School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Moving Stories

By Rob Porteous
One way in which I understand what I do in my work as a counsellor is that I engage in a dialogue with the stories people bring about who they are and what happens to them. Very often these stories have a repeating pattern or theme running through them, like the dance of the understudy through life’s experiences.

Through the exploration of these repetitions- diverse situations which have the same emotional tone or outcome- we begin to discover how characters superimpose themselves on one another, to fit the needs of the story. A distant wife becomes the un-mothered mother the child experienced. A demanding boss becomes the judgemental dad. A new relationship embodies the childhood fantasy of a more co-operative, compassionate world.

The psyche is an expert at re-creating familiar situations for us to deal with. Time and again I find myself back in the same place, facing the same questions, the same anxieties. So what is the function of this repetition? Each time something happens that brings with it the familiar sense of, ‘Ah, here I am again,’ I believe it is an opportunity to become more conscious of what is going on, and in particular what part I play in re-creating an expected scenario. It offers the possibility of better understanding what lies behind the story I keep telling myself.

Humans are a narrative species. We use stories to give meaning to experience. Because of our capacity to remember the past and imagine the future, we are able to put the present in a context that transcends this moment, now, and seeks to make sense of what happens in a more enduring way. But when a child is forced to make sense of experiences that make no sense- parental neglect, abuse, war, alienation from, and exploitation of, the earth- the stories she or he creates will similarly contain dysfunctional elements, particularly associated with the child’s internal sense of self-worth.

Over time, the story I make up about who I am and what happens to me and what I can do about it has a dual effect. In the beginning, in an unwelcoming environment, the child invents the story as a protection. It’s a way of helping him bear difficult experiences. The idea that ‘My parents would love me, if only…’ helps to preserve what is most important to him: the capacity to imagine a better world. In exhonorating the parents (even at the expense of his own sense of being good enough) he protects his belief in a just and nurturing world. (This is explored in Dorothy Bloch’s beautiful book on childhood trauma, So the witch won’t eat me.)

But as time goes on the story that was once useful becomes a barrier between the person and the experience. We no longer feel or sense in our bodies what is going on because the story takes over, dictating how we understand the situation and what we have to do in response. The mind tells us, ‘This always happens to me,’ or ‘I never get what I want,’ or ‘There’s no point in…’ and other examples of catastrophic thinking, where the easiest thing is to blame the problem on the other, and project what we don’t like in ourselves onto someone else. An example of this, I think, is in the disaffection shown in the recent European elections in the votes for UKIP and the Front National.

So all of us, at times, get stuck in an outdated and counterproductive story. The story predetermines our responses. As a child, whenever an adult asked me, ‘Do you want this or that?’ I answered, ‘I don’t mind.’ Invariably, it was a lie. I knew perfectly well what I wanted. But the behaviour protected me from the realisation of how much I did mind, in a world where I didn’t expect to get what I wanted.

In order for something in this dynamic to change, we have to get back to the original experience that helped to create the stories in the first place. That what stories that move us do. They touch us. They bring up feelings- sadness, anger, joy- that put us in touch with our humanity. They move us, emotionally and physically, when we are open to the energy they contain and allow it to move through us and find appropriate expression.

Getting in touch with these feelings is not the same as acting them out. It’s not OK for me to kill someone, but acknowledging the extreme anger I have felt on occasions when I have felt trapped is an important part of reclaiming the projections I put onto the other. Really owning the feeling, and its embodied impact on me is, I believe, an essential part of moving into a different narrative which may produce different outcomes. We need to connect our thinking, feeling and sensing if we are to act more wholeheartedly. Developing the ability to be in touch with deep emotion and reflect on it at the same time, and be aware of how it affects me in my body, helps me to give what is happening more breath, to be more grounded and less overwhelmed, and to move between feeling, thinking and action

A story I am very familiar with is, ‘Nobody caresWhen I say something there won’t be a response.’ If I look at this story in the light of the Phoenix process, I see the assumptions behind the story are ‘I am not enough. I don’t matter.’ This assumption arouses feelings of fear, anger, distress, being lost, feeling inadequate and incompetent. In an attempt to get away from the feelings I make huge efforts to change the situation. When those efforts don’t elicit a response, they simply confirm the story: ‘Nobody cares.’

If, however, I allow myself to embody and stay with the feelings aroused by the story, I realise at once how tired I am of making efforts. Under the tiredness, I feel a deep sadness. If I stay with the sadness, I begin to reconnect with just how passionately as a child I wanted to live in a world that was fair, where people co-operate and collaborate rather than fighting each other. I realise I want to rest in the place described beautifully by John Heider in his book, The Tao of Leadership: ‘Do nothing, and everything that is needful will be done.’

If I trust my intention, and trust that my intention will communicate itself to others, what I do is more relevant, more focused. It has a clearer direction. I see the steps I need to take towards a goal. Rather than wasting effort in trying to reach my goal in one fell swoop, I allow myself to take time to experience the journey. I am more open to what I may learn about myself along the way.

I am about to embark with Ali Young on a series of four workshops called Moving Stories, with the aim of helping participants re-embody their experience and re-imagine who they are. In the workshops we will use movement and dance, storytelling and individual psychological work to look at our relationship to ourselves, to the other, to community and to spirit or the divine. The stories we will be working with come from Greek mythology. I have lived with them since studying Greek tragedy at university 50 years ago. The first is the story of Oedipus, whose parents exposed him as a baby on the hillside to die, because they could not stand the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The second story concerns The Bacchae, the worshippers of Dionysus, and what happens when their ecstatic energy, reconnecting to wildness and nature, threatens to disrupt the established order. The third story is of Orestes and the cycle of violence he is caught up in, following the Trojan war. The fourth story is of Cupid and Psyche, and how we can move from unconscious attachment to conscious relationship.

For me, these stories lead us through the chambers of the heart, showing us how we can deal with our fear, anger, grief and joy in ways that increase our understanding of who we are, deepen our relationship to the other, and our sense of belonging and community, and ultimately our connection to spirit.

What interests me is not so much these stories in themselves, as literature, but how they resonate with us as individuals. Our personal responses to the archetypal themes they portray. Stories began in an oral tradition, which means that telling stories was part of the experience of being in community; people sitting together and listening to a tale. It also means that while the narrative of the story will have been handed down from previous generations, each story teller will give it his own inflection. The story can change to take account of the context in which it is told. The song lines of the aborigines in Australia were intimately connected to the place they were travelling through. The stories were embedded in the landscape, just as oral story telling is part of our embodied experience. David Abram, in his book The spell of the sensuous, shows how the invention of the alphabet and printing contributed to our dissociation from the earth and the idea that stories belong exclusively in the mind.

When a story lives in the landscape surrounding it- when the traditions of a culture are rooted in the history and experience of a people- then meaning can emerge from the interplay of narrative and experience, thinking and feeling. Children are generally very good at allowing this imaginative dialogue to shape their play. But when the story is just something going on in our heads, it cuts us off from our actual lived experience. The story imposes meaning on experience, rather than allowing meaning to reveal itself.

When my head is full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and predetermined outcomes, I am cut off from my capacity to act in my own right, rather than simply react to circumstance. What I want to do in these workshops is to help participants reconnect with their internal, embodied responses to life experiences, so that we can reclaim our ability to accept what we sense and feel, and allow it to shape our intentions in the world.

If you would like to know more about this work, you can contact me at


                                                            Rob Porteous              29/5/14




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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.