I went up to Woodstock and just read, and read, and read, and read, for five years.” ~ Joseph Campbell
I think about Joseph Campbell at least once a day.
The first time I read Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s Journey, I was sitting on the floor in front of the fire, propped up against the sofa. I understood immediately the power of his template of the monomyth that reveals how each of us goes about the business of deep transformation and living the adventure that is our life.
I stared down at the wrinkled paperback, blinking tears onto the pages. I felt as if an angel had come to sit beside me and whisper secrets in my ear. Secrets I was desperate to hear.
Beyond the comfort of now having a map to guide me and provide context for where I was on my own journey, I, for once, understood how I am built. I discovered why it is I am attracted to pursuing certain experiences, pushing myself well beyond what I think I am capable of, so that I may bring something back that I discovered in the depths of a cave (while battling my dragon), and offer it to someone who might find it useful.
Right along with the soul-washing relief of possessing this secret to living fully, I knew that so much more was required of me to deliver on the promise locked within me.
And not unlike one of Campbell’s heroes (heroines), I refused the call by turning away from my potential–for years.
I ultimately reached a point when the pain of refusing the call was greater than my fear. It took the Great Recession of 2008-13, as well as the end of my marriage, to provide me with a bucket of smelling salts that shocked me forward across the threshold.
Over the last 11 years, I have embarked upon and completed dozens of Heroine’s Journeys. Each adventure dislodges mental and emotional concrete that once held me fused and imprisoned. One after another, heavy, gray chunks fall to the ground into clouds of dust.
Each journey brings release, paring me down, more and more, to the bones of my essential self.
When I realized several months ago that I had forgotten how to read, I turned to Joseph Campbell for guidance. When he had found himself jobless at the age of 25 during the Great Depression, Campbell took the little money he had saved and withdrew to a rented shack in Woodstock, NY. There, he devoted nine or so hours every day to reading. He would later describe this five-year period as the “most important period of my scholarship and study.”
In January of this year, I packed up a box of dozens of books and drove to the beach in Florida with my golden retriever, Sophie. Each day, like Campbell, I read and read and read. When I returned to Highlands in February, I continued my monk-like practice of daily reading and writing.
Each morning, I wake up a bit before 4 am and begin my work from the sofa in my living room. My work has become a deep spiritual practice, and as a result, a calm, profound joy has settled into my heart.
Initially, my body and mind resisted this focus fiercely. My brain had become addicted to abbreviated thinking, disconnected strands of ideas, and distraction. I craved everything and anything that would push me out of my centered zone of Deep Work.
The harder my addiction to distraction pushed forward, the more determined I became to hold my ground.
Once I could hear again the whispers emanating from within me (because I was finally able to hear myself think), I knew just how much I missed that smart, wildly curious woman whose brain snacked on intellectual and spiritual puzzles. I also knew how far I had distanced myself from the young girl who used to let herself be transported by beautiful prose and compelling ideas.
I wanted her back, and I chose to defend her rebirth with every choice, every decision, every day.
Now at about 100 days into this process, I can attest to the incredible magic that is afoot in my life. Honestly, some days, the raw power of it threatens to completely push me under. There’s an inner tug of war between my former self and the one crawling out of the chrysalis.
I keep an observer’s watch, from a solitary post in a lighthouse, watching the horizon for brewing storms. I have to recommit every morning.
What is your shack in Woodstock? Where is it that you need to retreat (in mind and body) to recover the version of you that might have long disappeared?
What does it take for you to do your best work? And what are you willing to subtract from your daily life in order to make that happen?
if you let yourself get still for just a moment or two, you will hear the call to adventure. It will rise above the din, land in your ears, and fill you with equal parts excitement and fear. Pick up your rucksack and turn toward the sun. There will always be plenty of darkness to transcend, as well as more than enough light to find your footing in the cave of your own personal dragon.
I’ll see you there.