Mindfulness is well recognised as an effective way to deal with the challenges of modern life. So many people have experienced for themselves the power of allowing things to get better by not making them worse. But hopefully the story doesn’t end there. Might the mindfulness journey also prove to be an expression of a deeper imperative that compels us to search for meaning and purpose?
The book “Mindful Heroes – stories of journeys that changed lives” makes the connection between the Hero’s Journey and the inner journeys of people who study and practice mindfulness. Chapters in the book are based on the post graduate research projects from the MSc in Mindfulness Studies at the University of Aberdeen. The authors set out on the path of mindfulness and went on a journey that would change their world. These 26 men and women from 10 countries creatively applied mindfulness to a variety of settings across Education, Health, Business, Sport, Creative Arts and Community work. Having experienced for themselves the benefits of mindful awareness, compassion and insight, they wanted to share what they had discovered with others.
As I write this overview of our project for “Many Roads”, my aspiration is that whatever path you may be travelling, you will find encouragement and inspiration for your own journey. Now more than ever, our world needs mindful heroes.
The Archetypal Hero’s Journey
In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell reveals the recurring themes at the heart of myths, legends, parables, folklore, drama and literature. There was no collaboration and yet similar patterns appear in the stories of so many different cultures throughout the ages. In modern terminology, the story of the Hero’s Journey went viral. The archetypal narrative is brought to life in movies such as: The Matrix, Star Wars, The Queen’s Gambit, Harry Potter and Kung Fu Panda.
“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.” Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey captures our imagination and resonates with our deepest aspirations: it is a metaphor for the quest to discover our human potential. Perhaps as meditators we should not be surprised to find the landscape of our inner journeys reflected in the timeless mirror of mythology.
Stories help us to make sense of the world; we absorb wisdom through stories, metaphor, poetry. They touch the parts that concepts cannot reach.
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” Joseph Campbell
There are endless variations, but the basic plot remains quite simple:
- DEPARTURE: leaving the normal world and entering strange new territory.
- DESCENT: encountering obstacles and receiving help.
- INITIATION: facing challenges and finding freedom.
- RETURN: coming home and being able to help others.
The Journey of Mindful Heroes
If you are reading this article in “Many Roads” it probably means you are on a quest….
As well as learning more about our book “Mindful Heroes – stories of journeys that changed lives”, you may wish to pause from time to time and reflect on your own experiences.
How would it be to see your inner journey as a manifestation of a universal story?
Can you remember what first prompted you to set out in search of sustainable happiness and freedom from suffering? For many people, the journey begins in response to a crisis that shakes the foundations of the world they know. For others they can no longer ignore the feeling that, although things may be going well, there must be more to life than this.
How did your inner journey begin?
Mindfulness involves letting go of our habitual way of relating to the world. We recognise it is an impossible struggle to make the outer world conform to our expectations and preferences.
The Hero sets of on a journey to resolve a crisis or because, although everything is sort of OK, there’s a feeling something is not quite right.
- In the film “The Matrix”, Morpheus says to Neo: “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad”.
- In the Netflix series “Queen’s Gambit”, Beth Harmon’s life is turned upside down as she finds herself alone and confused in the unfamiliar and frightening orphanage.
The mindfulness journey begins when we eventually realise that instead of giving all our attention and energy to external appearances, it is time to get to know the unexplored world of our own mind.
As the decision is made to set out on a quest, unexpected signposts may appear in the form of books, insights and chance encounters. Looking back on your inner journey, can you bring to mind the friends, guides and mysterious coincidences encouraging you to walk the path into the unknown?
What help did you receive to navigate your inner world?
Compassion for oneself and others is required when we look within and see ourselves as we are rather than as we feel we are supposed to be. Although we walk our own path, we can be guided by the wisdom of those who know the way.
The Hero enters unfamiliar territory and encounters daunting challenges. Mentors appear to teach the skills needed in this new reality where different rules apply.
- In the Star Wars films, after Luke Skywalker and Rey must leave their everyday world behind, they meet Jedi masters who introduce them to the Force and a different way of being.
- Harry Potter grew up in the mundane world of “muggles” before his education at Hogwarts prepares him for the challenges that he must face.
If we learn to face our personal challenges and obstacles without trying to escape, we get to know ourselves better. We become aware of our weaknesses: we also discover our hidden strengths.
Insights often happen when least expected. Have you ever discovered a solution to a problem when you were not really thinking about it? Have you had a creative idea that, as soon as it appeared, seemed completely obvious?
What happens when you get out of your own way?
Insight reveals itself in the moment of Aha! It is not a matter of learning new information: we suddenly recognise what we always knew.
The Hero faces a seemingly impossible challenge or goes to a secret place to confronts his/her deepest fears. There is a transformative experience: a symbolic death of the old self and a rebirth into a self beyond self.
- In the cartoon movie, Kung Fu Panda was desperate to find the secret ingredient. He thought he had to become the Dragon Warrior when all he needed to do was accept that to become himself would be more than enough.
There is no need for any of us to add something special. We don’t need to pretend to be who we think we are supposed to be. Letting go of striving to live up to a preconceived ideal reveals potential beyond what was imagined.
Although the inner journey may well begin as a wish to escape from our own problems, a greater purpose emerges as what we learn on the way enables us to contribute to the well-being of others.
How will you share the treasures you have discovered?
Wisdom enables us to realise that, because everything changes, anything is possible. With this glimpse of freedom, a wish to help others arises naturally.
The Hero returns with the ability to resolve the issue that instigated the quest in the first place. In some stories he/she brings back a solution: riches, magical powers, healing elixir. It can also be that the situation is not the same as it was before simply because it is now seen in a different light.
- At the end of the film the Matrix, no longer trapped in the fabricated illusion, Neo becomes the master of both worlds and can effortlessly accomplish effective action.
- The cyclical nature of the journey is expressed by TS Eliot in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
As one adventure comes to an end the next one begins. The challenge is to face whatever situation arises without trying to escape; to come home and find a way to apply what we have learnt on the journey.
“Seeing the gap between what I do and who I am get smaller and smaller” Terry Barrett
A Secular Path for a Spiritual Journey?
My own meditation practice has been supported and guided for many years by the Buddhist view of the world. It could be argued that ultimately the very notion of following a path is an illusion and perhaps a hindrance. However, in my experience, living within the metaphor of being on a journey has helped me to not get lost, to not give up when difficulties appear and not get too carried away when things go well.
I first started to relate the qualities of mind that are discovered on the mindfulness journey to the phases of the Hero’s Journey when teaching post graduate students at the University of Aberdeen on the MSc in Mindfulness Studies. I wondered whether this approach could provide a context for learning and practicing meditation within a secular perspective; a treasure map that serves to maintain a sense of direction and encourages personal exploration of what is happening right now.
My intention was to offer the Hero’s Journey as a non-religious pathway for discovering human potential and awakening compassionate action. However, I fully appreciate the irony of how the Buddha’s life story follows this archetypal trajectory and embodies the true spirit of the Hero’s Journey.
The Heart and Science of Mindfulness
The impact of mindfulness has been evaluated through an ever-increasing body of research which has contributed to our understanding of this ancient discipline of doing almost nothing. As people learn more about the benefits of mindfulness, they become open to the possibility of achieving more by doing less. In science we trust.
Studying what can be measured may help people to make a secular leap of faith and engage with the practice mindfulness. However, although it may not be apparent when setting out on the mindfulness journey, as the stories of our Mindful Heroes show, it is not unusual for the quest to reveal a spiritual dimension.
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. I say follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Joseph Campbell
Looking back on your own journey, who could have predicted the chance meetings and assistance that would come your way when least expected? Who would have thought that the strength and wisdom we are all seeking was already within us from the beginning? Is it even possible for anyone to have a glimpse of inner freedom and not feel compassion and want to help others?
This is the Mindful Hero’s Journey. Viewing the path we travel from this perspective reminds us there is a mystery that we do not control. It reassures us that although we may feel separate, we are connected. It encourages us to continue our personal exploration, knowing that the treasure we find will inevitably be for the greater good.
Mindful Heroes – Sharing the Treasure
I helped to create the book “Mindful Heroes – stories of journeys that changed lives” with my fellow editors Terry Barrett and Graeme Nixon. Our purpose was to inspire and encourage people interested in mindfulness as they continue their lifelong quest to develop mindfulness and compassion. The 26 authors who contributed to this project kindly offered to donate the royalties from the book to the Everyone Project which supports people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in mindfulness courses
I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to the Journey of Mindful Heroes. If you would like to share your experiences and/or reflections, I would love to hear from you.
If you would like to know more know more about workshops and conference presentations by the editors and authors of the book, please do get in touch.
Click here to see a full list of the inspiring chapters and the various fields in which mindfulness has been applied as Mindful Heroes have found creative ways to share the treasures they discovered on their mindfulness journeys.
“Mindful Heroes – stories of journeys that changed lives”
available in paperback (UK only) and as an eBook (worldwide).
Contact Vin Harris firstname.lastname@example.org
I have studied and practiced meditation for more than 45 years under the guidance of many great Tibetan Buddhist masters. I have always aspired to follow the example of my main teacher Akong Rinpoche who taught me that it is possible to express spiritual values through practical action. He showed me through his teachings and his actions that there is no need to escape from the world.
As well as establishing a successful business, I have found the time to be a woodworker and a project manager for the construction of the Temple and College at Samye Ling. I was the Executive Producer of an award-winning film about Akong Rinpoche’s remarkable life. I co-founded the charity Hart Knowe Trust with the aim of helping people so that they can help others.
I teach and develop mindfulness training programmes for individuals and organisations in the UK and Europe who appreciate my ability to communicate the subtle meaning and purpose of meditation practice in everyday language.