Unraveling the Narrative with Melissa Moore

“We tell ourselves stories to live.” 

      Joan Didion 

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I recently took a road trip with an old colleague and friend with whom I’ve not spent much time for several years. It was their first time traveling through the Southwest Canyonlands, and we spent a lot of time in a hot car together. The past occasionally came up in conversation, and I found it astounding how differently we remembered the same events!  We each had a markedly different narrative about what happened 20 years ago.

Story-making is the act of weaving meaning through narration that orders our experience to make sense of what happened to us. We all integrate meaning through a story from life’s precarious and unceasing events.  Narratives can be highly therapeutic and sometimes necessary to synchronize with one’s world. I am addressing when our narratives conflict with others or we hold them so tight there is no room for another’s experience. 

It's widely understood that individual memory is extraordinarily subjective and faulty. (Shaw, J., & Porter, S., 2015). Therefore, when we notice we have different narratives than someone else on shared history, perhaps with friends, siblings, or family members, we will be challenged to find agreement, and schisms occur. We’re confronted by an entirely different perspective than our own, and sometimes, it feels threatening and groundless. 

From a Buddhist perspective, thoughts weave our personal stories together, and these thoughts arise from deeply conditioned and habituated aspects of our minds. Buddhism understands a storehouse consciousness, one of eight consciousnesses, which holds onto every action, emotion, experience, and thought as a seed waiting to ripen when the right causes and conditions occur. Buddhism believes our storehouse consciousness is full of seeds from this life and all previous lives. 

I’m not realized enough to know if there is a storehouse consciousness. Still, I can recognize that I repeat emotional and behavioral patterns I thought I’d already worked through. I am repeating patterns in relationships, friendships, and life challenges that play out similarly as they have before.  This repetitive nature of our habitual patterns is the ripening seeds arising from our storehouse consciousness. We can purify the storehouse consciousness, but not without intentional mind and heart training.

I’ve learned from my dharma practice and study over the last 40 years to understand that my narrative is nothing more than how I’m making sense of life and certainly nothing solid. Also, I notice how my stories change over time as I edit and re-edit them in the telling. 

Knowing how to loosen our narratives is beneficial in today's divided world of politics, family dynamics, science zealots and deniers, and a general information overload. Widening our minds around our narratives offers us and others flexibility of mind, an openness of heart, and the ability to become curious about another’s perspective. Openness is the seed of compassion, what we cultivate in Karuna Training. 

I have often reminisced with my brother and sister about our family vacations as a matter of relief and entertainment. We’ve found great camaraderie in these recallings at times. My siblings are both considerably younger than me, and in reality, we had different family lives, but we shared the same father and grandparents. When we speak about our father and grandparents, I notice we have entirely different relationships with those family members, leading to varying narratives, which can occasionally cause tension.

What makes siblings exciting, regardless of the age gap, is that they are the most extended relationships we tend to have. Family conflicts can arise when siblings hold tight to their version of ‘what happened.’ Recognizing that it’s natural for our siblings to perceive family experiences differently is an important aspect. A practice of loosening our narratives could be helpful in the name of maintaining essential relationships. 

The way to loosen our narrative in the name of mutual understanding with those with whom we love and share experiences is to let go of what we think we know. That's a challenging task! However, loosening the narrative makes space in our mind for new perspectives and demands we investigate why we hold things from such a different point of view. How do we let go of these storylines, especially when they feel like they’re gluing us together? 

Meditation is beneficial to accomplish this mind-unraveling task, which is one of the main goals of meditation practice. We sit silently with ourselves and synchronize our bodies, breath, and mind in the present moment. Letting the breath and the space at the end of the out-breath be our anchor to the present moment; we continually let go of our thoughts and return to our breath. Meditation builds the muscle in our minds to let go of what we think and experience what is happening fresh in life off the meditation cushion. 

When we encounter a situation where we have a different viewpoint from someone else about what transpired, we practice letting go because that skill has been developed. It shows up like pausing and asking ourselves, ‘Is it necessary to hold onto my story as the right story?’ 

I faced that question this summer when my friend presented a different interpretation of our shared past. At that moment, I had to instantly broaden my perspective to listen genuinely to their point of view. It served as both a gesture of goodwill towards our relationship and evidence of how much I cherished our friendship to be willing to release my narrative. Join me for a one-hour free Karuna Live on Thursday, October 26, from 7 - 8 PM MT to discuss and explore where we hold our narratives tightly and when that is a problem.

Article written by Melissa Moore

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