HJF ESSAY SERIES ON THE HERO’S JOURNEY

 

Hero’s Journey Essay Number Two – The Call to Adventure:

Taking Up The Journey

 

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations-

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice,

which you slowly recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.

 

– Mary Oliver

 

 

Joseph Campbell said that in the Western world, we have both the freedom and the obligation of finding out what our destiny is.  So what do we do if we want to find out what our personal myth is, while we are in the midst of living it?  And why don’t we?   Could it be as simple as this – that we’ve become over-attached to the security of what is familiar, and how we are provided for?   That we’ve become afraid about growing up and going out into the unknown-ness of the world?  That we’ve avoided a certain kind of leave-taking from the confines of the couch, of comfort, of “home”?   So we don’t have to ever really go forth, out and into the world, and begin gathering of our own resources to ourselves, and do the work of searching for these resources in the depths within ourselves?

 

In the book Pathways to Bliss, Campbell poses questions such as this:  “What is the great thing for which you would sacrifice your life?  What makes you do what you do?  What is the call of your life to you – do you know it?

 

He goes on to say, “a person who is truly gripped by a calling, by a dedication or a belief, by a certain zeal, will sacrifice his (or her) security, personal relationships, prestige.  He (or she) will give themselves entirely to their personal myth”.  He also acknowledges that “it is not always easy or possible to know by what it is that we are seized”.   But it does require of us to become increasingly fascinated, and thus decreasingly threatened, with the arrival of some kind of mystery.

 

So what is that unconscious, intangible thing that has us feeling a peculiar, compelling inner ‘pull’ towards a certain place, activity or desire?  What is that ungraspable, subtle sense of awakening we feel in certain circumstances, or in particular nature settings?   And how is it that we find ourselves caught in repetitive, fated patterns or situations, again and again?   How does a certain ‘something’ seem to cleave to us certain troubles or problems that our conscious minds and bodies have to face, explore and eventually, resolve?

 

We are often haunted by this ongoing play of fate and destiny in our adult lives. We find ourselves wondering what our true place is in the material universe, we seek to know our purpose, we long for a vital connection to something larger than ourselves.   But it is rarely found in the terrain of the familiar, pre-ordained course.

 

 

In order to adhere to a call to adventure, we have two fundamental and complimentary tasks: leaving home and venturing forth.  We loosen our grip on the familiar, while turning our compass heading towards the unknown, and the various elements of risks that must be undertaken in the realm of the unknown.

 

Let’s turn our attention now to one of Mary Oliver’s most well known poems, The Journey:

 

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began

 

This poem’s beginning implies the end of something else.  One day.  Before that, there was all the time it took, everything you had to go through, what you endlessly endured.  Before you finally knew what you had to do.  Needless to say, this can take up most of a lifetime, or at least it feels that way.  All this, before the One day arrives.

 

We wade through fears, confusion, doubts, despair, ambiguity, trepidation, numbness, failures, fogginess, anxiety, low energy  – and then – more of the same.  These are the many different necessary and negative facets that can stem from a common denominator: not knowing.  Then, there is it’s antecedent well as, which is not knowing what to do.

 

The introduction of this poem is like the first words (actually, the third verse) from Genesis in the Bible: “And then there was light.”  But what preceded ‘In the beginning,  how long did that take, and what was really going on before the light came on?   What was happening in that void of universal darkness?  Which takes us once again back to the unknowable, the unknown.  On a hero’s journey, all roads eventually lead here.

 

Rumi speaks of this in the beginning of the Coleman Barks’ rendition of Who Says Words With My Mouth? 

 

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.

Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?

I have no idea.

My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,

and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.

 

This drunkenness, this lack of clarity of vision and purpose, it began somewhere else.  Even the mystics often have no idea.  I think the difference between the mystics and us is, the lack of knowing troubles them less.  Perhaps they even aim for that place.

 

When we are troubled by the unknowing, we become restless and anxious.  When we are bound to anxiety, we become less and less able to listen.  And when we can’t listen within ourselves, we can’t hear what calls to us.

 

What else keeps us from listening for the next call?  I have been occupied by a great deal of wondering about this very thing.  I have come to the conclusion that many of us are unwilling to do what it takes to get close enough to ourselves, and deep enough within ourselves, to really listen.  Yet this inner descent and inner space making is what is needed, so that we become more able to listen to what is down there in the depths, waiting to be heard.

 

 

For those of us willing and able to arrive at a quiet, centered, still place inside, we may be looking and listening for something in particular, searching for the projection of our ego’s wishes.  Joseph Campbell says, “one way to deprive yourself of an experience is indeed to expect it.  Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience.”  Thus, we are unable to hear or see what is actually arriving and making itself known within our interior worlds.  We are pre-occupied with a fantasy created by our own  wishes and projections, and looking for the perfect match for that, and in the process, we lose sight of everything else.

 

Another way to look at this is to see that we are unconsciously looking to have our call to adventure magically provided for us, in the way and form we desire.  We want it packaged all at once, and with a ‘literal’ clarity:  Actual voices, delivering the message word by word; crystal clarity of vision, with everything we need clearly revealed.

 

In other words, we want our interior life to look and sound just like our exterior world. We become ‘fundamentalists’ of the soul.  We make the mistake of taking our dreams, imaginings, and inner calls all too concretely, historically, and literally.  We fail to see the mythic or metaphorical energies underneath it all, that which drives the creation of the symbols, images and words we sense within us.

 

If we are to listen deeply to an inner call to adventure, we have to learn to accept the initial dreamlike state of awareness that comes, pay attention to our night dreams, respect our creative imaginings during guided meditations or creative visualizations.  Then few have to do the work of the meaning-making underneath the symbols, stories, people or words we encounter.  The heroic adventure begins with listening to the soul’s call to adventure, and the soul, most of the time, is a subtle herald.

 

So, the call to adventure is often very gentle and fleeting, at least, at first.  It is when we don’t listen that the messenger comes much louder, and sometimes comes with a blunt thud.

 

So the paradox here is that once we can accept the condition of our not knowing, we can open up a space inside to begin paying attention more deeply, more subtly.  We can start to orient ourselves to what is actually already there.  This is a different way of being, in which we shift from a searching consciousness, which is needed to take up the journey, to a finding consciousness, which explores the deeper terrains of where one currently is located within their interior.

 

The unknown aspects of the self will feel foreign to the self, at first.  A “not me” feeling. There is no way around it, just many ways to avoid it.

 

 

Going from searching to finding is helped along by a neutral and open transition space within the self.  I would call this open, unrecognized, unrealized space not-yet-ness.  It implies that something will inevitably happen, even though that has not yet happened.  This is a crucial shift in conscious one has to make.  If one can only take up the waiting more positively, more actively, with curiosity, and even a sense of play, something will inevitably begin to happen, that hasn’t happened thus far.  This is because something is already happening, and we have not yet become aware of it.

 

Tom Petty portrays this popular struggle in his song ‘The Waiting’.  He wails out in the refrain, “the waiting is the hardest part!”  As a modern culture, we are less and less inclined to wait for anything anymore, mostly because we often no longer have to.  Our modern culture is one that values and is built upon the notion of speed.  But speed doesn’t often help with our heroic venturing.   For the soul’s journey, active waiting is a necessary function that must be cultivated within, and practiced over and over, to in order to support the gradual realization of a lifelong destiny.

 

I am reminded of a humorous story in this regard, one that took place during a men’s Hero’s Journey wilderness intensive some years back.   A member of our stewarding team ventured out for a day of solitude, and took himself out for a solitary Medicine Walk.  His intention was to cultivate more patience for himself; he wanted to learn how to wait. It was a hot, sunny summer day, so he took an umbrella along.  He also took along an old briefcase filled with carving knives, so he could whittle away at some wood when he felt so inclined, while waiting.  But he mostly planned to stand in one spot for a long time.

 

Later on, in the intense heat and sun of a mid-summer’s afternoon, I myself was on a solo Medicine walk, slowly moving through the forests and open fields of our base camp area, high up in the West Virginia mountains.  I suddenly became aware of this curious and peculiar figure up ahead in the landscape, standing in a wide-open field, amidst wildflowers.

 

I could see that his umbrella was up, providing him with shade from the intensity of the sun.  He was also wearing a straw hat, and a Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of shorts.  As I slowly approached, I realized that his boots were off, and his feet were buried in some sandy earth.  This was indeed a peculiar sight, and it added greatly to the impression that he had been standing in one spot for a very, very long time.

 

Beside him was his briefcase, standing up as well, on the ground.  It gave the appearance of a man standing at a bus stop, waiting for the next bus.  Yet here he was, in the middle of a wildflower field in a mountainous nature setting, many miles from anything resembling a bus stop.  So you might see why I found this to be incredibly funny!   But in the spirit of play, I decided to keep a stiff upper lip, and walk right by him.  I said only one thing to him as I passed.  “Are you waiting for the bus?”   His reply is what had me falling over with laughter. “No,” he said.  “I am waiting for the road!”

 

 

See if you can feel what happens within you when you answer this question two different ways on the inside:

 

Have you found that thing that brings you utterly alive on the inside?   No.

Have you found that thing that brings you utterly alive on the inside?   Not yet.

 

Going from ‘no’ to ‘not yet’ brings the sense of adventure forward, and makes the challenge of venturing into the unknown worthwhile, so that things can then become more interesting.  It implies that something’s coming, eventually.  If you are heading towards the unknown, you will need to practice another word, and use it many times when wandering through an unknown territory:  hmmmmm.

 

This attitude will inevitably bring us to the point when something fleeting but un-ignorable starts to happen within us, and when something asks us this question again:  “Have you found that thing that brings you utterly alive on the inside?”  One day, you eventually find yourself with a surprising and enlivening reply.  Yes.    

 

 

Perhaps the most humbling awareness, when we are distraught about not knowing something, is the awareness that not knowing is actually an unconscious defense against knowing.   Has that ever occurred to you about your own not knowing?  Searching is often the easy part of the journey, precisely because something has not yet been found.  It is in the finding that the spirit of adventure brings forth the inevitable ordeal. 

 

In the movie No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff who has come upon a gruesome murder scene somewhere in the isolated, brown and lonely Texas plains.  Evidence of a drug deal gone bad, very bad.  Not knowing exactly what has gone wrong, the deputy sheriff says to him, “it’s a real mess, ain’t it, sheriff?”  Jones says, “if it ain’t it will do, until the mess gets here”.   Not knowing will often do as trouble enough, until the real trouble of knowing arrives.

 

When we begin to actually hear the call to adventure, the deeper trouble of knowing what is calling to us can really get us started, and we feel the traction as well as the tension of taking up the journey.

 

 

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice

 

                        Once we begin to tune into an inner voice, and hear the call towards new life within us, it will always and at some point bump against the voices of those around us.  The voices of people who matter to us, and people who don’t. People whose opinions we value and seek out, and people who annoy us by offering their unsolicited opinions about how we should choose to live our lives.

 

On an authentic hero’s adventure, advice from another is mostly of no use.  In the same way that following a path already made makes it following somebody else’s path, following advice means that you’re not coming from your own inner source, not following your own life force energy. Therefore, your endeavors are not likely to bear fruit, or take you very far, or hold much meaning, or go very well.

 

The next challenge for us, once we begin hearing the call from within, is how to not readily abandon it.  How to not trade it in for good advice from someone else.  How many times, when we don’t know what to do with our lives, do we ask someone to please tell us what to do?   It sets us up for a dynamic in which we become unwitting help-rejecting complainers.  Tell me what to do, so I can either not do that, or do that and then complain about it, especially when it doesn’t appear to be working.

 

The only advice that has seemed of use to me when it comes to answering the soul’s calling, is this sage advice I was once given: in matters of great importance, listen to my own heart, and follow what I find to be my own bliss.  That doesn’t mean I don’t talk with others about it, or share with those capable of understanding me or challenging me.  But there is nothing else we can do if we want meaning and vitality in our lives but follow our own authentic inner life, and no one else’s.

 

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

 

If we follow our own inner call to become more alive, to become more than what we already are, we must begin to move out beyond our comfort zone, we start to cross the first threshold.  We leave ‘home’.  As we do, we feel an inner dissonance, feel something going against the grain of the usual way.  We breach the old boundaries, go past our homeostatic tendencies, we sound an inner alarm.  As soon as something starts to go wrong, or others question us or become upset with our movement, we feel panic, doubt and fear. We feel this old tug at our ankles, and our feet stop going forward.  Here we find a reflexive desire to turn back, a desperate need to return to the security that brings forth a same-ness has become stagnant, fixed and constraining.

 

Here something crucial must become re-established in the psyche of the hero, the one seeking more a meaningful and fulfilling life.  There must be a gradual and undeniable shift in allegiance towards our most basic reality orientation.  In order to better listen to the inner call to adventure, we must shift from security-seeking mode to a vitality-seeking mode.

 

We must make a shift in consciousness – from the safety we have come to know (which must come first), to the enlivening we desire with all our heart (which must come next).

The call to adventure helps to do exactly that.

 

 

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

 

There is another obstacle that prevents us from listening to, and feeling silently pulled by that which brings us alive, that which we truly love.  This increase in energy and excitement is hard to adjust to, as we feel our own life force energies begin to pour through our bodies in a direct and potent way.  Sometimes, we unconsciously defend against this in-flow of energy, and we do it in a culturally sanctioned way:  We try to fix things.

 

First we try to fix others.  Many of us “givers” have devoted our lives to caretaking tasks.  One day it strikes us how futile this actually is. (This takes a while to realize.)  We then turn our attention back to correcting ourselves, which is a much more efficient and effective use of our energy and attention.  Except that when we resort back to a mental ‘problem solving’ mode for matters of the heart, it doesn’t work, either.

 

We begin to chase our tails with mental thinking, or better said, we chase after all of our problems, and think that if we can just fix them all, we will be more okay, if not more alive.  Fixing problems rarely brings more aliveness, though.  It simply provides temporary relief.  Until the next problem comes.  And it does. It says “Mend my life!”   Now we have a mission, a sense of purpose.

 

The deeper call,“Grow my life!”, is buried beneath all of the surface repairs of a ‘fix-it’ mentality.   The next threshold crossed is a letting go of mending everything, or mending anything, for that matter – so we can go into a deeper state of awareness, beyond mental thinking and problem solving.  Here, we stumble upon a crucial awareness about our world, and more importantly, about our selves.  Nothing’s broken.  Well now, what does someone do about that?  New trouble.

 

At least, it is different trouble. Better trouble. And it leads us, once again, back to the unknown.

 

 

 

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations-

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

If we listen long enough, and aren’t looking to find something in particular, like a lost object –  and we instead start looking for what is already there, waiting for us (and only us), we have crossed over into the hero’s mythic realm of adventure.  We listen as a practice, simply to listen, and to hear, feel and sense what comes.  If you stick with this approach, inevitably something enlivening begins to come into awareness.  You start to realize what you have to do.  It simply becomes obvious, and it’s a surprise, at the same time.

 

The trouble here is, you begin realizing that what you have to do, isn’t what you thought you had to do.  You start to see that what you thought you had to do, what you endlessly tried to do, isn’t really the thing to do any more.  (This is one of those ‘oh, shit’ moments, and it is a big one.)  Another threshold to cross.  Letting go of the mind’s incessant demands, obligations, barters, deals, fretting, etc.  Realizing that you have wasted time, energy and resources trying to fix someone else or yourself, hold something together, fit into something that doesn’t really fit you now.  It just doesn’t work.  Perhaps it once did, or never did.  But you have invested yourself in something that no longer bears fruit, or gives life.  Depending on your state of mind, this is really bad news, or really good news.

 

If we listen to deep call, we begin to shed what no longer serves life, in order to be pulled towards that which gives new life.  No way around this universal truth.  This brings on grief, and the sense of loss.

 

As we head towards a new way of sensing, feeling, knowing what we have to do, we move beyond all external motivations, and become driven by a persistent and steady inner energy source.  It just keeps welling up from within.  Keeps us on track, keeps us enlivened, keeps wanting to move our lives in the only direction it can go – forward.

 

Becoming moved by an inner longing, however undefined or mysterious, will have to move beyond the ‘stiff fingers’ of grasping that a rigidified ego holds, and the foundations of an old consciousness that clings to our bodies and minds, saying to us ‘fool, don’t leave what you know behind’!   And finally, in order to venture into the new fields of play, we confront the vestiges of ‘terrible melancholy’, an authentic mourning of what will never be, and especially, what could never be to begin with.  Dis-illusion.  A kind of mourning period for our fantasies.  Which, of course, is the only cure for an illusion.

 

So listening for the call to adventure requires us, at some point along the journey, to let go of a ‘stiff fingers’- our long held, illusions about safety and security.   In preparation for the new way…the way of mystery.

 

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

 

One more thing that would hold us back from crossing over and taking up the path of adventure is regret.  Chasing another false and illusionary belief that it is too late for you, that you missed your time.  That the windows of opportunity have all closed for you.  Too old, too uneducated, too broken, too poor, too much failure…well, you name it.  This is another wily defensive strategy, yet more clinging to an old identity.  It is also an indication that you must be getting closer to the source of the new wellspring, actually, to desperately resort back to the oldest of entrapments – ‘it’s too late’ and ‘I am not enough’.

 

So back to this essential reframing of the terrain – so what now, if nothing is broken, and it is not too late?

 

 

The call to adventure opens us towards our heart’s desire for eros, vitality and mystery.  We want rapture to overtake us.  We want to allow the mystery to reveal itself to us in gradual, curious, enlightening and surprising ways.  We accept that we cannot know the outcomes of adventures in advance.  We learn that things of the soul are revealed to us in their own time as we journey forth, little by little.

 

 little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice,

which you slowly recognized as your own

 

As we cross the thresholds that prevent us from listening deeply, we come closer and closer towards an inner voice, one that has been there all along, waiting.  Waiting until we are ready to listen, before it will begin speaking to us in the silent, still space within the heart.  What is authentic and true will gradually burn through the clouds of confusion and despair.  We begin to recognize a familiar messenger within us, pointing the way as it will, like a compass seeking north.  This will allow for the sound your own true voice, and the feeling of aliveness from your own wellspring of vitality.

 

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

 

As long as we can practice the art of going inward and downward into the wellspring within our selves, we can learn to listen deeply to what emerges.  This inner voice, this pull or feeling, becomes a steady companion through the trials and ordeals we face.  We know what we have to do, simply because it feels more and more unbearable when we are not doing it.

 

Following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell said, it is not self indulgent, it is essential.  This life force energy becomes a companion to us, and is reflected in our countenance, and in our “en-theos”, our God-filled-ness, our enthusiasm for life.  It keeps us company as silent and invisible companion, and gives us the impetus and the courage to go forth ever deeper and deeper into the world,  giving what is alive in us to the world.

 

In summary, we begin to feel a call coming from the mythic world, to step more and more into the material world.  As we walk deeper into the material world, we long to be more connected to the vital myth (ever near, ever ineffable) in the background world.   We walk between these two worlds, and it is in this very ‘in between’ space that soul is cultivated, activated, ignited.  None of us can say for sure exactly how or when soul will happen to us, but when and as it does, we become the embodiment of eternity’s zeal to become incarnate, and express itself in the field of time.

 

determined to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.

 

As we stay tuned to the call to adventure, we indeed gather an inner momentum, we movement forward, and we are gifted with a powerful insight: There is only one life we can save, and it is saved by bringing forth what is within the self.  The Gnostic gospels quote Jesus as having said “if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 

So let each of us, fellow travelers on this path of mythic adventure, listen deeply and closely to what is being whispered to our conscious personalities, from the inner depths of our psyches, our souls.  Each of us has to find a way to tune in, listen deeply, and hear what the divine wind is blowing our way.

 

This deep listening will inspire something to move in us.  Then we let go of our ego wishes and fantasies, in order to follow the call to venture forth towards our bliss.  What else could human beings want to do?

 

 

In following the call to our bliss, Joseph Campbell said that doors would open for us, that would not open before now, and would not open for any others.  But in order for the doors to open for us, we will have to be on the mythic path of the heroic endeavor.   Here is his reflection about this very matter, from Hero With a Thousand Faces:

 

The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his (or her) spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of this society to a zone unknown.  This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delights.”

 

The price to be paid for answering the call to adventure is to have encounters that involve ordeals.  But before facing the actual ordeals themselves, we must face the crossing of thresholds, in order to enter the mythic terrains of adventure and ordeal.   In our next essay, we will explore what it takes to cross these inner thresholds of consciousness, so that we might enter fully into the mythic adventure.

 

For now, it is our time to listen deeply to the call coming from within, without looking for any particular kind of summons.  Then notice what comes…because another universal truth is this:  whatever you have been looking for, is already looking for you.  Be on the watch.  And let yourself be surprised.

 

– Michael Mervosh

 

 

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