On saturday, an acquaintance and I met at a local park to discuss some things of mutual interest. It was a stunning fall day, with temperature in the low 80’s, so we sat for several hours at a picnic bench surrounded by tall oaks.
I met this man just a few months ago, and during the conversation, it became clear that his political views and mine are polar opposites. We mentioned them but didn’t argue, for we had other things to discuss. Besides, by then some people nearby had a birthday barbecue going, and we were both distracted from politics by the smells. When someone said, “Anyone else want a burger?” I was sorely tempted to raise my hand.
Later though, I reflected on how the two of us could hold such different narratives of the same recent events. The poet, Muriel Rukeyser’s phrase, “The universe is made of stories” came to mind, as it often does, for it summarizes a key observation of two disciplines that have deeply shaped my world view, eastern philosophy and depth psychology:
- “The Buddhist does not inquire into the essence of matter, but only into the essence of the sense perceptions and experiences which create in us the idea of matter.” – Lama Angarika Govinda, 1969.
- “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to “happen” at all.” – James Hillman, 1975.
Such statements may seem too lofty for a number of common experiences, especially things like physical pain, even the sliver I have in a finger from hauling firewood onto the back porch. Not long ago, however, I came upon a concrete example of how the mind creates reality.
A contemporary Tibetan lama spoke of an experience we all went through in learning to read. One day when we were young, a teacher drew three marks on the board (or our parents did, or we saw it on Sesame Street). That teacher then said something that changed our world forever: “This is the letter A.”
From that moment on, the letter “A” existed for us, and it always appears to exist “out there,” in the world, when in fact, all that’s “out there” are three lines in a specific pattern. “A” exists only in the minds of those who have learned certain alphabets – a person who doesn’t read or only reads Chinese would not be able to find it.
This small story about the letter “A” parallels the complex stories we create, borrow, and use to make the sense of the world. Sometimes, like this past saturday, when it seems like the person you’re talking to comes from an alternate universe, it’s because they do – not a universe we could travel to with warp drive, but one that is simply constructed of very different stories.