In this series on self-inquiry, we have been posing powerful questions like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ The answers that come up are observable patterns of thought that form the stories we rely on to navigate a complex inner and outer world.
Stories? Yes, the mind weaves stories out of what we experience with our senses, stories still full of the emotions we felt at the time the story was formulated or first encountered. Scientists now say that the most distinctly human trait is the way we organize our experiences into stories that we then tell ourselves, each other and our descendants. Over thousands of years we have co-created a variety of cultures based on the collective stories that guide, enrich, enrage and entertain us. These shared stories greatly influence us as we each create our personal stories to interpret and understand what we are experiencing.
Think of any strong experience you have had recently. You have most likely ‘gone over it in your mind’ a number of times. Each time, maybe without realizing it, you refine and revise how you tell the story of that experience and how it fits in your life. This is the way the mind works. It processes experience. This may be a tale of some wonderful experience, but more often than not the stories we weave are the ones based on difficult challenging experiences, ones full of strong emotion, because they most need our attention to fully process.
I will use a personal example: I recently lost my brother. I have found myself rethinking the whole traumatic experience of the last week of his life when loving dedicated family and friends gathered in our home to give him hospice. At the time I couldn’t help noticing that while on the calendar it was a week for me it felt like ten years. So much emotional content paired with physical exhaustion can alter our experience of time, trying to make room for it all. This sense of time being elastic, of expanding when what we are going through is too much to immediately process, feels odd but is normal. It means we need to give ourselves time and compassion.
A few months later, I attended a writers’ retreat. In that safe dedicated space I was able to process more of my experience through writing poems. (Poetry has always been my most reliable means of inner exploration, but it’s certainly not the only form to be useful in this way.) The retreat teacher, Kim Stafford, encouraged us to go deeper, to tell the hidden story. So often our instinct is to make our story ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We are in such a rush to resolve our feelings, get past the discomfort and get on with our lives. It’s as if we want to just put it all in a blender to make a smoothie so that it will be easier to swallow. But that doesn’t work in the long run, does it? We need to take the time to digest experience. This is not to dwell on things or mull them over incessantly, but to give trauma — where there was so much to process in so little time — the chance to settle into not just a story we can live with, but the most honest account as we understand it in this moment.
Which brings us to this week’s question: ‘Is this true?’, a powerful question we can use in every situation. When we assess incoming information about the world around us, for example, do we just accept what we read or hear? Are the filters we use to process the information prefabricated, so things we hear that resonate with our biases are accepted without question, and things that go against our biases are rejected without question? This is obviously an important use of the question.
But ‘Is this true?’ is also a way to look at the stories we are telling ourselves, the stories we have stirred up with both the skillful ones (What is my intention here? What am I afraid of?) and the toxic ones we examined in the first post of this series, (like Who am I to think I could do this? or Why am I so stupid?)
At first the inner story we uncover might be full of remorse, self-blame or anger at someone else, imagining what we or they could have done differently. Or it might be full of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to look at more aspects of the events upon which the story was based. A gentle but firm ‘Is this true?’ can soften up the calcified shards of painful story we have been clinging to without realizing how much the story has been coloring our perception of the world, perhaps blinding us to a simple truth that could help us see more clearly and compassionately. How does this happen?
The Faulty Filing System
On a daily basis story-making is a handy way for us to file new information to make room for the next experience. For example, we pass a tree and instead of really looking closely, we instantly file it away under ‘tree’, often so quickly we can’t remember seeing a particular tree at all. If we are interested in trees our filing will be a little more refined noting its species, for example, and feeling perhaps a little pleasure in the knowing. But chances are we don’t pause in our thinking mind and our busy day to ponder the tree, to questions our assumptions about it (unless we’re on a meditation retreat where such slowed-down noticing is a naturally-arising valuable experience.)
Back in daily life we might pause only if it’s something we’ve never seen before. We may be curious, often not so much to explore it, but to be able to label it so we can file it away. Perhaps it’s similar to something else we feel we know about, so we say, ‘Oh, it’s a type of _________.’ Then we have preset stories based on culture, family and personal experience, that we rely on to guide us in all matters of internal filing.
Do you see any potential flaws in this system?
Here are a few that I can see:
- If we are on autopilot as we process experience, the information is not properly vetted, is it? ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ How could it be otherwise?
- If the system is overloaded it doesn’t always file things correctly.
- If the original formative stories were faulty and have never been questioned, then how can we expect this filing system to work at all?
To avoid ‘garbage in garbage out’ we stay as present as we can with our senses in each moment so our experience is processed without building up a backlog. We notice assumptions arising with the rest of what is going on, and we can question their veracity. This is not to undermine ourselves, but to cultivate spaciousness in our awareness so we can see clearly.
To assure things don’t get so overwhelmed that the system misfiles information and takes shortcuts, we take good care of ourselves: Get a good night’s sleep, pace ourselves, meditate regularly, spend time in nature, all with a receptive, responsive, compassionate sense of aliveness that helps us to make wise choices. When we are able to find balance in our lives so that we have sufficient alone time to process our experience, we stay ‘caught up with the inner paperwork’, so to speak. And we discover the joy possible in every moment.
Going through an emotionally stressful time puts this filing system to a real test. If we don’t recognize that we need to give ourselves more time to process and catch up, the system overheats and short-circuits. If we are paying attention, we can sense when we need to pause, spend time alone, take a walk, journal, have a conversation with a trusted friend or seek the guidance of a counselor or therapist.
Now let’s look at the third potential flaw in our filing system: How the original setup of our filing system may be flawed. Uh oh! That can’t be good. But it’s not life-threatening. We just have to be willing to look at what arises in a friendly way.
Think about those toxic questions we have been posing most of our lives. We don’t have to struggle with them. We simply set the intention to stay present, noticing and gently questioning the veracity of the stories we received whole-cloth without question as children and the stories we have constructed over the years to attempt to make sense of the world.
I have had the joy of watching close up the way a child’s brain processes information. as part of the care team for our young granddaughters. Oh my, as bright as they are, how easily they can misunderstand things! For example, when I asked the four year old attending a Lutheran preschool what she was learning about Christmas, she said ‘Well, Grandma, there was this lake of flames.’ Wha’? I’m pretty sure that’s not what they were telling her about the birth of Jesus. That misunderstanding, and the confidence in what we believe with all our heart to be true, is emblematic of the way all our brains received and processed information as children. Then we get busy with our lives and never question our misinformed perceptions again. No wonder we get in trouble!
I hope this little story helps you to be a bit suspicious of the stories you tell yourself and accept as not only true but perhaps sacred in some way. Questioning them might feel like a threat to tear down your whole being. Think of it more like spring cleaning, lightening the load of the useless and often painful clutter of misinformation we all carry around. If not tossing it out, at least holding it more lightly and seeing it more clearly.
We all have a lot of stories. Our purpose is not to replace one story with another one. The question Is this true? allows us to soften the rigid stance that hasn’t supported us very well. By exercising the mental muscles of compassionate and clear-sighted inquiry, we become more authentic and fluid. If we can allow for the possibility that a thought we’ve held for a long time is just an unexamined habit of mind, then we’re not bogged down in defending the fortress we hold ourselves to be.
For a little inspiration, it seems appropriate to leave you with a story! This classic Buddhist tale challenges our habit of reacting to life by fabricating stories about things that can’t be known.
A farmer’s horse gets loose from the corral and disappears. The farmer’s neighbor says, ‘What a calamity! Poor you, stuck without a horse to plow your fields.’ He was surprised when the farmer shrugged and said, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’
A few days later the horse returns with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’ The farmer again says ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’
Then the farmer’s son falls off the horse while trying to tame it, and he breaks his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathizes. The farmer seems heartless in his unwillingness to claim this as a catastrophe. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The next week the army comes and takes all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor cannot believe the farmer’s good fortune.
We stop the story here but you can see how it could go on and on in this way. The neighbor is weaving stories based on automatic assumptions, while the farmer is allowing himself to be open to the possibility that the story is at the very least incomplete, even when it seems patently obvious to the neighbor what the truth of each situation is. If you relate more to the neighbor, you are not alone! Most of us run with these stories, reacting to every change of fortune as a disaster or a stroke of luck. But there is a gift in allowing ourselves to pause in our automatic reactions to ask ‘Is this true?’ and to see that the verdict is never in. We all have stories of misfortune that turned into great gifts. So rushing to judgment is always premature. We don’t know! And far from being scary or weak in some way, living in the ‘I don’t know’ mind a most joyful state, opening a world of wonder.
Again and again the Buddha invites us to ‘not take his word for it’ but to explore for ourselves. It’s rich invitation. Take him up on it!