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From Abstract Knowledge to Embodied Wisdom

Updated: Apr 29

Joseph Campbell pondered his future in 1932 in a letter to a friend and mentor that he met while studying in Europe:

The thought of growing into a professor gives me the creeps. A lifetime to be spent trying to kid myself and my pupils into believing that the thing that we are looking for is in books! I don’t know where it is – but I feel just now pretty sure that it isn’t in books (Letter to H.K. Stone, January 22, 1932, Grampus Journals).

What Campbell is speaking about here is often called ‘book knowledge.’ We could assume that on this occasion, Campbell is not disparaging the worth of books as containers and interpreters of facts, information, and knowledge. Rather, he’s reminding us that there’s a ‘felt reality’ around us – and perhaps also permeating us – transcending the capacities of books to articulate. This may be so, even if the book is written by a sophisticated, proficient scholar. The reality around and within us is just too expansive and too subtle to be captured by books and their words (which is why the poetic mode is sometimes most fit for purpose in this respect).

However, having said this it’s possible that Campbell is also referring to ‘book knowledge’ in another sense. Meaning that we may have conceptual knowledge of a subject while not yet having internalized it yet in our heart and soul. Even if we’re  polymaths, and even if our abstract knowledge is vast, if we’ve not internalized it to the extent that we’ve made the book’s material entirely our own, then it remains at a distance from us. But if we do fully assimilate the knowledge, and wholly interiorize it within our own souls, then there’s no longer any duality between ourselves and it. The knower and the knowledge breathe together. Metaphorically, when such rich assimilation has occurred, the ‘scroll’ has been eaten: “So I went to the angel [and he told me] ‘take it, and eat it’” (KJV Bible, Revelation, 10:9).

A popular way of expressing this is by picturing a car and its driver. Most drivers, however proficient they might be as drivers, merely have a dashboard understanding of their car. They’re familiar with the settings on the dashboard, whilst having almost no knowledge of the inner workings of the motor. The dashboard understanding is sufficient for most occasions, but there may come a time when – usually during a crisis – a more thorough understanding of the motor would be helpful. And in a way, it’s disrespecting the full potential of the vehicle, if we don’t also appreciate its deep mechanisms. 

Through this allegory, I recognize in my own experience that much of my conceptual and abstract knowledge hasn’t deepened or translated into assimilated understanding. As such, I’ve been a consumer of information that hasn’t been soul-incorporated, and so therefore, it’s not transformed into embodied wisdom deep in my bones.    

In public speaking, if we’ve not fully embraced our subject, then only concepts wrought from instrumentalist words can be conveyed to the audience. But if in our speaking we’ve been able to embody our subject, then our words come alive and transmit both a life and an energy. When an alignment occurs between the speaker’s words and their integrated, lived experience, they’ve moved beyond mere words and concepts. There’s no alienation of the subject material from the communicator. As such, an inner knowing is conveyed to the audience because the subject has become ‘beloved’ by its bearer. The intellect and the heart have combined and the audience is touched accordingly. It’s as if we’ve encountered something of the living essence of the subject. And it’s this ‘aliveness’ that induces a change in the feeling field of the audience because a heightened sense of the topic presents itself. 

One reason I believe that the documentary Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers became so popular is because Campbell and Moyers, for all their erudite scholarship, were well aware that their research and analysis doesn’t, on its own, enable an audience to experience and embody myths as mighty pictures of the human experience. (Just like detailed footnotes to a thesis won’t assist a reader in meeting the transcendental mysteries of the mythological landscape.) Only when the lecturer or writer has soul-absorbed their material can we glimpse the endless depths of a topic.  

We can witness this enfleshed wisdom in the conversation between Campbell and Moyers in The Power of Myth, Episode 5: Love and the Goddess. The subject being discussed is the Grail and its mysteries. Moyers postulates to Campbell at 15 minutes, 58 seconds,  

And the Grail that these romantic legends were searching for is the union once again of what had been divided?” [Although Moyers and Campbell in this conversation were alluding to a different kind of union, in respect to my topic for this MythBlast, I’m focusing more on the union of the outer concept with the inner life that they both demonstrate.] And though I can’t fully explore this now within the word limits of this essay, it can be posited that with early humanity there was no firm divide between speech and the inner soul. All consisted of one spontaneous flow, springing from the womb of the human being. Later in the same discussion Moyers encapsulates this by saying, “Well, that’s why I’m not so sure that the future of the race and the salvation of the journey is in space. I think it is well right here on earth in the body, in the womb of all of our being.

So how might we arrive at such a fluent union between our outer words and inner lives like the masters, Campbell and Moyers? Lectio divina (divine reading) was  and still is  a monastic practice involving the reading of sacred text, accompanied by prayer and meditation. This, the senior monks and nuns claimed, assisted the more junior monks and nuns to enter into a communion with the text and indeed, with God. I’m suggesting that, where possible and with similar modalities, we too could choose to engage with our subjects of study much more contemplatively. We’d then meet the subject with minds and hearts in unison and cultivate the possibility for embodied wisdom. 

For myself, I’m attempting to read and think more slowly. Much, much more slowly. (A New Year’s resolution!) And with more mindful and heartful reverie, too! By decelerating the speed of this reflective process, I refrain from degrading or soiling the subject I’m studying with a consumerist or superficially expedient attitude. Rather, the subject requires and receives my genuine, loving attention. 

Only then will it disclose its inner truths.    

MythBlast authored by:

Kristina Dryža is an ex-futurist, author, TEDx speaker, archetypal consultant, one of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Editorial Advisory Group, and a steward for The Fifth Direction. Based between Australia and Lithuania, her work focuses less on the future and more on the unknown. Presence. Not prediction. What’s sacred? Not ‘what’s next?’ Kristina is passionate about helping people to perceive mythically and sense archetypally to better understand our shared humanity, yet honor the diverse ways we all live and make meaning.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail


Latest Podcast

In this episode which originally aired in March 2023, John Bucher of the Joseph Campbell Foundation and Satya Doyle Byock discuss her book Quaterlife, and how her life and work have been influenced by Joseph Campbell. Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon, and the founding director of The Salome Institute of Jungian Studies, where she teaches and hosts other speakers online. Her book “Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood,” was published in July 2022. Her articles have been published in Psychological Perspectives, The Utne Reader, goop, and elsewhere, and she is the co-host of the podcast on Carl Jung’s Red Book. Satya’s clinical work, teaching, and writing draw influences from a few primary areas, including Jungian psychology, trauma research, and social justice advocacy. She holds a Master’s in Counseling, with an emphasis on Depth Psychology, and a Bachelor’s in History.

Find out more about Satya and her work at


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"Change the focus of the eye. When you have done that, then the end of the world as you formerly knew it will have occurred, and you will experience the radiance of the divine presence everywhere, here and now."

-- Joseph Campbell,  Mythos I, Episode 3: “On Being Human" 


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