Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Hero or Heroine Archetype

For next week's blog I will relate experiences with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari. This was my first real hero's journey outside of that encountered during medical school and surgical training. This archetype is key to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment. The quest for self-realization often comprises a series of hero's journeys. We will discuss this archetype further in the upcoming talk on wilderness healing in April.

In "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," Joseph Campbell says, "The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
There is a Sanskrit chant which translates, "May the hero awaken from forgetfulness and transcend all anxiety and sorrow."
In the context of Kabbalah, the hero is seen as having to conquer the serpent, which is wound around the central trunk of the Tree of Life, in order to reach Keter, the highest sephira and enlightenment.

The journey of the hero, or the journey of initiation or any rite of passage has been defined by Arnold Van Gennep as occurring in three distinct phases, severance or separation, threshold or the journey itself, and incorporation or integration. The hero's journey is the quest for one's own higher Self, a journey into one's own psyche.

In the first phase of separation the hero hears the call to adventure. He or she must either follow it or kill something within. This call is a yearning for the extraordinary. The first level of resistance must be overcome (work, home, spouse, children, friends, etc. telling you not to go,) and once this is done guides assist the hero to point out the dangers and show the way. This is the phase where synchronicity may appear. Jung described synchronicity as a meaningful coincidence where two events occur simultaneously, linking the inner psyche with the outer event. For example, one makes a decision to take a trip and a brochure arrives that day describing the very trek you wish to take. In 1987 I was compelled to take a trip to the Bushmen of the Kalahari which will be the subject of the next blog. You may have had similar experience. The hero may be armed or given a symbol of power, such as a sword in the classical tales of old. Today this is more likely to be some form of knowledge, in the form of a book or a teacher to help one on the way. Izak Barnard who spent most of his life with Bushmen guided me on my first San Bushmen journey.

Following separation the hero enters into the second phase: the threshold or the journey itself. Usually this takes place in nature, in wilderness, in a cave or a forest. The hero passes into a world of supernatural wonder where strange forces are encountered and the ordinary world left behind. An obstacle or physical force is met, such as a dragon, guard, or fierce dog, which must be overcome before victory is won. The hero faces death and physical danger before encountering the dangers of the psyche, the shadow parts of one's life, or the dark night of the soul. This is critical for the hero to be reborn, or become whole, self-realized or self-actualized. With the knowledge and confidence of the success of the first physical obstacle, and with the object of power such as a  metaphoric sword, the hero is able to overcome the more difficult second confrontation, the struggle with his basic fear. Of the two fears, the psychological can be greater than the physical. Having prevailed, the hero earns the reward of a grail and the treasure of inner knowledge.

With this new gift the magical numinous world can be left behind. The hero departs the threshold with a new awareness and returns home with knowledge and power to help. Now the phase of incorporation begins. The journey cannot be completed unless the hero brings the wisdom of the experience back to the community. The journey is ultimately an altruistic one.

During the phases of separation and threshold fear will come up with all its manifestations. Without confronting fear, the archetypal journey of the hero’s journey cannot be fulfilled. Nature or wilderness with all its diverse polarities is an ideal place for the journey and is a powerful tool for indigenous rites of passage. There are many ways to experience the archetype and a woman's battle with breast cancer can encompass all its dynamics. The hero/ine gains an appreciation of self-mastery and awareness that later can be taken back to the community and integrated.

There are fewer heroes in public life these days. While many people complete the first two phases, few complete the third phase of incorporation. An example of this is the Olympic athlete who fulfills the phases of separation and threshold. However, the phase of incorporation where something is taken back to the community is often lacking. This particular journey is more accurately termed the warrior’s journey. Our Western society is replete with successful warriors. Not infrequently, when the modern day American warrior enters the threshold phase and encounters a metaphorical dragon that disallows access to the forest, another way of overcoming the obstacle, is having one's attorney sue the dragon. This is a non- archetypal way of gaining access to the forest.

So-called "primitive" peoples seem to understand the psychological importance of the process and use it to the greatest effect to make their young men whole. At a certain age they are forcibly "separated" from their mothers and the womenfolk to undergo rigorous training with the older men, finally culminating in a terrifying ordeal such as ritual circumcision. After this they can integrate back into the tribe or group as men and take on new responsibilities. Today, amongst many African tribes, this rite of passage is still intact, and ritual circumcision is a significant part of it. Hunting of an animal may be another part of the process. Here, the three phases of initiation are fulfilled. The psychological and physical pain a boy must endure in some cultures with surgical removal of his foreskin without anesthesia or a sharp scalpel, is something few of his counterparts in the Western world would be able to endure. Their young women have different pubertal rites of passage that fulfill the same criteria.
In the West our rites of passage pale by comparison.  In the traditional male initiation ceremony no females are present and vice versa and the process is ritualized into something powerful by the respective elders.  The youth will carry this all his life and retrieve it from the psyche when the need for courage and fortitude arise. Armed with this past experience they can believe in their ability to handle whatever comes their way. I cannot help but think that this inner strength has enabled many Africans to endure with equanimity and courage the numerous trials and tribulations the continent continuously offers up to them. President Mandela underwent his own initiation as a youth.


I have been leading wilderness healing trip into remote areas for many years and personally believe that nature is the best place to encounter the polarities required for personal transformation. How it is eventually done is up to the individual. There are challenges with the incorporation phase which is often the most difficult of the three phases. In the case of anyone taking on a powerful spiritual journey there is usually a re-entry depression that can be difficult to handle. Here are some of the principles I have found useful for the re-entry
  1. 1)  Acknowledge the re-entry depression as a gift resulting from a profound encounter with your true Self. It is an indicator of the intensity of the journey and the associated altered state of consciousness. This can be quite subtle and only becomes apparent on re-entry. Often the more powerful the journey, the more profound the depression.
  2. 2)  Separate needs from wants on the return. It is the "want" and not the need that will sabotage a successful integration. Beware the seduction of materialism. There is nothing wrong with materialism as long as the energy required to sustain it does not take us away from "following our bliss." There is nothing wrong with having "things" but they should not have you.
    3)  Practice the walk and suppress the talk; live the vision rather than describe it. Family and friends are more likely to pay attention to a shift in behavior for the better than to any peak or transformational experience described in words.
    4)  Do not dive back into old habits and addictions. Substitute them for a form of spiritual practice that is enjoyable, practical and likely to last. One cannot face the challenges of modern society without the help of some method of going inward. This does not have to be anything esoteric; surfing may be more powerful than meditation, gardening as good as Tai Chi.
    5)  Develop a community that can be self supporting. There is synergy in groups, where in terms of spiritual energy 2+2=5 and 5+5=15.
    6)  Live out your vision, be true to your own myth or follow your bliss (Joseph Campbell).
  1. The essence of incorporation is to give the gift gained from the journey away. This act will bring just as many benefits to the giver as it will to the receiver. Albert Schweitzer understood this well. 
“ I don’t know what your destiny will be but one thing I do know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” 

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