The saying of what you meant to say – a deeper look at Storytelling

Credit: David Kracov’s Book of Life

Every so often I have something incredibly clear in my mind, and just as I am about to say it, it goes. It’s the most infuriating of sensations, but these moments remind me that my thoughts are not the same thing as language, and how inadequate sometimes language is in fully capturing the totality of a thought.

Jung's Mandala and the Four Ways of Knowing

I did have one experience at Sustentare Business School this year when I attempted to discuss Goethe’s conception of the metamorphosis of plants by discussing the King Edward potato. I have already discussed this in a previous blog, but here the point is that in order to be able to utter the concept I was trying to convey, about the One and the many, and the dynamic “coming-into-being” of the plant, I had to dig deep into my intuitive comprehension of the concept, and trust that the words would flow. In taking the time, and in developing a certain level of mindful awareness, or mindfulness, I was able to articulate a concept with a level of clarity I very rarely reach.

Indeed, at a recent talk I gave again at Sustentare I went off on one track of thought only to completely lose my thread, forcing me to ask the audience what I had been speaking about just moments before. This is the danger of going off too deeply into intuition and not keeping some level of conscious awareness in mind. I clearly have some way to go before I can reach the levels of articulateness I am reaching for.

Following on from my previous post A slightly deeper look at Storytelling I now wish to go a little deeper, to look at what Henri Bortoft calls the dynamic approach to understanding meaning. In order to understand this, we have to consider the common sense notion of meaning. We often think of the meaning of a text as the same thing as what the author had in mind. With this conception of meaning, meaning becomes fixed. We also end up having to separate the subjective understanding of the text from the meaning of the text.

For Henri, there is just one unitary act of meaning/understanding.

The meaning does not appear first, and then we understand it. Understanding is not a response to a meaning which is there already; it is the appearance of meaning. So we can say that the appearing of meaning is the happening of understanding. When we try to catch it ‘in the act’ we find there is no separation between meaning and understanding. There are not two events, first an event of meaning and then an event of understanding, but a single event which could be described equally well either as meaning or as understanding. This is the unitary event of {meaning/understanding}, which is prior to the subject-object separation.

Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously p100

I am only now beginning to study hermeneutics, so if any of this post is not entirely clear, the fault lies in me and I would strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of Henri’s book Taking Appearance Seriously in order to allow him to take you through this reversal in thinking, where you move from the finished objects in the world which is “out there” to moving upstream within attention where you focus on the coming-into-being of phenomena.

What does this mean?

Well I began my studies by thinking about plants, and through both Henri and also Margaret Colquhoun, Stephan Harding and Philip Francis I began to comprehend the difference between our notions of the objective world out there which we take for granted, and lived experience. Sometimes we think that meaning is out there in an objective world, and all it takes is for an observer to observe that meaning and all is clear.

I was shown how not just to focus on the material plant, but to learn how to observe its dynamics, and to comprehend the One plant behind the different physical plants which are the parts where the One Plant comes to presence. My thinking moved from objects to a more dynamic way of understanding nature.

Henri then taught me to understand how this same reversal of thinking, which is by no means easy to make, as it totally goes against all common-sense notions of the world, is the same reversal of thinking needed to understand meaning in relation to the act of saying, of understanding a text, and of how we distinguish meaningful objects in our acts of seeing.

Here we have the unitary event of {meaning/understanding} in which there is no separation between meaning and understanding. Far from being just a subjective experience, this is a ‘non-Cartesian’ event which happens upstream before the separation into subject and object. Consequently it is not surprising that in such an event there is no longer any separation between inside and outside, so that what is usually experienced as being ‘inside’ may appear to come from ‘outside’. In this hermeneutic reversal, understanding is in-formed by the meaning – so that the ‘subject’ really does become a subject for the meaning. This is the reverse of the usual notion that, in understanding, the subject ‘grasps’ the meaning.

Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously p102

Ultimately, this approach emphasises the active nature of the subject, or person who is attempting to comprehend the meaning of something, be it something spoken, written or design. This alerts us to the fact that the meaning of a work, even something as simple as a text message or email, is never a finished piece of work but is always becoming. Works are not to be thought of as having a number of predetermined possibilities, but which always has a potency to be otherwise, just as Ron Brady pointed out that plants do as well.

Henri summarises all of this when he says that “understanding is the appearance of meaning”. I think we can learn a lot from this dynamic approach, especially as storytelling seems to be one of the trending and hot buzzwords in business today.

In many articles about storytelling, the act of storytelling is often presented as a one way street. How do you best communicate your message in business, be it one of marketing a product, motivating employees, and developing transformational programmes of change. Sometimes storytelling is about taking “what you have in mind” and presenting this using storytelling, rather than more traditional methods such as powerpoint or advertising or a speech.

We can look at storytelling deeper still. Since understanding and meaning are a dynamic yet unitary act, we can transform our thinking to become more flowing, aware that what we say and write and the works we product are alive in some sense, and that what others may comprehend is not what we ourselves had in mind. We therefore need to be cognisant of the fact that any form of communication can be an opportunity to learn, so long as we are able to shift out of transmission mode and are not so full of ego that we are convinced of our own rightness.

It can be strange to experience the loss of a solid objective world that is out there from us. Many of us will not do the philosophical work necessary to loosen our mental models of reality, in order to really move into dialogue and what I call creative conversation. Most of us are not aware of the stories we tell ourselves about the world, as we have not been taught to distinguish downstream consciousness (objects separate from subjects, which have their own self-evident meaning) from an upstream consciousness which is agile enough to catch the coming-into-being of phenomena, phenomena which are both out there in the world, and inside of us in our mental models.

Related Articles

Book Review Taking Appearance Seriously Henri Bortoft

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4 responses to “The saying of what you meant to say – a deeper look at Storytelling

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