Posts Tagged ‘monomyth’

Final Fantasy VII rocked my world. It was a threshold moment for the Playstation as well as for a generation of gamers. And it’s an experience I come back to even now when I’m giving shape to my thoughts about therapy and human development.

Recently, I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a classic post-Jungian psychoanalytic work in which Campbell attempts to outline an archetypal hero’s journey that accounts for no less than every single myth ever created ever. It’s ambitious. His central hypothesis is that the hero’s journey is an archetypal pattern of psychological transformation that underlies all human experience. In Jungian analytical psychology, this would be part of the individuation process.

There is much that is jarring about Campbell’s account. For one thing, the hero’s journey is very male, being, as it is, a drawing out of the themes common to hero myths. Clearly, if we take the hero myths of patriarchal societies and look for their common themes, we’re unlikely to find much description of the psychological transformation of women beyond what is relevant to the transformation of male heroes. The section ‘woman as temptress’ is a case in point; the monomyth is both male and straight.

One of the ideas that does resonate with me, and one that strikes me as unisex, is that of the threshold guardian; the end of level boss.

The principle Campbell arrives at is that whenever the hero attempts to cross the threshold between known and unknown, he encounters a monster. Wandering beyond the village on a merry adventure? Monster. Straying from the royal road to explore the magic forest? Monster. Taking the ferry to Calais by yourself for the first time? You get the picture.

The two key points are: guardians stand at the threshold between your current level of development and the next; and the guardian curiously takes such a form that you can defeat it provided you stretch your abilities just beyond your capabilities. The threshold guardian forces an actualising of your potential.

This, of course, is exactly the principle of end of level bosses in computer games. To advance from one level to the next, you need to defeat the boss. To defeat the boss, you need to build up your powers and abilities during the level. Having defeated the boss, you tend to gain bonuses in the form of treasure, extra powers, and, in Final Fantasy VII and other RPGs, XP (experience points). Gain enough xp, and you level up; that is, your general range of skills and abilities increase.

Levelling up in real life involves a general expansion of ability and consciousness. Think of a job you started that was hard to get to grips with to start with, then progressively felt easier over time. Your end of level boss there would be any situation that challenges you to go beyond what you’re familiar with into a whole new realm of experience. Then one day, you’re presenting an arcane piece of strategy you’ve co-written to a senior committee and you get a flash of the first time you stood staring at the photocopier hoping you hadn’t just pressed the self-destruct button.

These are our modern day hero quests, and while their forms are potentially infinite, their basic structure (Campbell’s monomyth) seems reliably constant. The caveat I’d apply to Campbell’s monomyth is that he’s dealing with the archetypal structure of a masculine hero without acknowledging that there is no reason why the questing hero needs to be male. The questing hero represents a certain kind of energy and attitude, and I’ve known a fair few women who have embodied that energy!

Whilst in patriarchal myth and folklore there is often a theme of ‘woman as temptress’, this theme could be universalised simply as ‘temptation’. It is in the nature of the hero to encounter temptation because this is ultimately his/her encounter with his/her own as yet unintegrated kundalini (note the similarity between the serpentine associations of both temptation and kundalini).

The hero who hasn’t mastered his/her own essential lifeforce is doomed to be destroyed by it; the encounter with temptation is symbolic of the hero discovering that the figure of temptation is a reflection of the hero’s own erotic power; the heady charge of life that surges through each of our bodies. Just look at how many public figures have been undone by temptation of an essentially sexual nature! That is the fate of any hero who doesn’t master his/her kundalini; they will be powerless to resist it later on because, by definition, as they grow more powerful, so too does the strength of their kundalini intensify.

So then… how do you spot an end of level boss? Here is my four step guide:

1) Insufficient challenge

Eventually, a game becomes quite dull once your powers get to the point where everything in the level is easy to do. This is the clearest sign that it’s time to face an end of level boss. It’s like life saying ‘you’re done here, really you are, it’s time for the next level’. In computer games, that normally means it’s now so easy to kill or defeat all the bad guys running around that it’s almost not worth bothering. But that could equally apply to having no challenges left in your current job, or being bored of living in the same old town. Existential discontentment, dissatisfaction, and boredom; these are the symptoms of occupying a level you’ve completed and are ready to leave.

The person who is content with their lot in life simply doesn’t embark on any kind of quest. And whilst the monomyth deals with the more grandiose questing themes, the same principles can be applied in dramatically scaled down examples. The quest is always proportional to the hero, just like the end of level boss is always tough enough to demand that you develop your abilities in order to defeat it, yet always defeatable. Remember, part of the essential nature of the questing hero is that he/she is pretty much looking for trouble; the first sign that trouble is up ahead is when life in general starts to feel dull (like full on malaise; we’re not just talking Sunday afternoons here!).

2) The alluring unknown

End of level bosses are threshold guardians, so you’ll find them at the threshold between one level and the next. In left to right scrolling computer games, the threshold is simply the bit where the screen stops scrolling… that’s probably not very helpful for real life though. Usually, the gameworld will be set up in such a way that you need to get through the boss to get to the next part of the game.

In real life, this will be some unknown yet alluring aspect of life that calls to you as ‘the next step’. Basically, you’ll be trying to progress in some way. So then you ask yourself what you need to do to progress, and the answer has a great big but after it. That but? Most likely your end of level boss. In order to move from the dull situation you’ve outlived into the vibrant and alluring new situation you feel drawn to, there will be a threshold to cross, the boundary between the old and new.

That threshold is the quintessential bridge, beneath which the troll. As you prepare for some major transition from one chapter in your life to the next, keep an eye out for that end of level boss.

3) Bosses advance the plot

Assuming your life resembles a well made computer game, your end of level bosses should be plot-relevant. That’s one reason why you’re unlikely to ever need to slay a fire breathing dragon (I guess we could think of others but I’m keeping to a theme here!) though quite likely need to stand up to a tyrannical manager or face down a fear of public speaking to give a presentation.

There’s this bizarre idea that life somehow imitates art that seems to forget that life came first. Yes, there’s a feedback loop in which art imitates life which then imitates art which then imitates life etc. But a feedback loop stops when you take away the source, and the source in this case is life; no life, no art.

Hence, it can sometimes be fruitful to think to yourself ‘if my life was a novel, what would happen next?’. Of course, in gestalt theory, this can lead you into egotism; a modification to contact in which you become an observer of your experience instead of directly experiencing life. A simple experiment to show this would be:

Take five minutes in which you notice what you are experiencing in the third person. So, instead of ‘I can hear birds singing’ I would say ‘Simon can hear birds singing’. Whatever experience you have during the five minute experiment, report it (best out loud but thinking it works too) in the third person.

Notice the quality and intensity of your experience during this experiment; how do you feel experiencing in the third person? Then:

Take another five minutes. This time, notice what you are experiencing in the first person. So now it’s ‘I can hear birds singing’ and ‘I feel an itch on my arm’ and so on.

Notice the quality and intensity of experience during this experiment, and compare to the previous; do you notice any essential difference between the two? The first experiment involved using egotism to modify your contact with your experience; the second experiment involved making direct contact with your experience. Basically, egotism in gestalt means thinking about rather than being in the moment.

Contemplating the question ‘if my life was a novel, what would happen next’ takes you away from directly experiencing your life for a while. When this kind of pre-occupation dominates and leads to an inability to ‘let go’ and simply experience life, then we’re into the territory of stuck patterns and psychopathology (remember, that’s just an impressive way of saying ouch, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy). When it’s a choiceful shifting of focus from living life to contemplating life in order to enrich your living of life, then it’s exercising a form of wisdom.

If you let yourself daydream a bit about what kind of crisis/test/guardian you’re likely to come up against in making the transition from one stage to the next, you’ll probably end up with a clear idea of who/what your end of level boss will be. And if you’re a smart gamer, then having anticipated the nature of the end of level boss, you’ll be sure to train appropriately as the encounter approaches.

4) Cometh the hour

The approach of an end of level boss comes in two parts:

a) A flurry of challenges

In your classic adventuring hero type game, the adversaries you come across during the level get progressively harder as the level goes on. This is the game training you up, getting you more sophisticated at using whatever range of abilities your character has, and often allowing you to build the character’s power.

One sign you’re about to face an end of level boss is when every single adversary you’ve come up against so far gets thrown at you in rapid succession. ‘Oh ho’, says the game, ‘so you’ve worked out how to defeat those annoying little bouncing goblin things? Well how about twenty of them at once followed by a dozen of the big ones and three ninjas ahahahaha!‘.

Basically, the rate of every day challenge increases whilst the challenges themselves stay within the range you’re used to. The reports you’re writing aren’t any harder, they’re just coming in at a faster rate. The family issues are all the same old issues you’re familiar with, they’re just all happening at once.

If you find yourself in a flurry of challenges like this, it’s time to review the above and ask:

1) Am I insufficiently challenged (current flurry of challenges aside)?
2) Is there a significant change I’ve been wanting to make?
3) If my life was a novel what sort of encounter would bring this situation to a head?

If the answer to questions one and two is pretty much yes, then I’d really take some time to think about question three. Remember, a great way to build XP ahead of a big boss is to spend a few hours (game time, I have no idea how long that would be in real life) defeating lower level adversaries that live in the magic forest or wherever (Cartman does this to optimum effect in a memorable episode of South Park). I don’t know how helpful that advice is… I guess I’m just saying be prepared.

b) The calm before the storm

So… your life has become insufficiently challenged… you’ve identified the significant change you want to make and headed on over to the threshold… possibly you’ve written a novel that is essentially a psychodrama of your own spiritual development… and you’ve just come through an intense period of challenges familiar in nature but almost overwhelming in number.

Life seems at once calm yet poised… it’s like Zeus has just jumped up onto a cloud wielding a thunderbolt, and all the baddies have gone, ‘right you are then Mr Zeus, I’ll just go home and feed the little goblins shall I? Yeah, I’ll just be off then’. This leaves you, a brief period of calm, and an impending encounter with your end of level boss. The background music normally changes somewhere around now.

If you’re in an RPG, this gives you time to switch around the characters you’ll be taking into the encounter, or play around with the equipment you’re going to have to hand. There might even be a save point (I know what you’re thinking, ‘how the hell are you going to argue for a real life counterpoint to the save point?’. Well I’m working on it… I’m currently thinking Damasio’s somatic marker theory but that’ll need to be a separate blog post!).

In a left to right beat or shoot ’em up, this is simply the bit of time you get to crack your knuckles, massage out the cramps, and get ready for one last push. This is the five minutes sitting outside the office before being called in for your career advancing job interview.

End of level bosses are preceded by a flurry of challenges and then a brief calm precisely so that all the skills and abilities you need to defeat the boss are honed to precision, then rested just enough to regain energy without losing tone. End of level bosses want to be defeated because they are in fact disowned aspects of ourselves; in defeating the threshold guardian, we destroy (as in de-structure) something we experience as alien to ourselves in order to re-structure ourselves by assimilating our enemy.

Hence, in lots of RPGs, some adversaries have to be defeated in mortal combat in order to gain them as allies or bonus characters. Or in defeating an end of level boss, your character absorbs some of their power. Ie, you defeat the boss, then gain its powers/service.

Always always, the threshold guardian is what it is because it embodies in externalised form what we are doing to stop ourselves from crossing the threshold. That’s what makes it such a damn fearful challenge!

Armed with my four point guide, you should hopefully now be sufficiently prepared for seeing the advance of an end of level boss. As Fritz Perls would say: may the force be with you!


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