How To Wake up From the Story of "My Life"
Free yourself from the imaginary restrictions of your self-narrative
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Inception”. Mainly because I’ve had a lifelong obsession with lucid dreaming, and the film does a reasonable job of depicting what it’s actually like.
Of course, if it were more accurate the characters would get swept up in how real everything seemed, and keep forgetting they were in a dream. Christopher Nolan probably omitted this realism to allow the plot to advance, and avoid getting stuck in a Memento-like limbo where the lead character keeps asking “what am I supposed to be doing again?”
Usually, when one achieves the awareness of being in a dream, such a discovery is fleeting at best. One minute you have it, the next you don’t. One minute you’re marveling at the intricacy of how real everything looks, the next you’re off gallivanting with some wacky dream characters without a second thought as to whether it’s “real” or not. Only the seasoned lucid dreamer can stay lucid without getting swept up in the compelling narrative of the dream.
A similar process occurs in our waking lives. We are forever getting swept up in the narrative of our thoughts, losing all awareness that we’re merely lost in our mind’s own creations. We blindly believe the story they tell us about who we are and what we’re capable of. Like our dreams, our thoughts offer a compelling narrative that we can’t resist going along with.
But just like lucid dreamers who learn to recognize when they’re dreaming, we too can learn to recognize when we’re lost in our internal narrative. By becoming aware of how our mind tells us stories, and how it gets us to play along with them, we might free ourselves from their spell.
Deluded by Fiction
Most of us know that our thoughts aren’t real, that they’re just creations of the mind. Yet this knowledge doesn’t stop us from getting swept up in their content on a minute-by-minute basis.
It’s the narrative of our thoughts that pull us in. We love a good story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a happy story or a tragic story, it just needs to engage us. The mind is forever weaving stories out of everything it comes across. It wants to find meaning to the things that happen to us and tells stories to convey that meaning and help us make sense of the world.
They’re usually explained in a social context. Stories are a way of communicating a wealth of easily digestible and easy-to-remember information about the world. Stories encourage empathy and help to knit a social group together. Brain scans of people engaged in a story show increased activity in the parts of the brain involved in empathy and social processing.
But why do we tell stories to ourselves, inside our own heads? One theory describes it as a type of cognitive play that allows us to simulate the world around us and better understand the effects of our actions.
Stories are a way of making sense of the overwhelmingly complex nature of human life. We take our entire lifetime of experience and boil it down to a simple narrative that we then play along with. The fortunate may experience lighthearted comedies, the less fortunate harrowing dramas, but all suffer from amnesia — they forget that it’s just a story.
The Hypnotic Spell of the Narrative
A compelling story hypnotizes our brain. This is why we spend a large proportion of our lives glued to television screens, binge-watching Netflix. We get so absorbed in moving images on a screen because the story captivates us. We then struggle to pull ourselves out of it, at least not until we have some kind of resolution to the make-believe drama.
In lucid dreams, it’s this hypnotic spell of a compelling narrative that threatens to impair mental capacity and lull the dreamer back into unconsciousness. To stay lucid, the dreamer must avoid falling under the narrative’s spell.
Similarly in waking life, we may be trying to concentrate on a podcast, but keep falling under the hypnotic spell of our internal narrative. Something triggers us to think about ourselves, and before we know it we’re lost again in our own story. We may pull ourselves out of it for a moment, only to fall right back into it again.
Proponents of simulation theory might tell you that this is part of the simulation; that the “creators” use narratives to keep us unconscious like the non-lucid dreamer. When we’re hypnotized, we’re less likely to question the nature of our reality.
They don’t want us to wake up and ruin the data they’re collecting from the simulation.
But Elon Musk’s crazy theories aside, it may be evolutionary. Some 70,000 years ago, so Yuval Noah Harari tells us, the ability to create fictional stories was what enabled the mass cooperation of our species and our subsequent domination of the planet. The creation of fictional religions, monarchies, states, companies, and nations enabled cooperation at an unprecedented scale. This wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t entirely convinced by our own fictions.
Those who didn’t believe in the fictional narratives of society were probably less willing to cooperate. As a result, they faced poorer chances of survival — either from being outcast or persecuted. The tendency to become delusional had survival advantages.
But these delusions carried into our relationship with the self. Alongside the stories our society told us, we also told ourselves a story. The most compelling story of all — the story of “my life”.
The Story of "My Life"
We spend most of our lives narrating a simplified story of who we are at a fundamental level, to ourselves, in our heads. It is often an inaccurate story, one in which we either embellish our strengths and hide our flaws, or embellish our flaws and hide our strengths. The reasons we do this are complex, but usually, they’re a way of trying to explain our emotions and make sense of an overwhelmingly complex world.
In the movie “Brad’s Status”, Ben Stiller plays the part of a middle-aged man who questions where he’s ended up in life. His miserable internal dialogue pervades through the movie, as he compares himself to his more successful friends, and even begins to envy his own son’s achievements.
He’s lost in a narrative where he feels inferior, and sees his inferiority reflected back at him everywhere he goes. He’s unable to see the “real” story, one in which he’s been extraordinarily successful; he founded a nonprofit, has a loving wife, a great son, and a life many would envy.
Once we become entrenched in the story of “my life”, it becomes hard to break free. The more we tell ourselves a certain story, the more hardwired the narrative becomes. We get stuck in these familiar patterns of neural activity, and our behavior begins to reflect them. Updating, or rewriting, the story becomes difficult.
The problem isn’t that we tell ourselves these stories, it’s that we believe them. We take an overly simplified and heavily distorted view of ourselves and the world as gospel. We align with it and play the character it tells us to.
The narrative then becomes self-fulfilling. You tell yourself you’re inferior and then play the part of someone who feels inferior. You tell yourself you’ll never find true love and then spend your life unable to find true love. You tell yourself that life’s an uphill struggle and then play the part of someone who is constantly struggling. We give Oscar-worthy performances not because we’re good actors, but because we’re so convinced by the narrative that we forget we’re just acting.
Which Character Do You Play?
The story of “my life” determines the character we play. I used to play the guy who tried so hard but always came in second place, and never felt he got recognition for his efforts. I believed in this narrative and identified with its lead character.
It was reflected in my reality constantly — I always got Bs despite my best efforts, always got passed over for promotions, and if I ever won a competition you could guarantee I’d come second place. Even when I had weekly poker nights with my friends I always came second. Rather than recognize the achievement, I’d just feel resentful that I came second.
As the narrative unfolded, my feelings of resentment towards reality grew. When would the world finally recognize me? It got to the point where I’d complain to my partner that she didn’t recognize my efforts at doing the housework! I craved recognition for everything I did and suffered because I never felt I got it. I became identified with this character and told myself that “one day the world will see my real value!” as I melodramatically battled on.
But when I realized this was just a character I was playing, I started questioning the narrative more and more. I began to see the utter ridiculousness of it all. I was getting worked up about coming in second place, ignoring the achievement itself.
The story of “my life” was being driven by a deep-seated feeling of not being recognized. A feeling that probably stemmed back to something from my childhood — middle child syndrome perhaps.
Which character do you play? Is it the perpetually heartbroken romantic who keeps getting into bad relationships? Or maybe you’re the eternally single romantic who just can’t find a suitable partner. What’s your character’s status in society? Are you the underdog or the top dog? Are you the hero of your story or the villain? Asking these questions can help you figure out how your brain weaves the narrative of “my life”.
Finding your character isn’t always easy. The ego places blind spots to ensure we stay on script. It may take a lot of introspection. The biggest help for me was doing ‘Self Authoring’.
Self-authoring is an online writing exercise that consists of three parts: past authoring, present authoring, and future authoring. Past authoring involves breaking your life down into seven ‘epochs’, then writing about six significant experiences over that time period.
In present authoring, you go through all your faults and all your virtues, then figure out what to do about them. Future authoring then looks at where you want to go in life and how you’re going to get there. It’s a mammoth exercise in self-reflection, but if you want to get to the bottom of what the “real” story of your life is, it’s worth the effort.
Being able to see my entire life on the page was revelatory. It gave me insights I couldn’t have achieved just by thinking about it. The biggest revelation was that the story of “my life” was a lot more complicated than the simple narrative of “the guy who craves recognition and never gets it”. It helped me see where this narrative came from, and how it biased my interpretation of events to fulfill the narrative.
For example, when I graduated from med school, rather than recognize such a spectacular achievement, I was miserable because I missed getting honors by a couple of points. I chose to see reality in this way because that fit the narrative best — it would be out of character not to see it this way.
Writing about your entire life can be emotionally heavy, and those with a history of trauma should be careful in such an exercise and ideally do so under the guidance of a professional.
Through careful and objective reflecting on our past, we may better understand the “true story” of our life and not be misled by the simplified, inaccurate version of it.
It takes courage to seek the truth of who you are. But in doing so, you offer yourself the opportunity to break free of your character’s limitations.
The Forming of the Narrative
Once we realize the character we’re playing, and the story we tell ourselves, what then? How do we relinquish the role and liberate ourselves from the restrictions it imposes on us?
Becoming aware of how your thoughts weave a meaningful narrative in your daily activities is the next step. You can then become wise to the deceptive tricks they use to get you to play along. Awareness is all you need to avoid deception. It’s like that friend who’s forever telling tall stories; as soon as you realize they’re talking nonsense you stop believing or even listening to them.
Observe how your brain creates a narrative out of thin air. The smell of some Thai cooking might suddenly immerse you in a vivid memory of a holiday you once had in Thailand. You remember how much you didn’t want the holiday to end. It was the same feeling you always had when the summer holidays were over and you had to go back to school. You never liked school, you preferred to learn on your own schedule.
You’ve always been independent like that, that’s why you went to Thailand on that solo backpacking adventure. But sometimes this need for independence gets in the way of your need for intimacy. Maybe that’s why most of your relationships only last for a few months. How can you become comfortable with intimacy, yet maintain your sense of independence? Is that even possible? Maybe you should just have a break from dating until you figure it out. “Excuse me, sir, your order is ready.” You pay for your order and get in your car. The narrative promptly resumes.
Carefully observe how your mind gets lost in this narrative. Pay particular attention to the mind’s first attempt to create a narrative. The mind can transform the most abstract thought into deeply meaningful content that renews itself through the compelling story it tells. Recognizing when it first does this is key.
In the above example, as soon as the smell of Thai cooking triggers a memory, recognize this as it happens in real-time. Observe the flood of memories rushing in. Are there images appearing? What do you see exactly? Notice how your mind grasps at them in a desperate attempt to find meaning and construct a narrative. It does this almost entirely on its own — very little voluntary input is required.
Be curious of how your mind does this. Try and ascertain the exact sequence of events that leads to the creation of a narrative. Recognize the exact moment you fall under its hypnotic spell, and then notice when you awaken from it. Doing this throughout your day will help you build this awareness.
You’ll learn to retain awareness for a little longer each time. It will get harder and harder for your mind to captivate you with narrative.
The more this awareness builds, the more you may begin seeing through not only the narratives of your own mind, but the narratives of your culture and society.
To become lucid while in a dream is to become aware in real-time that what you’re experiencing is entirely a creation of your mind. Upon this realization, the narrative of the dream comes to a halt. With the new knowledge that everything is a mere fabrication of the mind, the prior narrative of the dream becomes irrelevant. It’s not real, so why go along with it?
Lucid dreamers achieve this by learning to recognize aspects of the dreamworld that differentiate it from waking life. With the bizarre content of most dreams, this should be easy. But the dreaming mind is impaired — it has difficulty recognizing what’s typical and what’s unusual.
So they find methods of “reality testing” that work despite their impaired mind. They do this by looking for anomalies in the dream world. In Inception, the lead character uses the spinning top as a “reality test”: if it keeps spinning he knows he’s in a dream. But this requires you to carry around a spinning top, and anyone who’s seen Inception will start to question your sanity every time you whip it out.
The most common “reality test” is to look at some text, look away and look back again. If you’re dreaming, the text will usually move or get jumbled up. Presumably our dreaming brain has a hard time constructing such a level of detail.
But how do we wake up when we’re already awake? What does it mean to become lucid in waking life?
A New Reality
Our default mode is to be lost in our own narrative, sleepwalking through life. We can snap out of it whenever something requires our full attention, but generally slip back into it as soon as our mind is no longer occupied.
But do we ever truly become lucid? Are we ever able to see that all the stories we’ve been telling ourselves our entire lives are just make-believe, loosely “based on a true story”? Can we see that the narratives of society are equally fictitious?
Most of us only ever experience an “intermission” between acts. We never leave the theatre. As soon as the “intermission” is over, we resume the role we were playing. So the question becomes: are you ready to leave the theater? What’s even out there? What if it’s boring?
To anyone who has tried to dedicate themselves to a daily meditation practice, you’ve no doubt experienced the common barrier of the bored mind. Our inner stories entertain us, distract us, and alleviate us from boredom. Many would rather electrocute themselves than face boredom.
But those who do leave the theater tell us of great treasures outside. Treasures that render the very concept of boredom incomprehensible. Treasures that allow us to transcend our day-to-day suffering. An ability to see through the illusion of a self that is separate from the world. A mind that stays in touch with the true nature of reality.
These treasures can only be found when we’re willing to let go of the mad ramblings of our internal narrator, and the compelling story it tells.
Reformatting our operating system is no easy feat. Those who’ve achieved it have invariably done so through decades of dedicated meditation and mindfulness practice. To see through the veil of narrative is to go against thousands of years of genetic and cultural conditioning.
I still spend most of my time totally lost in my mind’s own creations, lacking all insight into the fictional nature of the narrative. But with ongoing daily practice, and Sam Harris’ help, each day I gain a little bit more awareness. Like the dreamer who begins to look around and question their reality, I’m starting to see the cracks in the illusion.
Whenever I have a lucid dream, most of the time I’ll only become lucid for a short time before resuming the part of my dream character or waking up. But this brief glimpse is all I need.
Just knowing that my mind is able to create an entire world that doesn’t exist, and observe it unfold in real-time, is enough. It doesn’t matter that 99.9% of the time I remain utterly convinced by my dreams. Part of me knows the truth, even if I can’t always see it. Can you see it?