Tara Brach in her course on negative beliefs and thoughts highlights the fact that as humans we have a “storytelling mind”. We develop “self-stories” that influence the way we view ourselves, perceive others and relate to the world at large. These self-stories evolve over time and exist below our level of consciousness. Tara maintains that we can overcome the limitations of these stories about our self by “shining a light” on them through awareness raising – achieved through mindfulness practices.
Our storytelling mind
Archaeologists, through the discovery of drawings and fossils, argue that humans developed the capacity for abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. This enabled humans to think about things beyond their immediate observations – to envision, engage in symbolic thinking and develop language.
The capacity for abstract thinking underlies our innate preoccupation with developing stories, especially self-stories. Many of our self-stories, however, are fear-based Joseph Campbell described this propensity for fear as the “survival brain”. We fear physical and or psychological harm because of our human origins. Jacob Ham contrasts the survival brain with what he calls the “learning brain”. The former is totally focused on potential threats and is fearful about new situations and ambiguity, whereas the latter is open to new experiences and the challenges inherent in ambiguity – it is not preoccupied with avoiding mistakes.
Self-stories are unconscious – beyond awareness
Our self-stories develop through parental influences, social factors and our own life experiences. The messages we receive from our parents and society at large, influence the formation of our self-stories which, in turn, impact our relationships and our endeavours. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes these stories as “narratives” that can control our thinking, emotions and behaviour.
While self-stories influence our perception of threats and drive our behaviour, they are below conscious awareness. Joseph Campbell highlights this aspect with his concept of the “Circle of Awareness“. He suggests that we can think of our “self” or “psyche” as illustrated by a circle with a line through it – above the line represents conscious awareness and below the line represents our unconscious. We can increase our conscious awareness (above the line segment) by accessing our unconscious awareness through mindfulness.
As humans we have what scientists describe as meta-cognition – the ability to “think about thinking”. In other, words we have the capacity to access our thoughts, our stories and our internal representations of external reality. This meta-cognitive ability enables us to access our unconscious stories through awareness-raising processes designed to expose these self-stories.
Exposing our self-stories through awareness raising
Tara offers a very simple way to access your self-stories that may be locking you into ways of feeling and behaving. This mindfulness practice can be undertaken once you have grounded yourself through conscious bodily awareness and mindful breathing.
The practice entails picturing a time and place where you were with your parents as a child – e.g. the dinner table, the card table, on the sofa watching TV or lying on the floor with the pet dog. Now you turn your attention to your parents and how they are viewing and interacting with you – are they making eye contact at all, asking your views, listening to you mindfully or are they communicating with you without eye contact, ignoring your presence or talking over the top of you all the time. What messages are you receiving from this “interaction”?
In various, subtle ways, often below their level of consciousness, your parents are communicating messages to you and about you. These messages and others you receive, can shape your self-stories, e.g.
- I need to go out of my way to attract attention, so that people will acknowledge me and value my opinion
- I need to be nice and constantly meet other’s needs to be sure that I can be loved and valued (a self-story that can lead to “the disease to please“)
- I should be “seen and not heard”
- I will only be accepted when I am successful with everything I do
- I cannot make a mistake, otherwise I will be rejected
- Risk is to be avoided at all costs
- I have to show people how intelligent, capable and accomplished I am before people will listen to me and take me seriously.
Tara argues that when you can name your self-stories, they lose their power to control you – to influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can expose our self-stories, increase our awareness of how they impact our lives and relationships and reduce their (unconscious) hold over us.
Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)
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