“Stories are ubiquitous, as water or air. There is not a single person, who is not touched by the silent presence of stories.” Ben Okri
Gradually, as my work has evolved into supporting people develop their understanding of transition and change, through dialogue and inquiry; I intuitively call upon stories and folk tales to activate a deeper sense of what our experience might mean and how this different perspective might change the meaning of the situation. Now, I regularly use stories as an artful medium that are intended to hint at different realities rather than tell.
In my experience stories in a changeable and dynamic world serve as abstract maps, where the marks of time and feeling reveal invisible traces of connection on the surface of our individual and collective experience. Where echoes from our ancestors, our own past and the present moment, somehow all become intertwined and interconnected.
In particular I have found that indigenous people’s teaching stories have a universality and unique perspective that is akin to a feeling of nostalgia. These older stories often speak of a time when we did not see ourselves as separate from the world, or superior to nature, instead they speak of a human experience that was intimately interwoven within a natural environment.
It is these stories that offer our modern day thinking an entry point that enables access to the fullness of our embodied landscape and embedded experience. The story is the invitation. One that invites us to turn our gaze inwards and in the process re-discover our unique sense of knowledge, which exists outside of our rational constructs and contains the ability to offer up different pathways to understanding.
In a recent conversation with an individual struggling to accept what she perceived as a difficult and unwanted ending, I offered her a Native American story, called, ‘’The Old Woman Weaves the World.’’ It was her positive response and the unusual teaching in this story that inspired this post. It is quite a long story so I have organised this post into two parts.
Part 1, shares the detail of the story, as captured by the depth psychologist, Michael Meade and is offered as a practical response to a feeling that in our modern age we have lost our capacity to embrace the old stories that previously formed important waymakers in our lives. Part 2, shares my interpretation of the teaching contained in this story and how the core message shines a light on a need to generate greater acceptance, compassion and openness towards ourselves and one another, during the changing times we are living within.
I think it is fair to say that in today’s modern society we live and work in an environment that is grounded in instant messaging where everything and everyone is literally available to serve our needs 24/7. Lipovetsky, suggests that we exist in a hypermodern world that has spawned a hypermodern life in hypermodern times. I can relate to this observation as for a period of five years I actively immersed myself in the hyper modern reality of our age. Like many others I chose to work for up to 60hrs per week and thought nothing of travelling to three or four different European countries in a week.
This was a huge privilege and a very exciting time in my life but at the same time I began to operate in shorter and shorter cycles of time, and there was a niggling feeling of artificiality to the whole endeavour, as my life space was reduced into highly organised fragments of time and I would race to meeting after meeting and deadline after deadline. At one point I felt very proud that I had mapped out a route from the train station through Schiphol airport that only took me 20 mins to reach the departure gate for the return flight home. What was I thinking?
Eventually something had to give and in my story I lost my inner sense of a bigger picture and in the process lost touch with my sense of purpose, and my connection to the bedrock of human nature. When I became aware of this, I realised that the time had come to direct my own change and begin to re-learn how to become fully alive again, rather than just pass through life at what felt like a million miles an hour.
It is against this cultural backdrop of hyperactivity and the mirror of my own experience that we have not only lost touch with the bed rock of our shared human nature but also we have become very quick to dismiss different ways of knowing, that speak to our feeling and intuition. It’s as if we don’t want to slow down and activate our imagination which invites us see the enchantment and beauty in our world.
Instead we prefer to keep running on the treadmill of life, rather than just take a moment to stop, pause and take a breath. We continue to focus on our known knowns by turning our attention to rational abstract data, seeking comfort in external facts and figures to tell us all that we need to know. We appear to have a pathological fear of the unknown and by keeping busy we can distract ourselves from everything we don’t know; a global trend that prevents us from cultivating the creative potential in our imagination.
“The way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives. For the manner in which we tell ourselves about what is going on is the genre through which events become experience.” James Hillman
I advocate that it would be helpful if we could return to our imagination and creativity, and learn to integrate the symbolic patterns contained in the old stories back into the fabric of our lives. By returning and embracing our different ways of knowing we might begin to respond to our experience differently and see how we might create our world anew. Not that there is some magical solution to the rapidly accelerating social and ecological crisis of this age. But, in the midst of the unfolding chaos, as it begins to touch our own lives, each of us may be closer to finding a life enhancing, generative perspective that invites us to contribute to the re-imagining and reweaving of our world.
In this re-telling of ‘The Old Woman Weaves the World,’ I invite you to activate your imagination and contemplate new questions about your relationship with chaos and order, love and loss, the act of creation and destruction. Within these interchanging polarities that hint at the underlying fragility and impermanence of life, we can learn to see the weft and weave of our everyday experience. And, maybe we can chose to relate a little differently to this knowledge; a small change but one that has the ability to re-form the whole configuration of our field of experience.
According to Meade, ‘The Old Woman Weaves the World’ is a Native American tale known to many tribes and often told in times of great social upheaval and change. Meade suggests that the tribes would tell of a special cave where knowledge of the wonders and workings of the world could be found. Even now, some say that the cave of knowledge exists and might be discovered again. They say it is tucked away in the side of a mountain or is a hidden cove on an isolated beach. Either way, “not too far to go,” they say, yet no one seems to find it anymore. Despite all the highways and byways, all the thoroughfares and back roads that crosscut the face of the earth, despite all the maps that detail and try to define each area, no one seems able to find that old cave.
Typically, the story always begins the same way with an image of a cave where an old woman lives, who remains unaffected by the rush of time and the confusion, and strife of daily life. She attends to other things as she is gifted with a longer sense of time and a deep capacity for vision. We learn that the old woman is busy making the most beautiful cloak in the whole world and has been at this weaving project for a long time.
The old woman has just reached the point of making a fringe for the edge of her exquisitely designed cloak when she suddenly remembers that she needs to stir her soup that simmers in a great cauldron at the back of the cave. The old cauldron hangs over a fire that began a long time ago. The old woman cannot recall anything older than that fire; it just might be the oldest thing there is in this world or it might be the simmering soup which contains all the seeds and roots that become the grains and plants, and herbs that sprout up all over the surface of the earth.
As the story goes, if the old woman fails to stir the soup once in a while, the fire will scorch the ingredients and there is no telling what troubles might result from that. So the old woman divides her efforts between weaving the exquisite cloak and stirring the elemental soup. In a sense, the old woman is responsible for weaving things together as well as for stirring everything up. Intuitively, she always senses when the time has come to let the weaving go and stir things up again. Then, the old woman leaves the weaving on the floor of the cave and turns to the task of stirring the soup.
As the old woman makes her way to the back of the cave we become aware that she is not alone, there is a black dog who is watching her every move. The dog was there all along; silent and observant. As she begins stirring the soup to sustain the seeds, the black dog moves to where the weaving lies on the floor of the cave and picking up a loose thread with its teeth begins pulling on it. The beautiful cloak begins to unravel. Since each thread has been woven to another by pulling upon one begins to undo them all.
We learn that as the great soup is being stirred up then the elegant cloak comes apart and becomes a chaotic entangled mess on the floor. When the old woman returns to take up her handiwork again, she finds nothing but chaos where there had been a garment of great elegance and beauty. The cloak she has woven with such care has been pulled apart; it has become all undone; the effort of creation has been turned to naught.
The old woman sits and looks upon the remnants of her once beautiful design. She stares intently at the tangle of undone threads and distorted patterns. After a while, she bends down, picks up a loose thread and begins to weave the whole thing again. As she pulls thread after thread from the chaotic mess, she begins again to imagine the most beautiful garment in the whole world. As she weaves, new visions and elegant designs appear before her and her old hands begin to knowingly give them vibrant shape.
Soon the old woman has forgotten the cloak she was weaving before as she concentrates on capturing the new design and weaving it into the most beautiful garment ever seen in the world. Whilst the old black dog returns to a watchful position and waits for the moment of the great unravelling to being again.
In Part 2, I will offer my interpretation of the meaning contained in this story of an old woman weaving the world only to have her efforts continually undone when she turns her attention to stirring the simmering soup. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a few questions –
1. What are your iconic stories? The ones that shape your experience of the world. That give you a sense of identity and purpose.
2. What do they say about what really matters to you, now?
3. How might you re-tell your iconic stories and make space for the polarities of life to flow through you?
James Hillman. 1983. Healing Fiction. (Spring: Woodstock, CT.)
Giles Lipovetsky. 2005. Hypermodern Times. (Polity Press: Cambridge)
Geoff Mead. 2014. Telling the Story. (Jossey-Bass:San Francisco, CA)
Michael Meade. 2008. The World Behind The World: Living at The Ends of Time. (Green Fire Press: Seattle)
Ben Okri. 1998. A Way of Being Free. (Phoenix: London)
Meg Wheatley. 2010. Perseverance. (Berrett Koehler: Oakland, CA)
Authors own: Marloes Sands, Pembrokeshire
Nature Inspired Leading Change, Coaching, Organisation Development & Facilitation. Writing about relationships, uniqueness, authenticity, love and the creativity of being.