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Old Wisdom & New Ways of Seeing:

Inspired by Joseph Campbell, psychologist
and storyteller Jonathan Young carries on his legacy

Karna Hughes, Santa Barbara News-Press October 10, 2007

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It's been 20 years since "The Power of Myth" series featuring Bill Moyers' interviews with the late Joseph Campbell was first broadcast on public television, inspiring millions of viewers to turn to the world's myths for wisdom and guidance, and sparking renewed interest in the mythologist's books. Since then, other scholars have taken up the mantle, including Clarissa Pinkola Estes (''Women Who Run With the Wolves'') and Robert Bly ("Iron John"), who both rose to popular acclaim in the '90s with their books exploring female and male archetypes.

Psychologist and storyteller Jonathan Young has established a small following of his own, mining the spiritual and psychological riches of fairy tales and folktales. Like Mr. Campbell, his charismatic mentor, he can deftly spin a yarn and unravel its multi-layered meanings, while keeping his audience on the edge of their seats. He's best known for having assisted Mr. Campbell when he visited the South Coast and as the founding curator of the Joseph Campbell archives at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He also founded the Mythological Studies Department at Pacifica and is editor of two essay collections, "Saga: Best New Writings on Mythology," Volumes 1 and 2 (White Cloud Press).

Nearly a dozen years ago, he traded in his academic posts for a life on the road, which he says better suits him. Through his Center for Story and Symbol, he presents accessible lectures on the mythic imagination to general audiences and therapists year-round, traveling up and down the West Coast. "It's my Joseph Campbell road show," he quipped. But at the end of all his wanderings, he always returns to Santa Barbara, his longtime home.

Dr. Young was recently named the 2007-2008 Local Luminary by Santa Barbara City College's Continuing Education program. He'll present a free Mind and Supermind lecture, "Claiming Our Stories: New Dimensions in Personal Mythology," at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Lobero Theatre.

His love for both stories and seeing the world stem directly from childhood: When he was growing up, his family traveled widely, sometimes for months at a time. His father was a key organizer and volunteer for evangelist preacher Billy Graham and helped monitor the progress of the ministry's foreign missions, with wife and kids in tow. To keep the six children entertained, his parents taught them bits of local lore and legends.

Wherever they went, the kids soaked up stories associated with the places they saw: In Denmark, it was the Little Mermaid and tales of Hans Christian Andersen; in Germany, the Pied Piper of Hamelin; in Baghdad, the Arabian Nights. Greece and Egypt brought ancient mythology to life, and in India and Japan, they learned parables of the Buddha.

As a young adult, Dr. Young briefly aspired to be a minister but changed course when he realized it would be too constraining. " I wanted to do some kind of good work in my life, but I thought I needed a little wiggle room," he said. He instead earned his Ph.D. in psychology and had a private counseling practice for 25 years, while teaching at area colleges.

He had the good fortune to study with some of the leading figures in existential and humanistic psychology, including Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. "It was really through Dr. May that I got exposed to the idea that the old wisdom stories - mythology, legend, and folklore -- could be used to explore inner states," he said, and that there is a "close parallel between the mythical imagination and dreams, the unconscious, emotional dynamics."

But after hearing Joseph Campbell during a visiting lecture at La Casa de Maria retreat center in Montecito in the '80s, he found a new framework for his explorations of the mythic imagination. "Campbell was the one who was the big leap for me," he said. "He had dimensions of understanding that were so beyond what I imagined, that it really took my breath away. I mean, coming from a strong religious background and having sort of wandered around theologically and philosophically, it felt like he gave me back a sense of transcendence, a new way of seeing the radiance of life."

Dr. Young was then teaching psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, which was sponsoring Mr. Campbell's local talks. Subsequently, whenever Mr. Campbell came to Southern California to give seminars, either for Pacifica or other organizations, Dr. Young served as his assistant. He chauffeured him around, took him to lunch (he was fond of the former Brigitte's Restaurant on State Street) and assisted with other details.

He remembers crowded gatherings in which Mr. Campbell would mesmerize audiences with his storytelling and analysis, followed by "a flurry of questions and thoughts from all levels." Professors asked technical and literary questions. Seekers wanted to know how myths applied to their own lives. No matter who it was, Mr. Campbell took pains to respond to each person, recalled Dr. Young. "He was just unbelievably generous in that regard."

Jonathan Younnng, with Masks

Some of Mr. Campbell's talks had focused on stories from Native American culture, as well as the Holy Grail and the Knights of the Round Table. " Those were interesting," said Dr. Young, "but once in a while he would tell us a fairy tale, 'The Princess and the Frog King' or something like that, and I would light up."

It was those tales that most appealed to him and that formed the core of his future work. "Maybe it's the inner child. Or maybe it's that I know those stories, whereas some of the others were new to me, I don't know," mused Dr. Young, but he found himself drawn to studying their hidden lessons.

He recalled his last meal with Mr. Campbell in Santa Barbara, at the Harbor Restaurant: "He loved the sunsets (there). And he talked about how he'd been giving serious thought to moving to Santa Barbara. He was living in New York . . . and was going to go into retirement. He never really retired, but his wife's family was from Hawaii, and Hawaii won."

After Mr. Campbell died in 1987 (before the TV series aired), Dr. Young spent about five years working with Mr. Campbell's widow to create an archive and library of the mythologist's works at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He helped initially to collect and sort through Mr. Campbell's papers and manuscripts and his vast personal library of nearly 3,000 books from the fields of anthropology, literature, the arts, philosophy, religion and mythology, which were split between his tiny Brooklyn apartment and his home in Hawaii.

On the basis of the archives, Dr. Young also founded and chaired the Department for Mythological Studies. The program awards master's and doctorate degrees to those studying myth and its connections to ritual, literature, art and religious experience. Students have included screenwriters and filmmakers, artists, dramaturges and other scholars seeking a deeper understanding of myths.

"I'm not by nature a librarian. I'm by nature a storyteller," said Dr. Young. "I was getting antsy. So (about 12 years ago) I decided to go start my own center and take the stories on the road." In his current work, he talks about fairy tales and folktales familiar to most audiences, such as Alice in Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel, then proceeds to show how they may represent forces of the psyche. He increasingly uses plots and characters from movies like "The Wizard of OZ," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" (Mr. Campbell's description of the hero's journey directly inspired director George Lucas), which are even more accessible.

For example, while some may think Little Red Riding Hood is a tale simply warning kids to be alert to dangerous people, Dr. Young sees other dimensions to it. "It's a story into a dark forest: that would be into our own fears. Psychologically, it would also be about moving closer to the unconscious, kind of that mysterious, unknown space within," he said. "The darkest part of the story, when (Riding Hood) is actually swallowed (by the Big Bad Wolf), would be called 'ego death,' an initiatory moment when one transcends the identity of one's stage of life in order for something better, for the next part of our story, to emerge. So it's a death and rebirth story."

"It suggests that moving toward our fear is ultimately going to be beneficial. It will seem like we can't survive. What that means is that a part of us that's ready to be tossed aside can't survive. The core will survive and go on to something better."

Stories and myths can help people see the major transitions in their lives, such as those that occur naturally as we age, as transformative opportunities, said Dr. Young, referencing Mr. Campbell's model of the hero's initiatory journey. "What is happening -- and it's very upsetting and it's sometimes terrifying -- is that what you have grown familiar with is no longer working as it once did. It's falling apart. The maps are not showing us where we need to go. The compass is spinning. It's time for something to break."

Mr. Campbell "points out this sequence of events is present in many of the great wisdom stories from all times and places," said Dr. Young. "And if we would ponder these stories and how they show the way through these challenges, we can deal with them better. It will give us hope and guidance in the process. The whole point is that we have a good deal of wisdom to gain in the difficult thresholds of passage.

"The pattern is very much the same in the folk tales. Some are darker than others, but they make the same point: first of all, that you are not alone; this has happened before. There are maps. . . . Prepare to be scared, it's not the end of the world. Prepare to be stronger than you knew. Prepare to make allies. Prepare to learn things you did not imagine. It's all in the stories."

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