Myth, Mystery and Midlife
The analyst Carl Jung saw myths as a record of our essential human spirit and nature, they gave us an insight into the self. Myths, with their own rules and laws of nature, offered a way of giving meaning to life’s mysteries. Given that myths held such importance to earlier, and some current, civilisations and peoples it is worth asking what place to they have in our contemporary world?
“The self is the embodiment of nature’s plan for us, or the will of the gods- whichever metaphor works better for you. Sometimes our journey takes place in the context of a vital, mythologically grounded culture, whereby one feels open to and supported by the mysteries. Then one experiences purpose in being, a sense of harmony with the world and with one’s self- both the world and the individual journey are clothed in meaning. For so many more of us, our journey takes place amid the debris of history, the distractions of a noisy culture, and the experience of the loss of meaning.”
James Hollis Phd, Jungian analyst
Since I reached midlife I have found myself ever more drawn to myths and mystery; the Scottish folklore of the Selkies, Celtic tales of the women who guard the wells to the other world; Persephone and her time in the underworld; I recently watched the Werner Herzog documentary Into the Inferno which charts our relationships with volcanoes and was fascinated to learn about how other cultures viewed the volcanoes as angry spirits. The stories and ideas are ones I connect with despite being culturally removed.
As James Hollis suggests, there is something in the mythical that gives us meaning and purpose. We see this in the Greek and Roman gods, the Aboriginal notion of dreamtime, in Native American culture and in others where they have retained more of their ancestral traditions. There is something very human about finding ways to understand our nature and the world through story and forces greater than ourselves. The forces of nature are far more powerful than any individual and we are both part of it and subject to it. In myths we find archetypes and universalities we can relate to.
In our noisy, distracted western world it is challenging to connect this sense. Many of us spend much of our time in buildings, cars, towns and cities doing what we can to keep things ticking along, paying the bills, meeting our basic needs. We consume stories at a voracious rate through on demand services like Netflix but do these offer that sense of universality, a greater understanding of ourselves and our world? Perhaps some of them do, yet there is something about tradition, ancient wisdom that is less evident these days, it is there but you have to look for it. And knowing how to be in a competitive, busy, fast paced world is something we all need to learn at the very least to survive, let alone thrive in it. We are a part of it, however we choose to play it.
I sense a longing for a return to this kind of meaning making. Arguably Harry Potter sits in this realm and reflects a desire to understand human nature, our capacity for good and ill, our attempts to control powerful forces, it portrays strong archetypes all the while keeping us entertained. Perhaps Marvel is the new folklore, like the early Greeks we retain our fascination for flawed characters with superpowers. Battles are played out on a god like playing field where we can safely watch as passive observers.
All this leads me to question why I feel drawn to myth and mystery particularly at this stage of life and I think it is a wish to return to the soul, or whatever you want to call it. You may think of it as the higher self, intuition, the divine, the universe, God, Allah or our knowing self. In Gestalt psychotherapy our goal is to help people to have greater contact with our self and the environment, because when we are really in contact we can access our truth. It is where we learn to accept ourselves, it is how we learn what we truly desire and need rather than what we feel we ought to desire and need.
There is something about this contact that feels mysterious and almost magical. It is where we feel most alive, and yet it is also perfectly ordinary at the same time. We go in and out of contact and may experience it in a simple every day moment like doing the washing up or it could be in a highly emotive moment like falling in love. Myths put us in touch with that sense of something greater, an intuitive universal way of knowing, and that is what we seek inside of ourselves. And that is what can be so elusive.
In midlife the call to find this becomes stronger, if we allow ourselves to listen to it. Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian analyst and poet, writes about menopause as being the door to a new way of seeing. We move into a new phase of life where our inner vision is stronger.
Midlife is an ideal time to pay attention to this vision and pull to get back to our true selves. Here we can find healing, acceptance, direction and purpose.