An interview with Stanley Krippner On Personal Mythology (2008)
Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned researcher in the fields of consciousness, dreams, shamanism, and spiritual healing. At Maimonides Medical Center, he did research on extra-sensory effects in dreams. In 1972, he began teaching full-time at Saybrook Graduate School, designing the curriculum in Consciousness Studies. In 1973, he was elected President of the Association for Humanistic Psychology and in 1983 became President of the Parapsychological Association. He has written, edited, co-written, or co-edited over 1000 articles and 15 books, including Personal Mythology ; The Mythic Path ; Dreamscaping ; Varieties of Anomalous Experience, Extraordinary Dreams, and Broken Images, Broken Selves.
Before we go to the heart of our discussion, could you tell us about the circumstances that led you to become interested in the subject of your book « The Mythic Path »?
Since childhood I have been interested in mythology and, in particular, in cultural mythology from around the world and the way it gets expressed in artefacts.
A number of years ago, my friend David Feinstein, a psychotherapist, wrote an article on personal mythology but, at the time, he could not get it published. I looked at his paper, made a few suggestions and the article was then accepted immediately by The Journal of Orthopsychiatry. We quickly decided that the subject matter could be expanded into a book.
Mythology itself is a vast subject with many facets. We can talk about cultural mythology, personal mythology and also institutional mythology, for example as it concerns business, politics and religion.
Mythology is a particularly pertinent subject today. It helps us understand many problems we experience in the present world. Take some of the recent events in France, such as the clashes in the suburbs of Paris. Because of France’s basically European mythology, the settling of increasing numbers of Muslims provoked a move toward what many authorities felt to be an excessively pluralistic society. For example, school girls were asked not to wear their head scarves in school. Unemployed Muslim men felt they were being discriminated against because of their faith. These events, and those like them, produced what was essentially a mythological clash.
Likewise in Iraq today, the violent clashes between the Sunnis and the Shiites should have been predicted by US intelligence agencies. It is a well known aspect of religious mythologies that these two Islamic sects disagree on issues involving the succession of Mahomet. If the more knowledgeable members of the US intelligence community did warn the decision makers, they weren’t listened to and chaos has been the result. In other words an understanding of cultural mythology is more important than ever in today’s world.
It would help if you gave us your definition of the term “mythology”.
I would define a myth as follows. A myth is a statement or story about important existential human issues that has consequences for human behaviour.
According to Joseph Campbell, mythology has four functions: (1) it helps people move through life passages, mostly by the use of ritual (baptism, marriage, puberty rites, job entry, funerals) ; (2) it makes connections with the mysteries of the universe (spirituality, religion, art, music) ; (3) it explains the workings of nature (lightning, seasons, floods, birth, death) ; and (4) it provides a way for people to find their place in the social community (family, clan, ethnicity, caste, social class).
Now, in recent times, the explanatory function has been taken over by science which is much more accurate and reliable than myth. Regarding the mysteries of the universe, myth still plays a role especially as expressed in institutionalized religion event though the latter is on the wane, especially in Western Europe. If one ranks the major blocks of world population according to their beliefs, Christians form the largest group, Islam is second and in third place, you have a block of people that have no affiliation with organized religion. These are individuals that have their opinion on how they should lead their lives. In other words, they have their own personal mythology, one which might not include a deity.Surveys in the United States show that these people have, on average, fewer problems in respect to drug addiction, fewer problems with the law and more members of this group appearing in such books of eminent people as Who’s Who. Some members of this group belong to organized religious groups such as the Quakers and the Unitarian-Universalists, but others refer to themselves as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.
With this background, perhaps you could begin to comment on the key ideas of the book “The Mythic Path” and specifically on the notion of “conversations”?
As we began to work on the idea of expanding David Feinstein’s article into a book, we created a number of exercises to be used in workshops that we started to offer. The exercises were based on the idea of a “dance” or a “play” between an “Old Myth” and a “Counter Myth”. We were very much inspired in this effort by the work of Claude Levi-Strauss who observed cases where two competing indigenous tribes had joined each other, and where the intertwining of their two myths produced a much stronger “third myth”, what Feinstein and I called the “New Myth”.
We developed from this cultural interplay a similar process, applied to a single individual, of an “Old Myth” and a “Counter Myth”, entering into a dance or conversation, eventually producing a “New Myth”.
In the first version of our book, we included the exercises and a substantial portion of theory and this version was published in German by Sphinx Verlag, a Swiss Publisher. Later, an English language version was published in the U.S. by an American Publisher, with the theoretical part strongly pared down. The theoretical chapters were considered “too European”. The first edition of “The Mythic Path” was published in 1988 and was followed by two later editions, together selling about 50.000 books.
As we understand it, the book, with its exercises, invites the reader to follow a “path”. This is a process through which co-existing personal myths are brought into a “conversational relationship”. Is this correct?
Absolutely. The best place to observe what this process entails is in our teaching projects. We teach a course and facilitate workshops where the participants can practice these exercises. Many of my students at Saybrook Graduate School have said: “this course has changed my life…” The workshop participants claim to learn a lot from the conversations they have with other workshop members.
How does the person proceed so that his or her old myth and counter myth “appear” into consciousness?
There are several ways of accessing these personal myths. One of them involves calling upon one’s “inner shaman”. In traditional communities, a shaman can be a man or a woman, appointed by the community to obtain information from the Spirit world and bring it back to assist the community. Our inner shaman can appear to us in different forms – as a historical character, a deity, a great grandmother. We advise our participants to use their active imagination, to relax and to call for their inner shaman to appear. We tell participants that the inner shaman is a part their psyche, a part of them that represents very deep wisdom. When the image appears, they can start a conversation with him or her. They can ask a question … “I had this dream…what did it mean?” Or “My myth demands that everything I do must be perfect…Give me some advice…” And the inner shaman responds. We urge the participant to write down the answers and to share them with some other person or with friends.
At Saybrook Graduate School, we also have an “on line” Internet course. As a result 12 or more people can have a conversation together via their computers. A woman among them might say “I had a myth…I was looking for the perfect man… Then I found out that perfection is unrealistic”. Another person might say: “I was very religious…then I found out that the priest was having sex with my mother…” And someone else would then comment, saying “I had a similar experience and now I am a Buddhist”. And a different student might write, “But my Zen Master tried to have sex with me, and so I dropped out of Buddhism”. And the conversation keeps flowing.
As a result of these conversations, people will go through changes. This is not psychotherapy. It is more like counselling or coaching. We encourage the participants to have both inner and outer conversations. At the beginning there could be an awareness of having a dysfunctional myth, an Old Myth that is not working very well. Typically, they start out with this as the Old Myth (which I regard as the Thesis) which will at some point enter into conversation with the Counter Myth (which I regard as the Antithesis) and eventually the two will give birth to a New Myth (which I consider the Synthesis).
Would it be appropriate in some cases to “melt” (do away with) one of the myths or is it necessary that both myths be kept alive?
Some myths link better than others. Imagine the following conversation:
· “I am the Old Myth. I am very tight and rigid. Everything has to be perfect all the time…”
· “I am the Counter Myth. I like to have fun. I think I should relax, take it easy…”
· “Maybe I can follow your advice a little bit. Maybe I do not have to have clean clothes every single day…”
· “And maybe I can learn something from you. I should change underwear and socks at least twice a week.”
The conversation tends to combine the best of both sides. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
There is a beautiful story in your book about a person who brings her two myths to dance together and she describes what happens in her diary.
Yes. The person you are describing is a very talented Canadian writer…
Is the Old Myth necessarily one that is more rigid?
Not necessarily. The Old Myth can be sloppy. For example, a man may get married and realize what a sloppy guy he is… He asks his present (or Old) myth to have a conversation with his Counter Myth, based on his wife’s expectations. And he begins to change. It happens gradually…as a spiral process, a dialectic process. Sometimes the person will jump directly into the New Myth. In this case, the husband never became as efficient as his wife, but he gave up his unsanitary, unbecoming life style.
What about organisational myths?
That is an interesting subject.
The best approach in discovering an organization’s myth is to take a look at the company’s statement of purpose. Mitsubishi provides a beautiful example. The university where I teach, Saybrook Graduate School, has a statement on its website that reads “Leadership in Scholarship, Practice and Service”. This serves as our institutional myth. A myth can sometimes be expressed as a motto. It can be a one sentence statement. A good example is Avis, the rental car agency (“We try harder”). Explicitly formulating your organisational myth is an awareness making process. I know of organizational teams that have spent days on logos, mottos and other aspects of organizational myths.
We would imagine that your workshops and the teaching that goes with it constitute an ongoing research process. There is so much interesting research material that comes out of the conversations.
You are right. Considerable research is taking place as part of, or as an extension of, our teaching.
One of my students did a research dissertation on the experience of women raised in fundamentalist Christian churches. The title of the dissertation is “Breaking the tie that binds”. Each research participant told a similar story. None of them could live with the tie that their religious upbringing had locked them into. They became cynical with their church’s hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. That cynicism expressed their Counter Myths, for example, “Religion is nothing but a pack of lies”. Until they were able to find a New Myth that laid the spiritual foundation of their lives, and create a New Myth, they lacked direction and purpose. Now the research dissertation has been turned into a book.
A second example of research entails some work done in studying stories told in psychotherapy. The researcher found that there were several basic myths underlying the stories told him and that they could be formulated as fairy tales: “Once upon a time…”From that point on, they took different directions, such a “The Hero’s Journey”, “Arthur and Merlin”, “Finding the Lost Child”.
Yet another piece of research led to developing a curriculum for Junior High School students whereby girls and boys were invited to formulate their own personal myths.
As you can see, the concept of personal mythology has generated considerable research both at Saybrook Graduate School and elsewhere.
Would you say that Darwinism is a myth?
That is a very provocative question. Just remember that just because I call something a myth does not mean that it can not be valid, accurate or rational.
Darwin’s theory is a part of mainstream science and, as such, it is an explanatory myth. However, if you read his writings carefully, you will find mythological statements in them. Some are highly inspiring…pure myth. Did you know that Darwin used the word “love” in his books far more often than he used the phrase “survival of the fittest”? And in the last paragraph of Origin of the Species he wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved”.
Some people think that myth and science are in conflict. However, a solid scientific theory provides guidance in the same way that a narrative myth can provide guidance. There is more to mythology than science, but inquiry permeates them both. And conversation is the essence of inquiry.
Thank you very much. It has been a wonderful conversation.