What myths are you living? What myths did you grow up with as a child? What are your emerging myths?
James Hillman explains that we do not just live one myth. "As I am many persons, so I am enacting pieces of various myths. As all myths fold into each other, no single piece can be pulled out with the statement: "This is my myth." But we may discover the theme or core myth that is central and basic to the way our individual life is lived. Paying attention to your own mythic journey can provide a starting point for the major self-discoveries of your life.
Transitions and transformations are the genesis of the inner life, or the mythic journey. Schopenhauer wrote that as we look back on our life there seems to have been a purpose in everything that has been eventful; there has been a common thread that appears to have tied everything together.
Carl Gustave Jung (in his writings on the soul and the process through which we individuate) sought to provide us with a set of guidelines to make sense out of nonsense, and to instruct us about a philosophical view of the world that is grounded yet helps us relate the total mystery of life.
Jung's view on early childhood until puberty was that "in the childish state of consciousness there are as yet no problems because the child is dependent upon its parents, and the conscious differentiation from the parents normally takes place only at puberty." But it is clear that a personal mythology has its foundations in these formative years. This period is the time when your myths were formulated and shaped. It foreordains to a large extent the archetypes that are experienced throughout life.
No matter how much parents and grandparents may have sinned against the child, the man who is really adult will accept these sins as his own condition which has to be reckoned with…. He will ask himself: Who am I that all this should happen to me? To find the answer to this fateful question he will look into his own heart. (Jung ).
A return to the landscape of childhood can be very useful to become aware of the myths we live by. The traumatic experiences of the child shape the adult life and tremendously influences the myths that we live by. This experience is what D. Stephenson Bond would call a "core experience behind what may come to be the personal myth." "The family is to the individual what the origins of human life are to the race. Its history provides a matrix of images by which a person is saturated all through adult life" (Moore).
For example, Marie Louise Von Franz's excellent book, Puer Aeternus describes the major archetype that influences most of the decisions in the adult lives of many men: "Someday my mother will return and I will not have to feel helpless and hopeless." "In the practical life of the puer aeturnus, that is of the man who has not disentangled himself from the eternal-youth archetype, one sees the same thing; i.e., a tendency to be believing, naive and idealistic" (Von Franz ).
"The (archetypes) present themselves each as a guiding spirit (spiritus rector) with ethical positions, instinctual reactions, modes of thought and speech, and claims upon feeling. These (archetypes), by governing my complexes, govern my life." (Hillman).
There well may be nothing more psychologically powerful than being under the influence of an archetype. "When a situation occurs which corresponds to a given archetype, that archetype becomes activated and a compulsiveness appears, which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and will or else produces a conflict of pathological dimensions, that is to say, a neurosis." (Jung).
Bond succinctly describes this relationship between the myth and the psyche succinctly; "Myth expresses a functional relationship to the psyche; a pattern of adaptation to the internal world." The difference between living a myth and being under the influence of an archetype is narrow.
The shock of going from an adolescent environment to one of men, is what Joseph Campbell speaks of in The Power of Myth, concerning the initiation rites of young men into adulthood. Campbell provides an example of the primitive rites of initiation in Borneo where the ritual from adolescence to manhood is a brutal transformation of consciousness.
In Myths to Live By, Campbell states: "Accordingly, one of the first functions of the puberty rites of primitive societies and indeed of education everywhere, has been always that of switching the response systems of adolescents from dependency to responsibility-which is no easy transformation to achieve."
This initiation into manhood teaches the child that he is no longer an adolescent. Stein describes a rite of passage such as this one as having three stages: separation, liminality, and reintegration." The boy is forced physically, emotionally, and spiritually to let go of the old myths that concern a teenager and allow the new myths to arise that are to be a part of adult life.
It is an experience that shatters the old adolescent myths that the child had believed. Progoff describes this experience very clearly: "The breakdown of old symptoms and beliefs gives the individual a sense of isolation and anxiety, which might be spoken of as a personal feeling of cosmic isolation."
The purpose of basic training in the military is to break a man down psychologically and rebuild him into the image of the archetypal hero; the immortal soldier, one who shows no fear and will die for his country without ever asking why. The weeks of basic training causes a feeling of "cosmic isolation and anxiety." Old myths are shattered and new myths arise in a few short weeks: "Duty, honor, and country" is the intended new creed and myth.
No one can imagine the horror of war that has not been there. The senselessness of it all! The myth of invincibility is certainly shattered with this experience. The myths that the military personnel live by are simple: "We are right and everyone else is wrong." This myth killed thousands of young men and wounded thousands of others whose lives were instantly changed forever.
There are numerous life transitions; marriages, children, affairs, and moving from one place to another, that may cause a transformation of consciousness, but one is usually most significant. It is what can be described by St. John of the Cross, as the "dark night of the soul."
As quoted by Edinger in Ego and Archetype:
"The shadow of death and the pains and torments of hell are most acutely felt, and this comes from the sense of being abandoned by God.... A terrible apprehension has come upon the soul.... It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness."
"It is meet then, that the soul be first of all brought into emptiness and poverty of spirit and purged from all help, consolation and natural apprehension with respect to all things, both above and below. In this way, being empty, it is able indeed to be poor in spirit and freed from the old man, in order to live that new and blessed life which is attained by means of this night (the dark night of the soul) and which is the state of union with God. The "old man" St. John refers to is the personal and collective myths that had been dominant throughout adult life. This was a transformation of consciousness usually remains and resonates in the soul."Using a term from Christina and Stanislav Grof, this is a "spiritual emergency":
"An individual may suddenly feel a childlike sense of loneliness, that seems completely inappropriate to his or her situation; these irrational perceptions may have their origins in an early incident of abandonment by a parent or the lack of bonding with the mother at birth." Obviously our anxieties and fears may be appropriate for the situation; isolation, fear, loneliness, and separation anxiety of the greatest magnitude. "Among the most troubling and alarming components commonly confronted by those in spiritual emergency are feelings of fear, a sense of loneliness, experiences of insanity, and a preoccupation of death" (Grof ).
My eyes fill with tears.
What shall I do? Where shall I go?
Who can quench my pain?
My body has been bitten
By the snake of "absence,"
And my life is ebbing away
With every beat of the heart.
The above poem by Mirabai, a fifteenth-century Indian poet as quoted by Grof in The Stormy Search for the Self, is another way of viewing Bond's perspective when he says; "If I am no longer able to live the way I have been living, how do I then live? That is a mythological question. And precisely at that point psychotherapy stumbles."
This kind experience forces us to look at the question; "Who am I that all of this should happen to me?" Through hard inner work, we discover the answers to this problem. Campbell says in The Power of Myth, that "destiny is simply the fulfillment of the potentialities of our own energy systems, brought on by deep life experiences and structured by our own life." This existentialist view can provide comfort and gave a more solid footing in such a slippery psychological state.
"Collective thinking and feeling and collective effort are far less of a strain than individual functioning and effort; hence there is always a great temptation to allow collective functioning to take the place of individual differentiation of the personality…. This disregard for individuality obviously means the suffocation of the single individual, as a consequence of which the element of differentiation is obliterated from the community" (Jung).Jung frequently wrote that unconsciousness has no problems; only consciousness brings problems. As Psyche lit the lamp, Pandora opened her jar, and Eve ate the apple; I left "home." By doing so, however, we may become the initiator of our own life. Huxley quoted a Sufi aphorism "When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what is has found."
Hendrika DeVries explains that "when old mythic structures break down and do not function in the life of the person and the new mythic structures are not yet realized that there is chaos and tension." She calls this tension of opposites the "rainbow bridge." Jung refers to this process as the transcendent function, "which arises from the union of conscious and unconscious contents." Jung further states that "the trained analyst mediates the transcendent function for the patient, i.e. helps him to bring conscious and unconscious together so arrive at a new attitude." In this function of the analyst lies one of the many important meanings of the transference."
"Outwardly it still is the same expectation of the child for the help and protection of the parents, but in the meantime the child has become an adult, and what was normal for a child has become improper for an adult." Jung's transcendent function refers to active therapy, as a vital process to furnish us with dreams, images, fantasies, to help us grasp the reality of our condition. Without this tension of opposites, we may remain in what Jung called "directedness" and "one-sidedness." In this state, there is no tension; only an inflated ego either in the manic or depressive state where no "light" can enter the soul to create the possibility of a new myth or a renewed life.
" In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in dark wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough in its growth,
How first I entered it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dulness in that instant weigh'd
My senses down, when the true path I left......"
Stein says that "midlife befalls us; we don't ask for it…For many it is truly a long dark night of the soul, a descent into regions of feeling and of experiencing that comes quite unexpected and certainly unsolicited"
Following retirement from a career, fewer myths can be depended on for comfort. "At midlife a person runs into a period when the liminality that is produced by external facts such as aging, loss of loved ones, or the failure to attain a dream of youthful ambition combines with the liminality that is generated internally by independently shifting intrapsychic structures, and the result is an intense and prolonged experience of liminality, one that often endures for years."
In this condition it may seem that one cannot go back or go forward. Bond provides an excellent view of this problem: “It is the loss of our containing myth that is the root cause of our current individual and social distress, and nothing less than the discovery of a new central myth will solve the problem for the individual and for society. Indeed, a new myth is in the making......”
Back to Part I, Mythology