How to change the uncomfortable stories we tell ourselves
Our intrinsic innocence, and the power of affirmations
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Stories run our life
We define ourselves with stories. Sometimes they are true, sometimes they’re BS. We don’t always know.
To conjure and believe stories is a primal human need. They shape our memory and lived experience (which may otherwise be formless).
Stories influence how we see ourself, our worldview, our relationships with the events of life, and with others
To be clear: here, when I say ‘story,’ it’s only in the context of how we see our life and attach meaning to its events. This isn’t a post about story as craft.
The irresistible power of stories
Like the moon’s gravitational pull shaping tides, stories influence our mind, our decisions and actions. We hang on to stories from the past, even when some of them are clearly unpleasant.
Maybe you can relate:
I’m not worthy, I’m just no good
I had so much promise until ____
If only I could turn back time and _____
We also maintain carefully chosen stories about the future:
If I get that Leica, I could be as good as that Magnum photographer
When I get that online course or car or partner or Peleton, I will be happy
And the present moment, you say? That’s often by avoided by focussing on anything but: constant activity, eating, surfing, or simply rehashing stories… but that’s a story for another time :)
Now, if you’ve also arrived at the awareness that—yes, I too seem to be hanging on to certain stories, and perhaps I would like to change them—then this post can help.
Let’s dive into why we hang on to stories
Our intrinsic innocence
Here’s a great analogy that Dr Hawkins uses to describe the nature of our consciousness. He writes:
“Our consciousness is like the hardware of a computer, that will run any software or program that is installed on it. No matter what programs we run, the hardware—the computer itself—remains unchanged. The purity and integrity of the hardware has not been sullied, even if the programs are erroneous.”
This primordial innocence is intrinsic to consciousness. It means we’re impressionable and programmable from the start:
As children, we unquestionably believe the words and actions of parents and caregivers. Teachers, television, and peers.
Being incredibly suggestible, we sense the weight of their words and actions, and eagerly attach ourselves to it.
He goes on to explain how we carry this innocence into adulthood:
“Within the adult remains that same unchanged, childlike consciousness, with its innocence, purity of motive, and capacity to remain pure no matter what the programs may be.
It is exactly what is reading these words right now. It is the childlike consciousness, with all its purity and innocence, that is reading this teaching right now—not the person or personality, but that consciousness…
Even if the person who is reading says, “I don’t believe a word of it,” where does that statement come from? It comes from another belief system that the child bought out of innocence. The father says, “Don’t trust anybody,” or some disappointing experience sets up the program within the child’s mind. “Don’t trust anything you hear.”
So if we are saying to ourself, “I don’t believe anything he says,” we are saying that because, out of the childlike innocence, we bought that program. “The way to be secure in this world is to be mistrusting, skeptical, and not believe anything you hear or you will be misled down the primrose path.”
— Hawkins, David R., Healing and Recovery
This way of looking at one’s innermost being as an innocent child is a such profound and moving insight.
Once we see that, it’s not hard to see all kinds of erroneous programs we pick up during childhood:
Never trust people of that skin-colour, religion, or appearance…
Never play with those children…
Do as I say, but not as I do
How can we approach this innocence? Dr Hawkins suggests paying attention to inner dialogue or beliefs to discern how stories arise.
Our inner stories are often reinforced by thought-loops.
Thoughts, in turn, are fuelled by the pressure of suppressed or repressed feelings (i.e. feelings pushed out of one’s awareness).
Stories also coalesce around meaning and worldview to create belief systems (often not vocalized) that act as organizing principles for our behaviour:
I am my body. I must ensure the body’s survival no matter what.
I need to seek sensory pleasure or reward, no matter what.
Sometimes these create entire industries that feed temporal goals (“anti-aging,” etc).
Belief systems can be incredibly powerful, and have the power to make us sick. Because whatever is held in mind tends to expresses itself in the body—just like weight.
Self-care and unlearning
This may not be obvious at first, but here’s the first step towards emotional and spiritual self-care:
When we look at ‘self-care’, which is the capacity to love one’s self, we find it now means taking responsibility to protect ourselves from the consequences of that innocence and the willingness to undo mistakes that the mind picked up as a result.
We can then handle looking at ourselves and healing that which we find within us if we accept the awareness of the intrinsic innocence of our consciousness. We see that it was the innocence that was programmed.
We then take responsibility for that and say, “In my innocence, I bought all that; I didn’t know any better. I thought that the right thing to do was to be judgmental, to condemn people, and to judge them as right or wrong. Now I see that all that has made me sick, so I’m going to let it go.”’ – Hawkins, David R., Healing and Recovery. Hay House. Kindle Edition.
This is why the mind unaided cannot tell the difference between what is true and what is false.
In order to let go of stories, one needs to let go of the attachment to their emotional payoff. Sometimes a significant life event forces us to change our perception, worldview, our story.
Change can feel like death to the ego. Unlearning is truly challenging. When it comes to spiritual or emotional unlearning - we seldom know the outcome, and rely on faith.
E.g.: To give up the ‘justified’ pleasure of hating and resenting someone just for the sake of my inner peace, what I am really putting my faith in is the idea that I will gain something if I let go.
But to the burning mind, a reservoir of calm is just an abstract idea.
That’s why few become willing to let go of the payoff of resentments, and by doing so choose recovery
When we experience the truth of a principle, when see an affirmation becoming the truth in our life then spiritual work becomes enormously gratifying and empowering.
Affirmations and recovery
What makes certain affirmations powerful is alignment to universal principles of truth.
An affirmation of a universal truth helps to guide our present self towards what we want to be in the future.
Affirmations can seem about looking out there, but only to find that it is within us. In other words, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Here are a couple of common 12 step slogans—common to the point of cliché, but like all clichés they are true:
Easy does it
First things first
One day at a time
Progress, not perfection
Principles before personalities
Be part of the solution, not part of the problem
This too shall pass
Such slogans give the (hopeless) addict hope that her story will change. When, along the journey of the 12 steps when the transformation happens, the affirmations turn out to have been true all along.
You might be thinking: Why are we harping on about alcoholics and 12 steps, when it’s got nothing to do with me?
Because recovery from addictions is the ultimate example of changing one’s story.
Prior to Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery from alcohol addiction was non-existent.
Since, the 12 steps have since offered the world a tried and tested pathway, with numerous programs patterned after AA’s model of letting go of criticism and judgement, and moving towards acceptance and compassion.
It’s called the pathway of the heart for a reason. The intellect alone has never quite worked for any addict.
And, yes, there’s more to recovery than just affirmations. But the first step is really about looking at one’s story and seeing it for what it is.
There are whole systems of how to let go of unconscious guilt through the process of the willingness to forgive, to let go of criticism and judgment, to let go of right and wrong as an orientation towards life, to move towards forgivingness, and through the desire to understand life out of compassion.
- Hawkins, David R., Healing and Recovery
Affirmations are about rewriting old stories
The first step towards changing something is becoming fully aware of it.
Imagine stepping into a neglected garden overrun with weed. Before we can plant anything, we must clear all the unwanted week obstructing the growth.
Similarly, we need to first examine our underlying behaviour and thought-patterns. Superficial changes can only lead to superficial outcomes.
When we become aware of these ‘tapes’ or loops, we notice they seem to riff around some inner worldview:
Life sucks. F— this.
This is so messed up, I hate this
This is meaningless
There’s just no hope.
I never improve, I never learn.
I’ll never get ____
Do you relate to this?
For some of us, this BS is endless because thought-surfing is like tuning into a radio station autonomous and impersonal. But the good part is that we can easily see the real payoff we get:
A thought-loop about feeling upset leads us to a bigger upset
A thought-loop of wantingness, leads us to an even greater feeling of lack
Similarly for eating patterns, and other ways of acting out
“Radical truth means you have to take the mask off everything and be willing to see it for what it is. And now handle it from the viewpoint of emotional honesty.” — Dr Hawkins
Whatever our most pressing emotional problem is at the moment—distraction, unwanted habits, anger, procrastination, anxiety, worry, etc—we can try a simple exercise to uncover what we’re holding in mind.
Mornings and nights are a good time to do this exercise and reflect:
What’s bothering me today?
Is there something am I trying to avoid or ignore?
What upset me today? Why did I really get upset about it?
What’s the story that I’m telling myself about it?
Then we gently look underneath it by asking what is this for?
What upset me today?
I didn’t get enough me-time, I didn’t get to watch that movie, and now Saturday is over.
What is this for?
I don’t get the time anymore. I used to watch so many movies. It makes me sad.
What is this sadness for?
I don’t know, I used to be the kind of person who had that freedom to do so many things, and now I don’t
What is this freedom for?
Well, I used to be able to choose what I did with my time, but with a growing family-time and busier work, it’s like I had to give up on some enjoyment I used to have. But there’s no time for it.
As we uncover the underlying feelings (coming from grief and lack), the story is about missing out on time that signifies freedom, joy and pleasure.
So, what where does all the time go - other than work and family.
I don’t know, I just read a bunch of random things on the phone.
So, with limited free time, would I like to prioritize how I spend it?
Like figure out what I really wish to do… Make time for that, and remove all other distractions?
Um I guess…
So what would I like to prioritize for the weekend?
I just want to feel like I can spend time meaningfully and intentionally. I don’t really care what the ending of Tenet meant because I never watched it. Maybe I should just write that newsletter post on dealing with my fomo.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to do this with an understanding partner or friend who won’t judge us for some understandably trite complaints.
With some constructive questioning, it’s possible for one to arrive at a new story
About what makes one happy (e.g. balancing self-care with other roles)
Clarifying where one finds fulfillment and purpose (writing that newsletter)
Serving something greater than oneself (being there for the family and others, helping in changing someone else’s story)
The most common story about chasing happiness seems to be that it’s always outside of oneself, and always in the future. Easy to forget that this is a program that can be undone.
As Dr Hawkins writes:
That is what the anger (or despair) is all about—“I lost my power. The source of my happiness will never be returned to me because it is outside of myself. I have projected it out there.”
The healing of it comes from the willingness to look at the truth of it, to say to oneself,
“Out of my innocence, like other humans on this planet, like most of us, in fact, I bought a certain way of looking at life in which the source of happiness is, first of all, outside myself, and secondly, it is always in the future.”
The separation from the source of happiness is not only in space, but it is also in time, so it is something that is going to come into our life tomorrow, or the next day, or the next week, or the year after, or when we finally graduate, or when we reach middle age, or when we get that big house or Cadillac.
Because it is always in the future, we are always separated from the source of our happiness and never feel complete.
- Hawkins, David R., Healing and Recovery
I’ll leave you with an affirmation from Dr Hawkins that I find very helpful to re-contextualize situations that where I need help:
“My happiness does not depend on anything outside of me.
I, of myself, am the source of my happiness
by my own inner decisions,
and by the way I see myself,
and my relationships with the events of life”
How to contemplate this statement:
The source of happiness is within - only one way to find out: directing attention inward.
My inner decisions - I get to decide how I can be with a certain event or situation with my response.
Integrity - am I acting with honesty here? If not, what can I do to change that?
Intentions - what are my intentions and what do they serve?
The way I see myself - what story about myself am I telling?
My relationships with the events of life - what story and meaning am I creating with them? What can I do to change how I relate to external events?
In good faith
We live in a time when exposure to a sea of opinions has never been greater or more welcome. Each morning, we reopen our minds to the news, Twitter, Youtube, books, podcasts, etc, to say: Tell me something.
In other words, I trust you to fill my mind with something, in good faith.
Way to Self-healing
It’s easy to see flawed beliefs in others (e.g. the Mote and the Beam. Or Twitter any day). In self healing (recovery). It’s also common to be shocked or disturbed by the content of one’s mind.
Those who had to make a fearless moral inventory (as part of the 12 steps or any spiritual program), or simply observed the contents of mind for long enough will have realized how certain stories and beliefs have held us tied down to ignorance.
This stunning little quote from Dr Hawkins is a benign antidote to that, and the reason for this post script:
“When we look within ourself now with the intention of self-healing, we see that intrinsic innocence and understand what program was set up.
Now we have to
re-own that innocence
which is so crucial in all spiritual work as well in personal psychological research and introspection.
It is important to always keep within our awareness that whatever we bought was
out of the beauty of that which we are.
We bought it out of our own love, trustingness, and integrity because we
projected our own integrity
onto the world and thought it was a place we could trust in and believe anything we heard or read.”
— Hawkins, David R., Healing and Recovery. Hay House. Kindle Edition.
See that line?
"out of the beauty of that which we are"
Isn’t that amazing?
Another thing that’s easy to see in others but maybe not as much in oneself — the beauty of that which we are.
Here’s to that beauty, love and integrity 🙏
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