The Healing Power of Myth

I know that I am like one of the seven blind men of Buddha’s tale (Hanh 451), merely observing the elephant with my hands, making only a limited observation, and yet perhaps proclaiming to the king the results of my personal encounter knowing that, for all the truths about an elephant that are reflected in my observations, there is a whole lot of elephant that I do not yet comprehend. Still, not to make observations, or not even to reach out at all, may deprive me of some small discovery about the mysteries of life. Like the elephant, myth has many parts with a variety of purposes; in identifying myth, we have traditionally clumped together an array of poetic forms that provide distinct benefits, yet are somehow part of a universally occurring mythic poesis. Like tails and tusks, there are stories, images, and rituals with diverse purposes and natures making up the creature we call myth: some address beginnings or endings; some connect people to their culture; others educate, commemorate, remedy, or explain. I agree with Marie-Louise von Franz when she says that myth, like the dream, “is the best possible expression of inner facts” (Interpretation 37), yet by attempting interpretation and discussion, we bring the material into the conscious domain. Such is my hope for this discussion, as well.

Shamans of antiquity served their cultures, by venturing into unknown realms and bringing back relevant wisdom for their people. Every journey, mental or otherwise, did not yield a myth. Tales of finding water during droughts may have been told for a season or two, but only some tales, some images, some experiences become mythic constructs that remain relevant to a cultural identity beyond a season. So what makes some stories deeply informing, archetypally relevant? What makes a myth mythic? Despite the varied forms and functions of myth, it is my belief that a critical quality of myth is that it massages and soothes a core wound in the human psyche.

What then is this psychic wound? The distinctive trait of the human condition, unlike that of other life forms, is that we are consciously aware of our mortality. Having the power to reason includes the power to observe and analyze ourselves, thus it is an easy observation that everything that lives, dies—everyone who lives, dies. Birth and life might could go unquestioned if not for the finiteness of life that draws the mind to “Why?” and then, “Why bother?” However, in the human psyche, an archetypal sense of purpose seems to be built in.Cross-culturally, myths tell us that the act of creation involves a separation process; that is, the cosmos exists because of the separations of space, time, elements, and conditions. Implied in this sense of separation is a pre-creation state of wholeness: von Franz explains that “This is the state—in the archaic man as well as the child of any period—of absolute participation mystique with the surrounding world. . . . where there is as yet no ego consciousness and no distinction at all between subject and object, I and self. It is an ‘all one’” (Archetypal 137).  Von Franz says that the individual then arises out of this whole: “In other words, it is as though there existed in the unconscious a completely ungraspable inchoate unity which disintegrated prior to the formation of ego consciousness so that through this process the ego and the other complexes of the individual’s psychic makeup can emerge individually (137-8), thus become conscious.

Human life, then, becomes a process of “developing consciousness” which, in turn, “works toward the conscious realization and active fulfillment of an original fundamental wholeness” (133). Edward F. Edinger addresses this pre-creation concept of wholeness in terms of psychological inflation, in that a positive womb experience allows us to be born with a god-complex in which we are part of an “a priori assumption of deity” (7), and this original vision of perfect wholeness accounts for our nostalgic attitude toward origins. He points out that “Many myths depict the original state of man as a state of roundness, wholeness, perfection, or paradise”(8). In paradise, people are in union with the gods. He goes on to show how when young children begin drawing, they almost immediately begin drawing intersecting lines in circles: the mandala. A little older, when they draw themselves, they predominantly draw a circle figure, from which ray-like extensions create their appendages. His point is that our young psyches experience “the human being as a round, mandala-like structure. . .” (9). However, as we mature, we become more differentiated, and therefore, more psychically separated and more aware of this separation. Because there is an innate feeling of lost wholeness, due to a spiritual, psychic, and/or physical splintering, we are marked by this original wound such that in the process of living we suffer.

When Siddhartha Gautama sought a remedy to human suffering, he found it not in the doing of life, but rather in being. In that receptive moment under the Bodhi Tree, a vision of the intricate interconnectedness of all life permeated his view of the cosmos and humanity such that he was transformed: “ He saw that every cell of his body contained all of heaven and Earth,” (Hanh 119) and “He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could be said to contain a separate self” (114). Not only was he changed, but because of this new view of life, all things, “River, sky, moon and stars, mountains, forest, every blade of grass, and every mote of dust were transformed” for him (132): “Looking deeply at the leaf, he saw clearly the presence of the sun and stars—without the sun, without light and warmth, the leaf could not exist. This was like this, because that was like that” (115). We know that what we deem to be archetypal is that which resonates in both an infinitely universal way, as well as a deeply personal one, at once connecting us with creation while being lived personally. The solution to suffering in life, per the Buddha’s experience, is a profound understanding of the wholeness which underlies phenomenological existence.The coming out of this primordial unconscious wholeness is both the evolution of becoming conscious and the wounding of becoming separate. However, the ultimate goal is then to return to a sense of wholeness, consciously, seeing the subtle connectedness of creation.

This interconnectedness is the Buddhist vision: an understanding that there is both a separateness and wholeness innate to creation. The Buddha’s vision of “This was like this, because that was like that ” (115), in which he saw the whole cosmos within each part, is depicted in the Flower Sutra with the parable of Indra’s Jeweled Net. This image of the interconnectedness of all creation is described as an infinite net in which there is a jewel at each intersection that reflects all other jewels in its surface. Thus, all constellations of creation are valuable jewels that are interconnected, interrelated, and interreflective.This net is not readily perceivable in the phenomenological world, and it often takes a shaman, visionary, or hero to journey on behalf of the others.

It is myth then, that becomes the tool for such a quest, and for sharing the numinous experiences with others, helping them to see, understand, and embody the wisdoms of the soul’s existential journey. Through mythic constructs like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, and the image of Indra’s net (a mandala for universal wholeness not unlike the children’s pictures of themselves), we explore archetypal insights of union and connection that sooth our suffering, as the Buddha experienced with his vision of cosmic unity. Von Franz says that Jung discussed the appearance of mandalas in dreams as an “indication of wholeness seeking to actualize itself,” a state that results in “a goal-seeking process in the psyche” (Archetypal 134). This goal that the psyche seeks is represented by symbols that “cannot be distinguished from the divine” (134). The most important of these she lists, and  includes the Buddha and the mandala with the Christ and other images of the divine in the world. If the core “why” of life, then, is to separate, individuate, and reconnect consciously, then the images, stories, and embodiments of myth aid us in our quest toward this archetypal need for wholeness. Buddhism illuminates this with its focus on reconciling opposites—non-duality. Even the ritual reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the recently passed is geared toward aiding the dying soul in finding its healing, and hopefully, a return to wholeness that will end the cycle of rebirth and ongoing separation.

Our dreams, visions, and fantasies are filled with themes of restoration and redemption, themes of healing and wholeness, like the mandalas, which are a universal image of this divine wholeness. Besides their symbolic value, mandalas are often used in Buddhism to aid the meditators in delving into their psychological depths, and to experience a mystical sense of oneness. Like the Buddha’s vision, myth not only changes how we see ourselves, but also how we see and relate to the world. Understanding that whether we are studying the elephant or the psyche, the archetypal concepts of the universe are the same, and once we have differentiated ourselves from the unconscious whole, “the realization that there is a continuity between the inner and outer worlds can have a healing effect” (Edinger 13).In their own way, I believe that all myths have the power to heal; for understanding that we share the need to know who we are, where we begin and end, where we come from, why the world is as it is, and why we are in it connects us to all of humanity, and the experience of life connects us to all creation, like Indra’s net. This, then, is the mythic poesis that heals: the images, the words, the rhythms, and the rituals that contribute to a seeing into the nature of reality, and that move a person or a people toward a conscious state of connection, healing, and wholeness. Be it tusk or tail, this is the part of myth which seems to be within my limited powers of observation today. 

by Gay Wolff ph.d.