Recently I had a discussion with my Religion students about the concept of a myth. Myths are metaphors for intangible, un-expressible experiences that impact us profoundly. In preparing these discussions, I considered the late, great Joseph Campbell’s views on myth. In one of his discussions with Bill Moyers, Campbell states that modern society does not have myths—the only mythmakers are artists, which includes musicians, poets, filmmakers, and others who work with metaphorical images. He proposes that things change too rapidly in this day and age for society to create new myths.
I was thinking about this the other day, and it occurs to me that myths are actually everywhere, though they are less socially organized and more individualized. We succeed or fail in life with respect to our myths. A myth could have to do with the profound mystery of existence, or it could be as mundane as believing that one has to focus on something practical like business or finance to succeed in life. Unconsciously, we stick to the script of the myth. This can help us through troubled times, and it can also wreak havoc, especially when we assume that our myths are the same as everyone else’s. There may be similarities, but we all have our own spin on the story.
Cultures that still have shamans as part of their religion see the shaman as the interpreter of their social myths. After all, the shaman has seen the Mystery firsthand. It also follows that the magic of the magician is nothing more than a rewriting of the script. You identify the story that you’re telling yourself, and then you change it. Artists of all types are like shamans, because they are expressing and reinterpreting myths all the time through images; they do so because they have touched on the Mystery. This is also the key to psychotherapy; the therapist helps you identify your myths, to see what lies you might be telling yourself that keep you from progressing in your life.
This is not to say that myths are lies; they are only lies inasmuch as what we perceive and interpret as reality has an illusory quality. This is also not to say that we have total control over everything. I spoke to a Muslim man once who expressed it best—if I raise one leg, I cannot also raise the other leg at the same time without falling down. We have inherent limitations. At the same time, we have more control than we often believe that we do. Probably 80% of what we tell ourselves is bullshit. The idea of using “affirmations” to change our thinking is based on the idea that we can change our stories. The problem with affirmations is that we never believe them. They are too weak to effect any real change.
Matthew Arnold wrote an essay called “Hellenism vs. Hebraism” in which he talks about the conundrum of the Victorians and the disintegration of their cultural myths. In essence, he points out that society will force its myths on you if you don’t create your own. In order to effect real change, people have to be aware of the stories they’re telling themselves—and how seriously they take those stories. In the end, they’re just stories—they’re theories and interpretations of life. If you take them too seriously, you risk being totally shattered if something comes along to challenge that story.
When I was first married to my now ex-husband, he was very into the works of Carlos Catstaneda. He firmly believed that Don Juan (the shaman in these stories) was pointing out that the day to day world we live in was unreal, and that the reality we should be focusing on is entirely hidden. He would use this as a justification for avoiding things like getting a job, or any of the mundane realities of shared living. I was fortunate enough to find and buy for him the one book he’d missed in Castaneda’s series, “The Power of Silence.” He sat home and read it cover to cover, and it totally shattered him. In that book, Don Juan tells Carlos that this “other reality” was no more real than the one he came from.
Those challenges are always good ones—if we’ve gotten ourselves on the wrong track by taking the story too seriously, it needs to be torn apart. Truth is sometimes painful. But that is how we tear down, reinvent, or re-establish our myths. In short, that is how we grow as human beings.