The Hero's Journey and the Spiritual Path diagram

by Dada Maheshvarananda*

The spiritual path is in one sense very rational and scientific. We encourage everyone to meditate and improve their health with a natural lifestyle, and there is an ever growing mountain of scientific papers and mainstream media programs supporting the value of these techniques in reducing stress. At the same time, often hidden from the public view, there is tremendous fierceness, magic, and mystery on the spiritual path. I would like to point out the power of these mysteries by comparing them to the work of American historian Joseph Campbell.

Campbell (1904-1987) studied myths, religions, and narratives from around the world. His famous advice, “Follow your bliss”, came from the phrase satcitananda in the ancient Upanishads, which translates as “being, consciousness, bliss”, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence. Campbell said he wasn’t sure about “being” and “consciousness”, but he could understand “bliss”! He taught many years at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, at that time an all-women’s institution. He always told his graduating students, “Whatever you do, don’t do what Daddy says, because he is only interested in your security. If you bargain away your life for security now, you will never find your bliss.” 

Joseph Campbell

Campbell’s most famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes a formula that he called “The Hero’s Journey”. This is an epic adventure that is repeated in hundreds of stories from all cultures, because it is universal in nature. The theme of these inspiring stories is transformationit is the hero who changes the most. The stories awaken something in us; they ask, “When will you do something heroic? Why not now?” The tales call on us to realize our potential.

Campbell listed seventeen stages, though most myths and stories have only some of them. I believe the spiritual path matches the Hero’s Journey in twelve significant ways, though once again, not every seeker has experienced every stage. In this article I examine the parallels to better understand the true nature of our path and how to face it. Consider which of these you have experienced in your own life.

Comparing the Hero’s Journey with the Spiritual Path

1. The Call to Adventure: The protagonist begins in the ordinary world, which could be a village or city in any part of the planet and in any century. He or she then receives a call to adventure. A doorway appears, inviting one to enter an unknown mystical world of strange powers and events, of danger and treasure. The hero who accepts the call must face difficult tasks and trials on the journey to reach the goal.

For a spiritualist, the invitation to take initiation is like that. It comes to people at different times in their lives. Often in the past, spiritual initiation was very difficult to obtain―one had to undergo severe tests. Today it is easy; anyone with a sincere desire can learn the basics. However, the tests which follow initiation today are just as hard as in the past.

2. Refusal of the Call: A reluctant hero may choose to refuse the call. Well-meaning family and friends often try to hold the hero back, saying, “Why can’t you be happy with what you have here?”

The same thing sometimes happens when people are invited to start the spiritual journey. They may not be ready yet to accept, or shortly after initiation they may reject the path. Sometimes, years after being invited, a “wakeup call” comes, perhaps a very powerful one, and the person decides to take initiation.

3. Mentor: A guide will appear who continues to help the hero along the way. On the spiritual path, the universe will send one or more representatives to teach us spiritual practices (yoga postures, vegetarian diet, various meditation techniques, etc.). In fact, yoga has hundreds of practical techniques to purify us and strengthen us to face the increasingly severe tests and challenges to come.

This guidance is crucial. No one with a serious illness would like to be treated by a self-declared doctor with no training of any kind. I believe that to become an accomplished spiritualist, reaching the highest states of consciousness, is, in some ways, even more difficult than becoming an accomplished physician; hence an experienced and competent guide or guru is essential for success. The good news is that the ancient adage is still true: “When the aspirant is ready, the guru will appear.”

4. Crossing the Threshold: This is the point when the hero actually leaves the known limits of his or her world and ventures into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and customs are very different. So-called “normal” people are more than content, even proud, to remain within their society, and popular belief gives them every reason to fear even the first step into the unexplored. Every adventure story is a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown.

A spiritual aspirant will start to hear amazing accounts of incredible “coincidences”, of miraculous cures, of spiritual ecstasy, of the One who is all-knowing with infinite supernatural powers, who is everywhere at the same time. These stories defy logic and suspend belief. They tell us that there is an invisible Consciousness that watches us always, knows all our secrets and mistakes, and yet still loves us unconditionally. If we accept that spiritual view, even as just a possibility, then we cross a threshold and start to feel divine guidance in the adventure of our life. Sometimes we have a mystical experience that forever changes our understanding about what is real.

5. Ashes: A total break, a dramatic metamorphosis is required of the hero. For a spiritualist, this may mean giving up one’s previous lifestyle, and even one’s former friends. When one goes to work in a social service project or attends an intensive training or retreat, he or she will often experience poverty and menial work.

The experience of poverty, menial work, and a hard life is crucial to giving up one’s ego. Losing rich and influential friends cuts off any private escape route. Humility is an essential virtue on the spiritual path. Personal suffering can develop empathy and compassion for the suffering of humanity, expanding one’s identity from self-centeredness in the direction of selflessness.

6. Tests and Dangers: The succession of trials that heroes undergo has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the mentor. Here the hero discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him or her. A long and perilous path of unexpected obstacles and trials has to be traveled, and tests will confront us again and again in different forms. This is exciting, because we are most alive when we take risks.

All spiritualists are brought face-to-face with their weaknesses in one way or other. Participation in a social service charity or an activist movement aimed at a just and spiritually based society forces us at times to confront physical fear, but more often the paralyzing fear of criticism and of feeling inadequate, which we must learn to overcome.

According to Tantra, there are seven tests that spiritual aspirants must face. They will come at different moments in your life. Some you may be aware of when they occur, some you may not. The nature of the tests you will experience depends on your karma or sam’skáras (potential mental reactions). Most spiritualists face a lot of problems, including financial problems, health problems, opposition from friends and family, etc.

7. Meeting the Goddess: The hero experiences a love that is all-encompassing and unconditional, and has to win that love with compassion and tenderness. This is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess. This divinity is of course inside every woman and man.

On the spiritual path, devotional love (bhakti) can be developed by kiirtan, a devotional chant and dance that can bring us spiritual ecstasy. This so-called “feminine” expression balances the “masculine” expression of struggle and courage. With kiirtan and devotional love, pain and suffering are bearable.

In Tantra, the spiritual path has been described as moving on the razor’s edge, which implies suffering with the constant danger of falling. However with devotion, the spiritual path becomes one of flowers, sweet and blissful.

8. Temptation: Material pleasures tempt the hero to abandon the quest. Likewise on the spiritual quest, this attraction is always there. A spiritualist can decide at any moment to quit their practices and seek the pleasures and comforts of the mundane world. To please the Supreme Consciousness is the goal of a spiritualist.

9. Facing Death: When the hero confronts physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she reaches a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. Old forms have to die in order to undergo transformation. If you want new insight, new life, you must keep dying.

On the spiritual path we need to face and overcome our fears, and the fear of death is for many the strongest fear of all. When one comes face-to-face with death, life takes on new meaning.

10. The Treasure: After passing all tests, which prepare and purify the hero, he or she is ready to receive a great gift: knowledge, treasure or power. On the spiritual path, one gains wisdom, non-attachment and intuition. Spiritual liberation is guaranteed.

11. The Return: The hero is then called upon to return home with the knowledge and powers acquired on the journey. Whereas a materialistic outlook sees time as linear―we are born, have various experiences, and finally die―the hero’s journey is circular, or rather a spiral, reaching higher and higher states of consciousness. T.S. Eliot described this well in his poem “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

On the spiritual path, we also return, again and again; according to the Tantric tradition, this may happen over multiple lifetimes. Selfless service is a way of giving back to society, serving the Supreme in the form of other people. Teaching spirituality is another important type of service. When you teach others meditation, spiritual philosophy and other practices, you plant spiritual seeds that will definitely sprout someday.

12. Master of Two Worlds: The hero has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds, balancing the material and the spiritual, and yet remains unattached. The same is true for a spiritualist, who then becomes a mentor. He or she invites others to take initiation, teaches the practices, and shares the wisdom.

In stories and myths, terrible things happen to people. In life, terrible things happen to people, too. But a hero’s story never ends there; rather the hero strives to overcome and triumph. We are called on to do no less.

Concerns and Questions

I believe that if we don’t honor the great adventures, challenges, and resulting transformation that whoever courageously chooses this path will face, we are not empowering others. So while we may invite people to take initiation through introductory lectures, classes, and books, how do we invite them to this great adventure? How to awaken in them the intense longing for the Supreme?

My second concern is that we can forget the great sacrifice that is asked of us in modern society. We can choose the path of easy comforts, instead of bravely confronting our fears and shadows. I believe we need to constantly push ourselves to leave our comfort zones and talk with strangers about our philosophy, practices, and service work.

I believe we all must be mentors and heroes. It’s easy to stand by and think, “Only great teachers are qualified to do that,” or “I’ll do that when I’m bullet-proof and perfect.” But that never happens. And Campbell shows us that hearing about perfect people is actually not what inspires us. We are inspired to see ordinary people dare to do extraordinary things.

The world is in a moment of great transition. Our global economy is altering and endangering the life-support systems of the planet with a speed that was unheard of in the past. A tremendous urgency exists to offer humanity a spiritual outlook combined with a practical, ecological alternative to reverse our self-destructive course. The survival of humanity is at stake.

Conclusion

1. Each of us has a duty to advise aspirants about the great treasures that await them on the spiritual path: wisdom, self-realization, intuition, spiritual ecstasy, and spiritual liberation.

2. We should also share the greatness of Supreme and how surrender brings divine guidance and protection.

3. We have a duty to warn aspirants about the hard tests that will come their way, even though the tests will come in different forms to each person.

4. We have a duty to teach aspirants how to strengthen and purify themselves with the hundreds of spiritual techniques that are available to us. Of course, our personal example will make our teaching easier.

5. We should be heroes and mentors. As long as we live, we need to push ourselves to do this work to the best of our capacity.

May our actions, words, and thoughts be pleasing to the Supreme.

* Dada Maheshvarananda is a monk, activist, and writer. He is a follower and teacher of Tantra Yoga; his spiritual master is Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar (1922-1990). His latest book is After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action (Innerworld Publications, 2012). He is the director of the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela.

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