The Tales that Make Us Whole
Written by: Michelle Belanger
What do Joseph Campbell, Gestalt psychology, and reincarnation have in common? Read this article on myth, fact, and history to find out. A new Dedicant to the House just recently donated a series of books by mythologist Joseph Campbell to the library. I'm a huge fan of Campbell, and I've been paging through the books, savoring the cross-cultural information they contain.
In doing so, I've been revisiting a portion of my this-life past. Joseph Campbell's book The Hero With a Thousand Faces was a definitive text in my search for spiritual meaning. His writing led me to the works of Carl Jung, to the sacred texts of the Hindus, to the Sutras, to a survey of world myth.
And in revisiting all of this information, I realized that not everyone here has gone through the same journey that I took and therefore won't have drawn the same conclusions about the nature of our mythic past, the human need for myth and meaning, and the difference between personal truth and empirical fact.
There is a school of thought in psychology calle “Gestalt”. It means “whole.” Gestalt theory explains why, when we look at the random pattern of clouds, we tend to see faces, ships, or other objects in the shape of the clouds. Why some people see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in random stains or patterns on the side of a grain silo. Even why we seem to hear voices in static and white noise.
Our brains are constantly trying to organize the stimulus of our surroundings, and part of this organization involves the recognition of objects and forms. The very process of perceiving the world relies upon our brains' abilities to organize widely divergent stimuli into a human face or a field, or the notes of a song. It is a fact that our brains are so hung up on this organization that even when the stimuli are actually quite random with no overall pattern or meaning to them, a pattern is still imposed. Hence why we might glance out a window at night and at first see a face peering at us in the woods when there is no face: at second glance, the face resolves itself into a collection of twigs and leaves. The face was a projection and a creation of our minds.
The purpose of this segue into Gestalt psychology is the understanding that our minds have an inherent need for things to make sense. There is an inherent need to impose patterns, meaning, and order even upon things that are utterly random. This is so fundamental to our perception of the world around us that we do it quite frequently without ever meaning to.
On a cognitive level, mythic thinking is an extension of this Gestalt drive. On a fundamental level, our brains cannot accept that a series of events or experiences have no pattern to them. So even when there's no *real* pattern, a pattern is often imposed. When we seek to explain the Universe and our place in it, we are driven to take the available stimuli and resolve them into something that has meaning to us -- even if the things we're shaping into meaning actually have no “true” meaning of their own.
Although Dr. Ian Stevenson and his successors have proven the existence of past lives to my (and many peoples') satisfaction by gathering over 3600 well-researched case histories from all over the globe, I still keep this fact of Gestalt thinking in mind whenever I approach the realm of past life memory. I understand that the human mind is a vastly complex structure, and that it has an amazing tendency to fabricate things in order to explain things or hide things or resolve things between its conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious parts.
I accept that it is entirely possible that past lives are nothing more than the unconscious and semi-conscious mind speaking to me in symbol about forgotten childhood memories, repressed traumas, and latent issues, and that my vivid recollections of past lives are nothing more than a Gestalt function where my brain *must* resolve these symbols and images into a coherent pattern.
This is why it is important to understand the difference between fact and truth. On a spiritual level, these stories my brain is telling me -- whatever their real source -- have a profound significance to me. To me, they hold spiritual truths that enrich my understanding of myself, my universe, and my place in the grand scheme of things. However, their validity lies only in their truth -- not in their fact. It would be next to impossible to verify any of these things as objectively real. The histories I recall are not fact. While all facts are true, not all truths are facts, and the importance in a truth lies with the individual who holds that truth as meaningful.
Such truths are mythic in nature -- they speak to a deeper part of us than the rational self that deals with the everyday world. That humans have a psychological need for such truths that help resolve patterns and meanings out of the randomness of existence is evident in Gestalt theory, in the works of Jung, and Campbell, and countless others.
Is a truth fact? Can it be? For someone who understands that our lives need meaning for us to function, it doesn't really matter. Faith is accepting that such personal truths have meaning regardless of their actual reality. Spirituality is the peronal pursuit of such meaning and religion is merely an instituionalized and standardized approach to finding such meaning in the world.
Our past life stories are our personal myths. Within the House, they are potent myths that revolve around a collective tale. The fact that these myths may have no meaning to anyone but us is immaterial. The myths are a necessary part of our approach to the world. They are the stories that make us whole.