Mankind: The Modern Mystery and Myth

This piece is featured in this month’s issue of the BeZine. For a link to the complete issue, click here.

The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate.  However, I will preface this one with a bibliography.  I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:

“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)

That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:

Homo sapiens sapiens
Oh most separate, separating
Anthropocene anthropocentric
The Egoid egotist
Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man
Eyes on screen
Fingertips fiddling

Journey who will
That
Über undertaking
Condescend to transcend
Dare to die in darkness,
Awake in wilderness
At one, atoned
In mystic Middle

Cosmic consumption
Preposterous presumption
Unsustainable usurpation
Deplorable devastation

Parading Nero
Begs a humbler hero

hero

© 2015 – poem, essay and photograph, copyright Priscilla Galasso.  All rights reserved.

 

Art, Music & Myth: The Deeper Story of Being Human

Are human beings the only animals that weep?

Charles Darwin noted that Indian elephants weep.  There have been many books written on the subject of animals’ emotions, and I haven’t read any of them, so I’m not going to venture an answer.  What I do know is that I weep.  And Steve weeps.   When we weep —  not cry, but weep — it seems to come from a sacred place in our soul, a place that has been stirred by something far greater than our selves.  Of course, we can make efforts to wall off that place, if we want to.  Bombarding ourselves with distractions often works to activate those shields.  We can also choose to be curious and try to understand that feeling better.

“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko

Tears can be a sign of “religious experience”, then.  Fair enough.  Something spiritual is going on there.  What?

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss. But I do know, that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.” – Mark Rothko

That loneliness, that “pocket of silence where we can root and grow” resonates deeply with my partner, Steve.  He calls it being moody or refers to his “Slavic melancholy”.  It’s not a sorrowful thing only; it is just as brightly tinted with joy, like some of Rothko’s paintings.  The combination, the totality is what hits home with him.  He says, “The deeper story is to face all of life.  Jesus and the Buddha are heroes of that story.”   They are not conquering wartime heroes interested solely in winning.  They do not struggle and strive.  They embrace all dimensions of life equally: the suffering, the love, the sacrifice, the elation.

Rothko - Untitled Red and Black

In the book The Power of Myth based on Billy Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell, I read:

Campbell:  “The images of myth are reflections of the spiritual potentialities of every one of us. Through contemplating these, we evoke their powers in our own lives.”

Moyers: “Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today? Who are our shamans?”

Campbell: “It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today.….”

Steve weeps when listening to Mahler.  And “Puff the Magic Dragon”.  Slipping into his cave, searching for that place to root and grow, he feels the poignant essence of life, the crescendo and decrescendo, and resists exerting his will against the flow.  I think that I have a different sensibility.  Maybe not so expansive, maybe more interior and visceral.  I identify with a lonely pocket of silence for rooting and growing…the womb.  I feel womb-love, the ache, the swoon, the exchange of life blood.  I see colors inside my eyelids, sunshine through membrane, the tragedy and ecstasy and doom of flesh.  Okay, I am in the grip of my biology this week, so this makes a lot of sense.  I have given birth four times and dream of my grown up children regularly.   The story that trips my tear ducts is “Homeward Bound”, anything with a reunion.  The deeper story for me has something to do with connection.  Maybe that’s the Gaia story.  I think she’s like Jesus and Buddha in that she also embraces all of life without struggling or striving, but in her own way.  Perhaps I feel more in my Sacral Chakra,  Steve in his Heart Chakra.

The deeper story of being human is told from inside this skin.  It is not the only story in the universe, however.  There is the elephant’s story, the asteroid’s story, more stories than we can imagine.  I would hope to know many more, and to weep at all of them.

Have Some Divinity

The premise is this: for each day in December, instead of counting down on an Advent calendar, I’m counting the free gifts we all get every day.  Today’s gift is divinity, but I don’t mean the candy.  I mean The Divine, The Sacred, The Holy and experiences of them.  Don’t we all have the opportunity to receive that every day?  If you look for it, will you find it?  I think so.

So, what is sacred?  How do you recognize the divine and holy?  In art, there’s always a halo or a sunbeam to give you a clue.  What about here on earth?

‘Namaste’ is the Sanskrit greeting recognizing the existence of another person and the divine spark in that person, with the hands pressed together in front of the heart chakra.  I think the divine spark exists in every living thing as the breath of life.  Every encounter with a living thing is an experience of the divine.  We hardly ever act like that is true, however.  But we could.  Native Americans and many African tribes have hunting rituals that celebrate the sacred exchange of life.  The hunted animal is divine, sacrificing itself for the life of the hunter, and the hunter shows a holy appreciation.  Often, when I look at macro photography of living things, flower stamens, insects, mosses, I am compelled to worship the divine in the detail.  Life is sacred and beautiful.  Looking closely and deeply is a way to practice recognizing that.

Seeing macro, but lacking the lens

In a dualistic world view, the mundane and the divine are polar opposites.  One is worldly, one is sacred.  If this world were imbued with holiness, if God became incarnate and entered flesh in this world, those opposites would run together like watercolors.  Many cultures believe this is the truth about life.  The waters under the firmament and the waters above the firmament are separated in one telling of the creation story, but the Spirit of God was moving over all of the waters from the very beginning, even in that story.  The understanding that divinity is everywhere has inspired people all over the globe for centuries.  This place we inhabit is special; it’s valuable.  It’s all holy.  This is the beginning of respect for the Universe and everything in it.  Somewhere in Western history, that idea lost its power.  Earth and everything in it became base and fallen.  Good turned to bad and life turned to death.  I’m not sure if that new idea has been very helpful.  I rather think it hasn’t.  And I don’t think it has to be that way.  It’s an idea, after all.  So if it’s not a helpful idea, why support it?  How would you rather live?  In a fallen world or in a world where the sacred and divine can be found everywhere?  Just wondering out loud.  I’m not saying that one idea is right and the other wrong.  The glass is neither half full nor half empty.  It’s a glass, and there’s water in it.  The rest is conceptual.  Why argue?  Choose how to live with the glass and the water.   As for me and my house, “I choose happy.”  (One of Jim’s conclusive statements.)

I hope this gives you something to ponder for today.  If you like, you can add a scene of Edmund Pevensie in Narnia being asked by the White Witch what he craves.  “It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating.  What would you like best to eat?”  “Turkish Delight, please your Majesty!” he responds.  What if he had said, “Divinity”?  Same story, nuanced.  I would like to taste the sacred in this world, and I believe it’s here.