April 13, 2013
Thickening the Sacred Story:
Narrative Therapy and Spiritual Direction
by David Norling
"Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story,
or if a story can be told about it."
A few years ago as a volunteer lay-counselor at my church I was under the supervision of a pastor who had been drawn to and trained as a narrative therapist. Due to liability issues, the method we employed as lay-counselors was a "short-term problem solving" model. This was not a comfortable fit for me, but it proved to be a helpful experience as I continued to discern my avocation.
In our supervision sessions, John would use phrases that were not typical therapeutic language. He didn't see the counselee as a problem to be solved. There was something implicit in the way that he talked about the relationship between therapist and client, something respectful and empowering. Asking questions, I came to find out that it was the unique relationship that a narrative therapist takes towards his/her client to which I was attracted.
This was one of the experiences that helped me realize that it was indeed spiritual direction and not conventional therapy to which I felt called. Because, for the first time, I was able to conceive of a helping relationship that was both professional and yet not hierarchical, not based in the power relationships of expertise and education, but rather the natural relationship of people dependent upon a mysterious mercy. In this paper it is my intention to note the parallels and explore how the study of narrative therapeutic practices might be beneficial to spiritual directors.
There is a tremendous amount of scholarship stemming from philosophy, anthropology, semiotics, and literary theory involved in the development of narrative therapy (NT). I cannot begin to summarize the influences and techniques that fall under the umbrella known as narrative therapy. What I hope to do is simply define some of the main methodologies of a practicing narrative therapist and discuss how I see their application in the practice of spiritual direction.
Key Figures in Development of Narrative Therapy
In the 1980's Michael White from Adelaide, Australia and David Epston from Auckland, New Zealand developed what has come to be known as narrative therapy. Today it is considered to be a mainstream modality in many contexts around the world.
"In essence, within a narrative therapy approach, the focus is not on ‘experts’ solving problems, ...it is on people discovering through conversations, the hopeful, preferred, and previously unrecognized and hidden possibilities contained within themselves and unseen story-lines. This is what Michael White would refer to as the ‘re-authoring’ of people’s stories and lives." (narrativetherapycenter.com, 7/5/12, n.d.)
Narrative Therapy is a Therapeutic Modality
I believe that we create meaning for ourselves and others through metaphor and narrative--the greater the depth and breadth of meaning the greater the spaciousness.
Even though NT is "therapy" and spiritual direction is not, I have found in NT a number of ways of seeing that have proven helpful. For example, one of the common NT phrases is that, "The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem." Even though we as spiritual directors are not in the business of problem solving, I feel that this way of seeing human struggle has changed my relationship to the human condition.
For example, I'm less likely to try to reject or fix a problem that is externalized in this way than I would be with a problem that seems to be intermingled with my identity. When I see myself as in relationship to something, I can observe it and talk to it, even learn from it. Whereas, a problem that is fused into my character is something I'm likely to reject and avoid and thereby add power to the shadowy energy made up of problems from which I can not find freedom.
Not The Expert
Implicit in a lot of helping relationships is a hierarchical role. One person is looked upon as the expert who has entered into the relationship for the sole purpose of diagnosing or helping the other fix a problem or find an answer. This creates certain difficulties. For one, the person being helped can have unrealistic expectations of what the expert can do for him or her. It also tends to cause the "client" to look to the helper as a savior and neglect their own agency, not to mention over look the freedom that they have as individuals created in the image of God. In addition, the person in the role of expert can feel either overwhelmed by the pressure of an impossible role, or over identified with the imaginary power that this provides.
NT is a decentered therapeutic posture. This means that "people have 'primary authorship' status in therapy, and the knowledges and skills that have been generated in the history of their lives are principle considerations." (Madigan, 165) The therapist is not the expert, but a "co-researcher" along side the person with whom they are conversing. Together they consider the client's story and look for examples within the story where the individual has experienced freedom and capacities that are not immediately obvious in the cursory telling of that story.
One way in which this ethic is put in practice is by "maintaining a stance of curiosity, and always asking questions to which you genuinely do not know the answers." (Morgan, 2) From what I can tell this is very different from classical therapy and much more like the humble companioning that makes up spiritual direction.
As a spiritual director, I'm not aware of having any rules for myself to follow. But the idea of only asking questions to which I do not have the answer has become a kind of rule for me. Since I don't follow it slavishly, it's probably more of a guiding principle, but I find it to be one of the most helpful approaches that I have gleaned from NT. When I ask questions to which I do not know the answer, I find that I establish a precedent with the directee. This approach makes it very clear that I am not leading the directee to an answer that I already have in mind. It feels very respectful, and gives the directee the impression that we are on a journey together where the experiences of the directee are paramount.
I have found inklings of narrative practice in a lot wisdom literature. For example in Rachel Remen's book My Grandfatherʼs Blessing, I found this wonderful description of a companioning relationship which also supports my sense that there is a kind of perennial wisdom found in narrative therapy.
"But I know that if I listen attentively to someone, to their essential self, their soul, as it were, I often find that at the deepest, most unconscious level, they can sense the direction of their own healing and wholeness. If I can remain open to that, without expectations of what the someone is supposed to do, how they are supposed to change in order to be better, or even what their wholeness looks like, what can happen is magical. By that I mean that it has a certain coherency or integrity about it, far beyond what any way of fixing their situation or easing their pain I might devise on my own.
So I no longer have many theories about people. I don't diagnose them or decide what their problem is. I simply meet with them and listen. As we sit together, I don't even have an agenda, but I know that something will emerge from our conversation over time that is a part of a larger coherent pattern that neither of us can fully see at this moment. So I sit with them and wait." (Remen, 90)
Here we see humility and hopeful expectation, as well as a freedom from the need to diagnose or give quick answers.
One more example from Richard Rohr:
"'Somehow I already knew it, but it did not become conscious or real for me until you said it.' That is the divine symbiosis between mutual members of the body of Christ, or the 'midwifery' of Socrates, who believed that he was merely delivering the baby that was already inside the person. On some level, spiritual cognition is invariably experienced as 're-cognition.'" (Rohr, 2)
Re-authoring, Re-storying, Alternative Stories
These are important images in narrative practice. There are subtle distinctions made between each of these by trained therapists. I just want to focus on the big idea of reimagining the story of our life with God.
"The therapeutic notion of re-storying creates the possibility that change is always possible. Therefore, any totalized description of a person's past, present, or future can be reconfigured, recollected, and re-remembered differently." (Madigan, 170) Quite often people come to spiritual direction because of a crisis of faith. The images of God that they've acquired along the way have begun to create more confusion than hope. Something about their life and how God and the church fit into it no longer has meaning.
It is at times like these that listening deeply to a person's narrative becomes crucial. There are many ways that one can tell the same story. The same facts can be constructed to tell a story of hopelessness and despair, or the tale of a wounded hero who found meaning and courage in the middle of confusing circumstances. Giving a directee the space and encouragement, through genuine curiosity and effective questions, to re-imagine their story in a new light can lead to a willingness to stay on the journey and remain hopeful and expectant about what God is accomplishing through the very circumstances that they had previously wanted to ignore.
It could be said that "...Jesus liberated by offering an alternative story..." (Cook, 40) This liberating narrative is the kingdom of heaven. There is much theological debate about the meaning and implications of this revelation. Every Christian directee will have ideas about this issue, even if by ignoring it they reveal that they believe it has no power. Exploring a person's beliefs about the meaning of this kingdom is fertile ground in spiritual direction.
Discovering God's compassionate presence and redemptive activity in every corner of our lives is central to the spiritual direction relationship. Even our understanding of depression is largely a story we tell about a difficult human experience. Many therapists, including Miriam Greenspan, think that we need to re-imagine the narrative that we use to describe depression. "What's needed is a way to rewrite our culture's story about depression, to make it a story that allows not only for treatment with brain-altering chemicals, but also for a redemptive process of spiritual renewal and transformation." (Greenspan, 125)
"Modern psychology is based in individualism; narrative therapy is based in anti-individualism. Contemporary philosophy is dominated by anti-individualism, which holds that a person's thoughts, meaning, expression, and so on are relational responses to a cultural context and not determined by what is a priori 'inside the person's head.' " (Madigan, 163) I don't claim to understand all that is meant here by anti-individualism, but this definition in the glossary of key terms in Narrative Therapy, leads me to think about who we are "in Christ" and what it means to be a member of his body.
Even though there is much more understanding today about how deeply related and interdependent we are to creation and to each other, the democratic/autonomous idea of an individual is still a very powerful narrative. My impression is that we in the west are just beginning to comprehend the depths of this new way of understanding ourselves. And peoples of other cultures who have traditionally found their identity in community appear to be losing it in the face of powerful western influences.
Clearly in our culture where we have come to view the "self" through a modern psychological paradigm there is a strong sense of the self as separate and isolated. There has been much written on the impact of this on individual members of society. Within NT I find wisdom about how deeply relational we really are, and importantly, how unaware most people are of the relational responses and the cultural contexts from which these responses arise. Consequently, to help directees become increasingly aware of the relational contexts within which they live and breath is an important part of the spiritual direction process.
The following comes from a recorded talk from Richard Rohr and James Finley (Jesus and Buddha, CD)
"The West has made an art form of the individual person; it is one of our gifts to civilization, but we have paid a big price for this gift. Because of our over-identification with the self, we overemphasize our separateness and uniqueness, remaining trapped and alone. (Even Christians usually seek an entirely private notion of salvation instead of their communion with everybody else--which would be "heaven" itself).
"What mature religion does is give us an experience of what Owen Barfield calls 'full and final participation' in the mystery of God and creation. This means that before you identify with your separateness, you identify with your union and participation in something larger than yourself. This no longer comes naturally to us; instead we crawl back to our primal union with great difficulty.
"The private self we are overly conscious of, the self we are absorbed in, is the one that mystics say does not even exist as separate—at all! Buddhists would call this passing form 'emptiness.' Jesus would call it 'the self that must die'—and is going to die anyway in its illusion of separateness. So Jesus would say, 'Go ahead and let it die now and then you will be free!'”
We imagine ourselves to be autonomous, but this is a culturally constructed metaphor. Our true condition is one of interdependence and vulnerability. This intrinsic confusion needs to be "de-constructed" before one can understand one's true relationship to the societal web and spiritual reality. I believe it is an important awareness for a spiritual director to notice this propensity to over-identify with a culturally constructed, isolated self and help the directee grow in awareness of the larger identity they have as a member of the body of Christ.
"Foucault suggested that alternative knowledges that raise questions about prevailing ideas and practices are often silenced through disqualification. Foucault called these disqualified knowledges local knowledges." (Madigan, 45) The main part of this idea upon which I intend to focus is that people have a life of experiences within which there is a narrative of lived wisdom. This is the other side of the anti-individualism coin. Individuals have experiences within their own story that disprove some of the false conclusions and unexamined assumptions that they have come to. Recognizing and exploring these knowledges is a powerful way to help them re-imagine that story.
In Crazy Like Us, the author makes the point of how local knowledge is a profound lens through which a person sees, understands and finds meaning. While reading the examples, I felt just how prone to presumption I am even though I've been aware and intentional about avoiding presumptuous categorizations and labels. The paradigms are very deep. I feel that I must assume ignorance and blindness even when I feel strongly that I perceive truth. I must maintain the vision of individual mystery, uniqueness, curiosity (all narrative practices).
Thin Descriptions and Conclusions
Perhaps because people feel rushed in general or unworthy of another's attention, it is common for them to quickly summarize the stories that they are living. Quite often they will use impersonal metaphors or characters from popular culture as short hand to describe what they themselves are going through. Religious people tend to quote scriptures. These, they assume, give authority to the judgments they pronounce upon their lives. These are thin descriptions and they lead to thin conclusions. They are not contextualized, felt, or deeply imagined.
"Often, thin descriptions of people’s actions/identities are created by others – those with the power of definition in particular circumstances (e.g. parents and teachers in the lives of children, health professionals in the lives of those who consult them). But sometimes people come to understand their own actions through thin descriptions. In whatever context thin descriptions are created, they often have significant consequences." (Morgan, 1)
Thin descriptions lead to thin conclusions:
"Thin conclusions are often expressed as a truth about the person who is struggling with the problem and their identity. The person with the problem may be understood to be ‘bad’, ‘hopeless’, or ‘a troublemaker’. These thin conclusions, drawn from problem-saturated stories, disempower people as they are regularly based in terms of weaknesses, disabilities, dysfunctions or inadequacies. I can recall many of these thin conclusions that people who have consulted me have been invited into: ‘It’s because I’m a bad person’ or ‘We are a dysfunctional family’." (Morgan, 1)
Thin conclusions about God and ourselves can lead to real limitations in the life of the spirit. One way of coming to thin conclusions is by naming our experiences. Simple adjectives, or dualistic, judgmental descriptions are quite common in the way people talk about their lives. Naming has it uses, but like metaphor, it is both true and untrue, revealing and concealing. I recall this line from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: "One must be so careful with names anyway; it is so often on the name of a misdeed that a life goes to pieces, not the nameless and personal action itself, which was perhaps a perfectly definite necessity of that life and would have been absorbed by it without effort." (Rilke, 71)
By listening and asking questions we can help directees "thicken" the descriptions of their experiences with God. By so doing, the directee comes to see a much more nuanced picture of what is happening in their soul.
Part of thickening a narrative involves including it in the larger story of one's culture. Rethinking fear, for example, as a relational and societal emotion.
But without widening the story of fear that we tell ourselves, we can easily be led to actions that are nonproductive or xenophobic. Fear tells a story not only about your own particular situation, but about the lives of others in your family, your community, your society, the world. Fear is an imminently relational emotion. Contextualizing fear in a wider emotional ecology takes some rethinking, because we tend to think of it as exclusively personal, subjective, and private. (Greenspan, 199)
Dualistic thinking is another common way in which people diminish the rich complexity of their experience. "In addition, commonly accepted binary descriptors such as healthy/unhealthy, normal/abnormal, and functional/dysfunctional ignore both the complexity of peoples' lived experiences as well as the personal and cultural meaning that may be ascribed to their experiences within a given context." (Madigan, 69)
Meaning, Language, Deconstruction
"Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text (story) is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text, therefore, has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. Paul Ricoeur is another prominent supporter and interpreter of Derrida's philosophy. He defined deconstruction as a way of uncovering the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition." (Madigan, 165)
We can intentionally deconstruct the socially created metaphors that we experience as universal truth. First we must see the questions behind our own answers before we can see them in a directee. As this awareness grows it will become natural to ask questions about the interpretation of the meaning of the directee's experiences with God. By so doing we can facilitate new ways of seeing the past and experiencing the present and hoping about their future relationship to Christ.
Increasingly people are influenced by post modern ideas, even if unwittingly. Because of this they will very often intuit the hypocrisy of socially constructed ideas of identity, position, power. We too need to see into these "contradictory meanings." We know and conceive through the meaning we make, through the story we tell ourselves. This narrative is a construction built on inherent limitation and the story we were given by our family and the societal milieu in which we were formed (constructed). The lens through which we see is also a construction. It follows that deconstruction would be a key process in letting go of the attachments that blind us.
Even though NT, like spiritual direction, is dependent upon conversations ‒ the use of language ‒ it is understood in NT that one must be aware of the implications of power inherent in the use of language.
"The congnitio Dei experimentalis, the 'unity' that Martin Buber speaks of in contrast to 'commotion,' cannot be mediated by books, authorities, or institutions precisely because language itself is part of multiplicity, commotion, and confusion and reflects them. For that reason language is in the service of purpose, calculation, and domination even if they who use language resist it." (Soelle, 58)
While it might seem that awareness of this inherent difficulty might be immobilizing, I think rather that it keeps a director humble and tentative. While we cannot perfectly avoid the exercise of power in our relationship to a directee, we can go a long way toward mitigating any harm by being aware and humble.
"A narrative therapist is interested in having completely new and novel conversations in therapy with the person. This involves a new re-telling of the story of the person/problem and not a parroting of what has been told many times before by the person or by experts commenting on the person/problem relationship." (Madigan, 36) To achieve what NT defines as "unique outcomes," a different kind of conversation must take place. Very often a person comes to see themselves through a few psychological descriptors, such as co-dependent, or traumatized. Useful as short hand, terminology like this tends to be repeated thoughtlessly and lacking in richly detailed context. In spiritual direction, I think, it is important to resist short hand descriptors and endeavor to have novel conversations with a directee. These sorts of conversations create the possibility of surprise and epiphany.
A common road block to new experiences and understandings is something a narrative therapist might call negative imagination.
"Negative imagination takes hold across the temporal plain by gathering only negative information from the past and present that fits within the problem frame and predicts 'more of the same' negative results into the future. Negative imagination produces a shallow description of the fullness of lived personhood, leaving out experiences of survival, love and connection." (Madigan, 104)
Everyone is vulnerable to this limiting way of perceiving, both about our own lives and what we come to expect and accept from God. To enable a person to open to the new thing into which God might be inviting them, it is necessary to confront these negative, narrowing predictions. Fullness of life characterizes life in Christ, not self protection and presumptuous projections.
Foucault and Local Knowledge
"To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy." Michel Foucault (Madigan, 11) Similar to the above discussion on creating the possibility of "unique outcomes," this quote from an influential postmodern philosopher highlights the necessity of exploring unquestioned assumptions. Any way of seeing that becomes easy and automatic is bound to mislead.
"When Foucault described truths, he was not suggesting that an objective reality actually exists; rather, he was referring to those constructed ideas that are afforded a 'truth status.'" (Madigan, 48) Even if we as Christians disagree with this understanding of truth, we have to admit that we are very rarely able to conceive of truth with a capital T. Something eternal exists, but we can only hope to receive momentary glimpses of this mystery. Religion and easy answers are enemies of the experience of the Paschal Mystery.
This brings up a subject that I feel must be addressed.
Narrative Therapy's Reputation for Relativism
"While Narrative is often seen as standing for relativism and questioning of absolute Truth, my experience is that it helps us question what we have absolutized and relativized, giving us tools to know ourselves and our own knowing more accurately." (Cook and Alexander, 6) This quote from the book Interweavings: Conversations Between Narrative Therapy and Christian Faith, corresponds to my feeling about the issue of relativism and the postmodern critique of modern epistemology. If we are to respect the depth of truth, we need tools to help us "know our own knowing more accurately." I believe NT and the philosophy that influenced it are tools to help us critique our presumptions. Humbled by these tools, we have a better chance of staying awake and receptive to the living truth that we hope to discover together with our directees.
Reflections and Conclusions
The story of God and our part in God's creation is too vast to be imagined. And yet most of us live within the framework of an extremely narrow and fearful story. There was a time in my own journey where I had to admit that I was blind, I am blind. Even though I had been raised in a Bible loving church and am well read in theology, I am blind and deaf to most of divine reality. While this experience was initially unsettling, I found in my new identity (he who does not know), a freedom to look around and be surprised, to open to mystery and relationship as a different way of knowing.
Later, I found that the postmodern thinkers had already proven my blindness before I came to realize it. These same critics helped the founders of Narrative Therapy imagine a new kind of healing. A way that helped people re-imagine their own experiences and the stories they told about those experiences. A larger, more richly described story and a more meaningful interpretation of that story. This is what I hope to do with people in spiritual direction.
But we are slow to change and eager to hang on to whatever is familiar. Thankfully, unlike an individual coming to a therapist desperate for the pain to go away, most of the people we will see in spiritual direction have a certain amount of affect tolerance. What they seek is a greater connection to the larger story of their life in God. They will, however, be attached to their own interpretation of that story.
This is the place where skill and patience are critical. With the infinite mystery as a backdrop to every conversation, I plan to listen and ask questions to which I do not
know the answer. As a co-researcher of this mystery as it manifests in the directee's life, together we can deconstruct and uncover the lies and misconceptions that have hindered the experience of abundance that God wants for all of us. During this exploration we become increasingly informed about the narratives that create our understanding and our desires, what we notice and what we ignore.
In Now You See It, the author describes in detail the expert process of creating a pharmaceutical advertisement. How they are able to include the mandated list of side affects in such a way that we hear but do not really take notice. They take their knowledge of our "attention blindness" and use it to increase sales. One of the theses of the book is that we can become aware of our own blind spots.
"It is about our own blind spots, and how we came to have them. By understanding that process, we increase our chances of intercepting the process, of intervening, and of changing its outcome. If the makers of the Cymbalta ad can understand our expectations well enough to manipulate them, so can we. But the only way we have a chance of paying attention differently is by understanding what we pay attention to when we're not thinking about it and where our reflexes and habits of attention came from." (Davidson, 42)
Learning to pay attention differently is the point that I would like to make here. Our relationship with God is built upon a sandy foundation because of our attention blindness. We see what we've been trained to see, and our sacred narrative is largely hidden from us by this blindness. An important part of the spiritual director's role, I believe, is, by whatever means, to help people "thicken" their sacred narrative, so that it will include the whole story of their life in Christ. Each of us is blind to different things because of our cultural milieu and personal preferences. A director is in a position to help a directee look again at their own narrative and re-story it to include the surprising ways in which God has been compassionately present and redemptively active in their life.
Another thesis of the book Now You See It is that the people with whom we associate will generally increase our attention blindness unless we intentionally expose ourselves to individuals who see a different part of reality. We are all blind to different parts of reality, or the full narrative of life. We can choose to associate only with those who share our world view and as a consequence remain blind to the larger story, or we can welcome alternative stories about ourselves, the world, and the great mysteries. I believe a spiritual director is most effective if he or she is acquainted with a large number of metaphors and narratives that can expand a directee's field of vision, so to speak. After all, we become what we pay attention to, which includes the story that we have received.
The Hebbian principle: Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that the more we repeat certain patterns of behavior, the more those behaviors and ways of seeing become rapid, then reflexive, then automatic. Because our brains are plastic, capable of being reshaped, we are either rewiring it to fit with what we are discovering about God's world, or we are creating deeper grooves like moats around our preferred or familiar narrative. Rewiring takes a lot of repetition. Which means that it is to be expected that there will be a number of conversations on the same subject.
Just as a Japanese toddler can not distinguish between the sound of an l and an r because no one is making these distinctions and reinforcing them, so we are deaf to parts of our own life in God. Because of the limitations of our upbringing, we have been taught to edit certain experiences or perceptions out of our story. Through on-going joint exploration of a directee's spiritual narrative, a new, thicker narrative can be storied.
An example that I have observed of thin vs. thick experience is revealed in the way a child experiences life differently than an adult. Time seems to move so slow to a child, I believe, because they can't help but experience it deeply. They haven't yet learned the protective tools of emotional disengagement and pacing one's self in the name of saving something for later. Children are taking in huge amounts of data and emotional experience. And because it is experienced on an emotional level, their brains are a wash with neurochemicals which "thickens" the experience for them, creating more material, more sensation, which gives the impression that more has happened and thus time has seemed to move more slowly.
An adult, on the other hand, has learned how to limit experience and as a consequence their experience is "thinner," less seems to have happened. But of course, a lot has happened, the "efficient" adult consciousness has simply not noticed most of their experience. The result is a diminished life, which is a spiritual problem. It is a part of the reason that we fail to experience the abundant life that Christ promises.
The kingdom of heaven is available to us only as we learn to become as one of the "little ones" that Jesus praises.
The practice of spiritual direction can enable people to re-experience their own lives. Through conversation they can retell their story with many of the forgotten manifestations of grace woven back into the tapestry of their own narrative.
The founder of narrative therapy, Michael White, speaking to Stephen Madigan remarked, "You know, Stephen, I've always found that the people we work with are far more interesting than they let on." Years later, after Michael White's untimely death, Stephen Madigan wrote, "I wondered if he was saying something about the need for therapists to view a person's life story as much more interesting than the story being told. Perhaps this small practice of appreciation is our primary job as therapists--to help people re-remember, reclaim, and re-invent a richer, thicker, and more meaningful alternative story." (Madigan, 159) Perhaps this small practice is our primary job, as well.
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