We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”
~ Joseph Campbell
Ever wonder why it is so hard to sustain change? For many, even thinking about change is difficult. But before any transformation can occur, the intention for change is needed. Change always precedes transformation and intent precedes change. Fear often arises when we intend change because change requires us to leave what is familiar. We often mistake familiarity for ‘belonging’. Our struggle then becomes one of choosing between familiarity (which we mistake for belonging) and transformation.
The root of familiarity is the Latin word familiaritatem which means intimacy or friendship. It is also the root of the word ‘family’. What is familiar carries the inertia of our history. Family is who we are imprinted to ‘belong’ to. This is where our behaviors and habits, likes and dislikes are imprinted. It is also where our conditioned self is born, supported, and reinforced. The thought of going against our conditioned or familial self causes us to feel guilty. It makes us feel like traitors in our family system.
At various thresholds in life, we feel a call from within to change or transform, to leave the familiar ways of being, to individuate and align with our Authentic self, our True Nature. Since transformation is not valued or supported in our society, a majority of us ignore this call. It scares us to feel like we will undergo too great of a loss if we heed it. For example, if we are locked in an unhealthy relationship and feel this call, it is frightening to think of leaving the relationship to venture into unknown, unfamiliar territory. In extreme cases like abusive relationships, the abused partner often chooses to suffer abuse rather than leave the relationship due to their conditioning which is organized around unhealthy patterns. Many of these are imprinted from their family of origin, and leaving them feels like a betrayal of the family itself.
The call to transform always brings us to the threshold of the unknown, the unfamiliar. It is no wonder people seek familiarity. Who wants to not ‘belong’? But we must ask ourselves, ‘belong to what?’ The desire to belong sometimes blinds us from our individuality and leads us to the ‘herd’ or the collective, where we feel safer to continue as we are, with normalized behaviors. We mistake collective complacency with belonging. Over time, we may lose our individuality and connection with our True Nature in favor of the collective. In this way, we allow society to do our thinking and decision making. This is the grave price we pay when we ignore the call to transform.
It takes courage to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown. At certain stages of life, we must engage our courage so we can deepen and align with our True Nature, what Jung called the Self. This always requires leaving what is familiar. If we don’t, a kind of rot sets in. It can feel like a vacancy, an emptiness, or a deep loneliness of being. Most commonly in midlife, not heeding the call to transform (or individuate) can even beckon diseases of the body and mind as a manifestation of this ‘rot’. The familiar, at this stage of life, begins to harm us.
The ultimate harm of maintaining what is familiar is the loss of meaning. We live in a society where meaninglessness is felt in epidemic proportions. In fact, it is at the root of our mental and physical distress, and also the root of our collective Soul loss, which we all feel. This is also at the root of the epidemic of depression, anxiety, violence, and loneliness. It manifests in compensatory behaviors we normalize and glorify: goal orientation, rational thinking, materialism, consumerism, fame, notoriety and achieving social status to name a few. These are all persona based values which are impermanent and fleeting. The price we pay for valuing these is a disconnection from our feeling function in addition to relatedness, collaboration, love and a sense of belonging. Meaning can only be evoked from the latter list, and does not subscribe to any level of materiality or rationalism. In fact, around the midlife threshold, chasing the material, rational and the familiar begins to feel like a burden, inviting the rot of meaninglessness mentioned earlier.
I see the intent for change and transformation from what is familiar to unfamiliar as the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ For a majority of us, the familiar is unhealthy. It is no small feat to want health, to leave dysfunction behind and to work towards healing. We are called to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar in midlife. This requires immense courage and heroism to be willing to leave familiarity for the unknown, for a promise of health and healing. This departure requires courage because this indeed is an act of faith; the familiar no longer works for us yet the new is not yet in view. For those of you who have stepped onto this terrain, you know how frightening and humbling it can feel.
The choice to transform can begin with making small changes towards health. For example, choosing to make healthy substitutions in meals, dropping alcohol, adding exercise, getting in touch with acknowledging one’s grief or a readiness to be honest with oneself can be the starting point for transformation. These choices may seem insignificant, but they stir the soul. They begin to push the envelope of familiarity and open the door into uncharted territory. We are fortunate to be able to be guided by evidence that shows that choices like these promote health. Even one small choice towards change shifts the way our life has been organized up until that moment and activates the Hero within. Sometimes, the insight that awakens us to no longer settle for the status quo can also activate our Hero’s Journey. When we long for meaning, health, wholeness and for a deeper way to live, our soul hears us. Our initial intention may seem small, but opening this door takes us onto sacred and powerful ground.
I am honored to celebrate choices like these my patients make every day and feel privileged to hold space and encourage them on their path towards health. In my nearly three decades of medical practice, I have never seen anyone fail when these choices are made from a sincere desire to heal.
Even though transformation is a solitary yet sacred journey, once we step onto that platform we meet many others who become sources of support and encouragement along this path. They have already traversed the territory that is uncharted and frightening for us. Here, we find our individuated mentors, who support us forward onto our deeper platform in search of meaning.
We must say ‘yes’ to the inner call to transform, whenever it may arrive. The choice is ultimately ours to make, but the journey is both individual and collective. Every choice made with courage from the intent to heal inspires others to do the same. When we choose transformation, we bring value to this process, normalizing it rather than complacency. This begins to heal the state of Soul loss in our communities and society at large.
We must step on to this sacred path of transformation and individuate. Only then can we find authenticity and meaning in our lives.
I dedicate this article to my patients, my heroes of change, who inspire me every day in the sacred space of my practice with their courage to heal. Together, we add meaning to the Soul of the collective and also to the practice of Medicine which has tragically lost its way.