In the past couple of years I’ve noticed many people interested in meditation using the word “story” as if it was a bad thing. This came up more than once during my Shambhala Training weekends. I also remember talking with some Buddhist students at Naropa Boulder about what we would be without a “story”. And this week I was listening to one of my favorite dharma podcasts where a participant spoke very dismissively about “his story”.
I’m not sure most people understand what “story” really means.
For me this is very troubling and not just because I’m a writer of stories. But also because I believe that stories are essential for living as a human being.
From websters the word story is
an account of events or a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question.
What I think many people mean when they say they want to let go of their story is to let go their attachment to a particular account of events. Letting go of attachment to anything is a good thing. But it doesn’t seem like many of these people understand what story really means.
At the most basic level, story is how we make sense of the world we live in and how we function in the world. As children we begin learning about the culture we live in through the stories told to us and acted out by our families. These stories not only teach us the morals of society but even its most intrinsic values, such as its understanding of time and space.
More than that, stories not only tell us about the world but also create the world. At first, this might seem like some kind of mumbo jumbo but it is an understanding that has been expressed in different traditions for thousands of years. A relatively recent statement of the power of story comes from Christianity. From almost two thousand years ago, the Gospel of John starts with:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
But this is not only a Judaeo-Christian understanding. The same understanding pre-dates both the Christian and Hebrew religions. The ancient Egyptian culture worshiped the god Thoth, who created the world through thought and utterance.
Buddhism isn’t so much concerned with any traditional creation myth, so the importance of story as the creative energy isn’t explicit in the doctrine. Yet story is pervasive throughout Buddhist teaching. The very first dharma teaching the Buddha gave was the Four Noble Truths which comprise the quintessential Buddhist story.
And what is dharma but a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question, where the situation in question is life. Dharma is story. And another understanding of dharma is that which holds and supports the cosmos. This relates directly to the main idea of my MFA thesis (The Power of Story Form): that story creates the forms in which our world exists.
So while I think it is beneficial for people to let go of their attachment to a particular story, we must recognize that there’s really no such thing as letting go of story. It is also important to understand how story functions in life, not so that we can be free of story but so that we can “tell” the story which would be most beneficial for ourselves and others.