Have you ever noticed the highlighted words in an Internet article or blog? These are known as keywords, terms that are used to classify or organize digital content or to facilitate an online search for information. Prior to digital technology, on which we all depend these days, keyword referred to a significant or memorable term in the title, abstract, or text of a print document used as the index entry. Keyword is also widely used to mean a word or concept of great significance.
In many ways our lives revolve around the keywords we have chosen to or let define us. Keywords determine the people we attract. Our life stories are composed by these words. It’s much easier to hold on to our words and stories than to change them, even when they are no longer relevant or serve our highest good. Changing them, however, can lead to a greater sense of wholeness and fulfillment.
Thoughts as identity
According to a Chinese proverb, our thoughts become our words and our words become our actions. What we think about regularly and what we verbalize are reflected in our outer lives—and even in our bodies. We are complex beings with a myriad of circuits, systems, and chemistries ceaselessly working together to maintain and harmonize our health and emotional well-being. Our inner talk is a constant flow of words and phrases. When these are repeated over and over again, pathways are formed in the brain, then “roads,” and eventually “superhighways,” which are etched into our long-term memory. This accumulation forms our beliefs, perceptions, and identity narrative.
According to neuroscience research, words activate the same neuro networks in the brain as the actual experience the words describe; the brain doesn’t distinguish between them. Yet our brains have a bias toward remembering negatives, an innate response meant for our safety and survival.
According to Lewis Mehl Madrona, MD, PhD, author of Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self-Transformation through Story, “Hearing a word activates memories of all experiences linked to that word.” The words we use and events we experience form stories that become embedded in our memories and can keep us stuck in negative emotional and physical patterns. We become what we think about. We can, however, remove the blocks that hold us back by changing our language and stories.
Our minds do not store memories like books in a library. Rather, our memories are stored along with their emotional connections, which are felt in the body. We tend to blame the body for chronic problems such as neck and back pain and digestive problems, even when these are often diagnosed as being “all in your head.” According to Dr. Madrona, they are. This is not to negate the pain we feel or a possible medical condition. However, real pain is not entirely physical or mechanical but is actually perception, as the receptors for pain are located in the brain. The more attention we give to pain, the more we complain about it, and the more we expect to feel it, the more we will experience it. The issues of our lives show up in the tissues of our bodies.
We are not the sole composer of our life story. “But we are the interpreter,” says professional storyteller and humorist Kevin Kling. Born with a disabled arm, at age 44 Kling was in a motorcycle accident resulting in the loss of his other arm and almost his life. His process of recovery forced him to reinterpret his life and find a new story. He says that when we are born with a loss, we grow from it. When we experience loss later, we grow toward it. We are still the old person but need to reframe the old to integrate with the new.
Our keywords and stories become like old friends, even though they have not all been kind to us. I often experience writer’s block. My inner voice shouts, “I’m not a writer” and other negative thoughts. This probably stems from my distant past of always wanting to be perfect for my mother, yet often falling short.
Research for this article has provided me with new perspectives on the default mode of brain functioning, which is activated with wakeful rest, such as meditation, daydreaming, and envisioning the future. Tasks and goals deactivate this mode. So it’s not only okay to take breaks, relax, or goof off, it’s what our mind-body requires. I’m now composing a new story about myself as a writer that does not require perfection.
The mind fills in memory gaps to help us make sense of the past. However, in the process of recalling our past, selectivity, distortion, and embellishment help fill these gaps. We can’t change the actual events of our story, but we can work within the gaps and change the language, nuances, and emphasis. We can find new detail and meaning to integrate into our narrative. We can reframe it and view it from different perspectives, which can change our relationship to it. The parts that don’t serve us begin to fall away while a new variation of the story comes to life.
A woman I’ll call Doris came to me for help in finding ways to experience more ease in her life. Though she’s been in a challenging long-term marriage, she is committed to improving her relationship with her spouse. She had chosen an email address that she thought reflected her toughness in the face of adversity, ToughLoveAtWork. I pointed out that two of the words, “tough” and “work,” do not register as “ease” in the brain and suggested she consider creating a new address and a new story.
Dr. Madrona offers many approaches to transforming our stories, including putting them in writing and then transforming them into fiction. He suggests that we determine a story’s plot, characters, heroes, villains, and when and how suffering occurs. We might first write a first-person narrative, then change it to the third person, giving characters names like Migraine, Impatience, Love, or other keywords that deeply affect us. Then we might try rewriting it substituting animals for humans, which can provide an entirely new perspective and be great fun. It’s helpful to read our various stories out loud to a friend or professional to get feedback and help us gain fresh insight.
Once you’ve written your stories, look for themes and evaluate what aspects you wish to keep. You may decide to change the plot and the characters in it. Most important, determine the keywords that match how you want to live your life.
Three of my keywords are curiosity, creativity, and compassion. What are yours?