I recently spent four days with friends and family at my first yoga retreat in Port Orchard, Washington, literally five minutes from where I grew up. As it happens when you spend time with people you haven’t seen in a long while, one of the key ways we connect is through stories. We tell tales that directly or indirectly remind us of our common origin, of our shared experience. And even if these stories are unique to each family or friends group, there is always something universal or archetypal about them. They are stories about love or heroism, foolishness or loss - experiences about as universal as being in a body.
Archetype is a compound of two Greek words: arche, which means “beginning” or “origin”, and tupos, which means “pattern”, “model”, or “type”. So an archetype is an original, collectively inherited idea, pattern, thought or image. They are symbols that persist and repeat across cultural context, universal ideas that pervade history. Every people has perhaps different stories, but they express the same ideas or patterns of human experience.
I bring this up, because over the next several weeks on the Embodied Philosophy blog, I am going to tell stories and myths that originate in Ancient India - not because these stories are in any way better than those of other cultures, but because this is the tradition out of which the practice of yoga emerged. So while I tell tales of India, try to read these as your stories as well. Because all stories and myths are “our” stories and myths, and this “our” of course points to the “us” of human beings.
So why archetypes? Why myths? Precisely for the point just made, for the sake of connecting ourselves to our diverse experience as humans and to our interconnectedness with one another. Myths help point us to the Truth.
"But how can this be?", you might ask. "I thought myths were the opposite of Truth, because they aren’t fact?"
This is an interesting problem, because it wasn’t until more modern times after what we refer to as “the enlightenment” happened, that we began to distinguish between myth and reality. At this juncture, History began to be considered as fact, devoid of myth or fantasy. But of course we know that what history focuses on at any given moment is also related to the values that are held, values which are archetypal in the way we’ve been discussing. So history always has a bit of the mythological embedded in it. What older cultures inherently knew was that myths convey a part of the truth that can’t be communicated through fact or more “objective” forms of knowing, precisely because myths and stories represent more archetypal experiences - experiences that are more psychological than historical, but no less real and true.
Join me next week as I discuss the first myth, which is actually from the Western tradition, from as far back as our dear Plato. I will discuss how the "myth of the cave" is a perfect metaphor for the yoga process.
If you liked this article, check out The Myth of No Myths by Jacob Kyle.