Illustrating the Hero’s Journey

NOTE: You are welcome to link to this article, but do not copy or repost it. If you would like a PDF copy to use in your class or work, please contact me.

Insight through Illustration

by Reg Harris

The Journey toward the Journey

I began teaching the hero’s journey back in 1975. At that time, I taught it only as a heuristic for hero myths, mythology and fantasy. Then, in 1986, I began teaching the hero’s journey as a separate unit, as a foundation to study literature and film for the entire year. Since then, I have tried many ways to describe the unending, cyclical nature of the journey pattern.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1: Our life journey is filled with many small, individual journeys. Each of these individual journeys is composed of even smaller journeys that both reflect and compose the whole. Like a river, they all flow together into a single narrative—the story of our life.

First, I used an ascending spiral, with each loop representing a journey in life that takes us to higher and higher levels of consciousness and understanding. Then I added another diagram (Diagram 1), a large journey circle, representing a person’s life, with a number of smaller circles looping out from it at various points to represent the many smaller journeys we take during our lives.

Although these images seemed to convey the cyclical, repetitive nature of the journey, I was not fully satisfied with them. For one thing, they implied the existence of a fixed, individual consciousness—a “Self” or narrative “I”—and this consciousness accumulates knowledge and skill as it moved through life’s journeys. In reality, there is no “I” but rather an ever-changing narrative which doesn’t “move” but expands.

Then I read something that gave me a new way to look at the process. In The Hero Within, Carol Pearson writes, “. . . it is not so much that the spiral gets higher, but that it gets wider as we are capable of a larger range of responses to life and, hence, able to have more life. We take in more and have more choices” (p. 13).

The Journeys in our lives do not form a big circle or an ascending spiral. The journey taken by the “I” is a process of ever-expanding awareness, during which we encounter challenges and temptations. We expand our concept of self to understand and assimilate those challenges, not to destroy them. The challenges present us lessons, opportunities to learn, so they should be embraced for the insights they hold and the potentials they offer for growth and self-discovery. Viewed in this context, growth does not involve increase and accumulation, but ripening and maturation.When I looked at the journey in this way, I developed another diagram for the journey which, I think, better illustrates the nature of the journey process.

New Image of the Journey

Diagram 2: Our horizon of understanding

Diagram 2: Our horizon of understanding defines our range of knowledge and skill. Experiences within that horizon (A) usually pose no problems. Experiences outside that horizon (B) challenge us to grow.

When I present the Journey in seminars with other teachers or teach it to students, I draw a single circle (Diagram 2) to represent the “I”, or rather the range of experience and understanding which we perceive as “I”. Within that circle are the experiences we’ve had, the things we’ve learned, echoes from childhood that still color our thinking and action, and our personal mythology (the plot of the story we are living) — all of which give us the perception of who we are. If we are to grow, that circle must remain flexible.

As long as the experiences we encounter in life fall within that range of perception (Diagram 2, letter A) — that is, within the boundaries or horizon we have defined as the “self” or “I” — we are relatively comfortable. The experience is familiar to us and we can handle it. However, when an experience falls outside our range of experience (letter B), it presents us with two options: to reach out, to expand our consciousness, and assimilate it or to put up our defenses and reject it.

If we ignore or reject the experience, the circle becomes not a flexible horizon of understanding, but a defensive wall between our self and the world around us. Unfortunately, when we build a wall to keep threatening experiences out, that same wall keeps us in.

Our other option is to journey outside our self by keeping the circle fluid (Diagram 3, where the green line represents the actual hero’s journey). In this way we can expand our understanding (painful and frightening though this growth may be at times) until we have accommodated the new challenge, until we “know” it and have assimilated its lessons into our being.

Diagram 3

Diagram 3: Experiences outside our horizon of understanding may send us on a journey toward growth and greater consciousness, a journey which may involve helpers or a mentor.

If the journey has been complete, the product of this expansion is not simply the original self enlarged by the experience. It’s an entirely new self, a synthesis of the former self and the new experience. This new self, this new perspective, opens new possibilities for experiencing and enriching our lives.

Stagnation or expanding awareness

When I talk with students about rejecting the call to growth, I make the circle thick, like a wall. Then I ask them what happens to the person who hides within this ever-thickening wall. The answers can be extremely surprising and perceptive. Students seem to recognize that such a rejection can lead to defensiveness, stagnation, and bitterness. Such a person becomes a victim of his or her own fears, a martyr to an intractable ego.

I also emphasize how much courage it takes to keep the circle fluid, ready to expand, embrace and assimilate new experience. To do this we must be willing to say that we are fallible, that we may not know everything, that we are not perfect. We must be willing to accept the fact that our model of the world may be flawed or ineffective. In short, we have to admit that we’re simply human. As long as we can do these things, challenges become growth experiences, enriching our understanding and enhancing our abilities. From this greater perspective, the people in our lives who at first represented or symbolized the challenges, who at first appeared to be adversaries or oppressors, become helpers or mentors on our journey outward.

When we can’t remain fluid, the challenges become threats to the fearful self, objects to be fought and kept out, and the people who represent those challenges become tyrants, devils and attackers. We’ve all had the experience of trying to help a friend who is struggling only to be seen as an enemy rather than a helper.

Diagram 4: Journeys carry us to ever-expanding horizons of understanding

Diagram 4: Over the course of our lives, our journeys can carry us to ever-expanding horizons of knowledge and understanding, a process Joseph Campbell called the “amplification of consciousness.”

Circles within Circles

Hero’s Journey expanding levels of experience To illustrate how this process of challenge, assimilation and growth continues, I draw more experiences outside each circle (diagram 4, circles C and D) and enlarge the circle to assimilate those experiences. Soon I have a diagram with circles within circles, illustrating how we grow with experience. It looks very much like the rings on a tree, an image which suggests some other interesting connotations.

This diagram also evokes the image of the chambered nautilus (Diagram 5). Over-simplified, the chambered nautilus lives in the largest chamber in its shell until it outgrows that chamber (much as we outgrow the “chambers” of our lives or our “selves”). Then it builds a new, larger chamber, moves in, and begins to live within that new home. This process continues throughout the nautilus’ life. More importantly, the nautilus must keep the old chambers, even though it has outgrown them. However, each old chamber becomes the foundation for the newer chambers.

In the same way, we can never “discard” our experiences in life. Like the old chambers of the chambered nautilus, they will always be with us. However, we do outgrow them, and when an experience–or, more accurately, the meaning of the experience–no longer serves us, we must reframe that meaning to fit its new context, how it fits into where we are now.

Chambered Nautilus

Diagram 5: Like the chambers in the nautilus, our experiences stay with us as we grow. When we outgrow a stage in life, we move to a larger “chamber” with a greater horizon. To maintain coherence in our self-narrative, we must reinterpret the meaning of past experiences to fit our new story.

In a sense, our old life, which had been the whole of our experience up to that moment (the largest chamber in our shell) becomes only a part of our life at this new moment. So, the experience which challenged us becomes only a chapter in our story rather than the end of our story. It becomes part of our past, a “lesson” from which we grew, but which is still a part of us. In short, from the perspective of our new, enlarged chamber, the meanings of the old experiences might need to be revised to reflect where we are at this moment.

Incorporating the mandala

A powerful way to illustrate this expanding self concept in class is to have you students do a personal mandala. (Diagram 6 gives a simple example.) The mandala is a circle which, in the personal context, represents the world of the self at this moment. Within it are arranged the symbols and images of the self. Symbolically, then, the journey can be seen as the mandala evolving to absorb new symbols and images.

This approach also emphasizes to students that our experiences are always going to be with us, working for us or against us in our growth and understanding, depending on how we have framed their meaning. What becomes important, then, is not so much the experience, but how we relate to it, how we see it in the mandala of self. What’s more, if students do several personal mandalas over the course of the year, they will see how symbols for different parts of their lives move to different places in the mandala and take on different relationships with other symbols representing elements of our personality or experience.


Diagram 6: Drawing mandalas can help us discover relationships and build new meaning. By using designs, symbols and colors, we can sometimes access insights that cannot be reached through rational thought.

Connecting life and literature

I also apply this expanding-self model (including the mandala) to characters from literature and film. I have students do mandalas on characters, incorporating symbols and images which represent different aspects of the character’s experience, perception or life. The mandala helps them understand and analyze the character and his or her motivations.

Moreover, when the students place the challenges outside of the character’s mandala, they can begin to see how (or if) the character handles these challenges and grows. They can also see how the circles of one character interconnect with another character, much like a Venn diagram.

This way of describing the Hero’s Journey seems to work well on a number of levels and is a technique worth considering, even if you don’t teach the Journey pattern as a foundation unit.

Pearson, C. 1989. The hero within: Six archetypes we live by. New York: HarperCollins

Copyright © 2012 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article or any part thereof in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Posting this article or any part thereof to the Internet in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and strictly prohibited. For permission to use, please contact Reg Harris.