Byron Katie calls herself “a woman without a future”. She doesn’t mean by this that she is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or that she won’t exist into the next moment. She will. Or she won’t. It’s irrelevant to her. What she means is that she has no more stories. No more narrative bubbles up to tie this moment to the next, to connect her past to her future. And without a story, there is no past, and there is no future.
And so “I am a woman”, she says, “without a future”.
Katie also acknowledges that we love our stories.
I travel back and forth from LA to Sacramento just about every month. I visit my son and his girlfriend, more of my family, and friends. And every month, my heart breaks, my soul soars, and everything in between. Why? Stories. MY stories. And though I think I want to be free of them, oh, Katie, how I love my stories; they are the only home I remember.
The trouble is, I can’t fully believe in them anymore. At least not for any length of time, and in this way, I am (often kicking and screaming) unceremoniously drug out of my familiar old abode into the glaring light, where for awhile, I can see nothing. I cannot discern any recognizable shapes, and everything feels strange. But as my eyes adjust and the resistance subsides, I begin to notice that if I look others in the eye, they seem to be here with me or rather, that I seem to be looking back at myself; there is more than one “here”. Which do I choose? Fact? Or Fiction? It’s partly a matter of the illusion of control.
I observe that the narratives are fickle, and malleable. They are “cloaks of holes” as Sylvia Plath says of her skin, and not to be trusted.
The monthly trek, wherein I travel from one place to another place, creates a space of disconnection, and it is as if the stories cannot quite stretch from one city to the next. The narrative invariably becomes jumbled and incongruous, and because this is confusing to me and I don’t understand, I become distracted and am often bruised and scratched and cut, over and over, on fragments of old tales, narrative detritus, as I fly out of my new town, into my old one and back again. I helplessly watch as my past and future flash before my eyes in the present moment, colliding in a confusing fireworks display of every imaginable emotion. My marriage that slipped like sand through my fingers before I could stop it; like a brakeless train barreling down the tracks and into the ocean. And the other themes: The Life That Could Have Been. What I Do. The Life That I’m Envisioning. What Happened. What I’m Like. What Others are Like. How I Should Be. What My Life is About. My Stories. I tell myself a story of dodging a bullet and I feel relieved. I tell myself a story of The Biggest Mistake I’ve Ever Made, and joy immediately and palpably transmutes into a grey depression.
I notice that the stories change colors in the light, like a hummingbird’s wings, or a fish’s scales. That looked green! Now it’s blue… I could have sworn that was magenta, and now it’s black…
Depending on the direction of the light and the angle of the object, my perceptions shape-shift and disintegrate before my eyes. They appear, they disappear. This is how I know they are illusory. I often allow them though, familiar and porous, to haunt me.
I am not (yet, at least) a woman without a future. Even though the reality is that I am. We all are.
I wonder, when my attention is not in the past or the future or the here and now, where I am, and where I’ve been. I sometimes come to, as if blinking off sleep, luggage in hand, to find myself standing in line, ready to board an airplane. Or sharing a meal with someone I feel I’ve always known, but seem to have just met. Or looking into my dog’s brown eyes, wondering where I was the moment before that.
I don’t remember where I’ve been, where my consciousness goes to when I’m not aware of it (and how can one not be conscious of consciousness?? Isn’t consciousness consciousness??)—and who is this I, I wonder along with Eckhart Tolle, and how many of us are there here, watching the others (at least three; our personal trinity: the watcher, the awareness of the watcher, and the actor)? I wonder if that nothingness is where I came from, and where I’ll go back to. I only know that at some point, my life will have flashed by me like last weekend, like the last three years, like the moment before this one. I still fear some kind of “waking up” at the end of my life, wondering where I’ve been and discovering I’ve slept through it all. I only know, with 100% certainty, that nothing is as it seems. I only know, with 100% certainty, that the play of light, the magic trick, the shifting forms, are anything but what we think they are.
Suffering emanates, steaming, wet, or dusty and dry as a bone, achingly, from our stories. From wanting to hold onto something we like, or wishing things were not as they are. And still I swim up rivers of hope, categorize and label this and that and appear to become boosted in the air of exaltation or mired in the sucking mud of regret. But sometimes, the opening of the eyes, and sometimes, out of my peripheral vision, or front and center, secret numbers, implausible meetings, unbelievable happenstances all occur as if in a movie, with the air of a wink, of a private joke, a joyful burst of laughter, and like an eraser put to a shaded page, dissolve the story for a moment or two.
For a moment or two.
For a moment or two, story-less, I am fully aware of being alive.
But being Here without our stories seems… what? At first boring (nothing at all is happening here!), then wonderful and freeing (Look! I’m just HERE!) and then frightening (who am I without my stories?? What will become of me without a story of a Plan/Hope/Vision/Future??).
Be Here Now may be both the simplest, and the most difficult instruction of all.
It’s everything and nothing at the same time. We cannot fathom it. It’s why we place our attention on other things. We fidget, fiddle, distract, repeat, sabotage, judge, compare, run away, run toward, plan, think, gossip, wonder, hope, wish, review, revisit, analyze…. we keep our attention off of the Now. Anything but the Now! We fear the present moment like nothing else. We fear what awaits us in the Now. And what is there to greet us there that we fear so much? Perhaps its the irreducibility of the immateriality of our stories, our fear of the oceanic drop-off, of thin air, of no-ground, of infinite space? But before that, there are definitely our feelings about our stories. Our shame, our anger, our sadness, our despair, our anxiety, our terror. Feelings of happiness, of lightness, of joy—those we tell ourselves ANOTHER story about: that we can hold onto them and avoid experiencing the other feelings ever again.
Life, in our current understanding, in almost every way, IS a story. A story that, despite its often incomprehensibly painful incarnations, we are loathe to give up, to put away and to abandon. Giving up our stories feels as if we are giving up our pasts and our futures. We think our stories are all we have ever known. We think we will cease to exist without them. We think they are us.
Have you ever noticed that when you thought you’d given up a story, you found you’d really only substituted it for another one? Giving up the story of “I am a victim” shifts into the story of “I am brave”. The story of “I did the wrong thing” evolves into “I did the right thing”. “I will be with this person forever” becomes “oops I misunderstood but now I get it”. “I tell stories” becomes “I have no stories”. EVERY narrative is a story. To exist without a story is almost utterly incomprehensible. It’s completely foreign to our way of being and counter to everything we think we understand.
Byron Katie must be the bravest human being on the face of the earth. She sits, stands or lays down, every day, all day long, without a story. Not once weekly in a yoga class, or during a half hour meditation twice a day, or at a retreat, not at early service on Sunday morning, not just alone at 3 am, but all the time. After a time of observing her stories, she finds that there is nothing left to observe. The stories have flown away, their black/magenta/blue wings shimmering in the sunlight, their squawks, twitters, and calls faded into the brilliant sky. She exists, a gentle smile on her face, just Being here, now.
Free of Story.
We think we know how to do this, that we understand, but we don’t. Some of us, whether we want to admit it or not, have made a story-less existence a “goal”. But instead of “can you live without your story” the question may actually be “do you WANT to??” Or maybe there is no question at all. Is there only an illusion of choice: do I want to be rid of the nightmare of sleeping through my life? Or do I want the comfort (imaginary or not) of my stories??
“Everyone has a plan” Mike Tyson quips in a recent meme, “until they’re punched in the face”. Indeed. I’m black and blue often; some of my stories throw a nasty right hook. On these days, the “Plan” (and even more often, the plan to have no plan and no story) dissipates into the mist from whence it came, unreal.
Today, following the monthly trip, is like this. Here I sit, between stories, aware that I understand nothing. For the first time in maybe forever, however, I balance on the knife edge of having no opinion about that. No story, despite this post, about the stories, or about how I should be. Or maybe that in itself is only another story. In any case, I seem to stare into space, up through a rip in the narrative, and I find myself just Here. Now. At least for this moment, like Katie, a woman without a future. Maybe “like” and “don’t like” are only part of the narrative. Maybe there are no goals without the story. Maybe, as Quantum Physics tells us, perception IS reality with a little ‘r’ and Reality is 99% empty space and only a tendency to exist. Maybe, like I seem to discuss in every blog, this being here really is all there is. But maybe the awareness of one is not better than the other, and maybe in reality, there was never any choice, never any split. Maybe we are always afraid of nothing. Maybe we only dream of being afraid. Maybe there is no waking because there is no dream. Maybe there is no dream because we are always awake.
Maybe the only home, my friends, is no home at all.
In any case, in this moment I feel the overwhelming pull towards not missing any of this dream/not-dream of parrots flying overhead, my dogs walking by my side, and the breeze lifting the hair off my neck by philosophizing about what I’m pretty sure can never be understood. Emerging out of the other side of the rabbit hole, I feel only gratitude. And mercifully, I’ll leave it at that. LiveLove&BU