Monday, December 14, 2015

How to Set the Stage for a Creative and Compassionate Life

Some years ago, I was shocked by young men in a diversion from incarceration program, who demonstrated no ability to imagine life beyond the narrative of their prevailing gang culture. Asked to draw self-portraits, each of these young men drew either a grave or hands holding onto bars. “I’ll be dead before I’m 21,” said one. The chaotic environment of family, plus violent coaching from older uncles, brothers, neighbors, led to their inability to concentrate in school, with its predictable spiraling down into the grim violence of street life -- or worse, falling prey to cult violence. 
The fact is that 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, what hurts. 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 as a child learns to play is to create a new kind of holding environment that differs substantially from the ones of earlier life phases. Not the physical holding of infancy, 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 be their own hero. This critical time is also when a child gets to experience the quality of empathy: the ability to imagine their self 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. 

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.

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?
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. 

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. 

The last event of the day in the family of a friend of mine is "Story Time." This is when he tells his kids a story -- sometimes a story of his day, sometimes a fantasy tale -- and lets them share whatever story they want to tell to him. How lucky his children are to have a dad who nurtures their narrative intelligence! 

Bruno Bettleheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, wrote that fairy tale is most resonant with very young children. At the age of three to five, 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 solves some inner puzzle that the child can’t articulate. When that problem is resolved, they become ready to hear and absorb a new story.

What’s Your "Age of Play" Story? 
  • Did anyone tell you fairy tales when you were a child?

  • What do you remember about that person, that time of day or night?

  • How does that make you feel right now?

  • What fairy tales or movies stand out in your childhood If you can't remember, imagine? What did you like about them?

  • 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!)How do you play now? Do you see patterns in what you did then and now? Did those playful games become a root of passion or were they shut down before  they evolved into real gifts and purpose?

  • Finally, who supports your gifts? What situations say "Yes! Your gifts are valued!" Which do not?
Free-write your response to any or all of these questions. Or write yourself into a fairy tale that you like. What do you take away from this exercise? Don't judge or edit. Instead, share with a trusted friend. Fill the unmet needs of your inner three-year-old.

In reality, we will always be faced with obstacles and individuals who cannot see our gifts or who don't want them. Being conscious of what's going on inside and making intelligent choices for ourselves is what is asked of us. And more than ever before, becoming a healthy, happy adult requires the ability to imagine new solutions, to step out into uncertain terrain, and to trust that we have an innate power to navigate an ever-changing reality.

The shortest distance between two sentient beings is a laugh.
All Rights Reserved. Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. from my book in progress, A Write of Passage.

This is the third question of life. Over the years, I have posted articles on the foundational narratives that shape our lives. The first, "Am I Safe," is the subject of a May 2011 blog post. The second, "Can I make my needs known and do I know how to get them met?" is found in September 2011: "Finding Your Tribe." 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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Catalyzing Change through the Language of Myth

Here is a powerful communal storytelling process adapted from Michael White’s Maps of Narrative Practice.[1]  It is based on storytelling work observed in the 1970s by cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff with a community of elderly Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles.
            Many of these people had migrated to the United States from the shtetls of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century and had lost their extended families in the Holocaust; a number had outlived their own children. The result was a sense of isolation from the rest of the community, a sense of invisibility, which manifested in depression, deeper isolation, loneliness, and frail health.
            With help from a community organizer, these elderly citizens created a community in which they could recuperate, be re-energized, and regain their sense of existence. They did this through telling and retelling, performing and re-performing the stories of their lives. It was in these small story sanctuaries that these old people had the opportunity to become visible on their own terms. Meyerhoff called these experiences definitional ceremonies—the storytellers got to define themselves and be witnessed.
            In the 1980s and 1990s, Australian family therapists White and his colleague David Epson, who had been using narratives with families, began to experiment with Myerhoff’s definitional ceremonies. In White’s and Epson’s practice, the therapist maintained his/her central role and elicited the stories through interviewing the clients and their selected witnesses.
            In the process described below, the therapist or facilitator steps back from their central role as interpreter and expert. After explaining the process to storytellers and witnesses, the facilitator does not intervene except to gently keep the process on track and focused on the central storyteller’s sharing. I call these storytelling and story listening experiences ceremonies of engaged witness.

1.      Tell a story, recite a poem, or use the fairy tale exercise to write a story. This builds a safe container and creates a focusing theme for participants in this experience. I often use myths and fairy tales, as they release people from “reality” into connection with their imagination, intuition, and inner lives. Also, these old stories are metaphors for present experience and, as such, are not invasive. I’ve never seen it fail: people universally and viscerally respond to fairy tales and classic myths.
2.      Invite a collective response to it. Each member gets to say what sensory images, phrases, or dramatic moments stand out for them. This is the creative question. Not why. Rather, what resonates. Anyone can share. No one has to.
3.      Invite private writing time. Each person finds their own private “studio” space, and when they’re settled, ask each to write down five words that come immediately to mind. Invite them to choose the word that most captures their imagination, and make that the first word of an improvisational piece of writing. Give them five to fifteen minutes for this exercise, deciding at the outset how much time you’ll have and affirming that everything they need to say will come out in this time. I often play meditative music during this period to create safety and privacy within the group.
4.      Invite reading for whoever wants to share with the group. Again, everyone is invited. No one has to.
5.      Invite each witness to tell what they heard in the reading, without interpreting, analyzing, giving advice, or judging in any way. Ask the listeners to reflect back only what they heard and felt—their direct emotional experience of the piece that’s just been read. This is the critical and catalytic part of the process.
6.      Listeners, focus your feedback on the following areas without being rigid or judgmental:
·         Images, rhythms, shifts in tone that stand out and the felt sense, atmosphere, or mood you get from the piece of writing you just heard;
·         What matters to the storyteller or the character they’ve written about;
·         Go further. What areas or memories in the listeners’ personal life that they may have forgotten are lit up by hearing this. (This last step is not necessary but heightens the catalytic process in merging storyteller and witness stories, and moves everyone upward and outward into a larger story.) 
7.      Invite the reader/storyteller to retell the retelling. Reader gets the last word: Ask what stands out for them in what they’ve heard from the group.
8.      Finally, translate the metaphorical expression of art into concrete reality by asking the teller questions: “What does this look like in your life?  What is life asking of you now?
      The importance of this last step cannot be overestimated. It’s the bridge out of metaphor back to “real” life. It grounds the creative experience in concrete action, while at the same time helping participants come forth from the vulnerable place within that may have been opened in this process.

[1] Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice, p. 165.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rites of Return: Helping our Warriors Come Home

Every year I publish this article in honor of those who have served, who still serve, and those who will never come home.

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 in 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.


by Eva Usadi, MA, BCD

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

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

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


Photo by Susan Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are a warrior in need of support or know of someone who might benefit from this experience, please contact Trauma and Resiliency Resources for dates and application process.

If you would like to be a benefactor for this program, please contact us through our web site. Thank you so very much for your support.

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Resilience and Healing Story

No matter where I have brought healing story in the last twenty-five years, a quality of relaxation, refreshment, and lovely
renewal has flowed. 

Whether it’s been in a prison, a homeless shelter, a hospital cancer unit, or a post-9/11 first responder treatment center—crowded environments filled with trauma, stress, fear, depression, and isolation—people relax. Their voices become stronger; strangers bond intimately; they laugh and weep together; life force flows; and profound healing occurs.

Again and again, an image, character, or situation in a modern story, fairy tale, or myth makes a connection with someone that has never been made before, or opens a blockage at a level of a listener's psyche that is inaccessible to their rational mind and ordinary language. Sometimes unimaginable transformations in mood, behavior, and life flow from this opening that emerges between a story and a listener. 

While trauma or loss may have tossed you out of the web of life, writing and sharing your story is the way back in. You’ll enter a larger field of human energy where you’ll find nourishment, light, restoration, and resilience based not on hope but on the reality of life’s hard beauty and its continuation. You’ll find sanctuary where new and healthy realities can emerge. 

“Even the worst losses become workable over time,” writes American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. “They become part of your life story and destiny; they become an important part of who you have become. Through surviving your difficulties, tenderness and compassion naturally arise. Your hardships are not only something intensely personal and intimate but also something you share with the entire world.” 

If you have experienced a traumatic event or a devastating loss; if you are feeling depressed and anxious; if you are stuck or lost, writing your story will endow you with a spirit of life-giving adventure. Sharing it with compassionate listeners will help you create a rich, warm life from the inside out and provide a channel for extending that warmth to others who are starved for light.

All Rights Reserved, Juliet Bruce, 2015, from "A Write of Passage"

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Holding it All: How to Relax and Enjoy the Chaos of Change

A soothing creative ritual in mindfulness, healing story, collage, and writing for people facing the challenge of change or wanting to cultivate equanimity in times of difficulty.

March 29, 2015
2-5 p.m.
Jewish Community Center of Manhattan
76th & Amsterdam
To register call 646.505.5708 or visit

For details on workshop, visit

Art by Jayne Frank

Times of change are filled with conflict and contrast -- the very stuff of creativity: light and darkness, flow and blockage, sudden openings followed by disappointment, brilliant insights and ideas at one moment replaced by anxiety and depression the next.

Believe it or not, this is a good moment: you have arrived at the metaphorical death before rebirth, breakdown before breakthrough, and chaos that signals a paradigm shift. You have come to the edge of what you've always known and now you stand face to face with the unknown.

In fact, the anxiety and depression you may be feeling are calls from something new that is struggling to come forth in your life. This workshop -- using intuitive construction paper collage and improvisational writing -- will give you easy creative tools to use daily, alone or with others, to see more clearly what is happening at deeper levels of your life. By creatively expressing your inner reality on the page, you will be enabled to see the subtext -- the story beneath the story that is taking place in your life -- and to support the fresh new reality that is emerging from stormy weather.

You don't have to be a writer or artist to get great benefit from this experience, but it will also be useful to writers who want to explore the subtext of work in progress and artists seeking renewed joy in their work. Bring your own images and photographs, or use construction paper provided to create an abstract collage.