Saying no to the inner stories, so we can say yes to our life
Last week I was reflecting on the power of saying no to external events and a text conversation with a friend this week has reminded me of the power of learning to say no to the stories we tell ourselves.
The 8 week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course has a theme of ‘propaganda’ – the stories we tell ourselves so often that we come to believe them as objective truth rather than a subjective opinion. As the cartoon above suggests, it is so easy for us all to be going around with the same propaganda undermining us: the thought that it is only me who is not together, is broken and failed….whilst thinking that everyone else is together, purposeful and living to their full potential.
Having the privilege of talking to so many people in my role as monk and then mindfulness teacher, and reading the emails that some people send me in response to these weekly reflections I have been privileged in my life to see behind the public mask so many of us present to the world. Behind that mask what so many of us share is a sense of confusion, fear and struggle. Often this is rooted in negative scripts that tell us we are in some way defective or lacking, or do not deserve the success we have, or will be seen to be the fraud we feel ourselves to be.
Some people will have other more egotistical scripts, believing themselves to be amazing and wonderful, but this is still a fragile place to inhabit, as the moment this belief gets threatened the fragility of their identity easily cracks. People who have based their worth on being a high flying, high earning achiever can be the most hard hit by loosing their job or position as they also loose everything that confirms their story of who they are. Rather than believing in themselves they believe in what their position says about them and loosing that position it can feel as if they have been destroyed. Unfortunately the number of suicides after executives or highly placed bankers have lost their position testifies to this. In contrast people with a low self-view are relatively comfortable with the world conforming this through a perception of failure!
It does not matter then whether our inner script is one of lack or superiority, believing in the script and the stories that get generated by it can be destructive for anyone and learning to say no to the story teller is the first step in finding a deeper freedom.
Reading self-help books and attending workshops can be a useful way of becoming aware of the scripts – but can in themselves become part of the story: the one who is seeking, who is broken, who needs to find the right person or book or teaching to fix them. The people I know who have found their own freedom have all at some point stopped looking outside and instead taken the teaching they have and turned inside to fully explore the implications of that insight.
The thought “I’ll read just one more book”, or “I’ll visit just this one more teacher” and then I can start to explore the implications of their teaching is all a way of the storyteller delaying the deeper investigation of what is keeping one trapped: one’s own addiction to the drama we have become familiar with. The friend I have been chatting with about this said it so well when he observed that he was addicted to his story. I’ve felt that with my own sadness at times, it’s as if I am addicted to a state of being and make choices that perpetuate that experience. Partly it feels comfortable to rest in the familiar. But there also seems to be a feedback loop where feeding the familiar emotional drama is like any other addiction in the way it gives rise to a dopamine hit that gives a sense of reward, even if the addictive emotion itself is an unpleasant one.
The following information outlines this process, relating it to our ancient reward centre in the brain that assists in learning thorough giving a pleasurable experience through the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine when we experience something which seems beneficial to our learning or survival:
As the brain experiences a dopamine hit from turning towards this addictive behaviour it reinforces the feeling that this is a reward which encourages it to return to this behaviour more and more to get the reward again and again. So if our addiction is porn or food or buying shoes or feeling sad or self-blame the process is the same: our brain has learnt through a ‘pathological learning’ to identify that stimuli with a dopamine reward.
Thus we return to the principle of learning to say no to the story teller: the urge to return to a familiar experience, whether it be an addictive sense of feeling sad, or and external addiction of shopping, food or porn. The story will be that when I have this I will feel better. Even though that may then be followed by a feeling of shame at having fallen into a pattern again that we feel does not really serve us. But that remorse passes and soon we are back in the loop again of seeking the dopamine reward for our familiar pattern.
In this way these negative scripts have a double barb: they give rise to shame or a sense of not being fulfilled, yet by giving a false dopamine hit of reward they also mange to trick the brain into thinking they are beneficial by giving a brief experience of fulfilment followed by the crash of shame, and so we return to these activities again, in part to get away from the low feelings associated with the shame they have caused to arise.
Logically I can look at my addiction to sadness and see that it serves no purpose other than to keep me sad in a world that is perceived as half empty. But if by returning to this familiar place I get a dopamine hit that briefly tells the brain this is a beneficial experience then there is an encouragement to keep returning.
The benefit of mindfulness in this process is to learn to urge surf. This is a manfulness based approach to craving, where instead of trying to resist an urge one instead turns toward the experience of the craving with curiosity, and learns to sit in the experience, attending to it as one watches the breath and the body whilst meditating. In this way there is a beautifully paradoxical process of saying no by saying yes! We say “yes” to being present and allowing without judgement the urge or desire to be as it is, but this requires us to say “no” to acting on the urge in habitual ways so that we are able to sit with it and fully feel what it is like as an experience. In this way we can feel the discomfort within it, and also watch as it passes, without needing to get the hit of the familiar addictive behaviour to make the discomfort go away.
As I write this email I am hailing to apply the principles to my experience right now. I had a date today, someone I met on the Tube a few weeks ago. This was to be our second date, after spending three hours together last Thursday. But he canceled yesterday, saying he is too busy with work. This immediately took me into the familiar story: “I’m not wanted”, “why do I only find men who cannot commit”, “what’s wrong with me….what did I do wrong”. The discomfort of all of this then just makes me want to find a way to escape the pain: either through indulging in the comfortably familiar place of melancholy or in some porn as a simulated experience of connection and sensuality. But this is the old story playing out and putting its shadow over the events. He’s not said we will not meet, only that he is too busy today. It may be we never meet again, or it may be we have a date in a weeks time once I return from Queer Spirit.
My brain finds it so comfortable to go to the place of melancholy it immediately reads this as a rejection and a failure and bang, there is the dopamine hit of going to the familiar place of melancholy. Instead, by applying the urge surfing method in conjunction with Ajhan Chah’s teaching “unsure uncertain” I can stay with this as an experience and recognise that the catastrophising that makes me feel so bad is not based on what is happening, but my fear of what will happen. I can be with the sadness of a canceled date: that is real. But the feelings of failure and of calamity are based on a familiar story of lack being projected into the future and creating a certainty that is not yet born out by any events. A similar story played itself out last month with a new friend whom I was convinced had lost interest in becoming friends. Now we text every few days and are intermittent workout buddies. The story bore no reality to what was to happen but created a week of feeling dejected and a failure. Then when I dropped the story and sent him a text he replied and we carried on from there, so in fact there was no rejection…it was just he had not sent a text and needed me to do so to pick up the conversation again.
I hope this helps you reflect on your own stories and how to relate to them as stories and not truth.