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.