A Valuable Life Lesson – The Story is Extra

father-reading-to-childrenNote: I so much enjoyed being interviewed recently by James Rick of Full Potential about habits that don’t serve us. James asked some great questions. You may want to click on over and have a listen.

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

Several years ago, I ran into a friend who had just finished a one-month silent meditation retreat. When I asked about her experience, she pointed to her forehead and traced an imaginary label as she replied, “It’s written here. Now I know, the story is extra.”

I know exactly what she meant.  I used to live in stories. There was drama about what people should and shouldn’t have done. There were emotions spilling out everywhere based on these dramas. There was brooding, stewing, worrying, and gossiping.

Finally, I learned the transformative life lesson: The story is extra.

The Nature of Stories

A story is a series of thoughts strung together. It is a layer of mental activity that we place on the reality of what is happening. And here is where the trouble starts. When we inhabit our stories, we:

  • Judge
  • Analyze
  • Add meaning
  • Interpret
  • Project
  • Expect
  • Evaluate
  • Criticize

We view the world through the lens of our minds – our ideas about things, rather than the actual reality of things. And these stories rarely bring us peace. They divide the world into good and bad, should and shouldn’t. When we focus on our internal story-telling, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness and turmoil.

Over and over, we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough or the past shouldn’t have happened the way it did or that someone we know should behave differently. When we resist reality, as it is, we feel frustrated and hopeless. These mental whirlwinds sap our energy and keep us stuck in a narrow perspective. They are a form of violence we do to ourselves. They alienate, divide, and hurt.

The Value of Letting Go

It is a revolutionary choice to let go of the story and see things as they are. But when you do, here is what is in store for you. How do I know? These are the benefits I have realized:

  • Moving past grudges and putting down old baggage from the past. When I stopped torturing myself with these stories, I was able to see things with fresh eyes. Forgiving and letting go became the obvious choice.
  • Well being. I feel calmer, happier, more relaxed, and less stressed.
  • Clarity. I realized the stories I was telling myself were just a small part of the whole reality of things. I was missing a lot. Letting go of stories led to deeper insights about my motivations and the intentions of others. My next step became crystal clear.
  • Easier problem solving. When I stopped trying to solve problems in my mind based on the stories, practical and creative solutions appeared effortlessly.
  • Better relationships. As I stopped believing stories I told myself about how other people should change, I brought less friction into my relationships.
  • Quiet mind. Once I stopped paying attention to the mental chatter, I began to experience a spacious, open, quiet mind.
  • Compassion. We always play the starring role in our stories. When I shifted my focus away from what I wanted and what I thought was right, compassion for others flooded in.

When our stories are activated, we are in a fight with reality. Reality is as it is, then we try to mold, change, or resist it, making our daily experience a very bumpy road. Relaxing into the flow of things smooths out the kinks. Without the stories, we are available to shift and respond as needed. The opposition of “no” turns into the surrender of “yes.”

Oh, This

I have learned a very valuable phrase: “Oh, this.” My plane is three hours late? Oh, this. My father ends up in the ICU with pneumonia? Oh, this. A client no-shows? Oh, this.

“Oh, this” is not about resignation or putting up with anything. It is an alive acceptance of circumstances without reservation.

I no longer put any stock in the stories that show up in my mind. They don’t serve, and they are essentially insubstantial and untrue. Not only do I accept reality, I relish it. I appreciate what happens, even if I don’t like it, and let my heart open over and over to things exactly as they are.

As Jesus said, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I have discovered that the truth does set you free. When you abandon stories and welcome reality with no resistance, you meet this magnificent world just as it is in all its glory.

How about you? What stories do you tell yourself? What would happen if you let them go? I’d love to hear…

Still wanting more? Click to learn about one-on-one sessions with me for personalized, insightful help.

Note: This post was inspired by Abubakar Jamil‘s life lessons series, in which he invites bloggers to share what they have learned in life. Click on the life lessons link if you would like to read other bloggers’ posts.

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  1. says

    Gail – This is a timely post. I am in the midst of really letting the rest of the story go. It is the reality that the story is not going anywhere… and I am not even sure that it is my story. For me it is the story of trying to figure out why this choice and why that choice (not mine mind you) and the wondering as to how this person can’t see the value and amazingness of his child. It is habit to listen to the loop – and I am breaking the habit. There are times when I wonder if I keep wondering and asking the questions because I continually need to remind myself who this person is or because in letting go of the story, I finally let go of the relationship that we had and that place in my life… and what replaces that story when I let it go? Can I have the memories and feel that compassion and love for who he is while letting go of the story and releasing the need to remind myself why the relationship is not healthy…
    I am taking that leap though – letting it go – step by step, I am jumping off that cliff believing that there is love
    .-= The Exception´s last blog ..Reflection of the weekend =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      So many comments bring tears to my eyes, and this is one of them, Exception.

      YES, jump! All you are letting go of are things you are holding on to because of fear. Repeating the stories to yourself are never going to make him or the situation different. Part of your story is that he should see the amazingness of his child. Is there a rule that says parents should see how amazing their children are? Apparently, he doesn’t or he isn’t letting you know that he sees it. This is the truth. And there is a way that things get stuck if he feels this “should” energy coming at him.

      Follow the truth, my friend. I guarantee it won’t fail you. You have my total support.

  2. says

    Hello Gail,

    I think so often the stories people tell themselves are incorrect. They cause fear, worry, inaction and low self esteem. To be able to step outside, see the reality rather than the story is a difficult task, but has huge impacts on quality of life.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Kate,

      I’m glad you mentioned how difficult it can be to get outside our stories. Sometimes they are like that cozy fire we want to get closer to with a warm quilt wrapped around us. They are seductive and oh, so familiar. It take a great willingness, a wanting to know the truth and a willingness to admit that we don’t know everything, to put the stories down. And then just when we think we’re on top of them, they seduce us once again. We’re triggered even though we know better, and say, “how did I end up here again??”

      The key here is awareness – and compassion for ourselves. The more aware we are, the more we can catch the stories beginning to roll. And if and when we miss it, whenever we wake up and realize it is another opportunity to be aware.

      This is an important point, and I appreciate your bringing it up.

  3. Nemo says

    Hi Gail,
    I still try to see the beauty of my 25 year old child (the one from my 7 day marraige). Sent a letter a month ago…no response. Ya just like Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby. My advise for Robert is to keep it zipped up. From another movie came the words ‘Day at the lake…noodle salad’. I had another child. My brother John was duel dianosed schizophrenic/mentally challenged. He lived with me and I was his essentual ‘Caregiver’. Well, I am sorry but some things like a man that has overcome some great natural and human events cryinng in front of the lawyer that you are going to pay $2,000 to for keeping you in the house that you worked three jobs for (the one you are going to lose). I had one month to complete must do test and treatment for Johns cancer + relocate him to a level 3 home. But let me tell you this. I have never seen a more braver and uncomplaining person than John in my life (in his final month of life). I dream about him often and will never forget as I know when it is my time to go I’ll never have a better example of dignity and grace. Like Melvin Udall said ‘Some people have wonderful stories…just not anybody here’. I do take a lot of the good advice seriously that you offer, and as in the movie desire that the ‘story’ does have a kind good hearted ending (warm buns in the early morning). As I see it life is just one big story with plenty of scenery, lighting, sound, “projection”, etc. etc.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Nemo,

      Welcome to you and thank you for sharing so much about the stories you have been living.

      I hear your point about life being one big story. The Sanskrit word for this is “leela,” which means divine play. What we see here in this world of objects – people, situations – is a play that is seemingly beyond our control. This is true, but there is something deeper. When we let go of all the stories, we realize that what underlies them and infuses them is oneness that comes through as love. I suspect you know what I’m talking about – it can show up as those moments of undefinable bliss and well being.

      Even though this post was all about letting go of stories, there is a value in stories as well. I love a good story as much as the next guy, and sometimes our stories need to be told. Storytelling is one of the cornerstones of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. But my suggestion is to also look beyond the story to see what is present when the story falls away. This is where the absolute truth can be realized.

      Thank you for telling us all about your brother, John. Some people innately have the wisdom to meet everything with dignity and grace. What a beautiful role model.

      Sending love to you, Nemo…

    • Nemo says

      Thank you Gail for your kindness and insight. I wrote this since then:


      And so here I sit in my humble little place

      Some may look…turn away and say

      “He’s a disgrace”

      And so as you travel a path through time and space

      Few will ever have known your kind gentile face

      Few would have known we once shared a stately place

      Or would they know that I would help you tie your short shoe lace

      Or would they know that I placed the Zyprexa into your med-case

      You were taught to be independent…before your life was at a different pace

      And so from there I sent you out the door to meet the human race

      And so now both are gone

      Stately home and your kind gentile face

      I do realize that everything has a temporary place

      That we all will find our way to a much smaller place

      And so I sit here in my humble little home

      It being refuge from a day of haste

      Knowing that one day I will leave this place

      Knowing I will follow a path

      The scent of dignity I will trace

      To your home brother where you will welcome me with warm embrace

      Then as we sit before our dinner we shall begin with a quiet grace

      Yes you do “suspect” correctly regarding me being in a peaceful place. I know it was not just the power of suggestion. I understand the principles of Yoga and meditation as I was during the 1980’s one of the fastest runners at the 50 mile distance in this country. I am now very content to run barefoot on the beach for 4 or 5 miles. Just the other day as I finished up two women from India sitting meditatelely on the sand during sunset kept watching me…I think your blog put more ‘spiritualness’ back into my jog! Almost felt I was along side the Ganges! Thanks and peace be with you my friend.

      • Gail Brenner says

        Nemo, this is just beautiful. Poetry so infused with your heart. Thank you SO much. You are blessed with the capacity to be present and speak your experience.

        What came to me is that every moment can be an “along side the Ganges” moment. Is there a moment that is not spiritual? We may not realize it always, but the divine essence of reality is. Taking out the trash or sitting in meditation – no difference. The fog lifts, and reality is here, shining.

        Sending love…

  4. says

    This post gave me chills because I have been dealing with this idea for a while now. What I have learned is that the facts of the past and the story are not the same thing so these stories I hold on to aren’t even accurate most of the time. They are truly fictional tales that we hold on to in lieu of being in the present moment and dealing with the now.

    Stories are for story time and life is for living. Thanks for a lovely reminder of just that. :)

    .-= Clearly Composed´s last blog .. Running In The Gray =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      I LOVE this, Emma: “Stories are for story time and life is for living.”

      If we want to get unstuck, it’s essential to examine the stories we take for granted. Our memories can definitely morph over time, and if there is some emotion involved, we many not be remembering correctly.

      The past is finished – kept alive in the present only by our thinking about it – the stories we tell ourselves. It feels heavy to live in the past and so light to be present to now!

    • Gail Brenner says

      Very well said, Jarrod. When we realize that thinking is a tool – nothing more, nothing less – there’s so much freedom, isn’t there? When thinking becomes our reality, we’re in trouble.

      A teacher I know once said that the mind has taken upon itself a task that it is wholly unfit for. When our minds capture reality, we are missing the truth of what is actually happening. What can minds do? Organize, plan, implement our brilliant ideas. This is good use of the mind.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  5. says

    Funny, I’ll start with the story. 😀

    Earlier, in one forum I heard a story about (I think Chinese) miner whose mine collapsed and he was trapped in a narrow space, barely enough to sit.

    All the rescuers were astonished when they find miner alive, because he was so long trapped with little air, and everyone thought he will suffocate…

    The man was actually meditating when he was found, and because he was taking a little air, he survived… Most people would panicked, breathing deeply and suffocated, right?

    What’s the point? Miner did not made the story about his misfortune, he did not panic, suffer, he just accepted.

    After I read that story in a comments, someone mentioned, that situation is not good or bad, it just is.

    No drama, no frustration, no story. Only peace.

    Brilliant post Gail….

    I knew all of you talking here, but I have never found such a clear description…

    • Gail Brenner says

      I love that you told that story, Marko! It illustrates the point exactly.

      I want to make it clear that I’m not dissing stories. They definitely have their rightful place, and teaching stories can be very useful. When we believe they are our reality is when the trouble starts.

      Good or bad is a dichotomy that the mind places on events. It is an interpretation, and if we investigate we will see that evaluating and judging situations or people brings confusion and suffering. I invite everyone to check in and see: When you judge as good/bad or right/wrong, how do you feel? Are you relaxed? Are you at peace?

      This is always my barometer – does it serve? Does it bring happiness or stress and suffering?

      Big hug to you, Marko…

      • Brad says

        I have been searching for the same article – I recall reading the miner was buried by a wet clay bank and his helmet slipped over his face allowing for just that tiny air pocket. I recall he was dug out 22 minutes later, still breathing.
        PS to this story I am an asthmatic, had only 1 serious attack my whole life (inhalers did nothing – required hospitalisation for 3 days) and during the worst of it when I had only 20% breathing capability I kept this story to the front of my mind. No freaking out, just concentrating on controlling breathing, knowing it could be done. Eyes mostly shut! After 6 or so hours and many drips of god knows what, and being prepped for surgery, I started breathing again. Was quite eye opening, would like to avoid repeat tho.

        • Gail Brenner says

          Welcome to you, Brad. Your comment is very interesting because it attests to the fact that sometimes stories are valuable. In the situation you describe, you used the story about the miner as a strategy to help you cope. This is intelligence. It allowed you to relax enough to use what breathing capacity you did have and helped you through so you didn’t struggle quite so much.

          I love how we can figure out just what is needed – we humans are infinitely creative. Thanks so much for telling your story.

  6. says

    Dearest Gail,

    I have just recently written 5 pages about this topic, two weeks ago. Not in the same way as you have here, but still the same topic.

    It’s something I’ve really been actively thinking about and feeling how deep the ramifications are on ourselves and others when we listen to stories in our head, and essentially paste them all over another person or situation. We limit both ourselves and the other person or event.

    I am trying to take my 5 pages and condense it down to a post, not an easy task for me. Regardless, I love this post, and will say this. That we….no wait….”I” am never really free for as long as I have a need to judge another person or situation and continually say, “It should have been like this”, “He/she should have been like this”, or “They did or didn’t do thus and such”, etc, etc.

    I think there is a big difference between being aware of (or assessing) our environment, as well as those we come in contact with, AND just letting those automatic tapes in our head roll away without any thought from us. More often than not they are all old pre-recorded tapes that just automatically start playing without us every having to consciously hit the “play” button. I also think there can be an addictive quality to them, for a variety of reasons.

    I love these lines: “I no longer put any stock in the stories that show up in my mind. They don’t serve, and they are essentially insubstantial and untrue. ”

    I felt such joy reading that, very liberating.

    Bless you dear friend. You really walk the talk and it helps us all be stronger, more grounded and compassionate.

    Much love, (I am grateful)

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Robin,

      I look forward to reading your post about this essential topic. I’m glad you are writing about it. Maybe your 5 pages is more than one post?

      I appreciate your point about automatic tapes that judge and divide and an aware assessment of our environment. It is natural to have preferences – to be close to one person and not another, to like some things and not others. Our natural intelligence can tell us which way to move, and sometimes it moves us away from certain people or situations. Not only is this not a problem, it is wisdom.

      In contrast, those tapes that play do have an addictive quality. They are fueled by emotional energy, are repetitive, and ultimately don’t support us.

      I completely agree about the limiting power of these stories. My experience is that as presence and love permeate my day-to-day reality, those judging thoughts subside. They may not go away entirely, but I always know where my true home is.

      You are a light in the world, Robin. Much love to you…

  7. says

    As I read this…I’m drawn to my ride home tonight. I caught myself judging because of the story I was creating. A slow car in front of me, on a two lane road…and there I was stuck (never mind that I had no particular reason for “rushing” along…). And I found myself creating a story – and judging this guy in front of me. And then…I caught myself (and even when I did…it was still hard to stop). The real truth is that I have no idea what brought this person to where they were in their day. And with that – I have no right to judge. (gosh…it’s so easy to sit here and write that…and another thing altogether to go out there and live it…)

    Wonderful to read this today…
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Life Lessons- The Marathon =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Wow, Lance. This comment resonates. I have seen myself do this exact same thing.

      Your example shows the power of the mind. Minds judge. It’s one of their functions; it’s just what they do. So there is the essence of you – clear, open, unconditioned – and the mind that does its thing. What I have learned is not to judge the mind ( another layer of judgment), and my goal is not to stop the mind from doing what it does.

      Each moment of waking up to the ways we make ourselves suffer is the possibility of freedom from them. We realize we are judging, then make a choice about where we really want our attention to be. Over and over. And sometimes the power of the judging mind can be very strong, even though we see it happening and want our attention to be elsewhere. This is where a regular meditation practice can be useful. It supports stillness rather than churning mind.

      Shedding what doesn’t serve is a process. For most of us it takes time, patience, and endless compassion for ourselves.

      I love your pure heart, Lance, and your willingness to look at everything for your awakening.

  8. KT says

    I’ve only been reading your posts for a short time, but this one is probably the most timely and significant.

    I have been in the midst of a relationship that has been filled lately with a lot of drama and misunderstandings – and stories. There is a whole story – or stories – I could tell around this, but ultimately, I just decided on Sunday night to take a step back from the relationship. It wasn’t done, at the time, with a level of understanding that I needed to do this to become aware of my triggers, fears and this ongoing need to define what was going on in the relationship within the context of the stories I was creating.

    The step back in the relationship wasn’t handled well on either of our parts, and I’m not sure it is reparable. What I do know, though, is that my instinct to step away from the emotion was right, since being mired in the triggers and the stories wasn’t healthy. I have an opportunity to learn so much from this experience – and learn, as you mention in your podcast, to not create stories around these triggers – not to make events “mean something”.

    I hope that I can learn this lesson quickly – and that the man in my life and I can find some way – without the stories and the drama – to move forward. But if not, I have already learned something so significant and am looking forward to feeling my emotions and fears, being aware and not creating any more stories.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi KT,

      A warm welcome to you!

      There is so much insight in this comment. I love that you are taking a difficult situation and stepping back to look at it to see what you can learn. This is such a beautiful example of what is possible for all of us, and I appreciate your sharing it here.

      You are in the process of unwinding your own triggers. This man is a teacher for you and is offering you the gift of bringing up your reactions so they can be seen and released. Everything is here to support our freedom. And even in the middle of the emotion, you see the clarity of needing to step back and take a pause.

      When one person is willing to investigate their own contribution to the drama and not perpetuate it by blaming the other, there is the possibility for true and authentic connection. Whether or not your relationship continues, you are learning so much. And keep in mind that the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself.

      You are on a beautiful path, KT. You have my complete support. Sending love to you…

  9. says


    I simply loved this line, “The Story Is Extra.”

    And you did a wonderful job of writing this piece.

    My pleasure to add it to the series and my gratitude for your participation in it. Thank so much. :)

  10. says

    It seems as if this is what our mind has been trained to do, isn’t it Gail? Make up stories about this, that, and the other thing?

    What I find encouraging is that I don’t need to get in a battle with the stories, say ‘bad story,’ nor ignore them either.

    Between these two extremes is a middle way — the way of simple peace where simply being aware of the stories is enough.
    Thanks for your sharing Gail.
    .-= Christopher Foster´s last blog ..Love is an “equal opportunity employer” =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Yes, Chris, our minds seem to love stories. And this fact is neither good nor bad – it just is.

      Once we realize that who we are is not these mental constructions – stories or no stories, no difference.

      I’m very happy for the simple peace that you’ve discovered in the middle way.

      Love, Gail

  11. says

    “The Story is Extra”… oh, I love that! What a perfect way to sum up all of the soap operas and melodramas that I have us knee-jerk reacting through life. When I dropped all of my stories I found that life suddenly got “boring”… “boring” is the word the world-voice would call it. The reality is that all the people and circumstances that had me running around, pretending I was up to something simply dropped away. All of sudden I’m my own best friend yet see my connections as infinite. Now my greatest thrill and idea of fun is walking through the park with Shakespeare (my parrot)… I’ll take “boring” over the wild roller coaster ride of my past stories any day.

    • Gail Brenner says

      You make “boring” sound fascinating, Rob!

      My experience is that there is an adjustment period once the stories become uninteresting. Whereas before the space was filled with drama and intrigue, there is now peace, quiet, silence. For me, it took a little getting used to. But now…well, in that vast, quiet space is so much love, so much possibility. And the simple things – a walk in the park – so delicious.

  12. says

    Hi Gail,
    Awe-some post, and amazing comments! Love the energy here:)
    I dropped my story when I realized that I am more than the limitations it places upon me..My reality is that when I open my heart fully to the moment as it is presented to me, I may truly do, be, experience *anything*…That is the magic of my life–amazing! My story is a label for my Being to allow others to relate..my senses allow me to go far beyond that label on all levels..so heart connections is what I strive for…

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Joy,

      I’m with you about the amazing comments here. People so beautifully speak from their hearts, and I am so appreciative.

      And you, my friend, your description of the no-story life glistens. When the importance of the story falls away, we can put it on as needed and there is no problem. And having no interest in the story leaves us attuned to the senses and so intimate with everything. I imagine you aren’t striving too hard for heart connections.

      Love to you…

  13. says

    Hi Gail. I think what makes the stories so useless is the fact that we never truly have the whole story. When we are hurt, we can only tell the story from our own perspective, thus missing such a huge portion of the truth. I love your idea of just approaching life experiences with, “Oh this.” Things are what they are and I relish the opportunity to practice complete acceptance.
    .-= Nea´s last blog ..Inspirational Words- Taking Chances =-.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Yes, Nea, so true. Stories are created in the mind. They are removed from reality so don’t include the whole “story.” When the mind-made story drops away, or we don’t pay attention to it, all that’s left is, “Oh, this.”

      Practicing complete acceptance – beautiful…


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