Humans evolved to make sense of their experience by explaining it with stories, or narratives. Our stories range from obvious, long-standing narratives to subtle assumptions and categorizations. Although our stories help us communicate and navigate our lives, they also can preoccupy and burden us. Sometimes they are distressing, depressing, or exhausting to maintain. This is why, in a brief teaching meant to encompass the essence of practice, the Buddha said we should train ourselves such that “in the sensed, there is only the sensed, in the cognized, only the cognized.” That is, we should train ourselves to experience things without our stories.
The Bahiya Sutta: There Is No “You” There
Ud 1:10 Bāhiya (Bāhiya Sutta) https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Ud/ud1_10.html
Bahiya, sramana, spiritual seeker for many years, admirable practice
Wonders whether he has attained complete liberation, deva overhears and says no
Bahiya – determined, not deterred by ego, asks “Then who, in this world with its devas, are arahants or have entered the path to arahantship?”
Deva answers the Buddha, Bahiya goes to Buddha and begs him 3 times for the Dhamma (saying, “You never know when you might die,” Buddha puts him off twice “it is not the time, we’ve just started alms round” but then 3rd time delivers super quick sermon:
“Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”
Bahiya, because of his extensive practice already, understand immediately and attains complete liberation (good thing, because he is killed in an accident shortly afterwards)
What Is It We Add? Stories
What does it mean, “in reference to your perceptions via the five senses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, there is only the perceptions.”
This implies we usually add something them.
What is it we add? Narratives, stories – about ourselves, what’s going on, what we might get out of it, etc. These stories can be obvious or very subtle.
Robert Wright, in Why Buddhism Is True: psychologist Paul Bloom – “essentialism” – the tendency to attribute inner essences to things based on the stories we tell about them – is a “human universal.” (p156)
Read from page 166 – about how stories inform our pleasures (e.g. same wine, different labels, wine connoisseurs tricked by the label)
“The simplest of sensations… always viewed as an instance of some category… implied narrative.”
Pg 167 – The man without stories, Gary Weber, experienced meditator, says he experiences very little of this story-making. (Participated in study showing he had little default mode activity even more he sits down to meditate)
Read from pg 168 about this story-less experience, lived more with a sense of emptiness, and how full it is (“by getting this emotional thought out of the way, I have a much higher likelihood of directly perceiving whatever the sensation is.”)
Trapped in My Own Stories
This is not an either/or thing – either you’re all caught up in stories, or you live in some rarified state without stories
Over the course of our practice we learn to recognize our stories, be less caught up in them or learn to get some space around them sooner, believe them less, be less emotionally invested in them
I remember, before practice, being completely stuck in my narrative: College, I am this kind of person, this is what I believe, this is what is right or wrong, this is what I want, this is how the world is failing to measure up to my hopes and expectations, this is what is deficient in my life, this is what I must figure out, this is what is going to happen if I don’t, when I was with people: this is going well, these people like me, or this is not going well, these people don’t like me, we have a good relationship, or we don’t…
What I didn’t understand, I furiously worked at creating a narrative for that would stick. No luck trying to create a satisfying story about why the world was the way it was – simultaneously so incredibly amazing and beautiful, and so unjust and horrible.
I paid much more attention to my own stories than to what was actually happening around me and within me
Even though my life was fine in an objective sense, I was miserable. It was exhausting trying to create and maintain narratives about everything; everything was elusive and shifting; positive narratives were fragile and vulnerable, negative ones were depressing
Questioning the Nature of Our Narratives
The blessing of the Dharma: it never would have occurred to me that it was possible to let go of my stories, that they weren’t reality itself, that there was a better way to live
Stories seem so essential to us
BUT, it turns out (Buddhism and modern psychology agree) stories are really just our explanation of what is happening/has happened to us
Wright: read from pg 78 about split-brain experiments (two hemispheres of the brain separated, show an image to only half of visual field; image presented to only right hemisphere will affect the person’s behavior, but the left hemisphere (language) is out of the loop so they don’t recall having seen the image. However, when asked to explain their behavior, they immediately come up with convincing story about why they did what they did.)
Wright talks about theory that natural selection led to evolution of communication and this narrative – presenting ourselves (to ourselves and others) as being in control, reliable actors (as opposed to saying, I don’t know why I did what I did)
Primary utility: communication to others and to ourselves – so this does help us make sense of the world
But ultimately the conscious narrative is an explanation that comes after the fact, not something inherently true, not reflective of some inner essence, and often times bears little resemblance to what really happened
Stories as Burdens and Limitations
How could such a simple exercise – in the perceived, there is only the perceived – be the answer to our problems?
Stories have their usefulness, of course. We have a responsibility to try and understand and explain what’s going on in the world and in our lives and within ourselves. Helps us navigate human relationships, make decisions
Stories as burdens and limitations – as I mentioned earlier, things are always shifting, positive narratives are vulnerable and fragile
Negative ones can be terribly painful – sometimes like being trapped in hell
Reality is complicated, and there is much we don’t understand, can’t predict, can’t summarize, can’t conveniently gloss over with a narrative – it’s exhausting to try
Ultimately things are empty of inherent, enduring, independent self-nature – that essentialism mentioned earlier – and therefore the final story is forever elusive
At the very least, our stories prevent us from fully experiencing our lives (like the “man without stories” does, mentioned in Wright’s book)
Our stories always presume a self. All of them, in a certain sense, are self-referential. Even when we’re trying to understand what’s happening with others, or understand things about the world out of concern for others, there is still an I trying to understand
Once we have a presumed a self, there arises concern for “I, me, and mine.” This isn’t a bad thing, inherently; it’s natural to be concerned about our own survival and welfare – but it is stressful
Liberating Ourselves from Stories
How do we practice this? How do we become freer from our stories?
Begin to question, investigate: Who am I without the story? Is my safety and happiness dependent on the stories?
Practice doing this in zazen
Practice this throughout the day – noticing our stories
Perceiving our stories as just stories! “In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.” Then the stories are just part of the scenery of our life, not the Truth
There may be some truth in the stories (there may be something useful in the stories), but we aren’t attributing to them some kind of essence. We’re seeing them as empty.
E.g. Some of the most captivating stories we tell ourselves are about our human relationships…
These can be incredibly painful, stressful, intoxicating, absorbing – the stories become Reality itself, usually attached to imperatives, sources of worry and conflict
No matter how intoxicating, how real a story seems, we can drop it, or relate to it as simply being a story. (Precept of do not indulge anger: not contriving reality for the self)
What does this feel like? Liberation from compulsion, preoccupation. Freedom from stress and suffering. Unburdened. Lighter. From blinders on to looking around, perceiving what’s going on. Open to possibility – maybe our stories aren’t entirely true. Don’t know mind. Appreciative.
76. The Stone Mind. Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves. While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?” One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.” “Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”
This sounds like a joke, but when we desperately maintain our stories, our mental map of the world, as if our life depends on them, our minds and hearts can get very heavy. Beyond subjective and objective there is just this moment’s triumphantly silent reality, no story. Inside our mind? Outside our mind? Objective? Subjective? Immersed in things-as-it-is, we don’t even have a name.
Gradually, in my practice: Freer from the stories, as if no longer walking around under a lead cloak
This doesn’t mean we’re absolved of responsibility to understand, be responsible, act (oh, that’s just a story about injustice, that’s just a story about the breakdown of our planet’s life support system, that’s just a story you’re telling about how I’ve treated you inconsiderately)
This just means we recognize our stories as stories – our best explanation for what is happening, but not laws that binds us.