You can’t snap out of it
“It’s like there’s a veil between me and life,” my friend said to me over lunch. “And I can’t seem to snap out of it.”
Have you been in that place where there are no lows or highs, and you just want to feel better again? And soon, so you can get back to what you were doing before?
“I’ve tried everything that used to make me feel better—dancing, listening to music—but nothing is working. I don’t know… I think I just need to get a better handle on things.”
When we encounter this place, many of us (including me) assume that we need to just get a grip. Wo/man up. Push through. This works sometimes… but it doesn’t work always.
Using a spirit solution for a soul problem
Muscling our way through a problem is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is an archetypal path in which an ordinary person attempts to conquer something difficult and transforms him/herself (and possibly the world) in the process.
We know the hero’s story. It’s in our blood. Pick any movie and it likely features the hero’s journey plot: Dead Poets Society, Legally Blonde, Avatar, Finding Nemo.
Any time you extend yourself in a worthwhile but strenuous pursuit, you’re on a spirit quest of the hero’s journey. It is a vital and transformational path. However, if we keep chasing the next big challenge, the big high, the new adventure, we will burn out.
Another friend posted recently, “I seriously need a life makeover. I’m ready for a different set of challenges and a new view. Nothing feels amazing anymore.”
If we put our efforts only to the adventurous path, the hero’s journey, we’ll come to a place where nothing feels amazing anymore, just like my friend shared. Life becomes dry. Parched. We need bigger and bigger highs. It gets harder to “get a handle on things” and push through.
The soul solution
We persist in this effort because most of us are unaware that the hero’s journey isn’t the only path.
There is a much less well-known, equally transformational journey called the feminine heroic. It too is an archetypal struggle, but instead of a masculine spiritual journey as a tool for transformation, the feminine heroic is about encountering the soul by sacrificing the ego and surrendering the will.
Let me say upfront that our egos freak out at the idea of being annihilated. You might be freaking out just reading this. What do you mean sacrifice the ego? We run from it. Oh, nuh-uh. The ego says. No way! Kneeling before the divine feminine, the taker and giver of life, is not high on the ego’s agenda. The ego will attempt to preserve itself at any cost.
Why the feminine heroic is essential
When we take the hero’s journey, masculine force is required to conquer the foe and, as a result, requires the hero to sacrifice the feminine. We can’t slay the dragon if we’re feeling all the feels. We can’t climb the mountain if we’re bent in half, wailing our guts out. The hero’s journey requires us to reject the feminine in order to win the fight, to save the day, to conquer the fiery beast.
When we return from that journey, we must again meet and integrate the rejected feminine. For the cycle to stay in balance, the feminine must be reclaimed. We do this by undertaking a new journey—not out into the world, but to a place deep within ourselves. We reach it by surrendering—however momentarily—the things of the world, so we may encounter our own soul.
As I mentioned, the feminine heroic may feel just as terrifying as fighting the foe, just as impossible-seeming at the outset as crossing a chasm with no ropes. It means setting aside everything one gains on the hero’s journey: identity, status, and possessions. Most of us have never imagined who we are without these external trappings. The very idea might make you want to book your next adventure instead. But we must release the external to embark on this journey, to face the dark womb of emotion and be reborn from its depths.
Western culture (oil) and feminine heroic (water)
In response to sharing about the feminine heroic, my posting friend said quite earnestly (and rather hilariously), “Oh, no. This doesn’t mean looking at my vulva in a mirror again, does it?”
Her words are telling, though. They hint at our culture’s rejection of the feminine. In general, Western, mainstream culture views the realm of emotion—grief, fear, pain, death—as something to avoid and push into the unconscious. Chin up! Western culture says. And smile, why don’t you? Look on the bright side!
Those who report from the front lines of the feminine transformational journey are often criticized for being excessively emotional, narcissistic, or self-absorbed (or all three). Female soul-explorers in particular get skewered for wallowing and whining. This is because we’re uncomfortable watching others struggle. It pushes our own fear buttons. And besides, Western culture collectively wonders, what good is all that effort? Emotions create no visible product, no slaughtered dragon, no planet saved. What good can they be?
What good, indeed. The result of rejecting the feminine is a world full of stressed-out, borderline-depressed zombies who silently question their worth while overcompensating through acquisition, one-upsmanship, and an insatiable desire for novelty. For some, this might sound all too familiar. If we remain unconscious of our denial of the feminine, we do great damage to ourselves and the world around us.
The feminine heroic is healing and inevitable
We—men and women alike—need the feminine heroic journey to ground us in what is enduring. Temporarily letting go of life’s trappings allows us to discover what is real. What actually matters. In the process, we become unified inside and out. The transformational path of the feminine heroic allows us to meet life from a completely new perspective.
What is true is that we all go here eventually, though not all of us go willingly. Most people end up on this path because life forces their hand as a result of depletion, depression, unexpected loss, or desperation. Some brave souls make a conscious choice to embark, but it’s rare.
We cannot evade returning to the soul, and it will keep calling us until we do. Surrender, as the saying goes, or be dragged.
Am I on a feminine heroic journey?
If you’ve ever felt curious about the traditions or secret rituals of native cultures, this is a calling to walk the feminine heroic journey. If you feel like you have no path right now, you’re on it. If you feel like you want to crawl out of your own skin, you’re on it. If nothing feels exceptional, please talk to a counselor for support, but you’re also likely on the path.
If you’ve lived through a deep depression, you’ve already encountered these depths. If you’ve faced your own death or a life-threatening illness, you’ve been on the feminine heroic journey. It changes you. A lot of bullshit stops being important. Your priorities are clear. You’ve faced the darkness and lived.
What the feminine heroic feels like without a guide
Without a guide or at least a map, this journey can seem achingly disorientating. As you feel your way around in the dark, you’re not sure whether you’re going forward or back. The first time I went though it, I kept thinking,There must be a door here somewhere. But I couldn’t find the knob.
Because most of us have never heard of the feminine heroic, we lack the knowledge of its predictable steps. Instead, we struggle between the urge to move forward and resisting taking the next step. Nothing feels right and nothing helps for long. I call this feeling “circling the drain.”
It can feel lonely. You’re not sure whether it’s okay to talk about what you’re experiencing. Your friends may advise you to chin up, take a spa day, or may just change the subject completely out of discomfort. Try not to take this personally. They don’t have a map either.
You may feel the urge to get rid of things—clothing, possessions, papers, old food. Doing this helps, but the underlying too-tight feeling doesn’t resolve.
I was on the feminine heroic journey and didn’t know it
Over the last several years, I have befriended this path. Initially, I walked it by accident through a dark, frustrating period in which no solution seemed to “fix” me. I kept thinking about caterpillars in the cocoon, about how they liquefy first and then, as their wings grow, things get really cramped and itchy in there. That’s how I felt. With no guide and no idea there was a path, I endured one of the darkest periods of my life. I didn’t know if I would make it out alive—and that’s not hyperbole.
Incidentally, this is the topic of my upcoming memoir. If you want pre-release details, click here.
Eventually, I found my way through. From a wise, experienced guide, I learned the steps of the feminine heroic process. Since then, I’ve taken the journey many times on purpose, often alternating it with a hero’s journey adventure. Its ways are more familiar to me today and consequently much less scary. Now I proceed with the knowledge of how amazing I feel coming through the other side.
The steps of the feminine heroic journey
I’ve learned from the writing of Joseph Campbell and Jung, and experts like Dara Marks and Jane Meredith. All of them reference the same source: the ancient Sumerian myth of Innana’s descent to the underworld.
What follows is my paraphrase of this enduring myth and my commentary on its meanings for our own journey.
Inanna is the golden-haired goddess of heaven and earth who decides she will pay her respects to her sister, whose husband has just died. Ereshkigal, her sister, is none other than the goddess of the underworld.
It’s common knowledge that no one returns from visiting the underworld, but Inanna doesn’t think this rule applies to her. As a precaution, she asks some god friends to attempt to rescue her if she doesn’t return in three days. With that arranged, she proceeds in full regalia to the underworld.
Most of us can relate to Inanna. We like our earthly possessions. We like our status. We mostly take for granted our access to the world and its riches. Inanna thinks she’s a cut above and—in addition to reigning over heaven and earth—perhaps has designs on claiming the underworld for herself.
At the entrance of the underworld, Inanna encounters a gate where the guard tells her to surrender her crown in order to proceed. Indignant, she exclaims, “What is this?” He replies, “The ways of the underworld are perfect; do not question the ways of the underworld.” She gives up her crown.
No one has ever told Inanna to give up anything. Her crown represents her status as a deity, a goddess. Giving it up signifies losing her connection with the universe. But she really wants to go below.
She descends further. At the next gate, the guard demands her beautiful necklace of blue lapis beads. “What is this?” she asks. He replies, “The ways of the underworld are perfect; do not question the ways of the underworld.” She gives up her necklace.
And so it unfolds that at each gate, she surrenders a treasured possession, and the same exchange occurs. As she descends, she carries less and less. At the seventh and final gate, the guard tells her to hand over her clothes. Now she is completely naked.
Some say that seven is not a coincidental number. At each gate, she surrenders an item associated with the seven chakras, each one a part of her identity. At the final gate, she is merely a body. One might imagine the fear she feels at this stage, so vulnerable and powerless.
She is admitted to the sacred room to face her sister, goddess of the underworld. Here’s where it gets interesting. Ereshkigal gives her the look of death, and Inanna dies. Her body is hung on a hook to rot.
You didn’t see that coming. I didn’t either. You might have assumed they’d have a nice chat. Or that Inanna would use her beauty and wit to wheedle her way out of a scrape. Not in the underworld. It doesn’t work that way here. Inanna surrendered seven times, and then surrendered the only thing she had left: her own life.
We’ve all been (or will be) in this place at some point. We gave it all, and it failed. We did our best to save the marriage or the business or the farm, but it withered and died instead. We sacrificed for our kids, and they dropped out of school anyway. All our effort failed.
Sometimes dying to the old way of being is the best path. Sometimes it’s the only path. Sometimes we have to stop trying so hard. Although we’ve been led to assume that willpower and fight is the solution for our problems, surrender is also a tool, a sacred option. Giving up everything—however temporarily—is the challenge of the feminine heroic.
When we see Ereshkigal next, she is sobbing, moaning, and wailing. She’s bent in half, holding her stomach in hysterical tears. Thanks to the gods, two tiny clay creatures slip under all seven gates to aid Inanna.
But first, they turn to the weeping Ereshkigal. When she laments, “It hurts on the outside!”, the little creatures reply earnestly, “Oh, yes! Woe is you! It hurts on the outside!” When the goddess exclaims, “It hurts on the inside!”, the empathetic clay friends echo, “Woe is you! It hurts on the inside!” She expresses all her pains aloud, from her heart to her liver and everything in between. With each lament, the clay creatures reply with empathy.
We are now Ereshkigal, the other half of the sister duo, admitting aloud the depths of the pain we’ve endured. The agony of failure, the loss, the grief, the futility, the utter hopelessness, the despair. We sob until we cannot breathe.
If we are able, we can be a clay friend to ourselves and echo our own words. An external guide can also assist us in that echoing. No attempt is made to “fix or fade or hide” (in the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer). We are witnessed only with loving empathy for the truth of our pain.
At long last, her pain completely purged, Ereshkigal stops wailing. In gratitude, she offers the clay creatures gifts: the water of life, the bread of life, and on request, the body of Inanna. With these gifts, they feed Inanna’s body, and she is revived.
It is an amazing twist that the dark goddess of the underworld has the power to kill and yet also give life. Balance is restored: Ereshkigal is healed, and so is her sister, Inanna.
One might imagine (though it is not part of the official story), that on reviving, Inanna’s possessions are returned to her, one at a time, from her dress up to her crown.
But now that she has seen the underworld, we can imagine these objects mean much less to her, hold less power—mere artifacts of a superficial life. We can imagine the deep peace and rootedness she embodies and how miraculous the sunlight must feel on her face when she exits the tunnel.
This is the archetypal path of the feminine heroic
In a future post, I’ll share the process I follow to move through this journey as a soulful practice. With predictable steps to follow, you can spend your energy on transformation, rather than struggle.
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Although this is a deeply personal journey, please feel free to share about your experiences with the feminine heroic (or the hero’s journey, for that matter), questions that come up, and any resources you’ve encountered. I’d love to hear from you.