STEP THREE: Understanding the myths or stories we live by.
There are two fundamental ways of understanding the world: by believing what we are told or by making our own observations. One involves listening to the opinions and stories of parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, bosses, experts, authorities, etc. and then using these views as a basis for our own personal beliefs. The other way involves observing the world ourselves, i.e. being our own scientist--careful observation of facts and causal relationships. Scientific observations can be repeated and proven by others. Personal opinions far out number verifiable facts about human life, thus far. But even though scientific information is gaining more of a role in our view of life, most of our life is lived according to fairy tales, sometimes called our personal myths. For example, many people have a clear but very unrealistic or unscientific picture of what their future will be like, what kind of person they will marry, how their kids will turn out, and even some idea about when and how they will die. That's our myths, not science. These unfounded beliefs can be very confining.
Likewise, many of our opinions about life in general reflect our cultural inheritance, the stories and assumptions we are told and believe, not what we have experientially or experimentally found to be true. Examples: the Hindus worship cows, we eat them. Chinese eat dogs, we don't. Certain Indians destroy wealth, we covet it. Families assign work on the basis of what is believed to be sexually appropriate, not experimentation with who can do the best job--girls baby-sit and help cook, boys mow lawns and wash cars. Some families expect to be wealthy leaders, others expect to be poor. Each person's place is set by the family script--Larry is the good student, Linda is the little mother, Barb is the cheer leader, Bruce is the loner, etc. If anger and violence are used by parents to threaten children and by heroes on TV to right wrongs, the children will use angry threats to intimidate other kids without investigating what works best. We live submerged in a sea of unproven beliefs.
The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth--persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
-John F. Kennedy
Joseph Campbell (1949) felt myths disclosed--via stories--the great mysteries of our internal world, i.e. our psyche. Myths, like therapy, books, and dreams, can be used to gain insight into our unconscious motives, needs, fears, wishes, conflicts, etc. The implications of our myths aren't based on scientific knowledge; it is "wisdom" of the ages, however, waiting to be tested scientifically. Campbell summarized a common myth from many cultures about a hero or heroine: he/she undertakes some task and soon faces a challenge. He/she accepts the challenge, a "call to adventure," and soon faces many tests, often a shadowy presence or a strange but vaguely familiar force. The "obstacle" may be a strong, controlling, punishing female or a tempting but unattainable woman. It may be a stern, demanding, physically threatening male. The test may be a difficult moral dilemma (like serving your family or living your own life). Sound familiar? In the myth, the hero or heroine overcomes these obstacles, gains esteem and spiritual power, and generally improves and enriches the world. Campbell sees each of us as the hero or heroine of our own story. Each of us has the wondrous opportunity to explore the unconscious psychic world within--to "know thyself," to know that all the heroes/heroines and God/Goddesses that ever existed are somewhere within us too (Fagan, 1989). Or we can refuse to take the adventure.
...the heroes of all time have gone before us... we have only to follow the thread of the hero's path... where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
-Joseph Campbell, 1949
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's footsteps. Each of us has to find his/her own way... Nobody can give you a mythology.
-Joseph Campbell, 1987 (cited in Feinstein & Krippner, 1988)
We also accumulate myths or stories about heroes and villains which support our beliefs and ethics, which give our life meaning. As Keen (1988) says, "Myth is... the unconscious information, the program that governs the way we see 'reality' and behave." In general, myths are a conservative influence keeping things the same--honoring our forefathers and old heroes. However, a powerful force for changing a society is to change the stories (movies, books, TV) told to each other. We change ourselves by changing our heroes and our beliefs (see chapter 3 and later in this section). A critical step in coping with a changing future is to become aware of our life story and the myths that have governed our life thus far, including an awareness of the unwitting assumptions and unconsciously determined habits involved. We may need new beliefs. That is the focus of psychotherapy, especially Freud's and Jung's analysis, Adler's early memories, and George Kelly's personal construct theories. Likewise, this self-help method uncovers personal myths and attempts to provide us with a way to change.
Feinstein and Krippner (1988) take a broad view of myths. To them, your unique personal myths developed gradually as a result of many factors, including stories, e.g. Rambo or Gandhi, told within our multi-media culture, family values, peer pressure, religious teachings, and perhaps even genetic predispositions (as in Jung's collective unconscious or emotional predilections). These complexly determined views influence how we see the world, how we handle new information, how we decide on our values and purposes in life, how we relate to the mysteries and "powers" around us, and generally how well we deal with life. By understanding your own highly complex and quickly changing system of beliefs, you can supposedly become more in control of your life. There is no scientific evidence of increased self-control via this method, but it is a personal myth--a belief--of the writers cited here.
I will summarize two self-help methods, the first is a simple article by Keen (1988; later supplemented by a book by Valley-Fox & Keen, 1992) and the other is an involved book by Feinstein and Krippner (1988). Both use many fantasies to tap your underlying belief systems or myths.
Keen suggests these steps to finding meaning in your life through storytelling:
- Answer the old question, "Who am I?" Give 10 answers. And, "What would I like to be that I'm not?" Give 10 answers. And, "What would I not want to be?" Give 10 answers. These answers reflect many of the hoped for (hero) and the dreaded (villain) stories in your culture, your family and your life.
- Draw your "life line"--the highs (paradise) and lows (paradise lost) of your life from birth to now. Sketch on the line the five major events of your life.
- Draw a floor plan of your childhood home(s). Who lived there? What were they like? How did they relate? What were the moods and the feelings, the joys, the fears, the frustrations, the rules, the conflicts, the intimacy? What does this tell you about your expectations about life?
- Draw a map of your hell. Who would you put there and why? Family, "friends," and other people who have hurt you. People with traits you dislike--arrogance, meanness, greed, ignorance, prejudice, cheating, lying, grossness, etc. People in history or stories who seem especially evil or disgusting to you.
- Draw a picture of your heaven. The greatest people in history and in your life. Show what they have done--shown courage, forgiven, loved, been brilliant, been fun, given help, lead, patiently been there, shared wisdom, etc.
By contrasting (4) and (5), it will be clear what your personal mythology considers good and bad, right and wrong, the worlds of light and darkness, things to strive for and struggle against.
- What needs to happen to make my life complete? What ideals and potentials have I not met yet? What promises have I made? Draw a picture of where you would like to be in ten years, indicating your goals, who you will be with, your work, the circumstances surrounding you, your feelings, etc.
- Tell your story to others and think about your strengths and the positive parts, enjoy and think about their stories, and make plans to accomplish as many of your dreams as possible. Make your life one hell of a story.
Feinstein and Krippner (1988) suggest exploring the beliefs of your forefathers (or mothers for women). Start by identifying with your great-great-grandfather (mother if female) and asking (as though you were them): What concerns you? What gratifies you? What is your work? What is your position within society? What are your strengths and problems? What are your ideas about God(s)? The idea is to recognize that many of your core beliefs and attitudes today may have a long, quite understandable history of being "passed down" to each new generation. Also, one may begin to see that beliefs, which were very functional 100 years ago, are no longer serving you well. Follow the same procedure with your great-grandfather (mother), grandfather (mother), and father (mother).
The idea is to find your myths that are harmful. There are probably endless examples within anyone's lifetime of old beliefs out-living their usefulness. A child who is told he/she is dumb may never test out his/her level of ability in school. A favored child may continue to expect the whole world to cater to his/her needs. A rejected person may avoid new love situations. An adult child of an alcoholic may continue to feel super responsible for everyone in his/her family. A workaholic may think of little else but work until a heart attack brings him/her to the brink of death. A religious person may think God is always right and responsible for everything that happens until his/her teenaged child dies. A perfectionistic, self-critical person may continually feel like a failure and suffer psychosomatic problems or depression. A sweet, compliant, overly giving person may keep smiling and serving others because "that is how mothers... fathers... nice people behave" until she/he is ignored and even cruelly dominated by greedy "takers."
Similar to section 11 of Progoff's journal (see method #3 above), Feinstein and Krippner recommend that every person develop an ongoing relationship with an "Inner Shaman"--a wise guide to understanding your unconscious motives, tapping your internal wisdom, and revising your personal mythology to meet new situations. Your Shaman might be Mother Nature, Aristotle, Confucius, Jesus, a wise old man, or anyone you respect highly. It is a way of increasing your insight.
Humans seem to have a compelling need to understand, to know, to predict. In the absence of scientific knowledge, all of us have an "inner story" that helps us explain the past, understand what's happening now, and anticipate the future. As a way of discovering how parts of that inner story may be creating problems, you are asked to imagine three scenes from your life: a paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained. Note that many myths follow this sequence, including the story of Adam and Eve with Christian religion providing the way to regain paradise. Also, for some people childhood was blissful, adulthood a grind, and they long for a return to the past (or to glory in heaven). Likewise, some psychoanalysts believe that being in the womb was paradise and the religious drive is our attempt to return to an ideal place. The basic self-help idea here is to vividly imagine (1) a wonderful time of your life, (2) a painful, unhappy, stressful time of your life, (3) a time when happiness and peace was regained, and (4) the hopes and principles that have guided your quest for a better life, i.e. what have you done to make your life better? Record these fantasies in a journal. Careful study of these extensive, elaborate fantasies can clarify your life story and some of your major disappointments.
Still, many of your conflicts or problems in life will not be touched upon by imagining paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained, so at least make a list of (1) your self-defeating behaviors, (2) your unwanted emotions, thoughts or urges, and (3) your symbolic hints of trouble (in dreams, psychosomatic disorders, repeated conflicts for unknown reasons, difficulty thinking positive about the future, etc.). Each of your problem areas could be analyzed further, as in the next several paragraphs.