Hello again to Night’s Watch, Ruiz, Ivor Orr, Ruffles, Bobby, Robert G, and anyone else I may have missed, including those silently participating in the conversation, reading and pondering what’s been said.
And what has been said? Words of wonder and wisdom, which trigger further thought and reflection.
Thank you, Night’s Watch for raising the question. Clearly this isn’t just an intellectual exercise, for, as you point out in your initial post, the awareness of one’s own mortality can be overwhelming and unsettling. As Jim Morrison sings, “no one gets out of here alive” – or, as Clint Eastwood puts it so succinctly in Unforgiven, “We all got it coming.” Death approaches, even picks up its pace the older we get – and no matter how much we might intellectualize, bandying about terms like “consciousness” and “metaphor” and such, that does little to quell the queasy, uneasy pang in the pit of the stomach when contemplating the gaping maw that stalks us …
Everyone offers fascinating questions and insights, all of which ring true: Robert’s and Ruiz’s discussion of confusion and ambiguity as to whether Campbell is at times speaking in literal or metaphorical terms; Night’s Watch allusion to being enmeshed in time, which makes understanding of time difficult, as we can only examine this concept from within
the field of time; Ruffles’ mention of the possibility of different truths able to stand side by side; Bobby’s expression of his personal truth; Ruiz’s reminder about Campbell’s proposition that mankind’s awareness of death gave rise to mythology; and so many other remarks that expand the mind, which should fuel this conversation for some time to come.
My approach here is to simply have fun with the question. There is no one I really disagree with – if there are differences, they are at best questions of vocabulary, or variations in personal experience - so what I have to offer isn’t intended as either correction or opposition, but, at most, maybe a different take on some aspects – another layer, perhaps. There is, after all, no answer we can look up in the back of the book, no “gospel according to Campbell” that reveals the objective truth; if there were, Death would not be the preoccupation it is.
I point this out because I notice a tendency in myself to pontificate from time to time, make sweeping statements as if I’m some sort of authority – but I’m only an authority when speaking from my own experience (and who isn’t?). Apart from that, I’m just thinking out loud, as are we all, reflecting on and processing my own thoughts and reactions to what others have said, expressing my understanding of the moment.
We are speaking here of great mysteries, and I admit I’m groping in the dark just like everyone else –
so feel free to assume there is plenty of wiggle room in my words, no matter how definite a declaration might sound. If I quote an earlier post and then suggest a different possibility, I am merely offering another perspective; even where there seems a sharp contrast between views doesn’t mean one or the other need be wrong. Could be just my Gemini nature, but I’m not in the least opposed to holding two, three, or a dozen apparently conflicting positions all at once
… but then, those who study myth should be used to embracing paradox.
The other major caveat
i'd like to emphasize when discussing such a big
subject comes to mind as I read this remark from Ruiz:
“Bodhibliss, I see that you too interpret Joseph Campbell as actually believing in the literal existence of a Consciousness with a big ‘C.’”
I can certainly see from the post in reference how easy it is to arrive at that conclusion - but I don’t necessarily believe Campbell believed that.
And yet, didn’t I suggest Campbell believes something
survives Death, and that “something” is uppercase Consciousness
? What gives? Are these word games we play? Well, in one sense, yeah …
This highlights one of the greatest frustrations when discussing such concepts as death and consciousness and eternity and even metaphor, a difficulty Campbell warns us about in a formulation borrowed from his friend and mentor, Heinrich Zimmer:
The best things cannot be told; the second best things are misunderstood; and the third best are everyday conversation.
Zimmer’s “best things” are mysteries transcendent of all human concepts – that which is beyond conscious and unconscious, beyond light and dark, beyond life and death, beyond being and nonbeing – that which cannot be put into words because it is
The “second best things” are misunderstood because they use the “third best” – the language of everyday life – to discuss the “first best,” which is beyond
Our conversation here is an example of these second best things – as is the entire body of Campbell’s work – with a tendency toward vagueness and misunderstanding built right into the words, guaranteeing a certain measure of frustration in communication no matter how precise and exact we try to be. These second best things are words with usually concrete references, employed instead as metaphor. Even when we are aware of this usage, it’s hard to overcome linguistic programming and completely ignore the concrete reference – especially when that concrete reference is germane to the metaphorical comparison.
I try to keep this caveat in mind when reading Joseph Campbell, but it’s not always easy to do. Though he chooses his words carefully, language lends itself to concrete interpretation.
This is why Campbell points to the power of myth as primarily visual (arising out of vision?) rather than verbal. Images, whether in myth or art, bypass the qualifying limitations imposed by thought and word, affecting us on a deeper, more immediate level. Moving from visual to verbal shifts emphasis from the immediate experience of the dreamworld of myth to the logical constructs of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics. It’s the difference between the rapture of creating/experiencing a work of art, and a critic’s review of the same piece of art (or, as Alan Watts and Marshal McLuhan used to say, “the menu is not the meal”).
Sometimes Campbell strikes me as making bold, brash declarations about Yahweh or Vishnu or Zeus and their motivations and actions, as if they’re actually sitting around in a Great Hall of Archetypes somewhere in the vast Out There, still getting angry, still hurling thunderbolts, still playing dice with human lives and actively involved in the ongoing creation/dissolution of the universe.
Of course, it’s easy to understand these images as metaphors, but it takes a little more effort on my part to recognize some of the concepts Campbell employs as mythic images and metaphors in their own right: Consciousness, Void, Being, Nonbeing, Emptiness, Suchness, Thusness, Satori, Illumination, Transcendence
– these are all congruent terms that nevertheless suggest specific, often contradictory references in my mind. For example, because I have a sense of what consciousness is, being conscious myself (more-or-less), I can’t help but project that into upper case Consciousness as sort of a transpersonal, expanded consciousness – gets hazy, but it’s still a concept I can wrap my brain around
and so is ultimately inadequate to express what’s intended, as a mythic metaphor should point to what is beyond the brain …
Ruiz wonders, “Did Joseph Campbell commit an error in interpretation because he so wanted to believe in the literal existence of a Consciousness with a big ‘C’? … Maybe Joseph Campbell was just stressing the metaphor too strongly and it ‘appeared’ as if he actually believed in its literal interpretation.”
At the risk of sounding like a Campbell apologist (one of the strengths of this site is that individuals are willing to voice questions, criticisms, and differences with Campbell’s work), I lean toward the latter.
When Campbell speaks of identifying with either the light bulb – i.e., the body which is the vehicle of consciousness – or with the light - “and to think then of consciousness as the one presence here made manifest through us all” –
he is presenting one metaphysical metaphor
(upper case Consciousness
to explain another mythic metaphor
to a group of middle school students.
He repeats this story in many interviews and lectures. In the selection “Zen,” from Myths to Live By, Campbell points out
These are but two ways of interpreting and experiencing the same set of present facts. One way is not truer than the other. They are just two ways of interpreting and experiencing: the first, in terms of the manifold of separate things; the second, in terms of the one thing that is made manifest through the manifold. And as, in Japanese, the first is known as ji hokkai, so the second is ri hokkai, the absolute universe.
Campbell certainly speaks of undifferentiated consciousness permeating all that is, just as he also speaks of the void and all the other terms mentioned above, and many more besides – but he doesn’t stop there. None of these are the ultimate term – not even transcendence
, as that which transcends all that is and all that isn’t, that which transcends all concepts, is in itself yet
a concept …
… and here we are again, trying to touch our right forefinger with our right forefinger, bite our right eyetooth with our right eyetooth.
As Nights Watch points out, we are ensconced in time so haven’t the ability to examine it from the outside – hence, our knowledge remains fragmentary and inadequate here in the dayworld where this conversation takes place. The same is true when we discuss the transcendent from an ego perspective - and it is impossible to adequate describe the experience, as attested by those who have
had an experience that transcends ego, transcends human consciousness, transcends life and death, being and nonbeing, god and man - whether that experience comes from meditation, or shamanic chanting and drumming, or ingesting entheogens, or a spontaneous kundalini rising, or some such other portal into the unknown.
(It's like describing the color red to someone blind from birth – all a sighted [or in
sighted] person can do is talk around
the experience, as have mystics for millennia in the language of myth, metaphor, and oxymoron – "a finger pointing to the moon.")
I appreciate the reference Robert offers from Michael Toms’ New Dimensions interview, where Campbell declares:
Temporal thinking shuts out the dimension of eternity. And to ask, "Am I going to live after death?" you’re thinking in temporal terms. The dimension of eternity is "now." It’s a dimension of here and now. So I’m not worried about "after" death. I’m worried about getting in touch with those eternal dimensions now.
That quote expresses it best – at least, for me. Campbell steps outside the linear framework imposed on us by our experience of the sequence of time: to think in terms of what happens “after death” is to ignore the experience of what transcends Life – and Death – in the here and now. I believe that was a mistake in my post – I stuck with the linear framework – “after death."
I do believe there is something
(a vague, inadequate, open-ended metaphor intended to be fuzzy) that transcends life, though it’s certainly not something confined to after death – and, if I am to experience this something transcendent, whatever we want to call it, I must find it here and now, in this moment, in this life.
What purpose do such metaphors serve? I think another Ruiz comment sheds light here:
Since this topic is about death it matters to me psychologically whether I believe that I’m going to join a universal consciousness or whether I’m ultimately going into the unknown of which nobody knows anything.
Campbell suggests in his Historical Atlas of World Mythology
that the mythological perspective emerges in response to our apprehension of death. We seem the only species conscious of our own mortality. Mythologies of death, no matter how varied each culture, how distant from one another in time and space, are remarkably parallel in their description of Otherworld/Underworld experiences. Is this because they are true – or is it simply the way the human mind, the human brain, and/or the human psyche is shaped?
Ultimately these mythic images help us confront and embrace the inevitability of Death
(much better than myths help us face life’s other great certainty – don’t see much in either Ulysses or the Upanishads about Taxes).
There is comfort here, reassurance -
though it takes more than comforting platitudes to quell the fears of dissolution, of losing me, of ceasing to be, of might as well never having been, not even a lingering memory of having been – a preoccupation that preys on us whether we want to think about it or no, especially after a certain age.
It takes an experience, to which the metaphor points - but as to what that experience is, there are simply no words ...
I feel for you Night’s Watch, for I too – like all of us – feel pangs of existential angst when I contemplate the snuffing out of my existence – it’s a pit of the belly thing, often kicking in late at night, but sometimes in broad daylight, when struck by the temporal nature of all existence … especially my own. Those are the moments when ego – “I,” “me,” my sense of myself, how I experience me – is in possession of my soul.
Myth helps us understand and assimilate that approaching endpoint.
Campbell gauges a myth not by how accurate its depiction, but by whether or not it is effective - and affective
For some, Heaven is a powerful, living myth that accurately portrays where Death takes us. So was the Underworld for the Egyptian Pharaohs, or the afterlife experience described in the Bardo Thodol for a Tibetan Buddhist.
Unfortunately, the Judeo-Christian afterlife doesn’t speak to everyone in our culture anymore – in fact, it speaks to very few people in my immediate circle. It’s not an effective metaphor – so, to address the emptiness I feel in the pit of my stomach when pondering what will happen when I die, I need a new metaphor, a new myth, one that effectively engages my Imagination. Campbell helps here, for he has turned me on to a world of mythic imagery, from dream states to mystical realizations and more, which speak to my experience.
Some work better than others, depending on the individual. As Ruiz pointed out, it matters psychologically whether he is going to dissolve into a universal consciousness, or dissolve into the unknown of which no one knows anything;
on the other hand, to me these both describe the same condition – “I” dissolve, am extinguished, simply cease to be as a separate entity with separate experiences and memories: in that sense, dissolving into an all-encompassing impersonal Consciousness strikes me as experientially no different from dissolving into Nothingness, into the Void, or into the Unknown
(all of which are metaphors, but metaphors with slightly different accents. This sometimes leads to tremendous misunderstandings - much like the English, Canadians, Americans, and Australians, all "separated by a common language").
From the position of the “I,” of the “me” that does not come through this intact, this is an horrific prospect. But when I am able to shift my identification from the “me” to that which transcends me
– in those moments I am transparent to the transcendent (which in my life has been midwifed most often through meditation, entheogens, and the occasional spontaneous satori in waking reality).
Ideally one should be able to hold both these perspectives at once, identifying in the same moment with the personal and the transcendent, but in practice i find that's a balance not so easy to maintain.
Nevertheless, I don’t fear Death as once I did, at least not to the same degree and with the same intensity as before, though those pit of the belly moments do still pop up.
Campbell discusses these two approaches with Bill Moyers:
"In Buddhist systems, more especially those of Tibet, the meditation Buddhas appear in two aspects, one peaceful and the other wrathful. If you are clinging fiercely to your ego and its little temporal world of sorrow and joys, hanging on for dear life, it will be the wrathful aspect of the deity that appears. It will seem terrifying. But the moment your ego yields and gives up, that same meditation Buddha is experienced as a bestower of bliss."
There is much more to say but I do tend to ramble at length, so I’ll draw to a close for the moment. There are, though, many ideas floating around this conversation I’d like to address
– particularly the concept of “as if” in relation to metaphor (which is more than just pretend, though it does begin with an act of Imagination – but can affect substantial changes in our experience of the world ... healing rituals come to mind)
…and, with that, the question of “hypnosis” (not exactly hypnosis, but there does seem a related mechanism at work in effective, affective symbols).
I believe it’s Robert who also raises an interesting question, about whether when Campbell strays from the strictly academic he might be revealing his personal mythology
… but it’s time for bed.
What a rich conversation!
<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Bodhi_Bliss on 2004-10-30 13:07 ]</font>