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Science May Sometimes Blind Us to What We're Mything

Updated: May 15


Yogi with chakras, Rajasthan, northwest India, early 1800s. © Wellcome Collection, London.

Sometimes science can blinker us to what we’ve been myth-ing.


How can you know what you already knew?

When the now becomes new, that’s how. 


For instance: I’ve enjoyed annoying my colleagues over in psychology for some decades now by reminding them that they are, technically and by definition, engaged in a science (“-ology”) of the soul (“psyche” in ancient Greek). 


They don’t always think that’s funny.


Sometimes the great success of our scientific approach to the world blinkers us with a set of cultural lenses that can keep us from coming to know what we already knew, and keep us from knowing it in new ways. Like this: when it comes to the psyche we might feel smugly moderne, but the Indus Valley civilization will always be a few thousand years ahead of the West when it comes to thinking about the soul. What “the West” once understood as superstition comes back to us now as a rather advanced, and useful, description of human psychology. Kundalini yoga.


I’ve dipped my toes into contemporary psychology and have a pretty good grasp of Jung and Freud and Skinner, but none of them have ever been more useful to me as a way of understanding my fellow human beings than Campbell’s interpretation of the first three chakras in the kundalini system. If you need a touchstone, imagine these symbolic representations as a prefiguration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (check out the video of Prof. Campbell’s lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eG5Ml82A3vA).

Now, of course, we’re accustomed to hearing New Agers talk about “balancing their chakras,” glowing mystical orbs floating in the candy box of contemporary esoterica, but fixating on the woo woo of occult glamor can distract us from the useful implications these ancient observations have for real life in the twenty first century West. 


What “the West” once understood as superstition comes back to us now as a rather advanced, and useful, description of human psychology. Kundalini yoga.

The system starts at the base of the spine with chakra one. This is where we find a concentration of the psychological complexes associated with our instinctive processes: the reflexive clinging to what we believe, rightly or often wrongly, is required for survival. Campbell’s insight is that this can be represented symbolically by the idea of western dragons. Now western dragons are well-known hoarders – unlike Asian dragons which represent the fullness of prosperity in life – and they famously hoard two things in particular: gold and virgins.  Here’s the key: these are two things for which dragons have no use whatsoever. Even as a youngster reading The Hobbit I remember wondering what it was, exactly, that Smaug found so compelling about hoarding gold. It’s shiny, but you know something else must be going on there. 


You know people like this – sometimes it’s ourselves. We cling to things out of reflex, very often things we don’t truly need or even want. And it is possible, for many people, to go through their entire lives at this level. It is a rather wonderful explication of the role tanha, craving or desire, plays in Buddhist analyses of suffering. 


If we’re able to resolve or sublimate these impulses, we find ourselves ready to confront chakra two: sex. This encounter typically occurs as we move from childhood into adulthood. After freeing ourselves from the reflexive clinging to what we believe we need for survival, sex is usually the next set of complexes that confront us. While just as psychologically fraught as the fears that characterize life lived purely for survival, sex is a lot more fun. Addictive, even. 


I’ll leave you to fill in your own examples of people stuck at this stage of their spiritual or psyche-ological development. I suspect this set of complexes is common to all of us – and we all know people who never quite manage to get further along in life than this but, if you do, you end up immersed in the complexes of chakra three: a fire-in-the-belly for worldly success


Chakra three is, appropriately, at the level of the belly.


Looking back you can trace this developmental pathway in most humans: childish fears about life which, when conquered, allow us to migrate into a time of sexual awakening and preoccupation that in turn eventually gives way to a sense of social responsibility, family life, career, and attention to the financial and political power structures that govern our adult lives.


These first three spheres of human development characterize the world of daily experience: navigating the psychological impulses surrounding fear, sex, and social interactions. It’s where most of us live most of the time.  Let’s add one more chakra for some perspective.


Chakra four, at the level of the heart, is characterized by compassion – the ability to experience the suffering of others. Achieving a grasp of chakra four is generally the stated goal of most of the world’s religions and you can find plenty of evidence for the psyche-ological insight this hierarchy of complexes provides, but here’s the easiest way to think about it: as compelling as any one of these psychological complexes might be for someone, they’ll find that the next level up is even more compelling. Fear is trumped by the desire for sex and sex can be trumped by the desire for worldly power – and, most remarkably when you think about it, the desire for worldly power is very often trumped by compassion for others. The wealthy will often walk away from their source of power, wealth, and self-validation to commit themselves to the welfare of others. That’s exactly what history describes as a religious awakening.

But at this point we move into rather more rarefied psyche-ological development.  Saints are more difficult to understand than those committed to business.


as compelling as any one of these psychological complexes might be for someone, they’ll find that the next level up is even more compelling. Fear is trumped by the desire for sex and sex can be trumped by the desire for worldly power – and, most remarkably when you think about it, the desire for worldly power is very often trumped by compassion for others.

But, contributions like these, from what we often characterize merely-as-myth can help us fill in exactly what we were myth-ing – and makes what we know, (k)new.


Thanks for musing along.


MythBlast authored by:


Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and past president of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC.org). Philosopher, gadfly, poet, cook, writing along the watermargins of nature, myth, and culture. A practitioner of taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years, Dr. Peterson is also a happy member of the Ukulele World Congress.






Sacrifice and Bliss on a green background with a tree, man and ouruboro collage.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 4, and Pathways to Bliss.

 

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Joseph Campbell speaks at the University of Arkansas, in 1973, discussing personal myth and the life of the soul. Host, Brad Olson, offers an introduction and commentary after the talk in this episode of the Pathways podcast.



 

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A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"What the virgin birth represents is the birth of the spiritual life in the human animal. It has nothing to do mythologically with a biological anomaly. In the Indian kuṇḍalinī system the first three cakras are our animal zeal to life, animal erotics, and animal aggression. Then at the level of the heart there is the birth of a purely human intention, a purely human realization of a possible spiritual life which then puts the others in secondary place. "










 

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