By John Author
Thinking, thinking, thinking… The gears turning day and night, belching out an incessant spew of cacophonous gibberish.
Grinding—grinding away in my cranium, like some rabid little cymbal monkey. Bang! Bang! Bang! There they go, spinning in circles and picking up speed; feeding back into the intentions that prompted them, raising the exponent by the nth degree.
Cognitive behavioral therapy trains us to examine the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives that we superimpose onto our lives (and onto other’s lives). CBT asks us to question the logic of these narratives and to replace them with more accurate or beneficial stories.
Eastern wisdom takes another route.
Instead of just examining the narratives, Eastern traditions ask us to examine the narrator. Instead of asking us to replace our narratives with new ones, they ask us to stop buying into all of our narratives, regardless of how accurate they are.
“Why is that?” Because narratives only make sense in a world of beginnings and endings. But, if we really look, we won’t find any real beginnings or endings anywhere in time or space. Beginnings and endings belong in stories and movies. This isn’t a movie, this isn’t a story—this is life. Like the wise man says in the radio play of Dark Side of the Moon: “This is not a drill.”
Eastern wisdom says that all narratives are fallacious because, to put it bluntly: we don’t know jack.
Each schema is based on biased, incomplete information with the fourth skandha (habit-intention-memory) filling in the blanks—the same way that visual perception fills in our blind spot and airbrushes out our nose. Yep, you can see your nose right now, the brain just censors it. So, is the world that our senses and perception give us really the world we want to base our views and identities on? It’s so flimsy and easily manipulated. It isn’t hard for our brain to fool us.
Buddhism encourages us to shout, with a lion’s roar, “We won’t get fooled again!”
The Buddhadharma tells us that when we do the about face, we see that the storyteller is also another story. No matter where we look, we never find the, “I,” just stories about the I. We find beliefs, opinions, symbols, the senses, habits, cognition and memories. Those are the building blocks we use to form all of our stories—including the story of the storyteller.
Fear is the foundation of all my fictions. Fear of change, fear of loss, fear of confusion. Without these stories, things just seem to happen for no discernible reason and with no identifiable cause. “The sun rises, rain falls, the grass grows by itself.”
Causation is fundamental to maintaining delusion. Without delusion, there’s only correlation. “This happens, then that happens,” but never, “This causes that.” That might seem abstract, but that insight changes our entire relationship with the world because it changes the way that we see the world.
Things only seem to make sense when we limit our scope and ignore the big picture. If I take the frame off the present moment, then emptiness and Buddha-nature are the only things that make any sense at all.
Without the narrative, life reveals itself to be a flow of feelings, thoughts, intentions, instincts, actions and intuitions that we can’t truly claim nor comprehend. After an enlightening experience, even conventional knowledge doesn’t register anymore; humanity’s customs and symbols seem foreign and unintelligible. That sounds like it’d be disturbing, but it’s actually hilarious. Sitting there, giggling uncontrollably at how absurd everything is—giggling at how ridiculously serious we’d been.
When I started writing this article (almost a month ago), I’d become extremely unstable since admitting that my narratives about things weren’t the things themselves, that they’re all empty stories about an empty mind. I wandered the spectrum from utter peace and tranquility to profound despair in the course of an hour. It’s like how a rush of water comes out of a hose as we unbind the kinks in it.
Latent legends came rising to the surface, riding the tides of feeling that inspired them to begin with. Pent up emotions seemed to burst forward without explanation. In order for me to see my truths as stories, each one had to step into awareness—like a flashlight illuminating mold that’s been growing unnoticed in the corner.
Prajna is this inquisitive flashlight whose hot rays burn away our narratives.
Actually, that’s not quite right. Prajna shows what these narratives really are by shooing away the shadows. One moment of mindful, compassionate, insight can dispel a lifetime of ignorance the same way that a candle can nonchalantly dispel a thousand years of darkness.
Using Prajna to kick over mind-stones isn’t a self-indulgent process like psychoanalysis can be. It isn’t a, “Let’s talk about this and figure it out,” kinda deal. It’s more like shoveling mud out from the bottom of a barrel and tossing it back onto the ground it came from.
Analyzing my stories can turn into me making stories about these stories. This entire post comes with the danger of turning into a story about how we make up stories. That’s what happens when open awareness comes into contact with clinging. The free-flow is dammed, and the mind fixates on a single point in the stream, the whirlpool circling faster and faster.
“But how can we live without thoughts? We owe everything to thought and imagination.” Thoughts aren’t, in themselves, narratives. In fact, Huineng says that we should never try to silence thought—just let thoughts flow without a reference point, without a motive.
Without the narrative, everything flows; the present moment becomes a mind-stream, completely spacious and free. That’s the subjective experience of emptiness; not some scary, thoughtless nothing. And it’s a very pragmatic, applicable insight—not solely a plaything for intellectuals. In fact, the more ya think about it, the more enticing it is to makeup another narrative.
The first step in letting go of our stories is admitting that we make up stories. It’s super easy to spot them when you know what you’re looking for. A story is anything that we superimpose onto the facts at hand.
If my mailman says, “Have a nice day,” with a downtrodden tone of voice, I might decide that he’s having a bad day, but that’s a story, a fiction. I took the facts and made up a cause to explain them. I could build on it from there by thinking, “Maybe he and his wife got into a fight this morning, or maybe they’re having money problems. Wait, maybe that’s not it at all. It could be that my mailman doesn’t like me. Why wouldn’t he like me?”
See? Easy peasy. After two or three decades of doing this kinda thing, we’re all expert storytellers. To say it with all of its rhetorical force: we are liars. Each little lie snowballs as we try to defend it with more lies until our entire lives, our whole view of ourselves, our loved ones, and the world is one big lie. It’s natural to feel ashamed about that when we stumble on it.
The next step is looking at some of the stories that we’ve bought into and then, painfully, realizing that they’re mostly fictional; full of assumptions, deductions, and fears. Then we can spot our storytelling when it starts, and nip it in the butt.
It’s natural to lament all the years we’ve wasted messing around, neglecting the naked present moment. But be careful! Don’t weave that into another narrative. Instead, replace that shame and guilt with a little senseless compassion, patience, and loving-kindness. It’s entirely natural to seek solidity when we’re confused. It’s natural to fabricate answers to put our questions to bed. But not everything natural is, ya know, great. So just knock it off.
Finally, we can turn our Prajna laser to the narrator. That’s what the skandhas are for. They’re a trickster’s road map designed to help us find ourselves.
“Here’s a map, buckwheat. You’ll find a priceless pearl at one of these locations. First look here, then there, then over yonder. When you’ve found it, come on back and show me.”
As time passes, you think, “I didn’t find anything! There was no pearl!” That’s the pearl! Some people would ‘attain’ enlightenment right there. Others will still be miffed.
“That isn’t a freaking pearl. What’s wrong with you?”
“Alright, alright, settle down there, Hulk. Take a gander in your pocket.”
“There’s nothing in my—wait, what? Whoa. Why didn’t you just tell me that in the beginning?”
“Because you would’ve just seen it as a worthless rock back then. Also, there are no beginnings.”
So, if there’s no narrator, then who or what is it that’s generating all these stories? Who is it that’s liberated when they stop telling these stories? That’s the million dollar question, and I’m not gonna tell you the answer—because that’d be my answer, not yours, and you’d be tempted to make a story out of it .
Never settle for a fiction. Don’t sell your birthright for a condo in Illusion City. Keep moving, don’t stop. This is your life we’re talking about here, and the lives of everyone you come across. Make the most of it, don’t compromise with samsara.
We can all Wake Up right now if we really want to.
“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.” – Nassim Taleb
This article is dedicated to Robert Lee who has, for years, been telling me how we cloak ourselves in stories. Here’s to you, Robert! Cheers!
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
Latest posts by John Author (see all)
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- Letting Go of Linear, Absolutist Thinking. - May 20, 2017