And so we come at last to the final stage of the cosmogonic cycle. Dissolutions: where the visible world dissolves back into the unmanifest source. We are familiar with this stage in its guise as the many stories of the end of the world: the Bible’s Book of Revelations, the Norse Ragnarok, the Hindu age of Kali Yuga, the Buddhist Sermon of the Seven Suns, and countless others.
It may help to return to Joseph Campbell’s diagram of the cosmogonic round. Here, Campbell aligns the life cycle of the universe with our nightly journey into sleep:
The universe emanates from the transcendent “deep sleep,” and it is back into this same source that the world dissolves. We must be careful here, because Campbell’s language is very precise. I have spoken often of the ego, which in everyday conversation has a far more narrow meaning than it does here. Ordinarily, when we mention someone’s “ego” we tend to mean this strictly as the part of them which is narcissistic, self-interested, self-serving, and arrogant, and it is almost always meant to be derogatory. These dimensions are indeed part of the ego referred to here, but it is far more broad. Any conscious thought, image, or idea you have is your ego. Familiarity with your personal details (your name, place of birth, birthday, address, and so on), your preferences (about everything, movies, colours, hobbies, you name it), your opinions about others (even the very nice ones), and yourself, are all the machinations of the ego. When you are thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner, that’s your ego. When you recognize a friend at the movie theatre, that’s your ego. All your memories and how you feel about them, your daydreams, ideals, the internal running commentary of your daily life, that’s all the ego. More or less anything that you are consciously aware of is the ego: it is all you are referring to when you say “I.” Critically, the ego both identifies “me,” and distinguishes that self from others – it believes, for example, that my sister, neighbour, mail carrier, and so on, are not included in “I.”
Now, in this diagram, the transformations stage – the sphere of hero journeys, human life, and “reality” – is the realm of the waking mind: the ego. But, this is not to say our experiences in the visible, physical world, are absolutely real. The universe emanates, at its birth, from total “nonbeing,” this is the unmanifest, transcendent realm from which all things arise and are supported. This source is, as Campbell explains, “the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindu as Sakti, and the Christians as the power of God.” It cannot be seen or directly touched, it is beyond any reference we have in the visible world. As pure white light enters a prism and breaks into the visible colours which make up the world, so too is the visible world itself simply the reflected shards of the transcendent source: in the visible world, “we see not the source of the universal power but only the phenomenal forms reflected from that power.” The ego itself is also an infinitely small fraction of the transcendent.
Campbell describes the unmanifest realm as a state of “superconsciousness,” in which all things are included, known, and inseparable. In order for our egos to be able to perceive the world, our potential for superconsciousness must be severely constricted (because we are never completely cut off and separate from the transcendent, only more or less pinched off from it). How could the ego, a structure whose sole purpose is to distinguish between what is “I” and what is “not I,” conceive of, let alone accept, a reality where there is no separation? It is the ego’s great delusion that our individual awareness is constricted to ourselves, or, as Campbell describes the state of ego consciousness: it is where “men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete.” Campbell thus recalibrates, “the lapse of superconsciousness into the state of unconsciousness is precisely the meaning of the biblical image of the Fall. The constriction of consciousness … turns superconsciousness into unconsciousness.” The constriction of consciousness is the true cause of our separation from the transcendent, and this constriction “at the same instant and by the same token, creates the world.” The visible world is thus not the foundation of reality, rather it is what remains of Reality after it’s pinched off and narrowed to the focus of a pin-point. The transformations stage is defined only as the “waking” world from the point of view that it is constrained, separated, and cut up enough that we are able to see it with the human eye, that it is reduced enough so our egos can accept it as valid.
This may be, in fact, the most critical aspect of all mythology: the visible world is not real. Sure, it is real in the sense that we are here, we can see each other, touch this rock and that tree, and feel the breeze against our skin: the world has an objective existence. Yet, we are simply interacting with the fractions of fractions of fractions of fractions, seeing duality where there is ultimately none, as Meister Eckhart explains, “mythology suggests that behind that duality there is a singularity over which this plays like a shadow game.” The visible world is made up of shadows only, reflections. The universe is simply the vaporous forms thrown up by the transcendent realm, which are fractured enough for us to perceive it.
Perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with the end of the world. The answer is: rather everything. To return to our little diagram, the end of the world, like its beginning, belongs to the realm of dreams. Dreams are the nexus point between the personal, constricted ego perspective of waking life, and the vast, universal, “deep sleep” of the transcendent realm where the ego disappears. You have no awareness of yourself in the zone of deep sleep, as you would not in the full light of the eternal. Dreams are the distant messages and reflections of the transcendent, filtered through the familiar forms, language, and images of the ego. Dreams are not entirely familiar, and yet, are deeply personal. The dissolution stage of the cosmogonic round is simply the retreat of consciousness back into superconsciousness (or, more accurately, its expansion), back into the source from whence it first arose.
The trouble with this stage arises when we take the “end” of the world to be its “death,” a far too final concept. We only interpret the “end” of the world as “death” because we believe the visible world is real and that our ego perspectives are true. In fact, the whole intention of the transformations stage, with its many hero journeys, is to remind us that the “supreme hero” is “he who reopens the eye.” The crowning achievement of the hero’s quest is “reconciliation with the grave.” This does not mean the hero comes simply to accept death as the inevitable result of life, but rather, that his adventure culminates in the realization that there is no death. As we saw in the cycle of hero types, the heroes evolve from the physical, outward directed quests of the warrior (i.e. slaying dragons, saving princesses), to the unutterably internal journey of the saint. This round of heroes, culminating with the hero-saint, is likewise the progress of the intentional abandonment of the ego. By the incarnation of the hero-saint, “the ego is burnt out. Like a dead leaf in the breeze, the body continues to move about the earth, but the soul has dissolved already in the ocean of bliss.” Due to the transparency of the hero-saint’s ego consciousness, the perspective has shifted from “the paradox of the dual perspective” to “the ultimate claim of the unseen.” So too, the end of the world is simply the revelation of the transcendent’s “ultimate claim” over the visible world and what we take to be reality. The world does not end because it is fallen, evil, or “wrong,” but simply because it is a shadow being swept aside by the light.
The “end” described by the myths of this stage are only on the surface about death, destruction, and doom. As Campbell reassures, because the visible world is made up only of “forms”, the reflections of the transcendent, “Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.” The hero’s epiphany that death does not exist arises from the moment in his quest where he has come to the edge of the known universe, the edge of his own self, and facing the transcendent realm, he has no choice but to, momentarily (because he must return to us), let go of his ego and merge with the eternal. This is the point in the hero journey where the hero dies and is resurrected (or, at least, experiences death symbolically). Death is necessary because it is the point at which the ego is set aside and simply melts away to nothing. Death sheds one’s earthly persona as a snake sheds an outworn skin.
For Campbell, this moment of death is “the moment in [the hero’s] life when he achieved illumination – the nuclear moment when, while still alive, he found and opened the road to the light beyond the dark wall of our living death.” As the transformations stage of the round is the “waking” life of the ego, death, or personal dissolution, is the waking of the soul: “Life is her sleep, death the awakening” (in the language of myth the soul is feminine, often presented as the trapped or sleeping princess – and part of the reason why the hero in myth is always male). The hero is “the waker of his own soul, [he] is but the convenient means of his own dissolution.” Ultimately, death is simply the release of the ego and the shift in perspective to the superconsciousness of the soul, it only terrifies us because we are so attached to our ego perspectives we fear letting it go. The ego does not easily see beyond its own borders, nor is it readily willing to accept those borders as its own invention.
As Campbell explains, “as in the actual experience of every living being, so in the grandiose figure of the living cosmos”: the myths of the end of world describe the collective ego of humanity and the universe itself disintegrating. It is the fulfilment of the hero-saint’s lesson, the “ultimate claim of the unseen” in the world, the realization that although “the two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other – different as life and death, as day and night,” this is only from the point of view of the ego. The reality encountered at the world’s dissolution is “the two kingdoms are actually one.” Indeed, Campbell insists this revelation is “a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol,” it is the whole sense of mythology: “Myth is a directing of the mind and heart, by means of profoundly informed figurations, to that ultimate mystery which fills and surrounds all existence. Even in the most comical and apparently frivolous of its moments, mythology is directing the mind to this unmanifest which is just beyond the eye.” Or, just beyond the ego.
Death and the end of the world may simply be the dissolving of ego consciousness, but this does not mean it’s done easily or painlessly. In Part 2 of the Dissolutions stage, we turn to the existence of pain, sorrow, and evil in life and their role in the apocalypse (hint: it’s not what you think).