By Adam J. Pearson
When we pause to think about it, the extent to which we perceive the world through stories is absolutely staggering. Nothing has so great a hold of us and so fundamentally structures our experience like stories do.
Examples of this truth are ubiquitous in daily life. We make snap judgments about each other and weave them into stories. We see the world through fictional characters and worlds we’ve read about or watched on TV. Our media images bombard us with advertisement stories to tell us what to feel and what to buy. We interpret each other’s behaviour as well as our own through stories. Our thought process unfolds as a series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves. Stories tell us what is valuable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, how we should live, and what we should be. We make meaning out of nature itself via scientific and religious stories. Out of the ineffable oneness and unending vastness of the universe, we create stories with finite beginnings, middles, and ends. The limits of our minds require the limits that stories offer by packaging meaning into neat little units that make sense to us. We draw lines where none exist so that our minds can handle small facets of an inconceivably vast reality. And perhaps most profoundly of all, we create our own imaginary personal identities, our own ‘selves,’ out of a network of stories written by us and by others.
In the constant game of narration called our life, fiction and truth blur together and it’s often hard to tell whether we are creating our own story or acting a part in someone else’s. Sometimes we find ourselves doing both at the same time. And yet, we find ourselves confronted by countless questions. How much do our stories clarify, how much do they obscure? Which truths to they reveal and which do they conceal? How much of the stories we live by lies out there in the physical world, and how much is just here in our heads? What is the deep stillness of outer space like in the absence of all of the stories we tell on Earth? What is the nakedness of existence like if we don’t evoke any concepts or stories to interpret it? For all interpretations are stories, and all stories involve interpretation.
As they are, as they nakedly exist, all things have their being prior to the speaking of a single word about them. Their basic nature is wordless, ineffable, unspeakable, silent. Language reaches out to try to grasp this bare reality desperately, but always fails to do so. Indeed, the wordless silence of all things has deeper roots than we could ever imagine. We reach out through words, language, concepts and stories in a futile attempt to grasp the fundamental nature of this wordless nature. But we are donkeys chasing a carrot at the end of a string; it always seems so close, but is always out of reach. Somehow, we intuit that bare existence lives beyond all words. And do our feelings not themselves get numbed and limited by the names we pin onto them? What is it like to feel outside of any words about what we are feeling? If we could connect our minds directly to the bare nature of the story-less world without evoking the words and concepts to which we cling for safety, could we experience its reality directly? Could we dive into the wordless vastness of being? Could we handle the totally unfamiliar and unrecognizable texture of this silence? Would it transform us, liberate us, or destroy us?
The truth is that we can ask all of these questions, but all of the answers we can come up with are like beautiful, deceiving traps, for questions invite answers and answers are stories. The minute we open our mouths to speak, it is too late. We’ve already made answering the question of what the reality of the world is like beyond all words and concepts impossible.
Only silence can answer silence. And the bare nature of reality will always lie beyond the reach of the language of stories. Only bare awareness can reach out to it and only in silence. What it finds there in the land beyond words, it cannot say, and whatever it says is not it. This wordless mystery, this truth beyond story is not only out there, but within us too. The core of what we are cannot be spoken; every word betrays it, every story leads us away from it. Only silence leads us deeper into it, into our core and into a more direct engagement with the reality of the world around us. Only silence is at home in mystery and only mystery is our true home. And so even these words must be dropped, cut off, and left behind.
Stories mediate our daily lives, but the core of our world and of who and what we are lies beyond the reach of words, concepts, and stories. We can only meet it in silence and mystery.