Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Creativity, Compassion, and the Resilient Brain

A repost of a popular one from 2011.

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 http://www.knutsford-scibar.co.uk.)

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. http://www.nicabm.com.

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: http://drdansiegel.com/.) 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).


Monday, October 14, 2013

Rites of Return: Helping Our Warriors Come Home

Every year around this time, I post this 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 a distant and unhelpful government that sent them to war; with few listeners to whom they can tell their stories, help them grieve their lost innocence, or witness their struggle to return home, Iraq and Afghanistan vets -- as have so many veterans before them -- have become 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."


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tell Your Visual Story: Make a Mandala

A repost of a popular one from 2012.

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 life you're living right now is your living mandala. Putting on paper helps you see the totality of your life in a fresh and illuminating way.

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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Do We Tell and Listen to Stories?

N.C. Wyeth - "Odysseus and Penelope"
This is a repost of an article from May 2012.

The short answer: because we want to come home.

“… 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 provide scripts for living -- especially for living through difficult times. They 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 hero's journey story format, which has healed and uplifted lives from the beginning of human existence. 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 

The brain is an instrument of perception. The mind filters experience and actually shapes the brain, which in turn shapes the quality of mind experience. Mind holds the story we tell ourselves about our experience; brain feeds perception through the filter of story. This is how mind experience becomes life experience.

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.

There are remarkable parallels between the trajectory of the hero’s journey and the landscape of the brain.

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 can be understood as 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 -- direct experience. 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, 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. 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? What is life asking of you now?

All rights reserved. Juliet Bruce. August 2013. From a draft of Chapter 2, "A Different Medicine," in A Write of Passage, my book in progress to be published in 2014 by Wisdom Moon Publishing.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

How Story Can Help Stressed-Out Staff

Story has a role to play in every aspect of our lives.

Some years ago I presented a storytelling program for technical and support staff at a major hospital in Washington, DC. These are the people who operate the technology and shepherd patients through the acute care journey, from the first terrifying admissions interview, through pre-surgical tests and prep, to and from the OR to recovery -- and ultimately to discharge. Their impact on a patient's experience is huge. (You may have experienced the spike of fear aroused by a sullen admissions clerk or the trust that you were in good hands inspired by a gentle touch on your shoulder.) They bear the brunt of the stress in our dysfunctional care system, are on the receiving end of most complaints, and yet they are the forgotten employees.

"There's no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside yourself." -- Maya Angelou.

This was a special event held in a conference room usually reserved for hospital board meetings. The door was closed, with instructions not to enter during the two hours of this workshop. The atmosphere was determinedly non-clinical. With meditative music playing; platters of sandwiches, fruit, and cookies on a side table; and a complete absence of supervisors, there would be no mistaking this get-together for a departmental meeting.

I introduced the program with a scenario: They had probably left home in the morning with everything they would need during the day, I said: wallet, keys, cell phones, credit cards. Everything, that is, except what mattered most: themselves. Their hopes and worries about their kids; their plan for a dream vacation; the burden of caring for an elderly parent; and all the possibilities and potentials they had given up along the way to create a little security.

This time that we had together was dedicated to the untold stories they were carrying around all day as they tended to the care of others. Frankly, I wasn't sure how this invitation to greater intimacy in relationship would go over in an acute care hospital.

There were twenty-five participants, and as it turned out, a day-long workshop wouldn't have been too long for them. They were starved for attention, respect, listening. Everyone had a story and together they created a sorrowful documentary of a day in the life of a hospital worker.

One woman, whose job was to transport patients, described the loneliness and fear that she felt constantly in the face of so much suffering. "Sometimes I hug the patients, but it's just as much for myself as it is for them," she said.

As stories naturally do when people realize they are being heard, the stories moved from distress to hope to laughter and finally to transformational action. They shared with one another their dreams of taking night courses to finish college, getting a better job, going to Hawaii, seeing their grandchildren graduate high school. And they collaborated on an employee stress reduction plan to present to administrators.

1. They asked for a quiet room with plants, sofas, and soft music, where they could eat, read, catch a nap, and just relax. They got a small unused storage area.

2. They asked for a weekly support group for any staff who wanted to attend. They got a biweekly one.

3. They asked for more input in the staff weekly newsletter. They got article suggestion boxes in their departments.

But really, they got much more: a new sense of community and connection that could sustain them throughout the suffering they witnessed day in and day out. This project was only one clear drop in the toxic ocean of our healthcare system, but it changed how things were done and how people saw themselves in one small place.

And it began with the spark of collective creativity ignited by story.

If you would like to give your staff the gift of story this holiday season, please visit http://www.julietbruce.com/Story_at_Work.html .

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Age of Play

Paul Klee, "Love"

How to Set the Stage for a Creative and Compassionate Life

Living happily and successfully requires a rich fantasy life, the ability to imagine alternative realities, and the capacity to soothe ourselves using internal resources when life is filled with stress and conflict. In other words, fantasy is the key to dealing effectively with reality.

       Nourishing the imagination, teaching a child about life in the way that child thinks rather than as an adult thinks, creates the foundation for learning, acting effectively, imagining how another person feels, and developing the self-esteem gained by believing in their capacity to handle whatever life brings.
        According to a paradigm established by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, every stage of childhood has its own tasks, and each stage is critical to integrated psychological, physical, and capacity development. The age of play could be described, however, as a quantum leap out of infancy into childhood. By the age of three, our personality, with its gifts and needs, is beginning to take shape as we learn to master not just our own bodies, but the world around us.

"Are my gifts valued and worth supporting, or should I hide them away?"

        This is the great dramatic question a child must answer, once he or she knows they’re capable of taking care of themselves and are preparing to step forth out of the cocoon of family into the next threshold of life: school. 

        Can you remember how much courage it took to enter that first day of pre-kindergarten? No, probably not directly. But you may experience that same fear of the unknown, and of your own capacities to deal with it when you try to undertake something new in your adult life: going to a social event for the first time as a widow or widower, getting back into the dating game after a divorce, applying for jobs after losing your previous one, going to networking meetings, giving public presentations, pitching a book to an agent. The root of our confidence or lack of it very likely can be found in this early stage of life.

The work of a child is play. Play is a child’s vocabulary, a child’s way of figuring out the world, what goes up, what falls down, what is safe, what is not, what is edible. Almost from an infant’s first days, he or she plays. The mobile hanging over the crib, the fuzzy stuffed animals at the foot of the crib, the rubber ball in the mouth, the buttons on mother’s blouse, grabbing, suckling, jingling keys and laughing joyously at the sound they have the power to make.

The work of a parent is to gradually create a new kind of holding environment from the ones of earlier phases. Not the physical holding, or even the steadying and protective hovering as a toddler begins to walk. This is the holding environment that allows a child to play, to share with other children, to experience the first manifestations of empathy, the ability to imagine oneself into the life of another.

According to Erikson, about the age of three to five we get really serious about our play. During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. Note: I’m talking about non-competitive, unstructured play. Not soccer games, ballet lessons, or formal play dates that put pressure on a child to perform well rather than explore with glee. We make up stories with dolls, stuffed animals, toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We try out our abilities to dance, draw, make up stories, explore our fantasy life, test it against the reality of our family. We present plays. We also begin to use those critical words for exploring the world—What if?  In this pre-school stage, when we are preparing to step into the world of kindergarten, we play out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an older child and even an adult. We are like the emerging butterfly, beginning to pump blood into our wings.

As we play, we are developing the ability to plan in preparation for rudimentary goal achievement. We’re learning, through play, how to master our world. If we receive the support we need, our play evolves naturally into a sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, this is where all too many children are stuck and their creativity stunted -- when so many people become frozen, their burgeoning individual voice silenced, and their inner life is starved to near death. 

As we know all too well, if emerging life force is blocked in one direction, it will flow into another. Some years ago, I was shocked by young men in a diversion from incarceration program, who demonstrated no imagination beyond the narrative of their prevailing gang culture. Asked to draw self-portraits, everyone drew either a grave or hands holding onto bars. “I’ll be dead before I’m 21,” said one youth in response to a question about what kind of life he envisioned for himself as an adult. The violent environment of family, plus violent coaching from older uncles, brothers, neighbors, led to their inability to concentrate in school, with its predictable spiraling down and falling out of the rest of the human race.

What’s Your Age of Play Story?

Were you told fairy tales as a child? If so, you were lucky. Bruno Bettleheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, wrote that it’s at this age that fairy tale is most resonant with children. We’re ready to learn about life’s realities, but in a way that matches our vocabulary and the way we as children think. For instance, a child will ask to be told the same fairy tale over and over because it is solving some inner puzzle that the child can’t articulate. When that problem is resolved, the child is ready to hear and absorb a new story.
  1. What fairy tales, movies, TV shows stand out for you in childhood? What did you like about them? What character stood out? If you can’t remember, imagine.
  2. What dramas did you like to act out as a very young child? A tea party? A pilot? (I was a ballerina, president, pilot (never a flight attendant mind you, but always at the controls of a jet, not a big lumbering passenger plane. Interesting that I fear flying as a grownup!)
  3. What do you do to play now? Do you see patterns in what you did then and how you play now? Did those playful games become a root of passion or were they shut down before they evolved into real gifts and purpose?
  4. What makes you gleeful and how can you bring more of it into your life now? 
  5. Finally, who supports your gifts? What situations say yes, they're valued? Which do not? In reality, we will always be faced with obstacles and individuals who cannot see our gifts or don't want them. Being conscious and making intelligent choices is what is asked of us.
The power of expressive modalities--especially metaphor--is in being able to access and fill unmet needs of that inner three-year-old.

It's said that the shortest distance between two beings is a laugh.

All Rights Reserved. Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. 2013, from my forthcoming book, A Write of Passage, Chapter 3, "Your Life as Story."

This is the third question of life. The first, "Am I Safe," is the subject of a May 2011 blog post. The second is found in September 2011: "Finding Your Tribe." The second question of life is "Can I make my needs known and do I know how to get them met, or am I still totally dependent on others for my survival?" These questions replay throughout life, as we confront its challenges. When we are stuck in adulthood, chances are we are dealing with an unresolved question from childhood.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Story Medicine: How Metaphor Heals

If you're interested in transformational or therapeutic storytelling, this recent personal experience may serve as a template for how it can work.

For a long time, I've been asking for a Me in my life--someone who works at the depth and with the creativity I do--a healing story practitioner. 

She's arrived. Turns out that she's been here for a while, observing me, and decided it was the right moment to step forth and offer me a transformational partnership.

The other night, across the thousands of miles that separate her home from mine, I described what was going on in my life. She, with her own creative intuition, saw the colliding and conflicting demands that felt crushing to me--none of them self-created but all of them mine to resolve--as a group of whirling dervishes: out of control, without their form, bumping into and falling all over each other, creating havoc. Their dance was toxic; it needed to be stopped, and they needed to be sent to their rooms to quiet down. 

In my "real" life, she said, there needed to be compartmentalization of the issues and inner boundaries established to untangle the emotional chaos that was threatening my health and well-being.  

The Curative Power of Playfulness
Storymaker that I am, I glided into this delicious scenario as all-loving Rumi. I quietly stopped the whirling and asked each dervish to go to his own room to seek the Beloved. "The moment you accept what troubles you've been given, the door will open," wrote Rumi hundreds of years ago. 

My Rumi suggested they ask this question: "What is struggling to be born in this place?" Then he advised them to listen deeply.

One by one, Rumi worked with each dervish to untangle the inner knots that were creating a ripple effect of chaos in the community, and to regain his proper form.

Eventually, the dance resumed with peace and discipline, and the presence of the Beloved radiated in the golden light of the circle.

Before Rumi left, he reminded the dancers to "meet whatever comes at the door laughing, for it has been sent as a Guide from Beyond."

Play is Serious Business!

I slowly quieted down and regained my center as I shared my improvisational story with my partner, who was right there with me, witnessing and affirming the transformation. 

What happened here? She helped me change the story by listening as my healing imagination gave me the medicine I needed. More: she let my own my inner resilience work. My self-perception in that moment changed from that of a victim jeopardized by life's tangles into a ruler of my life who saw an opportunity to remake a situation, imagine something new, create a different story. 

And the effect, according to new neuroscience? A rewiring in the brain, detoxification and settling down of the central nervous system, an awakening of the right brain, and a resumed flow of life force. 

In my experience, nothing matches the rejuvenating, restoring power of the imagination applied to life. Meta-phor: To go beyond. "The imagination has powers of resurrection that science cannot match," wrote the author Ingrid Bengis. Through metaphor, I reframed and re-authored a situation. I played.

The following day, I woke up with the mad whirling, but was able to recreate the dervishes in my morning meditation, and to laugh. As a result, I sat quietly and then did my own practice so essential to my well-being: Qigong. I began to feel again the flow of my bright spirit.

This past week I was able to move through two grueling, left-brained consulting assignments at a large international agency; able to work on the most difficult chapter of my Write of Passage book, "The Valley of the Shadow," in which the hero finally overcomes the forces that block forward movement; and able to make several critical calls that involved a very difficult situation with a family member. 

I did all this with the poise, confidence, and deliberateness of a Ruler. Yes, I'm tired. But I'm also serene. I stepped up to the plate, did my best, and then I slept soundly.

Thank you, Rumi!

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
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. 


All rights reserved, except for Rumi poem and real Rumi quote, 2013, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Imagining Iago: The Transforming 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 play 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.

A Personal Experience with the Power of Metaphor

It never fails. Story is my medicine. Depressed recently about how powerless I'd been feeling over the pain of shingles, I decided to write a dialogue with this horrible malady. What emerged was a spokesperson for the enraged army of Parisian citizens who brought about the French Revolution. (I've never seen Les Miz.) I had been asking, as I always do in rough times, which I believe are birthing grounds, "What wants to come forth from this?" What I heard from the citizens is that they are my shadow gifts that I've been silencing and oppressing with worry. And they went on to tell me what they need. I swear it: the pain decreased. It's gone, at least for the moment -- and I haven't taken pain medication for hours. I know I'm getting the upper hand now.

I then went to the web looking for an image of my present emotional state, which I always seem to do, and found this Delacroix painting, "Liberty Leading the People." It was accompanied with a fascinating essay on the feminine liberator as a stand-in for a masculine liberator rather than as healer, that is the real province of feminine power. Here, the woman warrior is in the same archetypal pose as a male revolutionary at the head of an army of downtrodden; she's essentially a male figure with female qualities. New winners, new losers. Same patriarchal dynamic. When what's needed is winners and winners: the coming forth of the feminine power of healing and integration.

As always happens when I go to story -- misfortune, illness, and dis-ease turn out to be voices of a higher intelligence, and metaphors for something unstoppable within that is not being given voice in any other way.