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🦋The road of trials
We are discussing the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey through personal essays and storytelling. 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 other internal 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.
Sometime last year, I had a striking dream. I was in a park with a bunch of people. It felt like a party, though there was no soundtrack of people talking or other park noises. As we stood there, small flames started to fall from the sky. It wasn’t a downpour as much as a slow, gentle scattering by an unknown and invisible hand. I remember there were small whoosh sounds as the individual flames landed. Where the flames touched the grass, they held on to their size and shape, forming small flame-flowers on the green grass. We started running, though there was no accompanying sense of panic. As I ran, the ground ahead slid open, revealing stairs leading into the earth. And as the flames continued to fall and form flowers, I ran down the stairs and disappeared from view.
Then, weeks later, I had a series of dreams over the span of many months, all with a common thread. I dreamt that I was either at a wedding, a music concert, a dance recital, or a sports event. I knew the protagonists of these dreams, the ones who were getting married or performing: they were people I secretly admired. The events were well-attended, and everyone seemed engrossed in the occasion. In all the dreams, I stood on the fringes of the audience, restless. Anxious. Waiting. And, with a distinct feeling that I needed to be elsewhere.
If you look up dream interpretations online, you’ll find a hundred different meanings. But, ultimately, it's your (the dreamer’s) personal context that helps to make sense of the images. In my case, this is the conclusion I drew: the dreams were, at once, a gentle invitation and an urgent summons (or, in Campbell’s language, a call to adventure) to stop wasting time on the sidelines of life. I knew I wanted to pursue writing as a full-time occupation, but I’d found a hundred excuses not to. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t good enough. I am still figuring out my novel. I’ll do it once things are more settled, once I’ve taken care of what’s on my plate, once everyone is happy, once they give me permission, once I’ve hung up the moon, straightened the stars, etc. etc. It felt like the dreams were letting me know that now was the time, and that time was running out. That life was moving on while I waited on the sidelines. This wasn’t a convenient explanation that I cobbled together, but one whose urgency I suddenly felt thrumming through every cell in my body.
I finally got my courage up, crossed the threshold1 of my doubts and fears and perfectionism, and started writing here on Substack. The dreams stopped abruptly. I, like every adventurer before me, had entered a new world, one where I wrote, and shared my writing, consistently.
Where, in your life, have you recently entered a new world?
The road of trials
“Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he/she must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he/she met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he/she here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him/her in this superhuman passage.”
~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces2
As the name suggests, this stage of the journey has a number of tests. These tests perform an initiatory function. Personally, I find it exhausting that, after the tumult and courage required by the threshold, here we are on something called the road of trials. To me, it seems to further enable a kind of solving/right solution-seeking, of somehow getting it (life) right. I wonder what happens if we get the tests wrong/ fail to solve them- and, I immediately feel a sense of relaxation. Here’s why: there is a release, and resulting lightness, that is part of every step of the journey: release of resistance, of egoic rightness, and of what we know for sure. What if every test in the road of trials just requires a gentle opening to what we don’t know, and repeatedly? And some tests will need repeated attempts, and that’s okay.
“The hero whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in the myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed. One by one, the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not differing species, but one flesh.”
~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
I’ve now been on Substack for about six months and I am thrilled to be writing regularly. Building community and new friendships has been really rewarding. But, in true road-of-trials fashion, I couldn’t get the newsletter out last Sunday. I started writing this post only to be hijacked by a debilitating case of doubts and perfectionism. I had two options: one, my go-to response, of being self-critical and frustrated, or two, offering myself some grace and companionship. I’m learning to choose the latter. I took some days off Substack, and then tried writing the post again. And this time, I managed to publish it.
I’d love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Over the last few months, we’ve finished discussing the different steps within the Departure stage of the hero’s journey. We have now entered the Initiation stage of the hero’s journey. Here, we encounter the road of trials.