My last post, ‘The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’, explored the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell identified a distinct and cohesive pattern running through countless myths, legends and stories throughout time. He called this the hero’s journey–the “song of the universe” being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.
In addition to exploring the different stages of the hero’s journey, which is a metaphor for the human journey through life, Campbell, who was heavily influenced by the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, also identified several character archetypes that feature in these myths and stories.
Archetypes are recurring human patterns or personality types that reside in what Jung called the collective unconscious. As universally occurring character traits, there are certain archetypes found in myth and all kinds of stories throughout time. Archetypes should be seen as flexible character functions rather than rigid character types. Characters might actually switch between archetypes as the story progresses.
Here are some of the main archetypes prevalent in storytelling throughout the ages.
The hero is usually the central figure in stories. This archetype represents the human search for identity and wholeness. The hero is the audience’s window into the story; the person the reader or viewer wants to identify with, to share their adventure and experience their highs and lows. The hero typically starts off in a state of lack and incompleteness and as the story unfolds, ends up in a state of wholeness and completeness. All good stories are essentially about a journey of transformation.
The role of the hero can vary wildly. They can be almost anyone from any walk of life. They might be a willing or an unwilling hero, they might be a group-oriented hero or more of a loner. Sometimes the protagonist is a tragic hero or an anti-hero–perhaps an outlaw or villain of some kind, but with whom the audience develops sympathy.
The shadow is represented by the villains and antagonists, or perhaps an internal enemy such as the hero’s inner demons–the darker aspects of their psyche–qualities they’ve perhaps tried to repress or renounce, but which still lurk within; such as anger, hatred or violence. The function of the shadow in drama is to challenge, threaten and oppose the hero; to create conflict and force the hero to find and bring out the best in him or herself and to become all they are capable of being.
The archetype of the mentor is found in many myths and stories. The mentor is usually a guide to the hero; someone who aids or even trains the hero. The mentor is related to the image of a parent. Often heroes seek out a mentor because their own parents are inadequate role models.
The mentor helps train the hero for the adventure/ordeal ahead of them. They might provide the voice of the hero’s conscience, offer motivation or share important information. The mentor might be a ghostly figure, or may be someone with a dark secret or nefarious past–a fallen mentor, someone who’s been broken in some way but who still has wisdom they can impart to the hero.
The herald is the character or event that initiates the call to adventure. They issue a challenge or announce the coming of significant change. The herald is usually the element that gets the story rolling. It might be a new character, a change of circumstances, or a piece of crucial information that changes the hero’s life, forcing them to embrace the adventure that lies before them. Any character can adopt the herald archetype at any time. The herald might be a positive, negative or neutral character. It might simply be someone with vital news or information, or someone who challenges the hero in some way, forcing them to get involved in a situation.
Threshold guardians are the forces that stand in the way at important turning points, opposing the hero and trying to prevent him or her from moving forward. They’re usually not the main villain but might be the villain’s henchmen, guards, gatekeepers or mercenaries. They might even be creatures of some kind–wild animals, monsters or even a force of nature that has to be overcome. They might even take the form of the hero’s internal demons: their fears, doubts, emotional scars or self-limiting beliefs. Any time the hero encounters a threshold guardian, they face a puzzle, test or obstacle that must be overcome in order to move forward. Their function is to temporarily block the hero’s way and force them to test their powers.
The trickster is a clown and mischief-maker…perhaps a comic relief sidekick. They inject an element of unpredictability into the story, cutting egos down to size, and bringing the hero and audiences back down to earth. The trickster might be a loveable rogue, or someone whose motives and allegiances are unclear. The trickster might be allies of the hero, or perhaps servants of the villain. As with the other archetypes, any character can embody the role of trickster–including the hero and villain. “Spreading strife is my greatest joy” said one trickster god in an old Nigerian story.
There are many more archetypes that can be found in stories and myths. Understanding the use and application of archetypes in storytelling can be very helpful. Archetypes reflect core human personality types and social roles and can help us understand how character dynamics drive the plot forward.
They are not rigid and set in stone, for at any point in the story a character might embody the archetype of trickster, herald or threshold guardian, or perhaps even mentor or shadow. In my new novel, The Key of Alanar, my protagonist, David, actually moves between hero and shadow archetype! It can be fun to push the boundaries of storytelling and mix things up. If nothing else it keeps life interesting.
For more information on archetypes and storytelling, I highly recommend investigating the work of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and Carl Jung.
Stories have power. Whether in the form of a novel, short story, film, TV series–or even a video game–a good story story has the ability to transport us from our everyday reality to whole other worlds. By engaging our mind, imagination and senses, stories can bring us excitement and wonder, making us laugh and cry, feel, dream, love, hope and think. They have the power to encourage, motivate, educate and heal–and they can help us better understand and relate to others and this world we’re all a part of.
I’ve always been aware of the power of storytelling. I knew that I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I could often be a bit of a precocious and unsociable kid. While everyone else was out playing I would be sitting in my room, paper and pen in my hand, creating new worlds and characters and setting them off on all kinds of epic adventures. I actually came up with the idea for my first novel when I was still in primary school! I was a born storyteller. I always knew that I had stories inside of me; stories that I wanted to be able to tell and share with the world.
As I grew up and started learning the craft of writing, I was determined to find of exactly why stories matter to us. Why do human beings have this innate compulsion to tell stories and why do we love hearing, reading and watching them?
An aspect of human nature
What I came to realise was that storytelling plays a vital role in human culture, and it always has. You might even say it’s part of our very nature. According to cognitive scientist Roger Schank:
“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”
So storytelling is basically hard-wired into us. It’s one way in which we understand and process reality.
Stories aren’t merely for the purpose of entertainment. They actually have the power to change the world and change us. The art of storytelling has been a key part of human culture as far back as we know. As Ursula Le Guin says:
“The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Ancient cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of mythology. They were essentially narratives created by early man in an attempt to understand and explain the nature of life, the world, animals, nature and the mystery of existence.
Language is a relatively recent development in human evolution, so the earliest stories weren’t spoken or told in words, but most likely enacted and danced. In fact a number of cultures still do this such as Native Americans and other indigenous tribes. The cave paintings weren’t just created for the sake of it or to make the caves look decorative, but were believed to have been records, reminders and prompts to keep the tribe’s stories and myths alive.
Myth and mythology is the world’s oldest form of storytelling. Today the word ‘myth’ has come to mean something that’s false or untrue; a fabrication or lie. But the word stems from the Greek word ‘mythos’ which means story or tale. Myth is a story or set of stories holding significant symbolic meaning for a particular culture. As language developed, myths were generally delivered by word of mouth through speech, conversation or song. It’s only comparatively recently, in the past few centuries that they came to be recorded in the written word.
The purpose of myth is to help us make sense of the universe and our place in it. These myths might be based on factual accounts of events, discoveries and realisations, but were more often deeply metaphorical and filled with symbolic meaning. In other words, myths aren’t literal accounts of truth, but are stories with lots of hidden meaning. To understand them, you have to look beneath the surface and peel away the layers of meaning.
The ancient myths often featured various gods and goddesses, demigods, supernatural heroes and ordinary humans, as in the ancient Greek myths. The Greek and Roman myths in particular had an enormous effect in shaping their respective cultures. The exploits of the gods and their adventures were almost akin to a modern day soap opera. The people were enthralled and spellbound, and the myths themselves served a number of important societal functions.
I first learned of these functions when I came across the work of Joseph Campbell, an American scholar and world-renowned expert in comparative mythology. As a young man, Campbell was fascinated by the legends of the Native Americans, which began a lifelong fascination and passion for mythology. His most famous work, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, which I came across when I was about 21, was a book I found fascinating on multiple levels. It not only changed the way I looked at writing and storytelling, but it changed the way I looked at life.
The Four Functions of Myth
Campbell outlined four primary functions of myth. Bearing in mind that myth is the origin of storytelling as we know it today, this has relevance and can even be applied to some extent to literature, art and media in our culture too.
The first function, which Campbell also believed was one of the most important, was what he termed the metaphysical. This refers to the ability of mythology to awaken a sense of awe and wonder about the very nature of existence.
This is something that we’ve lost in our culture. Young children naturally possess this innate sense of awe, but as we grow up we generally lose it. We get bogged down in the physical, our everyday mundane existence, taking everything for granted–least of all the fact we’re alive, that we exist!…which is a miracle in itself.
The conditions necessary for Earth to sustain life are innumerable and exact. The planet has to be just the right distance from the sun. It needs to spin precisely the right way and have the right amount of gravity, oxygen and various other elements in perfect combination before it can support life. The fact that we exist at all is beyond amazing, yet we totally take it for granted.
This Einstein quote sums up this function of myth perfectly–and it’s a great quote to live by:
“There are two ways to live your life: You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
And one of the most important functions of myth–and all the great stories–is to get us to remember how incredible, wondrous and precious life is.
The second function is cosmological. Cosmology is the study of the Universe and its components, how it was formed and evolved. Cosmology was born of questions such as “what’s going on around me” and “how does the universe work?”
For millennia mankind used myth (specifically creation myths) as a means of explaining and understanding the physical world and universe. These myths were created to help early man make sense of nature, weather, the passing of the seasons and the cycle of birth and death.
For example, to explain the functioning of nature and the elements, cultures often assigned different gods or deities that controlled for the rain, sun, fire and water. Nature itself was personified, usually as woman–indeed, there are countless variations of the Mother Earth, Gaia, or Earth Goddess archetype across many different cultures.
As a sociological device, myth and storytelling have the ability to validate and support the existing social order and promote social norms, customs and beliefs. Shared stories can create a social bond between people, enabling them to share the same beliefs, outlook and understanding of life, which brought about a sense of social cohesion and community. In ancient times, mythology was part of the glue that held tribes and societies together.
The pedagogical aspect refers to mythology’s ability to guide the individual through the different stages of life–from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to maturity, maturity to old age and from old age to death.
As we go through life we encounter many psychological, emotional and even physical challenges. Mythology provided guidance and signposts, often reflected in rites of passage and initiations. People weren’t left to struggle through these life changes on their own. They were given clear guidance through ceremony, ritual and myth and they knew clearly what was expected of them. Ancient India for example divided life into four stages: the student stage, the householder stage, the elder adviser stage and the renunciate stage where the individual leaves behind all worldly ties to seek final enlightenment.
Without this kind of guidance, confusion and psychological suffering usually result, as this is widespread in today’s world. We grow up in an unsettled, constantly shifting world, pretty confused and unclear about what’s expected of us and how we’re supposed to ‘make it’ in the world. In many ways we’ve got more choice than ever before, but this can actually make things harder and more overwhelming than if we have clearcut guidelines about what we’re ‘meant’ to do in life. Myth gave guidance, encouragement and motivation and a sense that we weren’t alone in life; that we weren’t on this journey without a map and compass.
Campbell described myth as being an outplaying of the various parts of ourselves that are in conflict with each other: our desires, hopes, fears and ambitions; the conflict between what we want in life and what we can get; between who we are and who we want to be. The mythological battles between heroes and demons–all the sacrifice and bravery, love and cruelty, victories and defeats–are metaphors for the conflicts of the human psyche. Myths originated from realisations of some kind that were then expressed in symbolic form to guide us. Many of them deal with the maturation of the individual, growing from dependency to adulthood, maturity and old age; and they explored how we relate to other people, society, our culture and the world at large.
The form of the myths change with the passing of time. To remain relevant to the culture they’re part of, they must evolve, adapt and transform as the world continually changes. If they don’t, they become obsolete. They lose their meaning and become dumb, irrelevant stories that confuse and mislead.
The song of the universe
Joseph Campbell was astounded to discover extraordinary similarities between the great myths from vastly different cultures across the millennia. In fact there was a distinct and definite pattern that most of these myths seemed to follow.
He found that all stories, regardless of the time, place and culture in which they came from, tend to share a common structure. They are essentially the same story being told in an infinite variety of ways. Campbell had evidently cracked a secret code, the pattern behind all the greatest stories ever told. The whole human race, he believed, could be seen to be reciting a single story…a story with immense psychological, sociological and spiritual importance. Myth, he said, was the song of the universe, being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.
The way in which this story is delivered can be infinitely varied, but it has the same basic structure. Furthermore, when stripped down, it is always a story about universal human themes and questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Is this all there is to life?
This story helps us explain the universe and our place in it, dealing with themes of identity, meaning and purpose. As science is discovering, humans aren’t wired to understand logic directly. Instead, logic is best grasped through the use of narrative and metaphor–and this is why stories can be so powerful.
As this universal story evolves through time, it takes different forms depending on the context of a particular culture. The story is told in an infinite variety of ways, but the fundamental elements remain strikingly familiar. Campbell called it the monomyth…or the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey
The hero’s journey is basically the journey of every human being as they go through life. It’s relevant to all of us, because we’re each the hero of our own particular story. The hero’s journey is a guide to life; a map to help us along the challenging road we all have to take through life.
The hero’s journey has a distinct structure. If you analyse great myths, epics, novels and even many films and television dramas, you can often see how they fit into the pattern basic of the hero’s journey, even if the elements are significantly rearranged or modified.
The basic structure is that the hero must undertake a journey, leaving their comfortable everyday surroundings and venturing into a new, challenging, unfamiliar world. They face all kinds of challenges and then return enriched by the experience, learning or bringing something of value to aid the world.
There’s always an emotional component to the journey. In any satisfying story, it’s necessary that the hero grows and changes in some way; that they go from one state of being to the next–from incompleteness to wholeness, from lack to gain, weakness to strength, ignorance to wisdom. It’s the emotional journey of the hero that captivates the reader and keeps them hooked and engaged.
Campbell outlined the Hero’s journey as having 17 distinct stages, but others have streamlined the model. The one I’m sharing was adapted by Christopher Vogler and is a bit simpler, using less archaic language.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the hero’s journey.
1. The Ordinary World
The hero starts off in their ordinary, everyday world. It’s a world that might be considered humdrum, or uneventful. Often there’s a sense of restlessness or incompleteness experienced by the hero. Everything’s ticking along nicely, but the hero somehow doesn’t quite fit in. On some level they know that they’re destined for something different.
2. The Call to Adventure
The story begins with a call to adventure. Something happens that initiates the story. The hero is called away from their ordinary existence into the unknown. A problem or challenge of some kind befalls the hero.
3. Refusal of the Call
Many times the hero hesitates. They’re reluctant to leave their home, their friends and their familiar, safe world. The unknown is terrifying–especially when the stakes have been revealed. Often it’s a life and death quest they’ve been called to embark upon.
4. Meeting the Mentor
By now many stories have introduced what Campbell called the ‘supernatural aid’ which simply means a guide or mentor; someone who imparts information or guides the hero in some way, setting them in the right direction. The mentor might be a wise old man or woman; a veteran of some kind; a wizard, a teacher, a hermit or wanderer. The mentor helps prepare the hero for the journey into the unknown.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
The hero has committed to the journey and is ready to step into what Campbell called ‘the belly of the whale’: the special world! This is the moment the story really takes off. The hero sets off on their quest.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
Campbell called this the road of trials. The hero begins to learn the rules of the new world through much conflict and challenge. There’s usually a series of events and conflicts in which the hero begins to learn how to navigate the special world. Along the way they meet new people, good and bad, and make new allies and new enemies.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The hero has been tested repeatedly. He or she has learned a lot about this new world and made allies and adversaries. Now they near the inmost cave, a dangerous place, sometimes a dark place underground, perhaps the lair of his or her greatest enemy, where the object of the quest may be hidden. The hero often has to overcome significant danger and barriers that prevent them entering the inmost cave.
8. The Ordeal
This is the hero’s darkest moment so far. They must face their toughest challenge where, for a time at least, all seems lost. In the myths this was a moment of death and rebirth. The hero dies a symbolic death and is reborn as something greater–with greater courage, greater power, or greater wisdom and understanding. It’s a brink of death moment; a moment in which everything really looks like it’s going to fall apart.
9. The Reward
Once the supreme ordeal is overcome the hero emerges stronger for it. They’ve come into their own power and are ready to seize their destiny. They take possession of the treasure (whether literal or figurative; the treasure, the ‘object’ they’ve been seeking, could be many things: a magical sword, a healing elixir, the object of their romantic affections, or perhaps knowledge or wisdom of some kind).
In ancient traditions, the tribe’s shaman didn’t get his supernatural powers until he’s experienced a death or sorts; a terrible illness, accident or hardship that almost kills him. His life is set in flames and only then, as he rises from the ashes, does he acquire the powers and wisdom of the shaman. Rebirth can only come from death.
The worst has now passed, the quest may have succeeded, but usually it’s not over yet…
10. The Road Back
The hero now has to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces during the ordeal. There’s usually a retaliation of some kind; they may have gotten away with the reward, but the villain isn’t going to give up so easily. There’s often an element of chase as the hero, having achieved his or her goal, attempts to return to the ordinary world. This is a turning point. It may involve a change in the aim of the story; a story about achieving some goal might become a story of escape, or a focus on physical danger might shift to emotional risks. It’s another moment of crisis that launches the hero on a new road of trials.
This stage is a second ordeal, almost a replay of the life and death struggle of the ordeal. It’s one last, final test for the hero in which they must face their greatest challenge and face a symbolic death and rebirth. Everything is on the line and the hero must use all they have learned during their journey.
In ancient times, hunters and warriors often had to be symbolically purified before returning to the tribe because they had blood on their hands. The hero therefore must undergo a transformation–a final life and death struggle–in which they emerge reborn prior to returning to the Ordinary World. The hero has been transformed in some way; they have grown, changed and learned. There has to be some element of change or growth in the hero to make an emotionally satisfying story.
12. Return with the elixir
The hero now returns to the ordinary world. They’ve come full circle and are back where they started, but they bring with them some kind of elixir, which may be a treasure, a gift, a piece of needed information or wisdom; or something that will solve whatever crisis had originally initiated their departure from the ordinary world. The journey is complete and the hero has come full circle, but is changed and can never be the same again.
A key theme of the ancient myths was the hero departing, going through literal or figurative hell, and then returning with new powers, new wisdom and new understanding.
This basic hero’s journey structure can be found in many of the greatest myths, fairytales, legends and in more contemporary stories–in literature, films and sometimes television. These are our modern day equivalents of mythology. But the hero’s journey isn’t just something that’s just applicable to stories. Recall that myth is a reflection of life; a symbolic means of navigating our way through life and understanding the nature of ourselves, others and the world around us. We’re each the hero of our own story. Our daily life is our hero’s journey and we go through those 12 stages all the time.
So the hero’s journey is a great tool not just for writing and analysing stories but also as a guide and compass for managing daily life. Whatever situation we’re in and whatever stage we’re currently at, we can know that it is all part of an ongoing process; a journey toward wholeness, healing and redemption–and that every stage is a step closer to our ultimate goal.
Hollywood takes notice
Joseph Campbell’s work became more and more influential through his lifetime. By 70s and 80s his work came to the attention of certain Hollywood screenwriters and producers, including George Lucas who created Star Wars. Lucas openly acknowledged that Star Wars was greatly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth and this can be seen quite clearly. Like the greatest myths, it follows the structure of the hero’s journey perfectly.
A Hollywood screenwriter and producer named Christopher Vogler wrote a 7 page memo that outlined the practical applications of the Hero’s Journey and this inspired a whole generation of screenwriters.
The influence of the Hero’s Journey can be seen in a great many films, including The Lion King, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Avatar, Back to the Future, ET, Pirates of Caribbean, the Batman series and numerous animated films such as Finding Nemo, Shrek, Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda.
Films like those, which are popular entertainment for a modern audience, have a structure that echoes that of ancient myth, something that’s hardwired into us and which perhaps explains some of their enduring popularity.
There were criticisms at one time about writers using the hero’s journey too indiscriminately, adopting it as a kind of lazy formula without fully engaging their creativity. Upon its release, George Lucas’s fantasy film Willow was cited as one such example. There’s always a danger of stories becoming rigidly formulaic when they are built according to a set blueprint. So the hero’s journey is best applied not as a rigid framework, but a diagnostic tool for ensuring that all essential bases are covered to provide a satisfyingly coherent and structured story; a story that captures the transcendent power of the greatest of myths and stories.
In terms of my own writing, I never consciously set out to use the hero’s journey as a template. But when analysing my novels Eladria and The Key of Alanar , I discovered that they matched the pattern of the hero’s journey quite extraordinarily. Any times I have struggled, I found it helpful to read up on Campbell’s work and explore some of the ancient myths. This gave me an understanding of how stories work. The best stories have a clear beginning, middle and end, and a basic pattern and structure they follow, even if that structure has endless variations. One of the most important things I ever learned about writing is that there’s not just an art to it–there’s a science too. Taking some time to study not only how stories work, but why stories work, is an essential part of learning the craft.
The true power of storytelling
The greatest stories, from ancient times right up to today, aren’t just a means of entertainment and passing the time. They’re a means of understanding life, exploring ideas and learning — learning about ourselves, the world and our place in it. When a writer or storyteller of any kind begins a story, they’re asking for an investment of your time; they want to take you someplace, and it helps if there’s a payoff to that; a reason for telling the story.
Like many things in our culture, most books, films and television are simply churned out to make money, to fill a demand, and there’s perhaps not much depth to them or thought goes into them. Stories like that don’t last. Myths, legends and fairytales have endured for centuries and millennia because they touch upon some core human themes–they speak to us about life, albeit in the language of metaphor.
Some people believe that the ancient stories don’t have much relevance in our postmodern age, but I’d disagree. We’re not ostensibly any different to the way we were thousands of years ago. Our culture has changed a lot, but human beings are the same . We go through the same stages of life, we all want to be happy, to find love and meaning, fulfilment and joy. We still ask the same questions about life, about why we’re here and what it’s all about.
As Campbell says, all mythic narratives–and all the truly great stories–are variations of a single great story: a story about transcending our limits, overcoming adversity and becoming all that we’re capable of being. These stories give us hope and guide us.
A culture without mythology is doomed
We explored the functions of mythology and why it has importance to society, acting as a kind of glue that binds us together as well as providing guidance for our journey through life. But what happens when a society loses its mythology?
Campbell believed that without a functioning mythology to make sense of ourselves and reality, society degenerates and breaks down. We’re arguably seeing this throughout the world today. Campbell warned that:
“When a civilisation loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.”
The mythology we tend to hold as a culture is a materialistic one that puts consumerism above all else. We’re trained to think that the purpose of our lives is to make as much money as we can so we can buy as much stuff as possible. We’re taught to believe that we have to buy our way to happiness. We’re not even people anymore, we’re just consumers. This mythology is causing widespread suffering and destruction of the planet, because it is an unsustainable way of living.
So we desperately need new, healthier mythologies to give us a greater vision of who we are and what life is about. What we’re really looking for is deeper meaning and a more vibrant and vital experience of being alive.
They had that in ancient and premodern cultures. In order to move forward we sometimes have to look back–and if we’ve strayed off the tracks, retrace our steps a bit until we find ourselves back on the path.
Campbell said that the goal of life is to make our heartbeat match the beat of the universe. We save the world, he claimed, not by trying to rearrange the world, but by saving ourselves–by coming fully alive and “following our bliss” (a famous quote attributable to Campbell, summing up his philosophy of life). He said that the influence of a vital person has a vitalising effect on others and the world.
He warned us not to just become consumed by the system, but to follow our own way, to be a maverick and to align our personal nature with the essential nature of life and to be in harmony with that.
“But if a person has had the sense of the Call — the feeling that there’s an adventure for him — and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the system because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it’s against the wrong wall.If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one’s bliss — the thing that really gets you deep in your gut and that you feel is your life — doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.”
Living in this way changes our mythology! And the modern myth-makers, the writers, storytellers, artists, musicians, songwriters and all kinds of creative people have an important role in society and one that might even save our culture, by providing us with new, healthier mythologies by which we can understand and make sense of life.
Campbell said that “if you want to change the world you have to change the metaphor”. This is what takes us from a place of lack, loss, suffering and confusion to a place of wholeness, aliveness and redemption. That is the true power of storytelling.
(This article is based upon a talk I gave to some high school classes a couple of years ago. An accompanying Prezi presentation is available to view online here.)
The blog tour continues, and it’s been great fun. Today I’m sharing a guest blog I wrote for my publisher, Cosmic Egg Books, which is a brand new imprint of John Hunt publishing. I put quite a bit of thought into this one, relating my creative process and the power and importance of mythology and its relationship to storytelling and why, as a culture we desperately need stories with depth and substance. Hope you find it insightful.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer or storyteller of some kind. I can remember sitting in my room when I was only about six or seven and, with a pad of paper and felt tip pens in hand, I let my imagination soar freely as I conjured whole new worlds, with all kinds of characters and fantastical adventures. I had a rich and colourful inner world (the ‘real world’ simply paled in comparison!) and I knew I somehow wanted to be able to share it with others. I started off with a story called “The Lost World”, although my dad informed me that there was already a book by that title. I’d been beaten to it — by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less! But that was only a minor setback for this young writer…
In this chapter, Lao Tzu describes the Sages of old, those who lived their lives in constant alignment with the Tao. He poetically depicts them as being like elements of nature and this is a central theme of the Tao Te Ching: that by observing and aligning with the rhythm and flow of nature, we reconnect with our deepest essence, that which might be described as the Tao; the natural, spontaneous flow of life.
The Sage is awake, alert, kind, malleable and receptive. There is no element of self-seeking and, precisely because of this, she is in perfect balance with life.
What better role model to have than an enlightened being; someone who is liberated from the tyranny of mind, conditioning and societal programming, and is free, spontaneous and in complete alignment with their essential nature? And they do exist, although they are rare gems in our current world. Lao Tzu’s description is clear and inspiring. It might interesting to reflect on which of these characteristics you already possess, and which you can develop, cultivate or strengthen. Contrary to what many assume, our personality is not rigidly set in stone. In fact, it changes all the time, and with a little conscious effort can be easily moulded and developed.
Lao Tzu makes reference to muddy water, which might represent our unconscious neuroses, fears, aversions, attachments and the assorted mind-stuff that continually churns around in our head. So how do we clear this muddy water? Do we get agitated and try to stir it up or boil away the mud? Such actions only serve to worsen it. Instead, Lao Tzu suggests retreating to that still place within in which we are constantly connected with the Tao. He urges us to be rooted there; to wait patiently, allowing the mud to settle and allowing right action to spontaneously arise.
By letting go of our constant grasping and craving – and our never-ending quest for happiness and fulfilment, which in itself is a source of suffering – we can reach a state of peace in which we are more in harmony with the present moment. When we’ve stopped projecting into an imaginary future, all things begin to shine when we instead realise that life is simply THIS…HERE…NOW. This is all there is.
The clock is ticking. Expectations are high. The much-heralded date of 21st December 2012 is less than four months away. A significant number of people genuinely believe that this is the day the world is going to end.
Exactly how it’s going to end is a matter of much debate. Is Jesus going to pop in to battle the antichrist? Are aliens going to invade? Is a giant asteroid going to destroy the planet? A timely super volcano eruption? Global societal collapse? A nuclear apocalypse? There are no shortage of theories in circulation; a number of them clearly utter nonsense, while others are more unnervingly feasible.
But apocalypticism (fixation with the end of the world) is nothing new. Mankind has been convinced the world is approaching an imminent and catastrophic end for thousands of years. And we’re still here.
Any historian will tell you that Christians have been feverishly anticipating armageddon since around the time the religion first started. That’s a pretty long history of disappointment, littered with countless failed predictions, yet they’re more ardent than ever.
(Incidentally, here’s a countdown of some of the most notable failed doomsday predictions, from the Millerites, Mormons and Heaven’s Gate cult to Nostradamus and Y2K. Worth noting that scientists and scholars have made more than their fair share of failed predictions as well).
The current intensification of doomsday mania is largely centred around the fast-approaching end date of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Most people actually know very little about it and tend to buy into the media hype, oblivious to the fact the Maya left NO prediction about what would happen on or around 2012. Experts are adamant that there’s no evidence that the Maya believed the end of their Long Count calendar would spell the end of the world. When the Long Count calendar ends…well, it simply resets again. Like most calendars do. The doomsday scenario that’s been tacked onto it appears to be an urban myth of the highest degree.
The psychology of apocalypticism and our fixation with imagined catastrophes fascinates me. I’m not sure how much research has been done in this area; I’ll have to dig deeper than a brief google search. What follows is my own analysis of what compels us to create, believe in and morbidly fixate on doomsday scenarios.
I believe doomsday mania is largely a projection of our own deepest fears and anxieties; which, as with most fears and anxieties, is ultimately rooted in fear of our own mortality.
This innate, primordial fear is basically hard-wired into us. The so-called reptilian brain is the oldest part of the human brain. It evolved with the primary function of ensuring physical survival and protecting us from harm. The reptilian brain is the seat of our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism and is always on the look out for potential threats to our survival. It came in pretty handy in prehistoric times when there were predators aplenty and simply staying alive was something of a challenge. These days, however (in certain parts of the world at least), we can step out of the front door without having to worry about our immediate survival. Yet the reptilian brain is still just as active now as it was back then.
It’s a part of our physiology and psychology that’s designed to be forever on the look-out for threats. We may experience this as a persistent low-level anxiety in the periphery of our awareness. Because our physical safety is rarely in immediate danger, this anxiety is often projected onto other things, including relationships and social situations. Or indeed any number of the invented, conceptualised fears we might harbour in our minds; the myriad ‘what ifs?’ that we take to be reality, but which in fact are mere fantasy. As Mark Twain once remarked, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Ahh, the mind. It picks up on the persistent fear signals of the reptilian brain and tries to make sense of the input. If it can’t (and often there’s little reason for the signals the reptilian brain is sending out — it’s just doing so because that’s what it’s wired to do) then it manufactures all manner of stories and narratives around that fear in an attempt to process reality. Its intent is noble; it’s trying to keep us safe. But in the absence of any legitimate threats to our survival, the mind gets us lost in never-ending fabrications and mental conceptualisations, which actually distort our perception of reality.
I first experienced the mind’s amazing ability to fabricate stories to explain the input it’s receiving many years ago when I was on holiday with my parents and sister as a child. I was fast asleep and my sister, bless her, decided it was time I woke up. She awoke me by getting a facial spritz spray and spraying it on my face (as you do!). I was in the middle of a dream at the time, but my outer senses obviously registered the sound and sensation of the spray. What happened was my mind incorporated the sound into my dream and I suddenly saw a can of coca cola being opened. In other words, my brain received an input (the sound of the facial spritz) but it didn’t know what it was, so it created a fabrication to explain the input — a coke can being opened!
The funny thing is, that’s what the mind is doing all the time. It’s receiving input and trying to match it to past experience. If it can’t process the input based on memory and knowledge, it simply spins a story based on the material it has at hand. It projects a superimposition over reality; something we then mistake as BEING reality. This is going on all the time! Most the time we don’t experience reality as it is, we experience it as we think it is.
It’d be easy to digress at this point, but bear with me.
Basically, as I’ve explained, we are hard-wired to feel our survival is always under threat. This primal fear is constantly being generated by a part of our brain that’s designed to keep us on our toes and on the look out for possible danger everywhere. If there does happen to be a legitimate danger, then the mechanism is fulfilling its function and we can respond appropriately. But if there’s no actual threat (and most of the time there isn’t), then the mind tends to fabricate reasons to explain why we’re experiencing this fear.
This includes, I venture, the notion that the world is approaching an imminent and horrific end.
It doesn’t matter whether the evidence supports this story or not. Most of us invest a lot of our sense of identity in our mental narratives. We’re all religious whether we know it or not. Our object of worship is the stories in our minds, our mental maps of ‘reality’. That’s why people are often literally willing to die to uphold their beliefs and viewpoints, and why so few people are genuinely willing to question their thoughts and beliefs.
I believe our obsession with doomsday, armageddon and mass annihilation is a projection of our deepest fears and anxieties and an extreme manifestation of our fear of mortality. It’s not something I see as particularly rational or likely. The Earth has been here a pretty long time and is likely to be around for a while yet.
This is NOT to say that we’re not faced with multiple and immense problems and challenges. We’ve reached a point in history where we face escalating issues on a number of fronts: ecologically, socially, politically and economically. Our species’ current mode of operating is largely responsible for these problems and in order to solve them, it will necessitate change at a fundamental level.
I know only too well that to sit down and start analysing all of mankind’s problems can lead to a sense of hopelessness and pessimism. There’s no denying that we’ve created a terrible mess. Yet each time we’ve been on the verge of immense catastrophe, something has happened to change the rules of the game. At our moments of greatest challenge, we often make our greatest breakthroughs: new innovations, new insights, new ways of doing things.
The human race rarely does things the easy way. We often have to be pushed to the brink before we’re forced to take stock of what we’re doing and why immediate change is necessary. But the breakthroughs come. When we’re shaken out of our slumber and forced out of our habitual reflex-response approach to living, we can be tremendously adaptable. Although mindsets are all too easily rigid and entrenched, consciousness is fluid and the ability to shift from one level of consciousness to another, particularly when forced by necessity, gives me cause for hope.
The world is not going to end on 21st December 2012. That’s my prediction, and I don’t often make them. But you can quote me on that.
The world is going to keep spinning as it always does. Yes, these are turbulent times. But if you leaf through the pages of any history book you’ll reach the inescapable conclusion that the entirety of recorded history has been turbulent. In many of respects things are better now than they ever have been.
As always, events come and go. Society changes and evolves. There’s an interplay of good and bad, and they always eventually balance each other out. That’s just the way life is. It all just happens; a continuous, spontaneous unfolding.
My best advice is to let go of the mind’s fictional projections (particularly if they’re causing distress and misery, as they often do) and simply roll with life. Life takes care of itself, especially when we stop creating obstructions and just let it. I’ve never encountered a better approach to life than that offered by the Tao Te Ching. It advises us to let go of all concepts and to be open, relaxed, non-grasping and flexible, bending with the wind as and when it blows.
Life is really just lila, a play in consciousness. Without taking it too seriously, we can respond appropriately to the needs of each situation, using whatever abilities, skills and knowledge we have. In this way we can all contribute productively, particularly once we shift out of the overriding mentality of “what’s in it for me?” and instead focus on what we can give back to life. It’s so easy to get swept up by the dramas and strife and to project scenarios of doom and despair — easy, but not exactly helpful. The secret to life is remaining in a state of peace and balance amidst its inevitable ups and downs. That’s our greatest gift to the world and the most resourceful state of mind we could possibly adopt.
To be sure, no one can tell us what’s going to happen in the future. Maybe a giant comet will strike tomorrow and knock us all to oblivion? But why waste our precious, beautiful life worrying over imagined events? Stop, relax and enjoy life now! Ditch all that apocalyptic nonsense and just BE HERE NOW! It’s so easy to forget that, but it’s really the only way to live.
This is kind of an addendum to the last post, as I felt compelled to clarify something. The overall message of the ‘Living Without Rules’ essays was essentially a simple one, and one that could probably be summed up as: stop living by the rules and demands of the mind, and instead ‘drop into’ the expanse of wordless stillness that lies at the core of your being, and let action arise from there.
It’s not easy talking about this kind of stuff. In India there’s an entire vocabulary — heck, an entire language — for defining and understanding the various states of mind and consciousness, concepts that are quite alien to most people in our Western culture.
You can only really understand this by having experienced it yourself. The good thing is that what I’m talking about is replicable. There’s a science to it. It might sound very subjective, but it’s actually objective — and with a little self-investigation, just about anyone can verify it for themselves.
There are prerequisites, however, such as a reasonably still, stable and enquiring mind. Enlightenment is seen as some kind of superhuman feat, but actually anyone can dip into the ‘enlightened state’ — on rare occasions quite spontaneously, but most the time with a little bit of practise first, to clear obstructions and what is known in Vedanta as a ‘sattvic’ state (which means clear, lucid, balanced and harmonious, mentally, emotionally and physically).
This might seem rather abstract until you’ve experienced it for yourself, and it seems to me that I maybe ought to try and convey the practical aspects of it at some point, offering some clear pointers that can help you tap into this for yourself. If you’ve already experienced what I’m talking about, then you’ll no doubt be on the same wavelength.
What I’m talking about is the baseline awareness that exists beneath all thought, all emotions, all feelings, perceptions and memories. It’s a stateless-state, ever-present and unchanging, and although it’s something most people are rarely conscious of, they wouldn’t be conscious at all without it.
It’s always there, beneath the apparent obstructions of the mind, and it’s the very same awareness and sense of being that we’ve had throughout our lives. Although our bodies, minds, beliefs, circumstances and self-concepts radically change over time, the baseline awareness and sense of being remains ever the same. And the funny thing is, it’s not personal in any way — it’s the very same sense of self — of existing; of being an “I” — that every single man, woman, child and animal possesses.
I tend to just call it awareness; not awareness of ‘this’ or ‘that’, but just pure awareness — consciousness at rest. Other names for it are the Self or the no-Self (I love the delicious paradox of it all — both point to the very same ‘thing’!), Being, or the sense of ‘I am’.
Basically, it’s a return to our original nature that we’re all really seeking, although virtually no one realises this, because most are still too busy trying to seek fulfilment and happiness in maya, the outward world of illusion (which is really just an experience in our consciousness, like everything else).
By reversing the focus of our attention from outside to inside, and consciously seeking this inward source, we finally find the joy, aliveness and fulfilment we were desperately searching for in all the wrong places. Consciousness resting in its source is often experienced as a tremendous bliss. What you’re really seeking is inside of you, and it’s more amazing than anything you could ever possibly experience ‘out there’.
The paradox that I inadvertently walked into with my last essay was this: when you are in touch with this baseline awareness, this innate sense of Self or being, you realise that it doesn’t really want anything. It’s characterised by an immense sense of allowing. It is unconditional love in the truest sense. It’s as though it pervades everything, without judgement and without any desires or preferences. It IS everything.
Consciousness at rest has no need to accomplish or achieve anything, no need to judge or separate. When you tap into this state, when you allow yourself to just ‘drop into’ it, you probably won’t feel it wants you to do anything except relax into it, and just BE. You’ll know that everything is fine, that the phenomenal world runs itself according to natural laws and the innate programming of all creatures. Life just happens. Creation doesn’t strain, it just occurs freely and spontaneously. There’s so much we can learn from that.
Our desires, likes, dislikes and preferences, and all our goals and ambitions arise from consciousness-in-motion, with the mind and body. Mind and body have no innate ‘life’ of their own, but are illuminated and animated by the reflected light of the baseline awareness, in much the same way as the moon is illuminated by the reflected light of the sun.
So, although the baseline awareness has no desires or ambitions of its own, its light is expressed by and embodied through the mind and ‘subtle body’ (our psyche, or active, aware consciousness as we know it; the mind and all its content). The way consciousness expresses itself through each of us is unique. If something feels good to us, if it ‘clicks’ with us, and brings a feeling of expansion and aliveness, then that’s a sure sign we’re in touch with the Self as it expresses its reflected light through the mind and psyche. Feeling good — and I mean really good, not just superficially good — is a sign that we’re connected and in tune with our essential nature. If we were to simply follow those good feelings and allow them to guide us through life, we’d pretty much have it sorted; we’d be in constant alignment with Self.
Basically what I wanted to highlight was the paradox of the Self and action. The baseline awareness, our essential Self wants and needs nothing: it doesn’t judge, compare or compete, because it’s already absolutely whole and complete. It’s entirely non-dual; permanent, ever-abiding non-dual awareness.
Yet, once we get in touch with this fundamental, primordial aspect of our nature, we may feel compelled to do certain things, to take certain actions that are in alignment with our unique nature as it expresses itself through mind and body. Actions thus taken — actions that arise spontaneously from this deeper place of stillness and wholeness — will always yield better results than those taken from the limited, grasping and constricted surface-level of mind. The latter will feel good and will usually have far greater results, while the former will feel desperate, anxious and will invariably create unforeseen problems.
I don’t expect you to just take my word for this. I invite you to try it for yourself.
I’m still working with this; attempting to re-wire my mind in order to stay in constant alignment with the baseline awareness, rather than being driven solely by the tides of the surface-level mind. It doesn’t happen overnight, yet to say the effort is worth it is an understatement of incredible proportions. For this is, I have to say, the difference between a life of suffering and a life of genuine happiness. I do not make that claim lightly. If you feel so called, why not investigate for yourself?