In my last blog, I gave examples of personal myths, and wrote of how they largely operate unawares in our lives, like a puppeteer pulling the strings behind our unconscious screen.
They are like a lens that gives meaning to every situation you meet and what you will do in it, answering the greater questions of life: Who am I? Where am I going? And why am I going there? The Enneagram also reveals unconscious personal myths that the nine types live their lives by.
We have failing cultural myths that give rise to personal myths. I gave the example of my mother, who although educated, fell under the spell of the 1950s cultural myth (1), that women are only fulfilled through a husband and children, focusing particularly on the need to have a man in one’s life. She couldn’t move on with life after our father was killed in a farming accident, leaving her alone with three small children. She lived out her years waiting for a man. Her personal myth froze her into that of a helpless female, a Cinderella story. Her personal myth converged with the dominant cultural myth and governed every aspect of her life.
‘On one hand, there’s this, and on the other hand, there’s that. . .’
Continuing with Feinstein and Krippner’s book, Personal Mythology: Using Ritual, Dreams, and Imagination to Discover Your Inner Story (2), I’ll lay out the five stages they offer (3) that delineate a guide to personal transformation. The first three are similar to a gestalt, in that you have, “on one hand, there’s this,” and “on the other hand, there’s that.” The idea behind a gestalt is to create something new in the middle, a synthesis of the ideas represented by the two hands.
Stage 1 involves recognizing and defining one’s own personal myth and discovering to what degree this guiding myth is no longer an ally. This discovery often shows up in our dreams as we sleep, or of being stymied in our personal lives somehow, resulting in the gift of suffering that wakes us up. This is the, “On one hand ….” My mother lived her myth unknowingly and didn’t consider whether or not it still functioned for her, didn’t question its veracity.
Stage 2 requires the identification of an opposing personal myth, one that creates a conflict in the person’s psyche. The conflicting myths are brought into focus and examined to see how and/or if each is linked to the past. The person will soon recognize that the myths of childhood are rarely appropriate to serve the adult. This is the, “On the other hand ….” Again, my mother had an opposite myth, that of freedom and rebellion from her Catholic culture’s rules. She stopped attending mass and moved us three from the Catholic School into the Protestant—horror of horrors to her family in our small rural town. She lived with the unconscious tension of wanting independence but yet still needing a man to validate her existence.
‘. . . and creating a new vision in the middle.’
Stage 3, the gestalt, a synthesis, entails conceiving a unifying vision. If my mother could have had People House counseling, she would have been led to see her two opposing myths operating unconsciously in her life. Instead of an either/or situation, she could have worked with these personal myths, and drawn out a new way of being. She could have moved into, “I am a competent woman, and if a man does come into my life, he will encourage my gifts and talents.” She would have chosen healthier responses to her widowhood at a young age.
Now what? You’ve identified your existing myth(s) and an opposing myth(s), and you’ve worked out a synthesis, or a gestalt, of the two. Now it’s time to rework those ruts, those grooves in your brain, those patterns and values of unconscious thinking and doing. A new inner reality needs built.
Stage 4 is where your insights are tested and reinforced, where you begin creating that channel for your new way of being. You move from the realm of possibility and imagination into intention and action. My mother needed a support group of other women who experienced a failure of the existing cultural myth of feminine weakness and were taking concrete steps to change their lives. Rituals would have helped her in this, learning to honor her own strong, feminine intuition.
Stage 5 involves weaving a new mythology into one’s life. In their book, Feinstein and Krippner suggest practical steps whereby the inner transformation is manifest in the world. The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. The process continues both as an inner work and as living in the world in a new way, more free of the restraints of unconscious beliefs and values. In my mother’s search for employment, she would have looked for that which fed her creative soul, vs. a job only as a means to meet a potential husband. She would have taken responsibility for her own healing process and happiness, instead of depending solely on outside sources for both.
The importance of a support group for Stages 4 and 5 cannot be stressed enough. Your past personal myths will usually have strong connections to our cultural myths, and your new inner reality most likely will butt up against opposing societal constructs. You will be tempted to slip back into those old ruts of familiar thinking and being. But the more you catch yourself through awareness of your emotions and tension in your body, the less of a hold that old inner reality will have over you and its grip will begin to loosen. New patterns and foundations of thought will be laid down in your being.
And practice mindfulness, as Jon Kabat-Zinn taught (4):
Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose,
in the present moment,
to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.
Notes & Sources:
1.Women who were truly feminine would not want to work, have an education, or have political opinions, let alone participate in the political arena. Women’s magazines, women’s education, and advertising all contributed to this cultural myth—sanctioned by religion—resulting in widespread unhappiness and depression amongst women Betty Friedan first documented this cultural myth in her 1963 book, Feminine Mystique, a book widely credited with beginning second-wave feminism in the U.S As has been documented and written of, this cultural myth was particular to mainstream, middle class, white women.
2.Feinstein, David; and Krippner, Stanley. Personal Mythology: Using Ritual, Dreams, and Imagination to Discover Your Inner Story. Energy Psychology Press/Elite Books. 2008.
3.Ibid, pages xxii and xxiii, Foreword, written by June Singer, Ph.D.
4.Kabat-Zinn, Jon. The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, calls this practice mindfulness.
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.