Hero’s journey, hermit’s journey

In his classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1st ed. 1947, 2nd ed. 1970), Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey in world myths as a “monomyth” insofar as the mythic process, symbols, and paths are universal to world cultures and a foundational aspect of primitive and ancient civilizations and cultures.

The hero’s journey begins with the “call to adventure,” the struggle against obstacles and trials, the discovery of the treasure, and the return to share the boon. But across the globe, the myth with its different heroes, settings, thresholds, menaces, boons, and obstacles, reflects the human psyche, the deep plunge into the unconscious, the extracting of courage and fearlessness to pursue self-development, the many obstacles, puzzles, mazes, conundrums encountered, until the breakthrough of the personality into self-discovery and self-actualization.

The hermit is an important figure at the outset of the hero’s journey, represented in folklore and mythology as the wise encouraging guide, the dispenser of protection, counsel, and well-being. The hermit may be presented as the solitary wise one dwelling in a forest or cave, that is, the source of strength in the receded consciousness that represents stability and a reservoir of compassion and wisdom, stern but reassuring. Thus, as the adventure begins,

Whether dream or myth, in these adventures there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as a guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography. …
The first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass …

The crone or fairy godmother in European fairy tales, the Virgin in Christianity, the African Mother of the Gods, the Native American Spider Woman, the Eastern Cosmic Mother, Dante’s Beatrice, Goethe’s Gretchen -— all manifest supernatural guidance, especially representative of the peace of Paradise and the cosmic womb. Masculine figures of aid and guidance are usually “some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith.” In higher mythologies, the masculine guide is the teacher, and especially the ferryman, such as Hermes or Thoth. [An accessible example, not mentioned by Campbell, is the character of the ferryman in Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.]

But things can go wrong. The individual can refuse the call, can turn away from self-development, can subordinate themselves to routines and forces around them in a stifled psychological morass. As anthropologist Ernst Becker noted (in his book The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd ed., 1970):

If you stay on the first or personal level for any length of time you may lead a way of life of an eccentric or a hermit, which few can do; even then it is doubtful whether they can do it without the symbols of allegiance or the solid memories of some of the higher levels [of psychological and spiritual consciousness] laid down in early years. The first level for man is unadulterated narcissism; it is pathological and it invites or is already mental illness.

Becker here clearly demarcates the recluse versus the historical hermit who has attained an ascent from personal to social to world-dwelling or secular to the sacred or spiritual level, what Becker identifies as the hierarchy of self-development, the “levels of power and meaning that an individual can choose to live by.”

Hence the common guidance by the experienced to the aspiring hermit: don’t do it if you are carrying emotional (or other) baggage. The true hermit is not one who has simply remained an a stage of infantile or child-like development or naivety, nor one who has failed at a social or secular stage and remained incapable of integrating the lessons and harm, simply one who fears or shuns the world and social contact. The true hermit must have transcended the stages and levels of self-development to confirm and assert a powerful spiritual purpose. Examples of unsuccessful, even moribund, recluses in this regard are occasionally well-documented, as in Raleigh Trevelyan’s “A Hermit Disclosed” or the contemporary Christopher Knight, the so-called “Maine hermit,” described in Michael Finkel’s biography Stranger in the Woods, who represents not a hermit but a pathological recluse. Note how popular culture erroneously, even fatally, conflates these pathological figures with “hermits.” On the contrary, these recluses represent what Campbell, echoed by Becker, points out as the refusal of the call, but, further, even lack the grace or character of the refusers found in the myths. As Campbell puts it:

The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of such desperate fixations. What they represent is an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships and ordeals. One is bound in by the wall of childhood; the father and mother stand as threshold guardians, and the timorous soul, fearful of some punishment, fails to make the passage through the door and come to birth in the world without.

Such is the fate of the weak refuser, creating of the self a victim to be saved. In fairy tales and myths these victims include Daphne, Brunhild, Briar-rose (Sleeping Beauty), Lot’s wife, the Wandering Jew, and Prince Kamar (of the Arabian Nights).

But, as Campbell puts it:

Not all who hesitate are lost. The psyche has many secrets in reserve. And these are not disclosed unless required. So it is that sometimes the predicament following obstinate refusal of the call proves to be the occasion of a providential revelation of some unsuspected principle of release.

And here, precisely, will be found the historical hermits, though Campbell footnotes Otto Rank’s preferred figure of the productive artist as this model. Artist or hermit-poet, hermit-meditator, etc., the figure now transcends even the run-a-day social figure and becomes a new category of hero. Campbell elaborates on the mental process.

Willed introversion, in fact, is one of the classic implements of creative genius and can be employed as a deliberate device. It drives the psychic energies into depth and activates the lost continent of unconscious infantile and archetypal images. The result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete (neurosis, psychosis: the plight of the spellbound Daphne); but on the other hand, if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost super-human degree of self-consciousness and masterful control. This is a basic principle of Indian disciplines of yoga. It has been the way, also, of many creative spirits in the West. It cannot be described, quite, as an answer to any specific call. Rather, it is a deliberate, terrific refusal to respond to anything but the deepest, highest, richest answer to the as yet unknown demand of some waiting void within: a kind of total strike, or rejection of the offered terms of life, as a result of which some power of transformation carries the problem to a plane of new magnitudes, where it is suddenly and finally resolved.

Thus the hermit reaches to embrace the capacity of the sage, not as mere world-denier but as aspirant to transcendence and the genius of a self-expression in accord with the hermit’s own tradition, a transcendence that is structured within a psychological balance, utilizing the gifts of art, insight, and compatibility.

Sentiment and hermits

In his poem “Old Age,” the poet Ou Yang Hsui (1007-1072) tells briefly of the burdens of getting sick when old: dry, dull eyes, aches, a fuzzy brain dull and forgetful.

When I was young I liked to read. Now I am too old to make the effort. Then, too, If I come across something interesting I have no one to talk to about it.

In theory, a solitary ought not to miss another’s presence but Ou Yang Hsui’s expression of loneliness is not unusual even among the worldly. Nor is a hermit immune to sentiment.

Kenneth Rexroth notes that in fact the Chinese Tang poets inclined to sentiment, especially with advancing age. The poets, male and female, thought of their forties as old age, referring to the first gray hair. By late forties, the course of their days was uncertain, and by fifty the end seemed near. Perhaps given the vagaries of life expectancy in antiquity, this sentiment was not unjustified. Studies of life expectancy in past centuries revised longevity based on survival into adulthood, so that older age was not infrequent, but the poets preferred a different criteria.

When the famous recluse Tu Fu (712-770) visited retired scholar Wei Pa, he reflected:

We sit here together in the candle light.
How much longer will our prime last?
Our temple are already grey.
I visit my old friends
Half of them ave become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn my bowels …

Reflections on transience are emblematic of Chinese and Japanese poetry, the genius of which is the subtle ability to address sentiment and philosophy and meld them into a poem. Tu Fu, rightly considered one of the world’s greatest poets, was more properly a recluse rather than a hermit, Confucian but revealing elements of Taoist and Buddhist thought. His revelation of sentiment is always within reflections on impermanence and melancholy, what the Japanese would later call mono no aware, the poignancy of things.

Impermanence seems a coarse philosophical term, a technical concept, but the poets appreciated the cyclical aspect of nature and came to identify it with seasons. The history of Japanese poetic technique culminates in use of images associated with seasons, illustrating the nature of things. Japanese hermit-poet Ryokan (1758-1831) mastered not only the poetic techniques but expressed them with personal sentiment. His motivation was clear: “If you don’t write of things deep inside your own heart, what’s the use of churning out so many words?”

Thus, concerning old age, Ryokan wonders: “My old friends, where have they gone?” and of old friends remarks: “Will we ever meet again? I gaze toward the sky. Tears streaming down my cheeks.”

In old age he had collected many memories, “poignant memories of these many years,” and more than a few times will admit in these reminiscences “my tears flow on and on,” or “a flood of tears soaks my sleeves,” or “I cannot staunch my flow of tears.” At other times, gazing upon the natural setting or seasonal events outside his hermit hut, he feels “limitless emotion, not one word.”

But not only do memories of old acquaintances move Ryokan. The sight of images reflective of the passing seasons also moves him to sentiment, images that became commonplace seasonal words and images in later haiku poetry. Thus Ryokan offers images and sounds such as:

rain and snow, monkey cries, river sounds ceasing at winter, the flight of crows, the chirping of crickets, “a solitary pine tree,” “lonely autumn breezes,” “wisteria completely faded,” the sound of a distant mountain stream, a cuckoo singing in a willow or the song of a nightingale, autumn breezes, the silently falling leaves or snow.

But, says Ryokan, as if in a confiding whisper: “I’ll tell you a secret: All things are impermanent!” In the end, he says, “My life is like an old rundown hermitage: poor, simple, quiet.”

Or, to switch from our Chinese and Japanese sentimentalists, we may further quote W. B. Yeats writing in Celtic Twilight, who assigns to sentimental souls “the visionary melancholy of purely instinctive natures, and all animals …” In the context of their sentiments and observations, Yeats might say that “Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”

Zen sayings

Eremitism East and West has often used pithy sayings to capture the essence of spiritual motives, to provide a useful tool of focus for the practicing hermit. The sayings of desert fathers and mothers was a key source of inspiration in the Western Christian world of hermits. The Zenrin kushui and related collections of Zen sayings were the counterpart in the Taoist and Buddhist eremitical traditions of China and Japan. In neither West nor East was formal study originally dismissed or an adherence to doctrine or belief dispensed, but, rather, the emphasis on practice called for counterpart tools for practice, and sayings fulfilled that need.

Where Christian sayings emphasized the practice of virtues and self-collection, the Chan or Zen sayings capture mind and insight of mind with a simple image or statement. Both Christian and Zen sayings are invaluable insights into the mechanics of practice versus the aggregation of doctrine and theory.

Of the over a thousand sayings collected in the Eastern traditions, here are just 26 favorites of the Zen tradition. Each saying is numbered according to the collection of A Zen Forest, which is taken from the Zenrin kushui, edited by Soiku Shigematsu.

Sitting quietly in a hut
White clouds rising over the mountain. (10)

One moon shows in every pool;
In every pool the one moon. (37)

Every voice Buddha’s;
Every form Buddha’s. (60)

I’ll explain in detail why Bodhidharma came to China:
Listen to the evening bell sounds.
Watch the setting sun. (86)

Rain bamboos,
wind pines:
all preach Zen. (92)
[Alan Watts used to say that the last verse was redundant and could be omitted.]

Round as the great void:
Nothing to add,
Nothing to take away. (110)

To display at last
Maturity of spirit. (127)

My mind is a void sky. (145)

Penetrate the nature of things,
making them your Self. (163)

Void, void, void, void,
finally all void. (164)

A crane flies over a thousand feet of snow;
A dragon breaks through the iced-over creek. (169)

Eat when hungry!
Sleep when tired! (210)

To feel the first rain after long drought;
To come across an old friend in a foreign land. (219)

The vacant sky:
no front, no back;
The bird’s paths:
no east, no west. (233)

Teaching beyond teaching:
No leaning on words and letters. (241)

The hustle and bustle of the mind in karma:
Within it is Nirvana. (249)

Walking, staying, sitting, lying. (250)

Words,words, words:
fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence:
a roaring thunderbolt. (306)

Watch all sentient beings
with merciful eyes. (482)

No guest throughout the year,
the gate remains closed.
No-minded all day,
feeling easy. (524)

The pine is green for a thousand years:
No one nowadays understands it. (563)

Magical power, marvelous action:
Carrying water, shouldering wood. (595)

Cutting the human yes and no.
To live with white clouds deep in the mountain,
the brushwood door shut. (682)

Ordinary mind is the Way. (1054)

The whole universe:
nothing ever hidden. (1060)

In Nothing, everything is contained:
limitless —
flowers, moon, pavilions … (1107)


In ancient languages, including Persian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Greek, the root for the word “paradise” means “garden.” The enclosed garden of antiquity suggested tranquility, and in many cultures symbolized innocence of consciousness, absence of shame and guilt, like the simplicity of a child, or the fragrant flowers within paradise. The idyllic paradise of these cultures was not heaven but an earthly place of rest. The Hebrew “sheol,” abode of the dead, was a deprecated paradise, a station of rest, however gloomy. Only consciousness, called by scriptural Genesis “the knowledge of good and evil,” disrupted and lost for humanity the inheritance of paradise, intended to be its permanent abode.

The sense of paradise as resting place is obliquely referenced in the canonical New Testament parable of the beggar Lazarus, who upon death dwells in “the bosom of Abraham.” More specifically, the New Testament cites the words of Jesus in the Passion wherein the crucified thief is assured that he will soon be with Jesus in paradise. As some Gnostic sources pointed out, Jesus would go to paradise (sheol?) upon his death because the spiritual abode of God was too distant to achieve and too distinct to accommodate material beings. To some Gnostics, heaven, the pleroma, could only be achieved with practiced knowledge, “gnosis.”

So while “sheol” may have become purgatory in Christianity, the concept of paradise lingered even through the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that paradise was originally both a corporeal and a spiritual place, intended by God as a dwelling for immortal human beings, while heaven was the dwelling place of angels, not humans.

Dante’s adoption of the title “Paradiso” to describe the third book of his Divine Comedy adopts a misnomer based on his complicated version of cosmology. Dante’s heaven includes multiple heavens trasversed physically through the solar system, from purgatory through paradise, and on past moon, sun, planets and stars, to Empyrean. Earthly paradise is barely mentioned (only in Canto 1) as Dante and Beatrice quickly ascend like astronauts through the heavens, literally. Paradise is merely a sighting along the way, “that place, made for mankind as its true home.”

But humanity had lost that “true home” and fallen back to earth to live in fallen nature due to being conscious of good and evil. Again, some Gnostics, disbelieving that God was the creator of a universe of suffering, argued that Adam had to learn the truth about Ialdabaoth, the half-maker, the demiurge, the one responsible for creating this vale of tears. Eve, they argued, having informed Adam from what she learned from Ialdabaoth’s mother, was punished by the vindictive demiurge and, with Adam, cast out of the only safe place.

Paradise dramatically reappears in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is wholly constructed on the traditional Genesis account of the fall, highlighting the expulsion of Adam and Eve. At the epic poem’s finale, the archangel Michael offers compensation to the couple, telling them that they will “possess / A Paradise within thee, happier far.” And so

They hand in hand with wandering step and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

The image of paradise effectively animated apocalyptic movements of the past, such as the Zealots in the Jewish-Roman wars, on to medieval and early modern millennarian and peasant revolts in Christian Europe, to the emergence of Mahdis in the Islamic world and periphery, and messianic cults in the West.

Apocalypticism characterizes messianic and utopian uprisings intended to overthrow exploitative occupiers in order to establish a just state or conditions. Historical Jesus scholars carefully parse the perceptions of Jesus in this apocalyptic tradition, from traditional Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophesy to what John Dominic Crossan calls “Mediterranean peasant cynic” pronoucing a decidedly different apocalype of the heart and the community. In this latter view, the on-going inspiration of Paradise is not distant and imaginary but recoverable in the utopian and intentional community movement, not simply Hesiod’s lost Golden Age but as a future and forthcoming realm, aspiring to a religious or secular kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven on earth. Historical apocalypticism has not always required the presence of God on earth, only a messianic personality, a guiding ideology, or communal effort.

Today apocalypticism only engenders wariness, as in the case of cults like Jonestown or evangelical dispensationalism, where apocalypse is Armageddon. These notions oppose the core apocalypticism of the historical Jesus and the notion of a kingdom of God within individual and the community, of a paradise here and now.


The term “disease” is today used exclusively to refer to a medical condition, specifically an absence of correct or healthy function. The root word “dis” originally connoted absence or lack, with a further meaning connoting bad, ill, or unfortunate, perhaps in a more metaphorical sense. Thus, for example, “disaster” was not a missing star, literally, but a bad star, an ill omen, a foreboding and prophetic moment.

In the broadest sense, collective thought has historically always feared, or awaited, disaster, always suspected the presence of a bad star. A strong sense of dis-ease has always haunted human efforts, especially social, cultural, and organizational ones. Perhaps this sense is evolutionary, as when primitive men (specifically men, versus women) pursued the hunt, courting the danger of injury or death, while restlessly passing night in woodland copses or hovels, fearful of the night sky, a turn in weather, the sudden appearance of one of the large creatures it hunted during the day. Add to this evolving stories or reports of spirits and malevolent natural phenomena and “dis-ease” was endemic. The dis-ease may have originated in guilt over their work or how they might have treated one of their clan, or in quiet moments a consciousness of frailty before a complex universe, as the experience of injury, sickness, and death became familiar. One may speculate that dis-ease has always been a component of human existence.

Even without a study of primitive anthropology, Freud came to call this “dis-ease” malaise, and to see it rooted in the tenuous status of human beings in their relationships to one another, and to nature and nature’s inevitabilities. While he saw religion as a displacement for psychological conditions, a history of religious thought does demonstrate the perennial attempt to unravel “dis-ease.”

Thinking in terms of culture one might assume “dis-ease” to be a strictly modern affliction, the doubt, restlessness, and anxiety characterizing contemporary life and philosophy. Contrast the Stoicism of antiquity, which Frank MacLynn (biographer of Marcus Aurelius) describes as entirely based on the classical assumption of Platonic and Aristotelian thought of an ordered and meaningful universe governed by God and ethics. Even the other philosophies of antiquity were not dissimilar. Epicureanism, with its emphasis on aesthetics, and the gentle materialism of Lucretius, were also built on pantheism and saw ethics as the only universal to which to cling. These philosophies understood the need to assuage the heart and spirit against dis-ease. In that sense, they shared the temperament of the contemporary East.

The mystery religions of antiquity contrasted to the temperament of the philosophers, but nevertheless did not contradict the desire to understand nature and find a resolution to dis-ease. They did, however, not assume that the God of logic was the true God or a single source of divinity. Their emphasis on bypassing reason and logic in favor of a subjective method of appropriating knowledge offered an alternative to the non-philosopher masses. A similar historical parallel is to be found in the Western scriptural religions of the era: Judaism and Christianity.

What limited the impact of Judaism outside of its immediate adherents was its sense of exclusivity and the peculiar nature of its notion of God, which relied heavily on a myth-making narrative and a narrow set of commandments and rituals. Judaism offered no individual path like the mystery religions, and no philosophical paths until later contact with Greek sources. Christianity suffered the immediate conflict of internal dissension, between the Eastern-style teachings of Jesus, and the institutional and ritualizing forces of Judaism. The victory went to the latter, and the sayings tradition was deliberately mingled with diluting and mythologizing elements of use to the institutionalists. Thus, no rigorous philosophical school emerged — unless the theologians count — and the insights of a mystery religion took on ritualized formulas more heavily Judaic than Greek.

Of special note in this era, therefore, is Gnosticism, which challenges both the institutional Judaic element in Christianity as well as the exclusivity of Christianity’s dependence on scriptural authority complementing the institutional. The Gnostics return to the fundamental dis-ease that should be addressed: the universality of pain and suffering. Some Gnostics went so far as to overthrow the biblical creation narrative and argue that the true God is entirely spiritual and did not create the world, that the world was created by an evil archon/pretender who contrived a flawed creation full of death and suffering.

Modern sholars, effectively maintaining the vital questions of the historical Gnostics, were concerned to rescue the original sayings and parables of Jesus against the interpolations of the orthodox Christians tussling for power as priests, bishops, and authorities, with useful narratives of the passion and resurrection suiting their succession narrative. The impact of the original sayings (as the Q Gospel) and especially of the Gnostic and other sectarian documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is specific to twentieth century spirituality, and complements the grand intellectual effort of the era to address dis-ease. For it is not the dis-ease only of contemporary life but even of the foundations of the civilization, for better or worse.

But gnosis as a method is common to all spiritual traditions. Judaism eventually developed a school of mysticism to transcend the aridness of Scripture anthropomorphism. The Christian mystics of Western Europe, especially Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, exemplify the notion of discerning the divine outside of the canon of authorized documents, dry and lifeless.

In Islam, Sufism was essentially a gnostic methodology, entirely original within the Muslim tradition but paralleling the mysticism of its predecessor religions in the West. In modern times, theosophists have been instrumental in popularizing elements of Western gnostic traditions and melding them with Eastern thought, and while frequently vague and naive, their historical efforts to explore Eastern documents and traditions has represented an effort to address modern “dis-ease.” The popularity of Eastern thought, then brought to the West as New Thought and New Age, plus keen Western interest in depth psychology and Hindu and Buddhist traditions have all highlighted the gnostic search for meaning that is not dependent on authority, reason, or cultural exclusivity but on the efforts of spiritually-minded individuals.