I want to look at the work of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. The steps that take us from ordinary person to hero are consistently repeated in the myths and stories of different cultures, across the ages.
If you haven’t read about Joseph Campbell, I suggest you do so just to understand the beauty of the world he has discovered. I am focusing on what his work means to healing, but it bears examination as a model for how we should aspire to live our lives, to ‘follow our bliss’. Each one of these steps could represent our external journey with our career, our soul’s path, or an internal journey into our subconscious – the healing of our wounded inner child or our negative ancestral or cultural beliefs. They all fit into this beautiful model.
Virtually all films follow this flow between the stages which is why we are drawn to them; we feel the greater story within. Whatever the mechanics of the script, we know the challenges that are to come because they are the timeless stories of legend. If we dare to allow it, we can apply the same rules to our own lives, whether that be our health, career, or inward development. We can be our own superhero.
If we are not living heroically, then that suppressed part of us will be projected onto the outside world, onto real life and filmed hero’s that can satiate, even if just for a while, that call to adventure within us. When I see people caught in the world of filmed myth’s and stories I wonder whether they are being driven by that internal spark that is calling them into their own story, daring them to be all that they could be.
Personally, I no longer connect with the invented myths because I find real life so much more interesting. I see the hero in the school teacher standing up to repressive guidelines, in the client courageously working with their disease naturally and resisting extreme medical intervention, and in the unfulfilled who leave their job and partner in the belief that there is more out there for them. They are all my heroes. That is all I need. They help my find and honour the hero within me.
Let’s look at each of these steps in turn, very briefly. My new book will explore each of them in relation to the healing journey, but for the purposes of this handout, I merely want to focus on the essence of each step and challenge you to ask yourself where you are on this path.
Here we go…
1. Ordinary World
This is where the hero lives their normal life, unaware of the adventure to come. There is nothing unusual in this stage, we can relate to this aspect of ourselves as the inconspicuous member of our community. There are no dramas here and few deep challenges. Things are OK but no more than that, there is likely to be a nagging sense of incompleteness and a lack of genuine joy in our lives.
2. Call To Adventure
Something then happens to disrupt the hero’s comfortable world. There is a call to action to respond to the threat. It could be a telephone call, an accident, or a more global dynamic such as climate change or other threat.
3. Refusal Of The Call
The hero is keen to answer the call, but will have fears about leaving the known world behind. There will be self-doubt around whether the challenge can be overcome and the call can be refused even if it is to their detriment. A part of us will sympathise with the hero here, because the baseline response on planet earth is to ignore the call, to live in perceived normality and let the world around us, or the world inside, suffer as a consequence.
4. Meeting The Mentor
This is an important transition point. The hero needs some guidance to help break them out of their acceptance of normality as they see it. This guidance could come in many forms, from books to people to training, it could even be an object that holds some special meaning. Whatever its form, it helps dispel the fears of the hero and create the drive to take the next step.
5. Crossing The Threshold
The hero is now ready to leave the known world and cross over into the unknown, be that an internal journey into the unconscious shadow or a physical trip to a new land; whatever its nature, it is a crossing from the known to the unknown, a first courageous step forwards.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
In this new land, the hero is confronted by many challenges that must be overcome, whether through people trying to get in the way, or physical obstacles. The hero will discover who can be trusted and who cannot, who are true allies and who will fall by the wayside when times become difficult. This stage will also reveal internal qualities and insights that become allies in their own right.
7. Approach To The Inmost Cave
This is often shown as the journey to a cave containing gold but protected by dragons. This symbolises how the greatest treasures can be protected by our worst enemy, or how our greatest learnings can only be found by overcoming our fears and seeing through the deepest illusions and stories we have created to justify our life and behaviour to that point.
This can also be a time of reflection where the hero takes stock of what has happened to date and prepares for the challenging stage ahead.
The supreme ordeal is a deep test that that hero must overcome using all of the tools, learnings and allies accumulated to date. We must enter the sacred cave and slay the dragon that awaits us to release our gold. This can be an internal or external enemy. Everything is put on the line here and there is the sense that the destiny that awaits can only be achieved by risking everything to get there. This is the place of death and rebirth, where incremental change is not possible, it is everything or nothing. Life can never be the same again.
9. Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Having defeated the enemy, the hero can now claim the reward, which could be an object of great power or significance, or perhaps something more subtle, like a deep understanding. Whatever its form, the hero emerges from this trial a stronger and wiser person. The journey is almost complete, but not quite…
10. The Road Back
This is the opposite of that first call to adventure. The call to go home builds now that the hero has achieved their goal and can return home with their prize, perhaps with a new love, perhaps with vindication. With these extra skills and gifts in place, the hero now has a greater awareness of the needs of the wider world and can see the potential to take their new strength and wisdom into a more global environment.
This is the final stage in the battle where the hero faces the threat that extends beyond a particular personal enemy to a wider threat that may challenge the existence of the world itself. All of the tools that have grown within the hero to this point are used to overcome this final challenge.
12. Return With The Elixir
In this final stage, the hero returns to the old world but this time with new understandings, powers and gifts. It is time to bring fresh hope to the old world, whether by leading in a new way or sharing the wisdom acquired. It is time for change in the wider world, inspired by the personal change that has already happened. There is normally some symbol of evidence of the journey taken. As with all these stages, the new world could be internal or external.