A friend of mine called one day and stated in a matter of fact tone, “you have to read this book; it will change your life”. The book was ‘The Power of Myth, by someone named Joseph Campbell. I was just divorced and trying to find my way in a strange new world after 13 years of marriage, a world in which I felt as one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. I was ready for something of substance but had doubts as to my friends implied assertion that this one book would open a new world of meaning to me. I was familiar with the works of Thomas Moore and M. Scott Peak so I wasn’t completely unacquainted with the idea of mythology as a psychological tool. But little did I know I was about to submerge into uncharted waters, pushing me intrinsically through the door into the abyss.
I remember sitting in a quiet bar with the idea of reading my friends suggested a life altering book. I knew something was up when a woman, sitting across from me, without hesitation looked at the title and stated how it had changed her life. The encounter seemed too synchronistic for me not to take this book seriously. I stayed in that bar until closing but it wasn’t the alcohol or the company that kept me there; it was this book, it was Joseph Campbell and I drunk on his words as he reached out across the threshold. The erudition flowing forth from this dialogue held a light that shook my world, its radiance more brilliant with each sentence.
This one book and its amalgamation of religion, spirituality, literature, philosophy, psychology, and art under the one umbrella of myth guided me to other books. I questioned everything I thought important in my life, my job, my relationships, and myself. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the quest I dared to enter would last for the duration of my natural life, if not the eternal lifetime.
So below is an appreciation of Joseph Campbell and all I have learned so far. I’m sure my dialogue will alter a bit in time as my impressions generate more questions to infiltrate my mind in its expansion of knowledge and wisdom.
Joseph Campbell, teacher, writer, mythologist, was responsive to the need for mankind to cultivate the unique and rich universal forms of myth throughout the ages and bringing them to light in the modern world. Discerning, as Jung did, that myths are archetypical seeds buried deep within the psyche, ubiquitous to all. Thus all mythologies are related, all symbolic of our need to understand the ultimate mystery: man and his relationship to his God. All the vibrations we make in life are in reality our efforts to know this ineffable Source, a concept beyond words and symbols. But in our desire to know this Source, we are left only with this overabundance of words and the metaphoric symbols of art for our cultivation. As we immigrate toward understanding we become the artists emerging from within, defined through the images of the tangible world. These images are the substance of archetypes, the resource, and language of mythology, which subsequently feeds our creativity. In doing this, we come full circle for the inner self is what we ultimately seek to know.
Campbell’s philosophy was not a religion in the usual sense but a spiritual thought process which allowed a deepening of mystical inflections into one’s own religious favor. Indeed this favor could comprise parts from many religious entities; myths to make up a single system of beliefs at one’s own discrimination, a journey unique to the traveler that has not been embarked upon before. That a life lived in awareness of the mythic tools of dreams, meditation, and wonder is at one with the noblest of hearts. We can bathe in the profundities of dharma, symbols, metaphor, and mysticism; all analogous to the mythologies of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Native American wisdom and many other belief systems.
This belief is akin to following what Campbell termed, ‘ones own bliss’, one’s true path in life. He taught that any true voyage in these waters is a spiritual endeavor, which encompasses all of life. Indeed the path of life is not only in the discovery and beholding of one’s bliss but also in the journey and continuous refinement of that bliss. One travels the avenue of myth on the wings of the hero to the discoveries only an adventure can bring… a wealth of wisdom pouring out from the center of the universe gathering to render to humanity the fulfillment of his potentialities, the Grail which is exploding in each of us waiting to be felt. Myths reveal the same ubiquitous adventure clothe in various social influences.
Joseph set the example in the very way he lived; his consistent personal quest to know himself through mythic tools culminated in the wisdom of a life devoted to the never-ending task of expressing the inexpressible. So when we forge our own inner quest, the ageless adventures reshaped and given back to us, given a new sheen so we may travel our path and realize the stories of our own hero adventures.
We encompass the archetypes resident in many mythologies and are the better for it. Our myths grow and constantly reshape our outlook allowing the soul to grow in unison with the natural world. A reading of ones’ life is like a reading of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” or listening to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”… a continuous study on the art of living.
Our journey is to the individuation and fluidity in a centered life inflected with mindfulness and homage to the mystery ones life necessitates. We can then dance with both feet to the ground, one in the duality of time and the other in the totality of the universe, a comparative method as each opens to the other. It is not the purely physical acts we seek in this dance of life, but as Joseph often stated, “The radiance of being alive”. The techniques of life, after being mastered, give way to the transcendence in all of life. We learn and then forget the instructions as the teachings meld into our being, giving to our bliss, our art… be it music, writing or chopping wood.
This gnosis was Joseph Campbell’s gift to us, which seems timeliest today than ever before. Everywhere I turn I read of the Gnostic Gospels, the Greek Mystery Religions, or the wisdom of the east. Joseph was talking about these things years ago as a way of understanding the mythical inheritance intrinsic to each of us. Not as a way of uncovering clues as to the divinity of Jesus, the Flood of Noah or the fall from the Garden of Eden; for he fought against such concretization of what he taught myths are, “lies that tell the truth”. The struggle to go within is the struggle of today’s society. How much conflict and war would be naught if we only listened deeply to these truths cloaked in stories of our own imagination.
I am still on the path of myth; I have lost friends, relatives, and lovers to this centered life, as well as gained a few. But I am no longer lost. I believe in this world of dreams and stories, of the Christ within, my Buddha nature. Myths are inherent in every step of my life. It gives the mysterious a familiar face that I hadn’t understood before. It gives the circumstances of life a new meaning. Myth beckons me to dig deeper into the abyss of my soul, to descend these canyons and leap across chasms of truth and somewhere along this journey, I understand the experience is savored as the destination is of no importance.
All who’ve crossed the path of Joseph Campbell found an open door of understanding to everything under the sun, for God speaks to us in myth and with it, He bestows a deeper qualifying meaning to everything.