Our stories form a crystal cave of stalactites and stalagmites in our minds, a cool chamber that seduces us with the promise that if we spend enough time there we will divine our answers. How beautiful this cave looks! How many promises it offers! And how familiar this cave becomes when we’ve spent thousands of hours there seeking safety from the vulnerability of childhood. Each stalactite tells a story. Each stalagmite offer the infinite details that need to be figured out.
It’s very easy to become caught in this cave of stories, to fall prey to the widespread belief of the culture and the intrinsic ego belief that we can solve our anxiety by figuring out the “answers” to the conundrums and riddles that occupy daily, human life. Yet as Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This means that the problems our minds create – our stories that arise from our own ego-inventions – cannot be solved at the level of the mind. We must go deeper.
What are these stories? Our projections are story. Our blame-tracks are story. Our intrusive thoughts are story. Becoming obsessed with figuring out the details of a situation is story. When we are righteously attached to our position and cannot see another perspective we’re caught in a story.
To be even more specific: Focusing on your partner’s flaws are story. Focusing on the “what-ifs” of “What if I’m not attracted enough?” or “What if I don’t love my baby enough?” or “What if I never make enough money?” or “What should I do about my job?” are stories. Focusing on how your method of stacking the dishwasher is superior to your partner’s method and dwelling on this “fact” as “evidence” that he’s not competent is a story.
The tricky part about stories is that they’re always incredibly compelling. Our mind lures us in like the witch who removes the breadcrumbs and, unless we have consciousness about how the mind works, we can’t help but follow. And before we know it we’re sitting in that cool and beautiful crystal cave, separated from the warm fire of the heart but protected in the illusion of safety.
When I first started working in the world of the wedding transition twenty years ago, I wrote and spoke extensively about the tendency for women to over-focus on the planning details – the dress, the flowers, catering, photographer, guest list, etc – as a way to avoid facing their deeper, more vulnerable emotions. Everything in our culture, of course, encourages this mindset for those getting married, so it’s frightfully easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the “stuff” of the wedding planning. This is the story.
Now it’s become code with my longterm clients, many of whom found their way to me during the tumult of their engagement anxiety, when they’re projecting onto the details of the current story to say, “It’s the dress”, and they know I mean, “It’s not about the stuff or the details.” When we’re focused on the tangibles, it’s often a way to avoid tending to the vulnerable feelings of grief, uncertainty, and fear that are activated by the current story. The thoughts are the protective, top layer; the feelings are the underlayer. The underlayer is where the potential for transformation lives.
When I’m working with a client and I can hear that she or he is caught in the head-space of story, I will help them shift out of mind-space and into heart-space. What I’m interested in – and what ultimately shifts us from head to heart – is to delve into what lives underneath the story. So I will often interrupt the attempt to “figure it out” and say something like:
“Let’s stop for a minute and recognize that you’re getting caught in the story.” The simple act of naming the ego’s tactics sets us into a new direction.
“Now let’s take some time to breathe.” Even two full, deep cycles of inhale and exhale can loosen the grip on “figuring it out” and bring us into our bodies. The intention here is to interrupt the habitual pattern of staying stuck in the rumination, which is often characterized by the question, “What should I do?”
“Now let’s stay here for a few moments. What do you notice?” My client might notice some warmth or opening in the heart. She might notice sadness. He may cry. She may notice that she’s having a hard time dropping in, but when we stay here long enough, the nervous system calms and she can eventually find space.
Let me pause here to say that it takes a lot of practice to be able to do this on your own, so please be gentle with yourself if you’re having trouble dropping in and down. If you’re struggling with a lifetime of anxiety, this work is best initially done with a therapist or meditation instructor, as when you sit across from someone else’s calm state, you will be able to absorb it as your own. This is the beauty and power of mirror neurons at work.
With my clients I will continue with: “Now let’s become curious about the family and cultural download that may be playing into this rumination.” (see last week’s post) When we can name the patterns that are keeping us captive, we can shift the patterns. The light of awareness loosens the knots of history. At this point, we’re traveling back up into head-space but from a very different mindset. Now, instead of being led by fear, we’re being led by the high-beam of curiosity.
“Now let’s come back into the space of silence and just be there together.” We stop talking, stop trying to find an answer, stop figuring it out, stop problem-solving. Here we just be.
When we can stop and redirect, a micro-moment shift occurs, a brief space when we can catch the habitual pattern and shine our focus in a different direction. It’s these micro-moments that pave the way for new neural pathways to solidify. And it’s this gap between stimulus and reaction, when we can slow down the moments and try something new, that the possibility for an insight springing from our inner well can arrive.
The paradox is that when we let go of trying to figure out “what should I do” from the thought-space and allow ourselves to release the grip and drop into the body, the sense of direction (which isn’t really an “answer”) naturally arises. This may not happen in a nanosecond, but will eventually occur more and more if we practice dropping into our body over time.
From the dropped-down place of breath, we find the direction that we’re seeking. From the spaciousness of being, authentic doing arises. When we can un-attach from the belief that our serenity lies in answering our stories’ riddles by clamping down in mental rumination and instead learn to drop down into our bodies, trusting that true wisdom originates there, our inner lives begin to shift. And when our inner lives shift, our outer lives follow suit. We act now from response instead of reaction, from wisdom instead of habit, from love instead of fear. And that’s what this work is all about.