Letting Go the Hero

I came across this idea in an essay of Jung’s the other day: as a person reaches middle age, they must let go the Hero if they are to grow successfully into their new stage of life. I think we’re familiar with the middle-aged man who is lost in recounting the glories of his youth, unable to move on, until he becomes a tiresome bore.

And I think many of us are also familiar with the refrain, “When I was young monk…” that pops up so regularly in some Dhamma talks. I’ve always had a problem with this; for a start I can’t say it without breaking into a faux-Yorkshire accent.

When I encountered the idea of letting go the Hero it immediately stuck me. I hadn’t thought about things in this way before. I started reflecting on my own experience in the Thai forest tradition, and it helped to make more sense about what I’ve gone through and where I’m going.

First up, who or what is the Hero? The basic idea is that the Hero is the One who overcomes obstacles (the dragon fight) to win a prize (the treasure that is hard to gain) and returns home to re-enter society (the divine wedding). This story is portrayed in countless forms in myth and story, and according to Jungians its prevalence is because the Hero is in fact simply the Self, and the story of the Hero is the story of how each person finds himself (individuation).

Generally, the term Hero can be used for the individual in any stage of life, overcoming any kind of obstacle. But the most characteristic hero stories concern the young man – a warrior, student, or adventurer – who successfully grows from childhood into a mature adult life. And that is the sense that Jung is using here.

Of course, every life is different, and the obstacles we overcome and the successes we gain are all different. This is why there are so many forms of the hero myth. But the basic pattern remains the same. There is a formal consistency in the myth that seems to reflect universal truths about the human, or perhaps especially masculine, psyche.

In this essay I’m trying to express as concisely as I can some insights about the way that gender dynamics have informed the recent conflicts and difficulties over bhikkhuni ordination. Be warned: generalizations and stereotypes follow. While this is unfortunate, I think it is essential in this case, since we are dealing with a largely communal issue. It’s Sangha. There is a culture which has its own typical mindset; teachings are predominantly given to a group of people in general, not to individuals as in psychotherapy; and the dominant culture itself insists on and creates strong gender divisions. As one nun said to me, “I never felt like a woman until I went to the monastery”.

The prize that is hard to gain is always different – a ring, a treasure, a battle, a bride – but at its essence it is always the same: knowledge of ones’ self. This is why the Buddha’s life story is one of the clearest and most perfect examples of the hero myth: the central quest for Awakening is not hidden by a metaphor. This in itself points to the notion that the Buddha’s message, while delivered in a hero myth, goes beyond that and is not merely a mythic truth.

I am digressing here; my point is simply that the hero myth is central to Buddhism, and applies very much to the spiritual quest of monastics. Incidentally – and here’s another digression – the biographies of the forest Ajahns include many of the standard tropes of the hero myth (descent to the underworld, miraculous birth, marvellous childhood, encounter with the gods, and so on) and it would be fascinating to analyse them in detail in this light.

In the heroic, gung-ho warrior society of forest monks, what exactly is the hero’s quest? What are the obstacles? And how do they mesh with the particular needs of the monks?

Now, I’ve been using the masculine forms so far, quite deliberately. The hero myth is itself primarily masculine, and the environment I was immersed in at Wat Nanachat in Thailand was almost exclusively so. So for now I’ll proceed from this point of view, and consider the feminine perspective a little later.

It seems to me that we should exclude the general teachings of Buddhism here. Mindfulness, meditation, and so on are relevant in many different contexts, not just a forest monastery in Thailand. What are those teachings that are highly characteristic of that particular context?

When I thought of this, two things sprang to mind immediately. One concerns the body; the other, the mind.

Regarding the body, the basic message is – subdue it! As young monks, we undertake celibacy, eat one meal a day, and go without sleep once a week. We have just one set of robes, follow a strict discipline and ascetic code. We endure heat, cold, sickness, snakebite. All of which is pretty trivial compared with the real suffering: enduring postures. Sitting for many hours a day on hard floors, often with little or no cushion; it’s natural for Thais, but highly unnatural for westerners, so much so that many of us have ended up in the hospital. In retrospect it seems obvious that such a marked feature of the lifestyle should have significant psychological effects, and these effects would strongly differentiate our experience as westerners unused to such postures. Yet it never occurred to us to discuss this. We just endured.

In regard to the mind, the message is equally straightforward: don’t have any views! Meditation is about being silent, stopping thought. So if you have any views then obviously your meditation is no good, and so why should anyone listen to what you have to say? Of course this is a caricature, but it captures the spirit pretty well. When an idea is brought up, the response often was, “Well, that sounds like a view…”. Opinions and especially learning are considered to be close to or identical with pride; this association is encouraged by the peculiar Thai usage of the Pali diṭṭḥimāna, lit “conceit of views”, which in colloquial use comes to mean just “pride”.

It seems to me that the special emphasis on these two aspects of Dhamma practice are specially targeted at the core demographic of Wat Nanachat: educated western men in their twenties. Much like me.

Ahh, those were the days! For a man in his twenties, his body is still a potent instrument. At the height of his strength and sexual virility, he has yet to see the signs of ageing and decay, yet to experience an illness that he does not quite recover from. And the mind: from maybe fifteen or so, he has learned how to think, how to subject the world to the blinding power of his reason. He is frustrated with those, like his parents for example, who simply don’t get the intricate truths that he unveils. It never occurs to him that maybe they get it all too well; maybe they know that not all wisdom can be reasoned out and that life’s experience teach one a certain humility in the face of uncertainty and wonder.

Or at least, that’s how it was for me. And, I suspect, for a sizeable percentage of those who washed up at Nanachat looking for … something. And ending up in robes.

So, if that’s who you are, then the heroic teachings and lifestyle of Nanachat is the bomb. There’s a huge vitality, energy, and joy that comes from overcoming the body. A vast sense of relief from experiencing for the first time a peaceful mind; from realizing that not every thought is a profound world-shattering event. Let go of the body, disdentify from thoughts, and life suddenly becomes much, much better.

This is really an overwhelming experience. Before this most of us were lost. We didn’t know what life was about, where we were going, or what the point of it all was. For all our intellect and strength, we didn’t know what to do. Now, suddenly, we find who we are. We have real idols to look up to, paragons of virtue and wisdom (and some pretty cool magic tricks, too). We overcome the twin dragons of our attachment to body and views, and discover our True Self (which, of course, we say is “not self”).

I haven’t digressed for a while, so here’s one for you. The archetypal dragon in Indic myth is Vṛtṛa, the cosmic serpent whose defeat by Indra is celebrated in many hymns of the Ṛg Veda. Vṛtṛa had trapped the waters and the cows, condemning the earth to famine until Indra released them, ensuring bounty. But etymologically the root of Vṛtṛa means to bind or constrict; and it is the same as the well-known Pali term nīvaraṇa, as in the five “hindrances”. So when Jung read the ancient dragon myths as a metaphor for psychological realities, he was following a precedent already found in Buddhism…

But the story doesn’t end there. Just when when we thought the drama of the quest was at its height it gets turned up to eleven. At that very point where we discover our own self, we turn around and find ourself placed on an altar and worshipped like a god! We’ve gone from being hobos, backpackers, or itinerant musicians, all of a sudden to being the ethical and spiritual exemplars for a hall full of good people, who bow down to the ground in homage to us. Whoa.

The conscious teaching is that the people are not bowing to you, they are bowing to the robe. The worship of others should not be taken as a sign that we are anything special, but as a reminder of our sacred duty to live up to the honour of wearing the Banner of the Arahants. Like all conscious teachings, this works only partially. If we have really succeeded in subsuming our personal identity within the Sangha, it is fine. But many don’t; and there are two paths of downfall. If we feel like a failure, like we don’t deserve it, then we will become more and more depressed and either hide out from people in a hermitage or the like, or else disrobe. Or if we really do identify with the homage – which is especially likely if we tell ourselves that we don’t – then ego inflation follows “like a shadow that never leaves”.

In reality, of course, all of us have all of these tendencies, and it is a matter of a constant reflection and reminder that can keep the unwholesome at bay and the wholesome in the forefront.

So the training for young monks at Wat Nanachat is especially useful for young men like myself, as it answers specific problems and needs and in doing overcomes meaninglessness and unleashes a tremendous faith and focussed energy. I want to emphasize here that I am not trying to be reductive. I know there is much more to it than this. I am trying to keep it simple by focussing on just a few important things, very narrowly considered.

Like all good things, however, there is a shadow. And it is those of us who are so transfixed by the light who are most blind to the dark. What is the shadow here? It is the inversion of the things I have already considered.

The body: not all young men are infatuated by their bodies. There are some who are confused, shamed, uncertain. There are those who are bewildered by women, fearful of sex. Letting go of the body is not, for these, a much-needed distancing to counterbalance an over-identification, but a validation of their own self-disgust, an over-repulsion from they were already repulsed by.

The mind: not all young men are caught up in their own views and conceits. Some are simply lost in the world. They don’t know what to think, and more importantly, how to think. They have experienced our post-modern world of relativism and moral quicksand and they can’t cope. They need a simple, externally imposed set of values and views that they can accept by way of submission to authority. And, having lost faith that such an authority can be found in the west, they are fascinated by the forest masters as the last vestige of higher truth. They love the idea of letting go of views, because they have never had any. They are happy to stop thinking, because they never really learned how to do so.

In both of these cases, the life and teachings that are so beneficial for many are just the wrong medicine, and the outcome is not good.

When I was writing earlier about the stereotypical “young male” psychology I found myself using “I” and “we”, while just now in speaking of the shadow I automatically shifted to the third person: “they”. When I noticed this it made me uncomfortable; I felt like my language was externalizing and projecting. But of course, all of these tendencies and forces are found within all of us, and how it works out in practice is a matter of balance. My aim in isolating the shadow is not to externalize it and project it on others, but to bring it into the light. I use the first person because that’s how it felt to me, my primary identification. The shadow feels to me like an “other”, so that’s how I talk about it.

Up until now we’ve only been considering the male perspective. How might these things work in feminine experience? The most obvious thing is that the values and struggles so far have been highly masculine in nature, with little emphasis on feminine qualities, which does very much reflect the reality of life at Wat Nanachat as I experienced it. It was acknowledged among the monks that a softer, more metta-oriented approach was emerging at that time (mid-90s) from the English communities, and this was specifically associated with the sīladharā communities. This approach had a certain limited influence on how we went about things.

I don’t want to stress this point too much, as in many ways the monks’ lifestyle did develop what are stereotypically feminine values, such as nursing and looking after each other, even though the orientation was clearly towards the masculine. A discussion of this would lead us too far astray. So rather than look into the question of the overall balance of practice, I’ll stick with the two characteristic teachings that I have used so far.

It seems to me that in regards to the body and to views, women typically have a quite different set of problems.

Body issues for women are often, not the over-identification with one’s physicality, but revulsion, doubt, and image problems. This is a major theme of feminist psychology: the pervasive images of physically perfect women, air-brushed visions constructed for the gaze of men, are an ideal hardly any women (even those in the images!) can actually live up to in reality. As a consequence women are worried, sometimes obsessed with the imperfections of their own bodies, something the advertising, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries thrive on. But these are only the modern expressions of an age-old problem; the Roman myth of Cupid & Psyche revolves around similar issues. More troubling, eating disorders are the outcome of this tendency taken to a pathological extreme. It is a disturbing fact that the history of eating disorders before modern times is, by and large, a history of nuns.

Turning to views, it is another theme of feminist psychology that women still, even in modern societies today, struggle to find their “voice”. The opinions of women are undervalued, disregarded. To express opinions they have to adapt themselves to the male discourse or find themselves ignored. It is not, in modern secular society at least, that they cannot have anything to say, but that what they do say glides past male ears without leaving much of an impression.

It is very striking to me that these issues are virtually the opposite of the monks’. In fact, the mainstream problems of the women seem very similar to the shadow side of the men. In both cases the problems are disgust and confusion about the body, and doubt and a struggle to articulate one’s ideas and views.

This is something I’ve heard from the nuns several times: they have to carry the shadow of the monks. I’ve never fully understood what this entails, but here I seem to be getting a clearer notion. The monks at the conscious level have to work with disidentifying from the body. At the shadow level we have unconscious confusions about our strength and sexuality. These shadow elements are for women not the shadow but the primary conscious struggle; women often express the path as an “embodiment”, a coming into conscious relation with the body and earth.

A similar pattern makes sense in the realm of views. Young western men are used to being listened to, to having their views taken seriously, and are intoxicated with their own ability to work things out rationally. Their practice is to subdue this tendency, experience quiet, and understand that their views are not always the truth. The shadow is the fear of the irrational. Women’s voices are not valorized, so their practice should be a coming-to-voice, a finding of ways to understand and articulate their own vision of the truth. In the masculinist monasteries, however, this is not possible: women’s wisdom is dismissed as “feminism”, which by definition is not worth listening to. There was apparently a book by Simone de Beauvoir at the Nanachat library before I got there: it was burnt. The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice, and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.

In both these cases the nuns are quite literally the monks’ shadows coming to life. They are the very thing the monks have struggled so manfully against, and in their triumph over which their own positive sense of self has been formed. I think this is why monks find it so hard to understand why nuns can’t just let go and submit to the form. That’s what they’ve been doing and it doesn’t work: not because they can’t let go, but because the form is wrong for them.

So what about middle-age? Here I am, 44. The section on ageing in the four noble truths is no longer just a reflection but a reality: the breaking of the teeth, the wrinkling of the skin, the greying of the hair… How do I relate to these two principles now?

Jung gives a lovely image for the development process through life. He compares it to the sun, which rises out of the waters of the unconscious in the morning. In the first half of life, the sun is oriented to the zenith. It is climbing towards ever higher consciousness, illuminating ever more widely and more brightly. And every passing hour is a further revelation of splendour. From noon, however, things change. Each hour signifies a diminishing of light. One is no longer looking up, but down towards the horizon. One is approaching, once more, the darkness of the twilight. But the twilight of the dusk is very different than the twilight of the dawn, which is full of excitement and hope. The dusk is peaceful, full of memory and reflection as one draws into the completion of a life.

So once again: the body. The primary task is no longer the disidentification, but the acceptance. The intoxication with the body in all its pleasures and possibilities has faded. The foolish response is despair and a desperate attempt to hang on and relive the glories of youth. For many people, this is what “not letting go the hero” is. The wise approach is just what the Buddha said when Ānanda pointed out the wrinkles on his back: “So it is, Ānanda! So it is, Ānanda!”

The mind: here too the basic problem is quite different from youth. I’ve been around quite a bit, and have been in discussions with many people of all sorts of values and ideologies. I know very well that my voice is only one among many, and that my views and ideas are often wildly off the mark. And yet: I have to make decisions. I’m responsible. I’m here in the monastery, and in many other contexts, where decisions need to be made. And, sometimes, argued for and insisted upon. In any case there is a decision, whether or not it is my view; and I have to accept responsibility for that. This is, I think, a key difference between middle age and youth. The young can play with ideas and largely escape their consequences – or at least, so they think. This notion of making mature decisions is not something that has been taught in monasteries, to my knowledge.

The stages of life and their importance has not, it seems to me, been considered carefully in Buddhism. Perhaps this is because in the prime story of Buddhism, the Buddha himself seems to transcend such development, reaching a completion of his journey while still a young man. Most of us have a slower and more uncertain path. Such lesser lives as ours are recounted throughout the Jātakas, and these often tell of spiritual progress through the stages of life. We find that the young man is a student, a prince, or a warrior; defeating his dragon he ascends to the mature stage, a teacher, king, or family leader; in the last stage of life he continues his growth, finally becoming a sage, an embodiment of wisdom for all.

I think there are some great examples of monks who have continued their growth through their lives. Two examples that come to mind: Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi. They are both in places in their lives that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet their growth does not come from a rejection of the values of their youth, but grows out of it, assimilating and integrating, while moving towards a wider, deeper, and more powerful vision.

If we have some understanding of this, we’ll be able to better appreciate how what appear to be contradictory or problematic teachings are sometimes simply appropriate for different stages of life. It also reminds me not to get stuck in the past. Whenever I say “When I was a young monk…” the real issue is not my struggle to avoid a Yorkshire accent, but the words themselves: “I was”. What “I was” is not the issue: it’s what I am, and what I can be.