The Hero’s Journey as Healing Journey – Guest post by Dan Mallach

Bartram's Yellowwood. Photo by Dan Mallach

Bartram’s Yellowwood. Photo by Dan Mallach

Landscape Architect Dan Mallach contacted me after he finished his MLA thesis, “The Folktale Journey in Healthcare Facility Landscapes,” and I suggested that he write a guest blog post on the subject. If you’re interested in the thesis, please leave a comment!

“The Hero’s Journey as Healing Journey: A Transformational Path for Healthcare Facility Landscapes” by Dan Mallach, RLA

“A healing is a spiritual journey” – Lewis Mehl-Madrona

In order to promote mental relaxation and physical recovery, many therapeutic gardens at healthcare facilities feature sense-pleasing designs with achievement/reward paradigms. While such designs have been shown to improve clinical outcomes, a design framework based on the landscape features of the archetypal Hero’s Journey of folktales may heighten their effectiveness, such that an individual may achieve a state of health that has been described by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Joseph Campbell and others have described the successive “stages” common to the folktale journey. Protagonists travel a metaphoric road, and in doing so, encounter a world that reflects, and stimulates, a transformative process of inner travel.

In a typical story, the Hero begins his or her journey in a familiar location such as the village square. Following an interpersonal conflict or other communal challenge, the Hero becomes lost in the forest. The Hero wanders, and may meet a guide who points to a literal path forward, and may offer advice to help resolve the prime conflict. The Hero must travel to a mountaintop– but first a river must be crossed and other tasks completed.

Eventually, with newfound inner strength, the Hero succeeds in reaching the mountaintop, to discover that the journey itself has restored emotional balance and provided the tools for resolution.

This Hero’s Journey may be considered analogous to the Healing Journey, and many cultures have produced remarkably similar stories. Good resources are Parallel Myths by J.F. Bierlein, and World Tales: The Extraordinary Coincidence of Stories Told in All Times, in All Places, by Idries Shah. According to the theory of “independent invention,” these stories were produced in relative isolation, rather than through “geographic diffusion.” Consequently, narrative similarities (such as among natural features) suggest a relationship between the outer and inner landscape, employing what Carl Jung referred to as “archetypes of the collective unconscious.” An understanding of this relationship, and the mechanisms by which the brain identifies and translates external images into personal metaphor, can lead to the design of effective therapeutic landscapes.

Designers have many tools with which to create the folktale landscape. Techniques from traditional Japanese gardening can help to generate a progressive sense of travel in a small space. Carefully chosen plants, along with water features, thoughtful grading, and the retention of mature trees where possible, can emulate diverse narrative settings (village green, forest, riverside, mountaintop). Facilities could also employ a trained “gardener-therapist” to perform the role of providential guide.

Certainly, for many visitors to a healthcare facility, any outdoor experience that is unambiguous and unchallenging may be best– the institutional experience, and the trauma that may have preceded it, is stressful enough. However, for those who seek an enhanced experience, the archetypal landscape of the Hero’s Journey can provide a foundation for a transformational Healing Journey.

Many thanks, Dan, for this post! Dan Mallach is a Landscape Architect and Planner living in Pennsylvania. His own Healing Journey inspires and informs his work.