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Mythic Perspectives

Jonathan Young's
world-shaking, psyche-healing stories

by Rob Wipond

Monday Magazine, November 1998

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You don't have problems; instead you're immersed in mythic ordeals that rival the labors of Hercules. And you don't have friends; you have allies and mentors in your adventures. What's more, you're not merely reading this article; you're passing through a verbal threshold on the way to a fantastic world beyond familiar experience. Blessings unimaginable await you a few paragraphs further down.

Life couldn't be much more profound for us here in the universe of Jonathan Young.

We are all living stories all the time, says Young, a storyteller, author, teacher and psychologist whose engaging warmth is contrasted by animated eyes of boyish wonder. And the ability to see our lives in story terms is a fabulous mirroring experience.

Young's own biography sparkles with figures who've attained almost mythic proportions in the 20th century's collective consciousness. He's studied with Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Carl Jung, and he worked for many years alongside mythologist Joseph Campbell before founding Campbell's archives. But it's Young's ability to make these thinkers' ideas leap into life that has made him a popular repeat guest of Victoria's C.G. Jung Society. Along the way, he is completely rewriting what storytelling means to most North Americans.

I have a little system; it's pretty simple, says Young. His energetic performances of classic tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are always followed by philosophical discussions. But the sessions become more like visionary journeying than intellectual discourse, he explains. Young encourages his audiences to dismiss efforts to find the correct interpretation, and instead to take note of their feelings, watch where their fantasies go and follow the natural flow of imagination.

The goal is to allow the story's underlying imagery, its archetypes or universal symbols, to emerge and open a passageway into the personal and collective unconscious. By way of example, Young cites the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a representation of eternal youth or freshness of possibility encountering crisis.

We're talking about being swallowed by a wolf; which is to say, being swallowed by our fears; which is to say, letting go of one life stage identity and letting another emerge. Using this Jungian technique of active imagination can lead to enlightening, therapeutic experiences, he asserts--especially because groups can discuss common feelings intimately without revealing personal details.

In the story we're sort of half a step removed from ourselves, he clarifies. And I become aware as soon as the whole group starts discussing this that, one, this is about my life and, two, I am absolutely not alone.

Young believes there's tremendous healing power in realizing that your personal difficulties are a timeless, natural part of the human journey, and that you can change your sense of reality through reinterpreting the story in which you imagine yourself to be living. That's why his day job is training psychologists to use myth, legends, fairy tales and sacred stories in clinical practices.

Enigma, Gustave Dore

People come in with a story problem, explains Young, who himself had a psychology practice for some years. The story they are living is not satisfying or isn't very well crafted, and they don't like the way it's developing. The therapist, to some degree, is a talented personal editor who helps people rework their story.

To have transformative revelations through stories, though, we must first take imaginative endeavours seriously--something most adults don't do anymore, says Young. While some worry about exposing children to fairy tale horrors--where vicious beasts trick lost girls and old ladies eat children--these Jungian shadows still don't make adults take the stories seriously, he laments. But historically, Young says, most fairy tales were never intended to be feel-good bedtime fare for kids.

They were adult stories, he asserts, primarily discussed among adults.

Young suggests that the Industrial Revolution and age of science, with their emphasis on external control and productivity, have relegated this exploration of internal fantasy to irresponsible people, or to fools and children. As a result, most in mainstream western culture now believe in a scientific model of existence that says there's an absolute division between physical facts and inner fantasies. Young finds this belief arrogant.

You don't need to have invested a piece of your life in psychedelics to realize that there are just a lot of different ways to look at things, he explains, pointing to how time, art, matter and nature are understood differently in various cultures.

The collective reality is a fragile thing. It seems very tangible to those who believe in it, but it's a story, continues Young. Western civilization is a story that a lot of people believe in. And what's a little odd is that the people who believe in that story believe that's the only good story. It's just so disrespectful. It's very monotheistic.

But Young doesn't advocate losing oneself in endless, schizophrenia-like interpretations of reality either.

All this pondering of stories and symbols is not the endpoint, he explains. It's meant to fire your attention and your consciousness beyond itself.

The mythic symbols underlying stories help us understand ourselves, says Young, because they mirror the archetypes underlying the structures and movements of our own minds.

And when the story we are living comes to a dramatic resolution -- whether it be through a tragic loss, sudden realization or intense personal transformation -- it is an ending of all we've known. This is a kind of ego death, through which we may pass into what he calls an existential... mystical place... beyond language, beyond image.

Like a shamanic death or severe depression, the experience of one's deepest, dearest story coming to an end may be trying, even terrifying, but it's still good. Good because a new life perspective will soon constellate around you and, says Young with a smile, Good in the sense that the whole thing is a beautiful story.

Reprinted from Monday Magazine, Nov. 1998 with permission of the author. Monday Magazine is published monthly in Victoria, British Columbia