Sam Keen on renewing our sense of wonder - “Human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell”
“Keen believes that our lives are shaped — and occasionally misshaped — by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s only by becoming intimately acquainted with these narratives — as they have been handed down from our families, our cultural backgrounds, our religious beliefs — that we can begin to live consciously and, as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “unfold our own myth.” Unless we understand our lives as a kind of autobiography in the making, we’re likely to take refuge in other people’s stories, in ready-made ideologies, and in unexamined systems of belief. (…) The paradox of self-knowledge is that it’s only by confronting the depths of our own ignorance that we can begin to glimpse the essential truth of who we are.”
Sam Keen: “I think we’re always in the process of writing and rewriting the story of our lives, forming our experiences into a narrative that makes sense. Much of that work involves demythologizing family myths and cultural myths — getting free of what we have been told about ourselves. I think that critiquing the myths of our society and helping people find their way through them is a very important thing. (…)
Cultures that have a unifying cultural narrative are stable in some ways, but they are also resistant to change. The fact that we don’t have a unifying myth today allows us to create new stories from direct experience.
For the past several years, I’ve been leading groups into Bhutan, a country that has probably the most intact cultural myth of any place I’ve been. It’s an agricultural society where more than ninety percent of the people still own land. The government is a monarchy with a Tibetan Buddhist mythology. For the Bhutanese, reality is simply what it always has been and always will be. In that sense, they are spared the kind of self-doubt that seems part and parcel of our predicament in the West. They are brought up knowing who they are and how the world works. And there is an innocent beauty in that. But there is also a certain foreshortening of experience.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the development of Western thought has washed away more and more of the certainties of our own religious myths. Our pilgrimage has led us deep into unknown territories. We have to re-invent ourselves. That’s a very tiring process and anxious process, but it also grants us a kind of freedom that no other culture has. So for all the chaos that comes from not having an organizing myth, there is also an enormous opportunity for creativity. (…)
In a way, human beings have never been part of the natural order; we’re not biological in the normal sense. Normal biological animals stop eating when they’re not hungry and stop breeding when there is no sense in breeding. By contrast, human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell. When we get the story wrong, we get out of harmony with the rest of the natural order. For a long time, our unnatural beahvior didn’t threaten the natural world, but now it does. (…)
Most of us are fear-avoiders. We worship the god of security. Instead of facing our fears, we walk around with a kind of free-floating anxiety. It’s much more therapeutic to recognize that we have fears and to try to separate out the ones that are reasonable from the ones that are not. I think we have to become connoisseurs of fear. (…)
We have to get beyond our cultural mythology to find out who we are. “Writing my autobiography,” as I call it, necessarily involves demythologizing my family’s history, my culture’s history, and even my own history to get to this deeper layer. So I think it’s increasingly hard to have deep self-knowledge without entering the darkness in some way. (…)
Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. I believe it also ends in wonder. The ultimate way in which we relate to the world as something sacred is by renewing our sense of wonder. That’s why I’m so opposed to the kind of miracle-mongering we find in both new-age religion and old-age religion. We’re attracted to pseudomiracles only because we’ve ceased to wonder at the world, at how amazing it is.”
— Sam Keen (American author, professor and philosopher) interviewed by Scott London, Renewing Our Sense of Wonder: An Interview with Sam Keen. Originally adapted from the public radio series “Insight & Outlook.” It was published in the October 1999 issue of The Sun magazine. It also appears in the book Saga: The Best New Writings on Mythology, (White Cloud Press, 2001). (Illustration source)