The Hero’s Journey

April 7, 2011

Life can be lived in many ways. You can make it about making money or winning at all costs, or pleasing other people, or perhaps never standing out. Or you can live your life as a great journey of consciousness, one filled with many challenges and surprises, one that makes a positive contribution to the world. I want to talk here a bit about these different paths, emphasizing that the Self-Relations approaches of Generative Self and Generative Trance are especially tools for supporting the latter path.

Life as a journey has been described by many people, most notably the mythologist Joseph Campbell.  Campbell (1949; Gilligan and Dilts, 2009) studied the stories of many different cultures and found a universal monomyth that he called the hero’s journey.  The hero’s journey is about a quest to go beyond the limits of the present world and create greater wholeness in one’s self and/or community. This can take a number of forms: a new type of artistic vision or social modality; some kind of personal or social healing; or perhaps a radically new way of thinking, acting, or understanding the world. Interestingly, Campbell’s model was used by the filmmaker George Lucas as the basis for the incredible Star Wars movies.

A great example of a hero’s journey is Milton Erickson, the psychiatrist who revolutionized ideas about how trance could be used for creative healing and transformation.  I studied with Erickson the last six years of his life.  He was a classic Yoda-like character by then, a wizened old healer with twinkling eyes and amazing skills. But it took a long and courageous journey for him to arrive at this place of a genuine healer.  He was born tone deaf, dyslexic (including not knowing the dictionary was alphabetized until he was 15!), and color blind (purple was he only color he could ‘enjoy’).  Severely paralyzed by polio at 17, a condition from which the doctors said he would never recover, Erickson learned to walk again through inner work that featured what only later he came to call “naturalistic trance.”  On the basis of his positive and creative relationship to his own challenges, he developed a startlingly original way of working with all sorts of psychotherapy problems.  His utilization approach changed core problems into resources by creatively accepting them and then opening a generative trance within which they could transform into their positive roots. The good news is that this anybody can learn and practice this positive utilization approach with the many challenges that life brings.  How to do this is the primary focus of the Generative Self approach.

You don’t have to be a genius, as Erickson undoubtedly was, for your own life to be a hero’s journey.  And the journey needn’t be on a grand social scale; it could be within your family or outside of the public spotlight.  But the possibility exists within each of us to live a deep and meaningful life, to be on the “long and winding road” of deep transformation and unique contribution.  Of course, such a life isn’t a given; you have to want it and choose it and commit to it with all of your being.  There are certainly alternatives to this way of living.  As Campbell (see Osborne, 1991) pointed out, we have three possible life paths available to us: (1) the village; (2) the wasteland; or (3) the journey.


The “village life” is the ‘ego ideal’ of the group.  Here you basically follow the traditional pathways of your society/ culture/ family, where all values and structures are externally given.  In the village, “the good life” moves through a clear sequence: you are born, obey your mother and father, do well in school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, retire and then die.  The promise is that if you successfully follow this script, you will be happy and fulfilled.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this way of life; for some people, it is the best path. However, many individuals find themselves unwilling or unable to live within the confines of the village.  They may be denied membership because of skin color, ethnicity, sexual identity or gender, or socioeconomic status.  Others may find that the way they think, the way that they know the world, the way that they are called to live, cannot fit within the “Pleasantville” of the village.  Still others may be exiled by a trauma that shatters the “ego trance” and plummets them into a dark shadow world that most villagers don’t want to know about.


The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

This shadow world is what Campbell and others (such as T.S. Eliot) called the wasteland. Here, the predominant experiences are cynicism, meaninglessness, and negativity.  Many dark streets line the wasteland: the despair of depression; the numb trance-land of television; the violence of hatred, criminality, and fundamentalism; the haze of drugs, alcohol and other addictions; the withdrawal of fear and isolation.  As the shadow to the ego ideal, this world is primarily a negative rejection of (or by) the village.

When people come to therapy, they are typically stuck in the wasteland, unable or unwilling to participate in normal village life. Often the request, explicitly or implicitly, is to get them back to the village, so they can just be “normal.”  The fantasy is that if you can just get rid of the shadow world (of symptoms) through numbing, will power, medication, or other forms of self-violence, then you can re-enter the ego ideal of the village and live happily ever after.

It is important to realize that this may not be possible, or even desirable.  In generative trance, we see that seemingly negative experiences may be positive signals from the creative unconscious that some deep transformation is needed, that a person cannot live within the restrictive role that has been assigned to them.  As Campbell said, sometimes you climb the ladder all the way to the top only to discover you’ve placed it against the wrong wall””the wall of other people’s expectations.  In this view, symptoms are often a “call to return” to a deeper soul consciousness, a call to a hero’s journey.

Inherent in opening a positive relationship to a symptom is the crucial understanding that what makes an experience positive or negative is the human relationship to it.  That is, what comes out of the creative unconscious is not innately good or bad; its form, value, meaning, and subsequent unfolding in the world are created by the human connection to it.[1] Thus, a symptom represents some part of consciousness that has not yet been positively valued by human presence.  From this view, treating the symptom with hostility and violence is “more of the same,” splitting consciousness further into the seemingly irreconcilable “ego ideal” and “shadow” camps. In the hero’s journey, the exiled shadow is engaged with creative nonviolence to integrate the broken parts of a world into a new wholeness.


Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

Beyond the confines and hypocrisies of the village, and the alienation of the wasteland, there is a third possible path”“ the transformational life of the hero’s journey.  Rather than following the beaten path of the village or falling into the ditch of despair, you live life as a “call to adventure.”  You develop your own path, venturing into new places and creating new psychological realities, going “where no man nor woman has gone before.”  Generative trance is a vehicle for this journey.

“Generative” means to create something that has never before existed.

The journey of consciousness is not a rejection of the village, more a move to transcend it.  As Jesus said, “Be in this world, but not of it.”  This is what we are able to do in generative trance: to be with something without being limited by it.  In his seminal study of creative geniuses, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) found that such people””who certainly would be examples of individuals on a hero’s journey””are distinguished by complementary ‘both/and’ traits.  For example, they are typically well trained in the classical aspects of their field, but at the same time rebel against the orthodox beliefs and practices within that field.  In the same way, a person living the journey of consciousness knows how the village works, but is deeply committed to moving beyond its limitations.

The journey is often initiated by what Campbell calls “the call.”  A person experiences something that swells their attention in an extraordinary way.  This could be positive: Campbell often encouraged people to “follow their bliss.” While often misunderstood within the village as an irresponsible advocating of hedonism and debauchery, he was actually inviting people to notice when their experience ‘lights up’ and is filled with a deeper resonance. This ‘bliss’ tells you what you’re in the world to do.

I often ask clients if they can remember experiences in childhood where they suddenly found themselves in a magical moment, where the world opened up to a higher, enchanting space.  Many people initially say “no,” but upon further reflection begin to remember such beautiful moments.  One man remembered the feeling of excitement and resonance when he first started reading poetry in high school, an amazing experience wherein he realized he was not alone in his deepest thoughts and feelings. A woman recalled her feeling of “cosmic wonderment” when she gazed into the starry sky during a camping trip as a girl.  I remember the moment at 19 years old when I was first touched by Milton Erickson’s work: a fire ignited in my soul; a silent voice spoke, “This is why you’re here”; and a sublime feeling opened within and all around me. Despite various efforts to ignore or put that fire out over the years, it seems inextinguishable.

Every soul has its own calling. It may be ignored or rejected””what Campbell calls “the refusal of the call”””but often at great cost. While some people can go to sleep and stay asleep, silently counting the moments until death, others suffer terribly when living away from their soul. I sometimes tell clients, only half jokingly, that they appear to be constitutionally incapable of being a “couch potato”””that something inside of them is unwilling to let them stay disconnected.

In this sense, ‘the call’ may initially seem negative. (It usually is in the Hollywood version of the journey, where an ‘inciting incident’ knocks the protagonist off their mundane path.)  Thus, depression can be a message suggesting that no matter what you do or how hard you try, your current path is unworkable.  In other words, your conscious ego state (usually built to please others) is so completely disconnected from your core self, that nothing it does or thinks will make a significant difference.  That’s good feedback!  The positive response would be to “stop doing” and instead connect with your core self, such that you can release the old identity state and let a new one be born. This is precisely when and why we use generative trance: when existing brain maps aren’t working and new ones need to be created.  Generative trance allows you to unbind consciousness from the neuromuscular lock of a fixed identity state and move back into the resource-laden waters of the creative unconscious, where different identity parts can fluidly reorganize into new mandalas of self-identity.

For example, one client came from a very successful family where the strong (“ego ideal”) rule was to always be active and busy, focusing on helping others.  Interestingly, her symptom was a strange form of “chronic fatigue” that had resisted all medical treatment.[2] From the Self-Relations point of view that the symptom is very often the unintegrated shadow of the ego ideal, and thus an attempt by the creative unconscious to balance and make consciousness more integrated, the “problem” of “tired inactivity” was a classic complement to the “family trance” of “always being active.”[3] In trance, I asked her to connect with the “chronic fatigue” part and let it speak.  In an achingly beautiful way, she softly said, “I just want to surrender,” probably speaking the longing of the whole family.  Briefly pausing, she then slowly added, just as poignantly, “But I really love my work.”  Her challenge thus became one of integrating the two complementary sides””the exiled “yin” of rest and non-effort with the “yang” of action and effort””into a deeper wholeness.  This is precisely the type of challenge one faces, at many levels, on the hero’s journey.  As Eliot observed:


We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion.

All of this suggests that the hero’s journey is no simple task.  It involves developing a deep connection to your center, and an expanding beyond your known self to something greater and grander.  It requires many skills: the “disciplined flow” of intentional but flexible consciousness; the capacity to construct, de-construct, and re-construct brain maps and filters at different levels; the willingness to learn creative nonviolence; the know-how to transform problems and suffering into solutions; and the courage to love your self and the world with all your being.  The Self-Relations work, especially the approaches of Generative Self and Generative Trance, are explorations of how to do this.  In further blogs, I will elaborate on the details of these approaches to creative consciousness.

Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

April 7, 2011

For Stephen Gilligan’s UK ‘Hero’s Journey’ seminar click here

© Stephen Gilligan Ph.D

You can read this full article and more at


Campbell, Joseph. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. San Francisco: New World Library (Original work published 1949).

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gilligan, Stephen & Dilts, Robert.  (2009)  The Hero’s Journey.  London: Crown House Books.

Osbon, Diane K. (ed.). (1991). Reflections on the art of living: A Joseph Campbell companion. New York: HarperPerennial.

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