PASSING BETWEEN ORDINARY AND EXTRAORDINARY WORLDS
THE MODERN MUNDANE WORLD
Most of us live most of our lives in a routine of ordinary, mundane activity. The word “mundane” comes from the Latin word for “world” (mundus) and relates to all of our normal life activity. We go to school or to work, make our breakfasts and our dinners, enjoy some entertainment, sleep. Then we do it all again. Settling in to this kind of routine can be comforting and easy, though its sense of monotony, predictability, and low emotional significance will probably lead, at some point anyway, to that more common sense of the word “mundane”: boring.
A fully mundane existence, one lived entirely within the expected confines and expectations of this world, quickly becomes bland, unfulfilling, and uninspiring. Our daily concerns of our work, buying and selling, etc., can quickly (or, worse, all too late) come to seem small and meaningless. Eventually, even entertainment can offer no pleasant distraction from the daily grind. Everything just seems superficial, shallow, and pointless. Is this it? we wonder. It can seem as though the role we have been playing no longer works, the script is tired and overused. We sit and watch our life on re-runs…
Joseph Campbell writes:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.
(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 11)
Indeed, with the loss of myth from the world, we have also lost the crucial means of feeling connected to something deeper, something more meaningful and less mundane. Strictly speaking, the mythless world is the mundane world: the contingent, material, ordinary universe, without break or interruption. The relentless shallowness of it all will, for many, lead to varying levels of depression, anxiety, and despair. It is a great irony that, far from healing us from destructive neuroses, Freud’s world of rationalized myth has largely increased our culture’s neuroticism—an epidemic for which his lineage of psychologists will offer expensive pharmaceuticals, antidepressants and antipsychotics. From communities of myth we arrive at Prozac Nation.
THE MYTHIC WAY
Through the psychology of myth, however, there is a way forward. It is an ancient process, a tried-and-true method as old as our species. Natural. Organic. And free.
It is, however, a bit of an ordeal…
In mythic societies, when a person’s script had reached its cancellation date, and their role had been played to completion, the time has come to progress to a new stage—to shed the old, outworn identity and take on a newer, revitalized one.
To do so, however, one would need to leave their old world behind. They would have to step out of their mundane existence, and go forth into the unknown. There, they would have to strive to gain the experience and knowledge needed to return transformed, improved, recreated. This process was called the “rite of passage,” the ritual of moving from one stage of existence to another.
These rituals of passage occurred at all the great milestones of life: birth, maturation to adulthood, marriage, death, and other moments when a person’s identity needed to be reconstituted as they came into a new phase of being. The principal rite of passage—the one that marked the change from child to adult—was certainly the most intense, and the most challenging. Usually, it was a truly dangerous experience, one in which the initiate had to undergo great trials and meet great tests. Their new identity was a thing of highest value, and such things are not easily come by, but take training, effort, diligence and strength.
The basic outline of the myth of the Hero’s Journey is modeled on such rites of initiation. As Campbell has observed, these stories mirror the process by which a person achieves a new, symbolic maturity as a human being:
The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 30)
The hero moves from a state of reliance to empowerment, from naiveté to experience, from potential to realization, from apprentice to master, from ignorance to wisdom. Beginning in the ordinary, mundane world, he or she strikes out on an adventure into the unknown, where they will experience what is necessary to transform themselves and their world.
This structure of separation from the old, ordinary world — initiation into new powers and mysteries and — return to the old world for its betterment and transformation, this is the fundamental outline of the hero’s journey. We see it everywhere, from the legends of the Greek heroes and the lives of great spiritual leaders, to European folktales and modern film.
A CLASSIC EXAMPLE: THE LIFE OF THE BUDDHA
Consider the story of the Buddha, for instance. It begins with a spoiled young prince, comfortable in his life with all the worldly things he could want. But then, one day, the prince goes out of the palace and sees the true sufferings of humanity: disease, old age, death… He realizes that things were not as he had thought. And so he leaves behind the pampered palace life and heads into the solitude of the forest. There he learns from all the sages and ascetic meditators he can. Finally, when he has shed his old identity entirely, he seeks the ultimate initiation into a higher wisdom. Committing himself to achieving enlightenment under a tree, he is assailed by all the demons of forces of the netherworld. Victorious over these, the prince achieves the highest wisdom of the highest mystery. Enlightened, he is no longer simply the prince, he is the Buddha. Out of compassion, he returns to the unenlightened world to share the path to liberation.
The outline is clearly a powerful one. In Jungian terms, you’d say it has an archetypal quality. It is a story of loss, bravery, discovery, growth, sacrifice, and, ultimately, love. In some ways, it is the archetypal Story—one reason, perhaps, we see it so much in films today: Hollywood has taken notice.
A CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLE: THE PRINCE OF EGYPT
One great example of this, melding both modern movie magic and ancient spiritual tale, can be found in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt, the animated adaptation of the life of Moses. Here we find all the expected elements of the Hero’s Journey.
It begins with a spoiled young prince, comfortable in his life with all the worldly things he could want.
But then, one day, the prince goes out of the palace and has his illusions shattered: he is not a prince of Egypt, he learns, but a Hebrew slave—one just like any of the thousands who suffer and die each day under the Pharaoh’s rule. And so he leaves behind the pampered palace life and heads into the solitude of the desert.
There he learns a new life wisdom from the Bedouin community he joins:
Finally, having shed his old identity, he comes to the ultimate initiation. Within a cave, he comes into the very presence of God in the form of a burning bush.
Given a new charge and purpose to his life, he returns to enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to share help liberate them.
Eventually, he shows the way to freedom...
TIME FOR YOUR OWN MYTHIC TRANSFORMATION?
Such is the basic progression of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Once made aware of it, don’t be surprised if you begin to see it everywhere, in all sorts of cherished stories, legends, fairy tales, myths, movies, etc. Campbell sums it up, saying that,
whether presented in the vast, almost oceanic images of the Orient, in the vigorous narratives of the Greeks, or in the majestic legends of the Bible, the adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described: a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.
(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 35)
This same basic story has been used to convey a thousand different forms of individual development and spiritual growth. Why shouldn’t it be able to help you to yours? To be an archetypal story, after all, means it’s everyone’s story.
Perhaps you’ve already ventured and returned from one before. Perhaps you’re in the desert now. Or maybe you’re still stuck in the mundane world, longing for something deeper—something extra-ordinary. Wherever you are, take comfort in the fact that, as Campbell put it, you are not alone, “for the heroes of all time have gone before us.”
Should you feel tired of the mundane world, eager for change and the discovery of a deeper, more meaningful existence, then the time for your journey has come. You are about to venture into unknown territory—into forests, deserts, caves and murky places. Maybe you’ve sojourned in these haunts before. Or maybe, like Sam, you’re about to take a step that brings you further from the Shire than you’ve ever been...
I will not promise you the journey will be easy. But the reward is priceless, for those willing to risk all that they thought they knew for something better.
NEXT POST: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE