We all have stories we tell ourselves. Each of these stories is woven into one of our veils of thoughts about the world, our family, our friends, our neighbors, our culture, and ourselves. And some of them are so tightly woven they become dense knots that weigh down the veil, creating a vortex that our attention can’t help but circle down into again and again, and it feels like we’re being swallowed up.
By training the mind to be present, our awareness anchored in physical sensation — the breath, sound, the felt sense of being alive in this moment — we can learn to retrieve our attention from the tangle of stories. But when we find ourselves again and again filled with tension and negative emotions, it may be time to learn how to explore what has our attention so entangled.
Shining the light of compassionate awareness, we can loosen the knots and gently shake out any musty misunderstandings.
In the last post, we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion, and delusion. To ignore a knot that is blinding us is an act of delusion and maybe aversion. It doesn’t serve us. It sets up a destructive pattern.
So let’s learn some skillful and creative techniques to explore the stories we tell ourselves so we can awaken from the stupor of stories that entangle us as we see them with fresh eyes. We may even discover the real wisdom within the story, the reason we keep telling it. We are at last ready to really listen. My students found this exercise very beneficial. Maybe you will, too!
This is good to do after meditation, but you can do it even after just a minute of centering. Turn off any potential distractions and have something to write with ready.
Settle into an open and easy attention to the breath and other physical sensations. Release any tension you notice. Then let the mind wander into memories.
Keep noticing sensations in the body, and when tension creeps in, pay special attention to the story you are telling yourself. Because we’re just doing a practice run, if a story creates too much tension or volatile emotions, pass on it for now. You can come back another time when you have developed these exploratory skills. Choose a story that causes a little tension in the body but doesn’t feel too overwhelming.
Okay, if you have your story, write it down. Write it as if on autopilot, just the way it comes up for you. No one’s going to read it.
If it’s difficult to start, write, “Here’s a story I tell myself.” If you really are drawing a blank, here are a few prompts to help activate a story:
- An example of how someone did you wrong
- An example of how you are such a (fill in the blank)
- It may be a childhood story involving a parent or sibling.
- It may be a story of young adulthood when you weren’t very discerning or skillful.
Give as much time as needed, but don’t overthink it.
Now that you have the story take a few minutes to settle down and release any tension. See if you can let the story go by focusing on the breath or other physical sensations.
When you feel ready, set the intention to read the story with compassionate awareness for everyone involved, including yourself.
As you read the story, highlight or underline words or sentences with strong emotion. Identify them by jotting notes in the margin.
Looking at the noted emotions, do some appear more often? Or maybe you don’t recognize any emotions in the story. All worth noting.
Now see if there are any displays of greed, aversion, or delusion in the story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, read more here, or skip it for now.
In previous posts, we’ve learned how entangling these three poisons can be. So if we have a story we tell ourselves, and perhaps others, that is created out of any or all of them, it will activate those three poisons again and again, in ourselves and others. Even now, reading your chosen story, you might feel greed, aversion, or delusion arising. And you may have aversion to that! Or you might be under the delusion that you, unlike anyone else ever, are not subject to them. Or maybe you just don’t want to investigate them, afraid of what you might find.
Noticing the presence of greed, aversion, and delusion is helpful. But it’s still a story we tell ourselves. Maybe we feel it should be different, but it’s not. So what can we do? Ah, glad you asked. Here are some suggestions:
- First, we ask if the story is true. Do we really have the facts straight? Is there something we’re overlooking? If someone else is involved, we might try to tell the story again from their point of view. This can be a fun, creative exercise, but it can also be painful. Still, it has value. Shifting our perspective away from this solid-seeming fortress of self we keep trying to build is a skillful way to bring truth to light.
- Bring the don’t-know mind into this. Instead of treating the story as written in stone, remember that its written in wispy memories, often faulty and always shifting. So to be more honest and open in telling ourselves this story, we might say, “I don’t know for sure what happened, but at the time, it felt like…” Can you feel how much more open and welcoming that is? It acknowledges that maybe all the facts aren’t there. And certainly, there is more than one perspective. Even our own perspectives might be different now that we are more mature. And maybe with our practice in cultivating compassion and awareness, we can bring fresh eyes to the events we are telling ourselves about instead of telling the story the same old way out of habit.
- Another way to freshen up a story is to explore the setting for sensory details. What colors, shapes, patterns, smells, textures, sounds, sights, etc. were there? What season was it? You may not have all these answers, but give yourself some time to find at least one sensory memory that helps to anchor your story in the world. And if you don’t remember much, maybe there are more things you don’t remember. Our minds tend to zero in on the most emotionally charged aspect of any event. Those charged emotions, filled with greed, aversion, and or delusion, can distort memory drastically, omitting important information.
- Another window into a story is to change the language. For example, replace ‘I’, ‘me, and any names or pronouns of others with a descriptor of the person or ourselves. So, for example, instead of “I did that terrible thing I can’t forgive myself for,” try saying, “A young woman going through a really challenging time and with no skills or resources did that thing that she (sooner or later) recognized was a terrible mistake.” And you can embellish the story further by adding an epilogue of how she reformed, etc.
- It helps to question all assumptions and to let go of attachment to the details or even the ‘moral’ of the story.
- You might think of yourself as a fiction writer writing a short story. You might balk and say, “that’s not the truth.” But remember that fiction often captures a deeper truth about human nature and life itself.
Bringing the story out of the tangle of its traditional telling, it becomes lighter and doesn’t drag our attention into the vortex with its weight. Having opened to the radiant light of compassionate awareness, we feel released, refreshed, and able to see more clearly.
If you try this exercise, please share how it was for you.