Would it seem miraculous if you could dissolve anxiety, fears, stress, frustration, anger … by making a small mental shift?
The answer might lie in thinking about how we watch films.
Last night, I was watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my kids, and my 9-year-old daughter said some of the things in the movie scared her. I started talking about how they’re all just actors, and isn’t it funny how they dress up in these costumes to tell us this story? By helping her to see through the make-believe of films, I was trying to help her dissolve some of the fears she had.
Amazingly, I’ve found that this works for all our other fears and difficult feelings. We just need to stop believing in the make-believe in our heads.
Think about this: when you watch a film, you suspend your disbelief. You know it’s all pretend, but for the 90 minutes or so you’re watching the film, you agree to forget that it’s make-believe. You believe. And this allows the film to move you, to cause you to cry, be angry, be scared, be overjoyed by the climax. Not everyone does this — some of us think, “God, the story-telling is awful, the actors aren’t very good, the special effects are cheesy, I can’t believe they’re making me watch this.” Those of us who don’t suspend our disbelief aren’t very moved.
In the rest of our lives, we constantly believe in the stories in our heads. When we think about how someone has been inconsiderate, we believe in a story where we are the hero and the other person is the villain, and think of how they wronged us. When we are disappointed when someone else doesn’t love us the way we want them to, we believe we’re in a romantic comedy and the other person should fall in love with us and be the perfect partner. This happens over and over: all of our anger, stress, sadness, depression … it all comes from the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in the world around us.
The things happening in the world around us don’t revolve around us, and aren’t part of a story. They’re just happening. Often it’s all random, but to deal with this chaos, we try to make sense of it as part of a story. We create meaning where none exists. We think the other person has bad intentions towards us when actually they are just thinking about their own stories.
So what’s the answer? The answer is in how we watch films: if we stop believing in the story of a film, and start to see the film as a series of moving pictures that someone has created from props, sets, costumes, digital effects, scripts, sound studios and more … we see the reality and don’t feel the hurt, the anger, the fear.
When we feel difficult emotions in real life, we can stop believing in the story, and start to see the reality of what’s happening: there’s just physical objects around us, moving. There are atoms and molecules, living organisms, people who can talk and create. Those are not part of a story, but just happening. By letting go of this false belief, this mis-belief in the made-up story, we can let go of the fears and anger and frustrations that come with it.
So when you feel stressed, sad, mad … that’s totally fine. But just realize that you can stop believing in the story, if you choose.
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief was first published on Zen Habits on 6/12/15.