What Is The Hero's Journey?
Updated: Jan 18, 2019
The Hero’s Journey is a quest map for those who want to “follow their bliss.” Following your bliss sounds as lovely and as easy as a stroll along the beach, and it can be quite beautiful, but it can also be quite arduous. It’s an undertaking for only the most adventurous souls or the blissfully naïve, and both will require buckets of courage and hard work.
For those who embark on this journey, though, the rewards are enormous: high achievement, uncovering hidden talents and resources, a deeply meaningful life, better relationships with yourself and others, more freedom, and spiritual development are just a few. Following your bliss is a journey for both inner and outer seekers.
Helping us to chart our own quest, The Hero’s Journey is a map that details the four stages of that journey and the unique terrain of each stage. It spells out the general challenges, turning points, and characters you will encounter at each stage as well as the type of tasks you will need to complete for your quest. In just a bit, I will show you this map and in future posts will go into detail about what to expect and how to navigate in each stage, but first I’d like to share with you a bit of its history.
History of The Hero’s Journey
Creative masters, esoteric teachers, and the great alchemists have probably been aware of this map for thousands of years, but only in recent history has it been made available to the general population for our conscious use. Stories have always been used by spiritual teachers to convey concepts. Stories are magic. They captivate us. Teach us. Inspire us. They move us to action and understanding.
Joseph Campbell understood their importance and studied the legendary myths of all time. He discerned the hidden magic that propelled them thousands of years into the future where modern audiences remain spellbound by these ancient stories. He documented an underlying structure and archetypal characters that were common in every myth, and he named this repeating structure The Hero’s Journey. Then, Chris Vogler, at the time an obscure Hollywood screenwriter, studied Campbell’s ideas and created a highly detailed and practical outline for writers that would become so famous that it is known simply as The Memo.
Vogler described four distinct stages of The Hero’s Journey, each containing a recognizable landscape, a turning point, a challenge, and a reward, along with the characters encountered at each stage. Today the story structure Vogler outlined is consciously used to create captivating blockbuster movies and bestselling novels.
For thousands of years, humans have also lived out stories of adventure, challenge, triumph, and disaster, unaware that there was a map for their journey. It turns out that basic story structure works perfectly not just in stories but in real life. This is a crucial tool for those who wish to craft better lives and live out stories of triumph, as Campbell and Vogler discovered something interesting about the human story. Something the butterfly knows.
To ascend higher we must first descend.
Without this model for understanding, what often happens is that we hear the call of our Wild Soul and we’re off to the races! We’re following our bliss. How energizing! How divine … and then everything falls apart. We encounter insurmountable roadblocks, overwhelming challenges, and enemies to progress. We think we’ve done something wrong. We think we took a wrong turn or misheard our call. But in fact, this breakdown is part of following our bliss. It is the vital second stage of the journey of dissolving the ordinary self. The destruction is making way for our new life. In following our bliss, the Hero’s Journey—like the butterfly’s—is quintessentially a journey of transformation. The old self and any of its outdated trappings must die to make way for the new high-flying self. Yes, it is a ruthless stage. Circumstances, relationships, jobs, fears, limitations, and desires all go through a stripping down, a re-evaluating and rebuilding process. Transformation is an alchemical process of turning lead into gold.
It is everyday magic.
The person who begins a Hero’s Journey is never the same one who completes it. A new self emerges from the chrysalis and grows into a beautiful butterfly. For bliss- and growth-focused individuals, we go through this alchemical cycle many times in our lives. Each time we hear the Call, we can be sure that we are being invited on a mysterious and transformational journey.
Those calls are always leading us to our bliss … eventually.
But we need stamina for this process and wisdom. Each time we complete the Hero’s cycle, we reach a new level of human potential. Our entire life is one big Hero’s Journey comprised of all the Calls we’ve answered and journeyed to. A life of conscious adventure is a life of magic.
So, let’s look at an overview of the Hero's Journey map for following your bliss. There are four main stages beginning on the right and moving in a clockwise direction.
Stage 1 — This is our everyday reality. Everything seems normal, then we get The Call to adventure. Sometimes we hear a call to do something we’ve longed to do. Sometimes the call comes through the form of crises or an odd opportunity that doesn’t seem very significant at the time. Perhaps it’s a quiet whisper of intuition. But it’s always a call to leave consensus reality. At some point we decide to move forward. We’re committed to the journey.
Stage 2 — Now the fun begins. Actually, I'm kidding. It's more like, now the challenge begins. This is shadow territory where we are asked to confront the elements of our old life and what is no longer working. We encounter many trials so that we understand what is at stake and have a basis for making a new choice—or not. Due south on this chart is the Phoenix point, the dark night of the soul before rebirth that represents a crucial turning point toward a new life.
Stage 3 — The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis but doesn’t look like a butterfly yet. The new role is not yet fully defined or understood, and we feel incompetent. This stage sees the hard work of learning new skills, practicing those skills, and discernment. Think of the end of this stage as a big exam, and we’re studying hard and preparing for that day.
Stage 4 — We arrive at the final exam to test whether we’ve polished the new Self that has emerged. A major fixture of following our bliss and The Hero’s Journey is that as a direct result of our journey of transformation, we bring something of value back to our community. That Gift may be serving as an example of what is possible, a healing, a teaching, compassion, or some other kind of inner or outer wealth that we now have more than enough to share with others. We return to the ordinary world but at a different level than before. And the cycle begins again when we’re ready.
And that’s the big-picture map of every Hero’s Journey of following your bliss. I’ll delve into more detail about the challenges, tasks, and archetypes in each stage in future posts, so stay tuned!