By James Rohr
Many authors have deconstructed the myth of the hero, but the unquestionable expert is Joseph Campbell. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the gold standard. I was first exposed to this book when I was a teenager, enamored with the tales of Odysseus and Luke Skywalker. Years later, as a Chinese medicine clinician, I was amazed how my patients dealing with cancer treatments were facing similar trials of the hero's epic adventures that Campbell described. I was further amazed at how those trials could be understood and supported with the sheng cycle of the 5 phases.
The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. - Joseph Campbell
For the cancer patient, the beginning is the diagnosis: the day of departure from just about everything she thought she knew about her life and her anticipated future. The hero begins as an ordinary person. She may or may not have a calling to adventure. Some beginnings to the hero journey involve being taken away in the middle ofthe night, often times unwillingly. Aboriginal culture would involve stealing a boy away as part of the initiation. This ‘walk-about' may last years, as the boy learns about the world around him and the world inside of him. Having been taken away during the night, they are taking the boy from his slumber in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, and bringing him into the light of consciousness.
Many cancer patients view the diagnosis as the moment in time when they were often rudely awakened from the comfort of their routine. For many, especially women, a diagnosis of breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer often happens during a routine check up. When this happens, the patient often feels as if she's been suddenly pulled from her own walking slumber, from the comfortable numbness of her routine. For others, if they had shown signs of disease, they may have told themselves it was nothing. Symptoms may be only annoying until they reflect a deeper, potentially life-threatening, disease. Then, the symptoms often become a harbinger for a total re-thinking of life and death.
For those dealing with cancer, the diagnosis is an invitation to learn about the world around them and the world inside them. They may begin to confront questions such as "Why am I alive? What have I done with my life? Do I deserve this? Am I ready to die? Am I prepared to keep living? What do I want to do differently?" Just as the hero realizes that the world is no longer what she used to think it is, the newly diagnosed patient may realize that there are no more guarantees in life. During this phase, the newly diagnosed might venture to gain as much knowledge as possible. They scour the internet looking for information, treatments, cures, and support. They learn about cellular structures, lymph nodes, pharmacology, toxicology, and health insurance. And just as the soon-to-be-initiated hero may wonder how she arrived to this departure from her ‘normal' existence, she pushes onward, knowing that in the upcoming trials, she will need all of her wits and strength. At this point, the patient begins awakening to the world inside and out. However, learning that manifests change at the core of existence often does not happen easily. The rest of the journey will present trials that shape these changes. Standing now at the threshold of adventure, the hero must deal with the ‘shadow guardian' at the gate before continuing with the initiation.
5 Phase Cycle: Water
This is the beginning of the journey, the water phase. The seed of our potential and authentic nature resides in the Kidneys. The depths of the water can be overwhelming. As calm as things may be on the surface, the depths are cold and dark, sometimes with unknown creatures lurking below. Exploring the Water phase is a time to hibernate, to go within, and to get to know the unfamiliar. The hero begins to consider the authenticity of her life and how her potential has so far been expressed. She begins a new cycle that will reveal parts of herself she may have never known.
Kidney 6, "Reflecting Sea", master point of Yin Qiao. This point, as exemplified by its name, calls forth the imagery of searching into water in order to see one's self. Kidney 6, in its ability to address the quality of yin in the body, is also able to help process excess accumulations that prevent us from seeing ourselves clearly. Urinary Bladder 63, "Golden Gate"-This point prepares the hero for the next stage of the journey where she will meet the Guardian at the gate. UB 63 helps us to open our senses and remain alert, without fear, for whatever the future may hold.
There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragonbattle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).
The adventure that waits beyond this threshold is mystical. It is a realm that can challenge the beliefs one has about what is ‘normal', what ‘should' be, and what is ‘possible.' Entering into this alternate landscape is not something that just happens. It is a journey that is earned, either by besting the shadow gate-keeper or by sacrificing part of the self. In either situation, the hero passes through this threshold, already changed. But this change is only the beginning. For the cancer patient, the initial stages of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery often represent the shadow gate-keeper. The diagnosis calls her to this threshold of the unknown, and once treatment begins, she begins to change, physically and chemically, while even deeper emotional transformations still await.
A common occurrence for the hero to gain entrance through the threshold involves being attacked. The mythic gate-keeper, exacting a toll of proper payment, demands flesh from the hero. Heracles attacks the monster from the ocean by diving into the mouth of the beast and slicing it from the inside out. The hero may have to descend into ‘the belly of the whale' in order to overcome the monsters that plague her landscape. The hero is often attacked, sometimes rendered disabled, dismembered, or dead, to be sent to another world (eventually to enable her ultimate resurrection).
Overlaying this crossing of the threshold with the cancer patient, the hero's story becomes very real where the patient has had surgery or amputations, with limbs removed to prevent the spread of cancer. Chemotherapy also relates to this part of the hero myth, as the chemicals are intended to destroy the body's immunity, literally rendering it disabled.
With the body's natural protection and identity destroyed, the hero then finds herself in the land of ‘strange, yet intimately familiar forces.' She begins to descend deeper into herself. Looking at herself with a new perspective, she recognizes some aspects of herself as being familiar, and other sensations and thoughts are weird and foreign. While the physical body may be altered, more importantly for the hero is the annihilation of her previous idea of who she is or was. Campbell quotes Ananda Coomaraswamy saying "No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist." The contemporary cancer treatments, killing off the immune system, radiating cells, or dissecting and amputating the body, clearly demarcate the destruction of one type of being and pave the way for a different state of self.
The ‘zone of magnified power' awaits beyond the threshold, so the treatment is just the beginning. The patient, utilizing the diagnosis and subsequent treatment as the call to this adventure of self discovery and transformation, gives shape and form to a new meaning to existence. Dealing with the obstacles in the mystical land, a territory that is beyond the reach of most humans distills out the mundanity of day-to-day life, leaving an appreciation for the subtle and awesome.
5 Phase Cycle: Wood
The guardian phase is related to the cycles of Wood. Growth for the Wood, especially in toxic environments, can be difficult. And yet, destined to mature, the Wood continues upward and inward, reaching to the sky and growing roots deeper into the ground. And just as the shell is annihilated for the growing plant, so may the hero's body become altered, unrecognizable, and transformed. What remains is evidence of growth.
Liver 1, "Great Esteem", Horary Point-To reinforce the integrity of the Wood, support the winds of change that may be blowing. Gall Bladder 40, "Wilderness Mound", Source point-GB 40 provides a place to go for perspective, clarity, and vision. This is a point that helps the hero regroup before forging ahead back into the depths of the wilderness.
Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where she must survive a succession of trials.
The series of trials make up the arduous challenge characteristic of the ‘ordeal'. In the cancer treatment, a physician or other survivors may speak of symptoms and side effects that may or may not happen, but no one knows for any certainty. The chemotherapy, the caustic agent, when applied to the body of the hero, will interact uniquely with that person. There are no guarantees and the hero alone will have to outlast the treatment. This phase of the process can be long and drawn-out. Often times, the same questions will be confronted as were initially posed at the threshold. "What does it mean for me to be alive? What do I want with my life? How do I feel about death? Am I following the path with heart?" The relentless questioning and honest attempts to answer them can be merciless. One obstacle overcome will often be presented with another obstacle and yet another. One round of chemo is completed and mostly recovered from until another infusion begins. One lump removed and another one found. Each trial helps to shape and refine the hero. During this time, ‘there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, fleeting ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land' (p. 109). The hero cultivates patience and unrelenting perseverance, albeit forged in the hottest fires, journeying through the land of darkness into the depths of her own heart.
5 Phase Cycle: Fire
The Ordeal phase is related to the Fire element. Here, the ecstasies and victories are evidence of the shen experiencing new heights and insights. The questioning related to the ordeal is related to the shifting heat in the Fire, irritating and challenging the Fire element. Can the Small Intestine sort out the authentic from the mundane? Can the emperor find peace within the unrest? A Fire phase that is balanced is no longer afraid of the heat and is able to bring forth the virtues of joy in the present moment regardless of its surroundings.
Heart 4, "Spirit Path"-This is a point to help clear heart fire, to find peace and sustainability in the journey. A fire that burns too brightly and too quickly will lose fuel. Heart 4 helps to calm the heart and integrate the ecstasies without damaging the jing. Small Intestine 4, "Wrist Bone", Source Point-SI 4 as a source point will inundate the small intestine with pure, original qi so that it can clearly discern what is useful and what can be left behind. As the hero is being refined, the Small Intestine must be strong to adequately process the illusions that have prevented the hero from living completely consciously.
Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar, yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten her (tests), and some of which give magical aid (helpers).
As alone as the journey feels at times, the hero usually encounters and utilizes the help of an aide. Often times, this is someone that seemingly appears ‘out of the blue' with information that helps to protect, rehabilitate, guide, or direct the hero. This person reenergizes the hero, clearing the view from the North Star so the hero can navigate his course once again. Even when the hero is unsure of where she is going, the helper illuminates the path. For the hero cancer patient, this help often appears in the form of a complementary or alternative medicine technique or practitioner. Finding him or herself in a position never before imagined, the hero calls upon the acupuncturist to help with nausea and fatigue. Or the hero is introduced to biofeedback as a way of gaining control of thoughts and emotions. Another patient stumbles across the number for an integrative medicine physician, who provides the hero with natural herbal remedies to support healing.
During the ordeal, patients may discover who they can actually count on to help. Some ‘friends' disappear during hard times. These people are simply uncomfortable around illness, for it reminds them of their own mortality. Yet, on this mythical hero journey, other helpers appear. It is the hero's responsibility to keep her eyes open, so that she does not miss the assistance that appears right in front of her. This distillation of our friends and local support is just one of the purifications that occur. The hero's internal self is being refined, descending into her own ‘spiritual labyrinth', simplifying her life into what is of utmost importance. For some chemotherapy patients, eating is the single most difficult challenge of every day. Passion for heated debate about politics or sports supersedes the need to eat. Concerns for mortality override concerns about what to wear. Life becomes distilled and concentrated in a way that is more potent and vibrant than the hero may have imagined possible.
5 Phase Cycle: Earth
During this phase, the hero receives nourishment. The Earth provides help in the form of ripe fruit, healers, or messengers. This is the time to focus on refueling the mind and body as the hero makes her way to the next level, to Metal, to the actualization of these transformations. As many Chinese medicine practitioners appear during the Earth phase of the hero's journey, it is no surprise that much of the treatment focus is on supporting the earth, harmonizing the spleen and stomach, so the hero can be able to eat and drink, to restore that central axis of qi creation.
Spleen 3, "Supreme White", source point and horary point-Functioning as both the source and horary point, Spleen 3 is incredibly effective at tonifying the spleen. In this way, the central axis is strengthened and the body is able to create qi. Stomach 25, "Heavenly Pivot"- Stomach 25 fortifies the hero's core, providing power and balance. This point reinforces the Earth's job in staying centered during major transitions, constantly processing food and the environment to provide qi for the entire cycle.
When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward... Intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).
The final ordeal for the hero leads to the pinnacle of the transformation. In myth, this has several options. Sometimes, the hero is able to marry the goddess. "Woman" says Campbell, "in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know." For a patient unable to embrace and process fears of the unknown, of the feminine, of how to properly care for and nurture the self, gaining this knowledge on the journey will have a profound impact on his internal energy.
This is the acceptance of yin. For women dealing with breast or ovarian cancer, where it is surmised family history may have a role, their cancer is an opportunity to reevaluate what they believe it means to be a woman and what is or is not inevitable. When treatment involves mastectomies or oophrectomys, the physical woman is castrated. Their hero journey involves making peace with the expectations of what it means to be feminine. When this ‘goddess union' occurs, the marriage of the feminine within the individual happens, the energetic composition of the hero is irrevocably enhanced.
Other times, the hero finds peace with the father. This oneness with the male, with the yang energies in the psyche of the hero, has deep connections to the embracing of the mystery of the cosmos. There is a new sense of responsibility, of the understanding of the workings of the environment inside and out. The ego is transcended and the hero ‘has been divested of his mere humanity and is representative of an impersonal cosmic force...he is purged of hope and fear, and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being." This is the letting go of what ‘should be' and the acceptance of ‘what is'. But, it is an acceptance of ‘what is' with understanding to the depths and mystery inside of all that exists. Possibilities are infinite and strength is patience to observe without judgment, to nourish the seed and allow the flower to bloom.
For men, this can be prostate cancer, as the prostate challenges a man's ability to create and express to the world his authenticity. Emotionally and spiritually confounded by expectations of what they ‘should' do, of what it means to be a man, manifests physically with the cancer. For women, atonement with the father is the reconciliation of an innate desire to create and be sexual, subjugating the suggestions of how a ‘girl should behave'. Others find a peace that is beyond any male/female distinction. This is the total reconciliation of the illusion of ‘self' and ‘other'. With this awareness, the hero embraces the paradoxes of life and death and exists peacefully within their pocket of time and space. At this point, life and death is a matter of conscious choice.
The new bodhisattva is humbled, being a creature just like everything in the world around her, readjusts her impulses to matters concerning only the heart and the stillness of the mind. One may be empty in life and empty in death, but it is within such emptiness that the soul has room to breathe, and creativity ample space to manifest. This part of the journey is the ‘ultimate boon' to be brought back to the community. The hero is transformed, and whether the hero ever speaks of the journey, or allows her presence and battle scars to speak for themselves, the hero herself and her awaiting community will never be the same.
5 Phase Cycle: Metal
During this phase, the journey is actualized. Metal, as the integrator of celestial air with the human body, reconciles the dichotomy of what it means to be a spiritual being in a physical body. The harvest of all the previous labor is realized. The struggles that have faced the hero are appeased, balancing the yin and yang in the body. Pathological stories that the hero had told herself are released so that the spirit can fully manifest in the physical form. As the container of the entire process of growth and exploration, in this ultimate boon the entire spectrum of what is possible in the human form is felt. From this place, the hero must return. The five phase cycle begins anew, allowing the
gift from the Metal to be nourished in water and to grow once again. Acupuncture Points: Lung 3, "Heavenly Palace", Window to Heaven-Lung 3 assists with this integration of celestial energy within the human form. The hero is inspired, connected, and aware of her self-worth. Lung 3, as
a point often used to treat grief, can help the hero let go of the final illusion that was blocking her from this unification with the eternal and the mortal. Large Intestine 1, "Merchant Yang", Horary Point-LI 1 reinforces the cleansing that has happened throughout the process. The letting go, the transformations, the excision of physical and emotional toxins are supported with the proper functioning of the large intestine official.
The final work is that of the return... At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world.
For the return, so much depends on the consciousness of the people who surround you. The comment, "are you feeling like your old self again?" is something an uninitiated person asks. A hero returning from the depths of illness, especially if the disease process was not overly long or drawn-out, will encounter people who expect you to return to life as it was before the illness. This return is challenging because the hero may have the physical appearance of being ‘better', or being the ‘same as before', while internally any number of significant changes have, and may continue to be, happening. The hero knows that it is impossible to go back to ‘the way things were'. The hero is changed, now
and forever. And with those changes, the hero does not want to go backwards. The gifts of the boon of the journey have been acquired with the purpose of bringing that experience back to her community. The entire trajectory of her life is altered.
The infrastructure for our current cancer patients is not yet there to honor this homecoming. Many patients remark that after months of chemotherapy and radiation, of interacting with nursing staff and physicians, when their cancer treatments cease, their medical routines curtailed, they don't know what to do. The medical staff simply releases the patient, telling them to take care and come back in three to six months for follow-up. No celebration, no asking them what they may have learned from this experience, no honoring of the dragons slain and thresholds passed. After a vision quest, it is normal for the shaman to ask the quester what vision he may have seen while questing: ‘what message do you bring back for your people?' Imagine if the majority of healthcare workers took this approach with their patients. The hero journey would be honored and the hero would have the opportunity to share the visions from the mystical other-world. The tale would remind us that it is precisely the promise of death, which the hero confronts head on, that teaches us all how to live.
Five Phase Cycle: Water
We return to the same phase where we started: Water. However, the hero is transformed and the task that lies ahead is integrating the journey into the physical world. The seed of this evolution is planted and nourished, to take a new form in the more mundane physical world. The hero must be mindful to allow the mystical, limitless, and spontaneous to manifest in a world where the uninitiated say those things aren't possible. But the experience and survival of the hero and her journey are evidence that anything is possible.
Kidney 7, "Returning Current", Metal Point: to receive the energy of metal to manifest fully into the water phase. As a point that tonifies the Yang, Kidney 7 also helps to propel the change into the next cycle of generation and promotion. Urinary Bladder 23, "Kidney Shu", Back Shu for the Kidney: This point reinforces the Kidney as the residence of the mingmen. As the hero returns home, she will need a strong back and willpower to navigate the delusions held by those who have not been on a similar journey. The return can be just as difficult as the journey itself, and UB 23 supports the Kidneys to ensure the jing is preserved.
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