This classic formula can show you how to live more heroically

You may not be Thor but you can still be a hero.
You may not be Thor but you can still be a hero.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Most days, most of us don’t feel heroic. Just getting through our routines can seem like a mean feat. But what if you could become more awesome without doing anything extreme—simply transforming slowly and steadily into the kind of person you idealize? What if you could be a hero?

In his 2018 book Gradual Awakening: The Tibetan Buddhist Path of Becoming Fully Human, contemplative psychotherapist Miles Neale argues that you can. He believes that this effort not only makes your life more meaningful, but also benefits humanity.

Neale is an instructor in psychology, psychiatry and integrative medicine at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and a Buddhist teacher. His book lays out a training program for personal evolution that combines ancient mysticism and modern medicine, spiritual practices, neuroscience, and the insights of the acclaimed academic, mythologist Joseph Campbell.

The result is a holistic approach to a fulfilling existence. In Neale’s words, “The gradual path of awakening proposes an alternative to spontaneous, all-or-nothing enlightenment, quick fixes, and New Age self-help for seekers ready to commit to the hard work, over the long haul, that it takes to become fully human.”

The hero’s journey

Campbell, who died in 1987, is perhaps best known for his pithy advice to “follow your bliss.” He was an expert in literature and comparative religions. He wrote and edited numerous books, lectured around the world, and taught at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. But his most important cultural contribution is arguably his work on what he called “the hero’s journey.” This journey is a 12-step path that recurs in the mythology of the world and has guided many cultures throughout human history.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” according to Campbell’s definition. Anyone can become a hero—on purpose or even accidentally. But it involves a painful evolution that is a prerequisite to greatness.

The 12 steps, as Campbell defined them, begin with a call to adventure, a challenge or quest that presents itself to an ordinary person in the ordinary world. Initially, the person is afraid and refuses that call. But with guidance from a mentor or a text, they overcome their fears, cross the threshold, and commit to the journey.

Along the way, they are tested, meet allies and enemies, and prepare for an ordeal—some kind of showdown or difficulty that will truly test their mettle. The ordeal forces them to face their worst fears. And when they survive this, the ordinary person is a hero and is rewarded, usually with knowledge or insight.

The reward’s not the end of the story, however. Next, the hero must return to the ordinary world where the journey began, transformed by their experience. Finally, the reborn hero shares what they’ve learned on the journey with others.

This classic formula that Campbell identified remains popular in contemporary culture. The movie Star Wars was based on Campbell’s hero’s journey, for example, and the professor became good friends with the film’s creator, George Lucas.

In fact, right before Campbell’s death, he discussed the journey with reporter Bill Moyers for a documentary series filmed at Lucas’s California ranch called The Power of Myth. In it, Campbell clears up a common misconception about his work. He explains that the hero’s journey isn’t just for classical heroes, but for all of us. It is, essentially, a path of maturation that all evolving humans follow.

“It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo,” he told Moyers. We are in our childhood for at least 14 years, dependent on others psychologically, materially, and physically. Slowly, we trade dependency for psychological self-responsibility. Eventually, when we’ve successfully faced challenges, we are enriched and have wisdom to offer others. This process “requires a [metaphorical] death and resurrection,” according to Campbell. “And that,” he told Moyers, “is the basic motif of the hero journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.”

Slaying your dragons

Campbell’s formula is not just a way to interpret the great tales of historical and contemporary myths. It also lends meaning to our everyday existence, putting our individual struggles in a noble context. The trials and tribulations we face and survive may not seem heroic. But knowing that we grow as a result of them, and that this can make us into better people, makes it easier to be brave.

Indeed, myths were created to model bravery, Campbell argues—to guide ordinary, fearful people and inspire us. They help us embrace adventures and ordeals despite our fears,  and gain the wisdom that enables us to contribute something to society. Or, as Campbell put it:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Campbell wasn’t a religious man. When he talks about finding a god, he doesn’t mean that we’ll discover faith in some external force. Rather, he’s discussing a personal journey—a spiritual quest to find what is best in ourselves, with the knowledge that the rest of humanity is on the same path of discovery. The result, or reward, is a feeling of being “all with the world.” In this sense then, the journey he is describing is a path to awakening or illumination.

The three realizations

Neale, in his book, distills the 12 steps in Campbell’s hero journey into three basic stages of “gradual awakening.” The psychologist’s approach is less literary and more prescriptive than the mythologist’s, however. He lays out the path Tibetan Buddhist masters developed for lay practitioners. This involves specific exercises—meditations, mantras, contemplation, a vow of dedication to the journey and taking concrete steps to find a mentor for guidance, someone knowledgeable who can model this evolved state.

The goal of this process is to go from a fearful, self-involved creature to “fully human,” or someone who realizes all of their potential. Neale breaks down the process into three realizations essential to this evolution.

The first is renunciation, which he calls “evolutionary self-care.” In this initial phase, we simply become determined to abandon “perceptual distortions, emotional afflictions, and behavioral compulsions” that cause our suffering. We decide to see clearly, rather than observing the world through the lens of hurts and insecurities, which distort our vision. The determination is the first step and then we take actions, learning to observe ourselves through meditation and contemplation until we become less reactive and more responsive.

Having developed a clear point of view through determination and practice, we’re ready for step two, Neale argues. The second realization is compassion or “awakened mind.” At this point, we vow to liberate ourselves for the benefit of others. Practically speaking, that means helping other people to see clearly and suffer less, too. It’s a lofty goal that Neale calls “radical altruism.”

The final realization is “quantum view,” or wisdom. In this state, we see below the surface of things, perceiving subtleties that aren’t apparent to those blinded by their own suffering and that of others. The big picture becomes apparent, and we are able to discern the connections between all things and conceive of responses and solutions to profound problems. At the very least, wisdom makes it possible for us to cause less harm; to act in ways that don’t just advance our personal causes of making money and acquiring power.

How to hero

Knowing the 12 steps on the journey or the three phases of realization won’t make you a hero, of course. But being able to perceive your personal struggle in terms of these paths can help you make sense of life.

What matters, according to Campbell and Neale, is how you handle the challenges life presents; whether you develop the maturity in the face of its tests to go from a harried and scared individual to an open and engaged member of the human race.

While we all evolve to some degree as we age, Campbell argues that being conscious of the journey is what marks the hero from the blind wanderer. As he explained to Moyers, “the real problem” is that “of losing primarily thinking about yourself and your own self-protection.” He called this loss of self-involvement a trial, because it’s not easy to stop putting oneself first and think big. It involves a transformation of consciousness.

But this trial is also liberating. The key is that no hero starts out this way. All people resist this change. We are subject to a social system that advances the individual, which Campbell called a ” threat” to our true natures.

We can transcend it by getting in touch with another aspect of human nature, he said. The question that Neale’s book asks, and that Campbell articulated before him, is this: “Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?”