Reply To: Artistic Origins, with Professor Andrew Gurevich
Well hello Stephen, and everyone, it is an honor to be with you and discuss Campbell’s work and legacy. These are great questions and deserve entire essays of their own, but a few things come to mind. (Likely my future responses will be a bit more brief! )
My short responses are: we have to get beyond language, and beyond our preoccupation with death.
Now, for a slightly deeper dive…
Mythology, to me, is an algorithmic code of symbol systems meant to enact a profound transformation of consciousness within the individual and the community. Individually and collectively, the myth must be enacted or experienced for the person or the group to truly expect to share in its transformative bounty. This is not unique to mythology. If I read extensively on health and fitness but never get off of the couch, I cannot expect to end up being very physically fit. But with mythology, there is yet another layer to this dynamic we must consider.
Let me offer an explanation by way of example: the God of the Israelites blasts the people in the opening chapters of the book of Isaiah for enacting the rites and festivals of their religion, but for not doing so with pure and open hearts; for not being authentically engaged in the process. The act alone is not enough. Transformation cosplay will actually lead the individual further from the Source. This is not the case with my example above about exercise. If I get up and run a few miles every day or hit the gym for an extensive workout several times a week, I can expect to see the results, no matter if “my heart is in it” or not. Sure, studies have shown that when you authentically engage in any activity, you are more likely to stick with it and experience better results. But the reluctant runner will still burn the calories. The complaining cross fitter will still shape their core. But Yahweh calls the rituals of the disenchanted “a stench in his nostrils,” however. Why might this be?
As you state in your original question, to “know” mythological truths only in the mind is to not allow oneself to fully inhabit their embodied rewards. And I would add to that observation, to inhabit these spaces inauthentically or with a predominance of ego is to unleash their vital forces in service of the self. This starts a chain reaction that inevitably leads one further from the Source, further from the Ground of Being, and into the world of illusion. The world of delusion. Until they become so enchanted with the self, that they are utterly disenchanted from everything else, except that which is in service of ego. They cut themselves off from the divine essence in a perpetual distraction, like in the Narcissus myth. And the primary vehicle by which we enshrine and perpetuate the distraction is language. Yahweh is not a being but being itself. And the rituals are meant to introduce the community, experientially, to a covenantal relationship with their own hearts. With their own mysterious and glorious emergence. But not only as separate, created things, but also as carriers of the divine reflection. Mirrors of that which is beyond time and space, and thus beyond the capacity for language to contain.
The child exists, for a brief time anyway, within a prelinguistic bubble of direct experience. Words define, which mean words limit, which means words inevitably constrict potential. Words project standards which introduce the child the the world of rules. The world of “should” and “shouldn’t.” And everything changes at that moment. They no longer experience the world directly as an infinite and immediate passion play of love between the self and the Source. They now begin a long dance away from primary consciousness and into the world of linguistic binaries, cognitive limitations, and perpetual distractions. This is where myth and religion come in, and in the modern world, psychotherapy and new therapeutic techniques like EMDR and IFS. The goal is to integrate the adult by healing the child within. The child that has been brutalized by language. This is done by helping the adult get in touch with who they were before they were told who they are. And this is done through the various forms of mythological enlightenment: of removing the limitations and barriers that have arisen between the individual and their original, authentic self, or Moksha in the Hindu tradition. Indeed, the One they are reintroduced to, in the Brahmanic traditions, is referred to as “the One before whom all words recoil.” The One that resides at the core of their very own being. Tat Tsvam Asi, or Thou Art That.
Embodied mythological experiences can reintroduce the adult to a proxy of that pristine childhood awareness. Before they become snared by the pairs of linguistic opposites. The mysterious and awe-inspiring world that quickly dissipates and becomes subservient to their linguistic containers. Language, in the disenchanted self, now uses us, rather than us continuing to use it as a vehicle for the enhanced expression of the ineffable experience of the absolute. This is part of what Jesus means when he says, “The law was made for man, not man for the law.” But it is a tough existential frame to hold onto. Everything in the modern world is stacked against it. So to “grow up” is to become, inevitably to some extent, disenchanted with the world. Fragmented by the disruptive encounter with linguistic limitations.
Campbell says something similar in Pathways to Bliss when he states, ”The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to––as well as to demand of––the world.”
Now the second part of my response, our preoccupation with death. Not much to say here other than that this preoccupation fills the individual with a constant existential fear of NOT being. One that cannot be overcome unless one experiences a transformation of who and what they believe being to “be.” A return to a childlike “ignorance” of death which does not experience life as anything but a transformative and mesmerizing encounter with the transcendent and eternal NOW. This is an expansive transition back into the complete and embracing bliss of one’s essential and instinctual connection to Source.
“The immortal is the reality; the mortal is the unreality. During each period of life, reality thus dwells in unreality, to be liberated from it temporarily by death and permanently by illumination,” said the astrologer and mystic Manly P. Hall.
So, finally, it is my suggestion that through a full, authentic, and open engagement with the rituals, rites, and ceremonies of living myth, we are able to return to a prelinguistic mode of experience that allows us to step away from our preoccupation with death and our linguistically confined categories of binary opposition and reenter a space where we can, like the child, encounter the sacred directly, immediately, and without a chaperone. Without the learned need to name it, categorize it, and define ourselves in opposition to it. The child at play is a manifestation of the Cosmos recognizing itself in an immediate and full embrace of divine love. Campbell was adamant about this in Thou Art That. Whether we follow the Hindu tradition or the Judaic one, all that is has its grounding in the absolute, that which is beyond words and beyond time. And that ineffable truth is, whether itself proceeding into the universe to become all forms (as is the case in Hindu cosmology) or calling all forms into existence in relation to itself (as is the case in Judaic cosmology) singular, timeless, without description, and at the core of our essential selves. The child, having recently emerged from this timeless space of nonbeing, already “knows” this, even though they do not yet have the language of separation needed to analyze it, and thus stand apart from it. This, to me, is what it is to “paint like a child.” This is what Picasso was after. Not a stylistic or skill based perspective, but one of immediacy, transparency, and few, if any, intermediary conduits to the bliss of existential becoming.
As for the role of ritual in enabling the individual to participate fully in the mysterium tremendum, some wonderful insights come to us from the world of anthropology. I work with a research organization called The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. Our work is centered on exploring all of the ways humans interact with, define, engage, and interpret the contours of individual and collective consciousness. And several of our founders were insistent on the vital role of direct experience in the process of encountering and relating to nonlocal consciousness. In other words, the vital role of ritual in the process of the transformation of self. Scholars from our group like Edith Turner and Carlos Castaneda insisted that many of the deepest truths of our human journey could not be understood unless directly experienced. To know them intellectually was only a small part of encountering their full transformative potential.
My advice, if I could be so elemental, is for people to try to NOT be guided by fear or intellectual curiosity but to follow the body. The childlike wonder of direct communion with the other is a very powerful tonic against the childish mental states we often find ourselves in because we have been separated from the ground of our being, disenchanted from the world by the world of linguistic mazes that always promise more than they can deliver. My advice is to stop, breathe, and remember that all which we seek we already contain. And the work is to uncover, to liberate that unbridled knowing from its culturally informed container. To engage myth fully and authentically through ritual and ceremony is to be reintroduced to the eternal NOW. To step away from the private, separate, and finite self and back into an awareness that binds one so strongly to the other that the space between the two evaporates, and one is left with such a profound experience of Other that the boundaries of the self dissolve into a harmonious, eternal dance of divine, expansive, transformative, becoming.
This may seem like a paradox because we do this through engaging the cultural myths, rituals, and linguistic traditions of the mythological scaffolding we are born into. But we must remember that the purpose of all mythic symbols is to provide a dharma gate, an opening, to the transcendent reality that exists beyond the symbol. The myths are gateways to assist us in becoming, again, as we once were, utterly transcendent to transcendence.
There is a humility in this action. A profound and effusive gratitude of presence. As my friend the poet Alberto Moreno says, engaging in transformative mythological rituals “is the adult in me inviting the child in me to be a child once again and receive this holy benediction. This simple gesture is a hundred, hundred years in the making.” A return. A restoration. After all what is faith but a remembering? What is myth but an existential restoration of our original inheritance, enacted in the liminal spaces of our ancestral memory?