Adventures In Self Discovery To Transform Your Life
What's Your Story?
Stories Are Us
Human beings are story telling animals. When we think we understand something, we make up a story about it. Don’t understand something? Make up a story about it. People love stories. And what wonderful stories we have about ancient times, gods and heroes, wars and empires. Listening to the fireside storyteller, we recreated places and lives in our imaginations. We learned and dreamed. These creations of human thought in legends, poems and religions are our legacy.
Mankind everywhere makes up stories of myth, magic and mystical forces. That's how we explain the great passages of life, marriage, birth and death. You and I exist in a web of stories about civilizations, our cultural history, arts, religions and science. We are shaped by our stories of magic, demons, heroes, gods and celebrities.
Believing our group's stories makes us feel good. We belong. Questioning or not believing them will make us feel bad and get us kicked out. The stories underlying every organization and religion keep the group together. They give each individual a place and a role. These stories bind us into communities and keep our group separate from the others. Stories are at the heart of every culture.
Everyone needs stories to function. Stories tell us how the world works. They focus our attention, elevate our awareness and define reality. They tell us what we can do, who the good guys are and why I shouldn't eat that mushroom. Stories are the roots of our identity, defining morality, class, authority and social life.
Why We Make Up Stories
From the moment they are born babies are told stories. Babies hear 8.5 stories per hour by actual count, one every seven minutes. Three quarters of the stories are Mom's, one quarter are about what we are doing. Many deal with violence, aggression or threats. The storyteller is usually the good guy. In the first few months of life, children build models in their brains of how people are most likely to behave. Through language these models get turned into stories. They become the child's expectations and guidelines for the rest of their lives.
Between age two and six, stories help children learn how human psychology works. They begin to understand the connections between feelings, beliefs, desires and actions. They begin to control their own feelings, thoughts and actions. Children can imagine alternative worlds and act as if they are happening. Did you have imaginary friends to play with? Much of this play is rehearsal for grownup life. Adults use stories and imaginary worlds to make sense of the real world. They use them to escape into a daydream or just wonder.
Who we are is a bunch of stories that we hear from our parents, family and friends. We continue to tell them to ourselves. We tell stories to establish who we are. We make up stories to fit our opinions and those of people around us. I find myself trying to become the person my stories say I should be or could be. I imagine most of us do.
I want to clarify how I am using the word 'story'. It's not words on a page or the narrative of your life. Your 'personal story' is what you are telling yourself about who you are right now. It tells you what other people are up to and what's happening in the world. Your story changes to fit the people and action around you. It is largely below awareness. You can step back to distance yourself and observe, “Oh, this is who I am being right now.” Hey! That's an adventure!
We become the stories we tell ourselves, real or imagined. We all have and tell a life story with lots of chapters and mini-stories. Our life story is made up and modified from moment to moment as we live it. We interpret our experience and make up a story about it. Within the story, we imagine, rehearse, act and get results. Our stories try to make sense of what is happening to us. They make our experiences real to ourselves and to others. Take a moment. I'm guessing that one or more of your stories will come to mind.
Often our stories are instructions for living. They allow us the fantasy of power and being in control. We make up stories about what might have happened in the past, about what might happen in the future. These stories help sort out possible actions to take or to avoid. Then we may act to bring our best story into being. When something goes wrong, we can tell ourselves a story that makes it OK. We find and tell stories that entertain and inspire us and the people near to us. Stories express and support our deepest humanity and guide us to be the person we want to be.
So What Is A Story?
A story starts as a cloud of memories, images and thoughts. You use words in your head to call up a world of imagination. It is created from ideas and experiences only you have. These get assembled, condensed and narrated by your inner voice. You have a story. This whole process is automatic and uncritical.
Stories are not just words. They use images, feelings and anything needed to represent a real or imagined experience. They organize our inner experience. Experience is always way more complex than anyone can understand. We condense our experience, beliefs, superstitions, art and religion into stories. Your stories are unique to you. Other people hear or read your stories. Then they create their version from their own experience.
Stories separate us from the immediate experience of reality. They create an illusion of understanding. They may or may not fit the world or be useful. The problem is that stories are just words, sounds, pictures and thoughts in our heads. Stories are mental maps, models, rehearsals or histories of real or imagined events. A good model matches the world without errors. Words and stories are too abstract, complex and imaginary to provide accurate models. Yet, we let stories run our lives.
People need an explanation for what is happening, any explanation is better than none. Lacking an explanation, we'll make up a plausible story. We'll continue to believe it even after it is proven false. People tend to assimilate facts that confirm what they already believe. They invent or ignore facts to the contrary. Everyone is self-deluded and it feels good. Positive delusions make me healthy, happy and deserving. I believe I am right and good, regardless. “I’m right, you are biased.” I can explain away selfish acts and think I am better than others.
We tend to forget the fullness of an experience and talk about our remembered version of it. At first, parts get simplified or eliminated. Then the experience gets turned into a story. A story about my victimhood, what I have been through, why I am forced to suffer and misbehave. Or maybe, what I love, what gives me the greatest joy. The story gets disconnected from the past experience and becomes an alternate inner reality. I believe it but I could not confirm the accuracy of much or even any of it.
When I talk about an experience, I simplify and maybe dramatize it a bit. My story loosens its connection to reality. I tend to overlook that it is just imagination. Then, I project my amended story back onto the universe. That can be a real disconnect. The story may sound alright to me. My audience may have a different experience. They may even think I am delusional. Well, I am.
Sanity is knowing the difference between your story and what is actually happening.
Our stories are maps or models or imaginations, not reality. We fantasize and fabricate, then act on our guesses and plans. That’s how we test them. Fortunately, most of them don’t matter. We get enough stuff right to survive. Sadly, we often hang on to stories that don’t work because they fit in with other stories that we are attached to. To change our experience, we have to become aware of the ways our stories don’t work. Then we need to dump them or stop acting on them.
You are creating your present experience by what you are paying attention to. You put some of it in memory. The story you choose to go with it fills out the reality you are living. Your experience is a blend. How much of what we think and do is based on our experience of body and world and how much is from our beliefs and stories?
This is a good moment to step back a little and consider. Thoughts cannot hurt you, they’re just words and images in your head. Stories are not orders, not threats. They do not need to be acted on. You can play with them. You can pay attention when stories are helpful or fun. If a story is taking you in a direction you value, you can try it out and enjoy the results. If not, you can let it go. When you become aware of the way stories shape your life you'll find new points of view and ways of experiencing. When we are clear about what’s happening, this moment is what we have to work with to produce the life we want.
Why Stories Don't Work
The problem is that our inner world seems to parallel the outer world. It does not. It is a parallel world of make-believe. We know that everything we imagine is not happening in the universe, but the borders can be hazy. Inside our heads it’s always make-believe land.
You can enter your inner world and leave the real world behind any time. There are no rules. You can do anything you can imagine, fit events together anyway you want. Inside, you can give yourself any experience you can imagine. You become the stories you tell yourself. Outside, you take what the world serves up. If you act as the Superman of your imaginary stories, you may get run down by a bus.
Our stories are a screen between ourselves and reality. We have two voices running in our head, a commentator and an advisor. They explain, interpret, advise and forecast. Our inner experience is like mental time travel. It is a chance to suspend disbelief and live in this mental fantasy land. We allow these stories to guide us. Stories prescribe beliefs and behaviors that can keep us stuck in one path. We are unable to respond flexibly to the novelty of each moment.
My experience is that I am a body living in two worlds; one real world out there, one imaginary world in my head. Today, I will wake up, bathe, eat, work, play and go to sleep again. I do that in the outer world. During the day, I will be thinking, problem solving, planning and fantasizing. I do that in the parallel world in my head.
I imagine your experience is much the same. We will build stories about what we think is happening ‘out there’ and ‘in here'. It is not that easy to know the difference between what we imagine and what is actually happening. Much of what I think and talk about only ever happens in my inner world. Some things that I hear people talk about passionately only ever happened on daytime TV.
What We Do With Stories
Hearing and telling stories is how people learn, entertain themselves and pass along their knowledge. Stories let us explore different points of view, beliefs, motivations and values. The stories we make and share will shape the minds of the young who live in our group. Some of us make virtual worlds and play in them. We can externalize them as books or computer games for others to play in. From stories stored in books, we get to imagine the lives of ancient heroes or today's celebrity.
Stories are entertainment, our drug of choice. Tribal storytellers, books, radio, movies, television and computer games all present imaginary scenarios. They attract and reward us with little hits of pleasure and pain as they would in 'real' life. The theater recreates a world on its stage. With books we turn words into imagined worlds in our head. Books unfold vast new worlds as we read. They allow us to be part of something larger. We can imagine witnessing events as they unfolded. Fiction shows us how an inner life may be lived. Television provides everything but the Doritos.
We tell other people stories to share our inner world and to change theirs. Stories run through our minds all day, even in dreams. For the rest of our lives, we will hear and tell stories over and over. People have done it for thousands of years. So we get to see similar plots across the ages. Hero & Villain. Quest & Test.
Our stories follow old patterns because people are still built to survive and reproduce. People are still motivated by money, power, sex, fame and security. As a shaman acted out a story in front of the campfire ages ago, his audience got hits of pleasure or pain. You get the same hits today as you watch TV. The basic stories haven’t changed because our bodies and needs haven’t changed much.
Playing Our Roles
The basic structure of a story creates a character, puts the character in danger, then lets her find a way out. We identify with the character and follow her into tension, suspense, change and release. Our body chemistry follows. Tension creates fear that leads to action followed by relaxation. This releases our pleasure chemistry. Most of us expect, even demand, that life will follow this structure. Sometimes it does. The drama between divorcing neighbors beats anything on television.
The three roles most often seen over and over in history, soap operas and real life involve:
• two people who meet, fall in love and triumph over the trials of separation
• an ordinary person faces a series of trials that unveil hidden powers and resources he didn't know he had.
• a person changes due to the events he or she experiences in the course of the story.
The character experiences a lack and sees the hurt to herself and others from ignorance or deceit. In each case, she reaches an insight and makes a transforming decision. She confronts the compromises she made with her deeper self to get where she is. She reaches a turning point, new understandings drive her to action and her life changes. She moves from from one understanding to the next. Each one uncovers a more honest, loving and courageous self.
Everyone's seen these dramas acted out hundreds of times in our entertainment media. From childhood, we act them out for pretend and for real. You and I have and tell a life story. There is a story about every place, event, purpose and eventuality. We are making up our life story, moment to moment, as we live it. Since we are the stories we tell ourselves, changing them is a way to change who we are.
As wonderful as stories are they have their downside. Our stories are scaffolds of superstition, myth, magic, religion, art and science. They often do not hold up in everyday experience. Stories tend to keep us stuck in old patterns of belief and behavior. One challenge of these adventures is to release the hold of our stories and open up new possibilities.
Each moment is as innocent as a baby's until we drop a story on it. A new life requires that you recognize old stories, then make a conscious decision to change. You get to choose a new experience and to practice until you become that new human. You get to see past your self-imposed stories and to experience each moment as a new challenge and a joy. Nature presents the moment. You respond and make up your new life and story.
Hooked On Stories
We are all dramaddicts. What dramas? Codependency, childhood abuse, addictive personality, self esteem, good guy, hero of the beach? All get played as reasons for who you are or what you do. We run them over and over for kicks and get hooked on our own dramas. How many times have you felt forced to listen to a friend of neighbor rant about his current or ancient drama.
Our brain keeps presenting stories that compare, evaluate, criticize and judge what's happening. They fantasize about what might be. Some are so common we even have names for them. Do you recognize a friend (or yourself) in any of these stories?
The Hopeless Bore
The Serial Failure
The Lousy Lover
Friendless & Lonely
My Life Is A Terrible Mess
The Crazy Neurotic
Fat & Ugly
The Rotten Parent
The Arrogant Critical Snob
The Underachieving Loser
The Anxious Wallflower
I Can't Do It
Are any of them stories you tend to identify with and that run through your head again and again?
Once you begin to recognize your own theme stories, you will notice those of your friends, family and associates. Become aware that we are not really talking to other human beings. Our stories are talking back and forth. Damn boring. Let's get real.
What are the consequences of dramaddiction? It's easy to become our stories and lose touch with reality. We build imaginary events, then act as if they are the real us. Ever imagine being the victim or the bully, the master or slave? It is easy to lose touch with the person you really are. Big problems come from not realizing you’re doing it and believing life is the way your drama says it is. The first step is to realize that the dramas are only part of your reality. You can step away, focus on something else and let them go by. Most stories are not happening now or never did.
As an adventure (31) mentally step aside a little and listen to the voice in your head. Let it create one of those imaginary conversations that you have with friends, foes or with yourself. These are trial models of reality, ‘what if’ worlds. You can use these imagined worlds to rehearse the past, plan the future or just entertain yourself. This is an extraordinary ability. Yet, without self awareness and judgment, you can be a danger to yourself and others. Stories tend to freeze your perception of reality. Everything keeps changing except the story you are looking through. When the story doesn't work, reality speaks up. Surprise!
Stories become part of our 'self'. They get called up from memory to inform or background our present experience. We tend to act out the story as if it was us. Stop. If you are paying attention, you can detach and step back from the story by becoming the observer. That leaves the story running while you look on. A story is not a 'thing' in our 'mind'. Your brain assembles connections between millions of neurons to give you the experience of a story. What you are observing is just patterns in your brain. Recognition that there is a story going on creates a separation. Your observer and the story.
You have a choice to turn to something else or to drop back into the drama. You can change the story or let it go. You can turn your attention elsewhere. Be aware that you create and support most of the problems you have just by paying attention to them.
Suppose you really were the stories you tell yourself. You would be so wrapped up in them that you could not get enough distance to do anything with that knowledge? Yet you can. Your stories are not happening now. They are products of your thought processes.
Stories usually have a feeling attached that sets the tone of your immediate experience. Try this adventure (32) to:
• Bring one of your familiar stories to mind.
• Concentrate on the content of this story.
• Let go of the feeling.
• Let your observer detach.
• With awareness, comment on the story.
• Let it go.
Stories are not what's happening in my world right now. I am not the voice-in-my-head. All my problems are not inside. I am not a victim except for thinking so. Not all stories are even possible. The barely possible often turns out to be true. As Mark Twain observed;
“I've been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
What Can We Do About Stories?
From our first breath we become our world, it becomes us. Language allows us to make distinctions and mentally separate ourselves. You and I can make up any story we want. We can surround it with supporting ‘facts’ and beliefs and attach it to our present point of view. Our ‘truth’ can be broadcast for everyone else to understand and believe, or else.
In my experience, this is not an either/or universe. It is more of a this&that universe. Our experience of the world gets screened through our language and our explanations. It is our preferred understanding right now. Exceptions get screened out before they are noticed. When you listen to the voice in your head, you'll find that most of your stories don't fit reality. They do not work in the world all that well.
Ours is a two track reality. Mowing the lawn while planning a party. Driving the car while getting even with a rival. We often don’t know the difference between our outer experience and our inner theater. The same patterns work in our inner life as in our outer life. Imagined stories, as well as worldly experiences, call up feelings and we get our hit. It is hard to notice the flow leading from worldly experience to inner theater and back out again. I think I am the stories I am telling myself. The challenge is to allow other world views to moderate mine. I can open up other points of view to correct the errors and omissions in my old explanations. They will allow new ways of thinking and experiencing.
Take your self on this intriguing adventure (33).
Walk down a crowded street and look at people’s eyes as they pass you. Count the number of people who are actually present. They are looking around, engaged in the moment. Notice those who seem turned inward. They may be working on inner movies or talking out loud, hopefully on a smartphone. They are likely updating or replaying stories from their life. What percentage are aware and present versus otherwise and elsewhere?
Change Your Point Of View
We build every imagined reality from a history, a set of assumptions, a point of view. Every point of view you take opens a different reality. The more points of view you can handle the more choices you have. Freedom lies in asking, “Is there any other way of looking at this situation?” There are always other options available. You have some choice. The reality you choose is the experience you will have.
Test Your Stories
Almost all our boundaries are just stories we buy into. We have little clusters of stories that work together to make us a good guy or a bad guy. The stories that make us a sinner, guilty or shameful are the stories other people can use to control us. We use them to shut ourselves down. The most subtle form of control is to tell someone who they are and who they ought to be. Anyone who buys into the story becomes its slave. You need to be selective about what you allow into your story. It will become you or you will become it. When you know who you are and trust that knowledge, most stories sound silly or empty because they are.
Negative stories return again and again. In part this is nature's way of keeping us alert to dangers. Mostly it's a damn bore. The stories we pay attention to recycle because we are giving them energy and attention. Running an old story over and over is addictive. You get to experience an emotional hit. Every time we turn away without getting sucked in we weaken their recall.
There is no time for stories to be happening now. When you get involved in a story, you are not in the reality of the present moment. Most of us have had difficult experiences. For most of us they are not happening now. There is no need to keep living them over and over.
Sharing stories allows us to share feelings. We become closer as we listen and as our body matches the story teller. Detaching from a storyteller drops the feeling connection and distances us. This shows up in our body language and is immediately sensed by the storyteller.
Do you experience the present as it is or have you overlaid it with stories out of memory or hope or pure invention? Your belief or story is often just a personal fantasy. You can share it, others can support it. If your belief says something about the universe or promotes some action, you can test it. Get it confirmed by another human. Confirmation makes it more likely that it works in this universe. Not right, not the truth, just workable.
Stories need to be tested. When we try to act on our stories, much of the time nothing happens. They don’t matter. The universe doesn't care. The story is just happening in our head. We may still imagine that our story is right and the truth. If our fantasies are too far out of line, the universe corrects our understanding. Imagine you are Superman and try to stop a speeding bus.
It is not possible to prove that a story is the “truth.” because you can’t know that an exception won’t turn up. It is possible to prove that a story is false. Test it. The test is, “Is my story working right now? Get another person to test it. In my experience, reality is often not the way I wanted it to be. In the real world, I take what’s served up and try to work with that.
You are in control of your life. You are the one telling yourself the story. You are the one paying attention to it. If it is a bummer, you are the one generating your bad feelings. Only you can break the cycle. How? Take control. No one wants to hang out with your bummer story. Why do you?
I tend to get hooked on my own dramas and run them over and over for kicks. I also get stuck using old, obsolete stories as the world changes around me. I get corrected by reality. What to do? I can become aware of my stories. Be critical, and see if they fit. An adventure (34) to get us started in story management goes like this.
Choose a story you heard recently that is attractive but that you are not sure you want to believe, then ask:
“Is this the only possible explanation?”
“Is there a way to disprove this explanation?”
“Is a simple, natural explanation available?”
“What would have to happen to make me disbelieve it?”
You can try these questions with other stories. Better yet, you can detach from any stories you do not need right now and let them go. Do I do this? Sometimes, sometimes not.
The price of certainty is rigidity. The cost of freedom is uncertainty. If you let other people make up what you believe, you become a slave. If you believe everything you make up, you’re crazy. Believing what everyone else believes can also be a kind of insanity. When many people believe the same story it gets fixed. It’s hard for one person to think outside it and talk about the story and its consequences. Independence and skepticism can pay off. Look how many times the end of the world is announced. Only to leave groups of people standing around ready to go...nowhere.
How To Work With Stories
You get swamped in stories that never stop. It's stories all the way down. Most of the time you never even notice. It's just life going on. Blah. Blah. Blah. You can use this adventure (35) to handle stories.
What are you doing?
What story are you telling yourself?
Can you change anything you are doing?
You bet you can. You can stop your story. When the story stops, reality is what you have now. Look around. Hey! I got up on the right side of the dirt today. I am alive and kicking. What’s next?
There is no getting rid of the storyteller, that’s you. It is silent only in deep sleep. The sum of your stories is who you think you are. You live by and are lived by them. You can change your life without getting up from your chair. Just change your stories.
Manage Your Stories
Let’s go on an adventure (36) to explore how stories work and can change.
Start by looking around for a story that has some importance and meaning for you. Bring the story into awareness. You want to experience it as a neutral witness might to give you a little separation.
• What’s your story right now?
• Is it happening now?
• Is it an old story repeating?
• Which self is telling it?
• Which self are you now?
• What’s the background of the story?
• What are you doing or not doing because of the story?
• If you were not running this story right now, how would you prefer to be?
• Look at the story as apart from you and step outside it to change it.
You can now disconnect from the narrative and view it from a distance.
• Is there a feeling that goes with the story? Name the feeling.
• Focus on the feeling only.
• Change your body position.
• Get in touch with your body and the world around you now.
• Let go of the story and turn your attention to this moment.
You are in charge. You can change. You can change now by choice.
You will get a rush of freed up energy and a new look at life. There is seldom any real barrier to changing your story. If there is, you can still change it in your head and that will change your bodies experience of the story.
Here’s an adventure (37) that starts from a situation that feels like a problem to you.
• Pick a problem, any problem.
• Identify the story that talks about that problem.
Stories that complain, blame or hold negative feelings are usually the ones to watch. See if there are several stories that hang together to make a theme.
• Give the story a name. “My Bummer Life” for example
• Make a list of the ways the story affects your life.
• What does it make you do or prevent you from doing?
• How does it affect your relationships with other people?
• Are you blaming other people for your situation?
• Notice that you are now outside of the story.
Now you have a different point of view to operate from.
Paying attention again and again just reinforces a story. It keeps coming back to get more attention. Endless bummer. Stories that run over and over like tape loops can be named, like “My Helpless Movie.” You can allow them to run until the story’s energy runs out or you get too bored. To move on, you detach, label the story and let it go. You remove your attention, abandon the story and just be here now.
Here is an adventure (38) that deactivates a story by acknowledging it, then turning your attention elsewhere.
• Notice a story that keeps grabbing your attention.
• Identify it “Ah, the “Poor Me Underdog Story.”
• Accept it, let it be.
• Look around you, move your body, get in touch with what’s happening right now.
• Start a Transformer.
• Turn your attention to doing something useful in the world around you.
The less attention you give a thought or story, a memory or image, the less often it will turn up. You can put your energy into something you enjoy instead. In time, your story will likely reappear. Rinse and repeat. You can train yourself to be immediately alert when your feelings go negative and a story starts up. Right then turn your full attention to whatever is happening around you. From here, you can let the story that comes with the feeling die from inattention. Or you can start a Transformer and move on. Reading this may change your understanding but will not change your experience much. Practicing will.
How To Work Without Stories
I spent some time in an ashram in India. In meditation one day, it popped into my head that this spiritual life was full of complicated stories. It was as demanding and as exploitive as any I had lived before. I started to look for a simpler way and came across this saying of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
“There is nothing to practice. To know yourself, be yourself. To be yourself, stop imagining yourself to be this or that. Just be. Let your true nature emerge. Don't disturb your mind with seeking.”
These words became a guide. I could let go of of the story and simply be. Big change in story and in experience. So why am I writing this long book? It’s what I do.
Imagine what life would be like without words and stories. The voice in our head would shut down. The inner world where we create our sorrows and joys and gods would be still. We would know the freedom of a quiet mind, the bliss of no desire or striving.
”For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” William Shakespeare, Hamlet
©2012-2015 Keith Gilchrist - not for distribution or reproduction
5,707 words 18 pages 2.14.17 adv 32 -38 Beta 1
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