Sacrifice as a Catalyst for Rebirth and Bliss in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell is one of the most influential writers, philosophers, and professors in history. His work on mythology has taken native stories beyond their face value and deep into the human psyche, where they resonate with the core of who we are.
Campbell’s life’s work brought countless people across the world in touch with the collective unconscious that underlies our every thought and motivates us to seek happiness. His phrase “follow your bliss” is now a household prompt, thanks to a series of interviews with celebrated journalist Bill Moyers in the early ‘90s. Gaia members can now experience this timeless discussion, listening to episodes discussing “The Hero’s Adventure”, “Sacrifice and Bliss”, and more.
Campbell’s teachings applied the lessons of heroes and metaphors of mythology to our own lives. “A myth is not a lie,” he famously said, despite this commonly misused definition. Rather, a myth is a story meant to turn the mind inward to reflect upon itself and reveal the essential truths of reality and our relationship to the transcendent.
As Campbell explains in his series of interviews with Moyers, myth is often constructed as a hero’s journey — a pivotal course of events that slowly test the story’s protagonist and push them to the next step of unfoldment — toward transcendence. Each obstacle the hero experiences is a reflection of himself, as he is moved one step closer to sacrifice the egoic sense of self to the greater good, which is total consciousness.
When we study mythology, Campbell taught, we find the theme of sacrifice to be all-important. We must let go in order to receive what is already present. Campbell said, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” The hero sacrifices his lower nature for his higher nature, and his safety for the one he rescues, or perhaps an object of desire for a noble cause.
Campbell taught that sacrifice is a theme that runs through all things natural — death (the sacrifice of a living being) gives way to new life in an ever-continuing cycle. But death is often metaphorical and may be the death of a habit, a pattern of thinking, or an attachment to something. Or, he said, “When you make the sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship.”
Perhaps the most poignant and revealing teaching that arises from the Campbell-Moyers interview on “Sacrifice and Bliss” is that once the hero has made “the ultimate sacrifice,” there is a realization that takes place. This is the stuff of enlightenment wherein the act of total surrender of the personal self gives way to the realization that there is no “other.”
This, said Campbell, is “the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization that you and the other are one” — and that the idea of separation (a separate “me” and “you”) is only due to being stuck in the temporal idea of time and space created by the egoic self. Finding this truth about Oneness, Campbell told Moyers, “is not a concept; this is a realization.”
The award-winning conversation between Moyers and Campbell is now a timeless classic. It is not only eye-opening for viewers who are new to the depth of thought behind mythology and metaphor, but also for those who have seen the interviews over and over again. Now streaming on Gaia, Campbell’s immortal words are readily available for everyone’s next step on their spiritual journey—their own personal hero’s journey toward transcendence.
What is the Hero's Journey?
When I was in my early 20s and my father was dying, a friend gave me a painting. It depicted a river wending its way through soft mountains, with a small sailboat in the distance floating down the river. It struck me at the time as a metaphor for my life. And I was left with the sense that our life is like the journey in a fairy tale, a small vessel following the currents, passing through different terrains, in search of what’s around the next corner. The river knows where it’s going, but we on the boat do not.
On this life journey, we are each discovering the geography of our own inner world. And yet, when we take a step back and look at it from a larger perspective, that geography, and our life journey, is not so different from the basic story that humankind has been playing out since the beginning. Birth. Separation. Initiation.
Return. This shows up in our own lifecycle, and then in the countless ways that we are called to leave what is familiar to us and venture into the unfamiliar. Each of us slaying inner dragons and facing outer obstacles, to be reborn in a new version of ourselves, more true to who we are.
This death and rebirth motif shows up in stories and myths all over the world; is at the heart of some of our great religions; and animates our most powerful films.
George Lucas, struggling for years to create a film his heart had been calling him to write, was able to finish the Star Wars story while reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a 1000 Faces, which lays out the basic bones of the human story. Just as the heroes and heroines in that saga overcome fear and attachment to the familiar and rise up to be of real service to the Universe, we are each doing the same thing in our own universe.
Each of us is rising above our self-imposed limitations and outer challenges to expand our sense of self and walk our path of destiny. Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey gave us a map to guide us, and signposts along the way, as we take our journey.