"Symbols in Dreams and Myths:

A Response to The Shaman's Doorway (1976) and The Mythic Imagination (1990) -- Two Books by Stephen Larsen"


by Eric Miller, 2019,

Chennai, south India




This piece of writing presents and discusses some ideas that animate my counselling work.


This piece of writing is a companion to my essay, "Giving Training in -- and Practicing -- a Form of Storytelling Therapy, In-person and via Videoconference", which describes my counselling work in other ways.





1) Introduction.

2) Quotes from Two Books by Stephen Larsen: The Shaman's Doorway; and The Mythic Imagination (including some Creative Mythology Exercises).

3) Commentary.





1) Introduction.


In his books, The Shaman's Doorway (1976), and The Mythic Imagination (1990), Stephen Larsen encourages people to cultivate their relationships with their individual and collective unconsciouses -- especially through the use of symbols from dreams and myths. 


He points out that dreams can be a key source of symbols from and about one's unconscious; and that supernatural figures from various cultures can also provide very valuable and useful symbols of aspects of 1) one's own personality, 2) the human personality in general, and 3) the rest of nature.


Beginning of page 2 of 16.


The author explains that the development of an individual is not just internal to that person, nor is it

limited to that person's family, acquaintances, or even community.  Development of an individual also relates to the entire human race, and to all of the rest of nature.  Ceremonies and symbolic representations utilising various media are needed to facilitate individuals' healthy and satisfying growth and maturation processes.


Note:  A shaman is a ritual leader who interacts with the realms of the divine and death.  In cultures in which shamans exist, it is believed that a shaman may go on spirit journeys to other realms, and/or may call figures from other realms into his/her body.





2) Quotes from Two Books by Stephen Larsen: The Shaman's Doorway; and The Mythic Imagination (including some Creative Mythology Exercises).




The Shaman's Doorway.


My goal is to invite modern people to join me in an ancient quest, a re-awakening to the spiritual universe which has always lain just beyond the borders of secular materialism.  (Page vii.)


People everywhere are turning to the inner quest as a vehicle for transformation.  (Page viii.)


Myth has been perennially active throughout human history, informing peoples' perceptions of the world and subtly shaping their every dealing with it.  Myth must now be withdrawn from the theatre of history and relocated in the psyche.  (Page 6.)


Myth, withdrawn from its projection on the common outer environment and no longer bound to culturally-propagated forms, is to be recognised as part of consciousness.  Hence it becomes, perhaps for the first time in history, the responsibility of the individual.  (Page 7.)


When the mythic imagination is cultivated, it is the creative source realm of the highest and best in human endeavor, the inspiration of the finest flowerings of our culture.  (Page 7.)


Beginning of page 3 of 16.


This book is intended as an instruction manual for owning and operating a mythic imagination.  (Page 8.)


Our collective response to a de-mythologised, industrialised, and technological environment is an escalating cycle of alienation, dissociation, and confusion.  Yet we cannot return to the days of our ancestors -- to literal, orthodox mythology.  What is required is a form of consciousness that recognises the enduring needs of that shadowy myth-susceptible dreamer still waiting just below the surface of awareness: our deeper, older self.  (Page 6.)


We require a mediator between the bright world of myth and ordinary reality.  (Page 9.)


Sometimes when we feel uncertain, we hope guidance may come from an invisible world within or beyond ourselves.  (Page 13.)


As we work with mythic patterns, we find that they can be catalysts which initiate changes in consciousness.  The ultimate dialogue is between consciousness (the undiluted perception of self and world), and those patterns to which consciousness has proven most susceptible: the archetypes that underlie the shape-shifting world of myth.  (Page 15.)


"A myth is a large controlling image that gives philosophical meaning to the facts of ordinary life" (Mark Schorer).  (Page 27.)


Dialogue with an inner world of terror or ecstasy, contacting the shape-shifting universe of the psyche.  (Page 45.)


Our dreams and visions, the dramatis personae of our imaginations, act as if they were independent entities with lives of their own.  Often as not, they show up as hidden, undiscovered parts of ourselves.  (Page 45.)


An effective transpersonal message (transcending the personal) must somehow touch and speak to the collective archetypal predicament.  (Page 47.)


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What ought to function as a symbolic metaphor for the client's psychological state is sometimes delusionally read as the literal workings of reality.  (Page 52.)


The shaman's profession is the relationship between the mythic imagination and ordinary consciousness.  (Page 59.)


Many people have no symbolic vocabulary, no grounded mythological tradition, by which to make their experiences comprehensible to themselves.  (Page 81.)


Animals can often be seen as representing aspects of one's unconscious.  (Page 85.)


An operative mythology provides structures and expresses otherwise inaccessible inner levels of psychological meaning.  Such a mythology constitutes a comprehensive symbolic system which may function both for internal reference and for social dialogue.  (Page 88.)


Dreams give access to one's inner life, which is other-than waking consciousness.  (Page 89.)


The enactment of dreams is an all-important therapeutic technique.  Dreams may seem to want to become real.  Making dreams real may involve a literal carrying out of an action portrayed or suggested by a dream; or, if this may not be appropriate, a symbolic enactment.  (Page 89.)


In some traditional societies, it is believed that certain illnesses may best be cured by the interpretation of dreams facilitated by medicine societies during spring, fall, and mid-winter dream festivals.  (Page 93.)


The Iroquois (a Native-American people) pay the strictest attention to the messages contained in dreams, for to ignore them is to court illness, madness, and disaster, by opposing the messages of the god coming from within.  (Page 95.)


Most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts -- with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.  And where do we make contact with this old man or woman within us?  In our dreams.  (Page 96.)


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During a dream festival, when the dreamer -- or others -- feel that someone has made the right interpretation of a dream, the dreamer must give a gift to that person.  A friendship is expected to spring up between them as a result of this psycho-symbolic transaction.  (Page 97.)


If a dream expresses a "wish of the soul," everyone takes part in helping the individual to realise his/her wish.  ...  When a dream is enacted, audience members may play various parts.  (Page 97.)


Public "dream interpretation ceremonies" may occur during dream festivals.  (Page 98.)


The Senoi, like the Iroquois, value the enactment and making public of messages contained in their dreams.  (Page 101.)


... Voyaging in their own mythic inner spaces and bringing back things of value for us all.  (Page 102.)


... A young person may seek to cross the threshold from adolescence to adulthood by going into the wilderness alone, to fast and await a vision or dream which serves as a psychological initiation.  (Page 103.)


The archetypal dimension of such an experience serves to initiate one into a sense of belonging, not only to the social but also to the cosmic order.  The initiate may return with a new name.  (Page 103.)


To the patient it is a revelation when something altogether strange rises up to confront him/her from the hidden depths of the psyche -- something that is not his/her ego and thus is beyond the reach of his/her personal will.  He/she has regained access to the sources of psychic life, and this marks the beginning of the cure.  (Page 111.)


Jungian analysts feel the emergence of such archetypal material signals the onset of a natural curative process from within.  (Page 111.)


There is a curative magic in finding one's meaningful place in the archetypal, cosmic order.  (Page 112.)


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How bleak our three-dimensional world can be without the magic light of myth shining into it.  (Page 117.)


Many of us have no training in turning one's attention to the living landscape within, and allowing one's energies to there enact their symbolic play.  (Page 121.)


We need to learn ways to deal intelligently and creatively with mythopoetic consciousness.  (Page 122.)


We are developing a relationship with the symbolic phantasmagoria that has been released into the collective mindscape in modern times.  (Page 122.)


The guide within fulfills a psychological need, which is one of the basic functions of myth.  (Page 123.)


Having been shown by Darwin that the Garden of Eden is most likely not literally true, many of us have discarded our entire mythological orientation, with its psychological guiding functions as well.  (Page 126.)


When consciousness turns its energy back upon itself, the result is to render perceptible its otherwise inaccessible subjective patterns.  When one has engaged those patterns and energies directly, they no longer fully dictate and structure our conscious experience, and we no longer think and act unconsciously and compulsively.  (Page 155.)


Whenever the unconscious fails to co-operate, one is instantly at a loss, even in one's most ordinary activities.  There may be a failure of memory, of coordinated action, or of interest and concentration.  Such a failure may cause a serious annoyance, a fatal accident, a professional disaster, or a moral collapse.  The cooperation of the unconscious, which is something we often take for granted, when it suddenly fails, can be a very serious matter.  (Page 156.)


All parts of the self must be in relationship to each other for an organism to be healthy.  (Page 161.)


Beginning of page 7 of 16.


When I am disembodied, out of touch with myself, I am out of touch with the world of nature, and I can remain numb and content in a city of humans.  But when I am embodied, and the sap-energy of life flows strongly within, I am not happy unless I am among trees and brooks and mountains, or by the sea.  (Page 168.)


We humans are in the midst of ecological, bodily, and psychological crises.  (Page 169.)


The central and unifying dialogue is between ordinary consciousness and the mythic imagination.  (Page 171.)


The psyche has been developing a mythic vocabulary for inner dialogue.  (Page 176.)


The scientist is only the magician of the daylight world.  He/she has lost touch with the nocturnal  world of the imagination.  (Page 186.)


Look at a person's soul.  (Page 191.)


The visions obtained require the stabilising anchor of enactment.  (Page 199.)


Our modern Western culture is a barren womb for the gestation of the sacred and lacks a framework for validating one's visionary experiences.  (Page 200.)


The quest for psycho-spiritual learning, for apprenticeship to a person of knowledge, is one of our enduring archetypal yearnings.  (Page 200.)


Rigid people are cut off from the flow of life.  (Page 212.)


One may be able to resolve collective problems through attunement to hidden patterns of the universe.  (Page 227.)





The Mythic Imagination.


Dreams break into this world.  (Page xix.)


One needs to find one's mythic roots.  (Page xxv.)


Something from this world could marry something from the mythic world.  (Page xxvii.)


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Knowledge of myths gives one a richly-furnished chamber of the psyche.  (Page xxvii.)


Awaken to the presence of mythic themes in your life.  (Page xxxii.)


An archetype is an identity larger than oneself.  When one consciously plays an archetype, one enters an eternal role.  (Page 3.)


Mythological symbols communicate and touch one beyond vocabularies of reason.  (Page 4.)


Break out of an isolated human adventure, and participate in a larger social, cultural, historical, and spiritual ecology.  (Page 5.)


We often repeat mythic patterns.  (Page 11.)


Construct an authentic psyche -- one that is broad, integrated, and creative.  (Page 14.)


Become the unity that embraces all of the possibilities within oneself.  Give coherence and unity to one's component parts.  (Page 15.)


Develop symbolic compendiums of soul-vitalising forms.  (Page 16.)


Myths are symbols that contain emotions and ideas.  (Page 25.)


Emotions and behaviors are made meaningful by recognising the stories that surround them.  (Page 27.)


Seek to discover the secret workings in everyday life of gods, heroes, and demons.  What emotions, thoughts, and experiences of yours are associated with these symbolic figures?  (Page 28.)


What unknown, secret script -- and what underlying logic -- seem to inform one's emotions and behaviors?  At times a sense of helpless participation in a timeless drama may come over one.  (Page 30.)


To what god or goddess is a certain passion sacred?  (Page 31.)


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In traditional cultures, mythological themes are presented at points of life development -- at stages of emotional, physical, and social transition.  These moments are marked by corresponding rituals, which provide a mythic tissue of transformation for the growing psyche.  (Page 33.)


Symbols of transformation help us transform.  (Page 35.)


A myth may have a magical impact on layers of the psyche which cannot be reached by intellectual talk.  (Page 42.)


The mythically awake imagination sees through the ordinary-seeming surface of everyday life to discover the "secret cause," the mythic and archetypal patterns underneath.  (Page 50.)


In psychotherapy, the therapist often traces a destructive personal belief-and-behavior-complex back to an event, or series of events, and "exorcises" the destructive pattern through awareness and emotional release.  However, I believe a belief-and-behavior-complex must be understood both in terms of its experiential origin and its mythic meaning for it to be truly worked through and transcended.  (Page 61.)


In myth and dream, "impulse is transduced into image and symbol, and an internal plight is converted into a story plot" (Jerome Bruner).  (Page 70.)


"To understand the psyche, we have to include the whole world" (Joseph Campbell).  (Page 95.)


"The human personality is always on a journey of soul-making" (Joseph Campbell).  (Page 97.)


The psychological task of the hero is "to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside" (Joseph Campbell).  (Page 98.)


"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.  There fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won.  The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Joseph Campbell).  (Page 98.)


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The self is to be entered as the fairy realm of myth and folklore.  The dragons and ogres encountered there are aspects of ourselves.  The kingdom, lying under its wicked enchantment, is the world as we have come to see it in our regressive and self-induced trance.  (Page 105.)


The individual soul plunges into the depths of his/her own psyche in search of renewed meaning and a sense of belonging.  (Page 108.)


Images of animals can be living sources of power within the psyche.  It can be a therapeutic encounter to enter into dialogue with imagined animals and discover what they need.  Some may be sick, caged, or neglected, for examples.  (Page 113.)


By failing to recognise our inner as well as outer ecology, we modern folk have cut ourselves off from our sources of life.  (Page 114.)


To have a richness of outer experience requires an inner wealth of symbolic forms: this is both the legacy and the invitation of the mythic imagination.  (Page 114.)


Actualising an underlying pattern or myth into life can be called incarnation (page 117.)


Modern humanity is in search of a soul.  (Page 117.)


One cause of "Soul sickness" is being cut-off from one's natural and healthy psychic environment.  (Page 122.)


A woman had an impaired relationship with her own instinct and intuition.  Her dreams were helping her improve her relationship with her unconscious.  (Page 166.)


A symbol connected her with her energy source.  (Page 174.)


The mythic world guides and interfuses events in the everyday world.  These events may become (in one's perception) timeless, luminous, or intensely meaningful.  (Page 181.)


One needs to get in touch with the spiritual principle that gives meaning to the entire adventure.  (Page 206.)


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A theme in Jung's approach is to recognise the ancient gods and offer them "hospitality" in modern life.  (Page 214.)


In our depths lie transpersonal wisdom figures and an inexhaustible creative life force.  (Page 223.)


Humanity needs a new sense of mythology, geared to the creative life of the individual who seeks his/her own way in the world and who, through following his/her own path, develops a relationship with the archetypal and mythical powers that inform life.  (Page 227.)


It is this individual path to the mysteries, not the collective participation enjoined upon us by all of the religions, that may well constitute the ultimate human adventure and the achievement of personal wholeness.  (Page 228.)


The modern mind still thirsts to drink at the well of mythic meaning.  It yearns for experience of the world made sacred.  (Page 232.)


The responsibility of the conscious mythmaker is to construct an appropriate "frame of reference" into which the powers are invited to show themselves (page 233.)


A function of a mask is to unite the wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being (an archetypal power.)  A mask can enable a concentration of psychic energy, and offer dialogue between ego and other.  (Page 236.)


Mask-making and -wearing can be signs of a covenant between the supernatural realm and the human, natural, and social worlds.  (Page 241.)


When a Navajo sand painting healer places his patient in the mandala he has worked hours or days to prepare, he is trying to align psycho-spiritual forces in the patient, in himself, and in the universe.  (Page 242.)


Humans are truly free only when they are at play.  Play enables the energies of the psyche to be released and transformed.  (Page 287.)


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In a hero's/heroine's quest, the hero/heroine encounters important aspects of him/herself.  (Page 317.)


What does the world need?  (Page 318.)


What does the hero/heroine need?  (Page 318.)


Does the hero bring something back?  Is anything different in the world because of what the hero/heroine has done?  (Page 318.)


A personal awakening and transformation can be achieved.  (Page 327.)



"Creative Mythology Exercises" (from The Mythic Imagination).


Ask for a dream or vision, and wait.  (Page 25.)


Act out a dream to help accomplish healing.  (Page 25.)


Construct a container, a ritual form, to hold the mythic energy.  The energies can then be safely and reliably invoked, summoned, confronted, and pleased.  (Page 30.)


Projective technique: present ambiguous stimuli and invite the client to make additions.  (Page 32.)


Find images of the universe that bring meaning into the soul.  (Page 94.)


Imagine yourself at your own funeral, when you are leaving this life and looking back upon it.  Deliver your own eulogy (speech about your life).  (Page 141.)


I invited him to find his inner guide to see what he advised.  He said, "I find him in a cave."  (Page 219.)


Help the patient regenerate the life force deep within him/herself.  (Page 243.)


A ritual must be structured enough to contain and shape psychic energy, and loose enough to allow it to flow freely from its own deep sources.  At every step one could dialogue with the images as they emerge.  The images carry emotion and are protean; they metamorphose as one tries to hold them.  (Page 247.)


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Create an imaginary universe, and then live in it.  (Page 259.)


We can play at confronting what terrifies us most.  We can, in play, open the cages and prisons that lock up parts of us.  (Page 282.)


Create a space into which the mythic may be invited.  (Page 296.)


Go through your body, part by part.  (Page 304.)


Imagine your mind to be a blank screen on which images may appear.  (Page 304.)


Look into a deep well.  (Page 304.)


Look into a mirror.  (Page 304.)


In a dream, what is the feeling?  Seek to identify and describe colors, objects, perceptions, and themes.  (Page 304.)


Fantasies may involve wish fulfillment, compensation, anxiety, etc.  (Page 306.)


Does the fantasy recur?  Does it seem stuck, or is it going somewhere?  (Page 306.) 


Does the dream present an impasse (a difficulty)?  If yes, in what ways could the impasse be resolved?  (Page 306.)


Meet an inner guide.  Meet an ally.  Meet a shadow.  (Page 306.)


Stand before a doorway.  (Page 308.)


Stand at the top of a spiral staircase that goes down.  Go downward, spiraling seven times, to meet your guide.  (Page 308.)


At the bottom of the staircase of seven spirals, look into the eyes of the person you find there.  Ask this person, "Are you my guide?"  Wait for confirmation or contradiction.  If the answer is no, ask, "Could you take me to my guide?"  (Page 309.)


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Tell your guide what your challenging situation is, and ask, "What should I do?"

You could ask,

"May I visit my shadow?"

"May I visit a deceased ancestor?" 

"May I visit ...?"  (Page 309.)


Perhaps bring a gift for the person you would like to visit.  (Page 309.)


When ready, ask one's guide, "May I go back to the ordinary world?"  (Page 309.)


If you cannot follow your guide's advice literally, try to do so as a symbolic enactment.  (Page 310.)


Imagine walking in a beautiful garden.  There are many plants and flowers.  (Page 310.)


If animals are there, move like an animal you see.  (Page 312.)


Cross a river.  Come to a sacred grove.  (Page 314.)


Ask whoever you meet, "Is there anything I could do for you?"  (Page 314.)


Describe the first dream you have had.  That is, the earliest dream you can remember.  Describe the room and the bed in which you had this dream, and what you were doing and how you were feeling at that point in your life.  (Page 316.)


Re-dream a dream, and have it go differently this time.  (Page 316.)





3) Commentary


Stephen Larsen's thinking as a therapist, healer, and facilitator is very much in the Carl Jung - Joseph Campbell tradition, as is mine.  I am very grateful to Stephen Larsen for presenting these ideas.


The Shaman's Doorway and The Mythic Imagination state, discuss, and illustrate ways working with symbols in dreams and myths can help people to connect with themselves, society, culture, history, and nature.


Beginning of page 15 of 16.


Using these symbols can help one to achieve a sense of belonging, and to see the larger picture and one's place in it.


This is finally about helping people to find themselves, and to discover the meanings, purposes, and directions of their lives.


However, we are living in a perilous moment --


As the old cultures recede in time, and as physical and linguistic traces of those cultures disappear, it seems fewer and fewer people are digging into history, immersing themselves in ancient cultures, and learning about ancient myths. 


The study of the Liberal Arts, the Humanities, is dwindling.  Mass media tends to be sensational and fleeting.  In the realm of mass media, memory of the distant past, and background and social-context, are secondary considerations.  Much on the Internet is self-promotional.  Education is more and more designed to prepare people to for vocations and to manage systems -- not to question, modify, reject, and create systems.  It seems most young people, and people in general, do not like to read or write for more than a minute or two.


Biological, cultural and linguistic diversity are all dwindling. 


Forests are being cut down.  This has been going on for a long time, but it seems we are now arriving at the end of the process.  Forest vegetation is being replaced by mono-crops.  Wild animals and plants are simply disappearing.  One million species of animals (out of nine million) are on the verge of extinction.


As a result, we humans are ending up cut off from the rest of nature, and isolated -- on physical as well as psychic levels.  We are being cut off from nature in part because in many cases the nature no longer exists: we are in the late stages of eradicating much of it.  What happens to one's psyche when there is no longer wilderness in nature that one could experience and use to represent the wilderness within one's psyche?


All of this seems to be leading to the production of individuals who might have shallow, under-nourished psyches -- not "richly-furnished chambers of the psyche" (The Mythic Imagination, page xxvii).  People in this deprived, uncultivated condition may be relatively unaware (culturally-speaking) of where they came from, who they are, and where they might be going.


Beginning of page 16 of 16.


In leading Creative Writing workshops for teenagers, I feel some glimmer of hope when students express interest in the "occult" and the "paranormal" (ghosts, etc).  At least they are searching for something under-the-surface.  I was heartened the other day by a teenage student who included in a short story of hers the Goddess of the Forest known in ancient Greece as Artemis, and in ancient Italy as Diana.





The Shaman's Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth, by Stephen Larsen.  First edition: New York: Harper and Row, 1976.


The Mythic Imagination: Your Quest for Meaning through Personal Mythology, by Stephen Larsen. First edition: New York: Bantam Books, 1990.


"Giving Training in -- and Practicing -- a Form of Storytelling Therapy, In-person and via Videoconference," by Eric Miller, 2019,



"One Million Species Face Extinction, UN Report Says. And Humans Will Suffer as a Result," by Darryl Fears, The Washington Post, 6 May 2019,