The stories we tell ourselves

I’ll notice that I’m having an unpleasant feeling, and then I’ll see my mind pick a story to match that feeling. It’s as if it’s selecting a book from a shelf in my personal library.  What’s going on here?  Perhaps the story helps me believe this uncomfortable feeling isn’t my fault (after all, it was that rude driver who made me so angry!) or gives me a plan for making it go away (once I get this house cleaned up I can feel more relaxed). Maybe this story helps reinforce a sense of who I see myself to be (I am always calm under pressure; this stressed out feeling isn’t me!).

Whatever the reason, the stories actually make things worse, escalating the unpleasant feelings and increasing unhappiness.  The mind loves to cling to these stories and will play them over and over again, embellishing them and linking them to even more stories.  Pretty soon I’ve created a feature length movie in my head, starring me and my unhappiness! It doesn’t take too long to become completely miserable.

Storymaking is something we all do, and it’s human nature.  We have the marvelous ability to analyze and understand, to plan and create and predict, which serves us well in many contexts.  But when it comes to emotion, we really are better off letting the storymaking go. Over and over, my meditation teachers say, hold the stories lightly, let them go. It isn’t easy and takes lots of practice.   Sometimes I manage to loosen the vice grip I hold on these stories.  And the more I do this, the more at peace I feel.  The feelings, and the stories I attach to them, are freer to rise and pass away.

But don’t we need to know why we’re feeling what we’re feeling? Certainly it’s good to have insights about our experience.  Paradoxically, though, these insights don’t come through hanging on to memories of the past or beliefs about ourselves. Insight comes through returning to the present moment experience, over and over. Doing this helps us see things, and ourselves, more clearly.

We don’t need to push our stories away or try not to have such thoughts; this is a trap that that takes us away from our experience and blinds us to the truth of who we are.

Have the thought, appreciate it, and then let it go. Kind of a catchy mantra, don’t you think?

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