“The purpose of life is … to grow the soul.” So says author Christina Baldwin. (1, p.47). I agree. That’s part of my personal myth.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and contemporary of Freud, said that whatever ideas there are about why we exist and what happens to us after we die are all myths. No one can really know with certainty – in spite of claims to the contrary. He says in his autobiography:
Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories.’ Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth. (5, p. 3)
Jung also emphasized the importance of myth in general and each person’s obligation to come up with their own personal myth.
The need for mythic statements is satisfied when we frame a view of the world which adequately explains the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, a view which springs from our psychic wholeness, from the co-operation between conscious and unconscious. Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. (5, p.340)
The idea that the purpose of life is to grow the soul is part of my own myth, developed over many years with countless iteration, but my myth as it is today. Perhaps I should wait until I’m 83 before sharing it – no doubt it will alter again by then – but for now I’ll share my 67 year old version in the hope it might motivate you to think about your own myth as well.
Most simply, a myth is a story. Story-making and story-telling are one of our species’ earliest forms of passing on knowledge and understanding. People need their stories. Stories are part of how we humans relate and share ourselves with one another – and help one another. We share stories to explain how and why things happen, to describe how we came to be the way we are, how our country and our culture, even our planet, developed. According to those who study myths, the stories of many different countries hold some surprising commonalities, demonstrating I think how similar human beings are to one another. Stories are also a way to shares ideas with one other — to see what resonates, what rings true, and perhaps what can help us connect with one another to resolve our differences. Whether or not the myth or story is absolute truth is not the issue; we all remember events differently, emphasize different things and change our perspectives over time. More important is what truth or idea the story points to. Most myths don’t even claim to be true, but rather to depict a greater truth. I do not claim my myth as absolute truth; it is simply the closest I can come to my truth today. I think my myth helps me to live more skillfully, more compassionately, and with more peace. It also helps me make satisfying meaning of my life. I hope that my sharing of it will stimulate you to want to think about your myth, your understanding of how the mystery of life and death make sense to you. Although your myth will have no more claim on veracity than mine or anyone else’s, I think the exercise of doing it is one way of growing soul intentionally.
Growth of Soul
There’s not much of a way to talk about myth and soul, at least for me, without including the spiritual. I know that’s a very loaded topic to bring into discussion, but this is my myth and the spiritual is integral to it. I also understand that my spiritual beliefs and values may be very different from yours. Great. I will be talking only about my beliefs and my understandings and not trying to influence yours. I will also be using the word God, by which I refer to the God of my understanding only. To me God is a word for the creative force of the universe, the divine mystery, the ineffable source of all that is. The God of my understanding does not have a religion, although I use many different religious traditions to help me think about God.
Soul is often defined as being the formless, unembodied aspect of a human being or animal. It is thought to be present in the body during a lifetime, but it is not a part that can be seen or directly touched. In my myth the Soul is also the divine spark of The Creator within us, the spirit of God that enlivens us, the gift of life itself within us. I believe Soul is eternal and will continue to exist in some way after one’s death. The process by which Soul enters and leaves the body is a mystery, but I believe there is some Creative Benign Force (that I call God) that is responsible for and involved in the creation of the universe (or multi-verse) in an ongoing way.
Pain and Suffering
I agree with C.S. Lewis (10) that the real problem with myth-making – or making sense of God and life — arises when one tries to deal with the issue of pain and suffering. Pain is where the rubber hits the road, the s___ hits the fan, and all one’s highfalutin ideas are ground to dust. If there is a Benign Creative Force as I claim, why does he/she/it permit pain and suffering? My myth help me transforms pain FOR ME into disagreeable but manageable and purposeful pieces. You may shake your head when you finish this article completely unsatisfied with my perspective. Great. That’s a wonderful reason for you come up with a myth that works for you. How do you make sense of pain of suffering in a way that helps you live your life?
Eckhart Tolle said that there is actually nothing wrong with life if we would just give up our insistence that it exists to make us happy (14). How true. In my myth, what makes most people, including me, so unhappy is that life and/or God don’t give us what we want. In fact life/God thwarts us rather a lot. Often just at the moment when things seems to be going the best, God deals us some dastardly blow that knocks us off our feet. The economy crashes, or we’re in a horrible wreck, our farm floods, our best friend dies, we get cancer, a spouse leaves us, a child lands in jail, a tsunami happens. Life seems designed to present us with challenges and suffering. Why is that? Doesn’t God care about us? That’s the crucial question. Tragedy and suffering are part of our existence. Why? What does is mean about life and about God that suffering is so inextricably woven into Life? Answering questions like that is the purpose of our personal myth. Many religions try to answer that question for us, but I encourage you to think and question and form your own opinions. Christina Baldwin also says that life will reveal itself to you in proportion to the kind of questions you ask (1). If you don’t ask the big questions, your answers tend to stay small and formulaic.
So pain and suffering are the big dilemmas. How do we reconcile the seemingly capricious infliction of suffering on human beings with the injunction that God loves us? That brings us to another important element of our personal myth. What do we decide about the issue of love? How do we answer the question of whether or not we are loved by whatever force created us? Robert Frost, the well-known American poet, has inscribed as his epitaph that “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I so understand that sentiment. Life on this earth deals us the most wonderful joys and the most horrible tragedies. We both love it and hate. We cherish life and we curse it. We don’t want it to end and we can’t wait for it to be over. We live in the midst of these paradoxical feelings, in this mystery of life, every moment of every day. Sometimes we consciously know that; other times we do all that we can to avoid knowing it.
I think beginning to consciously know and accept our lover’s quarrel with life more of the time is a crucial developmental stage of maturation, for individuals, for humanity and for our individual and collective soul. While there is a certain comfort in mindlessness/ignorance – as in ignorance is bliss – the opposite is, in my myth, even more true — the unexamined life is not worth living. You don’t have to examine very closely to become aware of the inevitability of pain and suffering.
Asking the big questions, grappling with issues like why are pain and suffering inherent in life – how does love fit into the equation – what is the purpose of my short, fleeting life – these questions are much less comfortable, but grappling with them can be much more rewarding and enlightening. I think our soul is forced to grow when we are forced to sit with questions that are bigger than our current answers. Pain bigger than our heart can bear is what forces us to that threshold. Tibetan Buddhist and Oxford scholar Chogyam Trungpa said, “Enlightenment is just one insult after another.” (8) From this perspective, however, pain and suffering can be gifts; they can act as the darkness that forces us to grow more light so to speak. I’m not so sure we would undertake the trials that force us to face these important issues if it were not thrust upon us. Trungpa asserts that if you can allow yourself to have a direct experience of the pain you’re in, it can be a great teacher for you. The real problem arises when you try to escape the pain or develop a negative attitude toward it. Jung made the same point when he said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” (6). It’s the mess that we create when we try to avoid our suffering that can create a worse misery (e.g., guilt, addiction, self-loathing, abuse, neglect, suicide, etc.). Facing our suffering head on is a teaching that’s difficult to embody in the heat of the moment. Believing you’re loved makes it a little easier.
In his effort to explain why God allows suffering, C.S. Lewis, British Christian theologian, talks about Love. He says: “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” (10) His point is that if we truly love someone, we want what is best for them – not just what is easy. We may feel protective, but at some level we also know that each individual needs to learn to listen to their own heart, make their own choices, and live with their own consequences in order to grow. We want our loved ones to live out their dreams, to “go for it” and experience life to the fullest. To deny our “beloved” these opportunities in order to “protect” them from suffering is to infantilize them and disrespect their individuality and potential. My sense is God wants no less for me, and part of the refinement and transformation of me occurs through my exposure to the alchemical fire of suffering. To put it in Buddhist terms, sitting in the fire of discomfort burns away the seeds of “shenpa” (our repetitive destructive patterns) (9).
In my myth evolution is an on-going event, and currently humans are undergoing an evolution of consciousness. Not just consciousness in terms of our cognitive capacities and reason, but consciousness of heart and soul as well. The growth of soul is the growth of our capacity to hold our place, our sanity, our compassion in the mysterious vagaries of life — to somehow learn to manage with some equanimity the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
It is precisely in those places where the s___ hits the fan, the rubber hits the road, the places of being tested and tried to our very limit, where we must grow or die. Or said less dramatically, where we either grow to meet the challenge or the challenge diminishes us. There is a saying that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% what we make of it. That 90% is determined by our personal myth: how we make sense of our life and what happens to us – and the choices we make in response to it.
To me pain and suffering, as much as I may hate them, are part of God’s loving call to me to stretch beyond my preconceived ideas and ways of coping. God seems to relish dismantling my preconceived ideas, my “shenpa”. Believing in my myth may seem delusionally self-serving to some. I choose to believe as I do because to the best of my limited understanding, it’s the only thing that makes sense – and the only thing that makes what life asks of me tolerable and purposeful. It is also my experience of God. Over and over again my experience is that I am greatly loved and gently but relentlessly guided to greater depths of understanding and a more encompassing experience of The Divine in my life. It is my nature to want to imbue things with transcendent meaning; perhaps the God of my understanding is also my projection of what I want God to be. That’s certainly possible. On the other hand, perhaps we all have a God gene, as Greg Braden says, that helps us discern God in a way that works for us (2). Perhaps God is different for each person. I love that idea. I am choosing a myth that is validated by my experience, but I also admit that believing as I do is highly self-serving. It helps me get up each morning and face another day of sometimes gut-wrenching challenges and fire-sitting. It helps me function, feel loved, find purpose in suffering, and be a better person in this world. Why would I choose a myth that served me less well?
Seeing underlying meaning helps me step back from life, see things from a broader and deeper perspective. Taking the time to do this intentionally helps me to stay in some semblance of balance and cope with day-to-day challenges. It also helps me to transcend the harsh realities occasionally in order to accept and appreciate the awful beauty of life. I think life and God ask both of me, i.e., to immerse myself in the guts of life, to form a deep and evolving and often messy relationship with it, but also to be able to detach myself from it from time to time so that I don’t drown in it or lose touch with its deeper meaning. My myth gives me, and yours can give you, a way to understand life and God that makes my soul sing.
I have included in the bibliography some resources that I hope might help you to conceptualize your own myth. In a way I think I should probably include every book I ever read in the bibliography. I offer the best advice I have in the form of the following quote:
Be still. Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.
- Baldwin, Christina. (2002). The Seven Whispers: Listening to the Voice of Spirit. Novato, CA: New World Library.
- Braden, Greg. (2004). The God Code: The Secret of our Past, The Promise of our Future. London: Hay House.
- Chodron, Pema. (1991). The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness. Boston: Shambhala.
- Jones, Alan. (1985). Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
- Jung, Carl. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffe. New York: Random House.
- Jung, Carl (1960). Psychology and Religion (The Terry Lecture Series). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Keen, Sam & Valley-Fox, Ann. (1989). Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. New York: Tarcher.
- Kornfield, Jack. (2000). After the Ecstacy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. New York: Bantam Books.
- Kullander, James. (2005). Sitting in the Fire: Pema Chodron on turning toward Pain. The Sun, January 2005, 5-11.
- Lewis, C.S. (1994). The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
- May, Gerald G. (2004). The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
- Moore, Thomas. (1992). Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
- Peck, M. Scott. (1993). Further Along The Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth. New York: Touchstone.
- Tolle, Eckhart. (2005). A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume.
- Tolle, Eckhart. (2003). Stillness Speaks. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.
The GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks