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Stories: Education

Creating a Resonant Field Through Deep Sharing of Transformational Stories

An Interview with Marilyn Veltrop, Ph.D.

Marilyn Veltrop’s doctoral dissertation was on the transformational journeys of business leaders. After conducting personal interviews, she wrote narrative poems about each one and gathered the group together to share their stories and experience what possibilities for further transformation might be possible in the collective setting. The co-researcher gathering she describes here felt to her like collective resonance.

RL: Marilyn, would you begin by allowing me to enter your incredible experience of collective resonance by describing all that you can about it?

MV: First of all, to provide some context, this was a co-researcher gathering of the eight people who were involved in my dissertation study on the transformational journeys of business leaders. My husband and I were among the eight participants who were involved in this study.

The number eight was very significant for me and I decided I really wanted to interview half men and half women. The interviews lasted, generally, for an hour and a half to three hours each. After the interviews I wrote narrative poem-stories about each person's journey. The narrative poem form was one that had emerged for me in my work at the Institute of Transformational Psychology, where I did my graduate work.

The methodology that I used for my dissertation was something called organic inquiry. It was a new method that had arisen at ITP through four women who were seeking a way of doing research that was truly sacred and that was based in storytelling. One of the other primary characteristics of it is that its intention, the ultimate purpose of it, is that it be transformative for all involved. Now, that means for the researcher, for co-researchers or participants in the research, and also, ultimately, for the readers. This is important because I think this intention really infused the entire study. Another element was that there were no predetermined expectations of results, but what evolved from it really emerged from the data that was provided.

All of that is as a backdrop. I wanted, in addition to creating these stories on each person's journey, to have an opportunity for all eight of us to come together and share our stories and see what further transformative potential was possible through that mode of storytelling and of being together in that kind of way. I wanted a full day for that because I wanted to have some spaciousness to it.

Now, these were very, very busy people and I had been concerned about coming up with a day when all of us could participate and no one would end up dropping out before the date arrived. Miraculously, the day that we chose happened quite easily when we set out to compare our schedules and come up with a date.

By that time, I had written the narrative poem-stories, and each of the participants had reviewed theirs and offered any editorial changes. They were written in the first person, as if they were speaking, and I used as many of their own words from the interviews as possible. My intervention was to set up the form of it and provide linking words and phrases that allowed the story to flow in a meaningful way. I tried to extract the essence of the story from the pages and pages of interview material and got it down to anywhere from twelve to twenty pages of narrative poem. There was a rhythm to each one.

Creating the poems was such a sacred experience for me. I felt as if I was holding each person and their story in a womb space while they were in creation, while the poem was coming together. Each person had already done a lifeline to map his or her life for me, and now it was up to me to create something to capture their story and give it back to them. Just going through that was a very significant experience for me.

So I was curious, what will it be like when we actually all come together and each person speaks their story as their own, using their own voice? This was a very important gathering for me and I had put a lot of myself into these stories. I was holding the day in a very sacred way. I had certainly been holding it in my prayers and intention, and it was very precious to me. I had a lot at stake, so to speak.

The others were looking forward to it as well. By the time the meeting was approaching, they were so committed and engaged that one of the women who was in Europe on business was asked to extend the trip and declined to do so because she was committed to getting back for this meeting. I was so heartened by the commitment that each person had to being there.

So that's the context as we gathered here on that day in 1998. I went into it with nervousness and also with anticipation. I was very, very excited to see what would happen.

RL: So here you all were, eager to see what the day would hold...

MV: Yes. We took some time in silence first, a brief meditation to help us all center and be present. After I set the context for the whole day, we agreed on a format of each person reading their story, then taking about five minutes in silence to receive the story. We could sit in silence, take notes or draw—I had drawing materials there—whatever we needed to do to really be with the story that had just been shared. And then there was the opportunity for response to the person whose story had just been spoken. There was time planned at the end of four stories and then again at the end of the day, for reflection on the overall process and what had transpired.

After we'd agreed on the format for the day, I was the first one to read my own story. Obviously, it was not from an interview, but from my own experience. I was still kind of nervous and found myself reading the story in a fairly rote manner. Of course, it was one I was well familiar with, but I wasn't, at that point, able to be in the flow of the experience yet; it was more sort of working with the frameworks that were present.

So I shared my story, and the silence afterwards was really important. It was a palpable sense of people holding…holding me, holding my story. Actually—I get sort of a chill now just thinking about it—that was the turning point for me in the meeting. Having that silence to honor what had just been spoken, so that someone else wasn’t jumping in to fill the space, but everyone was being with it. And then receiving the responses that came out of that silence. It was so moving. The sense of appreciation, of what people had seen and heard from the story, was deeply touching.

From there, we chose our sequence organically. Whoever went next arose out of a sense of calling, individually and/or collectively. It turned out to be natural for my husband, Bill, to be the second person to share his story. The group was very anxious by then to hear how his journey linked in with mine, so he shared next.

What happened as we shared the four stories in the morning, and then another four in the afternoon, was almost magical. I have never seen the level of intimacy and trust that took place in the group happen so quickly. There was a presence of both laughter and tears that showed up very early on in the process, and very spontaneously, in either the person sharing their story or in others as they responded to the stories.

For me personally, it was so moving to hear each story freshly. I had been so intimately involved in creating them, and to hear them in the actual voice of the person touched me deeply. I had been the vehicle to pull the stories together, but they also were not mine. It was a gift to receive each one back in that way.

There was also a palpable sense of community growing as a result of the sharing. Synchronicities started to pop up in the group. Someone would say something, and another person had just written the same thing down. When that was brought out in the open, there would be laughter and a sense of excitement about what was emerging. The day began to flow very naturally. RL: Marilyn, it sounds like there were two turning points already. I’m interested in the first one, the turning point for you that happened in the silence after you spoke your story. You called it palpable. Can you put into words what it felt like—physically or energetically? Where in your body did you feel it most?

MV: Well, one place is definitely around my heart. It's like there was a certain rhythmic quickening. There's a quickening there and yet, at the same time, a real sense of calm and tranquility. It feels like a paradox right now, but it's both of those experiences at the same time.

There's also something visual here. It was almost like I was experiencing myself connected in the group. There's a donut-shaped cloud or a cottony kind of connection that feels like it links between our hearts—the hearts of all the people there. So there's something along those lines that is happening as well.

RL: Beautiful…

MV: So it's both. It's the sense of my own connection to my own source, and it's also a growing sense of connection with everyone in the circle. One of the other things that emerged during the periods of silence was that one of the people in the group—the CEO of a multimedia company—who had not done much at all with drawing before, found himself picking up a blank sheet of paper and drawing after each person’s story. Most of the rest of us took notes, but he started drawing his response to each story.

He began with my story, drawing a fairly simple image with some words and bubbles—bubbles of different things that had stood out for him. Then, each picture he drew became increasingly intricate and symbolic. His images captured key aspects of the story that may not have been obvious in the story itself but were deeply intuitive and resonated strongly with the person whose story it was based on, as well as with the rest of us. So they served as tangible signs of the field effect that was growing in the group. People spoke about this afterwards. We got to where we were so excited to see what was going to show up around the next person's story. It felt like the process got richer and richer because of the field that was growing among us.

RL: That's fascinating. So he was graphically capturing and amplifying the field effect, in a certain way.

MV: Yes. I ended up putting those images in my dissertation, because talk about a transformative effect! They were so reflective of that. Some people, in sharing their story and having it received in the way that it was, ended up feeling themselves going to an entirely different level in their own journey. New insights opened a whole bunch of new questions and experiences for them to work with. One of those people chose to work with me following that experience because she was wanting to build on what had taken place there…what was unfolding in her own journey.

My husband described it at the end of the day, and I thought it was really a lovely way to describe what was taking place. He said, “The day had a spiral quality to it. A wonderful energy kept building. Feelings seemed to go deeper. There was a growing sense of being a part of a self-evolving social organism, a conscious whole with a mind and a soul of its own; spontaneous laughter and insights became contagious.” RL: That’s wonderful. I'm imagining the interplay. It wasn't just people contributing to the field, but the field contributing to the people.

MV: Absolutely.

RL: So that's the spiral effect; that's the growing. And really, that's what relationship is, isn't it? It's a back and forth thing, not just one way.

MV: Exactly. In fact, one of the women said at the end of the day, “Do you know that you all know me probably better than 99.9% of the people in my life?” She wanted to have a way to stay in touch, so that was when we shared contact information. She hadn't known anyone other than me coming into it.

RL: What a gift. What a gift to her and to all of you. It’s what you said, connections to yourself and to Source; and at the same time, connections to each other. Were there other shifting points in addition to the silence that you noticed in the group?

MV: Another point many expressed were the responses to the stories. Many people had tears come to their eyes from being received in such a deep way by the responses to the stories, by what had been stirred in others as a result of hearing the story.

That actually links with the silence, because having that kind of time allowed people to connect deeply within themselves to what was stirred by the story. It wasn't just a quick, off-the-top-of-the-head kind of response. It came from a deeper place, and, as a result, the actual sharing of those responses was really moving for others. After four stories had been shared, we paused to do some collective reflection. I think that was very important, too, because it gave us a chance to move out of responding at an individual story and let us look at some of the threads that were emerging collectively. That was even stronger at the end of the day because we had everyone’s stories. I have to say, though, that even when we were focused on the individual stories, we experienced such a growing sense of the community and of the collective.

The stories exposed the challenges of our lives; they were not all just about our accomplishments, they were really deep. This is why I think people had some fears going into it. How will this be received? But what they experienced was real intimacy, that this was a safe space to expose the challenging parts of life. I think that, in and of itself, opened up more of the sacred…the response to the stories. It made room for what was possible and what shifted for each person in sharing, and then having their story received in that way.

Deep listening is an essential element here. Deep and respectful listening…with appreciation and honoring of each person as a unique being and as someone who is illuminating something in one's own life. Everyone kept seeing themselves in everybody else's story even though each story was quite unique and distinct.

RL: So there was that quality of vulnerability, in a way?

MV: Absolutely. I think that was a key to our going so deep, so quickly. There was that vulnerability, and it was demonstrated early on that it was safe to be that vulnerable, that one could trust how they would be received and held.

RL: And you did that, in a sense, Marilyn, because you started it. You kind of modeled it right away. MV: I suppose so. And in fact, I think my nervousness going into it was part of that. It wasn't just the story, but it was me just being me in my human state of being nervous starting a meeting that felt so important and precious to me. At the time it had been a while since I had facilitated group work. During graduate school I was very deeply in my own inner work and in a very vulnerable state, so it was kind of a milestone to be re-emerging in that way. Since then, as you know, I’ve gone on to do a lot more work with groups, but that was my first occasion to bring together a group in that kind of way.

RL: That's significant, isn't it? I mean, for you and your life, as well as for the others.

MV: Absolutely.

RL: So you demonstrated that with really sincere vulnerability on your part right from the beginning of the session. It wasn't like well, you know, I know this works so I'm going to be vulnerable in telling my story. You were truly feeling that sense of apprehension going in.

MV: Yes, exactly. And, in fact, at the end of the first four stories, one of the members spoke about how he was aware of the change in the nature of the stories being shared. He said he could tell that after the somewhat tentative nature of my own reading, each one grew in its own sense of spontaneity. It was almost like there was no written story, that it was coming from a different place. That was special to have acknowledged. It was like it had taken on a life of its own by then. But, in a way, having the contrast made that more evident.

RL: When you said it was coming from a different place, do you have any sense of where those subsequent stories were coming from if they weren't coming from the piece of paper?

MV: Well, for instance, there was one woman who was in tears for much of the time she was telling her story. It was like she was reliving some very difficult periods portrayed in her story. She was just right there, and she was afraid, afterwards, of the way she had come across. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She was afraid that because she'd been so emotional, it might come across that way.

But people didn't feel that way at all. It was just a very genuine being with her experience. They were impressed that she stayed with it even though it was difficult for her. So the risk that each person took in what they exposed—not just in the words of the story, but in their tone, in their emotion, in their presence—grew and grew over the day.

RL: What do you mean by 'tone', Marilyn?

MV: It's like there was more feeling sense in the way they shared the story as opposed to reading it. You know, when you're reading something, it doesn't necessarily have the same kind of resonance as when you’re sharing about something that you feel passionate about or deeply moved by, or where it's a more spontaneous expression.

RL: Yes, I do. So in a physical sense, do you remember how you experienced the resonance deepen as the stories progressed?

MV: Well, there was certainly more emotion expressed.

RL: Crying? Laughing?

MV: Laughing. I said tonality but also the rhythm of the story was much more… You know, it's so hard to come up with the words to describe these things.

RL: Isn't it? The rhythm changed?

MV: The rhythm changed, and there was more variety and richness to it.

RL: Oh. I understand that.

MV: There were more chords, like in music, where different keys would be present and a whole range of chords.

RL: Like a wider spectrum…

MV: Yes, a wider spectrum. I felt it. It was almost like a resonance in my own body as I was hearing each one.

RL: You felt it like that?

MV: Well, as I'm going back to that experience now, it was like there were two levels going on in me. One was the experience of receiving the story and experiencing the story as I heard it. The other was almost like a proud parent. It was the sense of receiving the gift of something that I had had a key part in creating coming back to me and experiencing it in a receptive way. So I think there were both of those levels going on in me as I received each one, whereas the other people might be feeling just that first level.

RL: Right, because you were part of the creation of it. You set the container and you held it.

MV: And I had pulled together and written the stories. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, it was so wonderful to have experienced them so tangibly as not mine when they were told by each of the people whose stories they were.

RL: That must have been incredible. Having been so intimately involved in creating it, putting together the narrative poem and then letting it go and hearing it from the source.

MV: Oh yes.

RL: So, Marilyn, what value or significance has this experience of collective resonance had for your life and your work?

MV: Oh, it's been significant in many ways. It was wonderful that Bill was involved in it. He’s done a tremendous amount of group work over his life and his career, and his comment afterwards was that it was the most transformative single day experience he'd ever had. And the deepest…really touching him profoundly.

Also, it was wonderful to hear the feedback from others as to what it had meant for them, both their feedback to me through the stories and about the day itself.

This experience inspired a big part of the format we use in our Pathfinder Circles which began the year following this particular gathering. We began after I finished my dissertation, and we're now in our fourth season. We've drawn on a number of things that worked so wonderfully from that gathering and that have continued to evolve. For example, we use the lifeline and the sharing of each person's journey to date as part of those circles, so it's visibly present in the work that Bill and I are doing today.

RL: And it's like concentric circles, isn't it? You're going out with it to more and more people.

MV: Yes.

RL: And it happened organically… MV: Yes, it really did. Although I did have the overall format in mind, it was a meta design, a meta structure, that is at a large enough level that it creates a framework in which things can take place. It's broad enough to allow a tremendous amount of spontaneity and organic unfolding within it.

RL: Marilyn, as a final question, what are you feeling right now?

MV: Right this minute I'm actually having a similar experience to what I described earlier of a quickening in my heart area. A quickening, an excitement there. And yet, at the same time, this real sense of calm and peace…tranquility. That feels significant to me because one of the things happening at this juncture in my life is that I’m being called more out into the world, to be more of service, to be more active out in the world. And I've come to so value a certain spaciousness in my life and the tranquility that is associated with that. For me to viscerally experience the simultaneous quickening and active movement with the tranquility has more meaning than just what we're talking about here.

RL: Does it feel for you—before this feeling came up, or you became aware of it—that perhaps those two things might have been separate? In other words, that being more active in the world would mean giving up the tranquility that you’ve had? MV: Exactly. It's like the sense of being and doing together, too. Like experiencing action and stillness at the same time.

RL: Yes. And so what you're experiencing now is that it's possible to have both?

MV: Yes.

RL: To embody and spread what’s being called for in the larger world today…

MV: Yes, and as we know, so much of the world and so many of the people that we work with have little time for silence or reflection in their lives. I've come to value that so. And to have action come from a whole different place, to really trust that there's a way to do both. It feels very important to me right now. That’s what I feel has happened for me by disengaging for awhile.

RL: Well, I think that happens when you're on the right path and when your heart is engaged, and when you know at a very, very deep level that the action is what is needed. That it’s critical, important and very, very connected with purpose—your purpose in the world.

MV: Exactly. And looking back on this particular meeting that we've been talking about, it's like the difference between the responses that came out after each story when people had taken that time in silence and what they might have been if there had not been that space. It’s like it could come out of a deeper sense of connection and knowing.

RL: It sounds to me like this is your work in the world, Marilyn. I feel privileged to have helped you get in touch with that again and thank you for sharing your experiences with me.

MV: Thank you, Renee. Thank you both for the opportunity to share all of this and to see it in a new light. And also for mirroring it back to me. It feels like a real gift to me.

Marilyn serves as a guide to individuals and groups on transformational journeys. This experience with her dissertation co-researcher gathering has directly influenced the design and process of all of her subsequent group work. The approach described in this interview of using lifelines and sharing stories of one’s life journey to date has been effectively used in seven different Pathfinder Circle series and three series of Tending Our Inner Gardens Women’s Circle gatherings.

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