Episode 49 - Michael Meade – Part 2: The Art and Evolutionary Necessity of Dialogic Mythmaking
Appreciation: “I’m Michael Meade, the author of The Water of Life and The World Behind the World, and I can say this about Living Dialogues with Duncan Campbell: It is one of the few places in this country where you can hear an intelligent, poetic conversation that brings together myth, genuine imagination, the extemporaneous poetic thought natural to people, and the practical issues of the environment and politics – a mixture that is necessary for the re-imagination of this culture. Thank you Duncan for the invitation and the delightful conversation.”
In Part 1 of this ongoing dialogue, Michael Meade and I shared stories and perspectives on the nature and role of myth throughout the human experience, and in so doing demonstrated how we enact and give voice to a fresh contemporary story, together with you, the deep listening audience evoking the new story, as part of our larger mythic interconnectedness. The great challenge and necessity calling each of us is to go beyond our either-or modern polarization and mythless argument culture into artful co-creative dialogue, to realize ourselves as bards and storytellers in our lives, embodying the personal transformational stories which together can weave the next evolutionary Great Story of unification in diversity so needed in our time.
In this Part 2, we share how stories -- telling them, listening attentively to them, learning thereby to see the individual story of our own lives as embodying and resonating with the purpose and mythic meaning illustrated in a Great Story – how all these aspects of story give us knowledge, healing, inspiration, and initiation into a higher life-enchancing and embracing consciousness. We share certain ancient and modern great stories in illustration of this, including the meeting by the well of the 13th century world poet Rumi and his dialogue inspiration Shams Tabriz (see Program 3 with Coleman Barks on The Soul of Rumi below on this site), the Divine Dialogue between the big Self Krishna and the aspirant Arjuna of the Vedic Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God, from thousands of years ago, the prophetic poetry of William Butler Years (The Second Coming) in the early 20th century, and the anonymous pre-Christian poet(s) who gave us the biblical Book of Job (in the superb translation by Stephen Mitchell – see Programs 13 and 14 below on this site).
As I say at the beginning of this Part 2: “The power in storytelling is the power in helping people to understand how to situate themselves in a world that, at times for many people anywhere, can seem chaotic and without meaning when we experience ourselves as powerless to change the great course of events that affects us all.” Michael describes the challenge we then address in this dialogue as follows: “On the national and on the global stage, it seems to me, things have become more and more literal, less and less imaginal or mythic. Therefore, more and more rigidly polarized people tend to cling now to ideas that don’t hold water and people tend to cling to beliefs that no longer transfer the living breath of the living waters of the divine or the eternal. So while holding on to these almost empty institutions and empty thought patterns, people then use them as weapons and attack each other.”
Our response to this challenge is an expression of what I term “The Art and Evolutionary Necessity of Dialogic Mythmaking”.
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Duncan Campbell: From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions through the work of western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo, and quantum physicist David Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning--a dia (flow), of logos (meaning)--beyond what any one individual can bring through alone. So join us now, as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.
Duncan Campbell: Welcome once again to “Living Dialogues.” I'm your host, Duncan Campbell, and with me for this particular dialogue, I'm again delighted to have storyteller/mythologist/itinerant teacher/poet Michael Meade. Michael, again, it's such a delight to be able to talk this way together to talk about myth to actually create, through dialogue and the deep listening audience that is evoking from us, a kind of meandering story of our own. One that reaches out and makes us feel connected to a wider world.
Michael Meade: Yes, good to talk about myth again, Duncan.
Duncan Campbell: In our prior dialogue, we talked about that similar experience in your own life where you actually felt rising in you a natural way of telling a story to, in a sense like music, tame the savage beast. You were caught in the situation where you were a member of one gang in the place you were growing up. The other one felt his honor, in some way, offended by a comment that one of your own fellows had made, trapped you in an upstairs bathroom in a building and were prepared to do you harm to “teach you a lesson.”
As you spoke to them and told the story of how this situation had a reason and I know your own companion was beaten regularly every night by his father. How a certain cycle of violence had made him wounded in a way in which he might have said something disrespectful or angry. So you found that there was a power in myth, the power in storytelling, the power in helping people understand how to situate themselves in a world that, at times for many people anywhere, can seem chaotic and without meaning and experience themselves as powerless to change the great course of events that affects us all.
So with that backdrop, perhaps we could talk, in this particular dialogue, of how you see in your work today the power of myth revealing itself. We could talk about it in your personal life. We could talk about it in your work with the Mosaic Foundation. We could talk about it on the national or global stage. How would you like to embark on this story?
Michael Meade: Well, it seems like they're all connected in a way. On the national and on the global stage, it seems to me, things have become more and more literal, less and less imaginal or mythic. Therefore, more and more rigidly polarized people tend to cling now to ideas that don’t hold water and people tend to cling to beliefs that no longer transfer the living breath of the living waters of the Divine or the Eternal.
So while holding on to this almost empty institutions and empty thought patterns, people then use them as weapons and attack each other. So in a way, I'm always reminded of this experience I had when I was younger where I realized that myths are like a series of lies that tells the truth. You can't go into a myth and say, “Did this really happened?” In Egypt, that that exactly happened, that’s not the point. Myths use the appearances of things, which are always somewhat false to reveal hidden things that carry the water of truth.
But then interestingly enough, myths always have more than one meaning. As soon as something starts to have one meaning, it has already lost its mythic connection and now, it's beginning to [xx] towards dogma and, eventually, towards literalism. So myth is like, to me anyway, and maybe I'm thinking its like [xx] images of Campbell’s teacher here--myth is the living waters which are inexhaustible as long as people go to them with the open mind and the open heart that allows the meaning of the moment to break through the appearance of things.
So what I tend to do is just go around and tell stories. I like to do it in circumstances where people are going to pay real attention because what can happen is a fountain of this inexhaustible water appears and it has several capacities in it. One is knowledge, stories carry knowledge. I remember being--I forgot where I was, some big gathering of people that were known for doing this or that--and I told the story and I gave an interpretation. Some well known and highly educated person said, “What book did that interpretation come from?” I said, “Well, no. All I was doing was telling what was in the story.” People said, “Wait a minute, you can't get something right from the story.” I said, “Oh, no. That’s exactly what happened.”
Duncan Campbell: Exactly.
Michael Meade: The water of knowledge flows right out of the story. Now on the other hand, an appropriate story told at the right moment is a vehicle of healing. People can find a healing that you can't find elsewhere, and then in the same water, the living water of stories has found inspiration. People can feel encouraged not just to go back to life but inspired about which direction to take and how to shape the making of their own living story. So strangely enough to me, myth is the most practical thing that anyone could ever find.
Duncan Campbell: I couldn’t agree more. I think that your point that story is inspiration as well as healing. In another context, we talked about it as initiation, is so essential for us to appreciate and realize, I think also, of the power of story to be self-revealing. As we can really give ourselves very deeply to our own lives and to the lives of those about us, we can feel intuitively a story emerging, a kind of mythical life that each of us lives, that each of us, men and women are men and women and children of destiny, not only hero leaders but all of us.
Together, we have a common destiny, a common source as Lao Tzu beautifully says referring to the Tao. In that feeling, the meaning for the present that can arise out of an ancient story upsurges within us like a fountain spontaneously. It doesn’t have to be derived from an authority, an authoritative source of the written word that has occurred prior to our experience by someone acknowledged to be an authority.
Particularly here, I'm thinking of the way in which Rumi, the great 12th-13th century poet in Persia, came to his own fruition. He had been a very respected community leader, the son of a respected spiritual teacher in his community. He was a jurist, a lawyer of sorts who advised people on the practical aspects of the legal implications of certain behaviors as well as being a learned man and a scholar. One day, he was sitting at the fountain surrounded by students and he was reading from his most precious possession, a book from his father, of his father’s writings and teachings.
A man named Shams appeared in the market square and got off the donkey he was riding. He strode up to Rumi and took the book out of his hands and threw it in the fountain. Rumi, of course, was aghast, and knowing that this was the only book of its kind, the only copy and this was his great legacy from his own father. As he protested, Shams put out his hand and said, “Don’t worry, this text will come out with its pages as dry as they were before they went in.” With the kind of subtle humor there, implying that if Rumi got really into the juiciness of his own life, the relative dryness of the words on the page, the dryness of the text from that point of view, would be replaced by the water of life [xx] within him.
It was at that point that Rumi made his great transformation and connected with Shams as his great spiritual friend and then the rest is history because he then began to rely more and more on the upsurge of inspiration that came from life itself. We have all his poems that have followed. Just recently, his great American translator, Coleman Barks, has published his new work called “The Drowned Book.” Again, telling the story--and while I'm on that subject, and we're talking about this, I'd like to acknowledge the role in which our audience is participating in this dialogue that you and I are having. There can be really no great storyteller, no bard, no dialog without a reciprocation between he or she who vocalizes and he or she who evokes by the deep attentive listening.
It calls to mind a poem by Rumi called “The Night Wind” in which a Sufi master dies, and before he dies, he goes to another Sufi master and asked him to be the executor of his estate. He says, “I want you to give all of my patrimony, all of my estate to that one of my three sons who is the laziest.” In my own interpretation, it's not elaborated on in the text, but is that from the Sufi mystical point of view, the laziest means he who interferes the least with the natural arising of meaning and events. He who attempts to impose the least his own conception on reality.
So the executor goes to the oldest son and he asked him, “How do you take the measure of a man?” The oldest son said, “Well, I pose him a question and I listen very carefully to his response. After three days, I have a sense of the measure of the man.” The executor goes to the second son and he said, “How do you take the measure of a man?” The second son, in turn, gives the same response. Then the executor says, “What if he's on to you? What if he knows that’s the purpose of your question and he decides to remain silent and not answer?” The second son says, “Well, in that event, I look at him carefully and then I go and I think and meditate upon it for three days and then I make my assessment.”
Finally, he comes to the youngest son and he says, “How do you take the measure of a man?” The youngest son says, “When I am in the presence of a man and I feel a great strong arm of speech coming down through me, then I know I'm in the presence of someone who's soul is as high as the mountain and as deep as the river. Our spirits are communicating silently like night wind through an open window.”
I thought that was beautiful because it acknowledges that the stories are really not our creation, they're not our possession, but we're merely channels and tuning forks--if you will. Rumi sometimes calls it being the flute so that the wind of spirit blows through us and makes the music of our speech. If we really are open channels and not having the hubris to think we are creating the story, then somehow, this great mystery flows through us like a dia of logos, a flow of the wisdom of the universe comes through when two people are in communion in that way.
I always think of that when we do this dialogues, that there is out there at this very moment virtually, an invisible audience that when this is broadcast and heard by other ears will become the deep listening audience manifest. But even now, it's there in the future--if you will--its presence is yet to be completely manifested since we're only recording this now but it's already here as we speak.
Michael Meade: Often, the trick for a person is to drag themselves to the right well. You know, Rumi had that instinct to sit at the well, which is an old, old image of connection to the center of the heart, in the middle of the garden of the soul, is the fountain. So that’s why teachings off and went on where there was water, which if you want to take the African approach to that--which was probably still a little bit more alive in the 12th century--he wants to be near water so that the flow of words can happen and the flow of images and the flow of ideas. There's an interesting issue for a modern person especially a modern Western person. I mean, I'm totally delighted that, it was five years ago, Rumi was the best selling poet in the United States, which is a real accomplishment.
Duncan Campbell: And at the same time, it is said the most listened to poet in Afghanistan.
Michael Meade: Yes.
Duncan Campbell: Interesting.
Michael Meade: So there's a kind of a secret well of water between the mystical imagination, possible in the United States, and that’s possible in Afghanistan or Iraq or Iran.
Duncan Campbell: Yes, and bridging seemingly impossible divides.
Michael Meade: Exactly. It can erupt in such a fine son of Georgia as Coleman is a great thing as well and a mystery, too. But one of the issues that I think happens is how do you bridge the distance between that tremendous imagination that was alive at that time. Even though Rumi is going the water book and throwing the other book into the water, it's hard not to see how some of the great studies that was going on also produced that moment of change.
So one of the ideas that I become interested in because--you know, if you accept the idea that we're more or less mythless now in the sense of no overarching, shared, and uniting myth, then you have to say “Where is the myth?” It's also similar in the Western world when it's announced that God is dead. Well, in the study of myths, you realize that dead gods come back. God is such that He/She is dead and then alive and then dead and then alive. So in a sense, we're in the time of the dead gods, but then where are the living gods?
So you wind up with the situation where you have psychology, certain kinds of depth psychology, the kind of psychology you'll find at the bottom of the well where the water is. It says that you can use psychology as a bridge from the daily world ruled by literalism in the access of fact. You can use psychology to the deeper world of myth and mysticism and that leads to the idea. I've had people ask me for years and I'm sure they ask Coleman that, “How do you find your shops?” There needs to be an agent that says, “Now, it's the time for you to drop the book. Now is the time to drop the pretense of learning and get wet with real knowledge.” How do you find that kind of Shams moment?
Interestingly enough, Carl Jung, working out of the Western tradition--but I think very much affected by the ideas of alchemy--seems to suggest that Shams is the deep self that’s found within any person. So when we can drag ourselves to the right well, we sit down perhaps as the son of our parents or the daughter of our parents. We sit down as wrapped in what would normally be called “the ego attitude” that holds on to the book. It's afraid that if it doesn’t have concrete knowledge, it can't be central in the world. But once we sit down at the right well, the self begins to talk in the form of Shams and says, “OK, now, let the book get wet and you follow it and get wet with the knowledge that’s trying to rise through yourself.” I say that because in this wasteland desert of polar opposition and dry, rigid knowledge that destroys rather than heals, I think a lot of people are going to have to find a lot of water in order that our grandchildren get the chance to play in the garden.
Duncan Campbell: It's so true, and it reminds us of the Yeats’ prediction in the early part of the 20th century of the terrible aspect, initiation that the world has gone through throughout the 20th century. As Stanislav Groft has pointed out, more people were killed in that one century than in the entire prior history of humanity. The Great Holocaust of all varieties that happened during that century, and now, we're beginning with great conflict here in the new millennium, the wasteland predicted in Yeats’ great poem.
In his poem called “The Second Coming,” he talks about what beast is it who's slow thighs move in the dessert, that gaze pitiless as the sun. What beast is it that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? There really is in the desert that this consciousness which has a gaze as pitiless as the sun is being born and slouching toward Bethlehem to have each day in the sun, if you will. What kind of water life can we meet that with? I think here, your statement that rather than looking for an external Shams, each one of us should realize that we have, deep within ourselves, that well of knowledge and wisdom and reserve to draw upon. As you put it, we take ourselves to that well in whatever form of activity or reflection or practice. We feel called to it, really even just listening to the deep call of what the Sufis called the [xx], the voice of the heart, is really the most fundamental practice.
It reminds me actually of the Bhagavad-Gita, which is often referred to as the Divine Dialogue. Bhagavad-Gita meaning literally the Song of God and telling the story, the great story of Arjuna, the great warrior-archer aspirant and Krishna, the God man deep, big self who is this chariot here drawing him into battle. They think of the imagery of the five horses being the five senses, and the consciousness of the deep self, the big self, Krishna being the chariot here and Arjuna, being the sixth sense or the awareness that’s aligning himself with this deep self.
At one point in that beautiful book, Krishna says to Arjuna, “I am always with all beings. I abandoned no one, and however great your inner darkness, you are never separate from me. Let your thoughts flow past you calmly. Keep me near at every moment. Trust me, Arjuna, with your life because I am you, more than you, yourself, are.” It's really beautiful, and the complementary, I think, passage is “Creatures rise, creatures vanish. I alone am real, Arjuna. Looking out amused from deep within the eyes of every creature.”
So when we can contact that deep self, that deep consciousness, we do feel connected to all that is and the impulse towards identification through polarization, through the demonization of the other, and the violence toward the other spontaneously drops away just as the arms of the young gang members who surrounded you in that bathroom in the building many years ago, drop to their sides when you, as you put it, told a disarming story.
Michael Meade: Right. Now, here's the problem. Arjuna is the prince and the warrior and he's at the front of this entire army and at a certain point, facing really his cousins who are on the other side since all wars are essentially family battles [xx].
Duncan Campbell: Family affairs, the family of man, yes.
Michael Meade: Yes. He has the realization that he doesn’t want to do it. That he has seen enough to know that this will be another war that doesn’t solve anything, but in fact, continues the dispute. Krishna comes to him again and says that “It is your nature, Arjuna, who is the shooter of arrows, to shoot your arrows.”
Duncan Campbell: And your duty, is the other one.
For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell