The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell

We all adopt different masks depending on where we are and who we’re with. Behind them all is an individual who can observe each of the different roles we play.

The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell
photo credit: Alaskan Dude via photopin cc

To become—in Jung’s terms—individuated, to live as a released individual, one has to know how and when to put on and put off the masks of one’s various life roles. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ and when at home, do not keep on the mask of the role you play in the Senate. But this, finally, is not easy, since some of the masks cut deep. They include judgement and moral values. They include one’s pride, ambition, and achievement. They include one’s infatuations. It is a common thing to be overly impressed by and attached to masks either some mask of one’s own or the mana-masks of others. The work of individuation, however, demands that one should not be compulsively affected in this way. The aim of individuation requires that one should find and then learn to live out of one’s own center, in control of one’s own for an against. And this cannot be achieved by enacting and responding to any general masquerade of fixed roles.”

Joseph Campbell. Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)

‘The practice of personal development usually focuses on changing your thinking. You’re told to think positively, optimistically, bigger and differently; to let go of negative thoughts and think yourself happy. The belief is that if you change your thoughts you change yourself, implying that you are your thoughts. Mindfulness offers a different perspective. Note that the word ‘personal’ comes from the Latin persona, meaning ‘mask’ (referring to the masks actors used in theatre to represent different characters) and ‘development’ comes from the old French word desveloper, meaning ‘to unveil’. So, interestingly, personal development is about unveiling your mask to reveal your true self. You wear different masks every day: mother or father, husband or wife, teacher or writer, footballer or driver. But underneath all that is another dimension that’s easily missed – the fact that you’re able to observe all these different roles implies that you’re separate from them. We call this the observer self.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook For Dummies

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Recreate your life story

By keeping the facts and changing the descriptive elements, we can find new possibilities in the stories we tell about our lives.

Why I Write by George Orwell
Why I Write

For fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous “story” about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my “story” ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: “He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,” etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The “story” must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.

George Orwell. Why I Write

If you find yourself entangled in a “logical” but sad story about your life, and why things have to be the way they are, write down the normal story, then take all the descriptive facts and write the same exact facts into a different story. Repeat until you feel more open to new possibilities with your history.

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Could Wuthering Heights’ Cathy have been mindful?

Was Cathy from Wuthering Heights practising mindfulness all those years ago? Was she able to quietly reflect on her faults when people were critical of her?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

At fifteen she was the queen of the country-side; she had no peer; and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong creature! I own I did not like her, after infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance: she never took an aversion to me, though.

Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights

Over the years, quite a few people have called me arrogant (especially my wife). I used to deny it, discount it, or counter-attack with a criticism about the other person (I won’t tell you what I called my wife). These days, I usually respond differently (alas, not always); I tend to pause, notice and reflect, considering whether there is something valid in the criticism; to look with openness and curiosity at the way I’ve been behaving. And if the criticism is valid, I consider: what’s working, what’s not working, and what could I do differently? Finally I (often, but not always) respond mindfully, acting on my values – which usually means apologizing for my arrogance and expressing myself more respectfully.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt
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Developing character – in fiction and life

To create great characters, writers need to understand their own thoughts and feelings first.

Story by Robert McKeeWe all share the same crucial human experiences. Each of us is suffering and enjoying, dreaming and hoping of getting through our days with something of value. As a writer, you can be certain that everyone coming down the street toward you, each in his own way, is having the same fundamental human thoughts and feelings that you are. This is why when you ask yourself, “If I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do?” The honest answer is always correct. You would do the human thing. Therefore, the more you penetrate the mysteries of your own humanity, the more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able to understand others.

Robert McKee. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Often many people we meet in our daily lives seem to have it all. They seem happy. They look satisfied with their lives. You’ve probably had the experience of walking down the street when you’re having a particularly bad day, and you’ve looked around and thought, “Why can’t I just be happy like everyone around me? They don’t suffer from chronic panic (or depression, or a substance abuse problem). They don’t feel as if a dark cloud is always looming over their heads. They don’t suffer the way I suffer. Why can’t I be like them?”

Here’s the secret: They do and you are. We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Self-editing and self-knowledge

Editing your own writing can mean a lot of self-reflection too. The trick is to realise that the content is not what’s important.

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia KadohataI try to find my deepest, often hidden feelings about what’s working and what’s not. This is difficult because I do lie to myself without being aware that that’s what I’m doing. For me it’s mainly a matter of finding the path to being honest with myself, which is not always a path I enjoy walking down. It’s not an orderly process. It involves a lot of flailing around.’

Cynthia Kadohata. (2013, November 25). National Book Award Winner Cynthia Kadohata on Self-Editing: “It involves a lot of flailing around.” Retrieved March 11, 2014, from Galley Cat. Pictured right, Kadohata’s award winning book The Thing About Luck.

‘A healthy human life requires continuous and flexible verbal self-knowledge … it is rare that content itself is the important issue. ACT therapists encourage clients to see what they see as they see it, without objectifying or concretizing this content in order to justify what was felt or seen. This helps remove the social contingencies that encourage a client to lie or to self-deceive. The irony is that when the specific content of self-knowledge is no longer so much at issue, fluid and useful self-knowledge is more likely to be fostered.

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.

How to observe your own thoughts

Sometimes, when life gets a little too ‘soap opera’, it can be useful to step back and observe your thoughts and emotions.

Choke by Chuck PalahniukAt this point, how my life starts to feel is like I’m acting in a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by real people, somewhere.

Chuck Palahniuk. Choke

‘Once you’re relaxed, imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater. This is your own private theater. It’s safe and no one else is in it. You’re sitting several rows back from the screen, and it’s comfortably dark. Up on the screen you begin to see the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that pass through your awareness.

Just sit and watch. Don’t follow any particular thought or emotion into the screen, just as you wouldn’t try to jump into the screen during a movie. Just watch without judgment, reaction, or distraction

As you observe your big deal mind, simply take note of what it presents; simply watch and name. Notice which thoughts have a pull on your attention and emotions. And also note any physical sensations you experience. Stay with this for a few minutes before moving on to the next part of the practice.

Now imagine that there’s another ‘you’ in this theater, sitting all the way in the back of the theater, in the very last row directly behind the first you. This second you is just sitting there watching the you up front, who is still just watching the screen.

Stay with this for a few minutes and notice what happens, paying particular attention to your emotional, physical, and mental reactions.

Now imagine that there is a third you, standing back the door of the theater. This third you is simply watching the second you, seated in the back row of the theater, who is still watching the you in the front, who is still watching all that is passing across the screen.’

Thomas Roberts. The Mindfulness Workbook: A Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Fear and Embracing Compassion (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)