Of Innocence and Demons
Island Voices, May 2024

Of Innocence and Demons

By Michael Shook

This summer, I will turn 70. There will come an anniversary in August – late August, if I remember correctly. One would think I might remember clearly the date, given the life-changing experience that it was. Let it suffice to say, late summer. 

Here, a little background is necessary. For my 40th birthday I had received a book from my cousin, “Myths to Live By,” by Joseph Campbell. It’s a collection of 13 talks the great mythologist gave at New York City’s Cooper Union Forum from 1958 to 1971. My cousin had had the good fortune to attend a class with Campbell, and she knew of my interest in mythology. And she’s as keen a bibliophile as I, hence the most excellent present of the book. 

I had been reading the essays avidly for some weeks, and took advantage of the ferry ride to and from Vashon to read, and re-read, different chapters, and different parts of chapters. I did not live on Vashon at the time, but the construction company I worked for was engaged with several projects for a client who lived on the Island, and the ferry ride, as Islanders know, is a fine time for reading. 

There was one lecture in particular that I wrestled with – “The Confrontation of East and West in Religion.” Specifically, I was trying to “get hold” of the ending, which concerns the Hindu myth of Kirttimukha, which in turn involves the god Shiva and his interaction with a demon who demanded Shiva hand over his bride, the goddess Parvati. For weeks, I had read and pondered the final passage that ends the lecture. Something in it spoke to me, plagued me, discomfited me, to such a degree that I was becoming obsessed with it.

 So, I found myself on the ferry ride home, going over the tale again. I remember putting the book aside, getting out of my truck, and strolling up to the bow. It was the old “Rhododendron,” a beautiful boat, with its wooden trim, lovely benches, and strong lines. The mountain was out in all its late-afternoon glory. The water sparkled, the sky was a clear blue, all the colors and textures of the Sound resided in splendor.

And looking out over that water, to Mt. Rainier, I suddenly felt a powerful charge go through me. It was a sort of illumination, or a shock, something that struck through my whole self. I cannot say what exactly it was, except to say that it was … an experience. I could try to explain, but that would be foolish. You would only have the explanation, not the thing itself. It would be like me telling you what chocolate tastes like, without you having eaten chocolate. You would have all kinds of ideas about it, and perhaps things you could imagine, but you would not know the taste of chocolate.

But it was real. In that flash of a moment on the ferry, something in me irrevocably shifted. In the larger scheme of my life, it marked a change of course, as if stepping onto a new path. Or, perhaps, simply seeing for the first time that I had a path, and that it was mine, and mine alone, to be trodden.           

But what does this have to do with innocence, let alone demons? The key lay in Campbell’s commentary on said myth of Kirttimukha. In the tale, Shiva has to protect a demon from another demon that he (Shiva) conjured up, a demon of pure hunger, made to eat the first. The second demon, unable to eat demon one, is starving, so Shiva tells him to eat himself. The demon does so, until nothing is left of him but his face, shining, suspended in air.

Shiva is delighted, and names the demon “‘Kirttimukha, Face of Glory … No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me’ … here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life, which lives on itself… [and] the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life is in the recognition of [this] monstrous nature of life, and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed … [one must learn] … how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.”

When the lesson of that myth struck home, it began to work on me, slowly transforming my clinging to a world that I thought should be different from what it was, to an acceptance of what it is. As part of that process, it began to break down the interior barriers to knowledge of my whole self, barriers that I had erected and bolstered throughout my life. I began to understand and accept my own monstrous nature, to see that I was much more than just the parts I liked, or that gained the approval of others, and that the same was true of others, indeed of all of us. (I must make clear that this was a process that has taken place over years, and continues to this day. And by no means should the reader interpret this to imagine I am somehow “enlightened,” or necessarily even wise.) 

As for my own “monstrous nature,” part of what was revealed to me was that I was as capable as anyone of eating life, that in fact, eating life was all that sustained me, and all other living things. 

And what was further revealed to me was that to understand these things was to no longer be innocent (to be continued). 

May 9, 2024

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