Sunday, January 12, 2014

Seeing Stories as Stories Rather Than Truths

Our Stories Are the Problem

Introduction to Stories

Think of the mind as a filter: it filters the environment in a way that makes sense to us, that are consistent with our understanding of the world–filtering a very few things in, filtering most everything out. These filters are initiated by the most primitive parts of our brain. They are, for the most part, pre-cognitive. They happen without our knowing it. We call them sankharas–meaning stories.  We naturally believe and cling to our stories, causing ourselves to suffer.

There are several different models for analyzing our stories so we can see that they are, on the most fundamental level, fictions. When we see this we can use our stories in a very lightweight utilitarian way (to know your car from mine) without assigning them a weightiness that requires us to buy-in and suffer.

Yes, we need stories to function in everyday life. We need to know our children from the neighbor’s, our house from the neighbor’s. But if we believe these stories are capital T true, not as mere understandings, we suffer, and suffer needlessly. If the don’t capital B believe them, then there’s no, or at least very little,fear,  stress or anxiety or irritation and frustration, or worse.

One of the most effective ways to understand that the real nature of our stories is, ultimately, false, is to examine how we construct a story. When we analyze the construction of a story itself, it becomes obvious that all our stories are false and foolish–albeit useful.

Here are six models in which we construct stories. They are great tools for deconstructing any story that is causing you to suffer. Deconstruct the story effectively and the suffering falls away, regardless of the content of the story.

The Subjective Nature of Stories

All stories are simply a perception of what is there or what is happening; they are not actually what is there or what is happening. Not really. Take what we see as an example. The rod and cone cells in the retina allow us to see and differentiate colors, but only in what is called the “visible light spectrum,” which is about a thousandth of the light spectrum. So what we see isn’t what’s there, but only what our rods and cones can make contact with. We each have different amounts of rod and cones, so while our brain is telling us that what we see is what everyone else sees, in fact, we are all seeing something different.

Consider smelling. We have very limited sensory abilities in this area. As with seeing, each of us has different olfactory abilities. A professional wine taster or a perfume maker can perceive vastly more aromas that I can. But the way I perceive odors is the way I think everyone does; I don’t think, I wonder what I’m not smelling when I sniff a wine or dab some cologne on my wrist. I just think we all smell what I do. Which is not at all the case.

Compared with, say, a dog, who can track us by following our scent days after we have been there, we barely have any olfactory sensibilities. To a dog, we are smelly water bags, leaving a stench that lasts for days everywhere we have been. Fortunately, when we are in a room together, it is generally impossible for us to smell each other.

What our senses tell us is there really isn’t; it is just our story, our very limited subjective perception of what is is there, of what is happening. It is our fiction; not actually what’s there. And because of the way the brain feeds us the information, we believe it is true, real, solid and the way every sees it. But it simply isn’t so.

An Analytic View of Stories:

All stories have certain characteristics:

  1. For things to be other than what they are
  2. For us to know what to desire more of (or get less of), and
  3. To present a world that if permanent (reification)

Also, stories:

  1. Provide the basis for our self-awareness, and
  2. Make our sense of self and of the world consistent

But, all stories are

  1. False, and
  2. Foolish, yet
  3. We are required to believe them because they are us, they are our explanation of who we are

In the end, all stories are troublesome for they inherently lead us to see the world through filters that causes us stress and anxiety, pain and suffering, never peacefulness. We need to be very clear that our stories are the source of all of our suffering, not the events the stories are about.

In practice, we can’t just move from bad stories to no stories where we are simply present and fully engaged with what’s happening. We need an interim step. We need (1) to weaken our stories, not to believe or attach to them with our usual intensity; and (2) we need stories that cause us to act in ways that move us toward progressively more and more peaceful behaviors and attitudes.

Use these “good” stories as rafts. Let them take you to a place in your life where they are no longer necessary and then simply allow them to flow away. Patiences, compassion and generosity are three of the most important rafts to happier and healthier lives.

A Structural View of Stories

All stories are constructed with three structural elements:

  • I am the center of the story (universe); everything revolves around me. This is the only way the brain can present us with information, in the “I am” format.
  • What my brain is telling me is true. The brain presents us with information to make the world consistent with what we believe and understand; it is not particularly reason and logic based. Consistency always trumps reason.
  • Inanimate objects (people and animals we don’t know fit into this category as they are perceived as functional inanimate) have interpersonal relationships with my. For example, when I look out the window of a train, the trees go by me.

An Aggregates View of Stories

When we make a sense contact, we cling to our feeling about the contact–our affinity or aversion. If the contact and its attendant feeling are strong enough, we cognize it, meaning we label it, filter it in, and set our brain to writing a story about it. The stories are fabricated from memory fragments assembled because they somehow seem close to what’s happening, and because they make sense in terms of our previous understandings and beliefs. The brain then sends the story to our consciousness and we asset it is who we are and what we believe. So the story is written without our knowledge from fragments of older stories, each similarly written from fragments of older stories. It’s a house of cards; it certainly has nothing to do with what is happening in the present moment.

An Emptiness View of Stories

The way we process information is to reify things. We do that by creating stories that falsely make things appear as concrete, separate and permanent. We know better. We know that nothing is concrete, separate and permanent.

If anything were permanent, the time and space it occupies would have to be permanent. That means the planet would have to stop spinning, the universe stop expanding, and so on. We know better. We just don’t belief it

So the stories our mind presents to us are not permanent, they are empty. We know this because everything arises in dependence on other things, and if anything were permanent it could not, by definition, arise in dependence on other things. In order for something to be separate and independent, it could not depend on anything else for its existence. This means that our stories, while practically useful in the everyday world, are ultimately false, ultimately mistaken views–not to be taken seriously, certainly not to be clung to.

A Dualistic View of Stories

In the nature of the way we create the stories that tell us who we are and how and what the world is, we aren’t actually describing what is happening. Instead, we are comparing what appears to be happening to some other similar but opposite story and then creating our story of what’s happening based not on the event but on the comparison.

For example, I look in the mirror and say to myself, “Wow, look at all that gray hair; you’re really getting old.”  There are three events happening: the wow, the gray, and the old.  The wow event arises when my mind compares some imaginary image of me with considerably less or no gray to what I see in the mirror and then tells my brain to be surprised rather than calm and comfortable with the difference. The gray event, again, is a comparative story, not what is actually there. Of course there is some gray hair, but “all that” means I am comparing it to some image of myself with considerably less gray hair and using the comparison to negatively value myself. Finally, I am not really getting older looking in the mirror, unless I compare what I see to a younger image I have of myself and then write the getting older story.

On analysis, any story the mind creates and tells you, you will find is build dualistically, built through comparison with an opposite story–less gray / more gray; old / young, etc. It is never about what is happening in the here and now.

The Four Nutrients

The Four Nutriments

One of the early teachings of the Buddha is that we there are four kinds of nutriments or sustenance: edible food, sense impressions, intentional thoughts, and our consciousness. These life sustaining, life giving and life defining nutriments are instrumental in the way we conceptualize and live our lives. But the bottom line is, if we don't get a handle on these they will drag us into more and more dukkha while implying and suggesting to us that they offer the answer to ending our suffering. Why? Because hunger and craving stand behind all four, because delusion is the result of buying into these as good for us.

One of the traditional ways of exploring these is through similes in which each is made vivid and emphatic in an undeniable way. Take some time with each and consider their role in your life. Are they sustaining you in ways that are more helpful or harmful? Do you understand how they arises in your life, how they can end, and how getting a handle on them leads to right view?  It takes time and a lot of chewing to digest these!

1. Edible Food
Simile: Crossing the desert and finding themselves without food, a couple eats their little child so they can reach their destination.

Often, in our search for food and nourishment, literally and figuratively, we destroy what is most dear to us.

2. Sense-Impression

Simile: A skinned cow, wherever she stands, will be constantly attacked by the insects and other creatures living nearby.

Like a skinned cow, we are helplessly exposed to the constant excitation and irritation of our ever-changing sense-impressions, attacking us from all sides, through our six senses.

3. Volitional Thought

Simile: We are like a man being dragged by two others into a pit of glowing embers.
The two dragging forces are man's karmic actions, good (but still deluded) and evil. It is our karmic proclivities, our self-centered and life-affirming volitions, our plans and ambitions, that drag us into that deep pit filled with the glowing embers of intense suffering.

4. Consciousness
Simile: Consciousness is like a criminal whose punishment is to be pierced with three hundred spears three times a day.

Conscious awareness is the punitive result of past cravings and delusions. It's sharp spears pierce our protective skin and lay us open to the impact of the world's objects.