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Wrestling with the Lion

By Dana Gerhardt

lion"Are you the One?" This is the central question of the 1999 science fiction action film, The Matrix. It's what everyone wonders about the moody loner played by Keanu Reeves. By day, he's Thomas Anderson, an unassuming programmer and corporate drone; by night, he's a brilliant computer hacker named Neo. Sentient machines have taken over the Earth, hijacking humans into an alternate reality while draining energy from their slumbering bodies. A few have managed to escape the collective dream. When Neo joins their resistance movement, the rebels wonder if he's the hero the Oracle predicted would appear. Is he the One humanity's been waiting for? Is Neo destined to save mankind? These are serious questions. Surely only movie heroes get asked such questions.

Luckily, the world's fate doesn't rest so heavily on our shoulders. This leaves us time to tweet about the amazing pastrami we just had for lunch. At night, the thoughts drifting into our sleep are of unanswered e-mails, soccer carpools, our dwindling retirement account, and who took our iPod. But occasionally, perhaps when a moonbeam falls just so through the bedroom window, our inner hero is roused. Ancient as Gilgamesh and bold as Hercules, he goes stamping through our dreams. He's the part of our psyche determined to kill the monster, find the magic tree, or do whatever it takes to revitalize the kingdom. By day, we can find him in our horoscope. Just look where Leo resides. In Leo's house, with our Leo planets, and through Leo's ruling light, the Sun, we're called to a special destiny, something only we can do. It's Leo that makes us hope and wonder: Are we the One the world is waiting for?

actor keanu reevesIn The Matrix, Neo has a mentor who believes in him: Morpheus nearly has Neo believing in himself, too, until the Oracle calls our hero's bluff. In her tenement kitchen, this cigarette-smoking, cookie-baking Wise One looks Neo up and down, then takes his hand and says, "But you already know what I'm going to tell you ..." "I'm not the One," Neo replies. She nods her head. "Sorry, kid. You've got the gift. But it looks like you're waiting for something. Your next life, maybe, who knows."

Courageous, creative, confident, and proud are typical keywords for Leo. Doubtful never makes the list. But doubting one's gifts may be as integral to Leo's journey as its pride. We'd rather think of sunny Leo days, swinging our feet from the branch of a shimmering tree, dreaming and believing in our greatness. But over time, Leo's golden road gets splashed with grit and grime. There are goals we didn't achieve, jobs that slipped through our fingers, lovers we failed to excite, plus a dreary pile of chores to perform, tasks that any commoner could do. Maybe we're not so special after all. We visit psychics and astrologers to get re-inspired about our lives; this momentarily cheers us up, then wears off. We're back to feeling average and non-heroic. What good are fortune-tellers anyway?

The Oracle in The Matrix takes the art of fortune-telling to a whole new level. There's a smart twist to her denial of Neo's gifts. He is the One. But she knows that hearing this news from her won't call that talent out of him. "Being the One," says the Oracle, "is like being in love. No one can tell you you're in love; you just know it, through and through, balls to bones." Astrology draws a similar connection, locating both love and heroism in Leo. In fact, so similar are the energies of romance and heroic engagement that people often confuse them. They go to singles bars or draft clever profiles for Match.com, when all they really want is to know that they matter in this world.

Life toys with us just as the Wise One toyed with Neo. For long stretches, it withholds its validation. It challenges us to launch our hero's journey with no assurance that we'll succeed. Leo's gift is not that it makes us fearless, but that in spite of our doubt and fear, it sends us forward anyway. Says Major Gates in another fine movie, Three Kings, "First you do the thing you're scared shitless of, and then you get your courage, not the other way around." This is the law of the Cowardly Lion, who proves his mettle with quivering voice and shaking knees. One of my favorite moments in the film Kundun is when the young Dalai Lama wonders, as the Chinese oppressors march toward Tibet, whether he really is the Dalai Lama; maybe the venerable monks made a mistake. We never know for sure if we're the One. But that very doubt forces us to reach inside and search for one of Leo's most important treasures: the power of our self-will. Finding that releases tremendous creativity.

The Heart of a Hero

heracleslionThis brings us to our Leo labor. Hercules is tasked with killing the lion that terrorizes the hills around Nemea. It's an awful beast, twice the size of a man and three times as deadly. This is the first of Hercules' twelve labors, and if it feels like a punishment to our hero, that's because it is. We might know the feeling. How many times have we gone into the big meeting or opening night or wherever it was we thought we could shine, feeling as eager as someone heading for a firing squad. We like to think of Leo's creativity as being all fun and games - but the warmth and childish joy of Leo generally arrive before and after its moment of heroism. Anticipation and victory generate heat, but in the middle comes the challenge. That's what it means to wrestle with the Nemean Lion: It's a metaphor for the creative process. It's about facing one's creative challenges head on.

Hercules' star had fallen. He'd strangled a snake just after his birth and, throughout his childhood, had dazzled the world with his strength and charm. But then came the dark years. He went mad and killed his wife and children. How could he ever trust himself again? He's paying for that crime now, having to bow down to King Eurystheus, a small man with a big voice who barks orders to hunched-over servants. When the king claps his hands, the whole castle jumps. What Hercules doesn't know is that Eurystheus actually fears our hero and lies awake at night plotting to get rid of him. The king decides to give Hercules a challenge so monumental that he'll fail, after which he'll die: perfect!

When Hercules reaches the lion's territory, he takes lodging at the house of a poor workman, Molorchus, who offers to perform a ritual sacrifice for a safe lion hunt. Hercules tells the man to wait thirty days. If Hercules returns with the lion's skin, they'll both make the sacrifice to Zeus. If Hercules doesn't come back, Molorchus should sacrifice in the hero's name. It makes sense that Leo's victory should belong to Zeus. At their best, Leo triumphs feel like divine interventions; we perform beyond ourselves, as though possessed by a god. How many actors have hugged their Oscar and given it up to the Man Upstairs? But when we lose with Leo, the shame and failure are ours alone. Given our pride, these stakes are high.

Hercules has several encounters with the lion. He shoots it with poison arrows, but they fall away without piercing its skin. He throws his club and it bounces back. He drops a boulder on the lion; it shatters. Hercules is learning: The lion's skin is impervious. So, now he must get creative. Hercules discovers the animal's lair and explores it while the lion is away. For weeks, he studies the lion, tracking it, observing it, getting so intimate with its movements and temperament that you could say he becomes one with it, like an actor losing himself in a part. All sense of being punished has disappeared.

To work this way with Leo, we must come into our hearts. That's Leo's source and destination. When our work is heart-centered, we enter a focused and exhilarating timelessness, so present to the moment that we act spontaneously in naturally creative ways. We might even surprise ourselves with genius. Hercules would never have planned to strangle a ferocious animal twice his size, yet he watches himself rush toward the beast, and suddenly his hands are around its neck. Hercules feels the lion yielding to his strength. It's an exquisite moment, more like love than death. So, when he sees the animal's lifeless body, Hercules is compelled to honor it. He cuts off the pelt with the lion's own claws and wears the hide back to Eurystheus.

Hercules goes into the lion's den stripped of tools. He takes nothing other than himself - emphasizing that what we do in Leo is self-expression. But we must ready ourselves. We must work at our art, whatever that is. Then one day, when we're unselfconscious and true, a test will come that will cause the hero's kundalini to rise and overtake us. At that moment, we will be the One. It will feel like love. It will feel like fear. It will be big, spontaneous, childlike, exuberant, and vulnerable. It will feel like Leo, through and through, balls to bones.

Me - and My Shadow

lionofnemeaI wasn't always such a cheerleader for Leo. In fact, before I knew much about astrology, I knew one thing: I didn't like Leos. My ex-husband was a Leo Sun, and so were many of the creative types we hung out with - dancers, musicians, and performance artists - always showing off and grabbing center stage. Leos, I decided, were just tap-dancing toddlers disguised as adults, forever stamping, singing, and crying, "Look at me! Look at me!"

Imagine my surprise, years later, when I discovered that I have a Leo Moon. It was hidden in my 12th-house closet, where what the psyche rejects is kept. I was projecting, hating in Leo friends what I couldn't bear about myself. Perhaps I paid a steep price for being too kingly in a prior life. As a child, whenever I won a school election or an award, I wanted to crawl under a rock when my mother (the theatrical stand-in for my Leo Moon) oohed and aahed, calling me "The Big Cheese." I wanted attention, but when I got it, I squirmed. So, in later years, when I saw others soaking up the spotlight, I considered their displays embarrassing and egotistical.

Every sign has its shadow. Leo's can be childish, narcissistic, arrogant, overbearing, even cruel. King Eurystheus is a good example of Leo's darker side. He's Leo as tyrant, raising himself up by putting others down. You might say there's too much pride in King Eurystheus, but actually, there's not enough. An outer expression so exaggerated suggests a corresponding lack of inner spirit. A self so huge on the outside must feel inwardly impoverished. In the story, King Eurystheus is shocked to hear that Hercules succeeds in vanquishing the Nemean Lion. When our hero enters the city, the king jumps into a large clay jar and hides. For the next eleven labors, Eurystheus sends his orders by messenger, unable to meet the hero eye to eye.

The Nemean Lion is an expression of Leo's shadow, too, representing the primitive drive of ego. Leo needs this beast in large doses, since only such raw and passionate energy can fuel its ambitions. Royal Leo expects to be the best at whatever it does. Expectations so grand require an impervious skin. The arrows bouncing off the Nemean Lion depict just how powerfully ego can defend itself from others. Yet, the ego can also be cruel, which is why people often worry about their egos. When I encourage clients to sing their own praises, to express some Leo pride in their accomplishments, most demur. They don't want to look too full of themselves. But we should take our cue from Hercules. By wrestling with the lion, he is learning to master himself. Hercules' Leo labor is a metaphor for the creative process - and for the way Leo must learn to control its own childish, selfish, and fearful impulses. When we bring our inner beast under control, we can wear the ego as a temporary skin without fully identifying with it. We can take the necessary risks without worrying about what others will think of us. We can be gentle, warm, charismatic, and generous. The same message appears in Leo's Tarot card, "Strength," in which a calm woman holds open a lion's jaws.

Applause, Applause

Leo's need for validation is both a curse and a blessing. In some ways, it's an evolutionary advantage. A child who gets attention is a child who will survive. But what about the children who grow up, enter the workplace, and demand that bosses and co-workers notice and appreciate them? When I worked in the corporate world, the employees often looked like a moody sea of children, for whom a mere paycheck was never enough.medal They required the company's love, affection, and applause, too. On any day, I could tour the department floors and find someone sitting glumly at their computer. Their work was obviously unsatisfying, and yet I'd later hear that what burned them most was that nobody seemed to notice what they did.

This is not just a corporate problem. African wise man Malidoma Somé has observed: "Whether they are raised in indigenous or modern culture, there are two things that people crave: the full realization of their innate gifts, and to have these gifts approved, acknowledged, and confirmed."[1] Let's add this insight to the Oracle's teaching. First, we must recognize and believe in our gifts. Then, we need them confirmed in the outer world. This is Joseph Campbell's hero's journey in a nutshell. We are called, mentored, and tested, helped by spirits and tested again; we prove ourselves via a supreme ordeal and then are received by our community with honor, offering them our boon.

This is why Aquarius, sign of community, is the zodiacal complement to Leo. The two need each other. The community needs its heroes, and heroes need their communities. Otherwise, after our heroic tests and trials, we would have nowhere to return with our treasure. Again from Malidoma Somé: "Our own confirmation or acknowledgement of ourselves is not enough. The need to be acknowledged by the society is so primal that if it does not happen in the village, town, or neighborhood, people will go out searching for it."[2]

To keep their people from wandering off, indigenous cultures have often formalized such acknowledgments through initiation rites or by conferring sacred names that bear witness to an individual's gifts. Yet, the ritualized acknowledgments of modern culture are far too generic to fulfill our yearning. We may get degrees or certificates, earn so much money, or garner some title, but such things cannot confirm why we were born here now. This may be why there's such a cultural fascination with celebrity and fame. The emptiness of our unacknowledged souls has grown so big that only mega-stars can carry our collective shadow. Perhaps our fame madness would subside if we could balance our heroic fantasies with more training in community. Where are the bumper stickers that say, "Have you welcomed your neighbor's gifts today?"

One summer in my corporate world, the grumbling for appreciation got so loud that we convened a fact-finding committee to uncover strategies for boosting employee morale. Books with titles like 1,000 Ways to Appreciate Your Employees were consulted. In the end, everyone had a different opinion on what would work; eventually the group disbanded with no clear findings. A few managers resolved to keep "Atta-boy" lists to ensure that they regularly praised their grumpiest team members. I remember one frustrated manager telling me she was confronted by a sour employee with "You never say anything positive" just one day after she'd given him five "Great job!" remarks.

What finally quelled the low morale surprised us all. We simply forgot about the whiners and began promoting the winners. Our company's booming sales meant that department workloads were getting too unwieldy; we couldn't rely on individuals to bear the burdens equally. So, we created tiers of responsibility and singled out the top performers. Raising some employees above their peers worried the managers, fearing this would bring new frictions and resentment. Instead, the promotions were met with a collective sigh of relief. Across the board, morale improved.

In retrospect, I see it was because we'd finally given the hero's journey its due. Appreciating people who lack a meaningful challenge is like the proverbial Chinese meal: An hour later, they're hungry again. But now we had put a meaningful garland around the special ones. Departments were now marked with paths - for calling, mentoring, testing, and honoring - suggesting future hero's journeys for those willing to answer the call. And those less motivated, perhaps even fearful of the journey, enjoyed protection from their new department heroes. The whole community gained.

Everyday Heroics

baobab treeOne night, when my son was six years old, he said: "Mom, don't move and don't scream. There's a mouse head in the kitchen. Don't look at it, I'll clean it up." Branden knew I freaked out at the half-eaten or almost dead field mice the cat brought in. Usually he was just as scared as I was. This time, all by himself he got the broom from the garage, found a grocery bag, and swept the mouse head into it. It was odd, though. I'd spent the last hour in the kitchen cooking dinner - you'd think I would have seen the mouse. The cat was locked outside; she couldn't have brought it in. I asked Branden what the mouse head looked like. He described the little eyes, the little ears, the bones sticking out of its neck. "Are you sure it was a mouse?" I asked. "Yes ... or maybe it was lettuce, it was dark. No - definitely a mouse." Ah, it was probably from the dinner salad, a radicchio leaf fallen to the floor.

Mouse or lettuce, Branden was my hero just the same. In real life, this is how most of our lion-wrestling moments come. Movies, myths, and stories tend to collapse a hero's life into one colossal act - as though one great moment were all we needed to redeem ourselves or express a lifetime's bounty of gifts. Does the fighter have just one victory? Will one creative act, no matter how huge, exhaust Leo's hunger for self-expression? Real life brings an abundance of heroic peaks. They may seem ordinary against the fictional heroic scale, but our real-life hearts still pound. A challenge is a challenge.

And sometimes, despite our best efforts, the recognition doesn't come. My cat presents me with her mouse, a gesture of her love and prowess. She expects me to be impressed; instead, I scream and chase her from the house. The hero works for recognition but cannot control when or why it comes. Sometimes it's lack of skill that denies our prize. Sometimes it's just timing. Brilliant books can make the bestseller list, but plenty of lousy books are on it, too. And many excellent books go unpublished. How many great artists were ignored and impoverished in their lifetimes? Admiration and applause are a mystery. Though Leo craves these, they're not the best motives for its authentic creativity. Consider the following story of an unusual Chinese tree.

On the Hill of Shang, a man discovers a tree so massive that, if a thousand horses take shelter underneath it, its shade could cover them all. The man wonders, "What kind of tree is this? It must have some extraordinary use." Looking up, he notices that its limbs are twisted and small, unfit for making furniture or houses. Looking down, he sees that the trunk is pitted and rotten, unfit for making coffins. He licks one of the leaves; it blisters his mouth. He sniffs. Its odor is foul. He leaves the tree and goes on his way.

Of course, the tree's very uselessness has allowed it to grow, unexploited, into its majestic shape and size. But perhaps the tree holds other secrets, and someday an even finer purpose will be revealed. Maybe one day it will be "the One." In the meantime, it can only be itself. We are like this. We each have a spirit that's special and rare. It's the only gift we have to offer. And it's our only chance to be the One, whether or not the rest of the world currently agrees.

  1. Malidoma Patrice Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Tarcher Putnam, 1999, p. 27.
  2. Ibid.

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