Tuesday, 12 October 2010
The story-teller is you
We are all story-tellers. Every moment of our lives we are telling ourselves and others, stories; consciously or unconsciously.
Those stories dictate our experiences and create our lives. It is wise to be aware of the stories that you tell yourself.
Most of our unhappiness comes not from our experiences but from the stories that we tell ourselves about what is happening. And here’s the secret, well, it is not really a secret, just forgotten knowledge; since we are the story-teller, the creator of our stories, we can change our stories anytime that we choose.
Once we learn to become observers and responders rather than reactors, we can observe our stories and decide if we want to accept them just as they are; reject them just as they are or re-write some or all of the story.
It is rare, until we become mindful, that our stories come from a conscious place. As often as not they are the end result of instinctive reactions to certain circumstances where the mind/brain draws upon all previous knowledge and experience to try to make ‘sense’ of what is happening.
They are stories which come from our programming not our awareness. Often they are stories, which, if we took the time to think about it, we would not accept but which we have taken as a given from our parents, our family, our peers or our society.
And the mind does this because nothing frightens us more than the feeling that we do not understand why something is happening or what it means. Often we don’t care what the explanation is; all that matters is having an explanation. And, human nature being what it is, the faster we get that explanation the better. That is why we so often settle for the ‘explanation’ our mind, or others hand us without questioning its origin or validity.
Once we have an explanation, and usually it is one where responsibility for our experience can be projected onto others in the case of family, friends, employer, colleagues or government or handed over to others in the form of parents, boss, doctors, priests, employer or government, we tell ourselves we can relax; that we are 'safe.'
We tell ourselves we are ‘safe’ or that we have the 'illusion of certainty,' when we have somewhere to place our experience, or rather, the story we have told ourselves about our experience. The demons cannot get us because we ‘know’ what is happening, we tell ourselves. Well, we don’t tell ourselves consciously most of the time but this is the unconscious message we receive and to which we react.
We have recognised our ‘monsters’ and given them shape, form and substance; we have named them and that frightens us less than something without a name. Because, once we have a name, we can call upon our knowledge and the knowledge of others to make a plan, to take action, to do something.
We always feel better when we can ‘do’ something even though that something may be ineffective, unwise or plain harmful. Doing makes us feel stronger and so we embrace it no matter the outcome.
The fact that, as often as not, these demons and monsters are purely of our own making, never occurs to us. In fact, we don’t want it to occur to us because then we might have to take responsibility ourselves. And that is the scariest thing of all.
Much of the drive to understand, to categorise or find a place for our experience is sourced in wanting to find a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility. The most frightening thing we can learn, decide or realise is that we are ultimately absolutely responsible for what we experience. That is a truth most often denied, forgotten, dismissed or damned.
But, within that truth lies freedom. It is terrifying at first sight, but, moving through the terror is the only way to true freedom. For, it is only when we accept responsibility for ALL that we experience ... and I do mean all ... that we can be free. That is because freedom comes from trusting the only thing which will ever be guaranteed in our lives; ourselves. We were here at the beginning and we will be here at the end. Other people, this world, this country, this house may not be – but we will be. The only place of ‘safety’ if there is such a thing, is in ourselves because as long as we live we will have our own Self.
And I believe we have that Self, whether we are in this life or the next. But it is not important to believe that in order to live a better life or a spiritual life. What matters is as the ancients taught: ' Every mind is a world.' We are our world; we are mind and in that we find our source and our freedom.
It is only when we are free that we can choose to draw upon our strength and to change things. To change our stories.
Fear of illness, which is really a fear of pain or death, has given power to the competent and incompetent in equal measure both in ancient and modern times. We lack faith in our body, our greatest friend and the true healer in all situations. Or, for those who believe in a greater force at work in this world, whatever name one wishes to give, the true healer is our mind and body as an expression made manifest of that greater force; god or cosmic consciousness.
This is not to say that healers are not valuable or even life-saving, whether they be the shamans of ancient times or the shamans of modern times who practice both allopathic and what we call alternative medicine, because there are times when we need help.
But, we need less help than we think. Our need is greater because we lack faith in our bodies and we lack understanding of how our minds work. We feel powerless not because we are powerless but because of what we believe; because of what we are encouraged to believe. Because of the stories we tell ourselves.
We do not believe in our power and so it does not exist for us. However, like fairies, once we believe, that power lives again.
What would your life be like if when you next observed yourself telling a story, particularly a negative story and most of them are, you changed that story into a positive one?
There is an old Arab tale about how stories can be either positive or negative, depending upon how you choose to ‘see’ the experience. When a series of terrible things happened to an old Arab farmer and his companions commiserated with him as to how awful it was he always replied along the lines of: ‘Maybe, maybe not.’
And, by the end of the tale it was clear that all of the ‘terrible’ things actually led to something extremely positive; they saved his son’s life.
While everyone else was bemoaning the tragedies which befell him, he was taking the view that ‘it might be bad- it might be good’, who knows?
But to bring it all into the present, the gift of the moment. Let’s take a story and see how it looks from a different perspective. You can do this with any story and the more you do it, the better you will get. But here is one example:
You are gardening and you fall over and break your arm. The usual story for such an event is that it is all bad. There is pain, there is inconvenience, there is handicap, there is limitation, there is regret and there is a lot of suffering.
This is pretty much the same story that most people would come up with in the same situation and you would get a lot of sympathetic nodding and understanding as you told your story. But would that really help you?
Having people fuss might be nice for a few hours or even a few days, but the reality is that once the initial moment has passed, you are going to be pretty much left alone: just you and your story and your sore and immobile arm. It’s going to take weeks before you need or are able to exchange your story for a new one – unless you decide to change your story immediately. The choice is always yours.
So, how about same scenario but different story. How can you turn breaking your arm into something positive? Ultimately that is up to you. We are all different and we will come up with different stories. The only rule is that you have to find positive things to tell yourself about the experience.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be negativity within the positive; pain can be very real and is in fact a great teacher, but it does mean that ultimately you will be glad that you have had this experience. Or, if you can’t be glad, at least less unhappy or angry that you have had the experience.
After all, the core point is that you are having the experience anyway – that part can’t be changed, except perhaps by true masters which few of us are likely to be – so you may as well make it a positive experience instead of a negative one.
Let’s start with pain because that is going to be the most challenging and perhaps overwhelming part of the experience. And yes, there’s nothing wrong with taking painkillers some of the time but here’s a great opportunity to practice ‘being’ with pain.
Pain is in fact a brain experience, not a body experience. That’s why people can train themselves to walk on nails or hot coals. They can also 'tell themselves a story' which prevents the nails cutting or the coals burning but that’s rather more advanced and not the point here. It is however a reminder of the power that 'stories' have to impact our body responses.
The reason why drugs work to stop pain is because of the effect they have on the brain. They don’t target your injury; they target the brain. They stop the 'pain messages' from the injury from reaching the brain. No brain; no pain. In other words there is no pain if the brain does not 'get the message' that there is pain.
As studies into brain function are now beginning to show quite clearly, thanks to advances in technology for brain imaging, what you believe has a major impact on what you feel, or what your body experiences.
Hypnosis long ago demonstrated that in certain states people don’t feel pain when they should, or rather, when they would be expected to feel pain. And yogis or mediation masters continue to demonstrate the power of mind over body by sitting in freezing conditions while maintaining body temperature and not suffering any discomfort; nor for that matter ending up with frostbite.
It is also why people suffering major injuries in accidents as often as not report feeling no pain. The pain comes later when they have time to think about it. And it is why the phenomenon of pain in ‘phantom’ or amputated limbs is a reality; the pain is felt in a limb which no longer exists because the pain is in the brain or rather, the mind.
In short, if a drug can stop pain so can your mind without any drugs. So, in this painful experience here is a fantastic opportunity to practise just that. You might be good at it, you might be bad at it, you might be better at it than you think but a bit of practice might teach you things about yourself and your body you did not know and stand you in good stead for some future, painful experience, where, for whatever reason, you do not have access to drugs.
You could explore other methods of pain management or mind-management, which is what it is really about. Try acupuncture or meditation. You might find that you have discovered something new which brings great benefits to your life. Without the accident this would never have happened.
One tool you can use in this pain practice is mindfulness; being in and with the pain without judgement or desire. In other words, allow yourself to feel the pain, to flow with the pain to go into the pain without demanding it be other than it is or that it stops.
There is a strong argument that a lot of pain is worse because we fight it. Just practice surrendering to pain and see where it takes you and what happens. Practice meditating through and in pain and see where it takes you. You might be surprised.
And if not, it has still been a worthwhile exercise and your drugs are waiting for you. And no judgements please. Everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way; no medal of success for this sort of practice. You are simply exploring something which the experience of pain enables you to do.
Another way to work with pain, injury or illness is to find meaning in it. Anything which has inherent meaning is easier to bear; just ask soldiers in war (where they believe in the integrity of what they are doing); mothers in childbirth; athletes training for the Olympics or ballerinas learning to dance on points.
If you ‘saw’ your injury, your pain or discomfort as an opportunity to grow emotionally, psychologically and/or spiritually you would ‘mind’ the suffering less. Ballerinas end up with deformed toes and feet and experience a lot of suffering for their art, but, as with Olympic athletes, they mind less because society and they say it is worth it. They focus on the goal, not the discomfort or pain.
This is something else to practice. You can only put your focussed attention in one place. If your attention is on something else - it will not be on the pain. One reason why people find it difficult to take their attention away from pain is because they fear it; they feel they need to remain alert and 'watch' the pain instead of simply releasing it.
Play some music and see how long you can keep your attention focussed on the music. See how well you can 'enter' the music to such a degree that you move beyond pain. Even if you can only do this for a minute it shows you that it can be done. It's another form of 'spiritual athletics' and is no different to physical athletics; practice makes perfect.
You can choose to say your experience is also worth it and a gift from God, angels, cosmos, life, whatever. You can welcome the experience and in the doing reduce or remove your suffering.
How much suffering would be reduced if the ill and the injured, mental, physical and emotional, were taught to see their experience as positive; as a gift offering the opportunity to lean and to grow; as an initiation which others envy?
Yes, I realise it is a fanciful concept in this world but it is a concept which any individual can embrace and thereby raise the quality of their life and lower the amount of suffering. Other people do not have to agree with you or your story to make it worthwhile. It is your story and while you may find you cannot easily share it with others, all that matters is that your story works for you.
The other practical application is to ponder what your body is trying to tell you. Symptoms or injuries are the ‘language’ our body uses to speak to us. Everything happens for a reason and your illness or injury is just what you need at this point in time. It has been chosen by ‘you’ at some level in order that you may heal, learn and/or grow. It may even have been chosen by 'you' in order to save your life.
In that sense it is absolutely perfect. And it is a perfection you will not appreciate unless you learn to listen and observe in order to better understand just what it is your body wants to tell you.
Arms are about protection and defending ourselves; as in we are armed as soldiers. Was it your right or your left arm? The right arm is linked to the left brain and the left arm is linked to the right brain. The left brain is associated with logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective and the ability to 'separate' and observe parts while the left brain is associated with intuitive, random, holistic, the ability to synthesize, be subjective and to see the whole.
Whichever side of your brain was involved is the one you should be pondering in terms of what has been at work in your life and contributing to your experience.
Arms are also about embracing; holding on to people and things, concepts, ideas, dreams – anything really. Arms are about reaching out. The injury makes it harder for you to hold on - perhaps you are meant to let go of something or someone or to hold on with less force.
Do some reading, it will keep you busy and take your mind off things. Whether left or right brain there are signs here of what is at work.
You fell in the garden? Do you hate gardening? In which case did you resent being forced to do it and the injury was ‘pay-back’ for someone else or punishment for you for perceived weakness. Do you love gardening? If so, why have you limited your capacity to do something you love? Why don’t you deserve to enjoy yourself?
These are just some of hundreds of questions you can ask yourself. There are no right or wrong questions; the act of questioning is enough to honour the experience and lead you to greater levels of understanding.
Don’t get too serious about these questions. This is not about judgement, it is about observing and learning. Be kind to yourself. This is a quest not a mission!
What does this injury prevent you from doing? What are the negatives in this and what are the positives? Do you get time out from work, looking after children, doing housework, doing gardening? Do you get more attention, sympathy and care?
And what if being forced to spend a few weeks at home meant you did not get into your car at a certain time on a certain day when it meant you would be involved in a terrible accident which brought greater injury or even death. Your accident may have saved you! That is something you will never know but it is as good a part of the whole story as anything else.
As the Arab said: ‘ Maybe, maybe not.’
Maybe this is a good time to be out of the office or away from the job? Who knows what is going on at work that you will be glad to have missed?
There’s a good chance, like those who thought the Arab in our tale was stupid, that you will look back on this time and think: ‘It really was very fortunate that I broke my arm then.’
You mightn’t but you might. The fact is you do not know. But the other fact, the most important fact is that you broke your arm and you get to choose the story that you tell yourself about that experience.
You don’t have to tell others. In fact, with this sort of approach it is often better to say very little. Many people simply don’t understand. Others don’t want to know. There is something threatening about someone who can see the silver lining in the blackest cloud.
We live in a world with something of a victim mentality and a lot of people get pleasure out of complaining; about having others feel sorry for them; about feeling a victim. It has in fact fed an entire industry of ‘disease’ and ‘trauma clubs.’
However you have suffered there’s a good chance there is an organisation which can and will support you and keep you locked into the ‘story’ which society likes to tell. Don't get me wrong; these organisations can be invaluable support for some people but remember, it is just a story they are telling about your particular injury, illness or trauma and you don't have to accept their story.
And, while there probably isn’t a trauma club for broken arms, although I am sure there would be for chronic pain should your injury lead you into that ‘story’, there also isn’t a right and wrong about how you handle your experience. If the general ‘story’ which society tells about your experience works for you then go for it.
The key question is whether the 'story' the support organisation tells is right for you; is healthy and constructive and allows you to grow, to learn and to heal in every way.
The trouble with organisations is that they become dependent on themselves; they are a system and systems drive behaviour. In essence they 'need' the disease, the injury, the trauma or the suffering to survive and at some level, usually unconscious, the motivation will be to maintain the suffering not end it. Without the suffering there is no need for the organisation to exist.
Healthy growth, physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually means we move beyond our suffering and any concept of ourselves as victim. The 'stories' and 'labels' which support organisations use should be seen in the same light as things like anti-depressants: great for getting you over a very bad spot but should not be 'used' for more than 3-6 months. They are, after all, just another 'story' and one which while constructive in the short-term may be destructive in the long-term.
Be aware of the story and decide what is right for you. The more you experiment with potential stories the more you will take responsibility for the stories which create your life. The word here is ‘choose.’ There is nothing wrong with ‘choosing’ to embrace the official ‘story’ about your experience but most people don’t ‘choose’ they just surrender because they believe it is easier and because they don’t realise they can choose.
At the end of the day, all that matters is that your story, whether you ‘write’ it yourself or accept someone else’s, is going to make your life more meaningful, more worthwhile and more fulfilling. That is reason enough to take conscious charge of the ‘story-teller’ in your life and to accept that the story-teller is you.
The fifth lesson on the Spiritual Path is: The story-teller is you and the stories you tell will create your life.