Refusal of Return – The Hero’s Journey Step 12

What happens when you refuse to complete your Hero's Journey?

On October 3, 2019, we’ll press pause on our Kung Fu Panda series and look at the little-seen Return stage of the Hero’s Journey.

Do you have children or do you remember being the type of child who cried and complained whenever your parents took you somewhere. And then, when it was time to leave, you cried because you didn’t want to go?


Well, welcome to the spiritual version of being that kid again.


Hello, Spiritual Seekers, and welcome to another episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts. This is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Part Twelve, Refusal of Return and I am, as always, your host, Mark.

We’re doing a side-quest today because I feel that it’s necessary to discuss this next phase of the Hero’s Journey before we look deeper into Kung Fu Panda 3.

And probably one of the most common things I say during these Hero’s Journey episodes is how the script has been difficult to write, I’m not sure what I’m going to say about this subject, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Well, this is true once again, but not for the same reasons as the previous scripts because:

I’m actually going to talk about two subjects today: the Refusal of Return step of the Hero’s Journey and I’m going to provide you with an overview of what this Return stage of the Journey involves.

This is something I haven’t done in this Hero’s Journey series at all and perhaps I should’ve.

While Joseph Campbell’s version of the Hero’s Journey has 17 distinct steps, every single version of the Monomyth breaks down to 3 primary stages: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Some versions use different words, but they all mean the same thing.

In Joseph Campbell’s version, the Departure stage consists of The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, Crossing the First Threshold and The Belly of the Whale steps of the Hero’s Journey.

That Departure stage can also be called the Preparation stage because everything that happens or everything you do during that time is preparing you for the greater adventure ahead.

Once you’ve spent enough time in the Belly of the Whale, it’s birth or Initiation time as the Hero. Road of Trials, Meeting with the Goddess, Temptation, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis, and the Ultimate Boon are all the true incarnation of the Hero’s Journey.

During this Initiation stage of the journey, you become the Hero.

Isn’t it interesting that you become the Hero in the middle of the Hero’s Journey?

And isn’t it interesting that these first two stages are generally the only parts we see played out in most films and stories?

Which brings us to the mysterious Return stage. The stage of the Hero’s Journey we rarely see in its full fruition.

And, yes, I’m highly aware that I’ve talked about a lot of Heroes in more than a few stories that have made it all the way around the wheel of the Hero’s Journey.

More on that in a few moments. Let’s look at the steps of the Return stage first:

Refusal of Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, the Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live.

The first thing I’d like to do at this time is actually insert some new paragraphs into this script.

Thinking about and studying this entire Return stage and, in fact, even living it has really been teaching me some important lessons.

Throughout this Hero’s Journey series I have often referred to the Mentor’s Journey as well. I had believed that the Mentor’s Journey didn’t begin until the Hero had finished their first traverse around the wheel.

I now think I’m wrong about that.

My thoughts here are perhaps beyond the scope of this particular episode, so I’ll sum up as best as I can for the moment.

The Hero’s Journey is actually made up of multiple journeys. Each step of the Hero’s Journey can be its own, well, Hero’s Journey.

And maybe the Hero will have to go around the entire wheel of the Hero’s Journey again. I still have to figure this all out. It’s not an exact science…well, it’s not science at all…or is it? It is somewhat psychological and human behavioural analysis.

Sorry. Again, this is why I need a script. I get side-tracked so easily.

As the Hero gets closer and closer to their maximum, or highest, potential, the wheel becomes increasingly complex and once they reach the Return stage…well, this is where I believe that the Mentor’s Journey now begins.

And this is where I’ll return to the original script before I inserted these paragraphs. Hopefully everything else I wrote still fits. Look, these scripts are all first drafts. Do you really think I have time to go back and do intense edits or rewrites???

Perhaps I should reiterate the steps of the Return stage:

Refusal of Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, the Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live.

It seems to me that much of this wording is similar to the Departure stage of the Hero’s Journey. In fact, I would like to suggest that the Return stage is a mirror image of the Departure stage and also of parts of the Initiation stage.

In Departure we have Refusal of the Call. The refusal to begin the Adventure at all.

In Return we have Refusal of Return – which I’m supposed to be talking about in this episode. Refusal of Return is simply not wanting to leave the Adventure even though it may be over.

Then we have Rescue from Without, which is very similar to Supernatural Aid.

Crossing the Return Threshold is obviously a mirror image to Crossing the First Threshold.

And Master of Two Worlds and Freedom to Live are both Return steps that contain many elements of the Initiation stage – especially Temptation, Atonement, and Apotheosis.

In fact, as we will eventually cover, Master of Two Worlds and Freedom to Live can practically be Hero’s Journeys of their own.

So, let’s take a look at a few of our past Hero’s Journey completionists and examine their Return stages a little closer.

Ryan Stone from Gravity certainly completed her Hero’s Journey. She could have chosen to die in space, her Refusal of Return, but she didn’t. Her Rescue from Without technically took the form of a dream. Her Magic Flight was taking the escape pod from the Chinese Space Station.

Ryan’s Crossing the Return Threshold was literally falling back into Earth’s atmosphere.

And this is where Ryan’s completion of the Hero’s Journey gets a little bit fuzzy. Yes, she lands on Earth and gets up and is free in body, mind and spirit, I have no doubt about that, but there is a piece missing here that leads me to believe that Ryan needs to go around the wheel again to find her own true bliss.

This is where Nancy Adams from The Shallows may be a more complete Hero than Ryan Stone. Nancy’s Return journey begins when she kills the shark. She wants to return to land, but it seems she lacks the strength. However, the ocean itself provides her with the Magic Flight, by carrying her to shore.

Nancy receives a little Rescue from Without help from her taxi-driver, Carlos, who pulls her to shore: that’s the Crossing of the Return Threshold.

A year later we find that Nancy has become a doctor and she is teaching her little sister to surf the waves. In these actions we know that she has become Master of Two Worlds and attained the Freedom to Live, but we don’t actually see it happen. We just know that it does.

And this is why I wanted to talk about this Return stage of the Hero’s Journey before we dive into Kung Fu Panda 3.

Because Kung Fu Panda 3 actually gives us a true Return journey. It’s the only true Return journey story that I am aware of.

Okay, Thor: Ragnarok is also a Return journey, but Thor still has more adventures to take before he reaches the height of his potential.

And there are definitely elements of Return Journeys for a few characters in Avengers: Endgame, but we’ll deal with those in future episodes.

Whereas Po actually attains his fullest and most complete Self.

And he freely gives from that enlightened Self.

Because that is the ultimate goal of the Hero’s Journey: to find your own true bliss and then to Return with that bliss in order to become your Highest Self and to share your knowledge with others. To become a Mentor.

Joseph Campbell put it this way:

The whole idea is that you’ve got to bring out again that which you went to recover, the unrealized, unutilized potential in yourself.

The whole point of this journey is the reintroduction of this potential into the world; that is to say, to you living in the world. You are to bring this treasure of understanding back and integrate it in a rational life. It goes without saying, this is very difficult. Bringing the boon back can be even more difficult than going down into your own depths in the first place.

Boy, for a series titled Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey I certainly don’t quote the guy very often, do I?

To put all that in layman’s terms: what you find in the depths of your soul – the ability and strength to be your own Hero, to save your Self – and the lessons you learn along the way, need to be brought out of yourself and lived in everyday life.

These experiences and lessons most likely also need to be shared with and taught to others.

That is why you eventually have to leave the Adventure behind and return to Normal Existence.

Ahhh, there we go, now I can finally get to today’s step of the Hero’s Journey: Refusal of Return.

It’s pretty easy to see why you may not want to return from the Adventure. Once you’re comfortable in the depths of the Soul, why would you want to leave? To Hell with the rest of the world, just let me stay here and enjoy my own weighty contemplations!

Honestly, I’ve been in that very place. A few years ago I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the rest of the world – okay, in one sense I still don’t, but bear with me here.

I would have been quite happy to let the world around me devolve into Chaos. I just wanted to be in my head and deal with my own emotions and my own interests and who cares about anything else, right?

But, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t work that way.

You left your Normal Existence to go on the Adventure and your Normal Existence was, most likely, intolerable or no longer sustainable.

You were not a Master of that World.

So, you left that World in order to Master another.

The entire point of the Hero’s Journey is to bring the Two Worlds of your Soul and your Body into alignment so that you can be Master of both and step between both Worlds with ease.

If you do not Return to some kind of Normal Existence, your full potential will never be realized. This is why you can’t refuse returning for too long.

Remember, these stages are mirror images. If you continually Refuse the Return journey you could possibly end up in the same place as Refusal of the Call would have left you and the entire Journey could come to a bitter end.

The more I refused my own Return journey – which I didn’t even realize I was doing – the more bitter and depressed and angry at the world I ended up being. Here I was refusing to Return to the world with the very lessons and messages that I believed that certain people needed to hear.

Certain people, mind you. Not all people. Every message and every method can’t be for all people. Many of us have had similar life experiences, but that doesn’t mean that every message resonates with us all the same.

This is another concept that Kung Fu Panda 3 deals with and it’s a little off-topic, so we won’t go that direction now.

Another reason for us to not Refuse to Return is that we still have a lot of lessons to learn in the regular world. We may be the Hero of our own life, but our Hero’s Journey isn’t complete.

We may have gone down into the depths of our soul, but we still have to learn the lessons of the body and how to integrate these things and become whole and complete individuals.

And there’s that Yin and Yang dualism coming up again. I know, I’m a very dualistic teacher. It’s how I see everything.

It’s also how the Jedi and the Sith see everything in the Star Wars universe. And I’m bringing that up because Luke Skywalker’s story arch is probably one of the best movie examples of Refusal of Return that I can think of.

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy many times over and I always had the feeling that Luke’s story was very incomplete – which is why I got into the expanded universe novels for many years. I collected all the available ones between 1998 and 2008 and then I got a little tired of them.

However, it was nice to read most of them and see Luke grow into a mostly confident and extremely powerful Jedi Master.

And then, along came The Last Jedi.

Now, I did not hate that movie at all. I feel it has some very deep and powerful lessons contained within it, but I have to admit that I was saddened by Luke’s demise.

That version of Luke Skywalker refused his Return stage of his Hero’s Journey.

I mean, he did attempt it. Luke had gained the Ultimate Boon of knowledge of the Force and he tried to teach it to others – with very little guidance, by the way – but he had one massive failure and he ran and hid…and the galaxy descended into Chaos and War once again.

It’s a warning to the rest of us as to what can happen when we refuse to return to our own regular life with our ultimate boon and when we refuse to learn from our mistakes.

The Star Wars galaxy is a representation of Luke’s soul and that galaxy is constantly at war. He brought down the Fear and extreme order of The Empire, Palpatine and Vader, but he simply allowed them to rise up again in the forms of The First Order, Snoke and Kylo Ren.

Thus, the Force had to choose a new Hero and give Luke a chance to redeem himself by mentoring her.

Which he still didn’t do. He still Refused the Return journey.

Until he finally realized how wrong he had been and then only the Path of Sacrifice was left to him.

Psychologically this may be entirely why so many fans don’t like The Last Jedi. Sometimes we don’t like the image the mirror reflects back at us. We don’t like to see our Heroes fail. We don’t like to see our own failures.

We especially don’t like to see the failures of our past – of our old self before we became the Hero we were meant to be.

But we need to see those failures. We need to acknowledge them. We need to accept that we are never going to be perfect and get everything right every time.

We need to accept that the path of learning doesn’t end just because we found what we were looking for – or we found something better that we weren’t looking for, but it’s what we really want if you remember my Ultimate Boon episode.

And that is why you have to get up and begin that Return journey even if you have no idea how to get started. When you take those first steps, your direction will eventually make itself known and your Magic Flight will begin.

But that, my Dear Listeners, will have to wait for the next Hero’s Journey episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

Thank you very much for listening or watching today. Please like, share, comment, criticize, subscribe. If you care to support the podcast, please visit my Reverb sales page for music gear or my Etsy sales page for vintage items sourced by my lovely Christine.

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I have been your host, Mark. This has been a talk about Step 12 of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and how it applies to your life.

And I know that if you refuse to Refuse your Return to your Normal Existence that great lessons will be learned and you will change your Self so that even greater lessons will be taught in order to change your world.

You have all the weapons and knowledge you need within you. I will see you on the next episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

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