Buzz Kill — The stories we tell ourselves are just that — stories — and living our lives based on them means living a fantasy
In my book, “Stories From the Sea of Life,” I told the following story, about how our “bringing up” can so easily point us away from our innate fascination with being, and directly into avoidance, stuckness and boredom.
It’s amazing what a little training will do
On our last holiday to the States, Dar and I camped outside of Boston, one of our favorite cities. We were near to other campers, but not so near as to be intrusive. I have, though, this thing about watching people, as you never know when you might gain a story.
Across the way was a family consisting of two parents and a couple of teenage girls. I tuned into them as they were packing up their trailer and breaking camp. As they had been there for a while, this was a major undertaking. I was impressed with how well they seemed to know their jobs; the packing was going swimmingly. Suddenly, the eldest daughter pulled up short and pointed to the tarp she was untying.
Mom walked over. Soon, they were both talking and pointing at something on the tarp. Their voices carried enough that I gathered that they were looking at some sort of cocoon that some kind of bug had spun. Mom and daughter then engaged in a lively game of speculating about what kind of bug would be inside of that cocoon. Finally, they decided to call good old dad over, no doubt to receive the final, definitive, male opinion.
Dad, beer belly in hand, wandered over. The women pointed. Dad stared. The women began to ply him with questions. He appeared to hear nothing. He refused to enter into the enthusiasm. He reached out, swatted the cocoon off of the tarp, squished it with his foot, and went back to trailer dis-assembly, having spoken nary a word.
The women found a couple of other cocoons, but they didn’t tell dad.
Isn’t it sad? Something new, some mystery, some wonder — swatted into oblivion by someone more interested in cranking down the top of his trailer. No matter what the others wanted. No matter that this was important to them. Slap. Splat. Another dream bites the dust. Far better to stop, to listen, to truly see. Wonder of wonders, wonder is everywhere, if we take the time to notice.
One of the more intriguing things about both therapy and meditation is how often people argue for their stuckness.
By this I mean that they use one of two “excuses” for not acting.
1) The choice for helplessness, and 2) the information shortage argument.
Many people are convinced that change is genetically impossible. Or that their upbringing precludes doing things differently. Often, there is “enmeshment,” which is psycho-babble for being caught in the net of the relationship.
One woman I know has been, for the 20 years I’ve known her, caught in her family’s drama. Initially, the issues was her relationship with her mom. That merged into how her mom related to her dad. Then, how her brother and his family related to the mom and dad, and how that affected her relationship with her mom and dad. Now, the parents are old, dad is heading down the Alzheimer’s path, and mom is feigning helplessness. Again, the daughter thinks she is caught.
In each case, she talks about needing to disengage and get on with her life. Instead, she suppresses her anger, makes herself sick, and suggests that she no longer troubles herself over what is happening. And, as she has done since I met her, when mom calls, she runs. She sighs, and says, “Well, in this case, I have no choice.”
Emotionally, the hook is in. Has been, in her case, since early childhood. As it is for enmeshment, in all cases. It’s a hook that remains hidden, unless we choose to look.
The second cause of paralysis is the perception that there is a knowledge gap. This one revolves around 2 poles: 1) not having enough knowledge, or 2) not knowing the outcome.
The belief is that one cannot act until one is fully informed, and oddly and coincidentally, one never has enough information. Or that one cannot act until one has, somehow, obtained a 100% guarantee, in advance that things will work out. Interestingly, when you push this latter one, most people have no clue what “things working out” would mean.
Back in the 80s, one of my colleagues had difficulty with relationships. She briefly married a psychiatrist, and after 8 weeks decided they were in an unresolvable power struggle. So she divorced him. That summer, she interviewed the entire board of directors of a charity she worked for, as she’d decided to find a new husband. The interviews were initially over dinner, as she quizzed them on their personalities, and were finalized horizontally, in their room or hers.
By the end of the summer, there was only one guy left. When I met him, he was opening her sugar packs, cutting her meat, and replying “Yes dear!” I suggested that this was going to go nowhere fast. My friend said, “No! he’s perfect! Finally, a man who listens to me!” She married him.
Three years later, there she was on my doorstep, suitcases in hand. “He never has an opinion, he leaves everything to me!” I attempted to talk with her about how she chose this kind of person, based upon what she assumed she wanted. She quickly let me know that it wasn’t her fault… that there was no way for her to know that a guy that always agreed with her would never have an opinion of her own.
Moving past stuckness
At it’s best, Zen is about an invitation out of the drama of our stories. Not an explanation, not a “blaming,” but rather an invitation into another way of seeing and being. But notice, it is an enacted way of being, not a theory, or a learning. By that I mean that it is something done, not something resisted or thought about.
In this, it is a dance.
The game is played, and in that playing, what emerges is “what is.” The ongoing moment can, and must, exist in a context-less way. Let me be clear what this means.
Firstly, I did not write, “Data-less”
Data is story-less. It, like experience, is simply there. So, for example, knowing one gets burned by fire is a datum—a fragment of data. Believe it or not, fire is not a bad or a good thing. It is simply a tool, a process. Even being burned by steam (Hi Dar!) is neither good nor bad—it’s just a thing.
Context is “story”—this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. The datum, the raw fact of being, is transformed into a tale, typically of woe, but perhaps of magic. The context takes on a life of its own, and we lose the ability to notice that the data is not the story.
In both of the above examples, the people involved are staring at a neutral situation, and missing the story they are telling themselves. They do this by pretending that the story in their heads is reality, and that reality, clearly, is wrong. Rather than seeing what is “right there,” they run it through the filter of their imagination, and then do not notice their story telling.
We must pay attention
On “the cushion, ” and in our lives, we must seek bare attention–attention devoid of all of the projections. What is, is. Data is valuable, stories are stories. Fictions. Imaginings. Acting because of them, or story-telling so as not to act at all—both approaches keep us stuck.
In each case, a far simpler way to approach things is to say, “What, in this moment, am I wanting to accomplish?” Asking yourself that, you will inevitably think of something to do. Then, do it. The key is that, in the moment, I can act, and then, in the next moment, evaluate. and in the next, do more, or correct my course.
This as opposed to doing nothing, or doing “what’s expected,” or dealing with things from an imaginary place.
It is thus more about endless flexibility and a willingness to experiment, to drop the “rules,” and to engage with what is “really happening,” right there, in front of you.
And when surrounded by people who prefer Buzz Kill, to smile, and walk away.