As rational beings, humans constantly try to make sense our of the world around us - what's happening, how things that are happening relate to us, how we feel and think about things happening, and how our lives are impacted. We do this subconsciously, filling in blanks of discomfort, creating our own vision of the world as we see it, and adding to the work that we have done in the past that defines who we are and how we exist. This is a very normal human thing to do - we all do it. But what we generally don't see is how this activity organizes what we know, believe, and feel into scenarios and stories that help us explain our lives to ourselves.
We all create these stories starting with objective data - facts - and adding our own perceptions and analyses. And every time we do this we add to the stories that we have already created about our lives. The challenge is that every story supports boundaries and limitations that both serve to protect us and separate us from others and from things we fear. So if we want to make change in our lives, we need to get in touch with the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our limitations, our beliefs, and our histories.
As an example, two children can come from impoverished families with limited parental guidance and nurturing. One child develops the story that they are not deserving of love or wealth and continues to reinforce this story in his behavior and choices as he grows to be an adult. The other child develops the story that he is a survivor in spite of these humble beginnings and goes on to create behaviors that move him towards success, particularly when he must rise to financial and emotional challenges. Each of these two could have started with the exact same set of circumstances, yet the stories that they created for themselves about the meaning of their lives moved them to act and behave with very different results.
Wayne Muller in his book Legacy of the Heart discusses the concept of mindfulness, of being aware and fully present, in a state where we are able to observe without judgment and learn about the stories that exist in our lives. He states that "When we carry in our minds the old categories of what is possible, we effectively limit what we are able to feel, hear, sense and know...Rather than explore the sensations of the moment, the habitual mind prefers to compare all new data to old information already collected...We are no longer present, no longer alive with this current feeling - we have escaped into the mind, into the past, where nothing can change, where we will always and forever repeat the same old story." (p144)
The point of being mindful is not to change but to observe. "When we use our feelings, not as evidence of the past but as information about the present, we learn to meet and accept ourselves with compassionate curiosity." (p145) As we train our minds to pay closer attention to the details of our lives as they are, and not as how they continue to reinforce our old habits and stories, we open and expand our abilities to learn from the present, to see the limitations that old stories impose, and to make choices about our future based on our present awareness.
I don't think many of us look at our lives as being stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. We aren't generally in the habit of doing reality checks on things that we habitually face, on feelings that are familiar, on situations that evoke emotional responses. We might be very good at testing reality in our work environments, but on ourselves? Probably not.
As Muller notes: " For many of us, learning to pay closer attention to our lives might require no small amount of discipline...thus, the discipline of mindfulness invites us to cultivate a deep love and affection for paying attention to the daily, precious moments of our lives, allowing us to receive and experience each new moment in a fresh way...When we touch all we feel and all we are with mindful, loving attention in the present moment, we are able to be set free from the demons of our remembered smallness, free to grow and change, and to blossom in ways we never dreamed possible." (p146-7)
Muller, Wayne (1992) Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood. New York, Simon & Schuster.