Living Myth: (2) Mythological Consciousness
This series of posts is adapted from D. Stephenson Bond's Living Myth: Personal Meaning as a Way of Life (Shambhala, 2001).
THE MILLION-YEAR-OLD MAN
When I play the stone game I am in the middle, in the imaginative space somewhere between consciousness and the unconscious. The stone is not a primitive “stone in my pocket, alive,” yet not an inanimate mineral either. It shimmers in a haze of multilayered associations. It echoes with overtones of parallel vibrations. Not the stone itself, but my experiential horizon has become more than it seems. Through this symbolic consciousness, an inner life is born, a symbolic life. The subjectivity lost in objective consciousness now becomes a conscious experience. The stone in my pocket makes me an individual. Imagination has given me a soul.
The nature of projection has to do with subjective contents perceived in the object. The rock doesn’t put the idea into me—I project the image already inside myself onto the rock because of its symbolic resonance to the image. The inner image of the life force comes from subject and attaches to where it fits; in fact, not only to stone, but to sun, tree, light, and other symbolic identifications.
And what stone draws out is the sense of some eternal part of us, our own permanence—“soul.” We project that part of us which is beyond time, outside the circle of life and death. Soul. Spirit. Essence. Life force. Self. By whatever name, stone attracts that factor in the human psyche that feels itself to be permanent.
The life force is a symbolic idea, an archetypal representation; the image of a vitalizing energy that passes like a flame through an individual life for a span of years but that is not our own; that which animates life; that Life which is greater than the life of the individual. It is as if this image of the life force, this feel for the eternal, were an invisible mold into which our experience is poured, an unseen gravitational field that shapes the perceptions of what falls within its orbit, a deeper program that organizes the data.
And in this very moment the game with the stone turns my perception upside down. All of a sudden, in the same breath of realizing myself as an individual, I stumble upon the impersonal. The game takes place within me—my subjective experience of a personal fantasy—but the form it takes has very little to do with me individually. The form of the soul-stone game is as old as humanity.
It is as if I have a double soul. It’s as if my imagination unlocks the door of my subjectivity, and when I go inside, I’m startled by the shadow of a million-year-old man standing in the corner. I am not alone in my own house.
“…for it remains to be asked whether the mainly unconscious inner motive which guides these fantasy-processes is not in itself an objective fact…
…Through fantasy-thinking, directed thinking is brought into contact with the oldest layers of the human mind, long buried beneath the threshold of consciousness.”
Jung insisted that the forms of the imagination are not simply subjective, individual creations but, like a million-year-old man, are ancient modes of experience that are still alive and vital.
We are used to thinking of fantasy as an entirely subjective process. “I” have a fantasy, an inner experience, a vision. And yet it is a short step to the realization that there is a level of fantasy that this “I,” this ego, does not control. In fact, I can get “lost” in fantasy, “drown” in fantasy, become overwhelmed by fantasy. The ego drops away. That is what Jung meant by fantasy thinking—the autonomous imagination. But there is another step. Just as we can differentiate a projection to reveal an outer object, so also can we differentiate our ego from the autonomous fantasy to discover an inner object. And just as the stone is a rock with inherent physical qualities, whether I am conscious of them or not, so also is the stone game a fact with inherent psychological qualities, whether I am conscious of them or not.
Subjective participation tells me, “Here is a stone, alive, pick it up.” Objective consciousness comes along and says, “No, it’s just a rock. You’re trying to make it one of those fetish things.” And symbolic consciousness counters, “Yes, it’s just a rock, but this stone game your fantasy creates is interesting and gives your life so many more dimensions.” But after I’ve played the game for a while, I come across a question that surprises me. “Don’t you want to meet the man with whom you’ve been playing the stone game all this time?” And there I’ve bumped up into the problem of mythology because I’ve bumped into the question of origins. Through the stone game I come across the impersonal layer of the psyche. Jung described the human psyche as having within it (or even consisting essentially of) patterns of organization that shape the material poured in over a lifetime. In other words, psyche tends to preshape human experience and organize it in patterned ways. Those patterns are utterly impersonal. Jung named that layer of the psyche the collective unconscious. How else to understand the striking similarity of myth and ritual across cultures divided by time and space?
FROM SYMBOL TO STORY
I need to emphasize, however, the experiential perception of the impersonal psyche. It is one thing to come across the concept of the “collective unconscious.” It is a helpful theoretical model. One might even learn the various associations connected with it and use them as a psychological system in dream work—which is to say, one often approach the idea of collective unconscious through directed thinking. Objective consciousness grasps the psychological vocabulary of a man named Jung. It is quite another thing altogether—and at a different level of consciousness—to encounter the living process of otherness in your own subjective experience. In the encounter with the “Not-I,” the alien within, the collective unconscious becomes not an idea, but a relationship. As soon as one wants to describe the experience, of course, directed thinking kicks in. To write about it in a book, I have to give it a name, such as “elementary idea,” “universal mind,” “supra-individual universality of the unconscious” (Jung’s first term), “dominant,” “archetype,” “objective psyche.” Already the words have become secondary reflections that take us out of the experience.
There is another way to describe the experience, another form of language. I can tell a story. That is the original reference of the Greek word myth. The mythoi were the stories told about the origin of things. In a sense, the narrative language of story uses words more as references to images than as references to ideas, concepts, or thoughts. In primary language, so to speak, words are verbal representations of pictures.
I think of the story of Jacob wrestling at the ford of Jabbok (Genesis 32:24-29). He wrestles all through the night with a man, although there is clearly some being more powerful than a man involved. He wrestles with his daimon, or angel, or god. He wrestles with the alien. It is said that when Jacob’s opponent realizes it is not prevailing against Jacob, it wounds him. It puts his thigh out of joint. But Jacob keeps wrestling. Finally it says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob counters, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” although it must be clear by now that in coming to terms with one’s alien, it’s difficult to know who is refusing to let go of whom. In the end, it relents and asks Jacob his name. When Jacob gives over his name, the alien gives him a new name—“for you have striven with God and with men and prevailed.” And then, to my mind, Jacob asks the question that turns the story: “Tell me, I pray, your name.” Jacob wants to know who this is who wrestles him, who wounds him, who gives him a new identity. Although the alien never answers, the question is so crucial to ask, again and again. That is the mythological question: who is the alien grasping me within, and what does it want from me?
Whether we identify this living process of the psyche as the alien within, the million-year-old man, the daimon, the collective unconscious, God, or the Self (a term Jung used to express the organizing principle of the personality), we are still just wrestling in the dark with an unseen partner. The need for a myth—for mythological consciousness—comes precisely at the point where the light is dawning on the struggle. We need a story that tells us with whom we wrestle, which in the very same moment provides the context that tells us why we wrestle. We need a name, a formal introduction, that brings us into relationship with what seizes us. “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But the million-year-old man does not answer, for he does not know his own name until we give him one. We name each other.
The name, of course, in its original sense, is a story. Like a Native American name. “Wrestles with a god” becomes my name, my story, my context. “Seizes at the ford” becomes the name of God. So we need each other, the million-year-old man and myself. I need him to know my own identity and he needs me to recognize himself.
In other words, the need for myth is the need for meaning—meaning as a living relationship. The movement from symbolic consciousness to mythological consciousness comes from the need to live in a context. Fantasy coalesces into a ritual that moves our bodies. Play evolves into work that moves our hands. The game becomes a style that guides our lives. The symbol crystallizes into meaning.
So the creation of a myth tells me what to live by. It generates a work, a lifestyle, and a meaning through which I am related to the living process of my own psyche and it is related to me. The living myth holds us in a working relationship. As long as the delicate balance between the individual and the impersonal holds, as long as the adaptation works, I’m living in a myth.
(RE)GENERATING LIVING MYTHS
Of course, the entire problem of mythmaking falls away when I’m living in a myth. I don’t need to be a mythmaker when my culture does its job and sustains the myth, provides the forms of adaptation that are functionally adequate. If I somehow fail to be socially adapted, then I may very well have a problem, but not a mythological problem. Insofar as psychology has to do with social adaptation, I have a psychological problem. I don’t so much need to look at my dreams and work with my fantasy as I need stronger reality-testing and better relational orientation. In other words, cultural adaptation requires directed thinking.
But what happens when the cultural myth dies, when the form of adaptation reaches its limit and fails? As indeed it must fail, because the environment changes; because the living process evolves and a new balance is required.
When a living myth dies, it doesn’t disappear. What departs is the energy, the living quality. The shell remains, like a fossil in a dried-up riverbed where the water once flowed. What was once a ritual becomes a convention, a habit. What was once work becomes labor. What was once a way of life becomes a set of social expectations. What was once a symbol is reduced to propaganda.
My mythological stone imposes a dilemma. I have come upon a fetish in myself, and what am I to do with it? Have I fallen ill for lack of reality-testing, and do I need a reorientation to my culture? Then I must find the ego strength to throw the stone away. Or is it that I have fallen ill because of failing myths that are passing away and need to risk wrestling with the million-year-old man? Then I must find the ego strength to ask for my new name.
So I stand on a cliff overlooking the ocean. I stand with my stone in my hand, but I fall to my knees. I will not throw the stone away. Perhaps I could, but I will not do this thing. For I still need the touch. The touch of the million-year-old man reaching out as I do to touch my stone, and there our fingers meet. I still need the touch of myth.