Difficulties in life are inevitable. But how we perceive our challenges directly determines the extent to which we suffer, and ultimately, whether we succeed or fail in overcoming them.
One useful tool in overcoming life’s challenges is perceiving yourself as the hero of a great, mythical journey called your life. You may not slay dragons, take your company public, or become an enlightened best-selling author, but the obstacles you face in everyday life are equally daunting. For each victory you achieve – whether it’s staying sober, remaining calm in the face of an irate co-worker, or coming back to your meditation practice after a dry spell – the personal rewards are just as real and fulfilling.
According to narrative mythology, the monomyth, or hero’s journey, is an archetypal story pattern that appears in drama, religious ritual, and psychological development. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, a person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of a tribe, civilization or their own personal development. From Siddhartha Gautama’s journey to becoming the Buddha and Moses’ 40 year sojourn to the Promised Land to Arjuna’s battle royale in the Bhagavad Gita, this archetype has been embedded in the collective human consciousness for millennia.
According to renowned mythologist and transcendental author Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is summarized into twelve steps which comprise three essential stages: First, the hero is forced to leave a familiar world behind to go on a life-changing adventure. Second, he or she is confronted with an initiation, which involves a series of crises that test their inner resolve. Through crisis, the hero develops the qualities ultimately needed to surmount life’s challenges. Finally, transformed by the experience, the hero returns home to share the spoils of victory with those he left behind.
Whatever challenges confront you right now, read on to assess which of the twelve stages of the hero’s journey most apply to your life right now, which you’ve already overcome, and which may lie ahead:
- The Ordinary World. In this first stage, the hero is surrounded by loved ones and the familiar comforts of home, but somehow feels uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware due to an internal conflict, realization or desire for something more. Dissatisfaction with the status quo leaves the protagonist no choice but to consider how to create a new, better life.
- The Call to Adventure. The hero is forced to face the beginning of change, either due to new external pressures or something rising deep from within. Here, he or she is called to step away from the known world of familiar discomfort into an unknown adventure filled with new opportunities and challenges that beckon.
- Refusing the Call. In this stage, the hero again feels the pull of familiar, ordinary world comforts and resists taking the emotional or physical risk required for embracing the adventure. Her fear of danger or failure – or that of someone close to her - creates hesitation for the next essential step.
- Meeting with the Mentor. At some point during the journey, a guide or a teacher will help the hero-to-be gather the necessary courage and tools, find the right path, or pass the tests required to begin and successfully complete their mission. For many, this can be the moment of meeting a guru, spiritual teacher or particular faith as an aid to personal empowerment.
- Initiation. Here, the potential hero crosses the threshold from the known world into a new, unfamiliar, and mystical world often filled with supernatural elements and different rules. The initiation launches him or her on their spiritual quest. This is the point at which there is no turning back without admission that he or she will never be a hero.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies. On all important quests, there are obstacles to overcome and challenges to meet. Along the way, the hero will find allies to assist him in moving toward his goal. There will also be enemies seeking to obstruct the path. Enemies may be people, places, aspects of nature or metaphysically, a part of the hero’s psyche or shadow.
- The Approach to the Innermost Cave. This is the turning point, the moment in which the hero seems to realize completely what must be done and to accept all accompanied risks, including the possibility of failure. In some stories, failure means death. The hero-to-be is operating with full awareness of the consequences of failure.
- The Ordeal. This is the climax, or peak experience in the hero’s journey where death itself must be confronted, or one’s greatest fear. Here, the hero-to-be faces the moment of truth: will he or she ultimately prevail in the struggle against the enemy? Either way, the battle is inevitable.
- The Reward. Out of the moment of death comes new life, and the payoff for the hero’s struggle may be as simple as mortal survival. It could also involve fantastic riches or symbolic prizes that make the difficult journey worthwhile. The reward may be personal growth, self-knowledge, or reconciliation of conflicting parts of the hero’s psyche.
- The Road Back. Here, the protagonist charts her return back to the ordinary world. This can be a difficult journey in itself with additional risks. Some will be able to negotiate the road back, and some will not: the hunter bringing the kill back to the village may be set upon by wolves who steal the hard won prey. Without successfully passing this stage, the quest ends in failure; the adventurer never becomes a hero.
- Resurrection. After successfully making the road back, the protagonist is now a hero: he or she has been transformed by the experience of the quest into a new and better person.
- Return with the Elixir. The hero returns home to the ordinary world and shares with those who stayed behind the prize won on the adventure. The elixir shared can be abstract, such as love, or it can be concrete, such as something the tribe needs in order to survive or prosper. In journeys of personal growth and spiritual development, the elixir can be a certain level of self-realization, or greater understanding about life itself.
Wherever we find ourselves on our personal adventure, the hero’s journey teaches that we are exactly where we’re supposed to be, with all we need to take the next step. As Mother Theresa said, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.”
Battle on, heroes, battle on.