from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 3 April 2016

the power of story

My major focus on this blog, as in my work for a while now, is frequently on the connections between the world of imagination and our place in the rest of the natural world, and how we sit at the axis linking the two.

Specifically, I'm interested in how the imagination can help us revision our relationship to all that is, and appreciate the enchantment that is, arguably, a natural part of that relationship to each other, this amazing planet, and the cosmos.

So often, the imagination in relation to the outdoors takes the shape of poetry or a poetic response (the latter being applied equally to a worldview and to other forms of writing, not just poetry). This is, of course, partly because of my own passion, and partly because the kind of attentive looking and listening and being still that is required for a soul relationship lends itself most easily to poetic exploration and expression.

And then I come back to story, which is a kind of bedrock. It sits at the heart of much of the work I do with others, and obviously is integral to the novel writing course I've been leading since the early 90s (my first 20-session face-to-face course was featured in The Guardian some time last century). As far as we know, humans have always woven story from their experience of being alive; orally before writing; pictorially, perhaps, alongside.

I have written many many times, probably on here and certainly in various of my articles and books, on the healing power of story; the way it can help with our struggles to learn and integrate and grow.

I believe that the act of telling a story, even if its genesis is not (obviously) in our own life, is in itself a healing act. The act of telling a story from our own life magnifies the healing potential 10, 20, times. If we then take the time to write it, reflect on it, digest it, some psychological wisdom is invited in.

My early workshops in 1991, just after I'd finished a counselling training in Transpersonal Psychology and incorporating work I'd done with archetypal motifs in myth, specifically Celtic, in my degree course, were called 'Personal Mythology – myth as metaphor'. The intention was to identify and move beyond the unconscious pull of patterns of belief, or specific experiences, that held us back from being all we are capable of being.

In them we worked with the stories of our lives by discovering archetypal themes that allowed us three things: to put our own stories in a larger collective context; to gain enough perspective on a story to enable us to see how we limit ourselves and also, conversely, the strengths, or gifts, we have; and to rewrite the stories of our lives. 

Some call this kind of work narrative therapy. Indeed, it is; but it's more than that, for me; it's soul-work (or the task of the growth-oriented psyche, if you prefer). Through it, we compost, sow, nurture, feed, weed and prune our inner gardens, gently choosing the shape we want our lives to take.

Storymaking (the name of my novel course, but I mean this broadly here) is a way of digesting, processing, incorporating, the events of our outer lives so that they become, and feed, healthy aspects of our inner lives.

Jungian James Hillman says: '...a simple narrative, just a story, is not enough to make soul... An event becomes an experience, moves from outer to inner, is made into soul, when it goes through a psychological process, when it is worked upon by the soul in any of several ways...' He goes on to say that a story remains 'only the outer history of emotional events, like a crowd of yellow daffodils, unless it be recollected in tranquillity, put through a psychological operation, such as the soul itself compels to.'

Speaking the story is one way. Writing it out is a second. Making a complete story, a poem, a piece of music, or a piece of art, is another, as is dreaming, daydreaming, around it. Letting the images in it speak their individual story offers another way. Entering psychoanalysis or some forms of psychotherapy is beneficial.

The creative imagination can ferment the raw starting point into a fine wine from what would otherwise be decaying fruit.

I was reminded of the importance of all this, all the ways of working with story, specifically our own story, at a day workshop I led in Cornwall recently. Rather desperately trying to connect the disparate needs of a mixed group of poets, novelists and people who just wanted to write, I thought I'd work with personal life stories partly fictionalised. 

Once upon a time I used to lead weekend workshops called 'Stranger than Fiction', and I took some ideas from this. To start, I asked people to share a particular story, a dramatic incident, from their own lives with one other group member, who then 'reported back' to the larger group. Each member then took the story that had most affected them, and reworked it as fiction.

I had forgotten the enormous potency of this kind of work. At the end of the session, everyone was flying: moved, inspired, uplifted and encouraged by this process of sharing and recreating. I didn't use this word, but it seemed to me that a group healing had taken place: no one was speaking in tongues but the inner fires were palpable!

For me, it was a delight, especially during a time when I have been doing some battle behind the scenes with environmental campaigning which seems at times just absolutely bloody hopeless against the entrenched collective selfish focus on the profits of corporate greed, and individual narcissism wedded to personal comfort no matter what the cost – and of course we all fall into that trap in our materialistic culture – to see such positive responses, and to remember that some ailments, some ailments of the soul, individual and collective, can be addressed by those of us willing to do the work. We each have the power to explore and start to heal our own ailments through a very simple act: that of looking at our stories. Then, then, maybe we have the chance of adding our paltry drop to the bigger ocean.

So I have decided I need to put more of these kinds of narrative therapy, stories from life, workshops into my programme, beginning, I hope, with two non-residential days in Devon in the autumn. More on that anon; but meantime, I invite you to write out an incident from your own life; try writing it in the 3rd person; give it a beginning, a middle and an end; and, if you can, share it with someone you trust.

NB: the counsellor in me needs to add: please don't do this with deeply traumatic or upsetting material unless you are certain you can cope with it, or preferably have professional support. In any case, if you are at the moment feeling sensitive or vulnerable, either save this practice for another time, or make a contract with a friend to do this together; OR choose a 'happy' incident that will remind you of the gifts in your life.


* The beautiful horses in the picture above are in the stunning painted caves of Pech-Merle in Southwest France, a place I find enormously inspiring every time I visit. There is a story upon story here, though you have to look and listen with the right eyes and ears. The image comes from their website.

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