Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Using Myth to Map the Way

October mist in Braintree, VT
 Over the last week and a half I have been taking some time for introspection as I have come, yet again, to a crossroads.  Before me lay several paths and choices for how to proceed with my creative life, career and day to day existence.  Some paths highlight one option more than another, others are a mixture, but each with a slightly difference emphasis.  These choices are not just metaphorical, as I recently have been bombarded with offers that will lead me down one of the paths before me.  Which offer should I consider? What if the path I want isn't one of the ones with a tantalizing offer? Should I be pragmatic or idealistic? How do I choose?

I agonized for a week over these options but all I ended up with was a tense stomach, headache, sleepless nights and more confusion.  Then I decided to seek a different way to examining my life and the road before me.  I turned to Joseph Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey.  Campbell expouses the theory of a monomyth that runs through every human culture, a sort of archetypal blue print for myth and mythic understanding.  While I personally think he tends to over simplify cultural myths, I do think that there is a validity to his assertion of the importance of a living mythic tradition in daily life...even the contemporary and supposed enlightened and informed life we are living now.

In the Hero's Journey Campbell describes the life journey in three primary chapters with subsections within each chapter.  So the outline would look something like the following:

I. Departure: a. the call; b. refusal; c. divine aid; f. the first threshold; g. the belly of the whale

II. Initiation; a. The road of trials; b. meeting the divine Feminine; c. temptations; d. atonement with the Masculine; e. apotheosis; f. the treasure

III. Return: a. refusal to return; b. magic flight; c. rescue; d. return threshold; e. master of two worlds; f. freedom

Each section and subsection of the Hero's Journey correlates to the notion of an archetypal pattern that each human goes through during the course of his or her life.  To fully understand each part of the journey, I recommend reading Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell or one of the many companion books that discuss the Hero's Journey.  There have also been explorations using the Tarot in a similar way, as well as other traditions, but the point of this blog entry is to share how I used the Hero's Journey to help me in my own life journey.

In the past, myth and rituals gave support and strength in life.  Today, without any solid living mythic stories informing us and the lack of sacred rituals to help guide us through the stages of life, we are left fending for ourselves (sometimes quite literally).  I don't believe contemporary religion, by and large, offers the sacredness of mythic traditions any longer. We live in a very un-sacred world, where the transcendent is despised and discouraged.  As a result, as individuals, we fumble around in the dark, bumping into things, with each other, and losing our way time and time again.  When we encounter an obstacle, we redirect our path, or wage war against the thing blocking us, not realizing that what we perceive as an obstacle to be avoided may actually be a stepping stone that prepares and propels us along the journey.  As a result we are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, or become stuck in one one place.  We shake our fists in the air and shout "Why me?" Why this again?" "What did I do to deserve this?"

I have spent the last week resisting such fist shaking, only to find my thoughts going there anyway.  To avoid a complete about face or an all out personal war, I instead sat with this discomfort.  It has not been easy.  Not at all! The need to know where I am going is powerful.  The desire to be informed and to be reassured that I am making the "right" choices puts knots in my stomach.  Finally, at some point, I let go of knowing what is ahead.  Instead I wanted to just be where I was.  I realized it was doing no good for me to insist on looking ahead when I really wasn't clear on where I was at the moment.  Oh, I had IDEAS, but what did I really understand? So I asked, Where in this mythic structure do I find myself? 

Once I identified where I was, the need to know what to do next did not seem to matter so much.  Interestingly, I discovered the journey doesn't move until I actually stopped at each point along the way.  Trying to skip ahead or accelerate the journey seemed only to stall or set the journey back.  When I allowed myself to accept where I was in this Hero's Journey, I felt the anxiety and worry diminish.  I realized that what was motivating me was the fear associated with the stage I had come to.  Fear can be a powerful resistant force for many of us.  But often we learn that Fear is like the shadow of a bunny--much bigger and darker than the truth.  Fear can always be a hurdle to get over, no matter how big or little the truth it is masking actually is.  However, I have learned that fear is often nourished my by own anxieties. When I reduce the anxiety, the fear seems to become more manageable. Funny how that works.

Do I know now what is to come now?  Not specifically.  But for the moment it doesn't matter.  What matters is I am addressing the issues at hand, which has little to do with the many choices facing me at this particular crossroads.  Once I move through the particular stage of the journey I find myself at now, I suspect the choices before me will be irrelevant.  I may even have moved on from the crossroads without even realizing, the choice being made simply by addressing the current task.   This is the fascinating thing about using myth as guiding tool.  When you open up to the lessons myth can offer, signs and symbols appear all around, to help you along the way.

I highly recommend exploring one's personal path through a mythic lens. It doesn't matter if you use Campbell's outline as he describes it,  mix it up somewhat or if you use Jungian psychology, the tarot, or some other tradition.  What matters is having a tool that offers deeper insight into the active role that myth can play in your life.  When, at times like we are experiencing now, where there is so much confusion and uncertainty, where fear fuels blind action and reflection and insight are obscured by anxiety, it is comforting to have a guiding light.  This is not easy work, but well worth the effort.  Having insight into your journey certainly beats wandering around blindly in the dark.

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