Stories have power. We tell ourselves stories all day long. Stories about the past and what it meant, as well as stories of how we want the future to be.
Other people tell us stories as well. Media bombardment about what and how we should think: slow-bleed toxicity leaking into our systems as we seek some space to think our own thoughts and to live our own lives. Their desperate hands claw at us as we try to break the surface to gulp in the fresh air of our own freedom.
Michel Foucault knew about the power of the stories we tell. The big stories or meta-narratives that we get told, and tell ourselves, profoundly shape our beliefs about who we are and what we are worth. In fear of nuance and complexity, we create stories to help manage our fears, and often push the source of our confusion outside of ourselves and as far away as possible! It’s hard not to do this, but as we wake up to it, we can begin to explore the possibility of writing something new.
In his groundbreaking work with David Epston, the family therapist Michael White recognised that his clients were often bringing a particular set of stories into the therapy room. Because of the nature of his work, these stories were often “problem saturated narratives”, i.e. ones that focused almost exclusively on the problems being experienced, and often bowing under the weight of medicalised diagnosis. In their evolution of Narrative Therapy, White and Epston sought to help people recover the lost, “shy” stories of function that were often hidden. In helping people uncover these stories they often helped them tap into forgotten veins of resilience.
The stories that constrain us are like the Gnostic Archons of old. They are spirits invested in inducing an amnesia that causes us to forget our true potential. They are the dusty layers that accrue on our Buddha Minds, impairing our ability to see and be seen for who we really are. These archonic tales make sense—of course they do! Otherwise we wouldn’t pay them heed. Sadly they often play to our fears about the other, the different, and the new. They deal in certainties that downplay the detail and rely on the grouping together of humans and ideas so that tidy labels can be applied.
Perhaps the first stage in recovering these shy stories is learning how to listen. Rather than anxiously projecting into the future or getting lost in the labyrinths of past “what ifs”, what happens if we try to taken in our current situation with a bit of Zen beginner’s mind? Contemplative practices are good for this, allowing silence and space to turn down the volume on our endless narrative that we keep telling ourselves. This is not an easy place to start as the uncertainty and apparent emptiness can feel bewildering as we sit with things rather than endlessly updating our internal status. If nothing else this is a good chance to do less and cultivate some curiosity: “What the hell is actually going on here?!”
Part of the power that big stories (meta-narratives, dominant discourses) hold over us is the sense of inevitability that they engender. These stories often like to fix identities and to locate qualities within groups or individuals rather than trying to understand the more complex interaction that occurs between ourselves, others and the social context we sit within. Yes, patterns can be reinforcing—e.g. you might bomb the shit out of people and they may get angry with you—but it doesn’t follow that all those people are angry at all times and in all situations. Thankfully Systemic thinking and Narrative approaches (with all their postmodern grooviness) have some interesting ways of interacting with, and disrupting, such viciousness circles.
In contrast with more Freudian approaches, rather than locating qualities within a given individual, Systemic and Narrative approaches are more interested in the dynamics between people, and the scripts and stories that are constructed as we interact within a variety of socio-political settings. Rather than being overly preoccupied with prying secret meaning from the depths of the unconscious, it seeks to explore new or lost meanings by being curious and Columbo-like about the way we communicate.
One technique that can open up such curiosity is that of externalisation. If we tend to locate current challenges internally: “I am a failure” or “I am depressed”, externalisation invites us to decentralise the issue and enter into a dialogue with it. E.g. ‘how long has depression been affecting aspects of your life as a whole?’. In working with this approach we might write letters to the given issue-
“Dear Book Buying habit….”
In writing we are not seeking a quick fix, rather we are seeking to explore both the negative and positive aspects of a given issue in our lives. Book buying might be connected to an academic pressure to know more than others but equally it might represent more helpful urges towards self-development. By de-centralising issues that feel problematic, good Narrative practice then seeks to explore the space created. Are there other stories of function? Can we tune into shy skills and talents that have become buried by problem saturation?
To disrupt, de-centre and externalise are innate to much of magical practice. Our engagement with spirits is a way of understanding and negotiating with differing aspects of ourselves. Things that we may want to exorcise and/or build pacts with. This is not to reduce them to mere psychological parlour tricks; rather it helps us understand the deeper motives for the alliances we seek. Those interested in this approach should check out the awesome work of Philip Farber, and Ramsey Dukes’ Little Book of Demons.
To be a magician is to awaken to the narrative being told, both by ourselves and the cultures that shape us. We can’t really turn the story off, but we can choose to slow the story down, listen more clearly and become more active in creating narrative rather than simply consuming those that others give to us. Don’t let the Archons grind you down!