This paper explores a way of applying a media technique in psychodynamic art-therapy. Specifically, the Journey of the Hero by Joseph Campbell (1941), which is the modern ‘backbone’ of narrative in media, is used. This is interpreted as an unfolding sequence of ‘directives’ and given to adult participants in a self-improvement group. Phenomenological case vignettes from one participant illustrates responses to 3 directives. An analysis of unique therapeutic benefits is drawn from these and will be further discussed in the conclusion.
This paper was published in the Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal in November, 2019
In North America, we live in a media saturated culture. Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero is the most widely used narrative structure in media, from films to computer games and books. It is analytically recognizable to trained screen-writers and intuitively recognizable to most literate audiences. Though first emerging in 1871, (Segal, 1990) almost every new blockbuster-movie still has that narrative structure.
As a former media-industry insider and art-therapist intern, I was curious whether media techniques could have therapeutic applicability. As audiences are subconsciously literate in the Monomyth, could it work in group therapy?
This paper is distilled from a larger thesis. The research was a narrative inquiry, in which primary, qualitative phenomenological data and phenomenological thematic analysis was distilled as a descriptive narrative, intertwined with auto-ethnography. Nine weekly group sessions of four participants were recorded with video, transcribed and distilled. This intervention was situated within a Jungian worldview.
Joseph Campbell on the Journey of the Hero
Campbell analyzed many myths from different cultures and historical periods. These all contained variations on one universal theme, an archetypal formula that he distilled into the ‘Monomyth’. This was the treatise of his popular 1949 book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, and built upon the earlier works of Edward-Burnett Tylor, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan and Carl Jung (Segal, 1990), (Green, 1997).
He retold the Monomyth as the story of the Hero, an individual who receives a calling and embarks on a journey of challenging adventure from the Known into an Unknown. After a series of difficult tests that culminate in an ordeal of literal or figurative death and rebirth, the Hero returns to the home culture empowered, healed or transformed. He then uses this new gift for the benefit of others.
The Monomyth is highly malleable and can be applied to most Heroes, characters, story lines, event-sequences and contexts. Each story is driven by a question or a goal, a problem that must be solved. Story events and characters are an unfolding sequence of tests and trials which prepare the Hero for an ordeal that must be overcome for their goal to be met.
Vogler’s version of the Hero’s Journey
Christopher Vogler (2007) re-interpreted the Monomyth in a way that presents a clear technique to a screenwriter and is now widely used in media. His 9-10 step narrative sequence are as follows:
- Ordinary World – Hero is depicted in an ordinary day; something is underlined as missing or longed for.
- Call to Adventure – Their ordinary world is shattered and they receive a calling to engage on a journey of change.
- Here the Story-Goal is established – what has to be done or resolved and what are the stakes?
- Refusal of the Call – The Hero tries to stay at home, refusing the adventure, but is unsuccessful in doing so.
- Meeting the Mentor – The Hero is mentored, given aid and encouragement.
- Crossing the Threshold – They are tested by crossing into unknown and away from home.
- Tests, Allies and Enemies – Navigating the unknown’s different rules, they make allies and enemies.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave – They zone in on the issue and take a brief respite before continuing.
- The Ordeal – The Hero faces the heart of the issue, the root of the problem or the central antagonist.
- Reward – The Hero gains something from this exchange.
- The Road Back – In a restful crisis of faith the Hero chooses between ways forward and retreat.
- Resurrection – The Hero revisits the heart of the central issue again and armed with the Reward gained from the Ordeal is able to resolve it completely.
- Return with the Elixir – The Hero returns home with the gift and an answer to the story-goal.
- Looking back at the Journey – They take stock in a reflective break.
The above story-steps were interpreted as art therapy directives and given to four participants. Two facilitators asked questions to elicit emotional insight from drawings. I limit vignettes to one’s response, Wotan, to illustrate the inter-related nature of the directives.
Wotan (pseudonym) is a male teacher in his early 40’s and was self-referred for reasons of social anxiety, sleep disturbance, isolation, depression and possible trauma.
Directive – What is a typical day in my life?
Wotan stood alongside his pastel-art, presenting it in a rapid, wordy fashion and appeared stressed while racing to explain the significance of symbols.
His drawing showed events, tasks and habits that make up his day. He distinguished between routines that were draining or supportive. In the ‘draining’ category were work-related symbols such as a map, a clock, paperwork, books, a large television, food and a fallen over stick-man. These were drawn in a graphic, iconic style. In the ‘supportive category’ were nature, the sun, land, family and a feather referring to his Indigenous beliefs, drawn impromptu. He identified a reciprocal relationship in the ‘heaviness and pain’ (black pastel) between him and children in class, and commented that the Television and food looks ‘like shit’. He spoke about having a choice to do something healthier (job, food, daily habits) and of an inherent wish for more willpower to connect to nature, heart matters, himself and his spirit as well as a yearning for nourishment. He recognized that it is a choice to find stillness and that he can change.
Directive – Frame your goal for this group into a one sentence essence-statement or question.
Wotan said, “How can I shed my conscious, unconscious priorities to make my overall health, the betterment of self, the most important facet of my life. The consequences (if I don’t) are dire, just a continuous degradation of self and connection”.
The Ordeal and Reward
Directive – Reading a participant’s story-goal out loud I asked, ‘What stops, blocks, sabotages or gets in the way of that?’.
His art showed an obese humanoid monster. Five arms held paper, a decapitated head, things it was shoving into two mouths in its belly, a clock, a tree and a TV remote. It wore a golden neck chain with the words ‘connection, worth, knowing, productive member, the bomb’. One eye was shut and the other open with a + form obscuring vision. It was sitting in a loincloth on top of a pile of skulls, a coloured yin-yang and a bloodied man.
He spoke of having a ‘consuming’ mentality rather than just existing. The ‘demon’ was in its full consumptive power, everything of colour it consumes. ‘Whether it’s ripping that tree and consuming nature, or just shoving food in its belly, wine, TV, video games, even its heart has a mouth’.
He spoke of its chain and self-aggrandizing, false sense of worth. ‘Look at how awesome I am, I have a sense of value, I’m worth to people, I know all these things and I’m a productive member of society and I’m awesome’, he said sarcastically.
He spoke to its imperceptivity, ‘it creates a bubble of what it sees, this is fed back upon itself, it can only really see through a pinprick in its eye’. He described how blissfully ignorant, happy and self-destructive it was, ‘it really doesn’t care about itself’.
When asked what it wanted, he responded with ‘connection to all life, but it’s misdirected. It’s easy to shove something in our bodies which feels like connection but isn’t.’ We further explored its needs.
Directive – What rewards did you gain from that encounter?
He spoke of how it gave him insight into his self-destructive habits, awareness of what the ‘demon’ needs and compassion and empathy for it. During check out, he expressed joy of being able to ‘be’ with an aspect of himself that has been ‘faceless’ for him for a long time.
My conclusions of the unique benefits are based on observations triangulated with different supervisors and colleagues. In order to distill this, the normal benefits of psychodynamic group therapy are excluded.
The Monomyth is an unfolding sequence of inter-related events and characters which challenges the Hero, through trials and crisis, to deal with their opposite, or ‘shadow’, and thereby be changed.
Working with it seemed to intensify the therapeutic process, to clarify and distill participant’s therapeutic goals, focussing their journey of change by honing in on evocative, deep-seated, core issues along with the provision of signs of what’s needed for healing.
It appears that because participants are subconsciously literate with the Monomyth, their experience of being in therapy was contained by it. My feeling is that the familiar predictability of this sequence created a sense of safety and encouragement, which further expedited the unfolding of core matters in therapy.
I did feel that the more media saturated participants were, the greater this effect.
Furthermore, participants attained a deeper level of self-insight and awareness and emotional / behavioural and self-image congruence and integration.
Clearly, there are unique benefits to working with the Monomyth in therapy.
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