OUR ETHOSMyth, wild mind, and enchantment
I came to this work many years ago, while I was practicing psychology at the same time as studying for an MA in Creative Writing. This unusual combination of professional qualifications led me to develop a specialism in narrative psychology. I then developed an innovative, intensive training course in the subject for the Continuing Professional Development of clinical psychologists and other health professionals within the National Health Service. And in my own practice, I worked with myth, story and therapeutic writing to encourage lasting and meaningful transformation in my clients. All of that work has been inspired by an early and abiding love, and later formal study, of literature, mythology and folklore. Although I don’t see people in formal therapeutic settings right now, my work is focused on individuals, small groups, and larger audiences, drawing attention to the ways in which myths and stories can lead us to wilder and more authentic ways of being in the world.
This way of working with myth and story also stems in part from my psychology qualifications, and in particular, my study of Jungian and Depth Psychology traditions. I believe that myths, folk and fairy tales lodge themselves in our hearts and stay with us because they are particularly redolent with archetypes – images that bridge the personal and the universal. These images are like keys, unlocking an old, deep wisdom which all too often we don’t know we have. In the vehicle of a story they become more than mere images: they become energies, embedded with instructions which guide us through the complexities of life and show us what we may become – and, perhaps more interestingly, how we might participate in the becoming of the world.
The focus of our work: our native mythical tradition
The primary focus of my work, and of our programme at The Hedge School, is the native mythology and traditions of Ireland and the British Isles, and their relevance to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today. I believe that those stories and traditions offer insights into authentic and meaningful ways of being which are founded on a sense of belonging to place, a rootedness in the land we inhabit. Our old myths, folktales, and fairy tales offer up a deep and grounded wisdom which we can draw on today to lead us back to the wild that we have lost, and to show us how to belong to the wider world again.
It is in good part because of the resonance of the archetypal images they carry that myth and story have such authority in informing our relationship with what we perceive to be ‘other’ – in particular, our relationship with the natural world. Stories, for example, can show us what it is to have a balanced relationship with the land. They can show us a world in which everything is animate in its own way. A world in which we can learn from everything: animal, plant, rock. Myths and stories help us to belong to the world, to understand it as filled with its own purpose and meaning, rather than as a mere backdrop for human activity.
The native mythology of Britain and Ireland, then, is a tradition which concerns itself, at the core, with our relationship with, and duty to, the land. The early Grail legends, for example, are properly conceived of not as a journey to individual wholeness as many Jungian writers have suggested, but as a journey to healing the Wasteland – healing our relationship with the land, which is in turn associated with healing our relationship with an Otherworld which is just as real as this one. This is why I don’t teach stories and practices from other traditions – because these are the stories that are sung to us by this land in which we have our roots, this soil in which our feet are planted. These are the stories which sing us back home, the stories where we find our belonging. I’d like us to learn first from our own old ways, rather than default to the literary traditions and the spiritual or meditative practices of other continents and cultures.
The Celtic mythical tradition is also threaded through with stories of the Otherworld: a world which is similar in many respects to the ancient Sufi concept of the mundus imaginalis: the world of the image, a world which lies between the physical world and the world of abstract intellect. The Otherworld in our native traditions was the source of inspiration, insight, and knowledge; it was a source of moral and spiritual authority. In some old stories it is written that the source of this world’s life was the sacred water of the wells, which flowed up out of the deep potent waters of the Otherworld. It was from the Otherworld that Sovereignty arose, a quality of the goddess of the land who was its guardian and protector, an anima mundi of sorts, and a deeply ecological force.
At The Hedge School, then, our work with myth and stories is focused on the storying and re-storying – the re-enchanting – of our relationship to land, place and nature. It is about rediscovering the sacred in everyday life, and in the world around us. In spite of my own background as a psychologist, I’ve been concerned for a long time about the ways in which contemporary therapy culture locks us inside our own heads and focuses us on our own ‘wellbeing’ to the exclusion of all else. Although for sure we have to do the difficult work on ourselves before we can hope to function well in the world, it means nothing if we do not then step back out into the world and see where we fit into it, what gifts we can bring to it, what we can learn from it. This re-immersion into and reconnection with the earth – understanding it for its own sake, not just as a backdrop for our own activities, or for its ability to assist in our own healing – is what matters to me above all else.
And enchantment? By my definition, a vivid sense of belongingness to a rich and many-layered world, a profound and whole-hearted participation in the adventure of life. Enchantment is a natural, spontaneous human tendency – one we possess as children, but lose, through social and cultural pressures, as we grow older. I believe that it is an attitude of mind which can be cultivated: the enchanted life is possible for anyone. The enchanted life is intuitive, embraces wonder, and fully engages the mythic imagination – but it is also deeply embodied, ecological, grounded in place and community. To live an enchanted life is to be challenged, to be awakened, to be gripped and shaken to the core by the extraordinary which lies at the heart of the ordinary.
The need for rigour, and scholarship
I believe we can transform ourselves and the world around us by learning from these native mythologies and wisdom traditions — beginning always by exploring them in a way that is rooted in authentic knowledge and study of the original sources, unfiltered by romanticisation, fantasy or modern cultural projections. A surprising amount of contemporary writing about Celtic myth and tradition is rooted in out-of-date ideas, or is simply fabricated. And so the foundation of my work at The Hedge School is very firmly rooted in genuine and up-to-date scholarship, and in my professional and academic qualifications as well as my lived experience on the wild Celtic edgelands of Europe.
If you’d like more specifics, there’s an interview with me about my approach to myth and story at this link.
(Artwork on this page by Maxime Simoncelli)
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