Sunday, May 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on The Mythic Mind

Last fall I stood on a mountaintop in Big Sur, California, just outside the entrance of my tent. The night sky was full of the most dazzling and brilliant collection of stars I had seen in a long time. Even the Milky Way was a clear and broad white sash connecting the horizons. The stars were so vivid that I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. As happens so frequently with me, especially when I find myself transfixed by a wonder of nature, I thought about our ancestors. I imagined what stories they told to both explain and understand the stars. I knew that beyond their ancient campfires, there was no artificial light to distract them from this recurrent nocturnal event. There was no pollution to dim these constellations. I knew that they slept under these stars generation after generation. A million years of stargazing to my scattered collection of special evenings under visible stars. I appreciated how the movement of the entire night sky around Polaris -a fixed rotation of this whole body of stars- became the stuff of myth and legend for the ancients. I also knew that those rogue ‘stars,’ the visible planets whose movements at first seem arbitrary and unregulated compared to the stars, were prominent characters in tribal mythology and cosmology. And then there is the moon. That beautiful orb which never rises twice-in-a-row the same way. I had only slept outdoors for a few days, and I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of this night sky. I understood how important it was for my prehistoric ancestors. Nighttime beckons mystery, traps us all in slumber and dreams, dulls our eyesight, fills the air with strange sounds and cold winds, and reminds us that we do not control the night as we do the day. It is not just that we are tired and blinded when night falls, but we also feel something deep about our nature and our earth, about mystery and magic, about dark wet life. Night is just that way. It is the time of dreams and the lovers’ touch. So when the ancient peoples saw these stars, this predictable blanket of lights, these planets and a moon whose motions and phases began to show their pattern, the ambiguities of life could be grasped in a way, captured as this observable darkness was fed into rich stories. Tribal ancestors watched the night sky and came to know it with an intimacy I cannot yet know. It was a part of them.

What struck me most as I was looking at last night’s sky, was my own personal ability to articulate many scientific facts about these stars and planets, facts which have only very recently come into human consciousness. In another way, I also saw that I actually knew nothing about the stars. I can name only a couple of the constellations, I don’t know but one or two planets. Just as the growing flora outside the window where I sit to write, plants that spoke volumes to the native peoples who lived here in these mountains, just as these same plants look simply green to me, but don’t feed me, don’t support my shelters or provide me with spears and medicine, just as I know nothing about these plants, so too do I say that I know nothing about the night sky. I am not familiar with it. I almost never look at it. I can rarely even see it. And when I am outdoors at night I am going somewhere, driving in a car, surrounded by distracting lights, a man with an agenda, a human ‘doing.” I am not a man who has gazed for years upon these stars. I am ignorant of their deeper qualities, of how they move, what stories might exist to teach me about them. And yet, I can tell you the difference between the stars and planets, the gaseous nature of stars, their relative distances from our earth. I know that planets are solid bodies reflecting the light of our sun and rotating around it. I know that the Milky Way is our galaxy and that the band of light we see is the outer arm of our spiral galaxy. I know Alpha Centaury is three light years away. I know that tens of thousands of galaxies exist beyond ours, and I know about their relative position one to another. I studied stellar astronomy in a walled building in college for one semester over 25 years ago and I know a slew of facts that not a single one of my ancestors had the remotest knowledge of. How strange that I could stand on that mountain last fall and behold the glory of the stars as if I have never seen them before. How remarkable that at once I knew nothing of those strange lights and yet I have this knowledge that is more empirically ‘true’ than anything a nomadic Pleistocene hunter might tell you about them. We live in a remarkable time. The knowledge we posses about our world cannot be taken lightly. And yet we must see both the gift and limitation of this kind of scientific ‘knowing.’ The things we observe in the world, the natural phenomena that captivate us with their mystery so often do not exist in this dancing relationship with our consciousness that characterizes the tribal way of seeing and knowing. We are not in communion with the glowing stars nor the growing plants. We simply see them, and some of us can recite facts about them. Without such facts, would we learn again to tell stories?

The late neurosurgeon and author, Leonard Shlain tells us that the right hemisphere of the brain is image-based, and sees the world “all at once…seeing the parts to the whole… [deciphering] compound and complex images” instantly. Neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, who suffered a massive left-hemisphere stroke, teaches that, “the right hemisphere is all about the here and now” and that as we discover this, “the more peaceful our planet will be.”

Charles Herberger in The Thread of Ariadne, described the thought processes of nature-based peoples. Mythopoetic thought, he says, “orders things within a total context so that terms have meaning only in relation to other terms…through synthesis we come to know wholes.” He concludes that, “Mythopoetic thinking…is by no means inferior to analytic thinking.”

In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman writes, “everyone…is in search of an adequate biography…feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image…You are the essential image…For this is the nature of an image, any image. It’s all there at once.” Several of the biographical sketches in Hillman’s book mention the role of teachers in guiding young people to recognize and embrace their innate gift, their ‘image.’

How do mentors guide initiates in the discovery of their ‘image,’ their calling? Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote, “in my fourteenth year, a huge expectancy arose…poignant and powerful…I was engulfed in the momentous feeling that something universal and awesome was pending…By my early twenties whatever was supposed to have happened long since had not…and I was left with a feeling of loss.”

The knowledge of our history can help us here. Our unique moment in history is not fascinating only because I know about stars, but I also know about ancestors. I know how long we lived as hunters and gatherers. This is powerful knowledge.

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