Separating old “stories” from the rest of our experience

Lately in my clinical practice I’ve been exploring the gap between our habitual “stories” or personal narratives that we carry around with us (sometimes for many decades) and the reality of our present moment  in-the-body experience. This has come up repeatedly in my personal life as well. For example, in this week’s new Hatha yoga class, I found myself thinking “I can’t do this” or “It’s too hard,” as the instructor presented a new pose. Fairly quickly afterward another thought followed – it was a real “golden oldie”: “And I’ll never be able to do this. Why am I even trying?” Immediately I began to feel sad, and then very much alone in the class.  More old story emerged as I lay there on my mat: “I’ll never move beyond these old injuries or pain. This is as good as it gets. I guess I just have a body that can’t do a lot of the things that I would like.”

A few years ago, I would have believed some or all of this old “story.” I would have left the class feeling discouraged, separated from others around me, and I probably wouldn’t have went back for several months (if at all). But as part of my own mindfulness practice, I’ve learned to discern the difference between the story of the mind, and what else is happening – or actually real – in the moment. In this recent yoga class, I noticed the thoughts, and the sadness. And then I reconnected with my deep-felt intention to learn how to be in my body and how to work toward greater strength, flexibility, and ease, one inch…heck, maybe even one centimeter…at a time. I recognized the thought of “I can’t do this” or “I’ll never do this” as just thoughts, not fact; just part of my mind’s mental activity that come and go. And I remembered to gently, compassionately, explore what what was actually possible in that moment, through careful attention to my body. So I called the yoga instructor over and she showed me how to adapt the pose with the help of props, to meet my body as it is right now. I stretched only to the point that felt comfortable and not painful, and  paid attention to what it felt like to move in this way, without pushing too far but also without giving up too easily on the possibility, the hope, of this movement.

Here’s other common examples of how our “stories” can replace or overshadow our actual experiences, which can limit our potential and our ability to skillfully choose desired options. I’ve heard people say: “It’s too scary to feel my emotions right now.” Or: “I can’t possibly share how I feel – it would be too embarrassing.” “Or someone might get mad.” “Or I might start crying.” One’s story often can be heard around food, as well: “I won’t be satisfied with just one bite.” Or, “I know I like this….but not that.”

But often what happens when we begin to courageously investigate the experiential reality of that bite, that emotion,  that interaction, as sensations arise and fall away in the body, we realize that our experience often holds richer (and much more accurate) information than our old one-dimensional story. I invite you to investigate this for yourself, whether it relates to a life activity or some attribute (“I’m boring” or “I’m not good with people” or “people don’t like that part of me”) that is part of an “old story” about yourself. Over time, as we learn to peel back the layers of our own personal stories, we begin to see their limitations and how they might blind us to what is actually unfolding in this moment, in our bodies, in our hearts, and in our lives.