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.