you will undertake this journey again, and again, you must return home.
Your expulsion sparked the process of the dissolution of your past self. From those ashes, a new you was born. To move forward, there must be an integration. You have to return, to reconnect with your past so you can move boldly into the future.
The other day, I was watching Joe Rogan have a conversation with Guy Ritchie, and the filmmaker broke down the story of the prodigal son in a way that I had never heard it before. In case you have never heard it, the prodigal son is a parable in Bible about a rich man and his two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance and goes off into the world and just does the absolute most. Whores, partying, living and squandering his inheritance. Eventually he blows it all, and finds himself taking on a job feeding pigs, and being so hungry, he was tempted to eat those scraps.
This is rock bottom for him, so he finally comes to his senses and decides he is just going to tuck his tail between his legs and go back home. At least, he could get a menial job working for pops. No point dying out here for nothing.
So, he heads on home, and the moment his dad sees him, he is overjoyed, he embraces him, places fine robes, jewellery and orders the fattest cow killed for a feast. In the midst of the celebration of the prodigal son’s return, the older son is not impressed. He has stood by his father’s side the entire time, being the good and dutiful son, and here is dad, celebrating this good for nothing waste man brother of his. His father’s admonishment to him is that he should chill and be happy his brother is back.
On the surface, it is a weird read, why is the father so chilled about the younger son’s behaviour? What’s the deal with the response to the older son? Do we take the story as an admonition to not be like the wasteful brother, or do we embrace the idea that it’s fine to squander our inheritance because of the seemingly boundless redemptive love and acceptance of the father?
As with many stories and parables, there is the literal plot, and then there is the deeper esoteric meaning. In this case (according to Guy Ritchie at least) the story is about inner conflict. We are the father, the older son is our reason, and logic, the younger son is the more primal and indulgent emotions.
Reason teaches us the rules we must follow, the norms of society, the duties, the structure, the status quo that holds up the empire. It is safe. It is boring. In the younger son, we see our emotional selves, the rebel within, the need to break the walls and escape, to explore past what is ‘safe’ and to investigate what the world has to offer. It is exciting but dangerous business.
And both sides exist within us, and the balance between the two forms our expression.
It is that exploration that questions our beliefs and helps us understand why they exist and how to take them up consciously and powerfully.
It is the experience that allows us to become ourselves and stand on the strength of our experience and forged convictions. It is after this journey, that we are able to reintegrate. We are able to revisit the past, reconcile with the older brother of reason, and tradition, and navigate the middle path. A path that respects and honours the past but looks innovatively to transform and create into the future.
We come back to share the gifts we have won. We also come back to relearn, to recover and to strengthen ourselves, to enter a new phase, take on more responsibility, to embark on a new, even more challenging journey.
It is the Hero’s journey. We leave a child, we return to become King.