What would we be without our ability to imagine? What kind of a mammal would we have developed into if imagination didn’t start to form in the minds of our early ancestors? What would life be without inspiration? There are many reasons why myth matters.
My kids’ playful exploration of their world, and how they play, create, and interact with their surroundings, strikes the chord of YES in my body! They live in the space that naturally weaves where they are, who they are, and who they are becoming, what the world is, and what it could become.
We were out camping in Joshua Tree National Park last weekend. I won’t get into all the details here, but the circumstances were different from the way we usually show up in nature, and the extra “stuff” going on made a difference. They were less interactive with the natural world, and less connected with the inner realms of tender receptors and generators of inspiration.
They are usually engaged so deeply with the environment, noticing details in plants and rocks, and having a spaciousness of time, a quieter hum, and freedom from schedule, which all become a womb for their inventions; games never before played, poetry writing itself through them, and ideas about life and the cosmos unfolding under the starry sky.
Imagination, like anything worthy of contemplation and exploration, is a complex function. It is the ground of creativity, the space within us that gives birth to what hasn’t been before, a land into which we can escape if/when reality becomes too harsh to handle, and the mother vehicle that takes us from necessity into invention.
Art comes from an imaginative world within us, that can envision possibilities and see something that doesn’t exist yet, or something that exists but in different forms. Science without imagination cannot exist either, as new discoveries cannot be made without a landscape woven of both possibility and probability. From intricate relationships within our brain, a play of neural networks, a connective process that includes the frontal cortex, the hippocampus, the basal (I always smell basil when I read this word) ganglia, and white matter, creativity emerges.
As a kid, my imagination was a sanctuary. I lived in my inner lands of dreams, in pretend worlds, and in caves that were homes for creatures and beasts that existed only in books and in my head.
I know I mention this a lot, only because it never ceases to blow my mind, but in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harrari speaks of mythology as that which differentiated homosapians from other types of humans, and was, in fact, the tool that allowed us to be the only humans that survived. Myth was able to gather more people around a shared idea than anything before it could.
Our imagination, it seems, differentiates us from other species. But does it really? Is what we call “our” imagination really our own?
We know that other animals are incredibly creative too. Creativity isn’t a feature that belongs to humanity alone. There’s a book I haven’t read yet, but I can’t wait to dig into, called; The Creative Lives Of Animals, by Carol Gigiliotte. Here’s a quote from it:
“Most of us view animals through a very narrow lens, one that sees only bits and pieces of beings who seem mostly peripheral to our lives. In actuality, animals are complete individuals with the potential for creative behavior in many aspects of their lives. Hearing the gorgeous and uniquely pure whistles of a sparrow refreshes our spirits. Recognizing those whistles as part of the creative languages of birds cracks open a wider view of animals’ place in the world. What we might not know is that many songbirds are not born knowing how to sing. For these birds, their songs are not innate; they learn their songs. Not only that, but where the songs are learned, when they are learned, and from whom they are learned are unique to each species. The ability to learn in varied ways points to traits we evoke when discussing the foundations of cognition, consciousness, and creativity in humans and is just as useful in discussing those foundations in animals.”
We’re becoming aware of other creatures’ creativity. We’re also opening up to ideas about how other species might be influencing the way that we ourselves create; not only in cognitive ways, not only as inspiration, or imagination. Plants might be reaching out to us, trying to communicate with us, and maybe even possibly manipulating our ways of thinking, seeing, and wanting. While that seems like an imaginative thought, it might not be far from reality at all.
While Harrari writes about mythology being homosapians’ most important survival tool, he also presents the theory that the agricultural revolution – the groundbreaking process that settled humans and tied them to one place, made us grow roots, and transformed us from hunter-gatherers to farmers first, and then to the variety of things that we now consider ourselves to be – was caused by wheat. Grains domesticated us.
Art is birthed through us. And it also comes from the world around us. Inspiration is a connective tissue that makes separating outer and inner very difficult, if not impossible. We are entangled with the world. Your next inhalation comes from a force greater than you that surrounds you. As you exhale, you’re touching and changing the world around you. The most basic function of your body, without which life cannot exist, reminds you that you are never separate from everything else.
Of course our individuation is important. We are each a unique individual. But that doesn’t make us less entangled with others, or less interwoven with the environment. And we don’t need to try to go to the ocean of oneness – we are swimming in it at all times, we’re never not part of it. Oneness expresses itself as manyness, and our plurality, our diversity, our differentiation does not take away from our interconnectedness. Biodiversity is necessary for a healthy ecosystem. The many create the one. If the one was only made of one thing it would not survive, let alone thrive.
Mythology tells us about ourselves. Similar archetypes show up in stories from different places, different cultures, and different times. They offer us access points into our unconscious, and help us excavate pieces that can become useful in the process of understanding ourselves.
Stories and the archetypal play within them can also help us understand each other more. Myth isn’t only reflective, but also refractive, giving us the one as the many, showing us more of what’s possible, and continuously reminding us that not only are we every character, place, and event in the story, but so is everyone else.
The sea of the unconscious, as Jung called it, is personal and collective, planetary and cosmic. The vastness of it, and the infinite aspects of self that not only swim in it, but are the components that make up the consistency of it, are part of a shared reality.
A wave licks the shore of awareness and we might not know that this thought isn’t our own, but has been pulsing in our cells, through death and renewal, dissolution and regeneration, passing through the generations, since we’ve been an egg in our mother’s body, when she was in our grandmother’s womb.
A feeling so strong that we might burst, flushes through our system every time we walk through a certain area. Something in that space evokes awe or fear or horror or ecstasy. Something happened there. We don’t know the story. But our bones burn, blasting with sensation that we can’t explain. Our senses receive information, triggering memories that aren’t always our own.
The unconscious reaches for us at night in our sleep, extending toward us in daydreams, and popping in us as ideas, feelings, and physical sensation. The unconscious is never not with us. When we turn toward it, befriend the darkness of the abyss within, and instead of slaying the dragon, learn to integrate it, and maybe even ride it, we are able to write the story of who we are becoming, instead of it being written for us.
The unconscious reaches into our lives in fragments, in shreds, in pieces that don’t always make sense. We cannot pick up all the pieces. They are not all seen, they are infinite in numbers as they always keep breaking, and they don’t all belong. But we can gather some threads, some shreds, and piece together new versions of self and new visions of community, collectivity, and connection.
Imagination is an important thread within the many that weave the fabric of reality. It reaches toward us from the unseen, sometimes from within, other times reformulating a concept influenced by something we’ve seen, or reshaping us into someone we haven’t yet been. If we orient ourselves toward it, make vessels that can receive it, and generate with and within its fertile soil, we might be able to design more sections within the interwoven landscape of person and place, of who we want to keep becoming and the world within which we live.
Mythology made much of the human world. We can argue that it destroyed much of the world too. But we can further the conversation about why myth matters by recognizing our ability to choose how we participate in the story that we are telling, by telling old stories in new ways, and by writing new mythologies into being.
If you want to dive deep into a mythopoetic journey that takes you into your body, and supports your process of weaving together the person that you are becoming, join us for the Summer Solstice Somatic Ceremony. This powerful exploration of archetypes, stories, and the season, will nourish your soul and enliven your system as we breathe, move, chant, and contemplate. This embodied ritual is made of eight sections. It is rich and robust and will be a powerful resource for you this Summer. All the details are here.
For another exploration and practice (yoga) of some of the topics covered in this essay, check out this video.
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