Oh, the stories we tell ourselves!

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This week, one of my students a few counties away was waiting for an invitation to join the Zoom meditation class. She hadn’t noticed the link in the email two days before. As class time arrived, she frantically texted me and then a few other students. Since we were meditating, we had our phones off. So she got no answer from any of us. OMG! She panicked. In that moment, the only logical explanation she could come up with was that the whole San Francisco Bay Area had met some dire end and all communications were down. When she finally found her way into the meeting, her heart was beating and her eyes were tearing up. We comforted her as best we could, and I thanked her for illustrating exactly what I wanted to share in my dharma talk.

She is not alone in fabricating scary stories for herself. We all do this to varying degrees. And during times like these, as we shelter in place, there’s plenty of fertile ground for our fears to weave wild tales, filling in any gaps in our understanding. So what can we do?

We can employ the tools of presence, compassion and openness that we have been looking at in the past three post:

  • What an opportunity to practice being fully present in this moment!
  • What an opportunity to practice cultivating compassion for ourselves and all beings!
  • What an opportunity to practice the ‘I don’t know’ mind.

To the degree we can do these things, we will build the muscle of resilience, not just to survive this period but to thrive in every moment.
As she shared her story with us, she also fabricated another: “My practice is a mile wide and an inch deep.” She judged herself a failure. Who hasn’t told themselves that story, repeatedly? We all have our stories and we believe them, cling to them and even find comfort in them because they are so familiar. But are they true? And if not, do they really serve us? Of course not. But these tools of awareness, compassion and questioning the veracity of our stories do serve us!

We are practicing as best we can in each moment, without concern about whether we have “perfected” it. There is no goal, no ideal, no perfect being we aim to become. We are always practicing, and at moments like these, aren’t we especially glad we have the practice?

We are all having a human experience. Let’s use these tools to engage in a way that is present, kind and open. Instead of being bound by our stories — that tight tangle of judgments, opinions and worries — we can relax and release into curiosity and creativity. We don’t have to defend our story!

In meditation and at any time throughout the day, to whatever degree we are able, we rest our awareness in the sensations of the body. If we notice tension, we relax and release it, again to whatever degree we are able. (One student who is a yoga teacher added this interesting bit of advice: Breathe into the sides of your rib cage and it will release more anxiety.)

Relaxing and releasing the tension may release and disperse the thoughts, but a fear-based thread of thought can sometimes take hold so tight, relaxing and releasing are insufficient.

Here’s where the “I don’t know” mind comes in. There are so many facts not in evidence in any story we tell ourselves. We don’t know how this will all turn out. Ever! Life surprises us at every turn. Even given facts, we can still fabricate worst case scenarios for ourselves and our loved ones when, if we were really paying attention to facts, these scenarios would be statistically unlikely. But they can become more likely if we are caught up in fear and anxiety. We wear ourselves and those around us down with worry.

Advanced meditators can weave punitive stories when the practice, always so reliable in maintaining equanimity, suddenly has moments where it falters in the face of a global pandemic. Hello? We are all of us living this major world experience for the very first time in our lives!! Yes, our practice is helping. But it is a practice! Not perfection! And it is centered on noticing, not judging. On compassion for ourselves, not just for others. And knowing that we don’t know is comforting in some ways, but can also feel scary when some facts would seem helpful about now. So, can we make room for ourselves to be oh so very human, oh so very vulnerable, sad and afraid at times? Can we hold ourselves with tenderness? Especially if we are not supposed to be holding others at this time? Can we acknowledge whatever fear, whatever sense of loss, whatever grief is present in this moment without judging ourselves for what we are experiencing?

And can we gently apply our tools, using them to shine a radiant loving light? Now and always.

One comment

  1. Hi Holly, Adorable kitties!!!

    Glad you’re okay with being my model! Well, what I mean with the ‘not supposed to be holding others’ is physically not supposed to be touching. If that really isn’t clear, I can edit it before the Mailchimp email goes out tomorrow. 🙏💟 S

    *Stephanie Noble* *Insight Meditation teacher* *Board member Buddhist Insight Network* *stephanienoble.com * *ON INSIGHT TIMER * Additional guided meditations by Stephanie specifically designed for anxiety, sleeplessness and moments of upset on the world’s biggest free meditation app.


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