Human beings are collectively awakening to the epidemic of trauma going on in our world.
More than ever before, there is a global conversation about how to heal trauma and move forward with our lives.
From the #metoo movement, to growing discussions about systemic racism, PTSD and generational trauma, people worldwide are asking deep, important questions about trauma and how it affects us individually and collectively.
Most of us have been through difficult experiences in our lives, including illness, abuse, sexual assault, neglect, loss of a loved one, or miscarriage. Trauma could be anything that happens to you that overwhelms your nervous system in the moment. During a traumatic event, we can’t process and integrate it as it’s happening, because it is too intense or difficult.
When your nervous system gets overwhelmed by trauma, sometimes emotions or physical sensations get trapped and cause residual effects. You might have an experience of dissociation, or develop unconscious coping mechanisms that are difficult to shake after the traumatic event has passed.
The question is: How do we go back and integrate that trapped trauma and heal our bodies and minds?
The Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell has long been one of my favorite frameworks for understanding our stories, and I believe it can be a helpful model for helping us integrate and digest trauma and other unprocessed events.
Legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell studied myths and stories from a large variety of regions and cultures, including Roman and Greek mythology, Native American and Aboriginal stories, and popular movies. He noticed a distinct common denominator throughout all the stories.
In his groundbreaking book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes the narrative pattern (or “monomyth”) like this:
“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.”
So what would that look like in our own lives?
At the beginning of the Hero’s Journey (or Heroine’s Journey), you’re called to adventure. You initially resist the call, which is a natural response to being pulled out of your comfort zone.
When you leave your community and everything you know, it can be difficult or even traumatic. You’re going on a journey – perhaps psychologically or metaphorically – and you’ll go through rites of passage along the way. Help can arrive in many forms, and you will collect gifts and learnings along the way. You will be forced to develop new skills in order to cope with changing circumstances.
Eventually, you will circle all the way back and return to your original tribe, and you’ll get to decide what you want to give back to the world. Is it knowledge, truth, medicine, some form of protection? Or something else entirely?
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth isn’t just a framework for great storytelling and legendary movies like Star Wars or The Matrix – it’s also a way to help you integrate trauma.
One of the most important aspects of healing psychologically is knowing how to take difficult experiences and make meaning out of them. The Hero’s Journey can help us orient ourselves, as human beings navigating a wide variety of struggles and adventures.
If we take a cue from the Hero’s Journey, one way we can make our experiences meaningful is by returning to our community after we experience trauma, and finding a way to be of service to other people.
We can say, “This is what I have experienced, and this is what I learned. If you’re going through something similar, how can I serve you? How can I help you navigate what you’re going through? How can I show you a little bit of what I learned along the way?”
When we can help others, we can integrate the difficult experiences we’ve had, and give back to others. It can take our coping mechanisms and the emotions that are “stuck” from our traumatic experiences, and turn them into something transformational for ourselves and others in our tribe.
The Hero’s Journey can also help you integrate your shadow side – the side of yourself that you may not want to admit you have, but that may be running the show behind the scenes. You may perceive that your shadow is dark, weak, or bad, but that may not be true. Your shadow side is simply something you feel needs to be hidden.
These could be limiting beliefs, memories, behaviors, or other aspects of yourself that have been pushed beyond your awareness. The aim of consciousness and yoga is wholeness, and that means integrating and reclaiming all the different aspects of ourselves, including our shadow sides.
It’s a process of discovery, of uncovering bread crumbs along the way that help us continue to explore. That process is called shadow tracking or shadow work, and it’s an endless journey.
One way of spotting your shadow side is to notice the things that trigger you when you’re out in the world. Do you get upset when someone cuts you off on the freeway? One of my triggers is when someone tells me what to do – the rebel in me reacts negatively to that.
When you experience a reaction, ask yourself, “What is that, and where does it come from?” Try to identify the core wound, and think about the first time (or one of the biggest times) you experienced that reaction. Why does that particular thing bother you so much? Unpack it as much as possible.
This kind of shadow work will evolve into a new level of awareness for you, and as you explore, you will start asking entirely new questions.
Then you can figure out how to make meaning of your awareness and your shadow work. As in the Hero’s Journey, find ways to see your experience through the eyes of spirit, and bring back the teachings and lessons to others.
There is a unique medicine that you have to give to the world because of your trauma and your shadow side. You’re the only one who can share that medicine in your own unique way.
Honor the journey you have been on, and continue to be reverent to your own life. Look at your core sacred wounds, and see the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Life is a winding, mysterious road. It’s more like a labyrinth than a straight line, and you can appreciate all the twists, turns, and even dead ends during your lifetime.
Every one of us can be of service to all beings. You’ve come to this point in your life, and experienced your own Hero’s Journey. Now you have the incredible opportunity to bring the skills you’ve learned and the lessons you’ve gained, and help others evolve and live their best lives.
Your teachings have never been more needed than they are in this moment, and your being can be a salve of compassion, love, and hope.
To learn more about the Hero’s Journey, visit my previous series of blog posts and videos on Joseph Campbell’s work, as well as my interview with Modern Mystic.