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Articles    H3'ed 2/22/15

Can We Reinvent Ourselves?

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Can we reinvent ourselves? Can we change, and, if so, can we guide the direction of that change? I believe we can change, but only in relation to other people who help us to change. This is the nature of the mentor relationship, the relationship of student to teacher, the modern equivalent of psychotherapist and client. This is what groups do for us, the gathering of farmers around the fire after a hard day in the fields in Pakistan, the comeraderie of friends in the English pub after work (the local), or the hocokah, the circle of people who relate to a healer in Lakota culture. We believe that we need other people to change. Other people need to reflect us back to ourselves. In their changing that reflection, we change.

Stories are the templates that show us how to live our lives. They show us how to live epic adventures. They tell us what is meaningful in our lives. They tell us how to live good relationships with our family and friends. Stories are the blueprints for our social lives. They are equivalent to social DNA. Like any blueprints, some stories work better than others. Some stories, if followed, lead to poor relationships, unhappy work, isolation, and loneliness. Marsha Linehan, who invented dialectical behavior therapy, talks about behavior chains. This is her version of stories. While we talk about following the template of a story, she talks about following a chain of behavior that is habitual. Linehan speaks of vulnerability to fall into a chain of behavior. We would say having a habitual tendency to perform a particular story. In both cases, this can be reactive. Linehan talks about prevention as a way to address the vulnerability that leads us to follow a habitual chain of behavior. We would talk about the tendency to enact a particular story. We do this out of habit and because we don't realize there are other options.

These stories that we habitually perform come from the stories that saturate our growth periods, especially our childhood. We enact the stories that saturate us from living within our cultures and families. Largely, we are unaware of these stories. We just perform them automatically. When we can become aware of the stories we are performing, we have a chance to change them. Linehan's way is one good way. She advocates reflecting upon ineffective or problematic behaviors that are not providing us with what we want. When we contemplate these behaviors, we can think about other strategies that might work better. We can contemplate how to lower our vulnerability to fall into this chain of behavior. In our way of thinking, we say that we reflect upon the story in which the problematic or ineffective behavior makes sense. In what story does what we are doing that isn't working make sense? Where did we learn this story? Who taught it to us?

Hypnosis is one way to become aware of the stories we are living. Hypnosis is a tool we use to suspend our usual state of consciousness and to move into a more free-floating awareness in which we can suspend our usual habitual stories. From the hypnotic stance, we can reflect upon multiple stories or paths that we could follow. Hypnosis allows us to move into the flow. It allows us to distance ourselves from our commitments to our habits and habitual stories that we perform, so that we can reflect upon other possibilities. Art is another technique that enhances our capacity for reflection. When we draw, sculpt, write, or paint our experience, we gain an opportunity to see the story we are living. Drama is another approach that allows us to examine our performances. When we practice hypnosis, art, or drama within community, the reactions and feedback of others are invaluable in enhancing our capacity for reflection, for contemplating multiple stories, for considering other options than the habitual one. In all these reflective approaches, we can appreciate the stories that are working well and we can edit or modify the stories that are not. These are our tools for change.

Common to our approaches is to transform the story into a metaphor. Engineering does a similar technique in what is called the fourier transformation. We transform a problem from one coordinate system to another to make it easier to solve. Similarly, when we are examining our lives if we can make them more metaphorical, we can more easily see the patterns. We do this by moving from the 1st person autobiographical narrative to the 3rd person narrator. We also do this by changing all the characters into animals. We do this by lifting the plot into a more fantastic scene -- preventing the takeover of the world, overthrowing aliens, fighting evil.

Like the names we give our children, the stories that are popular at any given time will change. Carolyn Gregoire, in an article from the Huffington Post, 6 February 2015, entitled "How Online Interaction Shapes Everything From Baby Name Trends To Revolutions", writes about how in 1914, the names "Mary" and "Helen" were all the rage for baby girls. In 2014, it was "Emma" and "Olivia" -- neither of which was among the top eight girls' names just 15 years earlier. Similarly the stories that are popular for how to live, how to behave, also change over time.

Gregoire wrote about Damon Centola, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently led a research project into the circumstances, which give rise to new social conventions. He and his colleagues recruited a large group of Internet users to participate, and analyzed the evolution of the participants' responses to one another as they tried to zero in on a consensus about names.

The participants were paired together for rounds of a so-called "name game," in which they were shown a photograph of a face and asked to give it a name. If both players gave the same name, they won a small cash prize. If they gave different names, they lost a small amount of money and were each shown the name their partner came up with. The participants would continue this game with new partners for as many as 40 rounds, with the incentive in each round to come up with the most popular names.

For the second part of the experiment, the researchers tried changing the way the participants interacted with one another. Twenty-four players were assigned positions within one of three types of "social networks" -- but none of the players knew what their position was, or how many other people were in their network. In the "geographical network," each player repeatedly interacted with four other players in a local "neighborhood." In the "small world network," each player interacted with four players from across the wider network. And in the "random mixing" network, each player was paired with a different player at random for every new round. The researchers observed patterns of behavior within each of the networks.

In the geographical and small world networks, there were several popular names, but the communities did not come to a consensus on any "winning" names. In the random mixing network, however, a winning name emerged after just a few rounds of playing. This suggests that large social networks with lots of interaction are most likely to come up with social norms. Though this process appeared to be spontaneous, it came about through widespread interaction.

"Consensus spontaneously emerged from nothing," Centola said. "At first it was chaos, everyone was saying different things and no one could coordinate, and then all of a sudden people who had never interacted with each other were all using the same words."

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a similar way, in our Cherokee bodywork training, we explore the stories that live within the pains or illnesses that dwell within our bodies. We invite the pain to take a name and to introduce it's self. We invite it to describe it's self -- how its apartment is decorated, from where it came, what it's theme song is, what its purpose is. We create a dialogue with the pain or the affliction through which negotiation can occur. The pain usually wants something. It wants a change or an adjustment in the way we are living. It wants a change in lifestyle. It wants a reversal or an alteration in the direction we are heading. Dialogue is a small world version of what happens in the internet experiments above. Through dialogue, change happens.

We plan to explore this question and others in Melbourne, Australia, on March 7th, 2015, at Hocokah House, in the suburb of Canterbury. (For more information, contact Tony Gee at amgee|AT| address or call 0390778668 or 56548237717. No one will be turned away. We will also be exploring these ideas in New York City, the weekend of February 27th to March 1st with the New York Shamanic Circle. For information there, contact Irma Starspirit starspiritwoman|AT|gmail.comEmail address or call 347 279 8844.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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