The Importance of Story

When I began thinking of how I wanted to open this journal, I came across some notes from an experience I had with my daughter’s 5th grade class. Her teacher had decided to build a walking labyrinth in the garden of our Waldorf charter school. We went on a field trip to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to walk its labyrinth, which was a replica of the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. I had an image of it as a kind of metaphor of our ongoing journey to our own center and back again out into the world. The instructions I had read did not usually include walking the labyrinth with 23 fifth graders though…

In fact, the children were very respectful and as I slowly followed the path on its roundabout way towards the center I was quite surprised to find myself intensely moved by a strange and unexpected awareness of all of the stories told to me by the people who had come to me for help over the years. For the first time this felt like a heavy burden to bear. What was I to do with all of these stories people had entrusted in me – guard them, protect them, hold them tight…? It was a lonely feeling but as I approached the center of the labyrinth the organ began to play and I felt my awareness expand to the huge space around me, to the high ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows and the vastness of the sound of the music and I had a clear image of a plant pushing out a stem and a bud which became the puff ball of a dandelion. Any thoughts of protecting or holding onto these seeds seemed useless and I imagined a breeze gently peeling the seeds off the ball and carrying them away. I knew immediately that this was what I was to do with these stories, to simply let them be carried off by the wind like so many seeds. I felt a sense of lightness and gratitude wash over me.

I stayed in the center for what seemed like a very long time. I sense now that it was the beginning of an inquiry inside of me about the importance of story, in my life and in my work as a Rolfer. When people ask me if Rolfing could help them I often end up telling them stories that might help them understand what my work might do for them in their situation. To be a good storyteller though, one must first be a good listener and of course the stories I am most interested in are their stories. In a way what I am doing with my hands is seeking out the places where their stories have become muscle-bound, ossified, buried. When a story comes up, I ask them to tell it to me while I invite the knots in their muscles to relax. In fact, I am encouraging them to tell a story which may have hardened much as their muscles have, as if they were telling it for the first time… A story that had been about loss and disappointment, pain and limitations will often open up to become a story about possibility, about what one might become rather than what one used to be, about where one is going rather than what one has been through.

The first story new clients tell me is often a simple one about their back, neck or ankle pain, or how stiff they feel getting up in the morning. Often this will be prefaced by, “I have tried so many things but it still hurts,” or on the other end of the spectrum, “I have never had many problems with my body but since I turned 40, I seem to be having one nagging injury after another…” The unstated message is often, “Can you just fix this – I have so much going on right now and I really don’t have time for this…”

When people simply give me a list of their symptoms as they might to their physician, it is like someone reading the lyrics to a song – the lyrics alone seem dry, lifeless until the music brings them to life and gives them meaning. After 20 years of doing this work, I have learned to listen for the music, for the meaning behind the words, to begin to sense the story behind their stance. I listen for some sense of their hopes and fears; I allow clients to “interview” me, to get comfortable with me as they prepare to reveal their expectations, their injuries, their insecurities. I used to do a longer intake but now keep it short because the stories I really need to hear often only reveal themselves after I get my hands on them. This is where the real dialogue begins.

I have spent a great deal of time in the last 20 years doing this sort of “hands-on listening” and in a certain way, my clients’ stories have become part of my story. When someone asks me to tell them what Rolfing is I have often found myself struggling trying to define it. These days I usually end up telling stories. Clients are always asking me why something is hurting and how did I fix it…? After so many years, I have found the courage and the wisdom to simply admit that most of the time I don’t really know. I do know that I can feel when there is a problem, can feel when I engage it and can feel it release. The how and why of it is something of a mystery to me. But it reminds me of a story…

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