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Journeys in Silence, with Mythologist John Bucher, Ph.D.

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    Author, strategist, and cultural mythologist John Bucher, Ph.D. serves as JCF’s Creative Director, and is co-host of Skeleton Keys, a dynamic, playful, thought-provoking podcast that explores the intersection of myth and popular culture. Dr. Bucher has graciously consented to join us this week in Conversations of a Higher Order for a discussion of “Journeys in Silence” (click on title to read), his latest contribution to JCF’s MythBlast series.

    I will get the ball rolling, but please feel free to join this conversation and add your questions and comments.

    John – Thank you for this meditation on silence.

    I can identify. My mother was extremely uncomfortable with silence her entire life. One vivid memory, from a family trip across several states in the 1960s in our green Rambler station wagon (sans seatbelts and air-conditioning!), is of a moment when, over the course of a hundred miles or so, she had exhausted every possible topic of conversation. Finally falling silent, Mom leaned back against the headrest, sighed, looked up, noticed the green visor above her head and observed, in a low, curious tone, “Green . . .” – and then did fifteen minutes on the color green!

    I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture that’s to blame, but appears she has passed on that legacy, as anyone who knows me will attest – so it feels as if you wrote this piece especially for me!

    The passage that launches your essay (excerpted from the 51-year-old Joseph Campbell’s record of his sabbatical year in Asia), brings to mind the following line from 27-year-old Joseph Campbell’s journal, in June of 1931: “After all, this tendency I have to tell everyone everything is no less than a form of exhibitionism” (cited in Stephen & Robin Larsen’s Campbell bio, A Fire in the Mind, p. 144).

    Seems Joe’s difficulty embracing silence was no passing thing, but a lifelong struggle.

    I’m curious if he ever got a handle on it. Do you know if there were ever any moments in his laters year when Campbell didn’t have anything to say?

    John Bucher

      Stephen, I’m so glad you asked. I was recently talking to David Abram (author of Spell of the Sensuous), who shared a story with me of a time when Campbell was indeed silent in his later years. It seems that David, who was a traveling sleight-of-hand magician throughout much of the 1980s, heard about the Inner Reaches of Outer Space conference happening in the Bay Area one day when he happened to be driving through San Francisco. He immediately swerved his car toward the next exit and made his way to the conference.

      Barbara McLintock happened to be carrying in boxes from her car when David drove up. He asked her if the conference had hired a magician. She looked a bit flummoxed and David proceeded to outline why the conference just couldn’t happen unless a magician was part of it. Barbara was persuaded by his speech and  set up a booth so he could perform in the lobby, just outside the plenary sessions. One morning after Campbell had spoken at the conference, Barbara came rushing into David’s booth. She said she needed him immediately. It turns out that George Lucas had unexpectedly come to the conference, wanting to meet Campbell. She had sat Lucas next to Campbell in the lunch room so the two of them could chat. However, Campbell was not an avid movie goer and completely unfamiliar with Lucas or his work. He sat in silence next to Lucas (who was also known to be a bit on the quiet side) creating an awkward moment for the other person at the table, who happened to be James Hillman.

      David rushed into the room, took out a deck of cards and began to engage Campbell and Lucas in classic misdirection with his cards. Campbell asked Lucas if he had arranged this moment with the magician. Lucas said he was about to ask Campbell the same thing. The ice was broken and the two men began to talk. David and Hillman both faded into the background. Their conversation became so rich that it led to Lucas inviting Campbell out to visit Skywalker Ranch, and the rest is history. I’ve since wondered, what if Campbell’s silence had prevailed and Lucas left the conference without really connecting with him? Campbell may have struggled with silence, as he alludes to in his writing. However, on that day, I am quite glad his lack of discipline prevailed.


      Hello Dr. Bucher,

      I very much enjoyed reading your Mythblast article, and contemplated a good deal on times that I remained silent when I ought to have spoken. Actually, I regret that I did not speak up — I question myself as to why I  sat shocked and distressed in school, and later on in my life too. That’s just me. But then there are many forms of silences.  There’s silence when we meditate (here we try and silence the mind). The kind of silence that I regret upon is  perhaps called a ‘baffled silence of confusion’. There is a silence when we experience a peaceful accord with the environment, with the sunrise and the sunset. Listening to music and songs requires deep silence from my part for I find I can’t listen to my songs when those who don’t appreciate my kind of music are around. I want to be alone and silent.

      You asked, “I’ve sometimes wondered how a young Joseph Campbell might have maneuvered in our modern world of social media. Ours is an age where silence has become a rare commodity. We are constantly spoken to (and many times shouted at), both with visuals and audio, through televisions, phones, computers, and any number of communication and entertainment devices. In a world where individuals are more often treated as consumers than humans, multi-billion-dollar industries work around the clock to assure we are never afforded a moment of silence.”

      Dr. Bucher, I thought a good deal on the subject, and my answer is this: Joseph Campbell would have accepted it and found ways to maneuver in this high tech, supersonic, space age, cyberspace world. Reason is that according to Joe, the main function of a myth was to support and validate a given moral order of the society in which the individual is to live.

      Additionally, Joe and Jean were good friends with John Cage, who experimented with Silence and wrote a good deal on the subject. “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” (Silence: Lectures and Writings – John Cage)

      I love what Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”   That’s baffled silence to me. Another kind of silence I have personally experienced is a silence that comes with falling in love. I felt tongue tied, not being able to say what needed to be said…there were more than one hundred emotions that confused my speaking mind.  Another kind of silence and not speaking up is the time that I didn’t reach out and apologize to a very dear Uncle before he passed away — staying silent then would not have been the right thing for me. The dying too want to reach out and speak to their loved ones before taking their last breath.

      On the other hand, Carl Jung said, “Talking is often a torment to me and I need several days of silence to recover the futility of words”.  But I do think that Joe would have accepted the new world with an unmatched poetic sense and integrated well with his new world.

      The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing. – (John Cage)

      Again, thank you for a thought provoking piece, Dr. Bucher. I’ll link this to a story I have in mind.



      John Bucher

        Thank you for your kind words, Shaahayda. I deeply resonate with your consideration of the many forms of silence. I, too, have many regrettable moments where I remained quiet and should have spoken and others when I wish I had not opened my mouth. Silence is an art form — one that requires practice, trial & error, and time with the craft in order to master. Just when I think I’ve found balance with silence and speaking in my life, I come to recognize my novice state.

        Your offering on Campbell and social media also resonates and feels aligned with his actions and beliefs in other arenas.

        Also, I am so thankful you’ve invited John Cage into this conversation. As you mention, he was a good friend of the Campbells and had so much to offer us on silence.

        Your thoughts here have caused me to think about the benefits and consequences of silence on social media in a slightly different way. As you mentioned, there are times when when I wish I had spoken up, but did not, fearing the devolving conversation that so easily can plague a conversation on social media. I am also reminded of the (perhaps apocryphal) sentiment sometimes attributed to MLK — that the words of our enemies would likely not be long remembered but the silence of our friends would. Oh, to find that balance.


        Shaheda – thanks indeed for that thought-provoking post. My wife and I have been away for several days being anything but silent – our first excursion away from home during the pandemic, to visit both of our siblings – joyous indeed to press the flesh with real live human beings.

        But your post and John’s response brought to mind one other instance of silence Joe mentions, in his discussions of the syllable OM – or rather, AUM:

        According to the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, the world of the state of waking consciousness is to be identified with the letter A of the syllable AUM; that of dream consciousness (heaven and hell, that is to say) with the letter U; and deep sleep (the state of the mystical union of the knower and the known, God and his world, brooding the seeds and energies of creation: which is the state symbolized in the center of the mandala) with M.65 The soul is to be propelled both by and from this syllable AUM into the silence beyond and all around it: the silence out of which it rises and back into which it goes when pronounced—slowly and rhythmically …as AUM—AUM—AUM.” (from The Flight of the Wild Gander)

        And then, from The Power of Myth:

        “‘AUM‘ is a word that represents to our ears that sound of the energy of the universe of which all things are manifestations. You start in the back of the mouth “ahh,” and then “oo,” you fill the mouth, and “mm” closes the mouth. When you pronounce this properly, all vowel sounds are included in the pronunciation. AUM. Consonants are here regarded simply as interruptions of the essential vowel sound. All words are thus fragments of AUM, just as all images are fragments of the Form of forms. AUM is a symbolic sound that puts you in touch with that resounding being that is the universe. If you heard some of the recordings of Tibetan monks chanting AUM, you would know what the word means, all right. That’s the AUM of being in the world. To be in touch with that and to get the sense of that is the peak experience of all.

        A-U-M. The birth, the coming into being, and the dissolution that cycles back. AUM is called the “four-element syllable.” A-U-M—and what is the fourth element? The silence out of which AUM arises, and back into which it goes, and which underlies it. My life is the A-U-M, but there is a silence underlying it, too. That is what we would call the immortal. This is the mortal and that’s the immortal, and there wouldn’t be the mortal if there weren’t the immortal. One must discriminate between the mortal aspect and the immortal aspect of one’s own existence.”

        This description of Silence is very different than in the usual sense of simply the absence of noise; rather, this Silence contains All, is the source of All, and is that to which All will eventually dissolve and return. Neither my mother, nor, in my youth, myself, consciously understood that – but I suspect on an unconscious level silence suggested the silence of the grave – which may explain the compulsion to fill that silence with words.

        In the decades since I have been learning how to tend the Silence, beginning with the practice of meditation. With each passing year I am more and more comfortable with silence – a perspective enhanced by Campbell’s description of Silence as the immortal aspect of one’s being.

        John Bucher

          What a wonderful line of thinking, Stephen. I was reminded of the power of AUM in my own meditative practices and how easily the remembrance of that power slips away from me. Like you, I find my comfort level with silence increases with age. As I go into the weekend, I am searching for the moments I will have that I can “fill” with silence.


          Stephen, so glad to hear that you and Des are enjoying your time together visiting siblings and having a joyous time. Thank you so much for your reference to Joe’s description of A-U-M as the kind of silence that contains ALL — “this Silence contains All, is the source of All, and is that to which All will eventually dissolve and return” is a powerful reminder to Krishnamurti’s talk on silence.

          In his talk on Silence, Krishnamurti describes two silences: 1) Cessation of Noise and end of tension 2) Real Silence is entirely different, and not the outcome of tension. This kind of silence is like going through a small hole to an enormously wide expansive ocean. This silence one cannot understand verbally, unless, one has understood the structure and meaning of consciousness –at this point the brain cells have ceased, and come upon that mystery which no one can describe. As you quoted Joe Campbell from ‘ The Flight of the Wild Gander’, ” The soul is to be propelled both by and from this syllable AUM into the silence beyond and all around it: the silence out of which it rises and back into which it goes when pronounced—slowly and rhythmically …as AUM—AUM—AUM.” (from The Flight of the Wild Gander)

          Another kind of silence Krishnamurti dwells upon is a silence that is a result of OBSERVATION –observing something without reaction, without judgement. When there is a reaction to that which is said, then that is not silence. In his talk on ‘Total silence mind comes upon the eternal’, Krishnamurti says, “So we are talking of a stillness which is not dependent on anything. And it is only that quality of stillness, that absolute silence of the mind that can see that which is eternal, timeless, nameless. This is meditation. ..”

          Dr. Bucher, you wrote, ” I find my comfort level with silence increases with age. As I go into the weekend, I am searching for the moments I will have that I can “fill” with silence. ” I  find that my comfort level with silence has increased modestly with age but not really there.  Did you achieve this stage by self-control,  exercising discipline, going on forest walks,  or was it something that just happened over time?  Would love to hear your response.



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