Blog Reviews

Review: The Hero's Journey

In the summer of 2010, I took part in a week-long training seminar in Santa Cruz called The Hero’s Journey conducted by Robert Dilts, Deborah Dilts, and Judith DeLozier. The seminar is also conducted in many locations around the world by Stephen Gilligan and Robert Dilts. Recently, I purchased the book by Gilligan and Dilts of the same name.

The book is a transcript of a four-day version of the seminar that the authors carried out in Italy. NLP books commonly use this seminar-transcription format. In one of the classic NLP books, Frogs into Princes, Grinder and Bandler frame this format as a “challenge to the reader” saying

We would like to reassure the reader that the non-sequitors, the surprising tangents, the unannounced shifts in content, mood or direction which you will discover in this book had a compelling logic of their own in the original context. If these otherwise peculiar sequences of communication were restored to their original context, that logic would quickly emerge. Therefore the challenge; Is the reader astute enough to reconstruct that context, or shall he simply enjoy the exchange and arrive at a useful unconscious understanding of a more personal nature?

This beautiful reframe and double-bind set up by Grinder and Bandler is equally applicable to The Hero’s Journey. I found some parts of the transcript to be rather bizarre, for example, the constant humourous use of the refrain Amen and other church references, but it is also true that I found myself reconstructing the context in my own mind and thus arriving at my own useful unconscious understanding of the situation. For readers of the book who have not attended the Hero’s Journey seminar, this reconstruction is going to be considerably more challenging.
The seminar and book are derived from Joseph Campbell’s works on mythology including The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While it is not necessary to read Campbell’s works, I would strongly recommend it as it provides much more context for understanding the underlying rationale of Gilligan and Dilts’ work.

A summary of the hero’s journey framework is also provided in The Hero’s Journey, and the stages of the journey provide the timeline for the seminar and the book. The stages of the journey are summarized in Day 1 as:

  1. The Calling
  2. The Refusal of the Call
  3. Crossing the Threshold
  4. Finding Guardians
  5. Facing Your Demons and Shadows
  6. Developing an Inner Self
  7. The Transformation
  8. The Return Home

In his work, Joseph Campbell traces these steps in a myriad of myths from around the world, showing how they reoccur in very diverse cultures and how they seem to form a strong part of the human psyche or collective unconsciousness of humanity. Campbell also suggests that each person can choose to view their life in terms of a hero’s journey and thus lead a more congruent life in which challenges are seen as opportunities for growth.
While Campbell provided the initial insight, it seems to be primarily the work of Stephen Gilligan in generative consciousness which has developed this initial insight into the concept and exercises which make up The Hero’s Journey. Robert Dilts has a great talent in integrating useful ideas into NLP and this book appears to be one of the fruitful results of his collaborations with Gilligan over many years since they first met in Santa Cruz in the early days of NLP. Many of the ideas of generative consciousness have found their way into Dilts recent formulations of NLP–what he calls Third Generation NLP. Much of this can be regarded as an extension and elucidation of the classic NLP idea of state. This is described in more detail below.

Generative Self

In Gilligan’s model of Generative Self, it is postulated that every person has access to three minds. The first mind is the somatic mind, the intelligence of the body, a concept that is becoming more and more recognized in research areas such as neuroscience (e.g. The Second Brain by Michael Gershon in which he talks about a independent network of 10 billion neurons in your stomach) and more widely in education (e.g. Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford). The second mind is the more generally accepted cognitive mind. The third mind, the field mind, is the most controversial as it postulates that there is something beyond us that we can somehow tap into it–an idea similar to Jung’s notion of the collective unconsciousness. The idea of the field mind also draws strongly on ideas from Aikido and other oriental concepts. Gilligan describes the field mind as follows:

Not only is there consciousness within you, there’s consciousness all around you. We all live in multiple, co-existing dynamic fields: history, family, culture, environment. You may work in the field of NLP, or live in an oppressive field of fear. How you relationally engage with these fields, and hopefully what is beyond these fields, is one of the great challenges of a human life.

If the word field in this paragraph were to be replaced by another word such as sphere, there would be nothing controversial at all. It is when Gilligan brings in concepts of energy perception beyond the body that some people may start to dispute the validity of the concept of field mind. However, another way to view the concept of field mind is to apply the NLP frame of As if … In other words, if a person simply acts as if a field mind really does exist, that can be highly effective in achieving a desired outcome even if the person does not really believe that such a field mind does exist.

Levels of Consciousness

Gilligan and Dilts propose that there are three levels of consciousness and that each of the three minds is at its own level of consciousness at any particular moment. The usual level of consciousness is the ego level. For example the ego level of the somatic mind is described as follows:

just walking through your day doing your daily business, the body is generally regarded as an “it”. Or you may regard it as a dumb animal that needs to be pushed through the day. You load it up with caffeine in the morning and rush off to work, pushing your body through a hectic day. Then at night, you come home, put food and maybe alcohol in the body and “relax”. You pass out, go to sleep, get up the next morning, and do it again….you’re not experiencing the magic in your body. You’re not experiencing the creative mysteries of the body. You don’t sense its connection to ancestral wisdom, to intuitive knowing, to courage and tenderness.

Excellent performers in any field tend to be at the highest level of consciousness, the generative state. This is the most appropriate level to respond to the kind of challenge that we perceive in our life as a hero’s journey, but when faced by a serious challenge the majority of people will actually regress to the lower level of consciousness, the primitive state. This is a “more basic, primordial, pre-ego state….more emotional energy, less linearity, more intense imagery.” This generally involves a loss of identity and can be caused by such traumatic events as losing a job, a relationship breakup, or the death of a loved one. It can also be entered into voluntarily, for example when people fall in love or spend the night dancing ecstatically, so entering the primitive state is not necessarily a bad thing. What is problematic is when people get stuck in that state and cannot access the resources that are available to them in the ego state or more usefully, the generative state.

Creating a Generative Self

The bulk of The Hero’s Journey is the presentation of examples and exercises for helping people to create a generative self, in other words, attaining the generative state in all three minds.

Somatic Mind: Align and Center

The authors postulate centering as the most vital part of moving the somatic mind into a more generative state. In this, they are clearly influenced by the techniques used in Aikido and other oriental practices which are used to quiet the mind and center the body.

Cognitive Mind: Accept and Transform

On the hero’s journey, the hero will often resist the call to leave the safety of the home village and may seem to be in an adversarial relationship with the forces that are calling him onto his quest. Much energy is lost in this conflict between the two parts of the hero – the part calling him forward and the part causing him to stay in the village. Instead of fighting it, Gilligan and Dilts suggest that the hero should be looking at what parts within himself the resistance represents. In other words, it can seen as a resource rather than as an enemy to progress.
Later on, the demons and monsters that the hero will meet (as described in the tales related by Joseph Campbell) also represent parts of the hero that are not in his conscious awareness. It is only when the hero learns to accept the existence of the demon, either inner or external, that it has the potential of becoming a resource and helping him become a more centered congruent person. The first step is to accept the shadow and the second step is to transform it into a resource. So it is that we see stories where the dragon becomes the friend of the hero after initially being an adversary. In the recent movie, Avatar, there was the very clear example of the hero overcoming the flying beast before it is willing to carry him.

Field Mind: Open beyond (the problem) and open beyond that

The authors define field mind as “a mind that is created by relationships between multiple minds … a knowing that happens beyond the individual mind.” Like the other minds, the field mind can be generative, non-generative, or even degenerative. For example, at some companies where Dilts has done consultancy, he finds that negativity has become such a prevalent concept that there is a perceptible degenerative field mind which prevents effective creativity and change.
The book offers exercises based on Eastern energy techniques such as creating a chi energy ball between the hands and then using this energy ball to create a second skin. The authors recognize that the use of this type of technique and language may be offputting to some readers, but note that it is very difficult to describe this kind of experience in normal language.


I have read through The Hero’s Journey twice as well as taking the seminar in person last year and still find that I have not absorbed many of the ideas sufficiently to really understand it at a deep level. The links with Campbell’s work could have been made more systematically and some of the demonstrations could have been edited down leaving more space for a fuller elucidation of the underlying ideas. While the seminar and book are clearly designed to be experiential, some more cognitive underpinnings for the experiences would have been helpful.
The Hero’s Journey is certainly worth reading. Carrying out the exercises with a partner or a group would enhance the reading enormously. Taking part in the seminar would be more beneficial still. If at that point, like me, you still haven’t absorbed the ideas fully, perhaps that is inevitable because mythology is a reflection of the deep unconscious mind and it is perhaps only at that deep unconscious level that we can ever truly understand these concepts.

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