On the announcement of being one of the first professors to be fired from Harvard, Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) was in a room with the press. He writes, “They had that look on their faces you have when you’re around a loser… And I looked around and saw that everybody believed in only one reality to this situation except me.”
One of the hallmarks of when we’re in that more awake and aware space is that we’re not tunnel visioned into just one way of seeing ourselves or others or a situation. We hold space, we don’t make up our minds about what’s in front of us, we have more than one story – without needing any of them to be right or wrong.
“My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.
I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.
But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Danger of a Single Story
Books are about specifically American and British lives, and they are also specifically about Nigerian ones. Being fired from Harvard was disgraceful, and it was also freeing. Working ourselves free from the habit of a single story cultivates the type of equanimity required to really see ourselves and others, to really be present with the moment arising in front of you.
Often we drift into a single story when we are explaining “why”, and using language like “That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way I am, she is, he is, the government is, my handstand is, my body is.” Or, like Ram Dass, when our culture has a very strong single view of a situation. It can be hard to climb out from under that.
When we notice there’s just one story in our perception, we can stop, and ask “That’s one story, what’s another one?” Who or what do you have a just one story about? Where do you feel stuck? Test run this question now, and then try it out over the next few weeks. Try it with people, try it with yourself, try it with situations. Let equanimity be your guide. When it starts to slip too far from your field of vision, check in with this question. Save yourself from having a single story of any aspect of your life.