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 elsewhere, 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.
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