I have a complicated relationship with story. I think we all do.
A good story can be a wonderful thing. A story can transport and transform, but it can also lead us into some pretty sketchy territory. We can spin a story, or it can spin us. It can transport us, but where — and to what end? Who or what benefits from the story and where it leads us?
For now, I’ll leave aside the stories that fester on social media and threaten our democracy. But as we look at the spell of story on a more personal level, you’ll notice that they’re definitely siblings.
I’m talking about the stories we tell us ourselves, the thoughts that inhabit our minds. Some of these thoughts help us get by, some make our lives more difficult, some make us kinder, some make us more cruel. Often wildly contradictory, we juggle them all into a single weird gestalt of life philosophy — of which we are only half-aware. And we call this balled-up tangle of thoughts ME. It’s all pretty exhausting.
My car and I were both in auto-pilot on the highway recently. I was lost in an all-too-familiar thought-ball, when a car careened in front of me, crossing three lanes and skidding onto an exit ramp on the far side. Suddenly I was THERE, alive to the sounds of cars skidding and squealing around me as we all swerved and braked to avoid collision. I was rattled enough to pull over. I took a few breaths and a sip of water, pulled back onto the highway, and immediately went back to my persistent thought-ball. The intensity of the near-collision was instantly displaced by the tedious habits of my mind’s auto-pilot. When I realized what my mind had done, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the irresistible draw of habit. And I was present again as I recognized that absurdity, at least for a moment.
At any moment, when I notice that my mind has been entranced by the spell of some familiar story of irritation or longing or doubt, I have the opportunity to be present again: to connect to the freshness of my experience in that moment.
My meditation practice helps me recognize that space of freshness so I can access it more easily, in my life and in my writing. And writing prompts help me explore the space revealed in my meditation practice.
I offer writing prompts as a teacher, but I also use them in my own writing process. I’m always developing new ones, and it takes me a long time to really refine a good prompt. But the best prompts are a kind of Koan, an unanswerable question that can only be experienced. Holding this open question, allowing my writing practice to bring me back to the present again and again, I am interrupting the habitual story machine in my head. I’m undoing the spell by opening to aliveness and presence — and to stories yet to be imagined.
I’m co-teaching (with Marcy Vaughn) a 4-week writing and meditation workshop through The 3 Doors, called Freeing the Spell of Story: Thursdays 7–8:30 NYT, Oct 27-Nov 17. For more info and to register, click here