The Call: A Hero's Journey
“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection.” The Bhagavad Gita
In the midst of the most recent dissolution of my marriage, to my husband of 13 years, (I’m going to pause you all here and say how terrifying it is to write these words and make them public, but I am doing it anyway, because I love you. More on that another day), I have taken to walking my dog for long periods of time in the cold-windy weather listening to Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Conversations podcast. As soon as I press play and hear Oprah’s rich, familiar voice say, “I believe the greatest gift we can give ourselves is time, “ I start to cry. I watched Oprah devotedly as a child, and then again as an adult while I nursed my newborn children. The sound of her voice touches my heart in such a way that I feel vulnerable and immediately undone, which happens to be exactly what I am seeking right now. I am on a quest to keep true to my purpose as a joy bringer, to continue to bring light to this world, to retain vulnerability, release fear and choose love even in the face of the greatest loss of my life, my partnership with my husband, Jacob. When we separated for the first time last March, I cut myself off from people I love, from my spiritual practice, and from my own wholeness. I labeled feelings good/bad, should/shouldn’t and lived in a world defined by separation. It was a survival move, straight up. And when we are in survival mode, fear is driving the whole operation. I don’t blame myself, it’s what I had to do to make it work at the time. I was numb, my heart was guarded tightly, and an outpouring of grief didn’t come until months later. This time, as my husband prepares to move out again in January, I want to feel. I am choosing to be awake. So I listen to Oprah.
In an older episode, I listened to recently, she and Elizabeth Gilbert discussed Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey. The first time I learned about the Hero’s journey I was a sophomore in high school, and I literally had no idea what my teacher, Mr. Weston, was talking about. I was fourteen. Mr Weston had a beard, and a PhD in literature from Purdue. He wore cool circular glasses, rode a motorcycle to school everyday, and in the classroom, he burned an incense called black love and put ornate, rich colored scarves on his desk. When we studied poetry, he lowered the lights in reverence. It was awesome.
Many of us had only ever been to Catholic School, where we literally wore identical uniforms for nine straight years. Expressing uniqueness or separating oneself in any way was met with shame, suspicion and exclusion, so seeing Mr. Weston’s freak flag fly, even if only at what--I suspect now--may have been half mast, was profound. As I prepared to write this blog, I thought of him and how courageous he must have been to have chosen strangeness over conformity at an institution, and in a time, where being radical, even in Portland, Oregon, automatically left you on the outside. The thing that I took with me through the years is a question he asked after each lesson in a lilting, somewhat sarcastic voice: “Comments….questions….existential angst?” . Many of you have heard me ask this very question in yoga class at moments when it feels like we’ve really been through something together. I see Mr. Weston’s question as an invitation to meet myself again and again. Yes, I have comments. Absolutely I have questions, every single day. And, you better believe I have some existential angst. What is existential angst, but an invitation to know ourselves better? To feel deeply the longing to know our purpose in this life? Existential angst is the beginning of that call, deep within each of us, that asks us to step up, to step in, and to live a whole life rooted in love, rather than a divided life springing from scarcity, reactivity and fear. To experience existential angst is to experience the longing to meet our purpose in the world and to live our true dharma, however imperfectly.
Be warned. Answering the call is hard. It’s dangerous. It can ruin your life. Imagine an ordinary person, like Dory before she finds Nemo, or Luke Skywalker still living on Tatooine, simply going about the normal business of being them. Then, something happens--either originating from a deep internal shift, external circumstances, or a combination of both--that calls upon the Hero to journey into the unknown, to embark upon an experience that will call upon them to give up life as they once knew it and to be transformed. It’s at this juncture that the Hero has a choice--to answer the call or not. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her interpretation, makes it very clear that there is a turning point here. We can say no. Let me repeat that, we can say no. We can sit on our hands and not show up to our life’s purpose. She says it would be the shortest choose your own adventure book of all time, a one pager. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been living this life in its grand array of blessings and teachers so as not to answer the call.
So, if the Hero looks into the mirror one day and says, you know what, I can do this. I know it’s going to be difficult, I have no illusions about that. I’ve heard from other heros that this quest thing is not for the faint of heart. I realize I’m going to experience the unfamiliar, and probably be tripped up and land with my face in the dirt once in awhile, both of which don’t feel safe to me, but, despite all that, I know I can do this. This is what I am meant for. This is my purpose. I am saying yes. And off the Hero goes, sword in hand, ready to face the dragons.
However, as the reality of the task dawns upon the Hero, there is a hesitation. We have all been here. I believe this is, in part, why my husband and I turned back toward one another this year. Our love is familiar and safe. It’s comfortable in its limitations, and what lies beyond our marriage appears, on the surface, to be scary, lonely, sad and uncomfortable. After all, this is the unknown we are talking about. It’s not like bed and netflix, it’s like the upside down in Stranger Things. Our normal tricks and habits don’t work here. The same jokes don’t land. Our old coping strategies feel lifeless and worn out. The path dark, and there is weird plastic stuff floating everywhere. Joseph Campbell writes that “If you can see your path laid out in front of you, step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take, that’s why it’s your path.”
This fear of the unknown, and the desire to quit, is called the refusal of the call. It’s that moment when we say to ourselves, “You know what, this has been great? I feel truly honored to be here, and I’ve learned a lot, but I have no idea what’s going on. In fact, this hurts. It’s not what I expected, and I just want everything to feel normal again.” This is the moment I experienced when I went back to my marriage, and I am grateful I did. It’s part of the quest. I wouldn’t be writing this without the refusal of the call. Oprah points out that Martin Luther King Jr. experienced a classic case of refusal of the call early in his career. He wanted to keep it simple, to have his church, to be a preacher, and raise his family. But, as it does with all of us who say yes, the call persists.
It’s at this point that the Hero enters into the battle. Things are not what they once were, and not yet what they are going to be. This is the middle, the hardest time of all. Joseph Campbell calls it the dark night of the soul. This is a time of loneliness, sorrow, grief, and reckoning. It is here where we experience a collapse of old ways of thinking, knowing and being. Ekhart Toll says that it is, “...a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death that you die. What dies is the egoic sense of self.” The hero must release all ego, all fear, and face the monsters in order to transform. It’s required. It’s a part of the cycle, and once fear is truly released and the battle is won, the hero is transformed and knows what it is to be connected to love. Personally, I’m not all the way there yet. I am scared as hell of what the New Year might bring. But I know what the pay off might be, and it keeps me in the game. The reward for having said yes is a deeper wisdom, a release of the hypocrisy of fear. A renunciation of separation. A seeing of ourselves as we truly are, whole and unified with oneness no matter what. And if we are whole, there is no fear, the only thing left is love. That’s it. Love. The Hero has access to an inner aliveness that was not there before: the uninterrupted connection to the divine, to spirit, to oneness, to God.
I have wanted this connection to mystery my whole life. I am saying yes.
Come practice with me on New Year’s Day. 11am-1pm.
The theme this year will be “Answering the Call: The Heart of the Hero”