Where’s the Sign Post?

One of the reasons for my interest in the Hero’s Journey is because I think I am living it.  In fact, I think it is a great schemata and metaphor for this journey we call Life.  However, if I am living the Hero’s Journey, then where exactly am I?

Image from http://livinginthetwohearts.wordpress.com/2011/02/

There are indications that I have been at the mid-point turn or “Ordeal” for quite some time; well beyond the three days and three nights of death and resurrection in many myths.  Wouldn’t it be great if I were about to begin the Return?!  Unfortunately, well, at least unfortunately from my ego’s point of view, I may still be in the Descent and have not yet reach the nadir.

In the language of the Hero’s Journey, the choices we face require us to leave the Ordinary World; a world that is familiar although possibly unpleasant.  The content of the “familiar” may be an attitude, a value, a behavior, some stance we hold in our life. Uninvited and unwanted, we feel stirrings. Because of this quickening, these familiar things that we never thought to question become curious, even odd.  In the language of Robert McKee, we reach a point of intolerable imbalance.

There are many ways to cope with this quickening we feel: deny, anesthetize, avoid, or heed. “The real choices in life will always involve the conflict between competing values, each of which has some considerable claim upon us.  Or there would be no difficulty in the first place.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life).

“Choices” and “conflicts”, words common to any screenwriter.  How do we choose between competing values that we hold dear?  Only one of the various coping mechanisms in this crisis of the Call leads us to take the most courageous option: Leave the Ordinary World and head into the Special World; that unknown and therefore frightening world.  To enter the Special World we are called to tolerate higher levels of anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity.  What do we risk by taking this journey?  Everything.  What do we gain by taking this journey?  Everything.

Well, guess what?  I am very clear that I have passed the first threshold and have entered my version of the Special World.  Wherever I am on this path, I can look back and see growth.  But that growth has been painful, challenging, and confusing.  And, I wouldn’t go back for any price.

“To know what is true for us, to feel what we really feel, to believe what makes sense of our unique journey—this is the essence of living a life of spiritual integrity.  Not easy, not common. Much harm is done when the integrity of one’s personal experience is violated on behalf of the group’s neurosis.  Damage is done to those who are denied permission to take a journey of personal discovery.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life)

Spiritual integrity is a new concept to me, but integrity is not.  In a world where honor is often equated with pride, integrity is losing to efficacy.  If you feel these stirring that I have been talking about, you will intuit the truth of your own spiritual integrity.  You discern that your journey to wholeness demands that you must step back and test the majority opinion.  To quote a famous song title: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

And equally true: I cannot abandon the search.  Regardless if I am still in the Descent or have completed the Initiation and am about to begin the Return, I must see this through.  It is, after all, my life.

The Hero’s Journey – Initiation

Initiation is a primary component of Joseph Campbell’s schema of the Hero’s Journey (click for description). He has said that the schema he developed is a magnification of the Separation – Initiation – and Return typically employed in rites of passage. (Christopher Vogler’s two parts, “descent” and “initiation,” are equivalent to Campbell’s one, “initiation.”)

To overlook the significance of “initiation” may be to defuse the potency of the schema. According to the dictionary, “to initiate” is “to formally admit to a group; to begin.” But, Campbell and modern anthropologists see more deeply into the lived experience of these rites.

Some of the common rites of passage would include: birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and burial. Studies by anthropologists inform us that often rites are formal and can be quite severe. The ritual has to do with recognition of a new role; the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new. This is a recognition by both the initiate and the community. Through the initiation process the mind of the initiate is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

by funkydoodledonkey – Xhosa boys are shown wearing the white clay painted on their bodies that signifies transition to manhood. Around the teen years, Xhosa males traditionally are initiated into adulthood. The initiation includes a period of separation from family, during which older men mentor the younger ones. Still widely observed in rural areas, the initiation ends with the rite of circumcision.

Commonly, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is what comes to mind when the subject of rites of passage is discussed. An example of another passage is that of childhood to adolescence. In “Peter Pan,” Wendy leaves the childhood of the nursery for the adolescence of a room of her own; not for adulthood.

For the most part, the purposes and actual effects of rites of passage in any given society are to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The various passages are nothing less than the mystery of transfiguration. The result of initiation is no less spectacular than the mystery that takes place within the chrysalis. Initiation is also the chiropractic that aligns the initiate and the community to the transformation.

In a culture such as that found in the West, where rituals and rites are often barren or totally absent, the depth of the initiation process is easily undervalued or misunderstood. If you, as a writer, decide to take advantage of the structure of story available though the Hero’s Journey, your story will be on firmer ground should you harness the significance implied in “initiation.” Some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern of your hero will be eradicated forever. In mythology, often the hero experiences some sort of dying to the world he/she has known and comes back as one reborn; that is, replicating the extreme transformation exhibited in the successful rite of passage.