The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Dynamic Sphere

About twenty-five years ago, teaching writing at UCLA, I suggested that students might profit by considering themselves characters in a story they were writing. To my surprise, when they did this, problems previously intractable began to ease. What the heck? I thought. Researching, I re-connected with Joseph Campbell's writing on the Hero's Journey, a pan-cultural syntax underlying a vast amount of storytelling around the world. While specifically masculine, the essence of the pattern seemed to be applicable to all human beings of whatever gender, culture, or orientation.

While not some absolute truth, to be frank, it came closer to a common agreement about the basic pattern of human life than anything I'd ever seen. I remember a woman at Clarion asking if there was a female version of it. While I've coached countless women through the HJ, that was indeed an interesting challenge, and on my way home I came up with what might be called a non-linear story structure, focusing on the way the elements interact rather than their sequence. While this isn't exactly right, in honesty the question really seems kind of like: "is there a female way up that mountain?" I'm sure that there are perspectives that suggest that men and women climb different mountains, or that men climb mountains while women cultivate valleys, or some such, but I think those perspectives try to make entirely too much of the differences, and ignore the similarities between male and female. Babies and old people look very much alike. It is only in the heat of sexual differentiation that all of this "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" ain't-we-aliens to each other stuff makes much sense to me.

At any rate, after testing this perspective with the original Lifewriting workshops, I began to apply the pattern both to my writing and my life, with happy results. As time passed, I asked myself the question, "well, if it's the Hero's Journey, who the hell is the Hero? WHAT is a Hero?" And the "Hero" seemed to me to be a human being passing between birth and death, trying to live his/her life with integrity, courage, compassion and joy.

A human being, then. Well, what is a human being? I looked for the most complete model of human existence in the world, and settled upon the Yogic Chakras: six thousand years old, and I'd implanted its awareness deep in my psyche through thousands of hours of yoga practice. And the Chakras basically said that we move from "lower" animal instincts (survival, comfort, sex) up to emotional flowering, enhanced honesty and perception, and finally acceptance of the transitory nature of existence and the search for meaning. Looked good to me, and seemed to correspond with what Maslow said of our lives.

I now had an X and Y axes. Applying this to my writing, it became possible to start at any point, with any character or situation, and glimpse the entire structure of a story (not necessarily a GOOD story, though..!) And further, the Hero's Journey seemed to be the path BETWEEN different levels of the Chakras--that is, that completing one cycle raised you to a higher level in your life, but the journey simply began anew. Kewl.

And there it sat for another eight years, until Scott Sonnon crossed my path. He was introduced to me by Dr. Eric Cobb, who claimed Scott's physical motion was unnaturally advanced. Ordering a couple of Scott's videos, I had to agree. But more interesting was the fact that he was clearly a synthesizer who had experienced perceptual breakthroughs through long, preternaturally intense physical training and intellectual study. And those pinhole breakthroughs let him glimpse a reality beyond words, that he has been trying to express in various writings and programs ever since. At least...that was the way I interpreted it.

The core of what he was doing, to me, was his "Be Breathed" program and an audio/video program called the "Flow State Performance Spiral." In combination, they were extraordinary, at least for me. I listened to the FSPS audio about fifty times, stunned by what I was hearing: he was describing a process of Mastery, where increasing integration of Break, Movement and Structure took you up into the "Zone" while these aspects breaking apart sent you swirling down into the "Abyss." What an athlete tried to do, he said, was to maintain his own integration while disassembling his opponents'. And that the differential between levels of integration, under stress, is what created the psychological time distortion that has often been noted in sparring between master and student: the student moves fast but never "gets there." The master moves slow but is everywhere at once.

Wait a frigging minute. I dug back into my notes and memory, and came up with something that Swift Deer taught his students back in a long-ago lodge. It was about the "Octagonal Mirror," supposedly a structure within the human aura. It samples reality X times per second. The higher the energy of the practitioner, the more frequently it samples. The more it samples, the slower the perceived time.

What? And why does the time distortion effect take place, according to the Russians with whom Scott trained? Because the master's senses are free to notice what is happening in the external world, while the student, concentrating on his collapsing structure (ouch! That hurt! I'm tired! I can't breathe!) isn't noticing the outer world as much. Master samples at 20 times a second. Student samples at 5 times a second. The result? To the master, everything is happening in slow motion. To the student, it is a blur.

I had experienced this often enough to feel the truth. And since the "Be Breathed" technique was a simple, simple way of training yourself to re-integrate under pressure, it had the potential to be a physical stepping-stone to the highest mental state ordinarily associated with athletics. Which meant that even though there were aspects of the body-mind that totally resist being conveyed in language, a student willing to actually implement the physical practice could put their feet on "solid ground"--a nameless place within themselves which would prevent stress from becoming strain.

And if you did that...and exposed yourself simultaneously to stresses in the major arenas of your life (body, career, relationship), and processed the emotional sewage that arises as you confront your demons...then the Hero could proceed along his/her Journey, learning and growing, and every time he completed a cycle, the next level of challenge would arise, and be met with an ascending spiral of centeredness and wisdom...

I was dumbfounded. There was nothing I had ever learned about the human condition that was not a part of this pattern, a three-dimensional sphere composed of these three axes: the Hero's Journey, the Chakras, and the Flow State Performance spiral. Together, they were a wire-frame representation of life more complete than anything I'd ever seen, heard of, or imagined...and at the same time it was nothing special at all. It seemed the core of every teaching in the world, and I was flabberghasted that it had taken me so long to see it.

Apply this to writing and plot, characterization and poetics become crystal clear. Apply it to life, and the cycle of human struggle and existence becomes...well, not crystal clear, but comprehensible. A fantastic, almost unbelievable thing.

That was about seven years ago, and everything since then has just been organization, noting the way different aspects interrelated, and finding more efficient ways to communicate. Because what I needed was testing. I needed to publish my findings, and get feedback from others. Was I hallucinating..?

What has happened since that time merely convinced me that this was ever more powerful than I thought. Let me make it clear: this was not my invention, any more than an explorer "discovers" a mountain. Hell, I didn't even discover it. That sounds like some explorer who ignores that the local natives have been climbing a mountain for centuries before the first European ever saw it, but insists his name goes in the history books. No. This is a matter of a guy who desperately sought truth, and went to teacher after teacher, turning over every flat rock he could find, for decades. My poor teachers must have been so frustrated.

Frustrated because language doesn't hold this truth. But experience DOES. And because I was standing at the crossroads of Campbell, Maslow, Patanjali and nameless Russian body-mind researchers...I finally saw something. And if people were willing to take responsibility for all three aspects of existence, and adapt a simple physical practice to link mind to body...they could feel it for themselves. How long does it take? Well, Six weeks sounds good. 101 days sounds better. Thirty days is a minimum, I figure. You can get your feet wet, glimpse a path hidden in every religion and spiritual path in the world...but often escaping words. There is no language for this. I've danced around it here, and wish to God I could put it more precisely.

By no means am I suggesting this the only, or the best path. I only warrant that it is genuinely a legitimate road up a very real mountain...and the mountain itself is just a metaphor. I could have said valley, or plain, or garden, or something else. Again, words fail. But what this writer, insufficient and humble before the truth of his existence, is trying to convey is very very real indeed. A dynamic sphere of human existence. I see it. It used to spin at the edge of my vision. Now it is almost directly in front of me. I know what's coming next: to step into it. That is...daunting. But it is also life, as it has been for all humanity, all living things, for all of time.

Ready or not, here It comes.


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Althea said...

The only book I've seen the feminine journey described is "Story Structure Architect" by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. She differiniates between the masculine hero's journey and the feminine hero's journey. Pages 73-81 detail the differences.

In short,from page 75, she writes,"the feminine journey is {one} in which the hero gathers the courage to face death, even if only symbolic, and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life."

Sounds like past seven years of my life.

That may sound a lot like the masculine journey, (I'm not doing her book justice) but her Journey chapter makes a lot of sense, and the whole book is worth the read. She has intimate knowledge of myth and dramatic structure. I recommend it.

Tana Yasu said...

So what you're trying to say is:
We are all like the "blue-guy" from The Watchmen (?)

Vince Moore said...

Victoria Lynn Schmidt does a fuller version of The Female Hero's Journey in her book 45 Master Characters. Plus there is The Heroine's Journey by Maureen Murdock. The funny thing about both books is, that while books like The Writer's Journey and The Key and Stealing Fire From The Gods pretty agree on the basic shape and many of the details of The Hero's Journey, the two different authors offer up two radically different heroine's journeys. I can't say what that may say about the journeys of women in general. What I do notice in both books is that different views of sexual politics by the authors does shape what issues are considered important. Especially since Schmidt writes about both the Heroine's and Hero's Journeys.

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B the II said...

A couple other resources (not specifically on the heroine's journey) are:

The Metu Neter by Ra Un Nefer Amen. His volume 1 cross-references Yogic, Yoruba, Hebrew and Egyptian cosmologies using a simple architecture. I forget which chapter (i think 9 after looking on amazon), but he explains the Hero's Journey in the story of Isis and Osiris, whom he calls Ausar and Auset. Great distillation, I'm sure the overlap with Campbell's work is there. If you want to translate the abstract frame into a development process, check out his Tree of Life Meditation System.

Another author to check out is Leonora Leet's book Kabbalah: The Secret Doctrine of the Son. That's a bit 'paranormal' in that it talks about gemantria and stuff. But the first chapter is about creation of the son and might give you some more texture to your wireframe. Also, her book The Kabbalah of the Soul is good, more about the progression of someone on a spiritual journey. For both of the books, amidst the heavy jargon there are some real jewels.

And your mention of 'sampling x times per second' I get. In NLP, the uptime state is all about being completely externally focused. Though NLP's focus is more verbal/emotional than physical (as in martial arts), being able to create a state in one trusts one's own emotional safety enough to fuggetaboutit is a task in both arts (martial and NLP) indeed.

Keep posts like this one coming!