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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mythology, Joseph Campbell and Following My Bliss

I recently came across a ten-year old essay I had written for a Mythology Class at Regis University. It is a reaction paper/essay to a great book by Joseph Campbell called The Power of Myth. I felt it was worth sharing, and may start you on a journey to discover (or rediscover) your own bliss.

So before you start reading you'll want to grab a cup of tea (or a glass of good single malt scotch) and get comfy, because I tend to be as verbose in my writing as I am in my speaking.

“Literature of the spirit” is one of the multitude of descriptions Joseph Campbell gives for mythology, and the one that I find the most apropos. In the book The Power of Myth(1) and the corresponding PBS series, Mr. Campbell peals back the layers of ideology about humanity to reveal the eternal contained within everyone. Although the ideas he put forth absolutely captivated my imagination, there were several points that specifically spoke to my heart and solidified ideas that had beforehand swirled about my consciousness without clarity. In explaining mythological stories, Mr. Campbell's illustrations acted as a type of myth to help me gain awareness of my connection with God. The proposition posed about the purpose of myths in our lives, duality, the idea of sacrifice, and following one's bliss stayed with me after my readings and begged to be pondered.

Campbell's description of myths as guide-signs or guideposts for both the inner journey of a person and his/her life’s journey were insightful. The characters in myths help us to navigate through the mundane tangible forefront of reality or physical plane by illustrating the consequences of correct and incorrect actions. They can also guide us on our inner spiritual journey by helping to unveil a deeper meaning behind the cultural dressings in which each story is wrapped. If time and the four dimensions are viewed as manmade inventions, they exist only in man's idea of the physical plane. It goes to follow that if the eternal is everlasting, then the physical and eternal would have to co-exist. Therefore, Heaven/God/the Universal Spirit does not exist in another time or place, but rather here and now within and without each of us. The idea echoes the Buddhist belief in Nirvana - the attainment of deep peace and enlightenment (arriving at or with Heaven/God/the Universal Spirit) while your physical body still lives.

These ideas, and myths in general, are based on the assumption that there is more to life and reality that the corporeal; that there are at least two planes co-existing - the physical and the eternal. Mythology can help us to understand both. Mr. Campbell portrayed the idea of the juxtaposition of the terrestrial over the eternal by putting his left hand behind his right. His right hand was representative of the present, tangible moment - - our secular life. His left hand represented the intangible, eternal reality. Then he spread apart the fingers on his right hand, so that his left hand could be glimpsed through them. “That,” explained Mr. Campbell, “is the purpose of mythology.”(2)

The concurrent existence of the duality of the physical and eternal is echoed in other dualities in mythology. There is the duality of male and female, good and evil, hope and despair, life and death, to name but a few. As with two sides of any argument, Mr. Campbell asserts that the truth is somewhere in the middle. To understand eternal truth, one should seek the path between the dualities. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, called this the Middle Way. The middle path is between the dualities, where you are neither one nor the other, but also both. This is a difficult concept to grasp from a pragmatic point of view. It seems to me that the point being made is that we should avoid extremes or polarities; be neither a glutton nor an ascetic.

Mr. Campbell used marriage as an example of finding this middle path, especially as relates to male and female. He referred to marriage as "another mythological plane of existence" with the conception that one has found his/her proper female/male spiritual counterpart. When a person finds another who compliments his/her spirit, he/she falls in love. This does not mean a physical love or lust, but rather a complete spiritual love. The relationship becomes more important that either individual person. Even the rituals surrounding marriage emphasize two becoming one. This strongly coincides with my idea of marriage. Having happened to me, I believe in love at first sight. Not as an "ooh he's so cute", but rather as one's spirit recognizing the integral connection with the other’s. I am reminded of a creation myth of purported Celtic origin told to me as a child, wherein the first god or consciousness had to split itself into two as a means of self-realization. Since then, the two halves circle each other until they can again become one. People who have found this connection with a complimentary self are often referred to as soul mates. Soul mates sacrifice themselves to the relationship and it becomes more important than individual needs. This is not to say that a person loses his/herself in a relationship. Rather, if both people have made that spiritual connection, the willingness to compromise and sacrifice becomes second nature rather than a duty.

I hesitate to use the word sacrifice, because it is a term that often has negative connotations in our society. It is seen as an obligation not as a willing gesture. An example is the father who sacrifices everything for his family, not out of love but rather out of a sense of duty. This is illustrated in comments such as, "I sacrificed everything for you and you won't do this little thing (whatever it may be) for me." A true sacrifice is one performed out of love with no requirement of a return favor or comparable sacrifice. In this way it is proof of being in touch with the eternal within. To understand my meaning, it first has to be accepted that a portion of the eternal, or a soul, resides within everyone. This connects them to the eternal, or God. If one can embrace these ideas, it follows that we are all connected to each other through the eternal. Therefore, by sacrificing oneself, that person is benefiting the eternal in someone else. Since the sacrificing person is also a part of the eternal, he/she is benefiting the eternal within him/herself. Consequently, there is no such thing as sacrifice, even if the material self is destroyed, because the eternal continues. A person who follows his/her bliss has found a way to connect with the eternal.

What is bliss? Joseph Campbell states that bliss is an intuitive feeling, where your body and soul tell you to go, and once you have that feeling you should stay with it and not let anyone throw you off (p. 147). You should willingly sacrifice for your bliss. So, what is my bliss? I honestly had not previously considered it. I can list what gives me joy and contentment beyond material pleasures. The relationships with my husband and children would be at the top, with gardening a close second. My family relationships seem to be an obvious choice, but what about gardening? When I help things to grow, even when I kill tomato worms or clean the debris out of my garden, I am intimately involved with a living metaphor for the cycle of life. Further, when I garden, time ceases to exist. My mind is focused on nothing but the moment and what I am doing. I feel the presence of the eternal all around me and through me - Zen in the dirt. And when I hold my right (secular life) hand in front of my left (eternal reality) and spread apart the fingers, what I glimpse through them is earth and dirty finger nails . . . I will leave you to determine for yourself the significance.

Garden On!

[1] Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988

[2] Apostrophe S Products in Association with Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc. (producer). (1988). The Power of Myth (Program 1). [Videotape]. New York, NY: Mystic Fire Productions Video


  1. You just had to get that out since Saturday huh!? Love u sis!!

  2. Kal Bashir surpasses Joseph Campbell, big time.