The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-powerofmythThis book is a transcript of several conversations that took place between Joseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, and Bill Moyers, journalist. Campbell compares myths across cultures, looking for similarities, in an attempt to show us the importance of myth as man’s way of understanding his relationship to the world in which he finds himself. In essence, if a particular myth reappears in different cultures and epochs, chances are it represents a universal truth about mankind.

Myth is essentially a means of modelling reality using symbols. And when you think about, that’s exactly what science is, too. This point was not covered by Campbell, which I thought was a startling omission – perhaps left out because he does not share this view. Campbell laments modern man’s lack of meaningful myths, whereas I see science as the modern myth unrealised. Man cannot escape myth, because all attempts to explain reality are done by modelling the universe. And even in science, our models change over time as we learn new things that cast old assertions into disfavour – just as the old gods are now replaced my more meaningful symbols of forces in natures: electricity and atmospheric pressure in place of Thor, the god of thunder, for instance. Sadly, this insight, which I personally find vital to my worldview, was not covered.

Even so, I was mesmesised by the breadth of Campbell’s knowledge and his ability to articule it without preparation, when prompted by questions. The book covers so much ground that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what I got out of it, but it was definitely a unique and special read. Of particular interest to me was the notion that the modern man finds mythological significance in movies and television dramas. When I look back at old films and TV series that have endured in my mind as favourites, this is definitely true. Some of my favourites are Mad Max, The Prisoner, Blake’s 7, The Tripods, Forever Knight. The common denominator in all of these is the man who finds himself as an outsider, an individualist, a non-joiner, for reasons that are varied. There is the man who becomes a loner because of his brokenness, the secret agent who refuses to have his will broken, the cold realist who is not quite one of the good guys, the group of boys who fight against a brainwashed society, the vampire who attempts to better himself and conquer his nature. It’s not so much that myths were deliberately built into these fictions; only that it’s possible to draw mythological significance from them. Take Forever Knight, for instance. To many, it’s a tacky story about a vampire cop. To me, it’s about a man who is striving to be fully human – to conquer the beast (his vampire nature) within. He has done awful things in the past, but he remains ever cheerful. Tacky or not, this myth speaks powerfully to me as a human being, because it symbolically mirrors my own strivings.

When talking around the question of what life is all about, Campbell regularly employs the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which really stuck with me. It captures perfectly my own feelings about how the meaning of life is not one thing in particular, but consists in making of life whatever we want to make of it. A multiplicity of potential experience is open to us, but we can only follow one course. It makes the most sense, then, to follow the course that brings you the greatest sense of fulfillment: follow your bliss.

I hold a personal philosophy that I’ve developed through much study over a period of years. It could loosely be called non-dualism or pantheism. I’m always amazed when I read a book and discover that the author totally gets where I’m coming from, using certain words and phrases that reveal his inner depth. This was the case in the final chapter of The Power of Myth, entitled “Masks of Eternity.”

If you’re the sort of one-dimensional rationalist who is stuck with an entirely scientific outlook, presuming that ancient man’s beliefs were just exercises in silliness, you need to read this book. These interviews were also released as a six-part television series (now available on DVD), which might be an even richer way to enjoy them. However, the book does contain more content than the series. The Power of Myth is a book unlike any I’ve read.

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The Church of Satan by Blanche Barton

bartonb-churchofsatanThis book is quite hard to find, not for any particularly esoteric reason. I imagine there simply weren’t that many copies printed and no one has yet produced an ebook of the text. The publisher is Hell’s Kitchen Productions, which might be the Church of Satan’s own self-publishing imprint. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy on eBay for £20, but the lowest price among the current ten copies listed on Amazon’s used books is £60. Owning this book now completes my collection of official Church of Satan literature. The other works are five books written by Anton LaVey, a biography on LaVey by Blanche Barton, and one book by Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor).

Blanche Barton, the author of the work under review, was Anton LaVey’s live-in partner for the latter part of his life, and the mother of one of his children. LaVey was, of course, the founder of the Church of Satan. This slim volume of 170 pages provides a brief history of the Church, beginning with some short biographical notes on LaVey’s carnival and occult background, leading to his reasons for forming a new religion based on man’s carnal nature. The growth of the church is catalogued, from its beginnings as a Friday night get-together at LaVey’s home, where he would lecture on the occult, to the eventual implementation of a nationwide “grotto” system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of LaVey’s earlier life is some of the claims are provably legendary. I personally find it a bit insulting that Barton reiterates these legends for her readers, especially when her intended readership seems to be Church of Satan members, rather than the general public. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set gets a few jibes, as Aquino was responsible for splitting the Church of Satan in 1975. LaVey and Aquino spin that event in different ways, and its hard to tell who is entirely honest about what went down. Aquino’s claim that the Church of Satan ended in 1975 would seem to be a tad pretentious.

There is much material in the book that I have encountered before, but also some interesting new material, such as clarifications on the practice of ritual magic. The timing of the book’s publication puts it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a period of unprecedendent public hysteric about occult crimes against children. The phenomenon is rationally and effectively debunked.

The real strength of the book is the huge amount of direct quotes from LaVey himself. These are not from other printed works and public interviews, but presumably from Barton’s own conversations with the man himself. The quotes are so voluminous that LaVey could really be considered a co-author.

If you’re already familiar with Satanism, this book will serve as a refresher on the fundamentals, with perhaps a few new insights. For those who are not familiar with the philosophy, this is definitely one of the better books to read initially. Shame it’s so obscure.

The Lion Encyclopedia of World Religions by David Self

selfd-lionworldreligionsI have quite an extensive knowledge of Christianity, but I thought it was high time that I educated myself on other world religions. A broad knowledgebase is essential in helping us to discern truth from error. But few of us have the time to study masses of information about many fields of inquiry. In the matter of religion specifically, I was instantly attracted by this book’s size (123 pages, illustrated) and the breadth of subject matter covered.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are all covered in some detail, going into the history, basic beliefs, and culture of each religion. Around 16 large-format, heavily illustrated pages are devoted to each religion. Double-page spreads are also given over to the lesser players in today’s religious climate: Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, the Bahai Faith, etc. Finally, modern religious movements are covered.

This was the perfect book to fill a particular hole in my knowledge. It’s aimed at schools, but the information is by no means dumbed down. Highly recommended for readers who want to get a feel for world religions fast.

The Mystery Experience by Tim Freke

When browsing the “body, mind, spirit” section at my local bookstore, I am frequently disappointed by the books that I flip through. A lot of teachers of non-duality (or “advaita” as it’s called in the East) are quite disappointing, in my view. They are not grounded in a realistic appraisal of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world that is essentially adversarial. Spirituality becomes something that is divorced from the predicamenet of fleshly existence, and so it ultimately fails to deliver the promised goods. The Mystery Experience, by contrast, was a refreshingly realistic book. In the store, I read bits and pieces randomly from the text, and came across lots of little gems of wisdom about all kinds of things. I was really intigued by some of the chapter titles, such as “Mad Scientists Do Mysticism,” “The Ego as Hero,” “Celebrating Separateness.” And so, I had to get the book.

Tim Freke is very much in touch with the earthy, carnal side of life. Life is not about denying the body, or about subduing the ego, or about avoiding attachments. Life is to be lived fully, as an adventure. At the same time, Freke is in touch with the spiritual side of life, with an understanding that consciousness is something transcendment, and that under the surface we are all one.

In the book, Freke invents a new term called “paralogical” which he defines to mean two things that appear equally true but are incompatible with each other. It reminds me of what Stephen Hawking calls “model-dependant realism” – the view that we may have more than one model of reality, depending on our perspective, and that each model has merit within its particular context of observation, while the models themselves are in conflict with each other. Of the two authors, I would have to say Hawking explains it better (in The Grand Design), and I’m honestly not sure that the word paralogical helps in any way. It feels as if it almost gives us license to remain complacent about our paradoxes, failing to realise that it’s only our approximations of reality, gleaned through our inadequate models, that contain paradoxes, not reality itself.

I do have a few criticisms of Freke’s approach. He’s very much a believer in the importance of an “awakening” experience, whereas I feel this is too similar to the Christian idea of salvation. I don’t believe there is anything broken about natural life that needs fixing, even our natural belief in duality. Tim also puts a lot of emphasis on techniques as a means of deepening your spirituality. My view is that if you need a technique to convince yourself of something, then something’s wrong. When a truth becomes clear to the mind, it needs no repeated technique to constantly renew it. Freke also verges on the melodramatic when talking about love. I tend to think love and hate both have their place.

Don’t make too much of my criticisms, because I really did enjoy this book. I took it slow and savoured it, reading a few pages each night at bedtime. The writing was vibrant, easy to read, personal, and practical. In keeping with the title of the book, Freke places a huge emphasis on the mysterious nature of the ground of being. The “mystery experience” is the conscious appreciation of this impenetrable mystery at the heart of life. Freke’s writing on this theme helped me to deepen my own perspective on what I call the Infinite.

It saddens me that Eckhart Tolle gets all the fame, while guys like Tim Freke are little known by comparison. You might say that Tolle belongs to the “escape from life” branch of non-duality, whereas Freke belongs to the “embrace life” branch. The philosophy advocated by Tolle pales by comparison to this. I highly recommended The Mystery Experience, and it’s a book I’m likely to read again in the future.

The Philosophies of Asia by Alan Watts

Here in the West, we’ve all grown up under the influence of Christianity, where God is viewed as a divine monarch. Little do we realise that we only picture God in this way because we’re unconsciously projecting an entirely human political structure onto him/it. Watts’s book challenges this, by describing the very different concept of God that has arisen in the East, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. To the Hindus, the Universe is viewed as God play-acting, or dreaming each of us. God is inside everything rather than above everything. It’s like a game of hide and seek; each one of us is God-in-disguise without realising it. In Taoism the Universe is viewed as a single organism (indistinguishable from God). Watts helps us to look upon the Universe in a very different way, not as a collection of separate things which exist independently of one another, but as a series of interconnected relationships. These Eastern approaches differ greatly from the likes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they are not concerned with divine revelation, or obedience to a monarch. In this sense, they are not really religions at all, in terms of what we understand religion to be. The focus of the East is a transformation of consciousness. Learning to look upon the Universe in a different way that dramatically affects one’s life.

This volume consists of various verbal lectures given by Alan Watts, transcribed by his son Mark in the 1990s, from earlier recordings. The lecture “The Mythology of Hinduism” examines the religious side of Hinduism, where the godhead is said to be dreaming each of us. “Eco-Zen” delves into how the individual is one with the world, showing how the line between organism and environment is blurry and insubstantial when we get past the idea of “things.” “Swallowing a Ball of Hot Iron” examines the relationship of student and master in Zen Buddhism. “Intellectual Yoga” looks at the mind as a path to enlightenment. The volume finishes with “Introduction to Buddhism” and “The Taoist Way of Karma.” This is not a lecture series, as such. Mark Watts draws together material that spans his father’s career into single book of related topics.

Since this is the fourth book by Watts that I have read, I’m starting to notice a lot of overlap, but that’s unavoidable, and actually serves as a reminder of important insights. I continue to be impressed with this philosopher, and I have a better undersatnding of the Universe as a result of his work. This book provides a short and often humourous brief on Eastern philosophy. It’s certainly not detailed enough for the serious student, but as an introduction, it makes perfect reading.

The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

Alan Watts is a non-dualist, as am I. Among those who think in this fashion, opinion is divided on the helpfulness of psychedelic drugs in the quest for enlightenment. Watts is in favour of their use, although he cautions that such experiences are wasted on those who do not approach the activity with a philosophical mindset.

Personally, I’ve never felt the need to take drugs in order to heighten my awareness. The human organism is working perfectly just as it is, and I’ve been able to grasp very deep things about reality from an intellectual perspective, and to feel these insights so deeply that I doubt drug use would be of any benefit. Many have congratulated me on my ability to talk and write about things they have felt but been unable to articulate; one individual even expressed great surprise that I have managed to comprend life to such a deep extent without resorting to drugs. My suspicion is that psychedelic drugs are merely a shortcut – something that takes the hard work out of the endeavour of understanding our place in the cosmos. And the drawback of such a shortcut is that it can leave the user stunned by glimpses of a deeper reality without any ability to communicate what he has experienced meaningfully to others. He feels a lot intuitively about what he went through, but cannot process it mentally. Since I haven’t dabbled in drugs, I’m doing a little guesswork here, but I hope intelligent guesswork.

The Joyous Cosmology is Alan Watts’ attempt to articute his psychedelic experiences in words. He never had hallucinations, except when his eyes were closed and he allowed his visual cortex to run amuck. In normal consciousness, the effect of drugs was to heighten perception. The simple act of gazing at a flower takes on far greater significance. Ordinary things became objects of incredible wonder. As I said, I think it’s possible to cultivate this appreciation without resorting to drugs. In fact, the author’s endeavour to capture his experiences in words attests to that.

Some people who are interested in non-duality have a strange view about life: they’re trying to “awaken,” to experience the underlying oneness. But if your individual mind were able to experience unity with everything, then it’s still the individual mind experiencing something separate from itself – still in duality. Any experience of oneness brought about by meditation or drug use will only be a halfway house, by virtue of the ever present subject-object (dual) relationship of consciousness. So, if that’s why you want to take psychedelics, you might as well forget it. What you seek can’t be accomplished.

The main aversion I have about mind-altering drugs are the toxic effects of drugs in general, especially when used habitually – which the author does not advocate. If you’re thinking about using a psychedelic drug for “spiritual” purposes, first educate yourself with this book and others. For me, this whole endeavour is of little practical value, because I’ve already achieved something the hard way. Still, a highly interesting book.

Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts

This is a very different look at Christianity from how it is commonly understood. It says that Christianity is not so much a historical faith of God’s actual dealings with mankind; it is mythological in character, telling a story with symbols – a story that is told, not just in Christianity, but in the core teachings of all of the world’s religions. I suppose you might call this Mystic Christianity. The idea is that you have to get past all the dross of conventional religion to find the nuggets of truth that are intuited at the heart.

Is there anything to this notion? Well, yes, at least to a degree. For instance, consider the prevalence of the number 12: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Christ, etc. The significance of this is the twelve months of the year, with the sun (Jesus) at the centre. The notion of the incarnation (God becoming man) is viewed, not as a historic event that happened once for all time, but as a symbol of the divine and earthly natures of all men. We are all both God and creature. To comprehend this, you have to appreciate consciousness as something more profound than how it is considered within the constraints of materialistic science.

Before reading this book, I was already in touch with hints of what Watts’ explains. The idea of God having two natures (Father and Son) was not as absurd to me as it is to most atheists, because I had already come to appreciate that consciousness has metaphysical roots that are non-dual. There is little-me here in the material realm and big-me running the show from beyond space-time. But both are me.

While this was an interesting read, and by far the strangest book on Christianity I’ve delved into, I’m not sold on the idea that there is any value to be had in attempting to restore Christianity to some sort of mystic relevance. Christianity, for the most part, has long been interpreted as a historical record of God’s dealings with mankind. The idea of convincing the world that it is better treated symbolically can only happen after the world has been convinced that it is non-historical – at any which point ex-believers will be disenchanted at having been conned all their lives and will have no wish to translate the fictions of their imprisonment into symbols of genuine metaphysical worth. At least, that’s how being an ex-Christian makes me feel. Perhaps Watts’ approach to Christianity will have some relevance to a lapsed Catholic who has been trying long and hard to make something good out of it.

I personally feel that the way forward for metaphysics is to lose all religious and spiritual garb and to integrate with modern scientific language. For instance, understanding man as the Infinite focused to a point of limited awareness within space-time. That works a lot better for me than talking about man realising his godhood through his union with Christ the God-man.

An interesting and unique book, packed with a staggering amout of research by way of footnotes. But ultimately of no more value than a historical curiosity.