📆 12 Dec 2021 | ⏱️ 7 minute read

The Narrative Self

We all have a voice inside our heads. This voice tells us a story about how our lives are going. When you identify with that story, that is called your “narrative self”. Some psychologists believe that selfhood is narrative in nature. To put it more concretely, they believe our core sense of who we are is shaped by and large by the ongoing narrative taking place inside our heads.

For most people, if not everyone, this narrative can be generalized as “There is some problem that prevents me from being fulfilled, some ’next thing’ that needs to be completed before I can be fulfilled.” So life takes on the character of a very long emergency where we’re confronted with a never-ending series of problems that each promise lasting fulfillment if only we solve the next one.

Stream of Consciousness

I believe stream of consciousness writing is best to illustrate this:

“Did I take out the trash? Wait, I’m kind of thirsty. Where’s the orange juice? I thought I…oh there it is! Now which cup do I want? Hm which cup do I want? Which cup which cup which cup? I’m indecisive. I should really work on that. Green? No! I want the orange, the green one’s cracked. Actually let’s go with green today…who put this cap on I can’t get it off…finally! Wait is this juice expired? Better check first…okay good it’s not. I have so much work left to do today…”

Dissatisfaction

For most of us, our inner monologue is characterized by problem after problem after problem. In my example, the first problem was the trash. Then being thirsty. Then the orange juice. Then which cup to pick. Then being indecisive. Then not being able to open the cap of the orange juice. Then the juice being expired. Having a lot of work left to do. So on and so forth.

Even if you’re an extremely lucky person, your inner monologue is bound to be self-referential, boringly repetitive, negative, and problem-focused much of the time. Being identified with this monologue, this story, is a primary source of human suffering. And to be clear, in this context, by suffering, I mean something akin to continuous dissatisfaction, not the “I broke my arm and now I’m in pain!” suffering.

Strategies For Dealing With the Narrative Self

There’s 2 broad strategies you can employ to deal with this neurotic, problem-seeking voice inside your head. By the way, these strategies are generalized tools against suffering. They’re not limited to the narrative self. They can also be used for dealing with physical pain, for instance.

Stoicism

The first strategy is changing the narrative. You can recondition yourself to “think positive” by telling yourself a better story. 21st century Stoics such as William B. Irvine employ a number of mental exercises to put life in perspective and reduce suffering. I won’t get into Stoicism here as there are many different exercises, but you can see William’s website[1] for more information.

Zen

The other way to deal with your narrative self involves the self. It is Zen rather than Stoic. Instead of changing the voice in your head, you can de-identify from it. Instead of your experience seemingly being centered around your inner monologue, you can recognize the inner monologue for what it is, simply another object of experience.

Pros and Cons of Each Strategy

Both Stoicism and Zen each have their respective pros and cons.

Stoicism

The benefits of Stoicism are more immediate and obvious. You can meditate on Zen koans until the cows come home and you’re not guaranteed anything even interesting will happen. Stoicism isn’t like that. If you try the Stoic practice of negative visualization, contemplating bad things that haven’t happened yet, you mentally prepare yourself for their possibility and become more appreciative of what you have. You don’t have to spend hours meditating hoping to have a sudden realization that may never come.

Stoicism is also easier to communicate to others as opposed to the non-dualistic nature of mind, for instance. So it’s easier to get people to give Stoicism a try. With Stoicism, it’s easier to know you’re doing it right and, unlike meditation, it doesn’t require continuous focused attention, a skill that takes a long time to develop and one most people don’t possess.

Zen

Zen practices on the other hand can take you to the pinnacle of human experience. You can be delivered, if only for a few moments at a time, into total egoless bliss. A good analogy is running on a hamster wheel. Stoicism can only build a smoother, more comfortable wheel. Zen shows you you’re on a wheel and how to step off it. It can show you how radically improved everyday experience can be.

Both Strategies Together

There is an abundance of human dissatisfaction and suffering everywhere you look. So it seems irresponsible to dismiss Stoicism in favor of Zen or Zen in favor of Stoicism. It’s best to have as many tools against suffering as possible. And there is no reason a person can’t practice both Stoicism and Zen.

I encourage practicing whichever works best for you. I’m for reducing suffering in any way that works, as long as it doesn’t involve self-deception or hurting others. Speaking of reducing suffering, I’m reminded of a relevant anecdote. It may not be 100% accurate since it was a long time ago, but I’ll share what I remember.

Anecdote

A philosophy professor I had in community college told the class about an older student who was fairly accomplished by modern standards. I don’t remember the details but I always imagine he was educated, had a family, a decent job, all those traditional markers of success. Why then was he taking a philosophy class? The student told my professor that despite his superficial success, he still had no idea how to live life. And this was his reason for taking a philosophy class.

Lessons Learned

There are a 2 lessons I take away from that story.

Most People Are Confused About What Makes Them Happy

For one, it’s common to be confused about how to live your life. Most people just sleepwalk through life doing what others want them to do or trying to fill some predefined role society has carved out for them. And they end up dissatisfied.

Mainstream Culture Misleads People About Happiness

For two, mainstream thinking doesn’t offer practical, evidence-based strategies for enjoying life.

Schools teach students to be good wagecucks, not happy individuals. The corporate media conflates traditional markers of success with happiness. But traditionally successful people such as the rich and celebrities are no happier than anybody else. Advertising promises that acquiring the latest iBad will bring lasting happiness. Of course that all changes as soon as the next one comes out. And most people pursue happiness by trying to accomplish goals. They’re just running on the hamster wheel I mentioned earlier.

When it comes to happiness, there are so many clear indications that people have no clue what they’re doing. Most people are just winging it.

There’s mass overconsumption. There’s a cult of productivity[2]. People constantly do things which are guaranteed to cause misery. Things like procrastinating, scrolling endlessly through social media, telling lies, eating junk food, not exercising, making excuses, self-deception, and prioritizing traditional markers of success over goals they themselves deem more noble.

Summary

So why am I writing about this? I’m writing this as a response to the widespread confusion about the causes of happiness. If everyone already understood that achieving the next goal, acquiring more goods and social status doesn’t bring lasting peace, I wouldn’t be writing this. I’m not here to spoon-feed you the traditional lies about what makes people happy. I’m here to debunk them and promote Stoicism and Zen, highly practical and broadly applicable philosophies for life.

I’ve already explained the mechanisms by which both reduce suffering in terms of the narrative self. You can reason through it on your own. You don’t have to blindly accept what I’m saying. There’s plenty of studies out there showing that practices like mindfulness (Zen) and reframing thoughts (Stoicism) drastically improve people’s lives.

One Final Observation

As a final observation, I’ve come across people who think they can’t be more content before something good happens. They think the only thing they can do to affect their mind is achieve momentary happiness by reaching their next goal.

I’ve also come across people who think they can radically change their consciousness, be more content in everyday experience before anything good happens, and that momentary happiness isn’t all there is.

Both types of people are usually right about their own circumstances.

Which one are you?

Link(s):
🔗 1: William B. Irvine
🔗 2: The Cult of Productivity