Soulcraft Musings 24/11/17 – Breakthrough: The Underworld Passage

Breakthrough: The Underworld Passage (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute

This is the third part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Before finding anyone who had written about or guided others into this realm, I stumbled into it experientially — in 1980 during my first vision fast. This was a solo, self-guided ceremony conducted in a contemporary Western manner, not in imitation of Native American people or other indigenous traditions.[1] But my discovery might have been made through any one of a number of other practices or ceremonies, or even sparked by seemingly random life events. What’s important here is what was discovered, not how I discovered it.

What I discovered, in addition to my first glimpse of soul, was that the entire framework of purpose, meaning, and identity that I had been raised with and had been living within — and that most people in the contemporary Western world live within their entire lives — was no longer applicable or particularly relevant to me. It was over, done, bankrupt. Like a capsized swimmer in uncharted whitewater, I was navigating a life passage that relatively few people undergo in the contemporary world, into a realm of experience about which I had no previous knowledge. I had embarked upon the descent to soul, the underworld journey into the mysterium tremendum at the core of the human psyche.

In the course of healthy human development, we are each meant to reach this breakpoint, this crisis, this divide beyond which we’re no longer able to decisively define ourselves in terms of social or romantic relationships, or in terms of a job or career, a creative or artistic project, a political affiliation, a theory or philosophical perspective, a religious or ethnic membership, or a transcendental spiritual goal. We are propelled — compelled! — toward an underworld self-definition, a soul-infused experience of meaning and purpose and identity. True for all humans, this is our evolutionary birthright, a necessary passage on the way from psychological adolescence to true adulthood. (By “psychological adolescence,” I don’t mean an age range, but a developmental stage that most Western people never grow beyond.)

The mainstream currents of our contemporary cultures neither assert nor deny the existence of an underworld identity; it has simply disappeared from awareness. Even middleworld purpose has become difficult to attain. It’s increasingly common for people to find themselves marooned in a world of restless emptiness with a sense of not truly or deeply belonging to anything — or with an unrelenting numbness or depression, a sense of lurching through life or just going through the motions. From age four until our mid-teens, middleworld purpose is all we need. But beyond our teen years, middleworld purpose alone never deeply satisfies. Even if you add upperworld purpose, there still remains a thunderous void.

This passage from a middleworld social-vocational-political-religious scaffolding of self-definition (and/or one of the universal, one-size-fits-all versions of upperworld identity) to a unique, soul-derived, underworld framework is a categorical shift in orientation. It’s not a shift from one cultural definition to another. It’s not a progression from one career to the next, from one romance to another, from being an addict to being a professional success, from being a mid-westerner to being a Californian, from being born into a Jewish family to becoming a Buddhist. Nor is it a shift from middleworld specifics to upperworld universality. And it’s not a shift we can simply choose or make happen. It is, rather, the involuntary demise of our entire comprehension of the nature of meaning or purpose, of the ways we understood ourselves and the world through childhood and psychological adolescence, and an abduction into the depths of the psyche and the mysteries of the world toward encounters that will eventually enable us to identify “the one life we can call our own.” A psychologically risky journey of many months or years, it makes possible a personal transformation that can happen only after we reach a developmental stage that few in the West ever reach.

To read part one and two, click here.

[1] Although a solo experience, my first vision fast was elegantly, wisely, and invaluably supported, through correspondence and written materials, by Steven Foster and Meredith Little, founders of the School of Lost Borders. I recount the story of this fast in the preface to Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche  (New World Library, 2003).


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