The Hero’s Journey
“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive!” Joseph Campbell
I recently saw a documentary of Joseph Campbell’s work called Finding Joe which inspired me to pass my learning along!
Joseph Campbell was a writer, teacher, mythology scholar, and story teller. His favorite mythology was Native American, which he fell in love with as a kid. It became his passion. He was also a philosopher who studied the human experience. He coined the phrase “Follow your bliss.”
He studied and analyzed all the stories, movies, myths, literature, religion, novels and romances of our time. When he dissected them all, he discovered how these stories were a reflection of human experience. He began to realize that of all the stories, there was one that all humans can relate to no matter where they came from. He called it “The Hero’s Journey”.
The whole idea of a hero’s journey is that it is a metaphor for life experience. Life is a hero’s journey. There are clear patterns in life to guide us such as birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death. As an adult, we go through adventures. We struggle with inner conflicts, and finally we become a hero when we succeed in uncovering all the demons. Then we step over thresholds. We finally arrive.
If we look at the greatest pieces of literature, we see how they all have the hero’s journey. For example, Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz starts in her natural environment. Like in all of our regular lives, she was living in a house in her hometown. Then something happens to shake her world up (a tornado) and she goes on a journey in which she has to face certain tests and challenges.
Dorothy had to confront her inner barriers. It was not just with the wicked witch. She had to learn how to deal with her own inner resources. She clicked her heels together, which was her ability to get back home, which she didn’t realize until after she went through all of her challenges. The journey was a test to discovering her self.
Story telling is typically about people learning something. You go to an unknown place, which is dark and mysterious. You are faced with challenges and are tested. Through the completion of the test, you uncover a quality, a hidden strength, and a resource. You move to a different unknown place that feels like a crisis point where afterwards you become restored or redeemed, made better through that trial. Campbell calls these stories “heroic”.
As Campbell said, mythology and stories are a metaphor for life’s experience. He thought of myths as a narrative of the psyche, what Jung called the Self. Metaphor is used to create a transformative experiential process.
If this path of the Hero’s journey is simple in design why is it that people aren’t living it?
Society guides us towards a weird sense of what’s real in our lives. What we should and should not do. It usually starts out with you shouldn’t talk to this person from a different tribe. You shouldn’t marry that person. You should go to this school, buy a car, house, have kids. Should, should, should.
The reason we listen so much to society, our parents, our friends or our boss is that we have lost contact with our own embodied experience which includes the mythical domain. It’s in everyone, their experience of passion, unique skills, unique ways of expressing themselves.
“For me, mythology is a function of biology…a product of the soma’s imagination. What do our bodies say? And what are our bodies telling us? The human imagination is grounded in the energies of the body. And the organs of the body are the determinants of these energies and the conflicts between the impulse systems of the organs and the harmonization of them. These are the matters of myth.”
Stanley Keleman, a pioneer in psychology is someone who worked closely with Joseph Campbell. In his book Myth as Body he says:
“The source of myth and body knowledge is in ourselves. It is intensified by somatic (body) interactions and conversations. If somatic experience and language are separate, we try to make sense out of our life experience by means of symbols. But when we reflect on our experience, we find that the symbols don’t quite make sense. We have to re-experience the somatic aspects of our own body’s symbol making.
When I turned 21 years old, I realized I was bored in my life. I felt stuck, depressed. I felt the need to take an adventure and travel to the Middle East. I was fascinated with the place. It felt like a dream come true. I went there and eventually found myself in a critical moment. I almost drowned when snorkeling in the Red Sea. Afterwards, when I was lying there on the beach, I made a vow to change my life. I wanted to live my life more fully and consciously. When I arrived back home, I immediately enrolled in college full time and started a new career for myself.
Then it happened again at 28 years old. I found myself in a relationship I didn’t want to be in, a job I hated while living in a boring suburb of Philadelphia. I felt stuck again, depressed. Given my past experience, I knew I had to take a risk. I had to move into the unknown, the forest as Campbell would say.
I eventually found the energy to break up with my boyfriend, quit my job and move into the city. Soon thereafter, a door opened for me to start a new career in management consulting. I felt like this was the beginning of a more meaningful career.
After another seven years or so, I felt depressed again. I wasn’t fully happy with my job. My feeling of being stuck and depressed was calling me again to take the biggest risk in my life so far. I felt I needed to quit my comfortable, high paying consulting job and start a whole new career as a psychotherapist. As much as my husband was encouraging me, I still felt scared! My life was secure. Wasn’t leaving that security against everything I was taught growing up?
Now I feel like I’m living a life that feels like my bliss, my purpose, my passion! I developed the courage to take the leap. Going into the unknown, the unfamiliar, leaving what felt comfortable. After a while I began to recognize that if I wasn’t challenging or growing myself in some way, I would eventually feel stuck and depressed.
“Myth is about the body’s journey, recreating itself endlessly in a particular way, to form an individual personal structure called self.”
When we recognize that we’re on the hero’s journey, we wake up to the fact that we are responsible for our own experience in life. What is it to be response-able? It’s the ability to respond. How do we develop the ability to respond? By experiencing our bodies not just our minds or the symbols that they create. We need to stop listening only to stories, other people’s stories or society’s stories of what we should or should not do. Everything is already there inside our bodily experience. The problem is we’ve learned to separate what we think from how we feel.
“We live in two realms. One of direct experience and the other of representational images. Being able to live in both realms and dialogue between them is the very nature of somatic experience. What has happened is we have mistaken one realm for the other. The image has become our direct experience.”
Following your bliss is listening to your body, experiencing your body which includes image or thought and following what feels passionate, following what feels true to you. It’s not ecstasy or happiness. It’s your authentic journey.
Trusting ourselves is learning to trust and to feel that deep impulse of aliveness that can only be experienced through our bodies. Let’s not mistake image or thought for experience. The reason we keep needing more and more stimulus in our lives is because we’ve cut ourselves off from our bodily experience and mistaken only our thoughts and other people’s thoughts for reality. What makes us feel most alive? That’s the path’s key, the Grail, that’s the essence of the hero’s journey.
When I was 18 years old, I went to my dad because I felt confused about what I wanted to do in my life. My dad said, “You should do business.” So I did just that and soon found that marketing didn’t make me feel most alive! The lesson here is not to ask your father this question. The question needs to be asked of you. Joseph Campbell always gave the same advice to his students graduating Sarah Lawrence. Don’t do what daddy says. He has one thing in mind for you which is your security.
Your body remembers every experience you had from childhood to adulthood. What did you like to do as a child? How did you feel when you were doing those activities? Try activities now that you always wanted to do and reflect on your bodily experience when doing them. What would you do if you had no concern about time or money? Write things down. Maybe words don’t work, so collect some images that you are drawn to, or listen to music that inspires you and see what moves you inside. Just because you don’t know what the call of your life is right now doesn’t mean you won’t find it. The very fact that you’re looking for your bliss means that you’re in the process of discovering it.
One of Joseph Campbell’s beloved quotes about bliss: “When you follow your bliss, the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” A lot of people feel an experience like this. It happens when you least expect it. It’s like you’re hitting your head against a wall and then when you shift just a tad, low and behold there’s a passage that opens up. When you truly step forth and take a risk in following your bliss, unseen forces seem to reward you for taking that leap of faith.
For me when I finally decided to quit my high paying job, I went into the unknown. I didn’t know what would happen next. Soon enough an opportunity came my way for me to counsel teenagers. At the same time an office opened up for me to use and soon after I got into graduate school.
Keep doing what you love at least part of the time and eventually a door opens up. It’s not about luck. My friend’s brother, Kevin Smith, went to film school but decided he didn’t want to be in school. He wanted to make movies. So he quit film school and made a move called Clerks. He did it on a very low budget which he used credit cards to fund. When he completed it, he was soon recognized by the New York Film festival and then was invited to bring Clerks to the Sundance Film Festival where it was immediately bought by Miramax. Now he is a famous Director.
We are each our greatest inhibitors. When we pay attention to what is happening internally, we begin to realize that we are actually holding ourselves back by our own fear. Our own demons. Eventually we may end up depressed or stuck. Feeling fear or depressed or stuck is a good thing! Rather than running away from our fear, let it be a guide for us. Fear is natural and rather then wait for it to go away, we need to learn to face it! How do we face it? By learning what the sensations are and how to manage them. This can only happen through trial and error or through the help of someone who has traversed a similar path before you! Rather than treating the symptoms of your depression, notice how you are feeling stuck and try listening to it and hearing what the feeling might be saying! This is key here. We have put so much value on our thoughts but our bodies have wisdom. Listen to the wisdom of your embodied experience no matter how numb or confused you may feel. Let your body guide you into discovering your authentic journey.
Begin it now!