To act out the forbidden, you invent a personality – a space for the self to grow and evolve.
We see the place we grew up into as limited, and limiting. And so within us an ambition to get out of the place, to fly away is born. The decision to leave defies if not the authority around us, then the established norm of acquiescing to the prevailing culture.
Leaving requires reinventing the self, within – because changing where one is necessitates changing one’s approach towards social settings, and therefore changing one’s behaviour, which stems from changing one’s thinking. This is carving a new personality.
The same happens with emotional leaving – from disillusionment to detachment. We depart from a place within us that was familiar and gradually develop new thinking that gives rise to new mental attitudes which are translated into new behaviours. This also leads to carving a new personality.
Desire is no different. Out of an insatiable desire for conquest, or to fill an immense void that scares and torments the inner child in us, we indulge ourselves. Whether in sex, or merely passing nights away drinking with friends, whether indulging in exquisite gourmet or stuffing ourselves to lethargy, we confront a craving inside us. And the way we fill it is by acquiring new experiences, or repeating the same experience, until we think we are satisfied, or until we have numbed the needs from which the desire was born. Either way, the desire and our striving to satisfy it add to the old self new layers that over years unfold into a new self.
The nature of the desire that drives us out of home, that gets us to leave so as to develop a new personality of our own, does not actually matter much. It is a superficial understanding of human endeavour to think that the boy pursuing a law degree at Harvard is essentially on a better journey than the one who ventured out to Paris to pursue carnal delights. The initial impulse is a function of the circumstances we find ourselves into in life. Some circumstances channel us to pursue what seems to be good; others direct us to what seems sinful or trivial. What matters is venturing out of home, getting beyond the comfort zone.
Home here is more than a place. It is a mental and emotional state. And so the idea of leaving home – as in the story of almost all heroes and heroines in every major fairy or folk tale and in countless novels and films - is that of exploring, of adventure, of going out and seeking and striving. It is that of being and becoming full of life. Whether life here is love for the girl next door or dreams of wealth and luxury or any other form, does not matter much. What matters is that the hero (or the heroine) leaves home and embarks on his journey.
He sets out on his own. This is a personal journey. There might be companions, although often there are not. But even when there are, the companions serve purposes in the journey, but they remain external to the experiences that the hero will undergo. The hero is alone, must be alone, for the true journey is within.
Importantly, the hero at this stage is a fool – for he lacks any real understanding of why he had actually left home, of what he is doing, of why he is venturing out, and of who he is. He thinks he knows his objective. He wants the girl, adventure, wealth, recognition, or merely he wants out of the place that is home. In reality, he is an ignorant, primarily of himself.
Joseph Campbell, the most prominent teacher on the hero’s journey in modern times, tells his readers that here, right at the beginning of the journey, the hero typically refuses a call. The call is that of his calling. What Campbell meant was that the hero (the searcher who does not yet know he is a searcher) refuses to go after what he is searching for. This is the strongest manifestation of his ignorance. He refuses to get what he wants, essentially because he has no idea what he really, in truth, wants. He does not understand his calling, for he does not understand himself. And it goes without saying that, at this stage he does not understand the nature of his journey. Refusing the call confirms the hero’s foolishness.
Yet .. why does the call come at this early stage when the hero is still a fool? Why does the call come when the hero is certainly going to refuse it?
Many of Campbell’s readers – especially those who went on and applied his and his teachers’ thinking to making movies - think it’s the nature of the drama. And so as we’ve seen in many Hollywood films, the hero’s journey is essentially a progression on a route in which he (or she) learns one lesson after another, until he is changed, in thinking and in behaviour. Often the experiences that are supposed to teach him vary, often they are the same, repeated again and again until he gets the lesson. Groundhog Day .. again and again, until he internalises the need for change, at which moment the transformation reaches a point of no return.
This is often interpreted as the imparting of rules of morality onto the hero. That is, the hero learns right from wrong, and moves away from sin (from breaking bad) and approaches goodness.
The true interpretation is more elaborate. The call comes at the beginning of the hero’s journey exactly so that he must sin, he must eschew goodness. Whether he (or she) is pursuing sex, wealth, fame, or merely acting out anger, he must refuse the call at the beginning of the journey. Again .. Foolishness is manifested, and results in his choosing, at an unconscious level, to undergo the journey.
Some Christian mystics believed the call is crucial to ensure justice. The Creator (the Knower) must tell the ignorant that he ought to take that route. It is up to the ignorant to accept or refuse. And being ignorant, he will ignore, will refuse. It’s akin to the old Japanese martial arts tradition of the master-fighter warning his attackers who are ignorant of who he is, in ancient language that they hardly understand, that they better leave him alone for he will defend himself and they will suffer. But the attackers do not register what he’s saying. All what they see is a thin, frail man. They do attack, and they do suffer. And the same with our hero-fool at this stage. In this understanding of the journey, justice necessitates that the hero is offered his salvation at the very beginning, before he is to embark on the journey. The Knower knows and subtly tells the ignorant, who foolishly ignores the call, for he as yet does not know.
And so foolishness is a necessity here. If the hero “knows”, he would have no need for the knowledge that will be imparted onto him. If humans have achieved their potential, they would have no need for the material life they have on earth.
Knowledge in the journey is never imparted in sermons, lectures, readings, or fireside conversations. These often serve to sharpen the hero’s mind or to directly prepare him for a coming encounter. Sometimes they offer in retrospect a succinct explanation for what had happened.
Throughout the journey knowledge is imparted through experiences that affect the hero’s beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions – what the hero believes in, not says he believes in; what the hero feels inside his cells, at his core; what he thinks: those dominating thoughts and patterns the mind follows again and again; and what the hero does, at moments of big decisions as well as routinely in daily life.
Some interpret this as the external world (new experiences in the journey) shaping the internal (the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, which lead to actions). This is partly true. Crucially however it’s the internal world manifesting in the external.
The hero is creating his reality, although still being ignorant, he neither knows this, nor understands it. But this continuous exchange between the external and the internal is one of the grand lessons he will come to understand. In time, he will appreciate that his true nature is a microcosm of the macrocosm that’s the universe of which he is part.
He will come to understand that this exchange generates the experiences of the journey. And if there’s one experience that comes after refusing the call, it must be a manifestation, in the clearest of all possible ways at this stage, of the Divine being there, watching and interacting.
This Divine revelation serves two purposes.
First, it is a grace. The hero refuses the call. The fool marshes on, as the Koran puts it succinctly, “with hubris and pride”. Density and heaviness fill the darkness inside him. Yet, he is not abandoned. The Creator’s care for him shines; its light illuminates the coming stage of the journey, and crucially illuminates parts of the hero’s inner darkness.
Second, the hero needs help, for at this stage he is not only a fool, but an inexperienced one. And so the revelation here is also a practical support for the hero to be able to pass this stage of the journey.
The revelation comes in the form of an encounter, typically with an older figure. It leaves a mark on the hero’s thinking, and at a deeper level on his consciousness. But it is not life changing. That’s why the revelation comes in the most possible way at this stage, yet not in a way that decisively alters the hero’s consciousness. As mentioned above, the rules of the journey – and some would say, the rules of justice - maintain that, altering the hero’s consciousness must be achieved only through the experiences of the journey. He (or she) must be transformed within, only through real experiences without – not through an encounter that reveals all and explains all.
The Divine help here enables the hero to face and pass his first ordeal. Often this ordeal is presented in the Biblical analogy of Jonah in the belly of the whale. It entails utter desperation, powerlessness, and losing hope. Here the first layer of the hero’s ignorance is shattered. He sees his ignorance by living his vulnerability. The function of this big ordeal is to devastate his sense of being able to conquer the world, the illusion of invulnerability. This becomes the first blow to his unruly ego. The message that gets internalised is that, you cannot and you will not conquer the world. Internalising this message is the first big threshold the hero crosses.
Joseph Campbell called this stage: the separation. The obvious meaning is that the hero has decisively left his original environment.
But there’s another meaning. By crossing this threshold, the hero has begun his separation from his self, from his narrow consciousness.
Carl Jung gave it a beautiful illustration – that of a young man falling into an abyss, initially a smile on his face, gradually turning into a scream. The fall signifies the ordeal. It also shows the intensity of the separation. The abyss is beautiful – as opposed to threatening or merely dark and dangerous – because in essence, it is a key step in the hero’s getting to understand that his true identity is that of a bigger – colossal – existence. This is the colossal abyss into which he is falling. The fall is scary. But in reality, it is the beginning of enlightenment, of liberation.
The next stages of the journey combine on one side seductions, licentiousness, abandon, and on the other, trials.
The first combination are the hero’s indulgence into uninformed sexuality. He drinks the nectar of pleasure, again and again, not knowing its powers, its origins, uses, and where it could lead him. He satisfies hungers, as well as feeds the still roaring undisciplined ego. And he again and again sinks into delicious materiality, in the way a child stuffs himself with sweets and chocolate. This is a long period: often two decades, the bulk of his youth. This is why often in folk tales this period is represented as a wandering in a forest. Hollywood often presented it as roaming the streets of big cities, especially New York. The temptations are numerous, the encounters intriguing, and there are always paths undiscovered that stir the wanderer’s desires. But the forest (or the city) is an enclosed world, and so the hero, despite being highly active in pursuing exploits and adventures, is in reality confining himself to a prison of desires and passions.
This is why this period of the journey also entails trials. They force the hero to see beyond his narrow wandering in the forest of his passions. The trials, much milder than the ordeals in the journey, are wake-up calls for the hero to internalise more than the satisfaction of his earthly materialism. At this stage of the journey, the flower of life seems to be blossoming, but tiny thorns poke the fingers every now and then.
In several spiritual disciplines, this period is symbolised as a trance, or a dream. It is a period of joys. The hero lives up his base aspirations. Every now and then there are flashes of fear. These are expressions of the deeper needs that lie beneath his desires. But these are rare occurrences. The trance is joyful – indeed a sweet dream. The hero has not awaken yet. Far from it; the indulgence into desires is further sinking into materialism. The hero has begun his separation from his narrow self, but he remains far from the blissfulness of connecting with his true nature in all its grandeur. In Jung’s image, the hero here is neither walking, as the fool he was, on solid ground, nor did he unite with the all that pervades the abyss. He is in the phase of falling.
Amidst the fall, there appears a seductress – the red woman of many tales (who obviously is not necessarily a redhead). The colour red signifies a fiery desire – for in the eyes of the hero she is much more than a beautiful woman. She stirs in his mind the much more profound desire of settling down. Being with her, inside her, gains the much deeper meaning of being at home. A home that he has selected, as opposed to the home he left at the commencement of the journey. This feeling of having been lost and finally having found her is one of the strongest wells of desire and determination the hero will encounter and internalise up until he comes to truly understand the nature of his journey and of himself.
The woman in red also signifies the energy that her appearance in his life unleashes. He sees in her a home after the ordeal he faced and the trials he experienced. And she comes after he has exhausted the biggest gush of uncontrolled desires. She is the stop of the fall.
The energy from encountering her catapults the hero farther in his journey. He will have her but he will not have a life with her. They will not live happily ever after. Having her, being with her, gives him inner mass after having lost good parts of his ego. This is an excellent exchange, for the parts he had lost of his ego were poisonous, while the mass knowing her has added in him, are of utter goodness. This is an example of what the Tao in Japan refers so as sacred sexuality – the immense power that gets created in the hero after he comes to be with, and to truly know this initiatress.
A key lesson of the encounter with the Red Woman is the centrality of character integration. The hero must come to understand – and at this stage of the journey he is no longer a fool, he has begun to understand – that his essence combines sacred masculinity and femininity. The Red Woman has not only given him the joy and wisdom of knowing her, she has shown him intimately the power of sacred femininity. Being with her, in her, and getting to know – through experiencing - the whole of her, is an apotheosis. Through her he has internalised, firstly in his body and later in his mind, elevation to illumination. In the expressions of the Sufis, knowing the Red Woman – the goddess seductress – with her grave, delicious wisdom – enables the hero to touch the Essence.
Atonement becomes the fruit of transcendence. Living the experience of truly knowing the Red Woman, internalising the effect of his apotheosis, the hero arrives at a threshold at which he comes to comprehend the nature and gravity of the sins he had committed against others and against himself in the previous stages of the journey. He feels the weight of the damages he had done. In many tales, this is the moment symbolised by the hero coming face to face with a giant dragon, often in a cave – a scene Hollywood and the media industry have repeatedly presented. The giant dragon is the hero’s own past, own transgressions; it s the amalgamation of the darkness in his ego. The cave is his inner world. Whether he slays the dragon, or brings it under his command, passing this threshold is essentially about bringing light to his inner darkness – which necessitates repentance. The hero must remain for a short period in the darkness so as to experience the weight of the actions he committed when he was an ignorant, when he was still a fool. Internalising the weight of the damages he had done opens the door for the light to come in – not for him to understand .. at this stage, he had already understood a lot .. rather, the light comes in as grace. He walks out of the cave onto light. The past has gained meaning. Past transgressions have become fuel for doing good in the rest of the journey. The dragon has bowed his head and the inner self – the divine spark in the hero - has smiled upon the soul in the material body. The hero’s mind basks in the warmth of the illumination of understanding.
Here begins the most difficult test. The hero is at the pinnacle of his power. He has understood the fundamental aspects of who he is and why he is on this journey. He has tamed his inner dragon. He has learnt how to separate the good from the destructive in his ego. He has known the most pleasurable of earthly joys and been blessed by understanding that that pleasure is a narrow gate to personal integration and on to transcendence. He has been given the grace through which to atone for his sins, and to know that forgiveness is not the washing away of his transgressions, but their transformation into light within. And now having emerged out of the cave, he basks in the warmth of understanding, the sun shines over him, and he finds wonders coming to him begging to be admitted into his life. What will he do? As the Koran puts it: he has been given “that with which he is entrusted”. It’s up to him what he will do with it.
Interpreting the past is key in this test. The hero now understands that the feelings and the desires that had got him to leave his home at the beginning of the journey were more than aspirations for discovery, releasing anger, or escaping fears. Often they were flights away from the present that, indeed at that early stage in his life, he detested, or felt oppressed by. Some psychoanalysts aggregate these feelings of early oppressions under the term of “the father figure”. Often indeed the dominant and dominating figure in that early stage is a father. Often, what was dominant was not a figure, but were cultural, religious or social norms and traditions that weighed down on the hero, and under which the urge to leave was born. Irrespective of what/which figure, ideas, notions had made the hero’s past when he was at home, difficult, now at the height of his power, he is tempted to deal with them, not with vengeance (for he certainly has passed that) but with detached superiority. This temptation is the test (and hidden meaning) of this stage of the journey.
Some of the most intelligent works of literature focused on this specific test. Perhaps Dostoyevsky was the most profound in dissecting the different approaches the hero takes towards that test – how the hero will deal with the figure, with the circumstances that had caused him suffering when he was young. For Dostoyevsky the hero’s course of action is essentially about his inner life, the evolution of his self. In one scenario, Dostoyevsky took the hero from basking under the warm light and feeling vigour and strength inside him, to succumb to the memories of past pains, and so to seek revenge, and ultimately to kill. Here the hero exacts human justice. In another scenario, Dostoyevsky made the hero forgive. Here, the hero has transcended past pains. He had undergone inner alchemy. The course of action Dostoyevsky chose for him in this case was not exacting human justice, but embracing Divine grace.
Passing the test of the past opens up the tests of the future. This is what Joseph Campbell refers to as the boon part of the journey. For Carl Jung it is the vigour of creative energy dwelling and moving inside the hero. Robert Moore, one of the most insightful analysts of deep psychology, sees it as the stage in which the hero rides the dragon. The hero has not only faced his inner darkness, understood it, forgave himself for it (for he had understood its nature and function) .. but also he has now received the ability to turn this darkness – old fears and pain – into power, into mastery.
And so the test becomes how he will use that power. Will this stage of the journey be a boon for himself, or for others as well? Will the vigour of this creative energy turn him into a Goliath, or into a giant that inspires and builds, and who others take refuge in his power and wisdom? Will his riding of the dragon herald peace and bounty, or fear and destruction?
Passing the test of how to interpret the past and deal with it does not necessarily result in passing the test of riding the dragon. As the famous saying goes, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And in a way, having undergone that inner transformation, having been the subject of true alchemy, getting out of the cave and basking under warm light, and having received the power of knowing how to ride the dragon – all of that tantamount to absolute power (in the confines of human psychology), especially that often this stage comes with worldly resources begging to enter the hero’s life.
Those in the know understand the precariousness of this phase. In a way, it is a reliving of the grander dilemma in Genesis (as well as a manifestation of the Sufi path of the knower): man has striven to gain knowledge, he has paid a major price – not merely for that knowledge but for evolving himself to be worthy of receiving it - but now that he has gained the knowledge and the resources to put it into practice, he is tempted by all that he has tamed before. The dragon is under the hero’s saddle. But the dragon remains a dragon.
At heart, this test is the most profound of all, for it is the test of self-control – which is the golden mean of human existence.
Another equally dangerous test of this phase of the journey is commitment. Will the hero stay the course? Or will he simply fall into self-indulgence? As many a goddess tested many a hero: why wander further? Why exert efforts and face dangers? Why strive and pursue? Why not fill days and nights with joy? This is Homer’s making Odysseus spend seven years enjoying the charms of Calypso and her island of leisure, until Athena (an archetype of pure wisdom) inspired and stirred him, so that he is not lost forever to wanton self-abandonment.
Passing this test is the self-control of staying the course, of pursuing the journey, of staying faithful to the knowledge gained and internalised before. Passing this test stems from knowing – at least from having faith - that the journey is transformation unto salvation, that there is a meaning towards which the hero strides.
Passing this test reveals a truth the hero had a glimpse of before, but now it shines clear. That is, the true boon here is not merely the power and its manifestations that he acquired after emerging from the cave of darkness. And the boon is also not merely the circumstances through which he is able to manifest and deploy that power in life. The true boon here is his ability to manifest his inner illumination into his external life, and by doing so, he imparts some of that light onto others.
This is usually the stage during which the hero begins to have followers. His goodness (cleanliness from within, as some Christian mystics say), exemplary and often highly refined behaviour, and the lofty goals he does not reveal but often people sense, and the powers – different resources – that he is now endowed with, attract to him worthy and unworthy potential disciples. What matters here, however, is whether he chooses to evolve the journey from being a purely personal one to one in which he leads others. The first is the essence of the journey, the reason why he is here. The second has the potential to create a collective of goodness whose results would exceed the ability of the hero to effect wider change by himself. But the latter – accepting a circle of disciples – could also waste the hero’s energy, poison the wells of goodness he has dug inside of him, and acutely disrupt his own journey.
Crucially changing the journey from the purely personal – which by itself manifests outward – to the explicitly social that does exit externally beyond the hero, creates a dichotomy. On one hand, the collective of goodness he works to create is a stronger force for spreading good. It is a form of expanding his evolved self for the benefit of mankind. But .. that expansion entails more complicated, fraught interactions with the materiality of the existence surrounding him – something many think contradicts the ultimate objective of the journey: the transformation within that, in time and after several journeys, enables the human to connect with the numinous. At heart, accepting to return to interact fully, teach, and attempt to change, threatens to fragment the solid concentration of his psyche, and the integration he has achieved of his self and ego. And so the hero ought to choose carefully whether or not to accept the circle that the potential disciples would create around him.
Not surprisingly many heroes have shied from that socialisation of their ascension. And yet, there’s an argument that by refusing immersion into the surrounding society, the hero is refusing – another time – another call. This time, the call is to return to his society, to his community, as a guide, a changing agent, some would say a saviour. This refusal is certainly more significant than the first one at the beginning of the journey, for then the hero was an ignorant, a fool; now he has received illumination. Refusing this call is a form of defending his illumination, and yet is denying the society around him the light he is basking in. Is that preserving one’s most valuable possession? Or the ultimate form of selfishness?
For true heroes the decision is made. He (or she) must share the blessing, must induce a transformation beyond himself. He returns. The dead that was awakened returns to the realm of the living-dead. The ignorant fool who has been educated and gained knowledge returns to the land of folly.
His mission is to become, in his thought, life, and presence in the world, a living example of an evolved, reformed human consciousness that has retained his (or her) individuality while being connected with the whole where individuality perishes. For that, he commands immense inner strength and outer resources. If he sustains that reformed consciousness, the hero would have earned the spoils of the journey.