The only reality we experience is the one we create with our own minds. Our reality is not a series of disjointed, random events; it is a cohesive narrative that we create and to which we assign meaning. What we perceive as our reality can only come from whatever arises within our consciousness. The only things that arise within consciousness are our thoughts and sensations. Sensations are perceived from both external and internal sources, with some of the internal sensations forming the basis of our emotions, and in turn, our feelings as we translate the physical sensations into experiences such as "happiness" or "sadness." Our reality is experienced as a sum of our reactions to our thoughts and feelings. External circumstances only guide our reality insofar as they elicit a reaction from us. The awareness that our reality is shaped by our reactions to our thoughts and sensations is crucial if we want to understand our role in changing the narrative.
To bend your mind a little bit more, consider how your reactions don't just occur in response to external events, but you react to your reactions as well. This is the basis of second-derivative suffering, in which we go through a painful event and then experience continued suffering because we suffered the first time.
Sit with this thought for a moment: Who is it that suffers from the event? And who is it that continues to suffers after?
Much of human misery is self-generated based on the narrative of events that we tell ourselves. It might not be easy to accept that we are the creators of the vast majority of our suffering, but through practices like meditation, we can make non-judgmental observations about our own experiences. When we do, we start to see that most of the meaning we give to our lives comes from subconscious programming that we were never responsible for learning in the first place. We downloaded these programs from our early caregivers and they continue to operate until we become aware of them later in life and consciously replace them.
It makes sense in a way that this is how things are - humans are born far earlier than other mammals because our heads are too big for the birth canal, essentially causing us to be born "cognitively premature." In the years after we are born, our external environment and family life serve as a second "womb", shaping our brain's development. Whereas most other mammals don't have this extended period of external programming after they are born, our brains elicit theta and alpha frequencies (the same frequencies elicited in hypnotic states) up until around age 7, allowing us to be like sponges soaking up everything around us, whether it's productive or not. This susceptibility likely served an important evolutionary function similar to imprinting in early humans, because it would have allowed the young to effortlessly adopt practices and roles of their tribes that were mostly centered around procuring food, reproduction, rest and play. However, as cognitive evolution progressed to the point of creating dysfunctional beliefs based on fictions and myths (and I do believe this is "progression," as the ability to believe in stories is unique to humans) like patriarchy and classism, combined with the formation of larger communities supported by agriculture that increased the spread of dysfunctional beliefs, young children would be at a significant disadvantage. The brain in infancy and childhood cannot choose which beliefs to internalize; it will merely absorb and replicate what it perceives. The perceptions of young children will go on to form the basis of their reality, from their very identities to how they navigate and process events as adults. Unfortunately for most of us today, adults are rarely aware of the impact they have on developing minds. In fact, most adults are still living out their own dysfunctional programming from their childhoods the whole time they are rearing children of their own.
This means that for almost all of us, we will grow up unconsciously sabotaging our well-intentioned efforts to live functional lives. While this isn't our "fault" per se, continuing to allow dysfunctional programs to operate perpetuates pain for ourselves and others. Regardless of our early programming, we are accountable for the pain we create once we reach adulthood. The key to changing these subconscious programs is to first observe our reactions, as well as our reactions to our reactions. We don't need to interpret or judge at this level; we merely notice what we are thinking and feeling. Doing this allows us the opportunity to recognize from where our beliefs, thoughts and feelings might arise. The space we create in this process is just enough to become aware that the narrative we have been telling ourselves about our reality doesn't actually come from us. We never chose it. Instead, we absorbed the basis for our current identity and story from our childhoods.
Next, we must accept that as adults, it is up to us to regain control of the narrative. This cannot be a theoretically acceptance. It is not enough to nod one's head yes and agree on paper that we are in control. We must directly experience that this is true. There is only one way that I know of to consciously arrive at such an experience: through a consistent meditation practice. Otherwise, we are left hoping to have a mystical encounter along the way where this could be learned somewhat spontaneously, or we will undergo such significant trauma that once we hit rock bottom, we might finally find the truth there. Neither of those seem like great options to me when the alternative is so much easier.
My sincere hope is that with this perspective, we can learn that when something "good" or "bad" happens, even when we claim it's 100% out of our control, that we acknowledge that we are still the ones creating 100% of our reactions to it. This is an enormous responsibility. It is painful at first and easy to avoid, especially if we have a lot of dysfunctional programming that needs to be unlearned. It requires an upfront investment in accountability with the faith that the return will be far greater. But what other investment is worth making than the one that informs our entire reality?