Traversing the Underworld: What Myth Can Teach us During the Pandemic

Conversations with Zak Stein, Stephen Jenkinson & Charlotte Du Cann

Alexander Beiner
Apr 16, 2020 · 18 min read

What sustains us, beyond the sun and soil? How deep do our roots reach into the unseen places that tether us to the world? These questions arise when reality as we know it ends and we’re plunged into a new world. A land both foreign and familiar, pregnant with potential and aching with tragedy.

For the last month, Rebel Wisdom has been featuring some of the brightest minds making sense of the pandemic. Many of them are systems theorists who have given invaluable insights into why this crisis stretches far beyond Covid-19 and what might come next. And in private conversations on WhatsApp and countless Zoom calls, I have spoken to friends, activists and artists about the paradox of these times; the desire we share to prevent suffering while also feeling the incredible potential of something new.

In ancient Greece there were two words for time; Chronos and Kairos. The first is linear time, where we get the word ‘chronological’. Kairos is different; a kind of immediate, shifting moment when a new opening appears that can be grasped — if you’re paying attention. This is where we find ourselves now. A culture that defines itself on striving its way to the future has been forced into the timeless underworld; a place full of ghosts and voyagers, infinite possibility and potent danger. This pandemic has not called us into a heroic adventure, but forced us to descend into silence and darkness and humility.

When we talk of the underworld, we are speaking the language of the mythopoetic. We are drawing on a very old, very important way of knowing, one I believe is essential in these times. To explore how we might navigate this underworld, I spoke to three people who have immersed themselves in what it means to be a human being facing the liminal. Dr. Zak Stein, writer, futurist and education reformer. Stephen Jenkinson, a cultural activist, author and teacher on death and dying. Charlotte Du Cann, journalist, storyteller and an editor of the literary collective, Dark Mountain Project.

Myths To Die By

Psychology was birthed from the idea that we have an unconscious mind, and neuroscientists have more recently pointed out how much of our processing happens beneath conscious awareness. The nature of the unconscious is inherently mysterious, and a territory that Carl Jung explored more deeply than anyone who ever lived. He mapped out a complex world of symbols and archetypes, encoded ways of knowing stored by those who came before us and shared collectively.

There are ways of being written so deeply into our bones that they emerge in myths and stories told by cultures who never had any contact. Those who study the commonalities in myths, notably Joseph Campbell and Christopher Booker, draw on Jung’s insights to argue that there is a monomyth — a single myth told and retold around the world that manifests in almost every story we have. It is important here to distinguish a myth and a story, using a definition I first heard from Andreas Kornevall: a story has an author, but a myth does not. In many cultures, myths come from the land itself. They are sung into existence by something far greater than a single human being. These myths tell us of our relationship to the earth, the journey we take to become human beings, and what our role should be once we have.

Having sat with thousands of people as they died in his role a palliative care counsellor, and written several books around changing our attitudes to death and dying, Stephen Jenkinson has explored deeply what it means to be human. He has said before that ‘human beings aren’t born, they are made. Every culture worthy of the name culture has always practiced human making. But it’s in the nature of being human to forget how to be one on occassion.

Myths are an essential part of this ‘making of humans’ — they contextualise our existence and give us psychological coherence. As Jenkinson points out, it isn’t that indigenous cultures with rich mythic traditions are better people or have some hidden wisdom we don’t; they suffer the same struggles as anyone else. However, they are often able to fall back on a coherent view of reality, supported in part by a clear mythopoetic structure, that reminds them what it means to be human. As our culture fragments, and we look for our own roots, do we find they go deep enough to give us that same coherence?

I don’t believe they do. However, deeply encoded in our psyches, we may have the instructions we need for how to be human in the in-between space we’re living in. To find them, we have to know how to reach deeply into our own roots and wrap our fingers around the stories in our souls. We have to learn to speak the language of the mythopoetic; a grammar of symbols and intention, archetypes and intuition and instant knowing, dreams and secrets and great dramas played out over aeons beneath the surface of things.

The Language of the Liminal

And as human beings, we have always told stories about what happens when the world flips upside down and we find ourselves in a new one not quite our own. We see it arise again and again, from Gnostic myth of Sophia to Stranger Things to The Matrix, a topic I have written on in more detail elsewhere.

What binds our myths and our stories is that they are an external expression of our own internal journeys of growth. Our heroes start in the status quo and receive a Call to Adventure — they find out they’re a wizard, or princess, or a Jedi. They then pass the first threshold into an unknown world where they are tested and thereby transformed.

It’s best to pause here, because this passing of the threshold is where we are right now. The Latin for threshold is ‘limen’, which is where we draw the word ‘liminal’. The word threshold holds its own meaning — it comes from the Old English for the doorway to our homes. We have quite literally stepped through the thresholds into our own homes, entering a liminal space that is both utterly familiar and completely transmuted.

Zak Stein has written extensively on this concept of ‘a space between worlds’ through the lens of philosophy, education reform and developmental psychology. He recently wrote an essay in Emerge, ‘Covid-19: A War Broke Out in Heaven’ exploring the mythopoetic landscape we now find ourselves in. I asked him what it means to be in a liminal space:

The first thing is that it’s disorienting and scary...disorientation and fear sets in when one world is no longer the world, and another world hasn’t set in. The experience is one of being unmoored and seeking for some deeper root than the superficial things that were grounding you. It is both a feeling of disorientation and a feeling of grasping or wanting or imagining.”

This sense of disorientation is one many heroes face when they pass the first threshold. However, they go on to overcome obstacles, face trials and tribulations to defeat their enemies or slay the dragon, then return to the community with the gold. I have my own attachments to the hero’s journey as a model; it’s one I’ve structured retreats around and as a writer I’ve used it as a guide for plots. But the more I feel into this liminal space we’re in, the more uneasy I feel with this attachment. Is adventure really what we’re being called to right now? To continue achieving, defeating and struggling to control our destinies? For years we have been striving, battling, trying to overcome nature, each other, our own desires. It may be what led us to this crossroads.

What, in this moment, is there to strive for? Do I even know what kind of world wants to be born right now? It may be that my desire for forward motion and action is a consequence of my own cultural conditioning and personality. It may be the time has come for me to grow out of it. As Stephen Jenkinson expressed in our conversation:

“Right now, you’ve been forced to stop. You can heretofore choose to agree to stop. Maybe we could be remembered, if we will be remembered at all, not as a source of ancestral embarrassment, humiliation and shame. But instead, as a generation of people who, because they were unable to come to their senses voluntarily, came to some other set of senses involuntarily. Who were willing to be defeated, without having to be destroyed to get there. Imagine that the strength of our will is defeated by our will’s recognition of its limits.”

This is a very different type of initiation than what we might be used to. Charlotte Du Cann is an expert on myth and been exploring how it relates to modern culture for years. When we spoke, she pointed out that the hero’s journey, while it applies to both men and women, can be critiqued for showing only a masculine side of the initiatory journey. There is also specific female initiation which we can go through. It is in some ways an inversion of its opposite, in which you begin as a princess, and move down toward a humbler way of being that simultaneously transforms you to something greater.

“In all of female myths that I’ve read and fairy stories, the classic form is that you lose your shiny dress; like Cinderella upside down. You start at the palace and then you end up sitting by the fire about the ashes with the mouse and with the creatures in the kitchen. Or you go into the forest, in the Russian fairy tales, and encounter Baba Yuga. She is a hard taskmaster, like Venus. They are tough because they know you have to be tough and resourceful to live properly on the planet. What they teach you is that you can’t be a princess on the planet. You can be beautiful, but you can’t be a princess. You need to go down.”

Going down means going back to our relationship with the earth or the ground, the Latin word for which is ‘humus’, from which we derive the word humility. And eventually, the word human.

Traversing the Liminal

We’re on a very intense journey worth a couple lifetimes. It’s very intense. At this point it’s less like we’ve got a map and we know where we’re going. To use another image from biblical myth, it’s like we’re wandering in the wilderness together. And when you’re in the wilderness, you bring your temple with you. It becomes not a temple in space, but a temple in time. And so what I’m pleading for is that we remember to create these temples in time where we can be together, no matter how bad it gets, and know that this is what humans have always done.” — Zak Stein

There is a humility to wandering through the wilderness in this way. And it is undeniably challenging. As we leave the known, we open ourselves up to powerful forces in our psyches that may have been suppressed until now.

There’s this battle between the different kind of voices and archetypes that populate the psyche… and in your own imagination, you start to see possibilities in the actual world that look hellish or heaven like,” Stein explains. “This is what we’re seeing. Everyone’s imagination is going to the possibility of worst case; these terrible things that you wished thought you’d only ever see on a movie. Now all the sudden are like flooding into your actual experience. Things that were mythic in the sense of being like a myth that you watch on the screen, are now like playing out in front of you. So, heaven and earth collide.

This is an essential quality of the liminal, the underworlds, and the otherworlds of myth. It is a place where many forces meet: a crossroads. Like all crossroads, it is preyed on by dangerous things. Stein goes on:

[Some] people are seeing this possibility for a radical positivity to come out of this on the other end, that right now is the moment, in response to tragedy and pain, when utopia could be forged. Like heaven, there’s this fantasy of a completely different economic system. This fantasy where we could stop the capitalist world system with a button and everyone thing grinds to a halt…. but wait a second. That just happened. So, heaven and earth collide again. There’s this incredible imaginal potency which makes the choice, the feeling of choice, dizzying. Are you going to turn into a bad guy, or are you going to turn into a hero?

What does it mean to be a hero in the liminal? Perhaps not what it means to be a hero in the regular world. It may be that there is an inversion at play — that to survive the underworld, we need to embody the opposing qualities of our old culture. Humility over control. Surrender and acceptance over striving and efforting. This does not mean becoming passive, it means changing the way in which we act. And to help us in that, we can draw wisdom from the ultimate inversion, the ultimate point of change in each of our lives.

Death & Endings

“The crucible of making human beings is death. Every culture worth a damn knows that. It’s not success, it’s not growth, it’s not happiness. It’s death. That’s the cradle of your love of life; the fact that it ends.” — Stephen Jenkinson

Something fundamental in our culture has ended. What exactly, I can’t quite put my finger on. As many things in the liminal, it’s hard to grasp. But if we want to birth something new out of it, we have to come to terms with endings. We have to come to terms with the ultimate ending, the very thing Covid-19 forces us to look at: our inevitable deaths.

Stephen Jenkinson worked extensively with dying people and their families as the lead counsellor of a palliative care team in a Canadian hospital, and much of his work draws attention to our perverse and immature attitudes toward death and the impact this has on our culture.

He is quick to point out the poverty of our language around death and endings. We prefer to talk about transition, passing on, moving beyond. I believe this new age fantasy is the first thing we need to drop if we’re to voyage through the underworld without getting lost. As Jenkinson has argued, and as countless spiritual traditions have taught, you cannot be truly alive if you do not embrace and honour death.

In the same way that birth is a new beginning, death is a final ending. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife is a different story; denying death as an ending is to cut ourselves off from the aching longing and urgency that makes life worth living. We lose this when we try to sanitise or control death to assuage our own fears. As Taoist wisdom suggests, beginnings and endings imply one another. We cannot have regeneration without truly honouring decay. Jenkinson speaks eloquently of his time working in palliative care, where he became aware of our struggle to meet death on an individual level. Of the people he witnessed dying, he told me:

“There was no hint or shred of the realities of their dying in the language they were resorting to. So, the language became a kind of insurance policy against the realities. They were pretending to try to approach it, you see. They ended up slack jawed, drooling and finally desensitised and sedated — as a consequence of their inability to speak their way towards their own death. To be encouraged and instructed, and recognised to be doing so.”

We have a million ways to sedate ourselves in our culture. Netflix, work, drugs, sex, alcohol and anything else we can get. And we use that same approach toward death — the great leveller that is driving everything we’re seeing right now. But if we can learn not to check out, to meet reality head on and die well as individuals, I asked Jenkinson what it means for a culture to die well.

“Imagine you really love somebody who’s dying. What is the etiquette of your relationship with them? How do you conduct yourself as if what’s happening is happening? That becomes the question for a dying person in your household and it becomes the same question for a time like now, where we get to glimpse how utterly exhausted our acquisitive way of doing things has become. So, what do you do? The answer to my mind is you bear faithful witness to the realities of the day. You orchestrate yourself in the presence of the dying, not despite it, not to overcome it, not to pretend it’s not there for the sake of mutual comfort, but to risk it all, to risk the relationship, the friendship, whatever it is. And fail to conspire with the idea that there’s more time. There is no more time.”

There is something of the time we’re living in that resists bullshitting and truth bending (thought it is still rampant). It believe it’s due in part to death being the ultimate meta narrative; the one thing that is not and never can be ‘post-truth’. In my piece ‘A Story to Bind Us’ I expressed the belief that we need a new, more fluid and complex meta-narrative as a species. As Zak Stein pointed out when we spoke, this narrative should include, but not be limited to, a healthy relationship with death. And implicit in a healthy relationship with death is a healthy relationship with reality.

Jordan Hall, in a recent conversation with David Fuller on Rebel Wisdom, used the metaphor of our economy after 2008 being like a person running a race on a broken ankle after taking huge amounts of heroin and speed. For a while, it looks like they’re doing quite well. Until the drugs wear off. For our system, the drugs have worn off, and we cannot sedate and disassociate our way toward some better world. As Fred Rogers famously said, ‘if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable’. We can, and must, start mentioning the ending of our old world. But as Jenkinson points out, this is something we need to learn how to do.

“It’s going to be wild and strange and we don’t know how to do it. We don’t have an etiquette for endings in a culture that doesn’t believe in them…. I try to advocate for a sense of fundamental etiquette of radical love about what it means to see something down. That’s the phrase I came to use to describe it. And that’s what we have to do now. We have to be willing to see our regime down. It means living with a lot less, including a lot less certainty.”

Transformation

In endings we find totality, and the only soil from which something new emerges. Transformation is, for many scholars of myth, one of its most important qualities. But transformation for the sake of itself means nothing; the monomyth inevitably tells the story of an individual transforming so that they can come into their rightful place in their community and the world.

Charlotte Du Cann holds a deep understanding of what these myths are trying to tell us. At the start of the pandemic she wrote a piece called Outbreak which drew on, among other myths, that of Psyche. Psyche is not a goddess but a beautiful mortal who starts out idolised by all around her, and must go on a journey down into the underworld to find her true love. She is given various humble tasks, such as sorting seeds, that take her on a process of transformation.

Du Cann believes that this is a key myth for our times. We are undergoing a transformation, like Psyche (which is also the Greek word for ‘butterfly’) which sees us having to come back to the earth. Back to the humility of sorting seeds. Like her namesake, it is this cocooning into the earth that changes her. So strikingly different from the hero’s journey that takes us ‘out there’ to transform ourselves. As Du Cann writes in Outbreak: “Having resisted every warning and admonishment to transform and change our ways, we are now, as a collective, being forced into a cocoon ourselves, in lockdowns and self-isolation, to do the work we should have done generations ago.”

A few days before we spoke, Du Cann had, like Psyche, been sorting seeds. In her case, for a friend’s food company whose orders had gone up as people sought out long-lasting staples during the crisis. This is fitting, Du Cann pointed out, as myth has long been linked to the natural world and to agriculture in particular. Ancient mystery schools acted out these myths into a powerful psychodramas that connected people to the seasons, one another, and to the goddesses of grain, death and rebirth. As our supply chains strain during this crisis, many are wondering for the first time where exactly our food comes from, and feeling the terror of being so very disconnected from the growing of it. We got to talking about what it means to live a myth in the way our ancestors did, rather than just talking about it.

It’s not about liking it as an idea. It’s about actually embodying what that feels like to go into the underworld be able to hold that that transformation within your being,” Du Cann explained. “What does that feel like? What is our relationship with our agriculture? Because that is the pivot. All civilizations are dependent on grain, whether it’s rice, beans, millet, or maize in America. This is primary, and physical. And when you imbue it with the mythic relationship, then every time you sit down and eat bread, every time you sit down and eat the grains, that resonance and that connection comes through you.”

It may be that we are in this moment on a female initiatory journey like Psyche’s. It’s important to note that, in Jungian terms, each of us has an internal feminine and masculine. What I am talking about is related to, but not limited to, being a man or a woman. It is about the deep, primal archetypes that shape our understanding of the world, and which are playing out at a level deeper than one we can hold onto with our conscious minds.

Summary: Ghosts and Voyagers

The three people I spoke to for this essay and our accompanying film come from very different backgrounds. However, they all independently spoke about the importance of becoming a new kind of human in order to face what we’re facing. For Stephen Jenkinson, a part of dying well is committing to staying truly human in the face of something that seduces you away from being so. And, as Zak Stein pointed out, it is incumbent on us to carry our temple with us and come together as we wander through the wilderness. We have to stay close to our own hearts and one another. We must be prepared to go on a voyage of great humility and courage, because as Charlotte Du Cann told me, it’s very easy to get to the underworld, but it takes a special kind of person to get out.

This is a voyage that will change us, perhaps beyond recognition. And it is also, as Peter Limberg has pointed out, a place where the next great war may be fought for the soul of our culture. He refers to it as ‘the liminal war’. Right now, I see two memetic tribes forming around this war. Those who want to go back to business as usual, and those who want to use this as an opportunity to birth something new. I will call the former Ghosts, and the latter Voyagers.

Voyagers move through the liminal with at least some sense of what it is. They travel with their eyes open to the suffering and tragedy the pandemic has brought. The voyage through the liminal and in so doing grapple with the profound change that must now happen to birth something new, so that we don’t return to an economic system and cultural value set that was already walking dead before this crisis.

But some of us may not wish to be changed, or accept that we are already dead. We have a word for that in our stories: a ghost. Ghosts cannot find peace, because they cannot accept that who they were is no more, and where they lived is no longer theirs. As a voyager in the underworld, we are forever tempted to forget, to become ghosts. To go back to ‘business as usual’ and accept the paradigms of the old system as we did in 2008.

But the liminal is an odd place. A ghost may transform into a voyager at any time, and a voyager may lose their way and become, for a time, a ghost. It is forever shifting and up to us to find a way through. Maybe, if we carry our temple with us, remember our humanity and seek each other out with a passionate longing and humility, we might leave the underworld having learned the lessons of the dead that weave it.

This article is accompanied by a film on our YouTube channel featuring interviews with Stephen Jenkinson, Charlotte Du Cann and Zak Stein.

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