Life is a mixture of fact and fiction.
While I’ve thought about this in various ways over the years, I got this precise little phrase from the wonderful English writer, Jeanette Winterson.
You know when you discover a writer or an artist of any type who captivates you, and you wonder how you survived before you found them? That’s me and Jeanette. I’m listening to her cogent, painful, humorous and searingly human memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? while commuting in my car. (Hurray for libraries!)
Anyway, she’s right. Each person’s life is a mixture of what happens (fact) and the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened (fiction).
It’s hard to say which is the more significant between the two, but I’d vote in favour of fiction. In part at least because we can’t go back in time and change what happened (no matter how much we may torture ourselves by continually replaying the event in our mind and adding that apogee of wishful thinking “if only” to it).
But the fictional part is always potentially mutable, changeable, and open to editing.
Why is it, then, that most people tell themselves a disaster story about what has happened? After all, theoretically at least, we’re free to tell any story at all. Why do we so often gravitate towards the most negative, “poor me” fiction?
Let’s take a look at negativity bias, courtesy of https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/negativity-bias.
I quote: “Negativity bias is assumed to have been a natural adaptive evolutionary function, developed by humans thousands of years ago. By continually being exposed to immediate environmental threats, our ancestors developed negativity bias to survive.”
When I found out about negativity bias this year it explained two disturbing tendencies I first noted in myself in my early 20s. One was to catastrophise. (I immediately feared my husband at the time had a car accident when he came home late.) The other was to recall, with consummate ease and full gory detail, any negative event that had ever happened to me. And conversely, to struggle to remember anything good that had ever happened. Even though intellectually I knew that positive, even wonderful things, had happened, I discounted them.
As the Decision Lab puts it: “Negativity bias affects us by making one feel negative events or react to adverse events more strongly than positive ones.” Yes, that was me all right.
Besides recommending mindful breathing as a remedy, the site counsels: “An exercise to curb this bias would include focusing on positive events and savouring those events to create positive memories. When enjoying an experience, attempt to engage fully in pleasant sensations, and reflect on the positive developments occurring at the moment.”
That sounds very reasonable, but why is it so difficult to do?
Because our story differs according to which state we’re in. No, I don’t mean drunk or sober. I mean which of the ten basic inner states of life we’re in – called by Nichiren Buddhism the Ten Worlds – at any given moment.
The Ten Worlds
Briefly, these ten inner states – which simultaneously manifest in our outer life (environment) – are:
- Hell (despair, anguish, hopeless suffering, which we implode on ourselves or explode onto others)
- Hunger (endless, insatiable craving and lack of true appreciation)
- Animality (instinctual, animalistic behaviour with no concept of possible consequences)
- Anger (egoistic and egotistic self-interest and preoccupation with appearing better than others)
- Tranquility (also called Humanity – a calm, rational, reasonable and well-balanced state)
- Rapture (also called Heaven – a temporary blissful state of realised dreams and relative happiness)
- Learning (tuition – learning from others)
- Realisation (intuition – the “light bulb” moment of truth realised through one’s own observations based on what one has learned)
- Bodhisattva (altruism, a state of selfless compassion)
- Buddhahood (absolute happiness and freedom; a state of mind that sees everything as an opportunity to create lasting joy and fulfillment for self and others)
State => Story => Strategy
Now, to borrow from self-development guru, Tony Robbins. He expounds a theory of State => Story => Strategy.
This theory backs up what Buddhism teaches. The inner state we are in “colours” the story – the fiction – we tell ourselves and others about any given event. And that story in turn influences the strategy we apply.
So if my story is “it’s hopeless” (Hell) it’s more than likely I’ll do nothing, not even pray for a good outcome. If my story is “I’m going to win at any cost,” (Anger) my strategy will likely be to cheat and lie. And if the story I tell myself is “I’m determined to turn this event into something positive for all involved, even though I haven’t a clue right now what that looks like,” then my strategy will be to chant and pray with gratitude, confidence and an open mind, leading to a higher state of life for me and for my environment. This is what Nichiren Buddhism refers to as creating value.
One of the many benefits of Nichiren Buddhism is its power to transform negative into positive – what I’ve always termed spiritual alchemy. You can start out chanting in a really crappy mood, and lift up your inner state through your practice. And unlike the relative and dependent happiness of the state of Rapture, the absolute happiness and freedom created in the state of Buddhahood, which you enter when you chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, depends on nothing and no one but you.
So even if you can’t invent a positive fiction about something that bothers you right now, chant long and deeply enough, and you’ll be able to do so.
I knew a man, now deceased, who had a bad temper. One day early on in his Buddhist practice he fell out with another man and felt so incensed and infuriated that he literally chanted for the man to die. Not very cool, I know, but that’s what he did. He also continued to chant. After a while, he found himself thinking that maybe if the man just broke his leg, that would be punishment enough. More chanting ensued, at the end of which my acquaintance had no further desire that his adversary suffer any pain at all.
His story about the event changed because his inner state changed.
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson, a woman who suffered hardship and abuse as an adopted child, states that life is always ready to give us a second chance. To me, practising Nichiren Buddhism means grasping that second chance with both grateful hands – even and especially when the situation doesn’t look promising at all – and using it to motivate me to chant and change my inner state, my story, my strategy… and in time, my life.