This was one of the more complicated Reflections I’ve written, released on January 7, 2019. It’s hardly surprising, given the subject. As unnecessary as it might be, I would like to point out that this point of view is my own, and I do not write it to detract from anyone’s experience, religious or otherwise. I only write it with a humble hope that it might give some readers the courage to own their stories. You are the final arbiter of the value of your life. To paraphrase Paulo Coelho, your Personal Legend is yours and yours alone. Don’t ever let anyone take your power away from you.
I was re-watching The Power of Myth recently (it’s on Netflix in Canada and so worth the time!) For those of you who might not know who he is, Joseph Campbell is a Western scion of spiritual thought. A scholar and teacher, his focus was on mythology. He is most well-known for his notion of the Monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, a blueprint that can be applied to myths and stories from cultures across the globe, suggesting that there is a description of our innate humanity to be found within. The Power of Myth was a series of interviews conducted at George Lucas’ Skywalker ranch (Star Wars was influenced heavily by Joseph Campbell’s work) between journalist Bill Moyers and Mr. Campbell himself immediately prior to his death in 1987.
In the final episode of the series, called the Masks of Eternity, Moyers and Campbell discuss the ineffable experience of God. This word, God, is a byword for something that is beyond form, beyond language. As I discussed in my Mythology essay, it simply cannot be reduced (and I do mean reduced) to language. It cannot be told. It has to be experienced to be understood.
Drawing on my own life, that seems to be by design. One of the motifs that Moyers and Campbell spoke about included a quote from Schopenhauer, that the world being the dream of a single dreamer, that all the lives ever lived and to be lived are intertwined and follow a certain pattern, something that suggests will and intentionality. Nothing in life is by accident. Maktub, to use the Arabic term I learned from reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. It is written.
When I was younger, I thought the notion of God having a plan to be an abhorrent concept. The world was a cesspit of suffering, and it was only by random chance that I escaped some hellish existence in a war or starving to death in a poor country. That God existed and chose to bring into being what I saw around me meant that I was ruled by a sadist. Forget that. Better we lived in a cold dead universe than the horror that that implied.
My own models of God in those disgruntled early years came from traditional Christianity, which implies a separate God. In orthodox Catholicism, the intermediary between a person and God has to be a priest. The Protestant movement removed that to a degree, when all were deemed to be able to speak with God, but the notion that I had to surrender to something outside of my own experience was alive and well in what I saw of Christianity. I could not stomach the idea that someone else had all the answers, offered up by a robe-clad elder in a church steeped in scandal, and here was the “right” interpretation to be applied to the words written in the book. I was, in this context, a heathen. A rebel.
And then life started to happen. And life was hard. I could not understand why I was unhappy, but I became so as I grew from child to adult. The unhappiness developed over time. Looking back now, it was as if a dark filter had descended upon my vision of reality. Things were a dreary black, grey, and white.
In my early years, I was concerned with material things, as the material things were all that could possibly be real. I was a man of science. The world seemingly outside of me could be examined for the answers. I was here, it was out there. The subject / object divide was my Scripture, random chance was my deity.
By dint of exquisite paradox, the subject / object divide that permitted science to arise is no accident, given the way that Western culture evolved from Christianity. The notion of God as a literal man in the sky that judged and smote sinful unbelievers to Hell and jealously raised up the devout who said the right words and had the right water dripped across their brow by implication requires this separation of human being and nature. The ethical judgments of right and wrong require polarity, require separateness. The Enlightenment movement and the rise of the scientific method likely would not have developed the way it did if we did not fundamentally understand ourselves as separate from nature, which is what is implied in certain understandings of the Abrahamic traditions.
It must be noted that this understanding of reality is not implied in all other religious traditions from around the world, or even Christianity itself. Gnosticism in Christianity has its own mythology, one that seeks a reunification of a human into Oneness. In India, Advaita Vedantism suggests speaks about the Oneness of reality and the illusory nature of the world around us. Many Native American traditions worship nature itself and see God everywhere.
That said, given the soil in which I blossomed, I believed in the primacy of rational thought and random chance. The result of this, of course, is that the only answer could be a cold dead universe. Without evidence to the contrary, the separate world was all that was possible. This permitted me to accept that my growing unhappiness was caused by a mess of chemicals in my brain, chemicals that could be set right with the proper pharmacological intervention. So anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication was the order of the day. While I am grateful for the respite that these psychological band-aids provided, I was not provided with a solution for my malaise. After a time in this Hell of purposeless existence, I dug deeper.
To use the framework of the Monomyth, I answered the call of my own adventure. I traveled the world, saw many sights, experienced a number of different cultures, and returned home, ready to face real life. I started to practice my writing, which was, to use the words of Mr. Campbell again, following my bliss. There were a number of starts and stops, failures and long dark nights of the soul, moments where all seemed lost – my own trials and tribulations on my journey.
Throughout this time, I began to experience synchronicity. Synchronicity, as defined by the man who coined the term, famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, are occurrences with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. They are examples of “meaningful coincidences.” Paulo Coelho referred to them in The Alchemist as omens. If you look at miracles from a metaphorical perspective, rather than a literal one, the connotation there is synchronicity.
At first, given my closed mind, I assumed that the coincidences were merely random chance. And then they began to pile up, and up, and up, and up. And suddenly there was nowhere for my mind to go. I could no longer accept the separation implicit in the Hell that is random chance. It simply was not possible to do so. And thus something was born within me. You might call it faith, but that is a byword that still has something of separation within it. You have faith if you are not yet certain of something, and I will admit that there were points where that was all I had. But at the end of it all, I prefer to call the product of these experiences wisdom, as it was born of experience. The Gnostic Christians use the Greek word Sophia, which itself signifies wisdom, to describe the ultimate attainment, which is a life with God, and I am quite happy with that.
I will not get into the details of that which was and remains extremely personal (and to some degree ineffable), but what I can say is that by following the trail of synchronicity, life itself became vivified with colour. Gone was the monochromatic lens through which I viewed the world, replaced by something iridescent and beautiful. I began to become happy.
In our materially-focused world, dreams of happiness can be reduced to a few different ideas. The big one is winning the lottery – basically being given carte blanche to shag off and disconnect down on a beach somewhere until you eventually expire on a gilded deathbed. The next one is retirement, when we will not have to force ourselves to deal with the wage slavery that crushes our spirits anymore. That is, until boredom sees us return to work at a hardware store. There is the notion of romantic love that will save us from the self-hatred that we inflict upon ourselves, until our needful relationships break down and we are forced to contemplate our own paradigms. In other words, there is something from outside of ourselves that will make us happy.
In my experience, true happiness is nothing like this. It is a dance of hard work, repose, connection with others, giving of one’s self to dreams that seem impossible. It is surrendering to the call of our hearts, that which speaks to us in the present moment, when obsessions with past and future have dimmed. Happiness is diving in to life constantly, rather than seeking disconnection because of the suffering that life seems to represent. And there are many opportunities for disconnection from the world.
But, I digress. My contentment was achieved by undergoing an experience of what I can only describe as the eternal, ineffable, formless thing of which we are all emanations. We can call if God, Brahman, Jahweh, Gaia – any number of names can be applied to that which is beyond words. But in doing so, we rob the experience of something. Mr. Campbell rightly said that the final threshold cannot be crossed with these words – or any words - intact. There is nothing of language in the realm of eternity, because language is derived from the experience of time. I need a second to say a word, to type a sentence. You cannot communicate without time – nothing can happen without it. And time has no meaning in the realm of eternity, because eternity is not about anything but the present moment. It’s not forever or never-ending, because those concepts imply time – it’s eternal.
It’s a very discrete point, but it means the world. I was at an Eckhart Tolle talk recently – he said that there is no past or future, and he is right. The only thing we ever have is the present moment. And yet, we have to set our alarm clocks for 6:00 for work tomorrow morning and we can remember telling our grandfathers to press the yellow button on his video camera when we were three years old. So, the past and future both exist, and don’t, simultaneously? We are living both in time, and out of it? This is our job as seekers: to travel the road of the divine paradox, onward and upward, bravely into something that was sitting right in front of us our entire lives.
But when we come back, how can we ever describe it in a world constrained by language in time? We have to do our best, and hope that the metaphors are understood as metaphors. Mr. Campbell said, “That’s what poetry is for. Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated, it doesn’t shut you off, it opens, it’s the rhythm, the precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the word, is what has to happen.”
Religion, insofar as it is an expression of that which is beyond words, was never meant to be understood literally. When it is, that is when dogma arises. Dogma is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Authorities are not you - they are someone else. And dogma is that final attachment that must be let go, that corrosive bit of illusion that halts the emancipation of the human spirit, the final defence against the experience of the mystery of life. Your story, the one you are living, is about You, no one else. People might tell you that you’ll burn in hell or be reborn as an ant after you die if you don’t wash your aunt’s feet every morning, that you are an evil miscreant for eating meat or drinking alcohol, that, as a homosexual, there is a special place in the fire for you. But if that is not something you’ve experienced as true, then why buy it? Here is an ecstatic poem from the heretical and vivacious poet Kabir that illustrates the point in beautiful metaphor:
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something, it is not true.
If the Monomyth is a metaphorical map for human experience, which I wholeheartedly believe it to be, then we are each the heroes of our own stories. We each and every one of us are the peasant that becomes king, or the girl that descends into the underworld to save the world from destruction. But if you look at stories, one of the things that stands out is this: they are all different. The underlying structures may be similar, but the stories themselves are each different. And so your life is meant to be unique. To paraphrase Mr. Campbell once more, “if you see your path laid out before you, it is not your path. Your path is laid by walking it.”
So go forth, walk your path. Follow your bliss. And when the coincidences start to pile up, ask yourself whether there is a chance, infinitesimally small though it may be, that they might not just be coincidences.