The Hero's Journey:
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled,
but a fire to be kindled."
Plutarch of Chaeronea,
1st century Greek historian
When I was 40, I had a dream. I was kneeling at the feet of a great master, pleading with him not to send me away. I had so much more to learn, I sobbed. There was so much more he needed to teach me. Suddenly, he reached down, grabbed me under my arms, and flung me high into the air. I gasped in terror . . . and then I realized I could fly.
As teachers, psychologists, and parents well know, the human brain goes through many transformations on its way to final capacity. A significant reorganization happens in our early years, which is why most of us can’t remember back past age three or four. Another extensive dendrite trimming and neural reorganization happens to teenagers, which accompanies a quantum leap in abilities and perspective – perhaps much to their parents’ chagrin. These transformational events are phenomenal in that they alter, not only the content, but the very processes of thought. We know this. We marvel over our children’s deepening grasp of the world. And we create school systems capable of responding appropriately to those changes.
But what happens when we become adults? Do our brains simply lose this amazing capacity to transform? For many years, we thought that was true: we thought our brains did, indeed, become set in stone, so to speak, in childhood or adolescence. Thanks to the work of 20th and 21st Century psychologists and neurobiologists, however, we now know that we were wrong. The idea that the adult brain simply stops changing sorely underestimates human potential. The transformation process may become more complex as we age, but the ability to transform remains.
The erroneous belief that the adult brain/mind is unchangeable may be forgiven when we realize how recently the scientific concept of neurobiological plasticity (neurobiological as in the brain and nervous system and plasticity as in the ability and tendency to change) has been accepted as principle. From the field of modern science, we are only recently learning about our abounding ability to change and adapt. By contrast, our mythological heritage - which is, of course, ancient - has always proposed that the entire human project is transformative. Taken as a whole, myth suggests that we have not only the ability, but the responsibility to reimagine ourselves and our world. The hero's journey provides a bridge between the everyday experience of being human and this powerful mythological mandate.
"Through stories we become conscious."
So again, what is the hero's journey?
During the first half of the 20th Century, mythologist Joseph Campbell began a wide-ranging investigation of world mythology. With the publication of his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he made an astonishing claim: He claimed that across time and culture, with all the stories that have emerged from the amazing depths of human imagination, humankind has really been telling itself one particular story over and over - in every book, in every movie, in every statement of philosophy and belief, every legal proclamation, every corporate mission statement, every plan of battle. He called this one story "the hero's journey," and he insisted that it reveals the underlying pattern that can guide us to and through the experience of being alive. He claimed that it offered, in effect, "a treasure map to a life worth living."
Since Campbell introduced his idea almost seven decades ago, the hero's journey has revolutionized storytelling. From film to literature to news reporting, therapy, education, advertising, and corporate decision-making, there is scarcely an aspect of life that has not been affected. According to Campbell, the adventure begins when we step or stumble or perhaps even pushed over the border beyond the familiar into what mythologist Michael Meade calls "the right kind of trouble." This "trouble" propels us ready or not towards mastery.
The hero's journey is called a mono-myth because it is a composite of all the myths that Campbell surveyed. Campbell's study was, of course, retrospective. However, he was able to discern how this mono-myth had already changed and evolved over time. As he wrote, "the realm of mystery and danger" or "the focal point of human wonder" has shifted over time from the animal and plant kingdoms to the miracle of the cosmos to science, industry, biology and psychology until "man himself is now the crucial mystery." Campbell wrote those words in the 1940's at a time when few could imagine the mind-blowing technological leaps we have made in just the last decade. Obviously, the "realm of mystery and danger" and the "focal point of human wonder" continue to shift, and with it, the way in which the hero's journey is experienced.
All programs on the hero's journey draw heavily on Campbell's template, and the program at Bridging the Gulf is no exception. This program, however, attempts to capture the ways the journey has changed since Campbell's time. Campbell, for example, was comfortable with the idea that the Hero was male. By the 1990's, some were suggesting that maybe there were two different heroic paths: one for men and one for women. Today, the Bridging the Gulf program begins with the idea that everyone is a hero, that everyone journeys, and that the journey tailors itself to each individual regardless of sex or gender orientation.
Campbell also presented the journey as a single initiation in three parts: Campbell's Hero begins in the normal world where "he" receives The Call. He crosses into unfamiliar territory for The Initiation, where he is transformed. And he ends by returning to the normal world, where he bestows the gifts he discovered on his journey. By comparison, although the Bridging the Gulf program includes all the same elements, it seeks to capture more of the journey's complexity through a slight shift in structure. Thus at Bridging the Gulf, we design our program around the idea that today's heroes must chart a course through three initiation processes: One to awaken the person to the possibilities of heroic consciousness, a second to challenge adolescent or adolescent-minded heroes to attain a more complete and adult understanding of heroic responsibility, and a third to transform the maturing hero into a true leader.
Because humans are simultaneously (1) individuals, (2) beings-in-community, and (3) beings with a capacity for spiritual or deep psychological experience, the hero's journey weaves a path through and among all of these world views. Interactions between these three realms provide the impetus for growth, change, and transformation, so most programs on the hero's journey address all three to some extent. That said, the extent to which the Bridging the Gulf program emphasizes the socio-cultural realm may be unique.
In this program, socio-cultural contributions to the Hero's maturation process are highlighted, in part, through a trio of archetypes: the Wounded Warrior, the Trickster, and the Deep Feminine. These archetypes, or universal patterns, have literally burst from the seams of contemporary culture over the past few years. Actual, real-world news stories on topics such as healthcare (the Wounded Warrior), fake news (the Trickster), and #metoo (the Deep Feminine) are appearing daily, suggesting that these patterns or classes of issues are particularly activated at this point in history. A study of such activated archetypes can point the way to valuable insights into currently trending dynamics of the unconscious for both the individual and the collective. It can also help us see that when enough individuals stall out and fail to progress from initiation one to two to three, it can have devastating consequences for individuals, the culture, and the planet.
As you, the reader, progress through the explanations of the stages of the hero's journey on this website, you will notice that quotes and scenes, mainly from movies, have been incorporated into the explanations. One hope is that familiar movie references will help enliven potentially drab psychological jargon. However, think about it: the fact that there are movie references for some pretty dense psychological concepts demonstrates just how psychologically sophisticated we have already become. We know more than we think we know. We are telling ourselves amazing stories about baffling and painful experiences. And, as a result of this cultural storytelling, we are pulling ourselves into experiences of community and potential healing around this knowledge.
Perhaps most importantly, however, this program incorporates the work of mythologists and cultural visionaries who continue to help us imagine how the hero emerges from his or her journey with an enthusiasm for elderhood. The questions of why such enthusiasm is important, what modern elderhood might look like, and how we get there from here are timely and important questions. Today's heroes are getting stuck in particularly grueling Underworld experiences, so the fact that this kind of storytelling can pull from the darkness a hopeful message may be more important today than ever before. Bottom line: We desperately need journey elders. And we do well to welcome as much cultural richness as possible into our efforts to support them.
Even though we of the modern world may have forgotten the value of myth, it remains an essential partner for reason and experience in the creation of meaning and purpose. The hero's journey program as presented by Bridging the Gulf celebrates this partnership by using myth and story as a roadmap through contemporary ideas of history, science, culture, psychology, philosophy, neurobiology, human development, current events, and technology to launch us, if we dare, upon a journey into meaning, courage, grace, genius, healing, and imagination. Please, join us on this quest.