In one of her wonderful dharma talks Sylvia Boorstein tells the story of her visit to a local appliance repair shop in her town. Outside and in the shop was plastered with posters containing a multitude of "feel good" platitudes: "If life hands you lemons, make lemon aid." "Smile and the whole world smiles with you."
Inside the proprietor greeted each customer with a smile and treated them as if each of them were the most important person in the world. As a psychoanalyst Boorstein knew that happy, jovial people usually have happy, well-adjusted mothers. When the owner was finally free to wait on Sylvia she asked him if his mother had been a happy person.
"No," he replied, "she was a depressed alcoholic who committed suicide. "
Well then," continued Boorstein, "was your father a happy man?"
"No," replied the proprietor. "He was an angry man who also had problems with alcohol and who beat his children."
"In that case," said Sylvia, "I'm surprised you turned out so well."
"Who said I turned out well?" asked the man. "I was a poor student and finally quit school. I have only read one book in my life. I had trouble with alcohol and drugs. I was in trouble with the law."
"Well something must have happened to change you," said Boorstein. "What happened?"
He said, "I finally joined the Marines. After they had sworn us in and issued us our uniforms, they led us six at a time into a room to have our hair cut off. They sat us down in chairs facing a blank wall and cut it all off and then they spun us all around at the same time to face the mirror. In that instant I realized that there was no one in that room that I recognized and no one whose story I knew. I decided right then and there to change my story."
There is profound wisdom in this tale.
None of us are the stories we tell about ourselves and yet we cling to the same old stories of hurt and pain and anger and disappointment year after year. We tell our stories over and over to anyone who will listen. We are not our stories but we become so identified with them we might as well be out stories for all the good we are to ourselves and to others.
And our stories aren't even true. Our stories do not even reflect what really happened to us or in our lives.
Science shows us how faulty our memories and our stories really are. The only time we have a true memory of something that happened in the past is the very first time we remember it, the first time we recall it to mind. The second time we remember it or call it to mind we are actually not remembering the event itself but our memory of the last time we remembered it which was tainted by our feelings and thoughts on the occasion of that remembrance. By the time we have dragged that memory into the forefront of our conscious twenty or thirty times our memory of what happened is now clouded by the last twenty or thirty remembrances and the feelings and impressions and thoughts we had on the occasion of each remembrance. We no longer have a clear recollection of what really transpired. We have a recollection that as been rehashed every time we have thought of it.
Have you ever played Chinese Whispers?
In Chinese Whispers one person reads a statement of fact from a piece of paper and then whispers what he has read into the ear of the person beside him. The person beside him then whispers what he just heard into the ear of the person beside him and so forth down the line. The last person then repeats out loud what he had passed on to him and the person who started the game then reads what the original piece of paper said. What the last person heard and what the paper says are always poles apart.
This is what our memories are like. This is what happens each time we tell ourselves or others our stories. Each reiteration adds a new layer of fantasy onto what happened and yet we hang onto that story as if it were our very identity.
Do you remember the story from your childhood about the monkey and the tar pit? The monkey stuck his right front paw into the tar pit and got stuck. Then he put his left front paw in to help get his right front paw out and that becomes stuck. The story goes on until all parts of the monkey are stuck in the tar pit.
The stories we tell about our lives are our tar pit. Our stories are where we become trapped in life. We begin to think that the stories we tell about ourselves are who we are when nothing could be further from the truth.
I have a friend who continually tells me how good life is and how it keeps getting better and better for them. I know this isn't true. It is just a new story that is told along the same old stories of hurt, disappointment and pain. They really are not good and their life is not going well. It is just another lie they have told themselves. It is just another story they have identified with.
Many years ago now I found myself struggling with a wicked addiction to cocaine. I was a mental, emotional and physical wreck and I was convinced I was going to die. I could not get the money off my back. I desperation I stumbled into the program of Narcotics Anonymous. In the beginning, like most addicts, it was important for me to "tell my story" and to tell it repeatedly as if what had happened to me so was somehow unique, as if I was unique. Gradually it came to me however. I didn't have to keep telling "my" story because everyone else was telling it. Their story and my story was interchangeable and when I realized that came the freedom of not having to keep telling my story. I could let it go. I could stop living in the problem and start living in the answer, as they say, and as I lived the answer I ceased to live in the story. I ceased to be the story. I not only no longer needed "Hello, I'm Ken and I am an addict," I could no longer live it. That was, on an ultimate level, no longer who I was.
I recently walked into an N.A. meeting after not having attended any for many years. The truth is that ninety percent of addicts will die and there were only three people around that table that I knew from days gone by. They were still Bob or Joe or Jane and they were still addicts and they were still firmly wrapped up with their stories. They were convinced they were there story.
How about you? Do you still think you are the stories you tell? Are you still trapped in the stories of your bad relationship(s) or marriage(s) or family fights and feuds or any of the rest of the vast drama we humans engage in?
There is a path to freedom in this life. It begins simply. Stop telling your stories. Allow the truth that you are not your stories to permeate your life. Let go of the bondage of the past. Let go of the bondage of a self that doesn't even exist because ultimately we ourselves are just a story we tell ourselves.
I hope you find the road to freedom.
(Originally posted to Multiply July 11, 2008)