Storm of Self, Storm of Fate

Kafka on the Shore begins with a vivid allegory. Fate is a relentless, inescapable sandstorm raging within. In fact, Murakami tells us, you are this storm. Rather than flee the storm which can suddenly change direction without notice, the best way to proceed is to close your eyes and cover your ears to prevent sand from intruding and walk straight through. When you come out the other side you will not be the same person nor remember quite how you got there.

The sandstorm is a striking image but what caught my interest was the unperturbed quietude of the individual at the center. I recognized this as another instance of a motif. in literature, religion, philosophy, and contemplative traditions. The basic idea assert a calm exists at the eye of the storm that is the self. A Jungian archetype of sorts.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses the sea as a metaphor for the menacing forces of nature, the unknown, and fate that surround us. Despite the threatening environment, a fragile inner peace and joy may be found within:

“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”

Rather than offer serenity, Albert Camus finds an inner strength in this quote from his 1956 essay, Return to Tipasa:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

This idea is implicit in meditative practices promising a respite from the storm of self. I encountered this most plainly in one of the instructional videos of the HeadSpace meditation app. The video explains that while some days are cloudy and others are not, up above the clouds the sky is always blue. This pleasant respite, the video suggests, is our mind when we are not lost in thought or captivated by every fleeting stimuli.

I find similar manifestations in religion and its philosophical outgrowths. Whether it’s a “conscience”, “Jesus in your heart”, Krishna as the “Self resting within all beings”, or even the more general idea of a soul, these all speak to an intuition of something that can be found within that is largely isolated from external change.

Perhaps there is a biophysical reality to the idea at least to some extent. I remember an episode of Radiolab in which a stroke survivor recounted an unexpectedly blissful state temporarily thrust upon her by the otherwise unfortunate incident. Might we all harbor an underlying equanimity or bliss obscured by our higher cognitive functioning?

In many of the the examples I’ve related, metaphors are employed in elucidating the underlying concept. Even my explanation of the “basic idea” took the form of metaphor. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman examines the “resonance” of shared metaphors in shaping our culture and construing meaning. Postman sees writing, and all other communication mediums, as similar to metaphors in the subtle ways they influence our view of reality.

Writing as a medium may be characterized by its relative permanence and definitiveness in contrast with the temporality of the spoken word. Yet another metaphor of stillness conceived within the storm of self? However, just as writing inevitably offers an important but ultimately ersatz facsimile of reality, so too do our metaphors. Indeed, the wellspring of metaphors sources from the indescribable and inexhaustible fountain of reality.

Should we find ourselves mesmerized by the seemingly limitless depth and comprehensiveness of our metaphors, we would do well to call to mind Melville’s most famous metaphor as an antidote to our hubris.

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