Humans are obsessed with stories. Most of our communications are stories. Most of our entertainments (film, music, theatre, reading) are stories. Our cultures are mostly about the shared stories we have come to believe. And often our primary concern when anything happens is deciding what it ‘means’, which in most cases is about how it fits into the ‘story of us’.
Thomas King famously wrote that stories are all we are. Yet, when we look at our stories closely, we can’t help but conclude that they are fictions, even lies. That’s true on several levels: they are necessarily oversimplifications, necessarily biased, necessarily ignorant (of what we don’t know), and necessarily omit many important details. And at a deeper level they are merely imaginings, pattern-making, re-conceptions of a small part of what seemingly happened. The map is not the territory; the story is not what really happened. And at an even deeper level, time itself is (many scientists now acknowledge) merely a human construct, an invention, so any story ‘set’ in time is necessarily an invention also. All ‘we’ are are stories, which are fictions, so ‘we’ are fictions too. And indeed non-dualists and not a few neuroscientists would say that is the case: there is no ‘we’. Though perhaps that is just their story.
But there is much more to our stories than what we believe. Everything we observe we make up a story about; that is how we make sense of it. Without our stories we would be useless (in fact, radical non-dualists would argue ‘we’ are completely useless, and that the characters ‘we’ seem to inhabit would function just fine without ‘us’, our separate selves). So when we watch a bird we concoct a story about its separateness, its colours and behaviours, its movement through time and space, and imagine things beyond that such as its history, its volition, its feelings. Each morning when ‘we’ awaken ‘we’ quickly recreate our own story, return to the bookmark where ‘our’ apparent life left off, and reinstate our beliefs about ourselves — ‘our’ separateness, ‘our’ equivalence with our bodies, ‘our’ attributes and moral and appropriate behaviours, ‘our’ movements, and begin again to grab on to the thoughts and feelings that arise in the brain and body and identify them as ‘ours’. We recreate and add to our own fiction every day. We cannot do otherwise. This is all ‘we’ are.
Although ‘we’ cannot actually realize that ‘we’ are a fiction (any more than a character in a dream can understand that it’s in a dream, and wake up from it), it is possible to grasp this intellectually. The idea of this — that the bodies we believe we inhabit would function perfectly without ‘us’, and that ‘we’ actually don’t do anything, beyond rationalizing and identifying with what happens to and in that body and its brain — is philosophically quite elegant (it explains a lot, and defies logical refutation, and believe me I’ve tried to argue against it). It’s also quite comforting — it frees ‘you’ from the responsibility for ‘your’ apparent actions and gives you some distance and perspective which are both healing and useful. It also inevitably increases your equanimity and acceptance of everything, and reduces your expectations and judgements.
But because we have been enculturated from the start both to believe ‘we’ are responsible, and enculturated to have expectations and to make judgements, it makes living in the world with this new perspective (I prefer that word ‘perspective’ — ‘way of looking at things’ — to ‘philosophy’) positively full of cognitive dissonance. It’s as if someone whispered in your ear that some distressing news item that everyone around you is discussing furiously and passionately was actually just a joke, a made-up story. You can totally understand the vehemence of everyone’s arguments, while also realizing that, since it’s all a fiction, none of it matters. Others will suddenly find you detached, disturbingly dispassionate. But you can’t let on that it’s all a joke, that none of it matters. Radical non-duality is at once a wonderful perspective and a terrible secret.
When I was young, I was fiercely idealistic and fiercely romantic. I wrote poems full of anger and despair, dreamt of impossibly perfect romances, cried while singing love songs, raged against the machine, and plotted to change, or at least escape, the hopelessly-flawed world in which I lived. I loved more profoundly, more overwhelmingly, than I ever have since. And yet I hugely distrusted sex and lust, which seemed to me a distraction, an aberration, an impurity that diminished ‘true’ love.
What was going on there?
At a ‘purely physical’ level, nature/evolution was driving me to procreate. I’ve written before about the chemicals Gaia uses to do this. It’s a complex cocktail, but it’s evolved to work really well — no language or conversation or thinking or rationalization needed. In a way, despite my previous writing parsing this chemistry into intellectual, emotional, sensual and erotic components, this seems to be neither intellectual or emotional, but rather purely a physical/chemical/instinctual phenomenon. That’s not to say it doesn’t give rise to thoughts and feelings, but only that it requires no separate ‘self’ to take up and identify with those thoughts and feelings, for love to be profoundly felt.
Had I, at that age, not been afflicted with a self (and that self was, at that point, just coming out of its shell and beginning to flex its unexercised muscles), this ‘falling-in-love-ness’ would, I think, have manifested itself very differently, but, at least at first, wouldn’t have appeared much different to the casual observer. It was only when my self took ownership of this being-in-love-ness that it went from being just simply wondrous to being, at least for me, at best a bittersweet experience.
My idealism was an expression of many years of repression, and I’d guess that for most people, regardless of their political, philosophical or spiritual bent, idealism is an expression of repression — a deep wanting for things to be otherwise that, whenever it gets the chance to be expressed, comes out as fixed, inflexible, and black-and-white. Idealists, of course, can quickly switch allegiances to some very different ideal which they’ll hold just as tenaciously. That can be very destructive, both to the body politic in which the idealist holds clout, and to the individuals who care about the idealist and have to try to live with, and live up to, those ideals. My distaste for sexuality was part of that idealism — my remembered, long-ago sensations of love, before I locked my feelings away for fear of being hurt, had been more-or-less non-sexual, so these new, more complex, messier sensations struck the idealist in me as abhorrent, impure, dilutive and, I confess, less exclusive.
This idealism was and is, of course, an attribute of my ‘self’, not something inherent in the body/brain which ‘I’ presume to inhabit. Wild creatures are not idealistic because they are not attached to the thoughts and ideas that arise in their brains. They see thoughts and embodied feelings for what they are — fleeting conceptions and reactions that are unreal, invented, and ‘meaningless’, a by-product of (evolutionarily useful) intuitive reactions. And not “theirs”. Wild creatures probably feel them more deeply than we do (since they lack the filter of the self judging them), but probably for a much briefer time (since they don’t take ownership of them).
Now I have to be a little more precise in defining what I mean by ’emotion’. When a bird notices a cat, or another bird of its species, there will be an instinctive reaction — fear in the case of a cat, something else in the case of a bird (perhaps joy if the bird is recognized as part of the flock, love if it’s perceived as a potential mate, and anger if it’s perceived as a threat). These are profound feelings with deeply engrained evolutionary advantage, but they are not emotions in the sense a separate self feels emotions, in that there is no intellectual judgement or ownership of the feeling. The bird, based on its embodied and enculturated conditioning, will do what it will do in response to this reaction — flee, sing, flirt, or fight. But then, once the encounter (however long it lasts) has ended, the feeling will be ‘forgotten’ (while the learning will be retained as part of its enculturation). There is no evolutionary advantage to holding on to the feeling itself. The self, however, does hold on to feelings, because it believes they ‘mean’ something.
So when I speak of ’embodied feelings’ I’m referring to the instinctive, reactive feelings (love, joy, fear, anger, sadness etc) that we share with wild creatures (though wild creatures may feel them more profoundly than we do). When I speak of ’emotions’ I’m referring to the self’s internalizations that come from either ’embodied feelings’ or thoughts when the self takes ownership and attaches meaning to them (self-identified love, personal or compersive joy, chronic anxiety, enduring anger, inconsolable grief etc). We tend to use some of the same words for both, because ‘we’ don’t distinguish clearly between our selves’ emotions and the feelings that arise within the bodies we think we inhabit. It is telling, I think, that the ‘negative’ emotions that ‘we’ feel seem to last longer (thanks to our brain’s reinforcement of them, what Eckhart Tolle has called the reinforcing cycle of the egoic mind and the emotional pain-body) than the ‘positive’ ones. ‘We’ can resurrect anger over some long-ago slight for years, while we struggle to recall the purely positive feelings of a first kiss or other long-ago experience of love or joy.
When it comes to love, then, there is the embodied feeling of love, and then, some time later, there is the emotion of love. And there’s the rub. The embodied feeling is real; the emotion is a story. This story begins as a tale of all-consuming joy, but quickly the plot thickens: Does this other person, this other, separate self with free will and choice, love me in return? How can I prove my love and show my self to be deserving of the other self’s love? Suddenly there is a new story of ‘me’ and, even worse, a new (and impossible) story of who I imagine (and want) this other person to be. And a story of our idyllic future together, forever.
What is behind this ghastly and impossible story-building? The separate self is always longing for wholeness, always trying to escape the prison of the self. Falling in love holds out the promise to the self of a better story, an escape from the confines of one’s own story. Romanticism and idealism reveal themselves most diabolically in each newly concocted love story: a story in which life is more interesting, and more beautiful. A story in which the narrator is loved, admired, listened to, appreciated, and, by the narrator’s standards, very successful, and in which the narrator’s beliefs and actions are validated by the Other. A story in which the world, finally, makes sense, works well, and is under control. It is a story of impossible expectations, the ultimate fiction.
Starting with that disastrous premise, the story unfolds. Soon, expectations are lowered, and then lowered again. For those (including many idealists and romantics) whose selves have suffered a lot, the resulting disappointment may be too much to bear, and they will go in search of another person to fall in love with, in the hope a better story can at last be found with them. For those who are more equanimous, whose selves need less healing, the relationship may endure with the acknowledgement that no love story is true, and theirs could have been worse.
No one has control over any of this. ‘You’ cannot change your story. Your embodied and enculturated nature and conditioning, under the particular circumstances of the moment, may lead to an apparent change of direction in the ‘story of you’. But it is still only a story. Life is still life, love is still love, the world is still the world, and they are wondrous and wonderful. It’s only ‘our’ stories about them that are, in the long run, mostly painful, immiserating, terrible, and ultimately unsatisfying. And our stories, like ‘us’, are just fictions. There is no consolation in understanding that, yet somehow it is comforting. Although nothing has changed, it’s good to be in on the secret.
Speaking of secrets, I have confess that despite my distrust of them, I love well-written stories. Especially quirky love stories, though even these are dangerous. The image above is from a wonderful romantic subplot in the old TV series Sports Night.
One of my favourite projects was researching the 7 qualities of a great story. They (still) are:
- It gives pleasure, emotional connection, often through imagery.
- It provides some fresh understanding, “some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility.” (TS Eliot)
- Every sentence must pay: “If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work.” (Frederick Barthelme)
- It takes a camera view: It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. No asides or “… he thought”, please.
- It respects the audience’s intelligence. No manipulation, no incoherence, no deus ex machina.
- It leaves space for the audience. It allows them to fill in details from their own experience or imagination.
- It must in some way be really clever, imaginative or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”.