The Storytelling Mind (Part Two)
When we look at the constant and repetitive process of our own thinking, we see how habitually it creates a sense of self and other. As Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian shaman, explained to his disciple Carlos Castenada, “You talk to yourself too much. You’re not unique in that. Every one of us does. We maintain our world with our inner dialogue. A man (or woman) of knowledge is aware that the world will change completely as soon as they stop talking to themselves.”
When mindfulness is focused on the process of thinking, an entirely different dimension of existence becomes visible. We see how our ridiculous, repetitive thought stream continually constructs our limited sense of self, through judgments, defenses, ambitions, and compensations. Unexamined, we believe them. But if someone were to follow us close by and repeatedly whisper to us our own thoughts, we would quickly become bored with their words. If they continued, we would be dismayed by their constant criticisms and fears, then angry that they wouldn’t ever shut up. Finally we might simply conclude that they were crazy. We do this to ourselves!
And usually, if we are honest, we find that our judgments are untrue. As Ajahn Chah says, “It’s simple. When somebody calls you a dirty dog, all you have to do is look at your butt. If you don’t see a tail there, then that settles it.” This holds true when we judge ourselves as well.
Try an experiment. Close your eyes and try to count your thoughts for one or two minutes. Sit quietly and wait for them, like a cat at a mouse hole. Number each one. As you do you will notice a few interesting facts. Some of us have primarily word thoughts, others have picture thoughts. Some of us have both. As you pay attention, the thoughts tend to slow down because you’re not so lost and identified with them. In a minute or two there may be five or twelve or twenty word thoughts, or a similar number of picture thoughts. Some thoughts may be subtle, “There haven’t been many thoughts yet, have there?” Some may try to capture your identity, “Am I doing this right?” If you sense carefully you can also become aware of the gaps between thoughts, the space of awareness within which thoughts arise. It’s as if you become the witness of all things, silent, open, alive. And if you look further, you find you are not even the witness, for if you look for the self, there is only witnessing, awareness itself with no one doing it.
Developing mindfulness of thought, we see how our beliefs, opinions, and fears can blind us. On one meditation retreat, Alex, a sixty-five year old clinical psychologist, confronted his concept of God. Born in Poland during the Second World War, within his first five years he and his family experienced bombings, deprivation, and refugee camps. Two of his siblings died. The rest of his childhood was only marginally better.
After years of education, healing and inner work, Alex had pretty much come to terms with his past. But when he came to pursue meditation, he found it hard to trust, either himself or his teachers. It was if he were allergic to anything spiritual or religious. And yet he was also drawn to it. When we talked, I suggested he be mindful whenever he felt the upwelling of doubts and lack of trust. I encouraged him to notice his feelings and stories without reacting to them. As Alex did so, the doubt and fear got stronger, scarier. He felt small. I reminded him to allow the space of mindfulness to hold it all.
Then Alex remembered being a young boy whose image of religion and spirituality was a simple one, right out of the Bible. God was a powerful bearded man in the sky judging who was righteous and who was not. But it was that same God who had allowed the war, the killing, the devastation and loss. Alex had long ago concluded that God himself was untrustworthy. And in spite of his doctoral degree and years of psychotherapy, this belief remained submerged in his mind, as powerful as ever.
Alex laughed as he recognized these unconscious fears of religion. The old image of God began to dissolve even as he acknowledged it. But what would happen without this thought? I encouraged him to stay open. The next day he came in with arms outspread, saying “Now I understand. This is God! The whole world of earth, plants, animals, everything is holy and I am in its midst.” He had found the sacred beauty of life here, now.
Of course, stories have value. As a teacher and storyteller, I have come to respect their evocative power. But even stories are like fingers pointing to the moon. At best, they replace a deluded cultural narrative or a misleading tale with a tale of compassion. They touch us and lead us back to the mystery here and now.
In my individual meditation interviews, I try to help people drop below the level of their story and see the beauty that shines all around them. Psychologist Len Bergantino writes about frustrating therapy sessions with a patient who was disconnected, detached and aiming to please. “The feeling I had on one particular day was, I just didn’t want to say one more word to him about anything. So, to his surprise, I took out my mandolin and in the most loving, mellow, beautiful way I could, I played, “Come Back to Sorrento.” He broke down in tears and cried for the last forty minutes of the session, saying only, “Dr. Bergantino, you sure earned your money today!” I thought, “And to think, I wasted all these years talking to people.” When we drop below the stories, our heart shines.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”