As the child of immigrants, I straddled two worlds. My close-knit, Orthodox-leaning, Jewish family celebrated holidays and festivals together. Old World foods, ancient rituals, and Hebrew melodies warmed my soul and connected me to my ancestral lineage. Alongside this, and decidedly apart from it, were my friendships with peers (none of whom were Jewish) and my experiences in secular school. It is no wonder that I had internal conflicts. Eastern European shtetl values did not easily mesh with 1960’s Southern Californian culture. The psychological and democratic consciousness of the times were at odds with many of traditional Judaism’s precepts: its male favoritism, its allusions to chosenness, and its angry, vengeful God. For decades, I struggled to come to terms with the conflicting ideas in my psyche.
Naturally, I was drawn to depth psychology. Here, I could hold the opposites and try to find some peace. In Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (1961), I found the questions I was trying to reconcile: If I no longer lived in the myth of my ancestors, then in what myth did I live? Where could I find my people, my place? Was it possible that we, as a culture, did not have a guiding myth? What would this imply for our spiritual development? How could we achieve a sense of wholeness?
D. Stephenson Bond, in Living Myth (1993), normalized my experience of restlessness and searching, naming them as signs of the mythlessness of our times. He described a growing number of people who, like me,
see behind the curtain of their childhood faith and are dismayed to find a patriarchal image of God that they can no longer worship, who discover the dark side of God that goes unspoken, who search for new traditions to meet an often indescribable hunger, or who live without any religious practice at all. (p. 52)
In its ideal form, Bond (1993) explains, religious practice holds the “memory of an entire people on how to live a human life; it is the guide through life’s stages and transitions” (p. 50). Like all myths, religious practices arise over countless generations and then dissipate. We then live for a time empty, until a new myth arises in its place. What, I began to wonder, is the new myth that we are moving towards? How can we, in Jung’s words, dream the myth onwards?
After years of holding this question in my mind, I awoke one morning with an image. I drew a Venn diagram, the merging of four inter-connected circles, and labeled them as below:
Each circle represents a category crucial to the development of the new myth. I quickly realized that many western spiritual developments over the past century lie within the overlapping boundaries of two or more of these categories. Self-help programs such as 12-step spirituality, for example, land in the overlapping sphere between psychology and democracy. They provide psychological support within a premise of equality, rather than the one-up, one-down basis of traditional psychotherapy.
I soon realized that a Venn diagram with four overlapping circles does not include all the possible combinations. The circles opposite one another (democracy and ancestral wisdom, psychology and the natural world) do not overlap without incorporating a third category. I experimented with a Euler diagram. Using ellipsis instead of circles, it holds all possible combinations:
Though more accurate, I found it a visually challenging image for tracking overlapping categories. I liked the sense, in the Venn diagram, that the opposite circles needed to be united and reconciled. And the Venn diagram more accurately reflected my notion of inward movement. As a culture, I believe we have been moving slowly towards a place where the boundaries between these four energies dissolve, towards the new myth. I decided to hold on to the Venn image while maintaining an awareness of its limitations. In this article, I will: 1) explain why each of the four categories is necessary, yet not sufficient by itself; 2) discuss how the four categories balance one another; 3) give examples of societal developments that reflect intersecting points of the ideas; and 4) explain the myth that lies in the center. I will show how this model integrates ancient and modern, inner and outer worlds, and the four ego functions (thinking, feeling, intuition, sensation). At the end of this article, I have included a more detailed visual image demonstrating the ideas discussed below.
At first glance, democracy is an unexpected component in a spiritual mythology. However, our western democratic mindset has clearly changed our culture’s ideas about the Divine. As is true for each of the four categories in my diagram, there are those who once believed that democracy alone could be the harbinger of a new spiritual mythology. Theologian Eugene Borowitz (1991) explains that many immigrants who arrived in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century placed great hope in the universalistic values of secular society. “We stopped relying on our traditional God to save us and instead put our faith in humanity’s power to create justice” (p. 3), he explains. In the latter half of the twentieth century, with its unending war in Vietnam, government corruption, and the continued presence of racial and gender struggles, it became clear that democracy was not the new Messiah (Borowitz, 1991). Still, democratic principles have had a lasting impact on our ideas about spirituality and God.
In Children the Challenge, Rudolf Dreikurs (1964) notes that child-rearing has changed markedly in recent generations. Why is this the case? Democracy has moved from a political ideal to a way of life. Children seem to be born with an awareness that they have an equal right to dignity and respect. A democratic consciousness has permeated parenting and parents have shifted from more authoritarian disciplinarian styles to more relational ones. Alongside this shift, children’s notions of God have changed. A child’s God-image “is powerfully affected by early experiences in our family of origin” (Corbett, 2007, p. 81). Our parents’ parenting style, whether loving or fear invoking, close or distant, contributes to a similar conception of God (Granqvist & Dickle, 2006). This exists independent of any formal religious training. Whether children belong to a religious community or not, they still develop a concept of God and their concept is directly related to the relationship that they have with their parents.
Based on these ideas, we would expect to see significant changes in religious belief and practice as the democratically raised children of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s became adults. One notable change is a movement away from organized religion, suggesting that the traditional notions of God and religious expression no longer fit. The Pew Research Study (2015), which tracks trends in America’s religious landscape, notes that “the unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S” (2015. May 12). And each subsequent generation includes more people who identify with no religion at all. Within Catholicism, a growing number of people are questioning the church’s ideas about divorce and remarriage, marriage to non-Catholics, non-traditional family structures, and contraception (Lipka, 2015). In each of these instances, there is the sense that the church is overstepping its bounds and intruding upon parishioner’s rights.
Published ideas about God and traditional liturgy have also taken a new bent. Theologian Marcia Falk (1999a) argues that the hierarchical notion of God as Ruler —and of humans as His “flock” or “servants”—so prevalent in traditional liturgy, is the “basis of hierarchy and domination” (p. 133). in our society. It is a mindset, she believes, that promotes all forms of one-up, one-down relationships, including “sexism, homophobia, racism, classism” (p. 133). Falk (1999b) further argues that the anthropomorphism of God promotes species-ism, “the belief that the human species is godlier than the rest of creation” (p. 138). She turns instead to the mystic’s view that “All is One,” a philosophy which is better aligned with current notions of equality and respect for all forms of life.
Marianne Williamson (1994), a contemporary spiritual teacher, directly acknowledges the relationship between changing political views and changing ideas about God:
Just as the founding of democracy relocated the center of political power from the king to the individual, so shall the spiritual revolution of our times relocate the center of religious power…from religious institutions to the heart of the human being. (p. 52)
Professor David Tacey (2004), whose research focuses on college students’ ideas about God, spirituality, and the sacred, draws similar conclusions. The new youth spirituality feels “the sacred [as] intimate and close, a felt resonance within the self” (p. 79). Like Falk, Tacey notes the re-emergence of the mystical tradition, which fits more closely with young people’s notions about God and self. However, Tacey points out that the next phase of spirituality must move beyond our notions of democracy. Many self-serving ideas and lifestyles have gone hand in hand with our freedoms. “Spirituality,” Tacey states, “explodes the myths of egotism, narcissism, self-sufficiency, individualism and privatization. It is completely subversive to modern society” (p. 147).
In my diagram of the new myth, democracy is placed opposite ancestral wisdom. The two must balance one another. Democracy allows each new generation to have its voice, ensuring that the spiritual practices and rituals embraced by a community resonate with contemporary meaning and are not merely the empty shells of practices that once held significance. Democracy alone, however, can result in a self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. Ancestral wisdom mitigates that tendency, tempering individual autonomy with communal responsibility.
My notion of ancestral wisdom incorporates two distinct ideas: 1) a connection to the wisdom and values of traditional peoples who lived in harmony with the land, engaged in seasonal celebrations and rituals, and honored the needs of the community over the desires of the individual; and 2) a connection with one’s own ancestral lineage. In the paragraphs below, I explore how ancestral wisdom can inform and deepen our democratic practices. Later, I discuss how ancestral wisdom can transform our psychological understandings and our relationship with the natural world.
I once heard Chana Andler speak about tzedakah, the Jewish obligation to give 10% of one’s income to the needy. Andler contrasted American society—with its focus on material acquisition and individual rights—with the European shtetl, where the community always provided for the poor. “In a nation in which the focus is on rights, you breed takers,” she said. “In a nation in which the focus is on obligations, you breed givers” (C. Andler, personal communication, March 23, 2003). In our current world, where deforestation is wreaking havoc, where our “right” to burn coal and use fossil fuels is causing unprecedented global warming, where we outsource the production of goods and take advantage of underpaid foreign laborers, “taking” causes too high of a toll. Our survival depends upon our ability, as a culture, to now breed givers instead of takers. Ancestral wisdom holds an awareness of the greater good.
African elder Malidoma Some´ (1993) points to the need for mentorship, ritual, initiation and community, which have been largely ignored in modern Western life. Democratic ideals imply that we reach our deepest potential through our freedoms. The corollary belief is that we must go it alone, that our unfoldment is somehow in competition with others. Some´ reminds us of ancient wisdom: “Without a community you cannot be yourself. The community is where we draw the strength needed to effect changes inside of us” (p. 49). It is critical that we slow down and incorporate ritual into our daily lives. Social decay is inevitable “when the focus of everyday living displaces ritual in a given society” (p. 14). In our incessant busy-ness, we forget why we are here. We starve our souls of their deepest nourishment (p. 18). When democracy and ancestral wisdom merge, we are deeply supported by community in becoming our truest selves. The recent onslaught of Internet based courses that provide virtual community to support spiritual growth, empowerment and fulfillment is an interesting example of ancient practices blending with modern technology.
Ancestral wisdom knows that to be old is to carry life knowledge. Elders provide mentorship, without which there is no objective way to assess growth along a spiritual path. Author Joel Morwood (2009) comments that without a spiritual teacher “you have only your ego to rely on. But…your ego is the main obstacle to Enlightenment” (p. 64). Trying to grow spiritually with only your ego as your guide “is like a prisoner relying on the warden to help him escape” (p. 64). The odds of success are low.
And yet, ancestral wisdom must also be tempered. Over-attachment to ancestral practices can result in a fundamentalist rigidity that precludes openness, acceptance, and healthy movement towards change and growth. Ancestral ways can mask a particularism that judges or excludes others. Repeated stories of past victimization or oppression by other cultural or religious groups—stories that fail to see the other with the eyes of love—can promote intergenerational conflicts with no seeming way out. We must distinguish between ancient ways and ancestral wisdom. Not all that is old is wise. Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests a simple test for all spiritual practices: Ask yourself, “Does it open my heart and make me more compassionate? Or does it close my heart and make me more judgmental?” (Gold, personal communication, February, 2008). Wisdom is aligned with an open heart.
Carl Jung noted that there are four distinct ways of viewing and interpreting reality. Thinking and feeling are opposites, as are intuition and sensation. In my model, democracy represents the thinking realm. It is heady, based upon the ideals expressed by political thinkers and philosophers, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke. Ancestral wisdom, with its rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage holds the feeling realm. It is heart-based. It remembers the soul’s need for meaning, for belonging and community.
Intuition and sensation are the two remaining ways of viewing and interpreting reality. In my model, intuition falls within the realm of psychology and sensation is held in the natural world.
Just as immigrants at the turn of the 20th century believed that democratic ideals could replace traditional religion, many have believed that psychology alone could provide a non-dogmatic approach to spiritual development. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1955), Carl Jung states that the field of psychology grew because of the spiritual vacuum created by religion’s failure to meet modern people’s spiritual needs.
How has psychology changed our relationship to organized religion and our notions of the Divine? Psychologist Greg Mogenson (2005) believes that religion and psychology ask fundamentally different questions. Religion’s core question is “What does God demand of me?” This question places God first and the individual psyche second. The Old Testament God, who “demands…submissive obedience…to His awesome knowledge and power…” (p. 10) is at odds with both our rising democratic consciousness and our modern psychological awareness. Not too many of us (outside of religious fundamentalism) would define our spiritual practice as obedience to a demanding God.
Through the advent of psychology, we have come to see that belief in a harsh, punitive, judgmental God leads to various negative psychological complexes. Michael Vannoy Adams (2005) describes the Middle Eastern cultural complex, which plays out as an obedience complex in the psyches of Jews and Christians and as a submission complex in the Islamic psyche, making individuation challenging. Related to this is the Puritan perfectionism complex (Roy, 2004), based in the notion that “in order to placate a God who punishes failings with little mercy, one has little choice but to repress instinctual desires” (p. 73) and try to be perfect. Finally, Sylvia Brinton Perrera (1986) links the scapegoat complex to those raised with the Old Testament image of God.
While most contemporary Americans are not consciously aware of these complexes, an unconscious awareness exists. Psychology has permeated mainstream thought. As a result, there has been a pull—particularly amongst young people—away from traditional Judeo-Christian religion and a simultaneous rise in other spiritual practices. Buddhism appeals to many precisely because it sidesteps the issue of the Old Testament God. It also easily co-exists with a psychological consciousness (Brazier, 2006). In the West, adherents to Buddhism have grown in recent decades (Lampman, 2006). We have also seen a rise in psychologically based spirituality (such as A Course in Miracles), earth-based spirituality (such as the Goddess movement or shamanism), body-based spiritual practices (such as yoga), and spiritual practices that eliminate traditional western religious language (such as the Toltec Four Agreements).
Psychology, Mogenson (2005) argues, presents a question that is very different from the traditional religious question. Psychology asks, “What does my soul want?” (p. 10), placing psyche’s needs first. In Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality Beyond Religion (2007), Lionel Corbett outlines the possibility of a personal, psychologically based spirituality that listens to the soul’s call. Drawing upon numinous dreams and experiences, Corbett believes that the individual can discover a more “authentic spirituality” than what is found in traditional religious institutions. His focus is on direct experiences of the Divine. Corbett explains: “The experiential approach does not say that God is love, or that God is one, or that God is a trinity, or omnipotent, or personal, or [an] eternal invisible spirit” (p. 31) It does not define God at all. The experiential approach does not believe that specific rituals are the ‘right’ way to connect with God, Corbett notes. “Instead we ask: ‘What is your direct experience of the sacred? What form does it take in your life? How does it affect your behavior” (pp. 31-32) and influence your feelings? The psychological approach to the sacred includes creative expression as a pathway to the Divine. Corbett views psychotherapy “as a secular form of salvation” (p. 113) that addresses our desire for wholeness in a different manner than traditional religion.
The psychological approach to the sacred eliminates the issue of a punitive, judgmental God and allows for deep, personalized forms of spiritual expression. However a key issue with the psychological approach is that an over-focus on one’s inner world can become narcissistic. The true destination of the spiritual path is social responsibility (Tacey, 2004, p. 148).
Whereas Mogenson and Corbett view psychology as being at odds with traditional religion, many contemporary theologians—particularly those with a mystical/nondual worldview—have moved beyond the notion that either God or the individual psyche must come first.
A Course in Miracles suggests that our psychological needs are not at odds with God’s will at all, because we are not separate from God. There is only one will. We experience personal happiness when we replace fear with love. Jay Michaelson (2009) replaces the idea of a demanding God with the notion of personal commitment. A path with heart, he explains, requires more than just listening to our desires or inner callings. It necessitates “cultivating…compassion, righteousness, and openness….[which] implies a task, an obligation” (p. 120), a commitment to others. Private spirituality is a stepping stone along the spiritual path, but it represents only a transitional stage (Tacey, 2004).
Another limitation of the psychological approach to spirituality is that the language of psychology (enmeshment, family dysfunction, individuation, etc.) suggests that connection with our ancestral lineage keeps us ill, rather than strengthening us (Iversen, 2009). Lisa Iversen (2009), social worker and family constellation facilitator, notes that many of her clients hold both family and community at an emotional distance. “By default rather than design, psychotherapy has [become]…one of our culture’s replacements for ancestors…for the [lost] web of connection” (p. 12). Therapy, however, cannot replace what is missing. A therapist is “not a tribe” (p. 7). Iversen likens the role of ancestry to the blueprint of a house. The blueprint—though unseen—permeates the structure. To think that the house arose independent of it is to view life at a very literal level. So it is with our ancestry. Our ancestors, even those we have never met, hold an “influence…though largely invisible” (p. 6) on our present lives.
Ancestral wisdom reminds us of where we came from, which helps us to connect deeply with who we are. Marie-Louise von Franz (1999) comments on the hole that may be created when we lose connection to our roots. Having analyzed Americans at the Jung Institute in Zurich, von Franz saw the psychological consequence of being cut off from one’s ancestral lineage. Psychologically, there was a gap, a lack of continuity. On the surface, von Franz faced “a cultivated white man [but] beneath that [exterior] was a primitive shadow” (p. 7). By consciously assimilating their ancestors’ stories, and perhaps visiting the lands their families had emigrated from, her clients developed a fuller sense of who they were.
Family constellation work looks directly at our ancestral influence, striving to bring what is held unconsciously into conscious awareness. An individual’s issues are viewed through an intergenerational lens. Constellation work suggests that we can embrace the parts of our ancestry that strengthen us and leave the entanglements and parts that no longer fit with the ancestors. This focus on aligning with what brings us strength—rather than what causes our deficits—is a movement away from a DSM, pathology-based approach to mental health. This orientation is also found in the emergence of positive psychology, which uses the scientific method to identify those character traits, actions and orientations that contribute to positive human functioning.
The Natural World
Psychology arguably holds the intuitive function in Jung’s scheme. And its opposite, sensation, is found in the natural world. The sensate function addresses what we perceive physically, with our senses, in the present moment.
Our culture’s relationship with the natural world has been severely limited. We have replaced our ancestor’s awareness that all of nature, including ourselves, holds “pure potential, undivided from source” (Amara, 2014, p. 16) with the notion that we can control and manipulate the natural world to meet our needs. We do so in the name of science, which has achieved a myth-like, unquestioned status. Even though science constantly rewrites itself and asserts new claims, it is constantly viewed as “truth” (Bond, 1993). As with democracy and psychology, Bond suggests, there are those who believe that science represents the new mythology, but alone, it is incomplete. It leaves our inner worlds languishing and creates a mythological split between our inner and outer worlds. We lose our sense of spiritual wholeness.
How has the scientific method changed our spiritual expression? For some, science has stood in the way of faith. We’ve learned to believe only that which can be proven. By definition, however, faith is belief in that which cannot be proven. Others of us have brought the scientific method to our spiritual lives. “We ‘test’ the claims of religion against reality as we see it, and against our emotional and intuitive responses, and we draw conclusions based on these observations” (Tacey, 2004, p. 45). Young people, in particular, feel less inclined to embrace a spiritual/religious approach whole. Tacey insists they are more inclined to pick and choose and see what works for them personally.
How has the scientific method limited us as spiritual beings? Our culture’s relationship to the natural world has been dominated by a scientific mindset. Through categorization and systemization, we have cut off our heart’s connection with nature and held ourselves apart from it. The role of humans in the natural world has become one of domination and exploitation. The scientific method runs on a linear mindset: we move from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. It gives us the faulty notion that nature—and life—is within our control (Amara, 2014).
When we hold the natural world in combination with ancestral wisdom, we become a fluid part of the whole. Our ancestors held a cyclical view of life. They understood the ebb and flow, the rising and falling away, of all things in nature (Amara, 2014). When we hold on to linear thinking as our primary way of relating to the natural world, we suffer, because we cannot force things to move forward in the way we would choose. “Cyclical living teaches us to embrace the ups and downs of life” (p. 17). Rituals and ceremonies attached to nature’s cycles (the seasons, the moon’s cycle, etc.) help us to feel aligned with the natural world and to see ourselves as part of it.
The sense of separation between humans and the land was created in our minds and must be healed if we are to survive. We can no longer place human “needs” for material resources over the needs of the natural world to sustain life. The permaculture ethic—“Earth care. People care. Fair share”—is revolutionary. It brings our democratic sensibilities to the global level, applying it to the distribution of resources and to care for the earth. It divorces democracy’s notion of equality from capitalism, placing the survival of all above the profit motive. It may take centuries for us to get there, but our survival as a civilization is at stake.
New fields of study acknowledge the inter-connection between our psychological health and the natural world. Ecopsychology suggests that “the illusion of separation” between humans and nature is the cause of widespread ecological devastation and untold human suffering (Davis, 2006). Terrapsychology explores the relationship between the earth, our psyches, and culture, suggesting that geographical patterns influence the development of ideas, relationships, and our sense of self (Chalquist, 2007). Terrapsychology also suggests that the land carries an awareness of events that transpired upon it.
If so, American soil carries knowledge of horrific wrongs. Our culture was built by taking land from native peoples and using slave labor to build it. This is the often-repressed truth. Iversen (2009) believes that we are unable to heal from our individual issues of guilt, shame, blame, and perfectionism—no matter how many self-help books we turn to for guidance—because we have not communally acknowledged and made amends for past wrongs. As a culture, we are guilty.
A new sense of urgency is developing, asking us to not view ourselves as “separate from” anything. The “prophets” of our time are all horrors, urgently demanding that we wake up and pay attention. Wildfires, droughts, floods and typhoons brought on by global warming remind us that our lifestyle is not sustainable. The honeybee’s colony collapse disorder screams, “Your food supply is at risk if you don’t stop poisoning the planet with pesticides!” Cancer is running rampant, begging us to look at what we’ve done to our land, our air, and our water—and how we can clean it up. Alienation and despair, caused by our separation from each other and from the earth, has led one mass shooter after another to horrific acts of violence. Destruction of habitat and species extinction ignore the value of, and our interconnection with, other forms of life. If we continue on our present track, we are headed towards annihilation. Marianne Williamson (1995) says that we must love one another unconditionally before we can learn to care for the earth. If that is the case, now is the time. Here lies the new myth.
The New Myth
The new mythology incorporates:
- The “equal right to dignity and respect,” a democratic sensibility, extended amongst and then beyond all humans, to include the earth, the sky, the sea, and all living things;
- The “equal right to dignity and respect,” a democratic sensibility, extended amongst and then beyond all humans, to include the earth, the sky, the sea, and all living things;
- A psychology that moves beyond notions of dysfunction or self-indulgence, bringing our understanding of our inner natures out of isolation and into service;
- An appreciation of the natural world and our place within it;
- An embrace of the ancestral wisdom that exists beyond conformity to any creed.
In the new myth, we find the re-emergence of an old philosophy: mysticism. Mysticism is at odds with the notion of a puppeteer God who commands, demands, rewards or punishes humans. We are part of a divine All, in which each aspect of creation is equally valuable. Mystics believe that the boundary between self and other is illusory (Morwood, 2009). Like drops of water in a large ocean, we are all part of a larger whole. Any harm I do to another, I do to myself (Williamson, 1992). From this, there is a natural awareness of the ripple effect that our actions have in the world. In the past, mystical thought aligned itself with one or another of the religious denominations. It may do so again, as a transitional phase. However, in the myth we are moving towards, there will be no divisions. It will take time to move beyond religious particularism to universalism—the rise of a new myth can take centuries—but that is the goal. In my diagram, the new myth exists at the center, beyond even the divisions of democracy, psychology, ancestral wisdom and the natural world, in the place where Oneness is all that matters. And in that Oneness— in the absence of dominance, exploitation, self-indulgence, judgment, greed and victimization—what remains? Love.
THE NEW MYTH
(Please note that the examples in the overlapping areas are not meant to be inclusive of all developments or all possibilities. They are meant to provide examples of a trend that has been accelerating in recent decades: inward movement towards the inner circle. Please refer to the text for a discussion of the limitations of a Venn diagram in depicting the intersection of four subsets.)
1 – In the area where democracy, ancestral wisdom and the natural world meet, we find Earth based traditions that are open to all.
2 – Ecopsychology is found in the area where democracy (in terms of equal right to dignity and respect for all life forms) psychology, and the natural world meet.
3 – Western Buddhism and “A Course in Miracles” are examples that land in this zone.
4 – Awe, gratitude, and wonder land in the area where psychology, ancestral wisdom, and the natural world meet. So does positive psychology, which employs scientific research and a study of cultural values across time to explore what creates happiness.
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Deborah Salomon has a master’s degree in Depth Psychology from Sonoma State University and is a trained family constellations facilitator. A former schoolteacher, she currently works as a clinical musician, playing her harp for healing purposes in hospitals and health care centers. She lives in Santa Rosa, CA with her husband, son and golden retriever.