Updated: Nov 7, 2019
There are two things in our experience. What happens and the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.
The stories could be literal stories that we literally tell. But more immediately the stories are the thoughts we think—our interpretation of what happens.
For most people, these two things—what happens and their stories about what happens—seem like one thing. They seem like one thing because generally when stuff happens, we so quickly tell a story about it that the story merges with the stuff. Our interpretation becomes a reflex, like hitting the breaks when something runs in front of the car. Eckhart Tolle calls this living unconsciously.
Most people believe that life is good or bad because of the stuff that happens to them. But stuff is almost always neutral in-and-of itself. Whether our life feels good or bad depends on the second part—on that story. The story is where we really live, emotionally.
Say, someone’s mad at you. That’s stuff that happens. Their face gets red, they yell, they accuse. Those are sense perceptions. Things only get juicy for us because of our story about those perceptions. We may tell a story in which that person is an ogre or we are a little mouse, or both. We may feel guilt, shame, or anger back at them, and believe that these feelings are part of what’s happening to us. But those feelings don’t come baked into the other person’s anger. They come from the second step—from the story we’ve reflexively told ourselves about that anger.
It doesn’t matter where the story came from. What matters is the recognition that it’s a story. What matters is the decoupling of what happens from our response to what happens. The amazing thing is that the first step—being aware of the story—is extremely powerful in and of itself. Simply catching yourself telling a story, whether while it’s happening or afterwards, leads to effortless change for the better. That at any rate has been my experience.