Heroic Consciousness: What it is and How to Acquire it

By Scott T. Allison

This blog post is excerpted from:

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

 

The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari (2018) recently described consciousness as “the greatest mystery in the universe”.

What exactly is heroic consciousness? It is a way of seeing the world, perceiving reality, and making decisions that lead to heroic behavior. Human beings display heroic consciousness by employing the nondualistic strategy of unifying disparate experiences into integrated wholes, by engaging in an enlightened processing of transrational phenomena, and by acquiring the wisdom to know when, how, and whether to act heroically.

Heroic consciousness is to be aware of thoughts, use them judiciously, but not be obsessively driven by them. It is to have an ego but not be a slave to it. It is to know when heroic action is needed and when it is not.

I have identified four telltale signs that an individual has experienced heroic consciousness. The four characteristics of the hero’s consciousness include the tendency to show clarity and effectiveness in: (1) seeing the world from a nondualistic perspective; (2) processing transrational phenomena; (3) exhibiting a unitive consciousness; and (4) demonstrating the wisdom to know when to act heroically and when not to act when action would be harmful.

1. Nondualistic Thinking

A central element of heroic consciousness is the hero’s use of the mental and spiritual approach to life known as nondualistic thinking (Jones, 2019; Loy, 1997; Rohr, 2009). Heroes are adept at both dualistic and nondualistic mental approaches. Heroes first master dualistic thinking, the ability to partition and label the world when necessary, and then they learn to go beyond this binary thinking by seeing a rich, nuanced reality that defies simple mental compartmentalizations.

Cynthia Bourgeault (2013) describes this richer psychological mindset as third force thinking that transcends the rigid mindset of dualities. A third force solution to a problem is “an independent force, coequal with the other two, not a product of the first two as in the classic Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis” (p. 26).

Psychologists have known for a half-century that human cognition is characterized by a need to simplify and categorize stimuli (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). Because our lives include daily encounters with a range of phenomena that defy simple dualistic thinking, it is of crucial importance that we engage in third force approaches that access our deeper intuitions and artistic sensibilities.

Third force solutions to problems are innovative and heroic solutions. In my view, it is crucial that we emphasize third force nondualistic thinking approaches in early education to help promote heroic mindsets in young children.

In contrast to dualistic thinking, nondualistic thinking resists a simple definition. It sees subtleties, exceptions, mystery, and a bigger picture. Nondualistic thinking refers to a broader, dynamic, imaginative, and more mature contemplation of perceived events (Rohr, 2009). A nondualistic approach to understanding reality is open and patient with mystery and ambiguity. Nondualistic thinkers see reality clearly because they do not allow their prior beliefs, expectations, and biases to affect their conscious perception of events and encounters with people.

Abraham Heschel (1955) described it as the ability to let the world come at us rather than us come at the world with preconceived categories that can skew our perceptions. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is” (p. 46-47, italics added).

Rohr (2009) describes nondualistic thinking as “calm, ego-less seeing” and “the ability to keep you heart and mind spaces open long enough to see other hidden material” (p. 33-34). According to Rohr, this type of insight occurs whenever “by some wondrous coincidence, our heart space and mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant” (p. 28).

Asian spiritual philosophies describe nondualistic seeing as the third eye, which is the enlightened ability to see the world with balance, wisdom, and clarity. Heroic protagonists in literature are often compelled to view the world at these deeper levels by traversing the hero’s journey, which involves a descent into a desperately challenging and painful situation. During these darkest of times, heroes realize that their simple dualistic mindsets no longer work for them.

The pre-heroic consciousness must be discarded, allowing heroes to achieve clarity and accumulate life-changing insights about themselves and the world (Allison & Goethals, 2014). We are all called to experience a transformative, expansive, nondualistic consciousness, and we usually get there through great love (Rohr, 2011) or great suffering (Allison & Setterberg, 2016).

But not everyone gets there. Some remain sadly stuck at the level of dualistic consciousness. Dualistic thinkers have a split consciousness that contributes to perpetuating all the damaging “isms” of society – racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and nationalism, to name a few. Split people tend to split people.

If nondualistic thinking reflects a more heroic consciousness than dualistic thinking, how does one adopt a nondualistic approach to the world? I believe there are at least two routes to attaining nondualistic thought. One route consists of Abraham Heschel’s idea of approaching the world with an openness and receptivity to awe, wonder, and gratitude (Burhans, 2016). Heschel called this radical amazement. Our thoughts constrict what we can see, according to Heschel (1955, p. 47): “While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality”.

Research shows that training in mindful meditation can help quell the initial labeling and categorizing process and thus better enable people to see the world as it is rather than as we “think” it is (Jones, 2019). In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell (2007) argues that spending less time thinking and relying upon one’s immediate intuitions often engenders greater clarity about the world.

This first route to nondualistic thinking requires us to adopt practices that encourage us to approach the world with more wonder, awe, openness, intuition, feeling, and artistic sensibility. Adopting these practices inhibits our predilection for forming quick mental partitions of the world that limit our ability to see the world more broadly, deeply, holistically, heroically, and with more radical amazement.

The second route to nondualistic thinking does not seek to reduce initial mental labeling but instead focuses on correcting for mental labels after they have already been generated. There is some evidence that the tendency to make quick, spontaneous categorizations of the world is wired into us and may therefore be very difficult to avoid (Pendry & Macrae, 1996).

Awareness of this pattern is critical to remedying it. If we find ourselves dividing the world dualistically in our minds, we can become aware of this initial binary thinking and then pause to make the necessary corrections. Engaging in mental adjustments that help us see the world in broader, more unifying terms may indeed be the height of heroic consciousness.

This two-step process of automatic judging and then correcting has been documented as a pervasive human decision-making process (e.g., Gilbert, 1998; Kraft-Todd & Rand, 2017; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). We are all capable of heroic consciousness even if at first, as a result of deeply ingrained habit, we show a dualistic pre-heroic consciousness. The challenge here is ensuring that we make the full correction. Research shows that people tend to make initial, faulty judgments and then fail to sufficiently correct for them (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). The heightened awareness of a heroically conscious individual will not allow this to happen.

There are many historical examples of the heroic use of nondualistic consciousness. John F. Kennedy used nondual thinking in his response to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A year earlier, Kennedy and his advisors were humiliated by the consequences of their dualistic reaction to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Learning from this failure, Kennedy patiently considered many possible responses to the missile crisis rather than frame the decision as either going to war versus doing nothing. He settled on a naval military blockade that nicely diffused the crisis and averted a nuclear showdown with the Soviets.

Mahatma Gandhi’s use of nonviolent, passive resistance is another striking example of nondualistic thinking. Rather than frame India’s struggle for independence as either a violent revolution or total submission, Gandhi developed an ingenious strategy of peaceful resistance that became a model for social change worldwide.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced this same nondualistic approach during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. “Nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, 1958). Through patience, contemplation, and openness, a third-force solution to problems emerges that reflects a higher intelligence and consciousness.

2. Processing of Transrational Phenomena

Encounters with experiences that defy rational, logical analysis are an inescapable part of life. A second major characteristic of the hero’s consciousness is the ability to process and understand these experiences, as they often reflect the most important issues of human existence. These transrational phenomena are mysterious and challenging for most people to fathom, and thus they require a heroic consciousness to unlock their secrets.

Rohr (2009) has identified five transrational phenomena, and I will add two more. Rohr’s five are love, death, suffering, God, and eternity. The two that I am adding are paradox and metaphor (see also Allison & Goethals, 2014; Efthimiou, Bennett, & Allison, 2019). These seven transrational experiences are a ubiquitous part of human life, pervade good hero mythology and storytelling, and are endemic to the classic monomythic hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell (1949).

To illustrate the importance of understanding the seven transrational experiences in storytelling, let us consider the role of each in the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie can be summarized as follows: The hero, Phil Connors, is a narcissistic television meteorologist covering the annual Groundhog Day ritual in Pennsylvania. Phil is hateful to everyone and has a crush on his producer, Rita. Soon he discovers that each day is a repetition of the previous day, and no one but him is aware that the day is repeating itself. The movie derives much of its humor and wisdom from how Phil handles his temporal entrapment.

Here’s how the seven transrational phenomena of the hero’s journey come into play:

(1) Eternity: The hero of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, finds himself stuck in time, repeating the same day over and over again, seemingly for eternity.

(2) Suffering: Phil suffers greatly because he cannot escape the time trap. He suffers also because despite his best efforts he cannot win the heart of Rita, his producer.

(3) God: Although never mentioned as divine per se, some outside authority or supernatural force is responsible for entrapping Phil in the time loop. This mysterious power is also responsible for eventually releasing Phil from the time loop.

(4) Love: Phil is deeply in love with Rita, but it is not until the end of the story that she reciprocates his affections.

(5) Death: Unable to win Rita’s heart or escape the time trap, Phil ends his own life many times and in many ways, only to discover that suicide for him is impossible. Later, he is unable to prevent a homeless man from dying.

(6) Metaphor: The endlessly repeating day is a metaphor for the rut of unhappy living that plagues most of humanity.

(7) Paradox: Phil has to suffer to get well. The harder Phil tries to win Rita’s heart, the less successful he is. The more he focuses on changing himself, the more he changes Rita. By helping others, he helps himself.

When we are young and not far along our hero’s journeys, all seven of these transrational experiences tend to overwhelm our ill-equipped pre-heroic consciousness. We need stories like Groundhog Day to help us awaken to a new, wiser, broader consciousness. Much like Phil Connors, most human beings suffer until and unless they adopt a heroic consciousness that enables them to grasp the transrational world.

Heroic consciousness is available to us once we realize that choosing to remain unconscious leaves us feeling alone, disconnected, frustrated, and miserable. I am not arguing that our pre-heroic rational minds are bad; in fact, pre-heroic consciousness is useful for healthy early life ego development and identity formation. Phil Connors became a successful television meteorologist by relying on his pre-heroic consciousness alone. I am only claiming that pre-heroic consciousness is insufficient for mastering life’s biggest mysteries involving the seven transrational phenomena. These issues require a broader, more enlightened consciousness to understand, and until we understand them, we are doomed to suffer much like Phil Connors.

We need both dualistic and nondualistic approaches to navigate our world successfully. To be the master of both worlds, as Joseph Campbell (1949) phrased it, we must first master dualistic thinking as our friend Phil Connors did in becoming a successful meterologist. This success alone will not bring happiness. To escape the trap of this first world, we must master nondualistic approaches toward understanding and successfully navigating through the mysteries of the transrational world.

3. Unitive Consciousness

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Albert Einstein (1950)

Heroic consciousness is a nondual, unitive consciousness, exactly like that described in the above quote by Einstein (1950). While recognizing and valuing individual separateness and multiplicity, heroic consciousness sees and seeks unification.

Joseph Campbell (1988) enjoyed telling the story about two Hawaiian police officers who were called to save the life of a man about to jump to his death. As the man began to jump, one officer grabbed onto him and was himself being pulled over the ledge along with the man he was trying to save. The other officer grabbed his partner and was able to bring both men back to safety. Campbell explained the first officer’s self-sacrificial behavior as reflecting “a metaphysical realization which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life” (p. 138).

Heroic consciousness is the awareness of this truth. Campbell (1988) taught us that the classic, mythic initiation journey ends with the hero discovering that “our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life” (p. 138).

Einstein’s metaphor of the mental prison is especially descriptive of pre-heroic consciousness. The pre-hero is trapped in the “delusion” of tribal identity and of separateness from the world. Consistent with the mental prison metaphor, spiritual leaders have referred to our over-reliance on mental life as an “addiction” (Rohr, 2011) and a “parasitic” relationship (Tolle, 2005). Both the perseverance effect and confirmation bias in psychology refer to the troublesome tendency of people to hold onto their beliefs even when those beliefs have been discredited by objective evidence (Fiske & Taylor, 2013).

The stories that we tell ourselves and cling to can hinder the development of our heroic consciousness (Harari, 2018). This is why hero training programs focus on strategies aimed at re-writing our mental scripts to bolster our heroic efficacy (Kohen et al., 2017). The trait of being open to new ways of thinking is considered by psychologists to be a central characteristic of healthy individuals (Hogan et al., 2012).

Heroes escape their mental prisons and experience a transformed consciousness when they engage in the process of self-expansiveness (Friedman, 2017), during which the boundaries between oneself and others are perceived as permeable. Many spiritual geniuses, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Richard Rohr, deem unitive consciousness as core to their definition of spiritual maturity.

Buddhist philosopher Hanh (1999) writes that human beings tend to believe that their fellow humans “exist outside us as separate entities, but these objects of our perception are us …. When we hate someone, we also hate ourselves” (p. 81). Rohr (2019) emphasizes that consciousness is the key to understanding the oneness of humanity: “The old joke about the mystic who walks up to the hotdog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything,’ misses the point. I am already one with everything. All that is absent is awareness” (p. 1).

In their list of features that distinguish heroes from villains, Allison and Smith (2015) argued that heroes seek to unite the world whereas villains seek to divide it. Unification in perception and in action tends to reduce human suffering, whereas division in perception and in action tends to produce suffering. The hero’s consciousness thus operates in the service of ending human suffering, and the villain’s consciousness (and also at times pre-heroic consciousness) can operate in the service of producing human suffering.

Heroic consciousness is therefore necessary to achieve personal wholeness, collective wholeness, and the future well-being of our planet.

4. Wisdom of Tempered Empowerment

In the 1930s, a theologian and philosopher named Reinhold Niebuhr penned what is today commonly referred to as the serenity prayer (Shapiro, 2014). The prayer is as follows:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

The serenity prayer has enjoyed considerable worldwide recognition as a result of being adopted by nearly every 12-step recovery program. I believe the serenity prayer contains brilliant insight about heroic, behavioral self-regulation.

George Goethals and I have written elsewhere about addiction recovery programs deriving their effectiveness from their use of the hero’s journey as a blueprint for growth and healing (Allison & Goethals, 2014, 2016, 2017). Other scholars and healers have also noted the parallel between heroism and addiction recovery work (Efthimiou et al., 2018; Furey, 2017; Morgan, 2014). The serenity prayer is the centerpiece of recovery programs because addiction is largely a disease of control (Alanon Family Groups, 2008). The prayer works because it helps recovering addicts develop the wisdom to know when to exercise control over their lives and when to admit powerlessness.

Each of the three lines of the serenity prayer reflects the wisdom of heroic consciousness. First, the prayer asks for the serenity to accept people and circumstances that cannot be changed. This is a prayer for acceptance of non-action when action is pointless. It takes a deeper, broader, heroic consciousness to recognize the futility of action in a situation that seems to call for action.

For example, if a chronic alcoholic is repeatedly arrested for disorderly conduct, and their partner repeatedly bails him out of jail, the partner may finally have had enough and decide not to bail out the alcoholic in the future. Not helping someone may at times lead to a better outcome than helping someone. After not being bailed out, the alcoholic sitting in jail may do some much-needed soul-searching that can lead to their own recovery and healing. The partner who fails to help the jailed alcoholic may be more of a hero by doing nothing than by any action they can take. In terms of the serenity prayer, the partner accepts that they cannot change the alcoholic and that they cannot stop the cycle of repeated arrests for disorderly conduct. Passive acceptance and non-action are sometimes the wisest responses and reflect a nondualistic heroic consciousness.

Beggan (2019) would call this heroic non-action an example of meta-heroism. According to Beggan, “The meta-hero acts heroically by not acting heroically, at least in terms of a more narrow definition of heroic action. In this case, the right thing may actually create hardship and moral ambiguity” (p. 13).

Beggan (2019) points out that there is a bias in heroism science toward taking action rather than inaction. His analysis puts the adage that “the opposite of a hero is a bystander” on its head. It seems there are times when heroes are indeed bystanders. But it takes an enlightened consciousness to discern these moments that call for heroic inaction.

The second element of the serenity prayer focuses on praying for the courage to change things that are changeable. After realizing that they are powerless over the alcoholic, the partner may recognize that they do have power over their own choices and attitudes. We can only change ourselves, not others. It takes heroic courage not to help a loved one when helping might be enabling the loved one’s pattern of dysfunctional behavior. Moreover, it takes heroic courage to take charge of one’s own life by confronting the alcoholic about the dysfunctional pattern, setting boundaries with the alcoholic, or perhaps even terminating the relationship with the alcoholic.

In any difficult situation, there are always things one can change and options one can consider, although it may take great courage to try something that is completely different and outside one’s proverbial comfort zone. It requires a heroic consciousness to consider all the things that can be changed with the goal of doing what is best for all concerned. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors could have stayed in bed in his hotel room for all eternity. But instead, he accepted his powerlessness over the time loop and became focused on changing the one thing he could change: himself.

The third and final component of the serenity prayer asks for “the wisdom to know the difference” between those things over which we are powerless and those things over which we do have power. This wisdom lies at the heart of heroic behavioral consciousness, healthy self-regulation, and sage empowerment. I call this the wisdom of tempered empowerment.

Pre-heroes cannot easily distinguish between what they can control and what they cannot, nor are they adept at anticipating the efficacy of their efforts to control others or their environment. As a result, pre-heroes can easily become meddling or enabling individuals who do more harm than good (Beggan, 2019). People with heroic consciousness possess the wisdom of tempered empowerment by recognizing the difference between situations that call for action and situations that call for inaction. The heroically conscious individual has the courage to do great things as well as the courage to avoid the kind of helping behavior that may be harmful, futile, counterproductive, or unnecessary.

This blog post is excerpted from:

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

Three Pathways to Heroic Transformation: Becoming Our Best, Most Heroic Selves

By Scott T. Allison

This blog post is excerpted from:

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The Romance of heroism: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

 

Can anything be done to promote heroic transformation? Earlier we noted the pitfalls of being in charge of one’s own heroic growth. According to Rohr (2011b), engineering our own transformation by our own rules and by our own power “is by definition not transformation. If we try to change our ego with the help of our ego, we only have a better-disguised ego” (p. 5).

There are three things we can do, however, to make transformation more likely. From our review of theory and research on heroism, developmental processes, leadership, and spiritual growth, we can identify three broad categories of activities that encourage transformation. These activities include (1) participation in training and developmental programs,(2) spiritual practices, and (3) the hero’s journey. On the surface these activities appear dissimilar, yet these practices seem to produce similar transformative results.

1. Training and Development Practices

In examining the characteristics of people who risked their lives to save others, Kohen, Langdon, and Riches (2017) discovered several important commonalities. They found that these heroes “imagined situations where help was needed and considered how they would act; they had an expansive sense of empathy, not simply with those who might be considered ‘like them’ but also those who might be thought of as ‘other’ in some decisive respect; they regularly took action to help people, often in small ways; and they had some experience or skill that made them confident about undertaking the heroic action in question” (p. 1).

With this observation, Kohen et al. raise four points about preparation for heroism. First, they note the importance of imagining oneself as ready and capable of heroic action when it is needed. This imagination component involves the development of mental scripts for helping, an idea central to Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project (2018) hero training programs. Established a decade ago, the Heroic Imagination Project aims to encourage people to envision themselves as heroes and to “prepare heroes in training for everyday heroic action.” The group achieves this goal by training ordinary people to “master social and situational forces as well as their automatic human tendencies in order to act in ways that are kind, prosocial, and even heroic.” Participants are trained to improve their situational awareness, leadership skills, moral courage, and sense of efficacy in situations that require action to save or improve lives.

Second, Kohen et al. (2017) emphasize the importance of empathy, observing that heroes show empathic concern for both similar and dissimilar others. A growing body of research supports the idea that empathy can be enhanced through training, an idea corroborated by the proliferation of empathy training programs around the world (Tenney, 2017). Svoboda (2013) even argues that empathy and compassion are muscles that can be strengthened with repeated use. Third, Kohen et al. note that heroes regularly take action to help people, often in small ways. Doing so may promote the self-perception that one has heroic attributes, thereby increasing one’s chances of intervening when a true emergency arises. Finally, Kohen et al. observe that heroes often have either formal or informal training in saving lives. These skills and experiences may be acquired from training for the military, law enforcement, or firefighting, or they may derive from emergency medical training, lifeguard training, and CPR classes (Svoboda, 2013).

In a similar vein, Kramer (2017) has devised a methodology for helping people develop the courage to pursue their most heroic dreams and aspirations in life. He identifies such courage as existential courage, consisting of people’s identity aspirations and strivings for their lives to feel meaningful and consequential. Kramer’s technique involves fostering people’s willingness to take psychological and social risks in the pursuit of desired but challenging future identities. His “identity lab” is a setting where students work individually and collaboratively to (1) identify and research their desired future identities, (2) develop an inventory or assessment of identity-relevant attributes that support the realization of those desired future identities, (3) design behavioral experiments to explore and further develop those self-selected identity attributes, and, finally, (4) consolidate their learnings from their experiments through reflection and assessment.  Kramer’s results show that his participants feel significantly more “powerful,” “transformative,” “impactful,” and “effective” in pursuing their identity aspirations. They also report increased self-efficacy and resilience.

Another example of training practices can be found in initial rituals and rites of passages found in many cultures throughout the world. Although modern Western cultures have eliminated the majority of these practices, most cultures throughout history did deem it necessary to require adolescents, particularly boys, to undergo rituals that signaled their transformation into maturity and adulthood (Turner, 1966; van Gennep, 1909). In many African and Australian tribes, initiation requires initiates to experience pain, often involving circumcision or genital mutilation, and it is also not uncommon for rituals to include a challenging survival test in nature. These initiation tests are considered necessary for individuals to become full members of the tribe, allowing them participate in ceremonies or social rituals such as marriage. Initiations are often culminated with large elaborate ceremonies for adolescents to be recognized publicly as full-fledged adult members of their society.

Child-rearing can serve as another type of transformative training practice. A striking example can be seen in Fagin-Jones’s (2017) research on how parents raised the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. Fagin-Jones found that the parenting practices of rescuers differed significantly from the parenting of passive bystanders. Rescuers reported having loving, supportive relationships with parents, whereas bystanders reported relationships with parents as cold, negative, and avoidant. More rescuers than bystanders recalled their parents as affectionate and engaged in praising, hugging, kissing, joking, and smiling. These early cohesive family bonds encouraged other-oriented relationships based on tolerance, inclusion, and openness. Rescuers reported that their family unit engendered traits of independence, potency, risk-taking, decisiveness, and tolerance. Bystanders, in contrast, recalled a lack of familial closeness that engendered impotence, indecisiveness, and passivity. Rescuers’ parents were less likely than bystanders’ parents to express negative Jewish stereotypes such as “dishonest,” “untrustworthy,” and “too powerful”. Overall, rescuers were raised to practice involvement in community, commitment to others’ welfare, and responsibility for the greater good. In contrast, bystanders’ parents assigned demonic qualities to Jews and promoted the idea that Jews deserved their fate.

2. Spiritual Practices

For several millennia, spiritual gurus have extolled the benefits of engaging in a variety of spiritual practices aimed at improving one’s mental and emotional states. Recent research findings in cognitive neuroscience and positive psychology are now beginning to corroborate these benefits. Mindfulness in particular has attracted widespread popularity as well as considerable research about its implications for mental health. The key component of mindfulness as a mental state is its emphasis on focusing one’s awareness solely on the present moment. People who practice mindful meditation show significant decreases in stress, better coping skills, less depression, improved emotional regulation, and higher levels of resilience (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010). Mindful meditation quiets the mind and thus “wakes us up to what is happening,” allowing “contact with life” (Hanh, 1999, p. 81). Tolle (2005) argues that living in the present moment is a transformative experience avoided by most people because they habitually choose to clutter their minds with regrets about the past or fears about the future. He claims that “our entire life only happens in this moment. The present moment is life itself” (p. 99). Basking in the present moment is the basis of the psychological phenomenon of “flow” described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008). When experiencing flow, people are “in the zone,” fully present, and completely “immersed in a feeling of energized focus” (p. 45).

The spiritual attribute of humility can also be transformative. When asked to name four cardinal virtues, St. Bernard is reported to have answered: “Humility, humility, humility, and humility” (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992). Humility has been shown to be linked to increased altruism, forgiveness, generosity, and self-control (Worthington & Allison, 2018). One can argue that humility cannot be practiced, as the idea of getting better at humility runs contrary to being humble. However, we suspect that one can practice humility by adopting the habit of admitting mistakes, acknowledging personal faults, avoiding bragging, and being generous in assigning credit to others.

Gratitude is another transformative spiritual practice validated by recent research. Algoe (2012) found that gratitude improves sleep, patience, depression, energy, optimism, and relationship quality. Practitioners have developed gratitude therapy as a way of helping clients become happier, more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic. Moreover, neuroscientists have found that gratitude is associated with activity in areas of the brain associated with morality, reward, and value judgment (Emmons & Stern, 2013). Closely related to gratitude are experiences with wonder and awe, which have been shown to increase generosity and a greater sense of connection with the world (Piff et al., 2015). Enjoying regular doses of wonder is a telltale trait of the self-actualized individual (Maslow, 1943).

Another transformative spiritual practice is forgiveness. Research shows that people who are able to forgive others have healthier relationships, improved mental health, less anxiety, stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and a stronger immune system (Worthington, 2013). “Letting go” is another spiritual practice that can produce transformation. It has also been called release, acceptance, or surrender. Buddhist teach Thich Naht Hanh (1999) claims that “letting go give us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness” (p. 78). William James (1902) also described the beneficial practice of letting go among religiously converted individuals: “Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing” (p. 110).

Finally, we turn to the complex emotion of love as a transformative agent. In addition to starring in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart played the lead role in Sabrina, another film demonstrating the transformative power of love. In Sabrina, Bogart played the role of Linus, a workaholic CEO who has no time for love. His underachieving brother David begins a romance with a young woman named Sabrina, and it becomes clear that this budding relationship jeopardizes a multi-million-dollar deal that the company is about to consummate. To undermine the relationship, Linus pretends to show romantic interest in Sabrina, and he succeeds in winning her heart. Despite the pretense, Linus falls in love for the first time in his life, resigns as CEO, and runs away with Sabrina to Paris. Love has completely transformed him from a cold, greedy businessman into a warm, enlightened individual. Similar transformations in film and literature are seen in Ebenezer Scrooge (in A Christmas Carol), the Grinch (in How the Grinch Stole Christmas), Phil Connors (in Groundhog Day), and George Banks (in Mary Poppins).

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (1949) wrote, “The salvation of man is through love and in love” (p. 37). Thich Naht Hanh (1999), moreover, weighs in that “love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person” (p. 170). Loving kindness also transforms us biologically (Keltner, 2009). People who make kindness a habit have significantly lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Making an effort to help others can lead to decreased levels of anxiety in individuals who normally avoid social situations. Being kind and even witnessing kindness have also been found to increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with lower blood pressure, more sound sleep, and reduced cravings for drugs such as alcohol and cocaine. Loving others lights up the motivation and reward circuits of the limbic system in the brain (Esch & Stefano, 2011). Research also reveals that people who routinely show acts of love live longer compared to people who perform fewer loving actions (Vaillant, 2012).

3. The Hero’s Journey

We opened this chapter by noting that the only way most of us undergo transformation is to embark on the hero’s journey. While we have complete control over whether we receive training that can facilitate a heroic metamorphosis, and over whether we engage in spiritual practices, we have far less control over our participation in the classic hero’s journey. We can only remain open and receptive to the ride that awaits us. As we have noted, our departure on the journey can be jarring – we often experience an accident, illness, transgression, death, divorce, or disaster. The best we can do is fasten our seatbelts and trust that the darkness of our lot will eventually transform into lightness.

But we cannot remain passive. During the journey we must be diligent in doing our part to secure allies and mentors, and to take actions that cultivate strengths such as resilience, courage, and resourcefulness (Williams, 2018). After being transformed ourselves, we feel the obligation to transform others in the role of mentor. Having traversed the heroic path, we may use our heroism to craft a newfound purpose for our existence, a purpose that drives us to spend our remaining years making a positive difference in people’s lives. Bronk and Riches (2017) call this process heroism-guided purpose.

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This blog post is excerpted from:

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The Romance of heroism: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Can You Try to Become a Hero, or Does it Just Happen to You?

By Scott T. Allison

An online conversation with my dear friends Olivia Efthimiou, Ellie Jacques, and Sylvia Gray, got me thinking about whether we can choose to become a hero and how much fate, luck, or circumstances — forces beyond our control — just make heroism happen.

It’s an issue about heroism that is both psychological and philosophical. Can we receive heroism training and do what it takes to transform ourselves into heroes? Or is heroism something that is “done unto us”?

Way back in 1966, a highly underrated psychologist named Leslie Farber noted that most of the best psychological states that we strive for cannot be “willed” by us. These are things like happiness, wisdom, courage, resilience, and even a good night’s sleep. For example, I can decide to read books but I can’t decide to be wise. I can do fun activities but I can’t “will” happiness. I can go to bed at 11pm but I can’t “will” myself to sleep.

I would say the same is true for transforming ourselves into heroes. We can do things to make heroic transformation more likely, such as attend Hero Round Table conferences, participate in hero training, or engage in mindful meditation — in much the same way we can make sleep more likely by going to bed.

But like falling asleep, we can’t “will” heroism.

Last year, Thai Navy Seals risked their lives to save a group of soccer boys trapped in a cave. These Navy Seals didn’t become life-saving heroes until circumstances presented themselves that allowed for heroism to happen. Those Seals had the training and were ready, for sure. But most Seals don’t save a soccer team. (And we should be thankful that most training goes to waste — imagine the bloody carnage of a world where every trained hero uses their training)

In short, there are some “end states” that we cannot “will” to happen – they have to happen as byproducts of various behaviors, experiences, and processes, some of which we can control and some we cannot.

One of my favorite quotes was penned by Georges Bataille: “Mere words have something of a quicksand about them. Only experience is the rope that is thrown to us.”

We cannot vow to become courageous and resilient — we have to go through tough times to acquire courage and resilience. Experience is the rope thrown to us — and we must grab that rope even if, and maybe especially if, the experience is painful.

By the way, Farber says that we live in a society that confuses these “two realms of will”, resulting in rampant anxiety and depression in people who try hard to make wonderful things happen that cannot happen when we want them to. So think twice before making either happiness or heroism your goal.

The hero’s journey “happens” to us; it’s not something that we plan. In fact, if we were in charge of the planning, we’d try to avoid the painful journey altogether! The ego cannot be in charge of our destiny. We have to wait for heroism to happen, and sometimes it never will. Which is okay.

Yes, we can decide to do things that make heroic growth more likely. These things include taking CPR classes, getting EMT training, engaging in spiritual practices, and enrolling in hero training programs. But let’s be honest — participating in these activities does not guarantee that you will become a hero.

Remember, experience is the rope thrown to us. Get out there and experience life. Don’t sit at home waiting for meaning and purpose to just “happen”. Do things, go places, and risk being uncomfortable.

Perhaps the title of this essay shouldn’t be, “Can You Try to Become a Hero, or Does it Just Happen to You?” Rather, the truth may be closer to, “You Can Try to Become a Hero, and it Might Just Happen to You.” You can’t plan for it, but you can prepare for it.

Knowing all this, I’m doing all I can to prepare for heroism, whether it happens or not. And so should you.

 

Riding the Blue Moon: The Heroic Journey of Healing Ourselves and Others

By Olivia Efthimiou

We are born into a world that invites us to the adventures of the senses. It compels us to instinctively seek out that which will make us whole, give us meaning, and satisfy both our most basic and superordinate needs.

Yet, as the years go by, as we are weathered by the often unforgiving heights of the journey, we seem to fall into an increasingly deep, dark sleep. A sleep that begins to eat away at us like rot. Sometimes we can smell its decay, we feel there is something wrong with our mind, our body, our heart, our spirit. Other times it is as though a comforting veil is pressed lightly upon our head.

When this veil bursts, it is a defining point in the story. Our story arc is split wide open, down to its bare bones. And that is one of the most, or the most terrifying thing most of us can experience. If we can muster the courage to live through it, that is.

We are the heroes of our own story. That much is undeniable. We can be sceptical about assigning the label of ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ to ourselves; most of us are. We may even have a deep resistance to it. But heroism is in our blood. Heroism and the hero’s journey of life and death we must all pass through is the one thing we have in common apart from being human. The ancient origins of the word are not fully validated. But one ascription assigns it the meaning of protector or safeguard.

Fundamentally, to live is to be transformed. We must evolve and change, no matter how we feel about it. And some, if not most, of us will do this kicking and screaming. We live in a world of duality, and two halves must form a whole. We must die, to live again. Healing does not, and cannot exist without dis-ease, in this reality at least.

I used to believe that a hero is a protector and a safeguard of life, of the good, and the pure. But I now believe that to be a hero is to experience, and be transformed by, the journey in all its dualities – the black, the white and all the colours in between. To truly transform, the hero’s journey requires us to go with the flow of energy as it is presented to us. We must not fight it, we must feel it with our body, in its entirety. We must be cracked open, spat out and redefine ourselves when the call to do so comes.

Like the moon, we must wax and wane through all our phases – we must witness these changes. And sometimes, if the stars align, it becomes our natural progression to become the ‘supermoon’, or the ‘blue moon’ as some call it.

When you are called to ride the blue moon, your entire world will fall apart. Life as you knew it, becomes a pale shadow and your reality is turned upside down. Everything you held to be true is disintegrated and you feel like you are torn into pieces with it. There is no in between, and often no safety net underneath, just a gaping black hole that may suck you up if you let it.

Clinicians and psychologists may call this depression, or mental illness. But spiritual teachers have long described this as a ‘spiritual awakening’ often accompanied by a ‘dark night of the soul’. Let’s not forget that the history of modern medicine and psychiatry is less than a century old. Those disintegrating pieces we hold onto so tightly are often referred to as the ‘ego’, who fathers of psychology Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud theorised at length.

But the ego is not an enemy, as spiritual teacher Christina Lopes describes – its purpose is actually to protect us, to build an identity that creates a space in which to define ourselves. Eventually, this safety mechanism we build for ourselves becomes a prison, as it must make way for new forms of being and growth.

Human evolution is now calling us to accept higher and higher levels of uncertainty and complexity – for it is only through this open field that we can ascend to a higher state of flow and disruptive creativity. A state that our current structures are not forgiving of, nor nurturing towards.

In the words of modern day spiritual teacher Adyashanti:

“Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretence. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”

That is what heroism and the hero’s journey process is at its core, as transformation-in-process. More and more people are now called to ride the blue moon and its eradicating process. Yet, as much as this process takes away, it has the potential to give back tenfold.

As Joseph Campbell described, the hero’s journey has life-affirming properties. This is no complicated notion – to live, me must die. In the season 2, episode “Freedom” of the classic series Quantum Leap, Native American Joseph Washakie played by Frank Sotonoma “Grey Wolf” Salsedo, describes death as a doorway – and us as a grasshopper.

The blue moon begs us to leap into its depths. To allow its deep blue waters to completely penetrate us, and seed into us the new self that must be born again from our union with the universe and its/our spirit, as we make our way – begrudgingly, willingly or painfully – into the other side, the new world.

Through this process, we discover that the pieces that fell to the ground and were swept away with the wind were not truly needed or a part of our innate nature to begin with. Those that are left, that stick onto us as if they are indeed part of our skin, we may come to rediscover in a new light, and re-assemble them in a new whole.

And perhaps the illusion is that we were never destroyed or disassembled to begin with – like the moon appears to be incomplete, it has always remained whole. We have just awakened to a deeper, more authentic sense of wholeness. One that is not a version of us – but us.

In our forthcoming book, Riding the Blue Moon: A Practitioner’s Guide for Healing Ourselves and Others, we bring together healers from various walks of life who discuss the terror and beauty of the awakening process, and the journey of healing as vital to our human journey.

Because, once in a blue moon, life may never be the same again. We can only be so lucky.

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Olivia Efthimiou is a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound. Her current research focuses on the emerging field of heroism science, embodiment, transdisciplinarity, healing, evolution, the philosophy of science, and creative play in social, locative and mobile spaces.

Three Reasons Why Neil Armstrong Captivated Our Heroic Imagination

By Scott T. Allison

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, nearly a billion people around the world dropped what they were doing to watch, in awe, as a human being stepped on the moon’s surface for the first time.

What was it about Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” that captivated our heroic imagination? Here are three reasons why Armstrong remains an iconic hero.

1. Armstrong Lived the Hero’s journey

First, to understand the psychology of adventurer heroes, we must turn to the insights of mythologist Joseph Campbell. It was Campbell who reminded us that the hero’s journey is the universal human journey into the unknown, into the darkness where danger lurks yet treasure lies.

All of us are thrown into harm’s way many times during our lives. Whether it is disease, divorce, unemployment or an accident, we are all like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, sent on a journey against our will, encountering painful obstacles that require us to develop courage, resilience, and resourcefulness.

Astronauts and other adventure-heroes differ from us in that they deliberately choose to embark on their hazardous journeys. They put themselves in harm’s way to move themselves forward personally — and to advance humanity as well. Adventure heroes make great sacrifices and take great personal risks willingly. Doing so puts them on a heroic pedestal and empowers us all to solider through whatever difficulties we currently face in our own mundane lives.

The vast darkness of space has always mesmerized the human race. Joseph Campbell observed that heroic myths from around the world focused on the hero entering the biggest, darkest forest, or the deepest, darkest cave or ocean. Areas of vast unknown darkness symbolize our worst unconscious fears.

Our best hope for personal growth is to face these primal fears and trust that help is available. Let’s remember that Neil Armstrong didn’t go to the moon alone – he had help from scientists, technicians, mentors, and colleagues. The hero’s journey is always a social journey. And no one did it better than Neil Armstrong.

2. Armstrong Possessed Heroic Traits

Neil Armstrong is also a hero because he embodied many of the “Great Eight” traits of heroes: He was smart, strong, caring, reliable, resilient, selfless, and inspiring. Armstrong was described as passionate about space exploration, and he was a brilliant, dedicated aeronautical engineer.

Like many great heroes, Armstrong was humble, always downplaying his accomplishments and eschewing the limelight. “Besides being one of America’s greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all,” said Charles Bolden, a NASA administrator.

Consistent with all inspiring heroes, Armstrong spent his retirement giving back to society. During the 1970s, he taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, sharing his life experiences with young people and inspiring them to succeed in life. Generosity of spirit is perhaps the greatest of all heroic traits, and Armstrong had this quality in abundance.

3. Armstrong Fulfilled Our Romantic Longing For Space Travel

There is a reason why the world fell in love with Star Wars, and with Star Trek before that. People have always harbored a strong fascination for the vastness of space. Our ancestors were mesmerized by the stars and concocted stories about them to quell the longing for some understanding of the mystery of the cosmos.

Heroic technological innovators conquered the barrier of air flight in 1902, and then space travel in 1961. As William Shatner said in the opening to Star Trek, space is indeed the final frontier – and with the moon landing, Neil Armstrong boldly went where no one had gone before.

Astronauts who make strong sacrifices and take significant risks are pushing the boundaries of survival and discovery – and in doing so, they serve as powerful role models for us mere mortals who struggle to meet the challenges of everyday life.

Every human life is packed with metaphorical lunar expeditions. Heroes give us hope that we can all slay our dragons during the deepest darkest times of our lives. We learn from heroes that we can embrace our heroic journeys with the same courage that Neil Armstrong did back in 1969.

References

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Worthington, E. L, & Allison, S. T. (2018). Heroic humility: What the science of humility can say to people raised on self-focus. Washington. DC: American Psychological Association.

Heroes Whom We Forgot: The Writers

By J. A. Schultz

Enûma Eliš.

In the Beginning.

Thousands of years ago something seemingly magical was invented. It was a magic that allowed one to read the mind of another. To speak across vast distances. From time immemorial voices of the dead could be known. The magic is as profound as all of human wisdom and as simple as the words you are now reading.

Like the taming of fire before it, it would become a seminal event in human history.

In fact, it would create history.

Writing.

It is an easy thing to take for granted, these little scratches that allow us to share our thoughts. But writing is the thing that has created the modern world we live in. Without it our cultures would have to be passed down from by word of mouth and fallible memory — as many non-literate cultures had done before.

So it is more than a little ironic that we don’t actually know who invented writing and precisely when. Simple scratches have been found as old as 800,000 years old in Java and 40,000 year old “hashtags” near Gibraltar. But the earliest evidence of actual writing comes from the Vinča culture in what is now known as Romania. The most ancient of these is known as the Tărtăria tablets dating back to 5500 to 5300 BC. However this find is controversial and the first definitive examples of writing date back to Sumer and Egypt in 3100 BC and China in 2100 BC.

Throughout history humanity sought to find separation between itself and the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet for every milestone we place, every divine aspect we imagined for ourselves, our natural brethren had quite happily knocked down. Except for writing.

Writing was most likely invented as a way to keep track of common things such as harvests or the numbers of livestock being kept at any given moment. It was simply a way to making life easier. Little could they have known the world they were setting in motion. For writing soon went beyond the confines of mere clerical work and allowed people to share their thoughts, loves, and madness and do so through space and time.

Because of that initially utilitarian invention we can experience the love the Pharaoh Akhenaten felt for Queen Nefertiti through his letters and poems to her 3000 years ago. Or Claudia Severa inviting her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her birthday celebration in 100 AD. Or the amazingly erudite letter written by a ten year old girl named Elizabeth to her stepmother, Anne, on the 31st of July 1544. Or the words of my 5th great-aunt giving testimony on May 18, 1886 on why her nephew used various aliases.

These echoes, these preserved moments of time, are the result of the efforts of people who most likely had no idea what they were setting in motion. They had no intention of being heroes — at least not for inventing something so ubiquitous — but without their efforts our modern civilization would not exist. Lives would be slowly forgotten or garbled beyond any recognition. Lessons of the past would be left aside. Human history would shrink to that of a handful of generations. Death, already a tragic loss, would be catastrophic. Not just for their loved ones, but for society as a whole.

Because of these heroes, these ancient writers whose pens really were mightier than any sword, vast swaths of history are open to us. There for us to read.

Because they taught us how to write.

Enûma Eliš.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, tries to make the best use of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.