The Role of Myth in Spirituality: From Tantra to Alcoholics Anonymous


In the early 1930's J.R.R. Tolkien began work on The Hobbit


Had he taken up the task of penning an academic essay extolling the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice, I doubt we would remember him.

The overwhelming majority of people prefer storytellers to philosophers. Storytellers occupy a special place in society because they perform a sacred function. The storyteller's elevated status in society is owed to their ability to bypass our superficial sense of self-identity and arouse those energetic principles embedded deep in the human condition that animate our lives. They are the keepers and progenitors of our mythology.


Myth is a constant force in human history. Wherever man is found, so too is myth. Whereas history and science records the story of the cosmos and our species, mythology tells the remarkable story of mankind's inner journey. When mythology is mistaken for the former, it devolves into fundamentalism. 

Mythology is a form of spiritual practice and the storyteller is a kind of shaman. In fact, one could argue that what placebic efficacy tribal shamans demonstrate is due to the powerful union of myth and drama mastered by the most accomplished amongst them. The shaman enters into and embodies the myth of the people they serve. In his essay "The Effectiveness of Symbols," the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote:
"That the mythology of the shaman does not correspond to an objective reality does not matter. The sick woman believes in the myth and belongs to a society which believes in it. The tutelary spirits and malevolent spirits, the supernatural monsters and magical animals, are all a part of a coherent system on which the native conception of the universe is founded. The sick woman accepts these mythical beings or, more accurately, she has never questioned their existence. What she does not accept are the incoherent and arbitrary pains, which are an alien element in her system, but which the shaman, calling upon the myth, will re-integrate within a whole where everything is meaningful... But the shaman does more than utter the incantation; he is its hero, for it is he who, at the head of a supernatural battalion of spirits, penetrates the endangered organs and frees the captive soul."
A more sophisticated application of mythology can be found in Buddhism and Christianity. In Vajrayana Buddhism, there are meditation practices that remove the need for a shamanic middle-man, enabling the individual to enter the mythos themselves. Practitioners of Buddhist tantra visualize themselves as the deity, (yidam) which enables them to awaken to the principles associated with that deity, as well as subtler states of awareness--all of which, in reality, constitute the structure of Being. Through repetition, the practitioner incorporates the attributes associated with the deity into their lived experience. 

Similarly, Christian mystics practice what is called "The Imitation of Christ." They use the power of imagination to identify with the Christ image, which through repeated practice births the image of God into the world, thereby fulfilling the central aim of Christianity.

Exercises like yidam practice and the Imitation of Christ are perhaps the most profound systems of mythological application ever developed by mankind. They allow the indwelling presence of God to become incarnate. Their profundity is a result of their practicality, as well as the fact that one can utilize them without buying into the mythology on a literal level, which in the modern world is no longer useful. While they maybe the most profound expressions of myth, they are certainly not the only means of mythological expression nor are they the most common.

Storytelling is a powerful vehicle of spiritual transmission. It is also the most ubiquitous practice of mythology. Practitioners of this art include everyone from Homer to Nachman to Tolstoy, Tolkien and Joseph Campbell. Judaism is perhaps the best example of storytelling as spiritual practice. For rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman, storytelling was one of their preferred methods for unveiling the divine. Another example of this practice can be found in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. 12 Step groups owe much of their success to the union of storytelling (personal nature of their meetings) coupled with an actionable path structure (12 Steps themselves).

When skillfully pursued, the study and practice of myth (or scripture) is a spiritual practice because it has the capacity to elicit the experience of transcendence. It has the ability to move us beyond the limited, self-centered world between our ears and connect us with a greater reality, the unconscious wisdom of the body. I will conclude with an excerpt from my book, Finding God in the Body:
"The symbols that populate the world’s great mythologies are born out of the body. Mankind cannot part ways with myth. He can distance himself from organized religion, but not spirituality and myth. 
“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths have flourished,” writes Campbell. “And they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.” 
Mythology is rooted in our biology. It is a part of our makeup to the extent that it gives voice to our makeup. Mythology satisfies the desires of our heart without sacrificing the integrity of our intellect. In this sense, mythology occupies the space between fundamentalism and atheism.
Since spirituality is ultimately concerned with embracing and embodying the human condition, and myth is rooted in our very nature, myth is an integral part of the spiritual path. 
There is always a dimension of inner-space beyond words, definition, and explanation. This is the domain of myth. Mythological symbols mediate the relationship between the unconscious wisdom of the body and the intellect. Myth connects the formless realm of truth and inspiration with our rational mind. Our sacred myths are rooted in the transcendent realm of human experience—those aspects of our humanity that escape plain speech."
The study of myth is a spiritual practice and like all practices there is an element of how to. Myth is a map for our inner-journey. But before we can utilize the map, we have to learn how to read it. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between spirituality and mythology, meditation, personal inventory, and contemplative prayer, check out Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. It is available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

Have This Blog Sent to Your Email.