Self-Help Classics

The Power of Myth
(1987)
Joseph Campbell (with Bill Moyers)

This is a red-blooded book from a man who lived a very full life. Campbell was essentially a storyteller, spending his days uncovering and telling old stories that he felt had the power to soak up the alienation of technological society. Though he was a respected academic mythologist, Campbell also played a key role in the creation of a definitive modern tale, Star Wars. Director George Lucas said that Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949) was the catalyst in dreaming up the film, and that the inspiration for Yoda, the ancient and wise one, was Campbell himself.

The Power of Myth is a sort of campfire dialogue between Campbell and writer/journalist Bill Moyers, covering the stories and symbols of civilization. Filmed for a television series at George Lucas' Skywalker ranch, the series caught the American public's imagination, and the book became a bestseller.

The power of myth

Campbell's big question was: 'How can myth be powerful for a person living today?' Are our lives really comparable to the amazing characters that appear in these old stories? He believed that mythical characters act as archetypes of human possibility; they are confronted with problems, and their ensuing action gives us an idea about how life might be handled. To identify ourselves with, for instance, the young warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, is not an inflation of our ego, but is an acceptance that this figure has something to teach us. In mythology we could never really feel alone, for within it were guides for the human spirit belonging to everyone, providing a map for every cycle of life or experience we may go through. He called mythology 'the song of the universe', put into tune by a thousand different cultures and peoples. With myth, all experience can be empowering; without it, life can seem just a meaningless series of ups and downs.

The Power of Myth calls us to 'follow our bliss'. Our bliss is an activity, work or passion with the power to endlessly fascinate. It is unique to us, yet may come upon us as a total surprise, and we may resist it for years. In modern psychological phraseology, bliss is the state of 'flow' (see Cziksentmihalyi) that we experience when we are doing what we are best at; time seems to stand still, and we feel effortlessly creative. This is about joy, as distinct from merely pleasure. Campbell portrays bliss as the track that has always been waiting for you, with 'hidden hands' seeming to help you attract the right circumstances for the fulfilment of your work. In mythological terms, bliss is represented by the Cosmic Mother, who guards an inexhaustible well offering solace, joy and protection from mundane life.

We don't look to myth to find the meaning of life, Campbell said, its purpose is to make us appreciate 'the adventure of being alive'. Without some sense of ourselves within a larger history of human imagination and experience, our life would inevitably lack romance and depth. The stories and imagery we have in our heads are only a tiny fraction of what is available to us, and in increasing our knowledge of past culture and art, life is enriched immeasurably.

Following your bliss

In The Power of Myth Campbell talks about the medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, a metaphor for life that has had us in its thrall for millennia. The wheel has a hub, radiating out to its rim. As it turns through time, we hang on to its rim, either going up or down, experiencing the great highs and lows. In modern terms, chasing rewards like a higher salary or power or beautiful bodies are all rim-hanging things. We hang on, sometimes for dear life, in this relentless cycle of pleasure and pain.

The Wheel of Fortune idea, though, contains its own solution: the possibility of learning to live at the hub, centred, focusing on what Campbell calls one's 'bliss'. Our bliss is an activity, work or passion with the power to endlessly fascinate. It is unique to us, yet may come upon us as a total surprise, and we may resist it for years. In modern psychological phraseology, bliss is the state of 'flow' (see Cziksentmihalyi) that we experience when we are doing what we are best at; time seems to stand still, and we feel effortlessly creative. Here is joy, as distinct from merely pleasure. Campbell portrays bliss as the track that has always been waiting for you, with 'hidden hands' seeming to help you attract the right circumstances for the fulfilment of your work. In mythological terms, bliss is represented by the Cosmic Mother, who guards an inexhaustible well offering solace, joy and protection from mundane life.

In another book, The Way of Myth, the author talks about the people he has seen who have spent their lives climbing 'the ladder of success', only to find that it was put up against the wrong wall. Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty is a portrayal of a man whose whole life has been dictated by other people's expectations, who then decides to do what he wants. He's had enough of rim-life. The message of this film, and of the sum of Campbell's writings, is that the banality of your current life is always waiting to yield to a greater story.

The hero's journey

Campbell's voluminous reading was legendary. He came back from Europe to the United States just a few weeks before the Wall Street Crash, and didn't have a job for five years. But it was a rich time: 'I didn't feel poor. I just felt that I didn't have any money.' His bliss was basically reading every day, all day, in a shack rented for nothing. What began as a simple thirst for knowledge became a quest to find 'the key to all mythologies'. The more he read of the world's stories, the clearer it became that there was an underlying template which most followed: the 'hero's journey' - a sequence of experiences that both tests and proves the person-cum-hero.

Myths typically begin with the protagonist on home turf, living a quiet but unfulfilled life. Then something happens, and he or she gets the 'call' to leave on an adventure with some specific goal or quest. In Arthurian legend, Arthur begins a search for the grail; in The Odyssey, Odysseus simply tries to return home; in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker must rescue Princess Leia. Following numerous smaller trials, the hero endures a supreme ordeal in which all seems lost, followed by a triumph of some sort. The hero must then try to bring his 'magic elixir' (some secret knowledge or thing) back home, to reality. There are many subtleties and variations to the pattern, but these are the basic stages.

What is the relevance of the hero's journey to our age? Or as Moyers puts it to Campbell, how is the hero different to the leader? The leader, Campbell says, is one who sees what can be done and accomplishes it, who is good at organizing a company or a country; a hero actually creates something new. (With today's business focus on innovation, personal journeys clearly become important.)

Final comments

Myths reveal to us the incredible potential for more life - in whatever form it comes. 'I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I've never met an ordinary man, woman or child,' Campbell states. Yet he acknowledged that too many accept the sadness and desperation of inauthentic lives, living without their bliss or not even knowing it exists.

Campbell was a polymath, fascinated by everything. He noticed the trend of Western civilization was towards specialization, yet was proud of being a generalist, able to see the commonality of all human stories and life experience. His resurrection of the idea of the hero has given people a template onto which they can mount their own experiences and dreams; being present in all human myths, it knows no national boundaries. The idea involves no grasping or hurry (Campbell's life - see above right - itself is a good example), but enjoyment of the richness of the moment. And significantly, it focuses on self-knowledge rather than aggrandizement of the ego.

The 'human potential' movement of the 1960s and 70s may have been important, but it took Campbell to remind us what myths have been saying for thousands of years: that everyone is really a hero-in-waiting.

Source: 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books To Transform Your Life by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)

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50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life from Timeless Sages to Contemporary Gurus
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From The Power of Myth:

"[If] you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

Joseph Campbell:

Born in New York City in 1904, as a boy Campbell loved Native American mythology. When he was 15 the family home burned down, killing his grandmother and destroying his collection of Indian books and relics. At Dartmouth College he studied biology and mathematics, but later transferred to Columbia University where he wrote a Master's thesis on the Arthurian legends. He excelled as an athlete, setting the New York City record for the half-mile, and played saxophone in jazz bands.

In 1927 a scholarship took him to study old languages at the University of Paris, before transferring to the University of Munich to read Sanskrit literature and Indo-European philology. Back in the US, and based at his shack near Woodstock, Campbell travelled out to California where he met John and Carol Steinbeck and their neighbour Ed Ricketts, the biological collector immortalised in Steinbeck's Cannery Row .

His first real job was a modest post at the newly founded women's college, Sarah Lawrence. He remained there for 38 years, marrying former student and dancer Jean Erdman, and slowly increasing his list of publications, including A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake (1944) and co-editing and translating the Upanishads. The Hero With a Thousand Faces was published in 1949.

Campbell lectured to diverse audiences including the US State Department, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Esalen Institute, and travelled widely. Notable later works include the series The Masks of God (1969), The Mythic Image (1974) and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (1986). He died in Honolulu in 1987, not long after the taping of the television series, The Power of Myth.

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