Myth, ritual, meaning, communion… Following on from The Embodied Sacred introduction, here is part 1 of the first chapter: The Masks of God.
Spirituality has to do with the heart of the matter, the core of our lives – with how our minds experience meaning, create values and open to expansive states of consciousness. At its best, spirituality inspires, uplifts, consoles, heals and helps us to grow. Spirituality is an inside job, but it has the power to profoundly affect our outside lives.
It is from the evocative inner world that spirituality emerges. It finds its genesis in our capacity for using symbols to express meaning and feelings like longing, fear and wonder. These symbols might be in the form of spoken or written language, visual, musical or movement-based arts, or the powerful imagery of myth.
How did the world begin? Who created it and what does he/she/it look like? How will it end? Why should we not steal? Where does the Sun go in the evening? Where does the moon go for three days before she starts to grow gradually full again? How did the leopard get its spots? What happens after we die? Do the animals we hunt understand that we have to kill them to live? Why was the harvest bigger this year than last year?
The creation of mythology has been an essential aspect of spirituality throughout human history. This storytelling activity is a way our evolving brains make sense of the experience of being alive. In so doing we attempt to explain what is beyond our knowledge at a particular point in time using metaphors, images and symbols.
Mythology is also specific to a given culture and geography and so brings us into a sense of belonging to our particular society and communing with our natural landscape and the forces we imagine animate and lie behind nature.
Another key aspect of spirituality is ritual. The ritual is often either a depiction of the myth or a way of celebrating and making offerings to the powers it personifies. Rituals serve as an activity that opens us to a sense of insight, healing, expansion or freedom. Using sacred space that is set aside for ritual practice that may include breathing techniques, masks and costumes, plant medicines, and specific sequences of physical actions, rituals induce a trance state in which we are more aware of our dream-like inner worlds. They are also often used as a form of magic that attempts to control the outside world.
Though most 21st century Westerners may no longer make sacrificial offerings to the gods, dance naked around the fire under a full moon or walk in costumed procession to the mountain to observe the vernal equinox, all religion, storytelling, literature, visual art (including cinema) and philosophy can be traced back to myth. Likewise, all spiritual practice, psychotherapy, music and dance can be traced back to ritual.
The religious service, the sports stadium, Wailing Wall, the academic graduation, ceremonial prostrations, the yoga class, the nightclub, the meditation hall, the outdoor music festival, the massage table, the Academy Awards ceremony, the therapy couch, the strip club, the opera or theater, the Burning Man “playa,” and the candle-lit bedroom are all examples of arenas in which contemporary humans still participate in forms of ritual.
But for many of us in the modern world, the mythologies of the past no longer serve their function—they don’t feel relevant or impacting, and we have either given up on conventional ritual altogether or else sought out alternative forms because the old world traditions began at some point to feel empty. Though they may still carry sentimental value, myths and rituals from another time and culture need to be revitalized or re-imagined if they are to carry genuine power in our contemporary psyches.
If myth and ritual are to be alive and meaningful, they must address the spiritual dimension of our actual lives, here and now. But what does that mean?
World-renown late scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell suggested after the moon landing of 1969 that we use the famous first photograph of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon as a contemporary universal mythic symbol. This reflects the beginning of a post-tribal, world-centric era, and suggests that we can find a collective myth that serves to unify humanity. This idea also brings science and spirituality together, but this is not such a strange idea, because myth has always existed just beyond our evolving level of knowledge about the cosmos – and we now have an exponentially different understanding of the earth and the heavens than did previous generations.
Though the myths themselves may be culturally, geographically and temporally specific, they arise from a universal function in the human mind that is still active in us now. This is even more the case with ritual, because rituals evolved as ways of affecting the state of the human body and mind, the same nervous system and brain that is innate to all of us. Even though certain magic and mythic interpretations of the ritual experience may no longer be plausible, their effectiveness at inducing pleasurable, meaningful and healing states of being is the reason why practices like yoga, meditation and tribal dance and drumming continue to flourish in the contemporary Western world.
Mythology, like a collective dream, carries potent symbolic energy and information back and forth between our inner, outer, personal and collective realms. Ritual has served to take us into the state of mind where we have access to that inner language of rich feeling and imagery, symbol and metaphor, insight and meaning. Myth gives the tribe a story and ritual allows the tribe to enter a shared experience of that story.
However, from the heightened state of consciousness created in the ritual the story will, over time, keep transforming to meet the needs and reflect the reality of the tribe—or perhaps, so it should.
What follows will take you on a short journey through the evolving history of the spiritual dimension of human life. Campbell called myths the “masks of God.” He said “when myths function correctly they become transparent to transcendence.”
We’ll start then with the earliest known forms of myth and ritual and follow a thread all the way through to our present spiritual situation. Think of it as a creative tour of the evolving perspectives, concerns and experiences that have held central meaning to human societies and individuals.
You will notice some remarkably consistent themes as well as others that will be quite different. You will also see certain ideas and practices disappear only to return later. This is not intended to be a complete and final history, but it does include many of the most significant expressions of our evolving spirituality. It includes both the sublime and the grotesque, for such are the forces we have always been seeking to reconcile. It is also not a strictly linear process, as evolution occurs also in part through a kind of spiral motion as well as the punctuated equilibrium of sudden change.
As you take this journey notice the ongoing struggle to make sense of our relationship to tribe, death, nature and transcendence.