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Standing on the lord of the abyss? No.

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    From Joseph Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers:

    Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, metaphorical images, of the energies within us, moved by the organs of the body, in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, this organ wants this: the brain is one of the organs.

    Is anyone else a little taken aback by Joe having presented his simplistic, objective vision of ‘how myths are made’ as an absolute truth?

    My intent for bringing this quote forward is not to denigrate Campbell, I have great respect for his work, rather, my intention is to shine a light on the limitations he (unconsciously) placed on awareness, limitations that prevent awareness from realizing its omnipresent casual nature. There are many quotes in the interview with Bill Moyers that reveal Joe’s unconscious insertions of dualisms, two of which are:

    That which is beyond even the concept of reality. It’s that which transcends all thought. It’s putting you there all the time, and in some way giving you a line to connect with that mystery which you are, and the myths do it, by gosh, they do it.

    That goes down and down and down. And you can get all mixed up with complexes, you know, things like that, but you’re standing on the lord of the abyss, really. There’s a Polynesian saying that frequently comes to my mind: “Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.” We are standing on a whale. The ground of being is the ground of our being, and the outward turned, we see all these little problems here, but inward, we are the source of them all. That’s the big mystical teaching.



    When you say “dualisms” I take it you mean contradicts himself? I don’t see that, please expand more. All I understand from his statement is that the rational mind is incapable to explain the mystery and even though we try and we think we know, we still “Standing on whale, fishing for minnows”.


    Hi drewie, by dualisms in relation to Joseph Campbells works, I mean that although he correctly points out that reasoning cannot explain the mystery of what or who we are, in his quote to Bill Moyers about the cause of myths being the energy conflicts between organs, he is doing precisely that. So yes, Joe is contradicting himself.  He also uses the term “beyond” and “utterly transcendent” and while I believe I understand what he is trying to suggest, in truth, there is no “beyond” nor is there something that is “utterly transcendent”, there is only THIS.

    In declaring that we are standing on a whale fishing for minnows or that we are a lord standing on the edge of an abyss, is Joe not presenting awareness as if it/we are peering at our causal life-source as if looking down from above?

    The whole point of ‘enlightenment’ is to clear away the belief that the mysterious (to the intellect) source or cause is somehow separate or different from what you or I ARE.  (Non mythical/symbolic) phrases such as “Being here Now” or “I am” are purposed to help one do just that.


    I think Campbell often appears contradictory because he is talking from several point of views at the same time. The tension of duality is a necessary step for the development of enlightenment whatever that word means. Here is a quote from Pathways to Bliss.

    “I recently became acquainted with the work of a great German psychiatrist named Carlfried Graf Durkheim (not to be confused with the French sociologist Emile Durkheim). This psychiatrist has summarized the whole problem of health – psychological and physical – in view of the myth, continuing the work of Carl Gustav Jung and Erich Neumann.

    According to Durkheim, a life-giving wisdom lives in us. We are all manifestations of a mystical power : the power of life that has shaped all living things, that has shaped us all in the mother’s womb. And the wisdom that lives in us is the influence of this force, this energy that flows into the field of time and space. However, it is a transcendent energy; energy that comes from an area inaccessible to the forces of our knowledge.

    And the same energy in each of us – in this body – takes on a commitment. But the mind that thinks, and the eyes that look, are sometimes so entangled in concepts and local, temporal tasks that we stiffen and do not let it flow freely through us . And then we get sick. Energy is blocked and we are thrown out of the center – an idea very similar to the principles of traditional Chinese and Indian medicine. Therefore, the psychological problem, the way to protect yourself from blockage, is to become – here is your phrase – transparent to the transcendent. That is all. ..

    The benefit of myth is that it points beyond the field of phenomena to the transcendent. The mythical figure is like the compass with which you drew circles and arcs at school – one foot is in the field of time, and the other has stepped into eternity. A god may have a human or animal form, but his essence refers to something beyond that form.

    Bold mine. The way I see it is that field of time is the human experience, trying to survive, feeling sorrow, and eternity is that place where you know all these things… (enter each individuals experience of transcendence.). Now I might not be the best person to explain this but this is what I am getting from him. Duality and transcendence you need to have both to make sense of them. But if you concretize the mysterious aspect of life or transcendence or whatever you wanna call it then its probably not that.


    Eternity is not a place, you, as awareness, are eternal. When you see this truth, your dualistic perspective of a field of time with all its thoughts of survival will gradually come to an end.  .  But of course in order to realize your eternal, unified nature, you must desire with all your heart to uncover this truth.  Joe acknowledged he was a scholar that collected knowledge, not a truth seeker.

    I once was a myth maker.  It was a very helpful bridge between dualistic perspectives, as if from gross to subtle, but the bottom line is that any identification with image or thought causes a split perspective. So while it is true that the dualistic perspective is present in the seeking for Truth, if one does not realize that the dualistic perspective is wrong view (a Buddhist term) they will not be able to let go of their attachment to myth.



    Ehh no.. I like myths. 😀


    Then you will continue riding the temporal wave of grasping at ever-changing effects rather than living OF the unchanging, ungrasping light of your being.  Your choice… everyone’s choice.


    I too see no contradiction here, Drew, at least not from Campbell. Explaining the biological origins of myth is like explaining the biological origins of instincts – that instincts and myth (and everything we experience through our senses) arise from the biological fact that we have a body is not the same as “rationally explaining the mystery of who or what we are.”

    The flaw is in mistaking myth for that mystery itself, rather than, like our flesh and blood, a manifestation of that mystery.

    The energies that move the body are the energies that move the imagination. These energies, then, are the source of mythological imagery; in a mythological organization of symbols, the conflicts between the different organic impulses within the body are resolved and harmonized. You might say a mythology is a formula for the harmonization of the energies of life.

    — Campbell, interviewed by Joan Marler, in The Yoga Journal, Nov./Dec. 1987 (emphasis mine)

    “Mythology is a formula for the harmonization of the energies of life” – that’s my favorite answer to the question “What is myth?” (For example, myths and rites of initiation that mark the coming of age are one example of how mythology places the individual in a given society in accord with nature and the world around them – that’s a function of myth which is very different from making every individual in that society into a mystic.)

    Not that difficult to understand, even on the most mundane level: my stomach has one impulse to action, my genitals another – and there are times when the two are very much in conflict. But the argument isn’t just between the reproductive system and the digestive tract, for we also have the brain entering into the fray, and the heart, and even more abstract “organs.”

    This thought can be troubling to those who can’t fathom heart or stomach or any organ as more than a machine, or who see nature itself as composed of only inert, soulless matter – which is not how we experience either the world around us, or the world within. When Campbell speaks of the “organs of the body” he isn’t describing cuts of meat on the butcher’s slab, but the miracle and mystery of the organizing principle of life. There is a distinct resonance between organ and organization here . . .

    Individual cells grouped together form an organ, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – and these organs and related bodily processes working in concert also form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a synergy we call the individual (and this metaphor can be extended from individuals to a society, and indeed to humanity as a whole).

    The coordination and organization of the billions of individual impulses within the human body that, taken together, add up to a human life is a mystery, one which we continue to explore from a variety of different angles, from biology and psychology to philosophy and theology – all of which can’t help but overlap and/or bump into one another at times.

    Mythology both reflects this elusive organizing principle, and serves as guide when consciousness is at odds with one or another of the elements of our being.

    I think Carl Jung’s term ‘archetypes of the unconscious’ is fundamental and appropriate here. The archetypes of myth are manifestations of the nature of man in accord with the nature of the universe. Interpose, before these, ideas derived from man’s limited knowledge of the world, and we have then a system of rational thought. In dream the rational mind becomes aware of impulses of the larger nature, of which it is itself but one organ. Impose the will of that one organ upon the whole, and the imposition has to be by violence.

    — Joseph Campbell, in conversation with Costis Ballos in Greece.

    Note that Campbell refers to the rational mind as one of the “organs” whose impulses are at odds with those of other organs of the body. Mind – and even imagination – can fit the metaphorical usage of the term.

    If my head is exclusively running the show, then heart is neglected – and if belly is in charge, or phallus always gets its way, ignoring cautions of head and heart, then the whole is imperiled. Of course no one “organ,” no one system, is supreme: one just has to fall in love, for example, to realize how little control conscious rational intention exerts

    … and then, even sex addicts have to stop and order a pizza now and then.

    But describing how myths work, like explaining how digestion works, is not “using reasoning to explain the mystery of who we are.” If anything, it enhances the awe of that mystery. By that measure, understanding that water boils at 212º F and freezes at 32º F would be a similar “contradiction” using reason to explain the mystery: one is free to ignore that “riding the temporal wave of grasping at ever-changing effects rather than living OF the unchanging, ungrasping light of your being,” but taking that literally could lead to blisters or frostbite.


    Thanks Stephen for taking the time to explain this even though you had all those medical adventures you mentioned. I hope for a hasty recovery man.

    I am not sure if we can make a post reply editing because it seems to me that your reply fits perfectly in the “Understanding Campbell” conversation. I was gonna ask something along these lines especially after this conversation. Something like what did Campbell meant by saying “Transparent to the transcendent” or what did he meant by saying “one foot is in the field of time, and the other has stepped into eternity“? I think it fits with your reply.

    My take is that Campbell want us to have one foot on the ground, you know, not fly too high like Icarus, that, would definitely cause some blisters and so he gives us tales that on how to live a human life. In Myths to Live by (Zen chapter), the story of Indra in POM, in Pathways to Bliss. Indeed the hero journey requires a return to be complete, it seems like he is always telling us how to live a human life, keep one foot on the ground. I have this fantasy to go to Alaska and live in a hut isolated from the world and discover whatever truth I am gonna discover there but then I am thinking what would be the point of that? So I stay involved in the world.

    Anyways, just saying..


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