The Myths That Shape Our World

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Every day, every hour and every second, we are exposed to a sea of information from the world around us. How is it that we choose which pieces of information we prioritize?

What becomes salient to us, and which data points are discarded in the mental models that we develop of the external world? 

It is simply an impossible task to account for the infinite number of facts that we encounter over our life time.

Thus, we need intermediary and interpretive structures which allow us to sort all this information to make sense of our day to day experience.

Stories and myths don’t just make for entertaining tales we tell around the campfire but play a role in contextualizing and filtering our experiences into digestible narratives that we can comprehend. They help us understand our place in the world, where we stand in relation to others, and to nature.

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The Realm of the Storytelling

Derek J Fiedler in his article The Symbolism of Story provides some useful examples that help drive this point home.

Imagine you are tasked with writing an obituary for the passing of a dear friend. You must take on the job of sorting through the historical information of their life to prioritize what to include in your speech. Fitting a lifetime’s worth of data into a 10-minute speech can be very difficult to say the least.

So, what makes the cut? Including random incoherent moments of your friend’s life would be absurd and seemingly inappropriate.

Rather it is values esteemed by a particular society and the meaning we give to events which helps us discern what is important. The ideal obituary is one that uses qualitative judgement to pick events and stories which capture the essence of your friend’s character.

We look for meaning, and select for quality over quantity.

When told well, a story leaves out countless details. And yet, nothing seems to be missing.

Derek J Fiedler

Get to the Point

We’ve all suffered through a boring lecture or class where the teacher expects us to memorize a countless number of facts to score well on the test. We sigh in disarray and frustration as we can barely remember the first thing about the topic.

Compare this to how we are able to so easily absorb the contents and message of a well told story. It is memorable because it resonates with us on an emotional and visceral level. It can get the message across far better than any intellectual argument or essay ever can.

We don’t just remember the contents of the story, but recall how it made us feel.

The story speaks to you at the level of the unconscious, and communicates knowledge and wisdom in an effective and efficient means. This is why so many of the great religious and spiritual teachers communicated messages on wisdom, ethics and meaning in life in story or parables. 

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Higher Truths

Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the goal of myths to point to higher fundamental truths about the human condition. Truths that are beyond the limited capacity of language, reason and the intellect. 

Myths provide us with a north star, an ideal to aspire to, a horizon of possibilities that inspires you to venture out into the unknown. They enable us to rise above the mundane of everyday existence – to contemplate the mystery of the cosmos.

We are not perfect, in many ways far from it, but if we immerse our self in the great myths at least we have a path laid out for us.  As the great fantasy writer J.R.R Tolkien reminds us,

Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of evil.

J.R.R Tolkien

Admittingly, this is a complex philosophical topic and this article just touches the surface of the issue. An interesting debate that gets at the heart of this issue I am trying to outline here is the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Peterson articulates for the mythopoetic viewpoint that I am trying to get across in the article.


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Diving into the Mythopoetic: A Personal Story

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It is easy to be dismissive of mythology in our modern-day secular culture. With the tools of logic, science and reason at our disposal, we arrive at our ideas of truth through rigorously testing our hypothesis with hard evidence and data.

It was around the time when I was completing my undergraduate coursework in philosophy when I started to look at the world through a more fact-based empirical lens. Consequently, I began questioning some of the core tenants of my religion, and previous assumptions I once took for granted.

Put simply, I felt that I could not accommodate or make sense of the religious stories that I learned about as a child with the scientific world view.

Reason Rules

During this time, I listened to the to the talks and YouTube videos of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – the so called ‘New Atheists’. These speakers demonstrated their intellectual prowess and intelligence through their lectures and debates which demeaned irrationality, wishful thinking and religion on the global stage. It was clear to me during this period of my life that science and reason was the far superior method for arriving at truth and generating knowledge.

Yet, something felt empty. The disenchantment of the world, that is viewing reality strictly though empirical facts felt cold and hollow – devoid of meaning. This ‘rational’ paradigm which is responsible for the great feats of the modern world could not provide me with a sense of purpose, a why.

The Classical and Romantic Divide  

For centuries philosophers have wrote about the tensions in our psyche between emotion and reason.  

In the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig presents this dichotomy in worldviews using the metaphor of a motorcycle.

The narrator, who has a keen interest in the technical nature of the machine’s operation, represents the classical mode of thought. Using a systematic and rational thinking, he is able to understand the nuanced mechanics of the motorcycle, and fix it when it is in need of repair. Broadly speaking, this character embodies the scientific way of looking at the world, detached from emotion and inner subjectivity.

On the other side of the spectrum in the novel are the Sutherlands – the romantics. They don’t take an interest in motorcycle maintenance, but rather see the machine as a thing of beauty – a spectacle. They prioritize the ascetic value of the experience synonymous with how an artist see’s thing, embracing creativity, imagination and visceral emotion.

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The question remains however if it is possible to appreciate and reconcile these two different world views. Moreover, must ‘truth’ be confined only to the realm of scientific inquiry in the modern age?

Two Different Worlds

It was upon reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth where I was first introduced to the cultural and symbolic meaning of myth.

Drawing upon the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Campbell argues that myths and symbolism embody the wisdom of the past, and provide a useful roadmap to help us navigate our inner psychological world. Campbell says that we shouldn’t view myth literally, but rather metaphorically.

Science describes accurately from outside; poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Having observed similar themes and motifs across different cultural myths across the globe, these reveal some fundamental truth about the human condition. Whether it’s a cautionary tale about greed, a romantic love story or a myth of personal triumph – these stories capture the core of our inner experience.

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Conclusion

Perhaps this framework of interpreting myths and symbols as practical guides to wisdom provides the missing piece in the puzzle that I was searching for. 

I can embrace the rational capacity of logic and science whilst viewing myth as stories as vehicles which contain deep-seated wisdom and guides to higher truths.

Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society

These two different approaches to interpreting the world can co-exist.  

The mythic paradigm provides a way to interpret different stages in my life, and offers inspiration to to venture unknown to overcome challenges and slay those proverbial dragons. 


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Getting to Know Yourself: Interview with Your Mind Matters Pt. 2

We are living in unprecedented times.

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the world was yet again reminded of the persistent issues of systemic injustices that minorities face all around the globe.

This has led many of us to be filled with grief, despair and sadness as we fail to comprehend the lack of basic human decency.

In addition, social media and 24/7 news cycle documenting the unfolding of events send us into perpetual anxiety – we are hurdled into fight or flight mode.

In these troubling times we must remember that it is OK not to be OK. We can be vulnerable and honest with ourselves, and ask for help.

Remember the words of the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius,

“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

Below is part 2 of my interview with Vanessa from Your Mind Matters, hope you enjoy.


1. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced into isolation. We can of course connect with our loved ones through technology, but this time may also offer us an opportunity to practice solitude. How can we cope with and feel a bit more comfortable being alone?

This is such an important topic. It’s been eye-opening (but not surprising) to see how many people are totally uncomfortable with the idea of being alone with their thoughts and are doing anything they can to avoid their own company and feeling comfortable with it without any distractions.

The problem with a lack of distractions is that it exposes pain we maybe didn’t know we had. The problem with that is that it’s painful and hard. But, it’s also important and worthwhile. I think the only way to feel more comfortable being alone is to spend more time alone. Humans can adapt very well. If we put ourselves in a situation enough times, eventually we’ll learn to deal with it.

 Something I’ve really learned in this time is that isolation does not mean lack of connection. They’re two different things and you can still feel connected to others while being physically apart from others. When people lack a strong sense of connection and security in their relationships with others, being physically isolated or by themselves will make them feel lonely and disconnected because they need the physical presence of others to feel socially connected.

Know that just because you’re on your own in that moment doesn’t mean that you don’t have anyone and that you shouldn’t feel connected to others. It’s still important to reach out and you can still ask for help in this time.

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In short, we become more comfortable being alone by being alone more. It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves. We need more of that and so I guess that’s one benefit of the situation we’re experiencing.

The relationship with yourself sets the tone for all the other ones in your life and it’s the only one that lasts from the day you’re born until the day you die. You might as well work really hard on that one and make it a strong and loving relationship. Learning to like yourself is the most important thing you’ll ever do and once you do, you’ll never feel disconnected again.

It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves.

2. Broadly put, one of the tasks of philosophy is about using logic to continually challenge existing assumptions, thoughts and beliefs. Can this approach be helpful in dealing with mental health issues?

Logic isn’t exactly my best friend, being someone who struggles with mental health issues and is considered to be emotionally volatile, but logic is absolutely helpful when dealing with mental health issues for many reasons.

One thing I learned in therapy that has made such a big impact on me is called “wise mind” and it’s basically the principle of combining our emotional mind and our rational (or logical) mind into what’s called our “wise mind”. It’s merging emotions and logic at the same time to come up with a new state of mind and thought process that is both rooted in logic while also recognizing the emotions that come with it.

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A type of psychotherapy used to treat many people with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is literally rooted in the concept of using logic. It comes from the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected and that what we think influences how we feel and in turn affects how we act.

The premise of CBT is to use logic to examine the facts (using reason and logic) of a situation that is causing us distress or evoking uncomfortable or painful thoughts and emotions. It’s important to note that while logic is helpful when it comes to mental health problems, emotions are still valid and serve a purpose and so it’s therefore essential to combine the two and allow both to co-exist and serve you.

3. Lastly, any final thoughts, resources or advice you want to share?

Something I want to say about the current situation we find ourselves in: it’s uncomfortable but also an opportunity to look inward with minimal distractions. I’d take that opportunity every time. Get to know yourself and learn to love yourself. Build those solid foundations and watch how beautifully the rest of your life unfolds and how all the other aspects come together so nicely. Just know that there’s no right way to cope with this and whatever you’re managing is enough and you’re doing okay.

I also want to note that self-awareness is important and so is doing the inner work necessary to grow, but no matter how hard it is it’s always a worthwhile pursuit. Sometimes, it gets discouraging and we wish we could just shut it off and stop overthinking and instead fall into distractions so that we forget about our pain and suffering, but it’s not adaptive. It’s always a better option to sit in the discomfort and use it for growth and learning because pain is always the best teacher. And the best thing about pain is that it’s temporary. It doesn’t last and always passes.

With respect to authenticity, being yourself is the most outward display of vulnerability and is always incredibly beneficial and necessary. Vulnerability is the biggest strength. I always say to err on the side of radical openness and transparency because that’s when we see the biggest benefits as human beings. Showing your human is the most compelling and inviting thing you can do.

And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels. Learning about what makes someone who they are and what lights their fire is exceptionally rewarding, especially when it’s you learning about yourself.

And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels

Take this time to listen to others and to yourself. If you truly try to understand a person and find out why they are the way they are, you’ll always find that if you were them, if you were in their shoes and knew what they knew and had what they had then you would be the exact same. With that realization comes empathy and with empathy comes so much connection, intimacy and the possibility of love.

This sort of thing truly has healing powers. I cannot recommend it enough and particularly recommend the work of Brené Brown if you want to learn more about vulnerability and how to practice it and why you should.

In terms of resources, I have to plug Your Mind Matters first. Our website www.yourmindmatters.ca and Instagram @yourmindmattersorg has tons of resources and information about all things mental health and mental illness.

This link has other resources for learning more as well as numbers you can text or call to get help: https://bit.ly/ymmhowtogethelp