What is The Power in Story?

Our weekly blog series highlighting The Power in Story, a three-part series exploring learning and transformation through story, is back, as we lead up to our second offering of Intensive 1 on May 3rd-5th. Designed and facilitated by Aaron Stern, Academy Founder and President, and Chrissie Orr, co-founder of El Otro Lado and the Institute for Living Story, the series is for people working with story across disciplines and applications and recognize the capacity of story to enliven and heal.

In our second interview, Aaron introduces the series, shares how a key Academy Framework, “I” / “We” / “It”, weaves into each workshop Intensive and provides a lens for understanding the intersections of individual, group, and cultural stories.

The Power in Story is a three-part series. Intensive 1 can be taken as a stand alone and is a prerequisite to Intensives 2 and 3. However, participants are encouraged to attend all three sessions to experience the wholeness of the series design and receive maximum learning. Learn more by visiting the series listing or contacting co-facilitator Chrissie Orr.

This interview was recorded, transcribed, and edited for readability and a more in-depth overview. An Audio Recording summarizing points from the interview is also available.


 At the Academy we look through the lens of “I,” “We,” and “It”. Three domains of exploration. In our Power In Story series, all three of these domains are in play.

When it comes to the “I” domain, our individual, personal stories are in the foreground of our exploration and we look both at their inner and outer dimensions. The outer, is the play of forces, through the medium of relationship and the myriad experiences, through which one plays out or lives one’s story. It includes such things as what we are passionate about, interested in, drawn towards or into, our life’s work, etc. While, through the lens of the inner, we can come to know and explore the forces that motivate one into and through a story, moving one to say ‘yes’ to the story, agreeing to be in the story, and participating in the story. That is what I would call the intrinsic motivation embedded in our stories. And depending upon the circumstances and one’s personal agency, and power within that story which – and depending upon the components and the people and the places and the situations – can potentially be a transformative and healing motivation. Such motivation then [can be] moving one through life from experience to experience, project to project, job to job, even relationship to relationship – into the expansion or acquisition of capacity for integration, spiritual agency, soul agency, and wholeness. Sometimes of course, converesley, our underlying motivation can be directed more at keeping ourselves and perhaps others in our midst, ‘in our places’. Such motivation is often colored by fear, deep hurt or trauma, an absence of awareness, for example. The power IN story then is to see and notice the ‘I’ at work – a practice for lifting oneself out of the story just enough to see, through our capacities for awareness; to notice and find the threads of deeper learning and potential for growth that may be present and ultimately, with intent and support, and a bit of grace, lead us into the ongoing refinement and transformation of our lives for the better. Much as an artist transforms a block of clay or a canvass or a composer transforms musical ideas – we can learn to transform our stories; our lives.

When it comes to the ‘We’ or ‘group’ domain, just as in the “I” domain, there is both an inner and an outer dimension, which live beyond what one is motivated personally to learn for one’s own self realization. Groups have minds of their own! There are many different kinds of group stories or ‘we’s’ in which we somewhat naturally participate. For example, outwardly, one might be part of a group working on the creation of a project together; be part of a small subgroup within our workplaces; neighborhoods; communities, churches, places we volunteer  – we can even see our families as groups and sometimes there are subgroups within our own families! Groups have very powerful unfolding stories, much as our individual biographies do. And just as we can become swept up in the powerful narratives and motivating forces of our individual unfolding stories, groups, too, can get swept up together in an unfolding group story. One powerful example of this is the unconscious recurring force of Scapegoating – ‘othering’ – something that groups easily fall into, despite their highest aspirations, while, ironically, many of us are drawn into groups precisely <because of a natural longing for connection, affiliation, relationships, friendships. But then, without even noticing, or knowing how to choose otherwise, Scapegoating can take hold as a force, literally moving a group to EXCLUDE someone or ones from the the group, literally galvanizing a group’s entire identity at the expense of someone/s.

So one way to think of the the power IN a group story – the ‘we’s of which we are part – is the power, once again, through awareness, to recognize a deep human pattern such as Scapegoating as it emerges and begins to operate within the group. The signs are everywhere if we are looking! We can feel such things in our bodies as they are happening; in our emotions; in our thoughts – and we can learn to tune in to these aspects of our experience. It’s a matter of awareness and intention – and building pathways to these more subtle aspects of our experience. And then, we can teach ourselves to intervene to change the pattern on behalf of a deeper intent and choose something different. Not easy! But, possible. Imagine the many ‘we’ stories of which we are part truly fulfilling the human longing for connection, respect, and shared well being ! And NOT at the expense of someone/s. Again – a chance to expand or acquire capacity for integration, spiritual agency, soul agency on a group story level – for groups to behave in ways that grow us toward our deeper potential for well being for all as human beings. I like to call this ‘becoming better at being human beings’. Through awareness we can can develop the agency to shape the stories of the groups of which we are part. That’s the power IN our ‘we’ stories.

And then comes the “it” domain, the third that we will explore in the Power In Story series, which is where we can touch into what is called the ‘systems level’. As in the I and We domains,  the ‘its’ domain, too, has both an outer and inner dimension. The outer, has to do with the structural components that hold an “it” in place, such as organizational hierarchies, government and its myriad agencies including its regulatory agencies, our religions  – which codify and embody and even legislate our moral precepts or imperatives and in their own, sometimes unkind ways, hold followers accountable. Systems are powerful forces unto themselves; they shape us and by agreeing to participate, we shape them, and perpetuate them, usually unconsciously. They are charged with the explicating, codifying and even enforcing – formally or informally – a society’s or even a sub group’s norms, assumptions, aspirations, beliefs, limitations, patterns of engagement, etc. Inwardly, as do ‘we’s’, ’It’s’ have lives of their own, exerting powerful presence and influence, standing ghost like as an abstraction, doing the bidding of a group’s will, keeping it going sometimes long after the group’s will may in fact have changed or be in a change process. Systems move glacially and are perhaps the hardest to transform. Once in place they become ‘the System!’; routine, lived into and often unexamined, sometimes over long periods of time. They are meant to hold and help order life – but they are not themselves alive in the same way we human beings are alive. They CAN’T stop and look at themselves in the same ways our I’s and We’s can. ‘It’ stories are different. But maybe that can someday change! Maybe we humans will find ways to build into our systems ways to pause and reflect and open to change, routinely!

Let’s go back to Scapegoating for example, to see this IT domain in action: If a group/we has fallen into the business of Scapegoating as a strong recurring behaviour – a kind of unconscious acceptable norm – systems or structures may then be created to reflect and hold the enabling beliefs and behaviors in place – memorializing, by the creation of institutionalized patterns of governance and regulation, for example; defining and keeping in place key pathways to access, opportunity, and other ‘rights’, that are aimed at keeping the scapegoat/s permanently ‘in their place’ while the dominating group in theirs. A whole coherent universe is created in the image of the intent of the group to Scapegoat. This results in systemic (systematic!) oppression and unjust advantage/disadvantage respectively – making it nearly impossible for the one/s being scapegoated to rise up out of it, or, conversely, for members of the dominating group to change behavior to give up the power to dominate, or even update the system so as to reflect a new understanding or intention. It becomes an entrenched self fulfilling prophecy – recalcitrant and quite slow to change. Quite a story!! Surely a familiar story to us – as are the intense efforts it takes to try to make change on a systems/its level.

Another and perhaps curiously related example is music – in our case Western music to be specific. As a musician myself, this is one that I know intimately. Imagine this with me: virtually all of the notes (tones — think the black and white keys on a piano) that are used to compose the kind of music we mainly listen to – whether Beethoven or Lady Gaga – were chosen and agreed upon by the Church – beginning sometime in the very early days of the Church! This took place in the Synods – or Councils – the gatherings of Bishops that approved/disapproved Church doctrine. Imagine! Even the ‘proper’ musical notes we were to listen to were determined by and considered to be part of Church doctrine! Decisions were made based on the  qualities of sound of the intervals – that means the frequencies and their relationships – the distance between the tones – and how they sounded when struck together or followed by each other. They were assessed mainly according to how pleasing they sounded. And of course there were underlying philosophical and spiritual principles – doctrine – involved. Heaven must sound pleasing; hell sounds awful! That kind of thing. So intervals that sounded consonant – rather than dissonant were valued and approved while those those that were judged to sound dissonant; uncomfortable; challenging, foreboding, such as the tri-tone – also known as the Devil’s interval!  – were banished! Such was the case – whether for good reason or not – and continues to be the case – despite these initial decisions having been made in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries! It put in place the Western System of Diatonic Harmony that we accept, assume and believe to be what music is supposed to be! And realize it or not, everytime we listen to western music, purchase a download or CD, go to a concert, or even dance to it – we are saying yes to that system and reaffirming and reinforcing it – it in turn keeps us in our musical places, and we we in turn keep the system in its place – and we barely even know it’s happening!

The implications are far reaching! Not only does our music impress upon our psyches what is consonant and dissonant – acceptable or unacceptable – pleasing or displeasing to our ears – on a more subtle level it may even strengthen and reaffirm our underlying human tendency to be afraid of the stranger; difference; dissonance. Instead of embracing it, we are subtly reminded to banish it! Might this even relate to our tendency to scapegoat? The history of music is replete with examples of audiences reacting angrily – even violently – to the expansion of our musical landscape. Stravinsky’s 1913 piece, the Rite of Spring, is a classic example. It literally caused a riot in the concert hall at its first performance. People were throwing chairs at the orchestra, and each other! That exemplifies what it has taken, at least in music, for the system to change. And change it has – somewhat and verrrrrry slowly. Yet – in the end, the system of western music still rests on the early decisions of the Church and hasn’t veered very far from this early doctrine. It was in fact codified into its present form by perhaps the greatest church musician of all, Johann Sebastian Bach, during the early decades of the 1700’s! And there it sits – as the atmosphere we continue to breath.

This is not to say that there isn’t extraordinary beauty that has been and continues to be created within the western system of diatonic harmony. Think, for example, of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony! In fact – as we will explore in the next installment of this blog, this is where the Power OF story comes into play – our entering fully into a deeply moving story such as present in great literature, a work of art or music, the natural world – to awaken to an utterly new insight or possibility, shattering one’s identity or status quo.  The convergence of the power IN story and OF story comes into play.

But it is important to understand that in the example of music – the western system itself tends to reinforce a kind of socio-political reality and may actually unwittingly contradict some of our sincere efforts at change. It is, after all as mentioned earlier, the very atmosphere we breathe, musically. As my colleague and friend Hanna Negusie realized and said to me during  the interview process for this blog – “It’s like being in the Matrix!” We are inside these stories and don’t even know it!

We could go on and on when it comes to systems – our “Its”. Other obvious examples include systems of gender (we seem to be growing out our binary assumption!?), economic systems, and organized religions, and as mentioned earlier, governments – with all of their representative structures whether on national, state and local levels or globally – and inwardly, the underlying philosophies, beliefs and related motivations that gave birth and continue to enliven them –  whether heavenly aspirations or Declarations of Independence, Constitutions – their originating ideas and philosophies, hopes and even fears — are all bound up with the external structures of function and authority, exerting a powerful unrelenting force resulting in the infamous all-prevailing ‘System’ to which we often refer when railing against something!

Of course – you have predicted correctly that I am going to say next, that AWARENESS is key! Just as in our I stories and We stories – the power IN the story of our ITS begins with Awareness of their very existence. And then to become aware of our own individual roles in keeping them in place – and thereby ourselves and each other in our respective places. This is where our I, WE, IT framework comes together and we can see and explore the play of these stories; their interconnected nature. We begin to see the rich tapestries present and can see how and IF they align with our most deeply held longings as human beings. We can begin to liberate ourselves and find our ways to the NEW stories beckoning us…That grow us beyond our  I’s We’s and ITs as we know them.

In the end– all of these are all question about what kinds of stories we want to create; be part of; let go of; grow into. The human capacity for learning and change is quite possibly limitless and most surely at the least, barely tapped. It’s about deepening stages of liberation and it’s also about the lessening of suffering.

In summary, then the power IN story – whether I, We or IT – ultimately begins with Awareness — the awareness that we can bring to our myriad stories so as to be able to shift patterns when being called to; to interrupt; to choose to be a part of – or choose not to be! Through awareness we can also connect to a deeper longing, a deeper guidance system that guides us into and out of the stories that we are unwittingly part of and into the ones that are more deeply resonant and satisfying. It’s a creative act. So the power in story is the ability to choose. That’s the latent power in story. We can choose to reshape our personal, group and systemic stories – our I’s We’s and It’s – based on insights and deeper understanding. And we come to understand that these domains are interconnected  – that as we reshape our personal stories, our group stories change and vice versa and of course the same can hold true with the its – the systems of which we are part.