Ronan Loughney • • 13 min read
My Hero's Journey: Completing 30 Challenges to Enlightenment
Most of the time, the moments that dictate the course of our lives are unknown to us. They are apparently random decisions, a different route we take to work, a flight we miss, a fall we suffer, resulting in some chance encounter, some opportunity that never arises, some unforeseen danger escaped.
But on a few rare occasions, we can see the forces which bend the arc of our lives as clearly as if we were characters in a novel. We can perceive those inexplicable interventions of grace within our lives, where our paths seemed to be heading in one direction, only to suddenly stop and take a different turn. We can look at our lives and know that they changed fundamentally at such moments, that at these points a whole new biography began.
This article is essentially about one of those moments, when my life changed forever, resulting in me being here, now, writing this article, and not somewhere else, in some other time, living a different story. It is my path from confusion and self-destruction, to discipline and optimism. It is my own humble Hero's Journey.
It was February 2018. I was down to my last £90 for the month, with about a week to go before my next paycheck. Now, what most people would do in this situation would be to look after this money very carefully over this period, so that they could do important things, like buy food and pay for transport to get to work. But there is some very specific context around my situation at this point.
I was addicted to ketamine.
And, as is typical of an addict, I was living in enough self-denial whereby I thought it was a normal and acceptable state of affairs to spend my last pennies on 4 grams and worry about those luxuries like, y’know, sustenance and employment, later.
My life up to this point had been a series of false starts and perennially half-baked plans. I knew that my life’s passion revolved around exploring the questions of Philosophy somehow, and I felt the clear call to make something meaningful of my life beyond the drudgeries of conventional quotidian existence.
I’d been reading High Existence articles for years, and they’d always given me a great sense of comfort, that I wasn’t alone, that there were people out there who thought like I did. People who saw that Philosophy wasn’t just an intellectual toss circle and actually had massive and essential real-life relevance; who dreamed about what it would be like if we all tried to live like ubermenschen (in a non-Nazi way; just so we're clear); who felt that there was something magical and profoundly mysterious to the mere fact of being, which was there to be uncovered if we could only learn to have the eyes to see.
But at the same time, I’d felt a certain existential dissonance between myself and these yearnings. I’d read the articles about falling in love with existence, pushing oneself to new heights of engagement with life, overcoming one’s limitations and conquering suffering, and felt I was nothing but a dilettante playing Philosopher, luxuriating in fantasies of who I might be while living a life of blatant contradiction.
I would spend most of my free time and money in a luxuriant stupor, essentially lobotomising myself under the influence of this powerful tranquiliser in order to numb myself and push away the problems I didn't want to face up to. Typically, this only generated more problems, more inauthenticity, and more shame and unscrupulous behaviour, bound together in a vicious spiral.
Life would continue like this until the shame would grow too much, or until I would spectacularly overdose and scare the living metaphysical shit out of myself, and I would shake myself off and start living in accordance with my values again. Until, inevitably, the relief at escaping the hell of my addiction would fade, and the old wounds which drove me there in the first place would begin to ache again, and I would end up indulging to escape the pain, because that's what the cycle of addiction is!
The cadence of such a life will be familiar to any addict, where every time some momentum is achieved, some point of progress reached, you will contrive to sabotage any gains made.
You see, I had learned to identify with this life of fruitless oscillation, even taking comfort in it. Because inhabiting a life of any consistent success meant a degree of exposure, whereby my shortcomings and vulnerabilities risked being seen and known by the world (not safely repressed within my own private psychodrama.)
This degree of identification with oscillation and inertia meant that change hadn’t really seemed possible. I had become obsessed with the internal contradictions of free will. And technicalities aside, I had convinced myself that, based on my repeated failures to impose any lasting influence over my behaviour, any meaningful use of willpower was inaccessible to me. I became lost in a self-told riddle where I concluded that, if I didn’t have the strength of will now to be who I wanted to be, then surely I could never generate the will to become that person in the future.
To indicate my struggle, here is a passage from a book I was writing at the time:
First on his agenda was the motion outstanding from every previous day:
"How does one get oneself up at a reasonable time in the morning?"
He considered this to be one of the great insoluble questions. For something so seemingly simple, the practical solutions to the question faded into a fog of technicalities:
‘How could one ensure one would wake oneself up when one couldn’t be sure one was the same one when one wakes up as one was before one went to sleep?’
‘How could one break the cycle of inaction, whereby one actually kept one's promise to get one's self up, when one had already proven that one was simply not capable of keeping this promise?’
‘Had one overthought the very problem and in so doing rendered oneself incapable of solving it? Then how could one unthink that overthinking?’
He'd tried all the usual tricks – multiple alarms, removing his curtains entirely, paying his roommate to deliver morning coffees (which he always awoke to find cold and filmy beside his bed).
He'd even tried practising the actual mechanism of waking up. He would practice lying in bed with eyes closed, a picture of silent focus, and abruptly dive to his feet, poised in Ninja readiness for the imagined day ahead.
Clearly, he still had to work on his springing technique, since when the time came he inevitably remained face down. (‘Must practice verticality’, he'd jotted down in one of his notebooks).
We can become so wrapped in our own self-defeating thought loops that it can become very easy to believe they are real. Or just to get so tired of the whole state of affairs that we stop trying to improve it.
And the thing about addiction is that, in a certain sense, it is so goddamn easy. There is the thing that you (apparently) want. And you can just reach your hand out and get it, now. And it will make you feel good (sort of), now. No need to worry about plans and visions and future consequences. Just do it!
I had become so habituated to this short-term thinking that my whole horizon of possibility was restricted to the immediate future, and I lived my life within this little window.
And so, as I scrolled through my contacts to find my dealer on that particular February day, I don’t know what it was that made me pause. Maybe what happened was simply that the tension between who I was and who I wanted to be became too much for my psyche to bear. Or maybe the gentle guiding hand of providence descended from on high and did me a solid. Maybe they’re just different ways of describing the same thing.
Something, whatever it was, rose up within me, and I paused.
I remembered that there was this 30 Challenges thing which had caught my eye. And I saw very clearly that this moment represented a fork in the road.
I could either continue going down the path I was already moving along, and spend every spare penny I had on getting high and everything that represented: seeking pleasure, short-term gain, retreating into myself and self-destruction.
Or I could go a different way. I could choose instead to actually invest in myself. To take a deliberate step towards being the person I felt I could be, as opposed to alternating between falsely identifying with this image and then feeling shamed beneath its glaring light. I could choose something not for pleasure or ease but the opposite, knowing that this was what I really desired, not in spite of - but because of - it being difficult.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way." William Hutchinson Murray
There was no third option, no middle way. Because if I didn’t spend that money there and then on something other than my addiction, I was not about to save it for groceries. The force of habit was so ingrained that I knew I had to make an emphatic choice.
(If you’re thinking, 'how did you survive on £0 for the rest of the ten days?', well, it’s all about beans. Thanks to the impecunity of this time in my life, I have an almost inhuman capacity to eat beans. Beans on toast. Bean pasta. Crazy beans. Bean Surprise. The destitution and deprivation were worth it just for the veritable bean frenzy I’ve bean on (HAHAHAH) ever since.)
I had to close off all possibility of continuing the mode of existence I wanted to be free from, and say a sacred ‘Yes’ to something deeper. The only way we can break free of an old mode of being is when we say boldly and unequivocally to this way of being: ‘No more’.
And so I made my commitment. And things were never the same again.
Disclaimer: Challenges may not actually result in enlightenment. Human limitations such as occasionally being a giant asshole, being overly sensitive about shit which just doesn’t matter/isn’t about you, and generally letting others down because you are too god damn self-absorbed will persist.
Fast forward four years (yes, I know, I took my sweet time about it) and I am just now completing this epic journey.
Suffice to say that, no, I’m not enlightened. I’m still, to varying degrees, vain and jealous and selfish and mean. (Wait, stop! Where can I buy this miracle product!?)
But I am much less any of these things than I was before. And I am so much more aware of how these deficiencies show up in my life and how I alone am responsible for how much they do.
I am incomparably more disciplined, responsible, balanced and integrous. And my sense of agency over my life is so much greater.
Although the change has been imperceptible to me, and though there is seemingly some core sense of self which has persisted throughout, I am a fundamentally different person now as compared to then.
I look back on myself and, although I can still absolutely relate to what that young man was going through, I can see that most of the barriers in his way existed entirely in his head. I look back at the riddle I had told myself about willpower and realised it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we torture ourselves with the image of who we are supposed to be, we will forever bind ourselves in unworthiness.
While having a vision is a beautiful thing, in our moments of most profound existential confusion and despair, we need something even more fundamental.
We need faith. Not of the abstract or naive kind, where we wait for something to come along and save us from the lives of quiet misery we find ourselves in.
Rather, we need to have faith that if we do the work, the lives that we do even not dare allow ourselves to dream will weave themselves into being, so slowly and subtly as to be imperceptible to our daily consciousness. Until we find the tapestry of our lives is unrecognisable compared to what it was before.
It is as the quote, (probably mis-) attributed to Socrates, says:
“If you want to get to Mount Olympus, make sure every step you take is in that direction.’
For so many reasons - from the short-termism to the impatience, entitlement and lazy romanticism of modern Western society - we tend to wait for destiny to sweep us off our feet, to do the work for us: I’ll be who I want to be when I feel like it.
Wherever it came from, my decision that day was about refusing to wait for destiny to come knocking any longer, and instead stepping onto the path myself and taking its hand.
I don't believe we walk alone in this life. No man is an island. But each of us still must walk, so that we can meet each other along the way.
And I know the question you’re just a-burnin’ to ask:
‘Do you still disappear through the narrow slit of perception?', 'Do you still dance with the shaman of confusion?', 'Do you still melt into the shapeless sea?’' (For those unfamiliar with its properties, these are my attempts at poetically elevating getting, like, proper mashed on ketamine.)
The answer is, unsurprisingly, 'No'. (It would probably be a bit misplaced if I was like - ‘quit? Why, I’m high right now you suckers!’) But not in the usual sombre, emphatic, tone of the recovered/ing addict.
That is, I haven’t had to swear myself off from ever indulging ever again. And it hasn’t been a case of forcefully leveraging the strength of will cultivated over the 30 challenges to constantly bat away the impulses of addiction. I haven’t had to wrestle against my addiction, maintaining constant vigilance over it and willing it into submission (where the risk is always that one will eventually crack under the strain).
Rather, the addiction has been replaced by the more wholesome practices that I have built up. (This is similar to what the Buddhists refer to as Replacement by Opposites where hindrances of the mind are (no points for guessing here) replaced by their opposites. E.g. replacing thoughts of ill-will and hatred with loving kindness, since both cannot exist in the mind at the same time).
As the wounds which drove me towards my addiction have begun to heal, as I have become more optimistic about my prospects and filled my days with more enriching activities, the compulsion to seek succour in something I ultimately know is harmful to me has weakened automatically.
For the first time in my life, I find myself looking optimistically towards the future, able to envisage a version of myself growing stronger, wiser and more loving. Because I have proven to myself that I can. And because I now know it feels infinitely better than constantly giving in to short-term impulses.
I know that when you are at your lowest that getting off the floor can feel like an impossibly long way up. But I promise that once you make that commitment, something will be born in you which is unshakeable. It doesn't mean you'll never fail again, that you'll never let yourself down. But you will learn to get up quicker each time, because you'll have had a glimpse of the life you've always known is possible. And that is more powerful than any addiction.
It should be pretty obvious then that 30 Challenges changed my life. And if you feel called to change your own, I couldn't recommend it highly enough.
But if signing up to a minimum of two and a half years of challenges feels a little too pie in the sky for you right now, we’ve got a little something else cooking:
- 100 days straight. 6 daily disciplines: cold showers, mindfulness meditation, intermittent fasting, insight journaling, material downsizing, and a final ritual of your own choosing.
- $200 to register, and for every day you complete, you get $1 back. If you’re successful, the final cost for the 100-day experience is $100, and you’ll get $100 as a reward for your victory.
- 1:1 accountability, live community, multiple live sessions, and a personal tracker. All to help you establish these transformative practices in your life.
If reading this article stirred something in you, if you feel called to be the person that deep within yourself you know you are, then this is for you.
Check out the HERO100. We begin April 1st.
And if there are those among you mumbling that true spirituality has no price tag and that we should be suspicious of any gurus touting their wares, (unfortunately, my appetite demands more than beans these days and I need money so that I can buy diamond-encrusted steak) we would like to offer access to the course content to you for free as well. While you won’t have access to the community or the accountability that comes from betting on your own success, you will have access to all of the challenges as soon as they go live.
Ronan Loughney is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, finding beauty, and deepening human connection and community.
If you want to connect with him or see more of his work, go to https://www.ronanloughney.com/