For a summary of these ideas, see The Power of Story
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT STORIES ARE ALL ABOUT
Stories are truly remarkable. They can include anything and everything that can be included in our experience -- objects, relationships, people, time, ideas, feelings, sequences, events, memories, anticipation, questions -- you name it -- all laid out the way we experience them. It is this resonance between stories and our experience that makes them so powerful.
Stories embrace whole swaths of experience in one coherent sweep. They specialize in exploration and meaning. They are rooted in the holistic nature of life and our experience of it.
Stories are not just things we tell each other. They constitute an important way of knowing, thinking and feeling that is beyond smart, a way that can embrace our lives with a fullness not possible by any other means.
Stories have a unique power to contain and shape the experienced reality of conscious beings like us -- a power capable of bringing life and death, joy and suffering to individuals, groups and cultures. I don't believe this is an overstatement. At the societal level, the rationales given for wars and oppression are, in their essence, stories. People use such stories to shape their collective intentions and behaviors for extended periods of time. The Nazi vision of racial purity and the "Thousand Year Reich" was a prime example of the life-and-death power of a cultural story. And, at the individual level, we find that "those who attempt suicide...have lost the narrative thread of their lives. Life has become pointless, without plot or direction.... In times of despair, finding the right story can be lifesaving." [William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong (Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 194.]
Not only are stories a vital part of life, they are everywhere. As we learn the stories of people, cultures, plants, animals, objects, places and all the other things around us, we become aware that we're woven into a vast contextual sea of stories. We learn the roles we play in the lives of other people and things, and the roles they play in our lives. It's like we're all part of one giant, intricately complex story that pulses with people and things intimately involved in the mutual unfolding of their lives.
We are so embedded in stories and they in us that, like the fish in water, we are usually unaware of the omnipresence and power of the medium in which we swim.
We can't get very far with co-intelligence unless we acknowledge and start to consciously use the presence and power of stories in our lives. Co-intelligence involves the conscious co-creation and sharing of stories -- both the stories we tell and the stories we live. It therefore involves the co-authorship of what has happened, what's happening now, what might happen, what will happen, and what it all means.
Stories link us. I've noticed that I'm much more likely to feel antagonistic towards other people when we're debating differences of opinion than when we're sharing our different stories. There's a definite limit to how closely we can work with other people if we are oblivious to "what's going on for them" and "where they're coming from." If we know these things, we know something about their stories. By sharing our stories, it seems, we invite each other into our worlds. This enhances our interconnectedness, shared awareness, and possibilities for fruitful interaction.
The more we understand the power of story, the more able we become
cultivate and integrate diverse perspectives and ways of knowing and
act as conscious partners within a "whole picture" context,
thereby generating a greater capacity to engage well
in the short- and long-term,
with our individual and collective circumstances,
than we could through personal, rational intelligence alone.
Think of a time you were upset with someone
and then learned about the feelings and experiences that were behind the
way they acted. Did this new understanding change your perspective, the
way you felt about them, the way you interacted with them? How? Why?
Have you ever learned something about the way nature works or how history happened that changed the way you related to the world around you? Did it change the way you thought and felt? Did it change how you behaved? Did your life feel richer because of it? How? Why?
MY GROWING RELATIONSHIP WITH STORY
I discovered all this in the early 1990s.
When I started thinking about co-intelligence, I was operating pretty much out of an analytical problem-solving model. I was exploring how people could better solve problems together. It seemed to me that this capacity was the key to dealing with our society's challenges.
Over the years, I've come to appreciate many other dimensions of co-intelligence. I've concluded that, as necessary as it is to be able to analyze and solve problems, there are some serious limitations both to analysis and to focusing our attention on problems.
Realizing the importance of story was part of that broader awakening. I had no idea that stories were anything but a form of entertainment, a way to record events, and a clever teaching modality.
My eyes were first opened late in 1993 when -- within a period of a few weeks -- three friends pointed out three different and remarkable things about stories:
imagination, history, biography, journals, memoirs, resumes, reports, anthropology, news, sports, many news and sports commentaries, fiction, movies, drama, adventure, myth, fable, parables, allegory, ballads, opera, comics, dreams, vision, events, scenarios, plans, schemes, research, derivations, reputations, self-images, careers, personal relationships, romance, lies, jokes, gossip, anecdotes, suspense; many symbols, games, and dances; past and future, as well as memory, fear and expectation; patterns of behavior like habits, neuroses, and instincts; development, evolution, and maturation; traditions, cultures, archetypes, morality, values, archaeology, paleontology, cosmology, cause-and-effect, experiments, syntax, syllogisms -- and the supreme story for each of us, our experience.
My primary tool, based on my skills, will be conceptual exploration, not story. I do hope, however, that some natural storytellers will read this book and get inspired enough by these ideas to weave them into stories our culture can use to survive and flourish with greater co-intelligence.
[NOTE: I say "a worldview based on story," not stories. This is because I'm not only talking about narrated (written and spoken) stories, but about a whole class of things (which I call story), of which told-stories are but one variety. I put anything in the category "story" that consists of unfolding events having to do with someone or something. For example, a person's life is a story -- whether anyone recounts it or not -- simply because it consists of unfolding events that relate to that person. Defining story this way opens up an entire worldview based on the idea of story.]
Take a moment right now to
consider several stories you know (fiction, news, personal histories) that
are connected with any one of the American Way of Life images mentioned
above. Can you see how they reinforce each other? Have they affected your
life or people you know?
If you are not an "American," you can either do this exercise as written or make a comparable list of images related to your home culture, and work with that list.
Story fields exert tremendous influence on us, driving us and limiting -- or enlarging -- our sense of reality and possibility. Story fields that are more co-intelligent -- that arise out of and serve "the whole" and are therefore more wise, more wholesome, and more consciously co-creative -- make possible lives and cultures that are more co-intelligent.
[NOTE: The word "field," as used in the term story field, refers to a field of influence, a pattern of dynamic potential that permeates a physical, social and/or psychological space. I borrowed the word from physics, where the term gravitational (or magnetic) field refers to a zone of dynamic potential that shapes the behavior of the physical phenomena within its range. Gravity provides some interesting metaphors to help us understand story fields. There are many ways to look at gravity. We can view a gravitational field as not so much a separate phenomenon from the objects within it as it is an extension of them. We could also say, with equal validity, that objects are cores or nodes of the gravitational field. Or one could also say that both the field and the objects within it are facets of some larger whole system, as the dancers and choreography are elements of the dance. Yet another way to put it is that objects and their gravitational fields are dynamic dimensions of each other. A similar intimate, ambiguous, co-creative, co-evocative relationship exists between story fields and the people who occupy and create them.]
A story field is
a particularly powerful field of influence
generated by a story or,
more often, by a coherent battery
of mutually-reinforcing stories and story elements
-- characters, plots, themes, metaphors, goals, images, events, etc. --
that co-habit and resonate
within our individual and/or collective psyches.
A story field directly influences our lives,
often without our even being aware of that influence.
Think of some more stories associated with the story field you explored in the previous exercise. Sense their combined impact. Can you imagine that impact as coming from a force field, within which you and thousands of other people are immersed, which influences all of you in specific ways?
THE DYNAMICS OF STORY FIELDS
Story fields, as part of their power, tend to evoke new stories that replicate or complement the stories already generating that story field. The-American-Way-of-Life story field, for example, generated a new pioneer-cowboy-successful entrepreneur exemplar in the form of multi-billionaire Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. His story now reinforces the dominant story field imagery that sculpts the imaginations of everyone from high tech industry moguls to street kids in Bombay.
Even stories that react to or fight the story field can end up fueling it because they exist primarily in relationship to it, and thereby reinforce its existence. The anti-establishment, anti-adult rhetoric of many youth sub-cultures (hippies, punks) inspire the defenders of the status quo to oppose or co-opt them, thereby strengthening the dominant story field. Furthermore, when those sub-cultures have not provided truly viable alternatives, even their youthful advocates slowly drift into the once-despised mainstream as they come up against the demands of economic survival and parenthood.
TWO MORE STORY FIELDS
Not all story fields originate in human culture. Consider this one:
THE NATURE'S-WAY STORY FIELD: Immersed in nature, indigenous tribal cultures have been shaped by the story fields of the natural world. The cycles of the seasons, the intricately interwoven lived stories of specific plants and animals around them, the great dances of the sky and the earth, the wind and the trees, the sun and the moon and the stars. Not only have native peoples generated narratives about these things, but these great lived stories in which tribal cultures have been embedded have filled their days with ritual and actual participation in those lived stories. Native Americans of the Great Plains called their Nature's-Way story field the Medicine Wheel, the wheel of life, the cyclic pattern that molded their thoughts, perceptions, language, behavior and entire culture in its image.
Some story fields exist within other story fields:
THE PATRIARCHAL-FEMININITY STORY FIELD: A story field that overlaps The-American-Way-of-Life (and the Way-of-Life in many other cultures) is Patriarchy-Femininity. Decades after the modern feminist movement launched, we still find such mutually-reinforcing stories as (in the U.S.) Barbie Doll, Lose Weight, Wear Heels, Look-Good-Play-Dumb-and-Succeed, Breast Implants, Mom, The Good Girl, The Bad Girl, The Good Wife, A Woman Without A Man Is Lost, Virtuous Helplessness, Women's Work, and so on. Millions of girls and women (and boys and men) have been bombarded with these and similar mutually-reinforcing story-images for decades, even centuries. A high proportion of women in history have marched to some similar drumbeat, or wished they had the resources to march to it more effectively, or resented every minute of it, or rebelled against it -- but, until recently, rare was the woman (or man) who simply built their life outside of it.
Think of some other story fields you live in. (If you can't, consider the consumer story field. Think of all the ads that have people buying things and getting benefits from that. Think of all your friends and associates who buy things or have things they've bought. Think about news stories about how important the consumer price index, consumer confidence and retail sales are to the economy. Think of the popular sayings that contain the words 'go shopping'. Do all these fit together into some mega-story within which you are living?) If you are feeling ambitions, try listing five of them, or a dozen. Sense their impact on yourself and those around you.
DEALING EFFECTIVELY WITH STORY FIELDS
The good news is that the inhabitants of such story fields are not helpless. A story field is co-generated by those who inhabit it, including past and present (and perhaps even future) inhabitants. The field, in turn, influences those who continually create it. So a story field can be changed by its inhabitants, just as a dance can be changed by the dancers, no matter the measure of the music or the commands of the choreography. Visionary leadership (from outside, from within, or from the fringes of a story field) can inspire those who are co-creating their story field to create new, more functional story fields within which to dance.
In the feminist movement of the 1970s, women got together in consciousness-raising groups and shared their stories -- narratives about what it was like to be a woman. As they did so, they noticed among themselves collectively certain experiences they had previously thought of as purely personal -- experiences that formed a consistent pattern, which they came to call patriarchy and sexism. Their personal story-sharing brought into consciousness the previously unconscious life-shaping power of the Patriarchy-Femininity story field, which they could then take action to change.
What they did can be taken as a model for story field activists. Feminist anthropologists
and "herstorians" uncovered a previously unacknowledged female face
of our collective past, which had survived in such story media as diaries and
tribal symbols. Feminist authors created new stories -- fiction, biography,
poetry -- of women living outside (or growing out of) the Patriarchy-Femininity
story field. And some women banded together to co-create alternative lived stories,
starting businesses or climbing mountains. Together all these mutually-reinforcing
stories added up to a new story-field called feminism, which has grown
in scope and power to shape the lives of millions of men and women. It coexists
with the patriarchy story field, ebbing and flowing with the tides of social
Another example: For several decades Gandhi inspired millions of poor Indians to step out of their story field of victimhood into a new story field that cast them as heroic nonviolent architects of their own fate -- a story field that was reinforced with new stories generated by each victory in their unique campaign for independence.
Brilliant leadership can even recast seeming failures into meaningful parts of the story, as Winston Churchill did during the Battle of Britain and the rescue at Dunkirk during World War II -- and as we each can do by reframing our immediate problems into lessons and opportunities in the larger stories of our lives. In a dramatic and symbolic fictional recasting of a story field, the young protagonist in The Tin Drum used his tin drum, played from under a bandstand, to transform a rigid local Nazi rally into a chaotic, joyful festival.
On the dark side, much of the conquest of cultures is carried on with story fields. Authors like Jerry Mander ( In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Sierra Club, 1991) and Helena Norberg-Hodge (Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, Sierra Club, 1991) have documented how the enticing story fields of mass-consumer culture are infecting and destroying some of the few remaining indigenous Nature's-Way cultures -- largely through the media of television, advertising and Western education, all of which glorify the American-Way-of-Life and its related story fields.
WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF A STORY FIELD'S POWER?
As I mentioned earlier in this article, I believe we all live in stories (story realities, lived stories and story fields) much more -- and much more readily -- than we live in concepts. Stories (and even individual parts of stories) have a resonant, alchemical relationship with the way we experience life. A narrative or a role-model, for example, can act as a magnet aligning our awareness, beliefs or lives into congruence with its pattern.
When Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he reportedly greeted her with, "So here's the little woman who started the big war." Millions of people changed overnight as they entered her narrative about the lives of slaves. Her contemporaries felt that they had experienced, through her work, what slavery was like from the inside. Similarly, billions of people have been transformed, mobilized and shaped by the stories (the visions, myths, and heroes, more than the concepts and facts) of Christianity, Democracy, Socialism, Capitalism, Hinduism and even Progress.
Generalized concepts and principles don't have the same dramatic, contextualized, motivating power that stories do. We may be able to follow principles, but we can't enter them, live them, breathe them -- except for the stories that live within their field, or the stories that carry them out into the world in their most infectious form, from news reports and scientific journals to morality plays and online multi-player games.
We explored this phenomenon in our earlier discussion of spring. Here is another
example: We can apply the principle of justice mechanically, as a computer
would, weighing out pros and cons. But the approach is cold; we can't bring
real justice to life that way. If we want to live a principle, we need
to translate it into story form. Our efforts to live by the principle of justice
draw us into fables, history, role models and other story phenomena -- the story
of Solomon deciding who is the real mother of the baby, the image of Gandhi
fasting until the Hindus and Muslims stop fighting, the role model of Rosa Parks
refusing to give up her seat in the front of the bus. Then, in our own lives,
we play out our own small versions of these stories. Research into the cognitive
processes of moral deliberation shows how heavily we rely on stories and mental
scenario-building to put our moral principles into practice. Jesus, Christian
missionaries, Jewish prophets, Buddha, and hundreds of zen masters and meditation
teachers have spoken in parables to weave their principles into the living story-fabric
of their audiences' minds.
At the societal level, a story field can seem almost synonymous with culture. Actually it is one powerful dimension of culture, seen through the lens of the story paradigm.
Just as there are sub-cultures, youth cultures, and organizational cultures, all contained (more or less) within a larger national culture, so our national story field contains thousands of overlapping story fields, some of which reinforce the national one and some of which attempt to replace it.
[NOTE: The term story field is closely related to the postmodernist concept of metanarrative -- a grand, all-encompassing story that provides people with a framework upon which to make sense of their experience. However, the term metanarrative suggests that one can and should summarize such a story to understand and communicate it, and the term is a critical term often applied to ideologies, like Christianity, Marxism, Freudianism, etc. The term story field, in contrast, suggests an energetic narrative space made up of many resonant stories which is basically indescribable, inevitable (in some form or another), and can only be alluded to by reference to its constituent stories. Postmodernists seek transformation by freeing themselves from metanarratives. Story field activists seek transformation by becoming conscious of the power of stories and the fields they generate and by telling a different set of stories together, to generate new narrative fields.]
HOW TO TELL IF A STORY IS CO-INTELLIGENT
Despite the holistic nature of stories, as such, not all stories are co-intelligent. Many narratives and story fields (and even some lived stories) are degrading, controlling and subliminal in their effects, or simply serve to distract us from urgent issues that would otherwise attract our creative attention.
The analytical-scientific paradigm that rules our culture doesn't see itself as a form of story,* but as the only legitimate arbiter of reality. As arbiter, it demeans the whole idea of story as belonging to childhood, entertainment, "primitive" cultures, and other things that have nothing to do with running a complex society like ours. If stories embodying certain facts or principles are put forth as important evidence, they are dismissed as "merely anecdotal" or "just a myth."
Meanwhile, stories flourish in our society as an unnamed dynamic of social control -- both implicit and engineered. Through newspapers, TV, billboards, advertising, novels, comics, conversations with friends, and the archetypal activities and appearances of people around us (from business suits, to commuting, to Christmas), we are inundated with narratives and lived-stories that reinforce the dominant story-field. In both form and content all these stories make it exceedingly difficult for people to think in complex or alternative ways, thereby impeding the societal intelligence that could generate the wise changes our culture desperately needs.
If we wish to build a co-intelligent culture, we cannot simply float along with this dynamic. We need to understand the social role of stories, and then do what we can to help stories play their role more responsibly. To begin with, I want to explore how co-intelligence can be enhanced or undermined by
• the characteristics of a given story,
• the ways in which that story is generated, framed, told and used
• the context in which that story functions.
What I've written below about these issues I offer as a rough measure of the co-intelligence of stories. Until we have better criteria, these will help us evaluate any story we are reading, telling, witnessing or living in.
You will repeatedly find me contrasting co-intelligent stories with fragmentary stories.
I call a story "fragmentary" when it
separates and alienates people, ideas, circumstances, etc.,
from each other
while disregarding important relationships
or commonalities among them or
ignoring the larger picture within which they make sense together.
When a story does any of these things, it comes out of fragmentary intelligence rather than co-intelligence.
Here are things I believe make a story co-intelligent:
• A co-intelligent story fairly represents multiple viewpoints and interests.
Mark Satin, editor of the excellent but now defunct New Options political newsletter (and no editor of The Radical Middle newsletter) once reported on a national Green Party gathering, using an almost novelistic style. He interviewed people from many diverse and opposing viewpoints. Then he wrote his news story as if he were witnessing the conference unfolding from within the minds of several very different specific individuals simultaneously. Readers got to experience the various responses (and what was behind them) as they happened, and gained insight into how all the perspectives built up to actual outcomes in the conference. I find this remarkable use of multiple viewpoints very co-intelligent.
This style is in stark contrast to typical news reporting. These predictable news reports either engage in "who's ahead?" sports-style reportage on a conflict (as seen from the outside), or else rationalize the behavior of one side while negatively stereotyping the other side. In either case, news stories usually focus on the most mainstream or embattled positions, ignoring creative "third-way" perspectives.
TO SUMMARIZE: To the extent a story embraces diverse viewpoints and interests, it can be considered co-intelligent. To the extent it limits the number of views and interests involved -- or distorts them, especially by reducing them to us-vs.-them or right-vs.-wrong stereotypes -- it is fragmentary.
• In a co-intelligent story the people, ideas and circumstances co-evolve. That is, they interact towards higher levels of coherence, harmony, understanding, synergy. In fact, the story itself may evolve.
In The Education of a WASP, Lois Mark Stalvey depicts her evolving understanding of racism. She started out as a relatively naive but open-hearted "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" (WASP) encouraging some African-American friends to move into her neighborhood, a white community she didn't think of as racist. She learns, the hard way, step by step, about the many varieties and layers of racism in and around her. After I read each chapter, I thought to myself, "Oh, yes, right, now she's got it," only to find, in the next chapter, just how shallow the previous chapter's lessons were. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has a similar dynamic quality. It clearly shows Malcolm X's personal evolution.
But these are only books, trapped in a one-way writer-to-reader communication medium. Their co-intelligence could be increased further by people discussing them. If such dialogue were collaborative (rather than primarily combative or defensive) and generated changes in attitude, it would add yet another dimension to the evolving story about how people have transformed their attitudes about race. Compare that to the innumerable and relatively unchanging declarations about racial issues which have been originating from all sides for decades.
Stories, themselves, can evolve over time. Folk tales evolve to suit the needs of the tellers and listeners. The story fields of major religions evolve: The Judaism of Rabbi Nahum Ward transforms the "chosen people" status of Jews into "All people are chosen. Each people is chosen by God to play its own unique role in history," and proclaims that "Food which is grown in ways which pollute the earth or which exploit human labor is not kosher." Rev. Matthew Fox claims that the heart of Christianity is not sin and redemption so much as the creativity of God and our role as co-creators and celebrants. And feminists are bringing equality and democracy and respect for the body, sexuality, nature, emotions and intuition to traditionally patriarchal faiths from Christianity to Buddhism.
TO SUMMARIZE: A story is co-intelligent to the extent it evolves -- and to the extent that the interactions and dialogue it contains or stimulates generate shared understandings, learning, growth and transformation.
To the extent a story -- or the people, ideas and circumstances in it --
are static and do not evolve,
or their interactions generate nothing positive,
or there isn't much meaningful interaction at all,
or the interactions are predictable and confined to a surface level --
then that story can be considered fragmentary. • A co-intelligent story embraces a broad context.
That is, to the extent a story clarifies
the underlying dynamics,
the motivating values
and the ramifications and implications of events --
and coherently relates those events to other events, activities and interests --
it is co-intelligent.
To the extent that facts and events are presented out-of-context or in a very narrow context, the story is fragmentary.
In the mid-1980s I ran across an eighth-grade curriculum called Facing History and Ourselves that exemplifies this broad contextual dimension of co-intellience. (This curriculum also happens to illustrate the creative participation described in the next section.) It explored the Nazi period through the eyes of a young Jew, a young Nazi, and young Germans who were not in either camp. It told the true story (popularized in a novel and TV movie called The Third Wave) of an American teacher who -- to answer his students' questions about why Germans went along with the Nazis -- subtly created a Nazi-like movement in the class which his students enthusiastically joined. The Facing History and Ourselves curriculum included chilling psychological studies of conformity -- including the famous Milgram experiment where ordinary college students were encouraged by a man in a white lab coat and clipboard to shock a man who the students could hear but not see. The students didn't know the man they were "shocking" was an actor and the shocks were not real, but they shocked him anyway, most of them increasing the voltage until the man "died."*
After the eighth graders learned about all these things, they looked at the world around them -- especially at the possibility of nuclear war -- and discussed how easy it is to remain ignorant of giant horrors and to do nothing about them. Wise beyond their years, they moved beyond blame to see ignorance, conformity, belief in propaganda, obedience, scapegoating, and other dynamics at work inside themselves and all around them. Seldom do we venture broadly enough into social dynamics to see the shadow of our everyday lives, and the places that it darkens. Seldom do any of us venture deeply enough into the world of those we disparage to hear the echoes within our own souls.
To expand the contextual co-intelligence of a story, we could also ask: What is its story? Where did this story come from and why, and what are its ramifications? The larger context of the story, itself, if we understand it, adds further dimensions to its co-intelligence. Whether it is a rumor, a movie, a TV ad or a scientific fact, knowing how it came to be helps us find the right place for it in our own story. In the context of our deeper understanding, we can relate to it in more nuanced, appropriate ways.
• A co-intelligent story and its presentation invite and facilitate the creative participation of the people who read it, hear it, view it, or live through it.
Edward Abbey's novel The Monkeywrench Gang definitely "invites and facilitates the creative participation of the people who read it" (although its adversarial attitude diminishes its co-intelligence). Abbey describes an unlikely group of redneck friends who so love and want to protect their natural environment that they cut down billboards, disable road-building equipment and even blow up a railroad bridge used by a coal mining company. Abbey goes into considerable detail about why and how to do all this. His novel inspired and empowered the original Earth First! activists to self-organize without any central management or coordination.*
Other examples of participatory stories can be found on interactive CD-ROMs, performance pieces, and the fantasy games played with cards, dice, handbooks and computer networks. Although many of these pastimes engage participants as stereotypes battling other stereotypes, perhaps more co-intelligent forms could be created to engage people in more nuanced, real and positive transformation.
TO SUMMARIZE: To the extent participants can co-generate the story's events and their meanings, the story and its presentation are co-intelligent. To the extent people are passively fed the story or made to march unquestioningly to its drummer, it is fragmentary.
• A co-intelligent story helps people connect to each other and their world, and to understand the interconnections between people and things, and their roles in each other's lives.
For example, many religions have a story that all people (and, for some, all life forms) are children of God. The story of evolution tells how we are all related to all other life forms and how we co-evolved with the life around us. Some evolutionary biologists, like Lynn Margulis, tell an evolutionary story of cooperation in which complex multicellular life forms (like us and the birds and the bees) evolved from bacteria and other microscopic life forms organizing themselves into increasingly intricate cooperative communities that ultimately have an intelligence of their own. Other evolutionists like Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, and Connie Barlow trace our kinship back to red giant stars, supernovas, and the Big Bang, making us kin to the stones, seas, and heavens, as well.
Sometimes these stories are accompanied by less co-intelligent stories. "Nature red in tooth and claw" summarizes a story of evolution that stresses competition, domination and violence -- a story that says we become fit to survive only by conquering our enemies, our competitors, our environments and ourselves. And most religions that proclaim the kinship of humanity (which supports co-intelligence) also have stories of the exclusive superiority of their One True Faith and its believers. Although some of these stories may contain elements of truth, they can seriously impede co-intelligence wherever they dominate. To develop more co-intelligence, we need to find ways to survive and be special not only without degrading others, but through co-creative engagement with others.
IN SUMMARY: To the extent a story nurtures conscious interconnection, participatory responsibility, interdependence, synergy and collaboration, it is co-intelligent. To the extent it promotes alienation, otherness, hatred, disgust, intolerance, blame, guilt, defensive territoriality and rugged individualism -- those attitudes and behaviors that mitigate against positive interconnections -- it is fragmentary.
• The viewers and participants involved with a co-intelligent story know they are viewing and participating in a story.
To the extent people are aware of their own role in bringing a story to life and they know it is one of many stories, the story and their participation are co-intelligent. To the extent people think of the story as Reality, as a given fact of life, as an absolute -- or are oblivious to it, even as they participate in it -- the story and their participation are fragmentary.
If we wish to develop co-intelligent multi-culturalism this would be a vital factor. Everyone would have a culture to call their own, a special community of belief and tradition they belonged to and shared in creating. The co-existence of such cultures would be made possible by each one validating and rejoicing in its own specialness without invalidating the others.
My culture's story field would not be special because it is The Right One, but rather because it is valuable and mine; it is home. I would find that its story field, lived and told, enhances the meaning of my personal story, and I would love it for that. I would see how the cultural homes of others serve them in similar ways, and I would honor that. I would find the details and dynamics of their cultural story field interesting. We would enjoy and learn from the variety we bring to each other's lives in our multi-centric, vibrant pluralism.*
As part of our co-creation of our unique cultures, we would weed out those elements in our beliefs and traditions that impede this wholesome way of relating to each other, thereby helping our traditions evolve. We would also support those who move among cultures. We might suggest to seekers that they find a niche in the tradition in which they were born, or in ours, but mostly we would make it clear that there are many traditions, many story fields, and the most important thing is to find one that feels like home and to let others do the same. Or perhaps they aren't "seekers," as such. They may be more like honeybees -- not looking for a home so much as gathering nutritious cultural nectar while performing the social service of cultural cross-pollination. These people are especially aware that they're participating in stories.
• A co-intelligent story is designed to serve the interests of all stakeholders.
Gandhi's methodology, which he called satyagraha (usually translated "truth force"), epitomized this approach. In a conflict, Gandhi would study both sides for truthful and life-affirming factors -- and for false and life-degrading factors -- and then he'd attempt to construct a position made up only of the truthful, life-affirming elements he discovered. That would become his position. He would fight very hard and nonviolently for that position, while always remaining open to the possibility that he was overlooking falseness in his own thinking or truthful, life-affirming possibilities elsewhere. He would continually revise his position whenever he felt his discoveries warranted that, and invite all interested parties to join him there. To Gandhi the end of any struggle was not the other side agreeing to do what Gandhi wanted, but rather all involved joining in the position exemplifying the greatest truth and life.
In his pursuit of this ideal, Gandhi was known to befriend the enemies of his allies and to call off major campaigns because his followers had become violent or his opponents were suddenly vulnerable to defeat instead of transformation. Such actions often infuriated the politicians with whom he worked, while endearing him to the more humble and idealistic people around the world. The third-way positions he created were, in essence, co-intelligent stories ("if we do this then everyone will be true to themselves and each other"), and each encounter became a mythic quest for truth.
TO SUMMARIZE: To the extent a story is intended to serve the broad public good and all those interested and affected, it is co-intelligent. To the extent it was designed to serve narrower interests, it is fragmentary.
• In dealing co-intelligently with a story, people use other than narrative intelligence -- for example, analysis and intuition -- to understand and weigh the role of that story in the world and the role of themselves and others in the story.
Stories in the mass media are made more co-intelligent by a capability called media literacy. Media literacy involves awareness of the underlying dynamics in the media -- who is saying what, why and how. Media literate people don't just sit there soaking up stories from the newspapers, TV, radio, movies and mailings. They understand that advertisements (and many other media stories) are not designed just to inform or entertain them but to get them to buy, think, feel or do something specific. And they know that most media are controlled -- sometimes directly, sometimes subtly -- by those who own them or advertise in them, and they know how such power shapes and limits the ideas, stories and images that are carried by such media.
They know some of the techniques advertisers and PR professionals use to sway them; they can observe the use of such techniques and this reduces the influence PR techniques have on them. They note how they feel as they take in mediated information and wonder, "Is someone trying to make me feel this way? Why? How do I feel about that?" Media savvy people have a gut sense when they're being manipulated, when something is being left unsaid or when contradictory information is being communicated. They know when to wait for the other shoe to drop, and where to go to see it drop (often in the last paragraph of the story). They know that when news reporters report "objectively" what the president says, without mentioning the dozens of dissenting perspectives, that that is objectivity in name only.
They use and support media that provide them with "the other side." The most co-intelligent of them look for more than one "other side," striving to grasp the big picture, the whole topology of opinion and interests. And they don't just take in the information and opinions, they ask: What does this have to do with me? How am I involved? What should I do about it? And they talk with friends and join salons to explore such questions with others. For there's always more to any narrative than it says, and our role is always bigger than listening.
IN SUMMARY: To the extent narrative intelligence is integrated with other forms of intelligence, it is co-intelligent. To the extent that narrative intelligence is all that is being used, or that the story is not being reflected upon, it is fragmentary.* * * *
In the world of story, we all have parts, and we all share untold billions of stories unawares. We need to find and hear and tell our stories to each other, for they are bridges where we can meet and cultivate meaningful co-intelligent relationships. And it behooves us to work together to shape the stories that shape our lives -- and to do it with great consciousness, creativity and care.
For the essence of co-intelligence is the unfolding of Our Story, the story of the world we live in, and will live in, together.AT THE CENTER
One of the implications of the story perspective is that we are all at the center of the universe. We each have a story. That story extends to the farthest reaches of space, time, consciousness and meaning -- and we sit smack dab in the middle of all that.
Obviously that makes us pretty special. Just as obviously, it makes everyone else pretty special, too. And everything, as well. We're not talking about a "better than" sort of special; we're talking about a "unique" sort of special. Our stories make us all unique. They don't make us better than others.
Being special means that all of us are worthy of honor and respect by virtue of our totally amazing, unique and universal story in which we are the central character. The fact that this is true of every person, every animal and plant, every entity and idea in the world, boggles the mind and should give us pause.
If we've been treating most other people and things as just part of the scenery, perhaps it's time to wake up to who they really are.
All people have stories. And in these stories lie both our common humanity and our unique individuality. Nothing embraces these two 'opposites' -- our commonality and our individuality -- so completely.
The center of the story is where we all live, all of us, all the time, whether we think about it or not. All beings share the perspective of being at the center. The entire story worldview is rooted in this fact. Yet, despite the fact that we all experience ourselves in the center, we all seem -- as well -- to be scattered around in each other's stories. It can and does confuse us. We feel like we have to choose one perspective or the other -- either we're central or we're not.
Immature awareness of being-at-the-center shows up as egocentricity -- acting as if my ego is the only center of the universe. As most people in our society mature, they try to replace their egocentricity with no-centered "objective reality" or with some co-dependent other-centeredness (acting as if one's boss, ideology or significant other is the center of the universe). They deny that they, themselves, are the center of the universe -- even though few can shake off the felt sense that they actually are the center.
I'm suggesting here that there is a better alternative, a more healthy, productive way to mature. I'm suggesting that we acknowledge our universal experience that we are at the center of the universe -- all of us. We are all at the center of our lived story, and that lived story, made whole, is The Whole Story. And that Whole Story contains all the same things that everyone else's Whole Story contains. It just has a different center.
I call this arrangement MULTI-CENTRIC REALITY. Story-reality is multi-centric -- it is made of lived stories, each with its own center. And the appropriate, healthy way to relate in a multi-centric world is CENTER-TO-CENTER -- from my center I relate to your center. Buber called this an I-Thou relationship, and contrasted it with the I-it relationship. I-it relationships dominate in a world of subject-to-object -- usually, I as a subject relate to you as an object. (This can degrade even further to an object-to-object relationship, where I no longer experience myself as a subject, but only as a physical or social thing.) Such relationships befit the object-and-action worldview in which there is only one story -- and it must be either mine OR yours OR the dominant social or physical reality (depending on where the power lies to define Reality) -- and we're all characters in that dominant story.
The object-and-action worldview does not acknowledge all of us as valid centers of the universe and as characters in literally trillions of stories. Which, according to the story worldview, each of us are.
Though the story worldview places me, willy nilly, at the center, it also calls me to do more than just be there, oblivious to my position and its significance. It calls me to occupy that center consciously, with my full being. In order to relate to your center, and to all the stories around me and, indeed, to my own story (and I need to do all these things if I wish to reap the full benefits of the story worldview), I need to be centered. To be uncentered is to treat myself as an object... or be egocentrically self-conscious... or be measuring and judging myself all the time... or be absentmindedly elsewhere. In experiencing myself as a thing or splattering my attention all over the place, I lose the center I need to relate from. To be centered is to be looking out at the world from my place at the middle of my story, at the middle of the world's story.
Being centered helps me see that others are at their center -- whether they know it or not -- as absolutely in the middle of the world's story as I am -- and it helps me treat them that way -- as a fully valid center in their own right.*
There are many routes to our own center and to the centers of others. Love is perhaps the most powerful route, along with its near cousin, compassion. If we are living a life of love and compassion, we are already living center-to-center. But not all of us can and do live that way.
Instant, graced enlightenment -- and patient, disciplined exercises in realization are two other ways. These produce what is sometimes called presence, a palpable, powerful sort of centeredness. It is also called mindfulness -- open, careful attention to all that's going on. But, again, not all of us have the desire or discipline for mindfulness and enlightenment.
Faith that centeredness is a truth is another path, a quite simple one: my faith in your center and mine can evoke centeredness in both of us. This faith is part of many religious traditions. "There is that of God in every person," say the Quakers. "All sentient beings have a Buddha nature," say the Buddhists. And some folks bow to the spirit of the shovel before they begin digging. Our ability to live center-to-center can be greatly helped by such faith, if we are capable of calling upon it.
At a more everyday level -- at a level where we can all learn to practice center-to-center living -- the most powerful route to each other's center is respect. I don't mean respect for good deeds, high character, status or possessions. I mean unconditional positive regard for each other as we are. This doesn't mean I regard everyone equally. It means that at the very least my regard for others starts out at a high level and never drops below that. You can earn more respect from me, but I will never give you any less than this real respect I give you right now, sight unseen. Because your story is the story of the world, more than you or I will ever know. And it behooves me to honor you for that and to listen well to you, that I may learn more of that unique story, and thereby grow richer in my own story, and more competent, with you, in co-creating our story.
Respect is something we can all learn, bit by bit, more and more.
Without respect, the sharing of our stories means little -- although sharing our stories tends to increase our respect for each other quite naturally. The more respect we can muster for each other, the more our sharing of stories will ripen into co-intelligence.
Looking out from the center
My lived story includes whatever exists at this moment in the present. It includes everything that's past and future as well. I can look at all of this -- past, present and future -- from this moment, from this center.
My lived story includes everything on which I had, have or will have any influence, whatsoever -- and everything that has influenced, is influencing or will influence me. Because of the interwoven nature of all lived stories, I realize that I am an inevitable participant in whatever happens in all lived stories, and everything is an inevitable participant in mine. In the story paradigm, even those we normally think of as apathetic or spectators are active (if unconscious) participants in the unfolding of events out in the world.
My lived story might be considered the answer to the question "Who am I, in the fullest sense, in my fullest context?" The lived story of an object (such as a tree or a rock or a toy gun) might be considered the answer to the question "What is this, in its fullest sense, in its whole context?" Indigenous people often identify themselves by their tribe, their place and their ancestors, a much broader identity than "Tom Atlee, author."
To the extent we know the lived stories of ourselves, our associates, our groups, our communities, our cultures, and of the life forms, places and objects around us, we become empowered to relate to them in more co-intelligent ways, moving from illusory control to co-operation, co-creation and the intricate dance of conscious co-evolution.
My lived story looks very different to me depending on my perspective -- depending on my beliefs, my values and the ways I look at things. Sometimes I view things more or less as they appear. Sometimes I view them from a higher or transcendent place, seeing them in larger contexts. And sometimes I delve deeply into them. How much can I take in? What do I think is relevant? How does my viewpoint cause me to filter or alter what I experience? Asking these questions and stretching to embrace bigger answers, brings wisdom.
My lived story extends (theoretically) forever, covering all dimensions within and around me, until I am living The Whole Story, the story of the universe. But I can only be aware of a small fraction of that.
The part of my lived story that I am aware of I call my conscious lived story. The part of my lived story I am unaware of I call my unconscious lived story. Both are equally real, equally part of who I am, equally part of the universe, equally powerful. But to the extent I am unconscious of my lived story, I can neither appreciate nor improve my role in the world.
So I grow wiser to the extent
• I increase my presence in the center of my lived story,
• I expand my awareness farther, deeper, and higher into my lived story,
• I realize that my story (like all stories) is just one story of many,
• I become increasingly sensitive to the intersections between my lived story and the lived stories of others and
• I bring greater consciousness (my own and others) to those links between our lived stories by calling forth, listening, sharing and learning more of all our stories.
It seems to me that such wisdom makes possible the highest form of co-intelligence available to us humans -- the conscious co-creation of the lived stories we all share.TIME
It is meaningless to speak of story without time.
Whereas the object-and-action world of physics sees matter, energy and space existing in time, time exists within story-reality inseparably, intrinsically. In fact, stories are propelled forward by the power of the question, "What happened then?"
To live consciously, I need to understand more about the role of time in my lived stories. Here's a few notes about that:
• The past: "Where I've come from" includes traditions, expe-riences, anecdotes, ancestors, history, things that have hap-pened to me, things I've seen, things I've done. Although the past feels behind me, it also lives in the present. To a large extent, participating in lived stories consciously involves becoming present with my (and our shared) past, and sensing the role of that past now and in the future.
Because of the past, I have certain habits of thought, feeling and behavior. I have expecta-tions, assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, instinctive responses, and so on. These, along with my external environment (which also comes from the past), constitute the raw materials I have to work with in creating my life in this present moment. Any of these may help or hinder me. Realizing that these relics of the past live in and around me now can empower me to cre-atively engage with them. I can do this to the extent I am aware of them, of where they come from, of their role in my life.
• The future: Ahead of me, I realize that my future is not empty. Aristotle spoke of telos, the outcome that draws events towards it. I see that when I envision a future — especially when I desire an outcome — I set up an incompleteness in my lived story that calls out for realization, for comple-tion. It has power to shape my con-sciousness and to realign the contents of my life. True, I often need to build from the present towards the future, but the future can have a magnetic power of its own that I can use or fear, but that I should at least acknowledge.
The power of the future involves more than a personal sense of incompleteness. The natural world itself has built-in patterns of unfolding that shape events — tendencies, trends, physical laws, properties, attractors, and automaticities that push or pull toward specific probable outcomes. We expect certain conclusions to the story of the growing seed...the collapsing credit rating... the tenth can of beer. If I tip a delicately-balanced vase, it begins a very precise and pre-dictable fall, whose remaining trajectory I directly participate in by catching it, or not catching it.
I can see in conflicted areas of the world, ancient stories of abuse and revenge unfolding over and over and over. In such cases co-intelligent closure would require a deep hearing of the stories of abuse and a commitment to change the plight (the horrible lived story) of the abused parties. This is incredibly difficult. But to the extent it isn't done, vengeance (as potent a form of incompleteness as a lit fuse) will be drawn by the future toward its horrible, innate closure. As we are seeing all around the world today, suppression of the conflict does not prevent the revenge; it only delays it.
Within nature I find dialectics, cycles, devel-opmental stages, and many forms of ripeness whose internal logic insists on certain sequences. As an in-fant, alas, I could not type; I had to wait until high school. And I learned early on that I could not speed a flower's growth by pulling at it. Many things in life insist on unfolding on their own schedule.
Timing and patience are of the essence.
So I find the future not wide open, not a blank slate upon which I can write what I wish. However, neither do I find outcomes fully de-termined by forces beyond me. Since so many unfolding patterns are at play at any given time, perhaps I can align myself with this one or that one or find a group of them I can ride, like a wave, to some outcome we share — like permaculturists and aikido masters. I see myself as a participant in all this unfolding — neither as a puppet nor as a king, but as a co-creator in search of partners. I find my-self limited or empowered in this, largely by how aware I am of the dynamics at work and of my role in them. Therefore, I consider awareness of dynamics vital to co-intel-ligence. Dynamics are, in a sense, the lived stories of future things, the way the future draws things forward. Working with these lived stories in a spirit of partnership — co-operating with certain dynamics to increase the probability of desirable outcomes — offers an alternative approach to the more usual stance of prediction, control and battle. I see this as building a co-intelligent relationship with the future.
I will summarize my understanding of the causative dimension of time by saying:
• The past causes events by mechanics, pushing change from behind with established patterns (natural laws and habits) and accomplished realities (givens).
• The present causes events by creativity, gen-erating change in the instant, making new-ness now.
• The future causes events by telos, pulling change forward through purpose, prob-ability and the urge towards completion.
But there's more to time than causation, especially from a story-oriented perspective. Time provides a meaningful context for events. What happens is significant because of what happened before or what will probably happen next. And what did happen is significant because of what is happening now.
The fact that I am riding a bicycle on a more or less ordinary day to buy groceries would have a special meaning if two months ago I had been in the hospital dying of terminal cancer. It would mean something entirely different if, instead of going to the grocery store, I was 173 miles from completing a circumnavigation of the globe on my bicycle. (How insignificant, how empty of meaning, the sentence "The man is riding a bicycle" is, outside of such contexts!)
A real, personal example: Over the last four years, as I developed these ideas on co-intelligence, I noticed that the way I viewed my past and my future became radically transformed. Where I thought I'd just been doing good things for myself and the world, it began to look (in retrospect) like I was learning things I needed to know in order to do this co-intelligence work. My new calling changed the significance of a thousand long-gone events and activities. Furthermore, whereas earlier I had come to terms with dying, feeling I had lived a full and good life, now I feel like my work has only just begun and I need every day I can get, to do this work. All this has vividly shown me the extent to which I can and do create the significance of my life story right in the present moment.*
The integration of these temporal dynamics in our individual and collective lived stories constitutes the temporal dimension of co-intelligence. Since we live in the present, our main tool is creativity. But natural laws, habits, givens, purposes, tendencies, probabilities and incompletions all exist abundantly as obstacles and resources. Co-intelligence involves finding ways to work with them towards positive outcomes. For this, and for the meaning of our lives, we must grow more sensitive to all lived stories -- our own and all the others that co-exist within and alongside it.