Have you ever felt that something in your life is missing, that you are sleepwalking through life, or that you have something big to offer but have no idea what it is? If you have - in fact, if you are reading this blog post - you are likely at the beginning of the hero’s journey.
Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence, wrote extensively on the human experience, but his best known work is his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949). In it, he details what he called “the hero’s journey” - the path that everyone must take in order to live their bliss [Campbell]. Campbell’s 12-stage structure of this spiritual journey has been used as the formula for stories told throughout millennia.
You see the hero’s journey everywhere. Movies and books like Shakespeare in Love, Star Wars, The Hobbit trilogy, The Matrix, or Million Dollar Baby are all about the archetypal hero who is initially seen as different, misguided, or crazy because they have a calling, a deep desire that flies in the face of current wisdom or societal order. To follow that calling, they must go off on their own to face numerous challenges and ordeals in order to come through the other side. The culmination? Living an authentic, soul-driven, passionate life that makes the most of the unique gifts the hero has been given.
The 12 stages are designed to give the hero inner strength and wisdom, as well as acquire the guides and mentors they will need to truly live their bliss. To begin, each hero must leave the “ordinary world” (i.e. their current safe life) for the “special world”. Once in the special world, the hero must go on an inward journey in order to deeply connect with their own soul. It is in the special world that each hero defines their dream, heals their wounds, and finds their gifts. This middle stage requires facing numerous challenges designed to give the hero the courage needed to live their heart’s desire, regardless of what society tells them is possible. Finally, when they are secure in their quest and their own abilities, they re-enter the “ordinary world” as an enlightened or transcendent master ready to offer their gifts to others.
The Hero's Journey - Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth; Dan Bronzite, movieoutline.com
The journey always begins with the call, a deep desire to do something regardless of what people think is prudent, safe, or realistic. For me, my call was to leave the 9 to 5 corporate world, and it came when I realized I was no longer the kind, loving, always smiling, optimistic Julie I had been. Instead, I was burnt out, irritable, pessimistic, judgmental and sarcastic. I hated who I had become and at the same time, felt deeply that I had more to give. Like me, many heroes-in-the-making refuse this call - sometimes for months or years, sometimes for a lifetime. It took me over 5 years to understand that the voice inside my head, the one that told me I wanted to live a very different life than the one I was living, just wasn’t going away.
Once you begin to entertain the notion of accepting the call, there is often an initial guide that arrives to shine a light on the life you might have. Your guide doesn’t have to be someone you know, or even someone in the flesh. She can be an author (dead or alive), a TV or film superstar, a professor, or a boss. For me, it was an unexpected email from the founder of a school for health coaches in New York City that finally moved me to action. I crossed the threshold into the special world when I applied to their certification course and subsequently quit my job to become a health coach and entrepreneur.
Once in the special world, it’s time to face the challenges and ordeals that test your commitment to this journey. It is here that you must develop a deep connection to yourself and an abiding faith that you will always be supported by God, the Universe, your soul, the cosmos - whatever you call that element of life that is much bigger than yourself. Fortunately, you meet mentors along the way who help you navigate your passage and deepen your understanding of your soul, gifts and unique calling on this earth. This is an exceedingly spiritual, inward voyage that, though difficult, is made easier by events and connections that show you how amazing life can be “on the other side”.
My own path through the special world has taken 4 years. I am just now breaking through to see glimpses of my return to the ordinary world. I have faced mounting debt, many rejections, a stripping away of my previous identity, marital tension as I navigated the new me, and a morphing of my original call into something quite different. In full transparency, my tests and challenges culminated, for a time, in a profound sense of despair. This is not uncommon - it’s the stage Joseph Campbell would call “entering the innermost cave” and what others call “the dark night of the soul.” While not everyone experiences this rock bottom, wrung out, desperate place, if your calling is a big one, it can be a prerequisite before leaving the special world.
It’s important for me to admit here that my journey has lasted much longer than it might have purely because I kept refusing to heed my true passions, over and over again. My ego, my personality, whatever you want to call that “bad boyfriend” voice in your head kept saying “who do you think you are, you are not special, you are a fraud, and you are not smart enough”. Quite frankly, it took me far too long to stop listening. So here’s where you learn from me - the longer you continue to listen to your false inner voice that, in one way or another, tells you you’re not good enough, the longer your journey through the special world will last.
Once I accepted that my metaphorical boyfriend was bad and sent him lovingly, but firmly, packing, my life started to shift towards what Campbell would call “seizing the sword”. Mentors started to appear, I made new friends who resonate with the new me, and I received new opportunities. But this shift only happened once I totally embraced who I am called to be - no longer a social worker, hospital administrator or even a health coach - but a speaker, blogger, social change agent, and above all, a writer. It wasn’t until I could actually say - out loud without having a panic attack - “I am a writer” that my life started to change.
I am slowly making my way back to the ordinary world, newly armed with the tools that are required for transcendental living: a method for tapping into my intuition, a support system that includes mentors, friends and family who believe in me, a deep spiritual base that sustains me, and a profound commitment to living an authentic life.
Has it been worth it - the debt, the despair, the strife, the loss of who I was? Profoundly, yes. I no longer worry, I don’t do drama, I have time to create and play, and I am at peace. My life is utterly different than it was 4 years ago. I know now I wasn’t even living my life back then; I was living a life that just happened to me. As Shauna Niequist says in her book Present Over Perfect, “As I look back, in many instances, I simply followed the natural course of things. And great things happened, mostly. But over time I realized they weren’t necessarily great things for me.” Now, on the other side of my own hero’s journey, I am living a life that is intentional, authentic, soul-filled and fluid.
I truly believe more and more women, in particular, are being called to their own hero’s journey, and the world needs every single one of you. I’m convinced that those of us who successfully navigate this path will guide this planet to its next incarnation. At the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summitt, the Dalai Lama said “the world will be saved by the western woman” and I think he was talking about us. Not Western women per se, but the women everywhere who are brave enough to accept the call to their own hero’s journey. Blog written by contributing author Julie Trager. (http://www.julietrager.com)