“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
― Joan Didion
I’ll start by telling you a story. It’s a true story from several years ago of a time when I personally experienced the healing power of story. I was doing a contemplative drum journey, consciously opening myself to mythological imagery and letting my creative imagination become an expressive medium for the deeper mind.
As I lay comfortably in bed, listening to rhythmic drumming, I saw myself near red rocks of a spectacular canyon in the South Utah, the site of a life-changing hiking trip I once took with my Dad. In my vision, a mischievous crow picked me up and carried me past some surreal rock formations into the sky—then beyond. I felt a shift in atmosphere, as in a fairy tale when the children pass through a portal into a different, magical world.
The crow plopped me down in a white snowy landscape. Through the thick swirling blizzards, I could just make out a few log cabins. Ahead of me was a camp fire, and standing next to it, a craggy old woman in tattered robes. She had a dignified bearing despite being hunched with age, and carried a long gnarled walking stick. The crow landed on her shoulder and her wise eyes turned to me. Just seeing this crone in my mind’s eye sent massive shivers of cool energy down my spine. Her glance seemed to take in everything about me, my past, my future, far beyond my own understanding. For no good reason, I began to cry.
“It’s good you have come,” she said, moving over to where I lay crying on the snow, waiving her staff over me like a wand. Some small part of my mind couldn’t help but remark about this tired fantasy cliche, yet despite the commentary of my inner cynic, the bulk of my psyche lapped up the imagery. I felt waves of intense sensation and emotion passing through my physical body even as I witnessed my visionary body writhing beneath magical energies shooting from the crone’s staff.
When the healing was complete, the old woman said, “Avi, you are to be a guardian of the old magics.” I had no idea what she meant, but it felt right. I thanked her and the crow took me back to the canyon in Utah. I opened my eyes, feeling revitalized and cleansed.
Oh-kay, so a lot of you might be scratching you heads wondering if I secretly took a something a little stronger than a recorded drum beat. The truth is, even the drum isn’t strictly necessary: the creative imagination is a remarkable thing when it’s liberated from the shackles of mundane rumination.
In this journey, my storytelling mind tapped into something wonderful and liberating that my analytic thinking mind, and even my equanimous meditator mind couldn’t find. The story and images that played out, generated by my unconscious mind—or perhaps an even more mysterious source— turned out to be exactly what I needed in that moment. Our brain’s ability to tell stories is one of our fundamental modes of understanding the world (see this awesome TED talk for the science).
In mindfulness practice, we find ourselves noticing the habitual stories that play in our heads on a loop, often causing us great misery and pain. By noticing and getting some distance from these stories we can start to break free from their unconscious pull over us. As we start to loosen our attachments to those those old unhelpful stories, our minds become free to tell new ones.
The process of creating new, life-enhancing narratives for ourselves doesn’t have to be left to chance. We can employ conscious practices such as creative writing, mythopoetic reading, or visionary journeying to harness the mind’s narrative gifts. The stories we tell or receive can dislodge fixations and break harmful patterns. They can also orient us to radical new possibilities for our lives, possibilities that were literally unimaginable prior to the tale.