The meaning of life in fiction

One of the problems with my new fantasy book is that it doesn’t fit all that neatly into the fantasy genre. I’ve tagged it “magical realism” where appropriate because although it follows the standard boy-stumbles-into-hidden-magical-world trope, it does so with what I hope is as much realism as magic.

For me, magical realism is like urban fantasy with an enhanced appreciation for symbolism and hidden meaning. It borders on or blends into a spiritual worldview.

It was gratifying to find that the spiritual ideas most significant to me at the time could work their way directly or indirectly into the story. Tom’s role in the creation of the magical world let me draw on questions of free-will and fate without getting too heavy or confronting. Likewise the question of “what am I supposed to be doing?” could unfold without messing too much with the narrative.

It was probably inevitable that anything I wrote would draw on the themes and ideas that are important to me. And at present, the most significant of these ideas is that the self that feels it’s in control is an illusion.

In the story this theme approaches near the resolution of the conflict. But Tom shies away from it, relying on magic to protect him from his enemy. But as the story itself tells us, that’s Tom doing what he was meant to do.

“I don’t think you quite understand what I’ve been telling you,” Cornelius replied carefully. “There is no ‘supposed to’. There just is. If your reaction to all this is one of confusion and complication, then you just have to accept it. Or not accept it, I suppose. This is how the maker made you, after all.”

“But how does that help me?” Tom demanded. “I feel like we’re going in circles! No matter what you say it just keeps coming back to me being afraid, and there’s no way out of it!”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying,” the gnome replied calmly.

I won’t be trying to force a moral into each story, or put clumsy platitudes in the mouth of every ‘wise’ character. The beauty of magical realism is that everything becomes a kind of sign or message, whether the author realises it or not.

Tom still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. Whether he as a character understands in the end is less important than the story as a whole embodying these truths. That’s what made writing this book most rewarding to me: the chance to see these ideas, principles, and motifs appearing and reappearing everywhere throughout the story. That’s the author’s privilege, I think. We get to discover the meaning hidden in the work in ways that surprise and astonish even its creator.

If you like the idea of gnomes proclaiming free-will paradoxes, or finding the meaning of life in a children’s novel, you’ll find yourself inevitably drawn to my new book To Create a World:


All thoughts come from the same place

I feel like I’m in control of my thoughts, choices, actions. It’s as though I’m steering myself through life, trying to avoid obstacles and collect rewards along the way.

And right behind the steering wheel is ‘me’, a sense of self that is possessive, vulnerable to harm, and carries with it a persistent identity.

Buddhism tells us that if we observe this sense of self closely we’ll find that there is no substance to it. It’s made up of multiple thoughts, ideas, and images. Like a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion, these thoughts and impressions create the mental illusion of a substantial self where none exists.

But who is the subject of this illusion?

The mind is the subject, or in some traditions it is pure consciousness itself.

The problem for humanity then is that we think we are these possessive, vulnerable and persistent selves subject to fear and craving, when in fact we are minds, or consciousness.

Or to put it another way: we are minds that mistakenly identify with these illusory selves.

These illusory selves might be possessive, fearful, and full of craving, but our minds are not, our consciousness is not.

Asking the wrong questions

But why do our minds identify with this illusory self? Why do they try so hard to sustain the illusion? And how can we finally dispel the illusion?

These are (in my case at least) the wrong questions to ask, because I am asking them with the assumption that I can gain understanding, maybe work out where it’s all going wrong, and then fix it.

In other words, I’m treating the “illusion of a self” as just another obstacle to steer myself through.

The roots of the illusion run deep. The mind is deeply deluded. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do to free yourself, because anything “you” can do will just be part of the illusion.

All thoughts come from the same place

But even these wrong questions are not coming from “me”, because both the questions and the sense of self are coming from the same place, from mind or consciousness.

If all thoughts come from the same place, then whether we are deluded or enlightened is beyond “our” control. And whether we stay deluded or cease being deluded is likewise beyond our control.

Recognising this truth is itself a step toward enlightenment. Enlightenment being ultimately freedom from the heavy delusion of this possessive, vulnerable, fearful and desirous self that the mind believes it must maintain.

Nowhere to lay your head

Buddhists go to a subjective extreme: everything in your experience is a thought-form or impression arising out of the emptiness of pure consciousness, persisting for a moment, and then falling away back into that same emptiness – the whole time not truly other than emptiness.

Christianity goes to an objective extreme: all beings are contingent on the divine being for their nature and existence. We exist only via limited participation in God’s being, who is pure being-itself.

In either case, we can take refuge in the objective reality of God or the subjective reality of ’emptiness’ as our true home and true self.

But in the meantime, inquiry, practice and diligent effort seem to be a part of the progress toward liberation from the illusion of self, until we arrive at the point where any further effort is counter-productive.

As one famous Hindu mystic put it, it’s like using a stick to poke and stir a fire. When you’re done with it, you throw the stick in to burn as well.

Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

Karma: when the past catches up with you

So you’re doing well. You’ve got this “illusion of self” idea worked out. You have moments of clarity in which the hard edges of your own sense of self become transparent and it seems that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Then something happens. Maybe you get sick. Maybe a problem from your past returns. Maybe you meet up with friends or relatives. Or maybe you have some successes or failures in your career. All of a sudden the unassailable tranquility you felt just days earlier is nowhere to be found.

Comprehending illusion from within enlightenment is like the moon stamping a thousand peaks; wishing for enlightenment from within illusion is like clouds dotting the endless sky

P’u-an – 普願 translated by Thomas Cleary

We’ve talked about enlightenment as “untying knots“, and although the knots in our life are finite, there are bound to be many more than we expect.

We can think of it in terms of karma – not the popular idea of moral retribution, but as the more basic principle of cause and effect. In the West it is known as the principle of sufficient reason: every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect.

Understanding the illusory nature of the self goes hand-in-hand with a recognition of karma – cause and effect – unfolding in us and around us.

If you take away our illusion of self-control or agency then our whole existence, whether deluded or enlightened, is nothing more than this unfolding of causes and effects.

There are varying interpretations of karma in different traditions, but it’s helpful to recognise that even if you are making progress on the path…in fact, because you are making progress on the path, your past will come back to haunt you.

Imagine your life is an immense length of rope, or better yet, a long extension-cord (power cable). Most of the time you only use about a third of its length, and two-thirds of it sit in a tangled heap closest to the outlet. If you ever want to wind it up and put it away, or use the entire length, you’re eventually going to have to untangle the whole thing.

In fact it’s not really up to you, because as we’ve been seeing, “you” are a tangle in the cord, a knot in the rope.

So don’t be surprised when difficulties arise. Don’t be abashed or lose hope when all your progress seems to be lost in an instant, thanks to some complication from the past – a mess you thought you’d left on the peripheries of your life.

The clarity you’ve experienced will work its way through the whole of your existence. You can’t be entirely free from the illusion of self, free from pride in only a narrow slice of your life, when the rest of your existence is heaving with causes and effects – the bonds of karma.

Untying knots

I thought it was Hui Neng, but apparently Lin Chi wrote:

I have no teaching to give to people; all I do is untie knots.

I’ve recently finished the fourth draft of a novel I’m working on, and waiting for feedback from a reviewer. The drafting process has dragged on, giving way to the daily demands of raising a child. But the need to work on it, to get something done, was a fixture in the back of my mind all this time.

Now that I have nothing substantial to work on for a while, the need to get something done has lumbered into the foreground and is stomping around, nervously seeking fresh prey.

I didn’t realise how strong it was, but I guess committing to writing a book presumes some degree of long-term motivation.

So now I’m sitting here, quietly possessed by the spirit of accomplishment with no satisfying avenues of expression at hand.

It’s a rare moment of deeper self-awareness.

And in the context of recent thoughts about free will, the illusion of self, and acceptance of reality, I feel that this need to accomplish something is another knot to untie.

Because – believe it or not – I have actually accomplished things before in my life, and it doesn’t feel like this, this slightly desperate need to find a worthwhile goal to immerse myself in.

This feels quite a lot more like the boredom and frustration that often plunges us into mechanisms of distraction and escape: food, tv, games, etc.

I’ve tried to explain in earlier posts that the thoughts and impressions that feel like “me” are just thoughts and impressions. If you observe closely, “me” is always changing, and you can even ask the perennial non-dualist question: if this is “me” then who or what is it that is observing “me”?

This strong desire to accomplish something is one of those impressions that constitutes “me”. It just happens to be a very forceful and deeply held impression, one that is capable of stimulating and initiating other, associated thoughts of “me”.

In other words, this is a big knot and it is tightly bound.

So how do you untie a knot?

It’s a bit tricky, because if “you” doesn’t really exist in terms of agency and control, then the knot is being untied in spite of, not because of, the illusion of control.

This is why the untying of knots is attributed to grace – an external, divine influence – or to the equally divine wisdom or insight that cuts through the illusion at the heart of this “knot”.

Because in reality the knot itself is just a thought or impression. It is not in control, it does not have real power. It is more like a symbol of how your mind is functioning. It is like a label that tells you what is going on inside your mind.

So here’s the thing: the kind of wisdom or grace that cuts through the illusion and unties the knot is the same wisdom or grace that dispels the illusion of “me”.

And as such, this wisdom or grace does not come about because of anything “you” or “me” can do. Rather, it comes about despite the illusion of “me” and “you”.

It comes about, because it comes about. It simply comes about, and the mind ceases to create the impression that this “knot” has power, or that this knot is “you”.

If thine eye offend thee…

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks at the extremely sad case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself with drain cleaner, and goes on to suggest that “transableism” and transgenderism alike are just the latest symptoms of an increasingly irreligious world that believes in the possibility and the proximity of worldly happiness:

Our society is increasingly devoid of the scepticism toward worldly goals embodied in the major religious traditions. We no longer have people telling us that the world is an illusion, a shipwreck, a “vanity of vanities”. We are lacking the kind of unwavering clarity that pours cold water not only on the outer-reaches of our struggles for worldly fulfilment, but the inner-reaches as well: wealth, career, social esteem, fashion, passion, and pride.

Our religious traditions are united in wishing to dispel the illusion that the world can grant us real happiness, whether it be through the accumulation of possessions or being called by the “correct” pronouns.