On Immersive Storytelling

The classification of humans into the category of “storytelling animals” was popularized by mythographer Joseph Campbell (the brilliant author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, who mentored George Lucas during the making of Star Wars), and before him by the father of psychotherapy, Carl Jung. Clearly, we are much more than storytelling creatures, but to what extent is this true of our species? And if myths and narratives are so foundational for our identity, meaning, and how we find orientation in our cosmos, then how can we most intelligently apply this insight into our process of individual and collective meaning-creation in a non-supernatural paradigm?

These are questions that we’ve pondered in the Epicurean community, as I’m sure many others have done in other naturalist schools of thought. In Venus as a spiritual guide: the use of mythography in wisdom traditions and in Prometheus Unbound, we’ve employed an exegetical method of using educational philosophical commentaries on myths and parables in the service of our ethical purposes, and to weave meaning and art into our lives that is consistent with what we believe.

The educational value of storytelling can be quite self-evident. Our Friend Alan published a “Parable of the Hunter“, where he placed before our eyes many of the pragmatic repercussions of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 5. Many of us believe that storytelling appeals to the human psyche on a deeper (or at least different) level than prose instruction–which is also necessary, but typically does not appear to move our souls as much.

Participatory myth

Rabbinical tradition in Judaism teaches that all converts were “there” at Mount Sinai when the Torah was received: therefore, once they undergo conversion, they are personal recipients of Torah. That the events at Mount Sinai are non-historical does not matter for people who undergo conversion: they were “there”. They “received” Torah and now they consider it their legacy.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the great scriptures of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. In it we find many exaggerated and fantastic parables and stories, but one in specific (called “the ceremony in the air”) is celebrated in the Nichiren tradition, which teaches that when people are chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” in front of the Gohonzon (a mandala that represents the cosmos depicted in the Lotus Sutra), they are literally reenacting the ceremony in the air and participating in it. The chant then becomes an epiphany, and an act of immersion where one is abducted into the cosmic drama of the sutra as one of the innumerable “bodhisattvas of the Earth” that emerge from the ground in that particular chapter.

This participatory logic is sacramental, and not too different from that which informs the Christian sacrament of communion, which means to also produce immersion in the “mysteries” of the incarnation of Christ. The eucharist, of course, has its roots in the Greek mystery religions, all of which had their own participatory narratives.

I believe it is possible (and desirable) for non-supernaturalists to create transcendental pleasures and experiences through storytelling that allow for sacramental participation via reenactment–but notice that all the known examples of this require either frequent reenactment in (daily, weekly, monthly, or annual) intervals or the cultivation of an identity around these narratives, which implies frequent reinforcement and/or habituation. At the very least, they require a one-time initiation. Notice also that they require a direct experience of immersion in the transcendence-conferring narrative. The participatory and transcendental nature of these processes of immersion increase the benefit, the pleasures, and the power that our narratives have to help give us orientation and meaning, and to help us to find our place in our communities, in our cosmos, and in time. These benefits are further increased and reinforced when we have membership in communities that include other participants who have been initiated in the same (internal, group, or tribal) knowledge.

The myths and narratives that birth or inspire our participatory ceremonies do not need to make supernatural claims: they can be rooted in our shared history, or in our oaths and pledges to each other. In my own Epicurean circle, we do not believe in the supernatural or in conventional myths, but we do take pride in our history and in standing on the shoulders of those that preceded us. Every month when we celebrate Eikas (the Twentieth feast), we toast the memory of the two founders Epicurus and Metrodorus, and of any of our friends who have passed or other Epicureans who preceded us that we wish to remember. In doing this, we are communing with their legacy. This is our sacrament, our moment of transcendental significance when we reenact our continuity as a tribe of philosopher-friends.

During Eikas, we study, we mourn our Friends who have died (usually by toasting their memory and telling stories about them), we glean clarity concerning our moral and intellectual questions and problems in consultation with the feedback of our Friends, and we derive the natural benefits that Friendships confer in every other circumstance.

The Eikas example demonstrates that it is not, in any way, necessary for a founding myth or narrative to be based on supernatural claims. Eikas is a tradition born from Epicurus of Samos’ final will and testament. As a method of cementing continuity, identity, and transcendence–and of creating natural community over time–it’s not too different from what a Jew would feel when he celebrates the Sabbath, or a Christian when he goes to mass, or a Nichiren Buddhist when she practices gongyo.

Two Lucretian examples

De Rerum Natura (“On the nature of things“), by the poet Titus Carus Lucretius, has great significance to many in my philosophical circle, almost to the level of a Bible or a Bhagavad Gita. It’s the most complete extant source for our tradition in six books, and includes (in Liber Qvintvs) a full account of ancient anthropology, including the first non-supernatural alternative to the creation myths of our ancestors, and the most complete ancient attempt at an anthropological account of how many aspects of human society came to be.

In Lucretius, we have parables like “The Punctured Jar“–and many other parables–that have didactic and ethical value. In the Punctured Jar, we are compared to a vessel that has holes and cracks, and therefore the pleasure of life leaks out. Through the salvific power of natural philosophy, we are able to fix those cracks and heal our soul, so that we will not waste the pleasures that nature makes easily available to us. For this reason, it’s become one of our most celebrated and elaborated upon foundational memes. Since Pleasure is a native, congenital faculty that nature gave us, we ARE the vessels referred to here. The Punctured Jar parable has the mystique of participatory myth, without incorporating supernatural claims into its narrative.

In Liber Primvs (the first book of DRN), we find an image of religion subdued and trampled underfoot by mortals thanks to the salvific power of philosophy. This image is nothing short of an epiphany for many of us: it denotes a paradigm shift where religion, rather than master over us, becomes domesticated, tamed, and even recruited for the ethical purposes of philosophy. In this way, we do not dismiss religiosity, even if we acknowledge its many potential problems. Instead, guided by philosophy, we employ religiosity for a higher aim: living pleasantly and happily in this world.

But notice that this insight is not lived, not experienced, unless we realize some level of participation in the parable presented by Lucretius. This is why immersive myths and narratives are so powerful. We do not merely have a tendency to tell stories: we inhabit them, and this is when they’re most powerful. We ride our stories, parables and myths like magic carpets by participating in them in some meaningful and concrete way, so that the therapeutic benefits of the stories are enjoyed: they help to give orientation in our cosmos, and to ethically educate us.

Telling our transcendental stories

Some may argue that myths and symbols are (as my friend Marcus once said) for the “symbol-minded”, but I believe that they touch a distinct part of our psyche that prosaic education can not reach, and that as non-supernaturalists, we are actually most adequately prepared to enjoy the benefits of storytelling while avoiding the pitfalls and dangers of the degrading superstitions that often attach themselves to myths.