The Myth of Re-enchantment

Wednesday December 15, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference down at the university of Essex talking about myth, literature and the unconscious. It was a stimulating and enjoyable few days, and it was a pleasure to take part in so many fascinating conversations. However, as the conference went on, one thing that struck me about the event was that how many of my fellow enthusiasts for myth and story were somewhat – how should I put this – somewhat starry-eyed about what myths and stories are and what they can do.

One of the most common stories – one might even call it a popular myth – in contemporary culture, and one of the stories that I heard repeated a number of times at the conference, is the story that we have lost our stories and our myths, and that if we are to find our way back to a more meaningful existence, we need to rediscover these stories and myths. Science, we are told, disenchants the world; and if we are to solve the problems that face us, we need to re-enchant the world. But I am not so sure that this is the case. Firstly, I am not sure that we are quite so disenchanted as is sometimes made out. And secondly, there are various kinds of stories and various kinds of enchantments, and there is no reason to assume that stories and enchantments are necessarily good, or that a dose of further enchantment is what we need. Indeed, there is an argument to be made for the value – and even the pleasures – of disenchantment. And thirdly, although this is not what I want to talk about here, I’m not entirely sure that the problems that face us can be solved… But to leave this third question on one side for a moment, indeed for the rest of this post, I want to go back to the idea of disenchantment. The Malunkyaputta Sutta, quoted here in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, is an interesting in this respect. Let me quote a section:

Then, Malunkyaputta, with regard to phenomena to be seen, heard, sensed, or cognized: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Malunkyaputta, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.

On first reading, this seems a deeply mysterious text. What on earth, after all, does “you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two” actually mean? But I wonder if it is actually rather simple. The way I read it, at least, is that it is a text about the advantages of disenchantment, as well as about the astonishing extent to which we are, in fact, in the grip of the most curious enchantments. The question the text seems to be asking is this: if we manage to slip through the net of enchantment that our minds weave, then what remains? And the answer seems to be this: that part of this net of enchantment is the very idea of an “I” who is doing the experiencing, or who is the subject of experience. When we manage to put the brakes on the stories that our minds spin around experience, it is not that we are left as bare subjects of experience, but our subjectivity itself tends to subside, if only for a while.

Dan Dennett is perhaps useful here. In Consciousness Explained -Dennett writes that “our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us.” The mind, in other words, is a story-machine. And one of the most persuasive of overarching tales that the mind spins is the tale that there is an enduring and unchanging subject of our experiencing. Yet this subject is itself spun and respun from moment to moment. The Buddhists talk about ahamkara and mamamkara – “I-making” and “mine-making”, and I love the emphasis here on “making” – the self as something that is continually made and re-made.

To return to the Sutta. What the text seems to suggest is that when we cease this telling of tales about experience, the self – an unstable, fluctuating thing that, far from being fixed, appears and reappears as magically as any genie in the Arabian Nights, a thing that is not pre-existent, but that is spun and respun from moment to moment – is, at least temporarily, no longer in evidence. I sometimes think of ahamkara and mamamkara as ways of knitting the self: a continual winding together of narrative skeins into something apparently substantial. But under analysis, or at the very least when we stop knitting for a moment, the threads of selfhood come apart as easily as an old, threadbare jumper.

This is not mysticism. If you are looking for mystical and improbable entities, then I’d suggest that a good candidate is our everyday, folk-psychology sense of what it means to have a self. Because the more you look at this idea of selfhood, the more it seems, well… the more it seems pretty odd… It is not that we are not, in an everyday sense, selves; but we misconstrue what we are, and we miss the feverish activity that maintains this misconstrual or this fiction.

Which brings me to this morning. After a couple of months of travelling, I have been getting back into meditation. So I woke at six thirty and went downstairs to sit on my cushions, the cat recumbent on the beanbag beside me. Every so often he sighed and stretched out a paw. He was having, I think, a pretty good morning. And so was I, once my mind had ceased it’s usual chatter. I sat there and directed my attention to the body and to the processes of the breath. And as I did so, the thought came to me that the body tells no stories. There is discomfort and comfort, there is a coming and going of experience or of experiencing, but there is no story there, no grand unfolding plot with its beginning, middle and end, no heroes and no villains. And with this thought, after a while at least, I managed to settle into this story-free awareness, a state that is probably – and this is just a hunch – somewhat more familiar to the cat than it is to me.

At the end of the meditation, I thought to myself that if this is disenchantment – as I think it is – then I’m happy to have more of it. The loosening of the bonds of the stories by which we confect ourselves and our worlds is, I think, a useful practice. It allows us breathing space, it opens up the possibility of creativity. Creativity, I think, is one of the benefits of disenchantment. And yet, at the same time, I think that there is no reason to think that we can or should become entirely disenchanted. It seems that story-spinning is something that our minds do at a fundamental – and certainly at a pre-conscious or non-conscious – level. It is a part of what it is to have a human mind, and perhaps it is necessary for us to be able to think at all, or at least to think in ways more complex than those open to the cat.

This means, I think, that calls for absolute disenchantment are as doomed, I suspect, as calls for complete re-enchantment. Neither of these are possible. We live in a state of semi-enchantment, surrounded by all kinds of partial myths and partial truths; and in making our way through the world, this is what we have to go on. “No more stories,” the French writer Maurice Blanchot once wrote – whilst fully aware that in writing this he was already telling a story. Given that we have human minds, the spinning of myth and story is a part of what our minds do. And some of these myths and stories, or partial myths and stories, are useful in helping us to get by; but it can be useful to remember that not all stories are good and useful, and that all stories are provisional and open to retelling.

Dreams of futures in which we may find ourselves wholly disenchanted, or in which we have succeed in wholly re-enchanting the world, seem to me to be equally mistaken. Which is why, as I have suggested , it may be more a matter of navigating through the various stories and enchantments to which we are subject. Yet it may also pay us to be aware that, although it is not something that can ever be finally accomplished, the work of testing these stories against the world, and the disenchantment that comes from this, may be a task worth undertaking.

# · Maxine Linnell

Hi Will
This is often something that strikes me as a writer and an attempting Buddhist. At one level the story is something that satisfies our need (the body’s need?) for tension and release/relaxation. In a story there’s a main character, some other characters, something goes wrong or changes, it gets tough for a while, and (mostly) all ends well, perhaps for ever. The romantic dream has affected the reality of relationships – there’s the need for a happy ending, for permanent resolution when boy gets girl (or whatever combination is happening), completed by a’ fairy-tale wedding’: disillusionment and a disgruntled sense that we’ve been cheated can follow. Previous generations had a far more pragmatic approach to relationships. So in a way, we might be more in sway to myths and stories than before – we might not know how to differentiate between story and reality, or we might try to impose story onto reality.

‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ might be the most positive, liberating message we could take on. But then there’s aspiration – what keeps you going back to the cushion – and there are the mythical archetypes which show us our internal workings, the severality of selves, Little Red Riding Hood, Granny and the wolf creating their own drama inside us until we are aware enough to see the story rather than live out the drama. This is where story might serve our awareness. I think films carry myth now, the big block-busters that somehow win over cynicism to make a space for aspiration, the possibility that we could become better at being human, happier, more loving and more free.

# · David Chapman

David L. McMahon’s excellent The Making of Buddhist Modernism talks about this theme of disenchantment/re-enchantment in contemporary (“modernist”) Buddhism. He traces it back to early 19th Century German Romanticism.

Thanissaro Bikkhu wrote a brilliant essay called “Romancing the Buddha”, published in Tricycle (Winter 2002). He argued that much of what passes for “Buddhism” nowadays is actually recycled German Romantic Idealism, and has zero to do with either Buddhist scripture or Buddhism as traditionally practiced in Asia. In particular, he argues that the theme of “interdependence” is non-Buddhist, or actually anti-Buddhist, inasmuch as the Pali scriptures advocate withdrawal from the world, not rejoicing in being caught up in it. This is less clearly true of Buddhist traditions other than Theravada, but I think he’s clearly right that the main roots of “interdependence” talk in modern Buddhism are Western, not Buddhist.

McMahon picked up this idea and ran with it. He argues that many other major themes in current Buddhism are based in Romanticism (via the Trancendentalists, the New Thought movement, and other routes). “Reenchantment” is one.

I found his analysis majorly eye-opening, partly because I was so unfamiliar with early 19th Century German philosophy. In the year since I’ve read his book, I’ve come to see the influences of that stuff everywhere.

On the whole, I think it’s confused, wrong, and counter-productive. So, I think that making the history explicit is helpful. We shouldn’t reject ideas because they are German, not Asian — those guys had some good ideas too — but we ought to be more cautious.


# · Susmita Barua

My first visit here. Enjoyed reading the reflections on “Malunkyaputta Sutta”. I am interpreting it as Buddha asking us to develop the faculty of pure perception of phenomena or pure seeing, hearing, sensing and cognizing without any judgement, evaluation or identification with subject or object as often we use in statements with ‘I’ or ‘mine’. This may be the way to ‘unbinding’ karma or repetition of habitual pattern through unconscious identification and weaving of story lines.

Without some story making there would not be any basis for life experience or wisdom. It does not need to be violent or sexy soap opera. To wake up from the malevolent soap opera is to recognize we are the author of our lives and we have the power to rewrite a different story individually and collectively. However, it requires a great degree of awareness.

I also feel body may not create story, but stores long term memory in every cell, organ and brain. Cellular memory of trauma can go beyond and prior to this lifetime. Like to check out the article David mentions. I also keep hearing about this interdependence that I never heard in India in my limited study of Pali teachings. Also not sure what is meant by re-enchantment here. Need to look up that one too.

“Myth is the womb of creation from which the world of facts emerge” – Seth Jane Roberts

# · Will

Good to hear from you, Maxine. One thing I wonder is whether we are more in the thrall of stories and myths than before because of a narrowing of our sense of what a story is an what a story can do – your own definition strikes me as almost classically Aristotelian. But sometimes it’s the weird, oddball stories that don’t fit this framework that linger in the mind. And many stories from many parts of the world mess with this Aristotelian sense of story. Perhaps the a narrowing of the kinds of things that are acceptable as stories (for which I blame poor old Aristotle, and Hollywood too, and mainstream publishing houses…) leads to less room to manoeuvre. But this may be going off on a tangent…

The Romantic roots of Western Buddhism are something I’ve been peripherally interested in for some time, David. My old MA supervisor in anthropology, Michael Carrithers, talked about this in passing in one of his books, I think (Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, I think, but I’m not sure). I’ll add McMahon to my list of books to read someday.

Susmita, I agree that human thought is entirely bound up in story-making. Mark Turner’s “The Literary Mind” is brilliant here. I’m not sure what you mean by cellular memory going beyond this life-time (or cellular memory, for that matte), although I’d agree absolutely that memory is embodied. After two months in China I forgot my cash-card pin number. No amount of thinking could get me to remember it. I had to sidle up to a cash machine, distract myself (“oh look! a bird”) and then let my hand just type in the number automatically. Then I went back over what I’d done, and remembered the number…

All the best,


# · Gijesh

Thank you dear…beautiful attempt..keep writing …world is waiting for your gifted beautiful thoughts… keep moving.. i too started a blog just to express my views.. when u get time please go through my blog and please leave a comment .. i can learn many things from people like u ….


may the god shower his blessings through you to the world outside

with love…

# · Curt

I hope you do not mind if I post a question here for Buddhish Philosophers.
I had posted this question of a secular web site last year but no one attempted to answer it.
The question is: If an economy could be CREATED, not evolve as the result of luck, coercion, manipulation, an occasional well thought our decision and even other factors, should the value of someones personal savings in real terms; increase over time, decrease over time, or remain the same. In short what should a dollar or pound or euro saved in 1980 be worth in 2020?
Of course any answer to such a question should discuss the many forseeable variables such as changes in productivy over time due to new inventions or resource constraints.
One may say, Hey this is not economics website? The thing is I do not think that only economists should try to answer such questions. To me that would be like only allowing musicains to play music.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles