Joseph Campbell gave us a valuable description of the metaphorical hero’s journey. He said that we’ll first hear a calling, and we’ll always have a choice whether to surrender to it. There will be a threshold to cross, which will require unconditional commitment and separation from what’s familiar. There will be guardians along the way, waiting to help us. And of course, there will be a challenge – a dragon on the path, a demon from the dark side. And when we’ve experienced initiation, we get to return home as heroes.
What does it mean? Opportunities come up daily for us to act in heroic ways. And the steps that Campbell outlined are part of the process.
The hero’s journey is not just guy-stuff. It’s beyond male and female. It incorporates the masculine and feminine aspects that are in each of us. And becoming sensitive enough to hear the calling requires the receptive, feminine part of us.
Whether we’re male or female, the journey begins with a kind of inspirational whisper, coming from inside us, that says something like, “There’s more to life than this.” None of us wants to get to the end of life and figure out that we spent all our energy making a living and neglected to create a meaningful life. And we sure don’t want to believe that the purpose of life is to struggle and suffer!
We want there to be more to life than feeding and grooming these bodies; and working hard so that we can make a lot of money and accumulate possessions; and striving to look important so that other people will be impressed and tell us that we matter; and marrying and having children and then making sure that they make good grades and get respectable jobs in order to accumulate possessions and prestige – and in the process, perhaps lose sight of what’s really valuable.
Yes, we want there to be more to life than this. We want to make a difference. We want it to matter that we lived.
Every hero’s journey requires a separation from what’s already known and routine. It’s an opportunity to separate from any aspects of ourselves that we no longer want.
Most of us go through life with an attitude that we’ve chosen as our norm. And we don’t expect more than what we’re already experiencing. So we inadvertently set limits on what we can receive.
Imagine starting the day by saying, “I expect this day to change my life forever, in a wonderful way!” It would create an intention, an expectation and a vacuum for positive change.
There’s no reason for us to continue being something any longer than it takes us to recognize that it’s not what we want anymore. We’re creative beings, and we can change our lives to what we want them to be. Here’s what it will take though. We’ll need to be single-minded. Nothing else can be more important, and nothing can stand in the way.
That’s the new attitude required to act in a different way when we’re facing everyday situations that have been drawing a habitual response from us. That’s the level of expectancy it takes to separate from the old and discover something new, about ourselves and about life.
Coming up quickly in the journey is the threshold, just before we enter a mysterious new world. There has to be a shift in attitude here. Unless we change our thinking, nothing will change.
In daily life, the threshold requires us to make decisions about whether to go forward – or whether to stay resigned to a job that stinks, or whether to give up on an unmanageable teenager, or whether to divorce an impossible partner.
And the biggest decision – the one that will determine everything else in our lives, including our health, relationships, career and finances – is whether to be oppressed by life. Or instead, decide to live joyously and fearlessly, even in the face of life’s everyday challenges.
It would mean replacing the negative diatribe going on inside our heads with something like, “I’m not going to be dominated by feelings of fear anymore. I’m going to look for ways to feel OK, no matter what’s going on around me. It’s my decision. And whether it’s true or not, I’m going to live as if it’s true, because it works for me.” For most of us, it would require adopting a new belief that choosing joy as a regular response to life is even possible and reasonable.
Standing on the threshold, we don’t need to have a clear picture of the outcome. We only need to be open to possibilities. And to have an expectation that something great lies ahead. And one final decision: There has to be a commitment to live the change. Otherwise the change won’t be available.
There will be guardians on the path, supernatural aid that will prepare us in some way for the trials ahead.
It may take the form of an intuitive hunch, which will require turning the volume down on our mind and body and being willing to receive answers from inside. We’ll need to let go of the belief that we must figure everything out by ourselves and open to a greater intelligence that we’re already a part of.
It’s important to remember that it’s not the signpost we’re seeking, but rather what the signpost points to. We might meet up with prophets and sages on the path, and they may call themselves teachers, even masters. And if we go off and follow them, in place of our own guidance, they may become a diversion.
The truth that we’re after is inside us, and it’ll rise to the surface naturally when we become still. And by following our inner guidance, the universe will then step up to give us the help we need. It’ll seem as though a guardian angel is handling things, helping situations to work out, causing problems to resolve and relationships to improve.
We’ll need to tap into the force of goodness in this world that’s constantly providing solutions, opening doors, lining up opportunities and resulting in miracles. There will be an element of magic on the path.
What’s the biggest challenge we all share? Taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, actions and experience. This will be the first trial of every hero’s journey – because, if we can’t manage ourselves, how can we master anything else?
What are the tools we’ll need along the way?
Faith in Life. If we walk around saying that life isn’t fair, we’ll find the evidence to prove us right. And we’ll make our happiness and our unhappiness dependent on people and conditions, which gives away our power. We can choose to be unaffected, by focusing on what’s going well – and by trusting that Life is always working for us and never against us.
A feeling of alrightness. We’ve set causes in motion, and we’re experiencing the results. So our problems aren’t originating outside of us. If someone is treating us badly, we have the right to hold that person accountable and to take action to stop the abuse. But we hinder ourselves by saying: “You hurt and betrayed me. My life is miserable because of you.” In that case, we’re choosing to be a victim and we’ll suffer. We don’t need people to behave a certain way – we can decide to feel all right no matter what.
An attitude that works. If we expect the worst, we’ll get it. But we can change our mind. We draw the best from people and conditions by believing the best, knowing that they’ll become whatever we decide to see. By directing our thoughts on purpose, our attitude will change, which will also change our actions, and that will change our experience.
A focus on solutions. Focusing on problems won’t solve them because, when we’re stuck at the level of the problem, we’re not able to see the answer. Thinking about what we want works better. And when being solution-oriented becomes second nature, answers begin showing up even before the problems do.
An ability to forgive. Forgiveness means letting people off the hook forever, even if they do it again – which can be really tough to do if they’re doing it right now. So the best way to forgive is to stop making people wrong in the first place, because everyone is right from his or her standpoint. It’ll help to remember that people hurt other people because they hurt. We can still say Yes to people while saying No to their actions. And forgiving people, by accepting them as they are, means that we’ll draw only supportive people into our lives.
A passion to spread love. The way we experience love is by expressing it. And we do that best by appreciating Life, including people and conditions, even when it’s messy. It means making a deliberate choice to express understanding instead of anger, support instead of criticism, and appreciation instead of pessimism. It means remembering that love is less about whether people are lovable and more about whether we are loving – and that being loving is a decision.
We’re offered a day. It may be uncomplicated, or it may be full of trials. Whatever it is, it’s the raw material out of which we’ll create our personal experience. So the first decision of each day should be what kind of day we’re going to have.
We’re not here to be affected by our environment, but rather to affect our environment, to cause the results we want. That’s how we become the master of our experience. Then dragons have no more power over us. And dark angels step behind us to become a part of our army of light.
Incorporated into each trial is a potential for initiation, which is the ultimate change-agent in life. A transformation from an old role to a new one, resulting in new knowledge, power and skills.
We tend to go through life saying, “This is what I’m like, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” It’s not true. But if we believe it, we’re right.
The truth is that each of us can become a new person with all the traits that we value.
Most of us are aware of our weaknesses, and we know what we’d like to change about ourselves. And we all have the power to end those, by becoming a different person from the one we’ve been. It takes an initiation though.
When we’ve had something negative going on in our life for a while, such as a relative we can’t stand, or a job we feel stuck in, or unhealthy communications with our partner or our child. And we’ve been running up against the same challenge, over and over, till we’ve really had it, and we think we just can’t take it anymore. And then, one day, finally, we get an insight, a new angle that we hadn’t seen before, which had probably been there all along but we hadn’t realized it. And in that moment, we absolutely know, “I’m over this. This’ll never beat me up again. It doesn’t have the power to do it anymore.”
That realization is what starts the process of initiation. We’ll need to face the challenge at least once more, to practice a new response, which shows us that it really has no more power over us. And in that moment, when it can’t upset us – when we feel OK no matter what – it’ll just slide right by. And we’ll say something like, “You know, if that’d happened last week, it would’ve killed me!” We just step around it, and we keep moving forward. That’s a successful initiation! The end of something and a new beginning.
Returning home as a hero means bringing back something valuable and making a contribution to the world that wouldn’t have been possible before the journey. The commitment we made on the threshold was to live the change – otherwise the change wouldn’t be available to us. It requires living in such a way that our lives become an example.
Living an exemplary life includes no longer letting our fears control how we think and act, and building supportive relationships based on love rather than need. It includes creating change heroically through inspiration, rather than through force – and knowing that, when we live peacefully, the rest of the world is enriched.
The commitment is to share what was revealed to us on the journey, what we found inside ourselves, by putting it to work in our lives. And the promise is that a storehouse will be opened to us, showing us the way and making the next step clear. It may sound like this: “I have an inner-knowing, a feeling of assuredness, a clear vision that I want to move toward, and I feel compelled, as if called.” And the journey begins again.
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Pic by Jonathan Kluger at jonathankluger.com.