Awakening to a Path Beyond the Hero’s Journey

April 6, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Stars image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

That moment when the crowd you are facing is standing and enthusiastically exclaiming their appreciation with applause, yelps, and hoots…

I’m back in Jenny Sauer-Klein’s Game Changers workshop at Impact Hub Oakland about a year ago. In the last exercise of the evening, we separate into teams of 8 people and take turns receiving a Standing O. I remember luxuriating in the appreciative energy, alternatively hand on heart and beating my chest, howling, smiling, and a little part of me, tearing up. The feeling of deep appreciation landed quite tenderly in me. Peering through my watery eyes, I realize I’m not actually in Kansas anymore.

I found myself onstage – in none other than Thomas Berry Hall – on Saturday morning at the 6th Annual Winter Gathering at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, which is about 47 miles northwest of Seattle. This year’s theme “Change the Story, Change the World” was an offering from elder David Korten. I had just delivered my final words in the Saturday morning’s opening plenary, “Beyond the Hero’s Journey – How the Stories we tell can Support a Planetary Awakening.” The talk was something that had been percolating in me for years, and just two weeks earlier I had been offered the opportunity to bring it to Whidbey as a plenary. In the bus from SeaTac to Whidbey Island, I noticed the strong alignment between my talk and the gathering’s theme as a confirmation that I was on my path.
The premise of the talk was that the Hero’s Journey is not the medicine that we collectively need now. The Hero’s Journey celebrates individualism, separation, hierarchy, and masculine energy. And importantly, the Hero’s Journey addresses integration of the gifts for the betterment of the world only on a superficial level. If we want a Planetary Awakening, we need to be thinking new story forms that celebrate interdependence, cooperation, and resilience. Instead of the Hero’s Journey, let’s lift up the Awakening Journey and the Collective Journey. If we want a Planetary Awakening, we need to tell awakening and collective stories.
So there I am, eight months later, luxuriating in the standing ovation that Sauer-Klein’s workshop had prepared me to receive. When the applause finally subsided a long minute later, the mike was opened up for questions and answers. In the first comment, a woman said my talk was best plenary they had ever had at the gathering. Next, a woman standing at the back of the room asked me what people could do to help get my children’s awakening story – Pacha’s Pajamas – to the world. I smiled and told her that we needed investment and to be connected us with organizations that might support the April 5th launch of the book. She later told me, “that should be a TED talk. People across the planet need to hear this message.”
You might say that moment awoke me to the deep need for more awakening stories. And I realized that a important cairns on my path is to encourage people to tell their awakening stories.
For several years, I’ve noticed that many people are now fitting their personal stories into the Hero’s Journey motif.  In her book “The Wizard of Us,” Jean Houston shows how Dorothy and her companions each experience their own Hero’s Journey as way to help readers see their own Hero’s Journey.  I – like many others – have found significant value in looking at my life as a Hero’s Journey.
Breaking Up with the Hero’s Journey
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Superhero businessman image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission. 
In the months before the gathering, the Hero’s Journey and I were on the verge of breaking up. I had been having doubts for awhile. I would ask myself – if the Hero’s Journey is “the chief organizing story” of human civilization and stories are the most powerful communication technology, to what extent might the Hero’s Journey be responsible for where we are at today? How might the Hero’s Journey be contributing to what we are experiencing on all scales? What if we told different stories?
Two weeks before the gathering, I received an email from the lead organizer Rick Ingrasci. I had met Rick at Bioneers after checking out his Story Dome. I told Rick that I remembered his name from a conversation with my friend Konda Mason, and asked him about the Winter Gathering she had mentioned. He said I should come. In this email before the gathering, Rick asked me if knew the title of my plenary talk.
I had no idea I was doing a plenary talk. Yahoo! [Not meaning the company.]  That next day, the title “Beyond the Hero’s Journey – How the Stories we tell can support a Planetary Awakening” came to me.
In the next week, I consolidated my thinking around the Hero’s Journey, listed my detractions, and found some data.
  1. The Hero’s Journey makes a distinction between the hero and everyone else. It puts us – everyone else – in the position of waiting for the hero to come along and fix things. Very disempowering. We see a tendency towards hero worship in modern society driven by the media. According to Psychology Today. the top-five values expressed on the most popular television shows among children aged 9-11 are Fame, Achievement, Popularity, Image, and Financial Success. And Fame is the top aspirational value for 9-11 year old kids. This certainly not the medicine we need now.
  2. The Hero’s Journey is highly dualistic. You’re either with me or you are against me. A hero or a villain, good or evil, with us or with them, one of us or the other. Rather than transcend differences and encouraging cooperation, it creates and encourages separation. Could this explain the prevalence and depth of conflict we are experiencing?  According to the Center for Non-violent Communication, in 75 percent of the TV programs shown during hours when American children are most likely to be watching, the hero either kills people or beats them up. According to the Joint Statement on The Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children, viewing violence can lead to aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior in children. We also see ourselves as separate from nature. According to Sociological Inquiry, children’s books have twice as many depictions of man-made environments as depictions of nature in the past five decades.
  3. The hero in the journey is generally a high status individual. Hence in the West, we often have heroes like King Arthur, Bruce Wayne, etc… This leaves many people out. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, less than 2% and 1.5% of children’s books were about African Americans and Latinos, respectively, and even fewer were authored by members of these groups.
  4. Four: the Hero’s Journey rewards masculine energy over the female energy. Even when the stories do feature a female hero, she often finds the most success leading with her masculine side. According to Gender & Society, males are central characters in 57% of children’s books, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, while female animals star in only 7.5%.
  5. Five, the Hero’s journey often lacks integration – the ultimate boon (gifts and powers) is earned and brought home presumably to share with the world. The celebration ensues and the story generally ends “happily ever after.” It is assumed the magic elixir, the tree of knowledge, or whatever glorious boon is widely adopted for the betterment of humanity. But we do not see the road of trials for integration; we do not see the challenges, obstacles, failures, breakthroughs, and successes.
This is not to say that the Hero’s Journey is “bad” and/or has not served humanity. It’s reign has brought about mind blowing technologies and extended lifespans. But at the same time, humanity is deeply divided and we are destroying the ecosystems that sustain life. And our highly hierarchical, patriarchal, individualistic, intellectualizing cultures are resisting the shift in consciousness we are called upon to make. The Hero’s Journey is not the medicine we need right now.
The Medicine We Need Now
And then, as I was coalescing my thoughts on the subject, I realized if we want a Planetary Awakening, we need to tell awakening stories and collective journeys.
The Awakening Story differs from the Hero’s Journey in that you don’t have to leave home or be a high status individual. There is a call to transformation, and the road of trials lead inside. If you have to fight demons and goblins, they are your demons and goblins, and most likely you are embracing your shadow, becoming whole, discovering your gifts and bringing the world. The ultimate boon is greater understanding of one self and one’s gifts. And the second half of the story – integration of one’s gifts into the world – begins when the hero’s journey ends. In a sense, considering the medicine humanity needs now, the Hero’s Journey ends at intermission.
The Collective Journey (coined by my colleague Maya Zuckerman) is when awakening stories, hero’s journeys and other archetypal stories come together to form an entity that has a life of its own. In the beginning their are problems in a the community. A community of dedicated souls come together to create something new. The entity takes on a life of its own and interacts with elements of the community to create change in circumstance.
Awakening journeys move from the mundane to inspiration, from inertia to action. Collective Journeys move from the individual to the entity, the many to the one, and the chaotic to the organized.
Stories are deep, complex, and interrelated. Hence one story can be seen to have many forms and many different types of medicine, depending both the teller, the listener, and the audience. While in some ways Guatama Buddha’s life is a Hero’s Journey, it is also an Awakening Story as well as a Collective Journey that continues to this day. After his awakening, Buddha spent 40 years teaching students. And Buddhism, the collective that spawned from Buddha’s teachings, is thriving today.
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Pacha’s Pajamas
An example of a children’s Awakening Story is my new book Pacha’s Pajamas: A Story Written By Nature, which is being published by Morgan James Kids out of New York on April 5th.
Pacha is a little girl awakening to her immense gifts and bringing them to the world.  Pacha’s imagination is bigger than the Andes Mountains – homeland of her ancestors. When she goes to sleep, the characters on her pajamas guide her on dream adventures to learn more about herself and the world. The day before Earth Day, Pacha’s magical pajamas carry her into an epic dream where she’s the central player at a nature festival to save the planet from destruction.
Pacha awakens with the inspiration to show the world that We Are ALL Connected.
The book is available on Amazon and other online retailers.
My Request to You
Please do not be shy to tell your awakening stories and your collective journeys. We all have them. Your many nested awakening stories stitch together to make your awakening journey. The time where you have an epiphany and something shifts, the time leading up, and the integration afterwards. You and your perception of the world are forever changed. Awakening stories are beautiful, stirring, and inspiring. They are medicine we need now in this time that calls for action. They show us what is possible, when we embrace all parts of ourselves, open to our gifts, and bring them to the world.
Your story is the medicine. Your medicine is the story.
For the next week, sit with this:
The Planetary Awakening is happening. Which of my Awakening Stories are being called forth?


Tags: children's books, cultural stories, Culture & Behavior, Stories