Thursday, March 11, 2010

Saying "Yes" To Everything

In Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell names and explains the four functions of mythology. The first of these, he says, “is to reconcile consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence; that is to say, to the nature of life.” He goes on to point out that life for primitive peoples was nothing short of monstrous. Yet, unlike the so-called advanced or civilized cultures, their response to life was predominantly affirmative.

The first, primitive orders of mythology are affirmative: they embrace life on its own terms. I don’t think any anthropologist could document a primitive mythology that was world-negating. When you realize what primitive people run up against—the pains and the agonies and the problems of simply existing—I think it’s quite amazing. I’ve studied a lot of the myths of these cultures around the world, and I can’t recall a single negative word in primitive thought with respect to existence or to the universe. World-weariness comes later with people who are living high on the hog.

That’s the first function of mythology: not merely a reconciliation of consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence [“The organs of life had evolved to depend on the death of others for their existence. These organs have impulses of which your consciousness isn’t even aware; when it becomes aware of them you may become scared that this eat-or-be-eaten horror is what you are”], but reconciliation with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness. Through the bitterness and pain, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet, wonderful thing. This affirming view comes pouring in on one through these terrific…myths.
Campbell says that in about the eighth century BC this affirming attitude changed and new mythologies developed, “mythologies of retreat, dismissal, renunciation—life denial.” People started saying “no” to life.

Then a third system developed, which Campbell calls an “ameliorative mythology.”

This worldview expresses the notion that through certain kinds of activity, a change can be brought about. Through prayer, or good deeds, or some other activity, one can change the basic principles, the fundamental [evil] preconditions of life. You affirm the world on condition that it follows your notion of what the world should be. This is like marrying someone in order to improve him or her—it is not marriage.

Campbell reminds us that this mythology “has come to us by way of the late stages in the biblical tradition and in the Christian tradition of the Fall and the Resurrection.”

One can confidently assume that primitive life featured frequent and devastating change: death and forced migration by disease, natural disaster, sudden attacks by other tribes or by wild animals. Pain, loss, and flight must have been frequent occurrences for these people. Yet their rituals and myths all reflect an affirmation of life—not only acceptance of change but “reconciliation with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness.”

I have recently been thinking about change because changes are taking place in my life. I have no control over these changes, yet instead of recognizing them as the gifts from God that they are, instead d of embracing them as part of life—and life is growth—I resist. Every year in my garden I see the beautifully fragrant lilac flowers, the miraculous roses with their lovely colours and their delicious scent, fall and die. The leaves on my gorgeous Japanese maple, so rich and vibrant in the spring and summer, die in the fall, leaving a bare framework of twigs to face the winter. These creatures of God do not resist the change; they accept everything. Yet I have not learned from them.

What we cling to most, it seems, and where we are most resistant to change is relationships and situations of so-called security. We are lulled into complacency by the comfort of friends who always call or e-mail or who are regularly available for a coffee or a meal or a concert. The occasional strains and slights are ignored because the person is loved and because these are part of every relationship. Once in a while, however, there is an event that occurs apparently out of nowhere and precipitates a major change in the relationship. When that happens, we are surprised and disappointed and confused and often deeply hurt. The fact is, however, that first, upon reflection the change is rarely as sudden as it seems, and second, if the change is recognized as God’s gift and accepted as such, growth can take place and peace can be experienced.

A very close friend of some years, who has in fact been mentioned in this blog, recently and rather suddenly stopped communicating. He had been busy for several months, deeply involved in courses he was taking. Our communication, which a year ago had been frequent and intense, had lessened somewhat since last summer. While I missed the contact and the intellectual stimulation that often accompanied it, I recognized and blessed his need to focus on his journey. I was not prepared, however, for his complete “disappearance.” I was by turns surprised, disappointed, confused, and hurt. And because the complete silence was so unusual (this person has been the antithesis of silent), I was also worried. But if he had decided to cloister himself utterly, I wished to respect his choice. Finally, my concern forced me to e-mail him and ask him to just assure me that he was okay. This morning I received his reply, in which he asked me to accept his silence.

We often fail to recognize that, like the trees and flowers in the garden, we are changing. For those who make a conscious choice to follow a certain path, and especially when that path involves passionate and creative exploration, change will be more intense and perhaps more frequent. Once we open certain doors, it seems, we have begun a process which takes on a life of its own and which cannot be reversed; that process opens other doors for us and pushes us through. My friend’s “disappearance” is a sign that I am going through or have already gone through another door.

I have always been a listener. What that means I am not sure; perhaps because I was confused about my path, I never really had anything I wanted passionately to say, perhaps I lacked confidence—it doesn’t really matter. Naturally, I have often attracted people who were in need of a good listener. My friend was one of these: I have had telephone conversations with him which have lasted for nearly two hours and in which I have hardly spoken. I have sometimes been resentful of this one-sidedness, but I recognize now that it was a reflection of where I was at that point in my journey. Moreover, very often what was said was deeply meaningful to me and profoundly influential in my life; it led me to explore new ways of thinking and of seeing life.

Since I have found my path, however, I am no longer just a listener. I have something to say, most of which I say through this blog, most of which I am passionate about. When I started the blog one of the people that I most hoped would read it and talk with me about the thoughts raised in the articles I posted was my “disappeared” friend. Now I understand why he has not, to my knowledge, read any of the articles. It is not because he does not love me or care about what I think or do; it is simply that he does not have the nature of a listener.

The truth is that I have grown and this incident is telling me to say “yes” to the change “with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness.”

I would not likely have been moved to ponder the whole notion of affirming life’s changes if another significant change were not about to take place in my life. Our long-term “homestay student,” who has been with us for five years and whom we have known for over ten years and who is truly a member of our little family, has accepted a job in his native country and will be leaving us in ten days. This is an important step in his life as he will be gaining valuable experience in his field and advancing his career. We love this young man very much and his absence will be keenly felt as he has been a big part of our lives. Naturally, we will stay closely in touch, but we must let him go.

This beloved son’s departure will have not only an emotional impact on us, it will also have a financial effect on me. The income he provided through his “homestay” fees has been steady for five years. I am not sure when and if he can be replaced. As I am a writer who makes no income from his writing, the homestay income I receive every month is how I pay my bills and my debts; any gap in the flow of this income can be problematic. As other students come and go much more frequently than every five years, my “security” is tenuous at best. Yet this is a change I must also embrace with joy because if I trust the process of doors opening, I know that this too is part of that process.

In A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle speaks of abundance:

The source of abundance is not outside you. It is part of who you are. However, start by acknowledging and recognizing abundance without. See the fullness of life all around you. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the display of magnificent flowers outside a florist’s shop, biting into a succulent fruit, or getting soaked in an abundance of water falling from the sky. The fullness of life is there at every step. The acknowledgement of that abundance that is all around you awakens the dormant abundance within.

Saying yes again.

Most of us do not endure anything like the pain and privation suffered by the primitive peoples. Yet we must learn (and I say "we" here, because I must learn), for our own happiness and peace of mind, to affirm life in all of its forms. What we often think of as bad—scarcity, separation, loss—is a natural part of the life cycle—of God’s divine plan—and if welcomed with gratitude and love, leads to new and healthy growth. Of course, I am not saying that we should not reject injustice, cruelty, and useless and unnecessary suffering; we must look these clearly in the eye when we encounter them and fight them to the best of our ability. But it would help us to remember that these too were faced by primitive people yet did not prevent those people from irrepressibly saying “yes” to life.

One of the keys to living a healthy and happy life is, I think, awareness or consciousness. The more we can be non-attached and alert to what is happening around us and to us, the less likely we are to be taken by surprise and the more likely we are to say “yes” to everything. Non-attachment does not mean coldness or indifference; we can and should be passionate. But it does mean not allowing our egos to cling to the issues that arise in our lives and to drain away the joy and the sweetness of living.

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