The hero’s journey doesn’t count unless you bring something back.
For those who've never heard of "The Hero's Journey" before, I'll forgive you, and offer a simple rundown. The Hero's Journey is a template for storytelling that involves a main protagonist (hero) going on some kind of adventure, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and returning home with new insights to share with his/her community.
Popularized by Joseph Campbell and rooted in Jungian psychology, The Hero's Journey has been subject to both praise and criticism, as any sweeping generalization about storytelling would be. We won't spend much time discussing the validity of the template, rather we'll examine its role in the process of personal development.
As we can see, the hero’s journey involves a series of progressive stages. The details like “mentor” and “atonement” are less important. What is important is the general arc that’s representative of any personally transformative experience. Let’s say that the hero in our example is, like many of us, living in a state of low-level anxiety because they believe that nothing they do will ever be good enough and that they aren’t worthy of success. Only they don’t see that this belief is the root cause of their suffering. They live in the “known”.
We all have our own comfort zones, and sometimes we’re more content to rationalize our experiences so that we don’t have to confront our own shortcomings. Inevitably though, something will change. It could be the death of a close friend, the end of a long-term relationship, a health scare. Whatever it is, it’s a call to adventure (first step on The Hero's Journey), and it’s usually accompanied by the sudden realization that death is coming. For some reason it warrants change when we remember that we won’t be here forever, and that lowers the resistance for us to begin our adventure. To be clear, an adventure doesn't have to involve physically going somewhere. The key characteristic is crossing from the realm of what's known into the world of the unknown.
This initial resistance to the unknown is why it usually takes such a potent and emotionally charged event to catalyze the process. I mean, imagine being at the start of the cycle looking down into the abyss of revelation: “Um, it’s dark down there, maybe I’d better do some preparation before I sign up for that.” But the preparation never happens and the timing is never quite right, so it often takes a shove from the universe for us to plunge headfirst into these uncharted waters.
Once the journey begins, challenges and temptations arise at every turn. In our example, the challenges might be rewiring thought processes, eating better, healing personal relationships, traveling to a place we’ve always wanted to go or living a lifestyle we've always dreamed of. And of course, with that comes the ever-present temptation of falling back into old patterns of behavior and thinking.
As the journey unfolds, we learn that we must let go of a part of ourselves which no longer serves us. It’s in this moment of “death” that we are simultaneously reborn, because we’re free of the story that's held us back for so long. The one that kept us from living out our true potential. We realize something about ourselves that we never could've had we stayed in the “known”, and that allows transformation to occur.
But it’s not enough to simply undergo a transformation. You have to prove that the journey happened in the first place by bringing back a gift to those you return to. If not, the journey was for nothing. As an example, Yoga has given me an incredible amount of insight into the way I communicate with myself and with others. But it’s not enough for me to sit back and tell you how Yoga has changed my life; anyone can do that. If I want to complete the hero’s journey, I have to present some kind of offering. Something that affirms the journey I’ve been on, and shares what I’ve learned with others.
It might sound harsh, but your personal story of success or transformation or whatever else doesn’t really matter until you light the way for someone else.
In Buddhism, there are two main traditions to achieve nirvana: the greater way and the lesser way. The lesser way involves seeing through the veil of the world. It involves realizing that the pleasures of the world are impermanent and not worth the suffering they bring and choosing instead to pursue a life free of attachment. Those who follow the lesser way will choose to meditate in perfect bliss while the rest of the world chases their tails in a cycle of meaningless suffering. This is an incomplete hero’s journey.
Then there’s the greater way. Those who follow this path become what’s known as a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are those who've found their bliss but choose to stay involved in their everyday lives so that they might bring back what they’ve learned to help others. The bodhisattva’s life is defined by boundless compassion for others, and with each successive journey they catalyze for others, their own journey is completed.
Decide what it is you really want out of life. Most people spend their precious time here searching for self-identity, believing that if they read a lot of books, exercise daily, meditate, and eat well, they’ll reach a point where they feel satisfied. It doesn’t happen, because no matter how much self-discovery you endure, its value is only measured by what you do with it. I’ve found this to be true in my own life; the more personal struggle I go through and learn from, the louder I hear the call from the universe to replicate it for those around me. Such is the cycle of rebirth. Of karma. Of compassion.