If I could,
I would take each of you
By the hand
And lead you to a spot
Under my favourite tree,
Which arches over the world
From a perfect round hill.
The sun would be setting,
A fiery and orange hymn
To letting go.
I’d sit you down,
And ask you to tell me
Not the one you are
Trained to tell,
Or the one you think
I want to hear.
I would ask you to
Peer deep into your heart
And tell me what you find,
And I would tell you
How safe you are here,
And how much
I look forward to
Our gilded exchanges.
We would breathe out
As the sky gives way
To velvet night,
And we would see
Our stories etched
Into the stars,
Sacred and fluid
With our love.
A new breath
A new story …
This is the revolution.
Are we the stories we tell?
Do our stories—that is, our way of conceiving and talking about ourselves—have anything to do with the question, who am I?
Which stories make us feel like ourselves, and how much, and in what way? How much do our stories correspond to the answers we find when we attempt self-understanding?
We probably find that some of our stories, if we reflect on them, make us feel very secure while others make us squirm a little, and that the stories that have these effects are likely to change over time.
Ramana Maharshi, the great Hindu guru and sage who awakened at the age of 16, famously advocated asking the question “Who am I?” as a meditation practice, believing that self-inquiry, and plenty of silence, was the way to evolve to higher planes of consciousness.
“Enquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving that alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
We can say that “that which stands forever” is something pure, beyond the mind and the stories we tell about ourselves.
Yet stories are bound to erupt as we ask, “Who is the seer?” Who is the person even doing the asking? Who is it that is seeking his or own true identity? Who asks, “What is true? What is reality? Where am ‘I’ really located and what is essential about me?”
Our answers are bound to tell us something about the stories we tell and the relationship we have, and think we have, with them.
What are some of the ways we tell stories?
We write works of fiction.
We make movies.
We tell the truth.
We share anecdotes with friends.
We explain things to children.
We explain things to each other.
We draw pictures.
We discuss our memories.
We remember things, and then re-remember them, over and over.
We sit under a great big sky and wonder about things.
We put two and two together.
We fill out forms and questionnaires.
We answer the question, “How are you,” and explain to people what we do for a living.
We react in predictable ways to things that cause pain, and joy.
We say things like, “I wouldn’t do that. I love those kinds of things. I am the type of person who hates when that happens.”
A story is never just a story. It is the culmination of an entire system of thoughts, beliefs, conditioning and identifying markers. As they form, they become infused into us, and it becomes hard to distinguish the stories from the person, the “I” who has absorbed and reformulated them again and again.
“The body does not say ‘I’. In sleep no one admits he is not. The ‘I’ emerging, all else emerges. Enquire with a keen mind whence this ‘I’ rises.” ~ Ramana Maharshi
How empowering, then, to recognize that, just as we are not our bodies (if we lose a finger, we still think of ourselves as us), or our feelings (feelings come and go, but we still feel we have an “us”), and our minds (our thoughts are a virtual revolving door of coming and going, yet here “we” are), nor are we our stories.
Our stories can be beautiful things. We are creative beings by nature, and storytelling (and extensions of that, myth-making and the formation of all kinds of grand narratives) are a natural part of the fabric of being human, in both the individual and collective sense.
It’s when our stories threaten to limit us, overwhelm us and hold us fixed to one spot (especially when that spot is not serving us and we no longer want to be there), that we may wish to learn how to separate from our stories.
Our stories have gotten us here, to this point, no matter where we are or what our aspirations might be. This isn’t good or bad; it’s natural, and intrinsic to our way of being human. We can’t so much as look as cross the street without a whole host of stories running through our head, some of which help us know how to cross that street in the first place.
We all exist in relationship, to other things, beings and people, and to our own history, and what is the strongest glue bringing us into connection, if not our stories?
But notice how they are among the first things to rise to the surface, explode into chaos and reveal their impermanence when we sit down to meditate, breathe and fill ourselves with silence in a space of calm and rest.
They bubble up and ask to be witnessed. They shake; they are fragile and hesitant and wavering and very demanding of our attention. They poke and threaten to disappear if we let them.
Do we let them?
How much do we hold on, terrified to lose our grip on what we’ve come to know as our reality, and how much do we let go?
If we hold our stories in our hands and scrutinize them, will they change or will they disappear, and doesn’t the former mean the latter? If something takes on a different form, it is no longer what it was. This means that we can dislodge it from its stronghold and it loses some of its power over us.
Sitting quietly and observing our stories stomp into our minds in a relentless bid to take over is one way to recognize that we aren’t our stories; why would the deepest, most lasting parts of ourselves give us such grief and be so susceptible to transformation? Journaling—writing variations of our stories down—is another powerful way to get them out, separate from them and begin to see them for what they really are.
Which takes us that much closer to who we really are.
Let’s love our stories, and honour the humanity that allows us to have and share them, and to learn from each other in this way. Let’s mindfully remain aware that we are creating something every time we tell a story, and that this act of creation has come about to serve a purpose. Only we can determine what that purpose is and how we feel about it.
And when and if the time comes, let’s recognize that there is so much more to who we are than the stories that have brought us here, and that we have the power to lay them gently aside as we continue on our path of evolution.
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ~ C. S. Lewis
Lately, my newsfeed has been brimming with articles about how scientific research has proven that reading is good for you, how readers are smarter/better/sexier, on why readers of fiction are more empathetic people—things like this.
My first reaction was, um, isn’t this all stating the obvious?
But I keep forgetting that while I grew up without computers (or even video games, despite an attempt at interest in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.), let alone the Internet, younger generations are quite literally inhabiting a different world.
I wasn’t huddled under the covers texting after bedtime. I was whipping out my flashlight to read the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Flowers in the Attic and Emily of New Moon under the covers (depending on the week, the year).
I feel fortunate to have been weaned on books and to have fallen in love with them as I have. I am also a huge fan of the possibilities afforded by the digital age, in all its non-linear complexity and expansiveness.
I would love to believe that a perfect human is in some ways a hybrid one, able to have moments of pleasure reading a story on actual paper, from start to finish, while lying on the grass, leaning against a tree, or on a hammock in some far-flung place; and have other moments delving into the universe of meta-literature, where stories, voices, and identities can shapeshift and become anything we’d like them to be.
I would love to see a human with a calm, clear, focused mind able to form and maintain a beautiful, long flow of thoughts and arguments, and have a gorgeous imaginative mind able to process more information than ever before, and generate ever new ideas and worlds.
For me, reading is as organic to my lifestyle as breathing. I read because I write, I write because I read, and a life with books, words, pens, journals and word-images is natural and fundamental to me.
But it’s fun to break it down more, so, in the name of holding onto the old so that the new can be that much stronger, here are my reasons for absolutely loving reading actual books:
They feel good.
It never gets old, the feel of a velvety new book cover, and then the frayed edges of a well-worn favorite. It’s like a baby’s security blanket: the more you use it, and the more tattered it gets, the more it takes on pieces of you (or the love of previous owners), so that it’s very physicality roots you to your own special world.
They look and smell good.
A great album or book cover has multi-generational appeal. We are very visual people, us humans—scientists agree that it is our dominant sense—and a great book cover and book design has the ability to transport, and lets us carry around what amounts to a work of art. And ah, that strange, intoxicating, gluey-inky smell of a new book, and that stunning mustiness of books going way back into dim yellow depths—magic.
They are so much more than the sum of their parts.
They are words on a page. That’s all. How insanely amazing that they can make you laugh, cry, wish, yearn, yell and everything in between.
They are a vehicle for self-expression.
As humans, we are naturally inclined (thank goodness!) to creating, and expressing ourselves, to leaving a stamp or mark on things. Writing your name inside a new book as a student, writing notes in the margins (I have been known to write-shout expletives at authors I disagree with), highlighting portions of a text you love, or just doodling your daydreams on paper—this is the stuff of heaven, a true blending of minds near and far.
They allow you to fall.
If you give yourself the luxury of time to read a book through to the end, you will be rewarded with the feeling of having been swept right into a vortex where strangers dwell, who become so familiar that you never want to leave them behind. That feeling of horrible shock that comes when a great story ends—when it seems like your very own world by now—is worth the price of setting aside time to read.
They expand mindfulness and connectivity.
When you do fall into a great story, especially fiction, what you’re also doing is increasing the number of beings/people/characters you can relate to, and increasing your ability to feel connected to human feelings and situations outside your ordinary sphere. You might just find this affecting your ability to relate to others in the “real” world. Plus, reading = patience = concentration = focus = attention = mindfulness, to be brief.
They are good road companions.
This one is simple. Books don’t require Wifi, which you may well not have when you’re somewhere like a near-deserted island in Laos, or an awesome shack in the mountains or a remote airport with hours to wile away. As long as they don’t accidentally drown or catch fire, books are strong, enduring pieces of magic, information and storytelling, and they’ll always be there for you.
They help me see myself better.
Because books can increase the scope of what we can know, understand and imagine, they let me position and then re-position myself in the world. They help clarify ideas, issues of identity and emotions by opening up worlds and then by being there, stable and sure, any time I want to revisit.
They make me want to live my life more fully.
Every time I “meet” a new character, country, adventure, it inspires me to do more, feel more, live more. This might be the greatest gift a good book brings.
There are so many things you can do with them.
You can balance your tea on it while riding squished on a train—coaster! You can stuff postcards, business cards, great ideas scribbled on napkins and love letters inside them, you can write phone numbers on them in a moment of desperation. You can craft, and make your own cloth or paper covers for them. And best of all, you can share them—giving away your favorite book might be the most rewarding feeling in the world.
They remind me that life is more than a quote.
Life sometimes takes on the air of one giant stream of memes these days. Quotes can be very inspiring, but imagine how much more one can learn by discovering the greater context for these small slices of wisdom. The possibilities are large as the number of minds in the world—and then some.
*Originally published in elephant journal, here!
In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
~ Khalil Gibran
From the Riverbed of Hearts it isn’t far to Heart Hill.
I’ve lingered here, and made the trek a few times now, though any way you look at it, I’m just not a Heartian.
The Heartians are green and soft, and rain droplets perch for long, pregnant moments on them before making their pudgy descent to the ground, which is itself soft and green.
I repeat, sadly, reluctantly: I’m not a Heartian (not yet!).
But I’m delighted to have come into contact with the Land of Hearts – I gave it its name while ambling around a stunning retreat compound I’d only just arrived at a few days earlier.
It had just rained and I’d been sitting with my increasingly uncomfortable self since before dawn. I was instructed to walk extra slow and with mindfulness, to be aware of the foot as it rose, moved forward, and fell. First the right foot, and then the left foot, over and over like this.
I was trying to fix my gaze on the ground a little bit ahead of me so as to keep my balance, to follow the minutia of my movements with the attention of an enlightened being.
I failed; I was distracted by everything from the exotic leaves nearby that reminded me of art nouveau paintings, to the itchiness of my skin, dampened by the humidity and swollen with mosquito love.
Also, just hours earlier, I had what felt like an epiphany, but the bad kind, about how I really didn’t know why I was here – not only here on the retreat, but here here – and in fact, I didn’t really know the reason for anything I’d ever done my whole life.
Now, I not only had to live with this morbid feeling that was planting poison in my stomach, but I had to do this so-called mindfully, as I noticed my breath rise and fall and tended to my legs as they went through the agonizingly slow motions of meditative walking.
How do I choose the lucky recipient of my attention? My thoughts were spinning. Will it be my shallow breath, my rough, travel-worn heels, this incipient feeling of doom? How can I be mindful of everything at once?
In the midst of all this, something made me look over to my right. What I saw took my breath away.
Jutting out from a tree branch rooted in a thick, ragged stump was a big green heart, almost dancing in the air, a quiet greeting to a land far beyond my own.
I looked around to see if anyone else was bearing witness. I couldn’t see anyone. It was like the whole retreat disappeared the very instant I laid eyes on what I immediately started calling The Land of Hearts. Like this encounter was destiny.
A pathway unfolded. I’d never seen anything so inviting, so naturally, I took it.
I felt like I was walking on Earth’s last, richest and most precious of moments, because as Robert Frost knew, nothing gold can stay; such was the dewy feast below my feet, leaves of all kinds strewn upon the sandy ground.
At the end of the aisle I found the tiny, flowing Riverbed of Hearts.