INT: Stanley, a little background, who are you and where are you from?
STAN: I am from Wisconsin originally, of Norwegian, Irish and German descent, and when I had my DNA tested, I found out I’m 2% Asian. I’ve been a member of AHP for 47 years.
INT: You were interviewed for the AHP Perspective in 1982 and talked then about personal mythology. In therapy, is working with an individual’s personal mythology still valid as much as in 1982?
STAN: I am not a therapist myself but would conjecture that a client’s personal mythology is of importance for psychiatric social workers, pastoral and other counselors, and all kinds of psychological therapists. The client’s “life story” needs to be understood and revised so that the client can live a happier, more joyous, and more functional life. It is disappointing for me to visit with friends who are in therapy and to hear that spirituality, health, sex, and other mythological topics are ignored. Worldview is a word that can be used instead of mythology, which can have an undertone of superstition in common parlance.
INT: What are you doing mostly these days? Traveling, writing, teaching, research, workshops?
STAN: I am teaching at Saybrook Graduate School, and that is my only source of steady income. I’m 76 and am still working. I am not too happy about working so hard, but don’t complain because at least I am healthy. I do very few workshops. I’ve written or edited or co-written or co-edited about 2 dozen books, each having sold a few thousand copies. My writing style is quite academic as are the topics I write about. I find it hard to write in a so-called “popular” style because that manner of writing generally ignores the complexities of life. In addition, I simply do not have the writing skills to do this type of writing; many of my friends have mastered this skill and have written best-sellers. Currently, I have half a dozen books in progress and am completing another half a dozen research projects. And that’s it. I am not starting anything new; too many of my friends have died before they finished what could have been their masterpiece.
INT: What is your current research about?
One of my research studies concerns gender differences in 1,000 dream reports from seven different countries. During my workshops in these countries, I obtained about 500 female dreams and 500 male dreams per country. Data from four of the countries have been published: the USA, the UK, Argentina, and Brazil. The other countries are Japan, Ukraine, and Russia. So far the results show that there are a few gender differences that transcend culture, but that there are many cultural differences as well. In general, male dreams contain more acts of aggression, while female dreams tend to include more helpful actions. Both male and female dreams contain more male figures than female figures. Female dreams around the world contain more children. Brazilian women reported more sexual dreams than women from other countries, but also reported more spiritual dreams. Remember that these are dream reports; perhaps people from other countries were simply less open about dream content than Brazilians. However, the results indicate that dreaming life mirrors waking life.
Another research project involves over 100 female and male mediums in Brazil who took tests that measured their capacities for dissociation and absorption, as well as their sexual preferences. These mediums are members of African-Brazilian religious groups, and practice a living mythology, one that continues to evolve and change, even in the 21st century.
INT: I’d like to hear you tell us more about personal mythology in therapy.
STAN: Most clients go into therapy to change their behavior, their attitudes, and their personal myths. But as my brilliant co-author David Feinstein reminds us, “old myths die hard.” One could say that therapy attempts to engage the client in several dialectics; one between conflicting personal myths, and another between their personal mythologies and their cultural, religious, or ethnic mythologies. Clients soon discover that many of their cherished myths or worldviews are dysfunctional, ineffectual, life-denying or downright harmful. For example, working with A Course in Miracles helped me to exchange my personal myths about resentment for those emphasizing forgiveness.
INT: Isn’t the American Dream a cultural myth? This myth holds that life get better and better from year to year, and from generation to generation?
STAN: This myth is becoming dysfunctional; millions of Americans will have a less opulent life style than that of their parents. This might not be a misfortune if those same individuals attempt to cultivate inner strengths and lifestyles that emphasize sustainability for themselves and for their planet.
INT: Are there other American cultural myths that are serving no useful purpose, but that Americans have incorporated into their personal mythologies?
STAN: For example, there is the myth that sex is dirty and is a taboo topic. Decades after the Kinsey Report revealed the astonishing variety of American sexual behaviors, it became the official policy of the U.S. government to fund “abstinence only” sex education programs in the public schools. I have nothing against abstinence, especially when immature people are involved, but many of the graduates of these abstinence only programs are getting pregnant or are catching sexually transmitted diseases because they never learned how to protect themselves or their partners.
INT: Are there any positive American myths?
STAN: Absolutely. Across the political spectrum, great respect is given to the founders of the United States. Such founders of the Republic as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and John Adams were exceptionally gifted individuals who gave their fellow Americans a grand political and spiritual legacy. My particular favorite is Benjamin Franklin, a patriot, writer, inventor, intellectual, publisher, and diplomat, as well as an early opponent of slavery.
INT: A Renaissance man. What about organizational or business mythologies?
STAN: An example would be organizations’ mission statements. Whether they know it or not, these statements present a worldview that represents their culture. Mitsubishi, for example, has a beautiful statement of purpose, one not always implemented but one that stays on the books. But there are many dysfunctional, life-denying organizational mythologies both in business and in religion. For example, many religious mythologies claim to be “divinely inspired,” and those who affirm competing myths are excommunicated, at best, and exterminated, at worst. The most recent polls of young people in the United States reveal an increasing number who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious”; in other words, they are not members of an organized religious group but, nevertheless, formulate a personal mythology that emphasizes love, compassion, community service, creativity, and an affinity with Nature.
INT: Is there a cultural mythology that helps us make the passage from youth through maturity to old age?
STAN: The United States is paradoxical in that regard; advertisers cater to young people, but their elders often constraint them and mistrust them. At the same time, there is a lack of appreciation for the accumulated wisdom of the elders, especially by young people. In many other mythologies, however, elders are given great honor. For example, in Japan there is the tradition of honoring people who have become “national treasures,” gifted senor citizens who are respected and venerated.
INT: In that 1982 interview, you mentioned a contribution from your co-author David Feinstein where he warned about “flesh being disconnected from spirit”. Isn’t it also the case that spirit disconnected from flesh can lead to a harmful or misguided myth?
STAN: Focusing on flesh disconnected from spirit is not life-affirming, nor is spirit disconnected from flesh.
INT: We can understand one’s personal mythology as a product of childhood experiences. But do we want to amend or update or evaporate some of our personal mythology to be able to live today? Myths map the life path, giving a person identity and meaning—for their personal lifestyle, history, and future. In rapid social change, aren’t some of the multiple selves left behind, even if only temporarily? Can one’s personal mythology start to feel alien?
STAN: Just to clarify terminology, “multiple selves” is not the same as “multiple personality” more properly termed “dissociative identity disorder”. Some of these “multiple selves” may have trouble catching up with the other “selves”. For instance, a therapist who evolves in his understanding about the psyche and what it is to be human may have the same unchanged, static religious beliefs from his childhood. At some point a conflict may become evident between his understanding of his clients and what he had been taught decades earlier. A therapist may find it difficult to maintain a religious mythology that condemns gays and lesbians, or that opposes birth control and family planning, or that affirms “Intelligent Design” over Darwinian evolutionary theory. Another example would be a therapist who was reared an atheist and who encounters a client who reports visions of saints and angels, but seems to be functioning well in everyday life. What often takes place is a loss of integration of the “multiple selves”, one’s identity as a therapist, one’s identity as a family member, and one’s identity as a member of a religious group.
This can occur in areas other than religion. For example, a parent who considers himself “progressive” may suddenly discover that his daughter is bringing her boyfriend home from college and plans to sleep with him. Automatically, he declares, “not under my roof you don’t”, echoing a family myth he was taught in childhood. Other parents give lip service to supporting their children’s choices, but go ballistic when a daughter says she is a lesbian or when a son announces that he has voted Republican.
Once again, old myths die hard. But, with work, they can be revised or revisioned, as long as both their emotional and intellectual aspects are addressed. Killing off a dysfunctional myth is more easily said than done; that old myth may contain something of value that needs to be retained. And there is always the danger of isolating oneself from one’s shadow; an undigested shadow might lurk in the darkness for years before rising up and asserting its power.
INT: Personal mythology is a dynamic system knitting together current experiences with past experiences and beliefs and teachings together with the “mythic core” (as stated in the 1982 issue). In other words, in 2009 are we still “distorting the current incoming information” or “changing the myth” by assimilation (changing the truth of today to fit previous beliefs) or accommodation (changing the basic beliefs to fit the new experience)? Are those processes still valid and necessary?
STAN: Our lifestyles keep changing, and so our personal mythology must also change. Our “story” needs to be functional and life-affirming if it is to serve us well.
INT: Jean Houston stated in that issue that “Armor is congealed myth conflict”.
STAN: As usual, Jean articulates deep wisdom better than anyone around. That is a poetic description of the mythic conflicts that David Feinstein and I have written about for several decades. And that is why we asked Jean to write the introduction to our revision of our book Personal Mythology. You could say much of therapy is about the conflict between cultural mythology and individual mythology, or about the conflict between different personal myths. Resolving this conflict helps individuals to lead more enjoyable lives. I define a myth as a statement or story about important, existential human concerns – stories that have behavioral consequences. And that definition underscores the role that myth plays in psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, humanistic-existential therapy, and just about every other systematic way that practitioners have developed to help those in distress.
INT: How did you first become interested in personal mythology?
STAN: As a student, I read widely in cultural mythology, especially the work of Joseph Campbell. In the early 1960s I discovered the work of Albert Ellis. I was interested in how general semantics affects human behavior, and found out that Al was also a student of general semantics, which was one of the sources of REBT (rational-emotional behavior therapy). I was teaching at Kent State University when I read Al’s books and went to New York City to attend one of his workshops. We corresponded and eventually became good friends, especially after I moved to New York City to conduct dream research at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. Al and I attended a conference in Europe sponsored by the Association for Humanistic Psychology and, in 2000, conducted a joint training program for psychotherapists in Juarez, Mexico. I miss his brilliance, his insight, and his sense of humor; but now I have become a close friend of his widow, Debbie, who is also an outstanding psychotherapist.
INT: Do you have a favorite definition of myth?
STAN: My own definition, stated earlier, is psychological in nature. But I like Jean Houston’s poetic definition: A myth is something that never was but always is.
INT: Could you talk about your own personal mythology.
STAN: As it has evolved over the years, I’ve given priority to at least three mythic statements:
a) It’s important for me to be close to Nature. It nurtures me and I try to nurture it in return.
b) It’s important to love, to laugh, and to live.
c) And in the words of Aldous Huxley, “We all need to be more kind to each other.”
INT: Over the years, you have written about post-modernism and humanistic psychology. Postmodernism seems to reduce, deconstruct, and bypass universal meaning to emphasize current circumstances and relativity, doesn’t it?
STAN: I became interested in postmodern thought because of its relationship to general semantics, which I studied at the University of Wisconsin where I did my undergraduate work. General semantics holds that “the word is not the territory”; postmodern thought deconstructs many venerable myths, pointing out that they are products of time and place. In our own lives, what was functional and life-affirming at one stage of our life might become dysfunctional and life-denying at another stage of our life. Post-modern thought also affirms many “ways of knowing.” At Saybrook Graduate School, we teach our students various research methods. There are many “scientific methods,” not only the “experimental method” that has been reified in mainstream graduate schools of psychology. Even “aesthetic inquiry” can be a “way of knowing.” My old friend Rollo May was fond of pointing out that as much could be learned from art and mythology as from mainstream psychology and psychiatry. Positive Psychology is very much in the news and I welcome its contributions to human welfare and human understanding. Its founders don’t give proper credit to humanistic psychology, but people are always reinventing the wheel. For all of its contributions, positive psychology has a rather narrow and constricted collection of research methods, but humanistic psychology’s collection of ways to study the world is quite expansive, adapting the method to the research question.
INT: Any final thoughts?
STAN: If you are a member of AHP, renew your membership. If you are not a member, sign up. The Association for Humanistic Psychology is now more relevant than ever.