Updated: Oct 12, 2020
August 2018 Soul Notes
”I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life – not someone else’s life – water them with your blood and tears and your laughter until they bloom. That is the work, the only work.” Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Once upon a time….. ……four of the most evocative words ever to be written. This time honoured opening signals that we are about to go somewhere together. An adventure lies ahead. They invite us to pay attention, to listen deeply and with our hearts, to roll into the world of the storyteller and suspend reality for a few precious moments, or hours, or days, or even years. Most of us have our memories of being told stories as children. Mine is of sitting on the soft carpet at school in a cosy huddle. I was 4 or 5 years old and I couldn’t wait to be transported by the lyrical voice of Mrs McDowell. She was one of those teachers who was passionate about life, about children and about sparking life in children. She refused to be boxed in by the context of the tiny school in a rundown suburb of Manchester and brought the richness of music, poetry, dance and stories to our classroom and stirred our hearts. She loved stories and she loved us. It was a magical combination and she is imprinted on me forever. That fascination for stories has stayed with me. It’s the human story that I’m really interested in. Yours. Mine. Ours. It was this call that took me to Loveland, Colorado recently where I spent a week with the master storyteller, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Dr Estés is a writer, poet, Jungian analyst and political activist, who in her 70s has the most playful, inviting and inexhaustible energy. She was born in Mexico to a family who could not read or write and where the oral tradition of storytelling was the way to learn. She brings this powerful tradition to all her writing and teachings. As I sat down in the hall in front of her, I recalled that sensation of my infant school carpet and Mrs McDowell. Every sinew in my body was listening to her. For six days, morning, noon and night, we met, together with over 100 others from as far afield as Guatemala, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and the Cotswolds, and explored ourselves and each other, through the media of fairytales and dreams. Stories and dreams are so evocative. The world of individual and collective consciousness which we live in most of the time is familiar to us. It's the world on the surface - the "known" world. However, there is also the world of the individual and collective unconscious, which is much less known, but often felt. It rises up through dreams or intuition and can be difficult to remember, to grasp, to interpret or to fathom. John O’Donohue, in The Inner Landscape speaks of how we can become “marooned” on the surface of ourselves, when just a couple of inches below, there’s a whole interiority waiting to be discovered, if we are willing to explore. We can connect with this interiority through stories and practices that broaden our vision, hone our inquiry and deepen our wisdom. By allowing a story to speak to us; by become familiar with symbols and images that may hold unknown meaning; by asking what they reveal to us that is important, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. I’m beginning to understand my journey to Colorado as just such a story. The invitation to spend time with Dr Estés was my very own call to adventure, in the language of Joseph Campbell’s Hero (ine)’s Journey. And on the second day of this adventure, I came upon a threshold and a question. Was I open to a journey from the known to the unknown? Would I stay marooned on the safe and predictable surface or would I cross into the unknown world? Dr Estés led us in a guided meditation to connect with our “medial person” or “daemon” (a familiar concept if you’ve read the fantastic books of Philip Pullman). This is the part of us that lives in the unconscious world and has an intelligence greater than our conscious intelligence. As part of the meditation, we were to give a gift to the person and ask a question. I was anxious as I couldn’t find a gift. Then, all of a sudden, I felt a small pewter disc in my left hand. It was the size of a 2 pence piece and I could feel that it was smooth on one side and had a tree engraved on the other side. Happily, I handed it over, asked my question and listened to the simple but surprising answer. There was a lot of meaning in this encounter for me. However, the real moment came three days later. As I pottered in the gift shop of the ranch where we stayed, I found a basket full of pewter discs tucked away in the corner. Tentatively, I sorted through them, mildly bemused at the similarities between them and the talisman in my meditation. And then, right at the bottom of the basket, I found my disc. Slightly smaller than a 2 pence piece, smooth on one side and with the tree of life on the other. And engraved on the smooth side were the words “May you know nothing but happiness from this day forward”. I was stunned and giddy. I hadn’t been in the shop before so there was no chance that I had seen it and tucked it away in my memory. I had imagined this disc. Seen it in my mind's eye. And here it was. I still don’t quite know what to make of this whole experience and am resisting the urge to analyse it to death. What I do know is that there is something potent within me inviting my attention and that I am now more attuned to it. Call it the unconscious, call it intuition, call it creativity – it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I keep that channel open. It might all feel rather strange but I have a deep belief that this soul wisdom is ancient and transformative, if we allow more of it into our lives and hearts and relationships. I, and we like things to be explainable and certain, even though we know that life just isn’t like that. Stories, fairy tales and dreams offer alternative possibilities and give us permission to travel to other worlds and find more of ourselves.
Alongside this experience, I’ve been reading a thought provoking paper by psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development at INSEAD, Manfred Kets de Vries. In the paper, The Shaman, the Therapist and the Coach, he writes persuasively about how a shamanic perspective is relevant today and influences the work of therapists and coaches more than we realise. He argues that shamans are engaged in “soul retrieval” whereas therapists and coaches are engaged in “self retrieval” and reviews Carl Jung’s work on the collective unconscious and mystical experience.
All of these things are connected. I often feel nervous about bringing my more mystical experiences to the foreground, anxious that my connection and belief will somehow dilute my credibility as a thinking person’s coach or therapist. However, Dr Estés modelled something important for me as a profound thinker and one of the most “whole” people I have ever met, in touch with her heart, soul, spirit and body as well as her thinking self. And my gorgeous medial woman was crystal clear in her answer to my question, that I really need to dance in this life and take more risks. So here we are. As the quote from Dr Estés illustrates above, we need to live the life that is our own, not someone else’s version. That way, we will bloom and thrive. The ways to discover, nurture and write our soul script are many and diverse. I’m working on mine right now, allowing in that which I don't immediately understand and feeling its vibrancy. Do you dare to explore? Please do. And you know where I am if you'd like a conversation about it. I hope the summer gives you some space to read, write, make and tell stories that you love.