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I have come to believe that life is allied with myth in order that we may advance along an evolutionary path that carries us nearer to the spiritual source that lures us into greater becoming. It is for this that myth remains closer than breathing, nearer than our hands and feet. I think it is built into our very being. Myth is not a no thing, an insubstantial conceptual will-o'-the-wisp. It is coded into our cells and waters the seas of the unconscious. It dwells in our little finger and plays along the spine as well as the spirit. It grants us access to the DNA of the human psyche, the source patterns originating in the ground of our being. It gives us the key to our personal and historical existence.
Without mythic keys we would have neither culture, nor religion, art, architecture, drama, ritual, epic, social customs, and mental disorders. We would have only a gray world, with little if anything calling us forward to that strange and beautiful country that recedes even as we attempt to civilize it.
I find that regardless of the culture, people will go further and faster in developing human capacities if their training is tied to a story, especially a myth. For myth transcends and thus transforms our usual blocks and conditionings, carrying us into a realm in which these need not constrain us. And if the myth is a familiar one, present in the fabric of the culture, it works even better.
Mythic Keys in the Ramayana
I think of a seminar I gave at Lanavala, India, using the ancient epic the Ramayana as the basis for the work of psychological and social transformation. The seminar was attended by leaders in government, health, education, social welfare, and organizational management. As we followed the journey of Rama and Sita from palace to forest, from Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravana to her deliverance by Rama and his allies, and enacted the roles of the myriad characters and events that are the essence of the mind and soul of India, people were fired to make innovations in their own lives.
In the course of the ten-day experience, seminar participants wrote poetry in the style of Valmiki, reputed author of the Ramayana; gave darshan, or deep seeing, to their fellow participants; renewed the art of meditation in the forest silence of their minds; and made a leap of faith toward their own possibilities, as Hanuman, the noble monkey and ally of Rama, had leapt across the sea to Sri Lanka. Allied with the armies of Rama, participants fought and conquered their own demons of self-diminishment and despair, until finally, as an act of bhakti yoga, the yoga of spiritual love, they met the inner beloved of the soul, just as Rama found his Sita again.
At the end of the epic, Rama and Sita discover themselves to be the god and goddess Vishnu and Lakshmi, called into human form to drive out evil forces and initiate an enlightened social order. So, too, in a final process, participants acknowledged their own divine nature and made plans to act accordingly.
Finding Personal Meaning in Myth
Wherever I am in the world, I find that working with a mythical figure or a historical person who has through time and legend been rendered mythic allows people to see the experience of their own lives reflected in and ennobled by the story of a great life. Such work leads students into the discovery of their own larger story, for when actively pursued, myth leads us from the personal-particular concerns and frustrations of our everyday lives to the broader perspective of the personal-universal.
Working with myth, we assume the passion and the pathos of Isis as she seeks to recover the remains of her husband Osiris; with Parsifal, we take on the quest for the Grail; we labor with Hercules and travel with Odysseus into the archetypal islands of inner and outer worlds. We explore new ways of peacemaking with Gandhi, learn the art of inventing society with Thomas Jefferson, and discover the basis for democracy with Deganawidah, creator of the Iroquois League. With the Persian mystic and teacher Rumi, we search for the beloved of the soul; we join in sacred marriage and descend to the underworld with the great Sumerian goddess Inanna. Gradually we discover that these stories are our own stories, that they bear the amplified rhythms of our own lives.
After becoming Isis and Odysseus and White Buffalo Woman and Emily Dickinson, we return to our own life deepened and enhanced, filled with a sense of the fractal resonance of the mythic life within our own. Having assumed the ancient stories and their persona, having walked in the shoes of folk who lived at their edges, we inherit a cache of experience that illumines and fortifies our own.
This joining of local life to great life is a central experience of what I call sacred psychology. It differs from ordinary psychology in that it provides ways of moving from outmoded existence to an amplified life that is at once more cherished and more cherishing. It requires that we undertake the extraordinary task of dying to our current, local selves and of being reborn to our eternal selves. When we descend into the forgotten knowings of earlier or deeper phases of our existence, we often find hidden potentials, the unfulfilled and unfinished seedings of what we still contain, which myth often disguises as secret helpers or mighty talismans.
When the story I am working with involves finding talismans, I lead students into enactments aimed at rediscovering skills they had once known, lost perhaps in childhood − a capacity for art or music, for example, or even a sense of empathy. When special helpers like Merlin or the Good Witch are part of the story, I take students down into a private interior place where they meet the “master teacher” of the quality or capacity which they wish to acquire in their conscious life. I view these forgotten or neglected potentials for living the larger life as deep codings of the source − the infinite as it is to be found within each of us.
A psychology with a mythic or sacred base demands that we have the courage both to release old toxicities and diminishments and to gain access to our inner storehouse of capacities and use them to prepare ourselves for the greater agenda − becoming an instrument through which the source may play its great music. Then, like the hero or heroine of myth, we may, regardless of our circumstances, become an inspiration for helping culture and consciousness move towards its next level of possibility. At this we startle, we shake. The scope of this dream demands that we live out of our true essence, which is always too large for our local contracted consciousness to contain.
I find that it requires many mythic adventures of the soul to re-loom body and mind. But such is necessary if we are to return to everyday life with knowledge gained in the depths that can be put to use to redeem the “unread vision of the higher dream” inherent in both self and society.
Jean Houston is a renowned visionary, scholar, and one of the principal founders of the Human Potential Movement. Recognized as one of the world’s leading scholars in mythic and spiritual studies, Dr. Houston is the founder and principal teacher of the Mystery School, dedicated to teaching history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, myth, archetypes, and the many dimensions of human potential.