(About a 3 minute read)
Story-telling is ancient in us. It seems to me so deeply rooted in humans that I think it is possible we were telling stories even before we evolved speech. Not as gestures and grunts to each other, but as narratives running through our heads.
Or to be more precise, we were perhaps organizing events in ways that were at least vaguely like the stories we know today. And all before speech. Of course, I cannot prove that, but I believe it to be possible given how deeply ingrained story telling is in us, seemingly at all levels of our consciousness and subconsciousness.
I first became aware of how thoroughly we are a story-telling species when I began meditating in nature some two decades ago. Typically, I would sit beside a lake either before or after work, and empty my mind as much as I could while observing nature.
At least that was the plan. In reality I noticed that one of the major obstacles to me attaining a perfectly still mind seemed to be my mind’s habit or disposition to perceive any event — anything going on — as part of a story.
I do not mean a unified story. The gentle waves on the lake might give rise to one story, the swirling of tiny insects another. And I certainly do not mean complete stories with all the proper elements of a novel. More like story fragments or the elements themselves.
So, for instance, if I saw a squirrel, I might have a tendency to give it a character. “Feisty young squirrel” or “Crazy squirrel”. And then from there perhaps a fragment of a plot. “Joyfully playing in the sun.” “Warning the squirrel village about me.” Often enough, I would catch myself wondering what life was like for the squirrel. But when I did, I didn’t just wonder, I thought in story-like terms of it going about its day.
The sense of my mind wanting to organize things into stories was even greater when it came to overall things. I noticed that recurring again and again, my mind would seem to be seeking, searching for a climax.
This awareness was greatly helped by reading Jiddu Krishnamurti’s Commentaries on Living. Krishnamurti tends to begin each short chapter with an observation of nature. Not always, but quite often, his observations mimic how nature appears once you get past trying to project stories on it. That is, as a series of often unconnected events coming in and out of awareness.
The river stretched away for a distance and then disappeared in a sharp bend. Large geese sat beside the river on its bank, some in the water. A cloud shadowed a portion of the river and the ground on both sides of it. From the shadow a hawk glided into the afternoon sunlight. A light breeze rose, and you could hear the geese.
When you read a few paragraphs like that, you can become aware of how much your mind wants to project meaning on the disconnected events by weaving them into a narrative. “What does the cloud’s shadow mean?” “Why is the hawk gliding out of it into the sunlight?” “What happens next?”
One of our most persistent and powerful story-telling instincts is to project character onto things. We do this almost instantly to one degree or another, and we do it not merely animals, but even to inanimate things like rivers or prominent stones.
Of course, we also project character onto our fellow humans — often before we know a thing about them.
So — if you’ve never done it before — the next time you see, say, a storm moving in, closely watch what goes through your mind as you observe it. See if you too see it in narrative terms. Most likely not as a complete story, but rather as having elements of character, backstory, plot, progression towards a climax, and so forth.