Story and Transformation: A discussion from the HSA list serve

Compiled by Cristy West.

Cristy West:

I thought it might be interesting to consider what we mean when we talk “transformation” in the context of story. How are we hoping to transform our own lives? What sorts of transformative goals do we have for those we work with? What do we mean when we speak of “transformation” and how is this accomplished through story? Certainly this is more than a matter of a mundane goal such as losing a few pounds or cleaning out one’s messy drawers. Yet often such routine objectives can be a necessary first step in a more ambitious spiritual program.

I find myself thinking about what transpersonal psychologist Ralph Metzner wrote:

“In prior periods, in the mystical and religious literature of East and West, and in the secret oral traditions of esoteric, spiritual schools, the teachers have resorted to myths, parables,similes  and metaphors to allude to that strange process that changes, us, ourselves.”

He goes on to describe what he terms the “10 classical metaphors of self-transformation” that he lists as:

  1. The movement from dream-sleep to awakening.
  2. The movement from illusion to realization.
  3. The movement from darkness to enlightenment.
  4. The movement from imprisonment to liberation.
  5. The movement from fragmentation to wholeness.
  6. The movement from separation to oneness.
  7. The movement from being on a journey to arriving at the destination.
  8. The movement from being in exile to coming home.
  9. The movement from seed to flowering tree.
  10. The movement from death to rebirth.

In all these there seems to be above all, an awakening of movement, the drawing forth of innate creativity. Perhaps the process involves a transition from one set of outmoded guiding images to other, more vital ones?

So, what thoughts have others had on this HSA email list about this question? What do we mean when we speak of “transformation” and how is this accomplished through story?”

Christopher Maier:

“Trans-form” – to come into a new shape/structure across, beyond, on the other side of where one began. A story transforms us when we have a new point of view on our point of view. Personally, I pass through a transformative experience when my realization of how I hold myself, or others, or Life itself shifts in a global way. So not this or that has moved (furniture rearranged), but somehow the lens through which all is viewed has shifted.

Since every story is a miniature world, when we are really imagining it, we are trying on this new world. At times this new world sticks. I might call that transformative.

Cristy West:

I wonder what stories people have heard that changed their lives, to a greater or lesser degree? Or what tales have people told that they believe have had an effect on others? Erica Meade, in her book, Tell It By Heart, recounts meeting up with a former client who, years later, told Erica how much a particular tale inspired her. But usually we have slight evidence of how our tales affect others…

…For me, “transformative effects” come very gradually and result from the process of living with the stories and telling them repeatedly, deepening into meaning.

Joan Stockbridge:

Transformation and story are two words that I use frequently in the same sentence. Here are some examples of transformation that I have witnessed as a result of story:

After I had told a story in a classroom, a third-grade boy said to me, “I always have stomach aches at school,  every day. But on the days you tell a story my stomach ache goes away.” I had visited his classroom three or four times over the course of the year, and the day he came up to me was the day of my last visit. Some sort of transformation had occurred for that boy. Some times I think that for people under a great deal of stress- women in shelters, or this little anxious boy, or the children at the Crisis Nursery – story on a very simple level provides respite and relief, a break from pre-occupation. They forget their anxieties and difficulties and are simply given a momentary release, like a warm and soothing bath.

On another level, I think stories can lead to transformation because they enable listeners to glimpse a picture of an inner challenge (rage, fear, dependence, etc.) and also see an imaginative path towards resolving that problem. For example, I told the women in a shelter the story of “The Tiger’s Whiskers,” a Korean story dealing with rage and how to overcome it. The version I first read is in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, A woman said something along the lines of “My husband is like that soldier. I never knew what he was going to do. We’d get into it pretty good sometimes. Maybe I could try backing off a little and seeing what kinds of things could really help him—feed him you might say.”

A whole further level of transformation can happen if listeners can hear the story and take it in feeling that they are every part of that story; i.e. that they are not only the wife who learned to feed the tiger but also the enraged and wounded soldier home from war. For me this is a very tricky part of telling stories in a healing setting, knowing how far to go with the conversation and activities after the story. Usually my experience has been that listeners can readily say what parts of the story they liked, and what meant the most to them, and give some idea of why those images moved them. However, to get to the level of seeing themselves in all parts of the story which is where the most powerful transformations can occur, and which is definitely part of how I choose stories to tell seems to require some pretty explicit handling of the material, which so far I have been reluctant to do.

Cristy West sent me a great article from the January 96 issue of Storytelling that has an exercise for a group, where members of the group shout answers to complete the following statement ”I am the _____ in the story, and I feel _____.”

I haven’t tried this exercise yet, but I am eager to do so. I think it may be a way to help listeners work more deeply with story images, without violating the story’s ability to work within them and without pushing listeners further than they are safely able to go.

Essentially, I think stories heal and transform because they are expressions of the spiritual essence, power, and meaning that is at the heart of human nature. (I am an optimist, I know.) I am healed when I tell stories.

Listeners experience healing when they drop their guard and sinK into story, somehow re-connecting with a lucidity and meaning-giving essence that is restorative. As a storyteller, I hope and believe that stories by themselves are healing. My ongoing question, now that I have found myself in this wonderful area of applied storytelling, is to what extent I want to try to crack stories open, making them to some degree explicit. It is a marvelous dance, letting the story speak and then letting the listeners respond, hopefully with minimal interference from me.

I think non-verbal reactions to the story might be among the most helpful (drawing, collaging, re-enacting) because they let the story continue to resonate within the listeners without becoming too conscious and thus drained of some of their power. After all, if people start working literally with a story-“What! Going up a mountain and plucking a whisker from a tiger!,” the story’s power can be somewhat lessened. Preserving the inner truth and power of a story, letting it unfold richly within the psyche of the listeners, and bubble up into consciousness sufficiently to enable listeners to change behaviors is the trick! Sometimes I have seen that can actually occur.

I’ll never forget one woman in a Woman’s Empowerment program run by a shelter in Sacramento. I had told them the Scottish story of The Stolen Child. The group had discussed the story and this woman said, “Well, what I got from this was, Keeping your eyes on what you love gets you past what you’re afraid of: Several weeks later when I returned to the group, a woman was talking about her struggle to stay sober. She described really wanting to skip her AA meeting but then said, “Well,I thought about my kids, and I remembered that story, and I just decided to go.” How amazing.

Diane Rooks:

The technique you mentioned from Storytelling magazine is called “storyimaging” and was developed by storyteller and therapist Tina Alston. She uses the technique in her work and developed it (I think) for her extensive work with Vietnam veterans. The article is called “Exploring Feelings through Storyimaging” and is in the May 1995 issue of Storytelling.

Tina participated with the group facilitated by Gail Rosen, HSA chairperson, last fall at the storytelling festival in Jonesborough about healing story. It was held in the ISC tent and Tina told a short story and demonstrated her “storyimaging” technique. Anyone interested can read more about it in last fall’s HSA newsletter that is posted on our website, www.healingstory.org. Also, I interviewed her and talk about her work in my book, Spinning Gold out of Straw-How Stories Heal.

I believe healing occurs through story because of the power stories have to change and transform. When something within me is ignited or changed一thought, attitude, belief, interest and understanding一so that I am different in some way, then a story has transformed me. Those are the stories I seek as I continue to grow and discover who I am and what I was put on this earth to do. I figure the process will continue until I draw my last breath, which is why I feel so driven to discover those special stories. So many stories, so little time!

I am so grateful to all of you for the stories you share that have the potential to change lives and hearts.

Mary Clark:

This particular question is a good one. Over the last three or four years, I have found story mesmerizing and transforming. It has been I who chooses the transformation, who seeks through story to see and understand more of myself and the world around me….

An example is Little Red Riding Hood. I found that I kept saying I needed to collage that story. This occurred over a period of about three months. So I took up the challenge and began to dig in to this story and its various versions. I found myself drawn to the characters as if I was all the characters. I found I embraced the story on several levels. One was addiction (the wolf), the other was the story of the grandmother and mother and why they didn’t seem to know about the wolf. This led to a new version of the story, one that acknowledges that we can’t overcome what we cannot face ourselves. This helped me to come to a greater understanding of my own family dynamics.

I actually imagined and invited the wolf into my home. I watched the wolf as I watched myself become hungry, too hungry. I looked for what was good about the wolf, etc. It was like taking a part of me outside of myself and studying it, accepting what I saw and in the process healing.

My addictions, sugar and caffeine, were a big problem. I had resorted to bingeing and eating in ways that I never had before. Taking in the wolf as a part of myself was a big step. Shortly thereafter I was able to put on the brakes and choose a healthier lifestyle…

Caren Neile:

This question about transformation is one of the most important that can be asked about storytelling. The legendary anthropologist Victor Turner identified the social drama (human interaction) and more specifically ritual/performance as very much like the plot of a story:

  1. breach – leaving home or the status quo, opening oneself to new experience or
  2. crisis – a problem/question to be addressed,
  3. redress – addressing the crisis and
  4. reintegration or schism – either returning to the familiar with the knowledge gained through this process or leaving it altogether for new frontiers.

Turner identified the transitional period between stages 2 and 4 as the “liminal stage” or threshold between one state of being and another. This, he believed, is the stage in which art takes place. We might also think of it as the larval stage.

You can see how the four stages are closely associated with adolescent rites of passage, such as a young man’s first hunt or working toward the Bar Mitzvah. When we tell or hear a story, we accompany the characters on this journey through the four stages. We are in the liminal state while we are in the midst of it, and, if the story “works” for us, we emerge transformed, like a butterfly, after it is over.

Incidentally, in Turner’s analysis, the social drama led to the establishment of communities or deep communal feeling. This is one reason I believe so strongly in the power of story to resolve differences. (Ah ha! A plug for the Social Action Committee of HSA!)

If this discussion interests you, see of Turner’s Anthropology Performance and The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure.

Kathleen Wittenberg:

I’ve been rolling this “transformation” thing around in my mind and your comments jogged my thoughts more. I find the stories that touch me the most are personal stories, and I hear those every day as a therapist working with individuals and groups.

Years ago when I first began to learn chants, I got it into my head that I would collect them and write them all down, somehow get the tune for the chant and get that onto music tablature as well. In a short time I learned how chants shift and change and can have different words and a different tune as well. Trying to nail them down became an impossible task and I surrendered. I came to be able to enjoy them as they were – as an oral tradition.

Some time ago, I was helping a friend’s daughter paint her bedroom. It was the first time she’d ever painted and I offered to help. My friend didn’t want to take part in the painting, but came in periodically to chat with us. Several months later, my friend and I were talking. She shared how much she’d learned from watching me while I was painting. How she always was the kind of person that didn’t like getting “messy”, and so held herself back from doing many things that she knew she would have enjoyed doing. She told me how she noticed that I had on old jeans that were paint spattered and how I would just absent-mindedly wipe my hands on the front of my pants as I worked and how much that impacted her, to the point where she dug out some old clothes and made those her “messy, ’ clothes and began experimenting with being more messy in her life. That story impacted me because I realized how much people really do observe each other and learn from each other, at times when we least expect we are being observed. So even when I think people don’t notice me or what I’m doing, they are observing me and may be learning something important for themselves.

I think the special stories are the ones that touch us deeply, and we never know how or when or where that’s going to happen. With an oral tradition such as storytelling, there is so much richness in the energy, setting, tone, awareness that comes during the telling, just before and afterward. Having the right story for the moment could be as simple as a Buddhist proverb or a Dr. Seuss rhyme or a memory from childhood or an experience from last week. I am transformed when I have a different awareness then I’ve had before, and when I can integrate that into my life and do things differently and grow.

Bobby Avstreih:

Kabir, the transformational poet from India translated by Bly, refers to a chestnut seed that contains, the tree, the future chestnuts, and most sublimely, the cooling shade. (And by implication, our intimate connection to it, since it is we who recognize/appreciate the shade). Kabir goes on to use the image of a pitcher full of water placed down on/within water. “Then you have water inside and water outside.” He ends warning about wise men making “distinctions between the body and the soul.”I have carried this poem for over 15 years, and now it seems to relate to your question about transformation.

I would say there is no transformation, only awakening to where you are at that time, as the chestnut seed “transforms” into tree, new nuts and shade. To use the common butterfly image, is the caterpillar “transformed” or just on a continuum of change (Are my personal Taoist beliefs leaking through here?) I would argue that resisting change is resisting life, just as I would argue that true-believers of whatever religion are really idolaters and blasphemers. Certainly nothing resists creativity as strongly as static belief systems.

I think I would toss out “transformation” altogether, except for moments of true Grace, and use “awakening to possibility” instead.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 20023.

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