“I like being in Storyland. What’s wrong with it?”
There is nothing wrong with Storyland or any of the other realms. But we can cause problems for ourselves and others when we cling to any particular one. When we get stuck in Storyland we act as if we had lost touch with reality. We can even get stuck in Presence – when this happens we can lose concern for our world and almost feel drugged. This is why we have the third step. Finding Presence is critical, and making it our home is the key to equanimity, but once we’ve done that we “return to the marketplace” and live intimately connected with our world.
You’ve seen people walking down the street, lost in Storyland, dragging their feet. When you’re living in mindfulness, however, you walk with a joyful bounce to your step.
“When I do the labeling practice, do I label my breathing and the labeling itself? It seems that stuff goes through my mind so fast I can’t keep up with labeling each item.”
It isn’t necessary to label everything that comes into your awareness. One label every second or two is plenty. The point is to stay in Orientation by detaching from every perception that could start up the story-spinning. Here we can see how trying to keep up with the labeling can itself become another story. “I’m terrible at this – I can’t even stick to labeling for more than 10 seconds!”
After you’ve done the labeling for a minute or two your mind will settle down and things will come into awareness at a regular pace.
“What about planning for the future? Isn’t that Storyland? If I step back out of it, how can I get anything done?”
When we’re making plans and decisions we’re in the subjective realm, but in the area of Resolution rather than Storyland. When we approach planning from Presence and Discovery we can avoid emotional trips and distractions that would otherwise cloud our thinking and even prevent us from coming to a conclusion. Then, once the plans are made, we can freely follow or modify them as needed because we haven’t made a deep emotional investment in the outcome.
“I’m in Orientation, and I’ve measured the temperature as ’cold’. So now I get up and set the thermostat, right?”
In Orientation, there actually is no hot or cold. Mundane as they are, these are still value judgments, and while they may be valid, they belong in Resolution and Storyland. This step back into the objective world is the most critical because it is the beginning of liberation. And the more you practice it, the quicker you’ll be able to separate the evaluations from the objects themselves.
“I feel that Orientation is unhuman – it’s kind of cold and forbidding.”
When you feel that way, which realm are you in? “Cold and forbidding” is a value judgment landing you solidly in Storyland. The idea of Orientation may feel unhuman, but when you actually enter it you see that it is a completely natural, in fact necessary, part of who you are. This question illustrates the most difficult aspect of this method – our judgments can be so deeply ingrained that we simply don’t see them as something to categorize, much less step back from. But again, this is the first step to liberation, and the great benefit comes when we see through our most closely-held assumptions and allow ourselves to leave them behind in Storyland.
“How often do you use this method yourself?”
I personally use it every day, and seem to go through phases of using it for different situations. For instance, for several days I may spend my entire daily meditation time doing the Orientation labeling practice. Or I’ll find myself practicing problem solving – clearing the slate by stepping back to Presence, opening up to what is true in this moment by stepping forward into Discovery, then clearly seeing the new relationships and making decisions in Resolution. Mindfulness is the result of practice, like the ability to play scales evenly on the piano. If we stop practicing, we get rusty!
“This practice sure has a lot of rules!”
Look at these Three Steps as a tool in your spiritual toolkit. Each tool requires a certain amount of training on your part to master, and the quickest way is to learn the techniques that have proved successful for others. Once you’re fluent in the tool’s use you’ll find your own ways of using it and will begin treating the old “rules” as suggestions to be used or not depending on the situation.
“How can I get my thoughts to stop while meditating?”
Meditation is another tool in your spiritual toolkit, and each style of meditation has its own way of dealing with thoughts. In Zen we’re not interested in stopping the thinking, just being free of it. How is this possible? By stepping back from involvement with the thoughts. Use what you’ve learned from the first step back to Orientation – this really is the key, because it breaks the chain of causation leading to the tangled knots of Storyland. Take that step back and label the thoughts as they go through your awareness. View them as nothing more than items you are aware of, like the sound of a car passing by. This frees them to pass through and be gone. At that point, what is your attitude toward the thoughts? If a thought is in your mind, OK! If there is no thought in your mind, OK!
“You said that in Orientation we measure things in a way that everyone would agree with, but I don’t agree with my friend’s measurements.”
Remember that, although Orientation is the objective realm, we still create it ourselves. We decide the measurements and the labels, and someone else may well have different ones. Each of us is a unique viewpoint on our shared world, and even our own viewpoint is constantly changing. So, you are correct, we won’t agree on everything we see in Orientation. Look at the spirit of it, though – the point is to be able to step back into the place that is free of interpretation so we can free ourselves of the story-spinning.
“I can’t seem to get my husband to let go of his stories and settle into the Now.”
These Three Steps, and Zen Buddhism in general, don’t depend on anyone else doing them. They are our personal practice, and we realize the benefits in our own lives. However, even though we don’t expect anyone else to live this way, everyone around us does benefit from our own mindfulness practice. It’s all about showing rather than telling or coercing. They will notice the results of your practice, and if they decide to do it themselves, fine. If not, that’s OK too. When you are wanting someone else to take up some interest of yours, which realm are you in? Use this as another trigger that brings you back to awareness and settle back into the Cycle of Mindfulness.
“Identifying when I’m in which realm is kind of fun!”
This is part of the dance of Zen – we dance with life by zipping from one realm to another as the need arises, or simply to go exploring! The more time you spend identifying the realms the more adept you will become at slipping into the most useful one at any given time.
“Why would I want to stop my melancholy remembrances?”
Mindfulness doesn’t turn us into robots! We’re humans, with emotions and memories. Part of our makeup is the constant interweaving of these memories with our perceptions of the present moment. And, swimming through the past can give us comfort and a respite from the demands of daily life. But when you become aware you are doing it, it’s time to gently let it go and return. Always return! Indulging in these memories can be a kind of intoxication, a way to avoid your life, and at that point it becomes destructive.
“Can I do this while driving?”
While driving, just drive!
Mindfulness techniques can be quite useful if we start getting frustrated in traffic, however. For me, the critical point is always to take that first step back into Orientation. You’ll find this first step buried somewhere in most mindfulness techniques. Take a moment to relax the shoulders, let out a long sigh, step back and click into the clear focus of this moment. Look around and concretely label each thing you see, each thing you hear. Do this until the swirling emotions of Storyland dissipate. If you have time, that is! If you’re in the middle of traffic you may only have 2 or 3 seconds, but that’s enough time to let out the sigh and let the mind relax. Getting all tensed up won’t make that driver in front of you go any faster!