Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth

Or find your Sacred Space

I have been listening to the audio version of an old PBS series with Bill Moyer interviewing teacher and philosopher Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. To say it’s been a game-changer for me would be a massive understatement. What an absolute beauty of a man and intellect. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a student of his, but I feel fortunate to have his books and items like this series still around. What an absolute delight it is to listen to these men in conversation.

BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, to have a sacred place?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a term I like to use now as an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe to anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you, but 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. And first you may find that nothing’s happening there, but if you have a sacred place and use it, and take advantage of it, something will happen.

BILL MOYERS: This place does for you what the plains did for the hunter…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: For them the whole thing was a sacred place, do you see? But most of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it. There you get the “thou” feeling of life. These people had it for the whole world that they were living in.

Most mornings, I get up around 4:30 and head into my basement where I do some yoga or exercise, meditate, read or listen to items like the audiobook above, make coffee, read and answer emails from friends, and prepare for the day. I purposely avoid cracking open the Internet or anything external until after I’ve done this, then headed upstairs to see my kids off to school and wife off to work.

Yesterday, while drywalling a new room in my basement, listening to Mr. Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk, the section above deeply resonated with me. Mr. Campbell definitely knew his stuff.

The last week or so, the renovations and the associated temporary restructuring of living spaces (one of my kids is now sleeping in my home office space) have made it difficult for me to get this time in, but I’m ok, knowing that in another few days, they’ll be done and I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine – back into my sacred space.

Dawn Patrol

When I was a younger, dumber person – more inclined to evenings of considerable debauchery – my friends and I would consider any mountain bike ride that started before 1oam as ‘Dawn Patrol’.

Then at some point you have to start getting up at like 6 for work. And to get kids to school. Or to hurriedly rush a vomiting dog out the back door.

Then maybe you decide that in order to get a jump on things and/or keep your sanity as well as a moderate amount of joint flexibility into your twilight years you should get up early to meditate and do yoga, so you decide 4:30am is a good number because Jocko Willink says so.

At some point on weekends you’re already awake and there’s no work and the kids are still asleep so you decide to skip the meditation and yoga, because it makes you feel somewhat rebellious – in as much as a middle-aged dad who’s a slave to the Man can rebel – kind of way, and ride bikes. Invariably as the seasons change you end up riding in the dark, pre-dawn. The true Dawn Patrol.

You end up seeing a lot of things you’ve never seen before and come away changed. As a bonus you get back just in time for breakfast – sometimes you’re even back before anyone else gets up.

Heading out before dawn in the dark also means you get to ask yourself interesting questions like “how is it possible I’m this fucking cold and still enjoying this,” “is it possible for quiet to get even quieter,” or the more thought-provoking “where do I want to watch the sun come up today?”

Sometimes it’s a walking bridge. Sometimes it’s a field on a river flat. Sometimes it’s a town square. Sometimes it’s an empty intersection. The possibilities are endless, really.

Full moon descending, Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Our Man, the champion of achieving transcendence via the mundane, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has a chapter in his book Autumn called ‘Dawn’.

“It isn’t the light in itself that feels good, for once it’s here, say at around 2:30 in the afternoon, we take it for granted. What matters is the actual transition. Not the light from the immobile sun, which shoots across the horizon as the earth’s sphere turns towards it, but the faint glow cast by this light in the minutes before, visible as a pale streak in the darkness of night, so faint it almost doesn’t seem to be light at all, merely a kind of enfeebling of the darkness.”

Just before dawn, Saint John River, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

“Dawn is always the beginning of something, as its opposite, dusk is always the end of something, and when we consider that in practically every culture darkness represents death and evil, while light represents life and goodness, these two transitional zones between night and day become manifestations of the great existential drama we are caught up in, which is something I rarely think about as I stand in the garden gazing towards the growing light in the east, but which must still resonate in me somehow, since watching it feels so good. For darkness is the rule and light its exception, as death is the rule and life its exception. Light and life are anomalies, the dawn is their continual affirmation. “

Over a month now, I’ve been getting out before dawn at least once, if not twice on the weekends. At first it was about finding the best Hallmark Calendar spot to watch the sunrise from. A hill. Over a river. But there’s been other spots too. Sunrise over a strip mall is still the same sunrise as the one you watched 3 km away from the riverbank – well, that’s not really true – no two are the same. It’s the same sun rising, over the same planet – but even then, very little is the same – but you have to see both of them to figure that out. Or perhaps to figure out that you’ve really got nothing at all figured out.

The more I’m out pre-dawn, the less I tend to think of the darkness as ‘evil’ or ‘death’ and the more I think of it as merely the opposite of light. This is no news to anyone who’s familiar with eastern notions of non-duality – the idea of “not two” or “one undivided without a second.” Obviously there’s a mathematical/astronomical formula that tells me exactly when the sun rises and ‘day begins’. Actually, it’s the app on my phone that tells me personally, but is that really when it happens? Really, it’s just one continuous moment endlessly spooling out. There is no distinction between the two.

One of the main revelations I’ve had with these rides is how much there is to see before dawn. It’s exciting to rediscover what the human eye can see – even in almost pitch black – if you let your eyes adjust. On a clear night, even if there’s only a sliver of moon, it’s astounding the amount of light it casts and on the night of a full moon, you can conduct yourself quite easily without any artificial light at all – even more so if there’s snow on the ground to reflect it. It occurs to me that my ancestors knew all these things innately and somewhere they got lost for me to find again.

Every now and then, I’ll sleep in on a weekend. I invariably end up regretting it. There’s so much to see – even in the dark – I feel bad wasting it – and days take on a whole new perspective when you’re able to literally watch them begin.

About 20 minutes after sunrise, Nashwaak River, New Brunswick.

Asleep/Awake

I am currently reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn (part of what’s considered (‘The Seasons Quartet’), it’s a book of many short chapters describing relatively everyday things – premise being it’s a ‘letter’ to his as yet unborn daughter, due in a few months. In the chapter titled ‘Beds’ he writes:

“The bed is placed in the bedroom, which is often the innermost room in the house or apartment, and in two-story houses the bedroom is usually on the upper floor. This is so because we are never as vulnerable as when we are asleep, we lie defenseless in our beds at night without knowing what is going on around us, and to withdraw from sight at such a time, to conceal ourselves from other animals and human beings, is an instinct that runs deep in us.”…

…“But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York, or Tokyo for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there  would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty-meters above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.”

My takeaway of that is regardless of race, creed, religion, gender or best-lineup-of-van-halen background, we are all vulnerable in so many similar ways – and that itself, is singularly unifying. Thanks for that, K.O.

After a stint of trying to read only one book at a time, I’m finding now that reading several books at once and sprinkling the head-brew with frequent doses of solitude outside is producing favorable results. I’m reading the Knausgaard intermittently as the chapters are very short and one can be absorbed within 10 minutes. I have it on the phone for quick hits here and there. I’ve already read through the whole thing once, but am going to keep re-reading it until – you guessed it – winter – when I’ll start Winter. I just finished reading Brad Warner’s book, Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen – it’s excellent and as I told Titus, reading Brad always makes me want to go back and re-read all his stuff. 

Finally I’ve started on the brick that is Dune by Frank Herbert – I mentioned to the Mrs. that I’d been reading William Gibson sci-fi novels and enjoying them so she got this paperback last Christmas. I’m currently like, 1/37th of the way in. Prolly take me all winter.

Should be an interesting enough cocktail.

Also, the latest Brandon Semenuk is not-of-this-earth. The manual into the ‘payoff’ (didn’t want to spoil it) at the end made me laugh out loud. H/T to Stevil for the post.

Read books. Ride bikes. 

Get More Awe

Almost daily I’ve been walking to this spot and sitting alone in silence. The insight and inspiration it has given me is hard to convey.

In the past few months, I’ve been taking a lot more walks. I take a short one almost everyday after my morning zoom call/meeting with work, usually only 20-25 minutes or so, but I’ve been taking longer ones too. I’m fortunate that I can walk right out my back door into almost wilderness – unfortunately it’s being developed for houses – but there’s still some nooks and crannies you can sneak into and feel like there’s no one around for miles.

I often stop somewhere and sit and just look around. See how many things I can notice. Count various critters seen. Wonder about the type of trees or why leaves change a particular color. Lately I’ve stopped taking pictures, no matter how good the scenery – it’s really just about that moment.

Today I came across this article on Raptitude, The Healthy Emotion We Don’t get Enough Of – and I get it. I’ve been fully awe-ing out on my walks.

A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe.

The researchers believe awe reduces self-preoccupation, promotes connection with others, and fosters pro-social behavior. It does make sense that feeling the vast scale and mystery of nature’s processes might make the human brain less consumed by worries about housing markets and doctor’s appointments.

You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense. It’s a towering plant that grew from a sprout, making wood out of sunlight, spreading tendrils through the ground beneath you, at speeds slower than stillness but with sidewalk-buckling force. It stands there every night, and every day, performing this mysterious and unstoppable work. There are billions of them, and if you give them enough time they’ll cross continents.

I often look around and find myself thinking, “so much of what is here is older than me. So much will still be here when I’m gone.” It doesn’t come from a morbid place, but one of, well, awe. That these things are so complex and resilient and incidentally, don’t give two shits about me and my trite problems. It’s very humbling and liberating. Having just finished reading David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Life Story has probably helped. Never mind that I didn’t understand half of the biology – it still gave me new insight into the complexity of the earth and its creatures as well as the interconnectivity of all things. It couldn’t have been a better primer for autumn walks.

The Message in the Medium

Just finished reading The Medium and the Message by Marshall McLuhan. A few sections struck me in particular:

Moderator: What do you suggest as alternatives that we offer instead of the search for identity through violence?

McLuhan: Dialogue. The alternative to violence is dialogue, which is a kind of encounter interface with others, people and situations. Yes, we live a world in which we have so much power. In the old days, you could fire or pull a trigger on a revolver and hurt people, but today, when you trigger this vast media that we use, you are manipulating entire populations.


The hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught because they have an irresistible force when invisible. When these factors remain ignored and invisible, they have an absolute power over the user. So yes, the sooner that the population, young or old, can be taught the effects of these forms, the sooner we can have some sort of reasonable ecology among the media themselves.

What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which would permit us to program the whole environment so that literate values would not be wiped out by new media. If you understand the nature of these forms, you can neutralize some of their adverse effects, and foster some of their beneficent effects. We have never reached this level of awareness.


Moderator: “Professor McLuhan, you spoke about us going outside for our privacy and coming home for the social aspect. I’d like to hear you comment on that in relation to electronic man’s new thirst for meditation, contemplation, mystical experience.

McLuhan:  Well, as you know, transcendental meditation has become exceedingly popular. All forms of mystic meditation have become very popular in our television age. We have gone very far to the East since television. Just as an exercise in awareness and so on, meditation has grown and come in very big since television. I’m not sure that that is good or bad at all, it just has happened. Do you think of it as a very significant event?

Moderator: I think of it as very significant, yes. It seems to me almost like a nostalgia for a return to that private self, without going outdoors to find it. Return to an inner union with God, with yourself, which electronic man seems to need and is looking for in this way.

McLuhan:  Jane Austin, of all people, has quite a big comment on that inside/outside. She said that people go outside to be alone just to prove their inner resources, that they don’t need people. We can make it alone, and that the romantic movement was based upon this psychic development.

Jane Austin has quite a bit to say about that. I was amazed to come across it in her work a few months ago. But there’s another American writer, Hawthorne, who regarded this American habit of going outside to be alone as an undermining of democracy. He said this is sheer aristocracy, this is putting on the aristocratic thing and it is going to undermine our whole democracy. Hawthorne regarded it with great alarm. The moralist, by the way, is always a person who never studies effects so much as studies the content of situations, studies the figure and not the ground.

This, I think, is of great concern to advertisers, who are here tonight in some numbers. Advertisers need to study figure, not the ground. They tend to count noses rather than to estimate the pressures under the noses. The form of gnosis.

It occurs to me that almost anything McLuhan says about tv works if you replace ‘tv’ with ‘the internet’