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The Hero's Journey Part 3:

Tracking the Trickster

"The Trickster is the master of initiation . . ."

Allan B. Chinen, M.D.

Beyond the Hero

Just in time, our cultural understanding of the Trickster is undergoing something of a transformation.  Traditionally identified as little more than a scoundrel, increasingly the Trickster today is being recognized as a primary initiatory force in the journey toward psychological maturity. In story, when the hard-charging, super-serious, straight-shooting Warrior Hero lands in the baffling, serpentine terrain of the Underworld, he or she finds in short order that to survive he or she needs a whole new set of skills. With luck, what he or she also finds is a Trickster.

BAGGER VANCE: "The trick is to find your swing."
JUNUH: "What did you say?!?"
BAGGER VANCE: "Well you done lost your swing.
We got to go find it."      

The Legend of Bagger Vance

In story, trickster-like roles have tended to be played by ghosts; gods; talking animals, plants, and non-human creatures; holy people; boundary-crossing outsiders and "undesirables;" drunks; dark-skinned people; non-heterosexuals; the mentally unstable; women; and even children -- all beings that are easy for any self-respecting white, male Warrior Hero to dismiss. This makes sense, since for a good stretch of history, Heroes were imagined as white and male. Thankfully, storytelling is changing. Still, because the Trickster must often badger, aggravate, or trick the Hero into engaging with the mind-bending tasks of the Second Initiation, the Hero quickly finds ample reason to dislike that character. Nevertheless, if the Hero makes it through the Underworld, it's a pretty good bet that Trickster imprint is all over the story. 

There once was a farmer who had a horse.  

The horse ran away, and the neighbor said,

"How sad!"

The horse returned with a dozen feral mares,

And the neighbor said, 

"What luck!"

The farmer's son fell off a wild mare and broke his leg,

And the neighbor said,

"How sad!"

Then the kings men skipped over the son with the broken leg when they came to collect new conscripts.

And the neighbor said, 

"What luck!"

2000+ year-old story from the Taoist tradition

Although in story, Tricksters are often presented as characters, we must remember that the Trickster is an archetype or pattern of behavior. The evolved archetypal Trickster of story can embody wisdom and ability beyond human. In our journey through real life, however, populated with humans who may act like tricksters, we usually need to think in terms of trickster energy or trickster strategies instead. The 2000+ year-old story above reminds us that we never really know whether an event will work for good or ill. The task of the archetypal Trickster is to help the archetypal Hero learn to see new possibilities and create new, more flexible habits of thought. Human heroes, however, must learn to watch for such lessons in life events. 

THOR (after finally thinking strategically enough to out-maneuver his Trickster brother Loki):

“Life is about growth and change. But you, my dear god of mischief brother, just want to stay the same.”

Thor Ragnarok

At their best, human teachers and counselors use trickster-like techniques to help us make leaps of consciousness. The "wise" King Solomon famously tricked two of his subjects into revealing the truth about the parentage of a baby. TV's Lieutenant Columbo routinely tricked bad guys into under-estimating his considerable ability to connect the dots. We often use tricks on our own brains to outsmart unwanted habits or learn something new. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the thought that the malicious actions of a self-centered, ill-intentioned, un-evolved trickster can also turn out to be beneficial, particularly if the trick motivates the Hero to be more discerning, precise, compassionate, or creative. Think of Bilbo engaging in a game of riddles with Gollum. Or of the beautiful Scheherazade thwarting her husband's murderous plans by making up a hundred and one Arabian tales and delivering one each night as a cliff-hanger.

DAN: "You're out of your mind!"

SOCRATES: "And it's taken me a lifetime of practice."

The Peaceful Warrior

the movie based on the book by Dan Millman

Just for fun, we might ask ourselves what we should make of the observation that, today, Trickster energy - mischievous and disrupting - is emanating from so many directions. We are being bombarded by Trickster antics as never before from very public arenas, including politics, government, and late-night TV. It seems appropriate to ask:  Why us? And why now?  Could it be that we are somehow calling forth in-your-face, big-screen examples of Trickster strategy because Trickster wisdom is exactly what we need in order to survive some impending cultural disaster?


Jon Stewart
The Daily Show

Fortunately, the search for 21st century Trickster wisdom is already underway. Take, for example, our newly invigorated investigation of the human brain and mind. As David Williams, author of The Trickster Brain: Neuroscience, Evolution, and Narrative, points out, we are discovering that, like the Trickster, our very own brains are both miraculous and contradictory. It is said that there are more synapses in our brain than there are stars in our galaxy. However, when we get lost in that miraculous and intricate web of operations, we are vulnerable to becoming stuck in debilitating feedback loops that can manifest in ways that feel as dark and fearsome as Underworld monsters. Such a predicament is certainly bad enough. However, it could be said that, not only individuals, but also institutions and large swaths of population are capable of losing their collective way in this Dark Wood.

"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."         

Opening quote from The Big Short
falsely attributed to Mark Twain,
in true Trickster fashion. 

At the same time, we are discovering that, also like the Trickster, we are by nature shapeshifters. The very same human brain that is vulnerable and contradictory - the brain we once thought was set in stone by early childhood - is capable of profound healing and self-transformation. The "trick" is to activate those miraculous, healing aspects.


So. . . how would we do that?

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