Zen Buddhists have a saying: “The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.” The same is true for the hero’s journey. The journey is a metaphor that points us to life’s fundamental process of growth and transformation. To focus only on the journey is to lose sight of the lessons it teaches.
The finger that points at the moon
Recently I received an e-mail from a reader who asked how to use the hero’s journey with clients suffering from apathy about their life conditions. I’m posting my answer because the question raises important points about using the journey for personal growth or therapy.
To successfully use the hero’s journey for growth or therapy we need to remember that the journey pattern is the means, not the end. In Zen Buddhism there is a saying: “The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.” The same is true for the hero’s journey. The map is not the territory.
The journey is a metaphor, a powerful metaphor, but only a metaphor. It points us to the fundamental process of growth and transformation we follow naturally as we journey through life. We should not focus on the journey pattern; rather, we should see the journey as a tool that can help us navigate the challenges we encounter in life. (For more ideas on this theme, see my post of March 16).
With this point in mind, we can understand that the journey itself does not motivate, guide or heal. What the journey can do is provide us with a broader perspective on our lives, and from that perspective we can see where we are stuck, where we have blocked our life’s flow, and (generally) how we can restore movement and meaning. The journey pattern allows us see the greater story unfolding in our lives and to relate current difficulties with that expanded narrative.
The value of the journey, then, lies not in the pattern itself, but in the power the journey has to help us restore flow to our lives. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with 1000 Faces, “The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world” (p. 40). It is that restored flow which stimulates motivation, healing and new meaning.
Everything is on its way somewhere
Morning clouds over Napa, CA
In the movie Phenomenon, George Malley (played by John Travolta) is facing death because of an inoperable brain tumor. At the end of the film, as he awaits death, George goes to the farm of his girlfriend and her two children, Glory and Al. The children are struggling with his impending death, trying to understand and accept it. Glory seems to be handling it, but Al is not.
In the final scene with the children, George stands with them at a fence. He is eating an apple and trying to give them a perspective on life and death. He tells them,
You know, if we were to put this apple down, and leave it, it would be spoiled and gone in a few days. But, if we were to take a bite of it like this [he bites apple], it would become part of us, and we could take it with us, forever. [George offers the apple to Glory, who takes a bite. When he offers the apple to Al, the boy refuses.] Al, everything is on its way to somewhere. Everything. [Al looks at the apple and at George and then takes a big bite.]
Through our lives we are all on our way somewhere: children are on their way to adolescence, adolescents are on their way to adulthood, and (ultimately) we are all on our way to death. Unfortunately, we often become so preoccupied with life’s day-to-day struggles that we forget the bigger picture, the larger story that is unfolding around us.
Stanislaus River, Kennedy Meadows, CA
We forget that every form—every person, every thing, every experience—is, as philosopher Alan Watts said, “really only a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like a river, which if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in” (1951, p. 41). When we forget this truth and cling to the temporary form, we become stuck in the situation of the moment and our life loses its movement. When life loses is movement, it also loses its meaning, direction and purpose. Watts makes this point clearly with an analogy to music:
Music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow. Yet the moment you arrest the flow and prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life (1951, p. 32).
It is in this process of restoring flow to our lives that the hero’s journey can help. The situation is like being on a long car trip and becoming lost. If we cling to our old, planned route, we will never find our way because that route is gone. We must let go of how we wanted the trip to go and deal with how the trip is going, with how life is in this moment. When we release what we wanted or expected, we free ourselves to be creative and to make adjustments: to find an alternate route. More importantly, we open ourselves to the new experiences and potentials that the alternate route will offer us. The journey gives us a map to help us find that alternate route.
Restoring life’s rhythm and flow
This is how the hero’s journey can help us with our own growth or help us counsel others in their growth. It gives us a universal map of experience to help us recover direction and movement. It can tell us, generally, where we are in our journey and help us understand how we have become blocked. It can, when we understand its dynamics, tell us what we must do to unblock ourselves and restore flow, meaning and and a sense of purpose to our lives. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with 1000 Faces,
The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale…The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls (1949, p. 121).
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with 1000 Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Turteltaub, J. (Director). (1996). Phenomenon. [Motion picture]. [With John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick and Forest Whitaker]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.
Watts, A. (1951). The wisdom of insecurity. New York: Pantheon.