Morality in myth

Who was Joseph Campbell? What is a myth? What does "Follow Your Bliss" mean? If you are new to the work of Joseph Campbell, this forum is a good place to start.

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subuddh
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Post by subuddh » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I didn’t know where to put this so I started a new thread. I have just reading a few threads (all very interesting) and was struck by how there quite often seems to be some attempt to look for morality in myths and chagrin if it is not there. This is really strange to me, I saw these stories, being about living and biology, as amoral. I think Campbell said this in the PofM the monster going through the hero cycle is very properly also having the experience of being alive. He seemed to want to celebrate the monster, and didn’t bring his morality into it. So what I would want to ask is, where is this morality that is being looked for coming from? And is it absolute? If you do think it is absolute, by what authority? Can there be an absolute without a literal reading of metaphysical ideas? And how would we figure we would have the right to make others follow it, especially if they have a different definition?

Even the stories we think are ‘good’ stories are actually quite amoral. Almost everyone, I am sure (bad assumption?), feels that Star Wars had a ‘happy’, ‘moral’ ending. Luke blows up the Death Star and he and the cute ewoks all have a great party. But let us think about it: He blew up the death star which had thousands and thousands of people working in it. Most of them would just be doing their jobs, with families, friends etc. This is some high quality mass murder. Then there is the question of what will happen now that the emperor is gone. How will Luke and his band govern? Will they be competent at it or make a mess? What about all the dominions of the Empire? Will the governors and regents of the provinces assume their own authority and try to take charge? Will the place all disintegrate into civil war among many factions, causing more damage than the empire could ever hope to do in its most morbid fantasies? So even this simple morality-play fairy-tale modern day myth isn’t very ‘moral’ at all. Luke has very properly had the experience of being alive, in completing the full hero cycle. And that’s about it. In the process he killed thousands upon thousands of people. I don’t remember if Campbell mentioned this in his writings, but it seems to me the hero is very often a hero mostly for himself, and he is a monster for a lot of people. Now we would say that of course we have to interpret Luke’s journey as symbolic, and all the people he killed as symbolic inner dragons. But isn’t this really our moral interpretation based on our preconceived morality? And how do we figure this is ‘correct’ in an absolute sense, if at all?

In PofM Campbell describes the astonishing sacrificial rituals of the New Guinea people. They are actually enacting the mythic symbols. Now Campbell compared this to the communion of the catholic church. I don’t know if this has already been thrashed out, but is it really the same experience? What is the psychological difference between actually enacting myths and living them from a purely symbolic standpoint. A popular misconception among Americans is that they saved Germans from Hitler’s oppression. I read an article about this, Germans from Hitler’s time saying they never felt more free than under Hitler. They were living out the myths and it gave them a very powerful experience. I know this is kind of disturbing, but if we accept myths come from some deep down place, and if actual living out gives a much more powerful experience, can morality hold up?


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Post by cadfael » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Dear Subbudh,

I think your post is very interesting.I would like to first say that I do not think that the Star Wars trilogy was moral.I think that your analysis of the climax of the Return of the Jedi was on target.I see that film trilogy as being filled with moral relativism.In other words,the world of Mr.Lucas is all gray.It could be argued that Luke and his comrades had to bathe themselves in a world of moral relativism to bring about a better world,but like you noted how do we know if Luke and his band could govern?I think the Star Wars world was a world that was unable to maintain a code of ethics.I am not saying that a code of ethics can always be maintained.I am saying that We should try to maintain moral stability as much as possible.

You wrote that people are looking for morality in the myths that they read.Furthermore,you said that you thought that was strange.In all honesty, I think that that conclusion is strange.We humans lack instinct like the subspecies have.Therefore,we humans need a guide to mold our behavior.It is understandable that people look for morality in mythology.Campbell deems Judaism as being mythology in the sense of its dennotaion and connotation,but as we know there is all kinds of morality in the Jewish Mythology.Hence,based upon that it is not strange that people seek morality in mythology.

In my own words,you said that you see mythology as dealing with life and biology and essentailly being amoral.I do not know how you come to that conclusion.I agree that myths deal with biology and life,but morality has a lot to do with those subjects.Sometimes moral relativism plays a role in mythology,but absolutes can be found.

I find that you have the view that life should not be judged.There is the bit about celebrating the monster and not bringing morality into it.I think this goes back to your view that you find it strange that some seek morality in mythology.It is true that Jesus Christ said that we should not judge.I think he should have said that we should not condemn.We can modify destructive behavior without getting rid of the person in the process.I do not think we should misuse Christain wisdom inorder to live a life that suits us at the exspence of good sense.

Where does this morality come from?I would say common sense and experience.It does not have to come from a divine source.Let's come up with some ground rules for how to behave towards one another.It's that simple.Is it going to be absolute?Sure,until one of us screws up and then we will have to trudge in moral relativism until we can evolve back into moral individuals.

Who has the authority to say that it is absolute?We do.I do not decree that anyone has to follow my absolute morality.If others want to wallow in darkness that is there business.I just request that you stay away from me until you attain some sense.

I will finish this later.

Cadfael


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Post by David_Kudler » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Subuddh--
You raise a really interesting question. It is true that in many tribal myths the heroic act that founds/saves the People is often an act of horrific destruction with regards to the Other People. For examples, we can look at Joshua reducing Jericho (and a lot of other towns) to rubble, the Greeks sacking Troy (though the Iliad is actually unusually even-handed in its portrayal of this) and the Rape of the Sabines. And those are just the ones that pop into my Western head. There are a huge number destroyer heroes--avatars of Shiva, destroyer of worlds, if you will. The saviour heroes tend to be fewer and come later in the story. As long as the others are truly other, it is possible to destroy them without feeling in any way diminished. It is a mark of the level of sophistication of the Greeks at the height of their civilization that they could produce works like The Trojan Woman and Medea that were very much from the point of view of the Other. It is a problem too in just about every war story--or even the quasi-military stories about the Old West and Outer Space.

In Star Wars, Lucas tried to get around the problem as SciFi directors often do, by making the bad guys almost entirely inhuman--not by making them another species, since the species seem to co-exist well in this galaxy far, far away--but by making them almost machine-like. Indeed, if you've watched the most recent installments, he actually made the storm troopers clones, diminishing their humanity even further. (If you haven't seen the movie, I 'm not spilling a plot point here--their actions will still surprise you.

The challenge is that, as Campbell often pointed out, our horizon has expanded so, that it becomes difficult to look across a border and say that the people over there are truly 'other.' Not that this has stopped many from doing so, nonetheless. (And that is as far into a debate of current politics as I would like to get in these forums.)

It's funny, I've never felt that we liberated the Germans from Hitler's grasp. It has always awed me the power with which the Nazis used the power of myth (to coin a phrase) to give the German people a single purpose. The problem was that that myth was a highly destructive, xenophobic one, and one that would inevitably lead to conflict; it had precisely the limitations that we've been talking about. It is easy to argue that World War Two sprang from the ashes of World War One's armistice. But the particular spectacular fervor that marked the Nazi mythos was NOT inevitable, and must always be considered with a combination of wonder and fear. It was aweful in every sense of the word.
David Kudler<br>Publications<br>Joseph Campbell Foundation<br>publications at jcf dot org
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Post by Lizpete » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I've thought a lot about this thread since it was first posted because its an issue I've begun to formulate a different opinion on.

I believe very strongly in the power of reasoning and persuation, but in the last few years I have come to fear there are people who cannot be persuaded or reasoned with. To me they seem to fall into 2 types: one because their agenda is different the reasoning is not reasoning to them; and a second kind who cares for nothing save themselves/ their own interest.

For the first category of people, I would say that they are merely the 'other.' Perhaps you and I could not reason with them, but someone else down the street may be able to. These are people with sympathy, reasoning and intellect.

The latter category is of people who do not care who they hurt. The are completely closed off to anything save their own interests. I think the Star Wars example is a good one. In the first movie Darth Vader is introduced as an absolutely ruthless leader- he blows away an entire planet without a second thought. Later, we see him strangle a compatriot who has the audacity to disagree with him.

Hobbes said that you has the right to fight against the king (take his life) in situation where the king would take your life. That is the essence of self defense.

I think the popular notion of self defense also has a temporal aspect- someone is coming at you swinging and you react. I can think of arguments that go both ways. If someone has you in their sights, it may not really seem to matter that they aren't swinging at you at the moment. They've made up their mind.

This theorizing is all on the individual level, as I think much of 'real life' is on the individual level. Myths and stories are on grander scales with larger than life creatures and armies serving as alter egos.

The hope is that there are very few to no Darth Vaders out there.

Sorry all of this is quickly typed. I may return later to change my mind or refine.

Sincerely,
Lizpete





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Post by subuddh » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Lizpete, Cadfael and David, thanks for sharing your perspectives. You have made some most excellent observations and I enjoyed reading your posts.

Regards,
Subuddh
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Post by Painted Owl » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I think the important thing to remember is that morality is a myth,with the world presently as it is, with numerous borders,the myths of morality differ with each culture.Hericlitus," To God all things are well and good,only to man,some things are,and some things are not." Man being a social creature, makes necessary a morality myth of some kind, to maintain the social order.As Nietzsche kindly pointed out,it is a fiction.
"Those whom know the most must mourn the deepest orr the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life." Goethe
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Post by SkiaOura » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I agree fully with Painted Owel.
It seems to me that not only does every culture have its own rights and wrongs, but within that culture every individual differs from every other in hir interpretations of the dogma (if there is any) or of the cultural mores.
So what keeps us from going out and killing each other for kicks? Well, there is empathy. I don´t think that empathy is a matter of morals. It is a function of the living creature, be it human, animal, or maybe even plant. There is research to support it in all those cases. Also, I don´t think that it is a coincidence that in all of the higher religions love, or empathy, is so highly valued. I am not sure if empathy has as prominent a role in the hunting societies, and am very interested in any info anyone can offer on the subject.
Empathy is what keeps our actions "moral", in the sense that we avoid to hurt other beings.

On a different note: I have come to suspect that many religions have a notion of a superior order in the universe. Call it Tao, Dharma, or Maat - it seems that the properly enlightened creature can understand the underlying purpose of the universe in a way that the intellect can not. Maybe part of that order is that some people die now, at this persons hand, and others do not.
I am reminded of a hindu story (I think) that Campbell wrote about. There is a great warrior/king who hesitates on the battlefield because he is not sure if it is right to kill the enemies. Vishnu appears, and explains that it is all the way it should be, and that it is the role of this warrior to fight, even that he will receive greater glory for it.
I hope that I have not butchered the story too much. Maybe someone recognizes it and can correct me if need be. I think that it is either from the Hero With 1000 Faces or from Primitive Mythology.

Thanks everyone for a superb thread.

Skia.


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Post by Painted Owl » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Skia,the source for your story of that great battle between kinsmen was,"The Bhagavad-gita",Part of the collection which is the Upanishads.Campbell often made referance to it.

Your comments on love and empathy struck a cord with me.Research reguarding animals to this affect, or effect, perhaps both,I am not familar with,but personally I think anyone whom has had close contact, and the opportunity of observation with animals cannot doudt it.

As to your question about primary cultures, or our early ancestors feeling this empathy, Campbell touched on it serveral times.This in some significant portion, was the reason for many rituals of early hunters and gathers.They felt guilt for slaying there fellow beings,whom they did not reguard as inferior,just diffrent.

As to a theory reguarding the source, or modivation for this sensitivity,the best one I have found,is that of Schopenhaur's.He says,I cannot do justice to it here,but essentually,the illision,the vail of maya,is the purality created by us, of time and space,and that in fact we are one with what we call other.

There is another,Kant's moral imperative,but personally I find it unfounded,you might wish to check it out, and make up your own mind.

If you wish further insight into the nature of morality,and its fraudulent abuse,check out Friedrich Nietzsche's "Ecce Homo,or,On the genealogy of morals,also Nietzsche anti-christ-great stuff!!

I think there is a natural tendancy to minimize the emotional capacity of animals,we do not have the rituals of our ancestors to deal with our guilt,so why not close our eyes, to their emotional capacity?

great topic,you might expand on it!!

"Those whom know the most must mourn the deepest orr the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life." Goethe
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Post by David_Kudler » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

BTW, here is Campbell's own retelling of the Bhagavad Gîta, from Myths of Light:
These days, many Westerners have read the Bhagavad Gitå, the Song of the Lord, which is the nuclear work of Indian spiritual life. The Gîtå is a passage of some eighteen chapters in the midst of the great Indian epic the Mahabharata, a work eight times as long as the Odyssey and Iliad combined. In this sprawling tale of war and love is this little jewel of spiritual revelation.

To sum it up very briefly it is as follows: The young warrior-prince Arjuna is the leader of an army, along with his brothers, the Pândavas. They have lost their possessions—their kingdom and even their shared bride—in a dice game with their cousins, the Kauravas, who are the leaders of the opposing army.

Now, Arjuna’s charioteer is his friend Krishna, who is an incarnation of the god Vishnu; Krishna is the lord of the title of the book, in that he is both a king and an avatar of the lord of the world. Though he is God incarnate himself, he is playing the role of charioteer at this cataclysmic battle between the armies led by these two bands of brothers. In the moments of quiet before the fighting, with both armies waiting for his trumpet call to start, Arjuna says to Krishna, “Drive me out between the two armies before I let the battle start; I just want to see for a minute.”

So Krishna does drive Arjuna out. Arjuna sees on both sides men whom he admires, men whom he loves, and he drops his bow. He goes pale and says, “Better that I should die here than that I should let loose this battle fury.”

His friend, the god, looks at him and says, “Whence comes this cowardice? You have lost your mind; you have lost your equilibrium. You are a warrior, and the highest goal of a warrior is a just war.” Now, all wars are just from both sides, always. Krishna, having the divine long view, understands this. “So get in there and fight. Did you think you were going to kill these people? They are already dead!” Then he touches Arjuna’s eye and Arjuna sees his friend Krishna transformed into the lord of the world. He is a tremendous, monstrous divinity, with many mouths with great tusks in these mouths. In this expanded vision, Arjuna sees both armies flying into these mouths and smashing like grapes, and the blood pouring down from the maws like spilled wine.

Arjuna’s hair lifts and he says, “Who are you?”

His former companion answers and says, “I am Kåla. I am black time, who am here for the end of the world. I am licking up mankind. Now,” he says, his appearance returning to its normal blue-skinned calm, “did you think you were going to kill these men? They are already dead, as I told you. Those forms that you kill are mortal, but the immortal portion is untouched. What was never born never dies. Rains do not wet it; fire does not burn it. So get in there and seem to be doing things. You are to be the instrument of destiny itself.”

It is this section of the Gîta that J. Robert Oppenheimer seems to have had in mind when he uttered his famous words on viewing the first test of the atomic bomb: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
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Post by SkiaOura » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Hi David,

I just found it funny that the name Kåla, Black Time, seems so much like Kål = charcoal in scandinavian. :smile:
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Post by bodhibliss » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

On 2003-01-08 23:54, subuddh wrote:
I have just reading a few threads (all very interesting) and was struck by how there quite often seems to be some attempt to look for morality in myths and chagrin if it is not there.
Joseph Campbell points out that morality enters mythology with the emergence of Zoroastrianism in Persia. Prior to that, myths are not inherently moral. The Greek gods, the Hindu gods, the Norse, even Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods and goddesses do not concern themselves with sin and righteousness, nor salvation - they are themselves amoral, even immoral.

Nor, in fact, do we think of Nature as good or evil, but a composite of both (like ourselves):

does a tiger sin when it kills and eats a zebra?

Indeed, Campbell points out that we live in a world of duality (Time/Space, Hot/Cold, Light/Dark, Dry/Wet, Male/Female, Good/Evil, Macrocosm/Microcosm, Life/Death, etc.), and that every act has both dark and light consequences:

a steak may be a positive good for me, but the cow might have a different point of view.

I'm not sure my cat thinks so much in terms of good and evil, as in pleasure and pain, or fear and desire, though i really couldn't say

...but the abstraction of Good and Evil seems to accompany the development of human consciousness (or at least, so it seems to human consciousness): eat of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and get kicked out of the Garden (womb?) into the field of duality, the field of existence, of life.

And myths, on the esoteric level, seem to universally point past the pairs of opposites, toward transcending the world of being/nonbeing, life/death, good/evil.

The transcendent does not take sides, for then it wouldn't be transcendent.

"But God does take sides," spake Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism posits two gods, one ultimate Good and Righteousness, and one Evil and Suffering, both locked together in a death struggle, with Good, in the being of Ahura Mazda, ultimately triumphing over evil, in the form of Ahriman the Devil, in the apocalyptic End of Time battle.

Sound familiar?

Zoroastrianism was the dominant faith in the empire of Cyrus the Great, who conquered the Babylonian empire, shortly after Nebuchadnezzar the Great had carried off thousands of the nobility, intelligentsia, and the priesthood - the literate leadership of Judah - after sacking Jerusalem.

Cyrus liberated the Jews, and eventually allowed them to return to Palestine and rebuild their nation. This happened in several waves under Cyrus and his successors, particularly Darius and Xerxes.

During the seven decades before the first wave returned, these leaders were exposed to Zoroastrianism and it's sharp dichotomy between good and evil, with an emphasis on the need to choose the side of Good for salvation from the coming conflagration.

This is the emergence of morality as the mythic context of the Faith, one which was transmitted to Judaism and her daughter religions, Christianity and Islam.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the others were favorably disposed to Cyrus and his successors for his kindness and tolerance - so it's not surprising that they were influenced, however subtly, by their benefactor's religion, finding in it a resonance with their own experience, believing their nation's devastation and defeat must be a punishment for straying from obedience to the one true God - which flies in the face of the polytheism actually practiced during the periods of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, as documented in the archaeological record and in scripture.

(Toynbee speaks of the "Syrian prophets" who appear in this region - a phenomenon not limited to just those whose writings appear in the Old Testament, but appear in Byblos and the Fertile Crescent as well, issuing jeremaiads and preaching obedience to the local God. Zoraster is of this tradition, but is the first to identify the local god with universal, transcendent deity, with obedience to that god identical with the universal good.)

Ezra is the leader of those who, upon return to Judah, kick out the Samaritans who have displaced them, rebuild the temple, and "find" the book of the Law, the writings of Moses (the Torah). Theologians credit Ezra and his comrades with compiling and editing the Hebrew Scriptures - or the Old Testament - in the form that comes down to us today. Theologians and historians are able to identify multiple parallel (and, at times contradictory) tales that have been patched together, and can identify which versions were born when (Joseph Campbell explores this biblical scholarship in Masks of God: Occidental Mythology). The shift in emphasis before and after the encounter with Zorastrianism is apparent.

Prior to the Babylonian captivity, Yahweh is as amoral as other gods. After outlawing murder ("Thou Shalt Not Kill), Yahweh orders the Israelites to slay the male infants of the nations they defeat: that will teach the Moabites, Midianites, Amorites and Amalekites to sacrifice their children to Moloch ... er, wait a minute there...

and then, whenever Pharaoh is on the point of releasing the Israelites, God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Moses is forced to call down another plague. Sure would have spared both sides a lot of grief if God had allowed Moses to take advantage of Pharaoh's grudging generosity, rather than stiffening the monarch's stubborn nature.

In the book of Job, Yahweh and Satan hang out together in heaven, wagering away Job's wealth, health, and the lives of his children, somewhat reminiscent of the Olympic pantheon's disputes spilling over to life-and-death events before the walls of Troy...

and it is Yahweh, rather than the Devil, who sends an evil spirit from heaven to repeatedly torment King Saul. Later, when God is holding council in heaven, looking for a way to cause King Ahab's death, a lying spirit speaks up. Ahab, praying and sacrificing to Yahweh, seeks to know God's will - whether or not he should go to battle - and the lying spirit volunteers to convince all the prophets (save one - need to preserve a legal loophole) to tell Ahab God will preserve his life and ensure victory.

Ahab is killed and the army defeated: were Yahweh a national leader or mafia head, he could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder under the RICO act, or at least risk becoming an unindicted co-conspirator - but since he's God, his actions transcend good and evil.

In fact, In Isaiah 45:7, God proclaims "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things."

Similarly, in Isa. 54:16, Yahweh avers, "Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an insturment for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy."

By the New Testament period, the polarization has already occurred: the Judeo-Christian deity is no longer claiming to have created the waster, is no longer the source of evil, which has had its origins transferred to Satan, the Devil.

Campbell touches on this difference between Western and other religions. On page, 78, he is discussing with Moyers the destructive aspect of Vishnu:
Such experiences go beyond ethical or aesthetic judgments. Ethics is wiped out. Whereas in our religions, with their accent on the ethical - God is qualified as good. No, no! God is horrific. Any god who can invent hell is no candidate for the Salvation Army. The end of the world, think of it! But there is a Muslim saying about the Angel of Death: "When the Angel of Death approaches, he is terrible. When he reaches you, it is bliss."
So even here, in Islam, with it's accent on hypermorality, there are images in the myth which point to transcending opposites.

Campbell continues:
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.
So seems the experience of "evil" is a function of ego clinging to the temporal world ... and there does seem some resonance between that stance - "the wrathful aspect of the deity" - and the experience of god in the Levantine faiths, particularly the more fundamentalist of the Christian and Islamic sects.

Not to say that Campbell believes there is no place for ethics in religion (somewhat different from morality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a morality rooted in revelation). Moyers points out to Campbell that "myths deal with metaphysics," but that religion "deals with ethics, good and evil, how I relate to you, and how I should behave toward you and toward my wife and toward my fellow man under God. What is the role of ethics in mythology?"

Campbell's response, on page 281:
We spoke of the metaphysical experience in which you realize that you and the other are one. Ethics is a way of teaching you how to live as though you were one with the other. You don't have to have the experience because the doctrine of religion gives you molds of actions that imply a compassionate relationship with the other. It offers an incentive for doing this by teaching you that simply acting in your own self-interest is sin. That is identification with your body.
This is the essence of the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" - or, in Bill Moyers' formulation, "Love thy neighbor as thyself, because they neighbor is thyself"), common to all major religions.

The difference Campbell finds is that religions codify a morality (e.g., the Ten Commandments and the Levitical code), a pattern of behavior that approximates the actual experience of the unity of all Life - whereas mythology propels us past revelation, to the experience of unity itself

and once we realize this Truth, this recognition of my Self in the Other, morality does not need to be externally enforced, but is etched in one's heart.

Many more twists and turns to the topic, i'm sure, but that's all i'm willing to bite off and chew for the moment.

Thanks for bringing it up!

Love Thy Other
bodhibliss

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