April 17, 2020

What is the Hero's Journey?

Embedded deep in the human psyche lies the narrative of what Joseph Campbell called the hero's journey.

Joseph Campbell was a mythologist in the field of comparative mythology. Most scholars were focused on how different cultures’ myths contrast, but Campbell’s research explored the similarities between them.  The mono-myth was the result of his studies.

The mono-myth--found in many tales both ancient and modern-- or "universal story structure" is a template that guides heroes on a journey through five universal stages.

One of Joseph Campbell's main ideas is the depiction of the hero which can be found in many stories. The Hero archetype, according to Campbell, resides within the psyche of every individual. There are several examples of a Hero and the different characteristics that it may have throughout numerous stories - for instance Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker from "Star Wars".

Joseph Campbell was struck by the patterns in world mythologies. Was this just coincidence or something much more meaningful? He saw how the structure of each of these stories had an almost identical pattern. Gautama Buddha, Moses and Jesus Christ all experienced the same sequence steps.

Why should we care about Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey?

Exploring the Hero’s Journey isn't just a Hollywood fad. It's relevant for us as individuals, too.

Today, we typically think that a myth means a story or belief that's widely considered as true but actually isn't. But for people like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, it meant something much more profound than that.

Myths for them, meant symbolic examples of the unconscious motivations and desires that lie dormant in all human beings, told through dreams, meditations and other methods.

And because the hero’s journey is a common experience shared by many cultures, it is relevant to a process all of humanity experiences.

Personal transformation.

The hero is typically born into a world with its own set of accepted rules, beliefs and values acquired through the groups of people they were influenced by. To achieve something worthwhile, however, the hero must escape and evolve these narrow views in order to find him or herself.

During this process, the hero returns to his or her truest self. (or their soul")

The hero’s journey can be seen as an important roadmap for self-development.

3 Main Stages of the Hero’s Journey

The Hero's journey is a universal structure that seems to appear in all around the world. Joseph Campbell focused on this idea heavily, and his extensive research led to 3 main stages of the hero's journey: departure, initiation, and return.

Stage 1: Departure

The Departure stage in Joseph Campbell’s hero archetype is the outer edge for entry to a new world.

The heroes of Star Wars, The Matrix and more all leave their homes to cross into unknown territory.

Stage 2: Initiation

In order for a hero to be successful, they must go through various trials and tribulations. The hero may not succeed in all actions, but they must persevere until the end of this stage. In this stage, allies will be met while facing enemies who want to impede their progress. This is also where mentors with supernatural aid enter into the story line; these "mentors" are often interpreted as other people or gods which give advice and guidance that define the hero's decisions

Stage 3: Return

Having completed their adventure, heroes usually return home. But they're no longer the same- through their trials and hardships, they've matured themself or embraced a new aspect of themselves.

By bringing down The Empire on behalf of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo has come to peace with his past as a rogue smuggler. Likewise for Neo who in freeing himself from the conventions of The Matrix has found his destiny and liberated himself from persecution/censorship.

Knowing where you're at on the Hero's Journey

The steps in the mono-myth are powerful for self-development. Let’s consider them more closely.

Stage 1 represents our comfort zone. We feel safe here because it is known to us.

The first stage is our comfort zone, or the "Campbellian Cave". We feel safe here because it is familiar to us.

Stage 2 and 3 of Campbell's Heroic Journey signify the unknown. Embracing the unknown means letting go of safety.

According to Maslow, we are confronted with an endless series of choices throughout our lives. We have to choose between safety and growth, dependence versus independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity.

In Toward a Psychology of Being Maslow writes:

We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.

The point here is why we all refuse the call to adventure. Most of us cling to safety, rather than embracing growth; that comes from the uncertainty of the unknown.

10 Hero’s Journey Steps

The mono-myth is not linear; it has several stages. Joseph Campbell, outlines all of them in his book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces", deconstructing every stage of the journey

As you read the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, can you identify how they correspond to your own progression?

Step 1: The Ordinary World

Before a hero can venture into the extraordinary world, they must first live in the common world. The ordinary world is different for each of us—it represents our norms, customs, conditioned beliefs, and behaviors.

But deep down, we know that there's more to life, that there's an exciting adventure waiting for us. I Star Wars. You see Luke Skywalker being bored to death as a farm boy before he tackles the universe, the special world, which is a metaphor for stepping into chaos, uncertainty, the unknown, or as you would call the unconscious.

Step 2: The Call to Adventure

The Call to Adventure marks a transition from the ordinary world to the special world. The hero has an opportunity worth fighting for that may lead him, or her, away from who they were before. Rebellious or adventurous tendencies will often dictate whether or not the hero takes up their quest.

Most heroes face a defining decision: embark on the journey to save their loved ones from destruction or stay where it’s safe. The fear of change initially keeps them in our comfort zone, but they eventually learn that no one knows security until they have fully explored and faced all challenges, including danger. In this defining moment, the hero will be prepared to...

Step 3: refusal of the call.

The reluctant hero almost always refuses the call, at least to begin with. Such reluctance is understandable given that it involves facing our fears and insecurity; in fact it is downright scary.

In the Matrix, Morpheus calls Neo and tells them to cross the ledge. But Neo refuses and gets taken away by the bad guys.

The hero's journey is just as much an inner voyage as an external adventure. Refusing the call to adventure in modern life many times refers to avoiding our issues within our unconscious mind. This could be a fear that we haven't faced internally or an opportunity we didn't take because it's too risky. So we don't do anything and wonder what could have been.

Step 4: Cross the First Threshold

Upon crossing the first threshold, the hero’s journey will never be the same. They will face obstacles that they were not expecting, and are now in unfamiliar territory with no way to predict what is ahead. The first threshold marks a major life-changing decision.

Step 5: Trials, Friends, and Foes

On the hero’s journey, which is fraught with obstacles, you might run into someone who may try to discourage you on your quest.

These dream-stoppers can often be cleverly disguised as friends and family who may have good intentions but actually hinder your development. You must identify and align with supporters on your journey to succeed.

Most people don't complete their own hero's journey to maturity, so they'll try and sabotage yours.

Step 6: Magical Mentor (or the Mentor with Supernatural Aid)

A common archetype in the Hero's Journey is the early encounter with a wise sage. This can be one of the most important roles in the hero’s journey, with the mentor guiding them throughout their quest.

Think Obi-Wan, Yoda, Gandalf, Morpheus, or Dumbledore.

Often cloaked in mystery and a secret language, mentors are people who help guide the hero on their journey. However, today's world lacks elders to effectively bless future generations of heroes.

For most of us, it is best to seek wise counsel from your Higher Self, the inner guide within.

Step 7: approach to the innermost cave.

The next challenging threshold is often one of the most dangerous and difficult obstacles for even experienced heroes to overcome. Entering the villain’s lair or the belly of the beast, this second major decision usually puts the protagonist at significant physical and psychological risks.

Inside the most deep and hidden layer in the cave, oftentimes without even knowing it himself, the hero approaches his goal. In many cultures, caves symbolize a return to the mother. These symbolic caves are most often considered a maternal protective force that can offer comfort and security for someone in need of refuge. For a man, this represents the Mother Complex, a regressive part of him that seeks to return to the safety of the mother. When a man craves comfort and safety, it means that he is entrapped, in the most inward recesses of his psyche.

Like when the Oracle tells me that Morpheus or he will die and that Neo has the power to choose who or when, the Green Goblin asks Spider-Man to join him. But Peter refuses. It is at this stage in the hero's journey, which the hero has to make a very tough decision.

Step 8: Moments of Ordeal & Despair

No worthwhile quest is easy. The path to growth, discovery, and self-realization presents many perils. A major obstacle to overcome confronts the hero, and success is no longer certain. A chilling possibility for the future may be looming: mental imprisonment or certain death.

This is the most desperate moment for the hero, the rock-bottom depth of a crisis, the dead end of the journey when all hope seems lost. But with one more ounce of strength, creativity or faith to find his way out of what feels like an impossible situation, he digs into the deepest, darkest, hidden part of himself  and emerges victorious beyond measure and transformed from who he was before that challenge.

Only through the form of death can the hero be reborn, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection that somehow granted greater power or insight necessary in order to fulfill his destiny. This is the high point of the hero's story and where everything he holds dear is put on the line. If he fails, he will either die or life as he knows. That will never be the same again.

This is usually the biggest challenge a hero must face, such as a deep in a crisis or hitting rock bottom. Only through the form of death can the hero be reborn, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection that somehow granted greater power or insight necessary in order to fulfill his destiny. This is the high point of the hero's story and where everything he holds dear is put on the line. If he fails, he will either die or life as he knows. That will never be the same again.

Step 9: Ultimate Treasure

After triumphing the ordeal in the innermost cave, the hero receives the reward. Whether it's a physical object, knowledge or even love, the true or healing elixir is the treatment of inner change.

In the Matrix, Neo blames himself for Morpheus being captured, so he decides to re-enter the Matrix to save him.

The reward can come from settling a conflict with a family member or even healing a trauma which gives you much better understanding of yourself, your values and your purpose, which in turn allows you to live a much happier and fulfilled life.

Step 10: The Road Back

After the hero gains the reward, he or she isn't out of the woods just yet. This stage marks the decision to return to the ordinary world, and the trials, temptations and tests encountered on the journey where villains have become more prevalent and other restraints impede progress.

This can be referred to as the shadow, chasing him with a vengeance. Manifesting itself psychologically through neurosis, bad habits, behavior patterns, old addictions, and dark pasts coming back to haunt us like an ex-girlfriend, for example, after we thought we were done with them forever.

Heroes under these conditions need to face unresolved issues within themselves before they return to a world that is now foreign to them in some ways, no matter how much they think it will seem like home.

Revisiting values by exploring the Shadow, and constant self-inquiry helps the hero identify weaknesses that will later play against them and preventing him living his true human potential.

For example Neo can finally free himself and leave the Matrix after killing Agent Smith.

Step 11: Rebirth & The Champion’s Return

Before returning home—before the adventure is over—there’s often one more unsuspected, unforeseen ordeal. In order to feel confident about returning home, the hero must first reach an uneasy final climax which may be more futile than the prior moment of despair, but provides one last test to solidify the growth of the hero.

During this rebirth, death and darkness are encountered one more time before being conquered for good. Danger is usually at the peak of the entire story, and the threat is to the entire world, not just the hero. The stakes are at their very highest.

The hero uses all lessons learned on the journey to overcome this final battle and emerges transformed.

In the Matrix, this is portrayed as Trinity tells Neo that she loves him so he must be the one. After hearing those words, he so then near revives and kills Agent Smith.

This rebirth experience could represent whats known in Jungian psychology as an ego death, for example, which can trigger an enlightening experience.

Quite simply, this is the process of going to the darkest depths of our psyche during the hardest depression, hitting rock bottom, extracting that wisdom and using it as the fuel to create the fire in the belly that helps push us forward.

This is a critical point in the hero's journey where modern heroes realizes that they had the power within them the whole time

Step 12: Gift of the Goddess

Once the transformation is complete, the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir or gift of the goddess, a treasure or a new understanding. Returning with the gift or elixir means the hero can now implement change in his daily life and use the lessons of the adventure to heal his wounds and help others in the ordinary world.

He is transformed into an eternal hero who can walk in and become master of both worlds, with the freedom to live and grow, impacting all of humanity. Returning with the prize, the hero’s experience of reality is different. He is no longer an innocent child or adolescent seeking excitement or adventure. Comfortable in his own skin, he has evolved and is now capable of handling demands and challenges.

If the hero fails to learn his or her lesson within a quest undertaken in an "inmost cave" of self, this can lead to endless repetition of the ordeal.

The hero's adventure is consequently like a painful karmic cycle that will keep hitting us time and time again until we finally understand the life lesson for which we've been searching.

Step 13: Ascent to a higher dimension

The cyclic hero's journey is one in which you face challenges and are constantly faced with the shadow, i.e. your own hidden dark side that helps you grow constantly and gain wisdom - but this isn't easy. Facing your dark nature can be the scariest task of all, but it's also the only way to fully transform, live your true-potential, contribute to the world meaningfully and evolve.

And this all starts with accepting that call to adventure, facing your fears, walking your path to self discovery and living your truth.

The Hero’s Journey in Movies

Have you been watching films and television series with an eye for the hero’s journey steps?

Today’s society faces one challenge: many popular film franchises produce movies that do not complete the hero’s journey. Many popular characters in action films like Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, James Bond, etc. never transform.

Our heroes remain young and adolescent. Except for Robin Hood, these characters do not grow into vulnerable adults searching for adventure or generative members of society.

The archetypal journey of Hero’s Journey mono-myth isn’t in line with mature adulthood, but is more a component of adolescence and arriving at adulthood requires completing the mono-myth first.

Where Are You On Your Hero’s Journey?

As you journey through life, do you feel that you have a hero's journey?

In all of our tales, we have a universal form—common elements we share. Whether you are six or sixty years old, in love with your best friend or walking to the grocery store down the street, we can recognize these common threads from our own own personal experiences.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is often about opening yourself to a higher calling by merging with your inner being. For example, building a successful business or wanting to become a great parent can lead you on the hero’s journey and when you begin to prioritize the internal growth of self-fulfillment, then your quest evolves from one of worldly achievement.

The Primary Ingredient in Every Hero’s Journey

Interesting stories (in both narratives and life) always come back to one thing: problems.

The hero's story isn't complete until he overcomes adversity. Problems - both external and internal - can shape a compelling narrative if they are faced head-on by the protagonist, who conquers his fear in order to resolve them.

The conflict of Joseph Campbells Hero's Journey is whether or not the hero will relinquish control or reconcile their inner selves with their outward journey

Psychological development is the process of coming to terms with difficulties, overcoming obstacles, and breaking out of old patterns in order to become mature.

Your Call to Adventure

Few people consciously embark on the Hero's Journey, a psychological process that leads to realization of true human potential.

It can be difficult to confront the unknown, and many of us put off our quest until we feel ready. We procrastinate our journey by:

  • Putting important matters aside.
  • Using delay tactics.
  • Filling our downtime with social media and other people’s lives.
  • Excuse making.
  • Becoming lazy

But something within us is brewing. A tension has been building inside; a conflict that becomes stronger with each passing moment in the darkness. We can sense this internal battle, feeling as if opposing forces are at play whenever we root out tension-fueled mis-alignments from within ourselves.

To appease this inner discord, we act and seek out the resolution that will make everything feel equal again, consciously or unconsciously.

We all find ourselves on a hero's journey, be it currently or from the past. What matters is what you do today—right now.

How to Begin Your Hero’s Journey

There is no easy way to tell you how to go on a hero journey or what it should look like for you. But, it starts with awareness. Awareness is the seed that triggers exploration into new, unknowns and that's where the treasure is found.

I believe the most valuable thing about having a coach is that they don’t tell you what to do. A good coach questions and challenges your thoughts, but only helps when looking for the answers inside of yourself.

Ready to embark on a journey? I have crafted a series of coaching sessions that will include assessments, discovery processes, assignments, and guides in all areas of your hero’s journey.

Think of it as your personal roadmap for activating your inner hero!

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