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The Hour Yields, with Mythologist Joanna Gardner, Ph.D.

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    Writer, mythologist, and magical realist Joanna Gardner, Ph.D., is our guest in Conversations of a Higher Order this week for a discussion of “The Hour Yields,” the most recent entry in JCF’s MythBlast essay series. Dr. Gardner is a founder of the Fates and Graces Mythologium, a conference for mythologists and friends of myth; she also serves as Senior Editor on the Educational Task Force of the Joseph Campbell Foundation and as a thought leader with the think tank iRewild, where she works on the Healing Stories initiative. (You can explore more of her writing, fiction as well as nonfiction, on her own website.)

    I will get us started with a few questions and comments, but it will be your thoughts, reactions, observations and insights that expand this beyond just another interview into a communal exchange of ideas – true “conversations of a higher order.” Please feel free to join the discussion and engage Dr. Gardner directly with your questions and observations.

    So let’s begin.

    Dr. Gardner, in so many books, articles, and lectures, as well as forums such as this, much of the discussion of myth is bound up in words: we debate the many definitions and functions of myth, dissect every element of the hero’s journey, draw on details from anthropology and history for evidence supporting a variety of theories, and more – all of which have their place, but run the risk of limiting the study of myth to an intellectual exercise – elevating logos over mythos, if you will.

    Let me open with my appreciation of “The Hour Yields,” which effectively bucks that trend – less an exposition than an elegant excursion into the heart of a mythic image. Your lyrical language evoked the memory of experiences of my own that placed me on pause, pitching me for a brief moment – or maybe an eternity – into that Still Point.

    There are so many thoughts that occur to me, so many directions this conversation could take – questions revolving around the elasticity of time and the tension between time and eternity, the gulf between subjective experience and empirical reality, even musings on the relationship of magical realism to myth (that last may seem a bit of a tangent, taken from your description as a “magical realist” – but I’d love to circle back to that at some point if the conversation allows).

    However, I’d like to shift for a moment from the focus on the Still Point to a “big picture” question. Your contribution to the MythBlast series offers valuable clues to moving beyond an exclusively intellectual endeavor and actually engaging a mythic image. Could you start by speaking to that – perhaps by discussing how you ended up in this field? Was there an “aha!” moment when you made the connection between myth and your own experience?

    And, back on the practical end of the spectrum, what tools or techniques would you suggest you for anyone seeking to engage myth on a deeper level?

    #73841

    Stephen, thank you so much for your kinds words and your insightful questions. Your observations about the experiential and intellectual dimensions of mythological studies are spot on. Myth doesn’t happen when we discuss theory and definitions. Myth happens when we enter the image, and I believe magical realism is one avenue into that experience.

    All my life, I’ve been drawn to passages in literature where the strange or impossible irrupts into the known world. Those moments feel the most real, the most alive, the most true. Each one rings like a bell for me and gives new life to all the pages of realism that precede or follow. So when I began to write fiction and poetry, I reached for that same feeling in my own work. Magical realism, in which elements of the unreal appear unapologetically in otherwise realistic settings, offered a perfect genre to play with those techniques.

    As I wrote, I had to imagine into my characters and settings, quite by necessity. I learned what it feels like when a poem quickens, when the ending of a story reveals itself, when a character looks back at me. It always feels magical. I also kept bumping up against myth and depth psychology, which drew me in like magnets. Both fields offered so much insight and imagery that before long I found myself focusing more on them than on creative writing. To my delight, I realized that imagining into a mythic image is the same as imagining into a fictional character — the same dreamlike feeling, the same letting go, the same willingness to see and be seen.

    The practice also has much to do with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, except the sacred, beloved Other becomes a fictional or mythological being encountered in the imagination. But the work is the same as for other beloveds. Hold the space, let the beloved breathe, let the beloved act, let the beloved speak. Be silent. Listen deeply. Love the listening. And when the beloved image looks at you, hold that gaze as long as you can.

    Magical realism and mythic imagery both dissolve the hypnosis of reductive realism. They tug at the veil between our senses and the not-yet-known — that which we access through our imagination. As a magical realist, I rejoice in the reality of that magic and, by corollary, the magical nature of reality.

    Thanks again for the wonderful questions, Stephen. And to the COHO community: hello! I am beyond pleased to meet you, and am very much looking forward to hearing your ideas and experiences.

    #73840
    Richard Sumpter
    Participant

    Dr. Gardner says:  “ In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell reminds us that the notion of a “still point” doesn’t exist in the physical universe (3). In the field of time and space, there is no cessation of energy, nor any literal, irreducible point. And yet, the cosmos has contrived to create creatures who experience stillness and pointness. The still point is a subjective event, not an objective reality.”

    I think the creatures she refers to as being created by the cosmos may have found it necessary to create stillness as an antidote to movement.  The earth rotates on its axis at 1000 mph; and it is simultaneously revolving around the sun at 107 km/hour.  Our whole solar system, our sun with the whirling earth in tow, is orbiting the center of the Milky Way travelling at 240 km/sec.  The galaxy is about 100 light years across and we make it around once every 230 million years.  We’re now at a position in the galaxy called the Age of Aquarius.  There are over 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and it is just one of over 100 billion galaxies. The Milky Way and about 1500 other galaxies are part of what is known as “the local group.”  And the entire galaxy is currently moving, riding on space as space itself expands outward at 590 km/sec – and it is accelerating.

    But where is this motion going?  Does it have a telos?  The myths are constructed around a moving out and a return that gives purpose and accomplishment.  But our cosmic motion does not seem to have a “come back to,” so our subjective stillness may be an effort to stop this rapid rush to who knows where.  Since time is defined as “the measure of matter in motion” we may in fact be trying by imagining stillness to make time stand still – which is one way of describing eternity: a dimension outside of time.  Our subjective stillness is a way to experience eternity.

    Richard Sumpter

    #73839

    Dr. Gardner,

    Quoting you, “All my life, I’ve been drawn to passages in literature where the strange or impossible irrupts into the known world. Those moments feel the most real, the most alive, the most true.”  I’ll echo Stephen in appreciating your words,  “an elegant excursion into the heart of a mythic image. Your lyrical language evoked the memory of experiences of my own that placed me on pause, pitching me for a brief moment – or maybe an eternity”.

    In my own experience, it was in the odd, in the most unimaginable, yet very  real and true —  that weird, impossible, improbable thought took over my entire being.  And when the beloved image looked back, there was no effort to hold the gaze, the gaze was held by an energy far stronger than any other energy before this.  As if time stood still?

    In that moment of stillness, my image of myself changed. Previous images of self  dissolved, and the information gathered through that one gaze, permeated my neural pathways.

    Thank you again for such an elegant piece.

     

    #73838
    jamesn.
    Participant

    Dr. Gardner,
    First of all a warm welcome and I also would like to echo my appreciation of your beautifully written and very thoughtful piece. The first part was for me particularly moving as it spoke to an experience we all have in common; (that of losing someone close); and the poignant way you expressed your grief spoke to this in a very powerful way. This experience of life’s emotional connection and fragility touches us all at some point; and the way it changes our world can often go far beyond the ability of words to describe it. As one of life’s major constants this affect of loss is far too often not as fully appreciated or comprehended as to the power of it’s ability to define as well as color our view of life as we move through it’s various stages toward our own exit. But moments such as these can also add depth as well as understanding to a larger context in which we play our part; but then we are not usually aware of our own process as we live out our lives either. How many books and poems have been written about this subject is not the point I got from this piece; but the shared humanity was; for it reminded me of the gateway, portal, or threshold moments where one’s life is forever changed. I would say that most people have had some encounter with this experience; and more than likely this experience was profound; for how often have we heard the expression: “and my world just stopped”! (Yes; a “still-point moment” to be sure!)

    Our lives all contain individual mixtures of: trajectory, chance, and destiny of which we may or may not be aware. And what these elements have to do with how we interpret the meaning in how our lives are constructed (also) includes life’s “mystery”; which can blindside us with death’s entrance and we are left devastated and bewildered by our loss and inability to grapple with the profoundness of it’s enormity. To consider the nature of existence includes the realization of death as it’s final act of definition; whether symbolized by the: “Ouroboros”; or ritualized within the world’s great mythic traditions. And to understand the nature of the cosmos as Joseph suggests is to accept the realization that: “life has no meaning”; we bring the meaning to it; (being alive is the meaning); and this “is-ness” in which we are enclosed as he also suggests includes: “we participate in a wonder”; but this realization is also enveloped within a nightmare landscape of: “life eating life”; in which we all: (as best we can); try to engage and contribute with joyful compassion in it’s suffering as we try to find our way.

    To look at the stars and the universe which frames them is to consider something so overwhelming we are left only with our own humble ability to make sense out of something for which there is no meaning or explanation; yet here we are in a little ship on an ocean without a rudder looking for a North Star to guide us; but that star is “our star” that will point us in the right direction for our lives if we but listen to the human heart; the only thing that has properly guided mankind throughout the ages of his existence.

    I really enjoyed your terrific piece and thought about it most of the day. Although my offering is not what I would call formal what moved me the most was the personal aspect; which reminded me of: Dorthey and her companions in the “Wizard of Oz”; each had their gifts to bestow; but it was Dorthey’s steadfast devotion to her quest that in the end took her home.

    #73837

    I very much enjoyed this Mythblast in its storytelling, descriptions, and the idea about time. To me, the passage of time–as natural as it is–can in many ways feel like such a ‘strange’ thing. Time is probably one of my biggest complexes in life–how much time I have to do this or that or even to stay here on earth (!), how time goes by, etc. I love the quote below:

    “The still point follows the last thing and precedes the next thing.”

    Transcendence: When “the still point follows the last thing and precedes the next thing,” when there is a bridge between the two, between the one thing and the “other,” whether from here to there, this object to that, or me to you or you to me.  Or, a transition. What if any difference might there be between transcendence and transition?

    Transcendence is thought to have a “risen” quality–one that rises above the moment–therefore it rings of a feeling of the numinous–or mysterious. Transition can be more “mundane” such as making a transition from one plane to another plane on a flight, or making a transition from one paragraph to another–not that those paragraph transitions are never numinous! We transition from one place to another or one thought to another.

    That moment “of perception when past and future both hold the baton of our awareness. It reverberates with memory and foreknowledge, echoing into eternity” is transcendent, a time when, Joanna writes, in our consciousness, “duality relaxes its grip.” I think here about how in the Tao the circle holds the pair of opposites in one place—within that sphere– and in that circle there is also its center. Transcendence is when the people or places or objects meet in the center or the middle. I also here think about the “memories and ideas of foreknowledge echoing into eternity” as experienced when a loved one dies as Joanna writes about. We perceive that moment we hear about the death as a still moment–we have a hard time thinking of that person as dead and still envision our loved one as alive and the wonderful moments we have had with that loved one—as if they are still moving, animated, alive, and not still. Yet, we feel still. I am finding this idea of stillness interesting to think about and find myself musing about it in terms of transcendence.

    Here I wish I had the right Campbell quote to insert!

    Here I could also insert a definition of Jung’s theory of transcendence. You can find a good description of it on Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon which can be found online.

    Jack Kornfield, in an essay on “Finding the Middle Way,” writes,

    The middle way describes the middle ground between attachment and aversion, between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between free will and determinism. The more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites. Sometimes Ajahn Chah described it like a koan, where “there is neither going forward, nor going backward, nor standing still.”  To discover the middle way, he went on, “Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”  (Retrieved from Kornfield’s Buddhist website) (emboldened emphasis mine) (I did not put the link in here because I usually have a hard time doing it in this forum)

    In this Mythblast about stillness, it is very moving to heart and soul that Joanna opens her essay with the story of the death of her father, of receiving the news, then describing the landscape where she then goes hiking in the mountains.  Suddenly, I am imaginally taken to the mountains out west from the flatter lands with no mountains where I live in the east. That is transcendence. Then I feel in sympathy with Joanna about her father’s death, feel her moment of stillness when she hears he has died; I remember that moment of stillness when my father died, and when I first heard the doctor tell him, “You can either get treatments or ride this out for a few months, Joe.” I remember watching my father’s face so closely while my dad made his decision and the whole room went still—or felt like it was. There again is transcendence in that still moment when two different people (a pair of opposites) have similar experiences that bridge them; we make associations and go from one thing to the other and they are held there together though in a way that “rises” above the opposites. The “play of opposites” can be the imaginal associations we make.

    Then I think about death as that still moment when the body becomes still at the moment of death when just a moment before the body held a person who was “still alive” (we use the word still that way too—to show something that yet sustains as if that something is suspended in time. Then I think of how blatantly death or hearing that a person has died shows that difference between “being and non-being”, and “form and emptiness,” as Kornfield writes above.

    The word time has the word “emit” in it: times emits history of people and things, the being and non-being of things, and invokes to emits our feelings about these things.

    Suspend or suspension shares the root word with suspense. When we hear something that emits that sense of timelessness, that stillness, when we entertain imaginally our memories of our loved ones who have passed on before us, we are is a mode of suspension on the bridge or suspense—as we go from here to there and back again.

    I included the Buddhist quotes above not because I think this experience is only Buddhist, but just because I liked some of the descriptions used to explain that sense of timeless moments and bridging gaps of here to there. I think about the universality of these still moments as part of the human experience (and I think animals have these too, like in that moment that they are playing with a favorite toy and hear the word “vet” and freeze for a moment before dashing off to hide, or in that moment that a deer hears a tree branch snap when it stands up alert ready to run out from under the tree. I wonder about symbols in various myths/religions that demonstrate that suspension in time between here and there, such as Christ hanging in suspended animation on the cross and the cross being even in the shape of the four directions and then he is said to have ascended upward into heaven, transcending that pain of the crucifixion. I am also thinking of various myths about trees and hanging, such as the Hanged Man of the Tarot, or Odin hanging on the tree in Norse Myth.

    A few years back, I wrote a paper on The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy that involved notions of time and transcendence that was published in a depth psychology journal. I will share it in the forum where we can share our own work–it is timely now in this holiday season also for those who love The Nutcracker.

     

     

    #73836

    Jameson,  Marianne & All,

    Your appreciation of Dr. Gardner’s article is just as elegant as the original Mythblast article.

    Jameson you wrote,”  what moved me the most was the personal aspect; which reminded me of: Dorthey and her companions in the “Wizard of Oz”; each had their gifts to bestow; but it was Dorthey’s steadfast devotion to her quest that in the end took her home.” This resonated with me Jameson — steadfast devotion is indeed the still point!  That steadfast devotion, that still point is the Nirvana. As  Joe Campbell said, “Nirvana is right here, in the midst of the turmoil of life. It is the state you find when you are no longer driven to live by compelling desires, fears, and social commitments, when you have found your center of freedom and can act by choice out of that. Voluntary action out of this center is the action of the bodhisattvas -” (Power of Myth).

    Marianne,

    So very  beautifully expressed, and immensely enjoyed your piece too.  You wrote, ” Suspend or suspension shares the root word with suspense. When we hear something that emits that sense of timelessness, that stillness, when we entertain imaginally our memories of our loved ones who have passed on before us, we are is a mode of suspension on the bridge or suspense—as we go from here to there and back again.”  Is this like the aesthetic arrest that Joyce discusses, which most people like myself have understood through Campbell’s explanation of the same.  “The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object….you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.” Could this suspension or sense of timelessness be quite like Joyce’s aesthetic arrest?

     

    #73835

    Richard,

    Your meditations raise wonderful questions! “But where is this motion going? Does it have a telos?” I love these questions because they are objectively unanswerable, as far as we know, and at the same time they offer a wide open invitation to subjective response. They are examples of the kind of questioning that leads to creative work in both the arts and sciences. Personally, I suspect that many of the great Why’s we bump into have to do with creativity, our own and that of the cosmos itself. Why planets? Why galaxies? Why people? Why backgammon? Because creativity! I think that connects with your idea of eternity too. Creativity is one way we can access that feeling of time standing still that you describe.

    Warmly,

    Joanna

    #73834

    Shaheda, thank you so much for sharing your experience! “In that moment of stillness, my image of myself changed. Previous images of self dissolved, and the information gathered through that one gaze, permeated my neural pathways.” I think this does indeed relate to Joyce’s aesthetic arrest, as you suggest in your response to Marianne.

    And your words speak so beautifully to the plasticity of self. I think we often go around assuming that our selves and the selves of others have a fixedness and rigidity that simply doesn’t exist. Our capacity for change — to change, to be changed, and to change others — is one of our greatest, most awe-inspiring gifts. And doesn’t it call for our utmost creativity and consciousness? I believe it does!

    Warmly,

    Joanna

    #73833

    James,

    Thank you so much for sharing your reflections. I’m especially moved by this passage: “To look at the stars and the universe which frames them is to consider something so overwhelming we are left only with our own humble ability to make sense out of something for which there is no meaning or explanation; yet here we are in a little ship on an ocean without a rudder looking for a North Star to guide us; but that star is “our star” that will point us in the right direction for our lives if we but listen to the human heart; the only thing that has properly guided mankind throughout the ages of his existence.”

    The heart does hold great wisdom that can guide our lives. And yet its voice is so often drowned out, is it not? I feel that we have much to learn about hearing and heeding our own hearts, and simultaneously hearing and heeding the hearts of others as well as the collective heart of humanity, of the earth, of the cosmos. The great Heart can indeed hold us, when we align with it.

    Warmly,

    Joanna

    #73832

    Marianne,

    Your response offers such depth and richness! You pose the key question, “What if any difference might there be between transcendence and transition?” And then you explore that question so beautifully. One observation I’d like to add is that we often find a difference in attention between the two. Transitions happen when we don’t attend, and transcendence happens when the moment arrests our attention (like Shaheda’s observation about aesthetic arrest).  It’s not a binary either-or, but more of a sliding scale. In that sense, the moments that really grab us by the collar and won’t let go until we pay attention could serve as training ground for the moments that might slip by while we’re preoccupied with our thoughts. Thank you for giving us a chance to attend to your thoughts, thereby practicing transcendence!

    Warmly,

    Joanna

    #73831

    The phrase “the still point” always brings to my mind T.S. Eliot’s use of it in “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets:

     

    “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

    I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.”

     

    The figure is based on the geometry of a rotating circle: a point on the outside is moving faster than a point closer to the center. In theory (i.e. as an imaginative construct), motion ceases at the absolute center, the Still Point, the center of the labyrinthine spiral that is the path to the center of consciousness. The stillness is that  aspired to by the practicioner of yoga, the deliberate cessation of the spontaneous motion of the mind-stuff, in which state the individual consciousness is united with the nameless ground of being.

     

    #73830

    Chris,

    I absolutely love what you just quoted from T. S. Elliot, and you go on to elaborate the still point, “The stillness is that  aspired to by the practicioner of yoga, the deliberate cessation of the spontaneous motion of the mind-stuff, in which state the individual consciousness is united with the nameless ground of being.”

    Dr. Gardner’s beautiful description of the still point which resonates with me, “The still point happens when modes of knowing meet and mingle. They amaze each other, change each other. Both of them realize that they aren’t separate at all but instead, they exist within each other. Then a new thing emerges and consciousness expands, growing its field of possibility to include more than it was able to before.”

    Would it be fair to say that you have visited that space, that stillness, but the ‘WHERE’ part  can’t be described?

    #73829

    Richard,

    These scientific facts you give us create such a beautiful, large, and largely beautiful, image to ponder–and for a moment, does bring us, in pondering this, a moment of eternity in which moving space stands still in time as our minds move outward to imagine the galaxies and this movement of the universe. Thank you.

    –Marianne

    #73828

    Chris,

    The quote from Eliot is so aptly placed here in consideration of Joanna’s Mythblast. I enjoy your geometrical description and mentioning that this stillness is what is sought for in yoga. This is reminding me of Zen, and the stillness one can find in Zen and the Art of Archery–as described by the book of that title. Thank you.

    –Marianne

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