Kristina Dryza

The Mytho-Poetic Imagination and Why It Matters

A reflection on Joseph Campbell and why imaginal thinking is essential for the creation of better worlds.



“Read myths as newspaper reports by reporters who were there and it doesn’t work. Reread them as poems and they become luminous,” writes Joseph Campbell in Myths of Light as he invites us to cultivate faithful, imaginal thinking and intuitive perception, a subjective process that’s neither fanciful nor misguided.

We often don’t have the language, or indeed the mental syntax, for the intuited unknown and so we’re obliged to reach into and employ the poetic mind. This mind enables us better to explore nascent truths that aren’t yet tangibly manifested. These truths are emergent and exist on the growing edge of our soul’s horizon. 
One of the motivating forces for our pursuit of deep learning is our longing for universality, which includes the integral coherence of the Kosmos within the psyche. A poetic and symbolic sensibility assists this endeavour because many of the most important lessons of life are expressed through pictorial narratives. Indeed, eternal truths are usually best conveyed through myth, parable, allegory, and metaphor. 
Unfortunately, though, when we solely exercise intellectuality, the proclivity of this faculty to commission rigid thinking and mechanization brings a disjunctive force into ourselves and into our surroundings. By engaging in pictorial thinking – and its imaginative fluency – we invigorate the spirit and nature realms together with the physical world.
In Myths of Light, Campbell nourishes us with such vivid, descriptive visual thoughts and wealth of imagery that we’re virtually initiated into their rich, imaginative tones and textures. For example, the stories “The Tigers and the Goats” and “The Cry of the Buddha Child” provide a glimpse into an inner understanding of the world, and ourselves, because they are interior chronicles of who we are. “So this is what the story tells us: we are all tigers living among these goats. So go into the forest, and in the forest of the night, find the tiger burning bright in your own profound depths.”
Frequently, it’s necessary to wrestle with the pictures of a narrative in our minds and souls to arrive at their deeper truths. The over-intellectualized mind struggles to apprehend these truths. And far too readily our nervous system becomes depleted if it’s engaged in constant, mental abstraction devoid of any iconographic content. It’s why, in this era of “fake news,” we desperately crave the poetic and mythological narratives with their vast, lyrical, pictorial palettes. And when we merely inhabit the mental analytics of our existence, we begin to lose the essential patterns, textures and tones of the whole. We then struggle to find even the simplest pattern, no matter how much effort of will or intelligence we apply. The mind depleted of an imaginal capacity cannot solve our inmost anguishes or commune with our higher longings. 
To be creatively fertile is life’s true survival. It’s why Novalis wrote, “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” And it’s also why Campbell reminds us, “To see life as a poem and yourself participating in that poem is what the myth does for you.”  
Campbell describes the rebirth of the sun, moon, lion, bull, eagle, serpent, and the figures of the early mythologies across cultures in respect to the vegetal rebirth of life. He does it in such an engaging and poetic way that his words themselves become alive, a pictorial creation. The language of metaphor and imagery leads us towards the existence of deeper meanings and truths because such imagery connects, while the intellect, roaming on its own, has the inevitable inclination only to see and seek separation. Its tendency is to divide the world into parts and demand fixity of them.  
It is for this reason that Campbell famously advises, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” And all too often we’re trying to change the world through a linear mind, when in reality, it can only (ultimately) be transformed through the non-linear – metaphors, myths, dreams, symbols – and cultivated affectionately through a caressing, inner knowing.
It’s our duty to honour the inner life through accepting and respecting the fluidity and flexibility of the psyche – not to over-prioritize the literal and material to the detriment of the imaginative and spiritual. Campbell reminds us to reconnect with the Kosmos because it inspires us to seek the light, to dwell in the divine mysteries, and to develop a fruitful, archetypal eye in the process.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” So how today can we evoke both the visible artistic and the invisible, yet felt, mytho-poetic forces, which weave in and around us awaiting our recognition? In exactly the same way that many folk songs and stories are encoded with meaningful messages through their purposeful marrying of the illumined mythic with quotidian life. For when we reach for something far more metaphorical, more imaginal, more poetic and, indeed, more luminously mythic in the everyday, and within ourselves, we may truly embrace these words of Campbell’s: “The message of the Buddha is simple but profound: we are to seek joyful participation in the suffering of the world.” And perhaps, we could also add, “participation in the deep telos of the world.”

This article was first published by the Joseph Campbell Foundation as a MythBlast. The photograph is called "Constellations" and is by Dorothe, from Creative Commons.

Words by Kristina Dryza
Kristina is an archetypal consultant, author, speaker, and dancer.