When you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you begin to see that they all follow a certain pattern. This is true not just of movies, but of all great stories ranging from those found in classic mythology and literature to modern TV series and video games. Joseph Campbell called it the monomyth or hero’s journey. It’s basically a series of steps that the protagonist must go through during the course of his or her adventure. In addition to this, there are also a number of spiritual principles that often find their way into storytelling. By combining these principles with the monomyth, you can pretty much figure out where just about any story is headed. While this skill has proven to be incredibly annoying to my wife, it’s come in very handy for me. Not because I’ve continually annoyed her with my usually correct movie and TV show predictions, but because I’ve noticed that these storytelling rules apply to more than just fictitious stories. They also apply to real life.
One of my favorite moments of any movie happens in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel that all his seemingly pointless wax-on, wax-off chores were actually for a higher purpose. Daniel comes to realize that he was learning and training in karate all along and didn’t even realize it.
The scene is reminiscent of when Dorothy learns that she could’ve gone home at any time by clicking her red ruby slippers together. But the point was the journey, not the destination. Similarly, many of you have been reading these blog posts for a long time, but perhaps, not applying the insights along the way. For many years, I’ve been writing about how life is not random. That it runs by a series of very specific rules that are hidden within our mythology and designed to help us navigate life’s challenges. Well, now it’s time to point out what you’ve been learning all along. And if this is the first Layman article you’ve ever read, not to worry. Think of this as the Cliff’s Notes version that will save you from having to read the other ninety-three articles I’ve posted here so far.
Combining what I’ve learned from movies, TV series, video games, mythology, The Bible, Kabbalah, books, comics, various spiritual principles, lectures, and life, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are dozens or rules that apply to stories as well as reality. Of course, if this were true, it would have some pretty heavy implications about whether reality is actually real. But that’s a discussion for another article.
For now, I’d just like to list the major principles so you can see for yourself whether or not they ring true for you. These rules are found in pretty much every story and religion—ever. But most of us never really think of them as actual rules that apply to the real world. But they are. Think of this as the Long Lost Instruction Book To The Game of Life. Better late than never.
RULE #1: To be successful at any new venture, you must take a leap of faith. If it’s your dream to be something, do something, or have something new, it will remain a dream unless you first take a leap of faith. You cannot fully grasp a new undertaking unless your first let go of what you’re already holding onto. To move forward you must release what’s holding you back, no matter how much comfort it brings you. A leap of faith means that you fully commit to something new, confident that you will succeed, or better yet, believing that you have already succeeded. In order to do this, your dream must be bigger than your fear.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy took a step into an abyss only to land on a hidden platform he hadn’t seen. This platform led him to the Holy Grail. In Lost, Hurley and Charlie rode a VW van down a steep hill towards a boulder and were only able to turn the ignition on in the final seconds. And in every movie ever where someone or something is trying to fly for the first time (Dumbo, The Boy Who Could Fly, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [a movie I’ve never seen, but looked it up and sure enough…]) instead of taking off from the ground, they must always leap off a cliff from which failure is not an option.)
My brother used to say, “if you have something to fall back on, you will.” Once you take the leap of faith, there’s no going back—only forward. So if you’re looking to get that dream job, first leave your old one. If you want to find true love, stop seeing your friend with benefits. Or, if you want to completely change your life, go on a walkabout in the middle of nowhere. It always works in the movies! And since our world works by the same rules, it will work here as well.
RULE #2: To achieve anything of merit, you must step outside your comfort zone. Seems kind of obvious. And it’s something that most of us already know. But then how come so few of us actually do it? Well, because it’s uncomfortable! In order to grow, you must do what makes you uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable, the more the growth. Becoming a true adult requires stepping outside the protective barrier of your parents, and even going beyond their expectations of you. The younger you are when you do this, the more growth. This is why most superheroes and Disney protagonists are orphaned at a young age—it forces the most growth.
So, if you have something that you want in life, be proactive. As they say, “act in spite of fear,” because action cures fear and then there’ll be one less thing you’re afraid of. So challenge yourself, because if you don’t, but continue to put energy into your desires, life will do the challenging for you. And its challenges are usually worse since you didn’t set them in motion yourself. Had Luke not objected to leaving with Obi Wahn initially, his aunt and uncle wouldn’t have needed to die. The crook who killed Peter Parker’s uncle wouldn’t have been able to do so had Peter stopped him when he’d originally had the chance. And if Woody had gone right to the police…
RULE #3: Energy flows where the mind goes. As Einstein’s famous formula proved, energy and matter are interchangeable when multiplied by the speed of light squared. So if your thoughts and the emotions you connect them to are energy, theoretically they should be able to manifest mass along with a projected doubling of light. I’d say the light is the appearance of the holographic item in this illusionary world and its duplicate in the spiritual world above where it’s projected from. But without getting too metaphysical, let’s just imagine that your thoughts have a certain energy. The higher the frequency and repetition of a thought, and the more powerful the emotion it’s attached to, the more energy it has. And the more energy it has, the more likely it is to manifest in your life.
Want to know what you think about the most? Look at what’s all around you. Do you think about money or lack of money, love or lack of love, having time or no time, being healthy or sick, anger or happiness, gratefulness or longing? It’s funny, all of this pseudo science is hidden in our various religions. But it’s not for God’s benefit that we need to feel grateful and to pray—it’s for ours! The leprechaun/genie-esque trick to all this is that you have to be careful what you wish for! Be specific. Focus on what you want, instead of what you don’t want. Energy doesn’t know the difference. It just gives you what you give energy to. So whatever you want, focus on having it—like you already have it. Fake it until you make it. Be the change you want to see. Because what you resist, persists. There’s wisdom in all these sayings.
And of course, the wisdom shows up in our stories too. In Rudy, a small, average athlete obsesses about playing football for Notre Dame, and does (and it’s based on a true story)! In The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya spends his life repeating what he’ll say the day he meets the six-fingered man who killed his dad, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Not surprisingly, he meets him. Unfortunately, he didn’t put much energy into planning what happens after that. And in A Christmas Story, young Ralphie dreams of owning an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, despite everyone else insisting that he’ll shoot his eye out—which he almost does when he finally gets one! Why? They planted their negative thoughts into him!
RULE #4: All obstacles are placed in your way to call out your inner strength. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No pain, no gain. From rejection comes direction. Pain pushes you until the vision pulls you. There are hundreds of proverbs and quotes about this simple truth. And yet, when something goes wrong, most of us still freak out. Whenever you are getting challenges in your life, the reason is because you are not yet strong enough to take on the life you have envisioned. The bigger your dream, the more obstacles you must overcome. The more proactive you are with them (see rule #2), the less likely they will need to come at you unexpectedly.
This rule is pretty much featured in every story ever. Without the terminator on her trail, Sarah Connor never would’ve become the person who raised the leader of a rebellion. Had he never been kidnapped and suffered a severe chest injury, Tony Stark never would’ve created the suit that would transform him into Iron Man. And of course, without Goliath, David would’ve just been a shepherd boy.
RULE #5: When life gives you lemons make lemonade. This proverb usually relates to making the most of a negative situation, but I also see it as making the most of multiple negative situations (you can make better lemonade with multiple lemons than just one). According to most mythological stories, when things are at their very worst, you will almost always then face another obstacle that makes it seem like now you’re really screwed. But the new obstacle is actually a solution in disguise.
Imagine being pinned under a block of ice underwater and all of a sudden a giant killer shark is coming at you. This was actually a scene in Ice Age 2. What did the hero do? He used the shark to jolt into the ice which set him free. As Spider-Man said in an early comic, “according to the latest superhero manual, the well-trained costumed crime-fighter turns ever obstacle into an advantage.” He said this after being surrounded by a group of thugs who then spilled oil in front of him so he’d slip. Instead, he skated on the oil right past them!
This is a rule of life. Every obstacle is meant to prop us up to the next level—and two are meant to help slingshot us to success. Dealing with health issues and then you lose your job? Maybe the new job will have better health benefits. Running away from a wild animal and then you’re trapped at the edge of a cliff? Duck as it pounces and watch it sail over the edge. Wondering how you’ll escape a cave-in and then suddenly your flashlight dies? Perhaps in the darkness you can see some light coming from the outside world. While some of this scenarios are a bit fantastical, the point is that often times we unknowingly manifest the second obstacle to help us escape the first. So if you’ve got a problem, keep an eye out for yet another problem and see if there’s a way that it can help solve the original.
RULE #6: All weaknesses are really hidden strengths in disguise. You know that thing that you hate about yourself? That thing that’s unique to you that’s been causing you trouble for as long as you can remember? It’s your ticket to inner growth. Hidden within your greatest weakness lies your greatest strength.
In Wanted, the protagonist suffers from dizzy spells and headaches that prevent him from effectively doing his job. Turns out that he has undeveloped telekinetic powers that he learns to master. Dumbo’s giant ears enabled him to fly. And of course, the most famous misfit of all, Rudolph’s shiny nose guided Santa through the storm, and Rudolph into history.
In life, being different offers the chance to see problems from a different perspective and often solve them. This is why they say that the misfits are the ones who often change the world. Disabilities help people grow mentally stronger and more tolerant. They can also lead to adaptations that may be perfected to be even more effective than whatever they are compensating for. Regardless of whatever the perceived weakness is, it must be confronted head-on or else you will never reach your true potential.
RULE #7: Life will make you face your greatest fear. Remember the tagline from the movie Poltergeist? “It knows what scares you.” Life is exactly like that. It will continually challenge you with your greatest fears and weaknesses. Why? So that you can overcome them! If you can overcome your greatest demons then there is nothing that can scare you. In mythology, doing this allows you to achieve a new level. You’ve overcome the fear of death, or escaped death itself, and are now transformed. So Jesus is resurrected, Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, Neo becomes “the one,” Pinocchio becomes real, Luke become a Jedi, and on and on.
As I’ve written, your destiny is the path to the one thing you’d most love to do that most terrifies you. In order to achieve it therefore, you must overcome your fear. So once again we see that what may appear as challenges or fearful events in our lives are really meant to help us achieve our dreams—to become the highest versions of ourselves.
RULE #8: There are no accidents. The first time I heard about the concept that “everything happens for a reason” (or its close cousin, “there are no coincidences”) was when I read Celestine Prophesy years ago. While it’s something of a cliché now, I’d never heard anything like it back then, and it sent me on a completely new course that probably led to the creation of this blog. The amazing thing about this concept is that if true, it has incredible implications about the world in which we live. For starters, it’s not random. There are forces guiding us. “Magic fingers” as Joseph Campbell called them. Perhaps a higher version of each of us guides its representation on this world. Or, maybe our mind creates our reality. Whatever the details, it seems obvious that life is not just a series of random happenings. We seem to be on a path, and when we stray from it, we are nudged back on.
There are countless myths, stories, and movies, where a seemingly random event or chance encounter proves to be vital to the future of the hero. A monkey eats from a bowl of dates meant for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only to die, alerting Indy to the poisoned fruit. Shortly after purchasing the droid R5-D4 in Star Wars, it malfunctions, and Luke takes R2-D2 along with his embedded message, instead. In The Goonies, Chunk accidentally knocks over a water cooler, and the dripping water alerts the gang to a hidden passage beneath the fireplace.
Sometimes, a coincidental event or encounter is so far beyond chance alone, the protagonist feels compelled to comment on just how unbelievable it is, as Humphrey Bogart does in one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” We’ve all had these unbelievable moments. Why they happen isn’t as important as recognizing that when they do, they represent an important crossroads where multiple destinies or life paths are intersecting. There’s great power in those moments because at any intersection we have the option of choosing which path to take. From what I’ve learned in movies and mythology, always choose the more challenging path. It will enable you to grow quicker so that the universe doesn’t have to force its challenges on you. (See Rule #2)
RULE #9: The meek shall inherit. What’s that movie where the nice, nerdy guy who constantly gets picked on gets killed by the bully? It’s no movie since that movie has never been made. And if it has, you’ve never heard of it because it went straight to video—unless it was like some foreign tearjerker that won an Academy Award for originality.
No, the nerdy kid who gets picked on always wins in the end. Because even if in real life you are a bully, you’ll always relate more to the victim. So movies like Revenge of the Nerds, Rudy, Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, The Neverending Story, Little Shop of Horrors, the Karate Kid, Weird Science, Harry Potter, and many more, inspire us to fight the powers that always try to keep us down.
While in real life, the meek rarely achieve greatness, the point is more about how pain and suffering makes us stronger. All you need is a big dream that’s bigger than the pain you feel in life and you will grow strong enough to reach your goal. This is why most of the meek protagonists in films are visionaries and dreamers. They are putting an ideal higher than themselves, and this lack of ego connects them to something more powerful than themselves, or anyone who stands in their way.
RULE #10: To achieve true inner peace, one must let go of all attachments and expectations. Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Similarly, John Lennon said, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” “And of course, the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi advised, “Let go Luke.” In story after story, the heroes have their sights set on some personal goal, only to find themselves thrown into some other cause that turns out to be a more fulfilling experience than anything they’d ever wanted for themselves.
Luke Skywalker had wanted to train at the Imperial Academy, but his detour took him straight to the frontlines of the Rebellion. Dorothy just wanted to go home, but wound up saving Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West. Peter Parker wanted to earn some money with his new super strength, but ended up using his powers to fight evil. Flynn from Tron, Quaid from Total Recall, and Sully from Avatar, just wanted to have a virtual experience in a fantastical world, but they all wound up saving those worlds—just as you have the potential to save this one, if you’re willing to sacrifice your own personal pleasures for the greater good.
Why does it work that way? For a few reasons. First, if we are truly being guided by a higher force or more enlightened version of ourselves, then it’s probably safe to assume that it knows better than we do and when we try to resist its guidance, we will meet with resistance. Just like a parent’s guidance with a small child, the path we are being directed to take is probably not what we feel like doing, but in the long run is likely to be for our own good.
Secondly, in most stories and myths, materialism is shown again and again to be merely the tools of this world, not its main goal. If this world is indeed illusionary, than all of its elements that can be detected by our five senses must be illusionary as well, and therefore, not of main importance. The important thing is our experience, and growth through that experience, not stuff. Nobody gets to take their material collections to the next world. But perhaps wisdom and experience do stay with us.
Third, you can’t pour more water into a glass that’s already full. Similarly, if you’re already closed to new experiences and think you know what’s best for you, you won’t be open to what actually might be best for you. Like a child with a temper tantrum you will continually go kicking and screaming through life as it tries to nudge you on your path. If you stubbornly keep returning to where you’d left off and refuse to try something new, you will continue to go nowhere. Life would go so much smoother if you could just be open to new possibilities and to a higher source guiding you to your destiny. If that destiny is not what you had envisioned for yourself, it will most likely be even more fulfilling than what you’d planned.
If you are indeed lucky enough to get to a point where you have no attachments or expectations, then you can know true inner peace and contentment. And at that stage, nothing can make you unhappy because nothing is required for you to be happy. The person who can reach this level is truly enlightened.
And what must you do to let go of your attachments? Believe that something better awaits you with a leap of faith, and then the cycle begins again. These series of steps aren’t done once and then you’re done. They repeat again and again throughout life, a cycle that uplifts like a spiral staircase. The challenges do get harder and harder. They have to because as you complete them you get stronger and stronger. The same challenges you experienced as a kid are simple once you reach adolescence—assuming you’ve grown. That’s why they have to keep changing. The themes however, remain similar and continue to repeat until you’ve mastered them.
Life becomes much easier once you are familiar with its rules. Because as you face each, you’ll recognize it for what it is and understand its greater purpose. Want to have fun while learning these rules? Watch any mythological movie: any Disney movie, fairytale, sci-fi epic, inspirational story, underdog tale, superhero origin story, or movie that’s based on a true story. Then, make a checklist of these ten rules and check off each one you recognize throughout the film. You can even make it a drinking game if you want. Either you drink every time one of these rules is illustrated in the story, or your friends drink if you call it out before they do. Not only will you be learning about life’s rules, you’ll be having fun and therefore be attracting more fun experiences into your life. Just don’t get too attached to them.
May your inner spark grow to light your way,
The Hero’s Journey image is by Ryan Dunlavey of Deviant Art and can be found here.
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