Mindfulness and Our Stories
We all have stories about ourselves. We are this person or that person, shaped by something we experienced in our lives, or prone to make certain mistakes. In many ways, these stories serve us. They keep us safe, give us a healthy sense of identity, and may help us see our actions more easily. However, we can also become attached to our stories and even confined by them.
There are many different ways we create stories about ourselves, and many do more harm than they do good. In no way am I advocating for the denial of your experience, especially surrounding traumatic experiences and deeply impactful events in your life. I am not a trained psychologist, so I am going to leave that to the side for now.
In a more general sense, we create the stories for many reasons. The brain is a pattern-recognizing machine, among other things. As we begin to notice patterns in thoughts and behaviors, the brain creates a story to make the pattern more accessible. If we grow angry in traffic a few times, we begin to know that we are prone to anger while driving. If we find ourselves anxious when around family, we may begin growing anxious before even arriving to see family.
Helping or Hurting?
The stories we tell ourselves are a bit of a double-edged sword. With the previous example of anxiety and family, this story may develop over time. As we tell ourselves this story, it can amplify the anxiety. The actual experience may not be anxiety-producing, but the story itself produces anxiety regardless of the situation. Same goes with driving. We may find ourselves a bit on edge before anything unpleasant happens outside our minds and bodies.
It’s not all bad, though. The flipside of the story is that we can use this knowledge about ourselves to be ready. If we are going to spend time with family, we know anxiety has historically arisen. With this information, we can be on the lookout. We can notice more quickly that anxiety may arise in this situation. Rather than letting the story dictate our experience, we can use it to meet the experience with mindfulness and compassion.
Whether the story you’re working with is something simple like growing overwhelmed with work, or something more deeply-rooted like a trauma, there are multiple ways to approach and worth with them. We can learn to slowly let go of the story and gain insight from the story at the same time.
The first step in the process of working with the stories we tell ourselves is of course to recognize the stories and how they arise. Without seeing the presence of these stories we tell about ourselves, we are often dragged around by them. Although we think of mindfulness as being present, part of mindfulness is recognizing these patterns and utilizing information from the past. As Gil Fronsdal points out, the word for mindfulness comes from the Pali word meaning “to remember.”
When you’re faced with a difficult or unpleasant emotion, take a moment to be with it. Extend yourself some loving-kindness and compassion, and see if you can really tune into what is going on. You don’t need to over-analyze or try to figure out when you’ve experienced this before. Just be with it.
The next time it comes up, you can do the same thing. Recognize you’re feeling anxious, see how it feels, and rest with it. Eventually, the natural insight will come that this is related to spending time with family. You don’t need to force any insight into a story. You can ask yourself gently, “What story am I buying into right now?”
With a daily meditation practice, these moments become easier and easier to notice. Dedicated periods of indfulness practice help us to see more clearly in everyday life.
You may also try keeping a meditation journal. After you meditate (or just experience the story), take a moment to write down what you noticed. You can always come back to it with a clear mind and check in, but often the practice of writing helps us clarify our experience and thoughts.
I’ve written before about finding some freedom from our stories in the post Letting Go of Fixed Views of Ourselves, and I think it’s an important aspect of the path. Many people leave it behind or pay it no attention. The truth is that fixed views cause a lot of suffering, and letting go of these views can be a powerful step toward freedom.
Recently, Elizabeth and I were feeling a bit stuck. We were working 60+ hours a week (including Elizabeth’s graduate school) each, running the meditation center, and trying to keep up with our own self-care routines. We were grinding to make things work in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area.
We both individually had views of ourselves as hard-working, but also as young people struggling to get ahead in an area we loved. We both felt as if we were stuck in this loop of working hard, paying bills, and not having time to live life together (or move ahead). As we noticed this story, we asked ourselves if it was really true. Were we stuck in this? We decided to make a big decision. Over the next few months, we sold much of what we owned, moved things into my parents’ garage, and moved to Mexico.
We continued our work, as we both work online. However, we work about 20-30 hours a week, live a decent life, and are saving money we were never able to save before. In addition, we live less than a kilometer from the Caribbean Sea. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t running from a situation or story, but a clear seeing that we aren’t as stuck in our identities as struggling young people in the US as we may believe.
With our stories, we don’t have to stay where we are. When we recognize the presence of a story, we can indeed make a choice to do something different. If we are anxious before spending time with family, we can make an effort to practice some metta for ourselves and see if we remain open to the upcoming experience. Yes, anxiety may still arise, but treat it as a fresh experience.
With the stories that arise, we can keep an open mind. Yes, the brain grows habits. But are we stuck in the habit? Can we make a choice to move out of this rut? The longer we keep feeding ourselves stories, the deeper the ruts become. To find some freedom from the stories, see if you can try something new. Can you approach situations in a new way, switch it up completely, or even just remain open, aware, and kind?
Obviously we’re going to suggest a regular meditation practice. For me, this has been how I have learned to tap into these stories I have about myself, and to have the ability to work on stepping outside of them. You can check out our free 30 Day Meditation Challenge at https://oneminddharma.com/30-day-meditation-challenge/ for some simple instructions to get you started practicing!
I also recommend checking out Byron Katie’s 4 Questions that can be really useful in the stories that arise!
If you’re interested in starting a practice but don’t know where to begin, you can reach out to one of our mindfulness coaches to get some help!
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