The Power of Narrative
A Time to Kill is an American courtroom drama whose climax carved itself into my memory twenty-four years ago. The story: Two white men raped a black girl. The police arrested them, but since the crime happened in Mississippi at a time when racism was still rampant, they were likely to walk free. This induced the girl’s father to shoot down the rapists in the county courthouse. The remaining part of the movie deals with the father’s trial. During the closing arguments, the father’s attorney didn’t tell the jury, “Please have pity with this man.” Instead, he described (showed) in great detail how the girl was abducted, raped, beaten, unsuccessfully hung, and, at last, dumped in a river. And then, he asked the jury, “Now imagine she’s white.”
This is the undisputed power of narrative.
Narratives have the power to take us to places. And when we get to those places, we understand.
Narratives in Society
We are not really aware of this, but narratives are the driving forces of social change. For example, narratives drive politics, as George Monbiot explains in his TED talk A New Political Story.
The same is true for economies, as this TED talk demonstrates: The Anti-CEO Playbook.
Fascism, communism, and capitalism have their own narratives, with heroes and villains, and prophesies of happy endings.
Because of the power of narrative the pen mightier than the sword. Wars – violent and peaceful – are won with the heart and stories conquer hearts. A narrative won the American Revolutionary War against all odds.
Susan Conley believes that the power of stories can transform the lives of students and change communities. Here is her TED talk:
Why do narratives work? Because people are hardwired for stories.
A narrative gave birth to Christianity. At Jesus’ time, religion was a means to an end. People sacrificed to the gods – or God – to ensure divine support. Paul created a new, religious narrative, incidentally by turning religion upside down. In the Christian narrative, God sacrificed himself for his people.
Narratives Put Experiences on New Levels
We are immortal souls having planetary experiences. We can experience on seven levels:
- Experience our planet (climb mountains and visit beaches)
- Experience nature (visit forests or go diving)
- Experience society (socialize and compete)
- Experience relationships
- Experience other people’s creations (things, stories, websites)
- We create our own experiences (build a career, start a family, invent, paint, write, fulfill our heart’s desire)
- Pursue enlightenment (access other realities and the totality of our self)
Experience levels 3. to 7. are created, either by us, others, or by teamwork.
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. – George Bernard Shaw
Creations require narratives. Are you conscious of the narrative of your relationship? It has two authors. Is your relationship a teamwork narrative or a battle of two competing narratives?
Companies and their products have (subtle) narratives.
A painting has a (hidden) narrative and so does a sculpture.
Last but not least, your life has a narrative. You author your life. You build the stage, you write the script, and you act it out. How to give your life a conscious narrative, you can learn in the free Write Your Life-story email mini course.
The Psychology of Narrative
How do stories take us to new places? I like Carlos Castaneda’s explanation:
He said that the seers see that infants have no fixed assemblage point at first. Their encased emanations are in a state of great turmoil, and their assemblage points shift everywhere in the band of man, giving children a great capacity to focus on emanations that later will be thoroughly disregarded. Then as they grow, the older humans around them, force the children’s assemblage points to become more steady by means of an increasingly complex internal dialogue. The internal dialogue is a process that constantly strengthens the position of the assemblage point, because that position is an arbitrary one and needs steady reinforcement.
…”But would it be possible to encourage children to keep their assemblage point more fluid?” I asked.
“Only if they live among the new seers,” he said. “Otherwise they would get entrapped, as the old seers did, in the intricacies of the silent side of man. And, believe me, that’s worse than being caught in the clutches of rationality.”
– Carlos Castaneda, The Fire from Within, page 13
The assemblage point restricts our perception to a particular area or layer of reality. Naturally, that is planetary experience. Family, society, and communities limit our field of experience further, for example, to a Christian experience, a meritocratic experience, or an atheistic experience.
What is the assemblage point? The assemblage point is our ego, the entity which perceives experiences. The assemblage point produces the internal dialogue, which is a self-narrative. We tell ourselves that we are like this and like that. And we tell ourselves that the world is like this and like that. The internal dialogue is the box we crouch in.
Luckily, narratives also have the power to take us out of our box.
On a side note, emotional responses impact and limit perception as well. When we’re hungry, our perception focusses on food. When we’re scared, perception focusses on a flight path. That’s why narrators, in particular, political narrators, are in the business of provoking emotions that serve their narrative’s purpose.
The purpose of enlightenment is expanding experiences to other realities and becoming conscious of higher aspects of our self.
Nonfiction (telling) is informative but doesn’t provide the mental activation energy needed to move the assemblage point. For this reason, most ancient religious scriptures appear in story form or as poetry or songs. The latter adds the power of harmonic vibration and rhythm to the narrative.
Today, narrative enlightenment is called Visionary Fiction.
The narratives of ancient enlightenment scriptures have two to three layers:
- The obvious story
- The allegory of another reality
- The allegory of a higher aspect of the self
In order to access the allegorical layers, we need to know the prophets’ code. For example, the code of the Old Testament, in particular, the Genesis, combines narrative, symbols, numeric association (Gematria), and allegorical keywords. Allegorical keywords are ancient philosophical terms, for example, light means consciousness.
The hidden narrative of the Exodus: Moses [an awakened ego] escapes Egypt’s tyranny [materialism] and takes his nation [personality] to the holy land [illumination].
The hidden narrative of the Baghavad Gita: The higher self [Chrishna], standing behind the ego [Arjuna] in the chariot [personality], advises the ego how to face adversity [war].
Taking ancient enlightenment scriptures at face value is a notorious error. I allegorized that misconception with the flash fiction story The Fisherman and the Wondrous Island.
Mind that visionary does not mean imaginative. Having a vision means to witness another reality or a higher aspect of the self. This is also the ancient understanding of visionary. The literal meaning of prophecy is witnessing, not fortune-telling. For example, the Apocalypse does not detail doomsday. It details how John experienced illumination, the realization of the higher self.
Seekers of Visions
Seekers of visions are like pathfinders. They travel to remote places in the mind or the self or other realities and return to tell the tale. We all have been to such remote places. Grief is such a place and so is love and so is bliss.
Don’t you wish that those places are caves into whose walls you could scratch your name? And isn’t it grace when we meet someone who has been to the same remote places and we can share some tales?
Unlike philosophy (nonfiction), enlightenment is practical and needs to be applied. Enlightenment leads to a new level of experience through visions and revelations.
“The total world is made of forty-eight bands,” he said. “The world that our assemblage point assembles for our normal perception is made up of two bands; one is the organic band, the other is a band that has only structure but not awareness. The other forty-six great bands are not part of the world we normally perceive.”
He paused again for pertinent questions. I had none.
“There are other complete worlds that our assemblage point can assemble,” he went on. “The old seers counted seven such worlds, one for each band of awareness. I’ll add that two of those worlds, besides the world of everyday life, are easy to assemble; the other five are something else.” – Carlos Castaneda, The Fire from Within, page 163
We can’t get enlightened by observing nature. Nature can’t reveal the soul, nor the higher self, nor the substance of the mind. Neither can nature reveal the four soul values, love, happiness, purpose, and beauty. We can only manifest those values by creating experiences.
If it is true that we achieve enlightenment through visions and revelations, the question becomes how to seek visions? The answer is, through attunement. Attunement moves the assemblage point to enlightened places. The most common attunement practices are:
- Visual meditation
- Creative meditation
- Vibratory attunement
- The art of dreaming
- Pain, exhaustion, and fasting
Religious research is good for collecting wisdom, but if you don’t meditate, your inner, spiritual light will fade. – Zen
Visual meditation focusses on symbols or geometrical forms, for example, the forms of the five subtle elements.
Tarot is the most powerful tool of symbolic meditation. Tarot cards display the totality of the self in plain sight and the mere look at Tarot cards attunes the mind to higher states of mind and to the thoughts and ideas of centers of intelligence who dwell in these states.
Mindful meditation is good, but it is only the beginning of the art of meditation and enlightenment. To get access to other realities or higher aspects of the self, we need to combine meditation with narrative. Creative meditation and guided meditation are the same thing.
Once we close our eyes, the assemblage point becomes fluid, so fluid that it is almost impossible to focus. Creative meditation uses creative imagination and creative feeling to focus the assemblage point by imagining a place and summoning a certain feeling, for example, happiness or love.
Mind feelings, not emotions. Read this post to know the difference between feelings and emotions.
Vibratory attunement employs color and sounds, for example, mantras or sacred chants.
The Art of Dreaming
The art of dreaming and meditation are the same thing. Just that meditation begins with a conscious state of mind, while the art of dreaming begins with a subconscious state of mind.
The art of dreaming is ancient, I suppose more ancient than meditation. This should not come as a surprise – nothing stopped cavemen and cavewomen from dreaming. 😉
Australian aborigines still practice their form of the art of dreaming. Carlos Castaneda showed in his book The Art of Dreaming how it was/is practiced in Middle America.
Don Juan explained that there are entrances and exits in the energy flow of the universe and that, in the specific case of dreaming, there are seven entrances, experienced as obstacles which sorcerers call the seven gates of dreaming. – Carlos Castaneda, The Art of Dreaming, page 22
It seems that the art of dreaming is a thing again, now advertised as lucid or conscious dreaming. I’d like to point out why the art of dreaming died out. The art of dreaming aims at OBEs – Out of Body Experiences. OBEs provides access to another reality – the astral universe. The astral universe is a dangerous place for unprepared vision seekers and offers lethal temptations. Hence, most enlightenment schools and teachers make sure that the seeker of visions archives illumination prior to performing OBEs.
Pain, Exhaustion, and Fasting
Achieving enlightenment through pain or exhaustion or fasting is an ancient enlightenment technique.
The Sun Dance comes to mind. And the Ghost Dance. And the Anastenaria. And Jesus’ exclamation on the cross, “It is accomplished.”
If that path of enlightenment interests you, I recommend the book Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Read a review here.
Drugs can jolt the assemblage point out of its customary position, but drugs come with collateral damage.
And they may move the assemblage point to a dark place, instead of an enlightened place.
Also, drugs burn physical and mental energy. We can’t be creative or do enlightenment as long as we’re stoned.
What is Narrative Actually?
We all know a story when we see one, but how to construct a narrative is a hard-learned skill.
If you asked me to sum it up in one short sentence, I’d say that a story is a heroic struggle with a particular form of adversity. No adversity, no story. A nice dinner, sunset, or vacation can make an anecdote, but not a story.
We know a story when we see one because we struggle with adversity on a daily basis. We know the pattern of that struggle by heart:
- An adversity makes itself felt through symptoms, for example, headache.
- We ignore the symptoms.
- The symptoms increase until we can’t ignore them anymore and we apply a workaround, for example, we pop a pain killer.
- Symptoms increase further until we are forced to analyze the cause of adversity, for example, lack of sleep.
- We fix the cause of adversity, for example, by going to sleep.
All stories are dramatizations of this basic pattern. For example, the Hero’s Journey or monomyth is but a dramatic elaboration of this pattern.
If you find this interesting, read this article, which compares real-life and story adversity in more detail and shows how it gives birth to the Hero’s Journey.
The Narrative Therapist
The therapist Lori Gottlieb uses the tools of narrative to help people with their problems. She believes that if someone is stuck in a particular problem, he or she is actually stuck in a negative narrative. Life is what we tell ourselves to be. Here is her excellent TED talk:
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