(This story applies equally to both men and women and is ubiquitous as a story of initiation.)
Another deep story that can assist humanity in envisioning a positive future is to see ourselves on a heroic journey of collective awakening and development. With this narrative, we can step back from seeing ourselves as “evolutionary villains” who are ruining the Earth and, instead, regard ourselves as “evolutionary heroes” who are facing a supreme test of our collective capacities and intelligence. We are moving through an unprecedented, collective rite of passage and confronting the supreme challenge of building a new relationship with the Earth, with one another, and with the living universe that is our home.
The archetype of the hero’s journey is widely recognized around the world and is found in stories and myths across history. The distinguished scholar Joseph Campbell summarized the hero’s journey as follows: An adventurer hears a call to discovery and separates from the everyday world, setting out on a search filled with dangers. The hero experiences many difficult challenges and tests, each rich with learning. Ultimately, the hero confronts a seemingly insurmountable challenge—a supreme test that cannot be overcome with physical capacities alone. To be successful, the hero must reach beyond his ego and into a spiritual realm where he awakens to a new and more soulful relationship with the Earth, with other people, and with the universe. With this spiritual initiation, the hero then makes a journey of return, bringing these gifts of insight back to the larger community.
The hero’s journey of separation, initiation, and return can be expanded from the scale of an individual to the scope of the entire human community. When we step back and look at the human journey, it is evident that for thousands of years we have been on a path of separation. We have been pulling back from nature and gaining ever more power and control as we learned to hunt, farm, domesticate animals, build cities, make wars, and transform the planet. Because our power is now so great, we are obliged to be conscious of our intimate connection with nature and to use restraint in the exercise of power. The human community now confronts the supreme test of making a decisive turn to reconnect with nature, one another, and our cosmic home.
Let’s look at humanity’s journey in terms of this simple model of separation, initiation, and return.
- Separation—By my (Duane Elgin’s) reckoning, a complex phase of progressively divorcing ourselves from nature has extended over the last 35,000 years—from the time of our initial awakening as gatherers and hunters up to the present. During these millennia, humanity has increasingly pulled away from nature in order to develop our unique capacities and talents as a species. The last half-century seems to mark our final severance from nature as we cause, for example, the mass extinction of other species and the disruption of the global climate.
- Initiation—To undergo initiation is to make a major transition to a new and larger life, and it often involves going through a powerful experience. As we confront challenges such as climate change, species extinction, humanity seems poised to undergo an initiation, which will give us the opportunity of becoming an authentic human family—in feeling and experience as well as in name.
- Return—To pass successfully through our initiation, we will have to forge new bonds both within our species and with nature as a whole. This phase marks our passage into our early adulthood and the beginning of a long process of reconnecting with nature. A promising future lies ahead as we begin a task for grown-ups—building a sustainable planetary civilization.
The Story in Action
When we view humanity’s evolution this way, our times take on new significance. Humanity is moving into a stage of initiation—a period of stress and testing in which we will be challenged to discover ourselves as a single family with responsibilities to one another, the Earth, and future generations. Although the challenges we face may seem to be evidence of humanity’s failures, reaching this stage is actually an expression of our great success over the past 35,000 years. Our initiation represents a time of birth—a stressful but entirely natural process.
When we began our journey of awakening roughly 35,000 years ago, we had only an indistinct sense of ourselves and a strong but largely unconscious feeling of connection with nature. Over the millennia, we have acquired a strong sense of ourselves, but at the cost of separating ourselves from nature. Looking ahead, we have the opportunity to reconnect consciously with nature and the larger human family. As in the hero’s journey, our challenge is to return to where we started, but with a new level of insight, compassion, and creativity. T.S. Eliot foretold of this return when he wrote “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
In seeing the initiation that awaits us, it is clear that we have come to a great choice-point in our journey. Although human beings have been faced with challenges throughout history, we have never before been confronted with a challenge to our entire planet and species. Our time is unique in one crucial respect: the circle has closed—there is nowhere to escape. For the first time in our history, the entire human population is confronted with a common predicament whose solution will require us to work together.
The Human Journey
Duane Elgin presents a mini-documentary that looks at human development through the lens of “The Hero’s Journey.” What stage are we in: separation, initiation, or return?
On Becoming an Adult
An interview with Joseph Campbell: Myth lets you know where you are across the ages of life…
The Hero’s Journey
Here is a contemporary description of Campbell’s monomyth drawing from scenes from modern films.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949, 2008)
- Jean Houston, A Mythic Life (1996)
- Duane Elgin, Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (1993)