Washing the dishes, I listened tonight to “Carols of the Times,” composer Bob Chilcott’s introduction to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a century-old tradition of King’s College London. What, Chilcott asked, makes the Festival so enduring, beyond the music itself? Said Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College, it’s a story – in this case, Christmas story.
This reminded me of a little essay on storytelling that I’d read a few days earlier. In The Mystery Feast, Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri laments that our era has sidelined story, preferring instead the “things of science and the things of technology.” This is a mistake, for “there is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling.”
It’s not just screens that resist sustained storytelling. The same is true of the other alternative to technologically mediated civilization: meditation. Adepts treat treat the mind’s compulsion to weave stories storytelling as if it were a pathology. The mind’s stories rehearse our shame, revisit our grief, and anticipate our failures. Such stories are stress-making machines. A typical script in guided meditation goes something like this: Your mind tells you stories. That’s okay – it’s what minds do. When your mind begins to tell a story, just come back to the breath.
One purpose of mindful meditation is to be present in the moment. They call on us, as Ram Das put it, to be here now. Stories do exactly the opposite. Stories insist that we be elsewhere now. This is why they come to life with the invocation once upon a time.
Okri reviews this argument, noting that people have turned to meditation because, by “transcending the story-making quality of the mind,” practitioners believe themselves capable of “arriving at the absolute reality that lies behind all things.”
For Okri, such confidence may be misplaced. “Maybe this storytelling quality of mind is itself a paradox and a metaphor of that which we are finally meant to discover. The kiss that awakens the princess from her bed of sleep is not just the kiss of romance but maybe also the kiss of enlightenment.”
So many stories are indeterminate, not merely open to interpretation but pushing back against any effort to complete or fully understand them. Such stories are, to use an over-used term, koans. This quality exists in much of the literature we return to throughout our lives, from Hamlet to Middlemarch and from the Book of Genesis to the Gospel of Matthew.
The last six months, I’ve tried to wean myself away from smartphone and laptop screens and back into sustained reading. As Nicholas Carr noted in The Shallows, our engagement with screens has corroded the attention necessary to read. The research Carr cited back in 2011 has since found additional support.
I’ve gotten to the point that I can become immersed in a book for two or three hours before coming up for air. That’s probably where I was thirty years ago. I’ve returned to what Salman Rushdie calls the sea of stories. Consciousness, Okri suggests, was born in that sea. The act of wandering in and around story returns me, unexpectedly, to the kind of focused attention and calm that meditation also promises. The mind does tell stories – and they are worth a long listen.