Inquiring into Storyteller Mind
As has already been stated, inquiring deeply begins with the premise that it’s not helpful (at least for psychotherapeutic purposes) to simply dismiss ideas, thoughts, and stories in the mind because they are fundamentally “empty” of substance.13 Unlike Buddhist practice, Buddhist-informed psychotherapy prizes psychological narrative, both for its content and its process. In my experience, being attentively receptive to the storytelling mind often leads to increasingly subtle truths and insights. This kind of inquiry helps us to achieve deeper contact with what is true for us personally and to anchor our experience, thoughts, and beliefs in our own wisdom.
This psychotherapeutic approach explores psychological experience as it naturally presents itself, including (or even especially) the ordinary experience of “being me.”14 Narratives encode subjective experience and create meaning in the psyche. They reveal the way we see ourselves and others. For good or for ill, they are one of the principal influences on the way our lives unfold.
While narratives can serve a variety of functions, generally speaking they make sense of what has happened to us and comprise a blueprint in the mind for what we can expect in the future. In this way, they create the structure we live by. This gives psychological narrative a position of great importance.
It is especially useful to be aware of storyteller mind with respect to the way that problems are constellated. This connects to the basic idea that it’s never the problem that causes suffering; it’s how we think about a problem—the narrative in which the problem is embedded—that creates suffering. Similar to dharma practice, Buddhist-informed relational therapy calls attention to our tendency to get caught up in (identified with) the stories of the mind. However, contrary to the implication that we can solve this predicament by simply “waking up” from the stories we live in, psychotherapy recognizes the complex functions of psychological narrative. “Letting go” of stories may be simple in concept, but it is not an uncomplicated act!
One question which usually arises for meditators in psychotherapy concerns how to be skillful vis-a-vis the present moment. The first rule in mindfulness practice has to do with being “here and now”. But as soon as we invite awareness of narrative, “there and then” begins to proliferate in our minds.15 As we all know, many of our beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and feelings can be traced to childhood origins, and the dimension of time is tightly woven into the fabric of our associations. Although Buddhist psychology lacks an explicitly developmental dimension, the fact that experiences can be traced to past causes and conditions in our lives is well understood in Buddhism. Psychodynamic/relational psychotherapy provides a narrative framework which allows us to understand these causes and conditions more fully. Memories and new experiential discoveries alike can be assimilated into this elaborated framework of autobiographical narrative. Coherent narrative is essential for the temporal continuity which allows for a grounded experience of self.
The key to inquiry is the ability to be deeply introspective, holding complex thought in reflective awareness so that we can examine it. We examine the entire stream of consciousness (as best we are able) within a framework of mindfulness and with sustained intention directed toward the changes we want to make.
As has been previously stated, one factor which distinguishes Buddhist- informed psychotherapy from Buddhist mindfulness practice is its receptiveness to the content of experience (including narrative). Dharma practice, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the background field of awareness from which experience continually arises and in turn disappears, like waves emerging on the vast ocean of consciousness.