In celebration and honor of passing the comprehensive exams in my Master’s program in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology, I’m going to share each essay I wrote. First up is a little piece where I was required to define mythology while integrating the thoughts of two significant figures and one religious tradition. Ya know, nothin’ big.
Joseph Campbell, Ginette Paris & The Buddhist Tradition
Joseph Campbell provides an excellent overview of mythology in The Hero of a Thousand Faces. He explores different facets of the hero’s journey while providing examples from mythologies around the world. His monomyth of the hero has become a building block for current mythological studies. It is clear that the human experience is not bound by culture or by time. Mythologies speak to individuals because they resonate with the soul, touching archetypes we all understand, consciously or unconsciously.
As the study of mythology has moved into the twenty-first century, thinkers such as Ginette Paris have integrated the study of mythology and depth-psychology. In her works, she makes it clear that myths, our human stories, provide “the images that open the heart and make us see what is right there in our psychological reality” (163). We can find this in art and literature, as Paris identifies. Mythology is not restricted to the stories of the past from Rome or Greece. In one important definition (presented in an introductory text on Buddhism), Damien Keown explains that myth “does not mean something that is false,” (7) which is unfortunately a common use of the term today. Instead, “myths are stories which have a compelling force by virtue of their ability to work simultaneously on several levels” (7). They are also “metaphorical” and contain “universal truths” (8).
One place where we can find mythology and identify these truths is in religion. One Eastern tradition in particular, Buddhism, is working its way into the consciousness of the West and allowing us to reimagine our definitions of mythology and religion. For both mythology and religion to function in a society, they must speak these spiritual truths to the people of the community in a relatable manner. In Old Path White Clouds,Buddha directs his students to understand that, “The Dharma must be applicable to present life, and compatible with local culture” (Nhat Hanh 462). Likewise, Joseph Campbell indicates that, “The myth has to deal with the cosmology of the day and it’s no good when it’s based on a cosmology that’s out of date” (Hero’s Journey, 43). So while the elements of the myths are timeless, all myths do not necessarily remain accessible. For example, when some modern readers pick up a copy of Oedipus Rex, the events that play out may not resonate with them. They may not be able to relate to the antiquated palace setting. However, when those same modern readers watch a television series such Angel, which at times explores the same Oedipal issues in a modern setting, they may find the truths in the story more accessible. Though it is certain that not all modern fiction provides the metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological functions of mythology (as identified by Campbell), there are many films, television series, and works of literature that do provide them. Mythology surrounds us today. The form and matter of mythology changes and grows with the culture, but they will always speak the same truths.
Mythology speaks to the imagination, depicts the human condition, demonstrates a hero on a journey, and provides readers/listeners/viewers with guidance. As Campbell indicates, “we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us… 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 (Thousand Faces 25). This shared experience and oneness with the world that Campbell identifies is strongly present in the Buddhist tradition. Paris emphasizes the same idea of oneness in a footnote when she indicates that “there is no tight boundary between me and others, me and the world” (231). The Buddhist text Old Path White Clouds explores the seminal idea of oneness as Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of the Buddha’s life on earth. It is irrelevant whether the Buddha walked on this earth or if the details in the book are historically accurate. The story of the Buddha is itself is a myth. It is not about literal truth but spiritual truth. The spirit itself transcends terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” as it points to the universal human condition. All religions, as all mythologies, point to the same truths about our experiences. In The Hero’s Journey, Campbell further defines mythology: “The images of myth are not fact, they are metaphors; and the reference is to transcendence. They take the facts of life and relate them to the psyche” (43).
The influx of Buddhism in the Modern American culture points to elements of unity, oneness, and mindfulness that our hustle and bustle culture has arguably been lacking. Buddhism, as both a religion and a mythology, presents the functions of mythology, offering individuals with texts and concepts that provide ways to cultivate the mind in ways that are new to many Westerners. Many Buddhist texts are accessible to Western readers, and some even integrate our foundational religion: Christianity. In books such as Jesus and Buddha as Brothers and Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes a growing idea: inclusivity instead of exclusivity (a notion that also includes religious tolerance). The Dalai Lama also emphasizes in his writings that a belief in the Buddha and his teachings does not negate a belief in Christ and his teachings, and vice versa. Mythologies point to truths of human existence, but they are most effective when they do not exclude other mythologies. Each mythology and religion offers a piece of the truth. Essentially, we are each on our own hero’s journey through life and, as Campbell asserted, the myths can guide us on that journey.
A significant part of our lives’ journey is also the process of individuating, something Ginette Paris and other Jungians point to. The steps to individuation, which Jungians define as “the ultimate goal of human life” (Walker 33), bare many similarities to the Buddhist path of Enlightenment, Nirvana, or “self-realization,” whose goal is to “put an end to suffering and rebirth” (Keown 44). Together, Depth Psychology and Eastern mythology/philosophy/religion (all the words apply) can provide a very powerful compass for navigating this life. In these complementary approaches, individuation and enlightenment hold the same goals as both ultimately seek to end suffering and provide unity. Furthermore, in the most profound way, Buddhism offers guidance for what Campbell identified as “joyfully participation in the sorrows of the world” (173): “The joy and happiness of meditation permeates mind and body, heals all anxiety, sorrow, and despair and enables the practitioner to experience the wonders of life” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path 529). Paris echoes this sentiment a chapter subheading: “Life is absurdly, awesomely ugly and beautiful” (59).
Learning to live in this world, going on one heroic journey after another, and seeking individuation and peace of the mind, body, and spirit are all endless processes in our human existence. Following the work of great thinkers such as Joseph Campbell and Ginette Paris opens doorways to insight and understanding. Religions such as Buddhism offer a mythology that reminds us “what life has to offer – this instant, this body, this love, this destiny” (Paris 197). Mindfulness is becoming a popular term in America today as it points to something we all need: a return to the present. Caught in consumerism and a fast-paced culture, it is easy to lose sight of the moment. We collectively need navigational skills to aid us in making both the day-to-day and large decisions in our life. Reading, studying, and meditating are combined components from mythology, depth psychology and religion that will help us to develop well-rounded lives that allow for moments of quietude, self-reflection, and soul movement. Caring for ourselves in this way is the first necessary step in tending to the soul of the world.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Novato: New World, 1990.
— The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1972.
Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Nhat Hanh, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991. Print.
Paris, Ginette. Wisdom and Psyche: Depth Psychology After Neuroscience. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.