Did you know that there is a part of your brain whose sole purpose is to make shit up?
Literally, there is an information processing area whose work is to make the world make sense–to string together details and assume meaning out of it. For example, we all have a little blind spot in our eyeballs where the optic nerve enters the actual eye. But we don’t see a blind spot–the brain just makes up what’s probably there based on what’s around it.
So this means, essentially, that we are completely wired to tell stories. And we do it all the time. We love stories. It’s how we have communicated to each other from the beginning of human society, and it’s how we understand the world around us. Many of us have no idea what incredibly creative artists we are because we spend so much time lying to our own faces about how true the world around us must be. And we are much better at lying to ourselves than lying to anyone else in the world.
In Elemental Mind, a fascinating book on quantum physics and consciousness, Nick Herbert describes an experiment in which a person’s corpus callosum, the “cables” that connect the left and right side brain, had been severed in an experimental treatment for epilepsy. Using a special kind of goggles, the left brain was given an image (in this case, an apple) and the right brain another (a teacup). Having seen both images, the person will describe the apple, the speech centres of the brain being located only in the left brain. But when asked to choose the object from a table, the hand controlled by the right brain will pick up the teacup. Dr. Roger Sperry, who was carrying out these experiments, found that when the patient was asked to explain why they described the apple but picked up the teacup, the patient (left brain speaking now) would say something like, “The teacup is shaped like an apple, so that’s why I chose it.” More interesting still–the person would believe that shit.
This person was not lying to the experimenter–the brain was simply trying to make the most sense of what was going on around it based on the information it had. In this sense, our brains are constantly choosing details and putting them together in a sequence (a narrative) that creates a navigable situation.
The mindfulness we learn when we practice yoga teaches us that we have a little more control over these stories that we end up telling ourselves (especially, I suppose, if we have an intact corpus callosum!). We don’t stop telling stories and filling in blank spots–the brain does what the brain is made to do–but we can pause for a moment and notice which details the brain is choosing to use to create a narrative. Herbert writes,
At it’s core, the process of thinking depends on our ability to tell a good lie and stick with it. Metaphors R Us. To think is to force one thing to “stand for” something that it is not, to substitute simple, tame, knowable, artificial concepts for some piece of the complex, wild, ultimately unknowable natural world. […] Language is surely one of our most useful tools of thought, giving conceptual prominence to certain things and processes, while relegating the unnamed and unnameable to conceptual oblivion.
This urge to create sense of the world around us is not just limited to the literal things we can see and touch in the world, but also the ways in which we are conscious, intelligent, emotional beings. Ask yourself for a moment: what story comes out when you are trying to tell someone who you are? On a first date for example, have you ever used the phrase “That’s just who I am”? Have you ever thought that maybe the words that came out around that phrase were complete and total lies?
Mindful yogis like me can get really, really good at making up convincing stories about who we really are. We can actually be worse than the average thinking liar because we have this idea that we are mindful, and that somehow means we are immune to these simplifying stories, that we can see the real world exactly the way it is.
Perhaps this is why sages decided a loooong time ago that the world we see and live in and interact with everyday is nothing but an illusion. Better yet: an illusion of our own design. This illuminates one of my favourite of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
1:3 Tada Drashtuh svarupe-vasthanam
Then [through the practice of yoga] the seer is established in his own true nature.
Which is to say, in the nothing space of having ceased the fluctuations of the mind. Which is to say, the seer’s true nature is….[drumroll please]: Nothing! There’s nothing there! Patanjali’s yoga was sit down, and shut up [gross generalization]. Lose the stories. Lose all that “who I think I am” crap. Stop asking a your reflection in a street puddle “Who am I?” The answer is very simple: Nothing at all, until you make up a story about it.
So then why not learn to become a better storyteller? Part of mindfulness is noticing the habits you have, the samskaras, the grooves in your neural net, the stories you tell over and over about the things you are, the things you can do, the things you can’t do. Remember that when you tell yourself you are ugly, or stupid, or that you never do anything right, to be careful what you say because you are listening.
And even worse–so is everyone else. You are the one who teaches people how to treat you. People respond to the stories you tell about yourself, and react to you in kind. If you want people to think you are fat and ugly and worthless, keep telling yourself that, others will have no choice but to agree, and you just created your own reality.
Now, I’m not saying you should walk around telling everyone that actually you are Gisele Bundchen. Just look at the details you choose to highlight in your self-stories, and then ask yourself if you could choose a different set. For example, if you asked me how I’m doing, and I was actually honest, I would probably tell you that I’m having a bad month because I’ve just gone through what feels like my millionth breakup, then I got hit by a car, I’m living at home with my parents again, and I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Roswell on Netflix and snuggling my parent’s cats. True, but man, not the most interesting story of my life. Do you want to hang out with me right now? Me neither.
So when I start to tell someone that stuff, lately I’ll pause, take a breath, and try one of what Ana Forrest calls (in her AMAZING new book Fierce Medicine) a “dharma joust.” Here’s my habit–tell you this story about this millionth breakup and how sorry I feel for myself. But when I listen to that story start to come out, I wait, take a breath, and string together different details instead. I’ll try: “It’s been an interesting month. I survived getting hit by a car, and thanks to yoga, my body is healing pretty quickly. I’ve been spending a lot of time writing and meditating and figuring my shit out in the supportive home of my lovely parents.” Just as true, but a much more hopeful (and a little less cliched) story. I sure like it better. I’d hang out with me now.
So pick yourself and your old stories up, and think about letting them go. Look at what you are doing to your life every time you talk about it. Watch what you habit is, witness yourself about to tell some boring old story about how much your life sucks. Then stop. Take a breath. Choose some different details, and see if a more interesting, but equally “true” story can come out. You might be surprised at how much better you like yourself when you bring this into your practice, and how much less important that limiting statement “That’s just who I am” really becomes.
So, then: who are you? Tell me your story. And make it a good one; I’m listening.