Let’s get “mythological” for a few minutes.
You are the hero on a journey to find your true self. (Why you would have to go anywhere to find your true self is not something you pause to really think about.) On the way, you enter a bazaar where all kinds of costumes are available for you to try on, with the promise that perhaps one style in particular will reveal your true identity. But which one?
You quickly learn that these various costumes, uniforms, and outfits are associated with larger social settings, some more formal, some less so, but each one serving to identify you as a character in a role play. It also becomes obvious to you that your performance in any given role play successfully secures, or otherwise puts at risk, your status and reputation among others in the cast.
The better you are at playing a role and being the character they expect you to be, the stronger your compensation in the form of social approval and reward.
It’s not long before you come to understand that there are some aspects of your natural temperament, as well as talents and interests you naturally possess, which are incompatible with certain costumes and clearly not permitted on stage.
Because you value the recognition you receive when you perform a role as written, you submit to this morality of compliance by leaving those parts of yourself off stage and behind the curtain. In some cases, you have to work hard to keep them hidden, but the threat of losing your part in the play, of losing your identity and becoming a nobody, is enough to justify pushing some of your natural light into the shadow and out of sight.
When young Anakin Skywalker of the Star Wars saga eventually became dependent on his Suit to hold him together and keep him alive, the tragic loss of his true self was nearly complete. Joseph Campbell regarded this character arc as a particularly powerful depiction of what can happen when a hero’s true humanity is denied and abandoned in pursuit of social identity.
The great lesson of that moment in the story, or rather the great question is, How much of your true self have you abandoned or suppressed in order to fit into a Suit and be somebody others accept and approve? Anakin’s journey was redemptive in the end, as he “returned” to his humanity in the final moments of his life. Not every hero’s journey has a happy ending, however, with too many dying inside identities they mistakenly believe will save them from a lonely life of anonymity.
While all that drama, of pushing your natural light off stage and playing out an identity that others and the larger society want you to be, is exhausting – unnerving, crazy-making, frustrating, disappointing, and ultimately not fulfilling – it may come as a surprise to learn that your liberation from suffering is possible now. Right now. Not up ahead or later on, but this moment.
Something is required of you, however, which means that any doubt, hesitation, or resistance on your part will only delay your salvation – the “return” to your true self and full humanity.
What must you do? Surrender the Suit, take off the identity, and step out of character. (Be prepared, for others on stage will not be happy with you.) Exit the stage and descend by a back stairway into the nether-realm of your Shadow, where those banished and forgotten powers are locked away.
While mythology often depicts the Shadow as a menacing and diabolical force, this only proves the psychospiritual principle which states that the power of darkness (or the Dark Side) is in direct and equal measure to your passion in suppressing the light you believe makes you unacceptable to others. Your Shadow is the No! that hides and holds your light.
Now, without the trance of orthodoxy calling down to the stage and directing the action, telling you how you should act and what you should believe and how you should feel, you can finally take back your light and become whole again.
This is the moment of conversion (Greek metanoia, or “new mind”), where the veil parts and the hero, who had been in pursuit of a far-off treasure, realizes that it has been in their possession all along. A divided consciousness, split by a hanging partition of ignorance, conviction, and amnesia, gives way at last to a unified vision.
Liberated now from the self-destructive tension between the Suit and the Shadow, you can be fully present to what’s real, to the present mystery of Reality. A fully embodied experience opens a descending path to the quiet inner life of your Soul, where “human” relaxes in communion with “being.” Because you have been chasing along the horizontal axis of time for so long, this 90° shift in awareness will at first feel awkward and difficult to sustain.
As with everything else in life, though, consistent practice will strengthen this meditative skill and it won’t be long before getting grounded and staying present are effortless.
Ascending along this same axis of a vertical (or unified) vision brings you into the transpersonal realm of spiritual community, where you and everything else are co-participants in a higher wholeness. In contrast to the descending path, which entailed a gradual release of your unique center of identity to an ineffable experience of “no-self,” this ascending path involves a gathering up into yourself of what you have to offer the greater harmony of beings. Just as with breathing (the Latin spiritus means breath), your Spirit joins the conspiracy (breathing together) of a universal fellowship.
Self-transcendence (leaping out), then, is your way up to community; self-surrender (letting go) is your way down to the ground.
The mythological archetype of the Hero’s Journey, of your great adventure in search of true self, was designed to help you wake up to your life, take back your light, and become whole again.
Perhaps it’s time to take that mask off.