Horror stories. Love stories. True Crime. Fairy Tale. Myth. Parable. The evening news. Stories help us form our beliefs and values. They shape our fears and dreams. Stories create the scenes of culture and politics. They help us decide how we want to fall in love, what we think is fair, and how to negotiate the world. Drama molds consensus reality out of the stuff of mere sensations and experiences. Our personal stories can often rule us.
Master storytellers and their words arouse emotions and teach sacred lessons. Jesus told some pretty memorable yarns to make his points. Famous for his storytelling knack, the Buddha also taught through parable.
From sex to skulls, the inestimable influence of Shakespearean drama resounds in our attitudes about anything and everything. Philosophers wield parables to make sense of chaos. Poets from Homer to the Beatniks reach fever pitch warning, playing, explaining, instructing. And the talent for influential whimsy and plot thrives in the parent storyteller comforting loose-tooth fears with the promise of specialized fairies who purchase children’s teeth in the night.
We Are Wired for Story
We are thirsty for drama. We are essentially story-making, story-devouring creatures, and we mine these dramas for information on how we might best succeed in our own worlds. In her book Wired for Story, TV producer Lisa Cron writes: “Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change.” And evolution has dictated that we pay close attention to our stories, for survival's sake. Renowned cognitive scientist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker explains: “The cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.”
Stories have shaped the lives of listeners and readers through the ages, and we are hardwired for them to have that effect.
The Story-Emotion Circuit
You might notice that, just like stories you read or watch on the news, the stories you tell yourself and others about your life influence your emotions. The more often you repeat your story, the more powerful the impact it has on the way you feel. Tell a story that makes you feel bad and, lo and behold, you feel bad. Tell a version that is encouraging, and you are filled with hopeful sensations.
It appears we don't have a choice in the circuitry we are born with, but we certainly have a choice in how we use the equipment. We have powerful sway over our own attitudes, though we don’t always know we do. Excepting immediate physical pain, everything we experience emotionally comes to us by way of a story we interpret.
Science writer Jeff Wise observes that “While many of us would like to believe that we live in ‘the real world,’ a world of concrete and stone and wood and metal, that’s only true in the strictly physical sense. Psychologically, we live in a different world, one that’s created for us inside our head, a world that’s infused with meaning at every level.”
It’s no wonder that without conscious intervention, we can get caught up in the web of our own spinning. “The story holds you in the drama, and it doesn’t resolve,” writes author Lola Jones in her book Things Are Going Great in My Absence. She adds, “You forget that you are the author of the story. The story is a trap you created.”
How Our Brains “Listen” to Our Stories
Different parts of our brain get pretty fired up depending on what a story is about. “When we are being told a story, things change dramatically,” notes Leo Wildrich in an article on lifehacker [http://bit.ly/19eZqX7]. “Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.”
Did someone mention food? The sensory cortex lights up. Is a character running? The motor cortex is alerted. And the plot thickens; the brains of both teller and listener sync up, the same areas getting activated. As Uri Hasson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Princeton University, notes: telling a story can “plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listener’s brain.”
Create a Positive Feeling Feedback Loop
French writer Marcel Proust wrote that, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
It can be a fascinating perspective to pretend you are an alien who landed in your current body, era, and environment. You might not like everything you find, but you’ll see it from a fresh view, free of the old associations, maybe excited to be here.
Look for the good in every landscape. This doesn't mean denying what’s unpleasant, but rather suggests that we train the mind to provide more good feeling.
The default mind likes gossip because it feeds the big blue story monster. Num num num. Me want stories. Negative gossip offers a temporary fix, but not joy.
We can devote most of our self-conscious thoughts to awareness and observation, but if you need a boost, take the lead. Turn the mind to stories of gratitude and appreciation. This is one of the best ways to boost bliss using the human built-in Story-Emotion Circuit.
In the stories that play out on the physical plane, time is always on our side. If we are “behind” or “late” or “too busy,” this is just a story. We are not responsible for generating more hours than occur in the day. We are not responsible for doing more than can be done in our little spotlight in this time-space continuum on earth.
The Whole Story
Feelings are created by stories according to how we interpret those stories. Dumping the entire story and moving awareness to feelings instead is a powerful shortcut to liberation from the grip of unconstructive tales. Maybe your boss is unreasonable, and your child’s teacher doesn't see that your child is just being a child. You might fail, you might not get the girl, you might not lose the weight. Stories. Emotion-generating stories.
How beautiful it is to know that at any moment, we can pick among the stories we tell ourselves and ask, “Does this even matter?” or “Is this even real at this moment? Does it really count?” Often the answers are no, and we can turn toward our wiser self for new thoughts and better stories.
Recently a friend of mine overheard someone gossiping about her health in terms of some scary future limitations it might bring. Angered at first, my friend switched gears to feeling mode, felt through the pain of what she overheard, and then listened as her wiser self soothed her with a more affirming story about her own health and the possibilities for recovery. She reported feeling more liberated from that experience of dropping the story, falling into her feelings, and then creating a more fruitful story than she had ever felt before.
Once we learn how to change the plots in our mind from default storyteller mode to the regal calm of no stories, a great sense of oneness with the changing, electrical, elemental, sacred joy of life is ours to experience.
Your Life Story Starring You
Sometimes, for better or worse, our habitual stories distract us from remembering our connection to the majesty of life, the oneness of all. And that's part of the fun of being a human on this planet, feeling separate, creating challenges to overcome, traipsing through the strange and beautiful landscapes, and eventually seeing through new eyes.
Since we live in a land of stories of our own creation, we have the option to invent a new kind of story. We can generate mindful, compassionate, insightful stories that fill us with support, confidence, and peace. We can start celebrating, seeing, and inventing the stories that will bring us joy in each moment.
Let’s create the dramas we want and make stories as wonderful as the world is full of wonder.
A version of "Stories Rule" was originally published on RewireMe.com as "Retelling the Stories of Our Lives."