Game-Based Thinking, Joseph Campbell, Sacred Stories and Group Think
Exploring Personal Growth, Human Potential, and issues of Importance in Life Coaching
Q. I was wondering about how game-based thinking theory, Joseph Campbell’s concepts concerning sacred stories and group thinking influence each other in your life coaching work both as a teacher and practitioner?
A. We are often imprisoned by the stories we tell about ourselves (to ourselves). It is very difficult to create a new game for one’s life or to set the foundations for a new narrative when we are hard-wired to tell stories that reinforce our connection to our primary social group. It is even harder to defy a sacred story that defines the group we have grown up in. In some groups, you are killed if you rebel or attempt to change or rewrite the prevailing sacred story. So Christian, Jewish or Muslim parents usually produce and raise children that grow up to be Christians, Jews or Muslims. It is true that more often than not, the “fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree;” thus, the creation of a sacred story or a myth, or the acceptance of an existing one, is a natural thing to do. It takes a rare and unique series of events, circumstances and motivating factors to turn the child of a butcher into a raw food ethical vegetarian, or the child of a progressive libertarian thinker into a dogmatic ideological fascist, or communist.
But there is an interesting element in all of this storytelling and myth-making that empowers us to create a new game – to tell a new sacred story. This element is the fact that sacred myths are not rigid and static. Though many of those individuals in powerful positions would like to keep them static, mythological stories will change over time because they both influence and are influenced by the culture within which they exist. As culture evolves so do these myths and we, as part of the culture, evolve with them. A great example of this is the U.S. Postal Service issuing a stamp with Malcolm X’s image on it. At one time in America, you could not find a public figure considered more divisive and a threat to the status quo than Malcolm X, but there he is, many years after his assassination on a postage stamp.
The content of myths may reflect changes in a particular culture. The game you create as an individual, and with others, help create that change. Think about history. As the First Nations (Native American tribes) moved across North American in response to the influx of European-based peoples, the sacred myths of these people were transformed. The geography was different, as well as weather patterns, the types of plants and animals available for food, clothing, and shelter, and the competitors for those plants and animals.
Sacred stories also change because people of a particular tribe, group or culture will often place differing meanings and interpretations on the elements of a particular story, legend, myth, rite, ritual, ceremony, or place. As tribes come together through conquest, commerce, and migration, myths change.
Many myths exist in multiple versions, even in the same culture, just as different cultures have different myths with a similar element. For instance, virtually every civilization has a deluge myth; some story of a great and horrific flood where great waters rise unexpectedly and rapidly. Mercilessly, the water sweeps away all in its path. Death and destruction become mixed with legendary acts of heroism and tales of miraculous survivals. Noah’s Ark is the most familiar of these for Christians, Muslims, and Jews but similar stories exist in many other cultures as well
How you choose to relate to one of or any of these sacred myths will profoundly affect the type of game you will use to create your life, and who you choose to play with. A myth has spiritual significance for the individual who tells it and also connects that individual to a specific group.
The appreciation over the last few centuries of a systematic understanding of logical thinking that culminated with Francis Bacon and the scientific method seemed to make the very concept of myths increasingly irrelevant. In recent decades, however, the human tide of attachment to sacred mythology has been recognized as an important adhesive factor in a healthy functioning society. Much of this sacred mythology is new, being expressed through various new age philosophies and groups. Just think about the sacred mythology applied to the Woodstock festival in 1969.
As with most myths, the story and the origins of what happened at that time and of that festival have become obscure or completely rewritten. In a hundred years, Woodstock, like many other stories, legends, and myths, will become one more part of an oral tradition- many of which were written after they were in existence for hundreds, even thousands of years.
The singer Arlo Guthrie has often said jokingly, “If you remember the 60’s you probably weren’t there.” Interestingly, Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie, has become a legend of mythic proportions, as has his disciple, the Nobel-Prize winning poet and musician Bob Dylan.
Some individuals, especially cultural icons have been turned into mythological figures. Places like Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Stonewall Inn (where the Gay Liberation movement is traced to), Robben Island and the site of the World Trade Center are held in awe and treated with near-reverential attention or admiration primarily on the basis of often- repeated stories (some true, some false, and most exaggerations). These very real places were host to sometimes idealized versions of actual events. This pattern is common among music and sports fans relating to certain musicians and athletes. The process is further institutionalized by the creation of various specialized Halls of Fame or secular temples to these individuals. In modern times some individuals will hire professions (publicists) to create myths about themselves.
The new technologies combined with multiculturalism and the expanding global economy have reshaped many legends and sacred stories in ways that could never have been conceived. Both orthodox and unorthodox stakeholders in different ideas and objects of meaning are being forced to come in contact with each other. No matter how great the resistance, time and these very changes will reshape many of these sacred group stories, often removing the “sacred’ from them. Whether these shifts are imposed from outside, or happen as a natural evolution, these shifts will take place. In time, every personal and group story or game may:
- Lose its importance and simply fade away.
- Either be absorbed by, or dominated by those creating a different game (sacred story).
- Morph into a new creation (game) that reflects the new elements of a newly forming culture.
- Take on even greater meaning and status than before. This is especially so with myths related to the “First Cause” and the creation of a group or culture.
Let’s play a game. I’m going to make a statement based on a belief that many people have in common, or which contradicts some of these beliefs. What is your belief concerning each of these statements? I am not offering my opinion on any of this. I am only asking you to observe your own reactions to what I have said here. Clearly, the acceptance of sacred stories may totally define the games we play in life.
- About 5,000 years ago God created the universe in seven days. On the sixth day, he created first a man (by blowing the breath of life into his nostrils,) then a garden and later a woman from a part of his body.
- There is a God.
- Everything in the Bible is literally factual.
- We are born in sin.
- Jesus’ mother Mary conceived him without having intercourse.
- There was a man named Jesus. He died. His heart stopped. His brain stopped working. He came back to life three days later.
- An individual with one black parent and one white parent is a black person who has a white parent rather than a white person with a black parent.
- A physiologist, an anatomist, and an endocrinologist will have a different definition of what defines a person as a male or female.
Whatever your response to any of these statements may be, and whether or not they are factual, the truth is that someone else who does believe that one of these statements is true thinks something you believe to be true is absurd and borders on the ridiculous.
You see, we all have our own reality games, don’t we? Who is to say, whose reality is the best one? Who is to say that some two or three thousand years old sacred story or sacred text isn’t just some made-up stuff?
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Lewis Harrison is an independent scholar on personal growth and human potential. He Coaches private clients in peak performance, transformation, and success coach.
He also teaches workshops and seminars on Eastern Wisdom, Zen and Taoist Thought, Applied Game Theory, and Personal Growth and is the senior guide at Lewis Harrison’s Transmodern Shaman Academy
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