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Sacred Stories We Live By

An Interview with Jonathan Young, Mythologist and Storyteller

by Brian Stocker, Kindred Spirits Magazine, 1997

Our lives are stories and we could spend our lives telling them. Stories reflect the journey from birth through childhood, through the adult challenges, aging, to wisdom. Stories, folklore, mythology and fairy tales have common elements in all cultures according to mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell. They are the one great story of mankind -- the Monomyth. Psychologist and author Jonathan Young Ph.D. assisted Joseph Campbell for many years and later became the Founding Curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library in Santa Barbara. He is now a consultant to international corporations and uses mythic stories to train executives in sensitivity to other cultures. His recent book, SAGA -- Best New Writings on Mythology, is published by White Cloud Press. Jonathan Young has absorbed Campbell's teachings and lives them. Follow your bliss and enjoy the moment are Campbell's legacy. Dr. Young does what he loves; traveling around, telling stories, and loving every minute. I met Dr. Young over afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

STOCKER:

How did you come to work with Joseph Campbell?

YOUNG:

I was working with Rollo May and some friends were studying with Joseph Campbell and suggested I come and hear him. I thought, why would I want to? I'm already studying with the leading person, and in terms of applying Myth, Folklore, Epic, and Legend to Psychotherapy Rollo May really was the person. I went anyway and needless to say, in a couple of ours, it was clear his views went to a whole different level. After the first weekend I had this feeling the world had turned into a holy picture. Everywhere I turned, there was symbolic significance. He describes this as an initiatory process where you get this moment and the radiance comes. The President of Pacifica invited me to become Campbell's ssistant because he saw how captivated and excited I was. Then I was helping Campbell at a whole series of seminars for a number of years. Dr. Gail Schultz and the Center for elf-Awareness, [in Victoria] have this fabulous program up here. She brings all kinds of fantastic speakers in.

STOCKER:

She had Deepak Chopra and John Bradshaw - twice and I think she's bringing Bradshaw up again in the Spring.

YOUNG:

She's the one alright. I had done several tours of Western Canada before but hadn't come over to Victoria. Everyone says talk to Dr. Schultz and I did and she said "You've got to come to Victoria."

STOCKER:

Why Myth? Why now? Why this? Mythology has suddenly become so popular - all of Campbell's books have been re-released.

YOUNG:

It is interesting. His best known book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces was a best-seller in 1949 when it was first released. Which was odd because the first several publishers said no one is interested in this tradition, this ritual - this is the age of science, nobody is ever going to be interested. Maybe Bulfinch back at the turn of the century but not today. But again and again it surprised the people that thought they knew what the public wanted. It was a best-seller in 1949, and again in the 1960s when the psychedelic crowd discovered it because it was a road map to the inward journey. Then a best-seller again when The Power of Myth series was aired.

STOCKER:

What was his reaction to The Power of Myth?

YOUNG:

He died in 1987, the same year The Power of Myth series began broadcasting. Ironically, he didn't see the effect. He would have been pleased the ideas were being so widely disseminated. Probably he wouldn't have been too delighted with the personal adulation because he had no interest in being anyone's guru.

STOCKER:

Watching The Power of Myth, he comes across as so human. And his work was an expression of that, he said we're all people, we all do the same things and tell the same stories.

YOUNG:

He was very invested in the idea that humanity is more the same than different. That was a pretty radical idea in the 1930's. The Colonial powers were still alive and well. Europeans and North Americans were not considered to be the same as the so-called primitives. In the area of Legend and Mythological scholarship, Campbell's emphasis on the mono-myth, the one great story, is still disputed with great intensity. The specialists, like scholars of Oceanic or Indigenous traditions, say these tales here aren't like those over there. It's a conversation that can never end because, yes, there are differences, but Campbell said the reason there is one great story is it's the story of the human life.

STOCKER:

He talked about God and the supernatural constantly, did he have any particular devotional practices?

YOUNG:

People always asked him, did he pray or did he meditate, and he would reply 'I underline sentences.' The Way of the Scholar. He read 10 hours a day, almost everyday for 70 years. If you go to the archives in Santa Barbara, California and open a book, there are those underlined sentences. Book after book with little margin notes in tight writing. Open Nietzsche and passages are underlined with little notes in German. This was a scholar to the last moment of his life.

STOCKER:

He said myth wasn't to give meaning to life but to give us an experience of life, an experience of vitality in being alive.

YOUNG:

There are a couple of elements in that comment. He didn't talk about abstractions, he talked about embodied experience. It is physical, it is in a life. Which means he isn't talking just about a collection of stories, or a set of texts. He is talking about a perspective, a way of looking at something. Better to refer to it as the mythic imagination because 'mythology' suggests books and it is in those books but the essence is something hovering beyond them.

STOCKER:

He was critical of religions because he felt they focused on the metaphor of God not on what lies behind the metaphor.

YOUNG:

He used to say the trouble with Jahweh is he thinks he's God. He was critical of all the religions equally but especially the monotheistic beliefs.

STOCKER:

The criticism of older stories and traditions, which are popular right now, is they are looking back. You can say it's timeless wisdom and in a sense that is true, but in another sense it isn't.

YOUNG:

Tales need not be taken as old. George Lucas took the stories from The Hero With A Thousand Faces and made Star Wars out of them, which is quite futuristic. So the perspective isn't necessarily old; we all live in stories. Life and political discourse and everything that happens in civilization happens within a vision which is to say within a story. Stories may be emerging and changing but they are old templates we continually re-work and revise. Part of the reason the interest in the old stories might be so strong is because we are in a time of cultural fragmentation. When you are lost, you pull out the road map. The mythic imagination helps us to see where we are. Where we are in the sequence of things and what might come next. What does the traveler do now? We need to know. I don't think it is a return to the past.

STOCKER:

I still have trouble with that. That implies some part of us and some larger mystery hasn't changed in all this time.

YOUNG:

It's a paradox. We are in a time of rapid change and there is a great interest in the old stories. Is it just nostalgia? Are people resisting the change? I don't think so. When the ancients, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, had some new endeavor, they had a council and reviewed the old stories. They knew it wouldn't be a complete repeat, but there would be some elements of the stories that would help them; there was a metaphysical aspect involved. They believed the inner companions, the spirit guides, would come to them and aid them in the new endeavor. What that might mean psychologically, is the parts of ourselves that are wise and are connected with significance could be a bit more available to us.

STOCKER:

The danger is it turns into a kind of smorgasbord, a kind of shopping mentality. There's crystals, and Zen, and Yoga, and all this stuff available, all of it claiming to cultivate that connection.

YOUNG:

I think people are feeling somewhat rudderless. Some are grabbing fairly desperately at techniques and ideas they really don't understand and talking about them superficially. I'm a Psychologist so I'm interested in anything that stimulates aspects of ourselves that might not otherwise be readily available. I'm not particularly interested in crystals, I'm interested in stories. If I can read a story of a wise teacher before I go in to teach a course, perhaps I can be a wise teacher. I won't be Socrates, but perhaps I will be a little better Jonathan. here is so much to us and the question is what will bring out the best of ourselves. If you put a picture of an angel on the wall and feel a presence of the sacred, more power to you, we need the sacred. I think Guardian Angels exist though I see it in psychological terms. I think it is the sacred guardian aspect of my own inner life, but still I want it around, and whatever ritual brings it out, great.

J.W. Waterhouse, Psyche mural

STOCKER:

I interviewed Warren Farrell several months ago and he revises the Hero into a Stage I and Stage II Hero. The Stage I hero, like Prometheus, goes forward in a straight line toward a goal. He goes out, kills the monster, wins the prize, comes back, and that's it. The Stage I hero is special; there is an unusual birth and everybody else looks up to them. He compares that to the family structure at the turn of the century and how that has changed. The Stage II hero isn't special, because we're all special. The Stage II hero has more choice. It's more pluralistic. The Stage II hero's task is choosing how much time to devote to each different task. Skill is still important but also luck and syncronicity are big factors.

YOUNG:

There is a lot of re-owning of projection at the early stage. When there is some leader, or hero, we may be denying our strengths, our wisdom, our sacredness and attribute these qualities to the exemplar. It is a powerful stage in personal and cultural development when we begin to own that. But the responsibility is at a whole different level. Buddhism is aware of the way we project and is constantly emphasizing the divinity within. There is an enormous sense of freedom but what about that leader, that messiah, that was going to fix everything? It is a terrible loss and many don't make it to the stage of owning their power and turn back. Those who can stand the jolt, have some marvelous things to develop and discover.

STOCKER:

You were the curator of the Joseph Campbell archives in Santa Barbara. How did that come about?

YOUNG:

In 1990 the family decided there should be a Joseph Campbell archives and after many possibilities were explored it was decided it would be at Pacifica. I was closest to Campbell so I was chosen to be the Archivist. For the next 5 years I was travelling to New York and Honolulu and working with Mrs. Campbell and really back inside Joseph Campbell's mind. All his papers were stuck in corners and idiosyncratic filing systems in his tiny apartment in Greenwich Village in New York. Years of papers and manuscripts and lecture notes were all packed in there. When the archival project was completed, I didn't want to stay as administrator, my interest was in setting it all up. My last main project at Pacifica, on the basis of the Campbell papers, was to start a Department of Mythological studies. After that was completed I left to do what I really want to do which is go out and tell stories like Joe did. The fun is in the narrative so that's why I'm in Victoria.

STOCKER:

In the myth of the hero we go out and find our individuality and come back and there is another step after that, the inward journey.

YOUNG:

One sort of initiatory experience has to do with the external world, going out into life and accomplishing, finding values, being of service. All of this is what you are referring to as the first stage. It is the business of the first part of life and is important and not to be missed. Then at some point there is a turning. Carl Jung thought that all of this archetypal journey was the business of the second half of life which he imagined beginning around 35.

STOCKER:

Yes, and almost to the day isn't it?

YOUNG:

There the inward turn begins. Then you really face your demons, discover you are aging, you will not always be here, you discover the limitations of your powers. As an adolescent you discover how much power you have, later you discover how little power you have. It is not a solitary journey, this initiatory path. It is always done by a tribal community, by a collective. It is done in groups; people went out on vision quests together, then they would separate, so the initiates faced the danger alone for only a part of the time. I think in North America in particular, the solo quality, the solitary part, is over emphasized and the group endeavor is forgotten.

STOCKER:

I was thinking of the first half as being from conformity to individuality, the Hero goes out and finds individuality and returns, integrating the prize into the world. The second half is from individuality to universality. Those are the psychological stages of growth of Eastern traditions. The second half of the journey would be high Hinduism, high Buddhism.

YOUNG:

Those were the traditions closest to Joseph Campbell's heart. That journey to individuality is being good at practical things, that is the career stage, that is going outward, that is gaining strengths, accumulating powers whether they be status or wealth or whatever. The second half, to universality, is to service where you find ways to give away what you have accumulated. Because you're not taking it anywhere.

STOCKER:

Jean Houston and also the Book of Peter talk about how Christ was the fulfillment of the prophesies, he was the myth and there was the man standing right there. The two worlds, the mythic and the real, came together.

YOUNG:

Perhaps the current historical moment is equivalent to that time. There have been so many moves toward organization, as in Roman times. We live in an controlled world tending toward the secular, away from the sacred. We are so clever, so smart. We have found ways to have such a large impact with machines. To use that kind of power well requires more serious reflection. We are in a time when slowing down to reflect on the values that underlie civilization gets very little attention. When Joseph Campbell got his first computer he said it had a very severe theology. He felt it was an old testament God with little mercy.

STOCKER:

What were Joseph Campbell seminars like?

YOUNG:

They were symbolic studies of mythic tales. One was a Navaho story where two brothers went through an extended vision quest and returned to their father. One was on the Holy Grail and the tradition of nature worship that preceded it. The stories of Merlin, Guinevere are all beholden to much older traditions in Europe. Not only the Welsh and Irish initiation stories but also Swiss images go literally thousands of years back. It is very powerful when you see them. Arthur may have been a captain or a General of Post Roman Britain. But Arcturus was the ancient bear god after which the Swiss city Berne is named. So if you take the story back through much earlier versions they include a lot of divinities that later devolved into more human characters. Going through this process shows that these really are sacred stories, they are not just children's adventure tales. Another was on the Goddess tradition. Campbell was one of the first writers to recognize the importance of the Goddess tradition in Europe. He was very close to Marija Gimbutas, the archaeologist who found the Goddess artifacts. Now the Gimbutas archives are also in Santa Barbara. I have a bit of a problem with just using the hero myths because it has favored men and violence. I tend to choose stories with a female protagonist because as a man, it is important to learn how to rely on resources other than their physical prowess to solve problems.

STOCKER:

In The Power of Myth Campbell talked about suffering. There are all of these things happening in the world and what do you do? How do you say Yes to vulgarity and cruelty?

YOUNG:

You have to say yes but that doesn't mean being passive. It is accepting life and the world and avoiding the temptation to see in pairs of opposites, to fall into dualistic thinking. This is good, that is bad, this is mine, this isn't mine. This is masculine, this isn't masculine. As Campbell put it, to be between the pairs of opposites is embracing the range of life. Psychotherapy is about that, and wise political leadership is about having a larger vision. What do we do with these seemingly unbridgeable differences that must be bridged? We may have to say yes to the things we find most unacceptable. That is the individual's big challenge, there are things in us that we consider garbage. We say, that's not me. But if you say that it doesn't go away, it just goes unconscious. In stories, many times the magical character wants the garbage. When the Fairy Godmother shows up to help Cinderella, she says O.K. we can get you to the Ball, but I will need some mice, a couple of lizards, a rat, a pumpkin -- she wants garbage. Psychologically, she wants the parts of us we wish we could get rid of and then works with those to do magic. As if to show us, everything in there is made by the sacred energies and they don't make junk.