Reply To: Artistic Origins, with Professor Andrew Gurevich
Stephen (and others), what wonderful observations and communal wisdom you have developed here. This is a sacred space. I can feel the alchemical connectivity even as I type. Thank you for inviting me into it and letting me engage with your wonderful responses to Joe’s work, and to the other transformative voices you have brought to this table. I’d like to reply to everyone, so I will do so separately, in a few different responses.
“I’d like to focus on the question of how you define ‘living myth’ today. What is a living myth, and how does one find it? Would you recommend an individual attach themselves to an existing tradition that speaks to their soul, even if outside their own culture, or perhaps construct their own rituals, maybe draw from a number of mythological and cultural traditions stories, rituals, and other elements that activate centers within their own being (what I think of as the cafeteria model, which Campbell seems to recommend on occasion). Or does something else come to mind?”
Not to be mundane or obvious, by my response is: “both/and.” Living myth is that which animates the soul and integrates the fractured person into a compassionate, life-affirming whole. I like to think of Campbell’s “Four Functions” of mythology: the cosmological, mystical, sociological, and the psychological as a good grid for assisting this. Personally, I have to tie it to the land. To embody a living myth is to see it emerge from the living earth. I find the central mountain, in this case Mt Hood or Wyeast as the Indigenous people of the region call it, and I spread out from there in all directions with the sacred awareness of transformative intent. I try to connect to the landscape and inhabit it in a conscious and intentional way. How do I move through it? How do I drive? How do I shop? How do I speak to gas station attendants and to grocery store clerks and to homeless people and to birds and dogs and children and my wife and students and colleagues? How am I nurturing the bonds of my cosmological, mystical, sociological and psychological connections to the land on which I get to encounter the divine? What am I doing to cultivate and share wonder and awe? How I am honoring my human and nonhuman ancestors in this space? Those who came before and those who will come after?
What I soon realize, however, is that there is both an outer and inner landscape to the embodied encounter of the Other. And both landscapes requires tending and maintenance. Landscaping. Both spaces thrive with my focused intention to work with the land to produce the most optimal results for all involved, human and nonhuman alike. To live within the circle of being is to be divinely human. But it is a balance and it takes work. Intense effort balanced by stillness. Concern for justice balanced by detachment and equanimity. It is a space of intense self-examination and reflection. A reckoning with one’s darker nature. An organic hall of mirrors meant not to produce a Narcissus or a Machiavelli, but a Nathan or a Jeremiah or a Thich Nhat Hahn or a Maya Angelou. Like in The Octopus Teacher, the deep encounter with Other is often the most profound way to fully feel the illusory essence of the boundary of self, and thus truly open up to the divine within.
“If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. He lives in the “House of the Gathering.” Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” “Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.140 Carl Jung
So whatever sets of symbols, rituals, linguistic algorithms, and narrative tech we use to nourish and integrate those spaces within the individual and the community, to me, count together as “living myth.” Some do this through established, traditional means; some cut their own way through the Abyss. I think there are a few factors to consider.
Mythic dissociation is very real, and it is at the heart of so much that is wrong with our culture here in the West and, consequently, with the world in general. But different people are experiencing different levels of mythic dissociation for different reasons. So in other words, both the Indigenous communities in Central and South America being displaced by wildfires, drought, and the clear cutting of their unseeded lands to make way for coffee and beef plantations to suit the growing needs of Starbucks and McDonalds, as well as the Western upper middle class tech manager flying to Peru on the weekends for an Ayahuasca ceremony to reconnect with their inner child and broken family, are experiencing displacement from their mythic origins. The conditions necessary to allow either to discover and nurture their full purpose within a conscious, living, dynamic cosmos (beyond the dictates of the hungry ghosts of capitalist economies) are being stretched to collapse, but for different reasons. Both are really suffering and deserve to be made whole. But the “answer” for both is quite different.
So with regard to your question, there are tens of millions of people in the world who need exactly what you first said,
“to attach themselves to an existing tradition that speaks to their soul, even if outside their own culture.”
Sometimes this will be the tradition of their people, the living myth that has animated the consciousness of their ancestors for generations. Other times, it will be a pilgrimage of the soul from one cultural form to another, A Christian who becomes a Buddhist; an secular Jew who discovers the Yogic path. Sometimes it will be a rebirth within a tradition. As when one finds Meister Eckhart or Rumi or Hafiz or Maimonides and has a rebirth within the tradition they have always practiced. The keys are presence, authenticity, and vulnerability. This is what allows for the transformation of consciousness necessary for the wound to heal, the lead to be turned to gold, the light to reveal the wisdom of the ages to the lone, fragmented soul. If we can do so with honor, and awe, and integrity and humility, then we will experience the riches of the sacred wisdom that those traditions have to offer.
For others, it will be the “cafeteria model” you suggested. These folks will need to, as you say,
“perhaps construct their own rituals, maybe draw from a number of mythological and cultural traditions stories, rituals, and other elements that activate centers within their own being.”
Now, how to do that? My friend and colleague Stanley Krippner wrote a great essay about this entitled “Personal Mythology.” It is about exactly what you speak to here, the rise of the need for individuals to find their own ways through the sacred wood towards the Holy Grail which contained the elixir of their own renewal. Funny, Joe wrote about this very thing in Romance of the Grail. We each must find our way through the woods on our own path, even if we are practicing an established tradition. “Unless you are constantly practicing it, this dying and being reborn, you are only a guest on this dark planet earth,” Goethe also reminds us.
As I stated above, this has been my path. But I know others who are very grounded within, and nourished by, their connection to Greek Orthodoxy, Cherokee ancestry, Jewish Mysticism, or Amazonian Shamanism, just to name a few. But I have learned from the land. And recently I have been listening to water. Learning about the land, and thus myself, and my soul, from how water moves through a region. It is an interesting way to look at the place you live. The Tao speaks to this. Water flows with no effort and seeks the path of no obstruction, but it can also be such a powerful and transformative force. The difference is time and perspective.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in a town called Astoria on the Oregon Coast. Astoria is special because it is a river town and an ocean town. It is where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. And it is home to one of the most deadly sections of water on earth: the Columbia Bar.
The Columbia Bar is a three-mile wide, six-mile long gauntlet of wind, waves, and sand that seafaring people from around the world know all too well. They refer to it respectfully, if sometimes profanely, as the “Graveyard of Ships.” A menacing nickname also applied to an array of major marine hazards along the Pacific Northwest coast, including Cape Flattery (at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula), Cape Scott (at the north tip of Vancouver Island) and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Historically the entire region’s nickname was the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” and it is studded with thousands of shipwrecks. But no single spot along this jagged coastline is more legendary, or more treacherous, than the Columbia Bar.
Since 1792, nearly 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia Bar. The Coast Guard has a facility nearby that trains sailors in how to navigate the unnavigatable; and to provide rescue for those brave or foolish captains who fail to safely traverse this formidable boundary between two unstoppable forces. Between river and ocean: the bound and the unbound. From that which provides for life to that which gave rise to it.
At the Bar, one is confronted with the fluidity and permeability of life. The heart, here, is a lighthouse guiding one through the turbulence and trials of one’s own becoming. It is the refiner’s fire from the Bible. The temptation in the desert. Not an emotional seat of individual longing, but a beacon of resonance with the conscious universe. The place where one navigates beyond words and back to the essential truths of tidal knowing and moonlit elementals. A place of violent transition becomes one of benevolent regeneration. Of transformation. Salt and fresh waters, rushing forth, smashing together and resisting one other in massive, 50-foot foaming swells. The watery chaos flows back into itself to start the cycle all over again. Sometimes the fresh water runs out into the ocean for a hundred miles. Sometimes the ocean water runs up the Columbia for several miles. The line itself is fluid, constantly moving. Like the line between yin and yang. The Bar is the place of emergence. The grave and birthplace of water. And thus, of everyone and everything. I watch, and listen, and learn how water makes us who we are.
“In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception. […] the essential point is that the heart is primarily an instrument of sight—or insight, as the case may be […] Its purpose is to navigate along the vertical axis and stay in alignment with ‘the Image of one’s true nature.’ Itself a vibrant resonant field, it functions like a homing beacon between the realms; and when it is strong and clear, it creates a synchronous resonance between them.” ~ Cynthia Bourgeault “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” Parobola Magazine I Art Mary Magdalene, Pietro Perugino, ca. 1500
I find the need to inhabit both spaces regularly. But as Joe said, it is hard to get back once you release fully into the Void. This is always a problem.