Merry Christmas! I wrote this essay over a series of cold winter evenings, after I had watched The Power of Myth on Netflix in the fall of 2018. It was published on December 19, 2018. I get into a discussion of mythology, and why it is important to the human experience. I hope you like it.
If I had to name one Western thinker who had the greatest effect on me, it would have to be Joseph Campbell. His influence was very subtle, at least at first, and I barely realized the sheer enormity of said influence until I was almost home.
I freely admit it: I was not a religious person growing up. A dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, I developed into a man who had a view of reality fully grounded in the world of the senses. If I could not see, smell, taste, hear, or feel it (through my skin), I did not grant it any validity. I even silently thanked pure random chance and circumstance that my parents were not religious. But I was always drawn to myth, to the stories of Greek gods and heroes, to comic books, to fantastical stories of knights and magicians. I even forwent all kinds of social activities and other pastimes so I could bury my nose in a book, or movie, or video game.
Like many people, I never questioned the why of my obsession with these kinds of stories. I always assumed it was because there was cool shit involved: fireballs and swords, deadly curses and courage in the face of great peril. Not that there is only one right way to do it: one can go through life engrossed by mythological stories and never realize or even care that there is anything deeper going on there.
Then I got older.
With the advent of adulthood, I gradually sensed a growing unhappiness in the core of my being. At some low point, I wondered whether writing my own stories would make me any happier. After all, writing had been a dream of mine. To create those worlds and share them with others: what a life to live! As I would understand later, this was my own call to adventure. To wit: while I was exploring the world in my springtime days, searching for an answer, I eventually came across the work of Joseph Campbell and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Joseph Campbell spent his career studying the myths of the world, comparing the stories from innumerable cultures to each other and trying to tease out a universal framework. When it was finally developed, he called it the Monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey. It consists of twelve stages, wherein a hero goes from the known world, answers a call to adventure, is subjected to all kinds of tests, including a final crisis where all seems lost but against all odds he or she succeeds, gains a divine boon, and returns to the normal world with this knowledge of the true nature of reality. This sees him or her live in the moment from then on.
To be perfectly frank, the first time I read it, I thought a lot of it was bogus. Or, at least, completely over my head. Sure, these were cool stories that concerned other people: great heroes of myth and legend. They were made up. They had no application to my own life beyond entertainment.
They say that the difference between knowledge and wisdom is how the information is earned. Knowledge comes from the apparent outside of one’s self, usually through study and rational collection. Wisdom is the product of your own experience and intuition. When I picked up The Hero with a Thousand Faces in my mid-twenties, I was trying to knowledge my way out of the black hole into which my life had slipped. Lucky for me, I had started down a road that would see me wise up and reach a level of contentment that I never dreamed existed in this world.
In my experience, God is a word that we use to explain something that goes beyond explanation. Further to that, knowledge of God can only come to a person via the wisdom pathway – it cannot be transmitted through words. God is, for lack of a better word, ineffable. In the words of Morpheus in The Matrix, a truly fantastic modern myth, no one can tell you what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
So, what is mythology, then? A collection of fun stories? Certainly. But there is something deeper there. Something primal and connected to everything. It speaks of the road to wisdom. As I learned in my youth, travel on that path is not free. Actions and omissions must be taken and made on the part of the seeker. But what actions, what omissions? The seeker needs clues. And this is exactly the way Joseph Campbell described the function of myth: it exists to provide clues to people so that they can complete their own hero’s journey.
It is a fact of life that not a single person is any better or worse than another. We are all of inestimable value, no matter how much the world around you tells you that you should judge other people. Every single human being is the hero of their own story. Ram Dass, another favoured teacher of mine, said to treat every person that you meet like God in drag. And this I also find to be true: there is a unity, a transcendent Oneness to the world that goes beyond the world of polarity as it appears to us. Those actions and omissions I mentioned are the things that we do to prove the reality to ourselves. The golden rule is an expression of this: we break the attachment to our own ego by treating the world as ourselves. Think of it as a divine faking it until you make it.
This is how the quote at the beginning of the essay speaks reality. Look to any religion and you will see truth there, metaphorically. Mythology is an underpinning of religion – at the root of all of them are myths. Myths are stories which are metaphorically true, but of questionable value when taken literally. Whether or not Jesus died on the cross and was literally resurrected is not the question, but what can a metaphorical death and rebirth of a hero teach us? What about the blind man who was miraculously cured of blindness? Was it his literal sight that was restored? Or something more wondrous? What can the serpent that devours itself, the Ouroboros, teach us about eternity? What can Hanuman’s humble service of Ram teach us about the value of selfless love expressed completely?
These questions can only be answered by each of us, based on our own experiences. They are tailor-made for every single life on this planet. We run across the myths at certain times in our lives, and it is up to us to decide whether it was random chance that placed them in our path or something a little more unifying. The questions posed by myths are better interpreted by the heart, not the head. The heart is the organ addressed by the poet. It answers the call to adventure at the start of the hero’s journey. The head screeches danger and implores caution in the face of the unknown. It would have us separate ourselves from our neighbours, hoard our gold until death extracts it from our grips, give in to lustful impulses and flail about on our lonely islands. It would rather that we retreat from life itself.
That is all well and good, but how to discern the separating from the unifying? There is a holy Sanskrit word, viveka, which means discernment of the real from the non-real. To be able to discriminate is a virtue. And it is a skill that we can learn, but only by making the right choices. The myths help in that. The myths show us the paths of those that have gone before, so that we might place our bets about life appropriately. Whether we take our leaps of faith or not are the choices, the monumental decisions on the path to liberation. It is the choice of unity over separation, of trust over its opposite, of love over fear.
The rub: only one of those things actually exists.
“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”