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Once upon a time: Metaphor, Myth and Clean Language


Once upon a time, there was a myth-teller who told the oldest stories she could find because they seemed to her the most powerful. Then she noticed that people found meanings in these stories which she hadn’t spotted and that sometimes they were distressed by an image or a character or even a place in the story that caught their attention and wouldn’t go away.

This storyteller was me and I realised that old stories truly do have the power to affect people deeply and ultimately transform parts of their lives and that this can be upsetting initially, to adults, though rarely to children, so I wanted to have some coaching tools to help people who came up to me after a telling and needed to talk through the impact of the story.

In the usual way of things, having put the wish out there, I stumbled inadvertently upon Caitlin Walker’s TEDx talk. This grabbed my attention immediately.Here was a non-manipulative way of exploring people’s inner worlds, using metaphor – the very stuff of stories and myths. Here was a way I could help people to explore how come the character of a king, the image of a feather on a forest path, or the moment when a heroine stopped to pick flowers had such a profound impact on them.

I booked a course immediately and I haven’t looked back. The two disciplines intertwine extraordinarily well. When a storyteller says “Once upon a time…” we relax into a semi trance-like state, allowing ourselves to enter the inner world inhabited by giants and ogres; third sons and youngest daughters; cottages, palaces and forests… we know we are safe in an inner world.

“What would you like to have happen?” asked in a tone of gentle curiosity and followed up entirely by clean questions and the words spoken by the client, similarly creates a mild trance-like state in which we can relax into our inner metaphor landscapes.

The relaxing is important: it allows us to give our full and yet kind attention to the metaphorical landscapes, characters and objects of the story or our own inner world. Memory plays a large part too: the storyteller must remember at the very least, the bones of the story, although often the words are spontaneous. A Clean Language coach can use notes as an aide mémoire but is also looking to commit to memory the logic, the physicality, the precise words used and the time-line of the client’s world. Storytelling and clean facilitation are both essentially oral disciplines.

So the world of “Once upon a time” and the world of our own inner metaphor landscapes are similar places. Are they simply our imaginations?Or the meeting place of our conscious and unconscious selves? (The imagery of ametaphor landscape and that of a story are often very similar in texture and logic to dream imagery from the unconscious.) Or is it possible that, in these metaphorical and semi-entranced states, we access Jung’s collective unconscious and tap into interconnected knowledge beyond our normal capacities?

Certainly, scientists have concluded that our brains are wired to understand through story and therefore through metaphor. We tell stories most of the day. Every time we tell another person what we did last night, something that happened to us when we were a teenager or what we saw in a television programme a week, we are telling a story. Whether they are personal, second-hand, political, invented, hilarious or tragic, by recounting stories, we make meaning of our lives.

In an old and epic story, there are likely to be single details that stand out for each individual. After telling a story, I usually invite people to “feed” the story – to say what struck them or where they find themselves in the story. The responses show that every person in the room has had a different experience of that story.

For example, in telling part of the Inanna myth this summer, I said: “He raised his great bronze axe and struck the roots of the tree a mighty blow and the snake who cannot be charmed slithered away to the land of the cedar trees.” For some people this was a heroic act,(he shook the tree and the invader was repelled); for others an act of wanton destruction, (he got rid of the snake but destroyed the tree of life in doing so); for others it was evocative of the smell of cedar and for others an annoying instance of the masculine principle in the story being the one to solve the problem. And that’s just four of many reactions to one line in a story of thousands of lines. People bring the whole of themselves to a story, in the way that they bring the whole of themselves to a Clean Language session.

Why Clean Language works so well with these reactions to specific moments in a story, is that it takes details, separates them and explores their unique spatial position, their movement, their relationship to other details, their origins and their potential for that person. Exploring what is alive and resonant in the client’s mind, they begin to make inner sense for the client, for the story has made them psychoactive. People take from the mythical what has meaning for them personally – and although it has come from the story it offers a unique personal inner experience for each listener, one which is likely to stir up what mythologist Martin Shaw calls “The right kind of trouble.”

Of course, in a Clean Language session we wouldn’t dream of introducing a metaphor for the client to react to: everything comes from the client. So are myths unclean? Or it is possible that old myths have been so thoroughly translated from the realm of reality to the realm of metaphor that they have a universality which is not neutral but does allow any number of personal and individual interpretations, whilst their subject matter is likely to stir up strong emotions, to lay bare patterns and problems and to wake up the listener to the need for change. Most old stories have an initiatory role –to help us cross threshold into new phases in our lives.

Stories are also full of iteration and repetition, just like the process of a Clean Language session: things so often come in threes in stories: the oldest sister tries, then the middle sister, then the youngest, who finally succeeds; the hero passes through three trials before he gets to his destination; Vasilisa must spend three days and complete three tasks at Baba Yaga’s house before she can return with a light for the house: there are thousands of examples of this iterative learning in story.

The best storytellers “keep it clean”, too. I don’t say: “And in the forest stood a little cottage – it was thatched with a chimney and a pink door and four leaded windows with flower boxes” because that would be my cottage. I just say, “And in the forest stood a little cottage” – and allow the listener to see their own cottage, trusting that the tried-and-tested metaphorical bones of the story will work their magic if they are not dressed in too much of the storyteller’s frippery. You need just enough information to get people’s imagination going and then they’re in the story and we are off on an inner quest.

Of all the many correlations story and Clean Language share, perhaps the fact that they can both help people to heal is the most important. Both acknowledge that each individual has a deep connection to realities beyond the empirical and the capacity to learn from those realities and to live healthier more fulfilled lives as a consequence.

What a Clean Language facilitator does, just a storyteller does, is to enable people to access wisdom for themselves from their inner worlds. Clean Language is a deceptively simple tool that digs extremely deep. Myths are often called fairy stories and relegated to childhood, but they were told for thousands, perhaps millions, of years to adults as well. Perhaps both have a role in awakening us to the power of metaphor to change our lives. Certainly, my experience is that they can co-exist and support each other.

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

About Sue Charman

Sue Charman's avatar

Sue Charman came to Clean Language from a theatre and storytelling background, fascinated by metaphor, inner landscapes and our own capacity for change, all of which are areas where story and psychology overlap. She discovered Clean Language via Caitlin Walker’s TedX talk and trained with Clean Learning during 2012, becoming a Level One Clean Facilitator in October of that year. She experiences both facilitation and training as inspiring, exciting and empowering for herself and others. Sue also runs “Wood Sisters”, a women’s modern mystery school combining meditation, myth, sacred time in nature and crafts.

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