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Excerpts from conversation's with Michael Toms and Joseph Campbell

From "An Open Life - Joseph Campbell in Conversation With Michael Toms"

TOMS: Human beings throughout history have been searching for their source. How do you see today’s search?

CAMPBELL: I think our search is somewhat encumbered by our concept of God. God as a final term is a personality in our tradition, so that breaking past that "personality" into the transpersonal, whether within one’s self or in conceiving of the form beyond forms – although one can’t even say form – is blocked by our orthodox training. This is so drummed into us, that the word "God" refers to a personality. Now, there have been very important mystics who have broken past that. For instance, there is Meister Eckhart, whose line I like to quote: "The ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God." This is what in Sanskrit is so easily expressed in Saguna and Nirguna Brahman – Brahman with qualities and Brahman without qualities. And when people would go to Ramakrishna, he would ask them how they would like to talk about God, with qualities or without? You see, that’s inherent in their tradition, but it’s blocked in ours.

TOMS: Many people seem to be coming to the search for God.

CAMPBELL: Well, that’s the great thing about it. As soon as you smash the local provincial god-form, God comes back. And that’s what Nietzsche meant when he wrote that God is dead. Nietzsche was himself not an atheist in the crude sense; he was a man of enormous religious spirit and power. What he meant was that the God who’s fixed and defined in terms appropriate for 2,000 years ago is no longer so today. And of course the words of Meister Eckhart give an earlier variation of Nietzsche’s remark. So the concept of God beyond God is in our tradition.

TOMS: What do you think will be the result of the influx of Eastern religions into Western culture?

CAMPBELL: You must remember that when we have teachers coming from the East, we’re getting the best. There are also crude folk-traditions in the East; and we have the crude folk- traditions in the West; and our best teachers are not the ones that are most listened to. Let’s put it that way, to start. Now, the best teaching from the East is the one given by the Dalai Lama. We also had it from Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian Hindu teacher of the last century, namely that there is a common consciousness which is our own ground and so in consciousness we are one; insofar as you identify yourself with the consciousness that moves and lives in your body, you’ve identified with that which you share with me. And on the other hand, if you fix on yourself, and your tradition, and believe you’ve got It, then you’ve removed yourself from the rest of mankind.

What the Eastern teachers are telling us is that the important thing is not what happened thousands of years ago when the Buddha was born or when Jesus was crucified: what’s important is what’s happening in you now. And what’s important is not your membership in a religious community: it’s what that membership is doing to your psyche. The divine lives within you. Our Western religions tend to put the divine outside of the earthly world and in God, in heaven. But the whole sense of the Oriental is that the kingdom of heaven is within you. Who’s in heaven? God is. Where’s God? God’s within you. And what is God? God is a personification of that world-creative energy and mystery which is beyond thinking and beyond naming. We think not only that our God has been named and known, but that he’s given us a whole system of rules. But this system of rules is not from God, it’s from man, and the rules are man’s clues as to how to get to the realization of God. Their view is quite different from that. When you hear it, you say, "Ah, yes."

Now the Waste Land might be said to be the taking of these rules literally, concretely; and the rejuvenation of the Arthurian grail hero, that of recognizing God as the dynamic of your own interior. Because we’re all from a mysterious trans-rational ground – subatomic particles tell us that. We don’t know what they are, and that’s what we are. And of course our mind is in this world of time-space relationships; and the mind must open to the impulse and statements of this primary precedent of the general consciousness.

TOMS: So we have effectively cut ourselves off from the spiritual side of life. Is that what you’re saying? Or should I say that we restrict our spiritual inclinations to Sunday?

CAMPBELL: Well, during the industrial transformation of the world, the conditions of life lasted a little while; for generations they were essentially the same, so that the manner of dealing with them and getting the spiritual sense could be developed and richly experienced. But now the conditions of life change so rapidly that by the time you get yourself related to one set, another comes along. I think part of the anxiety of our time is the result of the rapidity with which change occurs; one cannot get a spiritual relationship to this rapidly changing practical problem.

Another important point that the Oriental traditions bring to us is that practical life is not separate from religious exercises. Religion isn’t for Sunday or for Friday night; it is for all day every day. For instance, we’re in a religious exercise right now, you and I, in our relationship. What is it that is playing in? It’s through life that one is to experience the spirit and communicate the spirit and live in the spirit.

TOMS: You mentioned the Waste Land. Could we say that in certain parts of American society a wasteland does exist?

CAMPBELL: I don’t know what your impression is, Michael, but mine is that the majority of my friends are living Waste Land lives. In teaching, you have people who haven’t come into the Waste Land yet. They’re at the point of making the decision whether they’re going to follow the way of their own zeal – the star that’s dawned for them – or do what daddy and mother and friends want them to do. The adventure is always in the dark forest, and there’s something perilous about it. Now, since retiring I’ve been lecturing for the most part to adults, many of whom feel they need a new start; they have to find a center in what they do that really meets their lives. And my impression is that many of my friends just are baffled; they’re wandering in the Waste Land without any sense of where the water is – the source that makes things green.

TOMS: You have to go beyond traditional concepts, don’t you?

CAMPBELL: Indeed you do. Not only for your own life, but because life is different from the way it was and the rules of the past are restrictive of the life process. The moment the life process stops, it starts drying up; and the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow the process. In order to have something new, something old has to be broken; and if you’re too heavily fixed on the old, you’re going to get stuck. That’s what hell is: the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move them.

TOMS: So it’s like coming in touch with the deeper part of life and being willing to let go.

CAMPBELL: And if you understand the spiritual aspect of your religious tradition, it will encourage you to do that. But if you interpret it in terms of hard fact, it’s going to hinder you.

CAMPBELL: Heinrich Zimmer once said, "The best things can’t be told; the second best are misunderstood; the third best have to do with history." Now, the vocabulary through which the best things are told as second best is the vocabulary of history, but it doesn’t refer to history; it refers through this to the transcendent. Deities have to become, as one great German scholar said, "transparent to the transcendent." The transcendent must show and shine through those deities. But it must shine through us, too, and through the spiritual things we are talking about. And as long as you keep pinning it down to concrete fact, and declare something isn’t true because it didn’t happen, you’re wrong. We don’t say that about fairy tales, and so we get the truth of them. We should read our religions that way.

TOMS: What about the desire to follow a guru? We see religions and cults based on the teacher-disciple relationship flourishing everywhere.

CAMPBELL: I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers – I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guru actually assumes responsibility for the student’s moral life, and this is total giving. I don’t think that’s quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique path.

There’s one quotation I ran into in La Queste del Saint Graal which hit me as being the essence of what I’d call the European or Western spirituality. The knights of King Arthur’s court were seated at table and Arthur would not let the meal be served until an adventure had occurred. And, indeed, an adventure did occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however, by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthur’s nephew Gawain stood up and said, "I propose a vow. I propose that we should all go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled." And it was determined that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me so wonderful: "They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest." Now, if there’s a way or path, it’s someone else’s way; and the guru has a path for you. He knows where you are on it. He knows where he is on it, namely, way ahead. And all you can do is get to be as great as he is. This is a continuation of the dependency of childhood; maturity consists in outgrowing that and becoming your own authority for your life. And this quest for the unknown seems so romantic to Oriental people. What is unknown is the fulfillment of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And you are the only one who can do it. People can give you clues how to fall down and how to stand up; but when to fall and when to stand, and when you are falling, and when you are standing, this only you can know. And in the way of your own talents is the only way to do it.

TOMS: Death and eternity play a large part in our thinking. Does that interfere with our perception of death?

CAMPBELL: Eternity is not a continuation of time. Eternity is a dimension of here and now. And we have eternal life now. This is what is meant by "The kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it." When one thinks of what happens after death, one is still thinking in temporal terms. So, when we’re talking about symbolic systems, that is a misplaced concern. Do you see? You’ve got to do something else with it; you’ve got to spiritualize the symbol.

My favorite definition of religion is "a misinterpretation of mythology." And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference. What a mythic image talks about is not something that happened somewhere or will happen somewhere at some time or other; it refers to what is now, and was yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and is forever.

TOMS: So the Apocalypse is something that’s with us all the time.

CAMPBELL: The moment you see this kingdom of the Father spread over the earth, the Apocalypse has occurred. It’s a perpetual potential, and it’s also something in a person who has the experience, that shuts on and off.

There’s a wonderful Indian story of a young man who was told by his guru, "You are Brahman. You are God." What a thing to experience! "I am God." So, deeply indrawn, this young man goes out for a walk. He walks through the village, goes out into the country. And coming down the road is a great elephant, with the howdah on top, and the driver on his head. And the young man, thinking "I am God. I am God," does not get out of the way of the elephant. The mahout shouts, "Get out of the way, you lunatic!" The young man hears him and looks and sees the elephant, and he says to himself, "I am God and the elephant is God. Should God get out of the way of God?" And of course the moment of truth arrives when the elephant suddenly wraps his trunk around him and tosses him off the road.

The young man goes back to his guru in a disheveled condition – not physically hurt, but psychologically in shock. The guru sees him and asks, "Well, what happened to you?"

The young man tells him his story and then says, "You told me that I was God."

"And so you are."

"The elephant is God."

"And so it is."

"Well, then, should God get out of the way of God?"

"But why didn’t you listen to the voice of God shouting from the head of the elephant?"

TOMS: I want to get back to the interpretation of myth, and especially relative to Christianity. What is your experience with people from the established religions? How do you convey to them that it is possible to look at the Bible from a symbolic point of view?

CAMPBELL: I taught a course at Sarah Lawrence College on comparative mythology for thirty-eight years. I taught young people of every available creed. More than fifty percent of my students from the New York area were Jewish; many were Christians – Protestant, Catholic; there were Mormons and Zoroastrians and Buddhists. There wasn’t much of a problem with the Buddhists, but all the others were somewhat stuck in their provincial traditions.

It was the simplest thing; all I did was to point out the parallels and identities all over the place. You see, when there is a motif – such as that of the virgin birth – which occurs in American Indian mythologies, in Greek mythology, and so on, it becomes obvious that the virgin birth could not have referred to a historical event. It’s a spiritual event that’s referred to – even in the Christian tradition. One after another, these motifs became spiritualized instead of historicized. And the interesting thing is that instead of the person losing her religion, she gained it. It became a religion instead of a misleading theory.

TOMS: How can a theologian in a seminary present a course in comparative religion and still hold fast to literal interpretations?

CAMPBELL: This is the most baffling mystery of my experience. Because I know, from associating with my colleagues, that a great many of these gentlemen become firm. "Ours is finally different. It’s a fact!"

TOMS: You mentioned the Flood. Like the Virgin Birth, it also is a motif that runs through all cultures.

CAMPBELL: Yes. There are very few cultures that don’t have a Flood motif. That’s a basic idea: the dissolution of the world which takes place every night when we go into the flood of our own unconscious. It’s the analogue of the mythological Flood: at the end of the cycle, there’s a flood. The American Indians have lots of Flood stories.

It was thought when the diggings in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley were proceeding that evidence of the Biblical flood could be located – at least a flood universal to that area. And there were flood levels found in several cities. But they were not the same flood level; they were local floods. There’s no cosmic flood; the Flood motif is a mythological idea. The whole notion that all originates from water, and all is going back to water, gives you a cycle: out of water, back to water, out of water, back to water; and each new cosmic aeon, each new world-age, is, as it were, a creation out of water and a dissolution into water. So it’s a mythological motif. This is exactly the point that Thomas Mann makes very well in the first part of Joseph and His Brothers: the archetypal Flood is a mythological, a psychological flood, and when local floods occur they become identified with it. Do you understand? We have experienced The Flood. The Flood is a mythological principle, and when a flood occurred, we understood the sense of the image.

TOMS: What does contemporary religion have to do with the adventure?

CAMPBELL: I think contemporary religion is in a very bad spot. And I think it is because it has taken the symbols as the referents. Religion is the constellation of metaphors, and the metaphor points to connotations that are of the spirit, not of history, as I said before. And in our religions, we’re accenting the historical image that carries the message, but we stay with the image.

TOMS: The literal interpretation, in other words...

CAMPBELL: Yes, and you lose these messages. The thing about Jesus is not that he died and was resurrected, but that his death and resurrection must tell us something about our own spirit.

TOMS: Why do you think we tend to a literal interpretation of Christ in myth?

CAMPBELL: I think it’s the result of a strong institutional emphasis in our religions in the West, and a fear of the mystical experience. In fact, the experience of the divine within you is regarded as blasphemy. I remember having given a lecture once on this problem of becoming transparent to transcendence, so that your life becomes a transparency through which light shines. I spoke of it as "the god in you, coming out through your life." A couple of months later, I met a young woman at another talk who had happened to be present at the first one; and she told me that when I had said "The Christ in you asks you to live," a priest sitting next to her had said, "That’s blasphemy!" So, in institutional religion, all the spirit is out there somewhere, not in you.

But what’s the meaning of the saying, "The kingdom of heaven is within you," if you can’t say, "It’s within me"? Then who’s in heaven?

TOMS: And, "I and the Father are one."

CAMPBELL: All of that. Jesus was crucified because he said, "I and the Father are one." Well, the ultimate mystical experience is of one’s identity with the divine power. That’s the sense of the Chandogya Upanishad saying which says "You are It." That divinity which you seek outside, and which you first become aware of because you recognize it outside, is actually your inmost being. Now, it’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s not good for institutions if people find that it’s all within themselves. So there may be some point there about our particular situation in the West where religious institutions have been able to dominate a society.

TOMS: In some sense, we create our own gods.

CAMPBELL: Yes, that’s exactly what we do. No matter what name we give it, the God we have is the one we’re capable of having. That’s something people don’t realize. Simply because they’re all saying the same name for God, that doesn’t mean they have the same relationship to That, or the same concept of what It is. And the concept of God is only a foreground of the experience. Well, there you are... As Meister Eckhart wrote –

– A number of Zen roshis have called him very Buddhist.

– Yes. As he said in his sermon "On Riddance," the ultimate riddance, and the most difficult, is the getting rid of your god to go to God. Wow! That’s the big adventure, isn’t it? That’s the ultimate adventure. That’s what you have to strive for every minute of your life: to get rid of the life that you have planned in order to have the life that’s waiting to be yours. Move. Move. Move into the Transcendent. That’s the whole sense of the adventure, I think.

TOMS: Isn’t it important to respect our own uniqueness?

CAMPBELL: I think that’s the most important thing of all. That’s why, as l said, you really can’t follow a guru. You can’t ask somebody to give The Reason, but you can find one for yourself; you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life – there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.