Monday, March 8, 2010

The Never-ending Story

We all enjoy getting lost in the narrative of a good book or in a well-told story on the movie screen.  It can warm our heart, get our adrenaline pumping, teach us, or just make us laugh.  It's when we get lost in our own stories that we have trouble.

We've all got them.  They start innocently enough, with a thought or a feeling, something someone says to us, a disappointment, a conflict, a praise, criticism, embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, etc.  But then an interesting thing happens.  The mind starts telling a story about it and we get caught in it.  We literally lose our minds to it. There are all kinds of stories and most of us spend most of our waking lives lost in them.

I've had a really tough time the past few weeks.  I did some intense healing work and while it may be that I'm on a trend toward wellness, for now I actually feel worse.  My body and mind have become a volcano in its eruptive phase; blasts of steam and ash, collapse, the venting of molten tears (thanks to menopause, I even have extreme "thermal events" on a regular basis!)  I am so grateful for my mindfulness practice.

This time has been an enormous challenge.  When I can just allow these experiences to come and go, when I can hold them with awareness and compassion, I'm okay.  But I keep getting caught, over and over.  The particular story I've been playing recently has to do with discouragement and loss.  "This is so hard.  I don't know if I can do this.  It's never going to change.  I just want it to stop. Why do I have to go through this?  It isn't fair."  These are the thoughts that pass through my mind.  When one of these thoughts comes up, I notice there is a little contraction, and then I either remain aware and it passes, or I get caught and then there is another thought and more contraction and another thought...pretty soon there is a complete story in which I am the victim of gross universal injustice and I never have a life and all my friends desert me and my husband can't take it anymore and I end up miserable and alone.  At that point my brain is locked into a negative and harmful pattern that keeps feeding itself.

These negative thoughts and the stories that come out of them are associated with patterns of neurons that fire together in our brain.  It starts when we're kids with all our various experiences, some of which are painful.  As we grow up, repetitions of similar experiences cause the same neurons to fire together and over time "wire together" into reactions that are like an automatic pilot.  The thing is, we don't just grow out of it unless we take active steps to do so.

One of the ways we can interrupt our automatic pilot is to practice mindfulness, specifically to focus our awareness on our own thoughts and feelings.  For me, the story about being abandoned and left to suffer alone is a very old one and goes deep, so it still catches me and when things are really tough, I still can get lost in it.  So I have to keep coming back over and over again, time after time, holding my feelings and thoughts softly, bringing my awareness back to what is happening just now, dropping the story. Over time, the story loses its hold, but until then, I'll just keep coming back and dropping it.  Again. And again. And again.


  1. Howdy Cheri, just another Montana buddho-blogger stopping by to say hello :) Sounds like you're on a tough but beautiful path to re-wiring your brain mindfully. I really like the narrative/story motif; we all have our stories, which can become our ruts if we lose the mindfulness you so well write about. Keep up the great work and stay in touch :)

  2. Thank you Justin. Nice to connect with another "Montana buddho-blogger!" Yes, brain re-wiring is a huge interest of mine. We are always shaping our minds, in one way or another. I love it that neuroscience has made such advances in recent years.

    Now I have a face to put with the guy Kyle has mentioned on his blog a time or two in recent months. Your area of study interests me. Be well, Cheri