Talk San Francisco Zen Centre: June 2016
Stories are important. The stories which we tell ourselves and the stories which we tell others shape our lives. Humans have told stories since time immemorial. Stories are the means by which we pass down culture and wisdom and spiritual truth. Stories also operate on a personal level: I tell you stories about myself and they have an effect on how you see me, how you then treat me and how I then feel about myself. I could tell you I am a writer, a teacher, a grandmother... each would have a different effect.
The stories we tell reflect our interests. In terms of Buddhist psychology they mirror the self, which is constructed. When I tell you about my day, the things which I say say something about me. I tell you we went to China Town, we went to the quayside and saw pelicans, we ate some good food. I am interested in Buddhism and East Asia, I love the outdoors and nature, I enjoy eating.
Buddhist psychology suggests that our stories are a way we protect ourselves. We are frightened of uncertainty and impermanence so we create a sense of permanence and continuity around ourselves – a kind of bubble of identity and we invite the world to populate it.
There are questions in all this about what is true – the stories we tell about ourselves may not actually be true. What we think we are doing may not reflect how we actually act. I have recently been asked to send a description of my model of working to a new supervisor – it will be interesting to see if she thinks I actually do what I think do. The theory can be inspirational and make us think about what we are doing, but it is often what we aspire to rather than actually being the truth.
I have been asked to write an article responding to papers on the topic of Depressive Realism, a movement in philosophy based on the observation that people who are depressed are more realistic about life than people who are not – for example if you go for a job interview you may have a one in six chance of getting teh job, but to stand a chance you probably need to think the job is in the bag. DR has some similarities to Buddhism, but at the same time, the truth is actually complicated and the ‘realistic’ view depends on what one focuses on. Naikan therapy is a Buddhist therapy which focuses on shifting our view of reality by working with a set of questions relating to childhood. <explanation of Naikan>
One of the problems of modern life is the shift towards individualism and the idea that we are in control of our own stories. In fact our stories are rooted in collective, cultural and broadly human stories. We are just the meeting point of these bigger sets of conditions. In our Ten Directions ecotherapy training we explore the inter-relationship between three levels of story – the personal, the cultural and mythic and the global.
The global crisis is prompting stories based on fear – collective building of identity through nationalism and factionalism, consumerism and greed, hatred and hostility – in fact all the things which Buddhist psychology would lead you to expect. We split the world (‘splitting’ is a psychological defence phenomenon) into good and bad, mine and not mine. In Buddhist terms, dualistic thinking.
Joanna Macy talks about three stories of modern times: Business as usual (denial and avidya); The great unravelling (catastrophising and vibhava) or the great turning – a spiritual transformation.
The model of psychotherapy which we teach at Tariki, based on Buddhist principles, is Other-Centred Approach. It is based on our need to connect with others. The way out of the current crisis has to be through connection and through facing difference and plurality. We also have to face and recognise our not knowing. We have to live from values of respect.
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