• The Hero’s Journey: One Step at a Time

Let’s not demean ourselves, demean our dreams by pushing them off on some list of things we want to do before we die…this moment is what we have…the promise of this moment. ~ Charlie Wittmack ~

Every Journey Consists of Single Steps

Some 2600 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu wrote,

The tallest tree grows from the smallest sprout.
The tallest tower is built from a pile of dirt.
A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet.

Lau Tzu could very well have been speaking of the Hero’s Journey. We cannot take our whole journey all at once. We need to begin with a single step and then follow that with another step, and then another. And at each point we need to focus mindfully on the step we are taking, living it fully and taking from it the experience and knowledge we will need for the rest of our journey.

Hero's Journeys within Hero's Journeys

Life’s journeys are filled with small, individual journeys. Each of these individual journeys is composed of even smaller journeys–action items– that compose and reflect the journey as a whole.

I recently came across a TED Talk that reminded me of Lau Tsu’s point. The talk was given by Charlie Wittmack, the first American to complete the “Pond and Peak” sports double in which he both swam the English Channel and climbed Mount Everest. In the video, Wittmack talks about his goals to climb Everest and swim the channel and how he made those “future” events part of his meaningful present. I’ll review the video in a minute, but first Whittmack reminded me of experiences I had when I was teaching high school literature.

Get this Class out of the Way!

Every spring, school academic counselors visited my classes to help students plan their programs for the coming years. Naturally, the counselors focused on the students’ futures, emphasizing that what students were doing now was only preparation for “real life” later. Often counselors used phrases such as “You should get this required class out of the way” or “Join school activities or clubs, they will look good on your resume and make you more attractive to the colleges.”

While they didn’t realize it, counselors were conveying a subtext: students’ present lives mattered only in terms of how they impacted their future lives. Of course, on a certain level, this was true. But on a more important level, especially with adolescents who are actively engaged in the moment as they build a personal identity, the message was more subtle and insidious: you’re life now isn’t “real;” it’s only preparation for your future.

This message was reinforced when counselors suggested that certain “required” classes should be “gotten out of the way,” rather than encouraging student to engage in the classes for the growth and learning they provide today. The classes most often mentioned as “in the way” of students’ futures were non-academic classes such as physical education, health and art—classes, which, in a life context, would give them some of the most healthy, rewarding and profound experience in their education.

The point I’m making is that, while we need goals, the most valuable and important thing we can do in life is to fully, mindfully engage in the present moment. In fact, as Charlie Wittmack points out in his video, the present moment all we have.

Honoring the Moment and What it Can Bring

I’m reminded of a story I used to share with my high school senior class. In his wonderful book “Travels,” Michael Crichton tells the story about a trek he made in the Himalayas of Nepal. Toward afternoon, when Crichton was tired, hungry and irritable, his guide stopped and pointed toward the scene before them. “Kali-Gandaki,” he said. “Yah, right,” Crichton said. “Let’s go. I’m tired and I’m hungry, and I want to get back.” “No, no” the guide insisted. “Kali-Gandaki, Kali-Gandaki,” and he pointed emphatically at the scene below them. Crichton looked quickly and then said, “OK, let’s go.” The guide shrugged and led them back to their camp. Only later did Crichton realize that, in his impatience, he had missed seeing the Kali-Gandaki Gorge which, at 18,278 feet from floor to nearest peak, is the deepest gorge in the world.

What Crichton learned–and we must learn– is that we need to keep our goals in mind, but we must also be mindful of this minute and what it can bring to our lives: which brings me to the key point Wittmack made in his discussion:

“Our dreams are often very intangible. They’re often far off in the future. If we’re going to have success, we’re going to have to figure out how to make them more tangible and more immediate. We have to take them from the future and bring them into today.”

“Small Moves, Ellie. Small Moves”

In the movie “Contact,” Ellie Arroway is impatient to let the world see what she has seen. The alien (in the form of her father) tells her to be patient: “Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”

There is a valuable lesson for us in how Whitmack made his future goal today’s reality. He was an Iowa farm boy, about as far from a channel swimmer or mountain climber as one could be. He had to figure out, as he says, “How do we get there from here.”

While he was speaking literally about getting to the peaks of Everest from the plains Iowa, from being a non-swimmer to someone who could swim in icy water for 12 hours non-stop, he was also speaking metaphorically about managing life’s great Hero’s Journeys by turning them into everyday “mini” journeys that both motivate and instruct.

As you will see in the video, Wittmack did this by breaking his dream of climbing Everest into smaller steps that he could take each month and each day.

“So every few years had a long-term goal, every few months I had a short- term goal and every day I had a few action items that were things I had to accomplish to begin walking down that path to where I wanted to be.”

By breaking his greatest journeys (to climb Everest and to swim the English Channel) into smaller, “action items,” he brought his long-term goal into the reality of his everyday present. More importantly, he made each step he took not “something to be gotten out of the way” (as my high school counselors would say), but a “living,” in-this-moment project worthy of all of the mindfulness and effort he could give it. He could envision his future without sacrificing the rich potentials of the present.

Using the Resources We Have

By shifting his perspective from the full journey to each step of the journey, Wittmack also learned to see the resources he had as tools to help him on the greater quest. “I learned very quickly that one of the keys for me for this reach was to be creative to use the things I had to get the things I wanted.”

He also learned another important lesson: “The failures tend to outnumber the successes by about five to one.” This brings up one of the most important points I make about success in our personal Hero’s Journeys. Sometimes it helps to see failures not as failures, but as discoveries: actions that were ineffective, but which brought us the learning and the greater perspective we need to make the “failure” a success.

Reframing failure in this way is difficult because for most of our lives, especially in school, we’ve been taught that failure at a project or task is also a failure of the self. As Tarthang Tulku wrote in his wonderful little book Skillful Means (1991), “This pressure to succeed…often teaches our children to fear failure, a fear which gradually undermines their self-confidence and actually prevents them from succeeding.”

If we can get through this conditioned fear, we can see that failures really aren’t failures but experiences that teach us something, that make us stronger and that fortify our resolve, focus and commitment. This learning-rather-than-failing perspective also brings us back to Charlie Wittmack’s key point about fully valuing and respecting our present by not subordinating it to our future.

We can navigate even life’s most intimidating Hero’s Journeys by focusing on them one step at a time. When we value the individual steps fully and mindfully, they become not something to be “gotten out of the way” for the promise of tomorrow, but, as Hamlet says, “enterprises of great pith and moment.”

The point is that we should not mortgage our present experience for the uncertainty of the future. By focusing on our journey as a whole, we miss the profound experience and critical learning we gain by taking the small steps along the way. In Your Mythic Journey (1973), Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox write,

We learn to see and feel profoundly as we integrate all that we have been and hope to be into the present moment. The most dynamic personalities are fully present in the moment without serving either memories of the past or visions of the future (p.8).

I conclude with Charlie Wittmack’s closing comment:

“Let’s not demean ourselves, demean our dreams by pushing them off on some list of things we want to do before we die. Today we are together in this moment, and this moment is what we have, we have the promise of this moment. Every one of you in this room has the skills that you need to take that next step. Each of you is cloaked in the strength that has come from your success. Each of you is filled with the ambition that has come from your failure. And now it’s time for all of us to take that next step, which is—very simply—to reach.”

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One thought on “The Hero’s Journey: One Step at a Time

  1. Hector L Nava

    I really enjoyed the part where you discuss educators telling young teens that their life at the moment doesn’t matter. To some extent, there is some truth to that statement given that they haven’t really lived or experienced much.

    Its been a decade since I passed through your English class at Vintage High. To keep it brief… I’ve graduated from UNM with a BA in Economics, entered the corporate world, and started a family since I last read your work.

    I have a different understanding of the Hero’s Journey now that I’ve actually lived through the ups and downs that only life and father time can serve you.

    In retrospect, its amazing that you introduced me to this concept at an early age because now that I’m older I can reflect and understand the hero’s journey in my own words as I go through my formative adult years.

    Hope all is well!

    Reply

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