What stories are you telling yourself right now? If you’re like most people, you’re constantly weaving fanciful, fantastic tales all day long — in your head. It’s a human thing to do. But if you're not careful, those stories can be as destructive as the Big Bad Wolf’s mighty huff-and-puff on a fragile house of straw.
I got blown over by one a couple of years ago while teaching an early morning yoga class at a writers’ retreat. One of the participants slipped in late. She seemed agitated to me, maybe even unhappy. As I was leading the class, the voice in my head began spinning a yarn. “She couldn’t even make the effort to be on time? She obviously isn’t enjoying herself. Why did she even bother to come? She probably hates the way I teach…” The negative nabob chattered away in my head, distracting me from what is usually a pleasurable and satisfying experience.
After session ended, I announced I was going to cancel the next day’s class so that people would have time to pack and do an early checkout before our final group sessions. Immediately the “unhappy woman” piped up. “Oh, no! Please don’t cancel. You have no idea what these classes mean to me. Couldn’t we just start a little earlier tomorrow?”
My beautiful tale, a storyline carefully constructed on what seemed to be crystal clear evidence, lay in shards. It wasn’t the first time I have been confronted with the foolishness of failing to examine my assumptions (and I know it won’t be the last.)
Why does it matter? Because real damage results from seeing your mind’s stories as non-fiction. I’m pretty sure if circumstances hadn’t helped me see how false that story was, it would have affected the way I see this woman and the way our relationship has developed.
These invented stories are one of the ways we violate the yogic principle of non-lying (satya). They also interfere with contentment (santosha) because we get attached to our version of reality and overlook the fact that our experience is not “the” truth. When the mind defends these fictions as reality, it looks for data to support them. We begin to treat complex people who lead lives of nuance and unknowable motivations like cardboard characters in our internal dramas: The Lazy Coworker. The Incompetent Manager. The Annoying Customer. The Tyrannical Boss. It’s hard to muster up compassion for characters like that!
What’s the solution? Develop a habit of checking your stories out. If you can’t do it directly, ask yourself a simple question, “Do I really know their story?”
While writing Yoga Wisdom at Work, we interviewed a police officer who also teaches yoga. She told us about the time her firstborn child got seriously sick. As she and her husband, also a police officer, rushed to get their son to the hospital, they accidentally cut off a driver on the road. As he passed them, the driver glared and flashed an obscene gesture. “What a jerk!” she thought, “Doesn’t he realize we have a sick….” And that thought stopped her.
“You know what? We did unintentionally cut him off, and that guy didn’t know we had a sick child,” she said. “He didn’t know our story. If he had, he probably would not have reacted the way he did. How was it going to serve me to get angry about his actions? I already had plenty on my mind.”
She took a breath and let go of the story of the Jerk Driver.
A happy ending.