To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The emptiness he feels inside is often palpable, especially late at night. Futility. Work, pay bills, raise kids, sit in traffic, grow old, shuffle off to the retirement home, take a couple of cruises if you are lucky, get dementia and incontinence, and die. Then your overworked family crowd into a a crematorium chapel, a few words are said, people go back for tea and sympathy, and go on with their lives, while your corpse quietly decomposes. Or sits in a little box, forgotten.
It is clear that this is not enough of a story to base a life on. We cannot live without meaning. We will fabricate any meaning to keep the wolves at bay. But there is a grand narrative that sweeps across all history, across all men, that is truth so great, it can only be told in story. This story we call myth. Despite the shallowness of western society, our lives are in fact mythical.
There’s the hero somewhere deep within us, sitting behind bars of necessity and being sensible. That may sound cheesy and corny and impractical. You may think “I’m no hero. I’m just me, a bloke doing his best.”
Hero’s don’t ever feel like heroes. And the hero is there not by chance, but by design. And he won’t go away.
The hero has a ball in childhood and adolescence. My kids went everywhere in superhero outfits as little boys. As teenagers, they showed off their six packs to anyone who would notice. They told me I was old and fat. They bragged about their knowledge, their exploits, their futures. The hero was on roids.
Then we put him away as a childish fancy. But he’s more than that. The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where he identified why we are fascinated with stories that are embed our collective consciousness – our shared sense of what gives our lives meaning – and he showed what these stories mean for our lives. It is a story in 4 acts.
Act 1: Separation/departure
a. The ordinary world
We start in our ordinary world. It is dull, boring, repetitive. This is Luke Skywalker living aimlessly with his uncle and aunt in A New Hope, or Ray salvaging parts from an old imperial battleship in The Force Awakens. It’s Phil Connors in Groundhog Day going through the motions, bored out of his brains.
Some of us did something like the purpose driven life that seemed to be about getting signed up to volunteer in some church program to make the enterprise look successful. Or a hyped up “you can make a difference!” self-help event with an impossibly successful person selling you perfection. Advice. Formula. Clean and tidy and ideal.
Lots of men love to give advice. We are fixers. But we avoid things we can’t fix so we steer clear of the guy who is clearly losing the plot. We might give him some advice, but he really needs to get a grip. Or we feel pity for the poor guy. But the guy losing the plot is actually the guy being invited on an inner hero’s journey.
b. The call to adventure
In Star Wars, it’s R2D2 and its holographic message. In Lord of the Rings, it’s Frodo becoming disconnected from his social environment, feeling that something is calling him beyond.
For most of us, the invitation doesn’t look like a call to adventure. It feels like a roadblock – but the roadblock is behind us. We can’t go back to Egypt or whatever comfortable place we used to know. And we have only darkness and debris in front of us, an unmarked track in the jungle. This is what wakes up the hero. Powerlessness. Fear. An inescapable, terrible invitation. You have reached the end of this road, and you have to go off road, and that is scary.
The call to adventure is when life has moved us to the very edges of our ordinary, safe, predictable worlds. You get an invitation. That’s how the call to adventure usually comes. We don’t leave the security of home, we are usually kicked out of the nest.
The invitation may be biological – your health,
or psychological – your mental health – depression, anxiety, rage, addiction,
or relational – your marriage or family, a loss or a death or a divorce,
or financial – bankruptcy or financial hardship, professional – a retrenchment, or the lack of promotion,
These are things society tries to paste over so you can be productive again. But this crisis of limitation is your gold embossed invitation. It is time to leave the lovely Shire. It is time to face the wringwraiths in the night.
Regarding adventure, Bill Plotkin said that “It has been said that in the last several thousand years the most compelling adventure available to men of the “civilised” world has been war. Horrendous as war is, battle experiences often provide an uninitiated man’s strongest memories because that’s when he feels most alive, most engaged, most uniquely himself, and more bonded (to his fellow soldiers) than he has ever felt with any other humans. His experiences are sharpened and his perceptions heightened far more than in his everyday peacetime life. His fundamental human need for non-ordinary states of consciousness is satisfied. No wonder old soldiers love to recount war stories.”
Sam Keen wrote that
“A man must go on a quest
to discover the sacred fire
in the sanctuary of his own belly to ignite the flame in his heart.”
War is not the answer. War is the most horrendous, traumatising thing we can do as a species, but the invitation to the hero’s journey is so persistent and so compelling that we will sacrifice even our own lives in terrible ways to find heroic purpose.
A few years ago, the British prime minister David Cameron cautioned young marginalised youth in the UK to not fall prey to radicalisation because its dangerous and they might die. He might as well have rolled out the red carpet. This is exactly what young men are looking for.
18 year olds haven’t seen enough of life to baulk at adventure, and in the first half of life, it’s all external. However, by 40 the hero has almost died and we stall at the inner heroic invitation.
You can’t make this invitation happen. It happens to you. You just don’t want to miss it. Nine years ago, when I burned out, I could’ve gone to a therapist who put me back together, got me to think right, get balance back in my life, then return to business as usual. That’s exactly what men in the second half of life want when the call to adventure comes – anything but this! They want to get back to the old life. It doesn’t feel like a call to adventure, it feels like humiliation.
c. Refusal of the call
Our first response is almost always to balk at the invitation. It’s either a sense of duty or a sense of inadequacy. The most harsh words Jesus’ ever said were “let the dead bury their own dead.” The worst excuses are noble ones that act as a smokescreen to living our own lives.
Luke thought old Ben Kenobi was mad, and he went back to his uncle’s – only to find it burned to the ground. Frodo wanted nothing to do with the ring – he tried to give it to Gandalf. After all, he was a Hobbit, like Bilbo before him, and Hobbits are not adventurous. That did not go well for poor Frodo.
Many men define risk and danger in terms of something we control – like a secret porn addiction, maybe a fast car or a motorbike. They are all really very tame. In his book Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote “our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
This world that western white men constructed – is terribly beige. We control the temperature of the air. We control everything. We like the illusion of control. So while the young hero wants adventure, the man in his 30s, 40s, 50s wants comfort, convenience, pleasure, ease. He doesn’t want struggle, effort. But mostly he’s tired of going around in circles chasing his shadow.
But the hero won’t go away. He wants adventure. He tugs within us. Come on, he says. I dare you. Our heart races.
d. Meeting with the mentor
At around this time, a wise sage comes along. There’s a saying attributed to Buddha “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It is true. You can guarantee it. Obi-Wan was sent to Luke. Gandalf was sent to Frodo. Batman was sent to Ras al Ghul in Batman Begins. In Karate Kid, Mr Miyagi was sent to Daniel.
This model appears in every movie about the hero. The mentor is simply a man who has crossed the threshold and has returned with gifts. He isn’t trying to sell you anything. He’s pretty reluctant, to be honest, like Obi-Wan (or Moses) in the arse end of a forgotten desert. Unlike so much advice that is peddled as a remedy, he doesn’t tell you much. He tells you it will be good, but he also tells you it won’t be easy and it won’t feel safe. But the hero wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a masculine journey. Deep down, men don’t respect something that won’t cost them or that has a slick marketing campaign.
e. The hero passes the first threshold.
This is where the story takes off, like the Millennium Falcon, or the moment when the Hobbits realise they are further from the shire than they had ever been.
Men don’t drive to the Men’s Rites of Passage (MROP). We bus men in as one cohort. The rites don’t start when you arrive, they start when you leave home. You are leaving your ordinary world. You are entering the special world. You enter it in stages, as you mill around at a city bus station with a bunch of strangers, as you sit pensive on a bus to the venue. What happens next I cannot share, but I will tell you that the special world is not like this world. It is intentionally separate from this world.
One year, a man who I invited to the rites got to the bus station where the men were milling around and he knew this was all a big mistake. He called his dad who was on a tractor and couldn’t hear him. so he tried me. I was already at the venue and had no phone signal. He could do a runner and not show, but he’d paid his money and he knew he wouldn’t get it back. So he got on the bus. But everything in him wanted to refuse the call. He knew this first threshold was a point of no return.
Mary Oliver wrote of this in her poem “The Journey”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
f. The belly of the whale
This represents the final separation from the hero’s ordinary world.
One of the first things we do after you arrive at MROP is we ask you to surrender your car keys, your phone, your wallet and perhaps even your watch for the duration of the camp. These are tools for the ordinary world, and holding onto them is like clutching teddy at kindy, and that’s not a hero’s journey at all. Very quickly, you find yourself like Jonah in the belly of the whale, which is the only sign Jesus said he would give to an unbelieving age. The big shift is control. You don’t know where it’s going but you know you are along for the ride.
Act 2: Initiation/Descent (tragedy, death, Mark, stormy sea/wilderness)
a. The hero encounters a test, and helpers
Luke is given Princess Leia and Hans Solo. The Hobbits find Stryder, a mysterious man at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Neo is introduced to Morpheus. Here, the hero goes through a series of challenges.
I need to say at this point that the challenges on MROP are all internal. There are times of silence, and 24 hours of fasting – those are the most challenging physical test. But the tests we face as men are within us. We spend a lifetime running from ourselves. We are terrified of our own company. We distract ourselves from life and we call these distractions life. We are rarely here, we are mostly somewhere else. You will have helpers, but not mothers. They will keep the edges hot. Heroes need it that way.
The great addiction we all suffer from is our minds. We play over and over the same scripts, the same noise, what if, if only, I wish, always shuffling the cards in the deck to see if we can find a way to win the hand. the mind never gives up, it will never give up, but we are so troubled by monsters lurking deep in our soul that we’d rather stay up there where it might be noisy but at least we keep busy doing something. We don’t think our thoughts, they think us! The greatest tests are getting to know the giant spiders and evil villains and fire breathing dragons that lurk in the dungeons of our lives, fighting them, discovering how to defeat their power over us and turn it into gold. This is Hiccup conquering and ultimately befriending Toothless in How to Train a Dragon.
b. The hero reaches the innermost cave
Frodo enters Mordor. Luke reaches the death star. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors faces his own self-loathing, and the endless selfish manipulation to cover his inadequacy. Bilbo has to go into the Lonely Mountain, where the dragon hoards great treasure.
The innermost cave represents the shadow hidden by our unconscious, at the depths of us. There is a steady circling down to the places with us we have spent a lifetime avoiding, fearing, medicating. We use work and sport to keep busy – to keep running. On the rites, you are taken to your innermost cave.
The difference here is you discover great love hiding within your innermost cave. You discover the thing you hated you are learning to love. For so many men, it is their fathers, and the shadow they cast over our lives.The discovery is one of great love at the centre of the great wound, which allows us to hold the pain of the wound.
In his song Darkness, Peter Gabriel talks about how he came to terms with the demons that lurked within him as a result of being sexually abused as a boy:
When i allow it to be
it has no control over me
i have my fears
but they do not have me
Walking through the undergrowth, to the house in the woods
the deeper I go, the darker it gets
i peer through the window
knock at the door
and the monster i was
so afraid of
lies curled up on the floor
is curled up on the floor just like a baby boy
c. The hero endures the supreme ordeal
Frodo is bitten by the spider and Sam finds him limp as a rag. Luke and his allies are trapped in the garbage compactor and C-3PO thinks they are dead. ET dies on the operating table. Hiccup falls off Toothless into the blast of the great dragon’s fire and lies still on the ground. In the Matrix, Neo is shot by Agent Smith over and over and dies.
Gandalf has to wrestle the Balrog in the depths of the earth. In Shawshank Redemption, Red is finally a free man – except for parole – but he’s old, and he’s living in the boarding house where so many men before him have hung themselves in desperation. What will Red do? Get busy living or get busy dying?
In the story arc, the 180 degree mark is this moment. This is death. The end. It is free fall. This is why men never want to go on the hero’s journey. They fear this moment. But this is the moment of apotheosis, of true transformation.
And so it is with the rites. There is no other way. Jesus of Nazareth makes this perfectly clear with his own journey. If anyone would live like me, he must lay down his life. If the hero does not give himself up, he’s no real hero. Of course, we don’t actually kill you on the rites, the marking is metaphorical. But this is the end. You knew it had to be this way. You know there is no other way.
From this, no man returns uninjured. Jacob wrestled with his shadow in the night, and his victory maimed him for life. In fighting the shadow of his father, Luke loses a hand. Hiccup loses a foot in his battle. In many indigenous cultures, a boy would lose a tooth.
This is a remarkable moment, for this is the marriage of opposites. This is the path to becoming non-dual, to start to experience the union of all your contradictions. Part of Luke is Darth. Part of Frodo is Gollum.
Act 3: Ascent / Magic Flight (resurrection, John/garden, union)
a. The realm of the wild man
Gandalf the grey only becomes Gandalf the white after he wrestles the great Balrog in the depths of the earth. But it is through this he is changed.
Sometimes, the treasure is reconciliation with a woman:
Phil Connors wins the prize of Rita, who at first pitied him.
Sometimes it is reconciliation with a shadow, or a family member:
Luke is reconciled to his father. his angry, menacing shadows are defeated.
Sometimes, a treasure is claimed:
Bilbo gets the dragon’s gold – but more than that, he gets his courage
Sometimes, a talent is obtained:
Neo no longer needs to outmanoeuvre every bullet from Agent smith. He can command the bullets to stop, to fall. He is in the present moment.
In many movies, there are shape shifters or weird creatures that you cannot grasp. These represent the women in our lives who confuse and confound us and always wound us in some way.
In Luke 3 it says that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness, where the wild creatures were. He didn’t go eagerly. He went with great reluctance. So it is with every man seeking transformation in Scripture, and so it is with us. We send men out into the wilderness, to find themselves. But Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit. Something mysterious happened there.
One year, a man came to the rights having lived with lifelong humiliation from his father over the size of his penis. This father in his own great insecurity would walk around the house and brag and shame. This man came in from his time in the wilderness naked and unashamed. He was truly in the realm of a wild man. But for the first time, he was a free man. Wild men are always free.
This is the other side of apotheosis, which Joseph Campbell said “those who know, not only that the Everlasting lies in them, but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord.” Having died, death has no hold anymore.
b. Refusal of return
This is where E.T. says “come” and Elliot says “stay” and E.T. puts a finger on his glowing heart and says “ouch.” this is Mary reaching out to hold onto the risen Christ. This is where most religion stalls. The ego wants to possess the beautiful, to control it, to stay in the place of bliss. But we can never stay here.
c. The magic flight
This is often the most dangerous part of the story. It is ET and Elliot late at night in the flying bicycle ride back to the rendezvous site, being chased by his nemesis. This is Luke fleeing the death star as it blows up. This is Sam and Frodo fleeing Mordor on the eagles.
Preparing to return home is the most dangerous part of the journey of MROP. We live in an uninitiated world. To some of you that won’t even make sense. But ego sells, and ego is the only game in town. To look good, clever, powerful, popular, successful. Men head off to work on Monday morning after MROP and their entire reality has changed but nobody else’s has. It takes months to even start to make sense of what transpires on MROP. Our wives want us better, fixed, but she will automatically fall into the same dance that has always gone on between you, but now you won’t care to dance that reactive, fused dance, and that will create confusion and conflict. Because in you, everything has changed.
You are learning to ignore what everyone pays attention to, and love what everyone ignores. This is a very lonely journey and often you are very misunderstood, as Bilbo was considered odd and somehow wrong by his neighbours. Frodo could not fit back into the world he had once called home and needed to journey even further.
c. Rescue from without
In heroic tales, someone tends to the wounded hero as he recovers. This is Frodo in bed surrounded by his friends. It is a strange thing to discover the thing you hid from everyone for so long – the thing that you were so ashamed of – holds your power. That your wound is your gift, for it draws others to you. You are now able to be vulnerable, to be known, and be held in that space.
Men need other men. We call it the Journey of Illumination, or JOI, and it continues for the rest of our lives. We need safe places with other men, spiritual direction, retreats. The power is in vulnerability, honesty and transparency. Being known, heard, valued, accepted, for who we are, not who we think we should be.
It is at this point that we cross the threshold back to the “normal”world.
ACT 4: Unification (life, Luke, the road, industry, expression)
a. Return with the treasure
Men find their own gold on MROP. We tell men not to give it away. That’s one reason no man will tell you much about it. It’s his gold, not yours. You have to find your own. If I gave you my gold, then I wouldn’t have what I fought hard for, and you would never value it because the hero in you never claimed it for yourself. My gold is for my journey through life.
I once thought I could get gold by giving myself away to help anyone in need, and I burned out in the process. What I was actually doing was trying to save myself by saving others. Now I have my gold, I treasure it. I enjoy it. And I am made whole by it. I sit in silence daily, in emptiness and aloneness, and I am whole in ways I could never have imagined before my hero’s journey.
b. Freedom to live in two worlds
The outer world – the ordinary world – is now held in union with the special world – the inner world. The initiated man flows easily between them, like Neo walking down the road in the Matrix, untroubled by the illusion but a master of it. This is what is meant to be in this world, but not of it. There hero doesn’t need the normal world to give him identity, but to have it daily shaped and formed in darkness and silence, out of reach of his ego, and often by humiliation and failure.
This man does not fantasise about the future or reminisce about the past, nor does he fear the future or ruminate over the past. The free man lives in the present moment, in the now, and suddenly he notices things he once never saw. He sees reality through a different lens because he took the red pill and went on the hero’s journey.