Below is an excerpt from my new book The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide, a weave of myths, contemporary stories, and tales from my journey. It’s not a “how to” book—no two paths through the world of unschooling have the same twists and turns—yet having a general sense of where you are on your journey can bring valuable insight as you navigate the challenges that will inevitably appear. I share this book as a field guide to the stages and characters you are likely to encounter in some form on your unschooling journey. The print edition (Amazon) is also a journal for you to document your journey alongside.
Here’s how Joseph Campbell describes this stage: “The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)
My first thought was, “What?!” Don’t we now find ourselves in this new and mysterious world of unschooling, excited to be on our way? We’ve worked so hard to answer this unconventional call, discover our guides, and make our way past the three heads of Cerberus that stood at the threshold, and now, apparently, we “appear to have died?”
What’s up with that?
Interestingly, our journey has another surprise in store for us. There is one last important step the hero must take before they enter a new world, and that’s transitioning to a learning mindset, otherwise known as beginner’s mind.
Right now, you probably believe that much of your existing knowledge about the ordinary world will be applicable—even helpful—on your journey. Spoiler alert: it won’t. In fact, it’s more likely to get in your way. On this unschooling journey, you will question so much of what you think you already know. If you don’t first diligently widen your perspective, you may find yourself clinging to your existing paradigms, and feel the urge to defend them rather than being open to seeing the possibilities that this new world has to offer. You may have experienced some of those defensive feelings in the last stage.
As we begin this stage, for all our excitement about entering this new world, we’re also still fearful of letting go of the old one. We want the two worlds to mesh. We seek out compromises. “But you still teach them to read, right?”
While I understand (and remember!) this wish to keep one foot in both worlds, it takes both our feet to keep moving forward. The first step is finding the courage to lift up that second foot and leave the ordinary world behind once and for all. It is our metaphorical point of no return, the last stage of the departure phase of our journey.
Being swallowed is a popular image in stories that symbolizes a transition. It describes the hero’s figurative death in the ordinary world and their rebirth in the new one. Philosophically, it’s about shedding our preconceptions (assumptions that made sense in the ordinary world), and embracing beginner’s mind (open to learning about the new world). Campbell calls this stage the “Belly of the Whale.” It’s an apt metaphor, and this whale comes in a thousand different shapes and sizes.
Of course, there’s the classic biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah, unwilling to carry out a task that God had set for him, refuses the call and makes a run for it, determined to stay in his ordinary world. He attempts to escape by setting sail on a ship, but he is eventually tossed into the sea where he is swallowed by a whale. There he reconsiders his actions and, after three days, is disgorged—reborn—committed to his new world of serving God.
In The Matrix, Neo wakes up in his battery pod after taking the red pill. His escape from this “womb” closely mimics a human baby’s birth: it’s Neo’s rebirth into his new world outside the matrix.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the role of the whale is played by the Hogwarts Express. Harry leaves his ordinary world via King’s Cross station and the magical platform nine and three-quarters. On the train, he gets his first taste of magic and realizes that he, like us at this point on our journey, knows little about the new world he’s hurtling toward. But he disembarks excited and ready to learn.
In The Hunger Games, a train also marks Katniss Everdeen’s transition from her ordinary world, District 12, to the new world of the Capitol. She arrives determined to learn all she can so that she can survive the trials of the Hunger Games arena.
What might your whale be?
stage 5: embracing beginner’s mind
Like me, you may find that your whale is your home. I found that we spent a lot of time at home as we transitioned away from our ordinary world. Home felt like a sanctuary to all of us. For me, it was a place where I was free from judging eyes, at a time when I was most vulnerable to them. For my kids—turning ten, eight, and five that year—it was a place where they could dive into their play with abandon and make up for lost time.
We still occasionally went out to visit, but I found I had less and less to contribute to conversations with friends and acquaintances. I wasn’t interested in converting friends to unschooling in any way, and though I was happy to answer any questions they had, those tapered off quickly as the conversation soon turned to the typical challenges of school and their children’s behaviour. Those things were fast fading from my life, and I found that, with fewer and fewer things in common to connect over, we naturally connected less and less. I suppose that to our extended family and friends, we did “appear to have died,” as Campbell describes.
But really, my family and I were happily cocooning deep in the belly of the whale: our basement. It was set up as a big playroom for the kids. Couches with removable pillows meant blanket forts for days on end. The walk-in closet under the stairs wasn’t Harry’s bedroom, but it was filled with shelves, which in turn were filled with games and toys. There was a large kid-height table for crafts and lots of floor space for play. A TV with game consoles. A computer with Internet access. An elaborate hamster city with cages, tunnels, and accessories. Lots of light. We spent months there, having a lot of fun!
It was natural for us to withdraw from the ordinary world, and it may be right for you as well. This time in the belly gives you the space to play with the idea that you may know little about this new world you are choosing to enter. As part of your metaphorical rebirth, you are learning to embrace the idea that we are the equivalent of young children in this new world.
But it can be hard to admit we don’t know things. Most of us have probably grown up with the idea that, as adults—as parents—we are supposed to know all the answers, yet, here we are, back to feeling the vulnerability of a child. To live with this uncertainty is challenging. Definitely uncomfortable. But knowing that it’s natural to withdraw from the ordinary world at this stage of our journey may help ease our discomfort.
During this time, I watched the kids rediscover the joyful abandon of playing to their heart’s content. I also had time to reconnect with them, and to ponder how well the conventional wisdom about children and learning that I had absorbed over the years meshed with the increasingly beautiful scenes I was seeing play out in front of me. As the gap between the worlds widened even further, I eventually chose to pick up my other foot and take that last step. I realized I had so much to learn about this new world! And that no matter my standing in my old world, I was a baby when it came to unschooling. And I was smitten.
And why is this image of rebirth so helpful to us on our journey?
Because babies are the ultimate learners. Their drive to explore their world and learn how it works knows no bounds! Not only are they insatiably curious, they also aren’t yet carrying the weight of conventional expectations. They look at the world with a beautiful sense of wonder. They live wholeheartedly, putting all their being into each moment—good and bad. And they aren’t afraid to ask questions. Boy, do they ask a lot of questions!
It’s important at this stage to make clear, unbiased observations rather than jump to judgement based on our old ways of seeing things. We will feel freer. With this fresh perspective, we begin to feel comfortable asking questions again, even if only of ourselves. The root of the word question is “quest,” and we are on a quest to understand unschooling.
And remember, our children are our guides—our shining examples of how to do this, of how to re-engage our childlike curiosity and sense of wonder. It is important that, as we enter the unschooling world, we have a real sense of leaving our ordinary world behind, and understand that we are the equivalent of newborns in this new world. Embracing beginner’s mind is the ultimate learning mindset.
This is an excerpt from my new book The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide, a weave of myths, contemporary stories, and tales from my journey. It’s not a “how to” book—no two paths through the world of unschooling have the same twists and turns—yet having a general sense of where you are on your journey can bring valuable insight as you navigate the challenges that will inevitably appear. I share this book as a field guide to the stages and characters you are likely to encounter in some form on your unschooling journey. The print edition (Amazon) is also a journal for you to document your journey alongside. Order your copy now.