David Deida and the three knights of Iron John

When we set out on the path of growth, it is helpful to have a map of the inner realms we are about to explore. By now there are many to choose from: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Spiral Dynamics, AMP’s five stages, David Deida’s three stages, KWML archetypes; the list is long and rich. Some of these, e.g. Spiral Dynamics and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, refer to vertical evolution, which means that they describe a sort of ladder whereby moving one rung up results in a higher capacity for truth and love. Other systems, such as KWML, describe horizontal integration, which means that they point to a greater degree of wholeness and stability on your present stage of evolution. Both are important and focusing too much on vertical growth without concern for horizontal integration can create dangerous imbalances in the individual.

Iron John by Robert Bly reveals a very interesting kind of evolutionary model, firmly grounded in the mythopoetic. The young boy in the brothers Grimm tale that Bly dissects in his seminal prose encounters a mysterious and powerful wild man, who takes him from his safe abode in his parents’ castle and into the woods where he is exposed to some deep truths about his true nature. He must eventually leave the wild man and find work in a castle in another kingdom. The lands of his new kingdom one day come under attack by invading forces and the boy returns to Iron John to request help. He grants the boy a war horse and an army of trained infantry and the boy rides out to the battlefield and vanquishes the enemy.

The king and his daughter wonder who this mysterious knight is and arrange a Golden Apple festival for all knights of the kingdom. The boy yet again returns to Iron John and is given a red horse and a full suit of red armor. He travels to the festival, catches the princess’s apple and rides off. King and daughter arrange another festival and the boy arrives on a white horse in white armor and catches the apple yet again. This time too he rides off. He returns the third day on a black horse wearing black armor, catches the apple and is wounded by the king’s men who have been ordered to stop the knight were he to ride off yet another time.

Investigating the significance of the three knights

Robert Bly investigates the significance of these three coloured knights (something he admits to having spent a year of his life pondering,) and concludes that they are symbolic of an evolutionary path, a road-map of masculine evolution. The red knight is symbolic of all the feelings of a typical teenage boy – uninhibited passion, rebellion, self-gratification, aggression, lust, desire for power. The red knight is out of control and dangerous, yet he is a source of great vitality and power that only needs a channel of greater maturity to hone himself.

The red knight gives way to the white knight, who desires to save the world from all its ills. He longs for truth and justice. He wishes to be good and do good. He is an idealist. Yet, for all his good qualities, he is also naive and deluded. The white knight doesn’t have the awareness to notice that many of the ills he wants to save the world from are projections of his own undealt-with traumas and desires, and so he goes on a crusade to save the world from that which he doesn’t like in himself. He points his fingers at all the dragons of the kingdom, so that songs in his praise can be sung when he conquers them (something he spends significant mental energy fantasizing about). He is on the hunt for the virgin of light, so that he can save her and feel manly. The white knight prefers to see women as damsels in distress, knowing deep down that a mature woman is too much for him. Still, in real life, he often ends up with a woman that resembles his mother.

The black knight, however, “eats” his shadows and comes to a level of acceptance about his own flaws. There is a strong level of humanity, even humour, to the black knight and he surrenders control of his life to the acceptance of his woundedness and the inevitability of death. He becomes trustworthy, powerful and compassionate.

Drawing parallels to the work of David Deida

To anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the three stages of David Deida, it will be immediately evident that there are many parallels to be found between these models. The man in Deida’s first stage is an aggressive macho guy, very self-driven and territorial in his consciousness. He does only what is best for him and doesn’t stop to really consider the needs of others.

The second stage man, on the other hand, has sensitized himself and learned how to communicate his needs and how to listen to others. He looks for truth and justice in the world, and considers his values – particularly his fine treatment of women – as very noble. He has started the work of integrating feminine values, but is in serious danger of taking his non-confrontational, understanding approach so far that he loses touch with his inner truth and power. The 2nd stage man in Deida’s model often has boundary issues. To compensate for his pervasive confusion, he goes on a never-ending mission to repair himself or he rationalizes why he should be happy with where he is.

The man who reaches Deida’s third stage does so through realizing his own mortality. He recognizes that life is an unpredictable, uncontrollable experience, and that he has no choice other than to love and serve others and the world. Right now. Always.

These three stages are almost identical to the way Robert Bly describes the red, white, and black knights of Iron John.

Synthesizing Deida and the knights

You will, I am sure, recognize the many similarities of the two above-mentioned outlines. These are very illuminating taken on their own. But let’s look at an observation that Robert Bly has made to take this even deeper. He has seen, as have I, that in today’s society, we have become so afraid of the red knight that we have practically eliminated him, encouraging instead all young boys to move on to the white knight prematurely. Modern men, by consequence, grow up not knowing that primal masculine aggression that lives within them. They don’t know the seat of their power, they haven’t claimed their true sexuality. Instead, they develop the capacity to please others and to quell their inner desires and impulses.

But the price is that the modern white knight often becomes a talking head that sees lots of problems in the world, a disempowered man who passes judgment on virtually everyone he meets, if not with words (in fact, rarely with words), then with his thoughts. He often exhibits any of the following qualities: apathy, passive aggression (which can be observed on most anonymous online discussion forums), narcissism, rationalization, non-confrontation, poor boundaries, considering himself very noble, no true calling (he may not even know why he does what he does for a living). And he doesn’t see any of it. When I first saw it in myself, it took the wind out of me.

With this understanding, we can see in Deida’s model that while the first stage is supposedly a prerequisite for the second stage, in many modern men, it is hardly present. The red in the 2nd stage man is a mere shadow of what it should be, were he fully integrated. In fact, in psychological terms, the image of a shadow is exactly right and true. This has huge implications. It means that for most unintegrated 2nd stage men who wish to grow, spiritual practice could be the wrong way to go. And if not the wrong way, it must not be taken too far.

In fact, going too far with spiritual practice could be downright harmful to such men, as it leads down a road where he further disowns his inner red knight. Instead of meditating, he might be better served by working on his boundary issues, by confronting those who ask to be confronted, by mounting his inner warriors in defense of his inner psychic territory. The man whose inner psychic territory is left without defenses, and who pushes for spiritual realization, will not find peace, love or goodness there. In fact, he may turn downright nasty. Most, however, turn into relatively harmless narcissistic pricks. I believe I speak from experience.

Going deeper with the unintegrated White knight

There is an ever-growing group of people out there who have come to see themselves in Deida’s description of second stage. This is good news. Knowing oneself is true power. In Deida terms, being a man of the second stage means we aren’t connecting with our inner truth, that we are confused, often moving through life with no clue as to where we are going and why. For men, it often means being soft and gentle, addicted to comfort and security, feminized and self-conscious. If we hook on to the Iron John story and draw in the White knight, we can easily conjure up images of the nice and understanding man, the guy who has served as the shoulder to cry on while his close female friends have their hearts broken by yet another jerk (red/1st stage). He may convince himself that men are bad, become a raging feminist – and glean some satisfaction from *remaining* the shoulder to cry on.

Or he may choose to join a political cause, a human rights organization, an environmental group. He will “fight the power” wherever he sees it, not recognizing that what he’s really fighting is his own disowned red knight. To put it in colloquial terms, he has no balls. So to compensate, he will consider all who have balls as evil. Thus, he commits what we know as a pre-trans fallacy. That is what happens when someone from one point of reference, let’s take Deida’s 2nd stage, considers those ahead of him and those behind him as the same, and lump them into the same container. All he sees is «same as me» and «different from me». This is a huge problem when the white knight goes into the world to look for a mentor, as the mentor’s black insight into the knight’s true identity is combined in the head of the knight with the fear that he will be destroyed by the red (which he projects into him).

Understanding this, we see how exhausting it is to be a white knight. The world seems to be full of people who want to harm him, and he wishes to save them all from the dragons that he sees. And when he connects with the work of Deida, he is likely to only appreciate the part of it that has him see women as balls of bright light, fairy creatures who wish to love and nurture him. He will never wish to connect to the base in a woman, the dark Feminine, or the force of Kali. This is a source of great mourning and bitterness for many mature contemporary women.

Embracing black

To embody the black night, to reach Deida’s third stage, we must reconnect with our inner power, our balls. To do this, we must be willing to drop all of our illusions. We must be willing to confront the painful reality that most of the stories we tell about ourselves are self-deceiving lies, carefully conceived to sidestep having to be responsible, and having to integrate our inner red knight. We must be willing to make some tough confrontations – perhaps it’s time for that tough conversation with your dad or your boss – and then start asking your friends about what they really think of you. Are you full of shit? Find good friends who you can trust and ask them.

You mustn’t only be willing to embrace red, you must also get to know black. To that end, you must be willing to not distract yourself from your suffering. You must embrace it, feel it deeply. You must feel the pain of your wounds. You must dare to confront it, to investigate its roots, as pain holds the gateway to true maturity. You must also become willing to confront your fears. As Deida describes it, you must make love to your fear. And you must find yourself someone you can consider as your mentor. True maturity only comes with the recognition that there is someone way more mature out there that you could learn from. Most guys today are not humble enough to take this significant step, but if you are to be truly happy, truly successful, you must.

These steps require enormous courage and discipline from a man. If it was easy to become a man, everybody would be. To get some balls to do this, it is okay to do spiritual practice. I did. So go on intensive meditation retreats. Visualize. Sing mantras. Just keep in mind that you cannot bandage your inner psychic territory with meditation practice, that you cannot make into a practice the avoidance of the process of bringing back to life your interior warriors. Remember that and you will be fine.

So if there was only one thing you could take from this, it should be: Stop the ascension trip and start the descent into the murky waters of your unconscious. That’s where you will find yourself. That’s where you will reclaim your balls and ready yourself for the true path of the spiritual warrior.

Good luck.

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