When we understand our place in the Universe as reflections of a higher consciousness, we have moved from psychology to metaphysics. Joseph Campbell next describes what he calls the universal or cosmic round. This is the flow of the life force, which takes the world out of non-manifestation, makes it physical, and eventually sends it back into the void, only to begin the entire cosmic round again.
Flow of the Universe
Campbell compares the universal round to sleep. Every night, we go into the land of the unconscious which, as Campbell noted, is where knowledge of the life force and our true nature lies. Every morning, we return to the land of consciousness, mostly unaware of that knowledge.
This mirrors the rhythm of the Universe, as depicted by myths.
[T]he continuance of the cosmic order is assured only by a controlled flow of power from the source. The gods are symbolic personifications of the laws governing this flow.
The World Tree, World Axis, World Mountain, House of the Sun, and so forth is a symbol of the assurance of this continuous flow. Myths where the hero must succeed in some trials in order to restore fertility to the land and the people also represent the assurance of this continuous flow.
Round and Round
Many myths and spiritual beliefs, however, describe a process of repetitive creation and dissolution or destruction. So a world emerges out of the void, is sustained for many billions of years, eventually dissolves back into the void, and after many billions of years, a new one emerges. (Note that time is really only meaningful to us in relatively short spans. We’re talking here about time periods that are beyond our brain’s capacity to comprehend.)
Myths make much of these dissolutions, describing horrifying scenes of mass destruction by powers that make us realize our insignificance (think of the flood in Genesis). Some, like the Stoics, suggest that we’ll all live out our lives over and over again with each round of creation (ugh!). Eastern mythology, though, takes the view that some evolutionary movement takes place whereby things deteriorate and get better and deteriorate again, but humanity as a whole very gradually ascends to a higher level of consciousness.
Campbell tells of Jain and Hindu cosmology where the cycle begins with a perfect race of beings. They’re basically as close to the gods as we can get without actually being gods. The world they dwell in is without conflict, and the land supplies all of their needs. This world lasts for the longest period with the longest-living race. Gradually, the races begin to deteriorate in morals and behavior. Each subsequent cycle sees more reprehensible behavior: more greed, more violence, more selfishness, more cruelty, more promiscuity, etc. These races live for less and less time. Eventually they drive the world to destruction (flood, earthquake, fire, tempests, or all of the above).
What happens next differs depending on the myth. Jains, for instance, tell that the birth of a new round begins immediately after destruction with a race slightly better than the one that was destroyed. According to Hindu beliefs, restoration of life can only happen after the old round has been completely destroyed and the void remains untapped of manifestation for many more billions of years (keeping in mind that time is nonexistent in the void!). Gradually, the void again brings forth a manifested world, one slightly better than the one destroyed, and the ascension towards moral behavior and perfection begins again.
“Om” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Campbell discusses how the well-known Eastern symbol/sound om* represents this universal or cosmic round. There are three main levels of consciousness:
Level 1: This is the state of unmanifestation and parallel to the state of sleep in us. All is bliss. There are no troubles, no desires, no sorrows or joys, and no attachment.
Level 2: This is the level which is parallel to dreaming, which Campbell describes as awareness “of the fluid, subtle, forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer.” This is perhaps the level we can reach through meditation, lucid dreams, and enlightenment, a sort of consciousness within unconsciousness.
Level 3: This is the level we’re most familiar with, of waking life, logic, sensations, feelings, actions, and language.
AUM is a compact way of representing this: “Here the sound A represents waking consciousness, U dream consciousness, M deep sleep.” What’s interesting is that the silence surrounding AUM also has meaning. In other words, when AUM isn’t being sounded, it’s symbolic of the Eternal, that which is outside of the universal round (and thus beyond the understanding of the human mind, remaining a true mystery to us). AUM is a reflection of our existence, including that which we can never be aware of and will forever remain mysterious.
Myths, Campbell writes, are a doorway into both the AUM and the silence that surrounds it. The first is what he calls the Uncreated Creating. It creates the universe over and over but isn’t separate from the Eternal creative force. It has no beginning and no end. The second Campbell calls the Uncreated Uncreating because it’s outside of the cycle of creation and dissolution and yet is within it. Or rather, it is it. We can think of the Eternal as a blue space and the cosmic round as a purple circle within it. It has the blue of the Eternal as part of it but also something else, a different energy that allows endless cycles of creation and dissolution.
Whether we take the universal round as literal or not, we’re led to two ideas that can help us in our everyday lives. The first is the impermanence of life. The natural rhythm of the Universe is a constantly flowing rhythm, and to get the most out of life, we need to flow with it. The second idea that can help us in everyday life is the silence or Eternal that surrounds and is within the Universe. On a spiritual level, it prompts us to work on uniting with it, if only for a little while, whether it’s through meditation, creative expression, or constantly striving to be better people. Psychologically, it reminds us that there’s something greater than us out there that we can’t always understand but have to live with.
*Om is a complicated concept, and much has been written about it. I’m discussing it here strictly in the context of Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.