How To Find Your Own Truth: According to Joseph Campbell & Alan Watts

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  • Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as a guide to finding one’s self.
  • Alan Watts explores the notion of symbolically returning to the forest.
  • How to set ones own meaning in a world of confusion and chaos.

Joseph Campbell’s life work covered a wide range of the communal human experience. Campbell explored the various mythologies of our planet and managed to elucidate on the common threads between them all. He’s popularly known for coining the concept of the hero’s journey, or monomyth, which is a narrative cycle that is found to some degree in all great legends and stories around the world.

This topic of discussion in an influential television series with journalist Bill Moyers brought Campbell’s idea further into the mainstream posthumously in the latter half of the 20th century.

From this idea stems one of Campbell’s greater points about the universality of experience and need to find your own truth or, as his famous saying goes, to “follow your bliss.

Campbell’s ability to fuse comparative mythologies into one comprehensive world spanning myth can serve as the basis for discovering one’s own personal truth. Human patterns repeat themselves over timescales far and wide. Once you can come to terms with the multifarious iterations of these universal stories, Campbell believed that you need to leave ideology behind once you’ve learned from it.

Alan Watts, had a similar sentiment to this idea, a contemporary and friend to Campbell — Watts explored the implications inherent to Campbell’s view when exploring his early work of Return to the Forest.

Return to the Forest

Alan Watts – Return to the ForestAlan Watts Foundation

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.” — Joseph Campbell

In Return to the Forest, Campbell explored what it meant to the individual and society when these common myths and systems begin to break down. In this chaos, when there is no central guiding myth, celestial authority or truth to guide us — what will become of the individual seeking meaning or their own truth?

Watts believed that the fundamental force guiding civilizations together has been one not only of mutually shared communication in a common language, but a common viewpoint of the world and even common types of sensuous experience. But such is the nature of change that through major cultural shifts, dynamics of technological change or ways of viewing the world, these foundational pillars of civilization begin to erode. Left in its wake is chaos and confusion.

Social cosmologies, views of the world held in common by society tend to break up.

Watts went on to say that the relativistic world of modern thought that Westerners live in, one that is largely bereft of one unifying worldview leads people to become interested in other and former attempts to reconcile the mysteries of living and the universe. For example, in Watts’ time and our own, the exploration of ancient Eastern religions, occult schools of thought, and shamanism.

However, in similar Campbell monomyth fashion, even this idea of going it alone, without an overarching myth to live by, has arguably been done before. Watts explores and explains the rich ideas of shamanism in agrarian culture around the world, and how metaphorically we need to drop out back into the forest if we’re to find ourselves.

“More and more each one of us is thrown on to our own resources. This seems to me an excellent state of affairs. So that in a symbolic sense we are back in the forest like the hunter of old who has nobody around him to tell him how to feel or how he ought to use his senses. He therefore must make his own exploration and find out for himself.”

Watts and Campbell believed that due to the uncertainty of our times and confusion inherent in modern thought, which offers us no secure and comfortable singular view of the universe — we are forced to confront and find truth for ourselves from the universe. We are all now as Watts put it:

All alone together whistling in the dark.

In a sense, much of Campbell’s work dealt with remedying these past mythological works to probe deeper into just what common truths lurks beneath all individual human psyche and communal beliefs. Or as he Campbell once quipped in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”

Now to the point of finding one’s self or finding personal truth. Campbell believes that these myths and stories can become guide posts. But just what is your own personal truth? Well that’s for you and only you to find out and experience.

“These are the kinds of experiences that cannot be transmitted, which for their very nature are something one finds out for themselves. If they could be explained or transmitted they couldn’t be the very thing which they are intended to be. Our discoveries of something authentic, genuine, first hand and part of one’s universe, cannot be codified and be factored into social communication.” — Alan Watts

Campbell & Watts’ exemplified living their own way

Correspondence: 1927–1987 (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)
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Both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts lived a life on the fringes of their own meaning. Taking a cosmic and comprehensive look at the world-views around them, they developed both a sobering and at once wonderful view of the cosmologies of humankind. A statement made about Watts could be applied to Campbell as well:

“The pomposities of prodigious learning could be undone by him with a turn of phrase. One stood before him, disarmed — and laughed at what had just been oneself.”

Together, their wisdom today still stands as a spectral guide to finding one’s own truth.

Humans Don’t Want Happiness Above All, Argued Nietzsche

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Everybody wants to be happy, right? Who doesn’t? Sure, you may not want to sacrifice everything for pleasure, but you certainly want to enjoy yourself. There are a slew of drugs on the market for solving the problems of depression, and the methods for achieving happiness are often sold and advertised as something you can get, and that which you desire above all else.

The pursuit of happiness is so integral to our idea of the good life that it was declared to be an inalienable right by Thomas Jefferson. It summarizes the American Dream like no other idea. For many people it is the meaning of life itself. It is difficult for some to fathom that there is a way of thinking that suggests you don’t want to at least try to be as happy as you can be.

Well, there is one philosopher who doesn’t think you want happiness in itself. Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche saw the mere pursuit of happiness, defined here as that which gives pleasure, as a dull waste of human life. Declaring: “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does”, referencing the English philosophy of Utilitarianism, and its focus on total happiness. A philosophy which he rejected with his parable of the “Last Man,” a pathetic being who lives in a time where mankind has “invented happiness”.

The Last Men? In Nietzsche’s mind they were happy, but dull. 

Nietzsche was instead dedicated to the idea of finding meaning in life. He suggested the Ubermensch, and his creation of meaning in life, as an alternative to the Last Man, and offered us the idea of people who were willing to undertake great suffering in the name of a goal they have set, as examples. Can we imagine that Michelangelo found painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel pleasant? Nikola Tesla declared that his celibacy was necessary to his work, but complained of his loneliness his entire life.

Is that happiness? If these great minds wanted happiness in itself, would they have done what they did?

No, says Nietzsche. They would not. Instead, they chose to pursue meaning, and found it. This is what people really want.

Psychology often agrees. Psychologist Victor Franklsuggested that the key to good living is to find meaning, going so far as to suggest positive meanings for the suffering of his patients to help them carry on. His ideas, published in the best-selling work Man’s Search for Meaning, were inspired by his time at a concentration camp and his notes on how people suffering unimaginable horrors were able to carry on through meaning, rather than happiness.

There is also a question of Utilitarian math here for Nietzsche. In his mind, those who do great things suffer greatly. Those who do small things suffer trivially. In this case, if one was to try to do Utilitarian calculations it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a scenario when the net happiness is very large. This is why the Last Man is so dull; the only things that grant him a large net payoff in happiness are rather dull affairs, not the suffering-inducing activities that we would find interesting.

This problem is called “the paradox of happiness.” Activities which are done to directly increase pleasure are unlikely to have a high payoff. Nietzsche grasped this problem and gave it voice when he said that “Joy accompanies, joy does not move.” A person who enjoys collecting stamps does not do it because it makes them happy, but because they find it interesting. The happiness is a side effect. A person who suffers for years making a masterpiece is not made happy by it, but rather finds joy in the beauty they create after the fact.

Of course, there is opposition to Nietzsche’s idea. The great English thinker Bertrand Russell condemned Nietzsche in his masterpiece A History of Western Philosophy. Chief among his criticisms of Nietzsche was what he saw as a brutality and openness to suffering, and he compared Nietzschean ideas against those of the compassionate Buddha, envisioning Nietzsche shouting:

Why go about sniveling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be completely secured by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Frederick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worthwhile.

Against this Russell contrasts the ideas of the Buddha, and suggests an impartial observer would always side with him. Russell, whose interpretations of Nietzsche were less than accurate and who suffered from having poor translations to work with, saw his philosophy as the stepping stone to fascism, and as being focused on pain.

So, while you may value something above happiness, how much are you willing to suffer to get it? Nietzsche argues that you will give it all up for a higher value. Others still disagree. Are you even able to pursue happiness and receive it? Or is Nietzsche correct that you must focus elsewhere, on meaning, in order to even hope for satisfaction later?

5 Scandinavian Life Philosophies That Can Make You Happier

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By Ashley Hamer

By most metrics, Scandinavia is one of the happiest places on Earth. The annual World Happiness Report routinely rates the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland among the top 10 happiest nations, which experts credit to their strong social support, both among neighbors and through government programs. In that way, perhaps learning a few Scandinavian traditions can give us all a lesson on how to be there for our fellow humans. Here are five life philosophies from Nordic countries that might make you a little happier in your own life.

Hygge

The Danish concept of hygge translates to something like “coziness of the soul.” It’s the feeling you get when you’re snuggled up under a blanket with a loved one drinking cocoa by the fire. As a life philosophy, it’s all about allowing yourself guilt-free indulgences, especially when the world is dark and dreary.

“Hygge could be families and friends getting together for a meal, with the lighting dimmed, or it could be time spent on your own reading a good book,” Susanne Nilsson, a lecturer at Morley College in the UK, told the BBC in 2015. “It works best when there’s not too large an empty space around the person or people.”

Lagom

Lagom is a Swedish word that roughly translates to “just right,” or “optimal.” You’ve likely heard the quote “everything in moderation, including moderation”? That’s what lagom is all about. Whether that’s how much sugar to add to a batch of cookies or how much of your life you devote to your work, this philosophy urges a healthy balance that doesn’t swing too far in any direction.

According to Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, author of “Lagom: The Swedish Secret to Living Well,” lagom “pushes us to find our own individual levels of contentment, inner peace, and most natural operating state. What makes it a very Swedish (or Nordic) [philosophy] is just how often lagom pulls us from individual focus to group focus.”

Sisu

If the other philosophies on this list are about taking time to enjoy life, sisu is kind of the opposite: It’s about persisting through challenges until you reach the end. “Sisu is a unique Finnish concept,” Finlandia University writes on its website. “It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.”

It’s not about courage in the moment, but the kind of courage that has to last over time — after inspiration has sputtered out and the real challenge has shown itself. No wonder it’s also the name of a towering Arctic mountain — a mountain first ascended by a Finnish mountaineer.

Fika

Fika is just another word for coffee break — it was named by reversing the syllables in “kaffe,” the Swedish word for coffee. But it’s much more than a coffee break. It’s about retreating from the stresses of the day by bonding with the people around you, something you’d ideally do several times a day. In reality, however, the Swedish tradition of fika seems to be dwindling as younger people work longer hours and take less time for breaks. That doesn’t make this lesson any less valuable, however. Breaks are good! We could all use more of them.

Lykke

The word “lykke” is simple enough: It’s simply the Danish word for “happiness.” But in those World Happiness Report rankings we mentioned, Denmark routinely ranks at the very top, so there’s a lesson to be learned in the Danish version of happiness. In his book “The Little Book of Lykke,” Meik Wiking divides this approach to happiness into six categories: togetherness, money, health, freedom, trust, and kindness.

To add more togetherness to your life, for example, try making family dinner a bigger to-do by lighting a few candles and playing relaxing music. To get a bigger happiness bang for your buck, pay for something now that you can enjoy several months from now — that way, the sting of the payment will be long gone from your memory when it’s time to enjoy the experience.