The Hero’s Journey of Finding Your Calling
We are all, every single one of us, heroes. Life is hard, and to live it fully and express your soul authentically requires the courage of a warrior and the softness, gentleness, and yielding flexibility of a goddess. In my spiritual self-help book dressed up as a memoir The Anatomy of a Calling, I use mythologist Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey as a map for finding and fulfilling your calling because when you’re embarking on something scary and risky, it helps to have a map. Of course, everyone’s map is unique, but there are well-traveled paths that all heroes before you have worn smooth through experience. So why not model your journey after Luke Skywalker, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr.?
So what is a hero’s journey? Joseph Campbell described it best, first in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces and then in The Power of Myth, a famous interview with Bill Moyer that aired on PBS. His teachings were translated into Hollywood gold via Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which uses Campbell’s work to teach how to write a great screenplay or a bestselling novel. Influenced by Campbell’s work, George Lucas credits Campbell with the inspiration for Star Wars. Luke Skywalker follows the epic hero’s journey classically. But so do you, every time you say yes to your calling.
Some of us are driven towards our purpose by passion, but many others take a journey to hell and back, and only when we’ve survived something traumatic do we realize we have been in training to serve others who are still in hell. Sometimes we only discover we are heroes when we get disillusioned enough with the dysfunction of our present circumstances. When we feel sad enough and lost enough and hopeless enough, something deep within us has the opportunity to emerge, something stronger and wiser than we may ever have known existed within us.
We all have this heroic spark that never dies, even when we’re in our darkest moments.
I call this part of you your “Inner Pilot Light,” which is your inner superhero. This spark within you is fueled by a pressing sense that there is adventure out there, that your life has purpose, that you’re on a quest you may not understand yet, that your small little existence on this very big planet could mean something, that there is more to life than the ordinary, dysfunctional world, and that perhaps all it takes is a cape and a mask and some really cool boots in order to save the world.
Navigating your own hero’s journey is one of the cornerstones of living a meaningful, rich, authentic, wholly healthy life. So what does it mean to be on a hero’s journey? What is the arc? Let me break it down for you the way Vogler does, not because you’re necessarily writing a screenplay or a novel, but because you’re writing life, and as the hero on a journey, it can be helpful to know what lies ahead.
The Ordinary World
Most of us don’t realize how truly heroic we are until we’re called to step up to the plate and do something we would never have believed we’d be capable of doing before we were called to get out of our comfort zone and demonstrate our potential. We don’t know we are heroes because we assume heroes are supposed to fight battles and overcome obstacles and rescue damsels in distress and still looking dashing while they’re saving the world. But heroes start out like everybody else, living our ordinary lives in our Ordinary Worlds, doing our ordinary things, slogging through life, reacting to life’s tragedies and feeling like victims of our circumstances, treading water in our lives until we realize we are drowning and the only way to survive is to quit fighting so hard and just trust that we will be thrown life preservers. Because we will. But maybe not the way you expect.
The Call to Adventure
Right when you might start to question your inner superhero and feel tempted to lose hope that your little blip of existence in this great big world could really make a world-changing difference, you’re likely to hear the phone ring. It usually rings very softly at first, perhaps so softly that, like your cell phone with the ringer off, you miss it altogether. But when you fail to pick up, the phone is likely to ring louder. Some Divine force turns the ringer on.
Refusal of the Call
Because heroes are inherently curious, you won’t be able to resist picking up the jangling phone, yet when you hear what you’re meant to do on your hero’s journey, if you’re like the rest of us, you’re likely to respond with a rousing, “HELL NO.” What you are being called to do is too scary. The dangers are too risky. Your comfort zone is too secure. It would be so much easier to stay in the Ordinary World, even though the Ordinary World is so . . . well, ordinary. Fear wrecks you. There are so many really, really good reasons to hang up the phone and refuse the call. Nobody would blame you. You’re only human. It would be natural to turn your back on something so terrifying. So like all the other heroes who have ever walked a hero’s path, you refuse the call. It’s how we heroes play hard to get.
Yet no matter how much you pretend you’re not available for that last minute Friday night date with destiny, I guarantee you that, when it’s your true calling, the call will keep pestering you. You can resist the call, but you don’t get to choose your calling. Your calling chooses you.
Meeting of the Magical Mentor
Because it’s so scary to say YES to your calling, a magical mentor will arrive, either as an inner mentor or an outer one, someone who will guide the hero, offer protection and reassurance, and share wisdom intended to help the hero navigate what is sure to be a challenging journey ahead. This mentor will encourage you to say yes, gifting you with boons and uplifting your confidence.
Crossing the Threshold
Finally, with the aid of this mentor, you either muster up the moxy to rally to the task, picking up the phone with a smile, or you get so worn down by the incessant ringing that you pick up with a sigh and a roll of the eyes. The hero leaves the known world and leaps into the unknown, which signals the hero’s final separation from the Ordinary World and marks the hero’s willingness to undergo metamorphosis. There’s often a rupture of some sort, an unraveling, as the hero goes from caterpillar into cellular debris inside the cocoon.
The minute you say YES to your calling and cross the threshold from the Ordinary World into the Special World, life tends to get very interesting and synchronicities tend to pop up to affirm that you made the right decision.
The Road of Trials (Test, Enemies, Allies)
Because magical things start happening the minute you say YES to your calling, you may be seduced into thinking the whole journey will be a cakewalk. But the honeymoon period of your entry into the Special World is just a phase. It’s almost like your reward for having the courage to accept the call. But this hero’s journey is an initiation, which means it won’t always be roses and violets. That’s when you’ll realize you’re on the Road of Trials. The Road of Trials consists of a series of tests and obstacles the hero must overcome, and along the way, the hero meets allies and enemies and begins to learn the rules of a world far different than the Ordinary World.
This can be a challenging time. When you find yourself struggling to get through an obstacle-ridden forest, it can be hard to tell whether your commitment is just being tested, as every heroes is, or whether you’ve veered off course. Obstacles can be part of the growth process, the cultivation of your inner hero, a necessary part of your hero’s journey. But they can also be Signs that you’ve made a wrong turn.
Approaching the Innermost Cave
As the Road of Trials intensifies, the hero comes to the edge of a dangerous place—the headquarters of the enemy or the dark cave of the new world, or a scary inner place where the reckoning must happen as part of a Dark Night of the Soul.
The ordeal usually follows, a fight to the death with the forces of darkness, when the hero is at risk of losing it all. Surviving the ordeal is a right of passage, an initiation into the new world that graduates the hero into a wiser, more enlightened state of being. There are death and rebirth during the ordeal. As the former Cat Stevens—Yusuf Islam—sings, “To be what you must, you must give up what you are.”
Reward/The Holy Grail
Having survived the ordeal, the hero is rewarded. The holy grail is found. Life-changing wisdom is earned. An elixir that will serve as the balm for a wounded culture is won. But the hero isn’t out of the woods yet.
The Road Back
Once the hero finds the holy grail that promises to change the Ordinary World into the new bliss, it’s tempting to hold that knowledge dear, to protect it close to the heart, where nobody can threaten it or challenge it or take it away. But that’s not what heroes do. Heroes always find the courage to bring the holy grail back home to the Ordinary World so others can benefit too.
Before the grail comes home, the hero undergoes one last final exam, a last-ditch effort on the part of the forces of fear and darkness to derail the hero from bringing the hard-won reward back to the Ordinary World so that it may become the promised land. This last ordeal nearly brings the hero down—again. Another near-death ensues. But once again—phew—the hero is resurrected.
The Resurrection happens once the hero leaves the Special World and reenters the Ordinary World. Without this death and rebirth witnessed by the people of the Ordinary World, those the hero left behind might have trouble recognizing that Joe Schmoe, who was once just like them, has now transformed into a butterfly. Because this resurrection tends to be witnessed, people in the Ordinary World wake up and realize the hero has a precious gift to bring back home, something that could turn everyone at home into butterflies.
Return with the Holy Grail
That’s when the hero can finally bring the grail home once and for all. Dorothy makes it back to Kansas with the knowledge that there’s no place like home. Luke Skywalker learns to ally himself with The Force. Nelson Mandela becomes President and dismantles apartheid, bringing to chaos the peace he discovered during his imprisonment.
Once you find the holy grail, you see the light and can use it to illuminate others.
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The Heroine’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey aligns with the dominant masculine paradigm, but depth psychologist Anne Davin reinvents the journey into a heroine’s journey. Anne describes the heroine’s journey as a series of phases a woman moves through as she infuses her divinity into the surprises, disappointments, and ruptures that life can bring, a journey that happens in five phases. Anne describes the difference between the hero and the heroine:
“Although the hero in modern times is a rugged individualist, the heroine is interdependent on others for her survival. The hero views humans and the divine as separate. For the heroine, there is no separation between spirit and matter. All are One. The hero is self-sacrificing; the heroine receives from others. The hero survives against all odds; the heroine’s ego dies to the perfection of whatever is happening, coming into agreement with what is, rather than forcing her will. The hero dominates; the heroine surrenders. The hero competes; the heroine collaborates. The hero revels in his victory, filled with pride; the heroine wears her humility as a jeweled crown. The hero never questions his value or direction; the heroine lives her life as an open question. The hero fights death, living in perpetual fight or flight; the heroine dies willingly into the still point of Beingness. The hero asks, “What can I get for myself?” The heroine asks, “How can I serve the dream?”
Phase One: The Everyday Woman
The woman is the everyday woman, living her everyday life. She doesn’t realize she is about to encounter an experience that will create chaos and deep internal change, perhaps dreamed up by her soul to facilitate her evolution as a divine spark of the feminine.
Phase Two: The Rupture
The second phase is the “rupture,” wherein the heroine experiences an activating event—a divorce, the loss of a loved one, a cancer journey, getting fired from her job, being a victim of violent crime—that creates the perception of loss or disappointment. This rupture leads her to descend into a swamp of what can almost be described as delicious grief. During the rupture, she refuses to play the victim, instead, embracing the tragedy with grace and sensual surrender.
Phase Three: Transparency
In the third phase of “transparency,” the heroine uses the action and power of transparency to embody her wholeness in every moment. She courageously embraces all of the many faces of her feminine self, including what may be judged by the culture as repulsive or frightening.
Phase Four: Receiving
The fourth phase is about “receiving,” during which the heroine remains open, exposed, and vulnerable while she receives the soothing contact and assistance from others who tend her. She recognizes this as essential, and compassionately allows herself to be nurtured through her crisis.
Phase Five: Action
This love and support she receives in Phase Four lead her to Phase Five—“action,” during which she experiences a profound emotional and spiritual restoration that energizes new attitudes, perspectives, and action in her life.
The Anatomy of a Calling
In my new book The Anatomy of a Calling, I tell the story of my whole hero’s/heroine’s journey, from the heartbreaking rupture to the holy grail to the inspired action that arose from the death and rebirth I experienced. But although this book is about me and my story, it’s really about you and YOUR story. My “Perfect Storm” was the rupture that initiated my journey. The transparency I exposed through blogging, writing books, and speaking opened me up to receive the love and support of those who could usher me through, allowing me to take action in a way that nourishes my soul. Both Being and Doing have been necessary as I navigated my journey, and because I was willing to allow myself to be burned in the ashes of my life, somehow, through grace, a phoenix has arisen within me, and I am continually being birthed into an ever more magical, enlivened, ensouled life. This doesn’t mean everything is easy for me. It just means that I’m increasingly able to meet triumph and tragedy with a core of stillness, not as some kind of spiritual bypass, but as a fully enlivened experience of all of life’s joys and sorrows, infused equally with love and non-resistance.
It is a continual journey, not a destination where you finally arrive, but a humbling realization that the journey is the commitment of a lifetime to a process that never ends. While it hasn’t been easy, I’m so so grateful for everything I’ve experienced. Even if I knew back when I accepted the call the Road of Trials I would face ahead; I would do it all over again. The holy grail I have received in my heart is pricelessly fulfilling, and I want you to feel it too.
Blessings on Your Journey
All I know after a long, winding journey is that we are here to love and to be loved, to open our hearts all the way and to let the impulse of love spawn a revolution that helps us remember Why We Are Really Here. Each of us will participate in this revolution of love in our own unique way as we navigate our own heroic journey. As we journey together, we will all wake up to the truth of what is real and why our souls chose to incarnate at this special time on Planet Earth. This is why you are here, so we can co-create a more beautiful world together, one little miracle at a time.
If the phone is ringing for you, trust your heart if it tells you to take the call. Your instructions await you. The time is now. Blessings on your journey.
With love and faith in your process,
Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and The Fear Cure, is a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and spiritual seeker. Passionate about what makes people optimally healthy and what predisposes them to illness, she is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual; it also heals the collective. As she became aware of how fear dominates modern culture and how such fear predisposes us not only to unhappiness but to disease, she began researching ways to befriend fear so we can let it heal and liberate us, opening us up to greater compassion, not just for others, but for ourselves. Lissa has starred in two PBS specials and also leads spirituality workshops, both online, as well as at retreat centers like Esalen, Kripalu, and Omega. When doing what she can to sprinkle pixie dust on a fear-based culture, Lissa loves to hike, ski, and dance. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her daughter. Read her blog and learn more at LissaRankin.com.
Support on Your Journey
If you are on your own hero’s/heroine’s journey, my team of mentors are collaborating with me to create multiple ways to support you; let me highlight a few.
1. Sacred Activism & Miracles Workshop with me and my magical mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
2. Group Mentoring For Heroes & Heroines
Buy ten copies and get group mentoring aimed and heroes and heroines on a journey.
3. Visionary Mentoring Program
The creator of the heroine’s journey Anne Davin, PhD and I are joining forces for the second year to bring you the Visionary Mentoring Program, which is a six-month intensive one-on-one journey of mentoring for visionaries. Because this one is a significant time, energy, and financial commitment and because we only want to work with people who are 1000% committed, this program is available by application only and requires an interview screening process. If you’re interested in more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.