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Up and Down

Seems like we need to make up stories about how things work to make us feel good and keep the chaos at bay. Just thinking about two of the stories that have featured heavily in my own personal and work life I suddenly realise how different they are but somehow mutually enriching.

The Buddhist story about the world and all its difficulties is described by the notion of samsara which is usually translated as ‘cyclic existence’. The root of the word means ‘flowing on’ and so we have an image of something that just continues and continues without end. Flowing on also captures something of how consciousness endlessly flows through the six different experiences of samsaric existence from hellish via animals and humans to positively delightful - and then flows on again. Because this endless transmigration if fundamentally unsatisfactory, and often just plain painful, the only real solution is an out and this is what Buddhism is all about - the out is nirvana.

In comparison to the Buddhist story, which could be summed up with the John Wayne quote that, ‘life is just one god-damned thing after another’ is the idea of the Hero’s Journey. This has been articulated by the writer Joseph Campbell in his work on comparative mythology and particularly in his book of the same name. Here the story is not one of life being a straight line of consistent suffering but something more like a big dipper that swoops up and down. Life presents situations that we are initially scared of but once we have faced our fear and travelled through them, we often feel on the other side that we are in some way enriched. Life is not just suffering, there is something in the suffering that contributes in a positive way to the making of our unique individuality. There is something meaningful in the world itself, it is not just a place from which we wish to escape.

So what to make of this? From the Hero’s Journey I take heart - every time I find the courage to face what I want to run away from I open further to life. This is the opposite of defensive closure, it means letting go and daring to have my mind and heart challenged - however scary. And from the Buddhist story I take refuge - this journey through life need not be at random. There is something that gives meaning and is profoundly good which - at least Buddhism believes - goes beyond all changes including death itself.

With thanks to Alex Marshal who inspired this.

NW. 9.3.22

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