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Inner life through Mythology

Psychologist Uses Legends of Past to Help People Better Understand Themselves

by Ken Miller / Santa Maria Times Lifestyle Editor

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Jonathan Young thinks "Rapunzel" is one of the greatest tales of all time.


Because it, along with dozens of other classic fables and myths, holds keys to finding things out about ourselves that we otherwise would not have known, he claims.

It's one of many stories set in a dark forest, he said. It is, in part, about those difficult times of feeling lost or overwhelmed, and gives us some ideas on how to get through those difficult times. The fact it is one of the most enchanting and mysterious of the many fairy tales can be seen psychologically, as having to do with our own interest in the unconscious and those parts of ourselves we don't entirely understand.

Young, a psychologist and archivist for the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, will bring that and many other such insights with him to an upcoming presentation at Santa Maria's Unity Chapel.

Young has been spreading his message all over the country. He has spoken at Harvard, Notre Dame and, this coming October, at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks. His consulting group, The Center for Story and Symbol, is based in Santa Barbara.

Legend, folklore and fairy tales all share the initiatory lore, which is the core of mythological wisdom, he said. These stories were developed as road maps to life's journeys, dealing with major life transitions and other profound times of turmoil and challenge in life, where we need all the help we can get.

Even though he speaks at many churches, he said his message is not specifically biblical, but certainly to gain some inspiration for our spiritual life. I believe these stories tell us something about the meaning of life, in ways that we are not as familiar with.

Young picks not only from classics - Robin Hood, Holy Grail stories and the many fables of Aesop - but from current pop culture, including Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Trek and Star Wars.

Those are examples of the way culture is picking up on the popular themes, Young said. ('Star Wars' creator) George Lucas drew directly on Campbell's writings.

Campbell, the author of such books as Hero with A Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth and the four-volume work, The Masks of God, proved to be a major influence in Young's life.

He met Campbell in 1981 during a speaking engagement Campbell had at the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

I had been very interested in the connection between psychology and mythology, Young remembers. When I heard him in person for the first time, there was a deepening of what I understood. Before that, I'd been scholarly, and suddenly I had a deeply meaningful engagement with the material. He showed me the radiance. I really got it from him.

Campbell died in 1987, but during the last five years of his life, Young worked with him a great deal as his assistant.

After his death, his family decided his work would be archived, and selected Young as the curator.

Florence Harrison, Rapunzel

Young, a professor of psychology at Pacifica for 12 years, left four years ago to "follow my bliss." He recently wrote a book of his own: SAGA - Best New Writings on Mythology.

He now speaks about 100 times a year, which includes training for psychologists, presentations at museums and screenwriters' conferences and engagements at Carl Jung societies.

Campbell looked at symbols. He drew on the psychology of Carl Jung, Young said. He saw stories as reflections of the inner life.

Whatever story he does, the ideas he expresses are personal and applied to the search for personal meaning, the boundary between psychology and religion for each person.

And, he added, people usually have a lot of fun at his talks.

We have a good time because the stories are delightful and fun, and the spirit is playful, he said. That's another thing about familiar stories: We don't have to do any homework. We can look right at these tales and see our own lives reflected in them. That's probably why they've survived.

The value of reflecting on a familiar wisdom tale, Young said, is that one can look back at a life story or some other favorite story or scripture and see some of the patterns.

The fact that 'Rapunzel' has a happy ending is another good point. We are all seeking the way through difficulties and to a way that is fulfilling.

May 11, 2001 Santa Maria (CA) Times