Re-story-ing the Soul
AdamBlatner, M.D., T.E.P.

(June 29, 2002)

This keynote presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama in April, 1999 wove together three themes that I've now divided into three different wepages. One, here, addresses the idea that psychodramatic methods can be used to address issues of spiritual development, soul-deepening, experiencing an enhanced sense of meaning in life. The second theme included in that original theme addresses spirituality and the proper relationship of mind, ego, soul, and spirit. The third theme explores the nature of story-making in life, and its point is to note the value in actively engaging consciously in re-telling our life stories and framing them within a growingly coherent system of our highest values and beliefs. 


The conference's theme this year is: "Restoring the Soul--The Transformational Power of the Healing Arts." When I heard it, it touched a number of buttons in my mind, themes that I've been contemplating over the last decade or more: Expanding our sense of what is involved in healing; personal development as transformative, not just a mechanical fix, but something deeper, the usefulness of the concept of soul, and a play on words--restoring the soul by re-story-ing it, turning the jumble of memories into a coherent line of narrative, eliciting themes that create a sense of meaning and direction.

 I'll focus on the last two points, story and soul. Since the idea of drama to some extent implies story-telling, or narrative, this is especially relevant to our work. The idea of re-story-ing is meant to suggest that it's not just a matter of having a story, or even telling the story, but actually re-creating and re-working the story, bringing the power of spontaneity and the knowledge of circumstances in the here-and-now to the cultural conserves of the past. And as for the re-story-ing affecting the soul, well, this involves weaving in some elements of what might be called myth-making, helping people to not only realize and recreate their stories, but also to connect these to some deeper dimensions of the psyche, those associated with the idea of "soul." In so doing, people are helped to develop that ego-soul connection, which is an important element in spiritual development and psychological healing and resiliency.

So, the point of my talk today is that one approach in healing is to help people re-discover the story-lines in their lives, and to elaborate that storytelling also in order to enrich and develop the soul-ego connection.

Telling Your Story

There are several aspects of story-telling. To begin with, it's part of self-expression, and that, too, has several aspects. One is the interpersonal, to hear and to be heard, to be known. This is noted by the psychoanalytic self-psychologists, that we need to feel that someone sees us, what they call a "mirror transference." It becomes a little less pronounced with age, but it is an error to think that mature people no longer need this. It's part of our interpersonal bonding, our herd mentality, the way we groom each other. Voice is almost like touch in this way. The problem becomes more acute because our culture has overdone the individualism bit, and this is compounded now by the communication-equivalent of junk food, intense media stimulation which distracts people from talking with each other (Locke, 1998).

A second aspect of storytelling is the need to get it out there, to see what you think and feel. Kept in the mind, ideas get contaminated by each other, by doubts and contrary impulses. Extroverts a bit more than introverts need to talk to hear what they think, but really, most introverts have some of this need also. This goes beyond the rational and cognitive, though. Part of why some people abuse themselves by making superficial cuts or picking at their skin is to experience externally the pain that's felt mentally, to reduce the sense of madness when the pain inside has no external correlate. Art, sculpture, dance, poetry, and other more evocative modalities may be helpful here, and of course, the power of active dramatic involvement is especially cathartic. (There's a need for a more complete understanding of catharsis, and I've been working on its explication.)

Storytelling need not be all neatly packaged as a grand narrative, but may reflect a small component--how you changed your name, which animal has come to be special to you, or what symbol, why you feel a special appeal of some exotic foreign culture, how you came to a major turning point in your spiritual journey, how you were helped by someone, or how you helped someone... our lives are full of these vignettes... I'll be inviting you to share a story with someone in the group a little later, as a brief experiential exercise.

Drama, of course, is a kind of story-telling, and the point I want to make is something I've only relatively recently begun to appreciate: To think in terms of story adds a number of dimensions to the process.

The general term used for this endeavor of finding the deeper story themes in life is "personal mythology" and clicking on that link will take you to a number of references on this subject in the references at the bottom of this paper.


One thread I will weave in here then is the idea of constructivism, that we create our worlds, our experience--this has become a growing intellectual trend philosophically and in psychology in the last several decades. Precursors have been around for ages, of course, in philosophy, really new ideas are rare. But an idea is often best appreciated when it's viewed as speaking to its opposing or contrasting idea, and in this case, that is the idea that there's objective truth in psychology.

If our lives have a real truth to them, then it makes sense to try to penetrate the false disguises, to get to it. For Freud, psychoanalysis was a kind of archeology. The problem, though, is that when you get down to it, one supposedly deep memory or association is connected to another, and you can't really tell which is the core element. Is light a particle or a wave? Is a memory false or real? And thus, analysis can become interminable.

So, some folks in our field, mainly arising from the even more elusive arena of family therapy, have shifted from trying to find out what's true or who's right--as you may imagine, it can get pretty raggedy playing detective in this realm--to the more creative process of re-telling the story.

This process involves no great concern over whether this is a true story, if it's objectively real--objective reality has been relinquished as a will-o'-the-wisp. Instead, gradually, some sort of consensus is evoked, a working hypothesis, a story, which then may be worked with creatively, to reframe, re-focus, to re-tell that story in a way that allows participants to think and behave more constructively.

Constructivism as an approach has gotten a fair amount of attention, several books being written recently. It draws on the hypnotherapeutic work or Milton Erickson, on the strategic approaches in family therapy that were stimulated in part by Erickson, and from postmodernist trends in philosophy. And it is somewhat compatible with Morenian thought, especially the emphasis on creativity and co-creativity (Parry & Doan, 1994, and other references to constructivism).

Re-Story-ing Soul

Well, helping people to tell their stories, just to get them out there, is itself healing. Helping them to re-tell their stories in order to re-construct them in a more positive fashion, a story that then can lead one towards thinking more hopefully about oneself and life, this is healing even more.

Now, let's go "down" one or two levels. Let's anchor that storytelling in a dimension of the psyche that adds depth and meaning to the whole process. Let's not only story our lives, and re-story them, but let's re-story our souls. And for this, we need to pause a moment and savor the new development in our field, for me, one of the most exciting developments I've seen in my career--the marriage of sense and soul--to use a title of a recent book by Ken Wilber, a contemporary philosopher whom I consider to be one of the most exciting and prodigious thinkers at the end of this century.

The development is the re-entrance of the concept of soul into the realms of psychology and intellectual life, after having been somewhat marginalized for much of the previous century. Beginning in the 1960s, though, this process has begun to be reversed, triggered by psychedelics, the relaxation of immigration laws allowing an influx of spiritual teachers from South Asia, the human potential movement, a resurgence of interest in Jungian psychology, mysticism as a response to the "death of God" phenomenon in religion, the emergence of transpersonal psychology, the "New Age," etc. (Clarke, 1997). It's a most complex and multifarious cultural upwhelming with elements that are fashionable and flaky, and less well-known relatively intellectually rigorous and exciting developments. Add to this the growing bankruptcy of the modernist ideals and the compensating inflow of postmodernist thought. Well, the analysis of where we're coming from and where we're going could fill a college course, if not a number of them.

So let's return to soul, and dare to define it. Remember, for much of the past, this idea seems to have been inextricably woven into traditional religious dogma and myth, representing an almost superstitious belief. That's changing, the definition is changing in its common meaning to people, as are many other related words, like "myth."

Here are a couple of complementary definitions: Soul is the individualized form of spirit. And soul for most practical purposes is roughly the equivalent of the unconscious-- more of a Jungian view of the unconscious than a Freudian view, a much vaster field, capable of creative inspiration and spiritual connection.

Uh-oh, I used another word that used to be taboo, though more recently it's becoming, like soul, almost fashionable--"spiritual." So, let's define spiritual, too: Spirituality is the activity of developing a relationship with the hidden, transcendental realm of existence, the ground of being, God, if this is personified, etc. (Wuthnow, 1998, vii.) How that transcendental realm is conceptualized may vary. The point is that spirituality is an activity, not a state--you don't get there, you do it, and what you do is develop a relationship, which is different from getting something.

You can be involved in spiritual activities without being religious, or it can occur within the framework of religion. Religion is the social organization of the spiritual impulse, and sometimes it helps it, and, like many organizations, sometimes other agendas come to interfere with the original mission and the spiritual endeavor is obscured.

Anyway, soul is becoming a relatively popular idea, certainly at this conference, and in many areas of psychotherapy. In other areas, it's still held at arm's length. When I was younger, it was an almost disreputable idea, suggesting muddy-mindedness. But then again, so was Jung's psychology, which in the interim has, as I noted, enjoyed quite a resurgence of interest and even a degree of popularity.

Well, I've been wrestling with and contemplating these ideas for much of my life, so I was thrilled to be able to comment on them at a conference whose theme is so close to my thinking. So let's go deeper. Re-storying can help not just the problem-solving level of the mind, but a deeper dimension, the realms of meaning and imagery.

The combination of story and soul has been anticipated in a small but, I hope, growing trend towards--have you heard this term?--"personal mythology" (See references at the end.) It is a group of ideas that combine Jungian and Jungian-like ideas and the constructive, narrative process. (Narrative is a more technical-sounding term than story-telling.)

"Myth," there's another word that, like soul, has shifted in its common meaning. It used to imply the beliefs of non-technologically advanced cultures, and therefore, primitive, quaint, and of course, untrue. Western culture may have its beliefs and mysteries, but let's not call them myths. However, the upsurge in scholarship, anthropology, cross-cultural studies, and also the weakening of the ideals of Western Culture as the illusions of colonialism were critiqued--and the feminist critique was important in all this, too--all led to a shift in the meaning from that which is untrue to those unquestioned assumptions and beliefs within a culture.

As we become more multi-cultural in the postmodern world, because of jet planes and the internet and all, the idea that one culture is not just dominant but more in possession of ultimate truth becomes increasingly transparent. As a result, we see that connection to constructivism-- these cultural threads do weave-- and we realize that many of our most cherished beliefs are by no means ultimately true, but rather are our culture's myths. nd in the rough-and-tumble lapidary process of multi-cultural mixing, it becomes harder and harder to know what to believe. Enter personal mythology. Last year I wrote a paper on the implications of postmodernism for psychotherapy--you can read it on my website--and one of those is to creatively, assertively create your own personal mythology, which is another way of saying to re-story your soul (Blatner, 1997).

How to do it. Start telling stories, and begin to notice in them some universal themes. Instead of this happened, and then that happened, begin to throw in little connecting metaphors, the journey, the struggle, the cauldron (LeGuin, 1985, pp. 483-485).

What's going on here is the making of meaning out of mere eventfulness. The reframing of chronologies as creative processes, dances, buildings, whichever image speaks to the heart. This is done as a way to feel one's own life as meaningful, part of what the late Viktor Frankl called the search for meaning. It also begins to build a deeper connection--a sense of belonging to what Moreno called "the Cosmos." That refers not just to the dimensions of space-time, matter and energy, but includes other dimensions, mind, aesthetics, experience, relationship, complexity, evolution, creative advance. (These themes philosophically resonate with the stimulating ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)

Story-Telling as Soul-Making

Okay, telling stories is socially bonding, it is cathartic, it partakes in that dynamic the group psychotherapy texbook author Irv Yalom called "universalization" as a fundamental healing factor, and it goes deeper. Story-telling is one of the more effective ways to develop a relationship with the soul. Soul doesn't think in terms of prose and facts, but rather images and stories--it's more right brained, so to speak. Jung's attitude towards dreams differed from Freud's in that the former felt dreams weren't attempts at disguise so much as direct expressions, symbolic only because that's its language--the dreaming mind couldn't express the situation in terms of an abstract analysis in linear language if it wanted to. It doesn't speak that language. It tells stories. And it understands only stories. Intellectual interpretations don't get through, don't make it all the way in. They may create a cognitive framework that aligns the left-brain, reduces those resistances that arise because the client doesn't even know what game you're trying to play. It demands to know, like a British Bobby, "What's all this about, then?" and some cognitive framework needs to be offered.

But then, it's nice to be able to begin to work within that cognitive framework, to stretch the abstract terms, to begin to make them more like metaphors. That's one of the advantages of Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis, his ego states of parent, adult, and child. We can relate to those last three words. And I find Moreno's applied role theory to be even better, offers more characters, so to speak, and can operate at varying degrees of abstraction, from more conceptual to more evocative, in story-form.

So, the soul needs to hear stories. And, like children, it likes to hear stories about itself. So another type of story you can tell is how the soul got a little lost, a little diminished, a little suppressed in the course of time, and how you began to find it again, and restore its wholeness. Like the old romantic formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back--the cathartic moment--only change the characters to the relationship of ego and soul.

Ego and Soul

So let's talk about those two concepts, those roles. These are all constructs, concepts, we're making them up. There are no tangible, measurable boundaried structures here. But for practical reasons, these are ideas, mythic ideas, that in this day and age, and for a growing number of people, they work--these are effective. People generally know what you're talking about, and more, most folks seem to like it.

Your ego-self, that's your everyday sense of who you are. The soul is a role. The soul is a role. That's the role of the source of your imagery, your temperament, your individuality, your telic preferences, your creative inspirations, your aspirations.

Your ego-self is the mediator between your soul and the world. You are a team, your soul can't manifest without you. However, your ego-self can for a while, at least, dominate, out-talk, talk louder than, repress, and even forget the soul. It's a still, small, voice, as the prophet Isaiah called it. But in the long run, the yearnings of the soul will be expressed somehow, in psychosomatic illness, in slips of tounge and mind, in acts of self-sabotage or impulsivity or compulsions. Much emotional and even social disorder may be attributed to or formulated in terms of a disharmony between the needs of soul and the petty efforts at self-control of the ego.

So the game of healing is to align these two roles, to recognize what each does best and to stop trying to substitute one for the other. Now we don't teach this skill in school, and it so far hasn't been widely taught even in the field of psychotherapy. How to serve your soul. You do need to serve it, you know, because it's already doing all it can for you. It never lets up, it may be suppressed, but it's always there. You can lose touch with it, but you can't lose it. (My realization of this last sentence was in 1976 the turning point in my understanding.)

A Word about Possessives

There is a tense in our language that leads to a deep misunderstanding. It's the confusion between having a thing and having a relationship. The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, noted this idea in a different way. When you were a toddler you learned about "mine." My toy, my blanket, my toilet, my poopies, my mommie, my daddy.. they were all part of your archetypal, innate, built-in program of constructing a self and a world of stable relationships, or as many psychoanalysts call them, "objects," --which is misleading because there, too, there are two meanings.

The psychoanalysts mean the objects of love and hate, which can also include inner roles and complexes. But the word suggests thing-ness rather than relationship-ness. Now here's where Morenian ideas can help, because in a relationhsip, as you mature, you begin to recognize that the other is capable of spontaneity. You can't control another like you did your toy. (This learning may have been distorted if your folks spoiled you, which happens fairly often.) No, having a mommy or daddy means you have access to their interest, at least some of the time, but you need to negotiate these interactions.

Now the same is true of your relationship with your soul. You can't really boss it around. You can fool yourself into thinking that you are in control of yourself because ego can generate a number of illusions where it seems to be doing just this. Ego can harden, repress, dissociate, do all kinds of games. But the soul has the potential for healing, it remembers and knows all of its potentialities, and if you have a growing relationship, and relationships grow and evolve and mature, then interestingly healing things can happen.

And from another point of view, who has who? Is it your soul? or might it be better to think of yourself, your familiar everyday state of mind, as an extension of--and only a relatively small part of--a far vaster field of potentialities called the soul. What if it's as plausible to imagine that you belong to it as much as it belongs to you. Not in the sense of having a toy, the I-It relationship noted by Buber, but in the sense of having access to a relationship, the I-Thou relationship.

Re-Storying the Soul: How-to:

So, with these ideas in mind, how to do it? Thomas Moore (1992, 1996) in his several books on cultivating the soul, re-enchanting everyday life, stuff like that, they're in the ballpark. Shaun McNiff, an arts and expressive therapist, wrote a similar book called "Earth Angels" which invited us to enchant the everyday objects around us.

One way is to identify personal symbols, which can vary tremendously. It can be an animal, a design, a poem or song, a piece of music or art, something that expresses your individuality. Some folks have a number, and the more you do this work, the more personal symbols you may have. It could be a knick-knack you treasure, a rock or picture. A talisman... use your imagination. Okay, Here's an exercise, I said I'd do, and let's do it for about ten minutes. Find someone with whom you might be willing to tell a small story about how you have chosen a personal symbol. How did that come to happen and what does the symbol mean? Take turns and limit yourself to about five minutes each.

Now, when you return home, consider making up a power shield, a coat of arms, drawing it, it doesn't matter if you don't draw well, copying it, allowing that symbol to speak to you. Let it be an "other," something you don't know, can't fully explain, a form your soul has taken to try to say something to you about yourself. Begin to wonder and to discover new possible meanings. Try them on, discard them if they don't fit. But you're beginning a new aspect of your relationship.

Talking about such matters is story-telling. And now, when you lead psychodramas, weave in an awareness of these elements of uniqueness, and watch how your scenes take on a little extra depth. You don't have to do much in this regard unless the client wants to. Some of the more imaginistic psychodramas, the surrealistic approaches described by Marc Treadwell and Leif-Dag Blomkvist, the work with woven materials by Fox's playback theatre, Rojas-Bermudez, or Dorothy Satten, all this is part of this personal mythology work.

Implications and Summary

So, add to the problem-solving dimension a deeper one of re-storying the soul, re-building the relationship with the source of spontaneity. There are many avenues to pursue here--I'll mention a few and I hope this has turned you on enough so that you'll mention some I've overlooked.

First, credit to our brethren & "sistren" in the creative arts therapies, we need more activities that utilize these expressive modalities, and some are already writing about this bridge-building. Pam Dunne's work here, Jean Peterson & Leigh Files' chapter on the use of art and psychodrama, weaving in ritual elements, etc.

Second, about ritual, I want to propose a new role for psychodramatists, that of master of ceremonies, not just of a banquet, but a ritual master for weddings, funerals, menopause and adolescent rites of passage, all kinds of rituals. Here's another growing trend in our culture with a number of books having been written, and here's a role for psychodramatists.

Third. Interactive theatre and variations: Jonathan Fox's Playback Theatre is especially notable and even more worthy of appreciation when viewed in terms of its function as re-story-ing the soul. My own method, co-created with my wife Allee, The Art of Play, also has this potential for deepening the connection with the creative subconscious and filling out the sense of a personal mythology. Other types of interactive theatre are blossoming, with more or less attention to the more soul-deepening elements.

Robin Fe Samelson does workshops in California utilizing a creative idea, imagining a role of "inner-story-teller" who can be a guide to the archetypal realms. Bill Pearlman does what he calls archetypal psychodrama. And other variants are mentioned even on our program.

Fourth, deepening well-known texts, working with known characters, such as a fairy tale, a popular movie or tv show, or some sacred scripture. A number of folks, Don Miller, Peter Pitzele, Sue Barnum, and others are exploring the potentials of Bibliodrama-- finding the relevant elements in collectively-well-known texts and creating even more meaning, re-storying the classic stories. Both don and Peter have written books about their approaches--check our book service.

Finally, I want to witness to an idea I have about the even broader implications of all this: Psychodrama, re-story-ing, soul development, what this all has in common is an expression of and contribution to the convergence of psychology and education, modern management theory, new trends in philosophy and theology, all of which have as a common theme a more conscious, intentional re-evaluation of the ways we think, working towards learning to change the ways we think, change the myths, recreate them, become open to continuously re-creating, which is Moreno's ideal of spontaneity as value.

And what I envision the next century or more to be about is the challenge of the conscious transformation of consciousness itself. And that is really what psychodrama and sociometry and Moreno and many other approaches as well are about. So, here I'm telling a grander story, what they call a "meta-narrative," about how storytelling has evolved, and where it fits within the greater evolutionary story.

Well, I could go on and talk about the rest of the title, the healing arts, the process of transformation, the whole conference theme is rich. But I wanted to focus on the idea of promoting story-telling and extending that then to soul-making, developing the relationship with inner or higher self. My goal has been to stimulate even more than inform you, so let's maximize participation with questions and comments.


Blatner, Adam. (1997). The implications of postmodernism for psychotherapy. Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482.

Clarke, J. J. (1997). Oriental enlightenment: The encounter between Asian and Western thought. London: Routledge.

LeGuin, Ursula. (1985). Always coming home. New York: Harper & Row.

Locke, John L. (1998). The de-voicing of society: Why we don't talk to each other anymore. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Moore, Thomas (1992). The care of the soul: A guide to cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York: Harper & Row.

Moore, Thomas (1996). The re-enchantment of everyday life. New York: Harper & Row.

Parry, Alan, & Doan, Robert E. (1994). Story re-visions: Narrative therapy in the postmodern world. New York: Guilford.

Wuthnow, Robert. (1998). After heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Further References


Efran, J.S., Lukens, R.J. & Lukens, M.D. (1988). Constructivism: What's in it for you? Family Therapy Networker, 12(5), 26-36. (And other articles in this issue's special feature devoted to the subject)

Fish, Vincent. (1993). Poststructuralism in family therapy: Interrogating the narrative/conversational mode. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 19(3), 221-232.

Hermans, H., Kempen, H. & van Loon, R. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist, 47(1), 23-33.

Hoffman, Lynn. (1990). Constructing realities: An art of lenses. Family Process, 29(1), 1-12.

Neimeyer, R.A. (1993). An appraisal of constructivist psychotherapies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(2), 221-234. Excellent overview.

Watzlawick, P. (1976). How real is real? Communication, disinformation, confusion. New York: Random House. This and the next two by this author are good overviews.

Watzlawick, P. (Ed.) (1984). The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know; contributions to constructivism. New York: W.W. Norton.

Watzlawick, P. (1990). Munchhausen's pigtail, or, psychotherapy and "reality." New York: W.W. Norton.

Weingarten, K. (1991). The discourses of intimacy: Adding a social constructionist and feminist view. Family Process, 30(3), 285-306.

Personal Mythology

Achterberg, J. (1988). The wounded healer: Transformational journeys in modern medicine (pp115-125). In G. Doore (Ed.), Shaman's path: Healing, personal growth and empowerment. Boston: Shambhala.

Blatner, A. (1985). The hero's journey. In A. Blatner, Creating your living: Applying psychodramatic methods in everyday life. San Marcos, TX: Author.

Bolen, J.S. (1990). Gods in everyman. San Francisco: Harper & Row. (Also wrote Goddesses in Everywoman in 1985, same publisher).

Bond, D. S. (1993). Living myth: Personal meaning as a way of life. Boston: Shambhala.

Bry, Adelaide. (1990). Replaying the movies of your childhood (pp. 252-258). In J. Abrams (Ed.), Reclaiming the inner child. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Feinstein, D. & Krippner, S. (1988). Personal mythology: The psychology of your evolving self. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Keen, S. & Fox, A.V. (1989). Your mythic journey: Finding the meaning of your life through writing and storytelling. Los Angeles: Tarcher. (This is an update of Keen's 1973 book, Telling your story.)

Krippner, S. (Summer, 1990). Personal mythology: An introduction to the concept. The Humanistic Psychologist, 18(2), 137-142. (The entire issue is devoted to articles on this subject.)

Lifton, R.J. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: BasicBooks/Harper-Collins.

Moore, R.L. & Gilette, D. (1990). King, warrior, magician, lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

McAdams, D.P. (1993). Stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: Wm Morrow & Co.

Pearson, Carol S. (1989). The hero within: Six archetypes we live by. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Pearson, Carol S. (1991). Awakening the heroes within. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Rebillot, Paul. (1993). The hero's journey: Ritualizing the mystery (pp 211-224). In S. Grof & C. Grof (Eds.), Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Rowen, P. (1990). Subpersonalities: The people inside us. London: Routledge.

Sarbin, T. (Ed.)(1986). Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. New York: Praeger.

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