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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Pivotal Role of Personal Mythology in Psychotherapy and Healing

Paul Kiritsis - Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Birth of Aphrodite by Chris Stamboulakis (2011) Illustration for Shades of Aphrodite: In Search of the Golden Apple

 

Do you know what a myth is? Do you think you could dish up a substantial explanation of myth without using the word story, folktale, or fairy-tale? I’ve encountered so many monolithic interpretations of this word from people who supposedly understand its dynamics as to fill a room full of gold florins. Many will purport that myths are primeval, rudimentary, and pre-scientific accounts of natural phenomena. Others place them into a historical context as distorted memories of the momentous past. Others still prefer literary and culture-preserving interpretations where myths are basically contemporized narratives that transmit ancient remnants of magico-religious ceremonies. The most popular and holistic interpretation is a psychological one developed by dynamic psychotherapists like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) who tended to view myth as intercourse between the realms of the unconscious and the conscious where the former projects its contents onto the latter for perception and analysis.

Over the last two hundred or so years, the hermeneutics of culture has widened the spectrum of interpretation even further. Myths can now be construed socially, literally, politically, historically, functionally, and psychologically. By far the most holistic approach is the psychological which decrees that myths provide the requisite context for the Self to contemplate its own position within the greater cosmos. According to this ahistorical line of attack, the mind can only ruminate about the mysteries that condition human experience by exploring affiliations between objectified rationality, subjectified irrationality, and an external face or personality developed by individuals for the sake of confronting and participating in society. In more precise Jungian terms, we might describe myth as a product of an interdisciplinary dialogue shared between variant layers of consciousness–the personal conscious or ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. They are impartial truths about all potential behavioural patterns that direct human experience and point rather subliminally to the existence of a Platonic anima mundi (World Soul) which underruns the basic substrate of our personal psyches and ties them together. These are by their very nature vague and unspecific, but contained within them are rich, multifaceted tapestries of meaning that can be grasped by the intellect through symbols and images as well as through narrative strategies.

Of and in themselves, myths can be delightfully beautiful and quixotic; archetypes and other abstract qualities (i.e. love, jealousy, passion, fidelity, pride, bravery, wisdom, and avarice) are personified as protagonists that interact with one another in ways that bring about harmonious fusion or discordant reaction. The specific configuration of their interaction is what determines the nature and mode of one’s inner transformation and what mediates the malleable trajectory of individual and collective fate. This is a reality that nobody can escape, not even the hermit that has chosen to reject the phenomenal world by withdrawing to a small mountain hut built in the middle of nowhere. Even he is subject to the full spectrum of human emotions released spontaneously when preeminent archetypes form inner relationships and interact–delight and torment, fear and hope, wit and horror, and innumerable other corresponding pairs that make for comedy, tragedy, and all corroborating aspects of the human drama. Hence, we might say that archetypes will manifest and seize ownership of you; they will possess you; they will work through you; and they will overwhelm you no matter who you are or where you come from. Their ubiquity and numinosity is not open to negotiation and debate. Myth functions as their sentient co-conspirator by offering extrinsic modalities through which any chain of intrinsic experiences might be contextualized and better understood. One might say that myth is a conscious attempt to grasp the world clearly and rationally.

If transpersonal psychology has decreed that myth is the language of the unconscious, then psychotherapists should be able to use archetypal footprints inherent to them to map out specific denotations in dreams, hypnagogia, waking fantasies, and visions where unconscious states are exalted. In former times, the realm of mythological knowledge was somewhat downplayed as an obscure and unscientific realm of primitive cognizance but newfound perspectives garnered by psychology have salvaged it from consignation to the occult dustbin of collective human history. These days mythology enjoys a much more privileged position in transpersonal psychotherapy as a hermeneutical and well-articulated tool that can unlock a great many secrets like: what desires, urges, obligations, and duties are causing this fragmentation in my psyche? Why now? What is the reason for their being? When will this internal war be resolved? Will it ever be resolved?  Myth throws open the floodgates leading back to the abyssal depths of the human psyche and offers substantial explanations that resolve all those internal conflicts usually at fault for overturned and disorientated impressions about the world. The conflicts are resolved by stimulating conditions that draw one into vigorous dialogue with positive and negative elementary aspects of their own Self. Allowing these aspects to ‘converse’ exposes a profounder reality than the one theorized to exist, an underlying fundamental harmony and unity to the cosmos that consequently heals the abhorrent schism by reintegrating all the subpersonalities hitherto at war with one another.

What should be evident by now is that myths are psychic vehicles we apprehend to amble through life. Every individual on this planet– with the exception perhaps of a select few that have lived out all their formative years in complete solitary confinement and stimulus deprivation–should be able to relate to at least one myth. Individuals who pick up a secondary or tertiary textbook on mythology and study it inevitably see that most, if not all of their inner contents are echoed in a multi-coloured assortment of myths that vary from archetypal narratives that present the female divine and the male divine as literary character types to stories about tricksters and consecrated places along with cosmogonic chronicles about the creation of our world as we recognize it. One adventurous subpersonality that has gone on a great many urgent crusades might be embodied by Jason, the legendary Greek hero who embarked on a dangerous quest to Colchis for the sake of capturing a priceless treasure known as the Golden Fleece. A different subpersonality typified by piousness, devotion, and loyalty to one partner might perceive its life course in the biography of the Egyptian Isis who was inexorable and unremitting in searching for the scattered parts of her dismembered husband Osiris in order to grant him a proper burial. Yet another envious and jealous subpersonality might see its personal mythology reflected in the actions of the wile sorceress Circe. The latter was enamoured of the merman Glaucus who remained resolute in his affections for a beautiful sea nymph named Scylla. When Circe’s attempted seduction and enchantment failed she directed the brunt of her jealous and vengeful wrath at his objectified desire by turning her into a repugnant beast.

It’s quite common for individuals to awaken to the mythological turf which underscores patterns in their own lives only after contemplating communal or collective myths to be found in comprehensive scholarly textbooks about the subject. There are sweeping benefits to becoming conscious of archetypal patterns that are latent in one’s life. First and foremost, gaining knowledge of the guiding principles which arbitrate personal mythologems grants receivers of that knowledge a more objective view of their natural tendencies; their inner lives; and the extent to which these have been moulded by cultural values and tradition. Second and more importantly, the invaluable insight that comes as a result broadens perception so that an individual can amend or abolish established behavioural and cognitive patterns that indicate the activity of the shadow, the negative and less desirable qualities of our personalities. In tracing out the development of your life against a purely mythological backdrop, you might find that certain myths crop up only once and then dissipate from the collective unconscious whilst others continue to recur at intervals. In others you might find that only certain aspects relate to your life situation, or that its entirety is a tapered projection of your own personal ego at a time when it was suffering from inwardly-turned, arrogant, and abhorrent states of inflation. Some collective myths demarcate individual stages in psychospiritual growth and development. The sacred mystery schools of late antiquity, particularly those based at Ephesus, Eleusis, and Alexandria, employed specialized mythical narratives tailored to the religious and socio-political milieu of each region to transcribe what was obviously felt to be a cosmic reality: they believed that transition to a higher, less temperamental, and more eternal mode of being is heeded by a total surrender to the fiery forces of destruction and dismemberment. To depict the aforementioned concept in esoterically-guided ritual, respective individuals were required to renunciate their lives in exclusive, narrower myths in order to be reborn into larger and more comprehensive ones. Symbolic death, an impression replete in the “solve et coagula” and nigredo phase of alchemy as well as in the death and resurrection of the Christ, usually took the form of a heroic journey into the infernal regions of the cosmos where the extreme pressures of internal anguish altered the cerebral hardware and physiognomy of the protagonist for the better. During this time, the interaction of personal aspects comprising the total personality and impersonal archetypal contents that result in the certitude of transformation could be so powerful as to overwhelm an individual completely.   

For the individual or client whose knowledge of mythography is limited or virtually non-existent the best possible way of accessing the subtle, mythical level of consciousness is through a guided fantasy technique involving either an inner shaman, teacher, or daemon. Given the intimate acquaintance and rapport the collective unconscious has with a natural kingdom encompassing all forms of flora and fauna, the exercise evoked to induce the visualization process should involve natural symbols and images like flowers, trees, stones, diamonds, cats, dogs, elephants, lions, eagles, water, fire, butterflies, snakes, insects, prairies, forests, seas, deserts, savannah,  mountains, and caverns. After initial contact has been made, one’s higher self–now personified as an inner shaman or teacher–becomes something of a cosmic polymath who begins to systematically examine and cultivate the ego’s ever-deepening relationship to the greater cosmos by making conscious the same archetypal blueprints exteriorized and alluded to by personalised myths, legends, and folktales. The inner shaman, teacher, or daemon will facilitate an encounter with the ethereal terrain of one’s existing myth, drawing one’s attention to the precipitous chasms; to the sweltering and unremitting solar heat, to the stings and bites of dangerous animals; and to every other hostile and treacherous facet of an environment that is in effect the shadier and deleterious portions of the ego’s pre-existing temperament. The main purpose for making conscious those negative aspects of the personality is to spur internal contradiction, the fertile humus on which a newfangled and more comprehensive myth will eventually take root. Moreover, the inner voice within will work laboriously to facilitate creative and stellar alignments between the psychospiritual dynamics of myth and the external contingencies of matter. It will miraculously generate new circumstances and construe exiting ones so that they correspond to the cosmogonic receptacle of one’s existing myth and also offer up suggestions as to how formerly irreconcilable inner contents can play a constructive and appropriate role in one’s life. As you can see, the miracles enacted by the inner shaman, teacher, or daemon are priceless!  

In hindsight, it appears that the function of any chosen guide is to expel the contents of the imaginal world into consciousness and allow the development and transformation of acute inner tendencies and perceptions to be freely reflected and manifested in the outer world. From this perspective, the inner guide might be equated with Hermes, the mercurial psychopomp of the Olympian gods who flitted between the heavenly, earthly, and chthonic realms to relay important messages without ever suffering incarceration in any particular one. This dialectic and uninhibited approach to psychotherapy is an excellent way to penetrate and explore the subtler mysteries of the life process. Why? Because what we find there is a non-fictional narrative; the same non-fictional narrative that we tell in parts or in whole to our most trusted and beloved confidantes. This story explores our origins and evolution; it furnishes our soul with reasons for being and justifications for our acuities and actions; and it inaugurates us into greater realities where meaning and fundamental harmony are implicit and ubiquitous.  Most importantly perhaps our personal mythologems carries memory of all prior ‘incarnations’ of our personalities in the way that the geological strata preserve in tiered layers intimate and accurate knowledge of the earth’s primordial history. The collective myths which reflect existing and preeminent inner tendencies and psychic states are our stories in their rawness and wholeness, without any additions, subtractions, alterations, or misappropriations. Once in a while, we emerge from behind the shells, the iron fortresses, and the gargantuan gates erected as defensive and provisional fronts and reveal our lithe-bodied interiors–but only when we’re utterly certain that the objectified truths we reveal shall not be ridiculed, denigrated, or used to wage war upon us. 

There are variant ways in which we might disentangling ourselves from the the turmoil kicked up by a deeply unsatisfied and disorientated unconscious. Perhaps the most immediate, uncomplicated, and non-invasive of these is to seek insight and guidance from the underlying myths that have hewn the chronological progression of our lives. Brooding on and providing answers to the following questions should put any troubled individual back on the path that leads to a healing encounter with his or her higher Self: What myths or aspects of have played a fundamental role in my life thus far? Are perceptions and behaviours harboured during a particular life phase better understood when I juxtapose them with mythologems that directly relate to that time period? Which myths do I identify with the most? Are there any reasons why this should be true? What do those specific myths reveal about my inner inclinations and being? What do they reveal about the meandering course of my immediate past? Do they provide me with a psychospiritual context through which past perceptions and actions might be better understood? Do the collective myths with which I identity with at this point in time shed any light upon my current relationships and how others perceive me? Do they help in any way, perhaps by allowing ascension to a transpersonal space and thus acquiring a bird’s eye view of my own life circumstances? Do the myths of my personal life hint at how disturbing situations can be evaded or transcended? Can any be used in delimiting or identifying future potentials?

Let’s see what we can see… 

  

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