Thursday, June 23, 2011

Preface & Commentary

Unsolicited Commentary

“Richard, thanks so much for your fascinating analysis of the Contact film. Your skillful and illuminating abilities gave me exactly what I needed to work through some of my experiences over the past few years. I have always struggled with how much of life is ‘destiny’ versus ‘choice’, and would like to explore that dynamic further with you.”

Rebecca Tsosie

“I'm busy watching movies that I've loved and that have meant something to me and applying the mythological lens to them. I'm amazed at how it's helping to clarify things in my own life and giving me the perspective to be able to move forward. Please never underestimate the value of what you're doing. Many, many thanks.”

Ginny Laurent

"After learning about risk-taking through your film study, I have Crossed the Threshold and am on this particular Quest, gaining invaluable skills for understanding how all the traditional stories retold by humankind can help me comprehend and improve my own life. Thank you!”

Elinor Mavor

“Richard, thanks for showing me creative doors I never knew were there. In a large way you have inspired me to think for myself and be open to the possibility of everything.”

Lisa Mize

“Thanks Richard, for your wisdom and for leading by example in both worlds! Of all the teachers I have known, you are the one who helps me the most in the practical matters... Witnessing your journey taught me how to absorb wisdom, interpret it, and apply it to life.”

Elza Maalouf


In graduate school I studied the classical philosophies of the ancient East and West, also called the Perennial Philosophy of the Axial Age. When I completed my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to teach to a general audience. I wanted to communicate the collective wisdom of the classical philosophers—some who have been called great world teachers—to those personally interested in self-discovery.

The problem was to find a way to relate to students the deep plunge into the unconscious the great world teachers spoke of. This was "heavy material", often couched in metaphor, that takes repeated exposure to seep in and form new neural nets in the mind.  I was concerned how well the metaphysical writings of the various self-knowledge teachers would translate to those who may have only a veiled understanding of what a mystical dive into the depths of the psyche might entail. My book The Education of Adam Speaker was considered by many students to be a very good vehicle for grasping the ideas of the perennial philosophers, perhaps because I had written it in a dialogic, conversational, story format. Still, I was often dealing with obscure and sometimes heretical source materials (e.g., the Fragments of Heraclitus and the Gnostic Gospels of Jesus). I knew there must be other ways for self-knowledge inquirers to relate such deep ideas to their own lives.

As The Fates would have it, I kept bumping into the work of the twentieth century mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was completely versed in not only in all the world’s spiritual philosophical traditions, but also the depth psychology of Carl Jung. I found Campbell’s concise yet cogent explanation of the hero’s journey archetype, which he laid out in his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to be an able blueprint for plunging into the deeper mind, as it were.

Through his writings and lectures, Campbell completely illuminated the powerful idea that the quests we all face in our lives in the outer world are tangible expressions and mirrors of the more important inward journey we are also taking—the deep psycho-spiritual adventure we must navigate to reach anything approaching enlightenment…or at least a rich life that makes sense with all its heavenly highs and hellish lows. Though Campbell was a brilliant thinker and writer, his prosaic style was a bit old-fashioned, Edwardian perhaps, and I wanted to find a more accessible medium to convey his stages of the hero quest.

It hit me one day that film might be a useful means of communication, simply because everyone loves to watch a good movie. This was the late 1990’s and my initial research revealed that not much had been written academically on using film to teach the hero’s journey and its parallel psycho-spiritual meaning for the individual. And yet there were countless films out there that, consciously or not, fully utilized the hero's journey motif--everything from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars. So I began a deep perusal of probably a hundred Hollywood feature films over a two-year period, and identified a dozen that I thought would best demonstrate Campbell’s seventeen stages of the heroic quest.

The eventual result was a class I created called Quest Mythology in Film, one of the most popular educational events of my teaching career. I taught this 12-month  class for three years, with over seven hundred participants. We watched and discussed all the selected films together, and I wrote a paper detailing my interpretation of each film in the context of Campbell’s stages of the heroic quest, with substantial student input. It was a very co-creative process and a huge learning experience for me. In this blog I have published the twelve film papers.

Recommended Instructions for this Blog:

I encourage you to read the first two chapters which respectively introduce the idea of hero mythology in film, and outline the stages of the hero quest. Familiarize yourself with the stages. Then, before you read one of my papers on a particular film, rent and watch that film first, in a dark, quiet room (just like in a theater!) and simply enjoy the film in a relaxed state of mind. (In the class I taught, I would mildly hypnotize the students before we began watching each film. This helped activate the unconscious mind so students might be able to recognize the stages intuitively without thinking or analyzing). After you have viewed the film, make some notes about whatever stages of the hero’s journey you might have noticed. Then read the corresponding paper in the blog that provides my interpretation.

NOTE: You will notice when you read through the chapters that mythically interpret the films, that I will often Capitalize and/or Italicize terms for the various stages of the Hero's Journey, such as Crossing the First Threshold. I will also do this with certain words that convey archetypal meaning, such as Warrior or Trickster. My intent is to get you to feel these word-ideas from a place of wonder instead of thinking about them through the lens of concrete determinism. It might be an academically unacceptable literary technique, but I am no longer in the academy.

Contact me if I can help, and enjoy the ride!

Chapter 1: Hero Quest Mythology in Film

American feature films are often based on a mythological theme known as the hero quest. Though the quest is often about finding some reward or answer, in the process the hero ends up finding some previously unknown part of him or herself. This gives the hero-protagonist a strong sense of coming home, or as Susan Mackey-Kallis says in her book, The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film, "…finding a home in the universe. Home is often the literal home from which the hero sets out, but more significantly, it is a state of mind or way of seeing that was not possible before the hero departs."

Mythologist Joseph Campbell emphasized that the hero's journey "is a labor not of attainment but re-attainment, not discovery but re-discovery. The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time." This too suggests rediscovering one's home. Also significant is that the hero quests in mythology, and the quests we enact in our own lives, though taking place on the playing field of the outer world with concrete characters and conditions, are really about exploratory journeys to the interior of our psyche (soul). In short, life is soul work!

A Higher Way to View Films

As Mackey-Kallis notes, "There is a limited amount of scholarship…that draws together the elements of quest mythology, Perennial philosophy, and Jungian psychology in the criticism of Hollywood cinema." This hole in human knowledge makes for an exciting opportunity to utilize perhaps the most popular and readily available American art form (film) as a means for personal growth and self-discovery. We do this already to some degree when we go to the movies. A certain film, scene, or character may move us in some way (activate an archetype). We talk about it excitedly for awhile over a beer or ice cream cone after the show, but pretty much leave it at that. But if we…

(1) develop a general working knowledge of the stages of the hero's journey cycle (as laid out by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces);

(2) become familiar with some primary archetypes (universal motifs residing in the unconscious that come forth in dreams, and often spike upward into human behavior and daily events, as expounded by psychoanalyst Carl Jung); and

(3) develop a fundamental understanding of the Perennial philosophy (wisdom traditions of the classical East & West),

we can then deeply experience a film in a psycho-spiritual context. We can let the film send us into the crooked labyrinths of our unconscious, there do some soul work and come to some realization on the issues and problems present in our own lives. We can let the film characters and their circumstances serve as inspiration and a model for our own necessary quests.

The Stages of the Evolution of Consciousness

Hero quests are about journeys homeward, but to a home we have never known. In the life stages of a human being, there is a forward movement from infancy (pre-consciousness) to adulthood (consciousness). At some point in adulthood, though, it is realized that something has not been completed. As a part of our personal growth we have to delve into the unconscious contents of our psyche to confront and assimilate our own darkness and other regressive energies, to work on unresolved issues to come to psychic balance in a process Jung called individuation (literally, "becoming undivided").

But the good news is that the unconscious is also loaded with gold. It is where our as yet unrealized dreams and life ambitions are stored, bound up in the “thou shalt not” dictates of our particular tribe or society. The hero quests of all cultures and across great spans of time tell stories about brave souls who through their challenging adventures have come to individuation and greatness. They rise above the times into which they were born. They have returned home in the inward sense, but this is not backtracking to a pre-conscious state.

A good example is given in the Garden of Eden story of Judeo-Christian mythology. Eden is a metaphor for the realm of pre-conscious, infantile bliss. By eating the apple that grows on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we leave Eden for the realm of the knowledge of opposites, that is to say, the dualistic world of joy and sorrow and all the other this and that’s. We have now come into basic consciousness. In this new world we first see the pairs of opposites, including our own light and darkness, as being in contradiction to one another.

To return to the blissful Garden with a new, mature way of seeing, at some point in our life we must plunge into the unconscious and, through our own hero quests, resolve the problem of the opposites. This is what is represented in the biblical myth by eating from the other tree in the Garden, the Tree of Eternal Life (symbolized by the character Jesus). Each of us, through our unique version of the hero quest, must come to the more enlightened point of view that sees opposites not as in contradiction but in coincidental harmony (the basic message of perennial philosophy). So we return home to the Garden of Bliss, but not the naïve bliss of our pre-conscious state. We can never go back to the way things were, but we can go back to that same place with a new way of seeing, which might be called a state of transconsciousness--the enlightened psychological state that was not possible before the journey. In religious terminology this would be the meaning of being “born again.”

Incidentally, the preceding example illustrates the power of reading religious stories mythically, as symbols for the story of you, and letting go the left-brain approach which wants to emphasize or prove the historical or geographical truth of a religion, and literally submit to its god or savior figure. There is no Garden or Promised Land "out there" but only in here--coming home is an intimate, inner experience in the mysterious depths of consciousness. In addition to the religious tales, we can use any good stories as metaphors to inspire us into heroic journeys…hence the power of well-produced films.

Linear is Circular

The hero quest, which will vary greatly from person to person and culture to culture in its locality, character, and plot, will always be an outer adventure that consists of:

Departure >> Initiation >> Return

Inwardly, the journey moves through the following psychological states:

Preconscious >> Conscious >> Unconscious >> Transconscious

Mackey-Kallis describes this movement through the stages of consciousness as "outward, downward, inward, and homeward." These stages refer both to the development of the individual and to the collective evolution of humanity. In one sense this developmental journey is teleological, that is, it has a design and an end purpose. The Western religions accent this aspect and look to a final resolution of the world according to "God's plan." And it is true that the hero is on a quest for a reason, to gain something by the "end" of the story. But in another sense, the journey through the stages of consciousness is circular. There is the prime theme of returning home.

As heroes we enact different quests, and often spiral around to make the same ones on more sophisticated levels as we move through life. What we eventually learn is to keep questing into more adventures, but from the center of our psyche that both embraces and transcends the problem of the opposing forces we will no doubt encounter, applying what has been learned from prior quests. This idea of the inner center, the source of true strength and power, is what is accented in Eastern thought.

So the direction of the journey is linear in one sense and circular in another. It is important to be able to hold these two visions of the quest in one's mind simultaneously. In doing so one gains a deeper understanding of the true nature of quests, and of paradox itself.

On Myth

It is also important to have a basic understanding of what myth is. We can borrow from Campbell, who says that myths:

"are the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour forth into human cultural manifestation";

"are the world's [archetypal] dreams";

"[provide] clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life"; and

"offer a way of experiencing the world that will open us to the transcendent that informs it."

For Campbell, myths are not to be considered as true or untrue in the conventional sense. That would be a complete misreading of myth. Myths are tools or vehicles we humans can use to build healthy connections between our everyday conscious selves and the mysterious source of consciousness which is also within us. Both Campbell and Jung argued that myths must be kept alive--and always seem to be--even through dark or difficult transitional periods in history.

Carl G. Jung, the noted Swiss psychoanalyst who influenced Campbell’s work, said that the archetypal foundations of the unconscious on which myths are based are so important for a culture that "in reality we can never legitimately cut loose from them…unless we are prepared to pay the price of a neurosis, any more than we can rid ourselves of our body and its organs without committing suicide."

Similarly, Campbell used the term "mythic dissociation" to describe the situation Jung refers to. Living without myth results in an actual split between the conscious and unconscious aspects of one's psyche. This leads to a sort of spiritual schizophrenia, such as we have today, wherein most of us are overly concerned with the conventional routines of life: physical survival, a sense of personal security, economic success, doing what society expects of us, etc. This worldview interprets life mostly through the physical sciences, social sciences, economics, and politics. In doing so we are almost completely split off from our own wellsprings of awe and wonder for life. We block the upward flow of mystery from our unconscious into our conscious awareness, and squelch our sense of gratitude and reverence for the mystery that life is.

We are living in a time when most people interpret life through rational positivism and logical reductionism, or revert to the archaic religions for safe haven (harder to do as they are all in great upheaval, driven more and more by desperation, and clung to in fear of what might happen upon physical death). Therefore, if we are to keep life vibrant and elastic, we must now turn to the artist, the writer, and the musician to keep our mythic imagination alive. Campbell argues, "…unless the symbols, metaphors [of myth] are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them [a particular culture]." Jung emphasized similarly that the primary role of art is to "dream the myth outward" so we can find new interpretations of the unconscious archetypes. Campbell again:

"Anyone writing a creative work knows that you open, you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself. To a certain extent you become the carrier of something that is given to you from what have been called the Muses, or in biblical language, 'God'…Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone. So when one hears the seer's story, one responds, 'Aha! This is my story. This is something that I had always wanted to say but wasn't able to say.' "

The Mythic Power of Film

Because the realm of myth, religious vision, and dream are intimately connected, film can be a powerful conduit for the activation of the unconscious. As film scholars Davies, Farrell and Matthews have noted in "The Dream World of Film," film sequences can take the form of "memories, reflections, or dreams, where images combine, fade, or dissolve, contrary to physical restrictions of time, space, object constancy, and causality." Jung noted in his work that the archetypes more easily "arise in a state of reduced intensity of consciousness (in dreams, delirium, reveries, visions, etc.). In all these states the check put upon unconscious contents by the concentration of the conscious mind ceases, so that the hitherto unconscious material streams, as though from opened side-sluices, into the field of consciousness."

And as Mackey-Kallis notes, "The film-viewing state is also marked by passive receptivity. One's body is relatively inert while one's mind is open to the audio-visual stimulation presented…the viewer, like the dreamer, may be more conducive to the unconscious and its archetypes." She elucidates how strikingly similar the film-viewing process is to dreaming:

"…just as the viewer moves from light to dark as he enters the cinema, so does the dreamer as sleep begins. When the lights come up on the screen/inner eye, the dream/film begins. The viewer/dreamer often finds himself in a liminal world where fantasies of fears can be played out before his eyes--voyeurism (the pleasure in secret looking), scopophilia (the vicarious pleasure in being 'looked' at), fetishism (the investing of objects with special powers), nightmares (the harbingers of deep-seated fears)--all are possible. The viewer/dreamer's visions are also realized in a drama that is visual, auditory, and often viscerally moving. At its best the cinema can invoke either the cold sweat and rapid pulse of the dream or the critical reflection that often renders dreams psychic guides to life. And, just as the dreamer feels that he cannot control the direction in which the dream takes him, the same is obviously so for the filmviewer. Both can only decide whether they want to hang on for the ride. Even the movement of the camera in the film can be likened to the point of view experienced by the dreamer. The camera's mobility mimics the dreamer's, which can be omniscient or naïve, have a bird's-eye view or a ground level perspective. Time is also fluid and relative for both the dreamer and the viewer, who can experience, for example, slow motion, flashbacks, flashforwards, repeated sequences, and rapid, montage-like shifts in time and space."

It has become quite clear to me that films, like dreams, can serve as windows to the archetypal unconscious and be used to tap our latent mythic energy. With some education and practice, films can be seen as powerful myths to guide us in living fully human, archetypal lives.

The Hero’s Journey in Film

In the book you are now reading, you have an opportunity to study feature films that portray the hero quest in various ways. My intent is for you to be able to understand the films from a mythical perspective, to become adept at identifying the stages of the hero's journey and the archetypes that will emerge differently in the various plots and characters. The purpose is to find messages in the films that speak to your own life, to discover particular films that can serve as models and sources of inspiration for the personal quests you need to undertake in your own way.

This is some of the most important work we can do here at the onset of the 21st century. We will not "make the world a better place" solely through the traditional methods that have served us thus far, such as the social sciences, politics, the legal system, etc. We are at a critical intersection where we (life) can continue onward in a harmonious fashion only when human consciousness evolves itself to the next level. In order for consciousness to evolve, it must experientially come to better know itself. I believe conscious film viewing can help swing open the door of self-knowledge.

But first, let’s get some background on Joseph Campbell, his approach to mythology, and the stages of the hero’s journey he has laid out. The following is summarized from Joseph Campbell: The Man and His Ideas by John Lobell.

Joseph Campbell & The Hero's Journey

"No one in our century--not Freud, not Jung, not Thomas Mann--
has so brought a mythic sense of the world back into daily consciousness."

Depth Psychologist James Hillman speaking of Joseph Campbell

Why is Campbell's work so popular?

Today we tend to look at ourselves primarily through the lens of scientific materialism and the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology. We are portrayed as creatures driven by our biological evolution (Darwin's natural selection), subject to the material forces of history (Marx's scientific socialism), motivated by the mechanistic workings of our unconscious (Freud's theories of the unconscious), and determined by the electro-chemical firings of our neurons (as asserted by the neurophysiologists). For the most part we no longer refer to the classics--the great novels, arts, philosophy, and religions--for an understanding of human nature and of ourselves.

Campbell responded to this deterministic view of human nature by looking not to the aforementioned sciences to understand ourselves, but rather to the humanities: mythology, philosophy, literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Through these we can have access to a "mythic dimension," a transcendent realm that is as real as our material realm, but which is completely missing from the rational disciplines.

Campbell saw myth and religion as metaphorical, as "transparent to the transcendent," that is, as pointing to "the mystery" and not just to themselves. From this point of view, religion is not an interpretation of history nor a prescription for proper behavior, but instead addresses universal issues of the psyche. Religion and myth can reveal to us our inner natures and our relationship to the transcendent.

Mythology is therefore much more than myth-collecting. Campbell saw it as a "supra-psychology," a description of the workings of not only the individual mind, but also of the human life cycle, of the structures of our relations with one another, of the development of nations and cultures, and of the cycles of the cosmos itself. He believed that many of the myths of humanity are universal and share essential themes and motifs. An example of this is the universal idea, present in many traditions, of a dying and resurrecting god, born of a virgin, and often associated with a cross. Examples include Osiris in Egypt, Tammus in Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, Dionysus in Greece, Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, and Jesus Christ in the Middle East and Europe.

Because all humankind imagines and develops parallel themes in their religious stories, which span cultural boundaries and long periods of time, these themes must somehow be expressions of the psyche that are common to all humanity. If this is so, then when a particular religion loses its power after a few thousand years, we are still not robbed of the mythic symbols it carries, which are eternal. They simply need updating, and Campbell noted that myths are always transforming themselves. One of his greatest contributions was to help us realize that myths are alive in us today. From The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

"The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."

Through his vast body of work over a 70-year career that he began as a young boy studying American Indians, Campbell showed us how to become open to the mystery that simultaneously inhabits the material world and a spiritual dimension, and how we are capable of being enriched by the imagery, narration, and action of the world's mythology.

Campbell's Approach to Mythology

Though Campbell combined many approaches in his pursuit of understanding mythology--romantic, comparative, functional, etc.--one of his particular interests was in the underlying symbolism of the hero's journey. Hero myths are powerful stories that all human cultures have created and passed down through the generations. From culture to culture, these stories paint a unique and colorful variety of pictures of the cosmos and the life it contains. Myths speak of a transcendent realm lying behind the world of our everyday experience, out of which the energies that direct and guide life express themselves in time and space. Hero stories are special demonstrations of how humans have grappled with the force of those transcendent energies that pour forth into an individual's field of experience.

Hero myths can be of either secular or religious flavor, but they always refer metaphorically to some spiritual dimension that transcends both the secular and religious. So what is a metaphor? An example is, "Diana runs fast. She is a deer." We know that Diana is a human and not a deer, but we have deliberately said, "Diana is a deer," not "Diana runs like a deer." While in one sense we know that Diana is not a deer, by holding in our minds that she is both human and a deer, we can know something about her that we could not know rationally. So, metaphorical knowledge is more all-encompassing than rational knowledge, transcending it. The hero gains access to this transcendent realm of knowledge and seeing.

There are many variations on the hero journey cycle or "mono-myth," to borrow a term from James Joyce. But it always follows three main stages: departure, initiation, and return. As Campbell explains, "A hero ventures forth from the common world of everyday into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory won. Then the hero comes back from his adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

The mono-myth is so widespread because it is the story of each of us. We set out on the fabulous adventures of our lives, we encounter obstacles and helpers, and if worthy we win a victory and are able to bestow boons. Another fascinating discovery by Campbell (and Jung) is that the hero quest is universal because it resides in the structure of our unconscious. Each night we journey into that interior realm we call dream. Campbell elucidates:

"As the unconscious of the individual rests on a sea of night into which it descends in slumber and out of which it mysteriously wakes, so, in the imagery of myth, the universe is precipitated out of, and reposes upon, a timelessness back into which it dissolves."

The hero journey describes our relationship to the transcendent mystery that supports our individual lives. Campbell:

"And so, to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only systems of the [personal] unconscious...but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world--all things and beings--are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during their period of manifestation, and back into which they ultimately dissolve."

When asked by his students how we are to discover which heroic journey(s) we should undertake, Campbell would simply respond, "Follow your bliss." In your secret heart you may desire to become a concert pianist or an Olympic athlete, and such a quest would no doubt require you to overcome tremendous limiting forces. But by following your bliss, your life will be a genuine answer to your heart's calling, unfolding directly from your inner sense of mystery. You will then become spiritually enriched and no longer be subject to the dictates, demands, and expectations of society and its rational norms.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces sets out the three main stages of the hero quest—departure, initiation, return—and breaks them down further into sub-stages. They are explained in the next chapter and are intended serve as a basis and outline for viewing twelve films I have selected for you to watch. As you view the films and begin to identify the stages of the quest, and then study my own interpretations of the films, you will then begin to form your own interpretations of how these stories can be related to your own life quests.

Chapter 2: The Stages of the Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell’s Stages of the Heroic Quest

Let's delve into the model of the Hero's Journey in mythology, and in the process look for correlations between the stages of this universal model and how your own life story plays out. In doing so you will hopefully be able to begin seeing your own life in a mythical context, an adventure that is entirely subjective and relative to you and your growth needs—after all, you’re unfolding this story yourself. The Greek word for story is mythos, and implies a true story in the symbolic sense.

Even with its subjectivity, your particular mythical life story and its corresponding images seem to follow a common archetypal theme which is common to all human beings. We find this theme, which is cyclical, demonstrated everywhere from the seemingly random, biological and physical processes of nature, to the realm of dreams, to the psychotic or entheogenic experience, to life’s everyday challenges. Joseph Campbell outlines this mythical cycle in his 1949 classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are three main stages, Departure, Initiation, and Return, broken down further into substages, but not every substage is present in every myth:

DEPARTURE is leaving the realm that is familiar and comfortable, usually being led by a higher power or inner, intuitive voice, which sometimes seems to be completely against your own wishes.  It includes the following stages.

The Call to Adventure is a summons towards a destiny that one can no longer resist, because some seed of transformation, perhaps sensed as a ‘burr under the saddle’ has been planted within one’s psychological center of gravity, which makes one’s existing environment start to pale in importance. The conditions of that environment operate as a stick, and there may also be an enticing carrot from an as yet unknown field. These two forces set up an urgent desire to explore something. Mythically speaking, this is the outer quest of the hero, but psychologically speaking, one is being driven inward on a journey that the deep psyche realizes it must accomplish in order to more fully know itself.

The Refusal of the Call is inevitable, because the call to adventure, which must be powerful enough to qualify the potential designation ‘heroine’ or ‘hero,’ will automatically evoke resistance. When the adventure or challenge is presented, the ego-persona, which has repeatedly intellectualized itself, may immediately create rational reasons why this journey “really doesn’t need to be undertaken.” In this case one will tend to emphasize one’s current interests, ideals, goals, busy schedule, and so on, that logically preclude taking on the adventure. As Campbell explains, “The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of such desperate fixations. What they represent is an impotence to put off the infantile ego.” Of course, some people readily take on new adventures, though sometimes too impulsively, even as loose cannons.

Interestingly, even those who have made a habit of resisting the call are not excluded from the universal motif of the hero cycle. Their psyches have many secrets in reserve, and such “willed introversion” can be employed deliberately to drive one’s psychic energies into their own depths to touch archetypal images. In the positive sense, these in turn may spark a desire to initiate an adventure similar or different from the one currently proffered. In the negative sense, after repeatedly refusing to respond to archetypal messages, one may become subject to neurosis or psychosis.

Supernatural Aid is the next step to those who have responded to the call. This can come forth in the form of a real personage or an inner voice, serving as an advisor and to some degree a guardian. Supernatural Aid provides the hero or heroine candidate with preparation and training, experienced advice, psychological support, and other tools that may help in the quest. But the advisor cannot do the job for the hero—the hero must ultimately go it alone.

Crossing of the First Threshold is the first step into the darkness of the unknown, penetrating a horizon beyond which lurks danger and great reward. This is the infant leaving the safety of mother, or Columbus’ sailors setting out across the cosmic ocean which they literally believed was the edge of the earth. (Is it any wonder we concoct so many thrill-seeking adventure activities these days? All the dark quarters of the world have been explored).

The outer quest is in essence an inner quest to explore all the unconscious contents of one’s psyche, to locate, learn, and understand those things of mystery which cannot be acquired in any other way. If we do not respond to the events life pitches at us, the scenarios that catalyze deep unconscious contents, then these contents will manifest themselves in dreams and nightmares that speak to crossing thresholds. Campbell recounts an example from a middle-aged married man included in a dream-work study in Germany:

“I dreamed that I wanted to get into a wonderful garden. But before it there was a watchman who would not permit me to enter. I saw that my friend, Fraulein Elsa, was within; she wanted to reach me her hand, over the gate. But the watchman prevented that, took me by the arm, and conducted me home. ‘Do be sensible—after all!’ he said. ‘You know that you mustn’t do that'."

The Belly of the Whale signifies that one has been swallowed up by a great and higher power that resides beyond the first Threshold. A whale swallows Jonah in the Bible. An elephant swallows a mother and her two children in an old Zulu tale. The Irish hero, Finn MacCool, is eaten by a ferocious Celtic monster called the Peist; and a whole Greek pantheon of gods is swallowed by its father Kronos.

This stage of the hero’s journey, which is universal in motif, emphasizes the lesson that genuinely crossing over into the unknown requires an initial yet quite real death and rebirth. The Christian version puts it well: “He who loses his life shall find it.” The myths often give us physical pictures of the hero moving outward beyond the confines of what is visible and known. Of course, these are symbols for the inward venture into our own psycholgical darkness. The Sumerian myth of Inanna, the Goddess of heaven and earth, traveling to the Underworld to confront her evil twin sister Ereshkigal is a clear depiction.

Temples of worship used by nearly all religions represent the place where necessary death-rebirth occurs. The Medieval cathedral and the Paleolithic cave are the womb-tombs into which one must enter to effect the greatest realizations of mystery. As Campbell states, “The passage into a temple and the hero-dive into the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.”

INITIATION refers to the fulfillment of a series of challenges and tests, involving both the aid and resistance of different energies, both masculine and feminine, more powerful than one has encountered before, but for which one is completely ready. Otherwise, this particular life event would not have presented itself. The heroine-hero is always rewarded something from the initiation experience. What is rewarded is relative to how well the experience was handled. But there is no one right way—all is subjective to the physiology, psychology, and collective life experience of the individual being initiated.  The stages of Initiation can include:

The Road of Trials is the first stage of the initiation process, once the hero has crossed the threshold. He must not only survive a series of tests and challenges that have to do with his very life, but master them. There is support from the Supernatural Aid here, and it may also be realized that this Aid is not a personal guardian but an omnipresent power emanating through the cosmos which the hero or heroine has begun to learn to tap into.

We all experience the road of trials in our waking lives, in any worthwhile task we put ourselves to. But no matter the outer circumstances, life challenges are really about inner experiences--that's where we feel and think about the whole ordeal, in the depths of our own heart and mind. The outer event is merely the present playing field on which an inner drama is taking place. With regard to the mythical hero, Campbell states, "…if anyone--in whatever society--undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into to the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures…" The tangible circumstances we engage with our five senses in real-life, outer events are symbols for the inner processes the psyche must work out.

The challenges we encounter in everyday reality, which are depicted in the mythological stories of old, are also encountered symbolically in our dreams. These nocturnal images present in our dream consciousness, which reflect our current real-life trials, serve as clues to how we can best deal with them and to use a religious term, become saved. With regard to the road-of-trials part of the hero's quest, here are some descriptions of dreams:

From Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century philosopher, scientist, and religionist-- "I saw one beast after another, and they spread their wings, and were dragons. I was flying over them, but one of them was supporting me."

Themistocles, the Athenian statesman and military general of 5th century BCE Greece, recorded a dream in which a snake wound itself around his body, then crept up to his neck and when it touched his face it turned into an eagle. The eagle then took him in its talons and, carrying him upward, bore him a long distance, and set him down on golden herald's staff that suddenly appeared, so safely that he was all at once relieved of his great anxiety and fear.

Psychotherapeutic patients often reveal personal roads of trials encountered symbolically in their dreams. From one patient suffering from a stuttering problem: "I had to climb a mountain. There were all kinds of obstacles in the way. I had now to jump over a ditch, now to get over a hedge, and finally to stand still because I had lost my breath."

And from a homosexual patient: "I was following a girl who was going ahead of me, along the dark street. A mighty desire seized me, and I was running after her. Suddenly a beam, as though released from a spring, came across the street and blocked the way. I awoke with my heart pounding." This transverse beam was later identified as a phallic symbol.

From another patient: "I saw half a horse lying on the ground. It had only one wing and was trying to arise, but was unable to do so." This patient was a poet but had to make a living working as a journalist.

And another patient: "I am dreaming that I have to go through endless corridors. Then I remain for a long time in a little room that looks like the bathing pool in the public baths. They compel me to leave the pool, and I have to pass again through a moist, slippery shaft, until I come through a little latticed door into the open. I feel like one newly born, and I think: 'This means a spiritual rebirth for me, through my analysis.' "

It is seen that the hero begins to get glimpses of illumination and tastes of rebirth along the road of trials. Both in the myths, the dream world, and in real life, initiation will take place again and again, crossing one barrier after another, until there is within the individual a sense of completion. [For example, Inanna must pass through seven gates on her way to the underworld--see my essay "The Continuing Story of Goddess" on the Mindful Salon Essays Blog ]. Of course, it is eventually realized that these rounds of completion are ultimately events of self-conquest, the slaying of the ego-dragon.

The Meeting with the Goddess Campbell explains as follows: "The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart."

While we normally think of a male hero meeting with goddess in the old stories, what is psychologically being represented is the logical, rational, masculine nature of an individual confronting its raw feminine character, regardless of the individual's physical sex. Goddess births the entire cosmos, even the gods, and thus represents all that can be known, light and dark. (We seem to find it harder to truly understand the "dark" half of our unconscious, particularly in the masculine-oriented world conditions that prevail today). The hero who has successfully navigated the road of trials represents the knower of both light and dark. Thus, the true meeting with the Goddess is the final union of knower and known, and in the psycho-spiritual sense is the mystical experience of reconciling or having gone beyond the pairs of opposites.

Our Western religions, traditionally interpreted, with their concepts of a male divinity sitting as chairman of the board, see the dark, mysterious, and confounding ways of goddess and woman as something illogical, evil, and an abomination. Campbell puts it well: "By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god of her created world."

Interpreted psychoanalytically, Goddess is the personification of all that contradicts the rational principle, the deep fears (and fantasies) of the masculine ego. Throughout the sojourner's initiation and trials, she can always raise the bar another notch when the hero thinks he has "arrived" (e.g., the Hindu goddess Kali), but she is never greater than he. He is exactly ready for her challenges. If he is up to her task requirements and can really meet with her, the two are finally merged as one, transcending all prior limitations. (This, for example, is the ultimate goal of tantric mysticism in the various yoga traditions of India).

Woman as Temptress speaks to the light in which the Goddess must not be seen by the hero. As long as the most austere monk has warm flesh and a pulse, he will ever be tempted by the ecstatic pleasures only a woman can provide him. This is a proper enticement, to engage the hero's full attention, but fleshly satisfaction is not the intended end--it is only a means to effect the ultimate union of the two. Many heroes cannot get beyond this provocative stage of the mythic cycle, and are devoured by the goddess (think of the black widow spider). But if the hero meets with goddess honorably and with mystical understanding, their combined performance is transformative.

Atonement with the Father is the sometimes necessary and very difficult step in the mythical journey in which the hero must let go the illusory ideas of a separate God who is loving and just, as well as its opposite, the negative power of a Devil or Sin. In some of the myths the Goddess may assist the hero as Supernatural Aid (if he has met with her properly). Regardless, this abandonment of the "double-headed monster" (God and Sin) necessarily requires a final abandonment of the individual ego itself, which is exactly what this stage of the journey is about psychologically. Generally, in the Western motif, this requires identification with the real Self (e.g., Jungian). The East takes it a step further, or has another idea about what Self is, that is to say, completely impersonal and beyond all categories and concepts (e.g., Buddhist No-Self or Anatta).

If the hero can, with or without the aid of the Goddess, withstand God the Father's ego-shattering initiation ordeals, he will come to the mystical realization that God and Goddess are mirrors reflecting each other and are essentially the same. They were two projections from the ocean floor of the hero's psyche, two apparitions generated out of the left and right chambers of his mind that had to be resolved at the most fundamental level of being. Now the hero-heroine realizes that (s)he is both the Father and Mother in their reconciled aspects.

Apotheosis refers to new ways of seeing and knowing that were not even possible before the quest. For example, the hero-heroine realizes that pain and pleasure, (and for that matter all pairs of opposites), do not enclose him, but that (s)he encloses them, and with a profound repose. In the mythical language of the Old Testament Bible, this would be the return to the Garden (after exiting it through eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Or the transformed hero may more fully understand the dimension of eternity, a realm that has nothing to do with linear time, but is rather the present moment.

In the most successful quests, it is realized that time and eternity are actually two aspects of the same dimension or field. In the Buddhist context, this would be the realization that nirvana (enlightenment) and avidya (ignorance) never really had any particular qualities of their own. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Or the hero-heroine may come to know that the personal ego was not something to literally be died to, but rather refined and sublimated, in order to help enlighten another person, or serve or lead an entire group of people to self-knowledge (the bodhisattva).

In short, Apotheosis creates a psychology in which all personal prejudices and discriminations have essentially been dropped. All filters, whether gotten from nature or nurture, have been lifted. The glass pane of maya (illusion), through which most see the world, has been slid away. Furthermore, one comes to understand the doctrine of the interdependence of the inner and outer worlds. Remember the words of Heraclitus, "We are and we are not."

The Ultimate Boon is a psychological attitude naturally resulting from the experience of apotheosis. It is actually glimpsed in childhood, that carefree time when the present moment is genuinely known and there is little if any focus on past or future. The hero's ultimate boon can carry even a humorous tone in its understanding that all the powers, forces, and challenges dealt with, crossing threshold after threshold, were merely temporary vehicles of learning. They only served to transport his psyche not only to the realm of identification with God and Goddess, but beyond them into an indescribable dimension of void that represents complete acceptance of all that exists (the Perennial message of self-realization).

Thus, the potent ingredients, enormous powers, and ever-recurring rounds of existence in the realms of Heaven, Earth, and Hell, are finally taken quite lightly by the hero-heroine, but not in some lackadaisical sense. Rather, the hero has achieved true knowledge of immortality--not a linear series of lives or reincarnations extending from the distant past into the unknowable future, but as a present situation of continual becoming in which one can both play and rest. Heraclitus comes in handy again--the cosmic river is at once a diverging plurality and a converging unity.

RETURN means that the cycle—and everything in the universe seems to be cyclical—must be completed. If the hero-heroine did well in answering the call to adventure and its initiatory trials, thereby receiving an excellent boon, (s)he will resist the Return. But the Return must be completed so the next cycle can begin, whatever or for whomever that may be.  The stages can include:

The Refusal of the Return demonstrates that the boon experience is intoxicating. The Hindu mythical warrior-king Muchukunda, having achieved his boon, retired to slumber in the cavern chamber of a mountain "womb." There he slept in a state of unconscious bliss, through revolving eons, as civilizations and world ages came into and out of being. He was then kicked awake by Vishnu, the Lord of the World (incarnate as the youth Krishna), to find that the people of the world had become reduced in stature and ability. But he refused to return and help his fellow man, retiring further into the highest mountains to become an absolute ascetic. Muchukunda refused the Return.

The mythical cycle, to be completed, requires that the hero leave the realm of the gods and return to his prior world. He must put his newly acquired wisdom into action and service to his particular group (Moses), the world (Jesus), or the entire cosmos (Buddha).

The Magic Flight is the a stage that can take two forms. If the triumphant hero has won the blessing of the divinities in his quest, the return to his prior world with some elixir, teaching, or other divine gift in hand, will have the full support of his supernatural benefactors. But if the hero's quest was achieved against the will and power of the deities, or if his return is for some reason resented by the gods, then the flight becomes an event of escape that may require some fancy footwork. This may involve input from the original Supernatural Aid, the wise old advisor who helped the hero cross the first threshold at the beginning. It can also be a comical event, a planned caper in which the hero suddenly rushes off, tossing behind him a trail of distracting stolen treasures that the pursuing gods cannot resist stopping to collect.

Rescue from Without is the case where the hero may engage the assistance of someone from his old world. As Campbell says, "…the world may have to come and get him." This is well demonstrated in the previously mentioned Sumerian myth of the Goddess Inanna. Her rescue from the Nether World is devised and executed by her personal assistant in the world of the living, Ninshubar, who commissions the god Enlil to craft two small demons who will accomplish the rescue.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold deals with the enormous problem that confronts the hero-heroine in his or her old world. (S)he has had experiences in dimensions that sound like nonsense to those who have never made the journey. Sometimes the hero's message is so spiritually deep and frightening that it threatens the authorities of consensus reality and he is killed (Jesus, or the chained hero in Plato's Myth of the Cave who returns from the Realm of Light). Campbell asks rhetorically, "How to represent in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning?" Hence the great world teachers' use of parables, aphorisms, and other strange metaphors.

Still, the hero must survive the impact of returning to his old world and try to communicate what he has learned. Some are quite successful, setting up the basis for great new societies and world religions that last for centuries. But the divine message will eventually encounter hermeneutical difficulties (problems of interpretation), because the less experienced followers cannot possibly grasp the reality of what the hero has encountered in the other world. This point is perhaps one of the most important to be made in the whole field of myth, religion, and personal discovery. The vast majority of people cling to another's real-life journey, pinning their hopes and final salvation on it. They do not realize that the hero-savior they hold dear is telling them what each of them must in fact do--initiate their own quest.

Master of the Two Worlds results from successfully crossing the return threshold. One experiences the wisdom and revelation of an entirely new worldview. Whether or not it is correctly understood and assimilated by the residents of the old world to which the hero-heroine returns, (s)he now becomes the master of both worlds, with Freedom to Live in either. As Campbell suggests, the master can pass back and forth between worlds, "not contaminating the principles of one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other…"

This idea is echoed in the Hindu Upanishadic description of the Atman (Self), which "keeps the two worlds apart that they fall not into confusion." It is also embodied in the Sanskrit word turiya, which means "the fourth," that is, the symbol of silence surrounding and completing the vibration experienced while chanting the syllable Aum. Turiya implies, “And now that you know, you can do as you please.” At this stage, the hero-heroine has come full circle, even beyond concepts of knower and known--(s)he now is both knower and known. This is the experience of absolute non-attachment and effortless living in the mysterious gap between past and future, and all the other pairs of opposites, known nowadays as the present moment. Time drops out. Examples from the Axial period would be the statement from Jesus of Christian mythology, "Before Abraham was, I am"; or the Buddha's idea that neither nirvana nor ignorance have any particular qualities of their own.

REPEATING THE PREFACE NOTE: You will notice when you read through the chapters that mythically interpret the films, that I will often Capitalize and/or Italicize terms for the various stages of the Hero's Journey, such as Crossing the First Threshold.  I will also do this with certain words that convey archetypal meaning, such as Warrior or Trickster.  My intent is to get you to feel these word-ideas from a place of wonder instead of thinking about them through a lens of concrete determinism.  It might be an academically unacceptable literary technique, but I am no longer in the academy.

Chapter 3: Contact

Subject Film: Contact
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Warner Bros., 1997

Main Players:

Jodie Foster:                              Ellie Arroway
Matthew McConaughey:            Palmer Joss
Tom Skerritt:                             David Drumlin
John Hurt:                                 S. R. Hadden
James Woods:                           Michael Kitz
Angela Bassett:                          Rachel Constantine
William Fichtner:                        Kent Clark
Rob Lowe:                                Richard Rank

Contact is a science fiction adventure in which the potential heroine, Ellie Arroway, is obsessed with a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The film title and ensuing plot suggest the heroine's need to make deeper "contact" with those living right here on Planet Earth as well. The story also carries an overarching theme of the human struggle to reconcile scientific or rational ways of knowing with spiritual or non-rational ways (Mackey-Kallis 181).

Like all mythical tales, Contact is speaking on both the outer, tangible level, and the inner, intangible level. The film accomplishes all of the above in a well-depicted hero's journey cycle of departure >> initiation >> return, and makes for great myth in postmodern times, in which the story is set.


Ellie has responded to the Call to Adventure many times in life, beginning in her youth. She followed her bliss as a young girl, spending all her time on her ham radio, continually attempting to contact other ham operators. The farther away the better, and in the opening scene she breaks her old record, reaching someone over a thousand miles away in Pensacola, Florida. She asks her father if she could talk to other countries, other planets, and…"Dad, could we talk to Mom?" (Her mother passed away at her childbirth). So one of her necessary "inner" Calls to Adventure, the journey to re-know the lost Mother Goddess archetype, is revealed early in the film.

The film also carries a strong Father quest theme, because at age nine, Ellie's father died of a heart attack, and she became an orphan. The Divine Orphan motif is a common theme in mythology. In the pedagogical sense the orphan is thrust into adulthood at an early age, and is required to quickly get education however she can to become self-reliant. The death of Ellie’s parents really set in motion the overall direction of her life, putting her through many journeys along the way. These are all now culminating in the current journey, and will eventually lead to her re-discovering Father and Mother. But it’s not about finding Mommy and Daddy again. It’s a psycho-spiritual quest to discover the highest masculine and feminine energy and wisdom residing within. And for our potential heroine, this quest must begin with resolving the fact that her parents are physically gone.

To date, Ellie has not been able to do this. Her Refusal of the Call in this instance is inner--Ellie refuses to deal with the death of her parents. But because their deaths are facts, she is forced into the Belly of the Whale or swallowed by a higher power (Campbell 90-91). Ellie's only way to deal with her parents' death is to plow into her outer life's work--searching for unknown or lost life "out there", which allows her to repress any inner acceptance of parental loss. This is her attempted strategy to get through the Belly of the Whale, and as Campbell explains, the Belly stage represents an initial death-rebirth process, a letting go that helps catalyze the adventure (91-92).

In terms of her career-based Call to Adventure, we are generally shown her Departure and Initiation stages in youth and early adulthood in summary form, when her mysterious benefactor S. R. Hadden recounts her preparatory life in a video clip. Ellie’s last name, Arroway, means "directional path", and Ellie stayed right on her bliss track, becoming a noted--even if eccentric--Ph.D. by age thirty or so. Her specialized field, SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), is on the fringe of science, so she clearly followed the path of her own heart, even turning down a traditional professorship at Harvard. So she is already a heroine in her career, a scholar who did not succumb to the expectations of academia.

Within Ellie's overarching Call to Adventure, that is, her life-long search for life “out there,” lies a specific Call to Adventure that is catalyzed when her former mentor, Dr. David Drumlin, pulls the plug on her telescope funding in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. This event forces Ellie into a difficult search for private funding to keep her dream alive and science team together.


After long months of financial rejection on her Road of Trials, Ellie finally receives support through the benefaction of the mysterious S. R. Hadden, an eccentric billionaire who sees Ellie's cosmic vision and heroic potential. He is her Supernatural Aid, literally a heavenly deity who rarely comes down to Earth but prefers to spend the remaining years of his life in flying palaces (customized jet airliners and a space station). As one of Hadden's assistants tells Ellie at their first meeting, "He rarely lands for anyone." Until they meet in person, Hadden had only invisibly supported Ellie with his money, and is in a sense, a sort of mysterious visitor from the unconscious realm.

Another prime obstacle on her Road of Trials is the aforementioned Drumlin, who constantly attempts to impede Ellie in her quest. He insists that she drop her SETI career, which he thinks is professional suicide, and that she will never be published or taken seriously. Ellie responds with no hesitancy: "So what? It's my life!" This illustrates the Warrior archetype that makes up part of her psyche, but at the moment it’s unrefined.

Drumlin is interested almost exclusively in the economic and political rewards of science, particularly his own, and this is quite apparent as the story unfolds. Even when Ellie gets Hadden to fund telescope time at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, Drumlin uses his political influence as National Science Advisor to muscle her out of that research position. Upon hearing this disheartening news, Ellie remarks, "God, what is it with this guy? Does he have a personal vendetta against me!?" So in the mythic sense, Drumlin is a hindering deity, but it is these obstructing deities that are necessary to help evolve the heroine along.

Ellie’s team, including her blind friend and closest colleague Ken Clark, become despondent and want to give up. Ellie's only reply is "If I have to, I'll go it alone. I've done it before." This again demonstrates her Warrior archetype and self-reliance, though in an obsessed, unenlightened sort of way, as her martial attitude prevents her from becoming too involved with anyone or anything not in line with her personal aspirations. Here is the paradox of the heroic quest. It is often the hero's, intense drive and tunnel vision that will eventually (even if clumsily) bring enlightenment.

When Ellie finally makes the first contact ever with beings from another world (major progress on the Road of Trials), there is another Threshold Crossing and Belly of the Whale motif, when she has to decide whether to go public with her discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. Even Ellie, who never gives up in life, admits to her team that if they go public and are wrong, it really will be the end of all their careers. She courageously decides to aggressively go public, telling the whole world at once, and it naturally becomes the biggest news in history. The world reacts in chaotic frenzy and now our heroine is forced to proceed through the labyrinth, grappling with all the media and political repercussions.

Drumlin continues to be a major obstacle on her Road of Trials, shoving himself into the limelight and keeping Ellie in the background on the decryption project. But Hadden reappears as Supernatural Aid, providing Ellie with the code to the cryptic information coming in from Vega, which no one, including Drumlin, has been able to crack.

Hadden: Everyone is falling all over themselves to get positioned for the game of the millennium. Perhaps I can help deal you back in.

Ellie: I didn't know I was out.

Hadden: Well, maybe not out, but certainly being handed your hat.

The philosopher and humanitarian character Palmer Joss, whose lifelong quests have centered on the spiritual dimension and how to end the suffering of humankind, appears as an incarnation of Goddess in Ellie's quest, though in male gender. When they first meet, he is a sort of Woman as Temptress. In a seductive way he offers to take her to dinner (connection), a Crackerjack (sustenance), and a compass (guidance), all of which she refuses. This represents a Refusal of the Call in the inner journey sense, the journey to open to love.

Ellie perceives him only as a seducer and declines at first, but eventually her own natural sex drive puts them in bed on their first date. At the party in Arecibo, she begins to find him interesting when she discovers he used to be a "man of the cloth," a world of which she knows little. So Palmer has in a preliminary way activated some unknown archetype within her. Still going by sex drive, Ellie asks him, "You wanna get out of here?" She's OK with sex but afraid of true intimacy, no doubt the result of having lost her parents, the two people she loved most. She fears she could one day "lose" Palmer as well if she opened to him. Again, this fear of opening to people is what drives her whole quest for life in other worlds, as she has never felt comfortable or complete on this planet.

Yet in activating something archetypal in her otherwise rational, masculine character, Palmer ushers in perhaps her first Meeting with the Goddess since the death of her mother. He will also assist her Atonement with the Father, and she gets a taste of this when Palmer uses the same words as her father during one of their discussions on the question of other life: "Well, if there's no one else out there, it's an awful waste of space."

In the mystical state of Apotheosis, the hero realizes that God and Goddess are two aspects of the same divine essence, and ultimately, that they were two aspects of that same divine essence in the hero himself. Palmer Joss seems to manifest both Father God and Mother Goddess archetypes, and in demonstrating his spiritual character this way, begins to open Ellie up to possibility of having a similar realization within herself.

As their difficult relationship unfolds, Palmer debates Ellie on the spiritual-rational question. His methods of challenging Ellie begin to put some hairline cracks in her persona, introducing her to her own feminine nature and wisdom. As always, in mythology, the outer story is symbolic of an inner process, and Palmer is thus catalyzing her inner Road of Trials.

Palmer loves Ellie and doesn't want her to go to Vega. In the film scene when they secretly meet in a Washington, D.C. park, he tries to get her to see that if she makes the journey to Vega, when she returns, everyone she knows and loves will be dead, due to the effects of light speed. Ellie responds, "If I come back." She continues:

"For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here -- what are we doing here, who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer, I think it's worth a human life, don't you?"

She is a true heroine, willing to give her life for the quest, so humanity might gain deeper answers--life giving life to other life.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge Palmer presents to her is when, as a member of the international committee who will choose the transport’s pilot, he confronts Ellie with the direct question, "Dr. Arroway, do you believe in God?" Ellie stammers, asking why that question is relevant, insisting that she is a moral person and that there's not enough evidence either way on the subject of God. Thus she remains true to (or is stuck in) her scientific worldview, but Palmer and the committee insist on an answer. She finally responds, "I believe I've already answered that question."

When Drumlin, who is also a candidate for the space trip, is posed the same question by the committee, he provides a gratuitous answer that implies he believes in God. Commenting afterwards on the committee's decision to send Drumlin to Vega, Ellie tells Palmer, "I told the truth up there. Drumlin told you exactly what you wanted to hear." Again, our potential heroine, though still fixing a rational gaze on the world, is in complete integrity within herself and with her prevailing worldview. On the other hand, Drumlin is identified only with his persona, lacks integrity, driven to do whatever it takes to increase personal gain. This is the mark of the Anti-Hero, the one who elbows his way into the foreground for notoriety, political power, and in Drumlin’s case, even direct access to the president.

The presidential committee, a symbol for “the system," chooses Drumlin over Ellie, demonstrating the typically asleep character of the masses at large (which was one of T. S. Eliot's main points in his poem The Wasteland). That is, we should not have as our prime goal trying to "fix" the outer world, which will always contain tragedy and victory.  To the contrary we should only learn how to live nobly within it.  In Contact, the wasteland is clearly depicted in the various societal and political reactions to the message from Vega--military paranoia (culminating in James Woods’ character, National Security Advisor Michael Kitz), increased New Age rhetoric, spikes in religious fundamentalism (Rob Lowe’s character Reverend Richard Rank), etc., all adeptly managed by the president’s personal advisor Rachel Constantine, played by Angela Bassett.

Given this multifaceted and often inane socio-political reaction, Ellie continues to hold to the rationale of the scientific system. She stays on as part of the Vega mission team, remaining in service to the pursuit of scientific truth. Though Ellie is not yet open to non-rational intelligence, she is a prime candidate because of her heroic courage and determination, which always keep her in the game. She continually demonstrates her ability to use existing society (the system) for noble purposes. Here we get a glimpse of the maturing of her Warrior archetype, that is, the ability to wisely discern how best to work within the status quo. This is the quality of the accomplished warrior, whose sword symbolizes discernment. Furthermore, her courage is exemplified in the TV interview with Bryant Gumbel, when he asks her if this mission is just too dangerous.

Ellie: It requires a sense of…

Gumbel: Faith?

Ellie: I was going to say adventure.

Here we have the fundamental heroic attitude of mythic inspiration that wipes away fears. Even other astronauts, some of the most courageous and highly trained people on the planet who are considered by the committee for the trip to Vega, decline to participate in such a risk.

Later, in the launch test scene, in attempt to deny and deflect his manipulative behavior, Drumlin remarks to Ellie with regard to the fact that he was chosen over her, that the world isn't always a fair place. Still on the mission team and sticking to her virtues, Ellie replies, "Funny, I thought the world was always what we make of it."

This demonstrates Ellie's inner quality of Honor, a characteristic of the Knight archetype, and her words in this interchange render Drumlin speechless. He cannot respond because he represents the fearful, infantile consciousness that thinks it must construct a powerful persona to become great. In Hindu philosophy this is exactly the psychology of chakra 3, personal power and consumption—again, the mark of the anti-hero. It is interesting, however, that for selfish reasons, Drumlin will also risk his own life as pilot of the transport. So there is hope for all of us--we all carry heroic latency within. We just have to learn to remove the selfish drive behind our intentions.

The Road of Trials continues when a religious fundamentalist blows himself up, destroying the Machine and transport during a launch test sequence, killing Drumlin in the process. This is a good depiction of how the fearful and polarized characters in mythic tales eventually destroy themselves and each other. The human-bomb character represents the Zealot and Coward, both anti-hero archetypes. Such a one is afraid to initiate his own heroic quest into the depths of authentic spirituality, which resides not with a deity of light against its dark opposite, but in the transcendent center from which light and dark flow (one of the prime messages of Perennial philosophy).

Our Supernatural Aid character Hadden reappears to Ellie, this time with a little surprise waiting for her in Japan, a second Machine and transport: "First rule of doing business with the government," Hadden remarks. "Why build one when you can get two for twice the price?" Hadden has built the second transport as part of the Machine Consortium, headed up by Hadden Industries. Here we have a good example of a Sky Deity (Hadden) knowing how to utilize the wasteland for nobler purposes.

There is more heroism in the launch scene, as Ellie refuses the suicide pill and literally "walks the plank" into the transport. Everything about the transport screams cold, gray, steel machine, and here is a nice irony for our times. We are surrounded by technological jungles of steel that can potentially suffocate us. Yet it is our more noble application of these steely machines that can save us, if we use them for the right reasons.

At the same time, the cold steel transport is a sphere and thus a powerful mandala. This mandala of the circle shines all through the film (Mackey-Kallis, 187)--the spherical planets and spiral galaxies in the opening shot, that morph into the circular eye of young Ellie. There are the dish-shaped radio telescopes in Arecibo and New Mexico that search for life; the circular, spinning, atom-like machine into which the transport is dropped (atoms are the building blocks of all life); and the little round compass which Palmer gives Ellie to bring her home safe.

As the transport Machine begins to speed up its rotation, the transport pod begins to shake, and mission control loses contact with Ellie and her head-mounted recorder won’t work. The symbolism: when you leave the realm of rational consciousness for the non-rational unconscious, the tools and rules of that first realm are no longer of any use. It is only the blind Kent Clark, Ellie’s closest associate, with his finely tuned hearing, who can hear her say, “I’m ok to go!” She’s ready for the final plunge into the unknown, and Kent is the special guide who can live and communicate in the liminal space between the two realms.

As the transport drops through the spinning Machine, Ellie begins her final Trial as she starts flying through wormholes, tearing through in the fabric of space-time, eventually arriving on Vega. During the journey the whole transport, including her safety chair, begin to rattle and shake. She notices that her compass gift from Palmer has come loose and is just floating. She realizes she must unstrap herself from the chair and floats--just in time--as the chair breaks loose and slams against the wall of the transport.

The scientists and technicians on the space mission added the chair as a logical safety precaution. Ellie had protested against this, as it was not mentioned in the Vegan blueprint schematics. She insists on following the Vegan blueprints (she trusts the logic of science). And she later trusts intuitively that she will float like the compass, and this moment represents a crucial breakthrough into feminine wisdom. She learns to trust and let go, rarely her posture in life before. So Palmer's presence in the form of a floating compass again comes through as Goddess, getting Ellie to trust non-rational ways of knowing. This is her first Apotheosis.

Ellie's awakening in this regard comes during the space journey, that is, her perilous hero-dive into the non-rational realms of the unconscious. Palmer had popped in at similar irrational moments in her life, for example, when she was livid with Drumlin in Arecibo, and at the first White House meeting when she was arguing with military and religious advisors. In myth, this is an aspect of what is called the "intruding angel" motif. A supernatural power that keeps showing up during challenging moments in the quest, confounding the heroine when she is too driven or focused to the point of imbalance.

Ellie's arrival at Vega with its sheer beauty brings her to Apotheosis. In mystical bliss she cries, "It's so beautiful…no words…no words…They should have sent a poet!" The Vegans have downloaded Ellie's memory and prepared an organized pattern of energy in the form of beach scene which simulates the color drawing she made of Pensacola, her most distant contact as a young radio buff. The Vegans have also reproduced an image of her deceased father, who approaches and explains why they contacted Earth: simply to make contact as a first step.

Vegan Father: You are an interesting species, capable of such beautiful dreams and horrible nightmares. You feel so cut off, alone. In all our years we have found the only thing that makes the aloneness bearable is…each other. (Ultimate Boon)

Ellie: What happens now?

Vegan Father: You go home.

Ellie: But I have so many questions! (Refusal of the Return)

Vegan Father: This is how it's been done for millions of years.

The scene on Vega ends with an extremely tender moment between Ellie and her virtual father. Ellie realizes that she hasn't really lost her father--he is still lives in her heart. Thus, she need not fear other people leaving her in life. This realization catalyzes an Atonement with the Father which will later be completed through a sacred marriage with Palmer (Mackey-Kallis, 182). On the level of Perennial philosophy, Ellie's Ultimate Boon is the realization that we are all connected by a Mystery greater than our individual selves and any god, and that we must learn to identify with that Mystery, which we ultimately are. Her Vegan father's statement that "all we have is each other" is therefore speaking on the macrocosmic, spiritual level as well as the microcosmic interpersonal. No matter what the dimension, we are truly never alone.


There is a sudden Magic Flight, a rapid return back through the wormhole and Ellie suddenly splashes down into the ocean underneath the Machine back on Earth. To those on Earth it appears that nothing happened, that the transport just fell through the Machine into the Japan Sea and didn't go anywhere. This clearly depicts an old adage in both mythology and Perennial philosophy: those who haven't yet made the journey will not have eyes to see what the journeyer saw. But they are often given a glimpse, in this case the later discovery by the debriefing committee, that while the video camera strapped to Ellie's head contained only static, it was 18 hours of static. The skeptical anti-heroes (ironically the military officials and national leaders whom we normally think of as heroes) choose to keep this a secret for now, demonstrating a manipulative attitude to maintain status quo power.

Crossing of the Return Threshold is represented by Ellie's post-event hearing in the U.S. Capitol building, in which she attempts to explain her experience but cannot. She has clearly been absolutely transformed at a fundamental, spiritual level, yet there are "no words," and the powers that be see her as either insane or duped by Hadden. As Campbell says, “How [can the hero] represent …in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning?” (218). Still, her public hearing is televised and deeply moves the throngs of people waiting outside the Capitol. She has undoubtedly achieved heroine status, and Palmer, who has been by her side all along, when asked his opinion of her description of her experience, responds: "As a person of faith I am bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway, but our goal is one in the same: the pursuit of Truth. I for one believe her."

Through Palmer, Ellie has properly Met with the Goddess and Atoned with the Father, discovering that both reside within her. She can now balance rational, masculine logic with intuitive, feminine wisdom. All through the film she was caught between these powers (Mackey-Kallis, 185), seeing them as opposites in flat contradiction. Drumlin, her former professor and mentor, symbolized the rational principle, Palmer the non-rational. Through her quest Ellie was finally able to span these two modes of consciousness, becoming the Master of Both Worlds with Freedom to Live in either. The two worlds are depicted geographically as Earth & Vega; intellectually as rational and non-rational; psychologically as logic & intuition; cosmologically as science & religion; spiritually as skepticism & openness. Ellie had to experience these opposites before she could come to Perennial wisdom.

Ellie now becomes a sort of sage, teaching young children about the awe and mysteries of Deep Space. In doing so she emphasizes the character trait emphasized in Western heroic stories, that of individualism. As she counsels her young astronomers in the final scene, "The most important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers."

The film has come full circle, beginning in the eye of Ellie as a child, and ending in the eyes of a group of children who are just beginning their own quests (Mackey-Kallis 187-188). The Child archetype accents the open innocence necessary for one to discover anything at all in life. The final image in the film moves from Ellie's eye back out into the vast expanse of the cosmos, just the reverse of how the film began--the universe coming into a single eye. She has come full circle and as the heroine, now understands that the individual human being (microcosm) and the cosmos itself (macrocosm) are one and the same. She now is the eye of the universe.

Works Cited:

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1949.

Mackey-Kallis, Susan. The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film. Philadelphia: University Press. 2001.

Chapter 4: Rain Man

Subject Film: Rain Man

Director: Barry Levinson, MGM/UA, 1988

Main Players:

Tom Cruise              Charlie Babbitt
Dustin Hoffman        Raymond Babbitt
Valeria Golino:         Susanna
Jerry Molen:              Dr. Bruener

According to Stanislov Grof, a noted psychiatrist and serious explorer of the unconscious, there are two general ways in which the process of self-discovery and spirituality unfold: spiritual emergency, and spiritual emergence. Later we will study the film Fight Club, and find the spiritual emergency theme to be dominant. Rain Man gives us a similar self-discovery journey, but in the gentler, spiritual emergence motif. Still, the film characters in this story have their challenges cut out for them!

We could use either brother—Charlie or Raymond Babbitt--as our Hero to study, because both are on a quest. However, since most of us are more identified with our body and ego than the depths of our being on a daily basis, we will use Charlie Babbitt as the hero, and Raymond as a symbol for the as yet unknown, deeper aspect of Charlie that Charlie must come to know, in order to no longer be a part-man. Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna serves as both Woman as Temptress and Goddess. Supernatural Aid is provided in Charlie and Raymond’s deceased father, Sanford Babbitt, who’s death and last will and testament set the whole quest in motion and guide it to its resolution.

Though we are studying all these films in the Hero's Journey context, I make it a point to look for films that have other important overarching themes that illustrate principles from myth, depth psychology, and perennial philosophy. Rain Man gives us a good demonstration of the conflict-confrontation motif of the inner and outer aspects of a human being that make up a single individual—the “within and without” as Taoist philosopher Chuang Tsu would put it. The corresponding Jungian psychoanalytic terms would be the “personal conscious” and the “personal unconscious” halves that surround or encompass the eternal “self” or soul, also called the psyche in Greek. To keep it simple, in our analysis of Rain Man, we will use some arbitrary terms and call the outer part of the human being represented by Charlie Babbitt the outer self. Its counterpart we will call the inner self, and it is represented by his brother Raymond. These two aspects of the same person are struggling to come to know each other in order to bring a sense of wholeness to the deepest part of being, the psyche or soul of the individual. This is becomes the psychological context for the heroic quest in this movie.

Though on the surface, Charlie as the outer self is our potential Hero, Raymond Babbitt as the inner self is also having struggles on a quest of his own. We see through this film that the inner self, though perhaps quite unlimited in its wisdom and ability to transform the individual, is a sensitive thing, and when it must emerge from its own safe ground in the intangible realm of being, it may not always fit in to the tangible world of mundane phenomena. Keep these ideas in mind as we go through our analysis of the story.


Charlie Babbitt is a thirty-something, luxury car broker, whose whole business is based on earning large mark-ups for hooking up buyers and sellers of exotic automobiles. He is a materialist in his character, dresses sharp, drives a fine car himself, and though he may never consciously admit it, he views his attractive girlfriend Susanna as an object or possession, just like one of his cars. Charlie has only a relationship of convenience with her--sex, etc., and she works for him as a business assistant, able to speak Italian and facilitate Charlie’s business deals across the Atlantic. Throughout the film, she is continually trying to get him to open up to her, and to a more tender side of himself. Psychologically, she is like a pestering voice in his unconscious mind that both goads him to awaken and patiently waits for him to see the light of genuine connection. Thus her role as business assistant is metaphorical of her function as his spiritual “assistant.”

Charlie is the classic divine orphan. His mother died when he was two, and he was raised by a beneficent-tyrant father who has now passed away. Charlie also believes he is an only child. Accompanied by Susanna (Goddess in service to potential hero), he goes to his dad’s funeral, standing not at the gravesite with others, but way off in the background. He holds resentment and anger towards his father, and his mind is only focused on how much he will inherit. Sanford Babbitt’s attorney reads the will to Charlie, and he learns he is awarded his dad’s 1949 Buick Roadmaster and some prize rose bushes, which his father said were a “symbol of excellence.” The remainder of the three million dollar estate goes to an unknown beneficiary.

Charlie is in disbelief at the pittance he has been awarded, and says to the attorney in a sarcastic tone, “Well, I didn’t get the three million, but I got the rose bushes, I definitely got the rose bushes, I definitely got the rose bushes.” This repetitive manner of speaking is an intended technique by the screenwriter. It’s not how Charlie normally speaks, but is exactly how his soon-to-be-known brother Raymond speaks due to his autistic condition. Most importantly, it gives us a preview to a prime theme in the film, namely, that there is an as yet undiscovered part of Charlie’s soul that is Raymond.

Charlie begrudgingly goes with Susanna to pick up the car from his dad’s house. We see Charlie precariously entering the front door of the home where he grew up. This shot symbolizes a regression to early childhood, a preconscious state he must revisit to set up the real Journey to come. We next see Charlie and Susanna in the garage, admiring the rare classic car, and Charlie knows every detail about it. His father never let him drive it as a teenager, but he snuck it out for a drive one night, got caught, and was severely punished. Sanford called the police who arrested Charlie, and left him in jail for two nights. It is interesting that at the beginning of their quests, spiritual heroes often plunge into the abyss for two nights before resurrecting, such as Attis of Anatolian mythology and Jesus of Christianity.

On the surface we may read the gift of the car in the context that perhaps Sanford Babbitt knew Charlie’s appreciation for cars might help soften the blow that he wouldn’t get any of the three million. But on a deeper level, Supernatural Aid is enticing the potential hero into a journey that will be traveled in a vehicle appropriate to his character. The Buick Roadmaster becomes the “chariot of the soul” (a symbol used by both Plato and the Hindus in their descriptions of the process of self-discovery). Furthermore, Charlie’s banishment from the Roadmaster and his punishment for sneaking a teenage joyride says that at such a young age, he was not yet ready for a serious quest in the soul chariot. As Charlie himself says, “That car brought our relationship to an end.”

So in our story, Supernatural Aid is showing up in the form of the wrathful Father God. Charlie was never able to Atone with his biological father (“Nothing I did was ever good enough for that guy”). Knowing this would be the case, the father set up a quest in which his son may finally come to know the wisdom of the father in death. That wisdom was not available to Charlie due to his father’s unapproachable surface personality when he was alive.

Charlie tells Susanna, “When I was a kid I was scared that the Rain Man would come and see me.” Susanna asks what happened to his imaginary friend and Charlie replies, “Nothing. I just grew up.” Our Goddess replies, “Not so much.” The Goddess knows the potential hero has a lot of growing to do. The play on the name “Rain Man” is interesting. It will turn out that Rain Man is how as a small child Charlie used to pronounce Raymond’s name. Also, symbolically, “Rain Man” is a generic cultural term for the bringer of results or rewards.

Sanford Babbitt’s attorney won’t reveal the name of the beneficiary of all the money. Charlie does his detective work and discovers that a mental institution called Wallbrook is somehow involved in the $3 million trust. This is absolutely perplexing, and Charlie still doesn’t know who the specific beneficiary is. He and Susanna venture there in the Roadmaster, and we see them driving onto the property, down a tree-lined corridor. Charlie starts asking anyone he sees for directions, but begins to realize that everyone in the place is mentally challenged. Symbolically, Wallbrook is a realm in which all the inhabitants live mostly in the world of the inner self, and for the first time in his life, Charlie is approaching the jumping-off point, the cliff edge of the inner self or unconscious part of his own being.

Charlie roams through the halls and rooms, looking at all the strange residents, and finally locates Dr. Bruener who won’t tell him much about the trust situation. Frustrated that he can’t get any answers, Charlie storms out, only to discover a seemingly retarded man named Raymond sitting in the driver’s seat of the Roadmaster with Susanna. Raymond, an autistic savant (a high-functioning genius who can’t fit that well into every-day, consensus reality), begins spouting technical knowledge about this particular model car, which impresses the car broker Charlie. Then Raymond begins quoting intimate details on the history of this particular car, which Charlie listens to in disbelief. It soon comes out that Raymond is Charlie’s unknown brother who was confined by Charlie’s father to live at Wallbrook since he was a young boy.

This is an important scene in which the Hero is Crossing the First Threshold. Reading it on a psychological level, Charlie has just been introduced to his inner self (Raymond) in a serious way for the first time. And it happens in the chariot of the soul, because Raymond is sitting in the driver’s seat of the Roadmaster. Charlie yells at him to get out of the car (implication: get out of me!) As a symbol for the inner self, Raymond, though an odd character in the waking world, will be leading Charlie on an amazing journey.

Furthermore, Raymond (inner self) is having a conversation with Susanna (anima or feminine aspect of the male soul) when Charlie (outer self) walks up. That is, the unconscious part of the psyche may make first contact with the conscious self by talking to or through the feminine aspect. Note that Susanna wasn’t bothered at all by this apparent idiot babbling away, but just sat in the car with him in an open, nurturing, listening mode. The Goddess understands all aspects of the Hero and is there to serve him. The part of the potential hero that remains in ignorance (surface personality of Charlie) will receive only her agitating aspect, but she will be gentle and open and kind with the unconscious part of him (Raymond) that is struggling to emerge. All through this film, Susanna is continually trying to open and maintain a dialogue between Charlie and Raymond.

Charlie goes back into the Wallbrook offices to confront Dr. Bruener, who has been Raymond’s legal guardian for life, and who is highly protective of him:

Charlie: Why didn’t my father tell me I had a brother?

Bruener: What would you have done about it?

Charlie: I don’t know. Does he know how much money he inherited?

Bruener: No, he doesn’t understand the concept of money.

Charlie: That’s poetic. Good old Dad.

Again, the deceased father as Supernatural Aid has cleverly set up the perfect journey for Charlie. He knows Charlie is a materialist and will try to get Raymond’s inheritance. This will force him to come more into Raymond’s world (explore more deeply his inner self). Of course, we don’t know much about Sanford Babbitt in this story, and maybe he was an unenlightened man himself, not consciously aware of how instrumental the terms of his will could be in the education of his two sons. But this is one of the interesting possibilities about myth and psychology, namely, that the inner self is aware and always directing the journey, whether or not the outer self knows what is happening.

On the surface, Dr. Bruener is a part of the conformist psychiatric system with conventional opinions about what is best for Raymond as a mentally challenged person. But on a mythic level Dr. Bruener is a Threshold Guardian, telling the potential hero that the gold is never to be yours, that it officially belongs to another, and you will only get it over my dead body. Psychologically speaking, this means that Raymond as the inner self has a great reward to offer, but the Hero will have to leave his comfort zone and enter into the realm of the unconscious to gain that reward. The first step is to get past the threshold guardian.

Remember that this is also a journey for the tender inner self (Raymond), and we see him get nervous as Charlie barges into his perfectly organized bedroom at Wallbrook (autistic savants can be anal-retentive). Charlie looks through all his baseball cards, disrupts his carefully delineated TV-watching schedule, etc. Raymond repeats over and over, “Unauthorized visit, unauthorized visit!” That is to say, the unconscious is struggling with its first encounter with its own counterpart in the conscious world. Note that at this point Charlie considers Raymond an idiot and has no patience or respect for him. He is very coarse with Raymond. Though somewhat intrigued with his newfound brother, Charlie’s singular goal is to recapture the $3 million.

We next see Charlie and Raymond sitting stiffly on opposite ends of a bench in front of a pond at Wallbrook, gazing into the water, with Charlie trying to make some kind of connection. We then see a shot of the two walking side by side down a tree-lined corridor. Both of these are great images showing the Crossing of the First Threshold. The two are cognizant of each other, sitting and walking together like a pair of bookends, but they haven’t yet meshed. Note also that as they walk down the tree-lined lane, Charlie is in front of Raymond by a few paces. The outer self still thinks it’s in charge.

Charlie gets permission to take Raymond out of Wallbrook for a short weekend together, but ultimately makes a decision to keep Raymond. Technically it is a “kidnapping,” but Charlie justifies it because this is his own biological brother whom others have unfairly kept a secret from him. Susanna, who is with them, questions Charlie’s wisdom on taking Raymond out into the world beyond Wallbrook, but Charlie replies, “I know what’s good for him.” This act puts Charlie in the Belly of the Whale, and now the adventure is in full career. As Raymond says soon after they are out in the city, “Gone for a very long time. Gone for good from my home.”


The film is full of humorous scenes that depict the sense of wonder and frustration that Charlie and Raymond both feel as the come into each other’s worlds. For example, Charlie and Susanna are making love in a hotel room, and Raymond walks in, sits on the edge of their bed, and begins imitating their sexual groans and sighs with the innocent curiosity of a small child. He is also simply mesmerized by all the sites and sounds as they drive around in the Roadmaster in the outer world of Cincinnati.

Raymond insists on having his bed next to the window no matter what hotel they are in. He also requires that the top be down in the Roadmaster as they drive across country. Possible symbolism: the inner self is a gateway to the spiritual realm that is associated with light.

Raymond has almost no critical reasoning ability, and therefore everything his five senses take in is the truth. For instance, in one scene he is crossing a street and stops in the middle when the light begins flashing “Don’t Walk.” Raymond has no filters and innocently sees everything as it is (akin, for example, to the Tibetan Buddhist state of realization called “ordinary mind”). For him, the helpful warning “Don’t Walk” means exactly that. Raymond’s view of the outer world gets him into predicaments that only a being from the waking world can help him figure out. This is often the case for yogis and mystics—as they plunge themselves deeper into the spirit world, they fit less and less into the outside world.

Charlie’s experiences with Raymond are primarily those of impatience and maddening frustration, which is often the case when a potential hero is on a spiritual quest but still stuck in the world of reason and logic. In the airport scene, Charlie and Raymond are about to catch a flight to Los Angeles, but Raymond has a major panic attack and refuses to board the plane. Charlie is completely frustrated but gets hold of himself and then calms Raymond down, telling him he can forget about the plane. Instead, they will drive the Roadmaster along the back highways of America to Los Angeles, a more difficult and less common means of travel than America’s quick commercial flights. Symbolically, this will be a “road less traveled” journey.

“You’re killing me, man,” he tells Raymond after his panic attack in the airport. This line has an interesting meaning on the psychological level: you’re killing the part of me that needs to die anyway if I’m going to evolve. Charlie is probably not aware of the deeper meaning of his own statement. That’s the great thing about quests as we have discussed before—the Hero often doesn’t know he’s on a quest.

These and other scenes of two brother’s experiences together constitute a process of creative tension between the inner and outer selves, the two halves of the same soul. All of the rules and rituals of Raymond’s magical, autistic world are being challenged by Charlie’s aggressive actions, and in turn, Raymond is shattering Charlie’s world that has only been focused on rationale and material success.

The place where these two aspects meet is the dangerous yet rewarding middle ground spoken of in the Upanishads (Hindu sacred texts), where it is said, “the Atman (Soul) keeps the two worlds apart, that they fall not into confusion.” The two worlds are the outer world of tangible phenomena in space-time, and the mysterious, inner self that leads to the unknowable Ground of Being (in Hinduism, Brahman). The Atman is to serve as both the process and the mutual, chaotic meeting ground of these two realms, and this is nicely depicted in one scene where Charlie and Raymond keep bumping into each other in a crowded phone booth, a portal symbol. The soul’s function is to do just that--create the tense, mutual meeting ground where the inner and outer halves dance and get to know one another. Note that Charlie is on the phone in the booth, trying to work out financial difficulties, that is, still attached to outer material concerns. Raymond (as inner self) breaks wind, which has the effect of “clouding” Charlie’s outer focus.

On the theme of the common meeting ground, we get a similar idea in the Taoist philosophy of Chuang Tsu, in his parable on the meeting of South and North Seas:

"The ruler of the South Sea was called Light; the ruler of the North Sea, Darkness; and the ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Primal Chaos. From time to time, Light and Darkness met one another in the kingdom of Primal Chaos, who made them welcome. Light and Darkness wanted to repay his kindness and said, “All men have seven openings with which they see, hear, eat, and breathe, but Primal Chaos has none. Let us try to give him some.” So every day they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Primal Chaos died."

The powerful Perennial philosophy message is, each of the three realms of being (tangible reality or “Light”, intangible mystery or “Dark”, and the pivotal, meeting place where they interact “Primal Chaos”) has its own function, and we are not to make them all the same, which will only kill their natural processes. As Chuang Tsu wisely advises in a similar writing, “It is best to leave everything to work naturally, though this is not easy.”

Our first main evidence that Charlie is beginning to get the message of listening to his inner self occurs in a scene where the two of them are sitting in the Roadmaster on a backed up freeway. Raymond starts spouting statistics on freeway accident fatalities, and insists that they take the back highways on their cross-country journey to California. He refuses to be in the car as long as they’re on any freeway, and so he gets out and starts walking. We see Raymond walking down the middle of a freeway off-ramp, with Charlie in the Roadmaster driving slowly behind him. This great symbolic image tells us that the inner self is going to begin leading the real journey along the road less traveled. The image of Charlie following slowly behind Raymond illustrates that the outer self is beginning to respect and give ground to its inner counterpart. Yet in our story, it is still the outer self in the driver’s seat, and in a later scene when they’re driving together, Raymond reaches over to grab the wheel and they almost wreck. Charlie screams at Raymond, “Never touch the steering wheel when I’m driving!” So Charlie has a ways to go in surrendering to a balance with his inner self.

Another instance where we see Charlie start to change is the scene out in the country where he at first lies to a rural housewife, telling her that he and his colleague are from the Nielsen Ratings Company and must come into their home and watch The People’s Court. This is merely a scheme to allow Raymond to watch his favorite TV program so he won’t throw a fit. But the plan backfires and Charlie then decides to simply tell the truth, and the housewife then permits them to enter. Charlie is learning that the truth always works, quite a departure from all the lying he does in his car business. The message here is that ethics is a natural by-product of self-discovery, and does not necessarily have to be forced by societal code.

In a hotel room scene Raymond shows Charlie a picture of the two of them that he’s kept all these years. Raymond is several years older than Charlie and the picture shows Raymond sitting and holding little Charlie when he was a toddler, symbolizing the inner psyche caring for and nurturing the young ego-persona. Charlie realizes that “Rain Man” is how he pronounced “Raymond,” discovering that his imaginary friend was his real brother he knew before his father sent Raymond away to Wallbrook. In this same scene, Charlie turns on the hot water to take a bath and Raymond goes into a panic attack: “Hot water burn baby!” We discover that Raymond had accidentally scalded Charlie as a baby, and this was the last straw that made the father Sanford Babbitt decide to send Raymond off to live in Wallbrook. Mythically, the Wrathful Father separated the inner and outer halves of the same being to set up a future process of mutual self-discovery. Charlie calms Raymond down and reassures him that he wasn’t hurt by the hot water then and is not hurt now. Raymond keeps mumbling, “Never hurt Charlie Babbitt,” and then strokes Charlie gently on the head.

The two continue their journey across the Southwest, coming into Nevada and Las Vegas. Throughout this part of the trip, Charlie is still fielding phone calls from his business partner, trying to keep his car deals afloat. But he has loans coming due and is getting desperate. He suddenly gets the idea that with Raymond’s photographic memory and ability to navigate complex mathematical problems (magical conditions of his autistic savant genius), he can use him to count cards so they can win at the black jack tables. Charlie is amazed by Raymond’s abilities, asking “How do you do that?” Raymond simply responds, “I see.” No need to explain the symbolic import of that line!

As Raymond enters a casino for the first time in his life, it is a completely phantasmagoric experience for him. He is mesmerized by the flashing lights and ringing bells. Remember that though we are using Charlie as our Hero to study, Raymond is also crossing thresholds. The two make their way to a black jack table and in a matter of a few hours, they have won enough money to bail Charlie out of his financial predicament. Meanwhile, Susanna has re-entered the story, having caught up with them in Las Vegas. It is time for the Goddess to reappear.

Though Charlie is opening up more and more on the feeling, intuitive level, he is still on an outer quest that is financial in nature, and Raymond is his ticket. It seems he is in psychological limbo, still using his brother to get the gold, but he is also beginning to transform on the inside. As we have said, the outer quest is symbolic of an inner quest, but Charlie hasn’t quite yet recognized all the parallels.

After their success at the gaming tables, we see Charlie and Raymond celebrating in a casino lounge over a drink. Raymond is approached by a call girl named Iris. In mythology, the iris is generally a symbol for the power of light. In the Chinese tradition it represent grace and affection; in Egypt, power; in Christianity, the flower of the Virgin Mary; and in the Greek traditions, the feminine messenger of the gods. Raymond is quite taken with Iris and may be having his first real romantic or sexual feelings (the quest of the innocent and tender inner self coming out into the phenomenal world and energy-charged complexity of tangible/sexual feminine attraction).

Charlie pulls Raymond away before he gets taken advantage of by a call girl and they go up to their “high roller” suite in the hotel. Raymond tells Charlie he wants to learn to dance and Charlie happily obliges. Great symbolism here—the two halves of the same soul beginning to intertwine and weave themselves together, much more gracefully than their first close encounter in the phone booth or at Wallbrook. The music they dance to is the Etta James version of “Your Mine At Last.” Their eyes meet, and a saying from Plato helps here: “The eyes are the window to the soul.”

Charlie tries to give Raymond a hug and Raymond begins screaming—the inner is still too afraid to meet the outer. Meanwhile Susanna comes into the room. All three of them head back down to the bar, and Raymond is looking for Iris. She is nowhere to be found, and so Susanna takes Raymond back up to their hotel suite. Raymond wants to dance so Susanna stops the elevator, slow dances with him, and then tenderly kisses him. This is not lust, but the Goddess teaching the inner part of Charlie (Raymond) about genuine connection. And this happens in the elevator, another portal symbol like the phone booth earlier.

Raymond represents the aspect of Charlie’s soul that is tender and can open up to a genuine experience with feminine power. There is a nice organic morphology here (spontaneous, chaotic unfolding of natural processes): The call girl Iris (Woman as Temptress) activates Raymond initially, and Susanna (Goddess) brings this initial awakening to fruition. Simultaneously, Charlie (still only a potential hero), whom Susanna cannot get to open up, is opened up a bit through his brief dance with his brother Raymond. This little dance lesson was initiated by Raymond, who had just opened up a bit to the conscious world when activated by Temptress Iris. This later spawned Raymond’s little interlude with Susanna in the elevator. Charlie is not jealous of the connection between Susanna and Ray. Rather, Raymond becomes the conduit that will create and allow an eventual authentic connection between Charlie and Susanna. Ah, the complexity of the dance!

The result of the preceding weave of inner and outer creates the next step in the hero quest--Apotheosis. That is, Charlie is transformed and finally lets Raymond drive the Roadmaster, the soul chariot. The inner self has been at least party put in charge. A little comparative philosophy on the “soul chariot”, both Greek and Hindu, helps here.

Plato uses the chariot metaphor in the Phaedrus, to explain in picture language his idea of the “tripartite soul.” There are two horses pulling the chariot, that Plato calls the noble (neutral) and ignoble (unruly) steeds. The unruly steed is interested in the “appetites,” the pleasures and allures of material life--financial, sexual, etc. This steed would pull the chariot wildly in all directions, if it weren’t for the neutral steed (latent enlightenment), that sits there calmly until the chariot driver (heartfelt reason) of the individual, uses the reins (individual willpower) to bring the two steeds into harmony, so the whole apparatus can move ahead forward in some orderly fashion.

From this image, we could roughly equate Charlie to the unruly steed and Raymond to the neutral steed. The two steeds need each other to bring about an inner-outer harmony, and their struggle to come together in balance is the represented by the quest itself, which requires fortitude, will, and heartfelt reasoning.

In the Hindu tradition we have a somewhat different soul chariot image, summarized nicely by Huston Smith in The World’s Religions:

"There is a rider who sits serene and motionless in his chariot. Having delegated responsibility for the journey to his charioteer, he is free to sit back and give full attention to the passing landscape. In this image resides a metaphor for life. The body is the chariot. The road over which it travels are the sense objects [outer environment]. The horses that pull the chariot over the road are the senses themselves. The mind that controls the senses when they are disciplined is represented by the reins. The decisional faculty of the mind is the driver, and the master of the chariot [serene rider], who is in full authority but need never lift a finger, is the Omniscient Self." (p 31)

I will leave this second image for you to develop a symbolic analogy of your own.

Our Hero Charlie has through his experiences on the Quest come to the realization that he now holds his brother dear to his heart. He is also no longer angry at his father for cutting him out of the will (Atonement with the Father). These two transformations represent his Apotheosis. His Ultimate Boon or reward is that for the first time in his life, he comes to deeper heart experience, strong feelings of love for his actual brother. In mythology this is one form of what is called the Sacred Marriage.


Charlie knows it is time to return to Wallbrook with Raymond, his goal being now to gain legal custody. Raymond’s legal guardian, Dr. Bruener, the threshold guardian, offers Charlie $250,000 to walk away, but for Charlie, it’s not about the money anymore. He refuses Bruener’s offer, and realizes that he might even want to live with and personally care for his brother. Mythically, this constitutes the Refusal of the Return. Charlie doesn’t want his sweet encounter with Raymond to end, not realizing that the inner self cannot remain at all times in the outer world, nor vice versa.

But a little later there is an important scene where Raymond and Charlie are living together and Raymond accidentally starts a kitchen fire. No one is harmed but Raymond panics, throws a fit, and Charlie realizes his brother will always function as a little child in the outer world. Can Charlie accept such a new lifestyle? Still we see them sharing pancakes the next morning, laughing and playing together. The Hero has now cemented the connection with the other half of himself.

Next there is a psychiatric evaluation scene with Charlie, Raymond, Dr. Bruener, and another psychiatrist all present. It is to be determined whether Raymond could in fact live a safe and normal life in the outside world with Charlie. Bruener is an advocate for keeping Raymond at Wallbrook (still serving his mythical role as the Threshold Guardian who prevents the Hero from reaching his goal, in this case the merger of the twin souls). The other psychiatrist is more objective (Mediator archetype), mainly wanting to determine what Raymond wants.

Charlie pleads his case: “You have to understand, when we started out together he was only my brother in name. And this morning we had pancakes…The point is, we made a connection.”

The mediating psychiatrist responds, “That’s great, but we have to determine what is best for Ray. Is he capable of functioning in the community? And we have to determine what in fact he wants, if he is in fact capable.” This mediator is revealing his bias towards conventional psychiatry. Dr. Bruener interrupts, insisting that Ray is incapable of making those kinds of decisions.

Charlie: You’re wrong.

Mediator: Ray, do you want to stay with your brother?

Raymond: Yeah.

Mediator: Do you want to go back to Wallbrook?

Raymond: Yeah.

If we assume Raymond has transformed his understanding of the world on some level, we must interpret his responses as a deep desire for both Charlie and Wallbrook. As the film dreamer we are also beginning to get the feeling that the tender, inner self must remain in its own realm, and would be like a fish out of water in the outer world of consensus reality. Charlie also begins to feel this, and as the two doctors leave him and Raymond alone in the room, they share a tender moment, touching heads. Charlie kisses Raymond on the head and says, “I like having you for my big brother.”

There is no clear Magic Flight or Rescue From Without in this tale, and the Crossing of the Return Threshold may be suggested in the final scene, when Charlie takes Raymond to the train station to send him back to his own world, telling him on the platform, “Dr. Bruener only has custody. I can still come visit you.” In other words, there will always be the threshold guardian delineating the two worlds. They exchange their final goodbyes and Charlie’s last words to Rain Man are, “You’ll make it!” In other words, “I’ll make it.”

Charlie is now the Master of the Two Worlds with Freedom to Live in either world—he can visit Raymond any time he wants, meaning, he can now journey between the conscious and unconscious worlds. That Dr. Bruener only has custody means that there will always be a threshold guardian delineating the two worlds, reminding us that they are two different realms and each must be respected for what it is. Again, as the aforementioned Upanishad states, the Soul or Atman “keeps the two worlds apart that they fall not into confusion.” But once we have successfully quested from one realm to the other through life experience, we now have carte blanche to pass back and forth between our own inner and outer worlds.

Rain Man also teaches us that though it is challenging, self-discovery doesn’t always have to be a “spiritual emergency” as intensely depicted in films like Fight Club. There can instead be a gradually unfolding, demanding but achievable Road of Trials that constitutes the quest, an incremental process of awakening via the more gentle path of “spiritual emergence.”


Chuang Tsu. Inner Chapters

Cooper, J. C. Traditional Symbols

Grof, Stanislov. The Stormy Search for the Self

Mascaro, Juan. The Upanishads

Smith, Huston. Our World Religions