Disentangling from the Story
It is a great relief to discover that our stories do not fully define who we are, or what is happening to us. One practitioner was on a summer retreat at a camp in the redwoods. She awoke in the middle of the night startled, heart pounding because she heard a loud growl just outside. She was sure it was a bear, close by, perhaps dangerous. Turning on a small flashlight, she looked around and waited fearfully for the unknown growler to make another noise. At first it was quiet. Then after a minute had passed, her stomach let out a loud growl. She realized it was the bean soup from dinner that was having its way with her digestive tract! The loud growl was herself.
With mindfulness we can step out of the story we tell and simply notice the telling of it. We become the witnessing, the space of awareness. When we do this we rest in what Ajahn Chah calls the One Who Knows. With a quiet mind, the One Who Knows sees how we construct our world through repeating our stories. And, like the growling bear, we discover the stories are mostly untrue.
When people tell me that their meditations are filled with thoughts, I ask, “What do you commonly think about?” They describe stories of their longings and resentments, success and failure. They tell stories of their families, their work, their bodies, their spiritual and political worlds. Then we inquire together whether they are always lost inside the story. Or, I ask, “Are there are moments, like right now, when you can simply acknowledge the story and its attendant feelings without identification, with a kind attention?” They usually take a breath and often report feeling more at ease. If it’s a difficult or fearful tale, we will sit together in the presence of the story, absorbing its atmosphere for a long time, until the whole constellation of thoughts and emotions has been seen. Then we inquire into whether it is true. What are the beliefs about ourself constructed by the story? What is its world view? Is it really true?
One woman, Paula, came to meditate after a wrenching divorce. Her husband had left her and their six year old son. Her grief was great, as was her fear and anger. She worked to become mindful of her feelings over many weeks. Beneath Paula’s fears, a voice kept telling her a story about how unlovable she was and how she would always be left, abandoned. I inquired how long she had sensed herself this way. Paula replied that this was the story of her life. When she was three years old her own father had walked out and abandoned both Paula and her mother, and died several years later. Growing up, she felt that somehow his leaving was her fault. Paula believed that she was the problem, flawed, unlovable.
For weeks I listened to Paula exploring her divorce, with all the attendant grief and anger and fear. She practiced holding her body and her painful history in compassion. Finally Paula was ready to go back to the most painful scene of all. I asked her to close her eyes and remember the night her father left. She was three years old, wearing a light blue cotton dress, standing at the top of the stairs listening to her parents fight. Then she saw her father pick up his suitcase and, without looking up at her, storm out of the door and out of her life. It was agonizing. “He didn’t even look at me. He didn’t say anything to me.” When I asked what this little girl was thinking, she said, “I did something wrong; there’s something wrong with me. Otherwise he would have stayed.”
After Paula held this grief-stricken three year old child in compassion for a time, I asked her to imagine that she could enter the experience of her father standing at the door. “When you become him, how does your body feel?” I asked. “Awful. Tight, rigid, like I could explode. I’m terrified. I’m stuck in a terrible marriage that I didn’t want, in a dead end job. We fight all the time and I’m losing my life. I have to escape. I have to run away, to save my life.” “And now as you pick up your suitcase to go out the door, do you know that your daughter Paula is standing there at the top of the stairs?” “I do, but I can’t look at her. I can’t. If I see the look on her face I could never leave. I love her so much, but if I don’t leave I’ll die. I have to get out.” Paula began to weep for her father and for his fear, for everyone’s pain.
Now sitting quietly, I asked her about the story that she told since this day, that she, Paula, had done something wrong, that she was unlovable. “Who made up this story?” I asked. After a pause, she replied sheepishly, “I did.” “Is it true?” “No, not really.” She half smiled at me. “Are you sure?” She laughed. We talked about whether she wanted to keep repeating the story and pattern of unlovability. “Who are you if not this story?” I asked. We looked at one another in the stillness of the heart, outside of her fears, outside of time. We sat together in the sacred beauty of the present that contains all stories and yet so much more. Paula began to feel free.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”