11. The Hero’s Journey


Q: Robert, I’m curious. What, in general, is your take on the hero’s journey?

A: In my world there aren’t any heroes, and there isn’t any journey. We human primates are born in the same way as other animals, live in the same way as other animals, and die in the same way as other animals. Mythologizing that process may provide fodder for compelling movie scripts, but seems less than helpful for coming to awareness here and now.

The human brain has evolved to a complexity greater than that of most other animals. (I say “most” because in the case of large-brained animals that don’t need to invent or build anything in order to survive—cetaceans, for instance — we don’t know what they think or how bright they may be.) The human neural complexity seems to leave available a surplus of brain-power which may be devoted to self-justification, self-aggrandizement, religious fantasy, and other such cogitation. But all of that is a fool’s errand in my book.

Fear of death — a terror at the idea of not being at all — along with apprehensions about falling into depression if one admits that living and breathing seem to lack any larger meaning, keeps many of us humans hypnotized and striving for “victory”, but all we really know is that we are here now. The rest, I say, is stories we tell ourselves to cope with pain, fear, and yearning.

Q2: But Robert, would it not be true to say that before you were “awakened” to the present moment, or whatever you want to call it, you too were, like the rest of us, caught up in the hero’s journey, with the call, the quest, meeting the mentor, the trials, and all the rest, and that the fulfillment of the quest was to see that it was all an illusion. That there is only “this.” In fact, has yours not been a classic in the genre, with the guy getting the girl at the end?

A: Well I’m not a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, which popularized the hero’s journey notion, nor his followers—Robert Bly, for instance, or Michael Meade—who liked to project the simplistic idea of spiritual metamorphosis onto ordinary events as if those events had a fixed purpose, a predictable course, and a known outcome. I don’t see things that way. There is a religious fervor there—in the so-called “Mythopoetic Men’s Movement” for example—and a need for control that to me feels over the top, along with an idealization of Christianity that I don’t buy at all. Carl Jung, Campbell’s inspiration, was like that too.

To you it might seem that I got the girl in the end, but that’s not how it feels to me. Take my word for it: I’m no hero, and I’m not conscious of having arrived anywhere, including “seeing that it was all an illusion.” I do not know what is illusion and what isn’t, or even if such a distinction, which is valid in the material world — mirage, for example — can be applied usefully to the experience of human be-ing. I do not honestly know what I am or where I am. The schematic diagrams are in shreds and tatters.

I have said elsewhere that each of us experiences not “the world” — although we call it that — but “a world,” a personal realm built of our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts—particularly the kinds of thoughts called beliefs. My seeing, feeling, and thinking is my world, and your seeing, feeling, and thinking is your world. You can talk to me about your world, but I cannot know it, and you cannot show it to me. Each of us lives, I am saying, in his or her own world. I do not mean, as some people believe, that you are only dreaming the material world. Nor am I referring only to the distortions that arise from a perspective that is self-centered and entirely self-referential—although there is that aspect.

I mean that all you can know — not believe, but know — is your perceptions, feelings, and thoughts in this very moment. That is your reality. The guy or gal standing right beside you might be living in a very different world. Many of us really understand that, but tend to forget how very much alone in its own world each “myself” really is. Perhaps we prefer to forget that.

You may hypothesize an overarching “reality” — a world that exists prior to perceptions, feelings, and thoughts — and you may even imagine knowing something about that world, but in all honesty, you have no way of knowing directly what such a reality is “really” like or even if it exists at all, do you?

If you see that, let me take this a bit further. It’s not just that you have access only to the world of your own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts, but that apart from those perceptions, feelings, and thoughts, there really is no “you.”

There is no you who has thoughts — no homunculus sitting in the middle of your skull doing thinking. You are thoughts. You are feelings. You are perceptions. “You” are in no way separate from them, nor are you the owner of them. Without them, I say, “you” do not exist.

Of course some people—the self-described “people of faith”—fancy a myself that does exist apart from personal experience — the permanent, unchanging “Self” of the Vedas, for instance, or the God of the Bible, but those are religious beliefs, not facts. In my world, I like to stick to facts.

So eschewing any second-hand “inside information”—staying in my world, I mean—when I say I am awake, I mean that the Robert who felt like a doer of doings, a feeler of feelings, and a thinker of thoughts is not to be found any more. Except in memory, he does not exist. The alarm clock went off. The sleeper awakened. The ridge-pole is broken, and no one will build that house again. Cal that a victory if you like, but the feeling tone is more like a loss—an emptiness, a deflation, a leveling—than a victory.

Coming down from the high horse may have emotional fringe benefits, it is true. There is a kind of equanimity and openness to the flow of events that was not present when Robert still had his imagined “powers.” But that does not win anything. I must age, weaken, and perish just like any other living being, so whence “getting the girl in the end”? You get the girl in the middle if at all—and I hope you enjoy her while you have her. In the end you get the pine box. As the Buddha said, “old age, illness, and death.”

I wonder if you see that in my world “awake” is not a source of bliss, self-satisfaction, or happiness. Feelings like that come and go like the impermanence of weather. Awake means appreciating the weather, whatever the atmospheric conditions. I mean appreciating that there is weather at all, rather than nothing. Once impermanence is grasped as obvious, every moment is your teacher, and you will not need to believe anything about “god,” “truth,” or “self.”

This is not “self-realization.” It’s nothing that grandiose. Alan Watts once remarked, “You do not dance in order to arrive at a certain destination on the dance floor, but to enjoy the dance.” So, like Alan, I’m only dancing, not getting anywhere.

As for seeing that “there is only this,” yes, to me that seems obvious. Is it not obvious to you? There really is no escaping that fact, although many attempt escape via fantasies of spiritual perfection, self-mastery, union with the so-called “Absolute,” and that whole business. But if escapist fantasy really worked for you, you would not be asking these questions—you’d be off somewhere instead schmoozing with the other bliss-ninnies.

Asking if my having awakened to the ever-present here and now typifies a familiar narrative pattern, the hero’s journey, may not be the best question. Instead, you might ask yourself what stops you from “awakening” right now. What do you imagine is lacking and must be provided before that can happen? I say this with due respect, as I see no essential difference between you and myself except on the level of personality which is trivial compared to the immensity of being at all.

Q2: It seems then that the story of one’s life is a false story like a tale you tell about someone else, and then buy into yourself. In fact, we seem to have been encouraged by our parents and others to concoct such a narrative, and then live by it. Douglas Harding spoke about this when he talked about how we view ourselves as if from the outside, from another person’s perspective. This is the cause of all our trouble. From the “inside” I am nobody at all, just an immense silent presence. Thanks, Robert. Got it.

A: Aha!

Q2: I was sitting on the train to London today and I had this interesting interlude influenced by our dialogue the other day, Robert. It’s hard to convey but here goes.

I realised that I am going to die, that this won’t last. This body is doomed and it knows it. Nothing is ever enough, and every attempt to fill that realisation is doomed to fail. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, have all failed to deliver. The spiritual search is the most refined attempt to escape this realisation.

So I let it sink in, and my body said, “I’ve known that since the day I was born, and your denial is just making it worse, and hurting me.”

So I said “Sorry about that mate, I’ve only just realised”. He said “That’s ok, but what a relief that you’ve finally twigged it”.

Then I realised that there’s nothing to do, nothing to search for, nothing lost, nothing to be found.

Then I noticed the clouds being a bit more fluffy because of the convection from the sun’s strengthening heat, as it rises higher in the sky. The fields still bitterly cold and barren, shades of brown on the earth and in the hedgerows.

Amazing how a bit of damned hopelessness and despair consciously acknowledged can lift your spirits. Ah! That’s better. A bit more breathing room.