Why We Should Create Personal Mythologies (and How)
An experiment in using mythic mode to confront the meaning crisis.
Setting context for this post is going to be tough. It’s gonna get weird but I try to tie it all together into a useful proposal by the end. Bear with me!
I tossed this idea out the other day:
This is an idea that’s been developing in the back of my head, in very nebulous regions of my notes and thoughts, after a number of long-running themes have converged for me. My book on productive disagreement is out, and the 3 years I spent researching and writing it have really crystallized for me both the urgent need for new ways to relate to one another, which require new ways of having conversations, which require new ways of thinking about the world. It seems daunting but there are many very viable paths forward.
If you want to skip ahead and see what I’m talking about instead of all this stuff I’m writing about the process, here’s a first stab at a few fables that I’m seeding my personal mythology with: Snake Fables, Book I.
Otherwise, read on to learn more about what the “meaning crisis” is, why I think it’s important to revive the mythical realm in a way that is symbiotic with the realms of facts, personal values, and practicality. And lastly, a little bit about how we can go about doing this.
What this post covers:- Introduction: What is the Meaning Crisis
- Step 1: Rebuild the Mythical Realm
- Step 2: Plant Something Wicked
- Step 3: Add Tension That Cultivates Wisdom
- Step 4: Spark a Dialogue
- Conclusion: Take This Away
Introduction: What is the Meaning Crisis?
In John Vervaeke’s amazing 50-episode YouTube series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis (which is very long but completely worth every minute if this topic is of interest to you), he articulates 3 Perennial Problems that cause us to feel like we’ve lost our grasp on the meaning of our lives. They can be succinctly described as:
- We’ve lost our sense of connection to an unquestionable shared ideology. Whereas throughout most of history we could rely on very specific cultural traditions, stories, a wise leaders that told us what is true, what is important, and what we should do with ourselves, for the most part those traditions have been exposed as being mistaken and in many cases harmful. There aren’t any unquestionable ideologies we can just assume we all agree on anymore. We can’t take anything for granted, and this causes us to feel like life is absurd. At best, we can suspend ourselves a bit above nihilism with secular humanism, but it’s not very stable because there’s nothing unquestionable about it.
- We’ve lost our sense of belonging and connection with others. Our identities have fragmented, intersected, complexified, and polarized. We’re swirling around an inescapable web of cultural systems that continue to rely on tribalism and oppression to maintain cohesiveness, and we can’t figure out how to connect with each other when every one of us has both benefited from and been complicit in perpetuating the problems at hand. The only tribes that create belonging these days seem to be those engaged in war with other tribes, and it’s tough to feel like we truly belong in any of them. Expressed as feelings of alienation and loneliness.
- We’ve lost our sense of connection to ourselves. Without an ideology we don’t question, and a community we truly belong to, it’s tough to know who we even are. We don’t have mentors and rituals to help us find ourselves. Even as we present ourselves as personal brands, we know that there’s no true soul there. We’re stuck with questions about every belief system, feeling like an outsider to every community, and don’t even know what we want or who we truly are. This expresses itself as a pervasive anxiety, and we soothe ourselves by taking up a regimen of escapes from that anxiety.
These 3 perennial problems resonated with me to the core. I have been circling around them for years, calling them “universal conundrums” in the cognitive bias cheat sheet and eventually evolving them into the realms of the Head, Heart, and Hands in my book. These 3 realms are defined by how conversations in them are resolved:
- The Head Realm. The realm of information, evidence, etc that we can refer to socially as “true”. Conversations here can be resolved by looking up evidence that exists in the world somewhere. This maps to our connection with others, because we rely on communities and institutions to generate and vouch for this data that we can point to and dialogue about.
- The Heart Realm. The realm of values, beliefs, preferences that we build within ourselves and know is true subjectively. Conversations here can be resolved with self-reflection and introspection (if the question is about our values) or by asking other people about their own beliefs, values, etc. This maps to the perennial problem of connection with ourselves, because these values in many ways are the way we connect with ourselves.
- The Hands Realm. The realm of proposals, cultural norms, predictions, and markets. Conversations here can be resolved with making a bet, running an experiment, and then waiting for the results and comparing them to our predictions. This maps to the perennial problem of connection to the unquestionable ideology, because these are the culmination of the information and values we have, and that we use to do stuff out in the world that has an impact consistent with our values and knowledge.
All of this is very limited background that probably doesn’t do justice to the complexity and urgency of the meaning crisis if you aren’t already familiar with it so feel free to drop off here if it feels absurd. Or, watch this video with David Fuller and John Vervaeke because they do a good job of describing it too:
My goal with this article is to not only propose that we consider personal mythologies as a category of responses to these problems, but to start doing it and sharing how it is going. Near the end of Vervaeke’s series he articulates the need for a “wise cultivation of enlightenment”, which is sort of what I’m hinting at, while acknowledging that that might seem ridiculous to most people. Again, if it does, you probably won’t get much out of the rest of this article, and I won’t feel bad if you close this tab right here.
Assuming you’re still with me on this journey, it’s time to double down on the weirdness!
Step 1: Rebuild the Mythical Realm
If you’re like me, an atheist and about as anti-religion as they come, it might feel a bit dangerous to give the mythic realm another chance. The key is to be very strict about what we put in there, and to consult the realms of the head, heart, and hands as we go to make sure we’re not adding anything that isn’t compatible with our information, our values, and our practical lives.
It’s not meant to be rushed.
We’ve lost the language needed to talk about where, if not in the scientific head realm, they should be located in our belief systems. I think one of the reasons why this realm has become so problematic is because it began to blend with the realm of the head and heart in counterproductive ways. It needs its own space, with its own rules. Looking back to the realms of the head, heart, and hands, for example, it’s easy to see how democracy and capitalism live in the realm of the hands (they’re all about making things work together), and it’s easy to see how therapy and relationships live in the realm of the heart (they’re all about identifying deep patterns in ourselves), and it’s easy to see how the scientific method and math and physics live in the realms of the head (they’re all about replicable results and data). But where can religion live? Where can spirituality live? Where can angels, demons, heaven, hell, ghosts, muses, superstitions, horoscopes, etc live? If you put them in the realm of the head (information) they quickly fall apart due to lack of tangible evidence. If you put them into the realm of the heart (personal values), there’s no way to say that these subjective values connect to universal truths, which most of them try to claim at some point. If you put them in the realm of the hands (useful proposals), we quickly learn that they have very little predictive power and usefulness compared to other belief systems. Before the meaning crisis ate it all up, there was another realm that we could all use by referring to “God’s Word” or “Divine Will” or fate or destiny or prophesy or what have you. That realm has been destroyed, bit by bit, over the last couple centuries, and it was eaten up by the other realms: the head realm invalidated its truth claims, the heart realm showed how its belief systems had the effect of reducing our agency against our values, and the hands realm pointed to other belief systems that were much more effective at building useful proposals about the world, and profiting from them.
The Lost 4th Realm
This 4th realm of myths has been dismantled, and now we don’t have a place to put divinities, spirits, and the sacred other than into the realm of the heart as entertainment. The symbols and archetypes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Marvel Universe, Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones are now more a part of our collective culture and language than the stories of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Except they’re limited to being entertaining fictions instead of sacred myths. They’re designed to help us escape the anxiety of our perennial problems, not to solve them by affording us the tools and space that enable us to connect ourselves to reality and create meaning. To tentatively access this scrubbed mythical realm, try to remember times when you were deeply immersed in the flow state, and everything felt meaningful and connected around a specific skill or task. Does it have lots of baggage and trauma in there? If so, it may require more scrubbing before moving forward.
Since none of us likely have a mythical realm that isn’t problematic in at least a few ways, I propose that we revisit it with special suits and gloves, as you would a nuclear test zone. We need to reformat it, wipe it completely clean, twice, three times, and make sure all the yucky old toxic ideologies are really scrubbed off. Then, we can begin to ask if there’s anything at all that we can put in there that doesn’t set off our alarm bells in the other realms and re-traumatize us.
This realm was embedded in our language and cultures for a long time. It’s the realm where we sometimes access that feeling of true purpose, calling, and meaning. Everything makes sense in the mythic realm, for better and worse. It’s where epic forces participate in larger-than-life battles. It has quieter forces as well — we experience these as luck, or coincidence, or synchronicity. This article, Mythic Mode, really made this tangible for me:
Mythic mode is a way of looking at the world through a story-like lens. When you enter mythic mode, you recognize that you’re a character in Omega’s story, as is everyone else. And because you’re very likely familiar with a wide range of story types, you can probably look around and see who has been given which kind of plot hook, and to what kind of tale.
It’s a mode that enables personal transformation and enlightenment. It’s a mode that is all about establishing a connection with the sacred, so that we can use that to break our current frame of thinking and transcend it. It does this through story that’s not true from a factual, or subjective, or even predictive sense, but is only true as a myth of becoming.
If you can identify a well-known story type that fits the transition you want and also starts from a place pretty close to where you are, and you have enough slack to lean into that role, then the web might conspire to help you play out that script.
The thing is, you can’t just sit outside your role and figure out what to do. That isn’t what it feels like to live the epic story you’re examining; that’s playing the role of someone who is (among other things) analyzing the story they think they’re in.
Instead, if you want to use this approach, you have to learn how to experience story from the inside. That’s essentially what mythic mode is.
There was a passage in Kim Krans’s The Wild Unknown Archetypes Guidebook that said something similar, with different words (in case these resonate with you more):
Let’s imagine that as you open this deck, you are in fact discovering a pair of mystical spectacles and through their lenses you begin to view the world in a new and more vibrant way. These glasses have a knack for seeing The Unseen, unveiling the hidden, spotting the elusive, and bringing to life what has long been inanimate. For example, look at the mug that sits before you on your desk (or the one you drank from this morning). YES, INDEED, IT IS JUST A MUG. THAT’S ALL. A MUG IS A MUG! Yet, through the archetypal lens of your mystical spectacles the mug mimics one of the oldest forms of all… The Vessel! It tethers you to the innate desire of humans to hold something in, to contain a valued substance so it doesn’t leak, spill, dissipate, diminish, or disappear. We suddenly recognize that vessels and containers are everywhere… the physical body, a house, a relationship, a classroom, a state, a nation — they are all containers. Their purpose is to hold, protect, support, and distinguish one thing from the other.
Through this type of contemplation we understand why the morning routine with our warm drink is so timeless and satisfying. Sure, the mug is just a mug, yet while wearing our mystical spectacles, we know it’s more than that. We are now looking through the archetypal lens, where anything can happen. We hold The Vessel in our hands and bring it to our lips, and suddenly we are tied to an innately humbling human experience more universal than we could imagine.
The realm of myths, the archetypal lens, and mythic mode are different ways of seeing this way of connecting our reality to the universal story directly. And hopefully, by seeing it as a bridge that complements the other realms, and not as a world that replaces the other realms, we can reconnect with our meaningful role in the universe in a way that we’ve lost, and miss, without compromising our connection to truth, our values, and the practical.
Step 2: Plant Something Wicked
One strategy for figuring out what to put into the mythical realm is to look for real problems that we haven’t had much success addressing within the other realms. The realms of Head, Heart, and Hands are designed to resolve conversations in their own unique ways, so what kinds of problems or conversations could a mythical realm address that the others can’t?
And here we can basically look to the meaning crisis, because it’s a list of problems that began to pile up as soon as the old 4th realm was shut down: the Perennial Problems of being connected to ourselves, to others, and to a shared mythology. The real bottom line here is that we have a deeply embedded need to feel connected to the meaningless universe. The realms of Head, Heart, and Hands have nothing that can help us with this.
- Personal, unavoidable, and existential
- Difficult, requiring lots of investment up front, and ongoing
- Complex and impossible to really pin down for sure
- Lacking in any viable solutions
Because the other realms don’t stake any claims on this kind of problem, and yet are problems that we have identified as important to address, I propose that we seed our realm of myths with all of our wicked problems that have no other home. Since this is the realm of myths, we can wrap them with mythical narrative and say that these problems are the seeds that grow into a Dark Forest. The universe, mythically-speaking, is a dark forest that defies understanding and intimidates is with its darkness and it’s sheer size and scale.
Dark Forest is filled with disquieting truths that we can’t escape and even in our tiny corner of it there are existential problems expanding like a cancer across the land. The Dark Forest is teeming with giant monsters like political polarization, environmental disasters, systemic discrimination and inequality, human rights, morality, and the problem of mortality itself. There are also smaller monsters like personal fulfillment, creative energy, mental and physical health, difficult relationships, power dynamics, personal responsibility, financial independence, and job satisfaction. Each monster requires more investment than we can afford to give, and so we fight ineffectively against them individually and as a whole. Sometimes it feels like whatever we do only causes them to come back stronger.
This isn’t a realm that responds readily to facts, values, and proposals like we’re used to. It’s a realm that requires impossible trade-offs between existential needs, personal transformation, and enlightenment to transcend our understanding and become able to see the problems from a higher perspective. All we have is a problematic forest so far — we don’t have any gods to pray to for help, or prophesies of heroes that will rescue us. In fact, the reliance on heroes and saviors and gods was part of what made the realm fall apart last time, so we need something that not only integrates with the other realms but that also makes them stronger as well.
How can we use the artifacts we’ve brought in from the other realms (what we know about how wicked problems work, the beliefs and values that are threatened by them, and the strategies that seem to work best in the real world) to better face the wicked problems of the Dark Forest with integrity and respect?
It’s not all about heroes and saviors, though they play a part.
Step 3: Add Tension That Cultivates Wisdom
Vervaeke talks about how the “wise cultivation of enlightenment” requires us to develop an “ecosystem of psycho-technologies” that help us address the perennial problems. They need to be more than just a list of instructions, but a suite of practices we can directly experience that actively change us as we have them.
This ecology of practices needs to be wrapped in a welcoming and inviting worldview that is responsive to new circumstances, new members, and new developments from the Dark Forest without giving in to the downward spiral of self-deception and fear. It has to stay open and vulnerable to the truths that come out of the Dark Forest as well as the realms of the Head, Heart, and Hands. And it also needs so stay cohesive enough to hold people together, even as it changes over time.
An Updated Shared Language
In order to satisfy the other realms, we should first try to address some gripes they’ve had with past mythologies. I’ll mention some here briefly in the hopes of diving into them more later on:
- Plausibility and Relevance replace Objectivity: Instead of referring to truth as objectively true or false, use a multi-step evolution of truth from being implausible to plausible, and then from being plausible to relevant/useful within a given context. For example, for now we can say that the existence of an objective reality is plausible, but not currently relevant to our mythology. We shouldn’t make claims about objective reality from this realm unless we change our stance on that point. Leave what is true to the realm of the head.
- Inexhaustibility replaces the Infinite and Eternal: Instead of relying on the infinite and eternal, use the idea of the inexhaustible (not infinite but much more abundant than we’ll ever need). For example, the Sun provides us with a reliable and practically inexhaustible source of energy, but the Sun is not an infinite source, nor is it eternal.
- Indispensability replaces Universality: Instead of relying on universal dogma that is forever fixed, use the idea of indispensability within a context. For example, the English language is indispensable to my thinking, and to my ability to communicate with others, but it’s not a universal requirement for thinking or communication.
- Real patterns replace Essences: Instead of relying on true essences of things, in the Platonic sense, use the idea of real patterns. For example, a chair has no true essence, but is a real pattern. The difference is that a pattern is fuzzy and has no definitive threshold where it becomes or unbecomes that thing. The same thing can even be a chair to one person and a rock to another, because the pattern exists as part of the subjective landscape (heart realm) of the interpreter.
The problem with objectivity, infinity, eternity, universality, and essences is that they can all be better validated (or falsified) by the realms of the Head (information) and Hands (experiments). To the extent that those things are plausible and relevant to our myths, we can delegate the tasks of validation to those other realms instead, and avoid a whole lotta future contradictions and battles.
In simpler terms, the realm of myths will not attempt to “prove” that anything is objectively true, infinite, eternal, universal, or possessing of a true essence. The realm of myth is about how things change, and how to feel connected to a universe where everything is in flux.
Where Do Sages Come From?
In the realm of this myth, everything comes from the Dark Forest, and eventually returns to it. But we can be more specific. Sages come from the seeds of specific wicked problems, the same ones that the Dark Forest grows out of, and represent our impulses to tame the Dark Forest’s chaos in some way.
The most salient and relevant wicked problem that we generally confront is chaos and death. We don’t want to return to the Dark Forest. We want to stay separate, whatever that means. So, this can be the egg that becomes our first primordial sage.
The first sage egg is born from our unresolvable tension between being something (good) and being nothing (bad), and our unflaggable preference for the former. If we had no preference here, we wouldn’t need a sage. There’s no more universal preference in living things than the preference to be something instead of nothing, so it’s a good place to start. This tension develops into the art and science of definition, security, containment, protection, and separation from all of the opposites of those things.
It’s the subconscious impulse for security and order that pushes against chaos and disorder with all its being, and by doing so, becomes conscious.
Let’s capture this first impulse and call it the Snake Egg. I’ve written 4 short fables that explore this potential sage here:
Step 4: Spark a Dialogue
This is where it makes sense to leave our safe perch in the realm of the head, heart, and hands, and step into the realm of myth. There, we can start to tell the story from the inside.
As I’ve already discovered during my random brainstorming for this weird project of creating a personal mythology to help me confront the meaning crisis, working with the realm of myth isn’t something that you can do solo. If it were, then the realm of the heart would suffice.
Myth is much more about participation, ritual, transformations, and serious play than it is about words and ideas. Also, it makes sense to be extra cautious with the realm of myth, and keep things as minimal as possible so that we don’t accidentally brainwash ourselves. So let’s review our building blocks and see what we have to play with before going any further.
Outside the realm of myths, we talked about:
- The 3 perennial problems related to how we have lost contact with the real universe, and it’s causing a crisis of sorts.
- The realms of the head, heart, and hands are really useful places for a certain kind of conversation, but they aren’t up to the task of addressing the perennial problems.
- We once had a thriving realm of mythology, but it was dismantled for parts after the previous wave of mythologies couldn’t keep up with other realms. But, we can still access it, once we delete everything in it first.
Within the realm of myths, we have a few building blocks set up:
- The Dark Forest, which grew from the seeds of all of our wicked problems that we can’t solve in the other realms.
- The Snake Egg, which was born from our own tension with the prospect of death, meaninglessness, etc.
- The Dialogue, between Snake and Forest, can now begin.
The next step is have that dialogue and use the realm to make this tension between something and nothing, chaos and order, become real within the realm of my own personal myth. This post is just a scratch pad for the real artifacts that can be created in the realm of myths. The real work is to internalize the mythologies (sages, forest, and all) and to use that mode to better participate in the world’s problems and opportunities.
None of this is an easy ask, obviously.
I’m curious what others think of this so far. What are your thoughts Jon Bell, Kevin McGillivray, Vicki Tan, Geoff Lewis 🎨 ✍🏻, Aaron Z. Lewis, ArielMeadowStallings, BJ Campbell, Jordan Hall, Jonny Miller, Andrew Taggart, Dr Jason Fox, and others? Too weird? Not weird enough? Needs some salt?
Conclusion: Take This Away
The tldr is that we need new ways to address the perennial problems, and one of them that I see being most viable is to revive the mythic realm in a way that doesn’t challenge the strengths of the other realms. This will allow us to identify new salient possibilities (and motivations to act) via an epic story lens that are absent when we only try to address them with a scientific or economic lens, because solving these problems will never be cost-effective or practical in the moment.
This isn’t meant to be conclusive or authoritative on the meaning crisis or our response to it. Consider it a conversation piece that can be torn apart, forked and improved, played with, or ignored. The main point is to encourage participation in this conversation, because we can’t get anywhere without taking a few first stumbling steps.