Whose story are we living?
Now that Covid-19 has ground the world to a halt, we find ourselves at an auspicious fork in the road. The storyteller Dr. Martin Shaw likens it to a key moment in a Russian initiation myth, Ivan and the Wolf. Having set off on a quest to capture the firebird, the young prince Ivan soon arrives at a fork in the road and a stone engraved with a warning. If he takes the left road his beloved horse will live but he will die. If he takes the right road his horse will die but he will live. Following an anguished moment he chooses the right path. A wolf eats his horse then whisks Ivan off on a quest into the deep feminine, deep feeling, to recover his soul and finally return to the kingdom to restore it to health – to shift from a culture of taking to a culture of giving.
In our response to the virus and the greater systemic crisis of which it is a part, we are being invited to leave behind our horse – what is familiar, steady, domesticated, though ultimately toxic if soulless. At this unprecedented time when the entire world is being put through an initiation, Martin Shaw tells us that it is the agility and wisdom of the wolf that will serve us best. In trickster times we need the wiliness of the wolf to outsmart the tyrant kings and saboteurs inside of us. If, however, we save our horse at the expense of our soul then the myths tells that the kingdom and the land will fall under a great sickness.
To see this moment for what it really is and to embrace this opportunity for profound and vital change, we need to understand that stories drive everything we humans do. Initiatory stories such as Ivan and the Wolf, and the timeless themes they embody, have guided traditional society for as long as we know, helping tribes to regulate desire so that it doesn’t burn down the culture. Next, we need to question whose story have we been living in modern times. Our parents? A celebrities? Pastoral stories rooted in a fear of scarcity? Then ask ourselves what story do we wish to live? Said another way, real change is born from understanding the sub-text, the sub-conscious patterns that determine our actions.
In his book The Heart Aroused – Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, the poet David Whyte uses myths such as Beowulf to show how a repressed soul eventually turns feral and seeks to destroy the kingdom. A key message is that we will always be hunted by what we have most denied in ourselves. On a collective level, this phenomenon is reflected in the precarious state of the world today. He explains that a modern equivalent of this monster is how unresolved child-parent relationships play out in parental management systems until we have the courage and savvy to turn inwards and address the cause. During this great pause brought about by Covid-19, that moment has arrived, or at least the invitation has.
How Does Initiation Play Out in Lockdown?
Life is full of initiations, especially as we pass from one phase of life into another. This is most powerful when done ceremonially, the space held by elders. Though traditional initiations have started to return to the fringe of modern society, in most cases initiations are an unconscious, muddled process drawn out over years, whether caused by a divorce, losing a job, a death, or something else. Traditionally an initiation might involve four days alone in the wilderness, fasting from food, with only water to drink and a tarp for shelter – no devices, books, or other distractions. Your only company is nature, your senses, along with your fears, who are in fact your best guides to rediscovering your soul. Out there during those long days and nights you are being cracked open to the reality that you are a vital part of something vast and deeply mysterious. You are also part of a community to which you must return with a sharpened sense of responsibility, to show up and be of service.
Martin Shaw refers to being in lock down as being in your alchemical hut, a chance to focus on your inner world, to listen deeply. Of course the situation seems far from ideal. There is a great temptation to get distracted by Netflix and fearful news flow relating to Covid-19. The key is to try to relax into these restless times. Trust in the elders sitting around the ceremonial fire at base camp, the virtual fire we know as the internet. They are holding space for us, helping us feel into what this great moment on Earth might mean without naming it too quickly, alert to both the opportunities and the risks, environmental, economic, social, political or otherwise. These elders are available to all of us.
In addition to Dr. Martin Shaw and Mike Berners-Lee, both of whom have written timely books – respectively Courting the Wild Twin and No Planet B – we have podcasts from the likes of Charles Eisenstein, Michael Meade, Outrage & Optimism, along with Ed Gillespie’s and Dougald Hine’s The Great Humbling. These are authentic elders with deep intelligence, deep feeling and common sense, who have been immersed in their vocations for decades. Robert Bly’s book Iron John, in which he tells the initiation myth Iron John and grounds it in modernity, is another highly relevant book for both men and women in these trickster times. Martín Pretchel is also invaluable company along with the great poets.
Like Ivan’s wolf we need to be wily in our alchemical hut – noting down our dreams and paying attention to the images and what they might be showing us, seeing through the masks we wear, seeing through the masks of those around us, seeing the pressure points caused by their company as places to dig within ourselves to unearth treasure. We need to get to know our internal saboteurs inside out. And we need to be highly discerning of who we invite into our psyches from the outside, selecting spell-breakers over spell-makers. An elder, often depicted in myth by the colour white, is someone who holds the red of passion in one hand and the black of grief in the other, at service of something greater than individual ambition, accountable rather than remarkable. An elder’s first thought is always: how will my actions affect my tribe and nature, the things I love.
Grief and feeling through it into wisdom is the key to all of this. In the expansive language of storytelling grief is a thing of beauty. As Stephen Jenkinson eloquently describes it, grief is life affirming, teaching us about impermanence and so deepens our love for things while they are here, that our correct posture is humility and wonder, not control and not taking more than we need. Grief is a skilfulness, a willingness to be set upon by life.
This is our journey, our work – to grieve what we have destroyed in the natural world, to trace the cause to what we have lost contact with inside of ourselves, what Martin Shaw calls our wild twin, and then to court it. When we resurface we’ll be better prepared to navigate what Ed Gillespie terms the messy middle-ground between utopian and dystopian narratives. With each shock that arrives over the coming years, we’ll be better prepared to greet it. We’ll be more calm, more compassionate and more trusting. The more together we are, the more in synch with nature’s rhythms we are, the smoother this period of adjustment might become.
A Question of Style
As David Whyte flags, the old myths tells us that one way or another we are going to be swallowed by something greater. The only real question is whether we will give ourselves to that greater life consciously. To do so is to dismount the red horse of unbridled passion and self-annihilation, and to leap atop a giant wolf. This is an alchemical move, opening the path to elderhood, something infinitely more useful than being a hero and with far greater rewards for everyone. It also shows immense style, which together with eloquence is the food of the gods. It makes for a great story and when all is said and done that is all we take to the next world.
Written by Robert Luck
Author of fantasy novel The House of Tusk
If you wish to hear Dr. Martin Shaw’s podcasts on our current times, there are two so far. The first is titled Pandemic & Mythic Meanings of this Cultural Moment. The second is titled We Are In The Underworld And We Haven’t Figured It Out Yet.