Deconstructing the Story

“O Architect! You are seen! You shall build no house again. All your rafters are broken. Your ridge pole is shattered.”


It’s a bit scary, and often even threatening, to begin the process of questioning one’s entrenched habit of conceptual self-definition. For most of us, it provides a kind of buffer between ourselves and the apparent chaos of the phenomenal world. Our cumulative personal story revolves around how we think of ourselves, and our identity based on such stories is all we are ever attempting to enhance, comfort, satisfy, and protect. Even such a well-regarded spiritual teacher as the Buddhist author, Pema Chodron, recently wrote: “In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings—beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I find it helpful to think of myself this way.”

The truth is, she doesn’t really know who or what she is. Nobody does. However, we tend to adopt these pretenses in order to better navigate the objective world. Inevitably, we begin believing our stories, imagining that the personas we’ve assumed actually represent who we are. As a rule, we are unable to rest in our fundamental not-knowing. We become anxious, restless for an adventure in which we can immerse ourselves, as children do in games of make-believe. This whole realm, and even the so-called higher realms, are simply stages where we can perform in various roles for our entertainment and edification.

The only problem in all of this is when we suffer, based on the fate of the character with whom we have fused. We suffer because we have forgotten our essential immortal spirit nature while pretending to be this or that form exclusively. We suffer, in other words, due to our conceptual self-definitions. Instead of holding them lightly, we cling to them desperately and won’t let go, sometimes even after the death of the human body-mind vehicle. Of course, nothing is wasted, even our suffering, which can be transmuted into wisdom if we pay attention to the natural order of things — their transience and transparent emptiness.

What then are the mechanics of this construction? In chronic reaction to the perceived dilemma that characterizes “ordinary life”, the comparative mind becomes addicted to imagining various alternative scenarios and then projecting future outcomes, thus reinforcing its presumption of present unhappiness. In just going about our everyday business, such embedded strategies constitute a persistent pattern of avoidance, especially when the circumstances du jour appear to be challenging.

If we are perceptive, we may come to realize that these various challenges are actually gifts in the form of tests of recognition. They are graciously provided in order for us to discover how we will respond in numerous simulations. Will we continue indulging in escapist fantasies, or finally awaken to what is always standing right before us? In that way, they are both an invitation to recognize what we are habitually up to, as well as an opportunity to go beyond the patterned grooves of dreamy sleep-walking and complacency.

As we awaken from the conditioned daze of our amnesia, we can utilize these tests as a means of inquiry into that which we are always trying to run from and avoid. For example, why do we scare ourselves? What is the reactive mechanism within our psyche that is regularly superimposing stress on life, and infusing it with a felt quality of fearfulness and dissatisfaction?

Certainly, we can stop in the midst of our narrative and face ourselves at any moment. However, the implications of that stark possibility disturb us. Instead, we are attracted to and become enamored of all sorts of hopeful schemes, or else seek to linger in a nostalgia of pleasant memory states, with past and future vying for our anxious attention, and all the while resisting the simple act of resting — right here, right now.

Such “resting” requires a profound letting go of our fixations and cherished images, a deep and abiding surrender born of genuine humility. However, the fascination-free state is considered boring to the typical spiritual seeker, who is driven by uninspected motives to fill up emptiness with all sorts of toys and games. The last thing most seekers really want is to have their whole story revealed as compounded fiction, so instead they easily become enamored of blissful energetic states that may appear in meditation, for example, employing them to confirm their existence, rather than recognizing them as transient modifications of consciousness.

On the other hand, by virtue of the radical decision to truly stop in our tracks, discard our distractions of choice, and nakedly face ourselves, the whole theatrical melodrama of “my story” is seriously undermined. By refusing to grant any enduring reality to the passing thought parade generated by the self-fixation, the narrative itself will eventually run out of fuel and lose its seductive and compelling allure. The first act of compassion, in this case, is to take off the mask.

Of course, such a daunting prospect is the last one ego-mind would care to endure. After all, its very survival is totally dependent on the perpetuation of the “me-story”, an all-consuming project of effort and personal validation, and thus it will struggle mightily to maintain that illusion, at least until the futility of such efforts is made apparent by virtue of the grace of failure. As Sri Nisargadatta notes:

“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.”

To fail completely involves the cumulative recognition that “you” can’t do it. Alert and persistent inspection, typically coupled with the mentorship of a qualified guide, will eventually reveal the utter futility of the ego-mind’s efforts to endure and triumph. The whole scheme, the compounded strategy, is hopeless! As it turns out, the one that would awaken in some glorious enlightenment story is the very one that is obstructing true realization, and it is only in the total frustration of the ego-mind’s ambition that the clear light of our native radiance is free at last to emerge.

Spiritual aspirants tend to expect some drama, perhaps some ethereal fireworks display in their crown chakra to herald their passage, not a boring sort of petering out of their ambition, leaving them with no glamorous flag to wave or shining persona to point at with the pride of accomplishment. The real process is not a matter of addition, but more of a humbling subtraction which is thorough and relentless, until nothing is left — no willfulness — and that is, paradoxically, everything.

The Western teacher Adyashanti describes the process well when he writes: “Asking, ‘What is the Truth?’ is a demolition project. Most of spirituality is a construction project. We’re ascending and ascending — ideas are ascending, kundalini energy is ascending, consciousness is ascending. It just keeps building, and a person feels, ‘I’m getting better and better.’

But enlightenment is a demolition project. It simply shows you that everything you have ever believed was true isn’t. Everything you take yourself to be, whatever your self-image is — good, bad, or indifferent — you’re not that. Whoever you think others are — good, bad, or indifferent — is not true. Whatever you think about God is wrong. You cannot have a true thought about God, so all of your thoughts about God tell you precisely and exactly what the divine is not. Whatever you think the world is tells you exactly and precisely what the world is not. Whatever you think about enlightenment is also precisely and exactly what it’s not.

Do you get the flavor of it? It’s a removal project. What does it remove? Everything. And unless it’s a removal of everything, it’s not ultimately liberating. If there is one thing or a single viewpoint that hasn’t been removed, then liberation hasn’t happened yet.”

When the mind moves, stories are spawned. Be before mind, and stories will take care of themselves. However, how many are able to drop off the mind and come to rest as the natural unqualified presence of awake awareness? Certainly not the mass of humanity, or even the mass of spiritual practitioners. Consequently, we need to be very discriminative with our story-making.

While immersed in the relative, objective sphere of time and space (as all of us are), there will be narratives, because that is how humans organize chaos. Even several levels above this vibrational frequency, there are still narratives, just more subtle.

The writer Jonathan Gottschall noted:  “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” The question is, to which narrative will we grant reality? Depending on our choice, so is the world created. The current world is the result of stories we have collectively fashioned, and so will be the world which comes next.

At its foundation, our typical story is built upon, and is designed to confirm, some sense of personal self and individual doer-ship. However, upon thorough investigation, it can be recognized that this sense of “self” derives from a misreading or misinterpretation of the causes and conditions of life and experience.

Afraid of death and the possibility of nonexistence, we desperately conceive of and then cling to a fictional narrative of permanence underlying the flux of experience and perception. Rather than recognize causes and conditions for what they are, we reify their obvious effects, granting these hypostatic entities a substantial and enduring facsimile of personhood.

The ensuing story of “me and mine” is representative of our deepest desires and fears – played out in the repetitive activity of grasping and avoidance, craving and aversion. However, by recognizing that all phenomena arise, thrive, and vanish dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions, we can begin to see things as they actually are, beyond any imaginative stories of a concrete, independent, and enduring self and its dreamy entanglements.

The whole carefully constructed edifice of that ambitious house of cards begins to teeter when the ridge beam of “me”, the central character, becomes suspect. Perhaps, when we look closely, we find that the whole story was just a case of mistaken identity? Consciousness took form, but then came to believe that it was that form, to the exclusion of all else. From there, the whole chain of causation was elaborated, and it truly is a chain, binding us in fixed identification to a fabricated tale, a seemingly endless loop of hopeful idealism alternating with dissatisfaction and disappointment that we take to be our lot, and from which we have always been desperately seeking relief.

True relief, however, will only come when we cease investing in our dream-like personal story to the point that it becomes non-binding. By refusing to buy into escape plans, or even anyone in need of escape, we allow our prior nature to reveal itself. No longer chasing alternatives, we rest and become still. In that stillness, that silence, what we truly are — our primordial identity — is allowed to emerge from the background, and it is such an innocent simplicity, really, that we may wonder why we took so long to notice it, in all of its ordinary splendor.

“The very idea of going beyond the dream is illusory. Why go anywhere? Just realize that you are dreaming a dream you call the world, and stop looking for ways out. The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of your dream and not another. Love all, or none of it, and stop complaining. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that need be done.”

Sri Nisargadatta

the conversation

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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17 Responses to Deconstructing the Story

  1. What is non-self, Anatta (Pali)? It means impermanence. If things are impermanent, they don’t remain the same things forever. You of this moment are no longer you of a minute ago. There is no permanent entity within us, there is only a stream of being. There is always a lot of input and output. The input and the output happen in every second, and we should learn how to look at life as streams of being, and not as separate entities. This is a very profound teaching of the Buddha. For instance, looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower. In fact, a flower is made only with non-flower elements. It does not have a separate self.

    A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

    So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.

    ~Thich Nhat Hanh

  2. Bob,
    Brilliantly written, profound and deeply disturbing. I understand and agree with everything you are expressing here, intellectually. But my ego still refuses to loosen it’s grip on my everyday reality. It would be of no use to itemize all of the elaborate material structures I have constructed in my 59 years of life and 35 years of marriage. Needless to say, they are vast and complicated. I am having a difficult time letting go, let alone explain to my life partner that all of these elaborate machinations we have been engaged in are in reality meaningless.

    Not sure how to tell her that all of this has lost its meaning and importance for me without her feeling that our life together has also been meaningless.

    Thanks for your insights my brother and thanks for letting me open my heart.

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Rather than focusing on any meaning or its lack (which is only going to be a temporary position anyway, since all of our views are subject to change), perhaps turning attention to the love that you share, and finding the joy and freedom within that, can be a skillful way of navigating this passage through the “dark night”. Opening your heart to her can be healing for you both, because love always recognizes itself.


  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “The word chen in Dzogchen, meaning “great,” means that from the very beginning everything, whatever appears and exits, has never been anything other than pure perfection. There has never been a single day, a single moment when everything was not complete purity, pure perfection. Its not that everything has to be brought to a state of purity at some point, but rather that it always was and is.”
    ~Tsoknyi Rinpoche

  4. Thanks Bob.. Very insightful.

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “We believe in so many things on hearsay. We believe in distant lands and people, in heavens and hells, in gods and goddesses, because we were told. Similarly, we were told about ourselves, our parents, name, position, duties and so on. We never cared to verify. The way to truth lies through the destruction of the false. To destroy the false, you must question your most inveterate beliefs. Of these the idea that you are the body is the worst. With the body comes the world, with the world — God, who is supposed to have created the world and thus it starts — fears, religions, prayers, sacrifices, all sorts of systems — all to protect and support the child-man, frightened out of his wits by monsters of his own making. realise that what you are cannot be born nor die and with the fear gone all suffering ends.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    Do not try to become anything.
    Do not make yourself into anything.
    Do not be a meditator.
    Do not become enlightened.
    When you sit, let it be.
    When you walk, let it be.
    Grasp at nothing.
    Resist nothing.

    ~Ajahn Chah

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “The questions is ‘What does one have to wake up to?’ And the answer is life. We wake up to life itself. Life is infinite. It is oneness. It is emptiness. It is the wonder of wonders. When I say ‘life’, I am not speaking about the life in our heads. That life is simply an accumulation of story lines, so we are not referring to that life. Whenever we say that we have a great life, we are speaking about the life in our head. And whenever we say that my life sucks, we are definitely speaking about the life in our head. There is life that exists in our head. It is nothing more than reading a story about the life of a character in a novel. It’s fiction, made up stories. None of it is real. That life in our head, the one we grasp and believe to be true, is actually only happening like a movie, like a novel in our head, in our deluded mind. Its not really happening.

    The life we are talking about waking up to is not this usual life that has all of these remembered stories. It is life that in some sense is actually quite mysterious. It is not your life or my life; it is the totality of life. It does not exclude anything, it encompasses everything – the clouds in the sky as well as the birds flying above us. It includes the breath we are taking in as well as the insect crawling on the ground. It includes the dew on the grass in the morning as well as the traffic on the highway. It includes the bliss in our hearts and the pain in our joints, everything we are glimpsing when we are no longer lost in the troubled mind. That is life. Life is actually big, It is infinite. It is boundless.”

    ~ from “The Magic of Awareness” by Anam Thubten

  8. Pingback: Waking Up to Life | Zen Flash

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “Whenever I feel discouraged or find myself overcome by a sense of despair and hopelessness, whenever I notice that I am boiling with self-righteous anger over some injustice or cruelty in the world or that I am running away from what scares me, scrambling around trying to fill the hole of emptiness and doubt with some comforting belief, it is an invitation to notice that thought has once again materialized the mirage-like ‘me’ and overlaid the simplicity of Here / Now with some kind of story, some kind of imaginary problem. I’ve noticed that any attempt to resist what is happening or to seek something better only amplifies the sense of dissatisfaction. Any belief I pick up to provide meaning and comfort soon begins to seem doubtful. And yet, when everything that can be doubted falls away, all doubt vanishes. When resistance and seeking end, the problem vanishes. I vanish. There is simply this present moment, as it is.”

    ~Joan Tollifson

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