If you want to teach to your weakness, place yourself in challenging situations – this is a warrior trait. Everything that happens to you, if you take a warrior’s position, is simply a challenge. It’s not a good challenge, it’s not a bad challenge, it’s not a pleasant challenge, it’s not an unpleasant challenge. Those are evaluative functions. It’s simply a challenge. – John Grinder, Turtles All The Way Down
Joseph Campbell’s evaluation of the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey serves as a metaphor for our own journey with chronic illness. In the previous part of this article we looked at the call to adventure. After getting sick and refusing the call, you eventually find the guide who will lead you to your goal of wellness.
The next phase of the journey is called initiation, the journey through the underworld. Here, there are a number of trials to test the hero. This is the part of your journey that can take the longest. In the various world myths, most of the stories take part during this phase. During their travels the hero always encountered strange beasts to defeat, mischievous deities, and any number of trials and tribulations designed to test the hero’s resolve and character.
So too in chronic illness, we often find the same lessons being taught us over and over again until we get it right.
Here are some of things I’ve experienced personally and observed in others in this part of the journey.
Changing normal dietary patterns
Before I became ill with Graves Disease, the only thing I knew how to cook was hot, spicy food. My Chinese Medicine practitioner advised me that I needed to eat the opposite in order to get well. This posed a great challenge, as it completely disrupted my routine.
Normally, I would decide what I wanted to eat in the moment of getting hungry. This usually led to eating take-away food. Now I had to plan my meals in advance. I had to write a shopping list and purchase ingredients I was unfamiliar with. I learned that supermarkets didn’t carry the things I needed to be eating, so I had to find where I could get them from, which usually required more planning.
This is all normal for me now, back then however it was challenging and disruptive. But I did it.
I had a patient not long ago who was trying to lose weight for health reasons. Their fitness training and exercise routine was inappropriate and taking them further into burnout. There weight was increasing and they were getting sicker. In order to achieve their outcome, they had change their belief about what was appropriate for their body and health at this time.
Similarly, another patient of mine was seeking help with high cholesterol levels. Before they came to me they were following the usual wisdom around low-cholesterol diets, and it was not working. This person also had to change their belief about what they’d been told about this condition, as the Chinese Medicine approach required them to do something quite radically different.
In both examples the challenge was in changing a personal belief about their illness and what it would take to get better. Their limiting belief previously had led them to where nothing ‘conventional’ was working for them, so they came to Chinese Medicine. Taking a leap of faith and changing their belief was a massive step for both these people.
You’ve made all these changes, you’re sticking to regular treatment regime, and still you can’t notice any difference. In fact there are times you feel worse.
“Will I ever get better?” you think to yourself. “Am I ever going to feel alive and happy again?”
Of course you are. Recovery from illness – like the journey through the underworld – is long. This is the trial of patience. The reality is that chronic illness doesn’t just hit you like an acute infection. This is a physiological dysfunction that has been steadily getting worse over time. From little things, big things grow.
It will take time to redress the imbalance and get your system functioning as it should. Patience is always rewarded in the end.
Of course there will be times when you get tempted to eat the old foods, live the old ways, etc. The more you succumb to these, the longer and harder it will take to recover.
However there is also no need to hold guilt and shame around slipping up from time to time. As long as it doesn’t become a pattern, that slice of pizza once or twice over a couple of months is not going to completely ruin all the amazing work you’ve put in so far.
Remember however that temptation will always be there to test us. Of course it’s easier to eat take-away, or avoid exercise. Of course it’s more convenient to just pop a pill rather than drink herbs and attend regular acupuncture sessions. The point is that easy and convenient way of living is what got you to this place.
Temptation tests us to see how badly you want to change. How much do you really want the new, extraordinary life? How far are you willing to go to feel real and vibrant.
There is also a flip-side to temptation: fanaticism, or the striving unattainable and unsustainable purity. This is where you find yourself so tempted that you force yourself into isolation, to get as far away as possible from what you are avoiding.
And whilst this may work for a while, others may get tired from your attempt to push your lifestyle onto them. Inevitably you are doomed to fail, as what may be working for you may not work for others.
If it only works whilst you live in a bubble away from family and friends, obviously it’s not going to be kept up for long once you crave connection with those you love
In the monomyth of the hero, after a time of extreme purity in order to avoid temptation, there follows a reconciliation. In the myths, the hero usually reconciles with some kind of father figure or patriarchal deity, which is usually interpreted as the ego.
In the case of chronic illness, this is when we come back into some kind of balanced lifestyle. You realise that life must still go on even as we heal and recover. This is the most important part, as you learn to temper the changes in diet, lifestyle, exercise practices, etc.
The gift of immortality
The ultimate goal in all these stories was the attainment of some gift, like the holy grail or the Golden Fleece. In many of the myths, this gift or treasure led to immortality, something that raised the hero up from humanity to something more god-like.
Having discovered the changes to diet and lifestyle that bring you back to a state of good health, and having learned how to temper it and begin living your life in a healthy manner, you eventually find yourself not just healthy again, but more vibrant and alive than ever before.
You have undergone all the trials, moved through your symbolic death, been tempted, gone to extremes, and then finally found the sweet-spot of health and happinesss that allow you to live in a thriving, energetic state.
The prospect of return
All of the trials and challenges during the initiation phase of the hero’s journey are about testing you and making you better than you were. It’s the way you change and evolve.
Throughout this phase, the guide is always there to support you and bring you the wisdom of how to overcome each challenge.
In the next part of this article, I will explore the third part of the Hero’s Journey, the return to the old life.
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