Self-Realization: The Heart of the Hero’s Journey

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Self-Expression Triggers Self-Realization

To express oneself―that is, to translate one’s feelings and understanding into actions, forms and words―is to realize oneself, in the literal sense of making oneself real. Without such realization we are phantoms and feel the frustration of not being fully alive. – Claudio Naranjo –

by Reg Harris

The Journey to Self-Realization

The process of self realization, that is of making the self real (being and acting out of who we really are), is the core of the Hero’s Journey experience. However, to realize and express the self, one must first unfold one’s true self, and this process is the essence of the quest.

Self realization would normally be a natural process, Naranjo says, like a seed germinating, a flower blooming, or an orange tree producing oranges. Our thoughts, words, actions and reactions grow naturally out of who we are, without forcing, because they are an emanation of our true character. (Note the similarity here with the Taoist concept of wei wu wei and te.)

Childhood Survival Strategies Cripple Adult Living

The-Self-Within-for-Web.jpgHowever, according to Naranjo, when we are young and most vulnerable, we experience what we perceive to be threats or dangers to our security or barriers to our desires. We feel anxiety, friction, fear, pain and frustration. To cope we develop “strategies,” which we use to manipulate our world (and those in our world) rather than to risk dealing with life openly. For example, we learn that we can protect ourselves or gain what we want by using guilt, force (bullying) or violence (tantrums or anger). Or, rather than risk rejection or censure, we learn to tolerate, a strategy which makes us martyrs or victims. While our strategies help us to cope, they do not, as Naranjo writes, allow us to “fully alive.”

More importantly, these strategies eventually form themselves into our “character,” that is the way we view the world, relate to others, and give meaning to our experience. While they serve us for a while, they become so important that they are no longer a means to an end, something we do, but the end itself, something we are. In short, they become our “identity.”

We begin to cling to this identity and to promote and protect it through our thoughts and actions, all the while alienating ourselves more and more from what we truly are.

Alienated Self Evokes “Shadow” Experience

Applying Naranjo’s view to the Hero’s Journey archetype, this alienated self tends to see every challenge not as an opportunity for self expression and growth, but as a threat to its existence. The alienated self becomes more and more defensive, more and more locked into the strategies which form its existence.

This “false identity,” and the alienation and defensiveness it engenders, “freezes” us in the flow of life, fixing us in time rather than allowing us to grow, change and live. We become like someone clinging to a branch in a river, afraid to let go, watching opportunities and experience flow by, all the while bitterly defending our need to cling to the branch.

We protect our identity by rejecting the challenges we encounter or by dealing with them falsely with our increasingly oppressive strategies. Openness disappears, flexibility dies, and our ability to respond effectively (our “response-ability”) is lost. Even when we want to act genuinely, we cannot, and a deep sense of desperation and bitterness develops.

Old Identity Elicits the Call

These moments, when we wish to act genuinely and openly but cannot, become our Calls to the Adventure. We might meet someone whom we genuinely would like to know, but the only way we have learned to deal with people is with our strategies, which get in the way of genuine communication. We might be presented with an opportunity to do something we deeply would like to do, but the adventure requires risk and change, and once again our “identity” stands between us and the realization of our dream.

If we are lucky, at some point our desire to be genuine is so strong that we are dragged into the journey, despite our identity’s protests. The process (the trail of challenges, in journey terms) forcibly strips away the layers of our false identity. It breaks down the accumulated defenses and strategies, allowing our true self to be reborn, transforming our behavior and our lives.

Dissolving the Ego Armor

As teachers we can use these concepts in at least three ways. First, we can be aware of using coping strategies we use with our students and to try to be more open and genuine. We should also be watching for the strategies students use with us. We can encourage honest, open behavior and creativity, and gently discourage the coping strategies students have learned to use to deal with “the system.”

Finally, we can examine many of the characters in the literature we read by exploring their coping strategies: what the strategies are, how the character developed them; how they are affecting or smothering the character, preventing him or her from fulfilling a dream, how they affect the character’s relationship with others, and how they may help the character cope with an otherwise untenable situation.

Hamlet leaps immediately to mind, and perhaps Claudius. A sad, but humorous example might be Bartleby the Scrivener by Melville. A modern book which explores how we cope with life is Dan O’Brien’s The Things they Carried. Students have responded well to it, and the “stories we tell” motif fits right in with this concept. Many films also explore this subject, including The Secret Garden and Fly Away Home, which both deal with young girls learning to break free of their coping strategies so that they can grow and embrace life.

Emptiness or Expression

The process of journeying into ourselves is difficult and painful, but without it we remain just a shell of who we want to be. As Naranjo states later in Gestalt Therapy, “after clichés and verbiage have been suppressed, all that will remain is the choice between emptiness and expression.” It is at this point, the abyss—where we choose between life and death—that the adventure of living truly begins.
Naranjo, C. (1993). Gestalt Therapy: The attitude and practice of an atheoretical experientialism. Nevada City, CA: Gateways/IDDHB.

Copyright © 1998 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Updated October 7, 2007. All rights reserved. Apart from properly cited quotes and short excerpts, no part of this article can be copied or used in any form without written permission from the author. For permission to use, please contact me.