Free Therapy #92: Separating Our Stories from Our Selves


“If our lives were a movie, if our lives were a book
It’d be longer than I could defend
‘Cause if you’re telling a story, at some point you stop
But stories don’t end
Stories don’t end
They go on and on
Just someone stops listening.”

Taylor Goldsmith

I am slowly and carefully reading I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a book that Adyashanti mentions as an important influence on his life journey. I don’t recommend it unless you feel you are ready for a much deeper spiritual understanding of reality and willing to feel lost, confused and frustrated in the process.

Nisargadatta became enlightened in 1938 after following his guru’s instruction to concentrate on the sense, “I am” and give his attention to “nothing else.” Nisargadatta later wrote, “I just obeyed. I did not follow any particular course of breathing, or meditation, or study of scriptures. Whatever happened, I would turn away my attention from it and remain with the sense ‘I am’. It may look too simple, even crude. My only reason for doing it was that my Guru told me so. Yet it worked!”

One metaphor that Nisargadatta employs and that I find helpful is the idea that reality is like a movie. When we watch a film in a darkened theatre, we can get so caught up in the story that we identify with it. For a couple hours, we can forget who we are or that we are sitting in a dimly lit room with strangers, each having their own separate experience. We might cry, laugh or feel afraid, all because of the images on the screen. Nothing is really happening to us. We aren’t doing anything. We are just sitting in a chair tuned into our visual and auditory awareness. But as we are exposed to the story on the screen, we don’t experience it as someone else’s story. We identify with it. We are temporarily transported into another world that seems, for a while, to be our own world and completely real, plausible and true. It’s an illusion but it feels real. Emotionally we respond to it as if it were authentic, even though we know “it’s only a movie.”

Nisargadatta explains that what is real about this process is the light that animates the film. Without the light, the images cannot be seen or experienced; they cannot come to life. Similarly, in this world of material form, what brings it all to life? What is the light (or love) in you and me that represents who we fundamentally are? We are this light but do we directly see or experience it? Do we know this light?

Instead of intimately experiencing and deeply knowing our limitless essence, we get caught up with the small stories on our inner screen. All our lives, within our minds, the endless parade of thoughts has maintained a stranglehold on our attention. “This is who I am,” our thoughts tell us. They might say we are beautiful or ugly, loved or unloved, smart or stupid, worthy or worthless. Whatever, our story, we believe it. We fall in love with it. We do not question our thoughts. Early on, we bought the script and studied and memorized it until we were fully identified with it. Our story became such a seamless part of our identity that even as we read these words, we don’t realize how we are incorporating this experience within the realm and continuity of our story or sense of self.

Our story is our identity. It is our self. Or so our story tells us. In the Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Depression by Strosahl and Robinson, the authors tell us that our story is created by our reactive mind. They write, “Reactive mind lives in the shell of your language system. It is a built-in rule follower and advice giver and it operates 24/7. It chatters at you, wants to discourse with you, and serves up an unending stream of woulds, shoulds, musts, and oughts, regardless of whether its advice is wanted or needed. Your reactive mind is full of judgments, evaluations, categories, and predictions. It strings together concepts that describe who you are in the here and now and how you got to be the way you are.”

If we are depressed or anxious, we can blame our reactive mind. It loves to compare who we think we are with who we think we should be. It looks for and finds people who are richer, smarter, younger, thinner, handsomer or luckier than us. It replays past events like our own private film festival of guilt, regret and resentment while it projects and predicts sinister futures for ourselves and those we love. We don’t choose this. It’s what our reactive mind does. From the depressed or anxious mind, our stories enable us to maintain the myths that support and sustain our depressed or anxious state. This is outside of our awareness until we decide to pay attention.

Fortunately, we also have a “wise mind,” a term first attributed to Buddha that involves two critical aspects. Strosahl and Robinson describe one form of wise mind that “involves learning to focus on the present moment of your life.” The only “place” we will ever escape the story is found right here and now. In this mindful, timeless presence, we refuse to judge anything within or without. No resistance. We accept and allow it all to be as it is. We just see it. We simply notice what is present without a story.

In the second aspect of wise mindedness, seek “to be aware of your awareness, to see that there is a you that is looking at the present moment.” Who or what is it that identifies with worry and depression? When we step back to ask this question, we step out of the story stream to see the source of the story – the story teller – the reactive mind “behind the curtain.”

In our wise mind, we can connect with our inner light or essence and from that vantage point, “see the shell of language and thoughts for what it really is, not what it says it is.” From our wise mind, we can watch the reactive mind the way we might watch a hyperactive monkey playing on a set of drums. It may be clever, fascinating and fun but it doesn’t have anything to do with our essential reality. Strosahl and Robinson write, “Your wise mind lets you see that it isn’t necessary to struggle with things that can’t be changed and that you can accept past events rather than continue to struggle with them. Once you understand that you construct your world, that it’s basically an illusion of the mind, then there is no real need to be afraid or avoid anything in your life space.”

In her book, “Self-Compassion, Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind,” Kristen Neff discusses this “awareness of awareness.” She writes, “Instead of simply feeling anger, I am aware that I am now feeling anger. This may seem like a vague, insubstantial distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world in terms of our ability to respond effectively to difficult situations.” When we step back and notice our thoughts and feelings without identifying with them, we “are no longer lost in their story line.”

Strosahl and Robinson explain that this process of creating our sense of self is quite sophisticated. Many of us compile a compelling narrative of our life that we regularly edit like a novel or documentary film. This process is called “sense making” and “reason giving.” We make sense of the world and our place in it. It is our own special version of what the truth is. Every step of the way, our minds explain who we are in an ongoing construction project involving the bricks and mortar of emotions, ideas, concepts and memories.

As children, we absorb our parents’ stories but we quickly begin developing our own. As we interpret the world to ourselves, we essentially collect and “marry” our reasons. And as we layer these reasons in like geological sediments, they take on themes that will eventually become our cherished biography. Each of us has a story line but we barely know it that way. Instead, this narrative becomes our self. For many of us, it becomes rigid, inflexible and set in concrete. It is who we are, by God, and whether sad, mad or glad, there is no changing it. It is us. Just ask and we’ll tell you who we are.

The more we make sense of the world and our place in it, the more reasons we cling to. Strosahl and Robinson write, “These reasons collectively form one very basic way we know ourselves, often referred to as a self-concept.” But it isn’t real and it isn’t helpful. The more we cling to our story as being our self, the more we suffer. Until we “expose the story line for what it is: an inaccurate, biased, and selectively filtered narrative that’s full of holes and inconsistencies,” it will rule us like an angry nun and ride us like an abusive jockey with sharp spurs.

While our stories don’t end, we can let them go on without us. We can stop listening. We can choose to be present with what is real. We can step back from the story and see it as just that. We can be aware of the story and who is telling the story and ask a few questions. How does it help to believe and live this story? Is it true? How do I feel when I dwell on, reinforce and believe my story? Who would I be without this story? And if I must have stories, are there better ones than these? Each of us is half asleep and half awake. When our stories run our lives, it is as if we are back in the dark theatre passively living out a false existence. And yet there is also this immediate presence, this wakefulness or aliveness; this fearless love. Can you feel it? I promise it is here within you waiting. What if that could be your real story when you step out into the light? Are you ready to find out?

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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6 Responses

  1. sue k says:

    Thank you again, and again and again!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Rod says:


    You’re reading a book you don’t recommend,  because I might not be ready for it?

    If it is similar to the poem by Goldsmith,  it’s wrong.  If our life were a movie, and someone stops listening.  Utter nonsense.

    Pull-up your bootstraps and live.  It’s real.  What you feel isn’t connected to what somebody translates for you.  Carrying the baggage of selfdoubt leads to hopelessness.  Feel yourself being alive while loving every moment.




  3. Mila says:

    The ultimate guide to Nisargadatta Maharaj’s methodolgy was composed by Stephen Wolinsky. You Are Not: Beyond the Three Veils of Consciousness and I Am That I Am: A Tribute to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj are essential to non-conceptual, non-intellectual “understanding” of Maharaj. “This is the place where the intellect gets annihilated,” says Nisargatta. 

  4. Ginny says:

    Your articles help others.  So that is what to keep your eye on; the ones you help and forget the others!

    I write to a number of prisoners each week.  Mine may be the only letter they get.  I send your articles to one man in particular.  This is what he wrote back to me a week or so ago.   I felt this will continue to encourage you in your messages…

    “I really got a lot out of Free Therapy this week on the “Ten Paths to Peace.”  If has a real good insight on us being at Peace, with ourselves and our surroundings.  I like the idea of being psychologically flexible more than jusb being happy in, which is hard to attain.  I liked it so much I made some extra copies and am passing it around to people I though may enjoy reading it also.  ;o)  I like that he bases a lot of his readings on Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  More geared for shelf-help.”

    So, Doug, I appreciate your Free Therapy!  Thank you…….. as you are helping more than you know!


  5. Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Thank you for this article Doug.  I enjoyed it and I like reading how people respond to your thoughts.

    I’ve spent a great deal of  time reading the works of renowned  philosophers  and great thinkers and there is this little annoying thought in the back of my mind.  “Who cooked your meals” while you wrote down your thoughts.  “Who tended your clothes?”   Whatever you believe and propose has to be true for people with time to think and people who are so engaged in physical labor that they have no time to think about anything but what they are doing.   I know the nuns and monks in monasteries incorporated common labors into their lives.

    Again, thank you Doug.

  6. Dorothy says:

    As always…you never fail to enlighten me. Thank you.

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