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Myth: Bliss - The Experience of Myth

Joseph Campbell's introduction to Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation is abundant with connections that link myth to the experiences of everyday life. The editor, David Kudler, has done has created a fundamental and critically important perspective on Campbell and his ideas.

Campbell has created one of those rare pieces of writing, like Marshall McLuhan's first chapter in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, that, unlike a mere exercise in comprehension, demands intensive reflection and self-examination in order to build meaning and reveal patterns. Campbell's introduction also, it seems to me, provides a profound sense of unification to his life's work. Of course, each of us will build our own sense of meaning from his words by virtue of the experiences and mental attitudes we bring to it...

What a Myth Is Not

The meaning and purpose of myth in our lives, according to Campbell, is frequently misunderstood and sometimes denigrated. This, to my thinking, is a problem similar in kind to our use of the word learning. As a result, part of Campbell's energy was spent in attempting to elevate the meaning and purpose of myth in our lives and, in doing so, went against popular/folk interpretations of the word. In the introduction to Campbell states:

  • Myth is not the same as history; myths are not inspiring stories of people who lived notable lives...
  • [Myth is not] an allegory, story [or] image that teaches a practical lesson.
    - Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

Yet, compare this to the Merriam-Webster definition of myth:

1.) a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : PARABLE, ALLEGORY
2) a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society b : an unfounded or false notion
3) a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
4) the whole body of myths

The conflict and fundamental disagreement is obvious. The definition of myth and the reality of myth that Campbell describes are contrary. This is a clear example of how dictionary definitions can be confining, prohibitive, and misguided. It is always good to keep in mind that definitions are always something less in depth and breadth than the things they attempt to define. Yet I suspect the hundreds of thousands of students are taught the definition in the absence of the deeper and far more important meaning that Campbell describes.

What Myth Is

In attempting to understand myth as Campbell describes it we are required to link the idea of myth to the transcendent. For example:

  • it [i.e. - the mythic image] has always been the model that gives you the idea of the direction in which to go
  • Myth is the transcendent in relation to the present.
  • ...what myth does is to provide a field in which you can locate yourself.
  • make yourself transparent to the transcendent
  • ...a myth points past itself to something indescribable
  • ...deities in myths serve as models, give you life roles, so long as you understand their reference to the foot in the transcendent
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

So a myth is a medium, a conduit, and a spiritual environment that connects our unique and individual selves to the mystery of life itself. That mystery is eternal and universal, unconfined by the rules, traditions and norms of our cultural existence. And without the care and preservation of that mystery in our lives, we are but creature of social habit.

What Are The Pathways To Bliss?

Campbell had a very clear and precise meaning for bliss:

[Bliss is] that deep sense of being present, of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself.
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

This sense of being present and of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself is the pathway to bliss. If we return to dictionary definitions for a moment, we see that Merriam-Webster defines bliss as complete happiness and relates the word to paradise, or heaven. Once again, the definition is more misleading than they are helpful. Being on a pathway to bliss does not, in any way, assume that one will wind up happy, in heaven or paradise. The linkage between bliss and happiness via the dictionary, to my thinking, is superficial. Yet, at the same time, it would be safe to say that if we are on our own unique pathway to bliss we have the confidence and contentment of knowing and feeling that we are doing precisely what we need to be doing with our lives in full acceptance of the trials, tribulations, and sometimes horrific atrocity that life presents to us.

Myth And Childhood

This is a very negative thought, but I sometimes wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, some social and cultural systems are not, in fact, an attempt to amputate the natural presence of myth in childhood. That is, we are often so busy telling children what they need to be instead of helping them discover what they already are. Campbell states:

And it's a good thing to hang on to the myth that was put into you when you were a child, because it is there whether you want it there or not. What you have to do is translate that myth into its eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song.
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

For a person already closed to the mystery of life and who does nothing but attempt to classify experience, these words must seem alien. Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood while not commenting directly on Campbell's work, does in fact allude to the disappearance of myth in childhood. Nor do I believe that it's too much to propose the idea that, in part, bullying and the increasing levels of school violence are an indication that the individual and unique myth in each child is somehow being forcibly removed via education. Perhaps the disappearance of myth also retrieves Hermann Hesse's warning about the cherished anonymity.

Indeed, this is a message that should form an underlying assumption in education:

So, what I've told my students is this: follow your bliss. You'll have moments when you experience bliss. And when that goes away, what happens to it? Just stay with it, and there's more security in that then finding out where the money is going to come from next year.
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

Campbell intended this message for everyone, not just students. For example, if we look at the issue of lifestyle, we often find that the methods and means being promoted as a means to elevate one's style of life have little, if anything, to do with the pathway to bliss. Often, ideas about lifestyle are denigrated to ways of achieving a greater degree of happiness through financial means. While not a bad thing in and unto itself, this perspective does not nearly approach the deeper issues of lifestyle and seem completely inept from a mythological perspective. Although we might see quotations referring to this universal need, they are often nothing more than the fashion of wisdom in the absence of substance.

While rare and much more precious, there are books that to my thinking embrace Campbell's ideas even though they do not explicitly make the connection. For example, David Whyte's book Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity offers insight into practical importance of myth and maintaining a transparency to the transcendent. Viktor Frankl's account of his experiences in Auschwitz in Man's Search For Meaning clearly show an act of courage inspired by maintaining a foot in the transcendent. I suspect that without transparency to the transcendent Frankl and the people he helped would not have survived.

There Is No Pathway In Front Of You

Sometimes titles can be difficult to interpret. For example, when we read the title The Pathways to Bliss we might assume that we are going to be introduced to pathways that can be followed. However, this is not what he means. He does wonderfully describe the pathways that many people have followed, yet these are pathways that are unavailable to us:

You enter into the dark forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there's a way or path, it is someone else's path; each human being is a unique phenomenon.

The idea is to find your own pathway to bliss.
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

If we are all following our bliss we are surrounded by towering trees that limit our view and offer no distinct routes to follow. We can't see too far ahead. The pathway that we are each individually on, if we are even on it, can be seen in hindsight, but the path ahead is a mystery in itself. And what guides an individual through the trees is their unique connection to myth, for without it, we are simply stuck. And perhaps without myth in our lives, we will never enter the forest at all, and this could only mean that we are left with an uncomfortable sense of not doing what we need to be doing in life.

Can Learning Occur In The Absence Of Myth?

If we base our understanding of myth on the popular definitions we find in dictionaries, then the answer is clearly, "Yes, it can." It is easy to imagine an education, for example, that did not present stories, allegories, and images that purport to teach a practical lesson. In this context, however, we have reduced our understanding of myth to the mundane. If, however, we embrace the depth and breadth of meaning Campbell presents, learning cannot really occur without the presence of myth. This means that learning must also maintain one foot in the transcendent. As children, we are already there by default.

But, as we have done to the word myth, we have also denigrated the potential meaning of learning. We attempt to articulate learning via theoretical positioning, for example, social, behavioural or connectivism. We reduce learning to banal ideas about acquiring knowledge, skills, and attitudes. We confuse ideas about learning with ideas about education or training via curriculum, instruction and evaluation. We politicize trite variations on learning on the theme of re-election, for example, lifelong learning. We sterilize ideas about learning via grossly exaggerated ideas about new technologies.

Is it not odd that with all our learning theories, ideas, concepts, approaches, methods, styles, designs, etc., that the lives of people seem to be an after-thought? This is, unfortunately, what happens when a system cannot see past itself. This is, unfortunately, what happens in the absence of myth.

Of course, learning, like myth, is unavoidable in life in spite of our efforts to systematize them. Learning happens whether we want it to or not. And it will happen in spite of our attempts to control and sequence it.

Learning retrieves the power of myth.

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Looking forward to

The 'safety of the stage'...HA!! We're talking naked. Need I say more.

This is indeed good connection. Looking more exploring. Peace.

Rob - this connection we now have has definitely captured my attention. And you are of course precisely right - weblogging. This connection to PEI - I need to know more. Something quite wonderful is going on there. I'm thinking I know where my next vacation should be. -Brian

Hi Cynthia,

I can't tell you how nice it is to find someone that can relate to these ideas. We should think more about them together.

I found improvisation relatively late in life. I was in my mid-teens and to that point had been "classically" trained as a musician. Then I started playing in rock bands and jazz ensembles and, aside from my ego being (thankfully) completely shattered, I soon realized how unprepared I was. This was not an pleasant experience initially at all, but proved to be one of the most important musical experiences I have had - one that I continue to draw from outside of music.

I read about Hope's journey overseas. There are many things to mention about it, but it seems to me that there is a very real and keen sense of improvisation going on in her life. But she of course does not have the safety of a stage - she's immersed in the mysteries of the real world. This is not unlike what Dan Eldon did in his life when he embraced the motto, "Safari as a way of life." It also reminds me, in a way, of "bricolage."

Saying "yes" as the scariest thing - I know what this means:-)

I am very interested in learning more about the "creative soul" of PEI and what is happening there. I'm finding this very intriguing indeed. Show me more.

It is so wonderful to see my two new friends have met each other and are talking like this

Brian - you know that PEI is calling you

It may be an oxymoron to say that I am trained in improvisation, but I am. Trained as an actor and comedian to say "Yes"..."Yes, and", as opposed to "yes, but". And what that has given me is a valuable tool that I can choose to use in the other pursuits in my life, and in 'following my bliss'.

So, yes, I agree improvisation and learning are tightly woven together. At the basis of 'learning improv' is the believe that your ideas are as good as your teammates. That by saying 'yes' to yourself you in turn are saying you trust yourself to be funny, sad, dramatic. And then you free yourself up to trust your teammates ideas. That makes for a great performance.

It's so simple, and yet saying 'yes' can be the scariest thing a person will ever say.

Great insights Brian. This is helping me a great deal as I struggle to find answers to what ails our creative souls here on PEI, and everywhere for that matter.

In Learning: The Need for Improvisation I made an attempt to etch out some ideas about the important relationship that exists between learning and improvisation. It occurs to me that Campbell, even though I can't for the moment find the use of the word "improvisation" in his work, is in fact speaking about the important role it plays in pursuing life and finding one's bliss.

I thought of this entry when reading, "Imagine how different the transition into adulthood would be if young people never lost their ability to trust their own creativity." What are the ways in which people lose trust in their own creativity? It seems to me that in a very practical way we lose our trust in creativity because we have denigrated the idea of improvisation in learning. Of course, the arts in many ways remain home to improvisation. Yet I also believe it is important to extend the fabric of improvisation to other areas of our lives for, if we do not, we place ourselves in a creative wasteland.

Interesting, I also loaned out "The Artist's Way" and have no idea where it now is.

Exploring the possibility of the education system's role in the loss of creativity in childhood is, for me, a statement of profound optimism and hope. Why is it so difficult for education systems to change? In working on a number of creative and innovative projects in the education system for over a decade, all I can say in reponse is that, "It really doesn't want to change." My experiences have caused me to conclude that in spite of the heavy weight of specialized language that is used to describe new and innovative possibilities for education, there is a wide gap between what this language attempts to describe and what actually happens. Nor do I feel the current system itself is open to change in terms of its basic structure since the underlying presuppositions that drive education are rarely challenged in any meaningful way. The systems simply implodes on itself.

I sense the "inevitable veil of tears" that Campbell talks about in the tears of the child crying about the loss of imagination. I am reminded here of Neil Postman's comment in The Disappearance of Childhood:

What had happened - the underlying structural change - was that through print and its handmaiden, the school, adults found themselves with unprecedented control over the symbolic environment of the young, and were therefore able and required to set forth the conditions by which a child was to become an adult.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that adults were always aware of what they were doing or why they were doing it. To a considerable extent developments were dictated by the nature of both books and schools. For example, by writing sequenced textbooks and by organizing school classes according to calendar age, schoolmasters invented, as it were, the stages of childhood. Our notions of what a child can learn or ought to learn, and at what ages, were largely derived from the concept of sequenced curriculum; that is to say, from the concept of the prerequisite.

Freefalling and writing, exactly how I appraoch most of my work as a writer and performer. Not some much improvisation but more of a trust that the core idea will come across without a grand scheme ahead of time. Or that if it changes, it what.

Imagine how different the transition into adulthood would be if young people never lost thier ability to trust their own creativity. I know so many adults trying to recapture what they have lost, or at least trying to find something they thought they never had to begin with. How many times have I lent out "The Artist's Way"... I don't even know where it is now.

When we (I agree) say the education system shares part of the burden of the gradual loss of a child's imagination, it would seem to me a cyclical thing. Why is it so difficult to make changes in education systems? Who are the people leading the pack? The very people whose imaginations got stifled earlier in their own education?

Just another teaching story:
During the Ninja Turtle craze I used the opportunity to teach the children a bit about who Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo were and some of thier work.

I'll never forget the child who cried out fo frustration when I asked him to close his eyes and try and imagine what Mona Lisa must have looked like. He couldn't stop crying, and when I asked him if he could see what she looked like, he said, "I might be able to if I could stop crying. I have too many tears to be able to imagine it."

Hi Cynthia,
For a writer, freefalling is sometimes a technique used to encourage more of a stream of consciousness style of writing. But, like you, it doesn't seem to me like a good idea when it comes to the future.

My own teaching experience reveals a similar pattern. Students, as they get older, seemed to be filled with so many "can't do's" or "mustn't do's" that they spend most of their time doing just that - can't and mustn't.

I remember saying to a group I was presenting to, "Why is it that the open imaginations of young children seem to become more and more closed as they get older?" and asked them to think about the imagination of a Kindergarten student and compare that to a grade eight student. No one said, thankfully, that it was part of growing up. Of course, it's far too much to lay the entire burden on the education system, but it is safe to say that they share in the burden.

Possibly, we spend too much time saying, "We know what's best, so here's your path - follow it."

Hi Brian,
I think it's in PTB where Campbell speaks about free-falling into the future, without any adherence to any true story or path. I suspect the detachment occurs when we are very young, before the age of six perhaps.
Back in my teaching art to children days, it was evident to me that when a 6 six yeard old tells me she can not draw, she has lost her connection to nature, to her natural world. That she says she 'can't' is the key to reaching back and to her world where she could.
Luckily with young people we don't have to go back too far. But when you're 42 (my age) it's like traveling through a series of convoluded portals of darkness to get there.

"You enter into the dark forest at the darkest point, where there is no path."

Hi Cynthia,

Thanks for the comment. Interesting, I just finished reading (again) Campbell's Pathways to Bliss and if he is even at least partly right, and I suspect he is more than that, the potential damage caused by losing the essence of myth is our lives is quite dramatic. There are sections in the book that link the absence of myth to the formation of neurosis and psychosis.

Best regards,

"...sometimes wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, some social and cultural systems are not, in fact, an attempt to amputate the natural presence of myth in childhood. That is, we are often so busy telling children what they need to be instead of helping them discover what they already are."

Exactly. And I think that we are 'consciously' amputating the natural presence of myth in childhood. If we are so out of touch with our own childhood and have resorted to unconsciousness in relation to our own children, we have indeed hit bottom.

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