The process of the Hero’s Journey is a continuous and transformative pattern, one that can help create the best version of ourselves one step at a time.
When I say the word “Journey,” what comes to mind? Some responses I’ve heard in the past range from “exciting” and “adventure,” to “scary” and “hard.” We use the word Journey a lot, describing various experiences and intangible ideas as Journeys. Life is a Journey. Education is a Journey. Love is a Journey. The Journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step. There are many more I could mention. For the record, I agree with all of those statements.
But do we ever stop to think about what that actually means?
If those things truly are Journeys, or qualities of a Journey, does that knowledge change anything for us?
It can change everything.
Before we get started unpacking this idea of Journeys, let me explain what I mean when I use the word Journey.
There are, of course, other definitions of a Journey. But, to truly get to the core of what a Journey can do, we define a Journey as an experience that has three distinctive qualities:
- It pushes us out of our comfort zone.
- It creates a change that results in the person becoming a better version of themselves.
- It follows a relatively predictable pattern.
The first two seem pretty straightforward; the third maybe less so. That pattern is the key to not only recognizing the Journeys we encounter, but also finding the meaning and power within them, allowing us to become the Hero of our own story.
Much of this work is rooted in Joseph Campbell’s work with the Hero’s Journey—the archetype that is found in stories both written and lived. As you go through these steps, imagine either your favorite story (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, etc.) or your own lived Journeys and see how the steps play out for the Hero you choose.
Every Journey begins with a character. For our purposes, we will call this character the Hero.
This Hero has a life, family, friends, perhaps a job, and other pre-existing conditions that influence them. What matters to us is the state that we find the Hero in when the story begins.
For most Heroes, the beginning of the Journey finds them in a “state of discontent.” This state falls somewhere on a spectrum: on the one side of the spectrum they could be unhappy, listless, or bored; on the other end of the spectrum they could be in physical danger, pain, or servitude. Regardless, for most of our Heroes the story begins with a need for something to change.
Our ability to recognize the beginning circumstances of our Hero will allow us to create a baseline. That way, when the Journey is over, we can reflect on how far our Hero has come.
Once we have a baseline, the next step in the Journey is that moment that Joseph Campbell describes as when “destiny has summoned the Hero”—the Call, as we refer to it—and their path is laid out before them. Our Hero is, in essence, called to find their destiny. This Call can take on as many forms a there are Heroes. Whatever the situation, something happens that changes things for the Hero.
It is important to note that Calls are not necessarily foreshadowing the outcome or even the purpose of the Journey; they are merely the mechanism that Fate chooses to get the ball rolling.
Now that our Hero has entered the path that is presented to them, they will, inevitably, reach a moment known in Journey terms as a “Threshold.” A Threshold is defined as a point of entry or beginning. The same is true with the Journey: a line must be crossed by the Hero that signifies a deeply important moment. The Threshold in the Journey is the moment where our Hero goes from what is “known” (their family, friends, home, lifestyle, etc.) into the “unknown.” They must leave behind those elements that acted as a support system for the pre-Journey Hero, lest they remain where, and who, they are.
For some of our Heroes the Threshold is an actual place: a new country, a city limit, even walking out of the door of their house if they never have before. The Threshold could also be symbolic, mental, emotional, or psychological. The form of the Threshold does not matter. What matters is that our Hero must leave their comfort zone.
Once our Hero has crossed over the Threshold, they find themselves up to their eyeballs in a world they have no idea how to navigate. The language is different, or magic is everywhere, or they have to pay bills they have always relied on others to pay, etc. The world is foreign, the expectations are confusing, and the Hero is unprepared to deal with what is happening to them. Because of this, the Hero is set up for a series of attempts and failures. They do not have the right skills or the right knowledge to be able to navigate this new world without help.
This is an intensely difficult and frustrating time for the Hero. They are constantly being faced with what they don’t know and what they can’t do. Where at home they were experts, or even just competent, here they are clumsy, ignorant, and incompetent. Heroes handle this experience differently, but the more foreign the world, the more failure becomes a regular occurrence.
In addition to the trials that this new world brings, the Hero is may also have to overcome Temptation. Temptations can take various forms, but at its core this is a Temptation to return home before the Journey is finished, even if things at home were terrible. In some stories the Hero develops something akin to amnesia: things weren’t really that bad, were they? I was actually pretty happy, wasn’t I? The difficulties at home can feel preferable to the trials of the unknown world, causing the Hero to consider turning around and going home.
Because of the difficulty of crossing into the Unknown world and the Temptation to quit early, the Hero would certainly fail on their own. Destiny provides others to aid our Hero on the Journey until they can become capable on their own. These “others” fall into two categories: Helpers and Mentors.
Helpers are those characters who are, basically, on the same level as the Hero. Due to differing life circumstances, they have skills or knowledge that the Hero needs in order to make it through the Trials and Temptations. At the same time, the Hero has things to offer the Helper that makes it a reciprocal relationship. The characters on this level are complementary, all having something that they can contribute to solving the immediate crisis, but none of them whole and complete on their own.
Mentors, on the other hand, are on a higher level than the Hero. They are wise, knowledgeable, and capable on their own. They don’t need the Hero. However, they find themselves in a position to help train or educate the Hero in a way that no one else really can. Their perspective allows them to ease the Hero along their path while absorbing many of the blows that might otherwise push the Hero off course. Mentors are much less about the immediate crisis and more about course correction.
Without Helpers and Mentors, the Hero would be lost in this new world that lies beyond the Threshold and would possibly succumb to the Temptation to give up early. With the Helpers and Mentors, the Hero is positioned grow and learn, ultimately ready to move to the next, and possibly most defining, phase of the Journey.
At this point, our Hero is most likely starting to feel pretty good about themselves. Thanks to contributions of Helpers and Mentors, they are starting to get the hang of this new world. They are able to function within the unknown as it is starting to become more “known.” The time of the Trials and Temptations sees them a little wiser and a little more capable than they were before, and that can build confidence in them.
What comes next seems very dark in comparison. This next stage in the Journey is often referred to as “The Abyss”—conjuring up images of dark, bottomless pits. The Abyss challenges our Hero to their very core.
This is where the Hero is confronted by, and must face, their greatest fears. Here, in the Abyss, the Hero is given a choice. They can either sacrifice the part of them that is holding them back, or they can submit to the opposing forces and give up. Both options are equally powerful, and equally viable. The reward for making the sacrifice must be equal to the difficulty of making it. Equilibrium means that the decision of the Abyss must come from the Hero. They make the sacrifice; they receive the reward.
This is a moment of great triumph for the Hero because they defeat their inner demons and weaknesses and come out stronger than ever before.
Connected to the Abyss experience are two important aspects of the Journey: the Revelation and the Transformation. The Hero has a moment of enlightenment that opens their eyes to a truth or a piece of wisdom. Their understanding is expanded, and they are able to see things—their Journey, a piece of their past, the truth of their relationship, etc.—more clearly than before. The learning that accompanies the Revelation is transformative; it changes their disposition and the way that they view the world. Even if, at some point in the future, they decide to reject this knowledge, they can never “unsee” it.
In addition, if our Hero is able to leave the Abyss triumphantly, they will, of necessity come out a changed person. The Abyss marked the “death” and “rebirth” of our Hero. They left behind those doubts, fears, prejudices, weaknesses, and any other sacrifices that were required, and are now different. Physical changes do happen in some stories, but more often it is an internal change that most signifies a triumphant return from the Abyss.
The Call, the Threshold, the Trials, the Temptations, and ultimately the Abyss, have all been preparing our Hero to complete their final job. They have been shaped, transformed, and refined by their experiences, and they now get to the final step in this phase of the Journey: the Unique Task.
This is something that the Hero needs to do. Because of both the experiences the Hero has endured and the very nature of who the Hero is, they are the only one capable of completing it.
The Hero is now in harmony with the forces of Destiny. Whether it is saving the princess, defeating the monster hordes, or winning the spelling bee, the Hero is now capable of, and completes, the ultimate task of their Journey. This is often the most exciting, intense, anticipated part of stories or movies, and there may still be some doubt as to the outcome before we see the Hero actually complete their task. Regardless of the outcome, the Hero is ready to take on the Task and to face it head on.
Once the Hero has completed the Unique Task, what happens next? Isn’t that usually where the story ends?
Sometimes. But there is an entire section of the Journey that stories often overlook: the Return. The Return is part of every Journey, and it carries with it its own important elements.
The Return, as the last phase in the Journey is called, marks a very important moment for our Hero. It’s not just that they go home; it is that in doing so they pass back over the Threshold that marked the beginning of their Journey. They cross from the world that was once unknown back to the familiar. They return to their families, their friends, their house, even back to emotional or psychological safety and security.
And yet, they are changed. Their Journey has transformed them, and the person they used to be is gone. This can either go smoothly or with great difficulty, but this is also predictable in many ways.
Inevitably, the Hero will return home with a Gift, with a capital “G.” The Gift represents all that the Hero has gained through their Journey. This may be a physical, tangible item: a medallion, a book of spells, a trophy, etc. More importantly, as successful Journey will result in intangible Gifts: wisdom, patience, love, acceptance, forgiveness, and more. These Gifts have come through difficulty, hard work, and sacrifice, and are held to be intensely valuable by the Hero even if they are not understood or appreciated by those at home.
Fortunately, once the Hero has returned home they are not done—another Journey awaits them. And another. And another. This process is continuous and transformative, creating the best version of ourselves one step at a time.
The Importance of Knowing
Knowing and recognizing this pattern does two things for us. First, it allows us to put our experiences into perspective. Hesitant to step out of our comfort zone? Completely normal. Tried to do something new and it was hard, or it failed miserably? Part of the process. Feel like your stuck in a dark, deep hole that you can’t find your way out of? That’s a choice point. When we can find where we are in the process, we know what to do next.
Second, it gives us power over our story. We are not alone in this; we are connected to each other in powerful ways. We are not helpless; we control the outcome. We are not victims; we are Heroes.
Life is indeed a Journey. It is time to start living like it.
Julie is an educator and coach who is passionate about helping people take control of their stories and live the Journeys they have been given to their fullest potential. Her book The Journey Blueprint lays the foundation of the Journey process and empowers the reader to see themselves as the Hero they are meant to be. Through workshops and coaching she shares the way to not only find where we are on our Journeys, but how to thrive within them. Find her at http://www.juliebouche.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.