The Mentor: Meeting of the Understories
Posted on August 21, 2015
In our story to this point, our hero client has lost access to a normal safe life and fallen into darkness through the pain and suffering of trauma. Confronted with both internal, or understory, and external, or overstory, challenges, the hero eventually falls into an abyss of spiritual and emotional death. It is in the depth of darkness that the hero meets the mentor, or “counselor of the mind.” In Campbell’s monomyth, this meeting is the catalyst for transformation, leading to great strength and the ability to return to normal life. In this post, I want to examine the historic role of the mentor, healer, or helper, and why this person is the bridge between spiritual/emotional death and transformation/post-traumatic growth.
To understand the power of the mentor, it helps to see the meeting of hero and mentor as a meeting of understories or, as we discussed in a previous post, a meeting of souls/minds both impacted by their own journeys and experiences. In our modern society, the role of healer has been so professionalized that it is sometimes difficult to connect back to the vast and rich human experience and role of the historic mentor, much less connect to those common in all mythologies. I came across this work from one of my favorite artists, Alex Gray, that visually represents the mentor’s historical role.
On the left, the mentor descends into the abyss. While mythology usually presents the meeting of hero and mentor as a physical meeting in the darkest moments of the journey, shamanistic and other traditions see this meeting as more a meeting of spirits. Through different means, including meditation, prayers, power plants, dance, and other methods, the mentor transcends the physical realm and enters into the spiritual abyss, where their “client’s” soul is suffering and trapped.
The middle panel demonstrates the cost to the mentor for this descent into the abyss. One cannot touch the devastation of the abyss without being changed by the experience. To come face to face with the hero’s suffering, and to confront the terror that caused such great pain, can destroy the mentor. This descent reminds me of a saying my friend and physician Deb Borne says about our work: “Trauma and pain is the fire we signed up to walk into every day in doing this work.” For the Shamans of old, this fire was a literal spiritual hell in which they willingly entered to do holy battle on behalf of their hero.
The histories of many tribes and cultures are filled with mentors who went into the abyss, never to emerge back into this realm. There was an acknowledged risk of death from spiritual combat. The risk of being consumed by the “fire” was why traditional healers lived according to a different set of societal rules and trained from a very young age. Oftentimes, mentors did not practice in isolation until they had decades of apprenticeship and learning behind them. Many of these mentors were not allowed to marry and were often isolated from their tribe. Being outside the daily reality of the tribe allowed them to stay focused on building their power without the distractions of friendships, romantic relationships, gathering food, or other tasks that would take away their time and energy.
Today, we call this “fire” compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma. Shamans often did not even need to be in the same geographic location as the person they were working to heal. As modern mentors, however, we are not just confronted with the abyss as emotional and spiritual death (at least in extreme cases), we also hold witness to the physical realities of homelessness, poverty, and medical issues resulting from lives of pain, trauma, and stress.
The final panel is the emergence of the mentor from the abyss with healing for the hero. Sometimes in the form of a teaching or lesson, other times in the form of ceremony or ability to use healing plants, the mentor has something that helps the hero emerge from being a victim of the abyss to a transformed and reborn person. It is this gift that makes the journey and associated risk worthwhile.
It is important though to understand the nature of the mentor. The mentor, as well as the hero, has a strong understory. No one can spend so much time in the abyss without it impacting their mind/soul. Historical and mythological mentors had great powers and could use this power for good or evil, for selfish or altruistic causes (often termed white or black magic). Spending so much time in the “fire” of the abyss often transformed benevolent mentors into mentors that used their power for negative purposes and selfish ends. How does one stay pure and good when confronted with so much pain and evil?
There is a complex and deep understory that has led us to this work. Few of us have had lives untouched by trauma and pain. Even if we didn’t experience this ourselves, we are soon confronted by it when we start our work. The important lesson from Campbell’s mythic mentor is that our personal understory, combined with years of training, allow us to be the catalysts for transformation mentioned in myths all over the world. While few of us intentionally enter the shamanic realm to do spiritual battle, we nevertheless confront tremendous levels of physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering.
While the mentors of old used trances, plants, and other methods to meet the hero’s soul in the abyss, we enter our client’s world with empathy and compassion as our peaceful weapons of transformation. By meeting pain with compassion and darkness with hope, we help bring light back into a dark world. This experience is not only transformational for the client but also transforms our own understory, giving our lives a great amount of purpose and meaning.
This week, I would like you to think about the archetypal journey that you make into the abyss of your heroic clients. When met with despair and pain, what tools do you use to help transform the understory of your clients? Also, how have these experiences changed your understory about yourself?