It’s a fair generalisation that many men find change hard. Men often ignore early warning signs, and only face up to the problem when it’s a crisis – whether the problem is health, relationships, work, or a leaky tap.
Think about the way men are portrayed in the media these days: it’s hardly flattering, is it? Homer Simpson seems to be the norm. Having grappled with men’s issues for many years, both in my own life and in men’s groups, I’ve found it helps to notice what men are good at, and build on their strengths. For example, men are usually pretty good at reading maps and following procedures once they set their mind to it. Think about Haynes manuals for car maintenance, DIY books, and travel guides. And if a man wants a map or guide to the process of positive change, The Hero’s Journey is ideal.
The Hero’s Journey in Myths and Legends
It was the brilliant American mythologist Joseph Campbell who coined the term ‘The Hero’s Journey’ to chart the archetypal stages of change which he identified through many years of research. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he explains that his aim in describing the journey is “to bring together a host of myths and folktales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves. The parallels will be immediately apparent: and these will develop a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived…”
Campbell’s gift to us is to distil the patterns and stages in these heroic tales from cultures right across the world into a few clear, coherent stages which form the Hero’s Journey. His work has been hugely influential in all sorts of ways. For example, many great movies have consciously used his model, including Star Wars and The Matrix.
When I went to the Findhorn Foundation back in the 1990s to train to facilitate personal development workshops, they recommended The Hero’s Journey as the basic structure for workshop groups on all kinds of themes. Since then, I have used this as the basic shape for dozens of workshops and retreats and have found it consistently helpful. Quite often, I explain the stages of The Hero’s Journey at the start of the group so that we all have a shared road map of the process.
A Roadmap for Success
I regard Campbell’s approach as relevant for heroes of both genders and of any age. However, it’s probably fair to say that that the hero is an especially important and difficult archetype for men. There are many risks in trying to be a Hero, for example, the belief that you should fight on alone, and should expect to exhaust yourself and risk losing everything. In my adult life, I have found the warrior-hero role very seductive, and have repeatedly exhausted myself for the sake of worthy projects. Now that I’m in my late sixties, I am really intrigued by how the qualities of the hero need to be re-invented for men in mid-life and beyond. Surely these qualities don’t just disappear, but they certainly need to change their form.
I am excited to be co-leading a men’s weekend entitled The Hero’s Journey: Discover Yourself, on the weekend of April 20-22. My co-leader is Will Gethin, who is a generation younger than me, in his late forties. Our helper with bookings and site support is Daniel Körner, who is a generation younger again, at 30. We hope that our participants will include men of all ages because we have seen in previous groups how much mutual and learning support this can create.
The Five Stages of the Journey
So what are the stages of The Hero’s Journey? There’s no one answer for this: you can draw on Campbell’s work to create a quite complex, multi-stage process, or a simpler one, which is what we have chosen for April. This is the version I have used for many groups, consisting of five stages:
Leaving the Hearth: it’s about opening to our willingness to change and explore, and to leave the familiar behind. The catalyst may be a crisis or a slowly growing sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. An essential part of this stage is to set your intention to begin the journey, and to step out of your usual surroundings.
In fairy stories, this is the stage of the journey where the youngest son makes new friends, gains insights and tools which will help him later in the journey, and feels the excitement of new possibilities. You could see this stage as gathering momentum, resources and motivation for the challenges ahead.
Recall physical adventures you’ve had, like a mountain climb or a long trek. Is there a stage when you got cold, tired or hungry, and wondered why you’d ever started? The Dark Wood is where we lose our illusions of control and competence, and recognise we are lost and vulnerable. Campbell observes that in folktales, at this stage the hero is often swallowed by a monster, representing a semi-death from which he must be reborn. The Dark Wood is really the crucial catalyst in the whole process of change: this is where we drop our beliefs, face our fears, and can open to new possibilities.
What we can learn from the myths about this stage is that the treasure the hero finds is often not what he set out looking for. In our times, the treasure we need may well be a new outlook or a fresh intention, not something tangible like the golden fleece. This stage is often the birth of something new in us, and like most births, it may take quite some time before it comes to fruition.
My experience of working with The Hero’s Journey confirms Campbell’s warning that the Return is often the hardest stage of the journey. If we return from our quest as a different person than the one who set out, will the people we go back to accept the change? We all live in a network of roles and expectations, and though we may suddenly choose to change them, others may dislike this. In a weekend group, it’s really important to spend time picturing your return to everyday life and work, preparing for it, and seeing where you can find support for your new intention.
The venue for the April weekend is Hazel Hill Wood: this is a magical 70-acre conservation wood and retreat centre which I have been deeply involved in creating for 30 years. It helps this kind of process hugely to have so much space to ourselves, the chance for deep communion with nature, and plenty of scope for solo time, campfires, and quiet reflection among the trees.
Having worked with many men’s groups over the years, especially at Hazel Hill, I know that men’s liking for structure goes with a suspicion of hierarchy and being told what to do. Although our overall map for the weekend is a given, The Hero’s Journey, Will and I are expecting to be highly flexible in the ways we explore these five stages reflecting each man’s needs as they evolve. It is likely to be a shared journey with lots of insights, fellowship and laughter.
For further info & bookings for The Hero’s Journey: Discover Yourself men’s retreat 20-22 April, see www.naturalhappiness.net/upcomingevents/ or contact Daniel Körner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07599774716.
Alan Heeks is a natural happiness writer, group leader and social entrepreneur with a passion for wellbeing, resilience and learning from nature. He has led numerous men’s workshops and retreats at Hazel Hill Wood. His second book is Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Beyond 50. See more at www.naturalhappiness.net