The goal is to live with god-like composure on the full rush of energy, like Dionysus riding the leopard without being torn to pieces (Campbell as qtd in Osbon 26).
This became my mantra through a particularly painful period in my life. The quote comes from a little yellow book called Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. It is a compilation of Campbell’s essays, writings, lectures, quotes, thoughts, and musings all meticulously selected and edited by Diane Osbon. I discovered it while at Burlington College and it is now one of those overly worn things with dog ears, Post-its, highlighted passages, and scribbled notes. I refer to it often, sometimes just flipping it open at random, seeking divination: what do I need to meditate on today? Much like Aristotle’s Poetics, there is no wasted ink and every page is a meal for the mind.
When we are avoiding a change that is needed, the Universe has a way of taking matters into its own hands and intervening. The results can be quite dramatic and we are often “torn to pieces”. The medicine of the Leopard makes us strong, or kills us. As Nietzsche puts it, “this is the exact mess I need” ( I am paraphrasing). We learn to ride or we die. It is nothing personal. It is the way of karma. The way of “god”.
When my husband was arrested for the second time, the Leopard came for me. The event destroyed twenty years of everything I had believed and known, loved and worked so incredibly hard for. In that moment, the Leopard revealed to me that there are basically two kinds of people: those that intentionally hurt others, and those that hurt others out of necessity. I also learned that we cannot change the “spots” on a Leopard. One is what what one is. Pain is relative, of course. But the pain of personal loss is ineffable because it cuts to the bone of us as individuals.
Throughout this breaking, the Leopard taught me to how to survive. Separation and divorce brings out the best and worst in people regardless of socioeconomic background or class. Everyone is reduced to primal tendencies. Either for good, or for bad, or both. We really learn who we are, and who the other one is at a fundamental level- again “the spots on a Leopard”. But the Leopard also revealed itself to me as a life ally. I was able to channel the deep wells of energy -the “god-like rush of energy”-which appeared seemingly out of nowhere. This energy propelled me through obstacles and challenges. I was able to accomplish the seemingly unaccomplishable. As I barrelled along the path life had shoved me onto, doors crashed open in the nick of time, help appeared when I needed it, and I persevered. It was a long, deeply painful, often times terrifying, fight for personal freedom. The Leopard was ultimately the Herald and catalyst for my transpersonal journey. And I wouldn’t have made it without the Leopard. Or Campbell’s book.
Riding the Leopard is not like riding a bike. We forget how all the time and fall off. Some days we are on top of the Leopard. Some days the Leopard is on top of us. All that matters is we get back on and ride. The Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity”. It is simply a matter of perspective. When life shits on us do we sit in it, or do we clean ourselves up with “god-like composure” and move on to the next defilement? You get it.
So what, you may ask, has all this to do with writing? Well, I don’t rightly know. But for me when I write, I find it akin to riding the Leopard. Sometimes it is breath taking and it feels as if I am channeling “the rush of energy”. Other times, I am struggling with the fear of falling off and getting my ass shredded. And guess what? I fall off and get my ass shredded. But the Leopard waits for me, looking over it’s shoulder as if to say quite plainly, “it’s nothing personal, stupid, you getting back on or what?” I climb back on and do it again, and again, and again…
Thanks for reading.
Osbon, Diane, K. editor. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York: Harper Perennial. 1991.