Thursday, December 1, 2011


"Most people equate the imagination with unreality. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we consider imagination is a reality beyond the normal world." So wrote author Ted Andrews in his book, Animal Speak.

Every truly creative breakthrough -- in art, science, and life -- involves an imaginative leap -- often through apparently unrelated metaphor. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, held imaginary dialogues with the polio virus that helped him crack the genetic code of this virus. Thanks to Salk's playing around with character and story, polio has been virtually wiped out in the world.

Einstein doodled and came up with the theory of relativity. Early in his career, Bob Dylan found songs in montages of Civil War headlines that he poured over in the periodicals room of the New York Public Library.

Your work and life can be transformed in the same way. Metaphor -- whether poetic, narrative, visual, melodic, dramatic, or dance-inspired -- is the language of the Threshold. This is the space between the known and the possible, the half-lit place where sudden and profound change can happen, the ground of transformation.

What we call miracles are actually breakthroughs into this larger reality in which we live and rarely see. Except through our imagination.

So be not afraid to imagine the life, the work of art, the job, the mate you want. Doodle everywhere all the time, be open to the stories unfolding everywhere around you, write fairy tales, dance your dreams. (Same goes for disappointments: pain quiets, perspective changes when given safe, structured, creative expression.) Sing the song of your deepest self.


Here's the master's -- Leonardo da Vinci's -- recipe for breakthrough thinking and living. For this list, I gratefully acknowledge Michael Gelb's lively book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, (Thorsons, 1998).

Keep an insatiably curious approach to life.

Persist; be willing to learn from mistakes.

Practice continual refinement of your senses through art and nature.


Embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

Maintain a balance between logic and imagination.

Cultivate grace, flexibility, fitness, and poise.


Recognize and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things.


Which attitude listed above most resonates today? Your intuition may be guiding you to what wants to emerge in your life now. This is your fertile ground for growth and change. Turn the English words into a first sentence and start writing...!


And buy the book. It's a great read and a terrific holiday gift!

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rites of Return: Helping Our Warriors Come Home

Every year I post this special article in honor of our warriors -- those who have returned, those who still serve, those who will never return.

No one has described the challenge of homecoming for combat veterans better than U.S. Army chaplain, Fr. Sean Levine (OCA). Speaking at a conference on integrative therapies for vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Fr. Sean poignantly described the loneliness of return and the need for transitional programs to help veterans tell their stories of war, grieve their losses, and begin the arduous process of rebuilding a true warrior identity.

Ironically, veterans' alienation is exacerbated by the speed of their return. One moment a soldier is packing up in their barracks in Baghdad or Kabul and nine hours later they're sitting on the couch in their living room. That's the beginning of the new war for a veteran -- arriving home with a knowledge of things about which home doesn't want to know. Just a few decades ago, soldiers coming home from war traveled on ships, a voyage that took a couple of weeks. During that time they shared their stories, cried together, and began the healing process.

Fr. Sean described the first 36 hours at home as ecstatic. Back in the familiar embrace of family, the veteran can barely believe he or she made it. Then comes the crash. Bodies have rejoined; stories have not. The veteran is no longer the same husband and father, wife and mother that they were before deployment. War has changed them -- forever. The family has changed too, learning to cope without the deployed member, with the spouse who stayed and even the children taking over many of the roles and authority of the absent one.

Within the barracks, the family had become safe and reassuring figures on a computer screen -- anchors, familiar and loving. But now in their midst, without the military structures of war, filled with a jumble of emotions, grief, memories, and a growing anxiety, a veteran may even wish at times to be back in combat. Instead, they repress the storm and try to get on with life.

Desperation grows, until one night a 6-year-old tugs at a pants leg once too often, and the veteran throws a plate. Breakdown begins.


"They have arrived from hell, old before their time, initiates among innocents," writes the late James Hillman in his book, A Terrible Love of War. (Hillman, a Jungian psychotherapist and scholar, and founder of archetypal psychology, died last Thursday, October 27.)

Post-traumatic stress disorder
is a misnomer, writes Hillman. In fact, the trauma of war is not "post" -- but present; an indelible condition in the soul; a living ghost in the bedroom, at the lunch counter, on the highway. The "disorder" is the remnants of war carried home to a society where there's no place for expression, release, or witness; no platform on which to rebuild; only a culture whose language and psychology are inadequate to the ordeal from which they have returned.

One of the reasons for so much of the ongoing maladaptive behavior of Vietnam vets, writes trauma psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, in his books Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, was just this: a lack of communalized witness. With no one to whom they could tell their stories, help them grieve their lost innocence, or witness their rehumanization, Vietnam vets -- as have so many veterans before them -- became the archetypal orphans of our culture.

Yet Hillman also writes about the ambiguous nature of war. Alongside the horror and death, the aliveness; the transcendent, almost religious experience of what is best in human beings: courage, self-sacrifice, altruism, and being part of something greater than self. He quotes a World War II veteran: “My combat experience was the most meaningful part of my life. I have never felt so alive, before or since.”

How can people who have been through experience at the furthest -- even mythic -- edge of life begin to fit back into an ordinary world? How do they find their way back into families, jobs, communities that knew them as a person they once were, but that no longer exists?

Not possible, says Hillman. "A veteran cannot complete an intact return from combat until he or she undergoes some kind of detoxification as long and thorough as the ritual of boot camp training -- a rite of return."

There's not room here to describe the work of Soldier's Heart, developed by Edward Tick, Ph.D. and Kate Dahlstedt, MACP. This program provides a unique model to address the emotional, moral, and spiritual wounds of veterans and their families. Tick's excellent book, War and the Soul, explores ancient and cross-cultural warrior traditions that facilitate successful warrior return. The Soldier’s Heart Model applies these traditions to heal the effects of war.
by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.


by Eva Usadi, MA, BCD

This program from Trauma and Resiliency Resources is one of the many innovative and holistic programs designed to embrace our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and reservists without further wounding them. We know that the way in which a trauma survivor is responded to and cared for in the aftermath of the trauma is, at times, more significant to their healing than the original event or events. Trauma rarely happens in isolation. With combat soldiers in particular, trauma happens in the context of a highly disciplined, cohesive, interdependent group. For this reason, healing needs to involve the acceptance of a group, not only of fellow soldiers, but also of civilians who are able to listen without judgment, bear witness, and ultimately shoulder some of the guilt and blame so that the warrior does not need to carry it alone.

The mission of Warrior Camp is to create an environment in which the trauma of war can be addressed. The camps are week-long retreats located in serene and secluded locations that foster the development of a close-knit community within which healing can occur. They include a healthy balance of trauma therapy, relaxation and leisure activities.

Group activities consist of modified debriefings or meetings, team building activities, writing workshops, equine assisted psychotherapy, yoga, and hikes or other sports. Participation in individual treatment, while strongly recommended, is always on a voluntary basis. Individual treatments include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) sessions, massage therapy, private yoga instruction, and private equine assisted psychotherapy.


Photo by Susan Bloom
The application of equine assisted psychotherapy to the treatment of traumatized individuals, including and especially combat veterans, is a new and important development. Exposure to traumatic events produces a massive upheaval in the arousal system. Many trauma symptoms express themselves as either hyper or hypo nervous system response. A few of these are irritability and anger, sleep disruption, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response.

The other system that is disrupted with multiple traumas, trauma of extended duration or that which is interpersonally inflicted is the attachment system. This gives rise to many of the symptoms now considered to be complex trauma, some of which are impaired relationships with family and friends, a generalized social withdrawal, and a loss of previously sustaining beliefs, among others. Working in close proximity to horses seems to be of extraordinary help in addressing these issues. There are a few reasons this is so:

1. Horses live in the present moment. They respond to what is and to intention. Interacting with them teaches mindfulness, which can be a window into reclaiming life as it is lived in the here and now.

2. Horses are active. Working with them necessitates movement and grounding, which decreases arousal and dissociation. Mindfulness, grounding, movement and working in the present moment all increase the individual's capacity to experience the present rather than responding to the traumatic past.

3. Horses are social animals. Their natural curiosity and playfulness is, at times, so powerful as to supersede their interest in food. Being invited to interact with them overcomes isolation and supports people's interest in novelty. This helps to re-engage the frontal lobes, increasing the capacity to think.

Many of the veterans we have worked with have noticed that the horses are acutely attentive to and aware of them, and have found this profoundly comforting.

The pilot decompression camp will be held at Gardnertown Farms in Newburgh, NY. If you are a warrior in need of support or know of someone who might benefit from this experience, please contact Trauma and Resiliency Resources for dates and application process.

TRR is currently seeking funding for Warrior Camp. If you would like to be a benefactor for this program, please contact us through our web site. Thank you so very much for your support.

(close-up horse photo by Susan Bloom, Bloom Studio,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding Your Tribe

The Second Question: “Can I take care of myself or am I dependent on others for my survival?”

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the first question of life, "Am I safe?" on my blog. It was the first in a series of posts on using the developmental stages of life as defined by the psychologist Erik Erickson to understand the story you are living and to help you find your tribe -- those who support and uplift you and who need your unique qualities to support and uplift them. Tribe -- your grid of aligned and empathic others. Tribe, as in the African word "Ubuntu": "I am through you."

I knew for some time that the struggles I was having with money had less to do with my attitudes about money itself, or even my sense of self-esteem, than with some deeper story that was replaying throughout my life. If I were to draw a portrait of my life, it would be an endless series of mountains and valleys, high peaks and deep abysses -- boring and sad in its predictability. Soaring, often unexpected success followed by a painful crash into the bushes -- usually financial -- that broke the continuity of my life, requiring me to scramble around picking up the pieces and blocking timely completion of whatever writing or business project I was working on at the moment. Over and over, I had to start over -- never really getting traction, never really moving, never able to establish solid ground from which to grow.

It was when I began to realize that this continuous pattern was in fact a deeply buried narrative playing and replaying in a vulnerable area of my life, and work with it as a story, that I was able to dissolve that pattern from the deepest inside out. What did working with it as a story mean? This:
1. Looking for the solution beyond childhood wounds and applying the classic hero's journey, which lays out in story terms the dramatic arc of growing up, to my own life;
2. Writing, as an adult, personal stories based on the questions a child must resolve for him/herself to arrive whole at the threshold of adulthood;
3. Writing my own fairy tales (metaphorical journeys through crisis, struggle, and transformation) inspired by the conflict between autonomy and dependence;
4. Translating the metaphorical story into concrete world actions.

What I saw clearly lacking in my childhood through the lens of story was not love, but the ability to mentor, that is, to:
1. Provide a positive holding environment where the word "failure" didn't exist, and the words, "You did it!" acknowledged the smallest accomplishments and the courage for trying;
2. Model skills in a way that child body and brain could imitate them;
3. Show how to take small, incremental steps toward autonomy and celebrate each one;
4. Believe in my capacity to do it;
5. And most importantly, the ability to recognize the creative swan in the troublesome duckling -- to see and nurture my inherent gifts rather than chop away at them so I would fit into a preexisting mold of what a girl should be.

Traditional storytellers use metaphorical tales that speak directly to the unconscious mind to diagnose the root of a problem in a suffering person and then tell curative stories to heal it. My curative tales seemed always to concern someone who possessed a dangerous knowledge and had to find a way out of a tower or castle where they had been imprisoned. The how was where the suspense of the story and the clues to my own needs were buried. I would write these tales and hold them in my mind. Eventually, from within, my entire life changed, taking on a different quality altogether. I found myself making different choices, new opportunities were offered, and new kinds of clients started arriving in my office. The question itself dissolved rather than being answered.

Core stories represent the neural pathways laid down in our brains at the beginning of life, which filter perception and create experience until pathways become trenches and it's hard to even imagine another way. But we can change the actual architecture of the brain and change the story of our life.

The Little Warrior and the Power of “No”

The conflict between autonomy and dependence is rooted in the second phase of life, which generally begins at 18 months and lasts until the age of three -- that time known as the "terrible two's." By a year and a half, a distinct child is beginning to emerge from the helpless infant totally dependent on others for his/her survival. The great dramatic question of this stage of life, which will be echoed each time that child (and later, the adult) steps into a new and unfamiliar environment, is: “Can I take care of myself or am I dependent on others?” Positive outcomes of this stage are self-control, courage, and will -- qualities that will be needed for the next preschool stage, the age of play, as well as for success in adulthood.

One task in this second phase of life is to learn how to become little warriors for ourselves -- to take care of and protect our emerging self. Toddler rebellion may be pain for parents, but it develops important skills of the will, courage, and personal boundaries. In a nourishing holding environment made safe by the atmosphere of unconditional love and joy in the child's mere existence, no matter what, a child learns not only to talk, feed him/herself, finer motor development including toilet training, but also self-reliance and resilience. In short, during this stage, a child is learning how to learn and how to take strategic risks.

In an unloving, neglectful, or dysfunctional family, if a child is ridiculed or humiliated in the process of toilet training or in learning other important self-care skills, he or she may feel great shame and doubt their capabilities to go forward. Low self-esteem, confusion, paralysis, and the inability to learn can result. Highly restrictive parents may fill the child with a reluctance to attempt new challenges. On the other hand, if caregivers demand too much too soon, a child may develop a core story that they're helpless to handle problems.

So resilient are children, however, that one positive adult somewhere in that child’s world can be the lifeline that child needs to make it to the next stage. This is where the existence of healthy mentors -– in or out of the immediate family -– can be so influential on a child’s development.

What's your story?

1. You probably don't remember anything from that time, but you may be able to remember the house in which you lived, your parents and extended family. Memories are stored in the senses. List 10 sensory memories you have from early childhood. Pick one or two that stand out for you and free-write for 10 minutes. Let your imagination roam free; don't even limit your writing to your own life. Don't worry about writing the "truth." Let the words on the page lead you beyond conscious memory to a deeper kind of truth.

2. Every parent, teacher, and adult who works with children is a mentor -- for good or ill. How many musicians and painters, for example, were tutored early in life by someone who recognized a possible gift in the 4-year-old? And how many violent criminals were "coached" in skills of preemptive strikes by a father, older brother, or other family member? Can you name the most important mentors in your life? When did they show up in your life? What challenge were you grappling with at that time? How did they help you? What was the gift you gained from them? What do you think they would say that you gave them? Thinking in terms of story structure – beginning, middle, and end; environment; characters’ and their desires; and situation, write a short tale about a mentoring relationship. Begin with "Once there was a ...." and let the words lead you, always keeping in the back of your mind the basic road map of story: Crisis, Struggle, and Transformational Realization.

3. Finally, are you a mentor? If you're a parent, teacher, therapist, or coach, you definitely fall within the mentor archetype. Can you give what you've got and then let go? Write a short piece about someone whom you're mentoring, what you hope for them, what gifts you see in them, what you feel them asking of you.

(Note: My October newsletter has the complete list of Erickson's developmental stages.)

© 2011, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved. This post is from my forthcoming book, A Write of Passage: How to Recreate Your Life through Telling Your Story. This is the companion book to my Write of Passage course.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Chaos and Creation

Forging Wholeness from Crisis through Story

Hurricanes come in many forms. A breast cancer patient whose sexuality was attached to her beautiful face and figure. A newly single woman broken free from her umpteenth relationship with an unavailable man. A talented writer, shamed by his creativity as a child, anguished in his job as an arts non-profit administrator. A single mother tries to build a business while caring for her infant; another is torn between keeping her life going in one city while caring for an elderly parent in another.

What these people need is more than "reinvention." They need rebirth. Almost every counseling client who comes to me, no matter what their particular issue, has a similar need: they want, or are being forced by life, to change their deepest concept about who they are and what life holds for them. Change not just their beliefs and attitudes, but their assumptions about life, patterns of thought and behavior, habitual relationships, and their core identity -- to create a new story. Not so easy. No longer the person they were but not yet the person they will be, they must cross that painful threshold between worlds and lives, and endure the conflicts, grief, confusion, and fear at being unmoored in the void.

Increasingly, mainstream psychologists understand wellness not as "happiness" or conformity with an established norm, but as the ability to tell a coherent narrative about one's life. Telling your story as the storyteller and witness, not only as the victim, can help you integrate negative experience, find the ways you survived and prevailed, and discover more about what happened, who you were, and who you became.

As Hurricane Irene raged outside my windows, I read Pema Chodron's book, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness. She writes, "There's a common misunderstanding among all humans who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just get comfortable. A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach is to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet."

In other words, no chaos; no creation. In my September newsletter, I offer a Sufi tale, "Fatima the Spinner and the Tent," which is the long and arduous journey to ultimate happiness of a woman whose life is continually thrown off course by shipwrecks, kidnappings, every possible kind of disaster and loss. I also offer suggested narrative and other expressive exercises for working with this story. In addition, I feature an article on Qigong -- the ancient practice of dance stories that is the basis of Chinese healing and martial arts -- and that can help to relieve the stress of change and loss that manifests in bodily symptoms.


Creating Coherence in Modern Life Through the Lens of Ancient Myth

In providing a container for us to work out our conflicts, release our fears, express our best and worst selves and the best and worst of our loved ones in metaphor, story assures us that we can find a path to our inner, most essential life and return refreshed, re-formed, to reality. We won't get lost because story structure doesn't get lost: it takes us into the depths of the forbidden forest or enables us to look at the ancient drawings on the walls of the deepest cave and returns us safely home again. Through the fantasy of story we gain an intimacy with inner life that reality blocks and emerge more able to handle reality as a result.

Here's a story lens for taking a fresh and redemptive look at the sometimes harsh journey we must take in life:

1. Story has a beginning -- a “Once Upon a Time” that sets the scene, but more importantly, opens the door to an adventure.

What was your "normal"? What was life like "before"? Think in terms of story elements: environment and atmosphere, characters, situations, conflicts, desires.

2. A misfortune or surprising event throws everything into confusion and sets people wandering around lost and in need of help.

These big shatterings can be happy too! Falling in love, winning a prize, getting a coveted job, publishing a book. What was the effect on you and your world?

3. A character steps up to the task of solving the problem.

What action did you or another take to set things right or to follow up on a stroke of good luck?

4. Another character, group, situation or natural obstacle that opposes the new resolution, that wants to keep things the way they are for their own interests.

Who or what opposed you? An obstacle can be an illness, a habit, addiction, cultural standard, or a corrupt system, just as it can be a person.

5. A journey or a task the main character undertakes to solve the problem. Usually it takes three attempts. The first two fail, but with each failure the character grows in strength, wit, tenacity, and intelligence.

This is the long transformational struggle to fix the problem, oneself, become a dancer, or write the book. What was the time frame of your struggle. Where were the peaks and valleys, the places of breakthrough and growth? In story and life, there's often a point of surrender. Nothing has worked. This is when we finally become receptive to the wise help that's likely been there all along, but that we were unable to see through the veil of will. Did you have such a moment? Are you now experiencing surrender? Who or what did you turn to?

6. The climax – where the main character defeats the enemy and claims the grail, medicine, greater knowledge that doesn’t just fix but transforms the situation.

What was the inner grail -- the gift of this experience? How did you change and grow as a person? What was the outer grail?

7. The hero/heroine returns with the grail along an equally arduous road, and if they succeed in being accepted (not a given, part of the heroic journey) end this adventure with a celebration in which healing is restored to the kingdom and the land and its creatures begin to thrive once again.

Ultimately, the gifts we gain are not ours to keep. We're meant to share the wisdom or power gained on the hero's or heroine's journey with our families, communities, and world at large. Who and how can you now serve?


We unconsciously create outer lives that reflect the inner stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can expect. These stories were planted within us as children and early experience. When life is shaken out and we're left with the essentials, we learn what we really value and who we really are. In that sense, chaos is one face of an angel, the frightening one. In the darkest times, ask whatever higher power you believe in for help. You've seen the dark face of the angel, now ask to be shown the light.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Watering Holes: Where Story Began and Why It Heals

“I feel different,” said one of the women at the end of a recent story group. "I’m relaxed and refreshed, in a totally different state of mind than I was when I came in tonight.“ At another group, the same words, almost verbatim: "I came in exhausted from work and didn’t know how I was going to get through this evening. Now, I’m completely energized. This is so powerful.” We each agreed: amazing how refreshing this story circle has been for all of us, me included. The mood was up as we each made our way into the hot Manhattan night.

No matter where I have brought story circles, this same quality of relaxation, refreshment, and renewal -- transcendence is a good word -- has flowed. Whether it’s been in a midtown Manhattan office building, a prison day room, a homeless shelter, a hospital cancer unit, a clinic for teens with HIV/AIDS, a post-9/11 first responder treatment center -– environments filled with trauma, stress, fear, depression, and isolation within crowds -- people relax; their voices become stronger; strangers bond intimately; life force flows; and profound healing occurs.

Storytelling is the oldest and most healing form of human interaction. When we tell and listen to certain kinds of stories, we literally step out of our ordinary selves and into a larger, non-ordinary consciousness. It's here that the healing, breakthroughs, epiphanies, and the unexpected events we call "miracles" happen first before they manifest in our outer lives.

These stories open pathways to our primitive limbic brain -- beneath and surrounding our thinking brain -- which holds our ability to feel and to attach with others. It's sometimes called shamanic or right-brain consciousness or Source intelligence. Describing the sophistication of alleged primitive consciousness, the environmental philosopher David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World, writes that early humans lived directly in the natural world, engaging intimately with the larger community of beings upon which villages depended for nourishment and sustenance. "It is only as a result of her continual engagement with the ancient powers that dwell beyond human community that the traditional magician is able to alleviate many individual illnesses that arise within that community....His magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations -- songs, cries, gestures -- of the larger, more-than-human field."

In the same way, storytelling teaches us how to collaborate and co-create with our experience rather than try to control it. Over and over, in my 16 years' experience, an image, character, or situation in a fairy tale or myth makes a connection or opens a blockage at a level of a listener's psyche that is inaccessible to their rational mind and ordinary language. Sometimes unimaginable transformations in mood, behavior, and life flow from this opening that happens between a story and a listener.

My observation is supported by science. Harvard researcher Gregg Jacobs writes in his book, Ancestral Mind: Reclaim the Power, that experiences of beauty –- in nature, art, music, and images in poetry and story -– actually trigger genetic memories of places of refuge and nourishment in the ancient world in which we evolved. These deep limbic memories induce calm and a feeling of well-being, when the world was full of information, fresh, unbounded, magical, and alive. Call it beginner's mind or child's mind. Jacobs calls this transcendent state Ancestral Mind.

BIRDS – the First Storytellers

An ancient dawn. The sky is streaked a soft pink announcing the arrival of the sun at the horizon. A lush landscape of trees, bushes, flowers surrounding a watering hole or small lake. Animals of every variety lap its waters.

From the branches, birds call out to their fellows in repetitive rhythmic and melodic patterns. Across miles and generations, birds call each other to places of refuge, where they can build their nests and continue their species.

Into a morning like this some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, a parched human being wandered, drawn by these bird calls. He bent down at the edge of the cool water, drank, and listened…

Over centuries of listening to these avian melodies, long before humans became verbal creatures, they learned how to communicate with each other by carving flutes from the bones of dead animals and imitating the songs of birds. Over thousands of years, as our ancestors gained the ability to form words, these melodies evolved into songs.

As humans strove to make meaning of existence, songs evolved into the oral narratives we know as stories. Gathered around fires under the stars in the vast night of early life, storytellers sang stories to explain the mysteries of birth, suffering, and death. These story-songs offered refuge and nourishment, light and hope, and guidance for survival.

So story began in song: songs of creation; songs of praise to appease the unseen powers that sent storms and droughts; songs to the sun so it would rise the next day; songs that taught and mourned; songs that delighted and entertained. Images, characters, and plot lines emerged out of the chaos of experience, as human beings imagined and created civilizations.

Modern story circles help us access this vast repository of human intelligence so intimately connected to the natural world.

Story as Medicine

“There is something about seeing, hearing, and smelling the ocean that has bypassed the ego, and straightened out many things that were in disarray within the psyche. Story has that same kind of influence. It flows where it is needed, and applies itself there -– like an antibiotic that finds the source of infection and concentrates there. The story helps make that part of the psyche clear and strong again.” -- Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

My approach to story is modeled on ancestral tradition. I developed it originally in a prison maximum security unit for mentally ill men to distinguish my groups from clinical therapy, moralizing spiritual fellowships, and teaching. I wanted to create an environment where the imagination could flow, where every member was equal, and where "power" meant only the power to tell about their life in their own voice.

The process is simple: I define a story space through meditative music and light a storytellers’ fire -– a candle serves. Once the group is settled into a circle, I tell an "old story" -- a fairy tale or myth -- to set a safe container and a thematic launchpad for brainstorming, writing, and sharing. Then I step back and let Ancestral Mind do its work. Even when I’m working privately with a client, I situate myself in this story place, and hold it as they step in with me to view their lives through a greater, older, and wiser lens.

Like water, story is timeless, flowing across cultures, centuries, and continents to serve its purpose of healing, transforming, refreshing, and raising human consciousness. Whether we gather around an ancient fire on the African plain or in a crowded Manhattan office within a maze of air shafts, steam pipes, and exhaust ducts, "Once upon a time..." opens the path to archetypal places where we can drink, rest, and refresh ourselves for the journey ahead.

Here’s a story exercise that you can do alone or with others.
1. What are the watering holes in your life -- natural environments, relationships, activities that nourish you? What are places that have served as sanctuaries in your life? What were their colors, features, shapes. What emotions did they elicit? Who nourishes and expands you? Who gives you energy and courage? Make a map of watering holes.

2. Jot down four or five words about one of them that stands out. What word has the most energy or mystery for you? Make that your first word and then follow the words for five minutes.

3. Did you see any patterns in the places and people you choose for refuge and well-being? What do you need now for renewal?

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Gregg D. Jacobs, Ancestral Mind: Reclaim the Power, New York: Viking, 2003.

Copyright 2011. All rights reserved by Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. You may use material from this blog but please quote me when you use my words.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Am I Safe?" The First Question

Hurricane Sandy, NY Times photo, 10.28.12
Originally published in 2011, this is the first in a series of posts on life as story. As the East Coast endures under Sandy, this is a reminder that in the Big Picture all is well.

I've been thinking about how to live with some sense of safety in a world that offers very little, and how to give it to clients who come to my office in search of a place where they feel safe enough to give birth to a new story. "It takes courage to become who you really are," wrote the poet e.e. cummings. And never more so than in times when being safe can feel more important than being true -- even if that means staying in an unhappy relationship or job, or hunkering down away from your dreams.

What I keep coming back to is resilience: the capacity to transform devastating experience into something positive. The self-healing mechanism that causes someone to carry on, no matter what. The inner safety that enables you to step out into the unsafe unknown to keep giving birth to yourself. Resilient people have a self-confidence and self-esteem based not on circumstances but on their own capacity to deal with the worst life throws at them. However, living as we do in a culture that tells us pain is bad, and that the solution to our problems is out there or in the medicine cabinet, many of us have lost touch with our natural resilience.

The First Story
Each human being arrives in life as a unique being, with potentials, gifts, predilections, and contributions to make. Jung called this potential our "star," an essential spirit that exists beyond our families, our environment, and our culture. It is an essence that holds the code to our destiny if we can discern and follow its path.

The most basic needs that must be met for a person to thrive (that is, to manifest their star) are 1) safety, 2) belonging, and 3) dignity. And the very first question we ask is "Am I safe?" Our first developmental task is to answer it. This answer becomes our first and foundational story.

In their book, Ghosts in the Nursery: A Search for the Roots of Violence, Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), describe the first two years of life as the critical period for setting the neurochemistry of the brain and building a template of expectations for life -- the core story. They write, “From our first breath on our first day of life we are learning who we are. We are building a model of what to expect, who will be there, how we will be received, how safe it is out there, how we can make ourselves known and comforted. We won’t remember these early experiences, but our limbic brain remembers and our body remembers.”

If our first caregivers are consistent sources of food, comfort, and affection, we learn that others are dependable and reliable. Like flowers turning toward the sun, we turn toward people. We leave infancy with a basic sense of well-being, a core resilience no matter what life holds for us, and a foundational trust in relationships. Karr-Morse and Wiley observe that children raised in nurturing families demonstrate compassion and altruism as early as four years of age.

For all too many of us, though, the first story is a different one. For whatever reason, our parents fail to provide a secure environment and to meet our basic needs for safety, belonging, and respect. The core story is that the world is undependable, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous. No matter how earnestly we go after our goals, we may be steeling ourselves against a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and a mistrust of the world in general. We become spiritual if not actual orphans. The pace of life and the distance created by the very technology that is meant to connect us help us to hide the orphan from others and from ourselves.

Until one day, we can’t anymore: The life we’ve known falls apart. Or the inner yearning breaks through the walls we’ve erected around it. All too many adults come into my practice with an emptiness in their life that nothing can fill – not material success, pleasure, busy-ness, alcohol, drugs, traditional therapy, nothing. What I sense that they’re looking for is the missing piece of themselves that got left at the gate, back at the beginning of life -- that wasn’t loved into being.

Art and Resilience

My role as a creative healer is to create a sanctuary where adults can drop the mask for an hour or two and find their way through the hidden bi-ways of the right brain to who they really are. Freewriting, poetry, fairy tale, drawing, collaging, dancing, playing -– in these activities both my clients and I connect with a primal innocence that has nothing to do with naivete and everything to do with being fully awake to reality, within and without, and seeing the truth of existence from a light-hearted place. The Islamic poet Kabir wrote, “I wish I could show you the astonishing light of your own being.” Artmaking is the healing mirror.

In his book, Art as Medicine, the well-known expressive arts teacher Shaun McNiff wrote: “The immersion in the materials and process of art-making frees a person from their ordinary self, the familiar, rules, the system, the conscious, controlling side of their personalities. Hidden characteristics of the self shine forth. In this special space, the person experiences themselves -– beyond label, self-concept, problem. It is in this place that the person can shape new ways of being, create new life, find new direction.” Creativity reframes the question, “Am I safe?” into “What can I make?"

Researchers who have studied people who have overcome the odds, such as those coming from high-risk environments characterized by alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, violence, and poverty, have found that these people share many of the following qualities:
~ Empathy;
~ A sense of humor;
~ Resourcefulness;
~ Autonomy, internal sense of control;
~ Imagination;
~ Sense of purpose and spiritual connectedness.

For thousands of years, human beings have survived storms, earthquakes, droughts, wars, trauma, heartache, and long, dark nights of the soul by gathering together, telling stories, and making art and music. Within darkness, the stars are always shining. We just can't always see them.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, experience, and suggestions on healing story, creativity, or resilience.

Recommended Books

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Imagining Iago: The Power of Metaphor

How an Actor Turned Performance Anxiety into a Brilliant Performance through the Use of Metaphor

The actor Liev Schreiber received wonderful reviews for his portrayal of the evil trickster Iago in the NY Public Theatre’s 2001 production of Othello.

"...audiences couldn't ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber…."

"...awful and fascinating...thanks to the lucid complexity of Schreiber's performance, disturbingly real."

"...the ability to animate or embody an idea, as opposed to emblemizing it…"

"I found myself thinking, 'This guy would fool me, too.'"

The following year, Schreiber described how he created his Iago in a PBS "Great Performances" documentary. At first he found it nearly impossible to fully engage with the other actors. No matter how much direction he received, he kept finding himself circling the scene rather than dominating it from center stage, as the role is usually played. The root of this problem, Schreiber discovered, was his anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to remember all of his lines. (Iago has more lines than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s plays.)

Rather than work to “fix” or remove his anxiety, he and the director Keith David began to work with it – especially its physical manifestation of circling the scene. Together, they looked for metaphors that would combine Schreiber’s circling behavior with that of a character intent on destruction.

They came up with the image of a shark, a predator by nature that circles a group of prey until it senses vulnerability, and then strikes. Schreiber worked to embody the gliding, purposeful, predatory nature of a shark into his Iago. In the process, he lost his fear and was able to not only remember the lines, but to endow Iago with a depth and complexity uniquely his own.

He changed the story.

How to Harness the Power of Metaphor for Yourself

“Every dragon is a prince or princess yearning to be kissed,” wrote Rilke.

Is there a quality, emotion, habit in you that appears to be sabotaging your best efforts? Instead of fighting it and getting caught up in a losing battle to control, defeat, or fix it, do the opposite: work with it. Externalize it by turning it into a metaphor. Let it tell you its story through non-rational expression.

Ask yourself: What animal, god, demon, landscape, or weather expresses this quality? What would it feel like to let it inhabit your body, your voice, your words and intent?

Fully and safely express it through having an imaginary dialogue with it, movement, or visual art. Release its unique energy into whatever it's blocking. Watch it transform into something brilliant.

Change your story by fully encompassing, exploring, and embodying its depths.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

To put metaphor to work in your life, career, or relationship, contact me through my web site to set up a free introductory phone consultation.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Creativity, Compassion, and the Resilient Brain

As someone who has witnessed the amazing power of storytelling and other expressive modalities to support healing in many hundreds of people coping with the impact of childhood abuse, adult trauma, grief, severe mental illness, and depression, I'm interested in neuroplasticity, which is the term for the brain's ability to repair and rebuild itself throughout life.

(The graphic comes from

Recently I listened to a series of web conferences on this topic sponsored by the The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.

On Wednesday, April 6, 2011, Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who's well known for writing a number of books on the developing brain and the mindful brain, spoke about how early relationships shape the development of the brain, and how later experience can change it. (His web site: I'm going to share with you a summary of the notes I took during the call, with my later reflections in italics. Basically, Dr. Siegel's talk scientifically affirmed everything I've experienced in egalitarian, non-clinical, expressive arts groups.

Dr. Siegel noted that the right brain is the seat of compassion, sense of context, oneness, refreshment, and it can be accessed through creativity, exercise, and meditation. It holds the consciousness of the Ground, context, symbolic meaning, interior life, and the ability to rejuvenate and heal. The left brain -- dominant in our culture -- connects to exterior life, strategic thinking, and literal meaning. A balance of both halves of the brain is necessary for optimal functioning. In some of its aspects, healing can be understood as a journey of patient and caregivers to strengthen right brain functioning:

1. Empathy -- connecting to the inner life of another person -- has been shown to improve every physical system in the body: immune, cardiovascular, and organ systems. The more interest a doctor expresses in the inner life of a patient, i.e., how that patient experiences their illness rather than symptomology, the more likely a positive outcome. According to Dr. Siegel, THE KEY TO OPTIMAL HEALING IS THE CONNECTING INNER LIFE TO INNER LIFE [my emphasis]. This means that doctors, teachers, therapists, parents, clergy must be in touch with their own inner lives. He called it practicing medicine, parenting, marrying, etc. from the inside out.

Storytelling is the most ancient and powerful way of reciprocal sharing inner life with another. Any of the non-verbal expressive media serve the same purpose. But we're narrative creatures, seeking meaning in our experience. This is the realm of story.

2. Scientists now accept health as wholeness, integration -- a natural drive, rather than conforming to an external standard of "fitness" or "normal," as it had previously. Neural integration means the linking of fragmented parts through brain fibers that connect different neurological parts and functions. In people who suffered early neglect or abuse, these integrative fibers have been damaged and the brain is not functioning as a harmonious system. Consequently, the body's systems are not functioning harmoniously and trauma or neglect often shows up somatically.

Story making, in its very nature, creates wholeness and integration. It holds conflict in the form of characters and situations in a larger container, and allows these conflicts to play out and resolve themselves naturally as a new story emerges. As storyteller of our lives, we are also the integrating consciousness.

3. The brain regulates the movement of energy throughout the nervous system and healthy, harmonious outer relationships strengthen this function. Chaotic, draining, turbulent relationships significantly impact neurological functioning.

The healing community that forms in story groups, or any other healing relationship based on a right-brain modality (not therapy necessarily, unless it has these qualities of creativity and inner life to inner life), be it authentic movement, expressive dance, free form visual arts, music making and listening, yoga, reiki, qigong (my spiritual practice), mindfulness meditation, equine therapy, shamanic chant, etc. becomes the container that holds a person and gives their brain an integrative environment, time, and space to heal itself and the integrative fibers to regrow.

4. Humiliation, shame, bullying are assaults on the whole system. What happens in the brain is that a natural drive for wholeness and expression slams on the brakes, and the victim is left with a sense of helplessness, anger, toxic release of cortisol -- the stress hormone. It kills synaptic connections in the brain. This manifests physically as nausea, a sense of being punched in the gut, avoidance of eye contact, heaviness in the chest. Inwardly it manifests as a sense of a defective self.

Storytelling and witness gives each person a sense of safety, belonging, and dignity, so necessary to thriving.

5. We are hard-wired to sense the intention of another -- especially if they have destructive or harmful intentions toward us. The stress hormone cortisol keeps us in a state of vigilance when our right brain senses danger in a relationship. But we are out of a state of integration and flow. Long-term emotional danger has enormous physical consequences.

Working with intuition, which is strengthened by the receptivity involved in creative process, makes us even more aware and responsive to toxicity in other people and situations. In these story groups, which are built on the sensory elements of time, environment, character, situation, and storyteller -- we become very attentive to where we are, what we're doing, and the often unconscious motivations and inner lives of others. For me at this point, story -- experiencing my life as an unfolding story with myself as the witness and storyteller -- is spiritual practice.

6. Mental illness, including depression and bipolar disorder, are apparently caused by thinness or inadequacy of integration fibers between the prefrontal cortex (our center of thought and choice) and the amygdala, the part of the brain that warns of danger and controls emotions. Meditation seems to enable these fibers to rebuild. In Dr. Siegel's work, patients suffering from manic-depression became completely symptom-free when practicing meditation and the other activities on a regular basis. Even with genetically created vulnerabilities, such as alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, and illness, we can change those parts of the brain that are affected, thus moderating inherited weaknesses.

7. The practices that induce the brain to develop integration of its synapses and thickening of connecting fibers, especially between the prefrontal areas that support integration and the brain stem, which supports brain growth, are:

- meditation;
- aerobic exercise;
- Omega 3;
- originality, innovation, creativity, fresh ways of seeing things;
- paying close attention to everything coming in from the senses;
- enough sleep.

Expressive modalities - writing, dance and other expressive movement, visual art, music - create a state of healthy alertness, relaxation, and release. It feels like joy. It's the state of flow -- which is synonymous with the dynamic Self (vs. ego) delineated by ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychologists, including Jung and his followers.

8. Wholeness and integration manifests as vitality, fun, and light-heartedness.

In the mythic journey (the heart and soul of my story approach) the highest evolved archetype is the jester, who holds the whole truth of existence -- both its light and shadow -- within a non-harming joke and a good laugh.


A list of Dr. Siegel's books, provided in a follow-up e-mail by Ruth M. Buczynski, PhD, President of The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, include:

The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are;
The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being;
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation;
The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).


by Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Releasing Light in Dark Times Through Storytelling

"I saw an angel in the stone and I carved until I set him free."

No one since Michelangelo has more aptly or succinctly told the story of creative process. In one sentence, the sculptor describes its stages: encounter with raw material, receptive attention to the point of love, trusting that inner presence through the not-knowing-for-sure time, illumination, patient and committed toil, and finally manifestation in the concrete world.

So too with life. Whether we are trying to nourish the inherent strengths of a troubled young person, find deeper love in a conflicted relationship, rebuild our life after loss, create common ground between adversaries, or express ourselves in a fresh way, there is no system, structure, or formula more powerful than creative process.

In his book Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Medrona shares a Pasqua Yaqui native American tale from the southwest about an old man who owned light, but kept it hidden in a box within a box deeply buried inside his house. He was afraid that if it was released, he would discover that his daughter, who lived with him, was ugly. Writes Mehl-Madrona, "You've probably seen the same thing I have, where people are so afraid of what could happen that they hide their gifts and capabilities from themselves and each other." (p. 59)

Through a messy series of mishaps instigated by the trickster Raven, the light is eventually freed from the box, only to be dropped by Raven in his escape, shattering into millions of tiny fragments. The pieces of light hit the ground and bounce back into the sky, where they appear as the moon and stars. Raven gathers together the remaining fragments, shapes them into a ball, and carries the throbbing orb high into the sky. It shines every day as the sun, making life possible on earth.

Once the world becomes visible, the old man sees that his daughter is beautiful. There had been no reason to hide the light in the first place.

Are we not in many ways like that old man? So afraid of finding out we're not good enough that we hide who we are in boxes within boxes? Yet what the world needs more than anything in these traumatic times is for us to be exactly who we are: imperfect, vulnerable, but fully alive and radiating our life force -- the luminous heart at the center of all living things.

One way to do that is to carve away the masks and walls we erect to protect our inner selves from pain, which we learn to do very early in chldhood. To shape the fragments of images, echoes, and moments into our story -- the deep soul story that carries our passion and our purpose for being here. To release Soul into our yearning world.

Working in the metaphors of story, we relearn what we have always intuitively known: that the processes of growth, healing, and transformation mean asking not "How can I fix or change this problem?" but rather "What wants to emerge right here and now from these circumstances and from this person that I am?"

Like rocks obstructing the flow of water, obstacles in our own lives slow us down, ask us to pay close attention, look for the meaning of experience in our interior world, and ask ourselves, "How can I set the angel free?"

Find the Story of Now

Thinking now as artist, storyteller, and sculptor, ask yourself in the third person:

1. What time is it in your life, in the life of your family, your community, the world? Find a metaphor to describe your intuitive sense of time.

2. What's the external environment? And what's the mood? Landscapes and built environments mirror something important about the people who live and work there. The overall atmosphere reflects the deeper emotional context.

3. Who's there? What do they yearn for more than anything? What do they resist with all their might? What private stories do they carry that may be colliding when they interact?

4. What's a healing story plot line you can carve out of these fragments? Remember, healing story has a basic structure of crisis, struggle, unexpected and marvelous help, and transformation.

5. Now write this story line fast -- in 10 or 15 minutes. Get it down on paper. Make it real. The writer is the voice of your internal Storyteller, the voice that reframes, changes, shapes, sculpts, listens, and tells the story. This is the voice that externalizes inner conflicts, moves you out of isolation into community, and releases your light and warmth, which are so desperately needed in these times.

6. Now -- very important -- share your story with trusted others.

Start right here, right now, to open a channel for life force to flow into the world. Set the angel free.


Maya Angelou: "There's no greater agony than carrying around an untold story inside yourself."

I maintain a private practice in New York City and a long distance one by phone with clients in other cities. The journaling, storymaking, and visual arts exercises I offer along with my creative approach are extremely effective in helping you heal from:

~ unhealthy stress;
~ anxiety and depression;
~ unhappiness in a relationship;
~ separation and divorce;
~ deeply rooted financial issues (beyond money itself);
~ impact of childhood trauma;
~ loss and grief;
~ general dissatisfaction with life;
~ unfulfilled creative potential; and
~ career and life transitions.

Working in right-brain expressive modalities helps you make quantum yet grounded leaps forward to the life you want more than anything to be yours. You go deep and you go fast -- and given the creative and incremental structures of poetry and story -- within a safe emotional container.

When you fully tell the story hidden in whatever is blocking you, the block dissolves. Creative, passionate life energy flows freely. "This feels light," said one client, "even though we're dealing with some dark stuff. Big and light. I don't want this to end."

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

If you would like to schedule a free half hour phone consultation or receive a free storymaking tool, please write me at

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Understanding Creative People

More than ever before, our world needs people who are alive and inspired, who have new visions, new ideas for implementing them, and new energy. However, as much as corporations, classrooms, and clinical centers say they want to support creativity, they usually end up stifling it.

For one thing, creative people are often misunderstood as undisciplined, or misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder, when in fact they are absolutely healthy within a creative norm, and capable of brilliant work when recognized, nurtured, and supported in developing their expressive capacities.

In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi developed a generic description of the creative personality. It gives teachers, therapists, coaches, managers, and co-workers an expanded framework for working with people driven by internal passions, visions, and values.

Csikszentmilhalyi wrote, “If there is one word that makes creative people different from others, it is the word complexity. Instead of being an individual, they are a multitude. Like the color white that includes all colors, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves. Creativity allows for paradox, light, shadow, inconsistency, even chaos –and creative people experience both extremes with equal intensity.”


1. A great deal of physical energy alternating with a great need for quiet and rest.
2. Highly sexual, yet often celibate, especially when working.
3. Both extravagant and spartan.
4. Smart and naïve at the same time. A mix of wisdom and childishness. Emotional immaturity along with the deepest insights.
5. Convergent (rational, left brain, sound judgment) and divergent (intuitive, right brain, visionary) thinking. Divergence is the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas, to switch from one perspective to another, and to pick unusual associations of ideas. Convergence involves evaluation and choice. Creative people have the capacity to think both ways.
6. Both extroverted and introverted, needing people and solitude equally.
7. Humble and proud, both painfully self-doubting and wildly self-confident.
8. May defy gender stereotypes, and are likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other as well. A kind of psychic androgyny.
9. Can be rebellious and independent on one hand, and traditional and conservative on the other.
10. A natural openness and sensitivity that often exposes them to extreme suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. Despair alternates with bliss, despair when they aren’t working, and bliss when they are.

The most important quality among creative people, says Csikszentmilhalyi, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake.

Ask yourself how you can create classrooms, workplaces, families, and healing environments that value and support the gifts that the creative people you know have to offer.


Maya Angelou: "There's no greater agony than carrying around an untold story inside yourself."

From a story perspective, the moment when life falls apart -- whether we are shattered by external events or bursting with inner yearning -- that moment is the call to life-changing adventure. Story structure provides a roadmap for navigating crisis that will bring about qualitative change in situations that seem intractable.

I maintain a private practice in New York City and a long distance one by phone/Skype with clients in other cities. The journaling, storymaking, and visual arts exercises I offer along with my creative approach are extremely effective in helping you:

~ Release toxic emotions associated with stress, anxiety and depression;
~ Take positive action in an unhappy relationship or job from a place of understanding and compassion;
~ Clear away buried childhood issues that may be contributing to financial and relationship difficulty;
~ Step up to personal challenges such as serious illness, divorce, or job loss with greater confidence in your ability to move through them successfully using the structure of story as a scaffold for change.

Working in right-brain expressive modalities helps you make quantum yet grounded leaps forward to the life you want more than anything to be yours. You go deep and you go fast -- and given my experience and skill, along with the creative and non-invasive structures of poetry, story, drawing, and other visual arts -- within a safe emotional container.

When you fully tell the story hidden in whatever is blocking you, the block dissolves. Creative, passionate life energy flows freely.