Like any emotion, stress is an individual, personal experience. But there’s one KEY stressor we’d benefit from knowing more and doing something about.
One stressor all of us have in common is the stories we tell ourselves and others that tend to be based on our interpretation of the facts of what happened or what-is, colored by the stories stored in our mind about past experiences. As a milder example of this, I got an e-mail that was written a certain way, and perceived a tone or attitude in the message. I “thought” I read it correctly, felt miffed by the message, but decided to wait to respond, to practice that “Cooler heads…” thing.
During the wait, I paid attention to how my mind wanted to interpret the message and the sender’s intention, and how in order to do this, my mind began to pull up bits of data (thoughts and feelings) from old files tucked away in memory (and a broad range of thought-data it was, at that!), as though they were relevant in the Now and to the sender. They weren’t.
My mind was only doing what it was conditioned by example and habit to do: Establish a story to go with the event, to provide context and meaning beyond what was actually there, beyond what was actually there to be addressed. During the wait-time I focused on something else. When my mind attempted to wander into story-land in search of supporting information so it/I could create an “informed” interpretation of the e-mail and its writer’s intention, and my “right” to react, I chose not to go there. I stayed with my choice to wait to respond to the person when I was clear-thinking and had a quiet mind.
A few hours later I re-read the e-mail without stories attached or any build-up of negative energy that is wont to happen when the mind replays and attaches stories from its repertoire. I’m so glad I chose this process because my mind’s initial, so-fast-I-didn’t-see-it-happen interpretation wasn’t completely accurate. I was able to respond, not react, to the e-mail sender without my message being influenced by emotions, just facts. (And I received a gracious e-mail in reply.)
How often we jump into reaction-mode based on instantaneous attachment of one or more stories to what happens, by our ego-mind. If you think about it, a good portion of the stress we experience when something happens or someone says or writes something to us is because of the stories we engage as opposed to engaging just the actual event or statement.
I could have so easily stressed about the e-mail and its writer through stories replayed or imagined during the wait-time, building up more and more emotional energy that would have been inappropriate and non-productive to express. Not to mention my emotional energy would not have been based solely on facts or truth. It’s so easy to do this because it’s a familiar practice for many of us. We are, after all, attached to our stories. We use them to describe or define our experiences, our life. We believe our stories represent the truth. Some do, some don’t.
What we say to ourselves, and others, during challenging times contributes to how long we stay in such times, which is often way past the actual event. We steal our own joy with our words. We deplete other’s joy with our words. Our words create stories, which can create stress, depending on the words we choose. Every word, thought or expressed, and action, is like a tattoo on us and on others we touch with them. Tattoos require destruction to remove them and reconstruction to erase the visible fact of their existence. Even if this process has a good result, the memory of the tattoo remains.
Our mind can use us or we can use it. We can believe we are our mind, that we are our thoughts. We aren’t, but we often act as though we are. Practice watching your mind think. Then practice realizing that you are the watcher, the observer, watching the mind think; that you are not the same entity. If you were your mind, you couldn’t watch it from an observer’s point of view. The mind is a tool for us to use; it is not the Being we truly are, just as your car assists you to go places but you are the driver, separate from the car.
When you practice watching your mind, do so without judgment, because any judgment will, again, be just your mind trying to slip thoughts and stories in between cracks or an open window in your awareness. This practice lets you step away from compulsive thinking (compulsive mental storytelling), which is stressful and often directionless or leads you into an inappropriate direction. Eckhart Tolle wrote: “Thinking and consciousness are not synonymous. Thinking is only a small aspect of consciousness. Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness does not need thought. . . . Thought alone, when it is no longer connected with the much vaster realm of consciousness, quickly becomes barren, insane, destructive.” If you consider fear, anger, rage, etc., you can be aware of this as a fact. When we feel these emotions or witness them, we witness the absence of or temporary disconnection to true consciousness and clear thinking.
There is one time that telling our stories to ourselves or others is beneficial: if we need to vent, get input, or heal emotionally. It’s the other times, the ones that don’t lead to resolution or healing, but lead us away from them that I refer to here.
On September 11, 2001, we witnessed the power of stories to lead members of the human family to unconscionable acts of destruction, or extraordinary acts of grace. That day is just one of numerous examples in our shared history; but, I’m reminded of a story one survivor of that day shared. He explained that during the time he thought his fate was sealed, he hadn’t liked his dying thoughts. That the next time he faced dying he wanted different thoughts than he’d had that day. He made changes in his life and himself to ensure this. This is a powerful, meaningful way to use stories for our well-being and the well-being of others.
We can let better thoughts while we live contribute meaning not only to our time here but also to that departing experience we all inevitably meet. While we create stories in our mind about our life that we tell ourselves and others, we simultaneously create stories WITH our life that get told by others, while we’re here and once we aren’t.
We can choose to create a different legacy while we’re still here. And in that process, we can choose to recognize the stressor (and destroyer) that our storytelling can often be in our regard and the regard of others, and choose clear thinking and consciousness instead. We can combine clear thinking and consciousness with how we really want to feel, and with the dream of a better bigger picture, and find a way to get there instead of where we usually or too often go. To make this a habit will require attention and may take time, but I’m willing to continue this. What about you? It’s a good practice.
Practice makes progress.