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MythBlast | A Mind of Myth, Part II

BY Bradley Olson April 22, 2019

The Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

Pt. I: The Hobgoblin of Doubt

Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor by Joseph CampbellWe all know about things. In fact, we all know a lot of things about a lot of things. The human brain is stunningly complex; a new born baby has somewhere around 100 billion neurons—twice as many as adults, and in a brain half the size. No wonder a child’s brain from birth to around the age of three functions as a knowledge sponge, constantly learning things, all sorts of things. The extravagant diversity of thingness makes the world and its inhabitants an utter wonder. Most of us grow up learning to have a mind of things, filled with the qualities of things and heuristic schemas that help us manipulate those things. Materialism constitutes the foundation of most of human learning. For example, parents speak to children materially: what animal is this? What color is that? How many fingers do you have? We ask children to perform counting, but we seldom go beyond material applications and ask them, for example, what numbers actually are. We never ask them whether ourselves or our universe is real, whether there’s free will, or an objective reality; we never ask them why is there something instead of nothing. It’s proper, of course, that we don’t introduce metaphysics and existentialism to young children, for they would likely dissolve into an angsty goo right before our inquisitorial eyes, and parents would be forced to save for their child’s long term psychoanalysis rather than college.

In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell notes that Zen masters always dissolve the material world by including the opposite immediately after whatever object or concept they might reference: “That which is no thing. That which is no that. This is the ultimate reference of our metaphors […] opening the mystery of the operation of this transcendent energy in the field of time and space” (Thou Art That, 18). And in Myths of Light, Campbell writes, “You cannot say a thing either is or is not. The things are no things, there is nothing there. Here, below, all things [are] dual. This line is the mystery of māyā. The word māyā comes from a root ma, which means ‘to measure forth; to build.’ Māyā is what builds forth the world” (Myths of Light, 73). It’s easy to imagine Lear’s Fool as a Hindu scholar when he asks King Lear, “Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle” (King Lear, Act I, Scene IV)?

Myth’s foundation is metaphor, and metaphors are the no-things of which myth makes the most extraordinary use; correspondingly, a mind of myth makes use of everything. Living often gets in the way of understanding life, of seeing through the illusions of materiality, and a mind of myth saves one from the emptiness of a life lived solely, and soullessly, on its surface. A mind of myth frees one from the pernicious distraction of pursuing happiness. Furthermore, myth saves us from a too remote, too sterile history, one that neglected to send a salubrious message in a bottle downstream to us in the present who struggle to find meaning in a history largely content to present the past as a quaint curiosity.

Developing a mind of myth requires one to think mythically, striving to see through the world of appearance, the world of convention, the world of belief, of life, of death—the literalized world—to the world in which nothing is not a contradiction (at the same time everything is and nothing is contradiction). In his poem, The Snow Man, Wallace Stevens put it this way:

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


A mind of myth is created from a long, uncompromising practice of saying yes to the world exactly as it is—yes to all its suffering and pain, its joy, its beauty, its impenetrability, its staggering disregard for human concern. A mind of myth is the result of saying yes to “the full catastrophe,” as Zorba put it, the mysterious māyā that gives rise to human consciousness and existence itself. It isn’t simply knowing the stories of mythology that develop a mind of myth; one must inhabit them until thinking mythologically becomes second nature, until one is able to see the nothing that is not there and the no-thing that is. The ability to do just that was Joseph Campbell’s particular genius.

Thou Art That cover

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