Story Telling

The following article by Richard Witteman is from the Spring 2007 Newsletter It is adapted from his talk on Day 6 of the September 2005 retreat.

It is very still and quiet today, with seemingly not a trace of last night’s storm. It is like this too, isn’t it, when dramatic storms of thought and emotion pass through and dissolve, almost as if they never occurred. Moving from being preoccupied with all manner of things, and then waking up, looking around, and recognizing the vast wonder.

So simple and direct, to be here with the movement of everything, including this dynamic energy we call thought, as part of the weather and the sky. To be here with it in just the way that it appears and disappears in each of us, without judging or labeling, simply being interested in the movement itself.

One of the ways I experience this movement of thought is as storytelling. At the deeper layers of moods and mind states, it seems that some form of story is often being told. I feel drawn to inquire and discover how these stories move in us, how they are told and felt and experienced.

Stories have been a part of family and society for as long as anyone knows, and so much of what we experience is colored and created in this cauldron of storytelling. Our culture is fashioned out of myths and beliefs, theories and assumptions, told and retold, in classrooms and at the dinner table, among friends and in board rooms.

People seem to love stories, it is what children most want to hear, and it is one of the ways we learn and remember. When I read a good novel it is a compelling experience, because stories have the astonishing ability to come alive in us.

As I hear and speak and live a story, as I experience the “realness” of the drama in body and mind, I may find myself entering into it so deeply that I believe and identify with it. And this apparent realness is reinforced by the entire field of bodily experience, including moods, feelings, sensations, muscle tensions, and emotions.

I may identify with the whole story, or with a character, phrase, image, or idea. As this happens, a subtle shift seems to occur, and the idea or character becomes the same as “me.” Once this takes place within the story, this is now who I am. All the other characters or even ideas start to taste like the “other,” and some form of conflict begins to take shape.

Have you noticed this occurring when reading a novel or watching a good movie? Isn’t it amazing how this happens, so fluid and seamless? In the dark of the movie house, I am living the emotions of the hero, and sometimes after the movie has ended, when I step out onto the street, I find myself walking and even talking like them. How incredible!

I sense that this dynamic is very much a part of our everyday experience, and that it goes mostly unnoticed. It can happen with the most seemingly innocuous thoughts. Quietly and unconsciously, we build our world out of an ever changing matrix of beliefs and assumptions.

As I was considering this territory this morning, a direct example presented itself, beginning with a simple phrase: “Thought is bad and I am bad when there are thoughts.” A familiar tension accompanied the arising of this idea, a notion probably acquired somewhere in my early years of exploring meditation. I suspect this phrase has been whispered countless times in the shadows of my everyday life.

Staying with this sentence, I experienced how a simple statement such as this, when taken on and believed, becomes the foundation for a complex story which transforms into a drama dominating body and mind.

Identification occurs with the one who is thinking, and also with the one who is going to stop the thoughts and do something about this negative situation. A split happens, in which the good “me” is going to take care of and reform the bad “me.” Trying to get rid of thought, looking for a way to eliminate thought, more thoughts are born.

This is like pouring gasoline on a fire. And as the drama heats up, I may feel like a failure, and a whole new identity arises, which leads to still more stories. I may even feel I am fighting the good fight, and yet the reality is that another dramatic story has filled the silence, distracting attention from the larger picture, from the subtleties of what is occurring.

I suspect that this example is just a glimpse into how the story building process is constantly taking place. A phrase or idea is heard, spoken, or thought, and then taken on as an unexamined belief. A phrase like this asserts that there is a certain truth operating, and if the flimsyness of the presumption is not seen and examined, a whole world can create itself, a world I may end up living. This movement seems to be at the heart of how we become entangled in separation.

In the wonder of awareness, is it possible to be with this dance of belief and identification as it plays itself out? To be transparent and intimate with the movement, asking simply, “What is this? What is occurring here?”

As we pay attention and notice these stories, as we experience them, we can inquire into the assumptions, beliefs, and identifications that are behind the drama and emotion. To see them in the shadows, to investigate and ask if these concepts which guide and shape our lives are true, if these identifications are real.

We can look into the bedrock beliefs and assumptions that shape our experience, the ones that go mostly unnoticed, even in sitting, even in retreat. The ones that whisper quietly, that have been here for so long that they don’t even seem to exist. The ones that shape our bodies, making our muscles tense, creating an everyday experience seeming so real that it never occurs to even question it.

These core stories include conceptions of the cosmos, the “world,” and of who “I” am within this world. I’m thinking of how much information about this world is taken in every day, through family, culture, religion, school, and television. And how these concepts get reinforced, through the tone of conversations, body language, our choice of words.

There are probably many other layers of stories being intoned, some of which are more elusive. I’m thinking now of the undercurrents we experience so intensely in our bodies, feelings such as compulsion, desire, fear, addiction, rage, hatred and self loathing.

I wonder how many of these feelings are fueled by unconscious assumptions. Whenever I am able to look into a strong drive that is being experienced, often underneath there is a dramatic story, based on harsh judgment and negative beliefs, accepted as truth.

In awareness, we can inquire into these various stories, beliefs, and identifications, into our sense of the world and of this self, and ask if it is true, is it real, is this who I am? Taking some time to be with these assumptions, to even write them out. To really engage and open up this process of “self” building, of reality shaping.

In patient listening and seeing, the whisperings may come out of the shadows and be seen for what they are, recognized and acknowledged, their movement revealed.

Through investigation, I discover that there really is no abiding and inherent truth in these thoughts, that all of this is but an elegant story, a story which could be told in a completely different way and be just as plausible.

As I lighten up around these often sacred images, it is possible for identification and defensiveness to soften, for the tension and drama to ease. Even for a sense of humor and compassion to enter in, as I see myself seriously defending things which from a larger perspective may seem quite insignificant.

When this occurs, I experience a feeling of relief and liberation. Softening around beliefs and assumptions, I find myself relaxing and waking up to the presence of the sky. Attention turns from the intensity of the drama to what is larger, to what is seeing this dance, to presence itself.

I sense this kind of insight is often disarming — it is like pulling the rug out from under our feet. If wherever I turn, stories are being created, if every sense of who I am turns out to be transparent and insubstantial, what can I trust and rely upon?

It seems to take some time and patience to begin to trust and rest in the wordless and nameless, in that which we call presence. Investigating my beliefs and assumptions, allowing them to reveal themselves, I gradually discover that even as these anchors dissolve, awareness remains.

Awareness can’t be fixed in time or space, cannot be defined or clung to, words can only point and hint. And yet, here it is, beyond thought, beyond knowing, writing these words, and reading these words.

Resting and abiding here, stories take on their proper perspective. The story teller’s voice is appreciated for its cleverness and artful imagery, its dramatic songs, capable both of weaving dark and confining spells, and of pointing to that which is beyond words.

In wonder and affection, as we move and live and struggle, just watching it all, seeing it open up. Assumption, belief, and identification do not have to be rooted out and cleansed, they simply need to be seen for what they are, as they arise.

Just stories, coming and going, dissolving. Just stillness, nothing to do, nothing to fix, nothing to change. Nowhere to go.