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MythBlast | Tat Tvam Asi: The Blessing of Compassion

BY Bradley Olson November 4, 2018

For the month of November, we at the Joseph Campbell Foundation are exploring the theme of blessings. The comfortable blessings of bounty, family, and health are certainly likely to spring to mind, but there are difficult blessings, too. And these difficult blessings are often found in the deepest, most fundamental, and most challenging human experiences: the fact that consciousness and self-conflict are invariably bound together, our questions about what constitutes reality, and the unfathomably mysterious connection we have with other human beings.

Opening to human connection may inspire a spiritual revelation that Campbell identified as tat tvam asi, Sanskrit for “Thou art that.” Campbell’s conversational, engagingly lucid book by the same name, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, is the text influencing my thoughts just now. In this book Campbell challenges the notion, present in the Judeo-Christian tradition, that individuals are restricted to a relationship with God that is characterized by separateness and otherness. Campbell insists that the god and the human being who is contemplating god are one: “In any of the orthodox biblical traditions, one cannot identify oneself with God. Jesus identified himself with God in this sense. But God is a metaphor, as he also is a metaphor for that which we all are” (Thou Art That, p. 24). In Thou Art That, Campbell places in bold relief the deep mythological and symbolic meanings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and illustrates that the individual and the object of religious awe are one and the same.

The Passion (Albrecht Dürer, Germany, c. 1495–1498)
The Passion (Albrecht Dürer, Germany, c. 1495–1498)

In its ideal manifestation, the heart of the Christian tradition is compassion. The image of the suffering Christ on the cross—the central image of the entire Christian enterprise, is meant to call forth compassion in the observer, to awaken the metaphysical revelation that the “other” is not some stranger in whom I have no connection and no vested interest, but rather is a person—and here Campbell refers to Arthur Schopenhauer—“in whom I suffer, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves” (Thou Art That, xii).

It is, however, overly simplistic to say that because I know what my pain is, I can therefore know the pain of another. Compassion doesn’t rest on the assumption that the pain I feel is the pain of another. That would nullify the other’s experience of pain. Compassion always inspires curiosity, a singularly intimate characteristic of relationship. Where does it hurt? What caused your pain? What can I do? These are the questions curiosity is driven to satisfy once compassion is awakened.

Once compassion has ignited curiosity, curiosity is naturally drawn to “whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering,” and we are compelled to contemplate what Campbell calls “the key to the whole thing: the secret cause” (Thou Art That, p. 34). The secret cause is related to death, but the secret cause is not merely death. The secret cause is not even the manner or circumstance of one’s death, such as a car accident or a heart attack; those are merely the instrumental causes of one’s death.

The secret cause of your death is your destiny. Every life has a limitation, and in challenging the limit you are bringing the limit closer to you, and the heroes are the ones who initiate their actions no matter what destiny may result. What happens is, therefore, a function of what the person does. This is true of life all the way through. Here is revealed the secret cause: your own life course is the secret cause of your death (Thou Art That, p. 35).

Contemplation of one’s own secret cause necessarily means wrestling with questions of life and death, eternity, transcendence and, following the Christian metaphor of resurrection, the survival of consciousness after death. One discovers one’s “secret cause” retrospectively perhaps, through living a life spent following one’s bliss, a life lived saying yes to compassion, yes to joy, yes to suffering, yes to limitations, yes to the mystery, saying yes to everything one’s life conjures. Lived in this way, life can never be a mistake.

Symbols of death and resurrection reflect the ongoing fundamental and fundamentally unremitting demands of human life: we must be constantly dying to the old ways of being and the old ways of thinking. Relinquishing obsolete beliefs, unhelpful habits, distorted perspectives while simultaneously awakening to new possibilities and new understandings is death and resurrection in the most vital sense. The seeds of rebirth are enclosed in catastrophe, they’re carried aloft in the trailing smoke of destruction and nestled in the salted earth of abandoned homesteads. The shattered dreams of the burdened and the broken may constellate a formidable renewal if one can summon a curious, consummate compassion while, simultaneously, living into the secret cause of our lives.

Thou Art That cover

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