“I’m runnin’ down a dream.” – Tom Petty
“You got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.” – Bono of U-2
In a way, to be human is to have stories. No other creature has this capacity. Stories are complex, rich organizations of experience, real or fantasized that give meaning and texture to life. Individuals have them, families have them, and cultures have them. Stories are the way we organize, store, remember and project who we are coming out of the past and into the future. Spiritual and cultural traditions are passed on through them and wisdom is communicated through them. Stories are information embossed with emotion to communicate that which is essential to the human experience and they contain the heart, the soul and the lessons of our lives. Stories can be the way we aim and direct our life energy towards our dreams, our ideals, and our goals, and art in all its various forms is based around stories, and so, to the degree that stories illuminate, elevate and inspire the human condition, the ability to create stories is a treasure to humanity. It is also a curse.
Stories can be frivolous and empty of any deeper meaning. They can be pure entertainment, and while entertainment is fine, to live life caught up in such stories is to trivialize life. This applies not only to literal entertainment stories such as on TV or in movies and books, but all the gossipy and vain stories people constantly fill their heads with concerning themselves and others. To a great extent, it could be observed that much of the modern American story is one of trivialities taken much too seriously, with many people living their lives lost in stories of media fantasy, consumerism, workplace and family drama, and gossip. As many have noted, even our politics has been brought to the level of “reality TV” and arguments over what is “fake news.” Frustratingly, real and serious issues of the quality of life for this and future generations go ignored or foolishly denied by those who push stories of drama and intrigue so as to manipulate the public to these story-tellers’ advantage, making serious what is trivial and making trivial what is serious.
Even more sadly, stories can also be of anger, fear and hopelessness. They can be debasing and degrading, appealing to the saddest, most tragic, lowest, darkest, even the dangerous within us, and we can get lost in these abysses of darkness. People manipulate each other with such stories, and here too, the manipulators of politics and commerce use stories of fear and insecurity to solidify their power and wealth. On an individual level, many people have been conditioned to be carrying stories of their own lack, vulnerability and insufficiency, or conversely of their inflated sense of importance and entitlement. As stories are powerful elicitors of emotion, the emotions accompanying these stories of personal inadequacy can be fear, anxiety, depression, and anger, or for the narcissist, gloating, and attitudes of condescension and contempt.
When asked who they are, people will tell their stories – sometimes stories passed down for generations as well as stories accumulated in a lifetime of struggle or triumph. People live inside these stories, and this is unfortunate for stories are only shallow representations and sometimes distortions of life-as-it-is, and stories can obscure the magnificent richness of life-as-it-is. Stories can be like virtual realities we get stuck in, living out these stories rather than living life-as-it-is.
To be able to create story, it seems is a considerably mixed blessing of the human condition. At the subtlest of levels, even stories of inspiration are somewhat problematic, for stories separate us from the simple natural “isness” of life. An example might be the story of patriotism, a story that can be heroic filled with dedication to freedom and human rights or it can be a story of belligerent nationalism narrowly defined, creating victims and enemies in its wake. Likewise, “love” can be a story that inspires, motivates and thrills us while it misses the reality of deeper love that is connection without conditions. Such “romantic” love-stories will come and go, while true and real love is a touchstone in our life and it is not a story. Spirituality and religion are also great purveyors of stories that can either lead to the most sublime and transcendent connection or the cruelest hells of separation and fear that humans can concoct.
Another way of understanding the “awakening” of The Buddha is that he awakened out of experiencing “self” through story into the clarity of the world as phenomena and events just as they are. This is a way of understanding the confusing Buddhist teaching of “emptiness” – for the awakened person knows their true-self is empty of stories and is rather in deep, rich connection with life-as-it-is, where no stories exist, realizing self in this moment in awareness, always fluid and changing, for you see, stories are created in time, past and future.
The Buddha understood that emotional suffering results from a person attaching their identity to their stories and when their story is one of loss, they experience diminishment and disturbance in their well-being. This is why he warned against attaching to even stories of happiness and personal victory, for his awakening included the seeing that all things are impermanent – that what comes – also goes. Happiness comes. Happiness goes. To attach our well-being and identity in that which is fortuitous is to set ourselves up for despair when the story turns, as all stories do. Like The Buddha, the modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, understood, the real power of life exists separate from time, in the “Power of Now,” where no story exists.
Does this mean it is better not to have stories? No, of course not. It means to see the stories for what they are – ways of giving context, texture, richness to our lives and the human condition. They are the way we share our experiences of life with our fellow human beings and make sense of them to ourselves. The Buddha’s warning was to not attach identity and well-being to stories, but rather, to find identity and well-being in life just-as-it-is, with its full thickness, its highs and lows, its coming and goings, in the pureness of existence, transcendent of time and stories that come from cultural, social and psychological conditioning.
Most importantly, we ought never confuse stories for who we are or with Life itself. The only truth there is, is this moment, just as it is. Looking deeply into the moment, deeper than any story, wisdom and compassion can always be found. When Buddhism speaks of “right view” it paradoxically describes right view as “no-view,” and no-view is to know a view as a view, a story as a story. Right-view is this view, never to be experienced again, exactly as it is NOW.
Yet, Buddhism is full of stories, and stories are a principle teaching vehicle in Buddhism Usually the stories have as their purpose to awaken people out of being stuck in some limited story of themselves or the nature of existence. Characteristically, however, Buddhism even warns about getting stuck in the Buddhist stories and about not making them into dogma, and yet this is what people do – because – it is what people do – the ego’s pull to make more of itself through stories of specialness, cleverness and rightness is so strong.
So be alert – stories as fabrications in our lives can be quite obvious or quite subtle, so woven into our sense of reality that we cannot see them for what they are. Stories can be wonderful, frivolous or horrible. Most importantly, know that stories are only stories, and be awake in the Buddhist sense, knowing stories for what they are and avoid be stuck in them. Stories at their best are vehicles for our sojourning in the lands of existence searching for wisdom and truth – the stories as maps, so to speak. And at their worst, stories can have us going in circles of our own private hells of triumph or defeat, for even a story of triumph has to be a hell, for it separates us from the heaven, the nirvana, of awakened truth. Truth is not a story, nor is life, and Zen uses odd constructs of syntax to express this, such as “as-it-isness” or just “isness.”
As the great Zen teacher Dogen queried, “If you can’t find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” Right where you are is no story. It is just as-it-isness and you always have the capacity to understand it and know its purpose if you let go of your stories and allow that what you really are is this moment in awareness, and awareness always knows what is needed. It needs no story.