Stories we Tell Ourselves

The overlaps between both the ancient and the modern spiritual philosophies is significant to me. Recently, at my Vipassana retreat, Goenkaji spoke about “Saṅkhāra” he explained craving and aversion as causing these.  Basically, he was discussing thoughts that form when you are not happy with the present moment. All of the regrets, worries, hopes and desires form Saṅkhāras.

When you do not accept the moment as it is without craving or aversion, you create a sankhara. These are the source of all misery.  For instance, if someone insults you, it can create aversion in you. It is unpleasant for you and then you build up dislike or hate towards this person. The saṅkhāra or hate that you feel gets embedded and when you see this person again, you feel the hate. The hate can be used to justify treating that person poorly, for example.

The same phenomenon is described by Eckhart Tolle when he talks about “pain bodies”. He speaks of pain bodies being activated when some thought or experience brings you into alignment with old emotional scars. So, let’s say the same person insults you. They attack a part of you, you are sensitive about. Now, when the person who did the insulting is around, you feel “justified” reacting badly to anything that they say or do.

Byron Katie comes at it from the other side and reminds us that we don’t know anything for sure. This would include anything we can describe to ourselves. Her solution is to ask yourself, “Is it true?” leading to the foregone conclusion that there is no way you can ever know absolutely for sure.

Her perspective challenges us to look at the person, and decide if we believe what we think about the person who said it. We may immediately think the insulter is wrong, bad or out to hurt us. Instead of the insult resulting in bad feelings towards the person, we ask ourselves, “Is the person insulting us a bad person, or are they just saying something we find unpleasant?”

So what are they all talking about? They are describing the little voice in our heads who tries to rewrite history, “I shouldn’t have”, “she shouldn’t have”, “it shouldn’t have”. Or, “I wish … blah, blah, blah”. We have told ourselves a story about the way we judge things or people would be better. Our stories are told through craving, aversion; pain or fear or longing; and telling ourselves things are not OK, they should be different.

In essence, our thoughts not only create our perception of the world, they also contribute to how we feel in the world and how we respond to the world. If we build up enough saṅkhāras we can justify harming the person or mistreating them. In Eckhart Tolle’s model the “pain body” becomes activated and we act before we think. In Byron Katie’s we know the other person is out to get us, therefore justifying bad behaviour.

These explanations all point to the same thing. If we tell ourselves stories about people — whether they are based on facts or not — we can justify treating them badly. This is not a good thing. We are always responsible for how we behave. We can never justify hurting someone else, especially when that action is based on a story. A story we told ourself about that person and their intentions.

 

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