From the Archives: Storytelling as a Spiritual Practice by Nurete Brenner

This was originally posted on April 10, 2019

“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.

BIO (from 2019): 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.

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Our “reality” is all structured, built, and fueled by storytellers. We are the people we are because of the narratives we tell ourselves and believe. Words are powerful especially when we use our own words to create our own “reality.” Thank you for this wonderful essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Storytelling is the new wave of tools that can battle the climate crisis. Thank you 🌍🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is primarily how I became a writer – to save my own life I had to figure out how to piece together the fragments of my own story…. Just today I discovered a mother piece after having a dream of a plant – dreamers are fortunate in that there is always a new story in the making – wonderful post – thank you!


  4. Thank you for this wonderful post from the archives. I enjoying recognising what I had read a few years ago


  5. I’m so glad this was reposted as I missed it the first time. Thanks for such a beautiful and inspiring explanation of storytelling and how it can heal our world.


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