We can free ourselves from all forms of emotional suffering, even many forms of physical suffering, when we learn how to change the way we make meaning.
But here’s the problem, talking to people about how they make meaning is like talking to fish about water. The fish say, “What water?” They are not conscious of the water. We are not conscious of the ways that we are making meaning.
If you want to understand more about how you, or someone else makes meaning, listen to the stories they tell. We all tell many stories, and when you listen for the themes you will hear stories about:
- Achievement — what have I accomplished?
- Community — concern with the wellbeing of others.
- Duty — focus on responsibility and obligation to a cause.
- Freedom — the importance of being unrestricted.
- Intimacy — placing great value on the quality of connection.
- Justice — concern that people are treated equitably.
- Redemption — making up for past failures and mistakes.
- Security — avoidance of pain and loss.
- Truth — emphasis is placed on there being an objective truth.
What category best describes your stories?
How does this serve you well? And, how does this limit you?
I worked with a couple and the man mostly told stories having to do with achievement and redemption, while his partner told stories having to do with security. He makes meaning of their relationship by measuring how much he has improved over the years. She makes meaning by remembering experiences of pain and loss in the past, and by figuring out how to avoid pain and loss in the future.
Because they make meaning in very different ways they don’t experience a great deal of satisfaction when talking about how they relate. Even when people make meaning in similar ways that doesn’t guarantee they will relate well, but it tends to make it easier to communicate because they have a similar focus.
When you alter the structure of your stories—change from one category to another—you will wake up your brain. Our brains respond to novelty, but most of the stories we tell ourselves are familiar and repetitive.
A fun exercise is to determine what kind of stories you use most often, and then pick a different category from the list above, and try using that as a way to explain things. For example, notice how different the world appears when you stop making meaning by focusing on achievement and instead start focusing on community.
The point of this exercise is to become more conscious of the ways in which you make meaning by experiencing the contrast.
Play around and see what happens
I have noticed that my stories take on a life of their own and it’s not necessarily the life I want to live. This is because my stories are based on many outdated ideas. One thing I can do is update my stories by creating new ones. For example, my stories have tended to be achievement oriented, but I can change the achievements I focus on.
Or, as in the exercise above, I can start telling different kinds of stories, shifting from one category of stories to another. But recently I’ve found something that I find to be more powerful.
Here it is.
What if you let go of your stories . . ?
Don’t even try to replace them with healthier stories. Just let them go . . .
Pause for a minute . . . think about this. No stories. Allow your stories to drop away. Feel yourself emptying.
Don’t rush ahead to read the rest of this article. Don’t look for the answer, or the point.
Just let go of all your stories and breathe. Look around, see what you notice, what grabs your attention. But make no story about whatever that is. Just notice. I’m sitting on my portal, hearing the water running in the little acequia behind our house right now. I’m noticing the breeze, seeing the branches of the trees moving. No stories.
In this state, without stories, what matters?
There is a sensation I notice. The sensation is one of taking a full breath and simultaneously feeling completely relaxed. No effort. Being fully present. And what matters to me is feeling this way as I go through my day.
What I’m suggesting is that when I let go of all my stories–most of which I tell for the purpose of justifying how I feel—I find myself anew. When I pay close attention to myself as I am now, without any stories, I know what matters. I know what I value.
And for me, this knowing is simple. It isn’t based on fancy words like, “congruent” or “authentic,” because along with those words I have stories. No, this simple knowing is a visceral knowing. And if I pay attention to this knowing and use it as my compass, I will guide myself well and make healthy decisions.
As I interact with people through my day, when I can maintain this particular posture of being completely relaxed and breathing deeply and fully without effort, I’m confident that all will be well.
Can you find yourself without your stories?
By the way, there is nothing wrong with having stories—except that we often take them too seriously and forget that they are made up. And stories take us into the past or the future. Is that where you want to be?
We already know how to live inside of our stories. And we know the results. What I’m inviting you to do today is to experience what it would be like—what you would be like—without your stories.
I start my day without any story and then proceed as long as I can without cloaking myself in a story. I go further each day. Then, tomorrow, I start again.
Who are you without your stories?