“In the last analysis,” Jung wrote, “most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.”[i]
When we lose contact with our instincts, we become cut off from our sense of who we are, where we came from, and what we know about our place in the cosmos. This sense of dislocation can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, meaninglessness, and despair. Myths heal because they can help us return us to this instinctual foundation. They remind us of what we have always known, but may have forgotten. Being in contact with “the historical foundations” of the psyche heals an inner split and reminds us that we are part of a larger story.
Jung gave more specifics about how myths heal when he wrote that “myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious.”[ii] Dreams are healing for much the same reason, as they nightly help to restore the connection between the ego and the guiding Self.
Myths restore us to our foundations in part because they contain intimations of cosmic realities. They express in symbolic form fundamental truths that under lie existence. Myths address where we came from, and where we will go. They therefore help us to have some understanding of our place in the universe. Myth is the nexus of the personal and the universal. It allows the individual to experience that which is universal, and to know that he or she is a part of it.
The following cosmological mythologems illustrate how myth is the connection point between the human and the cosmic, and show how reestablishing a connection with this mythic truth can move the individual from a place of hubris or despair in the face of meaninglessness into an appreciation of the larger story. This fundamental idea is expressed in a myth, a fairy tale, a modern dream, and a mystical vision.
I’ll start with the fairy tale.
This is a tale called “The Golden Tree,” and it is from a Jewish source in India. A young queen gets unfairly banished by her husband, who has listened to lies about her. She wanders alone in a forest until she meets an old man who offers her food and shelter. As she lives with him, she begins to dream about a beautiful tree with leaves of gold, and blossoms of diamond. She also learns that the old man is a master craftsman who makes beautiful amulets out of gold and silver in the shape of a tree like the one in her dream. However, he never sells any of his creations. He melts them down and creates new ones. When she asks him about it, he responds by saying that it is the creating that he enjoys.
In time, the king who banished her is filled with remorse. He looks and looks for his wife, but he can’t find her, and is filled with despair. He also finds himself dreaming of the marvelous tree, and in the end, goes in search of it. Eventually, he too meets the old man in the forest, who tells him how to find the tree. The old man warns the king that the stream that flows from the tree will become dangerously hot, and he gives the kind special shoes to protect himself.
The next day, the king finds the tree of his dreams:
“As the old man foretold, the water became warmer and more violent. Finally, the King heard a great roaring, and clouds of steam billowed around him. Through the fog, the King glimpsed flashes of gold, and when he pushed forward, he beheld a luminous tree—the golden tree of his dreams! But the tree was surrounded by a whirlpool of boiling water, and the King despaired. “How can I reach the tree?” he cried out. “I shall die if I step in the water!” Then the King remembered the old man’s shoes. He put them on, gritted his teeth, and stepped into the maelstrom.
To his surprise, the boiling water did not burn him, nor did he sink beneath its surface. Carefully, the King made his way to the center of the vortex and stood beneath the tree of his dreams. The King stared in awe, because the tree was a fountain of molten gold. Each spray of liquid metal formed a branch of the tree, and each droplet a leaf. The form changed constantly and yet always remained shaped like a tree.”[iii]
The King approached the marvelous tree with awe. Hesitantly, he reached out and took hold of a branch. The molten metal did not burn his hands, and when he broke off the branch, it was solid in his hands. The King returned with a pure gold branch of the tree, and was re-united with his wife.
The old man and the golden tree are both images of the “ceaseless process of transformation in which old structures are melted down and reforged.” The story reveals the fundamental truth that, underlying our tiny personal existence is the eternal story of the cosmic creation and destruction, an intimation of life ever renewing itself.
This same theme is expressed in a vision experienced by a religious mystic.
Sri Ramakrishna was a 19th century Indian yogi and mystic, and devotee of the goddess Kali.
One day, the mystic had a vision of Kali emerging from the waters of the Ganges as a graceful young woman. He saw that she was heavily pregnant, and understood that she had come onto dry land to give birth. He saw her deliver a beautiful baby, whom she then began to suckle lovingly. Holding the baby in her arms, she then became the Kali we are more familiar with – a terrifying, bloodthirsty hag. In this aspect, the goddess lifted the baby to her mouth, and devoured it whole. She then disappears again into the Ganges without a backward glance.
“It has been revealed to me that there exists an Ocean of Consciousness without limit. From It come all things of the relative plane, and in It they merge again. These waves arising from the Great Ocean merge again in the Great Ocean. I have clearly perceived all these things.”[iv]
Kali here embodies the same truths that we saw in the golden tree, the mysterious cosmic force that brings forth creation, and then destroys it. The tree in the fairy tale is somewhat less fearsome than the image of than the goddess devouring her newborn child. Yet both images convey the numinous beauty of creation, as well as the terror of destruction that threatens to swallow us.
Now for a dream. J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) was an English novelist, playwright, and broadcaster. He had the following dream when he was hard at work on his plays about time. Priestley said of this dream “I think it left a deeper impression upon my mind than any experience I had ever known before, awake or in dreams, and said more to be about this life than any book I had ever read.”[v]
I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon the myriads of birds flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds.
But now, in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and the time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek and then, in a flash, bled and shriveled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless biological effort?
As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us at all, had been born, if the struggle ceased forever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy.
But now the gear was changed again, and time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But, along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of beings.
Birds, people or creatures not yet shaped and colored, all were of no account except so as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought of as tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never felt before such happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds.
Finally, from the Bhagavad Gita:
The great Prince Arjuna has driven out between two great armies come together to meet in battle. His charioteer is none other than Krishna. Arjuna looks at both armies, and sees in their midst men whom he loves, and his spirits fails him.
“Alas,” he said to the divine charioteer, “we are resolved to commit a great sin, in that we are ready to slay our kinsmen to satisfy our greed for the pleasure of a kingdom! Far better would it be for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, should slay me in battle, unarmed and inresisting. I will not fight.” But thereupon the comely god had summoned him to courage, pouring out to him the wisomd of the Lord, and in the end had opened to him this vision. The prince beholds, dumbfounded, not only his friend transformed into the living personification of the Support of the Universe, but the heroes of the two armies rushing on a wind into the deity’s innumerable, terrible mouths. He exclaims in horror:
“When I look upon Thy blazing form reaching to the skies and shining with many colors, when I see Thee with Thy mouth opened wide and Thy grat eyes glowing bright, my inmost soul trembles in fear, and I find neither courage nor peace, O Vishnu! When I behold Thy mouths, striking terror with their tusks, like Time’s all-consuming fire, I am disoriented and find no peace. Be gracious, O Lord of the Gods, O Abode of the Universe! All these sons of Dhritarashtra, together with the hosts of monarchs and Bhishma, Drona, and Karna, and the warrior chiefs of our wise as well, enter precipitately thy tusked and terrible mouths, frightful to behold. Some are seen caught between Thy teeth, their heads crushed to powder. As the torrents of many rivers rush toward the ocean, so do the heroes of the mortal world rush into Thy fiercely flaming mouths. As moths rush swiftly into a blazing fire to perish there, even so do these creatures swiftly rush into Thy mouths to their own destruction. Thou lickest Thy lips, devouring all the worlds on every side with Thy flaming mouths. They fiery rays fill the whole universe with their radiance and scorch it, O Vishnu! Tell me who Thou art, that wearest this frightful form. Salutations to Thee, O God Supreme! Have mercy. I desire to know Thee, who are the Primal One; for I do not understand Thy purpose.”
The Lord said: “I am mighty, world-destroying Time, now engaged here in slaying these men. Even without you, all these warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall not live. Therefore stand up and win glory; conquer your enemies and enjoy an opulent kingdom. By Me and none other have they been slain; be an instrument only, O Arjuna….Be not distressed by fear.”[vi]
When we first glimpse the great and terrible story that undergirds human existence, we may become heartsick at the mindless waste and meaningless suffering we perceive. Like J. B. Priestley in his dream tower or Arjuna on the battlefield, we may become filled with terror and despair in the face of cosmic destruction. The 2011 Terrence Malick movie The Tree of Life attempts to conjure similar experiences of despair and awe so vast, they cannot be contained even by the narrative of the species. In a long segment with only occasional whispered questions, a family’s grief at losing a child is juxtaposed with scenes that place the loss in the context of cosmological time, as we witness the creation of the universe and the rise of life on earth.
Coming into contact with the mythic substructure of our lives calls upon us to overcome fear, rise above a narrow ego perspective, and in so doing, become acquainted with the eternal story in which our own tiny and insignificant narrative is embedded. When we are able to do this, we see the story underneath the story – the light that flickers through Priestley’s throng of birds, or the cosmic continuity revealed to Arjuna on the battlefield. Then we will have perceived “the essential nature of the cosmos.” Fear and grief become acceptance, joy, and even ecstasy as we come to realize that, as puny as we are, we are a part of the great cosmic dance.
Our sense of belonging to the cosmos brings with it an awareness of responsibility. We have a duty to creation to become “whomever the gods intended, not what the ego desires.”[vii] These mythologems also teach us that it is critical to approach these truths with the appropriate attitude. As we saw in the fairy tale of the golden fountain, it mattered how the King responded to the fountain. He was successful in bringing back a solid branch because he approached this revelation of cosmic truth with appropriate reverence — he put on the old man’s shoes — and was able to set aside his fear. In Priestley’s dream, his redemptive vision was granted to him only after the heart-sickening one. To receive it, he had to remain open to what the psyche was showing him even through the horror.
Being granted a vision of the eternal story of creation and destruction that lies most of the time beyond our conscious awareness is an experience that initiates us into the deepest mysteries of existence. Such revelations reconnect us with mystery, meaning, and telos. Our personal suffering is infused with transpersonal meaning and is given a universal context. We have a sense that our story is going somewhere, and has a place among all other human stories. We could therefore say that myth restores us to ourselves.
As Jungian analyst Jim Hollis writes, “in incredibly varied ways, the religious problem lies underneath all of our pathologies, our symptomatologies, whether presenting as depression, addiction, relationship problems, grief, anxiety, or loss of direction…Surely coming to personal experience of the numinous is what life is all about.”[viii]
[i] “The 2,000,000-Year-Old-Man,” in William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull, eds., C.G. Jung Speaking, p. 89.
[ii] CW 9ii, par. 280.
[iii] Chinen, A. B. (2003). Once upon a midlife: classic stories and mythic tales to illuminate the middle years. Place of publication not identified: Xlibris. P. 254.
[iv] Ramakrishna, & Nikhilananda. (2007). The gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.
[v] Stevens, A. (1996). Private myths ; dreams and dreaming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p.348.
[vi] Campbell, J. (1973). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 232-233.
[vii] James Hollis, MYTHOLOGEMS: Incarnations of the Invisible World, p. 68.
[viii] James Hollis, MYTHOLOGEMS: Incarnations of the Invisible World, pp. 18-19.