I love a good story. There’s something magical about the way an author can develop a character and make us, the reader, care about them; perhaps even fall in love them. But of course we’re all stories to each other aren’t we? Your story of someone is unique to you. It’s based on your interactions, your experiences, your observations, perhaps flavoured with a few second-hand tales. Each person’s story of another is different, as each person’s story of you will be different.
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the characters in a story can come to life for us so easily. We’re all story tellers in a sense, and story telling is a co-creative process. I guess the trouble really starts when we all too easily lose sight of the fact it is just that; a story. When we believe deeply in our own fabrications we form fixed views and opinions, at times even to the exclusion of new information that contradicts what we hold to be true.
Keeping to a more flexible approach, one that realises a view is simply a view, a thought nothing more than a thought is tricky, it requires us to be mindfully present when thought tries to tell a compelling story and not get caught up into believing it.
Not that thought is a problem per se; we’re not demonising it. It’s a useful faculty when used properly. But we need to recognise its nature and its limitations if we’re to balance our thoughts with all of the other elements that make up this human experience. If we’re slavishly devoted to thought as being more important than the experiencing of the moment without the colouration of views then we’re always seeing life through a lens, a distorted lens at that.
Of course it’s one thing to say it, it’s another to practise it. It’s all too easy for us to lose sight of the reality of a situation as we get caught up in the content of the story telling mind. Way back in the seventies there was a famous horror movie called The Exorcist. I doubt it would shock anyone now but at the time it caused quite a stir. My sister went with some friends to see it and at one famous moment, when the afflicted girl’s head spins round she came close to fainting and had to be helped to leave the cinema. She wasn’t alone, in many screenings medical staff were on hand to help people overcome with the terror of it.
A few years later my father had a chance to see it. Admittedly he was more of a fan of the Marx Brothers than horror movies but when the famous scene appeared on the screen his reaction was to burst out laughing. I don’t know, maybe the experience of serving through a war gave him a different view of what horror really is. But I suspect that along with this he didn’t lose perspective quite so easily based on what appears on a small screen. He grew up in world without television, it only entered his life as an adult so he knew that what appeared on the screen was a production, there was no magic to it as far as he was concerned.
When we’re able to realise this, when we keep in mind that just beyond the edge of the frame there’s a team of people looking after the sound, the cinematography, the lighting, the make up, then the illusion of the story breaks apart. But where’s the fun in that? We want to believe. We love stories, so we suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to become immersed. We shut out reality in preference to a pleasant fiction; or at least an engaging one.
Exactly the same thing happens with the thought stories we tell ourselves. Our well formed views, our cherished memories, our beliefs, our theories. We like them too much to really question them deeply. They make up our approach to life, they’re a convenient tool for not having to see in every moment how it is. We don’t need to, we’ve already made up our mind. Sure, it’s fiction, but it’s easy.
Perhaps you think I’m being too harsh. Can all thoughts really be wrong? Well, it might be more accurate to say they can’t be right. They are at best a reductive, partial, dated reflection based on a single biased viewpoint, how’s that?
In fact the more closely you look at thought, the more you realise how unimportant it really is. Thought is really about commentary, it isn’t about knowing. We don’t know through thought, we comment on knowing. Not sure? Well, have a look. Look closely how the knowing of anything arises. You’ll see, with a little practise that the knowing precedes the thought ‘about’, the latter serving only to comment on or verbalise what has already been seen.
In fact for the most part we can set aside the verbal part completely and simply allow the knowing to be present, it’s actually a much faster way to apprehend being non-linear. It takes practice though, and patience, which is not a particularly common virtue these days.
When we look in this way, taking the sting out of troubling thoughts is much like taking the horror out of a horror movie. We take a step back and we look from a broader perspective. In the same way we would consider the cameraman, the director, the sound guy, the lighting person (spark, I think), and everyone else that makes up a shot of which we only get to see a tiny part, we look at the mechanics of a thought story to see the assumptions, beliefs and views on which it rests. Are we certain of each one? Are we prepared to question each part rather than holding on tightly? Can we accept uncertainty?
If we can then we’re starting to see clearly. This is uncertain. Life is most certainly uncertain. Are you where you are now as the result of implementing some carefully laid plan? Has your life unfolded exactly as you intended it to? I doubt it; I don’t know anyone’s that has. We might prefer to take refuge in predictability but it’s a false refuge. Life will prove us wrong time and again. As someone pointed out to me once, thoughts of the future are like playing the slot machines. Time after time we’re wrong but we keep doing it, over and over. Then maybe one in fifty times it pays out and we react with: ‘Aha! I knew it. I knew that was going to happen.’ We so easily forget every other time we were nowhere close.
And of course this wouldn’t be a problem if our thoughts of the future were nice, pleasant ones but so often they’re not. We suffer for them. We worry, we get stressed, we get upset. ‘How will I deal with this? What will happen when this comes to pass?’ We just can’t imagine how we’ll cope so we get upset.
But ‘you’ won’t face it. There is no fixed you that’s travelling through space and time experiencing all of this. ‘You’ are nothing more than a changing set of thoughts and feelings and sensations following patterns and habits. It’ll be a whole new ‘you’ that faces any future event even if it should come to pass.
So when we see this, we bring our attention back to the present. We can ask: how is it right now? Can I bear this, right now? And the answer is yes, isn’t it? This present moment is bearable. That thought of the future might not be, but it’s just a thought. Keep attention here, now, on this. This is the only place that actions happen, the only place that’s real.
The future might be wonderful or it might not but it’s uncertain, and we just have to live with that. We can’t know it, so we stay with what we can; this experiencing in the present, seeing this clearly. And this forms a habit of mindfulness, a skilful habit that keeps attention here and not wandering off. What we begin to find is layers and aspects of this present moment that we hadn’t noticed before. The more we tune in, the more we see. And it is worth seeing. The experiencing of the present, free from thought is many times more valuable than any thought about it. So yes, literally stop and smell the roses, the fresh coffee, see the cloud shapes, the sparkle of rain, hear the dogs and the birds and the people and just let go. Be. It’s that simple.