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The Dance of the Cosmic Dancer

SUMMARY: The image of a cosmic dancer appeals to many people and is open to many interpretations, including the notion presented here that it represents the state of consciousness of a spiritually enlightened person.

(About a 7 minute read)

The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, enjoyed attributing his own thoughts to others.  Thus, he interpreted Nietzsche’s “Cosmic Dancer” to be someone who dances between opinions and points of view, rather than resting heavily on any particular opinion or point of view.

Although Nietzsche himself never quite saw it the same way, Campbell’s image is an attractive one.  Not only is there truth to be found in an ability to see things from many points of view, but in both intellectual and spiritual terms, it is the very opposite of fanaticism.

Images have a way of taking on a life of their own.  What is created to symbolize one thing can soon come to symbolize many things.  Some long time ago, I posted on this blog one possible interpretation of the cosmic dancer image (You can find that post here, if you’re interested).  Since then, the post has gotten at least a few hits a month, mainly — if the search terms are any indication — from people looking for a definitive interpretation of the term “cosmic dancer”.

I don’t think such an interpretation exists. Looking for one is a bit like looking for the consensus view on what “true love” is.  You will find numerous views, but not one that everyone agrees on.

So what does the image of a “cosmic dancer” conjure up for you?

While I myself like Campbell’s notion well enough, the image also conjures up something more mystical than merely a person who never rests heavily on any one particular view.  To me, it also conjures up a concept that is expressed in a variety of ways in different cultures.  Most often, it seems, it is expressed in one way or another as “two worlds”.

Rumi, for instance, says, “Let me sit here, on the threshold of two worlds.  Lost in the eloquence of silence.”  Note that Rumi is on the threshold.  That is, he is neither in one world nor the next, but rather to some extent, in both at the same moment.

If one wanted to place a mystical interpretation on that notion, one might point out that the “two worlds” are the two most fundamental kinds of awareness that humans can experience. First, would be the awareness we’re all familiar with — the awareness of our normal, everyday consciousness in which we are a self.

That is, normal, everyday consciousness experiences the world as divided between self and non-self, thus creating a sense of self.  This division is wholly absent from the second fundamental form of awareness, which experiences the world as one.  By “one” I mean there is a perception or awareness of all things being in reality somehow unified, somehow just one thing underneath any appearances to the contrary.

The people who experience that second form of awareness are mystics, and the experience of it is called “the mystical experience”.  Typically, the mystical experience is brief and fleeting, but has a profound effect on someone’s life.

Apparently, under certain circumstances, such an experience — or a series of such experiences — can result in a person becoming spiritually enlightened.  Buddhahood, in the Far East.  Arhatship among the Theravada Buddhists.  Moksha in Hinduism.  Kevala Jnana in Jainism.  The names don’t mean much, but the concept itself — spiritual enlightenment — raises the interesting question of what exactly it is?

Specifically, the issue is this: While it is easy to see how one might navigate the world while in the first state of ordinary conscious awareness, it is somewhat more difficult to see how that could be done in the second, mystical state of awareness.  For instance, if you perceive yourself as one with all things, would you try to pet a tiger?

Apparently, that is exactly what Jiddu Krishnamurti once tried to do.  He was in a car on a jungle road when they came upon a tiger.  The driver stopped, and the tiger began to prowl about the car. Krishnamurti rolled down his window, and reached through to pet it. Fortunately, a companion jerked his hand back and rolled up the window.  According to Krishnamurti, he was at the time in a state of mystical awareness.

For that, and a variety of other reasons, I think it unlikely that spiritual enlightenment is a mystical state.  At least not the mystical state.  Yet, I do not think it is quite the same as an ordinary state of awareness either.

Rather, I suspect spiritual enlightenment is a state that integrates normal and mystical awareness.  But if so, then what would that be like?

There is a North American Indian nation — I believe it’s the Hopi — who have an expression about enlightened people.  They say of them, he or she “walks with one foot on the earth and one foot in beauty.” Again, the notion that there is another “world” or awareness is apparent here.

To me, the image of the cosmic dancer suggests just such a person.  One who walks both on the earth and in beauty.  Or as Rumi puts it, one who sits in the threshold between the two worlds.

Now, I cannot prove it, but the thought has occurred to me that the spiritually enlightened person might be someone who is in a constant or nearly constant state of unconditional love.

I have blogged about unconditional love here. Consequently, I won’t go into it much in this post, but I do think one aspect of it is important to emphasize in this context.  Many people assume that unconditional love would be impractical — even dangerous — because it might entail allowing someone to abuse you.  That is, they believe that loving without strings or conditions means not avoiding or thwarting injury to oneself from one’s beloved.

So far as I can see, they are confusing unconditional love with emotional dependency.  Emotionally dependent people often behave in those ways — refuse to duck a blow, so to speak — and they just as often call their dependency “love”.

But unconditional love, so far as I know it, has nothing to do with emotional dependency, and is not even on the same spectrum as it.  A person who loves unconditionally would not hesitate to “duck a blow” or even leave someone they loved —  for they have no emotional dependency on them at all.

In sum, the image of the cosmic dancer conjures up for me — among other things – an image of the enlightened person who “sits on the threshold between two worlds” in a state of unconditional love.  Of course, I do not offer this image as an authoritative one. Rather, I think the image of the cosmic dancer is open to interpretation from all sources.  What it conjures up for you is just as valid as what it conjures up for me.

Questions?  Comments?

6 thoughts on “The Dance of the Cosmic Dancer”

  1. Fascinating post, Paul!! Seems odd to me that, though I’ve read Campbell and Nietzsche extensively, I don’t recognize the term “cosmic dancer” at all. How extraordinary that it should have escaped my attention completely! So thanks for bringing it up…

    I guess for me (not remembering any previous connection to the term), I would add to your definition that the cosmic dancer also sits outside of Time. (Of course, I have an ongoing personal battle with Time, as we know, so I’m clearly biased. Lol!) But anything truly “cosmic” for me is not bound by the linear progression of time…

    And as a side note, to the story of the mystic in a state of Oneness consciousness reaching out to pet a tiger? Not necessary, for he and the tiger are already One and the same; no physical touch could bring them any closer together.

    As for the consequences of doing so? The tiger both accepts his touch and attacks him, simultaneously and without contradiction, for all possible scenarios co-exist in the same Now. Or such has been my limited experience with it… 😀


    1. If I recall (and it’s been 30-40 years, depending, so I might not clearly recall now), Nietzsche doesn’t use the term “cosmic dancer”, but merely speaks of philosophers needing to be like dancers who step lightly on views, but not come to rest on them. “Cosmic dancer” is a Campbell invention that he ascribed to Nietzsche — so far as I remember.

      By the way, your experience of oneness or the One jives with my own. Something I’ve always found fascinating about it is that people from so many different backgrounds, times, places, perspectives, etc seem to be in agreement at least about the core aspects.


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