Letting Go of Old Stories Part 1

A few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us… We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do and we do it without questioning.” Rebecca Solnit

If you prefer to listen

Thoughts are images and sound bites, not reality. Scientists estimate that we have 50,000-80,000 thoughts per day.  None of us can remember all of the 2,100-3,300 thoughts we had in the last hour. Our brains are designed to have thoughts.  Most of the thoughts we have are reruns of stories we play in our minds. We rehash the past as if playing the story in our mind for the 50th time will change the ending.  We stir up anxiety about the future as if planning down to the minute detail will give us control over the future.

Thoughts are stories that pull us into a narrative, which might not be true, and they pull us away from what is happening in the present moment. How many times have you driven home and when you get home, you can’t remember driving home. And you don’t know where your mind was, you were just lost in thought. We can’t control what stories come up. We are often not even aware of the story that is playing. B That is why you are reading this.  You want to become aware of the stories your are playing. We know that if we are not aware of the stories that are playing, they can jerk us around and define us. Rather than letting the story define us, we can examine the story and see what it has to offer us.

The story I was telling myself was that I was not enough. So I felt I had to know everything and do everything in order to be enough. It had me running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to do everything for everyone and to know everything I thought I should know.

Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders. Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train. Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.” Paul Zak 

Hmm! I wonder why our minds wander when we are meditating. Maybe our thoughts seem more interesting than our breath. And those thoughts may be why we get up on the wrong side of the bed. Why we feel grumpy for no reason.

When we look closely at our stories, we find that many of them are figments of our imagination. We think we remember accurately, but our brains are not video recorders. We take still pictures and fill in the blanks. Some stories start as replays of the monologues of your parents, or caregivers.  Other stories come from our inner critic who is so worried that we will fail that it is constantly trying to fix us.  Many of our stories were helpful at some time in our past, we continue to replay them despite the fact that they are no longer helpful.

The stories we tell ourselves influence our thoughts, words, and behaviors. They are the blueprint on which we build our lives. Our stories influence whether we are happy, sad, anxious, calm, angry or whatever. They may make us feel like we are not okay, not enough, a failure or not lovable. The more we play that story, the stronger the feeling. And if we are not careful, our stories will limit the future we create.

We realized that when we dwell on and retell a story, this unquestioned recirculating of memories can lodge old suffering even more deeply in our minds, causing the present to be defined by our past.” Frank Ostaseski

Often our stories follow a LIFO pattern, last in first out. When we keep piling new stories into our unconscious, they will cover up the older, and more painful stories. When these stories play in our unconscious mind, we feel uncomfortable, angry or anxious, but we don’t know why.  

Meditation helps us to slow down so we can see more of our mental chatter. We learn to notice when thoughts arise, see our habit patterns and our regrets, and feel our body sensations, so we bring them to our awareness.

 “My prayer to god every day: Remove the veils so I might see what is really happening here and not be intoxicated by my stories and my fears.” Elizabeth Lesser

Steps in Everyday Life
  1. Notice the Story Arising
  2. Change the Focus of Your Attention
  3. Investigate the Story
  4. Let Go of the Story
  5. Rewrite Your Story
  6. Start Living Your New Story
Notice the Story Arising

We have a whole drama department in our head, and the casting director is indiscriminately handing out the roles of inner dictators and judges, adventurers and prodigal sons, heroes, and victims. We have these stories going on in our heads telling us how horrible we are, we eat too much, we are fat and lazy, and we will never be able to meditate. We listen to those stories until we somehow come to believe that these ruminations, judgments, and worries are an accurate representation of reality. What they really are, are just thought bubbles, figments of our imagination.

Next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, riding a subway or bus, or waiting in line, stop for a moment and notice what is happening in your mind. Chances are you’ll find yourself knee deep in a story. It may be recounting a newspaper article you read over morning coffee, making plans for the weekend, or re-hashing a disagreement.” B Grace Bullock, PhD

Practicing writing down our top ten thoughts of the day helps us to become more aware of our thoughts. When we recognize that our mind has produced a story, we can notice it, just like we do during meditation. We can remind ourselves we are telling a story. And we can choose to interrupt the story, so the neural pathways don’t get stronger. If we don’t change the focus of our attention, it is likely that the tension in the story will increase, making it harder for us to pull our attention away from it. We will be on the hamster wheel of reactivity.

Change the Focus of Your Attention

As soon as we notice a story coming up in our mind, we have a choice. Do I want to continue telling the story? Do I want to change the focus of my attention? Do I want to distract myself?

When we choose to change the focus of our attention, we can bring our attention back to the breath, like we do in meditation. Here are some Breath Poems and Breath Practices you may find helpful. You will need to practice your chosen Breath Poem or Breath Practice regularly to strengthen the neural pathway.

Sometimes the Breath Poems or Breath Practices don’t work. So, we need to distract ourselves because we don’t have the strength at the moment to deal with the discomfort from that story. Or maybe we’re at a party, or in the grocery store and it is just not the right time for us to be dealing with it. So, we may choose some other activity to shift the focus of our attention to.  Be careful with distractions, they may start out as medicine, but if we rely on them too heavily, they can become addictions.


Look through the breath poems and practices for one that you can use as an anchor. Something to switch your attention to. Then practice that breath practice or story to strengthen the neural pathway. That way it becomes more automatic for you to switch the focus of your attention to is.

Also reflect on what activities you can use when the breath practices don’t work, and you need to distract yourself.  It may be changing your activity like putting on some music, picking up a book, turning on a movie, going for a walk, or calling someone. If you can’t think of how to distract yourself now, while you are relatively calm, how will you decide when you are upset? It is important that you distract yourself rather than let the story play out, because you don’t want that neuropathway to get any stronger.

Investigate the Story

When we investigate, we are not acting like a detective figuring out who did what when. We are not getting lost in the plot of the story. We are probing underneath the story. You can use this Investigate Your Story Reflection.


Think of a story you are telling yourself that limits you. It may be:

  • What you need in order to be happy.
  • That self-care is selfish and indulgent.
  • How you can’t stop your anger, jealousy, or anxiety.
  • Something a caretaker, friend, partner, or boss told you.

Choose a story that is not too upsetting so we can build the skill. Reflect on the following questions:

  • Is this story empowering me or limiting me?
  • What sensations am I feeling in my body? When did I first feel those sensations? Which leads me to where did this story come from?
  • What are the facts, and what have I added on to those facts?
  • Is this story true, partially true, or no longer true?
  • What am I believing about myself?
  • What is it like to live with this belief?
  • What stops me from letting go of this belief?
  • What would my life be like without this belief?
  • Who would I be if I no longer lived with this belief?
  • What does the vulnerable feeling underneath the belief need?
  • Is it time to let go and/or rewrite my story?

Rather, the point of stories is to take the separated, isolated, broken pieces of our lives and, in the telling of them, produce moments of wholeness.” Frank Ostaseski

If we want to product true moments of wholeness, we need to spend some time investigating your story without getting caught up in the plot. Next session we will practice letting go, rewriting your story, and starting to live your new story.