I’m in a Zodiac bouncing along the waves off the north coast of Kauai. The fog begins to lift, revealing a coastline that looks almost kitsch in its technicolour beauty. The guide points to a valley between the peaks. It’s long been a favoured, illegal haunt of Vietnam vets and others “trying to escape from reality,” he says. From reality, or into it? I wonder. From where I sit, it doesn’t get any more nonvirtual than this. There isn’t a billboard, microwave tower or set of golden arches anywhere in sight.

The boat slows so we can get a better look at spinner porpoises as they leap and twirl, trying to fling off remoras attached to their bodies. Our guide points to two shadows gliding by the boat. Two manta rays are mating, the edges of their fins breaking the surface.

Hawaii has beckoned as a paradise since ancient mariners roamed the Pacific. Literally, in many cases. In their respective legends, Tahitians, Samoans and the Maori have all pegged it as their ancestral homeland. The Hawaiian language word Hawaii derives from Polynesian sawaiki, with the reconstructed meaning “homeland.” At various times over the centuries, they set forth in relatively primitive boats to discover this long-lost paradise. Against all odds, they came upon a volcanic island chain in the middle of the Pacific, the most remote place on Earth. Today, Hawaii is occupied by the descendents of these travellers, who somehow found a place perfectly consistent with the description in their myths. No one is sure how they managed this feat of navigation.

But as glorious and bountiful as Hawaii was, there was still conflict between newer and later arrivals and wars between islanders. Paradise makes for pretty desirable real estate. Today, the islands are beset with problems the tourist bureau would prefer to go unmentioned, from military weapons testing to agribusiness to homelessness, not to mention a home foreclosure rate three times that of the continental US.

The myth of a lost paradise, or Golden Age, is universal around the world, with the term deriving from Greek mythology. It referred to the greatest age in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver and Golden ages. It was a time when humanity was pure and immortal and evil had no sway. Remarkably, this is echoed in the Hindu or Vedic culture, with its model of cycling Yugas, or great epochs. The Satya Yuga (Golden Age), Kali Yuga (Iron Age), Dwapara Yuga (Bronze Age) and Treta Yuga (Silver Age) correspond to the four Greek ages.

In this mythological framework, we now live in the fourth and most chaotic age, the Kali Yuga, at the end of which Brahma will awake from his dream and the whole cycle will begin again.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Golden Age is connected with The Garden of Eden, in the days prior to Eve’s covert deal with a serpentine fruit vendor.

One advantage of locating good times in the remote past, rather than seeking them in a collective future, is that reality testing can’t get in the way. Prophecies have a best before date; they usually go bad. But the past worlds of Eden, Lemuria, Mu and Atlantis are not subject to any such limits. Pushed back far enough into the past, a Golden Age sits outside the realm of historical proof. It becomes a loose benchmark against which we can measure all later decline.

Perhaps the archetype of the Golden Age is drawn from the time in the womb and the great peace that precedes entry into a loud, blindingly bright world. Did the mythmakers draw upon deeply buried, intrauterine memories of floating undisturbed in the amniotic fluid, like tiny sea divers?

Whatever the source of its seductiveness, the idea of a Golden Age isn’t limited to religious believers. Just as the elderly like to speak of “the good old days” – forgetting the homophobia, racism and patriotic overkill of the past – most of us have a personal timeframe for when things went sideways. For some Americans, it was 9/11, when the neocons cynically exploited the citizens’ patriotism and the planet’s goodwill. Others go further back, to the assassination of Kennedy, describing it as a coup in broad daylight by the shadow government. Others say the pivotal moment came with Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard back in 1968, which ushered in unfettered global capital and growing income gaps. Some believe the republic was truly lost back in 1913 when the private banks created the Federal Reserve, in effect turning “We the People” into “We the Wage Slaves.”

There’s never been a shortage of negative historical touchstones; pivotal moments when the people lost the plot. In Canada, we have a wealth of options, from either the right or left: the recent ratification of the Security and Prosperity Partnership; the election of Harper’s minority government; our entry into the war in Afghanistan; Chrétien and pepper spray; Mulroney and Free Trade; Trudeau and Meech; Diefenbaker and the Avro Arrow. In comparison, indigenous people have one simple touchstone: the arrival of whites.

We tend to think we had it better in the “good old days,” even if that was, in astounding retrospect, the recent time of Clinton, the Starr Commission and sky-high tech stocks. Go back far enough the thinking goes and somebody somewhere must have had it great. But the more you study the past, the more a hypothetical Golden Age recedes like a ship in the fog. Where was it? The Renaissance with its Borgia Popes and warring nation-states? The Feudal era with its plagues? The Maya and Aztec empires, with their human sacrifices?
Imagine you are Alexander the Great, the most powerful person in the known world of the Mediterranean, with access to all the best life has to offer, and you have to get a tooth pulled. If there ever was a Golden Age for dentistry, it wasn’t before the discovery of novocaine.

Some argue that the whole sorry history of Mideast warfare is the legacy of patriarchal societies, which subdued the matriarchal societies of the Neolithic era. Prior to this, people worshipped goddess figures and lived in peace. Yet as activist and author Derrick Jensen argues quite convincingly, this is not a gender issue; civilization itself was the poison pill. A pattern of environmental exploitation and shrinking resources followed its inception in short order, with nation-states rising and falling with depressing regularity.
As for war, there’s abundant archaeological evidence it shades back into the mists of prehistory, long before civilization. In his book War, military analyst Gwynne Dyer argues that war has been a constant companion to the human race, back to the hunter-gatherer tribes of prehistory. Human beings have been dying at roughly the same rate from war for centuries, and there is evidence suggestive that the same rate held in the distant past, when there were frequent skirmishes and raids, though with relatively low loss of life each time. Today, armed conflicts are less frequent, though when they occur, as in aerial bombardments, the number of deaths can be much more significant.

It seems that when the known world was not actively being destroyed, it was on the edge of falling apart. A visit to Jerusalem, or any other ancient city, can be a sobering lesson in how eternal claims on temporary property always ends in rubble. Hence the consoling idea of a Golden Age. With things this bad – choose your calendrical era – it could only have been that much better in the past.

By the ninth century BC, violence, political disruption and religious intolerance set thinkers in a new direction. Though they were separated by great distances, in both miles and languages, the thinkers of the Axial Age turned their spiritual emphasis from outward worship to inward contemplation. Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu weren’t as interested in an historical Golden Age or Promised Land as much as the transformative possibilities of the moment.

This emphasis can also be found in the Gnostic Gospels, which were standard Christian fare until the fourth century AD, when the Council of Nicea decided to leave them out of the canonical books of the Bible. Christ was concerned with others’ immediate inner experience of peace, love and understanding, not mechanical rituals before the Judaic God.

There are three ways to read myths. The first is as fairy tales for adults – lies, essentially. The second is as literal truths. Most of us choose one of these two. The third way to read them is as metaphors for existential truths. By this reading, the Golden Age never was. It eternally is. This tricky idea was summed up in an exchange between the journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell in the 1987 PBS series
The Power of Myth.

Throughout Moyers’ final dialogue with Campbell, the interviewer tries to salvage some doctrinal semblance of his Baptist faith, seeking confirmation that the resurrection of Christ actually prefigures our own. Campbell cautions against a literal reading of the Bible, or any other religious text. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, the mythologist says, you’re lost. “It would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there and starting to eat the menu.”

In the Christian doctrine, Moyers says, the material world is to be despised and life is to be redeemed in the hereafter, in heaven, where our rewards come. He challenges Campbell in saying, “But you say that if you affirm that which you deplore, you are affirming the very world which is our eternity at the moment.”

Campbell responds that that is exactly what he means, and that the eternity he’s talking about isn’t some later time, that time has nothing to do with it. “If you don’t get it here,” he tells Moyers, “you won’t get it anywhere.”

Campbell: The experience of eternity, right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.
Moyers: Eden was not; Eden will be.

Campbell: Eden is. “The kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

Moyers: Eden is? In this world of pain and suffering and death and violence?

Campbell: That is the way it feels, but this is it, this is Eden. When you see the kingdom spread upon the earth, the old way of living in the world is annihilated. That is the end of the world. The end of the world is not an event to come; it is an event of psychological transformation, of visionary transformation. You see not the world of solid things, but a world of radiance.

It might be argued that this was an easy claim for Campbell to make; a man born into privilege, he led a charmed life as champion runner for Columbia, and later as a world-travelling scholar. He spent his final years living comfortably in one of my favourite places in the world, Hawaii. Perhaps he could appreciate this “radiance” much easier than someone who is unhealthy, unhappy or under hardship.

And how to reconcile the idea of a perfect present with present imperfection? As Moyers questioned, how can anyone think of the Golden Age being in and around us, with the world in the shape it’s in?

Yet Campbell didn’t pull his notion of a psychological Heaven/Eden out of thin air; it was based on a lifelong study of the mystical tradition of both the East and the West. He was talking about something quite distinct from politics and nation-states, intellectual categories or organized religion, for that matter. He meant immediate experience, even in moments that are magnificently mundane.

The present is a timeless state; we just don’t spend much time there. But the consumer market promises to get us in. All our videogames, movies, sports, advertising and pornography are predicated on the hunger to forget ourselves and our troubles, and get lost in the moment. Yet these inventive distractions and addictions invariably fail to satisfy and the self is left hungering for more.

This hunger is a problem that goes right back to the people of the Axial Age. For Buddha, a central part of awakening and inner peace was cultivating stillness and silence. Another big factor was compassion – literally, “to suffer with” others. For the Taoist Lao Tzu, it was a kind of equanimity with the natural world, an understanding that it is insane to oppose what we’re a part of. As for Christ, he set the bar pretty high for his followers – “Love thy enemy” – but imagine what the world might be like if they ever really took His advice seriously.

The notion that the Golden Age is already here is not all that welcome to pundits, politicians, advertisers and religious leaders, or anyone wanting some control over other human beings. But the idea persists, even though it’s easy to get wrong. You can mistake being born into the white, wealthy, Western world with karmic entitlement. You can confuse apolitical navel-gazing with the end of responsibility, when the temporal world, like the self, is always a work in progress. But if we’re talking about something that has been endorsed by mystics from traditions across the world, over many centuries, there’s probably something to it.

Beat writer William Burroughs was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. He was also a lifelong misanthrope, a man who had more attraction to drugs and firearms than the self-serving pieties of organized religion. But even this clever cynic felt something stirring within himself toward the end. In his final diary entry from 1997, the dying author wrote:

“Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience – any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No final satori, no final solution. Just conflict. Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

If the Golden Age is within us, it’s safe to say it’s dying to get out, in one way or another. There are places in the world that feel like paradise. For me, Kauai fits the bill. But in the end, “paradise,” the “promised land” and the “Golden Age” are just words. When something within resonates with something without, we’re talking about metaphors for inner transformation. The tragedy is when, as Campbell says, people go to war for metaphors, thinking they are defending eternal truths. The estate that’s most real isn’t real estate. It isn’t here or there, in the past or in the future, presided over by a deity in a Century 21 jacket.

Through overuse, Campbell’s line about following your bliss has almost hardened into a new age cliché, but it’s worthwhile to recall the words that prefaced it: “You are more than you think you are,” the mythologist insisted.

“There are dimensions of your being and a potential for realization and consciousness that are not included in your concept of yourself. Your life is much deeper and broader than you conceive it to be here. What you are living is but a fractional inkling of what is really within you, what gives you life, breadth, and depth. But you can live in terms of that depth.”

Geoff Olson