Michael Meade is a cross between a social worker and a shaman. As a leader of the men’s movement, he works with story, myth, and ritual to both heal and inspire. In Meade’s hands, storytelling becomes a fine art, full of nuance and drama, transporting listeners into gritty archetypal realms. In performance he uses a conga drum to accompany and accent his tales, and while we can’t present him live, even in conversation his speech contains a pulse, an incantatory rhythm, always moving toward elemental truths. Meade is the author of Men and the Water of Life, published in 1993 by HarperSan Francisco, and coeditor of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, an anthology of poetry used in men’s gatherings. We talked to him by phone at his home in Washington state.
Inquiring Mind: What makes storytelling an effective medium for teaching? How does a story work on us?
Michael Meade: Telling a story creates a different world. A door opens, and both the storyteller and the listeners subtly slip into what I call the inner-other-underworld, which is where stories come from. Story is a vehicle for traveling to this world, the one which both penetrates and surrounds us at all times. And in that other world, which I am using in the old Celtic sense, we find what is ailing, injured and unfinished in this world, and also we find its healing and completion. Interestingly enough, the other world has troubles also. All the stories have problems in them, confrontations that have to happen and huge dilemmas that must be resolved. It turns out that the trouble in the other world gets solved by dealing with it in this world, and vice versa. So the story is a vehicle that goes between both worlds and is somehow necessary to both.
For a more mundane explanation, I think stories allow the listener to let go. If someone begins to accept the symbolic power that a story carries, then their ego attention is overwhelmed by the universal qualities in the story. There is some relief from the personal. I’ll explain how it works according to my understanding. The key elements of the stories I use are symbolic images that are connected to the great themes of human life and death. The beauty of a symbolic image is that it shows itself to each person differently. Whether it be the image of the Buddha, the image of the cross, the image of a giant or a dwarf—everyone has to make their own picture of it. Each person has to meet the image in the story with the material of their own life. They bring their imagination into play, as well as the feelings that are coursing through them at the time that they are hearing the story. So the symbolic image, in a sense, feeds each person differently and allows each person to connect their personal story to the mythic story. Two things happen during this process. There is relief for the individual who no longer has to carry everything; the load is partially carried by the story. Secondly, I think a community occurs; what people used to call “communitas.” Everyone winds up connected to the same story, even though they may be connected in different ways.
IM: So people begin to understand their individual dilemmas as common to the community, or, in a broader sense, as part of the human condition. Everyone, in some sense, is part of the same story.
MM: Yes. At least everyone can enter the same story. I think it is important to remember that the story reveals that suffering is common and distinct at the same time. The universal has everyone engaged, but each person is engaged in their own individual way. I try to get people to pour their personal story into the mythic story. Because these ancient stories contain huge dynamic symbols, they can accept and illuminate hundreds of personal stories at the same time.
IM: When you are choosing a story, do you look for certain themes or images that will evoke the feelings you want? How do you decide which story you want to tell?
MM: Well, I sometimes try picking stories. I call it hunting. I hunt through books or oral traditions, looking for a good story. But what usually happens, shortly after I go hunting, is that the stories start to hunt me. Often I have a long day of hunting and don’t find anything, and I go home hungry. A couple of days later a scene from one of the stories will come after me. I’ll be walking down the street or sitting in the yard, and all of a sudden a scene from one of the stories will light up before me. That’s the story I have to tell. I’ve learned over the years not to trust my own interest as much as which story is choosing me, which story is hunting me down. The rewards are much greater that way. With this method, in the beginning I sometimes won’t understand the story at all, not even a little bit. As a matter of fact, there are stories that I have been embarrassed to tell because they seem stupid or weird or strange, and I haven’t known the first thing about them. But I find that when I’m telling a story, it begins to teach me.
IM: So once the story has found you, all you have to do is tell it. But that seems to require a special skill or magic to be effective.
MM: The first job of the storyteller is to bring the story to life, and everyone has to learn their own way of doing that. I use drums. I have learned—and I’m still learning—this storytelling technique associated in the old Irish tradition with the “shanachie,” or storyteller, and in Africa with the “griot.” It’s a technique that combines the ancient with the absolutely current. It tries to bring the oldest and most universal archetypes together with the most immediate thing that is happening in the room where the story is being told. So the story becomes extremely timely while remaining universal.
IM: You are Irish, and a lot of your stories come from the old Celtic legends. How do you understand the use of story in the Celtic tradition?
MM: I think they are old teaching stories. They used to be told by itinerant bards, homeless wanderers, who were often blind. In other words, the storytellers weren’t seeing this world. Their vision was in that other world. They would go from area to area, and when they arrived, everyone would gather. That was one way that these storytellers created community. Their stories, interestingly enough, were connected to rituals. In other words, the stories were grouped according to stages of life or great transitions in life. So there were wooing stories and wedding stories, death stories and funeral stories, birth stories, adventure stories, hero and heroine stories. Sometimes the bards would tell a story because of the calendar of rituals. Other times they would tell a story because of what was happening in that community at the time. And everyone would gather to hear that story.
The storytellers were very clear about the fact that their stories contained the architecture and territorial elements of the other world. And the other world is always the world of mystery, and the world of spirituality, the world of wonder and beauty. In a sense, the elaborations and intricacies of those Celtic stories are like Tibetan Buddhist paintings with all the devas and demons, flames and clouds, all completed down to the finest dot.
IM: And each element of the Celtic story, like each image of the Tibetan painting, probably represents a particular energy and evokes a special feeling.
MM: Yes. And the idea was to draw everyone into that world. The stories were traditionally told at night. And they would typically be told over several nights. The idea was to break people’s daily pattern of time. At the beginning of a story I like to joke, “Once upon a time, once under a time, before digital time, beyond any time at all…” and so forth. Part of the job of the story is to break the strictures of the ticking of the clock, to break out of the prison of the daytime world.
IM: Would you walk us through a story, or some parts of a story, and point out some of what you have been describing?
MM: As you say that, my mind immediately begins walking down the road of a story. I can’t help it, and I’ve given up trying. And the one that is there is the story “The Water of Life,” which I used as the title for my book Men and The Water of Life. And the story has in it exactly the elements we have been discussing. First of all, the realm is coming apart. Everything is breaking down because the king of the realm, the ruler, is sick unto death and nothing can cure him.
IM: Sounds familiar.
MM: Yes. Was that in the old time or in this time? Anyway, there are three sons. There are always three sons or three daughters, because the psyche repeats these things three times. I don’t know why. Anyway, there are three sons, and they are weeping over their father. The first thing that happens in the story is this weeping. And their tears and sobbing attracts the attention of an old man. He hears their weeping and comes and says, “What’s wrong?” And they say, “Our father is dying, and there is no cure.” And the old man says, “There is a cure. It’s called the water of life.” They say, “Where can we get it?” And he says, “I didn’t say I knew where it was. I just said there was a cure.” So this is like the first visit of information coming from the other world or the spirit world.
So the oldest son heads out to find the water of life. He doesn’t know where it is, but he gets up on a powerful horse and, not looking at anything, charges straight down the main highway that leads out of the kingdom. As he is going along, a small voice calls from the side of the road, saying, “Where are you going you up on that horse, so certain in your mind, so direct in your ways? Where is it you are charging off to?” And the oldest brother looks over and sees a small dwarf standing on the side of the road in the dirt. He frowns at the dwarf and says, “Don’t bother me, you runt. Why should I listen to questions from someone mixing with the dust in the road?” The first son turns and heads on his way.
Well, the dwarf gets very angry at this and he “fixes” his mind, as they say, on the oldest brother and befuddles him. The oldest brother then finds himself riding into a valley that gets more and more narrow, with rocks coming in from either side and growing into huge cliffs. Finally he is stuck between rocks on both sides. He can’t go forward, and he can’t back out. He can’t turn the head of the horse. As the story says, “He may just as well have been in a prison.”
So when the first brother doesn’t come back, the second brother has to go out. Of course, exactly the same thing happens to him. He ridicules the dwarf, the dwarf fixes his mind on him, and sticks him in the rocks. And the second brother may as well have been in a prison.
So then the third brother goes out. The last one. He charges out the same way. As he is going along, he hears the voice of the dwarf saying, “Where are you going?” But the third brother stops, gets down off his horse, walks over to the dwarf, and says, “I have no idea at all. I’m out looking for the water of life to cure my father and to heal the illness in the kingdom, but I have no idea where the water might be found.” And the dwarf says, “Well, I do.” So the dwarf proceeds to not only tell him where he can find it, but also gives him the tools to open the gates and feed the lions—because you have to get past these lions in order to get near the water of life. The dwarf instructs him on what to watch out for, and everything he needs to do.
The dwarf is the guide in this story, and he is a strange combination of youth and age. He is small, and we usually connect smallness with the child and youth. But the dwarf is also very old. I call him the original indigenous person. He combines deep knowledge of the earth, and everything in it, with a spontaneity that can turn into great anger and fix people, stick them in positions hard like a rock. He can also be extremely generous, opening up the trails into this other world, and giving all of the instructions and tools needed to get to the water of life—the deep flowing universal spiritual water of compassion and love that everybody is looking for.
IM: So the act of humility, admitting that you don’t know where you are going, is the first step to finding the water of life. The third son did not feel he was above talking to a dwarf.
MM: What is essential is the willingness to get off the great horse charging down the main road of life, the willingness to get out of the BMW, the willingness to step off the beaten path and to not act like what I call the two older brothers, the ego brothers. Remember, they need to get stuck first before the younger brother can go out searching. I think the story says very clearly that the ego brothers or ego sisters need to feel like they are in a prison before the youngest part of the psyche will come out. Before the prince or the princess of the psyche will come out with, like you say, humility. But that youngest part of the psyche is also called foolish. It’s the one who is willing to have a conversation with a dwarf, more or less in public. People will be passing by and saying: “That’s kind of weird. You know there aren’t any dwarfs. Who are you talking to?”
Be aware, as well, that the guide, the dwarf, lives inside of us as well as outside. In other words, we try to find a teacher or a guide on the outside who is a reflection of the wise person inside. Then we can start up a dialogue that will teach us how to travel these crooked, strange, labyrinthine paths that go aside from the main road. And anybody who is willing to follow these paths might someday find the water of life.
This story is full of information. Story is related to the word “storehouse.” It’s where things are stored. Some say it is where the treasures that are lost from this world have fallen into the other world. All of those treasures can be found in stories.