“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Amidst the rapid pace of modern life – now full to the brim with technology, traffic, to-do lists and earth change talk – it is easy to slip into reactive patterns of living where every day is a simple race to stay on the treadmill and satisfy expectations from the world around us. But, as we paddle hard to keep up with these surface waves of life, there is a powerful undercurrent steadily drawing us into deeper waters… into the experience of our true self in full heroic form. Occasionally, as we race from point A to point B, something happens to rock us from our boat and open us to the wider currents. It may come in the form of a quiet whisper, great blessing, challenge, crisis or even apparent tragedy. However the moment appears, in time we will come to see it as a pivotal turning point – a moment that ‘called’ us to journey into a greater experience of ourselves and harvest some deeper, latent capacity to create or express in the world, a moment that called us into the hero’s journey of our own life story.
The hero’s journey – or monomyth, as referred to by scholar Joseph Campbell – is an energetic template and pattern for story that spans from ancient Greek mythology to modern 3-D cinema. In the hero’s journey, the hero begins in the ordinary world, where s/he receives a call to enter an unknown arena of strange powers and possibility. This call may be initially refused, but ultimately the hero will answer, crossing the threshold from the ordinary world into the extraordinary new arena, where he or she will face tasks and trials, meet allies and opposition en route to reaching their ‘innermost cave’ of personal challenge and discovery. There the hero will acquire a great gift, ‘boon’ or ‘elixir’, which he or she must carry back into the ordinary world, thus transforming their ordinary world into an extraordinary place.
We experience the pulse of the hero’s journey in different forms in virtually every story we watch, tell and hear. The life stories of Prometheus, Moses, Buddha and Jesus all track closely to the rhythms of the hero’s journey, as do stage and screen stories from Shakespeare through to Toy Story. As we experience these stories and others, we don’t always know what’s going to happen next, but there is a part of us that often knows what to expect energetically for our hero. The reason is that, at a base level, the themes and rhythms of the hero’s journey reflect the very fabric of our own transformative experiences in life. We are each drawn into the power of the hero’s journey in different ways throughout our life, which is perhaps why we feel drawn to these reflections in literature, history and film. They inform the magic of our own steps on the path – and by gaining an understanding of the patterns and rhythms of the archetypal hero’s journey in story, we naturally open a doorway to recognise and embrace the journey of the hero we are becoming in our own life.
While the entire hero’s journey contains at least 17 stages, phases and layers, for the purpose of this sharing, the journey can be simplified into three main sections – the call, initiation and return.
The hero’s call to adventure
Standing at the top of the in-run, I heard the announcer call my name. Friends and teammates barked cheers from the side as the course official waved his flag from the knoll. I took a breath of mountain air, focusing down the snowy runway to the top of a large jump waiting for me there. With a forced exhale, I tapped my ski poles together in quiet ritual and pushed off down the track.
I’m not sure what lured me into the sport of aerial snow skiing as a kid, but I know what kept me there for over a decade growing up – rising before the sun on the coldest days, packing in our family van to drive into the mountains, pushing through days of sweat and fear, pain and exhilaration. It was that moment just after lift-off from the top of the jump when you go from warp speed along the snowy earth to weightless and timeless way above it all. Quite literally flying. Only the sound of clean wind through thrilled lungs, as the world opens to an eagle’s view in human form. I’ve always believed there’s more to our reality than what we see from the street, and aerials confirmed this to my core; so the sport of freestyle skiing became one of my first doorways to explore the greater possibilities of life.
On this particular day, on my final jump of a major national event – just weeks before the World Cup qualifications and the next magic step in my Olympic dream – I was about to meet one of the less expansive elements of our 3-D world… gravity. I had landed similar jumps from similar heights hundreds of times with no problem, but, for some reason, on this clear afternoon in Telluride, Colorado, in that split second when my body arrived back to earth from 60+ feet above, the two forces did not agree. A lightning bolt of pain shot up through my right leg, stopping briefly at my knee before rippling through to the rest of my body… and the moment fades to black.
I remember the regretful blink in my doctor’s eye as he cradled my knee joint in his hands… I remember the disbelief in my coach’s eyes, and the tears in my dad’s as he met me on the street. I remember the chemical taste in my mouth just after surgery and the iodine stains on my withered leg in the early days of rehab. In one fraction-of-a-second moment I had somehow gone from the rising peak of a lifelong dream to a pit of pain and uncertainty. As I lay there in the hospital bed, trying somehow to go back and choose differently, to undo or bend what appeared as reality, I could not imagine what good could come from this place.
How could I possibly foresee that, in one year’s time, as a direct result of this experience, I would discover the extraordinary world of coaching – natural gift that would open in accelerated form, leading me to Australia, where I would meet and marry my soul mate Asheyana, fulfill my Olympic dream as the coach of the Australian team, buy a farm, make a beautiful son, learn to surf, write movies and create a whole LIFE here on this side of the world?
In this moment I was simply experiencing the pain of being ‘called’ (or rather ripped) from my ‘ordinary world’ of elite sport, and, while I may have sensed a deep undercurrent of possibility beneath it all, I had no idea what experience or new world this greater force may be calling me into. Such is the way of the ‘call to adventure’ and the first phase of the hero’s journey.
In cinema, we know that some time in the first 10 to 15 minutes, our hero’s world will be penetrated by a force that will act as a spark of story ignition. It is the moment when Frodo is first given ‘the ring’ by Bilbo in Lord of the Rings; when Ray first hears the whispered voice in the cornfield of Field of Dreams; when Shrek first discovers his swamp has been invaded by lost fairytale creatures; or when Jake Sully first meets his big blue self in Avatar. As an audience we wait for this moment like the lighting of a firecracker fuse, because it tells us that the journey is about to begin and, when it comes, we revel in the opportunity to cross the threshold with our hero into a new world of tests, allies, lessons and messages, knowing that we will return somehow changed, hoping that the journey will ultimately lead to a point of deep discovery, where – with our hero – we will vicariously claim some new gift to bring back into their /our ordinary world, transforming it into an better place.
In story and in life, the call rarely comes in a time or way of our choosing.
Whether the moment of our call comes in the form of something pleasant or challenging, positive or critical, these times where the path suddenly shifts beneath our feet almost always come in ways that we could not have imagined, and with timing we would not have consciously picked. The reason is because the role of the call is to break our current patterns in such a way that we have no choice but to see and choose a new and higher way. Like an infant at the time of birth, the call pulls us from the womb of our normal world, and it does so with great reason – to lead us into a whole new dimension of experience.
The call may come in the form of a chance meeting, job offer, invitation, rejection, inner whisper, outer scream, sickness, victory, birth or death (to name a few) and, when it comes, our first impulse is often to refuse or deny it. Like Luke Skywalker’s initial denial of Obi Won’s invitation to pursue the way of the Jedi, like Ray Kinsella’s initial denial of the call to build a baseball field in his cornfield in Field of Dreams, like my own initial refusal to hear my body’s call to stop competing so I could discover the higher path of coaching, we often resist these early nudges of our higher self – even when they are calling us into what we truly want – because we are afraid of losing what we think we have or have worked for. As creatures of habit, we resist change, even when it’s for the better, simply because it calls us to step (or leap) from the safety of our comfort zone into the unknown.
While it can be nearly impossible to see the bigger picture in moments of great change, in retrospect the poetry and synchronistic precision of these experiences with the greater flow of life is almost always apparent. And while these moments may come in disguise and catch us by surprise, there is something about them – at a cellular level – that also feels quite familiar, because, at a deeper level, we know. As we open our perception to the inner promptings of our day-to-day existence, we will begin to realise that the call is everywhere – in our relationships, in our creative pursuits, with our finances, with our body, in our quest for home and beyond – because in truth, we are always being nudged by our great Spirit to open up to greater experience and expression of our true self.
Initiation – tests, allies and the innermost cave
While the hero of our story may receive a call that is beyond his or her initial control, there is a moment early in each journey where the hero must make a decision. The hero must choose to answer the call. Whether that decision means plowing up the cornfields or climbing into a space ship, whether it comes in joy or sorrow, it is an active movement by our hero and it marks the crossing of a threshold from ordinary into the extraordinary world of the story. For me in my ski career, it was the moment I decided to take a year off from skiing to coach and travel while my body was healing. Up until that moment my whole world was governed by the focus of life as a solo athlete. When I answered the call, I stepped out of that world into a whole new arena of tests, allies, friends and lessons as I came to terms with the rules and ways of life outside of my athletic pursuit.
No matter how much of a master or an expert our hero is in his/her ordinary world, the moment he or she crosses over the threshold into the extraordinary world, everything is different. Our hero becomes a fish out of water, a stranger in a foreign land, where the language of life itself is new, different and often overwhelming. Whether intentionally or with great resistance, our hero is often forced to enter into a state of ‘beginner’s mind’ where they literally must begin again, and learn to live in a whole new way. In Avatar, when Neytiri turns scornfully to Jake Sully and says, “You’re like a baby!”, she is announcing to us that Jake has crossed the threshold and he is now moving into the initiation phase of his hero’s journey. This phase will lead him from a place of awkward learning and new discovery, into the innermost cave of his own morals and loyalty as a soldier, to the ultimate realisation of his deep alliance and path as a leader among the people of Pandora. This is the ‘way of the initiation’ phase of our hero’s journey. It tests and challenges us in new ways, often humbling us initially, but in doing so it opens up entirely new pathways for us to experience and express our greater gifts in life. While we often enter this new world with no conscious desire to be there, in time it is here that our true nature is realised and revealed.
Just as the writer of a film story may conceive of the most intense possible challenge in order to reveal the truest expression of the hero in story, we too often write ourselves into experiences that (on a higher level) we know will lead us into greater expressions of our true divine essence. In the hero’s journey it is through the transcending of this challenge or deepest fear that our hero enters the ‘innermost cave’ and claims his or her most profound gift or ‘elixir’. Quite serendipitously, it is often in that moment when the hero first truly claims their place of presence in the extraordinary world, that they are simultaneously given the key and summoning to journey back home.
When we have answered the call and crossed the threshold into the extraordinary world of our experience, when we have moved through the tests and allies of the initiation phase, and claimed the elixir of our innermost cave, we must then open our eyes to perceive the way home. This is an equally powerful part of the hero’s journey, for it calls us to rise from the solo realm of our experience, to a path of sharing, where we must find a way to bring all that we have learned and acquired on the path back into our ordinary world. The return is what we experience when we prepare to come home from a soul-expanding overseas trip or an amazing weekend retreat and we are left with the task of integrating back into our ‘normal life’, and finding a way to share a mountain of new energy with a world of beings who were not there for the journey. While it can feel very tempting to simply pack our bags and leave again (or stay where we are in the first place), the truth is that the gifts we have acquired are now ours to carry, and, with the gathering of these elixirs, comes the new call and responsibility to share. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn must ‘let go of the ranger and become the king he came to be’. In Avatar, Jake Sully must claim his role as a leader of the people in order to play his part in summoning the powers of Aywa and preserving life on Pandora. As we continue through the final phase of our own hero’s journey, we discover that it is through this unbridled sharing of our unique gifts, combined with a sense of surrender to the higher essence within, that we come into alignment with universal forces that have been waiting all along to join us on our journey and support our highest steps in ways we could never have imagined. In this way the hero returns, completing his/her journey, and opening the way to the next call on the path.
Throughout the ages, story has been our way of communicating messages, honouring what has been and capturing the dreams of what may be. In this vital time on planet Earth, humanity needs new stories, stories that share visions of what is possible and messages for a world we wish to create, stories that lift us out of our tendency to spiral and focus on what is ‘wrong’, and to begin to see the light of new possibility revealing itself in even the most challenging circumstance and moments of life. If we can begin to see our life not just as a series of cycles and ages, chapters and phases, but as a great story that is unfolding – as a hero’s journey revealing itself through us, calling us onto higher aspects of our self each step of the way – we can begin to experience our true reason for being here as the hero of our own life journey and a bringer of great elixirs to the world.
Take a moment to connect with the ‘calls to adventure’ you have received in your life. When and how they have arrived, and how they have marked the crossing of new thresholds of initiation, into extraordinary new experiences of you. In what ways are you currently feeling ‘called’? Perhaps now is the perfect time to answer.
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