Where psychology meets mythology

Symbols, metaphors and myths help us understand complex ideas, and psychologists can use them to help us heal or unravel their meaning when there is confusion.

Where psychology meets mythology
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‘Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. The modern psychologist can translate it back to its proper denotations and thus rescue for the contemporary world a rich and eloquent document of the profoundest depths of human character. Exhibited here, as in a fluoroscope, stand revealed the hidden processes of the enigma Homo sapiens—Occidental and Oriental, primitive and civilized, contemporary and archaic. The entire spectacle is before us. We have only to read it, study its constant patterns, analyze its variations, and therewith come to an understanding of the deep forces that have shaped man’s destiny and must continue to determine both our private and our public lives.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

As this tribal species called human beings learned to use symbols, the capacity for reason, problem solving, and imagination grew. We added new cognitive relations. Cultural development began with a vengeance.

The accelerator in that process was metaphor. Through metaphor, we could take an existing network of knowledge, the vehicle, and bring it to bear on a new domain, the target. If the vehicle contained relations and functions that were missing in the target, and if the link between the two was apt, entire networks of knowledge could be transferred to new areas in the length of time it took to tell a story or draw an analogy.

With that new process in hand, we had the cognitive tool we needed to transform human life. We could construct subtle differences, or extend similar forms.

The importance of this process to human knowledge and human development is revealed in the ubiquity of frozen metaphors, such as those I have just described. But it is also revealed in how extensively we use stories and metaphors within education and in psychotherapy.

Good psychotherapists are good storytellers. They know how to open clients up to what is truly new by using knowledge that is old. They know how to create experiences that inform and heal.

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Going back home

Some heroes are reluctant to go back to their old world after a dramatic life experience, while such a return can benefit both them and their society.

going back home
photo credit: The National Guard via photopin cc

‘The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss”? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has meanwhile drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

People who have survived dangerous environments have sometimes reported that they are hyperaware of everything around them. This acute sensitivity to the environment may have served a useful function at some time. For example, combat veterans may have been very sensitive to small sounds in order to stay alert for danger. But now they might use this sort of vigilance in everyday, noncombat situations … This can be an interesting sort of paradox in that many combat veterans we have talked with report that they never felt more alive than they did while in country. We want you to look at how that hyperawareness functions now in your life.

This acute awareness of everything is not what we mean by being mindful. In fact this is a kind of hyperarousal that happens in extreme stress and can be very hard on you, both psychologically and physically … For instance, if you interpret every small creak your house makes at night as a sign of danger, you’re not likely to get much sleep … Physically, we know that staying in a state of extreme stress and arousal can cause all types of health problems over time, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related illness.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

It’s not what you feel, it’s how you feel it.

Instead of trying to change or avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, try to change how you feel about your experiences.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds

‘I had less and less control over my own history each day. I suppose I could have made some kind of effort. It should have been easy to trace: this happened, I was here, that happened next, all of which led inevitably to the present moment. I could have picked up a handful of dirt from the street outside, some wax from a candle on the altarpiece, ash from the incense as it swung past. I could have wrung it out, hoping I might find an essential thing that would give meaning to this place or that time. I did not. Certainty had surrendered all its territory in my mind. I’d have just been left with a mess in my hands anyway, no more. I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.’

Kevin Powers. The Yellow Birds.

‘Finding a way to transcend the content of thoughts and other internal events may be the most useful strategy for being able to start living life after surviving a traumatic experience. Because of the power of language, we know that initially you may start avoiding one or two things that remind you of your trauma, but, over time, a wider circle of events will start having the same impact on you. Chances are, you’ve already noticed this impact of an ever-widening circle of things that cannot happen, places that you can’t go, people you feel you shouldn’t see, or things you cannot talk about. Eventually, you may simply be wracked with tension and no longer able to trace it all the way back to the original trauma. That’s the impact of language: Events, including mental events such as thoughts and feelings, start having the same impact on you as the trauma itself.

‘Your life can become about something other than trying to get away from a big part of yourself: your memories, your feelings, your thoughts, your own bodily sensations—basically, the passengers on your bus. In ACT, instead of changing what you experience (thoughts, feelings, memories), we focus on changing how you experience them. If you can experience all aspects of yourself with awareness and without all the pitfalls associated with language, you can begin to move forward in ways that are consistent with values and goals in your life.’

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems.