The Power of Story - The Story Paradigm

For a summary of these ideas, see The Power of Story


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

These four accomplishments alone would vastly increase our level of co-intelligence. They can help us

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?


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:

"What's going on here?" I asked myself, "If these things are true, then there's a good deal more to stories than I ever dreamed."

I soon realized that people used stories

I began seeing stories everywhere I looked. I found them in

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.

So I invite you to share with me an exploration of what's going on with story. In fact, I invite you into a whole worldview based on story.

[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.]

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.


First I want to explore the mechanistic worldview and its relationship to story because it's so dominant in our thinking. I want to concentrate on its real effects in our world and on what happens when we apply "story reality" -- a way of knowing reality as and through story -- to real-life situations. (ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE)

Co-intelligence assumes interconnectedness, the primary principle of holism: Everything in the universe is so intimately related to everything else that the universe is best understood as a seamless whole. The fact that we use our eyes and ideas to carve up our world into parts to better grasp and manipulate reality doesn't change the underlying wholeness of it all.*

Story provides a way to perceive and think about interconnectedness and the incredibly complex web of mutual relationship embraced by the holistic worldview. We are all characters in each other's stories. If we could see all our stories in their real-life fullness, we would discover they all intersect with each other -- although, admittedly, each of us is way in the background of nearly all the other stories that are unfolding at any given time.

The mechanical worldview, on the other hand -- the paradigm that rules industrial cultures -- believes in carving the world up. It asserts that the universe is, indeed, made of distinct parts and that these parts are related to each other in precise ways that can be discovered, articulated, predicted, and controlled. Although a holistic revolution is underway in the fields of science, technology, medicine, design and management, most practices in these fields are still solidly grounded in the mechanical worldview.

Analytical reason suits the mechanical worldview especially well: at least theoretically, it carves reality up into measurable things and actions and controllable relationships. Of course, its usefulness isn't confined to the mechanical worldview. If it is grounded in co-intelligence, analytical reason can serve the holistic worldview just as well. Among other things, it has already given us systems theory, ecology and "new science" disciplines like chaos theory, quantum mechanics and complexity theory, all of which provide deep insights into the nature of wholeness.

And yet, for all that, analytical reason is still based on carving things up and sewing them together. So I've been interested in understanding what other cognitive styles might be rooted in more holistic, co-intelligent assumptions. Clearly intuition is one of them, because intuition can directly perceive whole patterns.

It seems to me that story is another one. Here are some of the ways I believe a story-orientation can help us think and act more holistically.

Stories are structured by the relationships in them

Whether a story is a true one, a fictional one, or -- like our daily lives -- a lived one, we always find someone or something holding it together. Stories may have protagonists around whom events unfold or narrators whose viewpoint shapes them. They may have themes which link events together or chains of events which emerge from earlier events. A central relational principle in most stories is: What does such-and-such have to do with the central character, narrator or theme of the story or the event we're looking at?

Starting with any person, event or theme, we could ask that question regarding every other person, object, event, idea, situation, etc., in the entire universe (past, present and future). How does the person, event or object we're focusing on relate to every other entity and event? If we pulled all the answers to that question together, we'd theoretically have the story of the universe -- what we might call The Whole Story. My Whole Story would contain the whole universe, all in relationship to me. Your Whole Story would contain the whole universe in relation to you. Thus Whole Stories have a unique quality: because we're all related, my Whole Story and your Whole Story are, in the final analysis, the same Story. The only difference is that mine has me at the center and is seen from my perspective, and yours has you in the middle of it. But all the events and connections are the same.

This means that not only are we all characters in each other's stories, but our individual stories are so interwoven as to be, ultimately, one and the same. Through story we can vividly experience our interconnectedness and the incredibly complex web of mutual relationship that IS the universe. We can't have a story without relationships, without bumping up against wholeness, itself.

Intelligence deals with relationships

Intelligence deals largely with understanding relationships between things. It explores whether things are smaller, earlier, or more satisfying than other things; how they fit together or work together; how they're similar to or different from each other; and so on. It uses its understanding of these relationships to engage with life in satisfying ways.

-- Analysis deals best with definable, utilitarian relationships

The mechanical worldview and analytical reason are especially good at describing and manipulating utilitarian relationships like the following:

• CAUSATION: If you know how various gears, pistons and other such mechanisms work, you can design an engine that moves the wheels of vehicles.

• COMPARISON: If your advance measurements show that your new refrigerator is six inches bigger than your doorway, you can save yourself a fruitless trip lugging it up the steps.

• FUNCTION: If you notice that clients are wandering in, hanging around the front office for five minutes and then disappearing, you might conclude you need a receptionist.

• IMPLICATIONS: If you know that carbon dioxide holds energy in the atmosphere, you could conclude that the weather will get warmer and wilder as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise.

• CONTEXT: If you know that plants grow better in soil than on concrete, you won't try to plant your garden on the sidewalk.

-- Story can describe these relationships, too, but differently

Story can help us deal with causation, comparison, function, implications and context, as well. But it goes beyond understanding, description and control into the realm of mutual involvement, a realm where analytical reason becomes reductionist, inadequate to the task. The more nuanced, subjective, interactive and non-measurable a relationship is, the more story surpasses analysis in dealing with it.

In the list of relationships above, I mentioned CONTEXT. Let's look at how analysis and story might deal with that factor. Consider the fact that people perform best in contexts where they are respected. An analytical, utilitarian approach to respect might go something like this: A psychologist does a battery of tests and proves that people do best in a respectful environment. This inspires businesses to tell their managers to start respecting the employees in their charge, so those employees will perform better. But how do those managers actually go about following that injunction? Respect can't be turned on and off like a spigot, at will. Respect that's exercised in order to fill someone else's psychological needs so that they'll produce better may well be experienced as so false that its effect is far worse than not dealing with the issue at all.

Since respect is such a subjective, subtle, unmeasurable, interactive factor, a wise business might seek out a less utilitarian, more story-based approach. They might be sensitive enough to realize that people don't want to be respected because it will make them more productive. They want to be respected because of who they are and what they do. So let's say this business hires a story-oriented organizational consultant. This consultant interviews the employees, asking for incidents when they felt respected, or not, at work. She asks for their views about how well the management has dealt with this. She's curious about what might be done to improve matters. She is so interested in what they have to say, and listens so well, that they intuitively feel she respects their opinions. When some employees comment on that to her, she replies matter-of-factly that no one else is as qualified as they are to describe their own experience and ideas -- Isn't that true? Her whole strategy is to climb inside the employees' stories and sense what the issue feels like from their perspective.*

Then she asks the managers what it is like for them. Do they get respect? Do they have problems giving it to others? If the results of her interviews suggest it, she would bring the two groups together to talk about the ways they experience each other. In story-paradigm terms, we could say she was getting employees and managers to share and process their stories about respect so they could co-create a better collective story about the level of respect in their company. And then she'd do follow-up, listening respectfully to the stories of all parties about how it was going. Whatever analysis she might do along the way, she would never think of it as the answer to the situation. She knows the answer lies in the unfolding, interactive lives of the players in the story. They walk the path, they determine the outcome. She just helps them to see where they're heading and to decide if that's where they want to go. Her perspective looks beyond respect as a good business strategy, to the more basic idea that everyone DESERVES AND WANTS respect. By example and inquiry she draws others into that realization. She stimulates quite a change, without trying to cause any particular thing -- which suggests there's lots of co-intelligence present in her work.

Story does best with with subjective, nuanced relationships

Story deals especially well with a number of other very important relationships in life which are so subjective and intricate that analysis never fully grasps them -- although it always has something to say about them:

• MEANING: the felt relevance and importance of events, objects, memories -- and how they do or don't "make sense"

• RESONANCE & AESTHETICS: compelling empathic responses called forth by a beautiful child or enchanted landscape, or feelings of compassion

• ROLE: part of our role is that we cause things (see CAUSATION, above) and analysis does well with that. But our role is bigger than causation. For example our inaction can allow things, and our very existence shapes, evokes, constrains and provides a context for other things. Ultimately, our role in life is infinite, despite the fact that so much of it is invisible.

Analysis describes what's going on, but the description is usually "out there," floating free, more or less abstract. Consider a psychological or chemical analysis of passion, how dry it would be. When a story describes passion, it tends to engage our attention at a deeper, more immediate, even intimate level. The primary effect of most stories is to relate our experience to the experience of other people and things. The stage is set by the fact that stories mimic the structure of experience -- i.e., events unfolding in and around us. Then, to the extent a story's content is similar to our experience -- i.e., it concerns things we know and have feelings about -- we quickly move into relationship with the characters and situations described. Story doesn't just describe relationship, it embodies and evokes it.

Organizational consultant Gene Martin worked with a union to improve safety conditions. He found the safety committee stuck at an abstract level that blocked them from considering important perspectives and making realistic decisions. So he located two workers from the industry who'd had their hands cut off in machine accidents. He asked them what it was like and recorded their responses. He spoke with their wives, their fellow workers and supervisors, and other people involved with the incidents. Out of several hours of live interviews Martin created a ten-minute tape in which these folks told the story of the tragic and ever-widening ripple of consequences produced by these accidents, as seen from many perspectives. When he played the tape at the next safety committee meeting, the tenor of the work changed instantly. Things got very real very fast. The tape (a story of stories) quickly established a personal and dynamic relationship between these planners and the problem before them.

The contrasting character of analysis and story

Another way to approach the difference between analysis and story is to say that the energy and richness of analysis is explicit, scientific, quantitative, declarative, and "objective"; while the energy and richness of story is implicit, artistic, qualitative, evocative, and "subjective."* Analysts want things to be well-defined and clear. Their power comes from their ability to exclude (from an experiment, a definition, a discussion) precisely those things that are "irrelevant." ** Analysts seek words and symbols that have only one exact meaning; they gravitate towards mathematical formulations and timeless absolutes.

People who have a story sensibility, on the other hand, gravitate towards metaphors, implications, contexts, associations, and expressions rich in connotations which invite interaction and interpretation. From an analytical perspective, if we disagree about what's real, then we need more precise observation and articulation. From a story perspective, if we disagree about what's real, that's because we bring different associations, and those associations, themselves, are interesting and important.

Consider how analysis and story might look at spring. What images and associations come to mind when you think of spring? What does spring mean to you? I see

green and rain and things bursting forth and blossoming

and being born (my birthday) and birds

and spring fever and love and this burgeoning of creative energy

and e. e. cummings ["you open always petal by petal myself

as Spring opens /

(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose"]

-- as well as getting wet and muddy and catching colds.

There's no way to fully describe spring. I can only come close with a poem or an evocative photograph or a burst of words like the one above. Reading this may evoke in you your own associations, expanding on what I said, filling it with far greater meaning than I could ever articulate -- your meaning. And there are stories attached to each and every image and meaning you or I bring to this appreciation of spring.

Analysis, in contrast, approaches spring quantitatively and structurally. Analysis tells us spring has a certain average rainfall and temperature. All seasons result from the way the earth's tilt changes our relationship to the sun on our yearly orbit around it. Seeds that have been dormant since fall now have the requisite heat to sprout. And so on. Each statement (at least to the extent it meets the analytical ideal) is precise, explicit and free of any hidden assumptions or associations. All people receiving the same analytical information about spring theoretically create the same mental images. Those images might be very useful, but they're not likely to have the lively, engaged "juice" we find in more story-based descriptions.

Interconnection and interactivity are the essence of both co-intelligence and story. That's why story has so much to offer to co-intelligence. We could even say that co-intelligence is possible because the universe is constructed very much like a story. In the next section I'll explore some of the ways in which that is true.MULTIPLE REALITIES

Most people think of reality as something quite absolute. Either something's real or it isn't.

But some modern physical, cognitive and linguistic scientists suggest that the idea of absolute objective reality is just that: an idea. They claim that our perceptions and conceptions of reality are more usefully understood as ways we organize our experience -- or, to put it another way, as maps. Linguists, in particular, like to point out that the territory (reality) is different from the maps we use to describe it (our ways of viewing and making sense of reality).

To think clearly about reality, however, we have to come to terms with the fact that we cannot know reality outside of our mental maps. Our sense of a reality that's out there -- by itself, independent of us -- is an extrapolation we make from our perceptual and conceptual maps. Or we could say that it is the "felt sense" of the world which arises from the congruence among our various senses and ideas about our world. When that congruence fails, we begin to have feelings of unreality.

This is not to say that reality doesn't exist, only that that existence is quite relative. What we think of as reality is natural and 'real' at the cosmic scale in which we've evolved, with the senses -- and sense-extending tools and sense-making cognitive processes -- that we've evolved. To organisms with different senses and sense-making cognitive processes, reality is quite different. But it is definitely there -- for them -- as ours is for us! Furthermore, at near-infinitely small quantum scales and near-infinitely large intergalactic scales, we have to stretch beyond our senses and mental pictures into the total abstractions of mathematics to make any sense of "reality" at all. Cosmologist Joel Primack provocatively suggests that "existence" is, in fact, an emergent phenomenon that shows up only at the scale where we evolved -- thanks to the specific conditions existing at this scale -- and is intimately tied to who we are.

So it is not terribly meaningful or useful to argue about whether reality is real or not. We could much better use our time exploring the relative usefulness of and relationships between our various mental maps, our ways of making sense. That exploration is greatly facilitated by realizing that every map is only a piece of a larger picture that continually emerges and changes through our interactions with life and each other. The realization that "reality is not what it used to be" can make us a bit more humble, flexible, and willing to engage openly with others. In other words, it can make us more co-intelligent.

If the closest we can get to reality is our maps, it makes sense to understand whatever we can about their nature, and to know what maps we're using.

The map is not the territory

Ordinary maps in an atlas can teach us many useful things about the mental maps in our heads and our cultures.

In a good atlas we can find various maps of South America (for example) showing elevation, political jurisdictions, average rainfall, average temperature, railroads and highways, population densities, etc. Even though these maps cover the same territory (South America), each one depicts a different facet of what's there. No map could show everything -- not only because the territory is so big and complex, but because it is always changing, as well.

Although these maps are only approximations of single aspects of South America, they serve us well -- and each one serves a different purpose. They can help us understand and deal with the factors they describe.

Similarly, there are different maps of reality. But it is a lot easier to mistake our mental maps for reality than it is to mistake a page in the atlas for the real Brazil. When we immerse ourselves in a particular way of viewing reality, then reality starts to look an awful lot like the mental map we're using.

From our everyday life perspective, for example, reality is unquestionably made up of objects and actions. But to a quantum physicist it looks like patterns of probability and relationship. And to me, more and more, reality is starting to look a lot like a web of stories.

Now, we don't have to fight over whether the universe is one or the other of these worldviews if we realize that each one serves certain purposes better than others. If we are wise, we won't get stuck in any one model of reality. We'll use those that best serve our purposes in particular situations.

The usefulness of three familiar realities, plus a new one

Consider how several different ways of looking at the world (different realities) are useful for different things. Here are three (and only three) of the most common:

• OBJECTS-AND-ACTIONS REALITY: Looking at reality as objects and actions can help us juggle the material business of our lives -- from planning dinner to building bridges -- because such concerns clearly involve actions and objects. (This is the Newtonian, Cartesian or mechanical worldview.)

• SPIRITUAL REALITY: Seeing Spirit in every being and in all parts of Creation can make us humble (and therefore less arrogantly foolish) and more respectful of each other and of nature. It can help us move with the power of grace in our lives.

• QUANTUM (AND SYSTEMS) REALITY: Looking at reality as patterns of probability and relationship helps scientists understand and track the dynamics of large systems (e.g., weather and populations) and of sub-microscopic systems (e.g., atoms and quarks). It can also bring some perspective to the lives of non-scientists -- such as realizing that there are many things we can't control but which we can influence and participate in.

Now consider a kind of reality most people are less familiar with -- one that goes along with the story worldview I'm trying to describe here.

• STORY-REALITY is the reality I see when I recognize that every person and thing has a story, contains stories and is embedded in a sea of stories. Looking at reality as patterns of story can help give life meaning, or reveal the meaning that's embedded in our kinship with the world. It can help make us aware of the roles we play in the lives of the people, objects and natural systems around us -- and the roles they play in our lives, so we can better relate to them. As the stories in and around us weave together, we can sense our connectedness and come home to the fact that we aren't intrinsically alone or ineffective, that there's an alive world we are part of and can choose to be more consciously part of. When poet Muriel Rukeyser tells us "the universe is made of stories, not atoms," she's describing story-reality.

Story-reality is made up of lived stories

You can divide up a pie into slices -- or into crust and filling. Similarly you can divide up reality into objects-and-actions -- or into stories. The stories that reality gets cut up into I call lived stories, those real-life, actual stories that are happening in the real world all around us all the time. If story-reality were a house, lived stories would be the bricks. The actual unfolding events relating to any one actual entity or subject comprise that entity's or subject's LIVED STORY. Everything that exists has, embodies and participates in many lived stories. To paraphrase the Muriel Rukeyser poem quoted above, we could say that story-reality is made of lived stories, not atoms.We can engage in story reality by

knowing about and relating to lived stories

Basically, the way to co-intelligently engage in story-reality is to become sensitive to lived stories -- to become more aware of the patterns of unfolding events lived through by actual people and things. We can be curious, open, aware. We can find out about people: what is their background, who do they care about, what are they doing with their lives, what do they value, where do they fit? We can explore the stories of the objects and events in our lives -- the food we eat, the cars we drive, the wars, the money, the microbes, thunderstorms and holidays: where do they come from, why are they here, where are they headed, what part do they play, what else is involved? And, always, where do we fit in this story, what positive outcomes can we see and what positive role might we play?

This isn't a matter of learning everything there is to know, as if preparing for some Ultimate Final Exam. It's simply a matter of being curious, concerned, engaged. It's a matter of actively observing, listening, reading, picking up tidbits from the media, asking questions -- and reflecting a lot, by ourselves and with each other. It's a matter of valuing sensitivity, learning, and connection more than obliviousness, denial and alienation. Every piece of meaningful information and connection we can find adds to the richness of the story-reality in which we live.Next time you are walking down a city street, take a moment to sense the people around you -- even the ones behind the windows up above you. Imagine that they all have life stories, as well as stories that they're living through at that very moment. Of course, you don't know WHAT all those stories are. But you can sense THAT they are. And perhaps you can sense into them a bit, feel a bit of what those stories might be like. What happens to your experience of the city street when you do this?

You can also do this at a micro-level. Get down on your hands and knees in a forest, field or yard. (A magnifying glass can help this exercise.) Look carefully. Wonder about the stories of every particle and bug you find there. Then extend your newfound sensibility to the whole forest, field or yard; and then to the world. How many stories do you suppose there are?

With such practice, you may reach a point where your first reaction to people and things is curiosity about and appreciation of their stories, rather than judgments and assumptions about them.We need to integrate analysis and story-sensibility

Indigenous, earth-centered cultures tend to be story-centered, while technological civilizations tend to be analysis-centered. Each approach has its own unique power -- analysis for isolating causes and manipulating phenomena, and story-sensibility for realizing our co-creative place in the whole. Given the challenges facing us, future cultures will probably need to integrate the two much better than recent cultures have done. They may use co-intelligence to combine analytic and story sensibilities to help people understand the whole and their role in it well enough to consciously co-create their lives.

We can start this integration at any time. Scientific analysis, for example, can help us understand the role of microorganisms in composting and how the compost becomes food for plants. These details fit into an overall story of how nutrients cycle through ecosystems, which can help us understand the constructive role we can play in those cycles, to the collective benefit of ourselves and all the other organisms involved. As we try to understand the lived story of someone or something we may well use analysis to fill in the details. Meanwhile, our sense of the story (which can also be influenced by science) provides the overall context within which all the details make sense.

Without the larger stories to weave all the fragments into meaningful wholes, our lives become fragmented and we lose track of our larger context. We feel alienated, and may end up playing destructive roles without even knowing it.

When we get water from our tap and microwave dinners from the supermarket, when we work in bureaucracies and shop in stores where we know people primarily by their functions, when things "disappear" down the drain or into the garbage, we begin to lose sight of the broader, deeper natural and human dramas in which we're embedded, involved as active participants. We can't actually fall out of story-reality, but we can become oblivious to it. We may shrivel our identities down to being consumers, shoppers, workers, or just "people" -- loose beads in a box instead of beads woven into a necklace or a rich design. When we lose touch with lived stories, we lose context, depth, sustainability and meaning.

In the world of story-reality, that fresh water, that food, that clerk or co-worker, that wastewater and garbage -- all these things have lived stories. They come to us out of their lived stories; they enter our lived story; and then they move out of our lived story -- or at least seem to -- into the rest of their lived story beyond our view.

If we are oblivious to story-reality and thus to the lived stories of the objects and people in our lives, we easily become oblivious and uncaring of what becomes of those things and people, and of the impact our behavior has on them. We may never realize that the coffee we are drinking was made from beans grown and harvested by Guatemalan workers earning $2 a day, and that we are therefore participating in that. This isn't a matter of political correctness. It is a matter of extending our sensiblities beyond what's immediately obvious so we can discover our larger role and play that role more consciously.

The world is filled with lived stories we need to know in order to play our part responsibly and well. Because those lived stories intersect with ours in more ways than one, what happens in them often returns to us at a later point in our story. So even out of self-interest, we need to attend to them.*

We share stories by telling them -- and living them -- together

Another obvious co-intelligent application of story-reality is that we are able to share our stories not only by telling them to each other, but by living them together. Often it is necessary to fully share both the lived story and our narratives about it. Few people really understand the stories of war vets as well as other war vets who have shared the lived story of the same war. On the other hand, people who have been through "the same event" often discover that their individual experiences of that event are very different. Their understanding of the lived story grows as they share their narratives about it. As these narratives and lived stories rise up into consciousness, get shared, and interact, they can transform themselves and the meaning of the lives of the participants. Twelve-step programs, support groups and therapy all utilize the transformative power of story-sharing.

Although everyone engages with story-reality, some engage with it better than others. Some people can only deal well with what's right in front of them now and don't have a good sense of the history and consequences of things. Others (like me) deal best with ideas and principles.* It takes a special palette of awarenesses and aptitudes to engage well with story-reality -- to see, appreciate and use the lived stories of people and things. That collection of awarenesses and aptitudes I call narrative intelligence.NARRATIVE INTELLIGENCE --


Co-intelligence integrates diverse forms of knowing, thinking and feeling.** Many of these -- such as analytical reason, spatial intelligence, and intuition -- are widely recognized. However, I don't know of anyone else who has suggested that the ability to know, think and feel through the use of stories is a coherent form of intelligence. This is unfortunate: It seems to me that there's a unique and important family of cognitive abilities and inclinations here that helps us understand things in context.

These abilities and inclinations constitute what I call narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence is one's ability or tendency to see life or to understand and explain one's experience in terms of story.

This shows up in many ways detailed in the box and briefly summarized here. People with high narrative intelligence can readily describe things in terms of story, and prefer to learn through examples, case histories, and even full-blown narratives. They readily see and orient themselves to story-reality -- to the story dimension of


• the ability and tendency to organize experience and ideas using stories and narrative patterns (an excellent example of this is the use of myth, which defines and discusses concepts -- such as archetypes -- in narrative form)

• the tendency to understand things better when they are presented in the form of a story (and sometimes to have trouble understanding things when they aren't presented as stories)

• the capacity to sense the importance of context, character, history, etc., in any explanation -- and dissatisfaction when these are omitted

• dissatisfaction with isolated events and abstract ideas, out of context

• an ability to sense or imagine the stories of people, objects, places; the ability to accurately guess where something (or someone) comes from, what has happened to it, where it is going, what it means

• curiosity about the stories behind things, and an ability to investigate such stories

• a tendency to make up stories, plausible or fantastic, to illustrate a point

• the ability to maintain a repertoire of stories (real and imaginary) to convey meanings; the ability to access that repertoire

• the ability to sort out and describe what has happened to oneself or others, often with a richness of context and detail, and often with great relish

• the ability to place and remember events in sequence

• the ability to envision chains and webs of causation

• the tendency to build scenarios (stories of possibilities); an ability to plan and think strategically

• a love of stories

• the ability and tendency to see people, places and things in terms of their function in a story (very helpful for novelists picking up tidbits from the lives around them for use in their creative work)

• resonance with the stories of others; the ability to see another's viewpoint when presented with the stories which underlie or embody that viewpoint

• the ability to discover themes in the events of a life or story

• the ability to recognize (or select) certain elements as significant, as embodying certain meanings that "make sense of things"

• the ability to build a story out of randomly-selected items

• the ability to use stories as memory-enhancing devices (such as remembering a phone number by making the digits into characters and weaving them into a story).

life as we live it. They ask questions that help them understand interconnections (where do things come from, where do they go, what's going on here, why is this happening, what else is involved?)

Such story-affiliated aptitudes are often lumped in with verbal intelligence. But stories are not necessarily verbal. They may be experienced or communicated by pictures, music, movement (as in dance or mime) or by other means. The fact that stories are recognizable as stories regardless of the means by which they are communicated suggests to me that they are something unique. Furthermore, as I've suggested, there's more to stories than the tales we tell.

Cognitive research has shown that imagination makes extensive use of narrative intelligence.* Much of our reasoning takes place through the use of scenarios and narratives through which we test our ideas and options in our minds before drawing conclusions or trying them out in real life. Anyone who has lain in bed worrying knows just how compulsive such scenario-building can be.

The fact that so many dreams show up as stories -- however bizarre -- also alerts us to the existence of a powerful, innate and compelling ability to generate meaningful patterns of narrative.

There's an entire theory of personality that says our identity is fundamentally grounded in our sense of our story, a mixture of personal history, myth and life purpose.**

This storifying seems to be everywhere.



Insofar as we are deficient in narrative intelligence we can't perceive or use story-reality. Our ability to understand is thereby seriously limited. Of course, the fact that we can't perceive story-reality doesn't mean we aren't affected by story-reality, any more than our inability to sense atomic radiation makes us invulnerable to it.

Narrative intelligence plays an important role in co-intelligence, because it helps us use our full selves to collaborate with the people and situations around us to achieve mutual benefit. Co-intelligence involves seeing how we are ALREADY co-creating the lived stories of everyone and everything with whom we come in contact -- albeit seldom very consciously. Co-intelligence involves imagining how we might CONSCIOUSLY co-create our stories for better outcomes than we've managed so far. We could call this narrative CO-intelligence.

Conscious co-creation of our stories becomes a preeminent concern when we consider story fields, those meta-stories in which our lives -- and, indeed, whole cultures -- are embedded. If we don't shape them consciously, they'll shape us -- whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.STORY FIELDS -


When I step back and take a look at stories -- both narratives and lived stories -- I see that there are huge constellations of them that reinforce each other. Each of these groupings paints a particular whole picture of how life is or should be. These story-pictures seem to have a lot of power over people.

Consider an example. Many people around the world have a powerful (although not always articulated) sense of THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE. Probably the vast majority of Americans are actually motivated by that sense. We could describe it in terms of principles -- like freedom, individualism, patriotism, progress, mobility, property rights, the pursuit of happiness, and so on. But to fathom the compelling nature of The American Way of Life, we need to step into the stories that generate it. See what comes up for you when you consider the following evocative images: Pioneers. Cowboys. The Declaration of Independence. Manifest Destiny. Rags to Riches. Technological Progress. The World's Only Superpower. The Career. The Work Ethic. The Wise Investment. The Safety Net. Family Values. The Melting Pot. The American Dream. The War on Terror.

Each of these images and metaphors echoes with a thousand stories, myths, scenarios, visions, heroes, incidents, and so on, that show up over and over again in books, newspapers, TV programs, movies, songs, speeches, advertisements, conversations in bars and within families, and embodied in the streets, homes, policies and lives of America. This ubiquitous field of socio-psychological-narrative magnetism pulls on all of us to act, think, believe and see in particular ways -- and not in other ways. It takes immense effort to resist it or change it. To the extent any person, group or activity does not live within this story-sea and move with its currents, they don't seem quite American. They are suspect and often feel quite marginalized.

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.

I call these complex story-pictures and their power "story fields" because they are fields of influence, analogous to magnetic fields.

[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.]

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.

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.

Dozens, or even thousands of story fields are all around us and within us. Story fields permeate and shape our thoughts, feelings, awareness, behavior, culture and many other dimensions of our lives.

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?


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.


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.


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 evolution.

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.


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.

[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.]

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.


I believe that every emerging culture or movement for social transformation gains its power, above all, through a compelling story field of its own. However, as mentioned above, insofar as the alternative story field is created against the dominant story field, it tends to lend power to the field it is resisting.

For example, the peace movement -- in which I was involved for decades -- has hobbled itself to the extent it has failed to articulate a compelling vision of peace -- a true alternative to war. As an anti-war activist in the 60s and 80s, I came to realize I was trapped in a dance with militarism, a dance that would never end as long as I danced it. Our protests against war were simply used by advocates of war to polarize popular opinion into more militant patriotism. When we succeeded in dousing one war, another war would get fired up and we'd race over to protest it. We were trapped not only by the capacity of war-makers to make war, but by our own stimulus-response reactivity. It took me years to realize that peace activism could never actually produce peace without a positive vision of peace. That realization triggered the inquiry that has resulted in my co-intelligence work. Co-intelligent peace activism, I now believe, would invest a lot of attention in the co-creation of a "Peaceful-Culture" story field. And that story field would inevitably involve the advocacy of justice, environmental sanity, real democracy, and all the other "issues'' that must be addressed if there is to be real peace. Such integrated activism is emerging in many places today, although it has not yet given priority to co-creating a new story field to embrace and empower all its facets.

I believe that compelling, viable alternatives must grow naturally from an inner logic of their own. They can't be sustained by oppositional energy alone. As long as the status quo stands, the opposition feeds it power; when it falls, the opposition falls with it. When the communist establishment collapsed in Czechoslovakia, the grassroots anti-communist movement fell into fractious disarray. To the extent they could be united, they rallied around their most visionary leader, Vaclav Havel, the dissident prisoner who became president. But they didn't have a story field strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the global consumerist story field.

When social change movements are motivated primarily by fear, by hatred for perpetrators, or by sympathy for those subjected to the horror, injustice and suffering in the world, it is hard for them to make sustainable progress. If, on the other hand, they arise from a truly positive vision, they stand in contrast to but not primarily in opposition to the status quo. Thus they do little to empower that status quo, while at the same time inviting those who are ready for change, into the new story field.

The question that remains for any movement is how to translate its positive visions into positive story fields capable of shaping a new culture.


Shared story fields, being key cultural phenomena, are a major factor in co-intelligence. They are definitely collective. They may or may not be intelligent. They may or may not support the intelligence of the individuals and groups within them. And they may or may not support the intelligence of the larger culture whose story they are part of.

A co-intelligent wisdom culture would support the CONSCIOUS co-creation of shared story fields that ENHANCE THE INTELLIGENCE both of the participants and of the whole community. I consider the ongoing, free, conscious co-creation and co-evolution of story fields by everyone within a culture (not just by leaders and celebrities) to be a sure sign that that culture is co-intelligent. Pick one of the story fields you are living in right now. Do you know where it came from? Who started it? Who keeps it going? How? -- and why? How would you like to change it? Can you imagine some alternative story field that might be more satisfying -- that could serve its useful functions without so many undesirable side effects? What would it be like to know that most of the story fields you lived in, you had some role in designing -- not just maintaining by going along with them, but actually DESIGNING? Why do you suppose our society doesn't help us do that? How could we change that?


Story fields aren't just a collective, cultural phenomenon. They can also be individual.

In my own life I can identify many stories and a number of story fields. Some of my stories star myself as a good person who investigates life deeply and makes meaningful contributions to the world. These stories easily co-exist with each other and resonate, generating a story field which I experience as the good, wise image of my personality.

I also have stories that star myself as a petty person manipulated by random appetites and dysfunctional reaction patterns. These resonate with each other to generate a story field that I call my shadow, the me that I'm usually not so happy with.

Sometimes one story field blocks out the other one and I think of myself as either totally good OR totally bad. At other times my good story field tries to make all my shadow stories turn out well by substituting happy endings for unhappy ones (what psychologists call denial) or by making an effort to reform all my bad habits and impulses so I turn out totally virtuous (a truly hopeless task).

I think the highest realistic goal I can have for my inner self is similar to the highest realistic goals I can have for the society I live in: To have all my stories co-exist and interact openly in my inner world — the good, wise Tom-stories and the petty, dysfunctional Tom-stories — in one resonant story field which generates Tom-in-his-evolving-wholeness. Psychologist Carl Jung, I believe, said he'd rather be whole than perfect. I view my efforts to achieve that as a lifelong enterprise.


I believe that building more inclusive story fields within and among our diverse lived stories will vastly increase our co-intelligence.

We all have stories and story fields. We can weave resonant story fields within ourselves and together, with each other. Resonant story fields generate a pregnant wholeness out of which co-intelligence of all kinds can arise. However, unless we are conscious of what we are doing and the dynamics involved, resonant story fields can also generate conformity (or, in an individual, arrogance). We need to stay alert and open to diversity and dissonance. Story fields, like everything else, need to evolve to remain healthy. This is the challenge and opportunity of co-intelligence.


I see a number of interrelated ways to share stories:

One essential ingredient in all conscious story-sharing is listening. The most generative form of listening is mindful listening. By this I mean listening not just to what is obvious but to what is subtle, understated, implicit, emerging, even silent. And not just listening to sound but paying high-quality attention with all our senses. And not only listening to other people and to external situations, but to the diverse facets of our own being, especially the voice of our deepest knowing.

By mindful listening, I mean being fully present, carefully attending, inside and out.

Listening to a story in this way allows us to enter, join and move with it. The more we listen — to our deepest selves, to each other, to stories as they unfold in our individual and collective lives — the more consciously sharing can happen and the more co-intelligence becomes possible. Being fully present

• makes a space in which stories can easily co-exist,

• evokes whatever resonance those stories naturally have with each other and, in so doing,

• generates story fields out of which co-intelligence can then emerge.

A powerful ingredient in co-intelligence is listening with our full attention, observing, sensing deeply and entering into the story of whomever or whatever we're dealing with.

Categorizing (especially judging) things can interfere with listening. While categories and judgments can help us sort out the vast amount of information swirling around us and help us manipulate the world, they do so at a price. When we condense a living story down into a fixed idea (good, bad, dangerous, chair), we stop receiving cues emanating from the unique person or circumstance in front of us. We act as if our idea is the reality. We may become thereby less able to respond in ways that fit novel situations or subtle dynamics we hadn't noticed before. Suspending our judgments and being present with the full reality unfolding before us can make our experience of it fresh and clear, and help us respond in creative, appropriate ways. This ability is especially important when the situation is challenging, when we want to relate to another living being, or when we just want to relish the freshness of life.

If a story of yours resonates with a story of mine, both our stories become more real and generate energies we can use or relish. Mindful listening opens the door to such resonance.


Dissonance among our stories can drain our energy, pushing us into stressful "fight or flight" responses or overwhelming us. This need not happen if we can share the dissonance (by collectively observing and owning what's happening), at which point the energy that created the dissonance (the contrast between our stories) can begin generating a shared story field which empowers us both. Instead of using that energy to push against each other, we can sit together in the middle of it, grounding it, exploring it towards shared understandings of the bigger picture of which we are both a part, and revealing options that were invisible to our separate selves.

Sharing the dissonance within and among our story fields lies at the heart, I believe, of sustainable community and co-intelligence. We all love harmony, but harmony comes and goes. To sustain ourselves together, we must also be able to embrace our dissonance.

A community that can share its internal dissonance well, that can embrace it within the larger scope of its co-intelligence, will find its communion heightened by the experience. Most of us have experienced conflict with another person that damaged the relationship — and also conflict which healed, strengthened and intensified the relationship. A similar dynamic happens in groups: conflict can strengthen or split a group, depending on how it is handled. If you've experienced both kinds of conflict, look at what made the difference. When things worked out well, were people sharing their dissonance? In what ways?"Going meta" -- seeing from the sky and the ground at once

A key ability in productively sharing dissonance is the ability to "go meta" — that, is, to rise above whatever's going on in order to become aware of the whole picture at the very same time that one is participating in it. When all (or even most) of the participants in a situation go meta, they can creatively share their dissonance. Even one person in a group can go meta and -- with questions, actions, role-modeling, and/or mirroring what's going on -- invite others into the meta realm. In that realm of awareness, where people are both inside and outside of their experience simultaneously, groups can best handle their dissonance collaboratively.

In a couple or friendship, when one person is thinking dissonant thoughts about what the other is doing, thinking or feeling, they can say, "I'm telling myself a story that you are mad at me for not finishing the dishes" (or whatever) "and I'm wondering if that's really true?" The person who says this is "going meta", opening up their inner world and inviting the other to do the same, leading to a clarification of what the actual lived story is and (usually) co-creation of a better shared story to live in now.

A person in a groupß might "go meta" by saying, "I sense us becoming more antagonistic towards each other, more assertive of how right we are. Is this what we want to do with each other right now?" Or, to borrow from a famous fairy tale: "Is there a reason why we aren't talking about how naked the emperor is?" Comments and questions like this draw us out of our individual stories into a shared story where we can decide very consciously what we want to do next.

Sharing dissonance works better than winning or giving in

We can better resolve or harmonize dissonant stories through conscious co-creation than through domination or capitulation. Dominating and giving-in leave dissonant residues in their wake. If we choose to dominate or submit in order to make action or resolution possible, we do so at our peril. Let's say Harry gives in to Martha and says: "OK, OK, already! I'll do the dishes from now on!" The situation is "resolved" -- but each time he does the dishes, he finds himself swimming in memories (internal stories) of the upset, resentment building (usually accompanied by horrible scenarios for the future). In this case, things are solved only apparently, on the surface. Although the relationship may be going from bad to worse, that deterioration may remain hidden because the dissonance is being repressed. But dissonance seldom stays buried forever. Harry's upset may build up to a point where it can't be held back, leading him to lash out with destructive power, turning a story of love inside out. Or it may just silently tear apart his insides as it sours Martha's.

Will Harry and Martha wake up to their actual shared lived-story, in which they could be co-creators of what happens next, but in which they are currently struggling desperately to pursue their individual lived-stories, framing each other as adversaries? Tune in next week!


Conscious co-creation does not leave the residues I just described. Conscious co-creation may include compromise, but not necessarily. Compromise is only one strategy of co-creation. Another approach is to find a broader perspective that implies different solutions altogether -- solutions that integrate our diverse stories (needs, perspectives, personalities) so that we can live them together with more resonance and mutual benefit in the future.

An American day care administrator I know visited several Chinese nurseries in the early 1980's. To her surprise, she found no babies crying. The reason was clear: a large corps of local elders played with and fussed over the babies all day long. These older folks were needed, happy and engaged. They weren't stuck away in nursing homes or in TV-centered isolation like so many American elders are. A society that tells itself a story in which their very young and very old members are resources rather than problem dependents can co-create elegantly human social innovations.

Another strategy for conscious co-creation involves finding ways to honor and stay tuned to each other's stories while we live them out separately. Although there are advanced techniques for bridging polarities (see Chapter 12: Ten approaches to working with conflict and polarization), sometimes it may be more co-intelligent to go our separate ways. This doesn't have to be seen as a failure or a loss. It can be done with conscious creativity by committed groups.

One approach is for subgroups holding diverse viewpoints to caucus to clarify their viewpoints -- not for the purpose of doing more effective battle, but to develop clear contrasts and issues for later integration by the group. Another approach would be to intentionally divide into independent groups -- not with rancor, but as a creative act of mutual empowerment.

For example, imagine the twelve members of a biweekly neighborhood salon who, after a year of trying out all sorts of discussions and interactions with each other, have evolved to a point where they really like each other and also realize how different their needs actually are. They decide to break into three new biweekly salons: four members form a political study and action group, three a creative arts group, and five a support group. Then they help each other recruit new members up to a full dozen in each group. In addition to separate biweekly meetings, all three groups come together to celebrate solstices with three talking circles (each made of members of all three groups) and go on outings together for the equinoxes. Everyone wins and gets their very diverse needs satisfied even while they're still in community together.

Another strategy for conscious co-creation involves intentionally holding the dissonance in a way that generates positive energy for both parties. Creative scientists, when faced with disagreement, carefully study each other's data and use their disagreements to spur them on to further, better research. When we use this strategy, we accept each other's challenges as growth opportunities taken up in friendship. This uses the competitive spirit not to fuel our urge to dominate but rather our urge to do our best. This suggests synergistic ways competition could enhance an otherwise collaborative economic system.

All these strategies involve co-creating a better story together and then living into it, all together.Next time you are in a group experiencing strong dissonance, wonder what it would be like if everyone involved could sit together viewing their disagreements as a shared problem. Consider "going meta" and inviting them to look at what you're all going through together. Invite them to consider, together, what you could do together that would improve matters. If you do this, notice what happens.

Imagine being in a group that, whenever things got rough, would automatically move into a meta position and work together on their shared problem. Now imagine a culture like that.


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 history,

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.

Getting centered

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.