MythBlast | The Season as Sacred

Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor by Joseph CampbellAs we move into the holidays, experiencing the passage of seasons, the weather shifts to a cooler disposition, the world darkens early, and the sun’s transit diminishes, foretelling the coming winter lull. We light the home fires, pull up the covers, and begin to accustom ourselves to the slower pace of things. This period is also marked by gatherings of friends and family in thanksgiving, meaningful celebrations of our various religious traditions, and a toast for the welcoming of a wonderful New Year.  

Okay, that’s one scenario; the one we imagine in the deeper recesses of our soul.  However, this season is also marked by a crush of holiday marketing filled with trivialized religious symbols that shine a harsh light on our culture’s obsession with consumerism. How did the universal symbol of the Tree become a meaningless altar for an overindulgent mass of presents? How did the deeper meaning behind our religious traditions become so diminished, usurped and enslaved to the excesses of our culture?  

The literalizing of religious metaphor.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade by Peter Roan/peterjr1961@flickr | Used through a Creative Commons license

The Secularization of the Sacred: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Image by Peter Roan/peterjr1961@flickr (Used through a Creative Commons license)

Though the move was unconscious, note how the gifts the magi brought to the baby Savior have become a mass of presents bestowed upon our own children. Talk about concretizing religious meaning! In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell, reminds us, “All of our religious ideas are metaphors for a mystery. It is important to remember that if you mistake the denotation of the metaphor for its connotation, you completely miss the message contained in the symbol,”  and the mystery is lost (48). Our stories and symbols are reduced by the desire to “fix” them historically in space and time or to a single interpretation, thus denying us their awesome power to awaken our imaginations and move us to a transcendent experience.  

So how do we recover meaning?  Better, how do we recover the experience of meaning in our stories, symbols and traditions? Campbell helps us find our way, showing us how to reframe our approach to the religious metaphor; indeed, Thou Art That is devoted to this call. He states:

…the primary purpose of a dynamic mythology, which we may underscore as its properly religious function, is to awaken and maintain in the person an experience of awe, humility, and respect in recognition of that ultimate mystery that transcends every name and form, “from which,” as we read in the Upaniads, “words turn back.” (13)

The call is to shed ourselves of the need for fixed notions, black and white thinking; to get comfortable with ambiguity, with not knowing; and to open ourselves to the grand mystery that is life. To know that the mystery is us.

While Campbell points out that God has become a fixed notion in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in other religious systems the notion of God is a metaphor for “that which we all are” (19). Where is God, he asks? Within you. He points to the Vedic Hindu notion, “Thou art that. Tat tvam asi(20). This is the path to the transcendent experience. This is the way to move beyond (the meaning of the word “transcendent”) the stilted, concretized religious traditions that have taken hold today. Knowing ourselves as that Great Mystery orients our lives—and those of our fellow humans—to the sublime and calls on us to approach life with awe and reverence.

The central idea in the Nichiren Buddhist tradition, which came out of Japan in the thirteenth century, is that Buddha is life itself.  Each of us is a unique expression of Buddhahood, our God-nature. Therefore we—and the entire world—are sacred. We should stand every day in the awesome knowledge of our own transcendent nature.  With this attitude, the bestowing of gifts during the holidays regains some of its original meaning: to honor the sacred divinity in each of us.

Let’s approach our tables this Thanksgiving as though we are honoring that which we hold most sacred.  Let us see it in the face of our family and friends, the homeless at the food kitchen, and the children’s glee at the first snow.  For we, indeed, are that.


Cindi Anderson, PhD

About Cindi
Cindi Anderson Dr. Cindi Anderson is an inaugural Instructor at the Joseph Campbell Writers’ Room located at in downtown Los Angeles at LA Center Studios and Studio School, where she is also an Adjunct Professor. A prominent Brand Strategist, Writer and Creative Producer specializing in performance-driving marketing for television and digital media, her special skill is moving people into action. Her Ph.D. in Mythology and Archetypal Psychology gives her a unique expertise in recognizing cultural trends and adapting language and imagery to reach specific demographic groups. Anderson has worked extensively in the entertainment business, including television specials for David Bowie, Steve Winwood, Whoopi Goldberg, the Judds, Comic Relief and many more. Her scholastic work includes a crucial look at the West’s changing relationship with Nature and its influence on all dynamic systems, including the global economy.

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