The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell studied 114 cultures to find common mythic themes, and a central one was the Hero’s journey—how people are challenged, meet challenges, and are transformed by their struggles. We are on different Hero’s Journeys all the time. Our journeys as mother, father, son, daughter, expert, survivor, lover, healer, and so on are all forms of the Hero’s journey. The challenges and demands of life are calls to accept or refuse. Disappointments, accidents, assaults, setbacks, desertions, betrayals, and the random insanities of existence are all examples of these challenges. Traumas are the trials on our Hero’s journeys that plague us and shape us. If we keep moving forward, open to insight and change, we can live a happy ending at the beginning of something wonderful.
Here’s a personal example from my own history.
I was an intense teenager. A happy childhood morphed into a crazy 60s world. The Viet Nam war, the draft, the American diet—I saw nothing I wanted in any of it. As I entered adolescence, my relatives were dying, my anxious and depressed emotions were overwhelming, and my emergent sexuality was urgent and unmanageable. Life, family, the world, sex, and people were too much, and I went crazy. I was overwhelmed with despair, negative and combative, and a nightmare to live with. My parents wisely got us into family therapy, and it felt magical to me (though I was too far gone to recognize this till much later). After a number of sessions and a six week hospitalization (complete with ECT), I finally got more or less on track as a young man. In the hospital I realized I needed a new life story. I had always admired healers and warriors, and so I decided to become a psychotherapist and a martial artist. Three years later I was awarded a black belt in Shotokan Karate, and ten years later I got my first psychotherapy license. I continued episodic therapy sessions with our family therapist, Dr. Joe Erickson.
When I was 17, Joe gave me a copy of Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. That book woke me up! I not only saw myself in the archetypal forms, I saw everyone living their own personal myths engaged in their own epic journeys. The Hero’s Journey is a universal archetype in all human cultures. Whether we like it or not, we are always living part of a story where:
- We’re called. For me the first call was the challenge of adolescence in the 60s.
- We refuse. I chose to go crazy rather than take on the responsibilities of my emergent life in a crazy world.
- We are called again. I was in the hospital, realizing I needed profound change.
If we say, “Yes,” we have to defeat the Threshold Guardian. The threshold guardian is any force that blocks us from our journey. I was frightened of the intensity of the Karate practices, and the social and athletic demands of my 15-to-18-year-old life. I faced the challenges, showed up to train and grow athletically and socially, and ultimately progressed in all the arenas I entered.
- We struggle through the path of trials. The most physically dangerous time for U.S. teens is 15 to 25, and I was no exception. There were a number of trials I had to endure during that dangerous time—I was arrested, I fell in love, I dropped out of college, and joined the hippy counterculture. With each trial, I tried to be guided by my wise self and to do right, gradually developing confidence in myself as a healer and a warrior.
- We must endure the dark night of the soul. I had some crazy times! Once I spent a night running from assailants in Crescent City California on the heels of a devastating breakup with my lover of three years, who had decided I was not the guy for her. I hadn’t felt such despair since my insanity at 15, but this time I reentered therapy and refocused my intentions to love and grow.
- We reconcile with the divine masculine and the divine feminine. I chose therapists versed in Psychosynthesis and Jungian psychology because I knew different parts of me were fragmented and needed integration. I began to see how the deeper archetypal forces in me were connected to profound energies in the material and spiritual worlds. I saw clearly how the spirituality at the core of my martial arts was the most profound benefit of the training. These connections became foundations of my therapy and life, and have been evolving ever since.
- We are transformed into deeper consciousness. I began to have the first experiences of mastery in doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy, and I found a partner who wanted to grow with me—my wife Becky who is still with me after 48 years. My spiritual and clinical practices began generating synchronicities and psychic experiences that further convinced me that “There is another world all around us.”
- We return home to give a gift to the community. I became a therapist and teacher for individuals, couples, and families, as Becky and I did our best to have a loving supportive family and keep growing as individuals, friends, lovers, and parents
We are on different Hero’s Journeys all the time. The challenges and demands of life are calls to accept or refuse. Disappointments, accidents, assaults, setbacks, desertions, betrayals, and the random insanities of existence are all ordeals we can face and transform into deeper strengths. Traumas are the trials on our Hero’s journeys that plague us and shape us. If we keep moving forward, open to insight and change, we can live a happy ending at the beginning of something wonderful.