Tiny Revolutions №76: Poking Holes in Our Stories
Set yourself free 🌟
I’ve just returned from vacation with five of my siblings and their families in Breckenridge, Colorado, where we spent a week exploring the surrounding territory.
It was a great time! It’s hard not to enjoy such being amidst such sheer natural beauty, and everyone was in good spirits due to actually being able to take a summer vacation this year. But also, as with all family vacations, it was…complicated. You know how it goes.
Which is not to say that anyone had a bad time. Or if they did, I’m not aware of it. But family can be tough.
As anyone with a big family can tell you, the dynamics are incredibly complicated — for every mundane interaction, there’s an ocean of backstory swirling beneath it. Some adults don’t get along; some kids have a history of tangling with other kids; some activities are tainted by miserable experiences in the past. Whatever. Sometimes you’re aware of the sensitive topics and can tread lightly around them. Sometimes you’re not and you find out later that something you said or did made waves. So it goes.
Ram Dass said it best:
Point is, it’s easy to fall prey to a harmless (or not so harmless) remark or gesture when family is involved. And this is where stories come in.
Last week a small child asked me if I was ever going to get married. Another child asked me why I was there alone. You can’t get mad at a kid for being curious (or at least I can’t), but even so, it’s not exactly fun to be on the receiving end of such inquiries. Just knowing they’re hanging out there in the ether as something someone might be wondering about can be uncomfortable.
The operative phrase here is “can be” though, because a remark itself is actually harmless — it’s the story you are telling yourself about it that can hurt you. In the past I might have spun out for days about either of these questions, immediately going to the worst possible interpretation of what they implied about me as a person. Whether that interpretation was the case or not would have been irrelevant — I would have defaulted to a story about myself that said it absolutely was.
This is where my Zen practice has been helpful. After years of putting in time on the meditation cushion, I have gotten a lot better about not taking my thoughts at face value. Just because I think something — oh, say, that I am a hopeless spinster — doesn’t make it so.
I also happened to be reading “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie last week, which was kind of a fluke. Having forgotten to download a new book on my Kindle, I’d paged back through my existing books to find something to revisit. I’d read this one about 10 years ago.
Katie is famous for creating a method of self-inquiry called The Work. As her website says, “Great spiritual texts describe the what — what it means to be free. The Work is the how. It shows you exactly how to identify and question any thought that would keep you from that freedom.”
The Work consists of four questions you can ask yourself when you are troubled by a certain thought. Maybe one such as, “I am a hopeless spinster.” Let’s examine this pesky thought of mine using Katie’s process.
Is it true?
Well, if we’re going with the technical definition of spinster, which is, yes, a derogatory term, it’s complicated. It’s true that I am an unmarried woman beyond the typical age of marriage. That’s indisputable. But as for the negative connotation that goes along with it, no, that’s not true. There is nothing inherently bad about being an older unmarried woman, and being older and unmarried does not make one “prissy and repressed,” which is how the Oxford Dictionary defines the connotation. It’s just that the culture that birthed the term attached that meaning to it. As for “hopeless”? No, that is unequivocally not true. I am in no way hopeless.
Can I absolutely know it's true?
No. No, I cannot.
How do I react when I believe this thought?
I feel unlovable, worthless, ashamed, and sad. I feel like I’ve failed as a human being and there’s no point in going on because I’ve already missed the boat.
Who would I be without the thought?
I would be free to be whoever I am, and enjoy whatever life I have just as it is.
The Work also entails a last step called The Turnaround, where you find the opposite of the thought, and ask whether it is as true or maybe even truer than the original. So in this case it could be, “I am not a ‘spinster’, I am a woman who happens to be unmarried.” Or how about: “Being older and unmarried opens up an avenue to a less conventional life with lots of opportunities that may not be available to my married kin.” Or maybe even, “Though I may in fact be a spinster, I am actually filled with hope.” All of these alternatives feel pretty true to me. And yes, they are freeing.
Katie’s work, and the practice of meditation, are about the practice of waking up to reality. Of choosing to look beyond the (often insidious) stories in our head that keep us miserable and stuck, and to focus on what is true so that we can be open to whatever our actual experience entails. Nothing else.
This is how you set yourself free.
It was serendipitous that I happened upon Katie’s work during this trip — out of all the books I could have chosen to revisit, I happened to pick this one. Family vacations can be triggering for me because, as the only non-married, non-child haver (ahem, NOT SPINSTER) in the bunch, that makes me the odd one out. There is no way around the reality that, when compared to the rest of my siblings, I have a very different life.
And being the odd one out can indeed be difficult. Humans are wired for connection, and being different can make feeling like you belong a little harder. But again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being different unless you believe a story that says that there is.
To me, last week just served as yet another reminder that many things can be true at the same time. It can be true that I can be sad about being single and/or not being a mother or having a more traditional path in life like the ones my siblings have. It can also be true that I can be *stoked* to have this life of mine and all the associated opportunities that come along with it. It can even be true that while this is the situation I find myself in now, it may not always be.
An integral part of the work, the practice, or whatever you want to call it, is recognizing that life is always changing, and that therefore there’s no point at which said work is done.
As Cheryl Strayed said in the passage that inspired the name of this newsletter:
“There are so many tiny revolutions in a life, a million ways we have to circle around ourselves to grow and change and be okay.”
The trick is just to accept that and get on with it.
On to a few other quotes I thought were worth sharing this week.
“To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place for this warrior strength is in the heart. We need energy, commitment, and courage not to run from our life nor to cover it over with any philosophy—material or spiritual. We need a warrior’s heart that lets us face our lives directly, our pains and limitations, our joys and possibilities. This courage allows us to include every aspect of life in our spiritual practice: our bodies, our families, our society, politics, the earth’s ecology, art, education. Only then can spirituality be truly integrated into our lives.”
— Jack Kornfield in another great book, “A Path With Heart.”
“You have to be willing to get happy about nothing.”
― Andy Warhol in a quote that is common on the Internet, and which I have not been able to verify is something he actually said. (I still love it!)
“We spend so much time hiding what we’re ashamed of, denying what we’re wounded by, and portraying ourselves as competent, successful individuals that we don’t always realize where and when we’ve gone missing.”
— Liz Phair in “Horror Stories,” a great memoir about coming to grips with reality.
A Tiny Assignment
What stories are getting in your way? Can you examine them to see if they are true?
I’m still operating on a summer schedule over here, which means I’ll see you roughly every two weeks. Thanks for reading, as always.
p.s. If you got something out of this issue, share it with a friend, or give it a heart. I love hearts.
Love this Sara. I also wanted to say that while “spinster” has its bad connotations, it actually originally described women who were able to support themselves financially —through their spinning and fiber work. It’s probably why it became a pejorative — so threatening to the establishment! So—another way of looking at it is that spinsters are, and always have been, independent women, doing things their own way. :)
I get that - are you married?- question a lot too and I like to answer that I'm the bride of adventure.