Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Giving Troubled Kids a Better Story

"Humanite," Mickael Bethe-Selassie
Irrational archetypal forces of violence in the American psyche are erupting in the forms of "mad" individuals who come from out of nowhere (like Drones) to commit atrocities -- increasingly horrifying, and destroying all forms of innocence and positive potential. The American Dream and the Puritan ethic are being revealed as masks obscuring the violence at the heart of the American soul. This violence has been here from the beginning of this country's founding -- even among the slave-owning Founding Fathers who wrote the inspired words of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The British writer D.H. Lawrence got it right when he wrote during his travels around the U.S.: "The American soul is hard, isolated, stoic and a killer. It has yet to melt." Until we create safe channels for the expression and transformation of these violent cultural energies, these slaughters will continue, and we'll continue to be shocked by massacres in places of innocence and entertainment.

Safe but free and non-judgmental expression through the container of art, whatever the modality, is one way of liberating and harnessing these destructive forces -- as long as there's an accompanying narrative of transformation. I began to learn how this works 20 years ago in a maximum security unit for criminally insane men.
If we begin to identify vulnerable individuals very early in life and give them safe channels for self-expression, we can build on the massive shift that's now taking place in our national (and global) consciousness.

Some time ago an art therapist posted the following message on a creative arts listserv to which I belong:

I am running a group for 6 students in 3rd grade who have behavior problems and aggression. I found that for the first group, the rules were consistently broken, even when reinforced and warnings were given. I spent so much time on just trying to get the students to be quiet when someone else was talking, take turns, ask for materials rather than grab them from another student, sit in their chair, not name call, tease or swear, that there was little time to focus on the artwork. Any advice on things that will work for them?

This was my response:

I co-facilitated a social skills summer camp for special needs kids with many of the problems you described. They ranged in age from 6 to 12 and there were 10 of them.

What I did was to give them a better story than the one they were used to hearing about themselves -- a profoundly negative story that was imprinting itself more deeply every day on their sense of who they were and what life would be like for them. I completely changed the ballgame from a therapeutic or teaching environment into a Native American warrior rite. (Thus going with their aggressive impulses rather than trying to change them.)

To start with, I played non-percussive music -- mostly that of Native American flutist Carlos Nakai -- to create a relaxed and mysterious space totally outside of their ordinary lives. All the chairs were placed in a circle and they drew on the floor. I had each one draw fire (implicitly allowing safe expression of their anger and aggression through the metaphor of flames) and had them arrange their drawings together to create a campfire in the middle. I named my co-facilitator -- a social worker -- the Village Chief and myself the Medicine Chief. (Amazing how we both rose to those roles!)

I defined the kids as braves who were becoming adult warriors of the tribe. Their mission was to protect the people, not go to war because that wasn't necessary. All activities and social skills teachings were presented within this context of a brave band of warriors and their mentors. I told stories and myths about indigenous people and they responded with pictures and stories about themselves (some revealing through metaphor that they were experiencing chaos or trauma at home), and they learned the "warrior code" of behavior rather than "social skills" or "rules of conduct." There were no sticks, but there were plenty of colored rubber balls. To talk, they had to ask for and hold a "talking ball." Only it turned out not to be a ball; the kids declared it a sacred fossil containing the bones of a dinosaur that were the source of the power of the tribe and its warriors.

What happened with most of the children was that they were so spellbound by the imaginative world in which they found themselves and who they were within that world that they forgot to be disruptive. Teaching took place under the radar; they were bewitched into learning and growing.

It wasn't perfect, of course, but we built in an exit point whereby kids who were disruptive could ask for or be "given" a time-out to go out into the hall with one of the co-facilitators to talk or just to sit quietly. No punishment, just calming retreat.

A year or so later, I used basically the same approach in a more subtle, sophisticated way with youths in a diversion from incarceration program and after that, with teens with HIV/AIDS who were living on the streets. Again, it imbued the groups and each member with a dignity and respect from adults and other kids that they rarely if ever had experienced, and they got to perform "up" to that new self-image rather than "down" to the low expectations most adults had for them.

All of us -- especially children and teens (and adults going through difficult times of loss and transition) -- hunger for dignity and self-expression within the structure of respectful community, as well as some kind of "roadmap" or pathway forward to a better sense of self and future. I've found the traditional rite of passage model and myths of all cultures immensely useful in creating these kinds of dynamic and nurturing environments.

The Power of Music

Ivan (not his real name) was one of these children. He had spent the first two years of his life in an Eastern European orphanage, where eating was his only life activity. The rest of the time, awake or asleep, he lay on his back in a crib. To survive psychically, he learned to pull repeatedly at the corner of his eye.

Now adopted by a loving American family, Ivan was diagnosed with institutional autism: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and severe emotional, developmental and sensory deficits. At age 9, he had difficulty focusing on tasks, coordinating his movements, and understanding boun
daries. He acted out his frustrations and fears by blanking out, becoming a victim, and throwing temper tantrums.

At this workshop, the music played (non-percussive and geared to producing meditative states) calmed and centered Ivan. He quieted down and was able to communicate his feelings in a non-harming way.

Why is this? Because the music filled some of Ivan's unmet developmental needs. Researchers have found that lullabies, like rocking, help to establish neurological equilibrium in an infant -- as well as emotional attunement with other people. Be it the music of a mother's voice or a concerto, music makes us feel safe.

Music -- like poetry, visual, and kinetic arts -- elicits a whole-brain response. Rhythm, melody, and the continuous flow of sound simultaneously soothe survival mechanisms deep within the brain and stimulate higher mental processes that enable empathy, attachment, and choice.

In spiritual terms, music holds us, tells us that we belong and that we can relax. It fills the holes in abandoned souls.

For more on the Ethiopian artist Mickael Bethe-Selassie:

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In the Deep, Dark Cold of Winter Comes the Warmth of Story

Now is the time of year to deepen your roots in preparation for a greater blossoming. One way to do that is through discovering your own myth -- your deepest and truest story, the one that holds your passion and purpose in life.

Here's an easy story exercise to help you find your myth. It's taken from Tristine Rainer's book, Your Life as Story: Discovering the "New Autobiography" and Writing Memoir as Literature, (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). I often use it to help my private clients get a big-picture story sense of their life and the shape of our work together. This tale can be drawn, danced, sung, and acted out. But the essence, in my experience, is writing it first.

Write a fairy tale about yourself in 3 sentences or short paragraphs, without too much thought, in 10 minutes or less.

In its simplest form, a fairy tale has 3 parts -- crisis, struggle, and transformation:

  1. Something happens that causes a problem for a person or a group.
  2. They struggle to find a solution.
  3. They experience a transformation and have a realization.
Try it. Pick a situation or event from the past or that is happening in the present. Put it through this very simple story process:

'Once upon a time, there was a...(little girl, woman, boy, man, family, team, village, etc.)'

  1. the problem or crisis;
  2. your struggle to resolve it - the obstacles you faced, what you did, the outcome or continuing dilemma (this puts the attention on you rather than the problem) ;
  3. how you changed and what you learned (or how you could change and what the experience might teach you).
You have here the bones of a personal story that can be fleshed out over weeks or months. This is at least part of your personal myth and it can help you understand in a deeper way who you are, what has shaped you, and where you're going. The point is, and I hope you see from this quick exercise, that you have a story. Story gives structure and meaning to difficult experience. Your story imagination is instinctive, dynamic, and full of unseen possibilities.


Coming in 2013: my book


For people faced with rebuilding life after traumatic experience, healers, writers and other artists, clinicians, coaches, and anyone interested in applying the power of the narrative imagination to their life.

When someone undertakes a great work -- whether it is getting well, rebuilding a life after it's been shattered by loss, finding meaning and purpose in life, or starting a creative project -- they step out on a hero's journey that mirrors the first great heroic journey in life: the developmental stages through childhood to adulthood. In story, these stages are thresholds expressed as chapters, scenes, and vignettes. Creative struggle in adulthood can bring to light buried thresholds and parts of the self that need attention and nourishment for one to become whole.

The hero's journey -- that ancient narrative of resilience and transformation that tells of disaster, quest, victory, and wise return -- can be found in every great story, transformational experience, and meaningful life. It tells of the universal struggle to navigate and grow through crisis and shows us how to transform personal and collective misfortune into deep and necessary change. Using stories and poetry from the exuberant mosaic of the world's written and oral traditions, this unique book on therapeutic writing will help you to apply the inspiring hero's/heroine's journey paradigm to any difficult life passage.

Working in a metaphorical, right-brain developmental model such as the archetypal hero's journey provides safe access to places in the unconscious that lie beyond the limits of rational exploration, memory, and ordinary language. In the "Once upon a time" realm of myth, crisis or challenge opens a path to the grail that all people seek: peace of heart and mind and full release of the life force into your life.


In my private practice I work with adults coping with past trauma, loss, life transition, and relationship/work issues. My clients also include people who want to explore their creativity or need support for a creative project. 

In addition, I am now offering my story consulting services to solopreneurs, companies, and organizations that want to develop a powerful professional narrative. To explore working with me in person, by phone or by Skype, write:
julietbrucephd@gmail.com to schedule a free phone consultation -- no strings attached.

Client Comments:

"Life changing. Affirming, took me to the next level from where I was to where I want to be in life. I gained many new insights into myself, relationships, and place in the world. Deep inner change at my core."

"The framework of the heroine's journey is very empowering. To see my life as an epic adventure allows for all the catastrophes and losses to be incorporated, to be seen as part of the celebration of life, rather than shameful episodes that need to be covered up as quickly as possible."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Laid Bare

New York City, 10.29.12
Of all the devastating images of wrecked, flooded, and burned out lives from Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coat last week, this one of a building with its front wall ripped off has been the most awful to me. What happened to the people who lived here? Were they in these rooms when the walls fell away? Where are they now?

I was one of the lucky ones who never even lost power, much less my home. Even so, I've been feeling a deep sense of vulnerability -- sadness for the suffering of my neighbors, and a deep anxiety about the hard truth: We work so hard to create homes for ourselves; we do all the right things. And in a moment – be it a historic storm, a diagnosis, or a betrayal revealed -- Home is stripped away. We are face to face with the raw truth of life that everything we hold onto for dear life is impermanent and will leave us. There’s no going back to Monday afternoon before the storm.

Whatever form it takes, the aftermath of disaster can be for many people a kind of falling out of the flow of human life. After the immediate shock, we can be paralyzed by feelings of helplessness, loss of meaningful language, the ability to connect with other people, and hope in the future. It can feel like this terrible experience is the whole story – or worse, the end of the story. And it is, in a way, the end of the life we have been living. In some ways, the aftermath of disaster can be a spiritual death. 

But what have I learned in all these years of living? That beneath the fear and grief is the ground of something new. If we can sit with fear, breathe through it, allow it to dissolve like the frail walls we build to protect and separate ourselves from one another and from the unknown, we can find safety in the awareness that we are still here. We are alive. Amazingly, a deep, quiet, inward joy emerges. Life flows again. Ultimately we learn that the only safety is to live in the question, What wants to emerge now? 

Misfortune -- where story begins

In my own life and in all my years of helping others, I always go back to story. Why? Because it is in fact a scaffold for transforming disaster into a field of growth. In story, misfortune -- the inciting event -- propels a character out of their ordinary world into a quest for healing, greater well-being, understanding, whatever it is they need. Along the way, they change, becoming wiser, better, or more courageous; they find dimensions in themselves they never knew they had. In a really good story, they become a hero to themselves and to others. They change the story. 

Human beings used to live with and respect nature. They learned from the patterns of dying and rebirth inherent in seasons how to let go and die and how to resurrect life. They listened to birds and learned to sing a new world into being. This truth is the foundation for every ancient people’s creation stories. And it can be our truth in these times of change.

There’s a native American tale called “Incanchu’s Drum,” about a great volcanic eruption that destroys the whole world. The only survivors are two birds flying over the land that is covered in ash, unable to find their home. Circling and circling, they become exhausted and are on the verge of giving up… until Creator appears and says, “Fly until your middle feathers point down, and follow them. There is your home.” 

Landing in a field of ash, the birds are in despair; there is no water, no food, no trees. The only thing left is a big block of charred ruin. One of the birds, called Ichanchu, leans against it and falls asleep. When he awakens, not knowing what else to do, he begins to beat it like a drum. 

Eventually a song emerges from the primal rhythm, and after a time of singing, a small sapling begins to appear from the ashes. This is the tree of healing and life. From this tree arise other trees, and soon a forest. The animals come back, followed by the people. Life is reborn. The only sign of the world’s destruction is a thin layer of ash on everything.

This is why I keep going back to the old stories. They give us images of rebirth to hold on to in times of death, and they provide roadmaps for creating something meaningful from disaster.

 Finding the real certainties when the false ones are ripped away

  1. The First Certainty: Your breath. Become aware of your breathing – in and out. The breath, the beating heart, is the Beginning.
  2. The Second Certainty: Your body. Become aware of your body. Are you in pain? Where? Are you afraid or sad? Where do you feel it – in your stomach, shoulders, back, neck, or head? Breathe through these sensations.
  3. The Third Certainty: External crisis may trigger an internal one. Become aware of the inner stories that are triggered by the outer circumstances. Usually they are stories of fear or despair. “This is the end,” The Doors sang in the '60s, when everything familiar was falling apart. Compassionately allow these dark stories to exist. In fact, give them expression: draw them, write, drum, or dance them.
  4. The Fourth Certainty: Self-expression is the channel that allows life to flow again. Follow the words and shapes that appear on the page or in your imagination, the rhythms and movements as they change. They will. It never fails. 
  5. The Fifth Certainty: Joining with others is the beginning of community, and community is the grid for a new world. Share your story and listen to theirs.
  6. The Sixth Certainty: Forming a vision gives power. Find a pole star, a dream, a beacon, something to aim for, both individually and collectively. Give whatever you can to help each other realize this vision. 
My imagination, optimism, and deep faith are what I have to give you. Slowly, we can build a new world together -- without walls.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Changing the Conversation about Depression

painting by Zoltan Gabor
…The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. -

Rumi, "The Guest House "

Many people are coping with depression and anxiety these days. How painful! And what an opportunity for personal and collective transformation! This month I want to share some ideas with you for changing the conversation about depression.

This approach -- an ancient one -- looks at these painful states as “emergence” experiences rather than disorders. In the words of teacher and author Jean Houston in her book A Mythic Life, ancestral healers mythologized rather than pathologize depression, as we do. Rather than a state of deficiency, depression becomes in mythic story the ground of noble quest, a dignified and difficult journey toward healing and wholeness. No accident that emergence is the root word of emergency, for these crises in our personal and collective lives are calls to awakening to the fact that something new wants to come forth.

In story language, the dull pain in the gut, the spinning thoughts, inertia, and intense emotional anguish of depression are viewed as signs that we are at the threshold of becoming more fully who we are, if we are able to friend and not fight the beast we call depression. The creative images and language of myth, parable, and story enable us to safely contain, express, explore, and dissolve depression. Through these archetypal story forms, we can step outside of our biography, outside of ordinary and inadequate rational expression, and into a space of epic understanding and transformation.

A Caveat  

The creative approach I describe here served as my own path to recovery many years ago and has helped others as well. However, in no way do I suggest that it replace traditional forms of treatment, if they help. Working with metaphor gives access to the deepest places in our being, which can be out of reach to more cognitively-based approaches, and it provides a structure for remaking ourselves. But to be protected from inner overwhelm, I highly recommend an external integrating container, as in the safe structure provided by the ongoing relationship with a trusted psychotherapist or healer, 12 Step group, or formal meditation practice -- in other words, a compassionate, engaged witness, mentor, and story listener.


Depression as Call to Awakening

Jean Houston observes in A Mythic Life that the Arthurian legend of Parsifal is an appropriate metaphor for our difficult times, which she describes as the phase of necessary breakdown before breakthrough. 


Parsifal was a young and untested knight (the name Parsifal can be translated as fool or innocent) who finds himself in a wasteland where everything was crumbling and all living things were dying -- flowers no longer bloomed, the rivers had dried up, the animals and people were sick in body and spirit. This was the kingdom of the Fisher King, a monarch who suffered from an unknown illness caused by a wound in his leg; his illness had infected the land and no one knew how to cure it. 


Directed by an ailing man to a castle that suddenly manifested within a mist, that night Parsifal sees a magnificent chalice, glowing brighter than all the candles in the hall, being carried back and forth by a beautiful young woman. This chalice was the Holy Grail -- the vessel that had collected Christ's blood as it dripped from his wounds on the cross and that was found in his empty tomb three days later. Throughout the ages, the Grail became known as the container of the life force that healed all wounds. Parsifal vowed to find out the secret of the Grail the next day. But when he woke up the following morning, the castle was empty; there was not a soul around to ask. Seized with fear, Parsifal jumped on this horse and rode back across the drawbridge just as it was rising and the castle was becoming enshrouded in mist.


For many years after that, Parsifal wandered in a dark forest, trying to find his way back to the Grail castle by sorting through the tangled roots. During this time, he had many adventures, but he lived without passion, longing for the joy he had felt for one night, in what seemed to be a dream. But these years were not really about loss; they forced the knight to go on an inner journey as well as an outer one. What he lost was his innocence, naivete, and his unconsciousness. What he gained was simplicity, clarity, and maturity. Like a blade, he was sharpened in the fire of adversity. 


Finally, one day he asked a simple question: “Where is the grail? Whom should it serve?” With that question, life opened: the earth turned green, waters flowed, the drawbridge to the Grail Castle lowered, the ailing Fisher King was healed, and the kingdom too was restored to health. The Grail was brought out of the castle to serve the world.

Story -- especially the universal story plot that runs through all times, cultures, and places -- begins in wounding, confusion, despair, imbalance, loss of vitality. A land has been overtaken by darkness and from the sovereign to the people to the earth herself, there is withering, exhaustion, contraction, and spiritual death. In this archetypal plot, someone steps forth to do battle with this dark force and to claim the healing object or secret knowledge that will restore the kingdom. This protagonist struggles mightily with external and internal antagonists who guard the grail until he/she asks a question that opens the door, regenerates, and heals the land. In the process, the seeker has become someone new who is now capable of using this magical formula for the good of the whole kingdom. Heroes change the story.

Seen through a mythic lens, depression announces the beginning of a new story, a Call to the great adventure of change. Yet we are afraid; we resist; we grasp more tightly what we already know. Resistance in the face of the unknown is natural; we resist until the pain becomes worse than the fear of going forth. That resistance manifests in our life as depression, inertia, anxiety, and in somatic pain.

If we can stop running away from pain, put forth the simple question, "What is life asking of me now?" -- and pay attention to what shows up -- we too may find our world becoming green. “And this is why it is so important to be attentive when one is lonely, sad, or afraid," wrote the poet Ranier Maria Rilke, "because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us on the outside.” (Eighth letter, Letters to a Young Poet).

Working Creatively with Depression

1. How does the Parsifal myth translate in your experience? Rewrite the myth from the different perspectives of Parsifal, the ailing king, the Grail itself, and the land -- both in its dying time and in its rebirth. 

2. What does the question, ""Where is the grail?" sound like in your voice? In other words, what's the question you need to ask? Try a few and see where they lead.

3. Try writing it in first person, past tense. Or third person, present tense. Play!

4. Share it with someone who cares.

5. What do you take from this exercise? What is the Grail in your life? What is depression a metaphor for in your inner life? What needs to happen? What's the smallest, least difficult step you can take into the larger life?

All rights reserved, Juliet Bruce, 2012

You can purchase this book, new or used, directly from Amazon here. As an Amazon Affiliate, I make about 4% on each purchase.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Keeping Depression at Bay with an Ancient Chinese Practice

Stories are everywhere. We carry stories in our bodies and unknowingly radiate them into our world -- just as we absorb the stories of other people and places we pass through daily. We have the power to amplify, neutralize, or change those stories.

Qigong is an ancient meditation practice that can help us re-story (and restore) our lives.

I have suffered from depression in the past and in times of high stress I'm still vulnerable to it and its horrible companion, anxiety. In my own case, at least, I've come to understand these two conditions as symptoms of depleted or blocked chi, the life force that flows through all living things. Stress, of course, is a factor in depleting chi. But so are the stories I'm telling myself, even unknowingly, and how I'm caring for my body. As a writer first and foremost, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer -- an energy vampire if ever there was one.

I work out a gym, and while the eliptical cross-trainer, treadmill, weights, and zumba get my blood flowing and strengthen my muscles, they don't necessarily stop the spinning stories. Nor do they align mind and body. When anxiety is in the neighborhood, I'm unable to sit still long enough to experience a meaningful meditation practice. This is why my Qigong practice is so crucial to my well-being. It synchronizes imagination, emotion, and movement into an unfolding Now, in which the cool stream of life force flows freely. After just a few minutes of practice, I can feel the hum of chi throughout my body and rest within the spaciousness in my brain.

I've heard it said that to get from here to there, we first need to be fully here. Qigong gets us fully into Here. 

One drizzly spring night, after my weekly Qigong class, I flowed along 17th Street to Union Square in Manhattan, where I caught the crowded late night N train to Astoria. It was a typical week night on the MTA, wheels screeching, fellow passengers scowling, jammed, and bouncing miserably against each other as the train snaked through the tunnels beneath Manhattan.

Yet I was happy, peaceful, and in love with everyone -- jiggling along with my eyes closed, smiling cosmically, and filled with a warm hum, a pleasant current of energy that made my insides feel too huge for the small container of my body. The poet James Wright ends his poem “The Blessing” with the line: “I knew that if I could step out of my body I would break into blossom.” Squished in the New York City subway, I felt like that. I was in what my teacher Sharon Smith calls the "Qigong state" -- a truly natural high!

Five thousand years ago, China’s Shaolin and Wudang Mountain monks developed a system of energy manipulation that cultivated Qi, or chi -- the life force that permeates every part of the cosmos, and every living being, plant, stone, and body of water in it.

Observing how nature continually destroyed and repaired itself, the monks developed short dance forms – moving stories really – that imitated and activated the energies of nature. These stories emerged through gentle and repetitive circular motions, in which body, breath, and imagination were aligned, creating a form of moving meditation. Depending on the purpose – whether healing or self-defense -- these dances were performed to evoke the flowing of water, the stability of mountains, creativity of fire, detachment and mutability of wind, nobility of trees, the soaring flight of a crane, lightness of clouds floating across the face of a mountain, lightning flash of a dragon, fountains of chi rising up from the earth and falling again like cleansing rain.

Qigong has a lot in common with the medicine of healing story, which uses plot to hold the attention of listeners while the images, sounds, characters, and language activate specific energies to heal a wounded place in the body or soul of a suffering person.

In the medicine of Qigong, the practitioner focuses on the breath, the images of nature, and correct form, while the movements circulate the chi to where it is needed -- detoxifying blood and internal organs; pumping the immune system; clearing the lungs; strengthening the heart, back, and legs; settling the mind; lifting the spirits; and connecting the dancer’s inner world with their external space.

One of the most powerful forms I’ve learned from Sharon is Taiji Shen Gong, an original form of Tai Chi. Sharon learned this from her teacher Li Jun Feng, one of the primary Qigong masters and martial artists of our time. You can see a version of this beautiful form performed by Li Jun, Teacher Li's daughter, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2Nubdl3M2w.

This form tells the story of creation: Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. It is composed of nine movements: the first two tell the creation story of heaven and earth. The next seven replicate the creation of a fully conscious human being, from awe at awakening to the universe, to gathering its energy, playing with it, stabilizing it, and finally standing firm and flexible as a tree rooted deeply in earth and reaching high into the heavens. Every time I do this form – whether in my small apartment, on the banks of the East River, or in the middle of my noisy gym with hip hop blaring and free weights crashing, I feel serene in the midst of the ten thousand things, and much better able to handle the demands and stresses of life.

Sharon Smith, at Wudang Mountain, China
If you live in the New York City area and want to study with a gifted teacher who has nearly 30 years’ experience in ancient Chinese healing practices, visit http://www.taosharon.com for a full schedule of classes.

Qigong, as all of Taoism, tells the cosmic story, the endless drama of change in which we're each a tiny fractal, carrying within us the same energies that propel planets. We can learn to channel these energies to bring healing and renewal to our own lives, the lives of others, and the life of the earth.

Recommended DVD and book:
Wuji Yuan Gong: A Return to Oneness, the Qigong of Unconditional Love, with Teacher Li Jun Feng. http://www.shengzhen.org/bookstore.htm.

All rights reserved. Contact Juliet before using any of the copy in this post. Thank you.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Tell the Visual Story of Your Deep Self: Make a Mandala

Mandala is a sanskrit word meaning "circle." But it's more than a shape. The mandala represents wholeness and is considered by most of the world's peoples to be the basic structure of life -- from our cells, to our world, to the cosmos itself. 

The mandala appears in every culture across all continents and epochs. Sometimes it's used to represent sacred space; at others the moment; increasingly, the mandala is being used to heal deep psychosocial wounds and to support peace within and without. The mandala at the left is the Avaloketeshvara mandala from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It represents and supports compassion and forgiveness.

If you google "Mandala images," you'll find hundreds of them, many linked to web sites that discuss their symbolic meaning and offer ideas for making your own mandala. 

When I'm actively engaged on a regular basis in drawing or collaging mandalas, and then writing what I see and feel from them, I'm more centered, focused, and forceful in my life. When I share this practice with my clients, they experience the same cohesiveness and personal power.

Jung and the Mandala
At the height of his career in 1913, the psychiatrist Carl Jung went through a severe emotional crisis, in which serious internal conflicts emerged in his life. He broke with Freud, renounced his position as the head of the Zurich Psychiatric Clinic, and went through a deeply introspective 3-year journey during which he separated himself from family and friends. Toward the end of this period, he began drawing mandalas, without knowing what this meant, without knowing that he was following a path cleared by others before him in both East and West.
It was through the mandala that he found the way to restore himself to wholeness. They became photographs of his daily internal state, and images of what he was in the process of becoming. He sketched in a little notebook every day a circle that seemed to correspond to his interior situation. “Enlightened by these images, I could see day by day the psychic transformations that were operating within me. It was only gradually that I discovered what a mandala really means: ‘Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal creation.’”
For the next 10 years, he drew circles, labyrinths, and dark and shining centers of all kinds, the unspooling of an internal process of centering and healing the breaks in his personality. He eventually formed his theory that the mandala represented the unity of the soul, an entity much larger than the ego, a Self or atman that was the source of life and guide for its development and total fulfillment of its destiny. 

Make Your Own Mandala
This is a fun and deeply revealing visual arts exercise to do both privately and in groups. The mandala at the right is found at http://www.arttherapyblog.com/art-therapy-ideas/healing-with-mandala-art-a-multi-cultural-idea-worth-exploring/#ixzz1zMnR5hN2.
Supplies for collage: scissors, white sketch pad paper, multi-colors of construction paper, glue sticks. 

For drawing: pastels or magic markers. Simple!
Time: 20-25 minutes.


1. Leaf through the colored construction paper pages and cut whatever shape in whatever color that most appeals to be your background, representing the Ground of Self, a relationship, organization, creative project, whatever area you want to explore.  It can be a circle, rectangle, or free form.    
2. Think of the elements of story. You are the storyteller, artist, director, and witness:
  • Places: geographical landscape and interiors; their emotional qualities, colors, shapes, and textures.
  • Loved ones - like-minded fellows who expand you, amplify your strengths, support your quest.
  • Difficult people, obstacles, and conflicts - within and without. To be authentic, your mandala must contain the Shadow.
  • Your grail, dream, north star: whatever most symbolizes for you the life force. 
3. Cut whatever shapes or draw figures that want to emerge that represent each of these elements. Quickly, without thinking too much about it, place them in relationship that feels right to you and glue them to the Ground. Give yourself no more than 10 minutes for this. You want to bypass your rational mind.
4. Now look at your mandala from all perspectives. This is a self-portrait emerging from the depths of your unconscious.

What Story Does Your Mandala Tell? 

1. What stands out in your mandala? A shape? The relationship of shapes? Colors? Overall impression? "First thought, best thought."
2. Without intellectualizing the process, quickly write down 5 words that come to you. Working fast releases the imagination, voice of intuition.
3. Which word has the most energy for you? Or which two elements seem to oppose each other or want to be in dialogue?
4. Make this the opening word and continue writing for 5 minutes, following the words wherever they lead. This allows your verbal intelligence to transmit the kinetic truth contained in your mandala.  
5. Read it aloud to yourself or to a supportive listener. What does the writing reveal in practical terms? Is there guidance here for what you need most in your life right now? 

Mandalas are everywhere. Look for them in your life today.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Healing the Split: Why We Tell and Listen to Stories

N.C. Wyeths, "Odysseus and Penelope"
This is the third article in a series on story and the brain.

“… and so they lived happily ever after. And the kingdom flourished.”

After the conflict, exile, heartache, and triumph, a happy ending. The hero claims the Grail, returns with it to restore the kingdom to health, finds or reunites with his soul mate, and their union symbolizes a new beginning for the world. From a dead situation, life flows again.

We yearn for the end of Odysseus' tortured wanderings; for his return to Ithaca, his home; and for reunion with Penelope, his wife. Their happy ending catalyzes healing in our own emotional and spiritual life and even in the life of our brain. 

Stories give structure and meaning to a life that inherently lacks both. Through the power of metaphor, stories guide us through the darkness in our own lives to that place of wholeness, resolution, and light for which we long. This is why we will always tell and listen to stories.


My clients are usually people who have suffered some kind of shattering in their lives and have either gone as far as they could in traditional therapy or weren’t able to find the peace they sought, and who are seeking a deeper and more imaginative approach to solving their problems.

Story offers that approach -- especially the story format defined by mythologist Joseph Campbell as the hero's journey, but which has been used to heal and uplift lives from the beginning of human existence. Following that journey paradigm, I help my clients reframe their problem as a call to adventure and use the structure and elements of the hero’s journey as metaphors for the process of rebuilding their lives.

In terms of story, the hero’s journey is essentially a rite of passage in which someone leaves behind a dying ordinary world to go on a quest for a life-saving cure. They travel through a strange and forbidding land, meet all kinds of extraordinary creatures, events, and obstacles, and eventually claim the Grail that heals all wounds. Transformed inwardly and outwardly by their journey, the traveler, now truly a hero, makes another arduous journey back to the ordinary world with the healing prize that restores life and light.

A hero is someone who pushes the limits and changes the story. Using this journey structure to help people find their new way in life never fails to move them up and out of stuck places, as a scaffold contains a work of art or new home under construction. It works at the deepest levels of a person's being, including actually changing the connections in brain and body.

Geography of Story; Architecture of the Brain 

Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist well known for writing a number of books on the brain and health, notes that a balance of both halves of the brain is necessary for optimal functioning. In people who suffered early neglect or abuse, the integrative fibers linking up different parts of the brain have been damaged and the brain is not functioning as a harmonious system. Consequently, the body's systems are in conflict and early psychological trauma or neglect can show up in adult life as chronic physical or emotional illness with no immediately identifiable cause.

In some of its aspects, writes Siegel, healing can be understood as a journey to access and strengthen right brain functioning. He is echoed by most scientists, who now accept health as wholeness, integration, coherence – arising from a natural internal dynamic, rather than conforming to an external standard of "fitness" or "normal," as it had previously.

I’m struck by the parallels in the geography of the brain and the trajectory of the hero’s journey.

The journey begins in the Ordinary World, the safe, secure, ordered life of the mainstream, status quo world. This world is made up of the rules, cubicled offices, and built environments through which we move, the verbal and written languages we use to communicate, and the identity that’s given to us and that we adopt wholeheartedly and often mindlessly. But it quickly becomes apparent that something is wrong, things are out of balance, disconnected from life, and the characters who inhabit that world reflect its state of unfulfillment and lack.  (See my previous post: http://livingstory-ny.blogspot.com/2012/03/divided-brain-broken-world-how-war-in.html).

This Ordinary World of story is a metaphor for the reality created by the left brain, and one that increasingly dominates our world. But as Ian McGilchrist so brilliantly describes, it's not the whole story of existence and our world is dying as a result. Left brain awareness is a closed system reflecting only itself, like a hall of mirrors, and cuts off all routes of escape to the green world that restores and gives meaning to daily life, such as those found in ritual, art, spirituality, and nature.

There is basically one plot underlying all stories, according to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this universal plot, the ordinary world has come under the rule of dark and egocentric figures who stifle instead of nurture life, but who are, in their egocentricity, blind. This blindness to a larger reality manifests as greed, hunger for power, self-delusion, lack of empathy, narcissism, and the paranoia that infects and obscures the vision of everyone else in their shadow. Everyone is trapped within the dark prison of ego. Story begins when a crisis occurs that magnifies the lack so that it can no longer be avoided, denied, or even fixed.Some brave seeker steps up and offers to go in search for the solution.

The whole middle part of a story is that central character’s journey in search of clarity, light – greater vision, the Grail, the healing elixir, the secret knowledge, all of which stand for the Higher Self -- that ultimately renews the ordinary world.

This seeker crosess mountainous frontiers, sails through stormy seas, and encounters a world beyond any they ever imagined, a world governed by chaotic forces over which they're powerless, and populated by creatures unfamiliar in every way.

This non-ordinary world of the myth matches the environment and function of the right brain: Nature in all its magnificence and chaos, the unconscious, the senses, imagination, intuition, and empathy. The right brain world is the well of Oneness, the ground of existence, what many experience as God. It's by means of the right brain that we find meaning in experience and gain access to our interior life. Through the right brain language of metaphor, we feel our experience and understand it within a greater reality.

What is striking here is how the chasm between the worlds – the ordinary rational one and the wild, life-generating one -- resembles the description of the small membrane connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain -- the Corpus Callosum. At the bottom of a deep indentation separating the two halves of the brain, the function of this organ is ambiguous: it both divides and connects the two sides of the brain. Originally formed to transmit motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the hemispheres, this organ has become larger and more dense; it seems to be functioning increasingly as a separator and less as a transmitter of information.

Eventually, after many tries and failures, the hero has a transformational insight that would have been impossible in ordinary consciousness, and achieves breakthrough (claim their grail, gain a new power, upgrade their identity or status.) He now sees the deep problem, and takes the right action to address it. He is now able to “see whole.” With an expanded consciousness -- symbolized by the Grail -- and resolution to the outer problem, the hero is reborn, and with him, the world. In effect, the hero assumes the original role of the corpus callosum as a bridge between left and right brain realities.

At the end of a story, the hero returns with the Grail to the ordinary world of the left brain, where he is now "Master of Two Worlds," in the words of Campbell, and puts this prize to use for the good of the people. With a restored ability to "see whole," the concrete realism of left brain story is "married" to the greater vision of the right.


Listening to a story with the archetypal structure of the ancient hero’s journey activates a modern listener’s own internal capacity for integration and wholeness. No matter what the issue a person faces, the profound integrating experience and language of mythic storymaking creates a life-saving framework for embracing, expressing, and moving through the pain of terrible experience. It holds not just the promise but the roadmap to a healthy and fulfilled life.

At the same time, remember that in life the end of one journey is the beginning of another. The hero's journey never ends; old stories keep spiraling around and around, while we learn more with each iteration, until eventually, if we do the consciousness-raising work (that is, reweave the stories from a "seeing whole" perspective), they dissolve. New stories and realities emerge.

In Campbell's words, "What I think is that a good life is one heroic journey after another. Over and over again you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss."


A Whole-Brain Story Making Process

1. This is the most powerful process I know of to support healing and catalyze change. Write down or sketch out the “real” situation from the story elements: time frame, environments/emotional mood; characters; conflicts; projected plot. This is your present story, as told by the left brain. It can hold your “back story,” all the narratives you’ve told yourself that have shaped the life you now find yourself living. You might see what’s missing for you. This tells you what you need or want – the story you want to emerge, the story that holds your passion and purpose for being here.

2. Turn your present, past, or future story into a fairy tale, figurative drawing, abstract painting, collage, whatever injects the imagination into reality. It can be helpful to write about yourself in the third person, past tense. In fairy tale, there's no psychologizing, no interpretation, internal monologues, or reductive analysis -- only nouns and verbs, characters, landscapes, conflicts, and action. For instance, we tend to describe ourselves as "powerful," "confused," "happy" "disappointed in ourselves," or "sad." Fairy tale and mythical characters can become forces of nature, clouds, shafts of light, frogs, and lions. This shapeshifting is what liberates words, activates visceral emotions, and creates new neural connections that transform life -- first within, and then without.

Start with "Once upon a time...," the four magical words that open a gateway to the right brain. Externalize the emotional quality of your experience into a landscape that expresses it; turn an addiction or specific condition into a monster; make your characters into fantastic creatures who capture a significant psychological quality transform the conflict inherent in your situation into a marathon battle between the Forces of Light and Darkness or a clown show -- whatever arena offers an opportunity to discover and play out the drama in your circumstances in an imaginative, non-threatening way. For yourself, take the role of Storyteller, Greek Chorus, audience, or puppet master -- whatever Creator/Witness role that most appeals. Your intention in this step is to become one who grasps the larger picture beyond your small egocentric perception. Keeping in mind the basic plot of archetypal story: crisis, struggle, and transformation, still allow your characters the freedom to speak and act as they want. They may not want to struggle and transform. That will tell you a lot about deeper intentions that you intuit in another or yourself.

This "playing with life" is the catalytic process that activates transformation; injecting the imagination into the raw experience of daily life produces creative alchemy, deepened awareness, and larger perspective. I personally like to play around this way with visual arts as well as writing when I get stuck on a serious piece. It's like repotting a plant into a larger container to enable the roots to expand and support new blooms.

3. Marry the two works with a third improvisational piece of writing. Often you'll find a greater reality that you never dreamed was there. What do you now see or understand? What, if any, guidance did you find that helps you take the next easiest, smallest step toward the new, emergent story? What is the message of your tale?

A final word: we are each a minuscule part of a macro-story that is unfolding in these times. In many ways, we're powerless over the great impersonal forces of "wind and accident," in poet Michael Bloomenthal's words. But we're not powerless over how we respond to their effects on our lives. As the late Czech revolutionary and president Vaclav Havel wrote, one authentic individual action creates a ripple effect that can change the world.

(c) 2012, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved. 



Friday, March 9, 2012

Divided Brain, Broken World: How the War in Our Heads is Destroying Our Planet

There's a great deal of interest now in neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to grow and change) and particularly in restoring the processes and values of the right brain to every area of life. There are many ways to do this, including meditation, active engagement in the arts, spiritual practice, exercise -- especially yoga/tai chi/qigong, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and loving. In my current series of blog posts, I'm exploring the impact of story on the brain. The first article (January 2012, http://livingstory-ny.blogspot.com/2012/01/this-is-your-brain-on-story.html) gave an overview of how story integrates the brain; this post brings clarity to the problem of the divided brain; and the third will look at story structure, the dramatic arc, and metaphor as gateways to right brain perception.

The evidence of decline is everywhere and growing:
~ A recent Washington Post article told of a creative, highly motivating young teacher who was fired because the tests scores of her mostly inner city students were too low;
~ Gifted and creative students stifled and channeled into unfulfilling professional careers instead of the ones for which they were meant;
~ Growing addiction to virtual reality at the cost of intimate relationships;
~ Increased incidence of depression and bipolar disorder;
~ Increasing materialism accompanied by inner emptiness;
~ Environmental destruction;
~ Loss of opportunities to engage in dialogue with people and groups who disagree on issues, reflected in paralyzing divisiveness and partisanship at all levels of government, economic, and community life;
~ Media narratives that rely on glib sound bites, highlight conflict, and ignore ambiguity, resulting in intensified demonization of the different "others," and a pervasive paranoia;
~ Most alarmingly, endless and now renewed threat of war.

This is the reality we humans have created for ourselves and all other living beings on this planet. And it's a pure reflection of the wildly controlling, and out-of-control, left brain, according to British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (McGilchrist gives a 10-minute summation of his thesis, with illustrations, at TED Talks.)

The right and left sides of the brain tell vastly different stories about reality. Each has its own values and priorities, its own logic and language. Although the left hemisphere is commonly thought of as the seat of language and rationality and the right as the center of creativity, in fact both are essential to creativity and each has its own logic. The difference is not in what they do, but in how they do it, according to McGilchrist. Most simply, the left brain gives narrow, intense focus while the right enables a global awareness of context and patterns.

McGilchrist describes balanced functioning of the brain in a chicken pecking for seeds in a patch of pebbles: its left brain is focused on finding the seeds among the stones; while its right brain is focused on other possibilities and predators. The left brain defines its territory; its right brain is ready to move to another.

As different as they are, the two hemispheres are meant to collaborate. Without the right brain, life is a dry husk of an existence, barren and joyless, strangled in structures that have no intrinsic meaning. Without the organizing power of the left hemisphere, the right brain is a dream state without end, disorganized absorption of sensory data, the nightmare of schizophrenia.

Throughout human history, in small tribal communities, through the arts and ritual, and living in nature, the two hemispheres of the brain were in dialogue. However, with the growth of science, industry, urbanization, and technology over the last three hundred years, the controlling left brain began to take over, marginalizing and devaluing the parts of life that rose out of the non-competitive right brain.

The result, as McGilchrist describes it, is a world reflecting the story the left brain wants to tell -- not the whole story of existence. This leaves us caught in an agonizing paradox: we search for happiness and find emptiness; yearn for freedom yet are trapped within a web of regulations, hierarchies, and material expectations; we strive for creativity but are stifled by judgment; long for intimacy, connectedness, and warmth but are addicted to technology.

The good news: the brain is not formed early in life, but is “plastic," able to adjust, modify, and regenerate for most of human life. It’s the core of our resilience in fact -– a trait needed more than ever in these unstable times. We can learn how to change and regenerate the brain, and as a result the world.

But what are we really talking about when we talk about the divided brain? I'm going to be very left-brained and offer you a grossly oversimplified map and narrative tour of the brain.

1. The left hemisphere tells a story of control and power. It's the part of the brain responsible for the structures and thought processes of basic survival and civilized society. Think bourgeois village, tract housing development, cubicled offices -- the standard built environments through which we move, the verbal and written languages we use to communicate, the focus we bring to work and love. It's the part of the brain we use when we're engaged in analytic and logical thinking, concentrate on precise details, create plans, articulate feelings and thoughts verbally in meaningful sequence, measure the results of our efforts. The left brain moves from the parts to the whole, arranging the pieces in a logical order, and drawing conclusions from the process.

The left brain has been successful in establishing its dominance because it shuts out what it doesn't know and its ability to simplify and categorize lends itself to framing public debates and media narratives. Next time a sound bite captures your attention, it's someone else's left brain communicating with yours.

The strength is the problem: left brain awareness is a closed system reflecting only itself, like a hall of mirrors, and cuts off all routes of escape, such as those found in ritual, art, spirituality, and nature. The result is a world that is increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, and meaningless - a world on the path to ruin.

2. The right hemisphere encompasses everything else -- nature in all its magnificence and chaos, the unconscious, the senses, imagination, and intuition. it's also connected to compassion. The right brain is the gateway to the limbic region of the brain, which holds our ability to attach to others. It's the realm of context and meaning. Right brain consciousness rises from the well of Oneness, the ground of existence, what many experience as God. It's by means of the right brain that we create metaphor, find meaning in experience, and gain access to our interior life. Through right brain consciousness, we feel our experience and understand it within a greater reality. The right brain also holds the ability to rejuvenate and heal. In fact, Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist, says that healing is the restoration of the right brain.

The strength of the right brain -- its visual and metaphorical genius, its ability to see patterns and ambiguity -- is also its weakness in the face of left brain dominance. It speaks the language of metaphor rather than the language of debate; it works more slowly than the left and its awareness is both more global and more diffuse, making its contributions seemingly less effective in the fast-moving public arena.

3. At the bottom of a deep indentation separating the two hemispheres is a small sheath of fibers called the corpus callosum. The function of this organ is ambiguous: it both divides and connects the two sides of the brain. The corpus callosum transfers motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain hemispheres and is involved in several functions of the body, including eye movement and maintaining a balance between attention and arousal. With evolutionary changes, this organ has become larger and more dense; it seems to be functioning increasingly as a separator and less as a transmitter of information.

4. At the front tip of both hemispheres is the prefrontal cortex (in blue), the newest part of the brain, and the one area of the brain that distinguishes humans from other animals. Very simply, the function of the prefrontal cortex is to step back, inhibit impulses from the limbic regions of the brain to which it is attached, evaluate, and make choices. McGhilchrist describes two basic abilities residing in the prefrontal cortex: first, to manipulate the outer world and second, to sense the inner reality of another. It's the neural "decider": shall we act only in our own perceived self-interest (nudged on by the voice of the left brain) or shall we act from a foundation of compassion and the good of all (the urgings from the right)?

The prefrontal cortex gives human beings the capacity to be witness to our own experience, as well as to imagine a different and better reality. In other words, this is the story brain, which takes information coming in from all parts of the brain and creates a coherent narrative that drives action. In this epoch of left-brain domination, the prevailing narratives being spun by the world frontal cortex are separatist, fear-based, and filled with trauma -- past, present, and future. With a restored ability to "see whole," the concrete realism of left brain story could be integrated with the greater vision of the right.

The brain has gone through massive evolutionary change at different times throughout human history -- always related to how humans told their story. In recorded history, the left hemisphere began to take over when people made the leap from being oral creatures to becoming literate ones, when someone took a stick and made the first crude markings on stone. The left brain continued to strengthen with the advent of the printing press, with the Enlightenment, with the increased use of science to define experience, and finally with the growth of technology. We're at another evolutionary leap with the global connectivity offered by the internet. And we see everywhere the beginnings of a pendulum swing back to left and right hemisphere balance.

The question is, will it happen in time?


In the next and last article in this series, I’ll look at the structure, characters, and settings of story as a metaphorical journey toward integration of the two hemispheres, and why all people need to become storytellers as well as listeners before it's too late to tell a new story.

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


Sunday, January 15, 2012

This is Your Brain on Story

This is the first article in a series on story and the brain.

There is nothing more powerful than story. Those who tell stories literally create the world -- for better or worse. It's sometimes said that an enemy is someone whose story you don't yet know. But we can just as easily say that war starts with a story of threat. The stories we tell about our lives shape the way we interpret information streaming through our senses to our conscious mind. More than that, story shapes the brain itself.

Increasingly, neuroscientists understand the brain as a "plastic" structure that changes and adapts over a lifetime rather than one that is "finished" at a certain early point in life. Storytelling, in its healing use, intrigues brain researchers because of its observed ability to actually reduce symptoms of physical and mental illness, calm stress, and create deep emotional connection between teller and listeners.

We now live in a world of agonizing paradox: searching for happiness and finding emptiness; yearning for freedom yet increasingly caught in a web of regulations, hierarchies, and material expectations; striving for creativity and strangled by judgment; wanting intimacy, connectedness, and warmth but addicted to technology and virtual reality.

The underlying cause, says British psychiatrist Iain McCalister, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, is illustrated by the popular graphic above. The two hemispheres of our brain, left and right, which are meant to function collaboratively, are no longer doing so.

The control-seeking, standardizing, rational left brain has taken over, creating a world in its own image while marginalizing the humanizing, intuitive, inspired intelligence of the right brain, says McCalister. In its very nature, the left brain is a closed system that reflects only itself, like a hall of mirrors, like Narcissus gazing at his reflection -- a world that refuses to accept anything it doesn't already know.

Here's where story, creator of worlds, enters the picture:

In archetypal healing story, the claiming of the Grail is a metaphor for the integration of ego (the personality or smaller self) with Self (the part of us that connects with all of life, the collective unconscious, our soul). From a brain perspective, it is also a journey out of the ordinary world of left brain consciousness into the "special" world of the right.

In these stories, the hero is often an ordinary person who takes an extraordinary journey that kills the old limiting and self-absorbed ego, and releases Self into their life. They return with the ability to "see whole" -- that is, to see the whole picture of life from the perspective of whole brain, collective unconscious, the Soul. Understanding at last the core need beneath suffering and conflict, they are able to take the right action to restore life to a dead situation.

So can you see how story is a whole-brain experience?

~ “Once upon a time…” opens the gates to a vast but unconscious realm of information stored in the right half of your brain. Sensory images, landscapes, characters, and dramatic situations activate powerful memories, fantasies, and emotional states.

~ Story structure, including beginning, middle, and end; the sequence of scenes or chapters; suspense and dramatic arc -- these are the hooks that keep the left brain entertained, attentive, and satisfied.

~ Very briefly, story channels the intuitive, emotional, and inspired power of your right brain through the rational, structuring, and strategic power of the left brain. Aligned, the two hemispheres of your brain exert an enormous integrating and creative power, very likely beyond anything you've experienced.

You may have heard the phrase: "Change your thoughts; change your life." Well, now that phrase is evolving into "Change the brain; change the world."

You are so much more powerful than you know!

Two articles exploring story and the brain follow in the next couple of months. The next one is "Divided Brain, Broken World, and the Need for Healing Stories." The last article in this series is "Healing the Split: Why We Tell and Listen to Stories."

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Call to Adventure

We don’t tell the stories we live: we live the stories we tell ourselves. In other words, to a large extent, our outer lives reflect our inner realities, and we have more power than we think to shape our lives – whatever the outer circumstances.

We are born into this world as creatures of infinite possibility. From our first days, we connect dots of random experience that pour in through our senses. These connections become our foundational stories -- templates of expectation about who we are and how our life will be, deeply embedded in our unconscious and our senses, and generally inaccessible to the rational part of the mind.

Sadly, many of us become trapped in limiting stories about ourselves and our lives. These stories usually have nothing to do with our inherent gifts and everything to do with negative early experience or familial, gender-based, and cultural expectations. For the rest of our lives, or until we become fully conscious of these core stories and begin to intentionally express and transform them, they replay over and over again, in school, work, relationships, and self-sabotaging behaviors -- creating painful situations in our outer lives that mirror the inner pain from which we're hiding.

Often it takes outer crisis to drive us inward to really take a look around at what we’re projecting onto experience and how that may be contributing to our difficulties.

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.

The good news is that no matter how harsh a story you have to tell, it is your strength, because it is your truth. You can honor this story and tell it as it is, or you can choose to rewrite it. Either way, you are a living story.

How Does Story Transform Life?

1. Story provides structure for safely expressing pain and negative beliefs that hamper development. Telling the story of difficult experience makes you its master rather than its victim.

2. At the heart of every creative or life block is an untold story that obscures who you really are and what wants to emerge. Once that story is fully told, energy can flow into the new realities you want to create.

3. Story and other arts activate your inherent powers of resilience and self-esteem, especially the generative, playful, and balancing energies of your body, mind, and spirit.

4. Story is a spiritual practice that makes you more present in your daily life, in touch with your senses, awake to your larger world, and alive to deeper dynamics and possibilities.

5. When shared with receptive others, telling your story releases you from loneliness and isolation, bringing you into community with others. I call these communities "story sanctuaries" and the storytelling process "healing as gift exchange."

Living story isn't about forcing change. It's about knowing you're exactly where you need to be, fully embracing and expressing every aspect of the Now through a story perspective, and allowing the natural emergence of a new inner story and outer reality.

Tools for Creative Practice: The "Five Elements" of Your Story

My arena of emergence is the page, with words, images, weather, landscapes and interiors, characters, needs, conflicts, and actions unfolding as they need to. They show me the way forward in life. Poetry, dance, visual arts, dramatic enactment, drumming, and song tell stories too. Express your story in your own language.

1. Time. Time gives story its basic structure and dynamic quality. Time has two dimensions. First, it bestows beginning, middle, and end. Second, time refers to a specific narrative moment -- a day, a season, a year, or stage of life. What is the time frame of the story you want to find and tell? Is there a moment in your life that's ripe for exploration?

2. Environment, atmosphere, mood. Atmosphere is the context or foundational quality that underlies everything else. It's the ground from which arise images, language, characters, and situations. What's the context of your life at the moment? Turmoil? Stuckness? Probably not contentment, or you wouldn't be reading this blog!

External settings often mirror the inner environments and landscapes of the characters who live there. What stands out? What are the features, qualities, and colors of your world? What do they reflect in your inner life?

3. Character. The passions and needs of characters propel stories. Often we draw people into our lives who mirror unconscious aspects of ourselves. Who populates your story -- both in the outer world and in yourself? What's their most striking feature? Tricksters, mentors, destroyers, warriors, caregivers, lovers, rulers, and sages -- they're all there. Look for them.

4. Situation. What's going on that brings you to this process? Where's the lack? What needs to happen? The conflict between a character's needs and external obstacles creates action. This dance between need, situation, and action is your roadmap, otherwise known as plot.

5. The Storyteller. This is your place of power and the voice of freedom from circumstances. To whom are you telling this? What do you want to give them with this story? Tell a story and it no longer controls you. Tell your story and you step out of isolation into a larger life. Tell your story and you give hope or companionship to another.

Once you've seeded your story with the above elements, give it a title. Then write. What wants to emerge from this raw material? Feel the deliciousness of letting go. Let the words lead you. If something arises that disturbs you, dialogue with it. Find out more. If another medium appeals, draw, dance, act it out, drum it, sing it. Compassionately or exhuberantly, tell it! We're listening.

Living story is the path of unfolding adventure. When things get murky and you can't see a foot in front of yourself, remember this quote from the poet David Whyte:

"If the path ahead of you is clear, chances are it's someone else's path."

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.