The stories we tell ourselves about our lives Barry Magid January 9th 2010

Recently someone told me a story about an old British actor--I'm afraid I didn't get the name--who is being interviewed at the end of a long career, and he was asked about how he got his start in the theater. Apparently as a young man, maybe in his early 20s, he had the good fortune to work in the national theater under Laurence Olivier, and after one rehearsal or performance there, Olivier said to someone else in the company about this actor, "Do you think that young man realizes how talented he is?" And this person reported it back to the actor who was of course very pleased. But the next year Olivier left the theater, and was replaced as director--I think by Peter Holm--who, in order to establish himself as leader of the company fired everybody Olivier had there, brought in a whole new group. So this young actor was suddenly thrown out on his own, and all the promise that Olivier had seen in him came to nothing. But one way or another, he stayed in theater, got this job and that job, and I don't know his particular story, but evidently he had enough of a career that fifty years later, he was being interviewed about it, just never had the trajectory that he had thought he had been promised. At the end of interview, this actor said one last thing. He said, "That man ruined my life." And you're left to ask, "Which man?" Was it Peter Holm for firing him, or Olivier for giving him this false hope?"

When we speak of "caught in a self-centered dream" one of the ways we can think about that dream, or identify it in our own life is in terms of whatever narrative arc we are using, usually implicitly or unconsciously, to describe how our life is going, or how it's gone. It's almost impossible not to have some background story of our life running in our heads, some grid on which we are plotting our progress or our success or failure against some kind of standard, or in terms of our nearness or distance from some goal that we have in mind for ourselves. And we're very prone, almost inevitably I'd say, to think of our life in terms of progress or failure, and it's not simply individuals that do that. I think it happens at every level. I think that we see it in the way history is written, whether we write history in terms of progress or development of one nation or the conquest of others by one, the building of empires, the fall of empires, whether we see this as some kind of progress culminating in where we are, or what kind of narrative arc we put on the whole history of our country, of our people, how we see for even things like the transmission of Zen to the West, whether this is a constantly progressive expansion of the truth into new areas where it hasn't existed before, or whether we see it as a much more haphazard and hodgepodge kind of thing with success here, failure there, complications. It's possible to tell stories like that in all sorts of ways.

I remember one Zen teacher telling me when he got transmission, his teacher said, "The most important thing from now on in your life, is to find your own Dharma success. Everything is oriented toward transmission in the next generation." It's easy to have that kind of arc of purpose and success, and failure, even about the Dharma. Yet another teacher I met said she didn't think about Dharma successes at all. She ran a little group, she felt when she was no longer able to run it, it would simply close down and it would be over. "Nothing is permanent," she said, "Isn't that what we teach?" That sounded wonderful, too. It's possible to tell very different stories about transmission, what we're up to. We could go into versions of that in a lot of detail.

But one thing I would suggest, is that we need to try to get clear about one kind of story we tell ourselves. Those stories of the "How am I doing?" and "Am I there, yet?" kinds of stories. Now there are obviously some aspects of our lives that exist in that kind of relative timeline. If you're going to college, there's a beginning and a graduation. If you're trying to learn a language, or learn a musical instrument, or build a house, there's a goal, there's an endpoint. You can plot how far along you are in it. And you can say in some way or another whether you succeeded or failed. Whether did you finally learn the language or whether the house falls down. It's possible to have criteria for success. And what I'm suggesting is we have a big temptation, which we call a self-centered dream, to view our life in terms like that. A project that has goals and can be measured in terms of success and failure. And while there are always going to be aspects of life that we can think of that way, we would say that in Zen what we call enlightenment, or even what we call the absolute, is a perspective that completely does away with those questions of, "Am I there, yet?" or "How am I doing?"

What's the alternative to that? Well, it's what we say, "being just this moment, compassion's way". See, it's "being just this moment" sometimes gets understood in a way of fetishizing each little moment of attention, where we put all of our attention in just chewing our food, or just lighting a candle, or just washing the dishes. That's one version of it, where we just give all our attention to the one thing in front of us in the moment. And that's true, but the bigger psychological obstacles to really being in the moment have to do with seeing the moment as part of a whole linear narrative that's going uphill or going downhill. And that we have some idea of where that moment stands in relation to all the other moments. When we're putting a moment in relation to other moments, we're not being just this moment. We're standing outside of it and creating some big picture of how we're doing. Like I say, there are going to be aspects of our lives where we're always going to do that. But there's something about this practice that says, "It's possible to create a place in our lives where that stops completely, where we don't know who we are, or how we're doing, or where we're going, or what any of it means."

We can't, I don't think, will ourselves into that kind of state of immediacy. The only way I think we're going to arrive there is to get very honest about the narratives that we do tell ourselves. And then we have to get them out of an unconscious background and into a foreground where we can see them as narratives. We have to get in the habit of saying, "Could we tell that story a different way?" I see that even in myself, I generally can look at how my life is going and say, "I've gotten to do what I wanted to do, becoming an analyst and a teacher, and being able to practice with you here like this." In a certain kind of narrative, everything is going well and in a direction I want, but I could tell different stories, and that's a nice story to tell, and it's easy to get complacent. But I could tell a story in another way in which sitting here teaching--what do we have today, 16 people--how come I don't have a center with 160 people, or 1600 people, right? Why am I not spreading the Dharma out all over the country, all over the world? Why can't I be more like Sharon Salzberg, giving talk in 50 countries. There are a lot of reasons I'm not doing that, but it's another way to judge what I'm doing. I could tell a different story, compare myself to somebody else. I could say, "How come my books don't sell as well as Mark Epstein's? Why don't I get more royalties?" By and large I don't plague myself with comparisons, but I could also use that to say, "You know, maybe I've really got to work on my writing a little more. Maybe there's something about what I'm doing that doesn't communicate as well as I'd like to." You can make comparisons like that as a way to have motivations as well as just to give yourself a hard time.

But it's the multiplicity of narratives that are possible that sort of shows us that no one narrative is just the facts, is just the way it is. In a large part, what our practice has to do is to deconstruct that common sense view of knowing how things are, and where they're going and what it all adds up to. In Zen there's a lot of talk about don't know mind, just don't know. Part of what we don't know is how we're doing. We don't know where we're going, what it adds up to, we don't know whether we're there, yet. And don't know means, undercut your certainty about how you're doing.

The easiest way to get stuck in one of these narratives is to assume you don't have one. To think that you have a natural sense of the way things are. But we all are stuck in a self-centered dream of one kind or another, and in order to wake up, we first have to be clearer about the dream that we're dreaming.

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