Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “joseph campbell”

Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and the Pathway to Bliss in Romantic Relationships

“Perfection is inhuman… What evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being.”

“Where the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. “Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” Indeed, just like perfectionism kills creativity, it also kills love — the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned and disheartened we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity which, if untainted by these blinding ideals, is the very wellspring of true love. That is what playwright Tom Stoppard captured in what is perhaps the greatest definition of love, in his notion of “the mask slipped from the face,” the stripping of the idealized projection, the surrender to the beautiful imperfection of a human being.

How to successfully navigate love’s maze of ideal and reality is what master-mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell explores in a section of the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (public library), which offers a more personal complement to Campbell’s influential writings on bliss and the power of myth.

A century and a half after Stendhal’s insightful ideas on why we fall out of love, Campbell builds upon Carl Jung’s psychological theory of anima (the female ideal in the masculine unconscious) and animus (the male ideal in the feminine unconscious), and explores how our clinging to those ideals blinds us to the most rewarding part of romance.

His focus on marriage is especially timely and poignant today, when the institution of marriage is being reimagined to be more inclusive and more just, which also means it’s being challenged to rise to higher standards of integrity. Campbell writes:

Two people meet and fall in love. Then they marry, and the real Sam or Suzy begins to show through the fantasy, and, boy, is it a shock. So a lot of little boys and girls just withdraw their anima or animus. They get a divorce and wait for another receptive person, pitch the woo again, and, uh-oh, another shock. And so on and so forth.

Now the one undeniable fact: this disillusion is inevitable. You had an ideal. You married that ideal, then along comes a fact that does not correspond to that ideal. You suddenly notice things that do not quite fit with your projection. So what are you going to do when that happens? There’s only one attitude that will solve the situation: compassion. This poor, poor fact that I married does not correspond to my ideal; it’s only a human being. Well, I’m a human being, too. So I’ll meet a human being for a change; I’ll live with it and be nice to it, showing compassion for the fallibilities that I myself have certainly brought to life as a human being.

Decades later, Dan Savage would come to call this “the price of admission” — the most potent antidote to the perilous myth of “the one,” which is built upon a scaffolding of illusion and unattainable ideals. Campbell captures this with clarity at once grounding and elevating:

Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love — and I mean love, not lust — is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, this is a challenge to my compassion. Then make a try, and something might begin to get going here. You might begin to be quit of your fix on your anima.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from ‘Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical’ by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Campbell adds:

It’s just as bad to be fixed on your anima and miss as to be fixed on your persona: you’ve got to get free of that. And the lesson of life is to release you from it.

[…]

The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to — as well as to demand of — the world.

This is how one is to deal with animus and anima disillusionment… That’s reality evoking a new depth of reality in yourself, because you’re imperfect, too. You may not know it. The world is a constellation of imperfections, and you, perhaps, are the most imperfect of all. By your love for the world you name it accurately and without pity and love what you have thus named… This discovery can help you save your marriage.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, paradoxically, Campbell argues that this is the task of life — not to avoid these anima and animus projections, which we all carry, but to confront them with courage and do the work of disillusionment so we can get to the imperfect realness of which true love is woven. (This is what Rilke meant when he counseled his young friend that “for one human being to love another … is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks … the work for which all other work is but preparation.”) Campbell speaks to the necessity of both the preparation and the work itself:

One of the boldest things you could possibly do would be to marry that ideal that you’ve fallen for. Then you face a real job, because everything has been projected onto him or her. This goes beyond lust; this is something that goes way down. It pulls everything out. This anima/animus is the fish line that has caught your whole unconscious, and everything’s going to come up — the Midgard Serpent, everything down in the bottom. This is what you marry.

Pathways to Bliss is a magnificent, richly insightful read in its entirety. Complement it with Campbell on the eleven stages of the hero’s journey — which, in a way, apply just as aptly to the lover’s journey — and his timeless wisdom on how to have a fulfilling life, then revisit the great Wendell Berry on marriage and Susan Sontag on the complexities of love.

BP

What Makes a Hero: Joseph Campbell’s Seminal Monomyth Model for the Eleven Stages of the Hero’s Journey, Animated

“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.”

Nearly four decades before Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) refined his enduring ideas on how to find your bliss and have fulfilling life, the legendary mythologist penned The Hero with a Thousand Faces (public library) — his seminal theory outlining the common journey of the archetypal hero across a wealth of ancient myths from around the world. Campbell’s monomyth model has since been applied to everything from the lives of great artists to pop-culture classics like Star Wars.

This wonderful short animation from TED Ed presents a synthesis of Campbell’s foundational framework for the eleven stages of the hero’s quest — from the call to adventure to the crisis to the moment of return and transformation — illustrating its timeless potency in illuminating the inner workings of so many of our modern myths and the real-life heroes we’ve come to worship:

But perhaps Campbell’s most important and enduring point from the book has to do not with the mechanics of the hero’s journey but with the very purpose of hero-myths in human life. He writes in the opening chapter:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

[…]

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called “the archetypal images.”

Complement The Hero with a Thousand Faces with pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead on the role of “mythic ancestors” in how we form our identity, then revisit Campbell on how to find your bliss.

For more treasures from TED Ed, see these animated primers on how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

BP

How to Find Your Bliss: Joseph Campbell on What It Takes to Have a Fulfilling Life

“You have to learn to recognize your own depth.”

In 1985, mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) sat down with legendary interviewer and idea-monger Bill Moyers for a lengthy conversation at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in California, which continued the following year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The resulting 24 hours of raw footage were edited down to six one-hour episodes and broadcast on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, in what became one of the most popular series in the history of public television.

But Moyers and the team at PBS felt that the unedited conversation, three quarters of which didn’t make it into the television production, was so rich in substance that it merited preservation and public attention. Shortly after the broadcast, the full transcript was published as The Power of Myth (public library) — a dimensional discussion of Campbell’s views on spirituality, psychological archetypes, cultural myths, and the mythology of self. The book is nothing short of secular scripture — a trove of wisdom on the human experience in the canon of such rare masterworks as Thoreau’s journals, Simone Weil’s notebooks, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

As Moyers notes in the introduction, Campbell saw as the greatest human transgression “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” This, perhaps, is why the most rewarding part of the conversation deals with the dictum that has come to encapsulate Campbell’s philosophy on life: “Follow your bliss.” Decades before the screaming tyranny of work/life balance reached its modern crescendo, Campbell put a sympathetic ear to the soul’s cry and identified with enormous elegance and precision the root of our existential dissatisfaction. He tells Moyers:

If you 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. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

Discerning one’s bliss, Campbell argues, requires what he calls “sacred space” — a space for uninterrupted reflection and unrushed creative work. Far from a mystical idea, this is something that many artists and writers have put into practice by way of their peculiar workspace rituals, as well as something cognitive science has illuminated in exploring the psychology of the perfect daily routine. But Campbell sees past the practical rituals of creativity and into the deeper psychic and spiritual drivers — that profound need for a “bliss station” into which to root ourselves:

[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

[…]

Our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it.

Two centuries after Kierkegaard admonished against the cowardice of the crowd, Campbell argues that we often lose our way on the path to our bliss station as society’s limiting notions of success peer-pressure us into unimaginative, fail-safe pursuits:

It’s characteristic of democracy that majority rule is understood as being effective not only in politics but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is always wrong.

[…]

The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.

Illustration from Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

Opening up to those more meaningful dimensions of bliss, Campbell insists, is simply a matter of letting your life speak:

We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mark Strand’s beautiful meditation on the poet’s task of bearing witness to the universe, Campbell points to poets as the most attentive of listeners to the language of bliss:

Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under those circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.

But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.

Looking back on how he arrived at this notion of finding one’s bliss, Campbell touches on the crucial difference between religious faith and secular spirituality:

I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.

[…]

The religious people tell us we really won’t experience bliss until we die and go to heaven. But I believe in having as much as you can of this experience while you are still alive.

[…]

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.

Illustration from The Well of Being by Jean Pierre Weill

The most uncomfortable but essential part of finding your bliss, Campbell argues, is the element of uncertainty — the willingness to, in the timeless words of Rilke, “live the questions” rather than reaching for the ready-made answers:

The adventure is its own reward — but it’s necessarily dangerous, having both negative and positive possibilities, all of them beyond control. We are following our own way, not our daddy’s or our mother’s way… Life can dry up because you’re not off on your own adventure.

[…]

There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.

Complement The Power of Myth, the intellectual and spiritual enormity of which cannot be overstated, with David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work in the modern world, and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, then revisit the heartening and rather assuring story of how Van Gogh found his purpose after years of floundering.

BP

Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

5,000-year-old poems celebrating female sexuality and empowerment, reimagined in a new symbolic language at the nexus of beauty, wonder, and wisdom.

Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison observed from the Stockholm stage upon becoming the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” A generation before her, Iris Murdoch — another woman of towering genius — wrote in weighing the salvational power of the written word: “The quality of a civilisation depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Both culturally and biologically, language is the hallmark of our species — it is, as the great 19th-century biologist and anatomist Thomas Huxley noted upon reflecting on Darwin’s greatest legacy, what makes “every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor” and more attuned to the fundamental truths of the universe.

And yet even the greatest civilizations, along with their languages, die. Whether or not the civilizations that follow manage to grow wiser depends largely on the extent to which they can build upon the wisdom and beauty their predecessors left in the ruins of their fallen empires — legacies of meaning-making encoded almost entirely in language and art.

“The Holy One” (Nancy Castille)

Scholar, artist, seamstress, and violinist Nancy Castille brings an uncommonly inspired lens to this cross-civilizational culvert of meaning in Hieratica: Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna — her homage to a series of 5,000-year-old Sumerian poems dedicated to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, daughter of the Sumerian god of wisdom, Queen of Heaven and Earth, later known in Babylonian times as Ishtar.

According to the ancient myth, Inanna was tasked with conceiving the laws of human society and instilling them into the people — a task for which she travels to the Underworld, prevailing over innumerable challenges to emerge triumphant and transformed. It is essentially an empowering framework for the heroine’s journey, furnishing the proto-feminist counterpart to the now-iconic monomyth of the hero’s journey five millennia before Joseph Campbell devised it.

Baked clay relief of Inanna / Ishtar circa 19th-18th century B.C. (British Museum)

Castille writes in her artist statement:

The Sumerian myths are told by ancient peoples, on the cusp of the primitive and the mythic, emerging into a world organized by agriculture and the rise of large city-states. Although they are “only myths”, they tell of a still deeper history — the history of the human spirit as it has traveled through time, trying to make sense of its environment and constantly searching for meaning in life. Our souls are fortified and strengthened when they are exposed to such stories, stories that tell us more about the spirits and souls of our distant ancestors. From them, we derive a wisdom fearless and deep. The heart and soul of mankind shines out from the darkness of the past.

THE LADY OF THE EVENING

At the end of the day,
The great light,
Radiant Star,
The Lady of the Heavens appears.
The people in all lands lift their eyes to her;
The men they purify and the women cleanse Holy Inanna.

All living creatures,
The birds in the heavens,
The fish of the deep
My Lady protects them all.

All living creatures bow before her,
Feed and refresh her.
A young man makes love with his beloved.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

The lady looks down
In sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Evening,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

THE LADY OF THE MORNING

Ornament of heaven,
Joy of the Sun,
You awake and appear like daylight.
The people petition you in their cares.
You render cruel judgment against Evil,
Show kindly eyes
And blessings on the righteous.
Inanna looks down in sweet wonder.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Morning, radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Morning
Radiant on the horizon.

Castille arrived at these hymns via a wonderfully improbable path. After an undergraduate degree in theology, an MBA in finance, and a quarter century in banking, she embraced the art of self-renewal and pivoted radically to philology and mythology, growing animated by the search for wisdom through the lens of art and the ancient spiritual traditions. A distributary in her immersion in the Mesopotamian classic Epic of Gilgamesh led her to the myth of Inanna and the millennia-old poems celebrating this confident, authoritative woman, aglow with equal parts wisdom and wonder — an abiding, deeply alive testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”

THE JOY OF SUMER: SACRED MARRIAGE RITE

The people of Sumer assemble in the place.
The King builds a throne for the queen.
On this day of rites, a sleeping place is set up for Inanna.
The people arrange a bridal sheet over the bed,
To rejoice the heart and sweeten the loins
Of the goddess and her man.
She sprinkles sweet-smelling cedar on the ground around him.
Tenderly he caresses her and murmurs
My holy jewel, my wondrous Inanna,
As he enters her holy vulva,
And embraces her,
Causing the queen to rejoice.
They shine radiantly joined in abundance, lushness and plenty.
The musicans play for the Queen,
Play songs for Inanna to rejoice the heart.
They reach out for food.
The people spend the day in plenty.
They stand assembled in great joy.
Inanna, First Daughter of the Moon,
Lady of the Evening,
I sing your praises.

Moved by the beauty and wisdom reverberating from these ancient verses across space and time — verses arresting in their unapologetic celebration of female sexuality as a wellspring of strength — Castille first envisioned drawing on her skills as a seamstress in a series of prayer flags that would symbolically represent the poems. Using a technique she developed called “E-quilting,” she scanned a variety of antique fabrics and objects to create an intricate electronic mosaic for each poem. But she soon realized that each collage would need an inscription to link it to the respective poem. Because any modern language seemed to disfigure the historical sensibility of the art, she endeavored to create an entire symbolic language for the inscriptions.

So began a remarkably ambitious project that would take Castille several years as she mined the poems for their most significant words and images, classified them into five core categories — Transcendence, Home, Earth, The Sacred, and Community — and began creating an alphabet of simple, non-pictographic symbols that could easily be traced onto a clay tablet, maintaining a cohesive visual vocabulary across the symbols representing the different words in each category. Something larger emerged from the categorization exercise — a picture of the primary sources of meaning and sanctity in the lives of these ancient people, encoded in their language.

LOUD THUNDERING STORM

Proud Queen of the Earth,
Loud thundering storm,
You pour rain over all the lands,
The heavens tremble,
You throw lightning across the earth,
Your deafening command
splits apart great mountains,
You stalk the heavens like a wild bull.
The riverbanks overflow
with the flood waves of your heart.

To further honor the artistic sensibilities and cultural histories of the region, Castille decided to relinquish her original prayer flag concept in favor of artwork based on Islamic mosaic patterns. She named the project after a cursive ink-on-papyrus writing system the sacred scribes of ancient Egypt devised to speed up the writing process: hieratica, from hieros, Greek for “sacred.”

The result is a beguiling, deeply poetic work of reverence, respect, and rapture at the nexus of beauty, wisdom, and wonder.

THE LADY WHO ASCENDS INTO THE HEAVENS

My lady, Amazement of the Land,
Lone Star, Brave One
Who appears in the heavens,
All lands revere her
And make offerings to her,
Incense like sweet-smelling cedar,
Butter, cheese, dates,
Fruits of all kinds.

Purify the earth for my Lady
Celebrate her in song.
Pour her wine and honey at sunrise,
Feed Inanna in this pure clean place.

My lady looks in sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna
INanna, the Lady who Ascends into heaven,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady who Ascends like the heavens
Radiant on the horizon.

Complement Castille’s enchanting Hieratica with Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages and French philosopher Maurice Blanchot on writing, the dual power of language to reveal and to conceal, and what it really means to see, then revisit the story of the invention of zero — that most revolutionary symbol in the native poetry of the universe, mathematics — conceived in the very lands that originated the myth of Inanna.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.