The Call came for me at an Easter sunrise service in 1960.
I was gathered with my church youth group on a bluff overlooking north central New Jersey. We were standing together and looking East, waiting for the sun to rise. Slowly a golden light spread out over the sky . I stood there transfixed by its brilliance.
That was the moment when The Call arrived.
Suddenly I experienced a piercing sensation in the middle of my heart. Never before had I experienced this kind of intensity inside my body. I was overwhelmed.
The experience lasted less than a minute. Its effect lasted a lifetime.
What was that? I had no idea what had just happened. There was no one I could ask. The people in my life would not understand either. It remained my secret for years. But somehow, somewhere, I was bound and determined to get an answer.
It would take me half a century before I would find the ultimate answer.
The Hero’s Journey as a mythological expression of our spiritual quest.
In 1949 Joseph Campbell published his classic book The Hero’s Journey. Four decades later it hit the New York Times Best Sellers list. In the book, Campbell discussed many cultural myths which, he said, revealed an overall archtypal framework for attaining a fully realized life.
But what do we mean when we speak of a “fully realized life”? As we will explore later, there are two very different understandings of this term, and two very different interpretations of the Hero’s Journey. This distinction is important if we are to truly understand the nature of enlightenment.
The Hero’s Journey is an adventure story in which an ordinary person is summoned to undertake a perilous journey in order to find a treasure of great value. In the story the treasure is depicted as a priceless object. In reality the actual treasure is to reach an inner state of psychological fulfillment.
Campbell insisted that the story was an encouragement for people to get in touch with their innermost desires and to “follow their bliss”.
The basic story line is simple. There is an ordinary person living an ordinary life. One day he or she receives The Call. This journey is not self-motivated. It is a response to a summons that comes from outside the circumstances of our ordinary lives.
In real life, the call comes from within. It comes from a part of us that knows that life can be so much more than what we are living now.
The Call is an invitation to depart from normal life and to begin a life of adventure.
Along the way the Hero encounters mentors and guides. This journey is too challenging to be undertaken without some support.
The Hero will have to enter the underworld, a mysterious realm that lies beyond normal reality. The Hero’s first test is to get past the centurions, guards who block access to the gateway into the underworld.
This is the point of no return. Once past the guards, there is no turning back.
In the underworld the Hero faces a series a tests. These are the challenges which give the Hero a chance to discover his or her true character. It is the act of facing each test that transforms this ordinary person into a true Hero. After the final test, the Hero is able to lay hands on the treasure and to bring it forth from the underworld and back into every day life.
Different cultures tell the story in their own way. But the core of the narrative is straight forward: go inside and face your demons.
At the core of the Journey lies a simple, basic question: does the Hero have what it takes to succeed?
The Journey Spirals Through Outer and Inner Worlds Linking Them Together
In real life the tests are subtle because they are woven into the fabric of our lives.
Tests include the fraying of relationships, failures on the job, substance abuse, co-dependencies, unresolved conflicts.
To gather our strength for the tests we will face, we go inward and renew our resolve. The inner world sends us back outward with the strength and conviction to go forward.
In myth the tests are often portrayed as mythological beasts such as dragons or giants. In real life the dragons that you slay are not some fire breathing beast that towers over you but your own inner demons that whisper in your ear that you are not up to the challenge you face.
Inner demons are fear, anger, self-limiting beliefs, the conviction that you are personally flawed. If you are unwilling to face these inner demons, your outer trials will probably not go well.
The core of the journey is the growing wisdom that builds on what you have learned from engaging life in the outer world. It is the slow tortuous removal of the negative residue from your early life and the forming of a firm foundation for living vitally and creatively in your later life.
With time, patience, and perserverence, you develop an inner strength that is ready to respond to every outer challenge before you. When you learn how to connect to this inner steadiness you discover that you have an inner core that is anchored to an absolute inner reality. This inner core is your bedrock. It gives you confidence to openly meet each challenge that life sets before you.
The journey spirals out from your inner world and into the outer world. You face a challenge, you decide on a course of action, you act, and then you assess the results. When your outer trial is over, you return back to the inner world to assess the impact of what you have done. What has this experience taught you about yourself. What, if anything, do you need to change?
This spiraling out and circling back becomes the rhythm of your life. Each challenge you face is an opportunity to recommit to the journey.
This spiraling in and out of both worlds is the thread that binds them together. The Hero’s Journey is the thread that sews together and re-aligns your two worlds. It is your pathway home.
(The articles at the ends of this chapter discuss the inner process in more detail.)
The Fork in the Road: Self Fulfillment or Enlightenment?
The Hero’s Journey is a story about facing the tests and bringing forward your true inner strength. It is the story of the blossoming of the self. It is about reaching your true fulfillment. It is, as Joseph Campbell called it, the way to find your bliss. This is the first interpretation of the phrase “self-realization”.
But it does not describe the process for finding enlightenment. That is a journey with a different ending.
And so, at some point along the way, you come to a fork in the road. The fork to the left allows you to continue on your journey to self-fulfillment. The fork to the right takes you on the journey to enlightment.
Which kind of journey will you be on?
Deep within you is a place that signals your true direction. This is not a choice you make with your mind. This choice comes from the heart.
The second version of the Hero’s Journey.
If you take the fork in the road which goes to the right, you embark on a journey towards enlightenment. This is the second version of “self-realization”. It is the realization that there is no “self”.
In this journey, you start to feel as if you are losing control. There are times when you are not directing the journey, the journey is directing you. The journey is starting to take on a life of its own. It is leading you into places where you might not want to go.
If you take the fork that goes to the right you and must give up control. This means you can no longer be the Hero. The Hero is the one who is in control. The Hero is the one who prevails. The Hero is the one who stands tall and proud at the end of the journey. That Hero has no role to play when you take the fork to the right.
The Death of the Hero
The Journey to Enlightenment will bring the Hero to one last final test, and this is the test that the Hero cannot win.
The Hero is the strengthening of the Self. It is the culmination of the Self-Fulfillment Journey. But on the Journey to Enlightenment, it is the very strength of the Self that becomes the final obstacle to reaching that which you seek.
The Hero has brought you this far. It is the embodiment of your strengths, your skills, your knowledge, your character, everything about you that makes you the unique person that you are.
But the Hero has nothing to do with your true identity. The Hero has become the last and greatest test of them all. For you to reach your goal, the Hero must die.
The willingness to die is the true Heroic action. The last dragon that you have to slay is the a world of our own creation. You have met the enemy and it is you.
This journey forces you to face the hardest question of life: who am I really?
To learn what his last and greatest test will be, the Hero returns to consult the Oracle.
She tells the Hero that beyond the distant mountains the lie to the East he will find a great valley. In the middle of that valley is the Lake of True Knowledge. Beside the lake he will encounter his last and greatest challenge.
And then she delivers the crushing blow. I am sorry to tell you this, she says, but this a challenge that you cannot win.
The Hero feels incensed. I have conquered every demon that I have faced. Who is she to tell me that I cannot prevail with this challenge also?
For days the Hero climbs the path that will take him over the mountains to the East. Then he makes his way down the backside of the mountain into the valley beyond. In the middle of the valley, as foretold, he finds a lake shimmering in the sunshine.
But he sees nothing that poses as a danger. It is quiet and serene here. Everything is peaceful. Where on earth is this final test?
Confused, he walks to the edge of the lake and looks down into the water. There he sees a great warrior staring back up at him. Now, this is a worthy adversary, he thinks, but it is not real. This is only a reflection. Why bring me here to see my own image?
A slow shudder starts to move within the Hero. A realization takes shape in his mind. He now understand what his last challenge must be. The Oracle is true. It is a test which the Hero cannot survive.
He stands at the edge of the water. Gently, he removes his dagger from its sheath. With a deep sigh, he extends his arm and holds it out in front of himself. After a long pause, he slowly rotates the blade so that it now points back towards himself.
With a quick thrust, he plunges it into his own heart.
The body lies motionless on the ground. A great stillness descends over the valley. Nothing moves.
Deep within, there is a gentle stirring. A small voice can now be heard to speak. Ahhhhh, it says, I think we begin now…