The Power of Myth

“Myth is not fiction… It is something that happens to people and people have mythical fates just as much as did the Greek heroes.” “Myths are original revelations of the unconscious psyche” – Carl Jung

In our modern world, when asked what a myth is, many would answer that on the one hand, a myth is a story from an ancient non-Judeo/Christian culture which represents their understanding of humanity’s relationship to the spiritual realm, or simply, that a myth is an embellished or wholly fictional story about some element of culture which takes on iconic proportion.  Such understandings speak to the shallowness of our modern world and give important insight into why we are so spiritually and psychologically untethered, individually and collectively.  This understanding, or lack of understanding, endangers us, for myths are constantly shaping our world and our lives, and if we do not recognize their power and presence, as the great psychologist Carl Jung would say, then we are prone to be victimized by that unrecognized power as it expresses itself in what Jung would call its “shadow” manifestation.

“Shadow,” as the word seems to imply, is the dark, unseemly, unwanted, problematic, rejected, perhaps malevolent, aspect of the human psyche.  In continuing with borrowing from Jung’s psychology, the human psyche understands the world through representational imagery, known as symbols and archetypes.  This is the world of the mind we experience in dreams, which is why dream interpretation is a central aspect of Jungian therapy.  It is the imagery that represents deeper psychological relationship and construction of one’s personal world.  Jung explained, “Consciousness is a second world-creator… the cosmogonic myths do not describe the absolute beginning of the world but rather the dawning of consciousness as the second Creation.”  We humans, in all our cultural manifestations, create the world as we understand it, and then live as if this understanding were fact.  This is myth, and culture is the expression of our mythic understanding, whether we speak of a culture comprised of millions sharing a social cultural heritage or a culture of one – for each person is, in the sense of culture being the compilation of mythic understanding of self in relationship with the world, a culture unto themselves.  So likewise, we have many dimensions of culture living out mythic understandings, such as in families, communities, institutions, and organizations of people built around particular mythic understandings, as is so in religious and political affiliations.

In Zen, the primary question a seeker is often asked, and is instructed to take into their meditation, is, “Who are you?”  This is a koan, a question, a riddle, of infinite depth.  Its purpose, to bring into the light of consciousness the many layers of story ABOUT who we think we are out of the shadow of unconsciousness where all the stories of positive competency and trust, as well as weakness, grandiosity, and victimization of the ego, reside.  These are ideas of who we think we are which have been imposed in the shaping of the ego by family, community, society, and personal experience that creates a composite of stories which shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, the nature of our interactions with ourselves, with others, and with the world.  These stories compile into a narrative in our minds and represent the myths we are living out about ourselves and the world.

In Jung’s psychology, the myth of the hero and the hero’s journey play a very important role, for as Jung said, “The myth of the hero… is first and foremost a self-representation of the longing of the unconscious, of its unquenched and unquenchable desire for the light of consciousness.”  Who are you?  Do you know yourself.  As one of the great fountainheads of classical Zen, Dogen, said, “To study Zen is to study the self.” Who are you?  This means, what stories, what myths, do you carry around in your head ABOUT who you think you are?

In Jungian psychology, this would mean to take on the hero’s journey, and it is not a journey for cowards, for there, in those depths, are symbolic dragons, ogres, evil wizards and witches, villains, and great challenges.  It is the life and death struggle at the symbolic level.  There are also symbolic kingships and queenships, princes and princesses, good wizards and witches, pots of gold, champion’s tourneys, the silver chalice, even the Arc of the Covenant to be found and claimed in this journey, and the question is raised, do you have the courage, not only to face the dragons, villains, and demons, but do you have the courage, the true hero’s self-assurance tempered with humility, to take the prize without being warped by covetousness and grandiosity?  What are you unknowingly acting out in the telling of your story?  Do you have a sense of the myths within you?

This is the true hero’s journey, and why all mystical traditions have described this journey within their culture’s symbolism, to some degree, in the imagery of the warrior and the warrior’s challenge.  Beneath the idiosyncrasies and differences of each culture’s representation of the characters in this epic struggle to become a true and realized human being, there are the foundational similarities, and these myths, stories, symbols, and images are what Jung calls “archetypes.”  These are the primary unmanifested instinctual understandings, the full mandala, of what it is to be human which reside within the unconscious human psyche of every person. 

Who are you?  In our culture, most have no idea.  We just act out our story, and for too many, while there are noble and honorable elements, the story often has very problematic elements of some kind of victim or victimizer, of weakness or arrogance, of selfishness and smallness, indifference, even cruelty, built around stories of troubles, fears, desires, ambitions unfulfilled, fantasies of grandiosity and weakness, of addictions and vices, of just getting along as best one can, staying productive and finding identity in affiliations as best is possible, while seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

One of my mentors in my Berkeley days, a very talented Gestalt therapist named John Argue, would ask of clients, “If your life was being enacted on the stage, and you were in the audience, would you applaud or get up and walk out because it was so mundane, pathetic,  boring, embarrassing, or shameful?”  Well, as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Who are you?  What cast of characters resides within you that you are compelled to play out on the stage of your life?  Do you know?  And most importantly, do you know the potential within you to manifest characters of nobility, depth, strength, courage, kindness, compassion, generosity, even magic?  What mythic mess might you be living, and, on the other hand, what mythic greatness may lie within you?  Who are you?

Dogen goes on, after saying that to study Zen is to study the self, that to study Zen is to forget the self, and in forgetting the self to discover the Great Self that resides within.  Another school of Buddhism, the Pure Land School, builds itself around the myth of Amida, the buddha of pure love. It was said that this was a king who achieved enlightenment through Buddhist teaching and meditation, who worked for the enlightenment of all beings through seeing the “Pure Land,” in THIS life, our ordinary world, perfect and beautiful, as paradise, just as it is, beneath our human created defilements.  Jesus taught, in the Gospel of Thomas, that The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to see.  This is the same archetypal story as the myth of Amida’s Pure Land.  To forget oneself, Dogen taught, is to let go of all that you see in the play of mind, all the conditioning and all the stories ABOUT who you THINK you are and what the world is.  It is to release all the distortions and limitations, all the ugly and grandiose characters you may think you are, to BE what is seeing, to realize the Great Being within which has no story, for it is Beingness itself, consciousness, the intelligence and limitless compassion of Amida.  Who are you?

To be human in this world necessitates being somebody, yet Zen teaches us to be nobody.  What can this archetypal myth mean? It means to be reborn as consciousness, as Jung said, to be the second Creation of yourself in the world, to be the Bodhisattva, the Buddhist Warrior, the Amida Buddha, the Greek hero facing the challenges presented by the gods, a knight of The Round Table, a Native American Shaman, a Celtic seer, a Witch, a Wizard, a Seeker.  But to realize the heroic myths which reside within us, we must have the courage to bring into the light of consciousness the truth of what we have been playing out, quite unconsciously – perhaps some pretty lousy myths, perhaps stories of incompetency and smallness, or inappropriate grandiosity that hurts others and ourselves.  Who are you?  Do you have the courage to realize the power of myth in your life, and to become nobody so that you can be the somebody of your own destiny, somebody who arises from the light within you?  Can you release and be free of the dark figures who lurk in the shadows of your conditioned mind, who create a play you would walk out on?  Do you have the courage to face and be free of the lower characters who have haunted your life, to realize the important archetypal figures of the good mother or father, son or daughter, sibling, friend and neighbor, citizen and worker, lover of nature, play, and creativity that reside within you? Can you find within you the modern equivalent of such archetypes as the knight, the good wizard or witch, king or queen, loyal disciple, teacher, student, craftsperson, artist, bodhisattva, healer, shaman, warrior, spiritual seeker? Harness the power of myth and discover within yourself characters of a noble and inspiring play, a myth to believe in, a story of a human being you would stand and applaud.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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