Sometimes it seems as if stories get a bad rap in meditation circles. “You’re just telling yourself a story,” a friend will say, or “that’s just a story”- as if the bad feelings we are confiding will go away by labeling them “story,” or as if telling yourself a story is something a good meditator wouldn’t or shouldn’t do.
And yet, our lives are saturated with stories. From the moment we wake, trying to remember our dream, to reading the paper over a cup of coffee, chit-chatting with people at work, we tell and are told stories all day long. Not only do movies and TV tell us stories, so do the 30 second commercials that interrupt them. Sporting events are stories, the Olympics are filled with stories. When we meet friends for dinner, when we get home at night, we tell each other stories. Even as we experience life, we are turning it into a story. We make sense of events of our lives by weaving them into a narrative that has dramatic story structure.
In a fascinating book called “The Story-Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall discusses universality of story among all humans. Part of what distinguishes us from other animals, is that we tell stories. In all cultures, in all times homo sapiens have made up stories and told them. It is as if stories are embedded in our DNA.
There is a part of the left brain whose only function is to arrange the barrage of incoming stimuli into order, to make sense of things. We receive a flood of information from the environment. There is a set of neural circuits whose sole purpose is to detect order and meaning, and turn input into a coherent account.
This part of the brain, according to Gottschall, is called “The Interpreter.” Experiments have shown that this part of the brain will explain anything. If it doesn’t know, it will make it up. If it can’t find meaningful patterns, it will create one. It would rather make up a story than leave something unexplained.
In the 40’s, researchers Fritz eHider and Marianne Simmel made a short animated film, consisting of lines and geometric shapes. Look at it now:
When subjects were asked to describe what they’d seen, only 3 of 114 gave a an answer having to do with lines and shapes. The other 111 saw soap operas: doors slamming, courtship dances, damsels rescued, villains foiled.
Not only is story-telling innate, so, seemingly, is story structure. There is a universal aspect to all stories, in all cultures and times. Stories are about trouble. Something is thrown out of balance. Conflict is the underlying element to every story. Someone wants something, there is an obstacle to getting it, there is complication, crisis, outcome.
As the body breathes, the heart pumps, the blood flows – the mind tells stories. And we do it all day long. It is a part of who we are. We can no more turn it off and stop doing it than we can stop breathing or pumping blood.
The problem comes when we believe that the story is real, and not a construct, an attempt to make sense of stimuli. The soap opera we superimpose on the stimuli we experience.
Sometimes experiences in our lives are so traumatic, so searing, that they freeze into narratives. Just as a strong emotion will forever link a song with the place we were and the way we felt when once we heard it, so strong emotions will sear into place the decisions we made – about ourselves, about our worth, about life, about our ability to trust – into the narrative construct of that moment. Then when new information comes in, we process it according to the structure we decided in that moment.
Joseph Goldstein has said that at the beginning of his practice, his teacher said, “If you want to see how the mind works, sit down and watch it.” So if we want to hear the stories we’re telling ourselves – listen.
Some of our stories are in words and dialogue, some in image and picture, some both. Usually we cast ourselves in the role of hero, victim, rescuer, damsel, outcast – and people the other roles with the people we interact with. But whether we be victim, hero or outcast, we are inevitably the star; the story is about us.
Whatever story we’re telling, we play them out in the shower, as we’re driving, as we’re brushing our teeth – we’re often having the same conversations, acting out the same drama, over and over and over again.
We sit down to meditate – and there it is again. The same story.
And not just once, either. Over and over and over.
Not even the most die-hard, fanatical comic-con fan could stand to see the movie as many times as we run it in our heads.
Neuroscience tells us that every time we tell ourselves the same story, the neurological pathway goes deeper, and gets more ingrained, until it becomes solid, immutable truth. This is no story, this is the way it is.
So it’s very helpful, when we’re watching our story-telling mind, to identify the story we’re telling ourselves. Which role are we playing? Hero, victim, rescuer, outcast?
Then, perhaps, we can step outside the story. Maybe switch roles. What would the story be if the other person were telling it? What if they were the star, and I was the supporting player, instead of the other way around?
Then we can ask ourselves, is this story true? It might be real, but is it true? The feelings are real, the body sensations are real, the emotions are real, but is the story I’m creating from them true? Is that a brave hero or a triangle?
The point is not to get rid of our stories, we can’t.
But to see them skillfully. To deconstruct the construct we’ve created, back into its component parts. Sweaty palms. Face flushed. Mind blank. Sweat under arms. Increased heartbeat. Image of a previous time I had these sensations. That could add up to a story of a social misfit who might as well stay home because s/he’s so socially inadequate. and no relationship has ever worked, so what’s the point of even trying to find a new one …or it could be the excitement of entering a new situation. Same stimuli – different story.
Jack Kornfield suggests the possibility of dropping out of the story, and resting in the heart. Let the thoughts and stories come and go. Rest in the body, the heart, the mystery, of the thus-coming, thus-going.
Look for the intention beneath the story. Is it to connect? Or to isolate. To open the heart? Or close it.
The great mystery.
And we live happily ever after …