The Bridge from Death to Transformation

Posted on August 28, 2015

If you have not had an opportunity to read the post “What is Hope” this would be a great time to do so. It will provide an understanding of the biological process and science behind the concepts discussed in this post.

We have hit the point in the journey where the hero is reborn into the world. In Campbell’s model, the abyss is so painful and difficult that the hero experiences spiritual and emotional death. There is no light or meaning until the helper or mentor meets them in the abyss and finds something in the hero which they struggle to find themselves.

Therhero transformatione is a moment in most every myth in which the tide turns and a spark is lit within the hero. Something about this moment resurrects the soul (the understory) of the hero, allowing her to transcend emotional and spiritual death and rise with great strength, to take on the challenges that just before had seemed impossible to overcome. It is this moment that I would like to examine in more detail.

As seen in the “What is Hope” post, you can look at this rebirth as a release of certain chemicals, specifically endorphins and oxytocin. While it is true that for someone in the abyss the re-experiencing of these chemicals can seem life-changing, it is hard to look at something that stands as the bridge between death and transformation as “only” a chemical reaction. If this was the case, we could simply medicate people out of the abyss and, as we know, that rarely works.

Examining the connection between overstory (outward appearance) and understory (inward narrative or soul) provides a context for the journey from death to hope to transformation. There are aspects of the understory that have lain dormant for years, if not decades. To demonstrate the power of these “aspects,” let’s call them the spiritual geometry, or the emotional/spiritual makeup, of the hero. We all have people, experiences, and beliefs that inspire and energize us. Those in the abyss have lost touch with their own spiritual geometry and, as a result, often have lost touch with themselves as people.

When the helper/mentor journeys to the abyss, either physically or empathetically, the search is first and foremost a mission of discovery. What is it in this person that brings power into their life? What is their spiritual geometry? There is something inherent to the human experience, as evident in our history, where we gain great power from certain objects, experiences, or spiritual beings.

People are a combination of their overstories and understories. In professional settings, the overstory is often the presenting problems, referrals and resources needed, and goals and objectives on a treatment plan. If we stop here, we miss the transformative power lying in the understory. In most paperwork realities, we do not even asses or discuss the understory. While we have gotten good at handling the overstory, we struggle to ask questions that connect to the person behind the overstory. Here are a few examples of understory questions:

  • What are the rules that you live your life by?
  • Tell me about a time where you felt great strength?
  • Have you had any spiritual experiences that have brought you peace or strength?
  • I would like to know if you can identify people in your past that have provided you a sense of safety, strength, and/or confidence.
  • Are there any spiritual, historical, or modern figures that have certain strengths that inspire you?
  • Tell me about any spiritual beliefs you have and how these guide your life.

For most clients, their current character in their overstory is not their best self, or one they are even proud of talking about. Overstories are too often narratives about addiction, abuse, homelessness, and failure. If we focus only here, we risk reinforcing this narrative and potentially re-traumatizing the client.

It is hard to rewrite the understory by just addressing the “presenting problems” of the overstory. To build the bridge from emotional/spiritual death to transformation, we must reach the understory and spiritual geometry. As mentors, we do this by connecting our own spiritual geometry with that of the clients’. This act is one of connection, not disclosure. In other words, we connect not through our own beliefs or experiences, though this might be appropriate in certain situations. Instead, we find power within our own spiritual geometry to provide compassion, empathy, and calm, setting the relational opportunity for exploration of the client’s understory.

If we can find sources of strength within the clients’ spiritual geometry, we want to explore this as much as possible. While time is limited for all of us, this is where the fuel for transformation lies. In addition, if you can build a compassionate and empathetic relationship, the strength gained from connecting to the understory can multiply many times over.

My challenge for you this week is to consider a few of your clients who are struggling. Can you ask one of the questions presented here to connect to their understories?


A Final Reflection:

This equal focus on the overstory and understory connects to how I like to show the paradigm shift of trauma informed care, using the Adverse Childhood Experience pyramid.


Traditionally, we have focused nearly all our attention on the symptoms of trauma, summarized by the question “What did you do?” This is obviously an overstory question. While we need to focus energy and time to address the symptoms (addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, medical issues, etc.), we also need to challenge ourselves to address the underlying neurobiological impact of trauma that causes the symptoms to occur. This brings in the key shift in our perspective, from “What did you do?” to “What happened to you?”

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