As humans, we walk on two feet,
And live in two worlds.
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Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it”. I have thought about that passage often over the years. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I am going to have something meaningful to contribute to this world, I will need to come alive through the mythicworld, first and foremost. Then I need to practice becoming an embodiment of this energy, and live as a bridge between these worlds.
It’s often been said that we are living in unprecedented times. This is an inarguable and unignorable fact, when we look at our evolution as a species. If we are paying close attention, we realize that we are living an inevitable reality of being on the unfolding edge of time, as it persistently moves us forward, revealing a future that has never been before.
Many people also perceive time to be moving faster than ever before. There is an exponential reality to the technological advances that were made throughout the 20th century, and even more so as we live into the 21st century.
The best current scientific estimate being made by NASA is that our universe is 12-14 billion years old, with our solar system being approximately 4.5 billion years old. Our ancestral predecessors are thought to have begun walking on two legs as early as 3.5 million years ago. Homo sapiens evolved around a half million years ago, and Homo sapiens sapiens, the ancestors of all modern human beings, have a first recorded existencealmost 200,000 years ago.
The latest genetic evidence, according to an article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, offers that a great human extinction occurred around 70,000 years ago. This was due to a massive volcanic eruption, which took place in what is now Sumatra. This has been referred to as the ‘Toba catastrophe’. It is theorized to have created a thousand year ‘ice age’ that eliminated all but 1,000 -10,000 humans, who were located in South Africa. It is thought that the current population of the planet emerged from this small, surviving gene pool of humanity.
It can be derived that this time of extreme hardship for the human population helped to precipitate a profound leap in our evolutionary capacity for creative adaptation. As a result, we soon began a lasting migration pattern that eventually carried us to other continents, and then across the entire planet.
Many anthropologists widely theorize that we made a revolutionary leap in consciousness with our ability to reflect back upon ourselves around 35,000 years ago. As a species, we woke up; we became aware that we were aware. It was then that we began to organize ourselves, and became hunter-gatherers on the planet. Around 10,000 years ago, we had another leap in self-awakening as a species. We began forming nature-based worship sites such as Gobekli Tepe (in Ursa, Turkey), and created agriculturally-based farms and villages.
From these fundamental shifts created by gathering together, modern civilizations came into being. The urban-industrial age began to emerge three hundred years ago, and the communications age that is now encircling the globe came into being around 50 years ago. The technological advances of the past two decades have only aided our capacity to generate information and knowledge on a global level, not only about the smallest particles of existence and the furthest reaches of the galaxies, but also about the deepest aspects of ourselves.
Ever since the time of our first awakening, when we witnessed life feeding on other life, and we became aware of witnessing this profoundly disturbing existential reality, we also began to wonder about that which exists beyond what our eyes could see. It helped us to make sense of (as well as cope with) the harsh conditions we face called ‘life’ on this planet.
From where have we come? Where were we before we were ‘here’? Where will we go, once we are gone from ‘here’? What are we to be doing with our lives, while we are ‘here’? What is to become of me? Of us?
These are the existential questions we have been wondering about for thousands of years. Like it or not, we have evolved into (and perhaps have always been) meaning making animals. And how we best make meaning is through our collective and personal myths.
“It will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.
Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of (people) have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic (people), prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The monomyth, a word first coined by James Joyce, became the frame of reference Joseph Campbell used as he began to tell about the ‘one great story’ of humanity – that which is ever evolving as well as constant – as we move through the field of space and time. It refers to the song of humanity that has always been playing in the background of the psyche, individually and collectively. It is the one great song we are all silently humming to, even if we don’t know the tune, and even if we don’t know that the tune is playing.
What is the one great story that best tells us about our past, about the meaning and purpose of our origins? What is the one great story that will inform us of our future, of our as-yet unrealized destiny? How do we learn to live in this ‘not-yet-ness’ of our lives, in the ‘in-between-ness” of our lived pasts and our unlived futures? What allows us to wrestle with the limits of our present-day capacities, while striving to discover what is beyond them? What keeps us going?
What will help move us ever forward, taking us into and carrying us through the span of our lifetime, in ways that are not like before? What helps us to become who we were meant to be, what we were born to be?
This is precisely what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey.
Those who don’t feel this love
pulling them like a river
Those who don’t drink dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take sunset like supper
Those who don’t want to change
Let them sleep.
We are certainly living in unprecedented times. Unlike any other time in human history, not only can we as individual human beings devote time to reflect upon ourselves, we are also aware that others spanning the globe are now doing the very same work, and in a myriad of different ways. For better and for worse, our revolutionary capacity for global communication is making the world more and more transparent to itself.
Almost daily, we are blown away by the revelations and discoveries being revealed and beamed across the world by the efforts of our modern day scientists. One glimpse through the Hubble telescope can fill us with awe and wonder. By the same token, we can become ever more distraught as we read about (or view with our own eyes) the appalling violence being done to our fellow human beings as well as to the entire eco-system of the planet.
There is no denying that we can become more conscious and aware than ever, if we can only bear it. So we have to learn to say ‘yes’ to life as it is. If we so choose, we can individually and collectively reflect well upon both our individual and global condition during these turbulent and unsettling times. We can be accordingly inspired and troubled by what we see happening in the world.
We can also do the inner work of discovering what meaning and purpose this world holds for us, and for the future that awaits us. We can learn to see with more clarity how we each have a unique role to play, how we each have our own way to make a difference in the lives of others. It is up to us to give our own life the meaning and vitality we need to make it through, and to be of service to others.
At certain times in our lives, we will feel the inner pull to become more than what we presently are. Some of us have the resources and the courage to answer that call, others of us do not. For many of us, right now is one of those times. Those of us who feel this ‘love that pulls us like a river’, pulling towards something greater, need ways to pursue a meaningful and purposeful life – a way that is filled with wonder, awe and respect for the living universe, and our place in it. We need a path that allows us to bear the trials of living, the ordeals of our present time and circumstance, and the suffering inherent to life’s harsh realities.
Undertaking a hero’s journey means waking up to the realization that the necessary conditions are being created for us to recognize our unique place in the universe, the particular gifts that we have to bring forth, and to serve a purpose greater than ourselves. Now is the time to help sustain and revitalize the world around us. This is the heart of a hero’s call to adventure.
How terrible to think of not being the hero of one’s own life;
this is the role for which each of us is cast,
no matter how unsuccessfully we play it.
And if the part seems too big,
if we picture the hero as being indeed “more than life-sized”,
it is because our daily life has dwindled,
become less than real,
and only pygmy proportions seem natural to us.”
– Dorothea Dooling
For a while now, I have wanted to write a brief manifesto for the everyday hero who lives, works, and learns to love in today’s world, as it is. It is a straightforward incorporation of the Hero’s Journey myth.
~ A Hero’s Manifesto for Today’s World ~
The Call to Adventure. We will all feel called to a greater adventure, but adventure requires risk, and the older we get, the more we gravitate to what makes us feel secure. The hero’s call is always towards the awakening of an inner life. To answer this call, we must loosen our allegiance to security, and transfer it instead to vitality. It requires a shift in perspective regarding resources.
To answer the deeper call to adventure, we have to stop trying to over-rely on external resources to make our lives happen. Instead, we must learn about our own internal resourcefulness. The catch is that we can’t often gather those whenever we so choose. They only come forth when needed.
Crossing Thresholds. We have to learn how to tolerate dynamic tension if we are to embark on a worthwhile adventure. As we develop and grow, we cross points of no return. Once we cross over to new experiences of conscious awakening, and once we’ve committed ourselves to a path of awareness, we will no longer be the same. Our old identity begins to shed its skin. We come across threshold guardians – daemons that block the way, attempting to ward us off.
They are like the gargoyles entrenched above archways and entrances to shrines and cathedrals. These guardians are manifestations of our deepest fears. They also guard the way to our deepest longings. You cannot go on an genuine, soulful adventure without bringing along your authentic doubts and fears, as well as your strongest desires and longings – for without them, it would not be a hero’s journey.
When we commit ourselves to an inner journey, our experiences and encounter will not be within the realm of our control. We can only be in charge of them as long as we don’t actually take them. Mystery is not inclined to bend itself towards us; majesty won’t make itself smaller in order to make us more comfortable. Once you venture across the threshold point (which you will recognize by the dynamic tension you feel inside), the journey is now in charge of you. It is a kind of entry fee for a worthy adventure.
Entering the Forest of Adventure. This is another experiential price to be paid by the adventurer worthy of the soul’s journey. You cannot follow a path already made. It won’t be your path if you do. You have to make your own path as you go. That’s the pre-requisite for a hero’s adventure. We have to say yes to the unknown, there is no way around it.
Entering the unknown puts us through a disorientation process. Old, embedded patterns within us begin to come undone. Since we’ve crossed the threshold, there is no way back, so things that have held together can now at last come apart. Everything that is old and no longer of service to the soul falls away. This can be a very unnerving process, but one that is also absolutely necessary. Too many of us jump from one doing to the next doing, without the un-doing happening to us in between. That will not change a paradigm, or the course of a life.
So we have to get lost in the forests of the mythic world of adventure before we can be found again, in this day-to-day world. We let go of our attachments to what no longer serves life, before we find and take hold of a new perspective from which to live. As Michael Meade says, we die before we die, to become born again in this world.
The Inevitability of Ordeals.This is another word for adventure. Somehow we don’t realize this before we cross the threshold of ‘no turning back’. What you cannot experience positively, you will experience negatively. This is especially true about ordeals.
Ordeals involve the right configuration of circumstance, condition, fate and support. They are the crucibles that bring forth our unrealized potential. Our unrealized potential will not come forth from us without the ordeal. They are the fates given to us that we didn’t wish for and that we didn’t consciously ask for. Michael Meade says that “our fate constricts us, so that our destiny can find us”. The hero seeks out his or her ordeal, while the ego self is in perpetual pursuit of security, avoiding or rejecting risk.
Ordeals are not just obstacles that block the path, even though we often initially experience them as unwanted difficulties and uninvited challenges not consciously sought out. We will fail and fall short many times in the midst of a proper ordeal. Many times. This isn’t what matters. Persistence is a key attribute of the hero. Stay with the challenge at hand. In fact, Joseph Campbell often said, “where you stumble, there your treasure lies”.
Allies. We cannot sustain ourselves by ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of giants, those whom we have looked up to. We sometimes need to be uplifted by a felt sense of being supported by something larger than ourselves. We need mentors who have traveled where we are about to go. We need companions who will walk beside us where we have not yet gone. Allies are the ones who will travel that long, hard road with us.
Today’s heroes must be able to discern the paradox of going where only he or she can go, and yet not go it alone. As we grow, our ability to rely on the presence of others must also grow. Ee are strengthened by reaching towards another, which in turn allows us to be better able to sustain ourselves when we must go our own way. Relying on others is a very different thing from a dependence on others. The effort we make when we rely on another is what strengthens us. We end up depending on others to make life happen for us, when we don’t learn the ability to rely.
The Belly of the Beast. The heroic task at this stage in the journey is surrendering over to something larger than our individual identity. We become larger when we do. This is another threshold crossing point, and it lies deep within the psyche of the hero. Entering the belly of the best is often about encountering our deepest fears, inadequacies or self-rejections. It feels like something coming to an end in us. This ‘end point’ threshold is represented by metaphorical images of dragons, beasts or demons. These are all manifest representations of the gods and otherworldly forces that we have historically ignored, rejected or alienated.
The hero once again feels swallowed by the threatening realm of darkness within the self, but now does so with more inner resources and helpers than before. He or she encounters deep, psychic forces of this disowned aspect of one’s self. Again, let’s be clear. The real threats and demons, from a mythological perspective, are primarily internal. The ultimate enemy is not to be found outside of the self.
On the map for the hero’s quest, the inner treasure is buried and waiting to be discovered within close proximity to the dragon’s lair, within the belly of the beast, or is possessed by a daemon’s powers. We learn to enter the dark territory of our human vulnerability with enough resources to stay conscious and engaged during our encounters with the psychic energies within us. This is precisely how we discover who we most truly are.
So we devote ourselves to un-earthing what lies within us, to finding what has been waiting to come forth to the surface of awareness. This is accomplished by our ability to surrender our egos over fully to the ride, to experience the flow of life force energies that were kept bound in dynamic tension.
In this way, we become enlivened, and we feel most like ourselves.
Discovering the Boon. This is what inevitably happens when we stay with our ordeals long enough to realize that if we take them up positively and learn to make use of them, they will reveal to us that which has been within us all along. Our genie comes out of the bottle; our eternal aspects shine through unimpeded, and our highest and best self can at last be revealed and claimed.
We learn to tolerate feeling humility, and we are rendered low by feelings of awe and wonder. As we experience the beauty and mystery of surrender, we discover the vital life within us, our pearl beyond all price, our heavenly inheritance to be acquired during our earthly existence. As we are enveloped by the sheer capacity for surprise, rapture and awe, words are often inadequate, and often unnecessary. We become a living embodiment of eternity’s zeal for incarnation on this earthly field/plane of space and time.
Once we know our boon, it is time to return home, to the ordinary realms of daily living, and bring forth to that world what we discovered in the mythic world of hero adventure.
The Return Home. Today, it is Saturday afternoon. I am finishing the adventure and ordeal of writing this essay. I am feeling the boon that I have uncover each time I write something of meaning and value to me. In between writing this weekend, I have spent time with family and my loved one; later we will relax some more into this holiday weekend. I will next water the flowers, and go out the stables to look in on the horse, come home and fire up the grill. What happens to the hero’s mythical journey, that ‘one great story’, while I am doing these day-to-day things?
Tomorrow, I will have a ‘to do’ list to face, as well. Bills to pay, laundry, the sweeper to be run. There are endless details of preparation for the upcoming summer wilderness journeys that need attention. And there is always an in-flow of emails to respond to. These concerns ground me back in this world. They give me a sense that I am here, that life is happening, and that my taking up these actions really does matter, and the quality of attention I can give to them help me to feel that my own life is moving along.
Yet here I am, lingering in another world, mystified by this profound, momentary cosmological perspective I have of a living planet and the mystery of a universe that is unfolding. I am struck with wonder – in the spaces in between focused, simple chores – of how we are alive in a dynamically living, unfolding universe, regenerating itself in every moment we can attune to it.
I am thinking about Copernicus and Galileo. How they helped to profoundly change our worldview back in the 16th century. How we are in the midst of another ‘global mind change’ right now. For the first time ever, we can all realize this shift happening at the same time, together. What a party invitation!
So you reading this, be ready. Now is the time for a great mythic adventure, and it is unfolding in a universe near you. Find a method, take up a path, re-devote yourself to an old, abandoned discipline with new vigor. Risk failure. Then undertake a new journey, one renewed with enthusiasm and uncertainty.
Summer is in full bloom, heat and humidity is the air, and the unfolding future is up for grabs. Watch for it emerging. When the opportunity comes, take hold of yours. Or better yet, allow your destiny to take hold of you.
There is something called the hero’s golden thread. It goes with each of us, weaves through our lives, and you will have to follow it, just like you have to follow your bliss. Just keep hold of the thread of bliss being woven through your life. Accept your ordeal. Take up the adventure. Your boon is connected to the one great song that has been playing throughout your entire existence. In fact, it may even be humming itself to you right now.
– Michael Mervosh
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
– William Stafford