Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
The Emperor asked, “Who stands before me?”
Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”
Our Personal Mythos
I find cleaving to our personal mythos seems to be paradoxical, and this is an approximation of my internal debate. I welcome opinions.
On the one hand, to remember and chant our myth can help us see tendencies on a psychological level that may help us, through awareness, break habitual patterns. Knowing our myth may aid us in understanding the unfolding arc of our journey. Also, we can use our stories to be helpful to each other, sharing experience, thus integrating with the tribe of humanity, being part of the whole and therefore, ultimately, One.
On the other hand, our personal mythos is a strong focus of identity that firmly holds in our minds an idea of what is ”real” for us, the constant remembrance and telling of which creates undoubted attachment to samsara (repetitive history).
One of the first truisms I encountered in the field of metaphysics was the simple statement, ”You think ~ ‘I am woman, I am American, I am a teacher, I am black, I am a fire-fighter, I am successful, I am rich, I am ill, I am a survivor’, ~ etc, etc, ad infinitum, and yet you are truly none of these things.” Not one myth we can conjure up for ourselves is ultimately real. They are all circumstantial, conditional and impermanent. They exist, yes, but are all subject to change. Gender, colour, race, and so on will not survive death. All creed and status and talent we happen to have in this life may evaporate on the next exhalation.
Yet, we naturally have a story, our myth. We retell these stories to others and more importantly to ourselves to construct a bulwark of firm reality within which we live. We were born poor, we tell ourselves, and suffered as a child. Or, we were a prodigy and showed early signs of enlightenment. Or I have gypsy blood. Or my people come from (insert exotic location) and I have always felt drawn to that culture. Or it was foreseen that I would be a great healer. And so on and so forth.
The myth follows us as we grow up. We have had certain experiences, certain revelations. We have experienced certain unbearable sorrows. We have seen the light. We have wrestled the darkness. We are on a hero’s journey, a definable hero with a knowable face, working our way towards the truth. It takes all forms, as we recount myths of being a nurse, a wanderer, a writer, a lesbian, a mage.
Or we go back further. We claim bonds with the dead. We press back our roots through dispassionate time seeking a stronghold. My brother has a keen interest in genealogy, for example, and he can point out the fine land and extensive holdings that my grand-father drank away, or tell about some great, great uncle who was a significant fighter in the Civil War, and so on. I have zero interest in this kind of story but he finds it fascinating and it gives structure to his reality. And fair enough. I have my own stories that he thinks are irrelevant.
Others travel back even further and find their ancestors were warriors alongside Brian Boru or some such; there are never lowly sheep-thieves when we gaze into our myth. And then more reach back even further, to past lives, where we lived gloriously as Samson (or indeed Delilah), some great King or prophet (and never chamber-pot attendant to the King). We speak of our special DNA or past-life memories, and for us it constructs a reality that makes this present fleeting existence more tangible and meaningful.
This is all reasonable enough. Indeed Jungians, and psychotherapists of that ilk, place great store on one’s personal mythos, believing we hold so much undiscovered and latent material in the unconscious, all of which controls us in the present without our knowledge. And I agree with this. We do have latent tendencies. And no harm in finding them out.
And yes, the lives of others are interesting. It is good to know of Ramana Maharishi’s early boyhood and his experiences. It is instructive to read of Jung’s assessment of his kaleidoscopic interior. It is inspiring to hear of people who have triumphed against adversity, or breached the limits of knowledge. It would be very difficult to function as a civilisation if we did not share our mythos among our fellow beings, for we would be doomed to start from the beginning anew each generation, over and over, newly discovering the toxicity of snake bites, reaching as a child towards the stars.
But where I question the value of the personal mythos is when it holds us, as it undoubtedly does, to a solid idea of who we ”are”. Our story makes us believe we are a historical entity, someone who can be identified incontestably as x, y or z.
( Of course, on mundane levels, this is true.)
But is it fundamentally true? What of the invisible sages of all times who have lived quiet lives as grains of sand or another leaf among the numberless leaves? The nobodies who know they are nothing. And conversely everything. The ones who have abandoned all personal narrative.
Our mythos is an inner legend seamlessly constructing an apparent reality that with one fell swoop can be tumbled down. Any mythos can be belied. We could heal from being ill. We could lose our job or forsake it. We could divorce. Is it not random that we happen to have skin the colour we have? Is it not random that we happen to be the gender or nationality that we are? How can these be defining structures in our fundamental unchanging identity?
And more importantly, what is identity? Who are you? Who am I? When all the myths are abandoned, when the past falls away from our heels, when the future is non-existent, when we let go of any mental construct at all, all our myths ….. then, being nameless and formless, who am I?