The Hero’s Journey is not the myth of our time. Our myth, if we are going to make it through the 21st century, is the thrice born.
In the now classic hero’s journey, we find ourselves in the ordinary world. Something unexpected happens, we are plunged into the non-ordinary world, move through trials and lessons, and find ourselves back in the ordinary world, reborn.
The hero of the hero’s journey is twice born. It’s a good story, but it’s an incomplete story.
The hero’s journey is an introduction.
It’s a story that has helped millions of developing psyches navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood.
But it was a story for a simpler time.
It was a story built for a world absent of the nascent gods we now contend with.
Some of the names we use for them are Google, Meta, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Apple, and Microsoft.
Before these gods, most psyches navigated one world (their local culture). At most, they navigated two worlds (through trade or war).
Each of us, every day, stumble into four, five, or more worlds.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– W.B. Yeats
The hero of the hero’s journey cannot hear the falconer.
To die once while living is to complete the introduction to the game of life.
To die twice while living is to start contributing to the game of life.
What Does It Mean to be Reborn?
For some readers what I’m about to say will be obvious, and to others, it’s not going to make any sense.
Everything you experience is you. This is technically true. As far as your experience goes, you have never experienced anything beyond what your nervous system has created. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an outside world – there is, and you have to contend with it – but you have never experienced it unfiltered.
‘The world’ as you know it, has been a lifelong construction by your nervous system.
To ‘die while living’ is for this construct to be destroyed. To be reborn is to build a new ‘world’ from the rubble.
Do you know anyone who has radically changed their lives? Have you ever radically changed? AA meetings across the world are dotted with people who have changed their lives. Scientific literature on psychedelics (mostly before the criminalizations) document these kinds of people.
Sadly, most radical ideologies are populated by twice born people.
To die while living is to give birth to a new you, who in turn creates a new world.
When the container is just, it is a religious experience.
When the container is corrupt, it is the cult in culture.
When the container is absent, it can be psychotic.
The human psyche’s development will see to it that we die before we die because there is a key reality is trying to give to us, if only we could bear to hold it.
The key is literally closer than right in front of our eyes.
The Key We Can’t See
I recently ran a workshop and about 30% of attendees didn’t know that we all have optical blind spots - that each of our eye’s visual field has a hole in it that our brains fill in. Most of the people there had never done the procedure needed to experience this hole in our vision.
If you’ve never experienced this, watch this video and do it now. It’ll make everything that follows much more clear.
The solution to our blind spots is complex cognition and the fact that we have two points of view. Our brain uses the input from both eyes to help cover for the blind spots in the other eye.
This is a metaphor for what dying while living is trying to teach us.
To live without having died to your first perspective is like living with one eye.
To have died and been reborn, is to have earned a second eye.
To be thrice born is to discover the nature of optics; glasses, telescopes, microscopes, and pixels.
The hero’s journey is a story about gaining a second eye; a new fresh perspective.
Becoming thrice born is discovering how to play between a practically infinite amount of perspectives (this stage has its own traps, like getting stuck in postmodernism, but that's for another time).
The difference between the classic hero’s journey perspective and the thrice born perspective is like the difference between someone who needs glasses and someone who makes glasses.
We live in a time where, in order to make it into the next century, we’re going to need more people than ever who are capable of creating stories, perspectives, and points of views that can suture back together our torn and fragmented zeitgeist.
Becoming thrice born is the prerequisite to being a frame maker.
The Thrice Born Journey
Before I introduce this map, first a note on maps.
Maps are lies. A map is never what it pretends to be. As Alan Watts said, elaborating on the insight from the semantics Korzybski, “The map is not the territory. The menu is not what’s for dinner.”
But a map can be a useful lie if we understand it’s a lie. A good map of the forest can help us see beyond our direct experience of the trees.
So, the forest:
Stage 1: First Myth
Stage 2: First Death
Stage 3: The Wasteland
Stage 4: Second Myth
Stage 5: Second Death
Stage 6: The Wasteland Deux
Stage 7: Thrice Born
Stage 1: First Myth
Each of us emerge into the game of life helpless. To survive, the entirety of our biology sees to it that we attune to our caregivers and the environment they care for us in.
Our first myth is often the myth our parents give to us. In our culture this manifests primarily in three ways: The Golden Child, The Rebel, The Unnoticed.
The Golden Child is the child that picks up the projections of the parents. If the mom wants to be a writer, the child will become a writer. If dad wants to play pro baseball, the child will pursue sports.
The Rebel is as much a prisoner as the golden child, because they must rebel against what the parents want. If the parents are religious, they must be atheist. If the parents are vegan, they’ll eat meat.
The Unnoticed are in some ways the most lost. They didn’t get enough attention from caregivers to have a sense of what myth they are supposed to live. They are more at the mercy of the current tides of the culture and the local environment.
For most of us, these first worlds will begin to break down as we reach the ages between 18-25.
Our first myth is the story we live in that gives our lives meaning.
Stage 2: First Death
Whatever our first myth is, it will eventually bump into the Absolute Mystery and (potentially) be shattered by it.
If your first myth is to be a professional athlete, a career-ending injury can be the first death.
If you got married young thinking the marriage would save you from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a divorce might be your first death.
If you believe becoming a doctor would get your dad to start to notice you, and maybe for the first time you’d feel him be proud of you; if you fail your entry exams, that can be a death.
If you get your dream job and find yourself fired after trying your best for 6 months, that can be a death.
A fundamental aspect of our ‘world’ is the future state we’re aspiring to. To the degree we feel we are making progress towards this future, the more regulated our emotions are.
Our world breaks when the possibility of the ideal future state dies.
You can ask yourself:
What was my ‘crying on the bathroom floor’ moment?
What was the hardest period of your life?
What was the ‘myth’ that died?
What was the ‘future’ that broke?
To the ego that is entering into this stage, this stage is the worst thing that has ever happened.
To the ego that emerges on the other side of this stage, this stage is the most important thing that has ever happened.
If you haven’t experienced this, be brave. It’s coming, and there is a community to meet you on the other side.
If you have experienced this, thank you for enduring. There are a lot of people out here that need your help.
Stage 3: The Wasteland
The wasteland is the eternal archetypal realm of the human psyche that we all can ‘fall’ into when our myths die.
The wasteland is consciousness without an organizing structure. It is chaotic, overwhelming, at times ‘awe-full,’ and at times maddening.
People in the wasteland are sometimes hospitalized in our culture. We call them psychotic or schizophrenic.
The Wasteland has two aspects to it; an acute and a chronic.
The acute aspect of the wasteland is the shocking, jarring, electric function that can trigger psychosis or mania. If the first world felt like a prison, first contact with the wasteland can feel like a biblical revelation. If the first world was edenic, first contact with the wasteland can feel demonic, hellish.
But after the lightning strike comes the exodus; after the acute comes the chronic.
The chronic aspect of the wasteland is when we are unable to create a new story to organize our life. Whereas our culture labels the acute confrontation with the wasteland as psychosis or mania, the chronic aspect of the wasteland gets called things like depression and anxiety.
My first ‘myth’ was to become a professional athlete. When I got rotator cuff surgery my senior year, that dream died. It took me years to construct a new story. During that time I got addicted to painkillers, gained 40 pounds of fat, only in hindsight realized I was clinically depressed, and almost dropped out of college.
I was in the chronic aspect of the wasteland for a few years.
The wasteland is consciousness without an organizing structure. In its acute form, it can be terrifying. In its chronic form, it can be a slow slide into death.
What was your first wasteland moment like?
Did you experience the acute or chronic or both?
How did you climb out of it?
In the privacy of your own heart, is the fear of the wasteland why you cling so tightly to whatever it is you believe now?
Stage 4: Second Myth
Our second myth is the new story that we create after our first confrontation with the wasteland.
If your first myth was some version of the golden child, you might realize that in order for you to be happy, you need to ‘die to your parents.’ That in order to be an individuated adult, you’ll need to let go of their expectations for you. Maybe your true desire is sculpting or farming.
If your first myth was some version of the rebel, you might realize that secretly, in the privacy in your own heart, you love the guitar the way your dad did. And although he hurt you, you can find the thread of love back towards your childhood desire to be a musician.
Maybe you were raised as a fundamentalist and after going to college (and maybe after a mushroom trip or two), you realize for the first time in your life that all of that was just a story. You begin to discover your passion for science, engineering, and physics.
Maybe you were raised as an atheist, and after going to college (and maybe after a mushroom trip or two), you realize that for the first time in your life that all of that was just a story. You begin to discover your passion for religion, myth, and poetry.
The birth of the second myth is the completion of the Hero’s Journey.
But if you think this is the completion of human development, you’re gunna have a rough time.
Because the trap of this stage is ideological possession.
To the degree your first incursion into the wasteland was traumatic is the degree to which you will cling to whatever story you find that buoys you out of chaos.
This trap is most evident when we look at radical political ideologies.
Both the radical left and right can be thought of as stories, as myths. The first part of each of these myths induct First Worlders into their confrontation with the wasteland.
For the left, some version of postmodernism is the first world killer.
For the right, some version of conspiracy theories kills the first world.
Both of these stories, postmodernism and conspiracies, work because they are both partially true.
All human constructs are ultimately subjective. That is true. What is left out is that all human constructs are not equally effective, useful, helpful, and beautiful.
Humans do conspire. Groups of conspiring humans have done awful things. That is true. What is left out is that no group of conspiring humans have total control, that there are hundreds of thousands of conspiring groups competing with each other, and that the world is more complex than a young adult fiction plot line.
Once these ideologies have brought the individual into the wasteland, they offer a new story. Both the radical left and right offer activism that conveniently align to a political agenda. The worldview offered is simple enough that if you decided to study either one, you could predict 90% of the responses you’d get from someone who believes that ideology.
If 90% of your responses can be predicted before you speak, you are caught in an ideology.
The alchemy to this stage is, by grace or grit, you find yourself back in the wasteland.
Stage 5: Second Death
Here we enter into less common territory.
I’ll give an actual example of a friend to help concretize this stage.
A man I know grew up in the myth of being a pro athlete. He also was a political rebel. His parents were conservative, he was liberal. He played D1 football in college, and as that dream began to end, and it became clear he wouldn’t make it into the NFL, he attempted suicide.
It was at the moment of the attempt that he had his first contact with the spiritual dimension of life. It took another half decade for him to fully release his dream to be a pro athlete, but eventually he did.
His second myth was deeply spiritual. He started a family and began helping people. Then the pandemic happened, and he found himself engulfed in the rabbit holes the conspiratorial worldview offers. He went deeper than anyone I know (anyone I know who went deeper lost their sanity). At 40, he found himself back in the wasteland. Suicidal thoughts returned. A deeper, even more persuasive hopelessness captured his myth-making.
However, because he had true elders in his community, he was helped out of the wasteland and is now a truly thrice born individual. Which is a mythic way to say he is truly mythologically humble.
His first death was his dream to be an athlete. The myth that brought him out of his first wasteland was spirituality. His second death was the death of his spiritual worldview. The magnitude and depth of pain, evil, and disturbing yet unprovable metaphysics that lurk at the outer edges of the far right worldview killed any belief of a just universe.
With the help of elders, he found his way through his second exodus into the wasteland, and he is now one of the most practical, kind, and prepared humans I know.
If shit gets as bad as it could get, he will be the most capable and helpful person I know.
Stage 6: The Wasteland Deux
The return to the wasteland will often feel like the first time, but more intense, more convincing, and more enduring. It is incredibly hard to navigate this stage without elders, and our time is in desperate need of elders.
For reasons Carl Jung elaborates in his essay on midlife crises, this return to the wasteland tends to happen around mid-life. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, this tends to be because our fundamental orientation to life begins to shift around midlife.
The first part of life is like the ascending sun before noon. Everything has a feeling of ascent. We grow in our capabilities, life opportunities, and power.
The second half of life is like the descending sun after noon. For the first time in our life, the total gestalt of life is now descending towards death. We begin to think more about the next generation, legacy, and the collective.
However, it is in the return to the wasteland that the key at the heart of this whole process becomes available.
Stage 7: Thrice Born
To articulate the key is to trick you, because you’ll read it, and think you understand it. To cognitively understand the key without having felt it is like reading about what sex is without ever having had sex.
The key is no myth can protect you from the wasteland, but you don’t need to be protected from the wasteland. The thrice born is the rainmaker in the wasteland. They are consciously aware that they are not their myths, they are the force that creates myths.
The thrice born is someone who ‘holds strong opinions lightly.’
Changing their perspective becomes an art.
They can talk to any kind of person about any type of subject.
They are capable of learning something from anyone.
They cannot be captured by ideologies.
They become powerful friends, confidents, and allies to others because they won’t always agree (or always disagree).
They’re capable of seeing beyond the current ‘visions’ of culture.
They have a deep capacity to produce art.
And maybe most importantly, they can become elders to others who are stuck in stages 1 through 6.
The Hero’s Journey produces adults. The Thrice Born Journey produces elders.
The Key: Mythic Play
Mythic play is the required capacity to navigate the current state of our culture. We live in a novel time unlike any other in recorded history. Because of communicative technologies, all the world’s stories are bumping into each other.
Those with the ability for mythic play have the capacity to begin to suture our world stories together.
But this is not “every myth is equal.” This is not postmodernism.
The task that lies before anyone capable of mythic play is to create a metamodern myth.
A metamodern story ‘includes and transcends’ postmodern. What that means is that, yes, all stories are created by humans, but through experimentation, collaboration, and communication we can develop a new story that organizes us as a planetary species.
The goal of mythic play is to discover and play the newest articulation of the infinite game that allows for the greatest number of future generations to have the opportunity to play the game of life.
Track Your Story
For those interested, listen to my story here and see if you can notice which parts of my story correspond to each stage.
And you can do this for yourself.
What was your first myth?
When did that myth die? What was your ‘crying on the bathroom floor’ moment?
What was your experience of the wasteland like? Was it acute or chronic or both?
What was your second story? Are you still in it now?
Have you returned to the wasteland? Do you still fear the wasteland?
What would your life be like if you used your capacity for mythic play?
How would your relationships, profession, and passions be different?
What part of the zeitgeist does your mythic artist feel called to help suture?