Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the Island of Misfit Story Ideas: Narrative divination for sensemaking

I'm working on that promised post about preserving natural storytelling (note to self: never again end a post with "the next post will be about..."). It's stewing.

In the interim here is another visitor from the island of misfit story ideas. As before this is something I've been playing with in my mind for a decade but have not done anything with, mainly because this one is hard to explain.

Ancient connections

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is an ancient divination system and book of wisdom which forms one of the cornerstones of Taoism. The basic idea of the I Ching is that all of the complexity of the universe - encompassing all of the "ten thousand things" of multiplicative reality (ten thousand being the ancient way of saying "billions and billions") - can be represented by 64 six-bit combinations of no/yes, yin/yang, receptive/creative conditions. This includes all scales of reality, from the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the earth, and human society, down to your life, your relationships, your personality, and your needs at any moment of your life. When you throw the coins or cast the yarrow stalks, that action enters into the totality of the situation of the moment, and that in-the-universe-right-now connection - what Jung termed "synchronicity" - leads you to the pattern, or hexagram (six bit settings), that best describes the totality of the moment. Since the totality of the moment includes the situation on your mind when you threw the coins or sticks, the hexagram is relevant to that situation. In a sense the I Ching is a cosmic database query engine.

Why in the world am I explaining this? Because there are two things about the I Ching (and Tarot and Ifá and many, though not all, other forms of divination) that make them worth bringing up here. The first is their utility for sensemaking, and the second is their narrative nature.

A few examples ... sort of

Now here is a funny story. In order to illustrate the use of the I Ching for sensemaking, I thought I'd take you through a simple divination session. First I tried taking as my situation the fact that I was writing this blog post about this topic. The texts I found ... brought out my mixed feelings about writing on this topic. Brought them out a little too well. Of course I'm aware that some might see this topic as weird or irrelevant (what, are crystals next?), and let's just say the word "guile" came up. I wrote about it, I rewrote it, I deleted it.

So I tried again. I thought, better to choose a situation that is unimportant, silly, fun. I fixed on the treehouse my son and I keep talking about building. An innocent topic, I thought, but again the result was too good to talk about in public. Essentially, the I Ching (I always find myself thinking of it like a person) reminded me that there is no end to the ways a parent can fail a child.

Finally, casting about for some way to illustrate my point without exposing my deepest fears, I started looking around the room at objects of no importance. I looked out of the window at the snow falling onto tree branches, and decided to consult the I Ching on nothing but that simple image. But a third time, the answer cut too deeply into my feelings - about who I am, where I live, and why I live there - to talk about in public. 

Ironically, my little divination exercise proved exactly the point I wanted to prove, but not in the way I had imagined proving it. So all I can say is, it works well enough that I can't show you how well it works.

What works and what matters

Do I really mean "it works?" Are the results of divination systems such as the I Ching actually appropriate? Does it actually mean anything that the first words I found, after looking out the window at snow on branches, were "Wood is below, water above"? Probably not (though all good scientists retain a sense of possibility, if not probability). But when our purpose is sensemaking, the question of whether divination "works" in the narrow sense is beside the point. The practical fact is that ancient divination systems were and are excellent (and, lately, untapped) tools for contemporary sensemaking. If we throw out the baby of utility with the bathwater of belief, it's our loss.

Webster's dictionary says divination is:
1 : the art or practice that seeks to foresee or foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge usually by the interpretation of omens or by the aid of supernatural powers

2 : unusual insight : intuitive perception

The first meaning let us leave aside (though discovering hidden knowledge is fair game); the second, let us explore.

How does divination help with sensemaking? Well, look at how I described my use of the I Ching above. I said it brought out my feelings, reminded me, and cut deeply into my feelings. All of the imagery in those words is about bringing previously hidden things to the forefront. This is an essential element of most sensemaking, to start talking to the elephants who are (and have always been) standing in the room with us. It also links to seeing ourselves anew from the other side of the mirror and to exploring what makes us tick.

It's full of stories

The second amazing thing about many divination systems is that they are made out of stories. If you read any of the "judgments" or "images" in the I Ching, they are essentially tiny stories. For example, from the hexagram I got when I thought about writing this blog post, and taking some liberties with concatenation, we get this lovely piece of narrative poetry:
In the abyss one falls into a pit.
The abyss is dangerous.
One should strive to attain small things only.
Forward and backward, abyss on abyss.
In danger like this, pause at first and wait,
Otherwise you will fall into a pit in the abyss.
A jug of wine, a bowl of rice with it;
Earthen vessels
Simply handed in through the Window.
There is certainly no blame in this.
Bound with cords and ropes,
Shut in between thorn-hedged prison walls:
For three years one does not find the way.
Water flows on uninterruptedly and reaches its goal.
Thus the superior man walks in lasting virtue
And carries on the business of teaching.
I'm not going to interpret this - surely you can understand its messages well enough - but a story is being told here. In each of the texts of the I Ching - some encouraging, some warning - stories are being told. Some sections are not full stories, but when they are not, they allude to elements which can be combined to make stories. The image of "crossing the great water," for example, comes up often in the I Ching, as does the "superior man." These are archetypal images which in combination produce narratives, supporting pattern-matching at the level of collective sensemaking throughout society and throughout the ages.

Ifá divination is practiced in some parts of West Africa, usually by experienced diviners. Ifá is similar to the I Ching in the sense of involving indexes into a book of wisdom stories, many of which are condensed folk tales. I have a handy copy of the Ifá texts right here on my bookshelf (at least the version packaged for foreigners). I have no idea how to look up the situation I am facing, so I'll just choose a page at random (which may or may not come to the same thing):
Ifá says that a visitor is coming; we should take good care of him lest his kindness and goodness pass us by, because the visitor brings something that can benefit us.

Again, a story with a message. (Actually, that is part of a much longer story, but it's too long to type in here.) The Ifá texts in the book I have are much more obviously drawn from folk tales than the I Ching, but that may be an artifact of the way the book was collected and written down. Also, when stories survive for several millenia, details fall away.

I don't know much about Tarot, but I gather that the cards are essentially story elements - characters, situations, dilemmas. Again, this is a tool for narrative sensemaking. Not all divination systems (and there are hundreds) involve stories, but I'd venture a guess that the longest-lasting and most widespread do. Even such things as divination by weather patterns or bird flights involve stories - it was rainy and then it turned sunny; the flock veered and then dispersed. Divination through dreams is also a narrative method. 

Your own book of wisdom

Now, how does this all relate to organizational and community narrative? You might guess where I am going. Let us compare:

Divination systems make use of a collection of stories and story elements derived from collective experience. A diviner extracts combinations from this collection and applies them to current situations about which someone needs to discover hidden knowledge, improve intuitive perception, and derive unusual insight. ~ When you collect stories about a topic or situation, or from a group of people, and when you do sensemaking exercises that produce constructs of collective meaning, you create a collection of stories and story elements derived from collective experience. You can extract combinations from this collection and apply them to current situations about which you need to discover hidden knowledge, improve intuitive perception, and derive unusual insight.

Just for fun, I tried a little experiment and pulled up some random stories from the project I last worked on, thinking again about the situation of this post I am writing. Almost immediately I happened upon a story about people being overrun with conflicting demands. Uncannily, this happened at almost precisely the same moment as my husband opened my office door, and as I simultaneously realized I had promised to finish this post and come back to Mommying a half hour ago. Again, the divination system revealed hidden knowledge about the situation of writing a blog as the mother of a small child.

(As Ursula K. le Guin wrote in Tehanu, in one of my favorite there-I-am moments:
And she went on, pondering the indifference of a man towards the exigencies that ruled a woman: that someone must be not far from a sleeping child, that one's freedom meant another's unfreedom, unless some ever-changing, moving balance were reached, like the balance of a body moving forward, as she did now, on two legs, first one then the other, in the practice of that remarkable art, walking.)


Upping the wisdom

You might argue that a simple set of stories collected from real people today can't compete for sensemaking quality with the concentrated wisdom of the I Ching or Ifá or Tarot. I agree. Using raw stories for divination is going to result in more misfires, in the sense of stories being irrelevant to the situation at hand or just not very eye-opening. But there are ways to improve the divination-worthiness of a story collection. Here are a few ideas to wisdom-up your collection, in no particular order.

Add some purpose to your randomness. Use answers to questions about stories to extract those relevant to the situation at hand. This ensures relevance, but it is also a risky technique because it can be easily manipulated, sometimes without knowing it, to confirm assumptions and circumvent effective sensemaking. Still, there are ways to increase relevance while still allowing some serendipity. For example, if I want to read stories about passion, I might select those rated high on a passion scale, but I usually sample two or three times as many as I need and rearrange the selection randomly.

Screen out the no-shows. In any collection of stories collected from real people there are what I call no-shows, meaning the respondents didn't respond. They just got through the exercise so they could tick the box or get their candy bar or whatever. There are ways to remove those and to pull out only the stories most likely to be useful for divination. For example, only using stories with a text length of 500 characters (or an audio length of two minutes) removes all the too-short non-stories (although this could also remove some gems - sample to find out). You can also look for words of emotion, like "to my surprise" and "I discovered" and "stormed" and "screamed" and things like that. In general, the idea is that by doing some careful screening, you can use only the parts of your collection that show the most promise of being useful for divination. (Self-delusion warning: this also can be used to screen out challenges to current belief.)

Mix in disruptors. One of my favorite things to do, if a story collection is to be used for group sensemaking, is to mix in some stories that didn't come from the group of interest. To give an example, when preparing a story collection for a project on leadership, we added to the mix (of stories told by employees) some stories from old newspapers and historical accounts about famous leaders in a range of industries and ages. These were indexed by the same questions as the contemporary stories and appeared intermixed with them. When people encountered stories about themselves with stories about Lincoln and Napoleon and Keller, it got their minds moving in new directions.

Mix in abstractions. If you have collected some stories and derived abstractions from them - story elements, usually - you can create some new, more abstract stories and mix those in. For example, it is useful after deriving some character story elements to have people tell stories from their points of view. How did the "Independent free-thinker" see the recent company takeover? How did the "Money-is-power-monger" see it? Sometimes it is useful to set up stories where characters confront situations or values or themes. The "Pencil-pushing bureaucrat" might find herself in the "Blasted landscape," or the "Passionate perfectionist" might find himself talking to people who believe that "Life is a funny game." The stories that come out of those exercises are about the same things as the "raw" stories are, but they operate at a higher level of abstraction. Mixing those in with the raw stories creates a stronger divination base.

Add commentaries. One of the most useful aspects of the I Ching is its commentaries, a palimpsest of annotations added over the ages to each text. These bounce your ideas around some more after you encounter the basic "judgments" and "images" of the main text. In your story collection, answers to questions about stories serve as commentaries. If stories can be interpreted by multiple people, perhaps from different perspectives, it adds to the sensemaking utility.

Add transitions. The I Ching is called the Book of Changes because it is all about change. In addition to looking up the situation of the moment, you also look up what that situation might change to. This transition creates an expansion on the original sensemaking by helping people think about ways in which the situation might transform over time or as the result of actions. You can support such simulated transformations by incorporating transition links into your story collection. For example, something as simple as looking at other stories told by the same respondent, or by other people who answered questions in the same way, can give you additional insights. Your story collection might even contain answers to follow-up questions in which respondents were asked to describe the situation at a year's remove, say, or after some problem was resolved. Juxtaposing then-and-now stories can provide this element of transition and increase the potential for insight creation.

Poeticize. One of the reasons the I Ching works so well for sensemaking is that its essential texts are sparse and ambiguous. Poetic abstraction allows the stories and metaphors to pivot round to address many different purposes and needs. By poeticizing stories - that is, by removing detail and adding ambiguity - you can make your story collection work in the same way. There are two methods for poeticizing. First, you can simply ask your storytellers, in a question about their story, to render it as a short poem, a haiku perhaps, with oblique, ambiguous references and metaphorical displacement. If that is too difficult a task for your storytellers or you think they will refuse, you can do the poeticizing in a second step. Distribute the stories to people, ideally in the group of interest but at least strongly related to them, and have each person write short poetic versions of each. It is best if each story is rendered poetic by at least two people to increase diversity. Then the main texts of your narrative divination become the poems, and the stories with their details become commentaries. This is likely to increase the utility of your book of wisdom to aid sensemaking in a variety of situations.

Using your wisdom

How should you use narrative divination for sensemaking? Just the same way you might use the I Ching or any other divination method. In a group or alone, set yourself a situation to think about. Then select a story, either randomly or partially so. After reading the story, open things up and brainstorm freely about the associations the story brings up. Then distill the sensemaking to concentrated insights. Think of transitions. If they aren't already in the story collection, come up with some during the exercise. What might happen? What would happen in the best of all possible worlds? In the worst? What issues have come up? What feelings have been invoked? What conflicts are apparent? Have any elephants spoken up? Then think of another situation and go round again. Gather what you have learned, and see what you can make of it.

This kind of sensemaking has been taking place from huts to palaces for at least five thousand years. It's still as useful as it ever was. We have just forgotten how to do it.

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