The hero in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has gone into the dark unknown, overcome all challenges with the aid of supernatural helpers, found bliss, and either stayed in that state of nirvana for eternity or returned to the world which he left in order to pass on his wisdom. What’s left? Simply, Campbell tells us, the freedom to live without fear of death.
Life as a Battlefield
Campbell discusses the battlefield from the Bhagavad Gita as a symbol for the battlefield of life. Not only is death inevitable but also “every creature lives on the death of another.” This is an idea Campbell pointed out often, influenced by his knowledge of and respect for traditional Native-American culture when people lived off the land and used all parts of animals they killed for their daily needs. This, he felt, was part of living in harmony with nature.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, the warrior, is turned off by the prospect of battling those whom he’s come to love. He shies away from being a bringer of death to family members, teachers, and friends. Lord Krishna shows him a wider truth. The death-bringer is always time and not the Ego. The body is merely a placeholder in the material world for the soul, which is eternal.
I also, however, can see the battlefield as representing the psyche. A battlefield is a place of conflict and cruelty, and these exist in all of us. We butt heads against people, including those we care about and respect, daily. We mistreat others. We manipulate them. We hurt them. We do selfish things. We drive ourselves and others to destruction. These are facts.
The enemy is the worst in ourselves. Psychologically, we can see Arjuna’s enemies as representing parts of himself that he’s grown attached to. He’s willing to sacrifice himself to avoid dealing with them. Growth into our better Self is an ugly process because it means death to that which we’ve grown attached to. But doing this is part of the cosmic plan. What else is there in life for us except to constantly work on rising to the highest level of consciousness we can attain?
Avoiding the battle with the worst parts of ourselves is one ineffective choice. The other is to charge forth eagerly with a sense of self-righteousness. But that’s no good either. Self-righteousness separates us from the enemy, so we fight without owning the worst parts of ourselves. This blocks long-term change. It’s similar to people with addictions not owning their behavior. If they refuse to point to themselves as the ones responsible for change (and place responsibility, for instance, on their circumstances), the potential for change is given over to forces outside themselves. If things start going well for them, there may be short-term change. But if things start going badly again, they’ll discover that change never really happened; it just seemed to.
The answer to this dilemma, Campbell writes, is detachment from the outcomes of our actions in the sense of attaching Ego-glorification or Ego-humiliation to them. Myths show us our relationship to eternity, making death meaningless. It’s simply a return to the void from which we came.
These are all very Eastern ideas, but what meaning does it have for our lives? Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what we do or how we do it? In my previous post about the Hero’s Journey, “Master of the Two Worlds,” I mentioned the link between our personal destiny and the destiny of humanity. Fulfilling our personal destiny is what we contribute to the general evolution of humankind. Perhaps keeping that in mind is the point here. All that we’re meant to accomplish in our lives is for a higher purpose, though we may never really know what part we’ve played.
There’s a peace of mind that comes to us in thinking of our lives this way that keeps us out of the double trap of Ego-glorification/Ego-humiliation. We first learn to accept that the battle is the work we have to do. No one gets out of coming face-to-face with the worst parts of themselves, sooner or later. One triumph is only one triumph and not the eradication of all enemies (and thus the end of the work, which doesn’t end as long as we live in the world of time). At the same time, one personal triumph is one triumph for humankind as a whole, and that’s bigger than any of us.
I think Campbell’s main point in this section is that the knowledge that death is as natural to life as anything else we experience frees us to live without anxiety over it.
The goal of the myth is to…effect a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. And this is effected through a realization of the true relationship of the passing phenomena of time to the imperishable life that lives and dies in all.
On a day-to-day level, we can reconcile our individual purpose to the greater purpose of humankind by making choices that are in harmony with it. Feelings of self-blame like guilt and humility should be doorways to learning, not chains stuck to our necks. The choice to move humankind as a whole one step up the ladder of consciousness begins with the choice to move ourselves one step up that ladder.