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Midlife and the Shaman/Trickster

An Interview with Allan Chinen

Copyright © 1994 by Bert H. Hoff

This story appeared in the January, 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

The fairy tales our parents never told us. Cinderella? Peter Pan? Hero tales? We've all thought about how those tales seem to fit our life. Cinderella marries Prince Charming, only to find he's Peter Pan. Our lives don't seem heroic any more. But there are a whole lot of other tales we haven't heard. Tales of mid-life, that talk about gender role-reversal, loss of magic in our lives, our awareness of our mortality as we move into mid-life. Maybe the shaman/trickster is a more clever survivor than the hero, after all. Intrigued? Read on!

At the Mendocino conference last summer, several men pointed out a quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken man and said I needed to read his book, Once Upon a Midlife. They were right. That man was Dr. Allan Chinen, a psychotherapist from San Francisco. He mentioned he was coming out with a new book, Beyond the Hero, that would talk about a Shaman/Trickster archetype older and deeper than the Hero, the Warrior or the King. After I read his books I called him to talk about his ideas.

Allan Chinen
Allan Chinen

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Bert: Why explore fairy tales?

Allan: There are several reasons. Fairy tales are folk tales that have been handed down over centuries, so that they contain the distilled experience of many generations. Fairy tales are also not meant to be believed, so they can say the unspeakable, the repressed or intolerable in society. They're like dreams. They bring up what we don't want to look at. They force us to face truths that we might ordinarily overlook.

They also contrast with myths, which are the prevailing ideology. So fairy tales are more iconoclastic and bring up much different points than myths do.


Bert: Perhaps you could tell us about how you first got into fairy tales.

Allan: That was kind of strange. It started over ten years ago, when I would be jogging, or meditating, or walking on a beach, or hiking. I got vivid images which I realized were the endings of stories. It seemed like I needed to write the stories, rather than interpret the images. So I sat down and wrote out these stories, about how the people in the images ended up in that situation. They turned out to be fairy tales. But all the protagonists turned out to be middle aged or older. I thought, "This is very strange, I've never read any fairy tales except about children or adolescents!"

Bert: My wife Bernetta's father used to make up stories for her, about what happened to Cinderella and Prince Charming after they were married.

Allan: Is that right? So he made them up himself, then. That's amazing. It's neat that your father-in-law did that.

I thought that if I had come up with these stories, then perhaps other people, like your wife's father, might have. I just started looking through fairy tale collections, and I found them.


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Once Upon a Midlife
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Bert: The tales you're talking about, I take it, are the "middle tales" that appear in Once Upon a Midlife. Can you tell us what the "middle tales" are?

Allan: I started looking at the tales, and I noticed that they fell in two groups; one where the people were old, and one where the people were middle-aged. Basically, they were no longer referred to as young, but they weren't called old. That meant that either they were married, or they had a job, or both. A sub-set of the middle tales were specifically about men at midlife. They dealt mainly with the masculine, and not so much with women and the feminine. Those are brought out in my other book, Beyond the Hero.

Bert: What are the hallmarks of these "middle tales?"

Allan: They show several stages. The first involves settling down in life, adjusting to the fact that you have to work, and that the magic and innocence of youth disappears. Another task is to reverse gender roles, so that men come to terms with their feminine side, and women come to terms with their masculine side. Then they have to renegotiate their relationship. The third one is coming to terms with the dark side of life; with death, evil, tragedy, and the notion that we don't control everything. The young Hero assumes that with enough effort, or wit, or courage, that he can do everything. At midlife, that is eliminated. People get sick. People die. Bad things happen to good people.

Bert: A lot of marriages are breaking up at midlife, after twenty years of being together. What do you suppose is happening, and what do your fairy tales tell us about this?

Allan: It suggests that one partner is developing ahead of the other. And, of course, friction develops between the two. It seems that the couple is no longer compatible. In some cases, that's true. They never really were compatible, and married for the wrong reasons. But in other cases, they're going through a developmental phase. If they hang in there and do their inner work, they can come to a reconciliation at a deeper level. Ideally, that happens to couples at midlife. They go through this turmoil, hang in there, and then reconcile later.

It's a similar situation to teenagers. They have a lot of trouble and don't get along with their parents, but we recognize that this is a temporary stage. The parents hang in there, usually, and find that the teenagers come out of it at the other end. But, of course, with teenagers, not all of them make it through.

Bert: Michael Meade suggests that, rather than being tolerant of teenage boys as they go through their adolescent "red phase," we lock them up or let them kill each other.

Allan: Which is a mistake. We don't give them the initiation experience they need at that stage.

Bert: What are the kinds of things the social structure could have, that would give support to marriages at this stage?

Allan: One is what the women's movement and men's movement are doing. Creating a place where women can get together without men, and men can get together without women, so that they can work on things apart from each other. That, of course, is what traditional, aboriginal societies do. They have men's secret societies for mature men, and women's secret societies for mature women, so that you get the support of peers. When you separate you can sort things out, what's projection in the relationship and what's not.

Bert: That brings up another theme in your first book, that the midlife crises of men and women are quite different. Women are moving toward emancipation, and men are moving into a crisis and descent phase.

Allan: That's true for people who have grown up in traditional roles, when men have been assertive and in the Hero role and women have been in the nurturing role. At midlife they have to reverse that. At this stage, men take the road of ashes, as Robert Bly calls it, and women taking the road of power, and reaping their power. But there are also stories which show, for men who haven't done the Hero part in youth, that you have to do that in midlife, to reclaim their power. Women who haven't reclaimed their nurturing side need to do that in midlife. Unconventional men, what Bly would call "soft males," have to do the Hero part in midlife, and unconventional women, like career women, have to do the nurturing part.

Bert: That's fascinating! Every once in a while I talk on gender issues at The Evergreen State College, a state alternative four-year institution. What I see there is women into feminism are assertive and claiming their own role, and men are showing their nurturing side, working very hard to show that they reject the patriarchy. What you're suggesting is that these young people are going to have exactly the reverse process at middle age than what's coming up for my wife and me.

Allan: Exactly. The major theme is balance, no matter where you start from. Young people think they're going to skip the midlife crisis. They won't, they'll just have a different one.

Bert: The loss of magic, the first theme you got into, really started to get into something fascinating for me, about creativity. The creativity of fire, where a melody line would jump whole into Mozart's mind, contrasted to the sculpted creativity.

Allan: That was a sobering theme for me to come across, where the elves in the first story in my book stop making the shoes and the cobbler has to do his own work. The creativity of fire changes into a creativity that requires a lot of revision. I certainly found that to be true in my own writing. Very often, images would spring full-blown in my mind with a story. But now, of course, I have to go through thirty revisions.

Bert: You also brought out another aspect of this, about shifting from intelligence, in the abstract, where things are black and white, to a wisdom grounded in concrete thinking and rejection of the either/or.

Allan: It's typical of young men to gravitate towards abstract thinking. Famous mathematicians, for example, do their great work in their early twenties. If they don't do it by then, it's too late. There is a shift in midlife towards much more practical problem-solving, not as abstract and often not as rigid. Young men, and this was certainly true for me, would gravitate towards abstract principles and truths. At midlife you give up all that, and focus on solutions to particular problems.

This is a gender trend. It's quite different for women, because there isn't the social focus, education, or emphasis on abstract, ethical, rigid principles for women as there is for men. They often start by being practical, and at midlife they focus on universal themes.

Bert: In my own case, I started college as a chemistry major, because I wanted definite answers to the abstract, but then I ran across things like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and some of the new chemistry concepts, where there didn't seem to be definite answers. So I switched to philosophy, and then history, to explore general themes.

Allan: That's typical of the male career. Alfred North Whitehead started off as a mathematician, then became a philosopher in midlife. William James started out as a physician, became a psychologist at midlife, and finally became a philosopher. This was a shift from the more abstract to more practical, human concerns.

Bert: This shift to more practical thinking can sometimes be misunderstood as focusing only on practical thinking. But you brought out in your book that this is a combination of abstract thinking illustrated with practical examples.

Allan: This actually represents a shift in thinking in cognitive psychology research in aging. We used to think that as people got older they got more stupid, losing their abstract thinking. Now we realizing that they are steering away from abstract thinking as a matter of choice. Older people don't do as well on paper-and-pencil tests, but that's because they don't care as much. They are actually more flexible in how they think than people who focus only on abstract thought. That's very reassuring for us as we grow older!

Bert: Another theme you brought out is that loss of magic is tied to a development of generativity.

Allan: Eric Erickson was the one who coined the term. Basically, this is an attitude of teaching and nurturing the next generation, whether it's your own children, your students, or apprentices, or someone younger. It could also be someone you are mentoring. The stories about the loss of magic show that magic doesn't actually disappear, it changes from receiving things when we are young to giving them to other people. When we're young we take from parents, teachers and mentors. Then at midlife we switch roles and start giving it back. In a way, that's a nice definition of midlife, when you switch from receiving to giving gifts.

Bert: You're suggesting something else from another theme, that once a person is wounded, and deals with the pain and suffering from the wound, they can be a healer.

Allan: I hadn't thought of that. That's a good point. When you finally experience the wound, and receiving the blow, you can then turn to giving healing away. That's nice. Young people generally ignore or repress the wound.

Bert: You also talk about a mutually fostering relationship between death and generativity.

Allan: At some time, typically at midlife, people come to a realization that they're going to die. Friends die, or parents die. This brings an urgency to the question of what are you going to do with your life. For most people this comes up in terms of leaving a legacy or helping other people, helping their children or students, to pass something on so that if the individual dies, at least a gift of them will endure. As Jung put it, returning to society what society gave to you as a gift. Sometimes this is egotistical, as where a person wants his name on a wing of a hospital or a library, but for most people I think it's an issue of generativity. They want the wing of the hospital, but they don't care if their name is on it.

Bert: One of your themes is the shift away from black-and-white thinking. Your tales begin to bring out accepting the evil the world and the evil in me as an ordinary part of life and a normal part of me.


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Allan: It's a major shift in thinking, from the black and white to the gray. In the black and white thinking of young people, they say, "I'm white and pure, and they are black and evil." In midlife they realize, "Oh my God, I'm gray, with black and white in me, and that person has it, too.!" This gives rise to a much more tolerant attitude. That appears in men's tales, too, in the emergence of the Trickster who is tolerant of the foiables of people. The Hero, of course, is not tolerant. He goes out and slays the evil.

Bert: The whole theme comes up in Star Wars, which I think may be one of the best modern myths made. Luke Skywalker has to realize, as he is being trained by Yoda, that the evil that he is fighting is the evil of himself. The he finds out that Darth Vader, whom he's fighting, is his father. He sprang from evil.

Allan: Exactly. And he has to realize that his father turned to evil. He had to face the fact that evil comes from a wound, and that his father was not strong enough to face up to the evil emperor. That realization comes from his wound, too, when Luke has his hand chopped off.

Bert: You also bring out the real importance of humor. What do you see as the role of humor in our life process?

Allan: I see several roles, especially at midlife. One is to learn to laugh at ourselves, not to take ourselves too seriously. Young people take themselves very seriously. Everything is life or death. What they're doing is the most important thing. At midlife we have to realize that we have to take things with a grain of salt. If we don't detach ourselves from our projects and our selves, then it becomes tragic since ultimately we'll die.

Humor also helps sublimate aggression and anger. There are so many frustrations at midlife, if you don't learn to laugh, you'll just blow up. Humor is very healing, too. Laughter itself can help cure disease in a physical way, and certainly it can psychologically too. Norman Cousins laughed himself to health.

Bert: One of the things that you're suggesting here is that people in roles of responsibility need to be able to laugh at themselves.

Allan: Exactly, because otherwise they become too attached to what they're doing and take themselves too seriously, and they become tyrants. They come to believe that they know the one answer. When you can poke fun of yourself and say that your idea is ridiculous, then you are open to seeing that maybe other people have a better idea. I think that this was the importance of having a jester at the king's court. We don't seem to have that, these days.

Bert: Some might suggest that we have had the jester, but he's been in the President's chair, instead of next to it!

Allan: The present one is less of a Hero, and more of a Trickster, a communicator rather than a conqueror.

Bert: There were two images that came up for yourself in Once Upon a Midlife. One was your Lord of Darkness story. When you peered into the room to look at the strange glow, the Lord of Darkness moved his body to block the light, as if to protect you from it. In the other one you were janitor in the temple. You warned the visitors not to look on the relic in the inner temple unless they were prepared. They did anyway, and were dissolved.

Allan: The Lord of Darkness image came up for me as I was dealing with traumatic events in my childhood. I was following the usual pattern that if young people don't deal with that, or don't remember that, it comes up for them again at midlife. The janitor story emphasizes that the power of the inner life can be dangerous if it is not approached in the right way. It has the power to heal, but it can also kill. It has the power to create, but it can also destroy. The janitor story was funny, because it is humbling to find out at midlife that our place is to be the janitor and not the king. The relic is the source of the power, not us.

Bert: I find it interesting that you had these archetypal images come to your mind before Raiders of the Lost Ark came out.

Allan: I was surprised at that. But the rule I follow is that if I have an image, then many other people may have had it through the years as well.

Bert: The ideas that were coming up for me when you were talking about that bright light was from Robert Bly and Marion Woodman's discussion of the Firebird in the On Men and Women videotape series. They talk about our ability to accept the intensity of the firebird. Marion Woodman elaborated more on this theme in the interview in our last issue. Yeats, for example, was burned up by the intensity of the creative spirit.

Allan: Like Icarus flying too close to the sun. I think this is typical of young people. A great comment I heard for people who meditate and get carried away by great visions is, "Too much energy. You need to eat meat and potatoes.!" You need to do this to get grounded.

Bert: The theme that you stressed in Once Upon a Midlife was this Odyssey from the Tree of Knowledge to the Tree of Life.

Allan: The stories follow a general sequence. They start off with the loss of innocence, the loss of magic. This is equivalent to eating from the Tree of Knowledge. When we gain self-awareness and reflection, a lot of the beliefs we have as young people or children disappear. We realize they aren't true, and we realize how much work and trouble there is in the world.

Then at the very end of the sequence the stories show people coming into contact with an inner source of great creativity and healing. Initially, this may take on a demonic appearance, but behind this is a vital life, like the Lord of Darkness in my image. And that's the Tree of Life, I think. It gives us access to the unconscious, the psyche, which provides creativity and healing.

Bert: And in a traditional Jungian view that stresses individuation rather than playing roles, in midlife we're in the process of finding out, "This is who I am; this is where I stand. This is how I fit into the world."

Allan: Exactly. We're recognizing that the roles are just roles, and that there's a true inner being that's different from the roles.

Bert: In moving from Once Upon a Midlife to Beyond the Hero we move from "middle tales" to men's tales. What's the connection between the two?

Allan: Men's tales are a subset of the "middle tales," which focus on men dealing with a masculine force in life, for developing the deep masculinity and moving beyond conventional male roles.

Bert: Do you think it's important for women to read Beyond the Hero?

Allan: Yes, I think it is, because it portrays not just men's development, but the masculine principle itself. It shows that the masculine is not the same as the patriarchal. Women often confuse the two. There is a masculine energy that is older and different from the Hero and Patriarch. It also helps women understand what men need to do to develop, when they can help, and when they have to just wait.

Bert: One of the things that Marion Woodman brought up in the interview we published last month was that women complain about the patriarchy, but often for them the inner masculine is a greater tyrant.

Allan: Exactly. Women also need to have alternative images to the tyrant Patriarch for the masculine role.

Bert: For their own internal masculine as well as for the men they live with.

Allan: Exactly. It's often easy for women to project their inner masculine to the outside and say it's all men's fault, and not address their inner tyrant.

Bert: How do you see your book fitting in with women's spirituality, books like Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run with the Wolves and Marion Woodman's work?

Allan: In several ways. One is that my book is the male complement to their exploration of the deep feminine. I'm currently working on a book about women's tales. These tales clearly show that women need a man, at the end, who is able to recognize their worth and accept them. Women have to have men develop also, if they are to develop. Beyond the Hero is an attempt to help both men and women to get beyond the Hero and Patriarch roles and enter a new, deeper, richer and more egalitarian relationship.

Bert: And in the breaking out of this patriarchy, you seem to get us into three areas: learning the feminine skills, confronting the shadow, and dealing with the Wild Man.

Allan: I'm struck with how alike these stories are. They show men coming into contact with this ancient, vital male force, but before men can do that they do have to come to terms with the feminine. Getting in touch with the wild, deep masculine is not simply a backlash against feminism, it is actually a growth beyond feminism. But men first have to go through that phase of honoring the Goddess.

They also have to go through the phase of honoring the shadow, coming to terms with the negative side. The Hero and the Patriarch don't do this. They project it out onto other people.

Bert: A thought just crossed my mind, that you are describing Robert Bly's life. One of his earlier poetry books, Sleepers Joining Hands, has a fifteen page essay that may be the best short essay I've seen about the Goddess. I suppose that was the start of his work with the Great Mother conferences. A few years later he came out with A Little Book on the Human Shadow. Two years later he published Iron John, about getting in touch with the Wild Man.

Allan: That's interesting. I hadn't realized the succession of his writing. His life certainly demonstrates that. He dealt with the Goddess and the feminine, then the shadow, then the deep masculine. Carl Jung also went through the same thing. First the animus appears, then the shadow, then Philemon, the inner guide, appears. But Jung never wrote much about the Trickster. It might have hit a little to close to home for him.

Bert: Wasn't he Trickster? I heard the tale that someone would come in and say, "I've been fired from my job." Jung would reply, "That's absolutely wonderful news!" Someone would come in and say they got a promotion. Jung would reply, "That's terrible! But if we stick together, somehow we'll get through this."

Allan: That is the Trickster. Saying exactly the opposite of what you would expect, but exactly what you needed. Perhaps one reason Jung didn't write more about the Trickster was that the available folklore about the Trickster at that time showed the Trickster mainly as a juvenile delinquent character, a negative, shadowy kind of character. It would be hard to write about that. But now, with more complete research into folklore, the Trickster comes out as a much more positive figure.

Bert: In The Magician Within Robert Moore describes the Trickster as juvenile.

Allan: I think we differ on the view of the Shaman/Trickster. He focuses on the Warrior and the King as primary archetypes. I focus on the Shaman/Trickster as the primordial, original archetype.

Bert: I'd like to discuss the Trickster in a bit, but I'm still at the three stages before the Trickster. You describe all of these as initiations. I find this a fascinating concept, that there is not just one initiation, but a series of initiations through life, that aboriginal cultures have recognized.

Allan: Yes. I was surprised to find that. What is better known is the male puberty initiation. I was astounded to discover that most cultures have other rituals for initiating men into higher orders as they pass through life, often at midlife or later. That's something that isn't well publicized, but I think it's crucial. Some cultures have men being initiated into service of the Goddess first, then into manhood later.

Bert: Do you remember the sequence that Martín Prechtel, the Mayan shaman at the Mendocino conference described? You are not a man when you are a warrior. That's where they put the adolescents. Then you reach a stage when you are mature enough to have children. You are initiated in your late twenties or thirties into being a husband and a father. Then, he says, the greatest thing is when you get older, and become initiated into being the "echo man." The "echo man" has integrated all these parts, and is to mirror back into society all the wisdom of all the echo men and the ancestors who gone beyond.

Allan: That is a dramatic illustration. Don't you think it's a good pun, too, as in "eco-man," a man who now fits unto nature?

Bert: This ties into a quote in your book, that "we are looking for a masculine fierceness, a fierceness that avoids warfare, honors the feminine, and recognizes the balance of nature."

Allan: Yes. I think of the Shaman/Trickster, because he comes from a hunting culture which is very ecological.

Bert: Could you talk about the Trickster as being an older archetype?

Allan: I present the Trickster as an older, deeper archetype than the Hero, the Patriarch or the Warrior. I like to emphasize not just the Trickster, but the Shaman/Trickster, because Trickster is pejorative in connotation, but the Shaman is more positive. So I link the two together. And certainly you can see that the Shaman/Trickster appears in the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings, about 18,000 or 20,000 years ago. Warriors don't appear until about 9,000 years ago. Kings appeared even later. It appears historically that the Shaman/Trickster came a lot earlier, perhaps even before the cave painters appeared. The Shaman/Trickster is closely tied to hunting, and hunting and gathering were the origin of human society, maybe 50,000 years ago. The Warrior and the King are possible only after the development of cities.

Bert: Where do the matriarchal, matrilineal and partnership cultures of Rene Eisner, author of The Chalice and the Blade, fit in?

Allan: I believe they are associated with the early Neolithic period, not the ancient Paleolithic. In the Neolithic you find the invention of agriculture, which allowed settlements and villages to appear. The original hunter/gatherers in the Paleolithic, where the Shaman/Tricksters appeared were nomadic. They traveled from place to place. It's when you settle down and grow things that fertility becomes crucial, so that the mother and feminine become important, and the Mother/Goddess becomes paramount. But then I think they were eclipsed as we got more and more population, and war appeared. Systematic fighting was invented. In that situation, men were valued because they were warriors, and the Goddess was replaced or eclipsed by the Warrior as a God. And, of course, the warrior chief, who was the King.

Bert: So we move from agriculture to the need to acquire and protect property.

Allan: Yes. Think of the greed for more and more property, which, of course nomadic hunters don't have. If you have to carry everything you own, you don't want to carry a lot.

Bert: The treasures are within, because your brain isn't any heavier when you carry knowledge and wisdom.

Allan: Yes. You have to have the skill to know when to hunt, where to hunt, what to hunt, and what animals not to hunt.

Bert: One of the themes that you hear is that if only we were back in the Goddess culture all would be well. But Joseph Campbell pointed out something I though was fascinating. It was only that we move into the vegetative culture that human sacrifice originated. With the focus on birth, death and renewal, for the first time our religious practice was to deliberately kill someone to spread his blood.

Allan: I think that's an important point. In praising Goddess cultures we often forget the shadow side of the Goddess. Particularly, men were often sacrificed.

Bert: We keep on hearing about the sacrifice of the virgin.

Allan: That seems more typical of patriarchal cultures, which arose after the Goddess cultures. The old Goddess cultures have more stories about the young male husband who is killed to guarantee the fertility of the fields.

Bert: Or the concept that as soon as the King lost his generativity, and could no longer produce twenty offspring through as many wives, he had to be killed so there could be a new king. It doesn't sound like much of a retirement plan for kings!

Allan: No. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Bert: You speak of the Trickster as having both a hidden wisdom and a generativity.

Allan: I was surprised to find that. Behind all the all the trickery and foolishness, many Tricksters have a Divine Calling. They were sent specifically by the Creator or Supreme Being in various cultures to make the earth safe for humanity. But, of course, the Trickster forgets. He lies, cheats and steals, and then says, "Oh, my God! I have a mission on earth from the Supreme One!" Then he does his job, but then he forgets again. Later, again, he says, "Oh, my God! I forgot, I have this mission!"

Bert: Do you remember what Malidoma Somé told us at Mendocino about what initiation was for his people? He said we all have a purpose of life. The medicine man would talk at the mother's womb before the child was born, to find out that child's purpose, and then name the child. The purpose of adolescent initiation is to help us remember what it is we came here to do. Are you suggesting that the Creator forgot to initiate the Trickster, and the Trickster forgot why he was here?

Allan: It could be that the Trickster was initiated, but forgot anyway. Even after initiation, we don't always remember what it is we're supposed to do.

Bert: You also talk about the Shaman/Trickster as a teacher.

Allan: I was flabbergasted by these stories from around the world, that show men at midlife taking the road of ashes and being all alone and abandoned. Then the Trickster comes up, and becomes a companion and teacher, although often appears as a pest at first. He later reveals that he really is a teacher. I thought that was astonishing, but also quite reassuring for men struggling at midlife.

Bert: Then, on the shadow side, perhaps you can tell us about the dream you described in your book where you were hanging by your fingertips on the edge of the world. The Trickster came along and stomped on your fingers, and you fell.

Allan: Oh, yes. It was a vision, rather than a dream. It was quite dramatic, a series of images over many months. In this one I was following a stranger who was leading me on a journey. He led me to a wilderness where there was no food, so I was starving after a few days. Then he appeared and led me to an underground place where there was a banquet, so I started eating. Then it turned out that all the food was human body parts. It was a cannibal feast. I was absolutely horrified. I tried to run away. That's when I fell into a hole that went all the way down. It didn't seem like there was any end. I was just holding onto the edge of the hole with my fingertips. Then the stranger reappeared and stepped on my fingers, forcing me to let go. Of course, I was terrified. I dropped into the hole. I fell and fell and fell, then burst out into another world. The image that came up was just amazing. I felt I had been running around on the inside of a planet, and broke out finally into the outer world. This outside surface was a luminous realm.

Bert: This brings to mind the Rumi poem, "I was knock, knock, knocking on the door, then I discovered that I was already on the inside."

Then there is this whole other concept of spirit brother. In one of your stories Brother Lustig turns out to be good friends with St. Peter, who is a spirit brother. What does this mean for men being brothers in the spirit?

Allan: There are two main themes. One is the inner spirit brother. Jung had his Philemon. Dante had his Virgil. Then there is the outer spirit brother. I think the men's movement provides that, for example at the Mendocino conference, where there is a fraternity that is spiritual now. For young men, the fraternity is based on finding a common enemy, or stealing and drinking as a gang. But a mature, spiritual brotherhood the focus is on exploring things together, not conquering together or fighting a common enemy.

Bert: There's another implication in working together. The part of me that connects with you needs to be the part of me that is spirit, connecting with your spirit, as opposed to asking you what you do for a living.

Allan: That's a nice way to put it. The connection is through spirit, not something more material.

Bert: I wonder what the readers' reactions are going to be when they discover the aspects of the Divine Trickster you bring out when you describe the Holy Ghost as a Holy Fool.

Allan: Or a Holy Trickster. I was blown away by that. How could the Holy Spirit, one of the most sacred parts of the Christian tradition turn out to be the Trickster? But the parallels are so astonishing, I thought, that they cannot be ignored. It certainly comes up in the myth of Parsifal and the Holy Grail. In some versions, the Holy Ghost acts as a Trickster leading Parsifal on and helping him.

The major theme would be that the Holy Ghost serves the same function and has the same characteristics as the Shaman/Trickster. The Trickster typically is a communicator, bridging the gap between God and humanity. But that's exactly what the Holy Ghost does in Protestant traditions, bringing the revelations of God to us and guiding us. In aboriginal cultures the Trickster is also usually the one who brings fire, language and essential human customs that are the foundation of civilization. In Christian theology, the Holy Ghost is identified with logos, the Word, or language. It is also usually portrayed as fire, either fire descending from heaven or the fire of the Eucharist. In Christian tradition the Holy Ghost is considered the founder of the Christian church. At Pentecost the Holy Ghost descended and inspired the Apostles.

One of the basic functions that the Holy Ghost plays is to mediate between father and son. In aboriginal cultures the Trickster connects the father with the son. In the Christian tradition that's what the Holy Ghost is, the consubstantium, the common substance that embodies us.

Bert: So now we're in the realm of healing the father-son would.

Allan: Exactly. And the Trickster does that, or allows that to occur.

Bert: And all of this work, moving through the feminine and the Wild Man and developing the Trickster, brings us into a deep masculine. Then, according to your saga, we turn to the feminine in everyday life.

Allan: The whole point of initiation is always a return to society, to bring back the treasures of the initiation to everybody else. I think it's important to recognize that the men's movement is not an end, where men stay by themselves and women stay by themselves. It a way of coming back together.

Bert: You also speak of a midlife calling. Is that something that comes to us when we've done all this other work?

Allan: Yes. But it's also a big part of what makes men start to feel restless at midlife. this is the urging of the calling, a reminder that they have a mission.

Bert: What would the midlife calling be, and how would that be different from the adventure and the mission that we take on to do as a life career, say, when we get out of college?

Allan: The youthful ambition, goal, dream or mission is usually specific and idealistic, like becoming a healer. There is often also an egocentric element, like becoming the most famous writer, or a great warrior, or a wealthy businessman. But the midlife calling is much more indefinite, not tied to a specific thing. The tale "Go I Know Not Whither" sums this up in the title. Go I know not whither, and bring back I know not what. That turns out to be the basic call to men at midlife.

The summons for youth is also a way for youth to enter society, to adopt social conventions. The summons for men at midlife is to abandon those.

Bert: So you began wanting to be the great healer and the world's best physician, and the world's best psychiatrist?

Allan: Partly that, and also wanting to write a best seller. But that's not so important now.

Bert: What has replaced that? What's important now, from your midlife perspective?

Allan: One of them is to bring out the treasures in these stories, which is a Trickster function of communicating. It feels like I stumbled upon these stories quite by accident. It certainly wasn't anything I had planned or thought about. It felt like the Trickster led me to this treasure trove in the forest, and told me that one of my tasks is to remind people that these are here, that they belong to everyone, and they have incredible wisdom in them. It's been amazing to find these stories, especially about the Trickster in men, and seeing these stories personally, in the men I work with as a therapist.

Related stories:

 Once Upon a Midlife, book review of another book by Allen Chinen

 Beyond the Hero, book review of another book by Allen Chinen

More interviews

Men, Spirit, Soul and Shadow

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