The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell once said that our dreams are private myths and our myths are public dreams (43). Each represents the gods within us. They are symbols of our energy in conflict and harmony.

Our stories, told in different cultures and times, are born in us and change as we change. They show us our paradoxical natures. They guide us through a shadowy forest until we find the light.

Sometimes our public myths match our private ones. Then teachers appear, helping us to learn about our inner quests, interpreting our paths with familiar symbols. At other times, opening ourselves up to the mysterious, engaging with the deep and sacred, can only be explored alone.

We are often in awe of the mysterious. We seek out a timelessness that permeates through all forms, transcending the symbols that we have come to depend upon. 

Yet in our ordinary lives, we are conditioned with the dualities of me and you, black and white, good and bad. 

Myths change over time in different environmental conditions. The gods in the rainforest are not the God on the mountain top. The divine in nature is different from that in the church. Even the tribes who hunted like their ancestors before them, who depended on skilled movement in intimate bands, perceived other realities than the settled farmer.

Myths endure out of an evolution of ideas. They survive by touching the archetypes of humanity. Otherwise they will fade away, forgotten in time.

Myths have to adapt. They have to grow with the conditions around them. If they cannot bend, they will break.

In mythological tales, there are often heroes. Heroes must say goodbye to their safe comfortable homes before venturing into the unknown. To leave behind their former lives, to be thrust out into danger, is to begin. The only way for them to return back to where they started is to pass through a series of trials.

What distinguishes heroes from ordinary people is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal, another being, or the ultimate purpose of their quest. What the hero defends will not always be accepted, but as they let go of their selfishness, and confront the dangers ahead of them, they will become truly courageous.

In every stage of life, from childhood to old age, a dragon will arise, whether in the form of greed or inhibition, stagnation or resistance. Individuals must look within themselves to find their own way.

Mythology can act as an interpretive system for deciding what paths are the wisest to take, what practices lead to a higher purpose, and how to reduce the despair of other beings. 

Disciples can perform elaborate rituals that represent the crucial stages of human existence. From learning how to love to embracing death, mythology weaves in stories that point to inner truths, showing what swords will slay what dragons.

When heroes cross a threshold of experience, they will transform. During their journeys, they will be challenged to their depths. Their consciousness will shift after their ordeals. If they succeed, they will return to where they began, heightened from a newfound knowledge.

A bodhisattva is enlightened but chooses to remain in the world, helping to free all beings from dukkha. A shaman broods with sacred wisdom, guiding others with language, penetrating rituals, visions, and medicines (Campbell 93, 147).

At the deepest level of consciousness, the hero is love. Heroes are compassionate toward all beings and have a deep reverence for nature. They sense their interconnection with everything that is around them. Along their paths, they have shed their old skin only to be reborn again. Throughout all of time, this essential cycle of birth-death-rebirth repeats in endless forms.

The troubadours believed that love was the highest meaning of their lives. They would undergo intense pain for only a chance of finding themselves in another. The bodhisattva “joyfully participates among the sorrows of the world” while the “mystic swims in the symbolic ocean” (Campbell 21, 147).

While one myth will celebrate the divine in the masculine, another will honor the divine in the feminine. 

Even though these ancient stories may contradict each other, they often suggest the same essential messages.

Beyond the dualities of birth and death, right and wrong, here and there, and past and future, at the ultimate dimension, all of existence hums with timeless energy. The cosmos is interdependent, perfect, whole.

While Alfred Korzybski once wrote “the map is not the territory,” a mythological map can be relevant for the right person, at the right time.

Travelers can navigate through its narrow paths and landmarks and dead ends, until eventually moving beyond any known land. 

A map is not a final authority on where to go or what to experience. It is a guide, directing those who are curious, who dare to question and seek beyond themselves, toward the transcendent.


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