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Mythology in Psychotherapy

An Interview with Jonathan Young, Ph.D.

by Joseph R. Dunn, Ph.D., PsychJournal Volume III, Number 2, (Second Quarter, 2002)

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How does myth apply to psychotherapy and to psychological growth and development?

Myths provide guidance for difficult times. They can give encouragement as we struggle to survive horrendous ordeals. I have found that in clinical work, and in my own journey, it is useful to study mythic stories for hope. After all, those classic heroic seekers did get through their awesome challenges. The tales also provide hints on dealing with mid-life crises or other difficult transitions.

The heroic journey is a description of an initiatory adventure. In many ways, psychotherapy is an initiatory process. People seek help when their coping mechanisms fail. This is the boundary of a new country, a place they have not traveled before. The ancient sagas provide roadmaps for people dealing with anxiety-producing experiences and the mysteries of the unconscious. The tales help with the difficult life situations that most of us don't have the conscious resources to handle. It is useful that those who came this way before left a record of what they learned in the form of wisdom tales.

We stumble into each stretch of the journey without the education to handle the formidable tasks we will confront. It is useful that those who came this way before left a record of what they learned in the form of wisdom tales. We can examine these texts for clues to our specific circumstances. That is how I see the direct application of myth to psychotherapy.

Would you give an example of how a myth might be applicable to a person in psychotherapy or struggling to cope with life?

I'll use a familiar example from folklore. Cinderella had to go through a long period of loss. Both of her parents died. The tale has a central theme of bereavement. This is evident in the symbolism of the ashes. Cinderella gets her name from her role of hearth-keeper. While taking care of the fireplace, gets soot and cinders all over her. Funeral traditions include "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes." So, the ashes in the story reflect death, loss, and grieving. The cinders suggest light and passion.

Many clients in psychotherapy are dealing with great losses. The story suggests that we can get through the trials but the experience will be dreadful. It will feel like an awful cruelty. Cinderella also has to deal with oppression from those with power over her, specifically her stepmother and stepsisters, who do not appreciate her qualities or existence.

Psychotherapists have always worked with stories.

Our clients, friends, and colleagues are going through such struggles. It is common for people to seek help for problems just like Cinderella's. The story tells about a person surviving terrible hardship. Throughout, she holds on to a sense of hope that something good might come of her life. If the therapist mentions this familiar example it can linger in the client's mind. It can serve as a lasting reminder that others have endured, and so can you. Because the client probably has warm feelings about the tale, it is like a comfortable old friend who is faithful during adversity.

In the Cinderella parable, when the time arrives for the great ball at the palace, she is not expected to go. Her sisters make fun of her for wanting to go. She has not given up on herself even though for years her sisters have treated her like a servant. She reaches for the golden moment and good things come of it. The account is full of insights about getting through long ordeals.

Is there another example that readily comes to mind that you could share?

The adventures of Robin Hood help us understand those who live at the margins. He comes back from war to learn that the sheriff has killed his father. The corrupt despot is going to kill him too - out of pure greed - to get the family lands. Robin Hood is an outlaw and cannot go home. He lives in the wilds.

Psychologically, this suggests a time of being dislodged after a setback or great loss. The dark forest represents the unconscious - a place within us that is mysterious to us. Life circumstances may throw us into emotionally challenging situations. As in the allegory, there are various tasks to complete and hardships that we must overcome.

Robin Hood has to cope with the bully of the forest. This is an example of facing the threshold guardian. There are some early challenges that we have to encounter just to get into the quest. The point of the threshold guardian is that if you can't handle a lot of fear, then you are not ready for the journey. You will be facing enormous terrors before the tasks are completed. Your life will be at risk. If you can't handle tough experiences, do additional preparations before you take on the challenges.

Robin Hood accomplishes some extraordinary feats. One is that he pulls together a bunch of rowdy outlaws into a cohesive group, called the Merry Men. We might think of the outlaws as the competing energies within ourselves - the quarrelsome clash of different qualities, agendas, feelings, and even identities. After all, each of us has several inner personalities - that all want different things. Robin Hood takes the diverse characters and pulls together a functioning team. We all need such integration on an internal level to be effective.

I think of people going through terrible emotional turmoil as facing challenges parallel to what Robin Hood had to confront. The tale serves as a mirror whereby people may see meaning in experiences that are so overwhelming that the benefits are hard to notice. Unpleasant events may have enormous value in terms of a person developing into a complete human being. Overcoming feelings of oppression is a task worthy of the effort.

It might also be a metaphor for going through a disease such as cancer or an accident that presents a struggle for survival.

That is a very good point. There is a moment early in the mythic journey referred to as the Call. It is the event that sets the whole drama in motion. This is often something such as a disease or financial catastrophe. It may well be the worst possibility that a person could imagine. It is often an event that brings life into complete disorder. It seems at the moment that life would be so much better if this had never happened. In the long term, it turns out that the reverse is true. Life is so much better precisely because the disaster did happen. We would never have developed the qualities we later value, if the tragedy had not occurred.

It would seem that Campbell's work with mythology integrates spirituality and psychology. Would you comment upon that?

Campbell saw myths as operating on four levels simultaneously: 1. Cosmological; 2. Metaphysical (the spiritual dimension); 3. Sociological; and 4. Psychological. He sees these four levels operating simultaneously throughout all the stories. We can see clearly how this describes the integration of spiritual life with our psychological processes.

William James saw great overlap between spirituality and psychology. He thought that uses of differing language distracts from the considerable common ground. In theological discussion we refer to the spirit or soul whereas in psychological discussion we speak of emotion, unconscious, and psyche. James thought the two were much the same. All these words refer to the mystery within each human we could simply call the inner life.

I noticed that one of Campbell's points was that we should not search for meaning in life but rather should focus upon experiencing life. It would seem to me that identifying the common themes in myths over a broad expanse of time and cultures would give a sense of purpose or meaning. What did he mean?

The journey through the stages of life has a lot of lessons. One of them is that certainty is an illusory goal. Through humbling experiences, life seems to train us to be flexible and to loosen the demand for control and absolute answers. What Campbell is saying is that we need to get past the quest for defining the meaning of life in a few clear phrases. Final, ultimate answers to the big questions are ephemeral. His advice is similar to Rilke's comment that we should live in the questions and perhaps someday we will grow into the answers. It is a more fluid approach.

Campbell advocates an engagement with life so intense you would experience "the radiance of being alive." This involves a level of connection physically, emotionally, and mentally that is so rich as to feel like oneness with the flow of life. The experience is so profound that it resolves the yearning. It is not something that can be translated into a creed or a code. It is a direct experience.

How is this related to the Eastern idea of enlightenment?

It is very close to the language of enlightenment or what the Christian mystics in medieval Europe describe as ecstatic experience. In his college days at Columbia University, Joseph Campbell was a runner. At times, on the track, he felt at one with the universe. It is a physical sensation. The spiritual disciplines of the Eastern traditions, such as dietary regulation, chanting, and meditation help get people to that level of engagement.

Do you see a connection between "the radiance of being alive" and what Maslow called peak experiences?

Yes, but Maslow's descriptions were usually set in a social life - career, family, and creativity. He didn't seem to have a fascination with the monastic retreat. He was talking about a life involved with the city and with people. It is more of a Western or North American view of being in the swim.

In reviewing some of the information about your background I was interested to see that in addition to Joseph Campbell that you had known Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, James Hillman, and Thomas Moore. Would you share some of your observations, perceptions, and experiences with these outstanding figures?

I was very impressed early on with Frankl's book,Man's Search for Meaning. It was his compelling account of surviving the Nazi concentration camps and how those experiences shaped his ideas. In my graduate studies I went to considerable trouble to study with Frankl and deal with the question of finding meaning.

William Blake, Adam and Eve discovering the body of Abel

Frankl believed that every client brought a crisis of meaning to therapy. This is in addition to whatever they give as presenting issues. Until that larger issue is addressed the effects of therapy are limited. I was fascinated with Frankl's work as well as with him. He was very gracious with me, even though he was a rather formal professor of the old school. Every lecture seemed like a visit to Vienna and all the grand theories that have come from that city.

Also, I had read Love & Will by Rollo May and had an opportunity to study with him. What attracted me to May's work was the integration of mythology and the ceremonial sensibility into psychotherapy. He was gifted in using Greek myths as psychological illustrations. One of my term papers for May was on therapy as a rite of passage.

I met Campbell through a colleague. Stephen Aizenstat knew of my interest in using mythic pespectives in psychotherapy. He had a small institute and was hosting Joseph Campbell for retreats in Santa Barbara. I ended up assisting Campbell at seminars for several years. This allowed me to have considerable time with him. The institute grew into the graduate program at Pacifica, which is unique in the way it combines mythology and psychology.

After I started teaching at Pacifica, I was honored to be named founding curator for the Joseph Campbell Archives. This involved extensive work at Campbell's apartment in New York City and his home in Honolulu. His many decades of scholarship were reflected in the many manuscripts and heavily noted books. Assembling the archive was an intense sojourn inside Joseph Campbell's mind as I struggled to understand how he worked with such a vast range of ideas.

Pacifica also hosted retreats with James Hillman. I was often involved with organizational details of the seminars and worked with Hillman over the years. Also, he came into my classes to give guest lectures. Finally, Pacifica had the opportunity to obtain his manuscripts and files to create a Hillman Collection. I spent considerable time at his home in Connecticut gathering the materials. It was a little spooky sorting files in the attic of his old New England house but the end results were well worth the effort.

Thomas Moore draws heavily on Hillman's ideas and is a gifted writer. I first met him when we were both presenting at a Festival of Archetypal Psychology in Hillman's honor at Notre Dame University in 1992. He can make complex ideas understandable and has made a marvelous contribution to archetypal thought. I was involved in a seminar with him sponsored by Pacifica on the re-enchantment of everyday life. He has been most helpful with my anthology series, SAGA - Best New Writings on Mythology. He serves on the board of editors and contributed a marvelous article on Developing a Mythic Sensibility.

What is going on in terms of myth and psychotherapy? What degree of interest do you see and is the area of study that is growing?

Psychotherapists have always worked with stories. That's what clients bring us - the accounts of their journeys. To some degree we are helping them with an editing process. Therapy is, in part, a literary endeavor. We are showing clients how to write their tales. They are deciding what kinds of roles they play and how to situate themselves within the plot. We sometimes call this reframing. We help them with the narrative flow of their life experiences. Introducing a mythological literary perspective is just deepening what is already going on.

In my trainings there is great interest in mythological approaches among social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who are looking for ways to get beyond the press of the everyday problems. It is not that the client's immediate issues are not important. But, we need ways to reach the underlying dynamic issues of the unconscious. Using mythic references as mirrors allows the conversation to approach the deeper levels in the clinical process.

As psychotherapists move towards briefer treatment, I think that there is a yearning for a richer experience. Case planning is being restricted by factors beyond our control, so there is a need to do deep work in less time. I am interested in how to bring a mythic approach into brief treatment. If you only have four sessions, how do you make the most of it?

Pastoral counseling has often been effective in a few sessions. There is a long history of people having one or two visits to a minister or rabbi - often with significant results. The few conversations meant a great deal to those people. The work likely included references to parables. The approach used stories and what is called the mythic imagination.

A brief approach may involve giving a client homework by saying, "It sounds to me as though you are dealing with a situation such as Rapunzel faced when she was in that tower with the enchantress. Why don't you read that story and see what you think?" The comment gives the client a rich mirroring experience to reflect on her own experience. Such simple homework can extend the magnitude of the treatment.

As I listen to you speak, I cannot help but think of Milton Erickson and the way he wove stories into psychotherapy. Do you have any thoughts or observations on him?

Erickson was a master. He tended to come up with original stories - specific to clients' situations. The tales grew out of the quandaries that the patients' presented. My emphasis is on the parables that have been handed down for many generations. The fact that these allegories have been received from the past adds a certain weight.

We are not all as gifted as Milton Erickson at putting new stories together quickly. Fortunately, we can draw on familiar body of ancient fables. Other than the source of the text, the application is very similar to Erickson's method. The fact that he was such a skilled hypnotist acknowledges that stories are mesmerizing in taking us to deeper levels within ourselves.

The stories and the manner in which Campbell told them were to me trance inducing.

The effect is similar to what Freud accomplished with free association. Freud worked with hypnosis early in his career and was not very skilled at trance induction. He thought that there should be other means ways to approach the mysteries of the unconscious. He experimented with his method. Having the analyst out of sight makes the session less of a dialogue. The patients lie down on the couch and let their minds drift from one thought to another. It isn't a dream state but it isn't ordinary conversation either. It is some place between the two. I think we enter that state when we hear a teller of tales or when we spin a yarn ourselves.

Brainwave studies would likely confirm this, but any clinician can sense that shift. We go into a semi-hypnotic state - where we are able to grasp issues and follow emotional processes more closely than in everyday consciousness.

It would seem to me that much of the work of therapists who deal in stories is intuitive.

Intuition is a difficult word because it is hard to define and sounds somewhat magical. When you write case notes you never want to mention that you chose a strategy intuitively. Of course, a trained professional is going to rely on their training and some sensibility that they may have had before they began their training. Rollo May often commented that psychotherapists were not so much trained as born. They are often people who were doing family counseling long before they ever took their first class in psychology.

Using stories for guidance is nothing new. Christ and the prophets taught through parables. Talmudic Midrash notes expound upon allegories and legends. We each have a personal life story and a sense of an unfolding journey. We have our daily soap operas as well as a long-term drama going on. Thinking in these terms is available to everybody, whether or not they are particularly intuitive.

Do you have other observations or impressions in terms of integrating psychology and mythology or psychology and spirituality?

I'm impressed with the work of James Fowler and his book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for MeaningIt is useful for psychotherapists with interest in spirituality. He uses the extensive life-span developmental theory refined at Harvard. The book essentially adapts Piaget, and Kohlberg to spiritual life. Fowler's work is for seekers - those drawn to philosophical questions and the search for meaning.

Fowler looks at the stages of life and how belief systems grow and gradually evolve. There will be moments of crisis and bereavement as limiting perspectives fade away. There is an excitement as new avenues to meaning emerge. This can all happen within the framework of the same faith tradition. Fowler's model explains a great deal about the inner journey very elegantly.

I would add that this is an exciting time in the area of psychological uses of mythic tales. I was involved in starting a mythology doctoral program in Santa Barbara, and the enrollment has been intense. Joseph Campbell's television programs, and his series of bestseller books, as well as the goddess movement have fueled the interest in personal mythology. When the history of ideas is written for this era, the reclaiming of the mythic traditions will surely be seen as a major event.

© 2001, PsychJournal