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Chris Vogler: We’re all on the Hero’s Journey

Photo Credit, Pablo García Saldaña

“What is it we are searching for? It is the fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us. Questing for it is not an ego trip; it is an adventure to bring into fulfillment your gift to the world, which is yourself.” –Joseph Campbell

I initially found out about A Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Writer’s Journey from a friend, who continues to be one of my biggest allies. I can always count on her to bring something new, helpful and incredibly relevant to my “journey.”

In reading The Writer’s Journey, I have come to realize that although Vogler’s brilliant translation of the Hero’s Journey is for writers, his translation of Campbell’s work can be used as a guide, not only for our professional lives but also for our personal lives.

According to Vogler, “The Writer’s Journey was intended as a practical guidebook for writers, but can also be read as a guide to the life lessons that have been carefully built into the stories of all times.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, on the “stories we write, and perhaps more importantly, the stories we live.”

BJB: What is the Hero’s Journey?

CV: It’s a metaphor. We need metaphors to help us process reality.

Life is so complicated and so mysterious that we have all these existential questions for which we want the answers:

  1. · Why are we here?

  2. · Why do we have certain limitations upon us?

  3. · Why do we have to die?

Stories provide us some kind of a metaphor, or handle that allows us to get a grip on something that is very slippery and difficult to come at in any other way.

You have to find comparisons.

By comparing it to something else, sometimes you get clues about how to live or why things are the way they are. It’s a natural response to look for answers in metaphors.

BJB: Where did the concept of a universal journey derive from?

CV: Some of this comes out the work of anthropologists who went around the world and just asked questions in various cultures. They also looked at creation stories.

They found lots of differences but also interesting similarities and patterns that seemed to repeat. Every culture has a creation story, every culture has a family tree of gods and those patterns repeated reliably across cultures. That got people thinking, what are the deep patterns?

Is it accidental or something deeply built in human beings?

Joseph Campbell, author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, was drawing on the work of other scholars who were looking at cultural patterns.

I think that’s where Campbell came down, that these things are somehow hardwired into the human nervous system so that we recognize these symbols in myths and react to them.

BJB: What would you say is the underlying driving force in this unity of patterns and creation stories that call for transformation?

CV: I think the idea of transformation is behind all of Campbell’s thinking. He looks at these stories of heroes fighting dragons, going to the underworld and doing all these heroic things as metaphors.

They’re metaphors for the journey of the soul through life.

Even though the metaphor comes out in sometimes almost frivolous superhero stories and fantastic legends, it has a serious purpose.

What’s really behind all of this is the effort to come to a higher level of consciousness.

The purpose is to give you some guidelines of how to manage the different stages of life we all go through. It’s all oriented around consciousness and trying to bring about a life changing, transformative peak experience.

The peak experience that shifts or amplifies consciousness can be large or small. Any change in your understanding of life can make a big impact in your life.

My work and Campbell’s work have been to guide people to be a little more conscious of these processes that are going on all the time. You don’t realize why you’re paying attention to movies, or why they stick with you. You’re processing these things that you’ve seen and read.

This metaphor of the Hero’s Journey that is embedded in storytelling culture is a gold mine of guidance for your life.

BJB: We are, in essence, called to be the hero of our own lives. Would you say the Hero’s Journey is the highest life path?

CV: As you start to look into it more deeply, you see that it is a very sophisticated guidance system. You have to have some level of consciousness to see it and work with it.

This was an important thing that Campbell did by bringing it up and giving it some names. He was very good at giving names to the pieces, putting it together in a package of a beginning, middle and end and how it intersects with modern psychology and human development.

Everybody hits the same stages in life to live and evolve.

BJB: How can we best identify the inciting incidents in our lives?

CV: I think everybody instinctively knows it’s important to pay attention to critical turning points in life. Sometimes you don’t see them as they’re happening and you don’t recognize them.

Later on, when you’re looking back and also by telling your story to yourself, these things will jump out at you. Something that initially you thought was a setback actually launched a whole new aspect of life.

The storytelling impulse is really helpful to see this.

One of the fascinating things is that people took Campbell’s ideas, or my statement of his ideas, and put them to work to analyze people’s lives by metaphor in story form to allow you to reflect on your own life. People started to do this spontaneously to process and turn confusion into stories.

If you can take your life and make a story out of it, you have more power over it. You gain some kind of control over it by telling yourself the story.

However, there is a danger to it because we could tell ourselves false narratives.

Generally speaking it’s a positive thing to put your life into a story form.

Stories have this arc of a beginning, middle and end. You might be in the middle of something and not realize it until you put it in the story frame. Then you realize, ‘this is going somewhere.’ This is leading to a climax, a resolution or decision so you aren’t just drifting along in a never ending report.

It helps you to frame things in the form of a Hero’s Journey metaphor.

BJB: If you frame your story, can you identify who are your allies (supporters) and villains (difficult people) and the purposes they serve?

CV: That’s one of the most valuable things about this. The archetype of the Threshold Guardian has proven to be the most useful and practically valuable, because you keep running into figures like this.

Everybody faces opposition.

People deny you, reject you, and judge you and then it’s up to you to make a story out of it. You can make a negative story where ‘that’s my enemy,’ or ‘they picked on me.’

The stories teach you there is another way to look at those figures who are opposing you.

You can look at them as guardians, who are at the threshold when you’re trying to go from one state-of-being to the next state-of-being. Those figures show up to test you to see if you want this bad enough, or if you will be chased away because somebody said, “Boo!”

Will you figure out a way to make the opposition work for you?

That’s one of the most positive things about this archetype. What it keeps telling you through thousands of examples in mythology, folklore and even comics, is that when you meet an opposition you can fight it directly, but there’s another way.

You can work with the opposition. You can realize the thing that seems like a disadvantage can be turned into your advantage because there is potential in the threat.

I’ve used this many times.

BJB: What are common limitations in everyday life that stop us from acting upon the call to adventure or moving past the opposition?

CV: Fear.

Fear comes up and you don’t quite know what it is. You feel discomfort and tension in your body.

The Hero’s Journey way of looking at things has a really specific answer for fear. There is a procedure that is laid out in the myths:

Name it.

You say, “Oh. I know what that is, that’s fear. I know fear because I’ve had it before. I recognize it. Sometimes fear can seem like my enemy, but it can be my ally.”

The fear is telling you something like, this is hard for you or this is an old pattern or button being pushed again.

Whether it’s being isolated, rejection, fear of failure or fear of the unknown, it takes a lot of the power away from it by just naming it.

Think of Dracula. He has power in the dark, but when you bring him out into the light he doesn’t have any power. It’s the same with fear.

BJB: We all have the capacity to go outside our comfort zone and do things we once thought impossible. Is the premise of the journey a call to be an adventure unto yourself?

CV: I couldn’t agree more. It becomes a positive thing when you realize you are stuck because you are afraid.

Being afraid tells you you’re on the right path. You’re going someplace you’ve never been before and fear naturally goes with that. It’s a positive signal.

I think it’s a healthier adaptation to actually say, “I’m scared.”

The fear is an internal expression, but the Threshold Guardians (people who challenge you) are external expressions of fear. You can cower to them, or confront them directly by acknowledging they are a part of the new journey.

When you recognize the fear, there is a simple and mechanical but profound way to deal with it:

Pay attention to your breathing. Breathing is the key to everything.

When you confront fear, usually the fear has affected your breathing. You’re not drawing complete breaths.

You can let the recognition of the fear immediately send a signal to let breath out. You breathe out and start to breathe normally and the terrible feelings come a bit more under your control.

When you get into a groove in writing for example, it’s largely because your breathing patterns have settled down. You’re oxygenating and blood is flowing properly so your ideas are flowing well.

BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of your work related to the Hero’s Journey?

CV: The way it has been applied to things I never expected. From the beginning, I suspected this had uses beyond storytelling. It turns out it is way beyond storytelling.

People have used the Hero’s Journey pattern that I put down in 12-steps as a tool to plan arctic expeditions for scientists, for scientific tests and protocol experiments, to counsel families going through divorce, and getting veterans with PTSD to tell their stories to find connections with their experience.

I’m humbled by all of it.

“The journey of self-discovery will reveal the darkest and most radiant parts of yourself; it will bring to light what you authentically stand for, what you will or will not allow in your life, what and who you value, and what gifts you are here to share with the world.”

“When we have truly given the gift of ourselves to the world, we find ways to make a positive difference, and to inspire others to walk their hero’s path.”

“Our life is our story, and when we can speak our story to others, we invite them to make their own journey.”

Christopher Vogler is a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood film companies and a respected teacher of filmmakers and writers around the globe.


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