This article is the last in a series of three articles on consciousness. For a more enjoyable reading, the editor strongly recommends that you read the first part available on this page, as well as the second part on this page.
In this series of articles, I am trying to elucidate the links between consciousness, goals and goal hierarchies, and the pattern of behavior that allows us to thrive in life. In this final chapter, I will examine the optimal pattern of behavior.
The start of this investigation rests on the assumption that humans have been trying to encode reality into their stories. Reality must not be understood materialistically, or objectively, but phenomenologically, from the point of view of human experience. For example, you could describe drinking a cool glass of water in two different ways. From a materialistic point of view, you could say you are swallowing slowly vibrating H2O molecules with your mouth, which go down your esophagus into your stomach. This is a somewhat comical, strange, yet factually accurate description of the action. From a phenomenological perspective, you are drinking a refreshing, wet and tasteless liquid, which satisfies you because you were thirsty. This description is completely different, yet just as accurate as the first. The difference is that this description is aligned with the way we experience reality.
If we accept that humans have been trying to encode phenomenological reality into their stories, which stories should we investigate first? A good place to start would be to investigate the most important stories of a people at a certain time. These stories are those in myths, legends, and religions. What we will look for are patterns that repeat across these stories. If the same patterns appear in stories emerging in different times and in different places, we can tentatively emit the hypothesis that these patterns are telling us something about the structure of reality. Specifically, if we model our behavior on these patterns, we will be able to attain our goals and thrive.
There are story patterns that repeat themselves across time
The Story of Marduk
The story of Marduk is the Mesopotamian creation myth. It begins with the union of Apsu, the begetter of forms, actualities, and god of freshwater, and Tiamat goddess of salt water, of potentiality, “she who gave birth to them all”. Tiamat and Apsu’s union give rise to children but their children are noisy and so Tiamat and Apsu conspire to kill them. In their conflict, Apsu is killed.
Later, Tiamat is bothered again. This disturbance is intolerable, and she decides to exterminate her children once and for all. Several of Tiamat’s children attempt to fight her but all fail. Marduk, the storm god who has eyes on all sides of his head, is called upon to fight her. He accepts on one condition: to be elected king of the gods. The gods accept and when Marduk is ready, he gathers his armaments and faces Tiamat. He subdues her, cuts her into pieces, and from the pieces creates heaven and earth.
A few motifs appear in this story. The first is the union of opposites: fresh water and salt water or actuality and potentiality and this union is fruitful because it gives rise to children. The second are the eyes all around Marduks’ head, representing consciousness, or that which perceives. Then, there is the election of Marduk as king of the gods, which can be read as the election of that which perceives to be the ruling principle. Finally, there is the voluntary battle between Marduk and Tiamat, or between consciousness and potentiality, and from the cutting up of potentiality the creation of the world: Heaven and Earth. We will see that these motifs are recurring in other stories.
The Story of Osiris
The story of Osiris is the most elaborate and influential story in ancient Egyptian mythology. Osiris was a primeval king who ruled wisely and fairly over Egypt. His brother Seth, evil and mysterious, revolts against him and kills him, sending his dismembered body to the underworld. Isis, Osiris’ wife, journeys to the underworld and impregnates herself with part of Osiris’ body and gives birth to a son, Horus, the hero, and sun god.
When Horus is grown and ready, he returns to the kingdom and confronts Seth. Horus is victorious and ascends to the throne, however his task is incomplete. He descends to the underworld to rescue his father, Osiris to which he gives his eye. Both return victoriously to the kingdom of the “Son and Father” to continue their good rule.
Two of the same motifs appear again. The first is the fruitful union of opposites: Isis and Osiris unite, birthing Horus the hero. The second is the voluntary battle of the hero with the forces that threaten life. However, here these destructive forces are of a different nature.
Whereas in the story of Marduk, creation was threatened by Tiamat, or potentiality – that which has the power to create and destroy- in the story of Osiris the kingdom is threatened by Seth or tyranny, represented by the overthrowing of Osiris. There are always opposing and complementary forces in these stories: potentiality and actuality, creation and destruction, and order and tyranny. These principles are often personified in myths. In this story, order is personified by Osiris, tyranny by Seth and creation by Isis. Another difference between the story of Osiris and the story of Marduk is the final journey to the underworld undertaken by Horus. Once tyranny is vanquished, Horus must restructure, resurrect, and surpass the old culture, which he does by giving Osiris his eye, and returning to rule as “the Father and Son”.
The Story of the Buddah
Finally, we will examine the story of Buddha. At the birth of Prince Gautama, the Buddha, his father, wishing to protect him from the horrors of the world, builds him a walled paradisiac garden. In this garden are allowed only the young, the healthy and the happy, keeping all signs of decay and degeneration hidden. As Gautama grows, so does his curiosity, and he demands to venture out of the garden. On his journey, he stubbles upon an old man. He asks his attendant who is accompanying him:
“What is that creature stumbling, shabby, bent and broken, beside my retinue?” and the attendant answered:
“That is a man, like other men, who was born an infant, became a child, a youth, a husband, a father, a father of fathers. He has become old, subject to destruction of his beauty, his will, and the possibilities of life.”
“Like other men, you say?” hesitantly inquired the prince. “That means…this will happen to me?” and the attendant answered:
“Inevitably, with the passage of time.”
The Buddha is frightened and asks to return to his garden. He repeats this journey several times and finally decides to leave the walled garden for good. During his travels, he becomes a master of tradition learning about various philosophies like Yoga, Samkhya and asceticism. This knowledge proving insufficient, Buddha journeys into a dark forest and vows to remain immobile until he reaches enlightenment. In a harrowing initiatory ordeal, he faces the terrors of death as well as the temptations of life but ultimately attains nirvana. Upon this attainment, he encounters the God of Death, who offers Gautama the opportunity to remain in this state forever. Gautama refuses and journeys back to civilization in order to disseminate the knowledge he has gained.
Many of the same patterns appear again. First, we see opposing and complementary forces: the walled garden and the outside world or that which is known and that which is unknown. Second, the voluntary encounter of the buddha with the forces that threaten life. Indeed, from the point of view of the walled garden, the world is perfect and unchanging, but the outside is subject to death, decay, and the passage of time. Finally, Buddhas’ becoming a master of tradition can be read as an ascension to power, as Horus’ ascension to the throne, because there is no one above the master. However, like Horus, Buddhas journey is incomplete and he ventures into a dark forest. The dark forest is equivalent to the underworld because this is where Buddha goes to transcend and restructure the knowledge of his ancestors and in so doing attains enlightenment. Then, like Horus, he returns from the underworld, and shares this newfound knowledge with the community.
Hopefully, I have managed to make the similarities apparent. To summarize, I have regrouped these elements in Table 1. The elements on the left are the opposite and complement of the elements on the right.
Table 1: The constituent elements of these stories
The Dark Forest
The World of the Living
The Initiatory Ordeal
How the constituent elements come together: The Hero’s Journey
The pattern of these stories is remarkably similar. The Hero is called to adventure: by other gods, a kingdom in ruin, or curiosity. He departs at a moment of his choosing and voluntarily faces the destructive forces that await him: he leaves the know to face the unknown. On this journey, he faces challenges: Tiamat, Seth, or simply the insufficiency of ancestral teachings. Then, the hero faces a “death & rebirth” (or in the case of Marduk simply a birth, that of the world); Horus “dies” by descending to the underworld and is born again with newfound knowledge, that of his renewed father; Buddha “dies” in the dark forest where he faces the terrors of death, the temptations of life but ultimately ascends out of his state of Nirvana.
This pattern has been called “The Hero’s Journey” and is represented schematically in Figure 1. It is still present in many popular contemporary cultural products like Bilbo the Hobbit, The Lion King, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars and more.
What does the pattern mean?
These stories are quite abstract, and I will try to give an interpretation. The hero is us, and its guiding principle is the capacity to pay attention. In our life, we are constantly confronted with situations we know deep down we must engage with, and we must face these situations voluntarily. Doing this is frightening, because before actually engaging with the situation, we do not know what it is, it could be anything: the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever. The situation is infinite potentiality.
In the process of facing these situations, we are faced with challenges and temptations. Difficulties and distractions are pulling our attention away from our goal. If we can remain focused, we slice infinite potentiality into ever smaller, more manageable pieces: the situation becomes bounded between say “a good thing” and a “neutral thing” instead of being infinite.
In the end, our attentive engagement with the bounded potentiality of the situation reduces it to one possibility. At this moment, it’s meaning is revealed to us and we die and are born again. What this means is that true challenges, true changes in life circumstances once we understand them require a death and rebirth of personality. Once we understand, we must let cherished aspects of ourselves go, to become a new and improved version of ourselves. Perhaps we fail a semester of university, we understand that this is because we party too much, and we must let that part of us die, to become someone who studies more. In some cases, this knowledge is new enough that it must be shared with others, to help them become new as well.
My final contention is this: because we are conscious, the pattern outlined above is the pattern that will allow us to thrive. Because we are conscious, we are the hero and we must heed our call to adventure.
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