June 24, 2021 at 12:45 am #74283Stephen GerringerKeymaster
Writer, teacher, and mythologist Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D. is joining us this week in Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss “Incarcerated, But Not Imprisoned: Joseph Campbell’s Hero Myth,” his most recent contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series. If you have not had a chance to read this fascinating essay about the results of introducing prison inmates to Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey, you have a treat in store.
Please feel free to join this conversation and engage Dr. Slattery directly with your questions and comments. Many of you know the drill by now. I will get us started, but it will be your thoughts, reactions, observations and insights that make this a communal exchange of ideas.
Dr. Slattery – JCF MythBlasts are often profound, thought-provoking contemplations on esoteric subjects; your contribution this week, however, is a refreshing change of pace, focusing on a practical application of Joseph Campbell’s mythological perspective (what an inspiring piece!).
Discussing your work with prisoners, you share the following example:
One student in particular wrote of how his inability to forgive himself and others who misled him in life resulted in his imprisonment. He used the metaphor of being turned into a monster by his unforgiving attitude. Reading Campbell, he saw his life’s path with increased clarity and realized that he could reauthor the plot of his own story by using the stages of the hero’s journey. This template tempered his behavior and moderated his outbursts in prison.”
Realizing one can “reauthor the plot of his own story” has proven heady for so many who have discovered Campbell – and, indeed, many who have not had brushes with the law have learned through his work the value of discovering and changing the narrative of our lives.
I am curious if you were able to glean from your work with inmates enough of their backstories to determine whether the lack of a personal narrative played a role in their incarceration? Did you find some prisoners had no sense of story to their lives at all, simply reacting unconsciously to events and circumstances on the fly? Or perhaps had just accepted and embraced a “bad” narrative?
The other question I have relates to an apparent resonance between 12 Step Programs and Campbell’s conception of the Hero’s Journey. Over the two decades I’ve spent moderating myth-oriented discussion boards across a variety of platforms, I have met many participants with a background in AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), or other such groups; many of those who are familiar with Campbell’s work often observe parallels between their own experience of these recovery traditions and the Hero’s Journey.
What are your thoughts on this subject, whether based on your recent work with inmates, or gleaned from your years of experience studying and teaching myth?June 24, 2021 at 11:50 am #74308
Hi Stephen: thank you for two provocative questions to lead us into the discussion. First, I want to let you all know what a joy it has been to enter this new modality of teaching inmates in a federal prison in California. It is all done by mail; they have no access to computers and so write all their responses to the questions I pose to them, anchored in a number of pages from Hero with a Thousand Faces. The men I work with are self-selected, namely, they want to improve their lives while serving their sentence. Covid has been devastating in the prison they are in, which is true of prisons across the country. In spite of their struggles to remain healthy, they have continued to mail fine, deep and soulful responses to Campbell’s thoughts on the pages assigned. They use his thinking to launch into their own stories, which touches on Stephen’s first question: their back stories.
I don’t ask them what they did, how much time they have served, or how much longer before a parole hearing. That all surfaces on its own, naturally and when they are ready to let me know. Some inmates have histories with gangs, drugs, living outside the law; others have been bullied by others and sought revenge that caused greater damage than they had anticipated. Living life in the mode of reacting, often without thought, has brought them to prison. Their own stories were often the story of the gang they belonged to that insisted they buy their narrative and excise their own. Others had such weak senses of themselves that they felt their story was not of any consequence.
In prison, they realized that they could continue the narrative of an angry, directionless and self-absorbed person, or they could take control of their own story: some returned to their religious beliefs often abandoned years before; others joined AA groups and in time began to lead them. This second option touches on Stephen’s second question above. I will return to it in a moment.
Others began to study Buddhist thought and incorporate these teachings into their lives. But all realized on some level the value of learning and the value of serving others to pull themselves out of the prison they had constructed around them. They realized that within the confines of a prison, with its tight regimen each day, they could begin to experience, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that freedom is as much an attitude as it is making choices.
I am what is referred to as an adult child of an alcoholic household. My father, God rest his soul, worked at a modest job all week; on Friday evening, he would begin drinking; by Saturday afternoon he was in full roar mode, venting his frustration of his own life on to his family. I have three brothers and one sister and we all suffered from his outrages, but none more than my mother. Her saving grace came into her life when she discovered Al-Anon. Through regular meetings she reclaimed the dignity and integrity of her life that she had lost. The rest of us coped with this pattern of rage and terror each weekend for decades.
I have read and tried with some success to practice the teachings of both AA and Al-Anon, which I have fortunately found so many parallels in Buddhist thought, especially the books of Pema Chodron. As Stephen asked above about parallels between the stages of the hero’s journey with Twelve-step Recovery Programs, I discovered so many motifs shared by all three: Campbell’s stages of the journey, twelve step programs and Buddhism. I was gratified to see that several of my student inmates also saw the echoes in their working the steps and reading Campbell’s hero’s journey.
The inmates I work with have made it part of their own journey towards being inwardly free, serving others in prison who reach out to them. Each of those I guide also share a developing realization that being compassionate towards themselves is a new experience, which, in gratitude, they share with others. They each in their own fashion discover, as Campbell outlines beautifully on pp 90ff of A Joseph Campbell Companion, how we each have two realms to feed: the matter of our bodies and the spirit of our souls. I think that coming to know this truth is one of the major breakthroughs of the inmates.
Not long ago, one of my students painted a beautiful bird in water-color and sent it to me with one of his assignments. I was breathless when I received it because of the talent it revealed in this man, who has added creating artworks to his daily practices. I had it framed and it hangs in our living room, close to the front door. My wife Sandy and I look at it each time we leave the house. It is a reminder of how many treasures are in all of us, that are often blocked because of some self-harming choices, but when they are given space to flourish, the results are miraculous.
I hope these observations serve you who read these posts to further your own insights. I look forward to your insights and observations.June 28, 2021 at 1:09 pm #74307
Dennis and Stephen; I just can’t say enough about the relevance to today’s chaos in modern life that I think this approach helps the individual to navigate within today’s hectic existence. Joseph Campbell said once: “that if you really want to help this world you have to have to show how to live in it”; and I can think of no better way to do this than to help an individual find their own story. Sounds simple; (huh?). Well if you don’t know who you are or where you going then you are lost on the sea of life like a ship without a rudder. And to give someone a sense of their own narrative and that it is they who are the author of their own life is to provide them with the ability to chart their own course through it. If an individual has the awareness that the pen in their hand can help to provide meaning and purpose to a sea of images which before offered no context or direction then they now can begin to make sense of who they are and where they want to go.
If you have a watch; you must set it for time to have relevance and meaning. If you have a compass you must know where North is to chart your course on your map to go anywhere; otherwise you are just lost in an overwhelming chaos where survival is the law of existence. But with this simple knowledge of narrative and story as your framework the door is now opened to a new way of seeing and interpreting; and your life becomes more than just meaningless struggle because now you have a key that unlocks the door to meaning and purpose. What was once seen as an endless pathway full of pain and sorrow now begins to change into one that offers a really important word: “hope”. And just like Pandora’s Box was the one redeeming quality that offered man a way out of his misery from the pain and afflictions that had been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. This hope brings harmony; a way to make sense out of chaos; and this idea of one’s individual story and personal narrative turns this pathway into possibility and healing and wholeness that was once missing and now brings realization that life can have fulfillment and provide as Jung put it: ” a light in the dark of mere existence”.
All of the things both you and Stephen mentioned for me play into this simple understanding that so often is not included in so much of religious dogma because “you” are not the one steering the ship you are riding in but the deity with the “thou shalt system” is calling the shots. You are denied entrance into the Garden because you are subservient and must obey it’s laws and commands; so that now you are left adrift in a sea of warring gods; each with their own set of rules for you to obey to enter their particular kingdom of paradise which was yours by right in the first place; and that right to now enter you hold with the pen that is in your hand as you change your own course by which you are steering your ship.
We are living in a time when all the normal once held ideas about religions and myths are changing; but the one constant that remains is that of the individual. And if an individual is allowed their own narrative and story about how they should live then the chaos has the potential to then become a symphony or grand opera of living even though as Joseph mentioned the reality of the: “Ouroboros” of life eating life remains as the eternal unchanging constant of the ages. Technology and science as Joseph mentioned are not in conflict with the individual but provide an ever widening context within a constantly evolving storyline that man must learn to navigate if he as a species is to survive. And much of what Joseph mentioned about the understanding of what a myth must do to provide coherence within this context has to evolve along with it. And if you give the rudder to the individual to steer their own vessel by teaching them what a metaphor is; what a symbolic image is; how to read the roadmap of their own life; then by giving them a sense of their own personal story, narrative and context you have pointed the way out of their own misery.
This personal umbilical cord; this Ariadne Thread represents the way out of their Labyrinth and introduces them to their own Minotaur whom they must wrestle with if their emotions are going to be manageable; instead of a terror that wrecks havoc on an unsuspecting world. And perhaps for the first time one’s screams in the night can become a song that the heart has long yearned to hear and so desperately needs to bring humanity back from the brink of it’s own destruction.
I realize this response of mine may be a little out of the ordinary; and if it moves too strongly toward the incoherent then I offer my apologies for I had some of this experience when I was locked in a children’s psychiatric hospital ward and then transferred to a children’s home with at risk youth for many years because of my mental health concerns with deep depression. When I was a young teen I found my own path toward my own story but I did not understand what this narrative was until I came across Joseph’s work which helped me to put the pieces together in a comprehendible way. There were all kinds of adventures toward clarity that followed; full of mistakes and ups and downs through stormy tossed seas of emotional turmoil; but gradually through time the pieces started coming together where some coherence began to reveal many of the things I needed to understand. Each person’s life has it’s own context and mine certainly is no different; but for me the catalyst and guiding force was the individual personal myth; and up to that point my life was so very chaotic. So this idea of personal myth is a big deal to me because I have lived with it and understand what significance it can make within one’s life context. I’ve thought about this topic a lot ever since I saw it on Dennis’s blog; and for me personally I cannot think of something more important and relative to the times we are now living; especially considering how Covid has been such an affect agent of change.
Dennis; this is such important work you are doing and I think it holds great promise for healing and rebuilding so much of the personal sorrow and turmoil in peoples lives right now. Troubled Youth and Seniors are two other areas I think could be explored. In my humble opinion I think we are at the threshold of a new way of thinking about how people see their lives and so I’ll leave an example below that has to do with the context that in my humble opinion is directly connected to what we are talking about.
Each person has an internal story they are living whether they are aware of it or not. And as we live through these various stages from birth through maturity we each have a storyline that provides meaning and purpose if it is awakened. This I think was one of Joseph’s main themes he was communicating through the idea of mythical living in much of his work such as revealed in the 6 part series with Bill Moyers called: “The Power of Myth” which you mentioned earlier. And if people can become aware of this understanding that they can control at least to some extent what happens to them and that they can become their own agents of change so that the purpose and meaning they seek becomes accessible to them. Also throughout the stages of a person’s life their story changes and there is an acquired wisdom of lived experience that can be accessed and even under the right circumstances passed on. But we also know that instead what often happens at the end of one’s life is that society tosses them aside for the next new generation to takeover with all that lived experience left to deteriorate in nursing homes without any value as though living was exclusive only for the young. This to me seems to be utter madness incarnate!
Perhaps I am under an illusion but I think it is now within our grasp that given the right circumstances society has the ability to change that notion and perception into a more humane outcome; and as an enlargement on your idea this very sort clip of Michael Rossato-Bennett’s work with “Music and Memory” provides an example. (This idea or concept has now taken root and turned into a nation-wide movement affecting thousands of people across the country and still expanding.) To me it’s all about the idea of story; and although this a different medium; the idea of improving the integrity of the individual internal life story is the same. Perhaps this is not a new idea but to me as you have shown though your painting and multiple approach through art; this speaks to creating the possibilities of developing a personal narrative within multiple disciplines and enlarging them across all levels and age groups of society. Why is this important? Because everyone has a story; and a story can change the world.
Again as always your work continues to be an inspiration and it is so very appreciated!June 28, 2021 at 8:36 pm #74306
Such a rich series of responses, James. I especially loved your including the 6 minute interview with Michael Bennett and his film, Alive Inside on the power of music. I agree with what you say above. My concern is with how to make people who are partly conscious become more so and to create the ability to know their own story, to write, draw, play it and to become friendly with the deep story that lives within them.
From our perspective as mythologists we see that few, very few schools have myth as any part of their curriculum, even though the schools are the ones from whom the millions of audience members arise from that watch the large volume of mythically-inflected films, but then nothing happens to that experience, no relating in substantial to their own stories, to see the myth within them that is playing hooky from so much of the curriculum but would not play hooky from a class taught by some savvy Pacifica grad mythologist to help them make several relevant connections to themselves.
Part of me is delighted that so many of the trusted, and frozen institutions are melting down, shattering, coming apart at the seams as well as all their seems. I think we have, and you say it James, an opportunity to reinvent the social fabric where what has been at the top may be better off at the bottom and what has been at the bottom, marginalized or trashed, can rise to the top. A people or an individual that is unconscious of the myth that they negotiate life by is a people or an individual that cannot dream some new way of being, some “as-if” reality to tap into.
Much food to digest, James. I know that I will return to your initial insights above as others join us in where their own myths allow them to imagine. Life indeed frames each one of us if we do not choose the frames to live by. Many thanks for getting us started James.June 29, 2021 at 3:09 pm #74305
Thank you so much for your personal story, JA. I am simply taking the first two letters of your communication. I hope you don’t mind. I find the details of your story so inspiring, as I did James’ response and his own childhood being moved about. It makes me think that wandering is a universal journey, not heading necessarily to one destination or the other, but allowing the journey to run the show and to be willing to yield to its wisdom.
I also am gratified and share with you and others how works of literature can be wisdom vessels to carry us to the next station of our cross and our crossroads. I think it is such an act of courage to trust what cannot be grasped or understood but to yield to it regardless. I think the wisdom of our choices, as you reveal in your posting, is a rear-view-mirror phenomenon. We look back and see the patterns that have blessed us, and we may sense the transcendent, in whatever form we wish to call it, mingling with the temporal.
And perhaps most importantly, someone came into your life who found YOU of interest. What a gift to be seen, witnessed and responded to. That is sometimes all that a human being needs to feel to take some measure of control for one’s destiny.
I am very grateful for your response. And I am grateful to your for turning your treasure into a pathway for others in service to those who need someone like you to witness. Wonderful work, my friend.June 29, 2021 at 5:35 pm #74304
JA; since your post seemed directed to Dennis I wanted to wait before I said anything until he had a chance to respond:
“I am very grateful for your response. And I am grateful to your for turning your treasure into a pathway for others in service to those who need someone like you to witness. Wonderful work, my friend.”
If I may be permitted I too was very moved by what you shared; and hope you will feel comfortable joining in on our further exploration of this topic.
One of the things that I seem to see more and more that keeps popping up on my radar is “social isolation”. And Facebook as well as other forms of social media seem to reflect that deeper inner need for people to connect with each other. I think in many ways within modern society we find ourselves alone but often times this aloneness is within a crowd as well as solitary. And one of the reasons for this recent toxicity we experience on social media and is reflected in our sense of insecurity about our self-image. (The state of this toxicity seems to encourage this tendency and further exacerbate this infection to the point where one’s social comfort feels at stake whenever a comment or communication is put forth so that the tendency is to cautiously withdraw into one’s inner shell which encourages this further isolation from each other.)
We fall back into protected groups where we feel secure and our notions of who we are and the things we like are not criticized or challenged for social validity. And nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in one’s “persona” or social mask that is worn that tells our outer world we are somebody that has status of one kind or another or in one form or another. The clothes we wear, the house we live in, the car we drive, the things we buy all reflect this to some degree; but I think the value of “friendship” needs to be raised to a much higher level than is at present fully appreciated. We know people; we like people; (or least to some degree on a social level); but how many deep friendships do we really have? We have family; (most people have at least some form of these relationships); and we have work relationships because making a living is a requirement if one is to survive. And I think for many at this particular moment our devices interconnect us to some if not most of these relationships but within certain perimeters. If we have a religion we practice then it may or may not provide a certain amount of security or companionship; but do we really know who we are and what we want?
As Dennis and JA were mentioning earlier certain literary works help connect us to our inner world in some ways; (like a message in bottle from someone who has visited these shores long before us); and we can reflect on these insights that have come down to us through time. But the modern world we now find ourselves in poses new challenges that are not always included in these narratives and we are challenged to look through a different lens than the one that is offered and draw our own conclusions. And art in it’s many forms provides doorways that offer a way out of our self enclosures and we can think of things in a different way than society usually offers. Self-expression I think is a huge boon for the modern individual as it always has been throughout human history; only now modern man is challenged to find meaning in a different way than before because the role of myth as opposed to religion offers this choice. And to me the idea of a “personal myth”; (which is what Joseph refers to in much of his work); provides this pathway forward for an individual out of his own personal pain. One thing Joseph relies heavily on concerning religion is the idea of the metaphor as opposed to a concretized symbol; so that if someone says Jesus or the Tao or Buddhism we are referring to something that is within the individual consciousness; not somewhere outside themselves like a deity with a “thou shalt” system with a set of rules to be obeyed; and that the gods are symbolic of something within.
So I’m wondering how others might see how our relationships are defined within these parameters of the way we find meaning and answers to these deep inner questions that follow us throughout our lives. (I think they have huge implications for the way we see ourselves; but I’d like to hear some of Dennis’s and everyone else’s thoughts on this before I go any further.)
I’m adding this little clip of Joseph’s as a short addendum to help clarify the difference between the hero quest of the left-hand path and the right hand path of the village compound which he lays out as the two distinct choices the individual has within the bounds of normal modern life.June 30, 2021 at 1:40 pm #74303
Hi James: I very much enjoyed seeing once more JC lay out the two paths. He seems to suggest that we choose either/or if I am tracking him, but I also see a both/and life wherein one can be part of “the village compound” and on one’s own journey. It is a dance, to be sure, between the compound and the interior calling of the soul. Coincidentally, I am rereading Melville’s magnificent Moby-Dick currently in preparing for offering a retreat on Nantucket island in October where we will combine the epic with a psychologist’s taking us through the natural setting of the island, both as ways to cultivate soul work. Both individual and collective. So I am reading James’ wonderful discussion through the poetics of Ishmael’s journey inward and outward towards community and then to the transcendent within the immanent. I think that this domain is that of the artist, the poet, the creative in whatever medium one chooses. And, yes, the artist shows us the world we inhabit and then takes us inward to see, often, its double in our own souls. This double pathway is Ishmael’s quest in MD, aided by the most contrasting figure of the islander, Queequeg, whose tattooed body carries an entire cosmology of his tribe. Myth as metaphor.
Thank you both for this exchange.
This deep desire to connect with others through art is a primordial impulse and can connect us to one another on such deep levels. Recently I wrote an op-ed piece on my website that explored Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ideas of the artist in society that encourages a deeper fraternity between social members through art. To refer to James’s suggestion, art is a place where friendship can flourish, where something that stirs in the human heart can be expressed and shared. One of JC’s treasures is that he most often returned to the artist as the carrier of the myths that surround us. Their ability to merge myth with poetics is what makes the artist so necessary and nourishing.June 30, 2021 at 3:18 pm #74302
Oh Dennis; I so loved your op-ed on “Lying and Violence” and what the role of the artist can play in dispelling it’s negative effects:
” The place and power of the arts, including writing but not limited to it, is that they have the power “to vanquish lies.”
I think in many ways this speaks to very heart of much of the intimately personal and outwardly social suffering we see and experience in much of today’s modern world. Indeed these eternal truth’s keep surfacing again and again as powerfully resonant recurring themes that break through the veil that so often imprisons us all in whatever form they make their appearance. And whether it’s the schoolyard bully or the political lie uses coercion through the rhetoric of intimidation and through the vehicle of the lie to promote their cause. How many young boys and girls have been manipulated and minimized and made to feel less than who they are by the facade or mask of the machismo persona of a bullying male or the social shame for a young girl of the embarrassment of not being feminine enough. And is this constant recurring theme not reflected through art when we see Michelangelo’s “David” with his slingshot and “steady gaze” at the bully Goliath “knows” he can vanquish him?; (do we not see this very same archetype) in every Western where the hero has to rise to the occasion to meet his foe?; or when we see the Statue of Mother Mary holding the broken body of Jesus in her arms – (do we not feel the pain) of every mother who has ever born a child? (So very well said Dennis!) Yes; art reminds us of these eternal themes that the lie intends to cover and only truth through these various forms can reveal. The song; the written page; the paint brush on canvas or the sculpture’s chisel on stone all are vehicles to break this spell as you so insightfully point out.
And if I may be permitted; it is also why I think what you are doing is so vitally important; because in these confusing and emotionally challenging times I don’t think there is anything more important than to help someone find their voice so they can speak their truth to a world that so desperately needs to hear it!
One last word for those not familiar with Dennis’s page. Although the link to his site has already been listed in a separate discussion I will leave it here as well. (I check it regularly because he always has something I like reading about and his painting is fascinating as well. You may like them too as you explore other areas of his site.) Dennis Slattery’s blogJuly 1, 2021 at 1:29 pm #74301
So eloquently-phrased, James. You tuned right into the enchantment of art to offer us a different cosmos by which to process the flawed one we are in.
This morning I reread Father Mapple’s sermon to the New Bedford congregation that Ishmael attends in Moby-Dick. It is a powerful story with four separate “yarns,” as Mapple calls them as he embarks on a homily through the Biblical narrative. What struck me this morning is how the stories of the past, and here I am thinking of your fine post above, entangle our own stories in the present and create a webbing with these eternal narratives that flex with us over time. By means of these narratives, as well as as the David sculpture that Sandy and I stood in front of many times in the Academia in Florence, we glimpse shards of a different world, elegant but not free of flaws; it is a moment of myth-making when we find analogies by which to gauge our own reality.
You give us above the suffering of the Virgin over her emaciated son as well–and see its universal import. That is the role of art: to open our vision to realities under our noses. And thank you as well, James, for posting my blog connection. I appreciate that as a furtherance of our discussions here. You have the poet’s sensibility of analogy in all of your posts. Many thanks.
Yes, I think we as a nation are in the throes of a profound suffering, even ptsd over the past four years.July 1, 2021 at 5:34 pm #74300
Dennis; I think the way you beautifully phrased this whole overview and stitched it into one small condensed narrative of just a few short sentences identifies the very heart of this issue:
“the enchantment of art to offer us a different cosmos by which to process the flawed one we are in….. how the stories of the past…..entangle our own stories in the present and create a webbing with these eternal narratives that flex with us over time. By means of these narratives…..we glimpse shards of a different world, elegant but not free of flaws; it is a moment of myth-making when we find analogies by which to gauge our own reality…. That is the role of art: to open our vision to realities under our noses.”
“Mythmaking” indeed; especially of our own lived personal myth as you so precisely identified I think is our timeless human challenge. This is the desire of the “Self as the regulating Archetypal center of wholeness” to know and express itself through this experience. It is more than just meaning and purpose as Joseph explained to Bill Moyer’s in “The Power of Myth”: it is the rapture of being alive in it’s highest sense. To know that your are one with this eternal and timeless dimension through which Art is the portal. And this experience informs us that we are more than just a little piece of carbon or biological matter; but that we are interconnected to this huge web of space and time and experience that has gone before us and through which we can now offer our own contribution of: picture, song, and verse to leave behind to witness that we were here.
This I think is what our personal story is all about and attempts to communicate to our inner world. Our few little moments in the grand scheme of things are so much more than just mere existence as Jung points out when he says: “like a light in the dark”; that we are like a candle to those who come after that speaks to our higher nature and calling if we can but find it; than just to suffer going through the motions of mere day to day survival of the wasteland. That life “can” have meaning and make sense and have a purpose if only we have the eyes to see it; to have the ears to hear it’s song that calls to us from the heart and lets us know the power we possess if only we can break through our own boundaries that hold us back. And that it is through the importance of our struggles we are able to know and define who and what we are and what our legacy will be to any who come after.
As you so eloquently express “this” is art’s mission and we are it’s carriers with our own message to offer something of value to others who would hear what we have to say. And if we can as Joseph so profoundly put it: “participate joyfully in the suffering of others” we will have left something more of true value than just the continuous broken repetition of ego’s clashing against each other jockeying for position to let others know how important they are while the gifts of the garden lay spread upon the ground right in front of them unseen.
I often wonder when people put such high monetary value on a piece of art did they understand what it was attempting to communicate; not what it’s financial value is worth. A child’s scribbled drawing as an expression of their love can have more meaning and value to parent or loved one to whom it was offered and has no price tag that can be put upon it. Do we hear the birds sing of a beautiful spring morning or smell the flowers and foliage after a fresh summer rain; do we hear and feel the crunch of the dry leaves of a fall’s evening’s sunset or the touch of soft winter snowflakes as they surround our senses with quiet contemplation? When we see the birds migrate do we not long to go with them to a place that only they know? And when we see the suffering of another do we not at least in some small measure feel their pain?
To be alive and in the world can mean many things to different people; but if our questions are turned inward toward a deeper domain of reflection does not art meet us there like an old friend asking us how it can be service? The Grail is right here in front of us if we can pierce through the outer veil of surface display as Joseph shows us so often throughout so much of his work. And a life lived through it’s own volition and not something put on you by society or someone else is an awakening to this dimension of our own myth he talks about. And these are the questions our story can answer for us if only we can learn how to listen. That’s what the “Call of the Adventure” is all about of finding that inner “Bliss” thing that speaks to you and following it. It’s not out there somewhere but within you.
There is a wonderful little passage in Michael Tom’s: “An Open life” on page 110; where he is talking with Toms about finding your own model for the construction of your life. Toms asks: “Isn’t it important to respect our own uniqueness?”
Joseph answers: “I think that’s the most important thing of all. That’s why you really can’t follow a guru. You can’t ask somebody to give (The Reason), but you can find one for yourself: you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life—there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.”
There is a terrific version of the Hero/Call/Quest motif he gives in one of his lectures where he talks about the “formula of quest”. He says it starts when life dries up and something is missing so the hero goes in quest to find out what it is and make it his own. It is a solitary call by nature and you must become a detective, a hunter following a path into your own dark forest where you don’t know where you are going or what it is you are looking for but you are following this razor’s edge of your night-sea journey to find your grail castle where the answers or illuminations reside. (And the important thing here he stresses is that “there are no set rules” for how this motif unfolds.) It is unique to you alone.
In other words you can look at what Carl Jung says; you can read a piece of literature for a reference, you can meditate or take up an art form for the engagement and insight, or just be who you are and follow the path of your own instincts; but this call of your adventure has to be coming right out of your own life and not someone else’s. As he mentions when talking about following one’s bliss: “your notion of your bliss comes from what the push out of your own existence is informing you”. Not what the guru or the preacher or whatever social “virtue manager” is attempting to put on you about how you should live your life or what the value system that it promotes is attempting to coerce you into. You may not know what it is that’s ticking inside you; but you can feel something is not quite right and this call will become more insistent as time goes on if you refuse to listen. It can be early or later in your life but we are a continuing work in progress; and the psyche will have it’s way whether we listen to it’s message or not.
As you and I have both been discussing our times are so very difficult in this regard because not only are the different value systems in conflict with each other; the moorings that once provided the spiritual glue that held them in place for society to look for guidance are evaporating and no longer work (if personalized and interpreted in the “ole time way” that is concretely instead of metaphorically utilized). The issue is not about whether the right hand path of the village compound will work just fine for some or not; but whether it is utilized in the proper way.
But the left hand path of the hero/quest is the dangerous one because there is no safety net and you are are on your own. Magical aid of the mythical world may intervene at some point by offering support; but in the end it is the lone hero quest that must complete the task the inner world is asking for. “Science” has made the personal God as deity and his rules dysfunctional and irrelevant and it is now up to the individual who must take charge for their own responsibility of what is important for the meaning and conduct of their own lives; and as Joseph puts it so succinctly: “we are now in a freefall into the future”.
Much of our current struggle we’ve been discussing about now is against the machine and the technology and the political systems that want to dominate us. And we must learn to live within these realities we now find ourselves in by as Joseph mentioned concerning Luke Skywalker: “of not going over to the dark side”; of not capitulating or relinquishing our individuality and humanity for their purposes. And whether it includes integrating our shadow or opening up our humanity as you illustrated above this song of art continually helps to light our way forward. This was another wonderful post from you Dennis; and it is so good to be here with you to share it.
Here is a quick little clip from the Power of Myth that was added recently to the JCF YouTube channel that addresses some of these themes the individual has to navigate in thinking about god and the universe that Joseph describes.July 3, 2021 at 3:30 pm #74299
Thanks so much, James. I just finished listening to the clip you included; what a heavy few minutes with Moyers on the life energy that pervades the universe and us as individuals participating in it.
I recently received from the Foundation a hard bound copy of Primitive Mythology, so I began reading it the other morning. And this is apropos of some of your insights above and it hinges on beliefs’ powers. In the Prologue JC writes: “Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth.” (4). Perhaps when our beliefs dry up, as you use that image, then we are pushed once again out of the nest and into the cosmos to find what belief will sustain us, keep us whole or moving in that direction.
Art guides us in that quest, as you realize and as others grasp; where the confusion lies is in some of our thinking that there is no difference between worth and value; what is it worth predominates in the myth of capitalism and consuming. But value takes us in a new direction, where the artists can help guide us to what is truer than what we believed once, and may clinch on to so as not to be driven to confusion.
James, we certainly right now between mythic energies, some sapping the common person, others highlighting what virtues we must defend against the onslaught of literalism, the dragon guarding the treasury.
Many thanks for your perceptive insights, James. I always learn from them.July 4, 2021 at 7:39 am #74298
Thank you so much for another thought provoking topic and your rich essay and thank you Stephen, James and everyone else who has participated in this thread. I have had an enormously wonderful time reading all the responses and assimilating them.
“…………. Incarceration is physical, while imprisonment is psychological and mythic.”
Dennis your words spoke to me as I watched the film “Human Stain”. Imprisonment in life for Prof. Coleman Silk, was a lie on his job application. Born to African-American parents, he is light-skinned who passes for a Jew and even marries a Jewish woman. In search of a job, he entered ‘white’ as his race, thinking that he would easily get the spot in the Navy, which he did. Later in life, he is a Professor of Classics, (played by Anthony Hopkins) and has lived his life by breaking away from his family of birth as well.
As the story climaxes, he is accused of ‘racism’ by the University Board ———-using the word “spook”— “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” – – he has never seen these students, and has no idea they are African-American). In anger he resigns, his wife dies and one day he falls in love with a young woman Faunia (played by beautiful Nicole Kidman). After that he is living a life he never planned on living but to which he is attracted as a moth loves the flame. The end leaves one wondering. Was he killed by Lester (Faunia’s jealous husband) or by Lester who could have discovered Coleman’s heritage and thus led Coleman to end it all himself? A lie about his race got him the job, and accused of racism is how he loses the job. Lacking self-affirmation, one’s end is obscure, and the courage to affirm would have written a totally different ending, a different myth?
Thank you Dennis for the awesome citation —-The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology: “The virtue of heroism must lie, therefore… not in the will to reform, but in the courage to affirm, the nature of the universe.”
I am reminded of N. J. Girardot on the logic of myth: “The logic of myth claims that there is always no matter how it’s disguised, qualified and suppressed a hidden connection or inner law linking chaos and cosmos and nature and culture’.
Shaheda (thanking all who are here)July 5, 2021 at 1:51 pm #74297
You have given us a fine film to watch, Shaheda. I will look for it later today. I will watch any film Hopkins is in.
I also like what you cite here about hidden inner connections between worlds–chaos and cosmos–as well as others.
I think seeking these inner connections between worlds both visible and invisible, is what prompts one Ishmael to leave the land and sign on board the Pequod in Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I am rereading now in preparation for a retreat where I will present it. The whale is a rich mythic symbol that captures the visible/invisible worlds of the created order and the rich place of nature in the fusing of these realms. Ishmael has an everlasting itch to go to sea, which is a prompting to go to see. MD is about the visionary coming into their own mythic imagination, their own beliefs and their unique way of seeing/seaing.
Lacking self-affirmation, one’s end is obscure, and the courage to affirm would have written a totally different ending, a different myth? I love this insight in the form of a question here, Shaheda. Yes, one being witnessed, feeling self-affirming and courageous to act on that is the heart of the hero’s journey.
But for that to happen, one indeed needs a guide–an islander like Queequeg, a book, like the Bible or others, in order to have a compass bearing to gauge one’s journey by. But most of all, one needs the courage to step out of one’s own world and come to a compassionate toleration of others in their belief nests.
Thanks as always, for your rich insights you share on these posts. Such fertile ground to allow ideas to grow in.July 6, 2021 at 1:29 am #74296
Reply to James’s response (# 5640):
I was very moved by your reaction to this Mythblast, James, and feeling agreement with everything you wrote about the importance of finding one’s story and too, as others have said, rewriting the narrative or adding things to it to create a good ending that one seeks.
Thank you Dennis for your Mythblast and sharing your experience.
Reading Dennis’s posts and responses and James’s post and responses, what I am also getting out of the mix or blended ideas is that a guru and a guide can be two different things. Teachers are not gurus but do guide their students. And Dennis, the work you do is so needed, as both a psychologist and a teacher.
It is so good to be able to help build a fragile ego back up to where it belongs–meaning not ego as a bad thing, but for a person to have a healthy sense-of-self ego. So many people are afraid of the word ego or its definition they attach to it; however, a good healthy ego is vital to the vitality of the soul or spirit.
I have not been in the forums much lately, but James did tell me how I would like this Mythblast (yet I do mean to say too that they are all great!) and to check it out so I did, and I did like it very much as a ex-English teacher (!). I did not teach prisoners, but did at times teach classes for those who had recently gotten out of jail/finished serving a sentence (a joke was then that they were in class dealing with a different type of “sentence” as in sentence structure) and returned to school, and many of them gang members. Many students I had in other classes who had not been in jail were metaphorically imprisoned in their own versions of what they felt was hell or hellish like a type of jail or inhibiting, etc., and with those students too it was a matter of much of what you have written about those you teach in jails. Mostly students would come to me to tell me why they missed class due to issues such as heavy drug addiction, domestic violence at home, being extremely ill and unable to pay to get their car fixed due to their medical bills, severe depression. Anxiety, and sometimes about writing itself. Putting their “self” on paper for someone else to see, etc. Fear of failure, fear of success.
On and on these narratives can go. So nice to do the work of helping with people’s stories.
–MarianneJuly 6, 2021 at 5:27 am #74295
“ Each person’s life has it’s own context and mine certainly is no different; but for me the catalyst and guiding force was the individual personal myth; and up to that point my life was so very chaotic. So this idea of personal myth is a big deal to me because I have lived with it and understand what significance it can make within one’s life context. I’ve thought about this topic a lot ever since I saw it on Dennis’s blog; .”
James, what a prolific, powerful and thought evoking piece. Many lines cause me to pause, and evaluate the many stages in my own life where I felt ‘lost’. One’s personal myth is as you say, ‘a big deal’. As Joe says, “If you live with the myths in your mind, you will find yourself always in mythological situations. They cover everything that can happen to you. And that enables you to interpret the myth in relation to life, as well as life in relation to myth”
I realized I was lost only when I took time to reflect, but then the feeling of being lost was fleeting, because I was sailing on a boat without a rudder and I remained lost off and on until I began ‘following my bliss’…
Of course following one’s bliss also implies, “As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you. Don’t bother to brush it off.” Well, there are still huge blisters from following my bliss, but I have learned when to stand up and when to sit down.
Regarding the film Human Stain that I mentioned in my response to Dennis. It confirmed the notion that a personal myth is a ‘big deal’. “Not having the courage to change the narrative” is what the film “Human Stain” is about (IMO)
In this film, Prof. Coleman (Anthony Hopkins) is living a dream life as a Prof. of Classics, but is also living a lie, by passing as a Jewish immigrant, instead of a light skinned handsome young man born to African-American parents. In search of a job, he entered ‘white’ as his race, thinking that he would easily get the spot in the Navy, which he did. Later in life, he is a Professor of Classics, (played by Anthony Hopkins) married successful and blissful by many measures.
As the story climaxes, he is accused of ‘racism’ by the University Board ———-He is quoted as having said, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” – – (he has never seen these students, and has no idea they are African-American). In anger he resigns, his wife dies and one day he falls in love with a young woman Faunia (played by beautiful Nicole Kidman). After his wife’s death, he begins to live a life he never planned, but to which he is attracted as a moth loves the flame. The end leaves one wondering. Was he killed by Lester (Faunia’s jealous husband) or by Lester who could have discovered Coleman’s heritage and thus led Coleman to end it all himself? A lie about his race got him the job, and accused of racism is how he loses the job.
I wish you could find time to watch this James. In the film, Prof. Coleman hires a investigative journalist to write about his life and to cover the wrong done to him by the University Board. There too, he lacked courage to disclose his ethnicity. I am reminded of Joe’s words, “why write a limerick when you can write a sonnet.” I am so moved by the words of N. J. Girardot, “The logic of myth claims that there is always no matter how it’s disguised, qualified and suppressed a hidden connection or inner law linking chaos and cosmos and nature and culture’.
James what you wrote (see below)fits Prof. Coleman’s personal myth to a “T”,
“There is a terrific version of the Hero/Call/Quest motif he gives in one of his lectures where he talks about the “formula of quest”. He says it starts when life dries up and something is missing so the hero goes in quest to find out what it is and make it his own. It is a solitary call by nature and you must become a detective, a hunter following a path into your own dark forest where you don’t know where you are going or what it is you are looking for but you are following this razor’s edge of your night-sea journey to find your grail castle where the answers or illuminations reside. (And the important thing here he stresses is that “there are no set rules” for how this motif unfolds.) It is unique to you alone.”
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