We Live By
An Interview with Jonathan Young Ph.D.
Kindred Spirits Magazine (U.K.) Summer 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
How did you come to work with Joseph Campbell?
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 hours, 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 assistant
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 Self-Awareness, [in Victoria]
have this fabulous program up here. She brings all kinds of fantastic
She had Deepak Chopra and John Bradshaw - twice and I think she's
bringing Bradshaw up again in the Spring.
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
Why Myth? Why now? Why this? Mythology has suddenly become so
popular - all of Campbell's books have been re-released.
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.
What was his reaction to The Power of Myth?
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.
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.
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.
He talked about God and the supernatural constantly, did he have
any particular devotional practices?
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.
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.
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
He was critical of religions because he felt they focused on the
metaphor of God not on what lies behind the metaphor.
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
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.
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.
I still have trouble with that. That implies some part of us and
some larger mystery hasn't changed in all this time.
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.
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.
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. There 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.
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.
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
You were the curator of the Joseph Campbell archives in Santa
Barbara. How did that come about?
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.
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.
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.
Yes, and almost to the day isn't it?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 sever theology. He felt it was
an old testament God with little mercy.
What were Joseph Campbell seminars like?
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.
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?
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.