Meditation and the Narrative

My meditation experience continues. I’m currently meditating almost every morning immediately after I wake up and sitting for 20 minutes with I’ve internalized the idea of “practice”mode – I’m not trying to get a good grade, do it well, or excel at it. I’m just practicing.

I slept late yesterday and when I woke up I didn’t feel like meditating. I felt odd about it for a few seconds, acknowledged the thought (“I wonder why I don’t what to meditate today” – ok, that’s a thought: odd), and then let it go.

This morning while meditating my mind wandered to the notion of a narrative. Several times I had a random thought that described my interpretation of something going on in my life. When I realized this, I labeled the thought with “thought: narrative” and went back to focusing on my breath.

When I was finished, I walked upstairs and realized the word “narrative” was still floating around in my head. I’ve let it sit there for the past hour as I responded to all the email that came in yesterday while I was taking a digital sabbath.

In the past week, during dinners, meetings, and hanging out with friends, I’ve been observing the narrative that gets created around specific situations. When I’m in business contexts, I’ve been listening to the narrative being told and comparing it with my interpretation of reality. When I read what others are writing on the web (blogs, articles, tweets), I’ve been paying attention to the narrative they are creating. The narrative from others and the narrative in my head are often divergent on subtle, but important points.

This isn’t an issue of fact vs. fiction. It’s not that one party is lying or consciously obscuring the truth. Rather, they are interpreting what is happening, or has happened, and creating their own narrative around it.

For the past 30 years, I’ve found myself reacting to these narratives of others. They impact my narrative, and my interpretation, of what has happened, and what should happen. In many cases, especially stressful ones or where there is conflict, I’ve tried to rationalize someone else’s narrative with mine, struggling to believe that we could interpret the situation so differently.

I have some deeply held beliefs that I adhere to. Amy and I are deep in Game of Thrones (Season 3 at this point) and the notion of a “code of conduct” or the idea of a “man of honor” keeps jumping out at me. My deeply held beliefs are analogous – they are the values on which my behavior, decisions, and actions are built.

But these deeply held beliefs are mine – they don’t map directly to others. They impact my narrative and how I respond to the narrative being told by someone else about a particular system. I can expose my deeply held beliefs to others but I can’t force them to adhere to them.

In the last two months this has come into sharp focus for me through meditation. I realize that many of the narratives I create are irrelevant. When I ask myself “will anyone care in 150 years”, the answer is a definitive “NO!” When I ask myself whether this narrative actually will impact the outcome of the situation, the answer is often “no”, although not necessarily as definitive.

Yesterday, I read Biz Stone’s book Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. I like his narrative of the story of Twitter much more than Nick Bilton’s in Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal. I’ll write more about Biz’s book in another post, but it’s a great example of the power of a narrative combined with a set of deeply held beliefs.

The next time you get wrapped up in a narrative about something, ask yourself the question “will this matter in 150 years from now?” And then, contemplate the implication of the question and how it impacts what you do about the narrative.

Oh – and Daenerys Targaryen is a total badass. I’m rooting for her as the one true king.

  • Your code of conduct, your personal narrative matters for the ~75 years of your existence. Without it, you’re a different person every year. Your code of conduct gives your body of work lasting meaning at least during your lifetime, and if you’re lucky, for the 75 years beyond it. It’s a human being’s version of “company culture”, which outlives the founders.

    • Agree. Hence the deeply held beliefs.

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  • I really enjoyed this post — thank you so much. Often I’m amazed that anyone really understands each other, that beliefs, perceptions, narratives map deeply if at all. When I find myself too wrapped up, I’ve often asked, “Will I remember this on my deathbed?”.

  • Speaking of badass.. Have you read the GoT books, Brad?

    Once he finishes, I’m sure it’ll go down as the greatest fiction work of all time

    • I haven’t, but Amy has. She loves them.

  • Brad –

    Really great post. I see this especially in Board meetings. As an ex BCG consultant, I realize the ability to craft narratives out of data – and I find many folks have neither the patience nor the curiosity to delve a little deeper and figure out what is really happening – and the power of debate. This post hit home for me.

  • RBC

    Interesting post. I think we all have a bank of kharma, weak connections, and favors that we build over the years, that we deposit and draw upon on. However I’m struck by instances of unpleasant people doing amazing things. I haven’t met them, so i can’t say if this applies to the Twitter founders, however having read Robert Caro’s books on LBJ and Robert Moses – they both achieved things no one had done before or since – building the West Side highway, Cross Bronx Expressway, Riverside Park .. and getting the Senate to function. However neither guy was trying to win kharma points. They were sucking up to the powerful, and steamrolling the weak. It isn’t how I live, or want to live, and I’m sure there are counter examples, however the existence of it challenges my view of the world. Thank you again for all your wonderful posts.

    • Many things are accomplished by “good people” and “bad people.” You get to decide how you want to behave.

      • RBC

        You’ve put it much more succinctly than I did! The challenging thing for me is often the ‘bad’ characteristics of people are the ones that allow them do powerful, amazing and sometimes very positive things.


    Hmm… Meditating after you wake up?! I’m getting great benefit from meditation. But being in an already slowed state of mind in the morning seems like it would cause meditation to be a waste? You’ve been inside yourself for 6-9 hours why do it again so soon?

    • I’m enjoying first thing in the morning. I’ve done some middle of the day sessions and some at the end of the day. I find first thing in the morning is completely centering for me.

      I expect I’ll start adding an end of day session.

  • Riffing on the idea of narratives – have you read West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, by Steven Kotler? I read it years ago but reading your thoughts on narrative immediately brought it to mind. It’s one of my favorite books on the topic of spirituality, and it starts with the with the following passage about the narratives we tell ourselves:

    “In the White Album, Joan Didion wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ and then proceeded to tell a story about a time in her life when the stories she told herself began to fail. Which may be how things go for many of us, and it certainly was for me. In the fall of 2003, at a time when I was making my living as a journalist; at a time when the president of the United States comfortably dismissed the idea of Darwinian evolution in favor of a more economic, six-day approach; at a time when certain members of Congress were trying to remake democracy in their own image; at a time when I was recovering from a long and nagging illness; when many of the people around me began getting married, having children, moving away, or on, or staying exactly where they were without me; at a time a pair of hurricanes were heavy on the neck of Central America, I went to Mexico to surf. I went because of these things. I went because the stories I told myself began to fail…”

    That first passage doesn’t do the book justice. I think it stuck with me because sometimes you need someone to point out a pattern before you can recognize it for or in yourself, and in this case reading those words opened my eyes to two ideas that seem to be so clearly obvious after it was pointed out:

    1) We tell ourselves stories as a way to make sense of our lives. The way we think about and experience things is influenced as much by the story we’re trying to tell ourselves at any given time as they are by the objective facts.

    2) There will come a time when circumstances change so much that we’re no longer able to believe the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. I think this is another way of describing a crisis of faith, but I like the idea of turning that around and thinking about those dark times as a search (for a new narrative) rather than a crisis that one are subject to.

  • Brad: have you looked into the Art of Living? They’re a global organization (inspired by hindu practices, but non-religious) that teach breathing, meditation and other focus-enhancing, stress relieving practices. There must be a chapter in Boulder. BTW, really enjoying your NovoEd class.

    • Thx on NovoEd. I haven’t checked out Art of Living but I will.

  • Nikki Braziel

    The Hound is an interesting character to analyze in the framework of “a man of honor” with a “code of conduct” that doesn’t map up with the “standard” definitions of these ideals… Enjoy Season 3 and do not Google anything related to Game of Thrones at all costs! Spoilers abound.

    Landmark Education works really hard in the Landmark Forum to create an “ah ha” moment for groups of usually 100 or more, that the meaning we make up to create a story for our lives ends up driving our reactions, which are ultimately to the story, often to the story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, rather than the event itself. They’re an interesting organization… Part cult of consciousness, part multi-level marketing scheme… Definitely worth the experience.

    • Nikki Braziel

      Oh, and if you’re still interested in the narrative from the point of view of writing stories, check out Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop’s Lit Fest coming up in June. It’s phenomenal.

    • I’m halfway through Season 3 and my mind is blown. And the Hound definitely has a code of conduct.

  • tim_shisler

    Last year I invited Clayton Christensen out to coffee. Told him I’d meet anywhere in the country. We ended up at McDonalds in Salt Lake City, and had a fascinating hour together. I was lost working a corporate job that wasn’t for me and was struggling to find my way back to where I belonged. His advice was simple: Find a rudder. It reminded me of what I’d lost, mainly my narrative and conviction to stay the course, and has stuck with me since. Thanks for the post Brad.

    • Awesome story. Clay Christensen is so amazing.

      • tim_shisler

        It was awesome. Blind email through the Harvard website. The amount of stuff he pushed me to think about is still just starting to sink in.