Storytelling as a Spiritual Practice by Nurete Brenner


“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Audre Lorde

Question: What tools do we have that are powerful enough to dismantle the Master’s house?

Answer: Storytelling.

Storytelling does not belong to the “master.” Storytelling is subversive because it belongs to the collective and not to the individual; it gives agency to the powerless; it is not dependent on time or money, and it makes visible those who are overlooked and ignored in our globalized industrialized system.

We are not seeking to overthrow the patriarchy or “master,” and replace him with a queen. We are seeking something which Riane Eisler (2002) would call a partnership society or a society in which polarities are well balanced, in which the masculine and feminine values which we all hold are given equal weight.  We have become so indoctrinated in the patriarchal master’s way of thinking that we think we need some show of force, some violence, some upheaval to create the more beautiful world. But – truthfully – it won’t look like that. It might actually look like a group of women and men gathering together in a circle, in community, to tell stories. Storytelling is subversive because it belongs to the community; it is a medicine to transmute the toxins of industrialized society; it is a spiritual practice. Storytelling is the antidote to empire.

Storytelling is powerful because it restores agency to the storyteller. No longer acted upon, we become the actors and agents on the stages of our lives. We control the narrative; we assign meaning. The great author Isak Dinesen says that all “suffering is bearable if it seen as part of a story.” I would add that the suffering becomes bearable when we take over the narration of the story giving power to the individual storyteller. Now, imagine how that power becomes magnified, amplified, multiplied when a group gathers to sit in a circle to articulate the collective experiences of our lives, weaving together the loose threads into a tapestry that presents a picture full of color, vibrancy, and meaning.

Eco-psychologist Chellis Glendinning encourages us to “imagine a group of people sitting around a fire, picking through their collective experiences and gathering up the lost threads of their lives, telling and retelling the stories of how they came to be who they are – each time with a slightly different take on the details or a slightly different grasp of the outcome.”  (Chellis Glendinning, My Name is Chellis, 1994, p. 147). Glendinning reminds us that the goal is firstly to remember what happened. Next, to weave those threads together to discover the patterns that underlie our psychic reality. And finally, we translate the pattern into a new basis for wholeness, a new sense of integrity, for healing of self, of community, of planet.

Storytelling is a way to shine a light on those who have been rendered invisible by industrial civilization. Patriarchal western civilization has silenced women, indigenous people, people of color, and nature. By relegating women’s ways of knowing to the margins, our innate knowledge as women has been sidelined and attacked. Often called superstition or witchcraft or folklore, it is labeled mere intuition and dismissed as inferior to reason. This has been going on so long that we women have internalized this hierarchy too. We easily accept that knowledge is the domain of science and that capitalism allows some privileged among us to own land, to own intellectual property, to own the cultural and intellectual commons of our society. We no longer protest this because we don’t usually think to question it. If we are to cast off the cult of capitalism, if we are to cultivate new conditions for our culture to thrive, we need to reinvigorate women’s knowledge, the wisdom of the Indigenous, and the innate intelligence of the Earth itself. By doing so, we rearrange the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being into a circular necklace to adorn humanity rather than yoke us. As Derrick Jensen said so eloquently in his book A Language Older than Words:  

“The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories.” (p. 2- 3)

Storytelling is spiritual because it creates a sacred space which is removed from the endless repetitive trap of consumption and disposal that is our modern economy, driven by a debt-based monetary system. In our modern economy, anyone without money is essentially invisible. A storytelling circle is a space where the invisible reappear. Cheri Honkala at The World Court on Women in 2013: “Listening to the voices of those who have been told to be quiet and to disappear is incredibly important, strategic and vital. It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s a transforming thing to do. It’s a changing-the-world thing to do.” Such a sustained practiced is a force to be reckoned with. (From the book Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks, 2017, p. 207)

In our western civilization, we need stories but we are offered only information. Daniel Pinchbeck claims that “It is almost our tragic fate as modern people to long for meaning and receive only explanation.” (Daniel Pinchbeck, The Return of Quetzalcoatl, 2006, p. 133) Stories provide meaning while information is only explanation. Chellis Glendinning again reinforces this with her words: “As we know, breakthroughs in comprehension take place when several threads suddenly intertwine to reveal a previously unknown story, usually a larger story (Glendinning, 1994, p. 157).

Storytelling is subversive because it changes time itself and the order of things. We are attached to the work week and the 9-5 workday and thus we become slaves to time. But storytelling undermines such artificial manifestations of time. When we just convey information, we know that the next day the data might change or no longer be relevant. Walter Benjamin wrote: “The loss of the art of storytelling corresponds to a change in our experience of time. The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time…” But a story is eternal.  When we tell stories, we are no longer in the everyday, the workaday, the 24 hour clock and the 365 day year. We have transcended these and have now attained a kind of timekeeping that rejects our civilization’s fundamental underlying structure. Thus, we have subverted the status quo.. Information is time dependent, but stories are timeless. Gathering in storytelling is plotting sedition against empire and time spent without spending money is today the most revolutionary thing you can do. Time spent NOT watching celebrities on television or on YouTube is time when you are awake.

We are living in the space between stories, as Charles Eisenstein writes. The Old Story of separation is no longer working and the New (and Ancient) Story of Interbeing is only a glimmer on the horizon. In the space between stories we need to practice storytelling. The transition from Old Story to New (and Ancient) Story is also reflected in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael where he differentiates between Takers and Leavers. Takers are those that espouse the culture of industrial civilization and their worldview tells the story that the world belongs to humans. The Leavers are the older cultures that lived in harmony with nature and in the Leaver story humans belong to the world. Let us sit in circles and tell the Leaver story.  If we want to see a more thriving world; if we want to see a more just world; if we want to see a more beautiful world, we must begin by telling the story of such a world. Invite your friends. Young and old. Strangers from the neighborhood and friends from childhood.

If any of these words resonate with you, then I call upon you to go forth and gather. In groups of two and three and more. Open a space. Call it sacred even if it’s just around a kitchen table. Tell your personal stories; talk about your childhood; talk about your family, tell the story of the time you climbed a tree or the time you left footprints in the sand at the beach. Tell about the time you rebelled against your parents and all those times you wouldn’t want your kids to know about. Don’t let the television and Hollywood and video games tell your stories for you because those stories, while compelling, lose the immediacy of the body’s innate language of cadence and rhythm.  And because there is no hard boundary between the personal and the collective, know that when you are telling your personal story you are also telling the cultural collective story. Tell your story and inspire others to tell their own and trust that in the telling, new archetypes emerge from the collective unconscious and create beautiful new thought-forms that spread around the globe. And if you feel moved to do so, write about it so others will be inspired too. Or send me an email and tell me about it. I would love to hear your story.

 

Nurete Brenner, PhD,With a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University, an MBA from the University of Derby and an MA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and BA from Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, Dr. Brenner brings a global perspective to the work she does. She has designed a Masters degree program in Ecological Leadership whose core tenets are social justice, the value of life, and an understanding of the sacred. Dr. Brenner has taught courses in Economics and Ecology, socially-conscious business and Earth-conscious leadership at various colleges in the US and in Israel. Dr. Brenner also leads workshops and seminars on EcoJudaism and connecting to Earth. She is co-Director of Lake Erie Institute whose vision is to cultivate ecological community and leadership through holistic environmental education, to help restore balance with the Earth.

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Categories: Women and Community, Patriarchy, Women's Voices, Feminist Ethics

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17 replies

  1. Terrific, cogent essay. Thank you.

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  2. I resonate with what you say, and am firmly in favor of telling our stories truthfully at first in small groups and safe spaces and then expanding outward into new shared stories.

    At the same time, it is important to recognize and I think you do (don’t let others tell your story) that storytelling is also one of the master’s tools, from the Enuma Elish to Genesis to the Iliad. These stories still shape our lives more than we know.

    I would also add that Quinn’s contrast between Leavers and Takers (I have not read the story so I am reacting to the words he chose as shorthand) might not be recognized by indigenous peoples who understand that they must “take” in order to live, but that when they “take,” they should “take only what they need,” and should not take everything so there will be nothing for others and nothing left to regenerate the field or forest. I think the contrast we are seeking is not between leaving and taking but between taking without regard to others (including other than human others) and taking and giving back, in knowledge of and regard for the interdependence of life, or reciprocity. (see Braiding Sweetgrass)

    Creating the new stories we need may be a process and not an easy one.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. OMG I love this, thank you. I feel like this is the work that I do, and you put a voice to it that is beautiful, deep, meaningful and powerful. I need to read it a few more times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So so glad to hear it resonated with you! And would love to hear more about the work you’re doing. Connect with me on Facebook or via Lake Erie Institute.

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      • Good morning Nurete, I will reach out to you. I just re-read your blog and found even more to love about it. This line really stood out for me this morning; “Now, imagine how that power becomes magnified, amplified, multiplied when a group gathers to sit in a circle to articulate the collective experiences of our lives, weaving together the loose threads into a tapestry that presents a picture full of color, vibrancy, and meaning.” Yes, I am imaging.

        I was also thinking about how stories were the code that led runaway slaves to safe havens as they made their way north before the civil war. Even during the Great Migration after the war, it was stories that drew former slaves outward.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Brava! Hooray for stories! I think turning the Great Chain (which can enslave us) into a necklace is a splendid idea. We all have stories. Let’s sit in a Great Circle and tell our stories to everyone who will listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t have the time to read all of this right now, but if you don’t know Noa Baum, maybe you should connect:)

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  6. In the USA, my sense is that we need the first, great, profoundly intuitive and compassionate woman President to guide us and the world. Is that possible, is there someone who could fill that request? Yes, I think so, and my story, my dream, is this — her name is Nancy Pelosi, now currently a California Representative, and the first woman ever to serve as Speaker of the House. Is she thinking, dreaming of running for President too? Maybe so, she already has five children and eight grand kids, Wow!

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  7. Well said. I especially like the partnership way, the gentle nudge to telling, writing, speaking, our own stories. Powerful voices are coming into the public square with stories. Thanks for your story telling ways!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “Storytelling is powerful because it restores agency to the storyteller.”
    Yes indeed, and together we can begin to re – weave a new story by the telling of our own. It may be that we are living in the crack – the old story is destroying us and the new story is just starting to be told…I personally believe that storytelling is the antidote to the monster that is overtaking us. FAR is one place where we can tell our stories and be HEARD. Thank you for this wonderful essay.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Reading this, I kept feeling how important it is to listen, and have a mature and respectful group. A few times I’ve been encouraged to “tell my story” and then find it used for gossip, or dismissed. At other times, it’s been cherished and valued.
    Telling is important, and needs good listeners. And sometimes, story-telling is a prophetic call to justice and a challenge to the “masters”. Sometimes it can get one into trouble!

    Liked by 2 people

    • All that you say is so, so true. Storywork can be dangerous & deep listening is necessary. So are agreements NOT to tell anyone”s story without their permission. A person must feel that it’s safe enough to speak!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. A wonderful read thank you, I recently read Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade and love her partnership model that arises from the feminine, if allowed to flourish and your words remind me of the joy in reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes and the one I have still to read ‘Storytelling’. I feel that story telling and listening is so important, and you articulate that so well. I’ve saved this post to reread, thank you again.

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  11. Indeed, storytelling is an art. It’s deep, it’s wonderful and it’s so useful in bringing people and communities together.

    Nice writeup here, deserves more likes.

    Like

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