Stories of Transformation
Sounds True has recently launched a new feature called “Stories of Transformation.” The idea is simple: we want to hear stories from Sounds True listeners about their discoveries and insights as we journey together on the path of awakening.
Why stories? Stories make abstract teachings real and personal. As a producer, I will often sit in the studio with an author and record their ideas for many hours at a time. At a certain point, I know the program will seriously benefit from the inclusion of a personal story. Enough theory, I want to hear the teaching exemplified in a real-world example, in a way that “hits the ground.”
Now of course, when it comes to our own personal “stories of transformation,” there are many different ways we can approach sharing our stories with each other. Are we trying to prove something? Are we trying to impress others? What might it be like to tell our stories for the sake of touching and being touched?
A further question is what distinguishes an everyday story from a “story of transformation”? When is a story a prison and when does it empower? I believe it all comes down to how we frame our experience. Do we hold the frame lightly? What lens do we use when we tell the story of something that happened to us? Are we blaming ourselves or others, or are we seeking to learn and transform?
Recently, I interviewed Lewis Mehl-Madrona for the podcast series Insights at the Edge. Lewis is a physician, psychiatrist ,and clinical psychologist who is part Cherokee and part Lakota. He is also an expert in “narrative medicine,” an emerging field of study that looks at the power of stories in the healing process. In the interview, Lewis told me that when he meets a patient for the first time, the most important question he asks is, “Will you please tell me the story of your illness?” He then listens with every fiber of his being. He is listening to hear whether or not the story is a healing story or a story that is imprisoning in some way (perhaps filled with self-recrimination or a sense of futility). As an expert in narrative medicine, he then works with the patient to help them reframe their experience of illness, to find a new story that is empowering and growth-oriented. Lewis helps his patients turn whatever is happening in their lives into a story of transformation.
Now what about the idea, quite common with many people who are interested in present-moment awareness, that we should “drop our story” altogether. I believe that such people are pointing to the pure field of aliveness that exists when we are not trying to frame experience in any way. When we drop our story, there is nothing to hold on to. We find ourselves in a wide, open space that is groundless, uncertain, and free of any solid position or stance. All stories become fiction. And of course, this is an important point of view to keep in mind—all of our stories are simply stories. We must hold them loosely, even our stories of transformation.
All that being said, here’s how this new feature works: each month, Sounds True will ask our listeners a question, and then collect “stories of transformation” in response. The question, as well as a selected story each month, will be shared in our “Weekly Wisdom” as well through the “Discussions” section of our Sounds True Facebook page.
This was the question for this month:
“Have you ever experienced an unexpected transformation in your life as the result of suffering from an illness or other debilitating physical condition? What happened?”
And as a way to help launch this new feature, I am writing my own story of transformation in response to this month’s question:
Looking in the Mirror
Recently, I had a three-week flu. “Flu” is a short 3-letter word, but this flu felt like a terrible giant. It stormed through my body and pinned me down.
I don’t get sick very often, and when I canceled a speaking engagement and a series of out-of-town meetings because I felt too ill to fly, the people who are close to me were simply shocked. I had never missed a week of work before due to illness in over 25 years. I felt shocked as well—not that I canceled the trip—but by the lessons that followed.
It was clear that my body had a singular message for me: rest. But that was not the message I wanted to hear. I kept thinking of all of the supposedly important meetings I was missing. I kept my BlackBerry with me in bed even though I was too blurry-eyed to read the screen. And then, I asked myself this: You have been a meditator for over 25 years. Your body needs you to rest. Can you please just let go and surrender?
And that was the moment when I looked into the mirror. I saw that I was seriously attached (we could say addicted) to the sense of power that comes from doing and making and creating. I knew how to relax into space and sit in silence (I have been on several solitary meditation retreats), but relaxing into illness felt different. It felt like I was being dragged into the underworld, a world in which I was a worthless, grey slug. It was humiliating.
What did I learn from this? That illness is a great initiator. I was initiated into indisputable helplessness. That ultimately I am not in charge of whether I stand up or lie down (I had to lie down when I wanted to stand up), or ultimately whether I live or die. That I am not in charge, period. I learned to embrace my brokenness. I couldn’t breathe beautifully and enjoyably in the ways that I know how. All I could do was accept the fact that each breath hurt, each breath felt broken. What could I do? Be merciful toward the feeling of brokenness.
This flu stopped me. It stripped me of the illusion of control, and it exposed a part of me that is addicted to outer-world accomplishments. Looking in the mirror isn’t always pretty, but I prefer truth to self-deception.
Here is the question for next month: “Have you ever undergone a profound transformation or breakthrough as a result of forgiving someone (or yourself)? Are you in the midst of a forgiveness challenge right now? Tell us your personal story of forgiveness.”
Please write your heart out. We would love to hear from you!