"Myth and the Mind" | Contemplating Rituals, Symbols, and the Power of Myth

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As many of you might know, especially those that enjoy my podcast prior to the creation of this newsletter, I'm fascinated by our human desire for myth-making.

As of late, I've enjoyed reading and re-reading many of the works by Joesph Campbell and Carl Jung, both were fascinated by our meaning-making mechanisms.

But why am I bringing up our myth-making? Well, for one, I think it's understanding this very human desire for myth-making that gets at the heart of how we integrate knowledge; it's the methodical way our psyche tries to make sense of our human existence. 

The myths that make us are what create the unique perception of reality that each individual holds.

Okay, okay, but my second reason for bringing this up is I stumbled upon a beautifully written article on Aeon titled, "Myth and the Mind," by Rami Gabriel. I hope you can see how my interest was peaked, I was at the ready to either sing that article praises or angrily hit the comment section...luckily I found myself in the former.

Even with many prominent academic figures, such as Campbell, shedding light on our human myth-making mechanisms, many still view it as something for "fairytales," but you will fail to understand your mind if you only allow yourself to go that deep with understanding myth.

Gabriel sums it up beautifully by saying:

"Today, the term 'mythology' connotes uncorroborated legend. But that's not entirely accurate. Mythology is really a set of beliefs buttressed by practices, or rituals, that together console our desire for explanation."

As Roman theorist Mircea Eliade said:

"Myth never quite disappears from the present world of the psyche...it only changes its aspect."

It's that quote, right there, that hit me! I shouted alone in my office, "yes, exactly!"

You see, many of us want to believe that myth-making is something to be transcended, something primitive to evolve from, but I think it's our gift—it's something to be embraced. If we want to understand our minds, create peace in our world, we must understand our myth-making mechanisms.

"Belief is our guiding star."

In the past, organized religion was the guiding star, a system of beliefs that people in a community could rally around. When we look back, we see that art, music, and perspectives on life were heavily influenced by the dominant religion of that area.

Have we moved past this?

No, the rituals, myths, and quest we look to for perspectives on life are now in our films, music, drugs, and art. The myths of old are still present, yet, are now either replaced, influenced, or competing with modern myth. Our communication has evolved, and with it, our creative ways to take people on their own unique journeys into creating their self-narrative, their story.

It's fucking beautiful.

For me, I experience this after watching a Christopher Nolan film, finding myself considering a different perspective on reality. I see this watching a David Lynch film, with his use of surrealism, which leaves me questioning what is real. I feel this after a psychedelic journey that just took me deep into the depths of my own subconscious, feeding me a humbling experience of my own reality. I hear this during a Grateful Dead song that moves my emotions with sound like never before. I experience the bending of my own mind staring into a Picasso painting.

These are modern myths for me. These are the things helping me shape my own sense of self, my narrative.

When we embrace our own power of myth-making we begin seeing beauty and mystery in the cosmos that we didn't notice before. And there's an inner peace to be found in that.

So what is a myth?

As Gabriel put it:

"It's an organised canon of beliefs that explains the state of the world. It also delivers an origin story—such as the Hindu Laws of Manu or the Biblical creation story—that creates a setting for how we experience the world."

Okay, that's what it is, but I've also wondered, why do we do it?

Sure, it's helping form communities that work in unison, however, I can't help but feel there's a deeper layer, as a reason for an inward use of myth. I see it, also, as a method for dealing with our inner emotions, from fear, joy, and anger.

So, to process our emotions and provide a more reflexive response when encountering stimuli in the world. When we feel we disagree with something, find ourselves uncomfortable, or find ourselves angered by the news...it's our inner belief structures that create a reflexive emotional response to that input.

But wait, beneath that layer is something else, what I enjoy calling the embrace of the void....to put it more simply though, it's a response to our embrace of doubt. We do some of this unconsciously, however, many of us have moments of doing it consciously, where we dive into the depths of our mind and experience the uncertainty of our human experience. We begin forming beliefs from that place within ourselves, that void.

From that place of doubt, we see how bendable the patterns are in our cosmos, and we hope to create patterns to provide a structure for our own sanity.

As Gabriel said:

"Mythology is the compendium that explains the world with symbols drawn from the lived reality of a people. We inhabit a ubiquitous system of symbols, in which we're constantly challenged to find patterns to believe in."

And continued later:

"To believe is to passionately commit to a way of experiencing the world. Any given set of beliefs is real to anyone who shares it. Or, as Durkheim put it, no religions are false; all are true in their own fashion."

That place of doubt within ourselves is something to always keep in the back of our mind, it keeps us curious, it helps prevent us from following dogma, and keeps anxiety at bay. This is why we need belief! And we create myths for those beliefs.

So, are you with me so far?

This line from Gabriel sparked some thoughts for me:

"It brought about a world where the space for religious belief became the space for opinion, political affiliation and consumerism."

I've asked myself many times the past few years, why are religions embracing political identities more than in the past?

One might argue it's the advancement of technology and the use of the internet. With these innovations, people had places to go that provided bridges for cooperation. Thus, you essentially have combinations of people's myths, so they start operating together, forming their myths around each other, to create a larger tent for their "in-group."

However, this Gabriel piece made me recognize a new lens for thinking about this, I've always said that religion was replaced by science as a more accepted means for comprehending the workings, creation, and mysterious of the universe, which led to religion deciding to double down on their moral systems being proof of God's existence.

This has led to a conscious and subconscious recognition from those with strong religious leanings that political grounds are a frontier to have these moral battles. Whether we want to admit this or not, politics is a place where opinion runs rampant, with everyone thinking they can Google the latest topic of discussion for ten minutes and be well-educated enough on the matter to express their opinion online, through voting, and other forms of expression.

When we encounter areas that have less clear-cut structures of right, wrong, correct, and incorrect—organized religion finds its way in to save the day. It's a modern manifestation of the "God of the gaps," where places we have less certainty, religion wants to provide certainty for those human psyches that desire it to be so. It wants to place itself into our belief structures where doubt heavily persists.

So, I guess my point is, although we must understand and, to some extent, embrace the power of myth, we must be mindful of the myths we latch onto.

What are the myths you follow doing to your emotions?

What are you consuming that is helping frame the narrative you create for yourself?

Is it making you curious or is it leaving you in fear?

Are you processing your anxiety or is your myth-making you feel ashamed for who you are?

Maybe the main point for expressing these thoughts is we shouldn’t dismiss the use of mythology as something that should be transcended, cast aside as the workings of a primitive mind, we should probably move beyond the issue of replication in the study of psychology. The relationship between the mind and brain is still largely a mystery. So when we don't understand a foundational relationship with the mechanism that creates belief and verifies reality,  we could be dismissing a thinking mechanism before it's properly understood...which could have harmful effects in the long run.

We should look to understand myth.

We are all trying to make sense of the foundational human ritual we are all facing, death. And myth-making might be essential for the human psyche to cope with that fact.

We see in the origins of myth, the ancient myths about the natural world, from the many Gods, demons, and monsters lurking throughout our cosmos from the stars and into our earth—they held the power to shape meaning, understand life, create belief structures, and maintain a semblance of sanity for us.

The myths were never created for exactness, as they were created in the creative space we all go into to express ourselves. The lack of "exactness" in the meaning structures, allowed people to enter that creative space with their chosen myth to hold their hand—a guide to their own psyche.

As we move beyond ancient myths, people are finding those ancient guides and those religions still around today, as less helpful for understanding their own psyche. I'm not asserting if this is right or wrong, I'm putting forward this is a belief structure that is spreading throughout society. We are all looking for guides to our own mind, whether that's science, psychology, neuroscience, history, and ancient traditions.

We must recognize what those myths we choose are doing for us. What we consume is what becomes our myth, and our myth becomes our guide into understanding our place here.

Kierkegaard said:

"Life is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved."

This provided me another thought, do some myths work too well?

If we accept that myths are the mental mechanisms we use to make sense of the unknown, where some of us desire certainty.

Could this desire for certainty be creating more and more toxic myths? This creation being enhanced by the protected echo chambers the internet provides.

Consider that when a newly established belief arises and we want to immediately start building a narrative around those assertions. From this, we become fearful of questioning the very ground we began building that narrative upon.

We all see the world differently, but the need for sanity leads us to desire a tether with the society you live in.

What does this mean?

We want to find people to share in our beliefs, as without it life can be a cold and lonely place, where your beliefs can become a structure of paranoia leaving you unable to establish a bedrock of reality. So when we begin creating reality, we retreat into the chambers with those that share in that identity—our antidote for the uncertainty we all face. 

This can make our interactions with our fellow humans all the more toxic as we hold onto that identity we've chosen. We do this out of fear.

We must doubt the myths we choose, always. Without it, you leave yourself open to becoming a sheep to be consumed by the wolves among us.

I’ll live you with a quote by Campbell and Jung:

Campbell, “Life as no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

Jung, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.”

And Gabriel sums my points up beautifully with this:

“Meaning-seeking creatures need stories to deal with the unknown and provide guidance as to where we came from and where we’re going. Mythology is that constant byproduct of living faith that triggers creativity in acts of interpretation and imagination. Myths are therefore an early solution for the tragic facts of life that are beyond the ken of practical, logical, scientific thought.”

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Until next time,

With love,