Have you ever been saying something that wasn’t true, and caught yourself in the middle of saying it? “No…no, everything I’ve ever said in my life has been factual and accurate.” Thank you, honest reader.
On my first attempt at this post I wanted to make the point that stories are a better medium for conveying spiritual truth, for the reason that they can impart powerful feelings, and speak to the heart in a way that more logic-based teachings cannot.
Well, the second half of that may be accurate. Just think of one of the best fiction books you’ve ever read. Think of a moment in that book that really spoke to you, that really evoked something deep within you. Perhaps it was a big moment in the story, but it doesn’t have to be. In any case, the reason that moment spoke to you so deeply was because it was based in truth—a truth about life. But the story didn’t explicitly tell you “here’s the truth I’m communicating to you.” No, you just felt it in the imaginative experience of the story itself.
I experienced something like this in reading Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s something that happens towards at the very end of the book (I won’t spoil what it is) that kind of brings the whole 400-pages of magical realism together. At that point in the story I felt “uplifted” in gaining a new vision of the miraculous unfolding of time, the interconnection of so many human lives, and the magical, mysterious way life sweeps us up. If you asked me, I couldn’t articulate very well what this “vision” consists in, or what truth I learnt, exactly, but I was left with a sense of gratitude just to be participating in life, and a more open mind with respect to my place in this incomprehensibly vast existence.
That was something that no logical argument or teaching could’ve imparted. It had to come through a story—through putting yourself in those characters’ shoes; being transported to a fictional world; being witness to the heartbreaks and triumphs; and seeing the story build on itself so that the meaning accumulates through the story and imbues the climactic events with immense communicative power…. The resurrection of Christ, for example, affects us so deeply because we were there, in a sense, for all that came before: the telling of the parables, the miracles, the last supper, the crucifixion.
So storytelling speaks to the heart. It bypasses the reasoning mind and resistance to life as we let the characters and their lives into our intimate experience. That way, stories give the feel for something that would be very, very difficult to convey in plain prose or logic.
But to say that that makes stories a “better” medium for truth is a tad misleading. Stories awaken the heart and inspire us to move in a positive direction. Hell, they may even trigger a shift in consciousness. And yet, at some point, we’re going to want—or probably need—a more precise understanding with which to orient ourselves, spiritually or otherwise.
That’s where logic and clear conceptual formulations enter the fray. An accurate mental model of what’s happening in our lives can do wonders. Not only does it direct the mind away from delusional suggestions (which further obscure things), but actually gives some concrete advice on “what’s the next step to take;” what will work, what won’t, and why.
Now the imbalance, with respect to conceptual formulations, is to take them as reality rather than as descriptions of reality. Just a little observation reveals that the world isn’t divided up into bits, as our mind makes it seem, but there’s actually a wholeness and a unity that concepts don’t capture—can’t capture. You could say the mind’s “first move” in the chess-game is to divide; in effect, to make things in the world seem separate from one another.
However, when used in a balanced way, the intellect can “discern and rift its way to the secret of things,” as Thoreau would say, and shed more than a little light on our situation.
Balance is the key. If we focus too heavily on the logical, conceptually precise version of reality created in our minds, then we may very well just stay there. If we just “follow and trust our heart”—as enlightening and powerful as that is—we may struggle unnecessarily or create suffering, unaware that a good conceptual map could change the way we look at something completely. But if we find a felt, intuitive balance between the mind and heart in our own experience, this translates to consciousness expansion. This, I believe, is how the masters do it.
So what of “mediums for truth”? It depends on what you want to communicate. Whatever medium is chosen, it will still be metaphor for truth—expressions, at best—and not truth itself. Only the truth is the truth. As a master once put it: truth “has never been spoken, never been written, never been imagined.”
- This post addresses essentially the same topic as “Paradox and Poetry” from another angle.
- The quote at the end of this post comes from here.
- Hopefully there will be some storytelling on Words Stand Still soon!