Stories are beautiful. Stories are interesting. Stories are entertaining. And for a long time, stories\ have been my whole world. As a comedian, as an actor, as a writer and director, and a lover of psychology and culture, stories add texture to our lives.
But our stories are not the truth. What is story, really? It’s a tool.
I want to stop right here and say that what I’m about to get into isn’t for everyone. So if you notice yourself feeling a little uncomfortable, a little weird, a little out-of-sorts, these ideas might not be for you. Or perhaps not for you just yet. I have tons of other writings on how to create a standup set or solo show or a regular writing practice…
And for those of who you are ready for not only the transformational power of Story, but who are curious about what lays beyond it… keep reading.
Neurologists have found that our individual identities – who we are – are made up of essentially a set of stories, which we tell ourselves again and again, moment to moment, day to day.
“My name is Alicia. I’m Jewish. I’m short. I like ice cream. I’m psychically and emotionally sensitive. I wasn’t picked for cheerleading in 7th grade. I’m funny. I’m sexy. Blah blah blah.” As if these stories have any bearing on the infinity of my being. (They don’t.) These stories we repeat give us a sense of grounding. Some of them are more helpful. Some less helpful. Some are more “objectively accurate”, some less so.
As children, we start out with a lot of stories. We’re light. We heal easily. We forget easily. We’re flexible and open. As we grow, we collect stories, they begin to live in us, lodge in our bodies, carve grooves in our neural networks. We start to forget we’re playing “dress up” and believe the roles we’re pretending we occupy. A breakup or a car accident leaves us with a little kink in the spine that holds the memory of that awful moment it hit us, and we walk around, a little bent out of shape from that moment onward. Stories become a kind of “conditioning” that keep us “on the map”.
Some of us are pretty ok with that. We find some moments of joy and sorrow and are able to find the balance and the bittersweetness of being human.
Others of us find that these stories bring pain, and the pain brings suffering. And the suffering brings more suffering. And it’s hard to see beyond it, to the degree that most of life can feel like unnecessary suffering. This is how we become old, stiff, and brittle.
Not only do our personal stories get held tightly and condition us, our collective ones do. The story of our institutions, our cities, our countries, our tribes, our world. Religion, Academia, Science, Government. When these stories began, they were beautiful, and often based on pure experience and curiosity. We breathed life into them, and they supported us. But as time goes on, we chant these stories rotely, out of a sense of tradition. They come to lose their original meaning, and become tools for restriction and oppression, instead of freedom and possibility.
What I’m writing about today, these teachings, are for those who suffer, unnecessarily, at the hands of their stories (or the stories of others). For those who truly want to be free. Not free from pain, but free from unnecessary suffering. This is what it is to awaken.
I speak not from a place of full awakening, but from moments where I have glimpsed this freedom. I humbly invite this awareness to unfold for all of us.
The key to this awareness lies in coming to understand that we are not our stories. We are pure consciousness, brilliantly arising, right here now. Our personalities, our forms, are along for the ride, watching the grand show unfold, in all its perfection.
If we observe from this place, we can see the individual self is not really the author of the story. Life is. And that’s where the freedom comes in: You can’t do life wrong! Because you aren’t the “doer”! Life is “doing” you!
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep…
What I’m saying here is a sacrilege in storytelling, and especially in commercial storytelling. Or even speaking. And especially in coaching. “You are the author of your life’s script!” they say. “You are the master of your destiny!” “Be the star of the movie of your life!” I’m not implying we should be passive or submissive in our lives, but simply that the frame of “you as the star” is inaccurate. I don’t take exception to the star part of the phrase, but the you part.
Why? Well, stepping down back into the realm of duality, we can observe that holding onto our stories about who we are creates unnecessary suffering. Particularly when what occurs doesn’t match up with our story. Instead, we hold story lightly, so it doesn’t become a trap.
We begin to use story as a tool to help us awaken. For example, when a secret has been hidden for a long time, and it’s finally coming to the surface, a new story emerges, has the opportunity to be integrated, and points at change, points at emergence. This kind of story is a medicine story. A ritual. A transformation. It heals. It helps us make sense of where we came from and where we’re going, sure. It helps us arrive at new understanding.
But we tell this new story to point toward what is arising. When the story has done its job, however, we release it, or keep holding it lightly. And then we can tell a new story.
Put another way, the penultimate aim of a story is to create an identity. To teach us something. To guide us somewhere.
But the ultimate aim of a story is to use it as a pointer to “no story”.
Ram Dass reminds us of Sri Ramakrishna’s story of a Sadhu (holy man) walking in the woods. He gets a thorn in his foot. Painful as this is, he uses a second thorn to get the first thorn out. But then, he throws both thorns away. Ram Dass says this is how to use a story. If you’re carrying a story around that says, “I’m bad.” That’s the first thorn. You use the second thorn of “I’m good.” to remove it. And then, you throw them both away, and you arrive at “I’m free!”
A lot of my work is second thorn work. I help them weave their old stories together with all the work they’ve done into a new version of their story. A tapestry of who they’re becoming. A new perspective. And a declaration of their new identity.
The transformation comes when we can weave all parts of our stories together in a way that shows us our fullness and how far we’ve come. When we do that as a ritual, in community, it gets really exciting. Rehearsing it for the stage over and over, people often begin to tire of their story all together, and they start to experience the aliveness that was underneath all along.
And if it happens to be funny, if we make people laugh… if there are jokes involved, it’s even easier to hold it lightly. Lightly, enough, at times, that this, too, falls away.