Along my spiritual journey home, sometimes the question arises, “Am I on the right path?”
Let’s make it clear that there is no such thing as the right path. There are many paths, all beautiful.
I understand reality based on my personal experiences. Whether or not I’m on the right path, or following the right teachings, is determined by me alone.
My path of studying various religions and new age spirituality, has led me to the religion of Kashmir Shaivism. In this tradition, we speak of the Gods, Shiva and Shakti; we map out the entire cosmology of the Universe; and it appears that we have the answer to life’s deepest questions.
However, whenever I speak about religion, it is done with utmost care. This is because I am humble enough to realize that all religion is a form of mythology – stories/narratives we create in our heads in order to live a better life. Choose one (or not) that serves you best.
What is a Myth?
A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world.
– Alan Watts
The Greek word phantasia, from which we derive the word fantasy, comes from a verb that means “to make visible.” We make the subtle energies visible by creating images in the mind. What we don’t always understand is how these images can transform our inner landscape, and then our life. Through imagination, we tap into our highest human potential and encounter that which is more than human in us: that which is divine.
Here I will draw passages from my favourite book on Myth – A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.
From a very early date, it appears that human beings were distinguished by their ability to have ideas that went beyond their everyday experience. From the very beginning, we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.
Mythology is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it. It is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.
The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before. Myth is about the unknown; it is about that for which initially we have no words.
All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality; sometimes called the world of the Gods, is a basic theme of mythology.
In the ancient world, the Gods were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with discrete personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience.
Today the word myth is often used to describe something that is simply not true. We easily dismiss these stories as incredible and clearly untrue. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.
An experience of transcendence has always been part of the human experience. We seek out moments of ecstasy, when we feel deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond ourselves. At such times, it seems that we are living more intensely than usual, firing on all cylinders, and inhabiting the whole of our humanity. Religion has been one of the most traditional ways of attaining ecstasy, but if people no longer find it in temples, synagogues, churches or mosques, they look for it elsewhere: in art, music, poetry, rock, dance, drugs, sex or sport. Like poetry and music, mythology should awaken us to rapture, even in the face of death and the despair we may feel at the prospect of annihilation. If a myth ceases to do that, it has died and outlived its usefulness.
It is therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason.
It does not claim that its tales are objective fact. However, what if this world were not all there is? How would this affect our lives – psychologically, practically or socially? Would we become different? More complete? And, if we did find that we were so transformed, would that not show that our mythical belief was true in some way, that it was telling us something important about our humanity, even though we could not prove this rationally?
A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide, it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play.