Myths taken as metaphors often can contain great wisdom and insights about our own lives.
In my latter years now, I have often reflected on where my life has taken me; my life’s path. At the time of their occurences, it often seemed it was just so many disconnected paths. For the most parts, I could see no grand, overall scheme to my meanderings. Now I see it!
Recently reading Joseph Campbell’s Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, I realized that I had been on my own hero’s journey since about midlife. That is when I started breaking away from all the “Thou shalts” of my upbringing, my profession, my understanding of the world, and of my life. Call it a midlife crisis or whatnot: I bought me a Harley, that is, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle! But that was itself just a metaphor, a symbol–about breaking free from the prison of all the “Shalts” and of trying to reclaim my personal power within myself. A lot of other seismic changes were in play and happening.
On the outside, I had made tenure and been promoted to Associate Professor, started taking karate, and started pulling further and further away from our Episcopal church. As an evolutionary biologist (geneticist), my relation with Christendom had always felt tenuous. On the inside, I began journaling and trying to take a real look at my inner-life. Unbeknownst to me then, I had started on a Hero’s journey on both the outside and inside.
As I read Campbell’s words now, my life’s path/journey became clearer, and I realized that my Holy Grail, that great, sacred treasure I was seeking, was my own authentic self, a process psychologist Carl G. Jung referred to as individuation and Abraham Maslow labeled as self-actualization.
Reflecting more on my journey, I was reminded once again of Carlos Castaneda’s quote of his famous teacher, sorcerer, and Yaki Warrior, Don Juan, in his book, The Teachings of Don Juan, and as I quoted in my first book, WindWalker: Journey into Science, Self, and Spirit: “… any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, to dropping it, if that is what your heart tells you….” At age 45 I had dropped the path I was on, the university professor, teacher, and researcher in biochemical and molecular evolutionary genetics. It didn’t have a heart for me. I started down a new path and the one I am still walking.
Campbell remarked in his book that we often can’t see our own hero’s journey until toward the latter part of our lives. Then it all makes sense. We can see how the choices we made, the events that happened to us, the people we met all worked together to help us on our journey. We can see the map, the roads we traveled, and the road signs we were shown: the universe saying, “Go this way,” and opening and closing doors.
A year or so after getting my first Harley, a nice used Sportster that I wrote about in an earlier post, “Harley Resurrection,” I had started up a local chapter of Harley Owners Group (HOG) and served as their director their first year before stepping down. During that year, five of us had decided to go to the famous Sturgis, SD, Harley-Davidson motorcycle rally. By this time, I had moved up to a more roadworthy Harley model. This was 1989 and the Sturgis 50th anniversary. Some 100,000+ Harley bikers, riders, hanger-0ns, and ladies of ill repute were expected to show–and they did. I wrote about this event and my experiences in WindWalker. After a couple of days of the crowds, chaos, and mayhem, one of my companions and I decided to ride off into the sunset to see some more of the beautiful Big Sky country. Driving through the Thunder Basin National Grassland, I had a life-changing enlightenment experience, what I now know is called a unitive experience, that sent my life onto its entirely new spiral, one that was soon lead me to Zen, which continues to be my primary spiritual practice, supplemented with Plains Indian spirituality and shamanism.
Having read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance back as an undergraduate at Texas, after my unitive experience in Wyoming, I picked up another copy and reread it, fascinated by the little bit of Zen he talked about. I came across and ordered a copy of Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane flight to his Rochester Zen Center in New York, for an introductory weekend.
Although there were several other additional experiences during this period, then came my first Harley ride, solo, to Big Bend National Park in desert southwest Texas. A true Hero’s Journey as it turned out in and of itself. Through the years I’ve made several trips back there, with my most recent (April 2022) being by bicycle. From reading Jung’s Red Book about his own journey, I figured out Big Bend and my journeys into it are not only the physical journey’s themselves, but a metaphor for my my journeys into my unconscious Self, a critical part of my individuation process.
Jung realized that in his dreams, the desert also stood for his unconscious. The searing, brilliant sunshine of day, his conscious. The night with its stars, moon, and demons, his unconscious. So too mine I now realize. It is here I met my Shadow, Bandido, and his dragon sidekick, Chaos, both of which I write about in Guru on the Mountain. Bandido is the dragon keeper.
Metaphorically, these trips represented me working through my unconscious Shadow material and issues, in my own process of Individuation. As the Hero in this tale, it is the dragon I must ‘slay’ in order to get to the Holy Grail, my self-actualized ‘treasure,’ my authentic self. According to Campbell, each of her scales is labeled with a “Thou Shalt!” I would add an addendum, “Thou Shalt NOT!” which is what I mainly grew up with. I rather hope to make Chaos a pet or friend, more like, perhaps, Puff the Magic Dragon of the ’60’s folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. I have Bandido to help me. He is like my Tonto to the Lone Ranger, except that he often forgets and thinks that he is the Lone Ranger.
The desert of Big Bend continually call to me like a Siren’s Song. Its sweet music, the Desert Wind, sings to me across time and distance still. Calling me to come once again, one last time. In the past, she has called me to let go of those parts of myself which no longer serve me or never did, or to let go of the shit from my childhood, to let those parts die. This time is she calling me into her Great Stillness for my own death?
Having just returned last May from my attempted bicycle tour across that desert, I am now contemplating at 75, taking a last Harley ride out there and into it. It’s 1500 miles just to get there! Then another 1500 miles of course to get back home. Am I really up to such a ride at this age? The symmetry of my first and last journeys out there being on a Harley appeals to me. This time though, I would be camping and cooking all the way for financial reasons. Granted, I have all the skills, equipment and experience, and I’m a good cook. I have the same model of Harley, a Heritage Softail Classic. Unlike my original 1993 model back then, this newer 2017 model has cruise control, gas gauge, and anti lock brakes–it is still an old man riding it this time though, not some 45 year old youngster like the first time!
So, on these cold winter days, I am pondering, do I or don’t I?–a last Harley ride to Big Bend. Even as I make plans for this years spring and summer gardens, this last Big Bend trip would be in the fall. Maybe I can catch the Terlingua International Chili Festival again! Although it was really cold when I was out there in 2019 in my truck. A vicious and early cold front had blown in. God, I would have hated to be out in that cold wind on a Harley! Holy Shit!