On the Power and Rigidity of Narrative

That we as human beings construct narratives for ourselves is as old as language itself. We tell stories to reflect and share experiences; we listen to stories and connect them back to ourselves in order to make sense of our existence. But narratives don’t just come into being as a way to communicate with others. Most of the time, we take on the role of both the storyteller and audience, and we spend much of our day-to-day existence in a dizzying feedback loop of spinning tales and, in turn, listening intently. We listen so intently, in fact, that we begin to confuse these narratives with reality, to believe in them, to invest in them, to defend them to the death. Meanwhile, we’ve cut ourselves off from an expansive world of possibility and amazement. We’ve traded a limitless but uncertain view for a narrow but controlled one, and whenever life pokes at our carefully constructed narratives and refuses to conform to our expectations, we lose even that illusion of control and are left feeling powerless, afraid, confused.
This feedback loop has been observed and addressed by many traditions–it pops up in philosophy via Plato’s cave, in the pervasive Judeo-Christian directive to put one’s life in the hands of God, in the nature based spirituality of Native American religions which emphasizes human beings’ interdependence with the shifting seasons of the earth. And of course, it’s identified by the Buddha as the root of suffering, the only release from which is to abandon our stories and accept what is. When I first read Pema Chodron’s famous urging to “drop the storyline” and rest in the pure, felt experience of the moment, I felt as though the lines had cracked the smooth, polished idea of myself that I’d worked my whole life to create. I felt simultaneously liberated and scared shitless. I infused my meditation practice with this aspiration and made ‘dropping the storyline’ the filter through which I viewed my path and felt a sense of genuine relief: thank goodness I figured this out.
And then…
I don’t know. Years passed. Life happened. I read more books, encountered more kernals of wisdom, experienced cycles of intense commitment to my meditation practice followed by cycles of avoidance and back again. Pema’s lines have always been there, in the back of mind, ready to be referenced in conversation or in thinking about thinking about thinking…but in the midst of explaining ‘myself’ to someone yesterday, the rigidity and power of these constructed narratives struck me again, and I realized that I’ve possibly grown even more attached to my narratives than since I first became aware of them. There’s a way in which I’ve actually used my awareness to make these stories of mine even more real, more complex, more compelling and, therefore, more treacherously alluring.
So what now?
I’ll bring my awareness back to my breath, I suppose, permit myself a little smile at what a long stint of “thinking” I just indulged in, and contemplate the Lojong slogan, “Regard all dharma as dreams.”

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