Question: How does one stop making the story real? Sometimes I feel the story, my narrative is so crystalized and I can watch a pattern happen again and again and it’s frustrating to continue repeating the same hurtful patterns. I am interested in learning to keep my heart open, even though it’s scary.
That is a question I bet everyone can relate to! But first, let’s take a moment to rejoice in your ability to recognize a pattern that does not serve you, because that marks the beginning of the possibility for change. Furthermore, it is remarkable that you have an aspiration to open your heart and face it even though it is scary. That’s brave.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about how crucial it is to identify where we have “agency” in our lives, and why we sometimes forfeit our agency either knowingly or unknowingly to make choices that don’t support our own or other’s wellbeing. By “agency” I am referring to our ability to make sane and conscious choices that allow us to bring our actions together with our intention to lead a sane and healthy life. I thought I would take your question as an opportunity to see if I could identify some choices in the context of a stuck and painful narrative—kind of like a helpful game.
Yes, it can be painfully hard to change our narrative—the way we see the world and who we are in it. I think it is important to begin by recognizing that there are many things we cannot control: old age, sickness, death, loss, a traumatic event, the pervasiveness of suffering in the world. We live downstream from infinite causes and conditions, and inherit both helpful and unhelpful narratives from our parents and culture. And so we will never know why we see the world as we do in any given moment. There is no singular cause for it, although I’m sure we can connect some of the dots and identify patterns and situations that have influenced the way we experience things. And it seems important to recognize that there is something quite innocent in our noble search for happiness. Being human is all very humbling, isn’t it?
In our pursuit of genuine wellbeing, if we are lucky, we will run into a quiet but potent irony: genuine happiness demands that we allow ourselves to feel “profound disappointment” in life. What I mean is that life doesn’t necessarily lend itself to our preferences. We are not in total command. Of course, the Buddha pointed this out from the very beginning…but it just seems very hard for most people to accept, doesn’t it? However, to accept how things as they are is a powerful and freeing CHOICE. We might consider this choice seriously. In the buddhadharma, we call this choice “taking refuge”.
Given the state of the human condition, let’s now look at some choices we can make:
Choice #1: Accepting
I will define choice #1 as our choice to place our unhelpful narratives into a bigger context. What is this context? Seeing that everything that comes to be does so due to limitless causes and conditions. For instance, the way we see ourselves and the world is not due to a singular linear cause. Two children growing up in the same household who go to the same school will see the world in completely different ways. One child might be introspective, while the other one might be gregarious. They will have different relationships with their parents, and from a young age they will begin to develop their own narratives and strategies for dealing with life: one might take on the responsibility for keeping everyone else’s emotional life together, the other may push people away, or find unhealthy ways to distract herself. Of course we have healthy narratives as well. But the point is, there is no singular truth about how things are, and that the way individuals view the world is based on limitless contingencies, most of which we can’t even identify.
So when we place our story into the bigger context of infinite contingencies, its truth is challenged, and it begins to fall apart a bit. To look at the nature of causes and conditions allows just a little bit of air into our hermetically sealed narrative. We begin to see that, yes, we can read patterns, but in a bigger way, we only ever see a piece of things. We might begin to doubt our story a little: “Maybe it is not so seamless after all.” To recognize that our story finds its place in the natural play of contingent relationships, is a very kind thing to do for ourselves because it protects us from being a “knower” who tries to justify her story by simply laying blame on another person or situation. How can we free ourselves from our narrative when we are always looking for a logic to reinforce it? What is it they say?: “While holding a hammer everything looks like a nail.” When we disrupt the logic of our story through placing it in a bigger context, all of a sudden the mind becomes humble, curious, and poised for seeing things in a fresh way.
Choice #2: Owning It
Even after entertaining the idea that perhaps our narrative might not be so bombproof after all, we still have to deal with our feelings and the fallout that comes from holding on to our narrative so tightly, and for so long.
Choice #2 has to do with how we deal with the fallout. We will have to make it our own, which can be a difficult choice…and a little tricky. The trickiness comes from an interpretation that “owning it” means that the pain we experience is our fault; or that we are denying that something actually happened that was confusing, painful, or even cruel; or that we would necessarily have to deny that people can be challenging or even dangerous in the world. But that is not what I mean by “owning it.”
“Owning it” here means that we are going to seize the opportunity to look at the fallout of our unhelpful narrative with curiosity; we are opening it up to inquiry, because, even if it is not our fault that we struggle, we are the only ones who experience the pain of it. So who else is going to confront this experience if not us? It is a CHOICE to take a good look at the fallout. Don’t worry, we will contend with external situations and people involved later. But for now, let’s CHOOSE to put aside the external details of the story, and just rest in profound disappointment. That means that we are willing to experience the energetics, physical sensations, and emotions that arise around our personal narrative. It is a very personal situation because we are the only witness to our experience. So as much as we would like to blame others (or even ourself) about those uncomfortable things, we will need to let them in and deal. Of course, we have the CHOICE to see them as “unfortunate”, if we feel that will serve us. But we may want to CHOOSE curiosity instead, because it will provide us with yet another opportunity to challenge our unhelpful narrative.
The question we all have to ask ourselves, when we are ready to engage the dynamics around our story, is: “Can I abide with the discomfort and trepidation I have been trying to avoid for so long, without either attempting to block or reject the experience, or, (on the opposite side of the spectrum), spinning out into my narrative?” Of course, the preferable CHOICE here is to not avoid the inquiry. But we have developed all kinds of strategies around escaping the inquiry through either blocking or getting lost in the momentum of the story, so we have to stay alert. In addition, we will need some support. Let’s refer to this support as: meditation.
As you probably know, there are many kinds of meditation practices. The Tibetan term for meditation is gom, which means habituation or familiarization. It is a gentle training that supports us to familiarize ourselves with staying open around our experience, so that we can see things clearly. There are many techniques in the Buddhist tradition. Let me mention a few:
One of the simplest meditation techniques consists of watching our breath. This provides us with a mental focus that is purposefully, NOT our narrative. In other words, we need a little training so that we don’t just automatically fixate on our unhelpful story. Watching our breath helps us refocus and calm the mind.
Or, we can recite a mantra or a prayer as a way to strengthen our intention—the intention to go beyond our usual and unhelpful approach to our story.
Another option, which I find very effective, is to sit in a relaxed position and let ourself be touched by that “thing” that we wish wasn’t there, which of course is not really a “thing” at all but just an expression of causes and conditions that arise and fall away due to the momentum of habit. This is a very powerful practice, and I want to add here that the ability to relax the mind so that it is free of grasping and rejecting is a classical way of describing a mind poised for insight in meditation.
Having spent some “quality time” with whatever it is we have been trying to avoid, we may soon recognize that “it” is not actually a thing at all! We make it a thing. It’s like having some moldy food at the back of the refrigerator that we don’t want to deal with, so we keep it there. Every time we open the refrigerator we are aware of its presence but don’t want to face it. But perhaps one day, finally, we muster up the courage and put on a glove, get it out of there. Yes, it may be epic at first, but we do it, and feel a sense of accomplishment afterwards. It makes us wonder why it was ever such a big deal.
Looking at whatever we have been trying to avoid through meditation is even better than getting that moldy thing out of the fridge. Why? Because when we take a good look at this “thing” (which is like a map or an idea we hold on to) and begin to walk it’s territory, we find that it is quite dynamic, and maybe even intriguing. It is not a singular, permanent, or independent “thing” at all! In fact, by walking its territory we may even enjoy it, and recognize that it was our clinging to it as a “map” (as this singular looming, creepy, unexamined thing) that caused us so much pain. Hmmm….very curious!
Choice #3: Being Pragmatic
Now I would like to address choice #3, which is a response to the part of the question that refers to opening the heart. Of course, opening the heart is a spectacular thing! It solves almost all of our problems and frees us up into life! However, when we think of opening our heart in an unhealthy or hostile situation, the prospect is terrifying. What would that look like? Does it mean we have to become vulnerable—like prey? We might feel as if we will get eaten alive. And that’s often a reasonable way to think, because sometimes the situation we find ourselves in requires that we get pragmatic and savvy in order to relate to it.
Working pragmatically with a situation is not in opposition to love. In fact, sometimes, love is mixed with a lot of confusion, so there is some sorting out to do around this. But before i get into that, I want to say that if we are able to make the first two choices (accepting profound disappointment and being willing to work with the fallout of our story) we won’t be so freaked out or intimidated by our mind and its world. We won’t have unrealistic expectations as to how things or people should be, or lay the blame of our own uncomfortable experiences on something external—both of which are ways we give up our agency. This will bring about unconditional confidence, and what could be better than that?
Choices #1 and #2 really lay the ground, but they alone are usually not enough. I think it is important that we recognize that chipping away at our narrative requires that we relate to things externally, and that it matters very much how we relate to our life and world. We may still have to face some challenging external situations, which have, in the past, provoked us into defaulting to our unhelpful-narrative-universe. Sometimes it feels like there are landmines everywhere. In lieu of the realities of life, we need to look at the third kind of choice, which requires a lot of creativity and strength.
Basically, choice #3 has to do with responding to the world in a way that brings benefit to both ourselves and others. Because we are part of the system of infinite contingencies, in which everything we do has reverberating effects, choice #3 is a moving and dynamic process of responsiveness. We can look at it as “playing” in the world of interdependent relationships, but this kind of play might not always be all fun. Play can be quite painful and serious at times. We may have to: finesse a situation, walk away, even call the authorities if we must! Charm, refuse, pacify, covertly infiltrate, or speak out.
Choice #3 has to do with changing the infrastructure of our relationships. Sometimes we can do that externally. Walking away when someone is holding us responsible for their own wellbeing or causing us harm, is one example. But sometimes we can’t walk away: we can’t walk away from those who are vulnerable and depend on us, or our boss at a time when we can’t afford to quit our job. So we will have to figure out how to frame the situation internally.
In those times when we feel that we have very little agency we need to actively identify choice. And like we have discussed, external choice is not always possible, so we have to make an inner shift. For instance, in relationship to our boss we could frame it this way: “I don’t appreciate the way my he treats me, but I need this job for now so I am CHOOSING to stay, until another opportunity arises. And, if I find a way to influence the situation in a positive direction, I will seize the opportunity. Meanwhile, it is okay to see that he is not skillful with people, and not make it my problem. Who knows what he is struggling with.” You can also think: “No matter how hard I work, it never pleases my boss. I see that I expect him to be different. I wonder what it would be like to find unconditional contentment within myself regardless of my external circumstances.” By accepting (choice #1) and remembering profound disappointment (choice #2), we take up the responsibility (agency) for our own wellbeing. The game is to learn how to play in the world of dependent relationships and to find a sense of agency.
Now just to get back to the idea of an open heart, that doesn’t often arise when we are in a state of contraction and recognizing the need to protect ourselves. Sometimes I notice that we expect ourselves to be loving and exude warmth when we have not worked out how to emerge from an unhelpful dynamic. This can be quite painful in and of itself, because not only are we struggling with the situation but we are pressuring ourselves to feel all this tenderness and vulnerability. If we can generate love on the spot, great! But it is also kind to be able to look at the mechanics of the situation and see why warmth is not flowing. We can have love for someone while being involved in a very unhealthy and painful dynamic, but it may not manifest as warm or tender. Changing the infrastructure of a relationship dynamic may look a bit fierce and directed. But this kind of clarity is necessary at times. We need to pay attention to our relationships and how they don’t serve us or others, and then CHOOSE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
I am feeling very practical today—January 1, 2019. And what I have found, is that by putting some very practical things in order, tenderness, love, and new possibility can flow. Of course, everything I mentioned above, is a huge challenge. But what else are we going to do with our lives? Don’t you get bored with the same old story? I do!!!
This is 2019! Let’s do something different! Let’s exercise our sense of agency and make choices that are in accord with our intention. I think this is what the bodhisattva path is all about.
ELIZABETH MATTIS NAMGYEL IS A BUDDHIST AUTHOR, TEACHER, PERPETUAL STUDENT AND CONTEMPORARY VOICE FOR BUDDHA’S WISDOM