“Everybody has to be the hero of one story: his own,” wrote P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, in the first issue of Parabola. I just ran across a version of this quote in the little book The World is Made of Stories by the contemporary Buddhist teacher David Loy. In Buddism, the underlying story we tell (in constantly updated versions) is the story of the self. In Buddhism the self is experienced as not being completely separate from the world around us since it depends for its self sense on our perceptions, feelings, and consciousness of itself and the world it inhabits through myriad worldly features (hearing takes physical ears, etc.) “Different stories have different consequences,” writes Loy. We take actions (including thoughts) based on the way our feelings pull us this way and that. Actions become habits, and habits become character–and finally destiny. This is karma. As David Loy writes: “Karma is not something the self has but what the sense of self becomes, when we play our roles within stories perceived as real. As those roles become habitual, mental tendencies congeal and we bind ourselves without a rope.”
As we get older, even those of us who like to meditate or pray or be alone in nature or otherwise find ways to be still, we learn there is no end to this storytelling tendency. It is an intrinsic to being alive as breathing. There are moments when it stops, when we can stand still and be astonished or so touched a great stillness comes over us. But before too long the narrative resumes. We couldn’t function or relate to one another if it didn’t. Still, what might be possible if we related to our stories in a new way? What if we consciously looked at or listened to the stories we tell ourselves as if we were listening to a fairy tale or myth? What might me learn about where we (or something in us) thinks we’re going and where we have been?
P.L. Travers essay was published in the first issue of Parabola in the winter of 1976. The whole issue was dedicated to the Hero’s Quest–since that is the template of a search for meaning, even for Buddha who left a palace to strike out for the unknown. Travers admitted that taking yourself as a hero did seem, well, awesome in every sense: “All those dragons–give them whatever name you like; those journeys to our own dark underworld, all those imprisoned princesses to be rescued. One would shrink from such an obligation if the alternative was not also so awesome. Not to be the hero of one’s own story–could one agree to that? ” In upcoming months, I’m going to be writing and even leading some writing workshops on just this subject.