The Mysterious Origins of Myth and Religion and the Primordial Patterns of Human Consciousness
Part 2: The Mystery Of The Myth
The Dangers of Walking Between the Worlds
The process by which shamans are selected in the aboriginal shamanic cultures of today may shed some light on this enigma. According to their folk beliefs, the ability to communicate with the other world, which the shaman possesses, is rare. Further, it is associated with certain signs in the personality.
Throughout the world of primitive man, some form of emotional instability and well-marked sensitivity has always been predicated as the essential trait of the medicine-man and shaman… Throughout Siberia, we know that it assumes pathological proportions and that a shaman there is preferably selected from among those suffering from menerik. This is a nervous affliction in which the patient falls into trances and where he is subject to fits of unconsciousness. (48)
If this 20th-century shamanic screening process is anything like what took place 30,000 years ago, the message seems clear enough. A few people are chosen to be shamans. While this is a position of status within the community, it is not a desirable one. To be a shaman is associated with suffering. (49)
Also, shamans are born, not made. The other world marks the shaman somehow so that the people of the tribe can know who he is. For the Siberian tribes, this mark is the menerik, or Arctic hysteria.
The primitive shaman’s gift of walking between worlds is both ability and liability. Since the talent of the shaman, as one native shaman put it, is to produce a special state where “I call the spirits dancing before the charm,” this natural tendency to spontaneously fall into “nervous ecstasy and trances” seems like a reasonable prerequisite. (50)
Although we do not now look for such characteristics in our world-transcending intermediaries, we are not surprised when those who function as “in-between men,” which likely includes poets and painters, as well as priests and cult leaders, act strangely.
This liminal type, this “in-between man,” is unusual. He is rare, and at least, a little bit weird. But if he really does have this ability to go between worlds, if he was born of stuff taken from both worlds, then why wouldn’t he be different, odd, or strange?
After all, we live here, in this world. He lives here and there, in the other world too. And if he doesn’t, then how can he go there, how can he function as an intermediary?
As bizarre as the criteria for selecting a new Siberian shaman may be, there is an inescapable logic to it. This is a logic that we still subscribe to in our modern religions.
Once the notion of another world is embraced, we somehow have to deal with it. We will live there after we die. We will pay consequences once we get there. But for now, we will let someone else represent us.
If we reverse the normal trend so that everybody in this world is more interested in the other world, we will see extraordinary changes. But in all of known history, nothing like this has ever happened, not even remotely. It has happened in ancient and modern times, though, to cults.
When it does happen, and 74 commit a fiery death in Switzerland, Canada, and France, as did the followers of the Order of the Solar Temple, we are shocked to the core. Those who died included the wife of an Olympic skier, a policeman, a doctor, and an architect, to name a few. (51) (52) (53)
When 39 followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult chose the path of “exiting their human vessels” to join the comet Hale-Bopp, their fellow Americans were simply astonished. Many of the cult members had good jobs as Web site designers. They lived in Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb of beautiful San Diego, California. (54) (55)
Some cult experts saw the Heaven’s Gate members as “victims of a hoax.” They saw members of this “totalist religious cult” as being “subjected to a form of psychological manipulation known as undue influence, coercive persuasion, or thought reform.” (56)
Other experts disagreed. Richard Hecht, chairman of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, stated, “I’m very dubious of the psychological interpretation.” People join a cult because it offers a “convincing narrative” that helps the follower “find meaning.” In his view, these cult members chose to join the cult. Once involved, they had chosen to stay in the cult. A “convincing narrative” that helps members “find meaning” is, of course, exactly what myths and organized religion offer as well. (57)
Support for Hecht’s view can be found in the way the cult acquired new members. They were very open about their strange beliefs.
The Heaven’s Gate cult used the Internet to inform others of their religious ideology, which centers on an afterlife and their belief that a UFO would transport them to a special heaven. It has been speculated that the Heaven’s Gate group ‘received information’ on the Web that ‘an alien spaceship’ was lurking behind Comet Hale-Bop; this may be related to the timing of their group suicide. (58)
These cult members were on a quest to travel, on their own initiative, between the worlds of life and death. Look what happened to them! The vast majority shakes their heads in wonder, no doubt grateful that they and their loved ones did not fall into such a bizarre and sinister trap.
The Reason for Religion
To move between the worlds, according to common sense, mythology, depth psychology, and the news has its price. Those who are not prepared for it, or who are not strong or wise enough to handle it, are smart to stay away from it. For themselves, they do the right thing.
It would seem that this is the way it has to be. Just as everybody cannot be a good painter or dancer, or even a good politician or accountant, not everybody can or should try to be a good “in-between man” (or woman). Apparently, the risky task of communicating with the other world is best left to the experts, to the true shamans or their counterparts in the holy houses of established religion.
The great advantage, of course, of believing in the existence of the other world is that it gives us an answer to the mystery of death and what follows after it. As true believers, we can “know” that we “survive” and experience emotional rest in relation to the ever-present threat of sudden cessation.
Obviously, we cannot remove the notion of another world and its divine inhabitants from religion. If it were widely believed that there is no other world and no afterlife, if this world is the only world, then views akin to materialism and atheism would become the new organized “religions.”
We want the best possible life in this world, but because of our belief in the other world, we must try to obtain favor from that world, as the other world is the source of this world and is more powerful. Unless we are of the rare marked few who are destined to function as modern society’s shamans, we will seek to perform this vital function through an intermediary, the “in-between man.” He will cross the threshold between the worlds for us, on our behalf, and negotiate favor for us in this world and in the next.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Whether it is through the anointed “in-between man,” the religious functionary who lives in this world as a physical being we can see, touch and talk to, or through a supreme supernatural being, such as Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna, or via numerous supernatural gods and goddesses, as in neo-paganism and Voudun, once the other world is assumed, then our need to obtain benefit from it is inevitable.
In the final analysis, the enormous power of organized religion on this planet is due to the refusal of individual citizens to be “do-it-yourself” spiritual human beings. They would rather have somebody else do it for them and pay the price, whatever it may be, instead.
So it is that we hedge our bets and live in peace with our belief in two worlds. We participate in an organized religion, work with that religion’s chosen intermediary to obtain “supernatural favor,” and continue on our merry way working hard for the fruits of this one. (59)
The Dream, the Moon, and the Cycle of Light and Dark
It is easy to see the similarities between the public myth and our private dreams. When Joseph Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers, he made this connection quite plain.
Bill Moyers: You talk about mythology existing here and now in dreamtime. What is dreamtime?
Joseph Campbell: This is the time you get into when you go to sleep and have a dream that talks about permanent conditions within your own psyche as they relate to the temporal conditions of your life right now.
Bill Moyers: Why is a myth different from a dream?
Joseph Campbell: Oh, because a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.
Bill Moyers: I think of a dream as something very private, while a myth is something public.
Joseph Campbell: On some levels, a private dream runs into truly mythic themes and can’t be interpreted except by an analogy with a myth. Jung speaks of two orders of dream, the personal dream and the archetypal dream, or the dream of the mythic dimension. You can interpret a personal dream by association, figuring out what it is talking about in your own life, or in relationship to your own personal problem. But every now and then, a dream comes up that is pure myth, that carries a mythic theme, or that is said, for example, to come from the Christ within…. (60)
As I pointed out earlier, our early ancestors were tracking the phases of the moon with great precision many thousands of years before the invention of writing. According to some mythology researchers, the moon was the first stellar body to be worshiped. It was only much later, with the advent of writing and patriarchal religions, that solar worship attained dominance. (61)
The introduction of artificial lighting has forever changed our experience of the nighttime sky. Those fortunate few in childhood or on a camping trip who have experienced the glory of the stars and of the Milky Way may gain some sense of the awe and wonder our ancient ancestors must have felt.
In the brightness of a full moon, there is enough light to read a book (though that’s not what they were doing, of course). The quality of this lunar light is profoundly different from the sun’s warming glare.
This lunar light is silver in tone. It seems soft, gentle, suggestive, and subjective. In this silvery light of the full moon, people and things are seen clearly enough, but they are bathed in an otherworldly luminosity. It is as if the objects of the day, though still present, have been touched by a dream-like magic spell. It is easy to see how the lunar light, the self-luminosity of the dream state, and human intuition became associated. (62)
The moon has long been associated with the mysteries of fertility and birth. The female menstruation cycle is 29.5 days long, exactly the same length as the lunar cycle. When the light conditions that existed prior to artificial lighting are simulated, there is evidence that some women in a group will tend to menstruate phase-locked with each other and synchronized with the phases of the moon. (63) (64)
From prehistoric times, the moon has been regarded as the source of all fertility. It governs ocean tides and rainfall, menstruation and birth. (Even when seen as male, the moon has been associated with fertility: for example, in Australian aboriginal tradition, the moon makes women pregnant.) It therefore symbolizes (the possibility of) personal growth. (65)
Even basic observation of the lunar cycle reveals four main stages: New Moon, First Quarter Moon, Full Moon, and Last Quarter Moon. At the end of the Last Quarter Moon and before the New Moon, there are three days where the moon appears to be dark. (66)
Some contemporary neo-pagans perform weekly rituals that are connected with each of these lunar phases. While I have no way of knowing if these rites are like those that were conducted in neolithic times, it is extraordinary that lunar worship practices persist even today, tens of thousands of years later. (67)
Returning to the universal life story myth pattern of human beings — birth, life, death, and void — I see an obvious parallel between the four phases of the moon and the four stages of life. Like man, the moon appears to be born, to grow into fullness, to fade, and then to disappear.
The raw inspirational power, the breath-taking beauty, the spine-chilling wonder of the natural sky at night, untouched by modern artificial lighting, must be directly experienced to be appreciated. If this magic, this sense of awe, is felt even a little, then it is easy to see how the ancients living in nature turned to the moon to understand their mind, their dreams, and their feelings. Overtaken by its majesty, they produced this miracle we call myth.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
In the phases of sleep, we find one more representation of the universal four-step cycle story of birth, life, death, and the unknown void.
The scientific research points to four main stages of sleep. Technically, in terms of physiological and muscular changes, there are five or six depending on the source, but it seems accurate to state there are four stages of sleep. (68) (69)
The most important stages are REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, sleep and non-REM sleep. When we first fall asleep, we move gradually down into the non-REM or deep sleep state. This is also known as slow-wave sleep.
The brain waves associated with this deep sleep state are nothing like the brain waves of our waking state. The slow delta waves associated with this stage of sleep do not occur in the waking state. The brain is relatively inactive, but areas that are not that active in the waking state are very active in deep sleep.
We can conclude that whatever the deep sleep state is, it is not like the waking state. That the deep sleep or non-REM state is very different from the REM state is emphasized by its role in repairing and regenerating the body, including tissues, bones, muscles, and the immune system. (70) (71)
In contrast, the brain waves of the REM state strongly resemble those of the waking state. The brain is very active. In fact, if the brain did not paralyze our limbs at the same time, we would be up walking around. (72) (73)
The subjective distinction between REM sleep and non-REM sleep is that in REM sleep, we dream, and in non-REM sleep, we do not dream. In the more shallow deep sleep, there can be dreams, but the brain at the deepest level of deep sleep rarely generates dream activity.
One last piece of the dream puzzle, proven very consistent in studies for many years, is that not only does the brain first drop down into the deep sleep or non-REM state, when it is time for it to shift to REM sleep in order to dream, it does not go straight from non-REM sleep into REM sleep. Instead, the brain moves all the way back up to a light sleep state proximal to the waking state, and then shifts gears and descends into REM sleep, producing dreams. (74)
Here’s what seems to be happening. The body needs to regenerate itself, so it goes into deep sleep first. After experiencing some of this deep sleep rejuvenation, it is now ready for the psychological sorting and memory integration thought to be associated with dreaming. But why doesn’t the brain go directly from non-REM sleep into REM sleep?
The obvious answer would seem to be that these two states are so different in nature that the brain can only produce them after it returns to the neutral gear of light sleep. This makes sense, as the REM state is similar to the waking state, but the non-REM state is not.
One possible interpretation of the peculiar pattern of the sleep cycle we repeat every night in healthy sleep is that the dream state in REM state, given its similarity to the familiar waking state, is in fact a variation of or a counterpoint to the waking state consciousness. Though it takes place during sleep in the form of dreams, the parallels are strong.
Invoking the lunar symbology again, the physical waking state could be viewed as solar, being ruled by the sun, while the sleeping dream state could be viewed as lunar, being ruled by the moon. We would then have two versions of the waking state, one solar and one lunar. Though we typically do not remember what we experienced in our dreams, it appears that we were conscious during those experiences.
Those who practice lucid dreaming report that it is possible to wake up in the middle of a dream and control it in much the same way that we influence our waking state experience. Certainly, many of us can remember a vivid dream that seemed so real that it was hard for us at the time to tell if it was a dream or if it was “real,” i.e., taking place in the solar waking state where the physical body is active or taking place in the lunar waking state where the physical body is paralyzed. (75) (76)
The basic life-myth pattern of birth, life, death, and afterlife may correspond to the sequence of states in sleep as follows. Birth corresponds to waking and the early stage of falling asleep. Life corresponds to dreaming. Death corresponds to the transition from the waking state to the deep sleep state.
The void or afterlife in our model corresponds to the “bottom” of the deep sleep state. In this mysterious state, the self-conscious observing, narrating self does not exist. The radically different slow-wave patterns seen in deep sleep are also seen in the brains of coma victims. This biological parallel to a “living death,” demonstrated scientifically via brain waves, is striking. (77)
The Multi-State Person and the Unbound Dynamic Ground
The dream state and deep sleep state correspond to valuable life “assets.” It has been scientifically demonstrated that they are essential to human functioning and provide valuable restorative and integrative functions.
Beyond their capacity to support basic physical and mental functioning, my view is that they offer sublime access to a “depth” consciousness that is not readily tapped into in the everyday waking state.
In concert with the beauty and the mystery of the natural environment, including but not limited to the moon and the stars, the myths of mankind were born directly from the dreams we have at night. As Campbell stated plainly, our private dreams and our public myths are more or less interchangeable. The actors and stories are in essence the same. Only the stages are different.
While most are conscious only of moving back and forth from waking to dream, from the solar day to the lunar night, and back again to the busy earthbound solar day, this rotation of consciousness presumes a third state that functions as an unchanging solid foundation for the solar waking state and the lunar dream state. This third consciousness, Campbell’s “deep dark ground,” is the dreamless deep sleep state.
In deep sleep, the brain wave signature of a self-conscious, observing, narrating self is simply not there. “Nobody,” for five to fifteen minutes, is home during these restorative dives into the darkest depths of deep sleep. (78) (79)
Since deep sleep is a period of unconsciousness, it tends to be ignored even by devoted religionists and atheistic philosophers. However, since science has proven that in the non-REM state, the body regenerates itself, meaning it is given new life by nature, I believe that the deep sleep state is anything but an incidental artifact.
I theorize it is the living source, the deep still waters, from which the states of waking and dream consciousness arise. It is the place of origin for myth and religion, as both of those experiences take place in the more superficial waking and dream states. In the sweet abyss of deep sleep, for theist or atheist, myth and religion and philosophy, being structures of thought and belief, dissolve into its sublime, regenerative darkness.
If anyone “asset” in the human experiential mix deserves to be called the healing “God within,” it is the unsung slow-wave non-REM deep sleep state.
In this stress-free ocean of renewal and inner peace, we fulfill without conscious effort the master teaching of religion — surrender to a greater power. Gone is our ego, gone is our will, and gone is our resistance. Therefore, we say, “I feel deeply rested” or “I slept well.” We have been restored, recharged, reset to zero, as it were — by our own absence. (80) (81)
From this perspective, we are each devotees, not of a strange theoretical God, but of an inner depth so private, so intimate, so unified with our ultimate core that we might say, “There lies my deepest, truest self, were I but able to consciously access it.” We are each, if we enjoy normal sleep, in the depths of night, a natural saint or mystic. (82)
There are those who claim to have explored this deep dark inner ocean of mystery. Their reports support my view that deep sleep is, in the biological sense, a “state of grace.” One such record, the ancient Mandukya Upanishad of India, offers this elegant description of the profound secret dimension we call deep sleep. (83) (84)
When one sleeps without yearning for any desires,
seeing no dreams, that is deep sleep.
The deep-sleep state unified in wisdom gathered,
consisting of bliss, enjoying bliss,
whose door is conscious wisdom…
This is the Lord of all; this is the omniscient;
this is the inner controller; this is the universal womb,
for this is the origin and end of beings. (85)
— — Cont. — -
(48) Radin, Paul. Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin, Dover Publications, New York, 1957, pages 106–107.
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(50) Chapter IX, Types of Shamans, Palaeo-Siberians, The Neo-Siberians, para 43–45, http://www.sacred-texts.com/sha/sis/sis05.htm, June 16, 2009.
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(63) Cutler, Winnifred, Lunar and Menstrual Phase Locking, http://www.athenainstitute.com/sciencelinks/lunarandmenst.html, accessed June 17, 2009.
(64) Effects of the Lunar Cycle On Humans, para 2, http://www.biology-online.org/articles/lunar_cycle_effects_human/effects_lunar_cycle_humans.html, accessed June 17, 2009.
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(73) Sleep 101, para 1–2, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-101?page=2, accessed June 17, 2009.
(74) Sleep Stages, para 7, http://www.sleepdisorderchannel.com/stages/index.shtml, accessed June 17, 2009.
(75) Lucid Dream, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream, accessed June 17, 2009.
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(78) Sleep Stages, para 7, http://www.sleepdisorderchannel.com/stages/index.shtml, accessed June 17, 2009.
(79) Baars, B. J., T. Z. Ramsøy and S. Laureys, “Brain, Conscious Experience and the Observing Self,” page 4, TRENDS in Neurosciences, Vol.26 №12, December 2003 (pdf), http://tzramsoy.files.wordpress.com/2007/03/baars_ramsoy_laureys_tins_2003.pdf, accessed June 17, 2009.
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(82) Kügler, Peter, Denys Turner’s Anti-Mystical Mystical Theology, para 13, http://www.arsdisputandi.org/index.html?http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000165/index.html, accessed June 17, 2009.
For a deeper look into Eastern thought regarding the deep sleep state:
Padaki, Shashikala, Deep Sleep Awareness, http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/i_es/i_es_padak_sleep_frameset.htm, accessed June 17, 2009.
(83) Mandukya Upanishad, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandukya_Upanishad, accessed June 17, 2009.
(84) Mandukya Upanishad (with Gaudapada Karikas), http://www.bharatadesam.com/spiritual/upanishads/mandukya_upanishad.php, accessed June 17, 2009.
(85) Beck, Sanderson, Mandukya Upanishad, http://www.san.beck.org/Upan6-Mandukya.html, accessed June 17, 2009.