“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ― Joseph Campbell
All of us love stories and humans tell ourselves stories all the time. There’s a dialogue that goes on in our chattering minds which narrates the story of our own life.
One story called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is an excellent metaphor for our personal growth and development. You may have come across the archetype ‘hero’ character which has existed in many stories and myths for thousands of years. It’s a story we are all familiar with and we seem to be so drawn to and love so much.
It’s a common template narrative where the hero (male or female) is trying to achieve something and goes through all kinds of obstacles and challenges along the way until they are all defeated, and the hero returns back after succeeding.
The hero’s journey pattern was popularized by Joseph Campbell. He studied mythological and literary classics including the life stories of the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus.
He had a theory by seeing what the common thread in all of the stories were. In his famous book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, he describes the story following the pattern as:
“A 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”.
Hollywood has widely embraced Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey, including blockbuster movies by directors such as George Lucas, who followed the structure in the Star Wars series.
Campbell details a number of stages or steps along this journey of transformation. Try plugging in your story as you read through the stages below, and you may see where you’re at. Or perhaps you’ve already gone through the stages for a certain area in your life or for a client you’re working with.
Here’s more detail on the 3 key stages, the departure, the initiation and the return:
Stage 1: The Departure
The hero lives in the ordinary world and receives the call to go on an adventure. This is the departure phase and the hero could be reluctant to follow the call. The hero is helped by a mentor or coach.
We can interpret this in our own personal way, but generally this is the start of a new chapter in our life. This could be anything significant to us from starting a new job, career, business, moving countries, a new relationship, getting married. We are going into a new but unfamiliar territory.
We are asked to go on this new adventure because something in us draws us to it. Or we might feel that we need to go on the adventure for a particular reason, whether it feels like our duty, perhaps you feel like there’s a practical reason or perhaps it’s been a dream that you wanted to pursue.
Stage 2: The Initiation
The initiation stage begins with the hero going beyond the threshold to an unknown or ‘special world’, where the hero faces challenging tasks or trials, either alone or with the help of others.
The hero eventually reaches ‘the innermost cave’ or a major crisis of the hero’s adventure, where there’s great difficulty to overcome the main obstacle or enemy in the journey.
After finally overcoming the obstacle or series of challenges, the hero gains a reward of some kind. The hero then returns to the ordinary world with the reward.
To relate this back to our personal lives and our own growth, this is the key phase of transformation and breakthrough of the whole story.
In this stage, we could think of a major setback or crisis in our career, business or relationship which tests us to our very core. It’s a challenge to overcome and quitting may seem like a very attractive option if available.
Perhaps for some reason we feel we just need to go forward and through the challenge or series of challenges to come out the other side. You might be able to relate to a very low point where you needed to go through a crisis.
From a spiritual perspective, you may have heard of the term ‘dark night of the soul’, which describes a period where one feels completely lost, depressed and everything in life feels completely meaningless. This would be the initiation stage.
Fortunately along the way of going through the major challenges we get wiser and could be encouraged to develop new abilities, skills or simply a better understanding to help our own selves grow.
As the saying goes, ‘when the pupil is ready the teacher appears’. A mentor, teacher or coaching figure could show up at the right time and be like a lamp in the darkness.
Stage 3: The Return
The return stage is a period of renewal and celebration. The hero again crosses over the threshold between worlds, returning to the everyday world with the treasure gained, which the hero may now use for the benefit of everyone.
The hero is transformed by the adventure, as has gained wisdom or spiritual power which can now be used in the ordinary world as a positive force for good.
In movies you might be familiar with the treasure represented by something materially valuable to the people, like a golden crown, trophy, jewelry or precious gems. As the hero returns to the everyday world, the hero has to adapt again to everyday life again.
If we relate this back to our personal lives, you can imagine if someone has gone through a very challenging period of time which could have lasted months or even years. They may have really longed for normality and it’s finally here.
The lasting effect of the transformational experience may have some challenges too. Integrating back into ordinary life may not be as easy as it seemed to be. Friends and family may have remembered a different person, as the transformation may have left some changes at their very core. They now have different values, a new perspective and may behave differently. It’s something that would need time for adjustment.
The Coach as the Hero
Ancient stories and myths describe someone who played the role of helper or guide who supports the hero on their journey.
You may notice key characters in many movies such as Morpheus in the Matrix, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars have played the role of ‘helper’ in the hero’s journey.
The role of helper is portrayed as a mature, wiser person. While playing the role of helper they are a hero in their own way. Usually they have already taken their own hero’s journey and walked on a similar path.
As the hero grows in confidence and gains new skills, the role of the helper becomes increasingly redundant as the hero can stand on their own own feet. This is usually a healthy sign of independence.
If we bring the metaphor of the hero’s journey back to coaching, we could say that the role of ‘hero’ is played by the coachee and the ‘helper’ role is played by the coach.
Reflecting back on my own life, I can remember helpers who coached me along my own path across personal challenges as my own journey unfolded. Perhaps it’s not just the wisdom imparted by the helper, but simply knowing that the guide has already been there and gone through it is sometimes enough to give the courage to ultimately win the battle.