The Work, Step One: Stories

"I often use the word story to talk about thoughts, or sequence of thoughts, that we convince ourselves are real. A story may be about the past, the present, or the future; it may be about what things should be, what they could be, or why they are....

"The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought [i.e. story] that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want.

"If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, 'Meow.' Wanting reality to be different than it is is hopeless. You can spend the rest of your life trying to teach a cat to bark.

"And yet, if you pay attention, you'll notice that you think thoughts like this dozens of times a day. 'People should be kinder.' 'Children should be well-behaved.' 'My neighbors should take better care of their lawn.' 'The line at the grocery store should move faster.' 'My husband (or wife) should agree with me.' 'I should be thinner (or prettier or more successful).' These thoughts are ways of wanting reality to be different than it is. If you think that this sounds depressing, you're right. All the stress that we feel is caused by arguing with what is...."

--Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, Loving What Is: Four Questions that can change your life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), pp. 1-2, 6.

Exercise for the day: make a list of the stories that you tell yourself. To get you started, here is a list I made a few days ago (on the theme of "I should"):

1. I should write more books.
2. I should make more money.
3. I should be in better shape.
4. I should want to have sex more.
5. I should eat better.
6. I should have better handwriting.
7. I should love my family and friends more.
8. I should work harder. I should work all the time.
9. I should fence better.
10. I should practice the piano.
11. I should be nicer.
12. I should be the one writing books of great spiritual instruction.
13. I should be an artist/writer/musician.
14. I should be more creative.
15. I should cook more.
16. I should meet with colleagues and students more.
17. I should be willing to drive more places.
18. I should keep the house [i.e. apartment] tidier.
19. I should have a house.
20. I should speak/read more languages.
21. I should be smarter.
22. I should dress better. I should wear make-up. I should style my hair.
23. I shouldn't be gray.
24. I shouldn't need progressive lenses.
25. I should spend money more carefully.
26. I should have better taste (e.g. in art and entertainment).
27. I should read Literature, not just mystery novels.
28. I should be nicer (sic).
29. I should say the rosary every day.
30. I should pray more.
31. I should believe in God.
32. I should be beautiful.
33. I should write better. I should write a best-seller.
34. I should be a full professor.
35. I should start an institute of something.
36. I should draw better.
37. I should do yoga every day.
38. I should like myself better.
39. I should go door to door witnessing.
40. I should volunteer more.
41. I should feed the hungry.
42. I should be more forgiving.
43. I should make a blockbuster movie.
44. I should be able to write talks without panicking.
45. I should drink herbal tea, not black.
46. I should send out Christmas cards.
47. I should decorate the apartment better.
48. I should love God/Christ/Mary more.
49. I should write better comments on my students' papers.
50. I should read more academic monographs, not just "non-fiction."
51. I shouldn't need to read so many self-help books.
52. I should enjoy reading primary sources more.
53. I should read Latin better.
54. I should edit manuscript sources.
55. I should publish my John of Garland translation.
56. I should love my job.
57. I should apply for other jobs so as to get promotion.
58. I shouldn't have to apply for other jobs.
59. I should use fancier, more "academic" language/vocabulary.
60. I should want to live in the Middle Ages/do SCA stuff.
61. I should be more serious about my academic work, not playing around so much.
62. I shouldn't have to wipe my butt so many times after I poop. I shouldn't use so much toilet paper. My poops should be cleaner.
63. My mother should download the photos on her camera.
64. I should want to garden more.
65. I should take better photographs.
66. I should look better in photographs.
67. I should make a million dollars.
68. I should be in touch with friends more.
69. I should have more dinner parties.
70. I should give presents more.
71. I should watch less television.
72. I should enjoy my food more.
73. I should be expert at something.
74. I should keep the apartment tidier (sic). I should not be a pack
75. I shouldn't throw anything potentially useful away.
76. I should be able to sing.
77. I should eat only at mealtimes.
78. I should listen to "real" chant [i.e. Gregorian, not kirtan] more.
79. I should like reading the Bible.
80. I should be more mature.
81. I should be more welcoming.
82. I should read more theology.
83. I should want to learn Arabic/Hebrew/Greek.
84. I should want to learn about Islam.
85. I should talk to strangers more at parties/on the plane/at church.
86. I should be as beautiful/limber/athletic as my sister.
87. I should drink wine/know fine wines.
88. I should like opera/ballet/the symphony.
89. I should like camping.
90. I should keep my home cleaner/tidier [clearly a theme here!]
91. I should put lotion on my feet every night.
92. I should (want to) travel more, especially outside of the country but also to see relatives.
93. I should want to see my relatives/love my relatives more.
94. I should keep more regular hours.
95. I should be a teetotaller/vegan/whole foods person.
96. I should eat meat/drink more/not be so picky about food.
97. I should bike to fencing practice.
98. I should be rich.
99. I should like art/art museums/buying art.
100. I should design things like my son does/like building with the Anchor Stones/making original constructions.

And counting....

No wonder I feel like I'm going crazy. Who can live with so much unreality?


  1. Response posted at

    With the theme of "I tell myself that..."

    It was a good exercise in Insight Meditation. Thanks, Bear.


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