Are you familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant?

When my now twelve-year-old, Kai, was little, we had a beautifully-illustrated picture book with this ancient Indian parable. In the story, a group of blind men come across an elephant and try to figure out what it is, touching different parts of its body. One touches the trunk and says, “It is thick like a snake!” Another feels the leg and says, “It is solid as a tree!” Another touches the tusk and says, “It is sharp like a spear!” 

In some renditions, the men come to blows as they fight to prove themselves right. In others, they help each other to see the entire elephant. 

You and I are just like the blind men in the story. When we meet a challenge we’ve never faced before, like a pandemic or a potential career change, we can never see the entire picture. None of us are capable of perceiving or fully comprehending the entirety of reality as it is. 

So we tell ourselves stories.

It can be unsettling to fumble around on this planet as mortal creatures with a limited perspective. One of our oldest coping strategies to cope with uncertainty and our inherent lack of control is to make up stories. We humans unconsciously invent stories to fill in our many knowledge gaps, to make sense of the world around us.

Now, we don’t usually think of what I’d call stories as stories. We believe that we’re telling ourselves the truth when we’re jumping to conclusions, buying our own assumptions, and making predictions about what will happen next. Other words for “stories” are beliefs, assumptions, generalizations, opinions, thoughts, metaphors, analogies, predictions, etc.

Of course, there are things we know to be true. Basic facts. Like the fact that I’m sitting here on my couch, typing on the computer, looking out at the trees, listening to birdsong, and then I hear my kiddo cough in their bedroom. That’s the data I have. A story about this data might be: “Oh my god. I wonder if Kai’s getting sick. If they get sick, then we’ll all get sick. But how could they have gotten sick? I’m a good mom. I’ve made sure that they don’t go anywhere so they don’t get sick. But if they get sick, well, then, I am a bad mom.” 

See the difference between the story and the facts?

Our stories become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a network of nerves that each of us has in our brain stems. The RAS works like an on/off switch. It identifies the things we pay attention to the most and concludes that we must want to see more of these things. Then, it filters through the information around us and highlights the things it deems relevant. 

Each time we focus on a particular thought, we strengthen neural synapses associated with that thought. When our neural connections become strong enough, the associated thought patterns become habitual. Our habitual thinking patterns give rise to mindsets, and our mindsets are like the lenses through which we view the world. 

Of course, all of this is happening below the awareness of our conscious mind. Like a car windshield that gets dirty over decades, our stories build up so gradually that we don’t even realize it, and they determine our view of reality.

The more we expect something will happen, the more alert we are to noticing it, and the more we’re apt to see it happening. Finally, we use the outcomes to confirm our initial expectations, and the cycle begins again. An official term for this phenomenon is “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our tendency to find, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. 

Confirmation bias can work for us or against us. For example, a teacher might deem one student to be “gifted” and another to be “underperforming.” Seeing their work through this filter, the teacher might hail the so-called gifted student’s wacky project as out-of-the-box thinking. Whereas, they might judge the “underperforming” student’s same work as sloppy. 

Likewise, if you are taught to think you’re a screw up who can never do anything right, you’ll quickly notice examples of when you mess up. On the other hand, if you know that you’re intelligent and capable, you’ll be more likely to celebrate yourself for learning and growing. Systemic stories or biases, unconsciously repeated day in and day out, give rise to implicit and internalized prejudice (racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, etc.) and resultant disparities. 

Until an event disrupts our way of seeing the world or we consciously practice shining light on our stories, we mistake our stories for truth. We don’t see the lenses we’re looking through. We usually don’t even recognize that we’re looking through a lens at all. 

What have you been telling yourself?

I invite you to practice shining light on your stories now.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Get comfortable in your body. Know that if at any time, this practice feels too much, you can open your eyes, disengage, and feel your feet on the ground.

Typically, I would invite you to bring to mind any recent moment in which you felt triggered or scared, and if there is a particular moment in your personal life that you really want to reflect on, go for it. That said, this current pandemic is an incredible opportunity to learn to shine light on the stories you tell yourself. So, unless another situation comes to mind, I invite you to work with the pandemic.

I invite you to think about the last few weeks and the conversations that you’ve been having— with other people or in your own mind— about the pandemic. Go back through the conversations in your mind and listen for the phrases, sentences, words that you’ve heard yourself say. Write down words and phrases you recall yourself saying about the pandemic. Write down what comes up in response to the following questions:

  • What stories have I been telling myself about the pandemic? 
  • What am I most afraid of?
  • What am I thinking that this situation means about the world? About humankind? About yourself?
  • Keep asking yourself: What else? Anything else? until you feel like you’ve gotten to the bottom of the barrel.

Don’t worry about whether what you write down makes rational sense or whether deep down, you know it isn’t entirely true.

Look over what you’ve written. Are there keywords or sentences or phrases that you’ve repeated several times? If so, write them down. If not, I invite you to pay close attention to the words you speak and the thoughts you think over the coming hours, days, and weeks. Notice the words you say repeatedly and jot them down. 

If you notice that you’ve been telling yourself a story that creates constriction in your body, makes you scared or anxious, or that you’d like to transform, I ask you to please give yourself permission to be curious and patient. 

Next week, I will share a practice to help you choose stories that serve you more. In the meantime, please know that merely shining a compassionate light on the stories you’re telling yourself is the first step to transforming them. 

Wishing you and your family much health and safety these next few weeks. You are in my heart.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love and gratitude,

 

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