School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: May 2009
Moving Stories

This month's winner of £100 School of Movement Medicine workshop voucher

By Rob Porteous

I am fascinated by stories; in particular how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing here define and limit the choices we make. If I have to be the hero, what do I do with my cowardice? If I’m a ‘pillar of society,’ what happens to my desire to subvert the system? How can my ‘Mr Nice Guy’ get angry? If I feel like the victim or the perpetual outsider, how do I ask for what I want? If I’m always busy, what happens to my need for stillness? If I have to have all the answers, how do I cope with my stupidity?

In the process of making up my particular story, I turn facts into fiction- internalising and personalising what happened to me; and then fiction back into fact: ‘This is the way it’s always been; the only way it can be.’ But when I set the story in motion, as I did recently at Awakening in Dartington, and Source in Manchester, new perspectives emerge. New ways of being and relating become possible. I begin to see how to create change in my life, and what the next step might be.

Story is a way of making sense of our world; a container for our emotions and sensations. The story that life is a kaleidoscope of experiences, to be savoured, tasted, smelled moment by moment, is very different from the story that life is about achieving goals, setting targets and making things happen. I think both stories are true; we need both ways of envisioning the world, the near and the far. There is something wonderfully intimate about the smell of jasmine freshened by the morning dew; something wonderfully uplifting about setting sail at midnight into the huge emptiness of a star-strewn sea. Yet how often do I miss the experience that is close at hand because I’m preoccupied with a distant goal? How often do I miss the open door in front of me because I’m wrapped up in my present grief or grievance?

Often when cycling around Bristol I wonder what use a motorist will make of the 5 seconds he’s gained by overtaking me, particularly when he gets stuck at the next lights or the next traffic jam. Yet many people seem unwilling to imagine that there could be a different story, where you feel the wind on your face, the effort of climbing a hill and the exhilaration of the descent; where you know you’ve got somewhere because you’ve invested energy in it.

Moving stories- stories that move us- are stories which engage our emotions, which change or transform the way we feel. That, I think is a primary function of story: at the end of it we feel differently from when we started. An essential element of storytelling is that each telling, like each dance, is a new experience. Even while the story remains the same, each time my response to it changes, when I contact the flow of energy in my body-mind.

Sometimes, of course, I get stuck in some backwater or cul de sac from which no exit seems possible. Sheldon Kopp in his book If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him, uses the image of the prisoner grasping the bars of his cell, yearning for freedom, while behind him, in the shadows, the cell door is open.

Sometimes I’m not really present to what is happening around me. In The Tibetan Book of living and dying Sogyal Rinpoche quotes the following exchange between master and pupil:


‘Master, how can I follow the way?’

‘By eating and sleeping.’

‘But master, everybody eats and sleeps.’

‘Ah yes, but how many people eat when they eat, and sleep when they sleep?’


If my mind is elsewhere, I tend to go down familiar pathways without thinking.

The story about how we are victims of our history and exploiters of our environment is not untrue. The trouble comes when I treat that story as if it is the only one. When my aunt in Israel says, ‘They want to throw us into the sea,’ it’s part of an age old history of conflict and enmity. Lionel Blue in a recent thought for the day spoke of people who talk more about holy places than holy actions, who spend more time building walls than building bridges. Slavoj Zizek, in his book Violence, says: ‘An enemy it someone whose story you have not heard.’

For this to change, I need to be able to imagine a different future. I have to let go of familiar landmarks. I have to accept my ‘not-knowing,’ not having the answers. ‘If we would discover what we do not know we must go by the way that is the way of ignorance’ (T. S. Eliot.)

A few years ago I heard someone on the radio say: ‘There are just two kinds of story: stories about retribution, and stories about transformation.’ How we can move from on to the other is, I think, an increasingly pressing issue for the world we live in. What a different story it would be in Israel/ Palestine, if instead of the endless saga of suffering, and war, and arguments over borders, and disputes over the control of Jerusalem that seem to me the inevitable outcome of a ‘two state solution,’ there was one country, respecting the rights of Jews and Arabs, Druse and Christian; avoiding the fundamentalisms of both Judaism and Islam. The loss of the exclusive right to dictate what happens in ‘my’ land is far outweighed by the gain of letting go of the old story of conflict, suffering and exile. A growing sense of community and collaboration and connection to the earth would bring with it, I think, a sense of true homecoming.

Of course it is easy to tell others how to sort out their problems; more difficult to deal with my own. But when in the dance I really experience and let go of the burdens I have carried with me, the energy that feels heavy and obdurate transforms naturally into a dance of connection, of new beginnings. I move around the room without effort, awake and alive to the world around me. I begin to appreciate the meaning of John Heider’s statement in The Tao of Leadership: ‘Do nothing, and everything that is needful will get done.’

One lunchtime, at Source in Manchester, someone asked me why I was wearing a cap, similar to what in Hebrew would be called a kova tembel, a dunce’s cap. ‘Is it to keep your head warm, or to protect you from the sun?’

I shook my head. ‘It means, Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. I’m taking time out from being intelligent.’ So from that place of not trying to make sense of things, I offer this rhyme to all who, like me, have spent years trying to puzzle out the answers.


                                    For the answer is the question

It’s no more than a suggestion

Of an aid to the digestion

When we all have lost our way.


And the question is the answer

It’s the movement of a dancer

To the flute of an entrancer

When the stars come out to play.


                                                            Rob Porteous



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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.