The hero of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey can get the boon in two main ways:
- It’s given to him by divine forces. If that happens then they’ll be there to help him with his return.
- Divine/demonic forces don’t want to hand it over, so he has to take it by force. In order to make the return, he has to escape them.
The magic flight happens in case #2. Spiritually, the hero sheds himself of all previous ideas about the darkness that lies beyond death to fully embrace enlightenment. From a practical point of view, we can see the magic flight as the not uncommon experience of having to “fly” from those who should support us but are trying to prevent us from change.
The Spiritual Magic Flight
Before I discuss the spiritual significance of the magic flight, I should point out that Campbell’s discussion gets a bit confusing because it’s difficult to place this in the Hero’s Journey sequence, particularly in light of the myths he gives as examples. So my interpretation here may be a bit more on the “creative” side than some of my other posts.
When the hero forcefully takes the boon, he’s often chased by a tenacious magical being and has to hurl objects behind him in order to head off his pursuer. Often the pursuer is an ugly creature (the Gorgon sisters chasing Perseus after he killed Medusa, for instance). This is the symbol of the darkness beyond death being too much to handle.
If we gain this knowledge, we have a boon but it terrifies us because it goes against what we were taught (for instance, that some omnipotent being will judge whether we deserve eternal bliss or not, so as long as we obeyed the being’s will, we’re safe). What the hero hurls at the pursuer are the old ideas about death and the Eternal that he was taught and no longer needs.
So the light does come, but first we have to pass through the darkness of our imagination that conjures up the scariest monsters. Note this is different from the blocks discussed in The Road of Trials. Those were psychological and referred to the Self. These blocks go beyond the Self and involve the essence of the Universe. Enlightenment shows us these, and we must discard all previous teachings about the nature of the death experience in order to receive what we actually experience, not what we were taught or expected to experience.
The Practical Magic Flight
If we see the Hero’s Journey as representing a process of change, the flight may symbolize an unfortunate fact that many of us have to face: Those who should have our best interests at heart don’t always have it. Sometimes, we gain wisdom that threatens them and we have to cut ourselves off from them in order to have the boon. Otherwise, we’ll remain under their power for a good long time, if not forever.
Abuse survivors will sometimes speak of going no-contact with their families, meaning they cease all contact with them. This is never an easy decision. Healing from abuse gets at the heart of what’s wrong with the family system and forces other family members to see it. Some will use these realizations as a catalyst for change within themselves and in their lives. Others will do all they can to make the abuse survivor feel guilty, crazy, ungrateful, and ashamed. They must go no-contact with these unsupportive family members in order to complete their healing and move on.
Just as the hero has to come up with clever ways on the spot to head the persistent pursuer off, we must resist that which pursues us when we grab the boon (positive change). Sometimes, these are destructive people who don’t want to see us succeed and constantly nag and needle, trying to undermine our new sense of empowerment. The success of others in things we’ve struggled with and perhaps even doubt we can ever achieve triggers in many of us a crisis. We persistently fight facing the truth, that the other person’s success makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Sometimes, though, the pursuers are in the mind. That which has taken root in us for years, sometimes even since birth, is extremely difficult to let go of. Beliefs, expectations, and assumptions about the world and ourselves persistently pull at us to abandon the boon, which brings clarity. We’ve seen through the illusions, but that’s not enough sometimes to get away with the boon. We have to commit to the truth and to living our lives differently. That kind of commitment is an ongoing process, hence the pursuing false beliefs, expectations, and assumptions.
When the boon is taken by force, as it must sometimes be, the spiritual return involves discarding all illusions and returning to the land of the living with a clearer head. When the boon is change, the flight is no less magical because we tear ourselves away from forces that would only be too happy to hold us back forever.