The Storytelling Mind
When I first took robes and entered the monastic community of Ajahn Chah, I had already been practicing meditation for two years. Now, sitting and walking mindfully for hours in a little hut in the forest clearing, my mind gradually became quite open and sensitive. One day as I was scanning my attention through my body, I noticed with curiosity that there were some areas where I could hardly feel anything and my skin felt numb. With further awareness, this perception grew even clearer. Then I had the thought “patches of numbness on the limbs are one of the first signs of leprosy.” I was not usually prone to hypochondria, but during part of my time in the Peace Corps, I had worked with lepers in a rural health program. Now my mind got worried. I was afraid that the numbness meant I’d contracted leprosy. What would I do? Do they throw leprous monks out of the temple? My fear grew rapidly. Thoughts proliferated. I pictured my whole life unfolding as a leper, an outcast and then a beggar. Already isolated in my forest hut, I now felt really alone. Then I imagined having to tell my mother, “Your son is a leper and he can never come home.” Self-pity was added to the alarm. My thoughts went crazy. What was I to do? I was too ashamed to say anything about it. What if it wasn’t true? What if it was? I waited and practiced while this whole movie played for several days.
Then I noticed how the areas of numbness shifted and changed. I got the courage to ask a senior monk about sensations, though not about leprosy. He explained how body perceptions change in meditation – sometimes you feel many new sensations, sometimes parts of the body seem to dissolve or disappear. It could happen on the skin or inside the body. “You just notice it all with mindfulness,” he laughed, as if to ease my nervousness. For three days I lived as a leper. Now all these thoughts vanished like a dream. Who was I now? What would my mind make up next?
How do we work with the storytelling mind? The poet Muriel Ruckheyser writes, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Buddhist psychology emphasizes that we must understand the power of the stories we tell, and differentiate them from the direct experience of life. In this way we can use thoughts without being trapped by them. As one of my teachers put it, “Thoughts make a good servant, but a poor master.”
The first step for us in working with the storytelling mind is to notice the endless stream of thoughts and commentary that plays along with our experience. Almost everyone who sits down to meditate is startled by this process. Even though we try to focus our attention on our breath or body or a prayer, we are interrupted by a torrent of ideas, memories, plans. This is a key insight called “Seeing the Waterfall.” One Buddhist meditation teacher explains that the average person has 17,000 thoughts in one day.
Just as the salivary glands secrete saliva, the mind secretes thoughts. The thoughts think themselves. This thought production is not bad, it’s simply what minds do. A cartoon I once saw depicts a car on a long western desert highway. A roadside sign warns, “Your own tedious thoughts next 200 miles.” The thought stream can take the form of pictures, of words and stories and even more subtly of body-based and intuitive knowings. One of the unique features of Buddhist psychology is that it directs us to examine both the content of our thoughts, and the process of thinking itself.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”