The Myth-Spinning Mind
After trauma had pummeled George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien into becoming story orphans, after they could no longer find meaning or purpose in the outside world, they turned to an inner world. There they encountered murmuring voices, kaleidoscopic images, and transformative visions. They journeyed, in other words, into the magical realm of the myth-spinning mind.
Then they had to make sense of what they saw, felt, and heard in this extra-ordinary reality. They had to put their strange encounters into perspective, to translate and incorporate them into the context of their times. The new stories they were later able to tell were surprisingly well-received.
Following his epiphany, George Fox felt called to offer his prescription for salvation to anyone who would listen. “Now I was sent to turn people from darkness to the light,” he wrote, “that they might receive Christ Jesus… And I was to bring people off from all the world’s religions, which are vain, that they might know the pure religion…”31
Fox was a true believer, newly converted and filled with missionary zeal. His charismatic faith fell like sparks on the dry, storyless tinder of his times. Those so kindled sparked others. Soon the Religious Society of Friends, assisted by persecution, was thriving and spreading. When Fox died in 1691, there were over 100,000 Quakers, mostly in Britain, Scotland, and the American colonies.
Carl Jung didn’t found a religious denomination. Instead, he inspired a school of psychology. Analytical psychology grew directly out of Jung’s harrowing confrontation with the unconscious between 1913 and 1917. In his posthumous autobiography, he says that,
“It has taken me virtually forty-five years to distill within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote about at that time. As a young man my goal had been to accomplish something in my science. But then, I hit upon this stream of lava, and the heat of its fires reshaped my life. That was the primal stuff which compelled me to work upon it, and my works are a more or less successful endeavor to incorporate this incandescent matter into the contemporary picture of the world.”32
Jung’s words are doubly suggestive. First, they hint that he was nearly swept away by the torrent of autonomous images that flooded out of his mythopoetic mind. The Red Book is a firsthand account of that “stream of lava” that “reshaped” his life. It shows that over the course of several years Carl Jung was dangerously close to becoming untethered and unhinged.
The second key point is that his scientific inclination and training served as a lifeline. “My science,” he says, “was the only way I had of extricating myself from that chaos.”33 Jung spent the rest of his life distilling this chaos “within the vessel of my scientific work.”
Jung was a prolific author. His collected writings comprise twenty volumes and another thirty are pending. He introduced such now-common concepts as individuation, the collective unconscious, the archetypal realm, the shadow, the anima and animus, introversion and extroversion, and synchronicity.
In short, Carl Jung adapted the evolving scientific vernacular of his times to spin a new myth about what it means to be human.
Tellingly, however, he never published The Red Book. The original manuscript — a large volume bound in red leather, with Jung’s calligraphic text and illustrations — remained sequestered in his study. Only a few close associates ever saw it. After he died in 1961, The Red Book was placed in a Swiss bank vault. There it resided for several decades until Jung’s descendants finally permitted it to be published in 2009. Its publication has revolutionized our understanding of Carl Jung.
Was Jung afraid that publishing The Red Book would damage his reputation as a serious scholar and a pioneering psychiatrist? Was he concerned that some seekers might attempt to replicate his journey and become lost in psychosis? And/or did he believe that his bizarre encounters were so far beyond the paradigm of his times that a bridgework of concepts first had to be built so they could later serve as navigational aids for those traveling the backroads of the mind?
Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had an innate love of language. Grading papers one day, he found that a student had left a blank page. He picked up his pen and wrote the first thing that came to mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien didn’t know what a hobbit was or why they lived in holes, or what adventures might befall this particular hobbit. But he intended to find out. The spontaneous words eventually became the opening sentence of Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit.
Note that the words came before the story. The names of elves had similarly come to him when he was a convalescent soldier just returned from the Battle of the Somme. Those words, too, had spawned mythical stories. For Tolkien believed that myth arises from “the creative interaction of human imagination and human language…”34 He also spoke of a Cauldron of Story “in which the ingredients of history and legend endlessly simmer (over the fire of human imagination), and from which the Soup is served up as the tale is told.”35
The long-awaited sequel to The Hobbit was the next bowl of Soup that Tolkien ladled out of his Cauldron of Story. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of the mythopoetic imagination. It is one of the most popular books of all time, having been translated into dozens of languages. It has sold over 150 million copies, and the films based on this story have been watched by hundreds of millions of people. J.R.R. Tolkien’s magical tale resonated!
The myth-spinning mind is active while we sleep. Joseph Campbell intuited that myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths.36 Dreams are mythical stories spun out nightly in the magic theater of the mind. They have character, plot, themes, and settings. Dreams draw us into dramas so intense, so real, that we sometimes wake up laughing or sobbing, feeling passionate or pursued, saying either “thank goodness it’s over!” or “why did it have to end?”
Dreams, like the medicinal stories of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, are therapeutic. They come “to teach, correct errors, lighten, assist transformation, heal wounds, re-create memory.”37 This may be especially true for nightmares. The most fiercely resisted stories, dreams, and myths sometimes offer special mending to deeply wounded souls. Jeremy Taylor believes that “all dreams come in the service of health and healing.”38
Carl Jung was guided, inspired, and challenged by dreams throughout his long life. The title of his autobiography is Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Tolkien, too, had been visited since childhood by strong dreams. “Dream is not unconnected with Faërie,” he says. “In dreams strange powers of the mind may be unlocked… A real dream may indeed sometimes be a fairy-story of almost elvish ease and skill.39 Coming from Tolkien, that’s high praise indeed.
George Fox, on the other hand, had deep misgivings about dreams. The founder of the Religious Society of friends once came upon a people who looked to their dreams for spiritual guidance. He told them there were three types of dreams: “multitude of business sometimes caused dreams, there were whisperings of Satan in man at night, and there were speakings of God to man in dreams. These people stopped relying on dreams and at last became Friends.”40
Carla Gerona, however, in Night Journeys: The Power of Dreams in Transatlantic Quaker Culture, reports that many early members of the Religious Society of Friends “paid enormous attention to their night journeys because they thought of dreaming as an especially powerful spiritual experience: they believed God could communicate to them through dreams.”41
Her premise is that Quakers “created their own distinctive and powerful system for dream interpretation.”42 She even asks whether Friends might have been “reaching out across time and space and sharing archetypal dreams with each other and with non-Quakers too in a Jungian manner? The similarities between Jung’s own dreams and Quaker dreams is amazing. He seems to have gone on some very similar dark and light journeys.”43
For thousands of years in Europe and Asia, wheelwrights built wooden wheels. Theirs was a highly skilled trade. Whether it was a wagon wheel, a chariot wheel, or a ship’s wheel, should it fail prematurely, the results could be fatal. Then the flood tide of the Industrial Revolution rendered the wheelwright’s craft obsolete.
Wheels weren’t used in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans. For over five thousand years, though, tribes in the northern portions of this continent arranged stones on the surface of the earth in intricate circular patterns. With diameters ranging up to two hundred feet, these so-called “medicine wheels” generally had a central stone cairn as a hub, with multiple spokes radiating out to one or more concentric rings at the perimeter.
The deeper intent of these ancient wheelwrights, however, is unknown. The door is thus left open for endless conjecture and projection. To paraphrase one of the central hypotheses of this paper, we see medicine wheels not as they are, but as we are. My personal Rorschach projection aligns with those scholars and Native Americans who believe that medicine wheels were primarily used as metaphors or sacraments, to outwardly portray the core stories, sustaining values, and guiding beliefs of the indigenous tribes that shaped them.44
Most medicine wheels have astronomical orientations. There are frequently 28 spokes, for example, the number of days in a lunar month. Four primary spokes often align with sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes. Others might point to places on the horizon where seasonal stars rise or set.
Viewed through this window, Fox, Jung, and Tolkien were wheelwrights. Each of them worked on the fringes of a mainstream paradigm that was coming apart at the seams. There they encountered the radioactive core of a new paradigm. Startling stories emanated from this core, like vibrant spokes joining the hub of a wheel to its rim. These wayfaring artists constellated their spoke-like stories into medicine wheels, weaving them into captivating tapestries and gifting them to those who had no viable stories of their own. For each of the three storytellers knew, from first-hand experience, what it was like to be a story orphan.
In time, they all returned to the Earth and to ineffable Mystery from which they had come. Yet their medicine wheels have continued to resonate with succeeding generations, and for many of us they remain compellingly relevant. Several evenings ago, for example, Joyce and I finished reading aloud The Lord of the Rings. Sharing stories has been a bedtime ritual for fifty years, and Tolkien’s trilogy is one of our recurring favorites. Each new reading still brings smiles, tears, and fresh understandings. It also sends me back to Tolkien’s letters and essays for clues to how he gained access to such a rich imaginal realm.
More recently I have been seized by The Red Book. The tales Carl Jung tells there are bizarre and convoluted. Yet the edgy threat I feel while reading them is counterbalanced by their fascinating. I am far from alone in trying to assimilate this book. A third volume of essays has just been published in a series called Jung’s Red Book For Our Time. Contributors come from around the world and represent a striking diversity of perspectives. But the diversity is subsumed under the subtitle of the series: “Searching For Soul Under Postmodern Conditions.”
Then there’s the uneasy example of the early Quakers. England in the 1650s makes our current social and political unrest seem tame, just as the fanatical faith and self-sacrifice of the first Friends make our own lives seem safe. Yet the differences between then and now also mask a challenging relevance.
I feel that challenge each time I reach for stillness in a meeting for worship, only to rediscover the unruliness of my mind. Or when I’m faced with a personal or corporate decision and can’t discern – among all the many competing perspectives – any clear “sense of the meeting.” Or I fail to notice a cashier’s inner light when I’m buying groceries, or my wife’s when we’re having a disagreement. My need for awareness, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice isn’t as dramatic as it was for the first Quakers; but it’s no less real.
In closing, I confess to feeling like a story orphan myself. Light Morning, a transformational community and retreat center that four of us co-founded in 1974, has just been decommissioned. After forty-five tumultuous and rewarding years, it is no longer a community and will no longer serve as a center. My deep disorientation comes and goes, like storm waves piling up on the rocky coast of Maine.
Recently, however, I “happened” upon just the medicine I needed. The prescription was written by James Baldwin. He was a Black American storyteller who wrote in the mid-20th century. Like George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien, James Baldwin transmuted his suffering into art.
His words didn’t take away my pain, but they brought a good measure of comfort. For Baldwin had been close to where I am now, and had left a cairn to mark the way.
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”45