Meditations: Oh The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I recently read an op-ed by Todd May in the New York Times, published January 16, 2017, entitled the Stories We Tell Ourselves. He starts off with a story,

“I was driving home from work and a car cut me off. The guy was driving really slowly, and I wound up following him for half a mile.

As it stands, it’s not a very interesting story. But suppose we add another line:

So I laid on my horn the whole time.

Or perhaps a different line:

That’s why I’m late.

Each of those two lines add a dimension to the story that wasn’t there before. Now, instead of just a story about me, we have a story about how I like to see myself, or perhaps how I like myself to be seen. Either way, I am expressing what might loosely be called a ‘value.’ This value is not necessarily a moral value, but a way of being that I want to see myself as living, a way of being that I consider valuable for myself and seek to associate myself with. In the first case, I express something like, ‘I am not a person to be messed with.” In the second it is something like, “I am not a tardy person.’

Many of our stories about ourselves do this. We tell stories that make us seem adventurous, or funny, or strong. We tell stories that make our lives seem interesting. And we tell these stories not only to others, but also to ourselves.”

This article brought to mind the Buddha’s teaching on discursive thought. In the Dvedhavitakka Sutra the Buddha spoke about two types of thought patterns that we must work with as practitioners of the Dharma.

“The Blessed One said, ‘Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, and thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, and thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.

And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, and resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Unbinding.”

This is what Mr. May was referring to in his story. Robert Thurman expands on these ideas in his notes on the Teachings of Vimalakirti saying,

“Vikalpa, parikalpa, samāropa, adhyāropa, kalpanā, samjñā, and prapāñca. All of these refer to mental functions that tend to superimpose upon reality, either relative or ultimate, a conceptualized reality fabricated by the subjective mind. Some translators have tended to lump these together under the rubric ‘discursive thought,’ which leads to the misleading notion that all thought is bad, something to be eliminated, and that sheer ‘thoughtlessness’ is ‘enlightenment,’ or whatever higher state is desired. According to Buddhist scholars, thought in itself is simply a function, and only thought that is attached to its own content over and above the relative object, i.e., ‘egoistic’ thought, is bad and to be eliminated. Therefore we have chosen a set of words for the seven Sanskrit. terms: respectively, ‘conceptualization,’ ‘imagination,’ ‘presumption,’ ‘exaggeration,’ ‘construction,’ ‘conception’ or ‘notion,’ and ‘fabrication’.”

I think the last term, prapāñca or fabrication, is the trap which we find ourselves in time and time again. We tend to apply stories to the events in our daily lives until we have fabricated it into our own reality. By not recognizing these fabrications as the display of our own minds, we end up creating categories of self and other.

Todd May later points to the fact that, due to social and mainstream media, we create “echo chambers” that reinforce our discursive thinking. This causes us to believe that our values are the “right” values, and that our opinions are justified and superior. We then see those who live outside of our “echo chamber” as having expressed values that are mistaken and abhorrent. It’s easy to see examples of this type of thinking, which then has spiraled into harmful speech and negative physical behaviors. It is important that we don’t just look outside of ourselves for examples, and instead use mindful introspection to see our own negative thought patterns.
The Buddha also taught how to work with these two types of thought through the applying antidotes in the Vitakkasanthana Sutra,

“When evil unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion arise in a bhikkhu through reflection on an adventitious object, he should, (in order to get rid of that), reflect on a different object which is connected with skill. Then the evil unskillful thoughts are eliminated; they disappear. By their elimination, the mind stands firm, settles down, becomes unified and concentrated, just within (his subject of meditation).”

Todd May’s article ends with,

“In this age of polarization, where it is easy to dismiss others with a righteous wave of our hand, we could perhaps do worse than to reflect on the complications that each of us lives, complications that are often on display in the stories we tell about ourselves.”

Next time you find yourself caught up in negative thinking take a moment to reflect on the story that you are telling yourself. Are you caught in the trap of fabrication, embellishing a situation or making it more complicated than it is? If you are, take the advice of the Buddha and reflect on compassion, patience, or another virtuous object.