Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth. – Rumi
Our lives are an ever-unfolding journey set between spiritual ley lines established by personal mythology. A paradise can be found at the end of your nose, if you look for it. Each day of our lives demand a measure of courage and determination, but we just don’t see it that way. Everyone has incorporated elements of myth into their lives. A myth is at its core a story, and humans are storytellers. When you meet someone, you will inevitably ask tell me about yourself. Is the answer entirely facts, numbers, and job descriptions? No. We tell about ourselves by weaving our mythology into the greater tapestry of humanity. Most people carry personal totems with them wherever they go. These tokens help us hold on to our personal mythology. We use these touchstones to ease the anxiety of uncertainty and unpredictability. How daunting life must be for people who deny their life-myths.
Our myths are not just words. We contextualize the narrative through our senses – 5, 9, 21 senses or more. Our myths unfold through the perceived contexts of life. For me, smell has always been a huge catalyst for myth-making. Growing up in the American Midwest, I delighted in the oily, piquant scent of the black walnut trees in our front yard, or climbing trees to enjoy the earthy citrus tang from chewing fresh sassafras stems. It is strange how changing the context changes the meaningfulness of things. For instance, the smell of sandalwood incense. After a dozen years in China, sandalwood can remind me of countless temples and shrines. But if you add the scents of cigarettes and piss it reminds me of rank public toilets, crowded rest stops and bus stations, where the incense is used as air freshener. And so through context, the delightful aroma goes from the sacred to the profane.
My first memory of the exotic fragrance sandalwood was when I journeyed alone to Beijing in 2003. Following the chanting and traditional Tibetan instruments, I wandered through the Lama Temple to the “Hall of Boundless Happiness”. There before me was the 26 meter tall (85 feet) white sandalwood statue of the Future Buddha (Maitreya in Sanskrit) – a gift to the Qianlong Emperor from the seventh Dalai Lama. The air, the ground, my heart and soul, were suffused with sandalwood incense. Within the oceanic rhythmic chanting, shrieking horns, banging drums and crashing cymbals, time lost all meaning. It was there, standing before the colossal Buddha, that I experienced my first epiphany. I knew then we live in the mortal moment, but it is the eternal moment that we seek. I took out a photograph of my amazing uncle, whose mythic life inspired me, and placed him before the Buddha. Although he traveled to over seventy countries, he regretted not be able to visit China. My unknowing self stepped from the shadows into the searing white sword of daylight. It was then I first saw life with a glaring clarity that has yet to fade. That experience sits now like a torchlight blazing into once dark recesses of my conscious/subconscious/unconscious mind.
Recently I bought some sandalwood incense to burn in remembrance of loved ones. I burn it in my west facing window. I often stare out that window because over 6,600 miles to the southwest lies the woman I love. Whenever I write or paint, our household shrine is an arms length away, where we have a boxwood statue of General Guan Yu watching over us. General Guan is a guardian deity who protects people from evil. This statue was given to my wife and I by my fellow foreign teachers. We were living in the city of Hangzhou when we got married. They knew how many difficulties we had on our path to marriage. So, my good friends visited the workshop of a local artist to find the perfect gift for us. The general has always held a place of honor in every home I have lived in since. He has been an important part of my personal mythology for years and will continue to be so for the rest of my life.
Stop and look around you. What cherished items do you see? Are there photographs of loved ones near by? What stories come to mind when you look at them? Close your eyes and imagine those loved ones. Hold them in your heart and feel their warmth. Imagine their voices if you can, or favorite food. That place in your heart where they live is sacred. The journey your soul just took to that sacred place is as meaningful a myth as any told in history. Begin today to celebrate your journey to become the great person you are right now. Peace.
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