The design intention of our sacred stories goes far beyond explaining the universe and our place in it. Even if for so long this intention was not self-conscious, in the sense that our first storytellers did not sit down with a plan to map reality and chart the human journey through life, the product of their creative effort provided us with precisely that.
As Joseph Campbell argued, mythology arises out of the human creative imagination like the sticky thread and web-pattern emerge from the spider’s deeper nature. It would take humans thousands of years to consciously realize and begin to really understand what we had done.
It’s necessary to make a distinction between human evolution and personal development. The first term places our species within the larger context of our planet and the history of life, while the second focuses in on a fairly late stage in that longer history, from the “moment” when we became conscious of ourselves as individuals – separate, unique, exposed, and existentially on our own.
It is with this rise of our self-conscious existence as individuals that our troubles as a species officially began.
In my diagram, a purple zig-zagging arrow traces the general path of human evolution: out of the primal consciousness of animal instinct, and into the tribal consciousness of membership identity; from there into the personal consciousness of an individual ego, and finally up into the communal consciousness of spiritual wisdom, with its outstanding virtues of compassion, enlightenment, harmony, and wellbeing.
Only a few of us have completed the course from primal to communal consciousness, for reasons we’ll explore below.
Situated inside this larger evolutionary frame is another, more meandering route, but still with a clear progression of its own, known as the Hero Path. It begins inside the second womb of tribal consciousness, in what I call the “moral frame” of traditional rules and values defining what is meant by right action and a good person. Those who abide by these rules and values of conventional morality are recognized and rewarded as insiders, whereas deviants are disciplined, punished and, if necessary, excommunicated, or even in some cases executed.
The moral frame of any tribe consists of a set of instructions for bringing the behavior and beliefs of its members into conformity with its social order. Should an individual break the moral code, a prescribed penalty will likely follow. But even if the individual is not formally found out, at the very least it is expected that he or she will suffer the subjective pain of a guilty conscience. By such measures, individuals are kept in line and securely inside the tribal fold.
Some of those moral injunctions, particularly of the “Thou shalt not” variety, are intended by the tribe to close down or at least keep off-stage certain impulses and inclinations of our animal nature that would obviously conflict with its definitions of proper conduct and character (i.e., its moral frame). These can range from aggressive impulses that could upset the social order; to talents, interests, and traits that do not align with tribal gender norms and role assignments.
Whatever is not allowed on stage, whether privately discouraged or publicly condemned, ends up supressed in the personality as our shadow. Its mere existence means that we are divided within ourselves, with one part playing outward for the recognition and approval of our audience, and the other pushed down (“suppressed”), tied up, and kept out of view.
Tragically, our shadow withholds a portion of our natural light, of the human spirit within us. In Christianity, this shadow principle is personified in the figure of Lucifer, whose name literally means “light-bearer,” the one who holds (back) our light.
A good part of what is called the Hero Path entails our individual quest for the captured light or imprisoned spirit of our authentic self. Until it can be uncovered and reintegrated with our personality, our “dark side” will continue to stoke anxiety, steal our joy, undermine our health, and sabotage our relationships.
So much human agony and social conflict is the consequence of individuals and groups projecting their shadow onto others and the world around them. The Hero Path provides us with the guidance we need to find our way through.
The basic narrative plot is simple and straightforward and consists of four essential phases: (1) a departure from our tribe’s moral frame, in search of our own “individuative-reflective” (James Fowler) philosophy of life; (2) a confrontation with the shadow, manifesting our insecurities, fears, shame and self-doubt; (3) the successful reintegration of this hidden light by a process of atonement and being restored to psychic wholeness; and finally (4) our breakthrough to the transpersonal experience of a liberated life in genuine community.
There are two critical places on the Hero Path where we can lose our way. At the very beginning, when the moral frame is no longer able to contain and control the longings of our spirit, our tribe might try to foreclose on our waking aspirations with accusations of heresy, betrayal, and a failure of faith.
For many, this doubled-down tactic of authoritarian control actually works to pull us back under the covers of membership, as the predicted loss of security among our fellowship of believers is just too high a cost for the promise of fulfillment.
If our departure is successful, then the second complication comes with our need to confront the shadow and recover our spiritual light – all that bound energy of animal faith, spontaneity, imagination, creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had to push down and out of the way for the social acceptance we needed in childhood.
For many Christians, the paradoxical identity of Lucifer as one who is against us (in his aspect as adversary or Satan) and who at the same time is holding the light we had forsaken but now need to recover in order to become whole again, is impossible to reconcile with popular portrayals of the devil as one who has nothing to give us but temptation, torment, and trouble.
Obeying the moral command to refuse and renounce the devil, believers end up rejecting (all over again) the gift of their own forsaken light.
When our once-captive light is at last recovered and the division within ourselves is healed, the at-one-ment of our whole self is ready to break through and finally leave behind the limiting beliefs and compensatory attachments that had kept our life small and safe, but spiritually stifling. Now in the wide-open space of a boundless presence, we can enjoy our creative participation in the higher wholeness of genuine community.