Posted December 29, 2013
by Jerry Alatalo
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is probably most well-known for his simple suggestion to “follow your bliss”. Up until these days I hadn’t become aware of his story – his views of the world. In my typical bumbling, stumbling way of searching for interesting information, I went to look for interviews at Thinking Allowed TV on YouTube, because it was there that I found one of the few interviews of Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder.
So, as I had never really listened to what Joseph Campbell had to say, one of the interviews on the channel was of Mr. Campbell. His views were aligned with my own and led me to the biographical documentary “The Hero’s Journey“, about the life of Joseph Campbell. The film is a keeper, worthy of viewing again and again. He was born in the New York City area, and began his intellectual journey around the age of 10, after being impressed by a local, outdoor theatrical production with Buffalo Bill and Native Americans.
It is interesting to consider whether Mr. Campbell’s life would have taken a completely different direction had he, say, been unable to attend the Buffalo Bill show. One wonders if he would ever have gone at ten years old to read many books at his library about the Native Americans, which would have eventually resulted in the non-existence of this post, as well as Mr. Campbell’s great influence through his life. It’s kind of like baseball, where the World Series ends up decided on a play where the outfielder misses the Game 7 clinching home run by inches – small events making all the difference.
However, Joseph Campbell did attend the Buffalo Bill show in New York at ten years old, read every book in the library about Native Americans, and went on to become a world expert on mythology and religions. After going to Europe for university studies, he returned to the USA weeks before the Great Depression began. It is somewhat astonishing to learn that he spent the next five years reading constantly, on both mythology and world religions.
To be honest one of the reasons it took so long to check Mr. Campbell out had to do with a negative mythology class taken in university. In direct contrast to Joseph Campbell, the professor of my mythology class would have nothing to do with becoming engaged in discussions with his students. After a few attempts at starting a class discussion with personal comments and being shut down by the professor, the rest of the class became one where everyone in the class said nothing, basically riding it out for the credits.
Not so with Joseph Campbell. From the film we find that he was ever-interested in discussions, even during his off the job time. One can see how the Native American oral tradition, where storytelling becomes the means of teaching the next generation on life philosophy, became taken to heart by Mr. Campbell from his readings at ten years old. We can see him sitting in the cafeteria sharing stories with students as if he were a Native American elder sitting in the tepee around the fire, telling stories to the grandchildren.
He lectured at Sarah Lawrence University for 38 years, writing a number of books along the way. His collaboration with Bill Moyers – The Power of Myth – was probably his most widely known creative production. Until viewing “The Hero’s Journey” I had bought in to the idea that myths were some type of made-up fairytale stories and, combined with the unproductive college mythology class, missed the boat where Joseph Campbell was the captain.
The significant contribution of Joseph Campbell
His ideas are most important in that he pointed out that there is one universal mythology shared by the world’s spiritual/religious/mythic traditions, but through differences in language have blocked recognition of the one universal myth. One could see how the various myths from around the world are essentially local bibles or texts – with different languages and symbols all saying the same things. He points out that the historical error of failing to recognize the one universal myth has resulted in separations between religions, a significant barrier to peace and brotherhood, compounded by a failure to recognize the ultimate importance of human beings’ inner search for wisdom.
One had to admire Joseph Campbell’s humility, as he downplayed any suggestion that he was a guru or mystic, stating that he was only a professor. It is obviously water under the bridge, but I can’t help wondering what that mythology class would have been like if Joseph Campbell was the professor. He stated in an interview that he had seen profound changes in his students through close to 40 years of teaching. He said this not in any way of bragging, but to add to the power of the message he shared. His message was simply and honestly powerful.
His explanation of Buddhist symbols such as the evil-looking guardians to entry of the door to enlightenment, how these symbols represent the human ego and fear, gives an example of the correct direction for humans to search – inward. His consideration of modern religions’ emphasis and focus on fear/ego based external sources for “answers”, leading the adherents in the wrong direction, leads him to state that religions are “religions of exile”.
He shares an experience where during a lecture he suggests that “for a Christian, one should live according to the Christ within you”. A woman sitting in the audience later tells him that she was sitting next to a priest when he stated it and heard the priest say, “blasphemy”. Mr. Campbell points out his view, “then what in heaven’s name are we talking about?”
The kingdom of heaven is within you
So, I think Joseph Campbell’s greatest contribution during his 83 years on Earth was his discovery that human beings are all part of one family sharing the same stories, with non-essential details – minor variations due to language and social factors. The hero’s journey is the universally shared inner journey, at each moment available for human beings to begin.
From Gnostic writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt – 1945:
The disciples asked: “On what day will the kingdom come?” Jesus said: It cometh not with observation. They will not say: Lo, here! or; Lo there! But the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the Earth, and men do not see it.”
“The Pharisees and scribes have received the keys of the kingdom; they have hidden them. They did not go in, and those who wanted to go in they did not allow. But you be ye as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
There is one spirituality – one religion – one mythology.
“Seek not outside yourself. For it will fail, and you will weep each time an idol falls. Heaven cannot be found where it is not, and there can be no peace except there. There is no other answer you can substitute, and find the happiness his answer brings. Seek not outside yourself. Be you glad that you are told where happiness abides, and seek no longer elsewhere. You will fail.”
– A Course In Miracles
(Thanks to Finn Jones @ YouTube)