It's Just a Story: The #1 Cause of Pain and Suffering and How to Transcend It
“I think, therefore I suffer,” would be an accurate statement of human affairs.
“I’m so fat…” “If only I had more money I’d…” “They should… ” These internal narratives or stories sap energy, remove you from the present, and cause an obsession over details that 99.99% of the time don’t actually matter.
When these thoughts form into a cyclical pattern that just repeats over and over the pain can be excruciating. It becomes extraordinarily difficult to stay present, which is a necessary condition for all spiritual growth and healing.
Stories are beliefs, ideologies, and opinions that you tell yourself over and over. We tell them to ourselves and each other to express something, usually pain, but they don’t carry real wisdom. Stories may be factually true or not true, but no matter what they do not serve you. You can get so caught up in the details you can’t let go.
Let’s say one day my mom calls me fat. I can take that instance and think about how cruel she is, insist to myself and anyone that will listen that she’s in the wrong, try to decide if I should stop speaking to her or if I should confront her about it, etc.
This may also spark a series of down-stream assumptions. I might start considering a diet, become more critical of my body, lash out at people who remind me of my mom, or unconsciously dredge up a similarly painful incident from my childhood and compound my suffering.
When I believe this story and emotionally buy into it I am completely removed from the present moment. I am dwelling in the past, the situation and the relationship context leading up to it, or imagining the future with all my hypothetical wonderings.
I am disconnected from the beautiful reality of the present moment that is in front of me. I have removed myself and all the love and support of other beings that might be there if I bothered to look. I feel nothing but anger, heartbreak, and stress. In short, I suffer.
My mom may have literally said the words, “You’re fat,” with ill-intent. She may asked out of sheer curiosity, “What size are you?” and I misunderstood her intent. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what actually happened. What does matter is that my feelings are hurt and the relationship is suddenly more difficult for me to maintain now than I did previously.
When it comes to stories, what happened or didn't happen doesn’t matter. What matters are the results of it in the present moment. By recognizing that there is separation between the details of the situation from the impact you are presently feeling, you have the opportunity to choose what you feel and how you see the situation.
This is illustrated in a Buddhist analogy. If you are bitten by a snake you shouldn’t immediately spend your precious time and resources figuring out exactly what kind of snake bit you, asking everyone you know their opinion of the snake, and tracking the snake down to the village it lives in. If you waste time doing that you’ll die.
Instead, you should immediately start trying to heal the snake bite. Remove the poison, apply an antidote, bandage yourself up, and rest. From the moment you are bitten, the pain and threat of the present is the only thing that matters. The snake itself is no longer relevant.
Stories are a clever way for the ego to reinforce itself. Nothing like a good story of how “I” have been wronged and “I” am trying to decide what “I” should do about it to make you feel incredibly ingrained in the ego. When you are entrenched in ego, you are isolated from the web of life that is the Universe and firmly set in your own, separate, lonely world.
When you’re caught in the heat of a story it can be difficult to separate your present experience from the narrative and the details. A useful process is Emotional Clearing. This will allow you to really get to the bottom of what’s bothering you in a given situation, what is this really all about. Once you have this clarity you can begin to heal yourself and deal with your situation with grace and perspective.
Emotional Clearing Process
1. Recognize that you’re caught in a story. This could take just a moment or several decades to realize, depending on how deeply engrained the story is for you.
2. Tune into your emotions, thoughts, and internal sensations in the present moment. Just notice what’s there without passing judgement on whether it’s good or bad.
3. “Hang out” with what’s there. Really let yourself feel. Have a catharsis. Scream and punch pillows, be bitchy and mean, cry, completely surrender to the experience. Have compassion and acceptance for anything that arises. Any emotion or lack of emotion is completely ok.
4. When that particular experience feels complete ask yourself, “What’s underneath that”? See if there is another layer of emotion, thought, or internal sensation beneath what you just experienced. Sadness and anger often come together so if you felt one, dig deeper until you feel the other.
5. Repeat. Keep going deeper and deeper and deeper. Anger… sadness… fear... a clawing feeling in your belly… gratitude… jealousy… spite… the thought “I’m not worthy”... terror… joy… there are usually so many levels and flavors. Accept them all. Good, bad, or ugly every internal experience is absolutely ok. Just keep asking yourself, “what’s underneath that?” “What’s underneath that?” “What’s underneath that?”
6. When you’ve gone as deep as you can and you’ve hit the core, that’s the wound that all this is really all about. If you can, give this part of you love, compassion, and acceptance. If that feels like a stretch, just recognize that this is a core part of your internal experience.
7. Allow yourself as long as you need to rest and integrate your experience. This process can be quite intense so be gentle with yourself.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary until you feel liberated from the story. If at any point it feels too intense for you, go gently and take breaks when necessary. It’s far better to go slowly through this process several times than go hard and fast once.
Emotional Clearing is powerful, but, as shown in the work of Byron Katie, sometimes just recognizing that a situation you’re struggling with is just a story can be just the medicine you need.
Ultimately, stories are just a set of thoughts that distract you from the truth of who you are. Though it may not feel that way in the moment, when it comes to your spiritual growth the details of any given situation do not matter. What matters is your present moment experience and how you choose to move forward.
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