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The Power of Myth

--by Joseph Campbell (Dec 10, 2012)


MOYERS: Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?

CAMPBELL: My first response would be, "Go on, live your life, it's a good life--you don't need mythology." I don't believe in being interested in a subject just because it's said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?

One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that the university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to the inner life and to the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition--Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe, and others who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life--well, if you don't know where it is or what it is, you'll be sorry.

Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone's education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what's happening to you. With the loss of that, we've really lost something because we don't have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don't know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don't want to give it up.


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On Dec 12, 2012 Roma Kapadia wrote:
David Doane....I absolutely agree with you and love your analysis...thanks for sharing it....Chris....I have read Robert Johson too and really did like what he wrote as well....

On Dec 11, 2012 a wrote:

 Literature of the Spirit:  "It's the song that my heart sings." The Power of Myth in my life:  "I am a servant. To family, to extended family, to the children I work with at school (my workplace), to church, . . .  I serve.  As in the story of Cinderella, the main character "worked" but her spirit carried her  elsewhere.  Myth assists one to be in two places at one time . . . where we are . . . and where the "literature of our spirit" takes us.  "The power of myth in life" . . .  takes us (spiritually) out of routine . . . lifts us from painful places . . . teaches . . . entertains . . . helps us endure . . . .  Cinderella was portrayed as being a happy person.  She was happy, not because of her physical circumstances, but rather because of her "heart/spirit/mind song." Life is hard.  Myths transcend us.  (And I think God smiles, as He listens to our "s  See full.

 Literature of the Spirit:  "It's the song that my heart sings."
The Power of Myth in my life:  "I am a servant. To family, to extended family, to the children I work with at school (my workplace), to church, . . .  I serve.  As in the story of Cinderella, the main character "worked" but her spirit carried her  elsewhere.  Myth assists one to be in two places at one time . . . where we are . . . and where the "literature of our spirit" takes us.  "The power of myth in life" . . .  takes us (spiritually) out of routine . . . lifts us from painful places . . . teaches . . . entertains . . . helps us endure . . . .  Cinderella was portrayed as being a happy person.  She was happy, not because of her physical circumstances, but rather because of her "heart/spirit/mind song."
Life is hard.  Myths transcend us.  (And I think God smiles, as He listens to our "stories" . . . our human attempt to muddle through life . . . in most creative ways!)   
 

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On Dec 11, 2012 Narendra wrote:

 Updated... What do you understand by the literature of the spirit? Spiritual literature is about our multidimensional consciousness and Universe. The physical dimension or conscious mind, is only one aspect of consciousness. Rationality, emotion and intuition are the three layers that correspond to conscious, subconscious and the common conscious mind. The dominant aspects of life are emotion and intuition. Myths, poetry, music, rituals and ultimately spiritual practices, satisfy the needs of these layers of consciousness. They provide collective security and comfort to a complex multidimensional consciousness of a life-form.….Most life forms are driven by the body genetics and the environment. As life evolves with experience, an individual consciousness develops as a separate primary consciousness, with unique emotions, thoughts and reason. As dullness reduces and sensitivity is increases, life becomes complex and unstable. At this stage, it is necessary to understand the  See full.

 Updated...
What do you understand by the literature of the spirit? Spiritual literature is about our multidimensional consciousness and Universe. The physical dimension or conscious mind, is only one aspect of consciousness. Rationality, emotion and intuition are the three layers that correspond to conscious, subconscious and the common conscious mind. The dominant aspects of life are emotion and intuition. Myths, poetry, music, rituals and ultimately spiritual practices, satisfy the needs of these layers of consciousness. They provide collective security and comfort to a complex multidimensional consciousness of a life-form.….Most life forms are driven by the body genetics and the environment. As life evolves with experience, an individual consciousness develops as a separate primary consciousness, with unique emotions, thoughts and reason. As dullness reduces and sensitivity is increases, life becomes complex and unstable. At this stage, it is necessary to understand the nature of consciousness and take corrective measures as spirituality. For a complex life-form to be happy, all layers of consciousness need to be in harmony. If emotions are suppressed through rationality or ego, they arise as senility when the rational conscious mind fails with old age. Collective rituals, music/myths/poetry and spiritual practices help us stabilize emotions as we evolve from tamas to rajas to satva. How does mythology help you deepen your inner journey? Mythology induces hope and stability in my subconscious through make-believe stories that seem to vicariously satisfy the needs of my deeper layer of emotional and irrational consciousness.  It can also enhance security and happiness in the community by providing common ground and rhythm for communication and social activities as culture. Can you share a story that reveals the Power of Myth in your life? After an extensive rational analysis of my own consciousness, I find it necessary to believe in the effectiveness of myths and rituals, in managing my semi-independent human brain-mind, as it struggles to find equilibrium in an unknown multidimensional consciousness.  I pray selectively, to multiple Hindu goddesses and gods who symbolically represent the unknown universe/consciousness/nature, through myths and rituals.

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On Dec 11, 2012 Bill Miller wrote:
Given our inability to apprehend the Infinite directly, *everything* about life is essentially an oversimplified story (“myth”) regarding the same - or is a tool in service of a myth. “We need iPhones because technology is a means to stay connected.” Sure, that’s a functional story, but there are certainly other stories that might serve as well.


On Dec 11, 2012 Rekha wrote:

Mythology is powerful literature, and sometimes seems to provide very contradictory messages and difficult to understand and appreciate by using just the intellect. I feel the power of these stories have to be learnt from at an inner level, level of the pure heart from a Guru - a God realized soul, who can help us navigate the path of these stories and provide their relevance to our current lives. Once understood to a certain extent, they can provide a solid anchor for our lives and help us figure out the meaningfulness of any actions and effects of previous actions, taking place now. For example, the concept of Karma, originating from Hindu mythology, gives me a perspective about loosening my control  over effects of my efforts in my day to day life. Things don't always turn out in direct proportion to my effort. But I have to consciously keep moving in a positive direction in order to create new Karma and also to mitigate any effects of past Karma. At the same time unde  See full.

Mythology is powerful literature, and sometimes seems to provide very contradictory messages and difficult to understand and appreciate by using just the intellect. I feel the power of these stories have to be learnt from at an inner level, level of the pure heart from a Guru - a God realized soul, who can help us navigate the path of these stories and provide their relevance to our current lives. Once understood to a certain extent, they can provide a solid anchor for our lives and help us figure out the meaningfulness of any actions and effects of previous actions, taking place now. For example, the concept of Karma, originating from Hindu mythology, gives me a perspective about loosening my control  over effects of my efforts in my day to day life. Things don't always turn out in direct proportion to my effort. But I have to consciously keep moving in a positive direction in order to create new Karma and also to mitigate any effects of past Karma. At the same time understanding, that positive effects were not all my current effort as well  as the negative effects we also not all my lack of attention.

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On Dec 11, 2012 Chris wrote:

Robert Johnson wrote a relevant primer to myths in the introduction to "She": Myths are rich sources of psychological insight. Great literature, like all great art, records and portrays the human condition with indelible accuracy.   Myths are a special kind of literature not written or created by a single individual, but produced by the imagination and experience of an entire age and culture and can be seen as the distillation of the dreams and experiences of a whole culture.   They seem to develop gradually as certain motifs emerge, are elaborated, and finally are rounded out as people tell and retell stories that catch and hold their interest. Thus themes that are accurate and universal are kept alive, while those elements peculiar to single individuals or a particular era drop away.   Myths, therefore, portray a collective image; they tell us about things that are true for all people.  This belies our current rationali  See full.

Robert Johnson wrote a relevant primer to myths in the introduction to "She":

Myths are rich sources of psychological insight.

Great literature, like all great art, records and portrays
the human condition with indelible accuracy.
 
Myths are a special kind of literature not written or created
by a single individual, but produced by the imagination
and experience of an entire age and culture
and can be seen as the distillation of the dreams
and experiences of a whole culture.
 
They seem to develop gradually as certain motifs emerge,
are elaborated, and finally are rounded out as people tell
and retell stories that catch and hold their interest.
Thus themes that are accurate and universal are kept alive,
while those elements peculiar to single individuals
or a particular era drop away.
 
Myths, therefore, portray a collective image;
they tell us about things that are true for all people. 
This belies our current rationalistic definition of myth
as something untrue or imaginary.
“Why, that is only a myth; its not true at all,” we hear.
 
The details of the story may be unverifiable
or even fantastic,
but actually a myth is profoundly and universally true.

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On Dec 11, 2012 sudhakar wrote:
 I was told if I offered my head hair to the God, he will make me get admission into engineering school by my parents. I promised the God I would offer my hair to him. He did not fulfill his promise. Rationally thinking, how can one God give the same seat to multiple of people though all wished the same very sincerely. Fortunately I realized the foolishness of this popular myth.  A wise person pointed me to the truth to be found within one self starting with the breath. The burden of mythology is finally  removed when followed the observation of the breath to a deeper level. The biggest myth is "I am this body and I will live forever". If the author meant mythology is the study the false/impermanent/impersonal nature of body, mind, etc. then it is useful otherwise it one more burden like I used carry in my head.



On Dec 11, 2012 Narendra wrote:

 What do you understand by the literature of the spirit? Spiritual literature is about our multidimensional consciousness and Universe. The physical dimension or conscious mind, is only one aspect of consciousness. Rationality, emotion and intuition are the three layers that correspond to conscious, subconscious and the common conscious mind. The dominant aspects of life are emotion and intuition. Myths, poetry, music, rituals and ultimately spiritual practices, satisfy the needs of these layers of consciousness. They provide collective security and comfort to a complex multi dimensional consciousness of a life-form.….Most life forms are driven by the body genetics and the environment. As life evolves with experience, an individual consciousness develops as a separate primary consciousness, with unique emotions, thoughts and reason. As dullness reduces and sensitivity is increases, life becomes complex and unstable. For a complex life-form to be happy, all layers of conscio  See full.

 What do you understand by the literature of the spirit? Spiritual literature is about our multidimensional consciousness and Universe. The physical dimension or conscious mind, is only one aspect of consciousness. Rationality, emotion and intuition are the three layers that correspond to conscious, subconscious and the common conscious mind. The dominant aspects of life are emotion and intuition. Myths, poetry, music, rituals and ultimately spiritual practices, satisfy the needs of these layers of consciousness. They provide collective security and comfort to a complex multi dimensional consciousness of a life-form.….Most life forms are driven by the body genetics and the environment. As life evolves with experience, an individual consciousness develops as a separate primary consciousness, with unique emotions, thoughts and reason. As dullness reduces and sensitivity is increases, life becomes complex and unstable. For a complex life-form to be happy, all layers of consciousness need to be in harmony. If emotions are suppresses through rationality or ego, they arise as senility when the rational conscious mind fails with old age. Collective rituals, music/myths/poetry and spiritual practices help us stabilize emotions as we evolve from tamas to rajas to satva. How does mythology help you deepen your inner journey? Mythology induces hope and stability in my subconscious through make-believe stories that seem to vicariously satisfy the needs of my deeper layer of emotional and irrational consciousness.  Can you share a story that reveals the Power of Myth in your life? After an extensive rational analysis of my own consciousness, I find it necessary to believe in the effectiveness of myths and rituals, in managing my semi-independent human brain-mind, as it struggles to find equilibrium in an unknown multidimensional consciousness.  I pray selectively, to multiple Hindu goddesses and gods who symbolically represent the unknown universe/consciousness/nature, through myths and rituals.

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On Dec 11, 2012 Roma Kapadia wrote:
I agree with Campbell when he says that nowadays we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. Myths and mythology have significance if you use them in the correct connotation in your current scenario. Not only does mythology deepen your outlook to life, it helps you make judgment of many things correctly. Mythology propagates a thought, a way of being and way to live by....It shows you structure that you can make decision through! A very nice and well written piece!

On Dec 10, 2012 L wrote:
 There are still schools that foster this kind of education. St Johns College for one. I raise my glass to it. 

On Dec 10, 2012 sharad wrote:
 This stuff helps u find out who u are and also helps you move away from 'myness' or I-ness' to become unselfish.

On Dec 9, 2012 david doane wrote:

Campbell says so well that literature of the spirit is literature about the "inner life" and about "eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives."  I agree and would add to that that literature of the spirit is about the 'big' questions in life such as who am I and what am I doing with my one precious life and is there a value or purpose to my life and to life in general and is there a soul and am I a spiritual being having a human experience or am I simply a human being with no spiritual side.  Literature of the spirit stirs my thoughts and response to such questions and provokes my search.  The question about the Power of Myth in my life triggers for me at this moment my identifying with Sleeping Beauty a bunch of times in my life, and some one or some event that woke me up to a vision about me and life that was more than what I had and prompted me to move and pursue in a different direction.  I spent the first couple  See full.

Campbell says so well that literature of the spirit is literature about the "inner life" and about "eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives."  I agree and would add to that that literature of the spirit is about the 'big' questions in life such as who am I and what am I doing with my one precious life and is there a value or purpose to my life and to life in general and is there a soul and am I a spiritual being having a human experience or am I simply a human being with no spiritual side.  Literature of the spirit stirs my thoughts and response to such questions and provokes my search.  The question about the Power of Myth in my life triggers for me at this moment my identifying with Sleeping Beauty a bunch of times in my life, and some one or some event that woke me up to a vision about me and life that was more than what I had and prompted me to move and pursue in a different direction.  I spent the first couple years of college in a seminary.  I began to awaken (see things differently) while in the seminary, and after months of agonizing inner turmoil, I chose to leave, which was followed by a weekend of wandering the streets of Pittsburg (where the seminary was) in a state of confusion, most of which I don't remember.  What I know is that after about 48 hours of that anguish and darkness, I came out of it into a clear light space and new life that was bigger for me than what I had -- confusion was gone and I was excited and beginning a next chapter.  My journey was revised.  At that point my inner journey was deepened.  I think the theme of many myths is similar to that story about myself. 

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On Dec 7, 2012 Thierry wrote:

I had the opportunity to watch a few days ago, a series of lectures given about the Bible by a true scholar and humanist. And I remember having read long ago, with the same interest, the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries by Sri Aurobindo Ghose, another eminent scholar and philosopher. To me, both books belong to the litterature of the spirit because they depict stories whose heroes ( gods, kings, prophets) are either in search of, either demonstrate truth and wisdom, the qualities of spirit. They make great use of literary artifacts such as metaphors, parables and do not use direct psychological language as opposed to most spiritual teachings, especially modern ones. There are two ways of reading this literature. Through literalism, often the official version given by the official clergy, or through in depth interpretation. I find the later, as offered by often revolutionary scholars, richly informative and intelectually vivifying. If I dare paraphrase Jesus  See full.

I had the opportunity to watch a few days ago, a series of lectures given about the Bible by a true scholar and humanist. And I remember having read long ago, with the same interest, the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries by Sri Aurobindo Ghose, another eminent scholar and philosopher. To me, both books belong to the litterature of the spirit because they depict stories whose heroes ( gods, kings, prophets) are either in search of, either demonstrate truth and wisdom, the qualities of spirit. They make great use of literary artifacts such as metaphors, parables and do not use direct psychological language as opposed to most spiritual teachings, especially modern ones.
There are two ways of reading this literature. Through literalism, often the official version given by the official clergy, or through in depth interpretation. I find the later, as offered by often revolutionary scholars, richly informative and intelectually vivifying. If I dare paraphrase Jesus: the spirit vivifies, the letter kills.

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On Dec 6, 2012 susan schaller wrote:
 Recently, at a meditation retreat, it was pointed out that as we moved closer to the unconscious mind, we moved closer to the universal.  The surface distinctions of culture and personality are in the conscious mind.  We are all the same at the unconscious level where myths are from.  Archetypes and myths are the same all over the globe, thus, they point the way to their source where we can all return to find the peace that passes understanding.  As the Tau Te Ching describes: " When we realize where we come from, we naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignifid as a king."

On Dec 6, 2012 Conrad P. Pritscher wrote:

 literature of the spirit is what catches me for longer than a brief period. Nothing is permanent.  In that sense, everything is myth.  When one presently notices what they are noticing while they are noticing, that noticing can continue for a long time and help one be caught up.  One can be caught up for nearly all of one's life even though it is quite rare.  People like Gandhi, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, some Rabbis, and Albert Einstein were frequently caught up.  When caught up, one may notice more connections than divisions between everyone and everything.   Schools and often universities could capitalize on what students are caught up about.  Frequently they don't because they are often bow to the 1% to promote jobs and the economy rather than powerful learning to help one be caught up.  As a result, we have a need for radical school transformation which can help people get caught up about their daily living.  Being caugh  See full.

 literature of the spirit is what catches me for longer than a brief period. Nothing is permanent.  In that sense, everything is myth.  When one presently notices what they are noticing while they are noticing, that noticing can continue for a long time and help one be caught up.  One can be caught up for nearly all of one's life even though it is quite rare.  People like Gandhi, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, some Rabbis, and Albert Einstein were frequently caught up.  When caught up, one may notice more connections than divisions between everyone and everything.
  Schools and often universities could capitalize on what students are caught up about.  Frequently they don't because they are often bow to the 1% to promote jobs and the economy rather than powerful learning to help one be caught up.  As a result, we have a need for radical school transformation which can help people get caught up about their daily living.  Being caught up can help one be compassionate and wise which may help them  be more "caught up" when one  consoles rather than seeks to be consoled. Being caught up with peace can be very fulfilling.  As Gandhi said: "There is no way to peace.  Peace is the way."   To paraphrase Gandhi: There is no way to being caught up. Being caught up is the way.

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