Many of our problems, and the world’s problems, come when we don’t honour all the stories of our life. We make the mistake of thinking there is only one, or perhaps two, stories of our life. The Indian tantric Buddhist system describes 4 stories of a person’s life. This is a traditional framework describing the lives of great enlightened masters who have historical biographies, rich inner experiences and magical adventures that don’t fit easily into conventional geography, history or psychology.
But this idea is not just reserved for enlightened folk, it is true for us too. It is helpful and healthy to consider all the different elements and meanings of your own life. When I coach, I hold space for all 4 stories of a person’s life. Different problems and difficulties come when we forget, don’t balance or don’t include all 4 stories.
So, what are the 4 stories of your life?
Story 1: The outer story
The outer story is what we call ‘the historical facts’. When were you born? Where have you lived? Where did you study? What job do you do, and how much money do you earn? It is a more or less observable historical record of your life. Modern culture loves scientific method and measurable evidence, so most people put a lot of faith in what we can observe and count – the outer story of life. As a result, many of us are preoccupied by our outer story – our jobs, possessions, achievements, qualifications etc. If we’re not careful, we might even think that this is our life, or at least the only part that matters. Meet someone at a dinner party (remember those?), and chances are you will start by exchanging outer life stories. That may well be all you share, all evening.
The outer story is fine. But when we believe it equates to the ‘real’ world, or is the only important story of our life (or of other people’s), we lose touch with inner realities and miss a deeper dimension to life (our own and other people’s). Life becomes superficial, numerical, soulless and ultimately meaningless.
Story 2: The inner story
The inner story is our subjective experience of life. It includes personal feelings, thoughts and perceptions – what it is and has been like for us to be us. Some people are rather out of touch with their inner story. Others much more in touch.
In our culture we generally keep the inner story private for ourselves, close friends and therapists. We don’t tend to share too much of our inner story in the outer world. For some reason we believe it doesn’t belong there. We think it’s unprofessional or inappropriate to bring subjective inner experience into the outer sphere.
Problems come when we are out of touch with our inner story and also when we are overly fixated on it.
When people focus on the outer story at the expense of the inner story, they put celebrities on pedestals. We see their cars, and swimming pools, and how fabulous they look in magazines. We barely notice that their inner lives are often a mess (at least as much as our own!) Seduced by outer appearances, we mistakenly compare our insides to other people’s outsides, and look for satisfaction only in external objects and situations. Globally, we gear economic activity to productivity (out – put) without considering emotional, ethical or aesthetic (subjective) impacts. The effect this imbalance has on people’s inner state (epidemics of depression, anxiety and dis-ease) is swept into the shadows.
But when we’re too fixated on our inner story, we become self-help and personal development addicts. Then everything boils down to only our subjective personal experience. Maybe this is necessary or helpful for a time, particularly if we’ve not been much in touch with this story. But eventually it becomes restrictive or obsessive. We may no longer chase the outer, external stuff, but instead we chase an idealized notion of perfect inner experience. To borrow from the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, we may stop being physically materialistic, but are psychologically or spirituality materialistic instead. Still chasing some idea of a subjective goal, we miss a deeper significance or meaning of life events and all inner experiences.
Story 3: The secret story
The secret story tells of each person’s unique soul path, their personal myth and the deeper meaning of their life. Whether things are going well or badly for us on outer and inner levels, there is a secret story of our life. If the inner story is our subjective experience of life events, then the secret story is more akin to a fairy tale, creation myth or life-long dream that gives rise to the events of our life.
Some cultures acknowledge and honour a person’s secret life story through initiations, divination, ceremony and name giving. The unique, deeper aspect of each person’s life, including their struggles and contributions, is valued as important. Present day culture doesn’t acknowledge this dimension. Thus, it is easy for us to dismiss or ignore. We often feel like sausages in the great societal sausage factory, or tiny cogs in a giant economic machine. We may doubt that the story of our life has any real meaning, beyond acquiring more shiny objects, or seeking personal happiness.
Jung discovered that our early childhood dreams reflect a deeper pattern that reappears throughout our lives and gives it unique meaning. Recalling your own childhood dreams or memorable dreamlike experiences is one way to reconnect with your secret life story. James Hillman talks of the ‘soul’s code’, the idea that just as an acorn somehow contains the mature oak it will one day become, so too we are all born with an essential life pattern ready to unfold. Childhood fears and fantasies are expressions of this secret inner code. So too can be adult illnesses, life upsets and personal upheavals – which often result when we have not listened to, or followed, the secret story of our life.
Our secret story reveals itself to us through dreams, intuitions, numinous and meditative experiences in childhood and in adulthood. Patterns and themes repeat again and again as if they are trying to get us to pay attention. It takes courage to listen to and to follow this secret story of our life. When we can trust and follow it, it reconfigures the other stories of our life in a more harmonious way.
Story 4: The innermost secret story:
The innermost secret story (I sometimes call this the ‘top secret’ one, but I don’t think that’s traditional!) tells us that everyone, whoever they are, however their life is going, whatever the outer events and inner emotions and experiences, is in essence pure, perfect and fundamentally good. This innermost secret story is the same for everyone, in all times. It is universal. It is the story of the foundational space and natural awareness within which all the other stories of life appear and disappear. It points to what Chogyam Trungpa calls our ‘basic goodness’, an intrinsic goodness that transcends all judgements, achievements, evaluations and ideologies.
The innermost secret story of our life, invites us to relax with who and what we are right now, and to know in our bones that it is already perfect.
It likens all the other stories about our life to waves and ripples on the surface of the sea. However stormy the weather and turbulent the waves, the ocean depths, this innermost secret story of who and what we already are, remains still and at peace.
Or to clouds in the sky. The other stories of our life may be white and fluffy, or dark and full of lightening. The innermost story remains the clear, open sky in which the clouds continually come and go changing colour, texture and shape. It is always there even when all we can see, or even remember, are the clouds.
It is not so easy to see or trust this innermost secret story of our lives. That’s why it is top secret – it’s a secret we keep from ourselves. Particularly in a culture that places so much emphasis on outer and inner aspects of life. When our other stories are not going well – when outer events and inner experiences are painful, it’s hard to trust that still things are basically and fundamentally good.
This innermost story offers something important for our world, not just ourselves. It tells us that despite all the problems, pain and difficulties the world faces, on one level reality is fundamentally good. And that this is indeed real. This certainly does not remove the need for action on the outer level, nor deny fear, sorrow and suffering at the inner level. Indeed, the innermost story offers us new resources and energy for responding creatively on other levels. It invites us to live all the other stories of our life as fully and creatively as we can, while never forgetting the basic, joyful miracle of simply being here at all.
Some reflections on the different stories of your life:
- What judgements do you have about the events in your outer life story? How do these judgements affect you?
- How do you listen to the inner story of your life? Particularly when your inner story does not fit the outer story you believe should be living?
- What might be the secret story of your life, the deeper pattern at work? What dreams, visions, intuitions, memories and synchronous experiences point you back to the same deep pattern and creative meaning of your life?
- Where and when have you most felt a sense of the basic goodness of just being here? How can you connect with and gain confidence in that innermost secret story?