Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

Beware of Predetermined Outcomes

Once Upon A Time

I heard a pretty good story the other day on the radio. It was about these two guys back I Europe, a couple hundred years ago who had an interesting theory. I’m not exactly sure what their professions were, but I think it was some type of profession that had to do with sociology or religion. I think maybe they were professors or something.

Anyway, they had this idea that if they went out to the small towns around Europe (this during a time of relative peace, before the two big world wars) and talked to enough people, they would find something very interesting. Being both devout Christians, they figured they would be able to piece together all the stories from various towns and villages, and put together some super grand unification theory of morality.

They were hoping to find some kind of underlying message or ethical punch line to all these various stories that had been passed down from generation to generation. Their underlying assumption was that God somehow transmits ideas to people, and then people transmit His ideas through their own experiences.

If they collected enough of these stories, they would be able to find the similar themes and messages, and strip out the various personal and local flavors that had been added to these tales over the years, and uncover Gods clear message to humanity.

Unfortunately, after several years of research, all they had was a bunch of nonsense that didn’t really make any sense. The stories they heard from this town over here had absolutely nothing at all to do with the tales they heard from that village over there.

Dejected, they gave up, and went home as failures and went back to teaching, or whatever it was they did before they set out on their failed mission.
Those that have studied the works of Joseph Campbell may see a similar structure in this. He went around the world, for many years, and studied mythology from different cultures, and unlike the two failed researchers mentioned above, he found some very striking similarities between the myths of all cultures.

They more or less followed something called a “Hero’s Journey,” in which there was a young kid, who lived a relatively boring life. Then some higher spirit or god called him on a journey, and he either was forced to go, or went on it on his on volition. On the journey he learns new things about himself, and fights some evil monster, and then returns to his previous life, but now an “enlightened” person, who is seen as a leader or a person of significance in his original community.

That’s pretty much the rough outline, there are several variations, and he identified seventeen or eighteen elements of which 4 or 5 exist in almost every mythological tale ever passed on from human to human. The “Hero’s Journey” is at the core.

If you take as step back, you can see this in many popular movies, as well as modern mythology (e.g. Christianity). Luke Skywalker, Dorothy, Harry Potter, that kid in Transformers, and even Jesus of Nazareth follow the same outline of the Hero’s Journey.

Many believe the reason behind this ubiquitous story structure is the method by which we are all born. We are in the womb, and then the contractions start, and then we are forced through the birth canal and out in the world, literally kicking and screaming. Dorothy and Luke on their respective farms, Harry in his room under the steps, Spiderman living a life of Peter parker, and even Jesus the humble carpenter are all metaphors for the womb.

The Dorothy’s tornado, Luke’s journey with Obi Won, Harry being swept away to Hogwarts, are all metaphors for being pulled into the birth canal.

Then when Harry becomes a wizard, Dorothy finds the wizard, and Luke becomes a Jedi are all metaphors for being born. And the same process, repeats over and over again throughout our lives, giving that particular story structure a strange affinity to our unconscious.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about linguistics. And there are two kinds of grammar, prescriptive grammar, and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is the kind of grammar you “should” use, and descriptive grammar is the kind that people actually use.

Apparently, any linguist worth his salt studies “descriptive,” grammar, just like any scientists worth his salt checks his expectations at the door and measures reality the way it really is, and not the way he thinks it should be, or the way he wishes it were.

Those that advocate prescriptive grammar, (which actually stems from schools in London many years ago that basically “invented” certain grammar rules so that upper class wanna-be’s could distinguish themselves from the rabble) are advocating a method of speech based on what they think “should” be the way you talk.

There is more and more evidence that strongly suggests that language is a biologically based instinct, and prescriptive grammar is no more natural than removing a couple of ribs to make your waist skinner.

Which, I think, lays the difference between those two researchers, who came up empty, and Joseph Campbell, who discovered some fantastic insights into human nature.

The first two were trying to prove what they thought was a pre determined outcome, while Campbell was merely studying and observing, as a scientific.

Of course the first two guys, who were brothers, and had the last name of Grimm, didn’t completely fail. Several years after they collected their stories, a friend suggested they publish them as children’s stories.

And that is how the Brothers Grimm Fairly Tales came to be. An attempt to uncover some mystical teachings of God, which turned out to be some pretty cool stories.

Note: The story of how the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales came about was heard on Paul Harvey’s “The Rest Of The Story.”


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Use The Force, Luke

The Journey

In two weeks there is going to be a new nine-screen movie theater opening up near my apartment, so I’m pretty excited. One of my favorite things to do on the weekends is to catch a good matinee. Recently there haven’t been too many good movies out, at least in my neck of the woods. Hopefully in a couple weeks they’ll be some decent ones to see. One thing that I’m particularly looking forward to is that because the new theater is opening in an existing mall, there is already a coffee shop underneath the place.

If there’s a decent place to hang out for a couple hours reading in a coffee shop, then heading upstairs to turn off my brain and take in a good movie, I can’t think of too many more enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon. Especially if I happen to be reading a good book, and the movie is one that I’ve been particularly looking forward to.

The history of movies is kind of interesting. It’s been through a lot of iterations, and ups and downs. One thing that I wasn’t aware of until recently is that even during the great depression, the movie industry was booming. For a few dollars, or back then a few cents, you could completely escape the stresses and anxieties of every day life and lose yourself in a story. People tend to have a real desire to be told a story. But not just any story, a story with a particular structure.

If you step back and take a look at the basic structure of most movies, you’ll notice they follow the same pattern, more or less. (Except for movies like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet.) Obviously there has to be some kind of problem that is set up, and a character that we can root for to overcome the problem. The movie is basically us going along for the ride with the character to see how he or she solves the problem. Psychologists tell us that by watching the character overcome problems, we get some kind of vicarious benefit. The Greeks called it catharsis.

There is one particular structure that has always been popular. And when I saw always, I mean for the past several thousand years always. Ten or twenty, or even more thousand years always. This was described beautifully by Joseph Campbell in many of his books.

He traveled and studied mythology from various cultures from various times. And he found they more often than not followed a specific pattern. They usually start out with a regular character, a guy or girl we can identify with. Then something happens, and the main character is called to go on some journey, or voyage, or quest. Sometimes the character agrees, but usually they don’t. Then they are forced to go along. And along their journey, or quest, they meet up with new people, form a team, and they must face some bad guy. Together with their new team, they defeat the bad guy, and return back to their home a much stronger, better and more worldly person. Campbell called this “The Hero’s Journey.”

Likely the most famous here’s journey story is Star Wars, and it’s not secret that George Lucas depended heavily on Campbell in the making of the first trilogy (The first trilogy release, not the first chronological trilogy.) Other popular movies have also followed this basic structure. Spiderman, Harry Potter, Transformers, The Matrix. All involve a normal guy, who was called on a journey, and through the journey was transformed, and either given special powers (Spiderman, The Matrix) or found out hey had special powers all along (Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz).

At the risk of offending my Christian readers, I suggest that the greatest story ever told, namely that of Jesus of Nazareth follows this same structure exactly. A normal guy, a carpenter, gets called on a mission. He collects a new team (The Twelve Disciples), tries to refuse the hero’s call in the Garden of Gethsemane (Father, let this cup pass me, but If it is Your will, then it shall be done) and finally accepts the challenge. Then when he returns (The Transfiguration) he has special powers. The ultimate special power. He is the Risen Christ, the Son of God; the Creator of all that is, was and will be. The Alpha and the Omega.
As a quick side note, if you are into hypnotic language patterns, Jesus delivers a doozy in the temple. He starts reading from a scroll from the Old Testament (then called something else), and the elders question his authority, as back in those days, you had to be pretty old to that. They ask him what he knows of Abraham, and he says:

“Before Abraham was, I am.”

Which of course alludes to the previous statement by God himself when Moses asks what to say when they ask who sent him:

“I Am Who Am.”

The technical term for what both God and Jesus used would be a temporal shift, but I digress.

The most interesting question is why is that structure so powerful? Why are we so captivated, as moviegoers, when Peter Parker, Neo, Dorothy, Harry, and Luke go through the same Hero’s Journey? Why do we feel so much “rapport” with them when they get called on a journey that they probably feel deep down is the right thing to do, but don’t quite have enough courage to accept the offer?

Because we’ve all gone through the same journey. We’ve all been called, resisted, and due to forces beyond our control, were thrust into a journey that forced us to sink or swim. And we all made it. Every last one of us. What is that journey, you ask?

Being born.

That structure, the hero’s journey is imprinted on every single living human being on a deep, deep unconscious level, as we went through that exact procedure when we came into this world. (Unless you happen to be a clone or an alien).

When we were in the womb, the comfortable, safe womb, we were just like Harry Potter in his Uncles closet, or Dorothy on the farm, or Luke on his farm. Then the birth contractions started. We felt called to a journey that we weren’t quite ready to go on, and we resisted as much as possible. But then when we couldn’t resist any more, life called us forward. Literally kicking and screaming.

The path to life is the Hero’s journey. A journey that repeats itself every time you start a new job, or make a new friend, or enter in a new relationship.

The hero’s journey becomes life itself.

And the hero, is you.


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What Magic Lies In Sleep?

What Do Your Dreams Mean?

I went to a lecture once about how to interpret dreams. The famous Dr. Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, along with Dr. Watson, gave it. The lecture wasn’t about how to look into them like tea leaves, but rather how the brain was structured and why dreams have such a disjointed story line to them.

I don’t know if you remember you dreams. I usually do, at least for the first few minutes when I wake up. Unless it’s a particularly strange dream that seems to have obvious symbolic meaning, I’ll usually forget it in a few moments. Usually by the time I get to the bathroom. Sometimes, though, I’ll have a dream that has obvious significance to a problem that I’ve been giving a lot of conscious thought to, and many times the dream will contain a solution. When that happens, it’s pretty lucky.

Some people completely discount dreams as meaningless jumbles of random images that they can’t remember. Others treat dreams with as much respect as Neo treated the Oracle. I once saw this huge book, over a thousand pages, filled with dream symbols and what they mean.

That is another whole discussion in and of itself. If I dream of a purple teapot, and you dream of a purple teapot, do they have the same significance? Do they mean the same thing? I would suggest they don’t, but many think that they do.

The whole of Jungian psychoanalysis is based on the idea of “archetypes.” After listening to many hundreds and perhaps thousands of patients, he noticed they many of the same images appeared when they described their dreams. That led him to his theory of archetypes, or some kind of large, shared symbolic library that all of us have access to. This is the idea of some kind of “superconscious” or “infinite intelligence,” as Napoleon Hill described it in “Think and Grow Rich.”

If you read any work by Joseph Campbell, he comes to the same conclusion, that we all share a similar set of symbols and stories, but his reasoning is different than a “superconscious.”

If you aren’t familiar with Campbell’s work, he studied mythology from several cultures around the world, and discovered that they are all very similar in structure. The stories are the same, the characters are the same, and the underlying messages of the stories are basically the same. His reasoning was that since all humans share similar structures in our brains, and a similar experience of how we come into the world and learn to fight for our survival, we al develop the same stories and symbols, regardless of which culture and time we come from.

A good example would be a pasta machine (A what?). A pasta machine. Imagine you have a pasta machine that is set to produce a certain kind of macaroni. You dump in your pasta mix, hit the start button, and then out comes the macaroni. You put the macaroni in a bag, and stick it in the cupboard to eat later. Then you clean the pasta machine and put it away. Somebody else comes along, and makes another batch of pasta. Except they use completely different ingredients, so it comes out smelling and looking and tasting different. But they don’t change the filter on the pasta machine, so it comes out looking the same as your macaroni. Same length, same shape, same curvature. And then they stick it in the cupboard next to yours.

This happen several different times, until there are about twenty different bags of pasta in the cupboard. Then somebody steals the pasta machine and sells it at a garage sale to gamble on dog racing, or something. A few years pass, and the house I bought buy an amateur scientist. He happens to be from Mars, and doesn’t know a thing about pasta. He notices that despite having different flavors and smells, each pasta is shaped the same way.

So he assumes that all the pasta came from the same source. The same person made all the pasta. There must be some grand wizard that has some mysterious combination of all the different pasta’s. He starts to imagine what he great god of pasta must be like to have create all these different kinds of pasta from the same source. There must be some “super pasta source” or “infinite dough” somewhere to produce all these similar pasta.

Of course, his theory is incorrect. Different people made different pasta using different ingredients that they bought from different stores. They just squeezed them all through the same filter that they were too lazy to change.

Campbell’s conclusion was similar. We are all squeezed through the same filter. Namely the process of being born, struggling for several years learning to walk and talk and wipe our own asses and make money and buy food, and keep people from stealing our stuff. So consequently, we have similar ideas and visions and symbolisms about the world.

To him the idea of a superconscious is merely a placeholder in our minds to describe the confounding fact that despite never having come in contact until the last few hundred years both eastern tradition and western tradition both developed mythologies of giant dangerous dragons, which were both basically huge snakes or lizards.

The Jungian would explain this as some deep superconscious symbolism of a dragon being evil (even in the garden of Eden the snake was the bad guy) because of some metaphysical cosmic reason.

The Campbellian would point out that coming up with a mythology of huge dangerous reptiles would be natural if you live in an area where some seemingly small and harmless animal like a snake could kill you with one bite, hence giving it some mythologically dark properties.

Which brings me back to Dr. Crick. He was explaining that we have such messed up dreams because of the lattice structure of the brain. Everything isn’t neatly stacked into different piles separate from each other. All the information is cris-crossed all over the place. So remembering one thing may cause you to remember something completely different (Just like on Monty Python).

His theory was that dreams are merely a kind of disk defrag that our brains do naturally while we sleep. However, there have been many people throughout history who have solved complex problems, and made breakthrough discoveries by paying attention to their dreams.

It could be the when we have problems, we know the answer on some level, but we just don’t know how to express it. Because our brains are largely based on images, the solutions naturally come to us through all the various pictures and memories that we have stored in our brains.

For example, the guy who invented the sewing machine had a dream he was in the jungle, and the natives were throwing spears at him with holes in the tips. The guy that came up with the structure for benzene, and pretty much started the whole study of organic chemistry dreamed of a snake eating its tale.

Whether our dreams come from some collective intelligence, or they are merely remnants of our evolutionary past, they can give us very powerful messages. You just need to be creative enough to interpret them. A good strategy would be to ask yourself a question while you are falling asleep, and just pay attention when you wake up. Perhaps you dreamed the solution in the form of images and weird story lines.

The bottom line is that whatever you think about dreams, they can be a powerful tool that most people never choose to utilize. Just by asking some good questions as you fall asleep, and paying attention to any answers that may come in the morning, you might find yourself creating all kinds of good things in your life.