Audience in Shamanism and Narrative Therapy

Spring BudsRecently I sat down with a student and found myself engaged in a conversation about Audience. Audience was a central topic of conversation in Hong Kong and our artist workshops in Chennai as well. Audience is central to the work of both shamanism and Narrative Therapy. Continue reading


Photographers, Aviary, Hong Kong ParkThis morning I’ve been reading student papers that have accrued in a small pile during my absence. One of those was a paper about the centrality of audience in healing as discussed in the writings of Michael White and Louis Mehl-Madrona. This set me to thinking about audience in a larger context.

I believe one of my central tasks when working with people is to be a good audience for their engagement with their lives. I also seek out opportunities to enlist others, whether human, spirit, or Nature, to serve as audience for them. In the classroom I try to find balance between imparting information, and drawing out and validating the students’ own knowledge, while encouraging the entire class to witness one another. Continue reading

Challenging the Oppressors’ Language

This morning, I’ve been thinking about the Ecopsychology class I will be teaching this afternoon. I’ve also been considering the work I do with clients in my psychotherapy practice. The two have in common a concern with language. In both instances,  I am engaging others to work with me to free language from the control of that which oppresses. Continue reading

Intrusions, Part 2: Narrative Therapy

The post is a continuation of the discussion begun in the previous post.

I was lucky enough to spend several days, spread over several years, with groups listening to Michael White. Within those days glow a few alone times; ten minutes here, ten there.  Each of those alone time memories is rich with contact, humanity, and warmth.

Michael thought a lot about stories, and loved to listen to, and tell them. He was enthralled by the ways we story our lives, and by the possibility that by changing the narratives we use to explain the world, we might alter the way we see ourselves. He was also profoundly concerned about the ways the of misuse power traumatizes, erasing the storied lives of persons and peoples.

Michael developed many of his ideas about family therapy while working with Native peoples in Australia. He noticed that Indigenous people traditionally tend to understand problems as separate from persons. In this view, problems are seen to influence the behavior of people, but unlike Western thought, do not reside in persons as personal flaws. Rather, they are more akin to intrusions, cajoling and encouraging suffering.

Although he utilized Western literary theory as a framework for, and way of explaining his thoughts about, problems, he freely acknowledged the influence of Native beliefs on the evolution of his style of Narrative therapy. In one of our brief encounters Michael and I talked about how the fundamental intertwining of Native ideas with his work seems to be marginalized in the teaching of Narrative Therapy in the United States, where Individualism, Psychology, and Managed Medical Care weld problems and persons together. Here, Narrative Therapy becomes a method, rather than a critique. In larger trainings Michael was concerned about making visible the forces operating on individuals and families, the play of happenstance and power. He taught that therapy was, at its best, an act of resistance, and believed that when problems could be separated from those they effect, freedom may ensue.

In this light, Narrative Therapy becomes a form of extraction, challenging, and hopefully removing, the influence of large cultural ideas privileging power, and demeaning individuals and families. Michael’s view of Narrative Therapy sought to understand the person as filled with potential that is limited by problems that influence thought and behavior. These problems arise in the course of living life. Some are the result of violence and oppression, and they are perhaps the most insidious.

Narrative Therapy, in Micheal’s view, offers families and individuals the opportunity to understand the ways problems, forces, and systems operate on their lives.  The information unearthed in thoughtful discussions and analysis is then utilized to inform new behaviors and strategies for reducing problems’ influence. In the end, Narrative Therapy does what Michael did so well, it encourages therapist and client to see themselves as moral beings engaged in a sacred, liberating activity, and invites them to step outside the isolating influence of problems and partake in the wider community.

Michael died suddenly about this time, two years ago. His life created an extended community of persons dedicated to joy, equality, and human rights. Michael, you are much missed.