In my recent travels west, I gave a talk on the urgency of artists to be a voice of meaning, the need to articulate something that creates a space, a place amidst the noise and crisis in our world. Everywhere I turn I see friends overwhelmed from the relentless news wheel; people sensing a change is gonna come, yet feeling helpless to act.
I promised I would post this talk, which I have divided into three parts, or three “arrows”. Today I am posting the first part:
Part I: The First Arrow
Especially in times of great difficulty, there is a desperate need for the stories from deep time, the timeless truths that have nothing to do with facts (which are always changing), or measurements, or any one religion, culture or race…
We begin with the idea that what is needed in times of trouble is a story– something that takes us outside ourselves and re-orients our internal compass.
The creation stories around the world, which reflect the pattern of all makers, begin in darkness or void or chaos. And there was darkness upon the face of the deep. Or, as Richard Powers says in the first line of his novel, The Overstory:
First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
We can see the work of our “first makers” now going back 50,000 years or more… The amount of time keeps increasing… but the sense that the painter, maker, and poet was also the visionary, healer and story teller for the culture, is compelling. In the ancient cave paintings, before the separation between painting and writing or speech and song*, the poet, painter and storyteller were one and the same.
These stories and myths come from the same place as dreams. To ask if a dream is true or false is the wrong question. We don’t know where dreams come from. A myth also contains timeless truth in metaphor. To ask if a myth is true or false is a misunderstanding. A myth is a perennial map of the human dilemma. Heroes and heroines of all time have left their footprints for us to follow.
We are born, arriving from a dark mystery, and to this mystery we return. How do we navigate our time on this planet, especially in darkness, in chaos and uncertainty?
As Roberto Calasso said about myth:
These things never happened, but they are always.
A myth takes us out of the rational world and into imagination. Myths teach us, at any age, to see the world with new eyes… and bring the awareness, buried inside, that we humans are only a small part of the mystery. In a good story there is a recognition, a remembrance of something more essential than personal agenda. A sense of belonging to the world is restored by the resonance of the bigger picture reflected in the story.
The story is both a mirror that reflects yourself back to yourself, and a window that opens out to the world, to otherness.
Many thinkers, writers and makers have spoken about our damaged present, and how it has lost the ancient connection to stars and trees, to the roots of tradition, and to leaders as spiritual mentors.
Here Richard Powers quotes the contemporary writer, Karen Armstrong:
When there is no authority but collective mastery and might, and no purpose but the feeding of individual appetite, the human spirit turns vicious. It will blithely destroy, without thought to the consequences… (it is) a plea to artists to take up the fallen mantle of meaning-making that the old myths and the discredited religions once wore.
Our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world. – Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
How does a story take you outside your personal narrative, outside the media noise, and even away from duty– where you can lose, and then find yourself anew?
Richard Powers said:
“it’s not the world that needs saving, it’s us. For us to be saved, as a lot of the very old myths say, we’ll have to come home and be born again.
We framed this talk with being in a time of great difficulty, and the hunger for the truth that resides in poetry, and in the eternal stories called myths.
Let me tell you an old Buddhist story:
The Buddha was sitting with his back against the the bark of the ancient fig tree. His students were gathered around him.
The Buddha said: When you get stabbed by an arrow, is it painful?” A student answered, “Yes it is.” Then the Buddha asked, “When you get stabbed by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” A student replied, “Yes it is.” The Buddha taught that we cannot control the first arrow of human existence, which includes loss, pain, natural disasters and death.
However, the second arrow brings the opportunity of how to respond to those things that are painful, the things we that we do not want to happen. The second arrow is our reaction to the first arrow, to pain and loss. We are conditioned to resist impermanence.
With the second arrow comes the possibility of choice. You realize that the effort to control, to push away, the unwanted first arrow, actually causes more pain than the initial stab of the first arrow.
The pain of things falling apart is the “first arrow”.
Things fall apart. People, eyes, hands, backs, trees, birds, homes, families and animals. As William Stafford said: Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
When you, or someone you know gets hurt or sick or dies, when a natural disaster happens, when you lose a faculty that you once had, or your job, or your spouse or loved one… when the world seems to be in chaos, disconnected from the mystery, and alienated from the natural world….it’s painful.
With the first arrow, and with that pain, change occurs. Change can happen without warning– and chance isn’t fair — some lives seem more weighed down by grief than others. It is easy to make an idol of your suffering, so that it becomes a story told over and over, that you get stuck in. You believe the story that you tell yourself. There is a long history of perpetuating the “tortured genius” myth, or the “starving artist”. These labels, or any label, can become an excuse, a constricted way of operating.
What would it mean to choose a different story?
What happens when you consent to the suffering and see it as a vehicle?
These questions bring us to the second arrow, which I will post next week.
What are your favorite stories? What are you reading? I’d love to hear from you.
*This phrase is in reference to Tim Ingold’s work: Ways of Mind Walking: Reading, Writing and Painting