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.


  1. A wonderful post Juliet. I would only add that the world was is STILL full of information, fresh, unbounded, magical, and alive. It's alive here in New Mexico where just yesterday I saw those birds of 50,000 years ago (acutally millions of years ago) the sandhill cranes on their annual migration, and it's just as alive right there in Manhattan as a squirrel cracks open a hazel nut in Central Park.
    Thank you for helping to create the space that so many others need to remind them of the power or life.

  2. Thank you, Bob! I agree and appreciate the reminder that the earth is magical now in New Mexico, Manhattan, and everywhere else, and that its emissaries are all around us, doing their thing. If only we remember to look up, look down, look around!