Belonging – mythic dreams that put us in touch with the universe and keep us there
mythic dreams that put us in touch with the universe and keep us there
Geoff outlines Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey and suggests it could be extended to include ecology as a true myth of the times.
Geoff outlines Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s
journey and suggests it could be extended to include
ecology as a true myth of the times.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL CALLED myth ‘ the literature of spirit’ because these spellbinding stories link us to sacred realms of deep meaning. For Campbell, myths have a magical quality with one great aim: to put us in touch with the universe and keep us there. But how do we work with these kinds of stories today, when for most people a myth simply means something that is not true? We could start right here at home, with our own personal dreams and visions of a better life. Like his spiritual mentor Carl Jung, Campbell noted that myths are similar to dreams, as both contain imagery that arises from the unknown, a realm of mystery that sometimes seems bewildering or even confusing. In our dreams, hybrid animal/people act like gods, just as they did for ancient Egyptians; deities appear like planets in the night, to dispense favour or torture, as they did for the Greeks and Romans; ghostly, witch-like figures dispense prophecy, as if we were Shakespearian actors; while ancestors and nature spirits speak to us in shamanic languages, whether we live in modern or in traditional indigenous societies.
Through his decades of teaching and listening to his students, Campbell noted that these archetypal forces, timeless patterns and powerful images continued to operate at deeper levels of our minds, for instance when we are asleep, or experiencing altered states of consciousness through meditation or creative visualisation. Contemporary neuroscience has proven this to be correct, showing that the brain can ‘link up’ different areas under different conditions, sometimes leading us to higher levels of awareness and functioning.
The consistent experience of meditation, for example, can actually train the brain to relax into that kind of alert but calm state. This is so well known nowadays that there is a phrase for it, which you may have heard: ‘Fire it until you wire it!’ The new science of neuroplasticity likewise shows that we can replace traumatic or troubling patterns with creative responses by engaging new areas of the brain in compensatory patterns.
This is where the great stories known as myths come in, because they were traditionally told around the campfire, where the tribe would gather to hear from master storytellers in an atmosphere conducive to a very receptive kind of consciousness. This kind of attention is also found in conventional religious settings; a receptivity to the sacred realm, where all that lives is imbued with the most meaningful and valued qualities of life and love. Where much religious myth is generally concerned with reuniting people with their idea of deity, and shamanic myth often guides acts of healing or sorcery, we live in a world with a different core aim in mind. For modern myth is more concerned with progress and the evolution of technology. Where does that leave us, in terms of that great aim of feeling at home in the universe?
Campbell himself began to wonder late in his career if there was a new myth emerging, which would contain a genuinely modern form of spirituality and could draw all modern individuals together, across boundaries of race, culture and politics. He thought that it would be about the planet as a whole and it may be that we see this new myth in the idea of Gaia, a living earth, as proposed by scientist James Lovelock. This ecological idea is also a shared intuition amongst many who follow the idea that a great Mother Earth (or even cosmic nature) sustains all of us. And now today, the new age
Joseph Campbell became famous for his television series The Power of Myth and books including The Hero with a Thousand Faces, claiming that myths told timeless truths in an endless variety of voices, each unique to the individual. Carl Jung similarly claimed that archetypal images arise spontaneously in each of us – new versions of ancient patterns.
of social media supplies an amazing set of tools for realising this possibility, helping us to respond personally and collectively to big picture issues such as environmental destruction, overpopulation, social inequality and widespread injustice.
Even if this new myth helps us to build new forms of community together, I wonder if it also needs to provide something more, if it is to help guide us through the times to come. Things seem to be getting better and worse at the same time: the increasing alienation and conflicts of the 20th century continue and are made even worse by the ongoing breakdown of traditional communities, yet there is also a shift towards a sense of our fundamental unity as a race and our shared dependence on a healthy planet.
It could be that the core quality needing to be addressed by the new myth is a sense of belonging, because if we don’t feel like we really belong here on this planet earth, we’ll never really begin to treat it as a sacred home.
When we feel we truly belong – at home in our bodies, at peace with our neighbours and others, at one with our environment – then we treat others (and ourselves) with love, generosity and forgiveness. This could also help alleviate some of the ‘ first world problems’ of overconsumption, because a sense of belonging provides us with an innate self-esteem that resists being drawn into that endless cycle of ‘stuff’ – getting it, keeping it, being amused by it and then moving on. Some people believe that the game of consumption even relies upon feelings of alienation and disempowerment, because we are more likely to respond to advertising that promises to make us feel better if we already sense that something is missing in our lives.
The alienation of modern life from the natural environment may also leave us susceptible to the psychological machinations of mainstream advertising. Most of us live in cities, which are basically the same grid replicated the world over, leaving us less in touch with the natural environment than we were when we evolved in jungles, deserts, mountains and forests. Powerful myths of progress and technology have often convinced us that we were always heading somewhere better: sometimes there would be mistakes, upsets, glitches in the system, but eventually we would make it to the promised land of utopian splendour that was always just across the horizon. Many of us no longer have faith in the machinery of progress and have found a more satisfying story of belonging to a new kind of community, which cares for the planet with love instead of merely using it as a resource.
Today, we understand better that every social movement has a mythic element to it; a way of providing a coherent image of unity and meaning, or some sacred quality, which we wish to defend. We have a choice as to what this quality is and understanding that there is a common or ‘ dominant’ myth to modern society, as well as many creative responses, gives us freedom to start exploring just where we fit and how we can change for the better. If the mainstream media keep reminding us that we could always be enjoying the benefits of modern consumption – I call this ‘ the eternal feast’ we are