The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell Now More Relevant Than Ever
Making sense of our consciousness can be difficult, and in our materialist, western world we try endlessly to objectify that experience. But over the course of the past century, there have been a number of intermediaries reminding us to reconnect with elements of the spiritual journey.
Names like Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Deepak Chopra have sparked a renaissance of interest in the nature of consciousness, meditation, and mindfulness. They remind us of stories and lessons learned over the course of our history, and within these, we find recurring themes of transcendent truth.
But there is one liaison between the old world and the new, who bridged these philosophies and connected the ancient esotericism of the east to the pragmatism of the scientific west, through archetypes and allegory.
Joseph Campbell defined this thirst for truth over a lifetime by examining artists, psychologists, writers, and philosophers. He referred to the lessons in their mythos as the Masks of God, and the protagonists within those stories as the Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Campbell consumed as much of their wisdom as possible, voraciously reading nine hours a day for years at a time. He absorbed the work of great western minds like Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Sinclair Lewis. Through these lessons, he connected the dots of contemporary consciousness with the timeless teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Greek mythology, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In those years of study, he found lessons that applied to man and society at large – overarching narratives that struck a universal chord, particularly the sense that at some point in our lives, we find there is a call unanswered, a void in the spirit that must be fulfilled.
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls. The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
– Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey
Campbell said you can never be at peace with yourself if you do not answer that call. The call to adventure that forces the hero to remove himself from the ordinary world and face whatever it is that threatens his safety, comfort, and way of life.
At first, the call is refused when fears and second thoughts arise, or the comforts of the home seem too difficult to abandon. But eventually, the hero finds a mentor who pushes them and provides the tools needed to confront their tribulation.
When one considers the “Hero’s Journey,” Luke Skywalker, Arjuna, or even Hamlet could fit the role, but these stereotypes are meant to convey a general truth about finding the fulfillment we all seek. The personal ordeals that confront us can be difficult to face, causing us to relinquish a part of ourselves and take solace in a place that feels safe, while we remain oblivious to what could be learned by challenging those fears.
For some, it may be a vice; an addiction that keeps us trapped in some behavior or lifestyle. Campbell looked to the Tibetan Book of the Dead to confront this type of ordeal, learning that the scripture taught one to strive for the opposing virtue of whatever your vice may be; to overcome what he called the “inmost cave.” By cultivating the antithesis of your vice, you will find the self-actualization that defines your being.
This sentiment has been echoed many times over the ages, and Campbell summed it up when he said, “Gods suppressed become devils, and often it is these devils whom we first encounter when we turn inward.”
Campbell’s Exploration of Jungian Archetypes in Mythology
Campbell’s study of psychology often led to the examination of Jungian archetypes; the highly developed elements of the collective unconscious seen indirectly in myth. These recurrent characters are the hero who wears a thousand masks, representing different facets of the individual psyche, as well as the world at large.
In Navajo lore, the archetype of the coyote is often depicted as a cunning, greedy, and foolish trickster; a caricature of the shaman, who was said to be able to fly by connecting with God. The coyote on the other hand, attempts to literally fly, transcending his mortal fate and failing miserably – sound familiar?
Campbell would reference his colleague Heinrich Zimmer when connecting ancient archetypes to these truths, saying the best things in life transcend thought. “The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck with the thoughts,” he said. “The third best are what we talk about, you see. And myth is that field of reference, metaphors referring to what is absolutely transcendent.”
Campbell learned that the western world has lost the power of myth, and in our quest to find life’s meaning we may be missing the point. Instead of seeking the objective meaning of life, we’re actually seeking the experience of being alive, so that it vibrates with our inner being – something which has been lost in modern society’s materialism.
“And the myth, the only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that’s talking about the planet. Not this city, not these people, but the planet and everybody on it,” Campbell said, “…how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about; that’s what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s going to talk about is the society of the planet, and until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”
In our modern age, it’s easy to seek an anodyne lifestyle – avoiding pain, while seeking simple pleasures through modes of instant gratification. Technology provides a quick solution for everything, putting us in passive states of consumption to take our minds off the struggles and inequality rampant in the world.
No wonder there’s such interest in yogic practice, meditation, and ancient philosophy; we’ve been given the call to adventure, but we’re in Campbell’s third stage of the Hero’s Journey: refusal of the call.
But the mentor we seek is right in front of us, waiting to be embraced, waiting to help us cross the threshold and approach the inmost cave. To put into action those transformational principles we know to be true in our hearts.
There, we can face our biggest ordeal to reach the apotheosis, seize the sword, and return with the elixir. There’s a hero in us all, don’t wait to start your journey.
Amma: The Loving, Hugging, Humanitarian Saint
As of the date of this article, Amma has hugged attendees to her programs over 40 million times. Her free events attract thousands upon thousands of people, often taking place in football stadiums. In the early days, when 50 or 60 people were in attendance, Amma was known as “Ammaji” or “Ammachi.”
It was 1990 when I first met Amma. She was seated on a tattered, cushioned chair in the center of a small, basement room in The African-Methodist Episcopal Church in Central Square, Cambridge, MA.
The moment I walked into the room, I was so profoundly struck by Amma’s light and presence that I fell to my knees and bowed to her. I spent the rest of the day sobbing in absolute bliss, happily crouched in a corner. In addition to a few Swamis and helpers, there were less than ten other people in the room.
While indulging my tears, Amma caught my eye and invited me to her chair. I was so nervous, I could barely speak. I walked toward her, awkward and self-conscious, as if it were my first time walking. I bowed and she immediately took my hand, then gently bent me across her lap.
Amma then gently rubbed my body from head to toe while I cried. She massaged my scalp and forehead and patted my spine. Amma even squeezed my ears and tussled my hair. It felt as though I were embraced by the most loving bundle of light.
After 20 minutes of her healing touch, Amma lifted my head with her soft hands and pressed her cheek and lips against my ear. She lovingly whispered Sanskrit mantras to me as I absorbed every morsel of her love.