Just as the Hero's Journey captures our attention in literature, so the Spiritual Journey captures our attention in spiritual and religious experience, and the retelling of that experience in story form.
The Hero's Journey in literature and the Spiritual Journey in religion tap in to deep psychological processes in our subconscious, and represent them for us in symbolic terms, or archetypes.
A classic example of a story embodying the Hero's Journey is Star Wars (the first movie, subtitled Episode 4).
Our Hero is orphaned (the journey always begins with being small and alone in a harsh world). He discovers that he has, as his birthright, immense power - but he does not know how to access or control it.
He sets out to discover how to use his power to right the wrongs which he sees all around him.
Along the way, he meets The Teacher, The Sidekicks, The Innocent In Need Of Protection, and, of course, The Enemy.
He suffers mightily, feels unworthy, is tempted to give up, but through some great sacrifice manages to gain enough power to defeat The Enemy. At least for now.
Those who know Star Wars will recognise Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi, R2D2 and C3PO, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader as the archetypes.
Link: Joseph Campbell's Monomyth
The reason this structure holds such power for us is because it mirrors our own subconscious experience of growing up.
Our life begins with an act of rejection - we are expelled into a cold and hard world, and we experience hunger, cold, and fear for the first time. We feel bereft, alone, abandoned.
Now, given a reasonable level of parenting, we slowly get over that in our first few months of life (the foster parents, for example Luke's aunt and uncle), in the process of having a direct emotional exchange with our primary caregivers.
Then comes the terrible moment when our brain develops to a certain point, and we become able to imagine the world some way other than the way it is - usually a way in which it could be better!
This capacity has given us all the human developments we have to date, but its arrival, unannounced, when we are 2-4 years old causes us great confusion and trauma.
You see, up to that point, everything was "all good". We just were, and the world just was, and everything was in that blissful state that adults can only reach during meditation.
And then suddenly, it looks to us like the Universe changes. It was all good, and now it isn't any more.
We grieve for that loss.
The precipitating event in the plot of the novel mirrors this disrupting experience that we don't consciously remember.
Luke, standing over the charred remains of his aunt and uncle and his childhood home, is at this pivotal point in his journey.
Adam and Eve, cast out of the Garden of Eden, experience the same sense of loss. Paradise has been lost, and can never be regained. Now, thre is only struggle, suffering, and in some cases, revenge.
These stories are an allegory for our internal process - we developed a conscious, analytical imagination, and the ability to render judgement about what is "good" or "bad" (aka the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and in the process we lost our experience of connection, unity, and "all-good-ness".
The newly-developed intellect grabs the reins immediately, and starts trying to run the show. Western culture, geared as it is to develop the intellect and the yang, outward focused, doing energy, reinforces the dominance of the intellect, with its experience of separateness.
At some point, though, there will be a hint that we have much more power than the puny push our intellect can provide.
Luke's encounter with Obi Wan is his first hint, and on the Spiritual Journey it is often an experience of return to Paradise, or at least an experience of despair so profound that deep within, something stirs, and says "there must be more than this".
And so the quest begins.
Like the Hero's Journey, the Spiritual Journey is littered with hazards and detours. Like the Tribes of Israel, we wander the wilderness, sustained only by the occasional blessing, and very tempted to give up, to settle for what we have, and to surrender the search for something more.
This part of the story is an allegory of our inner search for the path back to our baby state of relaxed one-ness with the Universe.
In the meanwhile, we have built intricate survival mechanisms to manage the fear generated by our sense of separateness. We seek control, we want to dominate and force outcomes, we manipulate situations and even our own thoughts, all in the name of survival.
The middle part of the journey is an allegory for the battle between the fear-based survival mechanism and the innate drive to return to love.
At some point, the Hero comes into his power, often through a process of death and rebirth. In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi sacrificed his own life to become "more powerful than you can imagine", and uses his new power to help Luke find his own power at the crucial moment.
Many religions use the symbolism of death and rebirth to represent the moment of letting go of the old ways, the fear-based, survival anxiety ways, and opening to a new source of power from within.
This is because to us, at the moment of letting go, we genuinely feel as though we are going to die. And, in a sense, we do, because the person we are (or the person we THINK we are up until then) needs to die, before a new, more spiritually connected person can take the reins.
Jesus died on the cross to show us all the way, according to the Christians. Orpheus visited the underworld (home of the dead) to recover his wife.
A powerful archetypal statement about this process is Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.
We need to embrace what feels like dying before we can tranform from lost and frightened, separate individuals to spiritually connected parts of Universal love.
The Force in Star Wars is an analogy for the Universal energy we call variously God, Brahma (Atman), or Nirvana (Bodhi).
There is a spiritual experience which appears to be universal, in that even atheists report experiencing it, for example as part of the 12-step process.
The experience involves making contact with something much larger and more powerful than oneself.
This experience may simply be the limited conscious mind tapping into the vastly more powerful parallel processing capacity of the subconscious mind, or it make be related to energetic states, aka "higher levels of consciousness", and deities.
What we do know is that there are characteristic patterns of brain activity associated with the experience.
Some skeptics and many religious folk have made vigorous comment on these sorts of brain studies, and whether or not they are "disporivng the existence of God" or "trying to prove the existence of God".
I think this misses the point.
Whether there is a God or not, there is a phenomenon taking place, a phenomenon that can be measured, and is described remarkably consistently by people of all ages, races, and cultures.
For want of a better word, we call the phenomenon The Spiritual Journey.
All of us experience Paradise, and all of us experience Paradise Lost.
You don't need to sign on for a traditional religion, with all its baggage, to learn how to find yourself, to find your spiritual center, and to return to the experience of Universal love.
Like Luke, you may well find that you are more powerful than you have ever imagined.