Who am I without my stories?
Sep 20 2022
[Intro to be read in a Geordie accent, like the narrator from the popular reality TV show, Big Brother]
It’s been nine weeks since Holly moved to The Barn retreat centre in Devon and this week she is doing a social experiment; this week, Holly has decided to not talk about her background AT ALL.
For one week only she is not Holly Stoppit the clown teacher / dramatherapist, she’s not the one who grew up in the circus, she’s not from Wales, Bristol or Milton Keynes, she’s not the 5th of 6 children, she’s not from Northern English and mysterious Jewish heritage, she’s not vegetarian, nor fond of cheese, dancing, wild swimming or walking up windy hills, she’s not a dyslexic writer, a newly qualified supervisor, a fool or a clown and she’s certainly not someone who is grieving lost babies.
She is just one of the coordinators, holly with a small h.
I’ve moved to a meditation retreat centre on the edge of Totnes, where I’m one of three coordinators who are supported by a manager, a gardener, an admin assistant and a part-time support coordinator, to deliver the same 6-night retreat over and over again. The people change, but the structure remains; we offer mindful movement, sitting meditations, walking meditations, gardening activities, mindful domestic tasks, periods of silence, held space for mindful communication, free time, visiting Dharma teachers (who share the Buddhist teachings through their own experience) and fireside celebrations. We have 24 hours off between retreats and then we do it all again!
As I’ve settled into the schedule and become more confident with facilitating the various activities and doing the backstage chores, my interest has turned to my own patterns of behaviour. I’ve been noticing the ways I habitually reach out for connection; by either searching for common ground or presenting myself as something interesting and different.
I’m Just Like You
I’ve noticed how if a Welsh retreatant arrives, I’ll tell them with an exaggerated sing-song lilt that I grew up in Cardiff. If someone’s from Bristol, I’ll round my vowels and wax lyrical about my beloved home of the last 22 years. If someone introduces themselves as a therapist, then I’m a dramatherapist. If they work in theatre, I am a director. If they are a teacher, well so am I!
None of this is a lie. I am all these things, but I choose to present certain aspects of myself to certain people in order to form an instant bond. This mercurial ability to pour myself into various shapes is a skill honed through a peripatetic childhood. Spending chunks of my youth on the road with the circus provided a constant stream of new friends and to help me find instant connection, I learned to morph my accent to match the changing vowel sounds as we hurtled up and down the M6.
Presenting myself as similar to other people seems to immediately disarm them and endear them to me.
Do you use this chameleon-like shape-shifting to swiftly forge connection? Or do you have a more solid / stable / constant / unchangeable sense of self that you present to the world? How does that serve the connection?
I’m Nothing Like You
I’ve noticed how I’ll look for any opportunity to mention my colourful past: for instance, offering to carry someone’s suitcase up the stairs, they’ll eye up my small frame and I’ll tell them “Oh don’t worry, I’m stronger than I look, I grew up in the circus.” Or after cracking a crap joke during the welcome talk, I’ll look around at their slightly confused faces and explain that they are going to get a lot more of that because I am in fact a clown.
I’ve built a career on being different, unusual, other.
Circus people are enigmatic and fascinating. We appear overnight, in a blaze of colour and a cacophony of sound, defying the laws of physics, provoking gasps of amazement, bursts of laughter and buckets of tears. We live outside the bounds of “normal” society in our own tight-knit communities on wheels. I can remember feeling like a zoo animal as passers-by peered through the fence to ogle at us eating our dinner out the back of the circus tent. “What are they doing in there?”
As you can imagine, my circus sheen made it difficult to fit in at school, but my difference became my strength, as I divulged in my TED talk. I became a misfit magnet, gathering all the other freaks and weirdoes and making a gang. I’ve basically been doing this for my job ever since.
Do you recognise ‘dazzling with difference’ as a connection strategy? Do you tantalise people with your most interesting stories? Or do you prefer to appear neutral or even uninteresting? How does that serve the connection?
What If We Didn’t Tell Each Other Our Stories?
A few weeks ago, I was at a party in a eucalyptus plantation (In Devon! I know!). Out of my role of Holly Stoppit the clown teacher-therapist or Holly Stoddart the newbie retreat coordinator, I felt strangely shy. I didn’t know how to present myself to these new people in this unfamiliar environment, so I sat by the fire, listening to other people chat. A woman leaned over and asked me, “How’s your heart?” Grateful for an invitation to be real, I spoke about my shyness and confusion about who to be in this context. She shared that she’d recently been pondering on the question: “What if we didn’t tell each other our stories?”
I love stories, ahhh to be led through someone else’s reality and invited to see the world through their eyes! I consider myself a confident and easeful storyteller, from a long line of storytellers. I enjoy taking people on journeys with my words, transporting them to other times and places, introducing the weird and wonderful characters I’ve met along the way, revealing my own stupidity, dexterity, discovery and humanity. I use stories to teach and I teach storytelling.
Who would we be without our stories?
Who would I be without my stories?
Our last group of retreatants were here for 10 days. Throughout their extended retreat, we collectively grappled with the Buddhist teachings on Non-Self (Or Anatta in Pali). The teachings kept popping up in the morning check-ins, were formally addressed by three different visiting Dharma teachers (Ethan Pollock, Nigel Wellings and Ramiro Ortega) and were chewed over during mealtimes.
Ethan decribed ‘non-self’ as the notion that we are not a fixed person, we are changeable.
Nigel explained that 2500 years ago, at the time of the Buddha, the widely held belief in the East was that of the ‘true self:’ that each of us has a permanent, unchangeable self. When Buddha was asked if this was true, he said, “Let’s have a look and find out for ourselves,” which is basically what Buddha said about everything. This non-didactic, non-preachy quality is one of the reasons I have continued to be interested in Buddhist philosophy for the last 18 years; the Buddhist teachings are propositions designed to inspire our own insights.
So, around the time that Buddha was asked about the notion of “true self,” he had been pondering on human experience and how it fits into five interdependent categories, which he called the five aggregates.
The Five Aggregates
(This is my version, cobbled together from memories of many Dharma talks. It might not be exactly what Buddha said, so don’t quote me on it!)
1.) Form - the things we encounter through the five senses - touch, taste, smell, sound, seeing.
2.) Sensation - the simple automatic responses we have in relation to our sensory experiences, eg we find things either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
3.) Perception - the mind pulls together form and sensation and gives it a label, in order to make sense of it. i.e I feel the warm sunshine on my leg (form), it feels pleasant (sensation), I feel warm sunshine on my leg and I like it (perception).
4.) Mental Formation - our conditioned response to what we’ve perceived, created by the experience we carry within us. i.e I smell burning toast (form), I feel tense and agitated (unpleasant sensation), there is toast burning and I feel worried (perception), there is toast burning and I feel worried because in the past I have experienced toast burning and it has set off the fire alarm (mental formation).
5.) Consciousness - the part that is aware of all this.
In an effort to try to pin down the “true self”, Buddha rummaged around in the five aggregates, asking himself:
1.) Am I the forms I encounter? Nope because forms are always changing.
2.) Am I the automatic response to the forms I encounter? Nope, because my automatic responses are always changing.
3.) Am I the perception that my mind makes of form + sensation? Nope, because my perceptions are always changing.
4.) Am I the conditioning that I carry inside me? Nope, because my conditioning is always changing.
5.) Am I consciousness? Nope, because consciosuness is always changing.
As hard as he looked, Buddha couldn’t find a fixed sense of self amongst the five aggregates. He believed that the sense of self arises as a constellation of the 5 aggregates, in relation to continuously changing causes and conditions, or as Nigel explained; “the sense of self is an epiphenomena of the process.”
My Self, My Stories and My Roles
Ethan asked us to ponder on the question: “What is essentially you?” He invited us to “Watch the thing that feels like you and see what happens.”
My self seems to live in my stories, which could also be described as ‘mental formations’. Hearing myself tell my stories over and over again, it seems like I want to convey parts of my identity, to let people know the roles I’ve played in the past, it seems important that people know I had a rich history before landing here.
Ramiro talked about how we can attach our sense of self to the roles we take in life, explaining that, “We can make an identity out of a role. But that is not who you are - at some point that will come to an end.”
So here I am, living at a meditation centre, having voluntarily jettisoned all my usual roles in a quest to learn about community, simplicity, nature and sustainability and I’m spending my days filling the air with stories about the person I used to be and the roles I used to play. Hmmm.
Nigel warned how defending a concrete sense of self, or peddling “a narrative of “I,”” can lead to suffering.
If I am only willing to be perceived by others (and myself) in a particular way, then I’m trapping myself in a tight, unyielding version of myself, which doesn’t allow space for growth or development.
Ramiro invited us to notice when we are over-identifying with particular aspects of the self and to soften around them, to step back and ask ourselves “Is that what I am, really?”
With these wise words ringing in my ears, I wondered what it would be like to have a week without telling any of my stories, to just be a person amongst people.
The Non-Self Experiment
The rules of the game evolved through the week. To start with, I said nothing about myself at all, showering retreatants with questions about themselves, before they had a chance to ask me anything.
This worked, up until the first check-in when I realised I needed to say something about myself in order to demonstrate how we share authentically here, so I decided I was allowed to talk open-heartedly about what has happened to me since I arrived here at The Barn, but without any backstory or context.
I noticed that I really enjoyed hearing their stories. I put my focus into the listening and asked questions to help the retreatants connect more deeply with their feelings and thoughts, encouraging them flesh out their stories into deliciously vivid tales.
I enjoyed the spaciousness that arose around not having to dazzle and entertain with my own stories. I imagined that me not telling my stories might make people more inhibited about telling me theirs, but they didn’t seem to be holding back. Perhaps it’s enough to just listen?
Sometimes I felt parts of me jumping up and down, wanting to be seen through my stories, especially when I’d had similar experiences to people, but I gave those parts my compassionate attention and stayed schtum for the sake of the experiment.
Then on day 5 of the experiment, during dinner, a retreatant leaned over and asked me directly about my background:
Retreatant: So what were you doing before this?
Me: Oh this and that, you know, many things.
Retreatant: Like what?
Me: Ummm… actually, I’m doing an experiment this week, where I’m not talking about my background, I want to find out what it’s like to separate myself from my story.
Retreatant: Oh wow, I’ve often thought about doing that. Fair play.
Me: Ah thanks.
Retreatant: Hey, have you ever worked in the circus?
Gah! I got rumbled! Apparently my energy reminded her of some circus folks that she’d once met! Ha! Perhaps it’s not only my stories that carry my identity…
I felt a sense of relief, having been seen and acknowledged as belonging to my circus tribe. It felt like taking my bra off after a long day.
The Moral Of The Story
It’s too early to draw conclusions on the non-self experiment, I’ve only done it once. I can tentatively say that bringing less of my story into my work role made it feel a bit more sustainable. I performed less and I was less emotionally exposed, which seem to be places where my energy gets zapped. But this was a dream group of careful, kind, committed meditators, so I might have felt sustained by their collective energy anyway.
The moral of the story is definitely NOT ‘don’t ever tell your stories.’ Your stories contain beautiful capsules of you, they are gorgeous gifts to give to others. For me, it’s about noticing WHY I am telling my stories and gently exploring my attachment to being known in a particular way. I have an opportunity here to explore and expand beyond my limited experience, perhaps discovering more ease, peace and joy along the way.
I’ve got a whole year of these retreats, so I can tweak the experiment and try again with another group. Perhaps next time I’ll wear blue jeans and a white t-shirt and my hair in a ponytail with no flowers? I could go by my middle name, Alice, for a week? Or I could adopt a French accent? I’m open to your suggestions - what would you have me try?
I am living and volunteering at The Barn meditation retreat centre in Devon for a year.
I am sporadically blogging my way through the year, in a series called 'The Barn Diaries.' You can find those blogs here or you can sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page to get them sent directly to your inbox.