Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has taken us away from the place of comfort, into the unknown place, past the guardian, and into “the belly of the whale.” This is just the beginning. A myth, of course, sets up a series of tasks that the hero must go through in order to make it through the unknown place and achieve his goal (the treasure, the princess, freedom from tyranny, etc.). If only life could be easier than myths! But the Hero’s Journey is about growth, and growth is never quick or easy.
Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.
Campbell’s description sounds very much like a description of the unconscious mind. Dreams come from there and often contain “curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.” When writing about the unknown place, I spoke of the fears that our mind conjures up even before we’ve gone very far on our journey. Some of the trials we face involve those fears, but they also involve things we can only become aware of as we move into unknown territory:
Potential: We’re often blind to possibilities until we leave the place of comfort and try something new. It’s a well-known phenomenon that once we set the wheels of change in motion, we see things we didn’t see before and we grow in directions we didn’t know we could.
Realizations: The guardian represents the major block to entering the unknown place or getting very far into it. There are, however, other blocks that pop up along the way that we didn’t even see before.
Destruction: Part of the trials we have to endure as we move through the unknown place is getting over destructive behavior patterns and thoughts.
Knowledge: The trials lead us to uncover wisdom about human nature and how the world works. As we work through the trials of reaching a goal, we learn more about life, and we carry those lessons with us into future journeys.
In addition to knowledge, the trials act as purification. Campbell shows his psychoanalytical influences when he describes them as “the infantile images of our personal past,” but certainly we can see this purification process as part of becoming wiser. Knowledge doesn’t do much good if we’re not affected enough by it to change how we think and behave.
Purification is important because if we want to change for the better, we have to do things differently. That means we have to see what’s really going on, particularly the negative effects from it. We have to choose to let go of what was safe but destructive so that we can move beyond it.
I saw an example of this just this week. I helped an older student write an essay about what inspired her to return to school. One of her biggest challenges was getting over the belief that she was too old (she’s nearing 60). She’s only just begun her studies and is finding the workload and academic demands very difficult. Each difficulty (trial) she’s facing and will face can potentially stop her. There’s no room for “kind of” here. If we retreat from a single challenge, we’ll never get the treasure that’s waiting for us at the end of the journey.
It’s Not Just About Suffering
Mercifully, there’s a bright side to this process. With the trials piling up on us as we move through the unknown territory, it can seem like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
Meanwhile, there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.
As we work through long-standing blocks and release ourselves from one destructive belief or behavior after another, we’re rewarded with a kind of high that only comes from triumphing over a stubborn adversary. The alcoholic who gets out of rehab and finds herself still alcohol-free six months later knows this feeling. So does the domestic abuse survivor who’s finally left alone by her abusive ex because she consistently refused to let him lure her back. And the entrepreneur who didn’t go back to the cubicle even when he had to live on rice and beans for what seemed like forever.
Perhaps the trials along the road aren’t the real test. Perhaps the real test is the length of the road. If it were short, the trials wouldn’t be so bad because there wouldn’t be so many. But when we battle one trial only to see three more coming our way, it can make us just want to give up. Such is the Hero’s Journey.
Or do ye think that ye should enter the Garden of Bliss without such trials as came to those who passed away before you? –Koran, 2:214