We often underestimate the value of a good story.
A really good story is often more than just a piece of entertainment or something to pass the time.
A good story is a way for a storyteller to show us a model of how they see the world.
In order to do this well, a story needs to be authentic to the story teller. I.e. The story teller needs to be reflecting how they see the world (their worldview), as honestly as possible.
As long as the storyteller doesn’t get carried away trying to make the story too suspenseful, too exciting, too unpredictable, etc. Then any story they tell will end up containing pieces of their worldview.
This is still true in fantasy stories like “Harry Potter” or in science fiction stories like “Star Trek”. Because it is not the authenticity of the physics and chemistry in the world that matters here, it is the authenticity of the people. The characters in the story.
Each of us only gets to live one life.
Of the millions of possible options and paths through the world, we only get to choose one path, one set of experiences, one point of view.
In those circumstances, the ability to get a glimpse of another path, learn from a different set of experiences, channel a bit of someone else’s vision of the world, can be priceless.
The skill of channeling stories is rather straightforward one, but very often overlooked.
The easiest way I can think of to explain the process is with an example.
So, here is a story:
An old guru sat by a beach, meditating on the awesome power of nature.
The previous night, there had been a violent storm. Now, scattered along the miles of beach, were thousands… no, tens of thousands of starfish. All drowning in the air, victims of the unstoppable power.
In the distance, he notices a young child running along the beach doing something unusual. After watching for a while, he realises what it is.
The child runs along the beach for a bit, then stops, picks up one of the dying starfish at random and gently throws it back into the ocean. Then she runs a bit further and repeats the process.
The guru watches the child do this over and over again. As she gets closer, the guru calls out to her and says “Young lady, surely you realise that, in the face of these overwhelming numbers, the mere handful that you rescue will not make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.”
The child thinks for a while before she replies.
“Yes sir.” she says slowly “In the grand scheme of things, what I am doing might not make much of a difference.”
“But, in the life of each one I am able to save, it will make all the difference in the world.”
Then she runs off and continues her task.
This is a nice, relatively straight forward story.
There’s the temptation to try to summarise it into a single, one sentence lesson and walk away.
Maybe something about the value of small actions, or the worth of a single life, or the wisdom of a childish heart.
But there is much more contained in it than those three rough ideas.
To channel the story, we don’t try to reduce it to something simple and basic. Rather we try to expand it, to something three dimensional, something real.
We do this by trying to embody each character.
By asking ourselves the question
“What would have to happen to me, to make me do or say what this person is doing or saying? What would I be feeling and why would I be behaving that way?”.
We may not always be able to answer these questions properly. Sometimes because of the limits of the story, sometimes because of the limits of our own understanding or imagination.
That is okay. This exercise is a safe form of practice. The more we do it, the better we will be able to use the skill in real life.
So, let’s practice.
First, let’s be the guru:
Long ago, in our own youth, we accepted that peace can only come with understanding of the truth and acceptance of the inevitable.
We have spent our life trying to understand the awesome nature of the universe and our place in it. And it consistently blows our mind.
Even when we look at this beach.
We take a handful of sand in our hand. As tiny as a grain of sand is to the thousands of grains in our hand, that is how small we are in these miles of beach where we stand.
This impressive beach covering so many miles? It is actually so small that, if we could view the whole country, it would be nothing more than a barely visible smudge on the edge.
The whole country? Only a tiny portion of the huge majestic planet Earth that we call home.
A huge majestic planet which, in a picture of the solar system taken by the voyager spacecraft, appears as no more than a barely visible pale blue dot.
Everything of importance that has happened to us, happened to a grain, on a smudge, on a portion, of a dot.
The perspective is mind-boggling.
And now, while we are meditating on all this, we notice the child. Obviously very upset, trying desperately to do something meaningful.
But, when we look at the beach behind her, it contains just as many dying starfish as the beach in front of her. All that effort, all that pain, and still there is no visible sign of her progress.
By the time the child gets to us, what are we feeling? What are we trying to say? Why?
Then when we hear her answer, how do we feel? What are we thinking?
As you read this, you may be thinking that I have cheated a bit. How do I know all this about the guru? After all, it was not in the original story.
The answer is that I don’t know any of this about the guru. I just followed the steps of the exercise.
I asked myself “What would have to happen to me, to make me do or say what this guru is doing and saying?”
I tried to make it as real and authentic to myself as possible. Doing that enabled me to better understand the perspective of the guru.
Cool. Let’s do the child next:
A few days ago, we learnt in school about creatures that live at the bottom of the sea. So many weird and wonderful creatures we never even knew existed!
Beautiful coral, gigantic clams, weird seahorses, intricate starfish.
A weirder and more wonderful world than we had ever imagined. And it is all for real!
We were so excited talking about it with our parents that evening. So our parent’s download the movie “Finding Nemo” and we get to watch it for the first time. As we watch spellbound, they point out the different fish and undersea creatures. Telling us their real names a bit about their lives in the ocean.
We get even more excited, we can’t stop talking about it! Our young mind is bursting with ideas and questions!
The next day, our parents take us to an aquarium. We get to see what all these creatures look like for real. Astoundingly, the shapes and colours are even more fantastic than they were in the animated movie! The staff love our enthusiasm. They answer many more of our questions. They tell us stories about them that are both funny and amazing!
When we get back home we are so happy. We are on cloud nine!
To crown it all off, our parents have promised to take us to the beach tomorrow!
We can’t wait to see what new things we will discover!
Ouch, that was intense!
It needed to be though.
That is the type of intensity that would have made me, as a child, be so focused and determined. To make me do, and say, what the child in the story did, and said.
Okay. Now there is just one more character in the story. It’s part is small, but it is pivotal.
So, let’s channel the starfish:
As a starfish we are a simple creature.
The calming sensation of the ocean currents flowing against our skin is pleasurable.
The smells and tastes it carries tells us of the world around us. Where to find food, safety, a mate.
Then, one day, confusion!
The ocean is violent, churning! We are tumbling, twisting, banging against stones.
And then, the ocean is gone!
All that is left is pain, …heat, …dehydration, …suffocation.
This feels like… dying.
The pain keeps building. It is all consuming. In the midst of it all, a different pressure. A squeeze, a twist, tumbling again.
Then coolness, relief! The ocean is back! We take a deep breath, we feel life returning and calm once again.
We don’t fully understand what just happened. But we are grateful to be safe again. We are happy it is over.
Awesome. That’s it.
Hopefully, the walkthrough has showed enough to make the process clear. If anything is not clear or you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.
Before we finish, here are a few important notes to keep in mind when practicing this.
- It is important to channel every character in the story.
The guru’s perspective makes perfect sense, and the child’s perspective seems naive, until we channel the starfish’s story as well.
- The skill being trained here is not the ability to see facts.
Every story is a work of someone’s perspective, someone’s interpretation of whatever facts they have experienced.
The ability being trained is that of being able to see through someone else’s eyes. To get a better understanding of how people who are different from us see in the world. And, as we do so, also become more aware of things in the world that we don’t see. More aware of our own blind spots.
- Part of the cost of training this skill is letting the stories we are channeling touch our heart.
We cannot understand people purely intellectually, …because people are not purely intellectual creatures. Which means we will need to let the story touch us emotionally as well.
This can be more exhausting than we would expect. It can also have after effects which might take us a while to shake off.
My suggestion is that we start with simple, positive stories first (avoiding sarcasm). Then, as we get more used to the process, we can start including more complex and emotionally difficult stories too.
- Keep in mind that, in this exercise, we are channeling the story tellers view of the world.
So, if we successfully channel a starfish-loving-child for instance, it doesn’t mean we really understand starfish-loving-children.
It means we better understand the way the storyteller sees starfish-loving-children. This is a very important distinction.
Of course, if the storyteller is herself is a starfish-loving-child, then we are getting a better glimpse of how the storyteller sees herself.
Finally, there are two tempting shortcuts to avoid, as they will end up misleading us.
- The first is putting the characters in a box.
“That is how gurus think.”
“This is what children do.”
“That is just normal behaviour for a scientist/ cab driver/ conservative/ liberal/ rich guy/ bad guy/ hero/etc.”
We often have all these boxes in our minds. Boxes of how different types of people are supposed to feel or behave.
The consistent thing about all these different boxes though, is that they are all wrong.
All of them.
One of the things practicing this skill does, is to help us break down those boxes and begin to build a real understanding of the people behind them.
- The second cheap shortcut is the belief that “Nothing could ever make me do that”.
The story maybe showing someone doing something we particularly hate or despise. So we react viscerally and reject the idea of anything ever making us do that.
There is an old saying that helps me put this feeling in perspective.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
It means; if I had been unfortunate to go through what that person had gone through, I would be very similar to them.
So, on one hand, there is something we have seen, heard or experienced which had made us hate that characters behavior so much. If we had never seen, heard or experienced those things we would have been more likely to behave like them.
Then, on the other hand, there is also this consideration.
No matter how strong our aversion to something is, there is almost always something we fear or desire even more.
We all have our limits and, if we are taken beyond those limits, we become capable of many things that we would normally never even consider.
As we have mentioned, part of the benefit of this exercise is getting a better ability to understand the stories of others.
However, an equally important part is getting a better understanding of our own story.
Learning more about the sources of our strengths and glimpsing our limits. As we understand them better, our power to influence and change those limits also grows. The better we understand our own story, the better we are able to direct our own growth and become the person we choose to be.
For Further Study
Humans of New York (https://www.humansofnewyork.com/) – A beautiful photo blog containing thousands of people telling tiny stories from their lives.
Principles of success (Episode 6 & 7) by Ray Dalio ( Youtube) – Two short youtube videos exploring our egos and blindspots.