Why is it that our personal story-making is invariably about ourselves, and so often negative? Perhaps it's due to some pernicious and all pervasive anxiety around our ultimate and inevitable non-existence (cue reassuring fairy tales about the afterlife and individual 'souls'). A fear of death, yes, but also a fear that the identity from which we navigate life - the ego - doesn't even exist in the first place (so frightful a prospect this is for the ego, no wonder it's always concocting ways to convince us, and especially others, of it's significance). Or perhaps, since we rarely get all the love and encouragement we need growing up, we have to continually defend against our perceived flaws. Whatever the reason, it's probably worth exploring the shadows to unearth the I'm inadequate, I'm unworthy, I'm broken, I'm powerlessstories and associated guilt and shame, and toy with the idea: there's no real truth to any of it. I certainly feel the better for it.
I'm not saying that we should be without story-telling. That would be to say we should be without language, or live in a world of mere measurements and facts. Nor am I saying that all stories are bad. Great authors entertain, inspire and educate. They move us with their words. They allow us to imagine ourselves in circumstances we'd never get to live. So enraptured by plot or character, sometimes we can forget ourselves entirely, and oddly, feel more whole in doing so. Indeed, many a good thing is story-bound - relative forms of happiness especially, like sweet memories, goals dreamed, and successes celebrated. Just as limitation can encourage creativity and rules are needed for a game, stories - through their defining and constraining nature - allow a freedom of sorts. But how do we decide which stories to cherish and honour, and which not to? At one time people buried their youngest child under a corner post of their home believing it would ward off evil spirits. Or burned women for witchcraft. All that seemed like a great idea at the time, no doubt. Certainly it was a case of people taking their thoughts rather seriously. Am I advocating we don't take anything seriously? No. Law and order requires that we do. Common decency, too.
The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and the way of the world are incredibly powerful – they form the foundation of our lives and influence every decision we make, shaping our reality. If this is something that happens on an individual level, often preventing us from reaching our potential as individuals, surely it happens on a collective, societal or civilisational level also. What self-limiting stories are we as a civilisation still attached to, that prevent us reaching our potential as a species? Simple things can make a huge difference, both in terms of cause and remedy. Whether fidgeting in a chair, or starting a world war, it's just the response to a triggering thought, feeling, or sensation. What a terrifying and liberating idea, if true (terrifying if we remember who is currently in the White House, perhaps).
Thinking simply in terms of stories, and their essential plasticity and baselessness, has certainly helped me. And believe me, as someone with a personalty type that indulges terribly in feelings, letting go of my attachment to the 'truth' of my moods and emotions isn't easy. But poor mental wellbeing isn't all down to 'stories', of course. There can be neuro-physiological or pyscho-pathological (or other '-logical' things that I can't claim to know all that much about) affecting brain function, hormonal balance and the like. But even then, skewed story-telling probably plays a huge role exacerbating the problem. Acting classes taught me that physicality is hugely important. Just letting your gaze fall to the floor can create such a foul, self-loathsome mood - quite effective for some roles, but not so good for life. And what of pure emotion, unbounded by story-telling?
I went on a family holiday recently. The first in many years. There was a moment when we were all sat in the villa and in her usual fussing manner my mother asked me something or other - about an avocado, I think - and I replied, a little curtly perhaps, and whatever she said next hit a nerve, in a cattle-prod to the sacrum type way. I just felt this roaring upwelling of emotion that literally lifted me onto my feet and, in words I won't repeat here, I told her to STOP. Twice for good measure, in fact. It felt great - liberating - until I left the room and it began to feel not so great: doubt and insecurity were now assailing me, wielding stories about me having done a terrible thing, ruined the holiday, and generally being awful. Ten minutes later, on request of my surprisingly understanding brother and father ("we have to deal with her too"), I'd apologised to my nephews and nieces for my language and given my blubbering mother a hug. The children just giggled and asked why I did it. Instead of apologising, I wish I'd just bowed and said, "Now that was a display of authentic self-expression children".
I had witnessed consciously for the first time, the strategy my mother had used unconsciously with great effect throughout my childhood to control me. Coercion and suppression through guilt and shame. Yes, this is 'just another story', but some stories must honoured before we let them go. It was no longer personal; the holiday carried on just fine.
Now, from this 'it's all just stories in mind' business, comes the inevitable conclusion that everything outside of the 'self' - well, in society, at least, or anything derived of language even - is a story, i.e. MADE UP! Whether it be the idea of 'human rights', 'injustice', 'money', 'companies', 'better and worse', 'nations', 'god' (and promised afterlife) - you name it: none are objective realities, but rather stories we've become very attached to (and yes, in most cases serve a valuable purpose and prevent total chaos). However, aren't trees, rivers, stars, planets and their atom-based brethren the real way markers of reality? I mean, if humans died out then somehow returned (and no, not by any divine tinkering) then the same customs and superstitions we're familiar with today would be unlikely to return with them. The basic laws of the Universe on the other hand, would in time be discovered and established as sound scientific theory (and let's not confuse the scientific meaning of 'theory' here with the definition 'unproven idea'). To quote Philip K. Dick, 'reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away'. Probably not surprising what I do believe now, I try to do so with a fat pinch of organic pink Himalayan rock salt.
To loosen one's attachment to 'stories in mind', an uncoupling of one's identity from thoughts (belief) needs to occur. The ego will surely resist otherwise. I read a quote once about how Musicians play notes to show what silence is. I like that. Perhaps we can rest in thought-less space a little more. Or in what is raw and vulnerable if that is needed. Either way, identity must be more than the stories we imprint as children and those that daily clutter the mind. Maybe identity needs to be discovered, as the great myths and legends suggest. Perhaps paradoxically, we need story-telling more than ever. Not the superstitious kind that leads to such things as witch burning and suicide bombers. Rather those that help us remember something much bigger than the little 'me'; those that help us face... death.
I noticed a freedom in the space between things. An identity in and of relationship. "Who are you?" a voice asked. Perhaps rather than give my name I sat and pondered, and in the space between neurones, saw something spark. Or noticed in the charged air between my inquisitor and I, light dancing. And a choice. Harmony or discord? Vibrant colours or washed-out grey? Acrid tongue or soothing prose? And now I'm learning to appreciate that it's through my relationships that I am more, or less. This alone determines if I have an amicable relationship with reality or not. It's enough. Hopefully, I'll dare risk applying the theory. Meanwhile, between imagination and hard-drive, I write and bridge worlds. And remind myself it's a daily battle to correct course. And that I need to see it as a battle. For too long I thought a militaristic metaphor was setting up an unnecessary fight. But I was kidding myself: it is a battle. And you have to choose which side to arm. Maybe I'm choosing more wisely these days. Because in addition to the neutralising whispers of "it's just a story," I've found myself adding, "I can be happy, right now." When it happens it never seems forced; it settles like snow on frosty ground and seems the most obvious thing in the world. It wonder if it's true...
Well, we must end it here. From 'stories in mind' it appears it was just a hop and a skip to 'relationship with reality'. I hope you enjoy hopscotch. Now, get lost; I hear it's the best way home. But first, why not tuck this story in your pocket:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”