News & Information

Narratives Or Insight?

Martin LeFevre:  Philosophical claims urgently need to give way to essential questions. Is direct perception possible, and is it the wellspring of the psychological revolution vital to change the increasingly disastrous course of man?

The commonplace idea that all experience is mediated by previous experience, by the memories, images and ‘narratives’ that we bring from the past to the present, requires radical questioning. Legions of mediocre thinkers echo some version of the following claim.

Nobody is seeing reality as it is…what we’re actually perceiving is a bunch of mental stories we’ve formed about the world based on information we’ve taken in through highly distorted perceptual filters based on our conditioning, biases and cognitive habits.”

Even if that’s true 99% of the time for 99% of people, the one percent of exceptions disproves the assertion, and holds the possibility of unmediated perception. For example, when one sees the Grand Canyon for the first time, the mind is shocked into stillness. Thought has no words, no images, and no ‘stories’ with which it reacts to the overwhelming sight of being confronted with such immense space, time and beauty.

Of course there are people, like the ones who came up behind me when I first set eyes on the Grand Canyon, who immediately say, “Ok we’ve seen it, now let’s go to lunch.” But they are the walking dead.

So we have to be very leery of self-fulfilling statements such as, “Nobody is ever experiencing objective reality, they’re only ever experiencing the inside of their own highly conditioned and totally unique tunnel through which whatever reality might happen to be is perceived.” Such a verdict on human beings manages to be separative, dogmatic and misanthropic at the same time.

It doesn’t help to then say, “Humans have the potential to become a conscious species that is no longer dominated by mental narrative.” Which is it?

The question of narratives, and how “dominators manipulate them” is an important one. But far more important is the underlying question of whether the entire edifice of thought can yield to direct perception and insight on a daily basis.

The intensifying ecological and psychological crisis has been wrought by symbolic thought, not by the ‘dominators’ of narratives. Of course as things stand, there is a war of narratives, in America and worldwide, which the news-as-entertainment media, and online platforms with their algorithms are only too willing to exploit.

So the question is not just, can we free ourselves from those who control the narratives, but can we free ourselves from the narratives that thought generates, indeed, from the domination of thought itself?

The ‘us vs. them’ mindset is very strong, but it is divisive and destructive, whether it has no basis in reality — “Democrats are baby-blood drinking pedophiles!” — or in reality — “clever dominators who have the money and power to control what the dominant stories are about what’s happening in the world.”  

It’s necessary for a human being to stand against injustice, but it’s deeply false for a human being to think, speak and act in terms of ‘them,’ an enemy.

Ideas and ideals kill both the spirit and people. During a war, a nation is united by a single idea: defeat the enemy. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, nearly all Americans marched in lock step behind the idea of defeating the ‘Japs,’ motivated by nationalistic hatred. To this day people justify the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians, with the attack on the military base at Pearl Harbor, which killed less than five thousand soldiers.

In a more current and continuing example of ideas and narratives running amuck, the power and evil that flowed through George Bush Jr. declared a “global war on terror” after 9.11 that turned a terroristic horror into a plethora of horrors in the first quarter of the 21st century.

The waking nightmare of warring narratives is based on the confusion between ideas (and ideals) and insights. Opening the space within and between the individual for direct perception is the cornerstone for a global society founded on living human beings rather than dead humans.  

So what is insight? Insight is the pre-verbal, pre-conceptual flash of fresh awareness in the present. In science, a new insight is formulated into knowledge. In living however, turning insights into ideas or knowledge destroys our capacity for insight.

An idea is a conception previously arrived at and carried over from the past. Functionally, ideas are obviously necessary for building a bridge or a house. But making ideas and images primary, and viewing the world through them (the building material of narratives) denies understanding, harmony and genuine cooperation.

Insight is a living thing, whether it’s altogether new, or recapitulated in the present through questioning and the challenge of what is.  

Insight has a certain sound, like striking the right note on a musical instrument. Insights reverberate and are multi-dimensional, whereas ideas are flat and two-dimensional. Ideas and conceptualizations are the product of thought, while insight has its source beyond thought.

The moments of direct perception of what is, much less moments or states of insight, aren’t represented by words, images or mathematical equations because they are not mediated by symbols of any kind. The stillness of thought opens the door to mind beyond thought, and a radically different consciousness altogether.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.