“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?”
Now let’s take the first of our Three Steps. Think of this as a backward step, away from Storyland into a new realm we’ll call Orientation. Where Storyland is the subjective realm, Orientation is the objective realm.
You’re not stepping back from Storyland because there is anything wrong with it. It’s just that Storyland isn’t the only mental realm; you’re simply going to set it aside for the moment and explore another one.
This new realm is called “Orientation” because this is where you orient yourself in the world at the present moment, where you “come back to reality”. Orientation is all about objects and their identifying characteristics without consideration of their value or relations with other objects. It’s the realm of labels. For a quick snapshot of this new realm, imagine a laboratory with the technicians in white coats carefully testing their samples and collecting data. Everything is clinical, clear and precise.
In Orientation you’re simply aware of the contents of your immediate surroundings, both physical and mental. If you are perceiving it right now, it is part of Orientation. If you can measure its size, weight or temperature, it is part of Orientation. The chair I’m sitting in, the computer I’m typing on, the jingle of someone’s cellphone ringing – these are all found in this concrete realm called Orientation.
How do you take this step back? Think of Storyland as being an overlay. In the days before digital imaging, when you wanted to create a complex picture on a printing press you would begin with the foundation graphic on a piece of cardboard, then add type and other pieces of artwork by gluing them to clear plastic sheets called overlays. There could be several of these overlays, and they would be literally laid over each other to create the complete image. Then a picture would be taken of the compounded result, a thin metal plate would be etched using this picture, and finally the plate would be put on the press for the actual printing.
To take this step to Orientation, mentally collect all of the Storyland material and put it on an overlay. Your opinion of the person you’re talking to, the sense that you are late for an appointment, your regret about how you handled a situation last week – all your feelings and conclusions about things – put these all on. Now peel back that overlay, revealing what is underneath it – just the things themselves. This is Orientation. Spend some time here, simply seeing, hearing, smelling and touching your surroundings. See how each thing you are now perceiving in Orientation had been colored by the contents of the Storyland overlay, how some things had been completely obscured, while others had been given just a little tinge of meaning. When involved in Storyland you’re quite unaware of many nearby things, especially those that haven’t moved or changed recently. But now, in Orientation, you clearly see into all the corners of the room and hear all sounds, freely identifying all the objects of your perception.
When you take the backward step into Orientation, you’ll feel an almost physical sensation when crossing the border. Like a phonograph needle clicking into the groove of a record, it’s an immediate connection with reality. How does it feel for you? For me, it’s something like moving back through a bead curtain or out of an enveloping cloud. I’m calling this a step back from involvement in Storyland, but it may help to think of it as a step forward, closer to reality, moving forward through the overlay itself. Either way, what’s important is the ability to recognize when you are in Storyland and the freedom to step back from it. Once you are familiar with the click that brings you into Orientation you’ll be able to take that step at any time.
Let’s take another look at the common objects we visited in Storyland, and see how they appear in Orientation:
- Bell: “This is a sound that has been ringing for 7 seconds.”
- Temperature: “Right now the temperature is 78 degrees.”
- Thoughts: “I just had a thought about how to deal with the budget in tomorrow’s meeting.”
- Feelings: “I am feeling angry about the heavy traffic."
What is different about how these things appear in Orientation? Here, everything is concretely labeled or measured in a way that everyone would agree with. This is in contrast to Storyland, where others may well have a different interpretation from yours.
Once I attended the funeral for the mother of a long-time friend of mine. I had warm memories of my friend’s mother, so I was in Storyland, wrapped in sadness at losing her. After the ceremony I was talking with my friend and said “This is a sad day.” He immediately said, “No, this is a happy day!” He was remembering the suffering his mother went through before she died, and knew that death was a welcome release for her. We didn’t have the same view of the event, yet we were both correctly describing our day because we were both in Storyland, and Storyland is always unique to us – we have created it in our own mind, so no one else can see it. Since it was time to move on, we both then naturally stepped back into Orientation and began talking about directions to the burial site and our plans for the day. Here we didn’t have differing views because we were discussing concrete measurements of our surroundings – streets to take to the cemetery, how long it would take to get there, and where we would go afterwards.
Note that while we’re considering thoughts and feelings to be part of Storyland, even they are phenomena that you can step back from and label. The thought that I’m careless for missing an appointment, the feeling of elation when something goes right, even the thought that I am thinking too much about how I feel when I think too much - each of these can be identified and labeled in the present moment even though their content is part of Storyland. It might help to think of the thoughts and feelings as containers that are carrying meaning, like cars in a freight train. Then you can see that the basic “stuff” they are made of – the containers themselves – can be clearly viewed in Orientation. Do you see the difference? That is where you find the boundary between Storyland and Orientation.
Practice - Labeling
Take a few minutes to acclimate yourself to Orientation. This is the land of names, so spend this time noticing and labeling things. Step back from Storyland, then label the first thing that enters your awareness. Be clearly aware of it, then give it a short name or label. The shadow in front of you is “shadow”, a thought going through your head about your schedule tomorrow is “thought”, the sensation of itching on your foot is “itch” – label it in a clear, non–judgmental manner then let it go. When the next thing enters your awareness, label it then let it go. It’s important here not to push these things away; simply let them drop like a toy from your open hand. Also, don’t look for things to label; just wait for the awareness to arise then label it. Objects you see, sounds you hear, odors you smell, thoughts and feelings that come up – as soon as there is any perception, give it a label: “sore back”, “bell ringing”, “funny memory”, “chilly” – no matter what you are aware of, give it a short, descriptive label. Do this practice for the next few minutes.
As you become aware of your surroundings, you also become more aware of your bodily sensations. Often, while in the throes of emotion, certain parts of your body will tighten up, such as the stomach, shoulders or chest. When you step back into Orientation, observe how these sensations change. Try taking a deep breath and letting it go in a long sigh as you take the step back. Are the tight places loosening up? Notice what parts of your body aren’t relaxing and shine your awareness on them without judging. Are they connected to any particular emotion? Are they related to some memory or expectation you’re replaying in your mind? See where the tightness leads you and get a clear picture of the story itself. Label the story and let it go while letting out a sigh and relaxing the clenched area.
There is a circular relationship between the story and the clenching – they feed each other. So, as an alternative to labeling the story and stepping back from it, try consciously relaxing the affected part of your body. Watch what happens to the story and its emotional grip on you.
As you get used to this process of stepping back from Storyland to Orientation you will appreciate more and more the fact we discovered in the chapter about the first realm: you create Storyland yourself. This is one of the keys to liberation.
Now that you’re familiar with Storyland and Orientation, take some time to write down your observations of how the people and things in your life appear in each realm. Give yourself a chance to get a clear grasp on the realms by taking two or three examples. For each one, first write down how it appears in Storyland, then write how it appears after stepping back into Orientation. For example:
“In Storyland, my work is full of exciting challenges and frustrating problems. My deadline is looming, but customers calling for technical support won’t leave me alone. If there just weren’t any customers, everything would be fine!
When I step back into Orientation, I see the computer sitting in front of me, a large photo of a French chateau on the wall, and a co-worker asking me if I could help a client on line 3. There are multiple trains of thought buzzing through my head.”
Characteristics of Orientation:
- Objective. Our awareness is of the physical characteristics of the things in our immediate surroundings without considering their meanings or ramifications. We’re looking at the medium, not the message.
- Empirical. We’re involved simply in measuring and labeling each thing we perceive in a way that others would agree with, whether it’s a nearby object, a thought or an emotion.
- Rational. Our actions are directly related to our current surroundings.
Snapshot of Orientation: technicians working in a laboratory.
How many conflicts in our world today would simply disappear if the participants were able to step back from their individual Storylands?