In our collective mythologies, the tale of a hero usually involves fighting monsters and claiming divine prizes. But swords and stones aside, these stories are about overcoming obstacles in pursuit of greater purpose. It’s a universal human journey, says depth psychologist Carder Stout, PhD, and one that is ultimately internal. Each of us has a calling, according to Stout, and that pull, that sense of longing or inkling of purpose—is just the prologue.
The Hero’s Journey
By Carder Stout, PhD
In 1949, literature professor Joseph Campbell published a book discussing one universal myth that, throughout global cultures, transcended all others: the tale of the hero. In this story (which Campbell called the monomyth), the hero receives a calling to explore the mysteries of life in a perilous search for the truth. There are many parts to the hero’s journey, but the basic story is this: The hero is called to action, goes on an adventure, and after close brushes with death, returns home with wisdom, knowledge, and peace of mind.
But it’s not just mythology and fairy tales; this story, at its core, is the story of life. And that was Campbell’s point. Our journeys, in real life, may not always be voyages across a dark sea, but they are often into the dark depths of our psyche. And we are—always—our own hero.
Like Campbell’s universal hero figure, many of us have felt a calling at some point in our lives. Whether it was triggered by finger paints in a kindergarten art class, the pen we used to write our first essay, a plant that sat outside our window and needed watering, a calculator, a hammer, a racing helmet, a wooden spoon, a sacred text—whatever it was that called out to us left a mark we were bound to revisit.
Our calling fills us with a sense of purpose, connects us to an authentic part of our character, and inspires us to take risks. It’s a beautiful thing. But many of us put aside this calling as we learn safer, more accepted conventions or decide to put practical matters first. So we tend to hang up our calling for later.
But no matter how far from it we drift, our calling finds us again. We might start to hear it in the shower, on the subway, in people we meet. And when we recognize this thing is our truth, we make space for it.
There are six major phases in Campbell’s myth of the hero—phases you are experiencing in your life right now. And it has a clear trajectory; before graduating from one phase to the next, you must complete the psychological task before you. And it’s like climbing steep, slippery stairs—it is easy lose your balance and tumble backward.
The Six Phases
1. The Call to Adventure: longing, knowing, and desire for change
You have wanted to do this—whatever this is for you—for a while but have lacked the courage to do so. The call may be a vocation, maybe a secret desire to be an actress or an astrologer or a psychologist. It may be a new way of living: eco-friendly or off the grid or with a spiritual or sexual awakening. Or it may be a place in the world where you know you belong but have never been. Whatever it is, the calling feels right. Natural. Vital. And you don’t want to keep quiet. It is your highest and most authentic self that calls out toward this new adventure.
2. Mentorship: willingness to learn
Once you’ve committed to exploring a new way of life, you need guidance and knowledge in order to realistically make the change. Your mentor may come in one of many forms: Maybe the book you’re reading is changing your life. Or it could be the teacher in your Wednesday morning yoga class. It may be your therapist, a wise friend, your grandmother—maybe even someone on the other side.
Whoever it is, they will shake things up, confuse the hell out of you, and—ultimately, hopefully—provide some much-needed clarity. This is a psychological adventure, and as you might expect, things will get overwhelming. Your mentor, if you’ve chosen the right one, will help you through.
3. The Belly of the Whale: psychological death and rebirth
When you feel as if your world is collapsing and nothing makes sense anymore, you are entering the so-called belly of the whale. This is a psychological death of old beliefs, negative thought patterns, and outdated ideas.
You are in a swirl of excitement as something fantastic awaits, but you grieve the loss of your old life. You might feel somewhat naked. But something inside you confirms the risk will pay off. And when the whale opens its mouth, you wash up on an island you have never seen before. A whole new world is open to you.
4. The Ordeal: trials, tests, and temptations
This is when you lose your job, get your heart broken, go through a divorce, and wind up feeling sorry for yourself. You are, through your new values, a better, truer version of yourself, but this phase reminds you that you’re still human. You still make mistakes. And the question becomes: Where do you go from here?
You are faced with many decisions in this phase that challenge you to do the right thing. And it’s hard to know what to do when everything seems to be falling apart. You have to learn to use your new strengths and values, rather than falling back on old ones, if they are going to make it through this with you.
5. Letting Go: forgiveness, surrender, and learning to love
We can hold grudges for years, as if they empower us or make us noble. But they don’t. And whatever energy we put forth into the universe is the energy we attract into our lives: Carrying around anger and resentment brings us nothing but frustration and sadness. But for some reason we keep holding on.
This phase is about letting go. Once you begin to forgive—readily and regularly—the dam will burst. You will want to forgive everyone. All the time. Including yourself. And once we achieve respect and admiration for every part of ourselves, our whole outlook on the world transforms.
Once we’re bursting with love and forgiveness, we can begin to love others. In this phase, we often find true and lasting love with a partner who shares our same values and is on the same path.
6. Enlightenment: detachment from negative emotions
In this phase, we are present in each moment, no longer consumed by our mistakes in the past or obsessed with the future. The anxiety we felt about the future is now replaced by an excitement about life’s possibilities. The hopelessness that once weighed us down is transformed into a genuine interest in the vastness of the world. And we can experience the pleasure of simply being.
We become consumed by inspiration, admiration, and goodwill. Negativity does creep back in at points, but we no longer feed it, so it recedes. We replace it with a positive and genuine attitude of love toward others.
Here, we are comfortable in our skin and in our head, and we finally feel free. This is a simple way of life. It is what our soul intends for us. It is how we came into the world as infants—trusting, present, loving, and excited. This sense of enlightenment is a clear psyche’s most wonderful gift. There is no greater wealth.
See where you fall on the arc of the hero’s journey. Remember: In order to move from one phase to the next, you need to be ready. And that takes patience, determination, and will. But enlightenment is possible. And it’s out there waiting for you.