The Hero’s Journey: From Midlife Crisis to the Holy Grail

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The Hero’s Journey – a term coined by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell – has proven to be a trustworthy route map for many thousands of lost souls. It certainly gave my life some structure when going through my own midlife transition several years ago.

It provided me with a framework to negotiate my way through the twists and turns of my early 40s and became a resource that has continued to help me ever since (and the many clients I’ve introduced it to).

In this article we’ll explore what The Hero’s Journey is all about and how it can help you make your way through your own crisis or transition, no matter what your age.

The hero with a thousand faces

Campbell’s best selling book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, tells us that throughout history and in all cultures there have been hero-type figures.

From Homer’s Odyssey, written some 3000 years ago, right up to the present day in TV and film, heroes abound.

Think of all your favourite books and films…they all have a hero, a protagonist, a central character who somehow makes an impact in your own life.

We watch such people – real or fictitious – and try to emulate them, or at least fantasize that we could. They inspire our actions, our beliefs, our thoughts. They give us hope and teach us that anything is possible or, at least, could be.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider who are (or who have been) the heroes in your life…

Who do you look up to? Who have inspired you throughout your life? Are you in need of a new hero-figure now or are you being asked to step into that role yourself?

the hero with a thousand faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero’s Journey Stage 1: Standing at the threshold

As we go through certain stages of life we are called into action. We know that we must do something and that inaction is no longer an option. It’s as if life itself is knocking on the door and telling us to get on with it

The question then becomes, ‘am I willing to answer this call to adventure?’

Am I willing to step out of my comfort zone – the world I know – and enter alien territory? Sometimes there is no choice in the matter.

There will be inner doubts. Some people will question your motives, others might think you insane. Thankfully, some will serve as allies, guiding you into that other world with torchlight, a helping hand and, if needed, a shoulder to cry on.

A mentor and/or genuinely supportive friends form the network that will see you across the threshold as you take the heroic leap into uncertainty.

Leaving home, starting uni, falling in love, getting a new job, moving to a new country etc. can all feel like ‘threshold’ encounters. Starting therapy can feel like this too. But rest assured, you are not alone.

A good therapist will join you as a ‘fellow traveller’ on your Hero’s Journey to wherever life is calling you.

The Hero’s Journey Stage 2: Answering the call to adventure

But here’s the thing; uncertainty is a huge stressor. We cling to the known world, safe in our comfort zones. Even though life is urging us to take action we refuse the calling. And we suffer because of it.

Illness, stress, lack of meaning or purpose in life, depression, anxiety, guilt and regrets, the list goes on. Remaining in our comfort zones becomes less comfortable with each passing year.

Something deep inside gently nudges us at first, then hollers full volume, until we are forced to take that step into a new world. This is when The Hero’s Journey truly begins.

stages of the hero's journey

However, even without the guide of a trusted therapist or mentor, you needn’t go unaided on your journey. There is a powerful psychological method to help you on your way…

The T.E.S.T. Model

TEST is an acronym that describes certain steps and ‘ways of being’ that, when applied, will help you step out of your comfort zone and become the hero of your own life.

So, let’s look at the TEST model in more detail…

T – the first T in TEST is about tolerating uncertainty

Like any hero who starts on an adventure – just as in all the greatest books and movies – we are required to leave our comfort zones and venture into an unknown world. We don’t know what we will face or how we’ll cope.

The ability to tolerate uncertainty is often a good indicator of overall mental wellbeing. This is about having enough faith and trust in yourself so that, whatever happens, you can deal with it.

Indeed, whatever happens is necessary for your growth and evolution. We can only learn something new when we step into unfamiliar territory. And this truly is ‘where the magic happens’.

The hero's journey. Magic happens when you leave your comfort zone

E – stands for emotional balance

For emotional balance we need to have ‘unhooked’ ourselves from the emotional patterns of our history, especially any traumas we’ve suffered.

The emotional brain – the limbic system – is about high arousal, mostly involving our survival instincts, causing unwarranted levels of anger, anxiety, and depression that polarises our thinking. Everything becomes either this or that, black and white.

Not only that but high emotion distorts our perception of reality and entrances us. In effect, we get hypnotised by our emotions and we’re unable to see the bigger picture, unable to see others’ points of view, locked in our own little world.

But there is something to help calm the survival brain and achieve a degree of emotional balance…

Zen Breathing is something I teach many of my clients as it is proven to be one of the fastest ways to calm the body-mind system.

S – stands for skills and strengths

When the emotional brain calms down, not only are we able to see things more clearly but we can access our resources, strengths, and competences which often become overlooked or buried when the survival brain kicks in.

A calmer brain allows you to connect with a higher intelligence within – or outside – of yourself and from there develop your already existing skills, as well as learn new ones.

These can be work-based skills, communication skills that help you feel more socially confident, or skills in family life, such as developing more competence as a parent. Or how about creative skills such as a new hobby or learning a musical instrument?

Basically, unless you’re in a real survival situation, the calmer the brain, the better it works.

T – the second T in the TEST model is about thinking styles

We now know that the brain processes emotions before thinking. It’s no good just trying to think positively. You need to calm the emotional brain down first.

RELATED CONTENT: Why the premise of CBT is wrong

Once calmer, you are more able to challenge negative thoughts that are of the black and white, all-or-nothing variety.

For instance, people who suffer from depression are likely to think that if they fail at one thing they are a failure at everything. If they have a bad day, their whole life is a disaster. If a relationship ends they feel as if they will never fall in love again.

This ‘global’ thinking style is governed by the emotional brain as it seeks out a reason or meaning for what we’re experiencing. It often jumps to erroneous conclusions based on old patterns and meanings we made years ago, sometimes as far back as early childhood.

Indeed, most of the beliefs and ‘points of reference’ that determine how you see the world today were formed in the first 6 or 7 years of your life.

But the truth is that life isn’t black and white, at least not most of the time. We need to learn to operate in the spectrum of colours in between. Once the emotional brain is calmer and you’ve accessed your resources, you can fine-tune your thinking styles.

The Hero’s Journey Stage 3: The road of trials and the ordeal in the innermost cave

Using the TEST model along with the idea of The Hero’s Journey can help you begin the process of breaking free from old conditioning, changing your perceptions, and embracing more of life.

Combined, they serve as wonderful resources, like inner mentors, helping you answer the call to adventure and continue on your way.

You step over the threshold into the unknown. There will be tests and challenges along the way, ‘the road of trials’. There may even be a ‘dark night of the soul’ or a battle with a fierce rival.

In Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces‘ he talks about the innermost cave and an ordeal of some description. It might not be on the scale of Theseus and the Minotaur but it will nonetheless shake you to your core.

the hero's journey - the ordeal in the innermost cave
Image: Pilar Torres

The Hero’s Journey Stage 4: The reward

Emerging from the labyrinth, old wounds can finally begin to heal. You become more authentic, stripped of old ego defences and willing to show up in the world – at last.

Having confronted your nemesis (and this is usually a confrontation with your inner demons) you find the ‘boon’, or what some call the Holy Grail.

You come home to yourself, shifting from ego consciousness (conditioning) to soul consciousness (authenticity). You may even experience a moment of illumination that feels like a spiritual awakening. Life is injected with meaning once again.

But The Hero’s Journey doesn’t end there. You don’t remain in some kind of euphoric, enlightened, blissful state, like Homer’s Lotus Eaters however appealing that sounds.

No, the journey is not quite finished…

The Hero’s Journey Stage 5: The return with the boon

The next stage is the return home with the ‘boon’, with the knowledge, learnings and wisdom acquired along the way.

And back home on familiar territory as your true self, you share the wisdom with those who have ears to hear it. When their time comes, they can answer the ‘call to adventure’ and begin their own hero’s journey.

In the words of T. S. Eliot…

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – Little Gidding

I wonder what stage you’re at on The Hero’s Journey? Have you answered the ‘call to adventure’? Are you going along the ‘road of trials’? Maybe you’re in a ‘dark night of the soul’ phase? Or perhaps you’ve found your own Holy Grail and have returned home?

I’d love to hear what you think of this article so please leave a comment below.

To help turn a breakdown into a breakthrough or a problem into an opportunity, read my blog post about how to deal with a midlife crisis.

Related books about the hero’s journey…

the hero's journey - Joseph Campbell
the hero's journey: a voyage of self-discovery by Stephen Gilligan
the psychedelic hero's journey of a traveling nobody
finding meaning in the second half of life: James Hollis

Check out more great books for your psycho-spiritual evolution

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