The Atomic Components of Narrative Elements

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The poet Muriel Rukeyser said, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." 

Stories and our individual lives share the same elements: protagonists, antagonists, conflict, plot, action, climax, and resolution.  What are the atomic components that make these narrative elements possible? 

  • Words
  • Images
  • Feelings

Attention training develops intimacy with these component parts. It simply involves intentionally shifting the emphasis away from the meaning and interpretation of dramatic events and toward the direct experience of how these fundamental ingredients move, rest, play off each other, and vanish.

Mindfulness acts like an electron microscope, allowing us to examine the invisible details hidden within the obvious and familiar. Mindfulness strategies increase the resolution power of our perceptions.

How can a character be expressed without words or images? Our own thoughts, memories, plans, and fantasies are the same.

What flavors of emotion pull us in or repulse us? How many emotional flavors are we able to detect through the sensations of the body? How do the things we see, hear, and imagine evoke these flavors? 

Observation at this atomic level is assumed to be ineffable, but it's not. The intangible aspects of subjective experience become tangible and therefore observable. Robust attentional fitness empowers us to untangle the strands of narrative elements making it possible to experience them with less interference. 

Consider the experience of watching the news on television. Information is communicated through a combination of words and images. Both are edited to grip our attention by generating interest. Interest indicates the presence of emotional flavors in the body. Anger, fear, sadness, and embarrassment are examples of unpleasant flavors that we try to avoid. When faced with stories that trigger these flavors, our minds immediately jump in to try to address the discomfort we feel. The body experiences unpleasant feelings and the mind wants to do something about it. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to try to understand how the event could have happened. We imagine ourselves living through difficult or tragic situations. 

To explore the atoms operating within the experience of watching the news, try to restrict your attention to one component at a time.

  • Turn the sound off and watch the stream of images
  • Close our eyes and listen to the stream of language
  • Tune into your body to try to detect any sensations that seem to have emotional flavors 

You can explore this perspective in more personal, subjective situations, too. Some opportunities might include when you find yourself worrying, obsessing, or unable to sleep in the middle of the night. These situations are full of atomic energy. Without trying to suppress these self-generated newsfeeds, try to restrict your attention to one component at a time. 

  • See if you can locate the space where mental images seem to be appearing
  • Try to find the space where verbal thinking seems to be playing out
  • Scan the body for the evidence of any emotional flavors that seem to be related to your concerns

In both of these scenarios, you'll quickly notice that it's impossible to completely isolate one aspect from the others. It feels more like highlighting one. But this emphasis is enough to develop your familiarity with how subjective experience works. 

This process does not make unpleasant content go away. It changes your relationship to all content over time. We assume that what we want is a life from of physical and emotional comfort and confusion, but what we really want is to interfere less with the natural flow of our sensory experiences. Experiencing them in this way seems more complete and more natural. Paradoxically, it also causes them to feel richer and more fleeting at the same time. 

What would be the benefit in allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go? 

With consistent practice over time, we gradually erode the need for all the narrative elements in our ordinary lives to be ideal, certain, comfortable, pleasant, entertaining, and unchanging. 

We can feel at home in our thoughts, our feelings, and our lives, just as they are right now.