How to make my story not write its own

Pause for a moment! Just listen to those voices in your head.
… Can you hear them?
Pause for another moment! Just notice the images your mind is playing.
… Can you see them?
Now ask yourself the question: When faced with a new situation, are these voices and images telling me what to do or am “I” deciding what to do?

Many of us have a story. It seems as though the script is already written for each one of us, and we are just acting it out. You poke a person, out comes a story. You might say "what is wrong with that? I am happy with my own story". A common observation, from time immemorial, has been that fixed scripts do not work (even Hollywood has woken to this fact! Computer Game industry thrives on the ability to take charge of your own story.). I am sure that many of us often wondered about alternate endings to our stories, but did not know how to get there. Simply put, stories are limited and our lives are not. This seems to create a lot of conflicts in our lives.

If we can step out of our story and write a new story as we go along, while not being imprisoned by the old story, it would be wonderful, would it not? But what about “face your problems” stuff? Let us consider the computer game playing again, where we are supposed to kill some daemons. You kill one daemon, and another one pops up. You kill the second one, and another one shows up. You keep on killing the daemons. Then you realize that you cannot win this game by just killing these daemons. You need to do something more, you need to change the game such that no more daemons are even produced! There are two game strategies – find the source of daemons and destroy it; or you grow so big that the daemons look like ants, and you simply ignore them. We can apply this game metaphor to real-life. Problems are like daemons in computer games. In real-life, the two strategies of games merge to one - you “change” such that the problems do not arise and, if they arise, they do not even bother you. When there are no problems, you are free to do what you want. In a sense you are now free from any script. Your story cannot be written! Hence, there is no ending!

The problem is that if you have a story, it keeps you inside the story! Stories continue because of emotions. To be outside the story we need to break away from the emotions. How can we be free from any script? Venerable Guo Xing began the Living Ch'an Workshop by addressing precisely this question as if to set a tone for the rest of the workshop. Venerable Guo Xing continued to address this question by using a subtle meditation technique through various events in the workshop. We can appreciate this technique if we can interpret it as solving a Figure and Ground problem.

Figure1. Drawing of a vase
Let me explain what Figure and Ground problem is before we go deeper into how Venerable Guo Xing has applied this technique to various events of workshop. The Figure and Ground problem is typically used to describe several paradoxes that arise in human perception of visual information. Let us understand it first in the typical scenario in which it is applied.

Look at figure1. You can clearly see a vase by just following the line in the drawing.

The line clearly defines the vase. There is no surprise here. Now look at figure2. What do you see? There is a surprise – there is no line defining a single object as it did in figure1. You can see either a vase or two faces, depending upon what you consider as a figure and its background. If you consider the black area as the background, immediately you see the white vase in front of that background. If you consider the two black objects as faces, then immediately you see the white background. I simplified the process. As you may have experienced, you do not even get to pick up one object over the other in isolation.

Figure2. Two faces and a vase
The important point is that the figure and background work together in perception. You do not consider them in isolation. It is this phenomenon of togetherness (as opposed to considering in isolation) we will be using to understand Venerable Guo Xing’s workshop techniques.

Let us extend the Figure and Ground problem, from visual perception, to more general situations we encounter meditation. As a first step, consider the familiar explanation people give while teaching relaxation exercises. Relaxation can be felt clearly in the presence of stress. That is, relaxation and stress together act similar to Figure and Ground pair. You can appreciate the relaxed state better if you have immediately encountered stress, and vice versa. If you have no experience of relaxation, you do not develop appreciation of stress levels. It appears as though the experience of stress seems to influence the experience of relaxation. Please note that we have extended the typical Figure and Ground problem usage, from explaining paradoxes in perception, to accentuating the ability to experience. That is, experiencing the figure accentuates experiencing background. This accentuation seems to happen naturally in certain combinations of experiences such as stress and relaxation. It is important to understand that such accentuation is necessary to take notice of experiencing.

As a next step, we apply Figure and Ground explanation to our “story” metaphor, which we introduced at the beginning of this message. Consider that “living inside a story” and “living outside any story” as Figure and Ground. Together they make experiencing “outside any story”, and “inside a story” much clearer to appreciate.

We are not there yet! We need two more steps to go before plunging into Venerable Guo Xing’s method. We would like to ask the question: what happens when a Figure or Ground is changed? Now run the demo of an experiment (you need Java enabled browser to view it). This demo shows (i) how the intensity of two identical grey squares appear different because of the differences in their backgrounds, (ii) the intensities of two different backgrounds are gradually varied giving the impression that the intensities of the rectangles are varied too in different ways. To understand the second point, consider that you hold the figure (rectangle) intensity and color constant, and then change the background intensity and color. The rectangle color and intensity seem to change. Let us apply this idea to our “story” scenario. Let us say “living outside any story experience” is the Ground and “living inside story experience” is the Figure. If I change the Ground, then the experience of living inside the story changes too. Our goal is to change the Ground such that the combination of “living inside a story” and “living outside any story” gives an experience that the “living inside story” does not exist (this is equivalent to the perceptual experience of sensing that square has disappeared by changing the background).

As a final step towards understanding Venerable Guo Xing’s Ch’an training in the workshop, let us enhance our earlier interpretation for Figure and Ground metaphor. Look at M. C. Escher’s painting of Drawing Hands. This painting illustrates a new point that Figure (one hand) helps to construct the Ground (another hand), while the Ground helps to construct the first hand in our visual perceptual experience. Thus our perception of two objects happens by each object trying to construct the other, and both of these constructions happen simultaneously. As we said before, this simultaneous construction (more accurately precipitation) is not limited to visual experiences and can be extended to a wide range of our experiences. We can interpret the events of Living Ch'an Workshop using this explanation of simultaneous precipitation. That is, the “living in story” helps to precipitate “living outside any story” and vice versa, both happening simultaneously.

Now we are ready to go into Living Ch'an Workshop events. The workshop began with Venerable Guo Xing showing us a set of pictures. Let us go through this exercise slowly as it gives foundation for the rest of the exercises in the workshop. At the beginning of the workshop, many people in audience were in “their stories”. Our stories helped us appreciate the images shown. We reacted emotionally (because our stories provide these emotions). We already had some awareness (may be very small) at this point. Let us consider the experience of watching the images with our emotions as “living inside a story” and observing the world with awareness as “living outside any story”. Thus our watching of the images amounted to bringing these two experiences together as a single experience of Figure and Ground. Because the awareness was weak (“living outside the story” was weak), the “living inside story” experience dominates and we experience emotions.

Then Venerable Guo Xing performed an important step – he changed the Ground (“living outside the story”). Remember the demo where the rectangle disappeared due to some changes in the background intensity and color? In order to change the Ground, Venerable Guo Xing took us through a meditation exercise. This increased our awareness levels. That is the “living outside any story” experiencing became stronger. He asked us to watch the images again, with a suggestion that we watch the pictures with the awareness developed in the meditation exercise. With this suggestion, he brought Figure and Ground together. Because the Ground has changed, when we watched the images with awareness, the emotions were experienced to a lesser extent than before. That is, the Figure and Ground combination is working towards a goal where you do not experience the Figure, “living inside a story”.

In the rest of the workshop, Venerable Guo Xing used a subtle technique, which looks so simple that it is very easy to miss its profound significance. We were asked to carry our badge on our head while balancing a ball on a narrow plastic tube. In this case, Figure is the story that has been playing out in our head or the conversation we make with our friends, and Ground is the awareness we gain by balancing the objects (badge or the ball on a tube). To understand the significance of this exercise, we need to revisit the exercise with images (previous paragraph). In that exercise, Venerable Guo Xing explicitly changed the Ground by asking us to do the meditation. Then he brought Figure and Ground together by asking us to be aware while watching images. In that exercise, Figure and Ground remained constant once they were put together. In the object balancing exercise, we allowed Figure (“living inside story”) and Ground (“living outside story”) to change while working together. This happened as we balanced objects over a prolonged period of time under different conditions. Thus each one of Figure and Ground is trying to precipitate the other while it is changing, as in Drawing Hands example. Thus we have a dynamic situation as in the demo of rectangle in front of a colored background.

Ch’an practitioners tell us that by prolonged practice of bringing attention to this combination of Figure and Ground, the story begins to disappear (as the rectangle did in our demo). We can bring in the right kind of attention to this combination by observing the emotions, tensions and attitude arising in us. Venerable Guo Xing has also used various aspects of our story to arise as Figure, such as sharing some aspect of our previous experience or giving feedback.

I would like to end this message by posing a question and then trying to answer it. Has this workshop enabled us to completely make our stories disappear? I think the workshop has provided us with important techniques that can help us deal with “living inside stories”. By diligent practice, using these techniques, we can come out of our stories and experience many possibilities.

(By Dr. Sattiraju Prabhakar)

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