Surprising Elements of the Hero’s Journey: Letting Terror Be Your Guide

The journey for many of us is to become healers, to become increasingly mentally, physically and spiritually mature ourselves, to throw off the conditioning of our education, to transcend cultural prescriptions, and to risk making increasingly authentic connection (here’s a compelling role model for that, if you’re interested- Amanda Palmer); to, in essence, “heal thyself.” This is pretty much what I investigated together with a small group of intrepid explorers recently in the Living Life as Art sessions: a reorganization of brain and body that results in an expanded flow of internal energy and information, i.e. increasing spiritual, mental and physical health.

If We’re Open to Growth, We Tend to Grow

UncertaintyIn part we examined what Pepperdine professor Lou Cozolino explores as a requirement for growing into health and maturity in his new book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. Teachers espec- ially, seem required to embark on the Healer/Heroine’s Jour- ney. Asking and answering The Two Perilous Questions can be a useful way to restart the journey if it’s been stalled, or to actually begin itconsciously, if tentatively, for the first time. If you want to see the general framework that journey often takes, click HERE.

Get Thee to a Guide on Time

One challenge for many of us, perhaps therapists and teachers in particular, is to discover authentic, trustworthy guides, pathways and practices to point the way. Cozolino has some guidance to offer in that regard. He suggests that the wise among us generally are able to process more energy and information across diverse areas in the brain dedicated to social, emotional and intellectual functioning. What might that look like in actual practice?

When he asked a group of college students to list people they considered “wise,” their top ten choices included Gandhi, Confucius, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Socrates, Mother Teresa, Solomon, Buddha, the Pope, and Oprah Winfrey. Notably missing from that list were Einstein, Napoleon and Bill Gates. It appears that intellect and wealth are not necessarily synonymous with wisdom for these college students. Also missing were the names of presidents, generals or Wall Street tycoons. The people identified as wise were known more for their insights, compassion and courage than they were for their intellectual horsepower or their business brilliance. Notice that four of the people on the list ended up dying for their beliefs.

For each of us to grow in the capacity to do the same, we might need the insights and perspectives a wise guide or mentor of our own (or perhaps as a byproduct of Wild Therapy?). Someone operating in that capacity ideally can see far beyond our current level of development. Having made the journey themselves, they’re able to see personal potential and creative possibilities we often can’t.

Cozolino suggests that we pay attention to how it feels in our bodies when we encounter someone we suspect might be a person of wisdom. For example, he talks about how, when listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King, his breathing would begin to grow deeper and his field of vision would widen. It was as if life was becoming much sharper and clearer in the presence of Dr. King. So this is an important key: how do we feel in mind, body and spirit in a potential guide’s actual presence?

Let Our Terror Be Our Guide

Another element in the journey towards wisdom is an increasing willingness to turn towards what Pema Chodron calls “the places that scare us.” The neurophysiology of the body turns out to be a great orienting indicator for directions in which life might want to lead us (sometimes kicking and screaming).

Karl Pribram, MD

Stanford neurosurgeon Karl Pribram, one of the first scientists to identify the limbic structures in the brain and their regulatory relationship with the prefrontal cortex, once observed that “The most basic of regulatory processes is the regulation of arousal.” It is this capacity for arousal regulation that each of us must take steps to master if we are to turn towards those places that scare us and be able to manage them in any kind of mobilizing manner. Without skillful arousal regulation, in my experience, it becomes difficult to maintain the necessary resolve to stay the creative course.

In other words, we must learn to become intimate friends with and cultivate reliable ways to soothe our body, mind and spirit when its limbic structures become highjacked. We learn to notice and attend to elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies in a timely and effective manner either by employing reliable practices we’ve developed through discipline, or with the help of family and/or friends who have proven over time they can be counted on when dreaded “growth opportunities” show up in our lives. There’s nothing wrong with making use of the safety and soothing in numbers, or… by intentionally placing ourselves in environments conducive to safety and soothing. And along the way, continually reminding ourselves that the journey of expanding daily conscious awareness takes … practice.


Read Kindred’s editor, Lisa Reagan’s article, Conscious Living as the Hero’s Call to Adventure

1 Comment
  1. Joanna says

    I don’t see what you find as surprising about the hero’s journey. If it’s healing, well, that’s a normal part of the journey, as you can see from The King’s Speech etc. There are videos referencing healing and repair as part of the hero’s journey at

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