New myths for moderns

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 14, 2013 – 12:00am

I’ve often imagined what it must have been like to be present when Magellan and his crew first landed on our shores. Last year, I read the book Over the Edge of the World by Lawrence Bergreen where he elaborately narrates the entire voyage of Magellan’s flotilla in their search of a route to the Spice Islands and back. I was interested in the local point of view when the Cebuanos first met those strange white people who came in heavy gunships that made thunderous noises. The book pretty much gives a great description of how easily the Cebuanos welcomed the foreigners to their shores.

The world has changed so much since then. There probably isn’t any race or tribe or culture left on earth that has remained untouched or uninfluenced by the outside world. With technology, world travel, migration and the relentless drive of capitalism in opening new markets, surely we have all been transformed somewhat by each other.

Every civilization has its own myths and rituals that are developed, encouraged and interpreted by their leaders in the hope of giving structure, stability and meaning to everyday existence. They create “maps of meanings” disseminated through myths, ceremonies and traditions that permeate every aspect of life.

Today, many parts of these maps of meanings, which used to be exclusive to particular civilizations, are shared across all cultural horizons. As an example, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist holidays like Christmas, Eid al Fitr, practices like yoga and meditation are practiced widely everywhere. In music, rock ‘n’ roll and pop music emanating from different cultures find eager acceptance everywhere.

No doubt, western civilization has had a great transformative effect on the planet, for better or worse. It has affected education, law, commerce and economies, religion, governance, climate, and all manner of social interaction. It has also promoted the concept of human rights and equality, and its continuing influence today is helping disenfranchised sectors attain more rights and freedoms.

The transformation from old mythic, superstitious, magical thinking into a scientific one is probably the most impactful change that has affected a big chunk of humanity. It has permeated all of practical life and dissolved many traditional myths, rituals and ways of doing things.

Contraception, for example, has altered not just sexual practice but the relationship between the sexes in more ways than we can imagine. In many cultures, it has brought about the liberation of women from their traditional submissive roles and raised them to a status co-equal with men, not just in the planning of the nuclear family, but also in running their own lives.

The march of modern science continues to create new opportunities to find solutions to problems in new ways. Some 20 years ago, it was simply inconceivable that the concerns of one group of people could one day be addressed in real time by another group living in another culture, continent and time zone. But that’s exactly what call center agents in Manila are doing for many Americans today.

Everything is changing so quickly that the traditional limitations of time and space are no longer there, at least not in the virtual world that is “on” 24/7 and is encroaching more and more into the real world.

What are the implications of all these? For centuries, nothing much changed in the way people ran their lives. Now, it seems like a new generational mindset is born every five years or so with its own technological environment.

One might ask, what happens when there is a dissolution of much of the ways, myths and rituals and belief systems that used to bind people into socio-cultural communities? I believe new ones will come up and simply replace the old ones that have lost their moving power.

The new cultural memes and attitudes seem to be pointing to diversity. In a borderless world where everyone can talk and express himself online and affect others across great distances, the overbearing dominance of one or two cultures over the rest is becoming more and more obsolete. Newer “niche cultures” are being formed and are filling the gap. These are where smaller groups of people bind together and embrace new meanings and interpretations of the world and enact them with revised, modernized or newly thought-out rituals and myths.

We can see it in the splintering of the once-monolithic church into different sects. This is happening in other religions too. We see it in the never-ending diversity of music, arts and lifestyles that scream out new paradigms suggesting how the world is to be understood. There is a robust battle of ideas everywhere. For every issue there are sides fighting for dominance in the cultural, philosophical and ideological marketplace.

The evolution of meaning itself, I dare say, will be more and more “open-sourced,” not unlike the way the scientific method is applied. Meaning, truth, discoveries and breakthroughs can come from anywhere. The only thing they need to go viral is to find commonality and be credibly experienced by others. In the religious spiritual movement, Carolyn Myss writes about people who derive truth not from one religious tradition alone but from many, and more often through direct experience. She calls them “mystics without monasteries,” regular people outside the established religions who seek God not through intermediaries but through personal discovery.

Transcendence, after all, is still the great mystery that, deep down, everyone yearns for. While the endless novelty of modern living may bring surprise and delight, and the pull of nostalgia may comfort us with the familiar in a fast-changing world, it may not deliver to many the experience of the timeless and the holy with deep lasting results. The path to transcendence, while already traversed by many throughout history, is still very much an individual awakening and undertaking. More and more, we want meaning that speaks to us directly and personally.

To stress this point, allow me to quote Joseph Campbell who wrote about the new myths in the modern world: “Each individual is the center of a mythology of his own, of which his own intelligible character is the Incarnate God, so to say, whom his empirically questing consciousness is to find. The aphorism of Delphi, ‘Know thyself,’ is the motto…”

In other words, life’s meaning must be personally and viscerally felt. Campbell adds: “Not Rome, not Mecca, not Jerusalem, Sinai, or Benares, but each and every ‘thou’ on earth is the center of the world, in the sense of that formula quoted from the 12th-century Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers, of God as an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere.”

Strangely enough, I found the same bells ringing for me when Pope Francis, in a Lenten homily, advised the faithful to “get out of yourselves.” I may be stretching it a bit, but to me, that meant transcending our ego and seeing ourselves and the rest of humanity as indistinguishably one and the same.

We are each other. There is only “One” of us. We all affect each other. The idea of “one humanity” is the relatively new, ascending mythical idea that more and more people are resonating with. Humanity experienced this in a big way when it saw for the first time ever what the earth, its home, looked like from space in the 1960s. And now with the Internet, we get the virtual experience of practically everyone within reach or being in touch. There is also the universal fight against global warming, and the modern ritual of turning off lights on Earth Day that suggest we are buying into the Oneness.

As modern as all of this sounds, ironically, things have not really changed that much. It is still this very timeless experience of transcendence and its visceral meaning, but now invoked by new myths and rituals that modern man, not unlike his ancestors, is still really yearning for.

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