Why stories compel the human soul

Stories don’t just distract us. Walk in to the average home and see how many ways we give ourselves to escape in to stories. Break down the 24 hours of the day and see how many of them we spend immersed in fictional worlds. Stories are a compulsion. For some, an addiction. If politicians ever looked seriously at them, we might have a War on Stories to add to the War on Drugs.

Why are we compelled by stories?

Hindu philosophy has a few things to say about stories. In Hinduism all you are is a story. A story being lived out by the super-consciousness of the universe which, given infinite time, will live out all possible stories. Hinduism calls that super-consciousness the Atman. The Atman – which we filter in to Western theology in bastardised form as god and / or the soul – is the creator of everything. Not because they make everything, but because they dream everything. After an eternity being super-novas or Emperors or planets or William Shatner gets boring. And the Atman, seeking variety, decides to be you. Or indeed me. Or your unremarkably dull housemate Colin who collects ring-binders. You might struggle to see why the Atman would dream itself the life of Colin, but given infinite time all things become more or less equally interesting. Even ring-binders.

We – that is the part of us that thinks we are who we are, rather than an aspect of the dreaming Atman super-consciousness – do not have infinite time. We believe our selves finite and we believe we live within constraints. In stories we can escape our constraints. We can be other people. Live other lives. Explore strange new worlds. We can be William Shatner. Or, at least, Captain Kirk. For the length of the story we are free of our self. Then we go back to being who we are. Wondering about Colin, and his odd affection for ring-binders.

We might feel a slight disappointment. A come down after the trip. But we shouldn’t.

When the story begins the Atman is FASCINATED. In some ways all the Atman is, the very essence of its being, is fascination with stories. That’s why you seem to disappear in to the story. The Atman, which is you, the part of you that is truly aware, is temporarily fascinated by the story unfolding on the screen, or stage, or in the book, or comic page. The Atman that once dreamed it was you, now dreams it is Captain Kirk. But. It has been Captain Kirk. It has been Captain Kirk a lot. And after an hour or two, it gets bored. It wants to be you again. Because you, of all the wonders of the universe, are the most fascinating story of all.

(This is, incidentally, why Hindu stories like the Mahabharat are so fascinatingly dramatic. And epicly long. They’re trying to tempt the Atman out of you and keep it forever.)


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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