“Story is a vehicle for us to create meaning in our lives. We need story like we need our bodies. It creates our meaning”
– Mark Matousek, author of Sex, Death, Enlightenment
A few years ago I was in a very dark place. Life felt heavy, overwhelming and horrible. My heart ached constantly and every morning I struggled to get out of bed, tired of the continuous sadness, depletion and exhaustion that plagued my life. Nothing made sense and life seemed cruel and meaningless. As I forced myself to put on a brave, smiling face every day to go to work and face the never-ending deadlines and meetings, inside I felt like I was dying. It was exhausting to put on this facade day in, day out, to pretend that I was happy, coping and succeeding. While inside I was desperately sad and exhausted – emotionally, physically and spiritually.
As often happens when we’re in these dark places, I prayed for help, for some small sign that there was meaning to all of this, and some glimmer of hope that things would get better. Shortly after, an email landed in my inbox from the famous visionary thought leader Dr Jean Houston, about her upcoming course Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. To this day I still don’t know how I got onto her e-mail list. I didn’t know much about her work at the time or the courses she offers. But her email caught my attention and after years of feeling like I was on the wrong path and that my life was not going where I wanted it to be going, Jean’s call to finally uncover my true calling felt like an absolutely essential and urgent thing for me to do. So in spite of my head telling me I didn’t have the time or money to do this course, out of desperation I enrolled myself because my heart was begging me to.
Jean Houston’s course – among other serendipitous things that happened soon after I sent out my S.O.S call to the universe – was the start of a slow but massive shift in my life. One of the key elements in her teachings is the power of story and myth to create meaning in our lives. One of the assignments we had to do as homework was to describe the story of our in lives in the context of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of storytelling identified by the famous American scholar, Joseph Campbell, that weaves through many human stories, movies, drama, theatre and myth. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. The journey typically includes the following 12 stages.
The Hero’s Journey
1. The ordinary world
2. The call to adventure
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting with the mentor
5. Crossing the threshold
6. Tests, allies and enemies
7. Approaching the cave
8. The ordeal
9. The road back
10. The resurrection
11. Return with the elixir (Read more details about the Hero’s Journey click here)
Since becoming aware of this pattern of narrative in our storytelling, I’ve seen it appear as the underlying theme in many films and stories in our entertainment world, the most famous and obvious ones being Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I recognise it woven into children’s movies when watching them with my young boys.
At first I was a bit skeptical about the significance this could have as a homework task, but I dutifully sat down and started to write out my life within the template of the Hero’s Journey. I made up a fictional name for myself and started writing about my life in third person, describing the key events and relationships I had been through. As I wrote about the different phases of my life, amazingly I began to see how my life has roughly followed this basic theme, and that during the time that I was working on this assignment, I was stuck in the phase of ‘refusing the call’. I had spent my life living in the ‘ordinary world’, and had heard the ‘call to adventure’ several times deep within my heart. Except that I had been busily refusing the call, blocking it out, determined to make my life follow what my head insisted was the right path, rather than surrendering to the impulses of my heart – ‘the call’ – that wanted to pursue a different kind of life. The more I resisted this call, the more I suffered and the deeper I sunk into the abyss. It had taken deep and prolonged suffering and finally a ‘meeting with the mentor’ – my wonderful healer who held my hand and helped me surrender to my own inner truth, courage and wisdom – that finally allowed me to ‘cross the threshold’.
After spending many years committed to overcoming my fears, doubts and insecurities and preparing myself for my new career path, it currently feels as though I’m immersed in the ‘tests, allies and enemies’ phase in which I’ve surrendered to the call, while continuing to be tested in many ways to strengthen my resilience and resolve. I’m learning who my allies and enemies are and learning to surround myself with loyal and supportive comrades who support my journey in this ‘new world’, as I strive to live my brightest life and make a positive contribution through my work and presence.
I can’t explain the uplift and joy I felt after recognising my life story within the archetypal pattern of the Hero’s Journey. Suddenly my pain and suffering felt worthwhile and a necessary part of my life’s journey. It gave my life meaning just as Mark Matousek suggested happens when we harness the power of story. By choosing to follow my heart I feel I am now on my way to ‘return with the elixir’, tapping into the joy, flow and abundance that comes to us naturally when we align with our heart and soul. This road will not be easy, but it’s the only road that makes sense to me now. Sometimes my inner skeptic comes in and tells me this is just something we tell ourselves to help ourselves feel better. And then I think – so what? If we find meaning, comfort, strength and motivation by seeing ourselves within this context, as the Hero within our own lives, surviving trials and tribulations on our path to finding the treasure, then isn’t that great? And isn’t that all that really matters?
And yet another interesting thing happened as I found the courage to share my story with others in my course group. As I dared to put myself out there and share my story, suddenly I was being approached by several class mates who were telling me that they related to so much of my story and that they too had been through similar things. And as I read through the stories of everyone else, it occurred to me how much I also related to their stories, and how much of our collective human suffering follows common themes and patterns. And this, says Jean Houston, is why myth and campfire stories are so important to us, because they connect us to each other through the sharing of common human experiences and emotions. They connect us to each other and they give our lives meaning. And this sense of meaning and connection is what can be so healing when we surrender to the power of our story.
In service to helping you live your fullest and brightest life,
Whispering Heart Coaching