The more I participated in ritual and ceremony, the more I found myself telling stories. I came to understand stories as the glue that binds people together into families and culture. We know we are in the same family because we tell similar stories when we get together. Likewise, members of a culture share stories, often ritualistically enacting them at specified times…. The story and the ritual are inseparable.
Stories appeared to be vehicles that carry the basic, irreducible unites of meaning in life. They contain the secrets for how we transform. They carry the wisdom that teaches us how to change, how to deepen our spirituality, how to have faith, and how to recognize our hidden assumptions about life that prevent us from finding creative solutions to life’s problems or lock us in destructive solution…this is the wisdom of the stories we tell and that are told for healing and transformation.
It is no accident that when asked to explain how they changed, transformed or got well, people embed their explanations within a story….People come to healers over and over telling stories about how sick they are, that they are dying, that there is no hope. Healers tell them different stories, stories that emphasize hope, that cast sickness as a stage to pass through (a territory, river to cross, mountain to climb), that insist that they will live and that cultivate faith. The healers tell these stories to show their patients what they cannot tell them directly.
Sitting in Native American ceremony one day, I realized that, whatever else healing may be, it is a negotiation of story. I had long ago abandoned the idea that I did therapy. Therapy contains the idea that I can ‘treat’ someone else, an idea that seems specious and patronizing. I preferred the idea that I could tell stories that might inspire people to change. I saw the Native healers in this same negotiation, a process that has been called, “reauthoring”
While it remains mysterious that telling stories can change physiology, scientific research is beginning to discover potential explanations for how this happens. Stories affect our states of mind, which are reflected in changes in brain states. When we are happy, PET scans of the brain show patterns of regional blood flow different from when we are sad. These patterns of blood flow are different in states of joy compared with states of depression. The stories we tell ourselves inform us about how to perceive the world around us…Change the stories and perception changes. Changed perception means changed experience and change in experience alters brain biology. Since the brain regulates everything in the body, including the immune system, the body changes when the brain changes. Here is the beginning of our understanding about how stories can have healing power.’’
Stories contain and convey the meanings and values of our lives. They tell us how to perceive the world. They give us cultural identity…they comfort and heal us, both in the listening and the telling. They contain the living symbols we use to make sense of our world….stories are the unites of meaning for life, and life unfolds through the enactment of those stories…the stories that inspire us represent blueprints for the ways we conceive of ourselves and our world. In short, we are our stories. We live them as they live us.
At some point in our journey through life we all ask questions. Stories contain our answers. They impose order onto the chaos of our experience. They help us organize our experience in time. They provide a beginning, middle and ending. They locate our experience within cultural contexts and geographies. They tell us who we are, where we are, and what we are
We need to mature to a larger perspective that encompasses the role of the stories we tell in helping us to transform and to heal ourselves and our communities.
Stories contain the hidden secrets of transformation…while we cannot command transformation, we can create an enriched environment that makes it more possible.
People rarely transform on their own but instead do so in relation to others who support their transformation. Shared stories create healing communities, which is the purpose of ceremony and ritual. Unlike modern scientists who pretend to have crystal clarity, we narrative scientists of healing are stumbling through a forest of stories in which the mysteries of life of each tree remain elusive but are somehow reveled to us through the fruit of the trees.
On Creation Stories
In my studies of extraordinary healing, I didn’t encounter a single person who had healed in isolation. Perhaps such people exist, but I could never have found them if they existed in that much isolation. The philosopher Ervin Laszlo believes that communities of people are connected by fields of energy. He provides an explanation within the realm of contemporary physics for Jesus’ statement that “I am there whenever two or more are gathered in my name.” People create systems that generate an energy field, which feeds back to make the people within the system more connected to each other and more coherent in their thoughts and feelings. Ancient tradition teaches us that when two or more people gather to pray and worship, over time their prayers become more powerful. Modern research shows greater energy-field strength when more people are praying together, with increased coherence among their brave wave patterns. These energy fields are generated by the relationships formed through the telling and sharing of shared stories. Powerful healing is created through the telling and retelling of shared stories that build the energy field connecting the people involved, as has happened within Native American communities throughout the ages. When the same people do ceremony together week after week for years, great healing power is created.
In Ervin Lazlo’s systems philosophy, these physical conversations affect and become embedded within a larger energy field (the quantum waveform), which, in turn, feeds back to “in-form” the people creating the conversation about a more comprehensive version that includes everyone’s ideals and contributions. The field contains the entire conversation, while each individual holds only a small part of it. Rupert Sheldrake called this energy field the morphogenic field, arguing that it contains ideas that become accessible to everyone. What this means is that our explanatory stories, our creation stories, really do feed back to create us. They become larger than we are, even develop biological effects...Membership in the community makes one an “actor “on a stage in which the product (what is created) works phenomenally well. The more central you are as an actor in the “play” about the product (of what is created), the powerful it will be for you. Peripheral characters may not get nearly the benefit that comes to true believers. This means that the power of any substance is not separable from the stories told about that substance – stories about where and how it was created accompanied by testimonials…Biological activity is inseparable from stories about how useful something is in practice. This makes perfect sense if biology and consciousness are inseparable. The creation stories and the biological effect inform one another, building progressively greater power.
All cultures have creation stories about how they came into being: the Book of Genesis, the Bhagavad Gita, the Native American creation stories that follow. The early Christians told the stories of the birth of Jesus, his teachings and healings, and his Crucifixion and Ascension. Communities having founding fathers and mothers…Churches tell stories about how their faith was created. Marriott Hotels place a book inside guest rooms with the history of the Marriott brothers and their efforts to build a hotel chain. The radical departure from convention thinking is to imagine that these creation stories are contained as information within a field of energy mutually generated by the people involved in the activity. This helps these people to be coherent with one another in their pursuit of the activity. Some of the information contained in the field is inspirational to body healing. The more strongly we participate in the activity (church, business, school – all of which are also systems of wholes greater than the sum of their parts), the ore we are influenced by this energy field that helps reorganize our thoughts to be consistent with the goals of the activity and coherent with others participating in the activity. This is what builds power. On the most mundane level, this wisdom for how to participate is contained in the stories we tell each other, notably our creation stories.
By telling appropriate stories, I convey my unshakable conviction that the listener has the potential to grow and change. Each time a person remembers that story or relives part of it, the story seems to act upon her. The more it acts upon her, the more she starts to believe its implicit message, even if she can’t verbalize that message. We eat the story through our ears and it gets digested and assimilated into our bodies, a process that is sometimes called internalization. I don’t know how stories do this, but maybe they enter in the same way viruses or bacteria enter the body – through an open portal. Those portals can be cuts, mouths or minds. The brain is also a sensory organ. Just as we hunger for food, we also crave a constant diet of stories. Just as the stirring sticks the Dineh women use to make cornmeal mush were given to them by the holy people as symbols and weapons against hunger, our stories were given to us as symbols and weapons to use for healing.
Each creation story is told in the words and images unique to its language and culture. We ensure the continued creation of our culture when we tell and retell its creation stories. By telling and retelling our own creation stories, we ensure our continued existence. Change the story, and the person telling it will change. Stories create us as much as we create them.
An excerpt from The Introduction of
Coyote Wisdom – The Power of Story in Healing
by Lewis Mehl-Medrona,
The Connection between Stories and Healing
The telling and retelling of stories is the powerful means by which cultures of families and communities are formed and maintained, national identities are preserved, problem-solving skills are taught, and moral values are instilled. Stories can inspire, uplift and transform their listeners.
Embody Your Story; Become Enlivened