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🦋 The Belly Of The Whale
And the multiplicity of journeys
We are discussing the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Campbell proposed a monomyth, a universal story arc called the hero’s journey, that he said was found in myths and stories from cultures around the world. The hero sets forth on an adventure (departure), faces obstacles and trials (initiation), is victorious over them, and returns with boons and gifts to share with the rest of the world (return). The hero’s journey can be an external adventure though it always involves an inner transformative journey. You might be familiar with books or movies that use this arc (for example, Star Wars). In your life, you might look for parallels where you overcame your fears, the discouragement of others, or external blocks, and took steps towards a goal. Maybe you had to learn new skills, take on rivals, and do things that pulled you out of your comfort zone, and regardless of the outcome, engaging with this process changed you forever.
You can read each post as a standalone or part of the hero's journey series.
I have trouble saying goodbye, especially when traveling alone and long distances. I am the person at the airport who goes in quickly and will resist turning around for a final goodbye wave because I’m desperately fighting back tears. I’ll pass through immigration and security and head to the boarding gate even if I have hours before my flight- and I usually do because I also insist on being at the airport very early. I quickly grab a book from my bag and start reading as though someone will test me on it before they let me board the plane.
I didn’t realize that my reactions were out of proportion or rooted in a painful experience. After all, I could easily explain my actions. I was sad about leaving my family. I didn’t want to leave. So, I tried to get the separation part of the departure over as quickly as possible. Once I’ve crossed immigration and security checks (a series of thresholds with threshold guardians), I can’t change my mind (or at least, not easily), and departure feels inevitable. While waiting to board and on the long flight (10+ hours), I usually distracted myself with a book, reading until I fell asleep. I know I have to get through the time, and that I would be okay once I got to the arrival part of my journey.
It was only after decades of this kind of distraction that I realized that the boarding areas, departure gates, and the long flight itself- the time spent in travel- would come to represent a personal belly of the whale moment/opportunity.
The belly of the whale
“The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown...”
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
The hero’s journey may look like an external adventure, but it always involves inner transformation. When we appease the threshold guardians, and cross the threshold, we enter a potent, dark, womb-like interior space. Think of a temple or church: you pass through the gates and enter the darker, more powerful interior. Campbell called this part of the journey the belly of the whale (from the biblical tale of Jonah). From the outside, it looks like you have disappeared into the dark interior, and in a sense, you have. But this is no ordinary disappearance. Being in the belly of the whale is symbolic of metamorphosis, allowing the old you to disappear (swallowed by the whale) and for a new you to be born (rebirth). The belly of the whale functions both as a holding space and an alchemical crucible. We can think of it as a discrete step or a continuous transformative process that is part of journeying.
When you come out of the belly of the whale, you are changed, a kind of a micro-journey within the larger framework.
How to recognize the belly of the whale
Being aware of these archetypal myths, patterns, and stages that continue to run through our contemporary lives can help us better navigate the complexities of life. We can be more intentional and engage them for better outcomes. For example, if you know you are in the belly-of-the-whale phase in a project or life situation, you may offer yourself more support, companionship, and championing. You might be more reflective, take copious notes, and bide your time. Some keywords and phrases for this phase of the hero's journey include commitment, being non-negotiable or having an inescapable quality to it, bracing yourself for change, and letting things take the time they do.
Some years ago, I had an unexpected and really long layover between two flights. Since I hadn't gotten much sleep on the earlier flight and was tired, I decided to stay at a transit hotel at the airport.
It was nighttime when we landed. The airport was quiet, and most of the stores were closed. The hotel room was tiny, a little bigger than a large closet. I remember there were pretty curtains on one wall, but there was no window behind them. The fake window, more than anything else, gave a very surreal feel to being there. For some reason, I couldn't get the TV to work. I also couldn’t find my Kindle charger. Because of the different time zones I had traveled through, I felt disoriented and strangely suspended between departure and arrival.
I am not a psychologist and can't speak for others, but in my case, this unexpected womb-like space provided a setting to sit with and sift through the despair I associated with traveling. And looking back, I can see this as a turning point, a definite belly-of-the-whale moment with an opportunity to heal from an old wound.
I still feel unsettled when I travel, but the intensity of my feelings has slowly reduced over time, as though I am not traveling alone but am my own companion.
This is why I find journeys fascinating. There are so many of them, a multiplicity of micro-journeys of varied lengths and types encapsulated within the larger life journey. I looked for a collective noun for journeys, but couldn’t find one. I wonder if that’s because no two journeys are the same? (Journey itself is a collective noun: a journey of giraffes!) When I think about possible comparisons, I think of a bunch of color pencils or crayons in an old cup, of different colors, lengths, and make, or maybe, a patchwork tapestry.
Thank you for reading! I’m a day late in publishing this week’s newsletter- apologies!
It’s your turn:
Where/ when in your life have you experienced the belly of the whale?
What do you think of journeys? Do you see repetitive patterns?
What would you suggest as a collective noun for journeys? I was thinking of a blossom of journeys, but it sounds too symmetrical!