Temenos and the Power of Myth
Article in Voices – Journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists
Once upon a time, in a time when the sun rose in the west and settled in the east, in a land far, far away, more north than north, and more south than south, a countryman had a son, a boy only as big as a thumb, a boy called Thumbling. One day, on a day similar to today, the small boy asked, “Father, may I go out farming with you?” The father replied, “You are too small, a mere gust of wind could blow you away.” The boy began to cry hysterically. The father, for the sake of peace, placed the boy into his pants front-pocket and walked to the field.
When he reached the field, the father took the boy out of his pocket and placed him in a freshly cut furrow. While he was there, a great giant came over the hill. The father, in an attempt to frighten his son into being good, asked him, “Do you see that tall monster? He is coming to get you.” The giant, having taken only two steps, was now in the furrow. Carefully, with only two fingers, he picked up little Thumbling, examined him, and without muttering a word, walked off with the farmer’s son. The father stood there in terror, unable to make a sound. His only thought was that he would never see his son again.
We will return to this myth, The Young Giant, after some time. Common themes found in mythological stories are the foundational building blocks of our “alchemical process.” Relationship is the mortar that holds it all together. Mythological stories are roadmaps designed to guide us on our journey. All we need do is take the time necessary to decipher the codes.
Myth is a universal language crossing time and history. It is the language of the unconscious and a vehicle to transport urban adolescents across the bridge to meaningful adulthood. Myth is a natural, transformative process for integrating the psyche and discovering one’s purpose in life.
Commentary on The Young Giant: The Furrow
My childhood furrow was being born Black, in a “nice” all-Black neighborhood, in Akron, Ohio. In myth, the hero often wears a mark to remind him of where he came from and to remind others who may not recognize him or her in the future because of the extreme change in the hero’s lifestyle and rank. I wear a tattoo noting my place of origin.
A graduate assistantship at the University of Akron led me to a position in the university’s Upward Bound program where I counseled 6th-12th graders and attempted to maintain a relationship with students until their graduation from high school. I learned about African-based rites of passage and spirituality while volunteering in an after-school program that eventually introduced me to the work of Carl Gustav Jung, whose personal history and concepts of the collective unconscious, archetypes and synchronicity captivated me. Jung led me to the work of Joseph Campbell, mythology, and the common themes that permeate and inform all myths, no matter their origin.
Upward Bound taught me how difficult it is to get young people to talk, especially Black males. Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men, by Michael Meade (1993), taught me that the power of myth is unleashed by how the story is told and interpreted.
Alchemy, Inc., established in Akron, Ohio, in 2003, is a nationally recognized, award-winning, not-for-profit organization that assists in the development of urban adolescent males through the telling, discussion and analysis of mythological stories and fairy tales.
The Young Giant is one of many myths we use. Group discussion and analysis of this introductory segment of the myth may require more than two hours as each youth awakens to how his individual story carries remnants of both the story being told and the personal stories being shared by others in their group. As an African proverb teaches: Rain does not fall on one roof alone. The young men in our groups feel safe sharing their personal stories because each time we meet together as a group, our alchemists, our adult storyteller/facilitators, create a temenos—a sacred space—through ritual before our storytelling begins.
A temenos is a sacred piece of land, set apart from the profane world; a holy place; the spellbinding center of a circle; a protected space. Alchemy, Inc.’s logo, a mandala, represents our concept of temenos.
The square is an indication of our wish to find our way in a chaotic world by introducing direction and coordinates. The circle, with no beginning or end, represents totality, wholeness, enlightenment, human perfection, and the final union of the masculine and feminine principles, the union of opposites that make up the total personality. The point in the center represents the self, as C.G. Jung states:
…a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy. The energy of the central point is manifested in an almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is , just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances (1990, p. 357).
The first meeting of all new groups begins with our alchemists apologizing for our generation’s failure to protect them. In myth, the hero never accomplishes his or her task alone. There is always assistance from a guide or a mentor. We convey our sincerity sometimes through tears, an abundance of humility, and deep respect for each student. We are not teachers with an aura of knowing everything. We are mentors with nothing to share until a student awakens to his desire for knowledge.
Temenos is a sacred place where everyone feels safe because secrets are shared and held in strictest confidence. An alchemist must also share his own challenges in life, so the youth see we are not without our own struggles. When we trust our youth enough to share our wounds, they feel comfortable sharing their smallness with us. It empowers them and creates oneness in the circle, replacing hierarchy with the power of relationship.
Our youth love when a teacher, counselor or administrator asks, “What goes on in that circle?” Our youth reply, “We can’t share it,” allowing them to rebel against authority with the support of other adults in authority.
Myths are complex stories crafted for interpretation by each person who hears the story. Each myth is a warehouse of knowledge, a story told for its capacity to help us make sense of the world and to learn how to live more intensely within it. Unlike fairytales and folklore, which tend to have happy endings, mythical stories teach us great truths about being human. In myth, as in life, the gifts we carry for the world are often embedded in our wounds. We awaken to our gifts through the healing of those wounds.
In Temenos, we sit in a circle by age, from youngest to oldest, to provide a sense of order and safety—where the older student provides care for the younger—and to define the boundaries of a safe environment. We tell myths to the beat of an African djembe drum. Drumming cultivates a sense of community, collaboration, oneness, and sacred space. The rhythm of the drumbeats reduces temporal distractions and creates a shared mental state. The longer we drum, the more connected our groups become.
Our alchemists are required to memorize the myths they will tell and to understand the knowledge embedded within each story. We provide them with a script for each myth that includes:
- The myth segmented at strategic places in the story, with segment/story-specific questions designed to extract individual inspiration and insight that will engage the youth in dialogue;
- Commentary on the common themes and the major and minor topics addressed by the myth; and
- Quotes for the students to remember and record in their journals.
The scripts are not written in stone. The alchemist is trained to help our youth relate to how the common themes in a myth may mirror an actual experience in their own lives. Their responses guide the ensuing dialogue. It is the alchemist’s responsibility to ensure that each youth looks objectively at his life situations; everyone participates; all responses are heard and respected; and all secrets remain within the circle.
The first question we ask is, “What resonated with you in the myth?”
We stress, repeatedly, “There are no right or wrong answers,” to avoid putting any student’s pride on display with a wrong answer and to create an ongoing dialogue. Students record their responses to the alchemist’s question in their personal journals. Journaling is a key program activity that aids students with writing and critical thinking skills by requiring them to delve deeply into the story’s meaning and apply it to their life experiences—the suppressed and repressed memories from the trauma in their lives.
Group discussions about what resonated with them in the myth can take half an hour or longer to analyze and discuss, depending on the group’s collective response to the myth’s energy. By drawing on the experiences of the characters in each myth, participants are encouraged to reveal their own personal parallel stories, deepening their learning and growth by sharing their experiences with others, all in the safety of the temenos.
As participants ingest the traits of the myth’s heroes, they incorporate the lessons and common themes embedded in these ancient tales into their psyche, a transformative process encouraging them to become the hero in their own stories. Common themes include: self-sacrifice; humility; perseverance; patience; asking for assistance; utilizing resources; overcoming obstacles; doing good deeds; betrayal; suffering; journeys; forgiveness; decision making; hope, courage; sorrow; passion; love; friendship; integrity.
We will revisit Alchemy, Inc., after some time. For now, we will return to The Young Giant and examine how myth shapes all our lives.
Commentary on The Young Giant: Feeling Small
Thumbling feels small. Partly because compared to others, he is small. But also he feels small because his father tells him he is small. However, despite his diminutive stature, the boy still wants to experience the world. At this point in the myth, we pause and ask the students, “In what ways do you feel small?” It is a question that forces the students to go beyond their experience to that place for which they have not had words, to look into the great silence, transcend their experiences, and give voice to their insecurities, shortcomings, and wounds. I answer this question by stating that America made me feel small simply due to the color of my skin, which is my wound.
All humans are wounded. The wounding of the hero is a common theme in myth. It is almost always a special wound, one caused by an almost non-human feat. It is a figurative wound that all too often becomes a literal one.
A common theme in myth is the king. If the king is not well, the entire village is not well. In life, if our king—who- or whatever that is—is not well, the other parts of our life that depend on the king’s wellbeing will not be well either. When our wounds act as the king in our life, we become victims of our life, not hero of our own story. James Hollis states:
The child cannot incarnate a freely expressed personality; rather, childhood experience shapes his or her role in the world. Out of the wounding of childhood, then, the adult personality is less a series of choices than a reflexive response to the early experiences and traumata of life (1993, p. 13).
Childhood trauma originates from events outside the child. Unattended, the rage turns inward, cascades down the generations, grows more complex, and creates a wasteland of the spirit where we live inauthentic lives, suppressing the impulses and desires of our own heart. Our wounds, our traumatic incidents, our passages through darkness, are all part of an archetypal story.
The color of my skin is my scar, the wound I cannot outrun. In one of my earliest childhood memories, I am sitting alone, watching a black-and-white television. I see a large group of Negroes—or Colored people as we were referred to then—peacefully marching down a street. Angry White people are on both sides of the street yelling and screaming at the Colored people. White police officers, each seeming to restrain large, vicious, snarling dogs, march toward the Colored people. The police use fire hoses to spray water on the Colored people.
I learned later that the pressure from those hoses could tear bark off trees. At the time, I assumed the people who looked like me must have felt pain. When the dogs were unleashed on the Colored people—who looked like me—I wondered, “Why are the White people doing this to all the people who look like me, who were just walking down the street?”
As a child, I could not comprehend what was happening. My parents, like most Black parents of that time, did not talk about the injustices awaiting Colored children. My only conclusion, at that age, was it must be something to do with the color of their skin. Since my skin color was the same as theirs, it made the problem mine.
In another memory, I am in our car with my parents, riding out of our all-Black neighborhood into an all-White neighborhood about seven minutes from our home. The houses and lawns are larger than ours and the neighborhood seems quieter and more peaceful, except for the graffiti message on one side of a building, “Niggers go home!” I vividly recall my sadness and the deep feeling of not being wanted or welcome.
Back then, Blacks were always portrayed in movies and on television in the role of a butler, a clown, a waiter, a slave, or a savage, but never in the role of the hero. We were always the first to die or be the punchline of a White person’s joke. These early childhood experiences—a lie, handed down by society, over which I had absolutely no control— became my “I am less than” wound simply because of the color of my skin. Before we can heal children and youth, we must break the cycle of wounding and heal ourselves.
I am 59 years old, and despite many achievements—two master’s degrees and almost a third in community counseling, a PhD in mythological studies and depth psychology, the creation of a successful organization, and the subject of a full-length documentary on youth in our program—I still experience extreme anxiety about being accepted and speaking in public. I still prefer to remain hidden in the background, in “the freshly cut furrow,” where no one can see me.
Commentary on the Myth: Conversations with Our Fathers and Society
Thumbling had a dialogue with his father, who reminded him of his small stature. This scenario allows us to engage our youth in discussions about their relationships and conversations with their fathers; 85% of our youth come from a fatherless, single-parent family. Any conversation about the father, which will be characterized by aggression and misunderstanding, if it takes place at all, allows our youth an opportunity to explore the relationships they will have when one day they become fathers.
Three of our older youth, ages 23 and 24, are fathers. While most of my contact with these young men today is through FaceBook, I see young men with their children who appear to be active, engaged fathers. I like to believe our discussions of the father/son relationship encouraged their involvement in the lives of their children.
I am fortunate. I lived in a home with both a mother and a father, as did most of the families in my Akron, Ohio, neighborhood when I was a child. My parents are strong, loving people, alive, enjoying their 67th year of marriage, and still loving and supportive. My father never told me I was small. I credit his strength and example with my being the man I am today. It was our society that played the role of the father in this myth for me. Questions we ask about this portion of the myth are: “What do you think of the brief conversation between the father and his son? Was the father’s intent good, or was it to shame his son for being too small?”
Commentary on the Myth: Crying
Thumbling’s crying created the opportunity for him to achieve his desire to go into the field with his father. We often find the hero in a myth crying and use this as an opportunity, while we are playing the drum and telling the myth, to reinforce that it is ok for boys to cry.
We stress the importance of crying as a way to let others know something is wrong. In myth, if we behave as if everything is fine when it is not, the old man just keeps on walking. However, if he witnesses the boys on the castle steps crying, he will stop and offer a solution.
When one of our young men shares his tears in the circle, they do not go to waste and are not shed in vain. We rub our tears into the head of our drums and in the future, each time we hit the drum, our tears resound throughout the room and enter the universe.
Commentary on the Myth: Walking in the Same Rhythm as Our Fathers
Oftentimes, the questions are preceded by saying, “What is said in this circle, stays in this circle.” Other questions we can ask in relation to The Young
“How do you think the father’s placement of his son into his pants front-pocket will affect the boy?”
“The son is now walking in the exact same rhythm as his father—is this the way you want to walk through the world, the same way your father did or does?” For the next 30 minutes or longer we listen to their insights.”
“Was it a good idea for the father to take his son with him into the field just to appease his crying?”
“Are you in a rut or a groove?”
Their profound responses—in extreme contrast to what we hear from so many parents, teachers and administrators—demonstrate these young men’s ability to think deeply and critically.
Key Concepts of Our Process
Our alchemy of psychological transformation is a developmental process that uses the discussion and interpretation of myth to assist youth in transcending the personality, moving forward to something larger than the self, and extracting the gold inherent in all youth, allowing them to become heroes within their own stories.
Alchemy, Inc.’s approach to working with urban adolescents is an amalgamation of four developmental theories based upon:
- Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical Child (1980)
- The Akan System of Life-Cycle Development (Mensah, 1993)
- C. G. Jung (1990)
- Joseph Campbell and common themes in myth (Scruggs, 2009)
Generally speaking, adolescent males resist dialogue with adults. The urban Black male’s persona of toughness makes dialogue an even more daunting task, especially if it involves constructive criticism. Mythological stories create a gateway to dialogue. Using myth is ideal as a method of communication primarily because it allows one to remove oneself from the situation, looking at the situation from above, objectively. It carries more power when used in a group setting, as comments from others forces one to rethink one’s position.
Inherent in Alchemy, Inc.’s approach is the adaptation of concepts taken from the Akan system of life cycle development, an African philosophy of existence and a form of a rite of passage. Akan, which means “first,” are people from Ghana in West Africa.
Recalling one’s purpose in life is of primary importance in the Akan system. It is a belief that everyone comes to this earth with a purpose; each person must live in an environment that nurtures his gifts, which, when given to his community, make the world a better place. Unfortunately, the process of birth and the harsh realities of life cause us to forget our purpose. Therefore, Alchemy, Inc.’s approach incorporates into our process of mythological storytelling Joseph Pearce’s (1980) concept of our biological capacity to succeed, and C.G. Jung’s (1990) concept of our capacity to self-manifest into what it is we are meant to become, no matter the circumstances. Urban Black youth have a general psychology and socialization of their own. A major difference between Black urban and suburban youth is their general lack of exposure to anything outside their immediate neighborhood, enforced by poverty, discrimination, location, and culture. As a population, urban Black youth do not venture far from their neighborhoods. Their socialization with White people is generally in a subordinate relationship: teacher/student, coach/player, and police officer/criminal. Venturing outside their neighborhoods or engaging in an experience that is not normally considered “ being Black” is uncomfortable and confusing as Black youth attempt to make meaning of the experience. Attempts to explain this can result in further alienation. At some point, a youth makes up his mind to either stay back with the herd or move forward, leaving it behind.
Underlying all this are the difficulties of family relationships—the often-absent fathers, the overwhelmed single mothers. Extra-familial problems are deficient schools, fractured communities, and negative media reporting combine to create negative perceptions of urban Black youth.
The Power of Myth
For statistical purposes, we define as a “core group” youth who are with us for seven years, a full developmental cycle, beginning in the 6th grade and continuing until graduation from high school. There is compelling scientific evidence that social and emotional development is integral to successful academic development. Our brains are hardwired to learn in a social and emotional way; myth is ideal to assist in this learning.
We believe that by preparing youth for the vicissitudes of life through a group process based upon myth and relationship, we are inoculating them against the trauma they experience. The hero’s journey is really an apprenticeship in self-mastery and self-leadership, developing the individual skills necessary for anyone before he can effectively assume the mantle of leadership. When youth develop a sense of agency and belief in their ability to shape their own destiny, they have also, by default, developed a controlled response to the trauma that interferes with their ability to succeed in education and in life.
More than 1,500 students have attended our program since its inception in 2004. Eighty students currently comprise our three core groups. In 2011, our Core Group 1 graduated 26 young men; 24 entered college, most with academic or sports scholarships. To date, 10 have graduated college: two have advanced degrees, one is presently in graduate school, two will graduate with bachelor’s degrees this year, two are still actively continuing their education, and two are working and attending school in the evening.
This is the power of myth.