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The hero aims to balance Ego, Self, and Soul, but many people at different times and places have determined to develop the Soul at the expense of the Ego and the Self. What this has often meant is the renunciation of worldly goods and relationships in the service of a monastic spiritual life.
For most of us, however, renunciation is not so complete. We want a balanced life, including success in the world as well as spiritual or soul development. Even so, we can benefit from the meditative techniques, perfected by mystics and ascetics, that help us empty out and open up without having to experience loss. Emptying out frees us from regrets about the past or ambitions or fears for the future.
Here the Destroyer becomes our ally. We learn to give up and let go of everything that no longer serves our journey. As Stephen Levine explains in Who Dies?, all losses of life, large and small, are rehearsals for death. In other times and other places, the mark of a well-lived life was the ability to die with grace. Meditation and other such spiritual practices help us prepare for death by helping us to let go of desire and experience the moment for its own sake.
We learn to die well by acquiring the ability to accept all of life’s losses and disappointments and to recognize the loss inherent in all change. Every change we experience in life is practice for the ultimate transition of death. The Destroyer begins to become our ally when we recognize the need to change or give something up without denying the pain or grief involved. The Destroyer can also become our advisor, for we learn in making every major decision to consult our deaths. If we allow death—rather than our fears or ambitions—to guide us, we make fewer frivolous decisions. If you were going to die tomorrow, what would you choose to do today?
The Destroyer is also the transformer. The sacred mysteries of the nature religions always remind us that rebirth follows death. This is literally true of the seasons. However cold and dark the winter might be, the spring does come. Such religions have always taught that the god who was crucified or dismembered in winter, for example, is born again in the spring. Although different religions have defined the details of this rebirth differently, the ultimate reassurance is the same: death always lead to new life.
Our encounters with the mysteries tend to strip away layers until the essential within us is revealed, just as they strip away pretense and illusion so we can see into the essence of the cosmos. This element of truth includes the whole range of experiences, from the most sublime, to the most depraved. All are, of course, part of each person’s Soul—at least in potential form—and in the world around us.
— Carol S. Pearson, Awakening The Heroes Within
Whatever we deny in our conscious minds will possess us. Not to face the ways we all traffic in death is to cling to innocence—which is, essentially, an Ego-oriented position—and deny Soul. And it is also to be the unconscious and unwitting agent of what we deny. We are often possessed by death and disorder.
Most of us individually, and society collectively, claim to be committed to promoting life and prosperity and to making the world a better place in which to live. Yet our infant mortality rate is astoundingly high, alcoholism and drug addiction are epidemic, and the consumption of fat, sugar, and junk food is unhealthily high for children and adults. We are polluting the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the food that we eat, and we continue to store nuclear and other toxic waste in containers that are less durable and long-lived than the hazards they contain. Widespread denial of death has certainly made us its unwitting ally. Our Egos like to see God as a benevolent parent, strong enough to care for us so that we never—however old we get—have to be without a cosmic Caregiver. This is an important part of religion and spirituality, and the belief helps make our inner child feel safe enough to allow growth. However, when we are in a childlike stance in the world, the sacred is often seen simply as an agent to fulfill our human needs.
The childlike Ego state wants to know that God will keep us safe from the many dangers we see around us and keep us safe on our own terms. But the emphasis on safety always leads to denial, which in time leads to psychological numbness.
Coded in our Souls is an attraction to death that is fundamental to metamorphosis. Yet the reality of death and loss raises difficult theological issues. Annie Dillard, for example, likens the mystic’s journey to a moth attracted to a flame. She describes how one night she watched as a moth flew into her candle. It was a beautiful, large golden female moth with a two-inch wing span. First the moth’s abdomen got caught in the wax, and the fire began to burn away her body, leaving only her shell, which began to serve as a wick. Dillard watched as the moth burned for two hours until “I blew her out … without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God.”
Dillard continues by recounting the story of Julie Norwich, a lovely young girl horribly burned in an accident, and by trying to reconcile this tragedy with ideas of a loving God. God, she notes, “is mad… . Who knows what God loves?” Yet Dillard’s response to the recognition of the cruelty at the root of human existence is not to renounce God or to pronounce that God is dead but to affirm the sacred in all its completeness—including such horrors as she recounts.
Julie Norwich, she surmises, will have plastic surgery and undoubtedly live a normal life. “I’ll be a nun for you,” she imaginatively tells Julie; “I am now.” To the Ego consciousness, such a statement sounds almost masochistic; but the Soul knows its meaning, for the Soul longs to love life, God, the Self, and the other in their full reality, not simply the Ego’s prettied-up version of life.
Entering the mysteries almost always requires an encounter with fear and recognition that the ultimate reality of the universe is not pretty and neat and in human control. Whether the experience is sexual passion or the mystery of birth or death, it is part of the cycle of nature and is characteristically intricate, profound, and threatening to the Ego.
Each one of us has with a Destroyer that is in league with death, that loves death. It is this shadow Destroyer that in the modern world tries to destroy Soul to the ends of the Ego. The Destroyer tries to save our Ego by attacking Soul to defend who we are. Ultimately, the Destroyer will also attack our defenses, opening the door for us to encounter our deeper selves.
— Carol S. Pearson, Awakening The Heroes Within
Related Reading: The Destroyer
We have so many ways to be anesthetized to our experiences—by food, shopping, television, alcohol, and drugs—that it often takes fear to wake us up. Sooner or later, loss or fear or pain turns our journey into an initiation. Seeking is active; we feel like we choose it. But initiation, especially under the reign of the Destroyer, chooses us.
The initiation experience may be precipitated by the death of a child, lover, or parent and the sudden awareness of mortality. It may be precipitated by a sense of powerlessness, the discovery that everything you have counted on, worked toward or tried to build in life has come to nothing. It can be an encounter with injustice. You have been good, disciplined, hardworking, and loving, and in return you get kicked in the teeth.
It is the double punch of not only recognizing mortality and limits but doing so in a context in which life itself has no intrinsic meaning. It is bad enough to know you are going to die. But to know that and to feel your life has no meaning is difficult to bear. Often, however, the solution to the dilemma is not to escape from the recognition of death, but to give your own life meaning precisely by accepting the inevitability of death.
We all die. We may or may not believe in an afterlife, yet we all must deal with living this mortal earthly life, with its beauties and attachments. The transience of life makes us recognize how precious it is. An awareness of death can free us from the overfixation on achievement, fame, and fortune, because it calls us back to remember what really matters.
Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, until we stop denying the reality of death, it will inevitably possess us. Sigmund Freud understood that Thanatos is as powerful a force in human life as Eros, and that, like Eros, it cannot be denied. If this were not the case, why would people continue to smoke, knowing that the habit is deadly? Why would anyone work at an extremely high-stress job? Why would anyone stay in an abusive relationship? In a peculiar way, many of us actually do subconsciously choose our own deaths, by our life-styles and our own particular forms of self-destructiveness.
There is no way to actually escape our deaths, and for most people I know, there isn’t even a way to completely escape some form of self-destructive behavior. Even people who are vehement about giving up their overt addictive behavior are usually still addicted to some socially acceptable forms, such as obesity, promiscuity, or greed. Human beings seem unable to completely dissociate themselves from the Destroyer. The question simply becomes who gets destroyed and by whom.
Scientists tell us that entropy, the tendency to increasing disorder and chaos, is the natural order of the universe. Life imposes order in a disorderly universe; entropy works against this order, an idea recognized by many religions that venerate gods and goddesses as destroyers as well as creators. In India, for example, the goddess Kali was worshiped as the bringer of death and destruction. Christianity tends to split off the power of death and destructions unto the Devil as a spiritual entity to be resisted or even conquered than revered. yet it is perhaps the Soul’s subliminal contract with death that makes it so difficult for people to avoid trafficking with what we would ordinarily think of as evil—death, destruction, self-destructiveness.
— Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within