C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison

C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison September 20, 2009

C.S. Lewis, like his friend Adam Fox, was interested in – and highly influenced by – Platonism. The Silver Chair has within it a version of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where the heroes are being enchanted and made to believe that Narnia was not real. They have been outside the underground realm they are at, but magic is being used to make them doubt it, to believe what they saw was mere abstractions of things which could be found underground. Puddleglum, a marsh-wiggle, eventually replies that even if Narnia were not real, it is richer, of far greater value and meaning, than where he was at, and he would rather live in his fantasy than in a harsh, bleak world without meaning. It is through Lewis’ Platonic perspective one will be able to understand the ending of The Last Battle. Here the heroes of Narnia (all of the main characters save Susan) find themselves in a strange, but beautiful, new world which Lewis eventually reveals is the “reality behind Narnia.” To guide the reader in understanding this, he has the professor, Digory, explain the relationship between this new land, this “real Narnia” with the land they had known as being Narnia as that between an original and a copy. He also says that Pevensie children should have known this, because “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato.”[1]

But not everyone found this new land to be so appealing. To get there, Narnians were thrown through a stable door, with the belief that they would be killed (inside there was supposed to be a guard who would kill anyone sent in – but had, before this time, been taken out by a good Calormene). A group of dwarves who, in the midst of the last battle of Narnia, sided only with themselves, made it clear that they didn’t want to do anything with King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, nor with the Calormenes, the evil followers of Tash who had invaded Narnia and were destroying it . These dwarves fought against both sides, and in the end, had been captured and thrown into the stable by the Calormenes. Despite the fact that Aslan had enchanted the door so it would bring the people into this safe, realer, better version of Narnia, the dwarves could not see it. They believed they were in a stable, without light, and anyone who tried to suggest anything else was tricking them. Even Aslan, with the gifts he was willing to bestow upon them, could not convince them otherwise:

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: ‘Well, at any rate, there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!’

‘You see,’ said Aslan. ‘ They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out.’[2]

This remarkable passage has Platonic ties, because Platonists have questioned the value of the senses in relation to ultimate truths. It is clear from what Lewis wrote, the dwarves have formed a habit of mind which is near impossible to break. It is the hermeneutic they use to interpret the world, and it is a hermeneutic which had been created by their prior activity. They had separated themselves from everyone and wanted to be kept to themselves, and this is what they got. Their actions in the world affected them so much that their ability to interpret and understand the world was changed. They had many chances to overcome this self-centered interpretation of the world, and to give themselves over to the help of others; but they did not. All they had in the end is an egoistic interpretation of the world, one which looked even at blessings being given to them as things of ill-value, and yet even those things, they decided, were worth holding onto and fighting over, because they knew that what was in them would be enough to keep them alive and survive. They had to struggle to keep to themselves as they are, and this meant they had to horde what was around themselves as a means of keeping themselves in the comfort of their immobility. But as Aslan pointed out, this was all a thing of their minds – they had created a hermeneutic which imprisoned them, for it kept them from receiving the blessing all around them. Aslan made it clear, their problem was a thing of the mind only.

Vijñānavāda Buddhism (also known as Yogācarā Buddhism) is the form of Buddhism which teaches this exact point of Lewis: that our suffering is something which is self-made, created by our minds. The world we experience is interpreted through our minds, and our minds interpret the world through based upon the experiences, activities, and mental conditions we placed in it. To overcome the cycle of suffering (samsāra) we have to overcome all of our own self-made mental conditioning, because it makes us misread and misinterpret the world around us. When we do something bad, it leaves a trace of itself in our mind, a seed-like entity which grows and develops as we water it through more evil-activity, until it so pervades our mind, and then it becomes a lens by which the world is experienced – a lens which only allows us to see the world in the ugliness of that evil we have done. We can, and do, develop several such seeds together; that which we do that is good also influences our experience of the world, and helps counter-act, in a way, the evil we have done. But as long as we are caught in the prison of the mind, we will act and react according to these false perceptions, recreating the means by which we imprison ourselves through new mental formations. To experience the world as it really is, in its beauty and triumph, we have to clear our mind from all of these mental conditions, and completely open ourselves in such a way that the self (as we know of it) no longer exists.

Just as we see in Lewis’ description of what Aslan gave and what the dwarves experienced, so Vijñānavāda interprets the world, and explains that the one reality can be, and is seen differently by different creatures, all depending upon the seeds which they put in their minds. Vasubandhu, one of the major thinkers of the Vijñānavāda tradition, trying to understand the description of various types of life, said all exist side by side, experiencing the same reality, but interpreting it differently – what we experience as a pristine river of water would be interpreted by someone who is a “pretas” (a kind of ghost-like existence) as a river made out of puss, while those who are in ‘hell’ would experience it according to the sufferings of hell (like a river of molten iron). The same kind of mental conditionings create the same kind of interpretation of the world, and the kind of mental conditions one is suffering under determines the kind of ‘entity’ you are said to be. [3] Our affliction could be said to be like a cataract formed around our mind based upon the seeds which we placed in it, and just as what is seen through cataracts is not true, so our impure experiences of the world do not reflect the full reality of the world.

Thus Vasubandhu suggests that those who interpret the world similarly do so because they have similar mental formations. The goal is to overcome these afflictions, and to realize that they are all products of the mind only (hence, the name of the school of thought is called the ‘Mind Only’ school in English). As long as we keep to the mind as we know of it and reinforce its contents, we will not be able to be released from suffering. Like Aslan, Vasubandhu says that our existential prison is self-created, but, unlike what we see in Narnia, Vasubandhu looks for and explains the way out – which is, of course, the realization that if we created the psychic conditioning which interprets the world impurely, then we can displace those conditions, one at a time, until we have overcome the self-established mind, the self, and come to enlightenment.

One can but guess that the dwarves who believe they are in a stable will eventually move on, and slowly see the new world they have found themselves in (after all, they were not condemned by Aslan). That would suggest that the dwarves are not in hell. While they are not yet accepting the graces being given to them, because they misinterpret those graces as something rather crude, they must be said in purgatory. Lewis, who in many places pointed out he accepted purgatory, shows us here how God’s love can be, and is, misinterpreted by the sinner. What, then, is the fire of purgatory? According to the Vijñānavādans, we must put the “seeds to fire.” Perhaps that is as good a description of purgatory as any. It’s the purification needed for us to actually experience the love of God for the bliss it actually is.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978), 170.

[2] Ibid., 147-8.

[3] See Vasubandhu, “The Twenty Verses and Their Commentary” in Seven Works of Vasubandhu: The Buddhist Psychological Doctor. Trans. Stefan Anacker (Delhi: Mtilal Banarsidass, 1998), 162-4.

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  • Interesting reflection, Henry.

    One remark on your fundamental point – I’m not sure Lewis would agree that “our suffering is something which is self-made, created by our minds.” This might be true if you include in the term mind a notion of the free will, but only then. Lewis had a Christian, not a Buddhist understanding of suffering.

    The Christian understanding of suffering is distinct from the Buddhist in that suffering is not an illusion; it is not a trick the mind plays on us. It is real, really real, and it hurts and it can mean something.

    I think Lewis was trying to say that we are responsible for our suffering. Suffering is not a simply a creation of our minds, but a consequence of what we do. I think you may have overstated the platonic character of this passage.

    Then again, maybe I’m just nitpicking semantics.

    • Zach,

      “Their prison is only in their own minds” — Aslan. That has to be kept front and center when discussing this piece. And what is more, we could bring out how Aslan himself is experienced — the kids know him as the lion, but at the end, they see him no longer as the lion (but obviously, as Christ). It’s not that the lion was an illusion, but rather, that both are truth and experienced according to the means by which the kids were lead to experience Aslan/Christ. Their mind mediated the experience of Christ accordingly.

      In this way I am dealing with what Lewis put here in The Last Battle. It is quite clear, the dwarves’ experience is shown to be a state of mind. Aslan himself says as much. To put forward that we are responsible for our suffering is true, but how are we responsible? The story before this point explains it quite well. They interpret the world according to a mental construction they have made for themselves. It’s still the same objective reality throughout, but the subjective experience will not be the same (which, of course, goes with traditional Christian theology and how ‘the fires of hell’ are the ‘fires of purgatory.’ Something which Lewis was also familiar with via Great Divorce where hell is purgatory for those who get out of it.

      As for Buddhism, it certainly doesn’t say “suffering is an illusion.” However, it points out how we create our own suffering through our actions. That the subjective experience/state is created by ourselves. Platonism, Buddhism, and many others all agree — the senses are mediated by our mind, and how that mediation comes through determines in part our experience of it. And Buddhism is pointing out how our actions, attitudes, desires, etc affect the mind and so creates the lens by which the world is experienced.

      It’s easy to see how the mind, and how we have seeded it, affects our experience. Just consider what it is like to know many different kinds of snow, like the Aleuts. Those words have real meaning and value, and present to them a world with snow which we who have not differentiated snow that way cannot appreciate. Our words construct the world we experience, and from that experience, we create new distinctions and words, constantly forming one aspect of the mental construction which ultimately influence our experience of the world. But this is also true with other things, like sin. Sin blinds us in many ways, because of how it corrupts our mind.

  • Now, obviously, I am not saying that Lewis himself was following Vijñānavāda Buddhism; the point is that, through his Platonism, he produced a description which reads like a classical Buddhist presentation on experience.

  • Zak

    Thank you Henry. That was very thought provoking.

  • Thanks Zak.

    I tried to bring out a side which I thought others might not see and overlook, but which is striking to one who studies Yogacara Buddhism.

  • Pinky

    Very interesting. Your purgatory analogy seems apt. No religion other than Christianity can solve the objective problem of sin. But there’s also a subjective problem, the difference between how we see things and how God sees them – or at a minimum, how we see them versus how we should see them. This really ties in to the theme of last Sunday’s Gospel reading, humility.

  • Pinky,

    Yes the objective/subjective dimension and distinction is difficult and one which is often missed. And yet, it is an important one, especially so we can understand what is going on in purgatory (and even, possibly, hell).

  • M O’S

    Another one of your posts that sends my mind into a spin! So much to digest and so little time as I am a very busy student!

  • M O’S

    While you might not have time to contemplate this post now, having read it, and thought about it even a bit now, might allow you to later consider the issues when you are freer and fresh for such things. Indeed, for many important concepts, this is how we really get to understand then: confronting them on different levels are different parts of our journey in life. No need to feel as if you have to digest everything the first time around.