A dialog on Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey with Dr. Keith Witt
Before I encountered the work of Ken Wilber, Joseph Campbell was lighting me up with his synthesis of the myths of all cultures. Like Ken, Campbell had a gift for the meta-narrative, for seeing patterns in seemingly disparate times and systems of thought.
In this dialog with Dr. Keith Witt (who is also a huge Campbell fan), we discuss the gift of Campbell’s formulation of The Hero’s Journey, which is his name for the basic pattern of the great myths, and which turns out to be a guide for our own lives.
Although told in wildly different ways throughout the world, the basic story is the same. It begins with the “call”, which is often a big blunder or a disaster that leads you to what Campbell called the belly of the whale. If you say yes to the calling you find yourself on the threshold where you have to leave the old ways behind and venture into the unknown. Guides will appear to help you on your journey, and though some may betray you, if you make it through you will be the master of two worlds. Most of all, you’ll have a gift to bring back and share with your people.
When I first read about the hero’s journey in Campbell’s classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I remember feeling a tremendous amount of relief. I stopped blaming myself so much for my problems. Life is supposed to be like this. It is difficult but those difficulties have meaning. Like most of us in the modern world, I was taught the opposite: that hardship and travails are to be avoided. If things are too challenging then you are doing something wrong.
The hero’s journey is dangerous, but remaining where you are is no picnic either. Sometimes people just plain decline their “hero’s call”, which leads to a stunted life or even death. Even if you say yes there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it through. People get dismembered or find themselves in the land of the lotus eaters and decide they will never leave. But usually the transformation causes us to want to bring the gift back to our people, to share what we’ve learned. What a wonderful thing: your travails have meaning.
I was also deeply inspired to realize that I myself am the hero of my own story, and that I am daily encountering magic and guides, if only I pay attention. I also realized that I can sprinkle a little fairy dust on other people, and be a guide for them. One of the characteristics of Integral consciousness is that magic comes back online. Not the gripped, “domination magic” of the magenta stage of development, but a recognition, scientifically vetted, that we are riding the updraft of 13.8 billion years of emergence toward ever-unfolding goodness, truth and beauty. And that as we realize this we are able to consciously influence our story, our evolution, and co-create our own heroic journeys with a loving and intelligent kosmos.
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