You are a child. Its night time and you are enfolded in the warmth of your bed. The story starts. You stare up at the ceiling and your mind fills with images. The adult voice wraps around you as warm as your dreams, and as soft as your duvet.
The main character in the story, Jo, seems a bit like you. You can imagine Jo’s world. You are deep inside the story. You can see the world of the story so clearly and sense the dangers and the triumphs. There’s a character in the story that you don’t trust – Bonz the kid from the next street. You can sense danger in him. But Weedo, the kid next door, you like him because you admire his being scruffy and thin, and needy and funny.
Bonz is confronting Weedo and tricking him. You can tell it’s a trick. Weedo seems to be falling for it. Don’t do it Weedo! – It’s a trap. Jo like you and can see the trouble Weedo. But if Jo steps in, he will be in the line of fire and that will be dangerous and painful, but if Jo doesn’t step in and do something then Weedo gets it. What should Jo do? What would I do? What would you do?
Stories are probably deeply rooted in your childhood experience, and certainly embedded in our culture. From Biggles to Harry Potter, from Cinderella to Hermione, there’s a spectrum of characters that are good and weak, bold and fragile.
The curiosity and journey of listening to a story is hardwired into us. Once a story has caught us up in its atmosphere and character, and the twisting thread of its plot twists around our imagination, we tend to follow. We follow that thread deep inside our imagination, conjuring a super-reality that follows the story by matching your experience and memory with the situations and places in the story.
It has been very cold round here recently, and despite the fact that it was sunny it was a cold day. I lit a fire in the hearth of my consulting room to make it warm and inviting for the afternoon client. She arrived hunched against the cold and sat down, appreciating the fire. As we talked her gaze would often fall on the flames as they flickered. It was almost as if she was watching television and talking to me at the same time. But it was a screen in her mind somehow projected on the flames that she was watching. She was using the fire as kind of muse.
I asked her to sit back a bit, and I started the journey into hypnotic trance. I invited her to look at the fire. I started talking about a character going along a corridor towards a door. When she got to the door she opened it and revealed a beautiful airy room lit by the autumn sun. She turned and closed the door, shutting out the corridor behind her. Her eyes started to get heavy without any suggestion. Soon she had relaxed deeply with closed eyes.
The story went on. There were objects in the room that came from her real life. When she went out of the French windows and down the garden there were metaphors in the trees, the grass, and the clouds. Her journey went on and her face became slacker and slacker as she listened – the occasional twitch.
When she sat by a lake watching its surface ripple very gently in the breeze I told her a story. A story about someone who was trapped in a cage, and about the way she was trapped and the people that trapped her. And I told her about how she escaped the cage, and how she found that it was an illusion and was not really there. And I told her about how sometime later when she had a child, she explained to the child how the cage was actually a comfort in many ways. As she listened her face was pale and still, almost waxy. If you’d seen her you might have thought she was unconscious, but for the small tremors of her fingers.
When she came back from that deep warm place in her imagination back “into the room” she blinked and did not mention the story. She had that look of someone who’d been on a journey through the night.
And that is why I use stories (and the fire) such a lot in my work.