There are two types of content consciousness can have – one is rational and the other is mythological. In the particular type of a culture we live in ‘rational content’ is the name of the game. Everything is rational; everything has a rational explanation. We have no use whatsoever for the mythological. Who – these days – sees the world in epic mythological terms? Who amongst us walks around with a head full of grand mythological content? Who can say that he or she lives the full-blooded life of a myth, rather than living the down-at-heel life of a generic and therefore thoroughly unremarkable ‘social unit’? Such a person would be an anachronism, a throw-back, a misfit who is hopelessly maladapted to the requirements of modern society.
As we have just said, we don’t have time for the mythological these days. It just doesn’t have any meaning for us. If anything, it suggests eccentricity or immaturity or even mental illness. And yet the only problem with our neat-and-tidy rational version of life is that life without any mythological content is life without any meaning. What sort of a meaning – after all – is a ‘rational meaning’? The rational life is all about goals, targets, agendas, dead-lines, proper procedures, and so on. That’s all there is to it – it’s all terminally dull. The rational life is a bureaucracy – the best outcome we could hope for is simply to get through it without getting into trouble for being in breach of any regulations; the best we could hope for is simply to get through it, ticking all the relevant boxes as we go and thereby avoiding getting on the wrong side of it all! In this type of life it’s all about obtaining the goals we are supposed to obtain – if we manage this then that’s good and if we don’t then that is lamentable. There’s a conveyer belt full of dry routine tasks and we just have to keep up with it!
This however isn’t life, more matter what we might be told at school. Life isn’t like this – life isn’t a grey bureaucracy, it’s an adventure. The car ads say buying the latest model of this car or that car is an adventure but it isn’t; an adventure is when we leave the beaten tracks and stop doing whatever everyone else is doing. Gurdjieff says, “In life don’t do as others do…” When we do as others do life is never going to be an adventure, whatever else it may be! In Joseph Campbell’s terms, we could say that life only becomes ‘the Hero’s Journey’ when we dare to accept the unique challenge that it presents us with; when we fail to respond to this unique challenge and instead respond obediently to the ‘generic challenge’ that society throws at everyone indiscriminately (in true ‘one size fits all’ fashion) then instead of the adventure we end up its negative (which is excruciatingly tedious attempt to avoid the adventure). ‘Mythological’ means that it doesn’t come out of a text-book, a manual, a catalogue or the pages of some academic journal. It means that we don’t read about it in the colour supplement magazine or see an advert come up for it in our web-browser. It is never encountered in the form of a social media meme or a topic of discussion on a TV chat show. It’s not a fashionable bandwagon that we can jump on, or take a course on. None of the above are ‘mythological’ in nature because mythological means that it speaks to us alone, not via an official mediator, not via some kind of presumed ‘external authority on the subject’…
One way of talking about the mythological is to say that it is the uncharted, the unexplored, and that life therefore only becomes charged with what we might call ‘mythological meaning’ when we have the courage to live our own lives, not someone else’s version or take on it. It’s not that no one has ever travelled this territory before but rather that it’s the sort of territory that is always new. It’s new because it’s actually real rather than being a copy of someone else’s idea or concept of what life is or should be. Whenever life is lived authentically therefore, it always has the mythological quality. Or perhaps we should simply say that life itself is always ‘mythological’ (rather than coldly ‘factual’) in nature. According to the prevalent rational outlook a ‘myth’ is something that isn’t real – according to this outlook things are only real when they match our pre-established categories, out ‘built-in categories’, our hard-wired expectations. This ‘matching’ is what real means for the categorical mind – the unspoken assumption here being that there is no reality that lies beyond its categories.
Something does exist beyond the thinking mind’s categories however – it’s just that we’re not usually brave enough to venture forth and find out! What exists beyond the thinking mind’s categories is the mythological world – the world which doesn’t come with an operator’s manual, the world which doesn’t fit our preconceptions or obey our rules, the world which we don’t actually know anything about at all… This is – we might say – a world that is brimming over with strange meanings but which we ourselves can give no meaning at all. If we do give it our own meaning it immediately ceases to be mythological and becomes ‘merely factual’ instead. It loses its flavour. The mythological realm has its own meaning, which is a meaning that has nothing to do with us, a meaning which exists in shocking contrast to the type of so-called ‘meaning’ (i.e. manufactured meaning) with which we usually surround ourselves. The factual world which we routinely inhabit every day is a construct after all; we ourselves made it and this is why it can never surprise us, this is why it exists in ‘shocking contrast’ to the mythological realm. We manufactured for ourselves a world that will never surprise us as a way of escaping from the mythological realm since the ‘journey into reality’ is not a journey we feel ready for yet. And on the whole – for most of us – it seems that we never will be ready to make this particular journey! The hero in us is strangely quiescent, strangely inactivated….
The big thing here of course is that no one wants to admit this to themselves. We don’t want to admit it individually and we certainly don’t want to admit it collectively. Collectively speaking, there exists the most formidably solid collusion you could ever imagine against anyone ever finding out that we’re all engaged in trying to avoid the Hero’s Journey. This collusion is called society! We don’t want to admit to ourselves that the world we live in is a flat (and therefore fundamentally unwholesome) construct; if we did admit this then we would also have to admit to being constructs ourselves, and who wants to own up to that? Very clearly, if we live in a mechanical system then we ourselves must be mechanical – how could we live within the sterile confines of a mechanical system and be in any way content with this situation if we ourselves were not aligned to it, if we ourselves were not ‘part-and-parcel’ of that system? If we were not ourselves constructs of the system then to live out our lives in it would be unbearable. The only reason we are able to go on living within the abusively restrictive terms of the social collusion is because we have learned to accept those terms as being synonymous with reality itself. The only reason we can carry on living in this truncated way is because we have become adapted to the ‘constructed world’ and being adapted to the construct necessarily means losing connection with our ‘unconstructed nature’ (which some might call ‘our souls’). Our day-to-day consciousness has become conditioned by the rules which govern this mechanical realm and that is why it seems ‘normal’ to us. Conditioning is the only reason anything ever gets to seem ‘normal’…
If we were truly ourselves then we would have nothing to do with the type of ‘life’ that has been imposed on us. It is foreign to our nature; more than just ‘foreign’ it is actively inimical. Why is it so inimical? Because it is ‘non-mythological’ in nature, because it denies us to experience of life as life actually is in itself. The immersive rational modality cuts us off from life as life actually is, and it separates us from ourselves as we actually are. What’s not ‘inimical’ about that? The social collusion is mechanical from beginning to end – it never ‘dovetails’ with the mythological realm and this means that it never dovetails with life itself. As we have said, the wholly mechanical nature of the life we are living is the very thing we are so avoidant of seeing. If we do ever become aware of the mechanicalness of our day-to-day life then we put it down as a ‘necessary evil’ – we see it as something that we’re going to have to put up with in order to get where we want to go, which is somewhere ‘non-mechanical’ (i.e. somewhere ‘free from constraint’). The only thing about this however is that it just isn’t going to happen! No one likes to see their lifestyle (or their personality) as being ‘mechanical’ (just as no one wants to see that they are perfectly devoid of any sense of humour) and so rather than face this unpalatable truth we cling stubbornly to some illusion of ‘non-mechanicalness’. This really comes down to nothing more than sentimentality however – there’s nothing else it could be because there’s simply no room in the mechanical mind (or the rational outlook) for anything genuinely non-literal (which is to say, anything mythological). The mythological does not play second fiddle to the rational – it is not something that can be conveniently tamed and then used to disguise the appalling life-denying aridity of the exclusively rational way of life.
The difference between rational and mythological content is that methodical content is big (just as Jung’s ‘big dreams’ are big) whilst rational content is frighteningly petty. We all know this instinctively, even if we don’t reflect on it very much. Whilst the big can contain the petty this cannot work the other way around. The modern mind is therefore very, very small. It is terribly petty – there’s no room in it at for anything of genuine interest or worth. Our aims, our values, our sense of purpose (inasmuch as we can be said to have any) are as small as small can be. They don’t bear careful examination! They can’t really be otherwise – no matter what our goals or purposes might be, they are at the same time our limits. Goals might sound like something to aim for, they might sound like the promise of progress, but really they’re just the box that we’re stuck in. No matter how broad we might feel our world-view is, we still never get to see what lies on the outside of the box. The box is the limit of what is possible as far as we are concerned; it is made up of the assumptions upon which the thinking mind is founded. The box is our assumptions, in other words!
The trouble with all of our aims, purposes, plans, theories, etc (the trouble with our ways of understanding the world) is that they are all completely flat, completely concrete, completely literal. Our goals are precisely what we say they are and nothing more and this means that they constitute a solid brick wall in front of us, a brick wall that we are never going to get past. Our plans are what hem us in, in other words. The difference between the rational world view and the mythological one is that whilst the former never goes beyond itself and is therefore not a gateway to anything else, anything qualitatively different to itself, the latter is always ‘bigger’ than it might at first have appeared to be. The mythological landscape doesn’t stay the same but rather it keeps on ‘opening up’ right in front of our eyes. The rational landscape does stay the same – it is closed to qualitative change. The rational world is closed down and it’s going to stay closed down. Goals – because they are certain – are at the same time limits. Certainty sounds good to us (because we’re keen to grasp onto something solid, something reliable) but it turns out to be not so great after all. All of our fancy talk about ‘progress’ means nothing – that’s just hype to distract us from seeing that we’re busy digging our own grave…
Mythological content isn’t fixed and final (which means that we can’t really call it ‘content’ as such). Meanings shift and change, the one meaning giving way to the other, the one leading on to the other. This is akin to what sometimes gets called ‘the logic of dreams’, which as we all know isn’t any sort of recognizable logic at all! The logic of dreams makes no discernable sense to the rational mind but is this to say that dreams are simply nonsense? Are dreams empty of meaning just because the fail to follow the laws of logic? Or does it – on the contrary – mean that the laws of logic are an absurd over-simplification of life, so absurdly over-simplified as to completely miss the point (inasmuch as life can be said to have a point)? It would of course be better to say, as Alan Watts does, that the point of life is that there is no point – not in the nihilistic sense that we might normally take this phrase but in the sense of there being no final goal. If there was a final goal then everything that led up to it would have to make sense in terms of it, which would mean that everything is about the goal (i.e. which means that nothing else matters apart from the goal). This however isn’t meaning, it’s a collapse of meaning!
This gives us a good way of talking about essential difference between the rational and the mythological – in the rational realm everything is reduced to the level of the goal, to the level of the framework of meaning within which the goal makes sense. Nothing could be greater; we don’t have the capacity to understand that something could be greater. In the mythological realm the goal (or the framework of meaning associated with the goal) is only a pretext to lead us on; it’s only an appearance that will give way – at the right time – to a higher meaning, a deeper meaning. No goal, no concept, no viewpoint, no storyline can ever adequately express what is being revealed, but each can play its part in hinting, in a temporary and necessarily incomplete way, at what can never be represented in finite terms.
The mythological life is the unspeakable life – the life that is too great to be expressed, too great to be communicated. It is too big to fit into any theory, any world-view. The rational life, on the other hand, always has to fit into the columns of the accounting books. It always has to conform to the officially approved narrative. The contrast between the two couldn’t be greater, couldn’t be starker. One way we ‘live up to life’, the other way we compel life to live down the level of our banal ideas about it. How then – seeing this – could we have opted for the latter rather than the former? How could we have opted to deny ourselves, to turn our back on our own potential and suppress our own growth rather set out on the journey that awaits us?
This isn’t a moralistic point. It’s not that we really ought to ’embrace the Hero’s Journey’, like good girls and boys. It’s not that we should kick ourselves if we don’t. It’s just a matter of seeing what is really going on, if it so happens that we’re interested in doing so. If we’re not interested, then we won’t! It’s a matter of us seeing ourselves – both individually and collectively – busily engaged in denying ourselves whilst at the same time affirming what we’re doing as ‘the socially responsible thing to do’. To see this is to start living heroically; to see this extraordinarily dark truth is itself the start of the adventure…
Art: Vasylina Holodilina
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.