Sensation, Storyline and Meditation

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” - William Shakespeare.

With this well known quote, the Bard points to an important reality about human life: that our experience can be parsed in different ways, and one of the most useful is drawing a distinction between sensation and storyline.

Sensation is the mechanical transmission of a physical event to our awareness. Nothing very mysterious here: when light hits our retina, when our eardrums are exposed to rapid changes in air pressure or when our skin is touched, neural processes report these events to our brain as light, sound or pressure.

Up to this point there is no meaning to the transmission. No good or bad, nothing desirable or frightening. It is merely one event among billions of other events. But we obviously experience more than that – because our thinking apparatus assembles a storyline out of this hash of signals. Storyline is the meaning we attach to these sense impressions. It’s the model we build of objects and relationships.

Take a simple example: your eyes record a large green mass in front of you, somewhat wider at its bottom than its top. There are bright regions and dimmer regions in this mass. Your nose notes an odor. When you extend your hand there are a number of tiny points of contact on your skin. Taken just as sensory input, it’s something of a mess.

But when your consciousness assembles these sensations and generates a ‘Christmas tree’ storyline, everything suddenly comes into focus. You see Christmas lights and ornaments. You smell the scent of pine. Feel prickles from the needles. It’ s not even just a tree with stuff hanging all over it – the story is ‘Christmas tree’. For most of us, the storyline will also include religious practices, presents, holiday songs and favorite singers, TV shows we’ve watched for years, particular food, etc. All part of the storyline surrounding that Christmas tree.

Now, making this observation is fun, but how important is it really? What’s the big deal?

The deal becomes very big when you recognize that humans live in the world of storyline much more than we do in the world of sensation. We’re not alone in that world of storyline, though. Suffering and enjoyment live there with us. We are tickled by something fun or ticked off by an annoyance in the world of storyline. Everything we think about our family, friends, enemies – even our own identity – exists in the world of storyline.

Storylines dictate our words and actions. Even our thoughts. When given the power, they script our every move, often to our detriment. If I believe in the storyline that has me subsisting on a diet of pizza and Mountain Dew, what happens when my stomach tells me it’s empty? If I accept a storyline about money or power being the most important things in the world, how do think I’ll divvy up my time between work and family?

There is a LOT we could say about the storylines we live through. Some stories are more important to us than others –we can take or leave some with a shrug, while we might have others we’d fight for or die to protect. We get some storylines from our culture and upbringing, while others are deeply rooted in our biology. We could talk about how storylines interact – within our own experience, and with the storylines of those around us. Very often these storylines antagonize one another our own internal storylines frequently come to blows, and the storylines of people around us will regularly conflict with our own. And what might we say about the times the world of storyline clashes with the world of sensation? Libraries full of psychological and religious tomes have been written about these topics.

But the most important thing to recognize about our storylines is that we aren’t stuck with them. They don’t exist without our buy in. We can drop some altogether and rewrite others. People have worked out a variety of ways of doing this over the centuries among these, three broad meditative strategies have strongly established track records and proven results. Those strategies are as follows:

* Set our storylines aside for a time. We can do this through stilling/calming meditation. By placing our attention solely upon a single point of focus (like breath or a repeated word), experiencing it with none of the normal chatter (storyline), we connect more fully with the world of sensation. Having set aside our stories during a meditation session, it is more difficult for them to exert autocratic control over your behavior when you pick them back up. By itself, this is very healthy.

* Analyze our storylines. Analytic meditation is perhaps the most challenging of the strategies. The person pursuing this mode of meditation focuses on the very stories he or she has come to rely on to guide their daily activities. They check out ideas of permanence and impermanence, independence vs. dependence. Even the story of one’s own self-identity comes under scrutiny.

The challenge to this style of exercise is two fold. First, these concepts are slippery. Try locating your sense of self – who and what you really are – right now. Where is it? How do you sense it? Focusing on your self identity can be like trying to catch a bar of soap in a swimming pool – you know it’s there, but every time you think you have it, it slips away, requiring your search for it all over again. Second, this analytic meditation is challenging because as you do come to terms with your storylines, many of the things you’d taken as rock solid truths begin to unwind. It can be scary. For some, it feels life threatening. However, the meditator will need to develop significant mental strength through stilling/calming meditation before that degree of analysis can be achieved.

* Rewrite our storylines. Rewriting our stories through generative meditation is often seen as the most attractive option, but it also holds the most danger for us if we approach it without sufficient preparation. A fool can just as easily take unpleasant storylines and, out of ignorance, write an even worse script for himself: a timid person could script himself as a macho bully, instead of storyboarding courageous conviction a person currently living separated from their emotions could put themselves in the role of a sloppy, weepy wreck. Such a mistake benefits no one.

But with the clarity created by stilling meditation and analytic meditation, generative meditation can be used to cultivate powerful storylines which benefit both the meditator AND everyone around them.

Each of these flavors of meditation supports the others. You won’t find huge value in either analytic or generative meditation without a solid grounding in stilling meditation. And without analytic or generative meditation, stilling/centering meditation is little more than a relaxing break from the daily grind. Taken together, though, these three meditative practices will ground you in reality and free you to see storylines for the creations they are. When you are looking at them from that perspective, you can put your storylines to their best advantage.

As always, please email any questions around this material to I look forward to hearing your thoughts.