I have yet to experience a story. I think stories are actually lies. But they are incredibly important to our survival. —Wim Wenders, “Impossible Stories”
We’re all storytellers, and yet all of our stories are untrue. The German filmmaker Wim Wenders has no particular interest in Buddhism, or none that I know of. His essay “Impossible Stories” is a reflection on his own creative process as a visual artist. It’s also an unflinchingly honest and direct expression of the tensions and complications presented by our natural inclination to tell stories, which makes his reflections particularly apt for dharma practitioners. My own engagement with Buddhist practice has been plagued for years by confusions and difficulties around the issue of the stories we tell, so Wenders’ account of his struggle to come to terms with stories as a filmmaker speaks clearly and powerfully to my experience and also helps to point the way toward a resolution of these difficulties.
There’s a clear parallel between filmmaking as Wenders describes it and the experience of meditation. As a filmmaker, Wenders explains, his real interest is not in stories but in images; his essay speaks of his abiding love of and fascination with images. An image for Wenders is simply something as it appears before his eye or before his camera: a city street, for example, or a train going down the track. An image has no particular meaning, and it doesn’t need one; it’s not going anywhere, not leading to anything. It’s sufficient unto itself. In the same way that Wenders is most interested in the image before it’s pressed into the service of a story, during meditation we attend to the raw stuff of our immediate experience as it presents itself to our senses, before integrating it into our ongoing narratives about ourselves and the world.
Yet Wenders goes on to reflect on how something within us seems to be constantly looking beyond the images, organizing them into meaningful narratives, whether we consciously intend to or not. As much as he may wish to simply show images, narrative intrudes; juxtapositions of images create narrative expectations, and the images structure themselves into a story that progresses through time.
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