Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Cranking the Flywheel

What about the stories - personal, political, religious - that we tell ourselves? What happens to our stories as we start to wake up?

For my part, I don't think that waking up is principally concerned with changing the content of our beliefs or stories. (Let them arise, let them dance, let them go.) But I do think that, in important ways, waking up depends on our progressive attunement to the role these beliefs play in our "psychic economies."

The essential question is not: what do you believe? The essential question is: what do your beliefs do? What roles do they play in shaping, animating, or excusing your clinging and craving? No belief or story - no matter how accurate or insightful - is so pure that it cannot be repurposed by craving as fuel for fantasy and self-justification.

Most of our beliefs - accurate or inaccurate, verifiable or mythological - about ourselves and the world are put to work as props for our fantasies. In particular, our beliefs work to prop up the one fundamental fantasy most all of us share: our fantasy that the world is capable of supporting permanent, satisfied, and substantial selves.

These fantasies - these delusions, these ignorances - are the source of much of our misery.

But extra care must be taken with certain kinds of belief. Supernatural beliefs in particular (whether warranted or not) are dangerous because, lacking push-back, they are especially prone to being co-opted as "havens" for our harmful fantasies. Supernatural beliefs are those places where our fantasies of power, control, and satisfaction are most likely to come home to roost.

In one sense, the key to waking up is learning how to live without beliefs and narratives. In this light, we might describe meditation as the practical business of working loose, layer by layer, of all of the beliefs and stories in which our destructive fantasies hide.

Life and spirit flare up when, beliefs and stories aside, we make contact with our own bare-boned, mineral-thin film of root receptivity.

But what would it mean to live without beliefs and stories?

I want to be quite precise on this point: I do not think it means that beliefs no longer arise and that stories are no longer spun. Were this to happen, one would be something other than human. Rather, I think it means that we no longer believe in our beliefs and stories.

What would it mean to no longer believe in our stories?

It would mean that we no longer use our beliefs and stories to supplement the perceived paucity of the world.

It means that, though we still have beliefs and narratives, we no longer use them to prop up the world, to make things look more permanent, satisfying, and substantial than they actually are.

No longer believing in our stories is like no longer believing in cookies. There are still cookies and we may even still eat cookies (and like them!), but we no longer believe that a cookie is capable of giving us something that it cannot: the satisfaction of desire.

We might generalize this point and say: waking up means no longer believing that any "X" can satisfy desire. Waking up is about sitting with the worm of desire, with the striving of life itself, not about about being "done" with it.

But this belief in the possibility of satisfaction is, I think, the "secret" belief that attaches itself to and intertwines itself with practically all of our other beliefs: we believe in our beliefs about the power of stuff to satisfy us.

When we wake up, the wheels of our beliefs continue to spin, but now they've come loose of the main axle such that they no longer crank the flywheel of our fantasies.

In this sense, I don't think that the Buddha has any objection to a belief in God or the supernatural - so long as we don't believe that our beliefs can ever save us from the friction and mundanity that are the substance of life itself.


  1. A wonderful, interesting post.

    I think that people have a great inclination to use any and every thing to fuel their self-justification and that this inclination is combatted by doubt. [Hooray doubt!]

    We prop ourselves up [as we must] because there is an imperative for us to invent ourselves. What else can we do? We have to make something of the time that ticks away; the thought-cloud that swirls around us; and we must keep the body-machine up and running. Our task-list is filled in before we enter, stage right. We are born with our hand reaching for the cookie jar.

    I think that we always have a narrative, an explanation, to substantiate ourself. [It's sort of like flypaper; it "catches" stories and fantasies.] It comes, out of the box, with a "nature," and it adheres to stories and fantasies that stick to it. But what sticks changes over the course of time, due to maturity and as a function of our effort to understand and change ourself.

    I guess I just think that there will always be stories. They just become richer and deeper if we are [how can i say this?] 'getting anywhere.'

    I think that there will always be stories since there are people out there, that have 'found something' and we can benefit from their find. We can have eureka moments when we stumble upon something they wrote, say, and we suddenly 'get it' -- we understand something we missed when we read it years before. We can see how they are 'ahead of us.' We can see that they are showing us a possible/probable pathway forward.

  2. Thanks, Tom.

    I agree: there is a sense in which, having liberated our stories from the work of "propping up the world," they can become rich and vivid and meaningful in a way that they weren't before.

  3. I guess I'm saying that we swap out for deeper, richer stories, or we find a deeper layer in the stories we already know. The layer has to have already have been there; we just find it -- we're ready for it.

    Other stories, a product of lower-stage faith or maturity, can be a load of crap. They can be bricks in an entrapping scenerio.

    There are many reasons to think that Christ's message devolved over centuries as his 'story' was massaged into one of Grace by Faith and away from the Sermon on the Mount message that was central for two or three hundred years. Grace by Faith was easier to sell (for Paul, the travelling tent & Christ salesman) and once snagged, you can't get out without flames licking your heels.

  4. When we meditate we usually become aware of how our minds drift into story making, and meaning making. Sometimes we let them pass by, but sometimes we get wrapped around their content. In meditation we let them go and return to "no thought", or "concentration" or whatever form of meditation we practice. I find that when people run into each other, and they begin to converse, that we begin again to believe our stories, and prop them up. It is almost rude to say to someone, i really do not believe the story or byline you are making up. We are conditioned to be amiable and agreeing so that no one's feelings are hurt. I wonder if this is the mature thing to do, or the compassionate thing to do. If we know better why don't we act better? :)

  5. We will never act perfectly, or in every instance "well," but that is very fortunate! If the world was heaven, there could be no empathy or compassion here because all that good kind-hearted stuff is dependent on the the whole dukkha package (to be good and kind-hearted about).

    Thus, if the world was heaven, ipso facto presto change-o, it wouldn't be heaven. Life and our stories in life are at constant odds, with reality (whatever that is, though we know what it is not) biting back, and fighting back against reality.

  6. Nice, Tom. I agree. Though I think it's important - as I think you hint in the earlier comment - that our stories deserve compassion as well because they are just another, inextricable part of what life does. Our stories are just stories, but they are still real stories - our stories are part and parcel of the real.