Have you ever noticed that your thoughts, for the most part, are elaborate stories that your mind makes up?
The first time I learned this was at my first 10-day meditation retreat a decade ago.
Like so many meditators, I made my way through the 10-day process and learned a ton in the process. One realization was particularly loud for me — my mind is a story machine!
The was a silent meditation retreat, meaning we didn’t talk at all for 10 days, except for a 20-minute check-in every two days with our teachers. Our schedule was vipassana meditation all day, every day. We would alternate between one-hour sitting, and one-hour walking meditation, for a total of 12 hours each day.
There were 20 other participants in the retreat. There was a wide variety of different ages and backgrounds. A few had been there for the 10-day metta retreat prior to the vipassana retreat, which was the one I was there for. Those students were in an excellent meditative groove by the time our group got there.
As I checked in, I could see all the participants strolling slowly in the garden (it was their walking meditation hour). This was my first retreat, so I really had no idea what to expect.
They all looked a bit zombie-like, and their gate was unnatural. Steps were slow, deliberate, their energy focused, and calm. I could feel the judgment arise in myself. There was no way I was going to be like that, no way!
At the same time, a bit of anxiety started, and I could feel my discomfort and uncertainty… what the hell was I doing here!
Fast forward to my first 2 days, I watched and listened to my busy mind churn out thoughts like raindrops from a cloud. It was the first time I noticed how many there were, and they never stopped.
The topics were widely varied — what work would I do next (I just ended a contract) … how would I make it the whole ten days. What was for dinner… why wasn’t there more affordable real estate in Vancouver…. The ramble went on and on.
I found it fascinating that when I would see other participants, my thoughts would turn into a story about them. My mind would fabricate random judgments and assessments based on what they looked like, what they were doing, and how they walked and held themselves.
In some cases, they were elaborate.
- That man is retired; he lives on the outskirts of a small town. The woman he keeps sitting by and walking near must be his wife; she’s also retired. A small-town couple for sure. I should know; I grew up in a small town, after all.
- Another woman I decided was an artist. She paints and lives with her family somewhere, maybe the prairies. A homebody type, not fond of excitement. Lives a calm, steady life.
- There was an older woman who looked quite uptight and distinguished. She’s a retired executive. Must have worked at a large-scale company. Probably in finance or operations. Maybe marketing. She worked hard, though, and she looks brilliant.
On and on it went. My mind was weaving a story out of nowhere for each one of the twenty people. I watched my mind thrive on itself and its own details, elaborating and building off each one.
The small-town couple knows each other, or maybe she’s his girlfriend. The painter lady must have had a sheltered life. She seems quiet and reserved.
Layer after layer on the story. It was bizarre. Equally bizarre is that I’m not a judgmental or negative person! In fact, I focus on the positive in others most of the time.
These weren’t intense thoughts. They were wisps of thought floating through my mind as each person came into focus, which wasn’t often because we were meditating most of the time. It usually happened when we were coming or going to the meditation hut or food hall.
My mind would reinforce the rightness of the story. I know this; I am great at reading behavior… I pick things up about people that others don’t… and on it would go, validating itself.
Eventually, it slowed down (thankfully!), and my thoughts were quieter, more like a radio in the background. Of course, random thoughts and ideas still babbled incessantly, but they were nowhere near as intrusive.
By the fourth day, most of the storylines on the people were set. Little changed except the odd layer of detail now and again, but the main themes were well baked.
The walking meditation hours seemed to produce many realization moments for me during the last days of the retreat when my mind was quieter. My awareness shifted to the other stories in my life, and I started to wonder how much truth is in the stories I tell myself about other things?
- How do I tell the difference between the truth and a thought?
- What if my mind has embellished memories and what I think has happened is different from what did happen?
- If my thoughts are made up, why don’t I make up better stories!? Why are they so negative all the time?
Simultaneous to these streams of thought was the realization I am separate from my thoughts. This produced a new feeling of freedom for me. I started to understand that I was in control of the attention I gave my thoughts, and I could change them.
Intellectually I knew I could do this, but this was the first time it sunk in, and I understood it in an embodied way.
I was excited by the freedom and possibility of taking charge of my thoughts. The potential was created by getting traction on controlling my perception and definitions of things. It would transform my experiences in life.
Breaking silence and getting ready to leave the silent meditation retreat
When day nine arrived, the meditation teachers let us know we would be breaking silence the following morning in readiness for leaving the retreat. This would be a round circle just before lunch where we’d all get a chance to talk and share our experiences of the 10-days.
I was curious about what it would feel like to talk and even more curious about what people would share.
That morning, we all settled into the circle. First, the teacher asked if we would each introduce ourselves to the group. Then, if we were comfortable, share a bit about our journey through the retreat.
Now I would find out how accurate my stories were about the group; it was the big reveal. Again, my mind was feeling assured. After all, I knew people and worked with people for a long time. I had spent two years in hiring and had honed my ability to read people. Blah blah blah.
The painter offered to go first and introduced herself.
She worked in a bank, was from a small city in central Canada, and extensively traveled the past 5 years. In addition, she was an avid hiker with her husband. Although he wasn’t at the retreat because he wasn’t into not talking for 10-days, she said he would try one day.
As I listened, I tried to see where my story lined up with anything and couldn’t!
I was wrong on every detail!
In fact, her life — traveling, hiking, married — was the opposite of a quiet painter living at home, feeling isolated! One by one, this went on as each person shared.
The ‘retired executive’ was a stay-at-home mom who loved to read and write.
The ‘nurse’ was a chef and loved to bike and do yoga.
My stories were wrong over and over!
At this point, I was mildly entertained at how outrageously wrong my mind had been at judging each of these fantastic people. But, at the same time, I was feeling humbled by the arrogance of my ego and my own tendency to buy into the stories it tells.
And then the pinnacle slam dunk share.
The small-town couple from the outskirts of town. Wait for it…
They were from New York (just a little town!). He was a neurosurgeon. She was an emergency room nurse, and that was where they met in a hospital emergency room in NY.
They had been married for 35 years, and she had been trying to get him to try a retreat for almost a decade. He wished he had because what he learned in his 10-days would have helped him in his career, which was winding down now. He would be back the following year for another and take his daily practice to a new level. Their story was touching, and authentic.
I wanted to crawl out of the meditation hall — I was zero for twenty! Not only did I not get a single detail right, but I also spent time believing I did and buying into my own story. Convincing myself. Over and over.
It was a massive lesson for me.
During my 8-hour drive home, I swam in the revelation that my mind has thoughts, and that’s all they are — thoughts. Random, fabricated, layered rambling that must be questioned appropriately.
I wondered how often I tell these stories each day and how I could alter them. Or even tell new stories that align with what I am trying to learn or achieve in my life.
I also recognized my mind’s nature is to problem solve and figure things out.
When it’s left to its own accord, it makes stuff up when I’m not watching it. That can quickly become assumption and judgment — coming out of nothing but a story ramble from a mind without direction or focus.
What stories do we tell ourselves? Are we aware that we’re telling ourselves a story? Are they positive or negative?
When directed, our minds can solve and create great things. But, left to its own accord, it can fabricate untruths that can obscure our ability to see what is.
By questioning these stories, we can alter their impact and change the direction of influence they have on us over time.
Next time we find ourselves immersed in thought it’s worth asking, is this a story worth elaborating on? If not, what can I change to tell it in a way that serves me instead of distracting me from my potential?
Note. The featured image is from Illustrations vector created by stories – www.freepik.com