"When I observe some of our behavior, it really looks to me as if human beings want to suffer. Judging from the way we act, we do not seem to be truly interested in being happy... We seem to want to keep the painful experience of anger alive and close, and keep kindness and happiness at bay. We act as if we treasure suffering, so whenever we find it, we don't want to let it go.
... We are operating on the mistaken assumption of who we are is really this angry, disturbed person. But we do not have to be that person... At any moment, we have the option of being different; we can be a person who is not angry or disturbed. Let yourself be that other person - a person who treasures true happiness, kindness and tranquility."- His Holiness 17th Karmapa, from The Heart of Noble,
I've encountered this quote, and several others, over the past few days which tie-in with the recurring theme of stories. Because we love a story; stories about ourselves, stories about our humanity, our culture, the world, the universe and life itself. I'm beginning to see that the single defining ability which drives human behaviour is story-telling. That's a bold statement, I know. But it underlies and drives what we do, who we think we are and how we define everything. We tell stories about HOW THINGS ARE.
And stories are beautiful. They entertain, they inspire, they educate and inform, they thrill and scare, they allow us to visit new worlds, and to get to know people and foreign landscapes. They can take us forward into the future and deliver us back in time, and provide a narrative of the present.
Trouble is we don't always see stories as stories. We fail to see that everything that we tell, print, sing, paint, draw, film, compose and think is a story. It's a depiction. It's the map - not the territory. If you believed that a novel, or a film is real you would be shocked and surprised when it ended to discover that it was just a fantasy. And who hasn't had the experience of not wanting to finish a novel because you want to go on being immersed in the story and the characters; because the story that you're reading is more exciting and absorbing than the life you're living?
And more and more I'm seeing that what we do is defined by the stories we believe. If you change the story, you change change the experience of reality.
But it's not as easy as that, is it?
Wouldn't it be great to change the record? When we're feeling pissed-off and dissatisfied, to metaphorically take off one record and put on another, stop watching one programme and watch another, put down one novel and pick up another much more inspiring, absorbing and exciting one.
But we can't. Can we? We're stuck with this. THIS story. This narrative. This version of events.
Or, are we?
Maybe you've heard about - and tried - positive thinking, meditation, CBT, NLP, counselling, self-help, self-development, hypnotherapy. They're large and burgeoning movements. And, at their heart they all have one goal - to make people happy. Or happier. When people have exhausted the other options that are supposed to deliver happiness - money, success, relationship, family - getting, growing, doing - when those don't produce the promised happiness, then people start looking at other options. They try to find a better, alternative story. They try to make themselves better, or to still their mind, to re-programme their behaviour, change their thoughts, investigate their past. And these have a varying degrees of success. But if one of them was the holy grail - if one of them really 'did it' then we'd all be doing it, wouldn't we? It would very quickly be apparent that if one of these methods definitively worked and could make you happy, then it would spread like wild-fire. So, like success and stuff and careers and money and the latest relationship - they work for a while for some people some of the time. But they're not a guarantee.
Why not? Are we really wedded to our anger and unhappiness? Do we really not want kindness and happiness, as suggested by His Holiness 17th Karmapa? It does seem like it's the dominant state - unhappiness. If it weren't, we wouldn't spend so much of our lives looking for it! But is it as easy as saying that we want suffering? If we wanted it why would we seek to end it?
There's something very cynical and dismissive about the first part of M'sieur His Holiness's statement. For if we treasured suffering and didn't want to let it go, then we wouldn't seek to do so. We'd just enjoy it, wallow in it and not try to find ways to be happy.
The second part of his statement suggests that all we have to do is let ourselves be happy, kind and tranquil and let go of the suffering and unhappiness. Well, good luck with that. That's tantamount to waving the magic wand of wishful thinking. Don't work, does it? Would that it were that easy.
But, perhaps it is.
What if you didn't need to change anything - your thoughts, your reality, your success, your appearance, your financial situation - none of it. It would all just keep going exactly as it is and exactly as it does.
What if, all you had to do was see that everything that is said, thought, believed, projected, written, painted, drawn, filmed, commented on, blogged, is a story.
What if, you were believing a story that says you need to be happy. That one day you WILL be happy.
Now, I know that at first sight this sounds like what His Holiness is saying. But this isn't just saying that you have to change what you think. What I'm saying is that you need to see through all stories. ALL stories - including the one that says - "I should be happy."
Because we do, don't we, we think we should be happy, and loved and useful, and happy, and have purpose and make a difference and be happy....
You get the picture.
Why? Why do we think that? We think it because we're told that is what is going to happen. One day, we will be, and do, all these things. Providing we play our part and work hard and be good and do as we're told and show respect and love well and be helpful..... then we will be happy.
And we do these things.
And... we're not happy. And maybe we question why we're not happy. And we're told 'ah, don't worry, just try a little harder, be a little better, do a little more.'
So, we do.
And still, we're not happy.
We've got the stuff, we've married the person, we've had the gorgeous children, we've given our all, we've done our duty, respected our elders... blah, blah. And yet.... we're still not happy.
And then we don't where to go or what to do. We've done what we were told to do. We've followed the formula. We've carried out the instructions. So...it must be us. We must be doing it wrong, because the alternative is too radical to consider - that maybe the story is not correct. It's got a fundamental flaw it. It's a flaw that ignores reality. It presents a picture that isn't representative.
Look, take the ubiquitous story of santa. We tell little children, children that we say we love and cherish above all else, that the presents that we buy them for Christmas aren't bought because WE want them to be happy (as if that stuff COULD make them happy, but we've been playing our part to the tee and for quite a long time, so we've bought into the story too). We tell them that some man is going to deliver presents to them and ALL the children all over the world... providing.... providing they are good. So we abdicate the opportunity to let our children know that we give them presents because we think they'll give them pleasure, in order that we can control their behaviour with a threat of non-delivery of presents by some fat, old geezer.
It doesn't occur to us that if we told them that there is no such thing as santa clause, that if you get a present it's because people buy it for you because they care about you and want to give you pleasure. It doesn't occur to us that if we were just honest then it might be a much more effective way of relating to our children. And if we did this, then they might not be so inclined to display what we deem to be bad behaviour and so eliminate the need FOR a story about some creepy old bloke who squeezes down chinmeys.
See, the thing is, we set our kids up to be disappointed. Because, at some point, we have to spill the beans. And then, there is a major mind-fuck disappointment coming up. Except, we've told them that we are not liars, and yet we have to tell them now that we have been lying and THIS teaches them is that the way to get what you want, the way to control people's behaviour, is to lie.
What kind of fucked-up message is it that we're giving them? You'll only get stuff if you're good. I don't love you enough to give you gifts. I'm gonna let you believe in a lie.
Oi, oi, oi.
It would be so less screwed-upif we didn't reward childrens' behaviour either with lies or stuff. If we loved them for what and who they are. Stopped buying them off. Stopped trading their uniqueness for some kind of homogenous ideal of conformity that means that they behave against their nature in order to get things that they never knew they wanted in the first place.
We can't help it though. We were collectively fed the same stories, and until we can see them as lies and believe that there can be an alternative, then we'll continue. We'll do the things we're taught, because we're taught that it's the best way, the right way - it's not done with malice aforethought. It's done in a communal belief that it's 'The Way Things Are Done'. And it IS the way things are done. But is it the most effective way? Is it a way that lets people be themselves and value what is valuable? That their abilities and talents and energy and liveliness is what is really precious - that they don't have to get anything and attain anything in order to be themselves. That they have something to give and contribute and enjoy without having to constantly chase after some state called happiness. That happiness is just seeing that the stories that we tell are just that - stories.
And when you see that it's all stories, what's left is reality. Life. This livingness. This liveliness. And the stories can continue, but if you don't take them to be the territory, but see them as a depiction, then you can explore that territory and enjoy it - the uphills and the potholes, the storms and dry-beds, the springs and the raging gorge.
And it really is that simple. Stop believing the lie that life is a story. Life is this. It's what is happening right now. What you are, right now. And when you see the story for what it is, that's where the pivot is. The fulcrum. Because then... then you're in free-fall - a free-fall of possibilities without constraints - because you're not bound by fiction anymore, but have the entire availability of potential. Anything. You can do anything. You don't have to be in thrall to any story. Because reality is not limited by fiction or belief but is woven from the ever-changing reality of dynamic living.
And the narrative now comes from shifting, pulsing, morphing living reality and it's what you are. It is fluid and responsive and inquisitive. It reacts and queries because it recognises that there is nothing definite, no truth that stands immovable, no promise that cannot be broken. This is shifting sands. And that is very good news because it means that you, nor anything, have to cling to certainty. You never need be sure of anything. You don't have to defend your position. Because there is no certainty, no surety and no position.
All there is is the shifting sands of reality and there is no longer any absolute story to uphold and defend. No beliefs to protect because the only basis they have is in fiction.
So where does that leave you? What happens when you realise that the story is a fiction? Well it means that you can stop being defined and restricted by an unhappy story. You can immerse yourself in the endless possibilities. The story doesn't have to be unhappy and morbid and depressing. You see, if the story is just that - a fiction - then that leaves you in a position of being able to write a new one. And this isn't just about saying - I'm going to pick up a different book with a different story, it's about seeing that however we define what is happening - whatever we say, however we describe it, is a story and so we have the option to write a different one. We can see things as they are and narrate it differently. this isn't about ignoring reality - it's not about re-framing it - it's about reacting to it and working with it. Seeing the bare-faced facts and using them to create a different story. Taking the raw materials and using them to create something more inspiring, more sustainable, more robust, positive and resilient.
You can't change reality, but you can re-write the narrative - tell a tale that is much more uplifting, creative and inspiring.
"Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life". Mary Oliver.