What is the Road of Trials? Well, all characters have taken steps on this long tumultuous path, and many are still traversing its precarious and dangerous cobblestones. In practical terms, the Road of Trials refers to the chapter in the story of a character’s life when he or she crosses a threshold of transformation – a life alternating event – that shakes their very being to its core. The world outside their skin is no longer the same, a reflection of the changing world inside their skin.
Whether one takes the first steps alone or refuses the call, the universe finds a way to inevitably plunge us into the unknown, beyond the safe boundaries set by our parents, cultures, or religions. What happens along the Road of Trials sets the tone for the rest of a character’s life. It can shift one’s consciousness from the bliss of childhood to a state of chronic suffering clouded by the traumatic memories of the trials experienced along the road. Or can one transcend their suffering and die to their old-self, becoming reborn anew? One thing is for certain: the stakes couldn’t be higher. As for what lies at the end of the road, well, to quote one of the most popular wisdom traditions of our time “Do you think you can enter the garden of bliss without such trials as came to those who passed away before you?”.
Joseph Campbell, the great comparative mythologist, tells us that in the oldest stories told by our ancestors, the Road of Trials “is a favorite of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals”.
To Learn, You Must Unlearn
What exactly do we gain from reading the stories of our ancestors? For the last few centuries, the common view has been that to read our oldest stories is merely to look back at what appears to be an outdated superstitious view of the world which we have fortunately moved beyond; a waste of attention and time that should rather be allocated to productive efforts designed to facilitate a cleaner future grounded in rational thinking, science, and technology. While the miracles of science and technology have elevated our standard of living on this planet, we are now in the process of destroying our very planet and our future with it. With mental health problems plaguing our modern societies and antipsychotics and antidepressants becoming the number one prescribed drugs in the world, we are beginning to rethink our approach towards wisdom. For in the supposed “fictitious” stories of our ancestors lies a never-ending deep well of metaphorical truths and wisdom that helped our ancestors psychologically face the trials on the road of life. Psychologically, we are not too different from our ancestors. Many of the psychological trials they faced in their individual lives are as relevant today to the trials we face in ours. How do you deal with failure? The death of a loved one? Trauma? But the question remains: can modern humans benefit from the wisdom of our ancestors? That depends. For, paradoxically, to benefit and learn, one has to be willing to unlearn; to submit to surrender. The problem is, just how do we do that?
Which Path to Take?
As modern individuals today, we proudly stand, ready to face the world alone. But are we? For the moment that any character crosses a threshold of transformation (death of a loved one, failure to succeed, rejection, etc) their lives are plunged into chaos. They find themselves lost, unprepared to face the road of trials and tribulations ahead.
So how does one face the Road of Trials? When faced with psychological dangers, our ancestors were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance. For most modern humans, however, if you’ve held on to inherited beliefs, you may frustratingly find that they often fail to represent the problems of contemporary life. For those that have proudly unshackled themselves, well, you must face the journey alone. This is our challenge as modern “enlightened” individuals, for whom all the gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence. Thus the question is posted before you: take the journey alone or reinterpret the stories of our ancestors? Whichever path you choose, if you succeed, you will arrive at the same place, for all roads lead to Rome.
Taking the Journey Alone
“Beware of wisdom you did not earn” is a warning sign that many ignore along the journey of life. Most of us step forward with the confidence of our culture, religion, the direction of our parents, and the defences of their well-constructed ego. Yet, more often than not, as we come face to face with one of the many great trials of life, the guiding principles of our cultures and our parents fail us, leaving us to fend on our own. We descend into the abyss as our guiding light fades into the darkness.
But can you take the perilous journey alone? Neitzche warned us “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But Joseph Campbell tell us: “And so it happens that if anyone – in whatever society – undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolic figures (any of which may swallow him)… In our dreams the ageless perils, gargoyles, trials, secret helpers, and instructive figures are nightly still encountered; and in their forms we may see reflected not only the whole picture of our present case, but also the clue to what we must do to be saved.”
Campbell also tells us that, on the Road of Trials, one must discover and assimilate their opposite (their unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or being swallowed. “He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” But, he asks “Can the ego put itself to death? For the many-headed is the surrounding Hydra; one head cut off, two more appear-unless the right caustic is applied to the mutilated stump.”
Road of Trials Affects How You View the World
There’s an idea that the world is a Rorschach-blot. Rorschach was the psychologist who invented the psychological test whereby arbitrary inkblots are presented to a patient who then describes their interpretation – the images seen within the arbitrary blots of ink. Patients who suffered from PTSD, for example, saw images that were related to the traumatic event they experienced indicating that the world we experience outside our skin is a reflection of the world experienced inside our skin.
What do you see when you look at the image above? Does it inspire you? Does it make you feel calm or anxious? Each one of us will reply differently. In just the same way, each and everyone one of us will see the world differently. Some look outside and see a universe of objects created by a creator – a benevolent monarch, a king of the cosmos – who watches our every step. Others have dethroned the monarch entirely but kept his creation, the objects or artifacts we see around us, which were “made” by random fluke. Whether you adhere to the monarch-universe myth or the mechanical-universe myth, let me assure you that they’re both myths. By myth, I do not mean a lie, but rather an image-idea or abstract metaphor in which you interpret the Rorschach-blot of the world.
What does this have to do with The Road of Trials? Well, the trials you go through in life significantly affect how you see the world. Many claim that the Buddhist dictum is that “life is suffering”. So, has the suffering you experienced made you more frustrated and resentful at the world? What many often don’t explain is that Buddhims also tells us that life is suffering because of the way we live it. In other words, it doesn’t have to be “suffering”. A character’s suffering can become their pathway to wisdom, whereby they become more at peace with where they are on their journey and thus with the world they see. In the Arabic language, the words pain “ألم” and knowledge/learning “علم” are cognates, meaning they have the same root. Where you are on your life journey certainly affects how you see the Rorschach-blot of the world.
The Shaman – First Steps on the Road of Trials
Above, I touched on the idea that the world we experience outside our skin is a reflection of the world experienced inside our skin. Well, how did our earliest ancestors interpret the world they interacted with? Surrounded by so many unknowns, wild creatures, an ever-changing natural environment, and an ever-expansive night-sky, who helped our ancestors understand their reality and make sense of their place in the universe?
There’s a common perspective that our ancestors were in constant fear of their lives. Surrounded by an unforgiving natural environment filled with predators, the common perspective holds that our ancestors were living in constant anxiety, constantly trying to survive. I wonder then, if life was so anxious and chaotic, why would our ancestors continue living? Just to have offspring that could then continue to live the same anxious lives, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum? Seems like we’re missing something. What was it that kept our ancestors going; that helped them find meaning in their lives?
There’s a fascinating idea that the shaman or “medicine-man” of our earliest culture were the conduits from which the first-ever religions emerged; and not surprisingly, the shamen were also the creators of the art and culture of their tribes. What is a shaman you may ask? The original storytellers if you will. The shaman was the first in his tribe to voluntarily take steps on the spiritual path of the Road of Trials.
What is a Shaman?
The word “shaman” is becoming a popular word among various social circles in the West. If you are in the tech industry, you’ve probably heard stories about some start-up founder making his or her way to South America to experience a psychedelic “journey” with a shaman. Yet, in spite of its growing popularity, I find that people understand very little about shamans and the shamanic experience. To start, it’s a very serious subject.
When visiting cultures that were completely isolated from civilization (and thus reflect how our ancestors most probably lived and behaved), anthropologists described the shaman of the tribe as either a “neurotic” or a “psychotic”. Such terms, to be clear, are labels that a modern “civilized” culture uses to describe behavior they cannot understand. Such labels also hold negative connotations, which is why we wonder how the same anthropologists could note that the cultural influence of the shaman on his tribe was absolutely central. Why would the people of the tribe rely on a “neurotic” or “psychotic” individual as the spiritual guide to help them interpret their reality and more importantly, heal? The problem here is with the terms “neurotic” or “psychotic”, for they only express the limits of our scientific understanding of the human mind, its psychology and consciousness.
The Shaman – the Original Psychologist
Above, I mentioned how anthropologists referred to the shamans of our oldest cultures as “neurotic” or “psychotic” which is merely a reflection of their limited scientific understanding of psychology, consciousness and more importantly the human unconscious. For the shaman was an expert in subjective truth, whereas anthropologists from our modern cultures are far more concerned with objective truth. The shaman lived on the border between the human “conscious” and “unconscious”. The shaman helps his tribe understand and interpret the motivating forces that arise from inside their bodies so the tribe members can face the world outside their bodies. Not only was the medicine man or shaman the original storyteller, but he was also the original psychologist. How? Well, by undergoing the initiation of the Road of Trials, the shaman courageously dove so deep into his own unconscious, battled his demons (pacified his ego), and discovered truths about himself and his whole tribe. How did he do so?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Road of Trials.