Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

I love a blue sky. It lifts my spirits and warms my heart.

A plain dull grey sky has the opposite effect.

But wait, the sky isn’t featureless. Even a horizon to horizon cover of grey cloud is never completely homogenous. There are always variations there. There are thickenings, patches where the sun almost breaks through, or lighter patches which are backlit by the sun. There are swirls and lines and sheets and all kinds of forms. You just need to slow down, pay attention and notice.

I think the richness of features in the sky are partly down to the water molecules which make up the clouds, partly down to the light from the sun, partly down to the temperature changes and air currents, but it has another layer of richness added by the human imagination. We are the pattern seekers, and pattern creators par excellence.

Look at this sky for example.

There’s the silhouette of the edge of a tree on the far right of the image. Let your gaze drift across leftwards from there. What do you see?

I see the shape of an eye. The way I’d start to draw an eye by marking two lines in the shape of connected ellipses. There’s no sign of an eyeball, so this is either a closed eye, with the darker edge of the lower lid representing eyelashes, or it is the eye-shaped hole we often see in masks.

Once I’ve seen this I can’t un-see it.

Isn’t that strange?

It takes the imagination to “see” an eye in the sky, but once it’s there it has an impact. I feel watched. I feel seen. I can understand how ancient peoples believed that multiple gods and spirits lived with them. And even if those gods and spirits don’t seem real any more. There was a time when we humans had an awareness of a shared cosmos. They experienced wholeness and connections in their everyday. They didn’t have to question or analyse it, reality just seemed to be that way. Everywhere they looked they saw patterns, told stories, made sense of the phenomena of the ordinary day. Everywhere they turned they brought their imagination to bear and saw connections, discerned meanings, and drew upon what they learned to create art, to find their way across the planet, and to learn how to adapt to the changes and the seasons.

I don’t think there is any way to go back to those times, and I also believe that we have learned a lot since then, that we have deepened our understandings, broadened our knowledge. But I have a nagging feeling that we live in more superficial times now. That life seems somewhat thinner without that rich imaginative layer of stories, shapes, forms and patterns.

But, hey, none of that has gone away. We are able to slow down, to pay attention and to activate our imaginations any time we want. We can see more than a passing glance will reveal. We can make connections of greater depth and significance. We can new stories of the wholeness of Gaia, of the interconnectedness of all beings, of the constantly changing evolution and development of forms and diversity.

We can enrich our lives with art, poetry, stories, music, dance, ritual and loving relationships.

Well, why not?

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The World is made of Stories, by David R Loy [ISBN 978-086171-615-9] is a wonderful little book, full of memorable quotes about the place of stories in our lives. I read a lot about stories, as well as reading, and hearing, stories every day, but this book is a bit different because it’s written from a Buddhist perspective. I’m not a Buddhist, but it’s refreshing to read a different take on stories. Here are some quotes to give you a flavour of the book.

Like the proverbial fish that cannot see the water they swim in, we do not notice the medium we dwell within. Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world. But we can change the water. When our accounts of the world become different, the world becomes different.


The world is not composed of facts, because what counts as a fact is determined by the theory – the story – it is related to. Science is not primarily about discovering facts. It is about accounting for the relationships that make them meaningful.

I especially liked his references to the relationship between story and landscape, which is such a core characteristic of Celtic culture.

To the native Irish, the literal representation of the country was less important than its poetic dimension. In traditional bardic culture, the terrain was studied, discussed, and referenced: every place had its legend and its own identity…..What endured was the mythic landscape, providing escape and inspiration. (R.F. Foster)


Landscape is a palimpsest: a manuscript on which more than one text has been written, with the earlier writing incompletely erased.

Let me leave you with one more, perhaps the most appropriate one for this blog –

In the long run, whatever it may be, every man must become the hero of his own story; his own fairy tale, if you like, a real fairy tale. (P.L. Travers)


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This blog is called heroes not zombies because I believe we all tend to sleepwalk through life (in a kind of zombie way), but that we have the opportunity to wake up and be the heroes of our own stories. So, I was especially struck by the following passage in “Metaphors we live by” –

Self-understanding requires unending negotiation and renegotiation of the meaning of your experiences to yourself……It involves the constant construction of new coherences in your life, coherences that give new meaning to old experiences. The process of self-understanding is the continual development of new life stories for yourself.

I think this is SO on the button. It grasps the dynamic, creative, ever-changing, ever-growing process of understanding which comes about through telling, editing, revising and re-telling our life stories. These stories are not fantasy of course. Rather they are the process of creating meaning from our experiences. They do this by developing coherences. We continuously strive to make sense of our experiences, and making sense means building on the existing coherent stories we tell about ourselves to make them more coherent in the light of our newest experiences. Additionally, this passage hits the nail on the head by pointing out that the new coherences cast a new light on older experiences. This is the healing potential of understanding.

Myths are the key stories which create our lifeworlds. Myths are not false stories. They are our most fundamental ones.  As Lakoff and Johnson say

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience; they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

Are you aware of the metaphors, the myths, the stories which you use to comprehend your experience?

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Because I deal with stories every day, I decided to learn more about the place of narrative in human experience, but coming from a medical perspective I couldn’t find much about narrative, even though there are emerging disciplines of “narrative-based medicine” and “narrative-based research”. Instead, I found the best thinking on storytelling lay in the world of the Humanities. In fact, Richard Kearney’s “On Stories” gave me more insights than any other single work.

It was interesting, therefore, to read this perspective, from Scientific American, which describes how researchers are beginning to study the use of narrative in order to gain insights into the workings of the mind. “Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?”

The first problem scientists face, however, is defining a story! What exactly constitutes a story?

Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard approach defines narrative as a series of causally linked events that unfold over time. A third definition hinges on the typical narrative’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with minds—who possess various motivations.

I loved the conclusion they reached –

However narrative is defined, people know it when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism—recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters. “Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism,” says Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. “We can tell when something rings false.”

In other words……you just know! How often this applies in life! How do you know when you are well? How do you know when your energy levels are good? Guess it’s the same when it comes to recognising a story. It’s a function of human intuition.

Do you become immersed in stories? Completely absorbed by them? Well, it turns out that if you have prior experience which is similar to that of the characters in the stories then you are more likely to become immersed in those stories. This is kind of obvious. It means that you are more likely to become absorbed by a story if you identify with the characters. One step beyond this conclusion is interesting though…..those who become more easily immersed in a wider range of stories have been shown to be those who have the greatest capacity to empathise. Interestingly, this can work the other way too…….you can increase somebody’s ability to empathise by teaching them literature! The ability to empathise is the ability to imagine what’s going on in someone else’s mind – scientists call this “theory of mind”. Theory of mind develops in children around the age of 5 and is a key part of the human ability to live in communities. So, storytelling also has the possibility of improving our skills in living together.

Other scientists have studied stories to see what they reveal about human motivations and goals –

As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed “sacrificial” by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

Are these the basic, common themes we find in stories? Do you agree that stories reveal the common human patterns of motivation and desire?

Let me finish this post with the final point made in this interesting article – the power of stories to influence us. This is well understood by advertisers and PR companies, but this point really struck me –

…..labeling information as “fact” increased critical analysis, whereas labeling information as “fiction” had the opposite effect. Studies such as these suggest people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set.

Now isn’t that interesting! Stories are more likely to convince people than “facts”!

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