I was on my first silent meditation retreat. I was so excited to enjoy the silence. Share that time with others who were seeking time in quiet reflection and loving kindness. But by the end of the fourth day, I wanted to see misery brought down upon every meditator there. I couldn’t stand their smug attitudes and five toed socks with their wool Sherpa hats.
It wasn’t until the drive home that I started to realize that I hadn’t said a word to anyone there. I didn’t know them at all. My conclusions about them were in the subtle interchanges we had: how they didn’t smile back as we walked to the meditation hall. How they fidgeted during meditation. How they dressed. I let my imagination create stories about each person and who they were. Without feedback, I interpreted imperfect information into a perfect story, where I was the victim of unreciprocated kindness. I was prepared for being alone… I was unprepared for being alone with other people and my ego got the better of me.
But it was all a story I told myself. These were probably amazing people I would really like to get to know. And how much of our lives is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves? How much better it would be if we could learn how to retell those stories in a way where things are presented in a different light and different conclusions: where we end up happy instead of distressed?
It IS possible. But how?
When the world is working as we think it should, we are usually very present. Very rarely are we bored, are we anxious, do we have anxiety. Think about the times when you have been on a fun carnival ride, watching a movie, enjoying dinner with friends: these moments rarely pull us away into our minds to construct more than the most fleeting thoughts about the future. We know where we are. We want to be here. We are stimulated.
Nevertheless, when our mind is anxious, uneasy, or bored, something interesting happens. We use the evolutionary tool of imagination.
Our imagination was created so that we can create simulations of counter-factual reality (aka daydreams) so that we could survive. We can imagine how we could construct a bridge to cross a river. We can imagine what it tastes like to eat peanut butter and mayonnaise (not good). We can run through scenarios of how to escape the sabertooth tiger. This ability to simulate without having to actually experience reality is a pretty handy tool.
Our imagination can also provide us with hours of entertainment. We can create fantasies where we have incredible love lives and super powers. This tool is so powerful that when we are absent information about the world around us, we can fill in the blanks like a Mad Libs book and define what is real around us without really knowing.
It is this ability of the mind that magicians use. Their sleight of hand tricks baffle the imagination. Our brains struggle to come up with simulations that could explain the seemingly magical powers that are presented before us. We can sometimes even claim that our brain hurts from working so hard to solve the equations of how x=y.
In our daily lives, we use our imagination so much in creating our reality that we barely even know it. It is so habitual that our conclusions are almost automatically taken as truths.
Take, for example, a friend of yours you know is always late. They promise to pick you up to go out to eat. When you look at your watch and see they are late, your nearly automatic thought process is to kick in your imagination and start telling the story. You have no facts, but based on the information you do know you assume that your friend is irresponsible. Your ego is hurt because you value respect of your friends and being late means (to you) that you don’t care or value the other person. You imagination concludes that your friend doesn’t really care about you, and you believe that is a bad thing. Frustrations arise as the expectations you have of the universe are divergent from reality. Since we are not blaming ourselves for our frustrations, we seek an external cause: your friend. When your friend shows up, you are furious at how they could be such a bad friend.
But what if the reason your friend was late was because of a car accident? Or you had the times wrong?
SENSE OF “I”
Our sense of ego (the sense of “I”) is the center of our individual universes. In psychology, the understanding of us is termed a “schema” and one of the amazing thing about schemas is that it is a forever subtly changing definition. It is so slow to change that we often forget that our image of ourselves today is different from 10 years ago, 10 months ago, 10 minutes ago. Our body and mind schemas are static. How often have we heard, “I am what I am.”
But our bodies and minds aren’t static. We were children. We develop and grow. We learn and experience new things every moment. We see a plant in our house and think it is a plant, and ignore that it was once a seed, a sprout and someday it will grow bigger and die. Why is it we forget this truth in our daily living?
It is because it is not useful for the moment. When we get into a car, we do not think about where the car came from. We don’t look around and see what has changed and what is the same. We don’t think about how to turn on a car. We had that experience and for the sake of brevity of energy and efficiency we have created routines and habits to work the vehicle to our purposes with the least effort possible. And when we get into a new car, remember the amount of extra effort it was to learn how to get everything in its proper place; looking for all the buttons we would need to operate, etc.
CONFIDENCE EXPANDING “I”
So our sense of self, our schema, is the “I” in the story of our imagination. All of our senses other than our imagination are pointed away from us and taking in data. And when we operate in this world confidently we are able to expand our sense of self to our family, community and world around us. When we have enough money we can donate it. When we have enough blood we can share it. When we have enough time we can offer it to help others.
And when we are not confident, when we are afraid, when we are unsure? Think of every image you have of a small animal or child scared? What are they doing? They are getting small and compact. That is what we do with our sense of self. When the world around us offers threats (real or imagined) our schema returns to its survival mode. It makes fear-based decisions. The universe becomes as big as a single individual. And if it could…as small as a pea.
The stories in our imaginations focus more on the “I” stories instead of the “we” stories, because it is more important to you. Our imagination starts to work to figure things out. Why am I in danger? (and this happens even in minor frustrations like a friend late to pick you up…because we are hardwired that way). We look out and see out the external causes of our situation and evaluate the something outside ourselves must be to blame.
Sometimes external causes are to blame for our fear: an angry dog, a mugger, a cheating lover. Sometimes, oftentimes, the causes are internal. The story of “I” that we create focuses very often on how the universe is acting on us. The nuances of these stories has the protagonist of ourselves be heroes, villains or hapless; but always the story is focused on us and the tone and narrative of the story justifies the feelings we are experiencing.
Our brain is always doing one of two things: solving the (individual or collective) world’s problems or storytelling in our imagination so that we understand the world around us. Even when we sleep, our dreams are processing points for our understanding. Carl Jung would say that it was how we work out unresolved anxieties. I believe that our dreams are a sort of organizational tool of the days issues (like defragging a computer to run faster the next day).
When our brain/body is actively solving problems, it is moving, eating, building, bonding, procreating, recreating, etc. It is engaged in the world. That is a very “present focused” activity and while we may also spare some energy to use our imaginations, our energy is primarily focused on what we are working on now. How many times have we heard people say that they find great emotional stress relief by exercising or throwing themselves into work?
While the imagination is a great tool for our evolutionary survival, if we accept our thinking as always being reality; if we accept our schemas as being fixed; if we create our stories within those contexts; then we are going to find that we can live in emotional distresses that are of our own creations but unaware that this is the case.
We get angry at the table that we stubbed our toes on. We rattle our steering wheel and scream when we blame the other drivers on the road. We yell at our friends when they show up late to pick us up. Storytelling is what we do every moment we have energy to spare for our thoughts.
As I mentioned before, our imaginations solve problems through simulations. Our imaginations also entertain us when we are bored. Our imaginations are so powerful, we can experience emotions empathetically when actions happen to others. We use our imaginations so often that our schemas don’t see them as simulations but as “our” thoughts and “our” realities. But in the end, they are stories.
It is important that I keep using the terms “imagination and storytelling” instead of “thoughts” because we do tend to think of thoughts as concrete things, paralleling if not equal to truths. By contexting what is happening within us as imagination we can keep true to the idea that we simulating reality and not experiencing it.
LIFE IN THE REFRAME
One of my favorite phrases I use all the time is “Life is always solved in the reframe.” What does that mean?
When we sit in meditation, reflection, with friends discussing troubles, or with a counselor; what we are doing is reviewing the experiences we have and then evaluating the stories we created. Many times we can look back and see how the stories we created are divergent from what may have been the truth. We can comfortably and safely look at the world in a different context.
In therapy, a counselor may develop tools to help you create self-reframes and new ways to look and process the world around you to alleviate distresses that become overwhelming and unmanageable. A spiritual leader may offer different tools to find confidence or ways of reframing the world in way that you can better process your storytelling. In meditation or prayer, we can find our own answers sometimes to those storytelling problems.
By changing the narrative, we recognize that our understanding of the schemas and realities of the universe within and outside of ourselves are perceptual. We can reframe our world views and create new schemas. We can consciously choose the stories we tell in our imagination, or at least edit the stories when they turn in directions we don’t like. Those “reframes” give us space between the experiences we are having and the choices we make in how to deal with them. We can actually choose the emotions we want to engage with in solving the problems that are set before us in life.
Life is always solved in the reframe.
HOW DO I REFRAME?
If reframing was simple, I wouldn’t write articles. Priests, life coaches and therapists would be out of a job. It is an exercise in learning how to change our approach to thinking. A lifetime of habits that have been created so that we can work efficiently has created schemas that seem so fundamentally true, that change can seem impossible. Nevertheless, like dieting, exercise, learning to roller skate—with practices we can develop the patience and determination to learn this reframing skill.
While there are many ways to learn to reframe—the one I will leave you with is the reframing of storytelling.
- RECOGNICE DIVERGENCES: Practice being aware when negative thoughts and feelings arise. This can even be done after the fact in reflection at the end of the day until you are able to see these negative thoughts and feelings happen after, then during; and then as they start to arise; and finally anticipate the conditions that normally bring those negative thoughts up. These negative thoughts are almost always divergences from how we would like our imagined universe to be. It is when things are not running smoothly to plan and we have frictions of reality not meeting expectation. It is what Dr. Aaron Beck calls a problem with “shoulds,” where what should happen doesn’t happen. Eventually, we come to expect and anticipate those divergent moments and (regardless if they happen or not) we build our stories to rationalize and justify our reality and reactions.
- VALUATION: Our stories are “I” focused. Because our negative stories are always singularly focused on just the protagonist, we value what happens in the story only from that point of view. We never worry that the supposed villains perhaps have their own struggling stories. We never worry that we may have been partially or totally to blame for the car accident. Our stories give value to the hero and leaves little room for others. Remember our imagination’s job is to simulate stories for OUR survival and when we are working from a place of fear or negativity, the word “I” is an individual. It is in this stage of storytelling we have an opportunity to start our first reframe and recognize (first by post mortem evaluation, then during the experience and then anticipating the experience) the nature of how we create our own stories. We can edit our stories to include little changes so that we start our reframe.
- EXPECTATIONS and POV: When we can loosen our rigid thinking that what “should” be may not be realistic; when we can loosen our rigid thinking that every story should only be about the “I”; then we can retell our stories. We can add in sub-stories from different points of view and give value to the other characters in the story. We can adjust out expectations of what “should” be and focus on “what is possible” to become. We can see less rigid “thinking” and more imaginative “storytelling” so that we can use that imagination as it should be—a tool to find solutions for a less distressful and more valued life experience.
Reframing our stories allows us to explore our own narratives within our mind. It gives mindful use to evolutionary tools that can harm us as much as help us if we are not careful. With our imagination we can take our experiences and human activities and provide more conducive meaning our world view. Reframing our stories allows us to re-interpret reality and context to remove barriers to the quality of our life.
You can start by simply thinking about what was written in this article. Are you the same person all the time? Are you different from when you were a child? Will you be different when you are older? Have you ever created a story in your head of what was real only to find out later that the imperial reality was totally different? Do you react in a certain way to situations that you wish you didn’t but it seems that is just “in your nature” to be that way?
Think about these questions and let your imagination tell a story of what it would be like if you could wake up tomorrow and your life was totally different and exactly the way you would want it. What would that be like? How could we make that happen?