Why We’re Bound by the Stories We Tell Ourselves
And how to turn them into a liberating, spiritual practice
Most of us mortals run the treadmill of existence, the hamster wheel of life, trying to outrun the nagging feeling in the back of our minds that something isn’t quite right. We try to forget it with endless distractions; parties, work, drugs, adrenaline, games, orgies, movies, money, cars. Quicker, harder, rougher, better. But the quicker we pour, the faster that little void within us empties.
The results of our running are clear, from widespread depression and anxiety to climate crisis and whales filled with plastic.
It seems simple; just stop running! Find peace in the present! But the problem is as simple as it is monumental. How?
The spiritual path is the answer, and there’s a wide selection to choose from.
Traditions such as Gnosticism, Stoicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, or teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts point to the same goal, though through different routes.
I’m providing another path, “the spiritual path of the storyist.”
You might ask, “Why another path when there’s so many and Buddhists especially seem to have everything figured out?”
It has to do with metaphors.
The Importance of Metaphors
Metaphors are figurative comparisons between two things. We find metaphors in stories, music, knowledge, paintings, in everything if we want to. We can view the fall in Genesis as a metaphor for how our thirst for more can ruin heaven on Earth, or about evil apples. Science too is a set of metaphors that tries to describe our chaotic reality through simple charts and symbols.
We especially use metaphors to talk about the things we can’t talk about. The harder it is to nail something down, the more varied the metaphors. Why are so many songs about love?
As with love, so with life. With our modern lives and jobs, we ask ourselves, as throughout time, why are we striving so?
Some have found answers to our existential struggles, which point to a life where we don’t have to run around chasing the next scream.
With answers comes perspective. One can see where one went wrong and share that wisdom. However, many don’t wish to leave their caves when the shadows on the walls are so mesmerizing.
This is where metaphors rear their heads.
While there are answers aplenty, it’s too easy to nod along when someone (like me) shares what they’ve learned. It’s too easy to repeat carpe diem or memento mori and call it a day.
This is where the right metaphor at the right time can strike gold instead of being met with another “yes yes.” Why do you think one post about embracing the present (for example) changed your perspective while thousands of others didn’t?
One could even see a powerful message in a metaphor about something completely different. There are all kinds of objections to the Bible but plenty of lessons as well. Maybe you could find a metaphor that speaks to you and just you.
Maybe you’ll see the world in a grain of sand.
The purpose of metaphors is to illuminate what lies in the dark, but unlike the one ring, there’s no metaphor to unite them all. We are individuals with our own mental and physical patterns, and just like the need for individualized medicine, we need individualized metaphors. This is where power lies; not to say something new, but something old in a new way.
That’s why I’m presenting my view on the spiritual path. The way of the storyist makes sense to me, so it might make sense to you.
The spiritual path of the storyist centers on stories.
You wake up early before your alarm signals the start of another cycle of your routine. With an hour to spare, the darkness of night has barely started receding to the coming day. Even the birds haven’t realized that dawn is approaching. You sit still and look at the gradual transformation of the world. Everything is all right. No demands, no rush. That sunrise is all there is.
Run a marathon, try a spiritual retreat, elope to Zürich with the one you just met, get engrossed in an enticing project or a new game. In moments like these, it’s easy to wonder: Why can’t it be like that always? Why push yourself to do anything when the right thing, the right person, makes everything feel so easy, so right?
No wonder we’re consumed by movies and books. They present a focused lens through which everything integrates into one purpose. A clear goal, obstacles, and a happily ever after.
Or consider all the narratives about happiness we’re bombarded with: Get a BMW, write a book, a wild and exciting sex life that needs this trademarked dildo! Succeed in sport, in business, in life. You have the president on speed dial? Wow.
Stories are forecasts. They have the form of if that, then. If I get that promotion, then I’ll kick back and just be. If I become Time’s person of the year, then I’ll be happy. Conveniently, the narratives always end there or are followed by an even bigger sequel.
“ We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” ― Chuck Palahniuk
Each story has a framework, a world it’s built into, and it’s entangled within the tapestry of stories we carry. Believing a story means we believe in its beats (if that, then) and reasons. If I kill a heathen, then I’ll go to heaven, because of the Bible.
However, stories aren’t strictly true. They can be more or less, as scientific stories tend to be. They can be pure belief stories with no evidence “out there,” as in most religions. They can be comforts, as in the belief of karma, or ways to make sense of a complex world.
“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” — Yuval Harari
Even if stories are more or less accurate predictions about causal relationships, reality doesn’t end when a story resolves. You fall in love, get that girl, kiss in the sunset, live happily ever after, followed by a cold welcome to the daily grind. Real life continues and we suffer the counterfactuals: the relationship wasn’t supposed to end like this, my job should be more exciting, the party sucked because the store only had salt and vinegar chips!
In science, stories are replaced when better ones are created, which predict more accurately. But with personal stories like overcoming an important exam, we cling to their original structure long past relevance, instead of letting the story go. We cling to them because without a story, what justification do we have for doing anything?
Stories are predictions about what happens if this or that. Personal stories usually entail a positive or negative consequence: if I get rich, I’ll be happy.
Useful as stories are, it’s easy to be trapped by them and cling to them. We chase our stories trying to fulfill them, to feel that blessed moment when a story is done. We hunt for bigger and better payoffs. We dance quicker and quicker until we fail to slay the dragon and get eaten.
Should you then just stop believing in all stories? Retreat into the mountains and sit in peaceful meditation until nature reclaims your body? Should you resign all fighting spirit and shuffle around like an empty husk in the daily grind of society? Rescinding all belief in stories seems counterproductive to most of us, but therein lies a paradox.
You might sense where my metaphor, my spiritual path of the storyist, is going, but it’s worth tackling a paradox first.
What happens when all beliefs, all narratives you’re wrapped up in, all shoulds, coulds, and woulds disappear? We humans have succeeded in large part because of stories. But psychologically, nihilism seems a likely outcome. Nihilism is a state where nothing matters, everything is just a murky ocean, and you don’t know what’s up and down.
I spent one year in this state. Compared to depression, nihilism was a vacation, but in reality, it’s the cubicle job you don’t want to leave because at least it has free coffee.
But nihilism isn’t really the non-belief in all stories; it’s the belief in the story that nothing matters.
“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.” — Alan Watts
If you meditate long enough, or through more expedient means, you might witness moments when all stories disappear. The feeling is not nihilistic. But what about the predictive power of stories and their role in survival and progress?
There’s another way stories can loosen their grip on you, and that’s when your attachment to your stories collapses. They’re still there, still useful, but no longer necessary.
The resolution to the paradox of the meaninglessness left after renouncing all stories is not to dismiss all stories but to dismiss their importance, the attachment to fulfilling them. We cannot avoid stories. We live in and with them, but we don’t have to torture ourselves because reality crashed with a favorite tale.
The Spiritual Path of the Storyist
The spiritual path of the storyist, as with all spiritual paths, ends in the present moment. So how do we get there? Why is it so hard? It’s because stories are boxes to divide reality into, but without them, we can’t survive.
But if you view everything we believe in as stories, it’s easy to see that the spiritual path of the storyist is to recognize our stories for what they are. Here’s a trivial example: “If I nail my job interview, work hard, and reach the level where I decide things, I’ll achieve inner peace and tranquility. I’ll be done.”
This is a story about something I need to do to be at peace with my existence and accomplishments. The story contains all the elements of a traditional story. There’s your initial state (shitty job), desire (reach management position in dream company), and a call to adventure (job interview). If I heed the call to adventure, I have to brave the treacherous waters of HR personnel and quarterly performance reviews (rising action), get that perfect management position (climax), and live in peace ever after (resolution).
Is this true? If I believe so, it is for me. I might even experience inner peace when I sign that golden contract. For a while.
This is where the spiritual path of the storyist reveals its relevance, where metaphors receive their power. If I view this narrative about “getting job leads to peace” as just that, a narrative, it suddenly becomes free of necessity. I can put that narrative in my giant toolbox of stories that promise happiness, partners, success, productivity, order, and everything else we get sold on a daily basis. Just look at how commercials sell you a product! Get this new app and suddenly you’ll be so productive that your novel will write itself.
I can choose to follow the story or not. And if I do, I won’t be afraid if I have to change course or abandon the path altogether.
Walking the Path
You’re sitting in your favorite comfy chair with a cup of tea warming your hands. Through the window you see trees dancing slowly in the wind.
What did I say to that cute girl yesterday? “I’m a shower, not a grower.” Cringe.
You breathe in and out, take a sip, then you’re immediately dragged along another retrospective or prospective story.
We continuously fall into these small narratives, like a train ride to somewhere and nowhere. It’s tempting to believe that, if you get to the end station of whatever ride you’re on, then you can relax. Even if you do, another train will leave soon.
Meditation and other mindfulness practices can exercise your ability to jump out of an engaging train of thought and instead consciously perceive it as it drifts away. Using the story as a spiritual metaphor means recognizing that you don’t have to jump on the narrative train but can choose to. With no attachment to the ride’s end or how bumpy it will be, you’re free to revel in the ride itself.
By recognizing that we’re riding through life on a tapestry of narrative threads, those threads will loosen their grip on you. For example, when a love interest gives you the finger, you lament the beauty of what could have been. It’s not that those feelings shouldn’t be there, they are, but neither should things be any different. You could shy away from getting hurt, but there’s also beauty in intense emotions.
After all, do you watch a movie for the ending? Yet a lot of our living is exactly that: if this, then I can relax. The story as a spiritual practice is seeing these if, then narratives and letting them go so you’re free to follow the train ride of experience.
No in-depth exploration of yet another metaphor about the spiritual path is complete without some easy-to-follow practices. So here are four “easy” practices for the spiritual storyist:
1. Step out of whatever story is engaging your attention and observe it.
Returning to the sensation of your breath is one way. Or do something really slowly like taking a flight of stairs as if you’re 90 years older. Another is when you emotionally react to something, say a colleague calls you an idiot: why did you get angry right now? Or why does the mere thought of your partner leaving you feel so painful? Dig into these moments with your mind, with your emotions, with your senses. See what arises from the hidden depths. With practice, you might catch that story in the act. Instead of being caught in its throes, you can see it trying feverishly to control you.
2. Choose a story and go into it fully.
When you come home from work, you flop down on the couch and scroll down whatever feed you like the most, stopping briefly on whatever catches your attention. When you go to bed you feel as if you wasted the whole evening. A loved one dies; observe the pain that rolls through you like endless waves. Be the pain as much or as little as it might be. Observe that story. Observe the other stories about how strong that pain is supposed to be or how long it’s supposed to last. Observe the pressure to feel a certain way. Live in that story as if you’re watching a movie like “Schindler’s List,” crying as you’re marveling at its beauty. Choosing a story is like choosing to watch that movie you want to see and seeing it without distractions, rather than grabbing whatever floats by.
3. Let that story go once it’s no longer relevant.
You’ve made it through chemotherapy. A new lease on life. You’re the one who survived and now life will be lived! Sorry to tell you, but you’ve been living life the whole time. You survived chemo, that’s great, but what do you have to compensate for? What are you chasing? Why do you feel you have to be happy? There comes a time when clinging to a story makes you miserable, when reality doesn’t match your facts. One story ends and another begins. Let it go. It’s just a story.
4. Follow one story at a time.
Let whatever story is unfolding at this moment be the one you’re watching. Don’t watch that other story in your mind about what’s supposed to happen next. When you read a book, the excitement is in not knowing what comes next. How often have you gotten annoyed when a carefully planned birthday party hasn’t gone as expected? If you hadn’t been so caught up in following both the story of “the perfect evening” and the “actual evening” at the same time, you could have enjoyed either the fantasy or reality fully.
Together, these practices go like this: extract yourself from the stories you’re caught up in and observe. Notice the pull and push of your expectations, then choose one story to join consciously. Ride that story however it goes, while stepping out now and then to get your bearings. Eventually, you might notice there’s only one story going on, and that story only fleetingly conforms to any narrative you have concocted in your mind: the now.
My personal metaphor of the spiritual path is “the spiritual path of the storyist.”
It’s the practice of recognizing the stories you believe and are consumed by. This requires insight.
It’s the practice of viewing your stories as stories by taking a step out of them. This requires mindfulness.
It’s the practice of willfully stepping into stories and partaking in them consciously. This requires surrender.
Stories are tools. Nothing else. Don’t cling to them, don’t fight them, don’t fear or flee them. It only seems like a paradox. You can be in pain and watch that pain as you watch an exciting movie. The story will end at some point, so consciously perceive it in the meantime and it’ll be that much more enjoyable. Even the tragic stories.
All this is itself a story, a metaphor. It might be useful, entertaining, interesting, but it’s not true. Believing a spiritual path will make you religious rather than free; a preacher, not a teacher. It’s an easy trap to fall into and a story that is tempting to not question too deeply. Rather, this post, my path, is just one way to say what’s been said before; a path towards the now.
I’ll finish with a quote by Philip K. Dick, an author who through his work always questioned what’s real and what we think we are. This might seem simple on the surface, but ponder it awhile.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ― Philip K. Dick